Saturday, January 26, 2008

Taking Dictation

Thomas Sowell, the illustrious economist and social commentator, has observed that we can never dictate results, but can only initiate processes. This is true for everything we do.

Take weight loss, for example. If you want to lose fifty pounds, unfortunately, it is not as easy as snapping your fingers and decreeing the weight loss. You must initiate a process that, in some form or another, results in burning more calories than you consume over a sustained period of time, perhaps years. Generally, and superficially, the process consists of adding exercise to your daily routine, and saying no to many tasty foods that are high in fat, carbs, and calories. But more fundamentally, it involves changing the way you see food. You may need to learn why it is that you depend on food to bring joy into your life -- otherwise, all your dieting and exercising may be nullified when the joylessness becomes too much to endure. Justice plays a miniscule role in all this. A lot of people are beautifully proportioned who certainly don't deserve it, while a lot of people who are obese might deserve to be better proportioned. Maybe some day, a pill will change all that. But in the meantime, for the deserving and undeserving alike, diet and exercise is the process, and a better-looking body is the desired result -- fairly or not, it must be achieved, not decreed.

Personal wealth, for those of us who aren't born into it, is another such achievement. A process of being indigent probably won't make you rich; you'll have to start by selling your time and labor to someone willing to purchase it. This is called working. To get a good job, the ticket is to learn enough to demonstrate potential to an employer. This is called learning. Gradually, you will acquire experience, and hence the ability to get better and better jobs. And finally, you will have to accumulate a certain amount of capital, and then find a vehicle for it that earns value at a faster rate than the countervailing efforts of inflation and the IRS. This is called saving and investing. Learning, working, saving, and investing are nothing more than processes, however, and they are not guaranteed to make you rich. But if you are to become rich, some combination of these processes will be essential to your success. Again, justice is only a bit player, if that. Not everyone is smart enough to go far in school. Not everyone is psychologically equipped for the workplace. Not everyone has the discipline to save nor the insight to invest effectively. Many of us will someday achieve some degree of financial success, but few will become rich.

Regarding wealth, most folks in our society do not like where these processes, unbound, would tend to take us. Many would at least try to ensure that others aren't allowed to take away by force or fraud what you've worked so hard to acquire. This modest role for justice has been the prevailing one for centuries in Anglo-American history, but it is only justice with a small "j" -- justice as a member of the supporting cast. It does nothing to address the unfairness of life, but only tries to see to it that public policy will not add to whatever injustices one may already suffer. That's not a small thing, by the way, as our history of slavery and Jim Crow would attest. To do good, first do no harm.

And then there is that group of folks who believe Justice, with a capital "J", should be the star of the show. We call these folks liberals. If life is unfair, public policy should help to even things out. And it's hard to argue that it never should. Here's a family struggling hard to make it, and whatever the parents may have done to make things hard on themselves, the children certainly aren't to blame, are they? Don't we want to feed, clothe, and educate those poor kids? And over here is a fellow who has a physical handicap that makes it hard for him to find gainful employment; can't we find something for him to do? Or subsidize his efforts to better himself? It takes a heart of stone to say no, or so the liberals think.

Even so, there are problems with this viewpoint. For one thing, it's gloriously open-ended. Justice must be perfect, or else it isn't justice at all. Public policy becomes everyone's personal deus ex machina. Before you know it, whenever anyone suffers any sort of calamity, we expect government to kiss it and make it better. Another problem is that perfect justice requires perfect knowledge and perfectly pure intentions. Does anyone know a judge, a senator, or a president with perfect knowledge and intentions? Anyone? Anyone? Anyone? Buehler?

But the basic problem is that justice is a result, and, as previously discussed, results cannot be dictated. We can only initiate processes which may, or may not, help us secure a little more justice. But such processes are never free. They necessarily require taking money, resources, and opportunities from other folks, so that at best justice comes attached with a litany of trade-offs, the most obvious trade-off being the bill at tax time. The typical American taxpayer each year works from January to May before he has paid that fee. Does anyone think he gets his money's worth? Anyone?

But monetary cost is hardly the end of it. With each new process comes a change in the incentives, and so gaming the revised system becomes an intrinsic part of the process of getting ahead. Oddly enough, the folks who were already smart enough to get ahead without government largesse are the same folks who are better at gaming the system. And where's the justice in that?

An example: the federal government passed a law to give minority-owned businesses a leg up when competing for government contracts -- ostensibly, to partially mitigate all the years when minorities were prohibited from competing. But then, the government added women to the list of the oppressed classes, and who can argue with that? The result: all it takes for a business to take advantage of those laws is to place its ownership in the hands of a woman. Maybe she's the wife of the fellow who really started and understands the business. Maybe she's even white. That's okay with the law. Noting that the results weren't what the law's proponents may have originally had in mind, Thomas Sowell has asked, is there anything that was ever done to black people in America that justifies giving special preferences to upper middle-class white women?

Today, certain politicians are proposing that it is government's duty to protect not just our right to invest, but the investments themselves -- at least, those made by homeowners who bit off more than they can chew. As an economic class, homeowners are far better off than non-homeowners, but not to worry: politicians can always tell whenever an injustice has happened just by asking their pollsters. Once we have established that government has the power to pursue perfect justice, it's way too late to complain that now it pretty much has the power to do anything its decision-makers want. And what they want is to buy votes.

Once again, where is the justice? Such homeowners have certainly been unfortunate, but it's not like they didn't make the bad decisions that put them in their current pickle. I'm sympathetic. Really, I am. I have certainly lost a few chunks of change myself in bad investments, and it isn't a pleasant thing. Funny thing, though, is that nobody ever comes to us before buying an expensive house, promising to share its appreciation with us. They only come when it's clear that we will be sharing their losses.

Trust me on this: if the federal government starts bailing out bad real estate investments, at least three things will happen. One is, the rules governing the bailout will be written in such a way that most of the largesse will go to folks who are already better off than the typical taxpayer, turning it into a subsidy for the better-off by the worse-off. Secondly, the bill for all this largesse will be staggering. But thirdly, and most importantly, our economic incentives will have been dramatically altered. One thing about making bad investments, under normal circumstances, is that the incentive to quit making them is immediate and painful. Not allowing these investments to fail will, as a nation, make us more reckless about what we invest in, and thus will weaken the economy for everyone.

And that's just the start. We don't know where the ramifications will stop. That's the problem with instituting processes. They keep going and going. You can determine they are counterproductive long before you can determine how to kill them.

I am old enough to remember when we had a Republican Party that could be counted on to point out all these things whenever Democrats wanted to add another client class to the government teat. Let's close out this discussion with a quote from P. J. O'Rourke, made back during those halcyon days (see Parliament of Whores):

"God is a Republican and Santa Claus is a Democrat. God is an elderly or, at any rate, middle-aged male, a stern fellow, patriarchal rather than paternal and a great believer in rules and regulations. He holds men strictly accountable for their actions. He has little apparent concern for the material well-being of the disadvantaged. He is politically connected, socially powerful and holds the mortgage on literally everything in the world. God is difficult. God is unsentimental. It is very hard to get into God's heavenly country club.

"Santa Claus is another matter. He's cute. He's nonthreatening. He's always cheerful. And he loves animals. He may know who's been naughty and who's been nice, but he never does anything about it. He gives everyone everything they want without thought of a quid pro quo. He works hard for charities, and he's famously generous to the poor. Santa Claus is preferable to God in every way but one: There is no such thing as Santa Claus."

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Conservatives, Republicans, and Cheating Hearts

If you want to understand what's going on today in the Republican Party (it's an ugly business but somebody has to do it), you have to understand that politics, like marriage, thrives on faithfulness and founders on betrayal.

The Democratic and Republican parties are (generally) on opposing sides, but they are not symmetrical, and nothing makes that fact more apparent than an election year. The Democratic Party is reliably liberal. They talk liberal, they think liberal, and when elected they act liberal. If you find a room full of Democrats, shake up your Pepsi bottle, and start spraying, you are certain to get a bunch of liberals wet. But if you shake your Pepsi in a convention full of Republicans, your odds of splashing a conservative are only about one in three -- if that. Electing a liberal is therefore easy; you vote for the Democrat. Electing a conservative is harder; voting Republican is no guarantee.

This assymetry reflects a more basic assymetry between liberalism and conservatism. Liberalism is a cohesive philosophy; conservatism is not.

Liberalism is all about creating the brave new world. It is a religion in the form of a political movement. Christianity believes Heaven exists someday for the faithful, but liberals ask, what's wrong with the here and now? Human beings are basically good, and all that's holding them back are the flawed institutions which have turned them away from the path of righteousness. It is the liberal's greatest desire to dynamite those institutions into oblivion and clear the way for changing society through educating the ignorant -- "the ignorant" being defined as those who aren't liberal. Yet.

Despite the best efforts of conservatives like William F. Buckley, Jr. and the stalwarts at National Review magazine, conservatism has no such unifying set of philosophical principles. As a political movement, conservatism is simply a loose coalition of various factions, each of which has its own philosophical reasons for opposing the liberal agenda. That's why we refer to "the Reagan Coalition", rather than "the Reagan Movement". If there is a unifying principle, it is the reactionary impulse -- a reaction to liberalism.

Some of these factions are:

  • Establishment, or "Country Club", Republicans -- electorally the weakest part of the coalition, but financially and politically the strongest part. These folks resent it when liberalism's bill comes due, and they are expected to be the ones who pay for it. Put lower taxes down as their biggest concern, followed closely by less regulation, and anything else that stands between them and their second home in the Hamptons.

  • Religious conservatives, or the "Religious Right" -- they resent the challenges presented to the sanctity and authority of the family by the intrusions of liberalism, and prefer to educate their children in the ways of scripture rather than the gospels of political correctness.

  • "Traditional" conservatives -- they distrust the desire to destroy institutions that lies at the heart of liberalism, and are afraid of what might happen if things change too quickly.

  • "Small government" conservatives believe that large liberal-style government is too expensive, too ineffective, and too inefficient to trust with their hard-earned tax money.

  • "Law and order" conservatives are fearful of liberal permissiveness and want violent criminals off the streets.

  • Libertarians have a genuine ideology and everything, and even have their own magazine (which is modestly and self-deprecatingly known as Reason magazine). They are handicapped by the fact that they make a lot of sense most of the time, and thus serve no one's political interests. As a species, they are suspicious of the consequences of too much power focused in the hands of a few in Washington.

  • "Working class" conservatives or "Reagan Democrats" -- these folks resent paying high taxes and the exporting of jobs overseas, as well the inroads made here in the U.S. by illegal aliens, which they (rightly) blame for the stagnation of the wages of skilled labor.

  • "National defense" conservatives find liberals to be strangely sympathetic to our nation's enemies.

  • And so forth.

    These erstwhile allies often have serious bones to pick with each other. E.g., libertarians are as spooked by religious conservatives as they are by big-government liberals. Working-class conservatives distrust the country-clubbers, convinced that they are determined to keep the working man down. Libertarians and small-government conservatives see the war on drugs as expensive in terms of money and constitutional freedoms, but it is worth every penny to religious and law and order conservatives. These factions are not discrete; for example, many religious conservatives are working-class conservatives at the same time. Nevertheless, the ideas motivating these factions are distinct, and thus friction between the groups can and does exist. So, Republicans must often exhort their unruly supporters to focus on the common enemy -- and they often do. But the point stands: this is an alliance which needs to be maintained.

    Which brings us to another fact about the Republican Party: it is, and has always been, controlled by the country-club Republicans, who have done a miserable job of maintaining the coalition. The country-clubbers too often succumb to temptation -- they are easily beguiled into coming to their own terms with the liberal Democratic machine. After all, it's easier than fighting, especially when it's a fight about other's people's concerns. Basically, the country-clubbers couldn't care less about any grievances held by the religious conservatives against the education establishment or the popular culture -- their money insulates their own kids. It might bother other conservatives that illegal aliens are driving down the wages of skilled labor, but this actually makes money for the country-clubbers. Big government may be anathema to traditional conservatives, but it's just fine with a Republican Congressman if it means more pork for his own district and a more prestigious role in governing. As long as country-clubbers are allowed to exploit loopholes in tax policy and business regulations, they can all too often be seduced into betraying their fellow conservatives. Some of them do it reluctantly, some do it eagerly, but they do it.

    The unfaithfulness of elected Republicans toward their political allies often litters the headlines, but (I think) is seldom understood as unfaithfulness, least of all by the Republicans themselves -- they are, after all, "the stupid party", in the words of conservative pundit M. Stanton Evans. There have been at least three big moments during the current Bush administration that have showcased the wandering eye of Republican office-holders:

  • The first moment was the education bill, shaking hands with a smiling Sen. Kennedy. (Note to Republicans: if you care at all about maintaining the Reagan coalition, you will never be caught in a photo op with Sen. Kennedy unless you're giving him the finger.)

  • The second moment was the Harriet Miers fiasco. Conservatives had stuck with Bush through an unpopular war and through such liberalesque lapses as the aforementioned education bill, believing they would be rewarded for their faithfulness someday with conservative Supreme Court appointees. And so what did Bush do? He picked a crony of his, from a list of "acceptable" nominees handed to him by Democratic Senator Reid. It was like watching a train crash. There were more unbelieving stares and mouths agape in horror and disgust than at the opening night of "Springtime For Hitler" (in the movie, "The Producers"). Bush saw it as a chance to avoid a fight with the Democrats. Problem is, religious, traditional, and law and order conservatives alike have been spoiling for this particular fight for years. The fight needed to happen, and it needed to be loud, raucous, brutal, and decisive. And, with a president, a vice president, and 55 Republican Senators in their corner, they fully expected to win it. When would the odds ever be better? If you can't win a fight with all that -- even worse, if you turn away from it -- conservatives had to conclude (rightly) that the Republicans' hearts just weren't in it.

  • The third moment was the immigration "reform" bill this past summer. This is one of those issues where the liberal agenda squares nicely with the interests of country-club Republicans. Liberals see illegal immigrants as more clients for their social programs and ultimately more Democratic votes, while country-club Republicans see them as cheap labor. As for the remaining portions of the conservative coalition, there was something to offend almost everyone. For the law and order conservatives, this rewarded lawlessness. For the working-class conservatives, it steals their employment opportunities and adds to their tax bill. For the traditional conservatives, unrestrained immigration raises doubts about the long-term viability of our institutions. And Bush made matters not one little bit better when he accused his critics of bigotry. Charming, George, way to go, you really won them over with that one. Every president likes to pick a moment when he can be ostentatiously tough, but it takes a rare breed of politician to shake his fist at the folks who actually voted for him. That'll show 'em.

  • Political coalitions are quid pro quo arrangements. You do something for me, I do something for you. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. You want my vote, what do I get for it? This is the part of leading a coalition that the country-club Republicans have never quite figured out. They think it ought to be enough for everyone else that they're not liberals, exactly. "Vote for me, instead of {fill in the blank} -- he's (or she's) a liberal!" That this feeble gambit appears so often during campaigns is a tacit admission by country-club Republicans that not being liberal is the only thing they have in common with their irritated constituents.

    So far, the story of the 2008 Republican presidential campaign is that the coalition is restive. The Huckabee phenomenon is a (doomed, I think) bid for a hostile takeover of the Republican Party by perhaps its most aggrieved faction, namely religious conservatives. Ron Paul is trying to win votes by making sense, in that doctrinaire style prevalent among the more intellectually rigorous libertarians. Candidates like Romney, who try to say all the right things to everyone, face a jaded base that has had it up to here with mere pandering.

    What is needed is a candidate who understands that the liberals win if the coalition does not stand. And also that, for the coalition to continue standing, elected Republicans must be true to their base. No more sell-outs.

    Sunday, January 6, 2008

    Agents of C.H.A.N.G.E.

    The Democratic candidates had yet another debate last night, in the wake of the Iowa caucuses and on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, and it appears Hillary got into a snit over something John Edwards said regarding the "agents of change" vs. the "forces of the status quo".

    The first video sets up some of the context:

    The second video provides Hillary's somewhat agitated response:

    It made me flash back to Maxwell Smart, agent of C.O.N.T.R.O.L., in the old TV show, "Get Smart" -- which would actually not be a bad subtitle for this particular Democratic spat.

    As in, "Gentlemen, and lady: would you please get smart?"

    But of course they know what they're doing, because they know their customer base.

    Democrats are inordinately fond of the idea of "change". They love this sort of rhetoric, and if you want to play to the Democratic gallery, you're going to interlard all of your points with encomiums to "change". In fact, you can leave the points out entirely; you don't have to specify what kinds of "change" for which you want to serve as the "agent". The word "change" itself will accomplish everything you need. The liberal audience will swoon. You'll feel like a stud. It's the Democratic equivalent of porn.

    The less pruriently-minded political observer, meanwhile, might be forgiven if he were to ask, "Excuse me, but what kind of 'change' are you looking for?" Is all change good? Is any change to be embraced? Freedom of the press is part of the status quo -- anyone think we should change that? Throw away habeas corpus, anyone? What about turning our economy into a cheap imitation of Zimbabwe's, where the typical yearly wage is $30? Hey, it's change! What are we waiting for?

    What if we all just decided to deed all of our property to the federal governnment and do whatever they tell us? That would be change, wouldn't it? What if we were to decide that Jews, or blacks, or (for that matter) Presbyterians all need to be rounded up and kept in work camps, where they will be starved and eventually gassed? That would certainly be a change. Or what if we started incarcerating people who write liberal Op-Eds in the New York Times? Or conservative Op-Eds in the Washington Times? Have show trials? Mandate adding DDT to the water supply? Institute child sacrifice to Baal in public school assemblies? Require lettuce growers to add e. coli to their shipments?

    All of these things would constitute "change", but I certainly hope that, contained in these suggestions, there is at least one that would make a liberal burp up his latte.

    It is best to view change with a gimlet eye, even at the personal level. I had always hoped to age like a movie star, and I have -- except I was hoping for Paul Newman and instead got Ned Beatty. I look in the mirror sometimes, when I can't avoid it. I'm in my fifties now, and what I see looking back at me is not the thin young kid of twenty-five I used to see. Ugh, look at that gut. I like beer, and it shows. Man, I'd like to change that. But you know, one way to change it would be to gain another hundred pounds. Does that sound like heading in the right direction? No, it doesn't sound good at all. Fatter is not better. In fact, if I were to go about it all wrong, thinner isn't necessarily better, either, not if it meant starving my body of necessary nutrients and weakening my heart in the process, or making myself more susceptible to illness -- we refer to such things as unintended consequences. Change is always accompanied by unintended consequences. Sometimes, they are benevolent, or at least neutral. Sometimes they are neither.

    Look at the trap a lot of folks -- especially Hollywood starlets -- fall into as they age and feel the pressure to look younger than they are. They visit the plastic surgeon, and oops, sometimes the results make them look even worse. Change isn't necessarily for the better. Part of being a good citizen -- same as being a good Christian -- is remembering to count one's blessings. It's learning to be thankful for what one has, and reluctant to throw it away. It's knowing that one must be careful about change.

    Now, back to the national level. There may even be some little-regarded and unappreciated aspect about the status quo that has an importance we cannot even dimly comprehend, but upon which nonetheless we desperately depend. Anyone who works (as I do) with complex systems knows that you can completely ruin something just by changing a couple of variables, and it's hard to predict what could go wrong, or even to diagnose after the fact what did go wrong.

    Liberals exist to wreck institutions. They live for it. It's what they do, and they're very good at it. This means, when you find an institution that desperately needs to come down, you should call a liberal. He'll call all of his liberal buddies, and they'll show up at your doorstep, along with the 10 o'clock new folks, armed with placards, petitions, and indignant facial expressions. And sometimes that's a good thing. You want to abolish slavery? No problem. Jim Crow? Gone. Police brutality? Not on their watch. Problem is, they are just as eager to tear down any institution. Marriage, the family, religious belief, private property -- all of these institutions, and more, have been on the wrong side of the liberal wrecking ball in recent years. With each swing, something cracks. Sure hope it wasn't something we needed.

    We in the U.S. have a lot of things for which gratitude is the appropriate response. Saying we should "change", without specification, is to show very little respect for the blessings we already have. So, I wish all this breathless exaltation of "change" would just stop. Democrats: from now on, please specify what kind of change you want, and please show some sign that you have devoted sufficient thought to the unintended consequences. Then we can decide whether the appropriate response is to cheer you, or throw rotten tomatoes.