The Scream, from Oslo to Washington

The Wall Street Journal reports that Edvard Munch's famous painting "The Scream" will be auctioned for the first time ever on May 2. It's been one of the most copied and parodied paintings in history:
The androgynous wraith grasping its cheeks in dread along an Oslo fiord, created by the Norwegian artist in 1895, is an unpredictable trophy with little precedent, famous as much for the pop-culture spinoffs and parodies it has generated as it is for its artistry. ... In recent decades, the skeletal figure has been reproduced everywhere from ice-cube trays to political posters. A symbol of universal angst, it graced the front of Time magazine's 1961 "Guilt and Anxiety" issue. In more recent years, it has found new life as an ironic mash-up, suggested in the "Home Alone" scream and copied in a cartoon of Homer Simpson as the tortured Nordic soul.
The Journal includes many versions of Munch's "Scream," as well as many of the parodies and spin-offs. Here's Homer. They also showed Macaulay Culkin and Wes Craven's Ghostface mask . But they left out this image from Cato University 2009. For Cato University 2012, with Sen. Rand Paul and five days' worth of great scholars, click here.

Posted on April 30, 2012  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The Best Way to Be a Socialist

Asked by Howard Stern if she supports President Obama, supermodel Elle MacPherson says:
Yeah, I’m living in London and I’m socialist. What do you expect?
No doubt it's easier to be a socialist if you're worth $120 million. And easier to support Obama if you live in London. H/T: Michael Cannon.

Posted on April 27, 2012  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Washington’s One Percent

Stories about the wealth of Washington, D.C., have become commonplace, but this Sunday front-page story in the Washington Post adds more details to the lifestyles of the rich and powerful:
At the Collection at Chevy Chase, a $1,100 purple python pump gleams in the window of the Gucci store. Across Wisconsin Avenue at TTR Sotheby’s, sales agents prepare to sell a $32 million riverview home near Annapolis — one of the most expensive properties ever listed in the D.C. area. And at a nearby Whole Foods, BMWs idle in the circular drive as shoppers dash in for $19.99-a-pound Dijon-crusted rack of lamb. Long before “the 1 percent” became part of the political lexicon, a growing number of highly educated, dual-income families were driving the region’s top income levels into the stratosphere. To be considered part of the 1 percent in this area, it takes a household income far above the national average of $387,000. The gateway for the region is $527,000. In the District, the top 1 percent of households bring in at least $617,000; in Montgomery County, more than $606,000; and in Fairfax County, $532,000, according to an analysis of census statistics by The Washington Post and Sentier Research, a firm that specializes in income data.... The percentage of area households with impressive, if not eyepopping, salaries has grown as well. In 1980, just 3 percent of households in the region had incomes that were the equivalent of $200,000 or more in today’s dollars. Now [after an increase in the national debt from $1 trillion to $15 trillion] 13 percent do.
Sounds like the Capitol in The Hunger Games. Washington's citizens are less frivolous, though -- despite recent news stories. The one percent in Washington are lawyers, lobbyists, government contractors, and the doctors and entrepreneurs who serve them. But unlike regions where actual wealth is created -- software, automobiles, financial services, capital allocation, movies and television, medicine -- Washington's economy is based on the confiscation and transfer of wealth produced elsewhere. As such, Washington's wealth is a net loss for economic growth in the country.

Posted on April 22, 2012  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The World’s Policeman

Is the United States the world's policeman, as Cato scholars and presidential candidate Ron Paul, among others, have often complained? A headline on the front page of the Washington Post today reads:
U.S. troops moving slowly against Kony
Are we then at war in central Africa? Not quite. We're just there to "assist regional militaries." But the article sure reads like a world-policeman report:
Behind razor wire and bamboo walls topped with security cameras sits one of the newest U.S. military outposts in Africa. U.S. Special Forces soldiers with tattooed forearms and sunglasses emerge daily in pickup trucks that carry weapons, supplies and interpreters — as well as the expectations of a vast region living in fear of a man and his brutal militia. “The Americans have captured Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein,” said Bassiri Moke, a tribal chief. “Surely they can catch Joseph Kony.” In this far-flung nook of central Africa, the United States has assumed a small but vital role in one of Africa’s most vexing military challenges: to capture Kony and dismantle his Lord’s Resistance Army.
Might this be something that President Obama and Mitt Romney might debate over the next six months—whether the United States military should be pursuing criminals and warlords across the globe? Might the United States Senate, which isn't doing anything else, hold a debate on whether the United States should be injecting its military forces into a conflict that spans several countries?  

Posted on April 17, 2012  Posted to Cato@Liberty

The Joy of Tax

To celebrate Tax Day, NPR gives us a peppy, upbeat interview with the commissioner of the IRS, Douglas Shulman. Shulman enthuses:
"When people hear the letters, 'I-R-S,' sometimes they have a negative connotation," Shulman says. "But 80 percent of Americans get an average of a $3,000 refund. So most people actually have a very pleasant experience with us."
Alas, 80 percent of Americans are hornswoggled into giving the IRS an interest-free loan for up to 15 months, and then -- or so the IRS assures us -- they're very happy to get their own money back, a year later, with no interest. It reminds me of the maxim of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, minister of finance under the absolutist Louis XIV:
The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least possible amount of hissing.
When you establish withholding so that most taxpayers don't realize how much they're paying, and then you "give" them a refund, apparently you can minimize the hissing. And I suppose that's why Shulman tells NPR:
You hope every day's going to be a good day in the morning when you wake up. When you're IRS commissioner, most days are good days.
When you're the taxpayer, not so much.

Posted on April 16, 2012  Posted to Cato@Liberty

What Would Reagan Do?

Peggy Noonan, who once worked with Ronald Reagan to shape his words, has some useful advice for today's Republicans in Saturday's Wall Street Journal:
Finally, in foreign affairs the Republican candidates staked out dangerous ground. They want to show they're strong on defense. Fine, we should have a strong defense, the best in the world. But that is different from having an aggressive foreign policy stance, and every one of the GOP candidates, with the exceptions of Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman, was aggressive. This is how their debates sounded: We should bomb Iran Thursday. No, stupid, we should bomb Iran on Wednesday. How could you be so foolish? You know we do all our bombings on Monday. You're wrong, we send in the destroyers and arm the insurgents on Monday. There was no room for discretion, prudence, nuance, to use unjustly maligned terms. There was no room for an expressed bias toward not-fighting. But grown-ups really do have a bias toward not-fighting. They are allowing the GOP to be painted as the war party. They are ceding all non-war ground to the president, who can come forward as the sober, constrained, non-bellicose contender. Do they want that? Are they under the impression America is hungry for another war? Really? After the past 11 years? The GOP used to be derided by Democrats as the John Wayne party: It loved shoot-'em-ups. Actually, John Wayne didn't ride into town itching for a fight, and he didn't ride in shooting off his mouth, either. He was laconic, observant. He rode in hoping for peace, but if something broke out he was ready. He had a gun, it was loaded, and he knew how to use it if he had to. But he didn't want to have to. Which was part of his character's power. The GOP should go back to being John Wayne.
When Ronald Reagan's speechwriter tells you you need to be less trigger-happy and more like John Wayne, you probably need to recalibrate.

Posted on April 14, 2012  Posted to Cato@Liberty

NPR, Obama, and the Misleading ‘Buffett Rule’

NPR says that President Obama will propose that millionaires pay income taxes "at the same rates as average working Americans." On the 9:00 a.m. hourly news.) That would be good news for most millionaires: To be sure, NPR's longer stories on Obama and the "Buffett rule" are more precise, as in Tuesday's story that said the proposed law "would require anyone making a million dollars a year or more to pay at least 30 percent in taxes." Even there, though, the sentence went on to say "- about twice what some millionaires pay now." And as the charts above show, that's quite misleading. The Congressional Budget Office reported in 2010,
The overall federal tax system is progressive—that is, average tax rates generally rise with income. Households in the bottom quintile (fifth) of the income distribution paid 4 percent of their income in federal taxes, while the middle quintile paid 14 percent, and the highest quintile paid 25 percent. Average rates continued to rise within the top quintile, with the top 1 percent facing an average rate of close to 30 percent.

Posted on April 11, 2012  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Rand Paul at Cato University

Sen. Rand Paul, recently hailed as "America's most important anti-war politician," will join the distinguished list of speakers at this year's session of Cato University. This year Cato University will be held for the first time in the magnificent new F. A. Hayek Auditorium at the Cato Institute in Washington. From July 29 to August 3, join fellow libertarians from around the country and the world to listen to lectures on economic, political, historical, and philosophical foundations of liberty. Speakers include Steve Landsburg, Rob McDonald, Tom Palmer, Roger Pilon, and even me -- plus the special dinner address on Capitol Hill by Senator Paul. Note that Cato University is not just for students -- there will be participants from college age to retirement. Check out Cato University here and in this two-minute video:  

Posted on April 10, 2012  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Stossel Tonight

John Stossel has a special tonight at 10 on Fox News Channel. That's right, the Fox NEWS Channel, not the Fox Business Network where his weekly show appears. The special is titled
NO, THEY CAN'T! Why Government Fails, but Individuals Succeed
which just happens also to be the title of his new book. John's also doing a lot of speeches around the country for the book -- at FEE in Atlanta, at Tattered Cover in Denver, at BookPeople in Austin, and many more. Keep an eye out. Meanwhile, you can see Sarah Palin and me on John's regular weekly show next Thursday night. And catch John Stossel at the Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty Dinner on May 4 at the Washington Hilton.

Posted on April 6, 2012  Posted to Cato@Liberty

Socialism and Social Darwinism

The arbiters of appropriate expression in America get very exercised when conservatives call Barack Obama a "socialist." They treat the claim in the same way as calling Obama a Muslim, Kenyan, or "the anti-Christ." But headlines this week report that President Obama accused the Republicans of "social Darwinism," and I don't see anyone exercised about that. A New York Times editorial endorses the attack. Is "social Darwinist" within some bound of propriety that "socialist" violates? I don't think so. After all, plenty of people call themselves socialists -- not President Obama, to be sure, but estimable figures such as Tony Blair and Sen. Bernie Sanders. Members of the British Labour Party have been known to sing the socialist anthem "The Red Flag" on the floor of Parliament. But no one calls himself a social Darwinist. Not now, not ever. Not Herbert Spencer. The term is always used to label one's opponents. In that sense it's clearly a more abusive term than "socialist," a term that millions of people have proudly claimed. The Encyclopedia Britannica says that social Darwinism is
the theory that persons, groups, and races are subject to the same laws of natural selection as Charles Darwin had perceived in plants and animals in nature. According to the theory, which was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the weak were diminished and their cultures delimited, while the strong grew in power and in cultural influence over the weak....The poor were the “unfit” and should not be aided; in the struggle for existence, wealth was a sign of success. At the societal level, social Darwinism was used as a philosophical rationalization for imperialist, colonialist, and racist policies, sustaining belief in Anglo-Saxon or Aryan cultural and biological superiority.
Not a pleasant idea. And a pretty nasty thing to accuse someone of. It's always used as a smear of conservatives and libertarians -- by the historian Richard Hofstadter, by the fabulist Robert Reich, and now even by the president of the United States. (Damon Root noted that the real eugenicists were not the laissez-faire advocates that Hofstadter accused but the "Progressive reformers" that he admired.) As Dan Mitchell pointed out, Paul Ryan's budget proposes to make the federal government substantially larger than it was under Bill Clinton. Does that make Clinton a social Darwinist? Those who deploy the charge are, first, falsely implying that Republicans support radically smaller government, which neither Ryan’s budget nor any other Republican plan actually proposes. And second, they are accusing both Republicans and actual supporters of free markets of believing in “the survival of the fittest” and, as Wikipedia puts it, “the ideas of eugenicsscientific racismimperialismfascismNazism and struggle between national or racial groups.”  “Social Darwinism” is nothing more than a nasty smear. The president should be embarrassed, and those who call for civility in public discourse should admonish him.

Posted on April 5, 2012  Posted to Cato@Liberty

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