Saturday, February 28

Doing more with less

On NPR, Chana Joffe-Walt cites Ben Zimmer, a lexicographer with the Visual Thesaurus, whom she says "loves phrases like 'do more with less'," and thinks "the phrase is useful in many ways because it's strategically vague". He says Benjamin Franklin "said that by diligence shall we do more with less perplexity. Well, there he was talking about how we should work hard and achieve greater results. But he actually specified less perplexity."

Joffe-Walt says that Franklin is "talking about making work simpler by just being focused and industrious. Zimmer says 100 years later, French economist Frederic Bastiat picked up on that same idea," and Zimmer cites Bastiat saying that "man is so constituted, that his constant concern is to lessen the ratio of effort to result, to substitute the action of nature for his own action. In a word: to do more with less."

Joffe-Walt then claims, "Bastiat is not talking about working harder. He's talking about putting your feet up." No, she's wrong. Look at the context. In Harmonies économiques, translated here, Bastiat wrote:
Man is so constituted that his constant concern is to lessen the ratio of effort to result, to substitute the action of Nature for his own action—in a word, to do more with less. His skill, his intelligence, his industry are always directed toward this end.
And if he "discovers a process whereby he can complete his task with half the labor it previously took...he will turn it to his own exclusive advantage. Either he will rest half the day, or else he will work twice as hard."

And what is his conclusion?
This, I may briefly remark, is what is always lost sight of in discussions concerning the question of machinery, free trade, and progress in general. We observe that labor is laid off by more efficient techniques, and we become alarmed. We fail to note that a corresponding proportion of the cost is likewise placed at our disposal at the same time.
And indeed, it's from the chapter entitled "Producer and Consumer". It's about how efficiency is good for the consumer. So one of the few times NPR cites Bastiat, it gets him wrong. Doing more with less brains, maybe.

Wednesday, February 25

high speed rail?

Obama, who wants to make the construction of a national high-speed rail network his “signature issue,” no doubt sees this as a model. It was a poor choice.

Aside from the simple factual issue that most of the first transcontinental railroad was built after, not during, the war, most of Obama’s audience would have forgotten that its construction caused for one of the first and biggest financial swindles of the nineteenth century. That scandal was the result of a simple fact: such a railroad made no economic sense in the late 1860s....

So now Obama wants to build a new rail empire. Like the Union Pacific, this one will require huge subsidies. Like Crédit Mobilier, contractors will make huge contributions to Congressional campaigns to keep the money flowing. The rail lines will never cover their operating costs, much less capital costs, and so will either go bankrupt or be forever subsidized by taxpayers. And just as the economic benefits of the Union Pacific were invisible for several decades, the environmental benefits of high-speed rail will be negligible or negative.

Sunday, February 22

an idle and repining despair

....since the aerial routes and the well-organized road routes had appropriated three-quarters of the passengers who used to make their journeys by train, the remaining railway companies had fallen into a settled melancholy; an idle and repining despair invaded their literature, and its influence was noticeable even in their time-tables."
I laughed out loud the first time I read this.

Saturday, February 21

havoc wreaked by legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco

This is a worldwide problem. We need a rational debate about the true damage caused by illegal drugs - which pales into insignificance compared with the havoc wreaked by legal drugs such as alcohol and tobacco. Until then, we have no chance of developing a rational drug policy.

Why did the cops shoot Bush?

So much for democracy

Forty-five percent (45%) of Americans oppose the federal government subsidizing mortgage payments for financially troubled homeowners, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey.

Thirty-eight percent (38%) think government subsidies are a good idea, and 18% are not sure which course is best to follow.

A missed opportunity

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood suggested yesterday that the Obama administration might embrace a new and controversial way to pay for highway and transit projects: charging motorists a tax for every mile they drive.

But no sooner was the idea being batted around by cable commentators and commuters than spokesmen for the White House and LaHood's own department shot it down -- hard.

Hello neighbor!

Liberal politicians’ pious devotion to the science of global warming never translates into action, unless the costs of action can be safely transferred onto non-voters. And environmental groups are just as cowardly. I sure didn’t notice the Sierra Club or the NRDC protesting when presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called for a suspension of the federal gas tax last year.
I live in a small liberal college town and walk to work; few of my neighbors walk anywhere.

Wednesday, February 18

Government intervention turned a thriving industry into a basket case

From television specials to newspaper editorials, the media are pushing the idea that current economic problems were caused by the market and that only the government can rescue us.

What was lacking in the housing market, they say, was government regulation of the market's "greed." That makes great moral melodrama, but it turns the facts upside down.

It was precisely government intervention which turned a thriving industry into a basket case.

Who's next?

Saturday, February 14

Unintended consequences

If Congress wants to deal with the rising number of foreclosures, it should not create a new mess by converting the mortgage crisis into a bankruptcy crisis. Doing so will open the door to a host of unintended consequences that will further freeze credit markets, raise interest rates for new home buyers, and spread the mortgage contagion to other types of consumer credit.
Do politicians really not understand this?

Money for us!

What do you get when you combine impeached former Illinois Democratic governor Rod Blagojevich, legendary K Street lobbying firm Cassidy & Associates, Senate appropriator Dick Durbin, D-IL, President Barack Obama, former Democratic House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri, and the largest spending bill in the history of the planet?

You get the costliest earmark Washington has ever seen.

Obama proclaims his stimulus bill is earmark-free, but that claim is a bit Clintonian. Turns out, it depends on what the meaning of the word earmark is. What if a provision in the bill doesn’t name one specific project, but is written so narrowly that only one project is eligible?

That’s what Republican critics charge in the case of clean-coal funding in downstate Illinois. The Senate bill included a section dedicating $4.6 billion to “fossil energy research and development,” with a $2 billion line-item “for one or more near zero emissions powerplant(s).”

Sure, that doesn’t name one powerplant, and it leaves open the idea of funding multiple powerplants, but there’s plenty of evidence that this line was intended as—and will function as—an earmark for the FutureGen coal gasification powerplant in Mattoon, Illinois.
It's not pork when we get it.

Friday, February 13

Not so different

When it comes to bailout/stimulus/econ, there is no significant break in policy between George W. Bush and Barack Obama, no matter how much it benefits enthusiasts and detractors from pretending there's a sharp break between the two. The biggest economic political* event last fall was not the election, it was the bipartisan, unpopular, panic-driven bailout. So yeah, Obamanomics from the outset precludes much of any warm embrace between liberals and libertarians. Much like Bushonomics did throughout his term. Hmmmm, what do the two presidents (and the congressional majorities that enabled them) have in common? Could it be that they're...politicians?

Monday, February 2

The paradox of spending?

There's a lot of talk about the "paradox of thrift", but I'm wondering about the inverse. Don't forget that it was that big spender John Maynard Keynes who thought up the term. Morover, the lack of a clever label for too much spending suggests to me that we don't think of too much spending as a bad thing. On the other hand, just because there's not a word for it doesn't mean the concept doesn't exist.