If the University of Alabama Doesn’t Need Hugh Culverhouse, Jr.’s Money, it Doesn’t Need Yours

Last year, Florida attorney and philanthropist Hugh Culverhouse, Jr. donated $26.5 million to the University of Alabama. The university, grateful for its largest private contribution ever, reciprocated by naming its law school after him. Hugh and UA, sittin’ in a tree …

On June 7, the UA’s board of trustees voted to return his donation (and presumably rename the school). Love-hate relationship, I guess.

Why?  They claim it’s over an argument as to how they spend the money,  but he says they’re lying and the reason he offers is a lot more believable given the timing.

His discussions with the school over the uses his donation are put to are ongoing. But last week, he said something they didn’t like. Specifically, he publicly urged students to boycott the school in protest of Alabama’s new abortion law.

Agree with him or not — on abortion, on the specific law, or on how students should respond to that law — Hugh Culverhouse, Jr. is a private citizen with a right to say anything he pleases.

Agree with the board of trustees or not on what Hugh Culverhouse, Jr. should say, the University of Alabama is a “public” institution that expects taxpayers nationwide to pick up a substantial portion of its operating costs.

The university’s financial report for 2017-18 notes nearly $45 million in federal grants and contracts and another $213 million in student loans funded by the US Department of Education through the Federal Direct Student Loan Program.

Check your voicemail. Any calls from the board of trustees asking whether it’s OK for them to keep taking your money while refusing Hugh Culverhouse, Jr.’s? I didn’t think so.

If you call up the university and start trying to tell them how to spend your money, or put out a press release urging students to cheer for Tennessee at the next Crimson Tide – Volunteers game, do you think they’ll send you a refund check? Feel free to try it and see what happens, but don’t hold your breath.

If the University of Alabama is so flush that it doesn’t need Hugh Culverhouse, Jr.’s money, they’re getting way too much of yours.

A federally funded university which turns down a private donation over the donor’s constitutionally protected speech should have the full amount of that donation subtracted from its federal funding for the following year.

And by the way, remember to cheer for Tennessee at the next Crimson Tide – Volunteers game.

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America Proved Minarchism is a Myth

It is beyond any measure of denial to assert that the American experiment in “limited government” – “constitutional” or otherwise – has proven itself an abject failure. The US government is the largest, most expensive, and most powerful cabal on the planet. And it shows no signs of reversing course.

But for the true believers in minarchism, it gets even worse. Consider the original idea behind the “United States”: A loosely confederated group of smaller sovereign governmental entities – all more or less modelled after the overarching federal one, each with a constitution and bill of rights. There are currently 50 of them, in addition to the special federal District of Columbia. Plus two overseas commonwealths, and three semi-autonomous territories.

Notwithstanding a few uninhabited islands and sandbars dotting the Caribbean and Pacific Ocean that the US federal government lays claim to, that equals not just one, but 57 separate experiments in “limited government.” We could also include all various municipalities contained therein too – counties, cities, towns – and then we’d be talking “limited” governmental experiments almost beyond number.

In zero of these cases have governments remained constrained by the pieces of paper ostensibly designed to do so. This is not to say that residing within one of the more egregious cases – such as Commiefornia, New York, or Marxachusetts – is entirely equivalent to living in South Dakota, Alaska, or Wyoming. Only that none of them have refrained from or been immune to their endemic nature: Growth. They have each of them expanded in scope and power over time – and continue to do so. Never contracting or downsizing. And ever at the expense of the individual.

You might, as a dedicated government apologist, try to excuse one, or two, or even half a dozen such failures as unfortunate anomalies plagued by corrupt politicians and judges. Maybe. If you wanted to be charitable. If you were stretching to clutch at straws in a desperate defense of the idea known as political governance.

But 57? Or the countless thousands and thousands of lesser subdivisions within those examples?

If the greater federal historical example of America does not dispel the minarchist “limited government” myth for the fantasy that it is, then all of the smaller examples under its very own rubric surely do.

“Small government” has never worked out. And it never will.

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Words Poorly Used #141 — Leviathan

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “leviathan” is described and historically accounted for:

leviathan (n.)
late 14c., “sea monster, sea serpent,” sometimes regarded as a form of Satan, from Late Latin leviathan, from Hebrew livyathan “dragon, serpent, huge sea animal,” of unknown origin, perhaps from root l-w-h- “to wind, turn, twist,” on the notion of a serpent’s coils. If so, related to Hebrew liwyah “wreath,” Arabic lawa “to bend, twist.” Of powerful persons or things from c. 1600. Hobbes’s use is from 1651.

An aquatic animal mentioned in the Old Testament. It is described in Job xli. apparently as a crocodile; in Isa. xxvii 1 it is called a piercing and a crooked serpent; and it is mentioned indefinitely in Ps. lxxiv. 14 as food and Ps. civ. 26. [Century Dictionary]

Both Higgs and Hobbes use the leviathan as metaphor to discuss government, the former as an anarchist, the latter as a statist — first as a bad thing, second as a boon to civilization.  Consulting the above Biography WWW site, its authors contend that “Hobbes argues for the necessity and natural evolution of the social contract … .”  While Goodreads.com quotes Higgs as follows:

In debates between anarchists and statists, the burden of proof clearly should rest on those who place their trust in the state. Anarchy’s mayhem is wholly conjectural; the state’s mayhem is undeniably, factually horrendous.

What images come to your mind when you encounter the word, “leviathan?”

— Kilgore Forelle

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The Business Models of Sports Leagues

Most pro sports in the US are built around business models that make no market sense. They are quasi-monopolistic guilds classified as non-profits but run for profit.

The incumbent advantages and tribal fandom means they aren’t going anywhere soon. Still, there’s so much room for innovation, and I love thinking about changes to existing leagues, or brand new leagues, or even brand new sports.

The first thing I like to think about is more market mechanisms and fewer central plans. Price floors and ceilings and collective bargaining could get scrapped. The draft order being pre-ordained for losing teams could be scrapped. Imagine if draft picks had a true open market, and rookie contracts too. Teams would be forced to choose whether to keep a player or sign a new one. Picks would be weighed against free agents equally, with no bargain deals for new draft picks. This would be great for sports fans and media, because we’d get to have endless debate about whether a guy coming out of college was really worth picking up at the same price as an aging star. Comparison is the cash crop of sports talk.

I think about college sports a lot too. They’re a total corrupt racket top to bottom, and the players get the rawest end of the deal. Not getting paid by the school is one thing, but being banned from accepting pay to do commercials or other off-field/court activity while the college forces you to shill for their fundraisers? Sheesh. More talent will and should opt out of this high risk low reward charade if they have an alternate way to develop skills and transition to the pros.

Obviously, competing with college by creating a minor league is an uphill slog. Few things run deeper than college fan loyalty. I’d love to see some enterprising university sell their sports team. Split if off. Privatize it. Let it run as an independent business, paying the players, negotiating TV deals, etc. Let them keep the records, tradition, history, and mascot. Let them play in the on-campus stadium. Let students get discounted admission, and pay the university some fee every year.

You could turn pre-pro sports into something far more rational. Pro teams and scouts could get involved without scandal. Shoe deals could be made. Players could be traded. Players would do so much better for themselves, and fans would get to keep the same loyalties and colors and rivalries. Colleges would lose their stranglehold of control over the team, it is true. But they’d get great PR, avoid dirtiness of dealing with scandal, exploitation, fake-passing athletes in classes, coaches high salaries making professors envious, etc.

That’s just scratching the surface. I have a whole mental folder of ideas for leagues and sports, including some far-future ideas about gravity-free environments and what kind of sport works best with an extra degree of movement freedom.

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Aircraft Carriers: Give Truman and Ford a Burial at Sea

The US Department of Defense wants to retire an old aircraft carrier early while building two new ones (and adding other goodies to their shopping list).

Surprise, surprise — politicians from states with the shipyards and naval bases that employ their constituents want to keep the old carrier AND build the new ones.

America and Americans would be better off if Congress retired the USS Harry S. Truman,  nixed the DoD request for two new Ford-class carriers, and worked up plans for an orderly retirement of several more carriers too. The US Navy’s surface warfare ship complement is too large, too expensive, and too “fighting previous wars”-oriented to serve any rational “defense” purpose.

The US Navy operates 20 of the world’s 41 active aircraft carriers, including 11 flat-top “super-carriers,” each Carrier Strike Group disposing of more firepower than most countries’ entire militaries.  There’s precisely zero danger of the US falling into a flat-top “carrier gap,” even if that was something to be avoided. And it isn’t.

World War Two, in which  carriers replaced battleships as the central factor in naval warfare, ended three quarters of a century ago.  Carriers as such may not be entirely passe, but 1,000-foot “super-carriers” like the existing Nimitz-class and the forthcoming Ford-class are. If carriers have a future, it’s in STOBAR (“Short Take-Off But Arrested Recovery”) ships. They’re smaller, cheaper, less vulnerable, and over the last 75 years aircraft have been developed that don’t need a thousand feet of deck to take off  from or land on.

The notional lifespan of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier is 50 years,  but none are quite that old.  The USS Nimitz‘s keel was laid 50 years ago last June, but the ship wasn’t finished, commissioned, and deployed until the mid-1970s ( it’s undergone 19 reduced availability periods, including two “complex” overhauls, since then; it’s in the middle of a state of “planned incremental availability” at the moment).

The reasons these old ships remain in service (and new ones designed on the same general concept are under construction)  aren’t defensive, or even military, in nature. They’re about money. Money for “defense” contractors, money for the politicians they contribute to, and paychecks for the employees who vote for those politicians.

Unfortunately, once that money’s spent and the ships and weapons make it into active service, the temptation to use them tends to overwhelm good sense, dragging America into non-defensive wars neither it nor the world around it needs.

The US government’s “defense” budget is the single largest discretionary area of federal spending. It’s an aging hippie in dire need of a clean shave and a buzz cut. There’s no better place to start trimming than the US Navy’s carriers and their supporting ships and infrastructure.

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The Philosophy of Poverty?: My Opening Statement

Here’s my opening statement for yesterday’s poverty debate with David Balan.  Enjoy!


The world is rich, but billions of people are still poor.  What’s the morally right response?

The default view is that the government should dramatically expand redistribution programs, forcing the well-endowed – especially business and the rich – to provide a decent standard of living for everyone.  I strongly reject this default view.

Why?  Most glaringly, because the default view overlooks the fact that governments willfully cause an enormous amount of poverty.  The most effective way for human beings to escape extreme poverty is to move from the Third World to the First World and get a job.  Yet the governments of every First World country on Earth make it almost impossible for the global poor to come.  Economically, immigration is a fantastic deal for both sides, because labor – especially low-skilled labor – is many times more productive in rich countries than it is in poor countries.  A standard estimate says that if anyone could legally work anywhere, this would ultimately double the production of the world.

But First World governments don’t merely prevent the global poor from moving to opportunity.  They covertly do the same to the domestic poor by strictly regulating construction in high-wage parts of the country.  Right now, workers in places like New York and the Bay Area earn far more than identical workers in other parts of the U.S.  However, governments in these areas also keep their housing prices astronomically high by blocking construction.  As a result, most workers – especially low-income workers – can’t profitably move to high-paid areas because housing costs eat up all the gains.  Standard estimates, again, say the harm is enormous; one influential paper estimates that housing regulation has cut total U.S. growth by at least half for decades.

Economists often fret about markets’ “equity-efficiency tradeoff,” but what the evidence really shows is that free markets are ready, willing, and able to give us far more equity and far more efficiency.  Unfortunately, it’s against the law.

Given the situation, governments’ primary moral responsibility is to stop impoverishing people.  If a man habitually attacks strangers, is the sensible response, “That guy should give his victims more money”?  No; the sensible response is, “That guy should keep his hands to himself.”  When people look at poverty and call for redistribution, I say they’re making the same mistake.  If, in the absence of government interference, people are able to solve their own poverty problem, the best government policy is no government policy.  Serious thinkers should loudly proclaim this fact before they breathe another word about poverty.

Since my opponent is a serious thinker, I know that he actually agrees with much of what I’ve just told you.  So where does he go wrong?  Emphasis.  Yes, David favors allowing a lot more immigration and a lot more construction.  He grants that these policies will enrich society in general, and the poor in particular.  But none of this excites him.  Why not?  I’m no mind-reader, but my best guess is that David idolizes Big Government, and resents free markets.  So when he thinks about a grave social problem like poverty, he doesn’t want government to get out of the way and let the free market work its magic.  He wants government to heroically solve it with redistribution.  Even when he knows that government viciously victimizes the poor, he wants to hastily concede the point, then talk about redistribution at length.

Aside: I will happily withdraw this criticism if David spends at least half of his allotted time on the evils of government.

Now David could reply: Sure, government does a lot of bad stuff to the poor.  However, government also greatly helps the poor with massive redistribution programs – and these programs could easily be expanded.  He could even flip my psychoanalysis around: “I’m no mind-reader, but my best guess is that Bryan idolizes free markets, and resents Big Government.  So when he thinks about a grave social problem like poverty, he doesn’t want government to step in and ask the free market to pay its fair share.  He wants free markets to heroically solve it with economic opportunity.”

How would I respond to this?  I’d begin by pointing out that most government redistribution doesn’t even go to the poor.  Most obviously, almost all extreme poverty exists outside the First World, but almost all redistribution happens within the First World.  Less obviously, when you examine the budget, the welfare state focuses on helping the old – and most old people are not poor.  The upshot: Governments could do vastly more for the truly poor without raising taxes by a penny.  Just take the money they fritter away on elderly Americans, and give it to desperately poor foreigners.

To my mind, this would be a big improvement, but still a bad idea.  I don’t just oppose the expansion of government poverty programs.  I oppose the programs themselves.

Why?  In my view, there’s a strong moral presumption against taking people’s stuff without their consent.  This doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to steal a penny to save the Earth.  But it does mean that no one should take people’s stuff without their consent unless they have a really good reason.  And taking people’s stuff without their consent is the foundation of all government redistribution.  Wishful thinking notwithstanding, there is no “social contract.”  Real contracts require unanimous consent – and no government has that.  What about “Love it or leave it”?  It’s silly.  Refusing to move to another country does not remotely indicate consent to anything.

So what counts as a “really good reason” to use redistribution to help fight poverty?  Here are the main moral hurdles to clear.

Hurdle #1. Do we have strong evidence that the social benefits of redistribution far exceed the costs?  It’s OK to steal a car to save your life, but not to steal a car because you’d enjoy it more than the current owner.  The same moral principle holds for government – and due to the complex effects of economic policy, it is especially hard for government to comply.  Redistribution plausibly has big effects on incentives and economic growth, so government has no business doing redistribution until it can credibly rule out major negative side effects.

Hurdle #2. Is government trying to solve absolute poverty – hunger, homelessness, and the like?  Or merely relative poverty – lack of a smart phone or cable t.v?  Using coercion to alleviate absolute poverty is morally plausible, but using coercion to alleviate relative poverty is not.  If you’ve seen Les Miserables, you may remember the part where Jean Valjean sings, “He stole some bread to save his sister’s son.”  It would laughable, though, if he sang, “He stole an iPad to play Halo.”  Since there is little absolute poverty in First World countries, there is simply little moral room for domestic redistribution.  International redistribution is another matter, of course.

Hurdle #3. Can voluntary charity take care of the problem?  If you can handle morally objectionable poverty by asking for donations, there is no good reason to force anyone to help.  And to repeat, you shouldn’t take people’s stuff without their consent unless you have a really good reason.

Hurdle #4. The last, and most controversial hurdle: Are the potential recipients of government help poor through no fault of their own?  Or were they negligent?  Yes, I know this is a touchy subject; morally, however, we must address it.  If a friend asks to sleep on your couch for a few weeks, you normally want to know why he needs your helps – and his answer matters.  “I’m fleeing a war zone” is more morally compelling than, “My wife kicked me out because I drink away all our money.”

Why raise this touchy subject?  Because there is an enormous body of evidence showing that a major cause of severe poverty is irresponsible behavior of the poor themselves: unprotected impulsive sex, poor work ethic, substance abuse, violent crime, and much more.  Just ask yourself: If you engaged in such behavior, how long would it take before you, too, lived in poverty?

When I make this point, people have two radically different objections.

The first is to deny the facts.  I can’t do much to answer this objection during a debate; all I can do is give you a reading list later on.

The second objection, though, is to excuse irresponsible behavior – or even morally condemn anyone who calls behavior “irresponsible.”  I say this second objection is absurd.  If you had a spouse who cheated on you, or was drunk half the time, or kept losing jobs, you would run out of patience for his excuses.  Why should you be more forgiving of total strangers?  While irresponsible people often say, “I can’t help it,” this is just a misleading figure of speech.  Think of all the times you said, “I can’t come to your party,” when what you really meant was, “I don’t feel like it.”  That’s the real story of irresponsibility.

I am well-aware that blameless people do occasionally end up poor.  My point is that the advocates of merit-blind redistribution are morally blind to the possibility that they are mistreating people who have compelling reasons not to help others.  Suppose you have an alcoholic brother.  He’s repeatedly made your life miserable for the sake of his favorite beverages.  Your brother has lied to you and stolen from you.  One night he shows up at your house, begging for help.  You turn him away.  Question: What would you think if a neighbor called you up and berated you for your “selfish attitude”?  I say you should hang up on him, because your neighbor is way out of line.

To recap: I’ve offered no absolute objection to redistribution.  Instead, I’ve pointed to four moral hurdles to clear before we even consider it.  If we take these hurdles seriously, maybe you could salvage a tiny welfare state for indigent kids, the severely handicapped, refugees, and so on.  Before you make even this small exception, though, consider this: When someone has made awful decisions in the past, ironclad rules are often best even though a judicious decision-maker would make minor exceptions.  Given how badly all existing welfare states deviate from defensible moral principles, there’s a strong argument for keeping government out of poverty alleviation altogether.

Last point: If you summarize my position as, “We should do nothing about poverty,” you have totally misunderstand me.  I earnestly favor a radical new War on Poverty.  This War on Poverty, however, will target governments’ horrific policies that deprive the poor of vital opportunities.  Instead of scapegoating people who understandably don’t like paying taxes to support strangers, this War on Poverty will deregulate labor and housing markets so the poor can solve their own problems with dignity.  I am sadly aware that my War on Poverty lacks popular support.  Few progressives want to solve poverty with deregulation – and most conservatives want to regulate immigration even more strictly than we already do.  My War on Poverty, however, is the War on Poverty we ought to be fighting.

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