Posted by: jackslife | September 14, 2009

Pro-Business or Pro-Market?

There is a fantastic article written by University of Chicago economist Luigi Zingales that was published in National Affairs. Thanks to Rod Dreher for posting about it on his blog, because this is certainly not a publication I have read in the past.

I have had this uneasy feeling about the state of our free market economy for a while now, and I think Zingales does a great job of giving an informed voice to my misgivings.  The long and short of it is that there is nothing wrong with the free market, but that is not really what we have been moving towards, even pre-Obama.  I will readily admit that I am not the most informed person when it comes to the deeper details of economic matters, but what he says here makes a lot of sense.  He claims that we have shifted towards policies that have increased centralization of power and have decreased some of the checks and balances that have existed within our economy.

There are so many good points in this article that I don’t really think I could possibly do them all justice, so I hope you will read the entire article (it is somewhat lengthy).  He talks about how important it is that the populace sees the system as being equitable, and the effects that scandal and government involvement have on that perception.  Here is one excerpt from the article about this –

When the government is small and relatively weak, the way to make money is to start a successful private-sector business. But the larger the size and scope of government spending, the easier it is to make money by diverting public resources. Starting a business is difficult and involves a lot of risk — but getting a government favor or contract is easier, and a much safer bet. And so in nations with large and powerful governments, the state tends to find itself at the heart of the economic system, even if that system is relatively capitalist. This tends to confound politics and economics, both in practice and in public perceptions: The larger the share of capitalists who acquire their wealth thanks to their political connections, the greater the perception that capitalism is unfair and corrupt.

Another point that is made is that the prominence and financially lucrative nature of the finance industry has created an imbalance in the number of our “best and brightest” within a single industry.  This has lead to an imbalance in our government, which seems to create an environment that views the economic prison as the only measurement of good policy.  Again from the article –

The explosion of wages and profits in finance also naturally attracted the best talents — with implications that extended beyond the financial sector, and deep into government. Thirty years ago, the brightest undergraduates were going into science, technology, law, and business; for the last 20 years, they have gone to finance. Having devoted themselves to this sector, these talented individuals inevitably end up working to advance its interests: A person specialized in derivative trading is likely to be terribly impressed with the importance and value of derivatives, just as a nuclear engineer is likely to think nuclear power can solve all the world’s problems. And if most of the political elite were picked from among nuclear engineers, it would be only natural that the country would soon fill with nuclear plants. In fact, we have an example of precisely this scenario in France, where for complicated cultural reasons an unusually large portion of the political elite is trained in engineering at the École Polytechnique — and France derives more of its energy from nuclear power than any other nation.

A similar effect is evident with finance in America. The proportion of people with training and experience in finance working at the highest levels of every recent presidential administration is extraordinary. Four of the last six secretaries of Treasury fit this description. In fact, all four were directly or indirectly connected to one firm: Goldman Sachs. This is hardly the historical norm; of the previous six Treasury secretaries, only one had a finance background. And finance-trained executives staff not only the Treasury but many senior White House posts and key positions in numerous other departments. President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, once worked for an investment bank, as did his predecessor under President George W. Bush, Joshua Bolten.

There is nothing intrinsically bad about these developments. In fact, it is only natural that a government in search of the brightest people will end up poaching from the finance world, to which the best and brightest have flocked. The problem is that people who have spent their entire lives in finance have an understandable tendency to think that the interests of their industry and the interests of the country always coincide. When Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson went to Congress last fall arguing that the world as we knew it would end if Congress did not approve the $700 billion bailout, he was serious and speaking in good faith. And to an extent he was right: His world — the world he lived and worked in — would have ended had there not been a bailout. Goldman Sachs would have gone bankrupt, and the repercussions for everyone he knew would have been enormous. But Henry Paulson’s world is not the world most Americans live in — or even the world in which our economy as a whole exists. Whether that world would have ended without Congress’s bailout was a far more debatable proposition; unfortunately, that debate never took place.

Compounding the problem is the fact that people in government tend to rely on their networks of trusted friends to gather information “from the outside.” If everyone in those networks is drawn from the same milieu, the information and ideas that flow to policymakers will be severely limited. A revealing anecdote comes from a Bush Treasury official, who noted that in the heat of the financial crisis, every time there was a phone call from Manhattan’s 212 area code, the message was the same: “Buy the toxic assets.” Such uniformity of advice makes it difficult for even the most intelligent or well-meaning policymakers to arrive at the right decisions.

As I said, there is too much here for me to cover it all, but I think it is well worth the time to check it out in its entirety.

Posted by: jackslife | September 14, 2009

How to Preserve a Small Town

Rod has a post up on the Crunchy Con blog that discusses the future of small towns.  This is a topic that I have really been interested in over the last few years.  Historically it seems that American small towns have often been tied to agricultural activity.  Changes in the landscape of agriculture have decreased the number of jobs that this industry supplies.  As a person who would really like to live in a smaller town, I find myself asking what kind of options could be pursued to make it possible for people to live in small towns.  Rod points out that it would be impossible for him (a journalist) to relocate to his home town, due to a total lack of career options.  My wife and I have often talked about the question of what a person would do for a living in the small West Texas towns that are scattered around my neck of the world.  If you aren’t in agriculture your options for work are pretty slim in these towns.  I’m sure there are more options in some other locations, but I’m not sure what they are.

What can small towns do to attract, and keep, people and businesses?  What thoughts do you have about what an individual could do in a small town to earn a living?  What kinds of businesses (I’m interested in something other than factories, since that is an obvious possibility that can’t really be counted on) could be built in a small town that would supply jobs to the community?

Posted by: jackslife | September 9, 2009

The Politicization of Virtue

There is a really interesting post up on the Crunchy Con blog right now, where Rod has reprinted an email from one of his readers.  Some great points are made about how simplistic and reductionist the arguments have become from all sides in modern debate.  If you disagree with same sex marriage you are a bigot and homophobe, if you favor Obama style healthcare you are a socialist, and so on.  I fear for our culture when this kind of thing is the norm.  Fox News and Keith Oberman seem to have conspired to destroy free thought and rational discourse, and we have largely just accepted it.  We have swallowed the Soma and mindlessly parrot the catch phrases that we hear on the radio and television.  I wouldn’t be so concerned if it weren’t for the fact that even people who I consider to be otherwise intelligent people are as guilty of this kind of debate as anyone else.

From the post –

The politicization of virtue has been disastrous for the social and political life of the Western world. What I mean by “the politicization of virtue” is this: fifty years ago, if you described someone as tolerant or kind or generous or open-minded, you were not making any kind of definitive statement about his public or political views. You were talking about how he interacted with the people around him, how he related to his wife or his kids or his colleagues or his friends. But now we ascribe character traits to people not on the basis of how they behave, but on the basis of what they think. Open-minded, for example, no longer describes a person who is willing to change his mind when he encounters new data or new explanations; in modern parlance, like “tolerant”, it now denotes agreement with a particular set of political and cultural ideas. Imagine how your average liberal would react if you told them you were tolerant and open-minded, but were pro-life, anti-gay marriage and in favour of school prayer. They would doubtless suggest that you were not actually tolerant and open-minded, even though there is no logical incompatibility between authentically possessing the first set of attributes and espousing the second set of political views.

I find this to be a very interesting paragraph.  I have thought about how the term “tolerant” has become a value judgment.  Tolerance means that you accept a specific behavior as being unequivocally good. It’s not enough that you accept that someone be allowed to engage in homosexual behavior, you have to openly endorse that behavior and any position associated with it, or you are intolerant. When applied equally to all situations, how is this a virtue? You wouldn’t be allowed to have a rational objection to any issue. I know this is not a new argument, but I would also point out that the same people who levy accusations of intolerance are generally some of the most intolerant people on the face of the earth. They can’t even abide the thought that you would hold an opinion in opposition to them.

This example is clearly just one side of the problem.  Both sides have their one word dismissals that they use to label others as not being worth the time or effort of rationally conversing with.  There are also a number of good points in Rod’s post, so read the whole thing.

Posted by: jackslife | August 28, 2009

“Free Market” Killed the Newspaper Star

Great article by Patrick Deneen on FPR about the continuing death throws of the newspaper, and the causes of that death.  The nationalization of news can certainly be credited with much of the problem.  Newspapers were at their strongest when they still had local ties.  There is a great quote from David Simon’s (creator of the HBO show The Wire) testimony before the Senate.  Here’s a clip –

High-end journalism is dying in America and unless a new economic model is achieved, it will not be reborn on the web or anywhere else. The internet is a marvelous tool and clearly it is the informational delivery system of our future, but thus far it does not deliver much first-generation reporting. Instead, it leeches that reporting from mainstream news publications, whereupon aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth. Meanwhile, readers acquire news from the aggregators and abandon its point of origin – namely the newspapers themselves.

In short, the parasite is slowly killing the host.

I think that he is right. One of the big fears that I have about the death of the newspaper is that many of the writers producing the quality content on the internet are employed by newspapers and the like. Certainly the content that can be called “news” is being produced by traditional sources. If we manage to put all of the newspapers out of business we will be left with a bunch of sensationalist paparazzi schlock and editorial pieces. We will not have any real news being reported. This seams like an environment prime for creating a misinformed populace that is controlled in an Orwellian fashion. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t pretend that you can take everything in the newspaper at face value, but at least you can generally call that information news.

Posted by: jackslife | August 26, 2009

Death of a Texan

The inimitable Bill Kaufman has a piece on West Texas author Elmer Kelton, who died over the weekend.  Great article on one of the legends of the Western genre.  To be honest, I have not read much of Kelton.  I have started his novel, “The Good Old Boys”, but haven’t finished it yet.  He does seem to touch on the themes that I love about cowboys and the west, namely open space, a love of one’s avocation, and a mistrust of “progress”.  Kaufman paints him as being one of the great regional writers, and not just a great Western or cowboy writer.  He’s a sage of the plains, and not just an author of a genre that often gets a bad rap as being nothing more than pulp material.  RIP to one of my corner of the world’s hidden treasures.

Posted by: jackslife | August 26, 2009

TGI…, Thursday?!?

Welcome news from the folks at Good Magazine.  I hope this catches on in a big way.  Outside of the data that shows advantages in energy savings and traffic, who wouldn’t rather work a couple of additional hours a day to gain an extra day off a week?  I used to occasionally do this at my last job and loved it.  Of course, now I work more than 40 hours but don’t get Friday off.  Ahh well.

Posted by: jackslife | August 20, 2009

Extinction, Bees, and Beekeepers

Katherine Dalton at the Front Porch Republic has a post up about the continuing misfortunes of the honey bee, and how the real group that might be in danger of extinction could be the beekeepers.

I find these stories to be a source of a faceless, unspeakable dread.  It just doesn’t seem normal that so many species are having such sudden and extreme declines in population.  Bees, frogs, and bats all come to mind as recent examples.  It seems like we are heading towards some kind of major change in our environment, and I don’t think we can even guess at what the ultimate effects will be.

Posted by: jackslife | August 20, 2009

Stealing from the Guvment

Great post on FPR about growing your own tobacco, and the disturbing use of congressional power to declare it illegal to produce a crop in quantities deemed large enough to “impact interstate commerce”.  This particular post was specifically influenced by an article on people growing their own tobacco to avoid paying the “sin tax” on that product.

Deneen rightly points out that the Wickard vs. Filburn case (not new by any means, but disturbing none the less) seems to be a precedent for allowing congress to make production of anything illegal for an individual.  It seems like they could logically extend this to make gardening illegal, since the recent popularity has an effect on interstate commerce.  I don’t really care whether my garden threatens interstate commerce, I should be allowed to grow whatever legal crops I want to, in whatever quantities I want to, and my neighbors should be able to do the same.

Posted by: jackslife | August 17, 2009

Cutting Off Your Nose…

So, it looks like liberals are the ones going off the deep end with a ridiculous boycott this time.  There is a boycott of Whole Foods gaining steam over some comments that their CEO made regarding healthcare.  This is an absolutely ridiculous boycott.  As Rod Dreher points out on his blog, there are very few companies who are better to their employees, or who are more friendly to the typical liberal agenda.  Just not a very well thought out protest.

Update – Additional comments from Balko about this story

3) That’s the crux of why I think the boycott is ill-considered, reactionary, and foolish. You’re saying, “These opinions are so horrifyingly offensive, they outweigh all the good your company does, and therefore, I’m going to punish you, your employees, and all of your suppliers.” See, I find that offensive. And yes, that’s in part because I happen to agree with most of Mackey’s recommendations.

4) I say in part because I also think the general premise is ridiculous. I shop at Costco. A lot. If the CEO of Costco wrote an op-ed calling for a single payer health care system, I’d shrug, maybe write a blog post about why I think he’s wrong, and then I’d probably go to Costco this weekend to buy some dog food, some meat, and to try to eat my membership dues in free samples. Now, if the CEO of Costco wrote an op-ed calling for genocide against redheads, then yeah, I’d stop shopping there. But calling for a boycott of a conscientious company over its CEO endorsing proven ideas like HSAs and mainstream policies like tort reform is an attempt to push good ideas you disagree with to the fringe. It’s a way of zoning your opponents best arguments out of the realm of civilized debate. In other words, it’s a way to marginalize your opponents without actually having to debate them.

5) Some commenters say they’re boycotting Whole Foods because it’s too expensive. Okay. So. You want a company that pays its employees well, gives them great benefits, demands high environmental and humane treatment standards from its suppliers, caters to a variety of dietary restrictions, offers organic produce, and manages to keep its prices low so working class people can shop there. Oh, and it can’t be part of the “industrial supply chain,” either, whatever that means. Good luck! Of course, you all hate Walmart because it does keep prices low, but does so by paying its employees less and pressuring its suppliers for lower wholesale prices.

I guess we could just have the government grow, process, and distribute all the food. That seems to have worked really well in North Korea. But then if the government is the only food supplier, how could you wage a boycott when the government doesn’t let the food workers unionize?

Hey, just asking!

Posted by: jackslife | August 14, 2009

Farming – The New American Dream

Great article from the Huffington Post about the new farming renaissance.   Gene Logsdon and Wendell Berry are both mentioned in the article, with Logsdon providing a good quote for the piece.

I think this is all just part of a culture that is looking for a way to add meaning to their life.  Many people don’t really derive the kind of satisfaction from their vocations that they would hope to, so they are seeking alternatives.  There is something about working with your hands that can be very satisfying, and being able to see tangible results from that work increases the satisfaction.

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