Periscope Depth

rappenin' is what's happenin'

I’m abandoning political discussion for a while. Looking back over the tone of my political entries, you could charitably call them “condescending” and justifiably label them “assholish.” If someone talked about the Ravens with half the venom that I devote to the Ruling Party, I’d spit on them. And lots of people like the Ruling Party. So I’m trying to soften up.

But I need to get it out of my system.

So in the future, if the Ruling Party raises the minimum wage or the Opposition Party subsidizes the auto industry, and you’re dying to know what I think about it, and years of reading my impotent snarling hasn’t given you a hint, then you can reference this post. If you’re happy not hearing me talk about issues I don’t vote on, then skip this.

What I Believe: The Short Version

  • Ninety percent of what Paul Krugman or Thomas Friedman write is bullshit.

  • One hundred percent of what Lou Dobbs says is bullshit.
  • Anyone who wants to improve the lot of poor people or minorities in the U.S. whose first suggestion isn’t “Decriminalize marijuana” doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
  • Not only is torture immoral, the fact that the U.S. reached a point where that was even up for debate is sickening.
  • Sending U.S. citizens tremendous distances at great expense to kill foreign citizens is wrong. Let’s not even get into the debate over whether or not it’s effective (at what?) or justified (by whom? to whom?). It’s just bad.
  • Siccing federal agencies on giant corporations will not make giant corporations more honest.
  • Any legislation passed to prevent the “terror of the week” – whether it’s shark attacks, school shootings, online sex predators, shoe bombers or hurricanes – is a bad idea.
  • Printing money doesn’t make us richer.
  • Neither the Opposition Party nor the Ruling Party are uniquely dumb. They have particular flavors of ignorance depending on current voting blocs. If you’re tired of your party’s religious fundamentalism or weak-willed centrism, just wait twenty years.

The cheat sheet above should handle most of the news cycle for the next two to three years. What follows are some more abstract (read: boring) ramblings on broader political / ethical philosophy. I will probably make updates to the following as ideas come to me, so you may want to check back. Or ignore it and move on.


What I Believe: The Long Version

The Free Market: What Is It?

In the past I’ve been accused of thinking that “the free market can solve everything.” This isn’t the case.

The “free market” is a textbook abstraction, like the frictionless medium in which all physics problems take place. It presumes several things which almost never happen in real life – rational agents, perfect information, zero transaction costs, etc. All of these combined seriously dampen the predictive power of any econ model.

So the real world’s more complicated than a textbook. That doesn’t mean the class taught us nothing.

I believe that freer markets put more goods in the hands of people who value them more than tighter markets. I do not believe that coercion – whether in the form of robbery, or taxes, or regulations, or peer pressure – makes anyone better off but the coercer, and even that’s questionable.

To get specific, I believe that any law proposed to solve the excesses of corporate behavior rests, at some level, on awfully wishful thinking. The SEC can prevent the kind of trading that brought about the credit crisis because somehow SEC regulators are more honest than stockbrokers. Minimum wage laws will put more money into the hands of the working poor because state legislators know more about running a business than business owners do. Etc.

Liberty and Politics

Unless you’re defending freedom for people whose company you cannot stand, you’re not really defending freedom. What you’re defending is privilege.

Quoting from an earlier post:

Liberty, in any meaningful sense, requires a healthy tolerance for different people so long as they’re not hurting or threatening you. If I advocate freedom of speech “except for, y’know, racists and fundamentalists and obvious wackos,” I’m not really advocating freedom of speech. I’m advocating for protecting the speaking rights of People I Like. Defending freedom of speech means defending the right for people to blare the most illiterate hate. Even if you disagree with it. Hell, especially if you disagree with it.

Now expand the principle outward from just speech into all aspects of life. Freedom means gambling. Freedom means drug use. Freedom means buggery. Freedom means fundamentalists homeschooling their children about how God created the universe in six days. Freedom means filthy, offensive, hateful music. Freedom means fat SUVs with window-shaking stereos. Freedom means trans fats.

Pick something you absolutely hate, so long as it doesn’t entail a gun pointed at your face. Concentrate on it for a minute; hold it in your mind until you start to feel repelled by your own brain. In a free society, someone, somewhere, is doing that hateful thing and getting off on it.

[...]

The human species isn’t programmed for universal tolerance. It’s programmed for an us-vs-them mentality. Identify and bond with the hundred or so members of your Monkeysphere; don’t trust anyone else. Tolerating harmless differences may make for a better society, but it doesn’t come naturally. Nobody loves everybody.

I hesitated to call myself “libertarian” for years because of that term’s conflation with the Libertarian Party. I don’t think libertarians have any future as a Party. I realized this paradox about five or six years ago: if the American people naturally prefer freedom, then why have they been voting the opposite way for two and a quarter centuries? and if the American people do not naturally prefer freedom, what the hell chance does the LP have?

The answer, pretty clearly, is that no American – or really, no human being – wants freedom in the absolute sense. Sure, we talk about it in glowing terms, but nobody really wants to see Klansmen, Flat Earthers and fecal fetishists on the street while walking to the store. What we want is a certain package of rights and privileges for ourselves, our friends and family, and the social class with which we identify. The rich want lower capital gains taxes; the middle class want to deduct mortgage interest; the poor want income tax credit.

That’s why I don’t vote Libertarian – and of course, absenting them, why I don’t vote at all. If we define economics as the science of allocating scarce resources to unlimited wants, we might define politics as the science of allocating the tools for power to the unlimited desire for power. If you approach this game as a libertarian – someone who does not believe that human society should be shaped by a minority with power – then who do you side with? The folks who want to take away your freedom (to get breast implants, smoke cigarettes and eat greasy food), or the folks who want to take away your freedom (to have pre-marital sex, smoke marijuana and harvest stem cells)?

Nobody will ever campaign on the platform of Having Less Power. Theoretically, we can figure this one out from our armchairs: if someone genuinely didn’t want power, they wouldn’t be running for office. Empirically, we only need to take a look at all of recorded human history, from Enkidu vs Gilgamesh to the 2006 Congressional elections. The Opposition Party might want power for ends that you consider benevolent; these are the Good Guys. The Ruling Party might use its power for ends that you consider malevolent; that makes them the Bad Guys. But nobody ever conquered a tribe, started a coup or ran for office because they didn’t want power at all.

Institutions

I don’t believe it’s possible to ascribe a single aggregate “will” to a large body of people – such as all the members of a church, all the voters in a political party or all the employees and owners of a particular corporation. Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem suggests there may not even be such a thing as a “collective will,” and even if there is it’s practically impossible to divine. So I don’t put a lot of faith in statements that begin, “The American people don’t want …” or “General Motors has to …” or “Muslims need to …” or stuff like that.

I do not have tremendous faith in the power of institutions* to improve the lot of people outside their membership. The structure of an institution forces it to behave in a certain way: protecting its borders, acquiring more territory, reacting in ways that seem slow and often insane. You can’t co-opt an institution to every task, just like you can’t power your car with a whitewater river.

So don’t count on the Ruling Party to stop terrorism or solve the healthcare crisis. They’re an institution. That’s not what institutions do.

I also part company with a lot of Rand-inspired libertarians in believing this, because I can no longer get up in arms when bad things happen to giant corporations. Yes, passing a law that prevents a Wal-Mart from opening in a city is stupid. It’s a law that will make the city poorer. But Wal-Mart doesn’t need me carrying water for them. They’re a huge corporation that will very likely outlast my death. They would not take a second’s pause if I died tomorrow. Wal-Mart is not a working man out of whose mouth the city fathers have stolen bread. It’s a giant corporation. They’ll be fine.

(That being said, I’m very sympathetic to the laborers whom Wal-Mart would have hired, who now have to resort to lower paying jobs or no jobs at all. They’re the ones who these well meaning laws screw over)

Enough With The Negatives

What do I actually believe, though?

I really sincerely believe that you cannot stop trade. Kick vending machines off of school grounds and kids will sell candy out of their backpacks. Forbid short-selling of stock and people will invent complicated contracts with the same ultimate effects. Put a price ceiling on gas and buyers will still find ways to outbid each other for it.

I believe this is true, and always will be, because trade benefits both parties involved. I have something you want more than I do; you have something I want more than you do. If these things change hands, we will both be happier than we were five seconds ago.

Here I verge into the existential: I believe these powers of trade are one of the best ways to bridge the uncrossable gap between Self and Other. You can never really know the contents of another person’s thoughts. Sometimes this is disappointing – we’re all alone, even my best friends are strangers to me, etc. Sometimes this is delightful – it means the people in your life have infinite capacity to surprise you. Forging bonds with other people – as friends, as coworkers, as lovers – shortens this gulf but never fully crosses it.

Trade, ideally, does the same thing. It creates mutual good feeling, since both parties walk away happier. It promotes a search for mutual compatibility – what do you have that I want? what can I give you to get it? It turns human beings from competitive animals – which we had been for our first ninety thousand years – to cooperative neighbors.

A free exchange of goods, services and ideas will save the human race from poverty and destruction. Anything that gets in the way of that, I can’t stand.

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* I define an “institution” as anything big enough to need a command-and-control structure. This includes political parties, corporations and churches. In other words, most of the human social order.

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