Ferguson is the New Black

I was shocked and saddened, as most were, to read about the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last week. What I was not, unfortunately, was surprised. Stories of police overreaction to the most innocuous of infractions (or none at all) are seemingly no longer the exception in a society where mere behavior, words, or possessions are sufficient evidence of criminality that is too frequently repelled with lethal force. The trivial nature of Brown’s misdeed (walking in the street) coupled with the rapidity and disproportionate response of the officer involved (6 bullets, including 2 to the head!) was illustrative of the small amount of daylight between life inside and outside the prison system.

I (fortunately) lack any direct experience with the prison system; however, what I have read is a realistic portrayal of that system can be found in the television series “Orange is the New Black” (warning: definitely not family friendly). In this series the main character is incarcerated (as are many others) for being involved in one of the many victimless crimes related to the “war on drugs.” The prison depicted is a federal, minimum-security women’s prison. But even under this lightest of all prison environments, life is clearly a stressful and miserable experience, in no small part due to the capricious and vindicate nature of the guards coupled with the lack of autonomy over ones life.

Naturally this is what one would expect; we all know prison is not supposed to be a vacation. It is supposed to be miserable so that it may act as a deterrent. And even when it is not a deterrent then we the public can still rest satisfied in knowing the “bad” people are being appropriately punished. But as it becomes clear that the vast majority of these prisoners are party to “crimes” with no victim, it makes the US prison system less like Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and more like Stalin’s Gulags. But I digress.

The most frightening aspect of the TV series is not its portrayal of life within prison but rather the realization that we ourselves live in a much larger prison known as the State. This prison has no escape, no furlough and no time off for good behavior. Consider: in prison perceived disrespect toward a guard or failing to immediately and mindlessly follow their directives is met with an immediate and violent response. The same fate is not uncommon for any of us who might fail to immediately comply with the “lawful order of a police officer.” In prison the guards can search the prisoners or their living space at any time for any reason. This is likewise true in many parts of the country under “stop-and-frisk” laws or with the now infamous no-knock-raids. In prison the mail correspondence and voice conversations are closely monitored. Outside prison we have the NSA to take care of that task. In prison the inmates must plead to their intermediaries (the administrative staff) for permission to engage in heretofore-unapproved activities. Outside prison we must plead with our intermediaries (elected officials) for permission (licensing) to engage in an activity so that we can avoid violent reprisals from the state. In prison the belongings of any inmate can be confiscated at any time for any reason. Outside prison our property may be confiscated (civil asset forfeiture) for nothing more than baseless whims of suspicion.The dream of the statist is to push society toward being more, not less, prison like. The statist wants nothing more than to have the power to force all to conform to their vision of the ideal society: behave this way that, not that, eat this, not that, run your business this way, not that, express yourself artistically this way, not that, smoke and drink this, but not that. Where else but in a prison are such visions of the ideal society possible through strict enforcement?

Many might say “hogwash” to all this. They’ll insist they don’t feel like prisoners, they can do whatever they want, whenever they want. That may be true, for some actions, but even prisoners may do things without asking permission or running afoul of a guard; but that does not make them free. They are simply the pinball that has not yet hit the wall. Inside prison the walls are narrow, outside prison the walls are wide – but both have walls. If you remain unconvinced and still need proof that you are but a mere serf living on the master’s (that is, the state’s) land then consider the truth found within an instinctual and visceral emotional response. What do you feel in that moment when you see flashing blue lights in your rearview mirror?

August 18 / 2014


A US District Court judge recently ruled that the NCAA can not prohibit student athletes from receiving remuneration that goes beyond scholarships and related costs. The ruling was based on the argument that the NCAA was violating antitrust laws (trust = a small group of individuals conspiring to limit options of its customers or members). That such antitrust pronouncements emanated from a federal court (itself a monopoly) is no less ludicrous than if the KKK were to condemn the racism of the Aryan Brotherhood. Perhaps the people should file an antitrust lawsuit against the Federal Government. The executive, judicial, and legislative branches regularly conspire in trust-like behavior in order to deprive us of our rights. If we were permitted to choose from whom we will rely on for governance (without imaginary border constraints), then, and only then, could we live freely.

Apropos voluntary governance; the NCAA is a non-geographically constrained, self-governing, voluntary organization whose existence is based on the concept that those with common goals and interests can better achieve those goals through cooperation. In many respects the NCAA operates like any government. It has a legislative body that passes “laws” that its members must adhere to, it has a dispute resolution process (judiciary), and it has a chief executive (president). There is, however, one crucial difference; it relies on voluntary membership and voluntary dues payments. It cannot force schools to join merely because other member colleges happen to be nearby. All schools voluntarily join and in so doing agree to abide by its rules. Also, unlike state governments, it has competition (NAIA, NCCAA, USCAA, etc) in its metaphorical backyard. But unlike state governments, they cannot and do not use violence to inhibit such competition. Somehow this crazy, anarchical voluntary system has worked for over one hundred years! Imagine that, anarchy does work!

Or rather it works until the top gang (the Federal Government) decides it has a say concerning what the serfs do on its “turf”. You see the Crips, err, I mean the Feds decided monopolies/trusts are bad and must be stopped (even though monopolies cannot exist in a free market – only in one that suffers state interference). In order to stop them they pass “laws” that they interpret to arrive at whatever outcome supports their ideological stance du jour. Today’s seems to be “fairness.” It is only “fair” after all to allow student players to be paid. Only a troglodyte would oppose fairness. The substance of this conflict is the usual sort of economic interventionism (e.g. minimum wage, worker’s “rights”, etc) one can expect of the state. The actors may change but the narrative is always the same: Party A and Party B came to a mutually agreeable relationship, however Party C thinks that Party B is too stupid or weak to know what is best for them.

Whether students should be paid or not is irrelevant. This is not a moral issue; there is no right or wrong answer because there is no rights violation. All relationships are voluntary (NCAA, schools, students). The only ones that get to decide what is best are the students and the schools. If a school wants to pay an athlete, then they must weigh the costs and benefits of leaving the NCAA. If enough students demanded pay, then the rules would change. The fact that the rules have not changed (other than this recent external one) suggests that the vast majority values the free education and experience more than they value the other things they could be doing. In other words, if someone offers you $10 for something that you value only at $5, then it is ill advised to demand $50.

Although this issue is often cast under an egalitarian light, this ruling will result in a rather perversely inegalitarian outcome. The 1% (of athletes) will attract the lion’s share of money to themselves leaving that much less for others. On the margins fewer athletic scholarships will be given, thus harming those most in need. To paraphrase H.L. Menken, “[the student athletes] know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

August 11 / 2014
Author Greg Morin
Comments No Comments

Restoring Freedom?

Following the President’s recent signing of the cellphone unlock bill (“Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act”) the White House issued a press release extolling the benefits of the bill. Amidst the usual self-serving propaganda (“democracy at its best”, “broke through gridlock”, etc.) we find two telling phrases that betray the consequences of accepting dominion of the state over our lives: loss of freedom.

The first is found here, “The story of how we broke through Washington gridlock to restore the freedom of consumers…” and the second here, “…consumer will now be able to enjoy the freedom…”. The unspoken but obvious question here is, How exactly did consumers lose these freedoms in the first place? Oh, that’s right, it was due to the very institution now taking credit for “restoring” those freedoms. The state exhibits the character traits of a thief with self-esteem issues: he robs you but then returns your stolen goods in order to bask in the ego trip of being praised for having done the right thing.

The story of how these freedoms were lost has its genesis in the most basic function of the state: interventionist protectionism for the few at the expense of the many. It started with a bit of intellectual property crony capitalism known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Under the DMCA it is a crime to duplicate digital intellectual “property” (music, movies, books, etc) as this is considered theft. Of course it is not really theft since IP is not intellectual property but rather imaginary property; a business model that necessitates state intervention to succeed is necessarily defective and thus invalid (more of my thoughts on this here and here). Sometimes digital IP is secured with digital locks (digital rights management or DRM) and thus just as it is considered a crime to defeat someone’s padlock in the real world, it is also considered a crime under the DMCA to defeat a digital lock, even if no duplication of the unlocked software ensues. So this is where we get to cellphones; cellphones are locked by the carriers with digital locks, thus breaking those locks is likewise considered a crime under the DMCA. For many years the Librarian of Congress (no idea why it would fall to that department) had issued waivers to the DMCA for phone unlocking, however those waivers ended as of January 1, 2013 due to the increasing availability of unlocked phones directly from carriers. There soon followed a consumer backlash, which manifested itself in a “We the People” petition at whitehouse.gov, which garnered over 100,000 signatures. Congress and the White House soon worked out a bill to permanently restore this exception to the DMCA and the rest is history.

Many are now touting this series of events as a model for how democracy should work: the people spoke, the government listened, case closed. Not so fast. This is yet another lesson in the political slight of hand that hopes to misdirect a gullible public into forgetting some recent history. To be fair we need to review the whole trip, not just the last 5 minutes. The bigger picture of this “democracy in action” includes: the passage of a bad bill that provided for aggression backed support of crony capitalist imaginary property rights, that had obviously foreseeable unintended consequences which could only be avoided with a regular legislative Band-Aids, and that took 16 years to permanently fix, that whole process, that is a model of democracy in action? No wonder the state must exert monopoly control over governmental duties because I can’t imagine anyone voluntarily choosing to pay for the service of these clowns.

With a subtle edit I think this quote by Harry Browne (1996 and 2000 Libertarian Party candidate for President) captures the essence of what has transpired here: “[The State] is good at one thing: It knows how to break your legs, hand you a crutch, and say, “See, if it weren’t for the [state], you wouldn’t be able to walk.”

August 05 / 2014

Poison Pill

A “poison pill” is a clause added to a contract with the express intent of providing a disincentive for anyone affected by that contract to contest it. It is typically employed when one anticipates animosity or disagreement among the parties (such as a Will where a beneficiary might be dissatisfied with their inheritance). In other words, it’s a legal stick (as opposed to carrot) used to keep otherwise discordant individuals in line. Unsurprisingly the most contentious legal artifact in recent memory, Obamacare, contains just such a legal provision. Naturally political prudence demanded that the punitive measure remain carefully camouflaged. Otherwise the Feds ran the risk of their private beliefs becoming public knowledge, namely that Federal paternalism gives them the right to punish impudent states.

A poison pill provision in Obamacare was recently unearthed in the wake of a ruling early last week by a D.C. Circuit Court (Halbig v. Burwell) which stated that contrary to an IRS rule and the Obama administration’s contention, the plain language of the Obamacare statute says that subsidies for health insurance were limited to STATE-run health exchanges (and therefore subsidies are not possible in exchanges created and run by the Federal government). There was of course an immediate howl of objection by the administration and those on the left. They said that this was silly, clearly that is not what Congress meant – even if they used very simple and unambiguous language to the contrary – of course they meant to include federal exchanges as well, silly rabbit, only some backwards troglodyte would think otherwise. Funny thing how selective memory works; anything that might contradict your current position is conveniently forgotten. So it was rather embarrassing indeed when it was found that in 2012 (long before this suit was initiated), a Jonathan Gruber (an MIT economics professor who played a key role in drafting Obamacare) was recorded (twice) unequivocally endorsing the very core of that ruling – that only state exchanges were eligible for subsidies. But it wasn’t that admission that was the most telling, but rather what followed.


“What’s important to remember politically about this is if you’re a state and you don’t set up an exchange, that means your citizens don’t get their tax credits—but your citizens still pay the taxes that support this bill. So you’re essentially saying [to] your citizens you’re going to pay all the taxes to help all the other states in the country. I hope that that’s a blatant enough political reality that states will get their act together and realize there are billions of dollars at stake here in setting up these exchanges.” Jonathan Gruber, 1/18/2012


He clearly admits that this circumstance (no tax credits) is intended to influence state behavior in order to compel them (get their act together) to carry out the demands placed upon them by this legislation. This language was no mistake, no typo, no oversight; it was clearly intended to act as poison pill to keep the contentious “red” states in line. But then something unexpected happened. Overwhelming civil disobedience. A majority of states (34) chose to swallow that politically poisoned pill anyway. Uh-oh, now what to do we do? Establish federal exchanges and pretend that the poison pill language was a typo. Nothing to see here, move along, move along.

Even if one is inclined to believe it’s all just a big misunderstanding and perhaps only Gruber thought it had this purpose, then that still means the law as plainly written diverges from the intentions of Congress. So how do we fix bad law in this country? Apparently now we allow the executive branch (the President) to unilaterally change it to fit his own subjective interpretation. Extend this deadline, remove this penalty, change the rules, all at his whim.

It certainly is much easier to rule and get things done if you don’t have to deal with a pesky Congress that would never permit such a change without also compelling other, less ideologically palatable, changes. Who needs the slow and incremental rule of law when you can have the fast and instantaneous rule of man? As Mel Brooks said, “It’s good to be the King.”

July 28 / 2014
Author Greg Morin
Comments No Comments

Invisible Borders

The recent influx of unaccompanied immigrant children has once again brought discussions of borders and immigration to the top of the brewing cauldron of crisis de jour news reporting. The xenophobic response as usual gets the most play with calls to “send them back,” and “seal the border,” accompanied with just a dash of fear-mongering regarding “disease”. Considering America’s sordid history of erecting legal barriers to immigration, (often hypocritically spearheaded by the descendants of the previously disfavored group) nothing is perhaps more American than rallying to the cry of “keep out them ‘ferners!”. This response is actually not so surprising when you consider there is no greater threat to majority rule (i.e. democracy) than new people who can transform a majority into a minority. America’s immigration policy is not about extending our ideals of equality, fairness or justice to newcomers; it’s about power and who has it. If the system of governance (democracy) is built on a foundation of denying a basic human right (movement) in order for that system to continue serving those in power, then there is something foul within that system.

Everyone has the right to move and go wherever they please insofar as they are not trespassing upon the justly acquired property rights of another. Ah! So that settles it then – America is “ours”, so our property rights in it allow us to establish a border and keep people we don’t like out. Not so fast. Part of the problem is the imprecision of the English language. We can say “this is my school, team, job” etc. without meaning literally we think we own those things. However, when those possessive pronouns are applied to our localities (“this is my city” or “ this is my country”) most fall sway to the fantasy that the geographical coordinates of their residence conveys to them an undiluted ownership interest in an arbitrarily defined area surrounding said residence. Thus they conclude they have a “right” to have a say in what products may be sold, what wages may be paid, what businesses may exist, how buildings and homes can look, what moral code must be followed, and lastly, who may be permitted to enter this ill defined fiefdom. This is the foundation upon which statism and communal governance is founded: you’re near me, so I get to tell you how to live, and your refusal to move I take as tacit agreement with these rules.

The reality is that borders are a fiction. If you don’t believe me, just look at a photo of the Earth from orbit. I have yet to find “America” printed across the Rockies. This is not to diminish the legitimacy of private property boundaries insofar as both they and political boundaries share the “invisible” line property. What makes the former legitimate and the latter not, is that the latter’s existence relies solely on a fiat declaration of its own legitimacy (n.b. if a particular piece of private property was acquired through rent seeking and cronyism (e.g. eminent domain, subsidies, etc), it too is illegitimate). Declaration of political boundaries is akin to insisting that saying “I am the King” makes me King because my rights as King make it true.

The only principled position on borders and immigration is 100% open borders with no restrictions whatsoever. As long as one does not trespass on private property then no rights violation can occur. This is not to say, however, that such travellers have a right to assistance. There is no obligation upon others to provide newly arrived travellers with shelter, food or an education. However, conversely, the right to provide such assistance should not be infringed upon. Sending these children back or walling them up in detention centers runs contrary to the humanitarian imperative of every religious and spiritual ideology; it prevents those who take those teachings seriously, and who are able, to exercise their right to help those in whatever manner they so desire. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, “Mr. Obama, tear down this wall” – by which “wall” = border + welfare state.

July 22 / 2014
Author Greg Morin
Comments 3 Comments

Tootsie Pop Justice

Amazon.com has been accused by the Federal Trade Commission of permitting unauthorized in-app purchases by children. The FTC has filed a lawsuit against Amazon in U.S. District Court on behalf of parents affected by the activity of their children. So, apparently we need the government to protect us from our own children. This case exudes a breathtakingly absurd lack of parental accountability. Equally bad is the sycophantic credulous reporting on this case by the state media Apparatchik (in this case USA Today). Their putatively neutral reporting is laced with subliminally opinionated phrases that imply Amazon duped parent into using their children as pawns in some grand scheme. For example, USA Today says Amazon “willingly allowed” kids to make purchases within apps. Notice the clever shift of responsibility here? This phrase implies it was Amazon’s responsibility, not the parents, to be the final arbiter of their children’s behavior. No, Amazon did not “allow” the purchases. The parents allowed the purchases when they handed their unlocked and credit card enabled device over to their child. This is no different than parents handing their child a wad of cash, pointing them in the direction of the toy store and then telling them to be frugal. Meanwhile the parent wanders off somewhere else and then becomes enraged at the toy store when they find out little Johnny spent all his money there.

But, even though it was not Amazon’s responsibility, they (as well as the other two players in this market, Apple and Google) implemented some basic gatekeeping controls to mitigate (yes mitigate, not 100% eliminate all possibility of) such undesirable purchases. They required the entry of the account’s password even on an already unlocked device (the presumption being the child did not know the password but was merely handed an unlocked device by the parent). But you know what? The problem persisted. Which means parents were telling their children the password so they could make some purchases. At this point even if one were to try and make an argument that the companies had some culpability, however tenuous, that argument is completely shattered at this point. If you give your child your password for desirable purchase A then you must know there is nothing stopping them from making undesirable purchase B other than yourself. This is the classic case of the programmer’s conundrum when dealing with user feedback: I want it to work this way, except when I don’t. Stated differently the parent says: I want my child to make purchases I approve of without pestering me for a password every two minutes, except when I don’t, then I want the device to magically know I don’t approve of the purchase.

But even here Amazon did not stop in trying to please the consumer. They responded to complaints and implemented requested controls to try to solve the problem (all without any threat of state action). They implemented dollar value thresholds that required password entry, then they removed the value threshold entirely but still allowed for a short time window where re-entry of the password was not required. This was to avoid the annoyance of trying to buy five things all at once and having to enter your password five times in a row. But of course the problem persisted. Why? Because parents had already given their child the password! Outcomes did not change because the root cause of the problem remained: the parents.

And so now the parents, not recognizing their own culpability, have enlisted the aid of the state to force Amazon (after having already done so to Apple ) to protect them from their own inability to parent. The real loser in this case however is everyone else who uses similar smart-devices. We will have to endure increasingly annoying draconian licks to get to the center of the digital Tootsie Pop.

July 14 / 2014

Irony Day

There is no holiday more incongruous with its stated celebratory raison d’être than the 4th of July, otherwise known as Independence Day, but perhaps more appropriately Irony Day. It purports to celebrate the complementary combination of political and individual independence (aka freedom and liberty). That it takes place in a country that actively thwarts the former while ignoring, for utilitarian reasons mind you, the latter, is perhaps more sardonic than it is ironic.

Consider for a moment what the representatives of the nascent United States did in July 1776: they made a declaration of secession. That is, they formally declared their disassociation from a larger political entity. Such is the right of all individuals. But from the vantage point of the state they had committed the most unforgivable of sins: treason (the crime of betraying one’s country wherein “betray” is equivalent to “desiring to no longer be ruled by”). It is curious indeed that a universal feature of states is that no crime is considered more egregious than for one to undermine its authority by leaving it. In this regard the United States is no different than every other country; from the Civil War to various state secession movements the US has been quite consistent in operating contrary to its founding principals. This is the mantra of the hypocrite: do as I say, not as I did. The propaganda of inviolable political solidarity permeates our most holy, secular prayer to the state-as-god, the pledge of allegiance. With its appeal to profession of undying allegiance to the very idea of “one nation… indivisible” we are indoctrinated nearly from birth with childish appeals to Manifest Destiny. Consider the absurdity of that idea for a moment. If Maine joined Canada or Florida became an independent nation, do we truly believe the other 49 states somehow could no longer continue on? One is left to wonder how 200 odd countries get along without being part of our union. The fear of secession movements is predicated on one thing: money. It is no different than a mob boss acting out against a business that decides to “secede” from the mob’s extortion racket; there is little daylight between what the State and the Mob are willing to do to retain their power.

It is easier to erect a fence around sheep than to hunt down the wolf.


While the 4th of July is one part celebration of history, it is another part celebration of what we believe that historical event granted us: liberty. All people have a natural and instinctual love of liberty. No one relishes the idea of being subjugated and told what to do. So this begs the question: why do we with one hand pay lip service to notions of independence and with the other hand pull the voting lever for politicians who enact laws that restrict our independence? I call it The Cage Effect: only those at the edge are aware the cage exists. Laws affect other people (at the edge), not us (in the middle). We have allowed the political class to build this cage around us; we naively believe them when they promise to keep us safe. It is easier to erect a fence around sheep than to hunt down the wolf. But the web of laws, regulations, edicts and arbitrary enforcement serve not to protect us but to subjugate us into dependence. The entrepreneurs, free thinkers, and non-conformists who try to break free are routinely frustrated. They, and those who witness their trials, try to rouse those in the interior to fight back, but they prefer to remain blissfully ignorant or assure us it is for our own good. The mantra of the statist is that if anyone leaves the cage, all will suffer, therefore no one may ever leave.

As a state becomes more totalitarian, its cage shrinks. Eventually it becomes small enough that all are affected. On July 4, 1776 the cage was quite large. Today it is much smaller. Perhaps one day we shall break free. That day will truly be Independence Day.

July 07 / 2014
Author Greg Morin
Comments No Comments

Order at the Border

This past week the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) issued a ruling in Riley v. California that dares to uphold the remains of a much abused 4th Amendment. The court ruled that the police may not search the cellphone of someone placed under arrest (often for offenses as trivial as “disobeying a lawful order” or “disorderly conduct”) without first having obtained a search warrant. In the digital age the principal of good design “form follows function” no longer is guaranteed. Digital function is not deducible from physical form; the sublime masks astounding capabilities. The contention was that since traditional wallets can be searched it must follow that anything approximately the same size as a wallet can be searched. A cellphone and a wallet may be comparable in size but that is where the similarities end. The rules that allow the police to search a defendant after an arrest dictate a limited spatial area (typically directly under the suspect’s direct control e.g. a car). So at first blush it might seem that if a cellphone is within that area it is fair game. But that analysis ignores the ways in which technology can redefine notions of spatiality. Cellphones (or the “smart” ones anyway) are not mere digital copies of the old-fashion wallet. They are but a keyhole onto a warehouse of information. Packed into these devices is the equivalent of what formerly would have been contained in ones home years ago; in essence they do indeed house ones “papers, and effects” which the 4th Amendment specifically protects from warrantless searches. Chief Justice John Roberts summarized this idea in his ruling:

 “With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life.’ The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. …Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cellphone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple—get a warrant.”


However, as heartening as this decision might be, there still remains today an egregious violation of basic 4th Amendment rights that has time and again been upheld but the SCOTUS: border searches. In the court’s opinion (United States v. Ramsey (1977)) searches made at the border are de facto reasonable because they occur at the border and thus is any conflict with the 4th Amendment extinguished with a mere definitional twist. Border searches do not require suspicion nor a warrant; anything and everything may be legally searched and confiscated for no other reason than that one is crossing an imaginary line.

Even if one is inclined to believe that such border searches are necessary to keep out criminals and “illegals,” what may surprise you to learn is that the “border” is defined as 100 miles inland from the actual border (aka a “Constitution Free Zone” that encompasses two-thirds of the US population). What that means is that anyone, anywhere within 100 miles of a US border may be legally detained and searched for no reason at all by the DHS or ICE goon squads. They may seize electronic devices (phones, laptops), copy them wholesale, return them, and then rummage through one’s personal information at their leisure. That this does not currently happen routinely is small comfort; there is not a single barrier to the legality of such behavior. If you are within 100 miles of the border you are fair game. You may think you have nothing to hide, but do you really want total strangers looking at your photos and reading your emails? Secondarily, there is nothing objective about the 100-mile value – it could be changed to whatever arbitrary value our wise overlords deem necessary to maintain, “order at the border.” We are just one crisis away from a 250 or 500 mile border zone.

So while we may applaud the SCOTUS for their recent affirmation of 4th amendment protections, let us not forget to jeer them when they continue to permit those same protections to vanish at the border.

June 30 / 2014
Author Greg Morin
Comments No Comments

Student Loan Bubble & Moral Hazard

The insurance industry is unique in that its product tends to incentivize the very behavior people seek to protect themselves from. This is called “moral hazard.” For example, all things being equal, someone with collision insurance will tend to drive more recklessly than someone with no coverage. Someone with flood insurance will deliberately build their home in a flood zone. In other words, people do things they would never otherwise do absent the assumption of protection.

There are ways to tame moral hazard. Large first-dollar deductibles ensure that the insured will feel some pain with a loss – negative feedback affects one’s behavior and results in more cautious behavior. Likewise, some events are not insured if the moral hazard cannot be mitigated. For example, homeowner’s policies do not cover loss from damage attributable to failure to maintain the upkeep of one’s home. Although moral hazard is a foundational flaw in human behavior, the market (that is, people) has figured out how to tame it.

The state is an insurer (it purports to protect its citizens). It is however the worst kind of insurer because it actively encourages moral hazard. From the crony-capitalism of “too big too fail”, loan guarantees for favored industries, to student loan bailouts, the state has a sordid record of incentivizing moral hazard by encouraging behavior its minions witlessly seek to avoid. For example, the student loan program was implemented to encourage more tuition lending by banks so that more people would go to college. This created the moral hazard of banks lending to people they otherwise would never lend to, thereby vastly increasing the demand for higher education. This massive explosion in demand (quite predictably) encouraged schools to ratchet tuition upwards. Why? Supply and demand. Loan guarantees ensured ever increasing demand that was insensitive to price increases. In a normal market, increasing tuition would have decreased the pool of available funds for such lending or raised the cost of such lending, but in either case these would have both resulted in inhibition of tuition increases and a subsequent restoration of equilibrium between supply and demand. But in a market suffering state intervention, equilibrium can never be achieved, as rising prices present no inhibitory effect on the level of demand. This resulted in tuition increasing over the last 40 years at 3-times the rate of inflation.

This willful blindness of moral hazard by Obama and his ilk is not merely sad, it is downright destructive. His recent actions only serve to deepen the crisis, not ameliorate it. By executive order (royal decree) he recently extended a cap on student loan payments to cover loans made before 2007. This cap allows borrowers to limit their loan repayments to 10% of their income for 20 years and after that the loan is “forgiven” – that is, it simply vanishes like a fart into the wind, courtesy of the US taxpayer.

This executive order is symptomatic of all state interventions: heaping fixes upon fixes to fix previous fixes. To encourage lenders to make student loans to anyone with a pulse, the state removed bankruptcy protection for student loans in 1976 and then promised the lenders to act as their enforcement agent. Step 1: All risk shifts from lender to borrower. So with Uncle Sam acting as Guido the Enforcer the floodgate of loans opened. Then loan repayment became problematic for a growing number of students (due to a dismal job market resulting from state intervention in the economy) and this inability to discharge loan debt likewise became a political liability for our wise overlords. The quick fix? Step 2: Shift all risk from the borrower to the taxpayer. For now, concentrated benefits (to students) and diffuse costs (from taxpayer) ensure little mass objection. But soon enough these loan write-offs will be priced back into tuition rates. The only solution to this quagmire is the most politically painful one: end all loan guarantees, permit bankruptcy protection, and allow lenders, not the state, to determine who is a worthy credit risk and who is not.

June 25 / 2014
Author Greg Morin
Comments No Comments

Middle Eastern Chess – Check!

So let me see if I have this straight. Even though there was zero evidence that Iraq was involved in the attacks of September 11, 2001 or that Al-Qaida had any operational presence in Iraq, the US invaded Iraq anyway. This resulted in nearly half a million dead Iraqi’s, close to a million Iraqi orphans and a death toll of US military personnel that more than doubled the carnage of September 11. The invasion was the light that brought on the moth-like focus of Al-Qaida to that region. Not content with that mess, the US unilaterally decided to depose Gadhafi, thereby creating a power vacuum in Libya that allowed Al-Qaida influenced forces to move in. The US then fomented instability in Syria by backing Al-Qaida linked rebels there in the hope that they might overthrow Assad. Now with the entire region destabilized, an Al-Qaida splinter group (ISIS – Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) managed to seize Mosul (Iraq’s second largest city) last week using money and equipment the US funneled to its destabilizing pawns in Libya and Syria. With the capture of Mosul they have further enriched their US equipment arsenal (left behind by the fleeing Iraqi army). This situation is so upside down that the US is actually receiving invitations from the Iranians for joint operations to battle ISIS in Iraq. Brilliant. How did we get here? For years the US supported a number of Middle Eastern dictators as long as they supported a Petrodollar based economy that ensured the free flow of cheap oil to the US. But when our pet dictators stopped behaving, the US tried to displace them with more malleable US-friendly social democracies. Unfortunately the exact opposite developed: US-hostile Islamic theocracies. They have a word for that: blowback.

Then again, US opposition to this shift in power (or the one presently underway in the Ukraine) is completely hypocritical. States may differ in ideology, but they all behave exactly the same. The current power shift merely exposes to public scrutiny the operations of the state normally hidden behind a wall of threats: violence by a select few who proclaim to speak for a majority in order that they may impose their will upon a wider population circumscribed by an arbitrary geopolitical boundary.

In fact nothing is really changing in any of these regions. The flags, slogans and draperies of the capital building may change, but the core violation of the right of the individual to live their life as they, and not others, see fit remains. So even though we may personally object to the precepts of Sharia law, are we objecting to the law itself, or are we objecting to its apparent imposition on the people? Would such objections evaporate if 51% of the people there desired Sharia law? Does majority opinion legitimize such laws? Before you answer that, consider this: ISIS is slowly fostering such communal consent via the oldest political trick in the book – bribery. ISIS is taking a page from the placate-the-people-playbook of modern social democracies. In both Syria and Iraq they have organized “dawa”, i.e. social welfare programs for the local populace (food, fuel, medicine) . And just as honeybees are calmed with smoke, so too are people calmed by the ephemeral gifts of those in power. ISIS is run not by warriors, but politicians with guns. Every politician knows that if you give the people something, they will give you their consent (vote) in return – in this case the price is not literal votes but implied consent to Sharia law. So, if you are for “freedom” and “democracy” and assuming you aren’t a total hypocrite then you should be ok with this extension of majoritarian communal consent. After all, democracy is nothing if not the concept that when some people freely make a choice, it is ok to impose that choice on everyone. But, if you realize democracy is the wool the state pulls over your eyes to fool you into believing you have control, then you will also recognize that majority opinion is as legitimate in determining how we should live our lives as a coin toss.

June 17 / 2014
%d bloggers like this: