Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Where Does Change Come From?

Right now it comes from the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Some of us thought it came from electing Barack Obama in 2008, some of you were afraid that was true. Sorry to disappoint you both. Presidents can have an effect (look at the Health Care Bill (which I am glad for)l and the Iraq War and our state of seemingly permanent war (which I am not glad for) ). But big, societal change comes from the people. The Tea Party has shown us the power of a movement to redefine the political agenda; OWS can do the same.

If you want change, get behind one of the groups out there, are start another one if you don't find your issues represented by the Tea Party or by Occupation Wall Street.

I will attempt to summarize your choices, readers with better knowledge please correct me if I'm wrong.

The Tea Party stands for absolute individual freedom, and little or no reliance on government. What this means is little or no taxes, little or no regulation, and little or no social safety net and government services. Our current social safety net includes things like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, unemployment payments, foodstamps. Our current government sevices include things like the military, K-12 education, public Universities (tuition is state subsidized, although it is certainly not free), public libraries. Support the Tea Party if you want to be free, pay lower taxes, and see a lot of the list above go away.

Occupation Wall Street (and the other Occupy movements) seem to stand for greater opportunity for those with lower incomes. This implies an increase in the social safety net and in government services. It also implies higher taxes. I see OWS as a move toward a more European-style state (look up the German Education System and the German Tax System in Wikipedia for an example). Support the Occupy movements if you want things like free College tuition, help for homeowners who have fallen behind on their mortgage payments because they lost their job, help for the unemployed, and higher taxes.

Let me put in a plug for OWS here, since that's where my sympathies lie (unless the Tea Party takes a lesson from the Amish, that is):

Maybe you like some of the OWS issues, support for the homeowners and unemployed, but not free tuition, say. Maybe you are put off by the students demanding cancellation of their student loan debt. If some of the other OWS issues do fit with your priorities, then get involved with OWS, make your point, maybe they could learn something from you.

Right now it's either OWS or the Tea Party, or start your own.

Monday, October 3, 2011

The American Party

Recent discussion with advocates of the Tea Party and also watching the first episode of Ken Burns' "Prohibition" has clarified my thinking. There is nothing evil or unusual about the Tea Party. It is a single-issue special interest group focused on cutting government spending. Tea Party followers may say that there's more to it than this, but for the purposes of analysis I think it is enough to just look at the "cut spending" issue; this explains most of the actions of the Tea Party so far. Again, there is nothing wrong with this, it is in the great tradition of U.S. politics. The Democratic party has a number of special interests that compete for attention and the Republicans have others as well.

But aren't we seeing unusual things on the political stage right now? Government grinding to a halt, heated, high-stakes negotiations over things that used to be routine, one party voting in lockstep even more than normal? Yes, there's definitely something different going on.

Here's what has happened: the Republican Party is now controlled by the Tea Party special interest. And because the single-issue concern of the Tea Party happens to be government spending, this has impact on almost all legislation.

Let's do a thought experiment. Suppose in 2013 we see the emergence of a group known as "The American Party". It started out with the Wall Street protests of 2011, got stronger after the 2012 Presidential Election, and now it opposes anything that President Christie wants to do. (Okay, I don't think Romney can beat Obama, but Christie might). With one exception, it did support his 500 billion stimulus bill (What?! say the Tea Partiers; but I told you, he's from New Jersey, not Texas). Then in the 2014 midterms the Democrats win back the House (but not the Senate, which they lost in 2012) thanks to the populist energy of the American Party. Forty new Democrat Representatives are from the American Party and the rest of the democrats are afraid to vote against them. So what is the American Party interested in? Workers rights. They want to pass "Card Check" (the bill making it easier to organize a union), but they also want a Constitutional amendment ending "Right to Work" laws. So far, so good, progressives? Although only controlling the House of Representatives, they apply great leverage by obstructing all legislative operations of government, including raising the debt ceiling. What's more, they punish any democrats that won't go along by guaranteeing a high-profile challenge in the primary.

At this point as a progressive I am thinking, "I like the American Party, I agree with most of their aims. However, right now they control the Democratic party. This is not good for the long term. Somehow we need to change our primary process to discourage their targeting. Also, it is bad for the country if we obstruct everything, we can't go along with this. And blackmail over issues that threaten the well being of the U.S. is totally out of bounds no matter what. So much as I like what they're doing, I will either get the American party to change their tactics, or I will speak out against them every chance I get."

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Model of a Working Libertarian Society

Let me preface this, for those of you who don't know me, by saying that my political views are basically progressive. Below I am exploring whether Libertarian ideas could also construct a good society - my conclusion is that they could, as long as that society is a close knit community that shares the understanding that they will take care of each other. The key is, such a society would be a big change from the way we currently live. Dispensing with government and doing nothing else will not succeed.

Recent discussions with my nephew have gotten me thinking about whether Libertarianism could work. Now I have not studied the Libertarian approach, so I will come at this with the goal of describing a society that has minimal government, and leave it at that. I hope those with more knowledge will point out if and where this differs from Libertarian beliefs, but even if it does it is at least a different and valid way of looking at how we could live.

Let me describe how we could reorganize society and mostly dispense with government. Impossible, you say? Well there are many successful examples of this from history and even a couple in the present day. I don't think the U.S. had an income tax until 1910 or so, and in the 1800's we did have a fair amount of government but in small communities and in the whole of the midwest and further west it's influence was small. How did these people manage? I think the key to their success was community. They knew the people that they had business and other dealings with, there were shared ethics and conventions that took care of things that we now depend on government to do. Community projects were probably organized in a town meeting, and also the means to pay for them.

How about the present day? Well the Amish have maintained a self-sufficient society to this day using similar means to the smaller communities I just described. Yes, they have our current much larger government all around them, but I don't think it would affect them one way or the other if that went away.

If you object that both these examples are relics of the past (with the Amish simply preserving the past), what about this: the open source community is a fine modern day example of great accomplishments with very little oversight. The most obvious is the Linux operating system, but there are many others. These hackers are also an example of a competitive gift-giving economy; see Eric S. Raymond's writings for more on this, particularly "Homesteading the Noosphere".

What all three of these examples have in common is that they depend on certain cultural norms in order to succeed. All three are closely-knit communities; they know the people that they're dealing with and there is a lot of accountability. You can dispense with a lot of things when this is true. Would you buy a steak from somebody driving through your neighborhood offering you a deal when you'd never seen him before (this happened to me the other day)? But you probably would buy it from your next-door neighbor, or somebody you knew at church who raised beef. This is just an example of what I'm talking about.

So let's construct our minimal community; I invite you to participate. Clearly this is not what we're seeing in our current politics, where the call is to greatly reduce government without changing anything else about the way we live. That approach won't work. What I'm proposing here is that it could work if we can change our society at the same time.

Have I lost the progressives out there? Keep listenening: We start with no government other than a town meeting and build from there. We start with no taxes; any spending will be determined by the town meeting, they may decide on some sort of permanent tax or they may not. Liberals are long gone now. Of course at this point we have no central government, no United States. In my mind, that's not the end of the world, you may disagree. How can I get the liberals back? Okay, we also have no standing army - don't laugh, conservatives; it's possible and represents a large part of our country's history. Progressives are back in? Well we also have no Social Security and no Medicare. We have no system of higher education (Universities) and no schools. The town will probably decide to hire some teachers for grade school through high school, this was the norm in early America.

Town discussion and agreement will decide if we put any of the big three (Military, Social Security,Medicare) back in any form, but we will also have to agree on how to pay for them. Remember, we will have some doctors in our community so there may be other ways to work these things out. Likewise for the elderly, if they are part of our community and we have an understanding that we will take care of them, this may work without a formal program. Don't panic seniors, this can only work in a very close community; if we are not willing to live this closely we can't go further in our proposition.

As far as military, a small town doesn't need an army, maybe not even a police force. If we want to be part of a central government then we'll have to deal with their military priorities and whatever taxes they need to pay for it. You decide if we go this route or not, I'd be happier being just a small town with no central government.

But aren't we giving up modern life if we limit size to just a town? Yes, I think we are, but I'm okay with that. I think a lot was lost when we stopped living like this. There are many things that can only be done when you have a society of larger scale, such as public transportation, roads, large Universities. But we will need to expand our small government some to do this. We can be selective and do this on a smaller scale than what we see currently, and still keep government small. Again, you decide. Help me flesh this out.

I personally see the European social democracies as an example of how large government can work. I would also be happy with this sort of a system. But for the purposes of this investigation, let's see what sort of society we can build with very little government.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Debt Ceiling Rubicon

In the next few weeks America will turn one way or the other and determine its success as a nation for years to come. I see three outcomes from the debt ceiling crisis, maybe four if President Obama uses a statement in Section 4 of the 14th Amendment (“The validity of the public debt of the United States…shall not be questioned”) to bypass Congress and raise the ceiling by executive order:

1. Pres. Obama gives in to Republican demands for no tax increases (including elimination of deductions) - the debt ceiling is raised

2. Republicans agree to raise taxes (by eliminating some deductions) - the debt ceiling is raised

3. Neither side gives in - the U.S. defaults on its debts

4. Obama raises the ceiling by executive order under the 14th Amendment clause

Only one of these options causes the U.S. to default, but all but the second (Republicans agree to tax increases) would profoundly change the nature, prosperity and influence of our country.

If both sides compromise we return to the normal political operation of our democracy and the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party is discredited.

If Obama gives in then our democracy is over, we will now be governed by blackmail. This is bad for everyone, even those who happen to be in favor of the policy advanced by the blackmail. The "Arab Spring" tells us why - when people feel they don't have a voice the situation is not sustainable. Eventually they will demand to be heard. People like me who voted for Barack Obama don't expect him to do everything the Republican Party demands. If there's 40-50% of the population who feel similarly that's a big problem. When we see democracy being frustated we lose faith in the system, which means that at some point the system will fall apart.

If neither side gives and we default then the U.S. will no longer be seen as the ultimate safe haven and icon of financial stability, a status it has enjoyed since WWII. This means big problems for our economy, diminished influence, higher interest rates, and probably a world economic crisis. I include any temporary ceiling extensions in this category; I think that market confidence would still be shaken by such measures resulting in the same outcome.

If President Obama uses the 14th amendment clause to bypass Congress he will be savaged by the Republicans. If you thought the anti-health care demonstrations were bad, get ready for real chaos. This is the most unpredictable outcome. The financial reputation of the U.S. is saved but at the cost of riots in the streets and possibly the fall of our government. Hard to say for sure if it would get this bad, but this is a wild one.

So three of the four options result in a big change for the worse, and the safe option seems the least likely, in my opinion.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Internet Bubble As An Argument For A Directed Keynesian Stimulus

First of all, the period from say 1996 to 2000 was clearly an economic bubble. Venture capitalists spent their money and investors bought stock in newly founded tech companies in order to make a profit selling stock, not because they expected a return on their investment from the company's earnings. I remember in late 1999 or early 2000 mentioning to someone in the break room at work about how amazed I was when I found out that still wasn't turning a profit. Various NPR shows and other news talked about how people were all excited to invest in some new IPO (Initial Public Offering) without being able to explain what the company did or why the service it provided was useful. Techies would work for startups basically for free with the promise of stock options. Employees at the consulting firm I worked for urged our CEO to take us public. Garry Trudeau ran cartoons about the "new economy" in his "Doonesbury" strip, giving the example of a couple of college students without a clue who came up with the idea for a startup and managed to sell that idea to investors. Then at the tail end of 2000 it all came to an end, with most of the new companies going out of business, investors losing all their money, and the techies going back to straight jobs if they could find them.

Yet the Internet Boom had a lasting effect and made possible the connected and greatly changed world we have today. You could look at the whole thing as stimulus spending with the somewhat vague purpose of building the communications, software, hardware, and academic infrastructure while at the same time changing the direction of the economy to be prepared to take advantage of these new things. The telecom industry expanded, laying more fiber optic cable and creating wireless networks. Universities quickly began using Java as the working programming language for computer science majors instead of C, and their computer science departments expanded with many more students majoring in this field. Consulting companies sprang up overnight, usually consisting of nothing more than a phone number, email address, and some newly hired warm bodies who served as middle-men between companies looking for temporary technical employees and techies looking for consulting work, pocketing a hefty commission (often around 50% of the consultant's billed hours) for nothing more than placing an add in the paper or online (the same add the companies could have placed directly). Big projects were completed with these temporary employees, and the consultants got much more flexibility than they would have had in a normal job, frequently working more occasional hours and taking months off at a time between projects. Many periperal businesses were able to cater to the new young techie demographic, building up other areas of the economy. People in general and businesses in particular began to think of the internet and the many applications that ran on top of it as "here to stay", and made plans with this in mind. Without the Internet Bubble would we have things like the iPhone, iPad, Facebook, the blogosphere, Barak Obama elected President, and the recent twitter-driven Middle East revolutions today?

The Internet Bubble did not directly create jobs since most of those jobs disappeared when the bubble popped, but it did ultimately create all kinds of jobs in our world economy today. Many of these never existed before and are only possible because of the Internet and software applications we have come to take for granted. And lots of people were employed during the bubble: hiring rates were at a level we would love to see now in order to recover from our current Great Recession. Most of the employers were small startup businesses, i.e. not corporations or people currently in the "business community" (I say this based on my own observations - I would love to see some statistics on this, I don't think I would be proven wrong). I wonder why we talk so much about the importance of keeping the business community happy in order to create jobs when the only example of massive job creation in modern times (the Internet Bubble) saw very little involvement by this group (again, I have no stats here, this is what I observed living through this time, tell me if I'm wrong).

If in 1995 you had tried to raise taxes on people with incomes over $250,000 per year in order to finance a big technical buildup, it never would have happened. But these same people were happy to buy stock to fuel the bubble, and ended up losing their money just as if they had been taxed. Or did they really lose it? You could say they invested it and gave themselves a better world to live in.

What am I driving at here? We should give some serious thought to our long term economic future, and to the big things that need to change if we are to succeed, as David Brooks has pointed out. I think these should be things like public transportation (trains between cities, bus lines within cities) to make our energy use more efficient, local agriculture both for health reasons and efficiency with rising energy costs, and training a highly skilled work force for high-end engineering similar to Germany. Contrary to Brooks and most others, I think we should raise taxes to pay for this, rather than cutting other spending in favor of these policies. I think you can get something good for the money you spend, and I point to the Internet Bubble as an example. Also contrary to Brooks, I think we can bring unemployment below 5% if we spend this money, and we will be accomplishing our long term goal with these "jobs", even though they may not be permanent.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A review of "Washington Rules - America's Path To Permanent War", by Andrew J. Bacevich (U.S. Army Colonel, retired)

In "Washington Rules" Bacevich challenges and largely refutes the idea that Presidents of the United States have much effect on our country's use of military force. This is a startling idea and on the face seems false, but he makes a strong case that there is a bipartisan (or maybe non-partisan) consensus in favor of military intervention among the Washington players which is accepted by the american public. Reading Bacevich you come away thinking that even the Cheney/G.W. Bush "war of choice" in Iraq was more of a logical continuation of this policy than an abberation. I guess you could say that the pretext of weapons of mass destruction was not that much different than Lyndon Johnson's Gulf of Tonkin incident, although Johnson was motivated more by what he felt was necessity than choice.

Bacevich shows how the change from using the military for defense to using it to (attempt to) advance U.S. interests began in the 50's during the build up of nuclear weapons. (I say "attempt" because it is doubtful that the results of intervention have benefitted our interests.) General Curtis LeMay, then head of the Strategic Air Command, asked for and got the money and authority needed to give the U.S. overwhelming capability for destruction using nuclear arms. The quote below gives a window into the mood of the times:

"...Strategic Air Command and Gathering of Eagles, serious movies made by serious filmmakers, qualify as camp. Meanwhile, Dr. Strangelove, an exceedingly funny movie, retains its standing as a serious commentary on the absurdity of nuclear war..."

The public bought into the ideas in Strategic Air Command and Gathering of Eagles during the time when those ideas were the basis for policy, although they soon became laughable and horrific. But the damage was done and the legacy (multiplied many times over) is with us today and probably for years to come.

Vietnam was a sort of turning point, for a few decades making U.S. Presidents very reluctant to commit military forces, but Bacevich points out how quickly this lesson has been un-learned and erased from the national conciousness. In fact, Bacevich seems to imply that Gen. David Petraeus rewrote the Army Field Manual on Counter Insurgency precisely to justify this strategy in Iraq, when it had been discredited in Vietnam. The real lesson military brass learned from Vietnam, according to the author, is that operations that take very much time will lose public support. But this check has been removed by having an all-volunteer military. Now we have over one hundred thousand (I think this is the number) soldiers deployed in combat and most of us hardly notice. It makes an argument for bringing back the draft.

The best question posed in this book is:

Wouldn't it be sufficient if the United States' military budget was equal to the combined budgets of Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and Cuba, instead of
"40% of global arms spending and ... over six times larger than the military budget of China" ( How many of you knew this? It is clear that we have moved well beyond the motivation of defense.

My feeling is that by maintaining this huge military capability we create the temptation to use it. We need to take this option off the table. If our military budget were the size Bacevich suggests I don't think we'd be able to consider things like fighting a war in Afghanistan.