Friday, September 24, 2010

The anti-business hedge fund manager?

Constantly, we hear about the anti-business bias of the Obama administration. To some degree it's probably true, but the left-wing group Fairness and Accuracy in Media makes a great point here. They rightly point out that outgoing economic adviser Larry Summers was somewhat short of a Marxist:

Prior to joining the administration he was working as a managing director at DE Shaw, a gigantic hedge fund that paid him $5.2 million for his services in 2008. In the same year, he collected $2.7 million in consulting fees from other financial firms, including Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch. Clearly Wall Street was not turned off by his "anti-business" attitudes.

This is by no means the entire left-wing argument against Summers, of course. He was responsible for pushing Bill Clinton into deregulating derivatives back in 2000. It's safe to say he isn't a left-wing radical.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Religion of peace? Depends.

An often asked question today, especially in the wake of the near Ground Zero mosque, is whether Islam is a religion of peace. I don't think this question has a yes or no answer. The physicist Steven Weinberg explains it well:

Statements about what “Islam is” make little sense. Islam, like all other religions, was created by people, and there are potentially as many different versions of Islam as there are people who profess to be Muslims. I don’t know on what ground one can say that a peaceable well-intentioned person like Abdus Salam (Nobel Prize winning scientist) was any more a true Muslim than the murderous holy warriors of Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, the clerics throughout the world of Islam who incite hatred and violence, and those Muslims who demonstrate against supposed insults to their faith, but not against the atrocities committed in its name.

To take a similiar, analogous question: Is Catholicism a religion of life? The Catholic Church's official position is that all human life is sacred—abortion and birth control are prohibited. Obviously, many Catholics, even very faithful ones, do not strictly follow this dogma. And there are other issues Catholics disagree on: the Pope in 2003 opposed the Iraq war on religious grounds, but many other Catholics supported the war. On capital punishment, most American Catholics opposed their leader's position. Obviously, it's impossible to really say what Catholicism is, and by implication it's impossible to say whether Islam is a religion of peace.

A judicious view of government

David Brooks of The New York Times, a moderate conservative, is right on the money with this column (September 14). He makes a great metaphor:

Throughout American history, in other words, there have been leaders who regarded government like fire (emphasis added)— a useful tool when used judiciously and a dangerous menace when it gets out of control. They didn’t build their political philosophy on whether government was big or not. Government is a means, not an end. They built their philosophy on making America virtuous, dynamic and great. They supported government action when it furthered those ends and opposed it when it didn’t.

(Brooks may not be aware of this, but George Washington used the government as fire metaphor, so he's in good company).

This is exactly my viewpoint, which is why I can't support the tea party movement. The libertarian right considers government inherently bad. Like Brooks, I do not share this view. Government can do good things (e.g. protect the environment, kill terrorists,etc..) and it can do bad things.

This inherent neutrality is not only true for government, but for other institutions, such as religion. Whle I am a nonbeliever, I do not share the Richard Dawkins/Christopher Hitchens negative view of religion. (Hitchens, accurately, refers to himself as an "antitheist.") There are good and bad outcomes from religious belief— Mother Theresa and Osama bin Laden are both "religious." The anthropologist Scott Atran, who has studied religion for many years, has described religion as a "neutral vessel, with nothing intrinsic for the good or bad." See this video at about 3:10 for his thoughts on this subject.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Good to hear, my career

According to this article in The New Republic, the new chairman of Obama's Council of Economic Advisers is committed to "what works." That's good to know. I would hate for an economist to be committed to what doesn't work.

On a more serious note, the article mentions two of Goolsbee's controversial ideas:

One pet interest of Goolsbee’s is performance pay for government employees (an idea that sometimes drives unions to distraction). Another is a policy-innovation he’s dubbed the “automatic tax return.” Under Goolsbee’s proposal, the IRS would send a filled-out tax return to everyone with straight-forward finances. If the taxpayer agreed with the government’s accounting, they could just sign it and send it back. (If not, they’d be free to prepare their taxes independently.) Goolsbee has estimated that this change could save Americans billions in tax-preparation fees each year.

I like both of these ideas. Even though the automatic tax return would cost me money (I plan to work as a tax preparer this season), I still support it. It would save Americans millions of dollars in tax preparation fees. There would be far less audits—it would be really hard for the government to accuse you of dishonesty when they filled out the return.

I'll probably have to find a new career, alas, but there are always winners and losers in everything.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

LA Times is on the money

I strongly agree with this Los Angeles Times editorial.

The opening paragraph puts it well:

We don't like Proposition 8, and neither does California Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown or Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But there's a difference between opinion journalists and the state's constitutional officers. California's top public lawyer and its chief executive have an obligation to defend the laws of the state whether they like them or not — and that should include the ban on same-sex marriage.

For the record, I don't like Prop 8, either,but much as I hate to admit it, my personal preferences are not always the same as the requirements of the laws of the state of California.