You are currently browsing the monthly archive for June 2007.

Congress has subpoenaed the executive branch to get documents related to U.S. attorney firing scandal, and the president has refused to give the documents over, claiming executive privilege (link).

I am not certain how I feel about the president’s claim of executive privilege or even about executive privilege in general, but I am very happy to see fighting words between the executive branch and the legislative branch back in the news. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt), of the Senate Judiciary committee, has harsh words for the executive branch: “This is a further shift by the Bush administration into Nixonian stonewalling and more evidence of their disdain for our system of checks and balances”, and Tony Snow, the whitehouse press secretary, responds with equally harsh language: “[the subpoenas] may explain why this is the least popular Congress in decades, because you do have what appears to be a strategy of destruction rather than cooperation.”

When the different branches of the government fight each other, they help keep any one branch from gaining too much authority. I am happy congress is trying to exert some ‘check’ on the executive branch again.

So says David Friedman in an article I found on his website. It covers the same theme as my very first post on this blog, albeit in a more compact and entertaining way. Particularly interesting for me was the comparison of private “governments” (condo/homeowners associations) to local governments. They don’t seem radically different (both allow free exit), but Friedman notes an important difference. If a city is formed by means of a vote, minority voters have a government thrust upon them; whereas condo associations usually exist prior to any residents moving in, so that each resident participates in the “social contract” by virtue of their choice rather than the majority’s will. Democracy is the tyranny of the majority.

If only a city could be formed in an area where no one lives. Perhaps it could be a for-profit corporation and own its land as private property. New residents who arrive would need to join a city association. There might or might not be some degree of democratic decision-making (like with condo associations), but the board would be elected by shareholders, not the residents (unless the residents decided to buy the corporation). Of course, to ensure that no one’s rights are violated and that state/federal taxes are collected, the higher levels of government would need to have a presence on the city’s land and access to every part of the city (perhaps this would be the role of the county government). There would still be government in the background, ensuring that rights are protected and laws enforced. But certainly most city functions could be handled by the profit-seeking corporation, like transportation, utilities, and city planning.

#1 – Bryan Caplan talks about voter irrationality in an an extremely interesting podcast interview, and has convinced me to read his book … eventually.

#2 – Greg Mankiw points to a brief by Gilbert Metcalf on a green tax shift that is designed to be both distributional and revenue neutral. His proposal is to use the revenue from a carbon emissions tax to give a lump sum exemption from the payroll tax of about $3,500. The brief has several very interesting tables on the effect of a carbon tax on the costs of different goods and the distributional effects of those added costs. I especially like lump sum of green tax shifts because they refund tax money in a way that closely matches the harm done by carbon emissions, i.e. everybody roughly equally.

I am happy to point out that the Green Party of Canada has advocated a very similar green tax shift (go to page 18) for quite a while now.

On Monday, the SCOTUS ruled that “schools may take steps to safeguard those entrusted to their care from speech that can reasonably be regarded as encouraging illegal drug use” (link). This decision explicitly gives schools the right to restrict student speech based on content, rather than the disruptiveness of speech.

The justices have it backwards when they defend the right of the school to restrict student speech that cannot “plausibly be interpreted as commenting on any political or social issue.” Students do not need to justify their speech to the government; the school needs to justify its restrictions. There is a clear reason for limits on disruptive student speech; if any one student is allowed to disrupt a whole classroom or school, public schools would simply not function most of the time, but there is no similarly convincing argument for restrictions on speech which advocate violation of the law, drug laws or any others.

The court argues by fudging the issues. Any public speech advocating the use of drugs must be either social or political speech. It attempts to argue that this is not so by citing the fact that the “bong hits 4 Jesus” student claims the banner was intended as a joke and not to make any sort of political or social statement, but the intent of the student is irrelevant. The banner could certainly be “plausibly interpreted” as advocating the use of drugs, which falls under “commenting on any political or social issue”. This is demonstrated by the fact that the principle did interpret it this way; she interpreted it as advocating the use of marijuana. Public encouragement of drug use can always plausibly be interpreted as either advocating that the use of drugs be decriminalized or advocating for people to use drugs, which is social advocacy and therefore protected speech. If you don’t be believe advocating for people to use drugs is social advocacy, consider advocacy for the opposite behavior; it is impossible to argue that advocating for people not to use drugs is not social commentary. How could advocating one social behavior be social commentary but advocating the opposite social behavior not be social commentary?

I would like to point out that in a voucher system, free speech rights would almost never come up, and the government would not have to restrict the free speech rights of students. If a family felt that a school’s controls on student expression were overly restrictive, they could simply choose another school.

I found a group that thought up the idea of direct representation long before I did. They even call it the same thing!

My only contribution to the idea of direct representation is that citizens should be able to give their vote to groups as well as individuals, which would allow, but not require, proportional representation style parties to form.

There are a few other small differences worth discussing, and I will probably do so in a future post.

I recently wrote about a system of representation I thought up based on a tradable vote (link). Basically, citizens have a vote they can give (through elections) to any one person. I called this “direct, representative democracy” but I think “direct representation” is more descriptive and catchy.

One problem with the system as I described it is that there is always the possibility that a candidate does not hold to the promises made during campaign. There would be little to stop this from happening except the loss of votes during the next election. This sort campaign lying is much less likely in systems of proportional representation based on official political parties because it is much more difficult for a large group to maintain a conspiracy.

One solution is to allow voters to give their vote to any one candidate OR any one candidate group, provided the group has a binding mechanism for the group to decide how it votes (which would include the possibility of splitting up its vote). This would allow for political parties to come about, if they are useful. The resulting political parties could actually be stronger than parties in proportional representation systems. For example, if a party decided to use a majority vote amongst some set of delegates to decide how it voted in the legislature, any delegates that wanted to rescind on the party campaign promises would probably be outvoted by most honest delegates and the party’s vote would be unaffected, whereas in a proportional representation system, some representatives might vote against the party. Parties could also be weaker, depending on how they were designed.

The one of the biggest advantages of direct representation lies in the flexability of its institutions. The way parties operate could vary from party to party and even change over time. Competing representatives and flexible institutions will cause legislators to be very responsive to voters.

Reading Liberals and Libertarians by Dr. Ernest Partridge over at Dissenting Voice prompted me to write this letter to Dr. Partridge in response:

Dear Dr. Partridge,

This is in reference to your May 17th, 2007 article Liberals and Libertarians published in Dissenting Voice. I think you have made a serious methodological error when attempting to prove the existence of “society” as an entity greater than the sum of individuals and their interactions, and since you mention that you devote two chapters of a book you are, writing I feel it is important to bring this to your attention. Read the rest of this entry »

Dani Rodrik points (link) to The Liberal Idea, a wonderful article on the roots and principles of liberalism. One of the main points of the article, which Rodrik emphasizes, is that “rights (including property rights) are defined and enforced by the state.” I find myself agreeing with this position more and more as time goes on, though it is a major departure from my old natural-rights based thinking.

Other passages I liked:

For the will of the majority to prevail, outvoted minorities must be willing to comply with electoral results. They must not resort to violence whenever they lose an election. To purchase minority compliance, the electoral majority must assure the electoral minority that its most precious values and rights will not be violated.

[…] the American Founders wrote our Constitution after a period of frustration with the weakness of central government. They aimed, therefore, not only to prevent tyranny, but also to create a sturdy government with the capacity to govern effectively and “promote the general Welfare.”

Here is a letter to the editor I wrote in response to this article over at Dissenting Voice

I am writing to respond to Ernest Partridge’s June 20th article Market Failure: The Back of the Invisible Hand in which he rails against what he sees as a common libertarian unwillingness to recognize market failures.

First off, it is quite disingenuous to call free-market fundamentalism “the dogma of the ruling elites.” Few politicians would qualify even as moderate libertarians. It is important not to confuse pro-business with free-market; subsidizing oil and farm businesses is pro-business but hardly free-market. President Bush could be rightfully called pro-business but not free-market. As a commenter pointed out, subsidies, tariffs and heavy handed regulations pervade much of the American economy; just look at how milk prices are regulated. Read the rest of this entry »

John mentions guest worker programs in a comment to my last post. He cites Dani Rodrik’s support for the idea. I also have been following the discussion Dr. Rodrik’s blog, as well as on George Borjas’s blog (Borjas has a very different point of view on the matter). Rodrik emphasizes that a guest worker program spreads around the wealth, by rotating in fresh workers eager to close that wage gap. Thus many more people enjoy the benefits of American wages. Part of the motivation here for Rodrik, I think, is that he is concerned about distributional effects in addition to aggregrate gains. Borjas counters that a guest worker program is not workable, in particular that some guest workers will inevitably become permanent workers. Rodriks thinks the argument is still good, though, even if some or all the workers don’t go home.

Rodrik: here, here, here, and finally sums it up here.

Borjas: here, here.