Little Victories

…in the fight against the Nanny State: in Massachusetts, the state legislature just narrowly rejected ”primary seat belt legislation.”  In English, that’s a law that gives police the power to pull you over simply because someone in your car isn’t wearing their seatbelt (“secondary seat belt laws” allow them to ticket you for not wearing a seatbelt only if they’ve stopped you for some other infraction). 

Last summer, using night-vision equipment on loan from the National Guard, Maryland state troopers scanned passing cars, then swept out and nabbed 111 offenders for the crime of driving without a seatbelt. Scores of people who were driving along, minding their own business, had their evening ruined by an unpleasant encounter with the business end of the law. Law enforcement overreaching caused an outcry in that case, and citizen pressure in Massachusetts seems to have led several lawmakers to back away from the primary seatbelt bill.

It’s good to know that even in Massachusetts there’s still some resistance to the growing crusade to ensure healthy living through coercion. But it’s not coming from the Governor’s office. Mitt Romney, GOP presidential hopeful for 2008, had promised to sign the bill.

Mulling the Big Idea

A few comments on Brink’s post on the discussion I’ll be missing at the Hudson Institute.

1. I think that the background paper for the discussion is more interesting than Brink makes it out to be. I recommend it as a worthwhile read.

2. Having said that, I disagree with the characterization of the left as purely nihilistic. I think that the left is less reverent of intellectual history because, well, its intellectual antecedents are embarrassing. Was Communism really a great hope for mankind? Was the Vietnam war really an imperialist undertaking carried out because of the desperate desires of corporations for markets? Was it a good idea for Britain, India, and other countries in the 1950s to place “strategic” industries under national control? Were wage and price controls the solution to inflation? etc.

But, undaunted, the Left does have its big ideas. I still think that folk Marxism, the idea that certain oppressed classes and those who claim to speak for them have inherent moral authority, is a “foundational” idea in Leftist thought.

I also see an emerging Leftist doctrine of Individual Helplessness. That is, individuals are too ignorant and irrational to make their own decisions. “Happiness research” fits in well with that doctrine.

Finally, there is what I call absolute environmentalism, which is the doctrine that all other considerations pale in comparison to Global Warming. As Deirdre McCloskey pointed out, this is a transcendental philosophy that becomes the Left’s substitute for religion.

3. I do not agree with Brink’s characterization of those who are neither ardent Democrats nor ardent Republicans as a sort of “center.” Consider instead the hypothesis that we are a long tail.

Topics:

Fear Not, Tom Friedman

Yesterday’s New York Times op-ed page had a couple of rather interesting pieces on global warming that merit some thought. The first, by Thomas Friedman, discussed how American capitalists – motivated as much by the hunt for profit as they are by the quest so save the world – are undertaking a “distributed Manhattan project” to develop economically attractive alternatives to fossil fuels. No centralized government program is necessary, thank you very much. The second, by environmental writer Gregg Easterbrook, described why he has switched sides in warming debate, moving from skeptic to cautious activist. Both are far more sensible than the usual screeds on those subjects published by the Gray Lady.

The Friedman piece was spot-on. Thousands of rather brilliant minds and billions of private dollars are being devoted to ambitious alternative energy R&D. While government sprinkles money here and there, the real work is being done by venture capitalists and entrepreneurial visionaries. If anything emerges from that creative soup, it will be primarily due to the fact that capitalism is the most powerful engine of technological change and innovation ever created by man. Waiting for the Congress or the Department of Energy to come up with something would be a triumph of hope over experience.

Friedman worries, however, that it won’t be enough. “If we want to see these alternatives move from little start-ups to large-scale commercial ventures, ‘we need to get the price mechanism right.’ When you’re talking about oil, you can’t just say ‘Let the market work’ because there is no free market in oil: the producers have a cartel, and governments – like ours – subsidize oil so we don’t pay the full cost.” Friedman proposes a price floor for gasoline ($3.50-$4.00 per gallon) and green purchasing practices for the federal government.

Fear not, Tom Friedman. The alternative energy revolution (if one is to come) will indeed be televised. First of all, to say “there is no free market in oil” is to say “I don’t know a damn thing about oil markets.” One would be hard-pressed to find a freer market on this planet than the one that trades in oil. There are a multiplicity of buyers and sellers who are free to sign long term contracts or to buy and sell in futures markets and spot markets with little regulatory interference. Secondary markets are likewise robust. Prices in wholesale markets are established by supply and demand and the only reason they don’t translate directly to the consumer is because governments are fond of taxing the hell out of the product at the retail level.

To the extent that there is governmental interference in those markets, it has been to artificially raise oil prices above what the market would otherwise deliver. Were it not for OPEC price fixing through production quotas, world oil prices would normally float around $5.50 per barrel according to Francisco Parra, a former Secretary-General of OPEC.

Now, you may not buy that number, but the overall point is hard to argue. Production costs in the Persian Gulf are so low – and economically recoverable oil is so plentiful – that only government conspiracy prevents a torrent of this stuff from hitting the market. Subsidies to the oil sector do indeed exist, but they do not affect marginal production costs, which is to say they do not affect consumer prices.

In sum, the claim that oil prices would be higher were it not for governmental favoritism has it exactly backwards. Competitors need no further help.

Gregg Easterbrook’s piece makes the point that there are few credentialed scientists left who publish in the peer-reviewed literature who are willing to argue that industrial emissions aren’t warming the planet. Fair enough. But the bulk of the so-called “skeptics” (like MIT’s Richard Lindzen or UVA’s – and Cato’s – Pat Michaels) never argued that point in the first place. Instead, they have argued that warming will likely be modest and of no particular consequence. Easterbrook acknowledges that this might well be true, but that he would prefer to hedge his bets with some sort of emission control policy.

Again, fair enough. Particularly risk averse people are more inclined towards this sort of thing than those less worried about such things, and there is no “correct” answer to the question of how much one should hedge against risks given that our risk preferences are all different and risk preferences are subjective.

But bear in mind that, over the past several years, the market has essentially slapped a huge tax on hydrocarbons. If environmentalists were asked back in 2002 if they would declare victory and go home with the passage of a $50 per barrel tax on oil as a means to tackle global warming, I’m pretty sure the answer would have been “yes – hell yes!” Well, that’s essentially what has happened. It may well be that the market has already delivered Easterbrook’s greenhouse insurance policy.

It Doesn’t Take a Rocket Scientist to See the Problem Here

Yesterday, the latest science scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) came out, and the same sad pattern we’ve seen for years repeated itself. Between 1996 and 2005 scores rose in 4th grade, remained stagnant in 8th grade, and dropped for high school seniors. In other words, it’s still the case that the longer children stay in American schools, the worse they do.

Unfortunately, something else also remained the same: the shameless compulsion among people in Washington, despite decades of failure, to claim credit for good news and to have the solutions for bad. Case in point, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’s reaction to the NAEP report, in which she not only dubbed the federal No Child Left Behind Act a cure for failure in subjects the law directly addresses, but even those it doesn’t:

The Science 2005 Report….provides further evidence that accountability and assessments are working to raise achievement levels, even in subjects not directly tested under the No Child Left Behind Act [NCLB]. Fourth-graders made significant improvements in science over 1996 and 2000 levels, with the lowest-performing students making the largest gains and achievement gaps narrowing. However, eighth-graders showed no significant gains. And among 12th-graders, scores declined….The results illustrate the need to introduce NCLB’s accountability principles to our nation’s high schools.

So when the same sorry pattern repeats itself, the adults in charge of American education proclaim that they must be doing something right. In light of this, is it any wonder that our children do worse and worse the longer they stay in school?  

United They Fall…

…at least in popularity, that is. The AP is reporting on the Bush-Blair summit today with the headline “Besieged Bush, Blair to talk about Iraq.” The two leaders have seen their popularity plummet as a result of the Iraq war, with the crowning acknowledgement coming from Karl Rove at AEI recently, where Rove remarked on the president’s record low poll numbers by saying, “People like this president…They’re just sour right now on the war.”

Sour indeed. And as my colleagues Chris Preble and Jonathan Clarke point out in press releases and a podcast here, unless Bush and Blair can conjure a miracle in Iraq, they’re likely going to stay in the cellar, popularity-wise.

My other colleague, electoral guru John Samples, argued here that Bush should have done much better in the ‘04 election than he did, and that the culprit was – you guessed it – Iraq.

Abusing the Idea of Free-Market Health Care Reform

At about 6 pm yesterday, I received an invitation to a Heritage Foundation event titled, “Another Step forward for Free-Market Health Care Reform.” The event was anything but.

Heritage hosted Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), who proposes to allow health savings accounts in Medicaid. In the book Healthy Competition and elsewhere, Cato scholars have explained that Medicaid HSAs are not a free-market health care reform and instead distract Congress from reforming Medicaid the way it reformed welfare in 1996.

In fact, Rep. Rogers proposed a number of non-free-market health reforms:

  • Expanded federal regulation of the health insurance markets (a.k.a. “association health plans”)
  • Federal health information technology reforms
  • Federal malpractice liability reform

Rep. Rogers concluded his opening remarks by saying that health care “is the one place where we know how to tinker, we know where to tinker, [and] now we just [need to] have the will to tinker.”

I demur. Free-market reforms reduce the influence of government over the economy. The proposals offered by Rep. Rogers do the opposite. Then again, I have only listened to the Heritage event. I have not seen the most recent iteration of Rep. Rogers’ legislation, which is not yet available online. I hope Rep. Rogers or someone from the Heritage Foundation will explain what makes Medicaid HSAs (or the other proposals) a free-market health care reform.

What’s the Big Idea?

I’ll be taking part tomorrow in the Hudson Institute’s 2006 Bradley Symposium. Entitled “What’s the Big Idea? True Blue versus Deep Red: The Ideas that Move American Politics,” the event features, in addition to yours truly, a who’s who of Washington intellectual heavyweights: Michael Barone, David Brooks, Francis Fukuyama, Bill Kristol, Charles Murray, and Shelby Steele, among others.

The discussion’s point of departure will be this paper by University of Virginia political scientist James Ceaser. Ceaser argues that the current red vs. blue political divisions reflect deep-seated and profoundly important differences over the sources and nature of social order.

My short take: I agree with Ceaser that such differences exist, but I disagree that it is useful to shoehorn the various alternatives into just two rival camps. Doing so allows Ceaser to cast contemporary politics as a contest between nihilism on the left and conservatism of some kind or another on the right. Ceaser thus frames the debate in a way that, in my view, unfairly favors the right.

Here’s another typology that I think is closer to the mark: one noisy minority of nihilists on the “true blue” left, another noisy minority of dogmatists on the “deep red” right, and the rest of us moping and groping around in a politically underrepresented center. From this perspective, the main problem with American politics today isn’t the unhinged left. Rather, it’s the disproportionate influence of culture warriors on the left and right alike—and the outmoded political categories that allow the cultural extremes to lord it over the center.