Friday, March 30, 2012

Beware Populist Deception

I was reading one of my old articles while I was writing on the FairTax, and it reminded me that I have been seeing more and more populist appeals from politicians of late. Sadly, even John McCain seems to have a momentary dalliance with populism, though he appears to have abandoned that for the moment and turned to a more solidly conservative position (at least if we ignore immigration and the environment).

As populism seems to be enjoying a renaissance, especially since the subprime mortgage "crisis", I have decided to go back to my old essays and build upon the ideas I developed there, and write a more comprehensive take on the errors of many populist positions.

One set of populist beliefs I will not be covering are those that relate to protectionism, either in the form of trade barriers or prohibitions on outsourcing jobs. I think I wrote a fairly definitive comment on those recently, so I will let that work, "Protectionism", stand on its own. As a result, my look at populism will examine only those positions related to the domestic economy.

The domestic populist appeal tends to fall into three distinct categories. First, there is an effort to institute "soak the rich" tax schemes against individuals. Second, there are schemes to increase corporate taxation. Third, there are plans to hand back money to voters in various forms. As the plans to basically pay off voters are of necessity funded by the tax schemes, I will put that off for the moment, and focus instead on the populist plans for taxation.

Soak the rich tax schemes take a number of forms, higher upper income tax brackets, removing caps on the income social security can tax, luxury taxes, increased capital gains taxes, and others. The most popular seem to be capital gains, luxury and increased income taxes. Removing the social security caps have been mentioned, but only as a means of preventing social security bankruptcy, and, as the effect will be the same as an increase in income taxes, I will deal with it at the same time.

Capital gains tax increases have not enjoyed as much popularity as they once did. The problem is that it is hard to sell them as only harming the rich. Even among the circles open to populist appeals there is an increasing number of people who hold stocks in retirement plans, or even invest in stocks directly, making it less popular to argue that capital gains taxes hit only the rich.Still, as we hear from time to time that the capital gains tax should be increased, let us look at this tax.

The outcome of a capital gains tax increase should be obvious to anyone, yet apparently they are not. When we tax the proceeds form investment, we cause a decline in investment. Money that would otherwise go to build up the economy flows into other investment vehicles, such as land, or overseas shelters. This does not harm the rich much, they simply divert their money to slightly less profitable venues. It does harm managed funds, such as in 401K's, as many are defined to include only specific types of investments, and thus end up being harmed by the capital gains tax. But the most likely group to suffer from capital gains taxes are the working class, especially those looking for entry level jobs, as new startups and expansion are the types of businesses most hampered by a lack of new investment. So, as with most populist schemes (as we shall see) the taxes planned to soak the rich end up harming the working class much more.

Luxury taxes are yet another effort to exploit class envy which end up hurting the poor more than the rich. The truly rich can purchase luxuries overseas and simply avoid the taxes, or else they will just defer purchase of luxuries. So, for the rich this is likely a minimal inconvenience. On the other hand, for the less affluent, these taxes place luxuries out of reach. And, for those who work manufacturing, selling or servicing luxuries, this can mean reduced wages or even unemployment. Again, a tax aimed at the rich ends up placing luxuries out of reach of the less wealthy while also destroying any number of jobs among the working class.

Nor does the final soak the rich scheme break this pattern. Admittedly, the rich have a hard time avoiding income taxes, at least some of  them. In some cases, such as CEOs and others who can adjust their compensation, they can take stock options and other non-cash income to avoid having to pay higher income taxes. Likewise, those who are self employed, they can adjust their corporate structures to reduce their nominal incomes. But for many of the rich, these taxes do take a real bite out of their wealth.

The problem with that is that the wealthy are those who create jobs. Or at least are a significant source of the money which fuels job creation. When their wealth is taken from them and given to the state it is no longer available for investment, and, just as with capital gains taxes, we end up seeing a reduction in job growth, cutting off opportunities for job seekers and hurting the poor and middle class much more than the wealthy.

Nor do populist schemes work any better when we move to corporate taxation. If anything, corporate taxes are more dishonest, and more harmful to the middle and lower classes.

Let us start with the basics, corporations pay no taxes. Either those taxes are passed along to consumers or they come out of the dividends paid to shareholders, most of whom are middle class. There is no "corporation" to pay taxes, it is a fiction. All of that money is eventually taken from someone's pocket. And, as the consumers with less money feel higher prices more than those with more to spend, when corporations pass along tax increases, the poor feel it much more. When ADM raises food prices 15%, it is meaningless to the wealthy, but to the poor it may represent a 5% increase in their monthly expenditures. Likewise, when dividends drop 10%, that may not matter much to a wealthy man who has a large, diverse portfolio. But for a more modest investor, relying on those shares for retirement, that decline may make quite a difference.

In other words, yet again, corporate taxes, while targeting the rich, also miss their mark and strike the poorer classes much harder.

Nor do the uses to which these populists put these taxes really help the poor. Schemes such as tariffs to keep jobs in the country do little to help the poor. Yes, maybe 10,000 steel workers are kept working, but the increased cost of steel puts 20,000 manufacturers out of work, as well as raising the cost of appliances and cars for everyone. Without fail, once the numbers are evaluated, the government would have been better off simply paying those steel workers not to work rather than raising tariffs.  Yes, those steel workers get to keep their jobs rather than having to find another, but they benefit only in the sense that they have the same job. The only real beneficiaries are those "fat cats" the populists claim to dislike, the owners of the inefficient industries who now have less competition and can continue to compete without worrying about efficiency.

I could go on and on, but I think my point is clear.

The populist rhetoric may appeal to some, but once we move away from mere words and examine the true results of populist schemes, it becomes obvious that the only people who truly benefit are the populists politicians themselves, who trade other people's money for the votes to keep them in office, as well as the limitless government power they desire.

NOTE

Yes, my figures in the essay above are mere approximations. I know that they are not accurate. They are used simply to provide a rough estimate of the harm done. Should anyone want actual numbers relating to a specific topic, please ask and I will dig through sources to provide them. Though the numbers I use are fictitious, there is more than enough evidence of the incredible costs to the economy of keeping jobs in the country through the use of tariffs.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/12.

Delusional Media

I had forgotten how surreal watching the MSM can be.

Today I saw George Stephanopolis and Charlie Gibson discussing how McCain has an "uphill battle" against Obama. When every poll I see, except apparently one that ABC news sponsored, show McCain at least tied with, if not beating Obama, despite the much greater coverage Obama is receiving, I have to wonder if they are serious.

Are the MSM just whistling past the graveyard, trying to convince themselves their guy is not going down in flames? Or at they trying to convince the electorate that McCain is losing in order to prop up their favorite?

Either way, the polls say it isn't working. At least every poll I have seen. Despite positive media coverage, despite efforts to bury the Wright scandal, the Rezko scandal, the Ayers scandal. Despite denunciations of the "brutal" debate questions, Obama is still losing. And the best the MSM can come up with is mentioning Bush's low poll numbers and trying to tie him to McCain. I don't know how to tell them, but congress gets even lower numbers, and the other party controls that. Not to mention the fact that McCain is about as close to Bush as Obama is.

Actually, maybe that is it, the debate. George and Charlie have been chastised for daring to question the preordained anointment of Obama and are now trying to make amends by acting as if he is certain to win.

It really doesn't matter. America has seen Obama, and, despite the MSM's efforts to prop him up, to save him from his own best efforts to lose, he has managed to upset enough Americans. And once he has the nomination, it will only get worse, when he faces an opponent who is not afraid to really criticize him. The MSM can try all they want to pretend Obama has a chance, but there is simply no way he can win. He has made too many serious mistakes, and has failed to recover from one before making another.

But we will see who is right in November.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/12.

NOTE: Apparently I was wrong, as the public either did not care about Obama's scandals, or the media managed to keep those scandals out of the venues the majority of voters visit tor receive news.  I favor the latter theory.

Not Again

It appears that Al Gore is once again trying to link a series of destructive hurricanes to global warming. The only problem being that there is no real scientific evidence that global warming causes hurricanes or that our current season is exceptional destructive. I would also add that I notice no one mentions the season without any major storms that followed Katrina.

It is like someone who credits every win on their lucky quarter, conveniently forgetting all the losses in between. Everything bad is blamed on global warming, and all the good in between is just silently glossed over.

ADDENDUM

Actually, the WSJ's Political Diary offers a possible explanation for Gore's insistence:

But Mr. Gore is perhaps too busy these days to follow the science closely. In April, a London-based company he chairs began selling shares in its so-called Global Sustainability Fund to small investors in New Zealand, following a similar offer to investors in Australia (interestingly, out of sight of the U.S. press). He was also a conspicuously invoked presence when the Silicon Valley firm Kleiner Perkins this month announced a new $500 million "green growth" fund in partnership with Mr. Gore's London firm. Asked by the San Jose Mercury News if Mr. Gore had been helpful in raising money, co-manager John Denniston replied: "That's not been his primary responsibility."
Uh huh. Mr. Gore's primary responsibility, from the looks of it, is to spread alarm about global warming and create the political conditions (subsidies, mandates) without which Kleiner's "green" energy ventures are unlikely to flourish. Expect the payoff to come next year as a new Congress and President debate global warming policy.
Now, I am not inclined to ascribe actions to mercenary motives. In fact, I have dismissed claims which use funding sources to argue that various sites are biased.


On the other hand, this is hardly the first Gore business venture which has depended on continuing belief in global warming. Gore may really believe in global warming, but his financial interest in convincing the rest of us, as well as his habit of playing fast and loose with the real science, makes him look a bit less than honest.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/12.

A Very Brief Reply to the FairTax Advocates

Every time I argue against the FairTax, the advocates not only tell me to "read the book" (now I suppose it is "read the books"), but they also tell me I have an obligation to read it if I argue against the FairTax.

I think they have that backwards. Those who propose a change are obligated to sell that change, not those who are being convinced. They can tell me as much as they want that I have to read the book, but if they want to convince me, someone will need to tell me why I am wrong.

The FairTaxers should take a page from the Christian missionaries. They do not go to some foreign lands, tell the locals to forget their old religion and embrace Jesus, and then, when asked why say "you have to read the Bible to find out". They carefully explain what the Bible says. They listen politely to arguments and respond with well reasoned replies. They actually care about persuading their listeners. And that is why Christianity has spread around the globe.

So, the FairTaxers can continue to chant "read the book" all they want, but they need to remember they are trying to sell an idea. If they want anyone to listen, belittling them because they are unwilling to read the book does not work. You need to give them a REASON to read the book, you have to sell your idea well enough that they WANT to read the book. And the current approach fails to do that.

Telling skeptics that you won't respond until they read the book is hardly the way to win over new converts. And without convincing skeptics, the FairTax will join the Ron Paul movement, Dennis Kucinich for President, and many other failed movements, all convinced of their own brilliance, but unable or unwilling to sell anyone else on that idea.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/12.

Revisiting the FairTax

Since the FairTax has reappeared, both in Mike Adams' column and in the announcement of a second book I am sure advocates will insist I read, I figure it is time for me to revisit all those old posts and summarize exactly why I am opposed to this plan.

First, the claim that it will be revenue neutral is very speculative. There are so many assumptions built into the statement that it is laughable. The logic is that there is an average of 22% of "embedded" tax es on each good, so adding 23% in tax after removing those taxes will not raise prices. However, this confuses matters by thinking each good contains the average, while in reality taxes are hardly evenly distributed. By removing taxes and adding a uniform 23% we will be raising the price of some goods, dropping others, which will be very unlikely to have no effect on sales revenues as is assumed.

Nor is that the only reason it won't be revenue neutral. Whether it is good or bad, some goods are only produced domestically because of protective tariffs. If those tariffs are removed, the domestic industry will collapse. Now, as a free market advocate, I will say that is a good thing, but, in terms of the FairTax, destroying an industry can hardly be said to be revenue neutral.

Nor does the Fair Tax take into account tax avoidance schemes. I am not here talking about illegal plans (those will come later). Instead I am talking about foreign sellers and tax exempt groups such as Indian reservations, who will not have to add the 23% fair tax. It probably won't impact small purchases, but for big ticket items, those near a border will probably go out of country, while others will buy from Indian reservations whenever the 23% discount more than pays for shipping. For all these reasons, the FairTax will be very unlikely to end up being "revenue neutral".

Second, the claim that the Fair Tax will eliminate tax avoidance is just absurd. people in my home state drive to Delaware to save 5% (now 6%) sales tax, why wouldn't people take steps to save 23%? Though the advocates say people will not resort to criminality to avoid the tax, I think the fact that organized crime (including supporters of terrorism*) makes a lot of money off schemes to avoid cigarette taxes, and that we have to dye nautical fuel to prevent the illegal sale of it as auto fuel argues that they would. And, in the distinction between sued and new, the FairTax itself gives us a lot of room for tax avoidance schemes, not to mention the distinction between purchase for use or for production.

And it will be much harder to find tax cheats under this system. The current system ties taxes tot he individual, the new one will tie taxes to sales. So, if I open a fictional catering business, and never pay a dime in tax on any food, there will be no way to tell I never bought any food for consumption. There is no record of what taxes I paid, just records of the individual sales. The new tax scheme makes transactions anonymous, allowing fraud to proceed with little fear of being detected.

Third, the FairTax advocates claim that their plan will eliminate the IRS. It may be true there will be no IRS, but there will be a bureaucracy every bit as big. Just to administer the prebate will require a huge bureaucracy. The advocates claim that it will be a "simple" direct deposit, but having worked in social services, I can attest it will not be that simple. Every person who files will need to be validated, or else massive fraud will ensue. And there will also be strange cases requiring investigation, such as joint custody children, where the agency will need to determine which parent gets the check, and to make sure both do not claim the same child. It will take an agency the size of the IRS just to manage the prebate, investigate fraud, and validate new applications.

And that is not all. In addition to the prebate, the administration will need to collect the various taxes, deposit them, and investigate claims that retailers are not withholding the correct tax amounts. This will, again, mirror the activities of the IRS. One need only look at state sales tax enforcement and collection bureaus to see this will not be a small undertaking. Some argue that the states can handle this for the federal government, but I don't think that will work. First, not all states collect sales tax, and I doubt they want to add a new agency to just help out the federal government. And even if the states do handle it, the federal agency will still need to collect from the states, deposit the money, and audit the state agencies. So, there is still a substantial bureaucracy, even if they shift most of the work tot he states.

Finally, there are all the avoidance schemes I described in my older writing. As I said above, these schemes will be even harder to detect, so investigation will be harder. This will necessitate an even larger investigatory agency. As investigations is already a huge part of the IRS, I doubt the Fair Tax agency will be any smaller than the existing one. In fact, given the need for more elaborate investigations, and the difficulty of tying tax payments to individuals, I would argue the agency will be larger than the IRS, not smaller.

Which brings us to my fourth objection, the prebate. As I mentioned before, this will entail a massive bureaucracy and carries with it a huge risk of fraud, but those are not my primary objections. I object to the prebate on two related grounds. First, as with our current withholding system, the prebate runs the risk of making people think of the government as a disburser of checks rather than the group taking our money, and it also ends up effectively placing every family in the US on welfare. It just sends the wrong message to have the state sending a check to everyone. Second, I worry that the prebate could be manipulated by a clever politician into a welfare alternative, the way the EITC was in our current system.

Finally, I worry that the FairTax may end up not being our only tax, despite claims to the contrary. I know the current bill says it won't take effect until the 16th amendment is repealed, but that only means the law will never take effect. A future, more realistic version may omit that provision and end up becoming a tax in addition to income taxes. But even if it doesn't, what is to prevent the state from adding a VAT? Or a high tariff? Or any number of other taxes that are not income taxes? Considering the relatively outrageous tax rate required to make the FairTax supposedly revenue neutral, if we add another tax we could easily see over 50% of our income going to the state.

Now, whenever I oppose the FairTax, some supporter responds by saying "so you must love our current system?" But that is just a   foolish response. I do not have to like the current system to think replacing it with another flawed system is a bad idea. I am not saying the current system is perfect, or even good, just that the FairTax has enough problems that it is not worth the effort it would take to substitute it for the current system.

So, what is the solution? Ideally, I would like to see an end of federal taxes and the substitution of the original scheme of state funding. As I explained elsewhere, there would be incredible benefits to this, not the least of which would be 50 different tax schemes in 50 different states allowing us not just to choose our tax system by moving, but to see the comparative benefits of each scheme.

But, since that is unlikely to happen soon, I suppose the flat tax is the fairest proposal yet. Yes, politicians will eventually amend it until it becomes some mess like our current scheme, but for a time it would be fair, and that is probably the best we can get given our current environment.

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* See here for details.

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POSTSCRIPT

For those who are interested, links to all my FairTax articles can be found here.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/12.

Short Reply to Doctor Adams

I was reading Mike Adams' column on the FairTax when it struck me that he is falling into the same error as all FairTax supporters, the ability to find the mote in their neighbors' eyes while missing quite a few beams in their own.

Just two examples will suffice.

First, the claim that the FairTax will somehow "eliminate the IRS". It may remove the bureaucracy known as the IRS, but it will have to include a bureaucracy every bit as big. As I mentioned a long time ago, there are countless ways people could easily defraud the FairTax collectors, leading to the need for a massive investigatory body. And, even if we ignore that, just administering the receipts collected, as well as the huge prebate system would require a bureaucracy that would dwarf today's IRS. I just don't see how they believe that this system would work without any administrative apparatus.

And PLEASE don't tell me "read the book". I know I promised to respond to every comment, but I will purposely ignore anyone who uses those words in replying to this article. Either make an argument or remain silent, but please don't tell me some mystic book will persuade me. This is not Scientology.

The second error is even more amusing, as it is just so consciously blind. In his description with a conversation with a flat tax advocate he raises the possibility of the government modifying the flat tax. Yet, somehow, Dr. Adams does nor see that the FairTax could be subject to every bit of the same manipulation. Items could be excluded, others taxed higher, the prebate could become another welfare in disguise like the EITC, there are hundreds of ways the FairTax could be manipulated.

Some will reply, but the law doesn't allow that. To which I reply, the flat tax proposals don't allow manipulation either. And neither one will matter once politicians decide to change the law.

And that is the real problem. The FairTax advocates tend to argue thus: Assuming everything I say about the FairTax is true, and assuming it is enacted exactly as I wish, it will be much better than your system. But, when I say your system, I mean your system as it would actually be implemented, including the possibility of manipulation by politicians.

In other words, they are comparing a fantasy to reality, and fantasy is winning. That doesn't really tell me much.

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For a recap of my take on the FairTax, this article contains a list of almost all of my past posts on the subject. And, yes, I just realized I never did post my response to the FairTax.org reply. Afraid I got distracted and simply forgot, mainly as I thought the FairTax was a dead issue. Guess I have to revisit that response now that the FairTax is rearing its head once again.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/12.

Man's Nature and Government

I wrote before about the way unspoken assumptions about the purpose of government make their way into political debate. But ther eis an even more basic assumption which often colors debates about government even more, yet is very rarely explicitly mentioned. That is the way our view of other people influences our political views.

What we think of others lies at the heart of our political philosophy. Without certain views of people, many political philosophies would be impossible. For example, many theories of representative government rest upon the presumption of a rational electorate1. Or, for a more personal example, my own federalist beliefs rest upon the belief that people are rational enough that superior political ideas will eventually spread from those states which originated them to the rest.

However, while these assumptions about human nature are part of every political philosophy, very rarely are they explicitly stated2. Then again, the reason is easy to see. If someone were to tell you that we needed a minimum wage law because you were too stupid to know when you were being paid too little, would you embrace their ideas?3 While some academics may admit the negative presumptions about the masses inherent in their theories, they tend to hide the truth by using academic jargon rather than saying "people are too ignorant to govern themselves".

And that does seem to be the prevalent justification for most theories of government, the assumption of ignorance. In the past, the assumption of malice was a more common excuse for interventionist government, but that seems to have lost popularity is our nonjudgmental age. We still have a tendency to ascribe evil motives to corporations and a few other bogeymen, but in general we prefer to see people as ignorant or irrational than evil.

Of course, the shift from evil to stupid has changed political philosophy. Both support an interventionist, authoritarian state, but there is one significant difference. When we view man as evil, we can still build a state, even if there is no one good. All we need is a state powerful enough to keep us form fulfilling our sinister desires. However, when we assume stupidity that no longer works. With only stupid individuals to steer the ship of state, we are unable to form a functional government. So, along with the appearance of the doctrine of mass stupidity, we saw the emergence of another theory, that of a clever elite.

It was a necessary development, as with only irrational or stupid individuals we could not form a state which would work, but ti is definitely another reason we rarely hear a political theorist honestly state his assumptions. If it was going to be hard selling "you need minimum wage laws because you are too stupid", how much harder would it be to add "but I'm not"? The implicit arrogance makes it almost impossible to honestly state the thinking behind most modern political theories. When the world is divided into three groups, the vast ignorant majority, a few sinister exploiters, and the noble, brilliant leaders, very few people are going to gladly accept it. Well, the few who think they are in the final category will, but no one else.

It is the brilliance of modern theorists of the left that they have managed to convince so many that they fall into the small intellectual elite. The fact that the Democrats draw around 50% of the votes in any national election mean that half of all those voting think "the majority" is too stupid to run things themselves, yet place themselves in the category of the elite who know better. It is one fot he few places I know where 50% can still be a tiny minority, while the other 50% constitutes a huge majority.

And make no mistake, this arrogance is at the root of every modern Democrat policy. But as some may think I am being partisan, let us look at just a few to see how they fit into this arrogant view of our fellow citizens.

Social security is the perfect example. The justification is that "people" won't prepare for their retirement unless forced to do so. However, as people continue to recite this line almost all Americans who can afford to do so have some supplemental retirement policy, and those who cannot afford it often cannot afford it because social security is stealing almost 20% of their salary4. That means that almost all of those arguing for social security are saying "Of course I am preparing for retirement, but most people don't have my foresight."

Gun control is another great example of arrogance, as I wrote before. If asked, those who favor gun control would admit they are unlikely to shoot people on simple suspicion, or go on a shooting spree when frightened, but they will argue that there are "others" who would. In their mind, most people are ignorant, perhaps racist, yahoos who would turn the streets into the "wild west". They know they would not, but they see themselves as better than the rest.

Minimum wage offers an example of both categories who fall outside of the "elite". According to theory of minimum wage, employees are too stupid to leave a job which is underpaying them, or else employers are all evil enough that they would conspire to keep all wages too low. Of course those making these arguments will tell anyone who asks that they conduct business ethically, and that they would not stay at a job which underpaid them, but again, they are not in the evil or stupid groups, those are for everyone else.

Now, I am sure someone at this point is going to ask "So you think everyone is rational and good? That everyone prepares for retirement or gets the best salary? That no one would go wild with their gun?" But that is not my claim. I will freely admit there are people who are both ignorant and irrational, where I differ with those holding more liberal views is that I do not believe they represent the majority. They may exist, but they are far from numerous. As it is the purpose of the government to conform to the needs of the majority, not to the special requirements of a small minority5, unless one assumes these incompetents are the majority, there is really no justification for the level of state involvement we see today.

So, having said all that, what would be the alternative? What would a state look like that assumed its members were competent adults whose motives were generally honorable?

The answer is obvious. It would look like what we once had. The original state envisioned by the constitution, a confederation of sovereign states, answerable to their citizens, with a state limited in scope to those essential functions. If we assume that people can handle their own affairs, we need very little from the state, and, what we do need, should be provided on as local a level as possible.

But, as it has gone out of fashion to see man as rational, with all of our popular media, acadmeics and others agreeing that man is an irrational, senseless being, I have little hope of seeing a state founded on the belief in man's innate competence.

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1. Von Mises actually makes an argument for representative government independent of assumptions about rationality, but he seems the exception, rather than the rule.

2. For all his shortcomings, Rousseau is remarkably forthright in stating his case. He, along with Rand, is one of the very few political theorists who state clearly their views of human nature.

3. Strangely enough, the "everyone is a racist" theory of the extreme multiculturalist movement is explicitly stated and embraced by those who it calls racists. However, as it has not spread very well outside of academia, it may be that the peculiar environment of the university allows an otherwise unpopular theory to thrive.

4. I know that supposedly half is paid by the employee and half by the employer, but that is just subterfuge to hide the true cost. the employer knows very well what the total cost will be and figures out how much he will have to contribute before agreeing on a salary. Had he not been compelled to pay that additional amount it would have been available to pay as salary. In other words, employees pay all of it, even if it does not say so on the pay stub.

5. Some will surely argue that as long as there is one irrational gun owner we should have gun control, but that is just absurd. If we write the law to conform to the absolute lowest common denominator, then none of us will be allowed to leave the house or feed ourselves.

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POSTSCRIPT

This is hardly the first time I have addressed this issue. Specific aspects of this topic were the subject of the following essays:

The Essence of Liberalism

Arrogance and Gun Control
A Very Simple Truth
Private Versus Public Racism
The Limits of Technocracy
Dismissing Conspiracy Theories
Our View of Our Fellow Citizens
Hillarious!
Those Other People
Seeing People as Stupid
The Virtue of Humility
Our New Paranoia

Some of these deal with the topic in only a tangential way, but all, in some way, rest on the idea that our assumptions about others determine or political and social philosophies.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/12.

Multilingual Televsion

Having a young child I get to hear other parents complain about television a lot, and one of the complaints I have heard most often is that children's programming is force feeding children Spanish. As one parent put it, her child can barely handle English and Dora and Diego are trying to teach him Spanish.

Now, let me start by saying that I have no personal objection to Spanish being taught at an early age, or any language. I grew up in the seventies watching the Electric Company and Villa Alegre, both of which had more Spanish content than any show today. In addition to that, I was surrounded by relatives who refused to be confined to one language, continually switching between English, Russian and Ukranian. And it was not just my family, various friends had parents or grandparents who would speak in German or Farsi, adding to my linguistic confusion. While I did not get the full benefit of all these languages around me, I was also not harmed by it. The worst result was an inability to look at foodstuffs without naming them in both English and Ukranian.

But I do not think the parents really believe it is harmful either. The fact that no one seems to complain about Nickelodeon's new Chinese themed show Ni Hao, Kai Lan argues that it is not so much the multilingual programming as it is Spanish programming which is the problem.  Which is not all that surprising, as America in general has a bit of a problem with Spanish, or at least with many of those who speak it.

Not that America is intolerant of immigrants. Far from it. Throughout our history we have been very eager to welcome people form other nations. Yes,a t times there were groups who opposed immigration. Some on racial grounds, some economic. Labor unions in particular opposed immigration because of the wage reductions brought about by a larger work force. And certain groups, Asians, Italians, eastern Europeans, Jews, the Irish, and others were specifically opposed at one time or another. But at most times those opposing immigration were a minority, and, overall, the US has been more open to immigrants than any other nation I can name.

However, there is something different about the resentment so many seem to feel toward Spanish speaking immigrants. Partly it is because so many came illegally, circumventing the laws of the nation. But even more than that, I think much of the opposition comes from the unwillingness of these immigrants to assimilate. It is not their insistence on retaining an ethnic identity, Italians, along with many others, did that and were not so disliked. Nor is it their continued use of Spanish, as the Chinese maintained Chinese speaking enclaves for a very long time without generating such anger.

No, I think it is the insistence, by both the Spanish speakers themselves, and their advocates on the left, that we bend over backward to accommodate them that really inspires such distaste. While other ethnic groups have also failed to learn English, they did not simultaneously insist that everything be printed int heir language. Phone menus never say "Press 3 for Chinese". It is only the Spanish speakers who get this special treatment, and that tends to upset many Americans. And I think that is at the root of many parents' dislike of Dora and Diego.

All of which makes for an interesting political question. Both parties have started trying to compete for the Hispanic vote, going out of their way to appeal to this growing block of voters, but often, in their attempts to appeal to Hispanics, these politicians have offended their non-Hispanic constituents. Actually, not just their non-Hispanic constituents, but many Hispanics as well. By trying to push amnesty for illegal aliens, or bilingual education, they have even manged to offend those Hispanics who speak English, or who came here legally, and who resent being associated with those who did not.

It is an interesting dilemma for politicians. The existing voting blocks are relatively static, two large, mostly equal partisan groups with a thin sliver of "independents" in the middle. The Hispanics offer one of the few growing blocks of voters, but if the politicians try too hard to win over this group, they may end up finally creating some change in the rest of the voting public, but none of it in their favor. Of course, none seem to realize that strong opposition to amnesty and illegals could sway those blocks just as easily in their favor, which makes me wonder about the myopic views of most politicians. They see a group of new voters, many of whom probably cannot vote legally, at least not without amnesty, and begin to drool, without realizing that a strong stand against amnesty could more easily sway a far greater number of voters.

But I have strayed too far from my original point. Let me close by saying simply that I think most parents are not so much offended by their children learning Spanish as they are upset by the fact that their children may one day HAVE to learn Spanish simply to get around in our society.

POSTSCRIPT

I was somewhat influenced in writing this by my wife's reactions to calls for amnesty. Her mother immigrated from Italy, a process which, at the time, required she both have a sponsor and learn English. When my wife hears complaints about the "heartlessness" of our treatment of illegals, she often becomes rather irate.

Nor is she alone. I have heard and read many Hispanic commentators, some with roots in the US dating back to the Mexican American War, who resent the fact that the media portrays all Hispanics as being both pro-amnesty and as boosters of bilingual education. In this new variation of the "all blacks are Democrats" myth, all Hispanics are portrayed as a monolithic block without any differing opinions. Not only is it inaccurate, it is insulting, and that is something politicians should keep in mind before pushing amnesty in hopes of winning "the Hispanic vote". It does no good to offend the people whose votes you are trying to buy through your legislation.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/12.

Man's Nature and Environmentalism

I have written several times on environmentalism and been quite critical, but I don't think I ever made clear precisely why I think environmentalism is so detrimental to mankind. It is not simply a question of being inconvenienced by environmentalism, or the fact that it makes things more costly, the basic assumptions of environmentalism are in direct opposition to the requirements of human survival.

Starting at the most basic level, man is ill suited to survive in nature. We lack any sort of natural defenses or weapons. Even those animals most similar to us, the apes1, are much better prepared for the wild than we are. They are better at climbing, possess much greater strength and have more hair to provide protection from both cold and sun. And when we leave the primates, man falls even farther behind, lacking claws, armor, speed, or any of the other traits animals use to survive. Should we try to survive in nature, even were we not to become a snack for the nearest carnivore, we would find competing for food against the better adapted rivals quite difficult2.

What man has, the tool that allowed him to come to be the most potent creature on the planet, is his brain. Not just this brain, but the ability to speak which that brain provided. A big brain alone is beneficial, but very limited. Without language every creature is stuck learning everything anew, and knowledge would progress very little. With the ability to speak, man gained two very important powers. First, man could pass along knowledge quickly from one generation to another. Yes, animals do this as well, but it is a slow process of demonstration and mimicry. Man can use language to pass along much knowledge quickly.

And how is that done? Through the second benefit of language, the ability to abstract. Man can take a number of situations and draw from them only the essential features. He can see ten falling stones and conclude "objects tend to fall to the earth". It sounds simple, but it is a huge advantage. Thanks to our ability to abstract from concrete experience, we can pass along in a minute of speech something that an animal would take months of training to discover, if ever. For example "cooked food is safer" is a concept that can be said in a minute or less, but would take hundreds of examples before an animal would grasp, assuming they ever could distinguish cooked from raw. Man's ability to abstract speeds transmission of information dramatically.

But that big brain is of limited benefit when it is used only to assist man in interacting with his environment. When it is used just for making tools, cooperative hunting, passing along knowledge of better methods to gather food, and so on, it does provide man with an advantage, but as the short lifespans and small numbers of modern hunter-gatherer tribes show, it does not provide full benefits until it is turned to another use.

That use is changing the environment to suit man. From building shelters, to planting food, to building dikes, to diverting rivers and reclaiming land from the sea, man constantly changes the world to suit him. That is truly the best use of his brain, not to help him adapt to the world around him, but to change the world around him to suit his ends. Only by doing so can man receive the maximum benefits from his intellect.

Which brings me at last to my point. This is the use which environmentalism opposes. By positing that "nature" has some intrinsic value, the environmentalist movement is in opposition to this use of man's intellect. Man survives and prospers by changing nature into something more suitable. Once we postulate that untouched nature is to be preferred, we find our selves in opposition to mankind's improvement.

Of course many will argue against this saying that environmentalists just want "a balance", but that is simply untrue. Once you say untouched nature is a good in itself, the logical end point is denying man the ability to change anything. Of course, as a practical matter they may argue for a "balance" first, but the end result is the eventual prohibition of all change3. And that will spell the end of human progress.

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1. Whether one believes in evolution or not, the similarities between apes and humans are undeniable. Even if you doubt we are related, they resemble us more closely than any other animal does, from physical structure to social behavior.

2. Many anthropological/historical models seem to bear this out, suggesting that the most primitive hunter-gatherer tribes were limited to belts extremely rich in foodstuffs. In those locations man's competitive disadvantage would be offset by the abundance of food. Only after man had acquired more knowledge enabling him to better control his environment would he have moved from those regions. That is, of course, assuming those models are correct.

3. We see similar incrementalism over and over. As condemnation went from being used for roads and dams to removing inner city "blight" to condemning perfectly good homes for more profitable development. Or smoking prohibitions went from airplanes to businesses to malls to now even restaurants and bars. Those seeking unpopular change never ask for it all at once, they always want a "balance", but from there they proceed, step by step, to the logical end point of their theories.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/11.
 

Still More Double Standards

Remember John McCain's Middle East "gaffe"? Despite the fact that what he said may not even have been incorrect, the press played it up for a while, trying to portray him as out of touch and just as ignorant of foreign affairs as the inexperienced Democrat candidates.

How much is anyone willing to bet that Obama's 57 state gaffe will not get the same amount of press?

POSTSCRIPT

Just to be clear, I am not saying the press should ramble on and on about a simple misstatement by Obama. What I am saying is that they would had the speaker been a Republican. Somehow what is a  "simple mistake" for Obama is "proof" that McCain is old and tired, or ignorant. My request is that the press simply ignore such silly mistakes, whether from Obama, McCain or the sitting president.

However, we know how well that will work out. Liberal "pundits" have made a fortune by filling books with Bush's slips of the tongue. For some reason liberals find them terribly amusing.

So, as that is apparently the environment in which we find ourselves, I ask that the press belittle Obama for his mistakes every bit as much as they belittle McCain and Bush. Anything less would be a bit biased, would it not? And the press claims to be the fair, unbiased, objective purveyors of the truth, do they not?

ADDENDUM

As "Real American 4 Truth" thought my comment referred to another supposed "gaffe"  by McCain, I suppose I should clarify my statement. I thought the link would make it clear, but just in case, I will specify the statement here.

I am not talking about McCain's statement about energy policy that the left claims is "proof" that the war was all about oil. I dealt with that elsewhere. First of all it assumes McCain is somehow part of the Bush administration, instead of a senator, just like the Democrats who also voted for the war. It also makes the statement say something it does not. (And, to be honest, I think McCain is simply wrong in his thinking on this one, but that is not relevant here.)

I am speaking about McCain's statement about Iran assisting al Qaida. Of course, there is evidence he was perfectly accurate, but the left crowed about his ignorance for saying shiite Iran would help sunni al Qaida. (Though the left acknowledges they do help Sunni Hammas.) But one could assume that McCain meant Hammas, not al Qaida, making this a "gaffe" on par with Obama's 57 states.

Hopefully that makes everything clear.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/11.

More Harm From Multiculturalism

My wife sent me an interesting article about a local school board which is trying to train staff to reduce the number of suspensions of black students*. Apparently black students have been suspended at a rate far exceeding that of other students, and the school system is blaming this on a lack of cultural understanding. As the article puts it:

Teachers and administrators may misinterpret the body language and occasional confrontational behavior that some African-Americans learn in their neighborhoods and use at school as a way of standing up for themselves, veteran educators say. They will often back down if they're made to feel safe.

"Being rude means one thing to you and another to me," said Ella White Campbell, a retired city school teacher and an education advocate in Baltimore County.
All of which sounds very nice and high-minded, but in reality ill-serves the students.

These students may learn their behavior in their neighborhoods, but that does not mean it is correct. Unless we plan to confine blacks to ghettos, they need to be able to interact with the larger culture. And if their behavior is seen as rude, aggressive or violent by the larger culture, then it will cause them problems in the future.

As school is supposed to be preparation of life, shouldn't we be teaching the students how to interact with people in our common culture rather than forgiving them bad behavior because it is accepted in their insular community? And isn't it patronizing to hold other groups to the standards of society at large but forgive black students? Doesn't that say that we think they are incapable of learning our rules?

Once again, the multicultural attitude is not only patronizing, but harms those it claims to help.

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* For those who are offended by my use of "black" rather than the nom du jour "African-American", see my earlier comment on this topic.


Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/11.

A New Blog

As my regular readers know, I have something of a personal interest in the war on drugs. As I have developed a disorder which results in a lot of pain, I have begun to notice that, unintentionally, our current approach to the war on drugs often interferes with the medical communities ability or willingness to properly treat their patients.

Previously, I had a rather minimal interest in drug legalization. I thought it would result in a reduction of crime and free jail space for those who commit violent crimes, but it did not interest me. More than anything, I thought it was a foolish move on the part of the libertarians to emphasize it so much, as it turned off voters.

However, my new perspective has changed my mind. I now think this is a rather important issue, and not just on its own, but as a symptom of how government plans to protect us from ourselves often go awry.

So I am starting a new blog, Examining the War on Drugs, to allow me to comment more comprehensively on this topic without cluttering up this blog with so many articles on a single topic. I won't be approaching this from a dogmatic position, but will examine the arguments on both sides critically. I do have an opinion going into this, but I am willing to admit that I may be wrong, so I hope I can look at all sides fairly.

If any of you have an interest in the subject, please drop by and check out the new blog. It probably won't be updated quite as regularly as this one is, but I think it is probably impossible to maintain my usual manic pace of posting on two blogs if I ever plan to sleep again. Then again, there is plenty of material on all sides of the argument just begging to be debunked, so I will not lack subject matter.

That's it for the self-promotion. Back to more relevant topics.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/11.

Violence and Culture

I was thinking about an essay from a few weeks ago. Brent Bozell wrote about the newest incarnation of the Grand Theft Auto video game series, and the usual argument ensued. One side asserted that video games are harmless recreation while the other argued that violent video games lead to societal violence. Nothing new, though that won't stop me from commenting.

I have written on this before, but it was buried in an essay on several topics, so I feel I should give this subject the attention it deserves.

Let me start with a bit of disclosure. I have worked as a software developer, though mostly on medical information systems, financial software, networking and security applications, and fax firmware, never on video games. I do play video games, though my taste runs to tactical and strategy games more than the "first person shooters" which usually inspire these debates. I have played some FPS, mostly older games, but I have never played any of the Grand Theft Auto series. I will also say that, in those games with role playing elements which allow multiple choices, I find I have trouble taking the "evil" path. Perhaps it is some shortcoming of mine, but I empathize too much even with fictional characters to intentionally do them harm. Even when I know it's just a game.

Having said all that, let me begin.

First, I just cannot accept that video games "cause" violence in any meaningful sense, for the same reason I can't believe that pornography "causes" rapes. I know that many will show studies or anecdotal evidence showing a correlation between violent video games and violence, or between pornography and sex, but that makes the common mistake of confusing correlation and causation. By the same logic one could say that moving to Florida causes heart disease, as so many people who move to Florida have heart conditions.

Obviously, my example is foolish, but only because we recognize that there is a secondary factor explaining both events. Older people tend to move to Florida, and old age correlates with heart disease. But my argument is the same for video games and violence. We may not see it, but I believe that there is probably a personality trait which explains both. A person who is predisposed to violence against others will also likely be attracted to violent video games. Or a person who is predisposed to rape will also be attracted to pornography. One does not cause the other, they are both effects of an underlying, but unseen, cause.

But (and there always is a "but"), having said all that, while I do not think violent video games cause violence, they do contribute to a culture which accepts violence, and that makes acting on one's desires easier. Where, in the past, peer pressure would have discouraged a teen from committing acts of violence, the climate fostered by, among many other things, violent games, does not have such pressures, so the expression of violent tendencies is much easier than it once was. We have come to accept violence so readily, though we claim to deplore it, that we fail to make clear to the young that we expect them not to harm other people.

Then again, the video games themselves are such a small part of that culture, that even their role in making violence easier is somewhat negligible. Yes, they contribute to the mass media glorification of violence and criminality, but with so many movies, television shows, and popular music showing violence as commonplace, the role of video games should not be overstated. Were every bit of violence to be expunged from games tomorrow, I doubt it would make any difference. So, even in the limited context of facilitating the expression of violent tendencies, the guilt of video games is hard to establish.

Like so many things in our culture, violent games are not a cause or an effect, but a little of both. We have a culture which has become accepting of violence, of criminality, of outright sociopathy, and that is reflected in popular entertainment, including video games. But, once those games enter the public consciousness, they begin to shape society themselves, leading to even more acceptance of their violent, antisocial content. It is a sort of cultural feedback loop. Once an idea gains a degree of approval, it becomes a self-perpetuating idea, growing on its own.

So where did this glorification of violence and criminality come from? How did it enter our society?

Since at least the sixties we have been creating a culture which glorifies the "outlaw", the outsider, the rebel1. At first this took the form of harmless escapist fantasies of independent "free spirits", but very quickly it was taken to its logical conclusion, and society began to worship the criminal, the amoral, the misanthrope, and the sociopath2. And once we began to idolize the criminal we also began to approve of his world, to develop a mythology of violence. This led to a society which accepted violence, which led to violence permeating popular culture. But as popular culture guides society at large, we could not keep approving violent fantasy without seeing it seep out into reality. And the violence that we began to see around us fed back into that pop culture, driving it into ever more violent avenues.

But having said that, it is still not the culture which causes violence, even when society has become so defective. Society does not cause violence, but it does fail to provide restraints. Normally those with a tendency toward violence would feel pressure from the culture to restrain their urges. Those pressures are no longer there. So, what we see is not so much violence caused by society as a preview of what the world would be were society to break down entirely.

All of which is a rather round about way of saying that violent video games, even games which openly glorify crime, are not so much a cause of violence, as they are a symptom of the societal collapse which makes such violence easy.  There are always violent people among us. Truthfully, we are all prone to violence to one degree or another. But normally society exerts pressure upon us, keeping us from acting on those impulses. When society begins to break down, we no longer feel those pressures, and violence begins to rise. The violent video games we see are but one expression of that societal breakdown3. To a small degree they help to perpetuate that trend, but to call them a cause is to go too far4.

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1. Actually, this trend started much earlier, even the sixties' trend of outlaw worship was hardly new, it had existed since the juvenile delinquent films of the fifties. And the whole lot really arose during the romantic era. I have written before on the harm I believed the romantics caused, so I will not dwell on that here, I just wanted to point out that this idea may have become widespread during the 1960's, but has a much older pedigree. (In fact, even the romantics may be too late, as Rousseau's view of the society as innately harmful really lies at the root of much of this distrust of tradition, and he predates the romantics by almost a century. But I plan to write on Rousseau's foolish ideas in another essay.)

2. An interesting example of the changes in society can be seen in the modern fascination with serial killers. This is not new, as the century or more of fascination with Jack the Ripper shows. However, where in the past it was always a fascination tinged with revulsion, a questioning of what could drive someone to do such evil, it has now become almost an admiration. If anyone doubts that, examine the ratings Dexter is receiving, and explain how a show about a sympathetic serial killer fits into a well adjusted society.

3. It is not so much the violence that is disturbing, as the tendency to accept outright evil as normal behavior which I see as troubling. Violence has been a part of entertainment throughout history. Look at a chess board, a deck of cards or any medieval poem. Or look at the scriptures of almost every religion. Violence itself is not inherently good or bad. What is troubling is the tendency to remove all morality. I do not think games have to serve as sermons on proper living, but the content of some games is dark enough that I worry about the designers. There is just something wrong with finding entertainment in beating up prostitutes and then driving over them in a car.

4. Obviously, the glorification of criminality, even including the Rousseau-like distrust of tradition, does not sufficiently explain all we see around us. The tendency to reduce punishment until it no longer deters crime, the non-judgmental tendencies of multiculturalism and self-esteem movements, racial separatist rhetoric and the hostile climate it creates, and many other factors all feed into this as well. To reduce it to one cause would be to oversimplify. But to mention every possible influence would take much more space than I have available.


Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/11.

Our Biggest Hurdle

I have figured out what the biggest difficulty for the economic conservative position is. We are telling the truth.

Politics is easy when you can lie, or when your theory is so removed from reality that you can promise people the moon.

Now, I am not saying the left is lying, maybe the really mean it when they make their promises. But still, as they are not constrained by reality, they can promise that if you turn all power over to the state all your worries will disappear. It is the same problem I had when arguing with the FairTax advocates, some of their theories were so overly optimistic that they could promise absolutely everything. It is hard to fight that sort of generosity, even if it is absolutely impossible in real life.

So while the left, and the protectionist right, and a few others, are promising a pair of Rolls Royces in the brand new four car garage, a mansion in the Hamptons, three boys for every girl and four girls for every boy, we are left offering the truth. It simply doesn't inspire to say "We will get the state out of your way so you can do it for yourself" when the other side is promising wish fulfillment which would make a genie blush.

As I see it, there is really only one alternative. Yes, we need to continue explaining how getting the state out of the way will enrich us all, how things only get done if you do it yourself, but more important than explaining our benefits, we really need to spend time showing why those absurd promises of government granted prosperity just won't work. It will make others knock us as "negative" and people will criticize us for "just shooting down other positions". But as long as we are fighting against fairy tales, we will never win. They can always promise more than we can. Before we can explain why the government should stay out of the way, we need to show that all those things others promise can really never be delivered, otherwise there is no reason for anyone to listen to a word we say. We are just the stingy nay-sayers standing in the way of cost-free government generosity.

Only once we dismiss the absurd theories filling the minds of the public can we really begin to show why our way is best.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/11.

The Costs of Understanding

I was reading an old Mark Steyn article, when it struck me that our government's "understanding" is often the source of social collapse. While Steyn's focus was mainly on Britain (and the US's) weak response to militant Islam and the harm done by that, I thought about all the various harms done by multiculturalism as a whole.

It is a dogma of the multiculturalist doctrine that all cultures are "equal", and they take this to mean we cannot judge any action taken by another "culture". It sounds very high minded, but in reality it results in two things. First a patronizing attitude toward other cultures and races. Second a complete breakdown of order.

I will deal with the second first, as it is the most obvious. When there are riots because of a supposed "racial injustice", rather than breaking up the riot and arresting the instigators, our "understanding" causes us to bend over backwards not to offend the rioters. When Islam riots because of cartoons of Mohammad, newspaper editors, who are so vocal in ignoring any rules imposed by the government or western notions of propriety, are first in line to accept Islamic doctrines of propriety. When black teens beat another boy in Jena we have supposed adults telling us we cannot judge them as the racial climate drive them to it. And on and on.

Whenever another race or culture is involved, the multiculturalists insist that they be absolved of any blame, and that it is our responsibility not only not to judge them but to capitulate to whatever their demands. In short, multiculturalism insists that whenever a minority belief or practice conflicts with the majority, the minority must win. Which is nothing but a recipe for mob rule by whatever group can gather the most support while remaining a minority.

However, there is the other issue I mentioned. While the attitude grants almost limitless power to the minorities, it also is insulting to them. Westerners all came to this nation with different traditions, yet we all managed to assimilate. But according to the multiculturalists, non-Western immigrants, and members of racial minorities, simply are not to be held to Western standards. It is a patronizing attitude, implying as it does that minorities are incapable of observing the rules of the larger society and so must be forgiven. It is the attitude one holds towards children or the insane. To treat minorities this way is to say they are inferior to Western culture.

So, for all its claims of ethical superiority, it appears the multicultural attitude is every bit as condescending as the old doctrine of the white man's burden. In fact, the only difference between it and the old colonial attitude is that at least the old attitude imposed order, while multiculturalism manages to bring both condescension and chaos.


Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/10.

Too Clever for Their Own Good

It is always interesting to see someone sabotaged by their own cleverness. And recently we have seen just that.

The Democrats, long convinced that proportional representation is more "just" than the old fashioned winner take all allocation of electors, delegate, whatever, set up a system of proportional delegates in the various states. Of course, since this would almost guarantee a tie in tight races, they knew the race would sometimes be decided by horse trading among state delegates. As they could not stand the thought of elected delegates deciding the nomination, they set up the system of "superdelegates". Normally superdelegates would be irrelevant. If the state races produced a clear winner, the superdelegates would just rubber stamp that outcome. But, in close races, there were more than enough superdelegates to decide the race one way or another, preventing the nomination from going to a brokered decision.

In their minds it was better than the old fashioned Republican system of winner-takes-all races*.

And now we see the consequences of that decision. Both parties started the primaries with contentious races, and no clear front runner. Yet the Republicans have a nominee who is already well along in his presidential campaign while the Democrats are still trapped in a nasty battle for the nomination. It is not clear, but it is possible that the candidate with the most delegates and the candidate with the most delegates and the candidate with the largest popular vote may be different people, precisely the situation this system was intended to avoid.

Worse still for the Democrats, as it has become clear that the race is not going to be decided in the popular elections, the candidates have given up on trying to woo voters and are instead taking their case tot he superdelegates, trying to convince them they would be the best nominee. Unfortunately for the candidates, all these appeals to electability while ignoring the voters make each of them look less and less appealing to the voters, and make it ever less likely they will win in November.

And this system still is not avoiding the problem the Democrats hoped to eliminate with proportional representation and superdelegates. They had hoped proportional representation would make the system more "representative" and the superdelegates would eliminate any appearance of "back room deals", yet that is precisely what is happening. The Democrat voters do not feel better represented under the current system, instead they worry that the superdelegates will be selecting their nominee. The repeated threat of walkouts by supporters of the losing candidate show how little this system has done to increase voter confidence.

To be honest, I am a little disappointed in the Democratic primaries, as I am by everything about this election cycle. I would have preferred that both parties put up their best representative and the people decide between them. Instead we have a relatively weak Republican nominee being handed the White House by a combination of a defective nomination system and weak candidates. I am happy that neither Obama nor Clinton will be president, but I would have preferred an election that made clear that America has rejected the left, rather than one where the loss can be blamed on so many irrelevant details.

If one good thing comes of this election, it will be the death of the idea that the system of assigning presidential electors needs to be changed. In recent times I have heard again and again that all states should go to a proportional assignment of presidential electors. I have argued against this over and over, as I think it would be a recipe for chaos**. Hopefully after this election, the Democrats will see my reason for saying so.

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* The proportional primaries predate 2000, but the supposedly "stolen" race of 2000 definitely cemented Democrat opposition to "winner takes all" races, as in a proportional system Gore would have done much better.

** Actually, I would not mind returning to the original system of electors being chosen on their own merits, then casting their vote as they see fit, rather than having committed electors. But given today's two party system, it would amount to the same thing as committed electors, so it would not be a meaningful reform so long as we have a two party system.


Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/10.

NOTE: Actually, despite the potential chaos revealed in the 2008 primaries, it did not come to pass, and both parties began to shift even more strongly toward proportional primaries. I still favor winner takes all --if we have dedicated electors -- or, even better, electors who vote their consciences. However, I doubt the latter will come to pass any time soon, so for now I will fight for winner takes all systems.
 

How Did the Press Miss This?

I am a bit puzzled by the Maryland legislature.

During the entire Ehrlich administration, the Republican governor suggested placing slot machines at horse racing tracks. However, we heard from the legislature over and over that gambling was immoral and would never be allowed. This ignored the fact that our state sponsors two lotteries a day, as well as having state sanctioned Keno games at bars and convenience stores. Not to mention that the horse tracks where the slots would be located already had a bit of gambling. (What did they think all those windows and little slips of paper are for?)

Now, we have a Democrat governor who is pushing for slot machines, and has even mentioned legalizing other forms of gambling, and the legislature has decided that there is no ethical problem at all. Apparently they were in error when they opposed gambling before, and on well reasoned consideration decided that they should correct their earlier error.

Either that, or they were simply obstructing a Republican governor for no good reason.

Actually, this would not be the first time. Maryland has done a lot of creative legislation. During the reign of our former Democrat governor they "deregulated" electricity. Well, except that they gave a ten year subsidy to BGE that supplied power to all the Democrat rich central parts of the state, in exchange for BGE not raising rates. So, for ten years the center of the state paid below market prices, which also prevented any real competition, as the subsidized BGE rates meant it could undercut any potential competitor. Ten years later, prices reverted to market levels, a 72% jump, and who got the blame? The then current Republican governor and "deregulation", despite the fact that the whole problem was that there was NO real deregulation.

And when that Republican governor managed to make a deal with BGE to phase in the increases more slowly and creates some sort of financing scheme for consumers to defer the rate hikes, the legislature not only shot it down, but sued to have the governor's public service commission replaced with a commission of their choosing. Why? They claimed his deal was not good enough, but the one they forced on BGE seemed pretty much the same. It seems that their real goal in the whole affair was not so much to get a good deal, or even to  to wrest control of an executive committee from a detested Republican governor, but simply to try to embarrass the first Republican to hold statewide office in Maryland in two and a half decades.

And, saddest of all, the media reported all of this as if  the Democrats' claims were true. Not one of the local stations bothered to ask about the BGE subsidies, the fact that the law had been changed ten years before,  that the final agreement was not substantially different from the "unacceptable" one the governor made, nothing. They just rubber stamped the Democrat spin. Likewise, now they are not even mentioning that the legislature has completely reversed their position in four years. And it is not as if new blood has entered the legislature. Maryland seats are for life. These are the same people who swore Maryland would never have slots because gambling was unethical.

And yet people ask me how I can say the media is biased? I wonder how anyone can claim otherwise.


Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/09.


NOTE: In the interest of full disclosure, the governor -- a Democrat -- who set the deregulation fiasco into motion, and placed the time bomb for a future administration has a child who attends school with my son and I have spoken to him a number of times. His politics aside, he is actually a very nice person and a great parent. Since I have been very critical of his political actions despite a fondness for him, there is probably nothing to disclose, but I thought I should mention it.

Reforming Education

Since I wrote on eliminating public libraries, I suppose it is now time to write about education in general. I expect that I will get more disagreement on this than on anything else, as my ideas differ a great deal from the norm. Still, I have to say what I think is true, whether or not anyone agrees.

That public education is broken, no one can argue. We spend more on students in public schools than many private schools do, yet we get much worse results. Many public schools produce illiterate children, and event he best of public schools rarely do as well as private schools. Public schools are permeated with violence, with drugs, and all the other ills of society at large. And on top of all that, the public schools have become a battle ground of ideologies. Evolution versus Intelligent Design. Various views of sex education. Indoctrination on a number of topics. School prayer. All of these have become prizes in a continuing tug of war over who will control our public schools.

After saying that, most essays would launch into a list of all the causes. The teachers' unions, the excessive bureaucracy, the lack of ability to select students, the inability to expel troublesome student, the inability to fire bad teachers, lack of accountability, spending more time on social experiments than education, and on and on. They would then follow with a list of solutions. Vouchers, magnet schools, school choice, testing, accountability, and so on. But such lists are worthless. The real problem is not any of these things. They are only symptoms. The real answer is right before our eyes, but we have been looking in the wrong place.

The solution to failing public schools is to eliminate public education.

The reasons for this are very simple. Private schools have always out performed public schools. You can choose a private school which shares your values. You have a greater say in what a private school teaches. If you don't like your private school, you can go to another. All the ills of public schools are  solved quite simply by moving to an entirely private educational system.

Now, having said that, I will move to the much harder part of my argument, dismissing all of those arguments that will be raised against my plan.

First, the most obvious argument is that if we eliminate public schools, many students will receive no education. But that is simply absurd. Private education is not as expensive per student as public, so all those whoa re taxed to pay for public education would end up with enough money to educated their child with some left over.

But, then we are left with the poor. Which is the reason conservatives have traditional sponsored various "voucher" schemes. It is a backdoor way to move to all private schools while not seeming "insensitive". On the other hand, I am not a politician, so I can say it is not the government's job. If enough people want poor kids to go to school, then they can fund scholarships. Why do they need to be compelled by the state to do good? And if no one wants to fund scholarships, then why should the state be able to make them pay for scholarships they would not otherwise fund?

Of course, the truth of the matter is, even with our confiscatory taxation, many poor children get scholarships to Catholic and other schools, so without that taxation even more money would be available. I am sure many other scholarships would be available. In addition, with such a demand for private schools, price competition would force tuitions downward, making existing scholarships go farther. It is possible some might not get an education, but, then again, even though they are in school today, many still are not getting an education.

Another objection is that, without state oversight, schools would not teach children "properly".

This is just absurd. It assumes that there is "a proper education", which in itself is just wrong. There are many ways to educate children, and only a government bureaucrat would think there is one right way. Education is intended to prepare students for certain futures, but there is no one right future. If some parents think bible study is more important than calculus, who are we to tell them they are wrong? If ISKCON* wants to emphasize meditation and scriptures over other topics, that is their right. Likewise, if another parent wants to emphasize Spanish over English, that too is his right. It is the choice of the parents, not of the state, what their children should learn. So the fear over not "being taught right" is invalid, as it assumes there is a proper measure of education outside of the desires of the parents.

Then there is the fear that parents might not educate their children at all. But that is happening now, so I don't see how my change really makes this any worse. Yes, there are coercive truancy laws, but in many cities they are barely enforced. And, in all honesty, if parents do not care whether their kids attend school, even if those children are kept trapped in a classroom, I doubt they will learn much. If your home environment tells you education is useless, whether you are forced into school or not, you just won't learn. All the laws in the world will not change that.

I am sure there are other objections, but I will deal with those as they are raised in comments. For now let me close with a theoretical and a pragmatic argument.

Theoretically, as I will show in an essay I am finishing this weekend, the state simply has no place in education. The state exists to protect us from force, fraud and theft, and to provide civil courts to settle disputes. Education is a private enterprise, which is outside of the state's scope. Using the state to educate is simply an inefficient way to approach the problem.

Which leads to my pragmatic argument. The state is simply too inefficient. Because of the bureaucratic structure, required of non-profit organizations, the state piles huge layers of administration on top of everything. This leads to massive overhead, which private schools manage to avoid. It is why superior private education still costs much less per pupil than inferior public education.

In addition, by requiring that education be universal, we make sure that students with no interest in learning are still kept in class. Worse still, since they are "troubled" they end up stuck in class with others who simply have trouble learning, who are hurt most by their disruptions. If they could be expelled until they learned the value of education (if they ever do) and returned, other students would benefit. But public education makes that impossible. Private education does not.

Finally, and most importantly, private education removes all those nasty debates that arise over education. If you favor intelligent design, find a school teaching ID. If you want no sex education, find a school without it. But if you favor evolution and sex ed, you can find those too. Once we remove public education, there is no more reason to fight. Those with a set of beliefs they want taught can find a school teaching those beliefs, or even start their own. Without public money involved, the reason for fighting is over. As with all other matters where the state has involved itself in issues it should leave alone, it is only the intrusion of the state and public money which make public education such a contentious issue. Once we remove the state and its money from the equation, there is no reason to argue.

And as an added benefit, our children will be much better educated as well.

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* International Society for Krishna Consciousness aka the Hare Krishnas. In reality my description is a bit of an exaggeration. My wife attended an ISKCON school to observe for a college course, so they always come to mind as a good example of a non-traditional educational establishment.

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DISCLOSURE

I attended private school form first through tenth grades, and public school in kindergarten and for half of eleventh grade before I dropped out.  I am not wealthy, my parents worked a bit extra to afford my education.

My mother also currently teaches at a private school. She has taught at both private and public schools (mostly private in recent years) for over forty years.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/09.

The Right to Die

If any one topic in the law has been the subject of more confusion than the "right to die", I have yet to find it.

The traditional legal view of suicide was simple, if unrealistic. The law viewed life as an absolute good, so that anyone choosing to die was assumed incompetent. Thus, there was no circumstance under which one could choose to commit suicide. By choosing suicide, one was proving himself incompetent, and thus the choice was always invalid. And since one could not choose to commit suicide, then no one could assist a suicide either. It had the benefit of simplicity, but, especially to modern eyes, it seems to poorly fit observed reality.

And those modern eyes were largely responsible for the modern changes in the view of, if not always the laws concerning, suicide. To the modern mind a number of circumstances would render suicide a rational choice, and thus it is unsound to assume the decision to commit suicide is not a rational one. Likewise, since the modern view is that suicide is sometimes rational, in some places it would be permissible for someone to provide assistance to a person committing suicide.

I will admit to being modern enough that I can agree that there are circumstances in which I would consider suicide a rational choice. But that does not change my opinion that the modern trend in thinking has some serious implications, and some which are rather dangerous.

The first problem with the modern view of suicide is that it conflicts with some of the treasured beliefs of the modern therapeutic society*. It has become a central belief of modern mental health practices that those who are a danger to themselves can be coercively detained for treatment. However, if we recognize that suicide can be a valid choice in some circumstances, how do we draw the line between justifiable suicide and "danger to themselves"? Under the old definition this was easy, all who wanted to commit suicide were a danger to themselves, but if suicide is allowable, this is not so. If a man has cancer, is suicide justifiable? How about if it isn't terminal? Or what about a debilitating disease? How about one that just disfigures? Or only causes fatigue?

The problem is what constitutes a "life not worth living" is very subjective. One person may accept quadriplegia, another may not. And if we accept that, then what about paraplegia? How about pain in both legs? If we allow one and exclude another, where do we draw that line? What constitutes a situation where suicide is rational and what constitutes an irrational suicide? Most will agree that ALS probably justifies suicide and burnt toast at breakfast probably does not, but between those two, a lot of ground exists. And even then, not every person facing ALS chooses suicide. Lou Gehrig himself did not, nor did Steven Hawking, so even what seems intolerable to the public at large is not intolerable to everyone.

All of which makes it impossible to say, based on fixed criteria, when suicide is rational and when it is not.

And if the question of rationality makes a shambles of public mental health laws, adding the subject of assisted suicide makes an equal shambles of criminal law.

Advocates of assisted suicide often act as if  there could never be a legal problem. They seem to think that requiring some sort of proof is enough to avoid any accusations of murder. However, anyone who has been involved in a contested inheritance can tell these advocates that it is not that simple. Elderly people who are in the care of relatives can often be induced to sign documents or even say things against their own interest. It would not be that difficult for a caretaker who wishes to hurry his inheritance to persuade an elderly person to sign a fictitious "advance directive" before helping them depart this vale of tears.

Nor is that the only problem. Once we enter the realm of assisted suicide, we run into problems of second thoughts. A person committing suicide, who later changes their mind, can always stop their own actions. Ont he other hand, once they have enlisted a confederate, any second thoughts can be ignored. It is quite possible a statement signed two years ago no longer applies, but the person assisting will be unable to know that. And as many of those being assisted are no longer capable of making their will known, this sort of problem will arise. It may not be a common problem, but it does exist.

Having said all that, I have no easy answers. Given our current environment, these problems are inevitable unless we retain the traditional rules calling all suicide irrational. Any other position creates too many conflicts with mental health laws. But, if we do allow suicide, I still think the problems of disguised murders simply makes it unconscionable to allow assisted suicide**. Even if require a videotaped statement, it is still possible that someone was coerced, cajoled, or, in the case of the senile and demented, simply tricked into making such a statement. Whether or not we allow suicides, assisted suicide makes it too easy for the greedy caretaker to hasten the demise of a wealthy relative or a harried family member from relieving themselves of an unwelcome burden.

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* As I do not believe in involuntary commitment, I have no real objection to this particular problem raised by recognizing suicide. On the other hand, I am sure this is a major problem for many pushing the right to die, as they are also often the same individuals who advocate for more mental health assistance from the state.

** Ideally I would end the concept of involuntary commitment, actually end all legal concept of insanity. Those who are "insane" and commit crimes would go to jail, those who are just "insane" would be free to go about their business like anyone else. But as this will create too many comments on this topic and distract from my main subject, I am putting this in a footnote. Perhaps later I will write on the idea of removing the legal concept of insanity.

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UPDATED 05/25/2008

It appears this essay was a victim of my wireless keyboard. Sometimes my keyboard stops transmitting mid-sentence and I don't notice. The second paragraph appears to have had words dropped in at least two places. I have corrected those omissions, but I am afraid that those who read this in the past may have been slightly confused by sentences which ended apparently in mid-thought. Sorry for any confusion this caused.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/05/09.

NOTE: In retrospect, the fact that this results in a "both sides have a point" result should have told me I was asking the wrong question, as I pointed out in so many previous essays. (eg "My Answer to Bozell and the ALA", written immediately before this essay, on the very same day.) That I did not notice means I failed to take a step back and ask what the proper question was, where I had made a wrong turn. As such, this question remains unresolved and will require a future essay to clarify.