Monday, November 28, 2011

1968? Really?

New York Magazine has a wonderfully positive piece today about Occupy Wall Street/etc. centered around a main figure in their activist community. The whole thing is pretty predictable ("OWS had scored plenty of victories" vs. "provided the right with fuel for feral slander... and casual caricature."), but it also highlights something that has been really annoying me for weeks now.

The article reads:
"It’s perfectly possible that... the raucous events of November 17 were the last gasps of a rigor-mortizing rebellion. But no one seriously involved in OWS buys a word of it. What they believe instead is that, after a brief period of retrenchment, the protests will be back even bigger and with a vengeance in the spring—when, with the unfurling of the presidential election, the whole world will be watching. Among Occupy’s organizers, there is fervid talk about occupying both the Democratic and Republican conventions. About occupying the National Mall in Washington, D.C. About, in effect, transforming 2012 into 1968 redux."
It seems to me that it's probably true that the Occupiers believe that they are the second coming of the Civil Rights Era... Talking to many of its more fervent supporters over the last couple months, I have certainly gotten that impression.

But let's look a little more closely at a key difference, shall we?

In 1968, everyone - from Martin Luthor King, Jr. to Malcom X to the Black Panthers, to the cops turning fire hoses on protesters - knew what they were there for. Not as a matter of abstract "outrage", but as a matter of clearly defined principle, with clearly defined end goals.

Simply put, it goes a bit like this:
  • Problem: African Americans were being systematically denied access to the American political system, and in the market.
  • Solution: Amend the Constitution to be explicitly include and define the requirements of government to protect the rights of African Americans as well, use Federal government resources to enforce these changes at the state & local levels which had been the main violators of rights at the time.
Now, I know this is simplified and that many people disagreed on both the methods of protest, and the specific details of the final changes... and, for that matter, the final implementation also included a handful of rights-violating provisions of their own. But one thing that I think is relatively undeniable here - even when different visions collide (i.e. MLK vs. Malcolm X), they are still defined visions! There were always relatively concretely outlined goals and recommended courses of action.

Can we say anything even remotely like that for Occupy Wall Street?

As far as I can tell, a few months in at this point, not only does every single 10-person "occupy" group around the country have its own "General Assembly" and official positions (maybe), every single individual member takes whichever positions they want a la carte anyway.

Ok............ How?
Do they want redistribution of wealth from "The 1%" to "The 99%"? Is there any universe in which that is not anything but a nonsensical and bullshit platitude? Do they want to prevent corporations from having Political Action Committees and lobbying Congress? How does this square with free speech, freedom of assembly and the freedom of individuals (make no mistake, corporations are - like OWS - still just a collection of individual people banding together for a common purpose) to petition the government for redress of grievances?

Do they want to overthrow "Capitalism" and replace it with... Communism? Social Welfare State? Direct Democracy? Do they want to simply increase the already staggeringly large number of regulations already on the books? If so... Which regulations?

Let's say that all of OWS agrees that the "problem", so to speak, is that "corporations" are too powerful and a corrupting influence on government. I could even agree to a limited degree... but even this type of statement is far too broad to be meaningful. Which corporations? All of them? Even the sole-proprietership bakery in say, McCool Junction, Nebraska, which has no lobbying connections or capability?

The whole OWS movement is one giant ball of contradictions, conflicting (or outright confused) intellectual viewpoints, and meaningless platitudes that only serve to obscure reality. The whole idea that it's leaderless and that it's very individually based entirely misses the point. If you want to be a bunch of individuals, each with his or her own unique set of values, goals and ideas on best courses of action - then do what I do: Don't join a freaking group!

The whole point of joining a group is that the increased numbers can help provide some "oomph" behind a unified message or set of goals... But if you don't have a message, much less a single concrete goal... Then......... What's the point, guys?

I am getting really tired of having to ask this, but... to all the Occupiers out there: What's the action item? What's the goal? What are you hoping to accomplish?

At some point, it'd be really cool to get an answer.

Friday, November 25, 2011


It's Thanksgiving again, and I find that my reflections on this holiday are mixed.

As I write this, I sit with my family watching Ken Burns' "Prohibition"... which, thusfar, has been a perfect example of the way "good intentions" destroy other people's lives (frequently the lives of the most vulnerable) when backed by the state.

But still... I am thankful, for example, that I just enjoyed an amazing meal cooked by my father which included not only a wonderful local Columbia Valley Semillon, but an Ice Wine for dessert as well - and no government thug prevented us from doing so.

Great book!
I am also immensely thankful that yesterday I read virtually the entirety of Matt Ridley's powerful book, "The Rational Optimist". As disheartening as much of the world appears to me to be these days, Ridley reminds us how good we all have it today, and how much prosperity has exploded for human beings all across the planet. He also provides an amazing amount supporting evidence for what good economists would have surmised - that human cultural and economic development, and our amazingly sharp increase in wealth bringing literally billions of people steadily out of the "natural" living conditions that reflect absolute poverty by modern standards, is a result of freedom & trade. I will likely write more about this later.

Today, in the spirit of Ridley's book, I want to take a minute to express my thanks for the people and events that are usually, incorrectly, vilified.
I want to thank the "robber barons", for bringing prices of everything they touched down and thus bringing products & services previously only available to kings within reach of the poor. Specifically I want to thank Andrew Carnegie for making transportation and steel accessible to most, and I want to thank Rockefeller and oil for saving the Whales from certain extinction by introducing a vastly superior alternative to the prevaling energy source of his day.

This cute "energy source" still exists today
because their blubber was outmoded through
creative destruction.
I want to thank oil and other "fossil fuels"... for being amazingly efficient and indeed, one of the most sustainable and even clean fuel sources the world has ever seen. I want to especially thank it for providing a cost-effective alternative to mechanical work which would otherwise be done by (mostly enslaved) human hands or animal hoofs. The reliable abundance of energy has not only made humans incalculably better off, it has spared untold millions from crushing, miserable lives of slavery and poverty as well as spared horses, oxen and other fine creatures broken bones, cruel owners and painful deaths. At some point, perhaps a new fuel will be employed that does even more to alleviate world-poverty, but without oil, coal, natural gas and the like, you can be assured that everything I have done in the last 24 hours - not to mention the computer I am writing all this on - simply wouldn't exist. Instead, we would be as poor as anyone in the Dark Ages.

Earned his Nobel Prize by saving a billion people from starvation.
I also want to thank genetically modified foods. Without the vastly superior crop yields generated by these innovations, most of the world would be starving to death instead of continually becoming better fed with each passing year. In addition, without these advancements, the land would be environmentally devastated... to feed a growing human population without increasing output per acre as we have would require more and more area of land given over to agriculture, and that would wreak havok across the world. We would have more erosion, more deforestation, more disease. Disaster. Norman Borlaug and his colleagues prevented this.

I want to thank Walmart, Target and other typically hated "big box" retailers, and in fact I must thank every innovator of business systems to bringing down the price of goods and services through advancements in supply and distribution networks, and throughout the production process. These advancements have brought higher productivity (and incomes, regardless of the common myths to the contrary) to American workers while dramatically falling prices benefit consumers everywhere - especially the poorest among us.

Villain? Hardly.
On this note, I also want to thank Target - I'm spite of their recent bad press - for opening early on Thanksgiving and today, "Black Friday". It is true that some whiny middle class kids who don't want to work are probably missing some family time... of course, if they valued their family time more, they could certainly quit and seek (or create) employment elsewhere. But... I suppose this would all be very sad if it weren't for the other side of the story. Target and their other competitors opening in the middle of the night for Black Friday sales means that truly poor people who work there and who don't have the luxury of complaining about getting up early have an opportunity for earning more this month - even getting a seasonal job that woukd not otherwise exist - as a result. It would also be an injustice to fail to mention that Black Friday sales not only keep retailers afloat and provide jobs and hours to people who may need them the most, they also allow many, many people the opportunity to save a lot of money - particularly on gifts for their friends and family.

It is unwise to undererestimated either the cumulative effect of lower prices (allowing people to get more value from each minute of their working lives thus obtaining higher standards of living and/or more free time) or the importance of social traditions like gift-giving at Christmas time.

If a handful of rich people who would rather complain than work succeeded in restricting the hours of operation of stores like Target - purely on the aesthetic view that "it sucks to work on a holiday" - it would be the poor worker and the poor consumer hurt by far the mostm via the loss of work opportunity (or even the decline in seasonal jobs overall) and a rise in prices. Don't be fooled by comparatively wealthy people imposing their luxury values on everyone, regardless of how noble their cause may seem. The net result is inevitably terrible for anyone who is actually poor.

And lastly, I want to thank... Freedom, mutually respected property rights & trade. Without them, everything else I have thanked above doesn't exist.

So to borrow directly from Ridley himself... I want to thank "ideas having sex" for making the truly fantastic living conditions enjoyed by continually more & more modern humans throughout the world possible - by any comparison to the conditions available to us at any time previously in our history. In spite of how dispirited I can become watching the same terrible arguments crop up over & over - ready at a moment's notice to destroy, impede or prevent prosperity - I find that taking the long view today keeps me optimistic.

There is still much to be thankful for.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Political Spending Reminder: Statists Win.

I posted this a while back when I was talking about who actually makes up the bulk of political lobbying & political donations... But after a brief exchange on Twitter where I was told that it's always the "capitalists" who control everything, it's worth putting up again today.

Here, you will find the top political donors between the years 1989 and 2012, as compiled by

At least for me... Here are the major take-aways:
  1. Unions dominate political spending, and have for a very long time.
  2. Pretty much all unions, but particularly the public sector unions (who - in a spectacular conflict of interest  to the taxpayer - are spending members' money to elect the people on the "other side" of the apocryphal bargaining table), give almost exclusively to Democratic politicians.
  3. Predictably and by contrast, when you look at the corporate political spending it is split fairly evenly between Republicans & Democrats.
  4. To the extent that any organization within this list of the top 30 political donors contributes most heavily to Republicans, the split is not overwhelming in the way that union spending is.
  5. It is not "capitalists" who have the most influence, but rather any well-organized special interest groups.
 Indeed, if you break down the support by political party... You find that of the top 30 groups within the last 23 years, 70.2% of that money went to Democrats, and thus just 29.8% goes to Republicans. Interesting breakdown, but aside from the mythbusting aspect of this (in that the common misconception is that Republicans get all the money, when that's absolutely not the case), I'm not interested in whining about the uneven distribution of political spending... Cause Republicans also suck.

Here's my thought on this:

We all already know Democrats are abysmal on limiting the power of government. That's more or less their raison d'etra as far as i can tell. "They" (by which I guess I mean the Democrat political class) favor expansions of state power in literally every aspect of our lives. Even when ostensibly allowing for more freedom, such as marijuana legalization (which the current crop of Democrats is pitiful on), they still favor centrally managing and taxing those things. So we're looking at more state power over education, health care, transportation, the market in general, finance/banking, etc.

But Republicans as well are generally awful on everything too (if your goal is limiting the state)!

More state power over people's relationships, over their bodies... More state power to wage wars internationally - even without declaring them or having the slightest shred of moral justification. In virtually any area in which Democrats aren't aggressively trying to expand political power over people's lives, Republicans tend to pick up the slack.

And all groups work tirelessly to dole out special benefits to favored special interests... Because, well... That's the whole point.

So what do we learn?

Statists win, and they win BIG. In fact, it might even be fair to say that the more statist your political platform, the better you do in the long run - particularly when it comes to control over the economy. The other thing we learn is that libertarian ideas don't even warrant an honorable mention.

I think Philosoraptor got it right: If big businesses love the free market so much and have so much control over politics... Why don't they support libertarian candidates?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Holy Cognitive Dissonance, Batman!

My twitter feed is filled with all kinds of interesting, odd, surreal, insane, hilarious and sometimes upsetting things. I tend to like it this way because I get a lot of viewpoints and a lot of ideas. But sometimes... holy cow. You get something as unexpected as this interview/debate, from Playboy Magazine, with the notorious conservative blog-tycoon Andrew Breitbart... and famed liberal journalist, Paul Krassner.

First off... Huh? Breitbart?

But no. That's not even the interesting part! The interesting part was when Krassner blew my mind with a stunning display of cognitive dissonance - the likes of which I've almost never seen so clearly before ever. Feast your little eyes at this:
KRASSNER: It’s revealing that Norman Thomas ran for president six times as the Socialist Party candidate, and though he was defeated in each election, over the past several decades every one of his platform planks has been adopted by both Republican and Democratic administrations. The laws they passed just weren’t labeled socialist. Now, I have no economic ideology, but I realize there is something wrong with capitalism. I realized it as I read the business section all those years before the recession was officially declared. I noticed day after day these news items about hundreds of employees being let go by different corporations, and yet their shareholders were pleased because the value of their stocks went up. There’s something wrong with that. In the insurance industry especially, greed became a preexisting condition.
Let me just go back over that once more so your brain has time to fully digest the comment...
"...over the past several decades every one of his [Socialist Party] platform planks has been adopted by both Republican and Democratic administrations."
"I realize there is something wrong with capitalism."
Wow. Explain how a 79 year old man can say these things without a trace of irony. Please? I mean seriously. He outright acknowledges that we've moved in a distinctly socialist direction, adopting literal planks of the Socialist Party platform, and yet still manages to blame "capitalism" for failures in the economy.

I'm speechless.