Category Archives: Uncategorized

Breaking Bad

I’m old enough that I now find most entertainment to be fairly derivative and predictable. However the TV series “Breaking Bad” is a welcome exception. If you are not familiar with it but enjoy solidly unpredictable drama you owe it to yourself to look into it. The August 12 episode’s ending left the audience in a state of numbed denial [spoiler alert: stop here if you have not seen the episode yet]. The main characters have just clandestinely robbed a train of a key chemical needed to prepare crystal meth when a young boy on a motorbike happens them upon. Without a word one of them pulls out a gun and simply dispatches the boy as blithely as one would a troublesome fly. Why? Because the boy might say something which could lead to their arrest.

After the shock of witnessing the senseless onscreen (albeit fictional) death of a young innocent wore off I came to realize why this scene was so disturbing: this type of violence occurs routinely. The boy’s death is iconic of the reprehensible loss of civilian life in wars. In “traditional” wars civilians usually know where the front line is and can avoid it. Today that is impossible. The wars on “terror” and drugs occur on a global battlefield from which there is no escape. Innocence is no defense: you are just one street address typo away from no-knock raid carried out by machine gun festooned goons.

Apropos to the “preventive” murder depicted, the US repeatedly goes to war upon the same principal of “potential threat neutralization” (Spain-1898, Korea-1950, Vietnam-1965, Iraq-2003). Unsurprisingly the neocons and chicken hawks are now rattling their swords to do the same to other countries (Iran, Syria). We as a nation are engaging in the same onscreen behavior as the thieves in “Breaking Bad”: shooting first for fear of what might happen. This behavior is reprehensible at the individual level and at the national level. The moral validity of actions does not change based on the numbers that simultaneously engage in those actions.

The moral validity of actions does not change based on the numbers that simultaneously engage in those actions.

For parents there is no greater fear than contemplating the untimely death of your child. So consider what kind of a country would inflict on foreign parents our most horrid nightmare. The US has killed both directly (drone strikes) and indirectly (sanctions) hundreds of thousands of children through the cold indifference of our leaders. Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright in a 1996 interview with 60 Minutes stated that “we think the price is worth it” when asked if the confirmed deaths of half a million Iraqi children due to UN sanctions was “worth it” in relation to the goals of those sanctions. The Bush administration fares no better: he (and Congress) restarted the Iraq war (of which even low estimates are 100,000 Iraqi civilian casualties and authorized the use of torture. Likewise Obama has failed to live up to his 2009 Nobel Peace Price. He acts as a remote executioner via the deployment of the “judge, jury, and executioner” drone strikes that have killed countless civilians who are written off as “collateral damage.” Ah, yes, the ends always justify the means. Wake up America. We have “broken bad” and are now the “bad guys.” Would we tolerate Chinese drone strikes of Americans because China deemed them to be a potential “threat” ?

In terms of this country’s meddling, interventionist, blow-back prone foreign policy it doesn’t matter whether Obama or Romney wins; they will both continue our current wars and will have no qualms about starting new ones. If you are tired of the endless wars (drug and terror) and have no more desire for the blood of innocents to be on your hands by way of voting for the “lesser of two evils” (“hmmm… who should I vote for, Hitler or Stalin…”) then consider the alternative that the media is so afraid you might hear about they won’t even include him in national polls: Libertarian Party candidate for president Gary Johnson. 

Privatize Marriage

The right of association is the right to associate with whomever and for whatever reason we please. We can form businesses, churches, private clubs, unions, or a family. Although the US Constitution does not specify this right (the EU and Canadian ones do) I would like to believe all reasonable people would agree we have a right to associate with whomever we please. Oddly enough this “ignored” right still exists today. A man and a woman can live together as can two men or two women or a man and several women. Some may frown upon these associations but there are no laws prohibiting them. So if people can be with whomever they want, then what is the issue concerning non-traditional marriage? The issue is free speech.

Think of it like this: (1) Is it ok to associate with one or more persons? YES (2) Is it ok to publicly proclaim such an association? NO, or rather, it depends. This is true for marriage as well as for other associations. For example, a business can legally announce that it exists (incorporate) only if the business fits into a predefined pigeonhole established by the government (e.g. C-Corp, LLC, etc). Any other structure is “illegal”. Likewise for marriage.

When a couple marries they are saying to the world: “We publicly proclaim that we bind ourselves together and establish mutually beneficial rights and responsibilities – we no longer wish to be in a transient relationship but rather a responsible and enduring one”. The odd thing is that when government definitions of “permissible” associations ignore non-traditional marriage the message is: “Although you are attempting to enter in a mature and responsible relationship, we would prefer you keep it to yourselves and continue living in a manner consistent with a lack of commitment and responsibility.” In other words, attempting to engage in responsible behavior is ignored. Not permitting such public proclamation of the relationship is a restriction of free speech and clearly violates the 1st Amendment.

If people want to associate (marry) that is their right. If a church will do so, great. If it won’t, then too bad (for the couple). The government should not compel private institutions such as churches to operate contrary to their belief structure. Additionally, their right to make such a proclamation does not mean anyone is required to accept it. The lack of use of force runs both ways. I may not stop you from speaking but that doesn’t mean I have to listen or agree with you.

Shifting gears from the political to the lexicological: words mean something. Changing definitions cause confusion. Redefining “marriage” would be like redefining “cars” to encompass motorcycles because they both have wheels and an engine. If the proponents of non-traditional marriage want a word to define their relationship they would do themselves a big favor by coining a new one; I (and others) suggest “pairriage.”

Government is currently the tool that defines what associations are permissible. Each side fights over the tool in an attempt to force their point of view on everyone. The solution is to get rid of the tool. Privatize all associations and remove from government its ability to define permissible relationships.

 

Birds of a Feather

What kind of bird is the libertarian? Left-wing? Right-wing? The common misconception is that Libertarians are on the “far-right” of the political spectrum. Nothing could be further from the truth. The confusion stems from the total misuse and lack of understanding in the media of the terms “left” and “right”.

First we need to define our terms. What are we measuring? Let’s think of it like a ruler. What units would we have if the small numbers are “left” and large numbers are “right”? Units of State Control. To the left on our “control” ruler we have a value of zero, that is, a complete absence of State Control, or stated positively, it is complete liberty (from the Latin liberalis = free) for the individual arising from the condition of no outside force. So it then follows that as one moves to the right on this scale the degree of State Control increases. Thus, “extreme right” would be those societal structures employing totalitarian regimes in order to “keep the people in line” such as fascism and communism. It then follows that “extreme left” would be total anarchy. Libertarians thus naturally fall on the far (not extreme) left end of the spectrum because we respect the natural rights (life, liberty, pursuit of happiness) of the individual and reject the notion that the State can ever have a compelling interest to use force against the individual other than in preventing violations of natural rights. There are libertarians that use the term “anarchist” in various forms (min-archist, anarcho-capitalist, etc.) when describing themselves and so there are shades of respectful disagreement of opinion among libertarians (as with any human group) to the degree of which government should be permitted to exercise force; but make no mistake, there are no libertarians that would advocate complete anarchy, as that would by definition imply a lawless, consequence free society in which natural rights were ignored.

Where do Democrats and Republicans fall? Well, I have oversimplified things a bit. There is not a single scale by which to measure a society. Rather, there is a single scale (ruler) that you apply to multiple societal issues: work, welfare, abortion, marriage, drugs, schools, etc. A society’s degree of freedom can then be measured roughly by taking the value of all sliders in aggregate. On some issues Democrats are to the left (marriage) and on some to the right (welfare), whereas Republicans are on the left (welfare) and on some to the right (marriage). But both are to the right when it comes to Big Government, because Big Government allows “…the majority to embody their opinions in law.” * But, whenever their goals are in conflict they feign revulsion over “big government” and talk of limiting it. Of course this is only a tactic to limit their opponent’s ability to implement something they don’t agree with.

Since Libertarians never advocate state control (except when protecting natural rights), you will always find them on the left side of the slide rule for any given issue.

* Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Lochner v New York, 1905.

Sweden, Sweden, Sweden…

Recently my wife and I became embroiled in a “Facebook” debate with some of her liberal friends. I won’t bore you with the details as you can probably guess where they stood and where we stood! We were disappointed to learn, however, that when arguing with (some) liberals (many responded to the thread) if they can’t offer a counter argument they simply resort to (a) name calling or (b) answering questions with non-sequiturs or (c) invoking “Sweden”. Well, I probably can’t convince them to dispense with a & b, but at least I can poke some big holes in the Sweden myth.

The Swedish “social utopia” myth is basically a conflation of two independent phenomena (high growth and high taxes) and confusing that conflation as causation rather than correlation. High taxes (the cart) do not push the horse (high growth), rather the converse. In other words: a leaking boat takes time to sink, the length of time depends on the size of the boat and the leak, but eventually, if nothing is done, that boat will sink. Sweden did well in the beginning because it was a big boat with a small leak.

Sweden built up a strong capital base starting in the 1860s after several free-market reforms transformed it into an industrial powerhouse. It also has been aided by the fact that they stayed out of both World Wars and thus avoided the catastrophic destruction of their economy that the rest of Europe endured. In 1932 the “Social Democrats” came to power and began implementing new “social” programs. These programs did not kick in fully until about 1950 at which point they had one of the highest per-capita income growth rates in the world. From 1932 to 1976 government spending grew from 10% of GDP to over 50%. Then the economy began to strain under the enormous tax burden. For about the next 20 years the government thrashed around trying to figure how to solve the stagnating economy. Eventually lowered tax rates and a number of free market reforms were implemented which resulted in an economic rebound in the last 10 years. Another myth is the low unemployment figures, but as they say there are lies, damn lies and statistics. In this case Sweden’s unemployment figures are manipulated by classifying people as “employed” who are on long-term sick leave, paid not to work or people pushed into early retirement. The real rate is closer to 25% without all the statistical sleight of hand.

The Sweden myth is the classic Bastiat example of “the seen and unseen” effects of an economic policy. We “see” the wonderful utopia of universal “free” goodies for all, but we don’t see the “unseen”: the consumption and destruction of previously saved capital (1860-1950) not being replaced at an equal rate. This net consumption breeds a society of dependency. The Swedes are slowly squandering their inheritance, as are we (ours, not theirs!). But being human (“kick the can down the road”) we most likely won’t figure this out until we are at the brink of destruction. Hopefully it won’t come to that.

Money doesn’t matter

Can one make too much money? Are the poor getting poorer? Will the rich amass so much wealth that it will leave none for the rest of us? No. Unfortunately affirmative responses are all too common and simply betray an ignorance of basic economics.

The mantra “the poor are getting poorer…” is a statistical sleight of hand reinforced by the notion that the economy is like a pie. The slice that the bottom 20% held in 2007 was indeed 0.3% smaller than it was in 1947. But the pie has nearly tripled in size and thus nominal (inflation adjusted) income has more than doubled. In terms of standard of living the poor are even better off. We include in the definition of “poor” even those suffering from a mere dearth of the latest goods. But such a metric is misleading. In terms of creature comforts the “poor” are better off today vs just 50 years ago (e.g. ubiquitous home air-conditioning, inexpensive TV’s, game systems, iPods, smartphones, etc). Compared to even the wealthy of a hundred or two hundred years ago the poor are living like kings – indoor plumbing, refrigeration, plentiful food, washing machines, cars, telephones, and the list goes on. Measured on an absolute rather than relative scale the “poor” in most countries are better off today than in any time in history.

Now, to the first and last point – aren’t some taking “too much” of even this bigger pie? If a few get “all” the money won’t that make everyone else “poor”? To answer this, let’s assume the most extreme case: one wealthy person amasses 99% of all the money in the economy. Surely this is a terribly “unfair” scenario that must be prevented, right? Wrong. Why? How can anything get done with so little money? Easily (in a non-government manipulated economy). In this scenario money would be in HIGH DEMAND. Demand is proportional to price, thus “money” would have a HIGH PRICE. Price is the cost of one good in terms of another good. A unit of money will cost more goods than it used to. So if $1 cost a dozen eggs then now it will cost more eggs, lets say 120. So we go from $1/12 = 8¢/egg to $1/120 = 0.8¢. What has happened? Because dollars are in high DEMAND the PRICE of dollars in terms of other goods has gone UP, whereas the price of other goods in terms of dollars has gone DOWN. This is monetary price deflation and contrary to what the Fed might have you believe it is a good and natural thing. The rest of the people in the economy can go about their business producing and exchanging as they were before simply using pennies in place of dollars. It is production of goods & services that produces wealth, not money. The amount of money in an economy does not matter and has no effect on the productivity of that economy. As long as people continue producing, they can never be “poor” no matter how much the “rich” have.

Pet Peeve Regulations

It was recently reported  that the Morgan County BOC  is seeking to enact an ordinance that would regulate garage sales. This proposed ordinance is absurd. The reasons for it are so ludicrous I thought perhaps the article was a satire. It was reported that a mere 12 complaints (0.06% of the county population) a year about garage sale signs in part prompted this proposal. The next issue was that “unregulated outdoor sales annoy citizens.” So, I suppose regulated outdoor sales would not annoy them? The bar is awfully low if mere annoyance is sufficient to prompt regulation. Another cited issue is “traffic congestion.” The most “traffic congestion” I’ve ever seen is through downtown Madison around 5 pm… where it might take an extra 2-3 minutes to get through town. Even this “congestion” is not worthy of regulation.  The final reason is an embodiment of ambiguity:  “disrupt the local residential environment.” A statement so broad that it can apply to virtually any “annoyance” is the regulator’s best friend.

So, I suppose regulated outdoor sales would not annoy them?
In order to qualify for the “privilege-that-used-to-be-a-right” of having a garage sale one would seek permission of a bureaucrat who could arbitrarily deny a request based on the most nebulous of reasons – i.e. “would not be in the interest of the public health, safety and welfare.”  Since that phrase can be interpreted to apply to any denial then decisions are based merely on subjective whims. Furthermore the ordinance would micromanage the sale itself, as it would “deal with how items can be displayed and the sizes and number of signs”. So, is the cash strapped county now going to pay people to go out and inspect garage sales to ensure they are in compliance? We certainly wouldn’t want items displayed incorrectly!

 

What’s next? Will the county require sellers to warranty goods for a certain period of time? Would they regulate the maximum price of an item? If this ordinance is enacted then it will become that much easier to justify new regulations by using this regulation as a precedent. Perhaps birthday parties should be regulated as well? Perhaps any kind of gathering at one’s residence should be regulated? Nearly all the issues cited in support of this ordinance also apply to such gatherings, why not regulate them too? This is a classic slippery slope. The goal of regulations should be the protection, not violation, of natural rights. This regulation violates the property rights of the seller by limiting their ability to sell their own property. If a seller does happen to violate the rights of others in their sale then they should likewise be cited under EXISTING laws. There is no need for a new patchwork of “pet peeve” regulations.

Productivity kills Jobs?

Recently Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL) remarked that Apple’s iPad was “probably responsible for eliminating thousands of American jobs.” Further, he tried to link it to the recent bankruptcy of Borders Books as well, quipping that “Why do you need to go to Borders anymore? …just buy an iPad and download your book…”

Wow.

Such an expression of sheer ignorance of basic economics is astounding. And from a sitting U.S. Congressman no less makes it all that much more sad and appalling. But I guess I shouldn’t be too hard on Jesse. This fallacy has been with us for a long time. Every time some new tool that enhances productivity (and thus lowers costs) is introduced it is decried as terrible because it will put so many out of work. The benefits (lower prices) are ignored. But after awhile the controversy dies down and we’re all much happier to be paying less for our robot built cars, our sewing machine made clothes and our machine harvested food.

So why does this myth persist? Well quite simply because it is true – people do of course lose their jobs – in the short term. However it is disingenuous to evaluate productivity gains over a narrow time frame and summarily conclude the outcome as negative because a few will lose jobs.  That’s like planting seeds and a day later noting that nothing has yet sprouted therefore the seeds must be worthless. Productivity gains take time to take root and spread their fruit of lower prices throughout the economy. As people spend less money on the newly cheaper goods they now have more money to spend on other goods. The increase in demand for these “other goods” drives job creation. Of course it does take time for people to retrain or to move to where the new jobs are, it doesn’t happen overnight. That’s why we have Unemployment Insurance. In the “big picture” there are no job losses, in fact there will be net job gains if the productivity enhancements are sufficiently large.

But some inevitably want to prevent the process from ever starting because of short term fears, thus they use the power of government to act as a break to these productivity gains. Government will either subsidize the outmoded industry or attempt to penalize the new entrant through punitive taxes or burdensome regulations. This only happens of course if the “harmed” industry has a sufficiently well funded lobbyist group. This explains why sugar is more than twice as much in the US than in all other countries (due to the trifecta of tariffs, quotas and subsidies) whereas typewriters have practically gone the way of the Dodo. Government meddling in the market simply makes the process take even longer (we’ve been waiting since 1812 in the case of sugar!) by eliminating most if not all of the cost savings achieved and thus the net additional jobs that could have been created.

What is a “Right”?

In a recent editorial I obliquely referred to the concept that healthcare is not a “right.” I would like to flesh out that concept more fully in order to substantiate the concept that healthcare is not a right any more so than food, housing, transportation, clothing, television, or any other consumer good.

Yes, I can hear the protests now, “Of course healthcare, food and housing are rights! We need these things to live, to survive!” Yes, that is true, we do need these things. But that does not make them rights. They are requirement to survival, but they are requirements we are to provide for ourselves.

So, what is a right? There are actually two types of rights: negative and positive. Negative rights are also known as Natural rights whereas positive rights are those conferred by decree (Fiat rights). Negative rights transcend time and place. For negative rights to be upheld requires NO action on the part of anyone else. We all have a right to our life, or stated conversely, we have the right to not be murdered. For us to not be murdered requires only the inaction of others. We have a right to our property (i.e. those things produced by us through work). Inaction of others ensures our property will never be taken. We have a right to free speech. This means that we can speak our mind publicly and not be silenced by force; it does not (and never has been interpreted to) mean we must be provided a means by which we can disseminate that speech. In the same way our right to life does not mean we must be provided with the tools necessary to maintain that life. If we are to be provided with such tools that implies someone must provide them.

Positive rights are those rights that by their nature require that someone else DO something to provide that right. If healthcare were actually made a right by decree, then this would mean that it MUST be provided to all. The problem with this concept is what do you do if no one or nearly no one wants to provide this service? If it is a “right” then it must be provided, and if it must be provided then the government must through force or coercion compel someone to provide this right. The coercion may be direct (i.e. the state dictates what your profession will be) or indirect (i.e. the state takes money from one group against their will to give to another group in order that they may obtain their “right”). Some may see this as “ok” because collectively, we, as society might be better off (e.g. the concept that “healthy Americans benefit the country”).

That is a dangerous road to travel. If we can justify any action based on the concept that society benefits then what is to stop us from establishing laws that require people be licensed before they can have children (so that the state can ensure they are “ideal” parents) or dictate how many children we can have… or perhaps sterilize those with undesirable genetic traits (they simply lead to higher health care costs, and anything that lowers health costs is good for society, right?). Well, I for one vehemently disagree. This is where all government intervention errs (beyond the core duty of protection of our natural rights) – the intentions are good but they are never thought out to their logical conclusion. That conclusion being that in fact the good of the many does not outweigh the needs of the few or the one (with apologies to Mr. Spock).