Monthly Archives: March 2010

And How’d That Work Out For Them?

Ezra Klein, on Congressional bending of the rules*:

Here are some things that happened on the night the GOP pushed the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit through the House of Representatives:

A 15-minute vote was scheduled, and at the end of 15 minutes, the Democrats had won. The Republican leadership froze the clock for three hours while they desperately whipped defectors. This had never been done before. The closest was a 15-minute extension in 1987 that then-congressman Dick Cheney called “the most arrogant, heavy-handed abuse of power I’ve ever seen in the 10 years that I’ve been here.”

Democrats, who are currently trying to pass health-care reform in a way that doesn’t break congressional rules but does upset some Republicans, should take note.

This episode, as well as the continual push for spending and expansion of government that accompanied these tactics, may have won the day but lost the war.

One must ask why a party with full control of Congress needed to threaten some members and bribe others to get their reform passed? To this I see two potential reasons:

  1. They truly believed that the legislation was improper for the federal government.
  2. They were scared their constituents would punish them at the ballot box for their mistreatment of the public purse.

If the former, changing their vote and voting against their principles should reflect poorly on their character. If the latter (which I believe to be the case), at least it proves one thing: they were right.

After several years of George W.C.C. Bush** and Republican control of Congress, conservatives expected several things. Tax cuts, of course, which they got. Control over the size and growth of government spending, though, which they didn’t. Eventually the cry from many on the right seemed to be “if they’re going to spend like this anyway, we might as well elect Democrats!” Those on the right who continued to argue against such an idea (Hannity, Limbaugh, et al.) were reduced to the argument that while these Republicans are bad, those Democrats are assuredly worse.

The end result was that the party’s core voting block, fiscal conservatives, stayed home a few elections in a row and turned the Congress over to Democrats. And where did this occur? In Congressional districts where seats were vulnerable…

…just like the Blue Dog seats.

Why don’t the Democrats play hardball? Because enough of them know that passing this bill will end their political careers, and a few of them are just getting their posterior imprints comfortable when they ousted Republicans in 2008 or 2006. They want another few decades in Congress, not another 10 months.

They saw the results of bold action that might upset voters, and they’re certainly not in a hurry to repeat the carnage.
» Read more

FacebookGoogle+RedditStumbleUponEmailWordPressShare

The Four Scariest Words Of Markets: “It’s Different This Time”

The Economist Free Exchange blog points me to Steve Waldman and an interesting question:

Suppose the good guys win. Better yet, suppose they had never lost. Suppose banks had never ventured beyond conservatively prudent lending; that there had been no housing, internet, or credit bubble. Forlorn cul-de-sacs surrounded by mouldering homes were never cut from the Arizona desert. Webvan and pets.com were rejected straight off by investors rather than soaring against all reason then dying in an unreasonably sudden collapse.

In a world without bubbles and, let’s not mince words, in a world without fraud in substance if not in law, would we, or how could we, have enjoyed two decades of near “full employment” and apparent growth? Without all the internet companies that were forseeably destined to fail, without all the housing construction, without all the spending by employees whom we know now and should have known then were not actually participating in economic production, without all the spending by people feeling rich on stock or housing gains that would eventually collapse in their or someone else’s arms, what kind of economy would we have built?

He goes on to defend FDR in the wake of the Great Depression and suggest that the reforms FDR built into the economy set the stage for a more stable and long-lasting postwar boom. There’s a lot of “what if?” to be played there, and I’m not going to wade into that one.

What I am going to argue against is the attempt to lump the internet bubble and the housing/credit bubble as if all bubbles are equal. Of course, there are parallels. The biggest one that I always — as a contrarian — harp on is the belief during bubbles that “it’s different this time!” During the internet bubble, people seemed willing to throw money at companies that had no business model, no revenue or expected revenue stream, just because they ended in .com. During the housing/credit bubble, people were willing to stretch farther than ever historically prudent because they believed that the complex financial instruments spread the risk as far away from them as possible — and besides, “housing has never had a nationwide crash!”

But I personally believe that during the internet bubble, it indeed was “different this time”. Not from the standpoint of a bubble, as people were willing to invest in an industry they didn’t understand with no history or easy way to determine who would be the winners and the losers. It was a true measure of “irrational exuberance”, where stock investors got WAY ahead of the fundamentals and valuations soared so quickly that normally prudent investors got sucked in.

But it was different. The world of today shows just how different it was. How many existing business models has the internet broken? Ask the travel agency business. Or the book/DVD sales business. Music sales are replaced by the internet. Newspapers are dying. TV is being transformed (enabled later than “the internet” by the growth of high-speed connectivity and computing power). The 24-hour cable news world has now been replaced by the instant news feed called “twitter”. And of course one of the oldest business models in the world — mail service — has been replaced by a worldwide instant network.

Outside of business models that were destroyed, many have simply been enabled. My boss lives in Virginia; I live in California. I’ve met him in person once. Yet that’s not an impediment to business. Near-ubiquitous connectivity ensures that I can travel to a city to visit customers and be reachable by cell phone, email, and wherever I have wifi my laptop can hook me into any resource I need in my company. These things were in their infancy in the early 90’s — now they’ve changed the way we do business.

The instant communication and vast repository of information the web puts at ones fingertips creates new social networks and niches for all sorts of interests. As a homebrewer, the trials and tribulations of learning to brew in a pre-internet period would have led to a lot more poor-quality, infected, or generally crappy brews. Instead, I have a ready-made resource of “tribal knowledge” willing to answer questions, help someone out, etc. Even here at the blog I’m linked to an entire community of libertarians. Pre-internet, most libertarians thought they were the only one in their community. Now it’s obvious that there are a lot more out here than one would think. Pre-internet, back in my BBS days, to meet people in person from the online world was “weird” and/or “creepy”. Now people meet their spouses through the ‘net.

The internet bubble was a stock bubble — that much is certain. But the internet is a revolutionary transformative technology that is dramatically changing the way society lives and communicates. Much of the internet bubble occurred because people could sense that something big was happening, and they wanted to be a part of it. And they were right.

As far as I can tell, the housing/credit bubble had none of this. The financial innovation of the last decade never really seemed transformative or revolutionary. Houses didn’t suddenly sprout money trees in their backyards, although the HELOC/ReFi ATM may have made it seem like it. House prices started skyrocketing, but the fundamentals (i.e. income, rental parity, etc) never came close to keeping up. Instead of transforming housing, the only transformation was that affordability went out the window, to be only replaced by crushing debt loads and the hopes that appreciation will keep you solvent.

Steve asks in lieu of the bubbles, what kind of economy we would have created. At least with respect to the internet bubble, I’m not sure we’d have done much differently.

The Government Paid Me $10 To Tell Them How Awesome My Job Is

So the receptionist at the office started* walking around handing out envelopes — envelopes larger than a paycheck — which is sometimes not a good sign. But lo and behold, opening the envelope revealed a nice crisp, clean $10 bill courtesy of [a proxy for] the government!

This is an employment survey designed to assess “worker attributes and job characteristics”. It’s funded by the DoL and the ETA [Employment & Training Administration]. And they expect to become “the nation’s primary source of occupational information”.

But my normal railing against government — wondering why they need this source of information, wondering if they’ll be any more “primary” of a source than monster.com, or to point out how the bland questions in their little booklet doesn’t come close to explaining my job — is a whole different discussion. My wheels got spinning when I saw the $10 bill paper-clipped to the front of the paper. After all, they explain quite clearly that it’s a voluntary survey. Yet there’s a $10 bill on the front.

Now, I’ve seen “free” money before. At least once a week I get a check in the mail from some scamming company, and all I need to do to sign up for their service is to cash it. But this is cash. And the survey is voluntary. The worst threat they can make is that if I don’t fill out the survey, they’ll inflate away the value of that $10 note. But they were going to do that anyway, and anyway I spent it before it was worth less than $9, I’m sure.

Immediately it’s clear that they’re getting a lot more from DoL/ETA to run this survey. It makes me wonder what kind of model their funding is based on. Is it a pay-per-completed-survey model? If so, one would think the gov’t is paying a much higher price for each completed survey. Is it a simple grant? One wouldn’t think so, because the company (RTI) running the survey could probably get higher compliance by sending out higher numbers of surveys overall.

Part of me wonders why they sent out cash rather than something that was contingent on completing the survey — but I know why they didn’t do that. If I’d received something like that, I’d have pitched it. If I’d received something traceable (like a check), I’d have pitched it. Frankly, if they hadn’t had a web-enabled response form [and I’d been forced to “write” a response], I’d have pitched it. Heck, if they’d told me that compliance is mandatory, that’d probably make me more likely to pitch it — assuming, of course, that doing so wouldn’t get me in trouble with the nice folks who sign my paychecks.

So I understand why they send out the cash. After all, even I — as someone who cares little about government intelligence-gathering — ended up filling it out due the implicit guilt of taking the “free” $10.

But what I don’t understand is why this data is so worthwhile that the federal government would spend so much money collecting it? Actually, I understand that too. It’s not their money.
» Read more

Time To Buy Prostheses For My Junk

I have to think that’s the only acceptable reaction to this:

The Transportation Security Administration is spreading airport body-scanner technology across the country.

A TSA official said Friday that units will be fielded next week in Chicago, and in the coming months at Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; San Jose, Calif.; Columbus, Ohio; San Diego; Charlotte, N.C.; Cincinnati; Los Angeles; Oakland, Calif.; and Kansas City.

They are among 150 machines bought with money from the federal stimulus package signed into law by President Obama last year.

I figure if they’re gonna look, I might as well give them a show, right? Now, I’m not talking about some Dirk Diggler-esque salamander halfway down my leg…

I’m just wondering what it would take to get this made out of rubber?

Hat Tip: Jason Pye @ UL

Quote Of The Day

The state of Washington is currently in process on a bill that will impound any car for 12 hours where the driver is arrested on suspicion of DUI. This will be automatic — whether the car is owned by an innocent third party, or whether someone else in the vehicle can legally drive does not exempt the auto from the policy.

But here’s the quote:

The Towing and Recovery Association of Washington is one of the main lobbying organizations pushing for the adoption of the law.

Really?! I’m SHOCKED!

Who’da thunk the tow truck lobby cared so much about the children?

Hat Tip: Overlawyered

Liz Cheney, Bill Kristol, And The Shameful NeoCon Attack On America’s Legal System

The latest controversy of the day among many on the right, led principally by Liz Cheney and William Kristol, involves attacking Justice Department lawyers who represented alleged members of al Qaeda or the Taliban detained at Guantanmo Bay.

As Kristol puts it:

[L]awyers now at the DOJ worked on the historic Boumediene case. That case established the Gitmo detainees’ right to challenge their detention in habeas corpus hearings. In effect, the habeas proceedings have taken sensitive national security and detention questions out of the hands of experienced military and intelligence personnel, and put them into the hands of federal judges with no counterterrorism training or expertise. That lack of experience shows. For example, in one recent decision a federal judge compared al Qaeda’s secure safe houses (where training, plotting and other nefarious activities occur) to “youth hostels.” The habeas decisions are filled with errors of omission, fact, and logic.

Still other lawyers did work on behalf of these well known terrorists: Jose Padilla (an al Qaeda operative dispatched by senior al Qaeda terrorists to launch attacks inside America in 2002), John Walker Lindh (the American Taliban), and Saleh al Marri (who 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed sent to America on September 10, 2001 in anticipation of committing future attacks).

Now, we don’t know what assignments these lawyers have taken on inside government. But we do know that they openly opposed the American government for years, on behalf of al Qaeda terrorists, and their objections frequently went beyond rational, principled criticisms of detainee policy.

Not everyone on the right agrees with Kristol and Cheney on this, of course. Two former Bush Administration DOJ officials, John Bellinger III and Peter D. Keisler, have come to the defense of what Cheney, Kristol, and their acolytes are calling “The Al Qaeda Seven”. and one very conservative blogger who has no love for the Obama Administration puts it this way:

The lawyers who represent criminals do not represent them because they support crime, they represent them because they support our system of justice. So too those who represented alleged members of al-Qaeda do not support their beliefs but our beliefs in the right to a fair trial and the right to a lawyer. Our system of justice depends on lawyers vigorously advocating for the rights of criminals to receive a fair trial. I couldn’t do it–I’m more of a “try ‘em and fry ‘em” kind of lawyer–but somebody has to do it. And to seek to disqualify lawyers for simply doing their jobs because we don’t like who they represented is plain stupid. Oppose the Obama Administration and Attorney General Holder when they are wrong, not merely for the sake of opposing them.

As Walter Dellinger points out in today’s Washington Post, this attack on the legal profession is nothing short of shameful:

It never occurred to me on the day that Defense Department lawyer Rebecca Snyder and Lt. Cmdr. William Kuebler of the Navy appeared in my law firm’s offices to ask for our assistance in carrying out their duties as military defense lawyers that the young lawyer who worked with me on that matter would be publicly attacked for having done so. And yet this week that lawyer and eight other Justice Department attorneys have been attacked in a video released by a group called Keep America Safe (whose board members include William Kristol and Elizabeth Cheney) for having provided legal assistance to detainees before joining the department. The video questions their loyalty to the United States, asking: “DOJ: Department of Jihad?” and “Who are these government officials? . . . Whose values do they share?”

(…)

That those in question would have their patriotism, loyalty and values attacked by reputable public figures such as Elizabeth Cheney and journalists such as Kristol is as depressing a public episode as I have witnessed in many years. What has become of our civic life in America? The only word that can do justice to the personal attacks on these fine lawyers — and on the integrity of our legal system — is shameful. Shameful.

Moreover, as one blogger points out, these lawyers were doing what every lawyer does:

[L]awyers represent clients. That’s what they do. It’s a mistake to assume that because Lawyer A represents Client B, he approves of whatever it is that Client B was accused of. He may genuinely believe that Client B is innocent. Even if he doesn’t, he almost certainly believes that Client B is entitled to a fair trial to establish his guilt or innocence. And he absolutely believes that he wants to collect his paycheck, in return for which he must do what he does, which is represent clients (by either personal hiring or government appointment to the job).

Just ask a guy named John Adams:

“I. . .devoted myself to endless labour and Anxiety if not to infamy and death, and that for nothing, except, what indeed was and ought to be all in all, sense of duty. In the Evening I expressed to Mrs. Adams all my Apprehensions:That excellent Lady, who has always encouraged me, burst into a flood of Tears, but said she was very sensible of all the Danger to her and to our Children as well as to me, but she thought I had done as I ought, she was very willing to share in all that was to come and place her trust in Providence.

“Before or after the Tryal, Preston sent me ten Guineas and at the Tryal of the Soldiers afterwards Eight Guineas more, which were. . .all the pecuniary Reward I ever had for fourteen or fifteen days labour, in the most exhausting and fatiguing Causes I ever tried: for hazarding a Popularity very general and very hardly earned: and for incurring a Clamour and popular Suspicions and prejudices, which are not yet worn out and never will be forgotten as long as History of this Period is read…It was immediately bruited abroad that I had engaged for Preston and the Soldiers, and occasioned a great clamour….

“The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers or Witches, anciently. As the Evidence was, the Verdict of the Jury was exactly right.

Yes, that’s right. One of America’s greatest Founders, a member of the Continental Congress, and Second President of the United States defended the British soldiers accused of killing five people in the Boston Massacre. He did it because he believed that everyone deserved a defense.

It’s a fact of life that lawyers who practice criminal law, and sometimes even us civil attorneys, will eventually represent disreputable clients. Some do it because they are doing their job, some do it because they believe everyone deserves a defense, and they deserve our thanks, not our condemnation.

O/P: Below The Beltway

Ezra Klein And The Seeds Of Cynicism

One of Ezra’s regular commenters is running for Congress, and had this to say:

You are way off, Ezra. The time breakdown on fundraising during a campaign is more like 50-70%. It’s absolutely horrifying. I used to be a policy wonk who could talk the most minute details of big bills and who actually read most of the health care bill. Now that I’m running in the XXXX XXXX (Dem primary), I spend all my time meeting with prospective donors and cold-calling past Dem donors. It’s sad that when I’m the closest I’ve ever been to shaping policy, I’m also spending the least time in the past decade focused on immersing myself in it.

I’m not surprised. I long ago lost faith in the system, and have said for a very long time that it is structurally incapable of fixing its problems. The more I study (and having just finished Hayek’s “The Fatal Conceit” I’ve studied from the master), I think that fundamentally the problem is not solvable.

But Ezra hasn’t reached that point yet. He’s still wondering why the power-brokers don’t want to break down the system which gives them power:

What I can’t understand, though, is why the drumbeat for public funding of elections isn’t loudest within Congress itself. After all, congresspeople regularly say that they hate this part of the job. When they retire, they complain about it constantly. And yet, they don’t seem particularly interested in changing it, even though they would be the most direct beneficiaries. I guess the answer is that once you’ve constructed a fundraising network you have an enormous advantage over competitors who have to do all that work from scratch, and so blocking campaign finance reform makes continued reelection more likely. But can that really be worth the day-to-day misery?

Now, the difference between Ezra Klein and I in this case is hope. He has hope — albeit false hope — that the system is fixable. I’ve lost that hope and think it’s just time to stop asking the system to fix problems in the first place.

Michael Cannon of Cato is a healthcare buff and more of a regular foe of Ezra Klein, and he has predicted that “Ezra Klein will die a libertarian. And it won’t be a deathbed conversion, either.” There may come the day when he battles so hard — in vain — to fix the system that he realizes that he’s tilting at windmills. Perhaps Cannon is correct. Klein is young enough — and smart enough — to learn that yes, in fact, politicians care so much about retaining their power that they’ll endure all sorts of misery to continue to “serve”. Raised in close view of the dysfunctional government of California, and now seeing the dysfunction of the Senate first-hand in the health-care debate, he’s unlikely to maintain his faith much longer.

Klein approaches the healthcare debate much the same way that I once advocated for the FairTax. He assumes that the issue is important enough to transcend politics and interest groups. He assumes not only that Congress can create a fair, compassionate, cost-effective government run system without unnecessary rationing, but also that they’ll actually ignore all their incentives to saddle it with restrictions, appease interest groups, and throw so many government (& union) provisions into the works to push the cost into the stratosphere. Much like I once thought that the idea of the FairTax was so compelling that Congress would respond to voters and common sense and act counter to their own electoral interests to enact it “as written”. He’ll be proven wrong, of course. My only hope is that it doesn’t require such a monstrosity to be enacted to make him see the error of his ways.

National Grammar Day Open Thread

I am a stickler for grammar, but it is also one of my pet peeves.

So on National Grammar Day, I’d like to post a few of them.

#1 – Nested parentheses: The general grammar rule is never to nest parentheses. But as an engineer with the combination of math, computer code, and boolean logic backgrounds, nested parentheses seem so natural to me that I largely try to ignore this rule. I’ve been getting better about this, such that when I first write something using nested parentheses I make sure to take a close look at it to determine if there’s a better way to phrase it such that it doesn’t require nesting. But if I think it’s required, I ignore the rule.

#2 – Punctuation inside quotes: I don’t like putting punctuation inside quotes unless necessary. Take this following sentence. Did Bob ask you “where are you going?” It’s a question inside a question. I’d like to put a question mark before and after the quotation marks, because there is a question nested inside the quotes and the entire sentence is a question. Or likewise, the following sentence. Did Bob say “the sky is blue”? Correct grammar is to put the question mark inside the quote. But “the sky is blue” is a statement, not a question.

So I’ll open it to the floor. Feel free to fill the comments with your own grammar pet peeves; alternatively to pick apart any mistakes I’ve made in this post.

Hat Tip: Kevin Drum

Quote Of The Day

Atlanta:

A 45-year-old woman, charged with ending a domestic dispute by killing her 26-year-old husband of five days, is a registered lobbyist for a group fighting domestic violence.

Watch out for those cougars, gentlemen. They may seem exotic and human-friendly in the wild, but once they have you in captivity you become their toy — and they play rough.

Hat Tip: QandO

A Lack Of Output

Anyone who is still dropping by on a regular basis has undoubtedly noticed the cobwebs and tumbleweed.

For that I, and we, apologize.

We are not professional bloggers; rather we are blogging professionals. All of the contributors here have other obligations to attend to out there in the world of “real life”. It’s common at times for some of us to be more ready to write while others are occupied — it seems that we’ve hit a spell where just about all of us are slammed. Whether it be personal or professional, positive or negative, persistent or transient — and it’s been any combination of the above, depending on the author* — it’s gotten in the way of spending time writing for The Liberty Papers.

The good news is that I think things will be improving moving forward. Some of the issues being faced have definite end points in time, and others seem to have peaked and should allow more attention to the blog. I expect and hope things to start picking back up this month and return to a more consistent form from there.

In the meantime, we hope you hang in there with us, as the forces of collectivism take no respite from their cause. For as C.S. Lewis pointed out, they believe they’re working for our benefit:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

» Read more

1 2 3