Friday, July 25, 2014

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Myth of the 1400 Year Sunni/Shia War

An interesting article from Murtaza Hussain.  This is an excuse offered the the present chaos there.

Another excuse is that Iraqis are just not mature enough to where they are ready for democracy, so our invasion, though well intentioned, was just never feasible given how backwards they are.  Personally I think Iraqis rather don't want a US style democracy, which a recent study showed is not a democracy at all, but an oligarchy.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Economics - Cui Bono

Ha Joon Chang captures what I regard as the fundamental error of the economics of the conservative mind:
Economics is a political argument. It is not - and can never be - a science; there are no objective truths in economics that can be established independently of political, and frequently moral, judgments. Therefore, when faced with an economic argument, you must ask the age-old question 'Cui bono?' (Who benefits?), first made famous by the Roman statesman and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero.
Trickle down economics, free trade, allowing the market to solve environmental problems, deregulating finance, tax cuts for the rich.  They'd have us believe these are based on economics as a scientific discipline.  They don't ask who most obviously and immediately benefits from these policies.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Priorities of the Pro-Life Tea Party

My conservative friends tell me they are pro-life, and I believe them.  But when they tell me that abortion is their number 1 issue, that all other issues are subordinate to it, this I don't believe.

Because if you really have a problem with abortion you don't just work to make abortion illegal.  You try to reduce the number of abortions that occur.  One thing that would help is to just make choice of life a choice that is easier financially.

If you're part of a family living in the state of North Carolina, where Medicaid expansion has not been adopted, and you make $25K per year, and you get pregnant, you are going to be sorely tempted to get an abortion.  This child is going to be a significant financial burden.  But if you live in Michigan it's not a problem.  You qualify for Medicaid.  Everything will be covered.

Republicans are unhappy because Obama Care means more taxes, especially for those that make over $250K.  In other words, especially for those that are kind of rich.  What's more important?  Rolling back those taxes on the rich or saving the lives of the unborn?  For the tea party Republicans in North Carolina and in other states we have a clear answer.

More broadly the same test can be applied to single payer health care.  We know who doesn't like it.  Corporations that want employees to feel insecure in their ability to leave a job.  Pharmaceutical companies that don't want to have to negotiate with a single buyer, which would lead to lower costs for consumers and lower profits.  Insurance companies who employ thousands of people who's job it is to figure out how to get claims denied, and hospitals who employ thousands of people in an arms race to compete with the administrators at insurance companies.  Single payer would single handedly eliminate the US deficit and improve our health care system, but certain powerful corporations don't want it.

Here's what else it would do.  Reduce the pressure on a family to get an abortion.  If you make $60K in the US you enjoy a decent life, but as corporations have pushed health care costs on to employees more and more so they could enjoy their now record profits this has led to a condition where pregnancy is a huge financial pain.  It's not unusual to have $3K annual deductibles even when you adopt the low deductible plan your company offers.  This is the one with the higher monthly premiums.  Pregnancy means you'll quickly hit that deductible.  That's a lot of money for a family making $60K.  Maybe they want to save for retirement or the education of other children they already have.  Abortion is incentivized on the kind of health care system we have in the US.  That incentive is removed with single payer health care.

On the issue of single payer Republicans and tea party types align themselves with the pharmaceuticals, insurance companies, and other corporations that want high profits.  They side against the majority of the public.  And against the unborn.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Glenn Greenwald debates Alan Dershowitz and Michael Hayden on the NSA

For those of us that think the NSA is completely out of control and must be reigned in, I think we need to thank our lucky stars that it turned out that Glenn Greenwald is our spokesman.  What an incredibly skilled debater he is.  I'm constantly impressed with his TV appearances and now the Munk debate, which you can watch here.

You won't be surprised to know I think Greenwald was awesome.  He couldn't have done a much better job.  The way he handled the spin from Dershowitz was a joy to see, calling out his straw men explicitly, only to have Dershowitz repeat the straw man, which I don't think was fooling anyone at that point.

One thing Dershowitz did was try to reframe the focus of the debate on a side issue.  This is a trap I have to be careful not to fall for when I debate, and Greenwald didn't fall for it.  Dershowitz wanted to focus on Obama's motives.  He said that Greenwald and Ohanian regard terrorism as a pretext for the privacy invading policies that have been enacted.  This much is true, and Greenwald accepted that.  So Dershowitz expanded on that to say that if you think terrorism is a mere pretext than you have to think Obama is not pursuing these policies with the intent of reducing terrorism, and that's absurd.

Greenwald did the right thing and dismissed the question as irrelevant.  We're talking here about what the NSA is actually doing and whether it is wrong.  We're not going to try and divine the motives of people we don't really know that well.  Dershowitz pressed the point though.  If you think terrorism is a pretext you think Obama is some sort of cartoon villain, torturing, droning, and spying just because he enjoys it.  Greenwald dropped it and I think that was the right decision with limited time.  Don't let this be the focus of the debate, because it's really not the question being addressed.

But I'll say something about the point since I have all the time I want.  I just don't think pretexts always come with this level of explicit intention.  Take a look at the American colonists.  As they came to the Americas, ultimately exterminating tens of millions of people in the largest genocide in the history of the world, what did they believe themselves to be doing?  Helping the natives.  Take a look at this.  This is the Great Seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  The native says "Come Over and Help Us."  We're here to help the natives, rescuing them from their pagan ways.  Is that the real reason the colonists came?  It may be what many of them honestly thought, but looking back we can see that what they really sought was full control of their own territories, their own prosperity, the betterment of themselves and their kin at the expense of others who were outside of their tribe.  Christianizing was a pretext, even if many of the colonists themselves couldn't see it.

You see similar sentiments with regards to the British colonial action.  British management of India led to famines that would kill as many as 25 million people.  But they were bringing culture and refinement to these disgusting Indians.  If they believed their own lies, so what?  They were there to plunder Indian society, extract it's wealth, destroy potential competitors to their textile manufactures, and generally enrich themselves.  Their stated goal of bringing betterment to the Indian people is today seen as a pretext, even though they may not have recognized it at the time.

And so it goes.  We bombed Vietnam to the stone age because of our benevolent intent, attempting to spare them the ravages of Communism.  Of course a lot of people still believe that today, though to me it seems pretty silly.  Neoliberalism generally follows the same course.  We brought free markets to Haiti, African nations, Chile, Argentina, Guatemala, etc, because we just love them so much and want to help them.  In fact it enriches the already wealthy in the US, but these wealthy in the US actually believe their own lies.  They think they are doing Haitians a lot of good by reducing tariff restrictions, getting the minimum wage cut, etc.  We need to save Iraq from Saddam Hussein because we just love Iraqis so much.  I'd suggest to Alan Dershowitz that the people that use pretexts such as the threat of terrorism more often than not believe their own lies, so if Obama believes that what he's doing is for the purpose of reducing terrorism we wouldn't be surprised.  But as Greenwald pointed out repeatedly, all of the evidence shows it has failed spectacularly, just as the British attempts to "help" Indians did the opposite of helping.  In fact they made the situation worse, and so does the NSA.  It's a hindrance to stopping actual terrorist threats.  So invoking terrorism to expand NSA power is a pretext, whether Obama knows it or not.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

For Us Thieves, Life Is Easy

I get the feeling that for most of the people reading this blog, life is pretty easy.  Mostly it's the kind of people that not only can meet their needs with each paycheck, but there's money left over to save.  I'm lucky enough to be able to say that's true for me.

I don't consider myself a super frugal person, but I aspire to be.  If you are frugal and you save money it doesn't necessarily take too long before the money you've saved itself "earns" enough to cover your monthly expenses.

So for instance, suppose I was a more frugal person and could live on $30K/year.  If I were to save $750K then my savings should cover all of my expenses.  Forever.  A general savings rule is that if you've invested in a broad range of stocks, perhaps via a mutual fund, you might expect that you can withdraw 4% of your total savings annually and the savings would never go away.  Maybe you have 7% growth, you withdraw the 4%, and inflation eats 3%.  Basically the money lasts forever.

Suppose I've hit financial independence, but I just keep working for a few more years.  It doesn't take that long to go from $750K to $1.5 million because that initial $750K grows as well.  If I wait a few years on retirement and still live on $30K when I do retire, by the end of each year I'd have $30K more than when I started.  Despite the fact that I've lived comfortably, paid my utility bills and my food bills.  I had many people that provided me services.  And yet despite doing nothing I now have even more money than the year before.

How does that work?  How is it that I can take advantage of services, pay for utilities, go out to eat, generally enjoy myself, all the while doing nothing, and when I've done that for a year now I have more than when I started?  We're told that our money "works" for us.  But it doesn't really.  Money doesn't actually "do" anything.  People do.  People work.  What money does is it entitles me to take a portion of the value that other people create.  This is entailed in the concept of "property rights".

In other words, people work in factories and in so doing they add a certain amount of value.  They only keep a portion of that value.  Who gets the rest?  I do.  It goes to me.  I don't necessarily know what they do.  I don't know if the work is destructive to his body or his environment.  I just get the money.  And I haven't really done anything.

If I were to continue working as I do now for a couple of more decades a savings of $1.5 million is entirely conceivable, and I think living on $30K/yr is also plausible when the mortgage is gone.  So what does this mean?  It means that when I stop working I not only will watch my wealth grow, I'll be able to provide for my kids such that they could extract services forever and likewise never work.  I just need to teach them the 4% rule.  I'd be living on 2% on this scenario, so the amount I can withdraw annually without seeing any reduction in my real wealth increases

This scenario is very much within my reach, and it seems unfair.  The idea that I can reach a point where I never work, yet my wealth grows, and further that my kids and their kids can likewise live off that same wealth.  So you can imagine how extreme the unfairness is for people that are really sitting on large piles of money.  They can hardly see their wealth diminish even if they try.  Why?  Because sweat shop laborers and other laborers are compelled to hand over the fruits of their labor to these rich oligarchs.  Money the oligarchs don't need, but the sweat shop laborers do.

This is the system I participate in.  We are the lucky ones that don't live hand to mouth.  We've seen a big boost in our wealth over the last year or so as the stock market has come back.  That's wealth that was created by the companies I partly own through mutual funds.  Companies that have people that work for them, people that often live hand to mouth and just don't have the ability to save.

It's just kind of depressing to me, but I don't see that I have much choice.  I've been working all these years and I haven't been allowed to keep the entire amount of value I've created.  It's gone to stock holders before me.  If I had been able to keep what I produce maybe I'd have enough saved that I wouldn't need to work any more, but that's not where I am.  So like they have taken the excess value I've produced, I'm going to take the excess value produced by others further down the line.  As I age it's going to get tougher and tougher to work for a wage.  You're going to have to have savings.  There are alternatives to investing, but they aren't so good.

What would be more fair of course would be to take back from the rich what was taken from us instead of taking from the poor, but our system of property rights just doesn't permit it.  But this is one of the reasons I find it absurd to hear complaints from rich people about welfare.  The biggest welfare system ever is the system of property rights, which compels the very poorest of people to give the value they create to people that are so fantastically rich they can't realistically even spend it.

Amongst some on the left a popular phrase is "Property is Theft".  I think that's correct.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Corporate State Capitalism

Did you know that every important component in the iPhone was originally developed with funding from the US government?  Not just the iPhone of course.  Google, pharmaceuticals, GPS, commercial aviation, satellite communications.  Just about every advanced technology that you could think of that sets the US apart from the rest of the world in terms of our economic strength finds it's root in the state sector.

Economist Marianna Mazucotti goes into more detail in this Ted talk, and those that have read my blog for a while know that I learned this long ago from Noam Chomsky.  Chomsky goes into further interesting detail in this lecture from 1997.  He says that pretty much everyone understood following the end of WWII that state support of the economy was vital, and if we took it away with the end of the war we should expect to plunge straight back into the Depression we had just emerged from.  Think about these facts the next time you hear someone talk about how Steve Jobs is the perfect example of the kind of innovation that is possible if only we'd get government out of the way.