Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Sci-Fi & Inconceivably Advanced Societies

Originally posted to Facebook on: October 27th, 2007 - slightly updated for 2013 - Enjoy!

The so-called "advanced" societies presented in most Science Fiction as futuristic are ridiculously implausible - but not for the reasons most people likely believe. I have no intention of dealing with "impossible" technology or even debate the possibility of magical powers of any kind - for the sake of this argument, I implicitly accept all technology, all magic, all implausible abilities. For my purposes, as ridiculous as it is, Superman can fly and it's because he's absorbed solar radiation from a yellow sun and if he were in contact with a Red Giant he would lose his powers. I am only going to be dealing in philosophical issues here...

This is my attempt to show how evolutionary principles and economic incentives allowed to act out naturally will necessarily produce a completely different future for humanity in the real world than are presented in the annals of Science Fiction.

In almost every case an advanced society is depicted in science-fiction or fantasy stories, there are often a few interesting similarities:

1. The society is at its core socialist and totalitarian in some way.

In nearly every major science fiction and fantasy story, in both the "dystopian" and 'utopian" conceptions, the societies depicted are incredibly consistent. We see giant monarchies, big-government 'utopias', magical fairy tale lands ruled by an often evil grand sorcerer who has deposed the good grand sorcerer - thus exchanging one malicious dictatorship for a more benevolent one in the best case.

In any event, the vast majority of societies created by writers of Sci-Fi/Fantasy are such that humans have idealized socialist dictators or "evolved beyond the need for" individualism.

Some specific examples include:

  1. Kryptonian society in the Superman mythology
  2. Apocalypse (as ruled by Darkseid in the DC comic book universe)
  3. United Federation of Planets & a socialist Earth in Star Trek
  4. Klingon Society in Star Trek
  5. Vulcan Society in Star Trek
  6. Romulan Society in Star Trek... you get the point...
  7. THX 1138
  8. A Brave New World
  9. 1984
  10. Brazil
  11. The Hunger Games
  12. I Robot (the movie)
  13. Blade Runner
  14. Judge Dredd
  15. Road Warrior
  16. Waterworld
  17. The Postman
This list is virtually endless. It's actually probably easier to pick out science fiction & fantasty universes not set in totalitarian regimes where lone individuals are battling widespread institutional and cultural violence.

2. People are at their core ruled by fear and violence. 

Klingons: Killing everyone.
For prosperity!
In most tales depicting "advanced" societies, we come to learn that the nature of the people in those societies
is essentially destructive.

Looking back at the above examples, most operate that way - Kryptonians have regularly been shown in Superman mythos to be extremely violent, short-term thinkers and bent on destruction of themselves and others (I will focus more of my attention on Krypton as an archetype of the thesis a little later on), Klingons, Vulcans, Romulans, Andorians, Cardassians - virtually ALL non-human species in the Star Trek universe are self-destructive and are either murderous, rapacious or generally deceitful, the entire planet of Apocalypse is populated by violent, selfish creatures with no interests beyond the destruction of everything or everyone else.

and finally...

3. The societies are most often presented as the result of thousands of years of advancement and social evolution.

This is to say that they are "our" future in the minds of the creators.

Sometimes presented ironically, or as a cautionary tale, this would be fine of course - but the same writers so regularly misunderstand that the "perfect society" they would adopt in the short term results in the cataclysmic and disastrous futures they present simultaneously, and I believe it's because of just a few misapplied philosophical ideas juxtaposed unnecessarily and wrongly.

Now, before I get directly to why these futures are implausible (if not downright impossible) I must first explain the juxtaposition of bad ideas that leads writers into this conundrum.

The problem, I believe, lies in the tendency for two fundamental philosophical premises to be popular in a large segment of writers & creative individuals.

Humanity is fundamentally evil.

Because humanity is evil, a free population is necessarily more evil, thus limiting freedom through laws, monarchs, dictators (no matter how benevolent) can stop people from being evil - and indeed can promote goodness through wealth and resource redistribution, etc.

Both premises are wrong.

As far as I'm concerned, premise one is wrong on all possible fronts - Evil is in and of itself an intrinsically poorly defined term, so it's hard to even quantify that to begin with, but lets say we use the following as an indicator of cross-culturally defined evil actions: Rape, murder, theft and torture. Statistically, most people are not criminals or murderers, thieves, rapists or torturers of any kind. The overwhelming majority of people are nothing remotely like that anywhere in the world.

Anecdotally, I encourage any reader to merely ask oneself, "Do I know a person convicted of murder?" "Of rape?" or perhaps "Am I friends with someone who has molested a child?" - chances are, you don't, but even more importantly, if you do what is your reaction to that person? Is it, "Oh well, you know - that's Bob, he likes to kill people, we all have our quirks right?" - again, probably not. My guess is your reaction is more outraged, perhaps, "Holy hell, Bob KILLED SOMEONE!?"

Now, since point one is demonstrably false, premise two (being based around premise one) is also necessarily false.

Beyond the "humanity is evil" part of the equation, I might also note that wealth redistribution, totalitarianism of any kind and other socialist principles never ever result in less crime, happier or safer people and equality of resources or justice.

Socialism, as I (and countless philosophers, historians and economists) have pointed out numerous times in the past, is based on faulty logic which breeds corruption due to being necessarily fast and loose with guaranteed liberties and inherently consolidating power in one place.

So this may feel like a tangent, but it's actually not. The point of all this is that in nearly all variations of an alien or human future depicted in science fiction & fantasy genre art, some variety of socialism is alternatively responsible for the utopian or distopian nature of the society and in either the depiction of human (or alien) nature as being intrinsically "evil" makes the socialism both necessary and insane. Since both of these concepts leads to the destruction and degradation of a population over time, these depictions of an alien (or human!) future are impossibly bleak on two fronts... And the confusion and misapplication of logic by the writers is to blame.

The truth is, neither Klingons, Kryptonians, nor humans can exist beyond their earliest stages of development if their nature is that of murderous, rapacious thieves. It is a pretty basic premise of evolutionary biology that the most fit species survive, unfortunately, because many artists are incapable of properly understanding the full scope of what that statement means, they assume only barbaric brutality wins the day.

Fortunately that is not the case!

Humanity has proven to be quite resourceful at developing cooperative skills and technology - and eventually
developing intellectualism as a means of survival.

A species that routinely murders and harms other members of the same species isn't likely to be very fecund. Kryptonians - if on the whole were petty, vindictive, murdering power-mongers - would be such an anti-intellectual society that they couldn't possibly, under any circumstances, develop the technology to be considered "the most advanced species in the galaxy" according to the Superman mythos.


Socialism is entropy in action as Dr. Science used to say!

It is a system that inherently has vastly more economic cost than it can maintain or produce. It's a system which rewards failure and mediocrity and places the entire burden of success on a select (and quite small) group of highly self-motivated people forced to consistently produce and work, knowing that due to the "equal" distribution of wealth and resources their efforts will never be rewarded to any significant degree.

And that's ignoring the whole issue of economic calculation and central planning

Thus the future of humanity in Star Trek as a socialist utopia in which the government has "eradicated" hunger and poverty is mind-boggling. Just as totalitarianism (often a corollary of socialism - since everyone must be complicit in the system in order for it to work even slightly) has the crippling result of destroying liberty, and the ability of a people to be happy or productive - which often results in elevated rates of crime and a breakdown in the rule of law. So a society governed by a monarch, or even by a supreme "council of elders" like Krypton, will eventually fail of its own accord as the power is more strictly concentrated in the governing person(s).

More on Krypton

For the uninitiated, Krypton is the home-world of comic book archetype, Superman or Kal-el. Krypton was a highly implausible society which was ruled by a totalitarian council of elders representing the intergalactic equivalent of a house of lords. The council by all appearances is not elected or in any way responsible to the majority of the planet's inhabitants, yet they make decisions for all.

The Politburo of the Sciences says "Nay."
This is ostensibly a planet-wide dictatorship by small committee.

In most incarnations, the council attempts to be just and fair, but regardless there don't seem to be too many checks or balances present. For what is considered the most technologically advanced culture in existence before its destruction, one has to wonder how they came to be that way. Dictatorships provide ridiculously poor incentives for innovation (please note: not being murdered is not a "reward").

Furthermore, the council (and by extension the houses/families) seem to regularly have what are tantamount to tribal feuds and there seems to be constant in-fighting for dominant control.

Once the planet was destroyed and baby Kal-el sent to Earth, we have met numerous Kryptonian survivors who are inexplicably violent, murderous, and indulge in petty selfishness. Nearly all of the survivors seem to be solely interested in destroying themselves or enslaving others (which will - and always does - lead to their destruction). They also all seem to pick fights with Superman...

So my question becomes - how could this society possibly have advanced out of the dark ages?

It sounds like the modern-day Middle East! Tribalism? Warlords? Totalitarian control of society by a minority of quasi-religious elders? Self-destructive mentality? Yep... sounds strangely like religious fanaticism.

So ask yourself: How exactly did these people manage to survive and advance as a civilization?

This guy doesn't build
a culture. He just breaks
It's clear how they would be able to destroy themselves, but not at all how they developed any advanced technology... anti-intellectual barbarians are woefully incapable of that. This society is representative of the sci-fi depiction of the future... and it just doesn't work!

It doesn't work for the same reason human societies don't work under totalitarian, socialist rule... and from an evolutionary stand point, an intrinsically "evil" people fail the test of time almost immediately by their lack of cooperation, trust and tendency to eradicate themselves.

Nature is a brutal mistress, and it's hard enough to survive out there as it is with plenty of creatures that aren't your species willing to kill and eat you... any additional help would be license for extinction in most cases. I strongly believe that we evolved our morality out of necessity and successful reproduction, it's the most plausible explanation for moral consistency throughout cultures.

It also means that Hobbes is way wrong... no one is all good or all evil and humanity on the whole demonstrates amazing tendencies towards good across the board, and it's in our best interest to do so. Krypton is an example of how many people view humanity's future - and I'm here to tell you, if human-nature and political/economic systems were truly what's in those writers' heads - we would already be extinct.

All in all, looking at all this on the other side of the essay, I find myself rather optimistic. The way I see it, we have only two futures ahead of us:

1. Our future will be one in which people are as free as possible, and one where people, being naturally interested in their own well-being and that of humanity at large, will continue to create and invent new ways of improving technology that affects our daily lives. We will become more socially & culturally intertwined on a global scale as we learn to trust in individual liberties for all people, free markets that reward innovation and intellectualism and the passionate yet peaceful free-flow of ideas while increasingly reducing reliance on governmental force and dismissing totalitarian and socialist principles!


2. We will wind up dying under crippling oppression and truly evil, anti-human, anti-freedom dictatorships set about to regulate what is "in the best interest" of all - and they will come about because people who believe that everyone else but themselves is intrinsically evil and cannot be trusted, and that other people (again, not themselves) are not intelligent enough to make good choices without a government there to regulate them...

Truthfully - I can see that happening in the short term... we've already made a number of steps in the socialist/freedom crippling direction over the last 60 years even in America: Land of the free, home of the brave. But (and this may just be unfounded optimism here) I honestly think that we Americans will take back our civil liberties fairly soon - and if not, history shows us that with every revolution the world becomes a more tolerant, more free place to be so maybe I'll have to start a revolution in 30 years... who knows?!

I would certainly prefer it if we can just do it peacefully though... especially since we should, by this point, have enough of a grasp on philosophy, economics, and history; not to mention technology and mass communication to simply learn and act without violence being necessary.

You see though... That's why I'm writing all this!

Art is representational of who we are as a people and what we think - especially of course, what our artists think. There is a strong belief being presented to the general public that humanity needs to be managed, limited and controlled for our own good, because we are sinners at our core. And this idea is being presented in an environment that discourages critical thinking by asking us to suspend disbelief - not ask questions - which means it's much more likely to affect the way people view the world and the premises by which we operate.

Science Fiction or not, the ideas are what translate to real life - and some (Isaac Asimov) are amazing, and some (Orwell, Huxley, Rand, Bradbury, Vonnegut) remind us of what not to be and what we could become if we're not careful... but some... and it tends to be what finds its way most into movies and tv, teaches us that humanity is evil and we should embrace socialism. Yet the societies it presents as models of these ideas would fail in their infancy and are thus completely implausible as examples of our future. Barbarians who have a proclivity towards murdering their own species do not survive the evolutionary test of time. No matter how strong or physically powerful - those animals are NOT the "fittest".


Monday, December 8, 2008

Pre-election Blog - a Few Weeks Late...

I just got an email about the following:


Join us for a "once in a lifetime" party to support Barack Obama and encourage others to vote. Lets make history together. Please forward to family and friends.

Savoy Lounge has open it's doors to celebrate 2 important events: Barack Obama Party on Saturday night November 1st @ 9:00 pm and a live election result Viewing Party on Tuesday November 4th @ 8:00 pm. Lets laugh, cry, and make history!!

Lets Complete Dr. Martin Luther King's Dream
"Where people are judged by the content of there character and not the color of their skin."

So... ok... I know I've blogged a lot about politics over the last year, and I wind up commenting on everything anyone else ever says about it. And I'm probably over-saturated on the topic... but here's the thing.

This really sums up what I hate about race politics entirely... "Let's make history together" (translated: Let's vote in the first "black" president) and "Don't judge people on their skin color" are completely antithetical!

If being black is a non-issue, then you can't bring it up as a selling point.

As far as I can tell, Obama's primary appeal is simply his natural charisma and charming demeanor. As they like to say, he "seems presidential". Unfortunately, for someone like myself, looking like a president isn't the same thing as "thinking" like one. Or at least, one I have any interest in voting for. For the same reason that Bush's lack of speaking skills never bothered me, Barack's +17 speech-giving abilities don't interest me in the slightest. Underneath it all, the ideas have to be there, and they're simply not... not as far as I'm concerned anyway.

The other day - my dad sent me this: http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/cc65ed650d

It's amusing... and it does have a fine usage of Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island" as musical underscore... but I challenge ANYONE to explain to me where - except for the color of his skin - Barack Obama represents "change"?

I need a presidential candidate to understand the Constitutional limitations of his power, I need a presidential candidate who will act as a legitimate check against the abuses of legislature by actually vetoing bills (as Bush almost *never* did), I need a presidential candidate who doesn't muck up the meaning of the document he's sworn in to protect by hiring teams of lawyers to find legalese loopholes in wording to do anything he damn well pleases in foreign & domestic policy... I need a presidential candidate who understands the Enlightenment philosophy that guided our nation's founders and created the framework for the greatest era of social, political, religious, & economic freedom the world has ever experienced. An era rapidly diminishing.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Quick Rant on Oliver Stone

I wrote this all out as a series of comments related to a link I posted about the move "W" by Oliver Stone.

Since I've already basically written this whole rant, I figure I may as well just throw it up as a note, preceded by the following disclaimer:

***I dislike Bush, neo-conservatism, "National Greatness" conservatism, religious fundamentalism... no, religion at large, and I hate corporatism (which some call "crony capitalism" although it's really a variety of socialism of the type employed by Mussolini & Franco). I think virtually every decision Bush has made, every idea he espouses, every core belief he has is wrong.

But that's it. He's wrong. He's not evil, he's not cynical, he's not malicious. Stone seems to believe that Bush agrees with everything he says, and just does the opposite to screw up the world. It's clear to me (and it would seem to everyone else) that Bush is a true believer... he believes what he's doing is right. (It isn't.)

Oliver Stone, on the other hand, is amazingly cynical and malicious and doesn't seem capable of pluralistic thought or even the ability to entertain a thought that doesn't fit his pre-conceived notion of the world. His movies clearly demonstrate this little character/intellectual flaw.

And frankly... Oliver Stone is a mediocre film maker. His skill at crafting coherent narrative is shoddy at best and I rarely see any spectacular performances elicited from actors or crew... Alexander ring a bell?

JFK (and probably "W", which I haven't - and won't be seeing) is my primary example of why Oliver Stone sucks balls as a human being and is, as far as I'm concerned highly overrated....

Platoon is pretty good.... but that, for me, centers largely on the strength of Willem Dafoe. Fortunately, it's a war movie, and people don't usually take them that seriously or mistake them for being documentaries unless the name "Ken Burns" is attached. JFK on the other hand influenced a huge resurgence in stupid in American culture. Mostly, I have a problem with him packaging his horseshit as "true events".

So here's the thing we all need to learn - no matter how many times Stone tries to present his vision of the world as "truth", here's the reality:

JFK - Pure nonsensical crap, easily disproved by physics, and contains zero evidence for a massive conspiracy and instead presents the *lack* of evidence as if that in itself were proof enough of just how big and evil the conspiracy is.

Nixon - Justified by Stone by saying; "(the) purpose in making the film, Nixon was neither malicious nor defamatory," and was an attempt to gain "a fuller understanding of the life and career of Richard Nixon — the good and the bad, the triumphs and the tragedies, and the legacy he left his nation and the world." Riiight..... he didn't portray Nixon as a raving alcoholic (who by all accounts... wasn't) to be mean, Stone just understood him and knew Nixon's most securely kept secrets better than his close friends, family & biographers... without ever actually talking to them.

And of course.... who can forget:

The Doors - Where virtually every person who knew Jim Morrison and who had discussions with Stone about the man disowned the film immediately.


Ray Manzarek had hours of discussion with Stone about Morrison then later said "none of the content of the discussion - such as details on important events in the history of The Doors and Morrison's personal life - was present in the film... (and) that Stone's film was highly inaccurate..."

and Morrison's wife, Patricia said, "that Stone ignored everything she told him and proceeded with his own version of events."

Then of course...

Natural Born Killers - A film which so offended Quentin Tarantino (who wrote the story) that he asked to have his name removed.

Have I made my case that Stone is a mediocre hack, an asshole and a terrible human being yet?

Cause if I haven't, the best story of all is why HBO pulled the original release of the film...

Comandante - Stone's "documentary" about Fidel Castro where he went to Cuba for a few days and shot the breeze with the villain about everything from movies & baseball to Che Guevara and other mass-murderers. The film was all set to air on HBO, but then... a group of Cubans hijacked a ferry, holding the passengers hostage and demanded that they be taken to America for asylum as they were desperately trying to escape the socialist "utopia". The refugees' plan failed, and instead were returned to Cuba & summarily executed just days before the film was set to be broadcast. Miami-Cuban expats protested... so HBO bumped the air-date.

Stone sucks up to every major tyrant, distorts reality to an unimaginable degree - largely to suit his own solipsistic conspiracy theories which basically hold out the world as a place where the people who's views he disagrees with are evil lurking in the shadows, controlled by mysterious corporate/secret society interests, and where thugs and dictators are down-trodden rebels fighting "the man".

Yes... this turned into a serious rant. But you know what? Repeat after me: "I have seen my LAST Oliver Stone movie."

Brief History of the US Economy: Bailout Edition

Let's start with "Deregulation". The reason I put it in quotes, as I always do, is that it's a misleading term for something that doesn't really exist. If I was a bit more cynical, I would have to imagine that the reason people use this term is that they maliciously want to defame the very idea of capitalism & more importantly, economic freedom. But I think a lot of people just find it easier to compartmentalize the way they think about some of these issues, so I won't say that is always the case.

(Of course, one doesn't have to be tooo cynical - just have a read into Naomi Klein's new book "The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism", or at least read Johan Norberg's fine article in Reason Magazine defending the late (great) Milton Friedman who quite falsely bears the brunt of her attacks - http://www.reason.com/news/printer/128903.html, to find people blaming "deregulated" or "free" markets for the current situation.)

Anyway, there are some people out there who do deliberately want to mislead people into taking more and more socialist approaches to government though I'm sure most people just haven't really looked into it. The problem is, history doesn't support the idea that "deregulation" even exists, much less even accounts for the current crisis. Let me explain:


It all really starts, as far as people's recent memories are concerned, with the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 - signed into law in the twilight of Bill Clinton's presidency on December 21st, 2000. Naturally, this legislation was crammed into a spending bill and was never even debated in the House of Representatives. What this Act did, among other things, was allow investment banks to engage in Credit Default Swaps - a "high-risk" (I'll get to why that's in quotations in a minute), and very complex speculative investment structure by which bad debts are sold to 3rd party companies and used as investment collateral - something they had not been able to do since 1982. I don't know if I need to point out that the people often yelling the loudest about "deregulation" are the people who blame Ronald Reagan & other Republicans, yet this little time bomb was made into law by everyone's favorite Democrat... Not that Republican's are in any way innocent here.

But anyway, here we are in the year 2000, going into 2001 and it's suddenly ok for banks to engage in more risky investment activities.

This leads me to two important questions though. First... and important to one of my overall premises, is; does the Commodity Futures Modernization Act really constitute "deregulation"??

Secondly, if things like Credit Default Swaps are so risky, why would a company engage in them?

I mean, we're talking about something that Warren Buffett described (speaking broadly of investment derivatives based on speculation) as "financial weapons of mass destruction", and Buffett's ideas on worthy investments are really not to be taken lightly. P.S. Did anyone else notice that Berkshire Hathaway and Buffett are doing fine throughout all this market madness... turns out Buffett ain't no fool.

Anyway, the answer to question number one is a resounding NO!

Why? Well... because we have a Keynesian economic system - a "mixed-economy". Government may have relaxed regulation in one specific area of the financial markets, but they hold all the other cards. In fact, it is because of the way government ran every other aspect of the market that we're in the mess we're in AND, all that ties directly to the answer to the second question of why investment bankers would do something that "risky".

The overly simplistic (and waste of our time here) answer to No. 2, is: "Greed!!"

The real answer to question No. 2, is: It was a Trick Question!

Credit Default Swaps are NOT risky *if* the company knows that any losses incurred will not be borne by them, but by the American Taxpayer... which takes us right back to why deregulation is a myth.

We have an abundance of financial & economic regulation. The problem (in this instance) is that an awful lot of it helps the specific companies & industries that lobby for it. This is not a free market! In fact, there are two amazing quotes from easily the two most outspoken supporters of freedom & free markets who've ever lived that have really become my favorites over the last several months:
"One of the methods used by statists to destroy capitalism consists in establishing controls that tie a given industry hand and foot, making it unable to solve its problems, then declaring that freedom has failed and stronger controls are necessary."

—Ayn Rand, 1975
"Business corporations in general are not defenders of free enterprise. On the contrary, they are one of the chief sources of danger....Every businessman is in favor of freedom for everybody else, but when it comes to himself that's a different question. We have to have that tariff to protect us against competition from abroad. We have to have that special provision in the tax code. We have to have that subsidy."

--Milton Friedman, 1978
The reality here is not that there's "too little regulation", there's plenty of that. Even the Commodity Futures Modernization Act was barely a blip on the radar for deregulation. The truth is, the Federal Government controls a vast amount of the economic system through the Federal Reserve's ability to set interest rates and increase or decrease the supply of money available in the market - which also means that it sets the pace for inflation (something we should all worry more about). Also, there's the Securities & Exchange Commission, which regulates and interprets legislation for a wide array of financial dealings on more of the executive side. The government is involved in every merger and IPO, it creates international or even interstate tariffs, protecting some companies or industries, limiting competition and in some cases gives outright subsidies to businesses - with strings attached, of course. Likewise, governments control zoning laws, property taxes, corporate taxes (which really just get passed on to consumers, so I'm not sure why we do that at all...), business operating licenses, etc.

So again, there's PLENTY of regulation!

"Deregulation" would really imply a free market. But a free market of the variety always described by Friedman, F.W. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, and even Adam Smith - has to be free from government intervention. And when government is capable of giving $700 Billion dollars to the nation's largest banking institutions, I hope we can all see how far from "free" that really is.

Anyway - the term "deregulation" is such a pet peeve of mine, because there really isn't such a thing, and it's always used to imply that economic freedom is bad, when in reality, there is no such thing and that has nothing to do with the answer to my earlier Question No. 2...

"RISK"... but not really

Why would investment bankers engage in "Risky" speculative behavior, thus contributing significantly to the current market crisis and subsequently the $700 Billion bailout? Again, if you want a mindless answer, say "greed" and just quit thinking about it... but if you're interested in how these things happen for real... let's start with:

The Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which created the FDIC (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glass-Steagall_Act).

I suppose I could start with how the depression was largely caused by the disastrous policies of the Federal Reserve (circa 1913) but this is becoming less brief by the paragraph, so I'll skip all that and just talk incentives.

The FDIC, and then later, 1950s Federal Deposit Insurance act, were the basis for what we now come to call the US Government's de facto "Too Big to Fail" policy. In case anyone who reads this has been living under a rock the last few months, TBTF is a concept which basically asserts that a major company within a "major" industry (i.e. the financial industry) which goes bankrupt, could cause a ripple effect through the entire economy and negatively affect everyone. Thus, instead of "allowing" that to happen (which a free market would do) we instead use taxpayer money to bail-out the distressed industry. But (1) what does this say to major companies? And (2) what does this do to the market??

As economist Bill Stughart wrote for the Independent Institute;
"The record of government bailouts of private financial institutions in the 1930s, of Continental Illinois Bank in 1984 (which cost $8 billion) and of the entire U.S. savings & loan industry in the late 1980s and early 1990s (which cost $125 billion) teaches that emergency loans keep weak institutions alive just long enough for their problems to increase.

Bailouts encourage more risk-taking and eliminate the freedom to fail that is just as essential to a free-market economy as the freedom to succeed."
I'm inclined to whole-heartedly agree!

Companies know they will get bailed out by the American Taxpayer if they go bankrupt - this encourages them to take so-called "risks" that they could never take if their bankruptcy would actually destroy their companies. Remember, it's not just one rogue CEO here, but boards of directors and upper management of an entire industry! "Greed" simply isn't going to cut it as a reason why the major investment banks were doing these Credit Default Swaps... if the companies these people ran, invested in and sometimes even started from scratch, are going to go bankrupt because of the Credit Default Swap nonsense - then these CEO's don't do it. They stand to gain what, at the high end, $20,000,000 in severance pay? As opposed to losing BILLIONS (as well as seeing the dollar so inflated, $20 mil won't buy you a house)!? Come on... that's not "greed" that's just retarded.

No... no... the reason they took the risks in the first place was because they were NOT RISKS!

The FDIC made damned sure of that.

Wild investment schemes galore existed in the years leading up to this crisis, not because "oh hey, that speculation market isn't illegal anymore, let's do it risks be damned!", they came about because they weren't risks. They were a very predictable means of making a ton of money, right off the backs of the American Taxpayer. (P.S. FDIC *is* regulation).


Real Causes

Yeah.... the next question of course, is how could these Credit Default Swaps have been so prominent anyway... they're based on defaulted debts - so, why were there so many people unable to pay?

Again... the simplistic answer is, "greedy" loan officers (you know, the ones at the local Wells Fargo, making $60k a year who don't get a commission for making you a loan...?) and realtors wanted to just get everyone into a home to make a quick buck.

And ok... the realtors.... well.... maybe ;)

But aren't we forgetting something?? Why would banks have any interest in high-risk borrowers, and how did we get to a point where money was so freely available to give to everyone who wanted a no-money-down house?

So now, I have to point out, the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Community_Reinvestment_Act) - which deliberately ENCOURAGED banks to loan money to high-risk debtors, in the vain hope that home ownership alone would improve the quality of "blighted" neighborhoods. Government's social engineering at it's best!!

And of course, way back in 1938, FDR created everyone's favorite government-run banking timebombs, Fannie Mae & Freddie Mac. "Fannie Mae", is a cute name right? Well, it's actually based on the acronym, FNMA... know what that stands for?

"Federal National Mortgage Association"

That's right... as far back as 1938, the government was using taxpayer dollars (which it had to borrow as it was still in a depressed economy thanks to all the wonderfully socialist bad math of FDR), to buy mortgages for people who could not afford them on their own.

Sure seeeeeems like deregulati... wait... no... as it turns out, Government has been heavily involved in the financial sector for the past 80 years, and just as involved in housing!

The "free market" was so far out of the picture by 2008, that people like Naomi Klein make me want to punch things. Far from being a "deregulated" free-for-all, we have a ridiculously complex system which as been favoring banks, supplying cash at incredibly cheap interest rates to people who make poor decisions, and encouraging bankers to take risks with no concerns for losses and encouraging realtors and the public at large to live well beyond their means.

And yet politicians are blaming the market, and using it as an excuse to get even MORE involved.

Scroll up and read what Ayn Rand wrote back in 1975 again... and the government hasn't just done this with housing & investment banking. It's given bailouts to auto manufacturers, airlines, trains, energy companies... farms... you name it! But it's all a perversion of the most fundamental ideas of capitalism.



Here's the timeline:

Federal Reserve is created and starts controlling interest rates and printing money... though thanks to a gold-standard, currency remained somewhat stable until we went full on fiat in 1976.
FDIC created with Glass-Steagall Act, starting the trend for banks to make bigger and more catastrophic bad decisions only to be bailed out when they came whining to Uncle Sam.
FNMA (Fannie Mae) created to start offering loans to anyone who couldn't really afford one in order to get people back into houses that no sane private company would loan them money to buy (because at that time they would have still actually taken the loss when the people defaulted!)
Federal Deposit Insurance Act solidified the FDIC, and established the Too Big To Fail concept as we know it today... banks start taking more risks.
Community Reinvestment Act starts encouraging banks to loan to higher-risk debtors because the government wants people to be home owners real bad... thinking that they'll clean up their neighborhoods that way.
Bailouts of dozens of banks, securities & loans, automobile manufacturers, airlines, Amtrak, etc... Pretty much everyone EXCEPT the tech industry in the late 90s (guess which one of those industries is healthy now...?)
President Clinton pushes hard via Fannie Mae to start offering sub-prime loans to low income families. "No down payment" coupled with higher interest rates/variable interest rates being the primary means of making said mortgages available.

...now with banks secure in the knowledge that they can expand and do otherwise stupid things without worrying about consequences, and with significant governmental pressure to make shady loans... comes...

Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which freed up banks who had been largely hamstrung from taking big risks (and who were losing money they shouldn't have been losing by being forced via government policy to loan to people they shouldn't have loaned money to) to get some cash back from all the ridiculous defaults that had been accruing... makes sense though doesn't it? If you were a bank and the gov't told you to keep loaning money to people who kept defaulting, wouldn't you lobby for relaxed legislation on getting something back from the defaults? Thus: Credit Default Swaps and variable rate home loans sweep the financial community!
Sarbanes-Oxley Act: Created in the wake of Enron and other financial scandals to "reform" the financial sector created a number of large increases in cost to doing business, which did not successfully prevent scandals or accounting fraud (obviously), but which did favor large companies at the expense of new competitors and IPO's. At the time, Ron Paul noted: "These regulations are damaging American capital markets by providing an incentive for small US firms and foreign firms to deregister from US stock exchanges. According to a study by a researcher at the Wharton Business School, the number of American companies deregistering from public stock exchanges nearly tripled during the year after Sarbanes–Oxley became law, while the New York Stock Exchange had only 10 new foreign listings in all of 2004. The reluctance of small businesses and foreign firms to register on American stock exchanges is easily understood when one considers the costs Sarbanes–Oxley imposes on businesses. According to a survey by Korn/Ferry International, Sarbanes–Oxley cost Fortune 500 companies an average of $5.1 million in compliance expenses in 2004, while a study by the law firm of Foley and Lardner found the Act increased costs associated with being a publicly held company by 130 percent." And the Wall Street Journal pointed out:  "For all of this, we can first thank Sarbanes–Oxley. Cooked up in the wake of accounting scandals earlier this decade, it has essentially killed the creation of new public companies in America, hamstrung the NYSE and Nasdaq (while making the London Stock Exchange rich), and cost U.S. industry more than $200 billion by some estimates."
9/11, Iraq War, Afghanistan War, MASSIVE increases in government size & power, combined with Ben Bernake's Federal Reserve holding interest rates to insane lows and flooding the market with free or cheap money devalues US currency while simultaneously, the housing market goes nutso with a feedback loop of cheap money leading to higher housing prices which sparks the need for bigger loans, and subsequently larger defaults on those loans....
BUBBLE BURSTS!!! Suddenly... people (except the free market guys who predicted this forever) are caught by surprise and the "solution" is, KEEP DOING EXACTLY WHAT WE'VE BEEN DOING, only instead of $8 Billion or $125 Billion... it's now $700 Billion - in money taken upon penalty of jail or theft, from the American people.

***(PS. I took the liberty of converting all this into 1980 dollars, so the other bailouts were $8, $78, and $281 billion respectively - including this one... but then, as my friend Bill pointed out to me the other day, the history of these bailouts tends to suggest a trend where the actual cost is something like 4x the listed cost that government has told us it'd be.)

And here we are today. Blaming a few years of policy for precedents that started 80 years ago. Scratch that... no one in the media or government is really blaming the actual policy... just "deregulation" and "the free market" - neither of which things exist.

So there it is...

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

In the wake of ANOTHER bailout...

I've absolutely had it with CNN and every other news network... you know what... strike that, it's not even their fault this time - it's the stupid election that's brought our imbecilic politicians into the national spotlight blathering on about their half-baked plans to "fix the economy".

So let's get a few things straight right off...

  1. We are in extremely troubled economic times in the United States
  2. Government almost single-handedly created the mess we are in by setting up the conditions and applying the pressures on (especially) the housing/investment banking industries for it to become inevitable.
  3. There is not now, nor has there ever been a free market in the United States. As such, it is impossible for any of our current crisis to have been caused by the market - let alone "too much economic freedom", which is laughable at best.
  4. What politicians label "deregulation" is not, and as far as i'm able to tell, has never been anything but special favors being granted to certain companies or industries and is not at all an increase in freedom - merely a government-imposed and unnaturally lopsided arrangement of corporate power.
  5. And worst of all, our two "leading" candidates are economic morons...
John McCain: Has admitted that he knows very little about economics and is mistrustful of the market - is now blaming investment banks for the economic downturn. Also still believes that the "fundamentals" of our economy are strong, yet has policy prescriptions that will crush any ability to return from this slump.
Barack Obama: Especially based on his current rhetoric, seems to actively despise the very concept of economic freedom - blames Bush's failed economic policies for current market crisis... and though he's not entirely wrong there, he doesn't seem to realize that Bush's policies are in reality almost perfectly mateched with his own ideology (only the presentation is different... and perhaps the specific people benefits are directed to).

That's the set up... but there's so much more...

First off, anyone in the news or other media who says anything about either a "failure of the free market" or "deregulation caused these problems", is either a liar, stupid or just plain ignorant... there has never been, in this country or any other, a free market in any greater sense than the youthful trade of baseball cards (and even that sometimes involves some thuggery), and I'm not really sure what anyone could possibly be referring to when they speak of "deregulations" in the United States.

I have yet to see a single instance, in my lifetime or looking back on history, where an industry was given more freedom to run their operations without government interference rather than less. What people typically seem to be referring to is actually government subsidizing an industry, granting special rights to some companies within an industry or giving certain companies other special assistance, often as a result of sweetheart deals with corporate lobbyists & "corrupt" politicians. However, since the politicians are really functioning in exactly the capacity one might expect with the power we have granted them, I do find it a little hard to call them corrupt... and I certainly can't blame companies for doing whatever is within their (quite legal) power to make sure that their businesses get those deals instead of one of their competitors.

In each instance however, these deals always come with increased government meddling, so I challenge anyone to come up with an example of government actually deregulating an industry in a meaning ful way - a relevant example of this might have been to get the government out of the business of setting interest rates (which I know is way out of bounds in our country's love affair with Keynesian philosophy), and letting banks set their own rates for borrowers and also allow them to decide what level of risk they felt was acceptable.

I can almost guarantee you we wouldn't be in the condition we are in today had that been the case.

But instead, the Fed sets interest rates incredibly low, and politicians harass banks into lending large sums of money to high-risk borrowers in some kind of populist, "everyone should own a home!", love-in. So what do banks do?? Umm... right... they lend money out left and right. And of course, if you're a low-risk borrower, you can now get access to a HUGE loan!! Hooray... But... Realtors know all this. And they know that now, because of the way the lending structure works and that people can get larger loans to buy homes with, they are able to start charging significantly more for the homes they're selling. This creates a bit of a feedback loop as the price of housing skyrockets beyond any reasonable inflation rate (and far and away beyond the ability of any average income-earner to payfor it all), and banks keep lending to virtually everyone. Suddenly, we're left in a position where all our nation's banks (not just the major ones) are wildly overextended, and have taken on the burden of loaning to people who they should have known wouldn't be able to pay them back. But you can't really blame the banks since they were doing what they were told to do by the government and the Fed's interest rate policies combined with the FDIC guarantees made it not only possible, but actually desirable for banks to do so... Besides, never underestimate the pressure that government is able to wield over businesses, the way things are set up now - do what they say and you might get some tax-breaks, subsidies, special zoning rights, and other treats... go against what they say and you get taxed more heavily, strong-armed by policy, trapped with other legislation and probably a big fat IRS audit.

Point is, it's wrong to blame banks.

It's also equally wrong to blame borrowers. How can you blame a layperson for wanting a home? Or a car? Or hell... even a flat-panel TV? If we blame the borrowers then we're blaming people who want to improve the quality of their lives (perceived or actual) for doing something that any rational person would do given the options presented to them.

Borrower: "What's this you say? I can buy a home with no money down and only pay a small interest rate for the next 4 years??"
Bank: "Why yes sir, but of course the interest rate will be variable and could change later on."
Borrower: "Well, that's not for a few years right, I'll be doing better at work then and right now my family will be able to have a nice home... we'll do it!"
Bank: "Great, sign here..."
Now... I'm not saying that there aren't banks out there who deliberately obfuscated exactly how variable these rates were and much like credit cards, I have to imagine that they all came up with hidden fees and other surcharges designed to take advantage of people's ignorance of bank policy and the impossibiilty of being able to comprehend the legalese that is the fine print of all the agreements we sign. It's certainly a bit unfair from an information standpoint - lord knows I know that all too well from my personal experiences with creditors and with fraud policy. If my folks are reading this, they know what I mean better than anyone.

And of course... some people were just willfully ignorant, not doing their homework or doing the math before accepting agreements that they shouldn't have accepted. Again... I've also been guilty of that in the past. Though... I'm 25 now, most of my financial indiscretions happened between the ages of 18-22, and granted, many of them are still haunting me in a big way, but the thing is... now I know better. So I can't imagine being a 50ish man and still making such foolish decisions.

But if anything, this whole thing shows us that we all need to be looking out for ourselves and not expecting some massive bureaucracy to protect us. Government created the conditions for these problems to exist and though they always claim that they are overseeing it all, look at how many people slip through the cracks. Without the meddling in the first place though, none of this would have happened!!

So my question is, when will the asinine narrative end and the American people (and really, citizens of the world) wise up!? I'm so outraged right now I can't even properly form the thoughts to express what I want to get across. I need to break this down... We've had 80 years straight of expanding government, deficit spending, an increasing national debt and a Marxist central bank "managing" our economy in defiance to both the very idea of freedom and any truly rational economic thought and a market so crippled by complex taxes, regulations and government meddling in private affairs that I seriously wonder why 99% of the large companies haven't just left for greener pastures by now.

The obvious answer to that question is of course that very very few countries are any better than the US - and the ones that are, are quite often unattractive for other reasons... like Singapore (shout out to James!), where even though the economic conditions might be a bit better, no one likes the idea of being caned for littering.

But seriously... between all that, the development and gross expansion of the unconstitutional income tax (no the 16th Amendment did not establish an Income Tax, it established a corporate profits tax... but then not one, but two supreme court decisions were blatantly ignored by the actually greedy politicians and shazam... here we are!), the destruction of our currency into a fiat, faith & bond based one, and the constant attempts by everyone in government to dominate our economic choices and destroy liberty, how is it surprising to anyone that we're in a rough financial position now?

Yet here we are in September of the year 2008, two months out from yet another presidential election and the only two viable options are both people who think that an egregious expansion of what caused the mess in the first place is somehow going to be a miraculous cure.

The narrative for politicians is just too rich isnt it? Blame corporations - no one likes them anyway, blame banks too - those jerks!... Use it all as a pretext to expand your authority, your power and all the rights and "privileges" that go with it.

This all makes me really want to just disappear, get off-grid, off-radar and go spend the rest of my life with no ID on the beach of a small island in the South Pacific. I wonder how to make that happen... any ideas?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Art. Reason. Liberty...

I'm now blogging in effectively 3 places... Here, Facebook and my brand new "Tumblr", which was created at the behest of my friend Ronen. The Tumblr is currently the most interesting one to me to be honest, it was designed to throw together some of my thoughts in a more brief format along with pictures, video (if I ever had internet access good enough to upload video clips) and audio (...likewise) files. The multimedia features of the Tumblr are a lot like some of the other sites that have proliferated around the internet recently like Flickr and such, designed to provide a medium to share media with family and friends. However, Tumblr makes short-form blogging incredibly easy - which makes it perfect for my current gig, as well as a myriad of other sorts of little projects.

But what about the other two blogs? Well... first of all, Facebook is a parrot of some of the things I write for this blog that I wish to share more publicly with my friends - and a place where I post links to various interesting news articles and such that I discover and read day-to-day. This blog is, and will remain, a repository of much more in-depth conversations (most often with myself) and more personal issues that are related to my life and interests. Sometimes that comes in the form of bitching (or as Ira always says, "kvetching") about work, about relationships, about friends, about politics. Sometimes, those things might offend people - indeed, it already has...

For example; several months ago I re-posted my comments expressing disgust with the citizens of Nebraska for failing to vote for a legislative spending limit which was tied to tax revenue. I could not believe that even the people of a generally "conservative" state (whatever that means anymore) wouldn't see the value in preventing their own government from engaging in the kind of grotesque deficit spending that has really destroyed states like California. Naturally - a few of my old friends from Nebraska were insulted that I was so harsh in my views and was essentially questioning their foresight & intelligence. Of course they were. So what?

Likewise, sometimes I might bitch about my job... Considering it's literally the only thing in my life right now, it's pretty unreasonable to expect that there won't ever be any complaints. To be honest, if I didn't talk about that from time to time, at the moment, I'd simply have nothing at all to talk about ever. But this does bring up an interesting question... Your employer pays you to do a job. Because your employer is paying you, they are generally in a position to make requests of your time and to ask you to do said job in a specific way. That's fine. But does that mean that one completely gives over all individuality and ability to speak your mind on your own time in your own space? Then again, is the internet a public space? I pay for my own website, which hosts this particular blog... I own this space for all intents and purposes - as much as anyone owns a house (sure, I pay $10.00 a year to keep the domain name... but if you own a house you pay taxes every year to keep that too, right?). Furthermore, this site isn't linked to my websites' main page... which means that the only way you'd know where it is if I told you where to find it. I've told very few people... I'm not seeking out random readers, though I certainly don't mind if I get a few. But what does it mean if I bitch about my friends, or my job, or anything else through this medium?

Honestly... Nothing!

No... really... Nothing. Does it mean I don't love my friends? Does it mean I hate what I do for a living? Does it mean I hate all Nebraskans?


Of course not... what it means is, I am - for this moment in time - feeling or thinking a certain way about a certain thing. Free speech really doesn't mean that much if you are afraid to offend people, afraid that someone might misinterpret it or that you might lose your job. The important thing is to speak the truth, as you see it. And often.

Don't withhold information from people because you want to keep a position of authority or to maintain some false sense of superiority. Don't strategize or posture in order to get people to like you or pretend that you have one feeling or another, or no feelings at all on a particular subject. Just be honest.

As far as I can tell, the vast majority of problems in the world stem largely from people being dishonest, withholding information and being partially trutfhful in the name of preserving some type of status quo. In the end, all that path leads to is a bunch of worthless secrets and a stagnation of progress - which is borne largely through the exchange of ideas, often oppositional ideas. It's also incredibly disrespectful to the people you're speaking to... as if they can't handle your honest opinion?? To do otherwise comes down to nothing more than a petty power-play... an information cold-war.

Interesting to study if you're John Nash I guess, but practically speaking, makes for a crappy world in my opinion. (Uh oh, there I go offending someone again!). So getting back to the point... blogging. What's the point of recording your thoughts if they're not going to be honest? What's the point of contributing to your own on-going memoire if you're going to gloss over the salient moments, the strong feelings, and the big ideas? What's the point of any of it if you're just going to be coy and hide from yourself?

If there is a point to that, I'm sure it's not a one I would want to make... I'm no nihilist. I won't pretend to be. I have thoughts, ideas, concerns, comments, complaints, and compliments about a wide variety of topics - some taken from my own life, and some drawn more broadly from the world at large. And that's what this forum is and always was meant to be for! The Tumblr can be about my travels, the day-to-day side of what I do for a living, where I am, who I've met and what I've just seen... but this one is just about ideas. It's about art, reason and liberty... the the broadest usage of each of those terms. It encompasses my world. It will continue to do so...

And that, as they say, is that.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Some Things I've Learned Traveling

Over the past year, I've been away from home already about 120 days. By the end of the year, I'm looking at around 180. Next year, according to one of the nebulous statements I've heard about our contract, we're apparently supposed to be on ships a minimum of 240 days.

For those of you who are counting, 240 days is 65% of a normal 365 day year. Since that's just "on-ship" time, and doesn't include the travel days, a conservative 20 of those brings my time away from home up to 71.2%... Now. The reality is, a 365 day year isn't an accurate measure of time gone considering that any normal, "full-time" job works a 40-60 hour work week and typically only 5 days out of every 7, and of course, Holidays are also excerpted from that. So with a 5 day work week, we'd be looking at 270 days, minus say 10 days off for holidays and maybe a paid sick day here and there is, based on my arithmetic, 260 days of work per year.

Again... one process of simple math later, I find that now based on a more accurate set of numbers, I find that suddenly I'm gone alternatively 92.3% of the year... or... factoring in travel days...


Let's recap... In my interview in October, I was told that the requisite travel would be 50-60%. By any measure, assuming the number of days we're "required" to be on ships hasn't changed in the contract since they signed it before we got hired, then the majority of my interview was either a misrepresentation or an outright lie.

Never attribute to malice what you can attribute to stupidity or carelessness.

...is a paraphrase of a fine rule of thumb I often observe when making assumptions about people. It's hard to stick to within the entertainment industry, but still... I suppose it is rather likely that what really happened is just that no one higher up than myself bothered to do the math. That seems likely since no one within miles of the entertainment industry seems to like crunching numbers.

Now, the real question is - "Ok, Sean. What are you going to do about it?"

...No clue.

At any rate, the experience hasn't been without benefit.

For starters, I'm away from home for 37 days this round... which is far too much, but on the positive side, I'm visiting 13 countries. A few of which I haven't been to before. I'm on my way to Oslo, Norway at the moment, which is cool. I've already iterated on any number of blog-type forums the places I'm going to this trip, so I really don't need to do that again. But the truth is, the travel has at least been interesting.

It's also managed to solidify my real-world understanding of economic policy. Without succumbing too much to confirmation bias, I think the majority of what I already believed was exactly correct. This is often one of the bonuses of running your beliefs through a very stringent critical review process - even internally, the ability to make counter-arguments to yourself (and have friends who are capable of challenging you as well) until you're satisfied that the logic is sound, the premises make sense and the supporting data is valid. Besides which, let's be honest, most of it is basic common sense.

For example - London, like many of its European counterparts is a city of extremely high taxes in a country of high taxes. As I drove from London to Harwich, a town about 85 miles Northeast, I passed the time chatting with my driver. He was a very nice guy named Dave, who owned the taxi company and liked to go to Florida for motorcycle rallies. He mentioned that Harwich is growing as a bedroom community for London... few people can afford to live in the city-limits anymore. But more importantly, business are leaving London quickly. Higher corporate taxes have pushed businesses to find alternate places to hold offices, as they do everywhere. Far from governments free-loading on the backs of businesses wealth, they only manage to push them away. Add to this the cripplingly bad math of socialist health systems, cronyism, mercantilism, and the impossibility of "good" central planning, the reality of Europe is that it really is a horrible place to live overall.

In spite of the recent downturn in the value of the US Dollar, which has precipitated a subsequent decline in the standard of living in the United States, our purchasing power is still comparable (at least nationally) to England's, which is easily the highest of any part of Europe. This means that as much as we've experienced a decline (and believe me, I think America is in some of it's worst economic times in terms of real-value that it's seen in a long long time), it's still a better place to live than anywhere in Europe.

Social freedoms aren't much better over here. I guess in that instance it just comes down to a "pick your poison" sort of argument. You want to be able to drink at 18? Cool... move to Germany. But then, you can't get a driver's license til you're 18 either, so you won't really be that mobile as a teenager. Sure, that might not matter much to you if you live in Berlin - but try living without a car in Warnemunde or someplace even more rural. If you live in Amsterdam, apparently you can enjoy marijuana (if that's your bag... zing!), but if you are a cartoonist, you might be persecuted or fined if you "offend" someone... muslims perhaps. Personally, I tend to prefer the speech guarantees to the US over being able to smoke pot. I suppose that's not surprising since it's something I've never done nor plan to ever do, but the main point is that with free speech I can (and do) argue for it's legalization, whereas the pot-smoker's in the Netherlands have less power to argue for freedom of speech. Not all freedoms are as fundamental as the ones built into the Bill of Rights.

Even with the extreme hits it's taken over the past 60+ years, it, combined with the remnants of a much more free economic system are still keeping us afloat.

I get so sick of socialists yapping about "market failures" and how government always needs to step in and "fix" things. I have yet to see a failure of the market to provide necessities and amenities for people - certainly not one that was caused directly or indirectly by governmental action, whether that action was "beneficial" to certain businesses thus providing artificial (monopolistic) support destroying the ability for anyone else to compete on a level playing field through subsidies and protections, or through excessive taxation, hindering regulations and political biases, the failures are those of government. There are no clearer examples of that on a day-to-day basis than ambling about in Europe.

...can't wait til I go to St. Petersburg.

On the flip side of my sort of negative comments, my extensive travels have confirmed another one of my deeply held beliefs, in general. People are basically the same, everywhere you go. We all have the same sorts of needs and desires, and by and large, people are just really good. That makes me smile. It also means that whatever stupid governments do, and how poor mobs are at making large-scale decisions... individuals are fantastic. They're interesting, often smart, unique and typically worth meeting, everywhere you go. Makes me feel like the world is probably alright - no matter how bad it might seem from time to time.

That's been a wonderful aspect of my travels. And I have a few more places I need to see. Australia/New Zealand. More of South America. Antarctica... and... Asia, which I'm not going to get to for a bit yet.

But... it's also excedingly tiring, and I can't keep doing this without a raise. Let's see what happens in December and January.

Speaking of work... think it's time to go do some.

Monday, August 18, 2008

"Bill of Write-Ins" ...dear god I hope not!

Today, one of my roommates showed me an email her mother had sent her. It was a chain-letter sort of thing called "Bill of Write-ins" which claimed to be written by Bill Cosby (though from tone and content obviously was not, so I give that 0 credibility). The main point is that it was all stuff that my roommate's mother purportedly agreed with. Having met her a few times, we can be sure that she does. Incidentally, my other roommate's parents are both here staying with us currently - and they both seem to believe that government needs to be involved in athletics, because steroid use constitutes "fraud". That seems like a bit of a stretch to me in a lot of cases as it assumes that pro football teams managers and owners really don't know when someone is on a roid-rage. Personally, I doubt they're that naive, but whatever.

The point is... this stuff is asinine. And it's being passed around by adults as a reflection of what they claim to believe! The Who said it best... "The kids are alright". What I worry about is the "adults".

These are the ideas my future and that of my children are up against. Provincial, stupid, racist, ignorant and economically retarded. And a bleak future it is...


( 1.) Press 1 for English is immediately banned. English is the official language; speak it or wait at the border until you can.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
""Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!"" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

-"The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus

...etched into the Statue of Liberty.

Part of what has made America an amazing place to be is the intellectual and cultural diversity and constantly open to newcomers (more or less). This, generally unique, position has given America an amazing advantage over other nations by allowing the incorporation of multiple approaches to problems whereas other nations often rely only on the limited ability of their own culture and history. This inclusiveness also translates into a myriad of choices available to us as Americans for cuisine, architecture, art, music, interior design, clothing... just about everything that makes us happy as individuals. Collectivist, protectionist and xenophobic approaches to immigration are simply racist and stupid positions that limit our own development economically, culturally and intellectually.

Strangely, a lot of those immigrants haven't had a chance to learn English yet. Coincidentally, by the end of this week, I'll have visited Denmark three times... yet, I still don't know a lick of Danish. Sure swell of those chaps to let me come for a visit though and bumble around speaking "American".

I've got a better idea... just let everyone in.

( 4.) All retired military personnel will be required to man one of our many observation towers on the southern border. (six month tour) They will be under strict orders not to fire on SOUTHBOUND aliens.

Yes... all retired military personnel have a stipulation in their contracts that allow them to be recalled for a certain period after the end of their term of service - at least officers do. So I'm sure the best way to show them respect is to conscript them to go hang out in Southern Texas, New Mexico or California for 6 months and give them guns and tell them to shoot people who are generally trying to come find a new life, economic opportunity and an education to better themselves and their families. Clearly... those are the most dangerous people we all face. I have a feeling that my own father, a retired Colonel in the USAF/ANG wouldn't take too kindly to being involuntarily sent to point a gun at people he's never met who've never meant or done harm to him or anyone he knows... I don't want to put words in his mouth, but from what I gathered from 20 years of living with the man, he joined the military to protect and help people have a safer, better life... not to fire and M16 at impoverished people looking for some work.

The Economy/Trade Relations:

( 2.) We will immediately go into a two year isolationist posture to straighten out the country's attitude. NO imports, no exports. We will use the 'Walmart' policy, 'If we ain't got it, you don't need it.'

First off... "straighten out the country's attitude"??? What exactly does that even mean.

Secondly... the US imports nearly everything. If we stopped importing goods we would VERY quickly find out that we will produce a massive famine and the quality of our lives will revert to 1930s Russia in about a week. We export technology, ideas, a little bit of food, and entertainment. We import manufactured goods, a LOT of food and the results of our ideas.

Thirdly... the "Walmart" policy is, "If we ain't got it - who does!? How do we get it and sell it cheaper than the guys who already have it?? Quick... get that thing!" The idea that Walmart would ever tell a potential customer a phrase like "if we ain't got it, you don't need it" is absurd to say the least - and any government limiting the economic freedoms of it's people to a degree that it would utter such a moronic statement sounds an awful lot like China or Cuba (or Russia) and not much at all like the US. Imagine President Bush saying "Well hey, I'm the president, and I say that you don't need laptop computers... I don't care if you want one, we don't produce them here in Amerika, so you don't get one. Too damn bad."


( 3.) When imports are allowed, there will be a 100% import tax on it.

...thus making the cost of living insanely expensive for all... hooray! That'd be great though... then it would be like living in Europe where a simple hamburger costs €15 (currently US$22.08). Oh man... awesome!! Can't wait...

(I'm Ignoring the blatant contradiction from saying NO imports will be allowed)

( 9.) One export will be allowed...Wheat. The world needs to eat. A bushel of wheat will be the exact price of a barrel of oil.

Because... the price of wheat isn't set by a market, and is instead just arbitrarily assigned a monetary value by the US government and is then accepted by every individual who trades with US producers.

And of course, since no other countries in the whole world are capable of producing wheat themselves (obviously no other countries, Russia, China, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Australia for example, have large enough tracts of viable farmland), the United States has complete control of the food market.

Thus, the US' domination of world food production clearly allows us a firm position to demand 1 barrel of oil per 1 bushel of wheat, because we say so...

...I wish I didn't feel the need to tell you all I'm being sarcastic with that comment, but if someone is economically ignorant enough to take the (9) comment seriously enough to "pass it on".

National Debt “Reduction”:

(10.) All foreign aid using American taxpayer money will immediately cease, and the saved money will pay off the national debt and ultimately lower taxes. When disasters occur around the world, we'll ask the American people if they want to donate to a disaster fund, and each citizen can make the decision whether it's a worthy cause.

I generally do agree that we shouldn't have on-going foreign aid, this should - of course - be done by individuals with their own money per disaster. American's are an incredibly generous and loving people and are always up for helping those in need. We've shown that countless times in countless countries. If people are in need, no matter how we feel about their government, our individualist mindset has always said that ultimately, when push comes to shove, people are people and we do what we can to help. It's one of the best things about us...

That said... Let's be real for a second.

The US National Debt is
$ 9 , 5 9 9 , 3 5 6 , 3 2 8 , 7 2 4 . 1 1 and counting.
The 2008 Budget for Foreign Aid is
$20.3 billion...

...at this rate it would take us the better part of
473 years to pay off the current national debt with foreign aid - assuming NO interest or increase in the national debt (which is currently increasing by $500 Billion a year!! Largely thanks to government spending on things shockingly like parts of this list that are supported - like welfare at $400B a year, military spending at $5-600B a year - and about a trillion a year in discretionary spending and mid-year spending resolutions, and on useless/unnecessary government offices like that of the Federal Baseball Commissioner).

No, but sure... by all means, let's sink that $20B a year into paying off a faction of the interest we're accruing to the countries that now effectively own our entire currency/economy - just don't think that it's even going to scratch the surface on the actual debt.

It'd be really nice if everyone else periodically did the extremely basic math (I used... addition and division... wow!) that it takes to see how stupid these sorts of things are instead of always leaving it up to me.

Entitlement Programs:

( 5.) Social security will immediately return to its original state. If you didn't put nuttin in, you ain't gettin nuttin out. The president nor any other politician will not [sic] be able to touch it.

Ironically... compared to what people expect from Social Security now, virtually no one put anything in anyway, so that whole statement probably doesn't encompass anyone who actually thinks they agree with it.

Here's a better idea... Get rid of it entirely.

This one is going to be really painful, but the only way out of this socialist nightmare at this point is for my generation (and very likely my kids' generation too) to pay for previous ones ... so at this point, we bite the bullet. Here's how we manage:

1. Cut all future SS benefit "promises" from this point forward, set a cut off age for people to still plan on collecting. I would say everyone 40 years old and over should still be covered by the current system (because practically speaking, they probably expect to get some retirement benefit out of it) but that's it.
2. Determine a valid estimate of how much money individuals were likely to have contributed over the course of their working lives - a simple, but generous, calculator can be used for every citizen over 40 at tax time next April.
3. Balance the Social Security budget so that everyone gets something comparable to what they put in, adjusted for inflation.
4. Cut military spending and social programs to (help) make up for the difference in what Social Security should be paying out compared to the amount of money it's actually capable of... We all know that the SS fund is basically empty now, so obviously that money will have to be made up somehow. Do what we can, continue paying insane taxes for the next 100 years and just accept the fact that my parents' generation and their parents' generation basically screwed us all economically by voting themselves free money and making themselves feel like they're "helping" the poor by providing safety nets based on impossible math and bad philosophy.

Part of the problem with Social Security (like any social welfare programs) is that it encourages people to make poor decisions about their future, always expecting government to step in like the poor grasshopper mooching off the generous and wise ants in the dead of winter. To quote our former Comptroller General, David Walker;

"...what's happened is we've gone from 16 workers paying into Social Security for every person drawing benefits in 1950 to 3.3 to one today, and we're going down to two to one by the time the boomers retire in big numbers and that's about where it will stay over the long run."

The incentive to suckle at the tax-payer funded teat of the Federal Government is what brings us to the point we're at now. Far from being a last resort fail-safe for people who maybe lost all their money in a tragic accident, a house fire, a bank collapse or even losing it all on Wall Street, so that they don't have to go hungry in their old age - Social Security has just become a part of everyone's basic retirement plan. Were I alive in the 40s, I'm sure I could have predicted this outcome, but in the heady days of FDR and J.M. Keynes, I'm sure it seemed like a great idea at the time... plus - hell, it's a sure-fire way to win elections when you promise people free stuff and more security!

...never mind if your promises screw up your nation's economic future irreparably - that's Future United States' problem!

( 6.) Welfare - Checks will be handed out on Fridays at the end of the 40 hour school week and the successful completion of urinalysis and a passing grade.

Checks should not be handed out at all. Welfare as a system is morally reprehensible - forcing producers to pay for the lives non-producers at gunpoint on the sole basis of a relative. Worse, it encourages people to not work by providing skewed incentives. The truly poor and those actually incapable of working need to be supported by voluntary, private non-profit/for-profit charities, direct aid by family and friends and help from professional unions and for-profit work placement organizations - and of course mental hospitals and what-have-you. I personally don't believe that anything beyond that would be remotely necessary in a society that promotes production and entrepreneurship over leaching off of "the rich", but if people are really still uncomfortable with trusting that humans actually do care for their fellow men and women (which empirically it's actually pretty easy to prove that private charities would do the job, looking both at history and at modern events like the Warren Buffet $40B give-away), then possibly a publicly capitalized (but not endlessly funded) and run charitable fund supported by the dividends from large-scale for-profit public investment could help as well.


( 7.) Professional Athletes - Steroids - The FIRST time you check positive you're banned for life.

Steroids are legal. Athletics are legal games which need to be 100% sponsored (admittedly now this problem is compounded by massive amounts of public funding that goes into athletics in the US) by private individuals looking to play, sell and enjoy watching the experience of an athletic spectacle. If their rules state that you can't use steroids, then you should be considered to be cheating within the rules of the game and not allowed to make your living that way - even fined for wages collected while cheating. Government has no damn business being involved at all. If you break the rules of the game when you're playing then you deserve to be banned from the game by the organizers of the game - like Pete Rose, then booed by your fans... Right now, say you're a football player who has developed the skill of face-masking your opponents - which is both cheating and dangerous to someone else - while the refs can't see you. When that is discovered, you will be booed... do it enough, you'll be thrown out of the game. Do it some more and maybe thrown out of the league. If you do steroids - which is cheating and dangerous only to you - then you face federal prosecution?? What?? No. Gun-carrying police and jails have no business being involved. This is a game. I don't care how much money people make around it... it's still. just. a. game.

If you claim to be steroid free before you start and you aren't, and you sign a contract saying that you are and that you will be permanently - and you are tested and you are not clean, then yes, that is a type of fraud - and should be punished accordingly by civil or criminal courts and financial damages be recompensed.

IT'S A GAME! Crikey.

Government Infallibility... I mean "Justice":

( 8.) Crime - We will adopt the Turkish method, the first time you steal, you lose your right hand. There is no more life sentences. If convicted, you will be put to death by the same method you chose for your victim; gun, knife, strangulation, etc.

I'm not sure a response to this bit of medieval BS is justified... but... April, 2007 marked the 200th person to be exonerated by DNA evidence for a crime he was convicted for that he did not commit. A NY Times article back in 2004 exposed a study which sampled a few hundred criminal cases and concluded that it was likely that there are literally thousands of innocent people currently in prison in the US.

Sometimes, cops plant evidence on people they don't like... sometimes judges have relationships with prosecutors... Sometimes, publicly elected DA's need to make examples of people and are willing to fudge evidence.... Sometimes state medical examiners are just incompetent and screw up the initial DNA tests... and sometimes... for whatever reason... people just plain get it wrong. So it's safe to say that the legal system isn't exactly flawless...

But sure... why not, let's not ever allow for the (strong) possibility that the legal system is run primarily by humans who can make mistakes, and just go right ahead and start making examples of people in the always-popular style of Fidel Castro, Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco, Che Guevara... and... well... you know.

Like how I avoided Godwin's law there? Yeah... I'm a pro.

Seriously though... wouldn't it be great though if the United States of America sentenced a completely innocent person, convicted by mistake to be raped, tortured and then mutilated?? Yeah... that'd be awesome.

National Unity:

(11.) The Pledge of Allegiance will be said every day at school and every day in Congress.

(12.) The National Anthem will be played at all appropriate ceremonies, sporting events, outings, etc.

Huh? A quick history lesson...

In 1892,
socialist minister Francis Bellamy composed the following pledge:

"I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. America"

It was published on the 400th anniversary of Columbus' "discovery" of America in a children's magazine... it was intended to be accompanied by a salute that to a modern observer would look very conspicuously like the Nazi salute later some 40 years later. (Damn it Godwin!)

There is nothing particularly American about the specific pledge. It mentions none of our guaranteed freedoms as enumerated by the Bill of Rights, none of the implied freedoms that we were/are supposed to have which were not found in the Bill of Rights (of which there are many... reference the Federalist Papers to understand this more fully), and worse, it tramples all over the concept of "individual" by it's very nature.

America is built around the idea that all individual people have a right to pursue their own happiness in what ways suit them - and to speak and associate freely as they see fit. A required national pledge of allegiance inherently stifles that individuality and forces all who take part to conform to a group.

Likewise, forcing the National Anthem to be sung at "all appropriate ceremonies, sporting events, outings, etc." similarly destroys the very notion that Americans are a people who are free to speak and associate as to their own values and ideas.

In truth - both of (11) & (12) strike me as supremely Un-American things to do! No, indeed... it smacks of the Fatherland, and the Motherland, and Mao's China... Kim Jong-il, Kim Il-sung, Fidel, and hell... even Hugo Chavez. These governments, socialists... communists... these governments, require unity. Their authority is flimsy and based on fear - and without the constant forced reaffirmation of acquiescence from their nation's citizens reminding people who's in charge and indoctrinating them to incant the words of blind patriotism, their authority diminishes further. Individuals are no good... individuals make waves... individuals start revolutions! Placid groups - cows mooing pledges and oaths and singing patriotic songs - are fearful and weak... making them manageable and controllable.

"If there's one thing a totalitarian government cannot tolerate, it’s ambiguity. They don't care very much what you believe, as long as you're all believing it together."

-Penn Jillette (& Teller) from Flag

No, I think I (and my kids if I should have any) will be abstaining from a pledge and a national anthem unless I am moved to do so voluntarily by awe of our forefather's clairvoyance and the principles that America was built around. Forcing "national unity" is the surest way to trample on their ideas and the country that those ideas built that I can think of.