Nonsense, horsefeathers, and idle musings from a decade in South Korea (2002-2012).

30 November, 2012

Long & Shearer on Friendship & Politics

By Aaron
30 November, 2012

Embedded Video: Rob Long and Harry Shearer discuss the changing nature of American entertainment, and friendship amidst differing politics. 

Two veterans of Hollywood, Rob Long (a producer/writer who got his start on Cheers) and Harry Shearer (The Simpsons, Spinal Tap) are as famously friendly as they are opposed in their political outlooks. In the video above, Long and Shearer discuss their differing philosophies, their friendship, and the present state of the American entertainment industry with Peter Robinson of Uncommon Knowledge.

As someone who regularly finds himself in disagreement with friends on matters political - but who nevertheless tries not to put things or ideas ahead of people - I found much to enjoy in this conversation. 

But, good lord, has The Simpsons really been around for 24 seasons?

29 November, 2012

Secession: Unrealistic Perhaps, but Why a Taboo Subject?

By Aaron
29 November, 2012

Video: HuffPostLive takes up the topic of secession

In September 2011, the Obama administration created, as part of the website, the "We the People" online petitioning system, a tool which in theory allows citizens to directly appeal to top policymakers in the executive branch. According to the site, petitions which obtain 25,000 signatures within their first 30 days will be reviewed by administration officials, who will then issue an official response. 

I confess that, until recently, I wasn't even aware of this "We the People" petition business. 

Since the presidential election earlier this month, however, more than 1 million people have used the "We the People" petition system to say that, well, they'd rather not be counted as one of "the People" - or, at least, not among the people taking orders from Washington, DC. In other words, they've signed petitions calling for secession, something that residents of all 50 states have likewise done over the past month.

In much of the media's discussion of the matter, secession - even as a polite topic of drawing room conversation - has been treated as the province of loons and racists rather than as a subject that might have interesting legal, moral, and practical dimensions. 

Which is why I appreciated the above debate (video also here) about this subject, hosted by Josh Zepps of The Huffington Post. The discussion was short, at only 30 minutes, and thus not as substantive as I might want it to be, but I appreciated that Zepps didn't treat the topic as mere nuttiness to be dismissed outright (the nuttiness, and some depressingly conventional wisdom about The Social Contract, was largely provided by the panelists). 

Similarly, this piece by Austin Peterson does well at separating the idea of secession from matters of race. In examining the morality of secession, Peterson writes:

Free people have the right to alter or abolish any government that becomes hostile to their life, liberty or pursuit of happiness. That precedent was established in the Declaration of Independence. Catalonia or Tibet have every right to secede and to enjoy the same Independence that Americans now enjoy. However, it is not ethical to secede for the express purpose of violating the individual rights of others. Secession for the clear-stated purpose of subjugating other individuals and denying them natural rights is illegitimate and unethical.

In North America, however, where the Confederate States seceded in 1860 for explicitly racist reasons the notion of secession will be forever linked in the public's mind, even if incorrectly, with slavery. That Steven Spielberg's Lincoln happens to be in theaters right now likely doesn't help matters. 

Yet, as the cases of Tibet, Catalonia, Kosovo, South Sudan, and Chechnya demonstrate, secessionist movements can emerge for any number of reasons. Rather than simply discarding the desire for secession as a racist impulse, then, a more interesting discussion will focus on whether secession could ever occur in - or, more accurately, from - the United States without sparking another Civil War and, if so, how the process would unfold. What states - or portions thereof - might become their own nations? Which regions would coalesce into their own countries? Writing at the Orange County Register, Steven Greenhut recently offered an example of just this sort of thinking

Who says that California, which spans nearly 800 miles north to south, needs to keep its current configuration?

I'd create several California states. Coastal California, would run from Los Angeles County through Sonoma County and would offer little to hinder the liberal experimentation popular in places such as San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Los Angeles. Those living outside this state presumably would be free to visit on weekends and enjoy the cultural amenities, but as nonresidents wouldn't have to pay for the nuttiness.

My Southern California would include Orange, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino and Imperial counties. This state would be politically competitive, but conservative leaning.

So, too, would be my Inland California, which would include most of the vast Central Valley and the Sierras. I would throw the most-northern counties into the already proposed state of Jefferson – reflecting an old-time secessionist movement that would combine portions of Northern California and southern Oregon, a collection of mountainous areas with little population and a distinct culture.

For my part, I don't think secession would be a world-class bargain for most states, if only because the value of the defense umbrella and enormous free trade network might be difficult to replace in, say, the independent Republic of South Carolina. However, as Ralph Raico points out, in explaining how Europe and the West became the world's center of prosperity and learning:

...the key to western development is to be found in the fact that, while Europe constituted a single civilization — Latin Christendom — it was at the same time radically decentralized. In contrast to other cultures — especially China, India, and the Islamic world — Europe comprised a system of divided and, hence, competing powers and jurisdictions.

I am thus inclined to agree with David Friedman that the United States is too large and would be better off breaking into six or eight distinct nations, assuming peaceful relations and free trade among those new countries. 

Point is, while no actual secession is currently in the offing, there's no reason that the topic should be considered taboo. If anything, the constant presence - or, even better, the credible threat - of secession would likely go a long way toward keeping government officials on the straight and narrow.

28 November, 2012

What "Bring a Trailer" Tells Us About the New Nature of Jobs and Community

By Aaron
28 November, 2012

Video: Randy Nonnenburg, co-founder of, talks about cars, community and following one's passion.

One of my favorite websites is Bring a Trailer, an online clearinghouse of sorts for vintage cars - but only vintage cars of a certain breed. From the site's description:

We especially favor regularly driven real-world classics, and cars with well chosen period-correct modifications. We’ll usually skip the blue chip restorations and trailer queens unless they offer something amazing in aesthetic or rarity. Deep pockets can buy a big-dollar restoration but they can’t buy good taste or driving passion.

Sure, we all love Hemmings and its pristine classics and The Smoking Tire with its reviews of today's supercars, but only at Bring a Trailer can you find the sort of classic - and often classy - cars that you might just be able to afford and wouldn't fret about using as a daily driver.

I was therefore intrigued when the folks over at Petrolicious released the above video profile (also here) of BAT co-founders Randy Nonnenburg and Gentry Underwood, who started the site on a lark a few years back and have since watched it explode to the point of becoming one of noted car nut Jay Leno's favorite sites.

This video, however, is worth a look even if you don't particularly care about vintage cars (as if there's any such person), both for it what says about the nature of jobs and work in this modern economy, as well as its demonstration of the ability of humans to come together in new and interesting communities.

As Nonnenburg tells it, he has long been the go-to source for car-related information for those in his social circle. At some point, Underwood suggested that Nonnenburg post his thoughts online for all to see rather than merely confining his wisdom to group emails. Doubting that his knowledge could draw an audience in an online world bursting with automotive expertise, Nonnenburg initially balked at the idea. Eventually, however, he relented and BAT has taken off by finding its own niche.

One could be forgiven for thinking that Bring a Trailer was on Phil Bowermaster's mind when, pondering the ever-changing nature of jobs, he wrote last year:

Increasingly, perhaps, a job is something that we each have to create. We can’t count on someone else to create one for us. That model is disappearing. We have to carve something out for ourselves, something that the machines won’t immediately grab.

That sounds difficult, maybe even a little dangerous. We’re all comfortable with the idea of “finding” a job. We search for them; we hunt them; we land them. All of these images assume the job already exists.

But to create something new…what does that even mean? Do we all become entrepreneurs? (I think the answer to that question is yes, although many of us will have to learn to be entrepreneurs within existing organizations.) Ultimately, it means we have to find something useful to do, something so useful that others are willing to pay for it.

Could there be a better illustration of this than Nonnenburg and Underwood's creation of Bring a Trailer? Here we have a job that could not have existed - for reasons of technology - 20 years ago, and which did not exist even five years ago because the unique talents and perspectives of Nonnenburg and Underwood simply hadn't taken shape in the form of their website. These fellows' job, in short, was not the sort of thing one would find in the online employment listings.

Nor, it should be noted, is this sort of new business dependent for its survival on its location, a fact which the political class of California (where Nonnenburg and Underwood, as evidenced by the plates on their cars, reside) would do well to ponder. California's tax code and regulatory structure have long made life difficult for the state's existing businesses, and there's no telling how many would-be entrepreneurs have simply taken their ideas elsewhere or shelved them completely. It's no surprise, then, that in a recent study, California ranked among the worst states in the union for entrepreneurs (criteria here). 

Bring a Trailer, however, is chiefly an aggregator of online sales adverts from sources like eBay, Craigslist, and the occasional reader submission, which means that the site could just as easily operate out of Oklahoma, South Carolina, or Idaho. California's politicians cannot hope to ride the coattails of the region's climate forever, and if they doubt this they need only glance at economist Mark Perry's "U-Haul Index," which shows just how much cheaper it is to get a moving truck headed from Texas to California than it is to get one headed in the opposite direction. I wonder how many potential Bring a Trailers are packed into those U-Hauls heading for Houston.

Bring a Trailer should also serve as an mood enhancer for those who worry that a society based on markets and voluntary relationships is destroying the idea of human community and creating a world of atomized individuals who, to steal Robert Putnam's phrase, are merely bowling alone. To be sure, in the developed world, notions of national identity, gender, ethnicity, and even family have changed considerably over the years as individuals have become more mobile and less inclined to adhere to traditional norms which they find oppressive.

Humans, however, are by nature social critters and communities, much like organisms and rules, are forever evolving. Thus, while registered membership in bowling leagues (again, to use Putnam's example) or a particular religious denomination may have declined, there has never been a better time for groups such as vintage car enthusiasts, comic book fans, and Civil War reenactors, who, thanks to the internet, can now meet each other - both online and in person - with unprecedented ease. Thus does Nonnenburg, when asked about his favorite outcome of Bring a Trailer, quickly say, "the community."

As an aside, I'd like to note that I take comfort in these new, smaller forms of community, as such groups get up to less mischief and what mischief they do get up to tends to be less destructive. I get nervous when, for example, ideas of society and identity are based on nationality, gender, ethnicity and other Big Ideas (e.g. "Kill the Jews," or "Conquer Asia"). Small groups remain small because the bonds that hold them together tend to be quirky. And even when the bond is repugnant (the Westboro Baptist Church's hatred of gay people, for instance), small groups can't cause too many problems. 

Finally, not only does the world-at-present afford individuals the opportunity to form all sorts of new and interesting forms of human relationships, it also allows those individuals to become more fully themselves. Deirdre McCloskey, as usual, says it best :

I claim that actually existing capitalism, not the collectivisms of the left or of the right, has reached beyond mere consumption, producing the best art and the best people. People have purposes. A capitalist economy gives them scope to try them out. Go to an American Kennel Club show, or an antique show, or a square-dancing convention, or to a gathering of the many millions of American birdwatchers, and you’ll find people of no social pretensions passionately engaged. Yes, some people watch more than four hours of TV a day. Yes, some people engage in corrupting purchases. But they are no worse than their ancestors, and on average better.

...even if they're only better by dint of driving a very cool vintage Porsche.

27 November, 2012

From the Cut Peach to the Barnyard: A Not-So-Slippery Slope

By Aaron
27 November, 2012

"Lot and His Daughters," by Joachim Wtewae

On Election Day 2012, voters in the states of Washington, Maine, and Maryland voted to legalize marriage between same-sex partners, the first time gay marriage has been approved by statewide popular votes. The number of states which permit gay marriage now stands at nine, up from precisely zero as recently as 2004 when Massachusetts became the first state to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. Thus, while advocates of equal marriage rights might wish this trend to move a bit faster, it nevertheless appears to be gathering steam. 

Historically, most (though not all) opposition to gay marriage in the United States has stemmed from religious belief and is based on an interpretation of the Bible that sees sexual relations between same-sex partners as an abomination to God. The most strident opponents go a step further, charging that not only does the Good Book explicitly prohibit such relationships but that any legalization of gay marriage would be the first step down a wet, well-lubed and very, very slippery slope. 

"[The Bible] talks about homosexuality and bestiality in the same passage," says Doug Batchelor, a pastor in the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. "They're back-to-back. That's next: people are going to be wanting to get married to their dogs and cats...Really, you think about where this might go: the same arguments that are being used for same-sex marriage, what's to prevent two twin brothers from going and asking for a license?"

There you have it, then: if gay folks are allowed to marry, society will quickly descend into an orgy of bestiality and incest. It's just good logic. 

Except that it's not. 

Batchelor and likeminded people are here making the mistake of confusing "law" with "legislation," that is, of believing that the only thing now keeping people from heading outside to screw their livestock or marry their sister is a state edict against such activity. But, really, ask yourself: if the government tomorrow repealed all legislation prohibiting marriage between close relatives, would you be inclined to get yoked up with your sibling? Do you reckon she'd have any interest in tying the knot with you?

Law, in short, should be seen as the set of emergent norms (that is, they are the product of human action but not of human design) that govern relations between humans, a package which includes manners, language, and, yes, sexual relations. Legislation, by contrast, is merely the process by which these norms are codified and by which punishment for aberrant behavior is systematized. The development of law throughout human history can be understood in much the same way that we understand biological evolution as the product of natural selection. Throughout history, different societies have evolved a wide array of rules and norms, and some of these institutions proved more conducive to stability, prosperity and, therefore, expansion, than did other forms. Societies built upon "good" (in the Darwinian sense) laws survived and thrived, while those with "bad" laws disappeared or were absorbed by other cultures.

As an example, consider that the ancient Sumerians (c. 2100 BC), in the Code of Ur-Nammu, were among the first to codify a prohibition against murder, stating that any person guilty of such a crime was to be put to death. Importantly, the Code of Ur-Nammu did not make murder a punishable offense, it merely specified what the punishment would be. Long before the Sumerians set about formalizing their legal code - say, in the prehistoric days of hunter-gatherer tribes - a murderer could have expected, at the least, to be banished from his group (think Cain after he killed Abel), and probably to have been killed in an act of revenge.

Any society which condoned murder (if only by failing to punish it) would have quickly wiped itself out. Fortunately, the majority of humans appear to have evolved not only a sense that murder is wrong, but also an inability to even contemplate the act, such that the people who don't want to commit murder today would be unlikely to commit it tomorrow even if official prohibitions of murder were eliminated.

The same appears to hold true for incest and, to a lesser extent, bestiality. Around the world, and throughout history, human society has a long history of taboos against sexual relations between close relatives and between humans and animals. On incest, the revulsion toward the idea of brother-sister mates appears to run deeper than even religious belief and likely rests, first, on an innate (i.e. evolved) understanding that such sexual paring leads to no good where one's offspring are concerned and, second, on a built-in mechanism that inspires revulsion at the very thought. True, at various points in history, certain royalty have sought to maintain their bloodline by hooking up with their kinfolk, but this only begs the question: "how are those regimes, on average, doing now?"

Montesquieu, then, appears to have been correct when he wrote that "intelligent beings may have laws of their own making; but they also have some which they never made." Moreover, there are countless laws which have never even been set down in print, but which nevertheless guide our actions.

It could be no other way: our legislators would quickly run out of ink (digital or otherwise) if they had to codify every grammar rule, every offense demanding an "excuse me, m'am" apology, and every last detail about how to politely turn down a dinner invitation. Similarly, if the current legal code was the only barrier to murder, rape, and robbery, our prisons could never contain the vast number of criminals, nor could our police possibly keep up with the bloody chaos. Quite simply, for most us, it is not the legal code but rather our very nature which prevents us from killing each other, just as it prevents (most of) us from gettin' busy with our cousins or pets.

Obviously, none of this implies that the state should sanction incest or bestiality, nor does it prove that gay marriage is "good" or "bad" -  in either a moral or Darwinian sense - but it should give a moment's pause to those who make the "slippery slope," gay-marriage-and-then-bestiality argument. Put simply, let's not assume that the legalization of gay marriage will lead, inexorably, to your son wanting to marry the family's goat.

Final Note #1: Yes, I recognize that a religious-based opposition to gay marriage often goes hand-in-hand with a rejection of the theory of Darwinian natural selection and that, as such, many folks who share the views of Doug Batchelor will not find my argument persuasive. To those with such views, I would only argue that prohibitions against incest apply equally to people of all sexual orientations (except, gay marriage opponents might out, those which orient toward incest), while bestiality is illegal because animals cannot properly consent to the relationship (but, as gay marriage opponents might point out, animals don't consent to become your dinner either.) Truth is, I'm not sure how to approach this issue when the chasm between worldviews (religious faith vs. secularism) is so wide.

Final Note #2: This short documentary from the fellows at Vice, entitled "Asses of the Caribbean," is a fascinating bit of cultural anthropology. I'm not embedding it here, however, and do not recommend it to prudes, the faint of heart, Doug Batchelor, or anyone overly concerned with political correctness. Hell, I'm still not sure how I feel about the video, though perhaps this is as it should be.

Final Note #3: For a more lighthearted take on the subject of law vs. legislation, see "Law, Legislation, and Flatulence."

Bedfellows No Longer: The Moonies are Getting Out of the North Korean Car Business

By Aaron

A Pyeonghwa Motors billboard in North Korea

One of the more bizarre marriages between business and state is apparently headed for divorce. The Tongil Group, a conglomerate associated with the Unification Church (aka "The Moonies), has announced that it will be "donating" its 70% stake in North Korea's Pyeonghwa Motors to the North Korean government. Apparently, this deal is in keeping with the will left by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, founder and longtime leader of the Unification Church, who specified that the Church's auto business be handed over to the North Korean government upon his passing. 

Not that the Unification Church had a long menu of options. According to Reuters, Pyeonghwa's main facility - located in the North Korean city of Nampo - has the capacity to produce up to 10,000 vehicles each year but reported sales of only 1,873 motorcars in 2011. The world's consumers, it seems, aren't exactly clamoring for a car built in North Korea. I can't imagine why. 

Reverend Moon, who believed himself to be the bringer of peace and light, must have known that an automotive venture with the North Koreans wouldn't be the most profitable investment in history, but even the Tongil Group can't go on losing money forever. Trouble is, North Korea is not exactly known for its open capital markets, so aside from "donating" its stake in Pyeonghwa Motors to the North Koreans, what other options would the Tongil Group have if it wanted to get out of the car industry north of the 38th parallel?

Anyway, while we're on the topic of horseless carriages in North Korea, you might as well take a few minutes to enjoy a commercial for Pyeonghwa's Hwiparam model:

Meanwhile, just next door, the Japanese are doing this:

What's the over/under on lap times for the Hwiparam at the Nürburgring?

25 November, 2012

Darwin, Smith, and Ideas Having Sex

By Aaron
25 November, 2012

Video: Matt Ridley on "Adam Darwin"

Matt Ridley, who may be my favorite modern-day writer, recently delivered the annual Adam Smith Lecture at - of all places - the Adam Smith Institute. Ridley's remarks, available above or here, demand your attention and will likely be the most intellectually profitable 30 minutes of your week. 

Titling his lecture "Adam Darwin," Ridley beautifully demonstrates the theme which unifies the thought of Adam Smith and Charles Darwin, namely the idea of "emergence" - that is, the idea that order and complexity can be bottom-up phenomena which allow both economies and ecosystems to emerge in the absence of a dirigiste state or an intelligent designer. For biological evolution, this emergent order relies, for the most part, on sex as a means of transmitting and combining genetic material; for social and cultural evolution, this process is accomplished via exchange (the way in which, as Ridley has put it elsewhere, ideas have sex). Thus by means of sex and exchange - which perform, fundamentally, the same function - do our bodies, tools, and rules emerge, evolve and, until something "better" comes along, endure. 

Thus have humans evolved and thus do they continually gain access to better technology, safer cars cleaner environments, and longer lives. Such improvements, however, depend on scientific progress and on the ability of entrepreneurs to bring new products to the mass consumer market. The processes of scientific advance and entrepreneurial risk-taking are, as it happens, not separate at all. As Ludwig Lachmann wrote in Capital and Its Structure:

The businessman who forms an expectation is doing precisely what a scientist does when he formulates a working hypothesis. Both business expectation and scientific hypothesis serve the same purpose; both reflect an attempt at cognition and orientation in an imperfectly known world, both embody imperfect knowledge to be tested and improved by later experience. 

Smith and Darwin would, no doubt, appreciate Lachmann's insight. 

As Ridley rightly notes in his lecture, the fans of Adam Smith and the fans of Charles Darwin have a troubling tendency to be two distinct groups, with only occasional overlap. Conservatives are usually fine with the free market implications of Smith's writings, but can be touchy when the subject turns to Darwin's discussions of natural selection. Left-wing atheists, meanwhile, will defend Darwin all the way back to the Galapagos but can be unnerved by the implications of Smithian specialization and division of labor. Both groups, however, would do well to realize that the social, cultural, and scientific discovery processes that have made their lives better - indeed, beyond a certain age, possible - proceed according to essentially the same logic, and this logic can only function if it is allowed to do so. Back in 1985, the economist Don Lavoie (who left this earth much too soon) wrote, in his brilliant book National Economic Planning: What is Left? (a remarkably dry title for a book of such thrilling insight): 

One of the most vital values to which this social discovery process necessitates allegiance is that of complete freedom of thought. The moral issues of freedom and responsibility are inextricably connected  to the epistemological issues of what and how we know anything about the world we live in. A substantial degree of the opposition to the use of force in human relationships is not merely one particular moral position among others; it is a prerequisite for the growth of knowledge.

It is imperative, then, that the scientist, the entrepreneur, you, me, and the village idiot all be permitted voice our ideas, test our theories, and come up with new cockamamie ideas provided we're willing the bear the responsibility for those actions and beliefs. This, after all, is how evolution of all sorts occurs. 

21 November, 2012

Have a Little Faith in Your Fellow Humans

By Aaron
21 November, 2012

It's easy to forget - when, for example, the Israelis and Palestinians are badgering each other or when senior citizens are shooting up their own old folks homes - that most humans are kind, generous, and decent. Most people, in their daily dealings with others, reject the use of violence, theft, and deception as a means of getting what they want. People, in short, genuinely want to cooperate with their friends, family, and neighbors to improve their communities and make the world better. 

Which is one of the (many) reasons I push so hard for more personal freedom and responsibility: I believe that, in 99.9% of cases, individuals will not only take care of themselves and their families, but also tend to the hard luck cases in their own communities. If you want supporting evidence for my optimism, I ask only that you pay attention the many small acts of kindness, charity, and mutual aid that take place around you every day and which are not commanded from on high. 

In an attempt to lift your view of humanity, then, I offer the two following videos (well, one video, one audio clip). Now, I as I've pointed out many times, the plural form of anecdote is not data, but each offers examples of individuals recognizing an opportunity to make someone else's life better and then jumping at that chance rather than just voting to have someone else take care of the problem. 

Video #1: I share with Tom Palmer a concern about the number of surveillance cameras these days - and I know this video is an edited compilation - but there's still something beautiful about it.

Audio Clip: Penn Jillette responds to (former Attorney General) Janet Reno's request that video game designers get away from the violence in their games and instead design a "true-to-life" game. As Jillette points out, however, such a game turns out to be mind-numbingly boring, albeit funny. Nevertheless, some Canadian folks have taken up playing it in marathon sessions in an attempt to raise money that can then be used to buy actual, cool video games for sick kids stuck in hospitals. Find them here.

See here for more on this general theme.

20 November, 2012

More and Different Kinds of Everything

By Aaron
20 November, 2012

Not my diet of choice, but hey, it doesn't have to be.

During my time in Korea, I seldom had occasion to break (wheat-fee-gluten-free organic) bread with a vegan, so few are they in number on that peninsula and so often was I to be found in one of Seoul's smoky galbi restaurants, hunched and drooling over a grill full of pork ribs. I am, however, fascinated by niche markets and subcultures and thus read with great interest Shelly DeWees's vegan culinary tour guide to Seoul over at Groove. 

Now, I hardly need to point out to any vegan - or even vegetarian - who's been to Korea that avoiding meat in that part of the world is rather like avoiding slot machines in Nevada, ubiquity being what it is. For most Koreans, vegetarians and vegans are presumed to fall into one of two categories: Buddhist monks or lunatics. The country simply loves its meat, fish, and anything made from either - or both simultaneously. 

Which is why, upon reading DeWees's piece, my mind went - as it so often does - to the wonders of a free and global marketplace, both for ideas and for goods. As I said, in traditional Korea, only monks or dingbats would decline, as the Venerable Les Claypool put it, to shake hands with beef. After all, in a country as poor as Korea of years past, only utter foolishness or the quest for supreme enlightenment could make a person turn down scarce protein. Yet, as Korea became more involved in the world economy, as it became wealthier, and as it began to see the influence of new ideas and products, the avoidance of animal products in one's food became not just a religious practice but also a lifestyle choice influenced by matters of health and morality. 

Critics of globalization can frequently be heard to lament the new "McWorld" in which we increasingly live, one dominated by McDonald's and asinine American pop culture. Yet, while it is true that McDonald's has been wildly successful over the past fifty years both at home and abroad (a good thing, I might add), a globalized economy also gives vegans more dining options in Seoul, allows me to find authentic Senegalese food in Portland, gives you access to the latest in Qawwali music via the internet regardless of where you happen to be sitting, and allows a rock star from Seattle to collaborate with a Qawwali legend from Pakistan. Point is, such a wide-open marketplace brings us more of everything; high culture and low culture, health food and junk food, Nicki Minaj and Nustrat Fateh Ali Khan. What's more: you get to choose what you prefer from this ever-expanding menu of options instead of being forced, as a vegan, to eat Mom's beef soup and listen to Dad's earsplitting pansori music. 

On being vegan in Korea, DeWees writes:

Daily vegan eating patterns around here are remarkably similar to those in other places, tweaked and altered to fit your environs. Ordering things from the internet and from generous friends overseas will not be the backbone of your diet, but rather, the fluff that makes life a little bit tastier. Living off of things shipped in boxes is out of the question when there is a veritable feast of delicious Korean bounty all around you. 

In other words, this is a lifestyle of our modern, globalized world, one which blends traditional Korean food (tofu) with lentils imported from South Asia and whatever you can wheedle out of your friends back in the States. 

Which all sounds great, but where's the beef? 

19 November, 2012

A Hope Without Historical Precedent

By Aaron
19 November, 2012

John H. Cochrane. Professor of Finance, University of Chicago.

[Obamacare] and the health‐policy industry are betting that new regulation, price controls, effectiveness panels, “accountable care” organizations, and so on will force efficiency from the top down. And the plan is to do this while maintaining the current regulatory structure and its protection for incumbent businesses and employees. Well, let’s look at the historical record of this approach, the great examples in which industries, especially ones combining mass‐market personal service and technology, have been led to dramatic cost reductions, painful reorganizations towards efficiency, improvements in quality, and quick dissemination of technical innovation, by regulatory pressure.

I.e., let’s have a moment of silence.

No, we did not get cheap and amazing cell phones by government ramping up the pressure on the 1960s AT&T. Southwest Airlines did not come about from effectiveness panels or an advisory board telling United and American (or TWA and Pan AM) how to reorganize operations. The mass of auto regulation did nothing to lower costs or induce efficient production by the big three. When has this ever worked? The post office? Amtrak? The department of motor vehicles? Road construction? Military procurement? The TSA? Regulated utilities? European state‐run industries? The last 20 or so medical “cost control” ideas? The best example and worst performer of all,..wait for it...public schools?

It simply has not happened. Government‐imposed efficiency is, to put it charitably, a hope without historical precedent.

That is from "After the ACA: Freeing the Market for Healthcare," a new paper by John Cochrane of the University of Chicago. In the paper, Cochrane urges policymakers and the public to get past their fixation on health insurance and instead focus on the more important issue of health care.

The piece is worth reading in its entirety, but should you not care to peruse a non-technical paper written in an enjoyable voice (evidence: the above passage), you can hear Cochrane discuss this very piece on the most recent episode of EconTalk. My advice: read and listen, especially if you're of the opinion that health insurance and health care must be provided by - or, at least, heavily regulated by - the government.

Cochrane's blog, The Grumpy Economist, is also worth an RSS subscription.

We Demand That You Settle for Mediocrity

By Aaron

A sign in front of E-Mart supermarket in Seoul announces the store's compliance with the city's mandatory Sunday closure rule.

Parents around the world expend considerable time and energy encouraging their children to always do their best and improve at whatever pursuit child the chooses. As a result, I'm sure each of us, even as adults, can still hear our mother or father telling us to study harder, to put in an extra ten minutes of practice at the piano, to not simply let the dog lick the dishes "clean" and call it good. 

"Always give it your all," parents say. "Don't half-ass your way through life."

Over the past year, I have written frequently (some might say to the point of unhealthy obsession) about attempts by local and national governments in South Korea to force large supermarkets like E-Mart, Lotte Mart, and HomePlus to shut down for one day each month in an attempt to drive business toward smaller retailers and traditional markets. For the most part, my distaste for this sort of policy has stemmed from its use of coercion to halt peaceful transactions between buyers and sellers, in addition to the fact that such a policy will likely hurt more than help the Korean economy.

A few months back, a Seoul court ruled that the city government had no authority to force these stores to close. Yet, as South Korean newspapers began reporting over the weekend, the national government has now taken up the fight and is preparing a bill - named, in typically Orwellian language, "The Distribution Industry Development Act" - that, if passed in the National Assembly, could force big box retailers to lock their doors on up to three days each month.

The Korean government is thus seeking to forbid certain companies - or, more accurately, the individuals within those companies - from doing what our parents, teachers, and coaches all encouraged us to do throughout our youth: specifically, to give one's best effort. By forcing a business to close, political officials are effectively saying to the staff of that company, "Do not work harder to bring customers what they want, do not constantly look for ways to do so in a more efficient manner, do not, in short, apply your best effort to the task you've chosen. We demand that you settle for mediocrity."

An insidious message, to say the least, and one that reminds me of this.

h/t: ROK Drop

18 November, 2012

Travel Writing and the Lazy Worship of Poverty

By Aaron
18 November, 2012

Video: Michael Moynihan discusses the lazy tendency of travel writers to equate poverty and despotism with "cultural authenticity"

In the September/October 2012 issue of Foreign Policy, Michael Moynihan took the travel guidebook industry and its writers (Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, etc.) to the woodshed for what he labeled their  "historical revisionism, factual errors, and a toxic combination of Orientalism and pathological self-loathing." Consider, writes Moynihan, the popular guidebooks for tinpot dictatorships such as Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Syria:

There's a formula to them: a pro forma acknowledgment of a lack of democracy and freedom followed by exercises in moral equivalence, various contorted attempts to contextualize authoritarianism or atrocities, and scorching attacks on the U.S. foreign policy that precipitated these defensive and desperate actions. Throughout, there is the consistent refrain that economic backwardness should be viewed as cultural authenticity, not to mention an admirable rejection of globalization and American hegemony.

Moynihan, as he admits in the video above, took a fair bit of heat for his Foreign Policy piece, with critics accusing him of racism, cultural insensitivity, and pure ignorance. Yet, while you can agree or disagree with Moynihan's claim that some cultures simply are superior to others, it's hard to argue with his characterization of modern-day travel writing as a genre bathed in "a lazy, knee-jerk leftism" that too often mistakes "grinding poverty for cultural authenticity [and confuses] dictatorship with a courageous rejection of globalization."

It might be easier to quibble with Moynihan on this point if travel writers weren't forever making it for him. As evidence, I submit to the jury this morning's edition of the Los Angeles Times, which showed up just in time for my late Sunday morning breakfast and which contains, atop a piece about travel to Cuba, the following headline: "Unspoiled, For Now."

The writer, Amanda Jones, goes on at length about the food, the music, the coastline, and the art. Ah, the art:

"Communism," writes Jones, "promotes the arts heavily, and Cuban culture has benefited from this, although there are struggles with lack of funding."

Yes, Communism (and other forms of despotism) does appreciate a nice work of art...unless it challenges party orthodoxy, at which point the artist has a troubling tendency to become persona non grata. And yes, funding - for the arts, for roads, for food, for pretty much everything - does tend to become a problem when you've run out of other people's money and refuse to allow your citizens to engage with the global economy.

As if charged with confirming Moynihan's stereotype of the Lazy Leftist Travel Writer, Jones concludes her piece by sticking right with the script:

One positive aspect of the embargo: Cuba has remained Cuban, without a McDonald's or a Hilton on every corner.

What I wish most for all Cubans is the chance to be seen on the world stage and be paid fairly for their efforts. And to be able to afford the same $2 espresso I had. Meanwhile, get here before Starbucks does.

Of course, as Moynihan points out, the lack of McDonald's, Hilton, and Starbucks in Cuba is not by any choice of the Cuban people. Indeed, the rafts of Cuban refugees mostly drift in one direction: toward the Big Macs and the venti lattes 90 miles to the north.

Says Moynihan: "You'll find this all the time with people who say, 'Isn't it adorable that, when you go to Havana, they have all these Packards from the 1950s?' Well, no it's not!  This is a pretty grim reflection of the economics of Cuba. They would like to have a Ford Fiesta!"

I should admit at this point that I haven't always been immune to the tendencies which Moynihan describes, and have written as much in these pages. Take, for instance, these lines from July 2007:

Before moving to Korea in the spring of 2002, I had Graham Greene on the brain - imagining myself passing the summer monsoons beneath lazy ceiling fans on the screened porch of some crumbling colonial villa; sipping gin-tonics while watching the rickshaws pass below on the flooded streets of Seoul; a small-scale civil war raging in the countryside.

Would that it were, and it never was.

I confess that, as a naive 23 year-old, drenched by my college years in the celebration of "cultural authenticity," I was a tad disappointed to arrive in South Korea and find not peasants in conical hats using oxen to tend their rice patties, but rather insurance salesmen and stock brokers grabbing a quick lunch at - oh, the horror - McDonald's. Fortunately, I eventually realized that my enjoyment of new places and experiences need not depend on the poverty or political repression of others. 

Now, if only the travel writing industry could figure this out. 

17 November, 2012

Quote of the Day: Bastiat

By Aaron
17 November, 2012

"After all, what is Competition? Is it a thing that exists and is self-acting like the cholera? No, Competition is only the absence of constraint. In what concerns my own interest, I desire to choose for myself, not that another should choose for me, or in spite of me—that is all. And if anyone pretends to substitute his judgment for mine in what concerns me, I should ask to substitute mine for his in what concerns him. What guarantee have we that things would go on better in this way? It is evident that Competition is Liberty. To take away the liberty of acting is to destroy the possibility, and consequently the power, of choosing, of judging, of comparing; it is to annihilate intelligence, to annihilate thought, to annihilate man. From whatever quarter they set out, to this point all modern reformers tend—to ameliorate society they begin by annihilating the individual, under the pretext that all evils come from this source—as if all good did not come from it too."

16 November, 2012

Electric Headline Wars

By Aaron
16 November, 2012

From today's Joong Ang Daily come the following headlines, which apparently need to be introduced to each other.

First, at the top of the newspaper's website, is this: "Gov't Announces Conserving Steps to Avoid Blackout." The story begins:

The government encouraged the public to conserve energy by keeping the temperature in their residences between 18 and 20 degrees Celsius (64 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit) this winter to prevent possible blackouts caused by electricity shortages.

Scroll down the page a bit further and you'll see this headline: "Despite Lack of Plan B, Electricity Hike Ruled Out." The story begins:

Does the government have any way of tackling the energy shortage and averting future blackouts besides asking consumers and industries to cut back on their usage?

Since the nationwide blackout on Sept. 15 last year, the government has for the third time introduced an emergency measure to try and stave off another catastrophe during the cold winter months, when demand traditionally surges.

Now, I understand that, when the electricity supply is controlled by politics, rate hikes will always be politically unpopular. After all, consumers are also voters and every consumer-voter prefers to pay less rather than more for everything. Let's not feign surprise, however, when consumers fail to channel their inner conservationist as energy prices fail to reflect market demand.

In short, if you want folks to use less electricity - by, say, closing the window when the heater or AC is running - send the proper price signals their way. 

15 November, 2012

On North Korea: Think People, Not Politics

By Aaron
15 November, 2012

The folks over at LiNK (Liberty in North Korea) are saying that $25,000 will be donated - by whom I'm not sure - if this video reaches 100,000 views. I can't verify this but the video is certainly worth a look. As it points out, the prevailing emphasis on high politics, nuclear inspections, and the intrigue surrounding the regime distracts us from the real issue: the suffering of the North Korean people.

14 November, 2012

I, Pencil: The Movie

By Aaron
14 November, 2012

A hearty round of applause is in order for the folks at the Competitive Enterprise Institute for bringing to video one of my favorite essays, Leonard Read's "I, Pencil." And please extend that applause for director Nicholas Tucker, whose work here is beautiful. 

Watch "I, Pencil" (here, or above) and consider that the complexity described pertains to a mere pencil, then go back to this post of mine and watch what happens when someone tries to build something as complicated as a toaster.

Money Either Does or Doesn't Make People Happier. Either Way, So What?

By Aaron

In 1974, economist Richard Easterlin published his most well-known article, "Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot? Some Empirical Evidence." His findings, which were to become known as "The Easterlin Paradox," indicated that more money did not necessarily give people a sunnier outlook on life. Ever since the article's publication, folks have been going around reminding each other - as they hustle off to work in the hope of a bigger annual bonus - that money can't buy happiness. 

In this new piece, however, Ronald Bailey points to recent research that, as Bailey puts it, seems to vindicate Gertrude Stein's quip that those who say money can't buy happiness just ain't shopping in the right places.

In recent years, however, additional research has called the Easterlin Paradox into question. Maybe more cash does make people happier. Especially salient are analyses done by University of Pennsylvania economists Daniel Sacks, Betsey Stevenson, and Justin Wolfers. In their updated 2010 study, “Subjective Well-Being, Income, Economic Development and Growth,” the three compare subjective well-being survey data from 140 countries with those countries' income and economic growth rates. The researchers find that within individual countries richer people are happier than poorer; people in richer countries are happier than people in poorer countries; and over time increased economic growth leads to increased happiness. “These results together suggest that measured subjective well-being grows hand in hand with material living standards,” they conclude.

In a sense, however, my reaction to the work of Sacks, Stevenson and Wolfers is much as it is to that of Easterlin: specifically, "So what?" Whether we determine that money makes people more or less happy, it's not obvious to me what policy implications this has. If, for instance, money does tend to make folks less happy, do we still want policymakers telling individuals that they can't work even if they find the work fulfilling or simply need the money to cover their expenses? Similarly, if money tends to make people happier, are we going to cut tax rates and let them keep more of their money? I would, of course, respond with a resounding "Yes!" to this latter question, not because the money makes people happier but because, hey, it's their money regardless of their emotional state. 

On this topic of money and happiness, I am more sympathetic to the view of the American Enterprise Institute's Arthur Brooks. Brooks notes that, in a market system, money serves as a reflection of one's success, but only earned success - the kind that comes from years of prudence, thrift, hard work, and an drive to meet the commercial demands of others - yields a sense of genuine happiness and satisfaction. Thus does Brooks point to the well-chronicled implosions of countless lottery winners who, while instantly coming into vast sums of wealth, often fail to find happiness due to the unearned nature of these riches. Money is merely a proxy for something deeper and more significant. Brooks ultimately makes what may be the most important point of all on this issue: "The moral confusion of materialism is one best left to ourselves, our families, our communities, and our faiths to resolve." Regardless of whether money makes people more or less happy, policymakers almost certainly can't legislate happiness. 

And with that, I'm off to pay my credit card bill.

10 November, 2012

Palmer on the Origins of the State

By Aaron
10 November, 2012

Tom Palmer

In a strange coincidence, I was just today working on an article which made reference to Mancur Olson's portrayal of the state as a "stationary bandit" (which steals from its subjects but has some interest in their prosperity in the interest of prolonged extraction) as contrasted with the "roving bandit" (pure thieves who show up at random to grab whatever they can). I say "strange" because just about an hour ago, via Cafe Hayek, I came across this truly extraordinary essay by Tom Palmer, who writes:

Historically, the existence of a state apparatus required a pre-existing surplus to sustain it in the first place.The state, in other words, would not exist without wealth being produced before its emergence. Let’s explore that a bit further. Why do people have wealth?

Charles Dunoyer, an early libertarian sociologist, explained that “there exist in the world only two great parties; that of those who prefer to live from the produce of their labor or of their property, and that of those who prefer to live on the labor or the property of others.” Simply put, makers produce wealth while takers appropriate it.

In his important book The State,the sociologist Franz Oppenheimer distinguished between what he called the economic means and the political means of attaining wealth, that is, between “work and robbery.”

“The state,” he concluded, “is an organization of the political means.”

The economic means must precede the political means. However, not all kinds of work produce surpluses sufficient for sustaining a state. You don’t find states among hunter-gatherers, for instance, because they don’t generate enough of a surplus to sustain a predatory class.

Palmer goes on to reference Olson, as well as the Bible, legal theory and why the U.S. should have known that the Aghans weren't an easily-subdued culture. The essay is short, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

09 November, 2012

If You Hate Libertarians (And, Really, Who Doesn't?) Watch This

By Aaron
09 November, 2012

Steve Horwitz, an economist at St. Lawrence University who provides one of my favorite feeds on Facebook, recently referred to Jason Brennan (a professor at Georgetown University) as one of the best  libertarian bloggers writing today.  I confess that, until recently, I was unaware of Brennan's writings (though I may have come across them from time to time at BHL), but after hearing his remarks here I'm inclined to believe that Horwitz may be correct and I'll be sure to pay Brennan closer attention

Here's the video:

This event also benefited greatly from the remarks of Aaron Ross Powell, editor at

Well, At Least the Communists are Happy

By Aaron

Progressives like you worked their hearts out all over America for our people, our country, our president, and progressive Democrats. We fought and beat the tea party, the oligarchs and massive rich, Karl Rove's strategy, ALEC, the Koch Brothers, and all those who would tear down democracy and destroy the middle class and the labor movement.

That's from Wednesday's edition of People's World, which, according to its "About Us" page, enjoys a "special relationship with the Communist Party USA." I'm thus not surprised that they would be giddy in the belief that they'd defeated the "oligarchs and massive rich," but I wonder what they'd make of the following chart, showing that eight of the ten richest American counties voted for - drum roll, please - Barack Obama:

What's the Communist Party's narrative here? 

Footnote: In his 2005 bestseller, Thomas Frank wondered "What's the matter with Kansas?" That is, why do all the benighted masses of flyover country vote for conservative candidates when it's so obvious (at least, to the likes of Thomas Frank) that their interests lie with the Democratic Party?  

Which only prompts one to ask what could possess the affluent masses of Santa Monica and Fairfax to vote for left-leaning candidates, when everyone knows that the GOP is the party of their like-minded  plutocrats. 

07 November, 2012

GM Shifting Production from Korea to Europe?

By Aaron
07 November, 2012

Video: The Ssangyong Motors labor union demonstrates how to shoot 
oneself in the foot by squatting down for better aim.

The roots of General Motors run surprisingly deep in South Korea, dating as they do to the early 1950s and to an auto company, Shinjin, that most folks have long since forgotten. Over time, Shinjin evolved into Daewoo and then, in 2001, GM bought the bulk of Daewoo's assets. Over the past decade GM has used its Korean affiliate as a platform for many of its vehicles.

Korea labor, however, isn't quite the wholesale bargain that it used to be and GM is now considering shifting production of its Chevrolet Cruze to Europe. This news hasn't settled well with Korea's notoriously ornery labor unions, which have vowed war if GM does indeed decide to make its motorcars elsewhere (which GM appears to be doing in an attempt to mollify German unions). And, as I've written before, when Korean labor unions threaten war, they mean it. Of course, I also had the following bit of advice for union leaders:

Take those large sums of money you've raised from union dues and start a company of your own. Given your vast managerial knowledge, I have no doubt it will be a first-rate success. You can pay your workers a higher salary and, since you're offering such "socially just" benefits, you'll no doubt be able to lure the best workers away from those other, less-humane car companies, thus enabling you to build a top-flight product. You can get out from under the Fat Cats, build a better car, and, if you're lucky, some sanctimonious hipster musician might even write a romantic folk song about you. Go ahead, make it happen. If nothing else, such a venture will keep you busy for a while and give you less time to destroy other people's property.

My advice still stands, though I would also add that threatening violence and destruction against companies that remove jobs doesn't exactly help attract companies that might be considering creating jobs in your area.

Remember When Democrats Attacked Bush for Abusing Presidential Powers? Yeah, Neither Do Most Democrats

By Aaron

President Obama thanks his predecessor for expanded executive powers.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Democrats across America had themselves all worked up over then-President George W. Bush's usurpations of power not granted him in the Constitution. The mere sight of the faces of Vice President Dick Cheney, and of advisors David Addington and John Yoo, was enough to send any loyal liberal into a fit of rage at the creeping dictatorship that was the Bush administration. How, for instance, could these men so brazenly bypass Congress in pursuit of their every whim and fancy? 

In 2007, a young professor of Constitutional law from Chicago stepped forward to lend his voice to the mass denunciation:

"These last few years we've seen an unacceptable abuse of power at home," then-candidate [Barack] Obama said in Chicago in October of 2007. "We've paid a heavy price for having a president whose priority is expanding his own power."

Well, apparently, nevermind. From The New York Times:

From the first time Barack Obama summoned the country’s leading presidential historians to dinner, they saw that the type of discussion he wanted would be different from their talks with previous Oval Office occupants.


At three private annual gatherings during his first years in office, he asked pointed questions: How did Ronald Reagan engineer his 1984 re-election despite a poor economy? Where did the Tea Party fit in the tradition of American protest movements? Theodore Roosevelt bypassed Congress to launch progressive programs; could Mr. Obama do the same? [emphasis mine]

I hate to say  "I told you so," but then, there is this from the Idiots' Collective archives, which ran in September, 2008:

American liberals have been quick to lambaste the Bush administration for its perceived abuses of Presidential power over the past eight years. And while there has been much to bemoan during that time, I can't help but wonder if those same liberals would be in similarly high dudgeon if, say, Al Gore or John Kerry had been up to the same antics. I suspect not.  Americans have seemingly forgotten that the Constitutional system of checks-and-balances exists not only to prevent the other side from going to excess, but also to reign in one's own favored party when it sets out to do the same.

Which prompts me to make again a point that must be made, well, again and again: Regardless of your political affiliation, do not advocate for an expansion of discretionary government power without first asking yourself how you'd feel about that power being wielded by someone from the other party, or by someone whose politics you distrust.

A final endorsement: Glenn Greenwald has been consistently excellent in his critiques of both Bush 's and Obama's abuses of power and he deserves your readership.

The Looming Battle Over Marijuana Policy

By Aaron

Last night, the voters of two blue states went to the polls and, in addition to giving Barack Obama a second term as president, also put his administration in quite a pickle. In Colorado and Washington, majorities voted in favor of measures that will, to an unprecedented extent, legalize the recreational use of marijuana (a similar measure failed in Oregon). If California's experience with legal medicinal marijuana is any indication, however, the battle between the states and the federal government is just beginning.

Readers may recall that, during his 2008 bid for the White House, Candidate Obama pledged that his administration would step away from years of draconian Drug War enforcement policies, especially where medical marijuana was concerned.

 "I'm not going to be using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue," said Obama back in 2008

Fast forward to April, 2012, and the Huffington Post was inspired to print this:

...the [Obama] administration has unleashed an interagency cannabis crackdown that goes beyond anything seen under the Bush administration, with more than 100 raids, primarily on California pot dispensaries, many of them operating in full compliance with state laws. Since October 2009, the Justice Department has conducted more than 170 aggressive SWAT-style raids in 9 medical marijuana states, resulting in at least 61 federal indictments, according to data compiled by Americans for Safe Access, an advocacy group. Federal authorities have also seized property from landlords who rent space to growers, threatening them with prosecution, and authorities have even considered taking action against newspapers selling ad space to dispensaries.

Interestingly, as the Cato Institute's Tim Lynch mentions in the audio interview above, these new marijuana laws do not conflict with federal law. A direct conflict, Lynch argues, would occur if federal law prohibited the possession of marijuana while state law mandated the possession of marijuana. Thus, while federal authorities are still within their rights to enforce federal laws, states such as Washington and Colorado can - and seemingly have - repealed their laws on marijuana and will henceforth decline to help the feds enforce federal law. The DEA, of course, can still devote its resources to investigating and arresting users of weed, but this will be much harder to do in the absence of local police cooperation. As Jacob Sullum wrote last week:

Marijuana will still be prohibited under federal law. But contrary to an argument made by opponents of Proposition 19, the California legalization initiative that lost by five percentage points in 2010, that does not mean the Supremacy Clause makes these measures unconstitutional. As Jonathan Caulkins and three other drug policy scholars note in their new book Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know, "The Constitution does not allow the federal government either to order state governments to create any particular criminal law or to require state and local police to enforce federal criminal laws."

So what will happen if or when local law enforcement in Washington and Colorado stand down in the decades-long fight against marijuana, thereby allowing, say, your average student in Boulder or Olympia to toke up without fear of prosecution? Will the federal government divert resources from its pursuit of bigger fish - such as the large-scale farmers of Humboldt County, CA, or the heads of Mexican cartels (who mostly traffic in cocaine anyway) - or will the feds accept that these ballot initiatives represent the first final gasps of a futile policy? We'll soon find out.


"the Drug Enforcement Administration’s enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act remains unchanged," a DEA spokesperson told Reason this morning.

"In enacting  the Controlled Substances Act, Congress determined that marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance. The Department of Justice is reviewing the ballot initiatives and we have no additional comment at this time."

  • "How Legal Will Pot Be in Colorado and How Soon?": Will the federal government attempt to argue that, because the Colorado state government will license marijuana sellers (rather than simply declining to prosecute them), a positive conflict between state and federal law exists?

06 November, 2012

Raico on the "European Miracle"

By Aaron
06 November, 2012

A precondition of economic expansion was the definition and defense of property rights against the political authority. This occurred early on in Europe. [David] Landes contrasts the European method of regular taxation (supervised by assemblies representative of the tax-bearing classes) with the system of "extortion" prevalent in "the great Asian empires and the Muslim states of the Middle East … where fines and extortions were not only a source of quick revenue but a means of social control — a device for curbing the pretensions of nouveaux riches and foreigners and blunting their challenge to the established power structure"..

Landes's insights, briefly sketched in a few pages of introduction to his Prometheus Unbound, have been vastly elaborated upon by the new school. The upshot is an overall interpretation of Western history that may be stated as follows:

Although geographical factors played a role, the key to western development is to be found in the fact that, while Europe constituted a single civilization — Latin Christendom — it was at the same time radically decentralized. In contrast to other cultures — especially China, India, and the Islamic world — Europe comprised a system of divided and, hence, competing powers and jurisdictions.

That is from "The Theory of Economic Development and the 'European Miracle,'" an essay by Ralph Raico first published in The Collapse of Development Planning (edited by Peter Boettke) in 1994. Raico's essay - and indeed, the entire collection of essays in Collapse - is excellent. Fortunately, Raico's piece is available in its entirety here, so go read it.

05 November, 2012

Thinking Beyond Stage One

By Aaron
05 November, 2012

Back in 1973, in an effort to combat inflation, the Richard Nixon administration imposed a freeze on wages and prices across the United States. The predictable effects of such a decree didn't take long to show themselves: ranchers stopped shipping their cattle to the market, farmers drowned their chickens, and consumers emptied the shelves of supermarkets. Just like that, consumer spending on products like eggs and beef declined. The silver lining to the whole fiasco, however, was that those involved learned their lesson. 

 "At least," George Shultz told Nixon, "we have now convinced everyone else of the rightness of our original position that wage-price controls are not the answer."

Well, Dr. Shultz, you may have spoken too soon. As the video above illustrates, the governments of New York and New Jersey have thrown off any memory of the Nixon years they may have had and prohibited the proprietors of fuel stations in the areas affected by Hurricane Sandy from raising the price of fuel. Thus do hurricane victims find themselves waiting in lines for fuel that may not  be available when they reach the front, and thus are potential suppliers discouraged from trucking more fuel into the New York metro area. 

Along with Duke University's Michael Munger, I can't help but wonder why it is - in this world of silly licensing requirements for every last occupation - there isn't, at minimum, a requirement that politicians pass a rigorous Econ 101 course. Hell, I'd be happy if they'd just sit through a course with economist Thomas Sowell's undergraduate professor (from Applied Economics):

When I was an undergraduate studying economics under Professor Arthur Smithies of Harvard, he asked me in class one day what policy I favored on a particular issue of the times. Since I had strong feelings on that issue, I proceeded to answer him with enthusiasm, explaining what beneficial consequences I expected from the policy I advocated.

“And then what will happen?” he asked.

The question caught me off guard. However, as I thought about it, it became clear that the situation I described would lead to other economic consequences, which I then began to consider and to spell out.

“And what will happen after that?” Professor Smithies asked.

As I analyzed how the further economic reactions to the policy would unfold, I began to realize that these reactions would lead to consequences much less desirable than those at the first stage, and I began to waver somewhat.

“And then what will happen?” Smithies persisted.

By now I was beginning to see that the economic reverberations of the policy I advocated were likely to be pretty disastrous— and, in fact, much worse than the initial situation that it was designed to improve.

Simple as this little exercise might seem, it went further than most economic discussions about policies on a wide range of issues. Most thinking stops at stage one.

And so, in the event that the governors of New York and New Jersey are reading this, I'd like to propose that you create a "Secretary of 'And Then What?'" position on your staff. Oh, and please be sure to take this person everywhere you go from now on.