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Unsustainable Pseudo-thinking

Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

One of the fashionable thought-killing words offered by the cliché-recycling movement is “sustainable.”

In the common tongue, as spoken by many, many environmentalists, this term implies that we will run out of all our stuff pretty soon unless everybody on the planet (except maybe Al Gore) is put on a strict low-consumption regimen.

The environmental movement has adopted the color “green,” but “drab-gray” is what comes to mind when I’m told that we must treat economic goods as existing in a fixed quantity, only to be skimpily apportioned (by regulators), never massively expanded (by profit-seeking producers, as they’ve done whenever free to do so).

In fact, as economist and Cafe Hayek blogger Don Boudreaux argues in his article “Unsustainable Platitudes,” market actors tend to swiftly counteract shortages that occur in a market context. When supply of a good slumps for whatever reasons, prices for it rise. Rising prices yield predictable effects. That is, they

  1. nudge customers to economize; and
  2. entice profit-seeking producers and vendors to create more of the good, or
  3. provide good-enough (or better) substitutes for it,
  4. or both.

This is Economics 101, teachable in one lesson.

The Wall Street Journal saw fit to quote Boudreaux, provoking the ire of enviro-cliché aficionado Joshua Holman. He contacted Boudreaux to accuse him of “[emitting] word pollution . . . to block the work of the many activists struggling to save our planet from overuse, exploitation and destruction.” In reply, Boudreaux suggests that reality “cannot be grasped, and it certainly cannot be improved, with slogans.”

Slogans do have their place. They’re just not a sustainable substitute for reasoning.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Registering Dissent in Russia

Monday, August 25th, 2014

Russian politics — does it consist in anything but the progressive unraveling of what modest liberalization of civic life the Russians benefited after the crackup of the Soviet Union?

The latest assault on liberty? The government targeting of Russian bloggers. The most popular ones — those with 3,000 or more daily readers — must now register with the government or risk being shut down. As Bloomberg’s Ilya Khrennikov puts it, “Russian President Vladimir Putin is taking names. Potentially thousands.”

The registrants must supply real names, real addresses.

Mother Russia says it’s doing this to combat inaccurate or defamatory information — i.e., opinions it dislikes; i.e., any too critical of the government. Putin already has authority to shut down “extremist” web pages sans judicial oversight. The new law tightens the noose.

It seems there’s little we can do about this in the West except express our sympathy for Russians fighting the commissars.

Well, one other thing, at least; and not so little. Western tech firms can refrain from abetting such repression the way Yahoo did when, several years ago, it turned over user info on Chinese dissidents Wang Xiaoning and Shi Tao to the Chinese government and thus enabled their imprisonment. Facebook, Google+ and other hosts of Russian-language blogs can flatly reject demands to censor or delete these blogs — or to supply the Russian government with identifying info on the authors.

Obviously, predictions of the end of history have indeed proven premature. We’re not all liberal democrats now.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

You Own You, I Own Me

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

There’s been a lot of talk about Robert Draper’s New York Times article on a possible “libertarian moment.” On Townhall, “last weekend,” I focused on the partisan political aspect of the movement. There was a lot of curious stuff in the article, and I haven’t seen anyone comment on one of its stranger passages.

Call it a moment of culture shock.

The article briefly profiled a “Washington-based journalist” who sported “a tattoo under her right biceps that reads, ‘I Own Me.’” This is a provocation, of course, sure to annoy authoritarians and collectivists and . . . David Frum:

“What does that mean, ‘I own myself?’ ” David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush and Republican commentator, sputtered in exasperation when we spoke later. “Can I sell myself? If I can’t, I don’t own myself.”

Taken at face value, one could simply answer Frum by mentioning that in olden times people could sell themselves — into slavery.

Or one could make an extended political point. “Haven’t we all sold ourselves long ago?” That might be unnerving.

But the informed answer is this: “We can’t sell ourselves because our ‘self-propriety’ (as Richard Overton put it long ago) differs from other kinds of ownership. Our self-ownership is inalienable. That’s why it’s so important.”

It’s like this: You own you, I own me — we are free.

It turns out, Mr. Frum, that this “inalienability” idea was central to much discussion of rights at the founding of our country. Funny you don’t seem to know anything about that.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

The Inequality Problem

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

Ah, the Paul Krugman Problem! How does Nobel Laureate economist-cum-New York Times progressive-blogger come to his conclusions?

The other day, the eminent Scott Sumner noted — in “The power of wishful thinking?” — that in the space of one year Krugman seemed to gain a great deal of certainty about how vital it is to reduce inequality.

Sumner quotes Krugman from a year ago, when he frankly admitted that he’d like to agree with Joe Stiglitz’s thesis about inequality, but just wasn’t able to persuade himself.

Unfortunately, Krugman hasn’t given us a lot of reason to follow his “lead,” his new-found faith in Stiglitzian equality. Sumner cites a possible “inspiration” for Krugman’s new tune: Krugman’s employer, the New York Times, has, as editorial policy, shifted leftward on such issues. And then Sumner waxes philosophical:

Sometimes an economist will change his view on a single issue because of some new empirical study (although that actually doesn’t happen as much as you’d think, or as much as you might like). But what about when an economist suddenly swings sharply to the left or right on a whole range of unrelated issues?

Many people do go through radical conversions; you can find interesting conversion testimonies of a religious nature, if not so many in political economy.

As for me, the subject of inequality continues to fascinate, like picking at a scab.

I suspect that rising inequality is caused by the very institutions that Paul Krugman regards as bedrock: institutions that redistribute money from one group to another; institutions that regulate behavior for the benefit (we’re told) of the worse off; institutions altogether “progressive.”

Surely there would be more downward mobility for the rich and upward mobility for the poor in a freer society than in a more Krugman-approved society.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Wrong Lesson Learned

Monday, August 11th, 2014

Last week’s interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman brought a rare admission from President Barack Obama.

Friedman asked, “What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned doing foreign policy?”

“I’ll give you an example of a lesson I had to learn that still has, you know, ramifications to this day,” Obama replied, “and that is our participation in the coalition that overthrew Gaddafi in Libya.”

The president was quick to defend the “lead from behind” 2011 intervention, itself, as “the right thing to do,” because “had we not intervened, it’s likely that Libya would be Syria, right?”

Or Iraq, perhaps?

He decided to attack Libya militarily, Mr. Obama went on to explain, precisely “because Gaddafi was not going to be able to contain what had been unleashed there” (via the Arab Spring) and thus, “there would be more death, more disruption, more destruction.”

Does that make any sense? Was Gaddafi’s inability to wield more complete and total power over his rivals within the country plausibly be the rationale behind the NATO intervention?

In acknowledging his error, the president said, “What is also true is, I think we underestimated . . . the need to come in full force — if you’re going to do this. Then it’s the day after Gaddafi’s gone, when everyone’s feeling good, everybody’s holding up posters saying ‘Thank You, America!’ At that moment, there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies that don’t have any civic traditions.”

Of course, it isn’t possible to “re-build” that which you admit never existed.

And it isn’t the role of the U.S. Government.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

An Epic Rebuke

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

The Good Ol’ Boy Network is under attack. And there’s no nicey face, kiss-and-make-up from its enemy, Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich), to his just-defeated primary opponent, Brian Ellis.

Ellis called Amash to congratulate his opponent on election night, after Amash defeated Ellis by a rather large margin. Amash refused to answer Ellis’s call.

No wonder. During the campaign, Ellis sure didn’t play nicey-nice, calling Amash “Al-Qaida’s best friend.”

Amash is well known as a Tea Party candidate, someone who fairly consistently opposes crony capitalism. Ellis was heavily funded by the Chamber of Commerce, local and national . . . and you know what that means.

Or should. The Chamber, “while claiming to be ‘pro-free-market,’” Ryan McMaken explains at The Circle Bastiat, “has gone after him for not spending enough government money. This is not surprising. Business groups like Chambers of Commerce are not free-market organizations at all, but rent-seeking lobbying groups looking for government favors.

There’s nothing new here. When Ron Paul was in Congress, the US Chamber ranked him as one of the worst members, giving him the lowest score of any Republican. In Chamber-speak, being “free-market” means voting for things like TARP and various bailouts and No Child Left Behind.

Are you for the freedom principle, or a mere insider free-for-all?

That principle may be why Amash rebuked not only Ellis but Ellis’s major backer, former Rep. Pete Hoekstra, as well. “You are a disgrace,” Amash lambasted Hoekstra. “And I’m glad we could hand you one more loss before you fade into total obscurity and irrelevance.”

Harsh. Though refreshing candor. In a fight over principle, nicey-nice may not suffice.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.

Grading on the Progressive Curve

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

It used to be a joke.

Tom Lehrer made it about his military experience. “One of the many fine things (one has to admit) is the way that the Army has carried the American democratic ideal to its logical conclusion … not only do they prohibit discrimination on the grounds of race, creed and color, but also on the grounds of ability.”

Now it’s becoming reality. At least at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

A fairly recent set of directives from the august institution’s faculty senate called for “proportional participation of historically underrepresented racial-ethnic groups at all levels of an institution, including high status special programs, high-demand majors, and in the distribution of grades.”

We’re told that these goals were buried in a huge document, and the academics who approved it may not have known what they were approving, exactly.

Sounds like they’re ready for Washington, DC, where lack of reading skills can be compensated for by spin skills.

The idea that the thing to be achieved is some sort of demographic microcosm of the social macrocosm, proportioned at all levels, doesn’t hold water. Apparently, if 5 percent of the population were Lower Slobovian, the institution simply must mirror that five percent in its ranks.

Including a proportion of Slobovians getting high grades.

Whether this “proportionality” means what Katherine Timpf says it means — “good grades should be distributed equally among students of different races” — I don’t know.

But I do know the standards being scuttled here: ability, achievement, merit.

It’s obvious: trendy, “progressive-minded” academics and activists have so little sense of proportion (and so little sense of humor) that they can’t tell when their earnest efforts are themselves nothing more than jokes.

This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.