First Amendment absolutism

In solidarity with those Second Amendment advocates who take an uncompromising stand on the individual right to bear arms, I have decided to become a First Amendment absolutist.

As an expression of my lawful, unrestrained freedom of speech, I reserve the right to scream the text of science journals and to hurl profanities at any and all NRA or Gun Owners of America events. Any attempt by police to stop me will confirm that they are simply jack-booted thugs working for a tyrannical government.

As an expression of my right to peaceably assemble, I reserve the right to bring a group of my friends and sit down with my Second Amendment fellows – in their living rooms and churches. Any attempt by the police to remove me will prove that the government is destroying individual freedom in our great country.

And, finally, given that the First Amendment bars laws “respecting an establishment of religion,” which I interpret to mean as respecting any religion whatsoever, I demand that we start taxing the property of churches just like we would the property of any organization.

So, my Second Amendment absolutist brethren, please join me in this fight to fulfill the true promise of the First Amendment. After all, the Founding Fathers did list it first, so it must have some role to play in defending freedom.

Peace out.

Fun with toxic haze and economics

Here in Singapore, we are currently in the so-called haze season. It’s a time of year when corporate and some small farmers in Indonesia use fire to clear oil palm fields for planting. The smoke from the fields – and other non-farm areas where the fire spreads – blows across the water to mainly Singapore and Malaysia, leading to significant air pollution. For example, as I write this, a measure of air quality called PSI is reading 239. One hundred is considered the top of the safe range.


NASA Earth Observatory image – Jeff Schmaltz

The countries in southeast Asia have debated how to fix the problem for decades. The talks are a complex mix of national economic interests, national sovereignty, and national pride. While I wish it would get resolved once and for all, at least the haze provides an opportunity to highlight what I think is one of the more powerful ideas in economics: externalities.

No, no, come back! Stick with me. It’s more interesting than it seems.

Externalities crop up when people besides the participants in an economic exchange either benefit or are harmed by that exchange. In other words, the costs or benefits end up being separate from – external to – the people who made the deal.

When a third party benefits, it’s called a positive externality. One example is when parents pay to get their children inoculated against contagious diseases. The parents pay the direct price, but everyone benefits from having a healthier community. Another example is college education. The student (or more likely the parents, again) pays the price, but everyone benefits to some degree from having a well-educated workforce. There are plenty of other important examples, like public K-12 education and roads.

But for this post, I want to focus on negative externalities. That’s when someone else bears the cost of an exchange two other people make. The haze we’re living under right now is a perfect example.

Oil palms – Irvin Calicut

The oil palms grown in Indonesia are processed into palm oil (oddly enough), which is used in a wide variety of products, from pizza dough and ice cream to lipstick and shampoo. The profits made from selling these products go, in part, to the palm oil producers. However, nobody is paying me as I run our portable air cleaner to keep the air in our condo free of haze particulates. No one is paying me as I wipe particulates off the flat surfaces in our kitchen that the air cleaner doesn’t capture. No one is paying me for the hassle of being stuck inside, unable to enjoy the day.

Does that sound like whining? Okay, let’s think of the Indonesians themselves, who are living right next to the fires and bearing the brunt of the pollution. PSI levels in one of the effected areas almost hit 2,000 recently. Remember, 100 is the top of the safe range. The health problems they will suffer now and in the future are bound to be significant. Who will pay for the medical care?


That ain’t fog. It’s toxic haze. – me

In a world without externalities, the corporate and small farmers and all of the food and personal care product companies and their customers would. But that’s unlikely. Instead, the people themselves will pay. Or the cost will be picked up by government, which is covered by everyone paying taxes. It’s privatized profits, but socialized costs. In other words, an unaddressed externality.

This dynamic, by the way, is the logic behind some taxes and regulation. If the market won’t capture the costs, the government has to step in with a system for doing so. It’s one way government makes capitalism function properly.

So, that’s externalities. Once you know about the idea, you start seeing it everywhere. Just the like the haze.

The real ideological battle of the 21st century

For more than 15 years now, much of the world’s attention has been focused on the danger posed by Islamic extremists. That threat is real, of course. But it will not end up being the defining ideological conflict of our time. Despite the apocalyptic fantasies of both Islamic and Christian fundamentalists, we won’t see any mass conversions, either peacefully or by the sword. And we’re not truly engaged in an Islamic/western clash, either. No, the real ideological battle for the 21st century will be between liberal republicanism and illiberal authoritarianism.

Let me define some terms. By liberal, I mean a system that prizes individual liberty and promises a set of equally and impartially applied individual rights – free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association, etc. By republicanism, I mean a system in which power is considered legitimate when it somehow enjoys the consent of the people, mainly through elections. This combination broadly describes the political systems of most of the leading nations of the world.

However, one leading nation doesn’t have a system like this: China.

Flag_of_the_People's_Republic_of_China.svgDon’t get me wrong here. I’m not talking about Communism. Yes, that was the motivating ideology that led to the establishment of the People’s Republic. However, for millennia before that, Chinese culture was defined by other ideologies. One, in particular – Confucianism – was highlighted recently in the Wall Street Journal:

“Mr. Xi (Jinping, President of the People’s Republic) appears to be seeking to inoculate Chinese people against the spread of Western political ideals of individual freedom and democracy, part of what some political insiders say he views as a long-term contest of values and ideology with the U.S.”

While no ideology can be simply summarized, I would describe Confucianism in this way: Everyone has a place. Those in power have two duties: to be the best and the brightest and to use their gifts and power to serve the interests of the people. The people, meanwhile, have two duties, as well: to not question the powerful and to do as they’re told.

Often Confucianism also gets joined to another ancient Chinese ideological traditional called legalism. Under legalism, the laws – the rules – are clearly set out, and should they be broken, harsh punishments will follow.

In other words, instead of being liberal and republican, Confucianism and legalism combined tend toward illiberalism and top-down authoritarianism. They worked pretty well to sustain imperial China for a couple thousand years.

And with the 21st century potenially set to become the Chinese century, this should be the primary ideological concern of the liberal republics of the world.

Let me clear: I don’t think Confucianism is all bad. It is not some sort of fascism. There is a required reciprocity between the rulers and the ruled that has, at its core, the interests of all the citizens and desires for a balanced and harmonious society. Not too much to complain about there.

But, obviously, it also runs counter to the predominant western perspective on the rights and duties of citizens – even if it does sync up nicely with the idea that a single party should run the show without question.

It’s true. Freedom is under threat.

I keep hearing about how freedom in the United States is under attack.

I couldn’t agree more.

Let’s just look at the many ways our freedom is threatened.

The freedom to vote: We have efforts underway in many states to make it harder to vote, and two years ago the U.S. Supreme Court made it more difficult to block these efforts. If we take our tradition as a republic seriously, we should be moving in the opposite direction, with expanded and easier opportunities for all citizens to vote.

Tom Arthur from Orange, CA, United States

Tom Arthur from Orange, CA, United States

There are plenty of good proposals, including high school voter registration, online voter registration, election day voter registration, expanded early voting, and making election day a national holiday. Many other improvements can be made to our electoral system, as well, including taking redistricting out of the hands of political parties, lowering the barriers to ballot access for new parties, and allowing more candidates to be viable through instant runoff voting systems. Let’s go even further and make the right to vote a part of our Constitution. True defenders of freedom shouldn’t settle for anything less.

The freedom to participate as an equal in our democracy: Money has always played a large part in our politics, but thanks to a variety of U.S. Supreme Court and lower court decisions in recent years, billionaires and millionaires hold more sway today than in more than a century. In the U.S., you do have the freedom to get rich, but that does not give you the right to rule. That’s not democracy. It’s plutocracy. And defenders of freedom shouldn’t stand for it. A Constitutional amendment should be passed overturning the Citizens United decision, that defined money as speech and corporations as people. That will allow us to pass meaningful campaign finance reform that puts all Americans on a more equal political playing field. In the meantime, transparency and disclosure laws and penalties should be toughened and aggressively policed. It’s our republic, after all, so we have every right to know who’s buying our politicians.

The freedom that comes from a decent livelihood: We often hear that freedom isn’t free. That’s exactly right. It costs money. And if you’re poor or struggling or in debt, you’re not truly free.


“Freedom from Want” – Norman Rockwell

Yes, people need to work for what they get, but for the last forty years, we’ve seen the fruits of most Americans’ labor flow to a tiny sliver of the population, even though Americans are more productive than ever before. Economics involves many trade-offs, and we can debate which proposals are best to address this problem. But we certainly can’t do what we’ve been doing and expect a different result. Cutting taxes even more for the wealthy won’t get us there. Instead, we should be expanding programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit and preserving Social Security. There appears to be some room to expand the minimum wage without harming employment. If you want private market solutions, allow people to form unions as easily as they form corporations. And if we want to think big, we should consider consolidating and eliminating many social support programs and replacing them with a Universal Basic Income.

The freedom that comes from having good health: As the old saying goes, if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, the U.S. is expanding Americans access to health insurance. This will increase freedom by helping participants to get needed medical care and avoid a leading cause of personal bankruptcy. Efforts to repeal the ACA are a direct assault on this freedom. Many more improvements are still needed in the American health care system. We still have terrible health outcomes for the amount we spend. And perhaps we would be better off with a single-payer health insurance system – for basic services, at least. But until we have agreement around a different solution, the ACA is better than what we had before.

The freedom of safety from gun violence: The United States is an absolute outlier in the amount of gun deaths. And rather than address the problem, we have allowed a group of gun rights extremists, who have incredible savvy when it comes to manipulating our political process, to pollute our public square with their idiosyncratic interpretation of the 2nd amendment. A society filled with the fear of gun violence is not free. While there can be reasonable debate as to what would work to reduce gun violence in America, the fact that we can do nothing – especially as first-graders are slaughtered – is a travesty.

Freedom from state-sanctioned violence: A bedrock principle of western political theory is that the government exists to help protect the lives and property of its citizens. But recently, thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, we have been reminded that blacks face disproportionate violence from our police. And this bias extends into how we treat criminality in the U.S., as well. Errant police and a biased legal system need to be brought to justice.

Freedom from religious interference in the operation of our public institutions: When a law is duly passed in this country, it is up to the officials in the government to implement that law without bias or favor. Now, with Kim Davis, we have the spectacle of a government official saying that she has the right to decide the law of the land unilaterally based on her particular religious interpretations and not perform her duties in office. Don’t like the law? Quit and get a new job changing it. Even go to jail to change it if need be. But until such time, keep our government out of it. It belongs to all of us and is not your personal soapbox.

Freedom from bigotry: Bigotry of many kinds – racist, sexist, religious, etc. – is running rampant. Again, blacks have to fear for their lives from the police. We have leading presidential candidates whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment. Women face sexist comments and long-standing inequalities in pay. We have teenagers profiled for their religion. Neo-confederates are marching in the street. The gay community has seen great strides with revised marriage laws and public acceptance, but must still face active hostility. And despite the fact that Christians think they are hated and persecuted, try being an atheist. Being judged for the circumstances of your birth – skin color, sex, sexual orientation – is a direct assault on your freedom to live your life. Ideas, like those that come from religious and ideological beliefs, are more open to debate and attack, especially when they lead to murderous behavior. But that debate – that free expression – is perhaps the crowing achievement of our American tradition. But to use those beliefs to justify mindless bigotry does not expand freedom. Instead, it destroys it.

Freedom from ignorance: Medical science has brought us huge advances in public health, yet there are still those who think their anecdotes on treatments like vaccines trump solid research. So much so, that well-managed diseases are making a comeback. And despite solid evidence that has been amassed now over decades, we have no action on global warming, the leading environmental threat to many communities the U.S. and across the world.

Yes, our freedom is indeed under threat. And Americans everywhere are standing up to do their part to oppose those who would strip us of our liberty. I have a word for them: patriots.

Building and paying for a social democratic America

By Mstyslav Chernov (Self-photographed, [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

If you are part of the American left, middle, or the non-crazy right, you need to read Lane Kenworthy’s “Social Democratic America”. I’m coming a little late to this party. His book was published in early 2014, and I wish I had heard about it at the time.

Kenworthy lays out an honest, clear, evidence-based argument for why the U.S. should adopt policies that improve the economic conditions of all Americans and – this is important – how we can afford these policies. He also offers a hopeful view for liberal activists and politicians that success is indeed possible in our modern, highly polarized, money-saturated political system.

Kenworthy takes the Nordic countries – mainly Denmark, Sweden, and Norway – as the models for what successful, just economies look like. There are solid reasons to do so. The citizens of the Nordic countries tend to more economically secure and prosperous. And – note this conservatives – the Nordic countries score as well as the U.S. when it comes to economic “freedom”, as defined by the Heritage Foundation.

So, how is this all possible? Step one: taxes. Tax everybody more.

Back in 2007 – at the peak before the housing, financial, and economic crashes – all forms of government in the U.S. (local, state, and federal) spent 37% of GDP, a measure of our national income. Kenworthy would increase that to 47% though a variety of new and increased taxes:

  • 5.0%  National consumption tax (VAT) at a rate of 12%, with limited deductions or a small flat rebate
  • 2.0 %  Return to the 2000 (pre-Bush) federal income tax rates
  • 0.7%  Several new federal income tax rates for households in the top 1%, increasing the average effective tax rate for this group by an additonal 4.5 points
  • 0.6%  End the mortgage interest tax deduction
  • 0.7%  Carbon tax
  • 0.5%  Financial transactions tax of 0.5% on trades
  • 0.2%  Increase the cap on the Social Security payroll tax so the tax covers 90% of total earnings, as it did in the early 1980s
  • 0.3%  Increase the payroll tax by 1 percentage point

Depending on how they’re structured (the devil is always in the details), many of these new taxes would hit higher income people harder. But when I wrote above that Kenworthy had an honest plan, it was mainly because of the inclusion of a value-added tax. The VAT, which is a form of sales tax, would hit people who spend most of their money the hardest – in other words, lower income people.

The fact is everyone will need to pay more in taxes. I’m not arguing here that the wealthy already pay all the taxes or that they don’t pay enough. The fact is we end up having roughly a proportional tax in the U.S. And note again that many of the taxes in Kenworthy’s plan are aimed at top income earners.

No, for me it’s mostly political. Given the power that the wealthy have over how we set policy now, I think it’s unlikely that they will shoulder the entire burden. Also, I think there’s an element of citizenship here. If you pay some of these additional taxes, then you are a very real part of the American system – the much celebrated taxpayer! No one can – or should – question your membership in the club.

But more tax revenue is not the end of the story. Now comes part two: spend that additional money on universal programs that improve the economic well-being of all Americans. Some of Kenworthy’s suggestions are:

  • True universal health insurance
  • One year of paid parental leave
  • Universal early education
  • An increased child tax credit
  • Wage insurance
  • The government as employer of last resort
  • Increasing the minimum wage

The overall effect of these and his other suggestions would be to better insure Americans against the vagaries of economic life – which, by the way, is exactly what wealthier individuals do as soon as they can afford it: buy insurance to protect what they’ve managed to accumulate or buy additional services, like day care, to make working life easier. This is simply a program for expanding those protections for everyone. And by expanding these protections, lower income Americans would see their higher taxes offset in real services and benefits. By the way, this does not suggest that government employees have to actually provide the service. They just help people afford it. That’s exactly the way Medicare works – private doctors are paid by the government insurance program.

Altogether, this is the essence of the Nordic model: pay high taxes and use those taxes to fund services and programs that increase economic security and well-being and enhance economic competitiveness for everyone.

Obviously there’s much more in the book. One particularly valuable service Kenworthy provides is taking on the more frequent objections to his plan with evidence from the social sciences. Certainly, evidence doesn’t always win the day (the reality and danger of man-made global warming, for example), but any self-respecting liberal likes to have that in her or his back pocket.

I have more to say about Kenworthy’s book, but I’m going to spread it out over some posts. While you’re waiting, pick up a copy.

One fever, five people, and at least a dozen ways to be grateful

Recently a fever swept through our household. Both of my children and I each were laid low for a few days. Now that we’re fully recovered, it’s time to be grateful. Thats right, grateful. I can think of twelve reasons:

  1. I’m grateful for living in a scientifically advanced world that has knowledge of viruses.
  2. I’m grateful that I can get sound medical advice based on that scientific knowledge.
  3. I’m grateful for living in a medically advanced society that has proven and safe fever-reducing medicines.
  4. I’m grateful that I live in a society where both the medical advice and the medicine were easily accessible.
  5. I’m grateful that I live in a society where both the medical advice and medicine were easily affordable.
  6. I’m grateful that I live in decent shelter with the invaluable technology of air conditioning. (I live in Singapore. If I lived in the far north or south, I’d be talking about central heating.)
  7. I’m grateful that I live in a society where clean water and proper nutrition were easily available and affordable – right in my home, no less.
  8. I’m grateful that we are able to hire help to get groceries and cook and clean while the sickness swept through the house. (More on that in a separate post.)
  9. I’m grateful my wife works hard to get the money and benefits necessary to cover the cost of our portion of #’s 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8.
  10. Though my wife did not have to miss work because of our illness this time, I’m grateful that she works in a job where she could if necessary without jeopardizing her income, as is true for many hourly workers.
  11. I’m grateful that I have a supportive family overall. Even the kids chipped in to help once they started feeling better.
  12. I’m grateful I live in a stable society not torn apart by natural disasters or the human-made disasters of war, ethnic conflict, and religious conflict.

I’m sure if I take the time, I could think of more. You can probably think of some yourself.

Let me make some points:

  • If you live today in an advanced, stable society, you are incredibly fortunate. Be thankful for those who went before you and everything they accomplished and built. Honor their memory by expanding it for the next generation.
  • A decent society figures out a way to provide #’s 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 12 to everyone. As for #’s 9 and 11, that’s up to you. You likely already provide #9 on your own. You are to be commended.
  • Everything I’m thankful for on this list became possible because of the right mix of government services and intervention; private, profit-seeking initiative; decent individuals and strong families; and people striving to create a vibrant civil society. It takes everyone and every institution working together to make civilization possible.

Waiting for conservatives to take capitalism and personal responsibility seriously – fracking edition

Today we get a report from Reuters on new research from Oklahoma that the disposal of wastewater from oil and gas drilling into underground wells is likely linked to earthquakes in that state.

Hey, conservatives, listen up.

You often claim to oppose socialism. But this is a kind of socialism – the BAD kind. The oil and gas companies get their profits, while outsourcing a huge cost – earthquakes – to the people of Oklahoma.

And you often claim to support capitalism. This is not capitalism, and it’s not good economics. Capitalism requires that you are responsible for the entire cost of your product. That’s the only way we can properly price a product. That’s the only way we get efficient markets. Etc., etc. Normally this is the kind of stuff conservative economists would tell you, but instead what we usually get from that crowd is opposition to “burdensome” government regulations. Well, sometimes, regulations are just designed to make sure costs are privatized, not socialized. We certainly need some sort of regulation in this case – or maybe just really, really expansive and expensive insurance policies.

Also normally, conservatives, you go on and on about personal responsibility. But where is the personal responsibility of these oil and gas drillers if they allow the costs of earthquakes to be spread to everyone else? This is a basic moral issue, and I don’t hear many conservatives jumping up and down about this one.

Either way, look, fracking is a bad idea for many reasons – water quality, air quality, methane leaks that increase global warming among them. And I have found this assessment to be shared by liberal and conservative people I know. So, opposing fracking and this kind of wastewater disposal shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for many people.

But when a multi-billion dollar industry gets it’s head wrapped around an idea – and then gets to freely use its billions to legally corrupt our democracy and influence our legislators – well, bad things ensue.

Bad for our democratic republic. Bad morally. Bad capitalism.