Quotulatiousness

July 12, 2014

Sriracha factory dispute – “THIS PROBLEM NEEDS TO BE TAKEN CARE OF NOW, NOT LATER!!!!!”

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Government, Health, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:03

Sriracha rooster sauceSriracha fans were relieved when the Huy Fong plant in California was allowed to re-open after a farcical ‘elf-and-safety’ shakedown (original story here). Reason‘s Zenon Evans has more on the behind-the-scenes bullshit that triggered the near-national panic among hot sauce consumers:

The public just got some new insight into one of the last year’s spiciest (and fishiest) political kerfuffles: the push by the city council of Irwindale, California to shut down Huy Fong Foods, the makers of Sriracha hot sauce. The tireless freedom-of-information requesters at MuckRock yesterday published internal council documents, revealing theatrically furious communication among the local government officials and a desire to exploit regulations to force the company into submission.

[...]

The newly revealed memos and emails show that some members of government were actually “happy to report the scent of chilies” emanating when production began in 2012, but, a year later Ortiz and Councilman David Fuentes, who also lived near the factory (and also ultimately recused himself from the matter), saw a total shutdown as the first and only appropriate course of action.

“I just received notice that the odor at this place is very strong. We must proceed with SHUT DOWN immediately,” demanded Ortiz in an email, despite the fact that he had previously applauded how much safer that part of town had become since the $80 million business moved in.

Fuentes was even more adamant. “THIS PROBLEM NEEDS TO BE TAKEN CARE OF NOW, NOT LATER!!!!!,” he emailed his fellow council members in October. Notably, he also suggested that “if we need to shut them down for non compliance, then let’s do what we have to do.”

Although it’s not clear exactly what Fuentes meant by “non compliance” or if the council made moves based on his plot, the city did sue Huy Fong and got a judge to order a partial shutdown in November, even though that the judge acknowledged a “lack of credible evidence” regarding the health risk claims. Likewise, California’s health regulators stepped in and changed their own food rules in December as they demanded a 30-day hold on operations, which created fear of a national Sriracha shortage.

July 11, 2014

Remember the Y2K bug? It just caused draft notices to be sent to thousands of dead men

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:57

This is a story that rightfully should have been published at the beginning of April (except it actually happened):

A year 2000-related bug has caused the US military to send more than 14,000 letters of conscription to men who were all born in the 1800s and died decades ago.

Shocked residents of Pennsylvania began receiving letters ordering their great grandparents to register for the US military draft by pain of “fine and imprisonment.”

“I said, ‘Geez, what the hell is this about?’” Chuck Huey, 73, of Kingston, Pennsylvania told the Associated Press when he received a letter for his late grandfather Bert Huey, born in 1894 and a first world war veteran who died at the age of 100 in 1995.

“It said he was subject to heavy fines and imprisonment if he didn’t sign up for the draft board,” exclaimed Huey. “We were just totally dumbfounded.”

The US Selective Service System, which sent the letters in error, automatically handles the drafting of US citizens and other US residents that are applicable for conscription. The cause of the error was narrowed down to a Y2K-like bug in the Pennsylvania department of transportation (PDT).

A clerk at the PDT failed to select a century during the transfer of 400,000 records to the Selective Service, producing 1990s records for men born a century earlier.

Welcome to the NSA family

Filed under: Government, Humour, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:41

The Privacy Surgeon recently acquired a leaked National Security Agency memo to new staff and contractors:

The intelligence world is a complex place. Think of it as if it was your family (we know the sort of families you come from, so make of that what you will). Here’s a quick international reference guide so you know what to think.

    - Just about all African governments arise from at least some orchestrated corruption. Before you target anyone, check with the CIA to see if they were involved. If they were involved, intensify the surveillance and make sure NSA Command has all the data for “diplomatic” purposes (i.e. Beltway diplomacy).

    - Anyone in Central or South America is a justifiable target. If they’re in Central America, drugs will be somewhere on the horizon – even if it’s a third generation connection. If they’re further south, most will be US-skeptic. Drugs plus US-Skeptic equals democratic instability, and we’re here to protect democracy.

    - The Russian Federation is more complex. At a political level there’s a lot of grandstanding. Operationally though, we share intelligence with Russia on anyone who is a mutual target (and that, ironically, includes most of the Russian Federation). China is our main mutual target because it refuses to share the economic intelligence data it gathers about either Russia or America. All of us, however, have agreed to share intelligence data on the French.

    - The Middle East. Just collect it. That data is always useful. Avoid Israel though. We already have a cross-collateralization deal with MOSAD to leverage the value-added of locally intercepted data. And besides, if they catch you snooping on their turf they’ll just endlessly whine about it.

So that’s about it. We hope you have a great time here, and always remember that you now have friends.

H/T to Bruce Schneier for the link.

July 10, 2014

Millennials starting to get jaded about the virtues of government

Filed under: Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:57

The latest Reason-Rupe poll has some interesting results on the Millennial generation:

A Reason-Rupe survey of 2,000 Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 finds 66 percent of millennials believe government is inefficient and wasteful — a substantial increase since 2009, when just 42 percent of millennials said government was inefficient and wasteful.

Nearly two-thirds of millennials, 63 percent, think government regulators favor special interests, whereas just 18 percent feel regulators act in the public’s interest. Similarly, 58 percent of 18-to-29 year-olds are convinced government agencies abuse their powers, while merely 25 percent trust government agencies to do the right thing.

The Reason-Rupe report finds this skepticism of government has millennials favoring general reductions to government spending and regulations:

  • 73 percent of millennials favor allowing private accounts for Social Security; 51 percent favor private accounts even it means cutting Social Security benefits for current and future retirees because 53 percent of millennials say Social Security is unlikely to exist when they retire
  • 64 percent of millennials say cutting government spending by 5 percent would help the economy
  • 59 percent say cutting taxes would help the economy
  • 57 percent prefer a smaller government providing fewer services with low taxes, while 41 percent prefer a larger government providing more services with high taxes
  • 57 percent want a society where wealth is distributed according to achievement
  • 55 percent say reducing regulations would help the economy
  • 53 percent say reducing the size of government would help the economy

Of course, along with those hopeful signs are a few that show millennials are still idealistic (i.e., socialistic) in other areas: higher minimum wages, guaranteed food and shelter for all, and raising taxes on the rich all got lots of support in the poll.

July 7, 2014

What is the Canadian government hiding over TPP negotiations? Everything.

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Government — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:47

Michael Geist on the federal government’s secret dealings on the TPP docket:

The next major agreement on the government’s docket is the Trans Pacific Partnership, a massive proposed trade deal that includes the United States, Australia, Mexico, Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand, Vietnam, Japan, Peru, and Chile. While other trade talks occupy a prominent place in the government’s promotional plans, the TPP remains largely hidden from view. Indeed, most Canadians would be surprised to learn that Canada is hosting the latest round of TPP negotiations this week in Ottawa.

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) argues the secrecy associated with the TPP – the draft text of the treaty has still not been formally released, the precise location of the Ottawa negotiations has not been disclosed, and even the existence of talks was only confirmed after media leaks – suggests that the Canadian government has something to hide when it comes to the TPP.

Since this is the first major TPP negotiation round to be held in Canada, there was an opportunity to build public support for the agreement. Yet instead, the Canadian government approach stands as one of the most secretive in TPP history. Why the secrecy?

The answer may lie in the substance of the proposed agreement, which leaked documents indicate often stands in stark contrast to current Canadian policy. The agricultural provision may attract the lion share of TPP attention, but it is the digital issues that are particularly problematic from a Canadian perspective.

For example, late last month the government announced that new copyright rules associated with Internet providers would take effect starting in 2015. The Canadian system, referred to as a “notice-and-notice” approach, is widely viewed as among the most balanced in the world, providing rights holders with the ability to raise concerns about alleged infringements, while simultaneously safeguarding the privacy and free speech rights of users.

July 6, 2014

Even if you’re “doing nothing wrong”, the NSA is probably tracking you already

Filed under: Government, Liberty, Media, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:17

The argument that you’ve got nothing to worry about because you’re not doing anything wrong has long since passed its best-before date. As Nick Gillespie points out, you don’t need to be a member of Al Qaeda, a black-hat hacker, or a registered Republican to be of interest to the NSA’s information gathering team:

If You’re Reading Reason.com, The NSA is Probably Already Following You

Two things to contemplate on early Sunday morning, before church or political talk shows get underway:

Remember all those times we were told that the government, especially the National Security Agency (NSA), only tracks folks who either guilty of something or involved in suspicious-seeming activity? Well, we’re going to have amend that a bit. Using documents from Edward Snowden, the Washington Post‘s Barton Gellman, Julie Tate, and Ashkan Soltani report

    Ordinary Internet users, American and non-American alike, far outnumber legally targeted foreigners in the communications intercepted by the National Security Agency from U.S. digital networks, according to a four-month investigation by The Washington Post.

    Nine of 10 account holders found in a large cache of intercepted conversations, which former NSA contractor Edward Snowden provided in full to The Post, were not the intended surveillance targets but were caught in a net the agency had cast for somebody else.

    Many of them were Americans. Nearly half of the surveillance files, a strikingly high proportion, contained names, e-mail addresses or other details that the NSA marked as belonging to U.S. citizens or residents. NSA analysts masked, or “minimized,” more than 65,000 such references to protect Americans’ privacy, but The Post found nearly 900 additional e-mail addresses, unmasked in the files, that could be strongly linked to U.S. citizens or U.S.residents.

The cache of documents in question date from 2009 through 2012 and comprise 160,000 documents collected up the PRISM and Upstream, which collect data from different sources. “Most of the people caught up in those programs are not the targets and would not lawfully qualify as such,” write Gellman, Julie Tate, and Ashkan Soltani, who also underscore that NSA surveillance has produced some very meaningful and good intelligence. The real question is whether the government can do that in a way that doesn’t result in massive dragnet programs that create far more problems ultimately than they solve (remember the Church Committee?).

Read the whole thing. And before anyone raises the old “if you’re innocent, you’ve got nothing to hide shtick,” read Scott Shackford’s “3 Reasons the ‘Nothing to Hide’ Crowd Should be worried about Government Surveillance.”

July 4, 2014

Reason.tv – Presidential Power and the Rise of American Monarchy

Filed under: Government, History, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:37

Published on 3 Jul 2014

“America is dropping like a stone in rankings of freedom. As power accumulates in one person, expect that to continue,” says Frank Buckley, George Mason University law professor and author of the new book, The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America.

Buckley sat down with Reason TV‘s Tracy Oppenheimer to discuss how the U.S. presidency has evolved into what he calls “something like an elective monarch.” He says that this is not what the framers of the Constitution had intended, nor did they conceive of the modern version of the separation of powers.

“A parliamentary regime was more or less what the framers wanted…as far as the separation of powers is concerned,” says Buckley “instead of a device to constrain a president, it’s one which immunizes him from criticism by Congress.”

July 3, 2014

How the Great Society failed American blacks

Filed under: Government, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

Fred Siegel reviews Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make it Harder for Blacks to Succeed, by Jason Riley:

A half-century ago, the Great Society promised to complete the civil rights revolution by pulling African-Americans into the middle class. Today, a substantial black middle class exists, but its primary function has been, ironically, to provide custodial care to a black underclass — one ever more deeply mired in the pathologies of subsidized poverty. In Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make it Harder for Blacks to Succeed, Jason Riley, an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal who grew up in Buffalo, New York, explains how poverty programs have succeeded politically by failing socially. “Today,” writes Riley, “more than 70 percent of black children are born to unwed mothers. Only 16 percent of black households are married couples with children, the lowest of any racial group in the United States.” Riley attributes the breakdown of the black family to the perverse effects of government social programs, which have created what journalist William Tucker calls “state polygamy.” As depicted in an idyllic 2012 Obama campaign cartoon, “The Life of Julia,” a lifelong relationship with the state offers the sustenance usually provided by two parents in most middle-class families.

Riley’s own life experience gives him powerful perspective from which to address these issues. His parents divorced but both remained attentive to him and his two sisters. His sisters, however, were drawn into the sex-and-drug pleasures of inner-city “culture.” By the time he graduated from high school, his older sister was a single mother. By the time he graduated from college, his younger sister had died from a drug overdose. Riley’s nine-year-old niece teased him for “acting white.” “Why you talk white, Uncle Jason?” she wanted to know. She couldn’t understand why he was “trying to sound so smart.” His black public school teacher similarly mocked his standard English in front of the class. “The reality was,” Riley explains, “that if you were a bookish black kid who placed shared sensibilities above skin color, you probably had a lot of white friends.”

The compulsory “benevolence” of the welfare state, borne of the supposed expertise of sociologists and social planners, undermined the opportunities opened up by the end of segregation. The great hopes placed in education as a path to the middle class were waylaid by the virulence of a ghetto culture nurtured by family breakdown. Adjusted for inflation, federal per-pupil school spending grew 375 percent from 1970 to 2005, but the achievement gap between white and black students remained unchanged.

July 2, 2014

QotD: The myths about libertarianism

Filed under: Government, Liberty, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:05

Whenever I talk to people about libertarianism, they usually dismiss it right off because of all the misconceptions that are floating about. They seem to have no understanding of what libertarianism is actually. This is largely thanks to all the years of government schooling, as well as the falsehoods perpetrated by the lamestream media. Usually their objections are based on falsehoods that are repeated often in government school textbooks and by talking heads who don’t know Jack about libertarianism.

They seem to believe the myth that the free market was a gigantic cesspool that was letter cleansed by the purity of government. This is largely based on a work of fiction created by Upton Sinclair, even though it was largely debunked by two different investigations performed under two different branches of government. They also seem to have the cartoon image of the greedy “Robber Barons” who supposedly created monopolies so they could line their wallets, while the poor became poorer. Never mind that they actually found ways to produce cheaper goods, which gave the poor greater access to them.

That is why there are so many people who believe that the government is the end all solution to everything. They have become so accustomed to having the government interfere in their daily lives that they can’t imagine life without it. That is why people make straw man arguments against libertarianism. Well, that and intellectual laziness also plays a strong part in it. The same intellectual laziness that I have seen in many creationists who constantly attack evolution without even bothering to open a science book to find out what they are arguing against.

Sean Gangol, “Misconceptions”, Libertarian Enterprise, 2013-12-08

June 30, 2014

QotD: The new American ruling class

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:02

Our political bureaucracies are grasping and vicious, and some of the larger of them are dominated by people who are, if we’re being frank, not especially bright. No society can long thrive by making its creators and innovators subservient to its pimps and thieves. But agencies with the power to tax or the power to pay themselves out of taxes have the power to command, and, human nature being what it is, it is not surprising that their executives use that power to extort for themselves extraordinary levels of compensation (occasionally through criminal means, as in the Bell case), even as they bore us all to death talking about the sacrifices they have endured on behalf of their careers in “public service.” [...]

It is baffling that my progressive friends lament the influence of so-called big money on government while at the same time proposing to expand the very scope and scale of that government that makes influencing it such a good investment. Where government means constables, soldiers, judges, and precious little else, it is not much worth capturing. Where government means somebody whose permission must be sought before you can even begin to earn a living, when it determines the prices of products, the terms of competition, and the interest rates on your competitors’ financing, then it is worth capturing. That much is obvious. Progressives refuse to see the inherent corruption in the new ruling class — and, make no mistake, we now have a ruling class — because it is largely made up of them, their colleagues, and people who are socially and culturally like them and their colleagues. Getting a couple hundred grand a year to teach one class doesn’t look so crazy if you think you might be the guy who gets the check next time around. You can be an anti-elite crusader on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised from your million-dollar mansion, even if you never find yourself so much as downwind from a poor person, without fearing charges of hypocrisy: Ask Senator Warren. Of course Chelsea Clinton does not have the sense or the good taste to be embarrassed when talking about her blasé attitude toward money: Money is invisible to her for the same reason that water is invisible to a fish — she’d notice it if it weren’t there, and flap like a desperate landed mackerel until she’d secured her next big payday.

Kevin D. Williamson, “Politics Pays”, National Review, 2014-06-29.

June 28, 2014

31% of Americans believe the US is a crony capitalist state

Filed under: Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:55

Thirty-one percent of Americans are probably right:

Many Americans remain unconvinced that the United States has a system of free market capitalism and continue to be wary of government involvement in the economy.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 32% of American Adults believe the United States has a system of free market capitalism, while just as many (31%) say it is a system of crony capitalism. Slightly more (37%) are not sure what kind of capitalist system America has.

That’s from a survey conducted at the beginning of April. I suspect the same survey done now would produce a plurality for the crony capitalist side.

H/T to Jesse Walker for the link.

June 26, 2014

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before – Canadian government puts F-35 decision on hold (again)

Filed under: Cancon, Government, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:53

In the Globe and Mail, Steven Chase reports on the on-again, off-again, [on-again, off-again, ...] federal government decision on replacing our current RCAF fighters:

The Harper government is pressing pause on a decision to buy new jet fighters, including whether to purchase Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II without holding a competition, because it feels ministers need more information on other options before selecting a course of action.

There will be no decision this month on the next step — whether to hold a competition for a new plane or purchase the F-35 outright — and it is very unlikely anything will be announced even by mid-July, The Globe and Mail has learned.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper removed the item from the agenda of a recent meeting of cabinet’s priorities and planning committee to give ministers more time to deliberate and gather information, people familiar with the matter say. Priorities and planning is the main cabinet committee that provides strategic direction.

Sources say the government feels it’s being rushed and pressured by the Canadian Armed Forces and parts of the civil service to purchase the F-35 without a competition. The government, which took a serious credibility hit in 2012 over its poor management of the procurement process, is now concerned only one fully fleshed-out option has been presented for review and that it resembled a decision to be ratified rather than a well-developed option.

H/T to Paul Wells, who put it rather well:

June 25, 2014

Mexico’s champion crony capitalist

Filed under: Americas, Economics, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:31

I don’t read the various financial magazines’ regular fanboi coverage of multi-billionaires, so I wasn’t all that aware of the fabulous wealth of Mexico’s Carlos Slim. Slim is one of the richest men in the world, but he doesn’t owe his success to technical innovation or outstanding business skills … he owns the Mexican telephone market thanks to a sweetheart “privatization” deal he got from his good friend in the Presidential palace back in 1990. In other words, his fortune largely derives from his ability to skim off vast profits from a captive customer base. Steve Sailer rounds up some interesting snippets about Slim, including a bit from French economist and current media darling Thomas Piketty:

Andres Oppenheimer wrote for PBS:

    Mexico in the early nineties was similar to American capitalism in the late 1870s. Azcarraga, Slim, and Hernandez were not much different from railroad and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie or oil trader John D. Rockefeller. Like the American “Robber Barons” of their time, the Mexico Twelve were making a fortune from their close partnership with the government. And to their immense relief, Mexico was not contemplating anything like the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which had broken up U.S. monopolies through forced sell-offs.

In return, Salinas demanded at a private dinner party on February 23, 1993 that Slim and Mexico’s other 29 oligarchs donate $25 million each to the ruling party’s campaign war chest, a total of $750 million. Oppenheimer notes:

    Telecommunications magnate Slim … supported the motion, adding only that he wished the funds had been collected privately, rather than at a dinner, because publicity over the banquet could “turn into a political scandal.”

Now, you might think that there is something unseemly about a regular contender for the title of World’s Richest Man making his fortune off the relatively small Mexican economy. We’re constantly told that Mexicans have to be allowed to flock to America to escape starvation in their own land. Yet one well-connected monopolist is permitted to pile up an enormous trove by charging exorbitant fees for the lifeblood of any economy, communications.

A 2006 article in the New York Times pointed out:

    The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an association of wealthy countries based in Paris, reports that Mexicans pay some of the highest phone rates in the world, with calls costing 50 percent more than the group’s average. Forbes reported that the average monthly phone bill for a small business in Mexico is $132, compared with $60 in the United States.

Slim epitomizes the toll taken on the Mexican economy by monopolists:

    As a result, said Mr. Ortiz of the Bank of Mexico, economic growth is one percentage point less than it could be with real competition. There are not enough jobs to keep workers from migrating to the United States …

Piketty, however, is offended by how Slim

    … is often described in the Western press as one who owes his great wealth to monopoly rents obtained through (implicitly corrupt) government favors…

(Slim, himself, has been proactive about improving his press coverage: in 2008 he financially bailed out the New York Times and is now the newspaper of record’s second-biggest owner. Not surprisingly, Slim, who profits lavishly off long distance calls between illegal immigrants in America and their loved ones in Mexico, doesn’t get mentioned much in the Times’ vociferous denunciations of immigration skeptics.)

Piketty, in his inimitable prose style, explains that criticizing Slim is a mistake, if not downright racist:

    Rather than indulge in constructing a moral hierarchy of wealth, which in practice often amounts to an exercise in Western ethnocentrism, I think it is more useful to try to understand the general laws that govern the dynamics of wealth—leaving individuals aside and thinking instead about modes of regulation, and in particular taxation, that apply equally to everyone, regardless of nationality.

In other words, rather than the citizens of Mexico using the rule of law to break up Slim’s monopoly, as Americans did with Rockefeller’s, the important thing is for readers of Capital to take global control.

What could possibly go wrong in Piketty’s planetary empire?

“The only serious black mark against the NHS was its poor record on keeping people alive”

Filed under: Britain, Cancon, Europe, Government, Health, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:25

Britain’s NHS came in for rave reviews in a recent study that compared healthcare systems in several European countries and the Anglosphere. There was, as John Kay points out, only one minor flaw in the way the measurements were weighted:

“NHS is the world’s best healthcare system” was a headline last week in The Guardian newspaper. However, six paragraphs in, the authors observed: “The only serious black mark against the NHS was its poor record on keeping people alive.” Further investigation was clearly required.

The newspaper was reporting a survey of health provision by the US-based Commonwealth Fund in 11 advanced countries: seven European states, the US and Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The findings use measures of service quality, mainly derived from judgments by patients. The effectiveness of care is judged by the intensity of preventive activity – whether necessary tests are carried out, whether doctors advise on a healthy lifestyle – and the reliability of management of chronic conditions.

The safety of care is judged by the frequency of medical mistakes, and the incidence of hospital-induced infection. Good care is patient-centred and timely, with necessary treatment easily accessible. The survey also reports measures of efficiency, or more often inefficiency – how great is the burden of medical administration, how much unnecessary use is made of emergency services, how reliably test results reach medical professionals.

The UK’s National Health Service is at or close to the top on almost all these indicators, and its health spending per head is the second lowest in the survey. The US system scores badly on everything except preventive care, and US medical costs are off the scale when compared with other countries.

The problem, however, is that when it comes to keeping you alive, the World Health Organisation puts Britain tenth out of 11; only the US is worse. If your objective is to live a healthy life, go to France. Medical outcomes are judged by reference to three measures: avoidable mortality, infant mortality, and healthy life expectancy at age 60. And the NHS does not do well on these metrics.

June 24, 2014

“How should we do x?”

Filed under: Government, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:11

The urge to provide a national (or even a global) solution to a given problem is almost always mistaken. Kevin Williamson explains why:

“How should we do x?” The main problem is not the answer, but the question itself, and the assumptions behind that question, the belief that an answer exists.

Some policies must, by their nature, be implemented at the national level. If you’re going to have a sovereign nation-state, you need a national defense apparatus (which is not to say you need our national-defense apparatus; there are alternatives), and you probably need a national immigration policy, etc. The basic architecture of the current American constitutional order, which is a remarkably wise and intelligent piece of work, contemplates national policies in those areas in which the several states interact with foreign powers and in those cases in which the states cannot coordinate efforts or resolve disputes among themselves on their own. That, along with some 18th-century anachronisms (post roads, etc.) and some awful economic superstitions (political management of trade, a political monopoly on the issuance of currency), constitutes most of what the federal government is in theory there to do. That and fighting pirates and others committing “felonies on the high seas,” of course, which is awesome, and we can all feel patriotic about fighting pirates.

But … if we look at federal programs by budget share, almost nothing that Washington does requires a national policy. There’s national defense, of course, at around 20 percent of spending; you may believe, as I do, that that number is probably too high, but national defense is a legitimate national endeavor. But most federal spending is on various entitlement programs — Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and various other welfare benefits. There is not much reason for any of these programs to exist at all — government is a criminally inept pension planner and a thoroughly incompetent insurance company — and there is very little reason for any of them to exist as uniform, one-size-fits-all national programs. Start digging into that non-defense discretionary spending and you end up with very little more than a catalog of crony payoffs and political favoritism.

There is no more reason to believe that a single government-run pension scheme is in each individual’s best interest than to believe that a single city or single model of car is right for everybody. And the people who design and plan these programs know that. The point of Social Security — like the point of insisting that health insurance is “a right” rather than a consumer good — is to redefine the relationship between citizen and state. That is the real rationale for a national pension scheme or a national insurance policy. For several generations now, we’ve been changing the very idea of what it means to be an American citizen. It used to mean being entitled to enjoy liberty and republican self-governance under the Constitution. Eventually, it came to mean being eligible for Social Security, functionally if not formally. Now it means being eligible for Obamacare. The name of the project may change every generation, and its totems may evolve from Bismarck to Marx to “the experts” — that legion of pointy-headed Caesars who are to be the final authority in all matters in dispute — but the dream remains the same: society as one big factory under the management of enlightened men with extraordinary powers of compulsion.

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