Category: Social Issues

Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories can be attractive because they help us make sense of senseless acts; but they are rarely the truth. Large conspiracies are just too tough to hide from the public. Recently I have seen some Newtown massacre conspiracies start to surface. I watched a bit of an online video cobbled together with news footage and content from a popular conspiracy webpage. I am not going to mention either because I don’t want to give them any more attention.

It is very easy to pull news clips and assemble information to make almost any case. I watched about 7 minutes of aforementioned video so I can’t comment on all of it. In the aftermath of events like Newtown everyone in the media is trying to present as much info as possible and that leads to some sloppy news gathering where lots of things are reported that aren’t true. For example: the naming the shooter as the brother and that the shooter was wearing body armor and his mother was a teacher at the school. I will mention one example from the video; the director asserts that the rifle reportedly used by the shooter was pulled from the trunk of the car and then shows video of a rifle being held over a trunk. We don’t see any context other than the assertion of the director. Could this be a police gun- sure. Could it be the gun used by the shooter, taken from the scene after processing and in the process of being unloaded and secured for transport- of course. The viewer doesn’t know and the director fills that void with an assertion. The director then shows the medical director reporting that most of the injuries were cased by the rifle. Conspiracy theories like this usually rest on creating confusion and showing gaps and problems in the official stories. They don’t have to build a logical case showing all the motives and addressing all the facts. They just pick and choose selectively finding “facts” that support their assertions. With the explosion of information in modern society it is easy to find “facts” some of which aren’t even somewhat true and other that are taken out of context or distorted.

In order to buy into a conspiracy at Newtown you’d have to have a tremendous amount of co-conspirators and they would all need to be quiet. Tremendous scrutiny is placed on these events and the news media loves uncovering deception or conspiracy of any kind. Consider Watergate or the Clinton- Monica Lewinsky affair, far fewer people were involved and the truth came out. It is also notable that the “news media” is bigger and more diverse than ever before and not controlled by a few powerful corporations that could be compromised. Some might argue that some “news” media is reporting the conspiracy- but that only bolsters my point. The fringe story doesn’t go beyond that step. Matt Drudge a fringe blogger at the time uncovered the Lewinsky affair but then the story spread quickly to all the media precisely because it had validity.

Conspiracy theories exist for 911, the JFK shooting, MLK shooting and virtually every major news event. I used to buy into at least a bit of the JFK shooting theories but after years of examining the full evidence and seeing re enactments I am convinced that Oswald acted alone and that the official story is true. Thankfully we have many others who make it their business to attack conspiracy theories such as Snopes and Popular Mechanics which addressed the 911 conspiracies.

Another common conspiracy theory is what I will call the Corporate conspiracy. Corporations are by their nature less open than government and they do tend to have more consolidated power at the top making conspiracies more possible. With the GMO (Genetically Modified Organism; typically seeds) debate in full swing a common conspiracy I hear is that Monsanto and the government both know that GMO food is dangerous but are in league together to continue promoting the products for money. In order to buy into this you have to believe that literally thousand of geneticists and scientists including medical doctors are all willing participants knowingly hurting people. You also have to believe that somehow Monsanto has enough money to maintain this influence over government which monitors and approves its’ products. Lets look at some numbers; Monsanto had 13.5 billion in revenue last year and a market cap (total value of all shares) of about 50 billion, according to opensecrets.org they spent 4.7 million in 2012 on lobbying which is about their average. Monsanto is a big powerful company with lots money to spend but when you compare it to the power of the federal government it seems trivial. Our government spends about 10.5 billion every day or 3,700 billion a year. I want to make clear that corruption does exist and it is likely that Monsanto does have some influence over some regulators. It is also clear though that there are strong interests opposing Monsanto and corporations in general. Many in government are naturally inclined to be anti corporate especially in regulatory positions.

It is also clear that you can believe that GMO food is bad without believing in any of these conspiracies. Conspiracy theories provide cover from a real debate on the science and evidence. It has been said when the facts are with you lean on the facts and when the facts are not bang on the table. Many times ideas and philosophies are emotionally driven and we are inclined to buy into conspiracies that support our ideas.

I am not asserting that all conspiracies are wrong. There are some very well documented conspiracies in history. Many of these come from totalitarian regimes and are well known and exposed quickly even in closed societies. There have also been corporations who have made big mistakes and tried to cover them up for a time it is logical to assume that some conspiracies have never been exposed. When a conspiracy is proposed I look at the merits and the evidence. The truth tends to come out in time and in modern society that time frame is shorter than ever before due to the speed that information moves.

Leaders do use tragedies for political purposes. Former White House chief of staff and current mayor of Chicago: Rahm Emmanuel is famous for saying: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” The current administration is using Sandy Hook to advance an anti gun rights agenda. I don’t question their intentions, I think they mostly believe what they are doing is good for all just as those of us who favor more gun rights use Sandy Hook to call for our ideas of meaningful change.

I am not naive; the powerful must be watched and monitored closely. This particular administration has been deceptive and the 9-11 Libya attack and Fast and Furious debacle are examples of that.

Suggesting a Sandy Hook government conspiracy is illogical and just not feasible in our relatively open society.

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Gabrielle Giffords

Gabby Giffords has announced she and husband Mark Kelly are forming a new advocacy group: Americans for Responsible Solutions:

Achieving reforms to reduce gun violence and prevent mass shootings will mean matching gun lobbyists in their reach and resources. Americans for Responsible Solutions, which we are launching today, will invite people from around the country to join a national conversation about gun violence prevention, will raise the funds necessary to balance the influence of the gun lobby, and will line up squarely behind leaders who will stand up for what’s right.”

I am pulling for Ms. Giffords, her recovery against the odds is an inspiration. I read her editorial and she doesn’t say anything specifically that she wants other than a conversation and to balance the NRA. She says that we haven’t done anything as a country and gives the impression that gun advocates don’t have solutions. This is simply wrong headed. Gun rights advocates do have solutions and we have taken meaningful action. Advocates have fought to allow for responsible citizen to carry guns in states like Arizona and Florida. Shall issue, right to carry states now outnumber no carry states by a wide margin. In Florida where more carry concealed weapons than anywhere else; violent crime and even gun specific crime is down.

Here is what congress should do: introduce new legislation that affirms the legal right of non felons who undergo simple training and are free of mental health issues to carry in all 50 states. These permit holders should be allowed to legally carry everywhere that government cannot assure armed protection such as courthouses or government buildings. In that same legislation they could reassert the federal background check system and strengthen it to include psychiatric holds for all transactions including the small number of private party gun show transfers. This is a thumbnail sketch and the details are very meaningful of course. The philosophy is simply that all law abiding Americans should be able to carry a gun concealed no matter what state they live in and that this right protects liberty and life for all. Many gun advocates would argue that we already have this right and to codify it federally sets the wrong precedent. I agree in theory but out of pragmatism I can accept federal oversight provided it is simple and clearly reaffirms the right to carry for self defense.

Ms. Giffords mentions her household has two guns locked up in a safe. I cannot help but wonder if she had one of those guns on her that day if something might have been different- perhaps not- but it is hard to argue that someone with a gun other than the killer might have made a real difference that day.

Sacred Economics- A Review Part One

A couple months ago I was challenged by blogger/activist Chris Agnos at Sustainable Man; to read Sacred Economics by Charles Eisenstein. In exchange Chris is reading Applied Economics by Thomas Sowell. The hope is that each will learn something from looking at the antithesis of our own philosophies and beliefs. I have always tried to read and expose myself to ideas from all sides of an issue. Any valid argument seeks to address couter arguments and provide answers and alternatives.

I have finished reading the first part of the book. Eisenstein sets up the first part of the book to attack modern capitalism and society. This isn’t new ground by any means but Eisenstein is no crack pot and he does a good job at making a cogent argument without too much invective and empty rhetoric. Anybody seeking to change a system has to first demonstrate its’ failings and Eisenstein does that with a mix of logic, evidence and history. I am going to summarize a couple of his key points and address them in this article. I am not seeking to write a book here just address some key and common points.

“Today we associate money with the profane, and for good reason. If anything is sacred in this world, it is surely not money. Money seems to be the enemy of our better instincts, as is clear every time the thought “I can’t afford to” blocks an impulse toward kindness or generosity. Money seems to be the enemy of beauty, as the disparaging term “a sellout” demonstrates. Money seems to be the enemy of every worthy social and political reform, as corporate power steers legislation toward the aggrandizement of its own profits. Money seems to be destroying the earth, as we pillage the oceans, the forests, the soil, and every species to feed a greed that knows no end.”- Charles Eisenstein

First let me agree with Eisenstein, society largely does associate money and therefore greed with evil. This is a testament to 100 years of progressive thought in government and education. This association however is just plain wrong headed. Money is good and greed can also be good, especially for society. Adam Smith wrote about this over 200 years ago:

By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.”

At the time (1776) most men worked in farming to feed their family and bartered some for other services. Women worked from dawn until dusk just maintaining a house and preparing food. There are parts of the world where this is still the case. Money allows us to engage in activities we are best suited for, I can create videos and take photographs and earn currencies which I exchange for food or technology that makes life easier. This exchange allowed innovators to create technology and to innovate new ways of farming, healthcare and countless other things that allow a relatively poor person in modern America to live longer and better than Louse XIV did not that long ago considering the scope of human history.

Han Rosling has studied the progress of human history and demonstrated how much better we live today than our agrarian barter societies did before. Indeed since 1970 world poverty as defined by living on less than a dollar a day has plummeted 80%. Why? Globalization aided by technology allows a subsistence farmer in India to get a job in a call center or a factory servicing a wealthier economy in the United States. As the economy of India grows it impacts even poorer areas in Bangladesh or Africa. That same farmer turned factory workers child may become an engineer and move up the ladder again. It is not benevolence that has created this new prosperity it is the desire to live better lives that creates wealth. In a capitalistic society we trade value for greater value. I spend $300 on an iPhone because I value that iPhone more than alternative items I can buy for the $300. The iPhone is $300 and not $3 million dollars because of a global capitalistic model that allows growth, efficiency and innovation. Money is the tool that allows this all to happen, we agree as a society to recognize currency as a store of value and that facilitates trade. Money also allows for cooperation in an amazing way. Think of all the things needed to create that iPhone, even a simple  pencil is the sum product of thousands even millions of different people in different places cooperating to create a product. A miner digs for the graphite while being feed, clothed and transported by others. That graphite goes to a factory where another worker perhaps around the world uses it combining it with other raw and semi raw materials to create the pencil. That pencil is then transported, marketed and sold by other people. Can a local barter economy even create something as simple as a modern pencil?

Eisenstein seems to understand this- even while glamorizing communal barter and what he calls “gift” economies; but he argues that we are in a different stage now and  uses the current recession to indict the whole system:

“Money is disappearing, and with it another property of spirit: the animating force of the human realm. At this writing, all over the world machines stand idle. Factories have ground to a halt; construction equipment sits derelict in the yard; parks and libraries are closing; and millions go homeless and hungry while housing units stand vacant and food rots in the warehouses. Yet all the human and material inputs to build the houses, distribute the food, and run the factories still exist. It is rather something immaterial, that animating spirit, which has fled. What has fled is money.”

Putting aside the obvious dramatic overstatements and exaggerations of the current or past recession, Eisenstein is attacking the very idea of growth in general. Environmentalist many times phrase this argument as a zero sum game in that we are taking from others or taking from the earth and that our prosperity equates to someone else’s poverty. This idea is completely counterfactual, it is precisely our prosperity and desire for a better life that allows for others to rise out of poverty. As the United States and Europe became richer so did South East Asia and Africa. Many look at the proportion of wealth to poverty, the gap which does tend to grow in absolute terms. This misses the point though and is to say we would rather our neighbor be even poorer as long as we are closer in means. Some have put it this way: Would you rather make $40,000 a year and know that your neighbor makes $1 million or make $10,000 a year knowing your neighbor only makes $40,000. In the second scenario the gap is smaller but you have 1/4 of the means. This argument for fairness is the common tool politicians and leaders use to gain power over men; they promise to make for a more fair society but the result is always less for all with usually the only winner being those connected to the government.

It is mathematically certain that all resources are finite, even the sun will stop reacting at some point. We cannot understand infinity even if we believe in an infinite god. Given this logic some argue that we are running out of resources and that resources cannot be owned and are collective and therefore must be collectively managed. No one can argue that resources are scarse, the question becomes how should these resources be managed? Capitalism has been the system that has worked better than all the rest.

For decades some have predicted that we are running out of certain resources and that costs for a given commodity will continue to rise. They have almost always been wrong, innovative self interested corporations and men continue to find more and more resources and different resources. Other innovators find new uses for resources and ways to use alternatives and less of a given resource. Right now in America manufacturing is starting to come back- in part because of a shale gas revolution that is making energy for factories cheaper. 120 years ago expensive whale oil threatened to empty the sea of whales and made it hard to light the night. Rockefeller discovered oil could be refined into kerosene and in the process saved more whales than Greenpeace ever will. Later Edison discovered how to create electric light and now even most of the poorest Americans have cheap and abundant light at night- something we don’t even really consider living without. I am not arguing that resources such as oil are limitless they clearly are not. However capitalism allows us to use them more efficiently and will someday reward those who replace unsustainable resources with more sustainable ones. The market will force people to ration when necessary and do so more orderly and efficiently than any team of bureaucrats could no matter how smart or well intentioned. No one knows when we will start to run out of natural resources or what new innovations will allow us to use less or alternatives. There is no reason however to believe that this century cannot be full of as much growth as the 20th century was and lead to a more peaceful and prosperous world provided of course reason prevails and we don’t kill the free market engine of growth.

For most of human history Kings and despots controlled all the wealth and almost all where poor. We then moved into democratic capitalism in America, Europe and then Asia and prosperity followed. In the early 20th century Socialists pointed to the obvious injustices and unfairness and successfully convinced nations to try socialistic and communistic governments. These systems lead to despotism and decay because they overlook human nature and motivation. We create and work to attain a better life for ourselves and our families. When we cannot profit from our work and industry we don’t work as hard we don’t take risks and progress stagnates. In a truly free market there are powerful incentives to use resources wisely and efficiently. Eisenstein is not arguing that Communism worked but he doesn’t accept this as the natural progression of his ideas. We have been fighting this battle for more than 100 years and I expect it will endure for at least 100 more. The ideology of from one according to her abilities to one according to her needs is very attractive, it sounds good and noble. Eisenstein attacks Ayn Rand specifically and those of us who believe in true capitalism by comparing us to selfish children and saying that we need to evolve our thinking to a more parental mindset. This is the kind of paternalistic thinking that leads to statism- the idea that an economy must be managed by benevolent high minded people. This is how freedom dies and it does not lead to prosperity it leads to poverty and decay for all.

Eisenstein has some of the problems of modern life correct, we do seek satisfaction in things too much. We are overly consumeristic, we waste our time and energy on things that don’t make us happier and we do live overly on debts that become our masters. This isn’t a byproduct of capitalism it is a byproduct of human nature and ignorance- dismantling capitalism won’t make us desire material things less it will only destroy the engine of prosperity for all. As a society we are more prosperous and therefore can afford to think more about the planet and our role in making it better for all people. We are more conscience of our impact in a multitude of ways and many of us do give of ourselves freely to help others at home and oceans away.

Money isn’t evil but man certainly can be. Capitalism rewards the good far more than the bad, it isn’t perfect but most of the problems blamed on capitalism are the result of less freedom and more management by disinterested benevolent men. We have history and philosophy and evidence that democratic capitalistic free societies work better than the alternatives. We must be careful not to throw out the good seeking an impossible perfection.

I will read the second part of Eisensteins book and comment on his ideas for change.

Mother Jones: More Guns, More Mass Shootings

Mother Jones studied mass shootings and concluded that armed citizens would not have a positive affect on safety and that they had not stopped mass shootings: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/09/mass-shootings-investigation?page=2

My response:
Is it any wonder that more armed civilians don’t stop these shootings given that all but one since 1950 have taken place in gun free zones. A couple of important facts overlooked here: The principal in Alabama that stopped the shooting: His gun was in the car because of the school restriction. The shooter had planned to go to another school so he did stop potentially more deaths. There are other cases overlooked here such as the shooting at New Life church in 2007. The other major problem here is that Mother Jones looked at shootings were more than 4 people were killed. If armed civilians fight back many times they stop the body count therefore averting a mass murder shooting. By simply having the right to carry in schools some of these monsters won’t even attempt to attack a school.

Numerous studies show that guns are used defensively as often as 2 million times a year. The vast majority of the time the gun need only be shown to break off the attack.  One of the tactics on the left seems to be assailing the good because it is imperfect. Gun flights are horrible and should be avoided at all costs. It is almost always better to retreat and run from a gun fight even while armed. However when innocent children are slaughtered in great numbers it is obvious that a gun in trained hands could stop the killing. Imagine if the courageous principal had a gun and training. She may have been able to stop the attack or slow him down allowing someone else to overwhelm him or more kids to escape.

It is also important to note that Mother Jones also didn’t find a single person that did act in these cases and killed any bystanders, some of them lost their lives but they didn’t make the situation worse. CCW permit holders commit crimes about as often as police officers, the data shows they are very lawful citizens.

Mother Jones cherry picks their stats here but they ignore the fact that violent crime has dropped in every category since the lifting of the assault weapons ban in 2004. More than a million fewer people were killed in 2011 than in 2004. Having more trained people carrying weapons is not a panacea and certainly will not stop these mass shootings.However the evidence shows that they can make a difference.

Mother Jones also fails to mention that police officers have yet to make a real difference in one of these school shootings. In Columbine it took 2 hours for them to go into the school, heavily armed SWAT officers stood by and waited while a teacher bleed to death and many students were executed in the library. Even the school resource officer only managed to fire a few rounds at the shooters without hitting them.

The police cannot protect us, usually they arrive just in time to put up tape and start the investigation.

An Alternative History of Sandy Hook

12-14-12, Sandy Hook Elementary School

It is 9:30am and Principal Dawn Hochsprung is meeting with a parent in her office, suddenly she hears the loud crash of glass and then gunfire…

4 months prior…
The Colorado theatre slaying hit Dawn hard and she decided she would not be a victim, so she took action. She travels to Front Sight in Nevada and took an intensive 4 day handgun course offered free to educators. She learns how to safely handle a gun and store it. She learns all about the immense responsibility of using a gun. She listen to instructors talk about how horrible any gun battle would be and the moral and legal implications of using a gun defensively. She learns how to present a weapon from concealment and fire a controlled pair accurately in less than 2 seconds. She was surprised to learn that she can fire a gun as quickly and accurately and many times better than a trained police officer. As a new comer to shooting she has no bad habits reinforced by years of practice with poor technique. She learns that firearms can be the great equalizer and that a smaller older woman could protect herself from a much stronger larger man. She learns about the combat mindset and being mentally alert and prepared. She wrote herself a letter describing how and when she would use a firearm, when she would choose to use force and when she would retreat.

The Connecticut school board decides to allow trained teachers to carry concealed weapons in September and Dawn arms herself with an easy to use Glock 40 caliber handgun. She practices at a local range and does dry firing rehearsals once a week at home.

December 14th…

Dawn springs into action she pulls her gun at the ready at her side and leaves her office. A man with a rifle is firing indiscriminately into a classroom approaching the door. He doesn’t see her and his back is turned. She fires twice hitting him center mass in the back. He falls and two other teachers tackle and seize his guns. Ten minutes later the police arrive- the shooter dies at the hospital. Dawn’s secretary and 2 children are also dead. Dawn prevents countless deaths, the shooter had over 200 rounds of ammo and 4 guns. Dawn is celebrated nation wide as a hero and example to many others.

The reality:
Principal Dawn did act, she heard shots and despite having nothing to fight with she charged the gunman courageously. She could have locked her office and called 911- she didn’t- she fought back and she died a hero; gunned down- defenseless against a man with a gun.

Entitled

Watch the exchange below between the young man and Judge Judy. What does it tell you about the state of entitlement and dependency in America? Was their any shame at all in the young man for the handouts he received? Was their any sense of humility or responsibility for the investment others have made in him? Do you think the young man would have had a different attitude if he received money from a local charity or relative? Do you think he would have managed to get so much aid over so long a period from a local charity or relative? When some get money from the federal government they feel entitled to it. This is the possible outcome of federal welfare programs.

Tax Policy and Corporate Investment

Wall Street Journal Today:
J.P. Morgan JPM +1.58% research report estimates that there is $1.7 trillion of undistributed foreign earnings held by more than 1,000 U.S. companies overseas. But only 600 disclose how much of their foreign cash is held offshore. Some like Johnson & Johnson JNJ +0.31% and Illinois Tool Works ITW +1.26% have all their cash in foreign subsidiaries.

According to some as much as 60% of corporate cash is overseas, why? Corporations in America make lots of money overseas the majority of which has already been taxed in the nations it was earned. If the corporation wants to bring that money back to the United States they are required to pay again, typically 35%.

From Brookings:

Even though a corporation is eligible for a tax credit equal to foreign taxes paid, the decision to repatriate earnings typically requires that corporation to incur a significant tax cost. As a result, corporations usually find it more attractive to defer U.S. taxation by reinvesting their foreign earnings abroad.

Some Republicans have called for a repatriation tax holiday or a territorial tax system whereby profits are only taxed once in the country they are earned. This seems fair but Democrats have argued that certain profits wouldn’t be taxed at all. The tax code is immense and corporations have whole departments whose job it is to minimize taxes paid. Politicians pass more and more laws and corporations find more ways to get around paying. Massive companies like General Electric have mastered the art of avoiding taxes despite billions in profits.

What is the solution? I propose a corporate income tax rate of zero. Corporations are entities made up of people and those people are all paid in some way eventually whether it be salary, stock or benefits. All of those forms of income are taxed eventually, meaning that a corporate tax is redundant and a form of double taxation. Corporations would still pay plenty of taxes in other forms such as payroll and sales and energy taxes.

Taxation on profits is inefficient as well, The Atlantic:

The corporate income tax encourages firms to waste resources on tax avoidance  In general, taxes are most efficient when they fall on those who have the most difficulty avoiding them.  Big corporations can and do spend an enormous amount of money and human effort transforming their income into more tax-preferred forms–deferring it, moving it, swapping it with entities that have different tax rules, and so forth.  We spend an enormous amount of energy trying to make rules to stop them.  It would be a lot easier to get rid of the thing entirely and focus on getting the money from people, who can’t afford quite such large squads of tax attorneys.  This would also correct an obvious flaw in the corporate tax code: it’s easier for big companies to afford pricey tax lawyers–and pricey lobbyists to get them special tax breaks.

Surely some will argue that with any change to the tax code there will be some who take advantage of it, and they are correct. The question becomes what can we do to make taxes as fair and efficient as possible and encourage growth that ultimately means more revenue. The answer is simpler laws that are enforceable, it shouldn’t require whole teams of lawyers and accountants to do a businesses taxes. Lets make the code simpler and then focus enforcement efforts on the remaining cheats. What we have now are special interests deciding our tax laws. Thousands of lobbyist exert pressure to get favorable laws and regulations that reduce their clients liabilities. Lets remove the complexity and make the code simple and fair and eliminate the need for special interest lobbying.

Imagine the corporations worldwide that would pour billions perhaps trillions of dollars into the US economy if we had a simpler and lower tax policy. We already try to create incentives for all kinds of special interests like the film industry and alternative energy; so clearly we understand that tax policy influences growth and investment. Government shouldn’t be in the business of deciding who gets special treatment with our money, picking winners and losers.

Some of my progressive friends will call this idea a race to the bottom and say that other countries would follow suit. I agree, I hope they do follow suit and eliminate corporate taxes. I believe in growth and if we reduce tax burdens and make taxes work fairly we will all benefit and governments will have the revenue they need. What governments should spend their tax revenue on is a separate argument for another column. Tax policy is complex and I haven’t answered all the problems here- but I know that we can make our system more equitable with simplicity.