Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Government With Purpose

It's difficult to decide what should and shouldn't be taxed. There are tons of arguments out there saying that taxing inheritances is fine, taxing alcohol is not, estate taxes are death taxes, etc.

I propose a purpose-oriented perspective on taxes. Basically, a tax must be predicated on the relationship that whatever is being taxed has with the point of the tax. For example, people argue that cigarettes should be taxed since smokers cost more medically to society. This argument would be fine if 100% of the taxes went towards medical ends. That's not the case at all. Truly, 100% of the revenue goes to general funds and is spent on things ranging from roadways to generous severance packages for government employees.

For example, 100% of the costs associated with roadwork should be shouldered by tolls and automobile taxes. This has the added benefit of letting people know, on a personal level, how much of their tax money is going to what areas of the government. It forces absolute clarity onto the clusterfuck that is taxation.

But what about things for which there is no taxable representation in society? What about schools, or firefighters? Frankly, I think income and property taxes cover this just fine. Income means money, and money requires a stable governmental system in which to spend it. Income taxes are literally paying for the system that allow the money to exist in the first place. I consider that a fair trade. This same argument applies to sales taxes.

Property taxes pay for police and firefighters. For example, what good are fire fighters if there is nothing to put out? Firefighters need houses, as such, owning a house pays for the work. I've got some problems with property taxes based on how nice your house is, but the size of your house could matter. Regardless, I consider property taxes based on value to be a progressive tax that amounts to robbery. Theoretically, if you mow your lawn regularly, you will end up with higher taxes.

If no good reason can be found for taxing something, the tax must be eliminated. If the money is truly needed for the government to function, the tax must be moved elsewhere so people know what money is being spent where.

Schools are difficult. We cannot put the burden on only the parents, or school becomes unaffordable. An uneducated society is unbearable harmful to everyone alive now and to be alive later. There are many ways I could rationalize education to fit with my general logic, but I think it's sufficed to say that education is undeniably a public good. An educated populace is what has allowed us to reach the heights we have reached and it must be furthered.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The End of an Era

Well, in a few short days, the Rhode Island state assembly will vote to criminalize prostitution. They will vote to make it wrong to do something people have been doing for all of human history. They will vote to eliminate a fundamental freedom: the freedom to do as you wish with your own body. They will vote to eliminate one of the few things that made Rhode Island at all special or progressive, and replace it with the same moralistic claptrap that dominates the rest of the country. Such garbage. All I can say is that I am disgusted with my state.

Prostitutes should be very happy, though. When prostitution is criminalized, its value goes up.

R.I. prostitutes speak out against bill to close loophole (

Saturday, October 24, 2009

I Like Economics

I love economics. It's the best way to win arguments that really shouldn't be winnable.

I guess I should say I like econometrics, as opposed to economics. Economics includes groups like the Austrian and Chicago schools, which rely very heavily on intuition, which is no way to win an argument. Your intuition is just as good as mine, and it's very easy to point that out. But for example, the argument of prostitution. Is it right or wrong?

Correct answer: it doesn't matter. We cannot stop it. It has existed since the beginning of time, and exists even in countries where prostitution is punishable by death. So, if it cannot be stopped, why have laws against it? People still kill, regardless of laws. So why bother outlawing that? But, then, we're comparing prostitution to murder, which is pretty stupid.

Moreover, countries without laws against murder are usually on the edge of coherency, and as such, the lack of the law isn't really what is causing murder; it's the lack of social order. Laws against murder and stealing sprout spontaneously from a social order because they're fundamentally necessary for that order to exist. Laws against prostitution hold no such honor.

Truly, prostitution frequently held the opposite stature in past civilizations. Frequently, prostitution was seen as a necessity for grown men, and that prostitutes did a public good. Even in modern times, during periods of war, the military tolerated and understood the job that nearby brothels performed.

Economics gives us the ability to develop a scenario and then seek out data. Just find the data and make your argument with that. Freakonomics had it right. Trying to argue right and wrong, or develop models to determine things gets you nowhere. Just find the data.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Design Today Sucks

Apple is frequently hailed as some of the best design on the planet.


That's not to say that Apple design isn't great, because it is. What blows my mind is the idea that what Apple is doing is somehow genius and difficult. Think about the concepts behind their work: Simplicity; ease of use; subtle beauty. These are very simply concepts that so many other companies seem damn-near incapable of getting.

You want to know why? Because every other company is trying to emulate Apple's real genius: a closed product system that fully integrates and consumes a user. If you use an iPod, that means you're tied to iTune. And that means you're tied to the App Store. And all of this is made easier if you own a Mac, which ties you to MacOS. It's a massive, vertically integrated product line with which Apple exerts an enormous amount of control over its users.

This is great for many consumers, because it makes things very easy for them. You buy all Apple, plug it all in, and it all works. The same can't be said for other companies. And for most other companies with a bit less than the genius at Apple, the desperate attempts to create a vertically integrated techno-world for their user results in disaster.

Sony has been trying it for years. EVERYTHING they make is proprietary. Their memory cards, their video and audio formats, their cables. And since Sony is actively trying to take over the world, that goes into every part of their design, which is a huge handicap.

Apple set out to make a good product, and every step they take is intended to do just that, make the best product. Steve Jobs has mentioned many times how more openness is better, and I don't think that's just lip-service to the geeks.

He's actually dedicated to the idea of openness and product freedom, but way back in the day, when the first iPod was created, a closed system worked best. The technology was haphazard and scattered amongst a variety of companies and standards. At the time, the best product was a closed product, and that just so happened to lead to a controllable system that Apple lords over.

Now all of the other companies are drooling over such power and actively limiting the products they make to try and achieve what Apple has achieved, and they end up with shit. If only they'd ask the question "what does the customer want?" as opposed to "how can we make more money off of the customer?", because contrary to popular economic retail theory, the two pursuits are not always in alignment.

What Apple does is not brilliant, it's just that all of the other companies suck.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Freedom and Economics.

I generally avoid thinking about politics too much. I find it to be entertainment more than anything else for people who need to feel important. Reading things like old issues of Time magazine cements this perspective.

I do talk about economics a lot, though, because it ties in directly to the only thing I think is of any importance in politics: freedom. That's all politics should be generally concerned with, and economic policy is where that most frequently comes to a head.

Understandably so, since economics is all about trying to balance my ability to fuck other people while not letting me fuck them too much. It's a recognition that the entire system is driven by some very nasty human emotions, and that it's likely best to keep those emotions at least somewhat in check.

I also know that raving conservatives are out and about talking about Herr Obama, and how we're charging wildly towards the next Soviet Union, which is obviously not true, but under Clinton, Bush, and now Obama, we have been moving away from economic freedom. And it's interesting how some of those moves away have proven, beyond contention, to be really bad ideas.

I think expressly of Sarbanes-Oxley, which is proving to be a nightmare. Supporters say the law reinforced people's confidence in the markets, which is silly. Most people don't even know it exists, and the people that do know, banks and whatnot, hate it. People have also proven in the past to regain confidence simply because bad shit doesn't happen for a period of time. Government actions do nothing more than convince angry people that the government is doing something to stop the bad guys, which is all Sarbox did.

But by the same token, I don't think Sarbox has had the enormously negative effects that its opponents think. Government action has proven throughout history to have very little effect on what the people are doing. We have countries with high taxes that do well, countries with low taxes that do well. Countries with lots of cops, and countries with next to no cops. Only movements in the extreme have a serious effect on people's lives.

But what worries me is that countries are clubs. We, like any club, want members. As so many countries are starting to adopt similar governmental policies, and as more people move up the socioeconomic ranks, the differences between the clubs get smaller, and those small effects that government action can have become, comparatively, very large. The government has to look at this as a contest. We are a club competing for the best members from other clubs.

We want low taxes, high services, high freedom, and systems in place to help all of this happen. Government can have an effect on that, and it should work towards it.

You'd Think "Republican" and "Retard" Were the Same Thing

A recent Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll found that 58 percent of Republicans, mostly concentrated in the South, either don’t believe or aren’t sure Obama is a citizen.

It gets better. If you ever wanted more reason to let them secede, this is it. They have literally left reality behind.

Birth of a Notion: Implicit Social Cognition and the "Birther" Movement (

Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Problem With Austria.

Well not Austria the country, but Austria the school. The Austrian School is a school of economic thought that advocates completely free economic markets. The are against copyright and patents, government intervention in any way, and the belief that economic modeling is impossible. Remember, Austrian Scholar's are entirely against any government regulation, and that includes all forms of antitrust. Austrians aren't the only extremists, though. Many mainstream economists accept some arguments against much government intervention. I'm just using Austrians as a broad term to describe all those strongly against government regulation.

There are many criticisms of the school, namely a distinctly post-hoc aspect to their analyses and a lack of econometric support to their theories, but I'm interested in a big one that rarely gets mentioned.

The goal of any economic system is to increase competition. Monopoly is bad, competition is good. But economics work in many ways like thermodynamics. So much so that one tenet of psychological research is a reference to thermodynamics: a system left to itself will fall to its lowest possible energy state. Humans act if motivated to act. If there is no motivation, we will conserve energy. An economic system being made of humans is very similar.

An economic system's energy can be equated to competition. The more competition, the more energy, the more development, and history bears this out. An economic system left to itself will fall to the lowest energy state: monopoly. Unless there is a powerful agent with no interest in specific parts of the economic system, and only interested in the system as a whole, monopoly is inevitable in an economy.

I actually think that having super-large corporations, much less monopolies, can be problematic. Look at today. While I think that letting many of the big banks fail would have been the best course of action, just think of the chaos that would have been caused by the collapse of Citi or Bank of America. When too much of a market is dominated by a single company that becomes unstable, we have today.

Again, I'm a full-on free market advocate, but history shows that they can't be too free. Yes, they're essentially still stable. Ups and downs in the markets will kill the monopolies, but those cycles can take generations and during the reign of the monopoly progress is all but dead. Government regulation is a necessity in a modern economy if we want what we have grown accustomed to.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Population Bomb.

Scientists love talking about metaphorical bombs. They use the term to describe any state of affairs that may not seem too bad now, but will become noticeably bad in the future. Environmentalism is one of those bombs, but another, less frequently discussed bomb is the population bomb. I can only imagine that it doesn't get as much play as the climate because massive population problems aren't going to have a direct effect on the Western world. We are not overpopulated. Well, Los Angeles is, but the rest of us are fine.

I also take a slightly less humanist perspective on this whole thing. While the interconnectedness of the world vis-à-vis climate makes ignoring some aspects of human damage a world away hard to ignore, such as the rain forest, it's still their country. They can do whatever the hell they want to fuck up their area of the planet. I'm worried about my area of the planet.

Further from a humanist perspective is that I don't care how many poor farmers die in Brazil or Ethiopia. It's their problem. Not only should they just take care of it themselves, trying to force our help on them doesn't do anyone any good. They need to solve their own problems.

And we live in America! Most of our problems are comparatively so easy to solve it's a wonder we haven't done so already. Want to increase population density and stop urban sprawl? Subsidize large, urban, multi-unit complexes. Give tax breaks to eletrical firms willing to install solar and wind in urban areas. Give tax breaks to building owners who install solar, wind, or farms on roofs of buildings. Start growing locally in large, multi-story farm buildings.

For the next calculations, I'm going to rely on The Natural Way of Farming: The Theory and Practice of Green Philosophy by Masanobu Fukuoka.

That's actually one of my favorite ideas. Large farm buildings, with a foot print of just half an acre, and 30 floors, that's 15 acres, or enough to feed between 100-500 people on vegetables alone. With the efficiencies allowed by constant illumination, robotic harvest, and nutrients flowing from floor to floor, that number could reasonably be doubled or tripled.

Now think even further. One floor is nothing but fish, and the water from the giant tanks is filtered up through the plants to feed them, back down into the fish tanks. These are not new ideas, but the wherewithal to get it done has not yet been found.

Many areas of the world are fucked. Let's face it, they are. There's nothing we can do unless we want to kill everyone there and just start over. They're fucked, their land is fucked, their cities are fucked. The best course of action for us is to pull inward as much as we can. I'm not talking isolationist nonsense, but a focus on our own abilities. We want to produce as much as we can, be as self-sufficient as possible.

They're going to fuck themselves, so we must actively try to to fuck ourselves as little as possible. Our only problem with our population is that it continues to grow outward in urban sprawl. If we can reduce that, and mate it with large scale development in renewable resources, be it food, energy, and materials, we can only better our position.

Norman Borlaug, who recently died, was famous for discussing population problems. His solution back in the 60's was to increase food production.

That's what Norman Borlaug and his colleagues achieved in the 1960s and 1970s with the Green Revolution that staved off famine for millions. Yet, "there can be no permanent progress in the battle against hunger until the agencies that fight for increased food production and those that fight for population control unite in a common effort," Borlaug said in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. "[Man] is using his powers for increasing the rate and amount of food production. But he is not yet using adequately his potential for decreasing the rate of human reproduction. The result is that the rate of population increase exceeds the rate of increase in food production in some areas.

Again, this is only a problem if we feel the need to force our help on other countries. The fact that India is choking under the weight of one billion people wallowing in ghettos is not our problem. It cannot be. There is no solution. I'm not heartless, I'm a realist. Trying to solve the massive problem is Sisyphean, and the endless aid to Africa all but proves that. Let them die. Our only concern is the possibility of a super-germ incubating in the population and making the trek over here. Other than that, we should not only not worry, but actively ignore. If they ask for help, do not give it to them. Their sinking boat has the potential to bring us down, too.

Another Inconvenient Truth: The World's Growing Population Poses a Malthusian Dilemma (

Friday, October 02, 2009

It's For The Best.

Chicago recently lost out in early contention for the 2016 Summer Olympics. I don't understand why the hell cities even compete for the damned games. The games cost a fuh-reekin' fortune to woo and then provide for. The taxpayers foot an enormous bill. The load on city services stretches it to the brink. And the final result is lots of big buildings no one will ever use again and usually get demolished, and a population pissed off because they're disappointed that their time in the sun wasn't all they hoped it would be.

"This was Chicago's shot at coming out as a world-class city so it's deflating," said Kevin O'Hara, 48, who runs a financial trading firm in Chicago.

"I wanted to be part of what I thought would be history. It just goes to show that Chicago is still the Second City, or perhaps the fourth city after today," said Kevin Gross, 37, an attorney who had joined a crowd packed into a downtown plaza, making reference to the city's nickname "The Second City." (Ben Klayman, Reuters)

Chicago IS a world-class city. It's famous, clean, with low crime, high education and services, and really big buildings. Whether you host the Olympics or not is not an entrance into some private club. Most cities that have hosted the Olympics are forgotten almost immediately after hosting the damned games. Just look back a few years.

Albertville? Where the fuck is Albertville? Who the hell has ever heard or cared about Albertville. Or what about Montreal, Canada. They hosted the 1976 Olympics, and the city is still in debt, to this day, over the games. They never earned the money back, and today, most people have forgotten the games were ever there. Most Montreal residents would certainly like to forget. And Lake Placid? Why the hell has Lake Placid hosted the games twice?

Chicago is lucky to have not gotten the blasted games. Instead, spend the money on city renovations, beautification, and innovative projects that draw visitors over long periods of time. Projects like The Bean add character and stature to the city. In a world overrun with massive cities, it's difficult for a city to achieve uniqueness. The bean succeeds. The Olympics fails. Fuck the Olympics.

True Conservativism.

I generally consider myself a conservative. I am conservative insofar as I want small government, on both a state and federal level. Still, anyone who actually thinks about the world could never possibly pigeonhole themselves into an insultingly simplistic category as liberal or conservative.

In a perfect world, everyone would be liberal. In a world with no scarcity, the government could and should provide everything. For example, if a massive increase in food production capability happened tomorrow, rendering food cheaper than water, why shouldn't the government provide everyone with three square meals per day?

Only in a world with a limited supply is conservativism possible or coherent. Too bad we live in a world with very limited resources. Still, the ideal world, the one we should be striving for, is one where liberalism is perfectly sensible. And since American definitions of these terms are bizarre, I'd have to say that progressivism is the right term.

But conservatives seem to get blinded by moral ideas, instead of raw sociomechanics, which is on what they should be predicating their ideals. It is wrong for someone to expect something from other people or the government. Well, why? Isn't the point of a government to serve the citizenry? If a government is capable, I think that it should provide what it can. It's absurd to think that an ideal world would be a government that is nothing more than a court system and money issuer. In that formulation, no matter how advanced we get, we will always have poor, starving people. A competitive landscape requires losers. No world worth striving for has losers to the magnitude that capitalism requires.

Don't think I hate capitalism. I don't. I love it. I'm a HARD CORE free market advocate, but that's because in a world of very scare resources, that is the best path towards an overall better world, not because it's morally best to allow some to succeed over others. My moral drivers exist in the pushing forward of the human race, and capitalism currently does that. To me, it's the only system currently possible that does so.

Communism doesn't work. And if the experiments in the 1960's, and up to this very day, prove anything, it's that even in small groups it doesn't go too well. In that political system, I guess you could call it the extreme formulation of "it takes a village," the reason why small communes sort of work, and the Soviet Union was a disaster, is that there is a threshold passed from "I know everyone in the group" to "I don't know everyone in the group." Once that threshold is passed, instability is inherent. It cannot work.

Capitalism allows for a natural system of success with reward. Socialism sort of allows this, but in a world of limited resources, the government is forced to lean on the successful so strongly, that the reward is reduced past a point of diminishing return. Eventually, greater success does not bring a noticeable increase in profit, and the performance ceiling that exists in communism again happens, just at a higher point of productivity.

Still, it's been said that the measure of a society is how it treats its weakest members. I think that this is true not because weak members should be protected for some nebulous idea of morality, but because a wise society recognizes that the greatest achievements can come from the weakest members. Change and advancement comes from pain. If we were fat and happy, we'd have no reason to change anything. No reason to move forward. Pain delivers drive in greater amounts than any other state.

So, I like to think that utopia will arrive someday soon. No hunger, no disease. Only a wide open world of possibility where hippy ideals of peace, love, and poetry actually make some sense.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that true conservativism prevents the creation of great things. For example, in a purely conservative, free-market environment, projects must have a ROI, or return on investment. Massive public works cannot achieve such an ROI. If not for government spending, we would not have space travel, the highway system, pretty much every bridge in the country, etc. Massive works could not happen in a perfectly conservative world.

Sometimes, the tribe gets together to do big things that no one member could do. In a sense, that's socialism. I would also like to point out that most conservatives love spending buckets of money on military stuff, because they're paranoid weirdos. Or maybe it's because they realize that in a perfectly free market, things are pretty dangerous.