Some Links

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Nick Turse has done some great research on the extent the US military is involved in Africa’s affairs. Apparently no single person in the US Army knows the extent of SOCOM’s operations in Africa.

Glenn Greenwald calls out most of the mainstream media’s unabashed support of Hillary Clinton and shaming anyone who questions her. (He belittles Paul Krugman’s self-perception as someone who is so brave for supporting her).

David Edwards, a math professor, writes a thought-provoking article at FEE, claiming that an 8th grade level of mathematical understanding with knowledge of Excel is adequate for the vast majority of professionals. So why is there so much emphasis placed on higher-level math?

The New Republic’s Case for Orwellian Newspeak

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Elizabeth Bruenig, writing for The New Republic, argues that we all should stop using the word “taxpayer.” Unfortunately, it is difficult to extract a coherent argument anywhere in her article.
She begins by criticizing House Republicans’ budget for FY 2016, stating that it is
…an ideological document meant to advance a particular set of beliefs about how government should function, and toward what end.
This is a strange observation in that it is impossible for a government budget to be value-free. Even if it contained no narrative and only consisted of spreadsheets and figures, it still assumes a proper role of government. Particularly nefarious to Mrs. Bruenig, however, is that it uses the word “taxpayer” or a permutation of this term “24 times, as often as the word ‘people’.”
While “people” designates the broadest possible public as the subject of a political project, “taxpayer” advances a considerably narrower vision—and that’s why we should eliminate it from political rhetoric and punditry.
It’s hard to see how she reaches this conclusion, even when considering the full context of her article. As far as I can tell, she dislikes the fact that the narrower category of “taxpayer” implies that there is a productive class and a parasitic class. Acknowledging reality seems to be problematic, for some reason.
Her primary contention appears to be that taxpayers have no right whatsoever to decide how or on what that money should be spent. She scoffs at the idea that government “expenditures that do not correspond to an individual’s will are some kind of affront,” and argues that,
If money owed in taxes is imagined…to belong to the taxpayer, then programs operating off of public revenue do seem to have some obligation to correspond to their funders’ consent, and serving the interests of others does seem unfair. But these are all obfuscations brought on by the term.
Why? Because taxes are spent on “the public good,” that’s why. In what can only be called hypocrisy or arrogance on the part of Mrs. Bruenig, she, while decrying several types of spending cuts in the House Republican budget, also criticizes their “disturbing gestures toward more military spending.” While she is right to call such gestures disturbing, on what basis is she able to make any statement on the propriety of public spending, if taxpayers themselves, the ones being fleeced to pay for all these wonderful programs, have no right? She continues:
The same laws that determine that money deposited into a person’s bank account belongs to that person also determine that taxes owed on that deposit do not.
In what sense are they “the same laws”? Because they come from the same infallible government? If that’s the case, couldn’t we also say, “The same laws that determine that murder is unlawful also determine that someone who sells marijuana twice should go to prison for more than twice as long as someone who hijacks an airplane?  I really don’t know what point she’s trying to make with this statement.
Public revenue is just that: a pool of public money to be used for the good of the public, not 300 million pools of private money each to be used to serve private individuals’ interests. What is in the interest of the public may involve expenditures that can’t be filed in a pay-in-cash-out formula, as the “taxpayer” terminology would suggest. Kids, for example, usually don’t pay taxes whatsoever, but spending on children is a necessary social function. Our roads and public utilities, too, are available to anyone inside our borders, not because they have been purchased, but because strong infrastructure provides for the common good.
In other words, we can’t do a perfect accounting of benefits received from tax expenditures, therefore “taxpayer” as a category doesn’t exist. Just because you can’t easily determine the distribution of the benefits, how does that imply that we can’t tell who the taxpayers are? She then mixes in a public goods “argument” (which is very difficult to call an argument, since calling something a “necessary social function” or “providing for the common good” does not readily imply that the state should be in full control of serving these functions, the will of the taxpayer be damned). She feels no need to justify the idea that the state shall be able to take whatever resources it wishes from you for whatever purposes it (or Mrs. Bruenig) deems fit, and imprison (or kill) you should you wish to say, “No, I’d rather not.”
But this view [that taxpayers should have some say in where their money goes] is precisely contrary to the democratic vision invoked in historical verbiage like “consent of the governed,” as it mistakes the source of a person’s rights. Our share in democracy arises not from what we can pay into it, but from the fact that we are persons and personhood confers certain obligations and dues.
Here we see Mrs. Bruenig’s Orwellian tendencies come to full fruition. In her mind, “consent of the governed” has nothing to do with what the governed consent to, and prefers not to tell us where a person’s rights come from. (Indeed, it’s not even clear what she considers to be the mistaken view of the source of a person’s rights.) Instead, she asserts the “personhood confers certain obligations and dues.” But what obligations and dues? And why does “personhood” confer them? This is left unanswered.
Mrs. Bruenig says that the slogan “power to the taxpayers!” just doesn’t have the same ring to it as “power to the people!” (though a more accurate slogan for her own view may as well be “power to the state!”) and that US Constitution doesn’t begin “We the taxpayers” because it “would have been an odd construction for a nation born from a revolt against British taxation.” I imagine that if Mrs. Bruenig had been alive during the American secession from Great Britain, by what she has written, she would have been staunchly in favor of British taxation and against the American colonists, saying, “What? You think you have a grievance in being forced to pay for your own oppression? Shut up and pay your taxes!”
Finally, she writes “So let’s leave ‘taxpayer’ to the IRS and remove it from everyday speech. With every thoughtless repetition of the word, we’re carrying political water.” Does she believe that eliminating the word to describe the people that are robbed by the IRS carries no “political water”? This is truly one of the most incoherent things I have ever read.

Just So We’re Clear…

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…Senate Democrats explicitly want expanded power to disarm law-abiding people. Lots of them. And it’s not hard to see how such power could be used to disarm political dissidents. We are no longer in the territory of “slippery slope” arguments.

What else can we infer from these politicians’ claims that if whatever gun confiscation measure they are currently trying to pass were in effect the Orlando shooting would have been prevented when the FBI had already interviewed the shooter twice and deemed him not to be a threat? Despite my skepticism of the FBI’s ability to perform law enforcement competently, I believe that they are right the vast majority of the time when they consider a suspect not to be a threat. After all, they have to fabricate terrorist plots in order to entrap terror suspects. So how could this legislation proposed by these senators have prevented the Orlando shooter from obtaining a gun (setting aside the issue of the efficacy of legal prohibitions in actually eradicating the availability of the prohibited item)?

The only answer is that it would have to cast a wide net that automatically excludes law-abiding people from owning a gun without any due process, necessarily including a huge number of false positives. How else could such legislation have excluded the Orlando shooter? They would have to define risk factors and make an algorithm to decide who loses their right to carry a firearm that would override decision-making by human beings in the FBI, as this case makes clear.

Furthermore, it does not take much imagination to see how such power could be used to punish/disarm political opponents and dissidents. By designating a “terrorist watch list” and making it so that those on this list are legally unable to own a gun, the federal government can disarm anyone it chooses. Do a web search of the words “Bundy” and “terrorist” and notice how many news outlets accused Cliven Bundy of being a terrorist and that, perhaps more importantly, Senator Harry Reid accused Bundy’s supporters of being terrorists. This stretches the definition of “terrorism” so far as to mean whatever the federal government wants it to mean – that is, anyone showing resistance to the will of the federal government.

Thus, I think it’s unreasonable to discount the fears of those concerned about how far the federal government will reach into people’s gun safes under the ostensible justification of public safety. Ultimately, the politicians have little to lose in terms of their own safety if they are wrong about the effects of civilian disarmament on violence – they are extremely privileged and have armed agents of the state at their beck and call regardless. And, more crucially, the effect of such expanded powers for the federal government is to take away individuals’ ability to protect themselves from the state, as demonstrated in the Bundy case.

A Good Example of the Economic Way of Thinking

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Requiring cars to include more safety features will make people more safe by reducing traffic fatalities, right? Not necessarily. This blog post by Alex Tabarrok explains why not.

Bottom line: there is a trade-off between extra safety features and affordability. At certain levels of income, people will choose more of the latter before they choose more of the former. Taking away the ability to choose the latter may make these individuals choose no car at all and decide to use much more dangerous, but relatively affordable, motorcycles. Thus, regulations that make cars more expensive by requiring people to pay for safety features they would not buy if they were free to choose can make them less safe.

I’m Disappointed with Scientific American

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In the December 2015 issue of Scientific American, Naomi Oreskes writes,

For the past 30 years the ideology of the unfettered marketplace has so dominated our discourse that most of use can scarcely imagine an alternative way of organizing our affairs. Individuals who try are dismissed as unrealistic, romantic, polemical or (in America) communists.

Like many others, she cites the 2008 financial crisis as the result of “deregulated capitalism” and the blames the Great Depression on “market failure.” She goes on to cite other favorite complaints of those with an anti-market ideology, such as inequality or the environment.

It seems that no matter how much the government will intervene into the economy, the “unfettered,” “deregulated” market will always be the alleged culprit. Indeed, Ms. Oreskes acknowledges the “spectacular government intervention” apparatus that was created after the Great Depression. How can she believe that with the modern regulatory state that creates thousands of new regulations every year that the US economy can accurately be described as laissez-faire? I can see one making an argument that perhaps the currently existing regulatory scheme for various sectors of the economy do not have the optimal rules or that certain regulatory agencies are under-powered. But at what point will the US economy have to be regulated in order for people like Ms. Oreskes to classify them as non-free market?

Furthermore, what I find particularly ironic about Ms. Oreskes’ article (which is called “How to Break the Climate Deadlock” but reads more like an anti-market diatribe) is that she does nothing to reassure those who question the efficacy of government efforts to abate the effects of climate change that their concern is unwarranted. Near the beginning of her essay, she makes a reference to those who suspect that empowering supranational governments to implement grand plans to combat climate change might significantly impact their freedom.However, instead of addressing their concerns (which I think would be more in line with breaking “the climate deadlock”), she seems to confirm them. Instead of explaining how people’s lives wouldn’t need be dramatically changed or how the power of the state wouldn’t need to be greatly expanded, she writes of how we “can scarcely imagine an alternative way of organizing our affairs.” She throws in the red herring of how the absence of state authority “opens the door to tyranny and tragedy.” The title of her article led me to believe that she was going to attempt to bridge the gap and try to foster a legitimate dialogue with those with differing opinions than her own. Her essay did not seem like one written by a level-headed scientist trying to find areas of agreement about climate policy, but an ideologue that should be relegated to the opinion section.

 

Ford paid his workers the equivalent of $15 an hour in 1914. Should that be the minimum wage?

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The following is a comment I wrote on a post published by The Intercept about raising the minimum wage in New York, which argued that since Ford paid his workers the inflation adjusted equivalent of $15 per hour in 1914, a $15 minimum wage would be appropriate today.

I appreciate Mr. Schwarz’s concern for low-skilled workers. We all want everyone to be able to afford a decent living. However, in economics, it is important to separately consider positive and normative questions (though, of course, the former can inform the latter). So part of the positive question in this instance is, what factors determine prices? As Mr. Schwarz alludes to (though expressing contempt for such an idea), and what most economists would say is, price is a function of supply and demand. Employers provide the demand for labor. However, if the price of labor is higher than the marginal productivity of that labor engaged in a certain purpose, employers will generally not hire labor for that purpose because it will result in a loss. Thus, any jobs at which people are employed in which they create less than $15 per hour in productivity will not be profitable with a $15 per hour minimum wage. Perhaps one could make an argument that employers have a certain level of bargaining power (for reasons such as occupational licensure, costs of starting a business, etc.) such that they are able to pay employees less than their marginal productivity, but regardless of this, employers will not pay their employees above their marginal productivity without incurring losses.

Thus, there are some limitations in Mr. Schwarz’s analysis. One is that he has not established that the marginal productivity of Ford employees in 1914 is directly comparable to the marginal productivity of all workers currently making less than $15 per hour. If the marginal productivity of Ford workers then was higher than the marginal productivity of low-skilled workers today, then we are comparing apples to oranges. For similar reasons, there are limitations in comparing a 1914 Model T to a 2015 Ford Fiesta, which are obviously quite different products in terms of technology, comfort, performance, etc. Although value is subjective, there is a good case to be made that, other than for collector purposes, the latter car is much more valuable than the first in terms of actual function (in other words, if Ford made the Model T today with the same physical properties that it had in 1914, it would likely fetch a much lower price than the Fiesta. Therefore, in terms of actual purchasing power, being able to buy a Ford Fiesta is evidence of much greater purchasing power).

The fact that GDP per capita is several times higher now than in 1914 does not mean that a $15 minimum wage will increase the incomes of those with a marginal productivity below $15 an hour, for the reasons mentioned above. No matter how rich an employer is, they will not willingly pay a wage that is greater than a worker’s marginal productivity because they will incur a loss by hiring that worker. The empirical question is whether those workers making less than $15 an hour are being paid significantly less than their marginal productivity. For those whom the answer is no, a minimum wage will not increase their wages if their productivity remains below $15 per hour.

But is justice being served?

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Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) is an advocacy organization that pushes for criminal sentencing reform. They have had successes:

Twice since 2011, FAMM and its members have successfully campaigned for the U.S. Sentencing Commission to reduce guideline sentences for drugs—and to make those guideline changes retroactive. In 2011, the Commission voted to make its FSA-conforming amendment retroactive, a policy change that affected 12,000 federal crack-cocaine prisoners. In 2014, after receiving more than 60,000 letters, the Commission voted to make All Drugs Minus Two apply retroactively, allowing more than 40,000 prisoners to petition for resentencing.

I think the very fact that the U.S. Sentencing Commission can even consider retroactively changing sentences implies that the sentences themselves were most likely unjust. Furthermore, this problem seems to be inherent in crimes which have no identifiable victim. Since there is no identifiable victim, there is no basis for which to calculate damages. And since there is no basis to calculate damages, what foundation is there for deciding a sentence?

It is thus absurd to designate punishing victimless criminals under the rubric of “justice.” Really, justice has nothing to do with it; rather, punishment in this case is a tool that the state uses for social engineering purposes. Incarceration is not about giving the offender what is due to him, it is about bending the individual to the will of the state. Once this is generally realized, we can begin the move towards victim justice, rather than this confused notion of criminal justice.

No, Jon Stewart

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I don’t usually watch The Daily Show. The following is one reason why.

Jon Stewart (at about 2 minutes and 10 seconds into the following clip) refers to the “Hyde Amendment,” which prohibits the use of federal funds for abortion, unless the pregnancy is the result of incest or rape.

Stewart says that it’s called the “Hyde Amendment” because Republicans have to sneak it into bills and facetiously remarks that “just because the procedure is legal doesn’t mean it has to be treated that way.” I take issue with this second statement, which seems to imply that because something is legal, it should be federally funded.

But obviously this is false on its face, and I’m sure if Stewart took just a minute to think about it, he could come up with things that are legal that he would not want to be federally funded. The free practice of religion is legal, but should it be federally subsidized? I imagine that most of those who support the federal funding of abortions would respond in the negative and consider being forced to fund something they don’t agree with (if that happens to be the case regarding religion) to be morally abominable.

Exactly.

Regardless of what one thinks about the efficacy of abortion, there are those who very much dislike it and want to have nothing to do with it. Some oppose it to such an extent that their opposition is literally part of their identity. For the sake of argument, let’s say these individuals are completely wrong in their views and demonstrably so (whatever that may mean). Even if that is the case, should they be forced to fund something they ardently oppose?

Should Christians Support Capital Punishment?

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A while back, I was given a pamphlet entitled, “Capital Punishment: The Case for Justice” by J. Budziszewski, Professor of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. Professor Budziszewski argues that capital punishment is just, and that the Bible demands it, citing Romans 13:3-5:

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is a servant of God to execute His wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.

However, Budziszewski’s argument is devastated if he is wrong in his interpretation of Romans 13, which he believes is talking about the State. But why should he think such a thing? Though this is a common interpretation, it makes no sense. Here we have St. Paul, a man who was beaten by the State, imprisoned by the State, and eventually killed by the State, and somehow he can write that the State is “not a terror to good conduct”? I figure that Paul must be talking about some other entity. (Gerard Casey offers an interesting and plausible alternative.)

But let us grant Budziszewski this premise and see how the rest of his argument fairs.

He defends retribution as the justification for punishment, particularly in terms of the benefits it has for society: “Society is justly ordered when each person receives what is due to him…In retribution the spur is the virtue of indignation, which answers injury with injury for public good.” Furthermore, “Retribution is the primary purpose of just punishment as such.” This is for three reasons:

  • Just punishment is not something which might or might not requite evil; requital is simply what it is.
  • Without just punishment evil cannot be requited.
  • Just punishment requires no warrant beyond requiting evil, for the restoration of justice is good in itself.

Any other purpose of punishment, such as deterrence or incapacitation, is secondary and cannot override considerations of retribution. In fact, Budziszewski argues, all of these purposes are better (or at least not worse served) by capital punishment.

Next, he addresses some objections to the death penalty by Cardinal Dulles:

  1. Sometimes innocent people are sentenced to death.
  2. Capital punishment whets the lust for revenge rather than satisfying the zeal for true justice.
  3. It cheapens the value of life.
  4. And it contradicts Christ’s teaching to forgive.

Budziszewski’s argument against point (1) seems rather like a strawman. Most of it is a hypothetical where a suspect’s factual guilt is unquestionable, but he is acquitted by a juror who read Descartes and is unsure if he can trust his senses. Yeah, I’m pretty sure what people have in mind when they think of innocent people being convicted is when actually innocent people are convicted. The National Registry of Exonerations has cataloged over 1,500 of them, and who knows how many factually innocent people are still in prison or took a plea deal in order to avoid jail time? Budziszewski utterly fails to address this issue.

His argument against the idea that capital punishment feeds the lust for revenge is better, yet the fact remains that in terms of its criminal justice system, the US is an extremely vengeful society, considering that it has the highest incarceration rate in the world by far. Even if every non-violent drug offender were released from prison, it would still be the highest. And why is this? There are many reasons, but not the least of them is that there are special interests who benefit from this state of affairs, particularly the prison-industrial complex. If there is one thing the prison-industrial complex is not in pursuit of, it is justice. As well, American police forces can hardly be referred to as “peace officers,” as their increasing militarization attests. Not only that, but the US government horrendously tortures people to death with no accountability. The idea that this is what Budziszewski argues throughout his essay is the servant of God is downright disturbing and terrifying. Apparently there is no atrocity so egregious that would lead those who believe the State is God’s march upon earth to think that perhaps they are interpreting Romans 13 incorrectly.

Lastly, and this is not intended as a cheapshot (though it may look like one), why have I never observed Christians who argue for the death penalty address the fact that Jesus Christ was brutally executed by the State (as have many martyrs throughout history)? Clearly, execution has been a tool of despotic governments against those who they dislike or want to silence, and it is still used today. It seems that Christians who enjoy the relative freedoms in Western democracies take it for granted that their governments usually don’t round up dissenters and imprison (or execute) them. But it is entirely irresponsible for them to forget the fact that, worldwide, governments aren’t always friendly to Christianity.

Thom Hartmann Proves Any Idiot Can Get Their Own TV News Show

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Recently, I decided to tune in to Russia Today, testing the hypothesis that a news channel funded and run by a foreign government might be more critical, and therefore present a more interesting view, of the US government. That might be the case with RT (they did have Adam Kokesh as an anchor, after all) but within the first 24 hours of watching RT I was introduced to Thom Hartmann, who is billed as “America’s #1 progressive radio host,” and has a show called “The Big Picture.” Almost immediately after I turned on Hartmann’s show, I was pleasantly surprised to see the Libertarian Party’s emblem displayed, and though I have no particular affinity for the LP, I thought there was a possibility that a political view outside of the mainstream might actually be presented. However, Hartmann proclaimed that “libertarian economics” has screwed millennials. This made no sense to me, but I’m open to hearing criticisms of libertarianism and patiently waited for the relevant segment. Here it is, should you care to watch it:

"The deregulation, the privatization, the Iraq"

“The deregulation, the privatization, the Iraq”

What struck me at first was how many times Hartmann says “libertarian economics” (12 times in less than 5 minutes) and other phrases he thinks are synonymous (“Reaganomics” he says 3 times and “libertarianism” twice). The reason he does this, of course, is that he really has no idea what “libertarian economics” is; otherwise, he would mention specific policies instead of vague ideas. The most specific he gets is with “the massive tax cuts, the deregulation, the privatization” of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover (his excessive use of “the” reminds me of Miss South Carolina of 2007). He also mentions “the free trade mantra” which is apparently why millennials don’t have jobs and “deregulation of the stock market” which somehow caused a housing boom and bust. But how has “libertarian economics” screwed millennials the most? Through student loan debt.

That’s right. An industry that was massively subsidized and now effectually monopolized by the federal government is an institution of “libertarian economics.” Upon watching this, the audience feels the urge to check the calendar to make sure it’s not April 1st, to pinch themselves to make sure they aren’t in some Newspeak nightmare, to do anything to gain their own assurance that something so unbelievably stupid could not be said by a serious TV news anchor with the approval of his producers and whomever else helps make this content. And yet Thom Hartmann is completely serious. He puts two and two together: George W. Bush (who bailed out megabanks, created the greatest expansion of the federal government’s role in medical care since the passage of Medicare, and under whose presidency the national debt grew more than all previous presidencies combined) pursued “libertarian economic policies,” and the US has never had student loan debt problems like it does today. Ergo, libertarian economic policies caused the student loan crisis.

Hartmann apparently finds the effort to even do a Google search to check basic historical facts too taxing. Apparently, “the free trade mantra” is part of “libertarian economics,” and yet a cited practitioner, Herbert Hoover, signed what is probably the best known trade barrier (the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act) into federal law, which caused FDR to later pledge to reduce the tariff rates as part of his election campaign. Might FDR be a shill for “libertarian economics” as well?

Ultimately, one must come to the conclusion that Thom Hartmann has an inchoate conception of whatever he thinks he’s referring to with “libertarian economics” (and I doubt he even has a coherent conception of what his own progressivism is, either). By leaving his bogeyman of “libertarian economics” undefined, he can blame for everything. Even ISIS. What a world we live in.