Archive for February, 2009

Partronizing Liberalism

Saturday, February 28th, 2009

As long ago as 1959, the sainted leader of modern Conservatism, William F. Buckley Jr. observed that Liberals in his time did not recognize Conservative thought as a competing intellectual perspective or philosophy. Rather, if they even thought at all about Conservatism, it was as a pathology that moderns were growing out of or that people needed to be cured of.

It is, therefore, of some amusement that a recent issue of Social Justice published “When Morality Opposes Justice: Conservatives Have Moral Intuitions that Liberals May Not Recognize,” by Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham, psychologists at the University of Virginia. The plucky thesis of their argument is that it may not be the case that all Conservatives are morally evil. Rather, some (probably a minority) may have a “moral intuitions” that are not entirely shared by Liberals. As a Conservative, perhaps I should offer some thanks for this small gracious concession.

It should be noted that this conclusion emerged from psychologists who, I suppose, are qualified to render a clinical conclusion that Conservatism is not necessarily aberrant behavior. Discussion and debate between Conservatives and Liberals should reside the Politics or Philosophy Departments of universities, but first Conservatives, I suppose, need to be professionally certified as eligible to participate in open discussion.

In fairness, some elements of the paper criticize the presumption of some liberals who assume that their positions can be the only moral ones. We are gently informed, for example, that some scholarly research indicates that “some portion of the conservative [1] opposition to affirmative action is truly based on concerns that affirmative action programs sometimes violate the principle of merit.” Gee, I would like to know when providing opportunities to people on the basis of the race or gender does not violate the principle of merit.

Haidt and Graham write as reasonable people. However, articles in scholarly journals are supposed to represent original ideas. The fact that such an article was necessary indicates just how insular and arrogant Liberals and particularly the Liberal intelligentsia in academia have become.

[1] A lower case “conservative” indicates a conservative temperament. The authors should have capitalized“Conservative” since it is a competing political philosophy or ideology. Their punctuation suggests that the authors, despite their openness, are still treating Conservatism as a mental condition rather than a set of consistent ideas..

Fairness Doctrine

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009

The year 1949 marked a time when the hubris in the competency government was near its peak, especially after the successful conclusion one of the largest and most successful government enterprises of all, World War II. At that time the Federal Communications Commission issued the Fairness Doctrine, trusting in the government’s ability to arbitrate fairness. The doctrine required broadcasters to provide all sides of a controversial issues in a manner that the FCC considered fair. The fundamental rationale for the doctrine was that the broadcast spectrum is a limited public resource and should be used for the public good. As a practical matter, with the club of the Fairness Doctrine over their heads and their licenses at risk, most broadcasters simply  avoided political controversy. The risks were too great.

In 1969 Red Lion Broadcasting v. FCC case, the Supreme Court upheld the Fairness Doctrine based on the limited number of stations, but hinted that if the doctrine were used to suppress speech, the doctrine could be re-evaluated. By 1984, FCC v. League of Women Voters, the Court concluded that the scarcity  argument was loosing its saliency. In this environment, the FCC backed off a the Fairness Doctrine altogether in 1987.

The period since has experienced an explosion in public affairs related broadcasting. For a variety of reasons, Conservatives have been particularly successful on talk radio, while one could easily make the case that broadcast television news is provided from a liberal perspective. Indeed, many political operatives view talk radio as the major source of contemporary Conservative thought.

Any arguments about scarcity have long ago been overwhelmed by modern technology. Not only has there been significant growth in the number of radio stations, but radio information is beamed from satellite increasing available bandwidth. In an age, when one can receive “netcasts” over the cell phone networks on smart phones or assemble one’s own webpage, their is virtually no limit on the space available for political discourse.

The First Amendment is  unequivocal. “Congress shall make no law …  abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” It is very likely that the imposition of the Fairness Doctrine with the current state of technology would loose a constitutional challenge.

What is interesting is  the liberal (they would like to say “progressive”) community’s instinctive reaction to wield political power by suppressing inconvenient free speech. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that she personally favors the revival of the Fairness Doctrine.  She has blocked votes that would prohibit the FCC from imposing the Fairness Doctrine. So much for the free speech movement of San Francisco. It is hard to reconcile the First Amendment with the ethos of using the government to ration speech. Such an effort would be rightly rejected in the case of newspapers, where scarcity is a graver than in the broadcast media.

To his credit President Barack Obama, through his press secretary Michael Ortiz, has said the he “does not support reimposing the Fairness Doctrine on broadcasters.” Unfortunately, the reasoning provided is not reassuring. Ortiz explained that the Fairness Doctrine debate it distracts from among other things like support for public broadcasting and increasing minority ownership media outlets. It does not seem that opposition to the Fairness Doctrine arises from principle, but from tactical calculation. For now, perhaps the pressure to re-instate the Fairness Doctrine will ease. It would have been more heartening if Obama said he would actively oppose the re-institution of the Fairness Doctrine. The good news is that time is one the side of free speech. As communications technology improves and becomes even more ubiquitous, the Fairness Doctrine becomes not only less justifiable, but far more difficult to implement.

Is It All About Power: Census Moves to the White House

Sunday, February 15th, 2009

Successful democracies are not just about elections and voting, they are also about a collective political culture that recognizes institutional limits. The temporary losers in a democracy recognize they will have an opportunity to make their  political case later and need not resort to violence or other illegal means to circumvent election results. Likewise the temporary winners recognize that their time in power is also limited. Winners must show respect for the process and not try to use their position to undermine the very democracy that granted them temporary power.

It is, therefore, unfortunate that the Obama Administration is apparently trying to politicize an important function of government, the dicennial census, that ought to be free from politics, by having it supervised from within the White House.  The US Constitution calls an “actual enumeration” of people for the purpose of apportioning the number of representatives in House of Representatives. Interesting the first nine censuses were conducted by the judicial branch, the least political, not the executive branch as it now. The census clause in the Constitution is included in Article I of the Constitution suggesting a role for the legislative branch. In any case, direction by clearly partisan agents undermines confidence in the census.

The fact that the actual counting is performed by professionals in the Department of Commerce has kept the census free from scandal, but certainly not controversy. Certain groups claim that they are not sufficiently captured by the census, but the Census Department has extended programs to find people who are less likely to be counted.

The Constitution calls for an an “actual enumeration,” but some groups have argued for a statistical sampling to estimate populations. Though the use of sampling for compiling a census has not been tested in court, unless the Supreme Court elects to ignore the actual words of the Constitution, statistical sampling for the purposes of apportionment is clearly unconstitutional.

However, this does not mean the mischief cannot occur in an actual enumeration. Resources can be allocated to find every last person in a certain area with less diligence in devoted in other areas. The current plan is for the census to be supervised from the White House under highly-partisan Rahn Emmanuel, President Barack Obama’s  Chief of Staff. Even if Emmanuel were to act a thoughtful and purely apolitical manner, the prescedent of having leading the census from the White House would set the stage of future politicization. Imagine consternation among Democrats if a future Karl Rove were to be charging of supervising a future census from the White House.

If the White House cannot recognize the precedent it is setting in politicizing the census, it is unfaithful to democratic ethos and conceding that for them it is just about power.  Moving the census to the White Hous is the moral equivalent to using the IRS or the Justice Department to go after political adversaries.

Whacking Nonlinear Systems: The Stimulus Package

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

It is easy to secure agreement that national and world economies are strongly nonlinear systems. We can probably make reasonable predictions about the net effect of small policy shifts. But when we whack the system with large perturbations like the current stimulus pack, there are undoubtedly effects that are essentially unpredictable. It is for this reason it is a prideful and unjustifiably arrogant to exhibit too much confidence in asserting what the cumulative effect of the current stimulus package. That’s is what why making policy is so difficult.

Should we emphasize tax cuts or spending increases to stimulate the economy?  The current stimulus package is weighted toward spending increases. Should we emphasize policies that will have an immediate effect or spread the stimulus over a long period of time? These are all good questions that have not yet received sufficient attention.

There are were many on Left who argued that we did not devote sufficient deliberation or time to consider the liberation of Iraq and that the president was fear mongering to force an ill-considered decision. However, the Iraq decision was spread over many months and included long debates in Congress supported hearings and has until this point cost about $630 billion over nearly six years.

We are now about to decide whether to spend over $800 billion over a shorter period of time with little Congressional deliberation and no hearings in less than a month with President Obama warning of economic “catastrophe” if we do not act immediately.

Let it be respectfully suggested that we are acting too hastily. There is no reason we cannot provide an immediate and more modest stimulus to the economy with tax cuts that can be implemented immediately coupled with increasing unemployment benefits to put money quickly in the economy. The remainder of the package can be considered deliberately with hearings over the next few months. Regardless of the particular stimulus we end up choosing, we should try to achieve the greatest effect for the cost.

One question of particular interest is should a stimulus focus more on tax decreases or spending increases. It is certainly the case the that the question is more complex that this. Surely all spending increases do not have equal stimulative impact and all tax decreases do not have an equal salutary effect on the economy. Nonetheless, can some relative weight of the effects between spending increases and tax decreases be estimated?

Economists often speak of the the “multiplier effect.” If the government spends an amount equal to x% of the Gross National Product (GDP) and net GDP increases y% then y/x is the multiplier. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Krugman explained:

“Consider an increase in government spending; assume that the interest rate is fixed (a good assumption right now, because interest rates are up against the zero lower bound). Then textbook analysis says that if the stimulus is dG, the increase in GDP is 1/(1 – c(1-t)) where c is the marginal propensity to consume out of income and t is the marginal tax rate. Suppose c is 0.5 and t is 1/3; then the multiplier is 1.5, which is more or less the conventional wisdom right now.”

So Krugman claims the conventional wisdom is that spending multiplier is 1.5. However, there is some suggestion that the multiplier for tax decreases is larger. Christina Romer, Garff B. Wilson Professor of Economics at the University of California Berkeley, was recently selected by Obama as  Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. She and David Romer have recently published an analysis that suggests that the multiplier for taxes is from 2 to 3. This would argue strongly  in favor of tax cuts for stimulation.

This is not to argue that the above analysis is conclusive, but it does argue for more careful consideration because these are non-trivial differences. The Congressional Budget Office has scored the current stimulus package and found that in the long run it will reduced GDP. Decade-long predictions from any economic analysis have to be consider extremely provisional. But it does suggestion that we should do what is necessary in the short term and tread carefully in with such a large package.

Make Them Do Math Problems

Sunday, February 1st, 2009

Google has launched new application associated with its e-mail service called “Mail Goggles.” If you have a Gmail account, you can use the Mail Goggles application set it up e-mail so that between certain hours you can  only send an e-mail if you are able to solve four math problems within a specified period of time. The idea is prevent the user from mailing stupid or embarrassing e-mails when they are very tired, very intoxicated, or both. The difficulty of the math problems can be adjusted because frankly there are some people who find math hard even when they are stone sober. The basic idea of keeping people from acting hastily before they have the time and disposition to consider their actions. perhaps ought to be applied to Congress. We need slow them up just enough to think before they act.

In October 2008, the government acted quickly and in good faith to prop up the banking system with a $700 billion dollar intervention as part of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act. There is certainly no consensus now, months later that the intervention was salutary and certainly a consensus that it could have been more thoughtfully considered, better written, and better implemented. That legislation was the product of passion rather than thought, fear rather than reason. It was an interesting alliance between Democrats in Congress and a Republican president.

We are now is a similar situation with regard to the present “stimulus” bill. At present, the House has passed a $800 billion plus bill supposedly directed to stimulus without securing a a single Republican vote and loosing several Democratic ones along the way. The bill is now under consideration by the Senate.

There are certainly some stimulus elements to the bill, but the majority of the spending will occur in future years. Immediate stimulus is very limited and inconsistent with the rhetoric of bill supporters. Moreover, there are elements of the bill that are clearly payoffs to Democratic constituencies with little or no  association with economic stimulus, yet included in this rush bill to avoid the scrutiny of fuller deliberation.

It is funny (or embarrassing) to hear Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi argue that family planning is an economic stimulus. While one could argue that any government spending would add stimulus, a thoughtful person realizes that certain types of spending have a greater stimulus effect that others. It would seem self-evident that the government should prioritize spending in terms of stimulus for a “stimulus” bill.

Some elements of the bill may have their merits. Increased funding for climate research or additional infrastructure spending are important. They should be considered in due course upon their relative values, but they do not legitimately qualify as stimulus.

If the bill is being rushed because we need immediate action, it seems that we should consider primarily those actions that have immediate effects. Building a bridge in 2010 may provide valuable infrastructure or increased spending on schools may contribute long-term economic growth, but they are not immediate stimulus and need not be implemented in a rush without careful consideration.

The Great Depression of the 1930’s is the model of the worst economic period in US history and people often refer to it to determine what to do in our present crisis. Many follow the thinking of John Maynard Keynes  and suggest aggressive fiscal policy could alleviate the problem. The enormous spending associated with World War II  brought us out of the Great Depression. Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman in the Monetary History of the United States argued that Depression could have been largely adverted if the Federal Reserve had not instituted tight monetary policy.

In our current situation, we have certainly exercised the option of loose monetary policy with interest rates at historic lows. Since, there is always a lag time between rate reductions and increased economic output, perhaps we all we need to do is wait.

However, prudence suggests that we apply some fiscal stimulus as well. Liberals need to remember that fiscal stimulus includes reduced taxes as well as increased government spending. If Congress instituted a tax (income and/or payroll) holiday for a short time we could give an immediate stimulus to the economy. The effects could be evaluated and the tax reductions extended or ended depending on the results. There would less chance of over stimulation inducing a bout of inflation. Such an approach would not mean that additional spending on important programs could not be implemented. However, we should do so in a measured, thoughtful, and deliberate way.

Perhaps if we made legislators solve math problems before voting we could slow them up enough to think through there actions. They certainly aren’t providing due diligence now.