Size Problem

I have said it here before, but in the heart of this election year it bears repeating: the issue is not less government or more government, nor is it big government or small government. The real debates should be a) what do we need government to do, and b) how can government accomplish that as efficiently and effectively as possible. Arguing about size is irrelevant.

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Eyes Wide Open

The explosive rise in the U.S. incarceration rate in the second half of the twentieth century, and the racial transformation of the prison population from mostly white at mid-century to sixty-five percent black and Latino in the present day, is a trend that cannot easily be ignored.

Source: The First Civil Right – Hardcover – Naomi Murakawa – Oxford University Press

Princeton’s Naomi Murakawa begins her provocative new book The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America with a jarring statistic: “One black man in the White House; one million black men in the Big House.” Her premise is even more jarring. Rather than blame postwar tough-on-crime conservatives for the incarceration epidemic, she documents a case that lays our current prison problems at the doors of the Truman, Johnson, Carter, and Clinton administrations.

If there is one shortcoming with Murakawa’s analysis, it is that it focuses on the federal prison system. What this book begs for is a companion volume – or, indeed, library – to document what happened at the state prison and local jail systems in America.

Nonetheless, this book should be a clarion for us to examine the Incarceration Nation issue as a bipartisan matter. I have little stomach for identity politics as it exists in America today, but victimhood fatigue or ideological differences must neither blind us to uncomfortable facts, nor deter us from the search for answers.

We have too many people in prison, yet we cannot afford to retain dangerous people on our streets or return them there once paroled. The time has come to find a better path that addresses these two challenges than simply more bars, more walls, and more guards.

Majority Sees U.S. Leadership in Space as Essential – Pew Research Center

Majority Sees U.S. Leadership in Space as Essential – Pew Research Center.

The finding here, no surprise, is that Americans still want to be leaders in space, especially as China gears up to challenge the US lead at some point in the future.

The problem, of course, is that America can no longer afford that leadership if it is going to rely entirely upon government largesse, or upon a NASA that is still lurching uncertainly toward its future.

The American space program needs a rethink, one that neither hogs the effort for the government, nor dumps the burden of off-planet development onto the backs of the private sector. It is, in short, time for a new vision of space that incorporates a public-private partnership and the means to pay for the public part of that effort.

Democracy, Policy, and the Experts

The Death Of Expertise
Tom Nichols
The Federalist
January 17, 2014

The Internet has been accused of many things. It has been condemned as a destroyer of value. It has been reviled as the hiding place of gangsters and perverts. And now, in the pages of The Federalist, self-styled social science and public policy expert Tom Nichols accuses it of destroying expertise.

Nichols’ point, brutally summarized, is that by appearing to make everyone’s opinion of equal value, the Internet is slashing the value of an expert’s opinion to essentially zero. That’s dangerous, he says. To kill expertise is to reject knowledge and how we gain it. It is to raise the value of the opinions of people like Jenny McCarthy over those of doctors.

All agreed: we don’t want experts to go away. They offer tremendous value in society, and we would be lost without them.

And he is so very, very right when he notes:

People in political debates no longer distinguish the phrase “you’re wrong” from the phrase “you’re stupid.” To disagree is to insult. To correct another is to be a hater. And to refuse to acknowledge alternative views, no matter how fantastic or inane, is to be closed-minded.

All Hail the Expert

If this were as far as he took his argument, he would have won the day. Unfortunately, after a good start, Nichols goes off the rails in some important ways that hint at a larger, darker agenda.

He deems as “sanctimonious” and “silly” the idea that every person has a right to his or her own opinion. He launches into a screed against the incompetent taking part in discussions in the public arena. How dare, he suggests, that people who “can barely find their own nation on a map” have strong views on going to war? How dare those who cannot name their legislator have an opinion about how Congress handles a piece of legislation?

How dare, he asserts, anyone have an opinion on a field in which he is not an expert? Only experts, he implies, should be allowed to be heard on anything, unless, of course, the electorate become experts themselves. He doesn’t want a technocracy, mind you:

But when citizens forgo their basic obligation to learn enough to actually govern themselves, and instead remain stubbornly imprisoned by their fragile egos and caged by their own sense of entitlement, experts will end up running things by default. That’s a terrible outcome for everyone.

The threat: either people get a lot smarter about policy, or the experts are going to take over. We’ll let you have your opinions, but we control will remain in the hands of the people trained to run things.

It is sad that Nichols did not quit while he was ahead, making a case that we need to use care where we tread. In suggesting that we have a binary choice between everyone getting a lot smarter really quickly on the one hand, and letting the experts run things on the other, he is being disingenuous: the only likely outcome of those two is technocracy. And so what this article becomes is a case for the experts to take over.

Who is an Expert?

The reasons to distrust this reasoning are manifold. Let us dispose of the easy ones right away.

First, anyone who declares himself an expert is, in my opinion, immediately suspect. If someone who is in a position to know declares you an expert, you may well be one. If you declare yourself an expert, your status is suspect. Declare yourself a specialist or a professional if you must, but allow others do declare you an expert, a master, an authority.

Second, if we grant that he is an expert, his argument on behalf of the primacy of experts is self-serving, and thus suspect. In this, he is little different from the journalists decrying the Internet because it means we are reading less journalism. I feel bad for them, but the horse has left the barn, and experts, like journalists and the rest of us, are all facing a different world.

Trusting Experts

So, let us say that Nichols is an expert, and that he is being selfless. Handing over our policy decisions and our fates is a path fraught with problems. Primary among those “who gets to decide who the experts are?” Expertise is subjective, and the determination of whether someone is an expert demands other experts in that field. Who then appoints those people? This works us into a circular argument, and we wind up with a lot of people claiming expertise, but no objective way of making that determination.

I spent two decades working in China, and three decades studying it. Am any more or less an “expert” in China business than a newly-minted Harvard Ph.D. who did his dissertation on my field? Or than a journalist who has covered business in China for twenty five years? Says who? And why? You see where this is taking us. Multiply this problem by hundreds of fields, and the issue of determining expertise becomes non-trivial.

Once we have decided who the experts are, which ones do we trust? Any competent trial lawyer or white-shoe K Street lobbyist will tell you that on any issue, there are experts, but that often no two experts will reach the same conclusion, and often their conclusions will be diametric. Brookings, RAND, Heritage, CATO, and the Progressive Policy institute are all staffed by experts, but if you got all of their experts on any given issue in a room, you would have a war. Who decides among them and their recommendations?

Further, a reliance on experts implies that there are only two classes of people in any given field of knowledge: experts, and laymen, and only the former have value. This is poppycock. Apart from those with the highest level of mastery are polymaths (who are deeply conversant in multiple fields, though not necessarily expert in more than one;) apprentices, students, enthusiasts, buffs, and talented amateurs. People at any of these levels can make profound contributions to their fields.

Three examples jump to mind. Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp proved the value of amateur astronomy when they discovered the comet that was later named after them. A clerk in the German patent office turned astrophysics upside down when he wrote a short paper describing a general theory of relativity. And corporate finance executive Edward Miller, Jonathan Parshall, a software executive, and Anthony Tully, an IT support specialist each conducted research and wrote books that have forced us to reevaluate the history of World War II in the Pacific.

Broad-based Problems, Narrow Solutions

But among all of these, the biggest problem is the nature of expertise itself. Experts are expert, by definition, because they spend their lives focused on a narrow enough field that they are able to achieve a greater degree of knowledge than most others in their field. For that reason, they are excellent at answering specialized and narrow questions. Unfortunately, their expertise is of declining value as they touch on questions that have implications far beyond their narrow field of expertise, and it is axiomatic that many of the most vexing problems faced by government go far beyond an expert’s ken.

Elizabeth Coleman, who retired from the presidency of Bennington College last year after a quarter century in the role, frames the problem with experts more eloquently:

Over the past century the expert has dethroned the educated generalist to become the role model of intellectual accomplishment. While expertise has had its moments, the price of its dominance is enormous. . . . Questions such as “What kind of a world are we making?”“What kind should we be making?” “And “What kind can we be making?” move off the table.

These are precisely the kinds of questions our polity faces today.  You can substitute “nation” if you think “world” is too arrogant, but the issue stands. These are not the kinds of questions Mr. Nichols and his fellow experts are best suited to answer. They are the kind left to the rest of us.

The Tyranny of Experts

Which brings us to the final problem. Nichols contends that the idea that we all have a right to our own opinion is silly and sanctimonious. He is wrong. Giving us each the right to our own opinion, to express it, and to be proven wrong or vindicated is an essential part of the American democracy. To suggest otherwise steps beyond the arrogance of a learned man in awe of his credentials: it is to place us on the road to a technocratic tyranny where we are all the docile wards of the incredibly smart.

Aldous Huxley would have recognized what Nichols is suggesting, as would anyone who has read Huxley’s Brave New World. It is a world where because all men are not equal, their say in the way the world is run is not equal. That may appeal to the elitists. But that is not democracy, that is not the way the founders of the United States meant this country to be, and it is not a country that I would want to live in, either as an expert or a layman.

Let us keep this in mind: experts have value in that they should always be invited to inform the broader debate. Laymen need to think more critically and question the definitive statements of those who are not deeply knowledgable in the field in question. When faced with an expert versus a layman, deference should be paid to the point of view of the expert, but critical deference should be paid to all.

But experts should never be allowed to dominate that debate or, even worse, by dint of their knowledge be allowed to circumvent it. They are our servants. We shall not be theirs.

Getting to “Yes” On Pension Reform

Pension Reform Handbook: A Starter Guide for Reformers
L
ance Christensen and Adrian Moore

The Reason Foundation
July 2014

On the day when the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld a state law against the unionization of public employees, our neighbors over at the Reason Foundation have issued a study on pension reform. Lance Christensen and Adrian Moore, both of whom have extensive experience in the trenches trying to fix dysfunctional government, frame the study as a guidebook for legislators and others who need to make reform happen.

I will confess that I do not know enough about state employee pensions to make any emphatic statement about government employee pension reform, but like most citizens, I am caught in a quandary. Part of me wants to give police and firefighters a comfortable retirement. But the other part of me is aghast at how high the bill for public employment has climbed as a percentage of GDP. There has to be a way of taking care of the people who serve us without bleeding the populace or shutting vital public services.

I believe a solution is possible, but it demands that we as the people insist that process be open, transparent, and free from the influence of special interests that would freeze the process. And it starts with jettisoning some ideological baggage. If we Republicans are willing to grant that public workers have to be protected from exploitation, Democrats must be willing to grant that the status quo is set to bankrupt American government.

Costco and Trader Joe’s Prove that Capitalism Works

There is growing coverage in the media of Costco and Trader Joe’s demonstrating that it is possible to remain in the retail business in America while taking care of your people.

We applaud the sentiment, but we wonder if everyone hailing the labor practices of these companies recognizes a simple fact: both of these models prove that capitalism, properly managed, works well.

These companies are growing – and drawing business away from their less enlightened competitors – in no small part because their people are happier, and because of the difference that makes across the organization. And they did it all without being required to do so by law.

The road to a better form of capitalism is not through creating an entirely new, expensive, and self-interested regulatory infrastructure to guide it. Rather, it is through us directing our custom to companies that can set an example for the future, investing our funds accordingly, and by laying out codes of conduct to which we insist companies adhere.

We Need Government – But Not For Everything

“For 100 years, the narratives of progressives from Woodrow Wilson on, is that progress will come if and only if we concentrate more and more power in Washington, more and more Washington power in the executive branch and more executive power in the hands of experts — disinterested experts such as those who designed HealthCare.gov.”

— George F. Will

I like George Will a lot, and have for years. There are days when he gets a little doctrinaire for my tastes, but they are always redeemed by points like this.

I am not quite as doctrinaire about government as some of the more extreme libertarians. I believe that there are some things that the federal government must do because a) they must be done, and b) neither private enterprise, civil society, nor any other level of government can legally or practically do it. I think most reasonable libertarians would agree with me, and that the only thing we might dispute is where that line is drawn.

You don’t put Bechtel in charge of preserving our national parks. You don’t make the L.A. City Council responsible for building interstate highways. You don’t make the First AME Church responsible for enforcing civil rights legislation. And you don’t put the governor of Kansas in charge of the national defense. You get the federal government to do those things because, like it or not, experience has proven that they are most likely to be most effective in those roles. We can argue as long as you like about whether those things are necessary, but logic dictates that the Feds do it.

Neither, however, do you operate on the presumption that something is better done by the federal government. The folks in Washington have done some fine things over the years, but they have also laid upon this nation some schemes that we may wish we could forget but we must not.