Mar 30, 2016

How Snopes increased my already high esteem

Snopes is one of my go-to resources for fact checking. They do a good job, and even more important, they document the bases on which they form their conclusions.
I've used them for years to check things that need checking. Because of my own personal biases these may be "ridiculously false" things that I get from conservative friends, or  "too good to be true" ones from liberals. 
Yes, my perceptions are biased, but I try to be an equal opportunity fact checker.
The other day a post I saw on G+ led me to this Snopes article:
Claim:   The restaurant chain formerly known as "Kentucky Fried Chicken" changed its name to KFC to eliminate the word "fried" from its title. 
The article claims that the name change was to get a healthier, more modern image, without the word "fried." But the real reason was:
In 1990, the Commonwealth of Kentucky, mired in debt, took the unusual step of trademarking their name. Henceforth, anyone using the word "Kentucky" for business reasons — inside or outside of the state — would have to obtain permission and pay licensing fees to the Commonwealth of Kentucky
Rather than submit to extortion, TCFKAKFC changed its name.
They even posted an update:
Update:   In November 2006, KFC and the State of Kentucky finally reached an undisclosed settlement over the former's use of the trademarked word "Kentucky," and the restaurant chain announced it would be resuming its former name of "Kentucky Fried Chicken."
Good work by Snopes. 
But let's not take their word. Go to the KFC web site. Right at the top it says "Kentucky Fried Chicken." To true. Yay.
But way down at the bottom of the original Snopes post there's this unusual thing:
Additional information: 
    More information about this page  More information about this page
Last updated:   17 May 2008 
And if you click on the icon on their page, or the red text on this one, or here, you're led to another page, and THAT'S THE PAGE that revised my opinion of Snopes further upward.
(BTW the other references on the page are to articles that say, that the name and logo was changed for a more healthy image).

Mar 29, 2016

The illusion of liberal failure (Part I)

Corner of Liberty and Fifth Avenues
Pittsburgh "air" 1941
You don't have to be a genius to find an example of a law, regulation, or practice, put in place by liberals that's resulted in a ridiculous outcome, or corrupt behavior, or unintended consequences. This is fortunate, because the people who complain and rant, who blog and comment, tweet and retweet, and share these failures endlessly with their Facebook friends are hardly geniuses.

So, yes, there are failures. Some are real ones. This is not about failures, and I promise to come to real failures later.

Right now I want to talk about illusions.

About the idea that that all or even most liberal programs are failures. That is an illusion. And I'm going to back that claim by picking an example of a failed program, and pulling it apart. I took the first one that came to mind: clean air and water. Google for "EPA failures" and you'll get enough reading for a lifetime (13M hits, and counting.)

Can we acknowledge that market forces will not give us clean air and water? (Except maybe Perrier. Or maybe not.) Yes, the market punishes some polluters: a local company, with local customers, that spews toxins into the local environment might not do well. And the market might provide some motivation in niches catering to relentlessly green customers.

But in the global market, when customers are far from the scene of the crime, the market rewards the company that delivers best product at the lowest cost. Period. Their distant customers don't pay attention to environmental policy, just cost and quality. And environmental protection is a cost that does not affect quality.

The market is why American companies poisoned American air and soil and why the Chinese companies that now serve those market needs kill and will continue to kill their own citizens. They will do it until their own government steps in, and the pollution moves elsewhere. Say, somewhere with less job-killing government regulation. With freer markets.

Fact. Pollution was a huge, huge problem. Check your history books. It took liberal agitation to find a way to attack it. It was attacked by expanding government. It gave us us the Environmental Protection Agency, now a bureaucracy with 15,000 employees, plus state and local equivalents.

According to Forbes, in an article long on opinion and short on citations, the EPA is "the worst of many rogue federal agencies."
In the Age of Obama, there are many viable candidates for the official title of Washington’s “Private Sector Enemy Number One.” You could make a strong case for the National Labor Relations Board, the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration, and others, but my choice would be the Environmental Protection Agency.
OK, Forbes-guy, let's go with that.

There's evidence in his favor. We read news about reams of regulations. We hear about inconsistent, and sometimes ridiculous application of the regulations. We hear about businesses closed, and millions of jobs lost. And we see cities, like Los Angeles, with air that's still marginally breathable. We get 13M google hits.

Clearly Forbes-guy's perceptions are right. It's a private sector enemy.

I claim that those perceptions are based on illusion. And I'm going to back it up with both reasoning and data.

Let me start by acknowledging inconvenient facts. The EPA has and continues to make questionable decisions. And the EPA does things that are absolutely horrible. Yes, things could be done better. But things that get done can always be done better.

But can we agree that the market is not going to give you clean air and water? Again and again, when the air and water get too dirty, when people finally have had enough, government steps in.

And always, it seems, it's liberals leading the way, and conservative fighting a rear-guard action to stop it, and then sniping from the sidelines after the fact.

I wish conservatives would lead!

There are lots and lots of smart conservatives. These are real problems that need everyone's brains. Let's just acknowledge the market failure, realize that intervention is needed, and work to make the intervention better.

I chose clean air and water because -- well, it's the first one I thought of. And happily Forbes-guy thinks that the solution is horrible. So it must be a good example of liberal failure.

To check my facts I didn't look at ten different places to cherry pick facts that fit my narrative. I picked Pittsburgh, PA because it was the first place I'd thought of. I didn't look at this list of most polluted places in the US until just now, to pick my poster-child. I just picked Pittsburgh.

When I did my deeper dive, which I will share with you in a follow-up, I was not terribly surprised to find:
  • No progress until the long-term Republican administration in the city was replaced by Democrats.
  • Legislation fought, all the way, by Republicans.
  • Initial approach modeled after St. Louis, another polluted city that had cleaned up their act. (Anyone want to guess what party had just lost power in St. Louis and which had just gained when they started to clean things up? Hint: R and D).
  • Continuous efforts by Republicans, even to recently, to stop further remediation.
So why is the illusion of failure so pervasive. I think there are three reasons:
  • Mechanics
  • Media
  • Mitigation

On the mechanics side, consider solution scale: the bigger a program, the more chances that there are for errors, failures, stupidity. Even if small as a percentage, the actual number of screw-ups grows with scale. So no trouble finding trouble.

On the mechanics side, consider problem scale:  the bigger the problem, the more likely that some time later, some part of the problem will not yet have been solved. Even if most places get mostly cleaned up, there will be some that have not. There are still most polluted places. Of course.

On the mechanics side, consider visibility: when a regulatory program works as a deterrent it's silent. When people decide not to pollute, you hear nothing. When it works through inspection -- people pollute, get caught and fined, and pay -- you hear little.

So when do you hear things? When the case isn't clear cut, and the polluter takes it to court. And when the enforcement is stupid, or clumsy. Then you really hear about it. And given solution scale, and problem scale, there will be plenty of visible cases.

Which brings us to media.

Left and right, most media are not in the business of delivering facts to people who want to make intelligent decisions. They are in the business of delivering stories and narratives to people who -- well, let me not infer motivation. Let me just say: for people who will pay attention. Facts, when used at all by these media, are just set dressing for the stories they tell.

And the best stories and the best narratives are the ones that stir the emotions. Left and right, media are in the business of creating stories and narratives that stir the emotions and get attention from people who -- no, I'm not going there.

I'll plead guilty to doing something like that here. I'm countering a narrative -- that liberals favor big government, and produce governmental programs that kill businesses, destroy jobs, and that fail -- with another narrative -- that conservatives stand in the way of solving problems that we, the people, want solved.

So far (and you will have to trust me on this) I have not cherry picked the data. And as I've dug into this I have, indeed, found some real examples of failure or questionable practice. Which I will share in future posts.

There certainly are many conservatives who DO want clean air and water, and who are willing to tolerate government to get it. And some might even have free-market solutions that have no government involvement. But I believe that they are factually a minority. There are some Republicans who have helped, but they are a vanishing breed.

Go any idea who established the EPA? Richard Nixon, who this Fox News article calls "The last great liberal."

Finally, mitigation.

Cleaning up air and water will increase costs. This is an unintended -- but predictable -- consequence of trying to solve the problem.

(By the way "unintended consequence" is a common conservative meme. It is used when criticizing liberal programs. It's a way of using big, intelligent-sounding words to call someone stupid. Really? Are you unaware that everything has unintended consequences, including the status quo? That some unintended consequences are beneficial? That the only way to avoid all unintended consequences is omniscience?)

Absent any other change, when you increase costs, companies will become uncompetetive and people will lose jobs. Given we all want clean air and water; given that these are the unintended but predictable consequences of getting us what we want; and given that these burdens fall on others -- business owners and factory workers -- what do we do to mitigate the unintended consequences?

Short form answers: Liberals: Do something!. Conservatives: Nope.

Liberals: in addition to a program to solve the original problem, also propose a program to mitigate the consequences.

Conservatives oppose both the original solution, and any mitigation of the consequences. And, oh, yes: accuse liberals of unintended consequences.

On clean water and air:

Liberals: Penalize countries that are willing to poison their own citizens so that our cleaned-up businesses can compete and our workers can keep their jobs.

Conservatives: Nope. Free trade and the free markets  Move businesses and jobs offshore. Blame liberals. Fight the EPA.

Liberals: financial support and training for people who lose their jobs; help for new businesses, especially in blighted areas.

Conservatives: Nope. This is America. People can get jobs if they want them. Cut unemployment. Cut welfare. Cut education. Fight the EPA. Blame liberals.

I'm going to stop here.

I've got another couple thousand words queued up for future posts.

Liberals don't want big government. That's an illusion. They want problems solved.

Liberal solutions may not be ideal, but they aren't failures. That's an illusion. Failures scale and so do successes; but successes are silent, and failures -- thanks to the media, are very, very, very loud.

Liberals are not ignorant of unintended consequences. That's an illusion. When they see harmful consequences they want them addressed. Conservatives block remediation, then blame liberals.

Reddit ELI5, NeutralPolitics, and ShowerThoughts

Someone made a comment at Beyond Labels this morning about a brilliant thought he'd had in the shower. That reminded me of reddit and the ShowerThoughts subreddit. For those of you who don't know what the heck I'm talking about, I'll explain.
First: Reddit is an entertainment and social news networking site. I think of it as kind of the anti-Facebook.
On Facebook you identify yourself by your real name. You get a "news feed" with posts from people you know -- "friends" -- and people you don't know but who you "follow." The stories range from personal tidbits, to links to interesting articles, to long written pieces. You can decide who gets to see each post -- from just family, to the world. People who can see a posts can comment and discuss. Some of the content and discussion is interesting. Most is pretty bland.
Reddit is different. People who use Reddit are called redditors. Redditors don't use their real names. Instead they pick handles  -- like  HandyAndy136, or curmudgeon_lyfe -- and use them. Reddit is divided into subject areas, called "subreddits." Subreddits are open to everyone -- but most are moderated so that discussion doesn't get out of hand. Any redditor can start a topic thread in a subreddit by posting a question, or comment, or a link to online content. Other redditors comment and comment on the comments. They can upvote or downvote the original thread, or individual comments. Reddit will show you the topics and comment threads that have the most votes. Everything is public for everyone to read.
Facebook is useful. Reddit is awesome. Facebook tends to be about who you know. Reddit is about what you know, how smart you are, and -- through the upvoting and downvoting system, how cool everyone else on reddit thinks you are.
I think the average reddit IQ is 10-40 points higher than the average FB IQ.
Here's the first reddit thread  I ever came across. It was just after the Supreme Court's gay marriage decision, and someone posted a link to it that ended up in in my G+ feed. My favorite comment:
Confederate flag removal, Obamacare subsidies upheld. Now gay marriage is legal everywhere. Somebody better call and put the entire south on suicide watch.
My very favorite subreddit, the one that prompted this post, is Showerthoughts, "A subreddit for you to share all those thoughts, ideas, or philosophical questions that race through your head when in the shower." Examples are toward the end of this post.
Another favorite subreddit is Neutral Politics. It's a kind of 24/7 online Beyond Labels with people who are sometimes smarter and funnier than the smartest and funniest of us.
Another one I like is ELI5 which means "Explain Like I'm Five Years Old." Here's an ELI5 for the question "Why is Trump Doing So Well in the Polls" It's got some interesting insights and some very snarky, and sometimes vulgar humor. Which, of course, I like.
Here are the top topics on Neutral Politics right now, with links to the discussion.
And here are some of today's funnier and less tasteless ShowerThoughts. Sometimes the discussion is even funnier than the topic.

Mar 21, 2016

When did you catch fire?

My friend Mike Blair sent me an email commenting on a recent post, and asked me:

Do you recall the moment you caught fire?
To understand his question (which I love) and my answer, I need to share some more of what Mike wrote. (I've take some liberty in editing his words.)
I have long believed that each of us is born a sleeper cell of one.
For quite a few years, we are unaware of our mission; some people--perhaps many--never discover it.
We are born with a strong desire to keep moving--and examining and pondering whatever we encounter; some folks stifle this desire because of an environment hostile to growth--or mere laziness.
The people who are able to follow that deep imperative to keep moving and pondering, expose themselves to a large variety of experience and possibility and have a good chance of integrating a critical mass of information that will, quite suddenly, allow them to catch fire.
To catch fire means: realize they have a specific purpose, that each, in his or her own way, must innovate, to push off from what they had accepted as reality, and, simultaneously, realize that where they had been was not The Big Show itself, but a necessary prelude to it.
 He closes with the question:
Do you recall the moment you caught fire?
I don't remember "the moment" because I've caught fire repeatedly, to discover, later, that the fire had sputtered and died. Unnoticed. Because I do a great job of simulating a human being. No one notices, and I'm not there to notice.

Most recent is the experience that I wrote about and Mike responded to. Before that, I remember a series of waking moments -- because I am practicing. And at the start of the series is the moment of "waking up" on the Quantum of the Seas, on our way to our daughter's wedding in Italy, just after I'd read Sam Harris' "Waking up."

Recently, the flames have been burning more steadily, and some of my writing is evidence of that. The flames still go out, but for shorter periods.

I love Mike's two phrases. I will add "catching fire" to "waking up." And I will think more about what it means to be "a sleeper cell of one."

Mar 19, 2016

Money is not wealth

Money is not the same as wealth.

What is wealth? Farms and food and factories and what they produce are forms of wealth. And so are people and knowledge. There are lots of other kinds of wealth, but this is not the place to do more than give examples.

All these forms of wealth are valuable, but money is valuable only because you can exchange control of money for control of wealth: you can use it to buy control of farms, factories, and what they produce. You can use it to buy control of people, for a time. In other words you can buy control of wealth -- of things that actually have value -- with money; but money itself is not wealth.

Let's get slightly more formal. Money (Wikipedia) is defined as anything that functions as "a medium of exchange; a unit of account; a store of value; and, sometimes, a standard of deferred payment."

I'm going to accept the "medium of exchange" and "unit of account," parts of the definition, and against the "store of value" definition. Money does not store any value. It does store something, and we'll come to that later, but not value.

A small thought experiment to clarify. Supposing there's a trillion dollars worth of real stuff, like farms, factories, food, knowledge and people in some imaginary world and a trillion dollars worth of money.

I claim that the real stuff has value, and the money does not.

Suppose I magically double the real stuff, and I disappear all the money. (I can do that, because it's a though experiment.) We now have twice as much productive capacity, and I would claim twice as much value.

Suppose I double the amount of money in the world, and disappear all the real stuff. Then, in technical economic terms, you are screwed. You can't eat money. You can't wear it. You can't get it to run your farms and factories. You are screwed.

If money was a store of value, then doubling either the money or real stuff would be an even exchange. But doubling the real stuff and getting rid of money roughly doubles value. And doubling the money while getting rid of the real stuff takes us to zero.

Money is not entirely without value. It is useful as a medium of exchange and a unit of account. Money is certainly useful for solving the problems of resource allocation and of coordination. But I can easily, if not optimally solve those problems. Just give everyone little pieces of paper, or balances in an accounting system, and let them exchange them for labor and for existing real stuff.

Instant money. I didn't have to go find some value to store in it. Because intrinsically, money has no value.

But it is useful.

QED, I think.

So if money isn't wealth, then what is?

And if I can create useful (but again, not optimal money) with a snap of my fingers, what does that mean.

Those are both harder problems and I'm not going to address them in this post.

I'm just going to say: whatever wealth is, and whatever money is, they're not the same thing.

Mar 18, 2016

The illusion of reality

Spoiler alert: wow! wow!

Sam Harris has this great metaphor for the experience of waking up, which I've written about here:

Imagine you're in a theater, watching a movie. You are immersed in the story. Your attention is captured. You are emotionally engaged. Then suddenly you realize that you're sitting in a theater, surrounded by other people, watching light projected on a screen. A moment ago you were entranced -- in a trance. Now, for a moment you are in a different state. You're still aware of the story that's still playing out on the screen--but you are also aware that you are outside that story. You are not in the story, but watching it. That particular spell is broken. That's "awake." He says: "Most of us spend every waking moment lost in the movie of our lives."
I've had that experience many times since reading about it. It's great when it happens. And when it happens, if I remember, I do the another thing that I learned reading his book:
He says: the way you tell an illusion from something real is to examine it. You look at it more closely, more deliberately. If you examine something and it changes to something completely different--or disappears entirely, that's a sign that what you first saw was an illusion. 
So now as soon I "wake up" and feel that "I," my "self," am no longer in my usual trance, I look to try to examine "that which is now awake." When I do this, when I turn my attention toward whatever I just identified as "my self" when I "look" in a direction I would describe as "inward" I IMMEDIATELY feel my attention shoot "outward" toward the rest of the world. I have an immediate sense of WOW!!! And I'm even more awake

 I check to see if I am an illusion. Seems like I am.

But today's waking up experience was different. I don't know if I can convey it to you. I don't know if I'll be able to recreate it for myself. But I'm going to try.

Two exercises:
Exercise 1
Imagine you're in a theater, watching a movie. Really do this. Stop reading for a moment, and imagine it. 

Continue. And imagine each step.

You are immersed in the story. Your attention is captured. You are emotionally engaged. You've had that experience before.

Now imagine that you suddenly you realize that you can control the movie!

With your mind!

You know the movie is an illusion projected on a screen. And at the same time, you realize that you can sit there and control the illusion. With your mind.

Well, not the whole movie, but you can control one of the characters. Not perfect, but still pretty cool.

How do you do it? You have no idea. There's no connection between you, sitting in the theater, and projector. But still, you can do it.

Exercise 2
Imagine having this experience:

You're reading this post. You're immersed in what you are doing. Your attention is captured. Your am emotionally engaged.

And suddenly you realize that it's an illusion. (Not what you imagining, but the underlying experience.) You realize that what you are perceiving comes from photons striking objects, proceeding into your eyes, hitting your retinal cells, firing neurons which fire other neurons, racketing around in your brain. And somehow you (another illusion, remember) are aware of this. 

You realize that you are perceiving an illusion. Whatever reality is, you are not perceiving it. You are not waking up and realizing that what you thought was reality is really light, projected on a wall. Instead, you are waking up and realizing that what you thought was reality was really neurons firing in a brain.

You realize it's an illusion. And then, suddenly you realize that I can control part of the illusion. With my mind!

I can change what's going on. 

I can do it with my mind.

And then I  realize, my mind is another illusion. There is no "thing" called a mind. It's just another bunch of neurons firing.

And then, I realize, that there's one more illusion.



My political evolution: Part 2

In Part 1 I talked about the life experiences that caused me to lean Liberal. I talked about how, as I was growing up, conservatives were always, always on the wrong side of issues I cared about, and liberals were on the right side.

In this part I'll talk about how I learned about libertarianism and became disaffected with mainstream politics and both parties. That led to my voting Libertarian when I started to vote -- which was well after I was able to. I'll come to all that in Part 3. And then, in later posts, why I stopped, and started voting knee-jerk Democrat. And still later, how and why I've moved away from that.

I started college in 1960. The civil rights movement was gaining momentum. Liberals seemed like they were for "all the right thing" and the conservatives seemed reliably against them. That's what I talked about in Part 1.

There were some people who pointed to the Soviet Union, where wasteful competition was eliminated in favor of the more rational, efficient process of the centralized five-year-plan. The Soviet Union, ruined by the war, was growing faster than the United States. Or was, according to the narrative. The Soviet Union was unironically called "The Workers Paradise" by some.
Some Americans spied for the Soviets because they believed that the Soviets were the good guys, and we were not. Evidence of injustice in our country was all around. Evidence of Soviet injustice? We had copies of Pravda to read, and Pravda said things were great. And Pravda was "Truth" in Russian, so ...

I was not much taken with tales the wonderfulness of the Soviet Union, but I was influenced by criticism of the United States and probably a lot of that came from "fellow travelers" and what Lenin called "useful idiots."

When I got to school one of my classmates, and fraternity house roommates for a while, was David Nolan, one of the founders of the Libertarian party. Dave was a great writer attached to an annoying personality. He's known for the Nolan Chart, a way of framing the Libertarian view relative to the more familiar conservative and liberal views. American liberals favored more personal freedom, but at some cost of economic freedom; conservatives favored more economic freedom, but were willing to limit personal freedom.  The World's Smallest Political Quiz, which Dave also came up with, is a ten question quiz that positions you in that political space. You can take it here. My results are below.

Dave introduced me (and the rest of in the fraternity) to the writings of Ayn Rand. I read the "Fountainhead" and liked it. But when I started the 1200 page "Atlas Shrugged," I could not put it down. I skipped classes and sleep and personal hygiene, and read the whole thing in one marathon session -- something around 48 hours.

People object to Rand because her characters are caricatures and her plots lack nuance. And she's got long, long passages where her characters make long speeches elaborating their (her) philosophy, which -- if you like the philosophy are way better than reading a dry text, and if you disliked the philosophy must seem a kind of torture. Everything is black and white. Her heroes even have strong, confidence-inspiring names: Howard Roark, Domnique Francon, Hank Rearden, Dagny Taggart, Ragnar Danneskjold, and, of course, John Galt. The villains had names that made you want to spit them out: Ellworth Toohey, Wesley Mouch, Oren Boyle. Yuck!

Of course I identified with the heroes. They were intelligent, thoughtful, hard-working people -- just like me. And her villains? They were not folks who had good intentions but caused things to go wrong because of unintended consequences. They knew exactly what they were doing. And why. Her books changed my perception of the world around me. I saw a lot of liberal programs, and heard a lot of liberal rhetoric through the eyes of Rand and her characters. And I liked them not so much.

Rand's "liberal" characters wanted to take things away from gifted, hardworking people like me, so that untalented sluggards could have their "fair share." They knew that they were parasites, and they didn't much care. Why? Because they wanted power. Seeming to care about people was a strategy for gaining power.

I'd always had a mixed opinion of government. My Dad and Mom had a small business. To keep it running they had to pay off the cops (otherwise they'd be given tickets); pay off a host of workplace and building inspectors (otherwise they'd be cited, fined, and maybe shut down); and they also had to pay off union leaders and have their workers pay dues to the union (otherwise there would be pickets in front of their place). The unions weren't part of the government, but much of their power came from government regulations that protected their rackets.

My Mom also told us stories of  how she (and others) had manipulated the judicial system to get a desired outcome. A friend of ours who had a ridiculous judgement against her because the other party knew the judge. The time my Mom got a favorable verdict by appearing in court in a red dress and stiletto heels because her lawyer told her that the judge was a womanizer, and would be influenced.

The institutions that were designed to do good were corrupt. They were Rand's "moochers," and "parasites." And don't let's start on incompetent teachers with tenure, shall we?

Atlas Shrugged had a big impact on me, and I read it every couple of years after that, bemoaning my growing sense that we were living out Ayn Rand's dystopian dream of what happens when the "collectivists" take over, and there's no John Galt to save the day. I still have a hard-bound copy of "Atlas Shrugged" in my bookshelf, but it's been years since I've read it. It got too depressing and I stopped.

Meanwhile, back in the late 1960's I got my first job: as a programmer for Airborne Instruments Laboratory, a long deceased company that doesn't even have a Wikipedia page. Wot! The Cold War was on, and we built devices that flew over the Soviet Union in satellites listening to Russian radars. Then we downloaded the data and processed it in order to locate all the radars and their types. This was turned into a "Radar Order of Battle." The ROB told you, if you were flying a bomber into the heart of the enemy, what route to follow to minimize contact with the enemy's most lethal weapons, and what frequencies to jam, and when, as you flew on your mission.

Meanwhile, Vietnam was ramping up. I started reading.The war-mongering Republicans and the war-mongering Democrats agreed: Kill for freedom! Stop Communism! Meanwhile the real left had a different story. Ho Chi Minh admired the American Revolution. He was admired in his own country for getting rid of French colonialism. (Anyone against the French couldn't be all bad.) The Vietnamese Declaration of Independence begins by quoting our own. Ho wrote several letters to President Truman and others, looking for help from America, bastion of freedom, ridding the country of the French.

But he was a commie. So no. Some said that his beliefs were weakly held, and that because Vietnam had kind of hated China for several hundred years, he might become an ally of sorts, and stand against China. But NO! He is a COMMIE! NO! NO!

My politics were pragmatic. I thought was was the answer when you faced a guy like Hitler. But I thought this war was stupid. And it was being fought stupidly. So during the week I worked for the military industrial complex, and on the weekends I'd go into New York and march against the war.

I remember seeing protests that I had attended reported in the newspapers and on TV. In real life I'd see maybe a thousand or five people -- some "long haired hippies", but mostly students, working folks, and people from more affluent backgrounds, carrying signs, singing ("We shall overcome" was popular) and chanting ("Hell no! We won't go!" "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today."). Across the street maybe a hundred angry, flag-waving, screaming counter-protesters. The news reports and TV segments distorted the reality that I'd experienced. They'd find a cluster of angry protesters, spewing anti-American rage and show them. Then find a couple of people from the counter-protest group who seemed respectable, and show them. And they'd give the impression that the crowds were roughly equal in size.

That's when I stopped believing anything I read in the news or saw on TV. I was there. I knew what had happened. And the media -- from very conservative New York Daily News to the faux-liberal New York Times -- distorted reality.

I ended up supporting our project on site at the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) at Offut Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska because I was single, and didn't mind staying there. What's not to like. I had my own brand-new rental Ford Mustang. I had a room in a nice hotel. And I got paid more in per-diem expenses than I spent. So even a profit there.

And there I learned from guys who had just returned from Vietnam what it was really like. And it wasn't the way that you read about it in the news. Among other things, I learned about fragging -- the practice of killing a fellow soldier, usually a non-comm of junior officer -- usually with a fragmentation grenade.

I ended up thoroughly disaffected.

I got involved in Scientology around that time for a number of reasons. One of them was this: Scientology said that everyone was insane. That fit my observations. News people were insane. Politicians were insane. The military people I worked with at SAC were insane. I stopped following politics, didn't vote, eventually quit my job and became a full-time staff Scientology student and staff member. Mostly I worked on making myself more sane.

I had mixed results.

When my money ran out, I had a choice: either fully commit and join the Church, or go back to the world, and be a part time students By that time Bobbi and I were living together in England. We decided to go back home, get jobs and continue studying part-time.

I think that up to that point I had never voted, but (probably due to Bobbi's influence), I started to vote. I don't remember who the major party candidates were the first time I voted, but whoever they were I didn't like them and voted Libertarian. I don't remember what I did when there wasn't a Libertarian. Maybe no one. Possibly Democrat.

Mar 16, 2016

My political evolution: Part I

I lean Liberal. Not Democrat. Not even necessarily Left. But pretty darn Liberal.


I've been thinking a lot about that.  Here's the scorecard in my head based on my life history. According to your preferred description, it  "informs my tendencies" or  "drives my biases."

In more or less chronological order, these are the issues that I remember from my formative years. In Part 2 I'll talk about the results of my more thoughtful reflection.

Sex education: Liberals: teach kids about sex in public schools (voluntary, after-school, but in the school building). Basic stuff, like how do babies get made. Conservatives: No! My mom was involved in this one when I was about 10 or 12.

Public education: Liberals: expand, improve public education. Conservatives: cut spending. Again, personal to me, growing up. This wasn't about school choice. Or teacher's unions. Just: how to do we get kids educated.

Segregation, racism, civil rights: Liberals -- end the injustices. Conservatives: denial, states rights, or worse. I had a paper route in the '50s, and it was not uncommon to read a story about some "negro" who had been lynched somewhere in the South. Burning crosses on lawns? Common enough that it was no longer news. The fight still continues. The Liberal/Democrat axis has taken some really dumb positions and offered some really bad solutions. But sometimes good positions, and good solutions. Meanwhile my perception of the conservative positions has been  (a) It's not a problem. (b) The market will solve it. (c) In the land of opportunity, you end up where you deserve to end up. Which is code for: (d) Inferior people deserve to end up in inferior positions. Or (e) States rights. And by Conservatives I mean Southern Democrats, before they became Republicans. And by Liberals I mean Northern Republicans before they were RINOed out of the party.

Religious discrimination: Liberals -- respect all religions. Conservatives: Jews killed Jesus. Personal because I was a Jew, and I did not kill Jesus. Antisemitism was becoming less common (but still present) in the North where many country clubs excluded Jews. It was pretty common in the South, where "No Jews, dogs, or niggers" was actually a thing. Now it's just the name of a play. I remember reading a racist tract in high school that explained that the whole race problem was caused by Yankee Jews, because niggers were too stupid to agitate on their own behalf.

Commie-chasing, McCarthyism, loyalty oaths, and blacklisting : Liberals against, on the grounds that it was both an abridgment of rights and ineffective as a deterrent. Probably some against because they were actual commies, or thought communism was great. Conservatives, in favor. By conservatives I again include many Democrats some because they agreed, and some out of fear -- because, as a professional politician, and you defended free speech you were attacked as "probably a commie." Or at best a comsymp. That was actually a word. Republican Margaret Chase Smith was one of the first to speak out against McCarthyism, I just learned. But not amazed, because back in those days, some Republicans were liberals. But Republican Joe McCarthy was behind it and represented the best traditions of the party. And that's why it's called McCarthyism. And it sucked. Ever heard of the John Birch Society? This ultra-conservative group thought Eisenhower was a commie.

Censorship: Liberals against censorship. Conservatives against changing standards in the name of family values or civil something. In high school I remember a book called "Lady Chatterly's Lover" being a big deal, banned from libraries. A movie, based on the book was also banned. The case had to go to the (liberal) Supreme Court, which struck down the attempt to censor.

Free speech (see Free Speech Movement): Liberals, more free speech. Conservatives: traditional values; don't change. Free Speech is a broad issue. Did you know that in 1971, you could get arrested for using the word "fuck," as in "fuck the draft" on a t-shirt? The case had to go all the way to the (liberal) Supreme Court. In  a 5-4 decision, they confirmed our right to say or write fuck pretty much whenever we fucking want to. Fuck yes! (And the guy who pushed the case to the Supreme Court? He was later appointed to the bench by then-governor Ronald Reagan.

Decriminalization of marijuana (and other recreational drugs): Liberals for. Conservatives: don't change. Still an issue. If you look at where non-medical marijuana has been decriminalized, there's a pattern.

Decriminalization of sex: Liberals, private sex acts between consenting adults legal. Conservatives: don't change existing restrictive laws. It wasn't until 2003 that blow jobs were legal in the United States, when the case went to a (liberal) Supreme Court, and decided 6-3. Who was against it? Scalia, rest in peace. Thomas. Rheinquist. Hmm.

Vietnam: Liberals - stay out. Conservatives (including many Democrats): Stop Communism! In 1964, when there were "only" 24,000 US troops in Vietnam, Democrat Lyndon Johnson was running against conservative Republican Barry Goldwater. Per wikipedia:  "Johnson campaigned on a platform of limited involvement in Vietnam and continuation of funding for social programs, Goldwater called for substantial cuts in social programs, suggesting that Social Security become optional, and suggested the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam if necessary." As the sad joke goes: "They told me that if I voted for Barry Goldwater, we'd have a half-million soldiers in an unwinnable war in Vietnam. I didn't believe them, and voted for Goldwater anyway. And sure enough, we had a half-million soldiers in an unwinnable war in Vietnam." See later for more nuanced feelings about Goldwater. [Edit: haven't got around to that part] The un-nuanced feelings: fuck them both.

I can say fuck, now, thanks to the liberals.

Abortion: Liberals: legalize. Conservatives: don't change. Later: limit, and roll-back.

OK, do you see a pattern here?

I'm not saying that all Republicans are conservative; or all Democrats are Liberal, then or now. 

I'm not saying that Republicans have never done any good, and Democrats have never done any wrong. Far from it. 

Richard Nixon, a Republican and outspoken conservative, for whom I have a visceral dislike, did establish diplomatic relations with China. And he did get us off the gold standard.

But I will note that the things that Nixon did that I like are consistent with liberal values and against conservative. And as a matter of real-world politics, a liberal president could NOT have gotten away with them. Conservatives would have pilloried him. So thank you, Tricky Dick for doing the right thing.

And Lyndon Johnson ramped up the war in Vietnam. Ramping up the war? That was part of Goldwater's platform. So fuck you LBJ!

And Nixon ended it. Thanks again, Dick.

Mar 14, 2016

Way, way, way too much stuff to think about and write about

My browser is cluttered with open tabs. My Evernote is cluttered with articles that I've clipped so that I could responsibly close some of my earlier tab clutter. And my head? Fugeddaboudit!

So here's what I'm going to (try to) do: I'm going to work on closing tabs, one by one. That, I realize, may cause me to open other tabs, so the process may be non-converging.

We'll see.
This is an EXTREMELY LONG post, mostly for the benefit of my future self (Hi there!) and for the possible benefit of the future AI that reads the Internet. (Hi there!)

It's possible that I'll break some of this apart into separate posts.

Tab Count: 31
31: Yesterday's half-finished essay. 750 words is three pages. It's based on a book called "The Artist's Way" I've written about this before. I'm not saying where, because I don't want to open the tab I'll have to open to find it. I'll just mark this as:  CLOSED.

30: Billy Blog, aka Billy Mitchell, a leading Modern Monetary Theory thinker, has been writing a blog on economics from the MMT perspective for  years.

This page is about MMT and inflation. The basic idea, as I understand it is that inflation occurs when spending exceeds economic capacity. You're below capacity if there are people who are unemployed or underemployed, and there's work for them to do, but no money to pay them. So the sovereign government spends money to put idle people to work. Not sure if he considers the other constraint: there might be idle labor, for all of the jobs that labor is capable of require resources that are scarce. In other words, the labor supply might be under capacity, but the needed resources might be already at capacity. To which I say: nonsense. Well, actually, bullshit. I think that there are almost certainly information organizing jobs that people can do and there's plenty of spare capacity. Or capacity to build more. CLOSED.

29: Oh god! A long, elaborately linked critique of MMT from Stanford. Some quotes:

After Modern Monetary Theory or “MMT,” nothing looks the same: not political economy; not everyday caretaking; not paintings, pop songs, or porn sites.
(See herehere, and here for MMT’s understanding of so-called hyperinflation. Though multipart and complex, MMT’s argument is that inflation is always and everywhere a political phenomena, rather than a narrowly economic one, and that the conventional fear-mongering used to justify interest-rate hikes and spending cuts is as wrong-headed as it is pernicious.)
[MMT] spells a complete topological inversion of the money form as traditionally conceived. I envision it this way: MMT turns customary economic reasoning on its head by folding the conventional image of money outside-in. 

 Unlike money’s private users, moreover, only government wields the capacity to furnish all persons with meaningful employment and sufficient access to the common store of wealth. To choke off this power, MMT insists, is not a de factoconsequence of a money economy—there is no such thing as a natural rate of unemployment, for instance—but, rather, a political decision to maintain populations in conditions of poverty, violence, and despair. 
MMT’s Job Guarantee involves the permanent financing of community-organized public works programs, which would give every person the right to non-corporate living-wage employment, compensate and reorganize much feminized and unpaid care work, and force service sector employers such as Walmart and McDonalds to outdo the public sector’s wages and working conditions.
Enough enough. CLOSED.

28. Naked Capitalism posts an article explaining the Trump phenomenon not on racist grounds (the default) but because of disastrous effects of free trade for American workers. They know it. And they don't like NAFTA, TPP, and other programs that might have made the world (including elites in the US) better off, while making them worse off.

The views of working-class people are so foreign to that universe that when New York Times columnist Nick Kristof wanted to “engage” a Trump supporter last week, he made one up, along with this imaginary person’s responses to his questions.
 Last week, I decided to watch several hours of Trump speeches for myself. I saw the man ramble and boast and threaten and even seem to gloat when protesters were ejected from the arenas in which he spoke. I was disgusted by these things, as I have been disgusted by Trump for 20 years. But I also noticed something surprising. In each of the speeches I watched, Trump spent a good part of his time talking about an entirely legitimate issue, one that could even be called left-wing.
 Yes, Donald Trump talked about trade. In fact, to judge by how much time he spent talking about it, trade may be his single biggest concern – not white supremacy. Not even his plan to build a wall along the Mexican border, the issue that first won him political fame. He did it again during the debate on 3 March: asked about his political excommunication by Mitt Romney, he chose to pivot and talk about … trade.
OK. CLOSED. But I'm going to open another one.

28A: From the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank, "The Libertarian Case for Bernie Sanders."

Is it even legal to use "Sanders" and "Libertarian" in the same sentence without "is not a" or "is unacceptable to a" between the two words? The author, Will Wilkerson makes the case this way:

1. He takes the list of freest countries in the world, from the Fraser Institute, described as political conservative and libertarian. 
2. He notes that the United States is not on the list. But Denmark, Canada, and Sweden, three countries that Sanders would like to emulate, are on the list.

Then he concludes:
The libertarian case for Bernie Sanders is simply that Bernie Sanders wants to make America more like Denmark, Canada, or Sweden … and the citizens of those countries enjoy more liberty than Americans do. No other candidate specifically aims to make the United States more closely resemble a freer country. That’s it. That’s the case. 
 Indeed, it might be argued, some of the candidates would like to make America decidedly less free.

OK, closed

27. Washington Post, 2012 survey article on MMT. For those who say it's a fringe cult, the Washington Post does not waste that much ink on fringes.

They tell a story about Jamie Galbraith, son of the famous John Kenneth, attending a conference of economists during the (Bill) Clinton, and being laughed at:
“I said economists used to understand that the running of a surplus was fiscal (economic) drag,” he said, “and with 250 economists, they giggled.”
Galbraith says the 2001 recession — which followed a few years of surpluses — proves he was right.
 Well, it's thin proof. But it at least argues that he should not have been laughed at.


26. Why MMT is not a Free Lunch from Naked Capitalism.
A common criticism of Modern Monetary Theory is that it is a naïve doctrine of free lunches. The critics grant that a country like the United States, which issues its own freely floating fiat currency, can always make the policy choice to issue whatever quantity of that currency it deems appropriate. The US government can spend as many dollars into the private sector economy as it chooses, without obtaining those dollars from some other source first, and it can always pay any debts that have been incurred by borrowing dollars. But the critics will go on to charge that MMT mistakenly concludes from these few institutional and operational facts that there are no economic limits to the wealth-generating capacities of the government. They caricature MMT as a doctrine of manna from heaven, in which the power of issuing a generally accepted medium of exchange confers the power of conjuring real wealth into existence by prestidigitation. In short, they see MMT as a disordered syndrome characterizing people who are experiencing massive money illusion.

25. A google search page. Nothing there. Move along. CLOSED.

24. Critique of Krugman's Critique of MMT, from New Economic Perspectives. I can make my own critique of Krugman's Critique. Move along. CLOSED.

23. Krugman's Second Critique of MMT, in the NY Times. CLOSED.

22. Another search page. Moving on. CLOSED.

21. Video explaining the Denison Volunteer Dollars program, which I talked about in another post. Well, maybe not. It's similar to the toy MMT world that I wrote about here. CLOSED.

20. More search. CLOSED.

19. A draft for the post about the Denison Volunteer Dollars program that I was looking for. Written, but never posted. Now I want to post that. So now, what do I do. Do I: stop this post, write the other one, and post it. Maybe I'll go and do something else.

20. Which I do. When I get back, out of habit, I open my gmail. While contains the latest Chapter of Unsong, the novel that Scott Alexander is publishing a chapter at a time, on Sunday. Which leads me to:

21 Unsong, Chapter 11. That's good for an hour. First reading the chapter. Then the comments. Except there aren't many yet. Or maybe this should be CLOSED.

20. And this should be CLOSED.

19. And back to this draft, which I will close because I really need to hear back from the people I have emailed before I publish it. Randall Wray if really fast to respond, but the others are not. So CLOSED.

18. Google Drive folder list, CLOSED.

17. The American Monetary Institute's Evaluation of MMT. This is a horrible, horrible evaluation done by someone who not only doesn't understand MMT, but also doesn't understand how to frame an argument.

MMT stretches and twists the meaning of words beyond normal usage; for example, Wray says:
“We say that fiat money is a government liability. For what is the government liable? To accept its money in payment of taxes.”
Normally people think of a liability as being something owed and due. Money need not be something owed and due, it’s what we use to pay something owed and due. To call money a liability ignores the nature and properties of money. It removes the concept of money and substitutes a concept of debt in its place.
Well, here's the thing. Let's suppose the government has a gold-backed currency. The gold, sitting in the government's vaults is an asset, wouldn't you say? So the government issues some paper money, backed by the gold. The paper money is in effect an IOU for an equal amount of gold. So the money is YOUR asset, just as a loan receivable is an asset. But books must balance. So what's an asset to you is a liability to your counterparty, in this case the government. So that money is a government liability.

Same holds true for fiat money, backed by nothing. The government says: when I come around and tax you, then you can pay your taxes using this money. Your taxes are YOUR liability; your obligation to pay the taxes is the government's assets. When you pay your taxes (even before) you do so by delivering YOUR asset (money) to the government. This discharges your liability. And it removes the government's asset (your obligation) and replaces it with what must then be a liability. Otherwise the books don't balance.


16. A long article in American Scholar about the history of money and the monetary system. It concludes:
The United States is not broke—and we should laugh at the delusion that we are. The potential for abundance is everywhere around us, but it stagnates for sheer lack of funding. We have contracted our nation’s power to produce and consume just to prove that we can live within our means. And that’s a formula for economic ruin.

15. Chrome Plugins Page. CLOSED.

14.  "Introduction to an Alternative Theory of Money," a paper by Randall Wray at Social Science Research Network. Wray challenges the orthodox theory of money -- the one repeated, for example, by Adam Smith, that money was invented to facilitate trade and avoid the problem of "coincidence of wants." Wray points out that this is a just-so story, and the anthropological and historical evidence provides an alternative account of how money arose.

Historically, money rose in a way that is much more consistent with the MMT theory of money. It was not "a store of value" but rather evidence of debt.


13. Google search. CLOSED.

12. AMI's MMT Evaluation. Again. Enough said. CLOSED.

11. Article by Ed Dolan on econmonitor, titled "Why Would Anyone Want to Make the US More Like Europe? Here are Some Reasons" The article graphs the relationship between wealth and well-being across a lot of economies. For many measures the US is average or even below trend. And most European countries are well above.

For example, this:

The US is at the top (with several European countries) in the "opportunity component," and well above the trend line, but the other wealthier European countries are just a bit below the leaders, and also well above the trend line, too.


10. Great time-lapsed video of the sun setting in SFO.

Looks like this: 

9. Hangout photo of daughter's phone a couple of years back. CLOSED.

7. Google search. CLOSED.

6. Moneyweb article, "MMT and the Global Financial Crisis" CLOSED.

5. Billyblog: "Failure of Austerity" CLOSED.

4. Long essay: "What is money?" by Alfred Mitchel Innes, from the Banking Law Journal in 1913!.

I had to go to for this one, as the original website that posted this is no longer among the living. The article starts by repeating the usual narrative about the origins of money. In abbreviated form:

In the beginning there was barter. As life became complex, commodity money appeared. In different times and places, different commodities were used. Eventually, precious metals became the commodities of choice. Governments issued pieces of metal of known purity and weight, stamped with unique designs, and punished those who forged those tokens. The rulers of the middle ages swindled the people by debasing these tokens. So prevent this, and simplify transport, credit was invented. Instead of handing over metal, one handed over a token representing the metal. Credit became a substitute for gold.
But modern research in the domain of commercial history and numismatics, and especially recent discoveries in Babylonia, have brought to light a mass of evidence which was not available to the earlier economists, and in the light of which it may be positively stated that none of these theories rest on a solid basis of historical proof—that in fact they are false.
In plain language: "Bullshit!" That's not the way that it happened. It's a reasonable account, but it's a just so story, not only not backed by evidence, but contradicted by the evidence. So, bullshit.

He then provides a detailed history, complete with sources and citations, to show how money actually arose. And, guess what. Anticipating MMT by decades (remember, this account was written in 1913) he comes up with the same story that MMT theorists do. That money was based on taxation, and spent into existence by sovereign states.


3. Theories of Money, an archived page form the now defunct MMT wiki, which linked to the  above archived page. CLOSED.

2. MMT History and Overview, from the Mosler Economics site, which led to the wiki.

And finally, finally, Tada,

1. Trello project page for one of my projects.

0. Oh, yeah. This page. Post, and close!