Sunday, December 30, 2012

Is America in Decline a la Rome?

Is America, following the Roman empire, in terminal decline? That's the question the NJ Star-Ledger recently asked. The editors conclusion: "Yes, we are slipping." "The fiscal cliff stalemate

is a symptom of something larger. What we are witnessing today may be remembered as the early stages of America’s decline. If you put aside national pride for a moment and take an honest inventory, that sobering conclusion is hard to avoid.

The editors lament that "The foundation of the American Dream — the promise that a person born at any station can climb the economic ladder through hard work — has atrophied." therefore, we should put "aside the chest-pounding about American exceptionalism," they say, forgetting that American exceptionalism embodies individual upward mobility. Instead, we need an "adult conversation" about how to fix global warming, the wealth gap, more government investment, etc.

Here are my brief comments:

America is in terminal decline because, like the Roman Empire, it has abandoned the ideas upon which it was built.

America was built upon certain philosophical principles; individualism, inalienable individual rights, self-interest (the pursuit of happiness), and limited, rights-protecting government. It has been replaced by collectivism, egalitarianism, a "right" to the wealth of those who make more, self-sacrifice, and the regulatory, redistributionist welfare state. It's no coincidence that America's weakness coincides with a government that has grown to its most controlling ever, capped by the rampaging statism of the past 12 years.

Rather than respect for personal achievement, we get envy manifested in the phony hand-wringing over a "wealth gap." Rather than extol successful businesses, we get attacks on those who successfully compete based on voluntary trade in the marketplace (see the Economist article on the internet "big four" opposite this editorial). Instead of urging our students to use their education for the purpose of making the most of their own life, we tell them that service to others is the moral ideal. Where we once understood rights to mean freedom of action to pursue our own happiness, we now subverted rights to mean a claim on wealth taken from others, with government as the hired gun. Where we once respected property rights and the right of people to spend and invest there own earnings as they see fit, we now have a government that seizes ever-greater chunks of our wealth, to be doled out to politically-connected special interests for someone's notion of some tribal "greater good," and call that "investment." Where once egoism and reason drove our culture to ever-greater heights of industrial and standard-of-living  dominance, we are now crumbling under the debilitating weight of altruism and pragmatism.

No, "we are not destined to follow the path of the Roman Empire." But we will, if we do not rediscover the ideals that made America America. There is no better place to start than with the Declaration of Independence. What might that greatest-of-all documents tell us? That the "spark" that lies at the heart of American exceptionalism--and, indeed, of all human progress, anywhere--is the liberated individual freely pursuing his own goals, values, and happiness in a culture of freedom of production and trade.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Contract Rights Means No Insurance Mandates or Minimum Wage Laws

This letter recently appeared in the NJ Star-Ledger:

Fertility insurance
Although Gov. Chris Christie professes a strong aversion to unfair subsidies, he has been silent about the annual multibillion-dollar legislative subsidy that requires all New Jersey businesses, governments and employees to pay for fertility coverage in their insurance premiums. This is because the subsidy largely benefits the governor’s affluent suburban constituency, who disproportionately receive the lavish subsidy.
If the governor really cared about business and hard-working New Jerseyans, he would support the increase in the minimum wage and re-commit himself to his promise to cut the fertility insurance mandate.
Mark Oshinskie, Highland Park

Oshinskie's mixed premises are obvious. I left the following comments:
RE: Fertility Insurance
I agree that fertility insurance should not be mandated, but not because of the economic status of those who purchase fertility treatment. Individuals and insurers have a right to contract voluntarily to mutual advantage, and that means having the freedom to negotiate the terms of healthcare policies without government interference. For this reason, all insurance mandates--which, as Mr. Oshinskie correctly notes, are a form of subsidy or wealth redistribution--should be repealed. All mandates, I would add, are unfair subsidies, because they forcibly take money from some to pay for others' healthcare. The government's proper purpose is to protect everyone's individual rights to pursue his own values and happiness equally and at all times, regardless of race, gender, or economic status. The right to freedom of contract--i.e., free association--is a foundational principle of America and of a free society. 
The same goes for employment contracts, which is why minimum wage laws should be repealed. Here, I find it interesting that Mr. Oshinskie doesn't agree. The primary victims of minimum wage laws are the young and the poor. Minimum wage laws close the job market to anyone without the productive skills necessary to justify that arbitrary government-mandated wage scale, thus denying to many the opportunity to enter the job market and gain a chance to develop the skills, experience, work ethic, and self-esteem needed to advance economically. Minimum wage laws essentially kick the lower rungs of the "economic ladder" out from under the unskilled, the young, and the poor--especially the ambitious poor.
Insurance mandates and minimum wage laws are immoral, because they violate rights to freedom of action based on personal judgement.
Related Reading:

Politicians create such laws because they seek the votes of the select people who benefit from such market intrusions and to hell with the people who stay unemployed due to the jobs not created and don’t know they are being screwed.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Caroline Poplin's Swiss Cheese Defense of Social Security

Is Social Security misunderstood? Yes--by Caroline Poplin, a "policy analyst" who argues that "We should take Social Security off the table in this [fiscal cliff] debate" because--well--the program is "surprisingly misunderstood." But, Poplin's argument for maintaining Social Security in its current form is so full of holes that it could be mistaken for swiss cheese.

For one thing, she denies that, as currently structured, it is unsustainable; i.e., there is no unfunded liability. 

This claim is factually false. It is a mathematical, actuarial certainty that the Social Security balance sheet cannot sustain benefits at the current level. Estimates vary, of course, with SS's own trustees estimating an unfunded liability of $8.6 trillion and other estimates ranging up to $20.5 trillion. How could Poplin miss this obvious fact? She confuses reality with need:

Deficit hawks insist that the U.S. cannot afford benefits at the current level. They are wrong. Most middle-class Americans, now and in the future, will depend on Social Security for a dignified retirement.

If you have a savings account upon which you are regularly drawing to pay your bills because your income can't support your lifestyle, it makes no difference how much you depend on those withdrawals. If your account is not large enough to sustain those withdrawals, you're going to have to cut back on your expenditures, sooner or later. Every middle-class American knows that.

A bigger misunderstanding lurks in Poplin's piece, though:

Conservatives claim that the Trust Fund is a fiction – that the Social Security surplus was spent, not lent. That is wrong. The government borrows from the Trust Fund just as it borrows from China. If these bonds are not redeemed or rolled over when they come due, the U.S. will default. Any other result would be a betrayal of President Ronald Reagan, Congress, and millions of boomers who paid trillions of dollars in extra taxes over four decades to secure a dignified retirement.

Suppose you decide to begin a systematic savings program of $100.00 a month. However, instead of depositing that money into a bank or mutual fund, you hand it to your spouse every month. In exchange, your spouse hands you an "I owe you $100.00" piece of paper, then goes out and spends the money. Years later, when an unexpected expense hits you, you hand your pile of I-owe-yous to your spouse. Instead of handing the accumulated savings back to you, your spouse puts her hand out and says, "In order for me to redeem these I-owe-yous, you need to give me the money to pay you back."

This is the misnamed "Trust Fund" that Poplin lauds, with one important difference: The money will have to be paid back, not by you, but by other, younger workers. Your SS tax money was spend, just as the spouse in my story spent the "savings" entrusted to her. However, the real-life spouse--the government--won't be turning to you to redeem your own savings, since you are now retired and no longer working. It will turn to your neighbor, who will have to cough up the money to redeem the Trust Fund's pile of I-owe-yous (government bonds) that your benefits depend upon.

"Social Security is often described as a pay-as-you-go system, with taxes from current workers going to pay benefits of today’s retirees," writes Poplin. And with good reason: It's true, Poplin's denials notwithstanding. The money a worker pays in Social Security taxes today goes toward today's retiree benefits, with any surplus in tax collections going into the Trust Fund, which is then spent by congress. Either way, the money is spent. It's gone. It was not deposited in an investment fund, available to provide capital fuel for economic growth--business expansion, factories, new technologies, labor-saving devices, and other productive activities. Your money is not part of a growing account balance spurred by investment returns thrown off by current production. Like the spouse in my story, the money is consumed. The only way to replace it is with taxes on future production, which will not be there because the money was not invested in the productive capacity to provide it.

Poplin notes that "Social Security payments ... are backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government." Who backs the government? The productive taxpayers. Just as the spend-thrift spouse had to turn back the the source of the original $100.00--you--to make good on your $100.00 I-owe-you, so the government will have to turn back to its original funder--the taxpayer--to make good on its "full faith and credit," which rests on that very same taxpayer. It's nothing more than a con game, played out in full public view for all but the Caroline Poplin's to see.

Social Security is "more important now than ever," says Poplin, because

with median income stagnant over the past 30 years despite the rising cost of housing, education and health care, it is difficult for many to save such large sums. That is why Social Security, which guarantees stable payments for life, is so valuable and must be protected.

With programs like Social Security diverting vast sums of earnings from productive investment and savings to consumption, is it any surprise that incomes are becoming stagnant? The only way for retirement savings to be able to provide for retirement is for them to provide the investment capital for economic growth--which means, productivity growth. Productivity raises the value of saved dollars, which can then be exchanged for the goods and services you'll need in retirement, which you'll be able to afford without soaking other, younger workers. Poplin's argument amounts to; SS helped reduce our current standard of living, so we'll need SS to help maintain that reduced standard of live, which will keep on declining because we continue to spend, rather than invest, our retirement "savings" in our spouse's (the government's) empty I-owe-yous!

Poplin concludes that "Social Security ... should not be part of any 'grand bargain' to fix [the deficit]." Not only should it be part of the "grand bargain": It (along with Medicare and Medicaid) should be at its center.

My own solution is: The government has had its chance at running our retirement savings, and it has failed. While I believe that SS is immoral and should be abolished, this is not yet politically feasible. What is feasible is a transition to self-directed personal investment accounts, into which all 12.4% of each worker's SS contribution would be deposited, beginning with younger workers. To get this transition started, a compromise may have to be made with the Left to bolster the accounts of the lowest income workers. This can be accomplished through matching government deposits that keep the lowest income workers at some minimum level of SS account balance, phased out as incomes rise.

This is still immoral redistribution,  but at least the low-income worker would have ownership control, and would have to be working and paying into his account to qualify for the matching grant. Best of all, the laundering of SS taxes through Washington would end. 

Related Reading:

The Social Security Injustice

The "Personal Account" Path to Ending Social Security

Social Security and the "Hypocracy" Charge

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas: A Holiday for All Americans

Can non-Christians celebrate Christmas? Many do, and why not? I’m an atheist and I have no problem celebrating Christmas, even though it has no religious significance for me.

What’s great about Christmas is that it is both a religious holiday, being based upon the birth of the Christian icon Jesus, and a secular holiday as well.

How can I say that? I am indebted to philosopher Ayn Rand for identifying the resolution of that seemingly contradictory proposition. In answer to the question of whether it is appropriate for an atheist to celebrate Christmas, Rand answered:

Yes, of course. A national holiday, in this country, cannot have an exclusively religious meaning. The secular meaning of the Christmas holiday is wider than the tenets of any particular religion: it is good will toward men—a frame of mind which is not the exclusive property… of the Christian religion. (The Ayn Rand Lexicon)

This makes perfect sense. A national religious holiday in a secular nation founded on the principle of separation of church and state (religious freedom) is a logical impossibility. Since to have a secular government means to have one that is neutral with regards to the fundamental beliefs of all of its citizens, an American national holiday by definition cannot be religious.

In fact, what we today call Christmas originally didn't have any connection to Jesus at all, writes Onkar Ghate in U.S.News & World Report:

"Before Christians co-opted the holiday in the fourth century (there is no reason to believe Jesus was born in December), it was a pagan celebration of the winter solstice, of the days beginning to grow longer. The Northern European tradition of bringing evergreens indoors, for instance, was a reminder that life and production were soon to return to the now frozen earth."

The Romans celebrated the Winter Solstice with the holiday Saturnalia. In Northern Europe, the holiday was called Yule.

Indeed, as philosopher Leonard Peikoff notes over at Capitalism Magazine, the leading secular Christmas symbol - Santa Claus - actually contradicts some standard Christian tenets:

Santa Claus is a thoroughly American invention. ... In 1822, an American named Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem about a visit from St. Nick. It was Moore (and a few other New Yorkers) who invented St. Nick's physical appearance and personality, came up with the idea that Santa travels on Christmas Eve in a sleigh pulled by reindeer, comes down the chimney, stuffs toys in the kids' stockings, then goes back to the North Pole.

...Santa implicitly rejected the whole Christian ethics. He did not denounce the rich and demand that they give everything to the poor; on the contrary, he gave gifts to rich and poor children alike. Nor is Santa a champion of Christian mercy or unconditional love. On the contrary, he is for justice -- Santa gives only to good children, not to bad ones.

So, regardless of your beliefs, go ahead and enjoy Christmas on your own terms.

On that note, let me extend to everyone a hearty wish for a joyous, safe, and thoroughly non-contradictory…


Related Reading:

How the Welfare State Stole Christmas, by Yaron Brook and Don Watkins

Was Jesus Really Born on Dec. 25?, by Andrew Santella.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Gun Control Should Focus On Principles, Not Guns

The recent horrific, heart-wrenching massacre at an elementary school in Connecticut has once again thrust the issue of gun control into the forefront of national dialogue. And once again, there appears to be movement towards some kind of political consensus for increased restrictions on the ownership of guns.  Whether this will lead to legislation, or fade once again into the background, remains to be seen.
In any event, it is an important topic. To have a rational discussion, we must begin with some basics. The first and most important questions to ask are: 
Does an individual have a right to self-defense? How should that right be implemented in law?
" secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men..."
Those famous words are, of course, from the Declaration of Independence, and they refer to the individual's "unalienable Rights [to] Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Why must governments be created to secure--or protect--individual rights?
As Ayn Rand, who solidified the philosophical case for individual rights and the proper purpose of government, explains:
"Man’s rights can be violated only by the use of physical force. It is only by means of physical force that one man can deprive another of his life, or enslave him, or rob him, or prevent him from pursuing his own goals, or compel him to act against his own rational judgment.
"The precondition of a civilized society is the barring of physical force from social relationships—thus establishing the principle that if men wish to deal with one another, they may do so only by means of reason: by discussion, persuasion and voluntary, uncoerced agreement.
"The necessary consequence of man’s right to life is his right to self-defense. In a civilized society, force may be used only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use. All the reasons which make the initiation of physical force an evil, make the retaliatory use of physical force a moral imperative."
But, as Rand explains:
"The use of physical force—even its retaliatory use—cannot be left at the discretion of individual citizens. Peaceful coexistence is impossible if a man has to live under the constant threat of force to be unleashed against him by any of his neighbors at any moment. Whether his neighbors’ intentions are good or bad, whether their judgment is rational or irrational, whether they are motivated by a sense of justice or by ignorance or by prejudice or by malice-the use of force against one man cannot be left to the arbitrary decision of another."
"If physical force is to be barred from social relationships, men need an institution charged with the task of protecting their rights under an objective code of rules.
"This is the task of a government—of a proper government—its basic task, its only moral justification and the reason why men do need a government.
"A government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of physical force under objective controli.e., under objectively defined laws.
"There is only one basic principle to which an individual must consent if he wishes to live in a free, civilized society: the principle of renouncing the use of physical force and delegating to the government his right of physical self-defense, for the purpose of an orderly, objective, legally defined enforcement."
Some questions arise. When the people consent to delegate their right of self-defense to the government, is this delegation complete and total? Since the government's job is to protect its citizens from the initiation of physical force, does it follow that the citizen may no longer act in his own defense under any circumstances? 
The Founding Fathers' stand on these questions is made blazingly clear in the Second Amendment, which protects "the right of the people to keep and bear arms." To my knowledge, Rand did not specifically address the issues raised by these questions or of gun control. However, from the principles she laid down as well as the Second Amendment, we can extrapolate some answers. 
It is generally recognized that a citizen may act in his own self-defense, including with the use of physical force, in the rare circumstance when he or others near him are in imminent danger. It's obvious why: government's agents--the police--can not be everywhere at once.
The delegation of the right of self-defense to the government is not unconditional and total. The right of self-defense is fundamentally an inalienable individual right, which means that in any circumstance in which the government is not there to protect an individual, that individual retains the right to take appropriate actions to defend his life and property.
It follows, then, that the individual citizen must retain the right to possess the means by which to defend himself from the objectively demonstrable threats that may occur whenever the government is not there to protect him. In other words, he must be legally free to possess weapons at least equal to those available to domestic criminals who, by definition, operate outside of the law. The right of self-defense--a corollary of the more fundamental right to life--is a sham without the legal right to possess adequate means to defend oneself.
Since the government properly must have a legal monopoly on the use of physical force, it must have the right to objectively define when a private citizen may use defensive or retaliatory force, as well as what kind of force to use. It would be entirely appropriate, for example, for the law to forbid the ownership of weapons that exceed the necessary capacity to stop a criminal in the act. Rocket launchers, chemical weapons, tanks, and the like would fit into this category.
What should we make of the current move to ban so-called "assault weapons?" Frankly, I don't know. I don't own any guns, and never have, and I don't have any expertise on the subject of weaponry. But that question must be answered in the context of the principle of the right of adequate self-defense.
Since rights are unalienable and held equally by all people at all times, it follows that--aside from people who are objectively demonstrable threats to society like convicted violent criminals or the insane--no one should be denied the right to own legally permitted guns--that is, weapons commensurate with the domestic threats present. 
Nor should laws be so stringent so as to effectively make gun ownership impossible. A basic criminal and mental background check, along with basic training in the guns being purchased, is all that should be required to own a gun. Securing a gun license should be as easy and routine for responsible citizens as securing a drivers license.
As the Second Amendment states, the right to bear arms is "necessary to the security of a free State." We need more security. We need more defense against violent criminals in the act of commission. Sadly, there were no trained, armed citizens available to secure that school. 

We must stop demonizing guns. It is simplistic and infantile. Guns exist. They have been invented. Get over it. A law can no more rid society of guns than prohibition could rid society of alcohol. The horse is gone, so forget about closing the barn doors. We must recognize, as the Founders did, that guns employed in the capacity of self-defense--whether in the hands of police or private citizens--is a good and necessary thing. 

Is there nothing we can do to prevent future mass murders, or reduce crime in general? Not at all. Expanding, not restricting, the ability of self-defense is the answer. The Second Amendment also sanctions "A well regulated Militia." We already have volunteer private neighborhood watch groups. We have unarmed, crime-patrol organizations like the Guardian Angels. Why not trained, armed, licensed-to-carry private militias embedded in the population, to supplement the police, who are usually called after a crime is in motion, and arrive after the fact? 

For many, particularly on the Left, "gun control" is a back-door means of banning guns. We must reject this approach outright. Restricting the ownership of guns in the hands of law-abiding, responsible citizens is wrong. Any gun control laws that violate the principle of individual self-defense are morally invalid and, in practical terms, counterproductive. Every responsible citizen who chooses to equip himself for self-defense--whether on his own property or at large--is a potential defender of others. The idea that alienating the private, law-abiding citizen from his right of self-defense against armed criminals can somehow reduce illegal gun use is absurd.

There can be no right to life apart from the right of self-defense.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

"Fracking's" Knee-Jerk Enemies

This letter appeared in the NJ Star-Ledger on 12/6/12:

Fracking and autism
I am the president of Impact Oasis, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to create meaningful work and peaceful residences for adults with autism by establishing local sustainable farms.
The leading theory on the cause of autism is that it is a combination of six to seven genes plus an unknown environmental trigger. Until we know what that trigger is, we are dedicated to removing toxins from our lives.
Hydraulic fracturing unquestionably produces toxic waste. It is foolish to create a poison without first knowing how it can be safely discarded or stored.
We cannot afford to add more toxins to our land, food, water and air that may contribute to a further increase in developmental disabilities in our children. Please contact our Republican leaders in the New Jersey Assembly and ask them to vote to override Gov. Chris Christie’s veto of S253, which would ban fracking waste from entering our state. 

Mai Cleary, Middletown

So, until we learn what the "unknown environmental trigger" for autism is, if it even exists, then all "toxins" should be removed from our lives. (Does this mean toxins that cause other ailments are ok? Your guess is as good as mine.) I've left the following comments:

RE: Fracking and Autism 
What would our environment be like without clean potable water delivered to our fingertips, the end of infectious disease epidemics through indoor plumbing and sewage treatment plants, central heating and AC, the end of famine through modern agriculture, sturdy housing that can protect us from the elements, electrified illumination at the flick of a switch, safe comfortable long distance travel, pharmaceuticals to treat our ailments? All of this, and much, much more, is powered by energy, and fossil fuels provide the vast bulk of that energy. 
Fossil fuels power the development that has transformed earth’s hostile natural environment into a livable, comfortable environment for humans, autistic and healthy alike. “Fracking” is a wonderful technology that has unleashed vast new quantities of natural gas and oil, right here in North America, to continue to maintain and improve our living environment while at the same time releasing us from reliance on Mideast oil. 
By all means, have objective laws that enforce proper hazardous waste disposal, punish polluters, and compensate proven victims of improper toxic waste disposal. But the knee-jerk, blind opposition to hydraulic fracturing that lies behind S253’s outright ban on “fracking” waste entering NJ is wrongheaded economically, strategically, and environmentally—and, thus, immoral. The known risk of life without fossil fuels far outweighs the dangers of waiting until all potential risks are alleviated—an impossible task that requires omniscience.

Related Reading:

Cheers to the Heroes Driving America's Oil and Gas Boom

The Environmental Case for Fossil Fuels, by Alex Epstein

Monday, December 17, 2012

Collectivism vs. Individualism in Letters

The New Jersey Star-Ledger published this letter on November 14, 2012:

Lose the ego
During this past election cycle, there was a lot of talk about, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" I think a better question would have been, "Is our country better off than it was four years ago?" Our culture seems to have adopted a self-serving, entitled attitude, in which there is little thought by individuals toward what would be better for the good of our nation.
It is easy to see a contrast with older people who lived through World War II, comparing their responses to questions about serving our nation with that of those in their 20s and 30s. The current attitude has been aggravated by the recent, divisive nature of the political process, which pits one class of citizens against another. I believe this individualism threatens our nation and needs to change to assure our greatness as a country.
Gregory Borsinger, Chatham
On November 16, 2012, the Star-Ledger published my rebuttal letter in slightly edited form. My letter is titled, Extol the Individual:
Gregory Borsinger’s Nov. 14 letter proclaiming that "individualism threatens our nation and needs to change to assure our greatness as a country" is a repudiation of the very ideals America was founded upon.
America was the first country to proclaim that the individual has the inalienable right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. The greatness of our nation was just this: The individual "common man" is subordinate to no collective, monarchy, clergy, majority, government or political class with delusions of "national greatness."
The state supremacist ideal that Borsinger glorifies, perhaps unwittingly, is exactly the evil that our founders rebelled against, that America defeated in World War II and the Cold War, and that, sadly, must again be defeated here at home to save the land of liberty.
Michael A. LaFerrara, Flemington
In my submitted draft, the first sentence in the second paragraph read: "To the glory of humanity, America was the first country to proclaim that the individual owns his life and has the inalienable right to the freedom to pursue his own productive goals, values, and happiness." The first five words of that sentence was paraphrased from one of my favorite sentences from Atlas Shrugged character Francisco d'Anconia's money speech: "To the glory of mankind, there was, for the first and only time in history, a country of money–and I have no higher, more reverent tribute to pay to America, for this means: a country of reason, justice, freedom, production, achievement."
But I'll take what they gave me! 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Modern Medicine vs. Primitive Ethics

The Objective Standard blog has published my post, Time for the Ethics of Organ Donation to Catch Up with the Heroics of Dr. Joseph E. Murray. Dr. Murray, who died November 26, 2012, performed the first successful human organ transplant in 1954, thus pioneering the organ transplant industry.

Coincidentally, a couple of hours after the publication of my piece, an article by Dr. Amesh A. Adalja was published at Forbes titled To Save Lives, Allow Individuals to Sell Their Organs. It's well worth reading, along with this related material:

The Monstrous Nature of Altruism Laid Bare

Government-Enforced Organ Donor Law is Immoral

Government-Enforced Organ Donor Law is Immoral -- 2

Obama's "Cruel Disregard" for the Sick--and the Well

Legalize Market for Transplant Kidneys, by James Stacey Taylor

Friday, December 14, 2012

Misunderstanding a "Free Market"

In the article on Wal-Mart and foot stamps, a correspondent left the following comment, probably prompted by my previous comments, published yesterday, 12/13/12:

Walmart is driven by one factor: So-caled "free trade". Obama, W, Clinton and Reagan all have embraced free trade to help the rich get richer. (Obama just found the cheating Chinese don't cheat to keep the ripoff going). It's done by having the communists pay dirt wages for shoddy product that's then sold at a retail outlet. What's missing? Manufactures here, in America, with employees getting paid a decent wage. If you don't like Walmart wages, you don't like Obama who only offers the palliative Food Stamp Program to justify his relocation of 10,000 manufacturing jobs to foreign countries a month. They've already moved textiles, chemicals, drugs, tool die makers, electronics and steel out....forever. Then, Obama advertises our Food Stamps in Mexico, so they can come here and filch jobs and benefits from us. 
Think about it. Walmart doesn't work in a vacuum.

I left these replies:

Free Trade is a moral principle; meaning, voluntary association free from physical force and interference from others, including government. Free trade’s purpose is not to “help the rich get richer.” It is a logical consequence of the guarantee of each individual’s inalienable rights to his own life, liberty, property, and pursuit of happiness. The fact than many get rich under free trade is a virtue, because—under free trade—fortunes are made by enriching everyone who engages in free trade. Without free trade, those of us who manage to survive at all would all be dirt poor. 
Today, we have a mix of free trade (the moral) and force, with government as the hired gun (the immoral).  
To the extent that overseas manufacturing is driven by free trade, it is a win-win-win; good for the company, the worker, and the American consumer. To the extent that it is driven by forcible government interference into the market—such as the government-induced massive mis-allocated resources from manufacturing-related investments to housing-related over-expansion that led to the Great Recession—it is a lose-lose-lose. We shouldn’t confuse free trade with statism. 

By the way, not everyone who gets rich in today's economy does so legitimately by free trade. Many get rich through so-called "crony-capitalism"--government favors--which is really crony socialism. But, that's the mixed economy.

In the first reply, my sentence "The fact than many get rich under free trade is a virtue, because—under free trade—fortunes are made by enriching everyone who engages in free trade" should have ended with the words "with that productive company." But the point should be clear enough without it (I think).

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Is Wal-Mart to Blame for the Growing Use of Food Stamps?

As the regulatory welfare state increasingly depresses the economy, the statists are ramping up their attacks on the shrinking productive private sector.

Is Wal-Mart to blame for the growing ranks of people receiving food stamps? Yes, according to Charles Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey State AFL-CIO:

Rather than pretending to live on food stamps for a week, shouldn't Mayor Cory Booker be taking a hard-line stance against Wal-Mart, which is trying to open a store in the heart of Newark?
Wal-Mart is the No. 1 driver behind the growing use of food stamps in the United States. As many as 80 percent of workers in Wal-Mart stores are forced to depend on food stamps. If Booker was serious about helping families on food stamps, he should be paying more attention to the root cause that drives the need for food stamps — poverty-level wages offered by America’s wealthiest corporations. It is time for the mayor to break his silence on this issue and bring to Newark companies that pay sustainable living wages and uplift the community.

Here are a couple of good comments:

So let me get this right. My fellow New Jerseyans in Middlesex, Union, and Hudson county have the convenience of access to Walmart in their communities. But because I live in Newark, I should be shut out from the opportunity to shop at Walmart? Newark needs more shopping diversity, housing diversity, and more jobs of any sort. I'd love to be able to walk or bus locally to Walmart, than to drive across county lines like I have to do now. 

Why wouldn't opening a new store in Newark, which would lead to employing Newark residents reduce the cost to taxpayers? It's not likely that someone who currently earns more than $8.81 an hour would leave their job to go work at Walmart, so you would most likely be employing people who are currently earning less and on public assistance.

Followed by Mine:

Great points, NevarKaJ and Cringle10. No one has a right to stop Wal-Mart (or any merchant) from opening a store in any town, or consumers from voluntarily shopping Wal-Mart and employees from voluntarily taking a job there, thus bettering their lives. What right does this special-interest cabal of "Newark residents" posturing as the "community" have to stand in the way of Wal-Mart, its employees, and its customers from voluntarily contracting with each other to mutual advantage? Those who don't like Wal-Mart can simply refuse to patronize the store, or work there. That's the civil way for community members to co-exist.

This innovative retailing pioneer has raised the standard of living of Americans--particularly lower income Americans--by lowering the cost of consumer goods, not just at its own stores, but throughout the retailing industry through competition. That is why it is successful. Wal-Mart should be lauded as a great productive American success story, not demonized.

As to food stamps, that is a government program funded by forcibly seized earnings. It has nothing to do with Wal-Mart. It has everything to do with the immorality of forced wealth redistribution, an improper government undertaking. 

Statists never tire of the fantasy that the laws of economics can be suspended on their whim--such as the imposition of arbitrarily determined "sustainable living wages." If that is so easy to do, why doesn't Wowkanech and his ilk take a job actually running companies rather than a labor union? Then he can pay whatever wages his little heart desires. Then, if successful, they will raise the "poverty-level wages offered by America’s wealthiest corporations" through competition as workers flock to their companies. 

Wages are set objectively, through the market, which--over time--rewards rising productivity with higher pay. Voluntary labor unions, as part of a free market, can play a hand in this process provided they are not arbitrarily empowered by laws granting them special "rights." Productivity comes from labor-saving devices and techniques provided by innovative businesses and individuals, and from the personal character of individual employees--the whims of the Wowkanech's of the world notwithstanding.

Related Reading:

Booker's "Humble" Food stamp Campaign Highlights the Immorality of the Food Stamp Program

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Booker's "Humble" Food Stamp Campaign Highlights the Immorality of the Food Stamp Program

Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker, a possible 2013 challenger to Governor Chris Christie,   recently drew attention the the plight of the poor food stamp recipient, getting his picture on the front page of NJ's largest newspaper, the Star-Ledger. David Giambusso reported:

In Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s career of glitzy photo shoots, this was by far the most humble.

He stood in his kitchen Tuesday, glumly assessing the 17 cans of beans, seven yams, two bags of frozen vegetables and two apples that will constitute his diet for the next seven days as he embarked on a week-long effort to shed light on the plight of roughly 46 million Americans who rely on food stamps to survive. 

Many commenters on this article, including some self-described "liberals," pointed out that food stamps were never intended to be more than a supplement. But, notice the switch taking place here: from taking care of yourself with some government "assistance," to relying solely on government for your entire diet.

Full, undiluted socialism is total dependence on government for all of our needs and wants. If our welfare state ever evolves into full socialism, it is by means of smuggling in the concept of total dependence as the goal of government programs.

Giambusso's article included a quote from Booker that served as the opening of my comments:

"People have a real lack of understanding of the struggles that many families have to go through — hard working families that play by the rules...."

Well, the hard working people whose money is forcibly confiscated through taxes to pay for SNAP play by the rules, too. Don't they count, or do we evade their existence? 

Championing the cause of alleviating "hunger" is one thing, and there are certainly some citizens needing assistance.  Whether someone is worthy of help is a voluntary private judgement that properly belongs to private individuals voluntarily donating their own money based on their own values. But any initiative that begins with theft is immoral.

Considering the monumental size of our government's fiscal woes, the food stamp program is small potatoes. I would start solving our problems by attacking, say, corporate welfare--all of it, including the politically correct sacred cows like solar subsidies. But, since Booker draws attention to it, the food stamp program is as good a place as any to highlight the basic problem. The "Fiscal Cliff" is really an ethical cliff, and we went over it long ago, when we decided that theft is ok, as long as someone "needs" something and the theft is legal. When we handed the government the power to redistribute wealth, we handed politicians a moral blank check, allowing them to side-step the criminal laws that private citizens must live by. 

The acceptance of the idea that someone's need is a license to steal from others is not the mark of a humane culture, but a corrupt one.

Related Reading:

From Middle Class to Welfare Class

Where to Cut the Federal Budget? Start by Killing Corporate Welfare, by Doug Bandow

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Why is a "Liberal" Promoting Atlas Shrugged?

[WARNING: Atlas Shrugged plot spoilers ahead]

Bill Wolf, an English teacher, has penned an interesting op-ed titled How liberals can enjoy reading 'Atlas Shrugged'. Put simply, Wolf endorses the book by driving a wedge between the story and the novel's essential philosophical message. After bashing the deeper philosophical message in the book, Wolf writes:

   But that’s not the way to read "Atlas Shrugged."
   Keep in mind that "Atlas Shrugged" is, after all, a novel of science fiction: secret laboratories, super ray guns and magic motors. The novel ends as a Tom Swiftian adventure, complete with an underground torture chamber, heroic endurance, a small band of clever and fearless adventurers and a dramatic, last-minute escape. These are what have kept "Atlas Shrugged" strong in the marketplace for decades, despite the cockeyed economic theory, despite the long pages of half-baked rhetoric.
   And there’s Miss Taggart...arguably the strongest woman protagonist of Rand’s literary generation...: Proud. Accomplished. Competent. Strong. Enduring. Beautiful. Sexy. Adulterous. She is the key to the ongoing popularity of "Atlas Shrugged." She is Rand’s "motor of the world."
   It is the science-fiction adventure story, the tale of a great and forceful woman, that has sustained the book’s perennial popularity.

I left the following comments:

It’s surprising that Mr. Wolf, being an English teacher, misses the most fundamental theme of Atlas Shrugged; the role of man’s mind in human existence, a theme that encompasses Rand’s new Aristotelian-based concept of morality, rational self-interest. Wolf conveniently omits that Rand’s “celebration of egoism” rejects not only the self-sacrificial ethics of altruism but also the conventional understanding of selfishness (the sacrificing of others to short-term self-gratification). [One wonders if Wolf is a beneficiary of the Ayn Rand Institute's charitable Free Books to Teachers program.] The main theme is also missed by most on the Right, and that’s too bad. For the first time, someone has challenged the regulatory welfare state on fundamental moral grounds. Rand’s scientific moral defense of the inalienable individual rights of man is an indispensable companion to the Declaration of Independence.

Unfortunately, Rand’s influence on American culture has been greatly exaggerated. It’s utterly false that “American politics [has moved] further and further to the right” because of Atlas Shrugged. In fact, since AS was published in 1957, the country has moved dramatically to the Left despite the Reagan interlude. Far from proving “the absurdity of Randian thought,” the financial crisis proved her right. The myth of “deregulation” is belied by Bush’s massive regulatory expansion. As Thomas Sowell, John A. Allison, and others have proven, government regulatory and political policies were the primary cause the crisis. If we actually had “the absolute separation of finance and state”—no Fed, Fannie or Freddie, FDIC, CRA, “affordable housing” policies, etc. etc.—there would have been no housing bubble and bust. 
Nonetheless, that this article has been written and published in NJ’s largest newspaper indicates that her influence has grown to the point that her ideas must be reckoned with. Thank you, Mr. Wolf, for pointing readers to Atlas Shrugged. Its important ideas are worth debating, not just for the political aspects, but especially for the wonderful life-enhancing personal values of Objectivism. 

Because Wolf focuses on the more superficial aspects of the book, he fails to recognize that  Dagny epitomizes the philosophic values of Objectivism promoted in the book. And, since the ideas that are diametrically opposed to Objectivism--bad ideas that dominate our culture today--are also highlighted in the book, Wolf is unable to see that those very bad ideas are ultimately destructive to the Dagnys of the world--which is why the climax of the novel has Dagny abandoning her railroad. 

Wolf acknowledges that, in the book's plot,  "...rampaging socialism and regulation in a U.S. government that had become absolutely corrupt [has brought] the economy [to the verge of] collapse." But that Wolf somehow misses the point that Rand's "cockeyed economic theory" and "half-baked rhetoric" is an integral part of the dramatization of the only societal conditions that can allow the heroic Dagnys of the world to flourish is beyond me. Socialism and regulation don't sometimes become corrupt. They are "absolutely corrupt" by their very nature. Ultimately, they can only lead to the collapsing world of Atlas Shrugged, because statism makes production and trade impossible.

But, perhaps this is a point that thoughtful "liberals" who may now pick up the book thanks to Bill Wolf will not miss.