Tuesday, July 31, 2007

From Aaron to Bonds

Any day now baseball will have a new home run king. The transition from Henry Aaron to Barry Bonds is the transition to a changed country.

As is well-known, Aaron faced harrassment and death threats as he pursued what was still the Babe's record. You could see the relief in his face as he threw off the two fans who were chasing him around the basepaths when he hit #715. Part of what motivated him to go for the record was the belief that he could use the resulting platform to advance the civil-rights agenda.

For Bonds, of course, it is a different time. A spoiled athlete, embittered at the media who make his riches possible, still in surly denial about his drug-tainted pursuit of Aaron. Aaron in some ways was the final chapter of the Jackie Robinson book - the greatest record in all of North American sport now possessed by a black man. A significant portion of white America didn't take kindly to it, as they had not taken kindly to baseball integration to begin with.

But Bonds lives in the world Robinson and Aaron built. That he is free to be a jackass, like people of any other race, is perhaps a sign of the full normalization of race relations. Black people, and black athletes in particular, are not simply noble martyrs, or mere victims. They run the full gamut of humanity, just like anyone else. Closing the book on the era of the black athlete as icon is a healthy development in American society.

It is also worth noting that on the night Aaron broke Ruth's record, many of the seats were empty. The contrast with today's sellout crowds in San Francisco and the boats out in the Bay hoping to snag the record-breaking shot testify to the growth both in the popularity of sport and the huge commercialization of sports memorabilia. It is a changed world in many ways, if only Barry Bonds knew it.

Monday, July 23, 2007

On Vacation

I am out of town for 3-4 weeks. Blogging will be light to nonexistent during that time.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Honeybees and Global Warming II

Awhile back I discussed colony collapse disorder, a problem afflicting honeybee colonies all over the world. I didn't talk about it for its own sake, but as a beautiful example of the modern synergy between hysterical media and a government ever-eager to expand its authority. Much of the media commentary on the disorder, in which bee colonies simply disappeared without explanation, talked ominously of threats to the food supply, which naturally called for a Really Big Government Program. The remark below from The New York Times (with the breathless headline "Bees Vanish; Scientists Race for Reasons") is among the more sedate:

Meanwhile, samples were sent to an Agriculture Department laboratory in North Carolina this month to screen for 117 chemicals. Particular suspicion falls on a pesticide that France banned out of concern that it may have been decimating bee colonies. Concern has also mounted among public officials.

''There are so many of our crops that require pollinators,'' said Representative Dennis Cardoza, a California Democrat whose district includes that state's central agricultural valley, and who presided last month at a Congressional hearing on the bee issue. ''We need an urgent call to arms to try to ascertain what is really going on here with the bees, and bring as much science as we possibly can to bear on the problem.''

This is the way of things nowadays. Someone identifies a problem, various constituencies in society with external interests magnify it into a crisis, and then the officially credentialed Beltway media runs to ask someone what the government is going to do about it. That the problem might be exaggerated, or that the government may be unnecessary to solve and may even worsen it never crosses anyone's mind.

And the bees? It turns out, if these Spanish scientists are right, that it's not global warming, or pesticides, or any of that. It's a known parasite that costs about two euros per hive per year to fix. Thank heavens someone discovered this before the federal Department of Beekeeping was up and running.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Law's Spider's Web

Here is former Italian Prime Minister Guilano Amato, on the revised EU Constitution, which its advocates are trying to pass off as just another treaty to avoid the need for referenda in European countries, some of which they are likely to lose (hat tip: EU Observer):

They [EU leaders] decided that the document should be unreadable. If it is unreadable, it is not constitutional, that was the sort of perception. Where they got this perception from is a mystery to me. In order to make our citizens happy, to produce a document that they will never understand! "But, there is some truth [in it]. Because if this is the kind of document that the IGC [intergovernmental conference] will produce, any Prime Minister – imagine the UK Prime Minister - can go to the Commons and say 'look, you see, it's absolutely unreadable, it's the typical Brussels treaty, nothing new, no need for a referendum. Should you succeed in understanding it at first sight there might be some reason for a referendum, because it would mean that there is something new.

Now the EU leadership is notorious for running referenda as many times as it takes to get the result they want. (See Denmark in 1993 on the Maastricht Treaty and Ireland in 2000 on the Nice treaty for more examples.) And so Mr. Amato is somewhat recklessly saying in public what many of us already know, that government power these days is increasingly not about outright political repression but about the quiet suffocation of individual dreams by the regulatory state, crafted, run, litigated and financed by lawyers and others who have mastered the necessary tools of the trade. Complex laws are laws that are harder to challenge, harder to pin down and hence easier to mobilize against your political opponents. The rise of the regulatory state, in which Congress has abandoned its lawmaking powers to the permanent rule-writing bureaucracy (a pattern even worse in the EU) and to court battles among hired guns, has had devastating effects on freedom. Thomas E. Nugent wrote this fine piece at National Review Online recently, lamenting the fact that the rise of lawyers as legislators and, increasingly, presidential candidates means an increase in laws that only the lawyers can understand, which is fatal to liberty.

The argument is more than plausible economically; those who are the high priests of legal interpretation have every incentive to increase the opacity of the law for those without the proper credentials. This limits the competition they face in the market for rulemaking. It is no coincidence that the modern route to getting the government to do something you want (and typically having the government do it to people other than yourself) is not elections but litigation and lobbying. And the increasing complexity and arbitrariness of the rules crafted through this process allows organized pressure groups and advocates to ensnare the citizenry ever more, causing their freedom to maneuver, their ability to plan their own affairs in the confidence a bureaucrat or judge will not molest them, to shrink ever faster.

To see a particularly disquieting example read Bradley A. Smith’s piece in City Journal about citizens intimidated into withdrawal from the political process by our byzantine incumbency-protection racket campaign-finance laws. Examples are found there of citizens who want to threaten politicians and their agendas, but are intimidated into silence through clever legalistic manipulation of these laws.

The fiction that elections are all about taking the public temperature and interpreting the public will is ever harder to take seriously when the entry barriers of incumbency ever more sharply limit political competition. Politicians, ever eager to increase their power over private matters, constantly lament the rise of “economic power,” which (as GM or Ford shareholders could currently tell you) is only as resilient as the time it takes someone to come up with a better product. Of the far more dangerous concentrated political power - rulemakers entrenched by incumbency protection and by the complex nature of the technology for manufacturing legal rules - little is ever said.

Take any measure you like for the increasing scope of government in our lives – pages in the Federal Register, number of federal employees, number of regulatory agencies – and compare now to fifty years ago. We live increasingly in the age of the triumph of the attorneys. Freedom dies not because some marauding army streams over the border (or because crazed jihadists pour into the country out of Arabia) but because, as Tacitus is said to have said, “the more corrupt the state, the more numerous the laws.”

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Bad Hair Day

The Lord Chief Justice of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has announced that judges will no longer wear those wigs we all know them for in non-criminal trials. Admittedly they look ridiculous, but it is a shame.

Edmund Burke said that “Society...is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” By this he meant, in part, that tradition binds us to the past, and thus allows to serve as the bond between the past and the future. Wigs are a symbol of what Britain is, and where it came from – that there is a foundation on which is built Cool Britannia, the rise of the City as the world’s financial center, the characterization of London as the most diverse city in the world, and all the other contemporary things that make the British crow. Those who enter a court there, just as those who see our judges in robes, know that justice has been built by toil and blood, and could easily fade away without continuous reinforcement.

The very novelty of Britain’s new ethnoreligious diversity makes all the more urgent the reinforcement of her civic traditions – the monarchy, wigs on judges, cricket whites, whatever it may be – for the benefit of those perhaps otherwise not inclined to value them much. This serves to remind her newest citizens that the place they came to is distinct from the place they left, which more than ever needs to be reinforced so as to encourage people to accommodate themselves to the former. Young Brits, too, need to know that there was something around, believe it or not, before their generation came calling. This is what traditions are for. In the grand scheme of things it is probably not all that much, but Britain will miss them when they are gone, whether it knows why or not.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


There are now seven new wonders of the world. A project that resulted in 100,000,000 people voting has established that the new acmes of human achievement are the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, the Petra ruins in Jordan, the Colosseum in Rome, Rio’s Christ the Redeemer of Open Arms statue, Machu Picchu, and the Mayan city of Chichen Itza. There are two things to notice. First, none of these things are “new.” Other than Christ the Redeemer, none were created in even the broadest definition of the modern era. I would’ve suggested Silicon Valley, or the City (London’s financial district), or Singapore's ultra-modern port facilities, or perhaps the Eiffel Tower as something truly wonderful yet new.

Second, Tigerhawk has an interesting little piece about how, incredibly, the bureaucrats at UNESCO have condemned the Swiss Foundation that ran the polling for, basically, allowing the hoi polloi to determine what’s a wonder and what’s not. According to its spokesman, Sue Williams, “This campaign responds to other criteria and objectives than that of UNESCO in the field of heritage. We have a much broader vision.”

The good Lord save us from experts and bureaucrats knowing best.

Toward Freedom in China

China has executed the head of its equivalent of the FDA for corruption. The most interesting aspect of the story is not the execution per se, as capital punishment is as workaday as mowing the lawn in the People’s Republic. The story is what the scandal that led to his death says about changes in China, changes in the direction of freedom.

Some months ago the media and government in the U.S. ascertained that the deaths of pets in the U.S. could be attributed to a mislabeled ingredient that originated in China that was placed in pet food. The Chinese government initially did what they do best, played hardball and contemptuously stonewalled. Chinese diplomats were told to argue that American food products exported to China also had safety issues, and could be subject to retaliation. It was a small problem affecting a few companies, not an overall indictment of the Made in China brand.

But then globalization, which has done so much for China, bit back. Consumers and governments worldwide began to express concern about a whole array of Chinese products, including tires, toys and food. And, most strikingly, the Chinese media itself propelled public outrage forward by reporting on shoddy construction. According to the Globe and Mail, a Chinese paper broke the story of China’s trophy high-speed railway from Beijing to Shanghai being endangered by bogus materials used in its construction.

Even the portion of the Live Earth concerts held in Shanghai is illustrative in its way. Culture is for totalitarians the most important industry – control the culture and you control power. But the message of the greenies – restrain economic growth for the earth’s sake – is, while false, one that cuts directly against the view the Chinese government seeks to promote. As Charles Paul Freund noted in 2002, pop culture has a profoundly corrosive effect on totalitarian regimes because of its emphasis on individualism. By agreeing to the concert, which appeases the young of Shanghai eager to network with the world, the Chinese government concedes that its monopoly on hearts and minds is no more.

Milton Friedman argued that economic freedom is not sufficient for political freedom, but it is necessary. (If true, bad news for ever-more regulated and centralized Europe.) In China, we are seeing that – people ever more in charge of their own destiny, demanding ever more of what someone once called consent of the governed. The journey has many miles to go, as a quick perusal of the State Department human rights report on China demonstrates. (That the agency head described at the beginning was executed so perfunctorily is also informative in this regard.) But going back now seems inconceivable, and more prosperity is leading Chinese toward more freedom.


Saturday, July 07, 2007

Work the British Won't Do

In all the discussion about the drawbacks of single-payer health systems, there was one argument I had never considered before, in addition to the waiting lists, the criminalization of consensual trade between doctors and patients, etc. It was brought to my attention by remarks Mark Steyn made on the Hugh Hewitt show. He notes, incredibly, that 58 percent of Britain’s new doctors in 2003 came from other countries. Britain still produces native doctors to be sure, but many of the best ones come to the U.S. to practice.

While Mr. Steyn depicts this as a national-security issue, to me the most interesting part is what it says about future medical quality and innovation. Britain’s doctor shortage is essentially a price-control problem. That state-imposed price controls cause waiting lists for health services, especially in Britain, is a well-known problem. But perhaps a greater effect of nationalizing medicine is that medicine itself becomes seen to economic agents as a less useful activity, because the government is so big on controlling costs. And so medicine itself becomes less remunerative, and so the number of doctors declines, unless (as in Britain) low-cost doctors can be found overseas. To use the language of the American immigration debate, medicine in Britain is increasingly a job Britons are unwilling to do, like gardening in Los Angeles.

Prices tell us things – the value of using resources, including talent, for alternative activities, for example. Medicine is expensive in part because it’s so valuable (what is our willingness to pay, after all, to have our cancer put into remission or our painful hip replaced?), and “controlling costs” tells entrepreneurs that this is not such a valuable service after all. I have written before about how the U.S. switching to a single-payer system would be disastrous for medical innovation because the U.S. consumer’s willingness to pay in what is still a reasonably market-based system now motivates a huge amount of global medical innovation. The destruction of medical progress would be the greatest, although largely invisible, cost of completing the government takeover of the U.S. health system. Markets balance, as they should, cost of production and value to consumers. By obsessing only about the former, government-run health care destroys far too much of the latter.


Thursday, July 05, 2007

Is Europe Turning Around?

I am currently reading Walter Laqueur’s The Last Days of Europe. It tells a story not familiar to many, but certainly to me and my students – of European decline, perhaps terminal. Western Europe has been economically and demographically on the skids for some time. Declining populations of young people, overextended welfare states, and substantial restrictions on job creation have combined to create a climate of pessimism and promoted emigration by the most ambitious. It joins other work such as America Alone, Menace in Europe, While Europe Slept and The Force of Reason in predicting that Europe as we know it is finished, sinking under a flood of economic depression and unassimilated immigrants.
But recent data suggest that in the central spine of the EU – Germany, France and Italy – things may be looking up.

With regard to unemployment, OECD standardized unemployment rates show good news:

Country200420052006May 2007
Euro area8.

And this is not a coincidence. German chancellor Angela Merkel has attacked one of the three contributors to Eurosclerosis, generous unemployment benefits that cause people to turn down jobs, although she has largely left untouched the high taxes and labor-market rigidities (the latter of which have been attacked in Holland and elsewhere) that also contribute. And even the merest promise of economic reform in France under M. Sarkozy seems to have coincided with an economic pickup there.

Demographically too, The Economist has a brief piece on rising fertility in Northern Europe, although Italy and Spain continue to struggle. Given the desperate need for young people to keep the welfare-state pyramid going, this is an encouraging development, although levels are still below replacement everywhere across the Atlantic.

So is the generation-long collapse of confidence, growth and reproduction over? I am not convinced. First, many European countries have lowered unemployment by moving large numbers of productive, working-age people onto disability. The OECD does try as best it can to make its unemployment statistics comparable across countries, but I wonder. Second, young, ambitious Europeans still feel like they have no future, if emigration in Germany and France are any guide. When people like this stay, we will know the nightmare is over. And while some attribute rising fertility in Europe to tax credits for children, which in the past have had the merely temporary effect of shifting births from the future (on the assumption the credits will be repealed), the demographic breakdown, particularly in France, is unavailable. If, for example, the rising fertility will mostly be angry young men in the Paris suburbs in fifteen years, there is nothing really to applaud. But on balance taking the first of what will have to be many steps on the road to recovery are better than standing in stagnation. Perhaps things are looking up.