Observations on the Dobbs Decision

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The reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was not short on outrageous assertions and even outright lies about the legal issues at stake. I wrote the article below a few weeks after the unfortunate leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft decision. But first, with the actual decision in hand, here are a few additional observations:

  • The most vocal pro-abortionists have a remarkably weak grip on the legal issues at play. Or do they take their supporters for idiots? More informed pro-choice advocates should be embarrassed.
  • There is not and never was an explicit right to abortion in the U.S. Constitution. This was a “right” conjured entirely by the judiciary.
  • Abortion has not been banned nationwide. The decision leaves the matter to state legislatures (and voters) and subsequent court challenges, which are sure to come. This is the very essence of federalism.
  • The decision has no implication for travel across state lines to obtain an abortion.
  • Stare decisis does not mean that the Court must always uphold precedent. Certainly not if, in the view of the Court, the precedent is egregiously bad. Precedents have been reversed in the past in a variety of contexts.
  • None of the justices “lied” to anyone in the Senate during pre-confirmation interviews. A prospective justice cannot and should not pronounce how they would rule on a specific issue, particularly outside the context of a specific case and its facts. Respecting precedent does not mean that precedent must be the only consideration.
  • The Supreme Court is independent and “undemocratic” by design. It cannot make law, as it did in Roe. Instead, it serves as a check on constitutional abuses by the other branches of government. In doing so, it must be insulated from the whims of popular opinion.
  • The Court agrees that the legality of abortion should never have been decided by “nine unelected men in robes”!
  • The Court rejected the claim that had been relied upon in Roe v. Wade, namely that the Fourteenth Amendment due process right to privacy covers the decision to abort a child. Ruth Bader Ginsberg also rejected that claim (see below), as have many other legal scholars on both sides of the debate. No, Ruth didn’t send you!
  • Roe relied on so-called “substantive due process”, which in the past has been used by the Court to extend the concept of due process under the law to protection of certain unenumerated (and contested) “rights”. Justice Thomas noted in his separate concurrence that a guarantee of “process” cannot itself establish a substantive right.
  • There is a possibility of federal legislation now, or after January with the new Congress, but an outright federal ban is unlikely, especially one without exceptions or one applicable at all stages of pregnancy.
  • Future court challenges to state or federal abortion laws are likely to be based on the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which Ginsberg felt was the correct basis on which to establish a woman’s “right” to abort a child.
  • The U.S. Constitution protects unenumerated rights from infringement by the federal government, but it does not apply to actions taken by states because the Ninth Amendment has never been “incorporated” as applicable to infringements by state governments. Whether it should be incorporated is another matter.
  • Treating abortion as an unenumerated right of a woman is questionable at best because an unborn child is vested with competing rights. We may disagree on the stages at which vesting occur, but if you don’t believe it occurs, you are an extreme outlier (see below).
  • A pregnant woman cannot have complete bodily autonomy because she has another person’s life on board.
  • No women’s lives are threatened by the Dobbs decision. Even states with so-called “trigger laws” that now ban abortion have emergency exceptions for the life of the mother.
  • Expansive claims conflating a potential change in a woman’s life with “loss of life” are grotesque when it is almost always the child’s life at stake.
  • Pro-abortionists who give specific reference to family members and acquaintances born with disabilities, seemingly as a rationale for their position, are on dangerous ground. Their’s is a grotesque expression of regret for the birth of those individuals. It borders on suggesting that babies with Downs Syndrome should be murdered — post-birth! However, this is in keeping with the eugenicistic roots of abortion advocacy (see below).
  • The decision has no implication for the legality of contraceptives.
  • Democrats and Planned Parenthood have seemingly resisted efforts to legalize over-the-counter contraception. They should get on-board asap.
  • Post-Dobbs, abortion law in the U.S. is most assuredly not an outlier among developed nations. See the handy comparison with nations in the EU above.
  • Abortion proponents are having difficulty controlling their brethren’s use of the “N-word”, particularly when targeted at Justice Thomas. And apparently, advocating for the assassination of Thomas has been normalized among pro-abortionists.
  • The violence and histrionics of certain pro-arbortionists will not get them much sympathy. Jane’s Revenge terrorism is a good way to ruin their cause.
  • In a bit of great news, all sides now seem to agree that pregnancy and abortion are women’s issues. Breakthrough moment!

Here is the earlier post I mentioned above:

DOBBS, ROE, AND THE FREAKOUT OVER FEDERALISM

The leak of a Supreme Court draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has created uproars on several fronts. The opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, represented a 5-4 majority at the time of its writing, but it is a draft opinion, and the substance and the positions of other justices might change before a final decision is handed down by the Court by the end of June. The draft would essentially uphold a Mississippi law restricting abortions after the first 15 weeks of pregnancy. This would overturn the Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) decisions. The former established that states could regulate abortion only beyond a certain stage of pregnancy (originally the first trimester), while the latter allowed states to regulate once a pregnancy reached the stage of fetal viability. While 24 weeks is often cited as the lower limit of viability, it is considered to be as early as 20 weeks by the World Health Organization, an estimate that could decline with future advances in prenatal and neonatal care (such as artificial wombs). In any case, viability would no longer be the standard if the draft opinion stands. Indeed, it would once again be up to states as to how they wish to regulate abortion.

Here is an update on where things stood on May 11th. Reportedly, the 5-4 majority still stood, and no other draft opinions existed in the case at that time. No news since.

Due Process and Privacy Rights

Was Roe v. Wade a good legal decision? Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not hold the opinion in high regard as a matter of the jurisprudence. Apparently, she felt that the Court should have simply struck down the restrictive Texas law in question without imposing a set of rules, which amounted to an aggressive infringement on the legislative function and the evolution of law, and case law, at the state level. Her words were:

Doctrinal limbs too swiftly shaped, experience teaches, may prove unstable. The most prominent example in recent decades is Roe v. Wade.”

She also felt the Court should not have leaned on the Due Process Clause of Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits the denial of “life, liberty or property, without due process of law”. And she believed that relying on due process and the privacy rights of a woman and her physician made Roe vulnerable to challenge. She was probably right.

Yale Law School professor Akhil Amar, who is pro-choice, also believes the Roe decision was misguided and calls its reliance on due process “textual gibberish”. The objection to substantive due process is based on the absence of any principle establishing which “rights” not found explicitly in the Bill of Rights are valid, and which are not.

Equal Protection

In fact, Amar defends Justice Alito’s draft opinion and believes, as Ginsberg did, that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment is a better defense of abortion rights. The contention is that unless a woman possesses the right to terminate a pregnancy, she is not on an equal footing with similarly situated men in terms of self-determination and life opportunities. Of course, none of this weighs the interests of the unborn child.

Establishment Clause

Josh Blackman has an interesting series of comments about whether the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment may be a valid defense of abortion rights. That seemingly preposterous claim relies on abortion as a right, in some cases, protected by the free exercise of religion. As Blackman sums up in his sixth point:

“… abortion rights groups should be careful what they wish for. If the Court recognizes a Free Exercise right to perform or receive an abortion, then conservatives can cook up even more aggressive religious liberty strategies. I’ll bring the bagels for the next meeting of the Temple of Automatic Weapons.”

Eugene Volokh makes several interesting points on attempts to use the Establishment Clause “to obtain exemptions from generally applicable laws”. A separate, misguided take at the Establishment Clause is that a law must be unconstitutional if it was based on religious beliefs. Volokh handily disposes of that contention here.

Judicially-Prescribed Rights vs. Constitutional Rights

Blackman has written that the Alito draft is a tour de force, addressing many constitutional principles and concerns expressed by other justices. In another post, Blackman explains a very basic rationale for a decision to overturn Roe. It is related to the objections expressed by Ginsberg and Amar, and to the many “lamentations” expressed in the Court’s abortion opinions over the years since Roe. Namely, that rule and establishment of new rights by court decision was not a mechanism intended by the framers of the Constitution, but self-government and federalist principles were:

It is a mistake to argue that Dobbs extinguishes a right, without also acknowledging that the decision would restore another right. Overruling Roe would extinguish a judicially-created right to abortion, but it would restore a very different right: the right of the people to govern themselves.

Personhood

Of course, none of these points are really germane to the crux of the pro-life argument to which I subscribe. However, both Roe and Casey acknowledge the state’s interest in protecting the fetus beyond some point in a pregnancy. The closer to term, the greater the interest. The implication is that a fetus gradually takes on degrees of “personhood” through the course of gestation, and that rights attach to that nascent individual at some point. Both Roe and Casey, by allowing states to regulate abortion beyond some point, offer recognition that the closer an abortion occurs to full term, the stronger the case that it may be prohibited.

The law in most European nations carries the same implication, and if anything leans more heavily in favor of fetal rights than Roe. Furthermore, there are 38 states with fetal homicide laws, which treat the fetus as a person in the case of a murder of a pregnant woman. In 29 of those states, the law applies at the earliest stages of pregnancy. This suggests that in most states, sentiments may weigh in favor of treating the fetus as a person imbued with constitutional rights.

In the end, this is not an exclusively religious argument, as the pro-abortion Left always suggests. For me, it’s purely an ethical one. At what point beyond conception are pro-abortion activists willing to concede that a human life is at stake? Apparently a heartbeat is not enough to convince them. Neither does the appearance of small fingers and toes. Nor the ability to feel pain. These are all things that happen before the child is “viable”. But even viability is not enough for some of the more radical abortion activists, who are proposing choice right up to the moment of birth. Incredibly, and despite the real limitations imposed on mid- or late-term abortions in many states (in line with Roe and Casey), some pro-choice advocates are now acting as if overturning these cases causes women to lose such an unfettered right!

Practical Matters

Anyone can obtain a variety of birth control alternatives without a prescription (and often for free). This includes emergency contraception, or the “morning after pill”. Granted, sometimes birth control measures fail, which places the prospective mother (and perhaps an involved or conscientious father) in a difficult position. Nevertheless, careful use of birth control would minimize the abortion problem and obviate much of the debate, but people are often too impulsive or careless about sex.

Late term abortions are a fairly small percentage of all abortions. The CDC reported that in 2018, 50,000 (~8%) abortions occurred after the first trimester (14+ weeks), and 6,200 (1%) took place at or beyond the point of theoretical viability (21+ weeks). This study found that of abortions at 20+ weeks, mothers tended to be younger (20 -24), discovered their pregnancies somewhat later, faced logistical and financial delays in arranging the abortion, or faced other challenging life circumstances. However, the researchers rebut a common rationale for late-term abortion when they say:

“… most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.

Eugenics and Classism

Pregnancies among black women are terminated at a disproportionately high rate. That’s consistent with the original, eugenicistic and racist goals of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger. This is an outcome to top all disparate impacts. I have witnessed pro-abortion activists counter that these aborted lives would have been miserable, impoverished, and without opportunity — essentially not worth living — but these are value judgements of the most monstrous kind. I’ve also heard the pathetic argument that fiscal conservatives should be happy that abortions will reduce spending on aid programs. Of course, the plight of the would-be mother is also emphasized by pro-abortion advocates, but we should not be so eager to accept the tradeoff here: abortion gets the mother is off the hook, but a child’s life is at stake. No matter the odds of success, human beings are all endowed with potential and opportunity, and it’s not necessary to be economically secure to be happy or pursue dreams.

It’s easy to be pessimistic that public policy can ever mitigate the economic burden on impoverished women who bring unexpected or unwanted pregnancies to term, or to brighten the economic future of their children. After all, over the decades since the Great Society program was conceived, the welfare state has proven no better than a dependency treadmill. Family structure has been decimated by those programs and the destructive consequences of the failed (but ongoing) war on drugs. Likewise, public education is a disaster. However, there are also alternatives such as adoption, and there are many private individuals and organizations working to encourage prospective mothers and ease those burdens.

The Leak

The leak of the draft opinion in Dobbs is unfortunate as it compromises the ongoing integrity of the Court’s internal debates and proceedings. In addition to this institutional damage, the impropriety of staging protests outside the homes of justices and inside places of worship should be roundly condemned by people with respect for judicial integrity, privacy and free exercise. These protests are partly attempts to intimidate, and they have even been accompanied by threats of violence. The belligerent posture of these activists is unconscionable.

Long Live Federalism

Again, the Court’s final decision in Dobbs might not be the opinion in the leaked draft. However, if the Court does indeed overturn Roe, it would not outlaw abortion. Rather, it would allow voters in each state to have a voice in aligning the law with public sentiment. Some states will have more restrictive abortion laws than others, but even the Mississippi law at issue in Dobbs allows abortion up through week 15, almost two weeks longer than the original Roe limitation.

The country is still deeply divided on the issue of abortion. Fundamentally, a broader acceptance of the life-and-death reality of abortion would help bring more consensus on the issue. One theory I have is that many who oppose overturning Roe would simply rather not think about that reality. In their minds, Roe keeps abortion compartmentalized, safely walled off from conscience and sometimes even spiritual convictions. They rationalize Roe based on their inability to observe the person whose life is at stake, and they accept justifications that minimize the value of that life.

A single rule imposed by the Court has not and will not resolve these differences. Indeed, Roe and Casey were failed acts of judicial activism that should be reversed. While bad legislation is regrettable, it is always subject to review and challenge by the people. In a federalist system, a bad law is contained like a single experimental treatment in a large trial with multiple arms. However, in this case, unlike a trial with random selection of subjects, one treatment group may differ from others in important respects, and the objective is not to identify one single-best solution, but different solutions that work best for different groups. That is a closer approximation to real self-government than federal legislation and especially one-size-fits-all Court rule-making.

Medicare For All … and Tax Hikes, Long Waits, Inferior Care

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Political humorist P.J. O’Rourke once quipped that if you think health care is expensive now, wait till it’s free! A Stephen Green post reminded me of the source of that wisdom. But there are many who say they don’t understand why we simply don’t offer the Medicare program to everyone … free! Well, the reasons are quite simple: we can’t afford it, and it would be bad policy. In fact, it’s too costly and bad policy even if it isn’t free! Medicare is technically insolvent as it is — broke, in plain language. According to the Medicare Trustees 2022 Report linked above, the Hospital Insurance Trust Fund will be depleted by 2028. That only means the Medicare system has authority to take funds the Treasury borrows to pay ongoing benefits through 2028, so the remaining trust fund balance is little consolation. The long-term actuarial deficit is $700 billion, but it’s possibly as high as $1.5 trillion under an alternative, high-cost scenario shown in the Trustee’s report.

Single Payer Medicare?

Extending free Medicare to the entire population would cost over $30 trillion in the first 10 years, and that’s a conservative estimate. And be forewarned: single-payer health care is government health care, which invariably leads to rationed access and protracted waiting times, poor quality, and escalating costs. For a detailed look at many of the quality problems suffered by Medicare patients, see this paper by Michael Cannon and Jacqueline Pohida. Don’t be deceived by claims that Medicare’s administrative costs are lower than private insurance: The real cost of Medicare is largely hidden through the imposition of low reimbursement rates to providers, while taxpayers get stuck with a significant bill.

Avik Roy has discussed variations on “Medicare For All” (M4A), most of which share very little with today’s Medicare. Not only would they fail to address its shortcomings; they would be much worse. Some do not include the range of private plans currently offered through Medicare Advantage. In fact, under the plans offered by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Medicare Advantage would be terminated, as would all other private insurance for the working-age population. Medicaid would also be eliminated. “Medicare”, in its surviving form, would be the single-payer system, “free” at the point of care and without premiums. Again, a free health care buffet would unleash gluttonous demand, so certain restrictions must be in place to limit pricing and access to care. Think rationing, which should sound ominous to those whose health is failing.

Physician reimbursement rates under traditional Medicare are now only about 60% of private reimbursements, and that filters down to the wages earned by other workers in the health care sector. Naturally, broadening Medicare’s reach will cause providers and their employees to drop-out or cut back. And again, services will be subject to various other forms of rationing. These are unavoidable failings of free or heavily-subsidized health care systems, not to mention the massive burden on taxpayers. And by the way, the “rich” are nowhere near rich enough to pay for all of it.

As to the overall effects, here’s what CBO Director Phillip L. Swagel told the Senate Budget Committee recently, as quoted in Reason by JD Tuccille:

The increase in demand for personal health care would exceed the increase in supply, resulting in greater unmet demand than the amount under current law. The increase in unmet demand would correspond to increased congestion in the health care system, including delays and forgone care.

The “increase in supply” mentioned by Swagel is something of a pipe dream.

Buy-Ins and Public Option

There are less drastic proposals than full-blown M4A, such as so-called Medicare buy-ins. For example, those age 50 – 64 might be given the option to “buy-in” to Medicare coverage. It’s not clear whether that would include a choice of Medicare Advantage plans. Many would find the coverage available through traditional Medicare and Medicare Advantage to be inadequate. It is often inferior to private plans, including the lack of dependent coverage and no out-of-pocket maximum for traditional Medicare. Supplemental coverage would be necessary for many individuals choosing the latter.

Another question is how employers would adjust to a segment of their work force in the 50-64 age group opting-out of sponsored coverage. Would the company be required to pick-up the Medicare tab? Would there be compensatory adjustments in wages? Fully compensatory changes are unlikely. Even with partial adjustments, how would an employer adjust company-wide wage scales for younger workers who perform the same or similar duties as those opting into Medicare. And what of the tax-free benefit for workers on employer-paid premiums? Medicare premiums are not tax deductible… at least not yet!

All of the other concerns about low provider reimbursement rates would apply to a Medicare buy-in. The supply of medical care, particularly to the segment buying in, might prove thin. The buy-in option would have very little impact on the number of uninsured individuals. However, several studies have found that the buy-in option would increase premiums for private plans on the individual market (see the last link). That’s largely because providers will try to stick private insurers and patients with the burden of cross-subsidizing Medicare buy-ins.

Another proposal is for a Medicare plan or similar public option to be made available to all in the exchange marketplace. This would take a more massive toll on taxpayers and health care access and quality than the buy-in approach. Moreover, because of pressure for cross-subsidies, private plans will struggle to stay in business. The destruction would be gradual, but the public option would slowly eliminate choice from the marketplace. Cannon and Pohida believe that offering a public option could lead to improvements if the private and public plans are allowed to compete on a level playing field, largely in terms of subsidies and regulatory hurdles, but that is highly unlikely.

Cuts Ahead?

A lesser known issue is the impact of spending caps put in place under the Affordable Care Act. These apply to Medicare and Medicaid as well as federal subsidies on policies purchased on the Obamacare exchanges. When those caps are exceeded, access becomes temporarily restricted, with some practices actually closing their doors for a period of days or weeks. Health economist John Goodman notes that seniors tend to eat into the allowable spending amounts much faster than younger cohorts. That means seniors might be denied costlier forms of care. To the extent that any variation on M4A covers a broader age range, there might be more pressure to curtail certain forms of care for seniors, which would be a most unfortunate case of policy-induced age discrimination.

As for Medicare as it stands now, Goodman describes the potential cuts that are coming. These include the possibility of reduced amenities (e.g., hospital wards with more patients per room and lower-cost meals), and as already mentioned, longer waits and restricted availability of costlier treatments. Goodman states that the necessary cuts to make Medicare whole would be equivalent to the loss of three years of coverage for a 65-year old, and the cuts will affect both traditional Medicare and privately-issued (but publicly subsidized) Advantage plans.

Conclusion

There’s no chance any form of M4A would reduce the cost of care or improve access to care. An expanded Medicare would bear the hallmarks of central planning that have accelerated the monopolization of health care under Obamacare. And like Obamacare, the final form of any M4A plan will be the product of negotiations between self-interested politicians, corporatists and regulators. Big pharmaceutical companies, insurers, large hospital systems, and other interest groups will wrangle for the rents that “reform” legislation might bring. Costs will rise and access to care will be restricted. Taxpayers will be saddled with a large chunk of the cost.

In the end it’s likely to be a mess. Far better to adopt reforms that would bring more innovation, choice, and competition to the markets for health insurance and health care. That includes expanding the range of options available under private Medicare (Advantage). At the same time, Obamacare should be scrapped in favor of a range of a greater range of private options with income-dependent subsidies, including catastrophic coverage only, as well as reduced regulation of insurers and providers.

A Fiscal Real-Bills Doctrine? No Such Thing As Painless Inflation Tax

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A remarkable proposal made recently by Representative Ro Khanna (D -CA) would have the Biden Administration impose price controls, which would be bad enough. Khanna also would like the federal government to cover the inflation losses incurred by Americans by having it directly purchase certain goods and services and resell them “cheap” to consumers. In fairness, Khanna says the government should attempt to take advantage of dips in prices for oil, food commodities, and perhaps other necessities, which of course would limit or reverse downward price changes. When asked about Khanna’s proposal, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden’s Transportation Secretary, replied that there were great ideas coming out of Congress and the Administration should consider them. Anyway, the idea is so bad that it deserves a more thorough examination.

Central Planners Have No Clothes

First, such a program would represent a massive expansion in the scope of government. It would also present ample opportunities for graft and cronyism, as federal dollars filter through the administrative layers necessary to manage the purchases and distribution of goods. Furthermore, price and quantity would then be shaded by a heavy political component, often taking precedence over real demand and cost considerations. And that’s beyond the crippling “knowledge problem” that plagues all efforts at central planning.

One of the most destructive aspects of allowing government to absorb a greater share of total spending is that government is not invested with the same budgetary discipline as private buyers. Take no comfort in the notion that the government might prove expert at timing these purchases to leverage price dips. Remember that government always spends “other people’s money”, whether it comes from tax proceeds, lenders, or the printing press (and hence future consumers, who have absolutely no agency in the matter). Hence, price incentives take on less urgency, while political incentives gain prominence. The loss of price sensitivity means that government expenditures are likely to inflate more readily than private expenditures. This is all the more critical at a time when inflation is becoming embedded in expectations and pricing decisions. Khanna thus proposes an inflation “solution” that puts less price-sensitive bureaucrats in charge of actual purchases. That’s a prescription for failure.

If anyone in Biden’s White House is seriously considering a program of this kind, and let’s hope they’re not, they should at least be aware that direct subsidies for the purchase of key goods would be far more efficient. It’s also possible to hedge the risk of future price increases on commodities markets, perhaps simply distributing hedging gains to consumers when they pay off. However, having the federal government participate as a major player in commodities options and futures is probably not on the table at this point … and I shudder to think of it, but it might be more efficient than Khanna’s vision.

A Fiscal Real Bills Doctrine

Khanna’s program would almost surely cause inflation to accelerate. Inflation itself a form of taxation imposed by profligate governments, though it’s an inefficient tax since it creates greater uncertainty. Higher prices deflate the real value of most government debt (borrowed from the public), assets fixed in nominal value, and incomes. Read on, but this program would have the government pay your inflation tax for you by inflating some more. Does this sound like a vicious circle?

Khanna’s concept of inflation-relief is a fiscal reimagining of a long-discredited monetary theory called the “Real Bills Doctrine”. According to this doctrine, rising prices and costs necessitate additional money creation so that businesses have the liquidity to pay the bills associated with ongoing productive efforts. The “real” part is a reference to the link between business expenses and actual production, despite the fact that those bills are expressed in nominal terms. The result of this policy is a cycle of ever-higher inflation, as ever-more money is printed. This was the policy utilized by the Reichsbank in Weimar Germany during its hyperinflation of 1922-23. It’s really quite astonishing that anyone ever thought such a policy was helpful!

In Khanna’s version of the doctrine, the government spends to relieve cost pressure faced by consumers, so the rationale has nothing to do with productive effort.

Financing and the Central Bank Response

It’s reasonable to ask how these outlays would be financed. In all likelihood, the U.S. Treasury would borrow the funds at interest rates now at 10-15 year highs, which have risen in part to compensate investors for higher inflation.

My bet is that Khanna imagines the Fed would simply “print” money (i.e., buy the new government debt floated by the Treasury to pay for the program). This is the prescription of so-called Modern Monetary Theory, whose adherents have either forgotten or have never learned that money growth and inflation is a costly and regressive form of taxation.

Most economists would say the response of the Federal Reserve to this fiscal stimulus would bear on whether it really ignites additional inflationary pressure. Of course, rather than borrowing, Congress could always vote to levy higher taxes on the public in order to pay the public’s inflation tax burden! But then what’s the point? Well, taxing at least has the virtue of not fueling still higher inflation, and the Fed would not have a role to play.

But if the government simply borrows instead, it adds to the already bloated supply of government debt held by the public. This borrowing is likely to put more upward pressure on interest rates, and the federal government’s mounting interest expense requires more financing. What then might the Fed do?

The Fed is an independent, quasi-government entity, so it would not have to accommodate the additional spending by printing money (buying the new Treasury debt). Either way, investors are increasingly skeptical that the growing debt burden will ever be reversed via future surpluses. The fiscal theory of the price level holds that something must reduce the real value of government debt (in order to satisfy the long-term fiscal budget constraint). That “something” is a higher price level. This position is not universally accepted, and some would contend that if the Fed simply set a nominal GDP growth target and stuck to it, accelerating inflation would not have to follow from Khanna’s policy. The same if the Fed could stick to a symmetric average inflation target, but they certainly haven’t been up to that task. Hoping the Fed would fully assert its independence in a fiscal hurricane is probably wishful thinking.

Conclusion

There are no choke points in the supply chain for bad ideas on the left wing of the Democratic Party, and they are dominating party centrists in terms of messaging. The answer, it seems, is always more government. High inflation is very costly, but the best policy is to rein it in, and that requires budgetary and monetary discipline. Attempts to make high inflation “painless” are misguided in the first instance because they short-circuit consumer price responses and substitution, which help restrain prices. Second, the presumption that an inflation tax can be “painless” is an invitation to fiscal debauchery. Third, expansive government brings out hoards of rent seekers instigating corruption and waste. Finally, mounting public debt is unlikely to be offset by future surpluses, and that is the ultimate admission of Modern Monetary Theory. A fiscal real bills doctrine would be an additional expression of this lunacy. To suggest otherwise is either sheer stupidity or an exercise in gaslighting. You can’t inflate away the pain of an inflation tax.

Honeybees Are and Have Been Thriving

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It’s been a while since I’ve heard much about the “beepocalypse”, but apparently many remain under the misapprehension that honeybee populations have languished under the threat of modern farming techniques. Some recent fake news on that subject appears at this link. There are two related contentions here, and both are false. One is that honeybee populations are dwindling. The other is the claim that productivity-enhancing insecticides used in modern agriculture are killing bees.

Bill Wirtz of the Brussels-based Consumer Choice Center notes the following:

… looking at the statistics of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, beehives are on the rise worldwide. The data show that as of 2020, there has been an increase of beehives by 17% since 2010, 35% since 2000, and 90% since 1961.

He also points out that efforts to prove the wild bee population in the U.S. declined over the five years ending in 2013 were based on a model laden with assumptions, as opposed to actual statistics. In any case, even if it had been true, a five-year period is hardly proof of a secular decline. Both wild and managed bee populations go through cycles based on natural conditions, and in the case of managed bees, conditions in the market for honey. In fact, high honey prices could favor growth ahead in managed bee populations, though cost factors make that less certain.

As for the insecticides widely blamed for the beepocalypse, there is no real world, field-level evidence of any link to declining bee populations. In a separate article, Wirtz cites reports from the U.S. EPA and agencies in Canada and Australia finding that the widely-blamed neonicotinoids could not be linked to harms to bee colonies. This study found that “neonics” had no lethal or “sublethal” effects on honeybees at field-level dosages, despite reports of such effects in the lab. The lab work cited sort of reminds me of the outrageous tests that led to the saccharine scare of the 1970s, when the saccharine-equivalent of 800 sugar-free soft drinks a day was fed to lab rats. Dose dependence means everything under actual field conditions.

Randy Oliver of ScientificBeekeeping.com has written several thorough analyses of the impact of neonics on bees over the years. In 2012, he posted an important article entitled “The Extinction of the Honeybee?”, in which he reported that “… honeybees were thriving at Ground Zero of neonicitinoid use”. Neonics have definite advantages relative to older pesticides: they are much safer for humans, they are more effective at targeting insects that bore and suck sap, and they can be used as seed treatments with less leaching into the surrounding environment relative to sprays.

Oliver followed that up his first piece with two companion articles in which he documented issues related to regulation, testing regimes, the field applicability of tests, problems in methodology, and interpretation of results. He identified seed planting dust as a serious problem for bees, but one that is easily managed. In the second post, Oliver evaluated a number of characteristics of bee and colony health, including learning performance, orientation, foraging, immune function, social interaction, task allocation, and effects upon brood. He summarized his review thusly (his emphasis):

Any number of scientists have diligently tried to find any sorts of sublethal effects of neonics on bees, but have failed to demonstrate adverse effects at the colony level at doses produced by seed.”

At the last link, Oliver discusses specific issues with respect to different crops, as well as other potential harms of neonics. However, seed treatments have never been implicated by researchers in bee colony collapse.

Finally, from a more recent presentation, Oliver reviews the history of bee population numbers and factors that drove them. That included infestation by two different parasitic mites in the 1980s and another pathogen in the early 2000s. These invasive waves led to use of the term Colony Collapse Disorder. While neonics had nothing to do with it, there were claims that it did. Oliver is not shy about noting other problems he identifies with the use of neonics, and he is strongly in favor of pest management approaches that rely less on pesticides. This is partly because farmers recognize the consumer resistance to pesticides, rational or otherwise. When neonics are applied properly, however, bee colony collapse is not one of those problems.

Honey prices were up strongly in 2021 (see here) and have remained strong in 2022 (here). That would bode well for the managed bee population. However, costs have increased sharply as well, blunting beekeeper incentives. Suppliers of beekeeping equipment are also facing higher costs. Given these pressures, it’s not clear whether the managed bee population will expand this year, but there is no threat to the long-term health of the bees in the proper use of neonics.

New Theory: Great Woke Filter Conceals Life In the Cosmos

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A recent academic paper seeks to explain the Fermi Paradox by asserting that all civilizations must either collapse or reach a point of homeostasis. The paper cites tensions between population growth, resource scarcity, limits to technical innovation, and ultimately political resistance to growth. The Fermi Paradox (FP) is the observation that by now, we should have detected or heard from an alien civilization if the universe has so much potential for intelligent life. But if those civilizations fail to advance beyond a certain level, they don’t develop the technical prowess to explore outside their own stellar neighborhoods or even become detectable from great distances.

The new paper, by Michael L. Wong and Stuart Bartlett (WB), says these outcomes might be the result of “asymptotic burnout” — followed by either civilizational collapse or a “homeostatic awakening”. Never has “get woke, go broke” been so palpable! Certain sections of the WB paper read like an encyclopedia of leftist apocalyptic speculation, dressed up in mathematics and assumed to generalize to any civilization of intelligent beings in the universe. The incredible vastness of outer space suggests that it might never be possible for us to detect these kinds of homebound, low-tech civilizations, whether constrained by scarcities and moribund technologies or hamstrung by their own politics. Similarly, they might not be able to detect us.

Great Filters

There are other, similar explanations of FP. All of those fall under the heading of “Great Filters”, and I’m not sure WB have come up with anything new in that regard except for the “woke” spin. Great filters can be extinction events, such as intra-planetary hostilities culminating in the reckless use of weapons of mass destruction. Or unfortunate collisions with massive asteroids, which are a matter of time. Malthusian outcomes have been discussed in the context of great filters as well. In the past, I’ve discussed the limitations imposed by collectivist social structures on a civilization’s potential to achieve interstellar travel. I’m not the only one. The kind of “awakening” posited by WB would certainly demand the centralization of economic decision-making, though they envision conditions under which the “awakening” is a rational and enlightened decision.

Grabby Civilizations

A bit of a digression here: one of the most interesting explanations for FP that I’ve heard is from economist Robin Hanson and several co-authors. Hanson, by the way, wrote the original paper on great filters. His more recent insight is the likelihood of an earth-bound selection bias: there must be reasons why we haven’t seen alien activity in earth’s backward light cone, assuming they exist. The light cone defines an area of space-time we have observed, or could have observed had we been looking. To have been within our light cone, an event coordinate’s distance from us in space must have been less than or equal to the time it takes for its light to arrive here. For example, we can see what happened on the surface of the Sun fifteen minutes ago because at the Sun’s distance, it takes just ten minutes for its light to reach us. However, an event on the Sun that occurred five minutes ago is still outside our backward light cone. Likewise, if a star is 100,000 light years away, we cannot see events that occurred there within the past 99,999 years.

Hanson and his co-authors focus on the timescales and “hard steps”, or critical evolutionary transitions, necessary for intelligent life to develop in a solar system. They construct a probability model suggesting that the birth of human civilization was likely on the early end of the time distribution of civilizational beginnings in the universe. That means there probably aren’t many distant civilizations we could possibly have seen in our light cone. We’d be more likely to detect them if they are sufficiently advanced to be so-called “grabby” civilizations, but that kind of technological development takes a long time. “Grabby” civilizations (or their machines) are capable of expanding their reach across the stars at high speed, some significant fraction of the speed of light. They can be expected to visibly alter the volume of space they control by settling, mining, building large structures, etc…. An interesting (and perhaps counterintuitive) result is that the faster such a civilization expands, the less likely we’d have seen them in our backward light cone. And we haven’t, which argues for a higher speed of alien conquest, all else equal.

In another post, Hanson estimates that the time until we meet another grabby civilization centers on about 1 billion years if we expand. So grabby civilizations are quite rare if they exist. That doesn’t rule out the possibility that we might detect or encounter a much less technically advanced civilization. Nevertheless, Hanson strongly believes in the reality of Great Filters and believes that human civilization is likely to encounter certain filters that we cannot even anticipate.

The explanation for FP offered by Hanson, et al is nuanced, and it is my favorite, given my fascination with the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Even if the development of human civilization is not especially “early”, the number of interstellar civilizations, grabby or not, is probably still quite small at this juncture. And no doubt space travel is tough! These civilizations and their interstellar pioneers might not endure long enough to cover the distances necessary to reach us. Even more pertinent is that we’ve really only been “looking” in earnest for maybe ten decades at the most, and without complete coverage or much precision. Alien origins or spatial conquests within the last 100 years at distances exceeding 100 light years would not yet be visible to us. And again, it’s remotely possible that there is a grabby civilization whose expansion will intersect with us sometime in the near future, but it is still too distant to be within our backward light cone. If closing on us fast enough, it could have been within a single light year six months ago and we would not yet know it!

Do Civilizations Scale Like Cities?

Now let’s return to the kind of great filter put forward by WB. They first appeal to the observation that cities scale superlinearly. That is, in cross-sectional data, the relationship between city population and various measures of income or output (and other metrics) are linear in logs with a coefficient greater than 1. That means a city with twice the population of another would generate more than twice as much income.

There are reasons why we’d expect city size to be associated with greater productivity, such as an abundance of collaborative opportunities and economies of agglomeration. However, WB assert that it is impossible for a city to sustain a superlinear growth relationship over time, requiring “unbounded growth”, without periodic bursts of innovation. Otherwise, a city encounters a growth “singularity”. WB maintain that the inability of innovation to sustain unbounded growth manifests in a cascade of failure in such a city, or at least homeostasis.

WB go on from there to claim that a civilization, as it advances, will become so interconnected via technology that it can be treated analytically like a single super-city. This assumption, that whole worlds scale like cities, offers WB an analytical convenience. They assume that population growth outstrips the supply of finite resources with an inadequate pace of innovation. WB further propose that civilizations confronting these barriers might undergo “awakenings” under which zero growth is accepted as a goal.

Of course, the growth of a city will stagnate when its size overwhelms its ability to meet demands. A city might be under severe resource constraints. There are external phenomena that can cause a city to languish. All this depends upon the unique vulnerabilities of individual cities. Certainly a widespread dearth of innovation could do the trick. A planetary civilization might be subject to similar constraints or limiting events. Some planets might be resource poor or have especially hostile natural environments. Aliens unfortunate enough to be there will not and cannot become “grabby”. But WB’s hypothesis amounts to the assertion that no civilization can hope to achieve “grabbiness”.

Faults In the Clouds of Delusion

The WB argument is misguided on several levels. First, there is only limited evidence that the scaling of cities is time invariant — that the relationships hold up as cities grow over time —no singularity required! After all, the super-linear relationship referenced by WB is based almost entirely on cross-sectional data. Moreover, the scaling assertion is atheoretic. Rationales are offered based on human social connections and presumed, fixed technical relationships between city population and such things as energy use and infrastructure requirements. However, the discussion is completely devoid of the equilibrating processes found in market economies and the guidance of the price mechanism. Instead, growth simply rages on until the pace of innovation and limited resources can no longer support it.

WB appear to assume that a planet’s finite pool of resources places a hard limit on the advancement of civilization. This is more than a bit reminiscent of the Club of Rome and it’s “Limits to Growth”, or the popular understanding of Thomas Malthus’ writings. That understanding is based on a purely biological model of human needs. which was spectacularly wrong in its prediction of worldwide famine. But that was only a starting point for Malthus, who believed in the power of markets. And even in primitive markets, the very scarcity with which biological needs conflict is what incentivizes greater efficiencies and substitutes. When something gets especially scarce, the market signals to users that they must conserve, on one hand, and it also incentivizes those able to commandeer resources. The latter act to fill the need with greater supplies, close substitutes, or inventive alternatives. Again, these kinds of equilibrating tendencies don’t seem to be of any consequence to WB.

The focus on super-linearity and the relationship between population and economic and other metrics obscures another reality: global fertility rates have been declining for decades and are now below replacement levels in many parts of the world. In addition, we know that birth rates tend to decline as income rises, which directly undermines WB’s concern about super-linearity. The unsustainable population growth envisioned by WB is unlikely to occur, much less overwhelm the ability of resources and innovation to provide for growth in human well-being. WB also ignore the fact that in-migration to cities is a primary contributor to their population growth, whereas in-migration has not been observed at the global level… at least that we’re aware!

What is never in short supply is human ingenuity, if we allow it to work. It enables us to identify and extract new reserves of resources previously hidden to us, and every new efficiency increases the effective reserves of resources already available. Mankind is now on the cusp of an era in which mining of scarce materials from the moon, asteroids, and other planets will be possible.

WB are correct that there are obstacles to urban growth, but they seem only dimly aware of the underlying reasons. Cities must provide myriad services to their residents. Many of those services will experience meager productivity gains relative to goods production, and consequently increased costs of services over time. This is an old problem known among economists as Baumol’s disease, after William Baumol. While it is not limited to cities, it can be especially acute in urban areas. The cost escalation may be severe for services such as education, health care, law enforcement, and the judicial system, which are certainly critical to the economic viability of cities. However, there will be future innovations and even automation of some of these services that boost productivity. Still, they are bound to mostly rise in cost relative to sectors with high average growth in productivity, such as manufacturing. Baumol’s disease is unlikely to tank the world economy. It is simply a fact of economic evolution: relative prices change, and low productivity sectors will suffer cost escalation.

The kind of “awakening” WB anticipate would only occur if individuals are willing sacrifice their liberties en masse, or if elites coerce them to do so. Perhaps there are beings who never imagine the kinds of liberties humans expect, or at least wish for. If so, I’d wager their average intelligence is too low to accomplish space travel anyway. We’ve learned from theory and history that socialism imposes severe constraints on growth. That’s why I once proposed that civilizations capable of interstellar travel will have avoided those chains.

Conclusion

Wong and Bartlett attempt to explain the Fermi Paradox based on the “asymptotic burnout” of civilizations. That is, they believe it’s extremely unlikely that any civilization can ever advance to interstellar travel, or as Hanson would put it, to be “grabby”. WB rely on an analogy between the so-called super-linearity of city scales and the scales of planetary civilizations. They generalize super-linearity to the time domain. In other words, WB make the heroic assumptions that the economic aggregates of planetary civilizations scale over time as cities scale cross-sectionally.

WB then claim that civilizations will confront limits to advancement based on their inability to sustain their pace of innovation. This amounts to Malthusian pessimism writ large. Today, human civilization, while not without its problems, is nowhere near the limits of its growth, and we are nearly ready to reach out beyond the confines of our planet for access to new stocks of resources. There are vast stores of unexploited energy even here on earth, and there are a number of relatively new energy technologies that are either available now or still in development. And there will be much more. Like the Club of Rome, WB lack an adequate appreciation for the power of markets and incentives to solve economic problems, which includes spurring innovation.

Finally, WB make the wholly unsupported conjecture that some civilizations will undergo “awakenings”, choosing to adopt homeostasis rather than growth. WB might or might not realize it, but this implies an abandonment of market institutions in favor of centrally-planned stagnation, and not a little coercion. Perhaps we should view WB’s hypothesis as a cautionary tale: get woke, go broke! Certainly, a homeostatic civilization that relies upon the ignorance of central planners will never develop the capacity for interstellar travel. It simply cannot generate the wealth or expertise necessary to do so. In fact, they are more likely to suffer bouts of mass starvation than any sort of middling prosperity. We probably haven’t seen other civilizations yet, and maybe we’re “early” on the development time-scale for civilizations, but when and if aliens arrive, it won’t be thanks to socialist “awakenings”. WP are at least correct in that regard.

Dobbs, Roe, and the Freakout Over Federalism

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The leak of a Supreme Court draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has created uproars on several fronts. The opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, represented a 5-4 majority at the time of its writing, but it is a draft opinion, and the substance and the positions of other justices might change before a final decision is handed down by the Court by the end of June. The draft would essentially uphold a Mississippi law restricting abortions after the first 15 weeks of pregnancy. This would overturn the Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) decisions. The former established that states could regulate abortion only beyond a certain stage of pregnancy (originally the first trimester), while the latter allowed states to regulate once a pregnancy reached the stage of fetal viability. While 24 weeks is often cited as the lower limit of viability, it is considered to be as early as 20 weeks by the World Health Organization, an estimate that could decline with future advances in prenatal and neonatal care (such as artificial wombs). In any case, viability would no longer be the standard if the draft opinion stands. Indeed, it would once again be up to states as to how they wish to regulate abortion.

Here is an update on where things stood on May 11th. Reportedly, the 5-4 majority still stood, and no other draft opinions existed in the case at that time. No news since.

Due Process and Privacy Rights

Was Roe v. Wade a good legal decision? Ruth Bader Ginsburg did not hold the opinion in high regard as a matter of the jurisprudence. Apparently, she felt that the Court should have simply struck down the restrictive Texas law in question without imposing a set of rules, which amounted to an aggressive infringement on the legislative function and the evolution of law, and case law, at the state level. Her words were:

Doctrinal limbs too swiftly shaped, experience teaches, may prove unstable. The most prominent example in recent decades is Roe v. Wade.”

She also felt the Court should not have leaned on the Due Process Clause of Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits the denial of “life, liberty or property, without due process of law”. And she believed that relying on due process and the privacy rights of a woman and her physician made Roe vulnerable to challenge. She was probably right.

Yale Law School professor Akhil Amar, who is pro-choice, also believes the Roe decision was misguided and calls its reliance on due process “textual gibberish”. The objection to substantive due process is based on the absence of any principle establishing which “rights” not found explicitly in the Bill of Rights are valid, and which are not.

Equal Protection

In fact, Amar defends Justice Alito’s draft opinion and believes, as Ginsberg did, that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment is a better defense of abortion rights. The contention is that unless a woman possesses the right to terminate a pregnancy, she is not on an equal footing with similarly situated men in terms of self-determination and life opportunities. Of course, none of this weighs the interests of the unborn child.

Establishment Clause

Josh Blackman has an interesting series of comments about whether the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment may be a valid defense of abortion rights. That seemingly preposterous claim relies on abortion as a right, in some cases, protected by the free exercise of religion. As Blackman sums up in his sixth point:

“… abortion rights groups should be careful what they wish for. If the Court recognizes a Free Exercise right to perform or receive an abortion, then conservatives can cook up even more aggressive religious liberty strategies. I’ll bring the bagels for the next meeting of the Temple of Automatic Weapons.”

Eugene Volokh makes several interesting points on attempts to use the Establishment Clause “to obtain exemptions from generally applicable laws”. A separate, misguided take at the Establishment Clause is that a law must be unconstitutional if it was based on religious beliefs. Volokh handily disposes of that contention here.

Judicially-Prescribed Rights vs. Constitutional Rights

Blackman has written that the Alito draft is a tour de force, addressing many constitutional principles and concerns expressed by other justices. In another post, Blackman explains a very basic rationale for a decision to overturn Roe. It is related to the objections expressed by Ginsberg and Amar, and to the many “lamentations” expressed in the Court’s abortion opinions over the years since Roe. Namely, that rule and establishment of new rights by court decision was not a mechanism intended by the framers of the Constitution, but self-government and federalist principles were:

It is a mistake to argue that Dobbs extinguishes a right, without also acknowledging that the decision would restore another right. Overruling Roe would extinguish a judicially-created right to abortion, but it would restore a very different right: the right of the people to govern themselves.

Personhood

Of course, none of these points are really germane to the crux of the pro-life argument to which I subscribe. However, both Roe and Casey acknowledge the state’s interest in protecting the fetus beyond some point in a pregnancy. The closer to term, the greater the interest. The implication is that a fetus gradually takes on degrees of “personhood” through the course of gestation, and that rights attach to that nascent individual at some point. Both Roe and Casey, by allowing states to regulate abortion beyond some point, offer recognition that the closer an abortion occurs to full term, the stronger the case that it may be prohibited.

The law in most European nations carries the same implication, and if anything leans more heavily in favor of fetal rights than Roe. Furthermore, there are 38 states with fetal homicide laws, which treat the fetus as a person in the case of a murder of a pregnant woman. In 29 of those states, the law applies at the earliest stages of pregnancy. This suggests that in most states, sentiments may weigh in favor of treating the fetus as a person imbued with constitutional rights.

In the end, this is not an exclusively religious argument, as the pro-abortion Left always suggests. For me, it’s purely an ethical one. At what point beyond conception are pro-abortion activists willing to concede that a human life is at stake? Apparently a heartbeat is not enough to convince them. Neither does the appearance of small fingers and toes. Nor the ability to feel pain. These are all things that happen before the child is “viable”. But even viability is not enough for some of the more radical abortion activists, who are proposing choice right up to the moment of birth. Incredibly, and despite the real limitations imposed on mid- or late-term abortions in many states (in line with Roe and Casey), some pro-choice advocates are now acting as if overturning these cases causes women to lose such an unfettered right!

Practical Matters

Anyone can obtain a variety of birth control alternatives without a prescription (and often for free). This includes emergency contraception, or the “morning after pill”. Granted, sometimes birth control measures fail, which places the prospective mother (and perhaps an involved or conscientious father) in a difficult position. Nevertheless, careful use of birth control would minimize the abortion problem and obviate much of the debate, but people are often too impulsive or careless about sex.

Late term abortions are a fairly small percentage of all abortions. The CDC reported that in 2018, 50,000 (~8%) abortions occurred after the first trimester (14+ weeks), and 6,200 (1%) took place at or beyond the point of theoretical viability (21+ weeks). This study found that of abortions at 20+ weeks, mothers tended to be younger (20 -24), discovered their pregnancies somewhat later, faced logistical and financial delays in arranging the abortion, or faced other challenging life circumstances. However, the researchers rebut a common rationale for late-term abortion when they say:

“… most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.

Eugenics and Classism

Pregnancies among black women are terminated at a disproportionately high rate. That’s consistent with the original, eugenicistic and racist goals of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger. This is an outcome to top all disparate impacts. I have witnessed pro-abortion activists counter that these aborted lives would have been miserable, impoverished, and without opportunity — essentially not worth living — but these are value judgements of the most monstrous kind. I’ve also heard the pathetic argument that fiscal conservatives should be happy that abortions will reduce spending on aid programs. Of course, the plight of the would-be mother is also emphasized by pro-abortion advocates, but we should not be so eager to accept the tradeoff here: abortion gets the mother is off the hook, but a child’s life is at stake. No matter the odds of success, human beings are all endowed with potential and opportunity, and it’s not necessary to be economically secure to be happy or pursue dreams.

It’s easy to be pessimistic that public policy can ever mitigate the economic burden on impoverished women who bring unexpected or unwanted pregnancies to term, or to brighten the economic future of their children. After all, over the decades since the Great Society program was conceived, the welfare state has proven no better than a dependency treadmill. Family structure has been decimated by those programs and the destructive consequences of the failed (but ongoing) war on drugs. Likewise, public education is a disaster. However, there are also alternatives such as adoption, and there are many private individuals and organizations working to encourage prospective mothers and ease those burdens.

The Leak

The leak of the draft opinion in Dobbs is unfortunate as it compromises the ongoing integrity of the Court’s internal debates and proceedings. In addition to this institutional damage, the impropriety of staging protests outside the homes of justices and inside places of worship should be roundly condemned by people with respect for judicial integrity, privacy and free exercise. These protests are partly attempts to intimidate, and they have even been accompanied by threats of violence. The belligerent posture of these activists is unconscionable.

Long Live Federalism

Again, the Court’s final decision in Dobbs might not be the opinion in the leaked draft. However, if the Court does indeed overturn Roe, it would not outlaw abortion. Rather, it would allow voters in each state to have a voice in aligning the law with public sentiment. Some states will have more restrictive abortion laws than others, but even the Mississippi law at issue in Dobbs allows abortion up through week 15, almost two weeks longer than the original Roe limitation.

The country is still deeply divided on the issue of abortion. Fundamentally, a broader acceptance of the life-and-death reality of abortion would help bring more consensus on the issue. One theory I have is that many who oppose overturning Roe would simply rather not think about that reality. In their minds, Roe keeps abortion compartmentalized, safely walled off from conscience and sometimes even spiritual convictions. They rationalize Roe based on their inability to observe the person whose life is at stake, and they accept justifications that minimize the value of that life.

A single rule imposed by the Court has not and will not resolve these differences. Indeed, Roe and Casey were failed acts of judicial activism that should be reversed. While bad legislation is regrettable, it is always subject to review and challenge by the people. In a federalist system, a bad law is contained like a single experimental treatment in a large trial with multiple arms. However, in this case, unlike a trial with random selection of subjects, one treatment group may differ from others in important respects, and the objective is not to identify one single-best solution, but different solutions that work best for different groups. That is a closer approximation to real self-government than federal legislation and especially one-size-fits-all Court rule-making.

Rejecting Fossil Fuels at Our Great Peril

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The frantic rush to force transition to a zero-carbon future is unnecessary and destructive to both economic well-being and the global environment. I do not subscribe to the view that a zero-carbon goal is an eventual necessity, but even if we stipulate that it is, a rational transition would eschew the immediate abandonment of fossil fuels and adopt a gradual approach relying heavily on market signals rather than a mad dash via coercion.

I’ve written about exaggerated predictions of temperature trends and catastrophes on a number of occasions (and see here for a similar view from a surprising source). What might be less obvious is the waste inherent in forcing the abandonment of mature and economic technologies in favor of, as yet, under-developed and uneconomic technologies. These failures should be obvious when the grid fails, as it does increasingly. It is often better to leave the development and dispersion of new technologies to voluntary decision-making. In time, advances will make alternative, low- or zero-carbon energy sources cost effective and competitive to users. That will include efficient energy storage at scale, new nuclear technologies, geothermal techniques, and further improvements in the carbon efficiency of fossil fuels themselves. These should be chosen by private industry, not government planners.

Boneheads At the Helm

Production of fossil fuels has been severely hampered by the Biden Administration’s policies. The sanctions on Russian oil that only began to take hold in March have caused an additional surge in the price of oil. Primarily, however, we’ve witnessed an artificial market disruption instigated by Biden’s advisors on environmental policy. After all, neither Russian oil imports nor the more recent entreaties to rogue states as Iraq and Venezuela for oil would have been necessary if not for the Administration’s war on fossil fuels. Take a gander at this White House Executive Order issued in January 2021. It reads like a guidebook on how to kill an industry. In a column this weekend, Kevin Williamson quipped about “the Biden administration’s uncanny ability to get everything everywhere wrong all at once.” That was about policy responses to inflation, but it applies to energy in particular.

Scorning the Miracle

Fossil fuels are the source of cheap and reliable energy that have lifted humanity to an unprecedented level of prosperity. Fossil fuels have given a comfortable existence to billions of people, allowing them to rise out of poverty. This prosperity gives us the luxury of time to develop substitutes, not to mention much greater safety against the kind of weather extremes that have always been a fact of life. The world still gets 80% of its energy from fossil fuels. These fuels are truly a miracle, and we should not discard such valuable technologies prematurely. That forces huge long-term investments in inferior technologies that are likely to be superseded in the future by more economic refinements or even energy sources and methods now wholly unimagined. There are investors who will still wish to pursue those new technologies, perhaps with non pecuniary motives, and there are a few consumers who really want alternatives to fossil fuels.

Biden’s apparent hope that his aggressive climate agenda will be a great legacy of his presidency is at the root of his intransigence toward fossil fuels. His actions in this regard have had a profoundly negative psychological effect on the oil and gas industry. Steps such as cancellations of pipeline projects are immediately impactful in that regard, to say nothing of the supplies that would have ultimately flowed through those pipelines. These cancellations reinforce the message Biden’s been sending to the industry and its investors since his campaign: we mean to shut you down! Who wants to invest in new wells under those circumstances? Other actions have followed: no new federal oil and gas leases, methane restrictions, higher drilling fees on federal land, and a variety of climate change initiatives that bode ill for the industry, such as the SEC’s mandate on carbon disclosures and the Federal Reserve’s proposed role in policing climate impacts.

And now, Democrats are contemplating a move that would make gasoline even more scarce: price controls. As Don Boudreaux says in a recent letter to The Hill:

Progressives incessantly threaten to tax and regulate carbon fuels into oblivion. These threats cannot but reduce investors’ willingness to fund each of the many steps – from exploration through refining to transporting gasoline to market – that are necessary to keep energy prices low. One reality reflected by today’s high prices at the pump is this hostility to carbon fuels generally and to petroleum especially. And gasoline price controls would only make matters worse by further reducing the attractiveness of investing in the petroleum industry: Why invest in bringing products to market if the prices at which you’re allowed to sell are dictated by grandstanding politicians?

The kicker is that all these policies are futile in terms of their actual impact on global carbon concentrations, let alone their highly tenuous link to global temperatures. The policies are also severely regressive, inflicting disproportionate harm on the poor, who can least afford such an extravagant transition. Biden wants the country to sacrifice its standard of living in pursuit of these questionable goals, while major carbon-emitting nations like China and India essentially ignore the issue.

Half-Baked Substitution

Market intervention always has downsides to balance against the potential gains of “internalizing externalities”. In this case, the presumed negative externalities are imagined harms of catastrophic climate change from the use of fossil fuels; the presumed external benefits are the avoidance of carbon emissions and climate change via renewables and other “zero-carbon” technologies. With those harms and gains in question, it’s especially important to ask who loses. Taxpayers are certainly on that list. Users of energy produced with fossil fuels end up paying higher prices and are forced to conserve or submit to coerced conversion away from fossil fuels. Then there are the wider impediments to economic growth and, as noted above, the distributional consequences.

Users of immature or inferior energy alternatives might also end up as losers, and there are likely to be external costs associated with those technologies as well. It’s not widely appreciated that today’s so-called clean energy alternatives are plagued by their need to obtain certain minerals that are costly to extract in economic and environmental terms, not to mention highly carbon intensive. And when solar and wind facilities fail or reach the end of their useful lives, disposal creates another set of environmental hazards. In short, the loses imposed through forced internalization of highly uncertain externalities are all too real.

Unfortunately, the energy sources favored by the Administration fail to meet base-load power needs on windless and/or cloudy days. The intermittency of these key renewables means that other power sources, primarily fossil-fuel and nuclear capacity, must remain available to meet demand on an ongoing basis. That means the wind and solar cannot strictly replace fossil fuels and nuclear capacity unless we’re willing to tolerate severe outages. Growth in energy demand met by renewables must be matched by growth in backup capacity.

A call for “energy pragmatism” by Dan Ervin hinges on the use of coal to provide the “bridge to the energy future”, both because there remains a large amount of coal generating capacity and it can stabilize the grid given the intermittency of wind and solar. Ervin also bases his argument for coal on recent increases in the price of natural gas, though a reversal of the Biden EPA’s attacks on gas and coal, which Ervin acknowledges, would argue strongly in favor of natural gas as a pragmatic way forward.

Vehicle Mandates

The Administration has pushed mandates for electric vehicle (EV) production and sales, including subsidized charging stations. Of course, the power used by EVs is primarily generated by fossil fuels. Furthermore, rapid growth in EVs will put a tremendous additional strain on the electric grid, which renewables will not be able to relieve without additional backup capacity from fossil fuels and nuclear. This severely undermines the supposed environmental benefits of EVs.

Once again, mandates and subsidies are necessary because EV technology is not yet economic for most consumers. Those buyers don’t want to spend what’s necessary to purchase an EV, nor do they wish to suffer the inconveniences that re-charging often brings. This is a case in which policy is outrunning the ability of the underlying infrastructure required to support it. And while adoption of EVs is growing, it is still quite low (and see here).

Wising Up

Substitution into new inputs or technologies happens more rationally when prices accurately reflect true benefits and scarcities. The case for public subsidies and mandates in the push for a zero-carbon economy rests on model predictions of catastrophic global warming and a theoretical link between U.S. emissions and temperatures. Both links are weak and highly uncertain. What is certain is the efficiency of fossil fuels to power gains in human welfare.

This Bartley J. Madden quote sums up a philosophy of progress that is commendable for firms, and probably no less for public policymakers:

Keep in mind that innovation is the key to sustainable progress that jointly delivers on financial performance and taking care of future generations through environmental improvements.

Madden genuflects to the “sustainability” crowd, who otherwise don’t understand the importance of trusting markets to guide innovation. If we empower those who wish to crush private earnings from existing technologies, we concede the future to central planners, who are likely to choose poorly with respect to technology and timing. Let’s forego the coercive approach in favor of time, development, and voluntary adoption!

The Fed’s Balance Sheet: What’s the Big Deal?

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The Federal Reserve just announced tighter monetary policy in an attempt to reduce inflationary pressures. First, it raised its target range for the federal funds rate (on overnight loans between banks) by 0.5%. The new range is 0.75% – 1%. Second, on June 1, the Fed will begin taking steps to reduce the size of its $9 trillion portfolio of securities. These holdings were acquired during periods of so-called quantitative easing (QE) beginning in 2008, including dramatic expansions in 2020-21. A shorthand reference for this portfolio is simply the Fed’s “balance sheet”. It includes government debt the Fed has purchased as well as privately-issued mortgage-backed securities (MBS).

What Is This Balance Sheet You Speak Of?

Talk of the Fed’s balance sheet seems to mystify lots of people. During the 2008 financial crisis, the Fed began to inject liquidity into the economy by purchasing large amounts of assets to be held on its balance sheet. This was QE. It’s scope was unprecedented and a departure from the Fed’s pre-crisis reliance on interest rate targeting. QE had the effect of increasing bank reserves, which raised the possibility of excessive money supply growth. That’s when the Fed began to pay interest to banks on reserves, so they might be content to simply hold some of the reserves over and above what they are required to hold, rather than using all of that excess to support new loans and deposits (and thus money growth). However, that interest won’t stop banks from lending excess reserves if better opportunities present themselves.

The Fed has talked about reducing, “normalizing”, or “tapering” its balance sheet for some time, but it only recently stopped adding to it. With inflation raging and monetary policy widely viewed as too “dovish”, analysts expected the Fed to stop reinvesting proceeds from maturing securities, which amounts to about $95 billion per month. That would shrink or “taper” the balance sheet at a rate of about $1.1 trillion per year. Last week the Fed decided to cap the “runoff” at $47.5 billion per month for the first three months, deferring the $95 billion pace until September. Monetary policy “hawks” were disappointed by this announcement.

Monetizing Government

So, one might ask, what’s the big deal? Why must the Fed taper its securities holdings? Well, first, the rate of inflation is far above the Fed’s target range, and it’s far above the “average Joe’s” comfort range. Inflation imposes significant costs on the economy and acts as a regressive form of taxation, harming the poor disproportionately. To the extent that the Fed’s huge balance sheet (and the corresponding bank reserves) are supporting incremental money growth and fueling inflation, the balance sheet must be reduced.

In that connection, the Fed’s investment in government debt represents monetized federal debt. That means the Fed is essentially printing money to meet the Treasury’s financing needs. Together with profligate spending by the federal government, nothing could do more to convince investors that government debt will never be repaid via future budget surpluses. This dereliction of the government’s “full faith and credit”, and the open-armed acceptance of the inflation tax as a financing mechanism (à la Modern Monetary Theory), is the key driver of fiscal inflation. Reducing the balance sheet would represent de-monetization, which might help to restore faith in the Fed’s ability to push back against fiscal recklessness.

Buyer of First Resort

Perhaps just as critically, the Fed’s heavy investment in government debt and MBS represents an ongoing distortion to the pricing of financial assets and the allocation of capital. Some call this interference in the “price discovery process”. That’s because the Fed has represented a market-altering presence, a willing and inelastic buyer of government debt and MBS. Given that presence, it’s difficult for buyers and sellers to discern the true values of alternative uses of capital, or to care.

QE was, among other things, a welcome institutional development for the U.S. Treasury and for those who fancy that fresh money printing is an ever-valid form of government payment for scarce resources. The Fed’s involvement also means that other potential buyers of Treasury debt need not worry about interest rate risk, making public debt relatively more attractive than private debt. This is a dimension of the “crowding out” phenomenon, whereby the allocation of capital and flows of real resources between public and private uses are distorted.

The Fed’s presence as a buyer of MBS depresses mortgage rates and makes mortgage lending less risky for lenders and investors. As a result, it encourages an over-investment in housing and escalating home prices. This too distorts the allocation of capital and real resources, at the margin, toward housing and away from uses with greater underlying value.

Conclusion

The magnitude of the Fed’s balance sheet is an ongoing testament to an increasingly dominant role of central authorities in the economy. In this case, the Fed has served as a conduit for the inflation tax. In addition, it has unwittingly facilitated crowding out of private capital investment. The Fed’s purchases of MBS have distorted the incentives (and demand) for residential investment. These are subtle effects that the average citizen might not notice, just as one might not notice the early symptoms of a debilitating disease. The long-term consequences of the Fed’s QE activities, including the inflation tax and distorted allocations of capital, are all too typical of failures of government intervention and attempts at central planning. But don’t expect anyone at the Fed to admit it.

Collectivism Is Not the “Natural” State

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There is a great myth that primitive man was some sort of “noble savage”, perfectly attuned to the natural environment and disposed to an egalitarian principle. All that, of course, is balderdash. A related myth is that primitive societies were essentially collectivist and that private property was largely an unrecognized institution. This is something I’ve heard too often from individuals wishing to characterize leftist ideals as natural and wholesome. So I welcomed a recent piece in Aeon called “Primitive Communism”, by Manvir Singh, which reviews evidence on a number of hunter-gatherer societies and cites several scholars on the subject of ownership and the distribution of goods among those peoples. A preponderance of the evidence suggests that private property and private rewards were (and are) quite common in primitive societies, and those practices predated agriculture.

The assertion that the advent of private property and trade was somehow unnatural for mankind, or even unjust, might owe its widespread acceptance to Friedrich Engels’ “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”. Singh summarizes one of the book’s primary arguments thusly:

Once upon a time, private property was unknown. Food went to those in need. Everyone was cared for. Then agriculture arose and, with it, ownership over land, labour and wild resources. The organic community splintered under the weight of competition.

While there were a few primitive societies in which economic output was shared, it is not clear whether any central authority was relied upon for determining the distribution of output. Instead, in those cases, sharing seems to have been a matter of social convention. Singh posits that interdependence played a major role in motivating output sharing, but mechanisms for dealing with interdependence differed in societies with stronger property rights, including voluntary sharing, which was often but not always based on reciprocity. Volunteerism still has a strong role in modern, developed economies, but for better or worse, social insurance is increasingly viewed as a function of the state, with its monopoly on legal coercion.

And how “natural” is social insurance? Not very in a world of extreme scarcity. One of the more interesting passages in Singh’s article has to do with the brutality of subsistence-level societies. The weak were often abandoned or killed, which Singh discusses in the context of the collectivist Aché people of Paraguay. This “culling” applied variously to orphans, the disabled, the unsightly, and the aged. It’s unclear whether these decisions were collective or left up to individual families. Noble savages indeed!

It’s astonishing how often Engels’ faulty premise is accepted as historical fact. The argument, however, often serves as a subtext for collectivist rationales in the modern era. As Singh says:

For anyone hoping to critique existing institutions, primitive communism conveniently casts modern society as a perversion of a more prosocial human nature.

I’m not sure whether it’s possible to marshall evidence that primitive societies with strong property rights were more successful than their collectivist counterparts. That would be a good topic of further research, but it would be tough to control for the difficulties posed by varying natural conditions faced by these societies.

On the other hand, suppose we stipulate that property rights developed as a consequence of, or in tandem with, organized production, as Engels would have had it. We’d have to categorize that development as a kind of technological breakthrough in its own right. By aligning incentives with production, property rights were critical to the phenomenal growth in prosperity the world has enjoyed over the past several centuries. Nevertheless, the evidence on primitive societies suggests that the alignment came more “naturally”.

It’s about time to put the fiction of “primitive communism” to rest. Private property was sensible for the denizens of most primitive societies. Even the most collectivist of the those societies made certain concessions to that reality. These facts comport with a view of property ownership as a natural right.

Social Insurance, Trust Fund Runoff, and Federal Debt

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The Social Security and Medicare trust funds are starting to shrink, but as they shrink something else expands in tandem, roughly dollar-for-dollar: government debt. There is a widespread misconceptions about these entitlement programs and their trust funds. Many seem to think the trust funds are like “pots of gold” that will allow the government to meet its mandatory obligations to beneficiaries. But, in fact, the government will have to borrow the exact amounts of any “assets” that are “cashed out” of the trust funds, barring other reforms or legislative solutions. So how does that work? And why did I put the words “assets” and “cashed out” in quote marks?

The Trust Funds

First, I should note that there are two Social Security trust funds: one for old age and survivorship income (OASI) and one for disability income (DI). Occasionally, for summary purposes, the accounts for these funds are combined in presentations. There are also two Medicare trust funds: one for hospitalization insurance (HI – Part A) and one for Supplementary Medical Insurance (SMI – Parts B and D). The first three of these trust funds are represented in the chart at the top of this post, which is from the Summary of the 2021 Annual Reports by the Boards of Trustees. It plots a measure of financial adequacy: the ratio of trust fund assets at the start of each year to the annual cost. The funds are all projected to be depleted, HI and OASI much sooner than DI.

Fund Accumulation

The first step in understanding the trust funds requires a clearing up of another misconception: the payroll taxes that workers “contribute” to these systems are not invested specifically for each of those workers. These programs are strictly “pay-as-you-go”, meaning that the payroll taxes (and premiums in the case of Medicare) paid this year by you and/or your employer are generally distributed directly to current beneficiaries.

Back when demographics of the American population were more favorable for these programs, with a larger number of workers relative to retirees, payroll taxes (and premiums) exceeded benefits. The excess was essentially loaned by these programs to the U.S. Treasury to cover other forms of spending. So the trust funds accumulated U.S. Treasury IOUs for many years, and the Treasury pays interest to the trust funds on that debt. On the upside, that meant the Treasury had to borrow less from the public to cover its deficits during those years. So the government spent the excess payroll tax proceeds and wrote IOUs to the trust funds.

Draining the Funds

The demographic profile of the population is no longer favorable to these entitlement programs. The number of retirees has increased so that benefit levels have grown more quickly than program revenue. Benefits now exceed the payroll taxes and premiums collected, so the trust funds must be drawn down. Current estimates are that the Social Security Trust Fund will be depleted in 2034, while the Medicare Trust Fund will last only to 2026. These dates are reflected in the chart above. It is the mechanics of these draw-downs that get to the heart of the first “pot of gold” misconception cited above.

To pay for the excess of benefits over revenue collected, the trust funds must cash-in the IOUs issued to them by the Treasury. And where does the Treasury get the cash? It will almost certainly be borrowed from the public, but the government could hike other forms of taxes or reduce other forms of spending. So, while the earlier accumulation of trust fund assets meant less federal borrowing, the divestment of those assets generally means more federal borrowing and growth in federal debt held by the public.

Given these facts, can you spot the misconception in this quote from Fiscal Tiger? It’s easy to miss:

In the cases of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, payroll taxes provide some revenue. Social Security also has trust funds that cover some of the program costs. However, when the government is short on funds for these programs after getting the revenue from taxes and trust funds, it must borrow money, which contributes to the deficit.

This kind of statement is all too common. The fact is the government has to borrow in order to pay off the IOUs as the trust funds are drawn down, roughly dollar-for-dollar.

A second mistake in the quote above is that federal borrowing to pay excess benefits after the trust funds are fully depleted is not really assured. At that time, the Anti-deficiency Act prohibits further payments of benefits in excess of payroll taxes (and premiums), and there is no authority allowing the trust funds to borrow from the general fund of the Treasury. Either benefits must be reduced, payroll taxes increased, premiums hiked (for Medicare), or more radical reforms will be necessary, any of which would require congressional action. In the case of Social Security (combining OASI and DI), the projected growth of “excess benefits” is such that the future, cumulative shortfall represents 25% of projected benefits!

Again, the mandatory entitlement spending programs are technically insolvent. Charles Blahous discusses the implications of closing the funding gap, both in terms of payroll tax increases or benefit cuts, either of which will be extremely unpopular:

How likely is it that lawmakers would immediately cut benefits by 25% for everyone, rich and poor, retiring next year and beyond? More likely, lawmakers would phase in reforms gradually, necessitating much larger eventual benefit changes for those affected—perhaps 30% or 40%. And if we want to spare lower-income individuals from reductions, they’d need to be still greater for everyone else.

It should be noted that Medicaid is also a budget drain, though the cost is shared with state governments.

Discretionary vs. Mandatory Budgets

When it comes to federal budget controversies, discretionary budget proposals receive most of the focus. The federal deficit reached unprecedented levels in 2020 and 2021 as pandemic support measures led to huge increases in spending. Even this year (2022), the projected deficit exceeds the 2019 level by over $160 billion. Joe Biden would like to spend much more, of course, though the loss of proceeds from his student loan forgiveness giveaway does not even appear in the Administration’s budget proposal. Biden proposes to pay for the spending with a corporate tax hike and a minimum tax on very high earners, including an unprecedented tax on unrealized capital gains. Those measures would be disappointing in terms of revenue collection, and they are probably worse for the economy and society than bigger deficits. None of that is likely to pass Congress, but we’ll still be running huge deficits indefinitely..

In a further complication, at this point no one really believes that the federal government will ever pay off the mounting public debt. More likely is that the Federal Reserve will make further waves of monetization, buying government bonds in exchange for monetary assets. (Of course, money is also government debt.) The conviction that ever increasing debt levels are permanent is what leads to fiscal inflation, which taxes the public by devaluing the public debt, including (or especially) monetary assets. The insolvency of the trust funds is contributing to this process and its impact is growing..

Again, the budget discussions we typically hear involve discretionary components of the federal budget. Mandatory outlays like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are nearly three times larger. Here is a good primer on the mandatory spending components of the federal budget (which includes interest costs). Blahous notes elsewhere that the funding shortfall in these programs will ultimately dwarf discretionary sources of budgetary imbalance. The deficit will come to be dominated by the borrowing required to fund mandatory programs, along with the burgeoning cost of interest payments on the public debt, which could reach nearly 50% of federal revenues by 2050.

Conclusion

It would be less painful to address these funding shortfalls in mandatory programs immediately than to continue to ignore them. That would enable a more gradual approach to changes in benefits, payroll taxes, and premiums. Politicians would rather not discuss it, however. Any discussion of reforms will be controversial, but it’s only going to get worse over time.

Political incentives being what they are, current workers (future claimants) are likely to bear the brunt of any benefit cuts, rather than retirees already enrolled. Payroll tax hikes are perhaps a harder sell because they are more immediate than trimming benefits for future retirees. Other reforms like self-directed Social Security contributions would create better tradeoffs by allowing investment of contributions at competitive (but more risky) returns. Medicare has premiums as an extra lever, but there are other possible reforms.

Again, the time to act is now, but don’t expect it to happen until the crisis is upon us. By then, our opportunities will have become more hemmed in, and something bad is more likely to be promulgated in the rush to save the day.