What’s Interesting about Iowa

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By the time the Iowa caucus finally happened, even political junkies were sick of it. It was a contest of doubtful influence on anything, and this year it was virtually impossible for anyone to “win” the thing. (A “win,” I believe, should constitute something more than 25%.) CNN and Fox News kept saying that “excitement” was “building.” Right. One Lego block at a time. And those debates — Good God! Why? How many dull parties must you attend? I say none.

But I was surprised and amused by the circus animals who were paraded through the streets of Sioux City, each with its own fleet of trainers and guard of clowns. It wasn’t the greatest show on earth, but it was a show.

Michele Bachmann, who demonstrated that illiteracy need be no handicap to a person’s self-esteem.

Newt Gingrich, who consistently delighted me with his screwiness and bitchiness. Every one of his “new ideas” had me rolling in laughter. (My favorite was the one about summoning local juries to determine whether illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay in this country. As you probably know, I am no friend of open immigration, but if ever there was a court invented by a kangaroo, Gingrich’s immigration jury was it.) I loved the perfect zingers he scored on the other candidates. When an outraged Bachmann demanded to know whether he had called Mitt Romney a liar, Gingrich calmly asked, “Why are you so horrified?” I’m going to miss Newt.

Herman Cain, a good orator, and an intelligent person, who somehow lacked the rare and peculiar kind of intelligence that’s necessary to recall embarrassing incidents in one’s personal life. Of course, this is the kind of intelligence that almost everyone else possesses, but why should it be expected of a presidential candidate?

Jon Huntsman, the candidate from the New York Times.

Rick Santorum, the former Senator from the Roman Catholic Church. Who else would have complimented George Bush, a Methodist, on his performance as a politicized Catholic? “From economic issues focusing on the poor and social justice, to issues of human life, George Bush is there. He has every right to say, 'I’m where you are if you're a believing Catholic.’” The surge that Santorum experienced in Iowa was initiated by conservative Catholics who realized, at last, that this hapless, obscure person was actually a Knight of Magistral Grace of the Knights of Malta.

Mitt Romney, the man who everyone loves to hate. You’ve got to appreciate a candidate whose aides run a Mittness Protection Program.

Rick Perry. You’ve got to love a guy who, being revealed as an ignorant fool, funded an ad campaign in which he admitted to being an ignorant fool, yet urged everyone to vote for him.

I’m going to miss these acts — the acts that go away, of course. The ones that keep going inspire no such nostalgic feelings.

But what of Ron Paul? I am sorry to say, from the dramatic point of view, that I was not surprised by anything that happened with him. I expected him to suffer attacks. And I expected him, notwithstanding the attacks, to achieve about 20% of the vote. He got 21%. That’s about what he usually gets from Republicans (and independents acting as Republicans, as in Iowa) when noses are counted or buttons are pushed.

Believe me, I would rather see myself as part of Paul’s 21% than as part of the less than 1% in which I am placed whenever Libertarian Party registration or voting is measured. But — call me a traitor if you want to — I’ve never believed the results of the Nolan survey or any other questionnaire purporting to show that more than 20% of people in America are really libertarians. They aren’t. If they were, they’d have plenty of opportunities to show it, but they don’t. What they are is people who believe in legalizing drugs and raising taxes on “the wealthy,” or lowering taxes and pursuing a bellicose foreign policy, or some other combination of views that seems, from libertarians’ perspective, incoherent and ridiculous. But America has always been an essentially libertarian country without a libertarian population. It’s the triumph of structure over “the people.”

Would Paul attract more voters if he recognized this? Here’s my reason for asking that question. Paul is a preacher, and he preaches largely to the choir. His rhetoric assumes that “Americans want” what he wants. He seems honestly surprised that anyone should care that Iran has an atom bomb, or worry about his desire to dismantle the Federal Reserve system. But even I care that Iran has the bomb, and I well remember having to be convinced that the Fed was a bad idea. Every libertarian can say the same about his or her experience with libertarian ideas. But Paul has the preacher’s style, not the educator’s, or the conversationalist’s. He talks to people, not with them.

So could he attract more votes if he were a different kind of campaigner? The good thing and the bad thing is that it’s hard to tell whether he could or not. I want to believe that the libertarian philosophy can be conveyed with even greater effect. Yet Ron did very well at holding his 21%, no matter what. And twenty-one percent isn’t a percentage to scorn. There’s leverage in that.




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Why Choose Less?

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A recent story in the WSJ caught my eye, since it bears on a topic that is of much practical importance but hasn’t been much investigated. The issue is: why do college students choose the majors they choose?

As I have reported elsewhere, there is now a detailed economic study about what students of various college majors earn later in life. Not surprisingly, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors do better financially than, say, humanities majors. But this study only confirmed what was widely understood all along. It’s not as if students (and parents) hadn’t already understood the disparity of incomes, ranked by major.

But this recent WSJ piece reports that students are picking the easier majors, even though they know that those majors offer lower financial payoffs. It tells the tale of one young Chinese American who enrolled at Carnegie Mellon as an electrical and computer engineering major, only to switch to a major in psychology and policy management (whatever the hell that is!). Psych majors average about $38,000 a year less than computer engineering grads. She explained her decision by saying, “My ability level was just not there.”

The authors raise the issue of whether the continuing bad economy will persuade more students to major in the STEM subjects. But the trend hasn’t been good in that regard. From 2001 to 2009, while the number of college grads increased by 29%, the number of engineering grads only increased by 19%, and those with computer science degrees actually dropped 14%.

In fact, the full stats are even grimmer. As the estimable Sol Stern has recently noted, over the last 50 years, technological innovation was responsible for over half of all American economic growth. However, bachelor’s degrees in engineering (awarded to American students, not foreign nationals) peaked in 1985 and have dropped ever since. We are now down 23% from that peak. Only 6% of American college students major in engineering, compared with 12% in Europe and Israel, not to mention the 20% level in Japan and South Korea. We are near the bottom of the industrialized world when it comes to the percentage of college grads with STEM degrees.

Returning now to the WSJ article: it notes that one problem is the perceived disparity in difficulty between STEM courses and those in the humanities and social sciences. Ms. Zhou found that she went from earning C’s and B’s in engineering to A’s in psychology. There is nothing new here, of course. Students have noticed for decades how much easier it is to score much higher grades for much less work in non-STEM majors. Science and math majors average three hours more per week in study time. That difference may seem trivial, but students are increasingly less inclined to work. The article notes that the average time students spend studying has dropped by half since 1960.

It also notes, with evident approval, the efforts of some STEM departments to stem attrition by “modifying” their classes to make them — what? more palatable? — to students from other majors. In his class for liberal arts majors, one computer science prof cut down on the theory component in favor of practical programming. Now 85% of the students pass. What his pass rate was before this, the story doesn’t say. Presumably lots, lots lower.

Whether any of this constitutes dumbing down the subject, the story also doesn’t say.

It is also silent about what to my mind are the biggest issues here.

First, to what degree are humanities, social science, education, and other non-STEM departments inflating grades to attract students, or — given the pervasiveness of leftist thought in those departments — out of a loopy egalitarianism? Grade inflation, no less than monetary inflation, is a profound pricing problem.

Hayek and Kirzner urged us to understand pricing as a language. In a free market, if something fetches a low price, it tells the producer not to produce so much of it. I think that grading is pricing. If a student has to work and winds up with low grades, the grades are telling him that he may need to work still harder, or find another major. The STEM instructors are just doing their jobs and telling the truth to students.

But if (as I suspect) the grading standard has been inflated by many non-STEM professors, they are doing something immoral: they are lying to students about their real abilities. If I give A’s to all my philosophy students, I’m telling them that they are excellent at a subject, when most are not. I may encourage them to pursue a career when they shouldn’t, or — more to the point — not pursue a career they should.

Second, to what extent is this problem another example of the dismal failure of America’s public K-12 educational system — a failure that ramifies into the post-secondary educational system? I have suggested elsewhere that part of the reason many employers look to hire college grads for jobs that really require only a high school education is that a high school diploma from most urban public school districts no longer means a thing in terms of basic educational competence.

If students are switching to easier subjects, might that not be because so many of even the most technically talented young people were so badly instructed in math and science during K-12 that they face extra challenges learning the introductory college-level material? Similarly, if these students were never forced to work diligently in grade school or high school, might this not be the reason why they flee majors that require hard work, and in fact are studying less than ever before in college?

All of this is as disquieting as it is ignored by the mainstream media.




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Gary Johnson for President

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December 28 marked an important day in Libertarian Party history — the day that the party gained a presidential candidate, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, capable of smashing its previous high in any presidential election, and perhaps even making the LP marginally relevant for once (or, at least, gaining the party's second-ever electoral vote). Johnson as standard bearer would be something of a perfect storm for the LP — which, though unavoidably also a tempest in a teapot, would nonetheless make a bigger splash than the Party has ever been capable of before.

Flash back to the last election cycle. No, go back two, to 2004, when the LP, still reeling from Harry Browne’s machinations, nominated a complete unknown as its presidential candidate. The list of “missed opportunities by the Libertarian Party” is a long and tragicomic one, but surely the choice of Michael Badnarik must be at or near the top: in an election evenly split between the military-statist Bush and the eco-statist Gore, the LP could’ve had a healthy cut of the excluded middle — but Badnarik’s was not the name to draw those voters.

In 2008, with that swing-and-a-miss behind them, the LP whiffed with the opposite approach, nominating a big name who was a, shall we say, imperfect fit with party ideals. I’m not one to deny the place of pragmatism in politics, but the man who authored the Defense of Marriage Amendment and fervently prosecuted the Drug War was a strange choice for the supposed party of freedom. No matter how hard he pushed his Road to Damascus narrative, a large chunk of the LP base (namely, donors and state and local party poobahs) was never going to buy into his campaign.

As a result, Bob Barr’s failure was utterly predictable — the rift in the party in 2008 was clear for all to see — but more to the point, just as utterly inevitable. In Barack Obama, the Democrats found a candidate who could reach out to the same undecideds the LP tries to make its own — those looking to cast a vote in dissent, anything so long as it has nothing to do with the party in power. Empty as we now know (or always knew) his promises of “Hope” and “Change” to be, they were nonetheless effective in closing off any change the Libertarians had of playing a role in the last cycle.

All of which is to say, the LP screwed up by getting its candidates backward — if anything, the off-the-ranch Republican with name recognition would have fared much better in 2004, serving as an alternative to two unpalatable statists. Meanwhile, 2008 would have been the time to run an outsider, someone who could elucidate a libertarian point of view, in the rare moments he (or she — vide Mary Ruwart) was called upon to do so.

But in 2012, the LP has the opportunity to pitch a candidate to an electorate seemingly sick of the whole process. Obama’s broken promises, aforementioned, have alienated a small but substantial portion of his base — those who cannot overlook our nation’s ongoing, unnecessary, and inhumane foreign wars; the continued attacks on the constitutional rights of the citizenry; the all-enveloping secrecy in which the government carries on its affairs; the gulag archipelago we are building up in our modern prison system . . . in short, all those left-leaning pundits and bloggers not in step with the all-conquering Obama line foisted upon us hourly by the power-loving, bootlicking establishment media outlets.

Who will these people turn to? Certainly not the Republican Party, at least not once Ron Paul again is defeated by, or cedes way to, a far inferior challenger. Despite moments in the sun for the laughable Herman Cain and the odious Newt Gingrich (not to mention Rick Perry’s campaign, brought to you by Tom of Finland), this nomination has from the first been Mitt Romney’s to lose. Only trouble is, Romney and Obama are, as The Root recognized long ago, nearly the same person. And more recently, one of Romney’s chief advisors was heard loudly rattling the saber for war with Iran — something that seems increasingly inevitable whichever party ends up with its finger on the button.

Hence, there is a chance that an experienced, eloquent Libertarian Party candidate — one capable of making, forcefully, the case against war, whether against other nations that pose no threat to us, or against those of our own citizens whose only crime is to ingest federally frowned-upon substances — could steal a sizable chunk of the vote, and not just from the college crowd (who, as we all know, don’t vote — I should know: I am one still). And that’s where Gary Johnson comes in. He’s an experienced pol who has the benefit of gaining his experience in a somewhat out-of-the-way state, allowing him both to get away with more than he might elsewhere (witness the in-progress crucifixion of Chris Christie in New Jersey), and to get raves from both Right and Left at different times for his handling of budgets and various other crises.

Additionally, Johnson has a legitimate beef with the presidential process, which effectively killed his campaign before it had hardly started by the simple expedient of refusing to let him speak alongside other candidates. By switching over to the LP, Johnson can present himself as a true outsider, one unbeholden to the major-party machines and their media purse-chihuahuas. His strongest issue, the legalization of marijuana (and decriminalization of other presently illegal drugs), will find supporters all along the political spectrum, especially those who for some reason expected Obama to live up to promises to back off medical dispensaries, rather than double down on the persecution. And he is glib enough (and has the voting record, besides) to avoid the typical traps laid down for third-party candidates: disaster management, education and child safety, national security. Likewise, he lacks the baggage some others do — most particularly, he has no history of orgazinational racism or anti-gay bias in his past. And — though this ought to be by far the least important thing about him — at 58 and in good shape, he remains telegenic and does not come off as a coot or a crank.

To close, I note that this is not an endorsement, either for Liberty or for myself, personally. It is, instead, a recommendation. If the Libertarian Party wishes to be relevant in this cycle, then it should gather round Johnson early on, kick the fundraising into gear, and come May’s national convention, launch his candidacy with as much money and PR as can be mustered. If, instead, the LP’s members wish to continue as they always have, then they should quibble and cavil and play up faults in Johnson’s record, and ensure that he is hobbled heading into the general election.

The choice is there, and with it a rare opportunity. But with things finally breaking the LP’s way, what remains to be seen is whether the party is capable of taking advantage.



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Seventh Grade Revisited

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Junior high was fun. I was not one of the beautiful people — I was a nerd. But I enjoyed being a nerd, liked my geeky friends, and relished the self-discovery of figuring out where I fitted in. And the relief of accepting where I didn’t.

Perhaps that’s a stage we mustn’t miss, however painful it can be. If we don’t go all the way through it, maybe we sort of get stuck there. And if we aren’t willing to accept what we learn about ourselves as teenagers, we may spend the rest of our lives snubbing the icky kids and angling for a seat with the cool kids in the cafeteria.

It’s also possible that nobody makes it entirely through that phase in adolescence. I must admit there were certain aspects of it I had to revisit when I was mature enough to process them as an adult. Coming out as a lesbian was something I couldn’t bring myself to do in the Anita Bryant years, while I was still in school. Coming out of yet another closet — as a libertarian — happened even later.

Libertarian philosophy is enjoying an upsurge these days. Government has become so oppressive, so menacing to nearly every aspect of our lives, that everybody not totally under the spell of statist witchery is giving it a look. That also means it is under attack from those who are under the statist spell. Now that I’m an out-and-proud libertarian, I find myself under attack from many more quarters than I ever was for being gay — especially because I refuse to stay obediently on the gay-leftist reservation.

“Eeeewww,”I often hear, “how can you associate with those libertarians? They don't care about the poor. And they don’t care about morality, either." The latter charge, of course, comes not so much from the Left as from the social Right. Both sides agree that I’ve got cooties; they merely disagree about the sort of cooties I have.

Am I a grumpy Scrooge who doesn’t care if the poor suffer? Or am I a get-naked-and-go-crazy libertine, who thinks people should copulate like bunnies under every bush? I’m not sure how I could possibly be both, as the two don’t necessarily go together according to any logical scheme. But then again, those who desperately lob every bomb they can throw at libertarians don’t seem to need no stinkin’ logic.

There are some libertarians with whom I disagree. I may think they are callous toward those less fortunate, or that they don’t care as much as they should about morality. The hostility some seem to have toward religion grates on this particular devout Episcopalian. But I don’t regard political affiliation as a social clique.

Where did so many people get the notion that they can’t associate — ever — with those with whom they sometimes disagree? That’s the way kids think, but I was under the impression that grownups eventually learned to rise above it. Who said life had to be pleasant every minute of every day, or that we’d never need to work with those we wouldn’t care to play with? I wouldn’t want to sit in the cafeteria with everybody I know. But if I share their convictions on matters of importance to us all, I am willing to work with them to make the world a better place.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend, as the saying goes. Or, as the Founder of my faith said, “Those who are not against us are for us."

Those of us who have truly graduated from junior high school understand that we can’t simply go with the flow, that however we were made, and however we got here, we do not exist merely to conform. We have voices so they can be heard. I appreciate that as a libertarian, my voice is being heard. And I appreciate all who will listen — even when they disagree.

Perhaps that’s when it matters most.




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A Costly Epiphany

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A recent article struck my eye as worthy of some comment. It is a story completely ignored in the mainstream media, but fascinating nonetheless.

It reports that Rep. John Mica (R-FL), the very congressman who authored the bill that created the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, is now having second thoughts about his creation. In fact, he now favors dismantling and even privatizing it.

Mica, who heads the House Transportation Committee, is candid in acknowledging that the TSA is now a poster child for the Law of Unintended Consequences. He notes that the agency has metastasized (as government agencies are wont to do). It went from a $2 billion to a $9 billion “enterprise.” And Mica avers with apparent astonishment, “The whole program has been hijacked by bureaucrats.”

This, of course, makes one want to ask Mica whether he can name any government program not hijacked by bureaucrats. But I digress.

Mica rates the performance of the TSA collectively as a “D-,” and calls the agency a “fiasco.” It is purely reactive, he notes. It required all of us who fly to take off our shoes after only one man (Richard Reid) tried putting bombs in his shoes. He also notes that the agents who pat us down (or in some cases feel us up) because of the underwear bomber have failed to detect any threats in ten years.

It cost $1 billion to train the TSA’s 62,000 workers. Mica says he thinks that the agency should have only about 5,000 workers, and do what he originally intended it to do: gather intelligence in order to uncover terrorist threats and inform the airlines and airports.

The article rehearses some of the more egregious incidents in the agency’s history. In 2002, when it hired 30,000 screeners, the $104 million it gave a company to train these workers ballooned to $740 million. One executive for the company was paid $5.4 million for nine months’ work. Some recruiting sessions were held at tony resorts in Colorado, Florida, and the Virgin Islands. Hundreds of thousands of bucks were splurged on valet parking, beverages, and cash withdrawals, including $2,000 for Starbucks coffee and $8,000 for elevator operators. (At least the luxury-class people conducting these sessions were big tippers.)

Add to this the fact that for years the agency failed to track lost passes and uniforms, and the fact that screeners have been arrested for stealing the jewelry, computers, cameras, cash, and credit cards of travelers, and the fact that in 2006, screeners at two of the biggest airports were unable to find 60% of the simulated bombs planted on fake travelers.

So, having learned firsthand about the Law of Unintended Consequences, Mica now believes the TSA should be privatized and focus on intelligence, not screening. It is gratifying to witness the economic education of a public servant. The pity is that his tuition cost so much of our treasure and our liberty.




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Social Security

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My father’s siblings were an eccentric bunch. Born and bred in Brooklyn, they had a very peculiar perspective on the world. None of them ever learned to drive or talked on the phone. They seldom watched TV but lived by the clock, obsessively timing their every move down to the minute — meals, drinks, constitutionals, shopping, reading, waking and sleeping. They minutely measured every quantity that affected them — the volume of their hamburgers (a 50-cent piece), the number of cans of creamed corn in the pantry (4), the size of the jigger of gin in their drinks (1 oz.), the number of daily drinks (3 — plus a Ballantine’s Ale at lunch and a 6 oz. glass of Cribari Red with dinner), the length of their walks (10 blocks), etc.

Ken, the oldest, for some unknown reason, wasn’t fond of black people. But after his wife of 35 years passed away, he married a Japanese mail order bride and adopted two Korean orphans. The gambit forever severed his relationship with his first set of offspring.

Ruth, the only sister, moved in with the other three bachelor brothers — Wallace, Arthur, and Stanley — when her marriage fell apart. Wallace, a chain-smoking aesthete, wrote volumes of poetry and literary criticism, yet never held a job — an attitude vaguely reflected in his politics: he was a progressive social democrat whose ideal society, he quietly enthused, was realized under the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. He kept a secret stash of mild pornography in his closet.

Arthur, the youngest, lived under a tiny cloud of shame no one ever alluded to. A Teamster stevedore, he’d once had one drink too many and passed out on a park bench on his way home. Other than tending the siblings’ elaborate truck garden, he never worked again. On walks to the grocery store he’d stop to turn over upside-down beetles.

Stanley, a diminutive stockbroker with coke-bottle glasses, supported the household. He and Wallace had served their country during WWII in noncombatant roles. Stanley had once been engaged, but when his fiancée broke off the engagement without an explanation, he was heartbroken and disillusioned, and always remained that way. Upon retirement, and after Ruth’s death, the remaining brothers moved to a small town in eastern Colorado, where they lived very frugally except for the weekly visit of a cleaning gal.

Stanley and I kept up a weekly correspondence, mostly a running commentary on politics and current events. One day I received a letter informing me that the cleaning lady had altered a $100 payment check to read $1,000, cashed it, and disappeared. Stanley, who budgeted their affairs down to the penny, said that the theft — along with the rampant inflation of the 1970s — had reduced their finances to below a sustainable level. Could I help them out with a monthly stipend?

It must have been a tough letter to write.

I did — and enlisted my brother and sisters in the project. When my mother found out, she complained that the uncles refused to collect their Social Security checks. It was a matter of principle to them: even though they had paid into the system, they perceived it as welfare — not something they wanted to participate in (except for Wallace, I presume, who may not have paid anything into the system). Despite all that, I never questioned their decision, and continued to send a monthly check.

When Arthur passed away, Stanley turned down my offer to visit and help out. It would, he said — in the only phone conversation I ever had with him — “disrupt their routine too much.” When Wallace died, Stanley again begged off. He died in 1995 at the age of 86.

Last month, in anticipation of turning 62 before the year’s end, I visited my local Social Security office to help determine whether it was better to collect early benefits or wait until I turned 65. Unlike my uncles, I have no qualms about collecting from a system that I’m forced to pay into. I passed a security check, took a number, and patiently waited my turn. When it came, I got a totally unexpected surprise, untempered by any introductory foreplay: I was told that unless I paid another 20 quarters worth of taxes into the system, I would not qualify for any Social Security benefits.

Now, I’ve worked all my life (and continue to do so), and have always paid all my taxes assiduously (though not all of my income was subject to Social Security taxes). I've paid nearly $17,000 into the “compact between generations” (as the Social Security Administration phrases it). I figured my “investment” would be worth at least $80 a month. In spite of knowing that government programs never live up to their promise, I’d never considered that I would be outside the receiving end of Social Security benefits.

What might I have done with those $17,000 I’d paid in over the years? Or with the thousands in stipends I sent my uncles in lieu of their Social Security checks?

Who knows? But I am certain of one thing: I will not throw good money after bad.




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Invoking TR

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Simple facts.

In 1910, Theodore Roosevelt went to Kansas and made one of his “square deal” speeches, promising to give the little guy a fair shake. The same theme had inspired much of his popularity as president during the preceding decade.

In 2011 Barack Obama went to Kansas and invoked Roosevelt in a speech promoting higher taxes on wealthy folks to pay for more government spending on education and “infrastructure.” He too called for a square deal, but with less colorful language. He preferred the word “fair,” as in "pay your fair share."

After Teddy had provided a “square deal” for seven years, federal spending as a percentage of GDP was under 10%.

After Barack had provided his for three years, federal government spending as a percentage of GDP was about 40%.

Couldn’t we just settle for more than twice the fairness that Teddy demanded, by cutting the government in half?




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Waste Not

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In Japan, you discover ways of economizing that are entirely different from ours. Tokyo is one of the largest cities in the world, but in this place, unlike Hong Kong, the people do not all live in apartments. Most of Tokyo is a sea of single-family houses — and different houses, each one individual. The Japanese manage this by cramming them together, with no yard to speak of. They will often have a place to shoehorn a car, and always right at the edge of the property. They don’t waste real estate on driveways, at least not where I was.

The streets, too, save space. Where I stayed in the suburb of Kichijoji, there were no shoulders and no parking on the street. The arterials had sidewalks separated from the road by a railing. The side streets had no sidewalks and no lawns — just streets and houses, crammed tight. But if the alternative is to have a cave in the sky with lots of open space below, the Tokyo way is certainly more comfortable for an individualist.

I had a question, though: If you have a party, where do the guests park their cars? I forgot to ask my host and never did figure it out. In Hong Kong, where people live in tiny apartments, if you want a big party, you rent a room at a hotel.

Across the street from the house where my family and I stayed was a city park where people picnicked and walked their dogs. It was big. In the midst of it my host pointed out a fenced-off area about the size of a family garden back in the States. There was no garden in this enclave; it was unkempt. But it was private. In Japan, my host explained, private owners can’t be compelled to sell, so the property sits there, in this case unused.

The Japanese are big on recycling. My host has several rooms full of stuff he’d like to get rid of, and there is no easy way to do it. “You can’t just take it to the dump,” he said. Sometimes he sneaks stuff into the dumpsters in the park across the street.

In this park, however, I saw no trash cans other than the dumpsters at the food concession. In my short time in Japan, I was constantly looking for a trash can. They were not to be had — yet the Japanese do not throw garbage on the ground. What do they do with it? Do they carry it with them? Did the people I passed on the street have a stash of crumpled-up wrappers in their purses and pockets?

The Japanese are also fastidious about their dogs. I thought we had reached the apex of fastidiousness in Seattle, where dog owners pick up their pets’ poops from the ground by reaching for it through a plastic bag. In the park in Japan, I saw a woman do one better. She was holding a plastic bag under her dog in anticipation.




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A Living Wage?

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Ever since Fidel Castro’s retirement from all official positions of power in Cuba in 2008, and his brother Raul’s accession to the presidency, the island and its concerned neighbors, trading partners, assorted NGOs, and inquiring observers have been atwitter with the possibility of “hope and change” erupting.

Throughout this period, dominated by much informed speculation about the course of future events but overshadowed by the ever-present ball-and-chain of the still-living Fidel — the "conscience" of the Revolution — I have tried to separate the wheat from the chaff for Liberty’s readers. The winnowing has included accounts of the official transfer of power, the character of Raúl (according to his sister’s memoir), quotidian life on the island, the role of corruption, evolving US policy, and even Fidel’s admission, in a Gramma editorial, that yes, mistakes had been made.

But the big news has always been the projected microeconomic reforms and the ministerial-level reforms where grandiose plans for investments through joint venture agreements between foreign corporations and the regime are being concocted.

Well, Gallus economicus is slowly slouching homeward, with an eye to roosting.

Self-employment in over 180 professions is now legal — though with some restrictions and paperwork. Last month, the buying and selling of homes and cars also became legal (as per above). The biggest splash is being made by the 3,000 executives from over 60 countries, prospective joint commercial enterprisers, at Havana’s annual trade fair last month. But that splash has overflown the verge of the little pool and is soaking an awful lot of people.

According to The Economist, several foreign managers have been arrested and three joint ventures have been closed. One British and two Canadian executives have been held for questioning without charge, the former for over one month and the other two for several months. “Perhaps,” the article speculates, “because some of these steps are controversial, he [Raúl] is also cracking down on corruption, which the cash-strapped state can no longer afford to fund.” Since the government never set up tender guidelines for its corporate partners, kickbacks for contracts are rife. But rumors of the allegations extend way beyond bribery and push the definition of "corruption" into territory it is only now exploring.

In an era when foreign corporate investment in third world countries is subject to the scrutiny of such fuzzy concepts as “a living wage” and “social justice,” used to criticize pay scales based on local customs (pay scales that often provide income for people who might not otherwise be employed, that are perfectly legal and welcome, and that produce a product affordable to a wider audience), Cuba is adding a new and thought-provoking twist to the debate.

Some of Cuba’s new foreign venture partners, in an effort to attract dedicated employees and avoid meddling outside criticism, are sweetening employee contracts with bonuses and perks, such as extra-tasty lunches. Unfortunately, the Cuban government requires firms to hire workers through a state employment agency that pays meager salaries. Any remuneration above state mandated levels is considered corrupt. Some of the foreign managers’ arrests and joint venture closures, according to the rumored allegations, are attributed to the "overcompensation" of employees.

If you truly want to help the poorest coffee growers, stick with the “exploitation coffee.”

But the door swings both ways. Cuba’s comptroller general has had dozens of employees in the sugar, mining, telecom, and tobacco industries jailed for graft. For Castro, developed world market wages are a step too far. One European businessman, who pays bonuses to his entire local staff under the table, says, “My people help run a business which brings in millions of dollars to Cuba. I need to pay them a salary which is rather more than the price of a taxi ride home.”

Aside from the health consequences of exercise vs. smoking, which is the greater evil: Nike's legal and welcome $1.25-a-day Indonesian wage to sub-adult employees for the manufacture of athletic shoes, or another international corporation’s illegal and prosecuted near-first-world compensation to Cuban tobacco workers?

One irony is that the debate about "sweatshop" economics has mostly been settled. Even Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman states in a 1997 article for Slate that “as manufacturing grows in poor countries, it creates a ripple effect that benefits ordinary people. ‘The pressure on the land becomes less intense, so rural wages rise; the pool of unemployed urban dwellers always anxious for work shrinks, so factories start to compete with each other for workers, and urban wages also begin to rise.' In time average wages creep up to a level comparable to minimum-wage jobs in the United States.” Similarly, economist Jeffrey Sachs said, "My concern is not that there are too many sweatshops, but that there are too few."

More controversially, Tyler Cowen, in Discover Your Inner Economist, tackles “fair trade” goods:

“Fair trade (coffee) sells a premium product at a premium price, under the premise that the workers are treated better and paid more. It sounds so nice. But will those purchases benefit the poor?

“It depends. How about a product called “exploitation coffee”? You pay less, and they promise to treat the workers especially poorly. That wording is a less effective marketing ploy, but that is what the concept of fair trade boils down to. Whether we upgrade one option or downgrade the other is just semantics. We can either have two classes of coffee (and workers), or one class of coffee and workers. Splitting up the market into classes is good for the workers at the higher end, but it does not always help workers at the lower end. In fact it may hurt them. The jury remains out on this idea.”

My idea is, if you truly want to help the poorest coffee growers, stick with the “exploitation coffee” (without promising to treat them "especially poorly"). The more you buy, the more they earn. The greater the demand, the higher the price will rise and the better off they’ll become.

But the biggest irony in the Cuban government’s wage depression and generosity prosecution is its complete obliviousness to basic and current economic theory. It is truly pushing the dismal science’s frontiers into terrain that no one has ever explored before.




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The Golden Years Really Are Golden

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A recent AP story caught my eye, since it bears upon an issue on which I have oft written — the coming pension tsunami, caused by the retirement of us Infamous Boomers.

It tells the news about the wealth gap between the Old and the Young. The gap is now the widest in American history. Despite occasional lurid stories about a grandmother eating cat food shortly before being wheeled off a cliff, the wealth gap favors . . . the old!

And the gap is enormous. Census data reveal that households headed by someone 65 or older have an average net worth 47 times greater than that of households headed by someone under 35. The median net worth of households headed by a person 65 or older is about $170,000, compared to a pathetic $3,662 of those headed by someone 34 or younger.

Moreover, the gap continues to widen. It has doubled over the past six years, and has increased fivefold during the past 25 years — even after adjustments are made for inflation. Astonishing, no?

There are a number of reasons for the declining relative fortunes of the young. One is that the Obama recession has totally creamed the young, especially young men. It is not for nothing that this has been called the “he-cession.” Besides that reason (though related to it), is the fact that young people are taking longer and accumulating more debt to get their degrees. And of course others are still paying mortgages on homes that have fallen disastrously in value.

The disparity is bleak, and in a way — considering all the granny-eating-cat-food propaganda — ironic. But the trend is decidedly the friend of the elderly: over the past quarter century, the wealth of households headed by the elderly rose by a whopping 42%, while the wealth of households headed by the young (under 35) declined by a dizzying 68%.

As if that weren’t bad enough, 37% of households headed by the young have a zero or even negative net worth! That is an increase of over 100% since 1984 (when the census first started keeping track of this happy stuff), and it is massive compared to the only 8% of elderly-headed households so cursed. And the median income of elderly-headed households has grown at a rate 400% greater than that for younger-headed households.

Net worth is here defined just as you would expect: by adding the value of homes, personal possessions, stacks, bonds, savings, and other property (such as cars, boats, and vacation properties), and subtracting credit card, auto, home, student loan, and other debts.

Now, how does the AARP — those redistributionist pirates who are always so intent on transferring assets from the young to the elderly — respond to the news that the 47 to 1 gap in net worth favoring the elderly is the highest in history? Of course, it greets it with greedy denial.

One Nancy Holland, a propagandist — pardon me, an executive vice-president — of the AARP puts it in the typical AARP spit-in-your-face-avariciously-aggressive fashion: “Millions of older Americans today continue to struggle to make ends meet. Many older Americans do own their homes, but plummeting housing values — along with dwindling savings, stagnant pensions, and prolonged periods of unemployment — have taken their toll.”

In short, screw the young people. As if their own homes and savings hadn’t been hard by this progressive liberal recession. As if they too hadn’t suffered unemployment. As if they had freaking pensions to rely on!

Our country is, alas, headed into the fiscal dustbin of history. Its aggregate national debt is approaching the dimensions of Greek tragedy, if not of Greece itself. But the AARP continues to wage a jihad against all entitlement program reforms. Future historians — if there are any who aren’t progressive liberals, hence wedded to the ideology of the redistributionist state — will record with incredulity the bizarre structure of a politico-economic system that in defiance of biological reality systematically starved the young to glut the old.

Maybe we need ads showing the grandkids eating cat food as they are pushed from a cliff.




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