Nanny Tries to Resurrect Pappy

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This recent story has gone virtually unnoticed. It is a report that the federal government — yes, our very own nanny-state — has funded anew one of its many websites: www.fatherhood.gov. The site is devoted to teaching American men and — let’s not be sexist! — American women how to be good fathers.

The site gives just tons of terrific tips about being a good dad, such as: it is the father’s job to provide healthy meals for his kids, and actually to eat meals with them. (This is a revelation: I thought that since the government is advertising to get people to apply for food stamps, the rolls for which have swollen to an all-time high of 47 million, it is in fact the government’s job to feed the kids.) And there is other vital information, available nowhere else. There is a video about how to wash your hands, with narration that instructs: “Wet hands under running water, add soap, and rub all parts of the hands and fingers for 15 seconds.”

The things you can learn from government! I never knew you had to use soap!

The site offers some even more desperately needed videos on reading, “constructive play,” and — most amazing — brushing your teeth.

There is a richly layered irony in this. Begin with the fact that the website was funded most recently by the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act. The idea that deficit reduction is advanced by funding completely superfluous government websites is self-evidently ridiculous.

Now add the bigger point. Here we are, nearly 30 years after the publication of Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, the definitive analysis of the massive destruction brought to the American family (and society) by the benighted changes to the welfare programs in the early 1960s. The new form of welfare basically paid young girls to make horribly bad life choices, mainly to have children too young and out of wedlock. The illegitimacy rate in the inner city spiraled out of sight, hitting 25% by the mid-1960s (when Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote his famous report on the black family crisis). In the inner city, the first of the month was dubbed “Father’s Day,” in grimly humorous recognition of the fact that the only “father” in these broken welfare families was Uncle Sam.

Over the decades since, the welfare state’s iatrogenic pathology has spread from the inner city to mainstream America. Now over 70% of all black children, 50% of Hispanic children, and 25% of non-Hispanic white children are born out of wedlock. The rate of illegitimacy for all American births is currently 41%, and for American women under 30, it is a stunning 53%.

So the richest irony of all is that the nanny state that did so much to eliminate fatherhood is now trying to train men to be fathers.

In fine, now that nanny has choked pappy to death, she is trying to resurrect him.




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Taxes on Buying and Not-Buying

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In his decision on the healthcare law, Chief Justice Roberts interprets the "penalty" on not buying health insurance as a tax. He recognizes that it is meant "to affect individual conduct." But such taxes, for example import duties, are nothing new. As Roberts says (pp. 36–37 of the decision), "Today, federal and state taxes can compose more than half the retail price of cigarettes, not just to raise money, but to encourage people to quit smoking. And we have upheld such obviously regulatory measures as taxes on selling marijuana and sawed-off shotguns."

But the import, cigarette, marijuana, and shotgun examples are taxes on selling and buying something. The penalty regarding health insurance is a tax on not buying something. Does Roberts really mean to constitutionalize a tax on not buying whatever Congress may specify? What has become of constitutional limits to federal power?




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The Fast and Furious Investigation: Quick or Dead?

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On June 28 the US House of Representatives voted 255-67 to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress for failing to provide documents subpoenaed by the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Although the vote was largely along party lines, it still represented the first time in American history that a cabinet member has been found in contempt of Congress.

Partisan or not, the contempt vote was more than justified by the facts. The attorney general has stonewalled Congress’ investigation of Operation Fast and Furious, a crazy policy which amounted, in substance, to running guns into Mexico with the expectation that this would lead to prosecutions and the interdiction of weapons trafficked to Mexican drug cartels. One US border patrol agent has already died as a result of Fast and Furious, as have an untold number of Mexicans. Hundreds of the guns remain in the hands of criminals who will not hesitate to use them to kill people. While it should be noted that tactics resembling Fast and Furious were first employed by the Bush Justice Department, the stupidity was ratcheted up in a big way under Holder. In any case, the attorney general has provided Congress with about one tenth of the documents under subpoena, and contradictions have cropped up in his congressional testimony. The whole business stinks, and yet the scandal remains (except on the Fox News channel) for the most part under the radar screen.

On the day of the contempt vote I heard some talking head on a cable news program declare that the timing of the vote showed that the Republicans were not veryserious about pursuing their investigation. On the contrary, the vote was scheduled to coincide with what the Republicans thought would be an overturn of Obamacare by the Supreme Court — the second blow of a double whammy that would jumpstart the Republican effort to take the White House. This plan backfired when Chief Justice John Roberts found a way to declare Obamacare constitutional. The unexpected reversal of fortune for Obamacare washed the contempt vote right out the public consciousness.

It is a fact that the New York Times and the Washington Post have done little to get to the bottom of Fast and Furious. Nothing illustrates the mainstream media’s bias in favor of Obama more than its (non)response to this scandal. Even less surprising is the absence of a Democrat version of Howard Baker asking publicly “What did the attorney general (and possibly the president) know, and when did he know it?” Obama is no Nixon, but Holder might be another John Mitchell. We’ll never know for sure, because Holder, unlike Mitchell, will never wind up in the dock (the Justice Deptartment is not about to file criminal contempt charges against its own AG). So much in life depends on who you are, and even more on who your friends are.




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Like Father?

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Republican Rand Paul, scion of libertarian lion Ron Paul, has done something amazing.

He has endorsed the Republican candidate for the presidency.

Libertarian movement chronicler Brian Doherty put the situation nicely when he said, “There are a lot of Ron Paul people who like to think of themselves as a ragtag rebel army. But Rand Paul is clearly positioning himself to play the part of the loyal opposition. Emphasis on loyal.”

That he endorsed Romney was bad enough to some ofhis father’s supporters, but that he did it while his father was still seeking the nomination (even if not actively campaigning) was especially galling. Here are a few of the comments Rand Paul’s action elicited online:

  • “Nothing but a Judas! Burn in hell Rand!”
  • “Shame on you rand . . . you sold out on everything your father stands for . . . Damn you.”
  • “I did not donate my treasure and time to end up supporting flip-flop. I feel like a deal with devil has been made.”

My favorite, though, is this bit of conspiracy theory: “The only thing that makes sense is that they must have lured him in with a hot woman and set him up with photographs of the event. . . . No son would do this to his own father.”

I dunno . . . maybe he was enticed by a whole group of hot women. Or maybe he figured that: (a) Obama is infinitely more distant from Paul’s principles than Romney is; (b) Romney has a good chance of winning; (c) in office Romney will have people of all ideological persuasions trying to influence him; and (d) by being one of those voices, Rand Paul will be able to advance his own principles.

I think the second "maybe" is the likelier one. I also note that Rand Paul has followed his endorsement of Romney with an essay strongly criticizing Romney's position on war, foreign policy, and the Constitution itself. Apparently there weren't enough of those women.




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The Hoot-Out at the OK Corral

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Say, what is it with these lousy mouse-munchers? Every time you turn around, the damned spotted owl is making people’s lives miserable, with the able assistance of the federal government.

A story out of Tombstone, Arizona, reports that the legendary town — erstwhile home of Doc Holliday and the Earp Brothers, and venue of the most famous gunfight in Western history, the OK Corral — is being destroyed by the US Forest Service. Yes, this storied burg that survived the guns of the outlaw Cowboy gang (Ike and Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Claiborne) is in danger of being throttled by the talons of the now legendary bird, backed by the now infamous Forest Service.

You see, last summer there was a fire in the nearby mountains, where the springs that provide water for the town are to be found. The fires burned away the ground cover, and recent rains have washed away part of the 26-mile pipeline that brings water into town. The pipeline has been there for over 130 years and needs to be repaired quickly, or the next round of rains will wash it away. Since Tombstone’s reservoir has run dry, this will pretty much kill the town.

Enter the owl. Forest Service rangers have discovered a nest of spotted owls — Mexican spotted owls, to be precise. Pero caramba! The species has been declared “endangered” (in the United States) so the Forest Service is trying to stop the town’s residents from using machinery to repair the pipeline.

Tombstone has gone to court, saying that since it owns the springs in question, it shouldn’t need the federal government’s permission to rebuild the pipeline. (The town is defended by the wonderful Goldwater Institute, and hundreds of ranchers, not to mention Western fans, throughout the West.) The feds respond that the town is just using this as an excuse to expand its water supply — a horrible sin, no doubt, for a desert town. Why exactly the construction equipment would harm the birds, which managed to survive the fires, is unclear — but then, almost everything the Forest Service does is unclear.

Its mindset is revealed by the answer one of its supervisors gave in court to the question, “What is more important, owls or the people of Tombstone?” The moral idiot replied that it is hard to say.

And so far the Forest Service is winning, of course, in federal court. The US Supreme Court just recently turned down Tombstone’s request for an emergency injunction to allow the use of construction equipment to repair the pipeline. The Forest Service will only allow individuals using hand shovels to do some repair work, in the 100 degree heat.

So an historic town may die because the government is worried about whether a couple of tractors will scare away Mexican spotted owls, however many of them there are. The Tombstone epitaph will wind up reading, “What the Cowboys could not kill, the Spotted Owls did!”




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Abundant Resources

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Free market advocates have long argued that there is no shortage of fossil fuel (oil and natural gas) in the US, for as long as that is going to be the dominant energy source in this country — in other words, for the foreseeable future. We have argued that the US ought to use its own abundant supplies.

We argue this on national security as well as economic grounds. Building regulatory walls against exploiting our abundant fuel reserves deprives the nation of jobs and wealth, so it is economically stupid. This is obvious. But it should also be obvious that those walls channel money to regimes that wish us all manner of ills, even extermination — so the restrictions are strategically stupid. We send ever more troops to ever more dangerous places, so we can keep importing that which we have utterly no need to import.

It is with interest, therefore, that I note the complete lack of interest shown by the mainstream media in the congressional testimony of the federal government’s own Government Accountability Office (GAO) regarding America’s fossil fuel reserves.

The GAO reports that the Green River Formation of shale (which lies under the area where Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming join) contains the world’s largest known oil shale deposit, holding an amount of recoverable oil equal to all the world’s proven oil reserves. In fact, Anu Mittal, director of natural resources for the GAO, testified that the formation contains about three trillion barrels of oil, about half recoverable with known technology. And remember — we can only guess at future technological improvements.

In fact, the GAO now estimates that the US has more by way of fossil fuel reserves than any other country on earth by far, with Russia in second place and Saudi Arabia a distant third. Bottom line: even while Obama is telling the public that we use 20% of the world’s oil and have only 2% of the known reserves, his own GAO reports that America has the largest reserves of fossil fuel on the planet.

But while Russia, Saudi Arabia, and other energy endowed countries are moving ahead to develop what they have, our government would rather block our own development. Go figure.




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Schools: What Kind of Reform?

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Now that Governor Scott Walker has won the recall election, Wisconsin is pushing through the education reforms that were part of his 2010 legislative agenda. Like most education reform initiatives, Wisconsin’s contains some form of merit-based teacher pay and a voucher system. Indiana has proposed similar reforms, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have made national headlines with education reform plans that in some ways resemble Wisconsin’s.

The proposals are pushed by Republicans who tout them as free-market solutions to the education problem in their respective states. But what they don’t say, or perhaps don’t see, about their proposals may make the system worse than the one we have.

Teachers object to having their pay tied to student performance. But this is what happens all across the private sector. If a manager’s employees are not doing what the company demands, the manager will be replaced. Likewise, if a high school coach’s team doesn’t win enough games, the coach will be replaced. Teachers must be held accountable if their students are not learning, and be rewarded if they are. It is time they were held to the same standard as everyone else.

The practical problem isn’t whether teachers should be assessed, but how they should be assessed. Yet that means there’s still a problem.

Standardized tests are the primary measure by which we judge a student’s level of achievement, and changing our measure of achievement must be among the first reforms enacted. Standardized testing prohibits experiential learning and diminishes the value of differentiated instruction. As an educator, I have found that certain topics are more attractive to students than other subjects, and those topics change from year to year and class to class. For instance, in 2001 my ninth-grade world history class we dedicated significantly more time to world religions, particularly Islam, than had originally been planned — because of what happened on 9/11. Had there been a standardized history exam I would never have been able to capitalize on the students’ interest, and we all would have missed out on a teachable moment.

So whatever measure states use to evaluate teachers must not limit their flexibility or autonomy. This goal is doubly difficult to achieve, however, when government enters the picture, even in the form of a school voucher system.

Supporters of school choice ground their argument in free-market principles. Opponents object that tax dollars will be siphoned away from already cash-strapped schools. The reply is: “If you want the money, you must earn it.” Where there is a monopoly, providers become inefficient and weak. Where there is competition, we see innovation and greater progress. A school voucher program works to break the monopoly to allow free market mechanisms to enter the education system. Ironically, however, it is the government that is seeking to instill this aspect of the free market.

We should be wary of that. If the government begins, indirectly, to fund private schools through vouchers, the schools will not have to be as competitive when trying to secure funding either from student tuition or from donors.

Any time government takes action there are unintended consequences, and there are at least two educational consequences that we can see looming on the horizon already. The first is an undermining of free market principles. The second is the opportunity for government to regulate private schools, with vouchers being construed as funded mandates. If private schools begin to depend on indirect government funding, then the government can gain leverage over what these schools teach and how they teach it.

There is no easy solution to our education problems. Problems with education have been documented for more than two millennia. No reform or policy will be the final solution, for education is a process, and improving it should be seen in the same way. Which is why, in the end, we should advocate reforms that promote the greatest amount of flexibility and accountability.




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Would You Buy a Used Poll from These Men?

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On Tuesday evening, June 5, two hours after voting closed in Wisconsin, the Los Angeles Times website was still headlining a story about how its exit polls projected an extremely close race — at a moment when the bulk of the vote was in, and Republican Governor Walker was running almost 20 points ahead of his opponent, Democratic Mayor Barrett of Milwaukee.

An hour before, CNN had somehow revised its exit-poll projections from 50–50 to a modest 52–48 for Walker. Even Fox News’ exit polls indicated a race that was “knife-edge” close. These polls were remarkably wrong. All the predictions were, including the predictions that brought 400 Democratic lawyers into Wisconsin, determined to contest a close election. (Wouldn’t you have loved to see those suits trooping off the plane in Milwaukee, cellphones and briefcases at the ready?) Walker won by a margin of about 7%, somewhat unusual in seriously contested American elections, but the same as President Obama’s national margin in 2008, sometimes hailed as a “landslide.”

Nevertheless, about an hour after CNN finally projected Walker as the winner, its hapless anchorman, John King, was still talking about the exit polls. While they were somewhat off, he said, they still indicated that Obama was way ahead of Romney in Wisconsin. Having said that, he turned to a map of the United States and changed Wisconsin from an expected Obama victory to a toss-up. Then, half an hour later, he opined, “Our exit polls clearly undercounted Walker” (yeah, do you think so?), but added that we shouldn’t project the Wisconsin results onto the national election in November. (Maybe — why not?)

Still later, with 80% of the votes in and Walker running 12 points ahead , King was prompted by his younger colleague, Erin Burnett (who, thank God for intelligence, kept harping on the disparity between polls and performance), to speculate about what had (obviously) gone wrong with the exit polls. Thereupon King babbled things about how you might overestimate something in an exit poll, or “guess” wrong, and that’s why you need to correct the exit polls when the actual votes come in. Huh? So what’s an exit poll? And what’s a poll? And why should we worship them? A commercial break; then King was asked another embarrassing question about the polls’ failure to predict what happened. He replied, “The exit polls were weighted anti-Walker, pro-Barrett.” Pardon me? What did he mean by that?




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Beer Battle

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Here in Alabama we beer drinkers are still warring with the state. We won our most recent engagement, however. On May 16, the governor signed a bill allowing our favorite elixir to be served in 25.4-ounce, rather than 16-ounce, containers.

Of course, the goal of the state had been to keep large quantities of beer out of the lower colons of our young people. This assumes a school system that doesn’t teach that 2 times 16 is 32 and 3 times 16 is 48 — both larger than 25.4.

A couple of years back, in 2009, we legalized beers with over 6% alcohol. So we’re definitely making progress.

The opposition filibustered the large-bottle bill, ranting that alcohol had “broken up many families.” Yeah, I guess. So has fried chicken.

“Dear, pass me that drumstick.”

“But you ate the first one, and I want that remaining plump piece of chicken. Here’s a nice, crispy neck for you.”

The drumstick consumer throws the bone of the first — now deceased — drumstick at his “dear” dinner partner. (Not the half-full beer bottle, which she served without a glass.) Obviously, a freshman sociology student could observe this tension brewing for weeks.

And remember, all you legislators, he threw the chicken bone — not the beer bottle. So what’s beer got to do with it? More importantly, what’s the state legislature got to do with it?




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Memo to Obama: Here’s How the Market Works

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President Obama is running a political campaign as predictable as it is despicable. It is based on attacking capitalism. “Markets never work, government always does” appears to be his meshuggeneh mantra. As it happens, two recent Wall Street Journal stories illustrate the free market (disparagingly called “capitalism” by its opponents) in action. Obama might want to reflect on them, though it is doubtful that he often reflects on anything — he seems to be the epitome of a reflexive instead of a reflective person.

The articles, appearing on the same day and the same page, report on the impact of the fracking revolution in natural gas production, a revolution that has dramatically decreased the price of natural gas — by nearly half in the last year alone.

The first article reports some good news about the rock-bottom prices for natural gas. The price is inducing companies with trucking fleets to switch from diesel to natural gas (NG) — either compressed (CNG) or liquefied (LNG).

For example, Waste Management is now buying NG trucks. It plans to make 80% of the new trucks it buys over the next 5 years NG trucks. The NG trucks cost about $30,000 more than ordinary diesel trucks, but save more than $27,000 a year in fuel expenses. Ryder Systems, a truck leasing company, is making the same move, with one of its vice presidents saying, “The economics favoring NG are overwhelming.”

Other corporations shifting their truck fleets to NG include such huge players as UPS and AT&T.

The article notes the standard problems facing fleets looking to convert to NG, such as the need for bigger tanks, and especially the lack of CNG or LNG fueling stations nationwide. But as the fracking gas revolution continues apace, it is likely that the price of natural gas will remain extremely low compared to diesel, so will tempt more and more gas stations to offer NG fueling pumps. And the article doesn’t note how much cleaner NG is than diesel, which means that as air pollution laws continue to tighten, the cost of diesel trucks will go up. Nor does the article note that as more fleets convert to NG, the price of NG trucks will start to fall as production of them cranks up.

On the bad news side, the companion piece reports that natural gas “giant” Chesapeake Energy has been beaten up by the low price of its product and is now investing heavily in unconventional drilling for shale oil. Specifically, Chesapeake is focusing on the huge Utica shale formation lying under the state of Ohio, betting billions to buy leases for drilling rights to about 5% of the state’s land.

This is either ballsy or balmy, depending on your tolerance for risk. The Utica field is estimated to contain between 1.3 and 5.5 billion barrels of oil, but the company has drilled only 59 wells, and of the nine about which it has released data, the information shows that oil is but a third of what is provided — the rest being mainly that damned cheap natural gas!

All this simply illustrates the view of pricing that Hayek and Kirzner enunciated: that pricing is an information transmission mechanism — more simply, a language. The price of a product tells both producers and consumers how to alter their behavior and plans for the future. When the price of natural gas went up not so long ago, it told producers to produce more, and they did — in spades! Now that it has plummeted while the price of oil has remained relatively high, it tells consumers to switch to it, and it tells producers of natural gas and oil to shift capital from producing the former to producing the latter.

All this would be illuminating to Obama, were he a man capable of illumination. But he isn’t, so it won’t.




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