Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Democracy as Anti-corruption

Matt Yglesias posted the other day on the problem China has in curbing corruption and he relates that to the lack of Democratic institutions. He attributes the relatively low level of corruption in the Western Democracies to our democratic institutions. In his words
Simply put, the main way that corruption gets exposed is through a combination of a free press and active, opportunistic opposition parties eager to make hay out of corruption scandals.
A succinct way of stating something true. Critical review and transparency are really the only effective way to uncover errors, whether due to accident or corruption.
One of the conservative arguments for expanded government police powers has been that if the prosecutors and police had an easier time arresting, questioning and trying people they could do a better job catching criminals. And actually that is true. They would be able to do a better job catching criminals. Unfortunately, they would also be able to keep their jobs and positions of authority while doing a really bad job of catching criminals by using the expanded powers to silence the folks who might be inclined to point out that they weren't doing their jobs. In fact, with much expanded powers the police and prosecutors would be in a good position to work with criminals, and yet keep their positions, because they could silence those who would object. This would make them even more powerful and wealthy. It would be lousy for us and beneficial for them. Any you know what. For all of the past five thousand years of human history, that is exactly the kind of thing people in authority did when granted extensive police powers. And that is why many people think it is a bad idea to expand the police powers of government to the extent that Conservatives wish.

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Monday, December 28, 2009

President's Response to Terror Attempt

Excellent post at Kos about the President's response to an effort to blow up a plane. However, this is about Bush's response, or lack thereof, to Richard Reed's attempt to explode a shoe bomb in 2001.
The long and the short of it is that like Obama, Bush did not make any major announcement, did not become immediately involved in the case. Like Obama he monitored the events, but essentially left law enforcement and the courts handle it. The two men responded in much the same way.
Now to be clear, I think Obama's response to this terrorist attempt was correct, and I have no problem with Bush's. Both are handling it (or handled it) in a similar manner and both responses are, I believe, correct. The point here is to the radical difference in the reaction to this approach coming from conservatives. Though Bush and Obama reacted in the same way, somehow to conservatives Bush was admirable and Obama is being a failure. And before anyone claims equal measure of hypocrisy by both Democrats and Republicans, no elected Democrats or officials of the Democratic party offered criticisms of Bush for his handling of this manner. None called him to task for doing to little or failing to be concerned.

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Sunday, December 27, 2009

Courage and Strength

Marc Ambinder astutely summarizes the Obama approach to the attempt to blow up the plane in Detroit.  An approach that I endorse, by the way.  Hat tip, also to Steve Benen, who has some good commentary on it as well. 

One does not intimidate enemies by treating every possible danger as if it is life threatening.  Rather, one intimidates ones enemies by treating things that terrify them, as if they do not bother you.  Cheney’s 1% doctrine wherein we treat even a 1% change of an opponent having a nuclear weapon as if it is an absolute certainty, is the very definition of cowardice. 

Are we really to believe that the main who treats a house cat as if it were as dangerous as a lion is to be feared, rather than the man who handles a lion as easily as one would a house cat. 

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Mark Kleiman has a good post up on a new book by Eric Lotke. The title is 2044 and is, it appears (I haven’t read it yet) inspired by George Orwell’s 1984. In the more recent book, the story is not of the overwhelming power of government, but rather of the government/corporation complex.

This concern of the growing power and influence of corporate culture is a concern of mine too. It seems to me that we are making a serious error in our treatment of the institution of incorporation. It is looked upon as some sort of natural state, in which the power and influence that can be held by an incorporated entity is theirs by right. However, that is not the case. Incorporation is a status created by governments. To treat it then as a right results in an entity with all the potential for abuse that government may have, but with none of the checks and balances that may obtain with a government.

I also include here a comment I left attached to that post.

Part of the problem here is the seemingly universal tendency to treat incorporation as some sort of natural state of doing business, rather than an institution created by government. Incorporation is a government created institution in which some of the risk of running your business is shared by the community at large. It is an extremely valuable service provided by the government, it is not some natural state of affairs, that is yours by right. Given that it is valuable, it is only right and proper, and is in no way and infringement upon the freedom of the incorporated entity, that the value be traded for something of equal value. The most straightforward way to curb the abuse of incorporation is to require something of comparable value in return, rather than giving it away, with no obligation on the part of the recipient. The libertarian (at least the simplistic ones as identified by Brian) erroneously believe that limiting the use of this property or requiring payment is an infringement upon the liberties of the recipient. Nothing could be further from the truth. Such restrictions are no more than the restrictions that are an normal part of any ordinary trade. One can take the benefit, and pay the price, or pass up on the benefit and save the price. Having the government create this enormously valuable property, on the other hand, and then giving it away with no obligation of the part of the recipient is the infringement upon the liberty of all those not so richly favored.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Conservatives and Lady Hope

I just had to comment on this post from Matt Yglesias, regarding Al Gore citing Dr. Wieslay Maslowski to the effect that “there is a 75 per cent change that the entire north polar ice cap, during the summer months, could be completely ice-free within five to seven years.”  It turns out to have significance not only for the Lady Hope reference in my title (which I’ll explain in a bit) but also as an example of the kind of nonsense that Bob Somerby has been railing against for years. 

It seems various conservatives were in full faux outrage mode over Gore’s saying this because conservatives found a report that Dr. Maslowski had made predictions that were marginally less serious.  Proof the conservatives claimed that Al Gore was making it all up and climate change was a fraud.  Then, what would come as no surprise to Bob Somerby, it has come to light that in other works, Dr. Maslowksi had, in fact, made exactly the prediction that Gore cited.  Once again Al Gore has been called dishonest by his opponents over a comment that was completely accurate, in every detail.  Check out Bob’s site for far more detailed and extensive review of the way Al Gore has been misrepresented.

But the other issue that this post brought to mind was a difference in the approach to assessing comments made by others.  To some people, deciding whether or not to believe some authority involves first deciding that the other person is virtuous, and if so then belief follows.  For others, the question of the authorities virtue is secondary at best, the primary concern is whether or not the authorities claim matches evidence, reason and experience.  If so, then the claims are to be believed, if not then disbelieved.  Therefore, I may well believe in the claims of an individual of questionable character, if the evidence supports him, against another who is generally more virtuous, if the evidence is against him.  Now, the general honesty of a person is not immaterial.  I’m more willing to accept the testimony of someone whose character I admire than from someone whose character I do not, but evidence and reason should always have the final say.

This brings us to the Lady Hope story.  This is a tale that is brought up from time to time by Creationists in arguments against biologists.  Basically the claim is that on his deathbed Charles Darwin was visited by one Lady Hope who converted him to Christianity (and supposedly a fairly literalist version of Christianity) and Darwin renounced evolution.  Now the story is certainly not accurate and has been refuted many times.   But striking to those of us of a scientific mindset is the question “Why would it matter?”.  No person of reason thinks that evolution is a correct description of the history of life on Earth because Darwin, a brilliant scientist, proposed it.  Rather it is recognized that Darwin, by careful observation of nature and by sound reasoning, developed a simple, elegant and accurate description of life’s history that is amply supported by the evidence.  Because he was able to do this we conclude he was brilliant.  The evidence and reason come first, conclusions about Darwin’s character follow.  Had Darwin, in fact, renounced evolution, it would have no impact on my conclusions about evolution.  The same reasons and evidence would still lead to the same conclusion on my part.  I would have less respect for Darwin had he done so, but there could be no change in my conclusions about his theory.  To join in abandoning the theory would require evidence that it was false, not a change in heart by Darwin. 

In a similar vein I respect and admire Newton because his description of the laws of motion and universal gravitation are such a powerful, effective and well-supported description of nature as we observe it.   Were someone to present incontrovertible evidence that Newton had abandoned gravity, and the Copernican model, for Ptolemy's geocentric model, I would think that Newton became crazy perhaps, but could not be affected in my recognition of the accuracy of his theories.  In fact, I need not speculate on some imagined abandonment of gravity.  Newton, the same author of the Principia, and discoverer of laws governing motion and gravity was also a devoted alchemist.  I have no problem admiring his work in physics which is richly supported by evidence, while regarding his work in alchemy, which is supported by none, as a waste of his time.  Again, a scientific description is valuable because it matches our careful observations of nature, this comes first.  The character of the person making the claims may then be judged, in part, by the accuracy and value of those claims, but this judgment of character is secondary.

This brings me then to Al Gore.  The right wing seems to be heavily invested in a kind of Lady Hope story here.  If we prove that Al Gore, a leading spokesman for the science of climate change, is lacking in virtue, then it calls into question the claims he is making.  But that is nonsense.  The claims of climate change are well supported by numerous independent lines of evidence.  The overwhelming evidence indicates that increasing concentration of CO2, and other greenhouse gasses, is causing rising average global temperatures and this is causing various changes to global climate.  Whether Al Gore is a perfect example of human virtue, a monster of historical proportions, or (as I suspect) something in between, has, and should have, absolutely no significance on this question.

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Sunday, December 13, 2009

Adam Smith and Regulation

I’ve been reading The Wealth of Nations recently, I was rather interested in understanding what Adam Smith actually had to say, given the extent to which his views on economics are championed by conservatives. The most striking conclusion I have taken from his writing is that if his views were better known by conservatives and by liberals he would be reviled by the former and a champion of the later. For large numbers of people the passion with which the hold opinions of various philosophers, Smith prominent amongst them, is equaled only by their ignorance of the actual opinions of those philosophers. The absurdity of our discourse today is driven in no small part by this dichotomy.

For example, it is widely held among conservatives that the idea of market economics is totally at odds with any government regulations. Smith, it is clear, does not agree. He expressly recommends that government regulate the maximum interest that may be charged.

The legal rate, it is to be observed, though it ought to be somewhat above, ought not be much above the lowest market rate. If the legal rate of interest in Great Britain, for example, was fixed so high as eight or ten percent, the greater part of the money which was to be lent, would be lent to prodigals and projectors, who alone would be willing to give this high interest.

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book II, Chapter 4

Adam Smith, at least, was no uniform opponent to regulation.

I note also, that this recommendation for government regulation is specifically to have the government enforce more sound management of money on the part of the citizens. That is, what is recommended here is a form of paternalism. Limits on the rate of interest are imposed on citizens to enforce parsimony with no other service provided in exchange.

The kinds of regulation recommended by modern liberal policy, on the other hand, can be defended, I believe, on grounds of exchange. That is to say that the regulation is imposed solely on the basis of the regulated accept the regulations in return for some other service provided by the state. For example, the restrictions on risk taken by large financial institutions are imposed on those institutions that have been incorporated under the laws of the United States. That condition of being incorporated provides an insurance policy for the managers and shareholders of those institutions on the loses that they may incur should the institution fail. This limitation of liability is an extremely valuable service.

To whatever extent regulations imposed by government to advance some general moral well-being are allowed, and Smith certainly considered them acceptable, it is even more acceptable when they are part of a mutual exchange.

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Progressive Obama

There is quite a bit of buzz around the blogesphere lately with regard to whether or not Obama is really a progressive, really wants progressive policies to be realized and the like. There is Matt Taibi's article in Rolling Stone. Then there are Digby's comments. Matt Yglesias has a response, and Steve Bennen chimes in. There are also comments from a reader at TPM. And follow the links you can get more comments on the comments and so forth.

I haven't much to add to the discussion above on how accurate Matt Taibi's view is or how good Obama's progressive credentials are. But I do have two thoughts to add.

One is that this discussion, it seems to me, confuses two distinct points. If the question is whether or not Obama is truly a progressive and how righteous a progressive he is, I do not know. Should Obama be admired as a great progressive? I have no idea. Is Obama to blame for the difficulty in achieving progressive aims? Hard to tell. Those questions are very difficult to resolve and really are largely a matter of opinion. However, they are also, I believe, not all that important. If, on the other hand, we are interested in the best way to advance Progressive policies then Obama was certainly the best choice in the general election, and I hardly believe a poor choice for the Democratic party. If we are concerned about advancing Progressive policies then supporting Obama is our best choice. I would suggest also that Matt Yglesias's views on how we need to reshape Congress is the next place for progressives to act. At this point, whether or not Obama is as progressive as he promised (and he might well not be), the sticking point is Congress. The fact that we have been counting on Joe Lieberman as a Democrat is a far greater problem than Obama's lack of progressiveness.

The second point that comes to mind with these criticisms of Obama is that Progressives seem intent on continuing the strategy that has a) been pursued steadily for a half-century and b) been a total disaster. The progressive community backed away from supporting Johnson in 1968. They were then disillusioned by his involvement with and commitment to the Viet Nam war. Likewise they were only lukewarm about Humphry due to his connection to that war. They were determined to show the Democratic party that it needed to be true to its progressive ideals. Nixon won the election. The Democratic party responded with McGovern who was crushed. The Democrats did come back with Carter, who in tern failed to live up to our progressive ideals and who met with a liberal challenge from Kennedy. Liberals were unwilling to support a Democratic party that abandoned its progressive ideals. Reagan won the election. Another set of true Democratic progressives and another set of stunning defeats. Then the Democratic party got Clinton elected. Clinton of the DLC and triangulation also did not quite live up to our progressive ideals and so support for Gore was again lukewarm as many liberals were unhappy supporting a candidate that did not truly embrace liberalism. We got George W. Bush. Now, once again, the Democrats have elected a president who may not embrace our ideal. Do we abandon support of him and get, what, Sarah Palin for the love of God.

How clear does it have to be made that we would be better off supporting the candidates we have and use our position to push for yet more liberal candidates in the future. We are not going to transform the nation in a single year, or in a single President's term. We need to push for the liberal policies we can get from the political process we have and then push for more liberal policies in the future.

Another note, when people criticize Obama as a failure for progressives, is our love and support for various liberal and Democratic politicians of the past, now when such support is of no value. There has been an abundance of posts and comments lately, progressives calling for Obama to be more like Johnson. Johnson is well respected and admired now, though in 1968 when such admiration would have been some value to the advancement of Progressive causes, it was scarce to be found. Far more progressives today admire Jimmy Carter as the nation's greatest ex-President than could be induced to vote for him in 1980 when progressive causes might have been advanced by such respect. And, of course, Al Gore is now much admired by progressives who, including large numbers who stayed home, or who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000. Could we not try, just this once, supporting our guy when such support will be of value.

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Taking Land

High Court Weighs Florida Beach Case : NPR

I caught this report on NPR last week. A number of homeowners down in Florida are claiming that the State has "taken" their land, at least as far as the constitution is concerned, by building a sandbar which added a strip of land between their property boarder and the water's edge. The added strip of land is public, so the property owner's property no longer abuts the water. So no actual property has been lost, rather the value of the property is arguably reduced by the presence of this public strip between the owner and water's edge. Furthermore, the issue was settled by the Florida courts according to Florida State law, against the homeowners. The issue came to the Supreme Court on the unique claim that the Florida Court's decision amounted to an unconstitutional taking of land by the judiciary.

I certainly think the plaintiffs are in the wrong here. No land was taken, that seems like the end of the story. The Government is not required to limiting itself to policies that never reduce the value of anyone's property. Yet, from the reports on NPR and elsewhere, I see no other basis for claiming this as a taking of property. Read the account above on the issues raised and consider an alternative. What if the state had followed a policy that created a strip of land a few feet wide but with a few feet of water between the property owner's property and this new strip of land. All concerns about disturbing the owner's peace would remain, but the owner's property abuts water. How wide would such a strip of land have to be, are the owner's guaranteed that a body of water of some size be located at the edge of their property? The issue, it seems to me is a sort of rights creep. In purchasing the property, the owner's were provided certain stated rights under the purchase contract and state law. Given those rights they assumed that other conditions could be expected to hold, although said conditions were not promised under any guarantee. They now argue that the state must respect not only the guarantees made, but also these additional expected conditions. Supporting this will only lead to yet more extravagant expectations, which in turn will have to be respected, and so on.

But more than that, I see here a failure of imagination on the part of progressives. I have heard other reports of property owners claiming government taking that were hardly much better than this. And we can see, from the report, that the current court is considering this claim with some seriousness. But if this does constitute "taking" property, then the implications are huge. Government cannot take property from a citizen without just compensation, but a private citizen may not do so either. So if the state cannot manage its own property if such management will in any way decrease the value of property owned by a citizen, how can citizen A change his property in any way that will decrease the value of property owned by citizen B? One would think that a decision in favor of the plaintiffs on this case would have serious implications for mountaintop removal, for example.

Even if we are to believe that this is taking only if done by the state (that is to say that if the property under the water were owned by a private citizen who acted exactly as the state did, there would be no claim) consider the implications for global climate change, sea level rising and loss of property. The governments granting permission to the power industry to dump CO2 into the atmosphere would clearly amount to "taking" property from land owners.

These issues, and others I could raise, apply not only to this case, but to a number of others. Yet, I see little evidence that progressives are trying to use these kinds of decisions to advance progressive causes. Our efforts seem limited to ineffectual arguments against the decisions.

There is a large point here too. Very often, it seems to me, conservative arguments do not make any sense, even on their own terms. Yes property rights are important, and the government exists, in no small part, to protect them. But if this kind of action constitutes taking of property, it seems to that such a decision would all but destroy property rights, not affirm them.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Stimulus and Smith

So I'm in the midst of reading Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations". I've got a fair number of other obligations these days, so I'm going through it bit by bit, it is taking awhile. I'm well into book four though, so I'm making progress. Listening to the recent debate over Obama's stimulus package has been striking, given what is actually to be found in this work. The overwhelming impression I get from the Republican arguments and the words of Smith is that the Republican position is firmly rooted in the ideas that Adam Smith is arguing against.

One of the main points that Smith makes is that the while we do generally consider an individual to be wealthy based on the amount of gold or other money that he has, this is actually only an approximate measure and it is wholly inappropriate for a nation. Smith was arguing against the Mercantilist view that the a nation should increase its wealth by accumulating more gold. Smith argued instead that to try to accumulate gold and silver beyond what was needed for coin for jewelry and for flatware and plate was pointless. Gold and silver beyond the needs listed above would invariable be taken abroad and used to purchase goods there that were either not produced in England or were of better quality or cheaper in some other country. Rather the wealth of a nation was measured by how often the gold and silver changed hands. His reasoning was that people exchanged gold and silver in return for some productive labor or service, to rent land or to acquire stock and that a nation was wealthy to the extent that these activities were common and poor if they were rare.

The upshot is that while Smith did not advocate anything like a stimulus bill (Smith predated Keynes by a century and a half), such a measure seems more consistent with Smith's views than opposed to them. If, as Smith maintains, the wealth of a nation comes in the frequent circulation of currency then taking action to keep money in circulation, a stimulus, would be in keeping with this philosophy.

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Saturday, December 05, 2009

Cooper Union Again

The current state of our political discussion, what with Birthers and Teabaggers along with the current Republican Party, which is in the minority, is determined to obstruct all legislation unless it is authored by the Republican Party puts me in mind of the Cooper Union Address by Abraham Lincoln. In particular this part towards the end:

The question recurs, what will satisfy them? Simply this: We must not only let them alone, but we must somehow, convince them that we do let them alone. This, we know by experience, is no easy task. We have been so trying to convince them from the very beginning of our organization, but with no success. In all our platforms and speeches we have constantly protested our purpose to let them alone; but this has had no tendency to convince them. Alike unavailing to convince them, is the fact that they have never detected a man of us in any attempt to disturb them.

These natural, and apparently adequate means all failing, what will convince them? This, and this only: cease to call slavery wrong, and join them in calling it right. And this must be done thoroughly - done in acts as well as in words. Silence will not be tolerated - we must place ourselves avowedly with them. Senator Douglas' new sedition law must be enacted and enforced, suppressing all declarations that slavery is wrong, whether made in politics, in presses, in pulpits, or in private. We must arrest and return their fugitive slaves with greedy pleasure. We must pull down our Free State constitutions. The whole atmosphere must be disinfected from all taint of opposition to slavery, before they will cease to believe that all their troubles proceed from us.

Prior to the quoted part Lincoln has described the general state of the debate between the sections and is answering the question, what can Republicans (of his day) do to reach an agreement with the opposition. The Republican Party wanted to reach a peaceful agreement with the Southern opposition. But as the above quote indicates there could be no compromise because the only position tolerable to the Southern Slaveholders was complete surrender to their position.

I would say that today's Republican party has now taken up the same kind of stance that their opposition had in his day.

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Irrational Behavior

Matt Yglesias has a post here referencing a few other folks on how well, or poorly, the things that consititute rational, sound economic behavior for the fairly well-off do not apply well to those in poverty. That is to say that careful savings and efforts to gradually improve one's station, which work well for people in a fairly stable background may well not work at all for those in deep poverty.

This illustrates what is, I think, a more general error in thinking. There are a number of times when we identify some large group of people in some situation engaged in behavior which is then regarded as irrational. But does it really make sense to assume that a very large number of people are all acting irrationally? It would instead make more sense to suppose that we have misidentified the situation that these people are in.

I touched on this in an earlier post on the fund manager John Meriwether. Rather than assume that everyone investing with this man is irrational, it makes more sense to assume that they are acting as if they are a) in a financially secure position themselves and b) the money is not the result of their hard work, but rather it is essentially found money, a gift or handout. If that is the situation (which I think there are abundant reasons to believe that it is) then their behavior is rational.

Generally speaking, the kinds of behavior that are rational in, for example, a stable environment, in a highly unstable environment. When conditions are highly unstable, then long term planning and savings may well be of lower marginal value than the kind of prudential behaviors that work well in more stable environments.

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