Is the government inefficient? Sunday, Jan 3 2010 

I found this passage somewhere on the Internet, unknown author:

This morning I was awoken by my alarm clock powered by electricity generated by the public power monopoly regulated by the U.S. Department of Energy. I then took a shower in the clean water provided by the municipal water utility. After that, I turned on the TV to one of the FCC-regulated channels to see what the National Weather Service of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration determined the weather was going to be like using satellites designed, built, and launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. I watched this while eating my breakfast of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-inspected food and taking the drugs which have been determined safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

At the appropriate time as regulated by the U.S. Congress and kept accurate by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Naval Observatory, I get into my National Highway Traffic Safety Administration-approved automobile and set out to work on the roads built and maintained by the local, state, and federal departments of transportation, possibly stopping to purchase additional fuel of quality level determined by the Environmental Protection Agency, using legal tender issued by the Federal Reserve System. On the way out the door, I deposit any mail I have to be sent out via the U.S. Postal Service and drop the kids off at the public school.

After work, I drive my NHTSA car back home on the DOT roads, to a house that has not burned down in my absence because of the state and local building codes and fire marshal’s inspection, and which has not been plundered of all its valuable thanks to the local police department.

I then log on to the Internet, which was developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration and post on freerepublic.com and FOX News forums about how SOCIALISM in medicine is BAD because government can’t do anything right.

What this passage is getting at is the myriad functions that government serves— sometimes unbeknown to the general public—and it only begins to scratch the surface. It would, I think, be pretty safe to say government is responsible for or at least crucially linked to the development of modern society, not free markets. That’s just a descriptive statement, and I believe the main point of the quoted passage. There are some, like those “on freerepublic.com and FOX News forums,” who bemoan government and its supposed inefficiency, yet take for granted all the things it provides them (like roads and police protection).

The question, really, is an economic one. One issue that arises concerns what are called public goods. In technical terms, a public good is any “good that is non-rivalrous and non-excludable.” All non-rivalrous means is that when one person uses that good another person is not restricted from also using that good (e.g., when I log on to the Internet, this does not preclude you from doing the same). All non-excludable means is that no one wanting access to the good can be reasonably denied access to that good. A decent example might lighthouse beams that provide light to ships, regardless of which ship it might be (that is, it’s difficult to exclude other people from seeing this light). As the Wikipedia article points out, “there may be no such thing as an absolutely non-rivaled and non-excludable good; but economists think that some goods approximate the concept closely enough for the analysis to be economically useful.” (The economic idea of public goods, by the way, was developed by Paul Samuelson, the pioneering Nobel laureate who died just three weeks ago.)

The problem that arises is that public goods are not produced efficiently in “free markets.” They’re under-produced. This causes what is called market failure; the market does not operate efficiently. The reason for this is because you can’t make a profit off of it, or not very much the closer the good approaches the concept of a public good. If a good produces a benefit to society that the creator of the good cannot profit from, there’s little economic incentive to produce such a good. That’s standard neoclassical economic theory, anyway. The idea is tied to what are called externalities. A positive externality is something people benefit from, e.g. clean air, but those who benefit from it don’t necessarily have to pay for it. An example I get from Milton Friedman, the great free-market thinker, is that when I plant a pretty garden in my front yard, other people get to experience the benefit of it without having to pay or do any work for it. Again, these are under-produced in free markets, according to standard theory, because there is not enough economic incentive to produce these things.

Well, one solution has been to have the government produce goods for public use, which is where the entire passage quoted above comes from. The result is that we all get to benefit from government involvement in the market place. I get the ability to tell the precise time because the government has taken the initiative to keep accurate account of time—something theory tells us profit-maximizing corporations would be unwilling to do.

At the same time, however, as the story above illustrated, people still bemoan government and its attempts to provide for the public good. The market is great, it will provide us all the things we need, and it will do so efficiently, they might say. The socialist might respond by pointing out that this is not necessarily true, and point to things like externalities and asymmetric information, which exist nearly everywhere, and conclude the market rarely works efficiently. For this reason, we need the government to provide for the public good, particularly when the unfettered market cannot. The right-winger (if they’re not Austrian) might concede that things like externalities and asymmetric information exist but posit that the government still ought not get involved because that would constitute an abridgment of our freedom, is coercive, evil, etc. The question becomes harder. Indeed, for many the question is not only economic but also ethical. At this point, I think most people begin to ask what the right balance is between market forces and government involvement. The question is left unanswered and, in mind, the answer remains to be seen.

Advertisements

Glenn Beck: hypocritically unconstitutional? Sunday, Oct 11 2009 

Glenn Beck has certainly gotten a lot of disrespect on this blog (less than he certainly deserves), but it’s probably not particularly helpful to attack individuals in such a manner. He’s just a television pundit, after all. I have to admit, though, it’s really easy to do. And, unfortunately, he reaches a lot of people with his faux libertarianism (shooting untried suspects in the head has nothing to do with the philosophy). That could make him a potentially dangerous person, so it might be fair to say his statements deserve careful attention and scrutiny.

The crying talking head has, in the past, criticized international law. Opines Beck, “Once we sign our rights over to international law, the Constitution is officially dead. When you say things like, ‘We are not going to put the Constitution behind international law,’ you say that in the international court, if you say that on the floor of the United Nations, you are a freak show.” So what Beck is arguing is that when we adhere to international law and regulations, we are ignoring our U.S. Constitution. He continues, “Let me tell you something. When you can’t win with the people, you bump it up to the courts. When you can’t win with the courts, you bump it up to the international level.” Words of wisdom? In literature, you’d call that foreshadowing.

So what does Mr. Beck do when he doesn’t like a satirical Web site about him being published on the Internet? You probably guessed it: he filed a complaint with the World Intellectual Property Organization to have the site taken down. The site in question is http://glennbeckrapedandmurderedayounggirlin1990.com, a purely satirical Web site that mocks Mr. Beck’s style of argumentation. Writes the authors of the Web site, “We’re not accusing Glenn Beck of raping and murdering a young girl in 1990 – in fact, we think he didn’t! But we can’t help but wonder, since he has failed to deny these horrible allegations.” Perhaps we could argue that it’s in bad taste, but I think it’s abundantly clear that it is Constitutionally protected speech. Mr. Beck and his lawyers know this too. That’s why they aren’t filing a libel suit against the Web site’s owners. They know the authors of this site are Constitutionally protected. They know they wouldn’t “win with the courts.” So, as Mr. Beck declared with great prophetic wisdom, “you bump it up to the international level.” Yeah, that’s one way to stifle free speech you don’t like.

As an example of the type of parodying the site does, here is what Mr. Beck said in an interview with Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim in U.S. Congress: “No offense and I know Muslims, I like Muslims, I’ve been to mosques, I really don’t think Islam is a religion of evil. I think it’s being hijacked, quite frankly. With that being said, you are a Democrat. You are saying let’s cut and run. And I have to tell you, I have been nervous about this interview because what I feel like saying is, sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies. And I know you’re not. I’m not accusing you of being an enemy. But that’s the way I feel, and I think a lot of Americans will feel that way.” Well, perhaps, posits this Web site, Mr. Beck should prove to us that he has not “raped and killed a young girl in 1990.” They know he didn’t and aren’t accusing him of it, they just want to get to the bottom of it. Of course that’s not really the case. No one actually believes that, as the site explains; it’s created to show how “Glenn Beck definitely uses tactics like this to spread lies and misinformation.” As Mr. Beck asks, “What’s wrong with asking questions?” In the legal response to Mr. Beck’s complaint, the Web site’s lawyer writes that the site “has merely presented Mr. Beck with a mirror. If Beck does not like what he sees, the Respondent is not to blame.” (The Web site’s legal response is down due to traffic; but if you do get the chance to read it, do so. It’s quite genius.)

On a much serious but unrelated note that deals with rape, however, the Huffington Post published a story that I found quite disappointing. The Huffington Post points to a horrific story of a young woman, Jamie Leigh Jones, who was gang-raped by her coworkers at KBR, Inc., a subsidiary of Halliburton. She was then locked in a shipping container for over a day, without food or water. KBR/Halliburton’s defense was that the horrendous attack was considered an injury “arising in the workplace” and was therefore necessary to be adjudicated through private arbitration rather than through courts. The Department of Justice agreed. In September, however, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Jones. Al Fraken, the new U.S. Senator for Minnesota, passed a new amendment, heeding Jones’ calls, that calls for punishing contractors that “restrict their employees from taking workplace sexual assault, battery and discrimination cases to court.” It passed, but not unanimously. Thirty Senators (all Republican, surprise) voted against the amendment to Defense Appropriations bill. The Huffington Post link lists those Senators. They really ought to be ashamed.

Libertarian talking head? Saturday, Aug 29 2009 

Glenn Beck is a radio and television host who has a show named after him on FOX News. Unfortunately, this guy calls himself a libertarian and even more unfortunate is that some libertarians use him as their talking head. This guy has said some pretty very stupid stuff and is more of an entertainer than anything else. And what exactly is he rambling on about anyway?

I’m guessing it has to do with this. According to the latest count, a total of 46 advertisers have pulled out of the Glenn Beck program on FOX News, including UPS which has pulled all of its advertisements off the whole FOX News network. Why? Part of it is due to an organization called Color of Change and their efforts to stop Beck’s “race baiting.”

Here’s what Beck said in late July of 2009: “This president, I think, has exposed himself as a guy over and over and over again who has a deep-seated hatred for white people, or the white culture … this guy is, I believe, a racist.” Of course, you must never mind the fact that President Obama has selected many white people to serve high-ranking positions within his government, not the least of which include Joe Biden as the Vice President, Hillary Clinton as the Secretary of State, or Rahm Emanuel as the White House Chief of Staff, Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, Ben Bernanke as Chairman of the Fed, Leon Panetta as the director of the CIA, Janet Napolitano as the Secretary of Homeland Security, Kathleen Sebelius as the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tim Geithner as the Secretary of the Treasury, and the list goes on and on. These are some of the most important jobs in country, all run by white people. And Obama selected them. Of course, you should also forget that President Obama is just as white as he is black (and was raised by his white grandparents). Still, though, he hates white people and the white culture.

Instead of apologizing for his diarrhea of the mouth, Beck defended his comments, saying, “I am not willing to bow before the king, I will never bow before the king. In America, we do not have kings.” Thanks for enlightening us, Beck, but that’s a straw man if I ever saw one. He also said he has the right to free speech (yet another straw man). No one denies this. No one has said he doesn’t have the right to say this. But the right to free speech goes both ways, including my right to criticize his idiocy that is promoted by FOX News. And, incidentally, it includes an advertiser’s right to not advertise on your show. What better manifestation of free market principles?

P.S. Beck, even though you’ve been taking days to come up with this, it’s spelled “OLIGARCHY“!

FOX News vs. Geography Sunday, Aug 16 2009 

U.S. OUT OF EGYPT!
NO BLOOD FOR PYRAMIDS!

foxy

Wait a minute… are we really liberating Egypt or is this just another one of FOX News’ alternate realities where facts don’t matter? Some comic relief either way.