Notes From Babel

Archive for October 2009

The Man on the Right Bank and the Man on the Left Bank

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It is a shame that the Civil War, indeed most of the clashes between antebellum North and South, has been all but completely reduced to a glorified race riot in contemporary understanding.  This, despite the well-documented historical fact that antebellum Northerners were probably more “racist” than their Southern contemporaries—slavery was outlawed in the North because it was not economically feasible, not because of any particularly wellspring of moral enlightenment.

In this regard, antebellum America offers a positively unique insight into the effects of subjugation and totalitarian planning—i.e., progressivism—in economic life.  The so-called “racial inferiority” of the blacks was a thinly veiled justification to experiment with planned economies in which workers were given relative stability and security in exchange for choice over the distribution of their services and incentive to devote their mental energies to improving the output of their labor.   In other words, take away the physical brutality the slaves endured, and we are left with an early example of a Great Society.

In Democracy in America, the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville observed the result of this early example of American progressivist economic planning in Kentucky, as juxtaposed with the vibrant free market across the river in Ohio.  It can be seen that the social planning imposed on the unwilling worker has little to do with that worker’s race—it has the same effect whether that worker is an antebellum black slave or a modern would-be state ward:

The traveler who, placed in the middle of the Ohio, allows himself to be carried along by the current to the mouth of the river in the Mississippi, therefore, navigates so to speak between freedom and servitude; and he has only to cast glances around himself to judge in an instant which is more favorable to humanity.

On the left bank of the river, the population is sparse; from time to time one perceives a troop of slaves running through half-wild fields with an insouciant air; the primitive forest constantly reappears; one would say that society is asleep; man seems idle, nature offers the image of activity and of life.

From the right bank, on the contrary, rises a confused noise that proclaims from afar the presence of industry; rich harvests cover the fields; elegant dwellings announce the taste and hte care of the laborer; on all sides comfort reveals itself; man appears rich and content: he works.

. . . .

It is true that in Kentucky, masters make slaves work without being obliged to pay them, but they receive little fruit from their efforts, while the money that they would give to free workers would be recovered with interest from the value of their labors.

The free worker is paid, but he acts more quickly than the slave, and rapidity of execution is one of the great elements of economy.  The white sells his assistance, but one buys it only when it is useful; the black has nothing to claim as the price of his services, but one is obliged to nourish him at all times; one must sustain him in his old age as in his mature age, in his sterile childhood as during the fruitful years of his youth, through sickness as in health.  Thus, only by paying does one obtain the work of these two men: the free worker receives a wage; the slave an education, food, care, clothing; the money that the master spends to keep the slave is drained little by little and in detail; one hardly perceives it: the wage that one gives to the worker is delivered in one stroke, and it seems to enrich only the one who receives it; but in reality the slave has cost more than the free man and his work has been less productive.

The influence of slavery extends further still; it penetrates to the very soul of the master and impresses a particular direction on his ideas and his tastes.

On the two banks of the Ohio, nature has given man an enterprising and energetic character; but on each side of the river he makes a different use of this common quality.

The white on the right bank, obliged to live by his own efforts, has placed in material well-being the principal goal of his existence; and as the country that he inhabits presents inexhaustible resources to his industry and offers ever renewed enticements to his activity, his ardor for acquiring has surpassed the ordinary bounds of human cupidity: tormented by the desire for wealth, one sees him enter boldly onto all the paths that fortune opens to him; be becomes indiscriminately a sailor, a pioneer, a manufacturer, a farmer, supporting the work or dangers attached to these different professions with equal constancy; there is something marvelous in the resources of his genius and a sort of heroism in his greed for gain.

The American on the left bank scorns not only work, but all the undertakings that work makes successful; living in idle ease, he has the tastes of idle men; money has lost a part of its worth in his eyes; he pursues fortune less than agitation and pleasure, and he applies in this direction the energy that his neighbor deploys elsewhere; he passionately loves hunting and war; he pleases himself with the most violent exercises of the body; the use of arms is familiar to him, and from his childhood he has learned to stake his life in single combat.  Slavery, therefore, not only prevents whites from making a fortune; it diverts them from wanting it.

Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Univ. Chicago Press, 2002  (Mansfield and Winthrop, eds.) at 331-33 (emphasis added).

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Written by Tim Kowal

October 31, 2009 at 2:19 pm

Economic Lies Make Baby Jesus Cry

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The White House is reporting a lot of false information about the effects of $787 billion stimulus program:

The AP review found some counts were more than 10 times as high as the actual number of jobs; some jobs credited to the stimulus program were counted two and sometimes more than four times; and other jobs were credited to stimulus spending when none was produced.

For example:

_ A company working with the Federal Communications Commission reported that stimulus money paid for 4,231 jobs, when about 1,000 were produced.

_ A Georgia community college reported creating 280 jobs with recovery money, but none was created from stimulus spending.

_ A Florida child care center said its stimulus money saved 129 jobs but used the money on raises for existing employees.

There’s no evidence the White House sought to inflate job numbers in the report. But administration officials seized on the 30,000 figure as evidence that the stimulus program was on its way toward fulfilling the president’s promise of creating or saving 3.5 million jobs by the end of next year.

. . . .

As of early Thursday, on its recovery.org Web site, the government was still citing 30,383 as the actual number of jobs linked so far to stimulus spending, despite the mistakes the White House has now acknowledged and said were being corrected.

Deceptions and over-exaggerations about the effects of stimulus money and other spending programs seem to me more egregious than regular deceptions and over-exaggerations about the effects of progressivist policies.  Why?  Because more and more the civilized world depends on sound economic theory for its stability and prosperity, and less and less does it seem we have any idea what “sound” economic policy is when it comes to the federal government spending x-illion dollars on ephemeral “recovery” and “stimulus” programs.  With all the “won’t somebody please think of the children” when it comes to progressivist environmental planning, why won’t they think of our children when it comes to establishing the true historical record about the outcome of progressivist economic planning?  If flopping stacks of money in front of a swamp cooler and blasting it into the either didn’t work, let’s please not say that it did.

Written by Tim Kowal

October 31, 2009 at 8:57 am

Posted in Economics, Rants

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Polygamy Bans Under Fire?

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Via Religion Clause blog:  It will be interesting to see what happens up in Canada with this recent request to the British Columbia Supreme Court for clarification on whether B.C.’s prohibition on polygamy conflicts with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  As I’ve explained before (here, here, here, and here), the current impetus towards thwarting popular will and imposing same-sex marriage in America undermines the democratic principle that properly governs such questions.  And without the democratic principle, same-sex marriage supporters would be without any sound principle to oppose polygamy or incestuous relationships.

Written by Tim Kowal

October 24, 2009 at 11:05 pm

Posted in Gay Marriage

The Debate on the Constitutionality of Obama’s Nobel Prize

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Jack Balkin at Balkinization has this post tearing into this Washington Post op-ed by Ronald Rotunda (at Chapman Law School) and J. Peter Pham over the constitutionality of President Obama’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize.  Rotunda/Pham’s piece points out, in relevant part:

Article I, Section 9, of the Constitution, the emolument clause, clearly stipulates: “And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince or foreign State.”

The award of the peace prize to a sitting president is not unprecedented. But Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson received the honor for their past actions: Roosevelt’s efforts to end the Russo-Japanese War, and Wilson’s work in establishing the League of Nations. Obama’s award is different. It is intended to affect future action. As a member of the Nobel Committee explained, the prize should encourage Obama to meet his goal of nuclear disarmament. It raises important legal questions for the second time in less than 10 months — questions not discussed, much less adequately addressed anywhere else.

The five-member Nobel commission is elected by the Storting, the parliament of Norway. Thus the award of the peace prize is made by a body representing the legislature of a sovereign foreign state. There is no doubt that the Nobel Peace Prize is an “emolument” (“gain from employment or position,” according to Webster).

It’s an interesting argument.  It starts from the plain text of the constitution, and then moves on to explain why the two instances where the clause may have applied in the past—with Presidents Roosevelt’s and Wilson’s Nobel Prizes—perhaps do not, while it may still apply to President Obama’s acceptance of his award.

But Prof. Balkin does not find the argument interesting in the least.   Instead, he accuses his colleagues of partisanship and of “embarrass[ing]” the Washington Post (as if the WaPo doesn’t do a fine job of that already on its own). He also argues:

Rotunda’s and Pham’s distinction between awards for past and future conduct makes little sense in practice, because foreign governments might often reward past behavior in order to influence future behavior.

And:

The Emoluments Clause allows Congress to consent to awards from foreign governments. And Congress has consented to the acceptance of the award through the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act, in which Congress consents to “decorations” (i.e., awards like the Nobel Prize) “when it appears that to refuse the gift would likely cause offense or embarrassment or otherwise adversely affect the foreign relations of the United States.”

Balkin then proceeds to pile on the caustic remarks:

This episode has led me to two conclusions. First, the Washington Post Op-Ed section does not appear to have a lawyer on hand to keep it from embarrassment. It does not take much research to discover that the argument in this piece is frivolous. But no research was done.

Second, I have noticed an increasing lack of seriousness among some members of the modern conservative movement.

A few thoughts:

— Why is every disagreement, even among academics, have to devolve to accusations of partisanship?

— It seems relevant to me that the award was based expressly on future conduct—much different than the implied hope that future conduct will resemble past conduct as in Roosevelt’s and Wilson’s awards.

— It is dubious that the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act can satisfy the emolument clause, as it would constitute an impermissible delegation to the President of a discretionary power given to Congress.  The Constitution divided this power respecting acceptance of emoluments from foreign nations—Congress is not empowered to glue it back together.

At the very least, it would be nice of a discussion could be had of such things without the threat of being called an “embarrassment” by those who are supposed to be colleagues.  Certainly, an op-ed piece is not a piece of scholarly writing.  Then again, I did not see any footnotes to support Balkin’s conclusion that “It is certainly not sound legal argument.”  So is the implication here simply that scholars should not communicate with the commoners?

Written by Tim Kowal

October 24, 2009 at 10:28 am

Regulate First, Ask Questions Later

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Here’s an unusually trivial topic: the volume of television commercials.  Kevin Drum thinks they’re too loud and ought to be regulated.  I disagree.  As usual, he’s all too eager to give the government a new facet of life to regulate, no matter how trivial.  And this even though he concedes there are market alternatives that he just wasn’t aware of.  (“‘[T]here are various technological solutions from companies like Dolby and SRS that help keep TV volumes on a more even keel.’  Really?  I didn’t know that.”)  I remember first seeing TV’s with audio leveling technology to address this very problem many years ago.

You’d think if it were important enough to regulate, it would be important enough to have done a minimal amount of poking around to discover there was already a solution to the problem.

Written by Tim Kowal

October 13, 2009 at 10:08 pm

Posted in Regulation

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Bill Maher’s Push to Abolish States and the Senate

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I try to watch Bill Maher’s show every week, simply because he’s so honest about the liberal position.  During last week’s show with Thomas Friedman and (sigh) Janine Garafolo, Maher revealed two more doozies about his ideology:

(1) that the states are too slow to be useful as our laboratories, and the federal government should just lead the way when it comes to environmental regulation (he noted that waiting until 2016 for sea change was unacceptable—global warming is proved by the fires in California, dontcha know, and we should be able to push economy-transforming regulations in less than a year’s time, i.e., before the fire fighters extinguish our “proof”); and

(2) that the senate should just be abolished because it allows less populous states to foul up the progressives’ Great Society plot.

He also had on his buddy Richard Dawkins, who is similarly honest about his proof for the non-existence of God, which is, belief in God is ridiculous.  Q.E.D.  Recited in a British accent, believe me, it’s powerful stuff.

Written by Tim Kowal

October 11, 2009 at 5:56 pm

This Is How Government Competes with the Private Sector

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I never bought into the faux-demure defense for the public option that said “if the clumsy ol’ government is so bad at managing things, what do you have to worry about it providing an alternative to private insurers?” Here’s why: because government is likely to force the private sector to fund governmental clumsiness.

H/T Hot Air

Written by Tim Kowal

October 10, 2009 at 9:40 am

Posted in Health Care