Sunday, January 31, 2010

What's the matter with you Americans? 

More years ago than I�ll admit, I was a student in a class of the man who became my mentor, Tom Willett. The course was in economics and public policy, and the early part of the syllabus had us read on the nature of arguing about economics. One line that stuck out to me like nothing else was this: Saying �if you knew what I know you�d agree with me� is poor argumentation. I may know what you know, my professor argued, and yet find a flaw in your logic or add another piece of evidence that leads me to a different conclusion.

The notion that we know enough to know what is in someone else�s best interest is evidence of this fallacy, and I have found over the succeeding decades there are many academics that fall into it. Applied in the political sphere, it takes the form of �why does the public not understand what we are trying to do?� We heard it in President Obama�s State of the Union address last week in his claim that his failure on health care was "not explaining it more clearly to the American people." It characterizes the thoughts of Thomas Frank in "What�s the Matter With Kansas?, a book that I found alternately patronizing and pathetic, arguing that it must be false consciousness or hypnotizing demagoguery that leads the working class of Kansas, once home of agricultural Wobblies, to now vote consistently conservative.

That meme is now everywhere. David Brooks calls tea partiers anti-intellectual and Frank Rich calls them comatose. Responding to the election of Scott Brown, the BBC carries a column by David Runciman, a British academic political scientist of high birth (how else to describe someone whose Wikipedia entry notes his viscountcy?) that cannot understand why town halls are filled with people repulsed by Democrats health care reform. It�s to help them, dears!
But it is striking that the people who most dislike the whole idea of healthcare reform - the ones who think it is socialist, godless, a step on the road to a police state - are often the ones it seems designed to help.

In Texas, where barely two-thirds of the population have full health insurance and over a fifth of all children have no cover at all, opposition to the legislation is currently running at 87%.

Instead, to many of those who lose out under the existing system, reform still seems like the ultimate betrayal.

Why are so many American voters enraged by attempts to change a horribly inefficient system that leaves them with premiums they often cannot afford?
My friend Marty Andrade tweeted this link with the comment "But I stole this for you," says the plunderer. "Why do you not take it? Why do you not vote for me?" But it is not so much the politician but the wonk, the analyst who makes such pretty plans, that finds himself exasperated by the failure of the public to appreciate them. No place does this happen more than in academia, particularly in America, where as I�ve argued before the academic does not often travel in either the working class circles or in those the successful businesspeople.

The answer to Prof. Runciman�s question is inside America�s DNA. The founders, writes Prof. Carl Richard, were a deeply suspicious bunch.
The founders� immersion in ancient history had a profound effect upon their style of though. They developed from the classics a suspicious cast of mind. They learned from the Greeks and Romans to fear conspiracies against liberty. Steeped in a literature whose perpetual theme was the steady encroachment of tyranny on liberty, the founders because virtually obsessed with spotting its approach, so that they might avoid the fate of their classical heroes. It has been said of the American Revolution that never was there a revolution with so little cause. Whatever his faults, George III was hardly Caligula or Nero; however illegitimate, the moderate British taxes were hardly equivalent to the mass executions of the emperors. But since the founders believed that the central lesson of the classics was that every illegitimate power, however small, ended in slavery, they were determined to resist every such power. Even legitimate authority should be exercised sparingly, lest it grow into illegitimate powers. (pp. 118-19)
Doesn�t it seem the same today? When one points out the connection between parts of the Obama agenda and those of European socialists we are told �he�s certainly not one of those!� Of course not. But we called tyranny a level of taxation that many other places just accepted as their lot in life. Our common people believe they deserve explanations, and they are mistrustful most of those who say, �trust us.�

And this is a vital point -- a country that has the character to not use government power to plunder a minority for the sake of a majority (or vice versa, as in Saddam's Iraq) better resists the eventual trials of war, depression, famine, etc. Many Western countries took a sharp left turn after WW2. The US did only a little less so. In both the US and UK a swerve back came from Reagan and Thatcher. I still find the latter more remarkable than the former, but the common culture that ties them owes much to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Prof. Runciman cites facts and wonders why they fail before the stories that critics of Obamacare have told. Some no doubt do not understand the facts as presented. But presenting them better will not work well in the face of America�s preternatural wariness towards power. It may worry over unemployment but that is something that is ultimately under their control. Government debt, however, appears out of their control and is used towards things we are told to trust. Trust in government is exactly NOT what this country was founded on.

UPDATE: Along with some other posts, this was cross-posted to HotAir, and has been linked by Instapundit. Thanks to all my readers, and hope if you're new here you'll check out the rest of the premises.

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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Where Are the Western Feminists? 

Seems a Saudi women's rights lady was planning a holiday on the coast in Bahrain with her friends. Slight problem - the border guard would not let her leave Saudi Arabia - why? She had her passport but NO male "guardian" to escort her.

As Ed Morrissey states so well in Hotair, women in Saudi Arabia are some of the most repressed women on the planet. They cannot drive, their education is severely restricted, they cannot vote - rights? Forgetaboudit! They are required to have a male (father, husband and even son) give them approval for most any activity.

The woman, Wajeha al-Huwaider, has been fighting for women's rights for years. Her work has been documented in a book ,The Next Founders: Voices of Democracy in the Middle East. Ms. al-Huwaider is a light in a very dark tunnel. (Let's hope the result is a republic, that is a representative government run by the Rule of Law where the same law applied to all citizens. While we preach "democracy" we are not a democracy, we are a republic, developed with the Rule of Law as the base.)

Where are the women in the UN who scream about women's rights? Where is NOW? Nowhere.


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Monday, June 08, 2009

Does a human rights violation require a violator? 

Bill Easterly says so.
The only useful definition of human rights is one where a human rights crusader could identify WHOSE rights are being violated and WHO is the violator. That is what historically has led to progress on human rights. The government officers of the slave-owning antebellum US and the slave-owners were violating the rights of slaves � leading to activism against such violators that eventually yielded the Emancipation Proclamation. The local southern government officers were violating the civil rights of southern blacks under Jim Crow, leading to activism against these violators that yielded the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. The apartheid government officers in South Africa violated the rights of black South Africans, and activism against these violators brought the end of apartheid.

Poverty does not fit this definition of rights. Who is depriving the poor of their right to an adequate income? There are many theories of poverty, but few of them lead to a clear identification of the Violator of this right. Moreover, human rights are a clear dichotomy � someone violates your rights or they do not. But the line between poor and not-poor is arbitrary � it is different in different countries, and on a global scale, many still argue what is the right dividing line that constitutes poverty. So calling poverty a �human rights violation� does not point to any concrete actions that the �violator� must stop in order to restore rights to the �violated.�
Easterly gives Amnesty International a chance to respond. Their response concludes:
Human rights abuses cause poverty and keep people poor � and living in poverty makes you more likely to suffer violations of your human rights. So human rights must be part of any solution to poverty.
We argue in many places that poverty results from a lack of property rights (see here for example.) Would one expand the term human rights to include the right to use, exclude, and exchange private property as a human right? I'm going to guess Amnesty won't go that far. But if you increase the security of someone's private property rights, you may get both an increase in economic growth (which usually decreases poverty) and a reduction in human rights violations. So it was argued by Bagus [2008] and Cheneval [n.d.].

So who violates property rights? Governments, which at one time human rights groups fought to allow the poor to keep their land. (For the U.S. roots of this, see the discussion in Nedelsky [1994].)

UPDATE: Chris Blattman comes down on the same side.

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Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Bullying works 

Bloomberg reports that the group of dissidents holding Chrysler debt that are being compelled to surrender their legally obtained rights is shrinking.
JPMorgan Chase & Co., the largest lender on the loan, found the holdouts last week held about 10 percent of its value, less than $700 million. Now those still in the group, who plan to oppose the auction at a hearing today, own only about $300 million, the holdouts said in a bankruptcy court filing.

In the filing, the lenders told the judge in charge of Chrysler�s bankruptcy that the carmaker�s plan to auction its best assets later this month was unfair because it prevents creditors from using claims like a loan to make a non-cash bid.

�The proposed sale is not an arms� length bargain but rather is tainted by government domination and control,� the group said in the filing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York....

The group asked U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Arthur Gonzalez not to reveal the identities of its members, after he ordered them yesterday to do so by today. Thomas Lauria, a lawyer for the group, told the judge some of his clients had received death threats after being identified.

Those named publicly include OppenheimerFunds Inc., Perella Weinberg Capital Management LP�s Xerion hedge fund and Stairway Capital Advisors. Perella withdrew its sale objection last week.

In their request, filed today in Manhattan court, the lenders said some joined only with the promise of anonymity and would leave if they were forced to reveal their identities.
It appears the Administration is using the ACORN bus tour trick to good effect. (Remember these guys? The Administration has now upgraded its posse to the White House press corps.)

Ed Morrissey notes that the story of Tom Lauria we told over the weekend has now been verified by others present. If the press would like to not look completely sycophantic, it should hunt down car czar Steve Rattner and get him on record denying that this happened in light of three people saying it did.

P.S. It's worth noting that this President also supported another perversion of bankruptcy law in its attempt at the mortgage cramdown, which the Senate rejected last week. So my characterization of this as an Obama violation of the rule of law is part of a pattern, not a one-off action. John Fund, in this morning's Political Diary from the Wall Street Journal (subscription req'd) states that bank opposition to the provision was strong and withstood another Chicago pol:
The key to the opposition's success was the refusal of major banks to cut a deal with Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, who told the banks that things would go even worse for them if they didn't knuckle under. The bill's opponents responded by contacting local banks and chambers of commerce in the home states of many Democrats. In turn, the local folks pointed out just how serious an abrogation of the rule of law the foreclosure bailout would represent.
On Chrysler, alas, the feds are using compliant TARP-drunk banks to do their bidding in dividing and conquering non-bank creditors.

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Friday, May 01, 2009

The sanction of the victim 

I found utterly contemptible this statement from President Obama yesterday while addressing the filing of bankruptcy by Chrysler.
While many stakeholders made sacrifices and worked constructively, I have to tell you some did not. In particular, a group of investment firms and hedge funds decided to hold out for the prospect of an unjustified taxpayer-funded bailout. They were hoping that everybody else would make sacrifices, and they would have to make none. Some demanded twice the return that other lenders were getting. I don't stand with them. I stand with Chrysler's employees and their families and communities. I stand with Chrysler's management, its dealers and its suppliers. I stand with the millions of Americans who own and want to buy Chrysler cars. I don't stand with those who held out when everybody else is making sacrifices. And that's why I'm supporting Chrysler's plans to use our bankruptcy laws to clear away its remaining obligations so the company can get back on its feet and onto a path of success.
The group was spooked enough yesterday to put out an unsigned statement of their position. Today in the filing in bankruptcy court we know something of who these thugs who "held out for the prospect of an unjustified taxpayer-funded bailout" are:
Many others bought the debt on the prospect of making money. In so doing they enabled those who might have been burdened by Chrysler debt to receive something now for their bonds: Those buyers provided liquidity to an illiquid market. Those investors are now being vilified by an administration who wanted to use political muscle, having Congressmen call them "vultures" who "will now be dealt with accordingly in court."

Many bought the debt knowing that bankruptcy was possible. They did so under the expectation that the rule of law would apply in America, that their place in line under bankruptcy law was purchased with that debt. President Obama's ire over their unwillingness to give away that place in line -- a place purchased by those endowments and foundations and pensions not for themselves but for students, pensioners and grant recipients -- is an indication that the president thinks his noble ends are superior to theirs. And Rep. Dingell joins him in hoping for what? the equivalent of hoping these creditors end up in a cell with a guy named Butch? And for what? The Journal explains:
The Chrysler creditors at least represent teachers, pensioners and retirees, among others. The Administration is advancing its own social and political agenda through its ever-deeper entanglement with Chrysler and General Motors. That explains why the government is giving 55% of the new Chrysler to the UAW's retiree-benefit trust, a junior creditor, while those ahead of the trust in line get a mere 30 cents on the dollar.
The president is trained in the law and understands the rights senior creditors have. He may hope he gets a better deal in bankruptcy court, but if the creditors are able to force liquidation, the 2012 Republican nominee can remind Detroit that Obama let this go to bankruptcy court because he wouldn't give these creditors an extra $250 million for a right they had paid for.

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