Squabbles and Sorcerors

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As the official business of the 2012 Libertarian Party National Presidential Nominating Convention got underway, there was but one question on everyone’s mind: which group of people will be credentialed and seated as the official delegation from Oregon?

Actually, no, very few people cared about that, especially if you count out those with either a direct stake in the matter, or a fetish for obscurities of parliamentiary procedure. But the LP cannot do without drama, so lacking any at the top of the ballot it was left to the individual delegations to come up with some. Oregon came through in spades.

It’s never a good sign when there’s more than one “central committee” of anything, and Oregon brought two, the Reeves group and the Wagner group. The latter is the one recognized by the Oregon Secretary of State; the former is suing to contest this recognition. It’s of those thoroughly Byzantine LP procedural matters that simmers for months before exploding into floor debate that even Robert’s Rules is hard pressed to contain.

So once the proverbial gavel fell (only proverbial because the actual gavel failed to make it to the convention — the TSA, no joke, would not permit it to be taken on a plane), things got ugly real quick. Between conflicts of interest, backroom (even bedroom) deals, and worst of all violations of parliamentary procedure, there were accusations aplenty. As one of the speakers, himself an involved party, noted when addressing the floor: there are “unclean hands on both sides of the dispute.”

Others settled for the fatal passive — “Mistakes have been made, things could have been handled better.” — before appealing to the LP’s “brand distinction” as the soc-called “party of principle.” “If we can’t follow our own rules,” one asked, “then how can we ask the American people for their votes?” Because of course the fight over who is seated as the Oregon delegation is going to be a campaign killer with the American people in the coming election cycle.

The actual gavel failed to make it to the convention — the TSAwould not permit it to be taken on a plane

Hilariously low stakes aside, this dispute is not one that’s going away. The delegates’ decision to approve the credentials report and seat the Reeves faction, though pragmatically ending a fight that was already holding up the keynote address, leaves the status of the Oregon LP uncertain. Even party insiders cannot yet say which side will win out, or even whether the party’s nominee will be able to appear on the Oregon ballot. But it leaves a bad taste in the mouth — as one Oregon delegate, new to the party and unknowingly swept up in this pissing match, said when addressing the floor: “It seems like the Libertarian Party is more concerned with preserving their own personal power than with promoting liberty in the United States.”

With that kerfuffle momentarily sorted, it was back to the same old, same old with Michael Cloud’s keynote speech. If there’s any libertarian idea you care particularly about, chances are he brought it up — but because he spent his time speaking to every possible issue, there was little focus on any single one of them. “Big government is the disease, and libertarians have the cure” is bumper-sticker stuff, practically defining boilerplate.

The list of the day’s speeches proved hardly more inspirational, showing, if nothing else, that the party is in urgent need of fresh blood. And to be fair, two of the speakers late in the day addressed that in particular: Alexander McCobin, president of Students for Liberty, which gathers college students to talk about liberty; and Andy McKean, founder of Liberty Day, a group that tries to raise constitutional literacy, especially in elementary schools. While neither speech exactly concealed its fundraising aim, it’s encouraging nonetheless to see a block of speech aimed at reaching a generation that, by my own admittedly anecdotal experience, they’re doing none too well with to date.

All of this, though, is a sideshow to the real business of the convention: nominating a presidential candidate. But unlike the higgledy-piggledy 2008, this year’s race is more like a coronation march: Gary Johnson announced his intent early and entered the convention as overwhelming favorite to take the nomination; the only real drama in the process by now is whether the vote will go to a second ballot.

But there are other candidates: enough of them, in fact, that the LP itself isn’t actually sure how many of those who have filed to run for president will actually bother to show up and do so. But what is clear is that the field is nowhere near as packed as in 2008, where nine candidates made the debate stage. Reaching that point requires 30 delegate “tokens” (actually slips of paper); but it’s uncertain whether anyone other than Johnson and Wrights will reach even that total.

So why even bother? I asked Jim Libertarian Burns, a perennial candidate (and yes, that is his legal middle name). For him, it’s about making contacts — even friends — and getting the message out that the Libertarian Party is the best hope that the American people (and by proxy people worldwide) have for true political change. At the same time, the LP as presently constructed is “a pile of crap.” Burns has the hope of at least making the debate stage, which — if it did happen — would be far more as a reward to him for decades within the party, than for any particular strength of his campaign. But rest assured: if by some fluke he were to take the party nomination, he would not accept it, but would instead turn it over to Gary Johnson.

Unlike the higgledy-piggledy 2008, this year’s race is more like a coronation march.

The same would certainly not be true of Lee Wrights, Johnson’s main competitor. Another longtime presence in the LP, Wrights has held a number of roles in past years, including vice chair; without Johnson around, Wrights’ campaign would be something like Andre Marrou’s: essentially, a lifetime service award, and one for which Wrights’ slogan “End All War” (e.g., foreign, Drug, On Poverty) would be adequate

With Johnson, however, Wrights has to focus much more on the issues where he and the ex-governor differ — difficult since they’re both anti-war, anti-drug prohibition, anti-entitlements, etc. So what does he have to offer? First and foremost, many more years of experience in libertarian politics, specifically — indisputable since Johnson just joined six months ago, albeit as a life member. Second, an economic plan that isn’t the Flat Tax. Third, a foreign policy farther in the direction of isolationism than Johnson’s non-interventionism. What would a Wrights campaign look like? A grassroots affair, reaching out to local libertarian candidates in a bid to make use of preestablished media relationships — relationships I’m not sure actually exist, or at least haven’t proven terrifically useful in the past. But the talking points are in place for the debate, and Wrights will at least be on the stage with a chance to make them.

But at this point it would take getting caught in flagrante delicto with half a dozen hookers, several farmyard animals, and a choir of castrati for Gary Johnson to lose the nomination. And while some of the above might be on the menu for other libertarian operatives once they get over to the Strip, there’s precious little vice (other than the obvious one) at the resort itself, even in the room parties that fill the convention’s nighttime hours.

The peculiar pleasure to be found in these hospitality suites is instead that of truly bizarre conversation — something like a perpetual Philip K. Dick story, where one comes to realize, again and again, that there is no firm ground to stand on, no intersection between a particular person’s mind and whatever passes for objective reality in the world around us. For instance, last night I spoke with a younger attendee who was absolutely convinced that the greatest problem facing American politics — nay, politics worldwide — was the workings of sorcerers wielding unimaginable arcane power. He supported a blanket ban on all sorcery, speaking approvingly of nations where such laws were already on the books, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. More specifically, any presidential candidate worth his salt must be willing to take on the leading nest of sorcerers in America, Yale’s Skull & Bones society, which has been responsible for many assassinations over the past half-century or so, most recently Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston.

After a few drinks and a swing across the dancefloor at Gary Johnson’s bumping election party (LMFAO soundtrack included), I called it a night. Tomorrow: candidates court delegate tokens and try to get on the stage for the C-SPAN televised debate. More anon.



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Lies, Damn Lies and the Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Wise men going back at least as far as the great George Orwell have pointed out that statists have little but contempt for objective facts, truth, or reality. In the present day, this contempt is proved most clearly by the parade of false reports and statistical manipulations issued by the Department of Labor. Headed by former congresswoman and current troglodyte Hilda L. Solis, the Labor Department has become — primarily through its Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and Employment and Training Administration (ETA) — the real-world version of the Ministry of Truth. Every report is revised; every revision changes numbers to favor the state.

And reality goes down the memory hole.

Since the first of March alone, the Labor Department has revised three major reports on U.S. labor productivity, job creation and unemployment. There are several official explanations for these revisions; the main one is Solis’ intellectually dishonest commitment to making employment data “seasonally adjusted.”

In theory, seasonal adjustment is supposed to smooth statistical bumps like temporary retail hiring around the Christmas or summer holidays and make it easier chart trends. Fair enough. But, in practice, Solis’ staff of statistical manipulators uses perpetual revision to create the illusion that newer numbers are always an improvement over older ones.

When Labor released these cooked numbers, the mainstream financial press parroted the line that the number was the “lowest in four years."

I’ve done enough statistical analysis to know that even (or especially) the most honest analyst will occasionally revise results. And, to be sure, Labor isn’t the only federal bureaucracy that does so. But few other agencies do so, so systematically . . . or with such partisan willfulness.

Here’s an example of the revision game from the ETA’s most recent (April 19) report on new unemployment insurance claims:

In the week ending April 14, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 386,000, a decrease of 2,000 from the previous week's revised figure of 388,000. The 4-week moving average was 374,750, an increase of 5,500 from the previous week's revised average of 369,250.

See what Solis’ hacks did there? They claimed that the number of initial claims for unemployment benefits was a “decrease” from the previous week’s “revised” number. What they don’t say is that the revision to the previous week’s number was to increase it from the 380,000 they reported at the time to the new number of 388,000. So, they raised the previous week’s number in order to claim the new number was a decrease.

Keeping the four-week moving average for unemployment claims below 375,000 is important because that’s a common inflection point between a rising and falling overall unemployment number. Given the accounting trickery in which Labor engages, a number so close to the inflection point has to be taken with a large grain of salt. The real number may be higher — and overall unemployment may be rising.

Solis’ subordinates play the same sorts of games with the so-called “jobs created” numbers. According to the BLS, “total nonfarm payroll employment” rose by 120,000 jobs in March. This was perceived as a bad number — significantly lower than the jobs created in the previous few months. If then-current numbers held, the trend for the first few months of 2012 was bad, indeed: January, 284,000; February, 227,000; March 122,000.

Focusing only on people who’ve recently been laid off, are actively looking for work, or are applying for unemployment benefits hides the backlog of unemployed people who’ve stopped looking for jobs.

But the Labor staff had a plan for making the downward line on a graph of those numbers less steep. They revised the January and February numbers, moving some of the January jobs into February. The “revised” decline: January, 275,000; February, 240,000; March 122,000.

The net effect isn’t much different; but the optic is better. The graph looks more like a plane gliding to a landing than crashing into flames.

Here’s an even more extreme example, from the April 19 ETA report I quoted above:

The advance number for seasonally adjusted insured unemployment during the week ending April 7 was 3,297,000, an increase of 26,000 from the preceding week’s revised level of 3,271,000. The 4-week moving average was 3,317,750, a decrease of 21,500 from the preceding week’s revised average of 3,339,250.

So, the current number of Americans receiving unemployment benefits was up. But the revised four-week trend was down. How could that be? Solis and crew used revisions to inflate the numbers at the back of the four-week chart.

They had used revisions to similar effect a few weeks earlier, on March 29, when it trumpeted a “decline” in initial unemployment insurance claims. It announced:

Initial jobless claims fell 5,000 in the week ended March 24 to 359,000, the lowest since April 2008 . . .

Later, in the fine print, the agency admitted that it had revised the previous week’s figure to 364,000 from an initially-reported 348,000. So, if not for the revision, the newer number would have increased by more than 10,000 new Americans on the dole.

Also in small type: the Department announced that it had revised weekly data on unemployment claims (and other key indicators) going back to 2007 — in part, to reflect seasonal adjustments. This caused all numbers in 2012 to rise about 4%. And cast the “since April 2008” part of the big announcement into doubt, too.

The guys from Enron went to jail or committed hara kiri because of tricks like this. Instead, when Labor released these cooked numbers, the mainstream financial press — including Bloomberg, Reuters, and the Associated Press — parroted the line that the number was the “lowest in four years.”

The numbers I’ve been considering so far aren’t the government’s formal unemployment numbers. Economists rightly consider the weekly unemployment insurance reports “additional data” and of less reliability than the BLS’ more formal unemployment surveys.

As you might already know, the BLS tracks six different measures of unemployment. These six unemployment statistics are:

  • U1: the percentage of the U.S. labor force unemployed 15 weeks or longer;
  • U2: the percentage of labor force comprised of people who lost jobs or completed temporary work;
  • U3: the “official unemployment rate” — people without jobs who have actively looked for work within the past four weeks;
  • U4: U3 plus “discouraged workers,” or those who have stopped looking for work because economic conditions make them believe that no work is available for them;
  • U5: U4 plus other “marginally attached workers,” or “loosely attached workers,” or those who “would like” and are able to work, but have not looked for work recently; and
  • U6: U5 plus part-time workers who want to work full time, but cannot due to economic reasons (underemployment).

These numbers give economists several different perspectives on the issue. Since all of the numbers are estimates, the combined perspectives are meant to offer a “three-dimensional” view of unemployment, more accurate than any single number. But even these more formal surveys are subject to manipulation and revision. During the Clinton administration, the BLS revised the formal stats — changing the “official” rate to U3 from a predecessor version of U5, which is always a higher number.

There were several problems with this cynical move.

The U3 statistic, with a methodology closest to the “additional data” numbers that Solis’ hacks manipulate these days, is the least reliable of the formal measures.

But there’s a more philosophical problem with the Clinton-era revision: focusing only on people who’ve recently been laid off, are actively looking for work, or are applying for unemployment benefits tends to downplay the number of able-bodied adults who are out of work. It hides the backlog of unemployed people who’ve stopped looking for jobs. A nearly-permanent underclass that includes the nation’s most incorrigibly unproductive people simply doesn’t appear in the U3 number.

Older unemployment numbers are revised upward; new jobs numbers are revised downward. Everything’s always getting better in this workers’ paradise!

So, Solis’ BLS can boast (as it recently did) that “the unemployment rate” fell to 8.2% in March 2012 from 9.1% in August 2011. But that headline ignores the fact that U5 unemployment was about 2 percentage points higher during that period — and U6 hovered above 15%.

This may be what statists want, though: to hide the economic effects . . . and very presence . . . of the hardcore unemployed. Who are, of course, the most enthusiastic supporters of big-government social welfare programs.

Throughout, the operatives continue to use seasonal adjustment to justify their manipulation of employment numbers. Here’s one example of a weasel-worded footnote explaining the spin:

Data in this release reflect the annual benchmark revision of BLS Current Employment Statistics program data on nonfarm employee hours, and revised seasonal adjustment of those data. . . . Quarterly and annual measures . . . for all sectors were revised back to 2007 to incorporate the annual benchmark adjustment and updated information on seasonal trends.

So much jargon, so little truth.

Solis’ hacks cling to seasonal adjustment because it serves as a blank check, an open-ended excuse for revising every employment report to show an illustrious victory for our valiant leaders. Under this administration, essentially every Labor Department employment survey or report that’s been revised has been so in a way that makes newer numbers look like improvements. Older unemployment numbers are revised upward; new jobs numbers are revised downward. So everything’s always getting better in this workers’ paradise!

Or, as one internet commenter noted: “We’ve got the Christmas season, summer season, and — most of all — we’ve got election season.”

Many politicians talk about abolishing the Department of Education; that’s become a kind of short-hand for commitment to limited government. But it might do more good to abolish the Department of Labor, whose truth-twisting under Hilda Solis has become so blatant.




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Lost Lessons of Climate Science

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Prior to the 1990s, most of us had never heard of climate science. Yet in a few short years, it was catapulted from obscurity to global prominence. As with many scientific disciplines today, climate science relies on fear as the basis for support. But it distinguishes itself from other branches in its use of unscientific means to achieve its largely political ends, and easy acclaim to reward its unscientific promoters. Such an arrangement has, to the dismay of legitimate climate scientists, fostered an unbridled arrogance that permits sketchy, surrogate temperature data to revise the past and sketchy, surrogate Nobel Prize winners to shape the future. The "new" history of the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) illustrates the former, and has led to the wanton green agenda of Barack Obama, which illustrates the latter.

The MWP occurred between AD 800 and AD 1300. According to an old college geology book, it was a climatically gentler time, 2–4º C warmer than today. Europeans prowled over parts of the northern world that are now completely inhospitable. The Viking Age roughly corresponded to this period, and in it, Viking explorers flourished. Erik the Red founded the first Norse colonies in Greenland, where Viking settlers enjoyed a sedentary lifestyle sustained by agriculture, livestock, fishing, and trade with Scandinavia. Erik's son,Leif, was a Norse explorer who reached America by a northerly route (about AD 1000) that would have been unavailable to other explorers only a few hundred years later.

From the beginning of the MWP, northwestern Europe was subjected to brutal and unrelenting Viking aggression. This ended when England was finally conquered in 1016 and Knut the Great became king — the first to rule successfully over a united and peaceful England. Knut's greatness was such that his courtiers believed he could control the tides. To demonstrate their folly, he sat in a throne placed upon the shore and commanded the oncoming waves to halt. As the water rushed over his feet, splashing his royal garb, he stood and spoke, "Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws." A wise and humble king, Knut understood that man could not control nature.

The warm period was warmer than the cold period. No wonder NOAA scientists make the big bucks.

Then came the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). To promote its anthropogenic global warming (AGW) hypothesis, the MWP was abolished, in fine Orwellian fashion. The first IPCC climate assessment report (1992) contained a temperature history chart designed to illustrate the threat posed by recent warming. But this warming was dwarfed by MWP temperatures — on the same chart. Crack IPCC climate scientists soon recognized the "doublethink." The MWP warming rendered the recent warming neither unprecedented nor anthropogenic. As "Climategate" emails would later reveal, Jonathan Overpeck, a leading IPCC author, sought to "deal a mortal blow" to the MWP portrayed in the 1992 report. The IPCC notification process began in earnest. For example, US climate researcher David Deming was told, in a now famous 1995 email, that "we must get rid of the Medieval Warm Period." Ultimately, the mortal blow was delivered by the infamous Mann Hockey Stick chart. Based on cherry picked tree-ring data (a surrogate for instrumental temperature data), the hockey stick curve flattened away the entire MWP and became the centerpiece of the 2001 IPCC assessment report.

Already a staunch shill of the AGW movement, the mainstream media announced the new history with alacrity. To establish the revision permanently, objective and trustworthy websites were recruited to "the cause," provided they abandon, well, their objectivity and trustworthiness. For example, Wikipedia now tells us that the MWP was a time when "temperatures were probably between 0.1 °C and 0.2 °C below the 1961 to 1990 mean and significantly below the level shown by instrumental data after 1980." Even more disgraceful is the online version of Encyclopedia Britannica, which compliantly describes the MWP as a "brief climatic interval that is hypothesized to have occurred." That is, the MWP is but a theory. As another example, our taxpayer-funded National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) states that the MWP was "warmer over the Northern Hemisphere than during the subsequent Little Ice Age." The warm period was warmer than the cold period. No wonder NOAA scientists make the big bucks.

Such is history in the world of political climate science. But there is a large body of uncensored scientific evidence confirming the existence and magnitude of the MWP; according to the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, it is published in peer-reviewed scientific journals by 1068 individual scientists from 615 research institutions in 45 different countries. The Medieval Warm Period existed, it was global and, with no help from industrialized humans, it was warmer than today. By suppressing this legitimate scientific information, climate alarmists deceitfully pronounce recent warming to be unprecedented and therefore worthy of onerous taxes, intrusive regulations, and wealth-stifling decarbonization.

It is worthy of objective scientific deliberation, but scientific inquiry corrupted by political ideology and rewritten climate history has led to little more than the foolish claims and emotional alarms of scientific dilettantes. No good can come from hastily spending staggering sums of money to avert a warming trend that is certainly exaggerated by manipulated temperature data, has an anthropogenic contribution inflated by unreliable climate models, and, ultimately, could be driven predominantly by natural climate variability. As MIT's Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology Richard Lindzen has said, "The fact that the developed world went into hysterics over changes in global mean temperature anomaly of a few tenths of a degree will astound future generations."

Much of the hysteria began with Nobel Prize winner Al Gore, who used the specious, MWP-less hockey stick graph to herald catastrophic manmade warming. (That the Nobel Prize could be awarded for "disseminating greater knowledge about man-made climate change" based on manmade climate data is itself a catastrophe.) Mr. Gore's arrogant assertions that mankind could cause such damage provoked an even more arrogant Nobel Prize winner into asserting his power to reverse it. In his 2008 nomination victory speech, Barack Obama proclaimed that he was "absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment . . . when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal . . ." Evidently, it is Barack Obama who will astound future generations.

This is much more than grandiose campaign gibberish. Mr. Obama prefacedthe statement by asserting, "I face this challenge with profound humility, and knowledge of my own limitations." It is with breathtaking narcissism, not profound humility, that oneclaims he can reverse a planet-wide catastrophe. This breathtaking narcissism has been the hallmark of Obama's political career. In his 2004 Senate campaign, then-candidate Obama doodled during an interview for a fawning article in The Atlantic; the sketch he drew was a self-portrait. Even if he knew that he would win the election, who (except a pretentious twit possessed to write a 405 page autobiography, not four years after graduating from law school, at the sagacious age of 33) draws pictures of himself? Apparently he also knew that he would go on to become president and, during a fawning "60 Minutes" interview, be able to announce that, after only two years in office, his achievements placed him among the greatest presidents in American history.

Breathtaking narcissism has been the hallmark of Obama's political career.

Alas, planet healing was not among his feats. For all his shamelessly self-aggrandizingpatter and all his boneheaded green largesse ($100 billion from the stimulus program alone), President Obama has been unable to pick a single winner. The list of bankrupt and failing green energy companies continues to grow. The green jobs created and green energy produced are paltry at best and sustainable only through feckless subsidies, grants, loans, exemptions, and rebates. After more than three years in office, his planet healing achievement is a bombastic zero.

Flattery from his courtiers no doubt led Obama to believe that green technology would reward him with a rejuvenated economy and a soothedplanet, which — like his Nobel Prize — would be cheaply attained and would thrust him into the ether of greatness. The din of cheering deafened him to the sound of tax dollars flushing into the rising oceans. He has learned little from his failures, even less than his European counterparts have learned. Admitting some of their failures, they are drastically scaling back green energy programs. Meanwhile, undaunted by the forces of nature, the laws of economics, and the limitations of green technology, the audacious Mr. Obama plots to buy his dream with even more government spending — an "investment" whose rate of return, he seems to believe, can be enhanced simply by vainglorious rhetoric uttered from his throne. Facingrecord-breaking debt and deficits, and without a single green success to inspire further hopes, Obama is trying even harder to secure his lofty place in the annals of planet-saving history, possibly in the void left by the purge of the Medieval Warm Period.

As the 2012 election approaches, President Obama will certainly encounter many more fawning interviewers. He should consider a sketch of himself, standing on the shore, holding back the tide, while picking the pocket of the American taxpayer.




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Wage War on Dependence

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Recently, I heard a school administrator promoting the importance of making all of the parents at our schools aware of the existence of government programs for the homeless. “Lots of people don’t even know that they qualify for these programs.” she enthused. “If they are living with family members and not paying rent, they can qualify as homeless!”

What would that do for them, I wondered?

According to the website of the Oregon Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-housing Program (HPRP), its “re-housing program” can provide these kinds of services to the "homeless":

Re-housing programs work with people who are already homeless to help them quickly move into rental housing. Re-housing programs can provide housing location, financial assistance including security deposits, rent assistance and payment of arrearages and case management. Both homeless prevention and rapid re-housing programs coordinate with other community resources to ensure that participants are linked to ongoing assistance, such as housing vouchers, intensive case management, or assertive community treatment.

So if a family (in this community often a new immigrant family) is managing their finances by living with relatives until they can get on their feet, government agencies can arrange to give them financial assistance in the form of security deposits to rent a place they otherwise couldn't afford to rent, and participate in a program of government “rent assistance” or “housing vouchers.” The person recommending this seems to think it would be a good thing to move someone into a situation where he was dependent on government for a place to live. Implied, but not stated, is the assumption that it is kind of stupid to prefer to take care of yourself when you can get something for free instead.

Connected to that assumption is the proposition that any well-meaning person, such as a teacher or school administrator, has an obligation to convince stiff-necked individuals that their pride is hurting their children, and they really should accept the government’s largesse. This assumes, however, that one’s quality of life is measured simply by the dollar amount of the things one receives, without regard to how one obtained them.

Implied, but not stated, is the assumption that it is kind of stupid to prefer to take care of yourself when you can get something for free instead.

Not so many decades ago it was commonly understood that there was something demeaning about being on "the dole.” People did not want to accept charity if they could make their own way in life. There were the pejorative terms “kept woman” and worse still, “kept man,” meaning a person who did not have a job but was supported by a sex partner. Many of the social programs we have today were sold with difficulty to an American public for whom public assistance and dependency carried a stigma.

According to Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute, Social Security was presented not as a needs-based program of charity in which today’s workers pay for the benefits of today’s elderly, but as “a system of social insurance under which workers (and their employers) contribute a part of their earnings in order to provide protection for themselves and their families if certain events occur. As a result of this 'earned benefit' status, collection of Social Security benefits has never carried the stigma associated with food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, or other welfare programs.”

That has been the pattern with a number of “entitlement” programs. Instead of being needs-based charities, which show one’s dependence, programs such as Medicare and Social Security are made for everyone. Therefore there is no stigma and everyone should be happy to receive benefits from the government. Of course, the effect is that these programs have ballooned in size and are currently unsustainable. (Odd that sustainable houses and buildings are all the rage, but sustainable social programs, not so much.) We have a huge financial burden looming ahead of us as these entitlement programs become ever more costly as more of us baby-boomers retire and expect to collect benefits. Because there is no stigma associated with these programs, we all intend to capitalize on them.

Here lies the problem — and also the solution to the problem. Instead of a War on Poverty, we should have a War on Dependence. All our social programs should have as their goal helping people become independent of government assistance. They would still require considerable effort and would still employ many social workers for years to come, but the war could be won! We could get to the point where everyone had a way to support himself.

How would that look different from today’s social programs?

For one thing, we’d begin by applauding all those who already take care of themselves. We would hold them up and give them recognition. We would put them on talk shows and news programs to tell their story of how they manage in life without government assistance. They would become our role models. We would applaud and appreciate the fact that they do not need to collect on the various social programs to which they are “entitled.”

For example, people over 65 who were working at a job or who could afford their own medical insurance would be honored for their ability to be independent of Medicare. Right now of course, you virtually have to take it, because no one will insure you at age 65 unless you collect all the Medicare benefits you can. So right now we are forcing dependency — but the War on Dependence would change that.

We should encourage everyone to avoid having to depend on Social Security as well. Anyone over 65 who doesn’t need to collect “benefits” from the payroll tax in order to survive in old age would be a hero in everyone’s eyes. If people keep working, that would be super, because they can be independent thereby. If people save enough to retire with dignity, that would be even better, because they would be permanently independent. What’s more, their children would be well on their way to permanent financial independence, when they inherited the principal of their parents' retirement fund. As part of the War on Dependence, social workers would help younger people set up various retirement savings plans. Each person who had a workable retirement savings plan could stand tall in the knowledge that he would not become dependent on Social Security.

All our social programs should have as their goal helping people become independent of government assistance.

One of the sad byproducts of the endless and hopeless War on Poverty is that self-sufficiency is no longer valued as it once was. Someone is considered a fool to turn down government benefits if he can “qualify” for them. What’s more, someone who gets a first-rung-on-the-career-ladder-job at a low wage still feels bad about himself. Instead of being proud of being independent, he sees that he is still in relative poverty, and that is what’s bad. People who are supporting themselves, no matter how meager their circumstances, should be encourage to take pride in not being dependent. We should make self-sufficiency the goal, the prize, the honor.

Social workers could help farmers who accept government subsidies find ways to become self-sufficient so they can be respected for making an “honest living” without help. Businesses that sold products abroad without help from the government would be recognized and patronized. Similarly, industries that did not ask for protectionist tariffs imposed by the government, but could stand on their own, would be new American heroes. Students who found a college they could afford without government help would be seen as more resourceful and valuable future employees. Colleges that keep themselves in business without whining for more government money would be seen as more competent than those that couldn’t manage on their own. This turn of events might even drive down the cost of college. Primary and secondary schools that focus on helping their graduates prepare for the real world would also be recognized and respected; the ability of their graduates to avoid dependence would be the final measure of the schools' own worth.

Success would no longer be a nebulous and ill-defined chimera, but would be identified as the ability to support oneself and one’s family. Families that took care of their own (whether the young or the elderly) without government assistance would be honored. People with disabilities would be helped to develop as much independence as possible, and honored for every bit they could obtain — instead of scorned for their efforts to contribute to their own support.

Industries that did not ask for protectionist tariffs imposed by the government, but could stand on their own, would be new American heroes.

Oddly, poverty could, in a sense, be eliminated overnight by simply writing checks of the proper amount to all the poor. It would help if all our programs of assistance were rolled into one program, so we could keep track of how much we were giving to each person. We might find that we had already eliminated poverty — that the cash value of all the various forms of assistance we provide to the needy would total enough to give them an income over the poverty line. But few people really believe, deep in their hearts, that mere dollars will eliminate the problems of the poor.

Independence is the solution — and we need to return to the habit of valuing it. There is still truth in the old proverb, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” That means focusing our efforts on reducing dependence instead of fostering it. A War on Dependence would be infinitely better than the old, unwinnable War on Poverty.




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State Tests vs. School Choice

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A few months ago, Richard Phelps attracted attention with an article in The Wilson Quarterly called "Teach to the Test?” Its argument is that "most of the problems with [school] testing have one surprising source: cheating by school administrators and teachers."

Last week an investigative report published in Sunday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution found indications of standardized test cheating in school systems throughout the US.

Certainly cheating of various types is a big problem in education. But it is not really that surprising. Where else would the highest stakes of evaluation be left up to the individuals or groups being evaluated? But these articles proceed from the unquestioned assumption that state tests are an appropriate way to hold schools accountable for quality. For instance, Richard Phelps wrote, “Without standardized tests, there would be no means for members of the public to reliably gauge learning in their schools.”

The state tests are wrong both for what they leave out and for what they include.

I agree that the purpose of education is to increase academic skills. I agree that tests ought to be used to determine what students have learned. I agree that more learning is better. I do not agree with folks who say that testing is bad and that schools should not give tests because that stifles teacher creativity. I do not agree with the proposition that tests can’t measure what is important in education.

Neither do I agree, however, with the use of state-constructed tests to attempt to hold schools accountable for quality. It has taken me several years to come to this position. I have three main reasons.

First there is the issue of alignment. Whatever the state chooses to put on the test becomes, in essence, the required curriculum of all the schools in the state, even if it is wrong. The state tests are wrong both for what they leave out and for what they include. For example, state tests for elementary age students in reading and math ignore fundamental areas of the curriculum. I refer to accuracy and fluency in decoding the meanings of words, in the statement (memorization) of mathematical facts, in mathematical calculations, and in spelling. State tests simply don’t bother to measure these pillars of an elementary education, even though they are critical to future educational success.

I run six charter schools, which due to our use of a trend-bucking curriculum called Direct Instruction (DI), mostly achieve better test scores than the school districts in which we reside. DI is a specific, scripted, sequential elementary curriculum (grades K through 5) that takes much of the guesswork out of teaching. The lessons are carefully crafted to be easily understood, build only on what has been taught in earlier lessons, and prepare students precisely for what is to come. There are programs for reading, math, spelling, and writing. All but the very lowest special education students can learn from these programs and emerge from elementary school with average or above average skills. DI is hated by the progressive educators at universities, but we love it, and so do our students and parents.

Curricula such as DI that focus on bringing all the fundamental student skills to mastery (including the ones not tested) must do so on top of teaching the things that are measured on the test — while other schools focus all their efforts on the test material. A majority of American elementary schools no longer teach spelling, for example, simply because it is not measured on the state tests. While learning how to spell is an essential skill, the state tests have pushed it out of the curriculum. Not to mention all the other critical content not tested and no longer taught.

Conversely, state tests focus strongly on a number of things that, although they sound good, are not skills to be taught but attributes of intelligence that we desire. These attributes are such things as the ability of bright elementary students to make inferences from unfamiliar texts, to write interesting imaginative stories, and to find creative solutions to unique word problems in mathematics.

These attributes, and their application, are not an emphasis of the very strong DI elementary curriculum. But if schools that use DI, such as my own, taught what is in our curriculum (what kids need) and ignored the less relevant, they would get lower state test scores and be branded as poor schools. Schools ought to be able to use their own tests to measure what their own curriculum plans to teach, and be evaluated on how well the school does what it claims it will do. Parents, of course, could select schools according to the nature of their claims as well as their performance.

Second, people forget important facts about state tests. One is that the results have no consequences for the children. Another is that these are children taking these tests. Children are subject to wide swings in their performance, often depending on testing circumstances. In our schools we have found children who have been well taught but who for years have failed the test. Yet they can reach not only "proficient" but “exceeds proficient” if their teacher sits next to them and makes them read the test aloud and gives them breaks when they get tired. Essentially we are making certain that they actually do their best on what to them is a very long test. This is not cheating. These practices are specifically allowed by the state rules for students who need them; they are called an “accommodation.”And it is an appropriate accommodation. It just shows the best that the student can do. Guess what? Children don’t always do their best. Sometimes they just guess their way through the test to get it over with. If those children go to another school, where no one they know or care about is monitoring their test performance or where they are allowed to do fun stuff when they are “done,” they will probably turn in a failing score the next year.

If we expect teachers and administrators to want to work with populations that are below average in some way, we have to stop proclaiming that those who teach the smarter students are better teachers.

Third is the issue of students' ability. Obviously, the more able students are, the easier it is for them to learn. The less able they are, the harder the teacher and the school must work to teach them. Scores on state tests are as much a measure of how smart the student body is, as they are a measure of how well the teachers teach. It is ridiculously unfair to ignore this fact and proclaim that high test scores mean a school is good and low test scores mean it is bad. That would be true only if the student bodies of the schools were evenly matched in IQ — which is never the case. It is a heavier lift to raise test scores in a school that enrolls many students with low ability, or learning difficulties; and until we begin to measure the weight of the load, we cannot claim to know who is stronger. If we expect teachers and administrators to want to work with populations that are below average in some way, we have to stop proclaiming that those who teach the smarter students are better teachers, just because their students get higher test scores.

We would be far better off if the states stopped giving their tests, instituted more school choice, and left it up to schools to find a way to prove they were doing a good job for the consumers — just as it happens in every other service industry. We could do it easily in our schools, without a state test. If we gave aligned end-of-year final exams for each of our DI programs and shared the results with parents, they would be blown away by what we teach. Few students outside of our schools could match that performance. That’s how you prove quality, not with bogus, we’ll-decide-what’s-important-to-learn, state tests.




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Arab Spring, Winter for Christians?

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In a recent piece, I suggested that the fall of a number of Middle Eastern dictators — most notably Hosni Mubarak of Egypt — actively pushed by the Obama administration, and collectively dubbed “the Arab Spring,” has shown a remarkably ugly side.

One of the ugly features I noted was the removal, in the case of Egypt, of a regime that had been actively fighting the practice of female genital mutilation (the removal of most or all of the clitoris from adolescent girls). Some of our readers were offended by my piece, either thinking, somehow, that I advocated going to war with Egypt, or else shocked that I would dare to criticize the practice at all.

Of course, I was merely commenting on a dubious Obama foreign policy initiative — replacing a disreputable US ally by an unknown force, and hoping for the best.

Well, the situation has developed a more ominous aspect. The Arab Spring is turning out to be not only a winter for women, but also a winter for Christians. Several recent stories bring this to light.

Let’s begin by reviewing the results of the first round of elections for Egypt’s parliament. In a turn eerily reminiscent of what happened in Iran decades ago — when Jimmy Carter, a president as feckless as Obama, withdrew support from the Shah so that “democratic forces” could take over — the resulting elections were victories for hardcore Islamist parties. Once the Islamists consolidated their power, they created a state far more repressive and authoritarian than the Shah could ever have imagined. The consequence was the mass murder of political dissidents, people deemed “deviant,” and worshipers of religions other than Islam (Baha’is, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians). It also created a state quite supportive of terrorism abroad.

Once the Islamists consolidated their power, they created a state far more repressive and authoritarian than the Shah could ever have imagined.

In the recent Egyptian elections, Islamists won two-thirds of the seats. And by “Islamist” I am not exaggerating. The Muslim Brotherhood, an extreme organization, from which sprang Al Qaeda, won about 39% of the seats. But the even more extreme Salafists won an astounding 29%. Together, the two liberal parties (the Wafd Party and the Egyptian Bloc) won a pathetic 17% total of the vote.

So much for the idea that waves of freedom and modernization are sweeping over the largest Arab country.

This should have come as no surprise, since earlier elections in Tunisia and Morocco saw Islamist parties win by large majorities. The results for Christians are ominous. The largest group of Christians in the Arab world — the Coptic Orthodox Church — resides in Egypt, where it constitutes 10% of the population. Mubarak, dictatorial bastard that he was, provided protection for them. He is now gone, and the Copts are at the mercy of the Islamists. Mercy, indeed!

Already reports have come in of the killing of Copts, such as the slaughter of 25 or more during a protest they staged in downtown Cairo recently.

The Copts are now deeply demoralized. If they do as the Muslim Brotherhood does — load supporters on buses and drive them to the polls to vote en masse (Chicago-style voting — maybe that’s why Obama supports the Brotherhood!) — they risk civil war. But if they do nothing, the Islamists will target them and slowly turn up the heat. As an American-based Coptic Christian put it, “They [the Copts] are a cowed population in terms of politics. They are afraid and marginalized.”

This is such a familiar pattern. The Islamists kill off or expel the Jews (if any are left by the time the Islamists take over); then they target other religious minorities (Bahai’s, Zoroastrians, pagans, or whatever). The pressure then mounts on Christians.

This is no less than religious ethnic cleansing.

The Egyptian government has recently taken the necessary first step in setting up the apparatus to carry out religious cleansing. It has raided 17 nongovernmental agencies, including three American agencies that are supposed to monitor the “progress” of “democracy” in Egypt — specifically, Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute. One witness to the raid on the Future House for Legal Studies said that a policeman taking part in it held up an Arabic-Hebrew dictionary he found and said it proved the organization was engaged in sabotage against Egypt.

One predictable result of the Egyptian war against minorities is happening already: an exodus of Copts to America. One story reports that thousands of Copts have come to America since Obama’s chosen “democracy” swept Egypt. The emigrants report growing levels of overt persecution and violence. One recent émigré, Kirola Andraws, fled to America on a tourist visa and applied for asylum. He was an engineer, but now works as a cook and a deliveryman in Queens. His story, unfortunately, is likely to prove typical.

The report also notes that already this year a number of Coptic churches have been burned down. Islamist-spawned mobs have rampaged against Coptic homes, stores, and church schools. Think of it as the Muslim Brotherhood’s take on Kristallnacht. Yet the US Commission on International Religious Freedom was recently rebuffed by the Obama administration’s State Department when it asked State to put Egypt on its list of countries that violate religious freedom.

This is only the beginning. Right now, the Muslim Brotherhood only controls the legislature, and it is still held in check by the military. But a very recent article reports that the Brotherhood is planning to run some of its chosen “leaders” for the presidency — something it had earlier promised to do. Should the Islamists take over the executive branch, the military’s influence will rapidly wane, and Egypt will likely go the way of Iran.

The report observes that the military and the Muslim Brotherhood have been in a struggle for 60 years, with the military coming out on top, until now. The military controls about a third of the manufacturing industry in Egypt, for example, so is not likely to surrender power easily. The Egyptian liberals, now seen to be a small minority, seem to be rethinking whether the military is at this point the main threat to them.

Think of it as the Muslim Brotherhood’s take on Kristallnacht.

Whether the military will back down and let the Brotherhood take control is unclear. If the military reacts by dismissing the legislature, Egypt could be in for a protracted and internecine civil war. In either case, however, Christians can expect to be demonized and targeted by the Islamists.

Christians are also being targeted by Islamists in other countries besides Egypt. Nigeria — to cite one such place — recently experienced a wave of terror attacks against Christians, with at least 39 killed. Most of them died when Muslim radicals blew up St. Theresa Catholic Church last Christmas. Shortly thereafter a Protestant church was bombed as well.

Christians in Iraq and Syria have been fleeing, as violence directed at them increases. Since the US toppled Saddam in 2003, 54 Christian churches have been bombed in Iraq, and over 8,900 Christians have been murdered. The number of Christians remaining has of course dwindled, down to 500,000 from 800,000 to perhaps 1.4 million in 2003. With American troops now gone, one suspects that this trend will dramatically increase. In an interesting twist, Christians are fleeing other areas of Iraq and moving to the Kurdish-controlled region, because the Kurds have offered them protection. Yet there are Islamists even among the generally pro-Western Kurds, and Christians have faced some attacks in their territory.

There is in the end the law of unintended consequences, in foreign policy no less than in domestic policy. Progressive liberals — and even conservatives — should start paying attention to it. It is all well and good to desire an “outbreak of freedom,” but one ought to be careful about what one desires, as he might just get it. Many on the Left and the Right welcomed the “Arab Spring,” but it may not turn out to be an explosion of tolerant democracy, as it first seemed to them.

Lest any reader mistake this story for some kind of call to arms, let me make my view explicit: I do not advocate going to war against anyone. But should the Muslim Brotherhood complete its takeover of Egypt and continue its vicious religious persecution of the Copts, our high level of foreign aid to Egypt — $1.3 billion in military aid alone — should certainly be stopped. And this should be made clear to the Egyptians in advance.




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Race Doesn’t Exist

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The Trayvon Martin shooting has resulted in predictably absurd conclusions and ridiculous behavior. On first impression, the circus that gathered around the Sanford, Florida, site of the killing (featuring race-baiting clowns like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton) looks and sounds a lot of a scene from the satiric Tom Wolfe novel The Bonfire of the Vanities.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Jackson sputtered that “blacks are under attack,” adding that “targeting, arresting, convicting blacks and ultimately killing us is big business. . . . No justice, no peace.”

This cynical circus is so predictable because it’s based on a false premise. Not that the shooting didn’t take place; George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin. The false premise is that the shooting was race-related.

It’s false because there’s no such thing as race.

What we call “race” is a social construct invented hundreds of years ago by slave traders and colonial powers. It’s been kept around because it suits lazy people and statist governments looking for cheap ways to categorize individuals.

It’s time that reasonable people abandon this slothful shortcut.

I make the argument about the falseness of race in detail in my book Libertarian Nation (if you have a Kindle, you can “borrow” the book from Amazon for free). Much as I hate to interfere with commerce that channels some money my way, here’s the gist of the argument.

The pigment of your skin and acidity of your hair don’t have much to do with your personal identity. And they don’t make you similar to or different from anyone else.

Race is a social construct. And an old one. The idea that people can be categorized into supposedly objective — or, more recently, “scientific” — groups has been around for as long as human civilization. It’s always been subject manipulation, usually by the state. And its categories are always shifting, usually according to the political needs of the people running the state.

The libertarian notion of a colorblind society is closer to reality than advocates of identity politics — racists and multiculturalists — like to admit.

So, contemporary notions of race are more . . . contemporary . . . than most people realize. Skin color wasn’t the controlling characteristic of race until the end of the 16th century; and then it had something to do with slavery and something to do with the birth of colonialism. The states that stood to profit from the import of cheap materials and slave labor began a 500-year campaign to convince the world that Africans with dark brown skin were a different class of humans than Europeans with lighter brown or pink skin. The Portuguese and Dutch were especially dedicated to the concept. They defined “race” to suit their needs; but popular culture seems to have forgotten their roles in promoting the fiction.

All people are a mix of genetic traits. This fact raises various questions — and the dread of both hardcore racists who lament “mongrelization” and race-obsessed multiculturalists (who, intellectual brothers of the racists, are heavily invested in the notion of distinct racial identities).

What’s the relationship between genes and race?

Most anthropologists and biologists agree that race is a fuzzy concept. By various estimates, 20 to 30% of the genes in the average “black” American come from light-skinned European stock. As Time magazine has noted: “science has no agreed-upon definition of ‘race’: however you slice up the population, the categories look pretty arbitrary.” And, in a similar vein, the Chicago Tribune reported:

In a 1998 “Statement on ‘Race’,” the American Anthropological Association concluded that ordinary notions of race have little value for biological research in part because of the relatively minor genetic differences among racial groups.

And, the anthropologists might have added, the broad genetic variation that exists within racial groups. In the New Statesman magazine, the often-quoted science writer Steven Rose pointed out:

. . . the idea that there is a genetically meaningful African “race” is nonsense. There is wide cultural and genetic diversity amongst African populations from south to north, from Ethiopians to Nigerians. There are, for example probably genetic as well as environmental reasons why Ethiopians make good marathon runners whereas Nigerians on the whole do not.

The normally statist British newspaper The Guardian has stumbled to the same conclusion:

Other scientists point out that our species is so young — Homo sapiens emerged from its African homeland only 100,000 years ago — that it simply has not had time to evolve any significant differences in intellectual capacity as its various groups of people have spread round the globe and settled in different regions. Only the most superficial differences — notably skin colour — separate the world’s different population groupings. Underneath that skin, people are remarkably alike.

So, the libertarian notion of a colorblind society (often dismissed by statists as an unrealistic ideal) is closer to reality than advocates of identity politics — racists and multiculturalists — like to admit.

These advocates have more influence over mainstream media and popular culture than they should. People like Jackson, Sharpton, and Derrick Bell have devoted their lives to a fiction. That must leave them with a hollow feeling, in their solitary moments or when they look themselves in the mirror.

Derrick Bell may have been the saddest of the bunch. He was intelligent enough and well-trained enough that he should have been able to see through the fiction. Instead, he spent his life popularizing Critical Race Theory — which is the intellectual rationalization of a false premise.

The critical document that stands in contradiction to the ultimately bankrupt rationalizations of the Critical Race Theorists and base manipulations of the race hustlers is Martin Luther King’s rightly immortal “I Have a Dream” speech. To the point:

In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. …We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. …Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. …I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

That speech drew its undeniable moral force, in part, from its recognition of the falseness of the concept of race. The triviality of the color of a person’s skin.

(Take a few minutes to read — or reread — that speech. Would any left-wing speaker today use the metaphor of a bounced check to criticize failed promise? It’s so…bourgeois.)

A side note: I’ve always thought there were two Kings, the libertarian defender of individual dignity who fought for fair treatment and delivered the August 1963 speech and the less-inspiring socialist who muddled through the last years of his life.

Compared to King’s image of free individuals treating one another with mutual respect, the current discussion of race is insect-like. The mainstream media tries to turn Trayvon Martin’s shooting into clicks and readers and ratings. The pathetic New York Times concocts the term “white Hispanic” to emphasize that Martin’s shooter was, er, something different from black.

Race is a dubious social construct that serves most effectively as a shortcut for lazy statists trying to put hard-to-manage individuals into easy-to-manage boxes.

Not everyone is so small. Former NAACP leader C.L. Bryant accused the likes of Jackson and Sharpton of “exploiting” the Martin shooting. “His family should be outraged at the fact that they’re using this child as the bait to inflame racial passions,” Bryant told The Daily Caller. He said that “race hustlers” were acting like “buzzards circling the carcass” of the teen.

Race doesn’t exist. Population ancestry influences the patterns of an individual’s genotypical and phenotypical traits (what people commonly think of as “racial” appearance and characteristics) but single variables — for example, skin color — do not. It may seem counterintuitive, but skin color is actually a poor indicator of race.

Race is a dubious social construct that serves most effectively as a shortcut for lazy statists trying to put hard-to-manage individuals into easy-to-manage boxes. No one who loves liberty should buy into the fiction.




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A New Wrinkle on Public Choice Theory

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In my business ethics classes, I typically discuss public choice theory (PCT) right after I survey ethical egoism. I explain that by taking egoism seriously, economists have been able to understand many issues more profoundly than philosophers, who currently tend to dismiss egoism from the realm of serious ethical theory. (Other important phenomena that are generally beyond the appreciation of academic philosophers, uninterested in the profound role of self-interest in real life, include moral hazard, the principle-agent problem, regulatory capture, and especially “rent-seeking.”) In short, many philosophers buy into the Hegelian notion that the state (which they equate with the government) is the realm of disinterested charity — unlike business, which they take to be the realm of pure self-interest. Most economists are not Hegelians, which needless to say is part of their charm.

PCT asserts three propositions. First, everyone in the political process — voters, politicians, government bureaucrats, special interest groups, and the lobbyists who represent them — are motivated primarily (if not entirely) by self-interest. That is, egoism governs political reality. Second, there is an asymmetry in what participants in the process stand to gain, with special interests often standing to gain a lot while the average taxpayer only a little. And there is a concomitant asymmetry of knowledge. Third, since politicians are not spending their own money, but are using other peoples’ money (OPM), they have no incentive to use resources for the general good.

Most economists are not Hegelians, which needless to say is part of their charm.

The classic use of PCT is to explain why pork-barrel spending is so prevalent among politicians of every party (including those accurately characterized as libertarians, such as Ron Paul), and so hard to control. Suppose I am Congressman Jason (a jarring thought, I grant you), who represents a district dominated by a university. Suppose further that I am approached by a group of people who want me to build a “senior center” in my district, which, being a university-dominated area, has a lower concentration of old people than many other districts. They approach me, pleading their case, and reminding me that they made a large donation to my campaign in the last election. This group will typically include the folks who have the most to gain, such as the old people who will benefit from the project without having to spend a nickel more than taxpayers who won’t be able to use it, and the construction firm that will pocket millions of bucks from it. But the group will give itself a virtuous-sounding name, such as “Citizens for the Elderly” or “Seniors in Solidarity.”

PCT predicts that I, the politician, will reason as follows: “If I put this project in some grand bill, say, a defense spending bill, and it passes, I will get tens of thousands of campaign dollars for my next election. And, hey, money is the mother’s milk of politics. Moreover, voters in my district — especially elderly ones — will see my name on this new center and give me credit for it, even though it was OPM that financed it. Of course, the populace as a whole would be better off if this senior center were built in a district with a higher concentration of old people, but it isn’t my money, so I don’t care.”

PCT also predicts that since some of the old people in my district stand to gain a lot, not to mention the construction company, they will follow the progress of the legislation very closely, write letters on its behalf to my colleagues, call other congresspersons, and so forth. On the other hand, since the average voter only stands to lose perhaps a dollar on this boondoggle — and has other pressing matters to worry about — that voter will have no incentive to follow the legislation. He will be “rationally ignorant,” in the snappy patter of the economists.

So, when we think of politicians acting for their self-interest, as predicted under PCT, it is self-interest at arms length, so to say. We think of pols who decide to push suboptimal taxpayer-funded projects to directly help favored supporters or their constituents as a whole, so they can indirectly benefit by harvesting more votes. But a recent article in the Washington Post suggests that when they put through pork-barrel projects, many pols receive a much more directly personal payoff.

The newspaper compared public records about the property owned by all 535 members of Congress, and correlated the information with the earmarks pushed by these people over the past four years. It turns out that 33 of these solons pushed projects (costing taxpayers over $300 million) that were within two miles of their own properties. Moreover, 16 of them pushed subsidies for companies or programs in which their immediate family members (children, parents, or spouses) were employed.

The report notes that under the rules of Congress, this is all perfectly legal, and the members so benefiting were under no obligation to disclose it.

When confronted, the legislators naturally explained away their conflicts of interest by remarking on how necessary the projects were for their local economies, and claiming that the personal benefits they received were unimportant or merely coincidental.

Here are some of the juicier examples. Notice that members of both major parties are well represented.

  • Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) got $900,000 in funding to resurface some roads back home. One stretch of resurfaced road just happened to be the one on which he and his daughter own two homes.
  • Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD) arranged for $4.5 million in taxpayer cash to improve a freeway interchange at a junction near his 104-acre farm and a bunch of his rental properties.
  • Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D-TX) got an earmark to widen a major road in his district that just happened to be 600 feet away from a property that was owned and being developed by his family.
  • Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) used a $6.3 million earmark to restore the beaches on little Tybee Island. By sheer coincidence, he owns a home on the island, about 900 feet from the beach.
  • Rep. John Olver (D-MA) got $5.1 million to realign part of a highway. The project starts at a part of the road that is only about 200 feet from his 15-acre home, as well as some adjoining properties owned by his family.

The capper is Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA). He was serving on the House Ethics Committee when it defined a congressperson’s financial interest as one having “a direct and foreseeable effect” on his or her assets. But the committee added that, as the Post put it, “’remote, inconsequential or speculative interests’ do not count.” Two years after writing this, however, Hastings himself got a $750,000 earmark for a new overpass — on a site only three blocks from a business he formerly owned and ran that is now operated by his brother, on land he still owns.

So when politicians spend OPM, they not only use it to buy votes, they often use it more crudely, to feather their own nests. This hardly supports the Hegelian concept of the state as the realm of disinterested charity.

Sixteen members of Congress pushed subsidies for companies or programs in which their immediate family members were employed.

Why do politicians think they can get away with such obvious use of taxpayer money for their own direct benefit? Well, to begin with, in every case they think they can successfully rationalize away their behavior to the voters. So, for example, Rep. Kingston, when questioned by the reporters, said brazenly, ”It’s absurd to suggest that this benefits me. The beach doesn’t improve the real estate of a house, unless it’s on the beach. . . . The only thing that changes in value is the beachfront property. It does have an economic impact on the beach and the community.” One has to suppose that Kingston thinks the average voter is a fool — which may or may not be a plausible view, depending on the depth of your cynicism.

But one should also remember that politicians are rarely caught. Few reporters ever do the sort of research needed to discover cases of such directly beneficial pork projects. Indeed, the research that the Post reporters did seems to be the first of its kind.

Perhaps the Post will now do an expose showing that Santa Claus doesn’t really exist. Its management, which is highly favorable to expensive government, may be similarly surprised.




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Wait, Mock, and Squander

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In 2006, when gasoline was selling for about three dollars a gallon, an outraged Senator Obama assessed our dependence on foreign oil and proclaimed, “The time for excuses is over.” Today, as gasoline approaches four dollars a gallon, now-president Obama tells us to use less. After three years of profligate spending ($100 billion) on sources of alternative energy, total solar and wind power generates a whopping 0.45% of our electricity, and we are as dependent as ever on foreign oil. Without a single green success story to tout, Mr. Obama tritely blames oil companies, OPEC, the Middle East, speculators, Republicans, and George Bush, his go-to villain.

Evidently, there is still time for excuses.

While the president gripes, we wait. We wait for the clean energy marvels discharged from his subsidized pipeline of foreordained technologies — although none are what we want or can afford. The demand for electric vehicles remains near zero, despite a $7,500 tax credit, which the president, oblivious to market signals, increased to $10,000. Another splash from the pipeline is the $50 light bulb, winner of a $10 million Energy Department prize for being, as Secretary Steven Chu said, “affordable for American families.”Mr. Obama's latest panacea is algae — although the wait time for algae-based fuels ranges from very long to infinite. Meanwhile, the impatient among us can buy hisconventional biofuels (as sold to the Navy last December) for $26.75 a gallon.

Mr. Obama proudly announced that Detroit is on track to build cars averaging nearly 55 mpg by 2025. So if we wait 13 years, and gasoline prices do not rise, we'll be able to drive almost twice as far — in frail, sluggish 2025 Obamamobiles. If we wait 50 years, perhaps technological advances in solar panels and windmills will produce similar payoffs for our utility bills.

In bold defiance of the laws of supply and demand, President Obama insists that offshore drilling and projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline will have little, if any, affect on fuel prices. Calls to increase supply are cynically mocked. Unable to explain the economics of his assertions, he artfully shifts to political derision, "'Drill-Drill-Drill' is not a plan, it's a bumper sticker. It’s not a strategy to solve our energy challenge. That’s a strategy to get politicians through an election."

In bold defiance of the laws of supply and demand, President Obama insists that offshore drilling and projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline will have little, if any, affect on fuel prices.

To be fair, every president since Richard Nixon has promised to end our dependence on foreign oil. These people did little to achieve the goal, but they had the good sense to say even less about their failure. Obama, however, aggressively tries to convince us that his energy policy — three years of bad bets on green energy and abject neglect of everything else — is working. He boasts that “under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years.”

It was none of his doing. The production increase is the result of leases issued during the Bush administration and, more significantly, exploration on state and private land. There, thanks to entrepreneurs and the technologies developed at their expense, oil and natural gas production has increased dramatically. In the lands and waters that the president controls, oil and gas production has decreased by roughly 30 to 45%. President Obama's silence regarding the success of production on state and private property, coupled with his earnest and purposeful curtailment of production on federal property, reveals his deep contempt of capitalism and fossil fuels and the wealth they create.

Nowhere is this more evident than in North Dakota, where private developers on private land have tripled oil production over the last five years. The state has had seven consecutive tax cuts. Now, given an unemployment rate of 3.5%, burger flippers make $18 an hour and thousands of $60,000 to $80,000 a year oil industry jobs wait to be filled. But instead of seeing wealth creation in North Dakota that is extensible nationally, Obama chose only to see eight dead birds that were found near the oil fields, and now seeks to stifle the growing prosperity with a lawsuit filed by the US attorney for North Dakota.

Each year, windmills from California to New York swat as many as 250,000 birds to their deaths. An estimated 70 golden eagles, as well as almost 10,000 other birds, are killed annually by the wind turbines at Altamont Pass, near Oakland, California. But no legal action has been taken. This is a political statement profoundly mocking the oil industry. President Obama is telling oil companies that he will sacrifice our very eagles (to repeat, 70 a year by the Altamont Pass bird-o-matic alone) to choke off the supply of the companies' products.

As he mocks, he squanders. He considers our 20 billion barrel reserve of recoverable oil as a fixed asset to be stingily guarded for political purposes. He seesdrilling rigs and gas stations as festering pockmarks on our national landscape, so he tells us that to reduce fuel prices we must use less. But the 20 billion barrels arepolitically recoverable oil. We possess over 1.45 trillion barrels that are technically recoverable with existing technology. We have enough oil and gas to last hundreds of years. According to a 2011 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, "the United States’ combined recoverable natural gas, oil and coal endowment is the largest on Earth . . . larger than Saudi Arabia, China and Canada, combined."

What civilization ever advanced, what economy ever prospered, by using less energy?

Use less? We should use more. What civilization ever advanced, what economy ever prospered, by using less energy? With our reserves, and such newly developed technologies as steam flooding, hydrofracking, and horizontal drilling, America could become the world's predominant supplier. Obama's mantra, "We can’t just drill our way to lower gas prices," is ignorant folly, no matter how many times repeated. That America's energy supply is too paltry to affect price is supreme fiction; that Obama promotes such a myth is supreme impudence.

US consumption is not one of the reasons energy prices are high. Considering our vast domestic reserves, prices would plummet if the US increased production to meet the country's demands. In fact, since price is a function of expected future supply and demand,it would begin to drop merely upon news of our intention to increase supply. Crude oil hit $147 a barrel and gasoline sold for $4.11 a gallon in July 2008, when President Bush announced he would lift the ban on offshore drilling. In less than a month, oil prices were below $120 a barrel. Within six months, oil was $37 a barrel, and gasoline was $1.61 a gallon.

President Obama knows this well — and he knows its converse. His restrictive energy policy reversed the 2008 trend and resulted in the doubling of prices during his term. And since speculators believe he will continue to squander fossil fuel assets, prices will continue to increase. What the president doesn't seem to know very well is the enormous national wealth lost to his feckless policies: losses in employment, personal income, tax revenue (federal, state, and local), debt reduction, retirement fund value, global competitiveness, and immunity to Middle East turmoil andnational security annoyances from the likes of Russia, Iran, and Venezuela (to name a few).

Incredibly, President Obama chooses to squander resources, inanely attempting to restructure our economy and way of life in preparation for a green fantasy worldin which pock marks are crowded out by tidy, quasi-public charging stations and biofuel dispensers supported by a vast system of government subsidized solar, wind, and algae farms. And, to help him achieve his fantasy, he doesn't think we'll mind paying $40,000 to $100,000 and more for Obamamobiles, $50 for light bulbs, $26 a gallon for algaehol, and "skyrocketing" prices for utilities.

The president's energy campaign, not that of his opponents, is a "strategy to get through an election." He believes that "Drill-Drill-Drill" is a bumper sticker, but that Wait-Mock-Squander is sound policy based on smart projections of industry and technology decades ahead. To him, a future of clean energy and green jobs sounds even better, politically, than ObamaCare. But ObamaCare now costs $1.7 trillion, only two years after Obama projected a cost of $927 billion. Still, with his failure at prognosticating exceeded only by his failure at crony-capitalism, he bets our economy on a future driven by starkly unproven technologies. He can describe the vague green future only by means of deceitful, juvenile mockery of the prosperous past. And he expects that voters will accept, on the face of his trite nostrums, the idea that our immense reserves, the largest in the world, are of little future value. One has to admire the audacity: Obama dares to risk being the president who sent us trudging patiently down the road to national weakness and economic decline, a shiny, extortionate toll road — with a multi-trillion dollar "fuel of the past" bonanza lying just beneath its pavement.

Obama might pull it off, as he did the election of 2008. If so, the pockmarks will begin to be replaced by sprawling rashes of grotesque and witless energy "arrays." Idled oil fields will become hidden relics of our environmentally despicable past, places of interest only to historians and tourists, who will find them by following the eagles seeking refuge from Obama's wind farms.




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Mudblood

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In the August 2010 issue of Liberty I wrote an essay about racism. But that article was largely theoretical. Now I would like to share my personal experiences about the topic.

To do so I must first disclose my own racial identity. I am what might be called a mutt or a mulatto, although I prefer the term “mudblood,” which is the Harry Potter name for wizards who come from Muggle bloodlines. My mother is a white American woman of Russian Jewish lineage, and my father is a Muslim man with brown skin who immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh. My parents were married at the time of my birth but later divorced. My childhood religious and cultural education was a mixture of Judaism and Islam, although I never felt completely comfortable among either Jews or Muslims and as an adult I have abandoned organized religion. I have light brown skin but I am sometimes able to “pass for white.”

For my reader’s education let me mention that Bangladesh is a country with a population of mostly Muslim brown-skinned people located on the Indian subcontinent. (I doubt that I need to explain where Russian Jews come from.) What insight into race relations do I have as one of the world’s few part-Bangladeshi-Muslim, part-Russian-Jewish people?

The amazing thing about knowing Jews and Muslims is how distorted and out of touch with reality are the stereotypes and preconceived notions that some people have about members of other racial groups. Let me discuss the Bangladeshi stereotype first.

What most Americans know about Bangladesh, if anything, is that we are Muslims. Many Americans believe that most Muslims are Islamic fundamentalists who oppress women and support terrorism. My experience is that Bangladeshi Muslims are all different kinds of people, each with an individual identity. A minority of Bangladeshis are deeply religious, Islamic conservative fundamentalists. Some Bangladeshis are modern-liberal or leftist Muslims. However, I have found that most of the Bangladeshis whom I know are religious but not fanatical. I strongly believe that most Bangladeshis do not sympathize with or support Islamic terrorists. In fact, Bangladesh has something right now that the United States has never had, a female head of government.

If race has so little conceptual value for understanding people, then why do people make such a big fuss over it?

On the other hand, what can I say about Jews? Aside from a general enjoyment of gefilte fish and matzah ball soup and the other festive ornaments of Yiddish culture, the Jews whom I have known each have different individual personalities with traits that could not be predicted on the basis of knowing that they are Jews. I do not believe that most Jews are unusually smart or that most Jews are greedy, although the argument can be made that Jewish culture places a high value upon learning and intelligence and is conducive to a successful career as a lawyer. I recall with a certain fondness the Jewish custom of Hanukkah gelt, which is children's chocolate wrapped up to look like gold coins. I also recall pressure to study Hebrew and read Jewish books, but it is a stretch to find some special meaning in those customs. I regard “smart” and “greedy” as compliments, but I have known Jews who are neither. Yet some people have bizarre stereotypical pictures of Jews, as if all were identical.

When you have no firsthand knowledge of something it is easy to have a two-dimensional understanding of it. If I have any insight to offer it is that no two people are the same, and racial or ethnic generalizations have no relation whatsoever to how any real human being behaves. There is a notorious academic argument that if you were forced to form a basketball team to win money it would be logical to include no one but African-Americans. I suspect that athletic talent varies widely among blacks, and the idea in question is a thinly disguised excuse for racism. It is plausible to think that bigotry and racial hatred begin innocently enough as a crude cognitive technique of relying on racial generalizations for the purpose of understanding people. But this evolves into racism as the natural result of thinking about humans in terms of groups rather than individuals. I believe that racial stereotypes have no predictive accuracy.

If race has so little conceptual value for understanding people, then why do people make such a big fuss over it? One likely reason is that if race blindness were prevalent then the people who purport to speak for oppressed racial minority groups, the leaders of the racial special interests, would have no power. Unlike some libertarians, I have always believed that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a hero and that the civil rights movement was a good thing. But I believe this only because in the Jim Crow South, blacks were second-class citizens who were not legally equal to whites. Segregation was the result of racist laws as well as the actions of racist owners controlling their private property. In my opinion, the civil rights movement was a success. Blacks achieved legal equality. There are still parts of America where racism is common, and I have been told that some data suggest that certain areas of the United States have noticeable numbers of white racist police officers. But the use of the machinery of government to enforce racist laws has disappeared in the United States, and this precisely is the victory of the civil rights movement.

Now, in the post-civil rights era, socialist blacks such as Al Sharpton and Cornel West have hijacked the civil rights movement and preach to the members of racial minorities that we remain locked in a racial war against the white supremacist conservative Republicans. They claim that the Democratic Party with its modern liberalism is the only place where we can find refuge and protection from the evils of the white racists. The desired protection takes the form of special programs to favor non-whites, or certain non-whites. This is an Orwellian nightmare — like saying that racial equality is our ideal but non-whites should be more equal than whites.

It is up to us to fight on behalf of individualism as the solution to racism by arguing that what matters about people is their individual personalities and not their race.

It is probably true that there are more pro-white racists in the Republican Party than in the Democratic Party, but I think that the American Right is a racially diverse group of people. Most conservatives, and the vast majority of libertarians, are good people who oppose racism. Only a small but vocal minority on the Right are Nazis or Klansmen who give the Right a bad name. It is worth noting that at various times in American history the Democratic Party was associated with the racist South and the Republican Party with the slave-freeing North. It is merely another absurd stereotype to say that the “average” right-winger is a white racist.

It is clear that racism and racial stereotypes have their philosophical basis in the doctrine that people are defined by their memberships in groups. If there is any hope of ending the blight of racism, it will come by taking an individualist approach. We libertarians are the world’s best advocates for individualism, and it is up to us to fight on behalf of individualism as the solution to racism by arguing that what matters about people is their individual personalities and not which race they are members of. I think that individualism will ultimately produce more diversity than state-sponsored affirmative action, because individualism attacks the root cause of racism, whereas affirmative action merely treats the external symptoms.

My friends in high school used to tell me that I should bomb my own car, and there have been many times when I got the sense from some Jews that they didn’t like me because I was Muslim, and received the same feeling from Muslims who did not like my being Jewish. I have never been beaten up as a result of racism (although my father has, and my maternal ancestors endured the Russian pogroms), but my entire life I have felt abnormal because it was not easy for me to fit into a traditional established role as a member of a specific race. I cannot be “a Jew” or “a Muslim” or “a white person” or “a dark-skinned person,” although I can be on the receiving end of discrimination against all of those categories. But it is still possible for me to be “an individual.” And being an individual is what each member of every different race on the planet has in common. It is what unites us and brings us together.

It’s liberating to be a mudblood, and it’s comforting to think that there are libertarians out there in the world who believe in individualism and represent the possibility that the human race will one day outgrow the abomination of racism.




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