Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Role of the Supreme Court

Words of wisdom from a man who knows his history and the inner workings of the halls of government:

The entire supreme court idea has turned into a joke. The notion of a body dedicated to a more or less objective determination of certain things has been manifestly out the window for many decades. (If it ever really existed in fact rather than just the jurists' sense of self-importance). If it were really that kind of body, the ideological orientation of [a] new member of the court would not be as crucial as it is. But in fact the court has become the supreme legislative body of this country, from the decision of which there is no appeal. Thus, along with this role of the court, the notion of three coequal branches of gvt and a "separation of powers" has become a myth. The court is somewhat like the board of directors of a large company that makes all the major policy decisions, and then there is the executive (in this case congress and/or the presidency) which sort of more or less takes care of the implementing measures.

It is in fact almost the quintessential tyranny: Nine unelected people, serving for life, unremovable and unaccountable, have the unappealable power to decree whatever they wish to decree. The only requirement on them is that they must muster a majority among themselves and must cloth[e] their edicts in legal language and mumbo jumbo, pretending to a nonexistent degree of objectivity and "science".

So we have the spectacle of a 5-4 vote on gun control. Here is one person (One!) whose vote defines what is to be the "eternal verity of the constitution". If that one person would have been another person or if he/she had felt different that morning, "eternal verity" would have been the opposite of what was decided. So why bother with elections and other ways of counting what the people want?

There are so many problems confronting this country. But perhaps one of the most fundamental ones is a lack of realism. Its people pretend that they are governed by one system, when in fact they are governed by one in many ways closer to its opposite. How can things be set right if we are lying to ourselves?

My conclusion: The only saving grace, then, is that the courts are limited in practice to deciding cases put before them. (Although they can and sometimes do make a bigger issue--and make a bigger ruling--than the case calls for.) And perhaps they want the fiction of impartiality to survive, which deters open dictatorship.

I will dig up more from this excellent philosopher with whom I correspond and post more.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Carbon Taxation

Last year, I explained to a co-worker that the way to incentivize solar and other forms of clean energy was to disincentivize carbon-based, dirty energy. Sounds simple. In fact, it's as simple as raising taxes on all forms of energy until the cost per unit is equalized.

For those who are not economists (like me early on), these are called Pigovian Taxes. The idea is to internalize (into the price of energy) the externalities of pollution and other negative factors of energy production and use.

The Economist ran a great article that reminded me of the downsides to a Carbon Tax: The politicians will use them as just another source of revenue. It's not enough to say that the tax revenue will be used to remediate the externalities. It just never seems to happen that way. Politicians are addicited to spending tax money the same way as a spendaholic with a millionaire's credit card. It's just too much for them to have self-control.

Too bad. A Carbon Tax gradually put into place over twenty or so years would give investments in clean energy a positive return on investment without necessitating massive government subsidies.

Immigration into the United States

One of the blogs I like to read is by Harrison Brookie (Bottlenecked: slowing down to move forward). Earlier this month he wrote a candid post about why he supports immigration, and also shares his concerns. He posted again on the topic almost two weeks later.

I commented on each:
On your point (1) Wages may be driven down only so far, due to minimum wage laws. Greater demand for jobs will lead to greater unemployment. Combined with your point (5) would mean government ruin.

On your point (2) There is a good lecture video from NumbersUSA (part 1, part 2) that applies queueing theory non-mathematically to the immigration problem (uses gumballs and jars). There is significant investment required to provide infrastructure (roads, schools, utilities, etc.) for new population (indigenous and migrant), and so total growth rates must be affordable (using savings--which there is little of municipally--and debt issuance--of which there is already a lot and which must be repaid through tax revenue). Hence the need to control the rate of migration (unless you are China and can also control indigenous population growth).

On your point (3) If migrants find enclaves (like Hispanics in the Southwest) large enough to avoid assimilation altogether, your point (4) kicks in. Are we really a nation at that point? Can we prevent this forseeable possibility through robust immigration policy?

On your conclusion: Would you want to be one of the ones bearing the cost of the transition? Would you want government policy to ease your pain by spreading it around?

My father-in-law legally migrated to the U.S. after WW2. Immigration policy that rewards law-abiders and punishes law-breakers creates the incentives and disincentives migrants need to succeed in our country. Letting illegal immigrants off scot free is an insult to the law-abiding migrants who worked with the system we put up to control the process. Immigration policy should also consider national security concerns. Both of these aspects are not embodied in the basic theory of immigration espoused by economics. It's an incomplete model, though, not a flaw.

And again:

I'll repeat one of my concerns from the earlier post: The government (at all levels) today has provided a regulatory and social welfare environment that did not exist in 1905. It is inconceivable that the immigrant today would assimilate the same way as a century ago. The level of investment required to provide infrastructure, and the level of taxation required to provide transitional welfare benefits, and the barriers to entry into small business, are all stacked against unlimited migration, for moral reasons or otherwise.

This morning, Steve Chapman posted in his column Citizenship Should Remain a Birthright on He writes in favor of "soil citizenship", but the comments ultimately proved more interesting.

There were four models posited in the comments for citizenship: 1) Soil citizenship, 2) Citizenship by choice at the age of majority, 3) Citizenship by parentage, and 4) Immediate Citizenship. (A fifth was alluded to, via a Gattaca reference: 5) Citizenship following service to the State.)

Some of the commenters raised my points concerning our social safety net. (Being a libertarian site, the commenters welcomed the cost as hastening the end of the welfare system.) This is I think the chief impediment to unlimited legal immigration (and by extension, unchecked illegal immigration). It all comes down to queueing theory, the mathematics of which are well established: The net intake rate cannot exceed the nation's ability to afford the transition period from net-tax drain to net-tax provider.

All very good reads. I lean to (3) Citizenship by parentage.

Subsidizing Rights

I noted today the decision by the Supreme Court to extend the Heller v D.C. Second Amendment protections to the states and municipalities. We have the right to bear arms!

I note that the decision was 5-4, and that Justice Thomas preferred a different route to the same end (i.e., the Privileges and Immunities Clause instead of the Due Process Clause). As I mentioned to friends following the Heller decision, given so much 18th and 19th century evidence in favor of the Heller interpretation (read the Scalia opinion (PDF) in the case), how did four justices get it so differently?

The Founding Fathers were very clear that they wanted an armed populace that could defend itself, not only from invasion or crime, but also from the tyranny of government.

So let me now be satirical: Since health care is a right that the government must subsidize for moral reasons, let's fund subsidies so that everyone can exercise their basic right to bear arms! Those that cannot afford arms should be provided a subsidy to purchase and train to use arms. Those who can afford in plenty should be taxed to provide the subsidy. After all, it is not fair if only the rich have arms. Not only that, but everyone should be able to afford the same minimum standard of arms, so that their right is not impaired by poor quality.

Arms for America Now! Nothing less than your right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is at stake!

Friday, June 25, 2010

Joint Forces Air Show: Blue Angels (Closeups)

This is my best shot! Color, composition, focus--everything came together in this shot. I picked this out of a sequence of a dozen photos of them passing in front of us. I have another like this where they are in a tight diagonal, but this one illustrates the precision of their flying best.

The detail photos below show the sharpness I was able to achieve digitally zooming into the photo. The second photo demonstrates my evolving skill as a photographer.

The third photo demonstrates best just how close they are flying. I am willing to guess that the top of the canopy is about a foot from the bottom of the wingtip. These are the best pilots in the Navy/Marine Corps. The showed their stuff at this air show and wowed the crowd (Kathy and me included).

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Joint Forces Air Show: Blue Angels (Crossing Shots)

It is very hard to get crossing shots. Last year, I was able to get some of the Thunderbirds perfectly crossing, but I had not yet learned how to focus correctly, nor set the shutter correctly, so they were unacceptably blurry!

Kathy helped me by keeping a lookout and counting down to when the crossing was going to occur. I eventually figured out that the planes were crossing in front of us more or less over a precise point (show center, which is astonishing for the consistency with which they repeated this feat), and that helped me prepare nearly well enough.

This year, as many as I tried, only three came out close. I'm either a moment too early, or a moment too late, or I have pointed the camera too far off-center and cutoff the subject somehow. See these three examples: The first two are taken just a moment apart. The third is taken a little later.

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Joint Forces Air Show: Blue Angels Pictures

Kathy and I went to the Joint Forces Air Show at Andrews Air Force Base on May 16. I took a lot of photographs! In this and the succeeding two posts, I'll show some pictures I took of the Blue Angels in flight.

These are hard shots to get right, and I screwed up by setting the ISO (sensitivity) to 1600. The result is slightly noisy (grainy) photos. I did get the shutter speed in the correct zone (~1/2000 to 1/3200 sec), and I learned how to first manually focus on a distant object on ground, so the photos are sharp and in focus.

Getting the composition correct involves some luck, especially when the aircraft are approaching from different directions and maneuvering simultaneously. (More photos of this nature later.)

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Bully Pulpit

"Everyone who favors repeal is welcome to come talk to these people and tell them why we should go back to . . . the way things were. But you're going to need to explain why they and tens of millions of Americans should have their rights taken away." --President Obama

The Washington Post reports today that President Obama met with Health Insurance CEOs on the 90th day since passage of the health care reform law. He warned them not to increase rates simply because of the new law. Is this an appropriate use of the bully pulpit?

Fact: The law removes co-pays for preventive care.

Fact: The law removes annual and lifetime caps for care.

Fact: The law removes exclusions for pre-existing conditions.

Fact: The law mandates coverage for adult children through the age of 26.

There are more facts, but these are sufficient to support the claim that regulatory requirements will increase health insurance premiums.

The quotation is also telling: Health insurance is a right. If you want to repeal the law, you want to take away the right to health insurance that the government just granted.

This is nothing more than emotionalism substituting for rationalism. Just what does an emotional government do when it can't afford to do it all? Tax people it thinks are bad for society? Borrow indefinitely from anyone who will loan the money? An emotional government cannot say "no"; it knows no constraint. A rational government says "no" in response to priorities and constraints; it's not personal.

It's not personal, President Obama. We want to repeal the health care reform law because it's bad regulation (as written) and poor fiscal policy.

One more thing: A right never imposes a duty on another citizen. You've made health insurance a privilege, not a right. Get your vocabulary straight, please.