I’m a closet numismatist, that is, a collector of coins. Up until the latter half of the 20th Century, when we really dropped the ball, America had a rich history of beautiful coinage. Lady Liberty and the eagle featured prominently on our money, in often majestic poses.
Nowadays, we put presidents on everything, and rarely redesign our money (well, very recently, we’ve been on a no-lasting-design binge that has produced few true works of art). The Lincoln Cent, a century old now, is going through a redesign. This year, four different reverse designs depicting scenes from Lincoln’s life are being circulated. They’re hideous.
The good news is that in 2010, there is potential for a very nice redesign. The obverse will not be changing, but the reverse is going to take on a new single lasting image. Numerous designs are currently under consideration:
The prospect of a gorgeous eagle design like LP-15 or LP-17 being chosen is a little exciting. LP-13 and LP-14 are old-school shield designs that would likewise look good on the back of a penny. My hope is that they don’t put the Capitol Building on the reverse design — the idea of a building being depicted on a coin is a little strange to me. I never liked the Lincoln Memorial penny, for example.
The final design is supposed to be “emblematic of President Lincoln’s preservation of the United States of America as a single and united country.” Few of these designs achieve that, in particular few of the attractive designs, so I’m hoping for the sake of my own aesthetic taste that that requirement is largely ignored, and LP-17 wins the day. It can’t be too much longer before a decision is made.
So now when they choose the ugliest conceivable design, which they will, you’ll at least know what could have been.
Every now and then, I get into a debate over whether America is a Christian nation. Pres. Obama says we’re not, but also seems to imply that we used to be. I actually more or less agree with him on both of those points, but I’m quite certain that our reasons are very different and fundamentally irreconcilable.
Most people who say we are not a Christian nation are referring to separation of church and state. I would urge them to distinguish between “nation” (unit of society) and “government” (system of imposing order on that unit of society). Our government is not Christian. It derives from Christian ideas about God, man, government, and rights, but it’s not a Christian institution in anything approaching the same way the Church is, and neither is its legitimacy derived from the Church. Christianity has historically recognized a clear distinction between between Church and State, something that other major world religions (Islam in particular) have not done. Even Christian kings claiming divine authority (with the nod of the Church, I might add) were not understood to preside over the affairs of the Church, and vice versa (of course this has not stopped individuals from stepping outside their roles).
Nevertheless, we have, and historically have had, a Christian nation with a secular government. The government derives its authority from the consent of the governed (i.e. the Christian nation), so all this stuff about the government’s authority having its root in Christian thought is perfectly sensible despite its being essentially a secular government. And that’s a good way for it to be. It works for America and it works for Christianity.
This distinction has been lost, and that’s something I like to argue with people about. But I’m beginning to look at that debate as largely academic, at least within this context (government vs. nation more broadly is still a very important distinction, one that I think lies at the heart of our political divisions).
The real question, as was pointed out by Monte Kuligowski, is whether or not we are still a single cohesive Christian nation (give me the benefit of the doubt for now on that nation vs. government distinction). And that’s a question I’m not yet ready to answer with confidence, but, as my opening suggested, I lean toward “no, we are not”. I’m still working through that, though, so I’ll save it for another day.
I’m trying to improve my understanding of economics. This post is a part of that effort, so feel free to present new ideas or evidence in the comments. I’ll appreciate it.
I want to look at the standard arguments for and against a minimum wage. They all center around the efficacy of a minimum wage in bringing about a higher standard of living for the working poor. Here’s the typical pro-position: low wage-earners cannot make enough money in a month to even pay their rent, let alone live a decent lifestyle or provide for a families. The work they do for their employers makes business success possible, and so the businesses raking in loads of cash have an obligation to share more of that profit with their workers. The government enforcing this obligation has an added bonus of narrowing the gap between rich and poor. Market forces that pay workers what their labor is actually worth are inadequate to ensure a just income.
If you believe those things, I doubt anybody will be able to talk you out of them. In order to accept that view, you have to believe that coercive fiat, not a free marketplace, is the more reliably just authority for determining price and value. You even have to go so far as to reject private property rights and accept an imposed order designed to cut down the rich and lift up the poor, and you have to believe that those are worthy goals unto themselves. What you may not realize, is that many people against the minimum wage have the same value system but do not believe a minimum wage is effective in bringing about those effects. In other words, the objection is solely a pragmatic one.
The standard arguments against a minimum wage are somewhat confused. In the olden days, it was argued that the increased burden on businesses forced them to lay off more or hire fewer workers to make up for the artificially increased wages, leading to an increase in unemploment — but it turns out that while that certainly does happen, it’s not on a very large scale. This is the crux of the position advanced in an interesting (employee-centric rather than employer-centric, focusing on young workers) way by Jeffrey A. Tucker in Generation Sloth, posted on Mises Daily:
On July 24 this year, the government raised the minimum wage to $7.25, which is another way of saying that unemployment is mandatory for anyone who is otherwise willing to work for less. You have no freedom to negotiate or lower the price for your service. You are either already valuable at this rate or you are out of the game.
Here is how it works. I’ve never been good at shaping pizza dough by hand, throwing it up in the air the way those guys do, so it would certainly cost more for any pizza joint to hire me at that high rate than I could bring them in revenue. I would be a sure money loser. As a result, the government has made it effectively illegal for me to attempt this kind of work.
While much of the “increases unemployment” position is largely discredited outside political circles, Tucker makes a very important point that still holds up — younger workers are essentially forced out of the workforce. Look at recent employment numbers to see the proof. Of course, minimum wage advocates cite this as an advantage, since they believe it is unfair that young workers who don’t need jobs have them while older workers who do can’t get them. My own response is that it is unfair for them to be able to decide upon and enforce fairness.
More recently, a new view has emerged that runs like this, from contrarian economist Steven E. Landsburg’s The Sin of Wages:
Ordinarily, when we decide to transfer income to some group or another—whether it be the working poor, the unemployed, the victims of a flood, or the stockholders of American Airlines—we pay for the transfer out of general tax revenue. That has two advantages: It spreads the burden across all taxpayers, and it makes politicians accountable for their actions. It’s easy to look up exactly how much the government gave American, and it’s easy to look up exactly which senators voted for it.
By contrast, the minimum wage places the entire burden on one small group: the employers of low-wage workers and, to some extent, their customers. Suppose you’re a small entrepreneur with, say, 10 full-time minimum-wage workers. Then a 50 cent increase in the minimum wage is going to cost you about $10,000 a year. That’s no different from a $10,000 tax increase. But the politicians who imposed the burden get to claim they never raised anybody’s taxes.
In other words, this view is arguing that raising the minimum wage is really equivalent to taxing a small group to redistribute that wealth to the wage “earners”. The objection is that this tax burden should be spread across all of society, not concentrated on those who have chosen to employ (in fairness, they may not always be subsequently free to choose to lay off) the minimum wage earners. If the goal is to redistribute wealth to unskilled laborers, then there are more efficient mechanisms for doing that.
Left out of all of this is whether or not that is a good and just goal. It all comes down to this idea of equality, of economic justice. When I oppose a minimum wage, it is for none of the reasons outlined above. It is for a reason much more basic:
The fact that opportunities open to the poor in a competitive society are much more restricted than those open to the rich does not make it less true that in such a society the poor are much more free than a person commanding much greater material comfort in a different type of society. — F.A. Hayek
Political equality is conceded to all, and hence arises the erroneous notion of absolute equality. Because men are equally free, they claim to be absolutely equal. When this false and absurd doctrine becomes prevalent, there is sure to be trouble…When the finances become embarrassed, the idea of equality readily lends itself to a confiscation of private property as a method of relieving the mass of poverty. Confidence is destroyed; things grow worse, until perhaps some demagogue, popular either as a military hero or as a mob orator, gets himself proclaimed tyrant. — Francis W. Hirst
They were giving away DVDs full of historical footage from past Supercomputing conventions last year. If you’ve ever been to one of these things, you know that half of the experience is grabbing up as much free stuff as possible — so I did my duty and took a few.
After the conference, I popped one into my computer, not expecting to find anything of interest except to longtime veterans and insiders. But there was a real gem on there, the keynote address from (I think) the first convention, back around 1988, by Seymour Cray, “the father of supercomputing”. It was a real delight, even if he did meander off into old man stories more than a few times.
I bring this up because he shared an anecdote that really resonated with me — following a somewhat similar path as he had in his early career, I had a similar experience. So my retelling will probably be a mix of his words and my thoughts, as they’re hard for me to separate.
He had just graduated from college, and had to find a job. His adviser told him to check out the glider factory down the street, so he did and managed to land a job there. It turned out that the glider factory was trying to develop computers for the Navy, and they started assigning him tasks that he really didn’t understand, but was just working through anyway, half-blind but managing. His first realization was that he had no freakin’ idea what he was doing. This came pretty quickly. And boy can I ever relate, being assigned all sorts of crazy problems fresh out of undergrad with no clearly defined sets of tools to use, or even a consistent theoretical framework within which to understand them. It was, and is, tough-going.
Some time later, a few days or a few weeks but no more, Seymour Cray had a second realization: nobody else at the glider factory knew what they were doing either.
From Ronald Reagan’s famous 1964 speech, A Time For Choosing (video here worth watching):
It’s time we asked ourselves if we still know the freedoms intended for us by the Founding Fathers. James Madison said, “We base all our experiments on the capacity of mankind for self government.”
This idea — that government was beholden to the people, that it had no other source of power — is still the newest, most unique idea in all the long history of man’s relation to man. This is the issue of this election: Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.
You and I are told we must choose between a left or right, but I suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down. Up to man’s age-old dream–the maximum of individual freedom consistent with order — or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. Regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would sacrifice freedom for security have embarked on this downward path. Plutarch warned, “The real destroyer of the liberties of the people is he who spreads among them bounties, donations and benefits.”
The Founding Fathers knew a government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. So we have come to a time for choosing.
Public servants say, always with the best of intentions, “What greater service we could render if only we had a little more money and a little more power.”
. . .
They say the world has become too complex for simple answers. They are wrong. There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right. Winston Churchill said that “the destiny of man is not measured by material computation. When great forces are on the move in the world, we learn we are spirits–not animals.” And he said, “There is something going on in time and space, and beyond time and space, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty.”
You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let our children and our children’s children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.
With all this talk and controversy surrounding the “czars” appointed by Pres. Obama, I thought it would be a good time to talk about technocracy, which Wikipedia (the fount of all knowledge) characterizes as “a form of government in which engineers, scientists, and other technical experts are in control of decision making in their respective fields”. Man that’s a horrible way to start a blog entry, like when little kids write papers and quote Webster’s Dictionary in their opening sentence.
Anyway, what’s wrong with technocracy? For one, it is incompatible with the ideals of republican government. In our system, democratic principles are applied to choose individuals that we deem appropriately wise and tempered to temporarily represent our interests in a large and intentionally inefficient government. It is intentionally inefficient in order to prevent it from becoming too powerful, and in turn from becoming as oppressive as the monarchy we violently escaped. In a technocracy, the real decision-makers are appointed based on their specialized skills and knowledge, their expert status. They are not representatives of the people, they are servants of an ideal of a government that efficiently and powerfully administers their fields of expertise. This is clearly incompatible with our system.
On a totally unrelated note, here’s a list of Obama’s appointed czars:
- Afghanistan Czar
- AIDS Czar
- Auto Recovery Czar
- Border Czar
- California Water Czar
- Car Czar
- Central Region Czar
- Climate Czar
- Domestic Violence Czar
- Drug Czar
- Economic Czar
- Energy and Environment Czar
- Faith-Based Czar
- Government Performance Czar
- Great Lakes Czar
- Green Jobs Czar
- Guantanamo Closure Czar
- Health Czar
- Information Czar
- Intelligence Czar
- Mideast Peace Czar
- Pay Czar
- Regulatory Czar
- Science Czar
- Stimulus Accountability Czar
- Sudan Czar
- TARP Czar
- Technology Czar
- Terrorism Czar
- Urban Affairs Czar
- Weapons Czar
- WMD Policy Czar
The link above explains what all of these positions are actually responsible for. Many of them relate to areas the federal government has no explicit or even implicit constitutional authority to be involved in, but neither of our major parties cares about that (look up Bush’s czars to see proof). What concerns me is not so much the size of this government, but its extent. It has shown no restraint in expanding into more and more areas of our lives. This is, of course, expected under technocratic government — the experts can organize our lives better than we can. That’s why we have mandatory Social Security and unemployment insurance, for example.
It’s a natural progression toward dystopia. Taking away the rights of individuals and associations of individuals (families, corporations) to manage their own finances, make their own decisions, use their private property as they see fit, etc. Increasing surveillance and passing vague laws to be interpreted and applied by the judgment of the expert elite. This is a possible future, and when folks like me begin to worry about czars and such, it is this eventuality that we are seeking to avoid. But make no mistake, this is a path that we have already traveled far down.
As of yesterday, a Great American Hero is a free man. James Traficant, a former Democratic Congressman from Ohio, was released from prison. He was expelled from Congress for taking some bribes, cheating on his taxes, and making his Congressional aides work his farm (seriously). He was a staunch opponent of the IRS, so it’s hardly any wonder that he was locked away. But now he’s free. And just in time — we need this great man’s wisdom now more than ever:
His crime? Victimless. His gift to America? Priceless.
We’re saved from civil war by geography. To the extent that we are a deeply divided nation (and I believe we are, albeit along different fault lines than have been acknowledged until recently), it is not a geographic division. It is not a division that roughly corresponds with existing political entities. The Civil War was possible because the South was a region of the country and it was a region of the country with political structures separate from the rest of the country. Thankfully, we have a much higher hurdle to pass today.
I picked up Thomas Paine’s revolutionary pamphlet, Common Sense. I was at the bookstore a while ago, thumbing through a big stack of books that I had little intention of buying — a typical trip for me. I was eager to crack into this one, having never read it but living in such interesting times that it could be strangely relevant once more. When I finally got past the introduction, the very first sentence (and its subsequent articulation) struck me so hard I closed the book and felt no need to read on.
SOME writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness POSITIVELY by uniting our affections, the latter NEGATIVELY by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.
Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him, out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.
I don’t really believe that “liberal” and “conservative” are very useful labels for classifying the country politically. I know a lot of politically liberal people that I would say are, in their general sensibilities, conservatives. I’m not saying they’re economically conservative, or socially conservative, or somehow libertarian, but that they are conservative in the sense of having a prudent disposition and a deference to tradition. When I say that I am a conservative, it is chiefly this to which I refer. I also believe that this is something fundamental to the American system. This sort of conservatism is the natural heir to classical liberalism.
This disposition leads me to very naturally separate government and society. I can say that I love America but that I despise the government. I can say I have the highest confidence in America and the least in her government. I can say I believe that America owes her existence to Divine Providence, but also that this falls very far short of giving our government the sort of divine sanction traditionally attributed to the monarchies it overthrew. These are ideas very old and deeply ingrained in America, but are today in peril. There are many who do not draw these distinctions. When their ideological opponents are the dominant party in power, they despise the nation and are ashamed to call themselves Americans. I saw this attitude pervade the far left during the Bush years, it has always existed in the (smaller) far right.
This is the fault line. The parties may reflect a certain kind of liberal/conservative split, but forget about that for a minute. Here I’m talking about basic philosophy of government and society. It’s not liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican. I don’t have the language to describe it, but I’m coming close saying it’s collectivist/individualist, statist/libertarian. It’s not about policy, all of that is secondary. It’s about identity. Because of that, these are groups that can and do span liberalism and conservatism and both parties.
When the government becomes tyrannical, the American thing is to oppose and if necessary overthrow it. Most of the left was very familiar with that concept during the Bush years, and most of the right is very acutely aware of it now — Americanness is not rooted in the government; in fact, the two necessarily exist in tension.
I’m a “pure” mathematician by training, meaning that the math I studied was incredibly abstract and totally divorced from application outside the realm of ideas. My job is the other side of that coin, essentially applied mathematician in engineering and science applications. So when it comes to thinking mathematically about various fields, I have pretty good perspective.
Murray Rothbard rejected, as Austrian economists tend to do, what he called Mathematical Economics:
The mathematical method, like so many other fallacies, has entered and dominated present-day economic thought because of the pervading epistemology of positivism. Positivism is essentially an interpretation of the methodology of physics ballooned into a general theory of knowledge for all fields.
The reasoning runs like this: Physics is the only really successful science. The “social sciences” are backward because they cannot measure, predict exactly, etc. Therefore, they must adopt the method of physics in order to become successful. And one of the keystones of physics, of course, is the use of mathematics.
The positivists tend to separate the world into the truths of physics on the one hand and “poetry” on the other; hence their use of mathematics and their scorn for verbal economics as being “literary.”
If we grant Rothbard his terminology, it’s pretty easy to see what he’s driving at. Mathematics (and what he really means is the “applied mathematics” style of math) is misapplied in conventional economics, in an effort to bolster it up with greater scientific rigor. He goes on to explain that the very feature of physics that makes mathematical descriptions so fitting breaks down in the comparison to economics — economics is governed axiomatically by human behavior, by motivation, whereas physics is not.
But I don’t grant Rothbard his terminology. Like most physicists, he has mathematics all wrong. So-called “verbal economics”, and Austrian economics in particular, seems to me far more mathematical than the “mathematical economics” of the physicists. Beginning with a set of axioms, and rules for interpreting logically and for defining concepts, conclusions in Austrian economics are in fact logically proven, mathematical proofs in verbal form. Just like most “pure” math is.
In economics, … we know the cause, for human action, unlike the movement of stones, is motivated. Therefore, we may build economics on the basis of axioms — such as the existence of human action and the logical implications of action — which are originally known as true.
From these axioms we can deduce step by step, therefore, laws which are also known as true. And this knowledge is absolute rather than relative precisely because the original axioms are already known.
This is the nature of mathematical proof, not of demonstrated correlation between mathematics and physical reality (as in physics). Even his discussion of the use of calculus, with its reliance on the infinitesimal, demonstrates the point — the infinitesimal in physics is just a convenient tool for simplifying the consideration of massive discrete systems. In reality, as in math, the infinitesimal only applies to ideas.
It’s no wonder that as a mathematician I am so strongly attracted to the Austrian school. I find their axioms intuitive. I find their arguments compelling. I find their conclusions reasonable. I find their distrust of shoddy math reassuring. I find their impact on my wallet convincing.
Pres. Obama has a manner of speaking that gives a strong impression of depth, thoughtfulness, and a calm and steady intellectual air. I believe it is this, his manner of speaking, far more than the content of his speeches, that led so many to conclude he was so smart. Speaking in broken fragments, with frequent pauses and slurring of speech to suggest a mind busy at work, his style betrays both great breadth and depth of thought.
I have several work-in-progress theories about why he speaks as he does, and I’m not yet convinced that I know which is right. A growing body of evidence favors one theory over the others, but until I am convinced, I will not declare myself for any of them.
Theory I: He’s Faking It
This was my initial theory. I believe that a careful observer of Washington could now conclude that my early suspicions were right. I thought Candidate Obama was faking his intelligence. I’d believe they had some focus groups and decided to run with it. It could have started when the campaign noticed that his natural bumbling seemed to actually be helping him somehow, if it wasn’t something he had already learned in his academic career.
He seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about basic policy and worldview questions that anybody running for or occupying the office of president would have to know and believe so deeply as to need no deep and penetrating thoughtful analysis. This is what made me suspicious — I just can’t believe he’s actually figuring out his views on things as he goes. The simplest explanation is that it was all already there, with this speaking style that he had somehow discovered to be effective acting as a veneer.
Theory II: He’s Actually Thinking On-the-Fly
A scarier possibility, that I’m less inclined to believe, is the one that the “Obama is a very smart man and he won’t lead us astray” crowd made: if he really was thinking so hard, about such basic and obvious questions, it would seem like somehow, after years of public service and months of campaigning, he hadn’t settled upon clear views on basic issues. Was that supposed to give me comfort?
There is plenty of evidence out there that he isn’t walking around with a broad base of knowledge in his head, that he has trouble with orders of magnitude, that he is ignorant of milestone events in American history, that he does not understand how business works, etc. The problem here is that presidents prepare for all of their speaking engagements quite vigorously, and those gaps could be concealed for the sake of a speech or a question and answer session. So despite some evidence for this theory, the theory that he’s actually not very smart at all, I’m not committing to it.
Theory III: He’s Deceiving Us
This is a theory with a growing body of evidence, incorporating elements of both of the above theories but with an added twist: the faking is on his views and the on-the-fly thinking is on how to conceal them. I’m talking about the president using Rules for Radicals as his Elements of Style here. If he really does have a deep personal commitment to state power and collectivism, which he certainly did quite openly in his not-so-distant youth, then this is a possibility that should be very seriously entertained. Saul Alinsky’s ideas in Rules for Radicals have undoubtedly had their influence on this president, as a quick Google search will reveal.
Alinsky’s Rule #2: “Never go outside the expertise of your people.” The idea here is that people are uncomfortable with strange and unfamiliar ideas, and that makes them a much harder sell. The ideas of Alinsky and Obama are undoubtedly discomforting to very large portions of the American population. Maybe these are well-formed and clearly understood and deeply held ideas, as the thinking of any president ought to be. If this is the case, perhaps the thoughtful-sounding bumbling is because he has to use language with which he himself is uncomfortable, and believes he is tiptoeing through a minefield when he’s doing it. This is a view growing in popularity on the right, and, like the other two above, is consistent with observation.
I don’t know if any of these theories are right. They are all reasonable conclusions to draw, but as we collect more and more evidence, one in particular is becoming more and more harmonious with the facts. This is a subject that fascinates me, and that I believe is important to understand, so I will update periodically as significant new evidence emerges.
Of course, I don’t necessarily think that an analysis of how our president speaks needs to lead to a negative conclusion about him, just that all of the reasonable explanations I have found do work out that way when considered alongside what we know from his short history of governing. I’d love to be wrong, and am open to arguments.