Rural Newspaper Calls for the President and the Senate to “Mind Their Business”

The Enid News and Eagle posted an opinion article last week on the new farm bill. Admittedly, it is a rural paper (based in Enid, Oklahoma) catering to a rural readership. Most of you will probably not have seen it. But I was struck by a number of passages.

Take this one, for starters:

“It seems the 2002 farm bill was one of the more popular farm bills to come out in the history of farm bills, according to Frank Lucas. The Third District representative has been traveling the state getting input from agricultural officials and farmers on what should be included in the 2007 version of the farm bill.”

Of course the 2002 Farm Bill was popular, Congressman, at least with the “agricultural officials and farmers” you are talking to. A significant backtrack from previous farm bills, payments to farmers under the 2002 Farm Bill are projected to average over US$20 billion per year from 2005 to 2007. Agriculture officials are hardly going to support huge cuts to the agriculture budget, either.

Or consider this gem:

“…the House committee knows the most about agriculture and has the most contact with the people it will affect…”

The Enid News and Eagle is suggesting that the “people it will affect” are farmers and ranchers. This is undeniably true. But this farm bill, like all the others before it, will also affect every taxpayer and consumer of food in the country, not to mention commodity producers abroad. (more here)

On the one hand, it seems fairly reasonable that as part of the 2007 Farm Bill preparations, the administration and House and Senate Committee Members are holding a series of hearings all over the country. But on the other, who shows up to those hearings? Is it the consumers and taxpayers who, while collectively shelling out billions of dollars every year to agricultural subsidies and paying over-market prices, shoulder relatively little burden as individuals? No. Most of them have jobs to go to and little incentive to harangue Congressmen and officials. Farmers, on the other hand, are relatively well organized and have large incentive to ask for more money (or, in their more modest moments, ‘just’ the status quo).

Finally, for good measure, the Enid News and Eagle proposes letting the House agriculture committee and the farmers have full and exclusive rights over the farm bill:

“While we encourage input from farmers and ranchers, we discourage a lot of input in the bill from the president and the Senate.”

I’m new to this country, but isn’t there supposed to be a system of checks and balances here? Why do these opinion writers assert that there is no role for the administration or the Senate in crafting a new farm bill? While I, too, think there should be “little input” from government in farm policy, I don’t restrict my skepticism to only one chamber and the president.

If you missed our forum today on the farm bill, you can watch it here within the next 24 to 48 hours.

Hat-tip to Keith Good for the tip on the Enid News and Eagle.

Paging Thomas Schelling

The NRO editorial on Iran is predictably alarmist, but there’s one line in particular that stands out:

[Iran’s acquisition of a bomb] would effectively give Tehran a veto over U.S. military action in the region.

Simply put, this just isn’t true.  The Soviet Union’s and China’s possession of nuclear weapons didn’t prevent the US from invading Vietnam.  US possession of nuclear weapons didn’t prevent the Soviet Union from invading Afghanistan.  Israeli possession of nuclear weapons hasn’t prevented a series of attacks on Israel’s peripheral interests.  We could go on.

This kind of reasoning at NRO betrays how much we have forgotten about deterrence theory.  Since I’m probably younger than any of NRO’s editorialists, youth is no excuse.

Iranian possession of nuclear weapons would indeed give Iran a veto over one prospective US policy: regime change in Iran.  Nuclear deterrents are useful in protecting vital interests.  But the notion that an Iranian nuclear weapons capability would somehow give Iran a veto over the range of available US policies in the region is silly.  It would definitely make the US think twice about the implications of its policies in the region, and perhaps make America more cautious, but given recent experience, one has to wonder how bad that would be.  In the end, we don’t have evidence that Iran would be any more likely to risk escalation to the nuclear level than would any other state. 

This core-vs.-peripheral interests dichotomy is at the center of the literature on nuclear deterrence.  If NRO wishes to cast it off in the course of advocating military action, then fine, but at least a cursory effort at dealing with the work of decades of scholarship on the topic of deterrence theory would be a welcome gesture.

Retire Hitler, Please

Secretary Rumsfeld’s nakedly political speech this week likely presaged the congressional campaigns of the coming weeks.  In a sop to the denizens of the right-wing blogosphere, the formulation “Islamic fascism” is used to describe “the enemy” in the current conflict(s).  This is a useful mnemonic, since it conjures the one historical analogy that Americans remember: Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler in 1938 and the resulting world war.

It is also useful for supporters of a neoconservative foreign policy approach because it lumps a whole host of disparate adversaries (Sunni insurgents in Iraq; Shiite groups like Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army; Hezbollah; the Iranian theocracy; &c) into the “Islamic fascist” grouping, with the binary choices being appeasement or war.  And do you, dear voter, wish to appease the fascists?

Duke poli sci professor Bruce Jentleson helpfully points out the various hawks for whom Vietnam represented another 1938, but for right-wingers, there are a whole host of Hitlers out there waiting to start another bloody world war.

Secretary Rumsfeld has previously likened Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez to Hitler, as has Pat Robertson.  Rumsfeld has also likened Zarqawi, Ahmadinejad, and bin Laden to Hitler.  Ted Stevens and John Warner felt comfortable likening Saddam Hussein to Hitler before the current Iraq war.  Recall that for British foreign secretary Anthony Eden, it was Gamal Abdel Nasser who was the next Hitler.  Right-wing pundit Frank Gaffney had Colin Powell, of all people, in the role of Neville Chamberlain.  Even two-bit dictators like Slobodan Milosevic have gotten the Hitler treatment from American pundits.  And Charles Krauthammer may be the reigning king of Hitler analogies, apparently having compared Deng Xiaoping, Boris Yeltsin, Kim Jong-Il, and (this one’s a softball) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler.  And via my friend Spencer Ackerman, I see that Leon Wieseltier has catalogued many of the Hitlers staring down Israel in recent years.

I could go on like this for hours, but it’s not the best use of our donors’ money or my dwindling sanity.  Hitler, thank God, was an aberration.  The Wehrmacht Hitler commanded was eminently capable of overrunning and occupying Europe.  (He thankfully also had the stupidity and hubris to decide that Stalingrad was in play.)  But to elevate Hugo Chavez, or even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitlerian heights is to completely miss the mark.

Like in criminal investigations, we have to consider both intent and means.  Divining intent is difficult, but ascertaining means is relatively easy.  When we look at the prospect of an Iranian bomb, though, we have to rely on interpretations of intent, since the means to attack Israel would clearly be there, albeit with a sure-fire suicidal result.  But war hawks seem to think that we should assume a fundamental irrationality on the part of Iran—that is, that its government would willfully bring about its own destruction in the pursuit of religious or ideological goals.  And even Hitler did not meet that standard of insanity.  Hitler made judgments based on his assessment of what he could get away with—until the war had gone too far and he thought there was no turning back.

I’m not a huge fan of historical analogies generally, but I sometimes wish that a 1914 analogy existed in the minds of Americans to counter the 1938 analogy.  But alas, the 1938 analogy seems to get applied to everything.  And when all you face are Hitlers, there aren’t a whole lot of choices to be made.  More to the point, like the boy who cried “wolf!” we may find ourselves so desensitized to the Hitler analogy that, should one arise in the future, we are numb to the warning.

Ambrose Bierce once remarked that war is God’s way of teaching Americans geography, but one wishes that war could teach Americans history, too.

Why Does the WSJ Have a Preferred Monopolist?

Today’s Wall Street Journal once again defends the mayoral takeover of Los Angeles public schools. The editorial board’s argument is that we shouldn’t make “the perfect the enemy of the good.” Fine.

But the pointless is the enemy of both the good and the perfect.

What the WSJ is saying is that it is “good” to substitute one education monopolist for another. In what other field does the WSJ have a preferred monopolist? In what other field would they suggest that simply dividing authority over a monopoly between a mayor and another government agency will lead to meaningful improvement?

The only way of “fixing” monopolies is to break them up and return power to consumers by instituting a level, free, competitive playing field for producers.

C’mon, guys, Adam Smith had all this figured out in 1776 – even with specific respect to education. And the evidence proves him right.

More Welfare, More Poverty

News that the poverty rate remained at 12.6 percent last year, statistically unchanged from the year before, has set off a predictable round of calls for increased government spending on social welfare programs.

Yet, last year, the federal government spent more than $477 billion on some 50 different programs to fight poverty.  That amounts to $12,892 for every poor man, woman, and child in this country.  And, it does not even begin to count welfare spending by state and local governments.  For all the talk about Republican budget cuts, spending on these social programs has increased an inflation-adjusted 22 percent since President Bush took office.

Despite this government largesse, 37 million Americans continue to live in poverty.  In fact, despite nearly $9 trillion in total welfare spending since Lyndon Johnson declared War on Poverty in 1964, the poverty rate is perilously close to where we began more than 40 years ago.

One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  What does that say about our welfare policy?

Mass Health Plan: I Told You So

Supporters of Governor Romney’s Massachusetts health care plan scoffed when I warned that it “opens the door to widespread regulation of the health care industry and political interference in personal health care decisions.  The result will be a slow but steady spiral downward toward a government-run, national health care system.”  Recent events, alas, suggest that I was right.

When the plan was passed I said, “special interests representing various health care providers and disease constituencies can certainly be expected to lobby for the inclusion of additional services or coverage under any mandated benefits package.”  Now it appears that my only mistake was in not realizing just how fast the special interests would move.  Already the state has been forced to delay implementation of some aspects of the plan because of a bitter battle over issues such as whether dental benefits should be included in the basic plan that residents must buy.

Fortunately, however, members of the State Health Care Connector, which is designing the plans, say that the legislature didn’t really mean it when it passed a law setting the deadline.  Of course, one might wonder what other aspects of the law they will feel free to ignore.

And, now the Boston Globe reports that Christian Scientists are lobbying hard to change the definition of health care under the law so as to include faith healers.  Such are the perils of having the government design the products you must buy.

I also warned that as costs increased there would be increased pressure to increase subsidies or cap insurance premiums.  This week, the Globe reported that State Senator Richard T. Moore, a key architect of the law, is complaining that health insurance premiums are too high.  He is demanding that either premiums or subsidies be adjusted so that no one earning less than 300 percent of the poverty level ($58,000 for a family of four) will have to pay more than 5 percent of their income for insurance.

The plan is less than five months old and already the wheels are coming off.  It would be sad if it had not all been so predictable.

Boudreaux’s Time Machine

Over at Cafe Hayek, George Mason economics chair and Cato adjunct scholar Don Boudreaux has come up with a wonderful thought experiment to illustrate just how absurdly inaccurate the government’s methods for calculating real wages are. Don looks at the Census Bureau report (from the depths of which the New York Times editorial page draws forth the blackest despair) and finds that real median family income has increased an unimpressive 31 percent in the 37 years from 1967 to 2004. In 1967 it was $35,379 (in 2004 dollars), and in 2004 it was $46,326.

Are we really only 31 percent–less the 1 percent a year–better off? Don’s thought experiment asks us to imagine that the incomes and years are swapped, and then see how we feel. Would you rather live in 1967 on $46,000 a year (the 2004 median), or in 2004 on $35,000 (the 1967 median).

Let’s take it up a notch. So, it’s 2004 and you make $35,000 (let’s pretend it’s individual, instead of family income). A gangly professor with crazy hair drives up in a time-traveling Delorean and offers you the 1967 equivalent of $46,000 (that’s a 31 percent raise!) if you’ll let him drop you off in 1967, where you’ll live for one year. You say, “Right on!” and take a lift to yesterday.

So now you’re in 1967 with about $8,500 in your pocket, and you’re ready to roll. Have you become wealthier?

Well, as Don notes, housing is smaller and more expensive. Central air conditioning, I should add, is a luxury. Your expensive and ridiculously large (but not the screen) TV gets three channels with fuzzy reception. No Deadwood (or the Wire, or Weeds, or Sports Center, or Project Runway, or Good Eats, etc.) for you! It’s a darn fine year for rock & roll, but you’d like to be able to listen to Dylan on your iPod (you used to download anything you wanted to listen to on demand) or in your car. Your car! It costs almost exactly the same as a 2004 car, but is less comfortable, has no auto anything, gets horrifying gas mileage, and is a death trap without a shoulder belt, airbags, or anti-lock brakes. It handles like a whale. You start to think your Jetta back in 2004 has rather more than an $11,000 edge on this bucket. That makes you a little depressed. Which is a problem, because your Prozac prescription ran out and there’s no recourse but a Freudian therapist who tells you your malaise has something to do with your mother. Trying to look on the bright side, you attempt to be grateful that you don’t need Cialis, or chemotheraphy. The food is terrible. You can’t get a cup of coffee that doesn’t taste like cardboard. The book stores seem to have nothing. A simple calculator costs about the same as your Blackberry. You lose a contact lens, and end up with Coke bottle “birth control” glasses. You want to go home.

The professor materializes again and tells you that he lied. Ha! You’re not staying for a year. You’re staying for the rest of your life. But he guarantees your salary each year will be that year’s inflation-adjusted equivalent of the salary that you have in the “stayed-in-2004” timeline. (In 1973, you’ll get your 2010 wages, etc.) You start to cry (no Prozac!). The professor exclaims, “What’s the problem, kid? You’ll always be wealthier than you would have been. And besides, it’s a simpler time. People bowl together!”
You get the idea. Don has a bunch of great examples of things you can’t get in 1967, only some of which I stole.

How much would you have to be paid each year to agree to live the rest of your life from 1967 on? Maybe I’m weird, since my entire life would be different–and almost certainly worse–if it wasn’t for the Internet. (I almost certainly wouldn’t have most of my friends, my very cool job, and more.) There are so many things I rely upon that you couldn’t buy at any price in 1967 that it’s pretty hard to think of a number that’s high enough to compensate for the loss. Personally, I don’t care that much about improvements in TV picture quality, or even how comfortable, safe, and gadget-laden cars are now. It’s the things that just didn’t exist in 1967 that do it for me.

Here’s another thought experiment: Suppose you get a medical procedure with new technology that saves your life. It didn’t exist last year, but now it does. If you had been sick like this last year, you’d be gone. So, in a year, you went from a condition in which no amount of money would have been able to save you from death, to one in which a mere $10,000 buys you the ability to see your daughter’s wedding. How much wealthier did you become in the space of that year? Is it more than 31 percent?