Snarky Behavior

Entries tagged as ‘government’

Question for Those in DC

September 16, 2008 · 7 Comments

We all know somebody who works in government who is probably vastly under-qualified for what they do.  Or we’ve at least met someone who works in government for some obscure program, in which you respond “wait… that’s tax-payer funded???

My question is:  does that make you less inclined to support government in theory and/or in practice?  Or does it come with the territory, as in you have a “can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” mentality about it (i.e. you take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have… the facts of life)?

I had always assumed that people became Republican as they got older because their wealth increased, but now I’m starting to question that premise.  I mean, if I knew a schmuck who got hired at a relatively high level for a publicly traded company, I could short the stock or at least avoid buying it.  But what can you do when that happens in government?

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What Makes a Scandal

April 15, 2008 · 1 Comment

Ezra Klein brings up a point that all journalists and bloggers alike should be cognizant of:  how to determine when a scandal “matters”:

The impulse, of course, is to follow each newstory as if its salience in the news cycle corresponded to its actual importance in the campaign. But that’s rarely the case. Time passes, comments are forgotten, new gaffes are made, and the election spins on.

Klein continues the post by discussing what particular features of a scandal tend to give the story “legs.”  Those features might be valid empirical observations to make, but it bothers me that they are of primary concern to a blogger at The American Prospect.

Now, I give Klein a lot of credit because he writes about what he is passionate and knowledgeable about (health care policy),  despite the fact that those posts presumably get far less click-throughs than the “hot” topics.  He is afforded the luxury of not having to write in feedback mechanisms, where audience response dictates the editorial direction of his content and analysis, precisely because he is not part of a “mainstream media” operation.

I also understand that a journalist, and especially a blogger, who digs his heels in the sand and plays the Lorax for any given issue (THIS IS IMPORTANT, DAMN IT!) is not long for this world.  People will move on to get their current events from someone who isn’t a one trick pony.

At the same time– and this really, really concerns me about the disconnect between an engaged citizenry and a “newsertainment” media– some stories (and scandals) that are important (in orders of magnitude greater than Bob Dole falling down stairs) are inevitably going to lack the grainy video or convenient sound byte required to stimulate peoples’ senses.  And that’s why we have an independent media (like TAP), to give those events the intention they deserve, to fall out of the lock-step of the mainstream press before the next cycle buries them.

To be honest, the reason I’m in a huff about this is because I just listened to an All Things Considered about a municipality in rural Alabama that floated extremely risky muni-bonds to cover a sewage system, and now is some $4 billion dollars in debt! That’s over $6,000 per person (and probably twice that per tax-payer)!  Anyway, at one point in the podcast, they interview a local journalist, who admitted to writing close to 100 articles on this issue, and he says something like:

“People keep telling me to stop writing about this.  They say, “can’t you write about something else?  This is boring!”"

Sometimes you have to hit people over the head to make them KNOW when a scandal is important.

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Dropping Out of the Electoral College

January 16, 2008 · 3 Comments

It’s really incredible that it took our nation over 230 years to realize that this was a good idea:

Instead of a state awarding its electors to the top vote-getter in that state’s winner-take-all presidential election, the state would give its electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote.

Of course, this just means the 2012 presidential campaign will run into the billions of dollars.  But at least it’s more democratic.

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Welcome to the 21st Century…

January 15, 2008 · 1 Comment

… where State Capitalism reigns supreme.

Less than two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the West’s gleeful jig-dancing on the grave of communism, state capitalism is suddenly threatening the autonomy of the global “free” market. Wall Street’s elite banks, longtime freedom fighters for deregulation and scorners of all government intervention in the marketplace, are now begging, cup in hand, for aid from a gallery of regimes that includes some of the most authoritarian and undemocratic governments on the planet.

In Monday’s Financial Times, Jeffrey Garten, a professor of international trade and finance at the Yale School of Management, is distraught.

In the late 18th century, capitalism was replacing feudalism. In the 20th century, freer markets won the day. Now the world is flirting with another big transformation in the philosophy and rules of global commerce. Unlike the changes of the past, this new trajectory does not represent progress.

But is this change in philosophy really a huge surprise?  That people– especially people in relatively homogenous societies– are willing to sacrifice freedom in return for economic progress? 

Strong institutions beget strong economies.  Asia has recognized that the liberalization of trade in Latin America has not delivered what it promised, mostly because Latin America lacked the instititonal capacity to support the burden of free markets. 

More people in China have been brought out of abject poverty in the last 20 years than in the history of the world… combined.  Clearly there is some merit to the economic path China has chosen for itself.

Is state capitalism sustainable?  Probably not.  Eventually, a middle class wants political representation.  Eventually, hierarchical systems erode due to fraud, corruption and beauracracy. 

But is state capitalism a great means to play catch-up with the first world?  It sure looks like it.  Especially when American industry out-leverages its own markets with complicated debt instruments.

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The Power to Change

January 13, 2008 · 6 Comments

With all of the attention being paid to the presidential elections, it is easy to be misled into thinking that big problems can be solved by big institutions.

The reality is that the majority of problems that we face as Americans (an as human beings) are the result of individual decisions played out in the aggregate.  As Kant observes, the fundamental flaw of human nature, from which all other flaws flow, is the tendency of the individual to make exceptions for himself to rules (or norms) he expects others to observe.

We suffer collectively because we recognize that the efforts of a single individual to reform is insignificant if the masses do not also follow suit.  Many times, we become so pessimistic of others that we lower our expectations of ourselves.  We then put our hopes in large, sweeping, institutional efforts.

The game theory behind these rationales justify a status quo that is unacceptable.  It absolves the individual from personal responsibility to do what he or she can to make the world better.

Part of the reason I blog (I think) is that I like to believe that individual actors who are not yet embedded into institutional systems of power still have the capacity to drive progressive change by pushing forward normative arguments.
Our “spheres of influence” may be small, but opinions and attitudes are shaped based on the ties of interpersonal relationships.  The stronger the bond, the more pervasive the idea.  When integrated within established social networks, good ideas can spread like wildfire.

My (re)commitment to this blog, and to myself, is to act as an agent of change.  I want to identify and discuss problems that I can play a part in resolving, in my own small way.  I want to be an optimist of myself, because in the end I’m the only person I have direct influence over.

For me, this is the nuanced definition of “change” that Obama represents.  His soaring rhetoric asks us to raise our expectations of ourselves.  He carries Kennedy’s “Ask Not” torch into the new century.

There are too many people waiting for him to fail, to not be able to deliver on what he promises.

But hope and inspiration in politics are much like consumer confidence in economics.  If the consumer believes there will be a recession, he will stop spending, and there will be a recession.  It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If the voter believes our country holds the capacity to do better, he will act better.  And we will DO better, collectively, as a result.

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An Impulse I Never Understood:

January 10, 2008 · Leave a Comment

The call by Ron Paul and other Libertarians to “abolish the US Department of Education” and return the control of educational decisions to the local level, based on the 10th amendment.

(Granted I am biased, because I have worked in some capacity for the US Department of Education.  But I worked in the non-controversial branch — that is to say statistical data collection and analysis — not policy regulation and funding.)

I realize that we are a country founded on frontier schoolhouses and homeschooling.  But that tradition seems pretty antiquated in a modern, global context. 

Yes a more heterogeneous system may result in a healthier diversity, which is key to the concept of creative destruction and innovation in particular. 

But when we are competing against ethnically homogenous nations like China, Singapore, Japan, and to some degree India and most of Europe– and many of those countries have centrally planned educational systems resulting in a relative and absolute advantage in the percentage and number of highly-educated students… we lose.

The ironic take on this position is that Friedrich Hayek, one of the founding members of the Austrian School of economics that largely informs the libertarian position, observed that one of the results of the capitalist system and the labor specialization it entails is that as our society progresses technologically, the potential of any individual to retain a relative share of the totality of human knowledge must decrease. 

It therefore follows that the homeschooling impulse is misguided because unless a parent is a mental giant, his or her likilhood to better educate his or her children than might a trained, professional teacher, is extremely small. 

And it is national standards and accountability norms that result in highly trained professional teachers.  Federal standards raise the bar of what we expect our teachers to teach, and our children to know.  It’s really not that hard. 

The debate should be over where and how we set the bar, not whether it should be there at all. 

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More On: Oil Distortions

November 4, 2007 · Leave a Comment

For those interested in the idea behind rentier states , how difficult governance is in sole-resource economies, and the megalomaniacal appeal of Hugo Chavez, check out this article.  Not exactly well written, but certainly very interesting.  Thanks to Faraj for the heads up.

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Dropping Knowledge: Rentier States

October 15, 2007 · 2 Comments

“Dropping Knowledge”… where I laymenize an important aspect of social science.

A rentier state is a government that derives all or a significant portion of its national revenue from the rent of its indigenous resources to external clients.  It is a term most commonly applied to oil rich countries (such as Saudi Arabia), which grant access and management of its petroleum deposits to the United States (or the UK, Russia, etc.) in return for a “rent.”

Rentier states are inherently undemocratic.  You see, the geo-political distribution of natural resources makes certain areas extremely profitable, by random chance.  If the states themselves lack the privately developed technology and infrastructure to efficiently extract and distribute their resources, they must (or are otherwise coerced to) outsource such activities.

The thing is, democratic societies detest foreign management of domestic resources (see: Venezuela, Bolivia), and will take steps to “socialize” their industries, directly tax the exports instead of charging rent to foreign entities, and redistribute the wealth domestically, for a much bigger return.  But democratic management of a single resource economy naturally entails a heck of a lot of fighting over “who gets what, and why.”  And government industries are never as efficient as private industries in terms of production, so global trade organizations (OPEC) get antsy when a member state isn’t hitting its productive capacity.

The most efficient governmental arrangement for single-resource economies is therefore the rentier model… small, authoritarian leaderships (Saudi royal family) that placate domestic population by subsidizing EVERYTHING (except, generally, higher education, since educated elites tend to challenge authority).  The tax costs “flow” through the rent charged to Americans for pumping out oil and establishing military bases in the region for security purposes, and no taxes are levied domestically.  The royal family invests the majority of its staggering financial resources back into US securities, which solidifies the dollar and keeps oil demand and prices high.

This brings up a couple important issues:

1)  Some “experts” like to state that Islam is incompatible with democracy.  Bush is actually right when he says this is false (just look at Indonesia).  It’s actually more likely that democracy cannot exist without a diversified economy.  The less access there is to economic opportunity, the less people are involved in the management of the economy.

2)  Democracy is about sovereignty, about the population making decisions based on the Wilsonian principles of self-determination.  If you look at Iraq, you have two major obstacles:  the first is the introduction of a political power struggle between rival populations (Sunni and Shia).  Sunnis are keenly aware of their minority position in Iraq and refuse to participate in a political framework that is illegitimately stacked against their interests.   Shias are a minority within the greater Muslim world and subscribe to a cultural narrative based on resistance to oppression and illegitimate authority.  Even if Shia leadership wanted to achieve stability under the watchful eyes (and guns) of the US, they would continue to be undermined by Iran, which has no interest in seeing a successful secular Shia-dominated democracy as a neighbor, because that would intensify domestic pressures for reform.

The second obstacle to self-determination is that clearly, the preferred interest of Iraqis is American withdrawal, if not now (in the short-term), certainly in the medium- and long-terms.  Iraqis are well aware that the Persian Gulf war resulted in the construction of permanent bases in Saudi Arabia.  And Secretary of Defense Gates has stated publicly that the US “has historically had a strong presence in the region, and we will continue to have a strong presence in the region, and it’s important for our friends, and those who might consider themselves our adversaries, to recognize that.”

The US would prefer for the political outcomes of Iraqi democratic elections to be friendly governments that actively engage in rentier relationships to assuage the masses and ensure their positions of power.   But the Iraqi population will never recognize a pro-US business government as legitimate.  We live in an Age of Information where covert regime changes or puppet governments are really, really hard to achieve.  In the meantime, as instability and civil war rage on in Iraq, the US is quietly consolidating four major bases around the strategic oil regions in the country.

3)  That last point is the most telling.  For all of the gum flapping that goes on about “the principals of liberal democracy” and “freedom,” we tend to get distracted from the realist perspective — that control of Iraq means control over the second largest oil reserve in the world.  Always keep in mind that oil is a finite resource whose price rises with scarcity.  It’s one thing for Saudi Arabia to sell oil at (relatively) competitive prices now… it’s another thing entirely for the US to be rationing the last drops of oil in 20 years, at monopoly prices (don’t forget about Alaska!).  That means the potential for wealth and global power… power over everyone who is addicted to oil… is assured to whomever controls Iraq and the Persian Gulf.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news to some, but that means the business and military pressures are too great on the executive branch of the US government to expect a withdrawal anytime soon, unless Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul magically win their primaries.  The US army/state department did not spend billions of dollars on bases and the world’s largest embassy to come home any time soon.

4)  With all of this in perspective, it’s important to recognize why Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize.  The real “Inconvenient Truth” isn’t necessarily that global warming is a real threat per se… I mean, that was already pretty obvious.  It’s that oil consumption is behind global warming, and that oil demand makes actions like the war in Iraq profitable.  By raising awareness about an ancillary (but still primary concern) of global climate change, Gore is indirectly calling for the necessity to research and develop alternative sources of sustainable energy that would compete with coal, oil and natural gas, making those resources’ price demands more flexible, and reducing the profit incentive of military control and domination of them.  Hence the “Peace” rationale in the Nobel Peace Prize.

The thing is, alternative energy sources are nowhere nearly as profitable as oil, even given the tremendous extraneous costs of financing strategic military bases around the world to protect the investments.  And the transition costs to adopting alternative energy sources would be tremendous in every sector, so oil companies can continue to pass the costs incurred from political instability and deeper, harder to get to reserves (i.e. the melting North Pole) onto the consumers.  I’ve read somewhere that the McKinsey Global Institute did an analysis of gasoline consumption in America, and found that demand wouldn’t significantly falter until the price went past $5.00 per gallon.  (I’m couldn’t find the exact report via a Google search, but hey, it’s midterms… give me a break).

The key of course is then electing leaders who are seriously committed to implementing policies of consumer regulation that prevent us from letting our aggregate demand get the better of us.  Individual conscience in the US is (generally) against empire, against war, against destruction of the environment, against global injustice.  But we speak with our wallets, we make demands through our purchases and consumption, and global suppliers react accordingly, even if the outcomes violate our individual consciences.

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Dropping Knowledge: The US Deficit

September 14, 2007 · 3 Comments

Dropping Knowledge: where I “laymenize” an important aspect of social science.

I like the idea of “dropping knowledge” because I can share some of the (extremely expensive) information I’m obtaining via my Ivy experience with my friends who are bored out of their skulls while still in the “working” world.

I feel it necessary to preface every one of these posts with “I’m not an expert” and “I haven’t yet been exposed to all of the sides of this issue.” Nevertheless, I strongly disdain the assumption that one must first be “an expert” to participate in what turn out to be extremely important discussions about the current and future states of affairs of our country and world. Moreover, that’s what the comments section is for.

Wednesday in economics class my professor went on an extremely interesting tangent while discussing the “Wealth of Nations” (specifically Balance of Payments).

Everyone should know, if not understand, that the United States government is running a massive deficit of over $9 trillion dollars. The human brain isn’t wired to understand numbers that big, but it calculates out to about $30,000 per US citizen.

The deficit that is referenced in this instance is related to an economic term called “Government Savings,” which is calculated by taking tax revenue and subtracting government spending, transactions and interest payments. This creates a running balance over all years. Pretty straightforward.

There is another “twin” deficit that most people are familiar with to a lesser extent, which measures the “Current Account” balance of the US. This balance is calculated in several ways, but the easiest way to understand it is as follows: the US imports way more than it exports, it saves (both as a government [see above], and as individual citizens) less than it invests, and it issues bonds to the rest of the world (most notably China and Saudi Arabia) to finance its spending.

The US is therefore the world’s biggest borrower. We borrow from the rest of the world to finance our consumption and government expenditures (including the war in Iraq, which is about 5% of our current annual budget).

What typically happens to borrowers that continue to spend, without the ability to pay of their debts, is that they are slowly denied credit. First their interest rates jump. Then, the money flow stops. Their assets are repossessed and sold. And their standard of living is adjusted downward, accordingly.

It’s a scary thought to recognize that our current standard of living in the US is financed on borrowed time. If at any point China decides that it’s militarily ready to assume the unipoloar position of the world’s hegemon, it could (hypothetically) collect full payment on all of the US treasury notes it’s snatched up over the past decade, and bankrupt the US. 1929 all over again.

So someone asked our professor: should we be worried?

“Yes,” he said.

I was shocked. You never get definitive answers from economists.

Of course, he qualified himself: there are factors in play that make the US a “most favored nation,” and “dark-matter” components that aren’t being factored in when calculating the US’ deficit.

The most favored nation concept is easy enough to understand: China wouldn’t want to financially bankrupt the US, because the US is such a huge, integrated part of the global economy that the world couldn’t sustain its collapse. Moreover, countries continue to consider the US treasury bond the safest way to diversify their portfolios, and can’t invest fast enough (at extremely low rates, by the way).

This foreign investment concept ties into the “dark-matter” factors: the largest of which is cash liquidity. You see, the most diversified of all US liabilities is the dollar note itself: many countries prefer to use the dollar as a stable currency, and the dollar bears no interest. The US is providing a liquidity service to the rest of the world that is not being taken into consideration when calculating the “Current Account” balance above. Moreover, the US provides the rest of the world with various “intangible” services such as intellectual property, higher education and “the American brand.” It seems we haven’t squandered all of our good will by haphazardly starting a war in the Middle East.

So these are the high-falutin issues that economists discuss amongst themselves. They all seem to agree that a high deficit is risky, but there is no consensus of just how risky it really is.

As for myself, I’m one to believe that the Bush tax-cuts have served their purpose in stimulating the economy post-9/11 (even though he proposed them pre-9/11), and that their roll-over nature is extremely dangerous. It’s time to nip this deficit in the bud.

Moreover, there’s a national discussion going around after the census released data showing that GDP was up, but real incomes at all but the highest brackets remained stagnant… and last month saw the first net job loss in God knows how long.

Since when did Democrats become the party of fiscal responsibility?

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TSA Mythbusters

June 17, 2007 · Leave a Comment


I just saw this story about a woman who was detained and humiliated by TSA because she forgot to empty her son’s sippy-cup before entering the screening process. Here’s the short of it, in her own words:

I explained that the sippy cup water was filtered tap water. The sippy cup was seized as my son was pointing and crying for his cup. I asked if I could drink the water to get the cup back, and was advised that I would have to leave security and come back through with an empty cup in order to retain the cup. As I was escorted out of security by TSA and a police officer, I unscrewed the cup to drink the water, which accidentally spilled because I was so upset with the situation.

Obviously TSA is an easy target for criticism because they represent a tremendous burden and inconvenience for travelers. When incidents like this occur it’s really easy for people (like me) to pile on, because we’ve all been there to some degree.

Of course you can play devil’s advocate and say “that’s the cost of freedom” or “that’s the reality of today’s environment.” Well, actually… it’s not. Let me explain:

You know the made-up-on-the-spot statistic people always cite about how it’s much safer to fly than it is to drive? That kind of common-sense knowledge really helps to alleviate a LOT of people’s fears when they get on a plane.

Well, why doesn’t that same perspective apply for acts of terror?

Terror can happen any time, anywhere. In any given year, in “today’s environment,” the “reality” is that an American is more likely to die of a bee-sting than an act of terror.

Now I’m not naive… I realize this could (and most likely will) change. Most experts will tell you that a post-9/11 terrorist attack is eminent; a question of when, not if. And to some degree George Bush’s assertion that we’re “fighting terror in the streets of Baghdad so we don’t have to fight it at home” is true (although the strategic failure emboldens the jihadi movement and threatens our security in the long run).

That said, is it really worth changing the way we live? Why are we so willing to sacrifice our rights, or in this instance, our application of common sense and decency?

Why don’t we ever instead consider conceding a small piece of mind?

Is it that crazy to suggest that we as Americans tolerate a small degree of terrorism? Or at least treat it as a rational fear instead of an irrational one?

Consider the political motivations behind the jihadi movement. Most people don’t get that far. Jihadis are categorically framed as adherents to a distorted and perverted version of fundamentalist Islam. The War on Terror is framed in the context of the Crusades, and the debate is between “liberalism” and “Islamism.”

The element that frequently (and oftentimes deliberately) gets neglected from this context is the political motivation of terror. And it’s not just about Israel, although that’s the most visible issue. It’s about anti-imperialism. The fundamental appeal of jihad is “driving out the infidel,” which, in the parlance of our times, would translate to nationalizing natural resources and industries, defaulting on insufferable foreign debt, organizing labor… the steps necessary for a sovereign nation to determine it’s own political destiny.

So how do acts of terror achieve these ends? Well, abroad, it’s pretty straight-forward. The lesson learned in Afghanistan (and Vietnam) was that a well-trained, well-armed, well-financed resistance movement can bring a super-power to its knees. Foreign Al-Qaeda operatives continue to instigate acts of terror in Iraq, banking on the waning resolve of an American democracy.

The less obvious (but arguably more profound) outcome of terror is its unfailing tendency to provoke an establishment to adopt increasingly repressive policies. This tendency is especially pervasive in democratic societies. Though very few Americans are at risk of a targeted terrorist attack, all Americans are subjected to the policy decisions made in the name of counter-terrorism.

The creation of the Patriot Act, the suspension of habeas corpus, the “preemptive” invasion of Iraq, the withdrawal from the Geneva Accords (and the resulting outcomes at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo)… these are all decisions we made for ourselves. We can blame the terrorists all we want, but if we truly believed in the superiority of liberalism over Islamism, than our commitment to the fundamental institutions of law should have been enough to protect and sustain us.

Which brings us back to this situation at Ronald Reagan. TSA is there to ensure our safety before we enter an aircraft. Period. They are not there to protect the terminal itself. The terminal is inherently at risk, just like any train station is always at risk, just like any university or court house, or even the steps of Congress, is at risk.

The fact that this woman was harassed and detained for spilling water (even if it was intentional), is complete and utter bullshit.

If I have to choose between living in a respectful society with infrequent and random acts of terror, or a society of irrational fear, suspicion, and overly-empowered police and security, I’ll gladly take the former.

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