Summer Symphony, First Movement

1806200-bigthumbnailThis has been a momentous year for me, and a challenging one in terms of absorbing change. As you all know, Marta and I moved to California in June, and while it’s been a wonderful move — we love it here — everything is different. Well, not everything. But a lot.

I also changed employers, and with that change, ran headlong into a major project with difficult deadlines that has had me climbing walls learning. Even things I used to know are no longer useful: they switched from Linux Centos6 to Centos7, and that threw everything I thought I knew about starting boot processes on Linux right out the window.

On the musical front, I’ve been learning to play a whole new orchestra. None of my old chops are of much use, and while the instruments are better-sounding overall (though the oboe sucks), they are less forgiving. That has lead to reading a book about real sound mixing — which is an utterly overwhelming black art. Comb-filtering, anyone? And what is multing, exactly? Now, I could tell you. A lot of the thousand-and-one buttons in my digital audio workstation have suddenly been demystified. It will take time to develop any skill, however.

Anyway, I’ve gone as far as I can for the time being as a nØØb (“noob” == “newbie” == “bloody amateur”) with both the new sounds and my very rudimentary mixing skills. My endurance has run out.

So here (on the music tab) is the first movement of the Summer Symphony, my first (hopefully, not last) symphony for full orchestra. I’ve decided to release the music in installments, one movement at a time, so there are three more movements to come. All written, mind you. Just not mixed to anything like my satisfaction.

This movement is a summer’s day. Close your eyes, lean back, and let the music take you deep into your memory and imagination. Enjoy.

For the musicologists out there, there’s plenty to find. One of the things I didn’t even realize until a month or so back is that there’s a reason I’ve never been able to decide what key this movement is in. As it turns out, it isn’t in any key.

The Greeks had a number of different scales, and these were adopted into the Western tradition as “modes,” which can be illustrated by taking a C-major scale, then starting the scale on each of the notes in turn.

  • Ionian (major) – start on C
  • Dorian – start on D
  • Phrygian – start on E
  • Lydian – start on F
  • Mixolydian – start on G
  • Aolean (natural minor) – start on A
  • Locrian – start on B

Each mode has two half-tone intervals, and five whole-tone intervals: the half tones are separated by two whole tones on one side, and three on the other. Most Western music since the Renaissance has been written in either Ionian mode (also known as a “major” key), or the Aolean mode (also known as the natural minor key).

Using the C-major scale as a reference is just convenient to illustrate the idea. Not everything in a major key is written in C — you can easily have F# major, and you could just as easily have F# Locrian. What is important is where the half-tone intervals fall, but in all cases, they will be separated by two whole-tone intervals on one side, and three on the other.

[There’s one popular variant called “harmonic minor,” or sometimes “Hungarian minor,” where the seventh note of the Aolean (natural minor) scale is pushed up an additional half-tone, giving you three half-tones, and one tone-and-a-half.]

As it turns out, this movement — or the principal theme, at least — is written in a completely different mode. Like the traditional Western modes, it has two half-tone and five whole-tone intervals, but the half-tones are separated by one whole tone on one side, and four on the other.

So if you start with the C-major scale, as above, you would flat the A and the B. The overall quality is to make the lower half of the scale feel like it’s in a major key, but the upper half of the scale feel like a minor key, and contributes a kind of joy-in-sadness, or sadness-in-joy, to the melody.

I have no idea if this mode has a name, and it’s going to be a pain to score — it will probably be probably a-minor with C#’s running loose everywhere.

It turned out pretty nicely for the ear, however.

Enjoy.

Idle Hands

I’ve gone to a Colorado mountain festival called Dragonfest since 1996. It’s a Pan-Pagan gathering in the woods: a giant camp-out for five days in early August.

When the festival was started back in the 1970’s, it was much, much smaller, maybe twenty-five or thirty people, and the founders discovered the magic of shared labor — the idea that not only do many hands make light work, but that sharing the necessary work is actually a good way to have fun. It builds connection between people, it feels good, and it gets the necessities out of the way.

As the festival grew, this practice of shared labor became institutionalized as the Workshift, a two-hour duty required of all participants.

In 2001, I registered and sent in my money for Dragonfest, but then chose at the last minute to not go for entirely personal reasons (yes, it involved a woman). Come early Spring of 2002, when I was excitedly expecting news of ticket sales for the 2002 Dragonfest, I instead received a nastygram informing me that because I had failed to do my required Workshift in 2001, my registration fee would be doubled in 2002, and if I failed to do my Workshift again, I would be Banned For Life from the festival.

I wrote back to the Dragonfest Board of Directors and explained it had proven far too difficult for me to do my Workshift in 2001, given that I wasn’t there. I received a second nastygram, requesting that I prove that I had not been there.

By that point, it had become a sad farce. They eventually backed off, but the experience permanently broke something precious in my relationship with the festival; though I have continued to go, most years, it’s never been quite the same.

Entirely apart from the obvious issues with this unnecessary little drama, there has always been a deeper problem with the Workshift.

At its height, Dragonfest hosted nearly 1000 participants, and because it is a five-day event that spans a weekend, a lot of participants show up late Friday evening or Saturday morning — they have day-jobs, and many of these are jobs that don’t give them much flexibility with time off. They can — or could — even get a discounted Dragonfest “day pass” for Saturday-only attendance.

Let’s do the math.

The festival starts at 10:00 am on Wednesday, and ends at noon on Sunday. If we consider two-hour shifts scheduled from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm, we have five shifts on Wednesday, six shifts on Thursday through Saturday, and two shifts on Sunday, for a grand total of twenty-five shifts.

With 1000 participants, that means we need, on average, 40 different jobs for each shift, just to ensure that everyone has a work shift (40 x 25 == 1000). But if we assume that half the people show up on Wednesday, and the other half on Friday night, we really need 62 jobs (500 people spread over 8 shifts) on Saturday and Sunday, and only 29 jobs (the other 500 people spread over 17 shifts) on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.

We can debate whether we have even twenty-nine jobs that need to be done. I can get to a dozen easily, and to about eighteen if I really stretch. I can’t come up with twenty-nine, much less sixty-two.

What they do, of course, is to pad the employment rolls. All the jobs are at least doubled up — and it’s admittedly nice to have a partner for company when you’re on gate duty on a slow Thursday afternoon. Where one team could do the job, they assign six teams. Then they make up a lot of extra jobs, just to keep people busy doing something for their requisite Workshift.

Even padding the employment rolls, my experience over the years has been that if you show up late on Wednesday afternoon, most of the Workshifts (and all the most popular ones) have already been filled through Sunday. If you show up on Saturday, there’s no point in even looking for a Workshift.

There simply isn’t enough work at Dragonfest for everyone to do a two-hour Workshift.

But it gets even more interesting: there’s a perpetual and simmering resentment between the Operations Committee, and the general attendance.

Organizing an event for 1000 people is not trivial: there’s contracting with the site, arranging for porta-potties, notifying the county sheriff (in case someone has a heart attack and needs to be airlifted out), and I’m sure a long list of legal niceties to be negotiated. There are festival events to coordinate, fliers to print, tickets to sell, money to collect, signed waivers to cross-check, websites to maintain.

Infrastructure expands to accommodate more people and provide for their safety and comfort. For instance, in the early days, people chopped wood and made fires at night, but that was only two dozen people huddled around one fire. With forty times that many people, combined with pine beetle kill and severe fire danger in the Colorado mountains, we found that propane fire rings were safer and actually more enjoyable (all fire, no smoke). So as a safety measure for the whole community, as well as the surrounding forests, the organizers started to provide propane fire rings for the big circles. Infrastructure expands.

There is, in short, a whole lot of coordinated and specialized preparatory work that has to go into making the festival happen at all. There is also tear-down after the festival is over. Finally, there is the “authority-based” work during the festival: work to be done by the people who will step forward when someone says, “Who’s in charge here?” People-in-charge who get pestered at all hours of the day (and night) for instructions on how to handle this situation, how to deal with that individual, how to take a piss in the dark.

They call this collection of people who do this work the “Operations Committee,” and they’re always hungry for volunteers. I worked setup/teardown one year: two ten-hour days of hard physical labor: a very poor exchange for the dubious privilege of getting first-pick on prime campsites a day early.

Ops doesn’t get to enjoy Dragonfest very much, particularly those who are officially (or unofficially) on duty through the festival. So there’s a definite opportunity for them to resent the “lazy” people who just pay their fee, show up, and want to unwind in good company for five days. The required Workshift becomes, not a sharing of the necessary work — most of the necessary work is already done, or can’t be done until everyone has gone home — but instead a kind of surrogate punishment.

If I have to work twelve-hour days at Dragonfest, the least you can do is your damn two-hour Workshift, and not whine about it.” I’ve heard those resentful words many times, in many variations, from people who served on Ops. Since the Workshift is now a punishment, it’s resented by the general attendance. All the magic of shared work is gone.

Authority eventually passes into the hands of individuals who value process over people, and power over service, and tradition over common sense, and the simmering resentment boils over.

Then you get Banned for Life for missing your Workshift.

Now, I’m not really bashing Dragonfest. I’m observing a microcosmic example of something we are all living right now, on a much broader scale.

There isn’t enough profitable work in the US for full employment.

This statement turns around the word “profitable.” There is plenty of needful work. But one of the peculiarities of our time and culture is that we will neglect prudent, and sometimes even necessary work, in order to pursue frivolities that are profitable.

People complain about this from time to time. “Children are starving in America!” they cry, “We spend next to nothing on them, but spend billions to put violent comic books on the big screen in the movie theaters.”

People go through all kinds of mental and moral yoga positions trying to justify this. “Movies give people hope!” they say, or something equally inane.

The reason we make movies, and we don’t feed starving children, is quite simple — we make movies because they are profitable, and we don’t feed starving children because it is not profitable.

What does that even mean? Profitable?

In our current economic system, profitability hinges on two things: marketability, and ownership. The thing must be sold in a marketplace for more than it cost to produce it, and it must be owned by a person, or a corporate shell pretending to be a person. The fiction of ownership is what allows the owner to legally pocket the difference between the cost of production (which includes all the actual labor performed by other people), and the selling price, which is called profit.

Movies are owned by the copyright holder, and viewings can be sold. Movies are profitable.

Starving children are economically useless. You can’t own or sell them, at least not since the fourteenth amendment to the US Constitution; you can’t exploit them as cheap labor, due to child-labor laws; and you can’t make any money feeding them, because they haven’t got any money — that’s why they’re starving — and no one else has any economic interest in seeing them fed. Starving children are not profitable.

So banal movies are made, and starving children suffer brain damage from malnutrition and eventually die. [Of course, they don’t actually die, because the thieving government steps in and spends the profit it has stolen from the rightful owners through taxation, and wastes it on handouts to the starving children. Surely it’s better that they die and rid the world of surplus population. — the Ghost of Ebenezer Scrooge]

It’s the way our system works.

A brief check of the Internet shows that there are around 150 million non-farm payroll jobs in the US. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics shows only about 750 thousand agricultural jobs in the US, less than one million. So roughly half the US population (of 300 million) has no work, and no prospect of work. All positions have been filled.

About 23% of the population is under 18 years of age, and they are supposed to have parents who cover for them by working extra Workshifts. About 14% is over 65, and they are supposed to have worked enough Workshifts to cover their remaining years, with any excess years falling upon their children, or spread across the entire working population through Social Security.

That leaves about 13% who are Banned for Life. “Lazy bums” who finished last in our economic game of musical chairs.

You all remember that game, don’t you? Ten people circle around nine chairs while the music plays, and when the music stops, they all scramble for the chairs: one person ends up on the floor. That person is Banned for Life, a chair is removed, and the game resumes with nine people and eight chairs. This continues until there is only one person seated, who wins cake.

I cannot think of a more perfect metaphor for mercantile capitalism.

In fact, it can’t work any other way. In the 14th century, at the very start of mercantile capitalism in Europe, people hit a little speed bump called The Black Death, which resulted in massive agricultural labor shortages. The traditional system of hereditary serfs working the land broke down, and the land was instead worked by paid farmers, who — since there were too few of them — charged high prices. It broke the feudal system of Lords and serfs in half, and put wind under the wings of the merchant class.

If there are labor shortages — too many jobs — workers can demand higher wages, and the profit that the owner can put in his pocket from their labor shrinks. Eventually, if wages keep climbing, the business becomes unprofitable, and the owners close the doors.

If there is a labor surplus — too few jobs — workers compete with each other, and wages stay low. That makes businesses profitable, and so the owners pursue those businesses.

There can never be enough profitable businesses to employ everyone. If there were, workers would stop competing with each other, and would demand higher wages. The profit that goes into the owners’ pockets would vanish, and they would shut down some of the businesses, resulting in fewer jobs and the desired competition among workers.

It’s the way our system works.

I shrug when I say that, because there have been a great many ways of approaching wealth and labor, and our way isn’t inherently any worse than, say, being a subject (property) of the Emperor, who could decide on a whim that he needed one more rower for his galleys, and you — yes, you! — were chosen. I’ve recently been reading about the Khans, and while they had in some ways an extraordinarily fair system of government, especially under Genghis, you really didn’t want to be one of the conquered slaves who didn’t have some mad skills that Genghis admired.

But our system, good, bad, or indifferent, is coming to an end.

It isn’t something I’ve seen any economists take into account: the vast pools of natural wealth we’ve been consuming at an ever-increasing rate for five centuries, to support the concept of economic growth.

Let me propose a business for you. I will take money, burn it, and flush it down the toilet: I claim this will show a profit. The way I do this is by withdrawing — from a virtually bottomless bank account that I never talk about, and that you never think about — exactly five percent more money than I burn and flush. So if I flush $100, I withdraw $105, and at the end of my “business cycle,” I have shown a profit of $5.

So long as my bottomless bank account remains bottomless, this will continue to work. The problem comes when my bottomless account hits bottom; when I try to withdraw $105, and I get $35 and change. Uh-oh.

The endless bank account for our global economy is Nature — our natural resources, both renewable and non-renewable. It is hitting bottom, and right at about the same time that our waste products, particularly CO2, are reaching hazardous levels.

I’m not sure economists have even looked at what happens to mercantile capitalism when the endless bank account of Nature starts bouncing checks. If they’ve considered it seriously at all, I think the only phrase they would use to describe it — economically — is The End Of The World.

For the rest of us, it’s just the end of capitalism. But that is going to raise some interesting issues.

The one that I’m thinking about at the moment is the question of what happens when a really, really large portion of the population is perpetually unemployed, as a permanent feature of life.

There’s a short view, and a longer view.

In the short view, it’s going to kill a lot of people. Not so much because they’ll starve because there’s no food, but because they’ll lose the will to live without work. We’ve been trained for so long, and so deeply, to equate self-worth with work, that a lot of workers, especially the older, established ones, will turn to alcohol and give up. I think that will be the swan song of my generation, or whatever generation is in play when this finally plays out.

Subsequent generations are going to have different attitudes, toward capitalism, toward work-as-virtue, and toward deciding what is worth doing.

The longer view is a lot fuzzier.

To see what this might look like, we can’t go back to rural America — that is an artifact of the early twentieth-century. Nor can we go back to the colonial plantations and farms, which were nineteenth century artifacts. There is no European influence in the Americas that was not under the sway of the ideas of mercantile capitalism. We have to go outside our modern Western tradition: to the native tribes and nations of the Americas; to Shogunate Japan; to the Visigoths or the Romans or the Celts; to the Mongols; to the empires of China; to the villages and cities of India.

When you do that, you start to realize something shocking: that there has never been a people on the face of the earth that has worked so hard for so little real happiness, as our own.

 

 

 

The Price of Winning

The pundits say Bernie Sanders has no chance of winning the Democratic nomination, much less the Presidency. The pundits say that Bernie Sanders is unquestionably going to be our next President. The pundits say that his age is a problem. The pundits say that his age is not a problem. The pundits say that it’s all a matter of money, or timing, or demographics. The pundits say none of that matters, if the message is right.

What the pundits are saying is that the Presidency is entirely a matter of winning it.

That is, of course, an appropriate concern of a candidate’s staff. Maybe it’s a concern for the pundit class as well, pretending to be Kingmakers or perhaps merely bookies. Maybe the ability to say, “I told you so,” actually generates revenue for them.

For myself, I don’t get a million dollars or a toaster oven or even an “Attaboy!” for picking the winner, or for voting for him/her. All I get is a tiny shot at giving voice to my political will.

Should I waste my voice voting for a candidate who I believe will make the world a worse place, just because I think she might win? And maybe make the world a slightly less-worse place (or maybe a slightly more-worse place) than the other guy?

Conventional (pundit) wisdom says the 2016 election will be a choice between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Or, as in the Soviet Union that existed in my youth, a choice between Brezhnev and Brezhnev.

My political voice, reduced to two notes a quarter-tone apart, both outside my vocal range. That’s not a political voice — that’s a mumble of defeat.

No, I would rather voice my political intent and lose, than give up my voice and support a winner I didn’t want in the first place.

One thing I have learned about dealing with life is that if you don’t ask, you won’t get what you want: when you do ask, it’s surprising — to me, at least — how often you get what you ask for.

I’m going to ask for a nation in which too-big-to-fail banks are replaced by smaller community banks, where there is assurance that old age does not bring poverty, where health care is a right and not a privilege, where the drug war is over and the prison industry is defunct, where cops who brutalize and kill are prosecuted, where inflation is seen as the problem that it is, rather than a mark of a “healthy” economy, where there is a middle class that people can actually aspire to join. This is what I want to see.

I’ll get none of that with either Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan.

The $7 Bottle

After moving to California wine country, I’ve decided to become a connoisseur of the $7 bottle of wine.

2015-07-18 13.13.01The local grocery store has a pretty good wine selection, and they always have a special running of one brand or another of wine for $6.99 if you buy six bottles or more.

They even give you a cute little — well, big — six-pack holder. Only in California.

The wine shown to the right is the 2012 Menage a Trois California Red, and it is a wonderful wine. It’s a blend of Cabernet, Merlot, and Zinfandel, so there’s a little bit of everything in there: big nose, full flavor, fruity, a touch of oak, a bit of spice, and the blend is wonderful — a true household of three.

2015-07-18 13.14.32By contrast, we have the Fetzer 2013 Cabernet shown to the left, which is — well, pretty awful. First presentation is hot — acrid with alcohol — with an unpleasant bitterness combined with an unpleasant tartness. It made me wince.

I’d like to have better things to say about the Fetzer, since it is a truly local wine, from vinyards just north and just south of here. But I cannot tell a lie. Even at $6.99 a bottle, this is not a bargain.

Libertarians and Free Markets

It’s shaping up into another scorcher of a Presidential election cycle, but with the wildcard of a bona fide Socialist in the mix (who I’m voting for, by the way). That, of course, is bringing out the Libertarians in force, and I just got into a tiff with one on Facebook. It’s funny, and kind of sad, the way they assume you are ignorant if you aren’t a Libertarian, and a fool if you can’t be converted with just a few words of the disjointed “economic theory” they spray at you. If you continue to resist, they’ll call you (directly or indirectly) “stupid on steroids,” and stomp off after declaring the conversation a waste of time.

Well, it wasn’t entirely a waste of time for me: I’m getting a blog post out of it.

Let me start right off by saying that I’m no expert on Libertarianism. I view it about the same way I view Jainism, or SMBD. I know enough to know that Jainism is a form of Buddhism, and SMBD (no, not the Windows client service) is a kind of sex-play with lots of dedicated groupies. Past that, it’s a passing knowledge at best. So I’ll freely apologize if I get details wrong.

But the economic claims of Libertarians are so entirely consistent from adherent to adherent — to the point of being almost rote, like a creed — that I’ve formulated a few stock questions and responses to some of what seem to be the main claims of Libertarianism.

Free Markets are good, though they don’t exist.

One of the most bizarre beliefs of Libertarians is that Free Markets are a wonderful thing. If you challenge this, they will immediately tell you that you don’t know what you are talking about, because there has never been a Free Market in your lifetime, so how would you know? If you press the point, it turns out that there has never been a real Free Market, anywhere, in any time period. But they know that they are good, indeed, the best good of all possible goods.

Free Markets are like Unicorns. I’ve never seen one of those, either, but I’m sure they are covered with rainbows and poop sparkles and make fabulous pets.

When something that could exist doesn’t exist, there’s usually a reason for it, and if you go down that road with a Libertarian, you’ll start to hear about the Evils of Government Interference, and a lament that, “IF ONLY we could get rid of governments, we’d all live in the peace and harmony of the Free Market.” But what always throws Libertarians off their stride is to point out that we do have Free Markets, all over the place. The Libertarians simply don’t see them, because they are not, in fact, very nice at all.

A Free Market is an unregulated market. Like the heroin trade. Like the sex slave trade. Like any black market that doesn’t suffer from government regulation because, so far as the government is concerned, there is no market to regulate, just a bunch of criminals doing criminal things in the dark.

Libertarians get angry about this observation, and say that “government interference” in the form of raids and police action are relevant. But these are no more relevant — nor predictable — that an infestation of locusts for a farmer, or a steel shortage for an auto manufacturer. If you’re running a tight business, you plan around these. If government action in fact took more than a pittance of revenue away from drug dealers, they’d get out of the business: they aren’t there to sell drugs, they are there to make money.

As soon as you recognize that the Unicorn of the Free Market is ill-tempered, has a poisonous bite, and stinks of carrion, the picture gets a lot clearer.

The great Medieval marketplaces at Troyes its sister cities in Northern France did not really grow until the government started putting money into them, in the form of guards to protect vendors and customers, regulation of weights and measures, seasonal trade fairs, and market taxes to help pay for everything. The regulation is what made it worthwhile for customers and vendors to travel hundreds of miles to these markets.

A similar thing happened in 2001 in Argentina during the banking collapse — in that case, the merchants themselves came together to create “safe markets” where grand and petty theft alike would result in the offender being taken out back to “meet Jesus.” The downside of those interim markets was that you could (and did) get cheated regularly, and you were in significant danger on your way to the markets or your way home, outside the merchants’ protective umbrella. Markets did not become “free” again until the crisis was over and the government started regulating the marketplace.

Unregulated markets are a place to get robbed and cheated. Caveat emptor and caveat vendor rule. In the absence of fair marketing laws to keep a level playing field for competitors, cartels form, and collude to raise prices and “control” quality, which — often enough — serves to prevent too much quality for the cartel-set price. Independent competitors are likely to see their stalls, farms, and factories burned, and are themselves at risk of being introduced to Jesus.

I always like the example of Prohibition. Prohibition did almost nothing about the consumption of alcohol, but it created Al Capone and the unregulated liquor market. Then Prohibition was repealed, alcohol was regulated (and taxed), and Al Capone was replaced by Almaden. When was the last time you heard of a California winery being burned down by a competitor, or a wine distributor gunned down in the street?

Unregulated markets are ugly and dangerous.

High taxes are bad.

I was an independent contractor for sixteen years, and I usually ended up filing taxes in October and paying penalties because, when the tax bill came around in April, I didn’t have the fucking money. When you are in business for yourself, you see every cent you are paying the government. It ain’t cheap, and it ain’t pretty.

So no, I don’t like taxes. There are a lot of things I don’t like.

That doesn’t make them bad.

In the case of high taxes, I’m always brought up short by a remarkable series of unfortunate coincidences that look way too much like a pattern to the empirical side of my brain.

Taxes were low in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s (in fact, there was no income tax at all until 1913, when the Sixteenth Amendment was passed). They called it the Gilded Age. Bank panics were common, poverty was extreme (as was wealth), and the whole thing ended with a giant global stock market collapse that nearly destroyed the nation and large parts of the world.

In the aftermath, a weak form of democratic national socialism took the nation, and the top-bracket tax rate was raised to 90% between 1945 and 1960 — fifteen years of pure economic misery — during which we saw the most productive and economically stable period of US history: the period that conservatives like to point back to with a nostalgic smile.

In 1960, the top-bracket tax-rate dropped to 70%, and the American economy coincidentally started to unravel: this was the period during which the Steel Belt became the Rust Belt, and the small farmer was driven out of business by Big Agro. Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture under Nixon, famously said to farmers, “Get big, or get out.”

In 1980, the tax rate dropped to 50%, interest rates went up to 21%, unemployment rose to 12%, and stagflation dominated the economy. In 1988, the top tax rate dropped to 28%.

In 1992, one of the key turning points in the Presidential election was when Bill Clinton shook his head with an incredulous expression on his face during a debate, and told President George Bush Sr., “It’s the economy, stupid!” Clinton pushed the top tax rate back up to 40%, and we got the tech boom and a balanced budget.

Congress repealed Glass-Steagall in 1999 — a post-Depression regulation crafted while memories of the Crash of ’29 were still fresh — Bush II dropped the top tax rate again, and we saw an economic crash in 2008 that, though somewhat milder, can only be compared in US history to the collapse of the Gilded Age.

I can theorize all day long as to why, but there really seems to be a pattern here. Raise taxes on the rich, economy improves. Lower taxes on the rich, economy tanks. I’d frankly like to see the top tax rate — say on $10M/year or more — go to 90% for a Presidential term or two, just to watch the Libertarians tap-dance around the subject when the economy (again) improves.

Coincidentally, of course.

Government is inefficient.

And efficiency is grotesquely overrated.

Most Libertarians have never heard of the “economics of second-best.” Economists don’t tend to like to talk about it, because it brings a bunch of “externalities” into their tidy theories.

There are things that we want and even need in order to live as a community, or a nation, that no one wants to pay for. You can’t make money at it, and maybe you can’t even break even. Yet everyone benefits.

The Free Market will not touch these things. There’s no money in them.

Insurance is one of the easiest examples: after all, what kind of a business is it that wants customers who don’t need what they offer, but wants to prevent the customers who need their product from ever getting it? It’s a business with inverted economics, that’s what kind it is. Technically, it isn’t a business at all — it’s what economists call a “hedge” — and it’s horrifically inefficient (and immoral) to make profit on such a thing.

But I’m more fond of the good old United States Postal Service, since it’s a favorite whipping-boy of the Libertarians.

We’re at something called Peak Oil right now, meaning that petrofuels are as cheap and plentiful as they’ve ever been, and as cheap and plentiful as they ever will be. All mail and parcel delivery right now depends on petrofuels.

So yes, there are strong private competitors to the federally subsidized USPS, and given cheap oil, maybe they are more efficient and even cheaper.

So what happens when the price of oil rises? What happens when the cost of FedEx overnight delivery goes from $25 to $250 to $2500?

What happens is that FedEx gets out of the business, because people won’t pay their rates, which they must charge to make any profit. When that happens, there’s nothing left to deliver mail except the federally subsidized USPS. Which is still desirable for national cohesion — in fact, it’s necessary — even though it is “losing money” hand over fist.

Outside our little birdbath of cheap oil, the USPS is an ideal example of the economics of second-best.

Roads are another example. Public utilities. Public education. Public parks, public lands, public anything. They used to call it the commonwealth.

Summary

I’ve had only a few reasonable discussions with Libertarians, which I’ve very much enjoyed. I’ve asked a lot of questions to which I’ve never received anything like a satisfactory answer. I’ve never found the position compelling.

I’ve had a lot more unreasonable discussions with people who call themselves Libertarians, and I have to say that I’ve generally had more civil and pleasant conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses at my door. I don’t recall ever having a Jehovah’s Witness tell me that I was indulging in “stupidity on steroids.”

So if you find yourself trapped in this kind of discussion with a Libertarian and you want to get them to walk away, I’ve found the three approaches above to be pretty effective.

  1. Point out that the heroin trade is a Free Market, and it isn’t nice at all. Neither is any other Free Market — in fact, ask them to point out any Free Market that is anything like nice.
  2. Point out that, historically, high taxes on the rich correlate well with economic prosperity, while low taxes on the rich correlate with economic doldrums and even collapse. Ask them why that is so consistent.
  3. Start talking about any inherently unprofitable element of the commonwealth; anything that you get just for being a US American citizen. Ask how the Free Market would deal with it.