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Police Now Steal More than Burglars

2016 January 30
by Ian Welsh

According to Harpers, in 2014 police seized more assets than burglars stole.

From Harpers Police Seizures

This is trickle-down kleptocracy in action. America is ruled by thieves, con artists, and corrupt officials (even if much of what they do is legal).

Police can generally seize any asset they say they think might have been used in a crime. They do not need a warrant, approval from a judge, or anything else. To get that property back, you must take them to court. In most cases, it isn’t worth it. This is one reason a lot of people in corrupt areas (or who have darker skin) don’t carry large amounts of cash.  It’s not the criminals one needs to worry about, it’s the cops.

But they can take anything, including your car, boat, and even home.

This is punishment without trial, and it is dead routine.

Welcome to your dystopia.

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Important Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does: Corbyn Trident Missile Edition

2016 January 29

So, off in Britain, Jeremy Corbyn, the new Labour leader, has been against the Trident nuclear missile system: He wants to scrap it.

The hysteria over this has been epic–from the Press, from within his own party, and from the Conservative Party.

His opposition has been characterized as wildly irresponsible, but someone finally polled the issue: 49 percent agree with Corbyn, scrap the missiles. 51 percent disagree.

This is a statistical dead heat.

So, something which half the population supports is somehow massively opposed by the elites and the press.

I mean, issues over which the population is split down the middle can be controversial, but I see no indication that Trident is an important issue to ordinary Britons, compared to, say the NHS, austerity, the EU, or immigration.

As for Trident and its merits, upon investigation, I have come to Corbyn’s position (which I did not support originally).  Trident is not a fully-independent deterrent. The missiles are made by the US, maintained by the US and supplied from the same pool the US uses. While Trident may be “operationally independent,” the US could pull the plug on the program any time it wanted.

Trident is a deterrent as long as the UK is on good terms with the US. But, if it’s on good terms with the US, it has the US umbrella anyway.

Trident is only useful if you think the US might not retaliate for a nuclear attack on the UK (yeah, right, unless there’s been a HUGE falling out, in which case Trident is gone), or if the UK wants to nuke something itself that the US doesn’t want to nuke.

This is worth paying for? A small, first-strike nuclear capacity?

But the larger point is simpler: It’s not a very important issue to most Britons, and it’s not something about which the polls are skewed. So why is the establishment so hysterical about it?

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Paul Krugman Against Bernie Sanders

2016 January 28

So, Paul Krugman has a column in which he says he thinks Clinton has better policy proposals than Sanders:

As far as I can tell, every serious progressive policy expert on either health care or financial reform who has weighed in on the primary seems to lean Hillary. (emphasis mine)

Ah.  Serious.

Ok, Paul. Let’s bring up some history, Paul.

You supported Bernanke, strongly. Not just in his appointment as Federal Reserve Chairman, but during his tenure–during which he refused to do anything about the housing or financial bubbles.

Bernanke, for those who don’t know, was the man who plucked Krugman out of MIT and moved him to Princeton, where Krugman was a star. MIT had a lot of very brilliant economists, Princeton had very few.

Then, let us return to that word “serious.” For years, the word “serious” has been used to freeze out outsiders. “Serious” foreign policy experts are the most pernicious: They were virtually unanimous in their support for the Iraq war, for example.

We know how that went.

“Serious” almost always means you are part of the establishment.

Because of this, the “serious policy experts” are almost all wrong. Take Obamacare (ACA). It’s done some good, but a lot of problems have resulted in which people can’t use it because the deductibles are too high.

The serious people (like Krugman) who supported the ACA somehow didn’t predict this.

The un-serious people who opposed the ACA did predict it.


Meanwhile, Krugman links to Paul Starr of Politico (Politico, ok), who attacks Bernie’s “Medicare for All” policy.

Starr’sattack has three prongs:

  1. Bernie’s not viable in a general election because he is a “socialist” and Americans will never vote for that because they say they don’t like the word. Might be true, but head-to-head polls show Bernie doing just fine.
  2. Medicare-for-All can’t be passed, because it would involve a large tax increase.
  3. Medicare- for-All is a bad idea because it is inefficient and pays only 80 percent of costs.

It’s a bad sign when you’re misleading your readers. Here’s what Aetna has to say about Medical Cost Ratios:

In general, the minimum percentage of premium health plans must spend on health care is 85 percent for large groups and 80 percent for small groups and individual policyholders.

So, at most, a 5 percent difference.

Starr also suggests that Medicare is less efficient. This is untrue. In fact, Medicare spends about 2 percent on administrative costs. Private health care plans spend about 17 percent.

So, Medicare is more efficient and its ratio is only slightly less than the private ratio. If the US switched to a Medicare-for-All system, it would be simple enough to go to 85 percent and would still cost less.

The international experience for single payer is that it costs about two-thirds what US healthcare costs.

Even in a non-single payer system, Medicare has kept costs down better than private insurance:

Ok. So, Medicare-for-All would cost the Americans less than private insurance + ACA has. To try and deny this is like saying the sun doesn’t rise in the morning. It’s not not just wrong, it’s not just a lie, it is delusional.

Would taxes have to be raised?

Absolutely. But since Americans pay, y’know, premiums, if the tax raises were distributed properly (a.k.a. if corporations paid their fair share), most people would have more take-home money in the end, or corporations would be paying less for insurance. There have been cases of corporations going to Canada just to avoid having to provide medical insurance.

That leads to the feasibility argument. Can Medicare-for-All be passed? Probably not. But it won’t be passed if the President doesn’t try, that I guarantee.

It can be sold, however; Medicare is popular. And it is popular with the Republican base, I might add.

Starr’s argument really comes down to obfuscation (that’s the polite word) and, “It’s not likely to pass so we shouldn’t try.”

Sanders has been a member of Congress for a long time. If he can’t get what he wants, he’ll negotiate–that’s how it works. And he’ll get more because he’s starting from a stronger position.

Meanwhile Clinton won’t even try.

As for financial reform, it is hard to even. Sander’s position is “break up the too-big-to-fail banks” and “restore Glass-Steagall.” That includes breaking up the too-big-to-fail shadow banks. The Clinton position is that shadow banks should be regulated, but not broken up or subject to Glass-Steagall. Her position is the weaker position, and arguments otherwise are obfuscation, at best. Krugman obfuscates this in his actual post, suggesting that Sanders doesn’t think shadow banks are too big to fail.

Krugman appears to have become so much a creature of the status-quo and New York elites he isn’t worth more than a casual dismissal.

I feel bad about Krugman. I remember when he was essentially the only national columnist willing to take on George W Bush.

But one can, I suppose, only expect so much from a man who spent his life at MIT, then Princeton, then writing for the New York Times. I had hoped Krugman would be an exception.

So, Paul:

Or it could be because they are, one and all, corrupt corporate lackeys. I report, you decide.

If it barks like a dog.

I was right about Iraq. I was ahead of the “serious financial experts” on the housing boom and financial crisis. I predicted correctly that the economy would never recover for most people after 2008. I said the next crisis would start in China. I said that America was ripe for a man-on-horseback many years ago (presaging Trump.)

I’m not a “serious” analyst in the way people like Krugman mean it, because I’m a nobody.

Not a member of the club.

But regarding financial reform, I say Sanders is better than Hilary. And regarding health care reform, well, judge for yourself if Sanders proposal is impossible, but it is better policy as policy.

Paul Krugman. Well, he did have one extended period of bravery when it mattered greatly. For someone who is a member of the establishment, that is remarkable. I will remember it, honor its memory, and not be too harsh on him.  Given the world he lives in, his beliefs are not surprising.

I had hoped he would prove to be more than a creature of his circumstances, that he could sustain his bravery and insight, but it was an unreasonable and unfair expectation.

Goodnight Paul. Thank you for standing up when you did.

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Did the Industrial Revolution Require Land Clearances, Slavery, Genocide, and Empire?

2016 January 27
by Ian Welsh

The Leninist argument is that imperialism, industrialization, and capitalism were intertwined. It did not make sense to discuss capitalism or industrialization without discussing Empire, and all its crimes. It is also the common argument that land clearances, in which commons rights were taken away from peasants and serfs, often by law and force, were required to create the industrial workforce.

This is because the early industrial workforce was a terrible place to work and live–and the phenomenon is not temporary, by most measures. It was true for between a hundred and a hundred and fifty years. Maybe longer. You worked longer (six and a half days a week, 12 hours a day was common in certain periods), you lived in urban filth, ate less, were sick more, grew to lower height if born into this, and died younger.

So, clearance was bad for the people who were cleared. I trust I don’t have to explain why European Imperialism was bad for most everyone else. Granted, European Imperialism predates the Industrial Revolution (but not the commercial, wind, and water revolutions), but it goes into overdrive during the Industrial period, and the gains of previous periods are definitely used to support the Industrial Revolution.

There are two questions to answer with regards to the clearance issue. First, whether or not clearances were necessary for the agricultural revolution to occur. With no agricultural revolution, there’s not enough food for expanding city populations.

The orthodox answer to this question is, “No.” But recently, a scholar, Robert C. Allan, went through the agricultural records and compared enclosed field to non-enclosed field production. Common fields were usually somewhat less productive than enclosed fields, but their gains increased almost as fast as enclosed fields did, and were even higher for certain crops (for instance, as with nitrogen fixers, like clover).

In other words, no, the agricultural revolution was not predicated on field enclosure–it just would have happened slightly slower in a non-field-enclosure scenario.

The second question concerns wages for workers, and is trickier. Allan argues that the Industrial Revolution happened in England for a simple reason: The coal was right there and could easily be shipped to factories. Shipping coal was hellishly expensive, and early steam engines were massively inefficient. Industrialization didn’t start in, say, Paris, because it lacked the resources. In Paris, it was cheaper to use more labor rather than to use coal.

Field enclosures made labor cheap in England. Without them, there are a lot less desperate workers, and a lot less desperate workers means higher wages and better treatment of workers (no one’s leaving the peasant village to go work 78 hour work weeks). Higher wages could make steam-driven factories unprofitable. No profit = no revolution.

This is an empirical question, and I don’t see the data to indicate the answer one way or the other. The theoretical point of view is this: Land clearances forced the cost of labor down. The higher wages are, the more you want to use capital (like equipment), not workers. In such a case, again, the Industrial Revolution happens, but it happens closer to Newcastle to keep the cost of coal down, and it is slow to gain traction due to profitability concerns. Once stabilized, however, the incentives for increasing machine efficiency of the machines faster could quite possibly have accelerated the Industrial Revolution faster than how it actually played out. Hard to say, but the argument is sound.

Now, for Empire.

With a very few exceptions, the main one being the USSR, every country which has industrialized, including Britain and the US, has done so with mercantalist policies, that is, behind trade barriers of some sort or another. They become free traders when their industry is well-established, not before.

Mercantalism does not require imperialism, but imperialism can augment mercantilism. When the British invaded India, India had more factories than England. Soon, they didn’t. India was a vast market for British manufacturing and provided raw materials.

The South in the US provided much of the cotton, through slave labor, as did Egypt and various other places which were conquered or absorbed through imperialism. (While the US South was, no, not under British control during this period, the Native Americans were cleared from it by European imperialism and disease and the slaves were brought over on European ships.)

Imperialism provides two things: Markets and cheap supplies for the factories. Even the Chinese opium/tea trade is related. Tea reduces appetites and enables people to work longer, and the British, even with the agricultural revolution, are somewhat underfed. Minus six half-day weeks, of course, they would not need so much food, but they do. (Ever done hard, manual labor all day? I have. I ate A LOT.)

There is clearly a benefit from Imperialism for industrialization under capitalism.

Could industrialization have happened without forcing open these barriers to British exports and without cheaper commodities like cotton, acquired through slave labor, plantations (which require shoving small farmers off the land), and so on?

What would have happened if we didn’t conquer, pillage, and enslave so many people? What would have happened if we didn’t deliberately retard their economic development? If we didn’t kill so many of them?

Perhaps they would have been more prosperous. Granted, many tribal societies have little use for money, but as the Hudson’s Bay experience shows, if you provide goods they really want, they’ll go out of their way to get what you want in return. And India, despite vast numbers of peasants, had vast mercantile cities and trade long before the British, Portuguese, and so on, arrived.

The commodities wouldn’t be so cheap, and Britain may not have gained so near a monopoly in early industrial manufacturing, but other societies would have also been richer–which means more purchasing power. Richer people can pay more.

The British still would have had that huge advantage: Coal near the manufacturing areas and near the coast. It’s an island. You can get what you manufacture to the sea easily, and you can use coal because the coal is near the sea too (everything is near the sea in England, from the Continental point of view).

This scenario suggests that England would have still industrialized first, and the Industrial Revolution still happens in Britain. Is it’s pace slower? Faster? I suspect slower at first, faster later. But it is more humane, and it leads to a better world.

If China and India had industrialized at a faster, more organic pace than they did; if they had been dragged along closer behind, standards of living would have risen faster. But standard of living is negatively correlated to the number of children.

A world in which all (or at least most) boats rise together, with England in the lead, but not excessively so, is one with a lot less of a population problem and a lot less of a poverty problem.

It may just be that being complete bastards to virtually everyone was not required for industrialization. It may be that we would have lived in a vastly better world.

It may not, of course, but I think the argument for “Being Assholes Wasn’t Actually Necessary” is pretty strong.

And I think it’s fairly important, because it’s at the heart of the whole “Is other people’s suffering required for some people to live the good life?” question.

(This is part 3 of a semi-series.  Read part one on “The Death of Capitalism” and part 2 on “What Capitalism is.”)

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What Is Capitalism?

2016 January 26

The responses to my article The Death of Capitalism made something clear:

Most people don’t know what Capitalism is.

We’ll need two definitions.

Market: An economic arrangement in which price signals direct people’s actions.

Markets are old. There were markets in Sumeria thousands of years ago. Nonetheless, Sumerian society was not Capitalist. Most people were farmers, living on the land. They produced their own housing, their own food, and their own clothes. They bought some goods on the market, sold grain on the market (there was a very active market in loans denominated in grain or silver), but most of their needs were met through non-market methods.

Some people in that society (arguably) had their lives regulated by markets. There were money-lenders, urban inhabitants, merchants and traders, specialists, and so on who used money to buy what they needed. There were other such people who were essentially feudal lackeys; you might be a market scribe working for money, or you might be a palace or temple scribe.

The primary financial markets, by the way, were run out of temples.

But the rule is this: Most people in most agricultural and pre-agricultural societies produced what they needed, generally as part of an extended family, a tribe or some other arrangement. Sumeria was more mercantile than most agricultural societies.

Capitalism: An economic system in which people are directed towards particular actions by price signals from markets AND in which they obtain the necessities (and luxuries) of life from markets.

You may measure HOW capitalist a society is by how many people cannot create their own necessities as part of a relatively small group.

Now, let us return to markets. A market says:

  • Do more of what makes more money
  • Do less of what makes less money
  • Stop doing that which is losing money

This is an oversimplification, but it’s less of an oversimplification than it seems. Take Amazon, for example: Amazon does not make a profit.  However, the decision makers at Amazon (Bezos, senior exectives, etc.) make plenty of money from Amazon.

What matters is not whether fictional entities are making money, or even if all human beings are making money, but whether decision makers are making money.

Prices are not set solely by markets, they never have been and they never will be. Governments lean on prices through direct and indirect subsidies, taxes, and so on. Roads are a subsidy for trucking, auto-manufacturing and a host of other businesses, for example.  The US interstate highway system was the death-knell for the hugely powerful railroads that preceded it.

This is true despite the FACT that, if you include all costs, shipping people and (especially) freight by rail is cheaper.  The final price, as it effects the individual decision makers responsible for those individual, economic decisions, is what matters.

Markets are a way of telling people what to do and what not to do and how much of either.

The more money a person makes doing something, the more they try to do of that something (including hiring workers to do it for them).

If a decision maker’s profits are not aligned with social utility, well then, capitalism does not produce results with social utility. Bankers make a lot of money. Their businesses lost so much money the entire world economy could barely contain the damage and trillions of dollars were required to bail them out. So why do bankers keep doing what they were doing? Because they are still, personally, making money.

So what if a few brokerages and banks went out of business? Their executives are still rich.

Capitalism is dis-empowering. Serfs and peasants, for all we sneer at them, could support themselves, because they had access to the land they needed to do so. They spun their own clothes. They raised their own houses.

Peasants and serfs were better off than the industrial workers who replaced them. There is a reason land clearances had to be done by law and force: The peasants and serfs didn’t want to leave. They weren’t stupid, they weren’t fools–they knew they lived better than the people working six and a half days a week, ten to 12 hours a day, in the new factories amidst cities and towns, choking in their own filth before modern sewage was put in place.

Capitalism forces most people to base their decisions on price (salary, comissions, hourly wage vs. goods they buy) levels. It takes away their ability to support themselves without working for someone else.

Capitalism is the concentration of the means of production in the hands of a few people.

This is why it is called Capitalism. Capital is what allows you to make other things. Land can be capital. Machines that make things, even machines as simple as a spinning wheel, are capital. You add labor to capital and you have products.

(It may be, with the rise of the sophisticated automation we call robots, that capital will be able to make capital soon, with little to no human intervention.)

Capitalism removes productive capacity from most people so they can’t support themselves. It orders the behavior of almost everyone through price signals.

Capitalism is a way of making decisions about what people should do, what products should be created, how they should spend their time and so on.

Because Capitalism is one of two major decision making methods in our society, and has been for the most important societies (starting with Britain) for hundreds of years (in varying forms; there are different types of capitalism), it is fair to judge capitalism by the results produced by those societies, especially the economic results.

Capitalism is NOT synonymous with industrialization, but most industrialization (outside the USSR) occurred under capitalism. Capitalism made the decisions about how to industrialize which were not driven by the internal logic of industrialization itself (too big a topic to go into in this article) or by government.

Capitalism fed back into government, however, because pricing matters. That coal was cheaper than solar for most of history (until about last year) mattered. In theory, we could have overridden that decision and said, “At X times the price is worth it and the sooner we make more the sooner the price will drop,” but in practice we did not.

We went with the flow.

Social choices, including those made by government, modify market signals. But when you live in a Capitalist society, you think first about VALUE as PRICE, even though the two are very different. The price of your life can be determined very accurately by life insurance charts (future expected earnings, discounted).

I doubt you consider the insurance market’s valuation of your life as the actual value of your life. If you do? Congratulations! You have splendidly adapted to the mandates of capitalism and markets.

Having read this far, and considered what you have read, next time someone yammers on about capitalism, you will know what they should be talking about. Because most people don’t know what capitalism is, despite living in it, you will also know, perhaps, what they are not talking about.

Capitalism uses markets as the main method to determine human economic behaviour and removes humans’ ability  to support themselves without engaging in the market.

Note the second characteristic listed: Removing humans’ independent means of support. In many cases, this had to be done by force. In others, it was done through blandishments. In both cases, the end result was a reduction in effective power for individuals who do not CONTROL capital–who are not capitalists (ownership is not always control).

To a remarkable extent, people are Skinnerian behavioural machines. Markets are one of the main methods used to condition people, to create their personality, to create them.

To control them.

To control you.

Under Capitalism, virtually everyone is subject to that control and conditioning, on penalty of living a miserable life, or, indeed, of death.

(This is part 2 of a semi-series.  Read part one on “The Death of Capitalism” and part 3 on “Did the Industrial Revolution Require Clearances, Genocide and Imperialism.”)

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The Death of Capitalism

2016 January 25

Let us state the obvious.

Capitalism has failed.

It has failed because it failed to deal with climate change.  This was a forseeable, and foreseen disaster.  We knew it, without any reasonable doubt, by the late 70s. If we had acted then, we could have stopped the worst of it.

We did not.

The death count will be in excess of a billion people. I think, given the way that damage counts keep coming in above prior estimates, and given how vicious cycles act, that the death count will be in the billions.

It is not inconceivable that we could see the end of human, and higher, life, on Earth, though it is still unlikely.

We are in the middle of a Great Extinction. Each life-form which dies off takes genetic wealth with it and weakens the ecosystem. Ecosystem collapse has happened in the past in limited regions, it can happen globally.

If it does, we may need to bend over and kiss our asses, lives, and species goodybe.

Capitalism’s great claim to being a superior form of organization for production and distribution of goods and services is that it is best able to account for costs and benefits: It produces that for which people are willing and able to pay.

People weren’t willing and/or able to pay to stop climate change. In part, this is because actors with money were able to obfuscate both the science and the situation, spending millions on doing so, and buying the political process. In part, it is because climate change’s worst effects were expected to take place AFTER the death of the people who needed to act to stop it.

If you were 30 in 1980, you are 66 today. If you were 40, you are 76. If you were in the decision making class, overwhelmingly allocated to those who were 50+ in 1980, you are 86 today.

People who were in their prime and during their decision-making days, when we needed to act on climate change, were making a DEATH BET.

They bet they would be dead before the worst results of climate change happened.

They will win this bet.

This was a RATIONAL thing for them to do. I want to repeat that, because too many people think “rational=good.” It does not. It was rational for them to discount a future they would not see.

Note also that they did not prioritize their children and grandchildren’s well-being over their own. This, also, is RATIONAL.  How your children do after you are dead has only an imaginary effect on your well-being. (For instance, if you think they’ll be ok, that’s enough. And that’s an easy enough thing of which to convince yourself.)

Our capitalist markets did not discount the future properly. Capitalistic accumulation, which gave certain corporations and individuals excess rewards, and thus power, also made it easier for them to capsize the democratic process.

This does not mean that capitalism is entirely to blame, not directly. In 1980, the US was not yet an oligarchy. At that point, it took a mass movement, a constituency, to decide: “Fuck all that environmentalism and conservation crap.”

That movement was headlined by Reagan and presaged by Thatcher in Britain. Reagan won because of the so-called “Reagan Democrats,” who abandoned the post-war Democratic coalition to vote Republican. They were substantially and primarily SUBURBAN voters. The suburbs, now, but especially then, would have been hammered by properly done environmental and conservation changes, as they were massively energy inefficient. You do not get a generation and a half of suburban housing prices rising faster than wages and inflation in such a world. (You do get better wages, as there is more real work to be done.)

As time went by, the advantages that Reagan put into play disproportionately (and vastly so) benefited a small number of Americans, and America became an oligarchy. You can date America’s descent to oligarchy somewhere between Gore v. Bush (2001) and Citizen’s United in January, 2010. Personally, I would pick the passage of TARP, done in the face of phone calls in excess of one hundred to one against: 2008.

Capitalism has thus, in the span of less than five decades, ensured that there will be billions of deaths and has bought-out the popular sovereignty system of representational democracy.

Despite triumphalism, it is also true that we have had the ability to end hunger and famines for decades and have not done so. Serious poverty in Africa has dropped as a percentage, but risen in absolute numbers. In the past 30 years, the average amount of calories consumed in India has dropped. China has industrialized, but studies show that those who remained in traditional villages are happier.

It is very easy to look at what has been achieved under capitalism and cheer. Vast growth, vast increases in food production, and so on. One can argue how much was driven by capitalism, how much by democracy, how much by government bureaucracy, and how much by industrialization, but the last 200 years have seen massive accomplishments.

Those who die in the next 100 years will not be so sanguine about the costs, however, as they will be the ones to bear them. Those who do not die, but suffer and see their loved ones die, are unlikely to forgive.

They WILL be looking for an alternative to capitalism, because it will be clear to them: The cost of capitalism is too high.  Especially if we skirt species extinction in a visible way.

There is no “end of history” minus an end to sentient life. There never will be.

The world keeps changing, capitalism and democracy were never going to be the last systems, and it is now obvious and visible that they are unlikely to be.

It is possible that one or the other might survive, in a modified form, but only if it casts blame on the other.

This doesn’t mean markets won’t survive. Markets have been with us for thousands of years, but markets as the prime distribution and production mechanism for the majority of the population have not.

The Death of Capitalism, and possibly the Death of Representational Democracy, are nigh. If you are young, you will see one or both. You may even if you are middle-aged.

(This is part 1 of a semi-series.  Read part 2 on “What Capitalism is and part 3 on “Did the Industrial Revolution Require Clearances, Genocide and Imperialism.”)

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The Day Someone Bombs a Wedding or Funeral in the US…

2016 January 22
by Ian Welsh

…to kill a “legitimate target,” is a day I will be interested to see, though I don’t look forward to it.

Who qualifies as a legitimate target? Anyone from the President on down who was involved in the drone assassination program.  Any group being assassinated by American drones has the right to strike back, in my opinion. Since America is willing to strike at weddings, funerals, convoys, and more to “hit their targets” (and willing to kill their children and families), well…

It is hard to even imagine the squealing. Entire pig farms would not suffice to convey the outraged cacophony, I am sure.

Legitimate targets, no matter who happens to be standing nearby. This may not be what America “says” is its policy, but it is the policy in action.

(Or maybe they’ll bomb a hospital. Probably won’t be able to bomb it all night, though.)

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I Will Take Your Squealing over Litvinenko’s Assassination Seriously if You Have Criticized Obama’s Drone Assassinations

2016 January 21
by Ian Welsh

So, a retired British judge came out with a report saying Putin probably approved the death by radioactive tea of ex-Russian spy Litvinenko. Which means “almost certainly.”

And there is much brouhah.

And I yawn.

Because the difference between killing Litvinenko and the American drone assassination program under Bush and Obama, is that Bush, and especially Obama, have assassinated a LOT more people than Putin has.

No one with sense can take these arguments seriously any more. You cannot claim anything but tribal identity politics when your argument is, “Don’t do what we do.”

Hypocrisy doesn’t even cover it.

A good world requires that we don’t do things that are wrong, even if we think there is some short term advantage to it.  Certainly Putin was wrong, but “killing less people is better than killing more.”


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Oligarchs & Criminals: Reward and Punishment After the Unmoved Mover

2016 January 21
by Ian Welsh

Our conception of human nature rules most of our social decisions, including those centered around economics and justice.

One of the primary concerns of Theology and Metaphysics was to find an “unmoved mover,” or, a “first cause.”

Our ancestors were not stupid. They noticed that effects seemed to have causes. Even when the cause was not evident, they assumed there was a cause because of how the rest of the universe worked.

In one sense, this is a search for “the creator,” or “the first,” or “God” (though it need not be God in any monotheistic sense).  What created the universe runs very quickly into infinite regress. If X created the universe, what created X?

You needed, then, to find a cause which itself had no cause. You needed to find an unmoved mover: Something that could move other things, but was not itself caused by anything.

To many moderns, this seems like a pointless pursuit, but the most brilliant people in many cultures pursued it for thousands of years, precisely because the oddest thing about existence isn’t any one part of existence, it is that there exists existence at all.

Why should there be anything?

What does this have to do with morality, ethics, reward, and punishment?

If everything has a cause, then how can anyone be morally culpable for their thoughts or actions?

This is not an inconsequential thought, it is at the heart of the prison and justice reform movements of the late 19th century, and the heart of secular efforts to help the unfortunate.

Fault requires agency. If everything you do has a cause, then how can you be blamed for anything. (Indeed, what are you? Just a collection of causes and effects, which is what some Buddhists mean when they say there is no self.)

In a pure cause and effect universe, there is no choice. Any appearance of choice is an illusion. It does not exist. Intellectually, this reached its highest point with Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity, which attempted to show how conditioning created behaviour and which was (unfairly, in my opinion) demolished by Noam Chomsky (whose work in other areas I admire).

Choice. Agency. These things require an unmoved mover. They do not require God, but they require something to happen which does not have cause.

A soul, perhaps. But if you don’t believe in such “nonsense,” then where is the choice? Absent the choice, where is the blame? Clarence Darrow, the famous jurist from the Scopes Monkey Trial, argued this in his book Crime: Its Cause and Treatment. He also wrote a book called The Myth of the Soul.

No soul. No unmoved mover. No culpability, no blame.

If people aren’t to blame for their behaviour, punishment makes no sense. You’re going to hurt someone because he hurt someone else? He didn’t have a choice.

There are no choices.

This is why prison departments are often called Corrections departments.

The criminals’ behaviour is harmful to society (well, in theory). That’s not their fault, but it does need to be corrected. Since behaviour has causes, changing the environment (which determines the causes of behaviour) can change the behavior.

Those who sneer at this should note that Nordic prisons, which concentrate on rehabilitation and avoid violence and punishment, have recidivism rates about half that of American prisons.

Most violent crimes, and especially sex crimes, are committed by people who were themselves abused. Abusing them more does not fix them. And for those criminals who were not abused, putting them into a system which will virtually ensure their abuse makes them worse when they get out, as a rule.

Once they get out, if they can only associate with the underclass and criminal class, if there are no opportunities for them because no one will hire an ex-con, well, that will cause more crime.

But this article isn’t just about criminals, it is about all of us.

Much social policy in the 20th century came out of the insight that all effects have causes combined with statistics: “Oh, people who are born poor have worse outcomes.”

That is either due to environment, or it is due to genetics.

There is NOTHING else in a pure materialistic view.

Thus, in addition to the reformers, you had the eugenics crowd, because it was either environment or it was genetics.

Eugenics basically says “this is inferior stock.” It should not be allowed to breed, because inferior stock leads to worse outcomes: more crime, more poverty, etc, etc.

Environment says that while there may be some genetic issues, most of the causes are social. What are your parents’ social position, who are you peers, what opportunities do you have?

If we want better outcomes, we have to improve the environment for people who tend to have bad outcomes.  Therefore we provide free healthcare, free education, improve their housing, put libraries into their neighbourhoods, and so on.

So much for the consequences on action. Consider the ethical consequences.

If you are not responsible for your crimes, or your position in life (it all comes down to a birth lottery and no choice you ever made…because you have no choices), then neither are you responsible for whatever wealth or success you have accrued in any ethical fashion. You never made a choice that lead to whatever you had.

Thus the statement: “I made the money, I deserve” is nearly nonsense in this paradigm.  The only utilitarian case which can be made for it is: “I will spend it in better ways than the government/poor/middle class will.” There is no deserve.

We thus have a large project through the 20th century to say that rich people WILL use their money better than government would, or than poor or middle class people would if they had it.

“Rich people create jobs.” “Rich people make superior investment decisions and those investment decisions improve the world.”

You get the idea.

Everyone wants to think they deserve what they have. It gratifies the ego, and it assures one that one will continue to be prosperous, powerful, or healthy.

The “continue to be” is important, because fitness is relative.

You can certainly make a case that the winners of any society are more “fit.”

But that fitness is for that society. Change the society, and those who are fit change. What is rewarded in Medieval Europe is not what is rewarded today in America, is not what was rewarded in Mandarinate China, is not even what is rewarded today in Japan, and various other societies.

As societies change, through changes in ideology, social facts, technology, and material base, what is “fit” changes. The genetic endowment and circumstances which guaranteed success become less and less relevant over time.

Fitness is thus not exactly arbitrary, but it is relative, and to a remarkable degree it is socially chosen. The Age of Faith rewarded monastics and hermits with great prestige, for example. Heck, it rewarded monastics with great wealth. We do no such thing; in this age, we do not value contemplatives.

In Japan, the ability to fit in and get along is far more valuable than it is in America. Mavericks are hardly tolerated. What will get you ahead in a police state like Egypt is different from what works in Europe and so on.

There is no end of history (unless we wipe ourselves out). What cultures and societies reward will always change. It has changed in my lifetime in the West: The rewards for skills in finance and technology were not nearly as large in my youth, manual labor was worth much more, and so on.

So: No unmoved mover, no free will, and you are thrown back on purely utilitarian arguments for what people “deserve” because there is no choice. What you do to people who aren’t “fit” in your society changes as well. They aren’t making bad choices, because they don’t make choices and neither do you. They are simply responding to biology and environment, and you’d act the same way if you had been born with their biology, to their parents, at the same time.

You want better outcomes? Change the biology or the environment. Everything else is a waste of time, and moral exhortations to do better are only useful if they change behaviour, but are bullshit in explanatory terms.

This is a cold universe. It contradicts our everyday feeling that we do make choices. But it is hard to argue against it.

The notable materialist attempt has been to find choice and consciousness in quantum effects. Roger Penrose, who worked often with Stephen Hawking, wrote a very dense book on this. It’s true that cause and effect don’t work in quantum mechanics the way they do in Newtonian and Einsteinian physics. The Quantum God is not a watchmaker’s God.

Consciousness, or observation, seems to effect quantum outcomes. This is spooky to us. Perhaps here we will find some room for choice, for free will.

But I do not know that it has been shown yet, and I’m not sure what Quantum free will would mean in practice.

For now, if you do not believe in an unmoved mover, there is little to no room for free will, for actual choice. And if that is true, it is also true that there is no room for blame–or congratulations–for individual outcomes beyond, “Congratulations on your fitness, which you made not one choice to create!” or, “Gee, it’s too bad you aren’t fit for this society, have defective genes, or experience!”

Look on this argument and understand what it means. Look on it and understand what it means for our social policies.

Even if you think there is an unmoved mover, this view should be of interest to you, not just because it has been influential but because statistics supports that most people perform just about how you’d expect they’d perform, given their physical endowment and their environment. Individual variation exists, and you can use free will to explain some of it, while noting that if free will exists, most people don’t seem to use it very much.

Social change comes from changing the environment people are in. It comes from very little else.

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As Bitcoin Falls Apart

2016 January 16
by Ian Welsh

It seems Bitcoin is skirting disaster. They need to increase the amount of memory allocated per block, but have refused to do so. The result is that transactions can take hours to occur. To manage this, fees for bitcoin usage are increasing, to the point where it costs more than a credit card. (Accepted by a lot less people, and costs more. The upside is…?)

One proposed solution is to, oh, increase the memory, but doing so is opposed by three of the five members of the people with access to the code base, and by the Chinese miners who control most of the “mining” which creates Bitcoins. (You can read about the adolescent infighting details here).

Now remember, Bitcoin was a Libertarian experiment in money. You have to “mine” it using computers which do nothing worthwhile except mine it. There is a built-in limit to the number of bitcoins which can ever be created, to  ensure that, in the long run, Bitcoins will be deflationary. All in all, it’s structure was designed to create huge, first-mover advantages and no governance worth speaking of (because that will all just “sort itself out”).

Or, as Daniel put it:


Now, Bitcoin was about the worst way possible to do something which REALLY needed to be done, which is to create a peer-to-peer payment system which cuts out the middleman. You do this so that banks/credit card companies can’t get what amounts to unearned money (the amounts of which are far more than the cost of the service provided), and also so that companies and governments can’t shut down the ability of people they don’t like to send and receive money, a power which has been terribly abused–especially by the US Treasury Department.

Bitcoin, minus Libertarian assumptions, with a bit of decent governance, could have really changed the world in a good way.

It didn’t, though the underlying technology of blockchains may yet. We’ll see about that, because what I’m hearing from the blockchain world is that banks are investing in it highly because they think it may help them with “know your customer,” “anti-money laundering,” and reduce transaction costs (for them, obviously, not necessarily the clients).

A “revolutionary” technology, thus, is likely to wind up reinforcing the status quo, though we’ll see.

Another contributing factor in all this is that, in addition to Bitcoin being a way for early movers to get rich (and for speculation), it’s real use has been primarily moving money in and out of countries.

It is important in China and tolerated, not just because the miners cluster there, but because the Chinese (including many of their officials) want an unofficial way to get money out of the country. Everyone has known China was going to run off the Mercantalist cliff, and people have wanted to get money out of there (the US dollar spiking like it is almost always a sign of flight to safety and presages a global recession).

Bitcoin got its first spike of fame outside tech circles by helping people get their money out of Cyprus when their banking sector had its collapse.

Political theory, which includes economic theory as a subset, matters. Bitcoin was based on libertarian theories which do not and cannot work in the real world. That is why it has not and will not live up to the utopian dreams of its early political backers.

We will see how the Blockchain is used by other cryptocurrencies, and whether any of them manage to create a functional peer-to-peer payments system.

I hope they do.

The failure of the Bitcoin dream (as opposed to the actual creation) doesn’t make me happy. We can use it as a lesson, the first of which is: “get your motives straight,” and the second of which is “Have a workable political and economic ideology.”

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