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Amazing Freedom

I’m free to travel and relocate in the 50 states of America. In fact, all of Europe, Australia, parts of Asia and Africa, as well as the North and South American continents, are accessible to me if I want. I’m free to speak my mind, write about it, debate, on the internet, public forums, blogs. I can publish my research. I can have as many kids as I plan to have. I can decide not to vote. I can go to whatever church or temple I find interesting. I can draw interest on my savings. I can sell stuff. I can buy pretty much anything from anywhere. I can use cash. I can own property. I can join any club, association, cooperative, party, online group, I desire. I can befriend anybody. I’m free, to an amazing degree. More than all my ancestors have ever been; more than most people living on earth right now.

And I’m not alone. Millions of people enjoy the same staggering degree of personal freedom. Still, billions more don’t. The level of “freedom inequality” in the world is the real scandal, you know, worth of permanently Occupying the Border.

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Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There.

If Ron Paul becomes president, we are going to witness the biggest volte-face ever witnessed in electoral policy, bigger even than Obama’s. He will not be able to cut any “departments”, bring home any troops, reform any Federal reserve banks, or restore the soundness of any dollars. The course of political events is bigger than any one puny politician, the ratchet effect of govt, the centralizing forces of ignorance, the inertia of regulation, the encrusted interests of cronies, the global pressures, in short the Leviathan, will not even notice.

Actually, it’s more likely that an Obama second turn with a GOP Congress could lead to protracted neglect of some of Big Govt’s goals. Our only hope is that salutary gridlock and partisan bickering will continue to paralyze and quell the “reformers” many impetuses. With some luck we could even witness some presidential vetoes. Now that would be something worth celebrating.

Class Warren-fare

Taxes are a politician’s favorite lever to tinker with. In fact, many a pompous pronouncement, idealistic bombastic dream, gets translated in practice into either a tax cut or a tax hike. My suspicion is that very little can be affected at the real micro level by twisting and cranking the tax knobs from the comfortable central offices of Congress. So I don’t have a horse in the partisan back-and-forth. However, I felt compelled to comment the recent quote by Elizabeth Warren on the subject of “taxing the rich”.

It’s actually better to listen to the full quote, because it gives context to the passage that was extracted and Warren’s tone is relevant (it also contains a surprise). To summarize, the president is supposedly proposing tax hikes on the super rich. This plan immediately raised silly screams on the right about “class warfare”. Such rhetoric, in turn, inflamed the left and, whether Warren intended it to be a response to the class-warfare meme or not, the second part of her YouTube clip was extracted as the greatest argument ever in support of raising taxes on the rich. What she’s saying, essentially, is that nobody acts and becomes successful in a vacuum. Presumably she’s addressing herself to the image of a super-individualist rugged self-made man who doesn’t want to pay taxes. But in fact she explicitly refers to “someone who built a factory”, the stereotypical “job-creator”. The problem with this line of reasoning is that the idea that society is a complex web of cooperation, exchange and support, goes way back at least to Adam Smith. In fact, free-trade logic implies that one cannot restrict this complex web within the confines of a nation: in reality, everyone, even a person on the other side of the globe, even an avowed enemy, is an accomplice in a person success. So should taxes be collected and remitted to the Chinese people who helped us make America great? It’s not clear.

I’m here leaving aside other aspects that are unsatisfying with the quote, such as the fact that the rich already pay most of the taxes that are being collected, and thus (as a consequence?) have disproportionate influence on the way the money collected gets redistributed. The real scandal is not that job-creators in the society explore gains from trade and engage in positive-sum games with the rest of us, leading to win-win enterprises that create wealth for society as whole. The real scandal is how cronies are able to divert government’s largesse in both money and regulatory privilege towards their narrow self-interest.

The irony here is that the first part of Warren’s speech addresses exactly this issue and her money-quote that should be immediately immortalized into a bumper-sticker is: “Just don’t do those things!”. Instead the focus was shone on the second part where she works up a scolding tone and goes after positive-sum creators. Demonstrating once again that partisan bickering is a device to divert the conversation away from what really matter.

Political sobriety II

Another good exercise to practice often on my 12-steps program towards apolitical nirvana is to make a list of as many New Year resolutions as one can remember ever having made. Then pretend that all those well-meaning proposals were somehow “voted” into law and that they started being enforced on your person alone. You have to imagine that every bureaucratic outfit, the police, the IRS, the justice system etc…steadily and relentlessly goes about the mission of making sure that you do in fact follow these new “laws”. Imagine also that no realistic way of quickly going back or retract your initial resolutions exists.

This exercise is meant to get a practical appreciation of how the democratic system works and why we often get stuck with bad policies that we don’t ever seem to be able to get rid of.

Now an individual put in this situation would quickly learn and start making much different (inconsequential) New Year resolutions. It would definitely put a break on flights of imagination. Society on the other hand has a much harder time learning such lessons. First of all because a society is clearly not a person, but more importantly because a society is much better at holding many conflicting opinions simultaneously.

Political sobriety

A very useful exercise to do frequently (maybe not every morning but say, every month), is to write down a list of the most controversial actions (focus on the actions, not the words or the speeches) taken by your favorite politician during the given month. Then go back and visualize the opponent that your guy defeated. Get into the character, practice the way of speaking, the mannerism of said opponent, and slowly immerse yourself into the alternative universe where the other person won and then went on to make the same exact string of actions. It’s important that they be the same exact actions, but it’s OK to come up with different justifications if it helps render this exercise more realistic. In fact after a few times, the need for this exercise lessen, because one naturally stops taking anybody in office too seriously.

The 99 cents puzzle

Many fun-filled discussions (and economics papers) have been spent on the observation that prices often end in .99, trying to come up with game-theoretic explanations, etc…So it was to my surprise that one morning while getting a Latte at our corner (locally-owned) coffee-shop I was asked to pay 2.01, two dollars and one cent. How could that be? Then again the teller had been very eager to pull out a penny from a small tray, strategically positioned next to the tips jar. I was so pleased by the fact that he had done so, that I was immediately put in a better mood and in fact decided to dump a bunch of loose change in the jar. Or maybe I was just pleased by the smell of coffee.

Johnny

During Easter vacation we customarily would spend the week off of school up in Frasnedo (our village in the Alps — 1300m) and this was usually when the newborn goats arrived. If the mamas hadn’t been put in the stable preemptively, they would go into hiding and deliver in nature, in a hole somewhere. It was then up to us to find them and bring everybody home. This operation was often tragic, ending in the mama crushing the newborns, or dying of an infection because we weren’t there to get the placenta out properly, or everyone freezing to death from a late snowstorm.

Goat kids are very rambunctious and playful. After naming them we would slowly get to know them and them us. Over the summer we would grow even closer, up in the pastures (2000/3000m). The daily routine of rising early, and hiking up the slopes, then bringing the whole flock down to our cabin, milking, handing out salt, dried chestnuts and dry bread, involved a lot of calling and talking and cussing. One summer I particularly grew friendly with one young buck called Johnny. This one was very exuberant and never quite lost the early playfulness. Johnny and I often would play-fight, head-butting, he with his head and I with my knuckles. He’d follow me like a puppy and partake in every one of my chores.

Growing up in the Alps I often had to help in the slaying of various animals, mostly goats. By mid August, most of all the male goat kids born on Easter would have to be killed. And so it came the time when Johnny had to go. It is a strange relationship that the farmer has with his/her domesticated animals. We used to say that our grandma Ida loved her cow Biunda more than most every other human being. On one hand, we ended up eating our Johnny, on the other hand, he would never have been born otherwise. By any objective standard, Johnny had a wonderful, albeit short, life. Full of adventure, friendship, sunshine, and healthy Alpine water and grass.