Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Silent Majority is Now the Counterculture

Here are two truths:

1. It's more advantageous to be a white male in the vast majority of socioeconomic interactions than just about any other combination of gender and race/ethnicity.

2. The unearned privileges conferred by being either white or male are steadily eroding as the demography and economy of the country changes.

The people who support Donald Trump are generally preoccupied with truth #2. Many progressive-liberals seethe with resentment when it comes to truth #1. There is a huge sociopolitical divide within Generation Y because the vast majority can clearly understand and articulate one truth but not the other.

What perplexes me is that neither side understands the other side. White privilege is really a thing, and yet many people vehemently deny it or seize upon a few instances where it's advantageous to be a minority to say that it isn't a big deal. On the other side, I've noticed a lot of people taking a sort of especially sadistic pleasure in denouncing all things white and male without any attempt to mollify.

In the past few year or so, I've read more articles and op-eds than I would like to admit to when it comes to things like (white) privilege, intersectionality, "rape culture" (I put this in parenthesis because they maybe make a convincing case about it in maybe 3% of articles), and other assorted race/gender topics. I've also read a few of the countercultural responses to those articles.

I call it "countercultural" because even though there is nothing really more normal than a white, male voice, it's only recently that I've seen actual people apologize (in varying levels of seriousness) for being white and male and expressing any kind of opinion in a public medium. I've held my tongue on this subject for quite some time, but because Donald Trump remains the putative front runner of the Republican party heading into this new year, it's quite an apropos topic.

A couple months ago, the news cycle was peppered with articles linking to a study that reported that mortality rates of white Americans increased in the period between 1999 and 2013. My opinion is that the increase in mortality is directly linked to those two truths.

One of the big reasons why I think it's so hard for some people to grasp the concept of "white privilege" is that it's not a privilege. It's simply the absence of a handicap. But if you're in the minority, it's a handicap that you can't shed. The term is too loaded and inaccurate for people to give the idea (the fact that it takes more effort for minorities to succeed) a fair shake.

Those handicaps are also getting less and less severe. The greatest privilege is being born to well educated, well off parents. But "upper middle class privilege" is less catchy and more complex than something like "white privilege". But I digress.

The middle class is dead, if it ever existed to begin with. The days of a high school dropout getting a factory job capable of supporting a nuclear family with a car and a single family home in the suburbs are long gone. The modern economy is much less forgiving.

Approximately 1 in 3 jobs in the modern economy pay well enough to support family. Let's call these jobs "good jobs". Of those good jobs, 4 out of 5 effectively require at least a 4 year degree. The remaining jobs are what I would call "highly remunerative blue collar jobs" that usually require vocational training: plumbers, electricians, welders, etc.

If you don't have a good job, you basically have a bad job. And the compensation of bad jobs has declined relative to the pay of good jobs. Not only that, they're also the kinds of jobs that are most susceptible to technology or low-skilled immigrants. Enter Trump.

Trump is striking all the right nerves on the collective back that is the white working class. He's running a two-idea campaign. The first idea: immigrants are taking your jobs and refusing to assimilate into the national fabric. The second idea is baked right into slogan: Make America great again!

That second idea posits that in order to make America great again, we need to go back to that era where a high school graduate can get a job that pays well enough to support a family and all the trappings of middle class prosperity (a house, a car, and vacationing at least once a year in a distant place), which is incidentally also the era where America was also ~85% white.

The people that Trump appeals most to, white, working class, no college degree are also those who have lost the most status in American society. In relative terms, they've declined at the expense of minorities and immigrants. Since it isn't socially acceptable (even among poor whites) to directly attack American minorities, Trump focuses on immigrants.

And yet, the white working class was once the great Silent Majority of America who propelled Nixon to two electoral victories. The ideals haven't appreciably changed. Religion and marriage are still important. But the white working class is no longer the majority in America. And their views and values are being marginalized in a media that increasingly caters mainly to bicoastal professionals and minorities.

No longer a majority, they are no longer content to be silent. But the problem is that it's hard to know how to talk in public, especially to strangers who come from different cultures and swaths of the socioeconomic strata. They know that their views are unpopular with other people. That's why they latch onto Trump. He's saying what they're all thinking and he's taking the heat.

But Trump is, ultimately, a destructive force. It is self destructive for the white working class to back Trump because a. he can't win and b. he would make an awful President. And yet, they have fallen into the same trap that they tut-tutted black Americans for when they support divisive and deliberately antagonistic figures like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.

We'll never come full circle, but it seems like even the tiniest shift in radial position provokes a strong response from people who have never known what it's like to be a stranger in their own country.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

It's Never Been Easier to Earn ROI on Savings - And it has Enabled the World's Greatest Consumer Culture

China's economy is 3/5 the size of the United States, but it saves almost twice as much money (in current exchange rates) because it saves 3x as much as a percentage of GDP. With such massive foreign exchange reserves and savings, China's economy should be growing much faster but it isn't. The regime's "new normal" growth target is now less than 7% after decades of 9%+.

There are multiple factors contributing to the slowdown. Projected demographics are brutal, a smaller percentage of population are subsistence farmers that could vastly increase their productivity by moving to the city and working in a factory. But there is another significant contributing factor that is limiting China's growth potential: the lack of a mature, deep capital market.

China's economy has become increasingly market oriented since Deng Xiaoping reversed a decade of disastrous collectivist central planning, but the Chinese politburo still maintains strong control over the country's capital markets for it to be considered a traditional mixed economy along the lines of Western Europe or the United States.

This is problematic because even while the country saves half of its GDP, its capital markets aren't good enough to fully utilize the savings. The corporate culture of China is also extremely problematic, as the middle managers of state-run firms, colluding together with local and national Party officials, skim a lot of money off the top, which suppresses the ability for the average Chinese to get a good return on investment.

Here in the United States, many liberal-progressives deride our financial sector as little more than a legalized (fixed) casino. But there is truly a casino culture for financial securities in China. Many ordinary Chinese are extremely suspicious of the stock market and the domestic bond market is in even worse shape as the shoddy/corrupt accounting practices render the financial health of the largest state-run firms opaque.

The United States, on the other hand, has the deepest and most mature capital markets in the world. Our private sector is extremely transparent, especially at the top end, and it has never been cheaper or easier for the common person to own high quality financial securities. The previous sentence is something that a sizable faction of Americans might snort at, but it's true. And it's something that almost every American takes for granted.

A century and a half of banking panics, succeeded by half a century of seat-of-your-pants central banking has crafted a battle-tested financial system. Today, nobody questions that their bank deposits are safe from runs. Securities fraud exists only in boutique firms and funds whose customers are accredited investors (therefore, in my opinion, if they get duped they kinda deserve it) while the largest brokerages are heavily audited due to ERISA requirements.

Ignorance and lack of discipline are the only two things that prevent average Americans from fully leveraging our capital markets. Most Americans' acquaintance with our financial system is through retail banking or credit cards. It is a great irony that our capital markets, incomparable in their ability to getting high returns on investment from savings, has created perhaps the strongest consumer culture in the world.

Our financial markets enable things like 30 year fixed loans for real estate, no-money-down financing of cars, furniture, consumer electronics (!!!!!!!), and anything else than isn't bolted to the ground. When liberal-progressive and populist politicians rail against the decline of the middle class and the rise of "two Americas", they are highlighting a very real phenomenon in our country where 1/5 of the people save and invest money and the other 4/5 basically spend all of their money as soon as they get it.

But the politicians stumble when they rail against corporate profits and shareholder rights. Our corporate culture excels at returning wealth back to shareholders at minimal cost. That is only a bad thing if it's hard to become a shareholder. But because our capital markets are so deep and easily accessible to every American, that's actually something we should celebrate.

The flip side to that is our awful consumer culture. The 1/5 are collecting a return on investment on the labor of the 4/5 who have entered into voluntary servitude in order to finance cars, furniture, phones, and clothes* so they can own them earlier than if they had bought them outright. In the land of the free, the vast majority have thrown chains upon themselves. That is a sad state of affairs.

* The one glaring omission is college, but that's a special case since the vast majority of financing is underwritten by the Federal government, which makes it an extremely political issue rather than a mostly economic one.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

End the Gun Control Hysteria in America


Last Friday, the New York Times published a front page op-ed piece, its first since 1920, calling for the government to outlaw the ownership of military-style rifles in the name of public safety.

A full week has passed since a radicalized couple stormed a municipal building and shot and killed 14 civilians in the name of the Islamic State. While it may take a while longer to process an act of barbarity with complete analytical detachment, we're past the point where hot takes hold sway over the chattering classes.

Whenever a shooting happens that results in a double digit body count, a certain group of America uses it as an opportunity to talk about gun control. The talking points never change: these killers should never have had the opportunity to buy combat rifles and high capacity hand guns, politicians should enact common sense gun control laws if they really cared about public safety, every advanced country in the world except the US has heavily restricted civilian ownership of firearms, etc.

Lost in the thicket of progressive furor is the fact that gun homicides have halved since 1993. There is at least one gun for every man, woman, and child in the United States, and yet violent crime rates continue to fall year after year. Any discussion about gun control and its role in public safety without mentioning those two basic facts is not a reasonable discussion worth having.

In the most recent year for which data is available, the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports shows that of all murders by firearm, less than 5% involved a rifle. Why insist on a general ban on "combat rifles" when less than 2.4% of all murders can be definitively said to have a rifle (not just a "combat rifle", which is a significantly smaller subset) used as the murder weapon?

One common refrain heard from the liberal/progressive camp is that just having a gun in the house significantly increases the likelihood of a person dying by it - gun ownership is simply the illusion of safety. And yet they're stuck with their own illusion that heavily restricting rifle ownership will somehow result in a significant decrease in violent crime while disregarding the fact that the overwhelming majority of gun crime is committed using a handgun.

They know that the American public is strongly against a general ban on handguns, so they pick the easier target of "assault weapons", which look menacing and yet are no more lethal than a hunting rifle of the same caliber. This is what passes for "common sense gun regulation", focusing on the items that matter the least when it comes to public safety.

This is reactionary politics at its worst. Nobody calls for a ban on hard liquor whenever a drunk driver plows over pedestrians on a sidewalk. Nobody calls for a ban on sports cars because minivans and station wagons more than meet the needs for the vast majority of drivers. And yet, this is what gun owners come to expect whenever multiple people are shot and killed by terrorists or the mentally deranged.

Gun owners frequently chide gun control advocates with "guns don't kill people; people kill people" while the gun control advocates will say "guns are designed specifically to kill people". And yet they completely miss the point. The United States armed forces are the most powerful military on earth. Capable of projecting an staggering amount of force anywhere in world, its offensive firepower is without equal.

Our country regards the military as its greatest defender. Its capability can be used for both offense and defense, but ultimately it's the intent of the President that directs how it will be used. Guns are a tool. Without a human operator, they are incapable of doing anything on their own. It is the intent of the person wielding the tool that people should care about, not the tool itself.

And yet, after all I've said, I still believe that there is a level of gun control that is appropriate. But a mature, reasonable discussion cannot be had when one side is only willing to talk when emotions are running high after a tragedy.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Why Social Programs Are Doomed to Fail

I have a degree in computer science from the Georgia Institute of Technology. The total cost of 9 semesters of tuition, room and board, and related fees was exactly $53,002 according to my account summary on the school portal. And my parents paid every single dollar.

Once I got out of Tech, I started working as a software developer. A year later, I would plunk down 2500 dollars of my own money as a down payment for an FHA loan on a foreclosed condo. 4 years later, the appraised value of said condo has increased 116%.

The neighborhood that I live in has seen rents skyrocket since 2011. Construction cranes dominate the skyline as real estate developers build tens of thousands of class A apartments to capitalize on surging renter demand. So not only have I been fortunate in buying at the bottom of the market, I have also avoided paying high rents in a neighborhood that is rapidly becoming unaffordable.

But all that traces back to the fact that my parents paid for college. I would have never been approved for a mortgage if I was carrying tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. That was the thought that went through my head yesterday when I read this article from The Atlantic on how financial assistance from parents are a major contributor to wealth inequality.

I belong in the camp that believes that parents are the biggest predictor of a child's outcome in life. Who they are largely determines who you are. And when I reflect on my professional career, it greatly resembles my dad's. I went to the same school and work in the same field.

When I think about everything that my parents did for me, it makes me more certain that the government cannot ensure egalitarian outcomes. Because in a country as large and diverse as the US, there will always be bad parents and good parents. When you think of how much influence parents have on a child's development, the idea that government can undo decades of parenting strikes one as naïve.

If a child grows up in a poor family, by the age of 3, he or she has heard 30 million fewer words than a child who has grown up in a wealthy family. When most of us think of all the advantages that rich kids have over poor kids, we don't even think of things like a word gap. But that stuff matters too. There's a big difference in development if a kid plays and interacts with mommy instead of sitting in front of a TV because mommy has to work a second shift.

All of this stuff compounds over time. And given the fact that people generally live in neighborhoods where the vast majority of residents share their socioeconomic class, it becomes impossible for government programs to bridge the income/education/wealth/you-name-it gap between the rich and poor.

I'm very wary of the progressive/liberal ideal that every child, regardless of whether they belong to a rich or a poor household, should have an equal shot at success. There will always be somebody with better, more dedicated parents who will devote a greater portion of their time and wealth into maximizing their own kids' chance of success. And that goes beyond the ability of government to address.

Because, ultimately, we are asking the government to replace bad parents with good parents. And that is simply beyond the realm of possibility.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Real Time With Bill Maher: Counterpoints (11/13/15)

I'm with Maher. Jay Leno really wants to get back into late night television. Despite his constant attempts to butt into Maher's material, we had a pretty good show. Let's get to it.

Asra Nomani: Muslim women deserve their own Bill of Rights within the religion, such as the right to not want to have sex with their husband sometimes.

Nowadays, it seems ludicrous for a husband to demand sex from his wife, but it wasn't that long ago where it was legally impossible to rape your wife in a lot of US states. It took until the 80s until the laws were changed. But a lot of people forget that the sexual revolution really only took off during the 60s, and it always takes a long time for laws to update to reflect newly established social mores.

Our culture views sexual prudery as old fashioned at best and violently sexist at its worst, but viewing through the lens of history, there are two very good reasons why so many successful societies and religions espoused monogamy: ease of identification of children and preventing STDs from spreading.

Mothers know that the child coming out of their uterus is theirs but the father essentially has to take it on faith that the child is his. Lineage, the prime directive of all life, is the name of the game and monogamy before DNA tests was the only way to ensure a father's genetic line would continue.

Before antibiotics, STDs were horrible diseases that often scarred a person for life. One huge reason that all societies look down upon sexually promiscuous women is because they readily transmitted STDs to the men they slept with.

Over half a century into the sexual revolution, we still have a hard time shaking off thousands of years of sex culture. If it takes a society as enlightened (and I use that word semi-ironically) as ours that much time to pivot to an awkward transitional phase between old school sexual prudery to a sex positive, promiscuity-neutral future which I assume we're headed to, imagine the amount of changes needed to move a poor Muslim society to where we currently are.

Dylan Ratigan: The Muslims hate us because we prop up terrible regimes with money and cash.

The Middle East has long been a region where the strongest horse dominates and everybody accepts it. Saying our support for the Saudi Kingdom is the reason why so many Muslims want to kill Westerners is laughable. The Saudi monarchy is widely viewed as legitimate by its people and it's only a fringe of Wahhabist extremists that view Saudi-American relations as unacceptable.

Given the current state of Muslim countries, it's not an exaggeration to say that their mindset is still stuck in a very medieval way of thinking. Islam was spread by the sword. And their mission to kill nonbelievers and heretics is very similar to what a Christian Crusader would have believed in. In short, they hate us because we're not Muslim, and they still believe in spreading their religion by force.

Bill Maher: Why don't we just get out of the Middle East?

Because they'll just follow us. The upheaval in a place as volatile as the Middle East makes it impossible for it to be contained if we leave them alone. Millions of refugees have been displaced from Syria and Libya. If the regimes of the Middle East fall and the countryside is torn asunder, it's very likely that the authority that replaces them will be extremist Muslim.

As I said previously, there is still a significant portion of Muslims, particularly the extreme ones, who truly believe in spreading their religion through war. As much as President Bush was derided for saying "we have to fight them over there so we don't have to fight them here", the point was fundamentally sound.

Europe has the most to lose should the US abdicate its role as kingmaker in the region because of its proximity. Given the recent tragedy in Paris, the political calculus is definitely changing when it comes to addressing the Middle Eastern problem. Retrenchment may be tempting, but it would be a mistake. A military defeat of the self styled caliphate would be a significant victory, both militarily and psychologically. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Getting It Right Because Everybody Cares

I'm a big football fan. So it surprised me when Slate, the online magazine I peruse when I want to know what progressives/liberals are saying, published an article titled Sunday Night Football is the Best Show on TV. Give it a read if you're skeptical, because the author does lay out a persuasive case. But as I was reading the comments (I know, I know), one of them caught my eye.
I'd go further and say that much--not all, but much--of sports TV and sports TV journalism is excellent in an absolute sense. Most nights, the average ESPN anchor knows more off the cuff about any given story that might appear on Sportscenter--and can convey more information and nuance to the audience--than the best reporters on CNN do about the stories they're actually reporting on.
Why? Not because sports are easy to cover, but because the people doing the reporting care passionately about the field they work in and so do their viewers, and the result is a product that reflects that (because the viewers hold the reporters and analysts accountable).
To say that I was floored by that comment (which, by the way, vindicates my choice of reading internet comments) would only be a slight overstatement. Because it's one of the best explanations for why political news is so terrible compared to sports news.

CNN* once boasted that it had the best political team on television, and there is a kernel of truth to that ridiculous boast. The network routinely has the best production value and generally has the most balanced viewpoints on the issues. But it doesn't matter, because politics is covered terribly on television. I mean that in an absolute sense. Political coverage, across the board, is abysmal. And it's not just TV.

On just about every medium, political news does very little to inform or explain what is going on. And the reason why is explained by that comment. In sports, both the journalists and the viewers care deeply about getting the story right. It's no secret that there is a vastly greater number of sports fans than there are politics fans. And they absolutely pummel the journalists who ply their trade with hackneyed phrases, lazy analysis, and poor writing.

ESPN might be the sports equivalent of CNN, but there are sites like Deadspin, Football Outsiders, Grantland (RIP), Kissing Suzy Kolber, and others that are dedicated to pointing the most shoddy examples of sports journalism. And while fanboyism can sometimes cloud a person's judgment, it can't cloud everyone's judgment because the vast majority of people are not fans of your favorite team or player. Those neutral observers are what keeps sports journalism honest.

Perhaps the best example in sports is the way the sports media has handled chronic traumatic encephalopathy^. CTE threatens to end football as we know it, and yet the journalists have exhaustively covered the issue. Even the former professional football players have not shied from the issue. Many of them have publicly admitted that they would not want their kids playing football, knowing what we know now about its potential to damage the brain.

If the world of sports could be analogized as an all encompassing super-Switzerland, the world of politics is stuck in the Cold War between the Reds and the Blues and a bevy of tiny client states trying to curry favor with either side. When somebody covers a political subject, they have a staggering array of allies and partisans aligning in support while an equally staggering array of enemies line up on the opposite side. There are a miniscule number of neutral observers, and nobody listens to what those people have to say.

In war, truth is the first casualty. And since war is a continuation of politics by other means, it's safe to say that you will rarely hear the truth when people talk about politics. Everything is spun. Every message is honed, targeted, polled, workshopped, and polled again. You can't trust what comes out of a politician's mouth and you can't trust what comes out of the mouth of the reporter that's covering that politician.

There are layers upon layers of subterfuge that make it much more difficult to tease out what a person is actually saying when they say something. For example, if a Republican candidate gives a speech to the NAACP, is he actually talking to them? That may literally be the case, but his intent is not to talk to the NAACP, it's to convince Republican voters that he's not afraid of walking into the lion's den and staring at their teeth and getting his name out into the news cycle.

That kind of three dimensional chess is something you don't see with sports journalism. Because the vast majority of sports fans care about the validity and truth of an idea. The same cannot be said when it comes to politics, because the vast majority only care about making their own side look good.

Longtime readers of this blog, and the one that preceded it, will know that I was a huge fan of InTrade, a political prediction market. And the primary reason why is because it painted the best, most accurate picture of electoral politics expressed in a simple numeric. Because while a party affiliated hack can blather on about polling error while votes are being tabulated, people who are betting money on an outcome care only about getting it right. The truth will out.

* I am an employee of Turner, a subsidiary of Time Warner, which owns CNN.

^ This is one of the best analytical pieces I've read on CTE's potential impact on football.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Real Time With Bill Maher: Counterpoints (11/6/15)

Tonight was an example of a really good show. People on the panel were knowledgeable, well spoken, and respectful. A lot of good topics were brought up. And the issues being discussed were things that don't have a readily available political spin on it, so people were more receptive to an informed talking point.

That being said... I really don't have much to add to the discussion. I think David Frum covered a lot of what I would have normally rebutted when it came to issues like Keystone XL, the results of the Kentucky and Ohio elections and the reason behind the increase in white mortality rates.

That being said, I do want to write a few articles before the next airing of Real Time so stay tuned.

Monday, October 26, 2015

An Ode To Alexander Hamilton

Americans, if they know him at all, know him as the guy on the 10 dollar bill (although it looks like he will have to share that honor with a yet-to-be-announced woman). But Alexander Hamilton's life story is now a hit musical on Broadway, garnering tons of positive press and bringing his life story into a mainstream venue.

This is immensely gratifying to me because I've been a fan of Alexander Hamilton ever since my American history class in high school. It was mystifying that he was such a relative unknown compared to other Founding Founders like Jefferson and Madison. After reading about his contributions to the founding of the country, I came to the conclusion that outside of George Washington, there was no other person more integral to the birth of the United States than Hamilton.

Shortly after the ratification of the Constitution, the political elite of the United States split into two parties. One party, the Democratic-Republicans, was led by Jefferson and dreamed of an agrarian republic of yeoman farmers. The other party, the Federalists, shared Hamilton's vision of a powerful country built on industry and commerce.

That vision is ultimately what America evolved into, and Hamilton's fingerprints are found all over the blueprint. Considering the following:

1. Assuming the states' war debts established the country's creditworthiness which ultimately allowed it to finance the purchase of the Louisiana Territory during Jefferson's presidency.

2. Establishing the country's first national bank bound the interests of the American elite to the government, which allowed it to gain real legitimacy through the crucial early years of the republic.

3. Steering Washington into rapprochement with the United Kingdom rather than throwing lots in with revolutionary France, as then Secretary of State Jefferson desired, was the hard but correct call. The UK was the country's largest trading partner at the time and our economy benefited enormously by continuing normal trade relations.

4. Hamilton's report on manufacturing was the basis for the American School of economics that dominated Federal policy for the next century.

Those accomplishments, along with countless smaller ones that established the competency and legitimacy of the Federal government, should have earned Hamilton an exalted standing among the Founding Fathers. But the main thing people can usually recall about him was that he got killed in a duel with Aaron Burr. The saving grace that preserved Hamilton's legacy was his uniformly excellent reputation among American elites.

His personal story also represents a great example of the American Dream. A penniless orphan arrives in New York, becomes a war hero, a prominent lawyer, a successful businessman (he founded the Bank of New York, the oldest bank in the country, currently operating as BNY Mellon), and a supremely skilled politician and bureaucrat. And, in an exceedingly American twist, became the politician to endure a sex scandal.

So I'm basking in the sun of his renewed public profile and grateful for Lin-Manuel Miranda for creating such a fantastic musical biography of Hamilton. Check out the first song, before it became a Broadway hit, and see how amazing it is. Almost as amazing as the man himself.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Hookers, Blow, and Dice

This country is turning a corner. 4 states in the Union have legalized recreational marijuana. Nationally, a majority of Americans support marijuana's legalization. A majority of Americans also support legalized gambling. My home state of Georgia, part of the conservative, staid South, is considering legalizing casino gambling (to my great excitement). But for a country that prides itself on being the land of the free, there are still plenty of legal chains to be found.

I'm a libertarian, and although that comes with a lot of connotations, the basic premise is this: you should be allowed to do whatever you want to do provided that it does not infringe on another person's ability to do the same. So when it comes to "victimless crimes" such as drug use, prostitution, gambling, and the like, I think it is absurd that they are still punishable by law.

But that does not belie me to the fact that, when abused, a lot of these victimless crimes lead to actual crimes. Drug cartels kill thousands of innocent civilians across the border in Mexico while street gangs kill each other to fight for drug dealing turf here at home. Oftentimes, people traffick humans in order to fill an insatiable demand for prostitution. Drug and gambling addicts frequently ruin their health, their finances, and their relationships, which often leads to crime in order to support their habit.

That being said, it is crucial not to conflate the victimless crime with the actual one. The vast majority of people can gamble, drink, whore, and use drugs without ruining their lives and the lives of people around them. It's only the problematic few that pesters society, and I think it's a shame that the actions of a few can ruin things for the many.

If there is anything emblematic of the problems of modern democracy, it's Blue laws (and the Greek bailout referendum, but that's an entirely different story). A lot of the time, we forget that democracy best works when it's a liberal democracy, which means while the majority can call the shots, they can't call shots that infringe on the rights of the minority. That restraint is what makes society tolerable.

It is inevitable that a person will find themselves in the minority on some issue at some point in their life. And nobody wants to be proscribed for having an unpopular opinion. That's why the core freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights protect the citizenry's general right to speech, assembly, petition, religion, and armament.

Those ideas, while revolutionary at the time, are now commonly accepted. We've solved the Big Issues. Now it's time for the Small ones. We've made great strides on things like gay marriage (although I think government should get out of the business of marriage entirely), judicial reform, eminent domain, and civil asset forfeiture.

There are still more important issues that need to be addressed. And we're still not where we need to be on a lot of issues. But all things considered, we've progressed to a decent point. But now it might be a good time to start championing the seedy, less than noble, causes: prostitutes, drugs, and gambling.

I could go into the various utilitarian and economic arguments, but these activities should stand based on political principle alone. The land of the free should become a bit freer.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Real Time With Bill Maher: Counterpoints and Retrospective (10/16/15)

Hmm, it seems like all this blog ever does now is recap Real Time episodes. I should really start writing original posts again. That being said... what a bunch of bloviators! You could tell that all 4 members of that panel loved the sound of their own voice. Things were said, many of them inaccurate or lacking context, so it's time to address those talking points in the space below:

1. Bernie Sanders: The United States is the only major country without paid family leave. It's the only major country that allows private insurance companies to post huge profits.

This favorite talking point of Sanders needs context. Other advanced countries have much stronger worker protections for full time employees, but they also have structurally higher unemployment rates and much larger shadow labor market where hordes of young people work part time and under the table.

In the post-industrial economies of Europe, it's extraordinarily hard to fire an employee at a firm with 50 or more employees. The result? There are many firms with 49 employees and the firms that are over that limit are extremely cautious when it comes to expanding their payrolls. The Eurozone unemployment rate is 11% compared to the US's 5.1%.

You don't see people like Sanders mentioning the downsides of European dirigisme in the labor market, but it's important to get both sides of the story. Perhaps the US electorate would favor stronger worker protections at the expense of higher unemployment rates. But that should be left to the states, so we can see which approach works best.

As for health insurance profits? United Health Group is the largest publicly traded health insurance company in the US. Its profit margin this year is 6%. The S&P 500 average is double that at 12%. Health insurance companies face the highest burdens of state and Federal regulations. You will never see a major health insurance company with a high profit margin.

2. Bill Maher: So you can pay for universal pre-k, free public college, expand social security and move to single payer all by taxing the 1%?

Bernie Sanders: We may have to go lower; not much lower.

The 1% in the country made 17% of the income in 2014 and paid 23.5% of all Federal taxes. Total adjusted gross income filed by individuals in 2013 (the latest for which data is available) was 9.1 trillion dollars. If you confiscated 100% of their income and assumed that their actual income wouldn't decrease (a clearly absurd expectation), it would yield an additional 1.2 trillion dollars in the Federal budget.

The WSJ estimates that the total cost of Sanders' expanded government spending would cost 18 trillion dollars over a decade, or an average of 1.8 trillion per year. We're looking at a shortfall of 600 billion dollars if you took every single cent of earnings that the 1% make and assumed the 1% wouldn't decide to stop working or relocate to another country. Bernie Sanders has a completely implausible platform, and he knows it.

3. Lawrence Lessig: We can't get any of the stuff that Bernie Sanders wants unless we get money out of politics. 

Lessig's official stance is that he wants to reverse the Citizens United v FEC ruling and "get money out of politics". His platform is just as unrealistic as Sanders', if not more so. The debate that people are having isn't about money in politics. It's tax-free money in politics. There are no restrictions on how a person spends their money if it's taxed.

If it ever gets to the point where you could ban all political spending (which is clearly unconstitutional), people would simply spend money on politics using taxed money. The current structure of political campaigning and is based around tax-free foundations and organizations. Upending that structure wouldn't get money out of politics. Money will just flow to politics in other ways, and maybe the government gets a cut of it.

4. Katrina vanden Heuvel: Strength is diplomacy and political solutions. What the Republicans are proposing in Syria is ridiculous bravado.

This kind of belief represents the most naive ideals of modern American progressive politics. Even the communists and socialists knew better: All political power grows out of the barrel of a gun. Everything that any government does ultimately rests on its monopoly on the legal/legitimate use of force.

Military power shapes the way treaties unfold at the negotiating table. Nixon's bombing of Vietnamese forces in Laos and Cambodia forced them to come back to the peace talks held in Paris. If the United States wants any say on the "political solution" in Syria, it must be underwritten by American arms.

5. Katrina vanden Heuvel: Bush got us out of Iraq via the 2008 SOFA. 

This is absolutely untrue. The 2008 SOFA we had with Iraq had a 2011 withdrawal date not because the American intention was to leave Iraq, but because it would give the next President enough time to negotiate a SOFA that would allow a permanent presence. Bush's name would be an albatross on any permanent SOFA negotiation, but a new Administration would have a much easier time pushing through a permanent SOFA with the Iraqis. 

Unfortunately, President Obama didn't want a permanent presence in Iraq and didn't negotiate the next Iraqi SOFA in good faith, which is why we withdrew. I have no doubt that it will be seen as the Obama Administration's greatest foreign policy blunder. And the President knows that as well, which is why he recently reversed course on Afghanistan.

Of course, that agreement will only last through 2017, but it will give the next President enough time to negotiate a SOFA with a permanent American military presence. I have no doubt that the next American President will not be foolish enough to do what Obama did in 2011.