Friday, July 20, 2007

You can do more than Bono to help the African.

St├ęphane Gouyo is a 27-year-old Togolese father of two who makes his living selling lamp fuel. As far as I can tell, he is not starving, nor dying from some readily treatable disease. Given that he's been in business for ten years, I would venture to say that he's doing rather well for himself, so well, in fact, that he recently took out a $1000 loan to expand his business.

Being a PhD candidate, I live, more or less, from paycheck to paycheck, but do find myself "ahead" some times with money to save and even, occasionally, to give to good causes. I can't say that I've ever contributed even a cent to help the truly miserable of Africa, but through, I loaned $25 of that $1000 to Mr. Gouyo.

Giving aid to people who've fallen on hard times, or helping to fund scholarships and the like for the economically less well-off, in areas with developed economies is one thing: giving to the poor where everyone is poor is another. Human misery is human misery, yes, but helping someone on the path to success is somehow satisfying, while most Third World aid is futile. You may feed a person today, yes, but they will still be hungry tomorrow, and you will be poorer. A loan to the bourgeoisie, for lack of a better word, of the developing world, would seem to go much farther than a donation to a relief agency.

Guoyo, for one, barring some Zimbabwe-like political disaster, is not likely to become part of the problem. He and his family will not become mouths to feed, consuming wealth but lacking the means and sometimes the initative to produce it. Rather, he will raise the standard of living for his family and his countrymen. His children, and their children in turn, in a sort of Togolese version of the American Dream, will likely have opportunities he did not, to learn skills to make more productive (in the economist's sense) and hence wealthier. He may someday hire an employee or two. The kerosene producers and distributors are certainly better off in having someone to bring their product to market, and sitting in a fluorescently illuminated Arizona apartment, I can only imagine the benefits of lamplight to West Africans.

Unless I were to visit Togo and observed idly, with a pen and notebook, I could hardly begin to describe the economic growth created by the success of a business, and even then I would lose track at the second or third order. So long as Guoyo's business remains successful, I am confident that my $25 will go far. Furthermore, I will receive it back in 16 months, to use as I please. (Were it not for arcane and bizzare US law, I could even receive interest!)

According to Bono, singer of a reasonably good rock band and recent self-appointed champion of the African, I must be delusional, as such thinking is, to quote, "bollocks." That's what he said of Stanford scholar Andrew Mwenda's remark that "holding out the begging bowl" is not the means to lift Africa out of poverty. Apparently, Ireland became prosperous because, unlike the governments of the Continent, it found the magic formula that makes social democracy work.

What Bono advocates is a sort of neo-colonialist cargo-cultism: through direct aid to governments, finance First World infrastructure and First World education, and the market will somehow develop. Forget that, as Mwenda--who, unlike the singer, seems to have passed his economics classes--explaned, Africa is full of entrepeneurs, and that aid has distorted the incentive structure, causing many of the brightest Africans to work for corrupt government.

In other words, Bono would like you to forget that his approach is not only known to the economically literate to be a nonstarter, but also that it's been tried for nearly four decades, with little success. Being a celebrity, Bono may be able to bring millions of dollars to bear, but if you have a spare $25 to loan you can, through, do infinitely better by helping the African help himself.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Kubby out of the LP race.

Due to factors ranging from low registration, to the perception (perhaps usually correct) of holding fringe values and endorsing nutty policy schemes, to the widespread (fallacious) belief in the "wasted vote", the Libertarian Party's Presidential candidate is usually a nonstarter, to the point that, for example, nobody in the press even bothered to show just how nutty sham "Constitution Scholar" Michael Badnarik was. That he was in the race was barely newsworthy, and then usually as human-interest journalism; the details didn't matter.

Despite taking the same approach to Constitutional scholarship that Ayn Rand took toward serious philosophy, Badnarik had many positive qualities: that he was a bona fide libertarian was not in question, and, moreover, he had a gentlemanly sense of propriety. When asked why he's in the race if he can't win, his reply was usually to the effect of: "The one way I can win is for you, your family, your friends, and millions of others to vote for me." Surely, his chances were slim, but he was doing what the LP should expect from a candidate: campaigning full-time and in earnest.

All but one of the Presidential candidates, from any party, will lose, but the running is not wholly vain. Having the press's ear (more so if they are serious contenders, but even if they are third-party dark-horses), they--as Ron Paul is doing regarding the War--determine, to some extent, what the issues of the day are, and where the Overton Window lies on the space of political possibilities. They also help bring attention to a party's local candidates and serve as their party's de facto spokesman for the duration of the campaign. This is especially true in the case of minor parties, nearly invariably unfamiliar to the majority of citizens.

To do these things is the duty of any Presidential candidate. (Many libertarians, especially of the big-ell LP variety, would argue that there is no "duty" other than that specified in a written contract. Perhaps that's one of the reasons they haven't gained much traction.) It would be improper for a candidate to refuse to campaign, or to unilaterally express support for another party's candidate for the same office!

Steve Kubby has done just that, in endorsing the candidacy of paleoconservative Republican Ron Paul.

Ron Paul was once the Libertarian Party's Presidential candidate, and he may even have once been a libertarian, but it seems that, at least of late, he takes a different approach to the issues, one which leaves him with about as much overlap with libertarians as Tom Coburn. Hatred of government is not synonymous with love of liberty.

Kubby's intent, as expressed to Paulie Cannoli is to support Paul, and encourage other Libertarians to do the same, and to, if Paul doesn't receive the nomination, to run a strong Libertarian campaign in 2008. The trouble there is threefold:

  1. The Libertarians hold their nominating convention in late May; the Republicans won't have theirs until early September. Suppose, since the whole field is lackluster, Paul becomes one of the frontrunners. Will Kubby not campaign--or campaign for Paul--until then? If Paul gains strength, nominating Kubby means running a weak campaign, even by Libertarian standards.
  2. Encouraging Libertarians to support Paul means, in many states, encouraging them to re-register and vote in the Republican primaries, endangering ballot access for local and state-level candidates.
  3. Encouraging Libertarians to support Paul means diverting resources from libertarian causes and candidates.

Even if Ron Paul radiated liberal values, Kubby's endorsement, as he put it, is a statement that he will not upohld his duty to support the Party. If Paul were to receive the Republican nomination, the extent to which he, and not a Libertarian candidate, should receive the support of libertarians, is most properly determined by that contituency. Nominating Kubby would be a waving of the white flag to the paleoconservatives, a repudiation of the idea that libertarians should do what they can to move policy in their direction, even if just by making major-party candidates fight the "spoiler effect". Pledging to shirk his duty to support Libertarians down the ticket means he's no longer worthy of Libertarians' support.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A quick hit

From this week's Chronicle, letters section.

To the Editor:

Alan Contreras's "In Defense of Self-Defense" (On the Contrary, The Chronicle Review, June 15) is so uninformed by facts and so drenched in NRA-produced fictions (you don't have to be a card-carrying member to be fully deluded by the nonsense the organization has spread) ... that one has to ask why The Chronicle felt it a good idea to print it. Some bizarre notion of the need for balance in the wake of the several intelligent criticisms of guns in American culture The Chronicle printed in the wake of the Virginia Tech murders?

The problem in this reasoning, of course, is that there is no need for balance when one side of a debate bases its position on facts, and the other depends fundamentally on myths and simplistic and obfuscating moral binaries. The framing of good guys versus bad guys, central to Contreras's argument, is simply not helpful in considering the dangers of guns to people. ... Good people sometimes drop their guns, which discharge — harming or killing others. Good people have their guns stolen by bad people. ...

The evidence that good people with guns do a significant amount of harm is very strong. But the evidence that they do much good with their firearms is flimsy and challenged by data. The use of guns in legal acts of self-defense against crime is actually quite rare. ...

Sorry, Mr. Contreras, but your "right" to compensate for your lack of biceps does not trump the societal imperative of a safe environment for all those who are endangered by your gun every day that you carry it. Only when the gun issue stops being presented within the simplistic frame of individual liberty and self-defense, and is reframed in a public-health perspective — where the dangers presented by guns to everyone in their vicinity, including their legal owners, are the focus — will we have an adequate and sane policy on guns.

And only when media sources work harder to disentangle themselves from the fiction that this is a legitimately two-sided argument, with reasonable cases to be made pro and con, will we get a real effort to solve the problem of guns in American society. The bottom line is that there is no rational case to be made for the omnipresence of guns in American society. ...

Alexander Riley
Associate Professor of Sociology
Bucknell University
Lewisburg, Pa.

Riley is right about one thing: this is not a legitimately two-sided argument. The case for self-defense is supported by both ethics and the statistics; the case against has to do with painting the opposition as being deluded by a somehow sinister NRA and spreading irrational fears about guns discharging when dropped. And just how are people endangered by the mere presence of Contreras's gun?

Anyone who really harbors such bizzare fears is either too ignorant to speak on the subject or too afraid to be rational. Presumably Riley does not yet have tenure. If he approaches his specialty as he approaches this issue, he'll never deserve it.

Robert Mugabe, the great teacher.

Can anyone really be this stupid?

President Robert Mugabe's order that all shop prices be cut by at least half, and sometimes several times more, has forced stores to open to hordes of customers waving thick blocks of near worthless money given new value by the price cuts. The police and groups of ruling party supporters could be seen leading the charge for a bargain.

If I had to write humor about banana republics, I'm not sure if I could make such price controls up! It almost leads one to think that Mugabe is but an insane performance artist, devoting his ouvre to the illustration of what could be learned at community college remedial Economics 99. Perhaps I should thank him for providing yet another illustration of what happens when price controls are instituted in any market.

Or not.
Economists say the price cuts will only deepen the national crisis, leaving many shops bare because they will not be able to afford to restock while official retail prices remain lower than the cost of buying wholesale or importing. Mr Mugabe has dismissed such warnings as "bookish economics".

Isn't the journalistic practice of writing "Scientists say" or "economists say", as though scientific opinion and superstition or the whims of madmen are equally valid, amusing in a sick way? Editors really should check for "false balance".

But more to the point: Is Michael Moore the American Robert Mugabe? It would seem as though the man doesn't consult economists, even before making a film that proposes a healthcare policy solution.

Perhaps he believes they're being funded by the drug companies in the same conspiracy which led CNN to dare tell him he's wrong.

A new drinking game: take a big, big swig if you hear Moore use the term "bookish economics." And send me the video clip!

UPDATE: Moore has come pretty close in the past, feeling it desirable to "educate" George Mason law students about the sinister underpinnings of their studies.

This law and economics nonsense is nothing more than an attempt on the part of the corporate state to extend its reach into the legal field; and I think the graduating students should know they are little more than pawns in Corporate America's plan to erode the American way of life

Monday, July 16, 2007

Straight talk for the "NO AMNESTY!" set--and an explanation of why they are called bigots.

Wrap your heads around this one: If the mass deportation of group X would cause an economic recession, group X is not a drag on the economy.

Mass deportation is, by definition, what the "NO AMNESTY!" crowd advocates, and they've taken lately to justifying it by poiting to statistics such as those found on as though such figures alone constitute an argument that the presence of illegal immigrants makes us worse off.

That's a subtle matter, and even subtler still is the question as to whether, supposing the impact on the rest of us is negative, it would be positive were illegals' status regularized (amnesty) and, if it is currently positive, how much better off we'd all be were there an amnesty. Merely looking at wages, as the uneducated hayseeds who make up the bulk of the "NO AMNESTY!" set tend to do, isn't enough.

As was discussed today on Classically Liberal, a recent Udall Center study quantifies the net impact of immigrants, legal and illegal, on Arizona's economy, as well as the effect of removing the illegals from the picture. Not only is the net effect positive, one can't argue that a few superstar legal immigrants are distorting the picture. Removing the illegals results in, as expected, recession. 15% workforce reduction in agriculture, 15% workforce reduction in construction, 10% workforce reduction in manufacturing; one can't find that many unemployed good white folks citizens whose "jobs were stolen" to fill the gap, and even if one did, other things wouldn't be done. It bears repeating: that sort of shrinking of an economy is what's called a recession! would have you believe that the story may be told by government outlays alone--without even taking into account the taxes paid by undocumented aliens, let alone the economic impact calculated by the Udall Center scholars! The dishonesty isn't very subtle, but it plays right into what the "NO AMNESTY!" crowd wants to believe. Even if we take into account only the impact on the welfare system, undocumented aliens are putting in more than they take out. Among others, Shikha Dalmia of the Reason Foundation has worked out the net effect. Illegals pay taxes, and don't get much in return save (lousy) schooling for their children.

Of course, they commit "identity theft"--if paying taxes using someone else's Social Security Number can be considered stealing an identity--to do so, because the government gives them no choice! Open immigration would mean people could choose to not cross the desert, choose to not commit document fraud, etc. But that doesn't mean anything to the "NO AMNESTY!" set. "Illegal is illegal is illegal", "what part of ILLEGAL don't you understand?", they're all trespassers and thieves, to be hated because they work, hated because they draw welfare without paying taxes, and hated because they pay taxes.

It's often said by the sensitive "NO AMNESTY!" screaming souls that calling them bigots is unfair and an attempt to shut down discussion. Let's suppose that the above attitude is the result of a sincere--sincere meaning the tail is not wagging the dog--belief that the presence of undocumented immigrants makes us worse off and that such a situation would not be remedied by amnesty. By citing--never mind the factual accuracy or lack thereof, and never mind the incompleteness of the style numbers as justification to deport people (deporting them all is what "NO AMNESTY!" means), they are reducing the question of just treatment for particular individuals to one about group identity. "You yourself may be an upstanding member of the community, but a group in which I may place you is, on average, dead weight, so you must go." That is the very definition of bigotry.

C'est donc quelqu'un des tiens...
--La Fontaine: Le loup et l'agneau

Do they know something I don't?

Excluding perennial non-contender and Rothbardite kook Dave "Contract Insurance" Hollist, I count eight contenders for nomination as the Libertarian Party's presidential candiadte in 2008, including George Phillies, Steve Kubby, and a host of newcomers. Phillies and Kubby are longtime big-L Libertarians; why the others are seeking the nomination of a Party which can't give enough support to even produce effective spoilers, let alone contenders, is a mystery to me.

A few oddballs--and I don't count Christine Smith, a progressive firmly in the libertarian end of the political spectrum, as an oddball--are in the running, among them one Daniel Imperato. Imperato bills himself as an "Independent Libertarian", which seems to mean "I'm so independent I didn't bother reading any Cato Institute whitepapers or even learning what the Libertarian Party is all about, even though, according to his pamphlet (sitting on my desk) he "solemnly swears" to "defend, abide, and deploy libertarian principles for our society as best as [he] can with [his] solutions and strategies all the way to the White House."

The strategies to which he refers are those of a cut-rate Ross Perot; Cliff Clavin-esque schemes for fixing--or not fixing--what ails us. Whereas most libertarians want to privatize Social Security before it collapses, Imperato proposes to save it through a reform of the 501(c)3 tax deduction law. To wit:

I propose a new charity system where the only charity that can receive unlimited contributions is the Social Security 501(c)3 Charitable Fund. Wealthy Americans who wish to have the largest tax deductions through charitable donations, will donate back to the American people and the Social Security Charitable Fund that will be run by we the people

In addition, this will hold the principals accountable of our current charities for their distribution of funds. It is necessary to close down the rest of them that are abusing our system. Charities that maintain honest business practices will be categorized numerically, with a rating system, and preference will be given to the ones that direct money towards America, and its people first.

It appears as though Imperato has a gripe with charities that spend too much on overhead, and moreover, charities that help (e.g.) Africans instead of Arkansans. To fix this, it seems as though he'd limit where Americans could contribute. How absurd it is to limit benevolence! "If you're going to do something nice despite having no duty to do so, you will do it for this cause or you won't do it at all!" sounds like the words of a banana-republican! Here's a "Libertarian" who could be Hugo Chavez's drinking buddy.

It gets worse: Imperato proposes that drug companies pay an "approval fee" to the "US healthcare system" for each drug which receives the FDA's nod. "In addition, a percentage will be added to the wholesale costs of the drugs that are sold around the world that will be contributed back to the healthcare system. It is about time the drug companies support our healthcare needs in order to ensure healthcare for all American citizens run by we the people.

Can anyone tell me, what does he mean by the "US healthcare system". Does he mean my doctor? My insurance company? My personal health savings account? Somebody else's? Medicare? And don't the drug companies support our healthcare needs by...developing drugs and selling them to us? Why is it about time the drug companies "ensure healthcare for all American citizens", anyway--why do they have that impossible duty?

Imperato is right about one thing here; the world is not picking up its share of the burden. The most brilliant LTE I've seen in a long time was printed in the latest issue of Reason (a publication of which I suspect Imperato is not even aware!), calling for US reimportation of drugs from First World social democracies, in order to break the pricing agreements which effectively shift development costs onto US consumers. Such a plan flies over his head. That the fee and tax scheme is all Imperato has to say about healthcare is telling. I don't think he understands the issue. If he did, he'd be proposing to restore market mechanisms and eliminate the perversion known as comprehensive care insurance.

It gets worse, with Imperato proposing a national Online Education System, addressing the immigration issue by somehow extending US labor unions to Latin America, two bits of incoherent nothing about energy and Iraq. See the campaign website if you really want to know.

I retain my belief that, if any libertarian political movement is to succeed, it must have a "big tent". I suppose that, with tents come clowns, or better still, dunk tanks. I presume that the LP delegates will give Imperato and anyone else who's nuttier than Ron Paul, let alone anyone who's platform doesn't manifest liberal values, a nice cold bath. "How do you ensure that the LP stays libertarian?" ask the small-party "purist" ideologues, a question that seems more ridiculous by the month.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

"Shapes of Space" at the Guggenheim

The final work in the Shapes of Space exhibition is by un-noted performance artist B. Kalafut. At the top of the ramp, Kalafut turns into an organic 190 lb sphere, shattering the notion of static form, and rolls down the ramp, bowling over gawkers as he goes, opening a dialogue about the effect of dramatic transients on the meaning of space.