Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Random Thought

I read the following comment to a certain article,

Well, flying is a privilege, not a right. Driving a car is a privilege, not a right. Living where you choose to is a privilege, not a right. Saying what you feel like saying… associating with whom you choose to associate… breathing… living.

I find that formula is always short for power grab.
and a thought just occurred to me:  People are often talking about how flying, driving, etc are privileges, and not rights...but where in the Constitution does it mention privileges?

I, for one, say that driving, flying, and other modes of transportation are rights, and they are affirmed--but not granted, because the Constitution doesn't grant rights, it only recognises them--by the following amendment:
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Money Without Money--Or, Money as Communication

In the comments section at The Lair, Ian Argent asks a couple of good questions:
  • How do you calibrate value of a commodity without money? If we dropped every currency today and people used money denominated in X amount of Y material at Z% purity; what is the cost of a smartphone, much less the service contract? How many oz of .999 silver is an iTunes download, or an hour of my time?
  • Money is a metric. Without money, you can't measure value. How long is a stick of wood in thumb lengths when the standard thumblength is undefined?

I liked my answers so much, I thought I'd post them here. Indeed, this answer is sort-of the post I intended to get around to write, where I wanted to make this point:
Money is an illusion. It isn't, in and of itself, valuable--it's merely a means of communication we use to say "I have done something of worth, and I would now like to trade a portion of my service for a new item or service."

The surprise is this:  we don't have to use government-printed money! Value is produced when we do something of value for someone else--whether it be to bake a loaf of bread, or rake some leaves, or even sell an item--and using dollars, or gold, or silver, or bullets, as a medium of exchange, is merely a way to simplify the trade. While gold and silver have certain chemical and rarity properties that make them ideal for trade, we could use literally anything for this purpose--and, in time, we have come to the point where we use little bits of paper printed by--and largely controlled by--government entities.

And the IRS knows this. Several years ago, before I resorted to computer software to do my taxes, I remember reading an example in the Federal Income Tax Instructions, where, if you were a dentist who traded "putting braces on the mechanic's daughter" with a mechanic who "fixed the dentist's car", both were expected to pay income tax on the value of the trade they received.

So, here is my comment, in its entirety. I'm actually surprised at how long it ended up being!

The 11th and 12th Comments

If we are using commodities as money, we would calibrate value the in same way that we already do with dollars.

For example, if I had some smartphones I wanted to sell, I would ask myself, "How much gold would I accept to give up a smartphone?" Then I would say to myself, "It took this much effort to make this device, and I want enough profit to feed my children, and to go to Europe this year, and I know that if I sell X smartphones for price Y, I'd be able to do that--but I also know that my competitor will sell his smartphones at price Z, so I better lower my price a bit--but my smartphone has features A, B, and C that my competitor doesn't have..." and, taking all these factors into consideration, and a bit more, I would settle on some sort of price, in ounces of gold.

I would then repeat this with silver, because when silver isn't money, the price of silver won't be tied to the price of gold, and so I'd want to make sure that the price in silver is reasonable. In practice, this would be easy to do: I would just check out the trading rates between gold and silver for the day, and make adjustments accordingly.

Of course, I could get the price wrong--if it's too low, I'll sell out too quickly, and if I set it too high, then I won't sell very many units. But this is a risk of pricing in general, and has nothing to do with the money we use.

While it's true that money is a metric, it's not the only metric. Indeed, I could sell a TV for dollars, or pounds, or francs, or yen, or pesos--and if I wanted the same value across all of these things, I would just look at the exchange rate. I can, and people often do, set the price in tables, or in services (if you rake my leaves for a year, I'll give you a smartphone and a contract), or in TVs, or in bullets and guns, or anything else imaginable. The IRS knows that when you do this, you produce "income", so the IRS wants you to keep careful track of these things, so that they can tax it.

We can even print our own money, as was done in Salt Lake City, during the Great Depression, when deflation literally sucked Salt Lake dry of money. It facilitated trade between barbers, grocers, and so forth, so things didn't grind to a halt--but it was an imperfect solution, because you couldn't use Salt Lake dollars to pay your mortgage to that company in Omaha. They could have easily traded in bullets instead, and they would have worked just as well, and would have had the same problem.

The funny thing about claiming that money is a metric, is that while it's true, it's also not good to compare it to thumb-lengths. The nice thing about thumb-lengths is that I could either use my own thumb, or just declare a given length before I start my project as "one thumb", and complete my project with consistency. Unfortunately, no monetary system has this attribute--every system is subject to inflation and deflation--and even if I traded only in smartphones, the "price" of smartphones, relative to anything else, is always being adjusted.

I would also add that the only thing that keeps us from going to a private gold or silver standard is the widespread belief that we have

Finally, if we traded in things where their value is allowed to float, we avoid the effects of Gresham's Law. This is why a gold-backed currency is a bad idea--we fix the price of a dollar to a fixed amount of gold--but imagine what would happen if we fixed our dollar to the price of the pound, and the value of one or the other dropped! By allowing the values of currencies relative to each other to float, we avoid the effects of Gresham's Law.

For that matter, isn't Black Friday an attempt by merchants to take advantage of Gresham's Law, in order to sell things?

A Random Thought

While reading about people fed to bonfires in Killers Without Remorse, a thought occurred to me about the Christian witch hunts of Medieval Europe--which is something that's used as an example of why religion is evil, and needs to be stamped out.  I also can't help but remember how not all Christians at the time agreed with what was happening; I even remember reading the words of a bishop, decrying the lack of logic that went into convicting a witch.

Now, people today, whether or not they believe in God, say to themselves "We are better than that!  We would never burn a witch at the stake!"  But, are we really better?  Or should we learn from this--and similar examples, like Stalin's show trials--and realize that we, too, can get caught up in the emotion of the day, and do horrible things to the innocent?

As for "Killers Without Remorse":  it's a very good reminder that, no matter what Government we create, we cannot trust it with too much power, because whatever levels of power we give it, some power-hungry soul who wants to kill us will get ahold of that power, and use it to the fullest extent possible.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Gifts that are neither Rights nor Duties

A couple of years ago, I wrote a "Declaration of Duties".  I'm not yet sure what to with this document, but I explained that, in addition to having certain rights, we also have duties that we must perform, for otherwise we lose our freedoms.  I also explained that certain people, in an attempt to take away our freedoms, have called certain duties "rights", and then proceeded to erode our true rights.

Take, for example, education.  We don't have a right to education--we have a duty to learn what we can, in order to benefit ourselves and others; and our parents have a duty to teach us those things we need to know to have productive, fulfilling lives.  By turning this into a "right", we have been forced into public schools, and have been put at the mercy of teachers, who may or may not care when we "slip through the cracks", and we are forced to learn what the Government says we should learn.

Yesterday, I started reading a debate at the Smallest Minority, challenging the viewpoint of one James Kelly.  In this debate, James takes the position that the only freedom he understands is "Freedom from Fear".  This, along with "Freedom of Speech", "Freedom of Worship", and "Freedom from Want", are the four "freedoms" that Franklin Roosevelt advocated.

Besides arguing that "Speech" and "Worship" are probably the same freedom--or at least closely related--these other two "freedoms" aren't freedoms at all...but neither are they Duties.  As I thought about them, I have come to realize that they can be described as Gifts, and, being emotions, they can become Curses, if they are not bridled, and channelled correctly.

And, like Duties, if they are declared Rights, they can be used to destroy the true Rights we have.

How can I make the claim that Fear and Want are Gifts?  They are emotions, and if they are checked by Reason, they can push us to do new things, that make our life better.  In the case of Fear, it can warn us of disaster or danger, and help us to prepare for the future.  If I fear losing my job, for example, I could push myself to work hard, I could save food and money, and I could keep an eye for other positions around me, so that I'd have an "action plan" in case my fear becomes reality.

Similarly, if I have Wants, I could push myself to fulfill those Wants, and look for new ways to make sure that my family is provided for, and to try to provide things for my family beyond the "necessities of life" as well.

Both Fear and Want can be Curses, too, because they could push us to do things we ought not to do, or to prevent us from doing what we ought.  That is, Fear can become Panic, or Paralysis, and Want can become Envy, or Greed.

Because Fear and Want are Gifts, we cannot be totally free from them--and I, for one, don't want to be!  I really want to be aware of that dark, scary alley, so that I'd be ready for that mugger that's going to try to stab me for my money; I really want to remember that my job--for whatever reason--can disappear overnight.  I really want to be aware that, suddenly, without much warning, we can find ourselves having to ward off societal collapse, or an invasion, or a civil war.

With regards to Want, I really want to experiment with new ideas for computer interfaces.  I really want to personally visit Mars and Venus, using anti-gravity devices designed for that purpose.  By remembering these, and other, desires, I can push myself, and encourage others, to explore new ideas.  Admittedly, some of these desires (e.g. antigravity) may lead to dead ends, but that's the risk we take when we desire the (seemingly) impossible.  And it's a risk I'm willing to put up with!

Now, how does "Freedom from Fear" and "Freedom from Want" destroy our freedoms?  By declaring these as Rights, they become something that need to be preserved.  Since each of us fear different things, and want different things, however, this means that we have to decide which fears we squish, and which wants we support.

In the case of Fear, if someone--such as James Kelly--fears guns, this means we have to ban all guns.  (For some reason, the alternative--to try to educate James Kelly about guns, and put his fears to rest--is never discussed.)  We have to require seatbelts, 55 MPH speed limits, and breathalyzers in all cars, so that no one has to fear car accidents.  And we have to ban fatty foods, so that no one has to fear being overweight and getting diabetes and heart attacks.

And, in the case of Wants, because I want to go to Mars, we have to take money from my neighbor, who doesn't care about Mars--or worse, does not want to go to Mars--and we have to use solid rockets, because NASA wants to, and Senator Hatch wants to make sure that Thiakol will continue to provide jobs--even though I would like to use polywell fusion for space travel instead.

We cannot be free from these Wants, or even simple Wants--like my desire to be debt free, and to provide for my family--because our Wants are the things that push us to sustain ourselves, and to try out new things.  And we shouldn't be free from them, either, because then we become children--and worse than that--we become spoiled brats!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Can't Trust My Neighbor Syndrome

In my last post, I said that libertarianism is scary.  Why is it scary?  I rambled on a bit, but I don't think I adequately answered my concern.  It can be best summed up by a comment I read years ago, that went something like this:
If you put me in front of a table with rocket launchers, machine guns, and grenades, I would be ok.  I won't touch them.  But they need to be illegal, because I can't trust my neighbor, who would probably pick one of these things up and shoot it into my house the first moment he got mad at me.
Perhaps the person who made this comment had a specific neighbor in mind, who he knew would do such a thing, but somehow I doubt it.  It is this tendency that we seem to have, that says, "Oh, I can be trusted with Adult decisions, but my hypothetical neighbor cannot be; thus, no one should be trusted with them."

Ironically, if a person can't be trusted with a rocket launcher, that same person shouldn't be trusted with gasoline, or cars, or bulldozers, all of which can be easily obtained.  Indeed, it's almost illegal for a civilian to purchase a rocket launcher in the United States*, but an individual bent on mischief could easily obtain gasoline, or a car, or even a bulldozer, without a license.  (Admittedly, the latter two may have to be stolen, but they are so prevalent, it would be fairly easy to do so.)

So, if we have crazy neighbors who can't be trusted with rocket launchers--because of their short tempers and lack of common sense--why do we trust them not to torch our houses with gasoline, or not to run us down with their car, nor to steal a bulldozer and tear down our house?

Answer:  Because most people are reasonable about these things, enough so that, when they aren't reasonable, it's a Major News Story(tm).  And sometimes, even when these things are abused, there might be a reasonable explanation--such as unexpected erratic behavior from someone who has diabetes, but has not been diagnosed with it yet.

It is sad when we don't trust our neighbors--even the ones we have a reason not to trust--to make basic, personal choices about the things around us.  And the saddest thing about this is that, when we limit other people's choices, we limit our own, as well.

Thus, you might wake up one morning, and think to yourself, "I'm tired of my drab brown house.  It's been like this for a decade!  I think I'll paint it blue...or red...or maybe green" and then discover that you can't, because your Home Owners Association couldn't trust you to choose the correct color of your house, and so you must choose your colors from a stunning palette of drab brown colors.  And continue to live in a stunning neighborhood, consisting entirely of houses of drab, brown colors.

Enjoy your distrust!

*Or is it?  I'm a little confused about the law on this matter:  it seems that certain volatile things, like flame throwers, are surprisingly perfectly legal, at least in most States; most people don't own them, though, because they are also impractical weapons.  Have you ever tried to conceal a naphtha tank?  In any case, it's possible that rocket launchers are legal where you live, too! but I'm too lazy to try to find out right now.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Ideal Size of an Organization

In a blogpost somewhere (one I won't try to find at this time, although it sparked a desire to express a certain thought), a certain person was trying to decide what the maximum size of an organization should be.  I only briefly skimmed that post, for two, perhaps three reasons.  The biggest is this:  I already know how big organizations should be!
Another thing you notice when you see animals in the wild is that each species thrives in groups of a certain size. A herd of impalas might have 100 adults; baboons maybe 20; lions rarely 10. Humans also seem designed to work in groups, and what I've read about hunter-gatherers accords with research on organizations and my own experience to suggest roughly what the ideal size is: groups of 8 work well; by 20 they're getting hard to manage; and a group of 50 is really unwieldy.

Whatever the upper limit is, we are clearly not meant to work in groups of several hundred. And yet—for reasons having more to do with technology than human nature—a great many people work for companies with hundreds or thousands of employees.
There you have it, from one of Paul Graham's essays:  the maximum size of a company should be 20; if you could keep it down to 8 to 10, that would probably be ideal.

What does this mean for big monoliths like Microsoft?  I'm not sure.  I, for one, would rather just ignore such organizations, and hope that such organizations would ignore me--and to the extent that such a company could harrass me, it will be because they have a certain amount of the force of Law on their side, whether wielded legally or not.  Surely, though, if Microsoft is too big, then so is the government that would try to break it up.

But even in a big monolith like Microsoft, at one point, it seems that individuals were given great power to get things done.

Undoubtedly, certain projects are so large that large organizations--or, at least, organizations of organizations--are useful, if not needed, to create them.  Perhaps operating systems fall into this category.  Even something as small as a car almost does.  When you consider the regulations that have been placed on the car industry, a large organization artificially becomes necessary.  And even if those organizations aren't strictly necessary, I would add that they are at least very useful for achieving certain goals.

Even so, I have often wondered:  would it have been possible to create something as big as Microsoft Windows with Office, or something like Apple OS, with loosely-coupled groups, instead of one big company?  The growth of Linux would seem to indicate that yes, this is possible--but is it possible to do so, and be profitable?  This line of thinking definitely deserves exploration and experimentation.

Ultimately, though, I'm not afraid of large non-government organizations.  Their powers are limited to buying and selling products and services, to making contracts, to hiring and firing people...oh, and to suing people.  When they interfere with my life, it's usually made possible only because it's backed up by government force--which, in turn, is often made possible by copyright and patent law, mostly.  (And, at this moment, I won't even touch on why these things are evil!)

Governments, however, even the smallest ones, have powers that the biggest Megacorporations can only dream of:  to pass laws to make what I'm doing illegal; to drag me to court at gunpoint; to fine me, imprison me, even kill me; to tax what I'm doing--often in an effort to get me to stop doing it.

And this is why I am far more concerned about the size of Government, than I am the size of corporations.  Ironically, many of those people who think large corporations are evil, are also those who champion Government as it grows exponentially.

Of course, large corporations are evil, if only for one thing:  the leaders of these organizations are often in league with government, in attempts to secure their market-dominated positions and thwart competition--and even in atempts to "improve" society itself, by forcing other people to do what they think is best, independent of the mission of the corporation itself.  (Tell me again, just why is Bill Gates in a position to lecture us about Estate--ah hem, Death--Taxes?  Taxes he so diligently makes sure he won't have to pay?)  But then, this is far more an issue about power, than it is about organization.  That is, corporations become evil by blurring the line between corporation and government.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Libertarianism is Scary

I consider myself a conservative libertarian:  Differences between right and wrong exist; we need to choose the right to be happy, but government shouldn't be forcing what is "right" on other people.

As I have thought about various options for Libertarian government, I cannot help but notice two tendencies in my own soul:  to have the desire to do as I please, so long as it's right; to restrict what others do, because I see it as wrong.

An example:  Even though I understand that sometimes yards go to pot because of hard family circumstances, and I strongly feel that if I really want my neighbor's yard to look nice, I should volunteer to help my neighbor with yardwork--I can't help but occasionally have sympathy for neighbors who worry about property values, and think "There ought to be a law!"--and then quickly squash that idea as stupid and cruel.

This is the funny thing about Libertarianism, and it's probably the biggest reason why most people--even a large number of Libertarians--are afraid to adopt it fully.  We've lived for centuries in environments where the State has provided us with basic needs like roads and schools--and we're afraid to imagine how it could be different.  We also like freedom for ourselves--but we can't allow even an ounce of freedom to our neighbor, who wants to--GASP!--paint his house a different color from ours!

Perhaps we just aren't ready for freedom.

Or rather, there's a lot of work ahead of us, to understand what freedom really means.  And then, perhaps, we'll be ready for freedom.

An addendum to Mike Lee

To this, [the previous post], I would add that the only reason I voted for you in the primaries was because, while I don't trust you, I trusted Tim Bridgewater even less; the only reason I voted for you this time, instead of Scott Bradley, [the Constitution Party candidate], was because I wanted to give the Republicans one last chance.

This is your chance:  go, and prove yourself!

The fate of our nation depends on you, doing the right thing!

Congratulations, and a Warning

I'd like to congratulate my fellow Republicans on this special victory.  We have the House!  We nearly have the Senate!  And we've made great gains in various State Congresses and Governorships!  This is a fantastic, sweet victory!

But it's only a victory against Democrats--it's not a victory for Republicans.

As a Republican, I put you on notice:  I do not trust you.  I only voted for you because the alternative is worse, and because I wanted to give you one last chance.  If you don't cut taxes until Government hurts, and slash Government programs until I hurt, I will replace you with someone else that will.

Yes, I know that these things will be difficult.  There will be screaming lobbyists, unions, and special interest groups, wanting their pet programs to be left alone.  It is thus your responsibility to make it clear to the American people that if we don't do this, we will collapse as a nation.

And please, above all else, remove the regulations that prevent individuals from creating the welfare societies and businesses that will be crucial for us to help each other in the difficult times ahead.  Indeed, even before Medicare is cut, for example, we need a pathway cleared so that viable private sector organizations will be able to rise up and take up the slack.  Private organizations cannot do this right now, though, because of the over-burdening regulations that have been put in the way.

Good luck!  You're going to need it.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Debt Paradox

Yesterday morning I got a phone call from one of my credit card companies.  They were complaining that I only made a partial payment last month; they added a warning that, if I didn't get caught up, the Special Payment Plan I am currently on may be cancelled.

Of course, the reason I made partial payments last month is this:  we had just gone through two moves, and that strained our already-tight budget.  Thus, we did the best we could in paying our bills.

During the course of the first move, my wife's credit card lost her Special Payment Plan, because of disruptions in budget and payment.

So, here's the paradox:  we get on these plans because we couldn't afford the typical monthly payment.  We couldn't keep up with these payments, because we would rather make sure we had things like food, shelter, and transportation...and so our plans are revoked.

All this, because we used credit to buy things (in our case, the Biggie was health insurance) in the first place!

Am I the only one who finds this paradoxical?

Of course, the way to cancel out this paradox is to pay off our debt, build up a nice emergency cushion of money and food, and then never get in debt again.  (With probably only one exception:  medical bills, if they can't be avoided, because of danger to life and limb.  But then, I can live with medical debt, if I have to.)