You Got to Be Kidding Me!

Remembering Milton Friedman

Posted in Books, Economics, History, Politics by Stacy McMahon on February 22, 2007

Reason has a great piece on the Nobel Prize-winning libertarian economist Milton Friedman, who passed away last November at the ripe old age of 94. I of course knew who Friedman was, but had no idea that, for example, as a member of the Gates Commission he was primarily responsible for ending the military draft and instituting an all-volunteer military.

Vietnam troop commander William Westmoreland gruffly announced during one commission hearing that he was not interested in leading an army of “mercenaries.” Friedman coolly replied, “Would you rather command an army of slaves?”

Classic!

Without getting into the subject of monetary policy, Friedman also had another characteristic that’s sadly (and shockingly) rare in the realm of policy analysis:

Friedman famously believed that the true test of economic theory was not whether it seemed to make sense but whether it led to testable predictions that were borne out by observable evidence. Thus he didn’t depend only on logical argument to make his point. He and his collaborator Anna Schwartz scrupulously accrued data that showed, in as close to controlled experiments as history allows, how monetary changes usually had far greater effect on nominal income, prices, and output than did fiscal changes.

I once read about an engineering chief at a Detroit automaker who hung a sign on his door: “Without data, you’re just another opinion.” The absolute necessity of honest “did it work or not?” assessment of public policies is breathtakingly ignored by both workaday bureaucrats and politicians driven by ideology or poll results, with often-disastrous results for ordinary people. Radical free marketeer Milton Friedman spent much of his career in government, advising the decisionmakers. Because he was able to make his case so well, we live in his world–as Reason puts it–to a greater extent than someone living in the 1960s could have hoped.

Although Friedman frequently was on the “wrong side” of his profession, in the sense that his beliefs went against then-standard opinions, the cogency of his reasoning, his rigorous reliance on empirical evidence, and such real-world phenomena as stagflation ensured that, as the Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics put it, “No other economist since Keynes has reshaped the way we think about and use economics as much as Milton Friedman.”

Friedman believed so strongly in the relation of individual economic choice to basic freedom that he was willing to lend his advice to unfree societies if they would take it. That resulted in the worst and most ridiculous libel against him–the claim that he supported the bloody butcher of Santiago, Augusto Pinochet. That claim probably began life as part of a package of complaints about US involvement in the coup against Chile’s hard-left (but freely elected) president Salvador Allende, but it’s been separated over time and seems to come up a lot when the name of Milton Friedman is mentioned. As ever, reality is less dramatic:

The dictator asked the professor to write him a letter laying out what he thought Chile’s economic policies should be. Friedman did this, calling for quick and severe cuts in government spending and inflation as well as a more open trade policy.

[…]

Defending himself against accusations of complicity with or approval of Pinochet in a 1975 letter to the University of Chicago student newspaper, Friedman noted that when he spoke to communist leaders he “never heard complaints” that he was giving aid and comfort to their governments. “I approve of none of these authoritarian regimes—neither the Communist regimes of Russia and Yugoslavia nor the military juntas of Chile and Brazil,” he wrote. “But I believe I can learn from observing them and that, insofar as my personal analysis of their economic situation enables them to improve their economic performance, that is likely to promote not retard a movement toward greater liberalism and freedom.”

Milton Friedman is dead, long live Milton Friedman!

Update: Ilya Somin teases us with a couple of great quotes from a new biography of Milton Friedman

In 1971, President Richard Nixon imposed wage and price controls on the country, a ruinous policy rightly decried by Friedman and most other economists. Nixon told Friedman not to “blame George [Shultz] for this monstrosity,” even though Friedman’s friend Shultz was the administration official in charge of administering the price controls. Friedman’s response: “I don’t blame George, I blame you” (pg. 186).

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Jimmy Carter, "Disaster"

Posted in History, Politics by Stacy McMahon on January 12, 2007

A series of interviews Gerald Ford gave to his hometown newspaper has just been released. In one of them he has this to say about former president Carter:

“I think Jimmy Carter would be very close to Warren G. Harding. I feel very strongly that Jimmy Carter was a disaster, particularly domestically and economically. I have said more than once that he was certainly the poorest president in my lifetime.”

But he qualified that in another interview a couple years later:

“He was a very decent, fine individual,” Ford told the paper. “There were no major mistakes. There just weren’t a lot of exciting results.”

You have to wonder if he’d still think that today, with Carter’s new Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, over which 14 advisors at his Carter Center resigned in protest over its sympathy for terrorism and shabby treatment of Israel. Maybe Carter wanted to finally deliver those exciting results.

The AK or the Avada Kedavra?

Posted in Entertainment, Guns, History, Politics by Stacy McMahon on January 10, 2007

I just made up the title of this post, but now I wonder if JK Rowling deliberately gave her killing curse the same initials as the most important automatic rifle in history. Bitter ponders the role of firearms in fantasy stories and concludes that the literary downside might outweigh the practical benefit for the gun-toting character.

It seems to be a common plot device in film fantasy to pretend things like guns don’t exist, usually combined with treating them like something morally akin to WMD if they do turn up. Think of the episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer where after failing to defeat Buffy with androids or dark arts, Warren finally just shows up at the back gate and shoots her. This is the final rung in his slide down the ladder, IIRC coming after he murders his girlfriend (i.e. we’re to see using a gun–even if it fails to kill the victim–as worse than some sort of ‘garden-variety’ murder)

Alternatively, firearms exist but are magically useless against magical people or creatures. In the Harry Potter books, this is carried out further to have the good guys suffer drastic casualties while still limiting themselves to nonlethal magical weapons. I think this all mostly comes under the heading of suspending disbelief in support of the plot, but of course there’s a well known current of anti-militarism in western art and literature dating at least to the First World War.

The explanation could be simpler though: It just wouldn’t be the same if, say, Lucy and Edmund stood around discussing kill zones and the relative range and effectiveness of catapults, trebuchets or the weight of stone projectiles an eagle could carry, as opposed to finding the key to bring Aslan back at the critical moment to defeat the White Queen. Not that you can’t write a techno-thriller about ancient weapons (Micheal Crichton does this spectacularly in his novels Timeline and Eaters of The Dead/The 13th Warrior) but as the commenter on The BitchGirls says, good old-fashioned firepower would have a boring tendency to dominate fantastical confrontations.

Twelve Days Without A Post

Posted in Cooking, History, Travel by Stacy McMahon on November 30, 2006

So what did I do with my two weeks? Nothing interesting enough to write about, apparantly. I don’t normally slow down much in winter, but this year seems to be an exception, or it did until I realized why I was so run down earlier this week–caffiene withdrawal! Yes, I inadvertantly bought two pounds of decaf from Dunkin Donuts; one for work and one for home. I blame my personal decaffienation for my failure to notice this until someone else pointed it out. Anyway, when I realized how severe my withdrawal was, I decided it’s time to take a break from coffee. Really I’ve known this for awhile, since I no longer actually feel a coffee buzz, but being sleep all day and ready for bed by 8pm tears it. I’m back to juice and water for awhile.

My other not-really-interesting story is our (the ‘rents and I) visit to Plimoth Plantation on Black Friday. As the name suggests, this is the historical park outside Plymouth, MA. They have reconstructed native and pilgrim villages with interpretive staff, but their real business is hosting modern and 1620-style dinners. More on that later.

The villages were interesting for their historical accuracy (I assume) but even more interesting was the contrast in political correctness. Signs on the path warned us that the native staff are “real indians” (not necessarily Wampanoag) and are not in character. Visitors are to please refrain from whooping, using words like “squaw”, “chief”, “brave” etc.–apparantly “indian” is alright. The pilgrim staff on the other hand are reenactors, are in character, and we told that they will speak with the attitudes and ideas of their day. This turned out to mean, in one case, a lecture on how the Irish are “very much like the savages”. Silly, not that it’s a big deal. But this is Massachusetts afterall.

The star of the trip was the Mayflower II, a 1950s reconstruction of the original, which was just a charter and went on to other jobs and an unknown fate after the Pilgrims’ voyage. The ship is in excellent condition and is taken out sailing a few times a year. I had the impression that it’s possible to crew on it, but will need to check into that more. If so, I know what next year’s vacation will be!

The 1620 Thanksgiving dinner was a mixed bag. The food was interesting and good, with the centerpieces being mussels saute’d in the shell, pumpkin squash, and english “cheesecake”–basically a sweet-ish quiche without the ham. There was some rather mediocre entertainment that reminded everybody (literally, all the strangers around us mentioned it) of a rennaissance festival, and the company left something to be desired. You sit at long tables as in a pub, seats assigned by last name. I was wishing for a pretty girl to sit across from me, and I got my wish–sort of. She was cute alright, but in high school and didn’t want to chitchat with someone old enough to drink. I’d have probably been the same way at her age, but it made it a long hour and a half. My mom told me later that a guy my age sitting near her was from Alexandria. I knew I should have taken the inboard seat!

Freeholding

Posted in Economics, History, Politics by Stacy McMahon on November 8, 2006

This is a big topic, but I’ll keep the post short. Reading about WWI battlecruisers the other day, I got curious about the titles of nobility in the German ships’ namesakes; things like Graf (Count), Freiherr (Baron) and soforth. Looking those up, I unexpectedly came across a term I’d never heard before: allodial title, which is a kind of land ownership. I’ve seen a few different versions of the etymology, including old Latin for “all property” and “subject only to God” but the gist is that the holder of allodial land is a free “state” unto themselves, not subject to any municipal government but granted directly by the national government (state government in the US, if it were possible to have a real allodial title or land patent) This is why it’s associated with nobility–if you’re a landed aristocrat, you aren’t part of any municipality or administrative subdivision. You are your own administrative subdivision; a county of your own, with yourself as Count!

If you google the term, you will come up with all sorts of pages telling you how wonderful it is to have an allodial title, and various schemes (all BS with no legal recognition) to obtain one. It seems that such things existed in the early days of the republic. Among other things, records from that time contain many references to “freeholders” and “smallholders” (the German term above, Freiherr, literally means Freeholder or Free Lord) and at least some of these people may have owned their land in allodium, subject not to a town or county but directly to the state. As mentioned before, they are basically their own county. Which brings me to why it’s hilarious that libertines and tax-dodgers are the ones seeking allodial title to their land. It may be the ultimate form of freedom for the title holder, but it also literally means serfdom for anyone who lives on their land, since the allodial titleholder is the only political authority below the state government. The US Constitution prevents you from calling yourself a Baron, but a Baron you would be, and anyone living on your land, even owners of real estate (a legal subset of an allodium) would be subject to YOU as their local government. Cool for you, terrible for them.

Of course, you can’t truly get an allodial title as far as I know. Nevada apparantly had a program for that at one point. They did exactly what a rational actor in their position should do–they would give you an allodium in exchange for the expected future value of the property taxes on your land. So Warren Buffet can buy himself a barony. The best you and I can do is to assemble all the property rights (mineral rights, water rights etc) associated with our land until there are no deed restrictions. But we’ll still be part of the county or city, which is the true allodial titleholder. That said, it would be sweet to be my own county!

The Hunley was NOT a recycled steam boiler

Posted in History by Stacy McMahon on June 26, 2006

I just edited my first Wikipedia article. It’s the one about the H.L. Hunley, the Confederate submarine that sank the U.S.S. Housatonic outside Charleston, S.C. The article had perpetuated the myth that the Hunley was made from an old steam boiler, which is not the case. It was built from the keel up as a submarine, and its 1863 design incorporated several key features found on all modern submarines:

  • One forward and one aft ballast tanks, trimmed independently.
  • Dive planes mounted on the hull just behind the forward ballast tank.
  • Shrouded single propeller and rudder.
  • Snorkel tubes to recycle the air inside without surfacing. This is especially significant since it was ignored or forgotten, then reinvented at the end of WWII and is now standard on all submarines.

People tend to see the south as backward and hidebound, which is partly the truth and partly the result of a smear campaign dating from Reconstruction. Think of the Hatfields and the McCoys, which was basically a sensationalised story made up to sell newspapers in the north. It’s interesting, then, to think about those admittedly rare examples of cutting-edge innovation from that region.

Robo Rally and the State Department

Posted in Books, History, Politics, Social Life by Stacy McMahon on April 9, 2006

Some friends introduced me to Robo Rally last night. It’s a fun little racing game where each player tried to get their robot to the flag first. It works like LOGO, where you plan your move five steps in advance. The tricky part is that you draw cards to determine what moves you can make, the board has obstacles on it that can change your course and speed if you hit them (or block your progress) and if you cross paths with another robot they can push you around too. It’s a lot of fun trying to anticipate everything you need to take into account in planning your path, though it can be a chore to make sure you’re moving the game pieces exactly the way that the cards, other pieces, and board obstacles say they should be moved. Clint and I both said you’d think this would be a videogame, not a boardgame, especially given its theme. Apparantly it was invented back in the 80s, though it occurs to me that turn-based roleplays were beginning to be played on PCs around that time. Anyway, I figure you could probably do it in DHTML now, or maybe flash. Though neither of those would allow the cool feature Clint suggested–first-person playback of the last turn.

On a totally different note, I’m re-reading (again) Six Days of War, and as it describes the days before the shooting started, it just jumped out at me that the US State Department seemed to be just as obsessed with appeasing bullies and thugs back then as they have been in the current situation. In that case, while the Syrians were sending terrorists into Israel and firing artillery at Israeli farms, the Egyptians were conducting a massive military buildup in the Sinai and forcing UN peacekeepers to get out of the way. Against that, Israel specifically avoided moving troops or doing anything else to provoke the situation, but when they asked the US to send some weapons and/or a warship to visit an Israeli port, State told them to stop acting belligerant.

Now, a diplomat’s job is to try and calm people down before they start fighting. They’re not in the business of making threats or pointing guns at the other side. But I think the major iniquity in the situation above points up an actual flaw in American society. In any organization, each individual will typically be committed to doing their own job the best they can. That would seem to be exactly what you want, except that in a political organization (like the pieces of the government that deal with foreign countries) the “job” is really to advance a viewpoint. You’re not making widgets and trying to shave 30 seconds off the assembly time to increase productivity. You’re representing the interests of your country in the world, and when someone threatens your friends you need to back them up. You need to do that even when it means some of your savage beast-calming music doesn’t get played. You need to do that, not because I or someone else thinks the other side are asshats that need a beatdown, but because if the government’s position is going to be that the other side has to back down or get shot, then every part of the government needs to consistently say that. If they don’t, someone is going to think we don’t care what they do, when the opposite is actually the case (think of Saddam Hussein and April Glaspie in 1991)

Long-Gone Minneapolis

Posted in History, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on May 9, 2005

This is a student blog, so you shouldn’t be too surprised at the lack of posting during finals season. I’ve got one thought, though, and a link (unrelated) for those who are more thoughtful about their new urbanism, or who just like old pictures.

1.) About the political process of planning – because it’s all about politics. There are a couple of essentially disconnected trains of thought in the planning profession.

First, most planners subscribe in at least a general way to the notion of new urbanism. We’ve all grown up around 60s-era modernism–we’ve seen it, and that it was bad. Even if we don’t romanticize the prewar cities, we like today’s Georgetowns and Manhattans and figure most everyone else would, too. Call this the architect’s view, since that’s where it mainly emanates from.

Second, researchers have shown that the always-frustrating, NIMBY-ridden zoning and planning process, which always seems to spit out more sprawl regardless of what the initial input is, does in fact have an economic landscape.
Describing this landscape (as William Fischel has done) should enable planners to move beyond hawking walkable downtowns to finding real strategies to make our land use goals palatable to stakeholders, especially the poor homeowners whose life savings hang in the balance with every decision.

2.) Most people today live in suburbia and have rarely seen an early 20th-century downtown. If you have, you probably think of it as a place to go out for a good time, or a classy setting to try to impress dates or family and friends from out of town. So here’s a collection of photos of a working city (Minneapolis) from that era, with some witty and insightful commentary. Enjoy!

You Have to Start Somewhere

Posted in History, Mass Transit, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on February 10, 2005

John Kelly’s column in today’s Post includes a blurb about the Metro’s humble beginnings. I’m 29, and for me the system has always been part of the urban landscape. As a kid, one of my favorite parts of the summer was always the day my mom would take some friends and I downtown on the subway. We’d be fascinated by the lights in the tunnel passing by–at maybe 50mph, but it felt like 100. Hard to believe it started out like this:

“A colleague of mine, Mike Greenberg, gave me a little something his father-in-law, Bruno Zanin, had squirreled away. It’s a 20-page booklet that appeared as an advertising supplement in the Washington Star on March 21, 1976. On the cover are the words, “This is Your Metro Owner’s Manual.”

It was an endearing bit of PR designed to familiarize Washingtonians with the subway system whose Phase I — five stations between Rhode Island Avenue and Farragut North — was just about to open. “

Five stations, all downtown. And look at it today. Clarendon, Ballston, King Street, Chinatown, U Street, Metro Center, and a dozen more places both downtown and suburban that were dying and have managed to pull new life at least partly out of that regional connection on their doorstep. Funny, then, that Kelly’s headline is “Metro’s Promise — We’re All Still Waiting”. Maybe the funky orange jackets and caps (if not the funky orange upholstry) is long gone, but that just means Metro’s made the transition from that glamorous new toy that you vaguely fear was a mistake, to the trusty old tool that reminds you of a hundred past adventures. Sure it’s a little shabby these days, but can you even imagine what life would have been like without it?