31 August 2011

Also, in should have kept your day job news

: Steven Seagal

That is all.

Personally he didn't exactly have much of a day job either. Minor celebrity still. But this celebrity sheriff bullshit obviously gets people into some problems.

Especially when you're using a fucking tank to bust a cockfighting ring. Because clearly that's a necessary amount of force. Shooting the dog after all that seems like an afterthought.

But typical.

Alternative medicine

Also known as "medicine". When it actually works.

In this case, not so much.

But it is still an interesting question about what sort, if any, interventions are necessary by government to deal with these ineffectual products (homeopathy, almost literally the same sugar and water of the generic placebo variety) being sold by the millions.

And I'd have to agree, the proper public policy response is basically to put a label on there to warn people that they're being hoodwinked, but let them if they wish to proceed from that to waste their money and time on ineffective (or at best placebo) treatment. It's really only fraud if people are unaware of the benefits and risks of their fiscal transactions. If they're still dumb after being informed that they're reliably going to be wasting their money, I say let them be taken advantage of.

One interesting qualifier would be that there could probably be better or more transparent information about actual medicines and their measurable effectiveness against various ailments. There are plenty of pills out there that can cost a minor fortune and yet have almost zero health impacts relative to placebos. In other words, there's plenty of actual medicine that's barely mediciny.

30 August 2011

Crucial distinctions

In other words, libertarians don’t oppose democracy (in the conventional sense) because they hanker after autocracy; they oppose democracy because it is too much like autocracy.

This is a core problem with many critics of libertarianism (and with the anti-Chicago boys from the Friedman-Chile-Pinechot contingent of argument). Basically people who are democracy advocates have a hard time accepting a premise that rather than use government or votes to design social systems the alternative is not we must now use centralised autocratic/technocratic controls. You use nothing at all. No one is in charge or if any government or state policy is involved it is very minimal (think free speech protections, sans FCC style censorship).

One core reason is that even very well-intentioned state interventions tend to end up captured by other powerful agents in the system (church, corporation, unions, etc) because they have very little actual control over the system as a whole and thus the top down regulatory state has very little means to discern the proper levels of control or even the levers that it should use in the first place to create that control. It ends up generally being worse than having a market "rule" as a result.

In any case, being opposed to democracies, or generally finding that majoritarian rule is a poor form of democratic government, is not the same as "I want more dictators!". I don't go around supporting Gaddafi-esque regimes. I of course also don't propose that we bomb them out of office but say we are on a "humanitarian" mission either. If you really wanted them out, say so, design the plan and followup accordingly and come back to us then. Don't say that we're dropping bombs to help people. Because that doesn't help. Sigh. I digress. The statement above is a fair reflection of what we're looking at when we see "democratic" systems. We are seeing autocratic behavior exercised through majority will. As it is, there are plenty enough people that would excise from any and all of us core protected rights (free speech, free press, freedom of religion and conscience, etc) if it were up to them and so unsurprisingly there are a whole range of issues upon which the majority is permitted, by the magical mechanism of voting, to impose its will upon a minority, be they meddling in private behaviors, consensual transactions, business licensing, and so on. Very little of this serves any practical purposes or fosters a free society.

I'd hardly say that this reflects well on "democracy" as conceived of a mandate of collective wills as opposed to "democracy" conceived of a collection of protected rights and core values that comprise a free society and its basic liberties. The latter is more important ultimately.

29 August 2011

Further strangeness with Dr Paul

Uh, Mr Paul, history is kind of important to know the basic facts about before you start in on the standard anti-government rants

Since you know, Galveston used to be a relatively large, even cosmopolitan city on the Gulf Coast up until 1900. And now it is noteworthy mostly because of its unique privatized social security setup. But not because it survived and thrived in the face and wake of a massive hurricane, in 1900.

There are legitimate critiques of FEMA versus private charity and local or even national non-governmental responses to major disasters like hurricanes (see: Katrina) without going to the "balls to the wall pretend game" that no disaster was ever very terrible prior to its existence. History is full of counter-examples. And if you pick out 1900 specifically, you should at least be aware of the actual example that occurred in 1900.

This is exactly the sort of thing that gets quoted around to show that you're some sort of weirdo who doesn't know what he's talking about. And with a good deal of justification herein. Maybe the basic point about FEMA's relative uselessness is true. But it certainly isn't true that Galveston did just fine without it and one shouldn't go around claiming that it did as a result because you'll look like you're talking nonsense instead of generating a sensible critique.

Further point: The seawall was built by the Army Corp of Engineers, not by the local people per se. And this was well after the hurricane had already leveled the city. The entire city was raised up when it was rebuilt, a massive civil engineering project itself. Survivors were, for a time, living on US Army surplus equipment (tents mostly for shelters for example). Maybe this is considered all with the absence of government interventions, but it seems rather dramatically not to be the case.

Exhibit A

Also titled: "Civil wars are ugly"

So I'd like to know just how noble and wonderful these people we've been "helping" (ie, by bombing the other side) really are?

26 August 2011

More Paulite problems

The usual progressive critiques of libertarians on a few points pop up. For instance, supposedly a bunch of white men don't care about abortion rights for women. Now of course, men actually have more favorable views toward abortion than women do, so I'm not sure how that opinion is reached firstly. More importantly I think there's a split within libertarian camps on how to deal with this issue. I think the other side of that split is wrong (that is: a fetus is a human being, life begins at conception, therefore, abortion should be illegal, with maybe some exceptions. Even if you accept the first two premises, it's not clear that the conclusion follows), but there is at least a legitimate debate within libertarian circles on how to handle this. A debate which is little different from that of the general population. Paul ends up with a rather more extreme position on this than he does on many issues. That is troubling to someone like me, and presumably to progressives generally. What confuses me is what they think someone like him could do about it if elected. He could re-institute the Mexico City resolution... and that's really about it. I suppose he could try to nominate some explicitly anti-Roe/Wade judges to the Supreme Court. But Democratic Senators could easily block such a nomination if it alters the Roe-Wade balance. Realistically there's a whole host of other pro-Paul positions on which progressives (and conservatives for that matter) would probably find his judges to be more disconcerting. Paul's position on abortion is basically boilerplate social conservativism, and more or less what you'd expect from a GOP candidate (with the possible exceptions of Johnson, and maybe, maybe Romney or Huntsman). His position on something like the right of contracts relating to the 14th amendment is likely to be a little more annoying given that it strips out a ton of government regulation on a federal level especially, perhaps state or even local level. But this doesn't come up as often.

Secondly. Speaking now of Paulite supporters rather than Paul himself (somewhat). There's a real impetus behind some elements of neoisolationist strands of thought in this country that has more to do with ostrich in the sand sort of thinking. "Who cares what happens over there?, it's OVER THERE!" They'd say. This is foolish. Even if you tend toward a generally more hands off foreign policy (a realist might also do this, by noting the waste of national resources on non-essential foreign entanglements), it is silly to completely ignore the outside world and pretend it can go away. Paul has a version of this in his rhetoric and it is more noticeable in his overall platform, where it stresses disengagement with multilateral diplomatic institutions (NATO, WTO, UN, etc), strong anti-immigration protections, and general opposition or disinterest to free trade. The stronger version of this carried out by some of his political support is populist protectionism, mercantilism, industrial policy (which Paul may or may not support), and ultimately a general attempt to dismantle the institutions of free trade and mutual support throughout the world. I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon, no matter how unpopular the UN and other such institutions are. And of course, I see there are tremendous economic and cultural benefits from immigration and trade that such attitudes are explicitly writing off in a foolish attempt to recapture some sort of 1880s or maybe 1950s mentality of America. I like Ike (or Grant and/or Cleveland) too, but there's a whole bunch of stuff that went down in the 50s that I'd want no part of (McCarthyism, trade barriers, top-down regulations, segregation, etc). The 1880s aren't much better on these matters. And a lot of that sort of cultural phenomenon came from these same attitudes (xenophobia, racism, fear of others, etc). Sorry, but as fun as nostalgia must be (I have no nostalgia for the 80s or 90s myself, and certainly none for this last decade), you're going to have just exercise it in your own head and not carry it into political messages. Reminisce. That world is gone. The new world has integrated with the old. It's no longer acceptable to ignore billions of people and presume that their activities can and will have no impact on your life. That's not the way things work. It might be sensible to learn about these people and their activities, and it might be sensible to ask what you or others you can encourage can do in response (to say earthquakes in Pakistan or Japan or famines in Africa, etc), rather than to ask what US military might or maybe even foreign aid can do first. It is not sensible to live ostrich style. Everything now is connected and the world is "flat". So to speak. China or the Middle East aren't just "over there". They're right here too.

On this matter, I can see a lot that anyone should fear a Paul-presidency or nomination.

25 August 2011

As I suspected...

This sort of thing is a waste of money and government resources. It establishes a police state in order to deal with something that isn't actually directly the state's problem. Drug addiction IS a state problem because it can increase welfare recipients (not to mention crime or domestic abuse and family monetary strain), but people spending state money on drugs is not. Drug use, as opposed to abuse, is across all sectors of the economy, poor or rich, and in recreational use seems to have no greater impact on general economic success than say, alcohol or tobacco use, both of which are likewise restricted for purchase by recipients of state welfare benefits. Using the cudgel of welfare beneficiaries in order to impose either a) a further useless gesture of anti-drug policy or b) to attach state mandatory conditions that are punishing morally harmless activity and c) more importantly, treating ALL conditional assistants as though they are suspected of such activities (worse still, in the case of Florida the applicants themselves are required to pay for this police state treatment that other people have imposed upon them already by demanding drug tests, most of which will come back negative)

Certainly there are legitimate reasons to attach some conditional support for government or charitable assistance. Drug testing isn't one of them. If you want to deal with drug use or more importantly drug abuse, start by treating it as a medical problem, not an economic problem. The entire architecture strikes me as a policy that only succeeds because we politically have it out for the poor. Or rather, the poor who we think are poor because they're just all doped out, strung out drug addled morons (or that they're all using these drugs out of irresponsibility rather than because they're unable to get proper mental health care and are self-medicating with booze and crack). Apparently not enough voters and politicians know enough poor people.

Further note: the feeble defence offered by the spokesperson does not work at all. I seriously doubt most drug dealers accept food stamps for example. Sure recipients could sell their food stamps for cash, but I see no problem with that by itself. There are lots of things that can be bought with cash (drugs are one such item of course). Many of which might be desirable and even useful. Food's about the only thing you can buy with food stamps. If you don't need/want more food but you do need/want more money, for fuel or bus fare or clothes for interviews or even for drugs, then this is a good option. Better options would be to just do cash transfers instead of payment in kind but apparently we want poor people to adopt only specific choices that we have pre-approved rather than just give them the money and assume they can make their own (rational) choices to satisfy their wants and needs. You know, like normal human beings.

I would note further, the type of people likely to apply for welfare benefits are unlikely to be the strung-out sort. I never saw it even enter Bubbles' head in the Wire to go to the government at any level for some sort of assistance (he was busy running other scams and selling scrap metal and t-shirts or candy, rather industriously if not exactly prosperous) and consequently you probably won't find many heroin or crack addicts wading through forms to fill out the necessary paperwork to apply for welfare benefits. This is an expected outcome: that a problem that doesn't quite exist will be treated with a sledgehammer because the poor are an unpopular political group. A vile and reprehensible condition being poor is, and clearly no decent person would ever be poor. Only a drug addled moron it seems must be poor.

And then there's reality.

Not blind

All that said, I'm not blind to the detracting points against a Paul presidential candidacy in particular from a Progressive-liberal angle, particularly on foreign policy.

Paul's rhetorical and political opposition to multi-lateral diplomacy and liberal international theories does tend to be a bit much neo-isolationism. I have no problem with the UN or WTO or World Bank existence and US participation. The opposition I have is more that these institutions aren't always particularly effective, but they do have uses. One of which would be that it is possible to shunt off the cost of enforcing any global free trade status and other American interests onto other nation-states. That is to say: that they make defence cuts possible by potentially increasing the share of global defence paid by relative allies (or at least, nation-states that share similar interests that can be relied upon to pursue those interests).

Realist critiques of these institutions to me are more effective than the paleo-conservative (ie, Paulite) demand for stronger isolationism. It's fair to say that they're not always well enforced agreements or weak at best and that especially powerful nation-states will and still do pursue their own interests independent of any limitations. It's not fair to say that they shouldn't exist or that we shouldn't bother to participate in them at all. We might as well try to use them to pursue our interests. The cost is minimal and it might save us some other costs down the line (fewer wars of choice, less cost in defence spending, etc).

Some problems with this critique however. Many liberals tend to adhere to a use of liberal internationalism that occasionally strays far too close to the neoconservative behaviors they claim to abhor and for which a dose of Paul's paleo-conservativism would be a lot better to support. We've gotten the interventionism, and generally similarly useless interventions to their hated Iraq or Afghanistan, from them in places like Libya, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, Iraq, and in a "better late than never award", Rwanda, and which even continues to support intervention Afghanistan for "humanitarian" reasons. Their distinction is that somehow there's a process of multilateral diplomacy that legitimizes these as opposed to the supposedly un-legitimate use of unilateral force(of course, except in Kosovo and Haiti there was no multilateral legitimizing either).

I have no problem with multilateral or unilateral power uses, but only in pursuit of legitimate state interests. Humanitarian aims shouldn't require using occupational military force to create, or else such things have costs that should be factored in (ie, civilian deaths and property damage caused by military force) and complications in the use of military power for counter-insurgency uses like that. They're not trained for it, and it's really, really, really hard. Liberals should take that into account before blindly supporting such interventions, and take into account that using our military power for these ends, instead of legitimate state business like defending against or deterring wars of aggression, is incompatible with any demands to cut defence spending. The Paul critique might be too high on rhetorical opposition to engagement with the world (protecting the existence of global free trade requires a little more engagement than mere diplomatic offices.. of course, I'm not entirely sure Paul's a major free trade guy either, given his positions on immigration), and that's a serious problem for any liberal-moderate support to be gained by him, but it's a lot longer on asking difficult questions about what the proper use of such force is than his liberal critics have been.

Paul v Johnson

Paul's no libertarian, says the libertarian-leaning

I've long looked at Paul's litany of woes and concluded that he's some different breed. He pushes way, way hard on the immigration button, and in a way that libertarians philosophically would not and do not. He's constantly pushing the gold standard, which is amusing but actually little more than populist drivel disguised as an economic theory. His compromise position on gay rights/gay marriage is actually a little to the left of Obama in theory (Obama position is that marriage is between man and woman, with a carve out for civil unions), but in practice means there's a core of states that won't recognize such rights for decades and will be able to operate in a blatantly discriminatory manner regarding private marriage contracts for all that time, a position which is hardly libertarian (either get the state out of the way entirely or at worst, since marriage recognition isn't going anywhere, involve the state in a less arbitrary way would be the libertarian position). And he's admitted to a quasi-libertarian opposition to the CRA64 bill, which I myself wrote on and concluded that there are legitimate libertarian grounds to object to a specific portion of that bill (property rights and free association), but that these rights were already being systematically denied by state governments and their codified law by enforcing bans in the opposite direction (forcing businesses to segregate services), meaning the bill should be viewed on balance as expanding freedoms rather than abolishing a considerable and meaningful freedom.

All of these are misgivings about the Paul campaign I and other libertarians have observed over the years. It's a reason that I tend toward Gary Johnson instead, who espouses the same opposition to broad foreign entanglements, supports large cuts to the size and scope of the federal government, opposes the drug war and war on terror abuses of civil liberties and, in Johnson's case, has executive experience to show for all of these issues to boot.

What all this looks like is more like Constitutionalism or Federalism at the end of the day for Paul, and something like a pragmatic utilitarian view for Johnson (which tends toward the libertarian in its analysis). The problem is more to do with how civil liberties freaks like me get their support translated come election time. Paul or Johnson are not going to be the GOP nominee, so that's out. The names floated by the Libertarian party itself are a bit of a joke. They've tended to go nuttier and more populist after trying to mainstream it a bit too much with Barr in 2008. The names and policies listed as "Libertarian" on the Ohio ballot in 2010 were completely disheartening for example after having a promising, and amusing, gubernatorial candidate the previous cycle. And all the while Obama has been a complete and utter failure on most of these issues.

These sorts of things should be the central analysis for the determining the Presidency; civil liberties infringements or protections can often come through the format of executive policy and established regulations rather than requiring a good deal of Congressional support and foreign policy is the one arena where Presidents have extremely wide leashes in ways that enacting their domestic agendas do not. And yet I too see a progressive-center left that for the most part would rather swallow hard and vote Obama than support a Johnson or Paul candidacy (they completely ignore the former and the latter is shamed and ridiculed as the "libertarian", when he in fact is far less so than he appears).

Derided as nuts and cranks, libertarians are to be cast out of a now strange alliance that a few years ago we were potentially naturally aligned with (opposing the Bush-Cheney excesses and flawed engagement in Iraq, occupation of Afghanistan, and also being relatively favourable toward Democratic domestic policies like immigration reforms and expansion of gay rights, etc.) Of course, libertarians still voted mostly for McCain rather than Obama, because libertarians, like progressives, don't actually care very much about these issues. Focusing entirely on federal tax policy apparently matters more than supporting free markets and free societies. It does not lend toward the idea that running with these issues matters politically even though it matters a great deal in reality. One should conclude that party loyalties matter far too much still to the left-leaning figures who write and discuss these issues and that punitive votes for candidates who do not support these issues are not forthcoming. This has long been a problem for Democratic politicians and the pro-choice crowd (Democrats will usually get their votes largely because GOP politicians are conceived of as "worse" and not because they actually support pro-choice policies. Equal rights for gays has only recently turned toward actual support).

Apparently it's a problem for defending more explicit rights in the Constitution as well. It's easy enough if you're worried about tax laws to elect GOP politicians to the House and Senate and block attempts to raise taxes. It's not that easy to get a GOP candidate for President who will actually shrink government and support the defence of civil liberties, and we don't have a Democratic politician already in office doing one or the other. People should be able to tell the difference in powers appointed and vote accordingly. They don't (Presidents often get blamed for state or even local and property taxes rising).

I continue to believe this all means we should not encourage more people to vote.

23 August 2011

Horse race coverage


Something I'd notice and highlight is that "independent voter" line where they have party-breakdowns. Bachmann gets essentially murdered compared to her alternatives. This is a strong indication that she's not going anywhere (as if anyone really needed such indications). I suspect Perry's numbers with independents will drop some as voters get a closer look at him, though more to break-even or a couple points behind, and not to 5-6 point gaps. Comments like his "treasonous Federal Reserve" don't win him any support from party elites, economists, and policy wonks, but they do win a lot of support from seething irrational populist outrage. Even if you are of the Austrian camp and don't think/believe the Fed should be printing more money, the manner of delivery and suggested persuasion used to oppose it seems out of line with this grievance, and his related imposition that it would be solely for political gain doesn't line up with the Fed's independent political position (Bernanke for instance is a Republican nominated by Bush) or that none of the major Obama figures, including Bernanke as Fed Chairman, have come out supporting a position of stronger inflationary pressure through the monetary system (though Bernanke as monetary economist academic has), so it's unclear just exactly what or who would gain from such a "political move". It's an incoherent suggestion as a result.

What's more amusing to me personally is that Ron Paul actually did about as well as Romney, except that the GOP turns on him and won't vote for him. What concerns me as a civil libertarian most is that without Johnson or Paul likely to win the nomination, I'm left without a candidate to support at all. An entire viewpoint, that of either smaller government or stronger protections for civil liberties and property rights against government power, is abandoned. One selling point for Obama was his rhetorical opposition to the worst excesses of the Bush-Cheney agenda, and on policy grounds while he's been in office it's been a complete and utter failure to shift this in any significant way. Even the supposed "end of torture" was something that happened during Bush's second term. Obama gets zero points, and possibly even negative points for waging a war without proper process (Libya), ordering the prospective assassinations of American citizens without due process (Yemen), and so on. A Paul or Johnson candidacy would at least put issues like these back up on the public's consciousness, to levels roughly where they were during the Bush-Cheney years, and add more like the war on drugs (which Obama has refused to actually back down in the way he said he would), etc.

As it is, it's as though none of that ever happened. And clearly we're not going to get such a discourse until there's a President Romney or Perry.

Speaking of those cops.

They're certainly doing a fine job in New Orleans. What with solving all those murder cases by handing out fake traffic tickets.

Or worse, Chicago. Where they're handing out beatings to ordinary citizens.

News of the hours

So. Gaddafi looks to be on his way out. As I've argued from the beginning, this has little bearing on the intervention, its justifications, and it merely serves to confuse the people. First: it wasn't the expressed goal of the UN authorization, so we have what shade of process and legal cover involved actually having nothing to do with what we have now accomplished. Second, toppling dictators in unstable countries with foreign force hasn't exactly had a good running track record. I can think of maybe one recent example where this seems to have panned out well: Serbia. And several where it has gone very ugly or badly: Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Kosovo. Plus support for several tottering, but less psychotic, dictators that backfired in some way: Pakistan, Egypt, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Bahrain.... And so on. The questions in Libya really had little to do with "could we topple Gaddafi". This was an obvious possibility with rebel forces moving on the ground, though it certainly took much longer than we were promised it should/would/could (unlike Iraq, where it didn't take very long at all.. but that was OUR professional army forces on the ground, not rebel insurgents who were poorly trained). The questions had much more to do with what would Libyan society and government post-Gaddafi look like. We still don't know that. Hell, Egypt took out its own government months ago and we still don't have a clear idea what that government will look like. Presuming and proclaiming "victory" loudly and proudly, and using the billboard of "mission accomplished" doesn't actually cut it. This is a long-term situation, effectively requiring the building of stable institutions of statecraft or social function that have either never existed or were destroyed over 40 years of dictatorial reign. As we should have observed from Iraq and Afghanistan, that sort of process is very, very hard, and isn't resolved by merely importing voting machines and giving people the idea to "have a democracy". Democracies exist on a bedrock of long-standing social and state institutions, of which voting is only one of them, and it is those that must be built now in places like Libya. Good luck with that. Because it's sort of what we just "won"; the right to "help" rebuild a state. The argument that "Germany and Japan did it" does little. Both Germany and Japan had pre-existing and long-standing socially cohesive institutions for even quasi-liberal (ie, democratic) government and social organisation as nations. Few of these Middle Eastern nation states do. Egypt and Lebanon might be the only plausible cases. Libya is and was hardly even a nation-state, same with Iraq or Afghanistan. It's basically a set of tribes with one flag and a now deposed strongman able to unite them only through fear and brutal repression (and corruption). As unsavory and unwanted as fear and brutal repression are as tactics for governance, and as unconcerned as I am that such people as who use them are made to run or die for their use, I'm not all that impressed that there's a track record of institution building in these cases that supplants and replaces the brutality with non-brutality. Or even non-corruption. Even the "success" of Serbia is a kind of special case because it has a long history as a stable state prior to the interwar creation of "Yugoslavia".

In other world affairs, it sounds as though the riots of London, also known as anarchy in the UK, were largely an affair of gang-affiliated looting and ex-cons taking to the streets en masse. About 2/3s of the people charged so far have criminal records of a sort you'd expect: theft, assault, etc. It's possible that this will change through the use of CCTV records and further investigation. But they sound rather pissed enough about hunting the responsible parties down that I rather doubt it. Aside from possible cuts to police staffing and investigative tools, I'm not sure what a rioting mob composed of such people has to do with austerity cuts, nor was it ever really clear how a riot would be directly influenced by government cutting its budgets. True, there's a history around the world of governments slashing budgets and subsequent riots or unstable populations and demonstrations. I can see where there might be a background association, but a direct cause, hardly. All that's required there is a pre-existing population of violent fun-seekers. Besides, all those cuts and slashes that the UK did make don't go into effect until next year. Somehow I doubt the prevailing opinions noticed one way or the other. The more plausible argument was that this was an anti-government wave of violence, by which we might mean "the police" for "government". Of course, if a good portion of the violence and looting were undertaken by gangs and criminals, we might expect a sense of hostility toward their ever-present interlocutors. But still, such force does spawn from somewhere. London and the UK generally do have some rather expansive police powers that can seem oppressive. Imagine the policing powers used, abused, and expanded for our "war on terror" or "war on drugs" and apply them to whole communities and cities rather than just at the airport or even just in "undesirable" poor black or Latino neighbourhoods and we'd all probably be rather pissed at the police too.

16 August 2011


The economic justification for having a separate and lower tax rate for capital is the sensitivity of capital inputs to tax relative to labour inputs.

However, the effect of lower taxation on capital rates is to generally subsidize the following
1) Home ownership and housing prices. Especially at the upper middle price point (the capital gains exclusion on housing ends around a half million, or 250k for an individual rather than a married couple). I already don't see the need for a home mortgage interest deduction, but I certainly don't see a need to further encourage home ownership and housing price inflation beyond that already distorting subsidy. We have plenty of incentives even without these for property ownership relative to renting shelter (price stability is higher, inflation protection on fixed interest mortgages, privacy, individual control over renovations or additions, school district placements for children, etc).
2) Financial sector growth. I suppose it's nice that banks and mutual funds can expand. But do we need a national industrial policy to encourage it further?
3) Corporations. It would seem to me the best subsidy to offer corporations is to abolish their income taxes and tax income where it reaches people instead. We have very high corporate income taxes in this country and this is a problem for global investment (Even the supposedly socialist Europeans have much lower corporate taxes than we do). What doesn't seem necessary is to push capital flows toward large cap companies in favor of small businesses or entrepreneurs or even smaller competing corporations in the same industries. Corporations already have favorable regulatory structures (barriers to entry) and abolishing their income taxes allows a considerable market advantage for global investment. Further benefits in the form of huge capital accumulations seem unnecessary.
4) Wealthy individuals. Large portions of individual wealth are accumulated in stocks and bonds and housing. For the average person, capital gains taxation is a dream world. Indeed, the average person's "investments", in the form of stock especially, are locked up in 401ks and IRAs, and unless these are ROTH accounts, are already taxed at income tax rates regardless of the devices used to invest for retirement. Essentially this is a highly regressive income tax device as a result. (this does not even include the disparity between people who make money by trading money and people who make money by trading their labour, who then must have their employers pay payroll taxes, further diminishing their post-tax income).

So I'm not quite sure why we still preserve this distinction of "income" from "income". The purported economic argument that still makes sense is to avoid, or at least lower, double taxation because of the existing corporate income taxes and then to tax also their dividends and capital gains. But if you sweep out the income taxes at the corporate side, then the gains and dividends no longer double taxed. And you could just as well tax them at regular individual marginal tax rates. This would have the effect of encouraging lower and middle income investment, for example when people are younger and tax brackets are likely lower, or older retirees who are living off of retirement savings, and provide a diminishing return to large capital accumulations. Progressives and pragmatists would win under this logic because the tax code would become more progressive. The tax base would also increase, potentially increasing government revenues. Conservatives would then also win because they could probably decrease marginal tax rates and get to sell a tax cut to the public. Small businesses and competing corporations would win against incumbent large caps gobbling up investment capital at subsidized rates. Corporations could win by not having to game the income tax system and their profits could be untempered, investors could receive larger dividends, etc. Renters and lower-to lower middle class people would win by not having inflated housing prices in dense urban areas. And so on down the line.

The only people who lose out are the aforementioned parties who benefit from the status quo.

So I would bet that a policy shift like this would never happen.


And Gary Johnson gets even less attention still. Not even the knowing smirks and mocking laughter.

11 August 2011

liberal ideas

I've noted before that there are some empirical differences between libertarians and liberals (in addition to the goals part). And that's certainly a problem when trying to get across problems with rent controls or social welfare programmes or the impact of unions.

But occasionally there's just fucking stupid.

Now. Of these ideas..
1) I agree in principle that we should be expanding visas for immigration, especially for highly educated people, and even for people who want to start companies and not just work for Microsoft or Google. I've got no problem with that. And it's even possible that this would grow the economy in raw GDP terms. But the idea that it could magically hire hundreds of thousands of people, or even millions is completely ludicrous. First, not all of those startup companies will succeed, many will probably fail, probably not for reasons like they had bad products, but more that they lacked proper marketing for the open market, or the problem that good engineers or software designers probably don't make very good businessmen. At least not all the time. But here's the real kicker: what sort of Americans who don't have jobs right now... can do the sort of jobs that would be created by this policy? Isn't your purported goal to reduce unemployment (see previous topics)? I have no doubt this would "create jobs", or at least relocate those jobs from China or India or even Canada or Europe to the US. And yay us. But the idea that there are millions of college educated people who can do coding or tech work, and that these people are just sitting around unemployed is just completely asinine. There isn't a college educated unemployment problem for the most part. There IS an unemployment problem, but almost all of those people were factory workers, administrative assistants, and construction workers. Good luck teaching them all how to design websites. Seeing as I've met some of these people (who don't have jobs and are trying to re-educate to get a new one), I'll have to tell you that you'll probably also have to teach most of them some rudimentary mathematics first before you can start in on machine code. So basically this is a programme to create a lot of upper-middle class jobs and a few janitorial or secretary slots for some small businesses that last long enough. Maybe some construction or electrical work too. Not terrible, but not exactly recognizing where the problem is.

2) Continue to give money to state and local governments. Kleiman to his credit identifies part of the problem here as "some local governments will be corrupt or inefficient". I'd be more comfortable giving money to help out some cops and teachers if state and local governments didn't have bad habits of spending their valuable tax money on extensive pensions, bad teachers and bad cops who cannot be rid of, or worst of all, boondoggle infrastructure or construction projects designed to get photo ops or names in papers. Hooray for that new stadium. Too bad we had to lay off a bunch of regular honest state workers (people) to build it on the public's dime (or raise taxes to get the bonds to do so). Things like this. If a case can be made that there are structural constraints on the money being expended in this way and that state and local budgets have to be brought into control (over long-term) by slashing useless programmes or curtailing marginal ones (prison overpopulation for instance, often caused by imprisoning non-violent vice criminals), then this isn't terrible on its own. Kleiman is also correct that with budget balancing required precisely during counter-cyclical arrangements that the lender of last resort would have to be the federal government. Which is fine to some extent. But here's part of the deal, suppose it's not a national crisis and it's just California or North Carolina or whoever going broke. Should we all act to bank them? I say no. If a state has overextended its public policies such that it is going bankrupt trying to maintain them, then one consequence should be that it should have to look hard at curtailing its public policies (or raising revenues to pay for them, and risk sending people and businesses to other states in some cases). The basic problem is that there's a liberal assumption that what people want is more government. To an extent this is true. The "People" do want the programmes that are promised them (mostly). What they don't want is to have to pay for it. They want someone else to do that, and usually convince themselves that they're not paying for it (see: keep your government hands off my medicare!). Liberals/progressives on economics have succeeded mostly by forgetting to send people the bill telling them how much glorious programme XYZ costs, and then conservatives (and liberals) have managed to convince them that programme ABC (say, foreign aid or the department of education or even defence procurement) is full of waste and abuse and fraud and costs a lot of money. When it actually costs a fraction of XYZ, the untouchable things like entitlements or defence/security/anti-crime spending. There is a lot of waste to go around, sure, but it's not enough to save us the "good stuff". And its not enough to say that oh shame, teachers and cops will lose their jobs! to convince us to keep spending money on government. Some of them should lose their jobs because some of them are costing us more in headaches and failures than is worth it to their profession and to their public function. The problem is more that it won't be just the assholes and incompetents who get kicked out the door.

3) NIH funding is fine, for what it's worth. You get from this human capital and potentially useful research in medicine and science that you can do something with later as a society funding it. So it's not a useless public works policy. But... again. What sort of employment are we getting? Ahh yes. Because that 1-2% of post graduate educated people or 4-5% of college graduates who don't have jobs will certainly help resolve the employment problems for the 15-20% of teens or 20-25% of high school dropouts and so on. Remind me again why you guys don't like trickle down economics? Maybe there's a percentage of such people who do have jobs but don't have "good jobs" and they'd trade up. But just how many science majors and math wizards and computer programmers are out of work, and how many English majors or artists or what not are?

4) Taxing corporate revenues is always a popular meme for you guys. I'd prefer eliminating the corporate income taxes personally and just going straight after dividend/bonus incomes as regular income (no capital gains either, income is income). That said, you were onto something here talking about the banks (before trying to kill job growth by increasing corporate taxation further). What they could do instead is put a negative interest rate on excess reserves, enough to offset any gain from buying government bonds. That would move the money out faster and start loaning or capital development at least. Money would again be in circulation. And the government would no longer appear to be in the banking sectors pocket. Of all the things here, this is the only one that would have any prayer of implementation even under a 60 vote Democratic Senate, mostly because it relies only on the technocratic Federal Reserve to implement and Congress has no say. This is the other problem with all of this. Good luck getting a modestly favorable immigration bill through or more NIH funding, or additional "stimulus" funding for state and local governments through Congress. Liberals had trouble enough doing anything like this with a 59-60 seat Senate and a House majority of Democrats. It's not happening at all with a GOP House majority and enough Senators to filibuster, and in a couple of these cases, Obama even isn't likely to back the idea (I haven't bought the conservative hype that he's some sort of wacko-liberal from the extreme left. Mostly because I've met people on the extreme left.)

5) The one liberal "job creation" proposal I'd take seriously is to do something like the infrastructure bank. Except only for repairs or upgrades to existing infrastructure (there's a ton of this out there to fix highways or upgrade the power grids and sewer lines or put up smart traffic lights, etc). No boondoggle HSR lines, no natural gas or ethanol subsidies, nothing fancy, flashy, and thus stupid. Just the unsexy work of filling potholes and making sure bridges don't collapse. This would have the effect of giving lots of people who are unskilled labourers something to do in the short run. And this where the bulk of the unemployment problem comes from. We can't design programmes that assume that our unskilled labour force can suddenly and magically do advanced metric statistical analysis or treat medical illnesses. Sorry, but our schools have been fucked for long enough that we don't have lots of people like that who could learn how, even after two-three years of recession already to entice them to train. Most Americans are... well they're idiots. It'll take a while to learn that "stuff", if ever in most cases. We can't go back and fix the structural problems with their education growing up now. So we're left with a bunch of half-educated dimwits who can however learn to fix cars or fill in potholes or wire a house or unclog a drain or type up reports or answer phones, etc. It's not the end of the world. But it's also not as simple as "hey I know, let's fix a non-existent problem for other smart people and then they'll hire all these other folks". Because truth be told, they may not being going back to India or China if these sorts of ideas were somehow magically available to be done, but they damn sure will be hiring some of them instead. I would anyway.

09 August 2011

An amusement

One of the more... interesting uses of social networking.

1) Take your birthday on facebook.

2) Change it to a date early in the next month.

3) Let people congratulate you for your survival of a year

4) Change it again to a date later in the month

5) Let people congratulate you for your survival of a year

6) Change it again to another date still in the same month

7) Let people congratulate you for your survival of a year

Get the impression that a lot of our social conventions are useless signals rather than genuine concern or affections? To be sure if you have fewer friends or more observant people, or people who know you more certainly, this is less effective (I imagine). But there are plenty of people who are routinely engaged in useless demonstrations like saying happy birthday, sometimes even in very involved thought out notes, to whoever seems to have aged. And thus the spectacle and ceremony precedes in importance the event itself so that they, the party responding to the event rather than the source of the event itself, can be thought of in higher esteem.

Incoherent jumble of thoughts

"Our zeal does wonders when it is seconding our leaning towards hatred, cruelty, ambition, avarice, detraction, rebellion. Against the grain, toward goodness, benignity, moderation, unless as by a miracle some rare nature bears it, it will neither walk nor fly". - Montaigne in reference to the religious-political civil wars of his contemporary France and the religious fervor that accompanied them. Bias and prejudice are well served by religion as they will always be confirmed, regardless of passages leading us away, such passions will always stir the mind back to its roots and leave it rendered incapable of accomplishing impartial judgments about the purported wickedness in its midst.

"observed that those who made predictions from such phenomenon usually kept them vague, so that later they could claim success whatever happened." - On Montaigne's skepticism toward reading signs and portents out of mysterious events.

"As history has repeatedly suggested, nothing is more effective for demolishing traditional legal protections than the combined claims that a crime is uniquely dangerous, and that those behind it have exceptional powers of resistance. It was all accepted with hardly a murmur....pointed out that torture was useless for getting at the truth since people will say anything to stop the pain - and that besides it was 'putting a very high price on one's conjectures' to have someone roasted alive on their account" - Montaigne's opposition to torture in his day. The methods are somewhat crueler than those we have devised and implemented, but the point is no less apt today. Terrorists are conceived and described as a special class of being, so zealous that no lesser means than inflicting violence and harm upon them will suffice to divine information, and nothing more than conjecture is sufficient to provide the need to divine such information. We may as well call them witches or warlocks as they did at Salem or in 16th century France. The device of unreason involved is the same, and the need for our violent rage worked upon others is likewise.

I've been following slightly the British riots (and other global protest movements, such as the ones in Israel now). I'm of a mind that they're basically the same as US/Canadian riots relating to things like the WTO. That is: that there are a few "true believers", people who genuinely want to protest (in the UK over austerity measures or over perceptions of police misconduct). And then a lot of people who are generally mad, but lack a coherent ideological complaint of any kind and just want to see things burn (or to loot) to satisfy this inner rage. Seeing opportunity in a angry but nominally peaceful crowd, such people strike. The mob is fickle and grows. As in Pittsburgh, media interviews with the mob report insensate demands to destroy or steal what is not their own, a general sense that somehow "property damage isn't particularly immoral", both (lamely) attempting to excuse their crimes and to suggest the motivations behind them (namely that they are of the non-propertied class and resentful). Naturally such short term reasoning lacks any fine grained perspectives. Property is fungible and can be acquired (legally). At which point those who have it are rightly concerned with its protection against destruction or mayhem. Likewise, it misinterprets motivations and defies basic economics for such people to go ahead and destroy or steal property, of businesses in particular, in an area and then expect there to be opportunities and jobs available in that same area in future. Raising the cost of doing business by increasing insurance and security demands means that sensible vendors will relocate elsewhere instead of rebuild. People who thus have nothing will get nothing for their efforts. Likewise, protesting and agitating against police misconduct or abuses (a police shooting in the UK) is a fine use of free speech and assembly. Lashing out violently against police merely insures more of the same to be returned.

4% of people can name a living scientist. This might explain why scientists are pretty well ignored in our society. Further, those that can, you'll probably get physicists like Hawking and not biology. Sapolsky as an example in neuroscience, or more obvious examples like Dawkins or Watson, or even Venter (and of course it's way too much to expect people to be able to name off some Indian or other non-western scientists). Given that biology has more immediate impact (through fields like genetic research and medicine), this is surprising. The amount of reverence we still have for Einstein and other early 20th century physics seems astounding, and is at least worth something as far as respect for scientific methods and understanding. But it seems to be crowding out ideas that are still being developed today in favor of cosmological wonderment. I guess human beings are always interested in the "big questions", and they approach them as though people who understand them are demi-gods in their own right, but their methods are no less sophisticated to attempt to answer lesser questions which have more empirical experience and testability than some mathematical constructs that are confusing by virtue of using complex equations and large numbers that are surpassing human being's limited perspectives.

As a related but equally silly problem, Lew Rockwell continues his quest to have Milton Friedman seen as some obscure crank as opposed to Murray Rothbard. Seriously, the notion that nobody outside of economics departments has heard of Milton, and that everybody is instead reading Murray, ridiculous. Most people outside of libertarian circles, and maybe a few philosophy departments, have never heard of Mr Rothbard. And libertarian circles are pretty small. So that leaves a large field of people who have probably heard of Mr Friedman (and this is born out in consumption of their books and essays online or in physical formats). I will grant that I side much more with Friedman and Hayek in my libertarian sentiments than with Rothbard (or Rand) and his far more anarcho-capitalistic sentiments. Murray serves some utility in opening up discourse to more extreme ideas and thus making pragmatic libertarianism more palatable an alternative. But the level of hostility between these two factions of proto-libertarian thought is amazing. I'm pretty sure these radical separations exist in other circles, but given that libertarianism is itself a radical separation from the status quo ideologies, we'd do better not to be our own worst enemies as much as we are.

Tea Party sentiments include a strain that pretends that defence spending has a quality of stimulative properties. But somehow no other form of government spending is either a) as somehow magically protected from being wasteful and inefficient or b) as somehow containing stimulative properties. I would of course argue somewhat against military spending being excluded from crowding effects and being at all significantly stimulative. It's possible it creates employment, but this is different than saying it is "stimulative". To me this is simply further evidence that the large bulk of tea party sentiments are little more than re-branded conservatives (polling data on social issues bears this out far more than the split of isolationist versus neo-conservative sentiments in the far right). It still amuses me when people pretend libertarianism in this context however (from either themselves or as being described from the outside).

The sort of illogic required to buy such bullshit is the same illogic that contended that we shouldn't raise the debt ceiling. I have no argument or quarrel that increases in debt ceiling couldn't have been tied to long-term spending reductions or deficit reduction more generally (except that's not what we got). What concerned me is that it clearly misinterpreted what an increase in the debt ceiling represented. It wasn't a license to spend more money going forward, it was an acknowledgment that we had ALREADY spent the money in our (recent) past. This was sort of like a credit card limit being exceeded. If the card company didn't increase the limit, additional fees and costs would emerge for exceeding it (in the form of higher borrowing costs as well as inability to continue to properly manage finances currently required). Now to be sure, one should as a consequence of exceeding one's financial limitations, question the behaviors that lead them to do this and perhaps look to curtail any wasteful or inefficient practises (multiple lines of regulation, useless departments or agencies, poorly designed programmes, etc). But one should also want to avoid being socked with fees and penalties for doing so if they can in order to make the painful culling process more orderly. Since we are our own creditors in this, it's not that hard to admit we have a problem and look seriously at ways to resolve it, and then go ahead and up the ante along the way. We got half-credit for admitting there's a long-term problem. We didn't do anything about it.

03 August 2011

A pair of thoughts on why

Education is not about education

Sleep matters not As part of the long-running quest I've had to abolish daylight savings time changes, one possible aid is to push the start of the school back to a normal time, especially for teens (where it would also lower the crime rate, particularly in poorer urban areas). But since education isn't about encouraging learning, and is more about creating docile students who would become docile workers...

we should expect teachers to act like tyrants, behaving with the same arbitrary distinctions that employers do. And this is pretty much what they've done for decades. The same concerns about educational systems and its direction were a common thread for Russell.

"We are faced with the paradoxical fact that education has become one of the chief obstacles to intelligence and freedom of thought."

Deficit deals, or are they?

So after a couple months of handwringing, and intense debates over what qualifies as a "tax increase", and intimations that our most significant spending programmes (entitlements/defence) were on the slab for cutting and reform, we got (insert blank).

Right. That's it.

To resolve the American debt crisis, three things needed to happen.
1) Taxes needed to be reformed. This would include for some people, increases in taxes because of exclusions and subsidies that need to disappear. For all the railing the conservative apparatchik does about wasteful stimulus spending, it engages in the most detestable forms of hand waving when it occurs that a) their proposed reforms to entitlements are basically tax increases themselves or b) their protected tax exclusions and subsidies are forms of government expenditure to protect favoured constituencies. The essential nature of the Simpson-Bowles compromise on taxes would have worked for me. Get rid of the HMI deduction and some other tax expenditures (especially corporate welfare programmes), and generally lower rates correspondingly. I would also favour getting rid of the corporate income tax and replacing it by abolishing the distinction between capital gains and income (with perhaps a carve out for direct property sales by individuals and businesses). But since none of this happened even under the most severe circumstances, and indeed, most all of it wasn't even up for discussion at any time, I grow concerned.
2) Entitlement reforms. Particularly with medicaid (block grants), and the reform of medicare and social security into means tested programmes operating as actual social safety nets instead of as middle class entitlements. Progressives rightly fear what would happen if we took these programmes away from the middle class, particularly the upper-middle class (the near universal support they enjoy presently would disappear). Nevertheless in their current form they are unsustainable boondoggles. And depressingly, were never seriously debated. Conservatives had a few proposals floated to reform these (as did the moderate Democrat wing), but none were all that serious and none enjoyed even considerable Republican support. After all, all those old white people who lean right vote also.
3) Defence cuts. After the entitlements, this represents a massive proportion of the budget. Ending or curtailing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan would certainly decrease this expenditure. But so would drawing back our deployed armies in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Naval patrols to help deal with piracy in the Red Sea/Horn of Africa region make sense. That's an international concern that directly impacts American interests. And intelligence or even special operations missions dealing with terrorist groups around the globe make sense. Again, an international concern that directly impacts our interests. Neither of these interests require the American public to have a military budget that is roughly half of the global military expense, with our closest allies (NATO europeans, South Korea, Israel) accounting for another ~25%. Even if China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela/Cuba were all to band together somehow into a coherent and cooperative military alliance against us (something that their competing self-interest and global displacement as well as force composition make an exceedingly dubious proposition), and this alliance were to gang up somehow exclusively on America with no international aid to our defence, we would be more than capable of defending ourselves and would probably end up with a couple of new states/protectorates in Cuba for our trouble at our current levels (assuming that nuclear deterrence kept the war conventional, a strong likelihood). What concerns me most with this point is that INCREASES in spending are depicted in the media as DECREASES. While there are real spending dollars (inflation) to consider, even inflation does not increase at the rate our military budget has over the last decade even excluding our active military operations. I would slash this budget to the EU level of about 1.5% of GDP instead of 4%+ as it is currently. But even cuts to the 2.5-3% level would be a significant achievement and go a long way to cutting our deficit with a minimal impact on the real US economy. This too was never up for debate. (Note, there is a proposal to cut almost 350B over ten years from the defence budget if no future deal is arrived on for cuts. I consider this an unlikely prospect that no future deal will emerge with cuts to something else. But it is always possible that the GOP caucus will remain fixed on cutting planned parenthood, NPR, and ObamaCare, and not on things where actual deals are possible. If so, larger defence cuts will be mandated however, a deal which I imagine will motivate enough Republicans and Democrats alike to come up with something because such spending is taboo to cut for political reasons. Even with these relatively large dollar amounts in cuts, the amounts are still very small relative to what is available in the overall defence budget, perhaps 10% would go. Woo-hoo...)

Among other cuts, nothing was mentioned about Homeland Security funding or the War on Drugs. Little was mentioned about eliminating or even reducing agricultural or energy subsidies (some on oil or coal came up, but didn't go anywhere). Wasteful education spending? Nope. Rent controls? (admittedly a usually local concern but often supported directly through the HUD architecture of low income housing subsidies). Not really. And so on down the line.

Instead, a new law came up in the House which effectively requires ISPs to spy on their customers in order to protect against "child predators". All their customers. Not just the ones the police or FBI tell them to keep tabs on. Nor does the law limit authorities' inquiries to child pornography. Any request for information is sufficient and no justification is required. Anybody care to guess where and for what that will be used? In what ways has the PATRIOT act been used for aside from its more explicit supposed use of anti-terrorism? (the list is numerous). This is even less safeguarded than the FBI's use of NSLs under the FISA directives.


Further note: I don't support a balanced budget amendment. Two reasons.
1) The government operates more like a corporation than individual household budget. Loans, often large loans, are par for the course. Reasonable constraints to real spending come in the form of the requirement of paying back such loans, and servicing the national debt can be an especially pricey prospect. The reason entitlements and tax reform must be on the table is to deal not with the immediate and admittedly pressing problem of the current national debt, but to keep the expense of future national debt (as well as swelling entitlement costs) from engulfing the entirety of the federal budget. This was a long-term economic disaster that bond markets and other players have every right be concerned about. The immediate prospect of a default is child's play next to a much more massive government in the US's future defaulting or being rendered unable to perform its basic duties.
2) One of those duties is on some level to operate a social safety net structure. In times of recessions, such safety nets require more funding than is usual and induce deficits. What should be required instead of permanent balancing is that governments should be prevented in "good" times from expending more than they take in. The impetus to spend the cash it is flush with when the economy (and therefore the tax base) grows is very strong. If it spends this money on basic infrastructure (or repairs to such) or on educational reforms, and not on providing money to favoured constituencies and the middle class, then there is at least some form of capital available afterward (physical or human) that can be drawn upon instead in recessionary periods. Spending on tax cuts likewise isn't all that useful. Money should be horded so that it is available when times are bad. For governments at least. Expansion of services when times are good merely means that there are, as now, much larger expectations of government provision when things are bad. That's a huge problem. Something like an unbalanced budget amendment instead makes more sense to deal with the very real problem of counter-cyclical budgeting. Countries like Norway or China or Germany who have budget surpluses, usually from exports and higher tax bases, are more than capable of stashing some of that cash and then expending it on the natural emergencies of any state. Why are we not doing the same? Why was it necessary to cut taxes in 2001 when we still had such a surplus for example?