Tag: Politics

Government as a Business

We’re getting another attempt to remodel the government as a business. If I had to run the federal government like a business, I sure as hell wouldn’t want to run it like one of Trump’s businesses! But lets ignore whose business.

The problem with the swat team Trump’s announced is that it seems to presuppose that the problem with government is a top-level management issue that could be sorted by sound business practices. What corporation has their top level leadership appointed by its customers? Or even its owners – sure, corporate boards are voted by shareholders … but not the C-level positions. Additionally, what business would almost guarantee multi-year positions to their high level leadership team? Regardless of performance?!

There is something to be said for bringing private sector innovation into government operations — especially at a lower level. Match up individual functions of government agencies with private sector businesses or even non-profits that have similar functionalities. Several government agencies have large logistical operations (FEMA, military) that a logistics company could help. Maybe Habitat for Humanity has ideas that would farther HUD’s goals. University teams may have interesting input too. And marketing — corporate experience would certainly be beneficial in selling legislation and initiatives.

But the fundamental problem I have with the principal that government should run like a business is that few businesses are monopolies. If you don’t like how a business operates, what values they support, the product they create … you shop around and select another one.

There was a whole thing a year or two ago with a baker who didn’t want to make a cake for a homosexual couple’s wedding. But as a customer, I can chose not to contract with a bigoted pastry chef for my events either. It is possible enough people don’t care and she remains in business. Or her choices mean her business goes under. Either way, you are not forced to support her beliefs because there are other bakeries.

Government provides services that cannot be privatized – for reasons of efficiency, non-profitability, or sensibility (privatizing the military security and prisons are a good counter-example of why government should provide these services). As such, I cannot just pick another military if I think the federal one is engaged in too many offensive operations. I cannot select a new environmental protection agency if I think the federal one fails to actually protect the environment.

If we’re going to operate the government like a monopoly (see: industries generally subject to a LOT of regulation), we are not just the customers! The government is a customer owned co-op. One that operates in hundreds of different verticals.

 

 

“Winning” War

Lamenting a lack of “winning” — especially if the solution is increasing military budgets — shows a frightening lack of understanding the purpose of our participation in modern wars. We’ve entered into some untenable situations from which it was difficult to cleanly extract our forces. We’ve intervened in situations where we were not really wanted.

Money is not going to magically create “winning” situations. The problem is not insufficient tech, hardware, or troops. It is bloody impossible to hold hostile territory in the long run – and trying is socio-economically draining. Ask the Romans – demanding tribute engenders animosity. Consult the Brits – colonialism is quite possibly the technique most apt to succeed (create an economic incentive to accept the new rulers), but eventually the colony wants legal and economic independence to get a fair market price for goods. Replacing the government with one that supports you? Germans can tell you how well that works (La Résistance, for instance).

You hold a conquered territory by leaving sufficient military presence to continually re-take the area from the locals. So when I hear someone saying they want to “win” wars … I expect they don’t know exactly what it takes to win. Or what winning even means. Who really wins in a war? Executives and stockholders for companies with multi-million dollar contracts to manufacture equipment whilst remaining safely away from the combat zones.

 

Something In Common

There have been a couple of recent articles that highlight how very similar the opposition party’s view of Trump and Obama actually are (although the articles seek to highlight the hypocrisy of objecting to behavior in which you engaged just last year). To some degree, I understand — if I think my position on an issue is the only good, upstanding, moral, godly position … there’s no compromising, the other side is not only WRONG but an immoral force looking to corrupt others. And it’s a logical conclusion that the figurehead of the immoral force is going to be vilified. I didn’t really understand it with Clinton – right-leaning friends acted like the chap had personally offended them. But it’s something that made sense to me with Bush 43. Invading a foreign country on flimsy evidence (that turned out to be wrong) was offensive to me. Maybe not immediately personal as I couldn’t be drafted … but friends getting called back into service because of linguistic skills or SIGINT training is personal. Wasting the country’s money, farther destabilizing a region … and doing so in my name was offensive. Trying to privatize social security was personally offensive (and created my retirement plan of “if social security actually pays out, there’s extra mad money for you”) and impersonally offensive (the government program enacted due in no small part due to the Great Depression and associated stock market collapse was going to allow people to invest money in the stock market because you could make more money that way?!? Seriously, consult big huge event that led to the program in the first place. Then repeat your idea.). I tried to keep this in mind when Obama encountered the immovable Republican congress. No, I don’t understand why getting rid of preexisting condition exceptions is controversial – and I understand why no for-profit business is going to be willing to operate if they have to cover your sudden (and expensive) illness but you don’t have to buy their coverage until you get your diagnosis. And I really don’t get why Republicans who advocated for a lot of the components of the plan suddenly deemed it anathema … except that the figurehead of the opposition is so vile that anything they support must be somehow wrong.

And now those same people think left-wing opponents treat Trump cruelly, use parliamentary machinations to block vital legislation … the people who did exactly that to Obama … don’t see it as the same thing because it IS different to them. A bit like vilifying Pol Pot and then vilifying Mother Theresa. One of them deserves it.

A friend of mine had a thread on Facebook denouncing moral relativism … but moral relativism is what you need to address these situations. Yes, your morals say X is completely wrong. But someone else’s morals say X is the only reasonable course of action … and neither set of morals are wrong. They are just different. Maybe the hope is that the opposing party will just run out of members and lose power forever. Doesn’t seem likely. The alternative is that we have a government vacillating between positions as different parties are elected. There would essentially be a set of laws enacted on day 1 for Republicans that gets completely supplanted with an alternate set of laws enacted on day 1 for Democrats. Long term business planning would be neigh impossible — who knows which set of laws will be in place two years from now! You’d have to develop a business that could comply with either or two different business plans. Even managing your own home would get silly — I want to install solar, but I need to wait until the Democrats come back into office so financial incentives are restored. Want to buy a big gas guzzling vehicle? Better wait until the Republicans are back to suspend fleet fuel economy requirements.

And if we’re going to have a set of laws that essentially ignores the minority (remember majority rule, minority rights … won’t have that anymore) … then we should go farther than what this silly compromise stuff has given us. In R terms, our SS contributions will go into stock funds. Then in D terms, we’ll be buying government bonds. During R terms, you’ll get vouchers and pick whatever school you are willing to drive your kid over to. During D terms, anyone who didn’t pick (a) their local district or (b) a private school they can afford anyway will transfer their kid to the local district. Reductio ad absurdum.

Innocence

“You think our country’s so innocent?” … now Trump was talking about murder, but I am thinking about it in light of Russian interference in the election. We’ve backed regimes coming into power, supported coups overthrowing foreign governments … sometimes both for the same individual (e.g. Ngô Đình Diệm). We distribute propaganda for favoured candidates, obtain and publicize embarrassing information about unfavoured candidates … and with the proliferation of computer technology, I am certain we have used hacking to obtain this information.

Trump’s seems to assume public objection to Russian meddling presupposed the US hasn’t taken the same actions. Not true. It isn’t anger that Russia turned these techniques on us … or even sour grapes that they managed such a stunning success. A significant number of people object to this behaviour when the US does it too — I don’t agree with assassinations, executions, or interference in elections be it by the CIA, MI6, KGB, China’s Ministry of State Security, or any other state security apparatus.

My Latest Conspiracy Theory (Movie)

There is a logical extrapolation to a world with facts and ‘alternative facts’ — why would alternative facts just be used to refute a report? They can just as easily make a story of their own. Trump has made a lot of outlandish campaign promises — ones that require significant money, legal maneuvering, and time to complete. But why bother completing them at all? You can just say it is done.

So they declare the wall built. Then there’s a whole conspiracy theory about it not actually having been built, people trekking down to Southern Texas and to get pictures of the not.a.wall down there. Government press releases with this huge, aesthetically pleasing, immigration stopping wall. How do you know which is the fact and which is the alternative fact (i.e. an obvious lie).

The problem with lying is you’ve either got to have people sufficiently willing to believe you to overlook the missing logical consequences of whatever you lied about OR you’ve got to create the same conditions either way. There are a lot of people willing to believe Trump *now* … but if they don’t start seeing results, either his wall was a complete waste (yeah, it was – I still say a massive fleet of drones could actually stop human traffic across unauthorized checkpoints for FAR less money — not saying I think the stopping human traffic is a good thing or not, but if we’re hell bent on DOING it, at least DO IT) or illegal immigrants were not the cause of unemployment and huge government spending on entitlements (yeah, they weren’t).

A priori assumption: an insufficient number of people are willing to believe the lie as evidence against it mounts to sustain a re-election campaign. Now they need to recreate their predicted result … government assassins offing some percent of people on public assistance (so they can declare reducing illegal immigration eliminated this money we’ve been wasting) and maybe even offing a random percent of the gainfully employed population (to open up jobs now that illegal immigrants aren’t “stealing our jobs”).

Just need some out there hippy type in an old VW bus cruising around the country trying to stop this murderous conspiracy.

Immigration

I know everyone has a gut reaction to the efficacy of the immigration ban – be it ‘total rubbish’ or ‘great job securing our borders’ – but a few organisations have bothered analysing the historic actions that would have been eliminated by the travel ban.

The Cato Institute, libertarian leaning but certainly not a left-wing think tank, finds no benefit to national security. The nations included in the ban account for seventeen convictions for attempted terrorist attacks – and exactly zero deaths. Now “attempting” a terrorist attack could be anything from planning to trying to actually execute an attack. Bad, but ZERO people died. A few of the banned countries (Libya and Syria) did not account for a SINGLE attempted attack. They provide a illuminating breakdown of what appears to be selectively picked data published by Senator Jeff Sessions — Trump’s pick for Attorney General. 6.9% of the list (over 500 accounts) were foreigners planning attacks on US soil. Even if I assume Senator Sessions hasn’t selected data to make a couple of countries look particularly bad, the travel ban fails to prevent 93.1% of PLANNED attacks.

A common argument is that stopping one attempt is worth it (questionable considering the disruption caused by the travel ban – doctors are unable to enter the country to take up residency at hospitals, scientists are unable to enter the country to take research positions at universities, but value cannot be ascribed to a life so arguing is a bit of a bad job). What cannot be determined, though, is how much anger does this move engender? How many people BEGIN providing material aid to terrorist organisations because of this ban? How many people are going to end up dead because of this action?

I’ve said before – it would be one thing to decree the entire immigration process insecure and shut down ALL immigration (travel tourism too. bad for, say, people who own hotels) for a period of time while a new process is deployed. Selectively banning countries based on history of terrorist activity — which this certainly IS NOT — only causes different people to undertake terrorist activities. It’s a little like the aeroport security scanners – they’re looking for everything previous terrorists have tried. Makes people feel better (even as they complain about the inconvenience) that the government is “doing something” to keep them safe. I guess this falls into the same category, but we aren’t even selecting countries to ban on historic data. We’re selecting them on some guy’s perception of risk. Or some guy’s investment portfolio. Or some guy who threw darts at a map of the Middle East.

Federal Regulations: 75% Off

Trump’s recent statement that 75% of federal regulations would be eliminated under his presidency is outright terrifying. On all levels, there are heaps of crazy regulations. Just yesterday, I learnt that it is illegal in Ohio to leave a running vehicle unattended. I cannot recall a particular instance where I left my vehicle running whilst I ran inside to grab a forgotten item, over to the mailbox to drop off an envelope, or some similarly quick jaunt away from my running vehicle … but I’m sure I *did*.

The thing is, as silly as any specific regulation may seem, there IS logic behind it. The rational may be outdated and thus no longer applicable, but laws were not enacted for the sake of using up legislative time. I doubt regulations were enacted as a farce. It would be an interesting academic study to enumerate all regulations for a particular branch and research the history and rational for each of them. Some are obvious — fleet fuel economy standards are to reduce oil usage. Emission standards are meant to reduce pollution. Then there are regulations such as 15 U.S.C. §§330a — “No person may engage, or attempt to engage, in any weather modification activity in the United States unless he submits to the Secretary [of Commerce] such reports with respect thereto, in such form and containing such information, as the Secretary may by rule prescribe. The Secretary may require that such reports be submitted to him before, during, and after any such activity or attempt.” Sounds a little bit silly at first, but if nothing else tracking weather modification attempts and their wider impact has value.

There are regulations on the banking industry, oversight of derivative markets, rules governing stock trading. Publicly traded companies are required to file accurate financial information with the SEC. It is not legal to dump toxic chemicals into the environment. The FDA has guidelines that are meant to ensure the safety of foods and labeling laws so you have a basic idea of what you are consuming.  There are fleet average fuel efficiency requirements. There are laws against manipulating energy markets. There are regulations that protect intellectual property.

I understand the argument that the free market would drive some of these same ends. If fuel economy is a concern to people, then more fuel efficient cars will be in demand. But that depends on honest, accurate reporting from corporations, and individuals being able to get the information they need to make an appropriate decision. I, personally, do not want to research the reputation of ten different companies before purchasing a bag of flour. I enjoy the fact that a bag that contains something other than ground up wheat lists the ‘extras’ – at the point of purchase, I can read the bag and decide if it is something I want to purchase. I also know that there are random inspections and any company lying about their ingredients is likely to incur a significant fine.

Another ‘free market’ example is the reduction of polystyrene packaging. Thirty years ago, any fast food purchase included a Styrofoam container (or three). In the 80’s, polystyrene materials were manufactured using chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). When this became fairly widespread knowledge, manufacturing processes were changed to use HCFC-22 (better but still ozone layer impacting). Another public movement against the material came about because it does not biodegrade — and its ubiquitous use in packaging meant litter was everywhere. And would stay there until it blew away to be somewhere else. Some localities banned the material for restaurants, but it was never a widespread thing. But polystyrene packaging is nowhere as prevalent today as it was thirty years ago. This is a result of consumer pressure.

My point is that I am fully aware that consumers can drive business decisions. Other regulations are not easily replicated by purchaser decisions. And consumer decisions require accurate information. Get rid of SEC filings — something I’m sure would save time and money for corporations (and the SEC) — and there’s no standard set of information upon which I can make investment decisions. No longer require estimated fuel economy using a standardized method (even if the method itself could be improved), and how do you compare vehicles beyond general physics which tells me a giant H2 is going to be more fuel efficient than a little Fiat 500. Eliminate environmental regulations, how do I know a company’s impact on their local environment?

Declaring that businesses should stay in this country because we’re going to severely cut corporate taxes and eliminate 75% of regulations is just a stupid statement. Sure, this guy throws out stupid statements as beginning negotiating positions … but how does a self-proclaimed awesome negotiator not know to start low on some things and high on others. Companies want 100% of regulations eliminated … so our government has just started the negotiation at 75%. They either stand or go up from there.

How Running A Country Is Nothing Like Running A Business: #1

Well, Trump hasn’t even been sworn in yet and I’ve got my first entry for this list: http://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/06/us/politics/trump-wall-mexico.html?_r=0 in which he says we’re going to float the debt to build this massive wall (hopefully finding the least environmentally damaging route, eminent domaining the fewest people, and so on). Then we’ll get Mexico to pay for it. Umm … so in business, this was basically the 2008 crash. We find a pool of people who aren’t going to pay, create debt on that not-a-payment, build a heap of stuff, and then act surprised when they fail to pay. Now, in the business world, you turn to the government to bail out your bad debt.

When you do this as a government … I don’t think the IMF is going to pay in Mexico’s stead for debt to which they’ve never consented. And if you look at the IMF requirements in Greece or Ireland, I sincerely hope that isn’t the direction the US goes.

The Monkey’s Paw

a.k.a ‘be careful what you wish for”

There is a short story written by W. W. Jacobs called “The Monkey’s Paw” which centers around an enchanted paw that grants wishes but in horrifying ways. A family wishes for two hundred pounds, and receives the sum as a sympathy payment when their son is killed in a machine accident at his place of employment.

I think of this story a lot in politics — it’s a little like the law of unintended consequences (consequences which can be beneficial, negative, or harmful which arise from ignorance of the impact of your change). The monkey’s paw has individuals who well know of the possible tragic effects (the first owner wished for his own death, the next owner threw it into the fire to avoid its curse) but decide to use the object anyway.

So you’ll get the Affordable Care Act overturned. Good for you. Now you no longer have coverage for pre-existing conditions … which means you’re stuck in your job until the condition is cured because you cannot afford to pay for the treatments (hope it is curable!). You have a lifetime coverage limit of a million or two – which sounds like a lot until you talk to someone who had premature babies and incurred a quarter mill in a couple of months. Oh, and once the kids are born their lifetime limit kicks in — so your one year old miracle baby has used up a quarter of their lifetime limit. I don’t have a 25 year old in college still on my plan … hope you don’t either. Bonus, there’s no limit on how much overhead and profit the insurance company can include in their rates. I’m sure that will lower the plan cost.

And that just assumes things go back to the bad state they were in before — Republicans advocate allowing inter-state competition for insurance plans. I see that going the way of credit cards — there’s no federal usury rate. A state could ensure themselves a couple thousand jobs and a some corporate income tax money by setting their usury rate higher than any other state. And then the banks would locate there, issue cards using the local jurisdiction usury rate, and there are a load of 23% interest cards. So now states will compete to have the lowest standards for insurance – and all of the insurance companies will go there. If we’re lucky, there will be the equivalent of a credit union — a company HQ’d locally that follows YOUR state laws that you’ve got a little chance of changing (i.e. I write the state congresspeople in ND and ask them to lower the usury rate, they don’t care. I write my local representatives about Ohio’s rate … well, at least I’m a constituent).

Driver For Automation (And Other Fallacies)

The recent “saved” jobs announcements, name-dropping Trump even when the decision had been made months earlier bother me. But the bigger picture is more troubling. There are a lot of off-shored jobs that cannot be threatened with tariffs. What retaliatory action can be taken when a company off-shores their customer support call center. Or data processing. Or coding. A vast majority of American jobs are not in manufacturing.

But, sure, let’s not focus on the bigger sectors being off-shored. As a manufacturer, you can go where the labor costs (as well as, I suspect, real estate / regulatory requirements / etc) are cheap and face a 35% import tariff. You can hire Americans and  increase your prices … but unless *all* foreign imports get taxed, that just makes you noncompetitive. You can hire Americans and reduce your profit … notwithstanding investor revolt, there’s a point at which you lose money on each product you sell. Or you build out an automated factory in the US – real estate and such may cost more, but your labor costs are REALLY low.

It might not have been cost effective to build a robotic manufacturing line in the US compared to overseas labor. Overseas labor – 35% tariff though … may well make automation cost effective without actually increasing manufacturing employment in the country. Learning how to program and maintain robots, though, may be a growing market.

Like the bank executives who got incredible bonuses while writing dodgy mortgages … in the short term, this does mean jobs are saved. A couple years from now, as the robotic manufacturing replaces those workers … they’re still unemployed.