Saturday, May 12, 2012

Book Learning - Oakeshott (and Andrew Sullivan) in Tyranny of Cliches

“The young architects and artists who came to the Bauhaus to live and study and learn from the Silver Prince [Walter Gropius] talked about ‘starting from zero.’  One heard the phrase all the time: ‘starting from zero.’’ -Tom Wolfe, From Bauhaus to Our House

“The Declaration [of Independence] in both form and substance, has the virtues (and great virtues they are) of simplicity, clarity, logical order: the thought no less than the style is characterized by a ‘peculiar felicity.’  But the Declaration in both substance and form has perhaps a little too much felicity—that is its essential defect; and if the style is always a bit fragile, and sometimes in danger of becoming precious, is it not because the thought is a bit fragile also, too easily satisfied with what is open and visible, and therefore lacking in depth and subtlety, ignoring all that must be ignored if the life of man is to be understood and described , even with the felicity of genius, at the level of common sense?” -Carl Becker, The Declaration of Independence

In his new book, The Tyranny of Cliches, Jonah Goldberg in discussing ideology and book learning brings up Andrew Sullivan quoting with approval from Michael Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics the following:

Duke Huan of Ch’i was reading a book at the upper end of the hall; the wheelwright was making a wheel at the lower end.  Putting aside his mallet and chisel; he called to the Duke and asked him what book he was reading.  ‘One that records the words of the Sages,’ answered the Duke.  ‘Are those Sages alive?’ asked the wheelwright.  ‘Oh no,’ said the Duke, ‘they are dead.’  In that case, said the wheelwright, ‘what you are reading can be nothing but the lees and scum of bygone men.’…’Speaking as wheelwright I look at the matter this way; when I make a wheel, if my stroke is too slow, then it bites deep but is not steady; if my stroke is too fast, then it is steady, but it does not go deep.  The right pace, neither slow nor fast, cannot get into the hand unless it comes from the heart.  It is a thing that cannot be put into words; there is an art in it that I cannot explain to my son….In my opinion it must have been the same with the men of old.  All that was worth handing on, died with them; the rest they put into books.’”

Goldberg notes the absurdity of blogger Sullivan in a book, taking a quote from a book, recounting a tale from a book/scroll that opines that books are worthless.  Goldberg’s target here is Andrew Sullivan, and he does make a slight distinction between Sullivan and Oakeshott, but a reader might be excused for asking of Oakeshott as much as Sullivan, what in the wide wide world of sports is a goin’ on here?

The first thing I would note is that the above quote appears as a footnote rather than in the body of Oakeshott’s essay, and I read it as vivid myth rather than literally.  It is intended as an exaggerated example of the essay’s thesis and the obvious question is, what is that thesis.

The quote appears in the title essay of the book in which Oakeshott argues that rationalism has become the dominant  intellectual fashion in politics and that this is regrettable.  For Oakeshott the rationalist is: “for independence of mind on all occasions, for thought free from obligation to any authority save the authority of ‘reason.’  His circumstances in the modern world have made him contentious: he is the enemy of authority, of prejudice, of the merely traditional, customary or habitual…he has no aptitude for that close and detailed appreciation of what actually presents itself, what Lichtenberg called negative enthusiasm, but only the power of recognizing the large outline which a general theory imposes on events.  Already we are some way to understanding the context not only of the quote but also how Oakeshott defined ideology (a normative understanding of politics achieved through ‘reason’ which because distilled is necessarily abstract) and why he objected to it.

For the Rationalist, political conduct takes on the character of engineering.  It is the application of a technique to solve a series of problems (the alleged pragmatism and emphasis on what works that Goldberg discusses is clearly evident here).  And what supports rationalism is a theory of knowledge.

Oakeshott contends that any activity requiring skill of any sort involves knowledge of two types.  The first is technical knowledge, and a characteristic of technical knowledge is that it can be precisely formulated and thus can be transmitted through books.  The second is practical knowledge, which exists only in use.  In a practical art, such as cookery, nobody supposes that the knowledge that belongs to the good cook is confined to what is or may be written down in the cookery book: technique and what I have called practical knowledge combine to make skill in cookery wherever it exists…And what is true of cookery, of painting, of natural science and religion, is no less true in politics: the knowledge involved in political activity is both technical and practical.”  Oakeshott goes on to state that “there is no knowledge which is notknow how.’  And he then argues that to the Rationalist all knowledge is technical knowledge.  The sovereignty of ‘reason’ for the Rationalist, means the sovereignty of technique.”

To Oakeshott, the Rationalist views all knowledge as technical, “which can be wholly contained between the covers of a book”…and “the superiority of an ideology over a tradition of thought lies in its appearance of being self-contained.”  As example of this cast of mind besides Descartes, Oakeshott points to Bacon (hmmmm bacon!) and the Novum Organum: “’there remains,’ says Bacon, ‘but one course for the recovery of a sound and healthy condition—namely that the entire work of understanding be commenced afresh, and the mind itself be from the very outset not left to take its own course but guided at every step.’”

There is another footnote in the same essay which is less dramatic than the tale of the wheelwright but more closely aligned with the argument of the essay:

The authors of one such book, A Guide to the Classics, or How to Pick the Derby Winner, aware of the difference between technical and practical knowledge were at pains to point out that there was some limit beyond which there were no precise rules for picking the winner, and that some intelligence (not supplied by the rules themselves) was necessary.”

In its context then, it seems clear that Oakeshott’s apparent contradictory skepticism towards book knowledge is nothing of the sort.  As to Sullivan, I think a stronger argument is that for all his claims of being a follower of Oakeshott, none of it seems to have made a true impression on his mind.  Sullivan broke with conservatives over gay marriage.  Having put the issue of gay marriage before his reason, he seems to have concluded that for conservatives to oppose it they must be bigots, theocrats, or both, never mind the hundreds of years tradition of defining marriage as exclusively between a man and a woman.  And for Sullivan there was no waiting, no getting there by degrees, it should be instituted at once.  But then as Oakeshott observed, a characteristic of the Rationalist is to see “politics as the crow flies.” And one more thing, one of the authors of that book on picking derby winners, a philosophy professor, last name Oakeshott.

Tyranny of Cliches :

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

James Q Wilson

A profile of James Q Wilson at The New Criterion

James Q Wilson, #3, Division and New Politics

“We would certainly tolerate no different system [democracy] in our own states.  Yet most people are disenchanted with the way it works.  One reason is that our rulers now manage so much of our lives that they cannot help but do it badly.  They have overreached themselves.”

Kenneth Minogue, The Servile Mind

To some people government appears as a vast reservoir of power which inspires them to dream of what use might be made of it.  They have favorite projects, of various dimensions, which they sincerely believe are for the benefit of mankind, and to capture this source of power, if necessary to increase it, and to use it for imposing their favorite projects upon their fellows is what they understand as the adventure of governing men.  They are, thus, disposed to recognize government as an instrument of passion; the art of politics is to inflame and direct desire…..

The man of [conservative] disposition understands it to be the business of a government not to inflame passion and give it new objects to feed upon, but to inject into the activities of already too passionate men an ingredient of moderation; to restrain, to deflate, to pacify and to reconcile; not to stoke the fires of desire, but to damp them down.”

Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics, On Being Conservative

It is curious to me that in James Q. Wilson’s examination of increasing division in American politics and culture  he no more than touches on, if that, his earlier essay American Politics, Then and Now.   The two are clearly connected or to be more specific increased polarization is almost inevitable after the change in politics which Wilson describes.

To repeat, Wilson identifies the causes of increasing polarization in political parties realigned ideologically, in the change from mass media to more niche focused coverage, and in the replacement of material/economic type interest groups by moral/ethical issue groups.  That is fine, so far as it goes but incomplete.  In the first post, I pointed out that he left out the clear break in ideology that took place in the sixties.  But Wilson’s description of the change in how the political system operates is at least an equal contributor to division.

It is difficult to see how an all encompassing federal government can lead to anything other than division and polarization, never mind one which operates without the implicit restraint of a “concurrent majority.”  This is particularly true if that style of politics is new rather than how it’s always been.  As the two quotes that open this post suggest, increased division is baked into the cake of the new politics that Wilson describes, i.e the politics of liberal-progressivism.

James Q Wilson, #2, American politics, then and now

The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, is 2,700 pages long, has a significant impact on healthcare variously estimated to constitute one sixth the U.S. economy, passed both the House and Senate on pure party lines, and is to this day unpopular in public opinion surveys.

In the title essay, American Politics: Then and Now, James Q. Wilson describes a transformational change in how our political system operates from an earlier era.  That earlier era is for Wilson best described by John Fisher’s 1948 essay which states that the unwritten rule of American politics is the concurrent majority.  “No important decision would be reached without the concurrence of each interest vitally affected by that decision.”  Put another way, it is Madisonian; liberty preserved by faction restraining and or combating faction.

In Wilson’s description the politics of a concurrent majority was the result of a number of system attributes.  First, there was a high relative cost to using the political system as against the private sector to get what you wanted.  Access to political influence was difficult and the inclination of political actors was in the direction of saying no, rather than change.  Political parties were strong and dominated by party bosses, congressional action was in the hands of senior committee men--quite often conservative southerners-- and the committees operated behind closed doors.  The relevant interest groups were large, economic interests.  Above all was the restraining question of whether the question or proposed reform was a proper matter for the federal government. 

Until rather recently, the chief issue in any congressional argument over new policies was whether it was legitimate for the federal government to do anything at all.  That was the crux of the dispute over Social Security, welfare, Medicare, civil rights, selective service, foreign aid, international alliances, price and wage controls, economic regulation, and countless other departures from the past.”

As described by Wilson the current system operates very different.  Of most importance, the barrier as to whether something is properly a federal concern is no more.  Once the initial law is passed, the issue of legitimacy disappears, and except in those few cases where the Supreme Court later holds the law unconstitutional, does not reemerge.”  Additionally, political parties are far weaker with stronger, more secure, more independent, politicians.  The legislative process is more open.  The handful of large, economic interest blocs are severely weakened and joined by numerous single issue constituencies and advocacy groups in favor of extending already passed initiatives.

The result is a politics that is far more ideological.  It is a politics with the attributes of “a human crowd—to move either very sluggishly or with extreme speed.”  Wilson notes that in such a political system “a highly influential group is the ‘New Class’ those with high levels of education and professional occupations.”  They are able to craft and promote ideas, to move the system from sluggishness to speed.  And here again, one notes the power of Michael Oakeshott’s description of rationalism in politics.  In that essay Oakeshott described it as “the politics of the felt need” and his description of the rationalist as someone who “who doubts everything but his own reason” is an accurate description of the “New Class.”

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

More on constitutional law and slippery slope arguments

I posted earlier on Prof. Thaler’s point dismissing slippery slope arguments, and brought up the story of successive changes in the recipe for cookies.  A recent post on Commentary includes this quote from Justice Antonin Scalia:

“If you … read a brief filed in a constitutional law case, you will rarely find the discussion addressed to the text of the constitutional provision that is at issue, or to the question of what was the originally understood or even the originally intended meaning of that text. The starting point of the analysis will be Supreme Court cases, and the new issue will presumptively be decided according to the logic that those cases expressed, with no regard for how far that logic, thus extended, has distanced us from the original text and understanding.” [my emphasis]

Saturday, March 31, 2012

More Steyn

It seems I jumped the gun on the Steyn article as I posted a section before going to the second page.  While reading this, I was nodding so vigorously my neck was in danger of snapping:

"A 2,700-page law is not a “law” by any civilized understanding of the term. Law rests on the principle of equality before it. When a bill is 2,700 pages, there’s no equality: Instead, there’s a hierarchy of privilege micro-regulated by an unelected, unaccountable, unconstrained, unknown, and unnumbered bureaucracy. It’s not just that the legislators who legislate it don’t know what’s in it, nor that the citizens on the receiving end can never hope to understand it, but that even the nation’s most eminent judges acknowledge that it is beyond individual human comprehension. A 2,700-page law is, by definition, an affront to self-government."

Couldn't agree more.  I'd only add that the writing of such a law, the attempt to address a complicated problem in so comprehensive a fashion, is a great example of Oakeshott's rationalism in politics, of which a characteristic was "politics as the crow flies."

We're so much smarter now

Mark Steyn has a column on Justice Kennedy ("The Sultan of Swing") and this week's oral arguments on Obamacare.  I liked this:

"The United States is the only Western nation in which our rulers invoke the Constitution for the purpose of overriding it — or, at any rate, torturing its language beyond repair. Thus, in this week’s debate on whether Obamacare is merely the latest harmless evolution of the interstate-commerce clause, the most learned and highly remunerated jurists in the land chewed over the matter of whether a person, simply by virtue of being born, was participating in a “market.” Had George III shown up at the Constitutional Convention to advance that argument with a straight face, the framers would have tossed aside the quill feathers and reached for their muskets."

James Q Wilson, #1, How Divided are We

The recent passing of the renowned social/political scientist James Q. Wilson propelled me to read a collection of his essays, most of which originally appeared in the journals, Commentary and The Public Interest.

Two of the most interesting of the essays can I think be taken together.  The first, is How Divided are We, published in 2006.  Wilson’s answer is very.  He defines the divide in a couple of ways, first as polarization, meaning:

an intense commitment to a candidate, a culture, or an ideology that sets people in one group definitively apart from  people in another, rival group.  Such a condition is revealed when a candidate for public office is regarded by a competitor and his supporters not simply as wrong but corrupt or wicked; when one way of thinking is about the world is assumed to be morally superior to any other way; when one set of political beliefs  is considered to be entirely correct and a rival set wholly wrong.”

And at least as a component piece of this polarization, a cultural war, defined by James Davidson Hunter as “political and social hostility rooted in different systems of moral understanding” and which can involve “fundamental ideas about who we are as Americans.”

Wilson cites a number of poll results to support the notion that polarization is indeed real and growing in America.  For example, the difference between the Democrat and Republican support for the war in Iraq is much greater than it was in regard to the Korean and Vietnam wars (see end note).  Similarly the party split in approval for Presidents has been increasing.  Most interesting he finds that some of the divide is driven by political elites with informed voters taking their cue from the party position.  Thus, while support for involving ourselves in Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait was pretty similar in both parties immediately after the event, after Bush I came out in favor and the Democrats opposed his position, the opinions of the wider population of Republicans and Democrats increasingly diverged.

Professor Wilson points to three main causes for this increase in division.  First, the parties have realigned on ideological grounds.  The most obvious example being the old, conservative dixiecrats have moved from being Democrats to Republicans.  Second, the proliferation of news media has transformed its presentation from being a largely centrist search for the large middle (nightly news in the era of three channels, a half hour at night), to a more adversarial, niche competition (Fox, MSNBC).  And third, where the important interest groups (unions, chamber of commerce) were once concerned with material concerns where compromise is relatively easy, today’s predominant interest groups are focused on moral and social issues where compromise is much more difficult.  Finally, while Wilson doesn’t single it out, he does note that polarization is highly correlated with educational attainment, college educated differ from those who aren’t degreed and those with post-graduate degrees are even more sharply distinguished from the rest of the population.

While not disagreeing with Professor Wilson, I think his analysis leaves something out which can perhaps be divined by considering the examples he gives of comparable division in America.  He cites 1800 “when pro-British, pro-commerce New Englanders supported John Adams, while pro-French, pro-agriculture southerners backed Thomas Jefferson.”  And his other example is the period leading up to the Civil War.  In short, what is missing from this essay is an emphasis on the importance of ideas in general, and more specifically the intellectual changes emanating from the sixties. 

Wilson’s three causes aren’t wrong, but I think they leave out a prior cause; that the sixties represented a clear ideological break with America’s past.  The polarization which we observe, and Wilson points to, is the public separating into two relatively distinctive camps centered around their approval or disapproval of the change in what it meant or should mean to be an American and so much else.  The numbers which Wilson cites are a measure of time, the emergence of a second and third generation of sixties radical progeny, and their movement from youthful outsiders to elder statesmen, institutional leaders.  Absent “the sixties” there would be polarization, probably more than what America is used to, but the extent of our current divide is because the sixties did happen and the change in thought it engendered is real and significant.

NOTE:  I’m not sure the comparison of Iraq support by party to the Korean and Vietnam Wars is entirely convincing as evidence of division.  If democrats are inclined towards being doves and republicans hawks, and there is a group/party dynamic then wars started by democrats should show less of a party line division than wars begun by republicans.  In essence, the Nixon to China principle.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Behaviorial economist and tendentious arguments in support of Obamacare

In an earlier post I told the story of a company which made cookies and after awhile tested a cost reduced recipe against their current, successful cookie.  Testers couldn’t tell the difference so they switched to the cheaper formula.  A year or so later, they repeated the test with a further cost reduced version with the same result.  This went on for a number of years until sales started to decline significantly.  Struggling to find an answer they finally tested their current cookie against the original version and discovered that the original tasted much better.  The incremental changes had been too small to notice but the cumulative change was very noticeable.

Which brings be to a tweet from Obama supporter, co-author of Nudge along with Cass Sunstein, the noted behavioral economist Richard Thaler in the aftermath of yesterday’s Supreme Court hearings:
Talk of mandated broccoli and cell phones illustrates a general rule: ALL SLIPPERY SLOPE ARGUMENTS ARE STUPID. No evidence slope is positive.”
In context, one has to ask what in the wide, wide world of sports is he talking about.  Thaler is a very smart guy so he must know that the constitutional question in regard to the individual mandate is whether it extends the commerce clause in a new way, and if the mandate is accepted, is their any limiting constitutional principle that would allow the mandate to be accepted without it being extended. 
How could be extended?  The economic historian John Steele Gordon suggests one possibility:
Or how about this for a scenario. Treasury securities circulate in interstate commerce, being bought and sold by the millions every workday. So, could Congress mandate that individuals purchase treasury bonds, bills, and notes, perhaps requiring that a certain portion of 401(k)s and IRA’s be invested in treasuries? That, of course, would be tantamount to a “forced loan.”  The Romans used that technique to help finance the Punic Wars. But when King Charles I tried it early in his reign it led directly to the Petition of Right of 1628, one of the fundamental documents that make up the British Constitution and deeply influenced our own. Indeed the Third, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Amendments of the Bill of Rights derive directly from it. The U. S. Constitution does not, however, expressly forbid forced loans.”

According to Thaler, this is stupid. 

I am of course no more a constitutional lawyer than Prof. Thaler, but it strikes me that his ruling out any speculation of where a legal decision might lead is to entirely miss how the law works.  This is the after all the Supreme Court.  Contra Thaler, to speculate on how a ruling in a particular constitutional case might be interpreted in the future strikes me as not only allowed but required.  And by making his argument in a case involving the commerce clause, is a particularly unfortunate for Mr. Thaler, as many already consider the clause to have been so brazenly extended in prior rulings as to be all but unrecognizable.

But again we are dealing with the liberal mind, and any form of reasoning which might restrict what liberals want to do is of course stupid.  Had we been talking about a free speech issue (we can’t ban porn because it will lead to great works like of literature like Lolita being banned) or the establishment clause, then I seriously doubt whether Prof. Thaler’s first thought would be that arguing by extension is stupid.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Illinois primary; the view from Old Town/Lincoln Park

The Illinois primary is today and so I made my small contribution to the selection of a Republican candidate.  In terms of enthusiasm I can say that voting today was in no way the same as my first vote, which was for Ronnie in the ’80 presidential election.  The polling place for me is the adjacent building—the perks of living downtown—or about the outer limit of my civic spirit for this race.

A couple of notes:

Romney ads started to appear about two weeks ago and in all I’d guess I saw about a dozen of them.   With one exception the same ad was run, essentially attacking Santorum for being a Washington insider and drawing a contrast between Santorum voting five times to raise the debt limit, while Mitt was saving the Olympics.  If the other candidates ran any ads here I didn’t see them, so obvious advantage to Romney.  But if you found the Romney ads the least bit persuasive I’d suggest you shouldn’t be allowed to vote.

Just to elaborate a bit on the above, I discovered in 2010 that the targeting of ads in this market (Chicago) is incredibly precise.  In that election cycle I saw only ads for the reps running in my particular district even though Chicago is comprised of numerous congressional districts.  So no Santorum ads here doesn’t mean that he didn’t run any in other areas of the state.  Why he didn’t run them in Chicago is perhaps due to…

…his not really being on the ballot.   For reasons that escape me, the ballot here had a first section with the candidates, then a section of delegates tied to the respective candidates, then another section of alternate candidates ties to the candidates.  Inevitably the first, direct votes for the candidates, will get the bulk of the coverage, but it’s the selection of delegates in second section that matters (you were allowed to vote for “up to three” from the list).  And in my district, Santorum hadn’t filed so that other than the popular vote, he wasn’t on the ballot.  For what it’s worth, I had no idea how this worked when I voted which could be taken as a) an indication of a bad voting process, certainly a failure in voter education, and  or b) another sign that my interest in politics has never run very strongly into the practical side of things.

Finally there were numerous local races but this being Chicago, and the ballot I was working from was Republican the predominance of "no candidate" made short work of that part of the ballot.  Fortunately the city is so well run and represented by the Democrats here that there is no need to have Republicans running.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The President and gas prices, on the same page as Krauthammer

In his column today, Charles Krauthammer touches on the some of the same points I made in my post yesterday, starting with:

"Yes, of course, presidents have no direct control over gas prices. But the American people know something about this president and his disdain for oil. The “fuel of the past,” he contemptuously calls it. To the American worker who doesn’t commute by government motorcade and is getting fleeced every week at the pump, oil seems very much a fuel of the present — and of the foreseeable future."

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Gas prices, Barack and Bush, the differences are important

On the Fox Special Report panel tonight Kirsten Powers made the argument that Republicans were guilty of hypocrisy for blaming the President for high gas prices since the last time they spiked under Bush Republicans argued that the president could do little in the short run to change gas prices.  In politics a charge of hypocrisy is never without some merit, but in this case to rest on claims of hypocrisy leaves a great deal of import out.

First, one should note that Powers has framed the argument in terms that support her point.  If we are talking about just what a president can do in the short term then there is merit in claiming blaming Barack for not immediately doing something to bring gas prices down is unfair.  But that isn’t the whole of it by any means.  To wit:

1)      Barack Obama isn’t just president he is the leader of the Democratic Party, the liberal-progressive party in US politics.  It is undeniable that the Democratic Party has been for decades at best ambivalent and at worst hostile to the production of traditional energy sources like gas, oil, and coal, favoring instead conservation and the development of “green” energy.  You cannot take that politic position for long periods of time and then be blameless when the price of gas goes up, price being inextricably tied to supply.

2)      If drop in approval or blame is looked at from a longer perspective the hypocrisy recedes.  Bush after all was an oil man; he wasn’t opposed to the production of more gas and oil and neither was the political party he represented.  Can anyone see Obama involved in an energy company except a Solyndra?   

More to the point, the current high price suggests repeated occurrences in the future.  Which party do you think is more likely to make sure the problem doesn’t continue to pop up with greater frequency and severity, the party opposed to ANWR, and which has held up the Keystone pipeline “for more study” or the opposition?

3)      Finally, it’s a bit rich for the Democratic Party and liberals to suggest that government can’t really do much so don’t blame us.  This is the Democratic Party for which the animating idea has been, at least during my lifetime, that government not only can but must step in to address any problem however small.  Such modesty on the part of liberals is a good clue that the problem in question has liberal fingerprints.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

More on the Fed

Way back in August,  I posted something on Federal Reserve policy, suggesting that what was missing from the discussion of Fed policy was the importance of velocity.  Critics of Bernanke’s easing seemed to be arguing that any increase in the money supply would lead to inflation, but that isn’t the case if the velocity of money decreases and it seemed to me very likely that the velocity of money had declined.

Along similar lines is this article on the misuse of Milton Friedman:

UPDATE:  There is a related post on the Powerline website.  It includes this from a reader:

"Yes, base money has been cranked up from ~$800B to about $2.8T. But the velocity has crashed so hard (and with it, the multiplier) that M2 hasn’t really shown a hiccup at all."

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

NCAA tournament, what to watch for

A few years ago Gregg Easterbrook in his Tuesday Morning Quarterback column suggested that the area that NFL teams got wrong most consistently was that they punted too often.  In a similar vein I’ve been watching college basketball for years convinced that the way coaches handle players in foul trouble is horrifically misguided.  Indeed, just by observation you would think a fifth foul doesn’t eliminate the player who commits it but leads to an automatic forfeiture of the game. 

I will concede that not having your better players available at the end of the game is a significant penalty and that the last few minutes of a game have a higher value than the other minutes.  But I’m convinced that coaches lose more time for their players by trying to keep them from fouling than they would give up if they just let them play.  Current coaching practice seems to be that a player sits after his second foul in the first for the remainder of the half, they may get benched again if they pick up a third foul at the beginning of the second half, and unquestionably they will be taken out after their fourth foul, usually until the last few minutes of the game.

If this year is like past years, you are very likely to watch a NCAA tournament game where a team with the lead, loses that lead because their best player is on the bench so that he doesn’t foul out of the game.  Compounding the mistake, the team(s) that lose this way will often be heavy underdogs where you would think to win they should be taking more not less chances.

Following this cautious strategy makes even less sense for established teams during the regular season.  The penalty for losing a game or two just isn’t that great anymore.  So why not prepare for the tournament?  Why not have players learn how to play through foul trouble, and if they do foul out, have your team learn how to cope without them?

In any event that’s what I’ll be paying attention to during the tournament.  You watch, some team will lose because their coach had a key player riding the pines so that he didn’t foul out.  As currently coached, college teams impose a greater penalty on themselves for fouls than the officials.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

College basketball; why I hate the conference tournaments

I believe the only conference which doesn’t have a tournament to conclude its season is the Ivy League. Having a tournament is fine but that the automatic bids to the NCAA tournament go to the tournament rather than regular season champion is an assault on reason. 

Of course for teams in the bigger conferences it doesn’t make any difference.  But for the so called mid-majors this is a big deal, and something of an outrage.  Every year teams win their conferences by compiling an excellent record over months only to lose out on an NCAA bid because they lose a game in a conference tournament.  How does winning 3 or 4 games in a row over as many days constitute a better selection process than who won the most games over a couple of months?  Why should the ultimate reward for the participants go to the former rather than latter team?

Thus, the just completed Sun Belt tournament was won by Western Kentucky who will now get to participate in March Madness.  In conference play the Hilltoppers won 7 and lost 9.  The team that won the conference was Middle Tennessee with a record of 14 and 2.  But they had a bad night and lost in the conference tournament so they go home.  How does that make sense?

So why conference tournaments, and why use them to select the automatic bid?  Some part perhaps is attributable to keeping hope alive, and giving everyone a chance.  But surely the main reason must be money.  A conference tournament produces ticket sales and television coverage.  It’s unlikely that the television money would be there if the tournament didn’t determine the bid to the NCAA tournament.  It’s almost enough to make you hate capitalism.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Andrew Breitbart RIP

I didn’t know or even follow all that closely Andrew Breitbart, the conservative media entrepreneur.  With his passing a couple of things come immediately to mind.

First, to be anything other than a closet conservative requires a certain contrarian streak.  If you wish to get along, not have any ugly arguments or confrontations, then it is best to either keep your mouth shut or be liberal-left.  And the amusing thing about this obvious observation, is that at least in their own minds, it is the liberal-leftists who see themselves as the bold contrarians, the rebels fearlessly speaking truth to power while all the while being perfectly conformist.

Second, Breitbart certainly hit an exposed nerve when he attacked the left at its most consist and annoying point, its absolute certainty that in all things it held the high moral ground.  Breitbart not only called them on this, but did it in the most appropriate fashion by mocking it.  That so many bloggers and writers on the left have gleefully responded to his death is a fitting tribute.

Links to a few remembrances/tributes:

Monday, February 27, 2012

Is Santorum a liberal?

Somehow liberals have been unable to acquire from a life what conservatives seem to be endowed with at birth: namely, a healthy skepticism of the powers of government to do good." – Daniel Patrick Moynihan

The short answer to the titled question is no.  Obviously, Rick Santorum’s emphasis on social issues, and the content of his rhetorical flourishes, will not find adherents among those who identify as liberals.  But in larger terms, in the overall conception of what politics has to offer, the answer isn’t so obvious.

In his book A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell advanced the thesis that what really divides liberals and conservatives is a different vision of the world.  Across a wide spectrum, liberals tend to have an unconstrained vision, while conservatives maintain a constrained vision.  In other words, Sowell addressed in book form what Pat Moynihan observed and noted in the quote above.

And that is what makes Santorum’s forays into divisive social issue commentary so perplexing.  It isn’t so much the content, as the overriding question of why he keeps going there.  I am sympathetic that the idea that culture is more important than anything else, and that our culture is in need of repair.  What I can’t for the life of me see is what a president of the United States can do about it.  Still, less that a president in the upcoming terms will have any extra political capital to spend on those issues after addressing our fiscal and likely foreign policy concerns/crises.

At National Review, Mona Charen in a column titled Don’t Pick Rick makes essentially the same point:

Additionally, as Santorum himself seemed to acknowledge in the Arizona debate, the social issues that worry him (and should worry all of us), such as the collapse of the two-parent family, are not the kinds of problems that government can or even should attempt to solve. Yes, welfare programs that reward unwed parenting by subsidizing it are part of the problem. But, as Santorum will tell you (repeatedly), he helped reform welfare. That was the easy part. The rest is cultural change, and the president of the United States has very limited influence there.”

In a way it reminds me of my very first vote which was the Carter versus Reagan presidential race.  Throughout the campaign Carter focused on his excellent command of policy details as a point of contrast to Reagan.  And my reaction to this strategy was that after four years Carter still didn’t understand his job.  Listening to Rick Santorum in the last couple of weeks I’m drawing the same conclusion; that he thinks he’s running for Archbishop of Canterbury instead of president of the United States.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Quotes/Observations apropos of nothing

If you know English history you will have heard of Lord Palmerston, a prime minister and active participant in 19th century foreign affairs.  Writing shortly after his death in 1865, Walter Bagehot makes this interesting observation:

He was not a common man, but a common man might have been cut out of him.  He had in him all that a common man has, and something more.  And he did not at all despise, as some philosophers teach people to do, the common part of his mind.  He was profoundly aware that the common mass of plain sense is the great administrative agency of the world and that if you keep yourself in sympathy with this you will win, and if not you fail.”

And for those who are naturally late risers and wish affairs were conducted on a different clock, a glimpse into a better world:

“When I was a young man, the Duke of Wellington made an appointment with me at half-past seven in the morning, and some one asked me, why, Palmerston, how will you keep that engagement?  Oh, I said of course, the easiest thing in the world.  I shall keep it the last thing before I go to bed.”

Bagehot’s Historical Essays, (page 216 & 217)

Monday, February 20, 2012

Obit in the NY Times

Change the names and this would describe my life to date exactly:

Barney Frank and the cause of our budget impasse

Commenting on the Reform Act that extended voting rights beyond the middle class in England for the first time, Walter Bagehot noted that for many years the conduct of politicians had kept what he thought were its dangerous tendencies in check.

Thus he declared…a great responsibility rested on the new generation of statesmen.  They should avoid raising issues which would bind the poor together as a class, should not make them think that some new law could ensure their comfort or that the government possessed some inexhaustible fund from which all their wants could be supplied…’The wide gift of the elective franchise will be a great calamity to the whole nation, and to those who gain it as great a calamity as any…In plain English, what I fear is that both our political parties will bid for the support of the working man; that both of them will promise to do as he likes if he will only tell them what it is; that, as he now holds the casting vote in our affairs, both parties will beg and pray him to give that vote to them…I can conceive of nothing more corrupting or worse…  Vox populi will be Vox diaboli if worked in that manner.’”

It is amusing, given our current circumstances, to read the writer of the introduction, from which this came, proclaiming that “Bagehot’s gloomy prognostications have not been fulfilled.”  But that was 1966—although even by then it is doubtful whether Bagehot’s reading could be so easily dismissed in England-- and one might say, wait awhile.  Bagehot’s prediction was based on a sound reading of what was embedded in electoral reform, and its failure to fully assert itself didn’t mean the inclination could be dismissed.

Which is, perhaps, a too lengthy lead in to statements made by Barney Frank as relayed in a post on Contentions by Peter Wehner.   On the current budget impasse Mr. Frank said:

“…the problem, at its core, is ‘indecision on the part of the voters.’ He pointed out that Congress is not an autonomous instrument that operates on its own; public opinion has a lot of influence. ‘The public has a question it has to resolve,’ according to Frank. ‘The public wants a certain level of government activity but it wants to provide a level of revenue that’s not enough for that activity.’ The main reason we have a budget deficit is there’s ‘a greater public demand for services than there is a willingness to pay the taxes.’”

Mr. Wehner and Barney Frank are correct that the voting public is complicit in this, I’ve said the same before, but Frank is being disingenuous as well, gliding over his own rather marked complicity in this state of affairs.  Barney Frank’s entire career has been devoted to the cause of convincing voters that they should demand more services and that there was always somebody else willing to pay for it.  Nobody has been less statesmen, more Vox diaboli than Barney Frank.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

More from Walter Bagehot

Walter Bagehot (1826 – 1877) was a banker, essayist, and one of the early editors of The Economist, with writings covering politics, finance, history, and literature. 

How can a soul be a merchant?  What relation to an immortal being have the price of linseed, the fall of butter, the tare on tallow, or the brokerage on hemp?  Can an undying creature debit petty expenses and charge for carriage paid?...The soul ties its shoes; the mind washes its hands in a basis.  All is incongruous.”

The reason why so few good books are written is that so few people who can write know anything.”

While strolling through a friend’s estate:
Ah, you’ve got the church in the grounds.  It’s well the tenants shouldn’t be quite sure that the landlord’s power stops with this world.”

At breakfast, noticing his nephew Guy,when he was eight or nine, having trouble opening his egg:
Go on, Guy.  Hit it hard on the head.  It has no friends.”

Contraception and insurance, tellingly written & posted on a Saturday night

Overlooked in the controversy over the mandatory nature of supplying contraceptive services by way of employer health insurance is the question of why it is a part of insurance in the first place.  You insure against financial losses of a chance nature which would be otherwise difficult to absorb.  Much to my regret, I’m all too familiar with the chance need for contraception, but even if I had something approaching charm, any seductive ability at all, I still wouldn’t see the need or merit to buy insurance to cover contraception. 

Consider the numbers.  I pay $56 a month for internet service, $58 for my phone, and the current price of a condom is approximately $2.25 per pop (or non-pop if that is the focus of your attention). My math gets me 30.42 days or 4.35 weeks in an average month, so if I calculate further my birth control costs would equal my internet/phone costs if I had sex 25 – 26 times a month, or about 5.75 days every week: a) I should be so blessed b) why would this not be a perfectly ordinary expense which has no place in the scheme of insurance?

In large part the answer has to do with taxes.  If my contraception costs are included as part of my health insurance then I’m paying for them with tax free income as opposed to after tax income, so it makes sense to pack as much expense as you can get away with into your health “insurance”.  Then to, if I don’t think about it, I can easily believe that it is free since I’m not paying for it out of my own pocket (as if the employer pays you a salary and then tacks on the benefit costs out of the goodness of his/her heart). 

In short, to a considerable degree we have a issue of liberty and social controversy instigated by the government, on a matter also brought about by government.  I know, I know, what a surprise.

Obama's budget and finance's M&M theorem

One of the notable changes in the President’s entirely symbolic budget is the proposed adjustment in tax on dividends from the current capital gains rate of 15% to the personal rate of 39.6% for those with incomes above $250,000.  It should be noted that this is a change of 24.6 percentage points, and perhaps more revealingly, a 164% percent change.  Without knowing how the expected revenues from this change were derived I’d feel very confident in the prediction that actual revenues will be less.  Change something by more than 100% for people who have financial means, and you are likely to get rather dramatic changes in behavior.

Which brings me to one of the central tenets of modern finance; the M&M or Modigliani-Miller, theorem.  What M&M posits is that in absence of taxes and bankruptcy costs, capital structure—that is a company’s mix between equity and debt—doesn’t matter.  Bankruptcy costs obviously tilt the field towards equity since debt costs are a financial, legal obligation. 

Taxes enter into it because interest expense is a deductible expense for the corporation.  The money going to debt holders is before tax, the money in the form of dividends to equity holders is after tax.  And here it is worth bringing up a point made by finance professor Harold Bierman: “if a company is 100% debt financed, the debt holders own the company.”  In other words, the distinction between debt and equity isn’t as concrete, as absolute as it would appear on first thought.  What, for example, is a convertible bond?  Thus, following M&M you have investors who put money into a company in the expectation of a financial return, absent the conditions discussed, they and the company proper are indifferent whether that is in the form of debt or equity.

So what does all of this have to do with the change in dividend rates?  Well financial returns are always calculated as after tax cash flows and it should be noted that the value of a stock is, at least theoretically, the discounted value of future dividends [the capital gains benefit derives from your selling the right to a future cash flow stream, i.e. the future dividends].  Increase the tax on dividends and you’ve made it more attractive to invest via debt rather than as a shareholder.  Further, by reducing the benefit of receiving dividends you’ve increased the benefit of the company holding on to and using cash rather than distributing its profits.  In short, the financial implications of the change in dividend treatment being proposed by a Democratic administration is a tilt towards greater debt finance, and larger companies!

One final, relevant point: when a company engages in a stock buy back it is often derided in the press as an action to prop up the stock price.  While reducing the number of shares will have the effect of raising the share price—the same pie being divided into fewer slices equals larger portions—that isn’t really what is going on.  A stock buy back is just another method open to a company to distribute money back to investors, with the advantage of being able to delineate who wants to receive those funds and who doesn’t at a certain time (as opposed to a dividend which goes out to every shareholder), and to distinguish between equity holders in different tax situations.  A significant increase in the tax rate on dividends should lead to more companies opting to buy back shares, a kind of dividend masquerading as a capital gain.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The other side of people

We see but one aspect of our neighbor, as we see but one side of the moon: in either case there is also a dark half which is unknown to us.  We all come down to dinner, but each has a room to himself.”

Walter Bagehot

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Language fit for his Magisterial Highness

It’s always likely that anyone in the public eye can be caught in a bad word choice, and certainly the President of the United States qualifies as being in the public eye.  But John Steele Gordon’s catch nicely amplifies the column of Mark Steyn that I posted yesterday.  Mr. Gordon notes that President Obama used the word “accommodation” in his response to the pushback on the HHS mandate rather than “compromise”:

An accommodation is something handed out beneficently to those who have a problem. We accommodate people in wheelchairs on public transportation, we accommodate people with food allergies or religious needs by providing alternative meals. A compromise is something agreed to jointly by equals (it comes from the Latin for a mutual promise). Obama, in his own mind, has no equals. Hence, he is ‘accommodating’ these people with their annoying moral scruples so at variance with liberal orthodoxy.”

And he goes on to note a similar usage in response to an interview question:

“Likewise, the other day he told NBC’s Matt Lauer the reason he had been unable to be as transformational a president as he would have liked was that he had been unable to ‘force’ Congress to pass his programs. What an interesting choice of words.

Oliver Cromwell ‘forced’ the Rump Parliament to dissolve when he arrived with soldiers and told everyone to leave, saying famously, “You have sat long enough.” He dismissed the Mace (the symbol of Parliamentary authority–it lies before the speaker to this day) as a mere “fool’s bauble.”

One would think the word here should have been ‘convince.’”

Gordon thinks these word choices speak to Obama’s magisterial view of himself and his outsized ego.  There is certainly some of that working here, but I think the larger context is that this is really the voice of the Liberal-Left.  Progressivism has been the dominant wave of American politics for roughly a hundred years, and the Democratic Party, if not always in office, has experienced a similar dominance.   In the Liberal Imagination (1950), Lionel Trilling described conservatism in America as little more than “irritable mental gestures that seek to resemble ideas” and more recently Sam Tanenhaus described conservatism’s role as a necessary restraint on liberalism for when it goes too far (like Obamacare???).  That is to say, conservatism is to be a secondary, a role of support, for the natural lead of liberalism.  In short, Obama’s imperiousness may stem from his personality but it also fits with the larger political forces of which he is a part, and their complete obliviousness to this tendency is the source of much wondrous, wry amusement.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Steyn on the mandate--his highness

Mark Steyn gets to the heart of the Health Services mandate issue with his column today, appropriately titled: The Church of Obama, the President has issued his own act of Supremacy. 

The church model the young American state wished to separate from was that of the British monarch, who remains to this day supreme governor of the Church of England. This convenient arrangement dates from the 1534 Act of Supremacy. The title of the law gives you the general upshot, but, just in case you’re a bit slow on the uptake, the text proclaims ‘the King’s Majesty justly and rightfully is and ought to be the supreme head of the Church of England.’ That’s to say, the sovereign is ‘the only supreme head on earth of the Church’ and he shall enjoy ‘all honors, dignities, pre-eminences, jurisdictions, privileges, authorities, immunities, profits, and commodities to the said dignity,’ not to mention His Majesty ‘shall have full power and authority from time to time to visit, repress, redress, record, order, correct, restrain, and amend all such errors, heresies, abuses, offenses, contempts, and enormities, whatsoever they be.’

Welcome to Obamacare.”

Mind you, the only thing really noteworthy in this whole thing is that it is religious liberty that is being abridged.  It is in that sense a more brazen act of usurpation, but in all respects really nothing out of the ordinary, which is why for those who aren't religious this is an "I'm Spartacus!" moment.

The HHS Mandate and de Jouvenel's Sovereignty

The wise man knows himself for debtor, and his actions will be inspired by a deep sense of obligation.”

Thus an organized religion extends itself into charitable activities and hospitals which serve not only co-religionists but all who need help.

Secundus has made willing sacrifice to finance an establishment for religious instruction.  This institution is nationalized, irreligious instruction is substituted, and the public authority requires of Secundus the continuance of his support; he must in other words, go on doing what his own judgment had once led him to do, even when his judgment has turned against it.

Yes, in the HHS mandate the institution itself isn’t being nationalized, it isn’t being forced to continue its charities and hospitals, but the above is still quite relevant given that what is being nationalized is how a institution’s people are to be compensated.  The situation is different in important respects, but I don’t think you can deny the applicability of the principle that’s being expressed.

Every man takes offense whenever, in a matter in which he once acted voluntarily in accordance with his own sense of obligation, an attempt is made to force on him a different action, based on an outside judgment.  He is conscious of injustice because, whereas his own judgment found a certain action just, the other one thrust on him seems to him unjust.  Also, he feels humiliated because it is sought to make him act in accordance with this outside judgment; this feeling of humiliation is experienced by every man of the least elevation of character, even when all that happens is that an action which he formerly took voluntarily of his own free will becomes a legal obligation—for in that case the quality of his action suffers a degradation.”

Quotes from Sovereignty, Bertrand de Jouvenel

Friday, February 10, 2012

More on Santorum and the "lack of seriousness"

A recent post on The Corner:

"The contretemps over the HHS mandate can do nothing but help the candidacy of Rick Santorum. For months, Mitt Romney has been lamely defending Romneycare, hiding behind the shriveled fig leaf of the Tenth Amendment to obscure what everyone now acknowledges — that the Massachusetts program is the forebear of and inspiration for Obamacare.

That simple fact ought to be instantly disqualifying in a 2012 GOP presidential candidate — especially after the 2010 landslide."  [my emphasis]


On family, there is of course the Philip Larkin view:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
   They may not mean to, but they do.”

But reflecting on the death of his brother in his G-File today, Jonah Goldberg has more of the whole of it:

Families are similarly unique. Each has its own cultural contours and configurations. The uniqueness might be hard to discern from the outside and it certainly might seem trivial to the casual observer. Just as one platoon of Marines might look like another to a civilian or one business might seem indistinguishable from the one next door. But, we all know the reality is different. Every meaningful institution has a culture all its own. Every family has its inside jokes, its peculiar way of doing things, its habits and mores developed around a specific shared experience.”

Komen and Planned Parenthood; HHS Mandate

In my mind the background music for the contretemps of the last couple of weeks is Cyndi Lauper’s “I see your true colors” although it isn’t what I love.  Yet again, we saw that what goes by the name liberalism is anything but.

In the case of Komen vs Planned Parenthood what stood out was the staggering impertinence, the astonishing rudeness of Planned Parenthood.  A charity dedicated to breast cancer makes a donation to another organization—which is only tangentially involved in regard to breast cancer-- but in due course decides it will no longer continue to do so.  In what corner of the civilized world is the appropriate response to this on the part of the recipient and its supports an outraged, public, how dare you?  Most of us have been in this situation and have enough basic decency to know that the only course is to say something along the lines of “we certainly regret your decision, is there anyway we can get you to reconsider, if not we understand….”  From their actions I wouldn’t give Planned Parenthood, the time of day, let alone some of my money, if they supplied puppies and unicorns to orphans.

In the HHS mandate that will require religion institutions to provide health care services which go against their religious doctrines, the first question that comes to mind is why the shock?  Why the surprise?  To paraphrase from Monty Python “now we see the repression inherent in the system.”  While one recognizes the special position of religion, there is the sense in which you think why should that area be excluded from having things rammed down their sensibilities by the state when it is de rigor everywhere else?  This mind you is a political philosophy, and political administration that believes that citizens shouldn’t be allowed to decide on what kind of light bulbs to purchase.

Finally one is taken aback by the relative triviality which is supposedly behind all of this.  Abortion perhaps aside, where are we that we need financial support for contraception?  When fortune shines upon me, I don’t view it as an undue burden that I have to spring for the protection.  In my wildest dreams I wouldn’t consider the cost of contraception to be a burden that someone else should cover (pun sort of intended).  Best and worst case scenario, I’d have to give up cable—no problem.   Even on economic grounds it fails, as the point of insurance is to cover not the routine but the extraordinary; those expenses and eventualities that arise that you can’t pay for without a significant level of hurt. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Is the problem the base's lack of seriousness?

Over at Powerline John Hinderaker worries that the Republican Party is throwing the 2012 election away, a sentiment I share.

“…if you are a Republican, the vibes are very bad. The presidential primary season has turned into a disaster, in my view. Mitt Romney has shown a discouraging inability to appeal to the party’s base, while the race has damaged both Romney and the party…

Rick Santorum is a bright guy who has performed well in the debates, and he is hot, this week, in the Republican base. But he doesn’t have the chance of a snowball in Hell of being elected president. He couldn’t even get re-elected to the Senate in his home state of Pennsylvania in 2006. The 2012 election will be almost entirely about the economy, although national security is always relevant to a presidential contest. It would be suicidal for the GOP to nominate a candidate whose signature issues are gay marriage and abortion. At the end of the day, the party won’t be that dumb. But the fact that the party’s base is flirting with Santorum manifests a lack of seriousness that may prove fatal in November.” [my emphasis]

On this last point, I think Hinderaker has it almost exactly backwards.  The party is flirting with Santorum because the collective response to the candidates on offer is in effect, are you serious?  They’re flirting with Santorum because they have the good sense to know that Romney is a weak candidate who shouldn’t have a prayer of being the nominee in an election where Obamacare is a front and center issue. 

The main takeaway from this campaign isn’t that the conservative base lacks seriousness. Quite the contrary.  What’s clear is that if the base, in a supposedly conservative party is forced to settle on a Mitt Romney, who has no credibility in making the case on a key issue  in this election and has no discernable compensating strengths, then the process is badly in need of repair.