15 Oct 2014

City of Houston Subpoenas Pastors’ Sermons

Economics 20 Comments

I saw several people denouncing this on social media, and I assumed they were exaggerating. But no, the city of Houston has been subpoenaing local pastors for written copies of their sermons. As the Houston Chronicle explains:

Houston’s embattled equal rights ordinance took another legal turn this week when it surfaced that city attorneys, in an unusual step, subpoenaed sermons given by local pastors who oppose the law and are tied to the conservative Christian activists that have sued the city.

Opponents of the equal rights ordinance are hoping to force a repeal referendum when they get their day in court in January, claiming City Attorney David Feldman wrongly determined they had not gathered enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. City attorneys issued subpoenas last month during the case’s discovery phase, seeking, among other communications, “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.”

The subpoenas were issued to several high-profile pastors and religious leaders who have been vocal in opposing the ordinance. The Alliance Defending Freedom has filed a motion on behalf of the pastors seeking to quash the subpoenas.

The slippery-slope danger here is obvious: It’s very bad news if people worry that their public advocacy for an upcoming vote can invite government scrutiny.

However, beyond the obvious issues, let me raise the more general problem of taxation: The government can always justify its investigations into church sermons or the activities of many not-for-profit organizations because their special tax treatment comes with strings attached. Namely, they are not supposed to agitate for specific political candidates or other causes. Indeed, the cheekily titled “Freedom From Religion Foundation” organization won a lawsuit earlier this summer (filed in 2012) in which  the IRS agreed to step up its monitoring of churches in this respect.

As with any form of systematic theft, there is no way to “fix” this problem. If the government takes money from people against their will, and this is considered the default position, then to exempt any individual or group is construed as a special gift to which strings can be attached. If people agree that the government has a right to take a large chunk of an organization’s income, then the government certainly has the right to say, “We’ll give you your money back if you don’t talk about things on Sunday morning we don’t like.”

The ultimate solution to these conflicts won’t be through codification of “free speech” codes; we already have the 1st Amendment. The solution is to convince the public that the default position is they get to keep the income they earn. That’s not a special favor from the IRS.

15 Oct 2014

Would Milton Friedman Have Supported a Carbon Tax?

Climate Change, Shameless Self-Promotion 3 Comments

My sources say no. And one of them is Milton Friedman from 1999. (Thanks to Keshav–I think?–for digging that one up.)

14 Oct 2014

Potpourri

Krugman, Potpourri, Shameless Self-Promotion 34 Comments

==> My column at FEE talking about outsourcing in the context of the “Million Jobs Project.”

==> No joke, I submitted this to the blog of unnecessary quotation marks.

==> Glenn Greenwald explains why endless war is now literally US doctrine.

==> A Kontradiction or a contradiction? Krugman vs. Krugman on carbon taxes.

==> Don Boudreaux with a good quote from Lachmann on capital deepening.

==> Joe Salerno on Jean Tirole winning the Nobel in econ. Hey, why was Kirzner considered in the running this time around? I first heard the theory that Baumol would win, and then they’d have to give it to Kirzner too, a good ten years ago. Why was there such a buzz this year for Kirzner?

14 Oct 2014

Wealth of Nations Bask

All Posts 7 Comments

I’m sorry to ask such a silly thing, but does any reader have a physical copy of Wealth of Nations on hand? I’m trying to get the exact citation for this famous quote:

“The things which have the greatest value in use have frequently little or no value in exchange; on the contrary, those which have the greatest value in exchange have frequently little or no value in use. Nothing is more useful than water: but it will purchase scarce anything; scarce anything can be had in exchange for it. A diamond, on the contrary, has scarce any use-value; but a very great quantity of other goods may frequently be had in exchange for it.”

I got the quote online, but where I’m using it, the editor wants a full citation including page number. So if anybody can help me out, that would be great. Just remember, if you do look it up, can you please tell me the full bibliographical info too, so I can put your edition of the book in my Bibliography?

12 Oct 2014

You Can’t Ruin God’s Plan

Religious 20 Comments

Because I was raised Catholic (and thus lack detailed knowledge of the various Protestant sects), I am not confident in describing my current Protestant views with quick labels. A lot of what people mean by “Calvinist” applies to me, but then again on certain doctrinal issues I think that both the Calvinists and their opponents are making correct statements, but erroneously believe that their positions are mutually exclusive.

In any event, one of the hardest things for me to come to grips with, is the fact that in a certain sense God causes evil people to do what they do. This jumped out at me many years ago when I read the (familiar) story of Moses and the 10 plagues and (for the first time) realized that God was NOT up in heaven, really hoping that that stubborn Pharaoh would capitulate and let the Israelites go, without having to “force God’s hand” and make Him continue to up the ante.

What destroyed my original, childhood view of the story was this simple line: “But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the Lord had said to Moses.”

Now there is a lifetime (and then some) of theology and philosophy packed into that line; I’m not even going to bother trying to dip into it here. (I highly recommend GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday in this vein.)

What I do want to point out is something that is very reassuring, rather than perplexing, that comes from this perspective. Specifically, when you recognize that God is in complete control–even over “the bad guys”–then you can relax. YOU CAN’T RUIN GOD’S PLAN. I know everybody (who believes in the God of the Bible) knows this, but I bet most of you are like me and occasionally slip and start worrying over your personal shortcomings, and how you’re letting everybody down. But to repeat: Stop worrying. YOU CAN’T RUIN GOD’S PLAN. You lack the power to do so.

It’s not merely that it is incorrect to worry in this way. It’s impudent to do so. If you are at all worried about the fact that you freely chose to sin this morning, because of the negative consequences of your free choice, then you are saying God wasn’t smart or powerful enough to do something to offset it.

Don’t misunderstand me; you should still try to stop sinning, and to freely choose to obey God’s commands. But the point of doing so (it seems to me) is not that this will promote earthly happiness; God is in total control and already designed every moment in the universe’s history. Rather, the point of you obeying God is so that your relationship with Him can blossom. Deep down, you know that if you constantly reject His viewpoint and make a mockery of all He holds dear, then you and He can’t be very close friends (if you’re thinking of Jesus) or you can’t feel like a good son/daughter (if you’re thinking of God the Father).

09 Oct 2014

Taxes Are Theft?

Foreign Policy, Libertarianism, Shameless Self-Promotion 81 Comments

…he asked innocently. I am guessing I will have more to say on this topic, but here’s the first swing. Notice this part where I point out something ironic in Sumner’s discussion of Hiroshima:

It’s also interesting that we can use Sumner’s rhetorical device against him. Notice in the beginning of his passage, he says that people who label the a-bombing of Hiroshima as terrorism “use the word as a sort of crude cudgel, to bash their opponent.” Well gee whiz, Sumner says that as if it advances the debate on rhetoric by one iota. But why should we think that? If a-bombing kids is acceptable, why can’t we bash people with a crude cudgel if they’re advancing a really monstrous argument? There’s good cudgel-bashing and bad cudgel-bashing, right?

08 Oct 2014

Milton Friedman Bask

All Posts 48 Comments

Did Friedman ever write directly on a carbon tax in the context of climate change? I’ve seen people cite general principles he had, but did he ever himself take a stand on carbon taxes (or other government measures) to mitigate climate change?

08 Oct 2014

Krugman the Shill

Foreign Policy, Krugman 7 Comments

[UPDATE: I keep forgetting that not everyone grew up in a household that had succumbed to the British invasion. I didn't write the Krugman tribute song from scratch; I parodied this Buckingham's classic. I love it when Krugman's fans tell me my song "sucks," apparently thinking I wrote the whole thing. They need to realize they are giving me way too much credit.]

Around the 35 second mark of my tribute, I point out that Paul Krugman is the top in his class:

Today I just saw another vindication of my label.

First, the context: Krugman called George W. Bush the arguably worst president in US history. And it wasn’t just about economics; Bush’s big sin was to lie the country into war in Iraq. OK, fair enough; I have no problem hammering Bush on foreign policy like that.

But what was odd is that Krugman never said a word about Obama’s foreign policy, even as more and more progressives (especially Glenn Greenwald who was heroic in this respect) have pointed out that Obama is actually worse on civil liberties and foreign policy than Bush, in several dimensions (though not all dimensions, to be sure). When I say Krugman “never said a word,” I don’t mean that as a rhetorical device; I literally could not remember him ever saying a single thing about Obama on NSA spying, drone assassinations of people on the secret kill list, new bombing campaigns, etc.

Well in Rolling Stone Krugman has an article defending Obama’s entire presidency. “Aha!” I thought. “Now Krugman will have to speak up.” And here’s how he threaded the needle:

So far, i’ve been talking about Obama’s positive achievements, which have been much bigger than his critics understand. I do, however, need to address one area that has left some early Obama supporters bitterly disappointed: his record on national security policy. Let’s face it – many of his original enthusiasts favored him so strongly over Hillary Clinton because she supported the Iraq War and he didn’t. They hoped he would hold the people who took us to war on false pretenses accountable, that he would transform American foreign policy, and that he would drastically curb the reach of the national security state.

None of that happened. Obama’s team, as far as we can tell, never even considered going after the deceptions that took us to Baghdad, perhaps because they believed that this would play very badly at a time of financial crisis. On overall foreign policy, Obama has been essentially a normal post-Vietnam president, reluctant to commit U.S. ground troops and eager to extract them from ongoing commitments, but quite willing to bomb people considered threatening to U.S. interests. And he has defended the prerogatives of the NSA and the surveillance state in general.

Could and should he have been different? The truth is that I have no special expertise here; as an ordinary concerned citizen, I worry about the precedent of allowing what amount to war crimes to go not just unpunished but uninvestigated, even while appreciating that a modern version of the 1970s Church committee hearings on CIA abuses might well have been a political disaster, and undermined the policy achievements I’ve tried to highlight. What I would say is that even if Obama is just an ordinary president on national security issues, that’s a huge improvement over what came before and what we would have had if John McCain or Mitt Romney had won. It’s hard to get excited about a policy of not going to war gratuitously, but it’s a big deal compared with the alternative.

I refer you back to my music video, around the 35 second mark.