Sunday, December 31, 2006

Ah yes, Walt Whitman, that free trader was no Lou Dobbs Democrat

Who knew? Walt Whitman on free trade. Marginal Revolution has the goods.

Not everyone loves the New York Times; we can see why

A rather fair (for NYTimes anyway) profile of Patricia Heaton, a conservative working in Hollywood. Naturally, it dwells on the politics of the co-star of "Everyone Loves Raymond." It's almost like the Times is upset that Hollywood isn't the exclusive domain of liberal meatheads.

If Ms. Heaton has made her surgery fair game, her political views are not so easily pigeonholed. Some derive from the “seamless garment” doctrine of her “devout Catholic upbringing” (she opposes both abortion and the death penalty) while others are clearly her own. (She supports gay rights and the use of most birth control.) And she is not, in person, prudish or judgmental. Most of her friends have had abortions, she said, and they’re still her friends.

It isn’t so much her views that cause her trouble as her unwillingness to finesse them for public consumption. She is compulsively honest, though she feels that’s not so much a virtue as “an illness, like Tourette’s.” Even her more extreme positions are stated without hedging: If it were up to her, she said, there would be no abortion for any reason. But she offers such thoughts with a sense of helplessness, as if she were trapped by the implications of her core principles.

And then there is her un-wingnutlike desire for conciliation. As soon as she realized what had happened, she sent Mr. Fox a message saying that she was sorry and that she prayed for his recovery. He responded graciously (the amendment passed with 51 percent of the vote) and later said, “If we can have a healthy dialogue about issues that people see differently, that’s marvelous.”

That’s a big if. Most of the dialogue, Ms. Heaton said, has been brutal: “People saying they hope my kids get sick and die so I’ll know what it’s like to need medical research.” Colleagues have attacked her at industry functions; gossips claiming to know her have described her as a horrible person. A theater Web site recently ran a discussion thread on boycotting “The Scene.” And castmates have told Ms. Heaton that their friends were saying things like: “You’re working with her? You know what her thing is, right?”
You have to laugh at boycotting liberals. As a group they really are rather vile.

Brain waves

They once said music is food for the soul. Today the reductionists, in academic mode, are saying something different. I still think the soul has something to do with it but I wouldn't want to be viewed as a knuckle-dragger by the scientific community, would I? Is this the dawning of the "music scientist?"

“Listen to this,” Daniel Levitin said. “What is it?” He hit a button on his computer keyboard and out came a half-second clip of music. It was just two notes blasted on a raspy electric guitar, but I could immediately identify it: the opening lick to the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar.”

Then he played another, even shorter snippet: a single chord struck once on piano. Again I could instantly figure out what it was: the first note in Elton John’s live version of “Benny and the Jets.”

Dr. Levitin beamed. “You hear only one note, and you already know who it is,” he said. “So what I want to know is: How we do this? Why are we so good at recognizing music?”

This is not merely some whoa-dude epiphany that a music fan might have while listening to a radio contest. Dr. Levitin has devoted his career to exploring this question. He is a cognitive psychologist who runs the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University in Montreal, perhaps the world’s leading lab in probing why music has such an intense effect on us.

“By the age of 5 we are all musical experts, so this stuff is clearly wired really deeply into us,” said Dr. Levitin, an eerily youthful-looking 49, surrounded by the pianos, guitars and enormous 16-track mixers that make his lab look more like a recording studio.

This summer he published “This Is Your Brain on Music” (Dutton), a layperson’s guide to the emerging neuroscience of music. Dr. Levitin is an unusually deft interpreter, full of striking scientific trivia. For example we learn that babies begin life with synesthesia, the trippy confusion that makes people experience sounds as smells or tastes as colors. Or that the cerebellum, a part of the brain that helps govern movement, is also wired to the ears and produces some of our emotional responses to music. His experiments have even suggested that watching a musician perform affects brain chemistry differently from listening to a recording.
Revealing all the mysteries of life sometimes eats away at the soul.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Sweden the Model? Perhaps not

Jeffrey Sachs please call your office.

Sweden is not all that it's crack up to be. Not a terrible economic basket case, at least not yet. In fact it's welfare state model, built mostly for a uni-cultural society, works a lot better than the French or German one. Sweden encourages people to get back into the work force a lot quicker than the continentals. However, there are some underlying problems.

The political left has for many years portrayed Sweden as the ideal liberal experiment; a nation that has maintained a vital market economy alongside a large welfare state. Many Americans and Europeans alike seem to see our system as a proof that you can achieve full employment despite rigid labor markets, and very high labor discouraging taxes and benefits.

In reality, Sweden has considerable economic problems as its population has adjusted to the many years with welfare politics and is increasingly taking advantage of government programs. High taxation, extensive regulations and comprehensive systems of government handouts discourages individuals from work and have resulted in a drop in entrepreneurship and working ethics. The best estimates of true unemployment figures for Sweden are somewhere around 20 percent, almost four times higher than the more flexible U.S. economy. Note here that discouraged workers and those who are underemployed are not included in either country, but that the figures are again higher in Sweden than in the United States.

The problems with high unemployment, low working morals, lack of entrepreneurship and dependence on government programs are not unique for Sweden, but shared with other European welfare states such as France and Germany. In all three countries, voters are dissatisfied with the ruling political parties, but as many are dependent on government handouts, few are willing to accept reforms that scale down the size of government benefits.

How Sweden handles increased internation competition as it moves to a more multicultural society is an experiment worth watching.

Somebody doesn't like Geico

Somebody in New Jersey doesn't like Geico. Here in Massachusetts I wish I had the chance to buy from Geico but because the state auto insurance market is overly regulated, I never even get the chance. Geico, perhaps wisely from its point of view, can't compete against stalwarts like Commerce Insurance. To the graffiti artist I say: Be careful for what you wish for.

Meanwhile, in Massachusetts about a third of the state's drivers won't be able to benefit from the new and lower mandated rates.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Always worth reading: R. Samuelson

Robert Sameulson is optimistic. Should he be? We link, you decide.

WASHINGTON -- Consider it a good omen. In October, the U.S. trade deficit dropped unexpectedly to $58.9 billion, about $5.4 billion less than in September. Although the largest cause was lower oil prices, strong American exports -- up 14 percent from a year earlier -- also contributed significantly. And that's exactly what the economy needs in 2007: an export surge. It would ward off recession and narrow today's dangerously large global trade imbalances. We need what economists call a "rebalancing'' of our economy and the world's.

This should be more noteworthy

According to the WSJ

Fannie Mae's stock price has been on an upswing since late summer, reflecting investor confidence that a Democratic Congress would make strict scrutiny of the mortgage giant less likely (see the nearby chart). And there's no doubt that with Barney Frank wielding the gavel in the House Financial Services Committee, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac will have a pal on Capitol Hill. Mr. Frank is already talking about expanding the companies' operations (and thus taxpayer exposure to any financial accident).

Fortunately, James Lockhart is still running the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, or Ofheo, and he's shown no appetite for tolerating the shenanigans of the two lobbying powerhouses. This week he filed a 101-count notice of civil charges against Franklin Raines, Fannie's former CEO, and two other former executives. The suit seeks $115 million in restitution of ill-gotten pay and another $100 million in
fines for six years' worth of proven financial misrepresentations at Fannie.

This is something for Mr. Frank to consider as he negotiates with Treasury over an Ofheo reform bill. Few big businesses inspire the Massachusetts liberal's regulatory forbearance the way Fannie and Freddie do. This is ironic, because the fact that the two companies are government-sponsored and hold an implicit government guarantee on their debt means they deserve more scrutiny than the average private company. The companies are playing in effect with House money.

Fannie's friends on Capitol Hill ran out the clock on a stronger oversight bill in the GOP Congress. And with Democrats back in charge, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson is now trying to negotiate a compromise. One of Mr. Frank's demands is the creation of a new "affordable housing fund" that the mortgage giants would finance -- a several-hundred-million-dollar Fan-and-Fred tax to dole out to such partisan liberal outfits as Acorn. Whether funded as a percentage of profits or revenues, such an annual patronage bonus would give Congress one more political incentive to see the siblings grow.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Drezner on "Grand Strategy"

A majority of Americans want the U.S. to pursue a different direction in Iraq. But what will such a grand strategy that balances popular will (currently constituted) with the promotion of American interests, if not ideals, look like? The estimable Daniel Drezner suggest that it would look a lot like the "ethical realism" of Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman,

The grand strategy that wins out in the end may be the one that --regardless of specific positions on Iraq or terrorism -- convinces Americans that it is possible to have free and fair trade at the same time. By a hair, then, the front-runner is Lieven and Hulsman's ethical realism. By economizing on other forms of power projection, ethical realism potentially frees up resources to cushion the domestic costs of globalization.

At present, however, there is little consensus on a Kennan-like grand strategy. But remember, Kennan's strategy looks a lot better now than it did during the Cold War. The precise definition of containment "was at best ambiguous and lent itself to misinterpretation," Kennan acknowledged in his memoirs. Certainly, Jimmy Carter interpreted containment differently than did Ronald Reagan, who interpreted it differently than did Henry Kissinger.

The foreign-policy establishment may be stumbling around right now, searching for the one strategy to rule them all. It is possible, however, that what looks like disarray today may appear smarter, better -- grander? -- in the future.

More on "ethical realism" at Radio Open Source.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Maybe Barr's onto something

I guess he won't be the last.

A former Georgia congressman who helped spark President Clinton's impeachment has quit the Republican Party to become a Libertarian, saying he is disillusioned with the GOP on issues such as spending and privacy.

Bob Barr, who served eight years as a Republican congressman before losing his seat in 2002, announced Friday that he is now a "proud, card-carrying Libertarian." And he encouraged others to join him.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The decline of the "New Hampshire Advantage": Part II

The Union Leader strikes back.

The good folks behind the Granite State Fair Tax Coalition must not think very highly of New Hampshire people.

Based on their public statements, coalition members have to believe one of two things: 1. The people are being duped by politicians into accepting a "morally bankrupt" pledge not to raise taxes. 2. The people themselves are morally bankrupt by insisting that politicians take the pledge.

"Morally bankrupt" was the term used by Rev. William E. Exner, vice president of the coalition, to describe New Hampshire's famous anti-tax pledge, that great bogeyman of big-government aficionados. The coalition last week launched a campaign to wipe the pledge from New Hampshire's political landscape.

"The 'Pledge' perpetuates a burdensome property tax," states a coalition resolution.

That's funny. We always thought it was the people who perpetuated the burdensome property tax because it was a lot better than an even more burdensome sales or income tax.

The clueless romantics who envision New Hampshire's people trapped in the grip of a beast called The Pledge completely ignore the actual political history of New Hampshire while fantasizing of a future in which the people are released from their misery by higher taxes.
How long can the anti-tax crowd hold out?

The decline of the "New Hamsphire Advantage": Part I

Where is Barry Lynn when you need him? The liberals are mixing state and religion again -- this time in New Hampshire. But there's no outcry. Why? Because the media wants it that way. Today the media begins its campaign to chip away at the NH Tax Advantage by giving some play to a liberal swarm known as the Granite State Fair Tax Coalition. Taking the pledge against taxes in New Hampshire is immoral say the liberation theologists.
CONCORD – They came not to praise but to bury the pledge against broad-based taxes in New Hampshire.

The Granite State Fair Tax Coalition kicked off an ambitious three-year campaign to build support at the local level to urge the Legislature to keep an open mind when it comes to fundamental change of the state tax structure.

The first goal of the group is to bring their message and encourage a healthy debate at churches, public libraries and town halls across the state according to David Lamarre-Vincent, the group’s president.

"We are here to declare the good news in New Hampshire," said Lamarre-Vincent who is executive director of the state Council of Churches.Other member organizations include the American Friends Service Committee, the League of Women Voters and societies for the Unitarian and United Church of Christ Churches.
The Democracy of New Hampshire, World Fellowship Center and Women Making a Difference are also supporting the group.

Coalition officials stressed they would not advocate a specific tax and will not lobby the legislative or executive branches of state government.

Group leaders acknowledge they are getting organized right after an election in which Democrats won sweeping victories, but only in part because they abandoned any desire to impose a sales or income tax.

“We are pointing towards 2008. We recognize that influencing the Legislature in 2007 is not a winning strategy, but the debate over an adequate education we believe is going to lead to a meaningful discussion of tax reform down the road,’’ said Mark Fernald, the group’s treasurer and 2002 nominee for governor.

Gov. John Lynch has recently repeated his vow to veto either tax.
Nice sentiment Governor, but don't tell us the election of a Democratic majority in New Hampshire hasn't emboldened the liberals to start a push for new taxes. The Kerry "victory" in 2004 in the Granite state and now the vastly energized Democratic majority in Concord leads one to think they everything that's sacred like the Pledge is on the table.

The devolution of New Hamsphire into a Blue State courtesty of the influx of Massachusetts residents will wreak havoc over the long term.

Meanwhile, I have a question for the pro-tax Democrats: Can you guarantee that new income or sales taxes will stop the rise in property taxes?

I bet they can't make such a "pledge."

Monday, December 11, 2006

More on the Republican - libertarian crackup

David Kirby and David Boaz at TCSDaily examine the growing libertairan alientation from the Republican Party, the party of Goldwater no more.

If Republicans can't win New Hampshire and the Mountain West, they can't win a national majority. And they can't win those states without libertarian votes. They're going to need to stop scaring libertarian, centrist, and independent voters with their social-conservative obsessions and become once again the party of fiscal responsibility. In a Newsweek poll just before the election, 47 percent of respondents said they trusted the Democrats more on "federal spending and the deficit," compared to just 31 percent who trusted the Republicans. That's not Ronald Reagan's Republican Party.

One more bit from our post-election Zogby poll: We asked voters if they considered themselves "fiscally conservative and socially liberal." A whopping 59 percent said they did. When we added to the question "also known as libertarian," 44 percent still claimed that description. That's too many voters for any party to ignore.

Rep. Barbara Cubin (R-WY) told her Libertarian challenger after a debate, "If you weren't sitting in that [wheel]chair, I'd slap you." It took 10 days to certify her re-election, perhaps because that Libertarian took more than 7,000 votes. A better strategy for her and other Republicans would be to try to woo libertarians back.
Read the whole article.

Mythbusting from a Nobel Laureate in Economics

Edward Prescott takes on the conventional economic wisdom. A little bit of optimism from the 2004 Nobel Laureate in Economics. Too little debt? Consider Myth No. 5: Government debt is a burden on our grandchildren.

There's no better way to get people worked up about something than to call on their sympathies for their beloved grandkids. The last thing that I want to do is to burden my own grandchildren with the sins of profligacy. But we should stop feeling guilty -- at least about government debt -- because we are in better shape than conventional wisdom suggests.

Theory and practice tell us that the optimal amount of public debt that maximizes the welfare of new generations of entrants into the workforce is two times gross national income, or GDP. This assumes 1% population growth, 2% productivity growth, 4% real after-tax return on investments, and that people work to age 63 and live to age 85. Currently, privately held public debt is about 0.3 times GDP, and if we include our Social Security obligations, it is 1.6 times GDP. In either case, we could argue that we have too little debt.

What's going on here? There are not enough productive assets -- tangible and intangible assets alike -- to meet the investment needs of our forthcoming retirees. The problem is that the rate of return on investment -- creating more productive assets -- decreases as the stock of these assets increases. An excessive stock of these productive assets leads to inefficiencies.

Total savings by everyone is equal to the sum of productive assets and government debt, and if there is an imbalance in this equation it does not mean we have too little or too many productive assets. The fix comes from getting the proper amount of government debt. When people did not enjoy long retirements and population growth was rapid, the optimal amount of government debt was zero. However, the world has changed, and we in fact require some government debt if we care about our grandchildren and their grandchildren.

If we should worry about our grandchildren, we shouldn't about the amount of debt we are leaving them. We may even have to increase that debt a bit to ensure that we are adequately prepared for our own retirements.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

She was beautiful

Maybe Norma Jeane was a tortured soul but she was indeed beautiful. The mere sight of one of her pictures make men click.

Friday, December 08, 2006

It's Tax Time for the Patrick Crowd

Here comes the tax and spend crowd. Deval Patrick's new A&F chief Leslie Kirwan suggests that local governments, entities of fiscal sobriety, will be given broader taxing authorities. They'll be able to raise taxes on meals and hotels. Is this what the people voted for? Kerry Healey was right: Governor Deval will raise taxes. And now his chief says that all that wasteful spending Deval talked about just isn't there.

BOSTON --Gov.-elect Deval Patrick's new budget chief said Thursday that local option taxes on meals, hotels and other services should be one of the things the state considers as it seeks to create a stable long-term financial picture.

Leslie Kirwan also said she isn't sure she can find the $735 million in wasteful spending Patrick said he wanted to eliminate during this fall's gubernatorial campaign.

At the same time, the outgoing financial official for the Massachusetts Port Authority said she isn't sure the state can cut property taxes, as Patrick said he hoped to do when he said he opposed a rollback in the state income tax rate during this fall's gubernatorial campaign.

Kirwan, a former aide to Democratic Gov. Michael Dukakis and Republican Gov. William Weld, did say she will undertake a top-to-bottom review of state finances so they can plot the most financially secure course for achieving the governor's policy

"I think it's a matter of how you approach them and what the ramp-up is, and I think there will be options for introducing these policies in the first budget and building on them over time," Kirwan said as she joined the governor-elect at a news conference in a downtown hotel.Patrick himself said he wants his new Administration and Finance secretary to "lean forward" as she seeks creative solutions to state financial problems, and to improve the state's relationship with city and town governments.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

More on the libertarian - liberal mash up

This marriage might not last long Democratic populists can never really be thorough libertarians on markets or free trade. But I guess the flirting was a lot of fun. Bear in mind both parties got divided government out of the deal. Which faction -- liberal Democrat or independent libertarian -- will have buyers remorse first?

Virginia Postrel has more on the topic as does Julian Sanchez.

The classically liberal-inclined (read:market liberal) Economist "newspaper" has this to say.

Monday, December 04, 2006

More on the conservative - libertarian - Republican crack-up

The problems with the Republican Party becoming the party of the South means that it will become more insular and hence more ineffective. Thus it will become less appealing and to its natural allies: the Mountain State libertarians. As the recent election returns demonstrate, this Republican quandry is an opportunity for Democrats to pick up momentum particularly in what I'll call Goldwater's backyard. (That is if they can keep their hands to themselves and out of the gun closets of these new Democrats).

The southern evangelicals may have played out their hand with Terry Schiavo and stem cell research -- two wedge issues that alienate the Republicans' libertarian wing. Having had enough of southern, big government Republicanism, and not satisfied with divided government, libertarians are considering the previously unspeakable: joining the Democrats. Picking up on Cato's Brink Lindsey's dispatch in the New Republic, (sorry it's gated), the Washington Post's Sebastian Mallaby has more.

Why react to the temporary corruption of a party by abandoning it outright? Lindsey's answer is that Republicans are not merely failing to live up to their principles; the principles have altered. The party has been virtually cleaned out of the Northeast; it has suffered setbacks in the Mountain West; it increasingly reflects the values of its stronghold in the South. As a result, it has lost its libertarian tinge and grown more religious and traditionalist.

There has always been a tension between Republican libertarians, who believe that individual choices should be unconstrained by received wisdom, and Republican traditionalists, who believe pretty much the opposite. In their history of the conservative movement, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge recall that Barry Goldwater believed Jerry Falwell deserved "a swift kick in the ass;" and Goldwater's wife, Peggy, helped to found Planned Parenthood in Arizona. But for a long time the two wings of the party could paper over these differences. Christian conservatives and libertarians agreed that misconceived government programs were harming traditional values. Schools forced sex education on children. The tax system and the welfare system penalized marriage.

Those days are gone in part to the souring mood about Iraq. Is this what the neocons have wrought in the Big Tent GOP?

Marginal Revolution has more on the libertarian-conservative fissure with comments.

But Reason's Hit and Run Katherine Mangu-Ward doesn't trust the Democrats.

Meanwhile Pat Buchanan, thumping away, says the Republicans and Bush lost big but conservatives did not.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Serendipity in the Marketplace

Listening to Marketplace on WBUR on the way home I got sucked into this infectious song from the Stereophonics. More than nice bumper music. It's called The Writer and I'm hooked even though the video is a little goofy. What's with the clowns anyway?

What was I doing when this band hit the scene? Gee, Frank that was 1996!!! I really need to get out more often.