Author Archives: Brad Warbiany

Book Review — The Cult Of The Presidency, Gene Healy

America has a love affair with the Presidency. Unfortunately, that love affair is a codependent, abusive relationship, and one in a very long string of the same. It wasn’t always this way. But to fix the problem, as with most abusive relationships, we need to fix ourselves first — ask what it is we want from a President and whether there’s ANYONE in the field, ANY year, who can provide it.

Thankfully, Gene Healy, based on his book of a few years ago, Cult Of The Presidency, can tell us why we keep picking megalomaniacs. And for a limited time, Cato is providing this therapy for free (in electronic/eBook form)!

In Cult Of The Presidency Healy provides a detailed and informative review of the [lack of] power wielded by the office of the President in the first century or so of our Republic. He then details some of the many expansions of power the office has seized, starting in the Progressive Era and moving forward through the decades and personalities to Bush’s administration, focusing on the enormous change in warmaking powers, domestic spying, and national “Father Figure” on the matters of domestic policy that the executive branch has become. Finally, he discusses many of the changes in Congress and the electoral/campaigning process that have occurred over the last century, moving from a party-elite driven process to the current national primary structure, which has changed the office and the type of person who would seek it. Finally, he offers some limited hope for a future where Americans, through nothing more than a lack of respect and trust in the office and its inhabitants, might eventually walk the nation back from what he hopes is the high water mark of executive power. But he freely admits that hope might just be wishful thinking on his part.

All in all, this was an excellent read. For as much as I try to be informed about history and civics, there was a LOT in here that was new material for me. For example, I hadn’t realized that the politicking process was so different prior to, say, the 1950’s than it is today. I had always assumed that the current system of state Presidential primary votes to nominate a candidate had been the standard for most of our history — it turns out it’s a very recent phenomenon. Much like Restoring The Lost Constitution did for me with the history of Constitutional law, the book took a topic about which many libertarians have bits and chunks of information, and much more clearly and methodically explained the changes both over time and with the specific Presidents involved.

I don’t often have anywhere near enough time to read. This is a book that I am *extremely glad* I finally got around to reading. It’s a book that I’d gladly recommend at Amazon’s Kindle price of $8.49, but with Cato giving it away for free right now, I’d suggest jumping at it immediately.

We’re Here! We’re Gluttons! Get Used To It!

Over at Megan McArdle’s place, she’s on a leave of absence for some as-yet-unnamed project. In her stead, Katherine Mangu-Ward picks up one of Megan’s common refrains about Americans and obesity:

Fat people know they’re fat. They know why they’re fat. And they know that being fat kinda sucks.

This may seem obvious, but think about how many anti-obesity initiatives — federal, state, and local–are aimed at promoting the message that being obese or overweight has terrible consequences and/or warning grazers and gorgers off specific food choices.

Two new papers from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo economist Michael L. Marlow take on this weird gap between the problem government anti-obesity efforts seem to be trying to solve and problems that actually exist. Obesity is an expensive, sticky problem, no doubt about that. But Americans themselves aren’t deluded on that point. The fat=bad message has been sent and received, thank you very much. Yet government interventions like menu labeling requirements, public awareness campaigns about the dangers of sugary soda, zoning regulations to limit the prevalence of fast food restaurants, programs to eliminate “food deserts” and bring supermarkets to poor neighborhoods are multiplying. They fail, writes Marlow in a Mercatus Center working paper out this month, because they are little more than taxpayer-funded sermons to the chubby, chubby choir.

One of Megan’s constant points is that for most people, weight is almost destined by genetics to stay within a certain range. Try to stay outside that range very long, and you have to rely on near-superhuman willpower. And it’s an argument that probably holds a certain amount of weight in an evolutionary biology world. If food is constantly scarce, there’s really no genetic basis to select for overeating or not, as everyone is forced by scarcity and constant activity to remain slim. But in the abundance of modern America, that external scarcity doesn’t exist. Calories are cheap and plentiful, to the point that obesity is a major problem for America’s poor — not something you see in most countries.

I’ve had to fight this battle personally for the last decade, as my weight has risen and fallen. Now, I’m unlucky in the sense that I think my “natural” weight puts me in the overweight category of BMI, but perhaps lucky in the fact that even when I’ve been in the obese category, I don’t look gargantuan. At 6’5″, my body can hide a lot of weight.

Since high school, my weight has fluctuated anywhere from 210 to 275 pounds. I don’t put much stock in BMI, because the best shape I’ve been in my life — exiting high school after 7 years of regular martial arts training — I was 225 lbs. That’s a BMI of 26.7, squarely “overweight”… And I was nothing of the sort. I dropped through college as I shed muscle mass to about 210 leaving college (still at the BMI number of 25), and then got a job where I made enough money to afford a lot more food & beer. Since then, I’ve been up to 260+, down to 230, up to 275, and now down to 240 (and dropping).

How have I reached those weights? Well, it’s not because I didn’t know what I was ingesting. It’s because I didn’t care. I know some people (like my sister-in-law) for whom food isn’t really a driver of life. I don’t understand those people. I love food. I really love beer. And when I say food & beer, I’m not talking about mixed field green salads and Michelob Ultra… I’m talking about deep dish pizza and double IPA. I want to eat, and I want to eat a lot. My name is Brad, and I am a glutton.

Right now, I’m trying to take that weight off. And I’m doing so by the simplest method — counting calories. A few weeks back, I had out-of-town coworkers over for pizza & beer, and overindulged a bit. The next day, when getting into a political debate with one of my coworkers over the drug war, he mentioned that overeating was like an addiction, and how it must carry so much guilt along with it. I interrupted — the previous day I had basically skipped breakfast & lunch to prepare for the evening, and that pizza & beer (& wings & garlic knots… MMMMM!!!!) evening was 3400 calories, one meal being itself 1200 over my new daily allotment. And I had to tell him that there was no guilt involved. I can eat that much and feel normal, not guilty. In fact, it’s the calorie restriction that feels unnatural — every day I’m hungry and dreaming of food. It’s not a fun way to live!

I know I’ve been at unhealthy weights. When I’ve been at the upper end of the range, I haven’t needed government to tell me that I was trending towards unhealthy & disgusting; I have a wife. Government hasn’t done much to make me thinner, either. While I appreciate the fact that so many restaurants here in CA now have to post calorie counts on menus, it’s not like this information was hard to find before. And the calorie counts wouldn’t make any difference to my behavior _unless I already wanted to lose weight_. It’s purely convenience. My brother-in-law is roughly the size I was when I was at my heaviest, and has no desire to change right now — the fact that California mandates restaurants post this information doesn’t change his behavior at all (as it doesn’t change most peoples’ behavior).

Why are so many Americans fat? Because we like to eat — and we can afford to do so. Willpower is hard — we haven’t needed it for most of human history, when food was scarce. And food is delicious. I like salad, but few things are as satisfying as an italian beef sandwich and some nice salty french fries. On the “Right”, we often suggest that everything would be great about socialism except for the fact that it runs absolutely contrary to human nature. As a result, every government that’s tried socialism has failed in spectacular fashion. Well, everything’s great about dieting except that it runs absolutely contrary to human nature. Is it any wonder that government attempts to make us thin have failed?

Quote Of The Day

From Don Boudreaux. He’s addressing the Cato/Koch lawsuit*, but more specifically addressing the question of ideas-based ideological battles vs. the more common political election-based battles:

At the end of the day in any society, political office holders largely reflect the culture and climate of ideas that prevail in that society. The overwhelming effects of culture and the climate of opinion on actual, day-to-day policies over the long run are unseen. This unseen influence of culture and ideas is, I believe, as the underwater bulk of the iceberg is to the seen tip that looms above the water’s surface.

The seen tip of electoral politics and its current personalities are real; by all means deal with them as best as you can. But don’t ignore the larger, more hulking, ultimately far-more significant and determinative unseen bulk of ideas, prejudices, values, historical narratives, and other cultural elements that lie beneath the surface of electoral politics. Chop off today’s seen tip, and watch some other part of that ‘idea-berg’ rotate upward into view. Unless the ideas, broadly defined, that make up a nation’s political reality are changed, affecting the outcome of today’s election will do vanishingly little to change political reality over the long haul. The new part of the idea-berg that emerges above the surface to replace the lopped-off part will be just as anti-liberty as its predecessor.

This is why I don’t get too involved in the horse race. Sure, there might be a marginal difference in government policy if we replace Obama with Romney, Santorum, or Gingrich. But none of it is really going to move the needle. For as much as Santorum might be an extremist on SoCon issues, every one of the “mainstream” Republicans are likely to govern a lot more “centrist” than firebrand. Romney is a big-business moderate, Santorum is a pro-union “compassionate conservative”, and Gingrich wants big government, but wants it to be run in a lean Six Sigma efficient manner. And for a much of a hardcore socialist the Right has believed Obama was going to be, he’s largely deferred to let Congress craft the proposals put in place over his term, not played FDR power games.

Is there an answer that can change the iceberg? Maybe, but it’s a long game. Ron Paul is working on moving the needle, but he can’t get elected until the needle moves a lot farther than it has today. If the movement he’s started can continue to find new champions after the 2012 election, we might see meaningful change. But none of it will make any difference in November of this year.

» Read more

Penn Jillette, Seth McFarlane, And The “Stupid or Evil” Political Fallacy

Recently Chris has pointed out (here & here) the stupid/evil fallacy the left often uses* to paint the right. In short, the fallacy goes like this:

1) Republican policies are bad and designed purely to reward the current power structure.
2) If you are a Republican, you then must fall into one of two categories:
a) You’re stupid, and you’re being duped by the rulers of the party.
b) You’re one of the rulers of the party, and therefore evil.

Usually leftists assume the person they’re talking to — if their name isn’t Rove or Koch — falls into the “stupid” category. Interestingly, many of them actually think George W. Bush fell into the “stupid” category, being led around by Cheney, who was in the “evil” category.

Below, I’ve excerpted a passage from Penn Jillette’s book, God, No!**, where he touches on a similar fallacy. It’s more along the lines of the “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” fallacy, but the two are very closely related.

In the below, Penn was on Larry King with Seth McFarlane, discussing tax rates & the Tea Party:

Seth’s problem seemed to be that the Tea Party people were politically in favor of policies that Seth felt were against their own interests. This is a position I’ve heard others take before. Seth wasn’t hating the Tea Party people, he really wanted what he thought was best for them. His heart was in the right place. What bothered him so about the Tea Party was that they didn’t know what was best for their own damn selves. Seth is very talent and works hard, but he also seems to think he was lucky too. That seems reasonable. He had done well, and he didn’t need his taxes any lower. He wanted to pay his share, and he thought his share could be even higher. The Tea Party was pushing for things that would help Seth his own damn self and that were bad for the average Tea Party member. Seth explained that if the Tea Party got their way, Seth would, his own damn self, keep even more damn money. That really bugged him. He couldn’t dig that at all. How could tehse nuts possibly be pushing for things that weren’t in their own immediate self-interest? The Tea Party people were trying to stop the government from doing things that were financially good for the Tea Party individuals themselves. Seth didn’t want people who were much less well-off than he was pushing for things that were good for rich fucks like Seth. I understood taht Seth thought that anyone pushing for something politically not in their own financial self-interest was stupid and/or manipulated by big corproate rich-fuck money. This was my understanding of his position; those aren’t the words that he used. I might be unfairly lumping Seth in with other people I’ve heard talk about this. This is an argument I’ve heard a lot. It’s an argument some liberals I know seem comfortable with.

Huh?

As I see it, any person making this argument is kind of bragging taht his political position is so purely altruistic that it is against his own self-interest. He cares so much about other people, justice, and pure political ideology that he has the moral strength to argue for something that isn’t in his self-interest. I’ve heard a lot of rich Hollywood people make that argument. They seem very proud of it.

On the other hand, if a … I guess the word would be “peasant,” cares enough about other people, justice, and pure political ideology to argue for something that isn’t in his or her puny ignorant best interest, he or she is a manipulated idiot.

The only way this makes sense is if you think that rich people can argue against their own self-interest, but less rich people can’t. Seth, I love you, but this is the United States of America — one doesn’t have to be rich to be guided by what one thinks is right. Morality can trump self-interest in good people of all classes. If it’s good enough for you, it’s good enough for them. Me, well, I’d like my position to be moral and in my self-interest — and I think those aren’t that often mutually exclusive.

Seth and the Tea Party don’t disagree on doing the right thing, they disagree on what the right thing is. I just wish we could all remember that.

Assuming that your ideological opponents sincerely believe — and often have good reasons for believing — the views they espouse seems to be lost in modern political discourse. Perhaps I’m naive, but I find the best policy is always to assume my opponents are arguing in good faith. Only then can you show them why their policies are wrong, even if their goals are admirable. If you start out by impugning their goals, it’s nothing but a waste of words.
» Read more

Should We Force Women To Bear Disabled Children?

Rick Santorum believes that the Obama administration is in favor of some Gattaca-like dystopia, I suppose:

“One of the things that you don’t know about ObamaCare in one of the mandates is they require free prenatal testing,” Santorum began telling about 400 people here. “Why? Because free prenatal testing ends up in more abortions and, therefore, less care that has to be done, because we cull the ranks of the disabled in our society. That too is part of ObamaCare — another hidden message as to what president Obama thinks of those who are less able than the elites who want to govern our country.”

Now, I’m in a weird position to discuss this, because I’m a bit of a pro-life libertarian, but at the same time I’m very libertarian about being pro-life. I think when it comes to my wife and I, I’m very strongly pro-life. But that said, I’m not sure I’m strong enough in the belief in being pro-life that I’d throw a woman or a doctor in a cage for aborting a pregnancy.

My wife and I have two kids, are expecting a third. For the first two, we deliberately declined the amniocentesis because we were willing to bear the child regardless of the results. It seemed that sticking a needle into my wife’s uterus is probably a silly risk to take [despite being a low-risk procedure] when we had no intention of letting the results change our behavior. With the third, it appears that medical technology has advanced to the point now where a blood test & ultrasound can now determine if there’s any major risk-factors, and luckily the results to date are that rather than being a 1 in 200 chance of having a baby with Down’s Syndrome, we’re happy to say that the odds are 1 in 11,000. It is nice to know that.

But do I want to force a woman to bear a child with Down’s? Do I think we should somehow cheer those women as being heroes, as folks like Santorum, who has a disabled child, and Palin, who has a disabled child, are cheered by the right? The responsibility of raising a child is huge, and it’s hard enough to do with a non-disabled child. Do we want to force that on people who are unwilling — or unable — to bear it?

This hits home for my wife and I. In October, we found out that our younger son was diagnosed with autism. We had some idea prior to this that something was amiss, as he wasn’t talking (nor showing much interest in starting, i.e. making the normal child “babble”). Autism is a scary diagnosis, especially with a 2 1/2 year old. With now 4 months of intensive speech therapy, at best we can say that we’re seeing improvement, but it’s slow going. Not a week goes by that my wife doesn’t ask me, “He’s going to talk eventually, right??” Well, I think he is, but we’re not seeing it happen so much yet. He has many of the characteristic behaviors — he’s very picky about environment and routine, not at all interested in interacting with other children [and will throw a fit when they encroach on his space]. Trying to get a haircut requires my wife and I to work together to hold him down in a seat as he screams and struggles while the lady at “Cool Cuts 4 Kids” tries not to cut his head, rather than his hair. At 2 1/2 years old, the first time he ever let me clip his fingernails was last Friday. And the worst thing of all is that he has no concept of language, so while you can sometimes soothe or explain what’s wrong to a 2 1/2 year old, nothing gets through. I believe it will be easier someday, due to all the work that we’re putting in now to intervene, but severe cases of autism sometimes never result in an adult who can function for themselves in society.

As I said, had my wife and I known this prior to his birth, we still would have had him. But had my wife and I known before she’d conceived that this was going to happen, I’m not ashamed to say we might have waited a month to avoid this outcome. I dearly love my son, and I can honestly say that he regularly brings great joy to my life. But it’s hard. It’s really hard. And I know that it’s going to be hard — that he’s going to face difficulties doing “normal” things — all his life. I wouldn’t tell prospective parents that I wish they have an autistic child. Every parent wants to have a child that they can mold into a success, emotionally and intellectually. This diagnosis is a disability that means that we’ll have to work that much harder to overcome. We want him to have all the success that my wife and I have had in life, and that his older brother [and his upcoming younger sibling] have in life. We know, as parents, that we and that he are going to have to work much harder than “typical” for him to achieve that success. We’re willing to take that on; but I can’t say it’s what we would have chosen, all things being equal.

Nor is it only an emotional and parental burden — it is financial. We’re lucky, as parents go. I have an excellent job with pretty good insurance, and a lot of what we’re doing is covered by my insurance or through non-profits funded by the State of CA. That said, I’m on an HSA-driven health care plan, so we’ve got a pretty sizable deductible, and we blew through it in 3 months of his therapy. All told, we’re talking about costs related to the diagnosis and associated other testing that would have cost close to $10K at “book” prices (obviously the insurance-negotiated rates are lower), and ongoing therapy that would cost at least $2K/month at “book” prices, and still at least $1K/month at insurance-negotiated prices. To give our son the level of care that we feel he needs without all the insurance might be possible, but would be extremely painful (likely requiring us to move out of our house to a cheaper rental, or for my wife to get a job outside the house, which we’d especially want to avoid as she needs to keep up with his care & therapy). And it would only be possible for us to do because I’m the exception, rather than the rule, when it comes to economics.

Rick Santorum suggests that Obama wants to “cull the disabled” as a cost-saving measure — it’s easy to say that when you have the level of wealth that Rick Santorum (and to a lesser extent, upper-middle-class folks like myself) have access to. When you don’t have access to the level of care that we can provide, you’re consigning your disabled children to a second-class life. I don’t think that’s a Republican value, nor do I think it’s a Christian value*, to bring people into this world and not be ready and able to give them the tools to succeed in life. Rick Santorum might say “well then you should be chaste and not produce a child” — but being ready and able to provide those tools for a normal child, and being ready and able to provide those tools to a disabled child, are two very different things. (*Full disclosure — I’m neither a Republican nor a Christian, so perhaps I can’t necessarily hold court on those two declarations)

When it comes to autism, unlike something like Down’s, though, the “typical” case can be “recovered”. It’s tough to describe, but I often say that autism is something that makes “normal” things a lot more difficult than they would be for non-disabled people. Most of these difficult things can be language-oriented, and we know that language development occurs in fury in the 0-3 year range. During this time, a child is developing mental pathways in the brain, and it’s much easier at these early years than later in life. One of the critical problems dealing with autism is that we don’t typically know a child is autistic until after he starts displaying speech delays, i.e. after the age of two. This means that the intervention after the age of two to get an autistic child to “catch up” to their more typical peers must be very intense — right now my son is in 8 hours of speech, OT, and ABA therapies every week, and we’re looking to get some of the hours increased. The goal is to slam those neural pathways into place through repetition, because they don’t come naturally.

What does this mean? It means that knowledge that a child is autistic prior to that child’s birth can be a signal to provide therapy for the autism at a much younger age. It means that instead of waiting for a delay to be prevalent, you’re working hard from day 1 to ensure a delay never develops. It still means there’s a lot more work than a typical child, as the neural pathways that the child would normally develop don’t happen on their own. But it means that you can be building those pathways earlier in life, and get better outcomes for those children — something that Rick Santorum and Barack Obama can agree is the goal.

Rick Santorum claims that Obama wants to provide this testing so those children will not be born. As much as I’m against Obamacare, I think Rick Santorum’s positions on abortion suggests that he cares a lot more about making sure those children are born than he cares about what life they’re born into. Those of us in the real world are trying to make good lives for our children — whether we choose to have them or choose not to because we cannot provide an adequate life — and prenatal testing gives valuable information whatever that choice might be.

Will Romney Have To Answer For Polygamy?

Over at David Friedman’s blog, he discusses the thorny position Mormon Presdential candidates (which at the time of posting included Huntsman) may face when taking a position against same-sex marriage. Many opponents of same-sex marriage use the slippery-slope argument that if two consenting gays can marry each other, why not three or more consenting adults of any gender? Most supporters of same-sex marriage are loath to acknowledge that this slippery slope is merely a logical progression of supporting freedom. [I don’t share their concern, nor does Friedman.] But as Friedman points out, it is a bit more difficult to justify a slippery-slope argument when the founders of your faith supported polygamy:

It occurs to me that this raises a potential problem for two of the current crop of Republican candidates. Neither Huntsman nor Romney supports same-sex marriage. Both are Mormons. Surely at some point some curious voter will ask one or the other for his view of polygamy. Given that they are trying to get votes from people who regard polygamy as so obviously wicked that the mere possibility of legalizing it is a convincing argument against legalizing same-sex marriage, what are they to say?

It is true that the Church of Latter-Day Saints abandoned polygamy a century or so back. But it is also true that it was founded by polygamists, throughout its early history regarded polygamy as an important part of its religion, and abandoned it only under severe outside pressure, including military occupation by the U.S. army. Can a believing Mormon really hold that polygamy is not merely a bad idea at the moment but inherently evil? Can someone unwilling to say he believes that polygamy is evil win the Republican nomination?

I can see his point… But by changing a few words, you can make a completely different point:

It is true that the United States abandoned slavery a century and a half back. But it is also true that it was founded by slaveowners, throughout its early history regarded slavery as an important part of its national economy, and abandoned it only through the bloodiest war in the nation’s history, a war fought between the states for the very continuance of the union. Can someone calling themselves a “Classical Liberal” and claiming to represent the views of the Founding Fathers really hold that slavery is not merely a bad idea at the moment but inherently evil? Can someone unwilling to say he believes that slavery is evil win the Republican nomination?

Logically, I think we’re at the same place here (although, again, I consider slavery to be inherently evil but don’t consider polygamy/polyandry to be inherently evil — as long as only occurs with full consent of all parties).

As someone who would call myself a classical liberal, or libertarian, I don’t think there’s any particular difficulty maintaining that slavery is evil while still revering the work that the Founding Fathers did to create America. Slavery is an unfortunate blight on our history. It is an affront to the values affirmed in the Declaration of Independence. Slavery was a failure of the time, and while we can’t erase it from the record, classical liberals point to the outstanding positive contributions that the Founding Fathers made implementing the ideas of Constitutionally-limited government and the rule of law in solid practice. And the very nature of the system they put into place allowed for some of their mistakes such as slavery to be rectified by the 13th Amendment (sadly, it required a war and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men in addition).

If we wanted to break it down, there are hundreds of things we could force politicians to answer for if we took the worst of their social associations and forced them to answer for it. We don’t ask Catholic candidates whether the history of the Crusades means they’ll engage in wars of religious oppression. We don’t ask Gingrich, a Southerner, whether he plans to re-institute Jim Crow. And we accept that classical liberals can be anti-slavery without hypocrisy. If anything, the problems that Mitt Romney may face is the fact that he follows a minority religion of relatively recent origin, so the folks who believe in long-established fairy tales are already prejudiced against him with distrust. So he may face the question that Friedman brings up, but such questions — contrary to David Friedman’s implication — are unfair.

Politicians have enough problems that we don’t need to invent “gotchas” like these to ensnare them. It may be valid to ask him whether he supported the efforts of his church to spend as much money as it did on the California Prop 8 ballot measure, as it is at least current, but bringing up long-disavowed sins committed by Mormons three generations ago is completely unnecessary.

A stand-up comedian I heard once said that prejudice is simply a sign of laziness, because if you take the time to get to know someone, they’ll give you hundreds of individual reasons to hate them. The same is true of politicians; they all stink, but each has their own distinctly distasteful odor to find offensive.

The Good And The Popular

That I believe the set of what’s popular and the set of what’s good aren’t always the same thing should come as no surprise to readers here, especially in the wake of my Kardashian post the other day, but I should make it clear that this idea extends quite a bit farther. As such, I need to respond to something that Scott Adams suggested at his blog today. He pointed out that sometimes he tosses out ideas that are unconventional, unworkable, possibly ludicrous, but with the assumption that the market of minds will sift through ideas and those which are useful will propagate:

We humans like to think we control ideas, but it’s probably more accurate to say we do little more than bury the ideas that are broken on delivery. If you suddenly have an idea for a car made entirely of potato chips, you probably keep it to yourself. But if you have a bad idea about how the President should manage the country, you’ll probably have a few drinks at your next social gathering and let it fly. Human are transmitters, not filters. By analogy, the Internet can detect bad data packets, but not bad ideas. We’re like the Internet.

In this context, I see myself as a collector, combiner, and broadcaster of ideas, both good and bad. I spray ideas into the universe and let the ideas fight for their own survival. With the help of their human hosts, the best ideas will evolve and reproduce, and the worst ideas will go to their resting places on the Internet.

I’m explaining all of this because of a comment that user Unlost made about my post yesterday. After reading my ideas for how I would run my presidency, Unlost said, “Priceless, yet this will all go unheeded.” I understand the pessimism, but I see it differently. The ideas I unleashed yesterday are already waging a guerrilla war with the status quo. The ideas are hopping from host to host, and if any are worthy, they will evolve and survive. Change doesn’t happen quickly, but I guarantee that any good ideas generated by this blog – if there are any – will find their way. The weak ideas will fade to backup storage, as they should.

The idea that only the good ideas propagate wildly is a long shot. For a good idea to propagate, a critical condition must be met: humans must have enough education/experience in the subject matter to know which ideas are good. This is an unmet condition in many, MANY aspects of humanity. What’s even worse, to steal a phrase, is not that humans don’t know enough to determine which ideas to propagate, it’s that what they know just ain’t so.

Much of economics revolves around teaching that what sounds good isn’t necessarily good. A higher minimum wage sounds like a great policy — until you realize that the tradeoff is higher unemployment [especially amongst low-skilled workers who most need the job], and often higher prices and potentially inflation. Or, that rent control doesn’t lead to more affordable housing, but rather a glut of luxury properties (not covered by rent control) that those who were supposed to benefit from rent control can’t afford.

The average person will look at something that seems to offend their sensibilities (such as, for example, the Netflix/Qwikster fiasco), everyone assumes that when a company does something wrong, it’s immediately a matter of idiocy. But as Megan McArdle points out, perhaps they made a bad decision for the right reasons. What looks right or wrong from the outside isn’t always the right or wrong decision when you actually know the particulars.

As a general rule, if you look at something that you have only passing familiarity with and ask yourself “well, why the hell did they do it that way? That’s just stupid!” They say this without realization that there may have been a great deal of history behind how something was done, and that perhaps without that history or experience, you may not understand whether it was the right or wrong thing to do. As G.K. Chesterton once wrote:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

What Scott Adams leaves out is the cost of an idea. In many cases, believing something or not believing something is a costless act. Whether or not I believe in raising or abolishing the minimum wage has an absolutely infinitesimal probability of affecting what happens to the minimum wage. Thus, having an opinion, or choosing not to have an opinion [i.e. rational ignorance] really affects very little. And if it affects very little, investing time into making an informed decision — whether propagating an idea or not — is wasting that time. Contrast this, for example, to having an idea about NAND management strategies for dealing with the problem of read disturb. Given that this is integral to my employment, it behooves me to understand the concepts deeply, make informed decisions about cost-benefit analysis of competing approaches, and the validity of such an idea will be tested by sales and field reliability data of a product.

Politics and economics: the history of these disciplines are full of the damage cause by bad ideas. Some of the key aspects of both fields is that in these fields, the immediate cost of holding bad ideas is essentially nil, on the personal level, and thus such ideas are incredibly widespread. I don’t believe anyone can defend the proposition that bad ideas are on the decline.

Dilbert For President

I doubt he’s filed any sort of FEC paperwork, or has actually put any effort into his candidacy with the exceptions of blog postings, but Scott Adams is better than Obama or Romney:

I will assume for now that the pundits are correct, and Obama will face Romney in the coming election. Both of those guys are smarter than I am. They’re also more experienced. They’re taller, better looking, and they have excellent hair. They also have much, much better character. So why would you vote for me? Let’s run through the reasons.

Definition of Insanity: They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Voting for either Obama or Romney will give you the same government you have now, more or less. I might be a worse president than either of them, or perhaps far better. The only thing you know for sure is that I’d be different. So if you think the path we’re on is leading to certain economic doom, your smartest strategy is to try something – anything – different. The major parties will make sure your only choices are more of the same. Even another independent candidate will be some version of the same thing.

There’s a lot more there, but it’s actually a pretty good read. Of course, I’d prefer either Gary Johnson or Ron Paul [or Doug Stanhope] over Scott Adams, as I think they’ve actually got the political ability to make things happen in a way Adams doesn’t, but a Scott Adams presidency would undoubtedly be a whole lot more fun.

Is he a doctrinaire libertarian? No, not at all. His “platform” appears to suggest that he’s fiscally conservative and socially liberal, but I suspect it’s more borne of pragmatism than ideology. But that’s still a hell of a lot better than what we’re likely to elect.

A New Approach To “Government Research”

Over at Cato, Jim Harper responds to proponents of gov’t research that point to the products of that research as justification — they never really consider that such products would still occur via private-sector investment. He takes a bit of a swipe at IP policy in the middle, and in his discussion of the history of AT&T I got an idea:

To take the Internet as proof that the government is a necessary producer of research and innovation, you have to reject the scientific method. Unfortunately, there are rarely controls in public policy. We can’t find out what would have happened if government policy had taken a different course, so we don’t know anything more about who should fund research from the fact that government-funded research has produced good things in the past.

But what would have happened if U.S. public policy had taken a different course? I’ve thought about the impossible-to-answer question of where we would have been without DARPA and other government influences on telecom. What most people don’t consider, I believe, is the restraining influence the government-granted AT&T monopoly had on telecommunications for most of the 20th century. AT&T developed a “Teletypewriter Exchange” system in 1931, for example, but had no need to develop it, there being little or no competitive pressure to do so. (Its patent on attaching devices to phone wires undoubtedly helped as well, preventing anyone using AT&T’s wires for modem service.)

Had there been competition, I suspect that someone would have come up with the idea of packet-switched networks—that’s what the Internet is—before Leonard Kleinrock did in 1962. Kleinrock was a student at MIT—he wasn’t at DARPA, which didn’t get into packet-switching until about 1966. (Then again, MIT was almost certainly awash in government money—specifically military money—so there you go. Maybe we owe all the good things we’ve got to war, but I doubt it.)

So back when AT&T was a monopoly, they developed technology that preceded the internet for delivering data over phone lines, as well as owning (and enforcing) a patent on attaching devices to phone wires, which undoubtedly allowed them to prevent anyone else from capitalizing on data-over-phone-line ideas.

Some would say that this is evidence that government should have been financing this sort of invention so that it would be in the public domain (as TCP/IP eventually was). But there’s another angle to look at here:

Why doesn’t the government buy patents that are valuable but underutilized, and release them to the public domain?

Think of it this way: if the US Patent Office had purchased AT&T’s patents back in the 1930’s and released them into the public domain, they could have been capitalized by a broad swath of companies and perhaps kickstarted development of the internet far before DARPA ever got a hand in it (of course mainstream personal commercial user acceptance probably would have relied on availability a low-cost PC’s just as we saw beginning in the late 90’s). AT&T’s monopoly over phone service gave them no profit incentive to utilize their own invention, but getting it into the public domain could have created a competitive market where none existed before.

I see a couple of potential advantages to this idea over that of government research:

  1. Less of a politicized “government picking winners and losers” model for government research. Instead of independent researchers seeking government grant money for things that have not been invented (and for which commercial development is outside their reach as pure scientists), they might need to seek private funding from investors who expect to reap benefits from selling those patents to the USG.
  2. Give an extra incentive for US companies to continue R&D investment in more “speculative” technologies. For technologies which may be valuable but for which the commercial viability is a more long-term play, or for technologies which might be valuable but prove not to be relevant to the business model of the company in question, they can still earn some return on that sunk R&D investment.
  3. Development of an individual technology-creation boom. Many individuals with good ideas who *could* patent their idea but have no desire or capability to create a company to monetize their idea forego the patent process because there is no return on their time. All of these ideas are lost to the world, at least for a time.
  4. Perhaps most importantly, this is the government paying for results rather than promises. As I suggested in this December 2006 post, I believe that incentivizing the private sector to invent might be a more efficient model in general than in purchasing research on the front end.

Now, there are undoubtedly issues with this proposal.

First and foremost, the fear would be that companies would merely use this as a vehicle to offload shitty patents onto the government — just another form of corporate welfare. And I do suspect they’d try. My answer to that is twofold. One, of all the departments of government, I think the Patent & Trademark Office is widely regarded as one of the less politicized. If procedures are put into place to present them with these patents “blindly”, i.e. so that they cannot know the identity of the inventor, I would suspect that we can at least get their fair assessment of an inventions value in an objective manner. Second, is that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. For a company that is not capitalizing on a patent, they understandably think it’s worthless — that doesn’t mean that it’s so. There might be some legitimate diamonds in the rough here.

Second, the fear would be that this would merely be government picking winners and losers on a different stage. I.e. if businesses can’t reap value from their patents, and if government boards can’t reliably pick which research programs are of most benefit, how can they do so with patents? This is a pretty typical government problem. Again, I think putting this in the hands of the PTO might help, but efficiency and waste is always a concern.

Third, the fear is that companies simply won’t sell. Patents — even useless ones — are important legal tools. When Novell sold off a patent portfolio in late 2010, the value worked out to be roughly $510K per patent. When Google announced an intended deal to acquire Motorola Mobility last year, the value of the purchase conveniently was set at $12.5B — equal to Motorola’s 24,500 patents multiplied by $510K. When Nortel went bankrupt and auctioned off their patent portfolio last summer, the total value of their 6,000 patents averaged $750K apiece. There may be some positive value in owning some of those patents, but there’s incredible potential negative value in NOT owning enough patents to countersue your competitors if they decided to engage in an IP war. For big companies, a robust patent portfolio is the international diplomacy equivalent of a nation having nuclear capability — those without it won’t mess with you, and you make sure you play nicely with others who have it to avoid MAD. The key to this is not that there might be unused patents of inestimable value to the public that the companies aren’t even using, but rather that they may not be willing to sell *any* part of their IP portfolio. Unilateral disarmament has never been a popular strategy.

All that said, one of the questions we might be left with is simple: is it a better situation than we have now? Would the advantages gained be enough to justify a wholesale switch from our current strategy of paying for research, or perhaps even of diverting a portion of that budget to a program like this instead? I think it would — opening up the option to reward inventors (whether corporate or individual) for creating IP and then opening it up to the public domain seems like a great strategy for a continual boost to near-term growth. Pure scientific research has its place as a public good. Yet I think a case can be made that less “pure” inventions, being opened to the public domain, have a potential place at the table too, if not instead of, pure science.

California Has Problems, And They’re All Kim Kardashian’s Fault

There are plenty of folks saying today that while California might be — on its own — in the top 10 largest economies in the world, our political system far more closely resembles that of Greece. High spending and an inability to live within our means despite some of the highest taxes in the nation.

Thankfully, the fine folks at the “Restoring California Coalition” have decided to throw their weight behind the solution: the Millionaires Tax! And additional tax of 3% of income on taxable income over $1M, and of 5% on taxable income over $2M. (I’d point out that this would raise STATE tax brackets in those cases to 13.55% and 15.55%, respectively, well beyond any other state).

And of course, they’ve chosen as their poster child for the tax a representative sample of the average California high earner:

Now, I’ve got little love for Kim Kardashian. I fail to understand how someone has parlayed — as Joel McHale of The Soup is so fond of saying — a big ass and a sex tape into a fashion/fame empire. In fact, it’s not even a big ass and a sex tape that were the key; a lot of women probably have those. It’s more that she’s the offspring of a famous lawyer… A lawyer who was only famous because a major athlete/actor allegedly brutally murdered his wife and her boyfriend.

Any world where Kim Kardashian can be said to “deserve” her fame is a bit sketchy to me. In fact, my thoughts on her are oddly similar to those of Wil Wheaton:

That said, though, I don’t hate Kim Kardashian. I don’t know Kim Kardashian. While her onscreen persona is a bit vapid and useless, she’s obviously smart enough to have parlayed her fame into more fame and more money. She at least figured out the cardinal rule of fame: strike hard while the iron is hot. I don’t believe that we, as a society, should punish her because bored housewives find some escapist fantasy following the Kardashian family’s latest doings. And further, I don’t believe that we should, as a society, use her as the public scapegoat as a representative sample of “the rich” when she’s nothing of the sort.

The real “rich” that will be hurt by this tax are businessmen, and as much as the left scoffs at the idea of “job creators”, anyone in this state who has worked for a startup sees the reality: most of those businesses wouldn’t exist without the blood and sweat of the guys at the top — who often forego income, sleep, time with family and stability for years to build a company that eventually rewards them quite handsomely.

But even worse in this analysis is the fact that California has tried a Millionaires Tax rather recently, and the results weren’t exactly as planned:

In 2004, voters narrowly approved Proposition 63, the Mental Heath Services Act (MHSA), which imposed an additional 1% tax on personal income above $1 million. The funds generated from this “millionaire’s tax” were intended to expand county mental health programs. Taxpayer and business groups opposed the measure for a couple of obvious reasons. First, California is already a high tax, high spending state that didn’t need any more revenue. Second, as we predicted, Prop 63 would exacerbate California’s income tax volatility.

Although the final vote for Proposition 63 was tallied more than four years ago, evidence suggests that California’s most wealthy have continued to vote on this measure — with their feet. A recent survey from TNS Research, an international business research firm, found the California counties of Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego had the 1st, 4th and 6th highest number of millionaires in the country. However, even as the national population of millionaire households grew by 5.9% in 2007, Los Angeles County lost about 7000 of these households. Orange and San Diego Counties lost millionaire households as well.

So the net result was that the millionaires left. Further, this tax intended to improve county mental health programs largely had trouble spending the money. The above article (a tad outdated from 2008, to be sure) pointed out that the calls at the time were to pull the unspent $2B+ and allow it to be reallocated to general revenues.

This is bad policy, and it will only work to damage the California economy at a time when we’re already reeling from the housing bust. Following that by making Kim Kardashian the poster child for your movement is cheap and opportunistic, which might not be so objectionable if she represented the “average” California millionaire — but she doesn’t. Of course, I can’t claim it’s a bad tactic — given the moron voters in this state, it might actually work.

California has problems. Those problems require hard solutions, but instead we have people here who think we can simply paper over it by soaking the rich. After all, they just need to pay their “fair share”*.
» Read more

Quote of the Day

Radley Balko, on the late Christopher Hitchens:

The only time I drank with Hitchens… he entertained us with dirty limericks. But the guy’s vocabulary and syntax were so beyond me, I really only know they were dirty because he said so.

In the hyper-partisan political world in which we live, there are some people who take themselves so seriously that even the idea of sitting down for beers with someone who holds beliefs ideologically widely-divergent from ones own is anathema. For the life of me, I can’t understand those people.

I have nothing to say about Hitchens. I haven’t been lucky enough to read much of his work as of yet, know little of his politics, and generally have only seen him a handful of times on TV interviews. The little I know suggests that I’d strongly agree with him in places, and strongly disagree with him in others. Yet it is the praise above of folks like Radley that make me sorry to say that with his passing, I’ll never get the chance to meet him.

Quote Of The Day

Julian Sanchez on security theater:

Security theater, then, isn’t only—or even primarily—about making us feel safer. It’s about making us feel we wouldn’t be safe without it. The more we submit to intrusive monitoring, the more convinced we become that the intrusions are an absolute necessity. To think otherwise is to face the demeaning possibility that we have been stripped, probed, and made to jump through hoops all this time for no good reason at all. The longer we pay the costs—in time, privacy, and dignity no less than tax dollars—the more convinced we become that we must be buying something worth the price.

If we don’t need pornoscanners, it makes each traveler bad about surrendering their dignity and freedom to go through pornoscanners. Therefore, we must need pornoscanners. QED.

Book Review: Resonance, by Chris Dolley

By science fiction standards, I’m not exactly an SF buff. A decent amount of the fiction I read might fall into the genre, but identifying many names beyond Neal Stephenson or Robert A. Heinlein calls up blanks. But again I was bitten by the Amazon Kindle $2.99 price point, picked up Chris Dolley’s Resonance on a recommendation, and was very happy I did.

This being a review aimed at people who haven’t read the book, I’m going to avoid spoilers. This makes things difficult in SF, of course. So I’ll set the stage without getting too deep.

Graham Smith is an odd fellow. He’s quiet, behaves in a nearly-mute fashion, and his level of living via routine makes OCD look like a hobby. He keeps notes in his pockets, in his house, and anywhere else he knows he’s going to be reminding him of where he works and where he lives. He does this to keep those things from “unraveling”, his word for when they suddenly and inexplicably change. One day he may live in a house on a certain street; the next he might live elsewhere. One day a coworker might be married; the next she’s single. All this without explanation or even acknoledgement that the world’s changed.

This life seems to work for him until he meets Annelise Mercado, a woman trying to save him from a company who wants him dead. She upends his world in short order. But can he keep her from unraveling?

From there, the book delves into its plot in full force, and since I’m avoiding spoilers, I can’t go any further.

Overall, the book’s two main credits are pace and cohesion. I was surprised when checking Amazon’s page for the paperback to find that the book is over 500 pages — it reads much quicker. The advantage of setting your book in contemporary London over a typical SF novel is that you don’t need to spend a couple hundred pages on worldbuilding, and you can head straight to plot. With much SF (and I’m thinking here of Stephenson’s Anathem), you spend so much time trying to figure out the world that you’re in that you find it distracting from the story. Cohesively, the book also avoids one of the main problems I’ve found in a lot of SF, the reliance on the deus ex machina ending (again, Anathem). I really got the sense that Dolley had his central thesis of the book and its ending planned out before he started writing, and managed to build his plot logically and deliberately to its conclusion.

Now why am I posting this review on a libertarian blog? Well, partly because entirely outside of libertarianism, I’ve learned enough about the readers of this site to know that good SF novels are always appreciated. But there is a slight tinge of the story hanging on corporate/government relations. While that portion of the story isn’t exactly imbued with a libertarian message, it’s certainly interesting to anyone who watches the continued interplay, whether cooperative or competitive, between corporations and government.

Resonance was a well-done novel. I’d gladly recommend it at standard paperback prices. But it’s another argument for the Kindle $2.99 price point. I probably wouldn’t have bought it on the whim that I did at standard prices, and I would have been missing out on a great read. So while I’d recommend it at standard paperback prices, it’s a veritable steal at $2.99. Check it out if you get a chance.

Book Review: Slackernomics, by Dale Franks

Those of you that have been around the libertarian blogosphere for any length of time will recognize the name Dale Franks. His main writing gig is over at QandO, where he spends the bulk of his time writing about the economy. In addition, he’s a bit of a gunblogger, and runs a separate blog for motorcycles.

At one point a few years ago I had noticed a link to a book Dale has written called Slackernomics: Basic Economics for People Who Think Economics is Boring. Given that I’m not the type who thinks economics is boring, but had enjoyed his blogging, I wanted to get a chance to read it. At that time, the book was only available in print at a price above $20. It took a spot on my “buy when I get around to it list”, and sat there for quite some time, but I never pulled the trigger. Then, more recently, it became avaiable for the Kindle at only $2.99 — I no longer had an excuse not to buy it. So onto the Kindle it went, and after several long months of sitting there taking up space, I’ve finally gotten around to reading it.

Slackernomics is a primer on basic economic theory that, as the title suggests, is written for people who think economics is boring. It’s written in a convivial tone, and the illustrative examples that Dale uses reminds one more of Freakonomics than of Adam Smith. Don’t let that fool you, though — the book is not a “sideshow” like Freakonomics — it gets to the heart of the matter. I liken it to be similar to Henry Hazlitt’s “Economics in one Lesson”, but written for people who may not be interested in the more formal writing style of Hazlitt. In addition, having been written many decades after Hazlitt’s book, it’s obviously much more up to date.

The book covers everything from price theory, minimum wage & rent control to monetary theory and the business cycle, Keynesianism, taxes / deficit spending, savings & investment, and economic statistics. He continues with a great defense of free trade and a bit of entrance into politics (touching a tad on public choice theory). In all, for being a relatively short book, he hits all the major notes that anyone looking for an introduction to economic thought would need to learn.

But the big question, for readers of this blog, is whether it’s worth it to buy. “Am I going to learn anything new?” And I can honestly say that despite the fact that I read economic books & blogs for leisure, and that I’ve blogged a fair bit about economics myself, I learned some new things from Slackernomics. Dale’s fourth chapter, unwinding the mess of the myriad of economic reports and statistics he’s constantly posting on Twitter, Google+, and at QandO, was wonderful. I’ve looked at many of these reports merely reading analysts *reaction* to the numbers (Higher jobless claims? How unexpected!), but rarely understood which group (public or private) was putting out certain reports nor how they all fit together. For me, a layman who is conversant on a lot of economic theory but not as perhaps on the technical reports, I have never seen an explanation of the reports that come out each week and each month as simple and readable as that chapter. That was more than worth it for my $2.99.

So my recommendation is simple: at $2.99, if you have a Kindle (or a device with a Kindle app), it’s hard to pass it up. You’re almost assured to get your money’s worth from the book. Even further, if you know someone in high school or college that may not have received good schooling in economics (which is, unfortunately, most of them), and who isn’t exactly about to tackle The Wealth of Nations, find a way to get them a copy of Slackernomics. Dale’s writing style will keep them interested.

All in all, it’s a book that lives up to its title, and goes well beyond.

Quote Of The Day

Marks, Percy, “Under Glass”, Scribner’s Magazine Vol 73, 1923, p 47

The idea is, of course, that men are successful because they have gone to college. No idea was ever more absurd. No man is successful because he has managed to pass a certain number of courses and has received a sheepskin which tells the world in Latin, that neither the world nor the graduate can read, that he has successfully completed the work required. If the man is successful, it is because he has the qualities for success in him; the college “education” has merely, speaking in terms’ of horticulture, forced those qualities and given him certain intellectual tools with which to work-tools which he could have got without going to college, but not nearly so quickly. So far as anything practical is concerned, a college is simply an intellectual hothouse. For four years the mind of the undergraduate is put “under glass,” and a very warm and constant sunshine is poured down upon it. The result is, of course, that his mind blooms earlier than it would in the much cooler intellectual atmosphere of the business world.

A man learns more about business in the first six months after his graduation than he does in his whole four years of college. But-and here is the “practical” result of his college work-he learns far more in those six months than if he had not gone to college. He has been trained to learn, and that, to all intents and purposes, is all the training he has received. To say that he has been trained to think is to say essentially that he has been trained to learn, but remember that it is impossible to teach a man to think. The power to think must be inherently his. All that the teacher can do is help him learn to order his thoughts-such as they are.

Hat Tip: “JKB”, in a comment over at EconLog

Solyndra: Delusions Of Grandeur, Or Just Colossal Balls?

Wow. It’s one thing to carry the necessary delusion that comes with most people in a startup… That self-delusion, the belief that you can’t fail (despite the high proportions of startups that fail), is what is required to overcome the often monumental odds most startups face. But is it merely delusion to submit THIS* to the House Energy & Commerce Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee on June 23, 2011? No, I can’t think so. This is balls. Pure, shiny brass ones:

Solyndra does not publicly release quarterly results but is on track for this year. The ability to command a slight pricing premium as a result of substantial differentiation and product benefits continues and our cash production cost per watt is dropping rapidly at pace with the industry. In a highly competitive global marketplace Solyndra continues to win large projects on commercial rooftops around the world and we are confident we are competitive on the merits of our differentiated, lightweight, simple to install cylindrical rooftop and greenhouse products.

Evidence of Strong Momentum

  • 1166 employees and growing, 49 open jobs on website
  • Exporting more >50% of product
  • Over 1000 installations >20 countries
  • Over 100MW shipped
  • 2010 revenue ~$140M
  • 2011 shipments expected to double over 2010
  • Fab ramp to 300MW on target
  • 14th largest shipper from the Port of Oakland, more than 1000 containers this year
  • Doubled U.S. sales and marketing team in past 6 months

I can imagine Solyndra issuing mindless press releases like this — maybe in 2010 or 2009. I can even imagine them issuing such optimistic letters to the US Congress at that time — they still had enough free gov’t money in the coffers to at least try to justify themselves as an ongoing concern. But to do so in the middle of 2011, when you know you’re headed for the skids? That’s just asking for trouble! You have to think they’re going to wonder where all this optimism came from when the excrement hits the air circulation device.

Of course, there is no mention of profitability. Startups, when they have at least a hint of a viable road to profitability, would undoubtedly at least claim such. I have to think that whoever wrote this letter was deliberately focusing on revenue & jobs created, and not on profitability [not altogether unusual for a startup, to be sure] to deflect attention from the entity who had just loaned them $535M regarding when it might get paid back.

I note it’s titled “Exceeding Expectations”. I agree: I had no idea someone with barely money to keep the lights on would be capable of spewing out this much bullshit.

Hat Tip: Reason, who has a lot more of the timeline of the Solyndra saga at this link.
» Read more

Rick Santorum Revives The Lincoln-Douglas Debates; Unwittingly Takes Douglas’ Side

Wow… Just, wow. I’ve heard of people taking quotes out of context, but Rick Santorum is treading down a slippery slope that I think even he, as a hardcore social conservative, would find himself quickly uneasy with:

His spokesman Hogan Gidley emails me in response to Mark Miners comments: “Senator Santorum is certainly an advocate for states’ rights, but he believes as Abraham Lincoln – that states do not have the right to legalize moral wrongs. The Senator has been clear and consistent – and he believes that marriage is and can only be: between one man and one woman.”

Now, it’s easy to see where Santorum is coming from — the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Lincoln at the time was arguing, as so many libertarians argue, that there are some rights which are not to be voted on. Popular sovereignty can be good for making some decisions, but that in the case of slavery, it is used to uphold a moral wrong. Infringements upon rights granted by natural law cannot be justified by majority vote:

Lincoln’s strategy was to isolate Douglas’s doctrine of popular sovereignty from the national mainstream as a form of moral dereliction for its indifference to the corrupting effect of slavery in republican society. Douglas insisted that in his official capacity as a United States senator he did not care whether the people in a territory voted slavery up or down. Lincoln admonished: “Any man can say that who does not see anything wrong in slavery, but no man can logically say it who does see a wrong in it; because no man can logically say he don’t care whether a wrong is voted up or voted down.” Douglas argued that the people of a political community, like any individual, had a right to have slaves if they wanted them. Lincoln reasoned: “So they have if it is not a wrong. But if it is a wrong, he cannot say people have a right to do wrong.”

Lincoln and Douglas were coming from different first principles. In fact, the argument is not at all unlike modern arguments about abortion, a point I’ve made before. The question is not whether abortion should be allowed, the question is whether a fetus is inherently “person” enough to have natural rights. If it is, abortion is murder. If it is not, abortion is no different morally from removing a cancerous growth from one’s uterus. Yet both sides constantly talk past each other without acknowledging that they are working from wildly different first principles.

Abraham Lincoln, contrary to what Santorum suggests, is not suggesting that all men must be forcibly stopped by government from engaging in moral wrongs. He explicitly acknoledges the libertarian right of natural law — you can do what you wish with what is yours. You may self-govern; the nanny state is not there to stop you from acting within your personal domain. From his 1854 speech in Peoria, IL (same source link as above, italics original, bold added by me, and one sentence from the original speech inserted into the below passage for continuity):

The South claimed a right of equality with the North in opening national territory to the expansion of slavery. Rejecting the claim, Lincoln denounced slavery as a “monstrous injustice” and a direct contradiction of “the very principles of civil liberty” in the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln said that the right of republican self-government “lies at the foundation of the sense of justice,” both in political communities and in individuals. It meant that “each man should do precisely as he pleases with all that is exclusively his own.” Declared Lincoln: “The doctrine of self-government is right—absolutely and eternally right—but it has no just application” as attempted in the Nebraska Act. Spelling out the natural-law premises of his argument, Lincoln continued: “Or perhaps I should rather say that whether it has just application depends upon whether a negro is not or is a man. If he is not a man, why in that case, he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just as he pleases with him. But if the negro is a man, is it not to that extent, a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself? When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government—that is despotism.” Recurring to the nation’s founding principles, Lincoln summarized: “If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal'; and that there can be no more moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.”

Note my bolded portion on self-government. It seems that Abraham Lincoln and Rick Santorum have some agreement that a state cannot legalize a moral wrong — they merely happen to have WILDLY different definitions of what constitutes a moral wrong.

Abraham Lincoln is following the traditions of natural law and natural rights. Each man is his own, and barring his attempts to coerce others to do his bidding, he should have freedom to operate as he sees fit. Slavery is an attempt to coerce others to do his bidding, and therefore it is an abhorrent moral wrong that has no place in a free society.

Rick Santorum is following a different tradition, one that states that man is NOT his own, and should forcibly be stopped from operating in his own domain if his actions violate no ones natural rights, but violate Santorum’s own sensibilities. If two members of the same sex, wholly consensually and within the bounds of their natural rights, want to engage in a right of contract such that they bound themselves together for all the legal purposes we generally associate with marriage, they must be barred from doing so. This consensual and voluntary action must not be permitted!

Abraham Lincoln says that the government must not condone the violation of one man’s natural rights by another, and that democracy is not an adequate justification for doing so. Rick Santorum says that government must be in the job of actively violating those natural rights, even if the people of a territory choose to vote to recognize those rights! Abraham Lincoln says that slavery is wrong because it takes away the right of self-government; Rick Santorum says that we must all be slaves of the state, because he doesn’t like what we choose to do with our freedom.

Abraham Lincoln decries a situation which denies the equality before the law of human beings; Rick Santorum claims the mantle of Abraham Lincoln while cheering laws that deny that equality! In doing so, Rick Santorum misses the irony: he’s replaying the Lincoln-Douglas debates in modern times, but he doesn’t realize that he’s taking Douglas’ side, not Lincoln’s.

1 2 3 4 5 6 58