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.

 

Marijuana Legalization

imagesThis growing trend toward legalizing “recreational marijuana” is going to have some very interesting side effects.

The first and most obvious effect is that it will virtually depopulate the court dockets and the prison system of new “criminals.” Roughly 50% of the prison population is in prison for “drug use.” Roughly 27% of those — the largest single category — are incarcerated for marijuana use. So the day that marijuana is legalized, nationwide, 14% of our “criminals” will simply vanish. Court caseloads will drop by 14%. Law enforcement will lose the need for 14% of their manpower. Prisons will give up 14% of their expansion plans. If there is any kind of retroactive amnesty, prisons might immediately disgorge 14% of their current inmates.

But that’s only the direct effect.

One of the things about criminalizing milder drugs is that it promotes the use of harder drugs. In the years before 1920 and the disastrous US experiment with Prohibition, the most popular alcoholic beverage was beer, by a large margin. During Prohibition, the most popular beverage was whiskey. After Prohibition, the most popular beverage was … yes, beer. Why?

It has to do with what you can get, and that’s controlled by the black-market suppliers. They, in turn, are not going to waste their efforts on the weak stuff — they’re going to push the high-octane alternatives. A whiskey-runner makes more money than a beer-runner. So they don’t run beer, they run whiskey. When you go to the speakeasy and ask for a beer, which you prefer, the bartender will say they’re fresh out, how about a shot of whiskey? You’ll pay more for the whiskey, and it will be cheap stuff that’s probably watered, to stretch profits, but it’s what they’ve got, so you’ll take it.

So I think it’s a pretty sure bet that as marijuana becomes legal, the use of crack cocaine, heroin, meth, and other harder drugs will drop. That’s exactly what they’ve found in other countries. If even half of the crack-heads and heroin junkies stop using the hard stuff and go back to marijuana, just as whiskey-drinkers went back to beer at the end of Prohibition, a full 30% of all “crime” in the US will vanish.

Of course, it spreads even further than that. A lot of burglary and robbery is committed by people trying to support a drug habit. A lot of homicide involves the illegal drug trade. That could shave as much as another 7% off the total.

The US prison-industrial complex could lose more than a third of its business overnight.

There will be a lot of lobbying over that one: pleas to not legalize marijuana, because it will spell ruin for the privatized prisons-for-profit industry.

Incidentally, I call this entire class of industries that thrive on human misery the Assassin’s Guild. I don’t know if there’s ever really been such a thing, but it crops up in a lot of humorous fantasy, like the Discworld novels of the late Terry Pratchett, and I’m pretty sure it’s a sardonic poke at this common dysfunction in our modern society. One of the CEO’s of the US automobile industry back in the 1950’s said something like, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” What’s good for the Assassin’s Guild is most definitely not good for the country.

That’s the metaphor: the Assassin’s Guild is the entire class of businesses and bureaucracies which are necessary but not desirable, and their growth certainly isn’t desirable. We have a lot of them: trash removal, morticians, insurance companies, police, courts, and jails are all right up there.

Of course, some government agencies are also members of the Assassin’s Guild, and they’ll face hard times indeed. The DEA will face severe cutbacks, and if the CIA is as deeply involved with the drug trade as some claim, they’ll lose a bunch of their off-the-books funding. That will cause a lot of screaming in high places.

Some days, it just sucks to be an Assassin.

All kinds of Assassin’s Guild members are going to be dead-set against marijuana legalization. In my view, that’s a strong argument in favor of legalizing it.

I think marijuana legalization will also have a huge effect on black communities. In reading about the tense race relations in the US, and the role of the Drug War in promoting that tension over the last century, what’s come through as crystal clear is that we’ve done a pretty good job of implementing apartheid in this country (and if there’s any doubt in anyone’s mind, no, I don’t think that’s a good thing). In many cases, the drug business is the only viable livelihood available to young urban black men, other than doing time in prison.

Legalizing marijuana is going to commoditize pot, just as repealing Prohibition in the 1930’s gave rise to the commodity wine business of California, and pot will suddenly become a respectable and exclusively white industry, all the way down to the dealership level. As an agribusiness, there will be room for expanded migrant labor (legal and illegal), primarily from Mexico, but not so much room for black people from the cities.

So we’re going to see a lot of young black men dumped back on the city streets with even fewer inner-city job prospects than before.

I think that’s going to be an explosive situation. The upside of it is that it may force apartheid US America into facing its deeply-ingrained white supremacy issues. And its overall labor crisis, which will be the subject of another post.

It’s worth noting that marijuana legalization would be merely one potential trigger for something that’s inevitable. Escalating police militarization and brutality against black populations is another potential trigger. The US system of apartheid is unworkable, and always has been: at some point, it’s going to explode.

Of course, a third of the prison-industrial system itself will also end up back on the street, including everyone from judges to attorneys to cops to prison guards to razor-wire manufacturers. The attorneys can shift to corporate pot law. I don’t know where the rest are going to go.

There will be international repercussions. The drug trade coming up from Mexico will get badly hurt in the place where it counts, the wallet. They’re not going to see a 30% drop in profits — they’re going to be effectively wiped out. There will still be opportunity for them, in the hard drugs, but profits will be much reduced and there will be a huge shakeout for control of the business. Without money, they’ll lose power over the Mexican army, and the Mexican government, and (doubtless) the US government. Who knows? We might even see a Mexican government that isn’t controlled by the drug cartels, and that could be very interesting.

We’ll also see further loss of perceived US control in Europe.

Several European governments have already broken ranks with the US on drug policy, and have had far better practical results with controlling addiction and the crime associated with drugs: their results, in fact, have pretty much shown up US policy as a disaster. Legalizing marijuana in the US at this point could be viewed as a kind of humiliation, given the kind of strong-arming the US used to force European states to join them in their ill-conceived War on Drugs.

I don’t personally see this as a bad thing. The one thing that’s clear about international politics, especially in the wake of the utter failure of Dick Cheney’s Neocon wet-dream in Iraq, is that the age of the One Remaining Superpower is over. The US is going to have to adapt to coexisting in a real, multipolar world.

Which amounts to admitting that Uncle Sam doesn’t always know best.

I personally think that legalizing marijuana across the entire country is both a practical and moral imperative, and it will in the long run point the way toward righting a whole series of wrongs in the country: wrongs that serve only to destroy any long-term hope for the nation.

Serendipitous Gems

imagesMarta and I went to the Ukiah Farmer’s Market today and met an author, Kate Marianchild, promoting her new book, Secrets of the Oak Woodlands: Plants & Animals Among California’s Oaks. We stopped and chatted for a bit and mentioned that we were studying Druidry. She was fascinated, and mentioned a chapter in her book on mistletoe. This struck me:

Formerly maligned and attacked as a parasitic killer of trees, it is now recognized as an ecologically important native plant that has been around for thousands or millions of years. It is, in fact, a keystone player in the oak woodlands — a species that is disproportionately important to other species relative to its abundance. When mistletoe is removed from ecosystems, one-third of the animals, including birds, mammals, and insects, disappear.

As Kate mentioned this, it suddenly clicked together with something I read in Graham Robb’s book, The Discovery of Middle-Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts, regarding a joke the Celts yelled at the Romans during a battle, to the effect that the Romans were so short they had to build ladders to peek over the walls of the cities in Gaul to see what they were doing — and the Romans apparently never got the joke, whether due to poor interpreters in the Roman army, or a kind of humorless literalism on the part of the Romans.

The Romans may have had difficulty with the languages of the Celts, but I suspect that they also suffered from the same kind of humorless narcissism that afflicts most conquerors. Theirs was the clearly superior culture — for the gods’ sake, they had aqueducts! And an Emperor who wore purple. And a war machine second to none. If the barbarians had anything to contribute, they could damn well express themselves in Latin, in ways that sensible, civilized people could understand.

So it occurs to me that when the Roman writers translated the Celtic term for mistletoe as “all-heal,” the odds are pretty good they got it wrong. The Celts might very well have called mistletoe “the healer of the whole,” or what we would call a keystone species: something that, if it goes away, takes with it a third of your ecological biodiversity, thus rendering the forest inhospitable to humans.

Kate goes on in her book to talk about how mistletoe appears to the birds and beasts that live on, around, and even in the mistletoe. Though poisonous to humans, it is safe, delicious, and an important source of calories and protein for birds, squirrels, porcupines, and raccoons, as well as elk and deer who graze under mistletoe-laden oaks hoping for windfalls. Many small mammals shelter or hide inside a ball of mistletoe, while birds nest in them. Some insect species have co-evolved with mistletoe, and depend on it in their breeding cycle.

We don’t really know much about the Druids of the Roman period. It’s possible that they presided over a culture already falling into ignorance and superstition when General Julius Caesar encountered them, and actually thought mistletoe could be made into some kind of healing tonic. Or perhaps, as some have speculated, the Druids were talking about a different plant.

But I find it more natural to believe that something was lost in translation: not a blunder, like pointing to the wrong plant, but a subtlety of language — such as the difference between “all-heal” and “healer-of-the-whole.”