Tuesday, December 23, 2008

When Are You Moving?

WARNING: this is a LONG, dry, economics rant post. Beware!

"When are you moving?"

I get asked this question every time I mention that we live in Ogden, but I work in Provo. The people asking the question have a point. A 156 mile round-trip commute isn't the most pleasant part of my day, and on snow days I often can't get either down or back.

The short answer is . . . who knows!

Here follows the long answer:

I do know why we haven't moved yet. Besides the wonderful generosity of family, for which we are very grateful, housing prices are not . . . shall we say . . . stable. MSNBC has an article today about the housing market. Apparently none of the measures being taken by the Federal Reserve have done anything to stem the tide of foreclosures or to increase the number of homeowners or the median price of a house. They have a spiffy graphic showing what housing prices have done since 1999:

Now, this raises two questions in my mind.
  1. Why are homes worth more in the middle of every year and less at the beginning and end?
  2. How does this track with median income changes over the same period?
I have no comment on the first question, and I only asked the second because I already knew the answer. That's why I'm writing this post.

So, as to question 2 - the amount a family can afford to pay for a house is related to their income. "Well. . . duh!" you say. Bear with me. It's more obvious when you think about housing prices in terms of years of income. In the UK, for example, the size of a mortgage you can qualify for equals 3 times your annual income (ignoring all other factors). Thus if you earn $50,000, then you can get a $150,000 mortgage. The ratio in the US is a bit more generous, but, same idea. With that in mind, let's look at another chart (thank you Wikipedia):

If you'll notice, median income peaked in 1999. Since then it has declined.

Everyone assumes the housing market was healthy in 1999. So, we'll start there. In 1999 median income was about $46,000, and the average home cost about $138,000 (just eyeballing the chart for the end of the year). That works out to . . . let's see . . . carry the 2 . . . oh, yeah, 3 times the median income. Those mortgage people were on to something. I'll call this 3:1 ratio a "healthy ratio."

Now let's look at 2005. Housing prices that year were $230,000 for most of the year, while median income had declined to $45,326. That comes out to over 5 times the median income. Not a healthy ratio.

When I look at the numbers that way, it's perfectly obvious why houses aren't selling. The latest income figures available are for 2007. They show that median income has risen slightly since 2005. It was about $50,000 in 2007. the housing slump was in full swing in 2007, so for that year the ratio declined from 4.6 times median income to 4 times median income.

What really gives me pause is this:

Looking at the income chart, median income starts to slide before every recession, and continues to decline till well after the recovery is underway. As every news outlet in the country recent told us, we are in a recession. Chances are good, therefore, that median income is falling, and has been for a while. (we don't get income figures till after the fact).

If this is one of the sharpest recessions ever, as we are reminded daily, chances are median income will fall steeply, and housing prices will continue to follow until well after the recovery is underway.

With that in mind, I'm going to make some predictions. Since they will be memorialized on the internet, we'll all see what my predictions are worth in a few years. (it's really win-win: if, as is most likely, I'm wrong, you'll all know to stop wasting your time reading my blog, and I'll know to keep my mouth shut on topics of which I am ignorant). These are also the reasons, in my mind, we aren't moving yet:
  • I think housing prices will return to something much closer to the "healthy" 3:1 ratio they were at in 1999.
  • Prices won't even begin to recover until unemployment starts to fall, and median income starts to increase at the earliest. (probably more like 6 months later).
  • All the fancy things lenders did to make up for the increasing gap between income and housing prices are gone for good.
  • I think the national median home price will easily fall below $150,000

I think the low prices will stay around a while because 1) All the speculators fueling shows like "Flip this House" lost their shirts (and good riddance), and 2) Lenders will be gun shy for a while, given the number of banks that went under from bad mortgages.

We'll see what happens, but I'm not optimistic for the next few years.

PS - Sorry for the abrupt ending, I tried to think of a good closing with a smooth transition and a hard-hitting conclusion, but I couldn't. The thoughts have stopped, hence so does the post.


Friday, November 21, 2008

Apparently I Don't Understand Economics

We all know inflation is bad. Rising prices devalue our money and make it harder to buy things. Apparently the opposite is also bad. Deflation - falling prices - is also bad for the economy, at least according to economists quoted by MSNBC.

“A benign decline in prices amidst a sluggish but recovering economy would be unwelcome but tolerable,” Merrill Lynch economist David Rosenberg wrote in a note to clients this week.

Unwelcome to whom, Mr. Rosenberg? I know plenty of people who like to pay less for goods of all types. I've heard of weirdos who like to pay more, but they're much more rare.

“But the price slashing now under way as the consumer beats a hasty retreat could allow that corrosive deflationary spiral to take hold — something the Fed wants to avoid at all costs.”

The Fed wants to avoid falling prices "at all costs?" boy, with friends like that, who needs enemies?

As I said, I'm not an economist, but perhaps someone who is could answer this question for me:

If inflation is bad and deflation is bad, then what, precisely, do you expect prices to do?

Should a pound of cheese always have the same price? If so, then the USSR had this economics thing all figured out. They just printed the price right on the label. Year after year a jar of tomato sauce was 40 kopeks. Your parents paid 40 kopeks and, by darn, your children would pay 40 kopeks. Is that the answer?

The problem I have with this idea is that (as I have learned both in life, and in school), in a market, there needs to be a mechanism to balance supply and demand. That mechanism is price. If I want 40 dollars for a widget, and you don't think it is worth 40 dollars, guess what? No sale. Deflation has to occur to meet your demand.

At this point any "real economist" is probably either rolling on the floor laughing, pulling out his hair in frustration, or muttering incoherently about Econ 110 having no relationship to "real economics."

Well, maybe not - but the economists in the MSNBC story seem to have nothing but contempt for consumers. They give the distinct impression that they believe the average of consumers' judgments about the worth of goods (otherwise known as the 'market price') is wrong, and that they, the "elite" know what things are worth.

Pardon my skepticism, but are these the same "elite" who have guided our economy to it's current prosperous state? The ones who never saw the housing bubble coming? Who watched house prices rise 10% per year as wages rose 2% and saw nothing to worry about? Who thought sub-prime mortgages were a terrific idea? Or, a little farther back, thought stratospheric stock prices for unprofitable .com businesses were just the "new economy?" Or thought that Pres. Bush's tax cuts would unacceptably reduce govt. revenue? or that Reagan's tax cuts would do nothing the stimulate the economy? Or thought that Sweden was a model of a well-run economy?

Now who should be laughing?

I'll say it again. Economics is not a science. It is a pseudoscience. Any claims to truth or predictive ability that it makes are a fraud.

Economics is a descriptive art - like psychology. Also like psychology, it has no power to predict future behavior because every person in the system is an agent unto herself, and not an automaton. This is why no one saw this crisis coming. Economists admit that this is unprecedented and was almost completely unforeseen - and they are right - they just don't see it as a failure of their 'science.'

Economics is (at best) a social science, a descriptive study of human behavior. It is individual psychology mis-applied to huge groups of people, and it goes through fads just like any other field of study. It also has its quacks like any other field. Keep this in mind next time an economist claims to know something.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Real Danger of Communism . . .

. . . is that everyone would only be able to buy the items in this old Soviet mail-order catalog from 1983 called: "Goods for Personal Use."

Keep in mind this catalog wasn't just from one company, it was from the only company - the state. There were no other vendors for many of these items. Different factories would produce variants in some cases, but not all.

I ate off those flower dishes myself, and the big brown cabinets near the bottom were in literally every single apartment I ever saw. There were slight variations in color and layout but it was depressingly uniform.

No wonder Feng Shui wasn't practiced in the USSR, any interior designer with an once of artistic ability would be driven to suicide after one look at these items.

Electoral Food for Thought

This article may be a little harsh on Obama, but not much in my opinion. Unlike much political opinion, the author does in fact link to supporting evidence.

None of this would go unreported if McCain had said or done it. Anyway read it and weigh it yourself. I find some of it persuasive, some not. But an Obama presidency would not be a good thing.

"Time to use the C word."

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The Motto of the European Union

I just found out that the EU has a motto. Who knew?

We all know the motto of the United States "In God We Trust." It's solid, reassuring and says something concrete about the country. As mottos go, it's a good one (as are most things the Founding Fathers put out).

The EU motto also, unintentionally I presume, says something concrete about that "country." The motto is:

"United in Diversity"

That's it!? . . . what the heck is that supposed to mean? That's right out of the Oxymoron Dept.

I can hear the dialog in the committee meeting that came up with that . . .

France: "I'm glad we can come together to celebrate our differences."
Germany: "Yes indeed, we are united in our diversity . . ."
Italy: "Eureka! that's it! the new motto - 'united in diversity'"
France: "Sacre bleu! you are right. It's perfect, concretely vague . . ."
Germany: "Disturbingly reassuring . . ."
Italy: "Universally unique . . ."
France: "It absorbingly reflects all of the foreign policy, economic and social positions on which we've agreed to disagree."
Italy: "not to mention our shared individual non-binding commitment to Democratic Socialism.
Germany: "Plus it has a nice ring to it - like 'French Victory!'"

(stiffled laughter)

France: "That's not funny . . ."
Britain: "But it is seriously ironic!"

Anyway, it is the perfect motto for the EU.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR)

(I've been itching to write this post for a while now, and since I'm stuck at work waiting for a massive file copy to finish, here you go).
One of the environmental/no oil crowd's biggest success has been halting oil drilling in ANWR. to justify it they show pictures of the refuge such as this:
Beautiful, who'd want to put a stinky old oil rig there?
And this:
09-Arctic ground squirrel
awwww, look at the cute little squirrel, the poor thing must be afraid of the noisy oil well, poor little guy!
What they don't tell you is neither of these pictures is from the area where drilling is proposed. They are from the permanent wilderness area far to the south. No one is suggesting drilling there.
This is where the oil is:
Oh, wait, that's the winter picture, of course it's just a bunch of ice, it's Alaska for crying out loud! I wouldn't want to be accused of falsifying it's true beauty by showing it out of season. Here's the summer view:
Much prettier, no? I hear it often hits 40 degrees in July. Parts of it even grow grass as you'll see. But that's beside the point; it's the wildlife that will really suffer!
The best indication of the horrors that await the caribou and the other wildlife of ANWR can be found by looking at the sad plight of their brethren right down the coast in Prudhoe Bay who are already suffering the effects of the unfettered greed and environmental indifference of Big Oil! BEHOLD THE CARNAGE!!!!
Note the oil drilling operation and pipeline behind all the rotting carcases. . . what? . . . wait a second . . . those caribou aren't dead, they're eating and resting with their young!. . . huh? . . . well I'm sure they're scared of all the development! you'd never see them get any closer than that to an oil rig!
. . . like right on the access road . . . D'oh! Well, caribou aren't the brightest . . .  savvy predators, like bears, surely understand the danger posed by the human intruders!
11-Bears on pipeline
well, OK. . . those are just dumb brown bears. Polar bears would never. . .
. . . ah, but small animals, like birds, would be driven away by the . . .
20-Owl on pipeline
. . . they may hunt, but they'd never nest near an oil rig . . .
Um . . . Ok. Maybe we should learn from the other Alaska coastal drilling sites and not hyperventilate over ANWR.

Current Oil and Gas Prices are Self-inflicted Wounds

For several reasons, I always enjoy finding articles that summarize everything I've been thinking on a current issue. First, it confirms what I've always thought - "I'm a smart guy." Second, it saves me the trouble of composing long blog posts - I can just cut, paste and link. Much easier.
so I'm glad I found this post on the real political and historical reasons for the current "energy crisis."
Short version: Congressional dismay about high gas prices is like me blindfolding myself and then complaining when I bump into things a lot.
Long Version:
Americans feeling the pinch at the pump should recognize that the wealthiest nation on the planet has nothing but itself to blame for the third in a series of energy crises that began when Richard Nixon was still in office.
Having largely ignored the previous two shots across the bow — the first coming in 1973 when OPEC decided to ban sales of oil to nations that supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War, and the second in 1979 after the Islamic Revolution in Iran — the U.S. seems determined to repeat the mistakes of the past.
What should make Americans on both sides of the aisle even more ashamed is that before the first energy crisis, the United States produced 11.428 million barrels of oil per day. This represented 66 percent of the 17.308 million barrels we consumed that year.
Compare that to 2007, when America produced 8.481 million barrels per day, or only 41 percent of the 20.7 million barrels consumed. Such is the result of the so-called energy policies of seven White Houses and 17 Congresses controlled by both Democrats and Republicans.
Yet, today’s politicians — mostly on the left side of the aisle, of course — have the gall to place all the blame for rising energy prices on increased demand from expanding economies like China and India.
At least those countries are participating in exploration efforts to expand their own supplies. China’s oil production has almost doubled since 1980, while India’s has grown by an astounding 375 percent. At the same time, U.S. production has declined by 22 percent. . .
Closer to home, our neighbors also ramped up oil production. To the south, Mexico has seen its crude output jump 64 percent since 1980, while Canada’s increased 85 percent.
Did I mention that our production declined by 22 percent in the same period?
Putting this in its proper perspective, if America had responded to the second energy crisis by increasing oil production only at the average rate of our North American neighbors, we’d currently be supplying ourselves with 18.86 million barrels of crude per day, or 91 percent of our usage.
It's not as if we don't have the oil available. According to an April 2006 study done for the Library of Congress:
Oil shale is prevalent in the western states of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. The resource potential of these shales is estimated to be the equivalent of 1.8 trillion barrels of oil in place. . . . In comparison, Saudi Arabia reportedly holds proved reserves of 267 billion barrels.
That doesn't include ANWR, and it doesn't include offshore drilling.
The real problem, I believe, is that liberals, and environmentalists in particular, want oil to be expensive. Read the words of Sen. Obama when ask his opinion of high oil prices:
I think that I would have preferred a gradual adjustment. The fact that this is such a shock to American pocketbooks is not a good thing. But if we take some steps right now to help people make the adjustment, first of all by putting more money in their pockets, but also by encouraging the market to adapt to these new circumstances more rapidly, particularly U.S. automakers.
I think most people fail to see the need for an adjustment at all. the article points out that Democrats don't have this attitude about other scarce "resources."
Why has one political party for nearly four decades viewed energy crises through the narrow prism of learning to adjust to higher prices and declining resources, as opposed to aggressively finding and producing more of what the country and the economy needs?
Such questions seem particularly relevant given how this same party views hunger in our nation and throughout the world. The answer isn’t for those that have less to make an adjustment and adapt to their impoverished condition. 'Adjust to having less' is certainly not the Left’s prescription for Americans lacking health insurance.
Democrats want government to increase the supply of food and medical care to those deemed financially incapable of providing for themselves.
Why doesn’t the same hold true for energy?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Climate and the Precautionary Principle

We went to a memorial day barbeque today with several families from the ward, and I got into a debate (friendly, of course) with a brother about the greenhouse effect, global warming, climate change (whatever it's called now).
Anyway, we each had points and counterpoints. I'm a lawyer and he's a physicist, so it's not like either of us really knows what we're talking about. But I noticed that whenever I'd make a point, the response would be something like "yeah, we don't really know, but we shouldn't risk it."
I've encountered this attitude recently as I wrote my final law school paper. It is basically "better safe than sorry." The formal name for this philosophy is the Precautionary Principle. It's widely used in environmental circles as a justification to prohibit, regulate or tax any activity that could conceivably impact the environment.
the Precautionary Principle is insidious for at least two reasons.
  • First, it reverses the burden of proof - forcing one side to prove a negative. Instead of the environmental advocate gathering evidence of actual harm and using that evidence to advocate halting the damaging activity, all the activist has to do is come up with a scenario that will potentially harm the environment, and invoke the Precautionary Principle. The activist doesn't have to prove anything, the other side has to prove that their activities will be harmless. This is nearly impossible. I can't prove that driving to taco bell to get lunch will be harmless. This being the case, the precautionary principle says I should not do it.
  • Second, it is used selectively. Environmentalists use it to force industry to prove they will cause no harm, but activists don't take into account the harm caused by their own actions. DDT was banned because it may have harmed some birds, but this ban has allowed millions of people to die from mosquito-bourne malaria over the last 3 decades. One would think that if an action had the potential of killing millions, the precautionary principle would dictate that it not be taken. not so. Only environmental harm is fair game. (and humans are not part of the environment).
Just something to keep in mind next time you hear predictions of possible environmental catastrophe.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

European 'Human' Rights

A British woman is trying to convince an Austrian court to declare a chimpanzee a 'person' so that she can adopt him and be appointed his guardian. Read the whole story here.
36-year-old Miss [Paula] Stibbe and the Vienna-based Association Against Animal Factories have filed an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
She insists that the chimp [Matthew] needs legal standing so a guardian can be appointed to look out for his interests  -  especially if the sanctuary shuts down.
Miss Stibbe, who is from Brighton but has lived in Vienna for several years, says she is not trying to get the chimp declared a human, just a person.
A person, not a human? I, being a lawyer, know there is a difference, but legal persons who are not human are usually organizations or companies. Maybe the chimp should just incorporate in Nevada. I know a guy on the radio who will do it for just $499.
But later she seems a bit fuzzy on the difference.
'Everybody who knows him personally will see him as a person,' she said.
'In his home in the African jungle, he would have been well able to look after himself without a guardian.
But since he was abducted into an alien environment, traumatised and locked up in an enclosure, it did become necessary for me to act on his behalf to secure the donation money for him and to avoid his deportation.
'Since he has no close relatives, I am doing this as the person closest to him.'
He was 'abducted?' She's trying to 'avoid his deportation?' As to his close relatives, isn't science always harping on how close we are to chimpanzees, genetically?
The sad thing is that the court will probably take the case, and probably rule for the chimp. After all, this is the same court that doesn't recognize that an unborn child is a person. In fact this very court awarded damages to a Polish woman who's "human rights" were violated when she was denied a 'therapeutic' abortion.
Europe's idea of 'human rights' is, I fear, irretrievably lost.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Discriminatory Dollars

A federal court ruled today that the treasury department discriminates against the blind by . . . get this . . . printing money!
Well, not exactly. But, the court did rule that the fact that different denominations aren't distinguishable by touch violates the Rehabilitation Act. In essence, the government needs to make sure that blind people can tell a $5 from a $10 from a $20 by touch.
I'm not saying this isn't a problem, but where does it end? Aren't the Homeland Security color alerts discriminatory? How does someone know what an "orange" threat level is if they've never seen color?
There's no really effective way to comply with this decision. Make each denomination a different size? won't they need to carry several reference cards for comparison? (not to mention the forced redesign or replacement of every single vending machine / ATM / counting machine / ticket machine / cash register / wallet in the country). Print raised marks on the bills? That will last until the bill gets wadded up or washed, and what a great way to counterfeit! a few minutes with a needle, and viola! all my ones are twenties. Texture? How many different textures are there, and do they survive wadding?
Some difficulty is, I think, an inevitable result of blindness. That's why it is called a handicap. There's nothing wrong with trying to help the blind, but I don't think the court thought this one through.
Incidentally, I'm not simply being "ableist", the American Federation for the Blind opposes changing the money too.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Surprised Economists

I've been struck repeatedly over the last few years by how many stories about the economy contain phrases along the lines of "economists were surprised by..."
It seems like they are surprised by any economic news that comes out. Something is always more or less than predictions, and not by just a little, but by orders of magnitude. For example, economists were surprised again today by job numbers and factory orders. (Incidentally, I wish I'd got to this earlier, the wording earlier today was different, the "news people" softened their description of how surprising the numbers were).
a government report showed the nation’s employers cut far fewer jobs than expected last month, stirring optimism about the buoyancy of the economy. . .
The Labor Department’s report that employers cut 20,000 jobs in April was a relief to Wall Street, which had been expecting payrolls to fall by 75,000 jobs. . .
The Commerce Department said U.S. manufacturers saw orders increase 1.4 percent in March. Economists expected a 0.2 percent increase after declines in January and February.
They were expecting 75000 fewer jobs. They were only off by 275% This one isn't sooooo bad, after all there are a lot of jobs in the nation, and the usual gains are 200-300 thousand. Maybe they had a bad day. But, 0.2 versus 1.4? That's off by 600% and the viable range on those numbers is never more than a few percentage points.
I can only think of 3 explanations for the constant stream of these stories:
  • First, the stupid economists are the only ones giving interviews.
  • Second, these are the smart ones, and even they don't know what they are talking about.
  • Third, and this is my theory: You cannot reduce the countless individual choices of a quarter billion people to a formula with any degree of accuracy.
This may disappoint some of my economist friends, but economics is NOT a hard science, it is a descriptive science. It is valuable when looking retrospectively, but absolutely useless as a tool for precise prediction.
Economics is not the only 'science' with this problem. Political science, sociology, psychology, and even, to some extent biology have the same shortcoming. This is because they are trying to predict the actions of beings with souls and free will. In such cases, the best you can do is averages and general trends.
That doesn't mean they are not worthwhile tools, but their practitioners need to recognize the limits of their science and not advocate more detailed policies than the science can support.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Unity, Dissent and Patriotism

I am currently reading Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg who is one of my favorite columnists. His articles alone are worth the cost of my National Review subscription.
In the latest issue, Goldberg writes about Barrack Obama and his call for "unity." He relates it to the general liberal failure to understand patriotism. Liberals think patriotic conservatives are fascists, but united liberals are patriotic. Unfortunately, the whole article is only available to subscribers. Some highlights:
When John McCain released an ad calling himself the “American president Americans have been waiting for,” one could hear outraged caterwauling from the Democratic jungle: What’s John McCain trying to say? We’re un-American? Who’s he calling unpatriotic? Fred Barnes, writing in The Weekly Standard, calls this anticipatory offense “patriotism paranoia.” Indeed, there does seem to be psychological insecurity on display. If I say to a male friend, “Those are nice shoes,” and he responds with “How dare you call me gay!” it’s fair to say he’s the guy with the issues. . .
Part of the problem is that many on the left think patriotism is essentially fascist, another name for nationalism and jingoism. And some may use it that way — but some may also call a duck a “cat,” which doesn’t mean we should all be hostage to this usage. The misuse of “patriotism” and “dissent” is worse, because a country without a word to describe its love for what is best within it is a country ill-equipped to defend what is best within it. . .
Barack Obama and other Democrats use the word “unity” as a substitute for something like “patriotism.” They consider “questioning the patriotism” of Democrats — even when it’s not actually being questioned — beyond the pale and “divisive.”
But, unity itself is inherently neither good nor bad.
Unity by itself has no moral worth whatsoever. The only value of unity is strength, strength in numbers — and, again, that is a fascist value. That’s the symbolism of the fasces, the bundle of sticks that in combination are invincible. Rape gangs and lynch mobs? Unified. The mafia? Unified. The SS? They had unity coming out the yinyang. Meanwhile, Socrates, Jesus, Thomas More, and an endless line of nameless souls were dispatched from this earth in the name of unity.
Our government is set up specifically to discourage too much unity. Unfettered unity is really just the tyranny of the majority:
The founding fathers dedicated a great deal of thought to the subject of unity, and they found it was something to view with skepticism at best and, more often than not, with fear. Hence we have a constitution designed to thwart the baser forms of unity. Our government is set up so that the Senate cools the populist passion of the House, the executive thwarts the passions of the legislature and vice versa, and the Supreme Court checks the whole lot, to which its composition is in turn ultimately subject. “Divisiveness” — the setting of faction against faction, one branch of government against another, and the sovereignty of the individual above the group — was for the founders the great guarantor of our liberties and the source of civic virtue.
Liberals also confuse dissent and patriotism. Like unity, dissent is by itself is neither good nor bad.

Or consider this supposedly brilliant bumper-sticker insight: “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” Mark Steyn has had great fun with that line, pointing out that Thomas Jefferson — usually credited as its author — never said anything of the sort. Steyn traces the fakery back to a 1991 quote from Nadine Strossen, the head of the ACLU, an organization with a vested interest in putting the founders’ imprimatur on relentless knee-jerk complaining. . .
It is worth pointing out that if Jefferson had in fact said something like that, he would have been what social scientists call a moron. As John O’Sullivan once noted, tongue firmly in cheek, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism. Treason is the highest form of dissent. Therefore treason is the highest form of patriotism.” Yet when you listen to the verbal contortions many on the left go through to defend the New York Times’s efforts to reveal national-security secrets, or to journalists who think expressing open sympathy for America in the international arena is a grave sin, or simply to the usual battiness of countless America-haters, you can appreciate the wisdom of the Italian proverb that the truest things are said in jest.
Equating dissent and patriotism is an egregious example of moral equivocation:

Now it must be said that no conservative standing upon the shoulders of Burke, Nock, Buckley, Hayek, Goldwater, and Reagan would for a moment dispute the suggestion that dissent for the right reason can be one high form of patriotism. But it depends on the reason. The dissenter-for-dissent’s-sake is among the most common species of pest in the human ecosystem. The reflexive contrarian who cares not what he is contradicting is quite simply the most useless of citizens.

When confronted with the assertion that the Soviet Union and the United States were moral equivalents, William F. Buckley Jr. famously responded that if one man pushes an old lady into an oncoming bus and another man pushes an old lady out of the way of a bus, we should not denounce them both as men who push old ladies around. Likewise, we should not say that the man who dissents from a church-burning mob and the man who dissents from a fire brigade are morally equivalent “dissenters.”
Liberals try to end debate by calling for unity and labeling principled objection as cynical and divisive:
Rightly ordered unity in a democratic republic is the end result of ceaseless debate and discussion. But today, ceaseless debate and discussion is precisely what many liberals object to. As Al Gore is fond of saying about global warming, “The time for debate is over.” Legions of liberals insist that we must move beyond ideology and partisan differences on this, that, and the other. But have you ever heard anyone say that we need to “move beyond ideology” for the sake of bipartisan unity and then abandon his own position? Of course not. When someone says that we need to get past labels and move beyond ideology, what he means is that you need to drop your principled objections and get with the program.
So, what is patriotism really? I like the description above. It is the word we used to describe our love for what is best within our country.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Do We Get the Government We Deserve?

WARNING: Another long post ahead!
I got a question from a relative that I've also wondered about for a while:
Are the people ultimately responsible for bad government policies? The people elect the government officials or give way to small interest groups by not voting, but the government officials often get elected on false promises and demagoguery. Are the people to blame for being ignorant and believing the demagoguery? What is a better way to obtain the voice of the people if voting doesn't work? Do electoral colleges in theory vote for what the people really want regardless of how they vote?
This is a question I've struggled with for years. On my more cynical days, I tend to think ignorant voters are responsible for bad government, and that all politics is a beauty contest. But, on my more thoughtful days, I think there are several things to consider.
First, I think local and state elected officials better reflect the views of their constituents than federal officials do (usually). You've heard the saying "all politics is local." Well, this used to be literally true. Really until the 20th century, the individual had almost no contact with the federal government. Issues from taxes to schools to roads were all local issues. People are much better able to be educated on local issues than national ones simply because they are better acquainted with the areas and people involved. Demagoguery is less apt to succeed, and false promises are more swiftly punished at the local level. But the modern federal bureaucracy has expanded so much that it intrudes more and more into areas that used to be the province of local government (e.g. No Child Left Behind, Interstate Highways, Medicare and Medicaid, Income Taxes). The federal government has so many more voices clamoring for attention that it will seem unresponsive to almost everyone. The media coverage of issues makes this worse. Federal elections and issues get a disproportionate share of coverage and analysis.
Second, this problem is compounded by the fact that Congress has delegated much policy-making authority to agencies, and exercises little oversight. Courts, too, regularly defer to agency judgments. So policies are set by agencies rather than elected officials. Congress likes it that way because they don't have to take responsibility for controversial policies. They can blame the "current administration" that chooses the agency heads. Agencies take on a life of their own and their inherent inertia and resistance to change means that they far outlast any presidential administration, and almost any national outcry for change. (you could call this the 1st Law of Government Dynamics: an agency once created can never be destroyed, only converted into another agency).
Third, the two-party system restricts the range of possible actions on any issue to basically two: the Republican party line, and the Democrat party line. Any widespread public desire for government action is taken up by a political party and filtered through the lens of their platform. On the other hand, issues that don't agitate a sufficient number of people tend not to be championed by either party, and thus never come up for debate in Federal elections.
Fourth, we are a victim of our freedom. People don't get too worked up about things that don't directly affect them; and despite all our complaints, most of us just aren't that affected by government. We go about our lives without any direct consequences for voting liars and demagogues into office. (see my sixth point about having a "stake" in the outcome). We vote for the one who says all the right things, then don't bother to hold them to it because we don't feel the effects of the lie. Someone wise once said something to the effect of "limitations on freedom are more readily accepted in big things than in little ones." As long as the government doesn't interfere with our little everyday things, we don't get too worked up over it. We get worked up over taxes, for example, because we pay them all the time. Hence the tax code is revised every year, sometimes substantially. This, in part, is why the Soviet Union fell. It tried to control too many little things. This also may be why China's Communists have survived. People can make small decisions with relative freedom, and TVs and Gameboys are available. A little repression of dissidents doesn't bother anyone too much. The Scriptural warning about "flaxen cords" comes to mind.
Fifth, people really don't care. Most people don't understand the hot-button issues, and don't care that they don't know. The only time most people see and hear presidential candidates is in (scripted) televised debates, the nightly news, or MTV's rock the vote. All that sticks is the 4 word sound-bite message. Most people see even less of Senate and House candidates, and nothing at all about state legislative races beyond the (R) or (D) after the name. Being a political wonk takes time and effort. Few of us have the time or interest to become specialists, (and even fewer are touched in the head enough to enjoy it as I am).
Sixth, and this is going to be politically incorrect to say, but the expansion of the vote has made voter apathy worse. Originally the vote was limited to white male land owners. They were seen as the ones who had a stake in the decisions the government made. They stood to lose property, and were thus more motivated to study and debate the issues. By expansion, I don't mean giving the vote to women and blacks, there's nothing wrong with that, I mean giving the vote to those who have no "stake" in the outcome. Now that everyone over 18 can vote, many people simply have nothing at stake. The one who wins won't affect them in any way. Even worse, candidates can now promise to give money out if they are elected, whether you are talking about tax rebates or welfare benefits, it is all just a matter of giving people a stake in the election that they wouldn't otherwise have, and a reason to vote for candidate X. So, for many people, the decision boils down to "None of this will affect me, but candidate X will give me $500, so I might as well vote for him."
In summary, voter apathy is partly to blame, but I think the structure of our system is a big factor, particularly the waning of states' rights and the rise of our current massive federal bureaucracy. People just can't keep track of all issues, and naturally they tend to react to local issues, or national issues that impact them personally such as taxes, marriage, etc.
As to what is a better way? Who knows. As stated in my post on the electoral college, our system originally was attuned to the voice of the people on the state level. Federal bodies were not directly elected, with the exception of the House of Representatives. This allowed people to focus on issues on the state level where government is more responsive. The state then relayed the voice of the the people to the federal Congress and the President who never directly regulated individuals. The state officials then were accountable to the voters of the state. Currently the House and Senate are both directly elected, and the Presidential electors are tied into the two-party system, so the state government really has little to say on the federal level. Your state government can perfectly reflect your views, and be very responsive, but can't influence who holds federal office.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Electoral College (part I)

Now, for those of you not put to sleep by the title, there is a new push by Sen. Nelson (D) of Florida to abolish the electoral college.
As the state now wrestles with the national Democratic Party to find a solution to seat its 210 delegates at this year’s presidential nominating convention, Nelson noted that “the solution is very elusive,” but that, “If nothing else, this election has provided further evidence that our system is broken.”
First of all, our system is not broken. This election has shown nothing of the sort. The primary elections are not part of the 'system.' They are internal party affairs, and any problems are entirely the fault of the political parties. Leave the electoral college out of it Senator!
Is the U.S. Senate 'evidence' that our system is broken? NO, of course not, it's evidence of federalism. The senate and the electoral college are the two main forums in which states play a role in federal decisions.
Senator Nelson on TV yesterday was urging the abolition of the electoral college in the interests of the principle of "one person, one vote." Each and every person already has one vote, at the state level.
What many people don't realize is the the U.S. has no national elections, NONE. We never have. Every election is a state election, including the one for president. our Federal government is formed not from the top down, but from the bottom up, by the states.
Representative are elected at the state level, then each state sends theirs to Washington, where together they form the House of Representatives. Similarly, Senators are elected at the state level (they used to be appointed by the state government) and sent to Washington to form the Senate.
The election of the President is no different. Electors are chosen at the state level (and they don't have to be elected at all, they can simply be appointed - Const. art. II sec. 1), and are then sent to Washington where they form the electoral college. That college exists for the sole purpose of choosing the president, and they can choose whomever they want. The Senate and House of Representatives count the electoral college votes together and the person with the most becomes the president. After the President is chosen, the electoral college is dissolved until the next presidential election. In the event no candidate gets a majority of the electoral vote, the House of Representatives chooses the president, and each state gets one vote.
The system is perfectly consistent as it is. The state plays an integral role in forming both the legislative and the executive branches of the Federal Government. The individual has a vote and a voice in every election, but it is at the state level. I don't see a good reason to disrupt this. . .
(to be continued . . .)

Friday, February 29, 2008

Keeping Up With the Joneses

You know the stories you hear of neighborhood rivalries? The Smiths buy an Explorer, and the Joneses counter with an Escalade, etc?

It's not just greedy, rich, white Republicans playing anymore. From California . . . (where else?). . . (and no, I did not make up the name of the city) . . . (and all parenthetical snide remarks are my additions, not from the article).

SUNNYVALE, California (AP) -- In an environmental dispute seemingly scripted for eco-friendly California, a man asked prosecutors to file charges against his neighbors because their towering redwoods blocked sunlight to his backyard solar panels. . . After more than six years of legal wrangling, a judge recently ordered Richard Treanor and his wife, Carolyn Bissett, to cut down two of their eight redwoods, citing an obscure state law that protects a homeowner's right to sunlight.

As for who cares more about the environment, must be the solar guy, right?

Vargas (solar guy) says the law protects his $70,000 investment in solar power, and he believes it should be strengthened."I think it's unfair that a neighbor can take away this source of energy from another neighbor," he said.

Well he's obviously seen the light. . . er . . . been enlightened . . . has a sunny outlook on . . . stupid puns . . . LOVES the environment. But wait, the Redwood couple counters with . . .

. . . Treanor and Bissett (Redwood couple), who drive a hybrid Toyota Prius, argue that trees absorb carbon dioxide, cool the surrounding air and provide a habitat for wildlife. (in the middle of San Fran/Oakland/San Jose's 3 million people)

A Prius, countering global warming, and wildlife habitat, all in one sentence! It's the Trifecta of Green-ness! Take that Vargas, you tree-hating, gas-guzzling corporate sell-out !!! But, hang on, what's this?

Vargas, who recently bought a plug-in electric car, counters it would take two or three acres of trees to reduce carbon dioxide emissions as much as the solar panels that cover his roof and backyard trellis.

No mere hybrid for him! His new car plugs in. You can take your majestic Redwoods and 2 more acres full, chop 'em down and burn 'em . . . compost 'em! (or just transplant them 'where the sun don't shine'). Zero-emission, solar-powered self-righteousness FOR THE WIN!

This sounds like the new Rock, Paper, Scissors. It used to be that paper covered rock, rock crushed scissors, and scissors cut paper.

Now, Redwoods cover solar power, solar power crushes redwoods, and windmills cut birds

(I know, it doesn't make sense, so sue me! I had to get the bird link in somehow)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Fidel Castro is "Retiring"

I apologize in advance for all the "irony quotes." Also for the length of this post. Few things set me off like communism.

Fidel Castro is "retiring" as head of the Cuban government. He won't accept another term even if Cuba's admiring "legislature" votes for him in the upcoming "elections."

Here's a contrast for you - my thoughts versus those of the BBC.

Me: Good riddance, too bad he's not dead. Not like Communist dictators ever "retire." Is he going to move to The Villages ("Florida's friendliest hometown!") and golf free for the rest of his life? What new leader isn't going to ask Castro's permission before taking any action? But at least we're one small step closer to the end of an inhumane, brutal, murderous regime.

The BBC:
Since I can't read this all the way through without puking, I'm going to intersperse my commentary with the quotes. Click the link if you want to enjoy the non-sarcastic original in all it's brown-nosing glory.

The retiring leader will be remembered as one of the most distinctive and enduring icons from the second half of the 20th Century, the BBC's Paul Keller writes.

With his olive green fatigues, beard and Cuban cigars, Fidel Castro was the original Cold Warrior.

A distinctive and enduring icon? The original Cold Warrior? -- What is he a fashion model? A comedian? A jazz musician? this makes him sound like a trendsetter, a chic trailblazer whose presence in society will be greatly missed. (although, judging by all the Che t-shirts I see . . .)

Under his leadership Cuba established the first Marxist-Leninist state in the Western hemisphere, almost within sight of the US coastline.

Embracing communism and the patronage of the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro transformed Cuba economically and socially but had to struggle when it collapsed.

I'll say he transformed it. The same way the Nazi blitz "transformed" Europe, or the atom bomb "transformed" Hiroshima. Too bad about that whole collapsing USSR thing. But he struggled along anyway - what a trooper!

This is utter crap. Aside from the illogic, (if he transformed Cuba, why did the USSR's demise matter?) to portray someone who would rather keep a whole nation enslaved while stubbornly resisting any possible change to benefit them as engaged in a "struggle" is perverse.

The civil rights movement was a "struggle." World War II was a "struggle." Castro's "struggle" was nothing more than a blind, pig-headed thirst for power. Even after all the other Communists gave up on communism, Castro "struggled" on. That's not a visionary leader, that's just being blind to reality.

He leaves his country with universal free healthcare and a much-admired education system, which has produced doctors for the developing world, but also a failing economy.

Healthcare . . . check. Education . . . check. Economy . . . Oh well, two out of three ain't bad. Even granting that this is true, (it's not), what good is free healthcare and an education if you have no money, no job, no prospects, decaying infrastructure, no civil rights and insufficient food? As much good as a can opener with no cans, or a life raft in the middle of the desert.

Note the distinct lack of negative adjectives and verbs in the above quote. He is "distinctive" and "enduring", "original", he "transformed", "struggle[d]", "embrac[ed] communism." Cuba's healthcare is "free" and "universal", its education system "much-admired."

Let me add a few adjective and verbs of my own for the sake of balance. His victims are "dead" his opponents "tortured" and "imprisoned" or "shot." His people are "under surveillance" and "oppressed." Many are "refugees" (2.4 million in the U.S. alone - about 18% of the population) or "poor."

So yes, Happy retirement Fidel, may it be short, and then may you rot in hell alongside Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and the BBC reporter responsible for this fawning, nauseating tribute.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

From the files of Big Brother

The nanny state continues it's malignant growth. A Tyranny Update from Walter Williams via Townhall.com:

The California Energy Commission has recently proposed amendments to its standards for energy efficiency... These standards include a requirement that any new or modified heating or air conditioning system must include a programmable communicating thermostat (PCT) whose settings can be remotely controlled by government authorities. A thermostat czar, sitting in Sacramento, would be empowered to remotely reduce the heating or cooling of your house during what he deems as an "emergency event."... the thermostat must be configured in a way that doesn't allow the customer to override the czar's decision.

Get ready for mandated 68 degrees in the winter and 78 degrees in the summer. Babies, illness or personal preferences be damned! Will Californians really put up with this? I hope not, because California lunacy has the tendency to spread. Forget the Mexican border fence, let's start work on the California border fence. We'll make it like the Berlin Wall. We'll welcome all escapees, but won't let them return.

Someone has to save them...

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Why I Quit the Social Sciences

MSNBC has an encouraging headline today:

Bucking the trend in many other wealthy industrialized nations, the United States seems to be experiencing a baby boomlet, reporting the largest number of children born in 45 years.

The nearly 4.3 million births in 2006 were mostly due to a bigger population, especially a growing number of Hispanics. That group accounted for nearly one-quarter of all U.S. births. But non-Hispanic white women and other racial and ethnic groups were having more babies, too....

The same report also showed births becoming more common in nearly every age and racial or ethnic group. Birth rates increased for women in their 20s, 30s and early 40s, not just teens. They rose for whites, blacks, Hispanics, American Indians and Alaska Natives.

If I were to guess at the reasons, I would say things like: "people are confident in the future" or "people are well-to-do enough that they can support a larger family" or simply "Americans love family and value children."

According to "the experts," however, I would be mistaken. The actual reasons, of course, are:

a decline in contraceptive use, a drop in access to abortion, poor education and poverty.

Huh??? That the stupidest thing I've read in weeks. I must have missed the Supreme Court's over-ruling of Roe v. Wade, and the onset of the current Depression with its widespread poverty. I'm sorry, but poor education does NOT explain an increase in fertility among women in their 30s and 40s.

This is a prime example of social science failing to see the trees for the forest (to turn the metaphor around). They are taking a generalization and applying it to a specific case (the U.S.) which may not fit the generalization. All this "expert" did was think of the generalizations commonly used to explain the decline in fertility which usually accompanies economic development, then... and this is a basic logical fallacy... assumed that since fertility increased, the level of development as measured by the above factors must have declined.

Anyone who has had any logic training at all knows that:

If A (development), then B (lower fertility)
Not B,
ergo not A

is not logically sound.

That is what I hated about the social sciences. They all seem to believe that because the group acts a certain way on average, individuals within the group act the same way. No allowance is made for individual choice or action. Everything is averages, means and standard deviations.

Social Science cannot explain individual cases that deviate from the norm. It cannot account for Ghandi or Hitler, Mother Teresa or Stalin, the Pioneers or the Crusades, Jim Jones or Jesus Christ, and it cannot, apparently, explain why Americans love and value children more than Europeans do.