A Budget At War 

I've long maintained that one of the few (if the only) truly public good is national defense. As such, it is the only manner of spending which can be justified on its own terms from first principles of government authority, without the need for empirical backing. In fact, national defense has no plausible (or even outlandish) alternative.

So what to make of this graphic (from this Wall Street Journal editorial)? How can defense spending under Bush, a "war president", possibly be this historically low? Are the escalating war costs we hear on the news more sizzle than steak?

There are a couple possible reasons why a massive buildup in defense spending could be more of a ripple than a splash.

1. Military spending is more efficient. Even given the legendary Pentagon office supply costs, it's possible technology has made spending (on capital, not labor mind you) more effective. So even a larger increase in military capacity could cost less.

2. Bush's budgets, along with the economy, have grown. Especially during the 90s but also so far this decade, the country has experienced significant growth in output (GDP). Of course, we know how federal spending has reacted to this growth. Thus, as a share of these things, military spending will look smaller in the past, even with the same or higher outlays for defense.

3. Future commitments are not reflected. Much of the federal budget, the part we should be worried about bankrupting us, is not reflected in current year outlays. For instance, social security and medicare's biggest liabilities are several years from now. So even spending that is committed in one year may not actual show up on the bill much later. I don't know how military spending works, but I suppose it's possible that the administration has managed to commit funds to the War on Terror without actually paying out yet. Maybe, and this is admittedly conspiratorial, the president wants a massive spending increase to hit once he'e out of office, or perhaps he knows of a future crisis that will need large military mobilization that isn't pressing this year.

[HT: Greg Mankiw's Blog: Defense Spending]



Birthday Fries for the FDA 

Because I have nothing to post right now, I've decided to link to an op-ed I wrote this Summer to "commemorate" the 100th anniversary of the FDA, which ran in the Orange County Register. It was titled by the editor, somewhat unpolitically "FDA: 100 years of misguided missions."

In 1904, the journal Appeal to Reason commissioned Upton Sinclair to write a fictional tract on socialism. Published in 1906, "The Jungle" became a worldwide best-seller. Perhaps the book's most famous passage employs graphic detail to describe the supposedly unsavory meatpacking practices of the time.
"On June 30, 1906, a broiling day in Washington," according to historian James Harvey Young, President Roosevelt signed into law the Pure Food and Drugs Act. Thus the chrysalis of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was born.



What's Old is New, Part II 

or "the eternal return of the same."

Francis Fukuyama, while not always agreeable, is probably one of maybe 3-4 consistently level-headed, thoughtful observers of international relations and big picture politics (Thomas Mann is another). His latest New York Times column is no exception. He argues that the accepted tradeoff between security and liberty is a false bargain, one that we unwittingly made during the Cold War.
It has become a cliché to say that “everything changed” after 9/11, but for two great American intellectuals — the sociologist Edward Shils and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the former New York senator — recent events would have represented the eternal return of the same. Both argued that in the past, the United States has taken real foreign threats and vastly exaggerated the menace they represented, spinning out conspiracy theories. These justified the creation of a state based on secrecy that undermined American liberties and the free exchange of information, the fundamental sources of success for the United States as a society.
[Shils] also argued that American democracy, in contrast to the historically aristocratic orders in Europe, was based on a principle of publicity in public affairs — indeed, it “luxuriated” in its wide-open culture. That openness made the idea of external threat and internal subversion especially shocking: “In America, more excitable temperaments and a tradition of violence in expression and energy in action have prompted a passionate response to the threat of secret machinations. A weaker sense of privacy than that of the Europeans, as well as a “flimsier attachment to corporate bodies,” made Americans seek their identity in great national symbols, leading to a hyperpatriotism and a tendency to see things in black and white.
We're too young to perhaps understand what a real threat Communism was, but this may be less so the case if the US goverment had engaged in a more "sunshine-friendly" intelligence policy.
The Venona intercepts of decrypted Soviet communications from the late 1940’s, declassified only after the cold war ended, showed without a doubt that there had been a major Soviet spy network in the United States. The intercepts proved that Julius Rosenberg was guilty of atomic espionage, and that Whittaker Chambers’s charges that Alger Hiss was a Soviet agent were correct. Defense of Hiss had of course become a cause célèbre among the liberal intelligentsia of the 1950’s. And yet security officials within the government all along had conclusive evidence of his spying, and of the true scope of the Soviet conspiracy. But they failed to reveal what they knew, even to President Truman. This failure, Moynihan said, allowed the public imagination to supplement real knowledge with destructive fantasies, which in turn called into being a generation of anti-anti-Communists. This is a polarization with which we are still living today.
[HT: The Agitator]



Red and Blue Makes Purple or What's Old is New 

While no reasonable person thinks that states are absolutely politically red or blue, we may be overstating the case of a polzarized America. In a new working paper, Ed Glaeser and Bryce Ward (both Harvard) argue that we are historically no more divided than int he past.

In particular, they take on what they say are five commonly perceived myths about American political geography:

1.) America is divided into two politically homogenous regions
2.) The two parties are more spatially segregated than in the past
3.) America's political geography is more stable than in the past
4.) America's cultural divisions are increasing
5.) America is becoming more politically polzarized

The abstract:
The division of America into red states and blue states misleadingly suggests that states are split into two camps, but along most dimensions, like political orientation, states are on a continuum. By historical standards, the number of swing states is not particularly low, and America’s cultural divisions are not increasing. But despite the flaws of the red state/blue state framework, it does contain two profound truths. First, the heterogeneity of beliefs and attitudes across the United States is enormous and has always been so. Second, political divisions are becoming increasingly religious and cultural. The rise of religious politics is not without precedent, but rather returns us to the pre-New Deal norm. Religious political divisions are so common because religious groups provide politicians the opportunity to send targeted messages that excite their base.

That the current number of swing states is not uncommon is an easily confirmable point. That America has in the past had large, powerful religious constituencies is both no big surprise and yet easily overlooked.



Nat'l Boss Day 

Since today is National Boss Day (someone want to explain to me exactly what the f*ck kinda of "Holiday" that's supposed to be?), I thought you guys might enjoy this:
Need to impress someone quickly?


The procedure is simple. Think of any three-digit number; then select the corresponding buzzword from each column. For instance, number 257 produces "systematized logistical projection", a phrase that can be dropped into virtually any report with that ring of decisive knowledgeable authority. No-one will have the remotest idea of what you're talking about, but the important thing is that they are not about to admit it!



You, Me, and the Rest Like Us 

From today's Financial Times:
A bleak picture of the corrosive effects of ethnic diversity has been revealed in research by Harvard University’s Robert Putnam, one of the world’s most influential political scientists. His research shows that the more diverse a community is, the less likely its inhabitants are to trust anyone – from their next-door neighbour to the mayor.
The core message of the research was that, “in the presence of diversity, we hunker down”, he said. “We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don’t trust people who do look like us.”

Prof Putnam found trust was lowest in Los Angeles, “the most diverse human habitation in human history”, but his findings also held for rural South Dakota, where “diversity means inviting Swedes to a Norwegians’ picnic”.
[Emphasis added]
[HT: Greg Mankiw]


Your Services Will No Longer Be Needed 

Reason Online has a short piece by John Stossel (adapted from his most recent book) on what it takes to fire a public school teacher in New York City.
Once, [chancellor of New York City schools Joel] Klein reports, the school system discovered that a teacher was sending sexual e-mails to a 16-year-old student. "This was the most unbelievable case to me," he says, "because the e-mail was there, he admitted to it. It was so thoroughly offensive." Even with the teacher's confession, it took six years of expensive litigation before the school could fire him. He didn't teach during those six years, but he still got paid—more than $350,000 total.
The full illustrated schematic of firing procedures is just breathtaking.



The Elephant in the Room 

Rob asks: "What are the netroots supposed to do when Lieberman wins in Connecticut? Will it be considered a failure of will or a political miscalculation or what? Or will it just get papered over..."

I don't have a savvy answer to the question, but my cynical knee-jerk is that focal point events (especially races) always seem seminal until their outcome goes the other way. If Lamont wins, of course, it will mark "an important change" that everyone knew was coming. Just look at all the Yankees armchair quarterbacking for pete's sake.

But Rob's question, motivated as it was by DailyKos, reminds me of Cato Unbound, a monthly roundtable kind of online publication put out by the Cato Institute, and populated by intelligent observers of "big-picture topic[s]." This month, they ask the question above.

The contributors are worth hearing out, even if they become somewhat myopic at points. The lead essay is by DailyKos proprietor Markos Moulitsas, with responses by former Clinton advisor and author Bruce Reed, The American Propsect editor Harold Meyerson, and eventually Reason editor Nick Gillespie.

Bruce Reed, as I think I've mentioned before, is a fantastic writer who uses wit and panache to construct thoughtful commentary. In his contribution, he comes bearing three gifts that Democrats can deliver libertarian-minded folk:

1. Small Government: through earmark reform and spending caps. Also, he profers Republicans' past failures to curb spending as indication that Dems will do it better.
2. Limited Government: one word, accountability.
3. Ending Corporate Welfare: it was a Democrat afterall who signed welfare reform, why wouldn't they pass corporate welfare reform?

That the three gifts are principally the same thing wouldn't pass the smell test. Reed admits as much in the beginning when he leaves the hard sell to Kos and makes a realistic bargain.

So...should libertarians go blue?



More (YouTube) Back to the Future stuff: The Family Guy Edition

Peter tests his Delorean here, and Rufus Griffin in "Black to the Future" here: "We're talkin' Marty McSuperFly!"



Best line I read today 

A do-nothing Congress will seem like the good old days once voters hear that "get a ruler and measure it for me" was Foley's idea of oversight.

[From Bruce Reed's latest "Has Been" column: "Page Turner"].



The Lesser of Two What-Have-You's 

Two columns in the Washington Post this week collectively paint the upcoming midterm elections in perhaps the starkest and most gaudy colors to date.

E.J. Dionne delineates how state and local politicians can maintain popularity in the face of abysmal national party polling. In particular, as it should be clear to anyone by now, Bush is no kindling for local Republican fire.
Asked the classic question about whether "things in New Hampshire" were going in "the right direction" or were "seriously off on the wrong track," an astonishing 79 percent saw their state moving the right way; only 14 percent saw it on the wrong track.

But when asked exactly the same question about how their country was doing, according to findings released yesterday, only 34 percent of New Hampshire residents said "the right direction."

In other words, national party R's are screwed as their local political fortunes don't trickle up.

Yesterday, Sebastian Malaby (who is quickly becoming my favotie liberal commentator) asks: Does it matter if the Dems win?
Most Democrats in Congress seem bereft of ideas or the courage to stand up for them. They clearly want power, but they have no principles to guide their use of it.
There's a long tradition of demagoguery on entitlement reform, but refusing even to discuss the challenge plumbs new depths of cynicism. A decade ago, Democratic centrists such as Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska argued that runaway entitlement spending would rob the rest of the budget, draining money from social programs that liberals are supposed to care about. Today, a pragmatic Republican such as Sen. Bob Bennett of Utah can propose a progressive fix to Social Security that does not involve personal accounts. But Democrats won't come forward to support him.


Back to the YouTube 

This may be no surprise to some, but I had no idea what a glut of Back to the Future related videos are on YouTube. My favorite so far is Tom Wilson (who played Biff) playing the "Question Song" as part of his stand-up routine.

Here he is doing (essentially) the same song, but in a post-modern twist, he grabs the camera from an audience member and dares him to put it on YouTube after, well, giving the camera a private show.


They go "whoooop!" 

Bubb Rubb and Lil Sis -- coming soon to a muffler shop near you.


Tidy Up 

Ikea's "neat" new ad campaign. Number one (funniest), number two (most clever), and number three (most macabre).


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