Monday, December 06, 2004

Ideology and Ideologues

The most prominent forms of ideology in America today are what we refer to as conservatism and liberalism. The current meaning of these terms is somewhat removed from their original meanings. Liberalism used to mean a belief in liberty, freedom and self reliance to do one’s own thing and achieve what one could with the resources at hand while allowing others to do the same, without coercion. This implied a level of resourcefulness and responsibility for ones actions and a tolerance of others choices to pursue their own ends as they saw fit. Conservatism meant a respect for what had come before and served people well, and a reluctance to chuck the old for the new without due consideration of what might be lost as well as what could be gained with the new approach.

Today liberalism is identified with the Democrat Party and conservatism with the Republican Party. So liberalism has come to mean a belief in government as a way of solving problems, in addition to the usual private way. Conservatism still has an element of hanging on to the past and what it has delivered, but now has an element of old liberalism is mixed with it, the belief in free markets and individual responsibility. This new version of conservatism may arise from the mixture of old style conservatives and libertarians in the current Republican Party.

But, what are the salient features of these ideologies? In general, people we call liberals now tend to have egalitarian and altruistic motives. They see the differences in endowments of people, either due to heredity or culture, as something visited upon them, and either giving them an advantage or disadvantage as the case may be. They believe that one role of government, under its responsibility to promote the general welfare, is to equalize these differences so everyone can partake of the prosperity of the society. Present day conservatives, on the other hand tend to think that people should be rewarded based on their ability and capacity to contribute to the society. And the conservative ideologues believe that free markets are the principle mechanism for allocating the rewards. The reality is that the society will probably prosper best with a mix of the two.

Analysts vs. Ideologues

The analyst realizes that people generally behave both altruistically and selfishly. They are more altruistic in their dealing with family, clan, or friends and more selfish with respect to people outside these groups. Altruism leads to cooperation which can achieve a great deal in a society. Selfishness is great motivator. If we think we can reap the rewards of our efforts we will work harder and longer. Both of these personal attributes must be harnessed to achieve a smoothly running society.

Analysts generally view things as a tradeoff. They like to find the best mix of competing options to deliver the best result. Ideologues tend to view such behavior as not standing for anything. They like to have a set of rules or guidelines to tell them which path to go down, which option to select. Having to evaluate all the options and weigh one against the other can be real work, particularly if you do not have the aptitude for it. Analysts have the aptitude, but sometimes it can get them into trouble. They try to digest all sides of an issue objectively but get to the point where they suffer from analysis paralysis, and never get to a decision. Ideologues rarely have this problem. Over time they build a filter of rules and guidelines of what is acceptable and what is not. Rather than seeking out information on all the options ideologues tend to seek sources that reinforce the filter that they have developed. In some cases, this filter can change over time if the ideologue is not too extreme. In other cases, particularly if a belief system is involved such as occurs in devoutly religious people, the filter can be nearly immutable.

To some extent everyone is an analyst and everyone is an ideolog. It’s just a matter of degree.

Liberal Ideologue Examples

So what sort of filter does a liberal ideologue have? Being more altruistic and egalitarian liberals tend to be more sensitive to when people are in jeopardy or hurting in some way. As the saying goes, “they feel your pain” and they want to help. If the victim is in need of something, they want to find it for them to relieve their suffering. And where can one find it? Well, where someone else has an over abundance of it. And how do you get it? Well, buy it, beg for it, or take it in a legal way, which generally means with the government’s help and approval. What’s going on in this scenario is that not much attention is being paid to the consequences of what solving this problem in this way is having on the system. If too much is redistributed in this way it may cause a lack of incentive to produce what is being redistributed. But, if we have a liberal filter that says, if it helps someone it’s right and just, we are home free.

Another premise in the liberal’s filter seems to be that the earth was perfect before man got here. So anything that can bring it back to that state must be good, and anything that man has done to it must be bad. Hence, environmental extremism develops. Get rid of all the dams, protect all the snail darters and get people out of the wilderness. Again, if one accepts the basic premise, they look no further. When, in actuality there are tradeoffs to be made to arrive at a compromise solution.

Conservative Ideologue Examples

So what kind of filter does a conservative ideologue have? Being more attuned to individual effort and self reliance the conservative ideologue is likely to think more along the lines of, “What I produce is mine and what you produce is yours.” I might want to exchange some of mine for some of yours in a mutual bargain, but there will be no taking of anything of mine or anything of yours. So what is being overlooked in this scenario? Well, do we really produce anything on our own? Or is there a storehouse of resources generated in the past and passed on to us that we draw on to produce something in the here and now? Who owns this storehouse of past resources? More likely it is owned in common than individually, if it happens to be the road we drove to work on, the school we attended, the library we visited, the modern technology we used, etc. So how much of our produce are we entitled to and who gets to decide? Generally the people in charge do. This may be to boss, the company, the government. Or it may have nothing to do with the cost of what we produce, but how scarce our particular contribution is. It’s all very complicated, and probably no one has the right answer, but if we have a filter that says, “If we were paid a certain amount for our contribution it must be right and just,” we are home free.

Another premise in the conservative filter the free market and small government, which go together, since regulation requires government and markets can’t be completely free if they are regulated. So if any proposition impinges on markets it does not pass the filter. If it reduces the size of government or eliminates regulations it’s considered good, so again you’re home free in any argument about the subject.

The Analyst Example

Without any filters to justify our case, we would conclude that there must be an incentive to produce, if we are to have anything to reduce someone’s suffering. If we take too much from very able producers they will stop producing. We would also realize that what we are paid for what we produce is not necessarily what is right and just, that it may be somewhat arbitrary or transitory, for being in the right place and the right time where we could take advantage of a shortage, or we may be involved in a monopoly enterprise. Or our employer may have paid a politician to cut him a better tax deal or a sole source contract to enable him to pay us more. We would recognize that part of the value of what we produce is based on resources contributed by people in the past, which is held in common. We would realize that if a market is completely free it might lead to more wealth ending up in the hands of a few who have gamed the system through monopoly, paid favors, kickbacks, or simply due to the market structure itself. There is nothing in market theory that says that all will be provided for at least to the extent necessary to survive. We come to realize that some government regulation is necessary to make the system work efficiently, but too much regulation might reduce the productivity of the system. We would look for the tradeoffs in all these relationships, so that everyone has an opportunity to be productive, healthy, and relatively satisfied with their role in the system. We would realize that people are more productive when they feel that things are getting better, not worse, that they don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from or where they’re going to sleep tonight. We would realize that a system where everyone has a role and some measure of control is better than a system where a few people are in control and the rest feel powerless and dissatisfied.

So what are these ideological filters actually doing? Aren’t they giving us a false sense of reality? It may be confusing to have to analyze every situation in depth, but we at least should realize the whatever filters we use or shortcuts we take to draw conclusions may not be valid and are subject to change based on new information. So we are better off seeking out contrary evidence, rather than evidence which reinforces a filter which may be invalid.

Detecting and Confronting Ideological Arguments

In general, ideologues don’t seek compromise and aren’t bothered by lack of analysis or evidence. They are content to refute an argument against an extreme right wing proposition with an example of an extreme left wing proposition that is equally awful, or vice versa. They rarely argue from their own knowledge, but quote from others arguments. You will rarely see a long argument by an ideolog. They deal in clichés, trigger words, and concepts which their own kind will recognize as valid. If this doesn’t work they will resort to smearing the messenger or the source of the proposition. Ad hominem attacks are frequent. Appeals to authority and testimonials from prominent sources are common. In general, they use all types of logical fallacies in lieu of deductive argument or evidence. If all else fails they will accuse an analyst of having too much time on his hands, being arrogant, having an over inflated ego, and as a last resort that he may be happier in France or some other foreign country.

The only argument that can be used to confront ideologues is to point out the logical fallacies they are using. Even this won’t change their mind about anything. Ideologues don’t change their minds, even over long periods of time when circumstances have changed dramatically. But, they will simply go away and argue with another analyst or ideologue of the opposite stripe. If an ideologue is a close friend or family member, these bonds may allow for some progress in helping them overcome the malady over an extended discussion period. Otherwise it’s best to avoid them and spend your time discussing and learning from other analysts.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Suggestion for the Bush Tax Reform Plan

President Bush has indicated that he wants to simplify the tax code and create an ownership society. I share both aspirations, and offer this suggestion to correct an unfairness that has existed for a long time and allow people who don’t have much to invest, because of high taxes, a chance to participate in the ownership society.

Individuals pay more taxes than corporations with the same net income because corporation are able to deduct all expenses necessary to making a profit, while the limited exemptions and deductions afforded individuals don’t even cover their health insurance and state taxes, let alone basic living and transportation expenses. Data from a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute as computed from existing federal data for all states and metropolitan areas, show the realistic basic expenses of various households and the taxes they pay vs. what corporations pay. (See graph below) Because these costs have been tabulated carefully for many different family compositions and are region specific, such an exemption will be every bit as fair as the current complicated scheme of exemptions, deductions and credits. Families that earn just enough to cover essential expenses, that is, that have no net income over expenses, pay $800 to $1500 in federal income taxes.

We could simplify the tax code by giving individuals a realistic exemption for the basic income necessary to maintain their household, while retaining the option to itemize deductions if unusual expenses exceed this threshold. This would eliminate many households from the tax rolls, permit many others from having to itemize deductions, and allow all individual taxpayers to invest the savings in the ownership society. Once they are part of the ownership society, with low taxes on investment income, they will be less dependent on government handouts and not as dependent on their wages which are not keeping up increases in the GDP.

This change could be revenue neutral if the wide array of deductible expenses and tax loopholes were eliminated along with the increase in the exemption.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Advice to Democrats after the 2004 Election

As usual, a lot of Democrats are acting as if the world is coming to end because they lost the electoral college by less than 100,000 votes in Ohio. The protesters are back organizing to cut and run before we know if Iraq can be stabilized. The “back to Bubba” crowd is longing for another Clinton or Carter to get some of those religious votes that we all know belong lock, stock and barrel to the Republicans. They remember the intelligent, articulate, charismatic Clinton and forget the sleezeball, bible thumping Bubba that couldn’t keep his pants up and brought us NAFTA and amnesty for illegal aliens. They remember the Carter who promised us hope but delivered malaise. And they’re now using all the Republican weasel words like faith, values, and morals to become more acceptable, forgetting that they are the ones holding the moral high ground defending the poor, the middle class, and persecuted minorities. Here’s my advice if you want to win the next round.

Look at yourselves and decide who you are, and not just what you want to win. Speak clearly and concisely about what you represent and do not try to be on every side of every issue. Make a distinction between religion and morality. You can be moral without being religious, and you are. You can tolerate and accept personal religious belief and expression without tolerating religious extremism, superstition, and destruction of the wall between church and state. We all have values. My portfolio has value. I value my privacy, my liberty, my friendships, my community, my country and my way of life. Your values are just as worthy as anyone else’s values and you should define them and speak up for them.

In the realm of politics, be who you are and spend your time cultivating the cultures where you can be successful. Forget the Bible Belt and Mormonland (Idaho, Utah, etc). You will never succeed in these places where religious literalists dominate. Keep an eye on Florida where more and more people from the east and Midwest retire and where the culture becomes more urban year by year. Watch states like ND whose congressional delegations are all Democrats but will vote for a born-again bubba over a northeastern liberal. But concentrate on the interior margins of the blue states where races were close – Nevada, New Mexico, and particularly the Midwest where the only other state you needed to win was Ohio. If given a reasonable choice they’ll usually vote their pocketbook.

Don’t pick Bubba candidates thinking you can win back the Bible Belt. Don’t pick candidates from the Northeast or California, including Hillary with all her baggage. Not that there aren’t good candidates there, but it’s liberalland and Hollywoodland and it scares the daylights out of some voters that you could otherwise bring into your camp, and you have those areas in hand. Your best bet for next time would be a ticket like Evan Bayh/Barach Obama. The Midwest is where you can make inroads. Midwesterners are largely political moderates. They are quite practical people who are concerned about their economic welfare at times like these.

Keep your extreme liberal wing in check. It can bring you nothing but losses. People are interested in preserving the environment, but they’re not interested in blowing up all the dams during our energy shortage to save some snail darter or make it easier for white water rafters. Promote a gradual process of energy diversification. This is not going to change overnight. Compromise on wilderness areas vs. logging and recreation interests. We need to preserve wilderness, restore polluted areas, preserve clean air and water, but not at the exclusion of maintaining a stable economy and allowing people to experience nature. Participate in the Kyoto process for global hydrocarbon reduction, but drive a hard bargain to make the process compatible with preserving our way of life. Pick your time and place for protests. Too many of them water down the effect and may antagonize more people than they persuade.

Socialism and communism are dead. You are still being characterized by Republicans as socialists, backers of big government programs, and big spenders. You are no longer the big spenders. The Republicans are. I don’t think you advocate the ownership of industry by the government or believe that America is the antithesis of everything good, so don’t hang on every word of old die-hard socialists like Noam Chomsky. There are certain things that government can do better than private industry, like seeing that everyone is treated fairly, has equal opportunity to prosper, a decent education, and adequate food, shelter, and health insurance. This can be a cooperative public and private effort. But, don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs by strangling business and innovators with unnecessary and cumbersome regulations. Campaign against corporate welfare and abuse as strenuously as your campaign for equal opportunity. Get on board to simplify the tax code in a way that is equitable for everyone but will prevent the drain of billions for compliance. And, finally get straight on upholding the laws. It’s not acceptable to break the law to get votes or avoid the wrath of your favorite constituencies. Get on board to uphold the laws against illegal immigration, and curb the abuse of the legal system with reasonable tort reform.

My Experience in the Red and Blue Cultures

As some of you know I was raised on a farm in a now red state, ND. The nearest town where I went to school was about 300 people until I was about twelve years old. At the time, ND was neither Republican nor Democrat. It was NPL, the Non-Partisan League, which a majority of residents belonged to. So my parents voted for the NPL guy. At the time mothers were essentially apolitical, having too many kids to attend to, too many clothes to wash, canning to do, cows to milk, etc. and they hadn’t had the vote for too many years at that time. The little town of Tioga had two Lutheran Churches and a Catholic Church. No synagogues or mosques. There was some minor feuding among the Lutherans over which had the right version of the faith, but nothing that would disturb the tranquility of the little village and the surrounding farm community. My father was the treasurer of one of the Lutheran churches for many years. He wasn’t that religious that I could tell, because before he got the job I recall us going to church about twice a year, on Easter and Christmas. But he was a dutiful servant, dressing up in his Sunday best to count the collections every Sunday once he got the job.

Of course, we kids were required to go to Sunday school, get confirmed (catechism), and go to the baccalaureate (religious) ceremony upon graduation. Since everyone else did, and particularly the girls we were interested in, we went to bible camp a time or two and belonged to the Luther League youth organization. All the wives belonged to the Ladies Aid which put on the pot luck dinners after all the weddings and funerals.

My first adverse reaction to the religious “treatment” came at one of the bible camps. Long daily sessions at the disposal of strict clergy had me convinced after a couple weeks that either I was going the hell or I better start believing in Christianity. Fortunately, I had a lot of friends, most who didn’t attend, who starting ribbing me about my transformation, and after a few more weeks I was back to being a normal kid.

Up until my sixth grade, there was nothing about this rural experience that interfered with my conforming to societal norms. Everyone from the farm community thought essentially alike, and not just in Tioga, but in all the other little villages as far as one could travel in those days. Everyone was from similar European backgrounds, settled the area together, and carried on the same religious and cultural traditions of the old country. But in the summer between my fifth and six grade, my first cultural change occurred. An oil company prospecting in the area struck oil on a farm a few miles south of Tioga. By fall the town had close to doubled in population, and we were sitting two to a desk in my sixth grade class. Most of these new kids were different! They spoke funny, liked some foods we had never heard of (okra, black eyed peas, grits, collard greens, etc.), had a different attitude towards blacks, (We didn’t call them that at the time. There was another word that was popular then.) and God forbid, they were building a Baptist church right in the middle of town! Other than that, they were pretty much like us, from rural places with similar values and we started to get along just fine. I recall we discussed race relations quite a bit, and had completely different perspectives on the subject. I had only met one black person up to that time. His name was Joe Bond, and he worked the harvest circuit from Texas to ND every fall, and my father owned a threshing rig so we got to meet all the “strangers”. Joe was a real oddity to us. And I remember the time we had a hearty laugh when my father was paying off the crew and he asked a guy for his name and he said “Stubblefield”! Having met only a few people whose names didn’t end in “son” at the time, this struck us as pretty hilarious. This guy certainly was in the right occupation, spending most of his time in stubble fields loading shocked wheat bundles into his wagon and hauling them off to the threshing machine.

As time passed, the NPL was absorbed into the Democratic party, causing some more independent souls to join the Republican party. As I recall, my father, who had voted for Henry Wallace in 1948, became a Republican until the late fifties, when he switched to the Democrats. It all depended on who was supporting the small farmer the best. At the time most people voted their economics, not their religion.

Then I moved to the big city. What a shock! Never having been very far away from Tioga, I headed out to CA with a buddy of mine in my new 1957 VW bug loaded to the gills with practically everything we owned, and we set up shop in Inglewood, CA which at the time was the most white town in SoCal. Boy, did I meet a lot of “different” people. But I relished it, not realizing that some of these different people were thinking, who is this hick from the sticks with this sing-songy accent. I didn’t know anything about other cultures or what they valued or accepted. It wasn’t until I was up at Berkeley finishing my education where I came to the shocking realization that a girl I was dating, who liked me quite a lot, and we always had a good time every time we went out, informed me that we couldn’t let the relationship go any further because she was Jewish and it was not accepted at the time for her to stray to far from her heritage. This was a real eye opener for this green as grass farm boy from ND. Up until that time I really hadn’t realized the substantial impact culture and heritage could have on people.

After 45 more years of water under the bridge I think I have become pretty wise to the ways of the world and understand the difference between people who have had a wide range of cultural experiences and those who have remained in their original culture most of their life. It think it accounts for quite a few of the differences in the red and blue cultures. I should point out that there are really no true red or blue states, or even red or blue counties. I think it’s primarily red rural areas and blue urban areas. There are still very red areas in CA, like the San Joaquin and Imperial Valleys, while the urban areas are very blue. Even in Nevada, Clark County (Las Vegas metro) is blue and everywhere else is mostly read.

I think this can be explained by the people born in cities or moving to cities eventually encountering a wide variety of races, religions, cultures and values. You come to realize that the values you were raised with might not be the only values that are meritorious, and that you may hold prejudices against strange people, values, and behavior. Your devotion to a religion you may have grown up with is challenged when you see that people having a different religion or no religion at all are equally good people and treat you as humanely, friendly, and respectful as those of your own stock. It’s like the old adage that people who don’t have mountains, make mountain out of molehills. Even if they are essentially alike they find small difference to separate them from others. Whereas experiencing great diversity tends to wash out small differences and make only substantial difference important.

Some people, more than others, long for simplicity and eschew complexity. They long for the time when things didn’t change as quickly or as much. Or they long to get back to simpler times and recapture simpler values. They seek simpler answers and a more specific plan for how to cope. But, the past is past and the future is more complex. We know more about the world, more about people, more about how things work, and what’s real and what’s myth. In my opinion it is time to cast off our longing for the past and our fear of the future and look to make changes within ourselves to adapt a world that is changing ever more rapidly.

Words we once considered offensive are no longer considered offensive to some but more offensive to others. Behaviors that once were unacceptable become more acceptable to a larger number of people. We should closely examine whether we are resisting these changes because they are remnants of a past tradition that no longer serves us as well, or because they are genuinely destructive to our future. What is often referred as elitism among urban people by those with a narrower cultural experience is probably no more than a recognition that change is less threatening to them, and they can’t understand why people who haven’t had their experiences are so resistant to change and so protective of values and traditions, which they see as having outlived their usefulness. To bridge the gap between the red and blue cultures will require greater understanding of one by the other and less resistance to changes which are almost sure to be upon us sooner or later and which may actually enhance our life experience.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Does Big Business Promote Big Government?

In the world of Adam Smith, specialization of labor and free exchange of goods and services lead to lower prices and a higher standard of living for all. In modern democracies like the United States business is dominated by corporations and improvements in communication and transportation have extended markets worldwide. Is the world of Adam Smith really comparable to modern society?

The goal of corporations is to provide goods and services at the lowest possible cost to compete in the free market, while maximizing profits to their shareholders. Large corporations like Wal-Mart have done this very successfully and their growth has been phenomenal.
In small town America, residents get the advantage of low prices, and at least comparable wages and benefits so this seems a good proposition for shrinking small towns. In larger cities, residents making even higher wages in other jobs reap the benefits of the low Wal-mart prices, so it’s even a better win-win situation. Or is it?

There are still benefits from the economies of scale and the free exchange of goods and services. And, the laws of supply and demand haven’t been repealed. But in modern society, no one is allowed to starve or die from lack of shelter or medical services. If wages are low and benefits like health care are eliminated many in the work force cannot afford to pay for the services they need, and the burden falls on government to make up the difference. So in effect, large businesses who offer only low-paying jobs which do not support their employees are increasing the size of government to make up the difference.

Yet, supporters of free markets and big business place the blame for the growth of government on “tax and spend” “socialists”. If we truly want to limit the growth of government it appears the only way to reconcile this dilemma is to let people in these low-paying jobs go without health care or adequate food and shelter, or increase their wages to the level required to pay for their needs. It would seem the latter alternative is better than the former.

In California, there is now a movement to prevent Wal-Mart from moving into neighborhoods. This may be short sighted. It seems a better solution would be to take advantage of the economies of scale that Wal-mart offers and simplify increase the minimum wage to a reasonable level. This would be accompanied by howls from the usual suspects about throwing people out of work. But, this is just another red herring offered by the same people who blame big government on tax and spend liberals. People have to live and there is a cost to that. You can pay them a living wage or you can subsidize their pay with government services. It is likely that everyone will be happier and more productive if they have a job that pays their way.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Political Luddites

Luddites were the workmen, named after Ned Lud, who in the 1800’s, tried to prevent the use of labor saving devices by smashing them. That is, they didn’t try to understand the real role of labor saving devices in the long run. They were content to attack the problem in a short sighted way that fit their existing narrow and outdated view of the world.

Political luddites have a firm, fixed view of how things are, or previously were. They are not open-minded to how things have changed, may be changing, or will change in the future. They seek sources of information to reinforce their already held beliefs and avoid sources that may challenge their beliefs.

They deal in hackneyed clichés rather than discussing specifics in their own words. They first look at the source of the information, and if it is not from a source they know to be sympathetic to their views they reject it. They deal in personalities. There are personalities they can identify as being sympathetic to their views. Any others are immediately considered untruthful, untrustworthy, or have a hidden agenda. They are quick to hitch their chariot to the former, and are brutally loyal from that point on.

To allow you to spot these political luddites by the clichés they use, here are some of the most popular ones and a description of what they mean when they use them.
Liberal – Anyone promoting the general welfare, advocating for the average citizen at the expense of the political donor class, or advocating redistribution, class warfare, fair markets, or regulation as defined below. Often used interchangeably with libertine or big spender, and prefaced by the adjective, bleeding heart. Not to be confused with the more conventional definition of an open minded, tolerant individual of free birth and noble ideals.

Socialist - Anyone who may have discovered that the preamble to the Constitution includes the charge that government is to establish justice and promote the general welfare, in addition to providing for domestic tranquility and the common defense. A person who believes that taxation is not a form of theft, and believes that taxes can be used for things other than national defense and policing. Anyone who supports government involvement in programs that could be handled in the private sector. This definition is not to be confused with the more conventional definition of a socialist as someone advocating government ownership of the means of production.

Redistribution - The spending of tax money to abet one class of people over another, even if this expenditure is to correct injustices or inequities in the system, or ensure survival of individual citizens who are threatened with economic disaster. Any money used to promote the general welfare, as opposed to spending for national defense and policing. Implicit in this definition is that all salaries, wages, profits, and other income are accounted for and taxed fairly. There is no recognition of any class of people including the political donor class. All laws are assumed to be legitimately made, and the influence of political contributions is assumed not to have any effect on how tax laws and exemptions are made. No account is taken that corporations pay taxes on net income and individuals do not.

Class warfare - This is said to occur when citizens discover and complain about a political donor class funding politicians to obtain access and pressing for laws that advantage them. Used to fight any form of progressive taxation or discourage any recognition of an increasing income gap between the political donor class and the rest of the citizenry.

Free market - The holy grail of luddites economics. An unregulated interchange of goods and services without government involvement. Generally means that any form of regulation disrupts markets and prevents them from operating efficiently. Implicitly fair. No distinction between free markets and fair markets.

Deregulation - Getting the government out of market regulation. Allowing unimpeded consolidation. Sometimes implies advantaging business over consumers. Not necessarily full deregulation. As in the energy market in California, deregulating wholesale prices, while keeping retail prices regulated to advantage producers over consumers. Allowing decisions to be made by suppliers rather than consumers, as in the cable TV industry.

GDP – Gross Domestic Product. Another holy grail of luddites economics. An aggregate measure of the goods and services produced in the country. Used as a measure of the health of the country, as opposed to using employment, job satisfaction, health or other citizen related indicators. Implicitly ignores variations between different segments of society and between the donor class and others, but still considered all important to luddites.

Saturday, April 03, 2004

Homeland Security

Are we ever going to be secure with thousands of unidentifiable people in our midst? Can we check every bag, secure every aircraft, every train, every building, every gathering place, every power plant, every dock, every vehicle against satchel bombs of one kind or another? Can we protect our air, water, and food from lethal contaminants everywhere? In a few words, aren’t we going about this in the wrong way?

Wouldn’t it make more sense to approach homeland security like we approach motor vehicles and handguns? Every car is inspected and registered in a database by make, model, and description, or it can be impounded so it can’t be driven. Yet people can enter the country illegally at most places along our border or obtain a drivers license with a fake piece of paper without even as much as a picture on it. Are we stuck in such a time warp that we can’t have a positive, verifiable personal registration system because we think the government is someday going to gather us all up and put us in jail if we are registered in some database. On the contrary, we should have a system where the government can gather up those who aren’t registered in a database and deport them or otherwise determine why they are here illegally. Only then will we have any hope of being secure in our person and property.

Such a registration system could be very simple, consisting of simply a number and a picture in most cases. When you are involved in legal infraction, go to board a plane, or interview for a job you produce the picture and the number and the airline or employer looks up the number in a database. If the picture stored there doesn’t match the picture you furnished, or doesn’t obviously look like you, further investigation is required. In cases where people have criminal records or other past history of illegal behavior, a fingerprint or a DNA sample may be required. For citizens to be registered in the database would require proof of domestic birth or naturalization.

For people requesting entry to the country, a much more complete registration would be required. For limited term visitors, a visa with pictures and fingerprints, together with purpose of entry, country of origin, planned itinerary, length of stay, and most importantly, a responsible party in the country whose responsibility it would be to keep track of the whereabouts of the visitor, and notify authorities if such whereabouts were ever in doubt. This party could be a tour company, employer, school, a relative or friend being visited, or a series of hotel registration and departure notifications. The database computer would automatically kick out the names of those who have overstayed their visa or whose whereabouts have been determined to be uncertain.

I suspect the reason we don’t already have such a system has more to do with special interests and politicians desire to utilize undocumented labor, expand tuition receipts, or pad voter rolls. And the price is our homeland security.

Friday, April 02, 2004

Worker Capitalism

Recently, maybe forever, corporate titans have been giving themselves big raises and bonuses by being on each others boards, buying tax code favors from politicians, and letting trickle down take care of anyone that doesn’t have any influence over who gets what in the corporate world. Lately, some have even gone so far as to adopt corrupt practices to make sure their bottom line titillates Wall Street, to ensure that their stock options reap big rewards. So what about the old maxim that the primary responsibility of a corporation is to its stockholders? Some capitalists seem to be taking issue with this tenet of corporate practice if the stockholders happen to be owners of large pension funds who exercise their voting power to curb the excesses of corporate managers.

Jay Hancock of the The Baltimore Sun has recently reported that as early as 2001 U. S. pension funds owned 26% of corporate America, while mutual funds controlled only 19%. The only difference is, pension fund managers seem to take their fiduciary responsibility more seriously than mutual fund managers. Pension fund managers are starting to press corporate managers to pay more attention to owners and less attention to feathering their own nest, while mutual fund managers seem to count on their “investors” automatic approval of management decisions, as long as the bottom line is competitive.

Since corporate titans own politicians, for the most part, particularly those in the Republican party, not much is ever going to get done in closing tax loopholes bought and paid for by their benefactors. So, if the widening gap between rich and poor is ever going to narrow, it calls for even more worker capitalism. If more workers can be encouraged to invest in funds which exercise their power for the benefit of workers without killing the goose that lays the golden egg, the situation for those in the bottom 99% of the economic ladder might actually improve. If there is pressure from worker owned funds to reduce executive compensation in all industries and pass it down to those without corporate decision making power, maybe the welfare of workers, whose economic progress has stagnated for the last thirty years will actually improve. After all, are these executives going to quit if they make ten million a year instead of a hundred million? I doubt it. Ditto for overpaid athletes and celebrities. They all work for one corporation or another that could be owned significantly by funds owned by workers.

Maybe if workers actually saw the fruits of ownership they would come to appreciate more and more the benefits of the invisible hand, honest dealing, competitive pressures, and realistic regulation of business, without just demanding a greater share of the take. Maybe they would accept reductions in corporate taxes, reduced corporate paid benefits, and accept more responsibility for their own welfare if the result was a more competitive company and more income tricking down beyond the command level.

Of course this would be labeled the new socialism by those in high places who would no longer have the run of company to divert profits to their own pocketbooks. But, really, it’s just capitalism at its best.

Friday, March 26, 2004

Dr. Greenspan, turn off the bubble machine!

The Federal Reserve Governors are said to have a primary responsibility for preventing inflation or deflation in the economy and maintaining a stable economic environment free of recessions and bubbles, through the use of monetary tools like regulating interbank interest rates and controlling the money supply. Their activities are closely linked with the Treasury Department, whose Secretary meets with the Fed Chairman, Alan Greenspan on a regular basis. Since the Fed is a quasi-independent organization linked to the Federal Reserve banking system it tends to look out for banking and securities interests, and government interests, while trying at the same time trying to make responsible decisions protecting the economy at large. This can be a daunting task so criticism of its actions should never be levied without caution and qualification.

In recent years, the threat of inflation has been minimal, while the economy has been sluggish, so the Fed has dropped interbank interest rates to very low levels. In turn, bank prime rates, mortgage rates, and consumer credit rates have dropped accordingly. This results in temporary dislocations, which later result in more long term effects. For example, when mortgage rates drop, existing homeowners refinance, dropping their monthly mortgage payments so they have more to spend on consumer goods. Consumers run up their credit buying balances since interest payments are lower. This stimulates a sluggish economy. Senior citizens and others whose income derives substantially from investments tend to shift their investments out of interest bearing instruments and into equities or real estate where returns may be higher, at least temporarily. As this process progresses, home buyers also make adjustments. Since their payments are less, they can afford to pay more for the real estate they buy. This drives up real estate prices, offsetting to some extent the effects of low interest rates. Eventually, bubbles start to develop. The real estate market starts to inflate, creating a real estate bubble, and the demand for equities in the stock markets begins to outstrip earnings, creating a stock market bubble.

Meanwhile the sluggish economy is causing a reduction in tax revenues, and federal and state deficits start to develop, the effects of which are often discounted because interest rates are low. But, eventually, either the economy picks up and inflation rears its ugly head and interest rates are increased to meet it, or as in the current environment, the economy contines to be sluggish, employment refuses to pick up, and the bubbles get larger and larger and eventually burst.

If the Fed continues to view only aggregate inflation rates to trigger interest rate increases, the bubbles (inflation in real estate and equity prices) continue to grow. The government will continue to run deficits which will threaten federal retirement programs like social security and medicare, and the seniors, who rely on these programs and regular investment income will be put in jeopardy. Dr. Greenspan has recently called for reductions in these retirement benefits at the same time as his low interest rates are driving seniors away from stable long term interest based investments into speculative equity investments.

It is my contention that interest rates should start to be increased now. Although aggregate inflation rates are still low, real estate and equity price inflation rates are high. The real estate market is already overheating in growth areas, and the P/E ratios of stocks are at historically high levels. The markets have recognized this so the stock market volatility has increased markedly with fits and starts on every news story hitting the press. These low interest rates, and the stock and real estate market bubbles that develop from them, discourage long term investment and encourage speculation, and puts those dependent on investment income in jeopardy.

Dr. Greenspan, it’s time to turn off the bubble machine!

Saturday, March 06, 2004


This is a discussion of the methods and purposes of discourse. People engage in discourse for many reasons. It can be for fun, to strengthen ones resolve on currently held positions, or to get at more fundamental truths about the way things are.

Engaging in discourse for fun usually involves humor and put-downs (zingers) to make a winning point at the adversary’s expense. There is no claim to logic.

Discourse to strengthen one’s resolve on currently held positions also does not rely on logic as much as selecting information which supports one’s position, while suppressing or ignoring information which conflicts with it.

To get at more fundamental truths requires close attention to avoiding logical fallacies, and close examination of the underlying assumptions that are basic to a firmly held position.

If two or more people are engaging in a discourse, but there is not agreement on what the purpose of the discourse is, it can become very frustrating. If one person is trying to make serious points to get at more fundamental truths and another is engaging in the discourse for fun or to strengthen a currently held position there is a basic disconnect which can lead to frustration or anger.

What follows applies mainly to what must be avoided if the purpose of the discussion is to get at more fundamental truths.

Logical Fallacies

Logic involves deducing conclusions from accepted assumptions through a series of steps where each step can be deduced from the prior step, leading to valid conclusions. Appeals to authority, ad hominem attacks, testimonials, inflammatory rhetoric, etc. are considered logical fallacies which cannot be used to support or validate a position. Logic fallacies are welcome in discourse for fun, but generally are not valid in strengthening a currently held position, unless the position is held on primarily emotional grounds. Discussions based on faith require no logical foundation, and logical fallacies are often used in such discussions. Logical fallacies are enumerated at several places on the internet. Here are a couple:


Engaging in discourse to get at truth involves first examining assumptions that each party brings to the table. For example, if one party hold that free markets always bring about the best economic results and the other party does not accept this assumption, there is no need to discourse further. At that point, an examination of the assumption should proceed and arguments should be made for or against the assumption are in order. Or qualifications should be placed on the assumption that both can agree on.


Clichés are frequently used catch phrases that can mean different things to different people. For example, “liberal” can mean as the dictionary says, 1. Befitting a man of free birth, 2. Bestowing in a large and noble way; generous; bountiful; openhanded, 3. Bestowed in a large way; abundant; bountiful; ample, or 4. Archaic Free from restraint; unchecked; licentious. A so-called liberal person using the term might interpret it in the first or second way, while a so-called conservative person using it might mean it in the fourth way. Likewise, the term “conservative“ might be used by a so-called liberal person to impugn the motives of a so-called conservative person implying stinginess or fixed attitudes, whereas the so-called conservative might view it as conserving worthwhile values. Other clichés often used without definition to put down groups, rather than attribute meaning include “socialist” and “fascist”. The use of clichés in discourse is just another logical fallacy if a common meaning is not clear to both parties, and is usually met by returning “zingers” which put down the cliché user. This only leads to anger and frustration.

Emotional Arguments

Emotional arguments do not submit to logical scrutiny. Any attempt to argue logically against a position that arises from emotions is futile. Therefore, in any discourse aimed at finding truth, if one feels emotion creeping into the argument, it’s time to sit back and relax and examine why the emotion is entering the argument. Are critical underlying assumptions being challenged indirectly? What are they? Are they valid? How you been offended by a zinger? Are you frustrated by flying clichés? Are you responding to an illogical personal attack, etc? Find the cause before proceeding.

Selective Argument

It is human nature to gravitate towards literature or pundits that reinforce one’s closely held positions. In the process, it’s easy to overlook logical fallacies used by authors or pundits expounding one’s own position, while recognizing those being used by someone promoting an adversarial position. For this reason, it’s wise to avoid authors and pundits of all stripes, who use emotional and one sided arguments to support their positions. You can usually detect these people by their predictability. The same applies to think tanks. They are usually sponsored by people or organizations that want to promote a specific viewpoint. Therefore, if you know the viewpoint they are promoting you can predict what their position will be.

In making arguments which aim at truth, it’s usually better to make your own logical arguments. If that’s not possible, present only the arguments of others which do not appeal to logical fallacies or which attempt to present both sides of the story. It’s usually not hard to tell if someone is trying to be fair-minded on an issue.

The Fog and Snow Index

People who make long-winded, round-about arguments in an emotional way usually don’t clearly understand what they are talking about or are intentionally trying to make up for lack of truth with verbosity. If one clearly understands a point, arguments can usually be made in a concise and clear way.

Pundits usually have to provide some opinion on a regular basis whether they really have anything profound to contribute, or not. This usually leads to weak, long-winded arguments about minor or perfunctory matters that are best left to undiscriminating readers.

The same applies to some book authors. They publish all their recent columns in a book to make some more money. Or they have to publish a book every couple years to make a living. Or they have a TV or radio show and see a book every couple years as a way to make some extra money from the same audience they have cultivated on their show. They take advantage of the second purpose of discourse, the reinforcement of currently held positions, without regard to the logical validity of the arguments.

Are the positions you hold in your overall best interests?

The positions one holds may not arise from logic at all. We adopt positions because our parents held them, because they accord with our religious convictions, because our circle of friends holds them, because we like an advocate of a particular position, because we haven’t really thought about them, because they applied in a previous time but may no longer be in our interests, and many other reasons. Times and attitudes change. It’s worthwhile to take the time to reevaluate our positions and our basic assumptions from time to time to make sure what we are advocating is really in our own interests. I believe there are many people today who hold positions which may have been valid in the past, but which no longer are in their own interests. There are also people who hold positions that they think will be of advantage to them in the future, when they have moved to a higher station, but the higher station is an illusion which never comes. And, people tend to identify with power and celebrity vicariously, and therefore overlook advantages which accrue to power and celebrity but will never accrue to themselves. In a few words, promote and vote your self interest. The democratic system depends on it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Pushing on a Rope

Some readers have raised questions about the relationship between my Modest Proposal and the current recession and the benefits to business as well as labor. I hope this answers some of your questions.

A short discussion of the short term situation.

Why are we in a recession? Because businesses aren’t selling enough products, so their inventories grow, they cut production, and eventually lay off workers, or reduce labor costs by shipping jobs overseas. They have excess capacity, and don’t see anywhere to invest that makes sense, since demand has diminished.

Why aren’t they selling enough products? Because people, domestically or worldwide are not spending as much, or because they are not competitive in overseas markets. People have reduced their spending for a number of reasons. They are overextended on their debt, or lost equity when the market bubble burst, which paid for some of their previous purchases. They have lost confidence that their job is secure, or their incomes will no longer meet expenses, due to uncertainties in the economy or deteriorating worldwide conditions, and or other reasons.

So what should be done to get out of the recession? Where will tax cuts for business and investers go? One place is in the bank or in the market where it won’t create any demand. Will modernizing business or innovating create more demand? Maybe, if costs can be reduced so products can become more competitive in overseas markets. But, what if overseas markets are also depressed? Putting money in the hands of business and investors will be like pushing on a rope. It will only create demand if modernizing will improve competitiveness and demand is already there. Demand pull is needed either domestically or from abroad to stimulate business. Only after overcapacity is worked off will investment and hiring be needed. GNP increases, without corresponding hiring suggests that overcapacity is not yet worked off, or that hiring is coming mainly from offshore. What is needed in the short term is to put money in the hands of people who will spend it, i. e. tax cuts for spenders, not business or investors.

What is required in the long term?

About the only thing that will help the long term situation, with the disparity in labor rates here and abroad, is for companies to improve their competitiveness in offshore markets in other ways. The domestic market in the US is a small percentage of the world market, and it’s not growing as rapidly. If we are to remain an affluent society, we must prosper in international markets, and the profits from those sales must be spread over the great mass of people in the country to sustain domestic demand and to maintain a high average standard of living.

What my proposed program does.

First, on the business side, it reduces or eliminates administration, labor, health care and pension costs from the price of the products sold, making them much more competitive in both domestic and foreign markets. It recaptures some of these costs through taxes on the increased profits which will accrue to businesses and distributes them across all economic levels in the stipend and healthcare and education benefits. The important distinction is that these costs are not including in the price of products which makes the products much cheaper both domestically and overseas.

On the people side, it reduces the cost of domestic labor to business, making domestic labor more competitive relative to foreign labor. One reason we are not as competitive as we could be on world markets is because other countries are doing precisely this already. They ship products offshore at production costs, which don’t include the costs imposed by company sponsored health care, pensions, and high administrative costs.

Even if the current complex tax system were kept, and just the earned income credit adjusted in leiu of the stipend, it would accomplish some of the benefits to business and labor addressed here. This may be more easily implemented, but there is major savings to be reaped from eliminating the whole administrative tax code mess as I have proposed.

Friday, February 20, 2004

A Not so Modest Proposal

After watching the Frontline program, “Tax Me If You Can” and reading the book, “Perfectly Legal” I am convinced that half the corporations and the people who run them are eating everyone else’s lunch through deceptive, or even illegal, practices. Their access to, and power over, government through campaign contributions, is made possible through complex tax and regulation laws that neither congress nor the administrators fully comprehend. Corporations, including major accounting, legal, and financial firms have the resources to keep one step ahead of the politicians and administrators in devising schemes to avoid paying their taxes and to keep labor costs at a subsistence level.

There are several related issues which the country supports but which politicians will not support because it will limit their access to contributions and their ability to manipulate the various sectors of society to get elected and reelected. Among them are tax code simplification, illegal immigration control, health care cost containment, and limitations on the export of jobs. This lack of support for programs the country favors is not only undemocratic, it borders on fraud when laws get enacted that allow corporate cheating.

The press is complicit in sustaining this situation. Driven by the bottom line, the press concentrates on the sensational, the sexy, and the salacious while the real problems are addressed only by a few outlets, not dependent on commercial success, like C-SPAN and PBS. Until the press sees fit to inform the public about what is going on, voters will continue to vote for candidates on the basis of their religiosity, their company or union’s recommendation, their standing in the polls, or their spin on the stump. Therefore it is imperative that grass roots pressure be applied on the press to inform the American people about the problems, and on the politicians to start acting ethically and enact programs the people support.

There is immense wealth in this country, but it’s in the hands of a few. It may be time to give every person a stipend of about $1000 a month, with cost of living adjustments. Then tax people at graduated rates on incomes above the stipend. This would take some people, who want to do their own thing on a shoestring, out of the job market and raise wages for those who stayed in. And companies would only have to pay wages above the stipend. So some people would be willing to work for little or nothing above the stipend, and fewer jobs would move offshore, since the stipend is not being paid to offshore workers.

Social security, along with the payroll deduction for it could be phased out over time when existing contributions by workers are paid out.

The tax bureaucracy could be eliminated almost entirely. No tax return would need to be submitted. Every employee could be taxed at their average rate for the previous year and employers and institutions could deduct the tax and submit it to the Treasury. Any reconciliation could be factored into the next year’s withholding. All deductions, exemptions, and tax credits would be eliminated. Instead of corporations maintaining two sets of books as they do now, one for the IRS and one for shareholders, businesses would be taxed on the net earnings in their quarterly and annual reports, eliminating the need for any tax return. All businesses would be required to publish these reports and be subject to ongoing audits by the appropriate agencies.

Government regulation of business could actually be reduced and limited to protection of the environment, worker safety, and accurate reporting . The only thing left for the politicians to manipulate the electorate would be the progressivity in tax rates. That would insure that the cliché, “class warfare” would not disappear from the lexicon.

Together with this tax program, the government should negotiate and pay for health insurance contracts with insurance companies for everyone in the country on competitive bids – no cherry picking of healthy people, no special programs for government employees, everyone in one gigantic group. Medicare and medicaid could be phased out, along with their payroll deductions. The health care system would still remain private as it is now. Pressure for cost containment would come from the bidding process and copays. Business will no longer be the custodians of health care and retirement plans.

Government should also work towards fully funding education at government controlled institutions, through the college level, as was done in the 1950’s. Outside of health insurance, education is the single largest cost to families with childen.

Believe it or not, this should not represent a big dislocation in the economy, since everyone now employed or on unemployment is making at least the stipend. Education and health care costs are being paid right now. And, gigantic savings would accrue from the elimination of all the paperwork associated with the programs that would be terminated. The only significant change would be that the tax burden would be shifted from struggling people on the bottom rungs of the ladder to corporations and the people who run them who have been robbing the rest of us for a long time.

There is one caveat. You would have to show proof of citizenship and reside in the US in good standing to receive the stipend. If you’re incarcerated, owe taxes, have outstanding warrants or unpaid infractions, the stipend would stop until arrangements are made to get back in good standing.