Complete Whimsy, Deficits, Dubiously Free Trade, Trust

The Left Reaches Really, Really Far on Detroit Bankruptcy

So MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perr said the following about Detroit’s recent bankruptcy filing (and general state of awfulness):

This is what it looks like when government is small enough to drown in your bathtub, and it is not a pretty picture

See for yourself:

I honestly don’t even know how to respond to someone who can’t see the difference between reducing taxes and having a reduced tax base. I just don’t know.

So I’ll give up and let Reason sum it up:

Detroit has been a “model city” for big-government! All Detroit’s mayors since 1962 were Democrats who were eager to micromanage. And spend. Detroit has the only utility tax in Michigan, and its income tax is the third-highest of any big city in America (only Philadelphia and Louisville take more, and they aren’t doing great, either).

… Home loan subsidies, public housing, stadium subsidies, a $350 million project called “Renaissance Center” (the city ended up selling it for just $50 million), an automated People Mover system that not many people feel moved to use (it moves people in only one direction), endless favors to unions — if a government idea has failed anywhere in America, there’s a good chance it failed in Detroit first.

But yeah, it was probably Ayn Randian libertarianism that brought Detroit down… I mean why not?

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Complete Whimsy, Uncategorized

Keith Olbermann Bonus: Saturday Night Live’s Take on the King of Douche Bags

To celebrate Keith Olbermann’s victory over Glenn Beck in the battle for the world’s greatest douchebag, I bring you Saturday Night Live’s lampooning of Mr. Countdown.  It’s a bit old, but if you haven’t seen it, it’s an absolute must. Ben Affleck actually nails it. And lucky for him, Olbermann will surely never demand Affleck debate him about the veracity of the skit.

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Complete Whimsy, Live and Learn, Trust, Uncategorized

Keith Olbermann vs. Glenn Beck: Who is the Bigger Douchebag?

Glenn Beck vs. Keith Olbermann: Watching either of their shows brings us uncomfortably near the absolute epitome of douchebag, but alas, when push comes to shove, only one can be the victor. Here I will discuss their individual merits and try to determine who can rightfully claim the throne in all of its douche-filled glory. Honorable mentions go out to Bill O’Reilly, Rachel Maddow, Lou Dobbs, Nancy Grace, Chris Mathews, Greta Van Susteren and Sean Hannity. But when the chips are down, we all know that it is either Keith Olbermann or Glenn Beck who will hold the crown of greatest douchebag in the history of the world.

Admittedly, during the Bush administration, I could enjoy Olbermann’s over-the-top rants a bit, and now with Obama, I can sometimes find Beck tolerable. I actually agree with Beck on most things domestic and with Olbermann on most foreign policy issues. Olbermann, while normally being a mouthpiece of the Obama administration,  has occasionally criticized the Democrats and Beck has consistently attacked both parties. However, both Olbermann and Beck are so biased, so hyperbolic, so inconsistent and so utterly douche-baggish that merely enjoying the train wrecks that are their respective shows does not prove either to be any less of a train wreck.

Both can make ridiculous, often hypocritical claims. Olbermann defended Cash for Clunkers, probably the dumbest program ever. His evidence was that car sales went up. Wow, when the government pays people to buy cars, car sales go up. Who would have thought? The question of whether or not destroying our wealth to increase spending was a good economic policy was not addressed. (1)

He then agreed with his guest, Dan Gross, that because Republicans voted against the stimulus package, Cash for Clunkers and other government programs, “…they are heavily invested in its failure.” Of course, the same logic could be recklessly applied to Olbermann and those who opposed the war in Iraq. Since Olbermann opposed the war, is he “heavily invested” in the United States being defeated? (2)

Glenn Beck also went overboard with Cash for Clunkers, claiming that the government’s website, cars.gov, attempted to “access your computer” if you signed up. The site was however, only for car dealers. (3) And he is not above changing the past to fit a narrative of the day, once saying the “[the Iraq War] was never about Saddam Hussein or weapons of mass destruction, I mean that was a bonus, it was always about getting to Iran.” (4) Huh? If the war was about getting to Iran, why invade Iraq? After all, Iran has been the big winner since the United States ousted Iran’s top foe. (5)

But Glenn Beck makes his strongest case for being the ultimate bag of douche with his passionate, unrestrained rants of douche-baggery. Beck is the king of over-the-top melodrama: whether it be crying on screen or putting some quote on his blackboard just in case we forget it. My personal favorite, though, is the time he decided that since “we don’t look each other in the eyes anymore” he would do a split screen, with one screen on him and another with a close up shot of his eyes (which were strangely enough, not looking at the camera). (6)

Keith Olbermann, on the other hand, goes back and forth between unbearably unfunny attempts at humor and unhinged, self-righteous outrage. In an example of his uncanny ability to not provoke laughter, I give you this bit he did in a discombobulated and extraordinarily awkward attempt at making fun of Sarah Palin for writing notes on her hand before a speech.  You must watch it to understand, I cannot explain it. The English language simply lacks the words to clarify how unfunny this is when a standard instructions manual amounts to a George Carlin standup routine in comparison:

When it comes to douche-soaked, self-righteous outrage, I refer you to Olbermann’s description of then Republican Senatorial candidate, Scott Brown:

“…In Scott Brown we have an irresponsible, homophobic, racist, reactionary, ex-nude model, tea-bagging supporter of violence against women and politicians with whom he disagrees.” (7)

Olbermann later apologized for not adding the word “sexist.” (Apparently someone can support violence against women without being sexist). Surprisingly, some people actually took offense to Olbermann’s characterization of Brown. And in fact, I did too. Olbermann forgot to mention that Scott Brown was also a fascist, war-mongering, child-abusing, corporate-controlled, Islamophobic, blood-sucking vampire who not only supports violence against women, but also men, hermaphrodites, Na’vi and every animal on the planet with the exception of nutria, termites, malaria-bearing mosquitoes, rabies-infected dogs and the infamous Man-Bear-Pig.

Back in reality though, Olbermann’s accusation that Brown is irresponsible is because he once swore in front of some high school students. Apparently, Olbermann failed to notice that he was using an explicit, sexual reference in his diatribe. Olbermann also swears on his show, while consistently bragging about how well his program does in the younger demographic (I should note that I make no claim of being ‘responsible’ myself). The accusation that Brown is in favor of violence against women—even though Brown has two young daughters—is because he said, “We can do this” after a guy at one of his rallies yelled out, “We should shove a curling iron up Martha Coakley’s butt!”

Okay Keith, aside from the fact that shoving a curling iron up someone’s butt is not really something “we can do,” it’s quite obvious that Scott Brown didn’t hear the man. And does Olbermann really expect Brown to disavow every crazy thing one of his supporters says? I mean honestly, have you ever heard what people say about politicians?

Of course, Glenn Beck is no opponent of baseless name-calling and random conjecture. From claiming he couldn’t “debunk” the theory of FEMA death camps to an assortment of other, often contradictory, conspiracy theories, Glenn Beck is all about name-calling and conjecture. (8) Perhaps the most infamous was his accusation that Barack Obama has a “…a deep seated hatred for white people.” One minute and 22 seconds later he recanted, saying “I’m not saying that he doesn’t like white people” after he was challenged by the fact that some 70% of Obama’s administration is white. Unfortunately, for consistency’s sake, five seconds later he then said again Obama is “..I think, a racist.” (9) At least Beck was able to avoid crying this time.

But baseless name-calling is secondary to outright lying. And while both are extremely biased, I have never seen Beck, nor anyone else for that matter, do what Olbermann did regarding the so-called “climategate.” Olbermann accused the show Fox and Friends of taking a clip from Jon Stewart out of context, which Olbermann himself took out of context. Honestly, I’ve seen people take others out of context, but never have I seen someone take something out of context, while accusing others of doing so.

Fox and Friends showed the first bit of a Jon Stewart segment where he jokingly says global warming is completely debunked. Then Keith Olbermann showed a little more where Jon Stewart said the leaked emails weren’t a big deal, it was just scientists talking casually. But Olbermann conveniently left out the next part, where Jon Stewart goes over a handful of the more outrageous emails. While Stewart does say the emails don’t debunks global warming, he does conclude the following about the emails:

“[The scientist] was just using a trick to hide the decline. [It’s] just scientist speak for using a standard statistical technique to recalibrate data to trick you and hide the decline.”

Here’s Stewart’s bit and here’s Olbermann’s hack job of it.

But at least Olbermann doesn’t abuse his guests. Nothing he’s done can compare to Beck losing his mind at a caller about healthcare. Again, the written word can do no justice here. You must see it:

While that is quite damning to those who would argue Glenn Beck is actually sane, it does tell us something good about him; namely, that he is willing to at least talk (if you can call it that) to people who disagree with him. I think the problem with Beck is that his frontal lobe inhibitors aren’t functioning properly and thus he pretty much says whatever comes to mind in all of its driftless, tear-soaked, conspiratorial, stream-of-conscious, douche-baggishness. But he does debate people. I even have video evidence of Beck debating people, for example here.

I cannot say the same for Keith Olbermann. Sure, when he’s challenged, he’ll use his television show to launch a string of invective at whoever dared speak ill of him, albeit usually in the way befitting the most douche-baggish of douchebags. For example, when Ann Coulter pointed out that Olbermann didn’t graduate from the Ivy League Cornell University, but an affiliated university, Keith Olbermann decided it was a good idea to bring out his framed diploma to show his audience (I kid you not) in an attempt to prove that he did, in fact, graduate from the university that Coulter accused him of graduating from. (10)

But that doesn’t count for actual debate. It is truly a brave form of cowardice to have a “worst person in the world” segment every show without ever having anyone on who would disagree with him on anything. It’s actually quite funny to watch when someone who basically agrees with Olbermann on everything says something that may, in some way, kind of contradict his line of thinking. Take this clip, where Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean explains why it’s out of line for Republicans to call the president a fascist, even though Olbermann had called George Bush just that many times before. Of course, Olbermann sounded more dignified by calling the president a fascist in between random quotes from Bertrand Russell and Oliver Cromwell.

In the end, the willingness to debate is what makes the difference. Glenn Beck may ramble on, between sobs, about inane connections he’s written on his wholly-unnecessary chalk board, but he’s willing to talk to people he disagrees with. He’s even changed his mind on several issues, such as marijuana legalization. (11) Olbermann instead hides behind his television show to launch hypocritical and illogical vitriol at those he refuses to give a chance to respond. And for that, Keith Olbermann is victorious. Congratulations Keith, you are the biggest douchebag on the planet.

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For more on Glenn Beck, see South Park’s parody.
And for Keith Olbermann see Saturday Night Live’s Take on him .

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(1) “ ‘Countdown with Keith Olbermann’ for Monday, August 3, August 3, 2009, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/32284299/
(2) Ibid
(3) For Beck’s segment see “Glenn Beck: Cars.gov allows government to takeover your computer,” uploaded July 31, 2009,  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWs12ccbOiE and for what it actually means see Hugh D’Andrade, “Cars.gov Terms of Service: What Glenn Beck Gets Right and Wrong,” August 3, 2009, http://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2009/08/cars-gov-terms-service
(4) “Beck: Iraq “was always about getting to Iran” & WMD’s bonus,” uploaded April 5, 2007, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUbBbGVF6Q8
(5) For a good, albeit rather old, rundown of Iran winning by the Iraq War is Juan Cole, “The Iraq war is over, and the winner is… Iran,” Salon Magazine, July21, 2005, http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2005/07/21/iran
(6) See “Beck Wants You to Look Deep Into His Eyes,” Uploaded February 4, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ex695VSHmSs
(7) “Olbermann’s “Apology” To Scott Brown,” Uploaded January 19, 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydNY-9xNzB0&feature=related
(8) “Glenn Beck’s FEMA Backflip,” Uploaded April 4, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=izjfdfDHjWQ
(9) “Glenn Beck: Obama is a RACIST! Hates White Folks!,” Uploaded July 28, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ndc2LX2u98&feature=related
(10) For Coulter’s article, see Ann Coulter, “Olbermann’s Platic Ivy,” Townhall.com, March 4, 2009, http://townhall.com/columnists/AnnCoulter/2009/03/04/olbermanns_plastic_ivy and for Olbermann’s bit “defending himself” and the subsequent lampooning on Fox’s Red Eye, see “Olbermann is So Insecure, I Pity Him,” Uploaded March 7, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5qgQ_71M2c
(11) “Glenn Beck Legalize Marijuana & Stop The Violence,” Uploaded March 3, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iFmtirw5io8

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Game Theory, Individual v. Collective, Live and Learn, Taxes

Lawrence O’Donnell Interviews Peter Schiff on Healthcare Reform… Kinda

MSNBC seems to be going in multiple directions of absurdity these days. On one hand, you’ve got hacks like Keith Olbermann who will spew all sorts of vitriol without ever debating anyone; an extraordinarily brave form of cowardice. Then, on the other hand, you have hacks like Lawrence O’Donnell who will turn an interview into a debate, and then simply talk over and interrupt the person they are interviewing to “win” said interview/debate, in a way that might even make hacks like Bill O’Reilly blush.

Here we see Lawrence O’Donnell in all his political hackishness glory, as he interviews/debates/interrupts/yells at Peter Schiff regarding healthcare reform (one wonders how he would treat Chris Dodd, the Senator Peter Schiff is considering challenging; after all, Chris Dodd was a key player in causing the housing crisis). The maker of the YouTube channel, “How the World Works” (who runs a very informative channel), times how long both talk in this “interview.” You would expect the person being interviewed (Schiff) to talk longer, but then again, you could only expect that if the “interviewer” wasn’t a political hack.

For his part, Peter Schiff said later of the interview that “even as I was sitting there, I was almost laughing to myself how comical this thing looked. I mean, what was even the point of having me there? He could have ranted and raved without me.”

For those of you who are interested, here’s the basic flow chart for the proposed healthcare system. Very simple, probably cost effective too:

healthcare map

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Deficits, Individual v. Collective, Obama Says, Taxes, Trust

Healthcare Reform: The Public Option or the Singapore Model

flatline

Oh my God…the sky is falling! This will likely cause serious injuries and unfortunately, our healthcare system is a complete mess and a bunch of sociopaths, who obviously get a kick out of it when people die, are trying to stop healthcare reform! These baby seal clubbers want to stop what’s being called “the public option.” In other words, the government will also provide insurance to those unable to get it in the private market. Keith Olbermann had some choice words for these sociopathic, baby seal clubbing, misanthropes. While not debating anyone who might disagree with him, Olbermann went over a long list of Republicans and “blue dog” Democrats who oppose the public option, (none of whom he had on his show to debate him), describing how much money they took from the medical industry. His point wasn’t a bad one; unfortunately, in the midst of his monologue, sandwiched between several conversations with people who agree with him on everything, he forgot to mention that just about every politician is owned by someone. Republicans are bought and paid for by a lot of corporations and religious groups. Democrats are bought and paid for by some other corporations (such as GE, the parent company of MSNBC, the network that hosts Olbermann) as well as trial lawyers, labor unions and activist groups. Both parties loathe small business, but that is beside the point (and deserves another article entirely).

Regardless of who supports the public option (which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will cost $100 billion annually and only cover an additional 16 million of the 47 million uninsured) (1), we should look at what the legislation will likely accomplish, what the real problem is with our medical industry and what alternatives are available.

The first question to ask is how did the medical industry get such a foothold on the government in the first place? Well the reality is much of government’s increased role over the years has been at the behest of corporations, not against their will. For example, Medicare Part D was lobbied for by the insurance industry. Congressman Ron Paul explained this phenomenon very well:

We have been enduring managed care over these last 35 to 40 years. And what has developed from this is corporate medicine. The individuals who were best able to gather up the money that was passed out or mandated by the government became the chief lobbyists; so the drug companies lined up, the health insurance companies lined up, the health management companies lined up. And it turned out that they started running it… and made it less efficient… Too much money was going to these corporations that were the middleman. And the patients have suffered and the doctors [have] become unhappy. (2)

Source: Zerodisease.com

Source: ZeroDisease.com

And just how inefficient has this made things? Well, look at what has happened since the 1950s: First there was Medicare and Medicaid in the ‘60s, then HMOs in the ‘70s and then Medicare Part D in 2003. And the prices just skyrocketed!

Our current system is obviously a train wreck. So should we go with the public option? Well, Massachusetts tried something very similar and costs have gone up 28% since 2006! Thus, in my humble opinion, the current proposal is an embarrassingly bad idea. In that case, maybe we should just get it over with and go with a single-payer system. Admittedly, it would probably be better than what we have now, but a single-payer system means that medicine would have to be rationed: expect much longer wait times. Furthermore, eliminating the profit motive would eliminate the competition-induced incentive to produce new drugs and medical procedures. The United States is still responsible for a disproportionately large share of medical innovations, which under a single-payer system would almost certainly no longer be the case.

Removing government entirely from the equation is never discussed, but I think it’s a worthy proposal. If that were the case, medical prices would probably fall significantly like they have in other technology-dominated industries left untouched by the government, such as computers and cell phones.

Right now, our system charges everything off to a third party. This gives doctors, who are deathly afraid of malpractice lawsuits, the incentive to run every test and do every procedure imaginable (or at least every safe procedure). These third parties, namely HMOs and insurance companies, then have every incentive to try to nickel and dime these bills, so as to stick the patient with as much of it as possible.

The major problem here is that we have forgotten what “insurance” actually means. We insure our homes against fires, floods and hurricanes. We do not insure our houses against the neighbor’s kid throwing a baseball through the window, or paint peeling off in the hot sun. Insurance is for the big things, not the little ones. Yet in medicine, insurance will pay for even routine checkups. This creates mini-monopolies (mini, of course, being a relative term). Once you’re with an insurance company and they pay for everything, minus the deductible, both the insurance company and the hospital know the patient won’t go price shopping. Once a customer has signed up, there is little reason for firms to compete on price or even quality. The predictable outcome is that prices skyrocket.

Should we kick government out of the healthcare industry all together? I say no, despite the fact that supporting government intervention makes me nauseous. I’d prefer a system with health savings accounts, allowing people to save money, tax free, for medical expenses. This would bring back the competition. Unfortunately, insurance companies would still have an incentive to skimp on the big things. And while medical prices would fall, it could leave a significant part of the population in dire straights if they got sick. Is there a country out there that leaves the market be, but addresses these problems? In fact, one does, (as the title of this article might suggest).

We should not be looking to Europe for insights into how to build our economy; they’ve been stagnant for decades. Instead, we should look to the Asian tigers. Everyone knows Asia is where it’s at these days. And the small nation of Singapore has a fantastic healthcare system that everyone should consider emulating.

First the facts:

Source: Rowan Calick, The Singapore Model

Source: Rowan Callick, The Singapore Model

How is this possible? How could the citizens of Singapore spend approximately 1/5th of what Americans spend, have fewer caregivers, yet live longer and have only 1/3rd the infant mortality rate? Before I answer, let’s build up some more anticipation. Singapore does just as well with much less than those countries with universal healthcare, too, as the following charts show:

Source: Wyattwatt.com

Source: John Tucci, WatsonWyatt.com

The key is that, unlike the United States, Singapore allows the market to work; Almost 70% of the medical expenditures are private. Singapore encourages their citizens to price shop and thereby push the price of healthcare down. Singapore’s Health Ministry explained it as follows: “Patients are expected to co-pay part of their medical expenses and to pay more when they demand a higher level of service. At the same time, government subsidies help to keep basic healthcare affordable.” (3)

The government side has four primary components. The first is Medisave, which pays a portion for hospital expenses and some outpatient care. It does not replace private insurance, merely supplements it. The second is Medishield, which covers the costs of extremely serious health problems (the main purpose for insurance). The third is Medifund which provides a subsidy for the poorest of the poor. And the final is Eldershield, which provides a subsidy for the elderly. (4)

Aside from the ridiculously cheesy names they’ve given these programs, Singapore has set up a system that uses “the public option,” mainly in the case of an emergency. Otherwise, it simply supplements private insurance, instead of replacing it (like Medicare), or setting up a third party to manage it (like HMOs). They have created a system that incentivizes saving, price shopping and competition. These things push prices down and force hospitals, insurance companies and drug companies to be lean and innovative. Singapore has successfully created a system that marginalizes both the corporations (listening Republicans?) and the government (listening Democrats?). And it works marvels!

Journalist Rowan Callick, who wrote a great piece on Singapore’s system, put it best: “The reason the system works so well is that it puts decisions in the hands of patients and doctors rather than of government bureaucrats and insurers.” (5) Amen to that. Hopefully someone in the United States government is listening… I kinda doubt it though.

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(1) Congressional Budget Office, Preliminary Analysis of Major Provisions Related to Health Insurance Coverage Under the Affordable Health Choice Act, 6/15/2009, http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/103xx/doc10310/06-15-KennedyLetter.shtml

(2) Ron Paul, “Congressman Ron Paul on Healthcare,” 6/18/2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=foXQbmZxWYY

(3) Rowan Callick, “The Singapore Model,” The American, 5/27/2008, http://www.american.com/archive/2008/may-june-magazine-contents/the-singapore-model

(4) Ibid

(5) Ibid

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Game Theory, Individual v. Collective, Live and Learn, Trust

The Uselessness of Political Terminology: Part 1

At the risk of venturing to far from economic wit, I feel a need to comment on political terminology. Economics is, after all, related to politics, so I’m not venturing too far off base (or at least, I’ve deceived myself into thinking I’m not). Recently, there has been a litany of media reports and diatribes about a significant growth of “extreme” right-wing groups. Liberal economist and New York Times editorialist, Paul Krugman explained it as follows:

“Back in April, there was a huge fuss over an internal report by the Department of Homeland Security warning… [of] an upsurge of right-wing extremism… Conservatives were outraged. The chairman of the Republican National Committee denounced the report as an attempt to “segment out conservatives in this country who have a different philosophy or view from this administration” and label them as terrorists. But with the murder of Dr. George Tiller by an anti-abortion fanatic, closely followed by a shooting by a white supremacist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the analysis looks prescient…[and this] right-wing extremism is being systematically fed by the conservative media and political establishment.” (1)

Krugman’s argument is interesting insofar that it is hyperbolic, hypocritical and paints with way too big of a brush, all at the same time. Sure, conservatives have been up in arms over Barack Obama’s policies and have said a multitude of vitriolic things, highlighted by the daily rants of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh types. However, the same thing happened to George Bush during his presidency (most of which, Bush deserved, in my opinion). And Krugman was at the front of the line in that barrage of vitriol.

Circle

or something like that...

What this whole mess elucidates is, as far as politics (and subsequently, economic policy) are concerned, actual positions are of little importance. All that matters is that you root for your team, be they Democrats or Republicans. Thus, we see Fox News begin to attack every push for increased state power, while MSNBC defends such policies. Under Bush, it was the opposite. The truth is, political terms can mean just about anything and political parties have shifted their positions radically throughout history. Individual policy positions are important and Krugman certainly has firm beliefs on a myriad of issues. However, in this instance, Krugman is just rooting for his team: the Democrats. Much the way Rush Limbaugh roots for his team: the Republicans.

The key question we have to ask is what are the “extreme” right-wing groups that Krugman and his ilk are referring to? Certainly the murderers Krugman refers to are terrible individuals with terrible ideologies. However, on the larger question, is he referring to fascists, radical free-marketers, religious zealots or the racist, Confederate types? Or is he talking about all of these groups? For its part, the Department of Homeland Security report Krugman mentions, describes right-wing extremism as follows:

“Rightwing extremism in the United States can be broadly divided into those groups, movements, and adherents that are primarily hate-oriented (based on hatred of particular religious, racial or ethnic groups), and those that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely. It may include groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.” (2)

This covers an awful lot of ground. Under this definition, every group mentioned above could be considered part of the extreme right, yet they are, in many cases, the polar opposites of each other. Several even have fairly “liberal” beliefs.

Fascists, at least the fascists of the 1930’s, favored a massive welfare state, state control of industry and strict gun laws. Adolf Hitler and the Nazi’s even launched large campaigns to stop smoking. To list just a few of the Nazi’s 25 campaign points:

13. We demand the nationalization of all trusts.

14. We demand profit-sharing in large industries.

15. We demand a generous increase in old-age pensions.

16. We demand the creation and maintenance of a sound middle-class, the immediate communalization of large stores [think Wal-Mart] which will be rented cheaply to small tradespeople, and the strongest consideration must be given to ensure that small traders shall deliver the supplies needed by the State, the provinces and municipalities.

17. We demand an agrarian reform in accordance with our national requirements, and the enactment of a law to expropriate the owners without compensation of any land needed for the common purpose. The abolition of ground rents, and the prohibition of all speculation in land.

[And my favorite…] 18. We demand that ruthless war be waged against those who work to the injury of the common welfare. Traitors, usurers, profiteers, etc., are to be punished with death, regardless of creed or race. [ Well at least they weren’t racist, oh wait…] (3)

Maybe the “socialist” part in National Socialists actually meant something. After all, even the BNP (British National Party) is usually decried as far right for being racist and anti-immigration. They are also in support protectionism, higher taxes and “[giving] workers a stake in the success and prosperity of the enterprises whose profits their labour creates by encouraging worker shareholder and co-operative schemes.” (4) Hardly right wing.

Extremists, sure, but does right-wing really define them?

Extremists, sure. Stupid, of course. But does right-wing really define them?

Radical free marketers, typically libertarians (who are very much anti-government and pro-local control), on the other hand, tend to favor drug legalization, gay marriage and a very dovish foreign policy; positions usually seen as being on the left. And given that, how can both of these ideologies be on the “extreme” right-wing? Anyone who really thinks fascists and libertarians are even remotely similar should strongly consider visiting their friendly, local neurologist.

The left can be seen in many of the same ways. The best example is that both communists (total state) and anarchists (no state) are seen as movements of the left. It is true that Karl Marx believed the state would magically “wither away” after capital was eliminated (a ridiculous proposition, given that those in power would have to voluntarily give up their power, preceded by an impossible task, since capital is anything of value and can’t be eliminated). Still, to advocate for eliminating the state (as anarchists would do) and having the state take over everything (as communists would do), would require the exact opposite policies. Yet, both groups are on the “extreme” left.

Furthermore, these terms also change over time, or by geographic region, or simply by which group of people you’re hanging out with. Take the term centrist. A centrist is a centrist only by modern and geographical definitions. For example, one of those white, nationalist crackpots who believe slavery was probably bad, but who also believe a “superior” and “inferior” race can’t coexist, would have been a centrist position 200 years ago in the United States, perhaps even progressive (forgive my use of such a vague phrase, to be discussed later). Thomas Jefferson, as enlightened as he was, unfortunately, was of this persuasion. Racism is a relic that comes to us from prehistoric tribalism. Our brains instinctually see different, as dangerous. This mental trait is to our advantage when say, that different thing is a hungry tiger. With race though, to put it mildly, this view is a bit outdated. Yet 200 years ago, it would have been a centrist position.

The same could be said for radicalism. By who’s definition is one a radical? By standard political dogma, of course. To be fair, radical is often used as a compliment: the founders of the United States were radical. Martin Luther King Jr. was radical. However, the term is often used in a derogatory fashion, especially when used in the present tense.

I define radicalism differently. I don’t think a Marxist or an anarcho-capitalist is a radical. They just have a different opinion than me. Radicalism isn’t bad, extremism is. Extremism, in my view, is the belief you are right, with such conviction, that nothing can change your mind and furthermore, that the ends justify the means. Blowing up abortion clinics or medical labs where research on animals is going on is extremist. Aside from being blatantly immoral, it is destructive to your cause. How much of the peace process in Israel has been stymied by terrorism? Even when in response to some justified grievance, it does more harm than good. This is the kind of radicalism that should be condemned, not just being radically outside the mainstream. After all, as Mark Twain said, “The radical of one century is the conservative of the next. The radical invents the views. When he has worn them out, the conservative adopts them.”

While time changes things drastically, geography presents similar problems for political terminology. I believe in the separation of church and state. In the United States, this is a fairly centrist position. Religion is personal; politics is public, and quite dirty for that matter. However, do you think this position is centrist in say, oh I don’t know, Iran?

When time and geography come into play, these things can get real messy. The term “libertarian” is a great example of this. The famous, leftist, intellectual Noam Chomsky considers himself a libertarian socialist. When a student asked him how he could be both, given that it’s a contradiction in terms, he responded as follows:

“You’re right, the terms I’m using are contradictory in the United States, but that’s a sign of the perversity of American culture. Here the term libertarian means the opposite of what it meant to everyone else all through history.” (5)

Professor Chomsky is right. I’ll leave out his diatribe about how “American” libertarians are “extreme advocates of total tyranny” and how the United States is responsible for every evil in the history of the world. However, his main point, that most of the world thinks libertarian is synonymous with anarcho-syndicalism or libertarian socialism, is correct. What Chomsky leaves out is why American libertarians are called what they are (other than our perverse culture). I mean, we have to have a name for these extreme advocates of total tyranny, don’t we?

Since “tyrannyians” would be a poor rallying cry, Americans of this political persuasion were forced to a look for a more appealing term. So how did they come up with libertarian? Well it’s not that complicated, though it requires a quick history lesson. Libertarians advocate a political ideology that is similar to classical liberalism; a philosophy popularized by the likes of John Locke and Adam Smith, and was very prevalent in the 19th century. The popular saying, “your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins” sums it up quite succinctly. In more specific terms, both philosophies advocate free markets, social freedom, and limited government. Libertarians tend to emphasize freedom, whereas classical liberals emphasized utilitarianism; however, they each hold both in high regard. The main reason classical liberals in the United States are now known as libertarians is that the term “liberal” was no longer available.

Why, you ask? Well, politics in the United States started to change around the beginning of the 20th century with the famous progressive movement. Government had been a “necessary evil” in the U.S. for almost its entire history. However, with an industrial revolution and mounting poverty (or at least, more visible poverty), many people thought the government could be used as a tool for social improvement. The idea that “the government which governs least, governs best,” was replaced with an interventionist government appropriated with the tools to help the oppressed and down-on-their-luck types.

In sticking with our current theme, the progressives of the early 20th century bare little resemblance to the progressives of today. Both groups favor an activist government, but progressives of the early 20th century favored prohibition, were often infatuated with eugenics and many of them supported the United States’ entry into World War I. None of this resembles the drug legalizing, racism hating (albeit, identity politics loving), peaceniks of self-described progressives today.

Interestingly enough, this sheds light on what is the opposite of a progressive; labeled and derided as reactionary. Some things are obviously reactionary, say human sacrifice, although other terms, such as “bad,” would work better. However, to label many policies as reactionary, just because they’re old or passe, usually winds up in a contradiction. Take drugs, which progressives tend to want to legalize (a position I support). This is seen as progressive, perhaps because it is “enlightened,” perhaps because it is a better policy, or perhaps because it is new. Unfortunately, for consistency’s sake, legalizing drugs is in fact very old, thus not “progressive.” Not only is this position the opposite of what progressives of the early 20th century favored. After all, many helped pushed through the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, the first major federal drug law, under progressive president Woodrow Wilson. What’s key to note is that the first significant federal drug law came in 1914! Drugs had been legal in the United States for most of its history. Thus, couldn’t drug legalization be seen as a reactionary position? Or do these terms even matter in the first place?

But I digress. Returning to our discussion on libertarianism, during the Great Depression, advocates of the free market, namely classical liberals, became harder and harder to find. Who could support free markets when unemployment was over 20%? It’s certainly difficult to advocate freedom when that freedom is the freedom to starve to death. Thus, the term liberalism shifted from advocates of a free market economy to a mixed economy. When Franklin Roosevelt, implemented the New Deal, the meaning of “liberal” had all but finished its transition. Those who wanted to reduce the size of the welfare state (or eliminate it entirely), took up the role of conservatives. However, conservatives maintained the belief that government had a role in monitoring moral values and have famously laxed on their free market ideology. So while libertarians tend to favor conservatives over liberals, they have significant differences with each.

What’s interesting to note here, is that while a similar cultural shift happened in Europe, the terminology did not follow suit. In Europe, liberal political parties called themselves the labor party or for people further to the left, social democrats. It’s hard to say exactly why the shift in terminology happened here but not across the pond (well, I think it’s hard to say, I really just don’t feel like researching it), but ideologically, liberal Democrats and the labor party are quite similar. So the word “liberal” in Europe still, for the most part, represents what it did in the 19th century: free markets, small government and individual liberty. This, if you remember, is basically what “American” libertarianism stands for.

So to counterpoint Chomsky on this matter, one could say, if Chomsky ever called himself a liberal socialist, that would be a contradiction in terms; it’s only not considered a contradiction because of the perversity of American culture. However good Chomsky’s political arguments are, he’s simply demagoguing here.* There’s no real perversion, or conspiracy, or anything like that. This is just how the world works. Libertarians broke with the traditional right as it became more and more obsessed with fighting the Cold War and decided to use the term “libertarian” primarily because it simply put an “ian” on the word liberty. And if you’ve ever met a libertarian, you know they love the word liberty. Anyways, libertarian sounds a lot less hokey than their second choice: freedomian (tyrannyian came in third).

This muddling of terms is by no means a lone case. These types of political terminology shifts are quite common and can make history lessons even more confusing for socially awkward, self-esteem lacking, unquenchably horny, ADHD-inflicted adolescents to understand. Good thing they gave up trying to understand many years ago.

Just go back to the word liberal. Today, you may hear neo-liberalism tossed around, usually with a negative connotation regarding free trade. Neo-liberalism is often used synonymously with classical liberalism, though not to be confused with regular liberalism, which tends to oppose both. That is unless we are referring to “liberalizing” some part of the economy; say trade, which would reduce trade barriers. Then you can drop the neo/classical and just say “we are liberalizing trade,” despite the fact that most self-described liberals would like to “de-liberalize” trade.

Or how about neo-conservativism, which is neither neo (new) nor conservative. Neo-conservatism is fine with the welfare state (not conservative), dislikes federalism (very not conservative), is fine with policing morality (not particularly conservative, unless we’re talking about the religious right) and has an extraordinarily hawkish foreign policy (not conservative in the “old right” sort of way, at least). Neo-conservative founders, Irving Kristol and Leo Strauss, even drew much of their inspiration from Leon Trotsky (the concept of a world wide “permanent revolution” especially, except they replaced socialism with democracy). So neo-conservatives are not conservative, neo-liberals are not liberal, classical liberals are neo-liberals, but not regular liberals, libertarians are classical liberals in the United States but anarcho-socialists in Europe, reductio ad-absurdum.

Each term itself is filled with many subgroups to make things even more confusing and less relevant. What becomes obvious is that blanket terms such as the “extreme right-wing,” that the likes of Paul Krugman like to throw around, are simply used as cudgels to denigrate multiple groups that are not even remotely associated with each other. The only thing these groups tend to have in common is that they oppose Krugman’s team.

Continued in Part 2.

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*On a side note related to this discussion, I should mention that Osama Bin Laden, a radical “right-wing” Islamist, promoted one of Noam Chomsky’s, a leftist, pseudo-cult leader, books in one of his recorded messages to the West. It should also be noted that these “right-wing” Islamic countries have very controlled economies (i.e. not free market economies), as you can see here.

(1) Paul Krugman, “The Big Hate,” New York Times, June 12, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/12/opinion/12krugman.html
(2) Department of Homeland Security Report, Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment, Pg. 3n, April 7, 2009, a copy can be found here: http://video1.washingtontimes.com/video/extremismreport.pdf
(3) “The 25 Points of Hitler’s Nazi Party,” The History Place, retrieved June 25, 2009, http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/riseofhitler/25points.htm
(4) See Daniel Hannan, “There’s Nothing Right Wing About the BNP,” The Telegraph, February 22, 2009, http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/danielhannan/8679468/Theres_nothing_Rightwing_about_the_BNP/
(5) “Noam Chomsky – Libertarian Socialism: Contradicting terms?,” retrieved June 25, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ugq86q9KyPE

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Deficits, Dubiously Free Trade, Individual v. Collective, Live and Learn, Taxes, Treasury, Trust

Tea Parties and the Real Tea Party

boston-tea-party

There has been an awful lot of coverage lately regarding tea party protests springing up around the country. Named after the famous Boston Tea Party, hundreds of rallies took place across the country on April 15th, bringing large numbers of people together to protest taxes, reckless spending, bailouts and all the rest of our government’s recent behavior. FOX News is basically in love with these protesters. And for the most part, I sympathize with the protesters. But I’m just not a big fan of Fox’s incredible “fairness” and “balanced-ness,” which makes feeling sympathy a little tough for me.

Luckily for me, MSNBC, whom I am not a fan of either, seems to hate the tea parties about as much as FOX loves them. Maybe I should just pick a side and be a mindless cheerleader. So much less thinking involved. Regardless, Keith Olbermann, among others, has been referring to the protesters as “tea baggers.” Which is a bit graphic, especially for the prime time news. (For those of you who don’t know what tea bagging is, the act occurs when a man inserts his scrotum into… you know what, if you’re really that curious, just look up the wikipedia article on it. Wow, I just linked to the definition of tea bagging: a new low for SwiftEconomics.com. My sincerest apologies Ryan.)

Anyways, on April 16th, Keith Olbermann continued his uninterrupted streak of guests, who disagree with him on absolutely nothing, by speaking with actor and renowned political philosopher, Janeane Garofalo. She proceeded to describe the tea party protesters as follows:

“Let’s be very honest about what this is about. It’s not about bashing Democrats. It’s not about taxes. They have no idea what the Boston Tea Party was about. They don’t know their history at all. This is about hating a black man in the White House. This is racism straight up. That is nothing but a bunch of tea bagging rednecks. There is no way around that.” (1)

protestHmmm, stereotyping an entire group of people based on one thing, that reminds me of something. Damn, why can’t I put my finger on it? Regardless, Janeane Garofalo is probably right about one part, the tea party protesters almost certainly don’t know what the Boston Tea Party was actually about. Although, I sincerely doubt she has the slightest idea either.

So what was the Boston Tea Party about? Well, of course it was a tax protest that foreshadowed the glorious American Revolution, which pitted the freedom loving (and slave owning) Americans, against the ruthless and tyrannical British Empire (who we’d later become BFF’s with). Now I hate to take your 5th grade history textbook to task, but no, the Boston Tea Party was not an early call to independence. It wasn’t even a tax protest. It was in many ways, of all things, a tax-cut protest.

I’ll let historian Niall Ferguson explain:

“…most people assume [the Boston Tea Party] was a protest against a hike in the tax on tea. In fact the price of tea in question was exceptionally low, since the British government had just given the East India Company a rebate of the much higher duty the tea had incurred on entering Britain. In effect, the tea left Britain duty free and had to pay only the much lower American duty on arriving in Boston. Tea had never been cheaper in New England. The ‘Party’ was organized not by irate consumers but by Boston’s wealthy smugglers, who stood to lose out.” (2)

That isn’t to say it was just a bunch of smugglers throwing a hissy fit; it’s certainly more complicated than that. To get at the full story, let’s start by discussing the motivations behind the American Revolution.

The main reason for the Revolution boiled down to two interconnected grievances. The first was that the British were centralizing control over the colonies. This was where we get the whole ‘taxation without representation’ bit. The colonists believed it was unfair for the British Parliament to tax them, since they had no say on who was elected to the British Parliament. Instead, they felt colonial officials should make these decisions. This represented what Niall Ferguson calls a “tacit tug of war between centre and periphery – between royal authority in London… and the power of the colonists’ elected assemblies.” (3)

The British had previously ruled the colonies in a lackadaisical fashion. After the French and Indian War ended in 1763, the British gained a substantial amount of new territory and began to clamp down. As historian Joseph Ellis put it, ” Now, however, the sheer scale of [the British’s] recently acquired American empire, plus the sudden recognition that governance of its expanded domain required more management than a few secretaries in Whitehall could muster, forced a major overhaul in this accidental empire into something more appropriately imperial.” (4) The British became more controlling, and the method they used to control the colonies brings us to the second grievance; an inequitable economic system known as mercantilism.

Mercantilism, when the term is rarely used today, is thought of as just a synonym for protectionism. It is much more than that however; mercantilism could best be defined as a loose connection of economic and political philosophies, which conclude that a country becomes richer by exporting as much as possible and importing as little as possible. The goal is to amass gold and silver bullion, Scrooge style. This is what leads a country to enact trade barriers, grow an empire to control resources and manage its own economy in a myriad of other ways. What this means is that the host country (Britain) will try to profit at the expense of its colonies (America’s) instead of trying to cooperate with them. As my previous article shows, this makes absolutely no sense. However, it was the accepted economic philosophy of the era.

Mercantilism came under attack during the enlightenment by classical liberals (basically modern libertarians with an egalitarian streak). Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, was not, as many seem to assume, a defense of the current system, but instead, one of the first and most thorough, assaults on the mercantilist ideology. An ideology that, as Smith wrote:

Adam Smith: founder of modern economics

Adam Smith: founder of modern economics

“For the sake of that little enhancement of price, which this monopoly might afford our producers, the home consumers have been burdened with the whole expence of maintaining and defending that empire… It cannot be very difficult to determine who have been the contrivers of this whole mercantilist system; not the consumers, we may believe, whose interest has been entirely neglected; but the producers, whose interest has been so carefully attended to.” (5)

Oh, those Scottish Enlightenment writers, so polite all the time. Let me be a little more blunt. Mercantilism sees all nations in conflict with each other. Thus coercion, not cooperation, is necessary for economic growth. So simply put, mercantilism is an awful system. Well, I guess it’s only awful if you don’t like its main side effects, namely: hyper-protectionism, ultra-nationalism, a merger between corporate interests and the state, cronyism, colonialism, oppression, racism, slavery and near-constant war. All of which characterized that unfortunate period in our history, and are closely related to mercantilism (see here, here and here).

The American Revolution, besides being a war for political control, was also an uprising against British mercantilism, or at least certain aspects of it (Stamp Act, Navigation Acts, etc.).  In fact, one indictment against King George, in the Declaration of Independence, was “For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world.” (6) This referred to the East India Company getting monopoly privileges on trade, a very mercantilist policy if there ever was one, instead of letting the colonists trade of their own accord.

So mercantilism is totally weak and the colonists didn’t like it, but how does this play into the Boston Tea Party? Well simple, mercantilism creates ample opportunities for smugglers. High, protective tariffs raise the price of consumer goods and thereby create a market for cheaper, smuggled goods. Think of Al Capone during prohibition. He was the last person to want the 18th amendment repealed; his profits depended on alcohol being illegal. The same thing goes for tea smugglers just prior to the Revolutionary War.

In 1773, the British passed the Tea Act, which eliminated many duties on the East India Company, in an attempt to save the company from bankruptcy. The act also gave the company more monopoly privileges over trade with the Americas. The monopoly privileges and what amounted to corporate welfare certainly angered the colonists, and helped lay the groundwork for the revolution.

Ironically though, the smugglers benefited from the British’s mercantilistic policies in the same way that Al Capone benefited from prohibition. The tariffs allowed the smugglers to sneak in Dutch tea and sell it for less than the British. Since the new act would lower the East India Company’s costs, and thereby its prices, the smuggler’s profits would be reduced. So while it’s impossible to know exactly why, on December 16th, 1773, several dozen men (most of them smugglers), stormed aboard the Dartmouth and threw 342 chests of tea in the water; but they were presumably more upset about the British undercutting their profits, than about any sort of perceived oppression.

Even more ironically, the Boston Tea Party, while not embodying the spirit of the Revolution, was used as a rallying cry for it. While the smugglers were mostly just interested in protecting their bottom line, Samuel Adams and others defended it passionately, as a principled protest against an unjust system. This was compounded further when the British clamped down even harder on the colonies, going as far as closing Boston Harbor, which lead to more resentment among the colonists, until it boiled over in 1776.

Alright, enough with the history lesson. Well I guess all this article really is, is a history lesson. Regardless, to return to the modern protests, it is a bit ironic that they would name their protests after what was mostly just a bunch of smugglers pissed off about what amounted to a tax cut. Well if Obama is actually going to cut taxes on everyone making less than $250,000, which I highly doubt, then maybe it does make sense after all. Or as long as everyone just believes their 5th grade textbook, the protesters should be fine.

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(1) Number 2 Story with guest Jeanne Garofalo, Countdown with Keith Olbermann, MSNBC, April 16, 2009, http://hotair.com/archives/2009/04/16/garofalo-outdoes-herself-tea-parties-all-about-white-power-says-d-lister/
(2) Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and Lessons For Global Power, Pg. 72, Basic Books, Copyright 2002
(3) Ibid., Pg. 73
(4) Joseph Ellis, American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies At the Founding of the Republic, Pg. 23, Random House Inc., Copyright 2007
(5) Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Pg. 841, Bantam Books, Copyright 2003, Originally Published 1776
(6) “DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE,.” 2009. The History Channel website. 18 Apr 2009, 01:36 http://www.history.com/encyclopedia.do?articleId=207252

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