Lagniappe: February 2015

Update on 21st-Century Socialism
Venezuela has been in the news a lot lately, and it would appear that its descent into self-parody is now complete. Its state-sponsored tourism agency recently pulled an ad that used the tag line “We love Venezuela…for receiving foreigners as one of their own.” The tag line wasn’t the problem – the problem was the picture they used to accompany it. The ad included a picture of a very happy man. The ad was pulled when it came out that the reason the man (an American journalist based in Colombia) was so happy was that he had just been released after being detained for 48 hours by the Venezuelan government.

As I wrote in “Venezuela: Proving Mises Right,” the ridiculous economic controls imposed by the government have resulted (predictably) in shortages, scapegoating, and more government controls. The latest scapegoats are a group of store owners who were arrested recently by President Maduro for “annoying the Venezuelan people.” The long lines, shortages, and rampant inflation caused by the disastrous Chavista experiment have generated unrest in the country, but not to worry – the Maduro administration has authorized police to use deadly force against protesters.

21st-century socialism looks a lot like 20th-century totalitarianism.

Leave No Pocket Unpicked 
President Obama announced his budget proposal, and the starting price comes in at a whopping $4 trillion. It is chock full of tax hikes and spending programs designed to sink the government hook even deeper into the American people’s jaw. One such program is his scheme to make community college “free” (TANSTAAFCC) by forcing everyone to pay for it. Specifically, he had the bright idea to tax 529 college savings plans, effectively punishing the people who are responsible enough to save for college and using their hard-earned money to bribe reward the irresponsible. Progressives were referring to public education as “K-14″ almost before the ink was dry on the plan. Unfortunately for them (and fortunately for the rest of us), the backlash against Obama’s threat to renege on the deal the government made years ago when 529 accounts were created was so severe that he was soon forced to backpedal and drop the issue (once Nancy Pelosi convinced him it was “a distraction”).

That was just one proposal of many in the President’s plan to leave no pocket unpicked. Another is to raise taxes on companies’ foreign earnings. The President, who clearly does not care that the United States government already has one of the highest corporate income tax rates in the world, wants to hit them with a one-time 14% tax on accumulated overseas earnings, and a 19% minimum tax on future foreign profits. That’s where the money is, I guess.

The corporate tax rate is not the only record Obama wants to shatter. He’s also got his eyes on the death tax prize. If he gets his way, the effective estate tax (including state taxes) in the United States could go as high as 68%. Spouses would be exempt, but children would have to pay the tax (so he’s not stealing from widows, just orphans).

You Again?
The GOP still can’t seem to get out of its own way. Shortly after taking a swipe at Beyoncé, the odious Mike Huckabee made the news again this week by saying homosexuality was a lifestyle choice, like drinking or swearing. He did not offer an opinion as to whether stupidity was also a lifestyle choice. And though they have not officially declared their candidacy for 2016 yet, both Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum are looking like they will throw their moldy old hats into the ring one more time. That should make great material for this blog, but their participation in the presidential race can’t be good for their party, as they both represent the big-government social conservatism that will render the Republican Party obsolete if not quickly jettisoned.

Reconsidering Lance Armstrong
One of the early posts here at A Beginner’s Guide to Freedom was titled, “Athlete, Cancer Survivor, Politician (2 Out of 3 Ain’t Bad),” which discussed the prospect of a political career for Lance Armstrong. Before the persistent rumors of doping were confirmed, he leveraged his celebrity status to support passage of Proposition 15 in Texas. The ballot initiative was meant to force taypayers to fund the kind of medical research preferred by Mr. Armstrong, regardless of what other Texans may have preferred. Prop 15 passed easily, leading many in the state to suggest that Armstrong would make a great politician if he so desired. At the time I argued that Armstrong’s considerable talents would be better used in the productive sector rather than in the parasitic sector, but I may have to reconsider my original position now that it has been alleged Armstrong “hit two parked cars with an SUV after a night of partying in Aspen, Colorado, but agreed to let his longtime girlfriend take the blame to avoid national attention.”

Given his long history of destroying other people’s lives and property (while consistently attempting to avoid any responsibility for doing so), I must now conclude that politics is indeed the perfect arena for Lance Armstrong. He may not be suitable for anything else.

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50/50 Chance Government Will Let You Down 100% of the Time

As I have said many times before, sometimes it’s the little things that are the most telling. For example, today was the end of the semester in my children’s public school district. For some reason, that meant my middle-school daughter had the day off, but my elementary-school son did not. Having random school days off is certainly inconvenient for working parents who have to scramble to find care options, but no one expects government schools to worry about what’s convenient for parents.

No problem, my wife and I thought. We’ll take advantage of her time off school to renew her passport. My daughter has already traveled internationally a number of times so she already has a passport, but it expires later this year (children’s passports are only good for five years, whereas adult passports are valid for ten). Since she is under sixteen years old, both parents are required to present themselves in person with child in tow to the nearest potentate to beg for the opportunity to buy a document from the government, the sole purpose of which is to be allowed to pass through the artificial barriers to travel set up by that same government. There are no online renewal options for minors, no mailing-in of applications – just bring the whole famn damily down to City Hall between the hours of 8:00am and 5:30pm, Monday through Friday. No weekends, no evening appointments. 

So that’s what we did. My wife and I took time off doing productive things at work and drove our daughter to City Hall. Sadly, it turns out the passport desk is only open every other Friday from 8:00am to 5:30pm, and naturally today was one of the “off” Fridays. Office closed. No passport renewal for us – until maybe spring break, when my daughter is out of school again and my wife and I can take even more time off work.

It just goes to show there’s always a 50/50 chance government will let you down 100% of the time.

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Our Movie Theater

I received an email from the Parent/Teacher/Student Association at my child’s middle school today. It informed me that the movie theater in my town has applied for a liquor license to serve beer and wine alongside its other concessions, and that I should be duly outraged. Here is the e-mail (I have redacted certain parts of the text, but its intent remains intact):

COMMUNITY NEWS – [MOVIE] THEATER ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGE LICENSE
At the…City Council Meeting on Jan. 7, the City Council decided that it will wait until its Jan. 21 meeting to decide the outcome of the alcoholic beverage license for the [Movie] Theater in the [Shopping] Center.  The council is set to meet next at 7 p.m. Jan. 21, at which time a decision is expected to be made.  Council meetings are open to the public. If you would like to speak at a Council meeting, speaker slips are made available in the Council Chambers for your completion and submission to the City Clerk before the meeting.  If you are planning to attend this meeting to make your voice heard, it is recommended that you arrive by 6:30 pm (with the meeting starting at 7 p.m.) The meeting will take place in the Council Chamber at [Address].  

Attached is an informative flyer regarding the effects of alcohol on a developing teen’s brain and includes the emails of our City Council Members.  A group of parents and community members have also created a website and petition with the reasons behind why we feel that having alcohol sales at our movie theater is a bad idea. …
 
At our…PTSA meeting on Thursday, January 15, 2015 our members approved a motion that states and confirms our position against the sale of alcoholic beverages at the [Movie] Theater in the [Shopping] Center. [Our school] is strongly against the approval of [the] alcoholic beverage control license for [Movie] Theater in [the city]. [Our school] is dedicated to promoting children’s health, well-being, and educational success through strong parent, family, and community involvement.  The letter from our President to the Mayor is also attached.

Okay, so the parent/teacher/student association is on record as being opposed to a theater offering alcoholic beverages because of…wait for it…”the children.” That every other restaurant in the same shopping center (and there are many) does so in plain view of impressionable youngsters is all well and good, but for some reason a movie theater merits special restrictions. I’m sure I don’t understand why that is so, but I’m not really interested in picking apart the logic of the PTSA’s position here. What interested me was the phrase “we feel that having alcohol sales at our movie theater is a bad idea.”

Our movie theater?

Granted, I’m not privy to the PTSA’s investment portfolio, but I was surprised to learn it owns a controlling interest in the local movie theater. But if that’s the case, then why do they need to petition the City Council to deny the application for a liquor license? If the theater belongs to them as they claim, then surely they can just retract their original application and tell the City Council they’ve changed their minds. Strange. 

Unless they don’t really mean “our theater.” Maybe instead they mean to say “the theater that other people own, that was built at their own risk with their own money and that will succeed or fail on the basis of how well they satisfy consumer preferences, but just happens to be closest to where we in the school district live.” It’s not as catchy, perhaps, but it does have the advantage of being true. Of course that much honesty might cause people to wonder about the justice of using government coercion to maintain legal restrictions on others and assuming an ownership role over someone else’s property.

The PTSA could have simply sent out an email outlining its concerns, requesting like-minded customers to inform the movie theater’s management that they would prefer a dry concession stand. The theater owners could then make an informed decision based solely on consumer preference, as would occur in a free market. That, of course, would take a lot of time and might not go the PTSA’s way. So instead they’re lobbying the mayor to grant their personal preference the force of law, overriding the judgment of both the movie theater’s actual owners and any customers who might enjoy a cabernet with their popcorn or a beer with their nachos. 

Less ethical, but probably more effective.

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Fair Weather Free Speech

“Contra principia negantem non est disputandum.”
Against one who denies the principles, there can be no debate. 

One of the foundational principles of western civilization is the right to free speech. But as the recent attack on Charlie Hebdo illustrated in painful, gory detail, there are some people who reject that principal outright. So instead of debate, they resorted to violence – not just a heckler’s veto, but an assassin’s. Even though the attackers were born and raised in France, they clearly took their cues from non-western and patently illiberal groups – a sad case of rejecting a superior value in favor of a lesser one. 

I will not be able to do justice to the complex topic of terrorism in general or the Charlie Hebdo attack in particular in this blog, so I will not make the attempt. But one of the many troubling aspects of the Paris attack is that it revealed just how shallow the support for free speech really is in the so-called free world. When Saudi Arabia sentences blogger Raif Bada to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes for spreading liberal (i.e., rational) ideas, the world is outraged but not necessarily surprised. It’s Saudi Arabia, after all. No one expects the government there to respect civil liberties. Things are different here. Here in the West, free speech and tolerance are among our highest values – or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. Unfortunately the response by some in the wake of these recent outrages may cast doubt on our claim.

To be sure, no one here suggests Bada should be punished for exercising freedom of expression or that the Paris attackers were right to murder members of the Charlie Hebdo staff over a series of cartoons. There have, however, been several less-than-full-throated defenses of freedom of expression lately that indicate their authors are at best fair-weather friends of free speech. At the same time, many world leaders [sic] have exposed themselves as complete hypocrites on the subject, giving lip service to the importance of free speech while taking concrete actions to undermine it. A few examples will help illustrate my point.

The first comes from Reason.com. It turns out that while actor George Clooney was expressing his solidarity with Charlie Hebdo at the Golden Globes, Amal Clooney, his human rights lawyer wife, was (and is) “representing Armenia in an attempt to uphold the Swiss prosecution of a visiting Turkish politician for the crime of denying that Turkey committed genocide against Armenians a century ago.”

Continuing from the Reason article,

Dogu Perincek was found guilty by a Swiss court in 2008 of denying, during a visit to Switzerland, that the genocide ever took place. Mr Perincek, from the Left-wing Turkish Workers’ Party, called the genocide “an international lie” and was fined by the court in Switzerland. He appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which ruled in Dec 2013 that Switzerland had violated his right to free expression.

That appeal is now being challenged by Armenia, with the case to be heard by the Strasbourg court’s 17-member Grand Chamber. The first hearing has been scheduled for Jan 28. The Armenians argue that denying the genocide should be a crime, just as negating the Holocaust of six million Jews is a punishable offence in many countries.

Switzerland, for all its virtues, seems to have a tenuous grasp of what free speech really means. And Armenia is not its only company in this regard – France also struggles with the concept. As Glenn Greenwald reports,

Forty-eight hours after hosting a massive march under the banner of free expression, France opened a criminal investigation  of a controversial French comedian for a Facebook post he wrote about the Charlie Hebdo attack, and then this morning, arrested him for that post on charges of “defending terrorism.” The comedian, Dieudonné, previously sought elective office in France on what he called an “anti-Zionist” platform, has had his show banned by numerous government officials in cities throughout France, and has been criminally prosecuted several times before for expressing ideas banned in that country.

The apparently criminal viewpoint he posted on Facebook declared: “Tonight, as far as I’m concerned, I feel like Charlie Coulibaly.” Investigators concluded that this was intended to mock the “Je Suis Charlie” slogan and express support for the perpetrator of the Paris supermarket killings (whose last name was “Coulibaly”). Expressing that opinion is evidently a crime in the Republic of Liberté, which prides itself on a line of 20th Century intellectuals – from Sartre and Genet to Foucault and Derrida – whose hallmark was leaving no orthodoxy or convention unmolested, no matter how sacred.

And it’s not just celebrity lawyers and governments. The Pope also gave his two cents’ worth, but that must have been before taxes because his opinion is not worth nearly that much. As he explained while in Manila,

We have the obligation to speak openly. We have that freedom. But without causing offense. Because, it is true that we cannot react violently. But if Dr. Gasbarri here, a great friend, were to say something insulting against my mother, a punch awaits him. But it’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot make provocations. You cannot insult people’s faith.

http://player.theplatform.com/p/2E2eJC/nbcNewsOffsite?guid=x_lon_popepunch_150115

So much for all that “turn the other cheek” crap, huh? The infallible Pope has explained as clear as day that we cannot react violently to speech, but if someone says something you don’t like you can go ahead and clock him. Free speech is all well and good as long as it remains inoffensive to the point of meaninglessness.

None of these examples will strengthen our supposed commitment to free speech. At best, they defend free small talk. Freedom of expression is not fundamental to civilization because it protects popular speech. It is fundamental because it protects unpopular and even offensive speech. It is true that not all unpopular and offensive speech is good. Much, if not most, of it deserves nothing but rejection and scorn. But it is equally true that all of the important ideas that have contributed to the advancement of the human race over the millennia were at one point offensive to someone. Where would we be if brave thinkers had not had the courage to combat the censors of their day?

This fumbling and confused response by some over a core western value was probably inevitable. Far too many of us have embraced the mythical right not to be offended while attempting to maintain a superficial commitment to the legitimate right of free expression. The Charlie Hebdo attacks exposed the fact that those two ideas are diametrically opposed and inherently incompatible. Whether significant numbers of people will recognize this contradiction remains to be seen. I certainly hope they do, because this issue poses a fundamental challenge not only for libertarians, but for liberal western civilization in general.  A free society requires that people tolerate the beliefs and speech of others, even if they vehemently disagree. As long as significant portions of the population deny that principle there can be no debate, and the more enlightened members of society will remain forever subjugated to the barbarians within.

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Saved From DMV Hell

The private sector saved me from DMV hell today. Two days ago, my father gave me an old Dodge truck that had belonged to his father before him. According to the laws of the great nanny/police state of California, I have ten days to register the truck in my name. In order to comply with this requirement, I must fill out the title, a statement of fact, and a license plate transfer request form (and pay a registration and transfer fee). There is no on-line registration process or mail-in option for this transaction. In order to submit the documentation, I must appear in person at a local DMV office.

I drove by the DMV this morning thinking I might be able to drop off the paperwork on my way to work. No such luck. The office doesn’t open until 9:00am on Wednesdays, and the line to get in was already hundreds of feet long, stretching past the doors of many other establishments in the strip center in which the DMV is located. If I didn’t know any better, I’d have thought all those people were lined up to get the newest iPhone. So when I got to my office, I went on-line to request an appointment to turn in the paperwork later (one of the few options that are available on the DMV’s website). Unfortunately the earliest available slot was for January 20th, well past the ten-day registration period allotted me by law.

Not only do I not have the option of going to the DMV before work, I also don’t have the option of going to the DMV after work because they close promptly at 5:00pm each day. Nor can I visit the DMV on a Saturday, since they’re closed weekends. And not that it really matters given the tight time frame I have to work with, but I would also be unable to swing by the DMV on New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Day, Lincoln’s Birthday, Washington’s Birthday, Cesar Chavez Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, the day after Thanksgiving, or Christmas day (and holidays occurring on Sundays are generally observed the following Monday, just in case you were wondering). 

What to do? It would seem that I had an impossible bureaucratic task before me (Catch-22). I suppose I could take a vacation day from work and spend my day off waiting in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles, hoping against hope that I have all the appropriate forms filled out correctly, with no errors or omissions.

Or I could just drop by AAA.

I don’t know about other states, but in California many branches of the Automobile Association of America are authorized to process DMV paperwork on site. So on my lunch break today I drove nine minutes to the closest AAA branch, walked right in (no appointment necessary), was assisted by a remarkably friendly customer service agent, and ten minutes later the truck was registered in my name. Done deal. Just one of the many services included in my annual membership fee.

I can’t say that I’m surprised AAA and other private sector entities do this kind of thing. After all, I also use a tax preparation service each year just to avoid the hassle (and risk) of dealing directly with the IRS. In some places in Latin America where bureaucratic line-waiting is even more onerous and time-consuming than it is here in the US, there are professional queue-runners who will navigate the red tape so you don’t have to. It seems that dealing with the government is a tedious chore no matter where you live, but fortunately there’s often someone out there in the private sector who is willing to take on that drudgery for you at a reasonable price. In a perfect world their services wouldn’t be necessary and they’d be free to do other productive things, but as long as we live in this imperfect, DMV-ridden world of ours, I’m awfully glad they’re there.

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Good and Hard

H.L. Mencken famously described democracy as “the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” As the United States government continues its inexorable march away from its roots as a constitutional republic, the results are no longer limited to common people – even the elites are getting it good and hard these days. In what may be the single greatest example of Schadenfreude-inducing petard-hoisting I’ve ever read, The New York Times reports,

“For years, Harvard’s experts on health economics and policy have advised presidents and Congress on how to provide health benefits to the nation at a reasonable cost. But those remedies will now be applied to the Harvard faculty, and the professors are in an uproar. Members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the heart of the 378-year-old university, voted overwhelmingly in November to oppose changes that would require them and thousands of other Harvard employees to pay more for health care. The university says the increases are in part a result of the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act, which many Harvard professors championed. The faculty vote came too late to stop the cost increases from taking effect this month, and the anger on campus remains focused on questions that are agitating many workplaces: How should the burden of health costs be shared by employers and employees? If employees have to bear more of the cost, will they skimp on medically necessary care, curtail the use of less valuable services, or both?”

Delicious. So some of Obamacare’s biggest supporters – the same professors who lobbied, argued, lied, dissembled, bamboozled, and propagandized for years to make gun-run health insurance a reality are now reaping what they have sown, and are none too happy about it. The allegedly unintended (yet completely predictable) consequences of the government’s fascistic cartelization of the health insurance industry must have only been meant for the little people and/or the evil corporations. The idea that Harvard professors, of all people, should also have to spend more money now that their beloved Affordable [sic] Care Act is the law of the land is an outrage.

Harvard might be forgiven if the staffers who worked so diligently to push nationalized health insurance had come from the Political Science or Sociology departments. After all, no one expects them to make any sense. But these were allegedly economics professors, who argued that the government could lower the cost of a service by increasing demand and leaving supply alone (or even reducing supply through higher bureaucratic overhead and regulatory costs). They claimed that the United States government – an organization that is $17 trillion in debt and hasn’t passed a budget (much less balanced one) in years – would do a better job at managing health insurance than those who do it for a living under the discipline of profit and loss in the private sector. They claimed that patients would receive better benefits and care from the same team that manages the Veterans Administration.

These are not simply differences of opinion regarding public policy. These claims (like so many others made by supporters of Obamacare) fly in the face of the most basic economic principles. Harvard couldn’t do worse if prominent members of its physics department claimed the sun revolved around the earth – but it would certainly make you think twice about plunking down tens of thousands of dollars in tuition each year for that kind of “education.” That the university’s economics department has so publicly demonstrated a similar level of incompetence should give prospective students pause, and should also serve to diminish much of what passes for scholarship there.

As for those poor souls at Harvard whose affordable health insurance is now less affordable, I’m sure they will get over their initial sticker shock and their support for Obamacare will continue unabated. After all, they clearly know what they want – and they deserve to get it good and hard.

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América Libre

Regular readers know that kind words about President Obama have been few and far between here at A Beginner’s Guide to Freedom. But in the interest of consistency, I will take a moment (however short-lived it may be) to praise Obama’s recent announcement that his administration will begin to normalize relations with Cuba.

As one might expect, right-leaning neocons are incensed that the United States government might now be showing signs of becoming slightly less belligerent toward some third-world country. Elliott Abrams of National Review believes the re-establishment of normal diplomatic relations, relaxation of travel restrictions, and the merest possibility of one day ending the long-standing and near-total embargo against the tiny island nation is a “triumph of ideology over U.S. national interests.

Nonsense. If anything, this would be a triumph of U.S. national interests over a failed ideology. Trade and travel restrictions have been in place longer than I have been alive, and they simply have not worked. The Castros are still in power, the island is still an economic basket case, and American companies are shut out of what should be a natural market. But to Mr. Abrams, this is all evidence of a wildly successful government program that should be continued ad infinitum.

And despite his assertion that this is nothing but a leftist plot to bail out the Castros, one need not care a whit for Cuba, its government, or its people to support dismantling the U.S. sanctions program. It is important to understand that phrases like “a trade embargo against Cuba” or “sanctions against the Castro regime” are completely misleading. The U.S. government has no jurisdiction over Cuba or the Castros. All sanction regimes (and there are many) function by punishing Americans for exercising their natural rights to trade and travel freely, not by punishing Cuban nationals. Relaxation of these sanctions would mean an expansion (however slight) of the liberties of American citizens, and surely this should be the main concern for anyone who claims to value freedom and limited government. Whatever benefits might accrue to the Cuban people should be a secondary consideration at best (at least from the narrow point of view of the U.S. government and concerned neocon pundits). Similarly, whatever harm might befall the Cuban government as a result would just be icing on the cake.

And this is another reason that even those who despise the Castro regime (I call shotgun on that bandwagon) should support removing trade restrictions. The embargo has acted as a scapegoat ever since its inception. The economically irrational and thoroughly destructive communist policies imposed by Fidel Castro and continued by Raul Castro have reduced Cuba to grinding poverty. But the dictators have managed to remain in power in large part because they have successfully deflected any criticism of their own brutish stupidity by blaming the U.S. trade embargo instead. If the U.S. were to eliminate the embargo, the Castro regime would lose its main rhetorical crutch, and their abject failures would be laid bare for all to see.

So for these reasons I am encouraged by President Obama’s recent announcement. He was right to point out the economic and cultural benefits that result from relaxing government restrictions on individual liberty. Now if he could just apply that lesson more broadly…

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