And the Higgy Goes to… Jonathan Gruber

April 16, 2015

I know that the winner of the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award is supposed to be announced on April 15, but I needed more time to decide among our three excellent (horrible) nominees and filed for an extension.

I thought my nominee, Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis, was a strong candidate because he illustrates how our liberty faces the greater threat of gradual erosion from Petty Little Dictators than from Big Scary Dictators.  Ardis may only be the mayor of a small city, but he still has the power to find some legal pretext to send the police to raid the house of people who mocked him on Twitter.  We can all recognize how a Putin or Khomeini might want to oppress us and so we all (or should be all) make efforts to counter those threats.  But the mayor of a small city in cahoots with the local police and judge can exploit the fact that our extensive legal code makes each one of us a possible criminal to selectively use the force of the government to punish enemies.

Ardis, however, falls short of earning a Higgy because his actions were too transparently self-interested.  The ideal Higgy candidate believes he is shaping the world for the better, but is foiled by hubris, self-delusion, and the extent to which the complexity of the world exceeds the ability of people to impose centralized plans on it.  No one believes Ardis was trying to make the world better.  He was just trying to settle a score.  It’s oppressive but it isn’t Higgy-worthy.

Greg’s nominee, John Maynard Keynes, is also a strong candidate.  Yes, Keynes’ ideas provide justification for reckless state intervention in the economy.  But my previous objection to awarding Keynes with the Higgy still holds.  I don’t think the state needs much justification to intervene.  In fact, the historical norm is heavy state distortion of economic activity.  This was true for centuries (probably millenia) before Keynes came along and is still true today when few even bother to reference Keynes for support.  Keynes may have bad ideas but so does the guy who stands on the corner of the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market who shouts about how Jesus smoked pot and 9/11 was an inside job.  You don’t get the Higgy just for having bad ideas.

Matt’s nominee, Jonathan Gruber, didn’t just have bad ideas, but he helped develop a plan to foist those bad ideas on the country through deception and manipulation.  And he engaged in this central planning because he believed he was doing something good for us.  Let me be clear — I don’t believe Jonathan Gruber is a bad guy.  I know a number of economists who are his friends and they swear that he is a decent, capable economist who was just caught on camera expressing the type of hyperbolic commentary that is fairly common at academic conferences.  That may be true, but there is a kernel of truth even in that hyperbole.  And that truth is not very flattering to Gruber or ObamaCare.  It reveals the type of hubris and delusion of control over events that is a near-perfect model of a Higgy winner.  And Gruber does not have to be a a bad guy to do something that worsens the human condition enough to warrant a Higgy.

I therefore bestow the William Higinbotham Inhumanitarian Award to Jonathan Gruber with all of the dishonors, responsibilities, and lack of privileges that accompany it.

Jonathan Gruber for the Higgy

April 15, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

An ongoing plea to think twice, and even three times, before buying into the wonders of central planning and/or technocrats more broadly stands as one of the underlying themes of JPGB. Given that we primarily discuss American education policy here, and that if rules, regulations and earnest bureaucrats were a solution America would long ago ceased to have had K-12 problems, this ought not to require elaboration. Technocrats sadly have a funny habit of either exacerbating problems or creating new problems under the best of circumstances. At their worst, such people hide behind a false cloak of science in order to boss other people around while rationalizing away their ill effects in the name of some higher good. Each year we honor a select few of such people with a Higgy nomination.

It is my distinct pleasure therefore to nominate Jonathan Gruber for the 2015 Higgy.

It is no accident that the two broad fields with the heaviest government funding and regulation- education and health- have seen a truly incredible combination of rampant cost inflation in return for nebulous quality improvements. No one in their right mind would voluntarily pay higher prices for dubious quality improvments- only a truly convoluted system of indirect payment could deliver such an outcome. Health care comes with some additional difficulties of price inelastic demand (“nah don’t even try life saving heart surgery I don’t want to pay that much” is not a phrase often heard in America) and information asymmetries between doctors and patients.

In the end of the day the demand for health care exceeds our ability to supply it, which raises the difficult subject of rationing. There are two general methods for rationing a scarce good or service- by price or by bureaucrat. Europeans long ago embraced bureaucratic methods in various ways. The United States however created a hybrid system that in essence denied the need to choose in creating a convoluted system of tax subsidies and public programs that led to decades of rampant cost inflation. In the immortal words of the late Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas, America became the only country dedicated to the proposition that death is optional. The American left yearns for a European system but must face an American health care culture (largely of their own creation) that has operated without any type of rationing for many decades.

All of this predates Dr. Gruber, but Gruber has been deeply involved in fashioning both state and federal public policies designed to double down on third-party payers in order to treat a symptom of America’s health care dysfunction. Rampant and long-lasting health care inflation far above that in the consumer price index has, needless to say, made insurance more expensive. Increasing the price of any good or service decreases the pool of people able and willing to purchase it. Thus the percentage of those carrying insurance has been in decline, and the cost of private and public insurance programs have steadily increased.

What to do? How about a fine to compel people to buy health insurance? This of course would do nothing about the underlying problem per se, so Gruber and company engaged in an elaborate deception in the “Affordable Care Act.” CNN helpfully ran down several of Gruber’s greatest hits:

Gruber’s gloating on video regarding the various deceptions of Obamacare deservedly generated deep hostility manipulation of the scoring of the bill: obfuscation of the use of taxes, an attempt to obscure what amounts to a massive transfer of wealth. Gruber’s gleeful recounting of just how clever in deception Congressional Democrats and the Obama Administration had been represents a damning indictment all its own.

Jonathan Gruber perfectly symbolizes the dangers of “scientific progressivism” in my mind because by Gruber’s own admission very little has been done to address the real underlying problem.  In one of his videos, Gruber laments the fact that it was necessary to pretend to “bend the cost curve” and name the bill the “affordable care act” because controlling costs represents an overwhelming concern while expanding coverage to the uninsured does not. It was necessary to deceive the American public, you see, because the American public lacks virtue and cares more about controlling costs than expanding coverage.

The unwashed masses seem to understand much more clearly than our MIT technocrat that controlling costs represents the only sustainable method for expanding access to care. Expanding coverage cannot and will not be sustained without addressing the fundamental issue of rampant cost inflation.  The United States of America had trillions of dollars in unfunded entitlement liabilities before Gruber and company began their campaign of deception in order to transfer wealth and extend coverage while doing very little about cost.  “We’ll get to that part later” on cost control represents a sickening level of irresponsibility that treats a symptom (lack of health insurance) rather than the cause (decades of cost inflation).  Gruber and our other health technocrats would like us to trust them they will address this more difficult issue of cost containment later.  This after conclusively proving that no one should ever trust anything that comes out of their mouths ever again.

William F. Buckley famously noted that he would rather be ruled by the first 1,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard. Our elites routinely display horrible judgement and a sense of entitlement to make decisions for those whom they judge to be in need of their benevolent guidance. Plato had it all wrong in the Republic, would-be “philosopher kings” deserve our unrelenting skepticism. Voluntary exchange drives human progress and innovation, not allegedly well-meaning busy bodies concealing their lies and deceptions behind a lab coat as they attempt to better order our lives for us.


John Maynard Keynes for the Higgy

April 14, 2015


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Last year, when commenter Allen nominated John Maynard Keynes for the highest (dis)honor known to man, the Higgy judges expressed skepticism on grounds that politicians corruptly manipulate the economy with or without the convenient excuses provided by Keynesianism. However, the judges reserved final judgment on Keynes’ Higgyworthiness because a full case had not been made.

I hereby offer a full case, on three grounds:

  1. Corrupt political manipulation of the economy has been greatly increased as a direct result of Keynes’ influence.
  2. Keynes did far, far worse things than simply give politicians a convenient excuse to corruptly manipulate the economy. 
  3. On both the above counts, Keynes not only worsened the world, but also met the more specific Higgy qualification of having “arrogant delusions” that “self-righteous proclamations” improve the world. 

Point One: As Paul Johnson documents in Modern Times, in the first half of the 20th century there was an unprecedented shift in the politics of corrupt collaboration between political and business elites. Previously, such collaboration occurred episodically, when some serious crisis arose and it could be justified as an “emergency measure.” Hence the big expansions of corrupt government manipulation of the economy occur in tandem with wars, depressions, and financial panics. After each crisis passed, however, pressure would mount to roll back these manipulations and restore the natural order. These rollbacks were never 100% successful, of couse, but in most cases far more than 50% or even 75% successful. Consider Coolidge’s rollback of Wilson’s autocratic WWI measures. 

But after WWII, everything is different. We have entered a whole new world. Corrupt government manipulation of the economy is now normalized. It is universally expected that political and business elites will get together in smoke-filled rooms and determine our fate for us. This is simply the way we live now. True, the more extreme wartime measures like rationing were recinded, and without the war as a justification the further growth of political control of the economy was greatly slowed. But, however slowly, that growth did continue. The political ground had permanently moved. The old world of merely episodic corrupt manipulation was gone; a new world of permanent, normalized corrupt manipulation had arrived.

This was almost 100% attributable to Keynes, for reasons that will become clear in Point Two.

Point Two: To understand the significance of Keynes, it is necessary to set aside our immediate policy concerns (fighting over the latest stimulus package or “economic plan”) and appreciate his role as a world-historical figure of the first rank. He revolutionized the entire discipline of economics, and by doing so, had a dramatic impact on the social order as a whole.

From classical Greco-Roman philosophy through the Patristic Era, the Middle Ages, early modernity and the Enlightenment, the study of economic phenomena was a subset of moral philosophy. It was always grounded in moral assumptions about human nature. Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, the Salamanca School, the Reformers, Locke, the Physiocrats and Adam Smith, though they had different moral views in some important respects, were agreed that the purpose of studying economics was to help align economic activity with virtue and right purposes – encouraging productive, thrifty, efficient, flourishing behavior, often with a particular interest in extending opportunity to the poor; and opposing greed, sloth, irresponsibility and (above all) injustice. The professional scholar of economics was par excellence the opponent of corruption and abuse of power. 

Over the course of the 19th century, however, this was changing. Especially in England, prominent economists increasingly expressed a desire to get out of the ethics business and abandon the fight against corruption. They wanted to do something that is impossible, and would be irresponsible if it were possible – to describe the world without evaluating it, to be morally neutral, to refrain from calling injustice unjust without being implicated as its accomplices.

Try as they might, however, these would-be neutral technicians could not find a way to extract themselves from the ethics business. A century of efforts to invent a paradigm of economics not beholden to morality bore no fruit.

And then came John Maynard Keynes, and the Keynesian Revolution.

Where before economists had defined the purpose of their discipline as encouraging the ethical production of wealth and well-being, Keynes taught them their purpose was to help people gratify their immediate desires – whatever those happened to be. Where before economists took self-sufficiency (producing more than you consume) as normative, Keynes taught them “the paradox of thrift” and trained them to despise the old rule that households and nations must live within their means. Where before economists took it for granted that our goal was to leave the world better than we found it, Keynes taught them that “in the long run we’re all dead” so we don’t need to worry what kind of world we leave to our grandchildren.

And where before economists thought their policy recommendations were constrained by the limits of justice, which compelled us to be concerned about the problem of corruption, Keynes taught them to treat human beings as merely irrational animals – bundles of appetites – without a transcendent dignity that needed to be respected.

Point Three: At this point you might be tempted to say Keynes isn’t Higgy material in light of the Sarnoff Codicil, which holds that the Higgy should not go to those who intend to make the world worse and succeed. It should go to those who intend to improve the world and fail – or, more specifically, to those who have “arrogant delusions” that “self-righteous proclamations” improve the world.

But Keynes passes this test with flying colors. He intended to improve the world – he had a detailed and well worked out philosophy of utilitarian materialism, and believed he was replacing the reign of superstition and barbarism with a new era of beautiful technocratic progress. He was a constant, nonstop fount of self-righteous proclamations. And all his asperations failed. The new, post-Keynes economics does not work as empirical science. It does not work as a practical guide to policy, either. And it has created sociological conditions that will, in the long run, destroy it. Keynesianism today is in the same state as Marxism in the Soviet Union in about the 1970s or so; it is a politically convenient god to whom all must still bow, but longstanding suppressed doubts about the god’s power to deliver the goods have hardened into permanent cynicism. The downfall may still be 20 years away, but it is coming.

John Maynard Keynes richly deserves the Higgy.

Image HT

Wildflower Fever

April 10, 2015

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So I am struggling not to nominate the most blindingly obvious choice for the Higgy this year….must……resist!

In the meantime, I decided what this blog needs this Friday is a late 20th Century folk-revival tune…enjoy!

This Just In: Human Existence Validated

May 9, 2014

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Ladies and gentlemen, a YouTube channel consisting entirely of board game reviews called GETTIN’ HIGGY WITH IT! exists.

Human life is now confirmed valid. That is all.

Paul G. Kirk, Jr. for the Higgy

April 15, 2014


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

A good Higgy nomination is a tough target to hit. As we found out last year, your pick can be rejected for being too powerful and thus being more a case of BSDD (Big Scary Dictator Disorder) than PLDD (Petty Little Dictator Disorder), as happened to my nomination of David Sarnoff. But your nomination can also be rejected for being not powerful enough, and thus not making a sufficiently large contribution to the worsening of the human condition to merit the award; this was the rationale given by the judges for not selecting Jay’s nomination of Louis Michael Seidman.

So the big behind-the-scenes bigshots who pull the real strings of power are out, and TV blowhards who just talk about what the bigshots do are also out. The core value of the Higgy is “arrogant delusions of shaping the world”; the bigshots are not deluded in thinking they can shape the world, whereas the blowhards don’t really even try to shape the world so much as describe those who do.

With all that in mind, I nominate Paul G. Kirk, Jr. for the Higgy, for inventing the “free speech zone,” also known as the “First Amendment area.”

Free-Speech-ZonesImage HT

As you can see from the image above, the basic idea of free speech zones is that “constitutional first amendment rights” are only to be exercised in government-designated areas. They are now used in virtually all major events, such as national political conventions; they are also set up anywhere something controversial is happening that attracts protests. They’ve been in the news lately in connection with the Bureau of Land Management’s dispute with the Bundy family in Nevada. As Mark Steyn comments, “The ‘First Amendment Area’ is supposed to be something called ‘the United States.'”

Gone is the old idea of America as the one country on the face of God’s earth where literally anyone can just stand there on the sidewalk talking to anyone who will listen, or where people can organize to protest the actions of the powerful in genuinely public spaces. The pseudo-genius of the free speech zone is that government doesn’t forbid you from speaking per se, it simply designates the zone in a secluded, out of the way place, destroying the public nature of your speech.

Yes, everyone agrees that there have to be some limits on the use of public space; if ten different groups all want to have huge rallies in the town square at the same time, you’ll run into problems. But, again, the pseudo-genius of the free speech zone is that it shifts us from dealing with that kind of coordination problem to the removal of free speech from public spaces entirely. It’s a transition from “speak as you will, unless your activities get in other people’s way, and then we have to find some accommodation for competing claims,” to “you may not speak in public places, lest you get in other people’s way.”

But of course the real motive behind the creation of free speech zones is not to avoid coordination problems. It is to prevent protests from besmirching the public image of big events and other things that powerful officials want to run smoothly. These zones are intended to isolate “free speech” from actual public participation, in order to create the appearance that all is smiles and unicorns in the sun-kissed lands of modern America, under the benevolent rule of our lords and masters, whose benevolence is proven by the fact that they generously grant us free speech zones.

Kirk’s actions in inventing the free speech zone exemplify the core value of the Higgy exceptionally well. He was chairman of the Democratic party during its 1988 national convention, which seems to be generally agreed upon as having pioneered the use of these zones. And it’s pretty clear that Kirk’s goal was to silence free speech in public places. Consider this contemporary account:

But even those groups that are cooperating with the system are upset that the official “free-speech zone” is too far from the convention arena (in fact, it’s about 500 yards away, down a hill, around a corner and hidden by a hotel-and-shopping complex). “You can’t be seen by delegates in the ‘free- speech zone,’ ” complained Peterson.

“The city keeps telling us that the buses bringing delegates will let them off right across from the protest area, so they’ll have to see us,” said Paul Cornwell, chief organizer of Alternative ’88. “But you know how that’ll go. It’s going to be about 100 degrees out there and all the delegates are going to zoom into the air conditioning as fast as they can.”…

Protesters also were angered to learn – during a hearing on the suit – that the city plans to use the street that separates the “free-speech zone” from the Omni Center to park the delegates’ buses.

“In addition to putting us out of sight, they’re going to form a barricade of parked buses,” Peterson said.

Kirk seems to have drawn his inspiration from the Planning Office in Hitchhiker’s Guide:

The tradition has continued in the use of free speech zones ever since.

If this were effective in silencing speech, Kirk might not qualify for the Higgy on grounds that he’s a case of BSDD. But in fact free speech zones don’t silence free speech. Protestors ignore them; note that the quote above begins with “But even those groups that are cooperating with the system . . .” There were a number of groups that didn’t cooperate with Kirk’s system in 1988. The public image of the event was even more effectively spoiled than it would have been by a peaceful public protest.

By contrast, when Communist authorities in China copied our model of free speech zones (read those words again: Communist authorities in China copied our model of free speech zones) during the 2008 Olympics, it had few difficulties. Over in China, free speech zones are BSDD. Here in America, they’re PLDD.

True to form, today the rallies in Nevada were not held in the designated free speech zone, and protesters got into nasty conflicts with authorities. Ultimately the authorities – who were actually in the right as regards the merits of the case, but who had blown everything out of proportion and were more concerned with swaggering around with guns than with settling the dispute in a reasonable way – had to back off in humiliation.

Huge shock: people who are highly motivated enough to turn out for a protest do not simply bow their heads and do as they’re told when they’re told that free speech is no longer allowed in genuinely public spaces. If you deny them a legitimate opportunity to make their voice heard, that only makes them more angry and more determined to make their voices heard. So even when the lawful authorities are in the right, their efforts to silence dissent only make them look wrong and undermine their ability to enforce the rules.

Talk about arrogant delusions of shaping the world! I’m proud to nominate Paul G. Kirk, Jr. for The Higgy.

Barney Frank for the Higgy

April 3, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

I will never forget where I was when I heard him say it: I was driving through a high-desert forest near Prescott Arizona.  The nation was in the midst of a full financial meltdown. I had the radio on, and one of the Sunday Morning Talk shows playing, Face the Nation if I recall correctly.  That’s when I heard Representative Barney Frank, Chairman of the House Financial Services committee state without the slightest hint of shame:

The private sector got us into this mess. The government has to get us out of it.

I nearly ran my vehicle into a tree.

I could pain you dear readers with a blow by blow of just how completely culpable federal policy in general and Mr. Franks in particular were in the meltdown. Others however have performed that task. A delightfully short summary however was to be found in the comments section of a Vanity Fair article by Joseph Stiglitz. Dr. Stiglitz had written a long article for the magazine whose purpose was to absolve Freddie and Fannie and other elements of federal housing policy from blame for the financial crisis.  One comment put the matter succinctly:

Let me get this straight: the creation of the sub-prime mortgage market had nothing to do with the sub-prime mortgage financial meltdown?

Now don’t get me wrong- there are private sector villains in this sordid tale (did for instance the credit rating agencies sign a pact with the Devil to survive what ought to have surely been a death-blow to their credibility?) but these private actors respond predictably to bad incentives created by federal policy.  A few decades of nudging banks in the direction of making dodgy loans coupled with creating entities dedicated to buying them up eventually turned ya-hoo mortgage brokers into funny money printers.  Can anyone truly be shocked that people making huge fees off absurd loans that they could quickly offload onto someone else’s balance sheet failed to resist the temptation to do so?

It would be delightful if the federal government could distort the mortgage market for decades in the interest of creating a more just society without creating unintended consequences.  It would also be delightful if we could bottle the tears of unicorns as a cure for cancer, depression and baldness.  The law of unintended consequences is a terribly powerful force. The beginning of policy wisdom is to fear its awful power.  Central planners tend to assume rational technocratic adjustments being made to policies and seem shocked, shocked when they wake up and find that pesky politics has taken over.

The “Break in Case of Emergency” glass box in Congressman Franks mind contained a piece of paper that read “If it hits the fan, pretend the government had nothing to do with it and call for more government.”  That makes him worthy of a Higgy in my estimation.