Friday, January 29, 2010

The Oregon Tax Hike

The recent vote to raise taxes in Oregon is being viewed by some liberals and conservatives as a shot in the arm for the flagging confidence of liberalism in America. Maybe. But many conservatives, at least, are also dismayed by the vote as another turn of the ratchet of inexorable public-sector growth. I am forced to disagree, at least in principle.

The original design of this country was based around local control. If you needed a new street in your town, you went to the town government to try to get it done. The advantage of this system was that it allowed for a lot of experimentation and competition without flinging the whole country into uncertainty and chaos. Chicago might try one system for public education; New York might try something else. An entirely different system might be appropriate for Albuquerque. Or maybe Nacogdoches wants to try something new for whatever reason. It might succeed or fail; the change might cause a lot of grief and heartache or be the start of something wonderful. But in any event, the experiment in Nacogdoches would affect only the Nacogdocheans; the rest of the country could watch what happened.

While campaigning, FDR pronounced that his administration would be exemplified by "bold, persistent experimentation". He was elected on this platform, and the experiments were suddenly everywhere, all the time. The entire business climate underwent a cold front of uncertainty; no entrepreneur wants to launch a risky new business, or expand an existing one, when the very assumptions he is operating under might be different next month.

But FDR didn't start this trend; he is more of a signpost on a long road - one reading "Caution: Sharp Left Turns Ahead". Since before his time, there has been a general shift in power from the municipalities to the states to the federal government. In most cases, federal control comes in the form of money: the deal is that you (you: the state, county, or municipality) get federal money only if you pass a mandatory seat-belt law, or whatever Congress want to control this week.

Moves like that of Oregon may signal an Oregonian desire for more government, but unless you live in Oregon that really shouldn't affect you. (In the real world, it might, since the feds have proved so willing to prop up state budgets. One reason they do this is that it keeps power flowing from state to federal government, since the more fiscally dependent a state is, the less independent it is in all other ways.) There is a grave danger that we will some day end up with thousands of local governments and our fifty state governments, all meddling and annoying us in their own ways, and mostly funded by Leviathan in the form of the federal government, meaning they are less accountable to the people they directly govern. That is a perversion of the principle of local government. Therefore we should encourage efforts by states to pay for their own outsized governments. (This does not mean that we should discourage states to shrink their governments, though, as long as they do it without offloading to the feds.)

The federal income tax makes reversing the trend a steep uphill battle, since it gives the feds so much cash to slosh around. Even when they can't quickly raise revenue through taxes, the federal government has a hugely greater ability to raise money through debt than any state does. The power of Congress to buy state compliance on any number of issues is astonishing. We would be well served as a nation to find a way to encourage power and accountability to become more diffuse and localized.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Source of Obama's Spiking Disapproval

In the wake of the Brown Revolution, The New Republic has an article by John Judis about whether President Obama can successfully pivot to the center. Judis compares Clinton post 1994 to Carter post 1978, both Democratic presidents who receiving stunning mid-term rebukes. In Carter's case, he failed and lost re-election in 1980; Clinton, of course, succeeded. Obama has not exactly had a mid-term "rebuke", but the Massachusetts message was a shot across his bow.

It's an excellent article and well worth reading. But Judis plays some games with graphs near the end, where he compares Obama's disapproval rating to the unemployment rate and finds them closely correlated. Freely throwing cautions about correlation and causation to the wind, he then concludes that the rising unemployment rate is one cause behind Obama's disapproval. To show the problems with this approach, I produced a similar graph:

Here the other series is listed as "Mystery" so that you won't immediately know what it represents. Other than a little break early on, this is just as good a correlate as Judis'. (In fact, the mathematical correlations are nearly identical.)

OK, enough foreplay. Here's the mystery series: it's the S&P 500. So following Judis' logic, the rising S&P 500 has caused rising disapproval with Obama. Anyone believe that? Yeah, me neither.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Well, the unthinkable has happened: a Republican has been elected Senator from Massachusetts. This is certainly a repudiation of the current state of the health care bill. For one thing, Brown ran (in part) on a platform of voting against it. For another, he will replace Ted Kennedy (not counting placeholder Paul Kirk), the Senator most responsible for driving health care deform to where it is today. For a third, lots of voters polled said that their experience with MassCare had soured them on a federal version.

It would be madness for the Democrats to double down and try to ram through a bill via trickery. Using the reconciliation process seems to be off the table. Having the House simply pass the Senate bill remains an option, but given the narrow 220-215 passage of even the House bill, it's not at all clear where Pelosi finds the votes for this. That's especially true given the political environment that all House members must be eyeing warily. The public's ire is aroused and a wrong vote at this juncture could be fatal in November - which is rapidly approaching. The window for Obamacare may have just closed.

One more thought: we should celebrate Brown's victory tonight. But expectations should not go too high. He isn't going to become another Rick Santorum. In my opinion, that's a good thing. It's possible that Brown is close to my ideal candidate: fiscally conservative, socially moderate. He was elected primarily on the former, and we will have to see how he does. But even farther-right conservatives than I should be happy if he legislates around the middle of the party.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Brown v. Coakley

Scott Brown is changing the game in the Massachusetts special election to fill the seat vacated when Ted Kennedy died. The latest PPP poll has Brown up by 5. If Brown were to win, it would have massive repercussions:

  • First win by a Republican Senator in Massachusetts in 40 years
  • Democrats lose filibuster-proof 60th Senate vote
  • Shock waves go through Democrats up for election in 2010 (if a Dem can lose in the People's Republic of Massachusetts, where can't he lose?)

The Intrade markets involved in these issues have been active lately, of course. Currently, the market predicts a brown victory at about a 2-1 spread, and that's up from about even just days ago. Brown still seems to have all the momentum. The question of whether the federal government will administer a public option health care plan has dropped from 10% to around 2% since the Brown surge.

The election is Tuesday. Athwart History will certainly be watching closely.

Book Review: The Time It Never Rained

The Time It Never Rained is an unusual Western by Elmer Kelton. The story is based around actual events - specifically, the Texas drought of the early 1950s - which the author experienced both as a friend and relative of ranchers and as a reporter for the ranching industry. Almost every scene is about Charlie Flagg, a cattle and sheep rancher.

Most Westerns have a heroic archetype as protagonist. Flagg is no hero. He is stubborn, cantankerous, elderly, and disabled. He is distant with his wife and has a troubled relationship with his son. But he is also tough, self-sufficient, and honest. And he has a creed, and that is to take no handouts from anybody. Flagg believes there is no such thing as a free lunch, and is suspicious of apparent free lunches. During the great drought, the government steps in to help out. This help takes several forms: price supports to help out the farmers, free feed to help out the ranchers, and so on. Flagg refuses it all, though it eventually costs him nearly his entire ranch.

It's hard to ignore similarities to Ayn Rand when reading this book. Flagg is in some sense a Texan John Galt or Hank Reardon. Flagg:

Now, if you go in my wife's kitchen you'd see an old pet cat curled up close to the stove. She's fat and lazy. If a mouse was to run across the kitchen floor that old cat wouldn't hardly stir a whisker. She's been fed everything she wanted. She depends on us. If we went off someday and left her she'd starve.

But out at the barn there's cats that can spot a mouse across two corrals. I never feed them. They rustle for theirselves, and they do a damn good job of it. If I was to leave they'd never miss me. All they need is a chance to operate. They may not be as fat as the old pet, but I'd say they're healthier.

The language is not as highflown as Galt's famous speech in Atlas Shrugged, but it expresses similar ideas. However, there are crucial differences. Rand's philosophy is totalitarian: she wants everyone to share it, and indeed it would not work unless everyone did share it. She admits no weakness. Kelton's, expressed through Flagg, is individual. He alienates some of his friends when the above quote gets published in the newspaper, but he repeatedly says he is not trying to dictate what others do, merely explain his own actions. He is also perfectly willing to help friends just because they are friends, with no expectation of remuneration, something no Rand hero would ever do. In other words, Flagg is recognizably human. Rand's heroes really are not.

Another difference between Kelton's tale and a traditional Western is the lack of enemies. Flagg battles primarily against the drought. In the process he comes into conflict with various of his friends, relatives and business associates, but none of them is an enemy. It would have been easy, given the anti-government ideas in the book, to paint the government as the enemy, but Kelton does not stoop to this either. One gets the idea that the government's well-intentioned but misguided actions are regrettable but inevitable. Flagg laments that, "There was a time we looked up to Uncle Sam; he was somethin' to be proud of and respect. Now he's turned into some kind of muddle-brained Sugar Daddy givin' out goodies right and left in the hopes that everybody's goin' to love him." This is the attitude of an old-time Americanism, the kind of independent man that Tocqueville admired. It is certainly foreign to most of our modern politics, both on the left and the right.

Most Westerns end either in triumph, with the bad guys vanquished and the good guys riding off into the sunset, or (in their more modern incarnations) sometimes in tragedy, the hero dying operatically after saving the day. The Time It Never Rained lacks such a heroic finale, instead ending on an ambiguous note. The reader is left unsure just how Flagg's story will continue beyond the last sentence. Many subplots are left unresolved. This is proper in a tale like this; life offers few final victories. But if there is a moral to the story, it is that it also offers few final defeats.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Poll Shenanigans

It's endlessly amusing to read Daily Kos' interpretation of poll results. And we're in for a treat this year, because according to Kos himself, they will be buying thousands of polls this year. So there will be plenty to interpret.

The latest laugher is this one, which breaks down like this:

In general, would you say that President Obama's views and proposed programs for the country are too liberal, not liberal enough, or just about right for the country?

Not liberal enough 10%
Just about right 42%
Too liberal 46%

Kos' interpretation is that this means a 52-46 majority that thinks Obama is either OK or needs to lean left.

Hopefully, the problem with this analysis is obvious, but if not I'll spell it out: I could use the exact same logic to argue that an 88-10 majority thinks Obama is either OK or needs to lean right.

What Reid Said

When Eric Holder was elevated to the position of Attorney General of the United States, he admonished all of us to have a "national discussion on race." Openness and honesty, it was implied, should be the hallmarks of the new administration, and the way to get past our national problems with race would be to embrace them, talk them out, and... and what? This would make them magically disappear?

At the time, the inanity of Holder's remarks was already apparent. But in the wake of Reid's "gaffe" it is even clearer. The Democrats do not want a national discussion on race even amongst themselves. Reid's remarks, that Obama was the most viable black Presidential candidate he had seen because he is "light skinned" and because he lacks a "Negro dialect", simply don't imply any racism in Reid. Reid's apologists, such as Senator Dianne Feinstein, gave Reid the maximum latitude any public figure is allowed when talking about race, and even she merely said that he "was mistaken", and that he "misspoke". In other words, Reid's words were wrong, but his actions should vindicate him.

But was Reid, in fact, mistaken? I don't see how. It's simply true that Obama is light skinned, which is not surprising considering his white mother. It's also true that he has a great facility with language and speech, and can speak in dialect and accent ranging from patrician to academic to folksy to pastoral. It is an odd world where speaking truth, especially such neutral-to-complimentary truths, counts as "racist", but that appears to be the world we live in.

Compare what Reid said to Vice President Biden's description of Obama back in 2007: "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." Even if not racist, Biden's comment is certainly patronizing. And he was taken to task for it, but that didn't stop his later selection as Obama's running mate, or his election to the second-highest job in our federal government.

Certainly it is true, as RNC Chairman Michael Steele pointed out, that were a Republican to "misspeak" like this, he would be drummed out of public life. But that's an old and obvious story. What's interesting here is that not even Harry Reid is allowed to make open, honest, non-patronizing, complimentary statements about race, if those statements imply any difference whatsoever among the races. The rules, really, are simple: Blacks are allowed to speak about races; whites are not. Until that changes, we will never achieve Holder's dreams of openness and honesty.

That's the bad news. The good news is that it's unlikely openness and honesty would do any more good in this realm than in others. Are you completely open and honest to your friends? Your wife? Your kids? Do you tell them about all their perceived flaws? All the problems they cause you? And do they reciprocate? It would be very tiresome and debilitating to have these issues constantly aired in private life, and the same would be true in public. It is difficult enough to achieve the proper balance between frankness and tact within the narrow confines of one's own family; imagine the difficulty in a nation of 300 million.

Even if we won't have total openness, at least it would be nice to rid ourselves of the double standards. As the Reid episode shows, this change isn't imminent.