Monday, September 30, 2013

How to be an Entrepreneur

I've seen this topic before. Usually in about 6 steps or so, they discuss things like business plans and innovative ideas, finding investors, etc. BAH. Written by non-entrepreneurs, most likely. Here's how to do it for real. 

1. Be willing to do (almost) anything
Within reason. Your ethics, morals, and what's legal all factor in here. But start with your talents and interests, purely because that's what you like, and that's where your attention is. You can spend years sitting around trying to be innovative and dream up some new business proposition, but it's completely unnecessary. Do something mundane well enough, and people will want you to do it for them. Mostly... keep your ears open for the phrases "somebody should" or "I wish someone would"... those are opportunities. In your mind, translate them to "I should" and "Please".
2. If people don't want to pay for what you're doing, do something else.
You may really like performing interpretive kazoo dances based on the philosophy of H.R. Pufnstuf,  but if no one wants to pay you for that, you won't be able to eat. How long you keep trying depends a lot on how much money you've got left. This is called listening to your customers.
3. When people are willing to pay you for something, DO THAT.
You found a market! It doesn't mean you shouldn't look for other things to do. Sometimes, when people like what you've done, they actually ask you if you would do other things for them. Like Step 1, these are opportunities. This is ALSO called listening to your customers.
4. If you have more requests than you can handle, raise your prices.
Sometimes raising your prices cuts the volume of work requests back to manageable levels. Sometimes it doesn't, but at least it will bring in more money, so you can...
5. Hire some people.
Part-time, full-time, piecework, contract, whatever. They'll do the extra work, and they'll do it for less than you would. Also, there's always junk you don't know how to do. For instance, you're going to have to pay taxes properly, even if you are your only employee. So muddle through and learn what you have to, but be prepared to pay someone else to do it. It's cheaper.

Congrats. You're an entrepreneur.

What, you were expecting maybe incorporation and a board of directors? Giant bags of money and silk suits? A corporate jet? That's not the way it works most of the time. Most entrepreneurs in this country go by the names of "Mom" and "Pop". Most of their businesses are sole proprietor-ships. That's who I'm talking about here.

Now, this doesn't mean you'll be rich and successful, though you've got an almost infinitely better chance than if you just got a job. Most business owners aren't rich, unless you count "getting by" as being rich. And even if you're successful going solo, then you'll have to sacrifice at that moment when you decide to hire your first employee. 

The hardest lesson fora "boss" to learn is that he is the last one to get paid. First comes the government. Then the employees. Then the bills (including the suppliers).  And by that I mean they all must get paid. If that means the clerk makes more than you.... well, the clerk makes more than you. 

Not only do you get paid last, everything's in your name. If payments are late, you're the one the creditors chase down. It's your business, and your risk. Employees have jobs, so they don't have that kind of risk. They work, they get paid. Done. If you can't afford them they may get laid off, but that's a risk distinctly different from the one you face. They stop getting paid; you're in debt.

Also, you need to put aside cash, so that in the event your business hits a dry spell, you can continue to pay your people and your bills. Part of your sacrifice is to build up that contingency fund, and then keep enough cash on hand to meet your payroll and expenses for at least six months. In the early days of Microsoft, Bill Gates kept enough to run the company for an entire year. One year to go back to Step 1. One year for the company to listen to its customers and adapt or die. But be prepared to be called "filthy rich" and a "miser" by ignorant people who don't comprehend that your contingency money, while it looks really great on paper, isn't something you can go blow on a vacation in Tahiti any old time you wanted. 

The payoff for all of this risk and consternation is that when things really do take off, you reap the benefits, because you took the chance. If you've done it right, every employee adds a little more revenue to the company than he takes home. It adds up. 

And don't for one moment feel guilty about it. No matter how big your company gets, the risk is still yours. The name on the company is your name. And yes, every employee contributes more value than he takes home, for very good reason. You provide value to the employee beyond his paycheck. You isolate him from risk. He works, he gets paid. He doesn't have to do all of the quarterly tax reporting that you do, because you're the one doing it. You see to it that his unemployment insurance gets paid. And he could have his own business if he wanted to. That's the point... with determination and sacrifice, anyone can do this.

And please... don't be put off by the ones who want the rewards without the sacrifice.

Postscript: I'd like to mention this insightful comment I recently heard because it was said so well and concisely: When [the capitalist] invests, he is putting the fruit of his _previous work_ at risk. He can lose it all, and he is accepting that he won't enjoy the leisure he could be getting right now, with the hope that one day in the future he will enjoy more. Meanwhile, the person doing the job (i.e. the employee), will get paid whether the investment is good or bad. -- "paulpach", via Slashdot

Note: the author has actually done the entrepreneur schtick. He's currently a member of a consulting group... a great big one, with lovely shiny toys. Not only is he content to bring in more value to the company than he takes home, but strives to be a bargain. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Borrowing Your Way Out of Debt - Part 2

Last time I talked about the reasons Democrats think you can borrow your way out of debt... this belief being a huge contributor to our national deficit.

The post begs a couple of questions: first, is it right or is it wrong? Can you borrow your way out of debt? And, of course, if not, how do we fix it?

Does it work?

First things first... can the Government borrow its way out of debt? That is, is the current strategy working?  Not only no, but hell no.  Remember that the government and the People (including most businesses) view the money in two completely different ways.
  1. The Government is looking at economics and monetary policy, and they've concocted a scheme that completely relies on the assumption that people will act as the government's model predicts they will, to the best interest of the economy at large. 
  2. The vast bulk of  the People are looking at accounting. It's a very classic view. They consider work and reward, supply and demand, their need to provide for their future; and above all, balancing their budget... or at least managing their debt. They actually act in accordance with their own self-interest.
The People largely act as they should. When recovering from tough times, they sock away some money for emergencies, they work on paying off their creditors, and they put off buying luxuries until they're sure they're financially secure. They save and wait.  Meanwhile the government assumes that if they hand the People money, they'll just run off and buy stuff, and this will jump-start the economy. Factories will be humming because the Government handed out "free money". Then, through taxes, the Government will collect back all the money it used as stimulus. They assume you'll spend freely. You can see the disparity.

That's an oversimplification, but I think it's pretty damned close. The Government's model doesn't work because they make it very difficult for a person to spend freely, which is frankly essential to their plan. They've been consistently inconsistent on the message of whether or not they'll raise taxes, while making it clear that their desire is to raise taxes. So you're not going to spend the money that you fear you're going to have to pay in taxes. They've said they'd lower the cost of healthcare for most people, yet most of the people who actually buy healthcare see their costs skyrocket.  The people for whom quoted healthcare premiums are actually cheaper are those who didn't buy the healthcare at all before. (There are a lot of really good reasons for that that are off-topic here. Maybe later.). So their "cheaper healthcare" involves them going from an expenditure of zero to an expenditure of whatever the mandated rate is... which is not cheaper than zero. Obviously, they're not going to recklessly spend the money that they're going to have to spend on either increased healthcare premiums or the fines they'd pay in lieu of those increased premiums. Businesses aren't going to hire more people when it costs more per person to stay in business. And they're not going to make investments when their "investment loopholes" are being closed. And please consider that "loopholes" start out as "incentives"... the only difference is that a loophole is an incentive that the government no longer wants to give you. The semantics are purely political tools, and whether they're good or bad depends entirely on the audience to whom the campaign speech is being directed.  Given the waffling and the insecurities, it's completely reasonable for businesses and private citizens alike to take a "wait and see" approach and not play the economists' game.

The Government's plan depends on people to act against their self-interest. So no, it won't work. It's why the Government keeps pumping money into the system and all those rosy projections don't materialize. It's why Alan Greenspan is puzzled.

How Can We Fix It?

I don't think anybody really knows, because "fixing it" requires cooperation, and there's precious little of that in this, the Most Polarized Congress Ever. And cooperation requires agreement, which isn't going to come from political ideology, and may not come from academia, either. There's so much disagreement among so many experienced, high-level economists that that's pretty clear. Still, I'm sure someone reading this will disagree vociferously, point to their favorite talking head, and proclaim that "the only" people who disagree with their pet view are somehow brain damaged. If you're that person, buzz off. Whoever you are, people disagree with you, and they're not stupid. Get over it.

But I do know what it would take for me to feel better about the economy and get things moving again. I do know what would work for me.
  1. Get rid of the guys in power. Really. They've been sending mixed signals for so long that almost nobody really believes a thing they say. There is literally nothing they can say to ease the Public's concerns about the economy so long as we have people who pass bills to see what's in them; or promise smaller government and vote for expansion, or promise savings and deliver bills. They're proven liars, and frankly their assurances sound just like their lies. To restore credibility, we need new voices.
  2. Turn off Qualitative Easing. Injecting billions into the economy per month is not helping. All it does is increase the debt. So stop making the problem worse.
  3. Repeal Obamacare. Look, sometimes you can just point at something and see the problems it causes. This is one of those times. The ACA demonstrably costs jobs. The ACA demonstrably raises costs. The ACA demonstrably hinders investment. This is why conservatives actually want people to link to the Kaiser Foundation's subsidy calculator. The biggest problem in healthcare has never been "insurance"... it's been costs, and the ability to pay. THAT's what should have been addressed in healthcare reform. You don't need insurance for a doctor's visit if those costs are reasonable and affordable. You just pay the doctor, leaving insurance for those times when you actually need insurance: catastrophic care. But the ACA removes that most affordable option, and there are other ways to address the most pressing problems. The ACA's a bad solution, not the only one, and taking people's money with mandated higher premiums and penalties doesn't leave them them any purchasing power to grow the economy at large. Remember, the money you're taking from them isn't recovered stimulus money, as they don't have that. This is the biggest single dam we've got right now, so lose it. We need people who can pay their bills, more than we need confiscation so the government can pay your bills for you.
  4. Get Government out of the way.  We already have enough stimulus. We don't need any more. The only incentive we need is stability... the reduction of risk... the knowledge that the Government isn't going to be changing the rules on us every ten minutes, finding new and creative ways to dig deeper and deeper into our pockets, requiring us to set aside money for unforeseen government-spawned expenses. It's astonishing that the politicians who laugh at and make fun of "trickle down economics" have devised a system that disproportionately benefits the "obscenely rich", then refuse to allow those benefits to trickle down, as is required by their "solution". But now they're committed to it. So let there be an environment where entrepreneurs can thrive, where they can GET some of that money from the capitalists who would back them and then PAY it to the employees they can hire; who will, after having attended to their security, BUY products and thus circulate that money back to the source pay back that debt. You don't have to raise taxes because the more often money changes hands, the more often it gets taxed anyway. For everybody who spends that dollar, there's someone who reports it as income. It's not the size of the tax rate, it's how quickly the money flows that counts. So get the hell out of the way.
Let's look at that last bit once more. The Government not only doesn't have to raise taxes to increase tax revenue, but cutting taxes will do the trick. That's because when I keep more of my money, I have more money to spend. It gets taxed when I receive it as income, then it gets taxed again when I spend it and someone ELSE receives it as income, and the sale gets taxed as well. 

This is only problematic is when the Government increases spending at the same time. Remember, the scheme is that the tax revenues will be used to pay down the debt they took on as "stimulus". When the politicians spend it again instead (as they all-too-often do), then they screw up their own plan.

You may have different thoughts. But those are mine.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Borrowing Your Way Out Of Debt

The Washington Post had this nifty article:
What if a typical family spent like the federal government? It’d be a very weird family.

In a discussion of it, my brother brought up this oft-used quote:
"You cannot borrow your way out of debt."
It got me thinking.

I think the government knows full well that they can't borrow their way out of debt; however, it's not the intention of this government to get out of debt at all. They very literally do not care. So long as all of our debt is in dollars, and they have the ability to create new dollars by fiat to pay that debt, they very simply DO NOT CARE. In their view the government is immortal, and that's that.

BUT... they have to be very careful about a few things. For starters, this seems intuitively obvious
more dollars + flat economy = inflation. 
There are also obviously some things that are preventing that from happening, since we don't have runaway inflation despite trillions of dollars of stimulus. So what are they? The first is the distinction between "outside money" and "inside money". Outside money is what WE think of as money: cash, physical currency, and our bank accounts which represent such value; purchasing power. Inside money is money created by loans; it is debt. It's inside money that runs the economy; outside money facilitates that. The government doesn't "print money". Lately they've been purchasing bonds in a scheme called Qualitative Easing (QE), which is intended not to adjust interest rates but rather to simply inject money into the economy. They've done it by taking on debt, not printing money. It sounds goofy, but economics always does.

Now, you'd still expect this to cause inflation, because the idea here is that you're dumping money into the economy to increase demand and thus spur production. BUT... the kind of debt they're buying benefits those kind of people who are in those kind of markets... which frankly ain't YOU. Donald Trump, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett... but not YOU.

But the government has also made it very difficult for these folks to want to let go of it. They've disincentivized business investment. They created a hostile business environment and were then surprised that no one wanted to do business. And I think that part of this is because the government is making assumptions on a completely different economic model than the rest of the country. As far as you and I and most businesses are concerned, economics (and by that, WE think "accounting") hasn't changed much since forever. But it's a completely different story for the "money guys" who don't deal in products and services. Economics is not Accountancy.

The plain fact is that the government's scheme exacerbated the huge income disparities that they love to bitch about. You will never hear them admit it though. And I think we're not seeing inflation, not because the government is so damned clever in their implementation, but because of that disparity and the fact that this money isn't available. Imagine what would happen to prices if Bill Gates dumped $50 Billion CASH on the economy tomorrow. It wouldn't be pretty. Meanwhile the government's wondering why the hell this doesn't work. Even Alan Greenspan has calculated that there was "very little impact on the economy" and noted, "I'm very surprised at the data" (seriously, look it up).

Nevertheless, the whole system is predicated on the assumption that the debt will be repaid (eventually) with the same money that was created by assuming the debt in the first place. In other words, the plan is to use the debt to put a lot of cash into the economy, where it gets spent, resulting in increased productivity (magically avoiding inflation), the profits of which pay off the debt. Net cost: zero, because that's the interest rate. And they just knew it would work because they've got spreadsheets that say so. But if you save the capital instead, then you've screwed up the plan. That's their plan, not yours. Now ask yourself this: if you borrowed money at zero percent, would you be in a hurry to pay it back? That money's already "out there" and it's very dangerous, in that it can trigger inflation if it's ever used as originally intended, since the government has already thrown too much money at the problem. How much is too much? Billions PER MONTH. And it's the only tool they've got left after dropping interest rates to the floor.

So what's left? For them, it's demonize the rich and tax the fool out of them to try to get the money back so they can try again. They REALLY think the solution is to tax and spend their way to prosperity. Meanwhile they just float the debt, and they really and truly do not care how long they do it.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Keep the IRS out of my tax preparation

The title here sounds a little strange, so let me explain.

I found this headline on Reuters this morning:

The story deals with the fact that the IRS wants to regulate the tax preparation industry. That is, they want all tax preparers to be certified, registered, licensed, what have you.... so that they may pass competency tests and be required to take "continuing education" courses.

Now this all sounds very good and high-minded. But that's the problem with all brain-dead authoritarian laws... they sound very good. But I have some serious problems with it.

First of all, the IRS is not authorized to do that. This is why they've gone back to an 1884 law that has nothing whatsoever to do with tax preparation or the IRS in order to attempt to justify their actions.

Secondly, the law they're using isn't applicable. It deals with those who are representing you before the government, not those who are performing a service. The IRS claims that preparers perform largely the same function as described in that law, but largely the same isn't the same, and the differences are important. Here, the tax preparer does not represent their customers at all. Here are their allowed duties as described in Treasury Department Circular No. 230 (pdf):
Practice as a registered tax return preparer is limited to preparing and signing tax returns and claims for refund, and other documents for submission to the Internal Revenue Service. A registered tax return preparer may prepare all or substantially all of a tax return or claim for refund of tax. The Internal Revenue Service will prescribe by forms, instructions, or other appropriate guidance the tax returns and claims for refund that a registered tax return preparer may prepare and sign. - § 10.3(f)(2)
They go on to say that this registered tax return preparer can "represent" you before the IRS. They use the language, but that's not how it works in practice. Your tax preparer accompanies you to the IRS to answer question specifically about how the return was prepared, but there's no actual representation implied.

Furthermore, this regulation limits the sort of things your tax preparer may discuss with you:
A registered tax return preparer’s authorization to practice under this part also does not include the authority to provide tax advice to a client or another person except as necessary to prepare a tax return, claim for refund, or other document intended to be submitted to the Internal Revenue Service. - § 10.3(f)(3)
In other words, he can fill in the forms. He can tell you how to report your deductions properly, but can't advise you as to whether you can or cannot deduct any particular expense. That is the extent of his authorized "representation."

I have a major problem with the very concept of the IRS controlling the person I'm paying to prepare my taxes. How can a tax preparer critically approach the job when his livelihood depends upon performing it to the Government's "standards"? How does he point out that the government is wrong when they're empowered to take away his job if he doesn't perform to their satisfaction? In my opinion, the conflict of interest could not be clearer. It would seem obvious that this regulation will work against the public interest by resulting in over-payments to the IRS which would have been avoided if the tax preparers were not highly motivated to cover their own asses rather than apply the tax code as it actually stands.

Also,  the IRS requirements add to the cost of tax preparation. Those who are able to do their own taxes do them, but those who can't find themselves burdened with higher fees. Of course, those fees feed the government. The IRS has no interest whatsoever in whether you're paying the right amount of taxes; they are only concerned with whether you are paying "enough" taxes. There's a big fat difference. This entire regulation appears to be geared toward making it as difficult as possible for a lay person to intelligently apply the tax code without wading through thousands of pages personally or engaging in exorbitant expense; and as easy as possible for the government to snow you in an audit. To me, it looks a lot like thieves tilting the rules in their own favor.

Here we have a government agency taking it upon themselves to enact "regulations" that have the force of law and levy "fees" that have the force of taxation when they have NOT been empowered to do so. This should NEVER be the case. No agency should be able to levy any fee whatsoever without express legal authorization.

Of course, the IRS have already passed regulations that "require" tax preparers to comply with their desires, but most of these were stayed by court order earlier this year, and the arguments were heard Tuesday. Let's hope the Institute for Justice's arguments prevail.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Eggs, Baskets, and Sin

I have a lot of sympathy for the residents of Wiscasset, Maine. Here's the story, as reported in the Boston Globe:

The story focuses on the economic impact of the closing of the Maine Yankee power plant, the largest employer in the region. I sympathize because we had a similar situation here in Union, SC when the once-bustling textile mills shut their doors and moved their operations overseas, putting most of our citizens out of work. It took us a couple of decades to recover, which we're doing with the help of the automobile industry.

Maine Yankee didn't move operations; they shut down due to safety concerns, and the fact that it would have been more costly to fix the problems to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's standards than to go out of business.

Now, a lot of thoughts went through my head simultaneously when I read the story:

  1. Those poor people.
  2. Plenty of people didn't want the plant in the first place. A group called Citizens for Safe Power opposed it from its inception. Would it have been better if they'd've gotten their way?
  3. It's damned near impossible for a pressurized nuclear facility to go out of business. It took nearly $600 million over 15 years to shut this place down, and they still don't have a place to put the waste. And here they are, shut down, and still pay a million a year in taxes.
  4. There are a bunch of better, modern designs for nuclear power plants, superior to the high-pressure designs of the early 1970s. Thorium reactors and pebble bed reactors come to mind.
  5. The exploration of space is nearing the end of an era. Plutonium is used to power unmanned spacecraft. Because of reductions in nuclear production, we only have about 36 pounds of plutonium left in the US, and we're going to use all of that up by the end of the decade. 
  6. The Maine Yankee plant paid for 96 percent of Wiscasset's budget until 1996.

There's material for a score of blog posts here, but that last one floored me. NINETY SIX PERCENT. And they bought a lot of stuff with that 96 percent... really great amenities that small towns usually don't  see. We don't, and our population is more than double Wiscasset's. Free sewage, free utilities, free cable, subsidized sports and education. Free money, free money, free money. I'm not criticizing... I mean, the money was there... but they put a lot of eggs in one basket. And they didn't have a back-up plan.

And when that basket was gone, the residents found they still wanted the stuff, and Daddy Warbucks wasn't there to pay for it. So property taxes shot skyward. One resident reported his taxes increased from $180 per year to $4,000 per year. That might as well be blood from a turnip for the residents who simultaneously lost their jobs.

From my armchair across the country I think about a number of things I consider to be wrong with this scenario. All those eggs in one basket for one thing. Of course, I'm looking at it with the 20/20 vision gained from our own experience. It's better to diversify your sources of revenue than to have the vast majority of people leech off of a minority that isn't guaranteed to be there in perpetuity.

They succumbed to the temptation of all that money to provide a lot of "free" services that governments shouldn't have anything to do with. But that's my Libertarian mindset talking. In my town, the City owns the utilities. But we don't give away free power and cable. And we do use it as a revenue source to keep the taxes low, though not as a way to abrogate our individual responsibilities to contribute. Then again, we don't generate electricity to power half the state.

Then there's this: from here it looks like they based an economy on something people wanted to shut down. And it got me thinking about all the other ways people do the same sort of thing. Although it's not popular to increase taxes in general, it's a lot easier for a majority to get away with taxing something a minority does that the majority doesn't like... a "sin tax". For instance, in New York the tax on a pack of cigarettes is $4.35 because smoking is bad, mmm'kay?
"Tobacco tax increases offer a win-win-win solution for states, especially as they face a severe fiscal crisis and work to balance budgets while preserving essential public services." [link]
And if they really just wanted the revenue, they'd encourage use to increase the tax base. But that's not the whole story. Usage does drop. Revenues increase overall because the taxes are raised faster than the decrease in smokers. For every ten percent increase in the price of a pack of cigarettes, youth smoking rates overall drop about seven percent [link]

Anyway, the thought here wasn't really about smoking, or any other particular sin tax, but the idea of basing a large portion of your revenue on something you don't like, and which you might be successful in getting rid of (like nuclear power). The people benefiting from them may love the profits, but what about the all those protesters who hate it and campaign incessantly? Those priests of the environment and the unsolicited custodians of the health and well-being of complete strangers?

What happens when they get their heart's desire?
What happens when there's no more sin to tax?
What happens when the sugar daddy packs up and leaves?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Atheists Win The Battle They Wanted To Lose

You may have to bear with me on this one.  Here was the headline in USA Today:

I've been saying in arguments for a very long time now, in person or on Facebook, etc., that Atheism must be treated as a religion by the government because otherwise the First Amendment doesn't make sense. Here's the salient clause:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
This makes no sense unless the free exercise of religion includes the right not to worship at all. Without that interpretation, Atheists would not be afforded the full protection of the First Amendment.

And there are Atheists who make that claim. The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) lead by Annie Laurie Gaylor says that tax breaks for clergy give religious groups an "unfair advantage". This phrase implies competition, and this will become a bit ironic in the discussion below.

The Wisconsin-based group filed a lawsuit in California because they didn't like the parsonage (clerical housing) allowances granted there. Then they withdrew that suit and re-filed in Wisconsin. It seems somebody noticed that they didn't have legal standing to extend their busybody crusade across state lines. So they file their suit, claiming such tax breaks are unfair. The Federal government responded by extending the same tax breaks to the FFRF.

Talk about taking the wind out of someones sails!  

The FFRF doesn't want the tax break. As it turns out, they weren't looking to be treated fairly, they were simply looking to stick it to organized religion... something which the Federal government (quite rightly, IMHO) says they are. Religion doesn't require a belief in God, says the Feds, and they point to Buddhism and Taoism as two mainstream examples. Animism may be another, as well as some forms of Pantheism.

Let's take a look at a definition. Wikipedia says, "Religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to the supernatural, and to spirituality." Do you see God in that definition? Nope. The USA Today article states "The Internal Revenue Service does require, among other things, that a "minister" be seen as a spiritual leader and provide services for a religious organization."

You can easily see how the FFRF relates humanity to the supernatural: it claims the supernatural doesn't exist. It takes a firm religious stand. The FFRF is not composed of your garden-variety Atheists, who are content to be apathetic about religion. They actively seek converts. They proselytize. They've gained not only followers in spirit, but those who make sizable donations: enough for them to acquire Freethought Hall, from which they publish books and podcasts and magazines which act as regular guidance to their followers on the spiritual matter of keeping God out of their lives. Among the services they offer is debaptism.

This is a religion in every legal particular. Nevertheless, they've received the revelation with the same response you might get from a blind bigot who's just been told he's Black.

The basic problem here is that the FFRF are not just religious... they're religious anti-zealots. Their purpose is to incite political opposition to religion, and they refuse to wrap their heads around the concept that there is NO "freedom from religion" guaranteed anywhere in the Constitution, not even by implication. If you're allowed to worship as you like... including not worshiping at all... you must allow others the same privilege. There is NO special privilege for the select minority that comprises their membership. They do NOT get to deny the rest of America their rights just because the FFRF has some stick up their butt that makes them desire the power to control other people.

Strict separation of Church and State is a fiction. The very fact that the First Amendment exists at all is proof of that. Here we have, in the highest law of the land, a Constitutional protection and guarantee of your right to worship as you see fit. This is the State actively protecting your Religion. Furthermore, this amendment does NOT state that Congress cannot pass a law that affects religions, only that they can't pass one establishing a religion or prohibiting free exercise thereof. This is solidly addressed in the courts by ruling that laws may not favor one religion over another. That this applies even to Atheists is proven by the Fed's treatment of the FFRF. (And frankly, after all the arguments I've had over the years over just this point, I feel more than a little vindicated.)

Look, I believe in as little government as is necessary for the smooth functioning of society. But I am also pragmatic: laws exist. And where they do, they have to be fair. In this case, the Feds came up with exactly the right choice. They applied the law fairly. That's what they're supposed to do.

But that fair treatment may have decimated the FFRF's argument that tax breaks for religious groups is an "unfair advantage"; and it may severely blunt one of the legal weapons they use in their crusades. And when you're as mean-spirited as these folks, you want every stick and stone you can throw. If they were to accept such a ruling of fairness, they would win a battle they didn't want to win, because it could lose them the war. It's the FFRF's very bulldog persistent focus on spirituality that got them into the predicament of being a class of litigant that litigates against the class of which they're a member (whew!). And now they're stuck between scylla and charybdis: their reaction has betrayed their true sentiment, and they may be lost either way. At the very least, they look a bit loony for rejecting a "victory".

That's my opinion, and I'm stickin' to it.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A Letter to Senator Lindsey Graham

I sent this to Senator Graham this morning. You may want to send similar messages to your own Senators... you may find their contact information here: [LINK]

17 September 2013

Dear Senator Graham,

I only recently heard of the existence and progress of a "media shield" bill, discovering to my surprise that you are not only a supporter, but a sponsor of this bill.

Senator Graham, Please allow me a moment to explain why you should reconsider and withdraw your support.

First, when the First Amendment talks about "freedom of the press", note that this is not a capitalized word. "The press" isn't some organization to which you belong, it's an outlet for expression. It was the only mass-media outlet that existed at the time of this nation's founding. This phrase simply means that it doesn't matter HOW a person expresses his opinions... by voice or in writing... you may not abridge that right. Nor may you pass legislation determining who may or may not be covered by that right. Here's why:
"CONGRESS SHALL MAKE NO LAW respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
The high and the low of it, sir, is that you are NOT EMPOWERED to make that law, and it doesn't matter how many Senators hammer out definitions in a committee... We the People have not delegated that authority to you, nor should we ever. I would never in my life have thought it necessary to explain this to a "conservative" Senator from South Carolina, but there it is.

I know your friend Charles Schumer has stated, "I think the bill is pretty good." But remember, under the Constitution only "no law" is pretty good.

Second, such a law, even if allowed by the Constitution, even if passed by Congress, would afford exactly NO more protections than are currently guaranteed under the law. All that is necessary is for officials in the Executive branch to be held accountable for their actions when violating the law. The highest law is, of course, the Constitution. When they infringe upon the freedom of the Press, their actions are unconstitutional. And as this freedom is extended to all persons within this country, their actions are STILL unconstitutional whether taken against the New York Times, or James Rosen, or Matt Drudge, or me; a citizen blogger and constituent of yours. Again, sir, neither you nor the combined might of Congress are empowered to change that with a law.

I strongly urge you to abandon and renounce this ill-conceived and unconstitutional bill. I know you think the "media shield" bill is protective legislation, but I remind you that jack-booted police making door-to-door searches would "shield" us from crime. Not every idea passed in the name of "security" is a good one. THIS one, the "media shield bill", is one of the WORST. Stop what you're doing and do the right thing. Make us proud.


David F. Leigh
Union, South Carolina

PS. Your website requires a topic. I chose "Ethics" because I see this bill as being unethical, and none of the topics to which you restrict us comes remotely close to the issue at hand. I suggest you add a new topic for "Other Legislation" so that those of us who wish to freely offer our opinions do not feel stifled or pigeonholed.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Captain Obvious Turns Science Journalist

I really love science. And I love science journalism, because it's a never-ending font of wonder and merriment.

Take this example: it must be a really slow news day when when you report that scientists have "discovered" that trees grow back when you cut them down. Oh, and they really don't depend on people to do that.

From Science World Report
"Tropical Trees 'Fix' Themselves After Being
Logged or Cleared: Capturing Nitrogen"
Now, I don't live in the rainforest... I live on the outskirts of the Sumter National Forest. This is a forest that didn't exist when my stepfather traveled through the cotton fields on the way to Columbia in the 1930s. So even poor country boys from South Carolina understand clearly that clear-cut forests grow back.

But my favorite quote of this piece just has to be the following:
"The findings are huge when it comes to carbon storage. If trees could grow and store carbon, they could essentially turn into a carbon sink, which could have major implications for halting the tide of climate change."
Pardon my open jaw, but...
        ...if trees could grow?
                 ...if trees could store carbon?

What do they think trees DO?

Now I'm wearing my serious face.

The real story, of course, is the part about nitrogen fixation, but I'm not really convinced this should have been a surprise to them either. Rather, their study quite likely confirmed a hypothesis. Otherwise, lush green tropical jungles wouldn't stay lush and green very long. They'd die back as the soil is depleted. Certain species of plant and bacteria prevent it. From the original article in Nature:
Many tropical forests possess tree species capable of fixing atmospheric dinitrogen (N2), but it is unclear whether this functional group can supply the nitrogen needed as forests recover from disturbance or previous land use, or expand in response to rising CO2.
In other words, they already know that tropical forests can fix enough nitrogen to sustain themselves. The question was whether they could fix enough to increase once the land was cleared and the soil further depleted by farming. The study finds a mechanism by which they can.

And this is why you should read science journals and not just the summaries by popularizers in web magazines. The kids who write those stories say the darnedest things.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Do We Have a Right to Intellectual Property?

In a recent short discussion about Libertarianism, a friend touched on the fact that Frédéric Bastiat was against copyrights and patents, which my friend regards as essential. Since he believed that Libertarians are "absolutist",  he offered intellectual propery law as an effective rebuttal to Libertarianism. What about pharmaceutical companies? What about the Beatles? Where would they be if their intellectual property rights weren't protected by the government?

When we refer to "intellectual property" we mean it as a blanket term for all products of the mind, but the law's not really like that. Patents, copyrights, trademarks and trade secrets are all different things, so let's deal with them separately.

First up... Copyright. We're told that the 'artists' (a term I will extend to any creative occupation) would be negatively impacted if just anyone could copy and sell their work. So we would appear to need Big Government to step in.

Well, first of all... no. Plain experience tells us otherwise:

  • Which is more valuable, a genuine Rembrandt or a copy? Keep in mind that there are some exquisite forgeries out there. But they're denounced as "worthless" next to the originals, despite being detectable only by highly trained experts. Art and antiquities are valued for their provenance more than their quality. That's determined by the buyers, not the government.
  • Would you pay to see a band in concert even though you can hear them on the radio for free? Millions would, me included. I hope you buy their merchandise as well, because they're not making money off of the music. Most artists don't get rich by asserting copyrights, but through performance. Here's an interesting article that breaks down how musicians get screwed by their "defenders". It's by Steve Albini, the producer of Nirvana. It's called "The Problem With Music". It's a little dated, but he breaks it down well. He's not the only one... Courtney Love has famously done the math in Salon magazine, and any artist in the industry will confirm the message. The point here is that big government isn't terribly effective at defending the artists' supposed "rights" today
  • Creative Commons musicians (the good ones, not hacks like me) actually make money at what they do. They cut out the handlers and keep the a bigger slice of a smaller pie. Jonathan Coulton is the "go-to" example. The ones who don't are the ones who wouldn't have been signed to a record label anyway. They choose to do this despite the government "protections" available to them.
  • Book authors have a leg up on musicians already, as authors tend to retain their copyright rather than sign them away to publishers. But authors such as Cory Doctorow are demonstrating that they can make money despite distributing their work DRM-free, even on a pay-what-you-want model. This is not paradoxical. People read certain authors because they enjoy the work; they pay because they appreciate the work; and even when they can get the work for free at the Public Library or digitally, enough people prefer to buy "real" books that the Public Libraries have never been a drain on profits. Even now, ebook sales are fewer than hardcover sales, despite lower prices. And though, as with any system, there is abuse, those who don't pay are overwhelmingly those who couldn't afford to in the first place. Their contribution would be the same whether they had the book or not. However, their enjoyment and recommendations may yield further legitimate sales.
  • There is no indication that the current copyright term of life + 70 years has prompted artists to become more prolific.
Note that this isn't advocacy of "piracy". What I'm saying is that there are legitimate arguments that strongly indicate that the negative effects of copying are overstated; and that some artists freely choose to allow it, to their benefit.

Keep in mind that the starvation of artists due to unrestricted copying has been predicted numerous times, and has thus far been proven by history to be bunk. It was bunk when free radio was predicted to kill off the music industry. It was bunk when Philips' cassette tape was predicted to kill off the music industry. It was bunk when Sony's home videotape equipment was predicted to kill off cinema attendance. And it was bunk when peer-to-peer MP3 sharing was predicted to kill off the music industry. Shakespeare said, "A coward dies a thousand times before his death," and the music and film industries quake uncontrollably in the face of innovation. They have "died" oh so very many times. As we can see, their fears are unfounded.

So where would the Beatles be? Still rich and famous, and we know this because their songs WERE copied and taped and pirated and distributed for free all over the world, and people still payed for legitimate product, and merchandise, and concerts and appearances.

The bottom line is, from street buskers to Carnegie hall, people want to reward artists for their talents. They don't need to be forced into it. And further contemplation reveals an interesting truth:
"Intellectual Property" is a fantasy.

In the US, the purpose of patents and copyright is explained in the Constitution. "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries", and I'm all for that. But look at the difference between that and a natural right. Copyrights are granted for a limited time, because this exclusivity does not naturally exist whatsoever. If you tell me something, I now know it. At this point, the discussion becomes what I think of it and what can build on it. MY thoughts. Attempts to restrict that are, to put it most kindly, thought control. We put up with a little bit of that for the public good, but today's copyright law usurps the public's rights for no public return.

All of the knowledge on Wikipedia
 isprovided under a Creative Commons
attribution share-alike license.
Quite frankly, derivative works are often far more valuable than the original idea. Allowing the originator exclusivity certainly gives impetus to creation, but allowing the mere fact of its creation to allow all derivative works to be stifled for seventy years after the death of its creator promotes progress to exactly no degree. I counted. It came up zero. There's a prime example of regulation gone amuck. Some creators have responded with "creative commons" licenses with which they voluntarily restore some or all of the rights of the public. (For instance, this blog has a CC license (check the bottom))

The term of a copyright is so long primarily due to the Copyright Act of 1976 and the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998. While the former was due to participation in international copyright agreements, the latter merely extends copyright because it can. It was largely "sold" by the fear that "Mickey Mouse" would fall into the Public Domain and would be greatly abused. Thus it's often referred to as "The Mickey Mouse Protection Act". The ironic bit here is that Mickey Mouse is a trademark. As we'll discuss, trademarks never expire. Given Disney's diligent use and protection of their trademarks, Mickey isn't ever likely to fall into the Public Domain. But the copyright of Disney's first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Steamboat Willie, has been close to expiration several times now, and has been "rescued" each time by repeated government intervention. Frankly, it's long past time to stop.
From Wikipedia Commons

Besides the emotional argument we might see Mickey appearing in porn, the core argument that we see in these extensions boils down to "because it's mine". Simple as that. Well again... no, it isn't.  Once you've proclaimed an idea to the world, you have no natural right to control the thoughts of others. You have only the "rights" granted to you by law, and no claim to anything further.

But that's copyright. Let's look at patents. And let's note in passing how ironic it is that the technical innovation that so terrifies the MPAA and the RIAA is the very thing that the Constitution is trying to promote.

Is it exclusive ownership of "intellectual property" that spurs a pharmaceutical company to innovation? No. It's the limitation of that grant. The term of a patent is 20 years from the filing date, which I think is pretty reasonable. In fact, this limited term is why you see the pharmaceutical companies putting all that money into R&D! If their patents did not expire, they could just sit on their butts handing out the same old pills at exorbitant prices forever. A limited term means that they have to constantly innovate to stay ahead of those patents that expire. And it means that the public... and I mean the whole public, regardless of socioeconomic status... gets to benefit from those advances by purchasing formerly expensive drugs for $4 or even a dollar at their local Walmart. It means that even Pfizer's new potions must be priced somewhat more reasonably than they would otherwise be, because they are now competing on the market with the generic drugs they created decades ago.
(The patent system falls into another error, though... rather than expanding in duration, it has expanded in scope. Although processes, mathematics, and laws of Nature were never intended to be patentable material (because it's ridiculous to patent such things), nevertheless patents have been routinely... and wrongly... issued for years now on methods (processes), software (mathematics) and genomes (laws of Nature). There is a strong push for reform, as the effect of wrongly-applied patents in quickly evolving fields is chilling.)
Reasonable time limits on copyright would spur the arts to innovation, just as reasonable patent terms have spurred innovation in chemistry. There is a good amount of leeway afforded by "Fair Use", but this is largely limited to education, parody, and satire, and it must be defended from lawyers with no frakking sense of humor. Even if you win, you could be financially ruined. This leaves a whole corpus of serious work literally "unsung" as its would-be creators are born, live, and die before the original work falls into the public domain.

"Intellectual property" is a prime example of mainstream politicians asserting unnatural "rights" that erode your natural rights. It's also a prime example of one of the myriad ways that the Republicans and Democrats are mirror images, alike but for orientation. The Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 passed by unanimous consent in the Senate, and a simple voice vote in the House of Representatives.

Again, "intellectual property" isn't a natural right at all. It's artificially granted exclusivity in which the public temporarily cedes their rights to certain expressions of thought, in order to encourage new and unique contributions to the discourse. It has never been intended to replace that discourse. To the extent that copyright and patents are misused - and that's a pretty broad extent - I'm for reigning them back down to reasonable limits so they can operate as originally intended. Sadly, the current government has no concept of moderation.

The Exception

There are a couple of other types of "intellectual property" that my friend and I never touched on in our discussion, which are a lot easier to come down in the "in favor" category:

Remember when I said that Art is valued for its provenance? Well, it's not just art... it can be true of just about any goods, really. For instance, people pay top dollar for flimsy clothing from top-name designers. And that's fine... it's what they want. But they also want to know it's genuine. That's done with trademarks. Trademarks are designs, signs, brands, marks, or logos, or other expressions that uniquely identify the origin of a product. They exist so that you can establish the provenance of a thing. This prevents fraud. Trademarks theoretically last forever. Practically, though, they last as long as you defend them, and it's up to you to call out counterfeiters. But remember that the only use for a trademark is to identify you as the originator of goods. Complex expressions (like books or music exceeding a jingle) have to be copyrighted instead. So they're limited. It's their utility to the public that makes them valuable. That's why they're your "property" only so long as you continue to use and defend them.

But if you really and truly want perpetual uncontested exclusive ownership of significant intellectual property, in such a way that no one... and I mean no one... will dispute that it's your actual property, then simply keep your mouth shut. Don't tell it to anyone. Lock it in your skull and don't say one word about it to anybody.

That sounds like a flippant answer, but I think it's the correct one. It's called a Trade Secret, and it can be far more valuable than a patent. Patents are guaranteed exclusivity, but they expire. Trade secrets are guaranteed only by your own efforts, but they never expire. "Colonel Sanders' secret recipe" for fried chicken and the formula for Coca-Cola are two famous examples. Even when discovered through reverse engineering, a company can simply deny it with "close, but no cigar." And this works because the marketing value of the secret's existence can be more valuable than the secret itself. And even the Libertarians will defend your rights to privacy and to property that you have not shared, as well as the exercise of your First Amendment right to choose when to speak, or not.

This doesn't mean you can't share the idea between select individuals. Even without copyright, this is securely done with a private contract called a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA). Quite a few things are enforceable by contract that are not enforceable by law.

So if you want real intellectual property that never expires, just STFU.

Wrapping up

My conclusions are that no, we do not have a natural right to ideas (what we call "ip". Once shared, information resides in the mind and thoughts of the recipient, and no person has the right to control the thoughts of another.

We can secure intellectual property rights for ourselves through the use of our own silence and private contracts. These are trade secrets. But some ideas are only useful when shared, so as a society we have agreed to certain social contracts. For inventions, this contract is called a patent. For many other works of the imagination, we call it copyright. For small works that usefully identify the origin of goods an secrets, we call it a trademark, service mark, etc.  ALL of these are limited in both scope and time (trademarks are limited to the time you actually use and defend it). ALL of these are granted to you by society for the purpose of encouraging you to share. ALL of them are instituted for the ultimate purpose of benefiting society.

However, patents and copyrights have come to be abused. As argued above, patents spur invention because of their limited term, which releases the work into the public domain for general use and modification. Under patent law, some subjects are clearly  nonpatentable, yet we have allowed them. This doesn't benefit society. Though copyrights have been extended to exorbitant lengths, there is no rational reason for doing so. Excessive terms remove the rights of the People to exercise their own creativity through modification and extensions of the work. This also is to the detriment and not the benefit of society.

Personally, I think that both the patent system and copyright law need to be reviewed and revised. This would not be to eliminate them, but to ensure that they are delivering on the purpose for which they were conceived.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Libertarians Aren't Anarchists

Graphic from The Cato Institute. Click to read more of Bastiat

I had a great conversation with a friend about the above quote. In it, he brought up a few interesting points. I think they're worthy of comment because they touched on the way many people (usually on the Left, as observed by Bastiat, above) think about Libertarianism, and some of the misconceptions they hold. Primarily, the misconception that Libertarians are Anarchists.

Libertarians are not Anarchists. 

A Libertarian wants a limited government: an Anarchist wants none. Or consider this... the difference between a Libertarian and an Anarchist is the difference between a lover and a rapist. It's not so subtle after all, is it? That doesn't keep people from getting it wrong. Take this parody:

Don't get your hackles up, it's funny. As in all parody, there's a great deal of exaggeration. But don't mistake it for an effective argument against what Libertarianism actually is. Somalia is no more a Libertarian ideal than Jeffrey Dahmer was a school dietitian., comedy videos notwithstanding.

People all across the political spectrum like roads, bridges, infrastructure, museums, and a safe society. I like them, too --  and I'll even throw in schools and doctors to boot. But I want their governance to be at the proper level (federal, state, local, or personal) and no more governance than is necessary. That's pretty simple.

Furthermore, just because the government shouldn't be involved in something, that doesn't mean I wouldn't band with other willing people and chip in for the benefit of myself and others.

It's an issue of control

As you'll see in the case of "intellectual property" (in the next post), much of government regulation is about control... controlling your actions, controlling your charitable giving; even controlling the very expressions of your thought despite the "guarantee" of the First Amendment. We put up with a little of that for the public good, thus we have laws against slander and libel. However, we have to be very careful that such things don't go out of bounds. Sadly, the law is often used not for the public good, but to exert petty control over the private actions of citizens.

All sorts of people are Libertarians, They believe in greater or lesser degrees of government. You can click on the logo to the right to read the Libertarian Party's platform. Here's what I mean by it:

  • The FEDERAL government should do everything required of it by the Constitution, and nothing else. That "nothing else" isn't just my preference, BTW... it's mandated by the Tenth Amendment... one which is often dismissed as not meaning anything. "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." Well, it does mean something, "if gentlemen will allow that the fact is as stated" (as James Madison put it). That's why it was debated and ratified. It means "limited government". If it's not granted in the Constitution, it's not in Federal power.
  • The STATE government should do everything required of it by the State Constitution and no more.  Note that it doesn't have to duplicate the functions of the Federal government. Note that it can do things the Federal government can't, except those things that the US Constitution prohibits. Note that the States don't need to have the same rules... diff'rent strokes for diff'rent folks. It's a big country. And if you don't live in South Carolina, keep your nose out of South Carolina politics. 
  • Your LOCAL government should take care of your municipal and community needs to whatever extent its citizens have decided. So long as it's not prohibited by the US and State Constitutions, that is. Local safety, community schools, sanitation, etc... those things that to coordinate any group of people who want to live together nicely. Again, diff'rent strokes for diff'rent folks, and various levels of government involvement in accordance with the vote of the People. For instance, where I live, the citizenry, through the City, own the utilities. In practice it's great. Utilities are a natural monopoly, and public ownership means that our property taxes can remain low. I would not vote for State or Federal control of the utility grid though, as that removes the benefit from the people. 
  • What's remains is called YOUR LIFE. Live it. It's YOUR RESPONSIBILITY. Live up to it.

The basic rule is that the highest rank in a Libertarian society is Citizen. All authority is delegated to the government; thus the various levels of government have only the authority that the People allow. Go back and re-read the Tenth Amendment and see if that doesn't click for you.

Because all people have the same rights, it naturally follows that your freedoms don't entitle you to infringe on someone else's. No natural right may force an obligation on another. Primarily this means you have to be tolerant of others. They're not you, they don't think like you, and if you think they must think like you, then prepare for a lifetime of disappointment. It also means that others are not obligated to work for you and provide for you, although as a society we encourage one another to be generous. (Remember Bastiat's quote? There's a difference between government and society). Put another way, you don't have a right to freedom from offense, and you don't have a right to slaves. But on my most tolerant days, there are some things I can't get behind. This is going to take the form of a little rant, so if you don't like rants, just skip it.

  • If the team doesn't pray before a football game, I can't get behind the offense you take at this "attack on religion", because nobody's stopping you from praying. So bow your head and forget about what everybody else is doing. 
  • I can't get behind manipulative goading of the People into class envy. The proper reaction to "you have things I don't" isn't "give me your stuff!" It's "how can I do what you did?" For the record, the first step in doing that is to stop listening to the Left about how unfair your life is. They tell you that Life isn't fair when they mean it's not equitable. Because there is absolutely nothing fair about taking by force what one man earned to give to another who did not earn it. The deliberate inflammation of petty jealousies is as unimaginative as it is transparent.
  • I can't get behind people using their religion as a hook on which to hang law. "We're a Christian nation!" they cry. Well... no. We're a nation OF Christians, and that's a whole different story, because we're also a nation of Jews and Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and Native Americans and Sikhs and Shintos and Jainists and Unitarians and B'hai Faith and Satanists and Wiccans and Jedis and Taoists and New Agers and Druids and Zoroastrians and Neopagans and Agnostics and Atheists and Deists and Humanists... even Scientologists and Pastafarians. Even among the Christians, we're not a nation of Christians, but of Anabaptists and Baptists and Calvinists and Catholics and Episcopalians and Lutherans and Methodists and Mormons and Pentecostals and Presbyterians and Quakers and Seventh-Day Adventists and more. And sometimes they don't get along. And ALL of these are equally protected by and prohibited from imposing their beliefs on others by the First Amendment. If you can't find a good enough secular reason for a law, then leave it to God. 
  • I can't get behind the constant race-baiting by the professional liars who claim to act in minority interests. It's there when every minority Conservative voice is shouted down as an "Uncle Tom" or a "house nigger". It's there when the ONLY black Senator, Tim Scott, isn't invited to the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King's speech in Washington DC. It's there when rappers like TI are given a hard time when they clean up their act because they're no longer Black enough. It's there when the Liberal media insist on calling George Zimmerman (a mixed-race Hispanic) a "White Hispanic". He downplayed his ethnicity, but apparently Latino-on-Black violence isn't divisive enough for the media. And it's there every time that these people, who do these things, have the unmitigated effrontery to call other people "racists." 

And I can't get behind legislation by un-elected non-representatives.  You see...

There is a Shadow Government

I'm not talking about some nefarious Illuminati meeting in a dark chamber and pulling the strings. I'm talking about something that's blatant, and public, and in-your-face.

The constant push for centralization and government control brings with it supreme inefficiencies. We have created agencies and bureaucracies of millions [pdf] of people who are paid by draining the public coffers so the Federal government can enforce regulations that apply to local jurisdictions. These regulations were not created by constitutionally-designated, freely-elected lawmakers, nor even approved by such after due consideration; but by appointed and hired bureaucrats. The regulations they create have the force of law; the fees and fines they can impose have the effect of taxation. This bureaucracy forms the body of a government that we did not elect, and which does not represent us, and which endures independently of an election cycle. Seeing as how we already have State and local governments, the inefficiency of this additional "shadow" government is simply not acceptable to me.

But do not imagine that this means I am an anarchist. That would be a gross mis-characterization. Libertarians are not "absolutist". Even Bastiat argued the need for public assistance. Far from being "unrealistically idealistic", Libertarians are REALISTICALLY idealistic.

BIG difference.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

God Is Not A Genie

Though sometimes I touch on religion in this blog, I rarely post directly about it, and only very rarely discuss matters of doctrine. However, I'm going to do that today. I do have friends who are not Christians, and that's fine... this isn't directed at you.

Sometimes it just has to be said.

  • There is no magic talisman that will make God do what you want. That includes coins, pendants, crosses, or sand from the Holy Land. The Holy Land is holy because of what happened there, not because it is covered with magic sand.
  • There is no magic potion that will make God do what you want. The water from Lourdes is just water. There are all kinds of juices and fruits and oils and liniments that may be good for you, but watch how you throw around that word, "miraculous". Respect chemistry: it's one of God's very best and coolest inventions.
  • There are no magic words that will make God do what you want. If you tell someone that God will surely rescue them from whatever their affliction is if they only pray hard enough or sincerely enough, or long enough, you're lying to them. And you are cruelly making it their fault if their problems don't disappear. Prayer is for praise and supplication, but sometimes the answer is "no". 
  • There are no magic rituals that will make God do what you want. If you share a picture someone else shares on Facebook, there is no guarantee that God will "do something nice" for you in the next two minutes, or two years. Somebody just made that up.

Stop it.

In Which I'm Evil

I think it’s pretty much a given that this post will be TL;DNR. If you don’t want to see people argue on-line, don’t feel bad, just skip it. 
Modified to improve formatting and fix a couple of typos.

I recently received a comment on this blog post from a Norwegian student going by the nifty handle of “euqid”. Euqid took me to task for the harsh manner in which I treat the purveyors of junk science and those who defend them. Here's what he said:
I know better than to close my mind and think today's science has all the answers. I know better than to think nothing of the strong restrictions on unorthodox research. I know better than to piss o things I don't fully understand. I know better than to believe I own the truth...You don't Dave...Oh, and BTW, Im scientifically trained in chemistry and biology and also have some education on electricity. Wasn't it in 1959 the British Royal astronomer proclaimed that spaceflight was an impossiblity? And you undress yourself with personal attacks on every comment written here, which proves your rational arguments are clearly not very rational after all...Try to take the high road and show some humility next time, huh? I don't pretend to know anything, but I keep an open mind, and these alternative theories make a hell of a lot more sense to me than the orthodox view from a logial standpoint. But maybe you never studied logical thinking? Oh, and before you call me a moron - last time I checked my IQ with Mensa I scored 161, so I think I have sufficient intelligence to be able to think pretty clearly :) Have a good night, and try shaking off that hubris. It's a very unsympathetic personal trait ;)
I was so thoroughly entertained by this that I decided to respond here rather than in comments so that I might give it some proper response.


I should first explain a few of the ground rules of this blog, which are entirely non-negotiable and up to now, unpublished. This blog, “Ruminations”, is an outlet for my opinions, thoughts, and recommendations. It has been from it’s inception. There is no claim anywhere that I am revealing “the truth”, and this should be plain in context. For those who fail to get it from context, I display the purpose of this blog plainly and clearly in the banner that appears at the top of each and every page. It says: Ruminations Opinions, Thoughts, & Recommendations. However, as you can see, I do receive comments from the occasional Mensa candidate who has still not read or comprehended that plain statement despite an IQ of 161, so I am happy to rephrase it for the purpose of their enlightenment. 

Plainly stated: this blog is an outlet for my unfiltered opinions. Furthermore, it exists for my amusement and thus exists for an audience of one. In it I discuss only those things that interest me. I have no obligation to discuss anything else. I have no obligation to please anyone. You may then wonder, "what's the point?" The answer to that is, "none of your business." You have no obligation to read it. As it is an outlet for my opinions, I will state those opinions however I please, in a way and using such language as effectively communicates not only the concepts, but the emotions that I wish to express. More on that in a bit.

It’s also a moderated blog. No comment is posted without my express permission. The prime reason is that I want to be alerted to the post so that I may craft a timely response, should I feel it appropriate. A second reason is to prevent certain people from embarrassing themselves (I sometime reply rather kindly in email to people who have the integrity to post their names. On the contrary, I am as harsh as I wish to be toward “Anonymous”, as there is no public stigma attached to them personally and it makes my responses shorter). A third is to prevent spam, thinly disguised product placement ads, etc. (of which I get a lot). But I do post comments even when they are not flattering to me, as you can see from this very example. But rest assured that this is my blog, for the expression of my opinions, and that holds true for the comments section. Exercise Article 100 or the First Amendment on your own blog.

Consider yourself enlightened.


Euqid is commenting on “More Junk Science on TV”, in which I express significant frustrations, in “The Pyramid Code”, a television show which eschews the scientific method for unsubstantiated speculative “woo”.  I invite you to read it, and the comments.

When I come across junk science, I post my thoughts about it here. As they are my thoughts, they are displayed honestly, “as is”, and I offer no apologies for that whatsoever. I clearly label such posts with a logo I created for “Junk Science”. Note that it does not say “Junk Scientist”. I begin with the problems I have with the issues presented. 

Now, IF the author of said junk science offers sufficient evidence of incompetence, laziness, shoddy methodology, or the repetition of previously disproven hypotheses, then I may conclude that this author is incompetent, lazy, a poor scientist. Should they claim training and expertise in subjects for which they display all of these traits, I may use derogatory terms impuning them in numerous ways… they should know better; they were taught better; and they didn’t comprehend it. In the study of Rhetoric, this usage is part of what is called “Pathos”, intended to communicate the emotion of the speaker. In this case, I am not the speaker, I’m the writer, and must communicate in my choice of words rather than inflection the disgust I feel for such slipshod thinking.


Imagine for a moment that you suffer from abdominal pain, and visit a new doctor. The doctor has a lot of diplomas, many of them from places of which you’ve never heard, and in subjects that simply don’t exist in most medical schools. Without a proper examination; without an X-ray, without a blood test, the doctor then declares that you have an invisible organ that you’ve never heard of and that its energy is in conflict with your body’s harmonies.  This, despite the fact that your admittedly limited knowledge of human anatomy reveals that...  
  1. ...the human body has no such organ,  
  2. examination was accomplished that would demonstrate that your ...particular body violates this precedent,  
  3. accredited doctor agrees, and  
  4. ...all of your symptoms are adequately explained by appendicitis.  
I’d be interested in how you would respond to this. In such a situation I would demand the extraordinary evidence required by his extraordinary claims. Lacking such evidence I would declare the doctor a quack, for that is exactly what he is. I would do so despite his claims that “today’s science” doesn’t know everything about the human body, and despite his observation that once upon a time other orthodox doctors used leeches. I would do this despite his earnestly stated “theory” that prehistoric doctors were well acquainted with this invisible organ, though we have unfortunately lost all record of it. In other words, the man would still be a quack, despite assertions mirroring those made by New Age apologists.
Furthermore, I would declare the doctor a quack publicly, so that others aren’t damaged by his “treatment”. That is a social responsibility. And I would do so in language that clearly communicate the depths of my concern. I would not convince everyone to avoid him, because quacks, no matter how transparently incompetent, always manage to find patients. But I would convince enough.
How you would feel about that doctor is how I feel when faced with pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo in general. The more credentials a person has, the more I feel they should live up to those credentials. If they make extraordinary claims, that’s fine... so long as they provide the extraordinary evidence thus required. IN THAT VERY SAME POST, I demonstrate this. Here is my statement:
Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, Thomas Brophy does things strictly according to the scientific method. He has a hypothesis, calls it a hypothesis (knowing the difference between that and a theory), and does the math. Most importantly, he knows that science ain't horseshoes... close isn't good enough. So when his hypothesis is close, but not exact, he discards it and looks for a better one. Nice.
Note that my ire is not triggered by being simply wrong, or unproven. These things are true of all science at one point.  “Unproven” is a very different thing from “disproven”, and a “theory” is a very different thing from baseless speculation. My problem is with the shoddy thought leading to shoddy conclusions.

Unorthodox thinkers who I have praised include 
  • Robert Schoch, who has used the weathering patterns in the Sphinx enclosure to suggest much earlier dates for its construction. I think that he was wrong in the details (such as the actual dating) but that his general methodology and thought process was sound.  
  • Jean-Pierre Houdin, who has proposed a very compelling method for building the Great Pyramid using an internal ramp which is not only logically sound, but which solves a great many logistic problems associated with the construction, and is a scientifically testable hypothesis as well. His explanation requires no magic… merely ingenuity.
  • David Rohl, who has proposed a revision to Middle Eastern chronology that significantly improves the corroboration of dates between various regional histories.
  • Thomas G. Brophy, who proposes that the stone alignments at Napta Playa represent very precise astronomical measurements of not only stellar configurations, but physical distances that could not possibly be known to the ancients in standard models. I went so far as to link to a video of Brophy discussing this subject on the very blog post where I'm being decried as being close minded by people who obviously weren't in the slightest bit observant of the facts.
Any or all of gentlemen could be very wrong… but they’re going about their research in the right way.

I cannot compare these to Euqid’s “logical standpoints” because he offers exactly none of those. He makes not one single substantive argument, leaving the entire post to ad-hominem attack and fallacious thinking despite accusing me of that very thing. And this is despite the fact that I have listed quite specific problems I find with Dr. Boulter’s ideas as expressed in “The Pyramid Code”.


Again, as Euqid offers exactly nothing in the form of a logical argument, I can’t exactly refute the nothing he offered, except to point out that it was, in fact, nothing. But I can offer some general principles that are useful guides in determining whether a “scientific” hypothesis is generally scientific. Here are a few:
  • Is it testable? Or does it just make a bold assertion of fact which is explained away with the excuse that “modern science doesn’t have all the answers”. This is most charitably described as a strawman argument. No one associated with modern science makes that claim. However, any new hypotheses MUST be either rooted in the science that has already been confirmed through observation and experimentation; OR it must provide extraordinary evidence to justify turning aside the laws of physics as we know them. This isn’t impossible… Einstein did that very thing. But guess what? Einstein identified the weaknesses of Newtonian physics and proposed a new theory that works where the Newtonian model works AND fixed the problems. It was testable. Several of its predictions have been confirmed by experimentation and observation. He provided the stellar quality of work necessary.
  • Does it require something that has hasn’t been observed? If so, it’s unorthodox, but that’s not necessarily a problem, so long as the unobserved phenomenon conforms to the laws of physics. In fact, this sort of pre-supposition forms a testable hypothesis, and prediction is a requirement of a hypothesis. You say, “we should see this under these conditions”; then you find or create the conditions and observe. That’s commonplace, and it’s how science is done. But if your unobserved phenomenon contradicts many thousands of observations that have already been made, you’re looking at something that likely isn’t true… and if it were, would require extraordinary evidence. No claim in “The Pyramid Code” provided any inkling of such evidence.
  • Is it based on logical fallacies? Of these, false dichotomies are the worst, to my mind. “Since we don’t know exactly how this stone was raised, it must have been done by space aliens (or ancient super-science)” is an example of such thought. Huge leaps into the fantastic without the trouble of eliminating the commonplace. Does the hypothesis confuse “science hasn’t explained” with “science can’t explain”? Too often pseudo-scientists offer false dichotomies rather than simply think the problem through. In the case of the pyramids, for example, in response to the problems of building and dismantling an external ramp, someone like von Daniken would assert that the blocks were placed with levitation by super-beings who are no longer here (an untestable hypothesis) when the problem is adequately solved by an internal ramp (a testable hypothesis, and a good engineering practice). 
  • Is it adequately explained by the standard model? If so, it’s unnecessary. 
Unfortunately, “The Pyramid Code”, is rife with logical fallacies and inconsistencies. Though I pointed to specifics in my post, Euqid fails to expend the energy to refute them and merely asserts his agreement on “from a logical standpoint” without evidence or explanation. Perhaps you may understand why I am thoroughly underwhelmed by my use of logic being impuned by someone who himself refuses to use any at all.

Though he offers no logical defense of the ideas that he is supporting, let’s look at the fallacies that Euqid uses. I’ve touched on a few, but it might be instructive to gather them in one place:
  • He claims that “today’s science” doesn’t have all the answers. A straw man. That claim is never made.
  • He offers a second straw man in stating, “I know better than to think nothing of the strong restrictions on unorthodox research.” That assertion was never made. On the contrary, I am VERY cognisant of the strong restrictions on orthodox research. Those restrictions are there to ensure that extraordinary claims are accompanied by the extraordinary evidence which are demanded of them. It’s to keep the quacks from running rampant.
  • He makes false appeal to authority in his claim to being “scientifically trained in chemistry and biology” with a little education on electricity. “Scientifically trained” means nothing as opposed to “trained in the sciences of…” But that may be a linguistic issue. Nevertheless, it’s irrelevant. I point to problems that anyone can verify for themselves in this Information Age. 
  • Yet another straw man is offered with, “I know better than to believe I own the truth...You don't Dave.” As explained at length above, this assertion is never made. This isn’t a discussion of “truth” it’s a discussion of method. You want to discuss “truth”, then find some place they’re talking about religion.
  • He makes a non-sequitur and a negative appeal to authority in stating “Wasn't it in 1959 the British Royal astronomer proclaimed that spaceflight was an impossiblity?” In other words, because A was wrong about B, C must be wrong about D. This is a transparent mistake easily avoided by anyone trained in logical thinking. 
  • He employs a non-sequitur and the fallacy fallacy in asserting that my use of ad-hominem comments “proves” that my rational comments are non-rational. The two are factually unrelated, and I don't employ ad-hominem as a logical tool, as I’ll explain when I discuss Rhetoric in a moment. Suffice to say for now that I employ ad-hominem as a rhetorical device unrelated to the validity of the logical arguments that are separately made. Again, this is a transparent mistake easily avoided by anyone trained in logical thinking.
  • He makes another false appeal to authority by claiming an IQ of 161 and name-dropping Mensa. These are unsubstantiated claims that wouldn’t matter anyway. Bad ideas are bad ideas no matter what score their author made on an unrelated test. To clarify, there is the small issue of “domain” to address when appealing to authority in any logical argument. You learn this very early on in forensic debate. An expert is not an expert outside his field of expertise. Therefore any statement made by an expert outside of his field loses its implied weight and must be evaluated purely on the strength of the argument. For instance, I don’t expect you to take anything I say at face value. I invite you to check it all out.
That’s quite a collection of fallacies in one single paragraph. I’m not sure whether to cringe or applaud. Oh, what the hell… I’ll applaud. As a collection of logical mis-steps, this was a truly virtuoso performance far beyond the capability of anyone I’ve ever met who claimed such lofty mental capacity. Bravo, sir. Bravo.

Having discussed the lack of ideas and wealth of fallacies, let’s turn to the subject of... 


Now, an ad-hominem attack, when used as a Logical device, is indeed a fallacy. However, I don’t use it that way. I don’t say the equivalent of, “So-and-so’s theory is wrong because he’s incompetent”. Rather, I use ad-hominem as a Rhetorical device to communicate my disgust at the sheer wealth of logically unsound arguments that have been proposed. In other words, “he’s wrong because he’s incompetent” is a fallacy; but “he’s incompetent because he’s consistently applying the wrong methodology” is completely sound. It’s not a subtle difference. I don't use ad-hominem to undermine their argument; I use it as a conclusion when the argument is already undermined by other means.

Ad-hominem is often used as a device of rebuke. Even those who publicly profess to dislike it show amazing facility with its use. Often they are far better at it than the people they rebuke. Let’s look at the examples that Euqid provides for us (with translations as they apply to me):
“I know better than to piss o things I don't fully understand.” I don’t understand.
"I know better than to believe I own the truth...You don't Dave…" I don’t know better, and I’m bossy, too.
"And you undress yourself with personal attacks on every comment written here, which proves your rational arguments are clearly not very rational after all…" I live in a glass house. No argument there, but it would beg the question of what Euqid’s ad-hominems do to his own arguments, but for two things. 1. I’m not espousing the logical fallacy he is and 2. he made no logical argument to disprove
"Try to take the high road" I fight dirty.
"and show some humility next time, huh?" I’m far too uppity. I should let Euqid’s authorities think for me. They do science. Ooooh!
"But maybe you never studied logical thinking?" I’m illogical. However, if Euqid had studied logic he might have crafted a competent rant. Ironic, no?
"Oh, and before you call me a moron - last time I checked my IQ with Mensa I scored 161, so I think I have sufficient intelligence to be able to think pretty clearly :) Have a good night, and try shaking off that hubris." I’m so proud and mean I’m going to call him stupid, but he’s really smart, so I shouldn’t. Obviously intended as the coup de gras. Sadly, I don't take your word for it that you're intelligent... you must demonstrate it.
"It's a very unsympathetic personal trait" Oh, and people don’t like me. If I agree with people who like junk science, they’ll think better of me.

I skipped over mere implications, such as my having a closed mind, and listed only the explicit attacks. As you can see, every part of the post that is not logical fallacy is devoted to ad-hominem attack, with no room whatsoever left over to the actual discussion of ideas. Again, I cannot adequately express what a virtuoso performance this was, and why I am so completely, thoroughly entertained by the comment. 

But Euqid has a point… I’m REALLY harsh to some commenters. For instance, there was my response to this comment, the first one I received (reproduced in its entirety):
“Wow, you are a complete fool!!! How sad of a person you are, and how lonely it must feel. You article is ridiculous and shameful....what a load of crap you write. Get some brains and really look at the evidence, which obviously you have not.” 
I called Anonymous “a brain-dead anti-intellectual without the cognitive ability to include even the most vague and inept reasoning as to WHY this post is "ridiculous and shameful"?” And that’s bad because ad-hominem attacks are bad when I do them. They’re perfectly fine for anonymous trolls, though. Responses like Anonymous’ aren’t worth further consideration. So why did I respond in kind? Because Anonymous earned it, and because Anonymous was anonymous. I derive a certain perverse pleasure from being able to take down a really stupid argument (and I make no apologies for that characterization… read it) without the restrictions imposed by polite conversation. But mostly it was to show Anonymous how it’s done. I don’t mind being insulted unless you’re really bad at it. If you’re going to insult my intelligence, at least make yourself sound genuinely smart.

I can’t post anonymously here… I also initiate the topics. On my blog, I am the one most exposed to ridicule, because of course you aren’t obliged to post here. You could just disagree with me from a distance, or post your own thoughts in your own space. So if you’re going to take me to task, and do such a poor job of it, and then insulate yourself from responses with anonymity, don’t even pretend that I should give you a fair shake. 

Then there was Pepep, who began with 
“you obviously have no connection to your own spirit at all and are so stuck inside your mechanical little brain box that you dont know what is real. “
and went on to stuff two logical fallacies into a post that concluded with “that everything you are thinking is bs. have fun livin life as a piece of rock hahahaha”. I was admittedly mean to Pepep, who was so eloquent and so nice to me. I know she was nice, because New Agers are always nice, because they’re New Agers. And that proves it. So Pepep got a “response in kind”, that rhetorical device used in this case to reflect a commenter’s arguments back on them. Again, this was mostly because the insults were so astonishingly poor. However, Pepep received an additional response focusing purely on the substance of Pepep’s arguments with only a hint of ad-hominem. That’s because there was a hint of logic there, and I found something worth commenting on seriously.

Then there was After, who posted just prior to Euqid. After actually “got” the fact that I’m emoting in this blog. After also displayed facility with the concepts and language. Also, I’m a sucker for a great analogy, and the “selling cars” comment was exactly on point. That doesn’t stop me from expressing my thoughts, of course, because that’s what the blog is for. It’s certainly not here to further the study of Egyptology, as that’s what Egyptologists do… the good ones). But it got After a polite response and the chance to air his or her views unmolested.

Euqid gets this entire blog post because it pleased me to write it, because I’m a dick. 


Contrary to all you may hold dear, all opinions are not created equal. This is the natural consequence of living in an objective reality. Science was created to help us sort out which ideas are better than the others. So if your ideas are not scientific I really have no problem treating them with less respect. 

  • My blog is here so I can express my opinions, 
  • I have no interest in convincing you to agree with me
  • I have even less interest in giving you equal time. You already have that opportunity. The World Wide big enough for you to do that in your own space.
  • If you promote junk science, I’ll call you names and I’ll belittle your work if you don’t  up your game. I don’t have to do it. I don’t care if you feel angry or hurt having read it. I’m posting my opinion. If you don’t like it, do better work.
  • I’m a dick.