Thursday, November 30, 2017

QUORA: ‘Why do you support individual liberty over national prosperity?’

Quora is a social media website founded by two former Facebook employees. According to Wikipedia:

Quora is a question-and-answer website where questions are created, answered, edited and organized by its community of users. The company was founded in June 2009, and the website was made available to the public on June 21, 2010.[3] Quora aggregates questions and answers to topics. Users can collaborate by editing questions and suggesting edits to other users' answers.[4]

You can also reply to other users’ answers.

I left this answer:

Let’s rephrase the question: “Why do you support healthy trees over a thriving forest?” It’s self-contradictory. A forest without healthy trees is doomed.

Likewise, a nation is made up of individual human beings. You can’t have national prosperity without prosperous, productive individual human beings. You can’t have prosperous, productive human beings without individual freedom based on individual rights, which includes the right to property and freedom of trade. Just as the health of a forest is the sum of the health of its trees, national prosperity is the sum of the prosperity of its individual inhabitants. “National prosperity,” like a “thriving forest,” is an abstraction. Nations don’t prosper. Only individuals prosper, because only individual human beings, like individual trees, exist.

Related Reading:

The Capitalist Manifesto—Andrew Bernstein

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Trump’s Pick of Flynn for National Security Advisor Draws Ire of Apologists for Islam

When Donald Trump tapped Michael Flynn as National Security Adviser during the presidential transition—Flynn was confirmed but subsequently resigned—the New Jersey Star-Ledger Editorial Board opined against, labeling Michael Flynn a dangerous choice for national security advisor. Among other objections, the Star-Ledger wrote:

Flynn believes Islamist militancy poses a global existential threat, but he targets the faith itself. He asserts that Islam is a "political ideology masked as a religion" and therefore should not be protected by the First Amendment, which is the first step toward stripping American Muslims of their constitutional rights.

I left these comments:

I don’t know much about Michael Flynn. But if he actually said that “Islam is a ‘political ideology masked as a religion’ and therefore should not be protected by the First Amendment,” then I agree that Flynn is a dangerous man who doesn’t understand the Constitution.

First of all, political ideology is also protected by the First Amendment. It’s called freedom of speech, press, and association. Second, freedom of conscience is a core, unalienable individual right, so Islam as a private religious practice by people who respect the same rights of others is most certainly protected. Both political ideology and religion are protected so long as they don’t in practice involve the violation by force or violence of the same rights of others.

But we must stop evading the fact that Islam has a built-in political component. That’s the danger. The First Amendment protects us from government being used as a tool to impose religious law on the rest of us. A large segment of the world’s Muslims, not just the terrorists, reject this separation of religion and state. You can observe this all around the world, from the chants of terrorists in the act to the imposition of Sharia Law by election. Sharia law by definition establishes law that favors a particular religion, the religion of Muslims, relegating all non-Muslims to second class citizenship at best and, at worst, special taxes, persecution, forced conversions, and even death. Would anyone in America stand for a return to Christian law?

For too long our leaders have evaded the truth, and called Islam a “religion of peace.” It can be, and for many Muslims it is—but only for Muslims who reject their religion’s statist/political components. All religions are inherently authoritarian. That’s why Western Culture, led by America’s Founders, separated religion and state. Christianity has been Enlightened and tamed. That’s why nobody, including me, an atheist, fears Christianity in America even though it is 80% Christian. I have the First amendment to thank for that. Many Muslims are Enlightened and not a threat—I don’t have a general fear of Muslims in America, thanks to the First Amendment: But too many around the world still are not enlightened, and that’s the challenge. So-called “radical Islamists” are not a fringe, although practicing terrorists militants are. Unlike Christian fundamentalists, which are rare, Islamic fundamentalists are many. This threat won’t abate until Islam as a religion is reformed and tamed by secular Enlightenment principles, and that won’t happen until we all—Muslims and non-Muslims alike—recognize and reject the political component of Islam.

Related Reading:

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Atlantic Off-Shore Oil Drilling: Who Really Benefits?

Whether or not to permit oil drilling off of the East Coast, including New Jersey, has been hotly controversial for years. In 2010, President Obama opened up the East Coast to offshore oil drilling. Up until then, drilling had been banned for decades. In the waning days of the Obama Administration, NJ Senator Robert Menendez urged Obama to reinstate the ban on the grounds that drilling would pose too big a risk to Jersey’s coastal industries, including tourism and fishing. I don’t know enough about the risks to comment on Menendez’s claim, except to say that all industrial activities represent risk along with the rewards.

Having said that, this comment caught my eye:

Drilling for oil is a risk-reward proposition — all of the risk is put on the backs of our shore communities, and all of the reward goes to Big Oil.

Menendez also took a cheap shot at the oil industry, saying “Big Oil will stop at nothing to feed its insatiable thirst for more profit, even if it puts our economy and environment in peril.”

I left these comments:

“Drilling for oil is a risk-reward proposition — all of the risk is put on the backs of our shore communities, and all of the reward goes to Big Oil.”

This is patently untrue.

The oil companies obviously take risks in spending $billions with no guarantee of success. They are also responsible for cleaning up their messes, and must spend $billions should an accident occur. They and their employees can even be held criminally liable through criminal neglect laws. Just ask BP.

We should be thankful for the oil companies’ “insatiable thirst for more profit.”  That’s a good thing. Those $billions are earned by providing economical, reliable energy to consumers, including consumers living in New Jersey, as well as all other industries and their consumers. If “it puts our economy and environment in peril,” then we the consumers who willingly buy their product are just as guilty. But in fact, the oil industry has fueled our industrial progress for generations, making our environment cleaner and safer and our economy strong, including right here in NJ. Without drilling somewhere, where would NJ’s tourism industry be? Non-existent! Investors and employees not just in oil and gas but across all industries also benefit.

This is not to minimize the risks of drilling. But the above statement is pure demagoguery. We don’t have to brush off the environmental and pollution risks to recognize the immensely greater life-giving value provided by the oil industry and the drilling investments that support it. Risk-rewards, yes; and the rewards dwarf the risks.

NOTE: Obama eventually did reverse course and ban drilling in the Atlantic.

Related Reading:

Thursday, November 23, 2017

A Thanksgiving Message

The fight for freedom is a philosophical fight, and the leaders in this fight are the intellectuals. This year, I’m thankful for the American intellectuals who fight for and to protect that which makes America America: freedom based on individual rights. Intellectuals such as those associated with think tanks like the Ayn Rand Institute, the Federalist Society, the CATO Institute, the Adam Smith Institute, and the Foundation for Economic Education. as well as publications like The Objective Standard and The Undercurrent. There are more think tanks, publications, and individuals that can be added to this list. Intellectuals within the pro-freedom intellectual establishment have disagreements and different approaches. But all contribute in some way to the cause of freedom, and give we ground-level activists the philosophic, moral, factual, and intellectual ammunition we need to do our part in this fight..

Unfortunately, freedom is under siege today and pro-freedom intellectuals are in the minority. The professional intellectuals are the generals that identify and articulate the dominant values and ideals of a culture—and are supposed to be the guardians of a culture’s ideals. In books, speeches, articles, and other media, they are the opinion-setters and political trend-setters. Unfortunately, the majority of America’s intellectuals have turned away from American ideals, in whole or in part—hence, the steady drift toward statism in America. My sincere thank you to the pro-freedom intellectuals who lead the fight to reverse the trend.]

Reprinted below are two thanksgiving messages that I think captures the true essence of Thanksgiving, a holiday practiced only in America. Regardless of how one believes he came into existence (God or nature), the reality is that man is a being of self-generated wealth based on reason who requires certain social conditions for his survival. America was the first country founded explicitly on those conditions; i.e., a country where every individual owns his own life and possesses inalienable rights to life, liberty, property, and to the pursuit of his own happiness, coupled inextricably with the obligation to accept the reality that all people are equally endowed with these rights and to treat them accordingly.

It is thus that America, born of the enlightenment ideas of individualism, reason, and republican government, achieved in the span of a mere two hundred-plus years (following centuries of stagnation) its spectacular standard of living. The ensuing excerpts are from two essays that I believe correctly recognize where the credit for America's material plenty belongs: to any man or woman, on whatever level of ability or accomplishment, who contributed in a great or small way to American greatness by doing an honest and productive day's work in pursuit of his or her own well-being.

Ah, Thanksgiving. To most of us, the word conjures up images of turkey dinner, pumpkin pie and watching football with family and friends. It kicks off the holiday season and is the biggest shopping weekend of the year. We're taught that Thanksgiving came about when pilgrims gave thanks to God for a bountiful harvest. We vaguely mumble thanks for the food on our table, the roof over our head and the loved ones around us. We casually think about how lucky we are and how much better our lives are than, say, those in Bangladesh. But surely there is something more to celebrate, something more sacred about this holiday.

What should we really be celebrating on Thanksgiving?

Ayn Rand described Thanksgiving as "a typically American holiday . . . its essential, secular meaning is a celebration of successful production. It is a producers' holiday. The lavish meal is a symbol of the fact that abundant consumption is the result and reward of production." She was right.

What is today's version of the "bountiful harvest"? It's the affluence and success we've gained. It's the cars, houses and vacations we enjoy. It's the life-saving medicines we rely on, the stock portfolios we build, the beautiful clothes we buy and the safe, clean streets we live on. It's the good life.

How did we get this "bountiful harvest"? Ask any hard-working American; it sure wasn't by the "grace of God." It didn't grow on a fabled "money tree." We created it by working hard, by desiring the best money can buy and by wanting excellence for ourselves and our loved ones. What we don't create ourselves, we trade value for value with those who have the goods and services we need, such as our stockbrokers, hairdressers and doctors. We alone are responsible for our wealth. We are the producers and Thanksgiving is our holiday.

So, on Thanksgiving, why don't we thank ourselves and those producers who make the good life possible?

Thanksgiving is the perfect time to recognize what we are truly grateful for, to appreciate and celebrate the fruits of our labor: our wealth, health, relationships and material things--all the values we most selfishly cherish. We should thank researchers who have made certain cancers beatable, gourmet chefs at our favorite restaurants, authors whose books made us rethink our lives, financiers who developed revolutionary investment strategies and entrepreneurs who created fabulous online stores. We should thank ourselves and those individuals who make our lives more comfortable and enjoyable--those who help us live the much-coveted American dream.

As you sit down to your decadent Thanksgiving dinner served on your best china, think of all the talented individuals whose innovation and inventiveness made possible the products you are enjoying. As you look around at who you've chosen to spend your day with--those you've chosen to love--thank yourself for everything you have done to make this moment possible. It's a time to selfishly and proudly say: "I earned this."

Debi Ghate is associated with the Ayn Rand Institute.

The religious tradition of saying grace before meals becomes especially popular around the holidays, when we all are reminded of how fortunate we are to have an abundance of life-sustaining goods and services at our disposal. But there is a grave injustice involved in this tradition.

Where do the ideas, principles, constitutions, governments, and laws that protect our rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness come from? What is the source of the meals, medicines, homes, automobiles, and fighter jets that keep us alive and enable us to flourish? Who is responsible for our freedom, prosperity, and well-being?

Since God is responsible for none of the goods on which human life and happiness depend, why thank him for any such goods? More to the point: Why not thank those who actually are responsible for them? What would a just man do?

Justice is the virtue of judging people rationally--according to what they say, do, and produce--and treating them accordingly, granting to each man that which he deserves.

To say grace is to give credit where none is due--and, worse, it is to withhold credit where it is due. To say grace is to commit an act of injustice.

Rational, productive people--whether philosophers, scientists, inventors, artists, businessmen, military strategists, friends, family, or yourself--are who deserve to be thanked for the goods on which your life, liberty, and happiness depend. ... Thank or acknowledge the people who actually provide the goods. Some of them may be sitting right there at the table with you. And if you find yourself at a table where people insist on saying grace, politely insist on saying justice when they're through. It's the right thing to do.

I couldn't have said it better myself. These truths are obvious. A simple rudimentary knowledge of history, coupled with basic observation and logic, are all that's required to realize it. Thank you Debi Ghate and Craig Biddle!

Have a joyous, and well earned, Thanksgiving.

Related Reading:

Monday, November 20, 2017

Automation and Jobs: Perfect Together

The following letter appeared in the New Jersey star-Ledger on 11/15/2016:

Especially now that the election is over, I'm concerned that our thinking about American jobs is short-sighted. Eventually, new jobs in infrastructure and services won't be enough. The problem is not immigration or globalization; it's automation.

Already, robots build cars, perform surgery, check us out at stores, clean floors, help fight wars, move merchandise in warehouses, and do most office work. Soon they will drive buses, taxis and trucks. Manufacturers are slowly returning to the U.S. from the cheap labor overseas, but they're looking to hire robots here more than workers.

So it's very possible that in the future, the idea of working for a living will become a thing of the past. Full-time work will be the exception; most adults will work part time or not at all. We will need to find new ways to provide people with the resources to live on. A universal basic wage for everyone, whether he or she works or not, may be one of them. Portable benefit arrangements for gig workers as they move among jobs may be another.

Such changes will be difficult and we should start talking about them soon.

Brock Haussamen, Manasquan

I left these comments, edited and expanded for clarity:

The entire history of technological progress, which is really only about 250 years young, has been that of more production with fewer, less hard hours worked, leading to higher real wages, cheaper goods, new and/or expanded industries, and steadily rising and healthier living standards. How is this possible? More automation frees up capital, labor, and consumer dollars, providing fuel for entrepreneurs to keep the virtuous, progressive cycle going. This is basic economics.

What new industries? Who knows? No one is omniscient. What history has shown is that so long as the their is intellectual, political, and economic freedom—the social pre-conditions for progress—new industries will emerge because the fundamental source of progress is the individual human mind. Free markets liberate all of the millions and billions of individual minds. No one can predict which minds will generate the new ideas and new initiatives that lead to progress. What we do know is that there will be progress, because there are plenty of progressive minds out there, and no limit to the field of ideas, the source of that progress. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, 90%+ of the people were farmers. Today, less than 2% are. Yet, we don’t have 88% unemployment. Anyone who wants to work can find work. Where did all those jobs come from? From industries the technology worrywarts didn’t and couldn’t see coming. What we do know is that free minds and free markets generate progress.

Haussamen worries that “Full-time work will be the exception.” Even if true, what’s wrong with that? Thanks to the new wave of robotic automation, we are probably headed for a 30-hour workweek (or less) and higher living standards to replace the 40-hour workweek that replaced the 100-hour work week that barely supported pre-industrial poverty. Imagine the extra free time—your precious time, to do something else you love, whether a hobby or another “part-time” job or [fill in the blank].

Of course jobs can become obsolete, creating unemployment problems for some. But no one is entitled to a job that no one is any longer willing to pay for. Neither is anyone entitled to a guaranteed “basic income” paid for by forcing others to provide it. How will permanently paying people not to work solve anything? Who will build and maintain the machines?

Haussamen does offer one good idea: portable benefits. But automation fear is as old as human progress, and just as short-sightedly anti-progress. We need dynamic full-context thinking, not the regressive stagnant views of the Brock Haussamens of the world. The last thing we need is to “Plan now for future labor issues”—i.e., individual mind-stifling central planning.

Related Reading:

The Myth of Technological Unemployment: If the nightmare of technological unemployment were true, it would already have happened, repeatedly and massively, by Deirdre Nansen McCloskey.

The Capitalist Manifesto—Andrew Bernstein

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Why Pick On ‘Rich Corporations’, Benefactors of the Middle Class?

The rhetoric over the Republican tax plan more often than not is long on meaningless generalities and short on rational analysis. Consider the New Jersey Guest editorial by NJ Senator Cory Booker, Trump's unfair tax plan will harm average New Jerseyans. Booke, whom I consider one of the more balanced Democrats, seems more concerned with not cutting taxes for the rich that fairness for average New Jerseyans:

At the start of every month, in New Jersey and across the country, countless families sit down to plan their household budget. They are making hard decisions about how to juggle their mortgage, college tuition for their kids, grocery bills, and the cost of medical care, all while hoping to have something left over to save. And too often, as costs rise and wages stay the same, instead of savings, bills stack up, payments are missed, and debt grows.

Meanwhile, down in Washington, Congressional Republicans and President Trump are also working on a budget. But despite the real needs of everyday Americans, the plan the President and Congressional Republicans are announcing today is a massive tax giveaway to the largest corporations and wealthiest individuals at the expense of those who need tax relief the most.

I'm fighting hard to make sure that New Jersey families and homeowners aren't made to shoulder the burden of a massive tax giveaway to the very richest corporations and individuals in this country. That begins with stopping schemes like eliminating the state and local tax deduction, and your voice is critical in this effort.

Booker’s complaint seems to be that eliminating the state and local tax deduction while cutting corporate tax rates (individual rates appear to be staying at 39.6%) amounts to forcing middle class taxpayers “to shoulder the burden” of the “tax cuts for the rich.” This seems superficially true but they are really two separate issues.

I left these comments:

I can see debating the merits of the GOP tax plan. By why the railing about the rich? This mindset is particularly bizarre in regard to corporations. How do “rich corporations” grow? By catering to the middle and lower classes (statistically speaking). They grow through mass market products.

We have successful business corporations to thank for the fact that we have the rich assortment of choices relating to home mortgages, college tuition, groceries, medical care, and all the other myriad choices corporations give us, including job opportunities. Historically, people couldn’t even dream about having all these opportunities to “balance”. We have successful business corporations operating in a relatively free market to thank for that. The simplistic political demagoguery that pits “us against them” ignores the fact that the corporation is an alignment of individual interests that benefits all. What we call “the economy” is an integrated entity, not a disintegrated zero-sum. People grow wealthy in America primarily by starting, building, running, and investing in great entrepreneurial businesses. Investors, employees, and consumers grow along with the corporations. The “very richest, largest, and most profitable corporations” are truly middle class institutions.

A business corporation—what Steve Jobs called “one of the most amazing inventions of humans”—is a legal and abstract framework for people to work together toward a common productive mission. The money the company earns in revenues and profits furthers that mission, until and unless it is paid out in employee compensation, dividends, interest, and capital gains for investors, and mass market products to consumers—at which point it is taxed through sales taxes. A corporate tax is in effect double taxation.

A corporate tax is dishonest and regressive. We can see the property taxes we pay. We can see the personal income taxes. We can see the sales taxes. But it’s not so clear that we as investors, employees, and consumers are actually the ones paying the corporate income tax. But, one way or another, we are. The corporate income tax is a way for politicians to suck more money out of all of us without us seeing it. Given that corporate profits fuel innovation and growth, it hurts us all. Only individuals pay taxes, and we can debate how these taxes should be distributed (I favor a single flat-rate tax). But it’s stupid to tax the corporation, before it filters into individuals’ hands. Far from complaining about the corporate tax cuts, we should demand an end to corporate income taxes.

Related Reading:

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Studebaker Review, Part 5: Conclusion

Studebaker highlights the period “between the 1930’s and the 1970’s, [when] the United States drastically reduced economic inequality” through wealth redistribution policies. Well, let’s take a look.

First, the 1930s:

Consider two depressions—the one starting in 1920 and the one starting in 1930. The 1920 depression was actually the sharper downturn. Yet, the 1920 depression ended in 1921, followed by a powerful job and innovation filled boom under the relatively free market Coolidge policies. The 1930 collapse (which succeeded the 1929 stock market crash) lasted 4 years, followed by economic stagnation and depression that didn’t end until Truman took over and WW 2 ended. It’s utterly ridiculous to say that economic inequality caused the Great Depression. Both the 1920 and 1930 downturns were corrections to the inflationary Federal Reserve policies. But the differing aftermaths were the result of the differing federal policies in response to the downturns. In 1920, Wilson (and later Harding) did nothing but let the economy run its course. In 1930, Hoover responded with “a whirlwind of intervention,” which was followed by FDR’s even bigger whirlwind, which he largely built upon Hoover’s policies. The result was not a quick recovery and boom but a 15 year Great Depression. (See my review of 1921: The Forgotten Depression.)

The myths surrounding Hoover, FDR, and the Great Depression have come under scholarly scrutiny in recent decades and are being corrected. The 1930s depression was caused and exacerbated by government interventions. Obama’s policies are a weaker version of FDR,s so of course we have the weakest recovery in American history.

Likewise, Studebaker blames the 1970s on the oil price shocks engineered by the OPEC oil cartel. But the 1970s “stagflation” followed the big regulatory welfare state expansion of Johnson and Nixon, as well as Nixon’s abandonment of a gold-backed dollar. The job and innovation-filled 1980s/90s expansion followed the Carter/Reagan deregulations and Reagan tax rate cuts. In 2001, big government resurfaced, and the results were predictable. the economy sagged. But economic inequality and alleged lack of consumption are not causes of economic stagnation. The ups and downs of the economy correlate roughly and inversely with the increase or restraint in government intervention.

What about the 1950s? That period of 91% income tax rates was marked by chronic recession and rising unemployment, which led John F. Kennedy to run, and win, on a platform of “getting America moving again.” He cut income tax rates across the board, bringing the top rate down to 70%, paving the way for 1960s recovery. The actual history of the 1950s through the 1980s is laid out in JFK and the Reagan Revolution: A Secret History of American Prosperity by Lawrence Kudlow and Brian Domitrovic.

Even by Studebaker’s macro viewpoint, his conclusions don’t make any sense. A glance at Studebaker’s chart showing inequality trends between 1913 and 2012 shows a clear correlation between rising inequality and a rising economy. I can point to more macro data to show this. Despite all of the Leftist shouting about inequality—which, of course, has increased—“the masses” are getting better, not worse as the propaganda would have us believe. As Pew research reports, every world economic income classification—low, middle, high, and upper—increased between 2001 and 2011. Only one category—extreme poverty—declined, from 29% to 15%. Progress continues. According to the World Bank, extreme poverty worldwide is now about 10%. This is no coincidence. True, some people get rich by graft and pull. But, by and large, fortunes are market driven.

And periods of market-driven “extreme inequality” correlate with periods of rapid economic progress, not depression. In the U.S., the period between the Civil War and World War 1, and the “Second Industrial Revolution” between 1980 and 2010 are two periods marked simultaneously by rising economic inequality, rapid technological advance, and rapidly rising living standards as entrepreneurs seized on the relatively increased freedom to flourish, pulling the rest of us up with them. Correlation doesn’t prove causality, of course. But the mass-market products that fill the lives of consumers and the millions of people who flock to work for the entrepreneurs’ companies is proof. Again, relate to “individuals and personal narratives.” Now, its spreading around the world. Who would want to shackle “the 1%”—the best, brightest, most visionary, and most ambitious? Not anyone concerned with “lifting the poor,” or of reversing the alleged decline of the middle class.

And since the world is getting richer overall, the consumer market is bigger overall. It follows that the rewards for creating mass-market products increases commensurately. Simple statistics show growing inequality, but not the whole story. Of course the “wealth gap” is larger. Fortunes of the most productive entrepreneurs are larger because the sheer numbers of consumers is larger. The attack on the so-called “1 percent” is an attack on all of us, in the same way as the oppression of any group hurts us all.

Studebaker’s article is so full of fallacies, omissions, and non sequiturs that it would take a book to refute; in fact, books have been written. But on one thing I’ll agree with Studebaker—the Clinton/Sanders rivalry matters more than people think. It’s not so much a matter of policy: Clinton’s policies aren’t all that different from Sanders’. It’s ideological. It’s a battle between the old Left and the New Left—which means, between the mixed economy welfare state and explicit nihilistic, totalitarian socialism.

The old Left—e.g., JFK, Humphrey, Carter, Bill Clinton—was primarily concerned with lifting the poor, and their welfare state policies reflected that. Despite her recent politically expedient New Left-style rhetoric, I see Hillary as one of the last of the old Left. The New Left—e.g., Obama, Elizabeth Warren—is nihilist to its core. It is primarily concerned with destroying economic success, based on a radical egalitarian vision that runs counter to human nature. Ideologically, if not by age, Sanders is squarely with the New Left. Yes, the 2016 Clinton/Sanders rivalry does matter. Will Sanders’ Leftward/statist,collectivist lurch prove to be a temporary thing? Or did he pull the Democrats permanently more toward socialism? I think the latter. And that’s not good.

Related Reading:

My Objective Standard review of  The Forgotten Depression—1921: The Crash That Cured Itself by James Grant

Equal Is Unfair: America's Misguided Fight Against Income Inequality—Yaron Brook and Don Watkins