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A chill runs down my spine

I know that I’ve been distracted recently, so can I digress from my usually scholarly and restrained well-spoken self and say: I’m just a tad scared?

Seriously. Ben Bernanke seems to have adopted Kevin Bacon’s first movie appearance as his guide to holding a press conference, gold bugs look prescient as the dollar slides toward Weimar territory and Donald Trump … holy shit, Donald Trump?

It’s as if we’ve entered the period of the decline of the republic — but without the reliable money that kept the Gracchi brothers fat and happy. And without the cool architecture and classy duds, of course. It’s the fall of civilization, but with everybody sporting wife-beaters in a strip mall. Come to think of it, it’s the fall of something, but maybe not civilization.

I know that “the end is nigh” is a reliable fall-back for everybody who really means, “things were better when I was a kid,” but do we really have to flirt so closely with stupid and disastrous just to call me out as a false Cassandra?

Actually, I don’t think “the end is nigh” – but I do thing that suckage is here, and likely to stick around for a good, long while. Good times more often end with a whimper than a bang, and I expect that we’ll slog through the same. Our kids will be heading out in our cast-off suits for long-shot job interview number 197 — at a Tongan corporation (the new superpower in 2031) — and we’ll still be telling them that things will likely turn around soon.

Well, they could turn around, but we’re idiots.

I don’t feel optimistic about the future, if that’s not obvious from the above. But I think I and my progeny are relatively well-positioned to slink in the future — scathed, perhaps, but not destroyed. Family history records that we’re pretty adept at slipping across borders: Spain to Italy, Germany to Serbia, Italy to Argentina, Serbia to America, Argentina to … well … the Bronx (we don’t always choose well).

So descendants of mine are likely to skulk through the future, ignoring the powers-that-be, making their own way and prospering on the margins.

But, damn it, I’m stuck here and now!

Hayek schools Keynes on recession economics

Remember that rap video in which F.A. Hayek and John Maynard Keynes faced off over their economic philosophies? Well, they’re at it again — and this time it’s over the causes and cures of recessions. Yes, it’s good, well-produced and worth sharing.

Did we really have to wait until rap music to find a way to make economics fun and understandable?

Elegy for Peter McWilliams

Persuading people of the value of freedom can sometimes be surprisingly difficult. Those of us who favor freedom are habitually painted as selfish when we demand liberty for ourselves, and (bizarrely) callous when we insist on it for others. So let us never forget Peter McWilliams, an author and advocate who had a talent for framing freedom in terms of compassion and aspiration.

I remember covering McWilliams’s death for Free-Market.Net in 2000 when he succumbed to AIDS and cancer — and to the denial to him by authorities, under threat of the loss of his mother’s home, of the medical marijuana that he was using to control the side-effects of his medication.

Now, a talented (but anonymous) singer-songwriter and curator of the online Peter McWilliams Museum has produced a video tribute to McWilliams that effectively captures the man’s spirit.

Privacy ain’t dead, but your brand is confusing

My latest post for When Falls the Coliseum is up at … well … When Falls the Coliseum. I posit that our concerns about the death of privacy in the online age have less to do with privacy than with keeping the lies we tell about ourselves straight with their intended target audiences.

Check it out here.

Obama for … Pope?

Renegade historian Thaddeus Russell forwards this delightful little tidbit from White House cheerleader … errr … journalist Kevin Drum of Mother Jones.

Obama has been a disappointment on civil liberties and national security issues, but since I frankly don’t think any modern president can buck the national security establishment in any significant way, I haven’t held that too deeply against him. The escalation in Afghanistan has been unfortunate too, but he did warn us about that. The scope of both his conventional escalation and his soaring use of drone attacks in the AfPak region have been disheartening, but it’s hard to complain when he made it so clear during the campaign that he intended to do exactly that.

But now we have Libya. ….

So what should I think about this? If it had been my call, I wouldn’t have gone into Libya. But the reason I voted for Obama in 2008 is because I trust his judgment. And not in any merely abstract way, either: I mean that if he and I were in a room and disagreed about some issue on which I had any doubt at all, I’d literally trust his judgment over my own. I think he’s smarter than me, better informed, better able to understand the consequences of his actions, and more farsighted. I voted for him because I trust him, and I still do.

So, let me get this straight. Drum disagrees with Obama on virtually everything the president has done regarding civil liberties and foreign policy — with the shiny, new war in Libya being just the cherry on top — and he still deferentially bangs his head on the floor because he “literally trust[s] his judgment over my own.” This is basically the doctrine of papal infallibility, isn’t it? The words and policies coming out of the man may be monstrous, but we have to go along because of his direct line to righteousness!

Oh yeah, that kind of tribal, follow-the-leader deference is just inspiring to watch.

Note to any remaining Bushies: Your fanatical devotion to Dear Leader is no longer an embarrassing national outlier.

Time to freshen up the New York Times?

In a shocking move for employees of a New York-based publication, Foster Kamer and Tim Heffernan of Esquire‘s Politics blog have come up with a proposal to improve the New York Times that would actually improve the New York Times.

The conceit of the piece is that, with Bob Herbert and Frank Rich tottering off to spout left-of-center-establishment-stroking platitudes elsewhere, it’s time to thoroughly revamp the gray lady’s op-ed page. There’s a long list of improvements to be made, but the three that stand out for me are suggestions that Frank Rich be replaced by Glenn Greenwald, Maureen Dowd be eighty-sixed in favor of Megan McArdle, and Ross Douthat be retired in favor of Radley Balko. Yes, I often disagree with Greenwald — but he’s a rare liberal who holds to consistent standards and applies them to his nominal allies. He’s also excellent on civil liberties. McArdle can be a little frustrating, but she thinks even uncomfortable topics through without mailing in her pieces. And Balko is, of course, just excellent, and deserves an even more prominent spot than his upcoming gig at the Huffington Post.

Kamer and Heffernan would also slide Paul Krugman off into retirement, substituting Bruce Bartlett in his place. Since even a Magic Eight-Ball would be an improvement on Krugman, that strikes me as a fine idea.

I can’t agree with letting Warren Buffett take Joe Nocera’s spot — do we really need to hear anything more from Buffett? — but overall, it’s an interesting proposal that would definitely spice up the undead corpse of the old establishment mouthpiece.

Sorry, Virginia, Santa Claus can’t pull money out of his ass to fund Medicaid

Medicaid is a big topic of conversation in my house. That’s not because we’re on it — it’s because my wife’s pediatric practice is up to its eyeballs in patients on AHCCCS, Arizona’s implementation of the program. Encouraged by federal matching dollars, Arizona, over the years, expanded the program to cover a big percentage of the states population. AHCCCS patients now constitute a majority of my wife’s patients.

Like most states in these less-flush times, Arizona is now scrambling to rein-in spending. There are a couple of ways that state legislators can do it, but given the degree to which expenditures have ballooned over the years, they’re all going to hurt. Depending on the choices that legislators make, my wife’s practice could very well go under.

But I’m preparing rather than complaining, because I can’t think of a painless alternative. States are hobbled by the federal government’s rules in the extent to which they can cut Medicaid costs. That means states are looking for federal waivers — and even considering dropping out of Medicaid.

To put things in perspective, here’s a history of Arizona’s tax revenues (PDF) over the past few years.

(All numbers in thousands of dollars)

Preliminary FY 2010

Actual FY 2009

Actual FY 2008


Actual FY 2007

Tax revenues have been shrinking, consistently, since 2007, though state number crunchers are (optimistically) predicting a small increase for 2011.

Total General Fund revenues are rather higher, given the sugar-daddy relationship of the federal government to the states. Once you add in such line items as “Net revenue enhancements/one-time adj.” — an item that has gone from zero in 2001 to over two billion dollars in 2010 — total General Fund revenues have still dropped from $9,625,786.0 in 2007 to $8,322,087.3 in 2010.

Which is to say, that even heavily subsidized by an itself-broke federal government, Arizona’s state government is … well … a bit tight.

Actual expenditures are way the hell higher, largely because of yet more federal money and because of borrowing. You can see what that means in terms of who cuts the checks in this chart (Source here):

And all that shrinking pool of money is pretty heavily committed to some specific programs.

That’s right. AHCCCS — Arizona’s implementation of Medicaid — consumes 26% of the original FY 2011 budget. It’s been growing steadily for years — from 17% of expenditures in 2007 to 30% of the latest figures (after cuts in other areas of the budget). That’s in budgets based largely on subsidies and fantasy. And a big chunk of those federal subsidies is scheduled to disappear this year. Reports the New York Times, “On July 1, the enhanced federal aid will disappear, causing an overnight increase of between one-fourth and one-third in each state’s share of Medicaid’s costs.”

Oh … Did I make explicit the fact that Arizona’s state government has been spending more than it takes in? Yeah. Except for a few flush years in the middle of the decade (real estate was very good to Arizona, for a while) Arizona has been purchasing red ink by the tanker truck. It’s really pretty impressive.

What makes this even sadder is that most of the people on Medicaid’s rolls are (relatively) blameless. Yes, there are scam artists here and there, but most of these people have limited means, and quite rationally took advantage of a program that offered them medical coverage at little cost to themselves. Few of us stop to look at  the meta picture when we sign up for attractive deals, and so a growing proportion of Arizona’s (and America’s) population has been growing dependent on a government program that has become increasingly economically non-viable.

And the medical practices that serve that population are also dependent on a program that is spending dollars that don’t exist.

Of course, it was easy to expand Medicaid by playing the compassion card, especially when it came to covering children. Who wants children to suffer, no matter what choices their parents have made? Wave a few photos of wide-eyed tots, make a few promises, and …

And millions of people have become dependent on programs that are unsustainable.

Here’s the thing. Forget about arguments over the proper role of government. If politicians and their enablers make promises that lead people to depend on government for things that it can’t possibly continue to provide, those oh-so-caring demagogues are not compassionate, they’re pricks.

I’ll admit that I knew better, and I’ve been sweating the arrival of the day of reckoning ever since learning the extent of my wife’s practice’s AHCCCS-dependency. We’re resilient though, and I expect my family to land on its feet.

But the people who will really suffer are those who have few means, and who could have made other arrangements and planned their lives differently if they hadn’t been led to depend on grandiose and unsustainable promises.

Outraged squawks over CPAC a good sign for libertarians

When you find yourself the target of a vigorous campaign of ostracism and marginalization, you can be pretty certain you’re getting under people’s skin.

Writing of the Conservative Political Action Conference, the Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza insists that libertarian-leaning Rep. Ron Paul was a “loser” at the event, despite coming in first in the presidential straw poll with 30% of the vote. Why? Because “his speech – heavy on talk of defunding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as odd pronouncements such as ‘Government should never be able to do anything you can’t do’ – displayed the limits of his reach within the GOP.”

But New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who pulled 6% in the same poll was a “winner.” And there was no mention of former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson — the other libertarian in the race — who tied Christie and came in first among second-choice picks.

Young Americans for Freedom, the once-lively conservative campus organization that has become a bit of a footnote, promptly expelled Paul, who served on the organization’s board for two decades. The group cited Paul’s long-standing non-interventionist foreign policy views, saying they “border on treason.” In this, YAF replayed ancient history, since the four-decades-past split between libertarian and conservative elements in YAF, which culminated at a meeting in St. Louis amidst violent recriminations over war and the draft, largely gave rise to the modern, independent libertarian movement.

Almost at the same moment, a talk radio/Fox New pundit accused “disrespectful libertarians” of “hijack[ing]” the CPAC poll. He added that “libertarians are the worst form of political affiliation in the nation. Combining the desire of economic greed, with the amoral desire to promote any behavior regardless of its cost to our culture.” And a Forbes columnist penned a borderline-incoherent piece denouncing Paul and libertarians (in fairness, all of his pieces seem to dance at the outer limits of rational thought).

It’s clear that most mainstream journalists are flat-out uncomfortable with libertarians and libertarian ideas. I think this stems as much from an ideological discomfort with criticism of state power as it does with lazy inertia — covering Team Red and Team Blue is easy; covering different shades of political opinion and a rising movement driven by ideas that fall outside the traditional mainstream and therefore require some actual thought is hard. This explains the eagerness of Cillizza and many of his colleagues to dismiss a political rockstar like Ron Paul, an emerging figure like Gary Johnson, and their apparently inexplicable appeal (without some actual effort that might lead to understanding) to enthusiastic supporters, many of them young. If there’s an actual political shift underway, some reporters are going to have to get off their asses and do some reporting; much simpler to write it all off as an aberration and hope for the best.

As for YAF and company … Many conservatives seem wedded to the idea that their movement is necessarily one of grouchy old white people who like to blow things up and hate on gays. I don’t understand the attraction of militarism and social intolerance, but then I never did — that’s why I’m not a conservative. As the political “right” (really free-marketeers and fans of limited government) shows a bit of life and the Republican Party recaptures the House of Representatives, authoritarian conservatives want to control the brand and push non-interventionists, anti-statists, the socially tolerant and civil libertarians to the fringes or out of the conversation altogether.

Well … Why not let them? That is, why not make explicit (again) the break between libertarians (and the libertarian-leaning) on the one hand, and the bigoted hawks on the other? Is there really that much to lose? After all, CPAC has become more libertarian in recent years, and welcomed gay groups this year, because that’s what the attendees want. The attendees pushing for this ideological shift are mainly young people driven by a desire for smaller government, individual liberty and peace. These “disrespectful” young people (have young people ever been anything else?) ticking off the murderous old homophobes are mostly supporters of Ron Paul — and now Gary Johnson — because those men speak their language.

If there was comparable energy among the intolerant warmongers, they wouldn’t be bitching that their meet-and-greet, which achieved record attendance this year, was hijacked.

But instead of being pushed away, how about doing the pushing? It’s time to marginalize the bigots and warmongers and celebrate the fact that momentum is, at least for the moment, with supporters of peace and freedom.

Out of Left Field

I know what you were thinking. You were saying to yourself, “Hmm, self, it’s been a while since any of my progressive friends have proposed anything insanely totalitarian. They’ve maybe been a little nanny-ish, but I haven’t heard a hint of secret police or absolute control in a while. I wonder if they’ve lost the faith and loosened up?”

Oh no, dear readers. Fear not. There’s no reason to suspect a loss of faith. Or loosening. Absolutely no loosening.

Actual Facebook wall posts below, initiated by an acquaintance of recent eastern-European extraction whose employment in American academia may be exacerbating her nostalgia for pre-Glasnost days.

Natasha (not her real name): People, stop working! Your productivity is killing the planet.

[Skipped reply]

Natasha (not her real name): What I meant was that “productivity” leads to production of useless products and services (and sometimes absolutely no products and services), that in a long run cost us more than the monetary reward we get. The problem is that nobody deals with that qualitative output of the economy. It’s all about transactions.

Academic with a cat as his profile photo (not his real name): If there were one-fourth the number of people on the planet as currently exist, we’d have a hell of a lot more leeway on every major problem, as well as time to figure out reasonable paths forward. But the human population shot past the carrying capacity of the biosphere years ago. By way of comparison, pretty much everything else is just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

“Productivity” is not a problem, but a symptom of a deeper and more serious societal rot.

[Skipped reply, followed by a post by an American sociology professor at a different university]

Distaff Mao (not her real name): Here’s something for BOTH [cat person] & [other guy]: Every person gets a 0.5-share Reproduction Credit that they may choose to use or trade on the Reproduction Market. Good for the environment, good for the marketeers!

Distaff Mao (not her real name): And then a 35-hour-max work week. Nothing creates jobs like decreasing absolute surplus value!

Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s just a couple of off-the-cuff comments cribbed from a social-networking site. But these were folks talking among friends, so it really is a peek at what they believe.

I mean, honestly, when was the last time you heard anybody seriously proposing legally enforceable limits on reproduction?

Oh .. and it’s a long story as to how I ended up connected to so many Stalinists on Facebook. I’ll try to balance this out with some loony theocratic posts, but I’m not really tapped in to that crew. Do they even use computers?

Is post-partisanship just amoral or outright sociopathic?

There’s a certain hankering in American political culture for governing stripped of arguments and ideology, and dedicated to just getting things done. Of course, that overlooks important questions about what should get done and how it should be accomplished.

The current issue of Esquire contains what initially comes off as a journalistic blow-job titled, “Michael Bloomberg Will Save Us From Ourselves If Only We Let Him.” The piece starts off in the tone of just the latest eruption of can’t-we-just-get-along pining for a world in which people just let the government get on with the business of getting into our business without arguing over the propriety of the micro-controlling fever-dreams of the the sort of technocratic dominants who make the compulsively submissive journalists at national publications cream themselves.

But John H. Richardson’s Esquire piece is much more interesting, and much more revelatory, than that. In an article that continually portrays a politician who has absolute faith in his own rectitude, Richardson hints not just at the core of Bloomberg, but at the problem of non-ideological politics itself: “Bloomberg is the ultimate independent, the calm modern technocrat rooted in metrics and cleansed of ideology, come to drain the swamps of government with his amazing modern business-management techniques … unless he’s actually just an old-fashioned autocrat looking down on us from above and tinkering with our lives like a science experiment, stripping our noisy polis of all its native poetry.”

As Richardson suggests, the problem with pragmatism, technocracy and post-partisanship is that they breeze right by the important truth that all of our messy political arguments are rooted in real debates. These debates aren’t (or shouldn’t be) just cheerleading for Team Red or Team Blue — they’re about the wisdom and propriety of government programs that can massively affect the lives of millions of people. Stripped of fripperies, ideology is, at its core, morality as applied to the use of coercive government power. That means political debates are, or should be, arguments over the morality of political programs. Viewed in those terms, post-partisanship is arguably amoral, if not outright sociopathic.

I think most people understand this point. It’s not enough to put a technocrat in charge of getting that new facility down the road open on time and running efficiently if you haven’t yet had a full discussion over the fact that it’s a concentration camp and that forcing people into it may just be fundamentally evil.

So pining for non-ideological, pragmatic, post-partisan politics isn’t just missing the point, it’s an exercise in discarding what may well be the most important factor in the process.

Recently, the importance of ideological debates have been emphasized by research that shows that people with different political views possess very different moral foundations. So we’re not just arguing over the details, but over fundamentals. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, of the University of Virginia, has profiled the moral thinking of liberals, conservatives and libertarians. Of interest to me is that, in a recent paper, Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Roots of an Individualist Ideology he and his co-authors write that libertarians like yours truly place great emphasis on liberty as a value — scoring higher on economic liberty than conservatives and higher on social liberty than liberals. “[T]hey endorse a world in which people are left alone to enjoy the fruits of their own labor, and in which nations are not tied down by obligations to other nations. They also exceed both liberals and conservatives (but are closer to liberals) in endorsing personal or
lifestyle liberty.” By contrast, liberals tend to emphasize worries about harm, benevolence, and altruism, while conservatives are concerned with conformity, loyalty, and tradition. There’s overlap among all three groups, of course, but you can’t disregard not just the important differences in values among these three groups, but the likelihood that those values will come into conflict. As the paper states, “Libertarians may fear that the
moral concerns typically endorsed by liberals or conservatives (as measured by the MFQ) are claims that can be used to trample upon individual rights.” Liberals and conservatives may correspondingly see threats in the values held dear by others.

So political debate becomes ever-more clearly rooted in disagreements over the rightness or wrongness of using the power of the state in any given situation. It isn’t just squabbling over who should be in charge, but whether both the ends and means of proposed and existing policies are good, bad, or ambivalent.

Once we see how deep the moral fissures go, Bloomberg’s “pragmatism” becomes, if there was ever any doubt, an intolerance for points of view other than his own. He wants to use government power without entertaining discussions about right and wrong. That’s not non-ideological, it’s authoritarian.

And so it is with other calls for politics stripped of partisanship.

Incidentally, Haidt sees the Tea Party movement as driven more by a passion for “karma” than a desire for liberty. You can participate in his research here.