Friday, June 3, 2011

an open letter to Libertarians

Dear Libertarian,
I have a question for you. It is a question that, until answered, will prevent me from joining you. But before we get to my question, I want to start by congratulating you on the ways you have revitalized the political debate in my country. You share positions with both the liberal and conservative branches of our extremely polarized political landscape, and as such, you bring the hope that rational thought has a chance against the media blitz of buzz words and polarization that has toxified American politics ever since the Reagan era.

In order to look at how you have done this, we need to see how you agree and disagree with each of the status quo parties. Once we have done that, I can ask my question.

The size of government:
There is the perception that Republicans want to reduce the size and role of government, and that Democrats want to expand the size and role of government. This is not actually true. Republicans actually want to expand government as much as Democrats do, but the real difference is about where to put the expansion. Democrats want to expand the social safety net, and Republicans want to expand the imperialistic foreign policy machine that opens doors for mega-corporations to exploit resources around the globe. For the most part, this Republican expansion of government is focused on the machinery of the  military and espionage. It relies on a misguided sense of uber-patriotism and the perception of threats from abroad to keep the public supporting this expansion. 9/11/2001 and the ensuing Iraq war was the mother of all examples of this strategy.

It appears to me that you are honest and consistent in your claims to actually want smaller government, since you point to the positions of both parties as examples of wrongheaded expansionism.

Closely related to size of government is the issue of taxation. Here you appear to be in line with Republicans, but this again is not exactly the case. If the Republicans had to choose between imperial expansion and taxation, they would tax. They only use the issue of taxation as a bludgeon to go after the social programs of the Democrats. Your position is more consistent, calling for the reduction of both military and social spending. Tax cutting appears to be a genuine concern for you.

Foreign Policy:
I have hinted at this above. Republican foreign policy is clearly imperialistic. It is all about who will cooperate with international corporate expansion and who will not. Who will allow their resources to be exploited by interests in or allied with the U.S. and who will not. This is how we define friends and enemies.

The Democrats are cautious about veering too far afield from Republican imperialism, for several reasons. Their bread is buttered by the same corporate donors. And the stigma of being perceived as "unpatriotic" keeps them from being too aggressive in shifting foreign policy away from the military and toward a humanitarian but equally meddlesome policy.

Somehow, unlike the Democrats, you have managed to find a position on this that calls the patriotic bluff of the Republicans.

Domestic Policy:
I have hinted at this above as well. Simply put, Republicans believe that the social safety net fosters dependency and creates a class of people who are under incentivized and, to put it bluntly, lazy. They would eliminate or privatize the social safety net if given free run. They would also privatize most of the function that we associate with government. This is based on an unflinching belief that Capitalism somehow is the panacea for all social and economic ills. In a purely Republican system there would be a very small government minimally overseeing a vast array of corporate systems to maintain what the founding fathers referred to as "the commons": roads and bridges, schools, public safety, and national defense. Republicans would sell off government to corporate interests with the idea that competition would regulate. This puts a lot of confidence in the good will of mega-corporations, and would throw us into medieval feudalism at the hands of those same corporations almost overnight.

Democrats on the other hand, appear to see government as the solution to most of the problems that beset society. In the past, and in the rhetoric of hard core conservatives still now, the Democratic approach has been labeled as "socialism".  Democrats see social safety net programs as a helping hand to those who have fallen through the cracks and are suppressed by their lack of resources to participate in society effectively. They do not trust corporations and are averse to privatization of the commons. They tend to favor regulation due to their lack of trust of corporations, and due to their deep seated belief that corporations will abuse the public interest in favor of the bottom line. They tend to believe that the profit motive is not in the best interest of any but the shareholders of that profit. As such, Democrats tend to believe that more government is good for it's watchdog role as well as its role as protector and provider of the commons. Democrats tend to take this enthusiasm for the benefits of government to extremes, and attempt to solve all social and economic ills with more regulation and more taxes.

It is clear to me that you are not happy with the Democrats reliance on government as the panacea for all problems. It is not clear to me where you stand on the issues of privatization of the commons, so I cannot characterize my understanding of your position related to the Republicans.

Confidence in human nature:
This section is not about Republicans and Democrats. Both seem to be cynical about human nature, and seek, in their own ways, to manipulate and control. The Republicans by reducing human nature to the profit motive, and the Democrats by reducing human nature to a parent child relationship. This section is about Libertarians. You seem to base your desire for less government on a deep belief that people have an internal compass, and if left to their own devices, will do the right thing. Libertarianism, as far as I can tell, is based on confidence in that internal compass to guide the evolution of society. The reason we do not see this moral compass at work more clearly, according to the theory, is that we are all reacting to the two polar influences of the political parties on society, and are thus kept off balance.

The question:
This brings us to the question that I need to get answered. I really want to believe that you are right. With a clean slate, maybe you would be. But our slate is far from clean. So how do we get there from here. We live in a world where corporations have more rights than humans. We live in a world divided between the haves and the have-nots. There are ultra-wealthy controllers of the society that will not relinquish their grip on the controls willingly, and have all the power to maintain those controls. (These controllers are behind both of the parties and the corporate media, and use these as tools to keep us arguing amongst ourselves rather than turning our attention toward them.) So I repeat. How do we get to the libertarian ideal from where we are today? To simply dismantle the social network and our foreign policy overnight would not work. There are too many frustrations and resentments built up in the population of our nation and our world to allow a healthy transition. Blood would flow in the streets. Abuse would be rampant while the pressure was released. I have not heard a coherent roadmap outlined yet for how to get us from where we are today to the libertarian world that seems so compelling. I need to see that roadmap to get on board.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

some thoughts on the demise of Bin Laden

Was he armed?
There has been a great deal of discussion this week about whether or not Osama Bin Laden was armed when US Navy Seal Team 6 aprehended and killed him. This article from NPR summarizes the transcripts of what was said officially on the subject as the story unfolded: On Whether Bin Laden Was Armed.

I find this whole obsession amusing in a morbid sense. Americans have all grown up with and internalized the western movie code that you don't shoot an unarmed man. The ethical gunslinger would sometimes even give a gun to the bad guy so he could kill him in good conscience. The idea behind this is that good people only kill when there is no other choice. And so, even though the American public seems elated and broadly supportive of the operation of Seal Team 6 and its outcome, we still need to know if the bad guy drew first.

While most of America will not lose a moment's sleep over the demise of Bin Laden, the idea that he didn't pull out his six shooter and die in a "fair" fight is clearly of interest to us. The fact that early statements from officials implied that he did speaks to the sensitivity of Americans on the subject.

My personal feeling about this is that it is not related to the wild west, nor to American fairy tale sensibilities. This was a cold, calculated, thoroughly planned and painstakingly executed operation by the only global super power. It had nothing to do with US Marshal Matt Dillon's moral character. Nothing ever done by a super power has anything to do with our John Wayne national self image. All that is window dressing for mass consumption. That OBL would die a violent death at the hands of the state was almost inevitable.  And he very likely expected it. He certainly set himself up for it.

What is really at stake here is the energy and direction of the age we live in at a global scale. and that brings us to my second point.

Does it really matter?
The other big question on the minds of everyone these days is what impact this development will have on global terrorism as an organizing principle. Will this demoralize al Qaida or steel their resolve? Will it bring new converts to the movement or will it frighten them off.  Terrorism is already losing its lustre. Yes, it's still out there, and still going on, but the Arab and Muslim worlds have moved on. They have discovered a more effective model for change.

As evidence, I submit to you Tunisia, and Egypt, and all the middle eastern nations in which the populations are standing up and openly and collectively challenging the oppressors that have governed them brutally for so long. Terrorism is for people who fear reprisals if they protest openly. What is happening now is not cloaked in fear and subversion, but rather, has gone beyond that, to revolution at any cost. It is open and direct.

Terrorism thrives when the powers that be are so strong that they cannot be opposed openly. When the hunger for freedom overcomes fear and stands up at any cost, irresistible forces are humbled and terrorism ceases to be useful or relevant. The world is moving into a new phase of openness. And so, the death of Osama Bin Laden, while inevitable and emotionally satisfying to many Americans, is too late to be significant as more than a marker of an era already in decline, and so is irrelevant in the shifting of planetary forces currently under way.

Footnote: This article showed up online hours after I posted.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


My submission to the Citizens Briefing Book came too late in the cycle to get traction in the voting, but there is a grass roots movement forming anyway.

Check out this link to see the suggestions bubbling up on the subject, and submit your own thoughts there if you are so inclined.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Citizens Briefing Book

I just came across the Citizens Briefing Book at I have no idea how effective this will be in helping the new administration to stay in touch with the grass roots, but I like the idea.

There are thousands of ideas listed there, many of which are redundant. One of them so far was originated by me, and it is a topic you are familiar with from these pages. You can find it here.

I strongly suggest that you sign up with this government web site and vote on the ideas that you feel strongly about. I have just begun to browse through the ideas there, and it's a bit overwhelming if you try to absorb it all. I started by searching for a few topics. By far, the issue of the drug war and decriminalization of marijuana is the most active topic I have come across so far. Also very active is the issue of investigating the outgoing administration for war crimes.

Check it out.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

that pesky liberal media bias

Why is it that conservatives tend to think the media is biased in favor of liberals?

Before we can talk about the liberal bent of the media, we must get a good grasp of what it means to be liberal or conservative, so if you haven't read my post entitled you might actually be a conservative, go back and do so now.

Ok, now that we're all up to speed, it is no surprise that conservatives would think the media has a liberal bias. Remember that the prime directive for conservatives is to preserve the way things are or were.

Now consider the role and purpose of the press: discovery of the facts, where ever they lie, and whatever the consequence. At least that's the ideal. When the press loses its objectivity and slants the news to support a specific position, we call that propaganda. Propaganda is inherently conservative because its purpose is to preserve or enhance a specific view of how things are or "should" be. Note that propaganda can be used to protect either the Republican or Democratic points of view, but in either case it is conservative.

As I have written about liberalism and conservatism, I have tried to use the most neutral language I can. But the fact is that some aspects of conservatism are hard to describe neutrally. For example, the simple truth is that liberal thinking is open minded while conservative thinking is closed minded. As I say this, I am painfully aware that some of you might think that I am attacking you because you think of yourself as a conservative. If you consider yourself closed minded, then the shoe fits and you should wear it. But if you hold well considered, thoroughly examined views that the conventional thinking considers to be conservative, I am not talking about you at all.

If you are truly open minded, and still come to the same conclusions you have always held, then you are acting liberally. If you are closed minded, whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, you are acting conservatively.

I feel like I am beating this point to death, but it is very important, and a radical departure from how the two party system treats the subject. Neither party is open minded about their pet issues, and it is an illusion to call either one liberal.

This is revealed in the fact that both Democrats and Republicans tend to believe the press is slanted against them. That is because for the most part, the press is not carrying their water. There are exceptions, and press neutrality is never perfect, but the best evidence that it still exists is the dissatisfaction of both sides with press coverage.

To the degree that the press holds on to it's open minded neutral objectivity, it is liberal. It is liberal in the best sense of the word, and will hold the two poles of American politics in balance.
So yes, the press is mostly liberal and you should be very, very glad. The only alternative is propaganda.

You might actually be a conservative

What I really want to talk about now is the U.S. Constitution, and about why conservatives think the press is liberal. But those will be other posts, since before I can go there, I need to define some terms. Specifically, we need to get straight on the terms "liberal" and "conservative."

Today in the United States, most of us think that these terms are simply the labels that indicate whether or not you are a Democrat or a Republican. Most of us think that issues like gay rights, taxation, prayer in schools, abortion, support of the military, and fiscal policy, to name a few, are issues for which the Democratic position is liberal and the Republican position is conservative.

We tend to use these two terms as labels to cubbyhole ourselves and each other according to where we stand on the issues. There is some value, and some truth behind all of this, but there is a basic problem too.

Liberal and conservative are not sets of beliefs, but rather, ways of thinking. A liberal views the world from a perspective different from the way a conservative views the world, and as a result, usually arrives at a different set of conclusions. But sometimes, the two approaches can arrive at the same conclusion, or can flip flop their conclusions over time. So what is it that makes us liberal or conservative if it is not a specific set of positions on the issues of the day?

A good starting place is the dictionary. I found these definitions of the terms in the dictionary built into my Mac:

conservative |kənˈsərvətiv; -vəˌtiv|
holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation, typically in relation to politics or religion.
• (of dress or taste) sober and conventional : a conservative suit.
• (of an estimate) purposely low for the sake of caution : the film was not cheap—$30,000 is a conservative estimate.
• (of surgery or medical treatment) intended to control rather than eliminate a condition, with existing tissue preserved as far as possible.
a person who is averse to change and holds to traditional values and attitudes, typically in relation to politics.

liberal |ˈlib(ə)rəl|
1 open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values : they have more liberal views toward marriage and divorce than some people.
• favorable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms : liberal citizenship laws.
• (in a political context) favoring maximum individual liberty in political and social reform : a liberal democratic state.
• Theology regarding many traditional beliefs as dispensable, invalidated by modern thought, or liable to change.
2 [ attrib. ] (of education) concerned mainly with broadening a person's general knowledge and experience, rather than with technical or professional training.
3 (esp. of an interpretation of a law) broadly construed or understood; not strictly literal or exact : they could have given the 1968 Act a more liberal interpretation.
4 given, used, or occurring in generous amounts : liberal amounts of wine had been consumed.
• (of a person) giving generously : Sam was too liberal with the wine.
a person of liberal views.

As you can see, these terms are about ways of thinking, rather than about the conclusions you come to. It is my contention that liberalism is rare in this country. Yes, the Democrats won the last two elections, but that doesn't mean that the country is getting more liberal. It means that more people have aligned their thinking, to some degree, with Democratic philosophy. But Democratic philosophy has been around, in more or less its current form, since World War II. It was truly liberal back in the Roosevelt years, and when the civil rights movement was forming. But all that was a generation or two ago. Since the Vietnam war, the Democratic Party has been pretty set in its ways. Most of it's members are not open minded about issues. They are entrenched in positions, largely opposing the positions held by Republicans. In that sense, one could argue that both parties are reactionary regarding each other, with little fresh thinking to be found anywhere.

Democrats tend to be just as locked into pre-defined beliefs and assumptions as Republicans, and to the degree to which this is the case, are not liberal. They are just a different flavor of conservatives who want not to preserve the Reagan golden age, but rather the Roosevelt or Clinton or Kennedy/Johnson golden age. If you think a Democrat is liberal, open minded, and willing to consider that the way he has always seen the issues might not be just fine the way it is right now, ask him to consider the issue of abortion. This is a truly difficult issue for which there are no clear cut, black and white solutions, and for which liberal thinking would be very helpful. But both sides in this debate became polarized in the early 70's, and no liberal thinking seems to have occurred on the subject since the battle lines were drawn with the Roe v. Wade decision. The most liberal thinking I have seen on this topic is a speech delivered to a Sojouners conference a couple of years ago by Barack Obama.

I would go so far as to say that some of the self-described conservatives I know are actually pretty liberal, and that some self-described liberals are actually pretty conservative. On balance though, a good liberal is hard to find.

So in summary, liberalism and conservatism are not political party dogma, but rather orientation to the world we live in. Neither is inherently better than the other, but serve us best if held in balance. We should not throw out the baby with the bathwater but we should be willing to consider an improved baby washing system if it comes along. Our political parties are not inherently liberal or conservative, but tend to orient along these lines. And liberalism is relatively rare. People just tend to stay with what is familiar and comfortable, even when that is an illusion of liberality.

Hopefully you get my point. It will be important background perspective for a number of issues that I will address in the future.

The term "progressive" is not a proper synonym for "liberal." Progressive means in favor of progress. Progressiveness means being in favor of moving forward. It says nothing about the direction of movement, or whether that movement is liberal or conservative. One could argue that George W. Bush was progressive. He made great strides in furthering his philosophies of preemptive military action, the unitary executive, and the corporatization of government. But none of that is inherently liberal. Democrats should stop hiding behind this term and get real about becoming actual liberals instead.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

don't piss on my boot and tell me it's raining

The title line for this post is an old Texas saying made famous a while back by Paul Begala with respect to "trickle down economics."

There is a widespread sentiment in America that Republicans in office are better for business, stocks, and the economy than Democrats. The logic of this sentiment is based in part on the tendency of Republicans to reduce taxation, regulation, and all sorts of interference by government in the affairs of business. There is a general belief that business knows best and functions more efficiently than government, and thus the economy will prosper if government just stays out of the way.

Closely related to the notion that Republicans are better for business, is the concept of supply side economics. (Critics of this economic theory call it "trickle down economics." Being a critic of the theory, I will do so hereafter.) According to Wikipedia, "trickle down economics holds that economic gains by the wealthy are spent by investment or purchases that result in jobs for middle and lower class individuals." Trickle down theory(TDT) is the Republicans and Libertarians answer to poverty. Trickle downers are fond of quoting JFK when he said, "A rising tide floats all boats."

Another closely related concept is Free Market Capitalism (FMC). The idea here is that supply and demand is the best way to regulate pretty much everything. Republicans and Libertarians believe that FMC will provide the best management of prices, labor costs, healthcare costs, poverty, ... you name it.

The overarching idea here is that if (Republican) government stays out of the way, business, in its wisdom, will prosper, and that prosperity will spread to the general population.

CXO Advisory Group ( is a financial research organization that tests all sorts of claims and assumptions about the market. Their web site states that "Our default approach is to challenge any and all conventional market wisdom with analytical skepticism."
Their research suggests that the case described above is not quite so simple. In summary, they state that U.S. stocks tend to be most overvalued under Democratic Presidents, under popular Presidents, during election years and during years when no new major military conflicts start. Conversely, they conclude that U.S. stocks tend to be most undervalued under Republican Presidents, under unpopular Presidents, and during years when new major military conflicts begin. Follow this link to see their conclusions in more detail:

This suggests that the conventional wisdom on Republicans being better for the economy is all wrong.

The first problem I have with this conventional thinking is the assumption that business always knows best. Publicly traded corporations are legally obligated to make the greatest possible profits for their stock holders. They are not legally obliged to provide American jobs, good wages, or any particular benefits to their workers and their community, or any particular level of quality in their products. My contention is that business cannot see the forest for the trees, and is incapable of acting in its own best long term interest. The trees that block the view are quarterly profits. Corporations are obliged to do what works now. CEOs and CFOs are under extreme pressure to show profits not five or ten years out, but right now.

The second problem I see is with the logic of Free Market Capitalism. FMC argues that everything is best governed by the tug of war between supplier and consumer. FMC treats employees as both consumers (of benefits and wages) and suppliers (of labor) and leaves them on their own to find the best deal they can. FMC seeks to eliminate government regulation of labor, products, and business practices generally on the assumption that these things will find an acceptable balance between what suppliers can get away with and what consumers will tolerate. There is a level at which this theory is correct, but the problem is that that level is the level of the least common denominator. The result is mediocrity both for supplier and consumer. Each gets, and gives the least result tolerable to the other. This became clear to me when my employer touted their commitment to providing "the most competitive health care benefits available on the market." That sounded like they were competing for my approval, but in reality it meant that they were competing with other employers to keep their health care costs as low as possible while retaining employees. The net effect was that the benefits diminished steadily year after year.

The third problem is with the underlying premise of trickle down theory. To illustrate this problem, consider the JFK quote. "A rising tide floats all boats." Trickle-downers think of the water as profits and wealth, and the boats as people and business. Their assumption is that wealth is the water that lifts people and business to prosperity. This is just weird. It's like assuming that the level of the ocean is regulated by the amount of water pumped out of boats, since people and business are the sources of wealth. But even trickle-downers know this is not really true. The market is highly sensitive to things like the labor and consumer sentiment data, because everyone knows that these are the real tide that floats business. The reality is that wealth and profits well up from a healthy, robust populace that has expendable income and a secure lifestyle. How ridiculous is it to think that a handful of ultra-wealthy corporations and individuals are the sea, and 400 million consumers are the boats! In reality, business soars when the population prospers, not the other way around. And this is why the economy improves with Democrats in office. They regulate business to protect the population at large from the excesses of the untempered profit motive, and spend money to stimulate and foster a social safety net and labor environment that increase the prosperity of workers and consumers...and that's the rising tide that JFK was talking about. FDR proved this with his new deal economy that pumped cash into the economy through jobs and social programs that improved the well-being of the population at large and ended the great depression, which was caused BTW by unregulated business under the Republicans watch.

Thanks to Jason Kelly for tipping me off to the existence of CXO Advisory Group.