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

10 January, 2013

No, Really, There's a M-F'n Snake on This M-F'n Plane

By Aaron
10 January, 2013

Embedded Video: A rough day for stowaway pythons

  • Queue your Samuel L. Jackson impression: "Snake Hitches a Ride on Qantas Flight" (video above). 

  • I confess that I haven't bothered to get too deep into the debate over whether President Obama has the authority to mint a $1 trillion platinum coin as a debt ceiling dodge. I mean, really, has the debate over fiscal policy really come to this? Fortunately, Megan McArdle is willing to expend her own energy to tear apart the idea:
I hope you'll pardon me while I go off on a rant here.  The trillion dollar platinum is an absurdity wrapped in a legislative incongruity inside a farce.  It is the logical extension of an utterly illogical legislative process that only becomes more irrational with each passing day.   Each partisan battle has become stupider than the last.  Silly loopholes are exploited for bargaining power, and the resulting stalemates are generally solved with a temporary patch that solves the immediate problem by creating a bigger one down the road.  When the bigger problem arrives, naturally the other side seeks an even sillier loophole, resulting in an even more temporary patch.


When I was reporting on Wall Street, I used to be told with some regularity that government was needed to counteract the short-term thinking of the business sector, who never thought much beyond the next quarterly earnings report.  This now seems as quaintly adorable as picture hats and daily milk deliveries.  An ADHD day trader with a cocaine habit and six months to live has considerably more long-term planning skills than our current congress.
  • "Five Facts About Guns, School, and Violence:" 1) Violent crime dropped massively over the past 20 years. 2) Mass shootings have not increased in recent years. 3) Schools are getting safer. 4) There are more guns in circulation than ever before. 5) "Assault weapons bans" are generally ineffective.

  • On this day in 1870, John D. Rockefeller incorporated his Standard Oil company. Somewhere around 1880, the term "Robber Baron" made its earliest American appearance, and Rockefeller was among the chief targets of the term's opprobrium. This is a shame, as all Rockefeller did was make Americans better off and help to usher in the modern age. In this video, Lawrence Reed breaks down the story:
Embedded Video: "Witch-Hunting for Robber Barons - The Standard Oil Story"

  • And finally, since we're on the topic of history, the world lost a legend on this day in 1976 when Howlin' Wolf (whose "Spoonful" ranks among my favorite songs of any genre) passed away at the age of 66. Learn a bit more about the fellow - and the blues in general - with this documentary:
Embedded Video: "The Real Story of the Blues"

09 January, 2013

A Wednesday Buffet of Goodness

By Aaron
09 January, 2013

Embedded Video: George Will - "The Political Argument Today"

  • Two videos from George Will, who speaks with more eloquence than most can write and who gets better with each passing year. The first, which I've embedded above, is from more than a year ago but I only recently discovered it. The second, which you can see over at C-Span's site, is from last month and is entitled "Religion and Politics in the First Modern Nation." You'll profit greatly by watching both.

  • South Korea, which takes ethnic homogeneity as a point of pride, can be - shall we say - indelicate when it comes to the topic of race. I can't say that my (Korean) wife and I experienced much of what is described in this NYT article, but then, I'm a caucasian American and we always lived in Central Seoul. I suspect our story would be different if I hailed from the Indian Subcontinent and sported a higher melanin content. On the topic of race in South Korea, it's always interesting to note that, while South Koreans are awfully proud of their 'clean' bloodlines, they haven't exactly welcomed with open arms their North Korean siblings who've managed to escape to the South. The definition of 'cleanliness,' then, remains a matter of some dispute.

  • Speaking of the northern side of the 38th parallel: Joshua Stanton and Sung-Yoon Lee argue in Foreign Policy that the U.S. Treasury Department should ramp up its interdiction efforts toward North Korean money-laundering schemes as a way to bankrupt the DPRK's palace economy. As foreign adventures go, I have less objection to this idea than to most suggestions involving the military. That said, history has shown that unintended consequences have a way of arising when one starts fiddling with the knobs and levers of geopolitics. 

  • And since we're on the topic of the DRPK, the US Congressional Report expects China to intervene in North Korea at some point. Not a surprising or risky prediction, if you ask me.

  • Writing at The New York Times, Steven Asma illustrates the problem facing a true altruist who seeks to treat everyone with equal love, compassion, and generosity (a topic I hit from a different angle here): 
Say I bought a fancy pair of shoes for my son. In light of [Peter Singer's] one-tribe calculus of interests, I should probably give these shoes to someone who doesn’t have any. I do research and find a child in a poor part of Chicago who needs shoes to walk to school every day. So, I take them off my son (replacing them with Walmart tennis shoes) and head off to the impoverished Westside. On the way, I see a newspaper story about five children who are malnourished in Cambodia. Now I can’t give the shoeless Chicago child the shoes, because I should sell the shoes for money and use the money to get food for the five malnourished kids. On my way to sell the shoes, I remember that my son has an important job interview for a clean-water nonprofit organization and if he gets the job, he’ll be able to help save whole villages from contaminated water. But he won’t get the job if he shows up in Walmart tennis shoes. As I head back home, it dawns on me that for many people in the developing world, Walmart tennis shoes are truly luxurious when compared with burlap sack shoes, and since needs always trump luxuries I’ll need to sell the tennis shoes too; and on, and on, and on.
  • Oh, and happy birthday to Jimmy Page, who turns 68 today. 

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James M. Buchanan (1919-2013)

By Aaron

Embedded Video: "Daring To Be Different - Reflections on the Life and Work of James Buchanan"

James Buchanan, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for economics and a co-founder of the Public Choice field of political economy, has died at the age of 93. 

So prolific and wide-ranging was Buchanan as a scholar (his Collected Works span more than 20 volumes) that, despite his considerable influence on me, I must admit that I've barely nibbled around the edges of his writing. He is likely best known for books such as The Calculus of Consent (co-authored with Gordon Tullock), Cost and Choice, and Public Principles of Public Debt - the titles of which are unlikely to excite you but these writings have had a profound influence on the social sciences since their publication. Among my own favorite Buchanan pieces - and among his shortest - are "Afraid to Be Free" and "Order Defined in the Process of Its Emergence," both of which offer that rare combination of profundity and accessibility for a non-technical reader. (For a sampling of Buchanan's influence on my thinking, see here and here.)

And goodness, no one since William Faulkner has offered a better combination of Southern accent and debonaire mustache. As evidence, I submit to the jury the following exchange between Buchanan and fellow George Mason University economist Walter Williams:

Embedded Video: Walter Williams and James Buchanan on the Constitution's erosion

Buchanan described the field of Public Choice as a view of "politics without romance." Believe it or not, there was once a time when most people looked at government as a noble institution filled with "public servants" who devoted their every waking minute to making the world a utopia spritzed with subtle hints of lavender and cinnamon. Hell, I suspect that this Schoolhouse Rocks! portrayal of the political process still holds the day in most high school civics classes - I certainly got such a romantic story in my 11th grade government class back in the mid-1990s. 

Buchanan, however, pointed out that "The Government" is nothing but a collection of individuals who, in their private lives, are motivated by self-interest. No moral transformation takes place when these folks enter political office. The currency may change - i.e. a salesman is motivated chiefly by the financial bottom line while a politician may seek power or fame or adoration - but individuals, regardless of their field, tend to pursue the greatest amount of whatever it is that motivates them.  Why not apply the same standards of economic analysis to political officials and government workers as we apply to, say, prostitutes (my apologies to prostitutes for that association)? 

Not surprisingly, when a titan such as Buchanan passes, barrels of digital ink are quickly rerouted for the writing of tributes. A few highlights:

I first learned of Buchanan's death from Steven Horwitz, an economist at St. Lawrence University, who writes:

No one who wishes to talk responsibly about politics can be ignorant of public choice theory. No one should ever invoke the language of market failure (including externalities) without having digested his work on government failure. And people who run around talking about the constitution better be able to understand something of constitutional political economy.

Robert Higgs, of the Independent Institute, is among many who have praised Buchanan's skepticism of overly-technical economics:

...the hallmark of Buchanan’s work from beginning to end was a deep seriousness of purpose and procedure that not many economists have matched in the past century. Unlike the typical mainstream economist, Jim was never just fooling around, toying with a tweaked model or a trivial, throw-away idea. To a rare degree, he kept his eyes focused on the prize of true economic understanding. When I began to read and ponder his writings seriously in the 1980s, I developed a tremendous respect for his view of what markets are and how they work. A more formally inclined economist would have had great difficulty in achieving his depth of understanding; the math and the technicalities have a way of overwhelming the substance of an economic analysis, and ofttimes of obliterating it entirely. To my knowledge, Jim never committed this professional sin.

Of course, leave it to the The New York Times to do the man wrong:

James M. Buchanan, a scholar and author whose analyses of economic and political decision-making won the 1986 Nobel in economic sciences and shaped a generation of conservative thinking about deficits, taxes and the size of government, died on Wednesday in Blacksburg, Va. He was 93.        

Nevermind that Buchanan once wrote a book entitled Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative: The Normative Vision of Classical Liberalism. For the NYT, there are evidently only two political camps and if the left dislikes Buchanan's ideas (which are indeed inconvenient for Big Government types), then he must be a right-wing conservative. This despite the fact that both the Democrats and Republicans are, as Richard Epstein puts it, merely "two members of the same statist party fighting over whose friends will get favors" - that is, equal opportunity offenders when viewed through the Public Choice prism.

Which brings me to Radley Balko who, at The Huffington Post, writes:

Conservatives have always bought into public choice theory when it comes to paper-pushing bureaucrats. But when it come to law enforcement, they often have the same sort of blind faith in the good intentions and public-mindedness of public servants that the left has for, say, EPA bureaucrats. But public choice problems are as prevalent in law enforcement as they are in any other field of government work. And you could make a strong argument that it's more important that we recognize and compensate for the incentive problems among cops and prosecutors because the consequences of bad decisions can be quite a bit more dire.

Bottom line: if you have any opinions whatsoever about politics, the role of government, or economics, do yourself a solid and acquaint yourself with the work of James Buchanan. And be thankful that you shared a planet with the man for as long as you did. 

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07 January, 2013

53 Terrible Jokes in a Mere 4 Minutes

By Aaron
07 January, 2013

Well, if you've got anything better, send it my way. Otherwise, just smile and enjoy the show:

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02 January, 2013

Higgs on Arguing for Freedom

By Aaron
02 January, 2013

...precisely because the war of the wonks—not to mention the professors, pundits, columnists, political hacks, and intellectual hired guns—is never-ending, one can never rest assured that once a person has been persuaded that freedom works better, at least in regard to situation X, that person has been won over to libertarianism permanently. If a person has come over only because of evidence and argument adduced yesterday by a pro-freedom wonk, he may just as easily go back to his support for government intervention tomorrow on the basis of evidence and argument adduced by an anti-freedom wonk. As John Maynard Keynes once cleverly replied to someone who asked him about his fluctuating views, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” If libertarians choose to fight for freedom solely on consequentialist grounds, they will be at war forever. Although one may accept this prospect on the grounds that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” this kind of war is deeply discouraging, given that the anti-freedom forces with which libertarians must contend possess hundreds of times more troops and thousands of times more money for purchasing munitions.

In contrast, once the libertarian has persuaded someone that government interference is wrong, at least in a certain realm, if not across the board, there is a much smaller probability of that convert’s backsliding into his former support for government’s coercive measures against innocent people. Libertarianism grounded on the moral rock will prove much stronger and longer-lasting than libertarianism grounded on the shifting sands of consequentialist arguments, which of necessity are only as compelling as today’s arguments and evidence make them. Hence, if we desire to enlarge the libertarian ranks, we are well advised to make moral arguments at least a part of our efforts. It will not hurt, of course, to show people that freedom really does work better than state control. But to confine our efforts to wonkism dooms them to transitory success, at best.

That's Robert Higgs - author of Crisis and Leviathan - writing last week at The Beacon. The article is available in its entirety here

I read Higgs' piece with great interest, as his intellectual progression from a libertarianism based on utilitarian arguments ("the greatest good for the greatest number") to one based on a defense of natural individual rights closely mirrors my own. Indeed, my first exposure to explicitly classical liberal - or, if you prefer, libertarian - philosophy was probably Milton Friedman's 1962 book Capitalism and Freedom, which I read while in my mid-20s and which served as the first step on my path away from a milquetoast, Democratic Party view of politics and economics. 

Coming at the ideas of classical liberalism through the "Friedman Door" meant that my earliest arguments for individual liberty - many of which you can probably find on this site if you dig into the archives of 2007 or 2008 - were premised on the idea that voluntary cooperation between free individuals will yield the best material outcome. And I still believe this to be the truth. But why is it true?

Having digested Friedman, I moved on to writers such as Locke, Jefferson, Rand, Machan and others whose defense of individual liberty rests on a foundation of deeper principle - specifically, the principle of non-aggression. In essence, this is the idea that no individual or group has the right to initiate violence (or the threat thereof) against other peaceful individuals. As Ayn Rand put it

Man’s rights can be violated only by the use of physical force. It is only by means of physical force that one man can deprive another of his life, or enslave him, or rob him, or prevent him from pursuing his own goals, or compel him to act against his own rational judgment.

The precondition of a civilized society is the barring of physical force from social relationships—thus establishing the principle that if men wish to deal with one another, they may do so only by means of reason: by discussion, persua­sion and voluntary, uncoerced agreement.

The necessary consequence of man’s right to life is his right to self-defense. In a civilized society, force may be used only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use.

As said, then, I continue to argue that personal freedom will, over time, produce greater material abundance, but this argument merely begs the question of why this is so. The answer to this, as Rand, Adam Smith, and others have pointed out, is that when a person is compelled to act against his own rational self-interest, not only is he made worse off, society is also made poorer. By contrast, voluntary exchange is by its very nature wealth-creating. That's both a material and a moral matter, and there's no disentangling the two. 

Moreover, as David Boaz writes, even utilitarians have a tendency to return to the idea of natural, inalienable rights when questions of right vs. wrong arise, even when the topic is not explicitly "economic:"

The classic formulation of utilitarianism is to take as a standard for ethics and political philosophy "the greatest good for the greatest number." That sounds unobjectionable, but it has some problems. How do we know what is good for millions of people? And what if the overwhelming majority in some society want something truly reprehensible—to expropriate the Russian kulaks, genitally mutilate teenage girls, or murder the Jews? Surely a utilitarian faced with the claim that the greatest number thought that such a policy would do the greatest good would fall back on some other principle—probably an innate sense that certain fundamental rights are self-evident.

Thus, while American abolitionists could certainly have made arguments against slavery on efficiency grounds (i.e. that voluntary cooperation will out-produce forced servitude), they won the day with a  stronger and more important crusade against the immorality of slavery. The inefficiency of slavery is merely a product of its immorality, as the use of force by one person is nothing more than a short-circuiting of the victim's ability to act rationally.

I hope that my friends and colleagues who associate themselves with the conservative and Republican Party defense of individual liberty, free markets, and small government will read Higgs' piece and realize that until they begin to make a deeper moral case for their positions, they should not expect to make much headway with their intellectual opponents or the public at large.

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