Wednesday, January 16, 2013

No, They Can't by John Stossel

 I feel more and more, as I read Stossel's books, that I'm just part of the choir to whom he's preaching, you know? He's nearly as big-L Libertarian as Ron Paul, without nearly the nutty pronouncements, though. About the only things I still disagree with him about are legalizing recreational drugs and same-sex marriage. As a matter of libertarian principles, I understand and believe he has the right of it, but as a practical matter I see some serious consequences to both of these actions - and when Stossel criticizes big government, one of his pet gripes is the government's failure to consider all of the unintended consequences of their laws, policies and regulations.

I finally gave up on placing sticky notes beside the especially piquant passages, as it rapidly became too many to reasonably discuss in a timely review here. I saw a phrase  in a blog online this morning (no idea whom to hat-tip, sorry) that catches the flavor of something that Stossel doesn't explicitly state here - that government should be responsible for "policing" businesses, not trying to control them - and likewise with individuals. There are some things, like fraud, theft, assault, and more serious crimes, that it is the proper business of government to police and prosecute, but when a local, state or federal government instead begins to intrude into matters beyond those in which actual, prove-able harm is caused, it's a slippery slope to Orwellian times.

On a subject near and dear to my heart (and anyone who hangs around me long enough will hear me rant about it) - the shallow nature of what the media feeds us all these days, Stossel talks about how he had an expose prepared about Canadian health care, and how it related to the upcoming legislative battle over Obamacare.

"But then my report was delayed (by ABC). Michael Jackson died, and I was told that 20/20 obviously needed to do the entire hour on that. The following week, 20/20 aired an interview with Michael Jackson's sister. The following weeks, 20/20 covered his drug abuse, his music, his friends, his influence on America, where his money went, and so forth. 20/20 never found the time to run my hour on the downside of Obamacare."


"The same week that the House approved the stimulus plan and jobless claims hit an all-time high, 20/20 devoted our whole show to 'Seduction: Why Him? Why her?'"

It seems far more important for all of our media outlets to keep us updated on the latest celebrity scandal than that we actually be informed about things that truly matter. Don't get me started.

On the subject of whether government can, or cannot, do anything to "fix" the economy, Stossel basically states that the only positive thing it can do is to stay the heck out of the way. Nearly everything else that big government does ends with unforeseen effects - rarely positive. He talks quite a bit about the modern applications contrary to Bastiat's "broken window" theory. The Keynesian economists who seem mostly to be in charge of our economy today think that government spending stimulates the economy, but they - and we - fail to consider what the result of allowing people to make their own decisions about how to spend their money would have been, had it not been taxed away from them to be spent by our all-wise overlords.

A quote I really liked,
"Since government services are funded through the compulsion of taxes, they have no market price. Without market prices, we have no way of knowing the importance that free people place on these services."

On the tragic burst housing bubble,

"At 20/20, at the peak of the boom, I was embarassed to anchor shows that my boss called 'real estate porn.' Porn, because people love to look at elegant houses and fantasize...In one, a promoter gave advice like, 'you can't get rich if you're a renter'... I didn't protest, but I should have."

I never understood, while this was all happening, how people could be convinced that the exponential rise in housing prices could continue indefinitely. Once the average home price exceeded the amount that an average working family could reasonably afford, according to all of the time-tested formula - used by banks for decades - it was only a matter of time for the house of cards to come tumbling down.

The phrase, "you can't get rich if you're a renter" also intrigues me. Having been a homeowner for a couple of decades, myself, I can tell you that your primary residence is not really, in general, a big moneymaker.'re invested in real estate as a business, and can buy low and sell high, swooping in to pick up distressed properties, etc., you can probably make money at it, or if you're acquiring rental real estate over the long term, doing all your due diligence, you can make money that way, too. But when you buy a home where you can live and raise your family, a) you're limited as to how easy it is to take advantage of market swings - remember, you still need a place for your family to live when you sell your home, and if its price was up, anything nearby is probably up by the same percentage, so you're going to have to roll your "profits" right back into the new place. And let's not even talk about the true cost of maintenance over the long haul, plus the interest on your mortgage, taxes...

This is not a game for amateurs.

Stossel firmly believes that private industry, especially small businesses, do a far better job of serving the public than do our "public servants."

"They (New Yorkers) are shocked when I tell them that most of our subways were built, not by government, but by private companies...When the private company proposed raising the subway fare to 5 cents, the politicians said, 'Outrageous!' They forbade the increase and took over the subways. They promised to improve service and hold down fares. They did neither. Despite raising the fares to what is now $2.25, they still managed to lose money every year. Taxpayers fund them with billions in subsidies. If New York City had left the trains in private hands, maybe our subway would be more like Hong Kong's clean, efficient, and profitable one.

Yes. The world's only profitable mass transit is privately run."

Another thing that Stossel mentions in passing in a long section on health care, that happens to be another one of my pet rants, is those who confuse or conflate "access to health care" with being able to "afford health care". I won't even get into whether the latter is often a perception problem instead of a real one - though I will mention that I knew lots of young healthy folks who refused the $35 a month employee portion of their health insurance premium offered by a company that I worked for for nearly a decade, because they thought it was too expensive - and these were highly skilled manufacturing workers, not Wal Mart minimum-wagers.

"The truth is, almost al people do get health care, even if they don't have health insurance. Hospitals rarely turn people away; charities pay for care; some individuals pay cash; some doctors forgive bills. I wish people would stop conflating the terms, 'health care,' 'health insurance,' and 'Obamacare.' Reporters ask guests things like, 'Should Congress repeal health care?' I sure don't want anyone's health care repealed."

And in the category of "things that make you say, Hmmm?"

"It is no coincidence that the biggest push for more food regulation came at a time when Congress obsessed about the rising cost of medical care. When government pays for your health care, it will inevitably be drawn into regulating your personal life...Where does it stop?"

On bloated campaign spending,

"It is shameful that leftists let their hatred of corporations lead them to throw free speech under the bus. There is a smarter way to get corporate money out of politics: shrink the state. If government has fewer favors to sell, citizens will spend less money trying to win them." (emphasis mine)

Stossel tears into the educatin mess, and the trillions of dollars that have been thrown away in futile efforts to improve student performance. He feels at least part of the answer is in charter schools. I did a little research on a website - Global Report Card -  that tracks the ranking of every school district in the U.S., with respect to the rest of the world, and found the results very interesting. First, as you might imagine, some of the most wealthy areas of the country have the best schools, though it doesn't appear to necessarily be the result of higher per-pupil spending. I suspect that wealthy professionals tend to have the mobility to migrate to areas where their children's educations are likely to be great, and they also are probably very vocal consumers and actively influence local school boards. The really interesting thing was that in one of the top areas in the country for reading scores (Maricopa County, AZ) four out of five of the top performing schools  were charter schools. That area also appeared in the top 50 for Math quite often. This bears further reading and research to find out exactly what's going on in Phoenix and Tempe, I think.

A quote from the CEO of a very successful charter school.

"I don't do no teacher evaluations. All I do is go into a class, and if the kids ain't working, your ass is fired."

LOL. Short and to the point, if not perfectly grammatical.

The head of a pre-K education advocacy group says,

"We don't want to just focus on IQ scores. We want to look at how children are doing in their social and emotional, their noncognitive development."

Stossel replies, "Give me a break. If the huge government program can't perform the basic (and measurable) educational task of raising math and reading scores, why should we give the central planners more money because they promise to improve the kids' 'emotional development'?"

There's lots of great stuff in this book, and all you libertarians and conservatives out there ought to enjoy the heck out of it.

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