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Changing the culture by changing the focus

April 14, 2015 1 comment

I have been the head admin of the Facebook page Shit Troop Supporters Say since its founding a year ago today. I have a lot to reflect on. It has been an interesting year.

Occasionally I think it is mean picking on troop supporters. Calling out the average flag-waving support-muh-troops guy for not using logic or knowing history is like making fun of a five-year-old for not understanding quantum physics. (And of course some troop supporters do know those things, so it is best not to stereotype.) But then I remember five-year-olds aren’t the ones beating the drums of war, encouraging murder without trial and torture without evidence. They don’t support the police no matter what they do and then claim to believe in freedom. They don’t tell people they don’t deserve to live somewhere because those people were from the wrong part of the world and didn’t pay the fees, and then tell themselves they believe in freedom for all people. Neither do 5-year-olds refuse to learn the history of the regions and conflicts they are so sure someone needs to bomb. People who have taught millions of 5-year-olds to share and play nicely with each other are willing to lend their unconditional support for actions that cost them thousands of dollars and kill thousands of people who posed no harm to anyone.

Calling out the politicians, meanwhile, which is what troop supporters and liberals (not necessarily mutually exclusive categories, of course) tend to suggest, is a good catharsis but not much of a plan for change. I think focusing on politicians might merely reinforce the status quo. Voters often say they don’t trust any politicians, but when election day comes they nonetheless feel it necessary to cast their vote for someone they don’t trust. There are good reasons you can’t trust politicians and they are mostly related to the requirements for winning in politics.

People who say we just need to change politicians but not blame soldiers for signing up seem to have this fantasy of politicians who will not send the troops into harm’s way on principle. But politicians do not have principles. They have tools and they have enemies. Signing up to carry out their orders requires you to understand that.
One group that does not seem to receive enough focus might be those the politicians work for. It’s not you, by the way. They are much richer than you. The people at the top of the business world are the ones really benefiting. So why do people always talk about politicians? Because voting and complaining about politicians is a brilliant way to let the masses let off steam and keep their eyes on the wrong people, like yelling at a poster on your wall.

So Shit Troop Supporters Say looks at how the elite benefit, but we also look at what troop supporters say. Why? Because as a huge and assertive part of the population, troop supporters are the people unquestioningly believing, reproducing and thus legitimizing or making true the beliefs that keep the wars going. That means a big part of the culture is based on a nationalist-warrior mythos that leads to all kinds of unnecessary violence.

But some people are listening and thinking. And some people already know and trust you. To those people who are actually listening you can show the long history of nationalist myths and racism in the US (or wherever you are from) and their legacies. You can show them the history of propaganda in the US, starting from World War One. You can show them how many statements made to sell wars have been misleading or outright lies, or how little truth the newspapers told about what was going on. You can show them how large groups of people can protect themselves by mutual aid rather than hoping hierarchical militaries will do it. If you can discredit the troop-supporter and war-supporter message by reaching those who might listen, especially people you know, you can change the culture.

But we can’t get there with the wrong approach. You don’t impress people by being arrogant, you don’t pull people in by being pushy and you make others turn their ears off when you insult someone. And most people are either not listening or not easily convinced. The latter need to hear the message clearly and repeatedly and the former are not worth your time. The only reason I would argue with the people you can’t reach is because others are listening, and then would only stick to the facts. I fear we lose many opportunities to communicate by simply using the wrong tone.

At any rate, I consider exposing the ignorance of support for war an important endeavour, one that requires research and patience and a little humour. I hope you will continue to support me!

How to kill a million people

November 15, 2014 Leave a comment

Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. – Lord Acton

Power kills. Absolute power kills absolutely. – RJ Rummel

Do you want to know what a sociopath looks like? Think of George W. Bush. Think of all the people he knew were killed due to his policies. Do you think he cared? Did you see him joking about finding weapons of mass destruction in front of the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2004? Do you think he had pangs of guilt later that night? I don’t think so. Sociopaths are people with no conscience. Many of those who have lost their consciences kill them over time by committing, ordering, approving or otherwise knowingly facilitate murder.

bush rumsfeld cheney Obama_laughing

Psychopathy and sociopathy (in particular the so-called dark triad of narcissism, Machivellianism and sociopathy) broadly refer to the condition of having little or no conscience, no guilt, no feeling of responsibility, no ability to feel sympathy for others. Sociopaths lie, cheat, manipulate, intimidate, use violence for their own benefit and do not feel as though they have done something wrong. Some of them occupy positions of power in big business, politics, the bureaucracy and security agencies. Do you think that matters?

Are people born without consciences? Some might be, but environmental factors play a major role. Do you think we could reduce or eliminate some of the incentives to put aside one’s conscience? How might we do that?

Well, how did George take on the characteristics of a sociopath? Was he born that way? Possibly. Did his parents and his upbringing contribute? Probably somehow. But people in power usually kill their consciences over long periods. Few people are dropped into positions of considerable power. They climb to them over time. When Little George was still at university, he connected with other powerful people. He spent years in top positions in oil businesses. Did these roles teach him to control his conscience? When running for Governor of Texas he said he approved lowering the age of the death penalty to 14. If he was a full-blown sociopath by then (which he may have been), he could have signed the death warrants of a million 14-year-olds with no pangs of conscience. But even if he wasn’t yet, he had already begun to chip away at his conscience. He could simply tell himself killing teenagers was for the best for Texas, for “society” or for God and remain emotionally detached from any violence.

One reason soldiers commit suicide is because they can’t live with the guilt of killing people. George W. didn’t see a drop of anyone’s blood. He did the killing with strokes of the pen. His job was to shake hands and give speeches, not think. His PR people cultivated a highly likable image that made sense to enough voters. What are politicians but actors? He knew he would be rewarded for doing what other powerful people wanted him to do. If he ever felt ill at ease, he could always tell himself it’s all right, this is for the good either of others or of myself. But any excuse would do.

The more things they do they might otherwise have felt guilty about, the more cuts people make to their consciences. Soon, they simply don’t care about anyone but themselves. Now, consider how many millions of people around the world have power over us, from bureaucrats who can deny us permits and visas, to taxmen seizing what we worked for, to soldiers occupying our countries, to politicians who make it all official. This is the state, people. This is why your world has been so messed up for so long. They weren’t all born to be bad. This system sucked out their consciences like a leech. Its agents go through a process of learning to control any feelings of guilt by finding reasons to justify their decisions.

Actually, all of us justify hurtful actions sometimes. If we tell ourselves we did the right thing, we are more likely to do it again and with less guilt. But not all of us benefit from doing things that make us feel guilty or repressing that guilt. I can lie, but I might lose the trust of those I rely on. I might steal, but I might face all kinds of social penalties if I do, including jail. Having power means not needing to take responsibility. Indeed, unless there is a sufficiently large scandal and perhaps scapegoating (in a democracy) or rebellion, those in power are rewarded with more money and power. The most powerful in today’s world wield their power through the state.

The state is an instrument of concentrated force. The small minority who control the state can use it to build consensus for their plans or simply impose them without asking, but ultimately the choice is theirs. As long as the state and its precursors (pharaohs, kings, popes, and so on) have existed they have been a means of theft, whether by overt plunder, such as ransacking a town or enslaving people, defensive violence such as protecting large estates acquired by overt plunder, or covert plunder, such as taxation or economic policies. Working with the state, including trying to change it from within, inevitably means following the orders of those at the top of the pyramid to plunder the people.

Power feeds all the elements of the dark triad. The admiration and awe that come with power feed narcissism. As expert manipulators and ruthless competitors, Machiavellians benefit most from a competitive system. And sociopaths make decisions on impulse and take no responsibility for any harm they cause. The state’s monopoly on force shields all these people from consequences.

Any of us could walk the path to these disorders. We are not immune to knowingly hurting others for our own benefit, or in the name of some idea whose implications we do not understand but which we invoke to ourselves for the sake of assuaging our consciences. People have trouble resisting taking power over others when it is offered to them, or when they condition themselves to believe it is right. Concentrating and institutionalising power incentivises sociopathic behaviour. If we considered everyone equal and thus not deserving of power over others we could achieve a free society with far less violence and suffering.

Religion is not the problem

May 19, 2013 1 comment

Atheism is spreading. People who have realised religion has harmful effects have taken it upon themselves to spread the word against God. So far, I have no problem. However, millions of the same people are willing to use the state to force others. They have no problem with the growth of the state (or if they do they do not voice their concerns), as long as no one lets religious beliefs guide it. Is that the right way to prevent the damage caused by religion? More importantly, does it strike the root of the problem?

Bill Maher made an authoritative list of his problems with religion: “most wars, the Crusades, the Inquisition, 9/11, arranged marriages to minors, blowing up girls’ schools, the suppression of women and homosexuals, fatwas, ethnic cleansing, honor rape, human sacrifice, burning witches, suicide bombings, condoning slavery and the systematic fucking of children”. (I would add religious dogma that denies science.) Let us go through this list and see if we are attacking the root of the problem.

-First, most wars, the Crusades and the Inquisition. Wars are started because powerful men want to expand or maintain the territories and the people on them they consider their possessions. In the past, religion was indeed used frequently to justify going to war, and the Crusades are only the most obvious example. But we need to distinguish between wars that religious people take part in (which is most or all, since most of the world’s people can be considered religious) and wars started by invoking religion. Nowadays, religion has been largely replaced by nationalism as the source of appeals to go to war. Nationalism is far deadlier in the present moment, and it is no less a religion than Christianity. Conflicts between groups that seem to be of different religions, say in Israel/Palestine, are often better understood as colonial, racist and nationalist in nature. Different forms of division and oppression tend to feed off each other. Religion is one means people in power use to oppress, of course, but it is also used by those on the bottom fighting for their rights. As long as no one has a monopoly on interpretation, people can use religion for “good” as well as “evil”.

Moreover, the War on Drugs has killed more people than any religious conflict going at the moment. It is a war that could be ended with the stroke of a pen. Religion takes centuries of education to eradicate. Why would we not concentrate on the former if we wanted to help people?

Condoning slavery is the same. Scripture gave religious justification for slavery, of course. Slavery is a very old institution. Any books written thousands of years ago and used to control people will include slavery. It is possible the reason it took so long to eliminate slavery was religion. But systematic slavery has been wiped out in much of the world and the religions continue to exist. That is because, contrary to what religious and irreligious people believe, religions change with time. Certain parts are emphasised at different times and places. Since we agree slavery is wrong, why not work to end debt slavery in your own city?

The deadliest religious conflict going at the moment is probably the fighting between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria. Nigeria is a very poor country with a poor education system. While poor education itself does not cause conflict, it facilitates manipulating people into attacking each other. When education is controlled by a corrupt state, it is the state who is to blame for poorly-educated citizens. Of course, the conflict is more complicated than I am making it out to be. I merely wish to point out that religious differences do not necessarily lead to violence.

-9/11 was probably the work of religious fanatics who had pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden. But was it religion that led them to destroy those buildings? People who make this claim have only Osama’s pronouncements from the Quran to back them up. But a closer look at the evidence reveals the attacks as what is often called “blowback”, or revenge for US foreign policy. To say Islam is what flew 19 men into two buildings begs the question, as it does not explain the millions of Muslims who denounced the attacks or the 1.5-or-so billion Muslims who have never committed any act of terrorism.

-Arranged marriages to minors, blowing up girls’ schools, the suppression of women and homosexuals, honour rape, human sacrifice, burning witches and suicide bombings are not institutions of religion. Bill might have added male and female circumcision to this list. They are things that take place in some religious societies and some societies with different religions. Many anti-theists do not take the time to research the different cultures that comprise “Islam” and “Christianity”. If they did, they would see beyond the lenses their cultures provide to the fact that it is ignorance, not religion, that unites these practices; and while religion keeps us ignorant, so do state schools and propaganda. Many religious people would find all of these practices abhorrent and can point to places in the scripture to justify their positions. War is human sacrifice, and religion is just as likely as atheism to make someone oppose war.

Suicide bombing, in particular, has little to do with religion. We tend to see it as something justified by Islam, but only if we do not look at the reasons behind it. (Indeed, Islam forbids suicide and the killing of innocents.) Robert Pape has done comprehensive research into this field, having looked at every suicide bombing that has taken place. He has concluded that, while religion may be a recruitment tool for suicide bombers (even though the irreligious Tamil Tigers were the pioneers of suicide bombing), nearly every such attack has had the same causes: an indigenous population feels under threat from occupation by an illegitimate foreign military, nearly always that of a democracy, and suicide bombing is an effective tool for making the foreigners withdraw. It is not a phenomenon of Islam, or religion, but merely a weapon of war. If we want to end it, we should end foreign occupation, not religion.

-Fatwas are religious legal opinions and are non-binding. Until the scholars begin enforcing their fatwas with police, the rule of law should be the target of all who are against arbitrary violence initiated to protect the elite. It matters to an extent who make the laws, but most lawmakers, now and throughout history, do whatever they can to further their own interests. The more laws and police to enforce them, the more restrictions there are on you, the more easily you can go to prison, the more money it is going to cost you and the more powerful the lawmakers and the people they work for get if the masses do not rise up against them.

-Seeing ethnic cleansing on the list makes me wonder if Bill (and Richard Dawkins in the God Delusion) is clutching at straws. Any differences in identity, whether religious, ethnic or national, can be the reason we claim for committing acts of violence. But how does religion actually cause it? The problem here is the politics of identity. I am just as opposed to religious identity as I am to any other form of collectivism. People commit acts of ethnic cleansing in the name of their group, whatever the group. We should not be more or less opposed to it when religion is the excuse.

-The rape of minors by priests is indeed a problem and we are right to oppose it. However, it is a problem with a specific part of a specific religion. If it were possible for priests to get married, it is unlikely children would suffer anymore. Religions can be reformed, as time has shown us, and enough pressure on the Vatican could end this vile practice in our lifetimes. Someone who works against the priesthood for raping children but remains silent on or approves of drone strikes that kill children is a hypocrite.

Anti-religious statists also display hypocrisy with relation to the esteem the religious hold for the written word. They lament and mock following religious texts while believing in constitutions and the rule of law. What is a constitution but a legal holy book? What is a holy book but an old constitution? Those who say holy books are invalid because they condone war and slavery but consider more recently made laws legitimate (perhaps because of democracy) need to consider what principle their beliefs are based on. As Lysander Spooner said, “whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain – that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case it is unfit to exist.”

My main problem with religion is its emphasis on scripture, rather than science, as the method for ascertaining truth, and providing certainty where there should be mystery. All that means is humans, with their capacity for both fantasy and reason, should emphasise the latter over the former. That goes for the militant atheists as well. The question I pose to them is, what is truly important?

We see places like Saudi Arabia and Iran, where religious people have taken over, and we see the excesses of the state in forcing people to act in certain ways, and we blame religion. But if they had no power to force people, what would be the problem? People could still practice their religions and yet would not harm others. Any ideology can be warped when it is used by the state for legitimacy.

I liken the hatred of religion to the hatred of communism. In its time, communism needed to be opposed for the sake of freedom. Today, such worrying almost seems quaint. The truly dangerous ideas of today are statism, the rule of law and nationalism, which millions of people claiming to be atheists hold in awe. If they have principles besides merely ruffling feathers, they should end their religious views of politics and oppose all violent ideologies.

Regulation

March 18, 2013 5 comments

“Corporate capitalists don’t want free markets. They want dependable profits, and their surest route is to crush the competition by controlling the government.” – RFK, Jr.

It is often claimed in “progressive” and “liberal” circles that we need more regulation to curb the influence and power of big business. This belief is based largely on a misconception as to the origin, purpose and result of regulations.

During the period between the end of the American Civil War and roughly the 1890s, business in the US tried to cartelise but found it could not. In general, cartels can only control a market when force is introduced. During this period, every attempt to form a cartel and raise prices led to new competitors that realised they could undercut the cartels. In response, big business began lobbying the government to pass laws “in the public interest” (as all laws are claimed to be) that would enable them to keep competitors out. It worked. (Find a large amount of research on the subject here.)

Today, regulations and other laws protecting business include corporate personhood, accounting standards, safety standards, environmental standards and intellectual property. In addition, there are subsidies (“corporate welfare”), amounting to perhaps $98b a year, selective tax breaks and contracting. In each of these categories, government and industry have made a variety of laws enabling large firms to eliminate competition. As such, they are a kind of tax taken from consumers who would pay lower prices and entrepreneurs who would be able to make their livings doing what they want. The tax is given to business owners who would be forced to lower prices or improve services in a free market. The Small Business Administration in 2005 estimated the total cost of these regulations at $1.1 trillion.

free market government regulation

Accounting standards are widely considered necessary to prove a firm is not cooking the books. But in the absence of state regulation, concerned investors would find a way to insure against this possibility with audits. An example of the enormous and unnecessary complication of accounting standards is the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, passed in the wake of the Enron accounting scandal and failure. The Act made accounting more complicated. Implementing it costs a firm millions of dollars. Millions of dollars is pocket change for a big corporation, but prohibitively expensive for new and small businesses that could otherwise rival them. As a result, fewer businesses are created, and wealth and power are concentrated in the larger firms. We now have a complex tax code that could not be implemented by less than a team of accountants. The same is true of the legal code. The modern legal code was designed so that teams of high-priced lawyers can get away with murder and people without money see no justice.

Sarbanes-Oxley is, of course, but one law in a sea of other laws. Those who say the 2008 financial crash was caused by a lack of regulation may do well to realise there were thousands of lines of financial regulations already. They often cite the repeal of parts of the Glass-Steagal Act as the only incidence of deregulation they can think of, but this change did nothing to enable banks to make bad loans. A look at the facts indicates very clearly that regulation was the main cause of the bubble that caused the massive destruction of wealth for all but those whose ties to the state got them trillion-dollar bailouts.

Negative externalities, which seem to be the reason people beg the government to get involved in the market, are easily externalised in a statist society. The same big corporations pollute and break the law repeatedly. They are sued by the government, they pay the government, which means it gets another legal donation from an interest group, and then they are allowed to continue business as usual. The lawsuits are a bone thrown to voters and the corporations shake them off like lice. But they give the appearance that justice has been done. The corporations nonetheless retain all the benefits they get from the state in the form of legal personhood, subsidies, tax loopholes, intellectual property and regulatory barriers to competition. The state does not protect us against negative externalities.

Intellectual property enables firms to monopolise virtually anything they create. Consider the effects of IP laws in the pharmaceutical industry. Kevin Carson explains that drug patents are unnecessary to recoup expenses and develop the most effective drugs.

First of all, there has been a dramatic shift away from fundamentally new kinds of blockbuster drugs, because it’s much more cost-effective to put money into tweaking the formulas of drugs whose patents are about to expire just enough to qualify for repatenting them—so-called ‘me, too drugs.’ Second, a great deal of the basic research on which drug development is based is carried out at government expense in publicly-funded universities. Around half of the overall cost of drug R&D is taxpayer-funded. And in the United States, under the terms of legislation passed in the 1980s, the patents on drugs developed entirely at taxpayer expense are given away—free of charge—to the drug companies that produce and market them. Third, most of the actual R&D cost for developing drugs comes, not from testing the version of a drug actually marketed, but from securing patent lockdown on all the other major possible variants.

Generic drugs do not get developed, or get banned as soon as they are, because they are competition. The poor people who need them most do not get them. Intellectual property, Carson concludes, is murder.

corporatism regulation big business free market

We can divine the purpose of regulation from its results. We now have giant, multinational corporations straddling the Earth, with no government willing or able to oppose them, with the exception of a few populist, anti-imperialist holdouts. Large corporations’ alliance with the state has enabled the two to control natural resources and all manner of other markets. Consumers thus have fewer choices and higher prices than in a market freed from regulation. But freedom is always preferable to laws and regulations imposed by the state. Freedom allows economies and the arts to flourish. It means scientific advances and technological innovation. And it forces responsibility on those able to handle it while still allowing for us to help each other.

The solution to the control of markets by cartels is to free them. That would make customers the true regulators. If they decry a firm’s practices, they can stop buying from it and start buying from its competitor. If you abhor business, you are free to start and join one of the thousands of cooperatives in the world or simply produce and give to your neighbours. But demanding more regulation to prevent big-business malfeasance is akin to shooting oneself in the head to cure one’s headache.

The causes of the mortgage crisis

October 16, 2012 5 comments

I have written elsewhere (here and in chapter 30 of my upcoming book) on this subject but here is a post committed solely to dispelling the myth “the free market” caused the crash of financial markets in 2008. I hear the lies repeated every day, even by my political economy professor: the reason the banks made such risky bets was there was no regulation and no oversight of the sector. The truth is, regulation was rampant.

Let us start with the Federal Reserve. The Fed is hardly ever mentioned as a cause of the crisis. Artificially-low interest rates (1%) encouraged artificially-high risk taking for certain sectors, including construction and lending to people who could not afford to buy homes. Fed policy increased the supply of money (look out for inflation) with the result that more dollars were created between 2000 and 2007 than had been created in the rest of the history of the United States. (It has done so again in the years since.) House prices rose.

They rose the most in California, where various laws made it impossible to develop the land, creating artificial scarcity and driving up home prices. But they rose in other localities too, in most cases because of similar restrictive building laws. 90% of the land in Nevada is owned by the federal government, so instead of a free market, the availability of land for building depends on the government’s approval of each use of it. Less than 10% of the land in the US is actually developed, but under the guise of preserving nature (a handout to environmentalists), the government protected land near residential areas and thus raised the price of it. As a result, many places saw a housing boom artificially brought on by government, whereas other places saw no boom at all. Thomas Sowell explains.

A fundamental misconception of the housing market existed both during the boom and after the bust. That misconception was that the free market failed to produce affordable housing, and that government intervention was therefore necessary in order to enable ordinary people to find a place to live that was within their means. Yet, the hard evidence points in the opposite direction. It has been precisely where there was massive government intervention, in the form of severe building restrictions, that housing prices skyrocketed. Where the market was more or less left alone, places like Houston and Dallas, for example, housing prices took a smaller share of family income than in the past. (The Housing Boom and Bust, 24)

The booms that did result, however, were, like many local problems, misperceived by an officious federal government as a national problem, requiring national-level intervention.

Easy access to housing began under the Clinton administration. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, government-backed but publicly-traded corporations that would be bailed out if necessary (a formula for moral hazard if ever there was one) also pushed to expand mortgage loans to people with bad credit under Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Andrew Cuomo

made a series of decisions between 1997 and 2001 that gave birth to the country’s current crisis…. He turned the Federal Housing Administration mortgage program into a sweetheart lender with sky-high loan ceilings and no money down, and he legalized what a federal judge has branded ‘kickbacks’ to brokers that have fueled the sale of overpriced and unsupportable loans. Three to four million families are now facing foreclosure, and Cuomo is one of the reasons why.

(Here are three more people to blame, in case you are interested.)

Democratic Congresspeople were reluctant to demand any oversight of Fannie, a campaign contributor. Fannie and Freddie guaranteed loans to people who were bad credit risks. These government-sponsored enterprises held about $5 trillion in mortgages. The Fed lent money to the banks at near 0% interest because, well, it could create money without hurting the people making the decision to do so.

At least as important regarding the subprime mortgage meltdown is the fact that owning homes had become the political cause du jour. Not everyone has to own a house to live; but if people are given houses, whether or not they can afford the mortgages, they might vote for the people who made it possible. The desire to introduce coercion into a market is always for the benefit of the coercer. Sometimes it benefits the constituent, and sometimes it leads to one of the most costly financial crashes in history. The Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) was meant to eliminate racial inequality in availability of credit. If banks did not lend to minorities in high enough numbers to satisfy the authorities, they could be crushed by lawsuits. (Remember, poor people were already being stung by local land use restrictions that raised housing prices. The CRA would enable them to get credit for something they might have been able to afford in a free market.) Instead of leaving interest rates to the market, politicians found it politically expedient to help minorities buy homes. It makes sense: if one can finally buy a home, one’s standard of living appears to have risen, and rising living standards get politicians reelected. Lending standards loosened.

Bear Stearns said the mortgages were sound. The three rating agencies (a state-protected oligopoly), you remember, the ones that said the mortgage-backed securities were great when they were garbage, served to reinforce the popular lending-to-everyone policies. Tax codes encouraged overinvestment in housing. To blame lack of government oversight for the crash is to get things backwards. The banks did what the government wanted them to do: hand out more and riskier loans. Those who talk of deregulation as a cause of the crisis fail to point to a single episode of deregulation, aside from the repeal of one clause of the Glass-Steagal act, which did nothing to enable banks to make bad loans. To say the banking sector was deregulated is to ignore or misunderstand the many regulations in place that helped cause the crisis.

One study finds that federal outlays for banking regulation—the laws big banks supposedly fear so much—increased from $190m in 1960 to $1.9b in 2000 and $2.3b in 2008. The US has 115 regulatory agencies. Funding to the Securities and Exchange Commission under George W. increased sizeably, with the result that its staff increased by one quarter. The number of rules businesses needed to follow rose. There may be an ideal regulatory agency or system, but it has nothing to do with what what the agencies actually do. These ones did what the politicians wanted: encouraged banks to make home loans to people who could not afford them, and solved a problem that did not exist, namely a nationwide lack of affordable housing. The result was disaster. Either government cannot be trusted to oversee corporations because it has been corrupted by them, or else it cannot be trusted because it is so incompetent. Either the fox is guarding the henhouse or the headless rooster is. More layers of regulations added to the existing system are not likely to help the public.

Moreover, it may be a mistake to call the crash a failure of regulation. Again, the corporations did what the government told them to, and people responded to incentives that monetary and lending policies created. Whenever we consider a policy a failure, we need to question whether it is indeed a failure or whether the goals and eventual outcomes went just as planned. After all, the crisis has ended up further enriching the rich, through bailouts and stimulus.

The securities and investment industry contributed $53m to congressional and presidential campaigns in 2008. (They have not slowed down since then.) Then, they stood back with their hands out and received more than a trillion dollars for their generosity. The bailout bill was defeated at first, but legislators, in their inimitable way, searched for a new way to pass the bill. They got more Congresspeople on board by sprinkling horsetraded favours in with the bailout money. (Something similar happened when Ronald Reagan bailed out big banks in 1983.) Special interests got what they wanted, legislators got what they wanted—win-win!

The argument the government made at the time was that these firms were “too big to fail”. In other words, their failure would mean the collapse of many more firms and the economy itself; therefore, they might need to be rescued. But the fate of Lehman Brothers, with more than $600b in assets, is instructive. It seemed too big to fail; yet, when it did fail, its assets that were worth preserving were bought by other firms. Keeping firms on life support discourages investment, encourages wild risk taking and drains money from those firms who are, in fact, productive and allocates it to those who have proven they are not. Promising to bail out failed firms created the moral hazard that enabled this crash.

Along came a large (more than 400-page) bailout bill, which anyone who opposed or even wanted to debate would be labeled as wanting the economy to fail. The government now owned hundreds of billions in bad debt, which meant instead of letting the companies pay for their own foolish bets, the taxpayers would. The case of the 2008 crisis and the recession was one of socialism for the rich. And democrats, who think that they have choices, were presented with two presidential candidates who agreed on the bailout and stimulus bills.

I am not an economist, but I do recommend the book Meltdown: A Free-Market Look at Why the Stock Market Collapsed, the Economy Tanked, and Government Bailouts Will Make Things Worse by Thomas E. Woods. Obviously, one book is not definitive, and all books I have read on this subject make good points. This one cogently argues the government’s role in the debacle was enormous. Its author is from the Austrian school of economics. The Austrian school predicted the crash (not to mention those of 1929 and 2000) based on evidence and basic economic principles. Either way, it is obvious that “the free market” and lack of regulation did not exist to cause this crisis. It was caused by the alliance of big business and big government, of a political system that rewards liars and thieves.

Many people, Occupy Wall Street protesters most vocally, blame the corporations for the crash. But corporations were doing what the government told them to. They blame corporations for accepting the bailout money. But if someone had trillions of dollars to give you, would you say no? That money only existed because it had been stolen from taxpayers in the first place.

And though some people—those who watch the news—think things are getting better, they are not. There will be no economic recovery, as the ruling class has already stolen it.

Status-quo extremes

October 3, 2012 2 comments

Many statists are afraid of ideas like anarchism because they are afraid of extremes. Extremes are always wrong, they say in unison, which is why we reject your idea. Such people do not realise that the extreme is the new normal.

Look at the economic world. We have regulations that support or outright create oligopolies or monopolies in every industry. We have policies that encourage financial institutions to take trillion-dollar bets that end up crashing the economy. We print trillions of dollars more to save them from bankruptcy. Taxpayers are on the hook for all these trillions and more, and will be paying for money borrowed today for generations. As a result of this endless, self-interested intervention, the global economy is frighteningly turbulent and may be on the brink of collapse. And yet, US presidential candidates do not disagree with these extremes. The election will not have anything to do with them. The staggeringly extreme will continue to remain the norm.

Look at the surveillance state. The authorities are reading the emails and text messages of people they do not suspect of any crime. They track cellphones, track your online activity, seize websites and servers. They tap phones. There are now drones in the air above the skies of the US, with thousands more to come, spying on US citizens just in case there is something the security apparatus wants to arrest them for. And drones are coming to many more parts of the world. Apparently, they are popular with the powerful.

Look at the wars and the weapons. There are an estimated 23,000 nuclear warheads in the world–fewer than in the 1980s; far more than enough to wipe out human life on Earth. Torture was once condemned (and still is ius cogens–absolutely illegal); now, it is taken for granted. The US starts wars on the other side of the world with entire nations that cost trillions of dollars while most Americans are at the mall and barely know what is happening outside their town. People controlling drones dressed in camouflage fatigues and sitting at a desk with a joystick kill people on the other side of the world and then eat a sandwich. These are not extremes? And yet, the system statists believe in so blindly is what enables all of it. The self-styled moderates are letting it all happen.

The status quo always changes. After a generation, what was a new and extreme policy becomes the norm. It is perceived as indispensable, even where there had been no initial demand for state involvement. Eliminating the state from one part of society would upset special interests and the bureaucracy, which is why they work so hard to tell us we need it. It is so in every area of life into which the state has poked its nose. Moderates will say reform is the answer, when reform serves the people doing the reforming–still the decision makers in government.

Here is an extreme position on drugs. Do not decriminalise them. Eliminate all laws and regulations and taxes on them. Regulations encourage concentration, rather than letting everyone grow cannabis like they would a tomato. Taxes go toward bank bailouts, war and the police state. Why would we want to pay more? A consistent moderate, if there is such a thing, would presumably be against such an otherwise sensible proposal.

The problem with the claim to oppose extremism is there is no moral philosophy behind it. Moderation for the sake of moderation makes little sense. What is the moderate stand on rape? Is it “Too much rape would be bad; but surely we don’t want to eliminate rape”? The question is, is it ever moral to rape someone? According to the non-aggression principle (see how simple it is?), no. Sometimes the extreme is the moral.

And yet, questioning all these things makes us extremists. If we are so moderate we refuse to question the enormity of the system we are forced to live under, we are cowards, afraid to take a stand for what is right. Perhaps in a world of extremes demanding peace, freedom and justice is an act of moderation. But status-quo discourse disguises it as radical.

Find more on all these subjects in my book, available soon.

Principle versus expediency: how to save the world

June 18, 2012 Leave a comment

Billions of poor people. Wars without end. Torture, disease, genocide, starving children. There are some major problems in the world. The question is, how do we do something about them? We have options. Some people say we need to take control of governments and force the changes rapidly. After all, people are dying now. This post will argue against hasty action.

We have become accustomed in the modern world to doing things fast. We want things now. This trend is reflected as much in activism as with everything else. How will we change everything? Revolution! Slow down. What kind of revolution? A revolution is a major event involving many people. It is impossible to predict the outcome of a revolution, and it is rarely (perhaps never) as the original revolutionaries envisaged. And the kind of revolution that takes place in the street inevitably means violence. Is an uprising, violent or non-violent, the best way to change the world? Let us continue with our options before deciding.

Another effect of wanting immediate results is a focus on elections. We need to field new candidates, ones that will do the right thing. Are there people like that? Look at the hopes of the Tea Party. After the Tea Party got some of its members elected on a small-government ticket, the newly elected voted for all the same big-government legislation as the other Congresspeople, and have even ended up with all the same campaign contributors. It turns out that a few new people could not make radical changes. One does not simply walk into Mordor.

How about putting pressure on existing politicians? That can work. As little hope as I see in the political process, enough letters or enough protesters can force the hands of the elected. But what is the political solution? Remember, government is based on force. Every law passed is an order. If one does not follow the law, one risks arrest and all the violence that it results in. What we want to force on others may not be the best thing for them.

When we consider working through the system of force, we want to use the existing tools to do so. The state system has two basic tools at its disposal: taxation, which could be used to redistribute wealth, and law, which could be used to force people to act right. I am opposed to the idea of using the state on moral grounds. And as I will demonstrate, morality is not only an end; it is a means.

As I write in greater detail elsewhere, a simple but powerful moral rule is the non-aggression principle (NAP). The NAP states that the initiation of force or violence, including the credible threat of violence, against unwilling adults who have not initiated force themselves is immoral. Laws force entire populations. If we could opt out of laws, we would be free, but we cannot. Laws based on the NAP are moral but laws regarding what we wear, eat, drink and smoke, for example, are not, because those things do not harm others. There should be no law regarding victimless pursuits. Taxation means forcing populations to pay for whatever the government decides on. But not everyone in the population has aggressed against another, or is being taxed commensurately to his or her aggression.

Many anarchists believe in the NAP on philosophical grounds. They argue that, whatever is done with the money raised by taxation, whatever someone’s idea of virtue that informs the wording of a law, it is wrong to force peaceful people. More importantly, however, force is a terrible tool for solving problems, and tends to cause far greater ones.

Do taxation and regulation lead to a redistribution of wealth? Yes: from the lower classes to the rich. The basic reason for that is that the lower classes, including the middle classes, have no power over the state. The state has power over them; and in every society, it becomes a vehicle for transferring wealth from the people who are outside it to the powerful people who control it. We have had social welfare policies for decades and poverty still exists. But why are they still poor? Welfare policies actually entrench poverty by making people dependent on the state.

The best cure for poverty is, in fact, a free market. The free market just means free people trading with each other out of mutual benefit, without force. Tearing down the endless regulations and taxes that are designed to benefit the wealthy would give opportunities to everyone else to work as they like. How we could do that by using the state I do not know, because, again, laws benefit the powerful and the powerful control the state. It is impractical to use the state to solve society’s problems.

Could we use laws to force virtue? It depends what is virtuous. I agree with Penn Jillette on this one.

It’s amazing to me how many people think that voting to have the government give poor people money is compassion. Helping poor and suffering people is compassion. Voting for our government to use guns to give money to help poor and suffering people is immoral, self-righteous, bullying laziness.

People need to be fed, medicated, educated, clothed, and sheltered, and if we’re compassionate we’ll help them, but you get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right. There is great joy in helping people, but no joy in doing it at gunpoint.

The other question is, can the state actually be reconfigured to work for the greater good? Can it be sustainable if done by force and not spread throughout the population as common values? I am inclined to say no. If people can be led to believe in taking care of each other and taking care of the poor, they will do so voluntarily, as of course many do already. If they cannot, forcing them to do so could lead to a backlash. Look, for example, at the plight of some of the people in the democratic world who are most vulnerable: immigrants. Immigrants are people like everyone else, so surely they should all be permitted the same rights and freedoms. Letting immigrants into the US, Europe and the rest of the rich world meant giving them a chance to help themselves and their sending countries. But anti-immigrant forces first controlled the discourse and then the relevant areas of the state, and 400,000 people were deported from the US in 2011 alone. People escaping horrible conditions in Africa are left to drown in the Mediterranean. I take the sum of these and similar actions and indifference toward them to mean the people are not ready to be forced to take care of everyone else.

The state may be a lost cause, but we are not out of options yet. The problem is that the more viable solutions are long term. They require patience, not quick fixes. I think there are two basic things we could do. The first is to educate people—particularly ourselves—on the issues and how to solve them. We can keep the real issues foremost in the minds of people, so that we are the media and the teachers. That doesn’t just mean Facebook, of course. It could mean street protest and symbolic action to raise awareness. This process is neverending, so it is incumbent on concerned people to educate to the extent that others become the media and the teachers as well. The main downside to this option is that not everyone will be interested. But that just means they have better things to do, and I do not blame them for that.

But not everyone has to join us. The second thing is to organise with like-minded people. That means being leaders, working together, helping each other and doing things ourselves. The revolution does not have to be violent. Look at what Occupy did. They were entirely voluntary, working on consensus, anticapitalism, mutual aid, equality and solving their own problems. They showed everyone that we can have a voluntary society, that we can build a new society, based on compassion and helping each other, out of the shell of the old. It is called prefigurative politics. These values also inform the philosophy of the sovereign community, meaning new communities outside the reach of the state. Voluntary institutions show not only the morality of the NAP, but also that we can solve the world’s problems without force.