Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Evil of "Junk Food" Taxes

I was reading an article tonight about the Navajo imposing America's first "junk food tax" upon themselves. According to the article, this tax will add 2% to the cost of food "with minimal-to-no-nutritional value", which it makes clear is intended to try to reduce consumption. Similar efforts have so far failed elsewhere, though at times, some areas have banned soda and sweetened juice machines from schools and other locales, and in a few cities, container taxes have been used to covertly achieve similar ends (as well as impose a stealth tax on alcohol).

Of course this is always treated by the press as a good thing, a high minded measure, along with actions such as smoking bans and cigarette taxes, intended to make us all healthier and happier and so on. And many readers no doubt will ask "why object? If they want to stop selling such foods, why do you care?" And we have been so brainwashed by the press perspective, I bet many probably cannot even see the insanity in such a position.

Think of it this way: If you want to stop eating chips and fried foods, what do you do? Simple, you stop eating them. You don't go to the trouble of drafting legislation and forcing it through local government. There is no need. It is the same for smoking. If you want to quit smoking, you quit. Or maybe you get nicotine gum, or some other aid. You don't pass legislation.

Legislation has nothing to do with voluntary measures or efforts to help themselves. A law is all about forcing people, all about those who DON'T WANT to do what you think is best. In other words, the ban is not about people who want to stop eating such things making themselves do so, it is about people who want to stop eating such things forcing everyone else to do the same, whether they want to or not. It is all about one of two things. Either it is about those who resent having to give up something making sure no one else can enjoy it either, or it is about people who think they know best forcing what they think is good on those too foolish, ignorant or unenlightened to see how smart and correct they are.

I find both horrible reasons for passing laws. Laws, as I have made clear, should be about protecting rights, not forcing people to do what you think is right, or protecting them from "making bad decisions", which are always "bad" only when defined by your perspective, not theirs.

Our nation was established on the rights of man, to protect everyone's rights to life, liberty and property. It was not established as a giant day care or asylum where the enlightened few get to tell the rest of us how we should live. And that is why I find laws such as this so disturbing.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Oh So Useful Middle Class

To mangle a quote from Voltaire, if the middle class did not exist, politicians would need to invent them. The middle class is the Swiss Army knife of the political campaign, the tool good for every purpose1. Either party, any ideology, any issue, the middle class provide a sure and easy position for a politician to adopt. You don't really want to cut taxes, but don't want your opponent to win points with his across the boards tax cuts? Say you will cut "middle class" taxes, implying he wants to give money to the rich (if you liberal) or throw it to the poor (if conservative). And when the time comes, should you win, you can fulfill the promise without doing much of anything. After all, no one knows who the middle class are2. You can write in a tax break for those earning $22K to $22.2 K and claim you did what you promised. As I said, the perfect solution for every political problem.

As I have written before3, I have a problem with any political position predicated upon the idea the government has a special interest in any class or category, be it "the poor", "the workers", "the middle class", or even non-financial categories, such as "farmers"4, or "small business"5. The purpose of a proper, free, representative government, predicated upon the protection of rights, is -- quite simply -- to treat each individual as equal. To allow the state to take cognizance of wealth or profession or earnings or employment status or race or sex or anything else6, is to create a state where individuals are not equal, which means that the idea of a minimal government protecting rights is undermined.

Now, some will say that everyone is still equal, those who favor helping the middle class just want to give them some assistance, a helping hand, a leg up, whatever. But that, no matter how it is phrased, is the problem with contemporary government. Aid to one group is identical with disadvantage to another. If you give the middle class a tax break, it means everyone else pays more than they do. If you give a few bonus points in the name of affirmative action, you penalize everyone else. And if you give one company exemption from this regulation or that, you effectively impose special requirements on all other firms7. In other words, granting a favor is to impose a penalty on everyone else8.

But that is an issue I have brought up several times, so let us leave it alone for now. Instead, let us look at the "middle class" itself, and see how problematic it is aside from questions of the proper role of government.

The first, and most obvious issue, is that most people seem to think they are middle class. With the exception of the poorest individuals, a handful of the extremely rich, and a smattering of workers whose political orientation makes them insist on seeing themselves as "working class", almost everyone you will ever meet in the US will see him or her self as middle class. It is an incredibly broad category, at least in terms of those who identify themselves as members.

Unfortunately, politicians don't accept self-identification for membership in the middle class. For them, "middle class" is a certain, often relatively narrow, segment of the population. As my opening example shows, it is a segment which is terribly ill-defined, and which can be redefined as suits the current debate9, but even the most generous definitions never go so far as to include even 50% of the public. And yet, from fast food cashiers to multi-million dollar liability lawyers, well over 75% of the US considers itself a member of this group.

Which is why it is so useful to politicians.

As I described in "Those Other People" (and also "In a Nutshell"), politicians often sell restrictive, even insulting10, legislation by telling voters they are clearly competent enough to not need such laws, but some ill defined "masses" out there are not, and need the law to tell them what to do. And so we have the pathetic phenomenon of a vast majority of people feeling, for example, they could manage their own retirement11, or handle a fire arm responsibly12, but accepting tremendous regulations because "the majority" could not13.

The middle class works in much the same way, with huge numbers imaging they will reap every benefit promised to the middle class, and avoid all the hardships piled upon "the rich", while in truth, the benefits, if any ever exist, fall upon a very small subset of those imagining themselves to be middle class. And yet, despite failing to receive any benefit time after time, the majority of voters continue to imagine they are the middle class about which the politicians are speaking.

But that is not the only purpose the middle class serves, though it is the most obvious. The middle class also serves a psychological function. Promising to do something for "the middle class" is the ultimate safe move. It is even better than promising to aid "the working poor". It is safer than aiding "children in need" or "who go to bed hungry". It is even safer than promising to soak the rich or tax "unearned income"14. In the minds of voters, the middle class is the ultimate virtuous group, hardworking, ethical, believing all the right things, doing all the right things, they are exactly what the voter wants America to be. And why not? As the voter imagines himself to be the ultimate example of the middle class, it is obvious that the middle class must be --for lack of a better description -- pretty much just like him. And thus any promise made to aid the middle class will be seen as a perfectly justified action

All of which serves to explain my opening statement. The middle class is not just "the backbone of our nation", "the source of jobs"15 and "our future", as ever so many politicians have told us repeatedly, they are the ultimate rhetorical device for politicians. And thus, had history not accidentally created such a useful description, politicians would inevitably have been forced to create one.

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1. The second best is probably "the working class", who are also adored by right and left -- though the right sometimes worries about your ideological leanings if you mention them too often, or over emphasize the "class" aspect -- and third is probably "the working poor", more popular with left than right, but that "working" makes them at least modestly acceptable to both.

2. A similar useful tool is "the rich", though mostly used by the left, and the more populist candidates on the nominal right. (See "Beware Populist Deception", "Protectionism Right and Left", "Fear of Trade", "Sleight of Hand", "Government by Emotion", "Consumer Protection", "A New Look at Intervention" and "Fear of the 'Big'".). No one worries over-much about taxes on "the rich", as they are sure that they are safely "middle class", and so these sort of campaign promises fly over the heads of most voters until they discover "the rich" means everyone earning over $30K a year. (Well, to be fair, the most audacious redefining of "rich" I can recall succeeding was when Clinton defined it down to around $50K a year, which is still a pretty broad definition of "rich".)

3. See "What About Everyone Else?" For a discussion of the tactic I describe, redefining "middle class" and "working families", see "More Influential Than I Thought?" and "So, What is "Change"?" And to see an earlier mention of the nebulous nature of "the middle class", see "Stupid Quote of the Day (March 10, 2015)".

4. See "Bad Economics Part 19", "The World's Oldest Myth", "The Inevitable Corruption of Protectionism", "Government Cheese", "The Frontier, Green Spaces and Famine" and "The Consumption Curve".

5. See "Bad Economics Part 19", "Small Business Fetish", "When Help Hurts", "The Little Guy Can't Compete", "Fear of the "Big"", "Stupid Quotes of the Day (January 17, 2012)" and "Stupid Quote of the Day (March 8, 2015)".

6. Obviously, in a few specific cases, some of these factors need to be considered. Laws can, in specific cases where relevant, consider sex, familial ties or age, but these are unusual cases, and mostly relate to matters where sex makes a difference in terms of physical capabilities (eg. men cannot become pregnant or bear children), or competence (the question of juvenile competency for consent, contract and culpability, and parent liability for juveniles).

7. Obviously, in an ideal minimal state, many of these would not be an issue (see "Minimal Reforms", "The Case for Small Government", "The Problem of Established Perspectives", "The Basics", "Denying Reality", "The Free Market Solution", "The Cost of Big Government", "In Praise of Contracts" and "There Are Other Solutions"), as taxes would be either flat or handled through some voluntary scheme (see "Two Thoughts on Taxation", "Truths About Taxation" and "The Foolishness of Corporate Taxes"), regulations would be minimal or nonexistent, and education would be private and preferences based on race or other factors an issue for the trustees and not the state. But until we reach such an ideal, to move toward a more perfect state, we should strive to be as blind to any individual differences as possible, unless absolutely essential to the protection for rights.

8. I should discuss this again in the future, as it is also a significant point in terms of subsidies and patronage for arts and business. (See "Patronage", "Patronage Versus Choice", "The Other 99%", "Zero Sum Games" and "Canada, Subsidies, The Free Market and Intractible Reality".) Once you begin to give subsidies to one group, it acts as a penalty to others, who have to provide full funding on their own, while the patronage recipients start out with full or partial funds given to them. So, though described as helping artists, or small business, or what have you, in truth these are impediments to the many others who have to compete against those who are given these subsidies, and thus start at a disadvantage. (To see a simple example, imagine the painter who has to work full time versus the one who is government subsidized and can spend all his time painting, shmoozing gallery owners and and setting up exhibitions. Is it not clear that the "aid" to one is also a detriment to the other, who has to compete for attention with a rival who can spend all his time promoting himself?) For a discussion of possible consequences of such actions see "The War of All Against All", "Government Funding and the Creation of Strife", "Missionary Zeal and Human Discord", "How the Government Corrupts Relationships", "Hard Cases Make Bad Law", "The Consequences of Bad Laws", "Why Freedom Is Essential" and "The Road to Violence".

9. Middle class can be redefined not only to allow broad promises to be applied to narrow groups, it is also useful for manipulating statistics. "Middle class" can be redefined to easily show that any given measure had a benefit which largely accrued to the "middle class".

10. I suppose it is a matter of perspective, but personally I find it insulting to be told I am not competent to plan my own retirement, decide what is a suitable wage or working conditions, and so on. Nor is it simply a matter of economic control, laws control our social and personal decisions almost as closely, the liberal association with "free speech" from the 1960s through 1980s having since died off in the age of political correctness and trigger warnings, leaving no one to limit the expansion of government interference with every aspect of life. (To be clear, even in the period from about 1964 to 1988 or so, the idea that liberals protected social freedoms and conservative economic ones was not accurate, but it did hold a grain of truth. Today, liberals do not even have that much respect for social freedoms, and, sadly, many conservatives have given up on economic freedom as well. -- See "Economic Versus Social" and "The Political Spectrum".)

11. See "Social Security is not Insurance", "Selling Yourself Cheap" and "Not Quite True".

12. See "Arrogance and Gun Control" and "The Weakest Gun Control Argument".

13. An interesting parallel is found in those surveys which ask how individuals think the nation's economy is doing, and how their own finances are. Inevitably, they are largely happy with their own lot, but think the nation as a whole is in horrible shape. Obviously, both the belief in an economic crisis whose evidence they do not see around them, and a belief in general incompetence, they see in neither themselves or their acquaintances, have their origins in mass media, as well as specific political ideologies, but that is a topic for other essays. (Though a broad overview of my thoughts can be found in my, as yet incomplete, "Liberalism, Its Origins and Consequences". Other example can be found in "Big Government, Arrogance and Part-Time Psychopathy", "For Your Own Good -- The Problem with Subjective Rights" and "Intellect and Politics", among other essays.)

14. See "The 'Lucky' Rich", "Those Greedy Bankers", "Greed and the Price of Oil", "Evil and Greed", "Government by Emotion", "Weasel Words and Hollow Words",  "Selfishness as Reason - "Wants", "Needs", "Fairness" and Other Guises for Arbitrary Decisions", "Misleading Terminology", "Greed Versus Evil", "Brief Discussion of Envy", "Envy and Analogy", "Envy Kills", "Envy Kills II" and "Stupid Quotes of the Day (January 2, 2012)".

15. I would argue that the "idle rich" and "unproductive heirs and heiresses" fit the description better. (See "The Benefits of Inequalities of Wealth" and "The Irrationality of Government Redistribution".) Nor would I agree with the description about job creation, as it shares some of the same problems as similar descriptions of small businesses. (See "Stupid Quote of the Day (March 8, 2015)") Then again, it is difficult to precisely locate what segment of our society fits any such broad descriptions, nor is it really meaningful anyway. But since politicians seem inclined to make such statements, I can't help myself and, from time to time, must knock them down.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Back Again

Normally, when I am going away, I put up a message saying I am going to be away. For some reason, last week I forgot to do so.  I took my son away for a few days last Saturday (after his Christmas piano recital) and just got home today. So, if you noticed a remarkable lack of comments and posts, that is the reason. I hope to post something new tomorrow, but for now just want to say I am back, and sorry for the unannounced hiatus.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Thought for the Day

I know this will upset a LOT of Republicans, but I have to say it: Donald Trump is our Howard Dean. That is, he is the guy who generates a lot of enthusiasm among a fairly large group, whose appeal is an absolute mystery to those outside that group, and whose followers will be quietly disavowing for years to come as soon as the enthusiasm wears off. Or, to put it in another way, he is the guys whose bumper sticker followers are now so proud to display, and which they will hide in embarrassment for years to come.

POSTSCRIPT

I was thinking of comparing Trump to other populist candidates. Say, Huey Long, William Jennings Bryant, or Father Coughlin, but it really doesn't fit. Yes, he has a populist base, and often tries to sound like a man of the people, populist type, but he really just doesn't quite fit. Despite all the media mockery, and liberal shock at his beliefs they find outrageous, he really is not your typical populist. The one's I listed had real issues to which they were dedicated. For better or worse (and most of those I listed fall far into the "worse" category), they were candidates with real issues. Trump is more a weathervane of moderate populist, semi-conservative opinion. In that regard, he is more like Ross Perot, or even more like Bill Clinton, than any of those I listed above. Which is why, in the end, I decided he was, in the final analysis, a mirror image of Howard Dean, and, having given it some thought, unless he somehow hands on and wins the nomination -- creating the potential for a monumental embarrassment for the Republicans -- he will probably end up just like Dean. The only difference being Dean had only one embarrassing moment everyone recalls, while Trump will doubtless stick around to give us several.

Definition of the Day

Liberalism: The belief that those who have built up businesses from nothing, creating jobs and wealth are not competent to manage their own affairs, that workers are unable to figure out their own interests, and that the average man in the street cannot know what he "really" wants or needs -- in short, that you cannot possibly run your own life in a competent manner -- unless you are a college educated upper middle class Northeasterner (or movie star or musician), who has never worked outside of government or academia, in which case you are competent to run absolutely everything.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Things To Come

I am off tomorrow morning for a 6 day conference in Los Angeles, so probably will not be writing again until I return.  (Not sure who I am telling as what readers I have, if any, are terribly quiet about it, so I probably lack any regular readers at present.) Anyway, should some silent lurker exist and care about such things, I do have about 5 or 6 unfinished essays I want to finish when I return.

Of course, since I am mostly writing in the hope of some future reader stumbling upon this, and reading back through my old essays, as I have done on many newly discovered sites I enjoyed, I suppose I should include something substantive for those imaginary future fans who don't care about my travel plans.

So, for you, I will leave this brief thought I posted elsewhere recently:

People love to rebut criticism of their favorite film, book, political theory, cult, what have you, by saying others "just don't get it", implying the critics are just not bright enough to see the merit. But, perhaps the fact that so many people "don't get it" should tell them something. In other words, yes, sometimes something profound may be confusing, but it does not follow that everything confusing is profound. The complexity of General Relativity, and of your average 9/11 Truther's conspiracy theory may be equal, but that does not mean they have equal merit.

I don't know if that is enough to make this post count as substantive, but it is the best I can do on short notice.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

What About Everyone Else?

NOTE: I noticed this article was cited in a note in my essay "Government by Emotion", and oddly enough, though one of my favorites, on a topic which is also a favorite (though oddly one I address all too infrequently), I never copied it o my new blog. And so, in hopes of inspiring myself to spend a little more time arguing against both parties' silly "pro-middle class" rhetoric (a favorite at election time), I am reproducing this post from September of 2008.

I saw a clip from Obama's new advertisement "Zero" and I have to ask, since when did we decree that the government was in power solely to benefit the middle class? I thought the government was supposed to represent all of the American people, rich, poor and middle class, not just the middle class.

Of course, this ad is just a smoke screen. Obama knows the Democrats have a reputation as the party of the poor and special interests, so he is trying to pretend he is the champion of the middle class. And that is a safe term, as everyone imagines they are "middle class". It means he can say anything and people will think it applies to them. Just as when Clinton said he would tax only "the rich", people thought that excluded them, until they found out "the rich" was everyone earning over $50,000 per year. Likewise, people are going to find out Obama's "middle class" is a pretty narrow group. Just like the "working families" who will see his tax breaks.

And that is the problem when we ask government favor one group. We think we will get the long end of the stick, but we don't know. We want to "soak the rich", but suddenly find out "the rich" is us, at least form the perspective of those below us. But that is the danger of giving in to class envy, unless you are at the absolute bottom, there is always someone who envies you and may offer a few more votes to the politicians than you can.

And honestly, why should we want a government to favor "the middle class" any more than it should favor "the poor" or "the rich"? The government should be blind, and treat all citizens exactly the same. That is the only equitable solution. I know right now there is a lot of populist rhetoric out there about government favoring the rich and about fat cat CEOs and all that usual garbage that its tossed around whenever someone thinks it might buy them some votes. But the solution is not to "soak the rich", but to stop stupidities such as this bailout.

The answer is not to balance out special favors to the rich with special favors to the poor and the middle class. The solution is to end all those special favors. We will never balance out favors, we will just have endless pressure group warfare. The answer is to create a state which is blind to class, to wealth, to all of that. A government which has no favors to hand out, so there is no fight about which group gets them. 

Once we reduce our government to a minimal night watchman, which stops crimes, defends the borders and settles civil suits, there are no longer favors, there are no longer benefits, and no one will care whether the government favors one group, as its favor will mean nothing. And that is the solution, not making the government favor this group or that, but to make the favor of government so worthless that no one cares who has it.

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2008/09/29.

NOTE: In reproducing this, I did clean up a few typos.

NOTE: To be fair to myself, I did discuss some similar topics, though not specifically in terms of the middle class, rather in terms of conflicting systems of patronage, in "The Other 99%", "Patronage", "Patronage and Choice", "The Road to Violence" and "The War of All Against All", specifically addressing the idea of our assumptions versus those of the politicans making promises in "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", so I did not completely ignore this topic. But it does need to be mentioned a bit more, especially in election years.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A Question of Fairness

NOTE: I was fixing some links in "Children's Programming and Left Wing Thought", which (because I copied them from earlier essays) still pointed to my old blog. In the process, I discovered this essay, which I know I have cited a number of times, had not yet been copied to this blog. So I am posting it now to allow me to go back and fix those old links. (It is not actually the essay itself that maters so much, but rather the single end note, which is my first mention of the lack of meaning for the word "fair", the initial instance of a thought which would develop later into many essays such as "Weasel Words and Hollow Words".)

I am not normally one to decry unfairness, as I believe life is inherently unfair and you have to deal with what comes your way, fair or not. As I said in "Life Is Not Fair - And Trying To Make It So Makes Things Worse" and " Fairness and the Free Market", fairness is not a valid consideration when speaking of the economy*, or of life in general. Things just are, to claim reality is "unfair" is to show a profound lack of understanding of reality.

On the other hand, when it comes to volitional human actions, especially in arbitrary choices, that is those where they can choose any course at all, it is valid to speak of fairness. Of course it is still rather pointless to complain of unfairness, as capricious human acts are common, but at least it makes sense to accuse those people of being unfair, if only to point out that perhaps they should not be entrusted with power over their fellows.

And I think there is a bit of a double standard on the part of some of the press and members of the political left. After all, these people were ready to investigate Cheney for ties to Haliburton, accusing him of being involved in criminal acts simply because he was once employed by Haliburton and, in their minds, Haliburton profited form the war.

Well, by the same standards, isn't Obama a valid target for investigation? He once worked for ACORN and then ACORN profited through his election. In fact, he was elected in part because of the actions of ACORN, which he then rewarded with large sum of money, despite charges of their participation in election fraud. Not only did he give them money, but they were also never investigated, as an organization, concerning their role in election fraud. Charges which their recent illegal activities make more plausible.

Now, before anyone gets upset, let me say I don't think Obama knowingly involved himself in election fraud. I suppose he may have known from his community organizer days that ACORN was pretty much straddling the line of legality, and often coming down on the wrong side, but even given that it would be hard to prove he did anything wrong. No, my point is the opposite. On the basis of very thin evidence, many on the left were ready to hang Cheney, or even Bush, and some in the press even granted them credence, or at least treated their accusations as having some plausibility. However, with much stronger evidence of ties to wrongdoing, the same people are going out of their way to state that Obama has done nothing wrong.

Just something to keep in mind whenever someone says you are crazy to think there is a press bias. Also, maybe something for those on the left to consider before they dive headlong into the next conspiracy theory.

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* I include the economy because, though driven by human choices, the market as a whole is largely impersonal. So it is hard to say that the totality of choices made by all our fellows are somehow "unfair". They may not produce the outcome we want, but that does not make it somehow unjust. Then again, the word "fair" has so many meanings in conversation it is almost worthless, as it can mean almost anything. Like "justice" it is a protean word that can be used in deceptive argument, meaning one thing to one audience and something else to another.

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POSTSCRIPT
For those who have not read my blog before, I am no fan of the theory of "unbiased reporting". I think it is an historical anomaly, and one that has proved itself impossible to maintain in practice. It would be much better for us to admit bias and create a number of competing biased outlets, allowing the public to know the bias at the outset and then use that knowledge to evaluate the news reported. It has to be better than our current "smuggled bias" reporting. (See  "The Death of Impartial Media",  "The Impossibility of Unbiased Reporting",  "The Press Versus The Nation", "Some Thoughts on the Media")

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2009/09/17.