Tuesday, November 23, 2010

More equal...

I read "Animal Farm" a few months ago. I read this headline a few minutes ago, and was immediately reminded of how some are more equal than others.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Romer: We must fix the defict....someday

Conventional macroeconomics failed spectacularly, yet the disciples of Keynes that got us in to this mess (or, at a minimum, failed to see it coming and scoffed, and continue to scoff, at those who did) refuse to go quietly sit in the corner while they try to figure out where they went wrong. To the contrary, they keep coming to us with solutions before they've even come to agreement on what caused the problem.

In such a fashion, we now have Christina Romer explaining to us why spending money we don't have is the best way to solve a crisis that was caused by spending money that we don't have. More to the point, she is pointing out how conventional macroeconomics (you know, because it worked so well last time) clearly explains that any attempts to reduce the deficit would clearly lead to a double dip.

Clearly, she has in mind the disaster that befell the American economy after the U.S. government literally fired millions of federal workers and slashed government spending in the second half of the 1940's. What? The economy rebounded after that? Oh. Well then, she probably means to illustrate how successful the deficit spending of Japan has been over the past 20 years in reviving that country's economy. What? That didn't work either?

Oh, here it is: The IMF says it's true!
"Some advocates of austerity argue that, contrary to the conventional view, fiscal tightening now would lower long-term interest rates and improve confidence so much that the impact could be positive. But an ambitious new study in the World Economic Outlook of the International Monetary Fund confirms that fiscal consolidations — that is, deliberate deficit reductions — typically reduce growth substantially."

First, "contrary to the conventional view" sounds like a good start. I'll keep saying it: the conventional view doesn't have too good of a track record.

Second, I know that the IMF is the first organization I go to when faced with questions of more or less government intervention in pretty much anything. I mean, it's not like an agency problem could exist or anything. I'm sure they'd be the first one to tell us if their prior decisions proved to be failures.

Still, I thought I'd take a glance at the report. This is what jumped out at me:
"Thus, whereas the usual strategy identifies periods of consolidation based on successful (cyclically adjusted) budget outcomes, our approach identifies episodes based on fiscal policy actions motivated by deficit reduction, irrespective of the outcomes."(see Chapter 3)

Catch that? Let me paraphrase: "the traditional approach to identify periods of austerity is based on identifying periods where governments actually spent less than they took in. The IMF’s approach identifies periods of austerity by identifying periods when politicians and bureaucrats publicly stated they were taking deficit reducing actions, even if those actions didn't actually reduce the defict."

That doesn't sound good. Christina Romer's version sounds much better:
It also breaks new ground by looking specifically at times when governments changed taxes or spending with the aim of reducing deficits. Previous studies looked at summary measures of the budget situation, and likely included cases when strong economic performance caused lower deficits, not the other way around.

But wait...she is still saying that the study throws out periods of deficit reductions cases accompanied by strong economic performance. Ummm...isn't that what we want? Not to mention the strategic use of the word "likely". I.e., maybe it did, maybe it didn't, but we threw them out just to be sure because if we didn't, deficit reductions come out looking better than we know they really are. This seems sketchy...back to the IMF report:
Methodologically,our approach is close to that of Romer and
Romer (1989, 2010)

Ah. Never mind. I can't exactly expect her to criticize her own methodology.

Romer's message in the New York Times is simply that deficit spending is the way out of the recession, and deficit reductions will either prolong or exacerbate the recession. Keep in mind two things, though: This Keynesian viewpoint, that capitalism should be "wisely managed" by really, really smart people (like Christina Romer) is what actually got us into this recession to begin with, and secondly, that for every PhD that feels the way Romer does, I can find one that disagrees.

The thing is, Romer may be right. I don't believe that she is, and her little OpEd is too flawed to convince me otherwise. I may suffer from confirmation bias, but I'm pretty sure that Christina Romer, who has built her career on the New Keynsian point of view, and the IMF, which survives off of funding from countries running large deficits, are just as susceptible to such biases as I am. And that's why I won't entrust to them my economic future and my economic decision making.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The right way to think about taxes

Pick a neighbor (that you like, or a friend, if you hate your neighbors). Let's call that neighbor (or friend) "Steve". Now, pick a government provided service.

Are you comfortable with putting Steve in jail if he refused to help pay for that service?

That is a completely proper way to view taxes and government spending in general because that is precisely how things function. (See why it only works if you like Steve?)

Now, it's easy to say, "sure, I think Steve deserves to go to jail if he doesn't pay his fair share to support local law enforcement". Obviously, there are many legitimate functions of government that make us comfortable with the fact that we fund our government by threat of force (i.e., don't pay your taxes, and you go to jail; tell the police that you refuse to go jail over taxes, and violence is guaranteed to result).

But what about this one? "I think Steve deserves to go to jail if he doesn't pay his fair share to buy 14 copies of Harold & Kumar go to White Castle for the local library."

Of course not. No sane person would ever say that. Yet, the Chicago Public Library has 14 copies of Harold & Kumar go to White Castle on DVD.

Sane people will, however, often respond this way: "well, Steve's fair share for 14 DVDs of a movie that actually makes viewers more stupid as they watch it is only 1% of 1 penny, so it's reasonable to expect him to have to pay it." (this is that whole "distributed costs, concentrated benefits" part of economics that they don't teach in government schools)

My reply: So, you are willing to send police to Steve's house, understanding that violence may ensue, to collect one penny if he refuses to duly support easy public access to Harold & Kumar? You think 1 penny is worth taking away one person's freedom?

Again, no sane person would say they support depriving a person of their basic liberties over one penny. And in the real world, it's not one penny, it's trillions of pennies being spent every year on things the government has no legitimate business funding.

Let's try some more: Would you put Steve in jail if he refused to pay for his share of...

...the poor-kid-down-the-street's Algebra textbook?
...your son's Algebra textbook?
...the rich-guy's-son-next-door's Algebra textbook?
...your school's football team's bus trip to play in the state finals?
...the county park on the other side of the state?
...the state park in another state?
...the local fire department's boat?
...the pension, after 20 years of service, at 90% of a $175,000 a year salary for the captain of the fire department's boat?
...airport security?
...the local NFL team's new stadium?
...a staff of 50 for a county commission on human rights?
...maintenance on the fire department's main fire engine?

This list is endless, of course, and the answers you give will probably vary from "yes", to "no", to, "ooohh, that one's a tough call". Your answers also might depend on whether or not you think Harold & Kumar are hilarious.

The next time you think the government should do something, ask yourself if you are willing to see Steve thrown in jail if he refused to help pay for it. Oh, and you ARE Steve.

Tea Party conservatism explained

Here are three good 10 minute videos on the basic platform of what I'll call "Tea Party Conservatism" in this context (although I think "Libertariansim" is probably more accurate).

In the first, Mr. Wittle explains what would seemingly be a popular concept: those who advocate a limited government believe that you should be able to make your own decisions. It's hard to believe how much resistance there is to that idea.

Next, Mr. Wittle discusses the current state of our elite ruling class and why it's probably a reasonable idea to limit its power. Again, you think this would be an easy sell, yet I'm amazed at how many people simply don't want the responsibility that comes with life and willingly turn control of their lives over to others. (Note: if you don't have time to watch all three, this is the one I'd skip)

And lastly, Mr. Wittle attempts to educate on a topic for which our government school system has spectacularly failed: basic economics.

HT to Taking Hayek Seriously

Saturday, January 23, 2010

What a difference a week makes

When I wrote my last post, about a week ago, I was feeling pretty down about the direction things are going in my country. Since then, several things have happened to make me more optimistic than I have been in at least a year.

1) Scott Brown wins Mass
2) The Supreme Court actually defends the Constitution
3) Air American shuts down
4) Barney Frank suggests shutting down Fannie and Freddie
5) Ben Bernanke is losing his supporters

The first two points are solid, tangible wins for liberty. The last 3 are simply signs that the American people are coming to the realization that President Obama's change is not really the kind of change that will make things better for the majority of Americans.

On a side note, one thing I find particularly amusing is that so-called-progressives will lament both points 2 and 3 together, without admitting that Air American was, and always has been, an exploitation of loopholes in campaign finance laws that were just struck down. In other words, Air American was a perfect illustration of how useless the McCain-Feingold "reform" was anyway. Air America did nothing but lose money throughout its entire existence, but it provided a mechanism for wealthy left-liberals to funnel huge sums of money into their political cause that would have otherwise been deemed illegal.

Points 4 and 5 simply tell me that the American people are finally realizing that both our government's involvement in housing and the ever ending meddling of the Federal Reserve are somehow connected to the economic problems that we currently face. I believe admitting there is a problem is the first step in the 12 step program to recovery.

Finally, to cap off my happy week, I won a pair of business class tickets to Europe in a drawing on Thursday. So, I'm in a pretty good mood.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Special Interst Group Strikes Deal with Obama

Apparently, "union leaders" now have a seat at the legislative table. I'm actually a bit surprised at how unashamedly, out in the open this is. Remember kids, it's only a "Special Interest Group" if you aren't a member of said group.

I haven't written much lately primarily because I've been quite busy with a new job, but also because I find the whole situation so depressing. A government's regulation of a fractional reserve banking system of its own design fails, as any "Austrian School" economist would predict, yet that same government is able to pin the blame on "market failure" (and the Austrian School economists are still considered loony by the mainstream economists). People are acting like "greed" (or what I like to refer to as "rational self interest") is a newly discovered attribute that is only to be found in lower Manhattan. Yes, regulators could obviously not be expected to anticipate that people might try to profit from regulatory incompetence. So, now the country is running as fast as it can into the brick wall of Marxism and ever-expanding the domain of the state. Yes, because we've never seen that go wrong before.

Of course, it doesn't help that we don't teach economics in our failing public school system (I didn't encounter economics until grad school at a private university) because the teachers themselves place their own economic interest above the well being of those whom they profess to serve (again, that's perfectly rational and to be expected, but our education regulators refuse to see it). In other words, teachers can only make themselves worse off if every student that graduates from High School actually understood the economic consequences of minimum wages and trade unionism.

Those who love liberty see little to be happy about lately. Actually, the fact that the federal reserve will probably devalue my student loans through high inflation is a plus....assuming I can maintain my wages...

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Don't trust his virtue

"If someone uses [the false choice ], and seems to do it deliberately, don't trust his virtue. He's not interested in a reasonable argument."
- Jay Heinrichs

"And I will not accept the status quo as a solution."
- President Barack Obama

So there we have it: the choice we have before us is to either forumulate and accept sweeping change, or keep the status quo. Incremental steps that introduce positive change, and that allow us to learn from and adjust as we go, are not an option. A plan that would allow us to gradually shift the responsibility of insuring from the employer to the person is not to be put forth. No, the President only gives us the choice between doing nothing and extreme reform.

I call that a false choice.

Few people object to health care portability-- that health care shouldn't be dependent on your job. To the contrary, most people believe that this arrangement has provided the misaligned incentives that have produced the miserable state of affairs we find ourselves in today.

Why not work on incrementally undoing the damage that our government has already caused in our health care system before turning them lose on their next best guess on what to do? The government has already proven that it can not create and maintain efficient and effective regulatory systems in banking, social insurance, limited health care (VA, medicare, medicaid), aviation (FAA), and, I argue, law. Why is the choice being limited to either doing nothing or letting the government birth another inefficient and ineffective system?

Give us more choices. Give us real choices. Give us smaller choices and you'll also be more likely to find more compromise and broader support.

Imagine if every time you had to buy shoes, you could only chose between $5 Velcro sneakers or $500 hand-made Ferragamos. It's not unreasonable that many would chose the $5 option. Likewise, it is not unreasonable that, given the choice the President is laying down before us, the status quo appears to be the better option.

In this case, the President's rhetorical False Choice may actually be working against him.

* quotes taken from Heinrichs, Jay. 2007. Thank You For Arguing. p. 178, and the President's speech before congress on September 10th, 2009.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A bridge into the unknown?

Remember when "journalism" meant objective, fact-based reporting? Yeah, me neither.

This is a slightly mean spirited post, and I'm not real proud of that, but this AP "article" is a great example of why my respect for the press is in a state of accelerating decline. Not only is it just "not news", it's crappy journalism, written in a style that suggests the author spends a lot of her free time working on a really bad novel. Some of my favorite (in a "least" sort of way) quotes:
"he (Obama) is seen as a bridge that leads toward the country's next era — a guide into the new unknown."
Well, at least we finally got rid of the old unknown. The new unknown is way better. Who the hell builds a bridge into the unknown?

And check out this remarkably continuous block of twaddle (that's my new favorite adjective):
"Why the middle ground, then? Does it hint at a new flexibility? Or is it quintessential American optimism, tempered by the pragmatism of a country growing up? Are the nation's problems subverting knee-jerk politics?

Or perhaps this is a reflection of Obama himself as he straddles issue after issue with a management style that's both pragmatic and idealistic, but also leaves him open to criticism that he's failing to lead.

Also perhaps this: Facing the possibility of American decline, people may simply be at a loss for what to do — and looking, as so often before, to their president to guide them."

Why all the questions? Do they hint at a lack of content? Or is it quintessential journalist trying to meet the editor's line count quota? Are the author's politics subverting her ability to do her job?

Or perhaps this is reflective of a journalist who tries to straddle issue after issue with a writing style that's both pseudo-objective and faux-insightful, but still leaves her open to criticism that she's failing in her role as a journalist.

And also perhaps this: Facing the possibility of American journalism decline, many people may be at a loss for who to read -- and looking, as so often before, to the AP to the guide them.

Yeah, I just did that.

The piece could be equally at home in either The Onion or in Time Magazine, but has no business coming through the AP wire as "news".

I still can't believe she opened a "news article" paragraph with "And also perhaps this:". Why not just say, "Oh, and here is some more crap I just thought up". Here is a tip to any journalists out there: "perhaps" is a flag word that says "I'm about to throw objectivity out the window and inject my own opinion, err, I mean, analysis".

The funny thing is, a quick search about the author, Liz Sidoti, reveals that those on the left and the right both despise her. Apparently, she bought Senator McCain some donuts when he was running for President.

I'm not mad at her, though. I am mad at her editor, and whoever hired her editor. They are the real problem. Writers write; it someone else's job to decide what actually gets published. Those are the people that are really destroying their industry.

Both Republicans and Democrats (not to mention us "Old Whigs") deserve better "journalism". Then again, perhaps a people gets the press corps it deserves...

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Two Random Thoughts on Positive Rights

Part of the health care reform debate going on in the United States right now touches on whether health care is a right. As you can probably imagine, I state flatly that health care is not a right, and reject completely the notion of "positive rights" in general. A positive right is one which requires that you take from one, forcibly or under the threat of force (which includes taxes), in order to fulfill.

For those that do believe in positive rights (i.e., those that believe health care is a right), I offer this: do you also support the government provisioning of firearms to all who cannot afford them? By the prevailing logic of positive rights, the right to life (liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) is meaningless if not supported by the right to health care. Using that exact same pattern of logic, the U.S. Second Amendment, which provides the people the right to bear arms, is meaningless if not supported by the possession of arms.

The other problem I have with many of the supporters of positive rights is that they, generally speaking, assume that anyone who opposes health care as a right are against the poor, the disadvantaged, &c. However, the two issues are orthogonal. It is easy for me to reject the notion of positive rights, yet still believe that it is perfectly legitimate for a democracy to chose to provision for a certain level of basic health care to genuinely disadvantaged groups, much the same way that we, as a nation, try to feed and house those less fortunate. I just hold that this is a form of collective charity. The recipients of such benevolent benefits should be thankful that they have received something from others that they have no legitimate claim to. It is a big difference that simply recognizes the difference between a gift and an entitlement. Thus, to say that health care is not a right is not to say that we should not seek ways to help others.

Friday, July 31, 2009

An Inconvenient Consensus?

If you go against the consensus of climate change scientists, then the left will call you a traitor. But the left has no problem ignoring the consensus view of economists that price controls cause shortages and minimum wages increase unemployment among unskilled workers.

The latest affront to Economics 101 to come from the Hill appears to be a move to limit price increases for health insurance. As mentioned above, price controls lead to shortages (or black markets, or the very creative use of loopholes like you see for apartments in New York). You would think that the D.C. crowd would learn from Florida's mistakes, where insurance price controls forced the state's largest property insurer to seek an exit from writing policies in the state.

Now, here is the real question: are politicians really this ignorant of economics, or are they fully aware but count on the popularity of the measures getting them re-elected and hope that the failures won't amass before they retire? I used to believe the former, but lately I am thinking it may be the latter.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Rule of Law, or Military Coup?

I was in Europe when I learned of the ouster of Honduran President Zelaya and it was very quickly apparent to me that the media, CNN Europe in particular (which is horrendous enough to deserve its own post on my part), could not tell the difference between the rule of law and a military coup. For anyone who still holds that Zelaya was unlawfully removed from power, please read "The Path Forward For Honduras" over at the WSJ. Honduras should be praised for holding their own president subject to the rule of the law. Too many are too slow to realize that it is our constitution and the rule of law that protects our rights, not democracy. The Weimar Republic of 1930's Germany demonstrated quite well that a democracy is only as good as its constitution. I would say that Honduras's constitution has done what a good constitution should , even if its provisions are a little different from what we are used to (no impeachment process, the use of military instead of police forces to remove Zelaya).