Radical Reason

"Nil sine ratione."

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Further proof that Dr. Z from SI is an idiot. Here's a link to his sleepers to make the All-Pro team.


I have a few thoughts/questions for Dr. Z...

1. How can Marques Colston be a sleeper when he's the most talked about offensive rookie and is in the top 5 in WR TD's?
2. Since when is Lance Briggs a sleeper, Dr. Z? I'm pretty sure he made the Pro Bowl last year, pal.
3. When you are 1-2 in the league in receiving yards halfway through the season (Andre Johnson and Reggie Wayne), I'm pretty sure you're no longer a "sleeper".
4. When was the last time a WR made the All-Pro team with one receiving touchdown over the course of the first half of the season? Will Wes Welker be the first, Dr. Z (400 yards, 1 TD)?
5. In case you didn't notice Dr. Z, Tommie Harris has been non-existant since week 4 against the Seahawks.
6. You say this about Elvis Dumervil, Dr. Z: "The 5-foot-11, 250-pound Dumervil, who's been called too short forever -- is leading Denver in sacks." That's great to hear, but let me fill you in on a little secret. There's another rookie DE in the NFL, Mark Anderson, who is in the top 5 IN THE NFL in sacks. Last time I checked, you don't make the All-Pro team for "being called too short forever". I won't even bother to compare Anderson to Mathias Kiwanuka, your other DE selection. Contrary to your knowledge, the NFL runs deeper than the first day of the draft.
7. I won't touch Julian Peterson. I can't reach that high on the overrated chart.
8. Explain to me how a 1-7 team has 3 players make your list on the defensive side of the ball.

Give your job to a real fan, Dr. Z, because you, my friend, suck dong.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Recently, Prof. Geoffrey Stone of the University of Chicago wrote a column in the Chicago Tribune attempting to define what it meant to be a liberal. He asks for debate in response to his "Top 10" list. Debate it is. These thoughts are a bit general, as I am attempting to tackle entire systems of governance in this post, but I do believe that there is some substance to my words.

To start off, I have been troubled for awhile by the hijacking of the term "liberal" by the political left. In the 20th century, political leftism has largely stood for statism - an ever-expanding state, intruding into the lives of its citizens, depriving citizens of their individual freedom in pursuit of an ill-defined conception of "equality." The liberty-equality tension continues to fascinate me, but that's another topic for another time. "Liberal" in its most basic form means "free" - and I fail to understand how the statism of the left does anything but suppress freedom. "Conservatives" have a shameful record on this matter of late, to be sure, but their philosophical skepticism of government generally does more to foster freedom than the left's love for government.

In any event, Stone claims initially that the first tenet of liberalism is, broadly, free speech. The first tenet of just about any reasonable person should be free speech - no argument here. However, reason demands that untruths be confronted and debated. Free speech demands responsibility. Everyone has the right hold an opinion, but reason dictates that not all opinions are legitimate. All too often liberalism seems to deem all statements equal, when reason shows that is not the case. There is no place for government suppression, but there is a case for individuals speaking out against untruths.

Stone then claims that liberals are champions of tolerance and respect for difference, pointing to their cupport of affirmative action and the Equal Rights Amendment. I fail to see how being a champion of tolerance leads directly to support for affirmative action. In many ways, policies like affirmative action aggravate differences among citizens. Affirmative action has its merits, but it is false to claim that respect for differences naturally leads to support for affirmative action. (Oh, and the Equal Rights Amendment already exists - it's called the 14th amendment, and it was ratified in 1868. It's insulting to women to argue that they need their own amendment for protection.)

Third, Stone claims that liberals believe individuals have the right to participate in public debate, a notion consistent with the first point. He then points to liberal efforts to expand the franchise - a noble cause, although it must be noted that the franchise must be a valued portion of citizenship, and therefore it is incumbent on societies to determine what citizenship means. For example, if an individual withdraws from the social contract by committing a felony crime against society, it is perfectly reasonable for that society to deny him that citizenly right of voting, as he showed little regard for the tenets of society when committing his felony. Obviously, state suppression of votes is morally wrong, and vigilance over the integrity of elections is very important. But elections are also dependent upon law and must be administered according to the laws settled upon beforehand.

Stone contradicts his stance on free speech, however, with his embracing of campaign-finance reofrm. The arguments against campaign-finance reform on free speech grounds are prevalent, but it seems quite obvious to me that the censorship of political speech before elections is slightly inconsistent with the first principle. And perhaps even the third principle, advocating participation in democracy.

Stone's sixth point is the proverbial "road paved with good intentions." History has shown that government is quite bad at "helping those who are less fortunate." I believe that society and individuals have a categorical imperative to help those who are troubled, but government is usually least effective at this mission. It is individuals who are best at pursuing their own interests, given the freedom to do so. Government simply does not have the same set of incentives as each individual, and to assume that its actions are best is to insult and disserve wide swaths of the population. The sixth point runs largely contrary to free market economics.

Stone appeals to populism in his eighth point, eulogizing "liberal" judges, who have protected individual freedoms and due process, while demonizing "conservative" judges, who, in his words, have "protect[ed] propoerty rights and the interests of corporations, commercial advertisers, and the wealthy." Funny, I was not aware that the property rights of the wealthy were less important than the property rights of the poor. Western governance is based on a fundamental understanding of the sanctity of private property, and to assign a relative value to property based on the nature of the owner is to undermine that entire system. And it is actually liberal judges who trampled on the individual freedoms of the citizens of New London, CT, when they approved the confiscation of middle-class homes by the state in the Kelo decision. Some protection of individual liberty.

Stone's ninth point makes no sense, which he himself admits, calling his argument for government protection of the people "less a tenet of liberalism than a reply to those who attack liberalism." This seems to be a point devoted to basically saying that liberals aren't wimps. Fine. But there's a big difference in the history - just contrast the statements of John F. Kennedy or Harry Truman, liberal - and American - heroes with those of the political left today. Something tells me that the American left today would not issue an ultimatum to Cuba threatening nuclear war against the USSR if missiles were launched, as Kennedy did.

In sum, Stone attempts to claim for liberalism many tenets which are shared by all reasonable people in a democracy. He admits that his list is not exhaustive, nor is it propietary solely to liberals. His error, in my view, is his connection of abstract principles - which are largely shared by all - to current applications, which often don't rationally follow.

Oh, and I just found this at TCS Daily, which was similarly inspired - and much more worthy of publication.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

September 27, 2006

Soft paternalism strikes again. Read about a pending New York law.

In response to this article, one of my friends said, to paraphrase,

"Good. Trans fats are bad for you. This law will save lives, and it will especially save the lives of the poor, who eat fatty foods disproportionately because they are cheaper. Most people are ignorant of the consequences of eating fatty foods, especially poor people. I am not scared of big government if it makes people healthier."

Now, I am no fan of big government. Neither are most Americans.

But with thinking like that paraphrased above, you can see why dictatorships sometimes enjoy popular approval.

I've never bought the "poor people have no choice" argument. I think it's incredibly weak - and insulting to the labor and intelligence of poor people. It's cheaper to go to the grocery store to purchase food. It's just that many people are lazy (or, if you prefer, harried and busy) and want the easy way out (or convenience, if you prefer) provided by fast food. I'll hit on this in a bit.

The problem here is twofold. One component is ignorance of the threats posed by fatty foods. That is addressed by education, not prohibition. And the second issue is one of choice. At base, people CHOOSE to eat fatty foods. Humans make choices in free societies. Perhaps that choice is not prudent - in one's humble opinion - but government prohibition of that choice represents a remarkable confiscating of freedom.

This law throws the baby out with the bathwater. Responsible healthy people who enjoy the occasional greasy bowl of french fries suddenly have been told by their caretaker governments that, "that's not a good idea. And we know better." It seems axiomatic to me that an individual can best pursue his or her interests, and that outside actors, despite potential information advantages, simply do not have the same incentive to pursue another's best interests. Particularly government actors.

Nationwide obesity is a problem. But the solution is not limiting freedom of choice. I think the solution is education and better parenting. The state has unfortunately stepped into too many similar arenas. Parents are no longer responsible for how their children develop. Individuals are no longer responsible for their own behavior. Suddenly - and remarkably ineffectively - the state is.

Back to the article. I also think economics plays a huge role in a law such as this, and the social planners on high seem to have ignored this. Restaurants will spend a fortune if they try to comply with this regulation, and those costs will be passed onto consumers. Suddenly, that poor family is plunking a lot more down to eat at McDonald's - that's money they don't have. Businesses will fail, jobs will be lost, and the only people that will benefit to any appreciable degree are those in the upper classes.

This is a typical leftist solution to a problem - pass a law that shifts responsibility for dealing with the problem to "others," then go home feeling good about yourself. It's the reason that many rich people support higher taxes for state-run programs. Rather than go out and fight poverty or some other ill directly - through teaching in low-income schools or giving of one's own time or organizing some charitable effort of committed souls, it's much easier to just shift the responsibility through money to others - it requires no real sacrifice on the rich person's part. He can wash his hands of the problem and sleep better at night, confident that he's "doing something."

You might call it the "White Guilt Relief Fund."

There are many problems in our society, and as members of that civil society, we can debate the nature of the imperative to solve them. But window-dressing such as the law described in this article serves only to whittle further away at the freedom of the individual and unleashes a host of unintended consequences that amount to little more than an effort to appear to do something, rather than to actually do something.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

From Mike Ditka. Seriously. He has the jersey and everything. -ed.

Sports analysis has become such a phenomenon yet people seem to disregard the simple facts. Like these:

1. The Bears dismantled the Panthers last regular season, but this game could be pinned solely on the Panthers O-Line as they were dominated by the Bears front four. (Bears 1 - Panthers 0)

2. The Panthers dismantled the Bears in the playoffs, but this game could be pinned solely on the Bears secondary as they were dominated by Smith/Delhomme (Bears 1 - Panthers 1)

3. Both teams made, in my opinion, one great offseason move and had solid, if not sexy, drafts. The key here is they both reinforced positions decimated by injury which held them back last year. Bears got Griese as a FA (reinforcing QB), which was a shrewd move while the Panthers goy Key, which can only help. The Bears bolstered that secondary that was toasted by SS and company (reinforcing our oft-injured secondary) in both FA and the draft while adding to their special teams with Devin Hester. The Panthers picked up arguably the best RB in the draft behind Bush (reinforcing their oft-injured RB) while offsetting the loss of RMJ by drafting Richard Marshall, who some "experts" had slated to go in the 1st round. I call this a wash, with both teams addressing glaring needs. (Bears 1 - Panthers 1)

In my opinion, it is this black and white. Now why is it that the sportswriters are so eager to tout the Panthers as the Superbowl champs while picking the Bears to lose their disgustingly weak division? My point here is not necessarily to compare the Bears and Panthers but to provide one instance where the "expert analysis" doesn't hold water when you analyze 2006 in light of the 2005 season and subsequent draft and free agency period. All said, sure, I'd probably trade the Bears team for the Panthers team. And yes, the Bears need to prove they can win a playoff game, which they haven't done since the early 90's (excuse me, I just puked in my mouth a little).

But, when you consider the above "analysis" in light of strength of schedule and teams in the NFC North and NFC South, this is a no-brainier. The Panthers play a very tough schedule and their division is, in my opinion, the second toughest in football. Atlanta will have a nasty D but their success with hinge on Vick. Everyone knows how tough TB is. Ask the Panthers and Bears. NO actually has a QB and added another explosive player in Bush. I doubt their D will hold up. Still, they're much improved. The 3 "other" NFC North teams feature 3 rookie head coaches, two QB's pushing 40, zero proven RB's, one team starting 2 rookies on their O-Line, one team who cut their projected #1 WR, 3 mediocre LB'ing units, a disaster of a secondary in Green Bay (give me a break with the Charles Woodson signing, he is OVERRATED like none other) and the list goes on and on.

Given all this, please tell me how the Panthers are the unanimous pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl while at least 1/3 of the previews I've read do not pick the Bears to with the North. Are the Panthers that much better? Am I missing something? Are these experts really experts??

From Ra-James - we'll have to do it this way until I figure out how to use the blogging software -

This is from a debate about our favorite idiot columnist, Harold Meyerson. He wrote a column about health insurance and Wal-Mart. -ed.

The health insurance concerns are, I believe, the reason that so many Americans are apprehensive about the state of the economy. The lack of health insurance is a major problem and needs to be addressed through fundamental and radical reform of our entire health care system, although I will stress that my statement doesn't imply nationalized health care (however, I do like the idea of a government subsidized health care voucher system) . I'd also like to point out that unlike virtually every good and service provided by our economy, the cost of health care has increased in real terms over the past century. I'd say that we need to figure out a way to get health care to behave more like those other goods and services.

The "Wal-Mart depresses wages" theory only holds water if Wal-Mart has such a hugely disproportionate market share that it can push down the wages of workers across the industry, by exercising said market share to push down really hard on its overall operating costs and allowing its prices to follow suit. Thus, it follows that other firms in the industry will have to cut their operating costs, which includes labor costs, in order to compete on a price basis with Wal-Mart. However, I find this claim to be exaggerated for a number of reasons:

1. There is no rule that says companies in the industry compete only on price. Target and Costco make up for their higher prices relative to Wal-Mart by offering higher quality merchandise and a more attractive shopping experience (higher quality staff, cleaner stores, etc.). Target and Costco also pay their workers higher wages than Wal-Mart, but hire less workers. In essence, anti-Wal-Mart activists are saying that they would like to impose the Costco model on all big box retailers in order to ensure that the workers are paid more. However, common sense dictates that if forced to do so, Wal-Mart will simply hire less workers and keep the same operating costs. The only way that forcing the Costco model onto workers at Wal-Mart would be good for those workers would be if Wal-Mart decided to absorb all of the increased costs of labor and not lay anyone off, thereby driving up their operating costs and forcing them to take a major hit in profitability. This scenario seems extremely unlikely and the whole anti-Wal-Mart argument amounts to a lot of wishful thinking.

2. Additionally, I mentioned that in order to exercise a strong depressionary effect on wages, Wal-Mart would need to have a hugely disproportionate market share in the sales of the goods it stocks on its shelves. In fact, it would probably need to have a near monopolistic grip on the market in order to do so. However, once a company gains a monopoly market share, it tends to raise its prices because it now has carte blanche to do so. Additionally, historically firms with a monopoly grip on the market will almost always pay their workers more than they would have earned if the industry was competitive. Moreover, it is glaringly obvious that Wal-mart is not a monopoly. Just off the top of my head I can think of a handful of competitors, including: Harris Teeter, Target, Costco, KMart, TJ Maxx, Best Buy, Meijer, the list goes on. Thus, this argument rests on an empirical fallacy as well as a theoretical fallacy.

Some other general comments:

1. I do not understand how anti-Wal-Mart activists can neglect the massive benefits that the store confers on the poor consumer by allowing them to purchase goods for much less than they would be able to get anywhere else. In that sense the poor have no greater friend than Wal-Mart. All that you have to do to confirm this is walk into a Wal-Mart and observe the shoppers who walk in and out. I guarantee that the clientele at Wal-Mart has a lower average income than the clientele at Costco or Target.

2. There is no reason to believe that the individuals who choose to work at Wal-Mart for low wages do not do so because it was the best option available to them at the time. No one is forced to work at Wal-Mart. Also, there is no reason to believe that people who work for Wal-Mart are stuck there forever. Indeed, someone with no work skills or experience who works at Wal-Mart for 2 years can use that experience with Wal-Mart to springboard to a better job at Costco, where they will be paid more and have health care benefits. I am willing to bet that since Costco pays so well, it rarely hires people with zero or marginal experience to work in its stores. Forcing Costco labor standards on Wal-Mart would probably cut off a source of upward mobility for the individuals who need the experience and skills gained by working at Wal-Mart the most.

3. There is strong evidence that Wal-Mart is a major contributor towards alleviating extreme third world poverty, which, judging by their attitudes towards trade, anti-Wal-Mart activists don't care about. (http://www.tcsdaily.com/article.aspx?id=082206D)

September 7, 2006

At long last, I return to Radical Reason. Let's hope indolence doesn't get the best of me in the next few months.

A format change - I've been toying with adding other contributors here, and now comes the time for that. We'll welcome experts from various fields - and by experts, I mean the people that I normally argue with about inane subjects.

Check the byline for the latest contributors. And some expanded topics - an economics focus, and the occasional sports post as well. We're jacks of all trades over here.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

I'll stray from my normal policy discussions for something a bit different - the World Cup.

Zidane's head-butt to the chest of Materazzi is big news worldwide, even in America. And with good reason - in the world of sport, rarely does a superstar of this magnitude deliver such a cheap shot on the field of play, regardless of the provocation. I can't necessarily defend his actions, although based on the rumors about the insults delivered, I certainly can understand the blind rage that must have consumed Zidane. And soccer has an ugly history with racism. Comments like those made by the Spanish coach sometime back about Thierry Henry would never fly in America. (At least, I'd like to think that they would never fly here.) If Materazzi did call Zidane a "dirty terrorist" or some variant thereof, I can only express shock. It doesn't excuse Zidane's actions on the field of play, but Materazzi would be confirmed as callous, classless, and quite simply idiotic.

With all that said, I despise the direction of the worldwide sports commentariat on this issue. Every major sportswriter seems to be going to great lengths to pile on Zidane and condemn him and his actions. Every comment inevitably cries about his tarnished legacy and his fall from grace. He no longer should be considered worthy of comparisons to Maradona and Pele, they say. He is simply a solid player who was predisposed to lose control of his senses, who won some but is not iconic. This after the commentariat had spent 2 weeks fawning over St. Zizou, the man who came out of retirement like an athletic Cincinnatus to lead an aging French team to one last World Cup. And based on his play, some degree of fawning was justified, though perhaps not the hyperbole to which most commentators are predisposed.

Quite frankly, this rebellion by the commentariat is ludicrous. Sports broadcasters have recently taken to anointing themselves the moral arbiters of culture through from their perch high above the sport of the day. The first thing that comes to mind is Joe Buck's declared war on Randy Moss after the Minnesota/Oakland receiver faux-mooned the crowd in a regular season game. Put aside the fact that this relatively funny, or at the very worst just stupid. If the fans don't like it, they should boo more. Fans do not need Joe Buck to declare his moral superiority from the booth. And furthermore, it's not the place of the announcer to comment as if the field were his fiefdom. Track the play, throw in bits of worthwhile analysis, and let the fan or viewer make judgments on his own. This onslaught of moralizing seems to derive from a desire on the part of the announcer to be enshrined in the broadcasting hall of fame, in that pantheon of great calls - with the calls for Bobby Thomson's home run, Jack Brickhouse's "Go Crazy," and Vin Scully's call of Kirk Gibson's homer. What made those calls great was the announcer's ability to let the game stand on its own, colored slightly by the distinctive voices of those announcers. The athletic achievement shined, and the announcer refused to be anything more than our companion in the moment. A passion for the game, an identification with both the fan and the athlete, and the ability to make the game a narrative are what make an announcer memorable - not instant social commentary and a desire to inject oneself into the action.

Which brings me back to Zidane. The man was brilliant throughout the World Cup. Granted, I'm biased as a fan of Les Bleus and specifically Zidane, but his individual performance was peerless. His skill with the ball, his crisp passing, his delivery in the clutch (with one glaring exception) was unmatched. Especially with the inconsistency of the rest of the French squad, the disappearance of Henry (and his refusal to be onside) in big moments, and the overall age of the French team, it seemed as if Zidane willed his team to perform, much like so many superstars in other sports did. It'd be too much to go into the psyche of the superstar, specifically with regard to hyper-competitiveness, but that element was present as well.

Therefore, althought the head-butt will be a sad sidenote to this year's World Cup, it's premature and foolish for legions of talking heads to launch their assassination attempt on what is undeniably a brilliant career and a brilliant World Cup performance. Athletes become tragic figures every once in awhile. Perhaps that has happened to Zidane. But let the fan decide that on his own. Assassination by commentator is a grave mistake.

Let's just rejoice that Joe Buck wasn't in the booth for that game. He may well have shot Zidane on the field.

Sidenote: check out Bernard Henri-Levy's piece on Zidane for a lofty analysis of the situation, one that awakens and satisfies my love for the classics. I think he's dead on.

And of course, I have to admit that I enjoyed Dr. Z's too.

Friday, June 16, 2006

June 16, 2006

It’s been a few weeks since I spoke on the program, and the political climate in America is much the same. Immigration continues to dominate the discussion in Washington, and it is unclear whether the House and Senate will come to agreement on legislation addressing the issue. Other legislation has been offered, including proposed constitutional amendments banning gay marriage and flag burning and a sweeping telecommunications reform bill, but immigration has most Americans’ political blood boiling in one way or another.

I’d like to step away from those issues, though, and describe a new development in the nation’s political culture – the rise of electronic media. Blogs, online newspapers, political websites, and even podcasts like this one are the next frontier in political discourse and are making waves as the way to communicate with voters and constituents of all ages and persuasions.

The use of electronic media also represents another phenomenon in American politics – the growth of politics as a consumer good. What do I mean by that? Political strategists have taken on techniques generally reserved for traditional businesses as a means of reaching specific groups of voters and of communicating specific types of political messages. Micro-targeting is one example of this new method of political operation. Political groups collect data on groups of people and are able to then articulate messages designed specifically for that audience. These are some of the basic tools of marketing and advertising, now applied to politics. Because retirees will obviously respond to stimuli and messages in a very different way than will urban 20-somethings.

Here’s how micro-targeting works in practice. Let’s say a particular Republican candidate for Senate wants to contact the voters in his state to communicate his position on Social Security. He obviously will want to highlight different aspects of his position for different audiences. So, his campaign may send an e-mail to younger voters or post advertisements on websites frequented by younger Internet users that highlights his stance on reforming Social Security to give younger workers more control over their income through something like a private account. By contrast, his outreach effort to senior citizens would most likely be through direct mail or through newspaper advertisements and would emphasize the need to “protect” Social Security through reform in order to ensure that the program will not dissolve.

You see here that the campaign is able to target voters both according to behavior – Internet usage or newspaper reading – and political message – individual control over income or guaranteeing continued Social Security income. This is the essence of targeting.

Blogs are the most popular type of new media pervading the political realm. Blogs seem to have started as forums for fringe groups to express their views before a widespread audience and, at least in the case of political blogs, to organize their political activities, but they have rapidly gained mainstream acceptance. Many blogs enjoy readerships that rival those of major newspapers, and bloggers have even been able to beat traditional news outlets to break news stories. There will always be a place for traditional media and journalism, contrary to what some observers have declared, but blogs have certainly changed the media landscape.

Politicians have even gotten into the act, with the 2004 election marking the first time that official blogs became a prominent feature of campaign outreach efforts. Howard Dean’s inspired candidacy changed the turf on which campaigns operated, employing an army of electronic activists to both raise money – usually in small denominations – and to spread the message virally over the Internet. Candidates began keeping “personal blogs” – usually written by a staffer, obviously – tracking the progress of the campaign and attempting to engage younger voters through a new medium. The campaigns in 2004 truly became interactive, as information was instantaneous and as campaign websites became a direct forum through which voters could engage candidates whenever they chose.

Now virtually every savvy politician maintains some variation of a blog, and some even contribute personally, responding to comments from readers and engaging in electronic debate. Jack Kingston, a Republican Congressman from Georgia, has been at the forefront of this trend, employing all sorts of innovative electronic techniques to interact with voters, to get out his message, and to reveal his positions. He releases podcasts of his own, discussing the issues of the day in Congress. Bill Frist, the Senate Majority Leader from Tennessee, also releases podcasts. Both podcasts are available for subscription through iTunes, and both represent the newest form of political communication.

And these official blogs don’t exercise nearly the influence of the liberal Daily Kos, the libertarian InstaPundit, or the conservative Hugh Hewitt Report, to name just a few. Is the rise in electronic media just a flavor of the week or are the denizens of the blogosphere here to stay? It appears that electronic media is a real arena for the political debate of both today and tomorrow.

With that said, it’s also important not to overestimate the influence or importance of electronic media and the blogosphere. The “netroots,” as liberal bloggers and Internet activists like to call themselves, have yet to achieve any major victories in the electoral process. In some ways, liberal activists tend to undermine the efforts of the traditional Democratic party by radicalizing the party and turning off more moderate voters. Republicans do not really have a counterpart to the vocal liberal netroots, but they have been extremely effective at exploiting the connective power of the Internet. The Republican National Committee has been extremely effective at marshaling this connective technology to maximize fundraising, to collect data on voters, and to engage in the sort of strategic micro-targeting I talked about earlier. So while Democratic activists seem to have taken advantage of the Internet for their own purposes, the Republican establishment has merged its institutional weight with the transformative power of the Internet.

And for the Republicans right now, it seems to be working.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

May 12, 2006

Oil once again dominates the headlines, as consumers feel the pain of high prices at the pump and oil tops $75/barrel. But the issue goes much deeper than these highly publicized news items. Oil exerts an incredible amount of influence over global geopolitics – the foreign policies of all advanced industrial nations are dependent to a large degree upon the whims of oil-producing nations. A steady oil supply is crucial to the stability of the global economy.

And yet, the 21st century thus far has been marked by continuing concerns about the oil supply. The majority of global reserves are controlled by the cartel of OPEC nations. The easiest oil to access at this point lies below the territory of some of the world’s most unstable and corrupt states. A number of books have recently been written detailing the unique geopolitics of oil and heralding and “end to oil” at some point in the future.

These doomsday Cassandras raise many interesting points about the challenges faced by the global economy in depending on a resource with such an unpredictable nature, but it is premature to ring oil’s death knell as the primary motivating factor of the global economy. First, there is a great deal of disagreement over the actual levels of oil left in the world. Some scientists have been proclaiming for the past twenty years that the ground would dry up the following day – so far, they’ve all been wrong. New technologies, like deep-sea drilling and innovative techniques to wrest the oil from tar sands and shale have allowed companies to produce hydrocarbons from previously unsalvageable fields. And despite today’s uncertainty, the most reasonable arguments attribute the spike in oil prices to such novel factors as supply and demand and nervousness associated with political unrest in oil-producing nations like Iran, Iraq, Venezuela, and Nigeria – four countries that rank in the top eight of oil production, and all members of OPEC.

It is this instability that poses the greatest threat to oil production and the global economy, not the typical twin scapegoats of over-consumption and the drying up of the wells. South America continues to be a scion of bad news for the global energy market and the principles of market economies as a whole. First, Hugo Chavez has continued his autocratic, demagogic rule of Venezuela, declaring himself as the populist leader of a new type of socialism while falling prey to the temptations of good old-fashioned socialism, enriching himself and his allies in a web of corruption while allowing his people to languish in poverty despite staggeringly high oil revenues. He has a disciple in Evo Morales, the new leader of Bolivia, who speaks the populist language of the new socialism as well.

Both leaders have used their newfound power to nationalize hydrocarbon production, revoking the contracts of foreign oil and gas firms and imposing new finance schemes that amount to taxes of 80% on the private firms that operate these facilities. To be fair, multinational firms do have a responsibility to compensate the people of oil- and gas-rich nations for the profit they derive from the sale of those resources, but this partnership flows both ways. Just as multinational energy companies need the consent of the people and the governments in which they operate, those Bolivians and Venezuelans need the expertise of foreign firms to effectively exploit the natural resources on which they sit. Nationalization not only aggravates relationships between countries as the assets of companies are forcibly appropriated, it ushers in an era of economic inefficiency whereby no one derives the full benefit of resource riches. And there’s always the chance, albeit a slim one, that those with the knowledge will refuse to “pay to play” in the Bolivias and Venezuelas of the world.

In a perverse way, high oil prices may be good for the United States economy in the long run because they create powerful incentives for our nation to come up with alternatives to the unstable hydrocarbon-producing nations in the Middle East and South America on which we’ve been so dependent for the past twenty years. Greens have been proclaiming the coming of alternative fuels for years, but these alternatives will not be viable until it become economically prudent and beneficial to produce and use them. High gas prices make alternative fuels look a lot more attractive. The high price environment also creates incentives to increase domestic production through the approval of new drilling projects, like in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, and the construction of new refineries to process oil into gasoline. Ironically, the populist politicians who continuously decry high oil prices stand in strongest opposition to these most apt of solutions.

Oil truly does reach into every sector of American society – from the economy to foreign affairs. Look to the Iranian crisis. To be sure, nuclear proliferation is a serious threat to American national security, particularly when those weapons could be in the hands of avowed enemies or leaders of questionable sanity. But the fact that Iran is a leader in oil production adds a huge wrinkle to the global strategy of preventing nuclear weapons from being developed by the mullahs.

So next time you gas up, consider why that gas is $3/gallon. It’s not price-gouging, it’s not greedy corporations – it’s economics and geopolitics.
April 21, 2006

The last two weeks in Washington, DC, have been quiet, as Congress has been off on a two-week recess. Some may say that Congress is on permanent recess, but that’s debatable.

In any case, Congress has a full plate as they return to work – immigration reform, the budget, healthcare, tax cuts, gas prices, and a host of other issues. It’s difficult to assess whether any of this will be accomplished, however, as the elections this fall will prevent anyone in Congress from taking the initiative necessary for passing legislation. The Democrats have a vested interest in blocking any legislative effort made by the Republicans in order to brand the Republicans as incompetent in the fall elections. The Republicans, by contrast, are divided on many major issues, not the least of which is immigration, and compromise appears far away, particularly with the President at the nadir of his popularity and therefore unable to unite the party sufficiently.

Things indeed look bleak for any major policy breakthroughs. What can be done? Although Congress appears to have the most at stake with the upcoming elections, it is in fact President Bush who must take the most drastic action in order to salvage the legislative year and the last two years of his presidency. With the President’s political authority at an all-time low and status as a lame duck on the horizon, he must act quickly to prevent the complete unraveling of his presidency.

The President has already set things in motion for this second-term overhaul, sacking his chief-of-staff Andy Card in favor of Josh Bolten, his former budget director. The most recent casualty was Scott McClellan, the White House Press Secretary. His replacement, Fox News commentator Tony Snow, is a bold choice that will certainly improve the public face of the White House. Fresh blood must be one part of President Bush’s strategy, but until the Bush team fundamentally revises its communications strategy and renews its agenda, the deadlock on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue will remain.

First, the Bush team must meaningfully engage the press. Republicans have tended to reflexively distrust the media, and in some cases with good reason. But the warfare that has often broken out between the press and the White House only disrupts the workings of the executive branch. Scott McClellan was known for saying precious little in each of his daily briefings, at the behest of a controlling White House. This is understandable, but the press is a valuable tool for advancing the President’s agenda and for pronouncing the good news about the economy. The President must exploit his control over the news cycle both for his own political life and the good of his party in the Capitol. It appears that this is on the horizon with Tony Snow, but only time will tell.

Second, the Bush team must renew its focus on policy. Many political mistakes have been made over the past few months – Dubai Ports World, the immigration debacle – but it is imperative that the Bush team continue to pursue its policy agenda. That means holding the line on immigration and resisting the temptation on the right wing of the party to pass a punitive immigration bill. The nativists in the party could destroy the GOP if they prevail. Not only does a majority of Americans support some sort of temporary worker program but the bulk of Republicans supports such a program. The punishment-only crowd may be loud, but they do not speak for the bulk of Americans or the bulk of Republicans. Border security must be addressed, but any border security bill that does not address the root causes of immigration and the millions of people already here illegally will be an insufficient and uninspired solution.

The added bonus of the Bush position on immigration is that it preserves Republican political gains made over the past few years. A hard-line immigration position will confine the Republicans to electoral oblivion among Hispanic voters for the foreseeable future – not unlike the purgatory in which they find themselves with the majority of black voters. Hispanic voters tend to identify themselves as more conservative than the average voter does, and this fast-growing block represents the best prospect for Republican electoral gains in the years to come.

President Bush must also begin to speak more candidly about Iraq. Republicans still enjoy a slight advantage in poll numbers on terrorism, but they are slipping in Iraq. The President’s leadership is critical to the success of the Iraq war, and he must continue to exert pressure on all parties involved in the conflict to move toward a unity government. Iraq is still the dominant political issue in America, and the fates of all those in power rest on a speedy end to this dangerous conflict. A huge victory has been reached with the resignation of Ibrahim al-Jaafari as prime minister, and now a new government must take root.

Finally, the President must continue to argue in favor of open economics. Free trade has taken a partisan beating thanks to the daily unraveling of the American auto industry, but it is free trade that has made this country as prosperous as it is today. Protectionism only harms American consumers and lulls domestic industries into economic complacency and ruin. The President has worked hard to open ties to China and India, and he must resist the calls to engage in trade war with China over its currency. Not only would revaluation of the Chinese currency do nothing to rebalance the trade deficit with China, it would hurt consumers by raising the costs of all goods and would give China renewed purchasing power to take control of American assets – something that was tantamount to nuclear proliferation just a few months ago.

It is in fact the President who holds the linchpin to the 2006 Congressional elections. Lucky for the party in power that the opposition is so utterly clueless that they appear incapable of capitalizing on numerous Republican mistakes. But if the President does not reverse course quickly and take control of his party, November could be a tense month for the Republican majority.
April 7, 2006

The current hot topic in Washington is immigration. Political tempers on both sides of the aisle have flared at this emotional issue, and massive demonstrations in cities across the country have been an almost nightly component of the evening news. There’s a great deal of rhetoric and misinformation being hurled around, so let’s take a moment to highlight the facts of the issue.

By most estimates, there are between 11 and 12 million illegal immigrants in America right now. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, legal immigration has stayed relatively steady, at approximately 600,000 new immigrants each year, dating back to the 1980s. Illegal immigration, on the other hand, has spiked since 1995, averaging around 700,000 new illegal immigrants through 2004, as compared with only about 200,000 per year in the 1980s. The bulk of these immigrants are from Mexico and the vast majority is Spanish-speaking. This undocumented and illegal immigration is obviously a problem, as state and local governments face new strains like meeting the emergency health needs of generally uninsured illegal immigrants and the educational needs of new, primarily Spanish-speaking children.

The topic becomes especially sensitive because it is an election year, and all the legislative proposals are imbued with political as well as policy considerations. Conservative House Republicans are pushing a bill that emphasizes enforcement – more guards on the border, deportations of those here illegally, fines for businesses that hire illegals, and no path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has a similar bill in the Senate, emphasizing border control. Competing bills in the Senate include that of Senators McCain and Kennedy, which attempts to beef up border security while introducing a guest worker plan for those illegal immigrants who are already here and a defined path to attaining citizenship. There appears to be little hope of compromise, as conservative House Republicans see anything beyond enforcement to be amnesty for lawbreakers, while many other Republicans are split on what to do and Democrats are happy to block legislation in the Senate for political gain in the fall.

So what does this all mean? For starters, given the competing proposals and the political infighting on Capitol Hill, it appears that it will be impossible to pass the type of comprehensive package demanded by the public. 63% of Americans think that illegal immigration is an extremely or very serious problem, according to a recent poll. 71% of Americans say that they are more likely to vote for a candidate who favors tighter controls on immigration. Politicians are attempting to respond to these sentiments, but their efforts may not meet with much success.

But let’s look a little deeper at the immigration issue. Why are people coming here in the first place, even illegally? For the same reasons they always have – the twin ideals of economic and political freedom.

As long as the minimum wage in America is five times that in Mexico, Mexicans will continue to risk their lives for economic gain in the United States. It’s intellectually dishonest to say that illegal immigrants do jobs that Americans won’t do – it’s just that illegal immigrants are willing to do most low-skill jobs for wages lower than native-born citizens demand. So not only is there a demand for labor by employers because of the low unemployment rate, but there is also a large supply of people willing to do that labor cheaply because it’s so much better than the offer they have in their country of origin. America is still the land of opportunity to millions worldwide, and we’ve done nothing of note to stop people from responding to these simple economic forces.

The immigration debate takes on a new tone in our post September 11th environment, as border security is a necessarily hot topic. And 41% of the American public think that illegal immigration is actually a security issue. In order to address these concerns, obviously border security must be tightened. There are only 11,000 border patrol agents for our 2000 mile-long border. To put this in perspective, the New York City police is four times as large. It’s impractical to think that a force one-quarter the size of the NYPD can police a border 150 times the length of Manhattan.

So, what to do? I think any immigration legislation must take into account both the economic and security issues raised by illegal immigration. Conservatives are right to highlight border security – but hardliners are wrong to stop there. We must increase the number of border agents and the technology used to safeguard the border. This will be costly, but it is necessary if we are to tide the flow of illegal border crossings, which everyone is eager to do. As for those already here illegally, it is simply laughable to think that we will be able to expect them to leave voluntarily or to be deported. Most of these illegal immigrants have jobs and roots in their adopted communities. They are personally better off, and a move back to their country of origin – typically Mexico – would be tantamount to suicide. Plus, deporting 12 million people – 4% of the total U.S. population – would be logistically impossible. That number would fill buses stretched along the west coast from Tijuana to Alaska.

For a variety of reasons, we must find a way to integrate these immigrants into society. Economically, they contribute to society by and large by paying taxes. America has always fashioned itself as a country of immigrants, and even if this history is little more than national mythology, it is a powerful notion. Immigration is an intensely personal issue, largely because most of us came here from somewhere else. Philosophically, America has had trouble defining what it means to be an American citizen, but our national myth seems to dictate that all who want to be here are welcome. No one is entitled to anything, but whatever the benefits of citizenship, they are available to all who will reach for them.

We must, therefore, find a way to manage the flow of immigrants. The economic and social incentives are present for people to come here. Moderate proposals call for long waiting periods approaching 10 years for those petitioning for citizenship and payment of fines and back taxes. I far prefer this to any call for a guest worker program, which amounts to a giveaway to business of serf-like labor and a semi-permanent underclass of non-citizens. And furthermore, unskilled native-born workers are at a disadvantage when competing for jobs with these guest workers, who will generally work for lower wages. Finally, guest workers will have no incentives to assimilate into American society, because they have no hope of ever being Americans. The important thing is to integrate these immigrants into society and the economy – the free flow of labor is critical to the growth and prosperity of a global economy, just like the free flow of capital and ideas.

Which brings us to the 800-pound gorilla that no one addresses – the cultural transformation effected by immigrants. American history shows that we are primarily an Anglo-Protestant country, with our system of government and culture based on broad principles derived from the Anglo-Protestant tradition. Immigrants threaten that history and that culture, primarily through language. Any cultural transformation is unnerving to the native-born, and much of the sensitivity of the immigration issue is based upon a fear of cultural transformation caused by the massive influx of Hispanic immigrants. But I firmly believe that American culture and traditions are strong and sufficiently broad-based to withstand any potential cultural threat. Outcries over immigration have been a part of American history forever – whether the newcomers be Irish, Italian, Swedish, Russian, Jewish, Polish, or any other ethnicity. And the general Anglo-Protestant ethos of American society and culture has survived. Part of the reason that immigrants choose to come here is that culture of opportunity. Thus, I would hope that Congress and the public at-large will reflect on these issues and conduct the immigration debate with reason and temperance, avoiding the temptations of nativism and fear-mongering. Instead, we must respond to the economic and social realities of migration and address them in a constructive manner – all too often an impossible task in a world of political reality.
At long last, I've summoned the courage to post some thoughts.

I've been recording podcasts for a friend of mine for the past few weeks. My contribution to each of these podcasts has been a combination of news and commentary on contemporary political issues.

I'll post each of these pieces, and if you'd like to listen to the full podcast, check out skinnycorp.com.