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Explaining California “lifers,” or why people stay in a failed state.

November 13, 2012 3 comments

I have been a resident of several states across the United States, but two in particular stand out. One is California, to which I moved when I was ten, left at fifteen, and returned to for college. The other is Minnesota, where I was born, but to which I did not return until after college.

Just recently, my total time spent as a Minnesota resident surpassed my time as a Californian, capturing a plurality of my life’s years. Many have found it remarkable that I left a tropical paradise like California for the frigid tundra of Minnesota, but if you can look past the weather, California simply isn’t a great place to live. As I have been saying for years, “it’s a nice place to visit, but I don’t want to die there.”

Many of my friends disagree with me. One has spent nearly 70 years (aside from higher education back east) in the same beach community. Another calls himself a California “lifer,” which I find eerily similar to how prisoners with life sentences describe themselves.

In any case, while California has many things acting in its favor, it is nevertheless a failed state that I simply cannot find attractive as a home. To be fair, Minnesota is also heading in the wrong direction, but if California is just about to break the tape, Minnesota is still putting its running shoes on.

Victor Davis Hanson at the City Journal recently attempted to explain why he is a California “lifer,” in an article entitled “California, Here We Stay.” Many reasons he cites make perfect sense. Family heritage is one, and it is perfectly understandable. Indeed, it is the best reason I can think of for why I live in Minnesota and not Texas. There is the weather, of course. And there are certain cultural and educational institutions that are very attractive.

On the other hand, hegemony and inertia cannot prevail forever – just ask Britain, Rome, Greece, even Akkad. The general rule is that it is better to be present for the incline phase than the decline phase, and I can’t help but think that even the best of California has hit its peak. If UC Berkeley were a stock, it’d be Pets.com.

Hanson is honest about California’s shortcomings. Finances built on rainbows-and-unicorns accounting methods; poor primary and secondary education; hostile business climate running the productive out of state; environmental extremism – all of these things are conspiring to choke off the best of what the state has to offer the world.

On the other hand, he makes a point that I simply cannot get behind:

Another reason to feel hopeful about California is that it’s reaching the theoretical limits of statism. To pay for current pensioners, the state simply can’t continue to bestow comparable defined-benefit pension packages on new workers, no matter how stridently the public-sector unions claim otherwise. And as public insolvencies mount—with Stockton, Mammoth Lakes, and San Bernardino seeking bankruptcy protection a year after Vallejo emerged from it—public blame is finally shifting from supposedly heartless state taxpayers to the unions. The liberal unionism of an aging generation is proving untenable, as we saw in recent ballot referenda in which voters in San Diego and San Jose demanded that public-worker compensation plans be renegotiated.

California is reaching the theoretical limits of statism? This strikes me as remarkably naive, and it sounds hauntingly similar to things like “it couldn’t happen here,” or “it can’t get any worse.” Or perhaps “there are no black swans.”

I for one prefer not to underestimate the statist impulses of a polity that has consistently pushed the once-bright beacon of hope that was California back into the dark ages of economic and social thought. And they did it in less than a century and a half to boot.

In my personal opinion, the decay in California is not over, and it is not close to being over. I know that making predictions is the easiest way to be proven wrong, but here goes nothing.

I think that California will continue to be held in a chokehold by statists until the situation becomes completely untenable on a state level. At that point, the citizens of California will become enraged – not at their elected Judas goats, but at the federal government for not bailing them out. Seeing the practical importance of California’s electoral votes to their parties, the statist kindred spirits in Washington will forge a bipartisan grand bargain to bail out California, complete with all the crony capitalism and blatant corruption that entails. California will then double down on its failed policies and things will get worse. Another bailout will happen in quick succession, and while token gestures may be made to restore fiscal sanity, the damage will have been done.

California’s future is not bright. Perhaps California “lifers” have a reason to stay if they are already wealthy or comfortable enough to avoid the worst of the coming catastrophe. But if you’re a common person, your odds are poor.  I fully expect to see the middle class, whose livelihoods are far more likely to hinge on the day-to-day health of the economy than the wealthy, to continue to flee.

My only hope is that they don’t bring the politics of old California with them when they go.

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Do democracies work by being dysfunctional? Or are they unworkable?

March 8, 2012 2 comments

Leon Watson at the Daily Mail has a though-provoking article about the dysfunctionality of democracies.  It is called “Is this the reason democracy can’t work? Study find humans are too dumb to pick the right person to lead us.”

I find this to be an interesting question, and one that goes far beyond the implications of which useless politician we will pick to be our president this November. In fact, I think it goes straight to the foundations of democracy. We need to ask ourselves questions like, what are the things we universally (not individually) desire from our democracy? And, is anyone at all fit to make decisions for the rest of us?

Ultimately, I think Mr. Watson has an unstated premise here: that if we were in fact able to choose the “right” person to lead us, our democracies would function better, and people would be happier with them.

That is a premise I reject. Although I may not go so far as to say that the inevitable mediocrity of our politicians is a feature, rather than a bug, of our democratic processes, I will absolutely say that I would prefer as a leader a mediocre man who is aware of his limits than the smartest man in the history of the world who is unaware of his.

Is that too much to ask? Perhaps. Being aware of the extent of one’s limits is beneficial, but ultimately it is too nebulous a concept to lead to solid conclusions as a matter of policy. And so, as a tradeoff, I would prefer a government set up to reduce the pernicious impact of the hubristic technocrat, at the expense of possibly limiting the beneficial impact of the hypothetical benevolent dictator.

In other words, I respect what the U.S. Constitution set out to do, and I find discussions of who is the “best” person to lead a democracy to be generally moot.

Of course, that does not mean that choosing a Ron Paul over a Barack Obama would not lead to empirically provable better results, and I don’t accept the premise that choosing the person to be the executive of the polity is unimportant. However, those are questions about the margin, and they ought to be distinguished from questions about the “best.”

Again, however, this is exactly the sort of discussion that is far more fundamentally important to our democracy than is the discussion over who is to lead us for the next four years. So feel free to drop me a note if you have something to add. I welcome your comments.

Are people too stupid to choose their leader, or is our stupidity just another (possibly beneficial) limiting factor on the government? What do you want from your democracy? Do you think there ever has been, or ever will be, a single person to whom control of the state could be surrendered?

Justice Ginsburg would not look the to US Constitution in drafting a new one in 2012

March 5, 2012 1 comment

According to this New York Times article, the U.S. Constitution has been losing its international influence:

There are lots of possible reasons. The United States Constitution is terse and old, and it guarantees relatively few rights…

In an interview, Professor Law identified a central reason for the trend: the availability of newer, sexier and more powerful operating systems in the constitutional marketplace. “Nobody wants to copy Windows 3.1,” he said.

In a television interview during a visit to Egypt last week, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the Supreme Court seemed to agree. “I would not look to the United States Constitution if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012,” she said. She recommended, instead, theSouth African Constitution, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms or theEuropean Convention on Human Rights.

Justice Ginsburg would not look to the U.S. Constitution that she is sworn to uphold for inspiration? Maybe that is why she savages it at every turn.

But that’s ultimately not the problem here. Bad jurisprudence is one thing; bad principles are quite another.

Indeed, later in the article, Justice Scalia is quoted about his skepticism over “parchment guarantees,” and it is worth noting that a hypothetical new African nation could guarantee all they wanted and not put it into practice.

But the question is one of liberties versus rights.

The U.S. Constitution is fundamentally a limiting document. It says not much more than “the government cannot infringe on a person’s liberty to do…[fill in the blank].” Even its structural aspects, such as setting up the Congress and executive, are designed in such a way as to ensure their limitations – not their powers.

It may be “newer” and “sexier” to introduce a “right” to health care, housing, or food, but just because you put it in your Constitution doesn’t mean that you’re not forcing someone else to provide those goods. By contrast, the U.S. Constitution would be more likely to disallow the government from forcing the conscription of certain people for the service of other people.

You see, there are economic problems with bestowing positive rights to goods and services. Where guaranteed, these positive rights must either be explicitly limited, or more likely, limited by courts in ways that are suboptimal, precisely because goods and services, as an economic matter, are not unlimited.

These “rights” solve none of the problems inherent to the interactions of free people. All they do is add layers of bureaucracy.

Are they fashionable? Maybe. Sexier? Maybe. Are they half-baked and ill-designed to solve real problems? Absolutely. Ginsburg would be better served by furthering her understanding of the ultimate point of her own Constitution than looking across our borders for fantasy “rights” that amount to nothing more than simple coercion.

Realism about Capitalism from Donald Boudreaux

January 1, 2012 Leave a comment

Over at Cafe Hayek, the inimitable Donald Boudreaux has a piece called “An Undeniable Asymmetry” that is well worth the time it takes to read.  Briefly, it touches on the non-linear nature of the political world, in that moving closer to statism may not create the horrors of North Korea, and moving closer to freedom may not create a harmonious and peaceful society.

This idea, that we do not and cannot know exactly what consequences lie ahead of incremental changes in policy, is a pet project of mine.  Anyone who attempts to sell the idea that they know what the future holds, even with regard to a single piece of legislation or policy, is either lying to you or stupid, or possibly both.

And therefore, it necessarily annoys me when advocates of the free market make promises that are impossible to keep.  Letting people do what they desire to do in a peaceful and non-coercive way will, I assert, absolutely make things better.  Will they make them perfect? Absolutely not.  And those who innocently advocate freedom as a solution to all of our societal ills are setting themselves (and me) up to fail.

And when statists see that freedom and free markets do not stop criminals completely in their tracks, do not resolve all negative externalities, do not stop certain people from losing their jobs or dying of disease, the statists point to these failures as failures of freedom, not as failures of our baser human natures.

This is why I particularly appreciate the realistic tone taken by Boudreaux in this piece:

But we must never lose sight of this important asymmetry: complete or near-complete state control of the economy has proven to be a sure recipe for deep impoverishment and brutal tyranny, while historical periods that have been close to laissez faire – that is, much closer to laissez faire than is America at the dawn of 2012 – have produced nothing remotely of the sort.  Indeed, whatever problems might be caused by more and more reliance upon laissez faire capitalism are always accompanied by – and are at least partially (and arguably more than completely) off-set by – unambiguous benefits of capitalism such as the elimination of starvation, more abundant supplies of clothing, and better housing.

Any problems promoted by greater and greater reliance upon capitalism, in short, are first-world problems (which isn’t to say that these problems should be tolerated); they are problems incomparably more tolerable than are the horrors promoted by the elimination of capitalism.

If you read the whole piece you will see that it frankly and honestly addresses the problems correlated with freedom and free markets, but it weighs them against the problems of statism.  It does not attempt to sell us a free lunch or naively take up a utopian cause.

Because those liberty-loving folk who expect freedom from government to wash all of our sins and indiscretions away are merely providing ammunition to other side when things turn less than perfect, as they always do.  Realistically, libertarians can offer the world more safety, more prosperity, more comfort.  No one can provide the whole thing.

Welcome Aboard the “S.S. Apparent”

June 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Gosh, what would we plebes ever do without Ezra Klein to tell us that water is wet and the sky is blue?

Well, Captain Obvious of the S.S. Apparent has nosed his ship to port again.  Permission to come aboard, sir?

In today’s I-just-can’t-believe-it jaw-dropper, Captain Klein tells us that “better Medicaid coordination would cut costs.”  I know what you are thinking, but it is true!  Ironically, doing things better saves money.  (Yes, I just used the term “ironically” ironically.  How meta.)

But there are a couple of totally unwarranted assumptions at play here, and although I know Captain Klein would never deign to comment on the blog of a mere commoner, I shall rhetorically ask him a few questions all the same.

1) If all it takes to cut costs is “better coordination,” why have we not done this yet?

Is it because, perhaps, better coordination is not quite as easy as you make it seem?  Is it because, perhaps, good coordination is an impossible dream in a bureaucracy of such galactic proportions?  Is it because, perhaps,  people in control of a top-down bureaucracy of any sort will be terminally unable to provide optimized solutions?  In fact, the only way to take Klein seriously here is to have a willful lack of awareness of the problems associated with the “pretense of knowledge.”  (If you’re actually going to read that, you might as well supplement it with this.)

2) What makes you think that cost cutting is the goal?

Sure, there’s some mention of “if you had to cut Medicare…” and a sop to “deficit hawks,” but let’s be real here.  The ultimate goal of Medicare and any social entitlement is absolutely not delivering products and services to the widest number of people at the most cost-effective rate, is it?  We already have a mechanism for that, and it’s called the market.  In actuality, Medicare is about taking from some, giving to another, and reaping the political rewards.  Medicare is self-perpetuating, self-inflating, and ultimately self-destructive because it is – at the very core of its existence – a political program.  It will never be anything more.

3) Why should we “save” Medicare?

Because this would seem a ridiculous question to Klein, who knows nothing beyond the tiny intellectual box he lives in, I’ll concede a few points for the sake of the question.  I’ll concede that seniors “deserve” medical care.  I’ll concede that the “government” should provide it to them.  And I’ll concede that payment should come from people other than those receiving care.

Even with all that conceded, I challenge anyone to come up with a cogent argument for saving the system as we know it.  In the face of massive debt, massive deficits, unfunded promises, a stultifying regulatory regime, and a demographic time bomb of heretofore unimagined proportions, why should this relic from the baby boom be something that we seriously consider a viable solution now?  It is undeniable that Medicare could be run better if we fundamentally destroyed it and built it back up.  Why spend so much valuable time, effort, and money futzing around at the margins? That’s about as dumb as an Ezra Klein column.

…Oops.

Hypocrisy Laid Bare by Bastiat

May 23, 2011 Leave a comment

If you have yet to read “The Law,” by Frederic Bastiat, please avail yourself of this link as soon as possible.  Lest the whole “reading a book” thing scare you away, note that it is free and it is only 55 pages long.  Oh, and it is brilliant.

Today’s thought comes straight from “The Law,” and it lays bare a hypocrisy typical of the modern “progressive.”  Which is to say, one who places utter faith in government by “the right people,” and for the good of all other people.  This quote comes from page 43.

One of the strangest phenomena of our time, and one that will probably be a matter of astonishment to our descendants, is the doctrine which is founded upon this triple hypothesis: the radical passiveness of mankind,  the omnipotence of the law,  the infallibility of the legislator: this is the sacred symbol of the party that proclaims itself exclusively democratic.

It is true that it professes also to be social.

So far as it is democratic, it has an unlimited faith in mankid.

So far as it is social, it places mankind beneath the mud.

How typical of almost any politician you’d find in Washington today!  And how tragic that so little has changed since publication in 1850.  The mindset of such a politician is more often than not summarized by this simple proposition.  Man is so “important,” that all of man’s rights must be trampled in order that he may live well.

Unsurprising that progressive politics – as well as conservative social politics – always, always end up a failure.

Water as a Human Right Means Water in Shortage

May 18, 2011 Leave a comment

The United Nations declared water to be a human right in 2010, and if history is any guide, that means that absolutely nothing else will happen.

Or perhaps a strongly-worded letter will be penned to oceans around the world, telling them to freshen up or else. In any case, this type of declaration is not without precedent but it is absolutely without worth.

In the spirit of this blog, however, it does bring up the question of whether such a declaration is actually counterproductive. My colleagues over at the Acton Institute have considered that very issue, and they have determined that, in order to properly address the basic human need for water within the economic (read: “real life”) context, water must be treated as a commodity and not as a right.

These are similar arguments to private ownership of endangered animals, as well as private management of forest resources. It all comes down to one basic concept: incentives. Where water “belongs to everyone,” it truly belongs to no one. Courts have difficulty justifying the depletion of water resources without a nexus to a real property right, and if everyone owns the water, what is to stop everyone from treating the water resources in whatever exploitative or pollutive ways that they fancy at any given moment?

Similarly, while ownership of animals on the endangered species list is most often forbidden by various governments, it is not universally proscribed. Not surprisingly, where an owner has an incentive to protect his valuable animal – and his ultimate reasoning as to its value hardly matters – the endangered animals are better protected. Where animals are “left wild,” poaching runs rampant, and it is not out of the question that many high-profile species may soon be so rendered extinct, at least in the wild.

Finally, forest resources are better protected under private ownership, and ironically, forests have in many instances become far more widespread with the proliferation of logging operations. Where the logging company recognizes that its resources are finite, it will be a good steward. On the other hand, there are countless problems with inadequate clearing of national forests leading to catastrophic fires and the threatening of adjacent property and people. Much of this is preventable, but without an incentive, why would we expect proper forest management?

Samuel Gregg addresses the issue:

Why then do people tend to favor private over communal ownership? One reason is that they are aware, as Aristotle and Aquinas witnessed long ago, that when things are owned in common, the responsibility and accountability for their use disappears, precisely because few are willing to assume responsibility for things that they do not own. Our everyday experience reminds us of the tragedy of the commons. The early advocates of socialism were well aware of these objections. Their response was to hold that all that was needed was a change of mind and heart on the part of people as well as profound structural change…

We saw how well that “change of mind and heart” worked out in the Soviet Union.  Some structural change that was.

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