Wednesday, November 29, 2006

How Not to Think about Global Warming

James Lovelock, a scientist most famous for modeling the earth as a living organism, which he calls Gaia, thinks global warming is going to kill billions of people. According to This is London, he told The British Institution of Chemical Engineers:

"There have been at least seven of these major climate changes before and we have to adapt. It is going to be tough and there will be some evolution of humans during it. The survivors will be those humans that can make their way to refuges or Arctic places and survive there. I think an awful lot of people will die but I don't see the human species dying out. I would think a hot earth could not support much over 500 million."

But this is a silly way of thinking about the problem. Even if there were a grain of truth in this kind of catastrophic doom-mongering, it would be true that if we shut down most of the activities that many people believe cause global warming, huge numbers of people would also die, only for different reasons. They would die of poverty and the misery that it causes – disease, starvation, war, etc.

In any event, the catastrophic tradition does not have much truth in it. This is not necessarily because humans are not pumping up the global temperature, but because this is a problem that humans are hardwired to solve if given the scientific and economic freedom to do so. In their modeling, engineers and earth scientists do not have much room for human ingenuity. They tend toward gigantic, engineering-oriented solutions to problems rather than letting humans work them out one creative step in time. The British government recently released a report indicating that the cost of global warming would be far higher than anticipated, but as the self-proclaimed "skeptical environmentalist" Bjorn Lomborg noted, the report was specifically constructed to assume no human counter-reactions to whatever changes global warming brings. Any economic activity made more difficult by global warming would simply vanish. That humans might react to rising sea levels by, for example, building relatively cheap flood protection rather than standing by and watching coastal economic activity (and therefore much global trade) disappear was not considered by the authors of the so-called Stern report.

What Professor Lovelock should have said is that “an awful lot of people will die if we do nothing – if our engineers and entrepreneurs sit around and watch it happen, leading humanity to desperately scramble for survival, rather than getting busy to deal with the problem. Even if human activity will cause the global temperatures to significantly increase, humans are not passive spectators to their own future, unable to muster up any ingenuity to address the challenges that confront them. Rather, they are what they always have been – clever, innovative, capable of moving the future forward far faster than anyone could have predicted. The more societies promote social innovation, the less of a problem global warming will be. The proposed alternative – that industrial activity largely shut down to keep the climate stable – is profoundly immoral, in that it forecloses the opportunity of a decent life for billions of the worlds desperately poor, and is unimaginable in any event, because their governments will not sit around and let them remain poor. Any response to global warming has to be oriented toward solutions consistent with prosperity, not efforts to shut down modern industrial activity.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Wal-Mart Helps the Poor. Again.

Wal-Mart has announced plans to begin doing consumer item level banking in Mexico, a country whose poor are extremely underserved by banks. In so doing they promise to substantially increase the ability of those poor to save for their own futures, and hence to expand their possibilities. When Wal-Mart announced plans to expand into only one sector of the commercial banking industry in the US recently, they drew opposition from all the usual suspects – not just their self-interested opponents in the banking industry, but those in self-appointed, equally self-interested "community groups" who are congenitally prone to opposing anything a large corporation might do to make someone's life better.

Wal-Mart is quite possibly the most effective anti-poverty program not just in the United States, but throughout the world. People are more prosperous not just when their incomes go up, when the prices they pay go down. And one of Wal-Mart's primary accomplishments is invariably to break up uncompetitive, cloistered cartels of traditional vendors and allow consumers to benefit from the famously efficient Wal-Mart supply chain. This is why these stores are mobbed every time a new one is opened in a developing country. While Wal-Mart does not succeed everywhere, with South Korea and Germany being two recent spectacular failures, they are a major hit in China and in Mexico. Unsurprisingly, anticorporate activists in Mexico several years ago greeted the opening of one of their stores in the historic city of Teotihuacán with a hysterical – in both senses – campaign accusing them of cultural rape. But the store is packed with customers every day, and the only people harmed other than self-important intellectuals are the traditional vendors there who now have to compete harder for business.

There is some truth to the argument that many businesses are reluctant to serve the poor. This is not because the people who manage the businesses that would otherwise serve them are cruel but because information is costly. Lending to poor customers raises the problem of which ones are most likely to pay their loans back. Someone with a long-established credit history, significant wealth and high income is a better credit risk, but poor customers typically have few of these things, even though in a world of better information it would be clear that many of them are good credit risks. This is where Wal-Mart does so much good. Apart from its low prices, its incredible efficiencies allow it to serve markets that don't profit less efficient producers, whether they are retail vendors are lenders. That the city of Chicago recently almost banned Wal-Mart from opening stores there unless they paid a wage substantially above the federal minimum is nothing short of disgraceful. The primary victims of such a policy would not be idle rich folks with what the comic genius Iowahawk once called "solid gold yachts and mink spats" but those most vulnerable who are denied the benefits of effective competition by activist-driven cartels.

Globalization, of which Wal-Mart is a famous symbol, is liberation for the world's poor, liberation from the choking hand of government and its rent-seeking co-conspirators in particular. Opposition to Wal-Marts into globalization is similarly, a deathstroke for those least among us. Fortunately, as Wal-Mart's global expansion attests, their opponents are fighting a losing battle.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Countries at the End of the Earth

Rebels are apparently trying to seize the capital of Chad, N’Djamena. Again. Several months ago they had a similar drive, only to be thwarted near their goal. What is the fight about? The usual international-relations suspects depict this as the spread of "instability" outward from the Darfur region of Sudan. This would not be the first time this happened in Africa; instability launched in Sierra Leone in the early 1990s ultimately spread out to Liberia, Guinea, and other countries in that part of the world. But ascribing it to instability simply begs the question of why any particular region has instability to begin with.

It certainly isn't a question of grand ideology either. While the rebel groups may crank out press releases or tell BBC journalists that they are fighting to end oppression by the current government or some such nonsense, no one imagines that this is a war over national purity, social justice, or any of the other gigantic ideologies that loomed so large in Western warfare in the twentieth century.

Rather, this is a part of the world where government is everything. Most obviously, he who controls the mightiest army and uses it to staff the embassies overseas and the ministries in-country is the one who gets his hands on the flow of wealth from oil or diamonds or foreign aid or whatever it may be. And so this is a war about money – the money that comes from being the mightiest gang in town, in many respects no different from the battles among drug gangs for control over access to the US market. Economists call it the “natural resource curse” – the notion that resources that lie under the ground are the ones that generate the most conflict and corruption, because unlike the resources contained in people’s brains (human capital), natural resources can never leave if they are abused too much. Control of the ground under which they sit is crucial to control over a huge stream of income deriving from consumers and the rest of the world who need these resources.

Some of this may also involve one of mankind's most essential urges – the desire to separate himself from his fellows on the basis of physical appearance, religion is necessary, language if neither of those criteria works. Sociobiologists often argue that we are preternaturally driven to tribal conflict of this type, and one of the most profound challenges of the modern era is how to create social institutions that work against this tendency.

And when both natural-resource abundance and tribal diversity are in place at the same time, and combined further with a state that is historically and culturally weak, yielding no sense of common citizenship among the people nominally under its control (at least in the eyes of the world's legal rules established under the traditional nation-state system), this kind of trouble is difficult to avoid. Very few people born in what is called "Chad" or "the Democratic Republic of Congo" – nations whose borders were drawn arbitrarily by some colonial power desperate to exit – feel that the "Chadian citizen" or "Congolese citizen" part of their identity portfolio is a very big part, certainly compared to their tribe or other prenational identifier. There is no sense of common citizenship. Combined with the extreme centrifugal pressures that already beset these nations, they simply represent collapses waiting to happen. And there is probably little that the political scientists and economists can do to help them. Robert Kaplan once wrote a book called The Ends of the Earth, in which his travels through much of Africa and Central Asia had convinced him that the very idea of the nation-state in these regions was unrealistic, and they were on the verge of collapsing now that the Cold War was over. The thin veneer of civilization, manifested as a United Nations seat in a state-owned airline, would be blown away in what more people are calling re-primitivization. Mr. Kaplan is better than most at predicting the future (he also pointed out well before the rest of us knew it that newly installed democracy, without the benefit of civic traditions, the rule of law, and ordered liberty, was not going to work), and the endless warfare going on in places like Chad and Sudan is evidence that he may be right yet again.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Commerce As Freedom, Afghan Style

That’s why the Taliban beating women on the street was so strange to us. That is not part of our tradition at all.

- Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.S.

National Review has a neat little piece on women entrepreneurs in Afghanistan who recently came to the U.S. for training. In it the ambassador cited above describes a time, before the arrival of the Soviets and certainly before the arrival of the Islamist chaos that followed their departure, when Afghanistan was a very liberal place, where women were much more in control of their lives than they were subsequently.

We learn of women who supervise huge numbers of other women, who have to take risks, who have to make decisions with significant consequences for other people. With women, in other words, who in the course of pursuing their interests have to think about what one happens to those they do business with. Owning or operating or even managing a business is a significant social responsibility, and the ability to operate one freely has the salutary effects for society of encouraging independent thought and thinking about the consequences of choices, and reducing two sorts of toxic thinking: the proto-conspiracist thinking that says that bad things happen to you in life because of sinister forces beyond your control, and of the zero-sum thinking that says that you can only get something in life by taking it from someone else, usually via the state.

And a moment's reflection reveals that the cost for Afghanistan of jamming these women back into their burqas and homes and prying the girls out of the schools would be substantial. All of that productive activity and idea creation would be lost. And Afghans will increasingly come to know that. They will realize that the cost of sealing half their population on grounds of honor and protecting them for their own good is simply too high to pay. As usual, free commerce promotes freedom, period. We will know that Afghanistan has finally arrived as a free society when Afghan men are willing to answer to Afghan women above them in the business hierarchy, as is commonplace in the U.S. They are of course not there by a long shot yet, but business will be a better bet for putting women fully charge of their own lives than any ministry of gender equality ever could be.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Is "Borat" Funny?

It was funny enough at any rate to be the top-grossing movie in the US for two consecutive weeks recently. Sacha Baron Cohen’s documentary about a journalist from Kazakhstan who goes to learn about America and befuddles the real-life locals with his Central Asia hillbilly antics has provoked, in addition to huge ticket sales, at least two threats of litigation from people who were taken in by the title character – one a stereotypical college undergrad goaded into expressing nostalgia for slavery and another a polite Southern lady at the dinner table who gets handed a bag that is probably full of the excrement of Borat (who is unaware of how flush toilets work). After some early expressions of outrage, the president of Kazakhstan has now gotten some good advice and decided at least publicly to take it in good fun.

I saw it, and laughed a lot, although sometimes not without guilt. Should I have? This Internet philosophy guide describes one theory of humor that is potentially germane. (The other three seem to have no relation to Borat.) In the superiority theory of humor, traceble perhaps to Aristotle and Plato, something is funny when it places the observer in a superior position to the observed. Hobbes writes in Human Nature that "the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly." This need not involve ethnic humor; much of the Marx Brothers hinges critically on this type of humor without any connotations of what we would now call prejudice.

And I do not automatically reject ethnic humor as unfunny. Indeed, perhaps the ultimate mark of the post-tribal society is the ability of everyone, punchline and listener alike, to laugh at a joke based on stereotypical exaggeration. And yet there is something not quite right about Mr. Cohen picking on a real country that has not done him or anyone any harm, especially given that so little is known about it, so that the marginal addition of the movie to what most people know about it is fairly large. Indeed, if anything Kazakhstan stands out in that part of the world where, contrary to scenes from the film, maniacal anti-Semitism appears relatively rare and the film’s depiction of the general primitive nature of the society seems forced. (Whatever its difficulties, Kazakhstan is not a country where brother-sister incest, to take one over-the-top example, is a big problem.) While ABC News in its Nightline broadcast recently managed to find someone there to live up to the stereotype Mr. Cohen paints (in that he said he wished Mr. Cohen were standing in front of him so he could kill him), it seems as best as I can tell like a harmless country.

The real butt of the joke, though, is America. It is Borat’s job to show us our pretensions, and take us down a peg. And this is funny, up to a point. Most of the movie actually shows the usual easy targets – a Southern minister, passionate Assemblies of God worshippers speaking in tongues – showing great forbearance to a comic actor insistent on provoking them. (Evidently some scenes were deleted because the filmmakers couldn't get the reactions they wanted.) And yet some reactions clearly are hilarious – Borat's rendering of a pidgen paean to America's "War of terror,” and the befuddlement and eventual anger it provokes in a rodeo crowd, is an example. That people would file lawsuits because they were allegedly taken advantage of is unfortunately a sign of the times. But the real lesson is that Americans, in huge numbers, are paying $8 a pop to laugh at themselves. The movie is a guilty pleasure, and if you know anything about world affairs it is a little unfair, but perhaps the Kazakh president had it right at the link above when he said there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Japan Turns a Demographic Corner

The Washington Post has noted that Japan is now the first advanced country undergoing actual population decline as a result of years of plummeting fertility.

With good reason, I think, I tell my students that collapsing demographics are a substantial problem for most societies undergoing it. But Fred Hiatt, the author of the piece linked above, quotes Japanese government officials as saying it may all work out:

In theory, the government is dedicated to reforming this. In practice, its philosophy seems aptly represented by Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hakubun Shimomura, who said this month, when pressed about long waiting lists for public nursery schools, that the problem would be solved if mothers would only "stay at home and raise their children."

When I asked Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last week about this comment, he diplomatically avoided contradicting Shimomura but said his aim is to provide choices so mothers can work or stay home as they see fit. But he also made clear that he is focused on the coping rather than the preventing: "Even considering the decline in the population, I am convinced Japan will be able to continue on a path of growth," he said.

The trick will be "innovation," Abe said, and economic reform. In fact, robots and other ways to improve productivity are one of four possible routes to economic growth despite an aging population. The others would be making better use of women; immigration, which has increased slightly but remains unpopular in this ethnically cohesive country; and keeping the elderly working longer. According to Naohiro Ogawa, a population expert at Nihon University, if every healthy elderly person worked, Japan's total economy in 2025 would be worth 791 trillion yen instead of the currently projected 619 trillion yen, an increase of 28 percent. Just raising the retirement age from 60 to 65 would produce a 12 percent increase.

Maybe. But who will start the companies that create the robots? Who will take the risks that create the wealth that allow the Japanese government taxpayers to take care of the elderly? Historically, this is a job for the young. Most of history’s great world-changing entrepreneurs get their start as young people. The young tend to be less risk-averse, and tend when they start their businesses to be in need of other young people who don’t mind the high-risk, deferred-gratification, 60-hours-a-week environment that is so essential to a successful startup. Lost in much of the discussion of whether or not declining populations can be managed is the role of the young in creating technological progress. I don’t doubt that Japanese technology can minimize the harm to its elderly from a declining population of working-age people available to take care of them. There are already machines available that bathe older people, because there are so few workers available. This is a classic example of the substitution of machines for labors when the latter is scarce. But who in Japan will create the future as children vanish?

It is probably true that Japan is in better shape than Europe, despite the lowest-low fertility of the former, because Japan is surrounded by vibrant economies rather than collapsing civilizations. Europe has the bad luck to be both unwilling to reproduce itself and surrounded by societies with incredibly high population growth rates combined with an inability to give these rapidly growing populations meaningful opportunity. And so the young and most ambitious among them migrate to Europe. Only Europe is not in a position to give them any opportunity either. Japan, at least, does not have this problem.

I am a demographic pessimist, who believes that the fertility trends in Europe and Japan (and many other countries for that matter) portend ill for human progress and for the continued vitality of societies undergoing them. One can see the signs of demographics driving history all around us. The Shiites in Lebanon have accrued so much power in the last 30 years because of demographics; much of the turmoil in the Balkans in the 1990s was driven by demographics; Francophone Québecois were unable to obtain independence in their 1991 referendum because they had had so few children in the previous 30 years. It seems that populations that shrink are populations that are doomed, but I must confess that we just don’t know; never in human history have we had societies that choose to shrink (as opposed to undergoing catastrophic population declines because of war or famine). Perhaps it will all work out. But I wouldn't bet on it.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Hugo Chavez's Bridge to the 12th Century

The blog reports Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez proposed in his talk show that this already benighted country basically be reduced to a localized, barter economy.

If I understand Daniel’s description, the maximum leader is proposing that a percentage of all physical production be submitted to state community centers, and that the rest of it be taken to markets that which is exchanged for a substitute for currency. This substitute is valid only in the local geographic area, and loses value over time, in a process, the leader apparently calls “oxidation,” or rust.

Now never mind the obvious economic inefficiency of this – the penalty imposed on saving as opposed to immediate consumption, the closing of trading opportunities with people on the other side of the country, let alone in the rest of the world. Nevermind, in other words, that President Chavez is proposing to forgo the benefits of money as a universally accepted medium of exchange by returning Venezuela to a world before its invention. The most sinister effect of the proposal is the enhanced power it gives the government – and Hugo Chavez of course is the government – to control people's options, and therefore to control everything about them. The government would presumably decide the boundaries of the jurisdictions, the rate of depreciation, and so on. Like every government that ever existed, it would use its power over exchange, which is in this case almost totalitarian, to reward its supporters and punished its opponents. It is government price controls taken to an almost unimaginably frightening extreme. It is exactly the sort of thing Friedrich Hayek warned us about.

It was sometimes said about the deposed Chilean President Salvador Allende that the residents of his country knew that they were headed for the dungeon when he introduced rationing of food. The rationing was nominally motivated by shortages (shortages generated by his policies of course), but in judging government policy, especially economic policy, it is far more important to be able to predict the effects rather than argue over the motivations. And the effect of such food rationing was it that it gave the Allende government power over who ate and who didn't. It was, in other words, the final mile marker on the highway toward totalitarianism. Chavez’s proposal, while not even a formal legislative proposal yet, let alone a law, would be much the same. If it becomes law, either he will be gone within weeks or his country will become the largest slave-labor camp in the world. Ignorance is a shame; ignorance by politicians is a crime; ignorance by dictators is a crime against humanity.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Milton Friedman, Ave Atque Vale

The wire services are reporting that Milton Friedman has died. One way of judging the career of a trafficker and ideas is how much influence he has had on the broader public conversation. And Friedman, who after all had as academic credentials a Nobel Prize for his work on monetary theory, did that in spades. At the height of his influence he wrote frequent columns in Newsweek advocating the virtues of smaller government in ways that were very persuasive to some of the readers of that magazine. And his two monumental public-intellectual books, Capitalism and Freedom and Free to Choose (the latter co-authored with his wife Rose), are still in print and have had a huge influence in turning many people toward classical liberal thought. (For a very brief flavor of his thought, go here.)

He was both bold and effective in using the credibility won by his intellectual achievements to help him in the broader marketplace of ideas. And he was consistent, advocating freedom not just for the businessman but for all humans in all arenas. He is not as well-known as he should be for his role in ending conscription in the US. In the late 1960s he was a member of a commission studying whether or not to end the draft. According to a presentation I saw at a conference, a military officer (I want to say General Westmoreland, but I would not swear to that) scornfully dismissed the idea of a volunteer military, saying (roughly) that he didn't want an army of mercenaries. To which Friedman responded, again to paraphrase, “So you'd prefer an army of slaves?” And when he was talking to the broader public, he always did it with a smile on his face -- freedom was not simply a flawed system whose only virtue was that it was less worse than all the others; it was a positive means to help people live the lives they wished to live. (This was in stark contrast to some of the controversies in which he was involved in the scholarly economic literature. Some of the controversies between him and Orthodox Keynesians like James Tobin were expressed in, by the language of academic journals, surprisingly bitter and sarcastic language. I remember, a professor in graduate school, himself of the Keynesian persuasion, titling a unit on his syllabus "The Monetarist Controversy." It was obvious to me that it was really more properly titled "The Keynesian Controversy.") His willingness and ability to wield his ideas in the public square meant that he left the world better than he found it.

When John Kenneth Galbraith died not long ago, the New York Times front-paged his obituary, and it was reverentially written. I have read a lot of his work, and profited by doing so; while most of his ideas have not stood the test of time, they are wittily expressed, and his books are well worth reading. I will be interested to see whether the Times, which serves as a sort of Bible of the chattering classes, gives Milton Friedman the same treatment.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Microeconomics of Europe

Regular readers of this blog will know that fertility, and particularly its tattered state in Europe, is a favorite theme of mine. The Economist magazine has a great summary of what economic theory has to say both about why fertility is declining and the implications. Much of the declining-fertility story in Europe boils down to some relatively simple economic ideas:

Free Riding: The decision to have a child, given the existence of state pensions, has benefits for other citizens, but allows each citizen to draw on the contributions of others having children as well. This is a classic recipe for free riding – contributing to a good only insofar as there are private benefits, even though the benefits to others are substantial. Each child pays taxes that provide public-pension benefits for everybody, but the costs of that child are borne only by the parents. The parents, seemingly secure in the knowledge that most of their retirement needs can be met by the children of others, are likely to have few themselves. But this is how everyone behaves, meaning that the national cradle is nearly empty. (If you are comfortable with formal economic research, this working paper provides evidence that more generous state pensions are associated with lower birth rates.)

Economic Growth: In many Western European countries, per capita GDP is roughly 70% that of the US. According to conventional growth theory, since the production technology is the same everywhere, these countries should converge toward the US standard of living. But they stopped doing this roundabout 1980. This is because the taxes needed to support the welfare state deter wealth creation and because laws designed to protect existing workers make it irrational to hire more (which keeps present companies from growing and destroys the incentives to found new ones). Globally, Europe is still rich, but if present trends continue the gap between France and Germany on the one hand and the US on the other will in a single generation’s time be like the gap between Romania and the US now.

Innovation: Technological advance is a risky enterprise. The aforementioned factors deter not just growth in the existing sorts of things, but the creation of new ideas that help humanity. Critics of what they see as the “obsession” with economic growth by many economists argue that we have enough stuff, and don’t need more. But economic activity is fundamentally an exercise in problem solving – figuring out ways in which humans have unmet desires, and then rearranging scarce resources in a (risky) attempt to meet them. The less (for the above reasons) people attempt risky entrepreneurial innovations, the less we progress technologically. This is not just about having fewer Big Macs or a plasma TV that is a little bigger. It is the difference between having more medical innovation and not, between solving environmental problems and not, between pulling hundreds of millions of people out of desperate poverty and not, and so on. It is the difference between solving the many human problems that remain unsolved and not. When Europe drops out of modern global competition, they cease to contribute to technological progress. Since I have very recently posted> that demand in the US increasingly drives medical innovation regardless of the extent to which US medical problems are synonymous with global medical problems, I was glad to see this point make it into an outlet as widely read as The Economist. (I have also notedthat India and China will increasingly make up, perhaps more than make up, for Europe’s growing absence, but Europe’s absence is still costly.)

The one omission from the Economist piece was the idea that Europe’s population decline may be exacerbated by emigration by its most creative, least risk-averse individuals. It is these people who most move the entrepreneurial frontier forward, but in many European countries they are punished by high levels of taxation and the near-impossibility of laying off workers during bad times. Some of these creators of progress will decide not to take their risks and deprive humanity of what they have to offer, but many of them will end up in the US or Britain or even India or the UAE. (See a report about this phenomenon in Germany here.) That is good for the world in that it lessens the total global cost of the European social model, but it means that Europe will continue to shrivel up until it, essentially, blows away like a tumbleweed down the streets of a once-flowering Great Plains ghost town.

All the economics one learns in the principles classes actually explains quite a bit, including the long sweep of human history. If present trends continue, the US will continue to be a nation with a relatively modest welfare state and thus a much higher rate of economic growth, innovation, and dust contribution to human progress. On the other hand, if we were to go down the European path, the impact not just on Americans but on the rest of the planet would be catastrophic.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Noted without Comment

The leader of the Socialist movement in the French legislature thinks that the best way to guarantee freedom of speech is to have the government subsidize failing newspapers:

"The disappearance of Libération would be a black day for the movement of ideas in our country. Helping the press is a task for the state because it is the guarantor of the freedom of expression."

(This is my primitive translation of the French, the original version of which can be found here.)

Libération is a newspaper of the left (the extreme left in American terms, but mainstream in the French context) founded by Jean-Paul Sartre in the late 1940s.

Hat tip: ¡No Pasaran!


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

How Did Freedom Do?

Not well, all things considered. With respect to the basic issue of whether or not Americans still own their own lives, the biggest action was not in legislative races, but in ballot initiatives. With respect to the congressional elections, many libertarians argue that there is little difference between the Republicans and the Democrats. This is not entirely true. Almost all Republicans, including President Bush, believe strongly in tax cuts. They do not always do it for the right reasons – President Bush sold his tax cuts mostly as a way to revive a struggling economy – but they do it just the same. And tax cuts are an important weapon in the war for freedom because they provide some restraint on the growth of the state, as Ronald Reagan knew well. The president’s tax cuts will presumably expire now, and that transfer of resources from individuals to the government is a significant loss. While it is probably true that the Democrats will try to turn back some of the excesses of the national-security state, it is unlikely they will succeed in getting them past the president. But on the whole, since the natural trajectory of the state has been upward with only occasional interruptions for most of the last 70 years, there was nothing in yesterday’s results that dramatically changed this. Indeed, while President Bush clearly believes in tax cuts, he does not seem to believe in lower government spending. In this he is different from Ronald Reagan, but similar to the Democrats in Congress. The entanglement of the Republicans with the special-interest rent-seekers peddling influence in Washington made them more and more resemble the corrupt Democratic empire of 1994, and I suspect this is part of what turned the electorate against them.

And with one and a half exceptions, the ballot issues were no better. Most shockingly, many states voted for a mandatory increase in the minimum wage. At least two of them, Nevada and Ohio (there may be more), actually wrote this into their state constitutions. The importance of this as an expansion of state power is hard to understate: in these states, the labor-management bargain over wages has now been transferred not just to legislative majority, but to direct majority vote, and into their constitutions. And as I noted earlier, the Ohio amendment is the most dangerous of all, because it allows anyone asserting an interest on behalf of worker to begin rifling through employment records. This opens the door to unprecedented harassment of business. In addition to the obvious incentive effects of this – expect employers to be even less willing to start businesses in Ohio than before – the threat to the autonomy of the entrepreneur is outrageous. This is a dark development. We should be thankful every day that the framers, properly concerned about the tyranny of the majority in a way that is unknown to most modern Americans, made the federal Constitution so difficult to amend. In taking this step, the advocates of Ohio's Issue 2 have made its constitution more like those of most countries and like the aborted one of the European Union – hundreds of pages long, dealing not with the fundamental structure of the government and with the checks and balances necessary to restrain it, but with affirmative promises made to various loud constituencies. This is the road to disaster.

On marijuana initiatives, where libertarians generally split from conservatives, the news was also not good from a libertarian point of view. A medical marijuana initiative lost in South Dakota, and an initiative to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana also went down in Colorado. In Ohio, an initiative to legalize slot machines went down hard in Ohio, but this is not a bad result. The issue was so specifically worded that it was basically a huge transfer of a guaranteed income stream to casino owners, along with a prior commitment to how to spend the tax revenue generated, which is a specific guarantee for specific constituency – college students in this case, who would get scholarship money. As this works against the rule of law, the defeat of this initiative is no tragedy.

Initiative to ban same-sex marriage went down everywhere except in Arizona, where the outcome is still in doubt. I am torn about this; there is much about the new gay-rights culture that is very similar to the culture of American gimme-tribalism that I despise. Gay-rights activists are not interested in obtaining, for example, the rights that blacks were deprived of for so long – the right to contract freely, the right to be on the street after dark, the right to vote, etc. They of course already possess these rights. This movement is partly about government ratification of a particular sexual preference – my choice in marriage is entitled to equal respect as yours. And there is some evidence that some campaigners for gay marriage are really interested in disrupting traditional marriage, which has served society well, if the tendency of all societies throughout history to adopt and stick to it is any indication. And yet in modern America, traditional marriage carries considerable financial benefits. It is possible for two married men or women to duplicate most of the contractual benefits of marriage – the presumed rights that marriage connotes in inheritance, end-of-life issues, etc. But establishing these contracts is very costly in a way that it is not for traditionally married people, and gay couples do not get any of the tax benefits that traditionally married people do.

And so if you believe in equality before the law, the gay-rights advocates seem to have you over a barrel. And yet there is nothing in the arguments advocating gay marriage that do not also serve to legitimize polygyny and other "alternative" family structures. The only solution to this problem is to completely untie the knot between state and marriage – to let churches defined marriage as they wish, but to give no tax benefits to any particular sort of family structure. Ultimately, the public increasingly is not worried about these alternative family structures, and so we are headed down the road in which the state treats them all the same, which will damage the traditional family the most. Paradoxically, separating marriage and state is probably at this point the best way to defend the traditional family (a worthy goal, in my view).

The one half-bright spot was eminent domain. Nine states passed laws or amendments restricting the ability of state governments to seize private property and transfer it to another private party. One of them was New Hampshire, which means that (against all sense of cosmic justice) David Souter’s house is safe. Unfortunately, the ones that lost were the more stringent initiatives, which didn't simply ban private-to-private transfers, but required taxpayers to compensate private landowners when land-use regulations diminish the value of their property. This is, sadly, not surprising. Most people view an evident-domain seizure as something that could happen to them, while the gutting of property value because of a land-use regulation is something that happens to only to other people, with big McMansions or large lots who are far removed from the common man. Since the land use regulations are seen as benefiting many people even as they impose costs only on a few who can probably afford it anyway, they are seen as just. But the rich and the poor should be equal before the law, and the rich are just as damaged when the resale value of their land is destroyed as anyone, rich or poor alike, is when their property is seized. So this is a mixed victory at best.

California, of all places, did reject an initiative to tax oil production and use it to fund "alternative energy" research and production. The motivation again was not the best one, in that a lot of people pushing it probably didn't want oil drilling rigs on their coastlines (Reuters titled one of its dispatches on the outcome "Big Oil Trumps Hollywood, Clintons in CA"), but since this would have been a measure that attacked a specific group for the benefit of another specific group, its defeat is important. So I will take what I can get.

The single biggest victory came from Michigan, which by a sizable margin approved a ban on racial discrimination by the state government, including its universities. The critic may object that since this limits the ability of universities there to run their own affairs, this is an anti-freedom measure, but in fact the reverse is true. While private universities should be free to diversify their student body as much as they like in a multiethnic society, a key cornerstone of liberty is that the state may not racially discriminate. If the state is to have universities, race must be irrelevant in their decision-making. Michigan joins Washington and California in banning this kind of been-counting flimflammery. The ultimate beneficiaries of this, ironically, will not be whites but Asians who have been systematically excluded from many of our best universities on the grounds that they are not the "right" sort of minority.

The founders knew that freedom was a tenuous thing, and that majority rule in particular was no friend of liberty. Charles Murray has argued that America will ultimately turn back to freedom through the ballot box as enough Americans realize the growing incompetence of the state in addressing issues that are beyond its competence – family structure, income maintenance, picking which industries and businesses should succeed and fail, etc. But I wonder. Politics is usually zero-sum; successful political entrepreneur is often the one who succeeds in picking us against them – impoverished minimum-wage workers against greedy employers, for example. And so elections are a poor substitute for the bulwarks of the Constitution in defending us against our natural tendency to prey on one another.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A Little Election Fraud Never Hurt Anyone

It is Election Day, and boy are we angry. Depending on your preferred flavor of outrage, you can find reports of Republican attempts to suppress votes or Democratic attempts to manufacture them. If any federal elections are close, you can look forward to the light brigade of election lawyers charging forth in obfuscation. These are the fruits of Bush/Gore 2000.

How did we get to this point, where not just elections themselves, but arbitration over to how to count them has become such a focus of bitter conflict? Part of it is presumably because the electorate itself is so evenly divided, and that in turn is partly a function of the fact that modern political parties know how to paint their candidates in such a way that they appeal to the center, which is where the votes are. Part of it is perhaps because of the big issues at stake, most obviously Iraq and terror. And yet this can't be the total explanation; the angriest election was the 2000 one, which of course occured before September 11. And in recent years democracy itself has become a sort of civi sacrament, elbowing aside more pressing considerations of the rule of law and liberty - of limits, in other words, of what the democratic majority may do upon taking power.

And another important factor is that the wave of political change ushered in by the 1960s has now crested and is beginning to recede. There is now an entire generation of Americans that has no memory of Vietnam or the angry protests against it. Instead, their memories are informed by the economic and geopolitical disaster of the 1970s and the boom years of the 1980s and 1990s. Americans have drawn a line in some respects against further advancement of the agenda of the now-old New Left. Affirmative action has hit the wall, welfare reform was the most important domestic policy achievement of the 1990s, and there is no going back from free trade and the job losses it has caused among traditionally Democratic constituents. On the conservative side, the chances of Roe v. Wade being overturned recede with each day, but still, abortion and gay marriage are seen as life-and-death issues for the Republic, and politicians on the right have an incentive to make sure that their potential voters see it so.

All of this is unfortunate, because it involves Americans wastefully channeling their energies into government to address what they see as the problems of American society, when once upon a time looking to one's own tightly knit community would have served. Once upon a time most of these issues would not be something that would even be in political play; now they are, and so politics is everything. This is an unavoidable result of anointing government as The Great Problem Solver.

Perhaps the most striking, and historically ignorant, example of Election Day anger concerns the belief that electronic voting machines have been rigged in advance. While not unknown on the right, this is a common belief on the left, because it fits in so nicely with their general penchant for anti-corporate conspiracism. (The Diebold company, which manufactures a huge proportion of the new voting machines in the US, is the usual target of these theories.) It is undoubtedly true, as any progressive computer scientist will tell you, that security on these machines is lax. But we got these machines because the previous generation gave us hanging chads and therefore Bush v. Gore, and the generation before that gave us ballot boxes stuffed with Democratic votes, long the stuff of right-wing lore. The smartest thing anybody ever said about the 2000 election was that we have no idea who won Florida, because our voting technology is not sufficiently precise, as indeed no voting technology is, to say who won when the public is as closely divided as it was, and is.

The ultimate tragedy of 2000 is that it has unleashed the ravenous appetites of the lawyers onto our election system, which will unavoidably further corrode the faith of Americans in the entire election process. Some clever lawyer, maybe both sides’ lawyers simultaneously, can always find a way to persuade his most avid partisans that the facts are on his side. I almost long for the day when Mayor Daley and Senator Lyndon Johnson can quietly stuff the 1960 ballot boxes, and Richard Nixon can quietly accept his resulting defeat despite knowing the magnitude of the irregularities. As long as it wasn't too blatant, a little ballot-stuffing by the incumbent party was the price to be paid for distributing the election-victory treasure around in a way that minimzed social bitterness. But that implied social contract is long gone. It is costly when the votes are improperly counted. It is costlier still when endless bitter litigation seeks to vindicate the ultimately unprovable claims of the angriest among us that their guy won.

Friday, November 03, 2006


CNN has recently gotten into trouble for airing a video showing Iraqi sniper killing an American soldier. They have been roundly roasted on the blogosphere, and have argued in their defense that the airing as part of their fundamental mission, to show the objective truth (in Anderson Cooper's own words at the link above, "to present the unvarnished truth as best we can"):

You should also know we tried to put all of this in context. Our reporting included an interview with a current U.S. sniper in Iraq. He's been both under attack from insurgent snipers and he has himself operated as a sniper. We also heard from Major General William Caldwell, a coalition forces spokesman in Iraq, and CNN military analyst General David Grange, formerly with the Green Beret, Delta Force and Army Rangers.

Presenting the unvarnished truth is certainly a worthy goal for any media organization, but should it be only one? Should, for example, an American media organization want America to win a war in which it is involved, in which the organization is covering? Even CNN presumably believes this to some degree, in that they refuse to release information on imminent troop movements and other things that would lead to more American soldiers being killed in us all. And yet indirectly, that is precisely what the video does – by allowing either those who actively want the Iraqi insurgency to win or are on the fence about it (or even those who oppose it yet are fearful of the consequences if it wins – e.g., the fledgling democrats in Iraq who know will happen to them if the democracy dies) to believe that its victory is more likely. This is the function of all propaganda, and in showing the video, CNN has clearly aided and abetted the current enemy of the US military. But they have also performed another useful function, which is to increase the amount of information the public has about the war. So were they wrong to do it?

If the insurgents win, clearly, Iraq will not be a society where objective reporting of the truth by the press will be prized. And so in introducing a new product that instrumentally aid to the insurgency, CNN is in a modest and only long-term way actually damaging the cause of freedom of the press. But that the question has to even be posed in these terms is a sign of an increasing phenomenon in all Western societies – what we might call post-patriotism. In post-patriotism, love of country is not a worthy value. Instead there is a devotion to some higher principle – objective truth, multinational brotherhood, multicultural relativism, or some such thing. Patriotism, an old-fashioned relic of less enlightened generations, must be sacrificed to this higher goal. University professors feel the obligation not to paint American history optimistically, and sometimes not even objectively, because to do so will further a political goal – the continued maintenance and even growth of the American society they sometimes harbor deep skepticism about and sometimes outright despise – that they find unacceptable.

I have some sympathy for any rejection of knee-jerk patriotism. The post-patriot might justifiably point to all of the nationalistic calamities, especially in Europe, that it has created. And yet at some point, patriotism becomes almost unavoidable if one believes that the ideas encoded in various national cultures are different, and that some of them are objectively better than others.

Ten days after Adolf Hitler came to power, the Oxford Union, the world’s most famous debating society, debated a resolution that proposed "that this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country." The motion carried overwhelmingly, by 275 votes. The results of the debate were reported all over the world, and people not just in Germany but in places as far removed as Latin America drew the quite-rational inference that the British would not fight. This story of appeasement and its consequences is well known, but the incident also illustrates that for a long time there has been a tendency in the West toward relativism, a refusal to make comparative judgments, even a refusal to believe in objectivity. The outcome of the Oxford debate was obviously a result of the carnage or World War I, which could very reasonably be argued to be the logical outcome of patriotism taken to excess. And if patriotism means “I love my country simply because it is mine,” then the dangers to humanity if enough people hold this belief are obvious.

But what if patriotism means "My country (or culture) stands for certain principles, and those principles are simply better than those of other cultures, and in particular those who wish us ill"? Suddenly post-patriotism – the belief that it is more important to be objective or to respect other cultures than to defend your own – becomes extraordinarily dangerous. And the danger lies not just to the culture that no longer believes in itself, but to the rest of humanity that sees the values of the better culture, which will be transmitted around the planet in accordance with that culture's strength, replaced by those of the inferior but more vicious one. It is the bitterest irony that the culture that invented the notions of objective observation of the universe, that cultures can be scientifically categorized and compared, and even that no one surrounded by one culture is in a position to judge the practices of another, that this culture may one day run the risk of being annihilated by those that believe in nothing more than patriotism and their own cultural superiority, simply because the culture is theirs. Postmodernism gets all the press, but it is post-patriotism that deserves it.

Not long after I wrote the above, I came across a story about a Halloween party that the president of the University of Pennsylvania, Amy Gutmann, threw for students in her house. Now that the president should do such a thing is questionable in my judgment to begin with; I am not all that comfortable with making a university presidency a casual office where students are simply the president's pals rather than people in need of supervision and guidance. But leave that aside. What makes it remarkable is that two of the guests came dressed as suicide bombers. In the course of the party they took a number of photographs in which they staged mock executions of hostages. And what is most striking is that the president actually posed with one of the bombers for a photograph:

Now in my line of work, this it will we call a "teachable moment." One might have supposed that a university president not afflicted by post-patriotism would've taken the students aside and said that this is unacceptable. But as far as I can tell that did not happen. Indeed, President Gutmann seems positively delighted to be in the photograph. For the record, one of the students has apologized, and this is fine. He is young, and perhaps a little foolish, and can be forgiven this mistake. But that a university president would brandish her moral indifference so flagrantly is a disappointment to say the least. And what do you want to bet that faculty at the University of Pennsylvania proudly boast of how much "critical thinking" and "social responsibility" are emphasized in the curriculum?

Update to the Update

President Gutmann has issued the following statement at the university website:

Statement by President Amy Gutmann
November 03, 2006

Each year, the president hosts a Halloween party for Penn students. More than 700 students attend. They all crowd around to have their picture taken with me in costume. This year, one student who had a toy gun in hand had his picture taken with me before it was obvious to me that he was dressed as a suicide bomber. He posted the photo on a website and it was picked up on several other websites.

The costume is clearly offensive and I was offended by it. As soon as I realized what his costume was, I refused to take any more pictures with him, as he requested. The student had the right to wear the costume just as I, and others, have a right to criticize his wearing of it.

This is commendable, but not overly so. If I were the president I would've expelled both of them from my house immediately, rather than simply refusing to pose for more pictures and taking refuge behind their "right to wear the costume." (The right to wear a costume does not denote a right to wear it in a particular place.) The mock executions of other students at the party, with everyone smiling, are also well-represented in the pictures, and would also be sufficient to end any obligations of hospitality I felt toward my guests. Perhaps this is part of the reason why I will never be a university president.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Bangalore v2.0

The international Herald Tribune has an item about the Indian city of Bangalore, increasingly synonymous worldwide with a high-technology, globalized India, being about to change its name (back) to its precolonial form, Bengaluru. In this it will join Mumbai (née Bombay) and Chennai (formerly Madras) as Indian cities abandoning their Anglicized names to revert to some linguistically uncontaminated antecedent.

What is of greatest interest to me is how the campaign started. Apparently the prime mover in this change is U.R. Ananthamurthy, an intellectual who specializes in cultural products using a local and hence not widely known tongue:

A name change would serve to awaken the consciousness of people to the existing inequality, said U.R. Ananthamurthy, 73, a noted writer in the local language, Kannada, who first proposed the name change.

"In this city, people can study French or Spanish, shop in a fancy supermarket full of goods produced by multinationals, and ride in cabs driven by English- speaking drivers," said Ananthamurthy, adding, "But do these people living in 'Bangalore' know that there is a 'Bengaluru'?'"

As a specialist in the traditional language of that part of the world, Mr. Ananthamurthy is naturally threatened by competition from other cultural forces, and has every incentive to encourage the state to subsidize and protect his cultural capital. As I have argued before, this kind of thinking is a key part of the anti-globalization movement. The IHT article above describes in some detail the cosmopolitan nature of many of Bangalore's young people. Naturally, if you have a lot invested in the pre-global culture, this is very threatening. This is just as true if you're a violent fanatic of the Bin Laden type or a peaceful academic like Mr. Ananthamurthy. (Just to be clear, I do not mean to morally equate the two, simply to indicate that their behavior is driven by the same economic forces.) Mr. Ananthamurthy even attempts to tie his cultural protectionism to class-warfare considerations:

Home prices are shooting up, and local newspapers advertise apartments and villas costing over $1 million. But the salaries of many of Bangalore's citizens working in jobs outside of the high-growth sectors have not been keeping up. Many government workers still take home about 4,500 rupees, or $100, a month. For the majority, such homes remain distant and extravagant dreams.

There is a distinct divide between "people who dress in a certain way, speak in a certain way and drive a certain type of car," and the rest of the city, said Ananthamurthy.

Cultural purity as the savior of the working class - it is a historical theme that we have seen before. But ultimately it will fail as it always does, and Mr. Ananthamurthy's culture will have to compete on its merits, whatever Bangalore ends up being called.