Category Archives: Uncategorized

Not a defense

I often see people accused of being racist in public, usually because they’ve just said something horrifically bigoted, and one of the go-to defenses (behind “but I have X friends”) is “X isn’t a race:”

For example:
“Mexican isn’t a race,” (because it’s an ethnicity.)
“Islam isn’t a race,” (because it’s a religion.)
“Jewish isn’t a race,” (because it’s a religion and an ethnicity?)

This is not a defense you want to use to establish your “not a racist” bona fides (which is itself a problematic idea, and one I’ll try to address at another time.) That’s because it’s really no defense at all.

One problem with this defense is that it’s ironically incriminating. If you’re saying that X isn’t a race, you’re implying one of two things: either there are such things as races (and X just isn’t one) or that there’s no such things as races, and so no group can qualify. Each of these is problematic for its own unique reason.

If you think there are such things as races, you are a racist, and we don’t need to go any further down that line. The concept of race has no taxonomic validity. There are no distinct populations of humans, and so we all belong to the same species and the same subspecies (that is, race.) What we think of as “race” is entirely socially constructed, its distinctions wholly arbitrary. While it is important in real-world terms, that’s really only because of racism. If you believe in it, you’re part of the problem.

If you think there aren’t such things as races, you could just as validly claim that “White isn’t a race” or “Black isn’t a race.” The reasons this is problematic should be obvious, but I’ll delve into them a little. Inasmuch as race is socially constructed, it is real. As long as racism exists in our culture and in our institutions, there may be no taxonomic validity to the idea of race, but it absolutely effects people’s lives. If that’s your argument for why you can make bigoted statements about one group (without being racist,) it applies equally to any group.

All that said, there is still a broader problem. Your claim is essentially that the person making the accusation has made a category error, one they could easily correct if they know the name for kind of bigotry you are engaged in.

“I’m not a racist, I’m a xenophobe!”
“I’m not a racist, I’m a religious bigot!”
“I’m not a racist, I’m an antisemite!”

Bigotry is bigotry. It doesn’t matter whether you call it a race, a religion, an ethnicity, a nationality, a gender, a sexual orientation, whatever. In any case, you are judging an arbitrary group of people based on an irrelevant characteristic. This is, then, essentially the same defense that J. Jonah Jameson called to his aid when accused of slander: “I resent that. Slander is spoken. In print, it’s libel.”

Either way it’s defamation.

That “Fake Geek Girl” thing.

As usual, I’m late to the Internet’s big shouting match, so I probably have very little to say that someone hasn’t already said. Still, going ahead and saying what’s on my mind even if it’s not unique is my normal MO, so I’m going to go ahead anyway.

So there’s this idea out there that there are Fake Geek Girls going to Geek Conventions because they really want attention and can’t get it otherwise. Some folks seem really offended by this idea, others seem to think there’s nothing wrong with it, and some people think the whole idea is crap, and more than a little sexist besides. I’m in the latter camp.

Laying aside for a moment the idea of whether Fake Geek Girls even exist, the idea that they’re a problem is plainly insulting to Geeks. If merely having breasts in a geek space were really enough to get our attention, we’d deserve whatever that got us. As a matter of fact, though, it’s simply not true. Most geeks are reasonably well-adjusted adults, the highly-visible teenagers and man-boys in our ranks notwithstanding. There are even quite a few women who self-identify as geeks, who are presumably not that interested in the main.

Now, with that disposed of, let’s investigate this idea of “Fake Geek Girls.” To begin, let’s consider the first part “Fake Geek.” Are there really Geek Poseurs out there spoiling our culture? Or is that whole idea just silly?

There are basically three kinds of people at Cons — Geeks, Pros, and Organizers. Because there’s no minimum threshold of knowledge for geekdom, anybody who pays to go to a Con gets to be a Geek. Wanting to do geeky things makes you a geek. Wanting to hang out with geeky people makes you a geek. Anybody who doesn’t want to be a geek needs to steer well clear of a Con. So is a cosplayer who has no idea who she’s cosplaying (or, for that matter, that what she’s doing *is* cosplaying) a Fake Geek? Not hardly. Being dressed like BatGirl makes you a geek, whether you like it or not. I mean, unless you’re twelve, it’s Halloween, and a BatGirl movie came out that year. Then you can probably get a pass. Otherwise? Geek. By definition.

Pros are the people who make and sell geeky things. They may be geeks themselves, but there’s no expectation that they have to be. Gene Roddenberry was not a geek. George Lucas is not a geek. So the gal at the software company booth isn’t expected to be a geek either. Simple commercial interest excuses them from geekdom. So are booth babes Fake Geeks? They’re not, because they aren’t posing as geeks, they’re paid to be there. They are Pros.

I mean, to be clear, we still don’t like Booth Babes as a practice. They’re sexist and insulting, even if we deserve the insult because they work. But they aren’t fake geeks.

Organizers are the people who run Cons. They’re above suspicion as geeks, because if they weren’t geeky, they’d hardly be involved in an annual Ode to Geekdom, much less pouring out blood, sweat and tears to make it happen. Unlike with Pros, there’s no commercial interest here, they’re mostly volunteers, which means that they’re just a little (okay, a lot) more dedicated to community-building than your run-of-the-mill geek. This doesn’t mean they can outscore you in Mass Effect 3 Multiplayer. It does mean they’re not fakes.

Now, despite what I said earlier I have run into one other group of people at Cons. Especially at RadCon, there are people who are there just because they’ve heard it’s a good party. Party People aren’t fake geeks either, because they’re not even making an effort. They paid for their badges to get access to room parties. Are they a problem? I think so. Are they fake geeks? Nope.

So what are we really concerned with? The idea seems to be that attractive women don’t get to be geeks. After all, we geek guys have long salved our wounded manhood with the idea that our extensive knowledge of Spiderman comics makes us awesome despite the fact that we look and smell funny. If someone can be attractive *and* intelligent (in the way that we define it,) that challenges our manhood, and makes us desperate to prove that an attractive person, especially a woman, is our inferior. Frankly, that’s pretty pathetic. We can and should be better than that.

Why you sound stupid when you talk about gun policy.

In the wake of recent mass shootings and sobering statistics about the phenomenon in general, I’ve done a fair bit of soul-searching on the concept of gun rights. The problem seems to be that I’m the only one. While I’ve undertaken a serious examination of the philosophical and policy issues here and have yet to come to a conclusion I’d consider final, the reaction on both sides of the political divide on the subject is to instantly spout off all over the intertubes with the same tired talking points. No thought. No consideration. Just the pavlovian response to the reporting of gun violence and the pavlovian counter-response to that response.

Let’s start with the big one: The Second Amendment. The Second Amendment is like the Debt Ceiling, a unique feature of American Government that the rest of the developed world sees as singularly stupid.

A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Note the odd use of commas, by the way. English was *different* back then.

Liberals* sound stupid when they talk about gun policy, and the second amendment particularly, because they tend to focus on that “militia” bit (and then fail to notice or promptly forget its implications,) or worse, the word “regulated.”

By now, many Liberals will have picked up that the word “regulated” is being used in an archaic sense that means “trained.” It refers in a roundabout way to (among other things) the effectiveness of a militia in doing violence. More lethal is better. It is not a call for tight control of weapons, which explains why gun laws weren’t really a thing we had in the first century or so of this country’s history.

But many of you have that message, so let’s talk about that militia bit, the “prefatory clause” in lawyer-speak. As English is ordinarily understood, the prefatory clause has no impact on the meaning of the other bit, the “operative clause.” It introduces and explains the operative clause, but does not necessarily change what it means.

The operative clause? The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Which brings us to why conservatives* sound stupid when they talk about the Second Amendment. In accordance with the then-popular thought on such matters, the Bill of Rights does not establish or create rights. It merely recognizes existing natural rights. Thus the completely non-obvious question: “Precisely what right do the people have to keep and bear arms?”

An important note on terminology is that while “keep and bear arms” is a relatively unique phrasing, “bear arms” has a very specific idiomatic meaning, ultimately taken from a similar latin phrase. “To bear arms” is not to walk around with a gun for hunting or for self-defense or because it makes you feel manly or pretty or for absolutely any other reason at all. “To bear arms” is to serve with a body of armed men in conflict against an armed foe. “Bearing arms” is military service, and nothing else.

“Keeping arms” is merely owning them. There’s nothing about the phrasing of the Second Amendment to suggest that the government should not be able to direct (as appropriate) where and how guns should be stored.

But a less clear limitation on the recognized natural right is that it only recognizes the right to own legal weapons (and perhaps only for legitimate purposes.) If a weapon is generally banned, a citizen would have no right to own it. The Second Amendment seeks only to protect people from specific disarmament. Even then it has clear limits.

As a society, we revoke several of the individual rights of certain classes of people. Felons, for example, may not vote. Neither felons nor the insane may legally buy guns. Even the most severe of civil libertarians is unlikely to hold forth on the specific right of violent felons to procure and keep weapons.

Perhaps more important are the rights not recognized. The Second Amendment recognizes (fine) an individual right to keep arms, but it does not recognize or guarantee the right to purchase, manufacture, or transport either any specific class of arms to say nothing of arms generally.

So now that we’ve established what the Second Amendment does (recognizes a limited individual right to own weapons, justified but not limited by the requirements of a civil militia) and doesn’t (pretty much anything else) do, let’s move on.

Conservatives sound like idiots when they talk about gun control because they’re worried about confiscation. The problem is that none of the ideas being seriously bandied about the beltway is even a prelude to confiscation. American Government loves its grandfather clauses, and so the weapons you own now, or will own right up until any new ban is initiated will probably continue to be perfectly legal. Like machine-guns manufactured before 1986.

Liberals sound like idiots when they talk about gun control because they’re worried about “assault weapons.” Not only is this idea not useful from a policy standpoint, it runs directly afoul of the stated intent of the Second Amendment.

The general idea of the late, much-lamented/unlamented federal ban on assault weapons was to “get military-style weapons off our streets.” To this end, it targeted a number of cosmetic features with no real impact on the lethality of the weapon, and several specific weapons by name. It was wholly useless not only because of a lack of functional implication but because these weapons had never been heavily used in gun crime.

Look, the typical incident of “gun violence” has one shooter and one victim. They are even often the same person (yes, “gun violence” often includes suicide.) Rates of fire and ammunition capacity are not a factor when you’re killing a single person at an intimate distance. For that matter, neither is accuracy. A 19th century ball-and-cap Colt revolver is every bit as efficacious for this purpose as is a Thompson submachine gun. Heck, if you’re killing two or three people, the Thompson isn’t going to improve your effectiveness a whole lot, and the Thompson is lacking in the most important feature of criminal firearms. It’s actually pretty easy to spot. With its long, heavy barrel and rifle-style stock, you’re not going to be hiding it in your pants. You’d need a violin case or a pretty impressive-looking hat. ARs and AKs are, in turn, a lot harder to conceal.

So a typical murdering gun is a pistol. It isn’t a big one with fancy features, it’s a cheap one that’s easily concealed. It’s not legally owned by the shooter, either. Even if you could get “Assault Weapons” off the street entirely, the idea that it would have a meaningful impact on crime is laughable.

Early efforts at gun control focused (appropriately) on “gangster” weapons — machine guns and short-barreled shotguns. These were not the weapons of home defense, hunting, militia service (assault rifles were not then common in formed infantry units, so sending a militia to war with bolt-action hunting rifles and breech-loading shotguns didn’t seem entirely absurd yet,) or even suicide. They were the weapons of organized crime, and the people of the time could hardly be blamed for wanting to be rid of them in the wake of prohibition and the gang-violence that came with it. Such weapons had no legitimate purpose.

Back to that “militia” thing. We don’t really have those in the US anymore. Oh sure, the National Guard is technically an “organized militia” (even if in most respects it operates like a standing army — semi-permanent formations, equipment provided by the government, lengthy overseas deployments that can be extended indefinitely…) and there’s a large “unorganized militia” comprising just about every swinging dick of fighting age in the good old U S of A, but for all intents and purposes the militia system is entirely defunct.

A militia, you see, is an ad hoc unit of light infantry formed on a temporary basis and discharged after a pre-defined period of service. A militiaman is expected to provide his (that’s just how old the idea is) own equipment. Imagine, if you will, private citizens carrying their own guns to war. That’s the militia system the Second Amendment is talking about and indeed expecting; and while it’s defunct and probably obsolete, if it were to exist today a militia would need a certain type of weapon. Militiamen would need military weapons. That is to say, (illegal) machine-guns, probably with (banned for a decade from 1994 to 2004 to no obvious purpose or use whatsoever) military-style cosmetic features. Criminals do not need such weapons and don’t have much use for them.

There are a couple of other Liberal tropes:

“You can have as many muzzle-loading muskets as you want if you’re in the militia.” Well, that’s actually kind of sexist (see above, the militia includes *males* of fighting age,) plus, muzzle-loading muskets are actually pretty lethal. Pretty solid for the average murder or suicide, really. Except the length, but pistols were also common in 1776.

Regardless, that’s an unreasonable reading of the Second Amendment. Modern militias would need modern weapons, and if the Second Amendment is really obsolete, we should probably repeal or amend it rather than ignoring it. This country once amended the constitution to ban alcohol. Don’t tell me it can’t be done.

“We should regulate guns like we regulate cars.” Anyone, regardless of mental health status, regardless of criminal history, regardless of licensing or skills, can own a car. They’re not even required to be registered, and there are no important laws restricting their manufacture. Even the regulations around their sale focus on safety and environmental features. If we regulated guns like we regulate cars, all regulatory burdens would be on manufacturers, anyone at all could buy them without a waiting period or a backgroud check.

As a civil libertarian and a member of a population that’s at least as rural as it is suburban, I am sympathetic to the idea that personal autonomy should not be restricted without sufficient cause. However, when such cause exists, it becomes a matter of balancing rights. In this case, the right to life against the right of gun owners to avoid onerous restrictions.

The use of guns and the problem with them are the same: They are exceptionally efficient tools for killing animals, including medium-sized ones like humans and other apes. If you come from a culture where guns are common, and you have an impulse to kill something, there’s a substantial chance you’ll reach for a gun. perhaps especially if you’re trained in their use.

Even if that something is *you*. Suicides are most often the result of a transitory impulse. If not acted effectively on, that impulse would pass and a person who was just tempted to end their life could go on to be an award-winning film director. Getting guns out of people’s homes (or just stored separately from their ammo!) would make effective suicide a much greater bother.

Homicides, likewise, are often the result of a transitory impulse and while you can kill a guy with your bare hands, it’s certainly a lot easier (and generally faster) with a gun.

Mass shootings are one part suicide and several parts homicide. While we probably can’t do all that much about the suicide (these guys are *planners*,) we might be able to limit the homicide. Statistically, mass shootings are a much smaller problem (by several orders of magnitude) than suicide or ordinary homicide, even in the world capital (U!S!A!) but any death is a tragedy and most of us don’t like seeing dead kids on the teevee. There’s a danger we’d just end up with a different flavor of mass killing (the worst school massacre to date, by the way, only peripherally involved a gun. It was done with explosives,) but it might not hurt too much to try.

Violent crime is dropping anyway and might not drop faster if we had more tightly controlled guns, but gun fatalities might. Accidents are a thing too. Guns are dangerous. Regulating them is not terribly unreasonable. We regulate everything *else* we percieve as dangerous.

And the opposing argument?

It’s usually some long-winded, highly-principled, and almost entirely off-topic rant involving freedom and tyranny. And sometimes hunting or sport-shooting.

But let’s face it: cracking down on straw purchases isn’t going to meaningfully impact your hunting. Restricting secondary sales isn’t going to meaningfully impact your hunting. Banning large-capacity magazines or even semi-automatics really isn’t going to put that much of a damper on your hunting. Ditto competitive shooting. Ditto home defense. A revolver kills a home-invader just as dead as an automatic.

And defense against tyranny? That’s really just a fantasy anyway, both the tyranny itself and the your ability to stop it in case I’m wrong.

“You can pry my weapons from my cold, dead hands.”

Ask yourself: is this really a thing you think the government can’t do? The Constitution can be amended. The current balance of power between you and your like-minded cousins vs the US Army looks pretty dicey. Is this really the cross you want to die on? Because we might just be cool with that.

Short of a general breakdown of society, what use are your anti-tyranny weapons, anyway? I know you think you’re the re-incarnation of George Fucking Washington, and the Revolutionary War was part skill, but even if you’re not deluding yourself about being the world’s greatest strategist it was also part luck, and it was ultimately a matter of social change. Parliament didn’t really want to fight the Colonies. Meanwhile, if our militias weren’t quite up to the standards of professional mercenaries, they at least had comparable weapons. Not always military-type muskets (there were a lot of hunting and fowling pieces — basically, rifles and shotguns,) but black-powder weapons that weren’t too far from the military state of the art.

You already lost that fight. You can’t have a tank. You can’t have a fighter/bomber. You can’t have a surface to air anything, or any kind of guided missile. You can’t even have a machine-gun. Those fights were lost long ago. When revolutions succeed in the modern world, they succeed in failed states and are usually carried out in large part by the military. In the advanced world, changing leadership is what elections are for. If you’re so worried about tyranny, maybe you should work on making those more “free and fair” rather than fretting about your nonexistent ability to repulse a nuclear-armed government by force.

I’ve probably forgotten something. If you’d like to present a stupid argument for me to tear apart, leave a comment. Hate-mail is also appreciated. For that matter, I’ve been known to be wrong from time to time. But beware hasty corrections. You might just be feeding into the second request.

*Actually, this isn’t a Liberal/Conservative (even if our uses of those words weren’t already horrifically mangled) or left/right issue so much as it’s an urban/rural issue. Rural people are unconcerned with gun violence and see weapons as useful or essential tools in their everyday lives. Urban people see only the scourge of their streets. These are different worlds, and the most sane policy here is probably to let each live in their own world and craft appropriate policies. Nevertheless, I will use these terms as they are a convenient, if inaccurate, shorthand for the two radical positions I’m complaining about.

So, where the hell have you been?

Xanga tells me that the last entry was the first I have posted since 1-14-2011. I believe it.

If anyone is still paying attention to this space, it’s possible they’re wondering why I fell silent, as opposed to
making my then-usual irregular updates.

There are a few answers to that question. In ascending order of importance, they are Google Plus, Facebook, and

I was initially intrigued by the possibilities of Google Plus, and still enjoy it quite a bit. It seemed like a good
place to post extended rants (one of two things I used to do here) because of its whole no-length-limit Facebook-
and-also-Twitter deal. The only reason I’m back now is that G+’s community isn’t quite answering to my hopes, and
people often can’t be bothered to go there just to read what I have to say. Basically, Xanga (as a proper blogging
site) seems to be a little more accessible.

Facebook turned out to serve the other use I made of blogging better. When I started out, this was mostly a forum
for me to post updates on my life to friends and family. Facebook is actually *designed* for that sort of thing, and
most of my friends and family are there (and have been for a while,) making that use of this blog irrelevant.

Now the big one. I suffer from Major Depressive Disorder (MDD,) as someone who read my old ersatz-Facebook posts
might have been able to guess. This had gone untreated most of my life and generally manifested as a few months
every year where I basically shut down and snapped at people a lot. Last year, my periodic bout of depression never
stopped. At some point, I just stopped writing. Anything aside of the odd comment on Facebook or a blog just seemed
too daunting. I haven’t written code in so long, I don’t remember when the last time was.

But I’m finally fighting back. Therapy and antidepressants seem to be doing their thing, and there’s a future in
sight where I might be a functional human being again. Look, I’m already writing.

Unemployment and the Problem of Abundance

One of the foundational assumptions of economic theory is that human wants are unlimited. In concept, no matter how much we produce, it would never be enough to sate our avarice.

In practice, of course, human wants are actually large but limited. There are only so many hours in a day, you can only drive so many cars, can only eat so much food, etc. There is a fundamental upper limit to how much you can usefully spend (and, for what it’s worth, this limit is well below the income of your average billionaire.)

So what happens when a society is finally positioned to make as much stuff as everybody not only needs but wants?

It turns out there’s actually a fair amount of theory trying to deal with a very specific market failure, where the Market Clearing Assumption doesn’t produce the expected result. This theory, developed by John Maynard Keynes and others, revolves around labor markets and the mystifying problem of unemployment. According to the Market Clearing Assumption, you see, involuntary unemployment (that is, unemployment) can’t exist. Any labor on offer would be sold at whatever price the market would bear.

And yet, unemployment clearly does exist. There are a couple of explanations: markets aren’t as perfect as they’re modeled as being. Finding work can take time (frictional unemployment) and changes in the overall economy may render the skills of some workers irrelevant or unneccessary (structural unemployment,) in turn requiring time to retrain. But there is a third type of unemployment (cyclical unemployment) that simply results from a notionally temporary excess of labor.

Consider, though, a society that can still live comfortably while in this depressed condition. The usual remedy (fiscal extravagance to increase aggregate demand) would seem to be inappropriate. Why have workers dig and fill holes simply because we have nothing else for them to do?

Because labor-saving devices only get more and more effective as time goes on, and because human wants are not truly unlimited, this situation would seem to be inevitable on a long enough timeline. Indeed, the middle-class lifestyle of the First World is already frequently criticized for overconsumption, even as the more enlightened economists scream from the rooftops that we must spend more to put people back to work.

But if your problem as a society is not that you don’t produce enough but that you have an excess of labor, shouldn’t you reconsider the foundational morality of the idea that everyone should work? Involuntary employment, after all, is the definition of slavery.

Why should people be forced to work or starve if society doesn’t need them to?

Everything you know (about Investment and Saving) is wrong.

One of the largest sectors of our economy is this thing we call Wall Street or the Stock Market. Most people don’t know a great deal about it, except that that’s where something called “high finance” is and that’s where people go to get rich. What we think happens there is a thing called “investment.”

We are wrong.

Investment is Spending.

From an economic perspective, investment (the kind that drives our economy) is spending money on a needed good or service. If the value of what you get exceeds what you paid for it, that’s a “good investment” or, in layman’s terms, a “good deal” or even a “steal.” (indeed, the difference in value implies a market failure ultimately comparable to fraud.) If the value of what you get is exceeded by what you paid for it, you’ve been “taken for a ride,” or perhaps you’re just “a moron.” It’s a bad investment.

But with the money you paid for the good or service, the person who provides it is able to provide more of it, thus you have invested in his business.

Stocks are Money.

Stocks don’t work like that. Stocks are a kind of loan, used to create (conceptually short-term) capital for business investment. As with virtually any modern loan, the owner of a stock collects a kind of interest called a dividend, and (conceptually at least) stands to recover the whole value of the loan (and in the best case, far more.) Far from investing, he has created a source of virtually free money.

The guy who sold the stock (borrowed the money) hopefully does invest it, buying the goods and services he needs to buy goods and services. If not, the value of the stock will collapse, and its owner will be unable to recover the money he paid for it. Think of the dot com bubble.

But these situations are uncommon enough that the present value of a person’s stocks is included along with his bank balances and other salable assets when computing or estimating his Net Worth. Bill Gates, for example, owns a lot of loans. That’s what makes him rich, thus those loans are money, as much so as the green-tinted picture of George Washington you’ve got in your wallet. (And if you don’t have a dollar bill in your wallet, may His Noodly Appendage preserve you.)

Stockpiling Money is Saving.

Normally when you accumulate wealth, we call it saving. Putting money in a bank, for example, isn’t investing. Economists are only different in that they call an accumulation of money saving in all cases. This is hardly surprising since, for their purposes, buying a stock is really no different than making a deposit at your local credit union. Just as in that case, you collect interest and expect to recover the full value you paid for the stocks. If you don’t, you were “taken for a ride.” Or are just “a moron.”

Top income earners save more.

And here’s where we get to the point where there’s any disagreement between economists or political parties. As it happens, people who make more money on average spend more of it. That’s because having money doesn’t create proportional demand in the economic sense. Human wants may be unlimited, but how many cars do you really need? And thus how many will you really consume? After my fifth car, I’d start to be a lot less interested in them, and it turns out that humans generally agree with me.

Low income earners spend huge portions of their income — sometimes several times their take-home pay — chiefly because the basic expenses of life cannot be dispensed with. You can’t live without food, you need a place to live, etc. etc. etc. Through loans, the young (more than the genuinely poor) are able to get what they need in exchange for the promise that they will pay it back at some later date.

Give a bum a fiver, and he’ll spend it.

Now, think of all the affluent people you know or have heard of. How many have a bank account? A 401K? Mutal funds or CDs? Thousands or millions or billions of dollars in the stock market?

How many of them spend as large a part of their take-home pay on cheddar cheese (for example) as you do?

People with more money save more of it. This much is obvious if you think about it, but apparently the first guy to really think about it was John Maynard Keynes, whose Consumption Function underlies the modern economic understanding of the Great Depression.

Saving is (sometimes) bad.

A certain amount of saving is good. Savings allow people to buy what they need even when they can’t afford it without going into debt, and on a macroeconomic level can help to smooth out the rough spots in the Business Cycle.

But there’s a trade-off. Money that’s saved isn’t being invested immediately, and so the demand backing the market’s supply is reduced. That in turn limits the overall supply in a market and the really bad news is that people are less eager to spend (tend to save rather than investing) when money is tight.

And what all that means is that a temporary fluctuation can send an economy into a virtually uncontrollable tailspin, like the Great Depression.

Welfare is (mostly) good.

And what that means in turn is that giving or returning money to the people who still have it is the least effective way of actively stimulating an economy. Far more effective than any tax cut ever is the simple concept of Unemployment Insurance. When workers are out of work, the government gives them money to keep them going (investing) until they can find work. This, along with other welfare policies, provides an automatic stimulus effect that helps to stop something like the Great Depression from happening again.

So safety nets for citizens are also a safety net for the economy.

Stock trading is fraud.

One does not get rich, in this economy or any other, through hard work. After all, humans are (no matter what you may have been told) largely interchangeable. There are occasional differences in the market value of people’s labor, but those differences are in fact relatively minor and often temporary. The exceptions are people with rare characteristics that give them a uniquely valuable talent. I like to refer to these (such as champion athletes) as “circus freaks.” But even these don’t get into the real top registers of practical wealth by work alone.

The only way, in any economy, to get truly rich is by taking money from the people around you through unequal exchanges of value. There are essentially three ways to create such unequal exchanges: fraud, market distortions, and coercion.

While coercion is a real going concern in the modern world, governments do much to mitigate its use (which is either illegal or should be) by private citizens. Those who do strike it rich through successful use of coercion are generally regarded as (highly successful) criminals. They usually are not billionaires.

Market distortions can make a working man or a businessman rich, and are perhaps the real bread and butter of a businessman’s trade. Nevertheless, they tend to be mercurial, and it’s a rare person who’s reached billionaire status through business acumen alone.

True rich people get rich and stay rich in the stock market, selling their loans to others for more than they’re worth and buying loans from others at less than they’re worth. It should go without saying that nothing of value is created in this process. It merely allows one person who is shrewder or luckier to pick the pocket of his fellows. This is some people’s entire job or career, and yet we do not regard these people as deviants or criminals.

I am at a loss to determine why.



Everything you know (about tax cuts) is wrong.

One of the oddest ideas of America’s economic right-wing (the so-called supply siders) is the notion that by reducing tax rates, the government can increase tax revenues. On the surface, this seems plainly bonkers. It’s such a deranged notion that iconic one-term Republican President George Bush called it “voodoo economics,” insinuating in his fashion that there was no reason to expect it to work. So why is this crazy idea so widely accepted and preached?

It turns out it’s based (with a few problematic twists and turns) on a fairly sober economic theory. This original idea is called the Laffer Curve, pictured below:

Famously making his calculations on the back of a diner napkin, economist Arthur Laffer (most significantly a Reagan economic advisor) sketched out his curve (representing tax revenues) on the basis of three notions:

1) If the tax rate is 0%, no one pays taxes. Or rather everyone does, but 0% of anything is nothing.

2) If the tax rate is 100%, no one pays taxes. Because presumably they would rather set fire to anyone attempting to collect taxes at that rate.

3) There is some point between 0% and 100% (he called it t*%) at which tax revenues are optimized — extraction is perfectly balanced with disincentivization and the government is getting as much money out of the economy as it possibly can.

The only one of these notions that’s even remotely controversial is the second, and the controversy is so mild as to be entirely negligible.

Laffer made three crucial mistakes in the construction of his curve:

1) He assumed there was only one optimum position.

2) He drew the curve as a parabola.

3) He tried to explain the curve to a bunch of simpletons.

There’s no reason to suppose that the curve would have the gentle regularity of a parabola, nor to suppose that only one optimum taxation point exists. There’s certainly no reason to suppose that t* would lie precisely in the middle between 0% and 100%. But the mistake made by the simpletons is far more grave. They accepted the notion that the current tax rate was well to the right of t*. History has shown that it was not.

 Now some of you have been following me thus far, you know these “voodoo economics”  were a cornerstone of Reagan’s campaign in 1980 and that he slashed the top marginal rate by a full 20% in 1981. You may even have been taught that this action was responsible for the economic recovery of the 1980s.

You have been mislead.

So what did happen when Reagan cut taxes in 1981? Tax revenues dropped, the economy hit the second dip of a double-dip recession, and Ronald Reagan never cut taxes again, aggressively raising them throughout the remainder of his career. The economy didn’t recover until his second term in 1986, and probably through no fault of his.

Nevertheless, “tax cuts increase revenues/help the economy” is firmly cemented in the deranged psyche of the American right, when that’s not even what Laffer said in the first place.

He said that, under certain conditions (which, for the record, have never been shown to exist in the “western” world) it was possible to increase tax revenues by cutting tax rates.


Memories of Commander Shepard

I loved Mass Effect. And when I say I loved it I mean that the second I picked it up I played it with a fervor and intensity I have rarely bestowed upon any game. I interrupted what was to be a long chain of accomplishment-completing Dragon Age: Origins playthroughs for what I thought would be a short break and haven’t picked DA:O (which I am also quite fond of) since.

Mass Effect had everything I had long been missing in my games: Spaceships, Guns, Swashbuckling Adventure, Hot Blue Alien Chicks, and all wrapped in a compelling Bioware story somehow set in a Space Opera world somehow as deadly as it was silly. Even the morality system was….different. And that in a good way. I had been hesitant to pick up Mass Effect on release, convinced (and frequently vindicated in my belief that) the Shooter and RPG game genres were too diverse to be successfully merged. What someone forgot to tell me is that for all they talked about it, Bioware didn’t even try.

Mass Effect is a shooter, full stop. It has some elements typical of RPGs, but it doesn’t let them get in the way of just blastin’ stuff. It is, in short, Bioware’s idea of a shooter. And it’s immensely fun. Note however that I still want an RPG with spaceships.

Don’t get me wrong, Mass Effect had its flaws: cumbersome inventory system, minimalistic level design (only the mission worlds and the citadel have any real depth and even they’re missing something,) and numerous typical Bioware RPG flaws that just carried on over. But it was the most fun I’d had in years.

So I picked up Mass Effect 2. And to clarify, I loved it. Better than Mass Effect in many ways.

But Mass Effect 2 had its issues.

The most painful moment of my ME2 experience was when I imported my old save, watched an interminable and largely uninteresting cut-scene that managed to simultaneously show and trivialize the death of the ship I had grown to love, and found that none of my lovingly collected and selected hardware had carried over. Though I had to some extent expected it, I was the wrong kind of sad when Maggie Shepard died without a face in the armor she had discarded less than ten minutes into the first ME planetary excursion.

And then of course her arch-nemesis Cerberus resurrected her at immense cost. But what do you expect? This is a universe where there is an entire species of asexual blue-skinned aliens (Not to mention, as of ME2, apparently every other sapient species in the galaxy) somehow manage not only just to have breasts with nipples about where humans normally expect them but to be totally sexually compatible with humanity. And then I’m railroaded into working with a shockingly well-funded terrorist organization. For the good of humanity. To say this plot made somewhat less sense than ME’s is roughly like saying that stars are somewhat larger than planets — generally something of an understatement.

But okay, the new ship’s nice, even if they did insult the old one by naming it after her. And Miranda’s kinda pretty I guess (she doesn’t like girls, but what are you gonna do?) and after a bit of tinkering, I got the new armor looking okay, and I’m good to go.

But I have some problems:

1) Why are my bullets so slow? In ME they were fast projectiles, generally hitting exactly what I aimed at exactly when I pulled the trigger. In ME2, I can actually see them flying at the target, where they often miss because the enemy has moved.

2) Where is the Mako?! I loved the Mako. Sure, its controls were a bit wonky and the planets a bit bland and empty, but it was fun to drive and fun to fight with.

3) Why am I suddenly in charge of scanning planets? Don’t I have people for that?! In ME, I pressed a button and presto! Scanning done. Expanding a single button-push into a tedious mini-game is a bad idea.

4) I thought Joker was still the pilot. Why am I now flying the ship? And why is it now a little cartoon ship that has its own weird physics? Back in ME, I just clicked on where I wanted to go and we just went there. Vastly preferable.

5) Tiered character advancement is kinda neat, but options now seem sparse and meticulous planning necessary to get the most out of a relatively few character points.

6) Thermal Clips?! If the opening cutscene was the most painful experience in ME2, these were the most baffling. In ME1 we kept our guns cool and firing without these confusing doodads, and we generally brought as much of whatever we needed to the mission with us, rather than relying on the enemy to drop it.

7) Wherever Bioware had two choices on how to simplify a game mechanic they picked the wrong one. Morality and Persuasion (Charm/Intimidate) were both good concepts, but linking them into a kind of feedback loop was bad. So Bioware kept the feedback loop and lost the skills. Electronics and Decryption were good concepts, but their associated minigames were annoying. So Bioware dumped both and brought in different minigames instead. So every Soldier is now an expert hacker.

8) Ammo Powers. It’s either ammo (in which case anyone can use it) or it’s a power (in which case it’s not ammo.) It’s not both. Soldiers can have real skills/powers. “I know how to use freeze ammo” is the lamest superpower ever.

9) We’ve gotten rid of the need to accumulate loot, so why is my campaign for the salvation of the galaxy still basically funded by petty larceny and theft?

10) Almost no variety in equipment. There are like three guns (at best) of any one type, and only two or three types of armor for each location. DLCs make things worse, not better, generally offering a piece of equipment (with free irritating Illusive Man E-Mail) you start the game with and would be stupid not to always use. Also, Shep has apparently forgotten to take off her helmet.

11) The suicide mission wasn’t anything of the sort. Everyone (including me) lived. And I wasn’t even trying. It took me some serious Internet searching to figure out how to screw it up.

But so, it was a fun movie even if it had no lesbian love interest and wasn’t much of a game. So I go poking around on line to find something to get excited about concerning the sequel.

And that’s where I find out how ME2 got the way it was.

I have to say, folks, did we play completely different games? Yes, skills effected accuracy in ME, but Shep was still a badass at Level 1. I never had any trouble hitting things. Your shooter skillz are teh lame.

And I *loved* the Mako. Not saying ME2’s level design wasn’t better off without it, but I sure did miss it.

Everything you know (about the free market) is wrong.

One of the problems in American politics today is that a lot of people are advocates for what they think is the free market. They’ve been taught that creating one will build an economy that requires no management, and simply works on its own, instantly producing (through the action of something called the Invisible Hand) the best solutions to every possible problem. Don’t laugh. This is serious economic theory and it’s something a large number of fairly serious academics (to say nothing of lunatic radicals) actually believe. And it’s actually true. The problem is that most people advocating for free markets are speaking a language they don’t understand. They know what the effects of a Free Market are, but they don’t know what a Free Market is.

Free Beer

The fundamental thing that’s confusing is the word “free.” This has several meanings, the most important of which are what the free software community refer to as “free as in freedom” and “free as in free beer.” The first is the human right of reasonably unencumbered agency or action, liberty in other words. The other is exactly what it says on the tin: Getting things without paying for them. Americans are very fond of both usages, but the first is more popular in American politics. Unfortunately, as it happens, the “Free” in “Free Market” is a kind of Free Beer.

A Free Market is one in which three conditions exist:

-There is no cost to enter the market.

-There is no cost to exit the market.

-There is no cost to continue in the market.

This creates a condition that economists fancifully term “perfect competition.” It’s called this because there is no longer any tactical aspect to the market. No means now exist to drive a competitor from the market. The only things that matter to profitability are the popularity (not to say quality) of a product and the efficiency with which it can be produced.

All the World’s a Stage

Of course, as it would happen, we need one more thing to summon the Invisible Hand and imbue it with its mystical agency. That thing is called a “microeconomic actor” and it’s a truly bizarre critter. It’s a very simplified economic model of a human being, and as soon as I describe it for you, you should immediately spot the problems with it.

A microeconomic actor is a being who:

-Always acts with enlightened self-interest

-Has resources

Now the problem, for the 30% of the class that missed it, is that humans are neither enlightened nor self-interested enough to fit the bill. As a matter of fact, humans are stupid, gullible, and altruistic. Only the last is seen as a virtue, and the first two are an absolute disaster when set loose in the Free Market. As it happens, not all humans have resources either, but that’s mostly their problem, except for the altruism thing.

There is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

Of course, laying aside the inadequacies of humans for a moment, we still have to deal with the problem of where Free Beer comes from. You may have heard that nothing in life is free. It’s true, and the Laws of Thermodynamics demand that it be so. This is obviously going to be a problem of implementation for our Free Market. Fortunately we have something that is an outside actor as far as our economic system is concerned. We call that thing a “Government.”

Governments can cause economies to reach a reasonable approximation of perfect competition (let’s call it “good competition”) by simply thwacking any entity that gets large enough. It turns out governments are good at this, since their only tool (which they exist to create and protect a monopoly on) is coercion. Because no entities are large, none have the leverage necessary to dominate a market and drive away competitors. Of course, that still leaves significant problems with entry and exit costs*. Governments can limit these to varying degrees by providing entities looking to enter or exit the market with grants, loans, and subsidies to limit their costs. The funds for these of course must be provided through various acts of thuggery and extortion, which governments happen to be good at. These of course need to be as market-neutral as possible. This gives us what I’ll call “better competition,” but do note that it’s still not perfect.

If governments do none of these things, far from “unshackling” the Invisible Hand, they have all but cut it off.

Chasing Unicorns

So now we have Better Competition, but we still don’t have any source of microeconomic actors. Fortunately, through the magic of government intervention, we can create a better approximation of one than your garden-variety human. If microeconomic actors are unicorns, these are more like horses, so through the powers of analogy and bad punnery, I hereby pronounce them (since I am unaware of a term for them) microequinomic actors. Humans are stupid, but they can learn. To serve this end, governments must provide for the education of people it wants to be active in markets (read: everybody.) You could call this practice “compulsory universal education” if you like. Punishing stupidity and dishonesty (while rewarding intelligence and honesty) further help to curb the effects of these human failings. Altruism’s effects can be curbed by providing those without it with additional resources to account for it.

To the extent that governments fail to protect humans from their fundamental failings, the Invisible Hand is shackled to the very limited abilities of those who are active in markets.

It should go without saying that the funding for these actions must necessarily be provided through acts of market-neutral thuggery and extortion.

Free Markets vs. Freedom

By now we’ve got a lot of thuggery and extortion going on, and you might rightly feel somewhat disquiet about it if you come from the nation whose unofficial motto was and is “Don’t tread on me.” Unfortunately, perfect freedom is as unachievable in fact as free beer. You may already be aware that individual rights can conflict, but there is a further problem that no one is truly free if there are things he must do or that he cannot do.

Shackles are affixed to our agency through the very bodies we inhabit. We must eat to live, at the very least, and our bodies can break down and become diseased, leaving us in a pitiful state which is a mockery of freedom. We have further shackles in our minds, a common morality that tells us we must sacrifice for others, if only our spouses, our spawn, or our friends.

Wealth grants us power to overcome the weaknesses of flesh and discharge the duties we impose upon ourselves, but the only ways of creating wealth require shackles and the best ways of creating wealth need government interference.

So in the end, we find that freedom isn’t free (and not in the way you thought, either,) and that the people who want to create a free market are in reality doing their level best to destroy the best approximation of one our deeply flawed system of government (created and enacted by stupid, gullible, altruistic humans) has been able to create.



*If you were wondering, starvation is an exit cost.


Oh hell, here I go again.

I wasn’t thinking clearly over the summer and my SAP appeal is late and may not be approved because I forgot to ask my doctor to write me a note when I went in to see him earlier this month.

So that sucks.

I’ve been getting more and more emotional for a while now, I was in an apparently moderation-worthy dust-up on classicbattletech (and have voluntarily exiled myself from the site until the matter is resolved, either by a reversal of the Official Warning or by a year going by to clear it,) and I’ve just been getting surlier and surlier since. I can feel myself slipping into a debilitating depression and the thing is that I have no real way to stop myself when something like this happens.

So it’s going to suck to be me, or to be around me, for a while.

I apologise in advance for anything I’m going to say and in retrospect for anything I’ve already said because I just hate myself and the world right now.