Quotulatiousness

March 1, 2015

“The F-35 will cost more than the Manhattan Project every year for the next fifty years”

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Government,Military,USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Scott Lincicome would like to point out to the contending Republicans hoping to become the GOP’s presidential candidate that defence spending is not immune to the massive overspending problem common to big government:

F-35 on display

Over the next 20 months, a clown-car-full of Republican politicians will vie for their party’s presidential nomination. As the candidates crisscross the nation, each will undoubtedly call for smarter, leaner, and (hopefully) smaller government. However, there is one government program that, despite being a paragon of government incompetence and mind-bending fiscal incontinence, will most likely be ignored by these champions of budgetary temperance: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. In so doing, these Republicans will abandon their principles and continue a long, bipartisan tradition of perpetuating the broader problems with U.S. defense spending that the troubled jet symbolizes.

During the Obama years, the Republican Party magically rediscovered its commitment — at least rhetorically — to limited government and fiscal sanity. Criticizing the graft, incompetence, and cost of boondoggles like the 2009 stimulus bill, green-energy subsidies, or Obamacare, GOP politicians not only highlighted these programs’ specific failings, but also often explained how such problems were the inevitable result of an unwieldy federal government that lacked discipline and accountability and was inherently susceptible to capture by well-funded interest groups like unions or insurance companies.

They railed against massive bureaucracies, like the Department of Energy, that paid off cronies with scant congressional oversight. And, in the case of well-publicized debacles like the botched, billion-dollar Healthcare.gov roll-out, many Republicans were quick to note that the root of the problem lay not in one glitchy website, but the entire federal procurement process, and even Big Government itself

[…]

One wonders, however, if these Republicans’ philosophical understanding of Big Government’s inherent weaknesses extends to national defense and, in particular, the F-35. According to the latest (2012) estimate from the Pentagon, the total cost to develop, buy and operate the F-35 will be $1.45 trillion — yes, trillion, with a “t” — over the next 50 years, up from a measly $1 trillion estimated in 2011. For those of you keeping score at home, this means that the F-35’s lifetime cost grew about $450 billion in one year. (Who says inflation is dead?)

That number — $1.45 trillion — might be difficult to grasp, especially in the context of U.S. defense spending, so let me try to put it in perspective: the entire Manhattan Project, which took around three years and led to the development of the atom bomb, cost a total of $26 billion (2015), most of which went to “building factories and producing the fissile materials, with less than 10% for development and production of the weapons.” By contrast, the F-35 will cost $29 billion. Per year.

For the next 50 years.

February 27, 2015

QotD: Decades of official dietary guidance … “Oops, our bad!”

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Government,Health,Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Americans, prepare to feel angry: After years of watching our cholesterol, sacrificing shellfish and egg yolks and gloriously fatty pork and beef, and enduring day-glow yellow and too-soft tubs of butter substitute, Americans are about to be told by our government diet experts, “Oops … we had it all wrong.”

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which is charged with reviewing the government-issued dietary guidelines every five years, is preparing to release its “new and improved” guidelines any day now, and leaks from the deliberations hint at a reversal in the committee’s decades-long guidance that Americans should eat a diet low in cholesterol.

What are Americans to think of this new guidance that says cholesterol doesn’t really matter after all, that it is no longer a “nutrient of concern,” that eating food high in cholesterol may not be connected to heart disease?

Devotees of protein-rich, low-carb diets may see this as validation and reason to celebrate. Others will no doubt feel deflated, confused, and just plain bitter that for years they’ve been fed a lie that cost them, quite literally, the joy of eating delicious food, and possibly better health. Still others will misunderstand this new guidance and think butter and other high-cholesterol foods are now in the healthy column. In reality, those foods still ought to be consumed in moderation — particularly by people with preexisting conditions such as diabetes.

Yet there’s a bigger story here. Government really ought not be in the business of providing nutrition advice in the first place. Nutrition is a personal issue, and what’s best for one person may not be best for another. Moreover, Americans have ample access to information in the private sector on health and nutrition. In other words, Uncle Sam, we don’t need you anymore.

Julie Gunlock, “Government Dieticians Tell Us, Never Mind Our Decades of Bad Advice”, National Review, 2015-02-13.

February 26, 2015

America’s not-so-hidden class structure

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

In The Federalist, Robert Tracinski looks at the recent brouhaha over Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s lack of a university degree and what it reveals about America’s class structure:

On the surface, of course, it’s certainly about Scott Walker. The left-leaning mainstream media senses that he’s a potential danger. After all, he has won three straight elections in a swing state, while challenging the public employees’ unions head-on and significantly reducing their government privileges. (This is precisely what makes him interesting to those of us on the right.) The mainstream media feel that they need to disqualify him now, so they’re looking for anything they can use against him.

But behind that, there is a more visceral reaction. The real purpose of higher education is to learn the knowledge and skills required for success later in life. So if someone has already become a success, whether or not he went to college is irrelevant. If he has achieved the end, what does it matter that he didn’t do it by way of that specific means? But for the mainstream elites, particularly those at the top level in the media, a college education is not simply a means to an end. It is itself a key attainment that confers a special social status.

There are no real class divisions in America except one: the college-educated versus the non-college educated. It helps to think of this in terms borrowed from the world of a Jane Austen novel: graduating from college is what makes you a “gentleman.” (A degree from an Ivy League school makes you part of the aristocracy.) It qualifies you to marry the right people and hold the right kind of positions. It makes you respectable. And even if you don’t achieve much in the world of work and business, even if you’re still working as a barista ten years later, you still retain that special status. It’s a modern form of “genteel poverty,” which is considered superior to the regular kind of poverty.

If you don’t have a college degree, by contrast, you are looked down upon as a vulgar commoner who is presumptuously attempting to rise above his station. Which is pretty much what they’re saying about Scott Walker. This prejudice is particularly strong when applied to anyone from the right, whose retrograde views are easily attributed to his lack of attendance at the gentleman’s finishing school that is the university.

February 24, 2015

The “Little Free Libraries” and their enemies

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

In The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf talks about the charming origins of the Little Free Library movement … and its potential demise at the hands of greyfaces everywhere:

Three years ago, The Los Angeles Times published a feel-good story on the Little Free Library movement. The idea is simple: A book lover puts a box or shelf or crate of books in their front yard. Neighbors browse, take one, and return later with a replacement. A 76-year-old in Sherman Oaks, California, felt that his little library, roughly the size of a dollhouse, “turned strangers into friends and a sometimes-impersonal neighborhood into a community,” the reporter observed. The man knew he was onto something “when a 9-year-old boy knocked on his door one morning to say how much he liked the little library.” He went on to explain, “I met more neighbors in the first three weeks than in the previous 30 years.”

Since 2009, when a Wisconsin man built a little, free library to honor his late mother, who loved books, copycats inspired by his example have put thousands of Little Free Libraries all over the U.S. and beyond. Many are displayed on this online map. In Venice, where I live, I know of at least three Little Free Libraries, and have witnessed chance encounters where folks in the neighborhood chat about a book.

I wish that I was writing merely to extol this trend. Alas, a subset of Americans are determined to regulate every last aspect of community life. Due to selection bias, they are overrepresented among local politicians and bureaucrats. And so they have power, despite their small-mindedness, inflexibility, and lack of common sense so extreme that they’ve taken to cracking down on Little Free Libraries, of all things.

Last summer in Kansas, a 9-year-old was loving his Little Free Library until at least two residents proved that some people will complain about anything no matter how harmless and city officials pushed the boundaries of literal-mindedness:

    The Leawood City Council said it had received a couple of complaints about Spencer Collins’ Little Free Library. They dubbed it an “illegal detached structure” and told the Collins’ they would face a fine if they did not remove the Little Free Library from their yard by June 19.

Scattered stories like these have appeared in various local news outlets. The L.A. Times followed up last week with a trend story that got things just about right. “Crime, homelessness and crumbling infrastructure are still a problem in almost every part of America, but two cities have recently cracked down on one of the country’s biggest problems: small-community libraries where residents can share books,” Michael Schaub wrote. “Officials in Los Angeles and Shreveport, Louisiana, have told the owners of homemade lending libraries that they’re in violation of city codes, and asked them to remove or relocate their small book collections.”

February 20, 2015

This is why you can’t find a good washer (or dishwasher, or toilet, or…)

Filed under: Business,Environment,Government — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Sarah Hoyt recently bought a new washer, and realized something while being lectured about her choice by the salesperson:

Which is when I realized I was in the presence of a true believer whose mind would not be dented by facts. I let Dan lead her to the computer and make up the order, and older son has nicknamed me “She who makes washer saleswomen cry.”

So, what is the point of this? If it were just a funny story about buying a washer, I might still tell it, but it’s not.

Look, the problem is that we are being ruled (and yep, ruled, not governed) by a group of people who, like the saleswoman, think the intention is the thing.

We’ll leave aside for a moment the need or wisdom for water/electricity/etc. saving. First, in Colorado water is expensive so saving it is always a good idea. Second, that is not what their measures are achieving.

Take our first exposure to water saving toilets, twenty some years ago. We built a new bathroom and needed a toilet and the only ones for sale were “water saving.” What this meant in practical fact was that I acquired a new hobby: flushing the toilet.

The toilet worked (supposedly) with half the water, but it took four flushes to get anything, even a little bit of toilet paper, down. Do the math. I was expending twice as much water, and a lot of time and frustration. (We quickly switched to air assist. After the experience.)

In the same way, our current dishwasher complies with water and electricity saving measures. This means to achieve the same temperature, it has a thick coat of insulation ALL around. Which means it takes half the dishes at a time. Again, do the math. I have to run it for twice as long, which means no savings.

It has an additional unamusing quirk. Every time you wash, you have to select hot wash and sanitizing. Otherwise it just sloshes some water at the dishes and calls it done. We didn’t figure this out for five years which means for five years we conducted a study in epidemiology. I mean, guys, even in the village, when we were poor as Job, grandma boiled water for the final dish rinse to be as hot as possible. Otherwise you not only get not really clean dishes, you get to share the germs of everyone whose dishes go in the same water.

Then there’s the washer. The first we bought was the Neptune, years and years ago, which was so water saving it developed mold and mildew.

The current one recycles the water, so it washes better, but the rinses must happen, and the rinses, again, make it use the same water as anything else. All the low-water washers need a lot of rinses.

“But Sarah, you have a condition that makes you sensitive to detergent. Other people don’t.”

Granted. Which is why there hasn’t been an uprising with pitchforks, or at least washing mangles, yet. Because for the last five years I’ve been a slave to that washer and I’ve always been behind in the wash to the point that we ended up buying four times the clothes we needed, because the wash was bound to be backed up. When each load takes a minimum of two hours (the boys also react to detergent) and you have 14 or so loads a week (not counting cats peeing on Robert’s bed – yes, always his bed. Don’t know why) things slow to a crawl.

And the answer “Oh, you need to use less detergent.” BUT the cleaning went down in proportion to the detergent going down.

I’m not going to talk to other “eco friendly” measures or not extensively. I don’t have the personal experience to.

I do, however, know that the curly lightbulbs were a fiasco. I know that attempts to wish into existence energy by means other than fossil fuels are either failures or scams (Solyndra) and I know that the “enhanced” with “fillers” gas destroys cars, so that they have to be replaced sooner. Now, I’m not an expert, but I’d guess the manufacturing process causes more pollution than just burning regular gas.

So why do they keep passing ever more and more restrictive laws, demanding the thing we use for everyday living meet THEIR standards which as far as I can tell they pull from air?

I think it’s the arrogant certainty that if they keep whipping the dead horse it will get up and pull the load. Or in other words, they’re sure that the only reason they’re not getting what they want is that some mean person is holding it back from them, and if they demand it loud enough and now with more laws, it will eventually be given.

Think of them as the kid throwing himself to the floor in the candy isle and screaming for candy, refusing to hear his mother’s answer that she has no money. That’s about what they are: tyrannical, demanding, infantile and blind to reality.

And of course, when reality fails to comply with their dreams, they just scream louder. Or in this case, they pass laws which distort the simplest facts of daily living for the rest of us.

How long are we going to be hostage to brats who are unable to realize laws don’t cause reality to happen and words have no force to change facts of life?

How long till we get tired of being forced to do household chores inefficiently and paying for it in both time and money, without any appreciable benefit to anyone.

Eric Scheie over at Classical values, when I blogged there, had a post about there being a war on things that work.

He was right, though the intent is “creating a world where things work the way bureaucrats want them to” – which mostly means in defiance of scientific fact.

It is time to take back science, and common sense too.

And in the meantime, we can make washer saleswomen cry!

February 17, 2015

In praise of “dynamic scoring”

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

Dan Mitchell explains why there’s a need to change the way the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) “keep score” on how proposed legislative changes will impact the US economy:

cartoon-cboThe CBO, for instance, puts together economic analysis and baseline forecasts of revenue and spending, while also estimating what will happen if there are changes to spending programs. Seems like a straightforward task, but what if the bureaucrats assume that government spending “stimulates” the economy and they fail to measure the harmful impact of diverting resources from the productive sector of the economy to Washington?

The JCT, by contrast, prepares estimates of what will happen to revenue if politicians make various changes in tax policy. Sounds like a simple task, but what if the bureaucrats make the ridiculous assumption that tax policy has no measurable impact on jobs, growth, or competitiveness, which leads to the preposterous conclusion that you maximize revenue with 100 percent tax rates?

Writing for Investor’s Business Daily, former Treasury Department officials Ernie Christian and Gary Robbins explain why the controversy over these topics – sometimes referred to as “static scoring” vs “dynamic scoring” – is so important.

    It is Economics 101 that many federal taxes, regulations and spending programs create powerful incentives for people not to work, save, invest or otherwise efficiently perform the functions essential to their own well-being. These government-induced changes in behavior set off a chain reaction of macroeconomic effects that impair GDP growth, kill jobs, lower incomes and restrict upward mobility, especially among lower- and middle-income families. …Such measurements are de rigueur among credible academic and private-sector researchers who seek to determine the true size of the tax and regulatory burden on the economy and the true value of government spending, taking into account the economic damage it often causes.

But not all supposed experts look at these second-order or indirect effects of government policy.

And what’s amazing is that the official scorekeepers in Washington are the ones who refuse to recognize the real-world impact of changes in government policy.

    These indirect costs of government, in particular or in total, have not been calculated and disclosed in the Budget of the United States or in analyses by the Congressional Budget Office. The result of this deliberate omission by Washington has been to understate many costs of government, often by more than 100%, and grossly overstate its benefits. …It is on this foundation of disinformation that the highly disrespected, overly expensive and too often destructive federal government in Washington has been built.

February 12, 2015

Petty fines and “public safety” charges fall heaviest on the poor

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Government,USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Megan McArdle on the incredibly regressive way that American municipalities are raising money through fines and other costs imposed disproportionally on the poorest members of the community:

During last summer’s riots in Ferguson, Missouri, reporters began to highlight one reason that relations between the town’s police and its citizens are so fraught: heavy reliance on tickets and fines to cover the town’s budget. The city gets more than $3 million of its $20 million budget from “fines and public safety,” with almost $2 million more coming from various other user fees.

The problem with using your police force as a stealth tax-collection agency is that this functions as a highly regressive tax on people who are already having a hard time of things. Financially marginal people who can’t afford to, say, renew their auto registration get caught up in a cascading nightmare of fees piled upon fees that often ends in bench warrants and nights spent in jail … not for posing a threat to the public order, but for lacking the ready funds to legally operate a motor vehicle in our car-dependent society.

So why do municipalities go this route? The glib answer is “racism and hatred of the poor.” And, quite possibly, that plays a large part, if only in the sense that voters tend to discount costs that fall on other people. But having spent some time plowing through town budgets and reading up on the subject this afternoon, I don’t think that’s the only reason. I suspect that Ferguson is leaning so heavily on fines because it doesn’t have a lot of other terrific options.

February 11, 2015

Everything the government has told about “healthy diets” is wrong

Filed under: Government,Health,Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 07:01

Well, maybe not everything, but a lot of government advice — which may well have been a major factor in the rise of obesity — was based on very little empirical evidence:

Whenever standard nutritional advice is overturned — as it has been this week by a study which effectively rubbished government guidelines limiting the intake of dietary fat — I am instantly reminded of a scene in the Woody Allen film Sleeper, first released when I was 10. I expect a lot of people my age are.

In the film Allen plays Miles, a cryogenically frozen health food store owner who is revived 200 years later. Two scientists are puzzling over his old-fashioned dietary requirements, unable to comprehend what passed for health food back in 1973. “You mean there was no deep fat?” says one. “No steak or cream pies, or hot fudge?”

“Those were thought to be unhealthy,” says the other scientist. “Precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.”

This was meant to be a joke rather than a prediction, but it’s beginning to look as if we may not have to wait until 2173 to see it validated.

[…]

Of course the new study isn’t comprehensively refuting the association between high saturated fat intake and heart disease; it’s just pointing out that dietary guidelines first adopted in the mid-1970s were not, on reflection, based on any real evidence. In terms of what one should and shouldn’t be eating, I sometimes feel as if I’ve spent the past 30 years in a freezer.

Light rail – cool but ultra-expensive. Buses – cheap and flexible but lack glamour

Filed under: Economics,Government,Railways,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum looks at the image problem of buses compared to the seemingly irresistable pull of light rail (at least to municipal politicians looking to overspend and under-deliver):

Josh Barro thinks our cities are building too much light rail. It’s expensive, often slow, and offers virtually no advantage over simply opening up a bus line. The problem, according to a 2009 report from the Federal Transit Administration, is that “Bus-based public transit in the United States suffers from an image problem.” But what if transit agencies tackled that image problem head on?

[…]

So perhaps we need a two-pronged marketing campaign if we want to attract more suburbanites onto buses. They need to be convinced that new bus lines are both bourgeois1 and safe. I might add that although Barro doesn’t highlight this particular feature, the Orange Line mentioned in the report also has “high frequencies.” That’s a key feature too, and it costs money. But it still costs less to run a high-frequency bus than an above-ground light rail system.

Maybe we need more celebrities to ride the bus. I’ll bet if George Clooney took the bus to work, it would suddenly become a lot more popular. You’d probably need to increase service to accommodate all the paparazzi, but surely that’s a small price to pay?

1I confess to some curiosity here. Did focus group participants really refer to the Orange Line as a “bourgeois bus”? That seems a bit unlikely to me.

February 8, 2015

Misallocating infrastructure spending

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

Randal O’Toole on the problems with directing your infrastructure spending on the basis of ideology rather than economic efficiency:

For the past two decades or so, however, much of our transportation spending has focused on infrastructure that is slower, more expensive, less convenient, and often more dangerous than before. Too many cities have given up on trying to relieve congestion. Instead, they have allowed it to grow while they spend transportation dollars (nearly all paid by auto users) on other forms of travel such as rail transit. Such transportation is:

  • Slower: Where highway speeds even in congested cities average 35 miles per hour or more, the rail transit lines built with federal dollars mostly average 15 to 20 mph.
  • More expensive: In 2013, Americans auto users spent less than 45 cents per vehicle mile (which means, at average occupanies of 1.67 people per car, about 26 cents per passenger mile), and subsidies to roads average under a penny per passenger mile. By comparison, transit fares are also about 26 cents per passenger mile, but subsidies are 75 cents per passenger mile.
  • Less convenient: Autos can go door to door, while transit requires people to walk or use other forms of travel, often at both ends of the transit trip.
  • Less safe: For every billion passenger miles carried, urban auto accidents kill about 5 people, while light rail kills about 12 people and commuter trains kill 9. Only subways and elevateds are marginally safer than auto travel, at 4.5, but we haven’t built many of those lately.

Not surprisingly, most transit projects lead to almost no new travel. Yet their backers claim this is a virtue. They have demonized the new travel generated by the interstates by calling it “induced demand.” They have celebrated transportation projects that generate no new travel but merely get people to shift from one mode to another, usually more expensive, mode as “sustainable.”

Even when cities spend money on roads, they often spent it making travel slower, less convenient, and more dangerous. Many cities are doing various forms of what planners euphemistically called “traffic calming,” meaning narrowing streets, putting barriers in roads, and turning one-way streets into two-way streets. The overt goal is to slow down traffic, and it often has the side effect of making it more dangerous for both auto users and pedestrians.

A very simple test can determine whether any particular transportation project will be faster, cheaper, more convenient, and/or safer than before: Will the users themselves pay for it? Users will pay for real improvements in transportation; they won’t pay for slower, more expensive, less convenient, and more dangerous transportation.

February 6, 2015

Baird makes for the exit

Filed under: Cancon,Government,Politics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Paul Wells on the somewhat precipitate departure of Canada’s foreign minister, John Baird:

This is the third time Stephen Harper has found himself suddenly short a foreign minister and the first time it has mattered. On May 26, 2008, Maxime Bernier resigned the portfolio after he left confidential documents at a girlfriend’s house, and the capital was briefly awash in bad puns about “leaky briefs.” In the federal election of May 2, 2011, Lawrence Cannon lost his seat to a rookie New Democrat. Now John Baird.

But Bernier was — is — a libertarian who was convinced that if governments talk to one another they will find new things to do when they shouldn’t be doing much of anything, so he was never entirely sure Canada should have a foreign minister and a little put out that it apparently had to be him. And Cannon took no joy in a job that pushed his limited interpersonal skills beyond their natural breaking point. […]

Baird, on the other hand, has been an absolute breath of fresh air. Of course he’s been a conservative (as opposed to merely a Conservative) foreign minister, so DFAIT lifers Paul Heinbecker and Jeremy Kinsman would reliably get the vapours at the mention of his name. He sold embassies and official residences. He informed DFAT-D (as the newly renamed ministry came to be called) envoys that they would have no more space in their cubicles in Ankara or Canberra than their counterparts in Ottawa were permitted. He stuck close to talking points, which could make him maddeningly terse: following him around central Europe last April, I passed a dejected reporter for the Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita leaving the Canadian embassy in Warsaw. “They gave me 20 minutes for an interview,” my Polish colleague said. “When I ran out of questions, we still had eight minutes left.”

But Baird travelled constantly, met everyone who’d talk to him, kept his eyes open, and radically expanded the breadth and complexity of the Harper government’s foreign policy. When the Conservatives were elected in 2006, they acted as if Canada’s relations with the world could be reduced to the anglosphere (friendly governments in the U.S. and Australia, the palatable Tony Blair in London) plus Israel. When those governments changed, usually for the worse from Harper’s perspective, Ottawa’s instinct was usually to turtle and blame the stupid world.

February 5, 2015

Regulating the internet … in the name of fairness

Filed under: Government,Liberty,Media,Technology,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At Coyote Blog, Warren Meyer is starting to think that a large number of internet fans are idiots:

So, out of the fear […] that some people will get better service than others — something that, oh by the way, has never really happened so is entirely hypothetical — you are urging on a regulatory regime originally designed for land-line phone companies, a technology that basically went unchanged for decades at a time. The phones that were in my home at my birth in 1962 were identical to the one in my dorm room when AT&T was broken up in 1982. Jesus, we are turning the Internet into a public utility — name three innovations from an American public utility in the last 40 years. Name one.

And all you free-speech advocates, do you really think the Feds won’t use this as a back-door to online censorship? We are talking about the same agency that went into a tizzy when Janet Jackson may have accidentally on purpose shown a nipple on TV. All that is good with TV today — The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Arrested Development, etc. etc. etc. results mainly from the fact that cable is able to avoid exactly the kind of freaking regulation you want to impose on the Internet.

Here is my official notice — you have been warned, time and again. There will be no allowing future statements of “I didn’t mean that” or “I didn’t expect that” or “that’s not what I intended.” There is no saying that you only wanted this one little change, that you didn’t buy into all the other mess that is coming. You let the regulatory camel’s nose in the tent and the entire camel is coming inside. I guarantee it.

February 3, 2015

Senator Elizabeth Warren doesn’t really understand what “public goods” are

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

Tim Worstall on what’s wrong with Senator Warren’s most recent proposal to claw back profits that are derived from government-sponsored research:

The answer being that finding out basic knowledge is something we call a public good. This has a specific economic meaning and it really means that private actors, whether people or companies, will do too little of this whatever it is. Because it’s just simply too difficult to make money out of having done this whatever it is. That’s really what “public good” means. It doesn’t mean goods supplied to the public nor even things that it is good for the public to have.

So, given that private actors won’t do these things but we also think that it would be just great for lots of these things to be done, well, we’ve got to do something about it then. And the answer to that is government. Even the most minarchist of us (although perhaps not the anarchists) would agree that some of the public goods provided by government are pretty good. A military to defend us from the ravening Canadian hordes, a criminal justice system to protect us from crime, a Constitution to protect us from politicians. All seem pretty good to me. The answer really is government in those cases.

The argument gets extended: that basic research is a public good. It’s very difficult to make a profit from it therefore not enough of it gets done in the private sector. So we should get government to go do it for us. Excellent, so, when we get that research being done then we’re getting what we pay our taxes to get government to do. We’ve got our public good.

What both Warren and Mazzucato are arguing is that government should then come back for a second bite of the cherry. They should get some of the profits from that basic research. But there aren’t any profits from that basic research: that’s why we’re getting government to do it because you can’t make a profit from having done the research. If we can make a profit from having done this research then government shouldn’t be doing it because it’s not a public good.

February 1, 2015

India’s experiment in improving how welfare services are delivered

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Government,India — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Tim Worstall looks at a recent book on an Indian experiment that investigated how to improve poverty relief programs:

In terms of the Indian experience one of the reasons that these trials worked well was because they were trials. Effort was put into making certain that those who were supposed to be receiving the cash were in fact receiving it. Such care and attention to people getting what they’re supposed to get is not an outstanding feature of the various welfare systems currently in use in India, as the book makes clear. So, just making sure that people were getting those modest amounts that they were supposed to get is going to be an advance. And it wouldn’t be possible to simply roll out such a scheme across the country, however beneficial, without a lot of preparatory work to make sure that the right people really would be getting the money.

It’s also true that the current systems fail badly in other ways. Purchasing grain to ship it around to special shops where it will be sold hugely under the market price is always going to be a leaky system. Some number of the middlemen will be sorely tempted to divert produce to sell onto the market and there’s considerable evidence that some succumb to that temptation. If people simply have money to buy on the standard market in the normal manner then it’s a lot easier to keep a control on that sort of thing.

However, the most important thing for the design of the American welfare system is the points they make about how the poor value being given goods as against being given money. $100 (far in excess of the amounts being discussed here) is worth more than $100 of food for example. Or $100 worth of medical care. There’s two reasons for this. One is simply that everyone values agency. The ability to decide things for oneself. And money does that. It’s possible to decide whether you want to purchase food, or to save a bit and buy a goat next week, or more fertiliser for the fields and so on. What the peasant on the ground would like to do with any increase in resources is most unlikely to accord with what some far away bureaucrat thinks said peasant ought to be doing. So, the choice itself increases value.

[…]

So, we could actually make poor people richer by abolishing food stamps. Assuming, of course, that we just gave them the same amount of money instead. The same would be true of Medicaid and housing vouchers of course. Yes, I’m aware that there are arguments against doing this. But it is still true: converting goods and services in kind into cash would make the poor richer at the same cost to the rest of us. So it is at least something we should consider, no?

And the main reason switching to cash from the current system is … paternalism. Governments really do think that they are better equipped than the recipients of aid in how to spend that money. And it’s quite true that some welfare recipients would blow the payments on booze or drugs or what-have-you, but the majority of peoples’ lives would improve if they got cash rather than food stamps or other in-kind assistance.

January 30, 2015

QotD: The dangers of clear language

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Government,Quotations — Tags: — Nicholas @ 01:00

It’s understood that governments have an inherently antagonistic relationship with the English language. Generations of grammarians and school masters strove diligently to teach their young wards the importance of clear and logical communication. A strong grasp of English allowed students to think and understand at a sophisticated level. We don’t want any of that stuff now. People who think and talk clearly are a threat to governments the world over.

The art of government, to some extent, is the combined art of order and bullshit. There is a genuine need for the political-bureaucratic class to maintain peace, order and something resembling good government. But beyond the meat and potato stuff there is also the temptation to use government as a tool of enrichment. Since outright thievery is criticized by most people, excepting the thieves of course, an elaborate excuse is needed to distract the electorate from what is being done.

Richard Anderson, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Pork”, The Gods of the Copybook Headings, 2014-05-28.

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