Friday, May 1, 2009

100 days of Obama

Given the popularity of rating the progress of our new president, I figured 'what the heck', I'll jump onto this band wagon and throw in my two cents. So, in no particular order, my thoughts on the first 100 days of the 44th president of these United States.

The Bailouts - Here I give him a resounding 'meh'. No better or worse than I would have expected from a politician. I would have greatly preferred that he move instead to protect investors and provide a fallback lending program to insure businesses could get credit, and then just let the wall street firms collapse. There may be good reasons that this could not be done, but I get the impression that it has more to do with the strength of the lobbying groups than anything else. Lower ranking for the auto bailouts. These are companies that were marginal when the economy was good, they need to be replaced with something better. I would prefer to see this handled by letting them fall and providing assistance with rebuilding whatever rises from the ashes. I would say he is doing a little worse on this than I would have expected.

The Stimulus - I am neutral on this. If I understand the theory here, the notion is that we need to spend a buncha money to get things moving, and as long as we are spending it may as well be on Democrats dream list of improvements. I don't agree with all of their projects, but I am not offended by most of them either. Here I would have to say he is doing what I would have expected him to.

The Budget - This ties in heavily with the previous two. There is little arguing that he is spending at a level not seen in generations. As far as I can tell nearly all of the increase is the bailouts and stimulus, so I will not deal with that separately. His long term budget relies heavily on expected savings from programs not yet implemented to show things will get better, this is a classic case of 'counting your chicks before they hatch'; Before the eggs are even laid in this case. I could knock him for that, but this is pretty standard fare. He's dealing with an emergency situation; I do not think we can fairly judge his normal behaviour from this.

Foreign Policy - Here is where I think he really shines. Never mind that he is not getting instant results from his practice of showing respect to smaller countries; We are in this for the long game. Will someone mistake this for weakness and try to push us? Maybe, maybe not. If he caves when pushed, we have a problem, but I do not see him doing that. Countries that flat out hate us will not be won over by this, but they are largely a lost cause at this point anyways. It is the ones on the fence that are going to be affected. We have the most offensively capable military in the history of humanity, and the most powerful economy to go with it. Kudos to him for realizing that acting tough is not necessary when you are tough. This is one area where he has exceeded my expectations.

Inexperience - This is a mixed bag. The way he handles himself, and some of the errors made clearly show his lack of experience running things. Then again, so does his simply ignoring trivial attacks and his general tendency to not act like a politician sometimes. I like this. Whether I agree with him or not, I see him focused on doing what he thinks needs doing more than on playing at politics for it's own sake. The small errors are the price for this, and well worth it. (As a practical matter, I think he had better stay on target with what he does - the general public is willing to overlook small errors because he is seen as above the trivia, let him stoop to lower tactics just once or twice and they will turn on him with interest.)

Executive Power and Transparency - The big failure. Moving to expand protections for domestic surveillance and the moving of Gitmo operations to Afghanistan are unacceptable and the only area where he has really disappointed. Apparently things look different from the big chair. If the Republican party had not decided to go with an 'attack everything' strategy, they could hammer him hard on this; as things stand it is getting lost in the poutrage. Respect must be given to the grassroots Left for calling him on this, but the parties are not paying enough attention to keep it on the news, and that is what it takes to change stuff like this.

....

I am sure I missed stuff, but that is all I feel like typing for now.

My general impression? Pretty damn good for a Democrat.

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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Practical Application of the Silly Putty Theory of Society

Having built a base with my last post, it is time to look at the practical applications of the theory. In the end any model is only as good as the utility it provides.

The main conclusion that I draw is that focused regulations will always result in undesired consequences. While one can point out specific flaws in individual regulations, that it not the true cause. The real cause it that a fluid system moving towards equilibrium of the forces acting upon it will always adapt around localized obstructions. The individual mechanism may matter in the details, but in a macro sense, not so much.

This should not be taken to mean that no regulation can work. It is rather an assessment that only actions that act as a force on a significant 'volume' of the system will ever achieve their desired goals.

In the comments in my last post Tao raised the question of the FDIC. At first I would have considered this a limit, but really it is a force. It creates a vector the magnitude of peoples faith in the governments ability to meet the guarantee, placed in precise opposition to their fear that money in the bank could simply vanish if the bank collapsed. The existence of the FDIC is probably the single most important difference between this recession and the great depression.

Social security, food stamps, and various 'here's your money' programs act to prevent those who fail to succeed in society from going into unrecoverable free fall. Even from a purely economic sense, it is hard to deny the importance of this. People with nothing to loose are dangerous. The proper balance between this type of assistance and programs oriented towards providing an upward impetus is a question not yet fully answered.

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A truly blatant example if what I don't like about focused legislation is here (by way of the Coyote Blog) . The response may be to say that policy can be better designed. I would disagree. Anyone who has ever tried to get management types to do a use case scenario analysis for software design will understand why. Even people whose main job is to look at the big picture are incredibly bad at envisioning all the ways a system may be needed to act. Rarely can you get them to come up with more that half a dozen cases. And of course they complain the software has a bug when it does exactly what they asked for and yields a bad result.

(An unrealated observation. It is hard to type while on an excercise bike. But is easy to pedal a long time when typing. Go figure.)

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Society, Governmental Regulation, and Silly Putty

Like many libertarian leaning people, I have a distinct lack of regard for governmental regulation. I find that I have a difficult time expressing the reasons for some of this to people who don't share the view, but I recently developed a model that describes it. Using silly putty. I use silly putty because 1) It describes the effect in a visualizable way, and 2) I think it's funny.

For those unfamiliar with silly putty, it has some odd characteristics. Given an applied force (like gravity) it will flow to conform to a container. Strike it suddenly, and it will bounce or even break. This is important, as we shall see. (can you imagine me as a professor?) For the purposes of this post, I will use the putty as a model for society, with government represented by actions applied to the putty. I divide the actions into three types.

First up is forces. Forces act by pulling or pushing society in various directions. These are the most basic effects on society and act in a very broad fashion. The desire for stuff, need for security, and political ideology are examples of forces. The need for politicians to do what it takes to get elected would be another. Governmental examples would be criminal law enforcement and broadly designed tax incentives. Forces act in ways that have effects that are usually fairly predictable in a large sense, but less so in the details. When measured by statistics, forces tend to create a 'bell curve' shape if they are balanced by another force, or a 'hockey stick' if they are not. In the silly putty model, forces control where the putty tries to flow towards.

Next up are limits. Limits are properties of the system that keep it within artificial bounds. This would be things like Social Security, Welfare, and minimum wage. I cannot think of any that are not governmental, but that does not mean they do not exist. Limits also act in ways that tend to be pretty predictable, but not always the ones desired. When measured by statistics, limits tend to express as a 'pooling' effect at the limit. (See chart 3 on this report that Luis showed me... this is what got me started on this analogy). In the silly putty model, limits are the container that bounds some areas.

Lastly are focused forces. Focused forces are specific interactions aimed at narrowly target goals. Note that they can push or pull. These would be things like regulations against specific chemicals, incentives towards specific technologies, and demographically targeted laws. The only thing predictable about the results is their unintended consequences. When measured by statistics focused forces tend to express as a temporary 'spike' or 'divot'. In the silly putty model, this is analogous to pushing against the putty with a pencil, or pulling with a hook.

My personal notion is that forces are the best way to manipulate a system, followed by limits. Focused forces have a brief effect, but the inevitably fluid nature of any complex system will always cause it to flow around the obstruction, often with results worse than what the action was trying to fix. Limits are a middle option, to be used when necessary. Broad forces are the least attractive to many policy makers because of the lack of easily predicted point results, but in terms of making real and lasting changes are by far the most effective.

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Societal Inertia

As those of you who have been so patiently following my musings know, I have been doing a lot of research lately on statistics about the economy,government, and society over the last however many years I can get data for. And I have finally come to one important conclusion.

The government has a lot less control than most folks think. There are underlying currents in society that have a vastly larger affect than any set of policies or any political party.

Something changed in the behaviour of society in the mid to late 1970's. People started to save less and spend more. Credit went from being a necessary evil to be used only when absolutely needed, to a way to buy conveniences and luxuries.

I would guess this to be a generational change. This was the point at which people who had not lived through the Great Depression began to economically 'outnumber' those who had not.

Government changed also. Government spending, which had been increasing steadily, levelled off. We went from a steady budget surplus to consistent deficits, following just a few years after personal expenditures did the same.

What strikes me about this is that Government followed the public, not the other way around. It is popular to talk about Reagan as the start of this change, but I think that he was a symptom, not a cause.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Loosing By Winning

For most of my life, one defining characteristic of the Republican party has been their political effectiveness. Not necessarily at accomplishing anything, but at winning. They developed the concept of party unity and discipline to an extent that the Democrats never did. It kept them winning elections, and to a large extent controlling congress even when they did not win elections.

And it is what is killing them now. The current crop has learned a pattern of behaviour that has been successful their entire careers, but that is all it is. A pattern of behaviour. The ideas and ideals have long since been replaced with talking points and dogma. It's not enough anymore, but the party structure has no room for new ideas.

But because it has always worked, they cannot adapt. They lash out in frustration, doing the same things they have always done, and they cannot understand why it doesn't work anymore. Look at their 'budget' proposal. That has to be the most pathetic thing I have ever seen. Lower taxes but then expect the deficit to fall because people will voluntarily pay more than required? Seriously? Freeze spending? Oh, yeah, and then I'll make my car run better by cutting off 20% of the fuel. They attack Obama for everything but breathing, and hell they will probably start in on that next. This is particularly bad because there are some things he is doing that do deserve some serious scrutiny, but no one is listening to chicken little anymore.

The Republican party needs to grow the f$%! up and start looking at what they can learn from Obama. It is not about strategy. It is not about tactics. It is about having a real plan about policy and a real goal for the future.

And the Democrats should probably be looking closely at the failure of the Republicans. This is the long term risk success brings.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Measuring Sucess

So a little bit ago, I posted a question about how we would measure the success or failure of our society and government. The silence was deafening. The only direct response was regarding health care, and I while it is a worthwhile area of study, it is certainly not enough by itself. Later I have received comments rejecting the concept of quantitative measurement as a means of assessment altogether. This does not work for me either.

I think the problem with settling on a set of quantitative measurements is that one will quickly discover that the most tightly held beliefs are often not supported by the evidence. Two obvious examples would be 'tax and spend democrat' and 'rising cost of living'. A review of the deficit will quickly sink the first, the consumer price index the latter.

It is simply the nature of how the brain works that we easily accept information that matches our world view, and we challenge or outright reject information that contradicts it. Humans are incredibly poor at weighing the costs and benefits of actions in a rigorous fashion; it is an ability that must be consciously and rigorously developed. Witness the popularity of video poker. A few seconds thought will make it obvious that as the lottery turns a consistent profit, the players must turn a consistent loss. And yet ask those who play and 99 out of 100 will tell you they are 'even or maybe a little ahead'. The emotional impact of winning and loosing is not a linear affect, so many small losses will be outweighed by the rare large win, even though the net over time is always a loss.

Likewise, the benefits of policies we agree with are easier to see and have more emotional impact than the costs. The opposite is true of policies we disagree with. Attached to this is the tendency to apply a binary 'good'/'bad' label to the policy. The reality is messy and unattractive; all policies have costs and benefits. There are vanishing few pure gain or pure loss actions.

So I conclude that an objective quantitative means of measuring society is necessary to make any kind of informed decision. As a matter of practicality, some of the means will slant one way, some will slant another. As long as they balance out reasonably well, the imperfections of any one indicator are not a huge problem.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Tea Parties Revisited

The Rasmussen Report released this report about the public perception of the 'tea parties'.
On a sub page they have less processed numbers. Note that they show only 1000 respondents, which is pretty typical of polls like this; that seems a strong argument against taking polls like this too seriously.

Living on the internet as I do, it is strange how much my sense of things like this gets distorted. The week before the 'parties' commentary about them just dominated the left blogs. Right blogs that were promoting the 'parties' didn't spend half the words as blogs questioning, criticizing, and of course mocking them.

Myself, I can't say I had a lot of interest in the 'parties' themselves. They need to have a message more clearly defined than 'I don't like this' before I am going to pay much attention.

I do find the accusations of astroturfing amusing. First off, I was a regular at one of the blogs that helped launch the whole thing at the time it caught on. I watched it develop in real time. Secondly, look at these people. They are just not organized well enough to be a planned campaign. Where are the catchy, universal slogans? Note the lack of buses. Note the blatant inexperience with things like permits. The interest groups are not driving this, they are trying to cash in on it.

Also interesting is how much this is portrayed as a Republican thing. At least one of the liberal bloggers I follow was active. Supposedly, Steele himself was turned down when he asked to speak, although he denies asking. Most everyone I have read who went for any purpose but heckling mentioned the effort spent on keeping it non-partisan. Elected officials of any stripe were largely excluded.

Really, this was a libertarian protest; most libertarians are just Republicans. Many don't know it.

In the end I think I will neither support nor deride their efforts. Their message is too poorly developed to deserve my support; their protest too heartfelt to deserve my scorn.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Not Democratic?

The whole gay marriage issue has resurrected a perennial complaint on the right about judicial activism, now focused on how it is 'not democratic'.

Many people, most of them better writers than me, have addressed this, but I have seen none that mentions what is to me the key response.

Yes, it is undemocratic. It's supposed to be.

Some things are simply not to be decided by a vote. Democracy is the best government system humanity has found. That does not mean it is perfect. That is why we have a constitution, and more specifically a bill of rights. These are the things that are not negotiable.

Or to put it most simply, when the courts strike down a democratically enacted law to protect the rights of a minority, they are doing their job. No more, no less.

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By Request

This is a comparison of debt versus savings, as requested. Unfortunately I do not have data going back as far as I would like.
The debt data is from here.
The savings data is from here.
I am not at all certain I converted the monthly data for debt to quarterly correctly, so all the data may be offset a few months, but I don't think that really matters for our purposes.
Posted by Picasa

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Fiddling

OK, I'm fiddling with the colors again on this, since some people though the old setup was ugly, and my next try was hard to read. Since I have just as much design sense as you would expect from a redneck, this may take a few attempts.

Bear with me, and feel free to chime in with any problems (some of the ones that were hard for some people to read looked fimr to me)

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Saturday, April 18, 2009

Telling


If I had to pick one economic indicator that defines recent economic history, I think this would have to be it.

(PS - Posting direct from this picture editor thing - pretty cool. I love technology.)

Posted by Picasa

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Friday, April 17, 2009

Intriguing


This is not what I expected. I had always assumed that the top earners were pretty well insulated from recessions, but they are affected much more than others. Not that they are hurting by any measure!

I would guess that this represents how much of their wealth is tied into the stock market.

This is more data pulled from the congressional budget office. Fun stuff!

EDIT - Notice also the explosive growth in the late 90's. This was happening at the exact same time as our brief flirtation with actually paying the nation debt. I have no idea what that means.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

What is 'Fair'?

There has been much use of the word 'fair' floating around recently. I personally do not generally use the word; 'Fair' seems like a childhood concept to me. Since I do not use it myself, and given my awe inspiringly poor grasp of implicit arguments, I am curious what people mean by 'fair'.

Since it is being used in the context of taxes lately, I will discuss it in those terms. All these stats are pulled from here.

As of 2006, the top 20% of people make 55.7% of all the money, and pay 69.3% of all Federal taxes. The rest of us make 44.3% of all the money, and pay 30.7% of the taxes.

For a more stark comparison, the top 10% make 41.6% of all the money, and pay 55.4% of all Federal taxes. The rest of us make 58.4% of the money, and pay 44.6% of the taxes.

The average tax paid (per household?) is $18,800. The average tax paid by the bottom quintile is $700. The average tax paid by the second quintile is $4,000. The average tax paid by the middle quintile is $8,600. The average tax paid by the fourth quintile is $15,700. The average tax paid by the top quintile is $64,000. (all numbers federal taxes for 2006).

The extent to which the majority of people in America are subsidized by the wealthy is difficult to overstate, at least in tax terms. Is this 'fair'? It is certainly hard to argue that the wealthy are not paying their 'fair' share. On the other hand, they can afford it. And the simple fact that their portion of the overall income is increasing proves rather handily that this is not a crippling burden.

I do wonder about the inevitable effects of this on policy however. The 'payocracy' effect (he who pays makes the rules) is nearly unavoidable. If they are paying for the Federal government, is it not 'fair' that they have more say in how it works? And 'fair' or not, is it in the best ineterests of the country if they do effectively control the government? Come to that, whether or not it is in the best interests of the country, can it be avoided?

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Monday, April 13, 2009

Obama Disappoints

Those who have spoken to me here and there in my blog travels know that I am not generally big on criticizing Obama. I dont often agree with him, but I generally accept that he is doing what he was hired to do, the way he was hired to do it.

But this is seriously disappointing. He is actually acting worse (at least by some measures) than Bush with the whole domestic surveilance thing? And closing Guantanamo is looking less and less like a good thing. Are we just moving prisoners to somewhere less visible?

My faith that he was at least trying to do the right thing as he knows it has taken a serious hit here.

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Why Government Expands

Much is said about the expansion of government from all sides. Some favor large government, some do not.

Largely, it really doesn't matter whether people believe in large government or not, because it will always expand regardless.

Many people are aware that this happens, but are unaware of why. Charges are thrown around of 'power grabs' and 'socialism' etc., but this is not why.

The answer is much simpler and harder to address.

People are elected to 'do something'. For the purposes of this discussion, what they are elected to do is irrellevant. It is the 'do something' itself that matters.

To accomplish any goal, you need to be able to make changes. To make changes, you need power. It is really that simple. Even the ones whose goal is to reduce government need to gain power to make it happen.

No evil motives, no master plan, not even bad judgement.

Just the obvious and unavaoidable end result of the generating circumstances.

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

So, Gun Control

I have avoided gun control on my blog, mostly because it is an area where I have some very strongly held opinions, but an honest discussion is needed somewhere, so here goes nothing...

The whole 'Obama is/isn't going to take away your guns' is a meaningless distraction. Period.

Those of us who pay attention to gun control / gun rights are well aware that an all-at-once gun seizure is not going to happen. That was a one-time trick, New Orleans used up the free pass.

What we are watching for is the slow erosion.

Before I go to far into this, a question for the non gun owners who read this:

What do you think Obama's policies on gun control are?

(EDIT 4/10/09: I am going to abandon gun control for bit here. Not because I don't want to continue the discussion, I just have an idea on how to do it without hijacking this blog. Will update when I get somewhere, probably this weekend)

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Glenn Beck

So, Glenn Beck.

Some kind of 'conservative' commentator on Fox news, right?

Who watches this guy?

One of the blogs I follow ( I really forget which one) had a clip of him an LaPierre up, and I watched it.

OK, that man is seriously annoying. Seriously.

He could be saying the most brilliant piece of analysys ever seen on TV... I wouldn't know because I just cannot sit through him talking. It's like torture.

But I did manage to make it through four minutes or so. Nothing he said was particularly interesting, standard preaching to the choir stuff.

I see him quoted so much on left leaning blogs, never on any of the right leaning blogs. It makes me think; There is a theory on the 2A blogs that the vast majority of visits on the gun control sights are actually us looking to see what they are up to. I wonder if a sizeable portion of Beck's audience is liberals looking for something to make fun of?

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Sunday, April 5, 2009

Health Care, an Alternate Proposal

OK, we have been going around about health care, so I thought I'd throw my two cents in here in my little playground.

I support a health savings account(HSA)/ high deductible insurance plan.

Here's why:

Insurance is a form of gambling. When you play the lottery, you balance the near certainty that you will lose a small amount of money against the possibility of winning a great deal of money. Insurance is exactly the same. As a group, you always pay more than you get. Therefore the goal should be to use insurance as little as possible.

Some major catastrophes are simply too expensive to save against, so we pool the risk with insurance, and accept the inevitable loss. This would be a high deductible/ high benefits plan that covers only major problems, but covers them more-or-less completely. This should be pretty inexpensive, as it would be rarely used.

To cover regular, predictable costs, you save money against need. This is the only system that removes the administrative costs and overhead associated with insurance. No one but you needs to decide if it is a reasonable expense.

The benefits would be reduction in overhead, first. Also, people would pay attention to how much their treatment costs. Going to the doctor is the only service I can think of where people do not expect to know what it costs ahead of time. Often, if you ask, they cannot even tell you. I think that it is not coincidence that this is also the only service I know of with uncontrolled cost increases.

Right now, we treat medical care as a cost no object service, and place a premium on speed of service, options, and quite frankly a 'magic cure' mentality. So that is what we get. If we apply a cost/benefits analysis every time we see a doctor, some of them will respond and gain a competitive advantage. Prices will go down for everyone.

If I am right and prices do go down, that will solve a lot of the coverage problem by itself. Also, the oft touted 'x million without coverage' is a bit of an exageration. It is not a measure of how many lack coverage at any one point in time, but rather how many lack coverage for some span within a time frame, usually a couple of years. This is caused by relying on employers to provide insurance. A HSA is not reliant on employment, so a substantial portion of those without coverage now would be eliminated.

If we eliminate the temporary coverage gaps, and reduce or at least contain costs, then medicaid can be expanded to cover the poor at a sustainable cost.

With this system, the concern about who decides what treatment is rendered moot - there is no longer a gap between who pays and the patient, they are one and the same.

Note that hybrid systems would also be possible. Making catastrophic coverage a universal system with a mild progressive tax support would fix the 'dying from lack of coverage' issue, without eliminating the cost benefits of value shopping.

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Saturday, April 4, 2009

Government Control

With the liberals so strongly in ascendance right now, the push to implement many long cherished plans to improve the welfare of the public. It's what liberals do, and that is as it should be, at least in my eyes.

Attendant to this is the resistance of conservatives, who are concerned with what the consequences of these programs will be, both in what they intend to accomplish, and in the unintended side effects. It's what conservatives do, and that is as it should be, at least in my eyes.

The usual game of straw arguments is being played out right before all of our eyes, with liberals pointing out the great successes of some programs while ignoring the failures, and conservatives pointing out the failures, while ignoring the successes. Preach to the choir, pat each other on the back and go flame the other side. We all think the other side is stupid, greedy, lazy.

Enough.

I will attempt here to take an honest view of the great concern of the conservatives when we talk about government programs, and that of course is government control.

I wanted to keep this abstract, not touching on any actual current issue to avoid entrenched positions, but I find that it will not coalesce without a real world example. So (deep breath) I will go with a single-point example from health care.

One common criticism of our current system of health care is the relatively low life expectancy, especially compared to how much we spend. Nobody really has a good explanation for this, I suspect because the obvious is too uncomfortable to talk about. Obesity. Obesity in the US has reached levels unprecedented in history. And it has health implications, serious ones. If we go to a government controlled health care system, the pressure will be immense to show gains in health and life expectancy. That cannot be done without reducing obesity.

But how? Forcing excercise? Banning high-fat foods? Taxing the overweight? Or doing a sneaky tax - this is a 'credit' for being a healthy weight, which has the exact same effect as taxing being overweight, while calling it a tax cut (the last is not an abstract example, the UK is considering it last I checked).

Are we willing to accept this sort of control over our lives? Let someone tell us that we have to excercise. What we can and cannot eat? Obesity is over represented among the poor. Are we going to tax them for it?

And can it work? Solutions applied to literally millions of people are either going to be one-size-fits-all or else riddled with rules and loopholes. Will that be outweighed by the benefits?

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Friday, April 3, 2009

Infinite?

So a recent post I did that was really just a temper tantrum put down in words turned into a full on debate, with me supporting the side I was pissed at to start off with. By a wide margin, the most comments any post I have done has ever had, even if better than a third were mine.

I'm not really a fan of debate, I much prefer discussion. But it is easy to fall into when people have different views, especially when the difference is about the basic state of current reality. I am no more immune than others, and such things quickly develop a momentum of their own.

I am currently spending an excessive amount of time doing research on all sorts of economic data, trying to get a feel for trends, testing what I thought I knew against cold hard numbers. When I figure out a good format, I will try and make what I find accessible online.

A couple of requests for anyone who reads this:

1 - How do we measure success on a societal scale? Please try to step back from policy focus and think large scale. For example, equality is good, but everyone starving would be equality. It is not enough by itself. How do we evaluate the health of a system overall?

2 - Anyone know a good flexible way of generating graphs to present data in an easily readable format. I would like to be able to post both graphs and raw tables. The FRED graphs come with shaded bands that show recessions. I would like to be able to mark administrations, congressional majorities, perhaps add lines to show when particular legislation occurred.

And a final thought that created the title for this post. Every major political group, every big name analyst, every budget proposal has one thing in common. They all assume that the goal is infinite growth.

Nothing grows infinitely.

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Thursday, April 2, 2009

Natural Consequences

A natural consequence can be defined as the way a given situation will change over time in the absence of interfering action. Natural consequences can rarely be fully predicted in a real world setting, but their general shape is usually easily foreseen.

A simple example : If you roll a ball down a hill, you cannot easily predict the exact course it will take, but you know it is going to the bottom of the hill.

A more complex example : If you build a house on a foundation of sand, the house will collapse. Where it will break is not easily predictable... the walls may separate from the floor, or each other, the floor may collapse, ectetera. It may take a week, it may take a year. But it will collapse.


A real life example : If, as an ongoing policy, you buy things without bothering to ask what they cost, the price of those things will increase constantly.


Now that I think about it, natural consequences are really an expression of a deeper priciple : balance. A situation that is out of balance will do one of two things. It will either 1) Move back towards balance, because of effects on a related system countering, or 2) Spin out of control until it breaks, and the wreckage will fall into balance.

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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Future of the Republican Party

Some days I despair. I look at what is going on with the party I have identified with my entire adult life, and I see no hope.

I have a saying going back a ways : "The Democrats mean well, they just don't always understand the consequences of their actions. The Republicans know the consequences of their actions very well, they just don't always mean well."

I can tolerate (at least within bounds) Democrats doing things I see as dumb. I can tolerate (at least within bounds) the Republicans cynically working the system for their own gain.

What I cannot abide are cynical Democrats and dumb Republicans.

Obama to me is just about the purest Democrat I have ever seen. He is out there pushing to fix all the woes of the world, pushing too far in many cases, and some of what he is doing is good today, but will cost us for generations. I do not support him in all things, but I respect him to an extent I respect very few politicians.

Where is his counterbalance? Where is there a Republican who is providing the long term view, with the courage to stand up and say what needs to be said, and damn the cost? Is mindless obstructionism all we have?

And can I just say, if I never hear the word 'teleprompter' again in my life, it will be too soon. I don't care what any realtive of a politician has done. I don't care who a politician got a blowjob from. Quit trying to distract me; I am not impressed, and more and more, neither is anyone else.

In the past, I have been confident that in a year or two, someone will rise from the ranks of the GOP, ignore the call of populism and get down to the business of fixing this country. But I am growing ever less confident. I find now that I can envision a future where the GOP just... fades away. If this happens, the Democrats will run rampant, and do a lot of damage. The system demands balance. Then they will inevitably split up, and we will go back to two parties, just not the same two.

I want the Republican party to survive this, but to do it, they, we, are going to have to realize that it cannot be politics first, message second. The bar has been raised. We need to stop worrying about winning elections and start worrying about integrity, intellectual honesty, and responsibility.

Do that, and winning elections will take care of itself.

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Lets move the discussion...

Well, I have been working on a new post, but then Pamela posted this wonderful post which has the potential to be so much more interesting than my abstract musings.
I'll put up a real post later today probably, but for now I heartily encourage anyone who stops by to join in at Pam's.

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Sunday, March 29, 2009

For Contrast



An interesting contrast. The last graph implied that unemployment gets worse each recession. This shows a different result. So each recovery we end up with less and less people unemployed for longer and longer.

I have no idea what that means, although the nasty side of me says we have filtered down to the real losers. They would be first to go and last to be rehired. But let's be honest, I am a bit of a work snob, so we can't take that too seriously.

Also, I always thought that the 2001/2 recession could be laid at the feet of 9/11, these graphs suggest that we were just 'due'. Maybe any trigger would have done.

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Insert Tiltle Here :)



OK, anyone got any ideas what this means? Note how unemployment (or at least time to get re-employed) drops like a rock, and then bam! Recession.

Um, why is this?

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Absorbing My Life...

No fancy post today, found this and it is pretty much going to absorb my life for a bit whilst I play with it.
Also, I finally set up google reader, so I will be changing the blogroll link format. Amongst other things, the whole left/right classification was getting a bit weak. Hah! No more ribbing me about calling you a lefty, Tao.

(Edit : Revised the colors slightly to try and make it easier to read - let me know if this helps, Anon)

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Abortion

So, to stick with social issues, why not stick my... hand ... into the moral bear-trap that is abortion?

As usual, I have pretty much no use for any of the standard arguments from either side. In just about every case, they are not real reasons, they are just that, arguments. A real reason applies to more than just one issue. And neither side is inclined to apply "choice" or "life" to any other issue. The abortion 'issue' is barely even about abortion any more. It is about 'women's rights' on the one hand and 'traditional values' on the other. All the talk is just noise, as far as I am concerned.

So I will start from scratch.

The notion that life begins at conception has no justification that I can see. The notion that life begins at birth is just as unsupportable. And nobody that I know of supports the notion that there is any definable point in between where one tick of the clock, it's just a collection of cells with no rights, the next tick it is a baby and killing it would be murder. We could go with viability, but that creates a weird system where the definition of a human being changes with advancements in medical science. So, this isn't really getting me anywhere.

If there was an overwhelming agreement amongst the people as to when life began, we could go with that. Many laws are based on that alone. Public nudity, for example. But there is no agreement. Thus the whole argument. So this does not help much either.

I could, I suppose turn to religion, but since I am non-religious to an extent that is hard to overstate, no help there.

Personal liberty is the only argument left. One of my most core beliefs is that personal liberty is a default state - that is, it needs no reason. Rather, it may only be limited where a compelling reason exists to do so. Since I can find no such reason, I can only view this as the final word.

Those who oppose abortion are best served by addressing the reasons for abortion, rather than the act itself. Not only is this morally superior in my eyes, it is just flat out more likely to work.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Morality, Homosexuality, Liberals, and Conservatives

For the purposes of this post, I am going to talk about liberalism and conservatism in a broad sense, separate from the political dogma that has attached itself to each. This may be a bit jarring, but try and bear with me.

A basic, undeniable truth : Change has consequences. Some of those consequences will be desirable, some will not. Some will be intentional, some will not. Some will be predictable, some... well, you get the picture.

Liberalism can be defined as a tendency to see the desirable effects of changes, and a relative lack of concern with the unpredictable effects.

Conservatism can be defined as a tendency to see the undesirable effects of changes, and a focus on the unpredictable effects.

Each has it's place, each is necessary. Taken too far, each gets ugly. Used together with a healthy dose of moderation, they create balance, and balance is damn near the key to all things.

...

To leap sideways a bit, homosexuality, most specifically homosexual marriage, has been in the news and all over the blogs lately. It is drawing a deep and bitter divide between two groups; religious conservatives who see their way of life under attack, and homosexuals who are tired of being treated as non-people and see no reason to tolerate it anymore.

Myself? For the life of me, I really find it hard to believe that this is actually an issue. How it could possibly be my concern if any two (or twelve, for that matter) people decide to get married completely escapes my comprehension.

The most effective argument I have seen mustered against homosexual marriage is something about 'How do I explain to my kids when they see two men out holding hands and they call themselves Mr & Mr So-and-so?". But, to loosen my normal rule against snarky statements : That whole answering kids tough questions? It's called parenting. Look it up. Sorry about the lapse, back to being polite.

...

And now to tie this together.

We are in the midst of a sea change. As a society we are stepping away from a dogmatic system of morals, where some things are just immoral because that is just how it is, to a functional system of morals, where right and wrong are based on the consequences of a behaviour.

You can still see the remnants of the old system. . The courts have in numerous cases used the simple fact that something is traditional as justification that it is therefore valuable, and within society's mandate to regulate, encourage, or even enforce. To some extent, this is really an appropriate thing for the courts to do.

We are in a process of change now that can be likened to rebuilding the foundation of a house. You can do this by propping things up, removing a footing, replacing it, and moving to the next. You'll get a few cracks in the walls, but nothing that can't be fixed. What you cannot do is rip out all the footings at once. The house will simply collapse.

I am in my mid-thirties. The generation before mine saw equality as a struggle, that might or might not happen. My generation saw it more as a process, something to work towards. The generation that follows sees it as a given, that just hasn't been fully implemented yet.

The whole fight over marriage will, in the end, just be a footnote, the last gasp of dogmatic morality. This is really the last identifiable 'issue', and it will end not with homosexual equality, but with people equality. It is just a matter of time.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The EFCA Looks Dead

Well, it looks like the ... questionably ... named Employee Free Choice Act is going to die. I have to say I am of two minds about this.

For the act itself, well, I opposed it pretty much from the get-go. The change to allow bypassing the secret ballot simply has too much potential for abuse. Really, that's all there is to say about it.

I am all for ensuring that people who want to join a union can choose to. But I oppose in the strongest terms any system for forcing a union on those who do not want one.

So, on the one hand, this is pretty much a win.

On the other hand... many people who's opinions I have reason to respect tell me of systematic abuse of the current system, effectively preventing unions from forming where they are needed. Some of the abuses sound a bit contrived to me, especially the attitude that an employer who believes a union will be bad for the business has no right to say so, and that anything they do to try and talk employees out of joining is automatically abuse. Others however, sound entirely believable, and should be addressed.

So why aren't we? The Republicans have made it very clear that the 'card check' is what they oppose, and staked a lot of political capital on it. But that is not the entirety of the bill. Why not just remove that part, pass the rest, and see how it turns out? Can it really be better to get nothing than to get half of what they want?

I suppose the possibility of getting stabbed in the back by the unions if they 'sell out' is a real fear for the congresscritters. But Obama could do it, and get away with it. Barring some disaster, no Democrat is going to be any threat to him next election, and that's going to be his last one.

It is a sad state of affairs when the parties cannot compromise for fear of the interest groups, but there you have it. Maybe we should not tolerate this.

(Edit : Where are my manners? Got my start on this from Born at the Crest of the Empire)

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Someday

I dream of being able to write this well.

H/T to BluntObject.

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A quick note about me....

About oh, 15 or so years ago, I had a funny conversation.

This cute little blond girl that hung out with us looked at me and said "You know, ever since I met you I have been trying to figure out what you mean when you say things. I just finally realized you actually just mean exactly what you say."

To which I replied "Well, yeah. Doesn't everyone?"

....

I have some odd personality quirks. One of these is that I do not use 'subtext'. I am at least to some extent aware that many other people do, but mostly I ignore it. This can create odd gaps in conversation as people get upset at something I say, and I am sitting reviewing the words I just used and thinking "huh?". This is often followed by some form of "Yeah, but you implied it".

I don't imply.

Also, I don't get offended. I notice when people are directly rude to me, and I may or may not tolerate it, but it has no emotional impact. If someone says something intelligent or useful to me in a rude way, I will usually just ignore the rude and focus on the useful.

Unfortunately, this can make it hard not to offend others. Me trying not to be offensive is like a color blind person trying not to use an ugly shade of red. But I do try.

The general point of this is that if I ever say something and you look at it and wonder if I am taking a subtle jab at you, the answer is NO. When someone annoys me, I am not subtle at all.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Odd Effects of Inflation

It is a popular talking point right now to harp on how middle class incomes have declined. Of course, in absolute dollars this is not true, but absolute dollars are of little meaning with our constant inflation system of economics. So we use 'real' dollars, inflation adjusted relative to some more or less arbitrarily selected year.

What I think many people fail to consider is that the results of this adjustment are no longer a measurement of a single factor (income), but rather a measurement of two factors (income and inflation). We spend a lot of time debating what those income numbers mean, and what to do about them, but we abstract away the inflation numbers uncritically.

So, as I so often say, step back from policy positions and politics for a moment. Consider this graph. Now, we can talk about trends and variance between groups, but that is not what strikes me about this graph.

What strikes me is how flat it is. Across 40 years, many different administrations, different parties in control, at least one major policy shift in the Reagan years, look at how straight the lines are. Especially note how close to completely flat the 50% and lower lines are.

Statistics don't work that way. This just screams artifact. Somewhere in the equation we have a feedback loop.

Since 1950, the average new house size has well over doubled. We have more cars now than we have drivers. 40inch TV's used to be for rich people only, now 40" ain't that big, and the electronics store has about an acre of them, so people can have one in the living room and the bedroom. I actually saw an add for a 26" flat screen listed as 'perfect for the bathroom or other small areas'. Cell phones, laptops, the Internet, how many people reading this remember when a computer was an extravagance that only the wealthy could have? Now, how many of you have more than one?

And yet I am supposed to believe we are poorer now than then? This does not add up.

The problem is that the staple items, housing most especially, have their price driven by what the majority of Americans (the middle class) are willing to pay. Lowering the price of housing does not cause us to spend less money, it causes us to get bigger homes. But the consumer price index uses cost of housing as it's largest factor. Feedback loop!

When you get down to it, 'real income' does not measure what you get, it measures what percentage of what you get is left after paying for the basics. It takes no account for how much you can get with that percentage.

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Monday, March 23, 2009

Arguing for Progressive Taxes

I am a Republican. From the libertarian end of the spectrum, no less. And I support progressive taxation. As a matter of fact, I think that taxes should be changed to be far more progressive than any Democratic party proposal I have heard.

How can this be?

To understand why I see it this way, the absolute first thing you must do is completely forget all the normal arguments. I do not think the wealthy owe anything to the rest. I do think they deserve their money. I do not think we have any right to take their money. From every ethical perspective I see no reason why we deserve what anyone else has.

But...

It is the nature of money to attract more money. This requires no name calling or accusations of greed. I suspect for many of the most wealthy, it is almost an accidental side effect. They just make so much money they can't spend it all, so their wealth (as opposed to income) keeps increasing. Well, and good for them. Thing is, this concentrates more and more of the total wealth of the country into the hands of a very small group. Often this is called the top 1%, but in truth it is a much smaller group than that. I believe that if someone tabulated how much of America was owned or controlled directly by the top 3000 or so richest people (.001% of the population) the number would be... disturbing. And it's growing, constantly. Inevitably.

If this trend is allowed to continue to it's logical conclusion, the end is a handful of people owning everything. Well before that, they will achieve effective control, of everything. At which point the country will effectively have ceased to be a representative democracy, and instead become a feudal society with pretty window dressing.

This requires no greed, no evil intentions, heck, no intent at all. It is just the natural result of the current system.


So, what to do about it?

This of course, brings us back to progressive taxes. But how to apply it? The first thing I think is that the Dems plan to have it kick in too low. I would have it as a separate tax. It would kick in at a million or so, and increase linearly up to 100% at around 20 million, taxing only income over the first million. Understand, this is not in any sense an attempt to gain revenue, it is an unapologetic plan to place a hard limit on how much money any one person can make. In that vein, there would be a 110% deduction for charitable donations. If they donate a million, that makes an extra 1.1 million before the tax starts. So by donating more money, they get to keep more money.

The benefits I would expect from this plan:

1. Containing wealth concentration.

2. Since they can get more by donating, most of these people will probably donate enough so that they don't pay the tax at all. That's fine, it's not like we deserved their money anyways. I think that since they effectively have to donate, they will almost certainly develop a keen interest in finding the best return for their money. By definition, these people are good with money, I think they'd do good things.



Of course, they will look for ways to game the system, and to a certain extent, so what? It's their money. As long as they don't get too blatant, why worry about it? And they will do stuff like 'charitably' widening the road to their business, or other infrastructure to benefit their interests. Again, so what? All that stuff will create jobs, pour money into the community, and in most cases the new infrastructure will still benefit more than just them.

Of course, this will essentially create a class of people who act as a sort of nobility. But really, that ship has sailed. I don't care what the law says, Bill Gates is not the same kind of citizen the rest of us are.

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Out-Group Homogeneity and Straw Arguments

Out-Group Homogeneity is the tendency of people to see the variety within their own group, but see other groups as being 'all the same'. It appears to be something of a human nature thing, an abstraction tool used to reduce the complexities of society to something we can fit in our pointy little heads. Of course, the nice thing about being human is that, at least to some extent, we can step beyond 'human nature' and do better. Doesn't always mean we do, but we can.

The misuse of this is demonstrated with dreary regularity in politics. The script goes like this (feel free to sing along) :
They [democrats/republicans/whatever] say [insert position point from one member of target group] but then they do [insert action by another member of target group].

This works because people listen to arguments that support their position much less critically than arguments that oppose it. So we then follow with the next part of the script:

Attacking group runs with the straw argument. It is of course proof that [democrats/republicans/whatever] are hypocrites and stupid. Ridicule will be thrown, congratulatory backslapping will be enjoyed, a good time is had by all.

Defending group, of course, takes about thirty seconds to point out that this is stupid, that [insert position point from one member of target group] has nothing to do with [insert action by another member of target group] and the attacking group are all hypocrites and stupid. Ridicule will be thrown, congratulatory backslapping will be enjoyed, a good time is had by all.

Rinse. Repeat. And repeat, ad nauseum. What does it accomplish? My first response is to say 'nothing', but that is incorrect. What it accomplishes is to create a sense of belonging to the group, whether you are in the attacking or defending group. It shows that 'they' are dumb and dishonest, while 'we' are smart and truthful. And of course, it makes it a bitch to have a grown up conversation with the other side.

I sometimes think that 80% or more of human interaction could be scripted on a piece of paper with fill-in-the-blanks for details. See here for a more in depth treatment of the concept.

.....

Y'know, I wonder if it would not be possible for a small group of people to put an end to this. Create an actual fill-in-the-blank form for the more obnoxious standard political games, and whenever one starts to catch on, distribute the filled out form 'virally'. Using the same form, over and over, with no regard to the issue or group being attacked. If it could be spread far enough, after a while people would start to see this crap as a bad joke rather than a legit tactic, and it would stop working. Behaviours that fail to achieve their desired goal tend to fade away.

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Under Construction

EDIT : OK, it's back up now, sorta. I think I like the separate comments page better anyways.

Well, I was happy about the new layout.

Something I did killed the ability to add comments.

Will update when I get it fixed.

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Scary Stuff

This has to be the single most frightening graph I have ever seen. For about 40 years, excepting only a brief period at the end of the Clinton administration and the beginning of the Bush administration, we have pursued a permanent policy of spending more than we make.

Is there something I do not understand here? Because I cannot see how this can end any other way than badly.

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Mind Reading

I was over at Libby's this morning and she has a post up about Palin, including this Conde Nast piece, about Palin's handling of the Alaskan natural gas pipeline. What really struck me about the article was the shear amount of mind-reading involved. They speak matter-of-factly about her thoughts and feelings, like the author of a novel speaking about the villain of the piece.

Now, step back for a moment from what you think about Palin herself and consider how obnoxious this is. Attacking someone for what they say, what they do, is one thing, but pretending to know what is going on in their head, and then attacking them for it as if they are somehow responsible for your imagination is just... low.

It should be pointed out that Palin haters have nothing that even resembles a monopoly on this, Obama is another favorite target; people do it all the time to anyone they disagree with.

And I have no time for it.

Criticize their policies, where you think they are wrong. Judge their statements, where they are properly your business. Obsess over their trivial gaffs, if you must. But telling someone else what is in their head is a level of arrogance that I consider beneath contempt.

(Edit : Modified the link description - thanks Octo. Would have moved Libby's link to the actual post, but her posts don't have individual links????)

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Friday, March 20, 2009

The Power of Poke and Hope

Turns out you can make things work just by poking at it until you get a result you like. A truly disturbing amount of the programming I do happens this way.

So I got the new layout more or less how I like it... but do not be surprised if small changes appear over the next couple days.

And I have absolutely NO idea why the post titles disappear when you hover over them. I mean, it should be one of the 'hover' colors, but I can't find which one.

(I just downloaded a template with everydamnthing and turned off what I didn't want. Works fine, but man, it has a color for everything)

(Edit : Before someone asks, the title has not a single thing to do with the Pres.)

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No Deep Thoughts Right Now

I do have a few more things in the works, seeing as people actually seem to be reading what I write. Who'd'a thunk it?

But right now, I have much more important issue.

I want widgets on both sides of the blog! Also, why is this thing so dang narrow? Nobody runs their resolution that low anymore.

I know approximately nothing about html or templates or, or, or.... yeah.

So, off to search for a more technical type of knowledge today.

Given my natural OCD tendencies, three months from now I will know everything about html, and then never use it again.

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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Moral Absolutism

Moral absolutism is the Right at it's best. A firm belief in hard work, self reliance, integrity, family, and for many, religion. It is a touchstone that defines who we are, and who we are trying to be. We do not always succeed, but we always know what we are striving for.

Moral absolutism is the Right at it's worst. Abortion, gay marriage, blue laws, and for many, religion. When you know deep down what is right and what is wrong, it is easy to think you can force it on others.

Moral absolutism is the Left at it's best. Tolerance, equality, justice, and charity. It drives them to look for ways to help those in need, protect those who are threatened.

Moral absolutism is the Left at it's worst. Hate speech laws that slide into censorship, laws to protect people from themselves 'for their own good', kangaroo civil rights tribunals. When you know deep down what is right and what is wrong, it is easy to think you can force it on others.

It is all of these things and more. It is often said that the Right is more about moral absolutism, the left more about relative morals. I say otherwise. What I see is that both sides are a mix of both, the difference is what they hold inviolable, and what they are willing to be flexible about.

I think that the Right/Left divide is less important than the directional divide. When you point your morals inward, as an ideal to live up to, it can only improve you and the world. When you point them outward, and try to force them onto others... well, then it gets ugly pretty fast.

I have run across a number of people who believe that the Right is against increasing taxes on the wealthy because we hold some belief that we will ourselves benefit from it. This is not true. We just believe it wrong to take from others simply because they have more than us.

I have run across a number of people who believe that the Left is for welfare and social programs because they are lazy and want free shit. This is not true. Last fall, when my Father was in chemo for his throat cancer, about two dozen of his co-workers showed up to help lay in firewood for the winter. Hardcore liberals, government union workers all, they busted ass like I have rarely seen. Their work, their time, their sweat and blood, to help someone out.

There are of course people on all ends who are just greedy, immoral scumbags. But nothing I have seen in my life leads me to believe that either side has significantly more than the other.

(One difference I see is that (from where I sit, at least) a sizable portion of the Left is completely unaware that they are forcing their morals onto others. "Honor diversity, ban hate speech". Many people do not even see the problem with that statement. You see this most at the universities, so some of it can just be written off to youth, but these people are creepy.)

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Multiplication by Stupid

In mathematics, there is the rule of multiplication by zero. Any number times zero is zero. ( I really hope explaining that was completely unnecessary)

In Politics, there is what I call the rule of multiplication by stupid. Any philosophy times stupid is stupid. Often, this is used to 'prove' that some political belief is dumb or useless. Really all it proves is that it does not work when used in a dumb or useless way.

Closely related to "Reductio_ad_absurdum"

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Necessity and the Law

(This is the first is a series of posts on my personal beliefs. They will almost certainly come pretty fast - it's a lot easier to just write what I think than it is to try and articulate a position I do not really agree with.)

I have been a Republican since I was a teen. That's a fair chunk of time, as I am now on the cusp of the dreaded 'middle age'. But I was always a 'Republican except'. I like the notion of fiscal restraint that the right at least talked, and back then I mostly believed them. I found that their positions on a lot of social issues really didn't work for me, though. Long about a year ago, I discovered the term 'libertarian', and I was home!

Here was fiscal restraint without pushing beliefs onto people. Love at first sight.

Imagine my surprise when I found that many people view libertarians as crazy. What is not to like? Well, it turns out that whenever you create a group, the crazies show up. (I will introduce what I call 'Multiplication By Stupid' in my next post.)

So, I will define what I consider a basic rule of libertarianism as I understand it.

The first thing to understand is that it is not as simple as 'Government = Bad'. That's just mindless dogma. It is rejecting the notion that all things are properly addressed by the government. Some things are, but not everything.

I have a few rules that I use to assess a proposed law.

1. Is there really a problem? There must be an objectively definable problem, not just a hysterical reaction to something catching the public eye.

2. Will this law really address the problem? Politicians of all stripes love to push through their pet agendas by creating a link, however tenuous, to some current issue.

3. What are the other effects of the law? Far too often this is ignored. Fixing one problem by creating another is not progress.

4. Is this the least intrusive fix available? There are always multiple options available. Is this the best one, and does it stay out of my bedroom?

There is a subtle but real difference between the questions "What should I do?" and "What needs to be done?". Sometimes the correct answer is nothing; someone who asks the first question will rarely see that. (Last bit stolen shamelessly from Steven Brust)

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Rights

Continuing my theme of differing definitions I guess I have to keep my (implied) promise and address the concept of rights. This is a challenging area for me to stay balanced, as my personal beliefs are pretty heavy right-wing here. I shall try my best.

First up is negative rights. This is the concept that certain rights exist, natural to all persons. They are not dependent on any external force, but rather internal to each individual. The obvious and best example is the Bill of Rights in the constitution. It does not say what your rights are, in fact it specifically says that it is not an exhaustive list (via the ninth and tenth amendments). Instead, it is a list of places government is not allowed to interfere. It includes no promise that you will get anything, just a promise that these things may not be taken from you.

Next up is positive rights. This is a concept that there are certain things that each person should have, and if they fail or are prevented from attaining these things, some external force (government) should provide them. The example that comes to mind is the UN definition, which literally defines rights as something the government is required to guarantee. This is why the UN does not recognize a right to self defense. By definition, self defense cannot be externally supplied.

(OK, I think that was pretty balanced, now comes the hard part.)

An interesting parallel can be found in the rules of motor sports. Most smaller and entry level sports have what I call open rules. There is a list of required rules, and a list of what you are not allowed to do. Beyond that, anything not addressed in the rules is by definition allowed. Eventually, as a sport gets bigger and the vehicles get faster, they go to what I call closed rules. This is a list of requirements and a list of what you are allowed to do. If the rules do not say you can do something, you cannot.

The Constitution, as written, sets up open rules for people. You can do anything you want unless there is a law against it. It sets up closed rules for government. They can only set up the laws allowed by the list. This is negative rights at its purest. It maximizes freedom, but creates no security.

The New Deal largely introduced the concept of open rules for government. By way of creative interpretation of a few words, Congress justified doing pretty much anything they wanted. This allowed for the creation of Social Security, minimum wages, and in many ways most important, the civil rights movement. ( A strong case can be made that Federal enforcement of civil rights laws against states was unconstitutional. That is also a pretty strong case for positive rights.)

!!!Light Bulb!!! A strong justification for the concept of positive rights is that it is not just the government that can take away someones rights. Negative rights are great for protection against the government, but not so good against concerted efforts by a powerful group of private citizens attempting to control another group of citizens.

I think I have to stop here and let this idea develop a bit. I guess sometimes you can teach your self things.

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Equality

Most anyone in America believes in equality. No doubt there are some few exceptions, but not enough to note. Problem is, we don't all mean the same thing when we use the word.

There is equality of opportunity and equality of outcome.

I will define equality of opportunity as a set of circumstances that allow an individual to become whatever they choose to make of them self. It is, in the end, a type of negative right. Generally, when you hear the Right talk about equality, this is what they mean. It is the notion that everyone should be have the chance to go out on the court, but they ain't all gonna be Michael Jordan. Taken to it's extreme, it is a philosophy entirely unconcerned with those who fail. They had a chance, what they did with it is their concern. And of course, it can never really be attained to perfection, everyone has their own advantages and disadvantages.

I will define equality of outcome as a set of circumstances that prevent an individual from from falling too far behind the societal norm. It is, in the end, a type of positive right. Generally ( in a contemporary sense) this is what the Left is talking about when they say equality. It is the notion that regardless of a persons actions, they should have some significant portion of what everyone else has. (I am not sure I said that right, always a risk when trying to articulate someone else's beliefs. It doesn't feel quite right, but I can't find better words). Taken to it's extreme, it reduces people to little more than numbers, with no control over their lives at all. And of course, it can never really be attained to perfection, some people will always find ways to get more, and some people can screw up anything.

Most everyone believes in both of these concepts, the real question we are debating is where should the balance fall? Contrary to the rhetoric, very few on the Right believe in truly just cutting loose those who fail to support themselves. To paraphrase someone smarter than me "I support the social safety net, just not the safety hammock" (from the coyote blog, I think). Also contrary to the rhetoric, pretty much no-one on the Left is crazy enough to believe in full on communism anymore, which is really the most extreme expression of outcome equality. Or at least it would have been if it had worked better.

I do wonder how much of the struggle between the Right and Left would just... go away, or at least become much more civil, if we were not trying to use the same word for two different things.

(I started to go into a discussion of negative vs. positive rights, but it is too big a subject and my thoughts are simply not well enough organized to articulate it yet.)

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Monday, March 16, 2009

Blame, Fault, Excuses, Responsibility and Power

There are three things I have no use for. Blame, fault, and excuses.

What do they have in common?

They are actually all just the same thing. They modify the emotional context of a discussion while justifying not changing anything.

Blame pushes responsibility away from the blamer onto someone else. It let's them feel good about themselves by feeling bad about someone else. But more than anything else, it lets them decide that they do not need to change to fix whatever the problem is, someone else does.

Excuses are just the same thing, without a specific target. An excuse is a way for someone to feel good about themselves after things go wrong, but if they do not take responsibility for their contribution to the situation, how can they learn from it?

Fault, of course, is the bastard child of the two. 'It's his fault' is just blame. 'It's not my fault' is just an excuse. The currently popular 'through no fault of their own' is an odd case of pushing an excuse onto someone else.

In the end, they are all about avoiding responsibility. The thing is, most people never think about the relation between responsibility and power.

They are the exact same thing.

Responsibility and power are not related, they are not even two sides of the same coin. They are the exact same thing. When you avoid responsibility, you avoid power. When you take responsibility, you take power. There is no case where you can be responsible for something if you do not have power over it. There is no case where you can have power over something and not be responsible for it.

What you can do is deny responsibility. 'It's not my fault'. As soon as you deny that your actions, your power, affects your situation, that power is gone. You cannot learn to chose actions to better your situation if you deny that your actions affect your situation.

You can also take responsibility. When you do, suddenly every action you take has consequences that affect your situation. When life does not go as you wish it to, the question becomes 'How do I do better?'. And you will find answers, because the answers exist. And you will learn. How can you not, when failure to learn harms your life, and that is your responsibility?

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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Hello World

I would like to be able to claim that I am starting a blog because I have something profound to say. Truth is, I just have been posting comments with my name on other people's blogs, and somebody with the same name said something dumb.

I don't like taking the blame for other people's stupidity; I have enough of my own, thank-you-very-much.

And may I just say the fact that this blog name was available disturbs me deeply.

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