Who’s On First? Private Property or Competition?

David Brin trained as a scientist, has written science fiction and consults with the government and corporations regarding what will happen next. He’s not an economist, but he’s written an interesting little article about right-wing ideology. It’s called “Stop Using Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek to Support Your Political Ideology: The Irony of Faith in Blind Markets”. 

Brin cites John Robb, an author, “military analyst” and entrepreneur, as a big influence on his thinking. Robb isn’t an economist either, but here are a couple of paragraphs from his blog

The only way to manage an economy as complex as [ours] is to allow massively parallel decision making.  A huge number of economically empowered people making small decisions, that in aggregate, are able to process more data, get better data (by being closer to the problem), and apply more brainpower to weighing alternatives than any centralized decision making group.

In other words, central planning cannot cope with the economies of developed nations in the modern world. We need the Invisible Hand of the market. Yet: 

…an extreme concentration of wealth at the center of our market economy has led to a form of central planning.   The concentration of wealth is now in so few hands and is so extreme in degree, that the combined liquid financial power of all of those not in this small group is inconsequential to determining the direction of the economy.  As a result, we now have the equivalent of centralized planning in global marketplaces.  A few thousand extremely wealthy people making decisions on the allocation of our collective wealth.  The result was inevitable:  gross misallocation [of resources] across all facets of the private economy. 

Getting back to Brin, he argues that:

….across 4,000 years we’ve seen that whenever a small group of men become powerful enough to control an economy and command-allocate its resources, they will do so according to biased perceptions, in-group delusions and fatally limited knowledge. Whether they do the normal oligarchic thing—cheating for self-interest—or else sincerely try to “allocate for the good of all,” they will generally do it badly.

So what’s the solution? Brin says it’s competition: “the most creative force in the universe”: 

By dividing and separating power and—more importantly—empowering the majority with education, health, rights and knowledge, we enabled vast numbers of people to participate in markets, democracy and science. This has had twin effects, never seen in earlier cultures.

  1. It means everybody can find out when a person stumbles onto something cool, better or right, even if that person came from a poor background.
  2. It allows us to hold each other accountable for things that are wrong, worse or uncool, even when the bad idea comes at us from someone mighty.

…cutting through countless foolish notions that held sway for millennia—like the assumption that your potential is predetermined by who your father was—while unleashing creativity, knowledge, freedom, and positive-sum wealth to a degree that surpassed all other societies, combined.

Even the most worrisome outcomes of success, like overpopulation, wealth stratification and environmental degradation, come accompanied by good news— the fact that so many of us are aware, involved, reciprocally critical, and eager to innovate better ways.

Some have argued that cooperation has contributed just as much to human progress as competition has, but putting that issue aside, Brin arrives at his major point: the people who call themselves “conservatives” and claim to revere thinkers like Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek, both of whom extolled the benefits of a competitive market, don’t really believe in competition:

The problem is that it’s all lip service on the right! Those who most loudly proclaim Faith In Blind Markets … are generally also those proclaiming idolatry of private property as a pure, platonic essence, a tenet to be clutched with religious tenacity, as it was in feudal societies. Obdurate, they refuse to see that they are conflating two very different things.

Private property—as Adam Smith made clear—is a means for encouraging the thing he really wanted: fair and open competition….But anyone who actually reads Adam Smith also knows that he went on and on about that “fair and open” part! Especially how excessive disparities of wealth and income destroy competition…. When today’s libertarians praise the creative power of competition, then ignore the unlimited [worship of property] that poisoned it across the ages, we are witnessing historical myopia and dogmatic illogic, of staggering magnitude….

But in rejecting one set of knowledge-limited meddlers—100,000 civil servants—libertarians and conservatives seem bent on ignoring market manipulation by 5,000 or so aristocratic golf buddies, who appoint each other to company boards in order to vote each other titanic “compensation packages” while trading insider information and conspiring together to eliminate competition. Lords who are not subject to inherent limits, like each bureaucrat must face, or rules of disclosure or accountability. Lords who (whether it is legal or not) collude and share the same delusions….

Hence, at last, the supreme irony.  Those who claim most-fervent dedication to the guiding principle of our Enlightenment: competition, reciprocal accountability and enterprise—our neighbors who call themselves conservative or libertarian—have been talked into conflating that principle with something entirely different. Idolatry of private wealth, sacred and limitless. A dogmatic-religious devotion that reaches its culmination in the hypnotic cantos of Ayn Rand. Or in the Norquist pledge to cut taxes on the rich under all circumstances—during war or peace, in fat years or lean—without limit and despite the failure of any Supply Side predictions ever, ever, ever coming true.

An idolatry that leads, inevitably to the ruination of all competition and restoration of the traditional human social order that ruled our ancestors going back to cuneiform tablets — Feudalism

As Paul Krugman has often pointed out, it’s not the 1% that’s the problem. It’s more like the 0.001% (Brin’s “golf buddies” and their ilk around the world) whose vast wealth makes them modern-day aristocrats. It’s also those who Krugman called “enablers” in today’s column – the minions who spread the “private property is sacred” and “government destroys liberty” gospel. If these so-called “conservatives” were true to the spirit of Adam Smith, they’d celebrate “mass education, civil rights, child nutrition and national infrastructure etc.”, which Brin mentions, as well as antitrust enforcement, workers’ rights and environmental protection, all of which have “empowered greater numbers of citizens to join the fair and open process of Smithian competition”.

PS – Brin’s article is on a site called Evonomics: The Next Revolution in Economics. It’s worth visiting.

It’s Alright, Ma (I Was Only Bleeding)

Here’s one of those inventions that sounds too good to be true. From Suneris Inc.’s site:

Constantly experimenting with different natural materials in the lab as a young adult, Joe Landolina conceived an adhesive hemostatic gel composed of plant-based polymers that could adhere to a wound site and simultaneously support the natural clotting process.

In other words, you squeeze some of this stuff on an open wound and it stops the bleeding in seconds. In addition, it apparently grows new tissue.

Discovery News reported on this Star Trek-like technology three years ago (warning: video contains jokes and blood):

Vetigel is now being sold to veterinarians. Let’s hope it works well enough to be used one day on soldiers, accident victims and other human beings, including iconic bleeding rock stars:

Pro-Market or Pro-Big Business?

“Donald Trump, Crony Capitalist” is a nice little article by Luigi Zingales, a professor at the University of Chicago’s business school. He analyzes one aspect of Trump’s surprising presidential campaign: the fact that Trump presents himself as a critic of big business, even though he’s a long-standing member of “the pro-business establishment”.

One of the best parts of Zingales’s article is his explanation of the difference between big business and the free market. He says the Republican establishment has spent years obscuring that difference, claiming to be champions of the free market while serving as “big business’s mouthpiece”.

Supporting the market means being in favor of competition and against concentrated economic power. Zingales cites Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican President from a century ago. From Wikipedia:

One of Roosevelt’s first notable acts as president was to deliver a 20,000-word address to Congress asking it to curb the power of large corporations (called “trusts”). He also spoke in support of organized labor to further chagrin big business … For his aggressive use of United States antitrust law, he became known as the “trust-buster”. He brought 40 antitrust suits, and broke up major companies, such as the largest railroad and Standard Oil, the largest oil company.

Being pro-market means you’re against monopolies (in which one company controls a market) and oligopolies (in which a few companies do). It also means you’re in favor of government regulations and policies that help make markets competitive. A fair, properly functioning market requires that the playing field be level, not slanted to the advantage of insiders or the powerful.

Big business, however, is totally in favor of special advantages when it increases profits. As Zingales says, “business executives are only pro-market when they want to enter a new sector”. But:

[Once] they become established in a sector, they favor entry restrictions, excessive licensing, distortive regulation and corporate subsidies. Those policies are pro-business (in the sense that they favor existing businesses), but they are harmful and distort a competitive market economy.

Zingales points out, for example, how rare it is for Republican politicians to call for antitrust enforcement, the prosecution of white-collar criminals and pro-market policies like fostering competition in the market for prescription drugs. That’s because the men who run the Republican Party are in the business of protecting big business, not the market.

Many of his supporters think Trump is fervently pro-market, but:

As a businessman Mr. Trump has a longstanding habit of using his money and power aggressively to obtain special deals from the government… He is, in short, the essence of that commingling of big business and government that goes under the name of crony capitalism.

Anyway, it’s a good little article that’s worth reading even if you’re sick of hearing about the Republican freak show currently touring the country.

Parting thought:

The Bill of Rights would have been better if the Second Amendment, including its call for a properly-regulated militia, had never been written. In its place, we could have had an amendment like this:

A well-regulated Market, being necessary to the prosperity of a free State, the right of the people to enjoy the benefits of fair competition shall not be infringed except to benefit the Nation as a whole.

Automatic Weapons Again

A statistic from Vox:  More Americans have been killed with guns since 1968 than have died in all of our wars going back to 1776. 

Now, we all know that the purpose of “automatic” weapons is to disable or kill many people very quickly. Rational Americans understand that no private citizen should legally possess powerful weapons of this kind or the ammunition that goes with them. The Constitution doesn’t give us the right to bear any kind of “arms” no matter how dangerous. Making these weapons illegal does not require going down the slippery slope to banning all firearms. The United States isn’t going to invade Texas and even Texas isn’t the Wild West. More guns and more powerful guns means more innocent people being maimed and killed.  

But if law-abiding citizens don’t own such weapons, only criminals will! That’s exactly right. Police and the armed forces will have access to these weapons in case they’re needed. Anybody else who has an automatic weapon will be and should be a criminal.

From New York Times op-ed writer Timothy Egan’s article about our latest massacre:

A day after the California carnage, the Senate decided to do nothing, again, voting down a measure that would have made it more difficult for people on the terror watch list, felons and the mentally ill to buy guns.

Well, it wasn’t as if the whole Senate made that decision:

YEAs (Do Something) — 45
Baldwin (D-WI)
Bennet (D-CO)
Blumenthal (D-CT)
Booker (D-NJ)
Boxer (D-CA)
Brown (D-OH)
Cantwell (D-WA)
Cardin (D-MD)
Carper (D-DE)
Casey (D-PA)
Coons (D-DE)
Donnelly (D-IN)
Durbin (D-IL)
Feinstein (D-CA)
Franken (D-MN)
Gillibrand (D-NY)
Heinrich (D-NM)
Hirono (D-HI)
Kaine (D-VA)
King (I-ME)
Kirk (R-IL)
Klobuchar (D-MN)
Leahy (D-VT)
Manchin (D-WV)
Markey (D-MA)
McCaskill (D-MO)
Menendez (D-NJ)
Merkley (D-OR)
Mikulski (D-MD)
Murphy (D-CT)
Murray (D-WA)
Nelson (D-FL)
Peters (D-MI)
Reed (D-RI)
Reid (D-NV)
Sanders (I-VT)
Schatz (D-HI)
Schumer (D-NY)
Shaheen (D-NH)
Stabenow (D-MI)
Tester (D-MT)
Udall (D-NM)
Warren (D-MA)
Whitehouse (D-RI)
Wyden (D-OR)
NAYs (Do Nothing) — 54
Alexander (R-TN)
Ayotte (R-NH)
Barrasso (R-WY)
Blunt (R-MO)
Boozman (R-AR)
Burr (R-NC)
Capito (R-WV)
Cassidy (R-LA)
Coats (R-IN)
Cochran (R-MS)
Collins (R-ME)
Corker (R-TN)
Cornyn (R-TX)
Cotton (R-AR)
Crapo (R-ID)
Cruz (R-TX)
Daines (R-MT)
Enzi (R-WY)
Ernst (R-IA)
Fischer (R-NE)
Flake (R-AZ)
Gardner (R-CO)
Graham (R-SC)
Grassley (R-IA)
Hatch (R-UT)
Heitkamp (D-ND)
Heller (R-NV)
Hoeven (R-ND)
Inhofe (R-OK)
Isakson (R-GA)
Johnson (R-WI)
Lankford (R-OK)
Lee (R-UT)
McCain (R-AZ)
McConnell (R-KY)
Moran (R-KS)
Murkowski (R-AK)
Paul (R-KY)
Perdue (R-GA)
Portman (R-OH)
Risch (R-ID)
Roberts (R-KS)
Rounds (R-SD)
Rubio (R-FL)
Sasse (R-NE)
Scott (R-SC)
Sessions (R-AL)
Shelby (R-AL)
Sullivan (R-AK)
Thune (R-SD)
Tillis (R-NC)
Toomey (R-PA)
Vitter (R-LA)
Wicker (R-MS)

So, I have two recommendations. The first is for Democrats (D) and Independents (I): 

Support rational gun control, do what you can to make your position known and always vote, but never, ever vote for a Republican. 

The second is for Republicans (R):

Seek treatment from a qualified mental health professional. 

~~~~~

Times columnist Gail Collins describes some of the rationalizations offered by Republican politicians in support of doing nothing.

The Decline of the Militia

From What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 by Daniel Walker Howe:

Jeffersonians of the founding generation had reposed great confidence in the militia as an alternative to a standing army that could be used against the liberties of the people it supposedly protected.This militia, organized in each locality, consisted of all physically fit white males of military age, who would supply their own arms and donate as much of their time as necessary to keep in training and readiness when called upon to deal with insurrection or invasion. This was the “well regulated militia” postulated in the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights and prescribed by the federal Militia Act of 1792.

The militia had proved ineffective on many occasions in both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 (George Washington never put much trust in it), but its gradual disappearance in the generation after 1815 had nothing to do with its military shortcomings.

The militia gradually ceased to function because most male citizens resented it as an imposition, and hated serving in it so much that they either refused to show up for the periodic musters and drills, or if they came made a mockery of the occasion. Since the men who defied the militia laws constituted the electorate, politicians dated not to coerce service. White male democracy could successfully defy the law, as squatters defied landlords or Indian treaties…. When the war with Mexico came in 1846, the administration made little use of the militia and relied instead on its small professional army plus volunteers trained and equipped at government expense [p. 491].

Now, 170 years later, we have the most powerful military and most heavily-armed police in the world, while sad, angry men, with a death wish for themselves and others, “serve” in the “militia”.

PS – “994 mass shootings in 1,004 days”

Cutting the Cord (the Saga Continues)

A couple days ago, I went to the Comcast website to ask about eliminating our cable television service (the two online chats that resulted are recorded in an earlier post).

The two “analysts” with whom I chatted, Kaye and Marites, said the same thing: If I wanted to save money by canceling cable TV while keeping our phone and internet service (as part of a so-called “Double Play” package), I’d simply need to get in touch with some other Comcast employee:

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Having gathered my strength for almost 48 hours, I called 888-739-1379 today.

As the pessimistic (i.e. realistic) part of my mind expected, it wasn’t quite as easy as Kaye or Marites promised. In fact, Matthew explained that it would not be possible to get a “Double Play” discount by speaking to him or anyone else on the phone.

According to Matthew, my only option would be to visit the Comcast website, because, in his words (and the words of Marites too!): “they have more options for promotions”. Unfortunately, the best Matthew could do was offer me the “standard” arrangement for phone and Internet service. That would reduce my basic bill by – to quote from that earlier chat with Kaye – hardly anything at all:

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It never occurred to me before that one of the benefits of a huge monopolistic corporation providing support to its customers by phone and also by website is that (1) employees who answer the phone can tell customers to use the website and (2) employees who chat on the website can tell customers to use the phone.

It really is an elegant solution to the Customer Service Problem.

Next stop: Investigate getting phone service from one of the smaller companies that do that these days, as preparation for finally cutting the cable television cord. 

By the way, I know I should tell Comcast I want to cancel everything in order to get a better deal, but I’d prefer to end our relationship completely (even though Verizon isn’t a wonderful alternative). And I know that when the time comes for us to go our separate ways, I need to tell them I’m moving to Iceland. Or that I’m dead. According to this interesting article, Comcast doesn’t have answers for situations like that:

Save Attempt is Not Applicable in the Following Scenarios:
1) Customer is moving in with an existing Comcast customer (CAE [i.e. Comcast Retention Specialist] must verify Comcast services active at new address)
2) Customer is moving to a non-Comcast area (CAE must verify by looking up zip code)
3) Account holder is deceased / incapacitated
4) Temporary / seasonal disconnect and Seasonal Suspend Plan is not available in their area
5) Natural disaster
6) Customer doesn’t know what address they’re moving to.

Cutting the Cord (the Saga Begins)

I didn’t think it would be possible via an online chat to give Comcast less money, but decided to start there anyway.

com 1com 2

com 000

Twenty minutes and one reconnect later:

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com 5com 6Well, I didn’t expect anything else. But sometimes it’s good to get confirmation.

In fact, I’m very familiar with everything you can do at this site: http://customer.comcast.com. For one thing, you can add services but you can’t cancel them….