#FreeWillies

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Last week, in the wake of the People’s Climate March and the #FloodWallStreet protests that followed it, I was tweebating folks of the “voluntarist” persuasion of libertarianism about the alleged hypocrisy (or irony, at least) of environmentalists using the fruits of capitalism to communicate their presumably anti-capitalist ideas. This was something we used to hear a lot in the beginning of the #Occupy movement from Wall Street’s apologist-propagandists in the media and the grandstands they played to. The argument seemed to be, if you use it, you can’t complain about it. Interesting to me, those who take this argument seriously (and assuming anyone really does, it must be these people), they don’t seem able to see that they could be accused of a similar hypocrisy for criticizing the government when they benefit from government infrastructure, public safety and defense.

But that is not my problem with the voluntarists. My problem is with their fundamental stance, which was exemplified for me in a tweet from one “Jack”:

Jack ‏@oaaselect Sep 23

Did you get tricked into buying your device [meaning what I was using to Tweet with] or did you buy it voluntarily? @ChristofPierson @scooterpie61

via Twitter / Notifications.

On its face, this seems like a good question. The problem is, if you dig just a little under the face, the question falls apart. Do we really buy things “voluntarily”–of our own free will? Is it as simple as that? Consider the millions of people who broke records dumping their current phones for the iPhone 6 recently. Did all of those people need a new phone? Did they need the iPhone 6 in particular? Considering they were surviving fine without it until it went on sale, It’s hard to believe they did.. But the question is not did they need it, but did they want it? Did they buy it of their own free will?

Philosophically, free will is still controversial, of course. It’s a popular belief for obvious reasons, but the jury is still out on whether or not it’s fact. The very unpopular determinist position is that we are restricted to a very limited range of behaviors, based on any given stimulus, and the range shrinks the more habituated to these stimuli we become–unless we are insane, in which case, our behaviors can be frighteningly free-ranging and considered dangerous to society. Of course, just because this is an unpopular (because unflattering) point of view doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

I think it’s prudent to wonder, then, if the millions who ran out to buy the iPhone 6 all really “wanted” the phone or were responding as expected to a stimulus (“new Apple product,” or just,” latest gadget”) they’ve become habituated to reacting to in a specific way. There is no easy way of knowing, except maybe by comparing one’s own responses to these kinds of stimuli. Do we always buy what we want? Do we always take the job, or marry the spouse, or buy the house or car or gadget we want?  If I were a voluntarist–I mean, if voluntarism were something I thought I wanted to believe in–wouldn’t it be important to know if free will were something more than a wish or hope–in other words, a self-flattering illusion? Wouldn’t it be important to know if it were something more like an objective fact?

If it is more like fact, it certainly is not a simple one. But my conversation with these voluntarists was unsatisfying not just because of Twitter’s limitations as a forum for complex discussion. These voluntarists were not interested in complexities in the least. They were quite content with their received opinions about free will, the nature of “real capitalism’ (which according to them is something, unironically to them,  not of this world), or the right (or justice, if you will) of those who critique capitalism partaking in the gadgets the system produces. I have to wonder, who’s less liberated: the person within a system who sees its faults and says what those faults are, or the person whose ideology doesn’t permit more than a shallow understanding of the very thing they think they believe in.

Was it John Boehner’s Intent to Sabotage the #Teaparty?

John Boehner

John Boehner (Photo credit: Keith Allison)

There’s a fascinating, very sour interview on Salon.com with Adam Brandon, a leader of Freedom Works. That organization, somewhat defanged in the wake of an acrimonious split with its former leader, the former Texas Congressman Dick Armey, was nevertheless instrumental in forging right-wing discontent with Obamacare into pockets of astroturf activism around the country. More recently Freedom Works played a role in goading Republicans into following the Tea Party line over the shutdown and debt ceiling debacles. Brandon has ideas about the shutdown and House Speaker John Boehner’s motives during it that are worth considering,

I’m not sure if he’s going to be running for Speaker again. I wonder if that’s part of all of this as well. Why did – I mean the way it was crafted…You needed Democrats to pass this. And what I don’t understand is, if the plan all along was to put just basically a pretty clean CR out there and pass it with Democratic support, Democratic members, why even do it? Why not do this a month ago? Or were they actually trying to embarrass some people, or trying to cause this fight? I mean who knows. I don’t know why these things – if this was the plan all along, he should have started this at the very beginning, and just, “Hey, listen, we’re just going to pass this with Democratic votes.”

All along, observers were wondering what Boehner was up to. He looked weak, terrified of a small group of rabid right-wingers who were insisting on an all-or-nothing fight against Obamacare, which Boehner, being an old hand in DC, had to have known was a big fat turkey that was never going to fly. He would not be Speaker without the rabid right, but he would never be able to accomplish anything worthy of a legacy with them. The Tea Party coalition is the entire reason the Republicans have become the Party of No: No major legislation, no enabling of Obama, no compromise ever. Not much ammo there to stake a Speakership on.

Brandon’s paranoid theory actually makes a kind of sense, then. What if Boehner, realizing his legacy was doomed because of this awful hand he was dealt, decided, having nothing personally to lose, to take revenge on his tormentors on the right by giving them enough rope to hang  themselves? What if he was thinking, if they’re going to tear me down, I’m taking them down with me?

Perhaps this is giving Boehner too much credit. But even if this were his intention, and even if it shows him to be more of a master Machiavellian than most had assumed, it doesn’t change the fact that the shutdown caused massive pain, to government employees, to families, to women with infants and children, to cancer patients, to people with disabilities, veterans, to local and national economies. He can’t be forgiven for that. But it would at least make his actions comprehensible. At least we would know, that cruel and heartless though he may be, he wasn’t motivated by sheer insanity.

Copyright Keeps Books Out of Print

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Copyright advocates have long (and successfully) argued that keeping books copyrighted assures that owners can make a profit off their intellectual property, and that that profit incentive will “assure [the books’] availability and adequate distribution.” The evidence, it appears, says otherwise.

Rebecca J. Rosen outlines that evidence in an article at the Atlantic, “The Hole in Our Collective Memory: How Copyright Made Mid-Century Books Vanish.”  It’s always worth asking ourselves just what use present copyright law is for anyone but the massive copyright hoarders like publishers and entertainment retailers. It certainly doesn’t benefit the public and now it’s even clear that it doesn’t even benefit the author whose “intellectual property’ it’s alleged to protect and promote.

Copyright law does, in any case, provide a good lesson in American civics. It demonstrates loudly and clearly whose interests our government has nearest and dearest to its heart.  It’s not the people, of course, but always the intellectual property barons. We can rely on our faithful public servants in government, when given a choice between liberalizing the law (which would have the effect of enriching the creative atmosphere for all) and making it more and more constipated, to always choose the path of most constipation. Call it the trickle out theory of American culture.

Noam Chomsky: “It’s institutional structures that block change.”

Keystone XL demonstration, White House,8-23-20...

Keystone XL demonstration, White House,8-23-2011 Photo Credit: Josh Lopez (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If yesterday’s post of Lawrence Lessig‘s TED talk on corruption gives you reason for optimism, you may want to check that after you read this from perennial thorn in the side of the powers that be Noam Chomsky, who writes of a peculiar distinction between the most “advanced” societies in the world today and those  least touched by technological “progress” as far as the threat of climate change goes:

So, at one extreme you have indigenous, tribal societies trying to stem the race to disaster.  At the other extreme, the richest, most powerful societies in world history, like the United States and Canada, are racing full-speed ahead to destroy the environment as quickly as possible.  Unlike Ecuador, and indigenous societies throughout the world, they want to extract every drop of hydrocarbons from the ground with all possible speed.

Both political parties, President Obama, the media, and the international press seem to be looking forward with great enthusiasm to what they call “a century of energy independence” for the United States.  Energy independence is an almost meaningless concept, but put that aside.  What they mean is: we’ll have a century in which to maximize the use of fossil fuels and contribute to destroying the world.

And that’s pretty much the case everywhere.  Admittedly, when it comes to alternative energy development, Europe is doing something.  Meanwhile, the United States, the richest and most powerful country in world history, is the only nation among perhaps 100 relevant ones that doesn’t have a national policy for restricting the use of fossil fuels, that doesn’t even have renewable energy targets.  It’s not because the population doesn’t want it.  Americans are pretty close to the international norm in their concern about global warming.  It’s institutional structures that block change.  Business interests don’t want it and they’re overwhelmingly powerful in determining policy, so you get a big gap between opinion and policy on lots of issues, including this one.

This seems to be a pretty important point, but it’s very difficult to know how seriously it’s being taken: The United States government does not have the species’ or the world’s best interests at heart. And it’s not just the Republicans, who are an easy target for American liberals,  that we have to blame. The fact is the Republicans are pretty much brain-dead and useless at this point. But are the Democrats really all that much better on this issue in particular? Continue reading

Ron Paul’s Principle of Personal Responsibility: A Critique

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5. Individuals are responsible for their own actions; government cannot and should not protect us from ourselves.

–from The Ten Principles of a Free Society

Part of the reason I began critiquing Ron Paul’s Ten Principles of a Free Society a couple of years ago was my curiosity about whether they really were essential to any free society or just Ron Paul’s vision of one. I think I can use the fifth principle to show why they are all uniquely Paulian/Libertarian and not, in fact, essential to all notions of a free society. To do that, I just need to show you an example of a free society where government or an authority can and should protect us “from ourselves.” Continue reading

Reagan Spending vs. #TeaParty Austerity

Would Tea Party Republicans have voted to give Reagan his 50% spending increases and 700,000 more government jobs?

In an article from the Washington Post on “Tea Party” Congressman Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, these paragraphs caught my attention:

Mulvaney mostly meets with voters through weekly town hall meetings. Sometimes he brings with him a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation, full of bar graphs and fever charts depicting the growing federal deficit and the surging cost of health care. In January, Mulvaney added a chart on the automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, which next year will total about $100 billion.

To him the numbers make sense. “In the greater scheme of things, they are not that big,” Mulvaney said.

But, every once in a while, a personal anecdote punctures his certainty. Earlier this month, a friend and former campaign volunteer stood up at one of the town hall meetings to tell Mulvaney that the defense cuts had cost him his job of five years with a large defense contractor. “I just want you to know that these cuts are real and they hurt me,” said Jeffrey Betsch, a single father of three daughters, who was on the verge of being evicted from his home.

After the Rotary Club speech, Mulvaney was thinking about his friend as he drove down a narrow two-lane ribbon of worn blacktop, past strawberry farms and pine forests. He felt terrible, he said, but he also believed that the country faced problems that were bigger than the struggles of a single constituent.

“I don’t see how you wipe out 40 cents of spending on every dollar and not have someone get hurt,” Mulvaney said.

The punchline of the article, which is titled “As budget cuts hit S.C., a congressman is surprised at constituents’ reactions” is that his constituents are actually not angry with him, despite his stubborn refusal to shower the district with federal dollars, as his predecessor Rep.  John Spratt did. It was anger toward Spratt and his loose spending ways that propelled Mulvaney into office in 2010. That same anger may be the wind at his back if he runs for higher office in his state.

Yet principled though they may be, Mulvaney’s actions have had real consequences for his constituents. In addition to his former campaign volunteer, the Congressman faced the irritation of an Air Force general in his district who claimed the effects of the sequester had made the AF less ready for warfare than at any time in memory. To which charges, Mulvaney responded,  “If the cuts force us to look for better ways of saving money in the future, they will be a success. We can’t go backwards.”

How can a progressive argue with such principle? The chief pain caused in Mulvaney’s district is to the military and “independent” defense contractors–or should we say, to the people who work for either sector. Do progressives want to see that money continue to flow to those pockets, or can we use this opportunity of Tea Party intransigence to rethink our spending priorities? Continue reading

Reagan’s Recovery vs Obama’s Recovery (UPDATE)

Here’s an interesting comparison by Michael at EconoPolitics.com from April of this year. In sum, Michael shows, “Had total government spending and employment followed the same trend in this recovery as the 80s recovery, spending would be $895B higher and there would be 1,250,000 more government employees.”

EconoPolitics

Last June, I compared the early 80s recovery under Ronald Reagan to the current recovery. I presented two graphs which compared total government spending and total government employment during the two recoveries. It turned out that government spending and employment both grew more during the Reagan recovery.

It’s been nine months since then. How have things changed?

The current recession began 62 months ago. Reagan’s recession officially began in July 1981 – so 62 months later would be September 1986.

At this point in Reagan’s Recovery (compared to start of recession):

  • Total government spending was up 51%.
  • Government employment was up 750,000.

Today (compared to start of recession):

  • Total government spending is up 22%.
  • Government employment is down 500,000.

Had total government spending and employment followed the same trend in this recovery as the 80s recovery, spending would be $895B higher and there would be 1,250,000 more government employees. Also…

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