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: