Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Why "Speaking Truth to Power" is a Crock

The expression "speaking truth to power" is one of the more smug and pretentious sayings around. We can see how effective it is by observing how ruthlessly corporations suppress any films that portray corporations in a negative light.

Except for a few that slip through. Like:

Avatar: The RDA Corporation strip mines a planet to satisfy Earth's energy needs, destroying the home of the native intelligent species.

Blade Runner: The Tyrell Corporation makes sex and combat androids with a lifetime of four years, giving them human intelligence and emotion, but no hope.

District 9: Multi-National United pretends to assist stranded aliens while secretly adapting their technology for weapons.

Office Space: Initech isn't evil on a global scale, just personally

Alien: The Weyland-Yutani Corporation keeps sending Sigourney Weaver and her expendable crewmates to hostile worlds in search of alien life to weaponize.

RoboCop: Omni Consumer Products takes a cop's brain and transplants it into a robot, while an especially evil executive plots to use fully robotic but faulty machines.

Resident Evil: Umbrella Corporation unleashes a zombie apocalypse on the world.

Soylent Green: The Soylent Corporation performs the ultimate in recycling, by recycling people into food wafers. Contemplate the thermodynamic impossibility of this plot. (Soyent Green II is coming out: Tag line: "Soylent Green is still people!")

Total Recall: Poor Arnold Schwartzenegger. He can't put on his socks without being attacked by an evil corporation. In this case, Rekall can give you a dream vacation full of false memories, except it also monopolizes air on Mars and uses Ahnold to try and ferret out the resistance.

The 6th Day: Replacement Technologies is plotting to replace humans with clones. Ahnold again.

The Running Man: ICS pits prisoners (Arnold, of course) against trained assassins.

The Terminator: Cyberdyne Systems creates Skynet, which launches a nuclear war and then builds robots to exterminate the survivors. Arnold is an evil robot in the first one and a good robot the next time around.

The Truman Show: A TV network keeps a man in a perpetual studio set for his entire life, and the viewing public is apparently okay with that. At least when Truman finds the way out, they don't send henchmen to stop him.

Wall-E: The BuyNLarge corporation chokes the earth with waste, strands a cute little clean-up bot on Earth to clean up the mess, and sends humanity into space, where it becomes bloated and indolent on a comfortable ship.

Silkwood: Based on the story of Karen Silkwood, who died before she could deliver the goods on a real live corporation, and who apparently never heard of Xerox machines, safe deposit boxes, and mailing backup copies of her information to multiple destinations.

Cloud Atlas: A whistle blower and a plane load of innocent people are blown up and an investigative reporter almost killed because the whistle blower apparently never heard of Xerox machines, safe deposit boxes, and mailing backup copies of his information to multiple destinations. Or e-mail.

Idiocracy: In a world ruled by idiots, the Brawndo ("It's got electrolytes") Corporation rules. My beef with this film is it went for the usual soft, non-controversial targets. Not a hint that religious cults and political lies might play a role in dumbing down society, or that just being comfortable makes people lazy. But corporations are okay to portray as evil. Because speaking truth to power.

China Syndrome: Jane Fonda reports on the possibility of a nuclear meltdown, which the evil nuclear power plant is trying to suppress.

Network: Not even TV is safe. A network news anchor goes nuts on the air and threatens to blow his brains out, and when ratings skyrocket, the network eggs him on.

Jurassic World: Ingen, the dinosaur cloners, has an executive who wants to weaponize raptors.

Wow, "speaking truth to power" really works. Because corporations are absolutely terrified about being portrayed as evil.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Five Terrible Ideas from Progressives and Conservatives

A recent article in Rolling Stone inspired a conservative writer to offer his own take on the piece. It's an nice demonstration of the fact that neither right nor left have a monopoly on bad economics. First, the liberal recipe.

Five Economic Reforms Millennials Should Be Fighting For

Jesse A. Myerson,  Rolling Stone, January 3, 2014

Guaranteed Work for Everybody

Unemployment blows. The easiest and most direct solution is for the government to guarantee that everyone who wants to contribute productively to society is able to earn a decent living in the public sector.
Actually not a bad idea, except for that one qualifier, "everyone who wants to contribute." Because as we see in the next topic, not everybody wants to. And a lot of the stuff we need done is decidedly non-glamorous
Imagine a world where people could contribute the skills that inspire them – teaching, tutoring, urban farming, cleaning up the environment, painting murals – rather than telemarketing or whatever other stupid tasks bosses need done to supplement their millions.
Chances are, if you know enough to be useful teaching or tutoring, or paint a decent mural, you won't be part of this work force. Urban farming and cleaning up the environment won't be all that fulfilling and the "stupid tasks bosses need done," like sweeping floors and cleaning, will still need to be done in the public sector, too. How does "cleaning up the environment" differ from "picking up trash?"

Okay, so what do we do with people who just plain won't work? No money? What if they have kids? Because if just plain not working is an option, well, read the next point.

Social Security for All

Actual human workers are increasingly surplus to requirement – that's one major reason why we have such a big unemployment problem. A universal basic income would address this epidemic at the root and provide everyone, in the words of Duke professor Kathi Weeks, "time to cultivate new needs for pleasures, activities, senses, passions, affects, and socialities that exceed the options of working and saving, producing and accumulating."
Put another way: A universal basic income, combined with a job guarantee and other social programs, could make participation in the labor force truly voluntary, thereby enabling people to get a life.
This takes us to the fringiest areas of progressive economics, the idea that work should be purely voluntary. Nobody says it better than Washington City Paper's inimitable Franklin Schneider. God, how I love this guy. If he didn't exist, I'd have to invent him, except I would never insult leftists by accusing them of thinking like this. If I simply attributed his words to leftists, I'd be accused of creating a straw man. I couldn't begin to parody leftist thinking this brilliantly, except he's for real. Either that or he's the greatest genius troll ever. Anyway, here's "Doing More With Less: In defense of creative loafing" (Washington City Paper, March 7, 2008)
I’ve been on unemployment three times in the past six years. Each time was better than the last, and each time I stayed on until the last cent was exhausted. I didn’t even try to get a job; it was a paid vacation. This is somewhat unusual from what I can tell. There’s a deep vein of antipathy in this country toward collecting checks from the government, especially in precincts that tend to skew rightward. Politicians imply that it’s un-American for an individual to milk the government, all while jacking up corporate welfare for their campaign contributors.
This brand of puritanism has gained traction among the gullible masses, including those I count as friends. .....Most of them stayed on unemployment for only a few scant weeks before getting another shit job they immediately began bitching about. When I asked why, they muttered various reasons like “not wanting to be on welfare” or “wanting to work for a living.” One even fretted about “what her parents would think.” 
Given a choice between getting a check every week for doing nothing and getting a check every week for flushing 40 hours of the prime of their lives down the toilet, they chose the latter. I mean, what kind of self-hating, masochistic Protestant bullshit is that?
Not only do I feel no guilt whatsoever about sucking from the state’s teat, I feel that I’m absolutely entitled to it. First of all, the employer that fired me pays for half of my unemployment, and fuck them.
Second of all, it’s really my money in the first place. See, your employer never pays you what you’re worth—there’s a surplus, some of which goes toward overhead and various other business costs, and the rest of which is kept as profit. (This is what Marx was referring to when he talked about “exploitation of the workers.”) A tiny fraction of this surplus—which, again, has been skimmed off of my labor—is put into a government-mandated account to go toward unemployment checks for fired workers. So yeah, it’s my money. Give it back. And since most people’s lives are so devoid of meaning that they’d rather go directly into another shitty job than be forced to confront the sheer emptiness of their existence, most of that money never even gets distributed.
There's simply not enough room here to analyze this gem in depth. As Gunther Stent noted in "Paradoxes of Progress," when people have their needs satisfied, they find not working to be a very viable option.

Take Back The Land

The most mainstream way of flipping the script is a simple land-value tax. By targeting wealthy real estate owners and their free rides, we can fight inequality and poverty 
Fascinatingly, this is identical to the conservative recipe below, with one teensy-weensy difference. Myerson wants it in addition to existing taxes and Mathews below wants it to replace existing taxes. Myerson is apparently unaware that there are already property taxes, which often enough have the effect of driving people out of their homes when their property values rise because of nearby development.

Make Everything Owned by Everybody

There's a way easier way to collectivize wealth ownership than having to stage uprisings that seize the actual airplanes and warehouses and whatnot: Just buy up their stocks and bonds. When the government does that, it's called a sovereign wealth fund.
Well, gotta give Myerson props for not calling for violent revolution. Buy up all the stocks and bonds. So simple. With what? Tax dollars? Or just print money? Ignoring for the moment the inflationary problem, let's say we buy up $50 trillion of stocks and bonds. Now, "we the people" own $50 trillion in stocks and bonds. In other words, pieces of paper. And the people who sold them now have $50 trillion in cash to buy ... land? buildings? water rights? mineral rights?

The successful sovereign wealth funds have a source of income, like oil. Creating one out of thin air will be an interesting feat.

A Public Bank in Every State

The Bank of North Dakota doesn't make seedy, destined-to-default loans, slice them up inscrutably and sell them on a secondary market. It doesn't play around with incomprehensible derivatives and allow its executives to extract billions of dollars. It just makes loans and works with debtors to pay them off.
No, the public bank in a state with a total population less than a medium-sized city probably won't, at least not now. Care to bet the City Bank of Detroit or the State Bank of Nevada won't? And just wait till politicians sell enough taxpayers on the idea of borrowing from the bank as opposed to raising taxes.

So as counterpoint, we have this piece, written in rebuttal to Myerson's.

Five Conservative Reforms Millennials Should Be Fighting For

Dylan Mathews, Wonkblog January 7, 2013

End the long-term unemployment crisis

Kevin Hassett, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute who was one of Mitt Romney's lead advisors during his 2012 run, has proposed that the government directly hire the long-term unemployed. This could be implemented  by simply paying businesses to bring on more workers, and then phasing the subsidy out over time.
Mathews tweaks Myerson's idea a bit. Subsidize businesses to hire workers and then phase out the subsidy. Since when has a subsidy ever been phased out? And when the subsidy is phased out, how long before the workers are unemployed again? Hint: look at the cities that have given subsidies to businesses to locate there, only to have the business fold, be sold, or move a few years later.

Tear down the welfare bureaucracy

Food stamps must be spent on food, but what if the family receiving them needs help on rent more? Why should the government tell them how to spend their money, any more than it should tell the rest of us? Worst of all, the current, hugely bureaucratic system props up a class of unionized government workers who can't be fired and who pension costs are bankrupting our states and cities.
He can't resist the talking point that pension costs are bankrupting our states and cities. No they're not. Not paying debts on time is bankrupting our states and cities. If states and cities had funded their pensions all along, they wouldn't be in trouble. They deserve no more sympathy than a homeowner who can't make his mortgage payments because he blew the money in Las Vegas.

Wonderful idea, and right in line with observations by progressives that poverty is simply lack of money. Mathews observes that food stamps give people help with food, but what if the critical need is rent instead? Ahh, but this reform comes with a hook in it. Just look at the complaints from people who see food stamp recipients buying junk food. Or the anger at the revelation that some people figure out how to swap benefits for sex, drugs, or alcohol. (Basic Econ 101: anything of value can be traded for anything else of value. The workarounds to evade restrictions on how the money can be spent add inefficiencies, and guarantee the middlemen will get a hefty chunk, while the welfare recipients will get a lot less buying power, is all.)

I guarantee that if welfare recipients had to go to a warehouse and pick up sacks of rice and beans for food, within hours somebody would be buying them at 75% of their market value, and the money would be spent on other things. Then, when the hunger began to pinch, they'd re-sell the rice and beans at 110% of market value to those same people.

So just imagine we give all welfare recipients unrestricted cash equal to the value of their present benefits. Then someone finds, about a nanosecond later, that some have spent it on booze, drugs or sex, leaving their kids hungry. Cue the calls to abolish welfare entirely in 3, 2, 1 ....  And of course, the kids who aren't being fed properly will have to be assisted, eating up the savings from eliminating the welfare bureaucracy, which will end up being re-established to make sure money intended to aid the poor actually reaches its intended recipients.

"Why should the government tell them how to spend their money, any more than it should tell the rest of us?" Because we have a lot of Puritanical voters and politicians who insist on it.

Eliminate job-killing income, payroll, and corporate taxes

Mathews' plan is a single tax on land, an idea that has been floated around forever and not implemented for reasons that have been obvious forever.

The most obvious reason why we don't have a single tax of any kind is that people would put all their money into non-taxed sectors. Go ahead, tax my land. I'll live in a bungalow on a small lot and make all my money from capital gains, which are not taxed, and when I want elbow room, I'll winter in Aruba. Meanwhile, farmers, with lots of land, get taxed like crazy, and end up selling to developers. The developers in turn subdivide, build houses and pay no taxes at all on the sales. It works that way whatever is your single tax. Tax gold? Fine, I'll put it all in art. Tax stocks? I'll hold gold. 

Another problem is that there's a limit to how much tax you can collect on land. Unlike, say, corporate profits, which keep coming in, land doesn't produce additional value. So the total amount of taxes that can be collected will be so small as to starve the government (gee, I wonder if they thought of that) or force landowners to sell, most likely at depressed prices, leaving land in the hands of a very small number of large landholders (gee, I wonder if they thought of that, too).

The other principal objection here is, what assurance do we have that the money freed up by eliminating income, payroll and corporate taxes will actually go into creating jobs? For that matter, where exactly is the proof that income, payroll and corporate taxes really cost jobs at all, apart from the unsupported claims of people who want to ban these taxes? Give me the computer code. Show me a computer model that accurately tracks the U.S. economy and show that it predicts job gains if we repeal taxes. You want that rigor for evidence of global climate change. Fine, produce an equally rigorous forecast for the economy. Put up or shut up.

Have Social Security invest in the private sector, not the government

This is a wonderful idea. Let's establish a few ground rules:
  • The value of Social Security accounts can never decrease.
  • No company that receives investments from Social Security may declare bankruptcy, and the FTC can suspend trade in that company's stocks if investors begin to bail.
  • No officers of any company that Social Security invests in may declare personal bankruptcy and they are personally liable for all losses.

Help small businesses grow

Mathews nearly repeats Myerson's argument for public banks, even going so far as to praise the same example. This actually makes me suspect it's the lone idea in these pieces that's viable.

Mathews, though, doesn't want the public banks to compete with private banks, but partner with them. So presumably that means not undercutting them on checking and ATM fees, just like banks bitterly resent the paltry competition from credit unions. And if public banks give out loans that private banks won't, isn't that competition?

So if public banks really take off and seriously cut into the business of Bank of America or CitiBank, look for pressure to mount on Congress to rein them in.

There's a Reason the Laws are Complex

Reality is complex. Simple solutions invariably create loopholes you can fly a 747 through.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Carnival Cruise Line and the Problem of Evil

No, fun though it might be, this isn't a cheap shot at Carnival, which had some very embarrassing moments in 2013. Nevertheless, millions of people have had millions of pleasurable moments and gained millions of pounds on Carnival cruises.

One of Carnival's mishaps spawned some of the most bizarre theological discussions ever. A small child drowned in a pool with dozens or people around, none of whom saw him until too late. The account mentioned onlookers praying for him, which in turn prompted a lot of snarky comments on the inefficacy of prayer, plus questions about why God would allow such a thing to happen. 

This wasn't a typhoon slamming into the Philippines, or a shoddy building catching fire or collapsing in some Third World slum. This was as close to a Garden of Eden existence as you can hope to find on this planet. Nobody was in want, nobody was hungry, nobody was cold, nobody lacked shelter, nobody lacked any material need, nobody was afraid, nobody was acting malevolently. Everyone was in a good mood, and probably even people who could be very nasty in everyday life were mellow and minding their own business. And yet a small child drowned in full view of all of them.

The obvious answer is complacency. Nobody expected a drowning, and nobody imagined that someone could drown in such a crowded setting without somebody spotting it in time. Very likely everyone assumed that any children in the pool were being watched by parents as required by posted signs, although this child was unsupervised. If it had been someone going for a 2 A.M. drunken dip, people would no doubt have expressed regret, but nobody would have been especially shocked. But this happened in broad daylight with a crowd surrounding the pool. Probably every onlooker would have tried to assist or at least alerted the crew had they seen it, but nobody was specifically watching for trouble, and so nobody spotted it until too late.  It doesn't help that drowning people don't fit the stereotype of the thrashing, struggling swimmer. Drowning people struggle quietly. They're too busy trying to push their heads above water to thrash, and too busy trying to gulp air to yell.

Once upon a time, people in America felt it was safe to leave doors unlocked, with the inevitable result that other people began taking advantage of easy access to peoples' belongings. During the Sexual Revolution, people enjoyed carefree sex, until herpes and AIDS spoiled the fun, because micro-organisms are very inventive. But criminals and disease are agents of evil, which in an ideal world would not exist. When people ask how a good God can permit evil to happen, what they often actually mean is "why didn't God make the world like Disneyland, or maybe a Carnival cruise?" And the answer is, look what actually did happen on a Carnival cruise.

So let's try to imagine a perfect world where nothing bad can ever happen. There is no disease and no crime, and no harmful animals or plants. But you can still get hurt. You can get hit by lightning and falling rocks, and you can fall off cliffs. What would happen? With no disease, people would probably get very casual about hygiene. What about leaving food out? Would it spoil? Waaah, why would a good God let my food spoil? Build your home on the edge of a cliff or too close to the water? Waaah, why would a good God let my house fall off the cliff? Waaah, why would a good God let my house be flooded? Would God let you float to the ground if you jumped off a cliff? Would God pop food into your mouth if you failed to feed yourself? In Exodus, God fed the Israelites with manna, but they still had to go out and collect it (and they got bored with it, eventually).

A good example of people living in a too-comfortable world (apart from one very big problem) is H. G. Wells' Time Machine. In this future world, humanity has evolved into two races, the surface dwelling, hedonistic Eloi and the subterranean, technological and cannibalistic Morlocks (the one very big problem I mentioned). The good film version (1960) displays starkly just how contemptible the Eloi have become. When a young woman is swept into a stream, the other Eloi make no effort to aid her (Saving Yvette Mimieux? A no-brainer.). When the Time Traveler asks where their fruit comes from, one answers dully "It grows." When he expresses a desire to learn about them, the Eloi asks "Why?" in a tone of voice as if to say "That's the dumbest thing I ever heard of." The Time Traveler is shown a library of books that crumble into dust when touched and berates the Eloi for wasting humanity's legacy.

But we don't need science fiction, because it's happening all around us. The better the world gets, the worse we get. America has the lowest crime rates in decades, yet we see people calling for ever more draconian punishments, and demanding the right to carry guns wherever they go. We periodically go into frenzies over imaginary crime waves. It seems the safer we get the more frightened we get. The more powerful our medicine gets, the more prone we are to complain about the cost and accuse doctors of withholding miraculous medicines. In fact, the more benefits of any kind we get, the more we see people accusing the very providers of exploiting them. Our Eloi have the civility and empathy of Morlocks, and our Morlocks are actually the civilized ones.

But it's an old story. Adam and Eve awoke in a world capable of supplying their every need. Everything was provided to them solely out of benevolence, or grace, as the theologians call it. And in short order they were convinced that God was scheming to withhold something from them that they had a right to (the first conspiracy theory?). "For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." (Genesis 3:5) Up to this point, Adam and Eve have contributed nothing to the world, and yet they think their rights are being infringed. Just like people who know nothing about science are convinced that science is lying to them about the age of the earth, or climate change, or the need for vaccination, and people who know nothing about economics are convinced that the rich or welfare recipients are robbing them blind. 

Ever think the Garden of Eden story is so unfair? I mean, why do we get kicked out of Eden because Adam and Eve screwed up? Well, the good news is, we do get born into the Garden of Eden. And the bad news is, before we can talk, we fall for the snake's pitch and exile ourselves. Think about it. You have no worries, no responsibilities, and everything you need is provided for you. And before you can even crawl, you flunk the first test. The world does not provide you with instant gratification. No matter how diligent your Mom is, she'll be doing something selfish like putting out a grease fire when you want to be fed now, or she'll fail to divine what's making you cry, or, cruelest perfidy of all, maybe she and Dad will be collaborating on another sibling. 

A little later on, when you develop some motor control, the snake slithers back and springs a second test on you. You want a toy. There's one across the room, and another one much closer in the hands of another toddler. What to do? The easy thing, of course, grab the toy away from the other child. And when we develop language skills, we do exactly what Adam and Eve did in the Genesis story. When confronted with wrongdoing, we lie, excuse ourselves, and accuse others. Game, set, match. Exit through the gate past the angel with the flaming sword, please. We don't have a lovely parting gift for you. 

And there's one final thing we do: we blame reality for our problems. My parents are to blame for sending me to my room. My Teacher is to blame because I failed. That stupid cop went and gave me a ticket. The System is to blame for sending me to prison. Care to bet Adam and Eve spent a lot of time complaining that God was such a tyrant? I mean, what's one lousy piece of fruit anyway?

There is, of course, a solution. It would require that human nature itself change so that we all exercise good judgement. We don't build houses in dangerous places. We accept that storms are a necessary force for flushing wastes and replenishing shorelines and wetlands, and we build suitably. We accept that earthquakes and volcanoes are part of the price for having the mountains that make the world beautiful and we exercise prudence. In short, there is no Original Sin.

It's pretty clear that the kind of world many of the "Why would a good God ...?" people envision would end up with God intervening constantly to save people from the consequences of their laziness and carelessness. 
And since I've seen comments from people who more or less explicitly assert that "compassion" means not allowing consequences of any kind, that's no exaggeration. God would effectively become a concierge and a janitor. The Garden of Eden on a cruise ship is sustained by lots of people, roughly one for every three passengers, working all the time, and enjoying a much less than Eden existence themselves. 

Why didn't God make the world like a Carnival cruise?" Because, look what actually did happen on a Carnival cruise.