A Plethora of Links to End 2014

2014 is just about gone, and for the large part, I say: Good riddance. In many ways, 2014 was an awful year for civil liberties, freedom, and for people in general. Yet on the other hand, there are some positive things to report.

One of my 2015 resolutions is to stop posting so much political stuff. I know, I know – I say this almost every month, and yet it never happens. I'm going to try, though, this year, especially since I'm making the effort to make some resolutions. (I'm even going to print them out and put them up on my wall in my bedroom and in my office.) So in honor of that, I wanted to post some last political and semi-political links before the year ended, links that have been sitting on my mind:

THE BAD

2014 was a really rotten year for privacy, civil liberties, and in particular for public-police relations. For a long time I thought of writing up a list of all the issues of police overreach and brutality, but I don't have to. Radley Balko, one of the best journalists on the planet, rounded up 2014's civil liberties violations as a "Let me give some predictions for 2015" post. It's chilling to think that, in the nation that is supposedly the leader of the free world, we have so many horrible things going on – most, but not all, being conducted by state and local governments.

I mean, seizing someone's assets, then charging them with a crime, so they can't pay for their own defense? Arresting parents for letting their kids play without supervision? Claiming that your SWAT team is a private corporation and is thus immune to open records laws? Push for extrajudicial tribunals for people who may or may not commit crimes against a certain class of individuals, tribunals where "innocent until proven guilty" and the rule of law are thrown out the airlock? Punishing people who haven't been convicted of a crime?

These are not the signs of a healthy liberal democracy, they're the signs of a damaged one that needs repair, fast.

One story in particular has stood out to me. As many have defended the police in the recent incidents and stories, one thing they may have failed to notice is that even black police officers feel threatened by the "boys in blue". I think once cops are fearful of other cops, then we have indisputable proof that there is a serious problem. And yet people still ignore it. Read the link above for a maddening, frustrating look at what is wrong with policing today. (That one really grinds my gourd, because I think it will be ignored by most.)

Meanwhile, on the other side of the coin, in 2014 progressives became nattering nabobs of negativity – or, in other words, conservatives. reason magazine highlights how 2014 heralded the return of "Neo-Victorianism", and I'm thankful that Elizabeth Nolan Brown wrote that article because I've been struggling to find the right word for this new trend. It's the trend of using coercion and bullying to enforce a set of social norms, mostly deployed by feminists, it seems. The four major areas are increasing art censorship, a hysteria over sex-trafficking (that trampled over individual rights while simultaneously punishing sex workers, many of whom don't think they're victims and like their jobs, thank you very much), a dragging out of hate speech to absurd lengths that means you shouldn't say anything that could potentially offend anyone at any time, and a trend of treating women as dainty little flowers that need to be coddled and protected rather than being allowed to develop into strong and independent individuals.

It's all rather sickening. It too, is not a sign of a healthy democracy.

And let's not get me started on the various abuses by the NSA. Let's just not go there for once.

The Good

There are, however, some great things to look forward to in 2015 that continue from 2014.

The first is in terms of war and crime. Steven Pinker, a wonderful academic, details in a great article for Slate that planet Earth is actually becoming a very peaceful world. I found the article particularly interesting for the following tidbit:

But the red curve in the graph shows a recent development that is less benign: The number of wars jumped from four in 2010—the lowest total since the end of World War II—to seven in 2013. These wars were fought in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, South Sudan, and Syria. Conflict data for 2014 will not be available until next year, but we already know that four new wars broke out in the past 12 months, for a total of 11. The jump from 2010 to 2014, the steepest since the end of the Cold War, has brought us to the highest number of wars since 2000.
[…]
The 2010–2014 upsurge is circumscribed in a second way. In seven of the 11 wars that flared during this period, radical Islamist groups were one of the warring parties: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel/Gaza, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, and Yemen. (Indeed, absent the Islamist conflicts, there would have been no increase in wars in the last few years, with just two in 2013 and three in 2014.) This reflects a broader trend.

That "broader trend" being religious hostilities, with "all but two of these countries" having those hostilities being "associated with extremist Islamist groups." I always find myself on a narrow tightrope when it comes to Islamism; on the one hand, I always find conservatives are far too hostile and kneejerk when they want to just fight Muslims and bomb them; on the other hand, I think that many libertarians and leftists slide Islam's problems under the rug and prefer not to notice. Don't kid yourselves, guys: although Christianity has issues, it has largely been tamed and neutered by modernity. Islam hasn't. And Islam has got loads of problems.

But even despite that, the world is far more peaceful than the news reports make it out to be. Outside of the Middle East, we have the conflict in Ukraine – and that has basically been frozen. The drop in oil prices has crushed the Russian economy, so I don't know if Putin will continue to help his "allies" in Donetsk and Lugansk. There are conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria, but to be honest I know very little about them.

Meanwhile, Fraser Nelson in The Spectator (UK) reports on how we're winning the war on disease. In 1990, diseases claimed roughly 37,500 years of life per 100,000 people; now they claim only about 26,000 (judging by my eyes on that chart.) Starvation has dropped by over ten percentage points. Infant mortality has plummeted. These are all extremely good news to hear.

The last one is a story on upcoming disruptive technologies, many of which are going to build on 2014 discoveries. I post this one because I have a bit of a quibble with the author, Vivek Wadhwa. Although I think most of his points are relatively sound, inasmuch as I, not being an expert in these areas, could judge them, his section on energy has problems. First, he leads off by saying that fracking is a harmful technology – newsflash, it isn't. Second, he says that solar power will hit grid parity by 2020, which I think is unlikely considering how expensive solar power is. (Seriously, the people I know who study energy saw a similar story by Wadwha and they claimed it hurt their brains.) Third, Wadwha claims that if we have unlimited energy,

we can have unlimited clean water, because we can simply boil as much ocean water as we want. We can afford to grow food locally in vertical farms. This can be 100 percent organic, because we won’t need insecticides in the sealed farm buildings. Imagine also being able to 3D print meat and not having to slaughter animals. This will transform and disrupt agriculture and the entire food-production industry.

Wadwha might be right about unlimited energy and unlimited clean water, but even if he is, the rest doesn't follow. Water isn't the only resource. Why would we grow food locally? It's not necessarily more efficient than growing food on larger farms elsewhere. Secondly, what about the time involved? When Wadwha says "locally," I see the localist woo argument about people growing food in their backyards. But that takes time, and who wants to waste time growing your own food when you can buy it at the store and instead spend your time going to sports events, watching TV, writing blog posts, or going on romantic getaways? Wadwha ignores that, and it hurts, both his piece and my head.

I'm also a little miffed he didn't mentioned Lockheed Martin's new fusion reactor project (more on that later), but I totally agree with him on synthetic meat – which I think will be a huge advance – and he makes good points about 3D printing, finance, and healthcare. In all areas, we're talking about some radical decentralization.

The Awesome

Okay, the last bit. The really cool stuff.

Scientists did some really cool things in 2014. I mean, some really scifi things. Quantum teleportation for instaneous communication, blood based nanites to repair your body, 3D food printers, hoverboards – 2014 was a really cool year for tech.

Meanwhile, the one news item that really made me jump was Lockheed Martin's announcement that in five years they'll have a prototype for a commercial fusion reactor. There are a lot of questions and criticisms of this, with many having doubts – but if anyone is going to deliver a power source that is clean and nearly limitless, it's going to be Lockheed Martin. And I hope it turns out correct, because I think that:

  1. It would provide enough energy to avoid the coming energy shortfalls as our iCivilization keeps getting bigger
  2. It would go a long way towards making climate change a nonissue
  3. It would go a long way towards getting the US out of the Middle East as we wouldn't have to worry about the oil reserves there
  4. It would weaken OPEC, Venezuela, and Russia (yes that's a cheap geopolitical shot but I think it's valid)
  5. A fusion rocket could get us from Earth to Mars in 30 days rather than six months
  6. It could power the warp drive that NASA is working on
  7. As energy is one of the largest input costs, this could make everything cheaper across the board by a considerable factor
  8. Bonus – Gundams.

I'm really hoping that 2015 will turn out to be even cooler.

And finally, for one last speculative item, there's a guy in Nebraska building a warp drive in his garage. Okay, okay, it's pretty far out there, man, but when you read stuff like this:

He turns around and points to the back of his garage door, where a red laser — beamed at the weight and reflected back against the door to demonstrate the movement happening in the case — drifts from its original spot. Slowly, in incremental amounts, the weight is drawn toward the V-shape motor.

You gotta wonder.

I’m With Elon: Let’s Colonize Mars

So Elon Musk wants to screw Earth and colonize Mars. Excellent, I completely agree. Let’s get started.

The interview Musk gave to Ross Anderson of Aeon Magazine is fantastic. It’s been a long time since I’ve read such a forceful advocacy for space colonization, which is refreshing. It seems like the cause of space has languished over the past couple of decades while people want to focus on more down to Earth matters. I think they’re forgetting that many of our down to Earth matters could probably be solved by going outward and exploring new frontiers – and settling them!

My reasons are different than Musk’s, are, though. Musk seems to be afraid that, since we haven’t discovered any interstellar aliens in our searches of the night sky, something bad must have happened to all of them:

Musk has a more sinister theory [to the Fermi Paradox, basically –Jeremy]. ‘The absence of any noticeable life may be an argument in favour of us being in a simulation,’ he told me. ‘Like when you’re playing an adventure game, and you can see the stars in the background, but you can’t ever get there. If it’s not a simulation, then maybe we’re in a lab and there’s some advanced alien civilisation that’s just watching how we develop, out of curiosity, like mould in a petri dish.’ Musk flipped through a few more possibilities, each packing a deeper existential chill than the last, until finally he came around to the import of it all. ‘If you look at our current technology level, something strange has to happen to civilisations, and I mean strange in a bad way,’ he said. ‘And it could be that there are a whole lot of dead, one-planet civilisations.’

Personally, I’m more in favor of the Great Filter being life itself. Wait But Why has a great blog post on the Fermi Paradox and all of its implications, and count me as a guy who thinks that life is much harder to happen than Ross Anderson seems to think (going off what he writes in Aeon; it might be he’s just summarizing what others think and that’s not his own opinion.) I don’t look at this as a bad thing; instead, we now have the entire cosmos open to ourselves. We are the Ancients, the Precursors, the Progenitors of life in a barren and empty universe.

But not if we screw it up before we get out there.

I’m not talking about the existential fears that most people talk about. I’m not worried about nuclear war or plague or global warming killing us. To be sure, we have some problems for this century: we need to stamp out religious and ideological extremism that leads to violence; find new and renewable sources of energy to keep powering our civilization; and maybe not build artificial superintelligences in our basements. But I think these (well, to one extent or another) are all manageable. The problem I fear is one of philosophy, political science, and sociology. We need space colonization to overcome the dimming of the (classical) liberal vision.

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a long, long time. Well, over a year, to be more exact, but it’s been fluttering in my head for longer. The problem is that I’m finding it very hard to put it into words why we must colonize Mars – and the rest of space – to preserve classical liberalism and by extension civilization, freedom, and all those good things.

I look at the growth of government over the past century and I see it as expansion turning inwards. There is less for us to go out and explore, now. We no longer have a frontier, a Wild West where the government’s arm is distant and individuals rely on themselves. It seems very romantic, because it is very romantic – and of course, there were problems. Colonization uprooted and destroyed indigenous cultures all over the world, caused pain and suffering by bringing diseases, bloodshed, and slavery. The Wild West was not as dangerous as the Western movie genre made it out to be, but there was racism, crime, and an eye for an eye mentality in some parts. My point, being, though, was that as there was a frontier, there was an argument for freedom. Government could not expand inwards on people because there was somewhere to expand outwards.

But then the 20th century came. By now, there was nowhere left to expand to. The only uncolonized parts of our world are the Artic, the Antartic, and the bottom of the oceans – the first two being extremely inhospitable and undesirable, the latter uninhabitable until somebody decides to invent SeaQuest in the real world. (Get on that, Musk.) Now, the expanding mass of government ran up against a solid wall, and as it hit this wall it folded back in on itself and expanded back towards its center. Now it was expanding on top of itself, layering itself upon itself, burying beneath itself the seeds of liberalism and freedom. Where else could it go now but onto its own people?

We lost the frontier. On top of that, we continued to multiply. I hate thinking in this manner, but the law of supply and demand comes back to haunt me. We have all these people now, and we keeping having more, and I wonder, as supply goes up, does demand go down? It used to be you could know everyone in your community. Now, do we just look at others as statistics? Not even fully autonomous human beings? Do we think everyone around us is a p-zombie? It seems very crass on one hand – how can we apply supply and demand to people – and yet very conservative on the other – here I am talking about community and how the modern era has increased the distance between us and yadda yadda yadda. Not being that sort of conservative – or really, any conservative at all – it’s hard for me to put this into words.

Unfortunately, I don’t have to. From China, we have a couple of videos and stories of how low human life is valued:

Then there was the toddler who was run over by two vehicles and ignored by scores of passersby before finally receiving help. Again, this is from China.

These are just the two things that come to the top of my mind. I don’t know if it’s because there are a lot of people in China, if there’s something deeper in Chinese culture, or if these are really bad examples. But that is what I think of when I see rising population. Is this something we can overcome? Is it bound to happen?

Then there is the issue of running out of work for people. I know many scoff at the idea, but there is some concern of “technological unemployment”. My friend Travis Thornton has blogged about this subject before. Now personally I am all in favor of a post-scarcity economy, and I think it’s absolutely delightful that we’re heading towards one…but are we going to need a new thing to give us meaning? Why can’t that thing be a settled, terraformed Mars?

The moon terraformed, covered in blue seas, green forests, and whispy white clouds.
I have to admit, a terraformed Luna would look cool.
TerraformedMoonFromEarth“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I realize these thoughts are not entirely coherent or cogent. Like I said, I’m having difficulty putting what I’m thinking and feeling into words. That’s why I’m doing this blog post, to solicit feedback and comments and see if I’m on the right track. But essentially, what I see is that, to preserve classical liberalism, individual freedom, and a culture of the same, we need to start colonizing planets. We need to go with Musk and start doing this right now. It doesn’t necessarily have to be Mars. We should also colonize the Moon (though terraforming it would be a waste of time I think, since it doesn’t have enough gravity to hold on to an atmosphere, unless you paraterraform), and we should probably also build O’Neill and McKendree Cylinders. Eventually, we might even terraform Venus, build Banks Orbitals and a Ringworld (okay, fine, we can have one Halo off in the corner for all the first person shooter types) and then from there…

The galaxy will be our oyster.

But not if we get stuck here. It’s not the asteroids that will kill us, or the threat of alien invasion, or potential nuclear war or grey goo or artificial superintelligence. If anything does us in, it will be the banal overlayering of bureaucratic, authoritarian government, run by busybodies and people of little vision. Humanity needs a new frontier, and there are many out there: uninhabited, barren, lifeless, ready for us to come. We need that frontier to rekindle our spirit of freedom, and get us moving again. Take the germ of liberalism, and spread it across the stars.

That’s my vision for the future. And that means I’m right there with Elon Musk. Let’s go to Mars.

#ClimateMarch: A Campaign of Hypocrites And Fearmongers

So over a week ago, a large number of people went marching in New York City with the hashtag #climatemarch. The idea was to raise awareness of the dangers of global warming – excuse me, climate change – and get people, specifically politicians, to act on it. How? To be honest I’m not sure of the specifics, but it always seems to come back to higher taxes, more government control over the economy, and doing away with capitalism.

Nevermind that capitalism is why they even had a New York City to have the climate change march in.

I want to lay out a few disclaimers before I continue, to outline my views on climate change. These will take the form of a Q&A.

  1. Is climate change happening?
    Yeah. I mean, everything changes, so it would be silly to say that the climate doesn’t change. Nothing is truly static except death and taxes, and we may be getting close to getting rid of one of those.
  2. Is it anything to be worried about?
    Not really. Sure, there will be things here and there that climate change will affect that we’ll have to adapt to, and it may lead to some minor detrimental affects in some parts of the world, but overall it’s not something to get your panties in a twist over. It isn’t going to lead us to extinction, it’s not going to be the end of the world. Humanity has adapted for several thousand years, and I think it will adapt for several thousand more (unless superintelligent AI get us.)
  3. Are humans the primary cause of climate change?
    I don’t find this plausible. I can accept that we’re a tertiary or even secondary cause of climate change, because we definitely have an affect on the environment. But even if the planet is warming, can we really blame it on us? What other natural processes are out there? Have you ever looked up and saw that giant ball of exploding gas in the sky and wondered, “Hmm, could the sun have anything to do with it?” Earth is far larger, far more resilient, and far more complex than I think most people give it credit for.
  4. Should the government do anything about climate change?
    Absolutely not! This is the government, mind you, that screwed up the Middle East, spent over $600 million on a website, can’t keep track of billions of dollars of its budget, regularly violates civil liberties around the world, and is deeply in bed with large corporations in a cronyist scam that has gone back for decades. The last thing anybody should want is giving this incompetent bloated organization any more power than it already has – especially over such important things as the energy and the environment.

There, now that I have that off my chest…

The Hypocrisy

The first thing that really gets me about the climate march types is just how hypocritical they are. Pray tell, how many carbon dioxide tons did they spew into the air in order to get to New York City? They took planes, trains, and automobiles – diesel, gasoline, and other fuel sources emitting gases into the air. How much cleaner would the world be if all those hundreds of thousands of people, instead of taking this trip, just stayed home? Oh, yes, they care about the environment. They care about it so much they helped pollute it even more.

And then there are the images of the trash they left behind. How many Starbucks cups did they throw out? How much plastic did they use? It’s disgusting. Care about the environment, do they? Yeah right.

There’s also this image of a climate march interview going on above a sleeping homeless woman. Now I can’t actually verify if that body in the background is a sleeping homeless woman, but still, the imagery. That’s powerful. Here are some upper middle class white folks having an interview about how they must do something to save the environment because it’s oh so important, and yet there is a person on the ground right behind them that they’re ignoring who doesn’t even have a proper place to sleep. It sort of encapsulates the entire movement, in a way.

The Absurdity

One of the big reasons I personally can’t take climate change and the #climatemarch seriously is how it’s being blamed as the cause of everything. Open up any newspaper and you will see an article saying that “climate change” is the reason for the political instability in the Middle East. (Subtitle: “Why are deserts hot?”) Hurricane Sandy and local weather patterns have all been blamed on climate change and global warming. The bees are being blamed on it too, even though it strikes me as yet another media panic. Even the European Space Agency is now saying that global warming is affecting Earth’s gravitational field.

I can’t even.

And now the New Scientist magazine is saying that we’re on track for the “worst case” scenario. One Tweeter made the case that we’re headed towards extinction because of this. The problem with the article and the evidence, in my view, is that it isn’t really based on empirical data. It’s based on models:

The bleak image is brought home when emissions over the last few decades are plotted against projections for the future. Models predict how much the world will warm depending on how much we emit in future. Scientists typically look at four different possible futures, ranging from an uber-green society to a worst-case scenario, in which no action is taken to combat global warming. Le Quéré and her colleagues show how today’s emissions are near-perfectly in line with the worst-case scenario. This means that, according to scientists’ best estimates, the world will be as much as 5.4 °C warmer in 2100 than it was before the industrial revolution.

The chart in the article begins in 1980 and ends in 2100. Here’s a massive problem with this:

There’s no way you can predict what the world will be like in 2100!

Look at predictions from 90 years ago. How many were somewhat on track, and how far off were the rest? Could anyone have predicted the rise of the Internet, of Twitter, of the smartphone and now the “smart house,” of Dropbox and Spotify and global air travel and drone cargo ships and the private attempts to colonize Mars? In some places they may have gotten the basic gist of things – although, even in the case of Mars, they screwed up badly – but in the vast majority of cases they hadn’t a clue what the world would be like in a century.

That’s the same thing here. You can point to your models, but they’re just that: models. You can play around with models all day long, change them, tweak them, etc. German reporter and podcaster Fabian Scherschel made this point when he brought up his skepticism of climate change alarmism on his podcastLinux Outlaws (which, as you can imagine, doesn’t usually wade into this subject.) The data we have really only goes back two hundred years or so, not long enough to judge how the climate is being affected, which has been going on here for millions and millions of years.

And yet #climatemarch activists want to parade around and demand we end capitalism and the modern world because some model someone dreamt up said that we’re all going to die. Well, I have a model that we’re all going to die, but I can save us – if you just give me $5,000. Will you march for me then?

Oh, and by the way: sea ice has been increasing lately.

This isn’t activism. This is pure fearmongering.

The Insanity

One picture sums up a lot of insanity surrounding #climatemarch and what this is really all about:

This isn’t really about environmentalism. It’s about attacking the free market and trying to reinstate socialism. They’re watermelons – environmentally green on the outside, socialist red on the inside.

Let’s not forget what capitalism has brought us:

What has socialism given us?

  • Mass starvation
  • Authoritarian regimes
  • Gulags
  • Economic depression
  • Widespread violence
  • 100 million dead
  • Widespread environmental damage
  • Peasant conditions for many, especially in pre-modernized China

Capitalism isan economic order — any economic order — that emerges from voluntary exchanges of property and labor without government intervention (or any other form of systemic coercion).” By that, it means that individual people are allowed to control their lives, make their own decisions, and fulfill their dreams.

Socialism is “a centrally planned economy in which the government controls all means of production”.  And by that, what it really means is that the state becomes a dictator, takes away all the decisions from you, and uses you as a tool whose human worth is little.

What the protestors in that image are saying is that they hate people and want to inflict misery and suffering on them. Being an adult human who can make his or her own decisions, be autonomous, and enjoy one’s life is apparently a disease. That just shows you how nutty these folks are.

The Alternative to #climatemarch

Ronald Bailey of reason has done a much better job than I could ever do knocking these guys off their pedestal. See his story on #climatemarch here and his story on #FloodWallStreet here. He takes aim at their assertions and blows holes in them rather efficiently. They don’t even know the best strategies to address their own problem. The whole thing is just ridiculous.

What’s the alternative? I’m honestly not sure. I think, for starters, we can continue to utilize capitalism to experiment with new technologies in the energy sector, as well as lab-grown meat that would cut emissions by 96%. There are plenty of free market environmental alternatives out there that could be explored, but one thing that is important is having private property rights. Nothing halts environmental degradation better than by avoiding the tragedy of the commons. But I don’t really know what will fix the environment, if it truly needs saving. But you know what? That’s okay. The beauty of being a capitalist is that you don’t have to know everything; you just have to know that you have a system that is designed to discover and find things out, that champions experimentation and innovation.

That’s the alternative. It doesn’t rely on fearmongering. It isn’t based in hypocrisy. It’s not absurd. And it’s not insane. It’s just dealing with human beings as individuals. You don’t need to march for that. You don’t have to do anything special. All you have to do is respect other people as individuals, and live your life.

Featured photo licensed under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC. Photo Credit: John Minchillo, via the Climate Change Network International Flickr page.

Not Iraq. Not Gaza. Not Ukraine. This is #Ferguson, Missouri.

Featured image from Radley Balko’s Facebook page. I didn’t see any prohibitions on sharing, but I will take it down if requested.

The above scene is not from some third world country. It is from Ferguson, Missouri, where a young black man was gunned down by police.

Here’s another picture, from another friend’s Facebook wall:

Ferguson Police 2

 

These are not Army soldiers. This is a local municipal police department in a city of 21,000 people. Why on Earth would they need cops with full body armor, gas masks, and assault vehicles? Maybe this can be some explanation (taken from Twitter):

Meanwhile, the local government has completely shut reporters out of the city:

Journalists encountered a threatening response from police as they tried to cover the protests in Ferguson, the Missouri town that has been upended by the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager.

While there was a spate of looting on Sunday night, Monday’s demonstrations were peaceful. Protestors faced tear gas and rubber bullets from officers trying to break their ranks up. At the same time, police told local media to get out of the area.

This is not America. This is the purview of a third world tinpot dictatorship, not the leader of the free world and the greatest democracy in the world. Period. They do not need to be stomping people just laying on the ground, or engaging in illegal chokehold manuevers to kill a man who was only selling untaxed cigarettes. Or getting a warrant to conduct a horribly invasive anal probe eight times for “drugs” on the flimsiest of evidence. Or firing dozens of rounds through a van full of children. Or any other terrible acts by police.

Slowly, over the past several years, the police have been transformed from a law enforcement agency to a sort of Russian style “Internal Troops” division. Do we really want to import Putinism over here to the United States?

It is past time for Americans to wake up to this and demand action. Demand that police face the full consequences of their actions. Demand that “paid administrative leave” be ended. Demand the mindlessly stupid War on Drugs is declared over, and demand that out of control cops are reigned back in. Demand that cop cameras be used everywhere, and can’t be altered or lost by the cops they cover.

This madness needs to end. We are the nation that leads the free world. Time to act like it.

 

Get Off The Couch: The Participation Income

This month, Cato Unbound is hosting a discussion on the libertarian case for a basic income. As readers of this blo–oh, who am I kidding. Anyone who knows me knows I am a libertarian who supports a basic income as an alternative to the current welfare state morass – both on a pragmatic “it’s better than what we got now” stand and on a principled basis. (But then, I am slowly becoming disaffected with the term libertarian anyhow.)

One point that has come up repeatedly on discussions about the lead essays is that a basic income of any form would create a nation of layabouts. After all, the argument goes, if you collect a check just for being a citizen, who would actually work? I think that’s a problematic argument for many reasons, but I just wanted to toss out there one variant that does require some effort on the part of recipients: the Participation Income.

I think it was first proposed by A.B. Atkinson in 1996 – though I don’t really know, I was just Googling things. One such Google result [PDF] gave me the following:

A ‘Participation Income’ would be paid to any individual ‘participating’ in society. The list of ‘participations’ would include employment or self-employment, retirement, absence from work because of sickness or injury, inability to work because of disability, and approved forms of voluntary activity. Students, trainees, those caring for dependents (the young, the elderly, or disabled dependents), and those unemployed but available for work, would also be counted as ‘participating’.

So basically, you have to do something in order to get the basic income, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be paying work. Studying, taking care of the elderly or children, volunteering – these all count. (Dunno about the last one in the above quote, though.) I don’t know if this would meet critics’ standards, but at the very least it would require that something be put back into society, something productive happening, in order to receive benefits.

Personally, I can see issues with this. How do we determine who is “participating”? Who will determine and how will they determine what counts as eligible participation? It’s yet another battlefield ripe for political combat, with all the terribleness, shrill partisanship, and uncomfortable silences at the dinner table that come with it. It also seems to be pretty invasive, as I am sure people will demand more accountability than simply trusting the applicant that they have participated. But then again, we have W-2 forms, so something along those lines may suffice.

To be honest, though, I’m not terribly worried about a basic income (or my preferred form, a Negative Income Tax) turning America into a nation of layabouts. We sort of have that problem already, for starters (though it isn’t as bad as some conservatives may think), and furthermore, life without work is not at all pleasant. People need work to have meaning in their lives; without it, many grow unhappy and listless. (I know, I’ve been there.) People are constantly trying to do and make new things – sure, not everybody, but look at all the various projects on Kickstarter, or volunteering activities, or new code developments made when somebody was out of work. I think if people knew there was something like a basic income to catch them if they fell, they wouldn’t just stop doing things and collect a check – they might take some risks to develop a new product or company, knowing they have something there if they fail. How many of us want to do something like that, be an entrepreneuer, but are afraid that if we screw up our families will be living on the sidewalk?

In short, I don’t think everyone will stop working. One commentator, Martin Brock (no idea if that’s his real name, as it’s only Disqus), however, does make one comment that I thought was pretty insightful:

I don’t fear a nation of layabouts. I fear a nation of actors, musicians, painters, novelists, astronomers, photographers, videographers, philosophers, talk radio hosts and political opinion bloggers all producing vastly more drama, music, art and the rest than other people actually want to consume while trying to consume the dwindling supply of goods no longer produced by all of these actors, musicians and painters.

Some of these people might be wondrously “productive”, in the sense of laboring conscientiously to produce lots of wonderful stuff, but if this stuff has little market value, because so many people produce so much of it, the people are not so “productive” in the economic sense.

The world is full of starving artists without a UBI, so I can only imagine vastly more artists producing far less than the cost of their maintenance with a UBI.

Yeah, that actually might be a problem. I know I would happily go off into my room and write science fiction all the time if I had a basic income. The question is, how many Americans would do that? Seeing the multitude of posts on social media, I would be willing to bet a lot (though many would be painters, sculptors, audio remixers, etc.) who then wouldn’t be producing other things. This would probably put a lot more strain on the rest of the economy – i.e, on all the other people producing things – and it might even threaten the very same basic income because at some point we wouldn’t be able to fund it.

But not doing anything? Sure, there are some indolent Americans. Hell, there are maybe a lot of indolent Americans. But there aren’t that many who would stop doing anything except collect a check. More likely, they would take that check and go do something with it.

I also just want to say that I’m not ignoring the public choice considerations here. It’s very likely that any variation on a basic income plan to replace welfare and the minimum wage and reform the tax system that goes before Congress will be butchered and mutiliated horribly. It’s in the nature (and interests) of legislators to craft legislation benefitting their benefactors, and I am sure that one interest group or another will try to bust it or just add it on top of the current welfare morass. But just because that’s a possibility doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to reform the system by proposing this. If such considerations were to stop policy proposals before they began, then libertarians could never work on public policy — and I find that a very silly position to take.

The Cult of Death Is Building A Temple in Canaan

I wanted to get a few things off my chest about Israel and Palestine, based on some really idiotic conversations I see going around. I want to preface these statements by making it absolutely clear that they are my opinion only, and do not represent nor reflect on anyone else (employer, sports team, country, etc.) Unfortunate we have to put those disclaimers in, but that is the society we live in.

I’ve been seeing a lot of cheering from those on the right towards Israel, which quite frankly disgusts me. It makes me want to vomit. It’s disgusting and abhorrent. No one should cheer the deaths of people, especially women and children. Nobody should applaud when missiles rain down and blow apart houses. A reasonable response to this could be “Good luck Israel,” or simple statements of support, but instead I am seeing “Yeah, go Israel! Fuck yeah!” and “Wipe out those subhuman savages!” No, really, this is typical rhetoric now being tossed about.

Just in case anyone says “Nobody actually says the Palestinians are subhuman savages” I present to you @CSunnyDaay and @secondthenfirst. Yes, these people do exist out there.

I don’t support Hamas, and I don’t support Hamas’ indiscriminate missile flinging into Israel. That’s not the solution to their problem. But here’s the thing: most Americans (and other foreigners) cheering on Israel don’t even bother thinking about the other side of the equation. They just think “Oh, these bad people are firing missiles at Israel! It’s self-defense! That’s it!” But they never bother to ask why the bad people are firing missiles, they just assume they are intrinsically evil creatures from Mordor.

Let’s examine why. Israel, over the course of decades, kicked the Palestinian Arabs out of their homes (though the initial blame lies with Britain, which decided to just mandate things.) They then forced these people into small areas, locked down running water and electricity, forced them to only get supplies from the Israeli government (which in turn could shut down the supply lines at any time), walk in and bulldoze people’s homes without warning, shoot them without warning or due process or anything even remotely like that, and then have the gall to build tons of Israeli settlements within the territory they’ve already set aside for the Palestinians! And then, when all that is said and done, the Israeli government drops bombs on hospitals, homes, shelters, just blows things up from the sky. And they have the gall to wonder why the Palestinians turn to support Hamas and their (largely ineffectual) rocket attacks?

If you corralled a bunch of red-blooded Americans into an area and shut down basic services and lobbed bombs and shells at them, after removing them from the land they used to own, do you think Americans would sit for that? Or do you think Americans would find a way to fire back?

The stupid, it burns.

Israel has been fighting this war essentially since 1948. It has taken on different forms, but the same thread of conflict has run through it all. You would think, by now, they may have wisened up and realized what they’re doing isn’t working. The US tried this before too. It’s called Vietnam. Our attacks there only galvanized the Vietnamese people to support the Viet Cong more, and they did – to the point where the VC forced us to leave and then destroyed the US-backed Republic of South Vietnam. What the heck does the Israeli government think this will accomplish? Do they really think that if they drop just another load of bombs out of the sky, that the Palestinians will finally be convinced that Hamas’ way is the wrong way and will stop?

Of course, I don’t think that’s what the Israeli government thinks at all. Like most governments, it wants votes, and like many people, a lot of Israelis want blood. Not all of them, but a fair amount, and current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu represents those who do. And I think Netanyahu wants the conflict as PM because he can blame any problems in his government on the Palestinians. I’m not sure what those other problems are, I am not an expert in Israeli internal politics, but it has been a long lasting and celebrated political tactic to find an “Other” you can demonize and pin all your problems on.

Again, I’m not supporting Hamas. The Palestinians are stupid for supporting Hamas. Do they really think that more rockets raining down will fix their problems of no jobs, crushing poverty, lack of medical care, food, running water, and electricity? Do they really think the Israelis are going to soften and change their policies if their families are blown up? Yet I can understand – though not support – why they support Hamas. Most Palestinians probably feel they have no hope, that there is no alternative. (Sure, there’s Fatah in the West Bank, but Gaza and the West Bank are almost two different entities at this point.) When you have no jobs, no supplies, and there are bombs falling out of the sky, what’s left to do but die for Allah?

The point I’m trying to make here is not that Americans are supporting the “wrong side.” I wouldn’t want them to support Hamas either. The point is that many Americans are completely leaving out half of the equation here. They’re ignoring why the Palestinians in Gaza are doing what they’re doing. If you’re going to jump into a conflict, you need to understand why that conflict is going on, who the players actually are, who the players’ peoples actually are, and then what incentives are going to make each side stop fighting – both the incentives they publicly state and the incentives that we know, deep down, that will cause both sides to knock it off. But, like most foreign policy issues, Americans never bother to actually understand or learn the arguments, they just want some prewritten soundbite to utter that makes them feel all good and patriotic.

That disgusts me.

Addition

After conversing with some folks on social media, it appears to me that some clarification is in order. Two points.

First, some have said that Israel has done all it can, and now the ball is in Hamas’ court. That’s fair. While I can understand the sentiment behind a lot of antipathy towards Israelis, having the Israelis come in and basically kick the Palestinians out, the Palestinians need to accept they’re not getting it back. They are never going to destroy Israel and get their all-Palestinian state. They may be able to secure a federalist solution, at best, but they’re never going to kick Israel out. While Hamas will never come to that conclusion willingly – it would mean they would lose all their support as their raison d’etre would be violated – they need to accept that. So these folks are right, it is time that Hamas recognized Israel’s right to exist (as much as any “state” has rights; only individuals can really have rights), and stop the rocket attacks on Israel. The Israeli strikes still won’t lead to the Palestinian people moving against Hamas, but Israel has its hands effectively tied.

Second, some people have taken this post to mean that I support Hamas, that I don’t think Israel has a right to exist, and that the Israelis shouldn’t be allowed to defend themselves. Nothing can be further from the truth. I don’t support either side in this mess. What I am writing against is the frothing, mindless support from some folks on the right for the violence in Gaza. For the people labeling Palestinians as subhuman savages and calling for more death, more bombs, more killings. That is what I am writing against. That is the point of this piece. For what it’s worth, I’m not even sure I care anymore about the conflict itself. I just want it to end. I just want the violence and death and destruction to stop. Is that so bad? Is it so bad that I criticize people who want this to continue? Of course, I shouldn’t expect any reason or intelligence on this issue. Almost more than anything else, this issue runs high on tribalism, to the point where nobody will bother even understanding the argument being made, they will just arbitrarily label the person good or evil. It is the Cult of Death I am fighting against, and the Temple they are building is the ritual chanting for more ordnance to fall. The Cult of Death is not Israeli. It is not Palestinian. It is, regrettably, American.

That is not supporting Hamas. That is not being anti-Israeli. It is being anti-death and anti-war, nothing more.

Update

The spate of attacks on my piece in social media has led me to read a lot more articles about Gaza than what I normally do. This one in particular has me all kinds of confused. Just what is really going on here?

Me and the Angry Atheist: I’m On a Podcast

I am so terrible at selling myself. It’s almost embarrassing.

In any case, earlier this week I had the pleasure of joining the Angry Atheist on his podcast, the Angry Atheist Podcast. You can check it out here.

Looks like I’m moving up in the world. And yes, I do apologize to those Angry Atheist podcast listeners who have come here expecting something interesting…I’m kinda not.

Hobby Lobby Case And Derailing Secular Gains

I’m going to go out on a limb here with this Hobby Lobby case and say something that is going to be pretty controversial. Just not in the way you might imagine.

The current Hobby Lobby case before the Supreme Court, as well as similar incidents and issues around the country, are keeping the religious level of the United States high and preventing the gradual shift to a more secular nation.

I’m not saying that because conservatives and religious folk are using the suit to maintain their religious beliefs – through employer health insurance – against the tide of reasonable secularists. No, I’m saying this because I think those who want to force employers to violate their religious consciences are in the wrong and are reinforcing the other side.

Look at this this way. Say that Hobby Lobby is allowed to avert the contraception mandate and other health insurance requirements by claiming a religious exemption. Okay, so those things are now no longer paid for by your employer. (This is far different from saying they are dictating people’s lives outside of work. Not paying for your decisions does not equal dictating those decisions. Some CNN commenters have forgotten that.) This fact, I assure you, will be loudly trumpeted throughout the media and people will know about it.

Now let’s see what happens. Those who don’t support the policy will refuse to shop at Hobby Lobby and not give them any money. Indeed, I suspect this will be a majority of Americans, even Christians. Of course, those who actually shop there will be far smaller, but I think there will probably be a boycott movement or two. They might even have some success.

Let’s have this process continue. More people become secular, and instead of forcing their ideas on the religious folk, just allow them to live their lives (without harming anyone else, of course.) The religious folk don’t see themselves as under threat as they do now, and may actually start to talk to the more secular people out there. They may even see them as Americans. And with that, you might actually get through to them, and if not cause them to rethink their views, maybe their children will.

Compare to that to what is going on in America today: we have cases like Hobby Lobby dominating the media, where religious people feel they are under attack by a pernicious, left-wing, godless conspiracy. They go on the defensive and start to rally and organize. They use the Supreme Court case as a perfect tool for fundraising and email list collection. And they naturally shut themselves off from listening to the other side, as they perceive what is coming at them not to be words, but bullets.

It happens with pretty much every controversial topic these days, if not since the beginning of time.

Don’t get me wrong. I want to see a world where religion is something of the past, where people have stopped believing in supernatural beliefs and instead relegate such things to the realm of fantasy (and maybe get a bit too excited about their favorite TV show). I want a world where science – proper science, not the bastardized progressive worshipping meshuggnah we seem to have today (to see what I mean, Google “anti-vaccine,” “GMOs,” “fracking,” etc) – rules the day, and we can leap far beyond our current selves and advance into a new world where suffering may just possibly be eliminated. We might have room for some secular philosophy such as Secular Humanism or (a toned down variant of) Objectivism, but for the most part I don’t even want that, as they still carry faint threats of straightjacketism and dogmatism in the wings.

However, what is going on today is the wrong way to go about it. Such change can never be forced. European nobles attempted to do so by forcing their subjects to follow the same religion they did; what they got were centuries of religious warfare and pointless struggles. Not until John Locke came around with his revolutionary ideas that, in someone’s mind, that person is sovereign (and thus religion is a wholly individual choice) did this silliness begin to come to an end. Let’s not forget either that this country was, philosophically speaking, built on Locke’s ideas.

By using government to try and force employers to violate their religious consciences – in the name of “health care,” no less – we’re risking starting that up again, and undoing all the advances we’ve made in the past two centuries. Do I think it will come to actual violence? I find that unlikely – Americans talk a good game about kicking ass and being manly, but in general we’re rather reluctant to actually bite, as declining crime rates show – but on the other hand, you never know. Two months ago I didn’t think Russia would actually invade and annex a part of Ukraine.

I do think, however, that it is a largely unnecessary and pointless antagonism of the religious America – which is still about 79% of the population, if my memory serves. We really shouldn’t be having this debate in the first place; government shouldn’t be telling employers what they can and can’t pay for, and if I’m brutally honest we should never have tied health insurance to employers in the first place! (Thanks, FDR.) It’s just as my friends Trevor Burrus and Aaron Ross Powell say: politics makes us worse. It leads to fights that, if government stayed out of the matter entirely, would never have become fights. One side would do X, the other side would do Y, and we’d go our merry ways. Instead, because government force is involved, everything becomes a battleground that must be fought over, lest the “other” is able to impose it’s values onto you at the expense of your liberty.

We cannot force our way to a more secular nation. It can only come naturally and through organic processes.

It’s truly tragic, especially when you consider how it’s harming our society’s development. Oh, we’re still progressing in many key areas, but I just think if some people stopped trying to push their own ideology on everybody else and just let things work naturally, society would be progressing a lot faster.

 

PS: If you like this blog post, you might like my Op-Ed on Why The GOP Should Not Turn Away From Secularism over at Practical Politicking.

 

Image from Matt Wade Photography, via Wikimedia, published under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

A quick thought on the Crimean situation

I’ve heard more than a few people talk about Vladimir Putin as if he is some sort of genius who easily outwitted our flat-footed president. But I’m not that confident. Here is a story from the New York Times:

MOSCOW — The day after he returned from the Winter Olympics, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia gathered the 12 members of his national security council for a crisis meeting to manage a political implosion in Ukraine that, by all accounts, had surprised Russia’s political and military elite and, above all, infuriated Mr. Putin himself.

One prominent member of the council, Valentina I. Matviyenko, chairwoman of the upper house of Parliament, emerged from the meeting declaring that it was impossible that Russia would invade Crimea, yet a couple of days later Russian troops were streaming into the peninsula.

When Mr. Putin made his first public remarks on the crisis on Tuesday, he said that Russia would not support Crimea’s efforts to secede. On Friday, the Kremlin allowed a mass pro-secession rally in Red Square while senior lawmakers loyal to Mr. Putin welcomed a delegation from Crimea and pledged support to make it a new province of the Russian Federation.

That doesn’t exactly scream “methodical evil mastermind” to me.

Of course some people will criticize this narrative because it comes from the New York Times. I’m not so sure. Some people just like to see misdirection and intelligence where there isn’t; it’s part of the human mind’s nature to see patterns where they don’t exist. I’m not, by any means, calling Putin stupid; he is a shrewd, dangerous man. But still, I think Ukraine probably blind-sided him; nobody expected Yanukovych to flee so suddenly and give up power so quickly. Putin also probably felt he had a duty to protect and secure the Russian naval base in Sevastopol, which is a strategic interest for himself and Russia. His only card to play? Send in troops to secure the region as Ukraine entered a period of instability.

Putin probably doesn’t want to take over Crimea directly as a Russian federal subject. It would make a difficult situation more tense and no matter how hypocritical the rhetoric might be or fallacious the argument, it would stir up a lot of resentment towards Russia that Putin frankly doesn’t need. But I would bet dollars to donuts that there are some ultranationalists within Putin’s own party who would love to get Crimea, and are subtly pushing things that way. So what we have is that Putin needs to appease the more radical members of his own government while also trying not to annoy the West too much. Even though the West is, admittedly, powerless to do anything in Crimea, he still wants to keep relations smooth for future needs. And bad PR is just bad PR.

I don’t envy the guy, that’s for sure.

Of course, not being a foreign policy expert, I could be completely wrong, but I don’t think things are playing out right for Putin either. Which only reinforces my opinion that right now, the best thing we can do (other than exporting American natural gas to Europe, which would weaken Russia’s economic hegemony over Europe, as well be, you know, free trade) is really nothing at all. This is not America’s business, and for once I can say I am content with our president’s current stance.

The Day We Fight Back – #StopTheNSA

I shouldn’t have to write anything like this. It should be painfully obvious why privacy is important. It should be blindingly clear why it is wrong to have the National Security Agency put tracking devices in your computers, collect all your phone calls and emails, and turn on your webcam to spy on you directly.

These things are just not permissible.

Sadly, American society has become all the more accepting of these things in the past decade. Perhaps accepting isn’t the right word; maybe it is “resigned.” Either that or they just think they have nothing to hide, which is a painfully stupid thing to say.

A world without privacy is a world where we lack individuality. Sure, we share a lot of things on our social media accounts. But the point is we choose to share. We don’t have others deciding what is public and what isn’t. With all of our secrets laid bare, suddenly we start to censor ourselves, to conform, to stop being ourselves.

Think of what happened to people in East Germany or Soviet Russia. Think of the social atomization that went on in these societies. The pain, the fear, the terror.

A society cannot survive without privacy, without civil liberties, without individuality. A democracy cannot survive.

That is why I too am fighting back against the NSA. Stop it today. Stop it before it stops all of us.