Monday, October 31, 2011

Bachmann the Pharisee

I can't add anything to Michael Gerson's succinct annihilation of Michele Bachmann's raison d'etre as a candidate. She's running as a conservative 'Christian' who will restore morality in American public life, which she intends to do by punishing children for the crimes of their parents. That's expressly forbidden in Deuteronomy 24:16.
Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin.
But that's a verse taken out of context! Surely if we read what surrounds it, we'll see that it doesn't apply to the case of undocumented aliens.
14 Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy, whether he is a brother Israelite or an alien living in one of your towns. 15 Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it. Otherwise he may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin. 16 Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin. 17 Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. 18 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this. (NIV)
Yeah, so there is that.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Trials for Tyrants

While few tears have been shed over the death of Muammar Qaddafi, some commentators feel (or at least feel an obligation to say they feel) uncomfortable with the lawless execution of the tyrant. A trial, they suppose, would have been more proper, although beatings and death at the hands of a mob of his "children" was quite fitting.

But why? What would a trial accomplish? The purpose of a trial is to establish guilt. More precisely, it is to establish whether the individual in question committed the crimes in question. But Qaddafi himself made the laws of Libya, so those can hardly be trusted, and any other definitions of crime must then be imposed from without or post hoc, not an attractive basis for legal action.

Indeed, the crimes for which Qaddafi was (rightfully) executed are those most general ones, defined by humanity everywhere and nowhere. They can be codified, as has been under various forms in the Hague, but need not be.

Again, to what purpose is a trial? To establish whether the individual in question committed the crimes in question. If the crimes can only be imperfectly defined, the principal job of a court would be to establish the facts as they relate to the involvement of the accused.

What did Qaddafi know and when did he know it? He knew everything, and he knew it when he commanded it to be done. The only question for a court, thus, would be to establish Qaddafi's identity! It seems that was done correctly by the kangaroo court in the street.

What more could we want from an official court? An appearance of fairness? Please. No court could appear fair to both sides, since the question of guilt is philosophical rather than factual. An adherence to rule of law? Ad-hoc courts set up to try specific individuals under a unique, indeterminate statute are often needed, but do not represent law. The executioner, a young Mr. Bibi, did right by Libya and the world, and spared his country a travesty of justice.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Occupy the ATM: Tips for the 99%

Do you want to make a statement about the outsize role of banks in our economy? Do you want to see financial intermediaries have less influence in politics? Are you sick of "too big to fail"? There's a simple way to reduce the role of giant banks and the international finance system in your life.

Use cash.

When you make a purchase with a debit or credit card, the company issuing the card makes money. Global Review applauds the Obama Administration for reducing the amount that debit-card users can charge retailers for each debit transaction - it's now 24 cents, down from a previous market average of 44 cents. Global Review doesn't like regulation for the sake of regulation, but this one (partially) solved a significant externality in retail markets.

Consider the current situation: few retailers can charge different prices for cash and debit transactions. Such a policy is costly to enforce and it looks bad to customers. So instead, almost all American retailers accept debit, raise prices somewhat, and swallow the loss on those who use debit. Economically, that looks just about the same as a tax on cash transactions: when you use cash to buy something, you're paying a debit markup to subsidize those who benefit from the convenience of using debit.

Don't get me wrong: debit is a great convenience. But those who benefit from the convenience should pay for it. Bank of America's $5 monthly fee is a good start, but a per-transaction fee would be much better. Most of us want a debit card for big purchases (who wants to carry $500 in their wallet?), but would switch from debit to cash readily if a 50-cent fee was attached to each small debit purchase.

So if you want to show your sympathy for mom-and-pop stores, for waiters and waitresses, for manufacturers and farmers (or your antipathy towards bankers and finance whizzes), switch to cash. It's like dropping a quarter in the tip jar on the counter, but it costs you nothing.

Note: Saying "Credit" instead of "Debit" is just the same. If you're using a Debit Card (i.e., one that's tied to a specific checking account), it's not really a credit transaction at all, just a signature-based debit transaction, and the same law applies in both cases.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Ron Paul Blames the Fed

Ron Paul laid out his critique of the Fed today in the Wall Street Journal. He's absolutely right on some points:
The debt is now so large that if the central bank begins to move away from its zero interest-rate policy, the rise in interest rates will result in the U.S. government having to pay hundreds of billions of dollars in additional interest on the national debt each year. Thus there is significant political pressure being placed on the Fed to keep interest rates low. The Fed has painted itself so far into a corner now that even if it wanted to raise interest rates, as a practical matter it might not be able to do so. But it will do something, we know, because the pressure to "just do something" often outweighs all other considerations.
However, his argument rest on an odd premise:
The Federal Reserve has caused every single boom and bust that has occurred in this country since the bank's creation in 1913.
But what about every single boom and bust before 1913? The U.S. tried various monetary arrangements, including decentralized money (state-issued), silver-backed currency, gold-backed currency, having a National Bank, not having a National Bank... and they all gave more or less the same result. It's true that the Fed hasn't fixed all our problems, as Christina Romer showed. But when Paul advocates returning to the Gold Standard, he seems to claim that the Golden Age will have no recessions and no booms. That's absurd.

It's surprising to economists that the Fed is capable of controlling market interest rates with a tiny lever; but it does so. That tells us that the fundamentals underlying interest rate determination in a free market are weak. If free-market interest rates were solid, steady, and grounded, then a little overnight lending rate would barely be able to budge them. Thus, I look at financial markets and conclude that interest rates would in all likelihood be volatile and unpredictable in a free market, leading to malinvestment, booms, and busts in much the way that Paul describes.

Gold is not the answer.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Don't Text While Driving (now with data)

How can we measure the impact of texting while driving on safety? Turn off the texting service! Blackberry's 3-day disruption this week wreaked havoc on the incomes of ambulance-chasers and auto-body shops in the United Arab Emirates. Reports the National:
A dramatic fall in traffic accidents this week has been directly linked to the three-day disruption in BlackBerry services.

In Dubai, traffic accidents fell 20 per cent from average rates on the days BlackBerry users were unable to use its messaging service. In Abu Dhabi, the number of accidents this week fell 40 per cent and there were no fatal accidents.

Gen Tamim said police found "a significant drop in accidents by young drivers and men on those three days". He said young people were the largest user group of the Messenger service.
Any Emirati readers know how large a market share Blackberry has? If this was the gain from a single service going down, it's not hard to imagine that phone calls and texts of all varieties account for half of the accidents in a hyper-connected place like the Emirates.

Hat tips to Andrew Davis & Tyler Cowen.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Occupy Boston

On my way home from exploiting the workers of the world (I bought cheap produce at Haymarket), I ran into the Occupy Boston parade. It was led by a pickup truck with a sound system, which must have been paid for by a labor union because the man with the microphone made "UNION.. UNION" one of his staple chants, even though the crowd behind him showed very little interest in that particular interest group. They were, evidently, not only the 99%, but also part of the 87.6%.

Most of the protesters seemed reasonable: they chanted things like "this is what democracy looks like!", which would be more audacious if the police were oppressing them instead of stopping traffic and closing off public streets for them. A large plurality wanted to end the war, but their signs were subdued. We've come a long way from angry demands for peace or "NO BLOOD FOR OIL" signs dripping with red ink. The tone of the anti-war signs today was "It's about time we brought the troops home".

The Federal Reserve system took some flak from the parade, who were salivating as they turned off Washington and down Summer toward the craven Reserve Bankers in their Dewey Sq. tower. Well, if it were a weekday, that's where they'd be.

The Ron Paul people were right behind the Lyndon LaRouche people. Behind them was a man carrying a sign that said "I AM A MAN". Was he being ironic, or has irony died? I couldn't tell. Another guy's sign bemoaned the fact that he couldn't purchase a senator. A dissatisfied group of older citizens evidently had purchased a senator, but got a lemon: their banner was an open letter to Senator John Kerry, with a laundry list of policy items they wanted him to pursue. I didn't see the Senator there, so hopefully they sent him a copy in the mail.

As the parade trailed by the chants blurred together - they were weak chants, really, lost in the commercial bustle of a city built for the 99% who buy into the capitalist system.

Some of the signs I saw were sensible - "END THE WAR" and "MILTON FOR PEACE". Others were mean-spirited, like the chant "STOMP THE RICH!". A few were wishful thinking, like "WE DON'T NEED YOUR JOBS, YOU NEED OUR LABOR". Unconvincing. And a few were downright idiotic - "END THE WAGE SYSTEM!" Didn't we fight a Civil War to guarantee every American the right to participate in the wage system? Do you really want to go back to the other way?

The parade tailed off. There was a woman wearing a wig with an unopened can of cat food balanced (or glued?) right on top of her head. She certainly seemed happy with the way America is right now. So did the guy riding a tricycle with one pooch sitting behind him on the trike and another pooch riding on a little wagon he was pulling. He had a large American flag and the dogs had red-white-and-blue bandannas. The last man in the parade was a jester with three different woodwinds in his belt riding a unicycle.

The kids are alright.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Rubio on Bahrain

How come guys like this don't run for president?

Jennifer Rubin of WaPo notes that Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) took a stand against indiscriminately selling weapons to autocratic allies. He wrote to Secretary Clinton,
I appreciate Bahrain’s concern about Iranian ambitions in the region and the potential threat to the country’s stability, but I believe the government’s response to the disturbances actually threatens the country’s long-term stability, jeopardizes United States' standing in Bahrain and the Middle East, and plays into the hands of Iran. . . . It is in that context that I urge the administration to review the propose arms sale to Bahrain and to delay any item that package that could be used to disrupt, monitor or otherwise restrict the Bahraini people’s right to peacefully assemble and petition their government.
As Rubin comments, "the ability to apply American values in specific contexts and to see, in essence, all the pieces on the chessboard is not a skill everyone has." Her hope is to see Rubio elected Vice President. If he's as cogent on other issues as he is on how American should deal with autocratic allies, he'd be an improvement over the last few nationally-elected politicians.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Rick Santorum is an Idiot

Rick Santorum was senator of a state that has lost a lot of old-line heavy manufacturing jobs as America's comparative advantage has shifted away from those 19th century leaders. It's tough on a lot of Pennsylvania towns, so Santorum knows a lot about this.

And he has a plan.

Hopefully, nobody heard it. But if I understand it correctly, from tonight's debate, he wants to put zero taxes on manufacturing and zero taxes on overseas profits. So we're going to give you a huge incentive to bring jobs back to the U.S.... and a huge incentive to keep them overseas. And it's going to be paid for by all the businesses that are actually doing well despite the economy, the high corporate taxes, global competition, etc.

This is like something from Atlas Shrugged: let's tax the successful so that the unsuccessful can continue in their dysfunction.

No hard feelings to Pennsylvania, steel workers, or anybody, but: those jobs aren't coming back. You can't distort your way out of the 21st century, and a stable American economy will be built on people doing things better than anyone else in the world - and exporting it - rather than by people doing what they did best 50 and 150 years ago and complaining that the world has passed them.

The former senator continues to combine all of the worst aspects of Republicanism into a complete package of shrill, nativist, pro-war, anti-business, anti-gay, anti-technology poopstorm of incontinence incompetence.

Primary Election Debates: New Format Needed?

What's the opposite of looking forward to something?

I'm looking... backward? ... to tonight's Republican debate in New Hampshire. Is it the 4th? The 9th? I don't know. Will I watch it? Heck no. I can read about the gaffes and the gotchas tomorrow morning.

But here's what I would watch. A kitchen-table debate, featuring two, three, or four of the candidates, and a few well-known personalities from the host state, with maybe a random outside voice thrown in. So South Carolina could host a televised forum with candidates Romney, Bachmann, and Cain, plus local GOP leaders Gov. Nikki Haley (a conservative), Sen Lindsey Graham (a moderate), and somebody more local - a state rep or a mayor - plus an outsider like Gov. Mitch Daniels (Indiana). In a separate forum, maybe a week later, other candidates - Perry, Paul, and Santorum, say - could sit down with Rep. Tim Scott (tea party), Sen. Jim DeMint (conservative), a moderate local, and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

A forum like that would put intelligent questions into the discussion, with real critiques. The local GOP leaders, especially if they haven't endorsed anyone, would want to bring out quality. They'd want to probe enough to see if the candidates have depth, but not play "gotcha" games or ask softball questions, as media moderators are wont to do.

The smaller setting would allow us to get to know the featured candidates in a setting which is a little more realistic. Rick Perry looked awful at dealing with the stand-up debate banter. But how does he do talking about substantive issues with genuinely inquisitive fellow partisans? I want a candidate who can create consensus in his own party, not one who's an expert marksman in debates. The issues discussed would tend to the local, and would force candidates to show some specialized knowledge and state-specific preparation. At the same time, televisation would mean that candidates couldn't pander shamelessly, as they probably do in informal settings with state figures.

The primaries are important because they determine the quadrennial standard-bearer of a party. However, none of those running for president is ultimately as central to being Republican today as some of the leaders who chose not to run - men like Paul Ryan and Mitch Daniels. Let's give a voice in the nominating process to those who know how to govern, how to legislate, and how Washington works. In return, they would benefit us by bringing real substance out of the candidates.

In a year without a Democratic incumbent, this would work just as well on the left side of politics. The Obama-Clinton nomination was decided almost entirely on style; voters would have been served by a real investigation of the candidates' substantive differences.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

End the War!

For all the protesters who don't know what to protest, I have a suggestion: the War in Afghanistan. It's gone on 10 years, thousands have died, and we haven't achieved any goals besides ousting the Taliban (took 9 months) and killing Bin Laden (took 9 years). It's time to declare victory and leave! Why isn't there a robust protest movement castigating the president and the complicit Republicans for not drawing this pointless bloodshed to a close?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Nobody's Savior: the Mitt Romney Story

I like best cases. The best possible outcome of an NBA lockout would be something like Simmons & Kang's renegade basketball league.

The best case for Mitt Romney's campaign was put forward by David Brooks, he of the center-right, the eastern elite. He doesn't go overboard in praising Romney, and he points out that in the last 11 months Romney has run a brilliant (& lucky) campaign, going from 23% in the polls to... 23% in the polls.
[Republicans] don’t want Organization Man. They want Braveheart.
But Brooks argues that Republican activists are distracted by the desire to score points in the media and cause a stir. The real challenges for the GOP are (in increasing order of importance) (1) defeating Barack Obama on an open field of battle and (2) governing effectively and implementing the policy goals that are common to all Republicans.

He also points out what brings presidents down:
He could probably work well with the leaders of his own party... More presidents have been undone by the Congressional leaders in their own party than by members of the opposition.

Romney may be able to guard against ideological overreach. Each successive recent administration has overread its election mandate.

He comes from a blue state. In government, it really helps to have a feel for how people in the other party think. Neither President Obama nor George W. Bush had this.

Finally, Romney can be dull. Political activists like exciting candidates. But most people, who have lower expectations from politics and politicians, just want them to provide basic order. They want government to be orderly so they can be daring in other spheres of their lives.
Perhaps it's not a ringing endorsement of a candidate when the concluding line is that "he is nobody's idea of a savior." But Brooks is right when he says that's a strong case for electing Mitt.

Bad Call

In a bygone era, this bit of (dial)tone deafness by the Obama administration would have gone unnoticed. After all, they just want to update a bureaucratic item to deal with new technology, and the proposal should raise government revenue. What's not to like? Well, this is the proposal:
President Barack Obama wants Congress to make it easier for private debt collectors to call the cellphones of consumers delinquent on student loans and other billions owed the federal government.

The change "is expected to provide substantial increases in collections, particularly as an increasing share of households no longer have landlines and rely instead on cellphones," the administration wrote recently. The recommendation would apply only to cases in which money is owed the government.

Said Lauren Saunders of the Boston-based National Consumer Law Center: "People aren't paying their student loans because they can't find a job."
It's like the old joke about the definition of chutzpah*: when a president's policies cause massive job loss, and then the president begs for tougher debt collection because the deficit is hurting his job security.

* With apologies to James Taranto, for borrowing one of his favorite tropes.