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Archive for June 23rd, 2013

To save readers some time, the honest answer to the question is that I don’t have many profound thoughts about the controversy surrounding Edward Snowden and snooping by the National Security Agency.

But since I’ve been asked by several people to pontificate on the matter, I won’t let trivial obstacles such as lack of knowledge or absence of expertise preclude me from giving a response. Heck, I’ve written about drone attacks, and terrorism policy, and my knowledge in those areas may be even less than the President’s understanding of the economy!

Normally, when I’m in the dark about some matter of public policy, I simply see what some of my Cato colleagues have said about an issue. But as you can see here, here, and here, those experts are split on the topic (brings to mind the joke about the politician who, when asked his position on some legislation, said “some of my friends are for the plan and some of my friends are opposed, and I always stick with my friends).

So I reckon I’ll just wing it with a couple of observations and a concluding thought about patriotism.

As I noted a couple of weeks ago, I want – at a minimum – there to be judicial oversight whenever the government spies on American citizens, but I also think some cost-benefit analysis is appropriate. Just because a court has the power to approve snooping, that doesn’t mean it’s a sensible use of law enforcement resources.

I confess I don’t know whether NSA snooping is a good use of time and energy, but I’m skeptical. Why? Because we don’t find much common sense in areas where I do know enough to run my mouth, such as money laundering laws and Transportation Security Administration rules. So why is NSA snooping any different?

It probably isn’t. As such, I side with other Americans in not wanting to give up my liberties simply because some politicians say our security is threatened.

That being said, I find myself irked by Mr. Snowden’s behavior. Some people believe he is a genuine patriot (in the proper sense of the word) motivated by libertarian principles, but the fact that he fled to Russia (perhaps en route to Cuba, Venezuela, or Ecuador) doesn’t reflect well on him.

For all its flaws, I rank the United States far above places such as Russia, China, and assorted Latin American thug regimes.

I understand that Snowden presumably wants to go someplace where he can’t be snatched by American officials, but he will cross the line and unambiguously become a traitor in my eyes if he gives sensitive material to unfriendly foreign governments.

And by sensitive, I don’t necessarily mean classified. I’m sure the federal government goes way overboard in labeling material as secret or classified. I’m talking about information that could compromise the security of the United States.

I’m guessing Edward Snowden has such information. If he shares it with hostile governments, he’s a bad person.

P.S. Here’s a humorous look at Obama-approved snooping.

P.P.S. If you think I’m being too hard on Snowden, you’ll probably beat my libertarian score on this comprehensive test.

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I’ve speculated before that Jay Leno may be coming out of the closet as a libertarian now that he’s announced his retirement from NBC.

Well, here’s the latest installment of my jokes from the late-night talks shows, and you can see some good barbs from Leno about government-run healthcare, the IRS, California and small business taxation.

I’m also increasingly appreciative of Jimmy Fallon’s humor. But judge for yourself.

Jay Leno

  • President Obama’s approval rating has dropped eight points over the past month, down to 45 percent, his lowest rating in over a year. Obama’s vowing to find out whose approval he’s lost, track them down using their email and phone records, and personally win them back.
  • In Xalapa, Mexico, a cat named Morris is running for mayor. Do you know the difference between a cat and a politician? Cats don’t pretend to care about you.
  • Some experts believe the privacy scandal will hurt the NSA. Are they crazy? Do you know how many people want to join now that they’ve heard the guy who blew the whistle is a high school dropout, making almost $200,000 a year, with a pole dancer girlfriend, and he’s living in Hawaii? People are lining up to get this job.
  • According to a Gallup poll, President Obama’s approval rating has dropped to 45 percent. Luckily for Obama, he has “impeachment insurance.” It’s called “Joe Biden.”
  • The world’s oldest human tumor has been found on the rib of a Neanderthal skeleton in Croatia. The tumor would have been discovered sooner, but they have government healthcare over there.
  • We live in what’s called an open society, which of course means they open our emails, open our phone records, and open our medical records.
  • Quarterback Tim Tebow has signed with the New England Patriots. So the good news is that Tebow got a job. The bad news: Now he’s associated with the word “patriot,” and he’s being audited by the IRS.
  • The guy who blew the whistle on the NSA scandal is a former security worker named Edward Snowden. He is a high school dropout. He was making $122,000 a year. He lived in Hawaii. He was engaged to a beautiful former ballerina. And he gave it all up. So not only is he a whistleblower. He’s also a moron.
  • When I was growing up, we were afraid of Big Brother watching us. Now with Obama, we actually HAVE a brother watching us.
  • The mystery is over. After a month of waiting, it turns out that an 84-year-old woman in Florida has won the $590 million Powerball lottery. As for how much tax she’s going to have to pay, the IRS said it’s too early to tell because they don’t know whether she’s a Republican or Democrat.
  • President Obama has called on Congress to pass a media shield law that would allow reporters to do their job without fear of government prosecution. Don’t we already have that? It’s called the First Amendment.
  • More problems for the IRS. Isn’t that the feel-good story of the year? They wasted $50 million over a two-year period on conferences and retreats for employees. They even spent $11,000 on a happiness expert. I have an idea how to make them happier. How about stopping making everybody else’s life miserable? Start with that!
  • IRS executive Lois Lerner has refused to quit and will collect her full pay and benefits while on administrative leave. They asked her to resign. She refused to go. Where in the real world does that ever happen? You get fired and you tell your boss, “I’m going to stay, and I want my money.” And you wonder why we’re $16 trillion in debt.
  • President Obama says he is renewing his efforts to close Guantanamo Bay. How about closing the IRS? Why don’t we do that? How about shipping the IRS to Guantanamo Bay?
  • This latest California wildfire is getting pretty scary. But Governor Jerry Brown has it under control. He said he is going to tax and regulate the fire until it gets fed up and moves to another state.
  • New predictions claim that 42 percent of Americans will be obese by the year 2030. They say the only way to stop it is for government to step in. Oh, yeah, that will work. When it comes to trimming the fat and tightening your belt, who knows better than the U.S. government?
  • Over the weekend President Obama gave the commencement speech at Ohio State University. He said, “I dare you to do better” — to which the students yelled back, “No, we dare YOU to do better. We need jobs!”
  • President Obama is in Mexico. He’ll be on hand to celebrate Mexico’s economic successes over the last few years. See, that’s how it works now. If President Obama wants to celebrate an economic success, he actually has to leave the country.
  • The U.S. government apparently spent millions of dollars in cash to fund various dubious government projects in Afghanistan — including solar panels and wind farms that never work. No, I’m sorry. That’s what we did here. I had it backwards.
  • President Obama held a press conference today. He said he still wants to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility, but he doesn’t know how to do it. He should do what he always does. Declare it a small business and tax it out of existence.

David Letterman

  • Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is on Twitter. A politician on Twitter — what could possibly go wrong?
  • I don’t know if you saw it last night but let me just apologize. We had a bad show last night. I will tell you how bad the show was last night. Halfway through, the White House stopped listening in.
  • We put up with the IRS. They weasel you and take your hard-earned money. Well, they’ve been taking your tax dollars and throwing themselves lavish parties. I was thinking, “Yeah, well, what good is it being a bunch of power-hungry, jack-booted goons if you can’t enjoy yourselves, if you can’t every now and then pat yourself on the back?”

Letterman’s normally too timid to take on the establishment, but I appreciate the reference to jack-booted goons. And if you think that’s an overstatement, just read this horror story.

Conan

  • Due to the government spy scandal, sales of the classic George Orwell book “1984” have skyrocketed. So the fallout is worse than we thought. It’s making Americans read.
  • According to a poll, the majority of Americans are OK with the Obama administration listening in on our phone calls. Guys approve because they feel it increases security. And women approve of Obama’s policy because finally a man is listening to them.
  • Pope Francis said it is a sin for people to waste food. He made that proclamation and then he made Chris Christie a saint.
  • A new report says if Republicans want to win over young voters they need to get up-to-date with technology. Well, the GOP is listening because today they told young people everywhere to “be prepared to receive a very exciting fax from us.”
  • According to a new report, Al Gore now has more money than Mitt Romney. Gore said, “Mitt and I are living proof that if you’re a boring white guy, anything is possible.”

Jimmy Fallon

  • The Senate’s new immigration bill is apparently more than a thousand pages long and weighs 24 pounds. Some critics say the bill is too long for the average American to read before it’s approved, while some senators are saying that’s the point.
  • This weekend, President Obama held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping. It went well, although it got awkward when Obama asked China to stop spying on America and Jinping said, “You first.”
  • Another scandal hit the White House today. A report found that the government has been secretly collecting the phone records of Verizon customers. I knew something was up when I said, “You hang up first.” Then my wife said, “No, YOU hang up first!” Then Obama said, “Uh, how about you just hang up at the same time?”
  • Yesterday President Obama spoke at Ohio State’s graduation, and told students that it’s their responsibility to make the world a better place. It got awkward when students were like, “Wait, isn’t that literally YOUR responsibility?”
  • Vice President Joe Biden’s plane is apparently stuck in Arizona because of problems with its engine. Officials say they’re trying to fix it as fast as they can. But Obama was like, “No rush.”

The fourth Fallon joke reminds me of this bit of clever humor.

Craig Ferguson

  • The government has been secretly gathering data from your mobile phone. It’s a huge scandal and it comes on the heels of President Obama’s IRS scandal and Benghazi scandal. Even the crackhead mayor of Toronto is saying, “rough week, huh?”
  • Volcanic ash can really mess with airplanes. And we can’t let this volcano disrupt our air travel. That’s the government’s job.

Nice jab at the government about air travel. I’ve posted many jokes about the Keystone Cops of airport security (for some more laughs, see thisthisthis, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, and this).

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In prior posts, I’ve shared some remarkable numbers on the cost of regulation.

But the long-run damage may be even worse than any of us suspected. Here are some details about a new study, as digested by Reason’s science expert.

The growth of federal regulations over the past six decades has cut U.S. economic growth by an average of 2 percentage points per year, according to a new study in the Journal of Economic Growth. As a result, the average American household receives about $277,000 less annually than it would have gotten in the absence of six decades of accumulated regulations—a median household income of $330,000 instead of the $53,000 we get now. The researchers, economists John Dawson of Appalachian State University and John Seater of North Carolina State, constructed an index of federal regulations by tracking the growth in the number of pages in the Code of Federal Regulations since 1949. …They devise a pretty standard endogenous growth theory model and then insert their regulatory burden index to calculate how federal regulations have affected economic growth.  …Annual output in 2005, they conclude, “is 28 percent of what it would have been had regulation remained at its 1949 level.” The proliferation of federal regulations especially affects the rate of improvement in total factor productivity, a measure of technological dynamism and increasing efficiency. …Overall, they calculate, if regulation had remained at the same level as in 1949, current GDP would have been $53.9 trillion instead of $15.1 in 2011. In other words, current U.S. GDP in 2011 was $38.8 trillion less than it might have been.

That sounds unbelievable, even to a red-tape critic like me.

And the author of the column also is a bit skeptical. But even when he plays with the numbers a bit, he still finds that the cost of regulation is enormous.

…let’s say that the two economists have grossly overestimated how fast the economy could have grown in the absence of proliferating regulations. So instead let’s take the real average GDP growth rate between 1870 and 1900, before the Progressives jumpstarted the regulatory state. Economic growth in the last decades of the 19th century averaged 4.5 percent per year. Compounding that growth rate from the real 1949 GDP of $1.8 trillion to now would have yielded a total GDP in 2013 of around $31 trillion. Considerably lower than the $54 trillion estimated by Dawson and Seater, but nevertheless about double the size of our current GDP. All this means that the opportunity costs of regulation—that is, the benefits that could have been gained if an alternative course of action had been pursued—are much higher than the costs of compliance.

The key thing to understand is that faster economic growth, if maintained for a long period, can yield huge increases in living standards thank to compounding.

The accompanying chart, for instance, shows that it takes 70 years for a country to double economic output if it suffers with Italian-style 1 percent annual growth.

But if a nation enjoys rapid annual growth, it’s possible to double GDP in 10-20 years.

The moral of the story, needless to say, is that we should have less regulation…as well as less spending, lower taxes, more trade, etc.

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