Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Libertarianism Revealed

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Rachel Maddow interviewed Rand Paul yesterday on her show.  The video follows here:

In the interview, Rachel presses Paul to come out and say what he actually believes – that private enterprise should never be subject to government regulation, at least in the context of who they serve and for what reasons.  Rand Paul says many times that he personally finds racism and racist policies abhorrent.  However, he’s also saying that the government should have no role in prohibiting racist policies in public spaces (as the 1964 Civil Rights Act established) operated by private businesses.  I have no doubt that Rand Paul is sincere in his personal distaste for racism.  But, Rand Paul’s dedication to dismissing tangible social chaos as “an abstract argument” (his characterization of Rachel’s real-world examples such as lunch-counter discrimination in the 50s and 60s) should be troubling.  Instead, however, it’s been my experience that Libertarians revel in this cop-out – they frequently reduce most things to very abstract terms, and when you point out the tangible flaws, they get defensive & say it’s only an abstract argument.  Fine, but what about the actual consequences?  Who deals with those?

I’m not trying to put words in Rand Paul’s mouth, nor is it fair to ascribe the ideas of his father to him.  I’m more familiar with Ron Paul, who was my congressman in Texas for quite a while, than I am with Rand.  That said, his dismissal of Civil Rights concerns in private industry is as alarming as it is familiar to anyone who’s had a debate with a dedicated Libertarian.  These people seem far more common in the software industry and in academia than among my circle of friends from other backgrounds, and debating them can be quite enlightening.

The Libertarian argument goes like this:  Freedom is essential and absolute, regardless of social circumstance – any limitation of fundamental freedoms, including the freedom to be racist, is unacceptable.  (I quite agree with the notion that one should be free to hold racist views, but that’s quite different than saying it’s okay to discriminate with your publicly available business).  Rand Paul articulates this argument during the interview – he says that any interference with private industry leads to “unintended and undesirable consequences”, claiming that banning discrimination in privately owned public spaces leads to further erosion of property rights, including the inability for private individuals to ban firearms on their premises.  (This is absurd – the Civil Rights Act no more enables this than it enables shirtless, shoeless people to demand service inside restaurants).  Instead of government intervention, the invisible hand of the free market (ie, the preferences or boycotts of customers and shareholders) should be left to regulate private industry accordingly.  In other words, if people demand an elimination of racist policies in businesses, the businesses will respond.  Thus the Libertarians declare, thus it shall be.  Rand Paul has spoken!

Back in the real world (which Libertarians seem to annoyingly refuse to acknowledge), private businesses in the South did not give a shit if poor black people boycotted their policies.  Rather than working against racist policies, free-market Libertarianism enshrined and reinforced the prejudices of the economically powerful against the economically disadvantaged.  “Don’t want to eat at the segregated lunch counter?  Why, refuse, and someone will open a desegregated lunch counter!”  Except, you can’t get a loan from a bank to open your desegregated lunch counter because banks (under Rand Paul’s Libertarian ideals) don’t have to loan to black people (or people who would empower them).  “Well, then certainly another bank will open and take advantage of this potential market!”  No, the banks knew that the writing was on the wall — boycotts go both ways.  Unlike the black people that wanted to boycott businesses that discriminate, the (more than black people, anyway) economically powerful racists in the South actually had the power to pull out of private institutions (banks, businesses, investments) that might challenge the status quo (which, at that time, was racist).  There was no compelling profit motive to risk any substantial, consistent cash flow (from the white, status-quo, economically powerful) to invest in offering fair services to poor black people.

I’ve purposely ignored the other factor of threats of violence — Rand Paul dismisses these as “illegal”, and yes, in his fairy-tale world, the KKK would’ve been perfectly prosecuted and eliminated, and so he refuses to acknowledge that such things actually do affect how private persons and institutions make decisions.  Fine.  Even in the absence of any threat of violence, the Libertarian view that the free market solves all is pure and utter bullshit.

Now that Rand Paul has won the primary to run for Senate in Kentucky, I’m sure we’ll hear more of his views.  I’m sure we’ll also hear more of his dismissals of real problems — because Libertarians, frequently, cannot solve real problems.  They’re great at debating abstract problems and passionately stating how things should be.  The problem is that the world simply doesn’t work the way they want it to.

With apologies…

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Sorry about the whole election-of-Scott-Brown thing, America.  Don’t blame me, I voted for Kodos!  Actually, I think Kodos might’ve  been able to win, unlike Martha Coakley (who I did vote for — though not in the primary).  Mike Capuano is much more in line with my politics and a more passionate guy than Martha Coakley, which is why I chose him in the primary.

Anyway, Scott Brown is taking his horribly “old” 2005 GMC pickup truck to Washington, thanks in no small part to the voters of my town on the South Shore, where he won by a 2:1 margin.  My perspective on this, living in Massachusetts, is that this reflects mostly on the crappiness of Martha Coakley as a candidate and very little on the overall rejection of Democratic policies by Bay Staters.  Scott Brown ran a fraudulent campaign.  None of his ads mention that he is, in fact, a Republican.  Why?  Republicans and Republican policies are overwhelmingly unpopular in Massachusetts.  (Yes, they are popular with some people here — but not enough to win state-wide election).  He claimed that he supports health-care reform, but not the Democratic bill, which he vows to block.  That apparently resonated with many Obama voters.  (Despite the loss for Coakley, polls here show Obama is very popular among registered voters — it’s just that many Obama voters didn’t show up for Coakley).  Half of the Obama voters who switched to Brown said that the health-care bill doesn’t go far enough.  Inexplicably, though, they voted for a guy who says he supports health-care reform… but will now proceed to block any and all health-care reform bills.  Also, local talk radio basically went silent with the usual loony bullshit.  There was about a 2-week window prior to the election during which the hosts suddenly pretended to respect the ideas and wishes of left-leaning independent and moderate Democratic voters in Massachusetts, instead of calling them commie traitor moonbats.  Suddenly all the people in my neighborhood believe that this is a guy they can vote for — he’s not like the other Republicans!  Why did they believe that?  Because Martha Coakley didn’t press him — she went on vacation instead.  Scott Brown, who supports water-boarding as a means for interrogation, should’ve been made to answer if he thought it was torture if it was done to his daughters, who he paraded around throughout the campaign.  Scott Brown, who voted to allow hospitals the ability to deny emergency contraception to patients after they’d been raped, should have been made to answer how he would’ve responded if a hospital followed his own proposed legislation had one of his own daughters been raped and gone to such a hospital.  Martha Coakley did not hold his feet to the fire, and instead a content-free personality contest decided who would win.  Yes, she put out “attack ads” (which he whined about and said he would “consider suing over” — and didn’t, because they’re entirely true), but that is not the same as personally confronting him and making the point to him in a personal way that voters relate to.

Oh, and Brown voters, let me just remind you — the sun rises in the East, water is wet, and you should brush your teeth twice a day.  I mention this only because you people seem to have the fucking shortest goddamn memory of anyone on the planet! I’m sure that a Republican will do an awesome job representing the economic interests of Massachusetts.  After all, their track record is great.  😐

Visit to the Kennedy Library

Monday, August 24th, 2009

I visited the John F. Kennedy Library yesterday.  I’ve got a friend in from out of town, which is always a great motivator for doing some of the touristy things in your own city that you never do in day-to-day life.  The library is smaller than I’d imagined, but very impressive.  We took about 3 hours go to through it.  I love history and especially historical artifacts, so seeing the notes with Kennedy’s handwriting and some of the recordings I’d not heard before was great.  Two of my favorite tidbits, which my astute friend pointed out, were in the “Moon Shot” portion of the museum.

One was on a draft of his famous speech he delivered at Rice University in Houston during which he set the goal for the United States to go to the moon by 1970.  The draft includes, typed,

Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic?

Kennedy added a handwritten note above,

Why does Rice play Texas?

As a Rice (graduate) alum and vigorous UT football detractor, I’ve always found this line apropos and humorous.  It was neat to find out that Kennedy added it himself, and to see the note that added it.

The other interesting tidbit was that, despite all of Kennedy’s rhetorical flourishes calling for American scientific exploration, he flatly and openly told NASA administrators that he didn’t care about space.  He cared about beating the Russians.  He pointed out that it was fairly useless to spend $7 Billion to arrive at the moon 6 months after the Soviets, and if that was to be the outcome, he’d scale back NASA.  There’s tape of the NASA administrator (James Webb) pleading with exasperation that the US should explore space for the reasons Kennedy himself said in speeches (leadership in space sciences), and Kennedy basically says “that’s nice, but I’m in this to win against the Russians”.  Fascinating stuff.

Earth to Texas Rail Opponents: NO transportation is free!

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

Having lived most of my life in Texas, I’m familiar with the bizarre anti-public-transportation movement there.  I understand that building rail is more expensive than building roads but that doesn’t figure in the cost of operating the cars on those roads.  It also doesn’t figure in the economic damage to commercial freight caused by traffic jams and accidents.  (The city of Houston estimated this in the millions of dollars when studying whether or not they needed a “mandatory towing” policy for broken-down cars that were causing traffic jams.  Unsurprisingly, yes, it’s necessary).  Anyway, these points seem lost on rail opponents in Houston and Austin.  I recently was listening to Jeff Ward’s podcast, and his complaint was that — horror of horrors! — the metro rail project there will subsidize rider fare.  I heard no such complaints about taxpayer funds subsidizing roads.  Jeff Ward frequently fancies himself some sort of economics expert.  He’s got some interesting things to say now & then, but let’s be real — he’s a former UT football kicker who entertains on the radio & guest lectures in advertising at UT (not economics).

His harping on the “taxpayer subsidies” of public transportation plays to the common attack on public transportation in Texas.  That is, people need to man up and buy a car, and stop mooching off the government.  That’s all well and good, except that it ignores the costs associated with the alternative (auto transportation).  Specifically, it:

  • Requires expensive taxpayer-subsidized roads that are already full of traffic in Houston and Austin, that have nowhere to expand, and thus are frequently impractical to even build
  • Contributes to urban sprawl, which is a taxation problem in Texas because a disproportionate amount of local government infrastructure is funded by local-city property taxes (income taxes are banned by the state constitution)
  • Completely ignores the per-person costs that people pay for maintaining a car (actual maintenance, but insurance as well)
  • Is bad for economic stability because it promotes inefficient consumption of fossil fuels, which has its own long-term costs.
  • Is arguably bad for the environment, which has its own long-term costs.
  • Completely doesn’t work for poor people who don’t own a car (check out craptastic bus coverage in Houston some time — people forced to commute by bus there frequently spend 3 HOURS going across town, one way).

In reality, I think this is far more basic for Texans than a (faulty) economic argument.  People there really do have a wild-west mentality.  It’s widespread.  The “castle doctrine” (which allows a homeowner/resident to kill someone who trespasses, if the homeowner/resident “believes” that they are in danger), the concealed-handgun proliferation there (I can’t tell you how many times someone told me that they make sure their wife or girlfriend carries a gun in their purse, frequently unlicensed), and the “get your own horse & make the trails wider!” mentality of the anti-rail folks pretty much all can be boiled down to the fact that Texans like to see themselves as folksy Cowboys.  I’m not saying this to denigrate Texans — I love Texas.  But, c’mon, y’all have to separate this mythology of how you’d like to see yourselves from what’s economically wise.

Texas is far more spread out than the Northeast and thus it’s not practical for rail (or even public transit with buses) to completely replace having a car.  However, park-and-ride solutions can actually work.  They have bus-based programs that work like this in Austin and Houston, but ridership is low — primarily because it’s a frustrating experience.  You get on the bus and then basically wait with everyone else on the crowded roads.  If you’ve got your own car already, there’s very little personal incentive to ride the bus.  There’s less stress and it does allow you to eliminate one car from a multi-car family, but you are giving up scheduling freedom with your day.  I don’t blame people for wanting to get a more clear advantage than that.  Hopefully the large-scale metro rail rollout in Austin will succeed, and when people see the convenience and economic advantage of it, they’ll set aside their myth-based biases about public transportation.