public policy Archive


This is a reaction to Inequality Is Not Inevitable by Joseph Stiglitz, who among other things has won the Nobel prize for economics.

The problem is that the power system we have today is a mixture of big business and big government. This leads to errors from critiques from conservatives and libertarians in that they see the problems caused by government, but are often ideologically blinded to those caused by business. But similarly, it leads to errors in leftist critiques like this one, in that they see the problems caused by business, but not government. Two things in particular highlight Stiglitz’s lack of understanding here. (And yes, I’m aware of his lofty credentials.)

The first is when he says, “Corporate interests argued for getting rid of regulations, even when those regulations had done so much to protect and improve our environment, our safety, our health and the economy itself.” All too often, larger businesses want regulation, because they know they can afford to absorb its costs, whereas smaller companies (especially entrepreneurs and their startups) cannot. By cooperating with government policymakers, executives of large businesses end up with a regulatory regime that shields them from competition at the expense of everyone else.

The second is the references to bankers as “among the strongest advocates of laissez-faire economics”. This is completely ridiculous, and while I realise that Stiglitz is an hardcore ideologue, he really ought to know better than to say something like this. Our system is nowhere close to being laissez faire. It’s solidly corporatist, with a powerful central government whose policymakers work to advance the interests of corporations large enough to participate in the system of collaboration. The financial system is at the very centre of this web of patronage, and its pulsing heart, the Federal Reserve, is the world’s most powerful public-private partnership. So the last thing bankers want is laissez faire.

The thing that frustrates me about critiques like this is that both sides actually perceive part of the problem, but neither sees all of it. And since conversations between left and right about the power system in our society are shouting matches rather than dialogues, people who should be working together against a common problem of corporatism instead are squabbling like children. Stiglitz refers to TARP, which is a prime example. The Occupy Wall Street movement and the Tea Party movement both initially started as a reaction to bank bailouts. Obviously left and right do not agree on most things, but that sort of corporatism is one of them and it’s arguably the biggest problem of them all.

A final thought, this word “inequality” has become increasingly popular in this era of Bernie Sanders populism. The problem there is that most people talking about it are upset about inequality of outcome, when it’s much more important to care that everyone has a baseline equality of opportunity. Let the wealthy have their yachts — in a system without corporatism they’ll have earned them and saying otherwise is simply class envy. Let the ceiling be sky high, the higher the better! What matters is where the floor is.

Marco Rubio Is A Fool And A Hypocrite

Posted August 4, 2015 By Steve

“He knows nothing; and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career.” — George Bernard Shaw

Marco Rubio with mouth wide open
I’m not planning to comment much on the U.S. presidential election process that unfortunately has already started to be foisted upon us all. In fact, I really do plan to ignore it as much as humanly possible. But sometimes a politician says something that’s so asinine and hypocritical that it simply cannot pass unchallenged.

Given who has the longest and most inglorious track record of making such statements you may think I’m talking about The Donald, but surprisingly it’s one of the other ones who’s stumbled across the tripwire of absurdity, one about whom I really didn’t know very much before today. This fool is named Marco Rubio.

I refer specifically to Rubio’s recent comments about higher education. As Bloomberg reports:

Rubio, 44, said he’d “bust this cartel” by establishing a new accreditation process more welcoming to low-cost, innovative providers. “This would expose higher education to the market forces of choice and competition, which would prompt a revolution driven by the needs of students — just as the needs of consumers drive the progress of every other industry in our economy,” he said.

This is asinine because it shows that Mr. Rubio is not afraid to get up in front of large groups of people and show that he knows nothing about how innovation in higher education works. It’s true that the regional accreditors are a somewhat exclusive club, but considering that they let in any school that meets their stated criteria, including such controversial institutions as the University of Phoenix, one can hardly rightfully call them a cartel.

Moreover, there are alternative paths where organizations that don’t fit the normal pattern can be part of the higher education system. Alternative accreditors like the Distance Education Accrediting Commission exist for this very purpose, and while better known schools vary in their acceptance of schools accredited by DEAC and the like, that’s an individual decision on the part of each school, it’s not systematic exclusion. Moreover, there are not one but two organizations where even non-academic providers of education and training can have their non-academic credentials be evaluated as the equivalent to college credit and accepted in transfer: the American Council on Education and the National College Credit Recommendation Service. In other words, what Mr. Rubio is calling for so loudly has already existed for decades.

But his merely being poorly informed is hardly unique. Perhaps as a back bencher he simply cannot afford competent advisors. What is truly inexcusable is the hypocrisy and how it drives home how ill suited for leadership this man truly is. How so? He refers to market forces as part of his call for public interference in an accreditation system that is conducted voluntarily by private agencies! It may be unclear whether he has no idea what market forces are, or whether he’s just using the term as a buzzword to try to sound good to those who advocate for free markets, but either way all he succeeds in doing is demonstrating that he shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the reins of true power.

I realize that he’s far from the only Republican who praises free markets with one face while calling for big government with the other. But with this example coming so early and so brazenly, if no one calls him on it then it’s not a very good sign for things to come in the next fifteen interminable months.

The Drawbacks Of Regulation

Posted July 21, 2015 By Steve

“The regulatory systems in place disincentive innovation. It’s intense to fight the red tape.” — Travis Kalanick, co-founder of Uber

Govt. Regulations
Recently, Dominica’s Director of Trade, Matthan Walter, announced that the Government of Dominica will soon implement consumer protection legislation. To most people this initially sounds like a good idea. After all, no one wants consumers to be defrauded. And Mr Walter referred to the downside of the lack of such legislation. That’s fair enough; it’s his job to explain the rationale for implementing new measures. Still, it’s also important to remember that implementing such legislation carries downsides of its own.

For example, yet another arm of government is being created here, and that doesn’t happen without tax money. Nothing in life is free: either taxes will go up, or else less tax money will be available to do other things. Will roads be repaired more slowly? Will schools have fewer resources than they would have otherwise? Also, regulations mean additional costs for businesses, which is why one of the lessons of economics is that the more regulations you have, the more prices go up.

There’s also an assumption that every aspect of this legislation is really meant to protect consumers. That’s probably true in this case, but Dominicans should beware, as in other countries this has turned out to be less and less so as this sort of legislation gets expanded more and more over time. It’s also a very short step from using regulation to protect consumers from what is clearly harmful, to using regulation to push consumers into buying what you think they should want and away from buying what you think they shouldn’t want. When government is given enough power to help you, it also has enough power to control you.

A final concern is that this legislation is basically being imported wholesale from CARICOM. This is supposedly being implemented as a trade measure when the only ones affected are Dominicans. There’s no need for an international organisation to come up with this sort of legislation for small countries to implement obediently as a treaty obligation. CARICOM should stick to discussing unambiguously international matters like implementing free trade and free movement. They are not an unelected parliament for the Caribbean, and they should be resisted when they presume to act like one. The Europeans tried handing significant political power over to a centralised bureaucracy, the EU, and as one can read in the news these days this has led to Greece teetering on bankruptcy and the UK considering withdrawal altogether. Europeans may be wealthy enough as a whole to afford that sort of commotion, but Caribbean countries are not.

Ultimately, whether it concerns this legislation in particular or CARICOM as a whole, we’d all do well to remember that regardless of who is in power, and regardless of good intentions, there’s no way to make government bigger without consequences. In some cases most people will find those consequences acceptable, and that’s fair enough, but without considering them it’s not possible to make a truly informed policy decision.

“A man must be big enough to admit his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them.” — John C. Maxwell

Over at Quartz, commentator Matt Phillips has written a piece called Face it: America’s experiment with for-profit colleges has failed. As someone who has worked in American higher education for a number of years, including for-profit and non-profit institutions, I generally agree with Mr. Phillips that many of the marketing-driven for profit schools that participate in the federal system of guaranteed financial aid are overpriced and unremarkable.

However, as with most articles about higher education written by those who don’t come from our industry, it’s an article painted with too broad a brush. Sure, there are schools like Corinthian’s, but there are also schools like Sullivan University and American Military University that are for profit and participate in the federal financial aid system, yet have earned a good reputation for delivering a decent education at a price that compares with non-profit competitors.

Ultimately I believe that universities should be evaluated the same as people — as individuals rather than as members of a group. That said, if we are going to compare universities by category, I’ve come to wonder whether it might be worthwhile for journalists and commentators to take a look at the relative behavior of schools not based on whether they are for profit or not, but to compare those that are publicly traded with those that are privately held. My guess is that we would see the lion’s share of anti-social behavior at the schools that answer to Wall Street rather than those that answer to an owning family or partnership.

Also worthy of more reporting are those for profit universities accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission that do not particulate in the federal financial aid system, and who have much lower tuition rates as a result. In fact, some of these institutions are among the best values in all of American higher education. Their very existence suggests that guaranteed federal financial aid is a contributing factor in the high cost of going to college, that when that system makes tens of thousands of dollars available to anyone with a signature and a pulse, it introduces an ocean of money that tuition rates then rise to soak up.

But will journalists and commentators who write about American higher education ever go after these higher hanging fruit? One can only hope.

Pirates Be Here!
Once again Antigua is in the news for threatening to allow open distribution of materials that have been copyrighted by U.S.-based entities. This stems from a ruling by the World Trade Organisation that by forbidding Americans from accessing gambling web sites in other countries, but allowing them to go to Las Vegas and Atlantic City instead, the U.S. government was protecting their own industry by limiting access to foreign competitors. Even though they’ve lost as much as a billion dollars from U.S. protectionism here, the Antiguans haven’t yet taken advantage of the ruling, and it’s widely believed this is the case because of the fear of dire reprisal from the Colossus to the North.

It’s a fascinating case, and one that anyone interested in international trade should follow. In the meantime, though, to help one gain an understanding, one of the more amusing analogies for explaining why the Antiguans have such a strong case comes from Greg Sabino Mullane, who wrote:

They’re doing it flagrantly because it’s explicitly tit-for-tat. It’s their way of pointedly asking “Do we have rules or not?”

Let’s say you and I are sociopathic assholes, so whereas most people might have some kind of implicit social contract, and a sense of how people should act decently to one another, we’re jerks and write up and agree to some formal rules. Among these rules are things like “Neither party will ever hit the other in the head with a hammer and then steal their wallet while the victim is incapacitated.” Call that the WIPO rule.

We have another rule too. It’s “Neither party will ever vandalize the other’s car.” Call that the WTO rule.

Then I go and vandalize your car, totally in violation of the rules. I don’t deny it, either. Instead, I explain I had good reasons to do it. “I really wanted to vandalize your car, and it looked so vulnerable. I just couldn’t help it!” but whether I had a good reason or not, you claim I broke our agreement. You might not feel all that hurt about the car, but breaking the agreement… oh dear. We’re sociopaths, but we’re not uncivilized, are we?

After my amazing explanation for why I did it, you ask me: “Are you going to do it again?” and I answer “Yeah, probably. Your car still does look pretty vandalizable, and I really like vandalizing cars.” You answer “What about our agreement?” and I just shrug. You ask, “Are our agreements important?” and I shrug again!!

You go see our mutual acquaintances, perhaps some people with whom I also have some agreements. They’re a little concerned to hear I value our agreements so little. Will their cars be next? They think it over and say, “Yeah, Sloppy broke his agreement to not vandalize your car. You should get even.”

So you do. You hit me in the head with a hammer and I wake up without a wallet. You do it openly, too. Our acquaintances nod with approval, even though you’re breaking the agreement now. I ask, “How can you do that?!?”

You explain: if I think the rules are so important, and I have such a problem with being hit with hammers, THEN MAYBE I SHOULD STOP FUCKING AROUND WITH OTHER PEOPLE’S CARS.

I don’t know what I’ll do. I still really do like vandalizing cars. I’d like to vandalize your car again, and that other dude with whom I have a no-vandalize agreement. But I’m not sure I like this hammers development. OTOH, I don’t know, maybe it’s worth it. The hammers hurt and I don’t like losing my wallet all the time, but the cars! Oh, the cars! That’s so much fun.

Now, the analogy isn’t quite apt because the Antiguans haven’t actually allowed open redistribution of copyrighted materials, at least not yet. But if they do, then the American mainstream media are sure to slam them as the next incarnation of Somalia, so it’s important in advance for people to understand who really started the trouble — and it’s not Antigua.

The NRA’s Response To Newtown Misses The Mark

Posted December 21, 2012 By Steve

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” — Benjamin Franklin

Police at riot
I have to admit to being disappointed. After Newtown, when those who run the NRA had no public statement, I was unsure of the reason. Was it that they believed that it would be politically disadvantageous for them to say anything for a while? Did they believe that it would be in their interest to wait to get a better sense of any change in public opinion in the wake of the massacre? Did they (unlike gun control advocates) actually have sufficient decorum to wait until after all of the funerals to politicize the tragedy?

But now we’ve learned that the real reason was none of these things. Instead, their response was delayed so long because, apparently, they have been working around the clock to come up with the most stupid and short-sighted possible response to the shootings. Put simply, for them to suggest that it’s actually necessary or wise to have an armed policeman in every school in America is so ridiculous if I hadn’t read it on their own web site I wouldn’t have believed they could say something that obtuse.

Now I understand the basic idea behind their proposal, that places where good guys don’t have guns, only bad guys will have them. And with that much I can agree. But as I see it, there are three really glaring flaws in any plan to station armed police in every public school in America.

First, it accepts at face value the hysterical notion that children are in unreasonable danger when they go to school. Events like Newtown and Columbine are horrific, but they’re also incredibly rare. I have four kids in public schools in the U.S., and I am no more concerned that they’ll be killed at school than I am if they go to the mall, or a museum, or any other public place. I realize that there is always a chance that something terrible could happen, and I don’t mean to minimize the sorrow of parents who have lost children to violence. But there is no way to keep kids completely safe, and there comes a point when one has already taken all reasonable precautions.

Second, this is the sort of proposal that addresses the symptom of the disease rather than the root cause. By the time someone gets to the point where they’re shooting innocent kids in a school, to blame the gun is like blaming a pencil because the one holding it never learned how to spell properly. American culture doesn’t take mental illness seriously enough, in particular when it focuses on liberally dispensing psychotropic drugs that destabilize people as often as help them. Americans’ lazy relationship with news media isn’t helpful either, because the sort of attention these incidents get serves only to glorify those who commit these atrocities.

Finally, the NRA’s plan shows that their leaders may care about private gun ownership, but have no concern for what it will take to slow the continuing decline of American freedom. The key to having kids grow up thinking of themselves as the heirs to a free society is not to have them spend the majority of their waking hours in the company of armed police. The history of liberty’s decline is the history of the use of crises as an excuse to increase government control over people’s lives, so the suggestion that we acclimate future generations to the constant presence of armed government officials is one that might be better expected from an organization that promotes tyranny than liberty.

It’s important to remember that no matter what its detractors say, the NRA doesn’t speak for all gun owners nor for those like me who don’t own a gun but believe the government has no legitimate role to play in an individual’s right to choose whether or not to do so. With this poorly considered proposal, that’s certainly the case. There’s no way to ensure perfect safety for kids, and armed cops in schools is no exception. But even on an individual basis we can renew our commitment to valuing life, accentuate positivity in ourselves, and promote an environment of concern for one another. Passing on those sorts of cultural changes on to future generations, not gun control or armed cops in schools, is the best way to respond to this tragedy.

On Being Anti-Science

Posted November 2, 2012 By Steve

“A thing is not proved just because no one has ever questioned it. What has never been gone into impartially has never been properly gone into. Hence skepticism is the first step toward truth. It must be applied generally, because it is the touchstone.” — Denis Diderot

McMaster Institute: 3 out of 3 Scientists Agree - Using Three Fingers Improves Your Life_0267
Recently in an email conversation among about a dozen ideologically diverse people, I made a throwaway comment that in some ways, many of those researching climate change actually strike me as anti-science. I got called on it by one of the participants, a scientist himself, and in response I wrote the following.

I should clarify what I mean about why those who talk about climate change are anti-science, since that’s a strong word. It’s not because I think they’re necessarily wrong — it’s not difficult to wrap one’s brain around the idea that human activity can affect the environment; it clearly can.

Science is a process through which we learn about the world about us by impartial research and a fearless willingness to follow data wherever it leads. But my observation, admittedly as a layman, is that most of those involved in climate change are completely disinclined to hear from naysayers. The worst example of this is how naysayers are habitually shouted down as being “denialists”, a word specifically designed to equate them with Holocaust deniers. Even if the naysayers are wrong and are utter fools, this cynical approach to skeptics is completely anti-scientific, a black mark on the respectability of anyone who considers himself a scientist.

This ties in with what I think may be the greatest requirement for true science, that it calls for humble skepticism — what Diderot rightfully referred to as the the first step toward truth. The history of scientific progress is a history of different theories leaping ahead and falling back, with progress being the overall result, yes, but not without many mistakes being made in the process. We are blind men in a maze, and while the scientific method gives us a powerful tool to feel our way toward the exit, it doesn’t guarantee we won’t go down wrong paths in the process.

While I’m not a scientist by training, I’ve spent ten years working for various universities, and from this have developed a a healthy disregard for experts’ self-evaluations of their own intellectual indispensability. For example, many climatologists seem breathlessly eager to make sweeping public policy suggestions, as though they had complete understanding not only of climate issues but also such issues as public health, economic development, demography, and political philosophy. They do not, and by pushing political agendas they earn a critical eye toward the actual climatological research that is supposed to be why we should respect them in the first place.

Obviously, this last criticism also applies to most of those who are skeptical that climate change is occurring. My point here is not to defend them, for as I said I find it plausible that climate change is a real phenomenon. But the way that mainstream climatologists have supported their consensus being politicized makes that harder for laymen like me to accept, not easier.

Note: I’m actually pretty interested in responses from people, especially well reasoned disagreements. Since this is an issue that pushes a lot of people’s buttons, though, I should add that welcomeness doesn’t extend to responses from anyone who is simply angey that I’m toeing one line or the other.

Another Insult From Verizon

Posted April 5, 2012 By Steve

SOLD: Western Electric antique wallmount telephone
I almost deleted the email as probable spam, but then I actually read it:

Thank you for being a loyal Verizon customer. At Verizon, we are committed to bring you the best suite of products and the most current capabilities, while providing the value and quality of service that you expect. From time to time, we must make changes to our product offering to meet these goals. Beginning May 6, 2012, we will no longer offer High Speed Internet without local voice service on the same account.

Let me get this straight — to reward my loyalty, and as part of their commitment to bringing me the value I expect, Verizon has decided that if I ever move and want to retain their DSL service I must also pay them every month for a landline phone that I don’t want and can’t use? I think “ridiculous” is among the nicer words I can use to describe that scenario. And even if I had enough use for a land line to get one, it surely wouldn’t be their outrageously overpriced service, it would be something like magicJack Plus which offers effectively the same thing for a tiny fraction of the price.

I guess I’m not the only one who refuses to overpay for a land line, and I suspect the problem here is that Verizon executives have clumsily responded to minimal demand for this overpriced service by holding the services people actually do want hostage. I don’t think that will work, and it surely won’t work on me. I’m grandfathered in, apparently, and hopefully that means as long as I stay at this address. But in a few years we’ll move, and if this policy is still in play at that time, that will be the last straw that finally pushes us to a different Internet service provider.

I wish all these telecommunications companies and other media companies would get it that people want a single telecommunications connection that’s reliable and fairly priced, and they want to use that single pipe as the conduit for all the other applications, whether voice, TV, or other, that they can then get from a competitive marketplace. Perhaps it’s because the few large companies in the telecommuncations space are a cartel supported by municipal guarantees of monopoly that they’re so slow to adapt to what their customers actually want, or perhaps they realize in an efficient system, they can’t compete, but whatever the reason, the end of companies like Verizon thinking that customers can be coerced like this is long overdue.

Let’s Get Rid Of “Deadbeat Dads”

Posted February 10, 2012 By Steve

Outside view into an inmate's cell
I live in Alexandria, Virginia, and in my particular area of town the member of the House of Delegates (the lower chamber of the state legislature) is Charniele Herring, a Democrat who I understand typically takes fairly left-learning positions. Now, that’s par for the course around here, so normally I don’t think twice about her. But I do receive her periodic email newsletter, and while normally there are plenty of things with which I disagree, it’s only in today’s that I finally read something that made me genuinely angry.

Specifically, I was very disappointed by Ms. Herring’s use of the use of the derogatory term “deadbeat dads” in her recent newsletter to constituents. This hateful phrase deserves to be scrapped for two reasons.

First, not all parents who aren’t able to make their child support payments are “deadbeats”. There are all sorts of reasons that a parent may not be able to live up to his or her court-determined financial obligations. Unwillingness is one, yes, but others include unemployment, underemployment, other family emergencies, unexpected tax liabilities, illness or other disability, and so forth.

In many cases, a parent who has fallen seriously behind financially faces the prospect of six months in prison for contempt of court. Since this is not technically a criminal matter, the parent doesn’t even have the right to legal representation. Is a child really better off with that parent behind bars? And is a society for which imprisonment is the first resort really the one in which we want to live?

Second, not all parents who aren’t able to make their child support payments are dads. While the majority of non-custodial parents may indeed be fathers, so too are there mothers who for whatever reason are the ones whose children primarily reside with the other parent. I would have thought this would go without saying in the 21st century, particularly from someone such as Ms. Herring who otherwise comes across as progressive. Sadly, it would seem this is not yet the case.

This term may be a convenient way to score cheap political points, but at its heart it’s a way to demonize yet another segment of our population, people who in many instances may actually need help rather than scorn and punishment if they’re to regain the ability to meet their children’s needs. Child support enforcement could well use far reaching reform in Virginia, but that reform should be based on the idea of focusing on what’s best for the child rather than what’s worst for the non-compliant parent. Let’s hope that Ms. Herring’s unfortunate turn of phrase doesn’t mean she advocates going in the wrong direction.

Taxation Without Representation

Posted January 30, 2012 By Steve

taxation without representation
Tip o’ the hat to me dear mum, who just sent me this article on how officials from the local government of Washington, D.C. who are traveling the country to drum up support for D.C. statehood are receiving the indifferent response that they probably should have expected.

The reason for the D.C. statehood movement, which is extremely popular among District residents and virtually unheard of elsewhere, is that since those who live in the district don’t have any real representation in Congress, it’s unfair that they’re held to federal laws and regulation. Their battle cry, based on similar sentiment from the American Revolution, is that they live in an democratic system of “taxation without representation”. And that photo is real — they have it on the license plate and everything.

And if you subscribe to small-r republican principles, you might see their point. Sure, Washington, D.C. has a lot of Congressmen, lobbyists, and other power brokers, but that doesn’t mean that all 600,000 people who live in the city are wheeler dealers who are shaping the destiny of the federal government. While the city has its wealthy areas, much of it is working class, and their claims to disenfranchisement shouldn’t be lightly dismissed, especially since there are several states that have a lower population than D.C., yet have their full Congressional complement.

The problem is that outside D.C. itself, no one cares about this issue. And even if they did, it’s arguable that it would take an amendment to the U.S. constitution to change things, which is the way D.C. residents got electoral votes in the presidential election. That’s hard to do even when people around the country actually want something. There are other options than statehood however. Personally, I’d just give the whole place back to the Piscataway Indian tribe, although I doubt that would set well with the city’s current inhabitants. Another option is to return the city to being part of Maryland, from which it was carved in the late 18th century, and just keep a “federal enclave” separate from that state, one without residents. There’s precedent for this, in that the portion of Virginia that was ceded to be part of D.C. was given back in the 1840’s, since it didn’t seem at the time like the federal government would ever be large enough to need it, among other reasons.

One option that I never hear people suggest, and it sort of surprises me, is to solve the taxation without representation problem not by adding representation, but by removing taxation. Especially considering much of the city isn’t affluent, it would be a prosperity enhancing move to say, “You don’t get a vote? Fine, no federal taxes for your residents.” Do that, and watch the place become the biggest boom town ever seen in North America. Maybe it would even have the healthy effect of causing people in other parts of the U.S. to realize that taxation, and maybe even Congressional representation, are overrated.