Saturday, April 30, 2011

WHCA Dinner

I have just watched the press club dinner on fox and though I only saw Seth Meyer's speech the thing that really stood out was Donald Trump. Meyer's did about 5 jokes in a row on Trump. The one I remember was "Trump often appears on Fox, which is ironic since a fox often appears on Trump's head." Through the whole thing Trump sat absolutely stone-faced. Not what you are expected to do. Worse, not what a real man should do. It is certainly not what Ronald Reagan would have done. When did being a conservative mean being a punk?

One joke that I did not understand is the joke about him "having a good relationship with blacks, if the blacks are a family of white people." What is that about? Is there some reason to think that Trump is a racist? All of the other jokes depended on recognized and commonly understood facts about the world. The Trump as racist meme is one that depends on a supposition that is only accepted by liberals, namely, that the only reason one could suspicious of Obama is that one is a racist. I think that the casual assumption by elites that an interest in Obama's birth certificate is prima facia evidence of racism is a 'racism-card' too far.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Bureaucrats and Committees

Mark Styen writes about his kid's chocolate Easter eggs being seized at the border.

When you have people on a committee that is supposed to do something there is a great danger that they might do something.

The great problem with government bureaucrats is not that they are lazy but that they insist on doing things.

Now we have a report that the government is stopping children from bringing chocolate eggs back with them from Canada. It seems that there are small toys inside that could be a choking hazard. The rest of the children of the world seem to be bright enough to be able to eat the chocolate egg without scarfing down the little inside along with it but not the in US.

This is part of the reason that it is not sufficient to change the laws under which an agency operates, you have to kill it. You have to kill it because if you don’t the people will still be there and they will still have to justify their existence and that will still require making rules to make the world safer (or healthier or smarter or greener or whatever).

That is why you must use a hatchet rather than a scalpel. The scalpel leaves enough for it to grow back. Only the hatchet can slice through the trunk and prevent it from just growing back. The scalpel only removes leaves and it just grows back again next season, different leaves but same obstruction. It may even come back more resistant to the procedure you used before.

We have the FDA and three other agencies in charge of protecting children from dangerous foods (I am sure there are many more that are involved in some way) and they have the terrible problem that most of the obvious problems have been solved, at least the ones that can be solved by making a rule for some company to follow, which are the only kind that are politically easy for the organization to make. Other problems involve things that depend on the behavior and choices of parents, who are citizens and voters and might either a) object if they are ordered to do something that they don’t want to do or b) ignore the rule because the are too incompetent to do what is in their own best interests lest alone the best interests of their children. So the organizations go on justifying their existence by issuing orders to the entities to which it can issue orders, manufactures and border guards.

Hatchet time.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Kind to be Cruel

Mencken said that the drive to save humanity is usually a front for the desire to rule it. Turns out that the same is true at the personal level.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Obama is not as nice as he looks

Mean streak: Obama is not as nice as he looks | Examiner Editorial | Editorials | Washington Examiner

I wasn't aware that he looked that nice?

Does Torture Work?

There is a problem inherent in discussions of whether torture or other forms of coerced cooperation work or not. People seldom respond directly to the threat or the coercion but usually take advantage of some sort of intermediary proposal or other face saving option.

The article linked above discusses this problem in the context of KSM. On the one hand, the actual cooperation that KSM offered was to an agent that specialized in building rapport with the prisoners. On the other hand the cooperation only came after he had been water boarded. Was the cooperation the result of the coercion or the torture? It is impossible to say in any single case.

The same problem comes in at the level of states. Libya gave up its nuclear weapons program shortly after the invasion of Iraq, but the negotiations had been going on for some time before the invasion (though not, if I am not mistaken, before the invasion had become a likelihood). It is possible to argue that he would have given them up regardless.

Even the great appeaser, Neville Chamberlain, demanded something in return for his capitulations and appeared to the last that the Fuhrer's signature meant something. He never thought of himself as giving into the threat of force and coercion.

My own view is that the threats and coercion are primary but it is hard to argue any single case convincingly one way to someone who truly believes the opposite.

President's oh so fine use of language: Double-Plus Ungood

The president got tough on deficit reduction saying that he would include a fail-safe mechanism in the budget so that if the deficit reduction targets were not met there would come, automatically, "further spending reductions through the tax code."

Good Grief! As Jon Stewart remarked that Orwell was owed some royalties.

But those payments to Orwell have been piling up for some time. This tendentious use of language has been a staple of Obama's discourse. The way the question of summits with Iran went from a pledge to "negotiate without preconditions" to "negotiations with preparations which would naturally include reaching certain understandings about what would be accomplished and what would be open for discussion which, if not reached, would, naturally, result in the need for further preparations that would necessarily postpone and..." blah, blah, blah....And let's not forget "kinetic military action," which some people might call a war.

No politician is entirely innocent of this sort of "terminological inexactitude," to use Churchill's phrase, when put in a tight spot, but it seems to me that Obama has made such quibbling the heart of his policy discourse rather than an occasional expedient.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Why Are We Always So Offended? -

Dick Cavett thinks we worry too much about being offended. He at least practices what he preaches in that he is not easily offended himself, as least on this evidence:

"My favorite first dose of offended reaction is one I may have reported here before. It came from an apparently ruffled resident of Waco, Texas. My secretary was reluctant to show it to me. Hand-printed in pencil and all in caps, it read: “DEAR DICK CAVETT YOU LITTLE SAWED OFF FAGGOT COMMUNIST SHRIMP.”

A lot of thought went into that."

He makes some more serious points as well. There are some things that offend him, such as the politically correct cleaning up of Mark Twain's novel Tom Sawyer by taking out the name of the character who is the moral center of the novel.

I think this is one of the least attractive things about the contemporary liberal arts college, its attention to sensitivity, the constant drive to see that no one is offended (well, you can offend conservative Christians all you like, but leaving that issue aside). This is ultimately of little use to the supposed beneficiaries of the sensitivity regime and a disservice to all members of the community. The college exists to expose people to new ideas so they can be confronted openly, not drive them into the shadows where they can fester and sally forth when opportunity presents itself.

If it is useful to a liberal arts graduate to be able to avoid giving offense, it is even more useful to be able to avoid taking offense. The only way you can convince someone of your ideas is often to do them the courtesy of giving theirs a hearing. If you allow yourself to take offense, especially when none is intended, you will very likely let your self reciprocate and speak in anger. Persuasion depends upon getting someone to see some common element in their views and the view to which you would have them adopt. You must at some level grant that what they want or esteem is reasonable or defensible in some way but that the view you hold is more conducive to achieving to their object than the one they hold.

A good advocate must have not only a light touch but a thick skin.

Greg Mankiw's Blog: Capping Tax Expenditures

Greg Mankiw's Blog: Capping Tax Expenditures

One way to reduce the complexity of our tax system and the rent-seeking/tax-favor-hunting behavior it encourages would be to simply cap the amount any one tax payer could get in tax expenditures an individual could take. From the politician's point of view this might be particularly attractive. It would allow them to grant special favors to the more worthy (or politically influential) of their constituents without costing the public treasury.

Of course, how long would it be before certain tax expenditures were exempted from the overal cap? Would there be some way to means test this cap? It might make sense to exempt the cap for expenditures that are targeted at very low income people, say people who have high medical bills or something. Though that may be already taken care of in their proposal in the provision that the cap apply to the Adjusted Gross Income (AGI--wasn't that the insurance company that went bankrupt?).

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Bullying by the IRS lamented by advocates of big government

Here we watch two "journalists" standing up for the little guy and engaging in faux outrage over the highhanded tactics of an organization so large that the left hand doesn't know what the right is doing while the right is apologizing for the left. But the fact is, if you want a government that takes care of you from cradle to grave from a far off capital, and pays for it though a system that must capture almost half of the national income through minutely classifying different sources of income to tax it at different rates, this kind of mishap is inevitable.

The answer to automated spending cuts?

Automated tax increases! It makes sense, really. One could argue that the recipients of benefits should not be automatically penalized when there is a deficit. If you define the problem as a deficit the solution is just as much increasing taxes as decreasing spending. Obama is making a smart move. It makes the job of people that want to increase the size of government much easier. All you have to do is create programs that increase spending on their own and let event follow their natural course.

World Apology Tour: Hello Gals!

Collective responsibility gone wild! You have to see this.

Want to volunteer to cut the debt?

Here is the tally of voluntary contributions made to cut the deficit. So far we are up to about 700 grand. Not bad as a stand alone figure I suppose, but when put against the deficit not terribly encouraging. Round up to a million for a minute. A million is 1/1000th of a billion. A billion is 1/1000 of a trillion. So a million is one millionth of a trillion. The deficit is about 1.6 trillion dollars. So really we are about one half of one millionth of the way there on voluntary contributions alone!

Now, some conservatives say that this is evidence of hypocrisy: if there are so many people that think our taxes should be higher then why aren't there more people making voluntary contributions? And why does the tax system have to be involved at all? Why don't those people that think the government can spend their money better than they can just cut out the IRS middle man and send in their check. But that really isn't fair. I may think that we should all pitch in to buy a new car, but if I pitch in and no one else does all that happens is that I am out some money and no one gains any thing. Such a situation would be strictly irrational.

On the other hand, if I don't make the contribution I may get the good anyway. Under these circumstances, why wouldn't I just keep my money? No one wants to make a contribution and then see no benefit to themselves, let alone one that leads to no benefit at all.

But perhaps that is where the argument breaks down. In the case of the deficit there may be no place where there is a disjoint change in the benefit per dollar? (There is a word for this in economics if I could remember it.) You get the benefit for each dollar contributed. So why don't those of us who feel that the deficit should be closed with higher taxes on people incomes similar to our own? What are we waiting for? Whatever benefit is going to come from my taxes increasing is going to come on the first dollar and it is going to come whether others contribute or not, so why not just start sending in checks?

quote of the day

"Ingenious men may assign ingenious reasons for opposite constructions of the same clause. They may heap refinement upon refinement, and subtlety upon subtlety, until they construe away every republican principle, every right sacred and dear to man."

-Williams, speech as New York Ratifying Convention, 1788

I thought of this the other day when I read something mentioning that law students in con-law seldom read the actual constitution but go straight to the cases and interpretations. The lawyers don't even bother with the text, but go straight to the subtleties they have themselves created. The subtleties have been heaped so high they do not bother to try to dig out the constitution that lies underneath.

Can alcohol help the brain remember? Repeated ethanol exposure enhances synaptic plasticity in key brain area, study finds

Can alcohol help the brain remember? Repeated ethanol exposure enhances synaptic plasticity in key brain area, study finds

Turns out that the Dude was right after all! Liquor does keep your mind limber.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Titanic Regulations

The Economist reports on the Vicker's Commission's proposals for reforming banking. They appear to do it better than we.

There are two approaches to dealing with failures of large institutions which I will call regulatory and structural.  The regulatory approach is to publish vague rules and empower bureaucrats with broad powers to second guess decisions made by private actors. This has the virtue of recognizing an important aspect of the failures of large institutions--you can never tell where they are going to come from or what is going to be the proximate cause. That means or at least suggests to some that you cannot tell in advance what the right thing to do is so the best you can do is have private actors report a lot of data to  regulators before or as the private actors make decisions so that the bureaucrats or regulators can make sure the private actors are not taking any undue risks.

There are obvious problems with this approach. For one thing why would we think the bureaucrats are any better at determining what is a bad risk than the private actor. If they were, why wouldn't they be the private actors themselves? Moreover, the endless stream of decisions that must have the regulator's blessing creates a potential for corruption and graft as the power to say no is converted into just plain old power. The very fact that the problems are hard to predict suggests that the regulators are as likely or more likely to be blindsided by events as the business leaders they are meant to correct.

The other approach is what I am terming the structural approach. By structural I mean a simple rule or set of rules that can be written into specific provisions of law and would have the effect of either making disaster less likely or making disaster more survivable if it does occur. In the case of banking regulation structural approaches would be increasing capital requirements or mandating reduced size.

The Vicker's commission has chosen the structural approach. They recommend an increase in capital requirements to 10% of reserves and restructuring of banks to make their investment and retail parts survivable on their own. These make sense to me. I would to see a more general requirement that the banks be limited in size compared to the economy or to the market, but they are certainly going in the right direction.

The regulation approach puts a committee of regulators on the bridge and gives them the power the second guess the captain. The structural approach is the promulgate a rule: have as many places on life boats as you have passengers. Which ship would you rather try to cross the Atlantic on?

Guess Who's Hiring!

I agree with the argument that in order to do something about our deficit we will have to touch entitlements. But there will also have to be something done on the discretionary part of the budget where most of our hiring is done. It is odd that in these times of supposed belt-tightening there are so many examples of what would seem to be superfluous jobs on offer.

One point that the article makes in the favor of federal workers is that they are not over-paid when one considers the amount of responsibility that have. But that point is not so decisive as it seems. It is true they oversee huge departments and are responsible for larger budgets and more people than equivalently paid people in the private sector, but I am not sure that being responsible for budgets and people in the government is really the same thing as it is in the private sector. In the private sector being responsible for people means deciding who to fire, being responsible for budgets means being able to lose money or possibly go out of business. These things are not true in the government where having more money or people may simply mean writing a longer report.

Is there an economist in the house?

I had always read that the reason we don't have food and fuel included in the core rate of inflation is because they are driven by factors that are outside monetary factors, in turn, are the main thing that central bankers worry about. But what if the rise in fuel costs is driven by monetary policy? Isn't part of the reason that oil is going up is because of our monetary policy, that we are borrowing such large amounts and the markets fear we might try to pay some of that debt off in the future by printing money, no?

Sunday, April 10, 2011


Here is a link to SEIU protesters getting arrested in Wisconsin.

The key thing moving public opinion in the public unions' favor is the idea of rights. Taking away someones rights always seems to strike the public as unreasonable. Simply by calling an arrangement a right inclines public opinion to favor continuing the arrangement regardless. Framing the argument as a fight to prevent "taking away collective bargaining rights," stacks the deck in favor of the public union side of the debate.

The problem here is not only that anything can be called a right, but that any right for one group by definition takes away another right. In the case of 'collective bargaining rights' the reciprocal is 'individual bargaining rights.' The supporters of Governor Walker should answer the charge that they are "taking away collective bargaining rights" by saying they are "restoring individual bargaining rights."

Thursday, April 07, 2011


Watching Greta Van Simpleton on Fox. She is getting her clock cleaned by a classy and in intelligent Democratic Congressman named Andrews. It is so sad being a conservative sometimes: you have a babbling idiot on your side and have to see an intelligent advocate on the other side.

The worst thing is that she misses--surprise--the most obvious argument. Andrews says that the President has met the Republicans two thirds of the way on the argument that Republicans want 100 billion in cuts and the President wants zero cuts from his budget and that now that the President has accepted 71 billion in cuts that he has met the Republicans two thirds of the way. The obvious rejoinder is that the 100 billion in cuts are from a greater than 100 billion increase and a massive increase from the historical norm already. Of course the lip-less wonder misses it entirely and goes directly into "and your another" mode.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Bad News

Wonder what they say about strangling students?

Monday, April 04, 2011

How the Senate was bait and switched into war | Conn Carroll | Beltway Confidential | Washington Examiner

How the Senate was bait and switched into war | Conn Carroll | Beltway Confidential | Washington Examiner

An extraordinary maneuver to get the Senate on record supporting the war in Libya was apparently used by the Obama administration: adding language to a resolution without telling anyone and "hotlining" it through in late at night through unanimous consent (of a much smaller than usual Senate).

It is very rare to so blatantly breach the trust of ones fellow Senators--it is a small world in the Senate and the long term consequences of a bad rep surely outweigh any immediate advantage. And it is difficult to see what the advantage is. After all, using unanimous consent precludes getting any particular Senator on record. The only real use of the resolution would be for political cover if the engagement went badly (badly in the sense of costing a lot of American lives or giving us a Libya run by people even nastier than the ones running it now) and the decision became a negative for the President's reelection campaign. But in that case the underhanded tactics the administration used to get the resolution through would in all likelihood negate any political cover the Senate vote provided. Indeed, the President's own allies in the Senate would have the political incentives to make sure that that is precisely what happened.

When Animals Attack - Cow Survival Guide - Popular Mechanics

From the Monty Python, call your office department:

When Animals Attack - Cow Survival Guide - Popular Mechanics

(The reference is to this skit)

The law in China: A spear not a shield | The Economist

The law in China: A spear not a shield | The Economist

The Chinese state is cracking down on dissent in the wake of the Arab revolutions. In addition to being formally charged with crimes such as "Slandering the Communist Party" (by suggesting, for instance, that it is a dictatorship) people are being informally detained and temporarily disappeared. The tactics remind me of Robert Mugabe's campaign of torture where people were not killed but let out after their ordeal to serve as walking advertisements for the regime's brutality.