Thursday, April 15, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: "RAMPARTS - A BOMB IN EVERY ISSUE" by Peter Richardson

I'm fashioning myself as something of a 1960s political history buff as of late. My favorite book I've read this past year was Rick Perlstein's "Before The Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of American Consensus", which we reviewed here, and I'm now halfway through Perlstein's second 60's magnum opus, "NIXONLAND" - and it's a fantastic read. See, I remember a lot of this stuff when it was fresh; no, not as it was actually happening (I was born in 1967), but when it was raw and fresh and still in the news. Hippies, Hanoi Jane, 60's radicals, Black Panthers, Senator Goldwater, President Nixon, Governor Reagan - these are all things I remember fairly vividly. In between the two Perlstein books, I took a dive into Peter Richardson's entertaining and illuminative "RAMPARTS - A BOMB IN EVERY ISSUE" for a slightly different angle on 1960s political theater, this time covering the rabble-rousing (“consciousness raising”, if you will) of the very far left.

Richardson's book is subtitled, "How The Short, Unruly Life of RAMPARTS Magazine Changed America", and while it's a bit of wallet-tugging hyperbole - America was changing at figurative warp speed regardless of what a freeewheeling San Francisco left-wing magazine was doing - it's clear that this particular mag was at the very center of American 60s upheaval and social change. RAMPARTS nurtured an evolving cast of legendary muckraking writers (including Noam Chomsky, David Horowitz, Susan Sontag, Jessica Mitford, Christoper Hitchens and many more), and the central players in its psychodrama were its swashbuckling editors, primarily Warren Hinckle and Robert Scheer. Author Peter Richardson does his best to shield readers from digging too deep into explaining the broader social chaos of the 1960s in America, and instead focuses a laser eye on both how RAMPARTS stoked and covered it. The magazine was conceived as a "Catholic literary quarterly" when it was born in 1962, but because it was nursed in the hothouse of San Francisco Bay Area politics - which itself nursed a strain of Catholic radicalism which was increasingly in vogue in certain church circles - it wasn't long before the magazine morphed into something much more secular, brash and daring - and on glossy paper, no less.

The book proceeds chronologically, weaving in how this shoestring operation helped to document burgeoning 60s radicalism while getting a series of gotcha stories (particularly on Vietnam) that helped foment it. At one point, Ramparts was so well-distributed and had such a high circulation that it was seen as a challenger to TIME and NEWSWEEK. At its peak, it had double the circulation figures of THE NATION. Ramparts was hemorrhaging money virtually the entire time it was extant, and some of the best stories in this book revolve around Warren Hinckle jetting off to New York to lie his way into getting more capital for the magazine from wealthy liberal financiers over dozens of cocktails. Some of the more ugly stories revolve around how the magazine stoked the egos of Oakland’s Black Panthers with some truly cringe-worthy white guilt and deference to an articulate but flat-out criminal set of individuals (with some fairly disastrous results).

The years between 1962 and 1969 are portrayed as an enormous psychic gulf that felt like 77 years instead of 7. Perlstein’s books convey much the same impression. I enjoyed this particular book for the most part, and it’s just as relevant for students of journalism – particularly the legendary time of the free-wheelers who drank vodka in the office and gumshoed their way across town every day in search of graft and corruption – as it as for those looking for a snapshot of the 1960s at their most fevered. It even contains some quotes from, and descriptions of, my old college roommate Chris Scheer (son of Robert).

"RAMPARTS - A BOMB IN EVERY ISSUE" is breezy enough to give you a nice gloss on the time period and does a fairly good job of not pulling its punches on foibles of the people involved, even Hickle & Robert Scheer, whom Richardson very obviously admires. First Principles says check it out.

Friday, April 9, 2010

THE ROAD FROM 9/11 TO OBAMACARE

As a “student of history”, I’m well aware that we’re currently living in a very historical time, or as some call them, “interesting times”. Historians, I am certain, will be tracing our current economic quagmire and expanding entitlement & spending bloat to one particularly historical event that occurred on September 11th, 2001. The lineage is not clear? Allow me to make some sweeping oversimplifications that you’ll be seeing in history books starting in 5-10 years, simplifications that I happen to agree with.

9/11 was an epochal event in recent American history (duh). It produced a wave of dread that I myself got swept up in, along with an outpouring of support for the President, who was nearly spot-on in those early days (if tone-deaf for most of the rest of his presidency). Bush rode that wave into complete overconfidence and a supposed mandate to conduct wars on foreign soil against shadowy terrorist networks, extending this war in 2003 with the backing of large majorities of the American people and of Congress to Iraq, which was connected to the War-on-Terror only in the sense of being a potential threat (not, as we learned, an actual one). As the war turned from a "quick victory" to an mismanaged, violent boondoggle to something that most Americans just wanted to ignore, Bush lost any lustre that he once had with Americans, and in a very big way. As more facts came out about how badly things were going over there – and the circumstances by which we got in – Americans turned on their president, who himself compounded matters by becoming one of the biggest presidential spenders & expanders of government of all time.

Bush and the Republican Party undid any differentiation they once had with free-spending Democrats, helped drive a recession, and hugely alienated large swaths of the American people, myself included. As punishment for quote-unquote imperial overreach, Americans voted for the fresh-faced new guy who promised a way out of the wars. We all figured that, yeah, he’s pretty liberal, but he just might move to the Center on economics – like Clinton did, right? He has to – we’re in a deep recession – right? So here we are, with a new President presiding over the greatest expansion of government since the mid-1960s, at one of the worst possible times to do so in American history. We’re still fighting and paying dearly in both money and lives for two wars, one of which he’s escalated. Entitlements at the federal and state level are threatening to bankrupt multiple states very soon, including California, for years the state that could most rightly be said to be the economic engine of America. And Obama and Congress just rammed through an entitlement that will set us back even further for decades, all on smoke, mirrors and lies they sold to the CBO that everyone knows were bogus. There will be no reduction in the nation’s ballooning, and frankly very scary, national debt, and everyone in Washington knows it.

So the terrorists won? I remember all sort of talk back in 2001 about how they wanted to bring down the Empire with one cataclysmic statement. Ironically, this chain of events that they set off may very well do just that. I keep hoping for good-old-Yankee ingenuity and some wake-up leadership in Washington to help make it right again, but I fear that only several state bankruptcies and the drying up of overseas lending to the US will start the ball rolling (both are coming, I am convinced - and for years I've been a total optimist), and even then far too slowly for meaningful change for years.

Sobering stuff, and a linkage I’m sure will be at least part of the history curriculum when the years 2000-2010 are studied & debated.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

"THE KIDS ARE NOT ALRIGHT"

Maybe it's the tenor of the times, or maybe we're really in deep, deep trouble - but man, have I been reading some depressing articles lately. Oh, low job rates and unfunded public pension problems probably don't compare well to mass disease, war, pestilence and famine - but having grown up in a generally optimistic era & having seen positive social change and robust economic growth throughout my lifetime, it's a strange reckoning to be faced with the possibility of a government-created reshuffling of the deck that will have really big employment & economic consequences on us and our decendants.

I read Daniel Henninger's column in the Wall Street Journal this morning called, "JOBLESSNESS: THE KIDS ARE NOT ALRIGHT", and I found it profoundly distressing. I'm seeing this play out with my son's amazing kindergarten teacher, who just got pink-slipped; with our intelligent & immensely vivacious babysitter, who tried hard to quit babysitting and get a real job, only to find nothing out there; and with anecdotal stories from legion of "young people" with college degrees who not only can't find meaningful work - they can't find work, period. The dot-com era seems like eons ago; back then, anyone here in California with a heartbeat could get a well-paying job, and even after that particular slice of industry's inevitable reckoning and collapse, dumb companies may have died, but new jobs quickly swooped in to replace them. I recommend reading the article, and asking yourself if Europe is the model we want to be following right now. I'll save my invective about the proposed European-style value-added tax that we may see here soon for another day.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

PRIVATIZED MAIL DELIVERY – SURELY WE CAN AGREE ON THIS?

You may have heard that the US Postal Service has requested that Americans' mail service be reduced from 6 days a week to 5 days a week, with Saturdays being the chosen day for elimination. Congress must ultimately approve this step, and it is provoking some much-needed discussion about potential privatization of mail services in the United States. In a country full of abundance and plenty – to say nothing of rapid technological innovation – only a system owned and operated by the government would be taking such a significant step backward. Our grandparents got 6-day mail. Our parents got 6-day mail. We will be left with 5-day mail, thanks to an inability for the US Postal Service to compete with private firms and to proactively steel itself for, and reactively respond to, the massively disruptive online technologies of the past 15 years.

I believe that we’re all better served by repealing the USPS monopoly as soon as possible, and by letting consumers and businesses choose how they’d like to consume mail services going forward. Perhaps you’d like to only get snail mail and packages two days per week, and then only from FedEx or UPS or some new competitor who would likely spring to life if the USPS monopoly wasn’t standing in their way. Maybe businesses would pay a little extra to send mail all 7 days, or might even start their own private mail delivery services if their size & scale warranted it. With the lid off, we will see an innovation in mail delivery such as we’ve only seen when FedEx and UPS were allowed to compete with the US Postal Service for package delivery. Extend that to regular mail, and all of a sudden you’ve got true consumer choice, and likely lower prices to boot.

There will be a ton of howling when Saturday delivery is eliminated in coming months. Rather than just take it, let’s agitate for one small bit of private sunshine in an increasingly monolithic, “public” America.

Monday, March 29, 2010

MARCHING WITH THE IDIOTS

A lot has gone down since the last time we posted something original (as opposed to a link) here, to say the least. I’m going to try and get back in the swing of things over here at FIRST PRINCIPLES, as we’ve got a revolution to help foment, am I right? I’m only being half facetious. Now that big government has make enormous, ridiculously costly moves to install, perpetuate and engorge itself for decades to come, and at the worst possible time for such moves since the 1970s, a reckoning of some sort is in order. It may not be the man on the white horse – for I don’t believe he truly exists – but a popular backlash will need to take hold unless we resign ourselves to a permanently lowered standard of living and a subservience to government bureaucracy that I don’t think any of us truly want. Without being overly alarmist, “the time to act is now”, since it’s easier for the mass of Americans to sit and absorb the gradual stagnation of our economy (and with it, wages, job prospects, dynamism and overall standards of living) rather than to do the hard work to reverse the trends.

Where I personally struggle is with how exactly to respond. Sure, I can and do vote. I can also blog all I want, and maybe that helps a little – particularly if people actually start reading my blog. (Insert happy face emoticon here). Or, to put a finer point on it, if I can finally muster the time and energy to write this blog regularly, and get the word out about it. I have the advantage, I guess, of coming to online writing from a place (music fanzines & music blogging) where the prevailing political view is far more left/"progressive" than my own. This means that rather than preaching to the choir, as most political blogs do, I might actually be able to get some readers who drift over here to think about their convictions, or lack thereof - people who might initially disagree with me. I have the added "advantage" of being very socially liberal myself – and I agree with the left/liberal choir on a number of their chosen pet issues: ending both wars ASAP; working for a secular society; I'm pro-choice on abortion; I'm pro-gun control; I'm strongly pro-immigrant; I applaud experimentation with new approaches to drug criminalization etc. So by stealth, I can gain a bit of empathy before clobbering readers over the head with what I truly care about: economics, and the eternal struggle between economic & social dynamism and big government statism. I will continually work to help along truly free markets, which I believe not without mountains of evidence enrich the world's people, and provide individuals for their best opportunity for happiness and personal fulfillment.

Yet if we’re going to reverse the prevailing tide, how to go forward? Marching in the streets seems to be a time-honored solution. I’ve tried that before, and it always breaks down for me when I see the idiots marching next to me. Have you ever been to a left-wing protest march in a city like San Francisco, Seattle or Berkeley? I have. Professional “activists”, the ones who crash a war protest with Reagan=Hitler, Clinton=Hitler, Bush=Hitler signs and their exhortations to show solidarity with the oppressed people of Palestine, are bad enough. The borderline Anti-Semitic ("no man, it’s just Anti-Israel") and just plain hateful and always illogical signs and banners are always there, though. If I ever got my picture taken next to one of these nutballs I’d be horrified (“I was just there for the vegan oat cakes, I swear!”). So goes it for the outpouring of energy and anger coming from what’s popularly dubbed as the Tea Party movement.

I want to support the professed aims and ideals of the Tea Partiers, for the ones they profess are my ideals. I abhor the double-standard coverage they are getting in the media, and how they are treated like aliens from another world for protesting the size & scope of government, a time-honored tradition that founded the country itself. Obviously. They, too, have their fringe that I’d hate to stand in concert with. I listened to conservative talk radio in Indiana over the summer as a “birther” wackjob totally hijacked a show with his theories about Barack Hussain Obama’s Kenyan birth. Even the right-of-Attila-the-Hun show host was trying to reason with and then shout down this guy to no avail. I’d hate to be anywhere near a rally that seeks to repeal parts of the Obamacare bill, only to find myself in lockstep with a Birther sub-group or a group of folks carrying Obama=Hitler signs. Whether left- or right-wing, protesting in the streets seems to bring out the most disaffected, most angry and the most unhinged of us into a pack mentality, and I wonder sometimes if this is truly the way to bring about the change in mass consciousness that we seek. I do know that filling out internet polls and auto-generated letters to Congress isn’t working.

What do you think – are you willing to march with the idiots to get your point across? Or is it counterproductive to do so?

“HOW TO OPPOSE OBAMACARE”

There’s a right way and a wrong way. The stakes are too high and the need to repeal the major pillars of this atrocity is so great that opponents must work to claim the moral high ground by articulating repeal of the legislation with logic, facts and a certain dignity. The mainstream media is crowing, and ready to zap apostates for their unbelief; witness the overwhelming slate of tea-partiers-are-racist-homophobe-hypocrite articles that invite readers to use any shred of same to dismiss the Obamacare opposition entirely. Shikha Dalmia of REASON wrote a great piece on March 26th about how to use Gandhian tactics to assert your logical advantage; those of us/you who are wanting to help work toward repeal would be well-advised to take a gander.

"WITH HEALTH BILL, OBAMA HAS SOWN THE SEEDS OF A BUDGET CRISIS"

This article from the Washington Post's Robert Samuelson is required reading. And yes, FIRST PRINCIPLES is back in action. We had to be!

Monday, November 2, 2009

HEALTH CARE: HERE’S THE PROBLEM, IF NOT THE SOLUTION

I listened to these two excellent podcasts over the weekend. David Goldhill wrote an article in last month’s THE ATLANTIC called “How American Health Care Killed My Father”, and has been tirelessly hammering home his (entirely correct, as far as I’m concerned) diagnosis of the layers of problems within the American health care system that led to this. Sure, it’s a sensational title, yet the article – nor the podcasts – aren’t really about him and his father. They’re about what happens when American consumers are insulated from the true costs of health care, and the perverse incentives that therefore get set up throughout the chain.

Goldhill also quite legitimately questions whether our system is truly making us more healthy, or simply less wealthy. He has no scorched-earth libertarian solution to the myriad of problems, and he definitely advocates an incrementalist approach in dealing with it – but I seriously recommend spending the 20 minutes it will take to listen to these, as it’s a sane and reasoned voice that’s miles away from the debate in Washington right now.

Play David Goldhill – “American Health Care Kills”



Play David Goldhill – “Failed Promises in Health Care Reform”


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

THIS JUST IN: A FREE MARKET CAN FIX HEALTH CARE

Undoing the morass of bad decisions in health care allocation & funding over the past fifty-plus years is no picnic for anyone - left, right or center. But if there were credible alternatives on the table to another wasteful, deficit-expanding, republic-crushing entitlement that likely won’t fix 10% of the problems it seeks to remedy – while making others far worse – well, you’d probably want to pay attention to that, wouldn’t ya? Seems like Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s excellent editorial in the Wall Street Journal several months ago has received the lions’ share of attention from those seeking credible alternatives to Obama/Pelosicare, and that’s all for the good. A well-written, eminently logical and bullet-pointed proposal like that one is easy to digest and understand.

I’d like to direct you to what I hope will be the new standard-bearer for the free-market health care alternative – Michael Cannon’s “Yes, Mr. President, A Free Market Can Fix Health Care”. It was written for the Cato Institute, and I suspect it will get a lot of play this week as America realizes just how close we’re getting to a colossal mistake. Take a look and let us know what you think; I’ll add my own two cents about health care when I can break away from work, family, and life in general.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: “BEFORE THE STORM – BARRY GOLDWATER AND THE UNMAKING OF AMERICAN CONSENSUS” by Rick Perlstein

I had been wanting to read Rick Perlstein’s 2000 book on Barry Goldwater and the early 1960s for a long, long time. I, like you and everyone else, grew up and was fed incessantly on conventional narratives of the 60s, focused squarely on the counterculture, the godlike John F. Kennedy and his brothers, the struggle for Civil Rights and on Vietnam (mostly the protests). Sure, I knew that Nixon won the presidency in 1968 thanks to the quote-unquote “silent majority”, but relatively unexplained to me was the 1964 Republican Party nomination of arch-conservative, deeply principled Barry Goldwater (who was buried in a landslide by Democrat Lyndon Johnson), as well as the strong undercurrent of right-wing thought during this era manifested in the John Birch Society and in rabid anticommunism in general.

While I’m exaggerating my ignorance a bit, I will say that some of this was unwound for me when I read Brian Doherty’s “Radicals For Capitalism” last year. That focused on the libertarian undercurrent (WAY under, let it be said) to conventional liberal Democratic & liberal Republican dominance from Roosevelt era until Reagan. Sure, that tome covered way more than those exact years, but that particular era was the most fascinating to me, particularly those radicals who held the line against creeping government intervention in American lives during the decades of the 50s and 60s. It whetted my appetite to say, yep, I’m finally going to tackle that Perlstein book, all 730 pages of it (small type, no less). I’m extremely glad I did, as it’s one of the most engrossing books of history that I’ve ever read, with a premise – the rise of ideological conservatism as “the unmaking of American consensus” - that very much deserved to be tackled in this form.

Simply put, Barry Goldwater was the first compelling, national-level ideologue of the right. He re-introduced ideology as a driving factor into politics, and while his consistency and stubbornness may have lost him the 1964 election in a landslide, he never truly wavered from his core beliefs in limited government and personal liberty. Goldwater’s one of the very few Republicans of the past 50 years of whom that can be said. He was a cantankerous, reluctant leader, one whom Perlstein shows was essentially pushed into the limelight his entire career. His bold ideas were captivating millions, initially well under the radar, at a time when American government was a squishy blend of mealy-mouthed, consensus-oriented economic liberalism and strong but fearful anti-Communism. This book paints very well the strong antipathy that many Americans had with President Eisenhower during the 1950s, a man with few political convictions who coasted on inarguable likeability and his war hero status. The American Right boiled up during these years in fascinating and unpredictable ways, leading on one hand to Goldwater’s eventual nomination and actor Ronald Reagan’s conversion to free-market libertarianism-lite, and on the other to the conspiracy-minded John Birch Society, the rabid pamphleteers and the campus movement Young Americans For Freedom, whose heyday was in the first half of the 60s. Perlstein captures it all in minute detail, all under a grander thesis that this movement was just as much an ultimately meaningful part of 1960s social- and political disruptions as those coming from the Left.

There are so many interesting scenes painted in this book, and I’d have to do a NY Times Review of Books-length review of my own to get to them all. A few highlights: the death throes of Eastern establishment Republicanism, as embodied by liberals Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Cabot Lodge; the craziness surrounding the 1964 Republican National convention, in San Francisco of all places; the way Goldwater’s campaign manager in the primaries, Clif White, used parliamentary tactics and intense, ahead-of-his-time knowledge of “gaming the system” to win Goldwater delegates; crazed, racist kook George Wallace asking Goldwater if he could run on his ticket as Vice President; and best of all, the cranky, curmudgeonly Goldwater himself, alternating between self-sabotaging shooting from the hip and intense, rousing speeches. There’s also the backdrop of the Kennedy presidency and of course the national trauma of his assassination, which is at times argued here may have been the biggest blow to Goldwater’s chances in ’64. I’d argue that Lyndon Johnson, a master politician and arm-twister in his own right, did everything right and had the wind of recent history and a nation’s fear of nuclear annihilation at his back, giving Goldwater’s “free markets and states’ rights” no chance at all of victory.

I’m ambivalent about what has always been the most debatable part of Barry Goldwater’s political career: his stand against the 1964 Civil Rights act on fear that the government was being used for social engineering. "You cannot pass a law that will make me like you -- or you like me," Goldwater told one rally. "That is something that can only happen in our hearts." In another he said, "Our aim, as I understand it, is neither to establish a segregated society nor to establish an integrated society," he said. "It is to preserve a free society." Opposition to the Civil Rights Act would be unthinkable now, and only a racist would argue against it – and many of the predictions that Goldwater and other conservatives had for its consequences did not come to pass (their cautions against Johnson’s “Great Society” social welfare programs, on the other hand, were dead-on). In the context of the time, though, one can see at least some of the logic for opposing it, but I still believe it was tinged with a sense of “too much, too soon” and more than a little fear of what would happen in America’s imploding cities if blacks were, with the sweep of a pen, given full and enforceable rights. I think it’s sad that a man of Goldwater’s principled character saw it as a left/right, government/anti-government sort of issue – he might have even won the election if he’d found common cause with the Left on this issue. Of course, he’d probably have completely lost his base as well. I guess he was doomed as a candidate in any case. Never mind.

Great history books not only inform and give you day-to-day nuance that you’d never get in articles, but they capture the ramifications of an era or a movement that were unseen at the time. I loved this book because Perlstein finally overturned the consensus about the 1960s, the one told exclusively about the Left or about the best-and-brightest Democratic minds working their way through the muddle of Vietnam and riots in the streets. This (and its sequel, “Nixonland”, which I’m going to start reading in a couple weeks) will be the standard works for years to come for people who want to dig deeper, and understand how the 1980s rise of Ronald Reagan and the general spread of conservatism took root during the 20 years previous.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

GHOSTS OF THE OSTFRONT FINALE

Dan Carlin has recorded and released the final episode of what may quite seriously be the best podcast of all time, his four-part series on the German/Soviet Union battles of World War II, “Ghosts of the Ostfront”. As mentioned before, it’s fascinating stuff, made all the more illuminating by Carlin’s delivery (someone get that guy an Audiobook deal). Check it out over at the HARDCORE HISTORY website.

Monday, October 12, 2009

THE CASE FOR CULTURAL LIBERTARIANISM

Until Kerry Howley’s very compelling and well-argued article in the latest issue in REASON magazine, I’d never truly considered that there was such a thing as “cultural” libertarianism. Me, I’m a guy who considers himself exceptionally “socially liberal” and “fiscally conservative” and a avowed foe of big government in all its manifestations, and if that makes me a libertarian, so be it. But Howley’s got something of a different take on things. She argues that a libertarianism that begins & ends with broadly-defined property rights or taxation only advances the cause of freedom and liberty in one or two, albeit very important, manners. This problem of government encroachment on the private domain is only one way in which the liberties of individuals are oppressed; culturally, there’s a much bigger, and often more important battle to be fought.

This rings very true to me, especially given that our lives are so short. Example #1: the global marginalization of women. Sure, we can pout and moan about equal pay for equal work and the burden of childbirth for working women in THIS rich, first-world country, but in many places in the non-Western world, all too often being a woman means being reduced to a mere vessel for raising children, a burdensome one at that, who can be beaten, raped and abused on a whim without ramifications for the abusers. I read the NY Times Magazine’s special issue on worldwide women’s issues, and I have to say I was quite moved by it. I’ve always spoken in the abstract about how ridiculous it is when Arab counties leave 50% of their population’s skills on the shelf, but I’m considerably more emboldened to make the case for massive female freedom & liberty on a global basis than I was previously. Other examples of cultural libertarianism in my own thinking abound: strong support for gay marriage; willingness to experiment with some drug legalization; and (a big one for me) actively speaking out against centuries-long human oppression stemming from religious beliefs formed & codified millennia ago.

In these cases the oppressor of liberty isn’t always the government. They are rock-solid cultural and religious norms. I’ve always abhorred cultural relativism, and those who argue that the norms of the world beyond our borders are just as well and good as those here have long bothered me. I personally take pride in the human liberty and material advances of western civilization, and I heartily applaud those countries of the East that have freed their peoples from years of cultural and religious tyranny as well. Howley’s argument is a good one because she recognizes that measuring true progress in our lifetimes is difficult and hard to see, and it’s better to frequently and routinely advance the cause of human dignity and freedom on an individual basis AND a culture-wide basis than to focus efforts solely on the bugaboos of taxation and property.

In the end, a woman being trafficked for sex or held as chattel by males in her society due to religious or cultural norms doesn’t really care so much about her taxation levels or property rights, but we lovers of liberty should certainly elevate her right to freedom from oppression at least as high as we do our own. I’d like to do my part to help spread the concept of cultural libertarianism as broadly as possible to help her and all others who want and deserve dignity, freedom and a life free from the oppression of others.

Make sense? It does to me. I’ll try and break it down a little better in future posts. In the meantime, here’s some talk about the article that spurred the thinking here.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

THE ONE THING THEY GOT RIGHT

I’ve written before how I’ve undergone something of a metamorphosis from unabashed “War of Terror” supporter/cheerleader to something far less than that. Reality will do that to you sometimes. Having supported both the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions in 2001 and 2003 respectively, I’m now on record, and have been for over two years, as acknowledging the astronomical amount of mistakes made in both theory and practice. Mostly, though, I just want it to be over. The wars have cost us more in blood and treasure than they were worth, no matter how happy I am that the Taliban does not “officially” rule Afghanistan nor Saddam Hussein Iraq. More on my 9/11 Fever come-to-Jesus meetings with myself here.

I’m also horrified by the torture done to individuals in the name of my country. Initially I was ambivalent, but only because I was acting in a total state of naïve disbelief. But there’s nothing morally ambivalent about the sort of out-and-out torture the United States has unequivocally performed on numerous people, with virtually nothing to show for it outside of a vastly diminished moral standing in the universe of nations. I have a HUGE post boiling inside of me on this one – bear with me while I find the head space to actually write it. Until then, please read this great Andrew Sullivan piece in this month’s Atlantic Monthly, which totally nails and solidifies my own feelings on this hugely regrettable fallout from the War on Terror.

There’s one thing they got right, however. They’re still getting it right, and we should all acknowledge it, praise it, and celebrate it. The US – in concert with other nations around the globe – are stopping some of the most filthy, horrific, potentially catastrophic terrorism plots on a routine basis. I frankly can’t believe it. Read the excellent book “The Looming Tower” by Lawrence Wright. The ineptitude of the US government and FBI during the 1990s and the run-up to 9/11/2001 just leaps off the page until you want to scream. While they didn’t “give” us 9/11, it is obvious that that day was imminently preventable if the US had been funding covert smarts, overseas in-country operatives, removal of numerous bureaucratic obstacles and lots of old-fashioned gumshoe policing of likely terrorists. On September 12th, 2001, I was absolutely certain we’d be attacked again. And again. You know what? Here we are, 8+ years later, and I’m still thankfully waiting. Someone’s doing their job right, and I have to say I’m impressed.

Last week’s arrest of Najibullah Zazi in Denver revealed – and likely stopped (we hope) - yet another hideous plot to kill hundreds or thousands of us via backpack bombs on trains and elsewhere. It seems like every two or three months we’ve got another arrest and/or conviction of similar plots. These religious zealots aren’t going to Guantanamo to have confessions tortured out of them anymore; they’re being tried in the US and European courts, with the burden of proof very heavily laying on the governments. Unless you believe the big fix is in (and why would you, unless you’re a creepy conspiracy nut), the convictions coming out prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Al-Qaeda and homegrown creeps are still trying to murder & maim to establish the Caliphate, “exact their terrible revenge” or whatever the hell it is they want.

So you know what? I can’t get all that excited about The Patriot Act, I really can’t. Extend the thing. I’m still waiting for the argument against it that totally slays me, vs. the increased evidence that its tools really were essentially for stopping bomb plots before they are executed. Because I don’t personally get on the phone to talk about terrorism plots, nor have a profile that would indicate in the slightest that I might, the thought of being wiretapped doesn’t really bother me – even if I was truly tapped. This isn’t a diatribe for the Patriot Act or for warrantless wiretapping, it’s simply a statement of opinion that those two things are total non-issues compared to the bigger picture. End the wars. End US tolerance for torture of any kind. And give three cheers and maybe even more for the law enforcement tools, actions & personnel who are stopping some of the most horrific zealots on the planet before they act.

Friday, September 25, 2009

8 WORST DECISIONS BY OBAMA SO FAR

...Or, “we've got a bigger problem now". As much as I believe George W. Bush was a presidential failure who will leave scars on the Republic for years to come (check some of my older posts for specifics), it’s President Obama who’s shaping up to leave the most atrocious legacy of problems to America since Johnson (yet potentially far worse). I’m truly afraid he’s just getting started, folks. We’re only 9 months into his administration, and already I’ve got enough material for an eight-worst list. Just wait until we get to ten whoppers – then I’ll update this post. In each of these decisions, Obama could have done the right thing and taken this country forward and shown true leadership. In every case, by my estimation, he made the wrong decision, sometime spectacularly.

Before I begin, let me get the disclaimers out of the way, as we’re currently living in a very strange blip in history where disagreement with Saint Obama’s policies is equated with crazed right-wing dissent, even by otherwise smart people. I see it in the smug Facebook posts of my friends, the strange demonization of anti-tax protestors, and the likening of those who are against ObamaCare in its current form with those who hate the poor, worship big business, etc. (I’m looking at you, Whole Foods boycotters). I actually think Obama is redeemable (sliding poll numbers have a way of redeeming a lot of things in politics). I don’t think he’s the antichrist, and I think he’s a smart, funny guy who’s doing a lot of good in many areas, unfortunately just not in the areas that I care about the most, mainly economic (see this post I wrote the week before the election for the handful of things I really like about the man). If he actually drank real beer, I’d even want to have a beer with him and take him on in hoops. I think he’d be a fun guy to hang out with. As a president? Just awful.

To wit:

1. He pushed an unnecessary, ridiculously expensive, terribly-crafted “stimulus package”. This was the worst example of not letting a good crisis go to waste in my lifetime. The stated goal was to combat unemployment and not let it get above 8%. It’s now pushing 10%, so it utterly failed in that regard, and the economy is still in the toilet (I wouldn’t believe in the supposed recovery until evidence shows up in both unemployment and inflation figures). Unlike in the Reagan-era recession of 1980-82, there is nothing put in place by the government that’s explicitly making it better, only worse. Only the normal business cycle will get us back to normalcy, but I’m afraid it will take a far longer time and we’ll be paying this pig off for decades. Just a horrible bill, with back-loaded sops to every constituent group imaginable. Appalling.

2. He broke the 80-year Democrat/Republican consensus on free trade. Obama says with one side of his mouth that he’s not hostile to free trade, and with the other, he gives a big shiny present to the protectionist wing of his party and to the unions, and slaps a 35% tariff on Chinese-made tires. Read here and here why this has grave consequences for the nation and for the poor. Even Bill Clinton thinks this is ridiculous.

3. He doubled down on a failed war in Afghanistan, squandering American lives & treasure. Enough said. “Change we can believe in” does not mean doing the same thing ad nauseum. This albatross is now his to deal with, and I am at long last utterly convinced that staying here is a terrible mistake on so many levels, while leaving posthaste is an imperfect outcome that nonetheless is by far the best option for our country.

4. He introduced a monolithic health care reform plan that won’t work, and that we’ll be paying for for decades. Unless we torpedo it (please!) and allow more sensible plans to win the day (I’ll remove this from the list if that happens).

5. He bailed out failed American automakers on the taxpayers’ backs. Read more about this here. Bush started it to his eternal discredit, and Obama amplified it and helped craft what some all rightly calling the worst government program of all time, “Cash For Clunkers”.

6. He helped to scuttle the DC school voucher program. Read my post about this here. I really thought Obama would show some cajones on education, thinking that a smart, creative African-American man could be the real conduit for bottoms-up education reform, and yet he’s worse on this issue than I ever expected.

7. He encouraged Massachusetts Democrats to overturn their recent Senate appointment law. If you haven’t been following the story of how (and why) Ted Kennedy’s senate seat just got filled by a Democrat despite a Massachusetts law prohibiting the governor from appointing a successor, check this out. Obama was a prime mover in this charade, which tells me how he truly feels about constitutional democracy and the rule of law.

8. He didn’t cancel the $350 billion remaining in TARP. Bush started it, Obama could have ended it, and he let the pork trough fill up even more. Historians will be talking about the 2008-2009 government bailout decisions for years, because their impact will be felt for generations.

One of the reasons I’ve revived this blog this week is because I’ve been asking myself how I can help reverse the damage caused by our last & current Presidents and by our Congress. Granted, shouting into the wind with only a couple of dozen readers will get me nor my political passions nowhere, but I’m on a mission to change that. Anyway, I’m not a marcher, nor a write-letters-to-my-representatives kind of guy; I’d rather help foment some real ideological position-taking among the people of our representative democracy, because I believe that only with a consistent, logical, well-reasoned set of first principles can one effectively refute – and then convert - those that don’t share them. I also been chagrined to learn that most of the traffic to this blog has come from Google searches on the phrase “Unions Pros Cons”, which leads people directly to this post. I’m hoping “Worst Decisions Obama” might have the same effect, and both refute and then convert another 100 soldiers into my quote-unquote enlightened way of thinking.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

ON OBESITY AND PUNISHMENT

Since I had decided to forgo this political blog for a while waaay back in July, I was lacking a forum for the rants that are constantly building up inside of me. I was – and I remain – particularly incensed about the inane “Fat People Made My Insurance Premium Go Up” nonsense floating through the populace, as well as big-government nannies’ need to issue new taxes on soda etc. to raise more money for more boondoggles (or to pay for the boondoggles of the past). I wrote a long post about it and placed it on my beer blog Hedonist Beer Jive, and since there was no convenient beer “hook”, I just made one up.

Now that I’m reviving First Principles, I thought you non-beer blog readers might want to see this rant in its proper home. Here it is:

We don’t veer “off topic” too often here at Hedonist Beer Jive. Normally this blog digs somewhat self-referentially and often obsessively into the beers I’ve been drinking, and leaves it pretty much there. So I say with a caveat and an apology that this post, which has been boiling up inside of me the past couple of weeks, has little to do with beer. Oh sure, it does to the extent that beer, among many other foods & beverages, can make one fat when taken in at excess, and is demonized beyond its alcohol content by segments of society bent on ensuring that American caloric intake meets their inane, subjective standards. Yet this is actually a story of American individual freedoms on a collision course with the nanny state, under the guise of “improving health care” and “fairness”.

Let me just cut to the chase. Fifteen years ago, when we were all debating government involvement in suing tobacco companies out of existence & using the demonization of cigarette smokers as a way of confiscating more taxes, there was a common joke in play. It went something like this, “Pretty soon they’re going to be taxing Coca-Cola and Big Macs”. Many variations of the joke went around, and it all seemed so preposterous, except to those of us who saw the direction the nanny state was turning, See, they had this powerful argument that’s won over a ton of otherwise smart people. This argument is starting to be stated forthrightly and without apology (most recently in an article in the NY Times Magazine from 2 Sundays ago), and it terrifies me (most accurately, it pisses me off like you wouldn’t believe). This argument, which I’m sure you know by heart now, says that

1. Fat people, because of their slothful ways, have higher health care costs; therefore,
2. All of us must pay higher health care premiums, due to the costs of taking care of fat people; therefore,
3. Fat people need to be taxed at higher rates as punishment, either directly, or indirectly by taxing soda, fast food, and other contributors to their lazy, slovenly, fattie ways

A few words to those of you who see logic in this argument – an argument which, I’m sure you’ve figured out, I totally abhor. First of all, we all make choices and do things in our daily lives that, in the long run, impose indirect costs upon others. In the course of a given month, I myself might, for example, trample upon the grounds of a public park; file for disability; file for unemployment; go to the hospital to have my appendix taken out; inadvertently litter; get pulled over for speeding; forget to recycle or compost; etc etc and on and on. That’s just the way life is. Each of those examples, all of which are very real and/or possible for every single one of us, will either impose a public cost (the government picks up the tab for those activities with publicly-paid tax dollars) or social costs (general costs increase for everyone because of something I did or didn’t do). An obese person’s decision to eat a Big Mac, a basket of chili cheese fries or a trans-fat loaded tray of Oreos will generally, when spread equally among the millions of us within the populace, be balanced out over time by things I myself did.

Much more importantly, this new attitude of smug do-gooders is about as un-American as it gets. Without standing on a soapbox and calling up the ghosts of our founding fathers (I’m tempted!), let me just say that this country was founded on the notion of individual choice and responsibility, and the freedom to determine the limits of responsibility for yourself. In other words, your freedoms can go as far as possible, as long as they don’t infringe upon mine. Your freedom to punch at the air ends at the microns of air between your fist and my face, but until you get to that point, please, punch away. Your decision to eat a carton of ice cream in one sitting – or to drink two bombers of IPA in one night (both of which I’ve happily done) – imposes zero direct costs on my freedoms, and therefore I wholly and without qualification support your right to do so.

Finally - and man I could go on ranting for days on this topic – I posit that the demonization of fat people has even more to do with revulsion and fear than it does with wanting to raise taxes to pay for boondoggle health care programs (though both figure strongly in the argument, only one is articulated). The obese suffer from lower wages, social ostracization, sexual ostracization, angry stares, lack of mobility, and yes – shorter lives. You think we could cut them a break and let them figure out how to combat that (or not) themselves? Isn’t it more important to protect our freedom to put whatever we want into our bodies, no matter the dubious nutritional value, than to point the finger at the fat guy and call him the one who made your health care premium higher this year?

I’m happily willing to pay a higher premium so that the slippery slope from cigarettes to soda doesn’t then envelop my Belgian beers, high-fat Italian pasta dinners and slices of cheesecake a few years from now. I’ve mitigated the obesity concern my own way – by taking up running, by eating healthy foods most of the time, and by limiting my alcohol consumption, daily Hedonist Beer Jive reviews to the contrary. That’s my personal choice, and believe me, there are times when I’d rather not run, eat whatever the hell I want and drink myself into oblivion. I’m glad we live in a country where I can go down either path and dozens of others, but I admit, I am increasingly fearful for the future. I leave you with a poem, which I believe is from the 1940s:

First they came for the cigarettes, and I did not speak up because I didn’t smoke
Then they came for the donuts, and I did not speak up because I don’t like sweets
Then they came for the Gatorade, and I did not speak up because I'm kinda allergic to it and I hate that green flavor (
gross!)
Then they came for the Imperial Belgian-style IPAs, and by that time there was no one to speak for me

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

“GHOSTS OF THE OSTFRONT”

OK, first of all I said I was going to retire this blog. I can’t help myself. There’s just too much to talk through, books to review, things to tell you about, much to complain about, etc. I’ve got about 7 posts stored up inside of me that I’m going to be blasting out during the next 7-10 days, some long, some very short like this one. I wanted to let you know about a series of podcast episodes on what I think is the greatest podcast in the short history of podcasting. They’re from DAN CARLIN’S HARDCORE HISTORY, and there are 3 episodes dealing with World War II’s eastern front – that is, the brutal conflict between the Soviet Union and Germany. These podcasts are amazing. Not only did I learn a ton, it’s the “you-are-there” retelling of events and the drama involved that makes Carlin such an amazing radio/podcast personality and that makes me recommend them so highly.

There are 3 episodes so far, and they’re called “GHOSTS OF THE OSTFRONT”. Carlin is currently working on a fourth and final episode. Totally recommended for the morning & evening commute. I’m going to download them again and listen a second time. You'll likely get a much better sense of the enormity and importance of these battles, battles that it would be an understatement to say enormously shaped the civilization in which we live right now.

Friday, July 10, 2009

FIRST PRINCIPLES TO CHEW ON

I’ve realized for a second time that I’m unable to consistently and coherently maintain three blogs at the same time, and unfortunately am going to be packing FIRST PRINCIPLES in as of today.

Hey, the seeds for this were set when I realized that I wasn’t getting any more than two posts up per month, and that my average daily readership on this blog was four (4!) people. To the best of my knowledge, not a single blog beyond my own ever linked to this one, which given the readership of my other blogs (obscure rock music aficionados and beer dorks) doesn’t surprise me much. I hope that for the folks that did read First Principles, you perhaps looked at our “interesting times” in a new way. There’s no doubt I was seeking to bring a few liberals into the small-l libertarian fold, and who knows, at the rate of 4 visitors a day over 405 days, there might be 1,620 new converts repeatedly returning to the same first principles as I do.

What are they, those of you coming to this blog after July 10th, 2007, ask? OK, let’s review (and expand upon them from our 5/30/2008 introductory post, with some links to articles from our history that clarify them):

1. When the government gets involved, on balance, it screws most everything up. Therefore the less government, the better

2. Religion is an artifact from man’s unenlightened, darker ages. It may have contributed much good to the world, but its artificial hocus-pocus built upon institutional & state control has done more harm throughout history than any other concept or idea. (Read more about that here)

3. The free market is one of the greatest gifts to mankind in all of our history – and best of all, we gave it to ourselves

4. Taxation should be at the lowest possible level to sustain the thinnest shell of government – a government that protects its citizenry from outside harm & total destitution, and little else

5. Individuals should be free to love and sleep with whomever they choose, and government should have zero role in such matters (Read more about that here)

6. My tastes and desires should not be inflated above anyone else’s – I should be just as free to exercise them, rant about them, and convince you of my positions & superior taste as you are to do to me

7. If I have to choose the bigger enemy of freedom, justice and well-bring, I choose the well-intentioned liberal over the backward conservative. That said, I don’t skew Republican or Democrat – I profoundly dislike both parties, particularly as they exist today.

8. The death penalty is wrong and unjust.

9. Education services should be just as competitive as business services – America’s current system is a joke and a huge waste of money & minds, despite the best and well-intentioned efforts of many. (Read more about that here)

10. Unions in America, on whole, have served their purpose and are now nothing but a hindrance (read more about that here)

11. There’s a big difference between support for a truly free market and support for “business” per se – many, if not most, businesspeople are wimps, and are terrified of a true free market

12. Immigration into and out of the US and elsewhere should be as unfettered as possible. It is a good thing, and always has been

13. Nativism and nationalism are meaningless – the ideals behind these tendencies are not

14. On matters of crime & punishment: those who bring real harm to others should be locked up – not necessarily for punishment’s sake, but for deterrence and to prevent recidivism. Truly victimless crimes should (in general) not be prosecuted. (Read more about that here)

15. Evolutionary biology says most of what you need to know about why men & women act as they do – but can be oversimplified and over-extrapolated to the point of ridiculousness (so be careful!). (I never did get to write a good post about this idea)

16. In politics and society, just as in life, the perfect should not be the enemy of the good

Hopefully this site was interesting to some of you out there. If I had to pick one post that carries the themes of this blog the best, it would be this one from 2/18/2009. I’m no less interested in studying and propagating these ideas than I ever was – but I just don’t have the time. Writing about beer and music is about all I can squeeze in – this stuff requires some real time & actual deep thought.

I leave you with a handful of recently-read (by me) books that I strongly recommend to “continue your studies”, as it were – these are some of my favorites:

Virginia Postrel – “The Future and its Enemies”
Sam Harris – “The End of Faith”
Brian Doherty - “Radicals For Capitalism”
Amity Shlaes – “The Forgotten Man”
Alan S. Miller - "Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters"
Christopher Hitchens – “God Is Not Great”
John Steele Gordon – “An Empire of Wealth”
Rick Perlstein – “Before The Storm – Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus”

Thanks for reading!

Friday, June 19, 2009

HEALTH CARE AND “THE COST CONUNDRUM”

Put me down as being in the corner of those asking whether or not we truly have a health care "crisis" in this country, particularly one that mandates yet another federal takeover as part of the Obama New New Deal. I’m happily skeptical that this will actually get passed in any sort of damaging fashion (god, I hope I’m right), and what we’ll end up getting is some watered-down Democrat-lite tinkering around the margins. Maybe it will help sick people who truly need coverage to get it – I’m more than OK with that. Health care, the kind that saves lives and repairs grievous injury, is part of a government-provided safety net that even this curmudgeonly libertarian can get behind.

When I read excellent, well-written articles like the current Capitol Hill wonky rave, “The Cost Conundrum” by Atul Gawande, it makes me think a little. Gawande’s article, which I understand it being used within the White House & Congress as we speak to help create our new national health care policy, is one of those pieces that is about 75% knock-you-flat common sense (the kind that’s so sensible it’s well-hidden), and about 25% complete puffery, full of unanswered questions. Here’s what I learned from the article – and what I agree with. I strongly recommend you read the piece. Print it and read it tonight. Anyway:

- Health care in this country is being vastly inflated by the “fee-for-service” model, whereby doctors have created wittingly or unwittingly incentives for themselves to recommend largely unnecessary procedures to patients, each of which helps line their pockets a little more.
- Greed (I kindly prefer to call it reward) is a motivating factor in human behavior. You get what you measure, and if there are opportunities for doctors to game the system to make more money, many will do it.
- Nearly all of these doctors are fantastic at what they do, and nearly all love helping patients. They also happen to love vacations and remodeled houses. So do I. So do you.

Anyway, Gawande’s conclusions are naively optimistic about changing human behavior so that doctors willingly join into groups that more or less “ban” the profit motive. I say it’s naïve because the only way that’s going to happen is to socialize medicine. Gawande keeps saying, “ I don’t care how it gets done, public or private….” but that’s a really bogus understanding of incentives and human behavior. If you want doctors to forgo fee-for-service, you’re going to have to force them. I honestly do not trust Obamacare to do that in a way that’s good for America – or for medicine - as a whole.

There are two other big factors I thought about while I was reading this piece:

First, patients in 2009 are so much more demanding, informed and less trusting than they were even ten years ago. Rather than blame doctors for ordering extra procedures, let’s also understand the effect of the internet in helping patients to understand their treatment options. Struggling patients today can very easily find out how their illness is treated in different states and different countries. If they learn about surgical procedures have helped others, then certainly they’re going to argue with a doctor who recommends a less-risky course of action. Doctors can only stick to their guns and say no, or say yes (while also collecting more money through referrals and the fee-for-service model). I thought the article was a bit remiss in not documenting the unprecedented – and wholly good – rise of the “self-informed patient”, and the role that has likely played in the concomitant rise of health care costs.

Second, Gawande dismisses the effect of malpractice lawyers rather sharply, probably because his article falls apart if he pays too much attention to it. Nationwide, malpractice suits have risen ridiculously the past decade, along with the cost of malpractice insurance. It’s a legal cottage industry that’s paid a tidy sum to lawyers able to work the system on behalf of their clients. It goes without saying that some of these suits have merit, and that tort reform in some states has helped to cut some of the more egregious rewards. Yet talk to any doctor – I have – and they’ll tell you what a huge part of their monthly costs malpractice insurance is, and how bogus so many of the claims are. We live in a litigious society. We sue for dumb reasons. We have aggressive lawyers who get rich off of these suits, and courts and jurisdictions that are cherry-picked to yield the “right” result. I believe that a deeper understanding of this will also help solve the cost conundrum, provided that we throw the lawyers under the bus just as hard as we throw the doctors and the insurance companies.

Fact is, this is an issue that bedevils a lot of us. I’m not wonky enough to figure it all out. I want to at least recommend the article, and point out a few inconsistencies that might help lead us all to some “deeper truths”. Let me know what you think.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

I’M JUST GOING TO SAY IT: I LIKE OBAMA’S APPROACH ON IRAN

It appears that there are increasing calls for the President to make a big show of condemnation for Iran’s mullahs & the election process in this whole nascent revolution going on in Iran right now. I say that’s exactly the wrong thing to do. Too often we in the United States think our condemnations of other nations actually mean something to them – well, actually they do. No matter how correct or right-on they are – as we would be to really stick it to the mad mullahs running Iran – they’re very often used as rallying points by a people who don’t like us to begin with. Just be honest, here: this revolution is not about us. We add nothing to the debate – we only subtract by getting involved. America certainly has a horse in these historical events, but we’ll do everything to undermine it if we take the advice of the Republicans, bloggers, columnists etc. calling for Obama’s head if he doesn’t make a big ‘ol predictable dog-and-pony show of condemning Iranian theocrats and their puppets. The last country the Iranians want to hear from on their self-determination is the United States. I’m glad Obama’s keeping his cards close to the vest in this case.

Oh – and if the Iranians actually do bring their theocracy down, it’ll be one the seminal events of our time. I’ll keep hitting “refresh” on my browser every 10 minutes to see where we’re at.

Friday, June 5, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: “AN EMPIRE OF WEALTH” by John Steele Gordon

I bought this 2004 paperback on a whim, simply because I was intrigued with the idea of a well-told economic history of the United States, rather than the typical political and social narratives. There are – shall I say were – a lot of gaps in my knowledge of how the US became such an economic colossus, and this book has done me & others who’ve read it a huge service by painting in the canvas, from Jamestown Colonial times up through the dot-com era.

“AN EMPIRE OF WEALTH” by necessity takes a breezy approach to the 300-ish years it covers, yet chooses to go deep on transformational surges that shaped the way the United States was capitalized into the largest & most influential economy on the plane. Among them are the fits & starts that created the Bank of the United States and later the Federal Reserve; the inventions of the cotton gin, the cultivation of whale oil; early Wall Street machinations; the California gold rush; the political fights and bungled decision-making that took the country to the brink of insolvency on several occasions; and the rise and decline of the American labor movement. Those are only a few of the many subjects covered – this is truly a mini-encyclopedia that reads like the breathless work of nonfiction that it is.

John Steele Gordon does not particularly hue to any real political agenda in telling the tale – unless, of course, you believe that fealty to the transformational wealth-creation engine of capitalism is “political” in nature. Gordon presents himself for the most part as an awed bystander to the events and the personalities that built this nation, occasionally staying off to defend the honor of the quote-unquote “robber barons” as they aggressively opened the country to greater trade & commerce, and in the process enriched themselves and thousands upon thousands of others. Actually Gordon presents a pretty balanced narrative that has the United States government learning to tame the business cycle and some of capitalism’s excesses with regulation – and uncritically so. I enjoyed the perspective of a man completely in thrall to the amazing growth machine of capitalism, who nevertheless sees it as a beast that needs occasional taming to fit the times, though I admit it was surprising to see his fawning admiration of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Great Depression-era policies, particularly after since I’d recently read Amity Shlaes’ “The Forgotten Man”. It’s interesting that his view of Roosevelt and Reagan as economic heroes is the mainstream view in 2009, given how divergent both presidents’ views of government & business were.

My only complaint was that when Gordon chooses to ignore an ugly topic, he really chooses to ignore it. No true economic history of the United States is complete without a thorough look at the role slavery played in creating wealth, but it’s completely missing from this book. Slavery is mentioned only in passing, as a way to bring us to the chapters on the Civil War. I found this not only unconscionable, but very factually bereft. One does not have to do a full PC recitation of slavery’s horrors to note its “contribution”, such as it was, to thousands of white men whose entire fortunes depended entirely upon the backbreaking, coerced work of others. I also thought that a mention of the end of World War II that completely forgets to namedrop Hiroshima and Nagasaki a little dubious – but in his defense, this sort of conventional history was really not the aim here.

I could see college professors assigning this book in droves to core-level US history classes, and they’d be right for doing so – it’s a really great read, and has now got me very interested in going much deeper on the industrial revolution and late 1800s. Yet “AN EMPIRE OF WEALTH” is definitely a literate page-turner as well, and not some dumbed-down college kid book. My favorite story was how this country nearly ran out of money and went completely under during the Civil War, if not for the invention of the “bond drive”. It’s not a standard part of the history of this country, and yet it was a near-catastrophe that almost ruined the republic. You might be surprised, as I was, at what an economic history of the US has to teach us about this country, one which skirts the standard historical tropes we’re all very used to. First Principles says check it out.

Monday, June 1, 2009

"CALIFORNIA'S SILENT BIG SPENDERS"

Matt Welch over at Reason has done an excellent job covering California's spending foibles and the recent election that hopefully will help to tame them. One article I want to re-print in its entirety - one which has lessons for every state in the union - is "California's Silent Big Spenders", written last week. So here it is:

CALIFORNIA'S SILENT BIG SPENDERS

Matt Welch

Say this much for the French: At least they have the couilles to come right out and argue why government needs to be bigger and more intrusive. I may not agree that the state should enforce "solidarity," or protect people from the alleged ravages of "hyper-capitalism," or promote national values to an increasingly blasé world, but at least these are concrete articulations of a positive government agenda, one that is buttressed by France's semi-legendary (if slipping) public sector productivity.

You will hear no such arguments in California, even as a surly political/journalistic class continues its bitter campaign against "small government zealots" and voters who failed to heed their wisdom this month about the necessity of approving yet another round of budget gimmicks and tax hikes. Curiously, in the face of evidence that state spending growth has outpaced population-plus-inflation growth under each of the last three governors, the people busy sounding the alarm against "annihilating" budget cuts have fallen tellingly mute when it comes to explaining just why Californians should pay more and more money for government services every year.

What, exactly, has been the return on this added investment? If spending under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger increased 6.75 percent a year during mostly good times, surely there must be, say, a 3 percent increase in the quantity or quality of...something? Crickets.

Instead of making the positive case for big government, or at least beginning to explain, let alone defend, what Sacramento does with all that money, California's political class has instead opted for a four-pronged strategy: deny, scare, attack, then call for higher taxes.

First is the denial that there is a government-growth issue in the first place. This takes some intellectual dexterity, since the facts indicate otherwise.

Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik, for example, declared this week that the notion California had a spending problem was "an infectious myth." But Hiltzik was only able to arrive at that conclusion by not categorizing bond spending as "spending," and mis-measuring a 14 percent population increase over the past decade as 30 percent. An Los Angeles Times news article—with the objective headline "California budget crisis could bring lasting economic harm"—dismissed the big-government critique in two sentences: "Businesses have long complained about big-spending government in California. But with state and local spending accounting for about one-fifth of the state's gross domestic product, California is in line with some other heavily populated, expensive-to-manage states, such as New York and Florida." Left out of that comparison (besides a more representative opposition than "businesses" who "complained") was an even bigger state than New York or Florida: Texas, where state and local spending is not "in line" with California at all.

The scare story is the easiest to tell, and sell. It requires no falsifying, no comprehensive analysis of state spending, just selected horror stories and numbers about the miserables left behind by a suddenly crippled state. "Poor would bear brunt of California budget cuts," the Los Angeles Times headlined one story. Commented the California progressive Robert Scheer, in a disbelieving TruthDig column on federal reluctance to bail out the Golden State: "Bail out the banks, but not the 500,000 poor families with children served by the CalWorks program, which will be dismantled, or the 928,000 children covered by the Healthy Families program, slated for oblivion."

Next, and most fun, comes the attack, mostly against that vanishing and largely impotent California tribe known as "Republicans." New York Times economic columnist Paul Krugman called the state GOP "the party of Rush Limbaugh," with members who "have become ever more extreme," yet with "enough seats in the Legislature to block any responsible action in the face of the fiscal crisis." Washington Post labor columnist and longtime L.A. hand Harold Meyerson said that "today's GOP state legislators," when compared to the self-styled "Neanderthal" conservatives of the 1978 tax revolt, make "the Neanderthals look like Diderot's Encyclopedists."

How is it possible to blame a spending-based budget crisis on the spending-averse minority party in an increasingly monolithic Democratic state? This is where the reeling political class actually senses an opportunity.

"The biggest obstacle of all," wrote Los Angeles Times Sacramento columnist George Skelton just after the election, "is the inane two-thirds majority vote requirement for passage of virtually any money bill—spending or taxes." That two-thirds requirement, along with a cap on property-tax increases for owners who hold onto their homes and businesses, was part of the landmark 1978 voter initiative Proposition 13.

"The truth is that real solutions to the budget crisis are obvious," Hiltzik wrote just after the election. "One: Eliminate, or at least loosen substantially, the two-thirds legislative requirement to pass a budget or raise taxes. [...] Three is the Big One: Revise Proposition 13. Prop 13 is often described as a tax-cutting measure, but that scarcely does justice to the damage it has caused."

Also singing in the Prop. 13-must-go chorus were Krugman, Meyerson, UC Irvine Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, the Los Angeles Times editorial board, The American Prospect's Tim Fernholz, and just about any newsroom employee you'll run into. To a man, they'll tell you that the initiative is responsible for "bringing the state to [its] knees in four decades," or in Meyerson's florid verbiage, for having "reduced the Golden State to baser metal."

But if that analysis is true, then there is a natural follow-up question that none seem to ask: Why is it that the quality of government services is going down when the prices are going up? Snap intuition suggests that taxpayer dollars are being spent less efficiently each year. The more you spend on waste, the less you can spend on those 928,000 children.

Though there are far fewer zero-sum contests in economics than most people think, the battle over taxpayer dollars is definitely one of them. Every Californian worried about service cuts should take a very close look at state-sector pension contributions and the sweetheart contracts negotiated by the public sector unions that aren't even apologetic about helping run the state's finances into the ground.
It's only a suspicion, but my guess is that the main reason pro-spending commenters and legislators don't regale us with defenses of the virtuous State is that in their hearts they know it isn't true. If Sacramento is providing boffo services, it isn't immediately evident in the places where non-welfare-recipient Californians are most likely to encounter them: On the clogged highways, in the crappy public schools, at the local DMV. If the stuff we don't normally see is being delivered with increasingly better results, that's the kind of story that might begin to persuade skeptical Californians. But that's precisely the story that the state's political class won't—or can't—tell.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I VOTED! AND THIS TIME I WON

As a lifelong California resident used to living in the fabled - but very real - land of opportunity, the recent hard times in my state almost don’t seem real – and in a lot of ways, they’re not real: they’re thoroughly and completely manmade. State government has grown by leaps and bounds just in the past six years alone, and the lack of wisdom & courage in Sacramento often makes even Washington DC look good. Democrats, their toadies, unions, public employees and a completely pliant media run totally this state from a public-policy point of view, along with an electorate who are easily manipulated by same.

The good news is, that same electorate seems to be able to stir itself out of stupidity every few years as well. Yesterday we defeated an entire raft of bad ideas that would have raised our taxes, perpetuated the spending status quo in Sacramento, and rewarded Governor Schwarzenegger and the Sacramento Democrats for their asinine governance of the state the past few years. Ironically, it was just such a stirring of populist common-sense several years ago that put Schwarzenegger in power. An entire book should be – and no doubt will be – written about this man’s transformation from a Milton Friedman-quoting, near-Libertarian hero to just another Sacramento boob. Yesterday, he & the legislature floated a series of proposals that effectively would have covered years of overspending and bad mistakes by both, and raised taxes on the backs on the already hard-hit electorate, which has seen state and local taxes and hidden fees rise nearly every year since the dot-com bust. I won’t go into details, but these initiatives just didn’t lose – they were totally creamed. All except for the one that punished the lawmakers themselves, and keeps their salaries frozen every year the budget is not in balance. I voted against this gimmicky initiative, but believe me, I share the sentiments behind it.

Naturally the media is absolutely howling. The loss of one public job, let alone thousands, is taken as a deep, terminal wound from which we’ll never recover, forgetting of course that thousands upon thousands of those needless jobs are added to taxpayer-supported roles every year, without a peep of discontent from that same media. I really liked this post by Matt Welch at Reason Online about it. I expect lots of “OK California voters, you asked for it” moralizing this week and next when Schwarzenegger and the legislature start cutting jobs and programs, as they must to keep the state running. And far be it for me to praise the generally feckless California Republicans (at least those not named George Deukmejian or Tom McClintock), but damn, they’ve done a good job at holding the line on more new taxes despite nearly-overwhelming odds.

I don’t have particularly high hopes for California in the near term, but I hope this at least gets things shifting a little bit in the minds of the people elected to spend our tax dollars wisely. Not that I expect any assistance from the media, who have their own dynamic shifts & upheaval to deal with, as they’ll continually blame the voters for their periodic bursts of common sense.