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Your Point?

South Carolina governor Nikki Haley on signing her state’s new voter ID law:

If you can show a picture to buy Sudafed, if you can show a picture to get on an airplane, you should be able to show a picture…to vote.


How do people miss the point of Atlas Shrugged?

What’s with the Washington Post totally missing the smack-you-in-the-face obvious point of Atlas Shrugged, a novel routinely dismissed by its critics as stilted, didactic, and puerile?

I’m not trying to defend the book from these charges — it is, indeed, all of these things on one level or another. Nor am I defending Objectivism or Rand herself.

But the Post seems intent to allow its writers to pen screeds against the book and its author while missing the underlying point.

Last week, film critic Mark Jenkins gave us a review with this leap of logic:

The bullet-train theme is somewhat ironic. A roaring locomotive is a dynamic image of American industrial power, but even in 1957 — when the book was published — the future of railroading was in Europe and Asia. And the right-of-center types who revere Rand tend to dismiss public funding for high-speed rail.

And then today, Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson gives us this gem:

But Rand’s distinctive mix of expressive egotism, free love and free-market metallurgy does not hold up very well on the screen. The emotional center of the movie is the success of high-speed rail — oddly similar to a proposal in Barack Obama’s last State of the Union address. All of the characters are ideological puppets. Visionary, comely capitalists are assaulted by sniveling government planners, smirking lobbyists, nagging wives, rented scientists and cynical humanitarians.

Setting aside the general inanity of Gerson’s entire column, ably dismissed here by Jesse Walker, the question remains: What do you people not get about the point of this book?

Hint: it’s not about high-speed rail.

It’s about human achievement and a couple of characters making happen something the rest of the world has deemed impossible.

It’s not about the benefits of funding rail transit from the public purse. It is in no way “ironic,” nor is it “oddly similar” to any proposal from any elected official anywhere in the world.

The critics who assail Atlas Shrugged for its over-the-top didacticism, one-dimensional characters, and simplistic philosophy (charges I won’t defend it against) should be sure they understand the underlying point. You know, the one that they criticize Rand for making too obvious.

And it’s not a meditation on the utilitarian benefits of different means of passenger transport.

The rightest guys in the room

Yesterday the New York Times ran a lengthy front-pager asking the question: “Why, in the aftermath of a financial mess that generated hundreds of billions in losses, have no high-profile participants in the disaster been prosecuted?” Long answer: these cases are very complicated and costly to prosecute, and it’s not completely clear exactly what crime was committed, and both major political parties are in bed with Wall Street. Short answer: blame George Bush.

This fits the story into what Will Wilkinson helpfully calls the “progressive master narrative.” In the case of financial service prosecutions, the story runs something like this:

During the Bush administration, regulators were asleep at their jobs, because nobody believed in regulation. The Bush team slashed regulatory enforcement budgets [false] and allowed Wall Street firms to commit egregious criminal fraud because these firms are solid GOP donors [false]. They refused to prosecute obvious crimes or go for long sentences on miscreants [false]. Because the wrong people (i.e., Republicans) were in charge, they allowed these guys to get away with the financial equivalent of murder.

Despite some false premises, blindness to conflicting evidence, and leaps in logic, this isn’t an entirely indefensible worldview. You can argue — and conservatives tend to be as guilty of this as progressives — that having the right people running things matters most, and that the right guys will make the right decisions that lead to the right outcomes. Of course, at most this means that the right thing happens only about 50% of the time, but set that aside for the moment.

Where this train of thought falls apart is when Obama (to progressives, the right guy) is elected and begins to run things. So since progressives now have the right guy in charge, why aren’t the sociopaths and idiots who ran Wall Street into the ground facing charges?

The Times offers one hypothesis: because Bush-era regulators didn’t collect much evidence, it’s hard for the Obama DOJ to build a case. There’s little analysis to back this up. But it still fits nicely into the progressive master narrative. Later in the story, they suggest that the FBI didn’t invest significant enough resources into financial crimes because those resources were needed in other investigations. Again, this fits the progressive master narrative that government is under-resourced.

But my question to progressives is: If the right guys can’t or won’t bring criminal prosecutions after the meltdown of an entire sector of the US economy, despite having wide-ranging rules on the books like the “honest services fraud” law which would allow a decent federal prosecutor to indict a ham sandwich, under what set of circumstances do you think the right guys can identify a crisis (i.e., crime) before it occurs and stop it from occuring?

That the wrong guys didn’t collect evidence isn’t much of an answer. After all, that evidence didn’t exist before the crisis. Evidence is what is built up in the commission of a crime. If you can’t prosecute once all the facts are known, it’s impossible to say you could have seen it coming. You can’t see the future but not the past without an accident involving a contraceptive and a time machine.

A corollary to the master progressive narrative is that, had the right guys been in charge, they would have prevented this meltdown, this series of crimes, from occurring, because good regulators would have seen what was happening and stopped it.

But if prosecutors working for the right guys can’t prosecute a crime after it occurs, by what mechanism could regulators working for the right guys have stopped that crime?

The honest answer here is to admit that the Obama administration isn’t the “right guys.” And then the progressive solution falls apart entirely. Obama is the most progressive president since Johnson, and probably the most progressive president we’ll see for a generation. He’s the paragon of electable progressivism. If this administration isn’t “right” enough, no administration will ever be. And the progressive solution is thus assuming a can opener.

To be sure, by all accounts Angelo Mozilo of Countrywide and a number of the other executives at the helm of this Titanic were bozos who were really bad at their jobs and really good at scamming the system. And they largely reported to boards of directors who seemed to think that they had no real obligation to oversee the companies they were overseeing.

But it’s not obvious that a prosecutable crime occurred. And it’s even less obvious that anyone could have foreseen these crimes occurring before they did.

The challenge to progressives is to articulate a system of regulatory oversight and government regulation more generally that doesn’t depend on the right guys being in office — especially if the right guys as defined by progressives means officials to the left of Obama. And since the right guys seem unable or unwilling to prosecute crimes (statutory, common law, or imagined) after the fact, what makes it likely they would be able or willing to stop them before the fact?

Libertarian half of Tea Party is winning

The WSJ editorial board today calls the federal budget deal “The Tea Party’s First Victory.” They argue that the GOP made the right call to compromise on defunding Planned Parenthood to better position themselves to win the larger spending fight on entitlements.

What I found interesting is the lesson the WSJ editors suggest Republicans take from this:

Now the battle moves to the debt ceiling increase and Paul Ryan’s new 2012 budget later this year, and there are lessons from this fight to keep in mind. One is to focus on spending and budget issues, not extraneous policy fights. Republicans have the advantage when they are talking about the overall level of spending and ways to control it. They lose that edge when the debate veers off into a battle over social issues.

As I’ve argued previously, the Tea Party is split roughly 50-50 between libertarians and social conservatives. Spending and budget issues unite the Tea Party. Social issues divide them. In House Republican’s first big test, leadership seems to have gotten the message.

But isn’t this a sign of how far the GOP has come in a libertarian direction? Could you imagine such a compromise even a few years ago under George W. Bush’s Republican Party? Surely, there is much, much more Republicans could do. But for now, a good sign that the libertarian half of the Tea Party is winning.

AT&T announces price cuts for most data customers

Free-market types failed to stop TARP in part because “no” seemed an untenable option to many lawmakers. “We have to do something!” many argued.

In an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal, University of Pensylvania professor David Skeel offers an affirmative defense when California, New York, Illinois, or other cash strapped states come knocking for a similar bailout–rather than “no,” offer a federal bankruptcy proceeding for the states.

At a Mercatus Center event last week, Manhattan Institute scholar Steve Malanga argued that the more likely scenario is that cities and municipalities default first, and that states will have to bailout cities. He was less certain about the Constitutionality of a bankruptcy proceeding for states, given sovereign immunity issues.

American Schizo

I would like to take this opportunity to pour some cold water on any prospects for lasting reduction in the size of government or sensible budget reform. Here are some tidbits from a recent national poll by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard:

  • “Americans who say they want more limited government also call Social Security and Medicare ‘very important.’ They want Washington to be involved in schools and to help reduce poverty. Nearly half want the government to maintain a role in regulating health care.”

  • “Nearly six in 10 say they want their congressional representatives to fight for additional government spending in their districts to spur job creation; fewer (39 percent) want their member of Congress to cut spending, even if that means not as many local jobs. This is a turnabout from September 1994, when 53 percent said they wanted their representative to battle against spending and 42 percent were on the other side.”

  • “[H]alf the country thinks the federal government can balance its budget by simply cutting wasteful spending.”

To paraphrase Mencken, Americans are going to get what they want, and they’re going to get it good and hard. The 70 percent coalition wants to be left alone as long as they get their Medicare. I almost feel bad for the politicians who have to pander to this kind of schizophrenia. And if Americans had their way, they’d just get rid of the middleman:

  • “Fifty-six percent of those polled say things would be better if there were a national referendum system enabling all citizens to vote on major national issues. At least on this point, there is rare general agreement among Democrats, Republicans and independents.”

California, here we come. As Tocqueville prophesied, there’s no democratic solution to the problem that emerges once the public discovers that it can vote itself largesse from the public coffers. Add to that the largesse to special interests that voters would oppose if only it was worth their while to care, and you end up with a pretty bleak picture.

If there is a solution within the context of democracy, I think we have to hit rock bottom first, like an obese person who is forced to go on a diet only after a heart attack. Even then there will likely be a relapse. More likely though, we don’t have a heart attack. we just get fatter, and our breath becomes shallower, but we hang on, getting lipo every once in a while, enough to let us stuff our faces a few years more.

Maybe Hispanic voters are American

A new Pew poll being widely reported says that while Hispanics strongly lean Democratic, they are less likely to go to the polls in November than the average registered voter. Here’s how the NYT frames it:

Arizona’s controversial immigration law has prompted denunciations, demonstrations, boycotts and a federal lawsuit. But it may not bring the protest vote many Democrats had hoped would stem a Republican onslaught in races across the country.

That’s because although many voters are disillusioned with the political process, Latino voters are particularly dejected, and many may sit these elections out, according to voters, Latino organizations, and political consultants and candidates. A poll released Tuesday found that though Latinos strongly back Democrats over Republicans, 65 percent to 22 percent, in the Congressional elections just four weeks away, only 51 percent of Latino registered voters say they will absolutely go to the polls, compared to 70 percent of all registered voters.

The Times, the Pew report, and a quick scan of other news articles about the poll look at the results in terms of the immigration issue. The implication is that Hispanics are “particularly dejected” and surprisingly acting against their self-interest. Two things come to mind.

First, if Democrats are disproportionately represented among Hispanics, and if (as is often reported) Democrats are generally unenthusiastic about the coming election, then isn’t it unsurprising that Hispanics would be less likely than the average voter to go to the polls? Maybe someone more technically inclined than me can run the numbers, but it seems to me Hispanics might be acting like every other voter.

Second, the same Pew poll finds that immigration was listed as the fifth most important issue in the minds of Hispanic voters, behind education, jobs, health care, and the federal budget deficit. (A fact that is relegated to a parenthetical in the NYT piece.) That sounds like Hispanic voters are a lot like all American voters–irrational for a host of other reasons.

As a Hispanic, let me tell you: regardless what “Latino organizations” or Democratic candidates say, Hispanic voters are not animated by the immigration issue any more than voters in general. And Hispanics are certainly not single-issue voters. Don’t believe anything to the contrary.

Bonus: In its poll, Pew also asked, “The terms Hispanic and Latino are both used to describe people who are of Hispanic or Latino origin or descent. Do you happen to prefer one of these terms more than the other?” Thirty-three percent preferred Hispanic, 13 percent preferred Latino, and 54 percent indicated no preference. So why does Pew and the NYT insist on using Latino?

This is Congress without gridlock

The Senate yesterday passed a bill (previously passed by the House) that bans loud commercials on television. This has prompted some to ask whether Congress has nothing better to do with its time.

Is this all this Democrats-run senate can do? Turn down the volume when the country is in a recession and jobs are vanishing? Tsk, tsk-time to kick Harry Reid out of his seat!!!

That’s a reader comment on the story from USA Today. (I would point out to the commenter that it was a unanimous Senate that passed the bill.) There are many more like it. See these great comments at The Hill.

To me the real surprise would have been if the Senate hadn’t passed the bill this Congress.

From a Senator’s perspective, what’s not to love about this? The broadcasters pick up the tab for complying with the law, and the politicians get the credit. Credit for what? Doing exactly what their constituents want. The average American watches almost 5 hours of television a day, up 20 percent from 10 years ago. People who don’t write or comment on blogs likely think a ban is a great idea. I mean, loud commercials are pretty terrible after all.

Here’s what I’m trying to figure out, though. Consumers Union endorsed the bill and testified on its behalf, so they’re the Baptists in this story. Who are the bootleggers?

Why taxpayer receipts aren’t a good idea

Everyone is all aflutter over the idea from Third Way that people should get receipts for their federal income and FICA taxes that itemize them by program. It’s a neat gimmick, but at the end of the day, it’s just that: a gimmick. And it’s somewhat surprising to see so many bloggers who are normally skeptical of government gimmicks think that this one is somehow different.

People, of course, already know how much they pay in taxes, though the standard (and plausible) libertarian line is that, because we don’t write annual checks to the Gummint, we don’t really grasp the cost. It’s like the cost of regulation, which is high and real, but we don’t feel the pain of having money sucked out of our bank accounts. But stipulate for the moment that people understand, at least on some level, what they pay in taxes.

The idea of these receipts is to let people find out not just what their they’re putting into the system but what they’re getting out of it. And that’s a great idea — it would be fantastic if people understood exactly what their tax money was going to. But these receipts won’t do this, and here’s why.

  • The receipts will be gamed. The way that you amalgamate or disaggregate programs will have a massive impact on perceptions, and there’s no clear logic for how this should be done. On the Third Way prototype, the Iraq and Afghan wars are clumped together. Why? To make them appear higher. There’s no rhyme or reason, no inherent way, to display costs. If the government put out these receipts, these decisions will be made politically. (Democrats will disaggregate social spending, Republicans will disaggregate military spending.) And if they’re done by third-party groups, expect them to reflect the values of those groups.
  • The receipts list outputs, not outcomes. There’s no sense of what’s achieved here, what the final product is. When I get a restaurant bill, they bill me by the item, not the ingredient. The outcome is I get a hamburger. What is the outcome of health research or the DEA? Taxpayer receipts won’t give any meaningful sense of what social goals are achieved, thus giving taxpayers no sense of the benefits and costs of their tax dollars.
  • The receipts will lead to “earmarked” (and hence non-itemized) revenue streams. When I lived in Iowa, they had signs up in the interstate rest stops telling you that vending machine money went to support programs for the blind. Most states’ lotteries go to education. But money is fungible, and dedicating revenue streams to particular projects is just an accounting gimmick (think: “lockbox”). So if Amtrak wants to get off the tax receipt, all they have to do is lobby to get their funding from, say, the federal gasoline tax. And presto! It’s off the income tax/FICA receipt. Unpopular programs will make this standard operating procedure, so that educating children and feeding puppies will be the only things left on the receipts.
  • The receipts perpetuate budgetary lies. The federal budget and its supporting premises are already chock full of gimmicks, as my friend and colleague Veronique de Rugy has shown. Receipts do nothing to change this. All they do is take one multi-trillion dollar snow job and divide it by your tax bill. If you’re serious about getting accurate data into the hands of voters, start by getting an honest assessment of public long-term liabilities.
  • And finally, and most damningly: What of the fact that about half of American households don’t pay income taxes? What will their receipts show? That everything from incarceration to student aid is a freebie? It seems to me the last thing we should be encouraging is further divorcing the costs and benefits of programs. For half of America, then, receipts won’t give them a better sense of how their taxes are being spent. It will just remind them that they can vote for more spending because they don’t have to pick up the tab.

In the end, all these taxpayer receipts would do is lead to more budget shenanigans and a murkier citizen understanding of how the federal government spends its money and why. Sure, it’s a nifty gimmick. But it’s no more serious a plan for getting a handle on spending than a grammatically and intellectually inchoate call for slightly cutting a small fraction of the federal budget.

GOP chances of retaking Senate still a long-shot

Looking at last night’s election returns, the media story has been about a Tea Party “coup,” particularly the upset by Christine O’Donnell over GOP-favorite Mike Castle in Delaware. GOP strategists argued that O’Donnell couldn’t win in the general, and that Republicans would forfeit their chances of retaking the Senate.

Well, now that the Intrade markets have settled down, we can look to see how much Republican’s chances have really changed. In the last 24 hours, the price for the contract that the Republicans control the Senate went from 26 to 21. In odds, the market is saying that the GOPs chances of retaking the senate have gone from roughly 3 to 1, to 4 to 1.

Yes, their chances have decreased. But it  was a long shot, and it still is.

Fewer Young Voters Self-Identify as Democrats

The New York Times reports that fewer young people (ages 18-29) self-identify as Democrats. Based on Pew data, the percentage of young people who identify or lean Democrat has dropped from 62 percent at  the peak in July 2008 to 54 percent late last year.

While the bad economy and lack of jobs is no doubt weighing heavily on young people’s minds, this raises a question. If many young people lean Democrat, but when the economy is bad lean Republican, what exactly are they?

In the “Libertarian Vote in Age of Obama,” David Boaz and I presented evidence that many of these young people can fairly be called libertarian–that is socially liberal, but fiscally conservative. True, many young libertarians got swept up in the excitement over the Obama campaign, voting 59 percent for Obama to 36 percent McCain. But, we argued, all the talk of a generational realignment towards Obama and the Democrats was premature.

This generation of young people are particularly  prone to disillusionment. And we hypothesized that if the economy stayed bad, many young people, particularly the more libertarian young people, would sour on Obama and jump ship. Perhaps we’re now seeing some evidence that confirms this.

However, I don’t think Republicans are out of the woods yet. Even if young people vote against Democrats in 2010, Republicans will need to provide a credible alternative that addressed the concerns of a more libertarian-leaning generation of potential young voters. This will be a long-term challenge for a Republicans.

A defining idea for academia: jobs

With regulators forcing for-profit-colleges to disclose more data, and the industry facing increased scrutiny, at least you can say that for-profits attempt to train many graduates for jobs. In an article for the Chronicle Review this week,  Camille Paglia, argues that traditional four-year colleges should be doing the same:

“Jobs, and the preparation of students for them, should be front and center in the thinking of educators. The idea that college is a contemplative realm of humanistic inquiry, removed from vulgar material needs, is nonsense. The humanities have been gutted by four decades of pretentious postmodernist theory and insular identity politics…. That may mean a radical stripping down of course offerings… every four-year college or university should forge a reciprocal relationship with regional trade schools.”

Could “progressive conservative” work in the US?

Thinking about liberalism in Europe, Tim Lee writes:

The [recent] British and German experiences also provide support for the Boaz/Kirby argument about the libertarian vote in the US. The FDP and Lib Dems have historically gotten around 10 percent of the vote, on par with Boaz and Kirby’s estimates of the size of the libertarian vote in the United States. Boaz and Kirby also argued that the political effectiveness of libertarians is maximized when libertarians aren’t too closely tied to either end of the political spectrum. A credible threat to walk away from the Republican Party and support Democrats will give both major parties an incentive to take libertarian voters. That certainly seems to be confirmed by recent developments in the UK, where the Liberal Democrats were able to push their coalition government in a direction more friendly to civil liberties.

It occurs to me that there’s another way libertarians in the US could learn from the British example. In the US, the libertarian movement has been tarnished by the confusion over the word “libertarian,” and its many negative connotations. In Britain, David Cameron described his vision for liberalism as “progressive conservatives.”  While libertarians wouldn’t agree with everything on Cameron’s agenda, could this be a better label for the libertarian brand in the US?

What are the most libertarian states?

Jason Sorens over at the The Fund for American Studies blog has a series of interesting posts attempting to identify the most libertarian states. Using factors that include Ron Paul’s vote share, the number of Ron Paul donors per state, Libertarian Party vote in the 2008 presidential election, and other variables, he concludes:

The states with the most libertarians are Montana, Alaska, New Hampshire, and Idaho, with Nevada, Indiana, Georgia, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, Utah, California, and Colorado following.

Thanks, George W Bush, for the BP escrow fiasco

In today’s New York Times, David Sanger analyzes President Obama’s expansive use of the presidency not as a bully pulpit but to act as planner/shareholder/dad-in-chief:

But President Obama’s successful move to force BP to establish a $20 billion compensation fund that the company will have no voice in allocating — just a down payment, the president insisted — may have been the most vivid example of what he recently called his determination to step in and do “what individuals couldn’t do and corporations wouldn’t do.” With that display of raw arm-twisting, Mr. Obama reinvigorated a debate about the renewed reach of government power, or, alternatively, the power of government overreach. It is an argument that has come to define Mr. Obama’s first 18 months in office, and one that Mr. Obama clearly hopes to make a central issue in November’s midterm elections.

The real issue here isn’t — or at least shouldn’t be — the “size and scope” of government, to employ that chestnut. What’s really frightening about the way that Obama sees his role as unconstrained by law or regulation on what he can or cannot do. If the president decides that a private company should establish an escrow fund with the federal government, he doesn’t need a law or regulation to set up how this works. He just needs what Rahm Emanuel calls “a power other presidents have used — you call it jawboning.”

It may make every bit of sense for companies that drill offshore to, in the case of an environmental catastrophe, have an escrow fund managed to pay the victims of their recklessness, carelessness, or bad luck. And as Richard Epstein argued, BP doesn’t deserve to have its liability capped.

But if this is the case, there should be some kind of legal or regulatory means for addressing this. A whim of the president is not, in a country that can meaningfully be said to be governed by the rule of law, sufficient basis for this. And by putting the money in an “escrow fund,” it gives the illusion that there’s some kind of contractual or due process mechanism at play here. There isn’t. Procedure matters in a liberal democracy; getting to the “right result” isn’t enough.

Of course, Obama couldn’t do this if his predecessor hadn’t teed up such a perfect shot for him. So well done, Republicans. Your insistence that the “unitary authority” of the president allowed him to imprison and execute at will has been reapplied from real people to the legal persons that are corporations. Nothing Obama’s doing is inconsistent with the Bush doctrine on presidential power. The target has merely shifted. Heck, it’s really just a continuation of existing Bush administration policy: Hank Paulson did the same thing when forcing banks to take TARP money, though at least TARP could hide behind the fig leaf of congressional action.

Somewhere from his lair on Skullcrusher Mountain, Dick Cheney is smiling. And remember, libertarians told you so.

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