What Doomed Federalism in the United States

Paul Starobin’s intriguing essay, “Divided We Stand,” covered the history of federalism and the prospects for “devolution,” or secession and geopolitical right-sizing of the United States.  Several letters follow up on the subject in this weekend’s WSJ.

The Civil War was probably the single most critical event in the destruction of states’ rights.  However Bob Jamieson suggests that the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments to the Constitution really doomed federalism:

The Founding Fathers were no fools. They understood that those who are inclined to power are also tenacious defenders of that power once they have achieved it. That is why they insisted that the Senate be elected by the state legislatures rather than by popular vote. This was one of the checks and balances in the Constitution and it served us well for more than a century. By making the Senate answerable directly to the state legislatures, they were counting on human nature to prevent federal encroachment on the powers of the states. Before 1913, when the [17]th Amendment ushered in the popular election of Senators, the states had a powerful political presence in Washington. Today they have virtually none.

A second check on the power of Washington was eliminated when the [16]th Amendment was ratified, also in 1913. This egregious amendment authorized the federal government to subject the American people to a direct income tax, providing Congress with what it seems to regard as a bottomless purse to finance its ever more expensive Utopian fantasies.

If we are finally getting serious about devolving power from Washington back to the states, we must seriously consider the repeal of these two amendments.

Teacher Unions Imitate Anthem World Council

We find echoes of Ayn Rand’s Anthem in a WSJ review of Moe & Chubb’s Liberating Learning:

Teachers unions, of course, are appalled. They know that “the new computer-based approaches to learning simply require far fewer teachers per student — perhaps half as many, and possibly fewer than that,” Messrs. Moe and Chubb write. … Technology also disperses teachers geographically (making them elusive for union organizers); lets in private-sector players who aren’t members of the guild; and enables outsourcing to foreign countries. For unions, technology is poison.

Grammar: “Different from,” almost never “different than”

Different is an adjective form of the verb to differ.

If one thing differs from another then we can say “One thing is different from another.”

We cannot say “One thing is different than another” any more than “One thing differs than another.”

Generally different from is correct and different than is not.

But of course one thing can differ more than another, in which case we can say, “One thing is more different than another.”  It is correct to use different than when different is part of a comparative adjective.

The strange exception to the general rule: Use different than when different modifies an elliptical clause (i.e., a clause in which words have been omitted).  For example, “The path follows a different route than the map shows.”

According to this page, the Collins Cobuild Bank of English shows that Americans have developed a tendency to butcher these rules in normal speech.  Meanwhile, the British are prone to use the absolutely incorrect formulation different to.

Why Did CAFE Regulations Hurt American Automakers?

The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations were enacted decades ago to improve the fuel efficiency of cars sold in the U.S.  Conventional wisdom is that U.S.-headquartered automakers reacted by turning out fleets of small, weak cars that they had to sell at a loss to boost their average fuel economy.  Meanwhile, foreign nameplates essentially ignored the CAFE standards.

I had always wondered why, and now I’m even more bewildered: It turns out that the civil penalties allowed under the law are a one-time fine of $50 per mpg below the target per vehicle sold.

For example, this year the CAFE standard is 27.5mpg for passenger cars (“light trucks,” a.k.a., SUVs, get their own category and lower standard).  Suppose a car maker ignored the standard and only sold enormous gas-guzzling sedans that on average get 20mpg.  At the end of the year they would owe a fine of $375 per car sold.  Is it worth building fleets of small cars nobody wants in order to avoid a fine of this magnitude?  This is no more than a few percent of the cost of a car!

Obviously the foreign companies got it right by essentially ignoring the disregarding the law, factoring the fine into the price they charge, and selling only what people want to buy at that price: Year after year BMW, Mercedes, Volkswagen, Porsche, et. al. simply coughed up a few million dollars in fines and went about their business.  (One suspects that American car makers easily spent more just lobbying for more loopholes to squeeze through to avoid fines.)

Why Focus on Ethanol Instead of Biomass Incineration?

Government has been paying domestic companies to turn food into vehicle fuel, even during food supply shortages and even though more ethanol is being produced than the current vehicle fleet can consume.  Government is also funding efforts to build plants that can convert non-edible biomass into ethanol.

At the same time, government is funding initiatives to make vehicles more dependent on electricity and less dependent on liquid fuels.

If the goal is to increase the domestic supply of liquid fuel for the transportation sector, there is no question that coal liquification is the most cost effective and realistic solution: We have vast coal reserves, and liquified coal produces heavier fuels that can support existing kerosene, diesel, and gasoline engines.  (Ethanol is a light, hygroscopic fuel that can only run efficiently in modified gasoline engines.)

If the goal is to effect a shift from fossil to biomass fuels then simply burning biomass to generate electricity is far more efficient at recovering energy than first trying to distill it into ethanol.  Even if we do develop effective cellulosic ethanol technology, WSJ reports:

An acre of crops can generate enough electricity for a battery-powered SUV to travel 15,000 miles, nearly twice the distance that would be covered if the crops were turned into cellulosic ethanol….

And unlike all these other tentative technologies biomass power plants have been in existence for decades.