Archives: 06/2009

A Tip of the Hat to Tom Paine

Thomas Paine, one of the fathers of American freedom, died almost unmourned 200 years ago today. Brendan O’Neill remembers him at BBC.com:

In January 1776 he published a short pamphlet that earned him the title The Father of the American Revolution.

Titled simply, Common Sense, the work has been described by the Pulitzer-winning historian Gordon S Wood as “the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire [American] revolutionary period”. It put the case for democracy, against the monarchy, and for American independence from British rule.

Lefties like Harvey Kaye, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, like to say

He put the case for political democracy AND social democracy, arguing in The Rights of Man that young people and the elderly should be afforded financial security by their governments. These welfare ideals are under attack right now, in our era of recession.

He has a point, though I suspect that Paine would think that the American welfare state has exceeded the sort of minimal provision for the poor that he had in mind. As for me, I rather like the fact that he proposed to execute any legislator who so much as proposed a bill to issue paper money and make it legal tender. A bit too strong, I concede. But a healthy understanding of what fiat money can do to people who work hard and save their money.

Find some of Thomas Paine’s best writings in The Libertarian Reader.

Robert Wright at Cato Unbound

This month’s Cato Unbound features Robert Wright, who offers us an excerpt from his new book, The Evolution of God. He looks at the possibility of religious tolerance from a game theoretic and evolutionary psychology perspective: Is there a fundamental “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West? Or just a communication failure? Wright argues that we can work toward understanding by realizing the limits and biases of human moral reasoning:

You might not guess it to read the headlines, but by and large the relationship between “the West” and “the Muslim World” is non-zero-sum. To be sure, the relationship between some Muslims and the West is zero-sum. Terrorist leaders have aims that are at odds with the welfare of Westerners. The West’s goal is to hurt their cause, to deprive them of new recruits and of political support. But if we take a broader view—look not at terrorists and their supporters but at Muslims in general, look not at radical Islam but at Islam—the “Muslim world” and the “West” are playing a non-zero-sum game; their fortunes are positively correlated. And the reason is that what’s good for Muslims broadly is bad for radical Muslims. If Muslims get less happy with their place in the world, more resentful of their treatment by the West, support for radical Islam will grow, so things will get worse for the West. If, on the other hand, more and more Muslims feel respected by the West and feel they benefit from involvement with it, that will cut support for radical Islam, and Westerners will be more secure from terrorism.

This isn’t an especially arcane piece of logic. The basic idea is that terrorist leaders are the enemy and they thrive on the discontent of Muslims—and if what makes your enemy happy is the discontent of Muslims broadly, then you should favor their contentment. Obviously. Indeed this view has become conventional wisdom: if the West can win the “hearts and minds” of Muslims, it will have “drained the swamp” in which terrorists thrive. In that sense, there is widespread recognition in the West of the non-zero-sum dynamic.

But this recognition hasn’t always led to sympathetic overtures from Westerners toward Muslims. The influential evangelist Franklin Graham declared that Muslims don’t worship the same god as Christians and Jews and that Islam is a “very evil and wicked religion.” That’s no way to treat people you’re in a non-zero-sum relationship with! And Graham is not alone. Lots of evangelical Christians and other Westerners view Muslims with suspicion, and view relations between the West and the Muslim world as a “clash of civilizations.” And many Muslims view the West in similarly win-lose terms.

So what’s going on here? Where’s the part of human nature that was on display in ancient times—the part that senses whether you’re in the same boat as another group of people and, if you are, fosters sympathy for or at least tolerance of them?

It’s in there somewhere, but it’s misfiring. And one big reason is that our mental equipment for dealing with game-theoretical dynamics was designed for a hunter-gatherer environment, not for the modern world. That’s why dealing with current events wisely requires strenuous mental effort—effort that ultimately, as it happens, could bring moral progress.

Congress on Privacy: Schizophrenic or Lagging?

In the same bill that Congress limited the use of whole-body imaging or “strip-search machines” at airports (text of the amendment here), it required the Transportation Security Administration to study using facial and iris recognition to identify people in line for airport security checkpoints (Sec. 242 of House-passed version here).

So glimpses at de-identified bodies are a privacy outrage while massive biometric databases and records of people’s travels are good to go?

Not necessarily. Average people (and members of Congress) understand better what a look at the body is, but they don’t understand as well what biometric tracking and databasing of our movements means. So they’re quick to object to the former and lagging on the latter.

Those of us who understand the privacy consequences of government-deployed facial recognition and tracking must press to educate our less-well-versed fellow Americans.

Indiana: Defender of “the Rule of Law”

While the majority of Chrysler’s senior creditors sacrificed their fiduciary duties and caved into political pressure in accepting the Obama Administration’s pre-packaged bankruptcy of Chrysler, a small group of state pension funds in Indiana has challenged the Obama plan and is asking the Supreme Court to review said plan. As in the 1930s, the protection of contractual rights, one of the most basic pillars of a free society, along with the rule of law, is now in the hands of the Supreme Court.

As discussed in today’s Washington Post, these pension funds believe their rights were infringed by the Administration’s placing of junior creditors in a preferred situation to senior creditors. It doesn’t take Ms. Manners to remind us that cutting in line, whether in traffic, at the grocery store, or in a bankruptcy, is plain rude. To have the government re-order the line for you is even worse.

To re-build confidence in our markets, trust in our institutions must be re-stored. Not simply in our private institutions, but also in our government. If players believe the game is going to be rigged, fewer will be willing to play. And while the Administration has portrayed Chrysler’s senior creditors as nothing more than greedy speculators, the Indiana request exposes that myth. President Obama should clearly articulate why retired state employees, such as teachers and firefighters, should have their pension funds raided solely for the benefit of the auto unions. Here’s to hoping Indiana goes all the way in this Court.

Drug Related Gun Battle in Acapulco Leaves 18 Dead

A wild shootout over the weekend in Acapulco indicates that the drug-related violence in Mexico is spreading.

The Washington Post reports:

Suspected drug traffickers trapped in a safe house fought a furious gun battle with Mexican soldiers early Sunday in the beach resort city of Acapulco. As terrified residents and tourists cowered in their rooms, the firefight raged for two hours, leaving 16 gunmen dead. Two soldiers were also killed and several bystanders were wounded.

The gunmen, suspected members of one of Mexico’s major cartels, threw as many as 50 grenades at the advancing soldiers, and both sides fired thousands of rounds from assault rifles.

Mexican officials have long argued that while there has been serious turmoil in some cities along the border with the United States, the main tourist resort areas are safe. Even before the Acapulco incident, though, events over the past year had cast some doubt on such complacent assurances. A few months ago, a retired general who had just been appointed to direct anti-drug efforts in Cancun was assassinated, and there have been other troubling developments. The main Gulf coast and Pacific resorts are certainly safer than the war zones in such places as Tijuana, Nuevo Laredo, and Ciudad Juarez, but American tourists should not be lulled into thinking that those areas are immune from the drug violence.

President Felipe Calderon’s decision nearly three years ago to launch a military offensive against the drug cartels has backfired. The strategy has not stemmed the flow of illegal drugs into the United States, it has merely caused a spike in the violence and made Mexico a more turbulent, dangerous place for everyone.

Kennedy’s Health Bill: A First Look

A draft of Sen. Ted Kennedy’s health care reform bill is finally available, and it is difficult to overstate how far he would move us to a government-run health care system. An initial read-through reveals among the key provisions:

  • An individual mandate, requiring that every American purchase a “qualified” insurance plan. (Sec. 161(a)) The mandate will be enforced through the tax code with Americans required to pay a penalty if they fail to comply.  In an extraordinary delegation of congressional authority, the Kennedy bill would give the Secretaries of Treasury and Health and Human Services the power to determine what this penalty should be. Individuals would be required to submit information on their insurance status over the previous year to the Secretary of HHS, along with “any such other information as the Secretary may require.” (Sec. 6055(b)(2) and (3)). Individuals who already have insurance could keep it. However, if they changed plans (or presumably changed jobs), their new insurance would have to meet the definition of “qualified.”
  • A “pay or play” employer mandate requiring employers to provide all workers with health insurance and pay a minimum amount of the premium, or pay a tax (Sec 162). Again, the amount of the new tax is left to the discretion of the Secretaries of HHS and Treasury. Some small employers would be exempt from the mandate, but the size of those firms remains TBA. (Sec. 3113(g)) Companies with fewer than 250 workers would be forbidden to self-ensure. (Sec. 2720)
  • A new federal bureaucracy, the Medical Advisory Council, which would determine what benefits will be required to be part of your “qualified” insurance plan. (Sec. 3103(h) and (i)). Lest anyone think Congress won’t get involved. The Council’s decisions can be disapproved by Congress if, say, they don’t mandate inclusion by a favored provider group or disease constituency. (Sec 3103(g)).
  • Massive new federal subsidies. Medicaid would be expanded to individuals earning 150 percent of the poverty level, and the federal government would pay all incremental costs of the increased enrollment. (Sec 152.) Single, childless adults would become eligible for Medicaid. Even more egregious, individuals and families with incomes between 150-500 percent of the poverty level ($110,250 for a family of four) would be eligible for subsidies on a sliding scale-basis.(Sec. 3111(b)(1)(A-G)).
  • Insurers would be required to accept all applicants regardless of their health (guaranteed issue) and forbid insurers from basing insurance premiums on risk factors (Community rating). There does not appear to be any exception for lifestyle factors, such as smoking, alcohol or drug use, diet, exercise, etc. Thus, not only will the young and healthy be forced to pay higher premiums to subsidize the old and unhealthy, but the responsible will be forced to pay more to subsidize the irresponsible.
  • A “public option” operating in competition with private insurance (Section 31__). How this plan would be funded, the level of premiums, etc. is left mostly TBA. In response to criticism, the Kennedy bill does require that the public plan pay providers 10 percent above Medicare reimbursement rates. (Sec 31__(B)). That would still allow for a considerable degree of cost-shifting to private insurance. And, we should recall that such promises are ephemeral. When Medicare began, proponents promised it would reimburse at the same rate as insurance. That promise didn’t last long.
  • States would be prodded to set up “gateways,” similar to Massachusetts’ “connector.” (Sec 3104(a)) If a state fails to do so, the federal government will set one up for them. (Sec. 3104(d)) The federal government would provide grants to states to help them set up these gateways. The amount of the grants is, you guessed it, left to the discretion of the Secretary of HHS. Gateways may also fund their operations by assessing a surcharge on insurers. Sec. 3101(b)(5)(A)/
  • A new federal long-term care program (Sec 171).

Kennedy does not include any estimate of how much his plan would cost, nor any proposal for how to pay for it.

More details will undoubtedly emerge, but it is very clear that the Kennedy plan would put one-sixth of the US economy and some of our most important, personal, and private decisions firmly under the thumb of the federal government.

Buy American Hurts Most Americans

Earlier today, Doug Bandow weighed in with some commentary on the problems that Buy American provisions are creating for both Canadian and American businesses. Let me reinforce his view that such rules are anachronistic and self-defeating with some thoughts from a forthcoming paper of mine about the incongruity between modern commercial reality and trade policies that have failed to keep pace.

Even though President Obama implored, “If you are considering buying a car, I hope it will be an American car,” it is nearly impossible to determine objectively what makes an American car. The auto industry provides a famous example, but is really just one of many that transcends national boundaries and renders obsolete the notion of international competition as a contest between “our” producers and “their” producers. The same holds true for industries throughout the manufacturing sector.

Dell is a well known American brand and Nokia a popular Finnish brand, but neither makes its products in the United States or Finland, respectively. Some components of products bearing the logos of these internationally recognized brands might be produced in the “home country.” But with much greater frequency nowadays, component production and assembly operations are performed in different locations across the global factory floor. As IBM’s chief executive officer put it: “State borders define less and less the boundaries of corporate thinking or practice.”

The distinction between what is and what isn’t American or Finnish or Chinese or Indian has been blurred by foreign direct investment, cross-ownership, equity tie-ins, and transnational supply chains. In the United States, foreign and domestic value-added is so entangled in so many different products that even the Buy American provisions in the recently-enacted American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, struggle to define an American product without conceding the inanity of the objective.

The Buy American Act restricts the purchase of supplies that are not domestic end products.  For manufactured end products, the Buy American Act uses a two-part test to define a domestic end product: (1) The article must be manufactured in the United States; and (2) The cost of domestic components must exceed 50 percent of the cost of all the components. Thus, the operational definition of an American product includes the recognition that “purebred” American products are increasingly rare.

Shake your head and chuckle as you learn that even the “DNA” of the U.S. steel industry, which pushed for adoption of the most restrictive Buy American provisions and which has been the manufacturing sector’s most vocal proponent of trade barriers over the years, is difficult to decipher nowadays. The largest U.S. producer of steel is the majority Indian-owned company Arcelor-Mittal. The largest “German” producer, Thyssen-Krupp, is in the process of completing a $3.7 billion green field investment in a carbon and stainless steel production facility in Alabama, which will create an estimated 2,700 permanent jobs. And most of the carbon steel shipped from U.S. rolling mills—as finished hot-rolled or cold-rolled steel, or as pipe and tube—is produced in places like Canada, Brazil and Russia, and as such is disqualified from use in U.S. government procurement projects for failure to meet the statutory definition of American-made steel.

Whereas a generation ago the cost of a product bearing the logo of an American company may have comprised exclusively U.S. labor, materials, and overhead, today that is much less likely to be the case. Today, that product is more likely to reflect foreign value-added, regardless of whether the product was “completed” in the United States or abroad. Accordingly, Buy American rules and trade barriers of any kind (as appealing to politicians as they may be) hurt most American businesses, workers, and consumers.

It’s time to wake up and scrap these stupid rules.