This makes me want to watch Charade again.
And every Audrey Hepburn film. Except Funny Face.
This makes me want to watch Charade again.
And every Audrey Hepburn film. Except Funny Face.
Jane Mayer has a bone to pick with the David and Charles Koch, billionaire brothers who spend (some of) their money supporting libertarian causes and fighting government regulation. Their spending, she seems to think, is central to the Obama administration’s current (extended) bout of political misfortune. She also insinuates they’ve used their money dirtily, somehow improperly influencing the political process. But, though she spends nearly 10,000 words in her New Yorker article picking through their history and following their money trails, it’s not clear that there’s much there there. What there is is a lot of spending money to support causes that Mayer apparently finds distasteful, a few (serious) lapses by the brothers’ corporation, and absolutely nothing (apart from quotations from Democratic Party operatives) to suggest that the Kochs have managed to manufacture a political movement out of thin air. And there is absolutely nothing in her article to suggest that the Kochs have engaged in inappropriate or illegal political activity.
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She recounts how the two brothers took the oil company that their father left to them (and two other brothers, whom David and Charles bought out), and, after renaming it Koch Industries in their father’s honor, turned it into the second-largest private company in the U.S., with holdings that include “oil refineries in Alaska, Texas, and Minnesota, . . . Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups, Georgia-Pacific lumber, Stainmaster carpet, and Lycra.” WIth their money, they’ve taken to donating funds to organizations that share their views. Among them are the Cato Institute, a nonpartisan libertarian think tank, the Mercatus Center, an economics think tank based at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, and the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm that spends its time fighting “eminent domain abuse” and onerous bureaucratic red tape.
Though Mayer accuses the brothers of “[subsidizing] a pro-corporate movement,” even she acknowledges that their money hasn’t been limited to their own financial interests:
The Kochs have gone well beyond their immediate self-interest, . . . funding organizations that aim to push the country in a libertarian direction. . . . Many of the organizations funded by the Kochs employ specialists who write position papers that are subsequently quoted by politicians and pundits. David Koch has acknowledged that the family exerts tight ideological control. “If we’re going to give a lot of money, we’ll make darn sure they spend it in a way that goes along with our intent,” he told [an interviewer]. “And if they make a wrong turn and start doing things we don’t agree with, we withdraw funding.”
It’s not clear what the problem is with this. It’s perfectly fine for individuals or organizations to try to affect public debate. The wealthy and powerful are not denied that right, and Mayer notes (and does not object to) George Soros’ Open Society Institute spending up to $100 million a year in the U.S. George Soros happens to support greater social welfare spending, and the Kochs don’t agree. Are they prohibited from spending money to support freer markets just because it would benefit them?
As Joseph Lawler notes, the language she uses to describe the Koch brothers is awfully extreme relative to the activities she’s describing. In response to Mayer’s description of David Koch’s promotion of libertarianism as “[funding] stealth attacks on the federal government, and on the Obama Administration in particular,” Lawler asks
If that is how you describe peaceful, lawful activism, then what words are left to describe, for instance, the actions of al Qaeda, which funded an actual stealth attack on the federal government?
Though Mayer weaves a good story, she mostly weaves it by insinuation of political impropriety, unfounded by evidence. (She does cite maintenance and safety failures at Koch Industries in the 1990s, some serious, including a leak that led to an explosion that killed 2 people. Safety failures are lamentable and should be corrected, and Koch Industries should comply with the law and face consequences when it fails to. But any large organization is bound to make mistakes—sometimes serious ones; such mistakes don’t disqualify the corporations from defending their own interests.)
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Update: Lots of folks have commented on Mayer’s piece. And, apparently, Koch Industries saw fit to link to my blog post. I’m happy for the attention, and just in case anyone’s wondering, nothing (and no one) prompted my post but the questionable innuendo in the New Yorker piece.
—Nathan, August 30, 2010 at 9:52 p.m.
Gerald steps on the bus, a smile beaming amidst a salt-and-pepper beard that gracefully compliments his smooth, chestnut-toned skin. He holds his right hand in the air, proudly showing off what he imagines to be a lottery ticket, displaying it to the bus and to his companion. The bus driver, recognizing the card in Gerald’s hand as a one of the city’s subsidized bus passes, looks at Gerald for three-and-a-half beats, then turns his eyes back to the road as he presses the button closing the front door of the bus.
Gerald’s companion hasn’t moved his feet. He stands on the sidewalk, shouting, “Hundred million dollar man! Have you seen my friend? He’s a hundred million dollar man!” The bus begins to move, and Gerald, head held high, shuffles down the aisle before depositing himself in a seat near the back door of the bus.
“You’re gonna make it, Gerald!” the friend calls out. The friend’s words are inaudible, since the windows are sealed against the hot afternoon sun, but his enthusiasm is apparent from the movement of his fists punching the air as he shouts his prophecy.
Seated and looking forward as his friend passes from view, Gerald’s city-man habits try to kick in, telling him to kill the smile, even if he’s thrilled to death. But his beaming smile can only be tamed ever-so-slightly, just enough to show everyone that he’s really trying. In case they’re looking. And he hopes they’re looking. Because he doesn’t care if they’re looking. He’s a hundred-million-dollar man, after all.
Gerald rides the bus, his would-be lottery ticket rubbing against his quadriceps like something more substantial—perhaps a credit card—in his pocket. He can’t help but think about that lottery ticket. He has all but forgotten the book that he nestled in the crook of his left arm and pressed against his rib cage. The title is obscured by his arm, but the publisher-author declares itself in clear, gold-foil letters that stand out from the forest green, faux leather cover: Alcoholics Anonymous.
Gerald’s smile can’t be contained the whole ride home.
It became fully apparent today that seasonal changes are upon us here in the Nation’s capital.
It’s August, so naturally I expect winter-themed decorations at all fine establishments. (Perhaps the proprietor was trying to be ironic by hanging snowflakes in August. I’ll grant you that. But when goosebumps rise on my arms because of the bite in the air, the irony doubles.)
Should you support policies that go against your personal preferences? For example, if you happen to like opera or classical music, would it be wrong to oppose government funding of the arts? I happen to be just the sort of opera lover who doesn’t like that his favorite art form suckles heavily at the government teat. (A side note: It has been heartening to see the Metropolitan Opera experiment with new ways of getting opera to the masses—like live HD broadcasts of matinée performances at movie theaters—to make it more relevant and more likely to survive without government funding in the future.) If government support for opera were cut, I would be dismayed because opera would be less available than it is right now, but deep down I would be pleased. I don’t want to subsidize music I don’t enjoy (I’m looking at you, Mr. Death Metal), and I don’t expect others to pay for my music, either.
Eric Morris, a UCLA transportation scholar who writes for the Freakonomics blog, points to himself and Randal O’Toole as examples of people who oppose policies that align with their personal preferences. Both of them are train enthusiasts: the sorts of fellows who play Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon and have model train tracks in their basements. Despite their preferences, they both oppose government support for high speed rail in the U.S. O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute who inspires strong feelings in the planning community, points to his train love to explain that no, he doesn’t just hate trains. Instead, he explains his opposition to funding for rail projects this way: “I don’t expect taxpayers to subsidize these preferences any more than if I liked hot-air balloons or midget submarines.”
Morris goes on to raise the question of principles versus preferences:
Is supporting policies that go completely counter to one’s own personal preferences to be admired or abhorred? Some might find it eccentric, and it certainly is a minority trait. My experience has been that most people in this world assume that others share their likes, and if they don’t, they will do so with just a little persuasion. In some cases this may be true. But regardless, this is certainly a convenient outlook because it means there is a happy coincidence: the best path to doing selfless good for others just happens to be promoting public policies that cater to one’s own self-interest.
To be honest, I’d never quite thought of the possibility that supporting policies that go counter to one’s personal preferences might be abhorrent. On the contrary, I find it admirable, and a sign that the support is well-thought-out and that the policy probably deserves a closer look. After all, it’s a rarity for someone to oppose his own preferences, because arriving at such a position involves (a) admitting that one’s preferences are a little off and (b) potentially depriving oneself of the pleasure that would come from seeing one’s preferences come to fruition. I suppose it’s possible that someone might be knee-jerk anti-preference, but that possibility seems slim. Am I unusual in thinking that way?
Matthew Yglesias uses an unlicensed barber—himself—and seems to manage just fine without it. I did the same thing for roughly two years, and lived to tell the tale. But should Yglesias or I try to sell our services to other people, he or I would run straight into the D.C. Barber and Cosmetology Board, which requires 1,500 hours of training. What does one spend 1,500 hours of cosmetology training doing? 40 hours learning how to shampooing (massage shampoo into hair, rinse, repeat); 50 hours learning personal hygiene (wash your hands after using the restroom); 150 hours studying anatomy, physiology, bacteriology, pathology, chemistry, and electricity (use clean equipment between customers); and another 1,260 doing other similar tasks. Learning to cut hair? 100 hours.
One shouldn’t have to spend 100 hours of learning how to cut hair—plus 1,400 hours learning other related (and unrelated) subjects—before offering to cut others’ hair for money. Yes: there are potential dangers in using sharp tools and caustic chemicals around people. But it seems unlikely that 1,500 hours of training is necessary to train a would-be hairstylist not to run with scissors and to follow the instructions on the perm box. All joking aside, though, the danger is relatively low, and what danger there is is already addressed through the harm to reputation and the civil liability that would follow sloppy or dangerous work. I have someone else cut my hair now (Ryan P. at Bang Salon Metropole, in case you want to know), and I wouldn’t go to someone who hadn’t had some training, but that’s because I think a trained hairstylist can consistently make my hair presentable. I couldn’t care less whether the Barber and Cosmetology Board has seen fit to give someone credentials; being employed at a reputable salon that would only hire someone trained is enough for me.
Jonathan Adler points out that major supporters of licensing regimes are often the very folks who would benefit from limiting potential competitors:
Licenses restrict entry and reduce competition, enabling those with licenses to capture more rents. This is actually the case with most licensing regimes, even those that appear to serve a greater public interest than barber licenses. Though I doubt Yglesias would go this far, I would argue that it’s rare that a licensing regime of this sort is put in place without the support of those who stand to benefit economically, and that many public spirited rationales, including health and safety, are a smokescreen.
Adler goes on to note that licensing and inspection often becomes a tool for characters who exploit their ability to grant or deny licenses and note or ignore infractions.
It’s also important to remember that the creation of a licensing, permitting and inspection, or other regulatory regime hardly guarantees protection of the public interest, even if the system was not created for rent-seeking purposes in the first place. Government regulators and inspectors are people too, and may shirk their responsibilities, become corrupted, or otherwise fail to safeguard the public interest. In many major cities, licensing and other local regulatory regimes are opportunities for corruption and graft.
Barber licensing, then, seems not only unnecessary and harmful to competition, but also prone to abuse: more trouble than it’s worth.