Unfree news Saturday, Feb 27 2010 

Note: This a much longer version of a letter I submitted to the University Chronicle in response to Kyle Stevens. It did not appear in this week’s edition, but perhaps it will next week’s in the edition following spring break (darn!). I’ll update this post with a link if it is.

Update: I was expecting my letter to be published in this Monday’s edition of the University Chronicle. It seems the opinions editor is unaware of any reason why it was not published in this edition and promised to publish in next week’s edition and upload it online as soon as possible. I’ll post another update with a link as soon as there is one.

Update 2: The letter was published in this week’s edition of the University Chronicle. You can read it online here.

In an opinion published in the February 22 edition of the University Chronicle, Kyle Stevens argues that The New York Times charging readers to see articles on their Web site is “good news.” People who do not subscribe to the newspaper will have to pay a fee to get unlimited access to NYT online articles sometimes in early 2011, according to Stevens. Though Stevens admits “this does not qualify as ‘good’ news” for the general public, he says “this is ‘great’ news” for the media industry. The reason, he argues, is that when The New York Times began to provide free news on their Web site in 2007, small papers like the St. Cloud Times had “to play the same game.” In other words, other newspapers also had to provide free content in order to effectively compete in the market. Apparently, the news industry couldn’t survive off of this model, and now with this change “maybe the news industry can be saved,” says Stevens. This “fee-to-see format,” says Stevens, “makes so much sense that I cannot believe it has happened.”

Does it make so much sense?

We know that a free and vibrant press is a cornerstone of civic society and liberal democracy. The spread of information, knowledge, discussion is essential for any healthy society. The question is whether we want to limit this dispersion or if we want to make it as free and vibrant as possible.

Knowledge is what economists call a “public good” in the technical literature. Thomas Jefferson wrote that ideas have a “peculiar character” in that “no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening mine.” In economics, that is the idea of a non-rivalrous good. Your possession of knowledge does not hamper or diminish mine. Therefore, we ought to spread knowledge and ideas as widely as possible. Yet, setting up fees to read the news does not accomplish this goal. Hampering the spread of knowledge creates an economic inefficiency. There is a better outcome, which is to make the news as dispersed as much as possible, to share it freely. Therefore, making the news more expensive does not generate a favorable outcome, and Stevens acknowledges this when he states “this does not qualify as ‘good’ news” for the general public. Yes, it might help a handful of private corporations maximize their profit (as Stevens correctly points out), but it does not benefit the whole of society.

Helping large corporations maximize their profits often does not produce the most economically efficient or socially desirable outcome. As many media critics are quick to point out, the interests of large corporate media are not aligned with the interests of a vibrant and democratic society.

In this sense, the ownership of the media has a substantial influence on the output of the media. This is a core thesis of the propaganda model developed by Herman and Chomsky in their 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent, as I’ve discussed in an earlier post. Our dominant source of information is increasingly being controlled by fewer and fewer large multinational corporations. That has an effect on the output, and we experience it on a daily basis. The propaganda model has strong explanatory power.

Explains John Nichols, “The primary one is that the people who own most of the newspapers are not interested in civic or democratic values. They’re interested in commercial and entertainment values, and primarily to make a lot of money.” And it these large oligopolistic corporations that are being subsided and supported by government, through copyrights, Communications Act of 1934, and so on. Furthermore, according to Robert McChesney, this is “encouraged by the corruption of the U.S. political system, in which politicians tend to be comfortable with the status quo and not inclined to upset powerful commercial media owners and potential campaign contributors. The dominant media firms enjoy the power to control news coverage of debates over media policies; this is a power they have used shamelessly to trivialize, marginalize, and distort opposition to the status quo.”

The pre-capitalist Framers of our nation readily understood that the media are to function as a prevailing counterbalance to corporate and state power. In other words, the media are meant to give the people an independent voice. Now, however, we cannot speak of corporate influence on the media, because the media are the huge corporations. They are one and the same. And when you think of the media as agenda setters, which they are, the result is what’s been referred to as a “democratic deficit,” namely because “it was understood that if you just let wealthy people run the media system, it would serve only wealthy people, not viable democratic self-government.”

Well, now there is a crisis that is widely recognized, especially by people like Stevens and those in the media businesses, particularly in the printed press. It’s been referred to as the “death of newspapers.” Small, independent newspapers, local papers, and even some of the big dailies, are closing down or firing thousands of journalists each month. The problem is real and it’s a threat to a healthy democratic process. The reasons for it are numerous and fairly apparent. The real question is what we should do about it. Stevens offers one solution, which is to make the big newspapers like The New York Times less accessible to the general public so that smaller papers like the St. Cloud Times can have a chance. I don’t think this is the optimal solutions for the reasons I’ve already laid out. But there remains a definite problem where the printed news media are struggling to stay alive. It seems reasonable to make people charge more for good journalistic news, because it’s not free to produce. You have to balance the budget somehow.

There are alternatives to increasing charges (which is not likely to save the printed press), and two leading media scholars offer some in their book, The Death and Life of American Journalism. The subject of their book deals with the problems of the current state of affairs in the media and journalism, and how we can overcome the current crisis that the media face. This was also the subject of a fascinating interview the two authors had that aired on PBS last month. Had I not watched that interview last month, I probably would have thought nothing of Stevens’ letter. But Nichols and McChesney offer an alternative to Stevens’ argument, which I think is both sensible and pragmatic. What they suggest is subsidizing independent journalism. I can’t do their proposal much justice here, so I implore you to listen to the interview or buy their book (both of which I linked to above).

Obviously, the idea of a government subsidy makes a lot of people uneasy, and not just right-wingers who want to see the government disappear. There are concerns by people who think the government getting involved in the media would be akin to something like state media or, at the very least, government meddling in the generation of opinions and ideas. This, too, would be very unhealthy for a democracy. These concerns are addressed by Nichols and McChesney and they offer solutions to prevent any of this from happening. And the reason they urge a government subsidy for journalism is for the same reason that the Founding Fathers were very aware of. A free press is meaningless without a vibrant press. This was instantly recognized by the key Framers of the United States. So, for example, there were debates in early American history about how to subsidize the press, to ensure the democratic process flourished. And the government offered many subsidies to the press, one of the primary ones being postal subsidies. Congress debated how little presses should be charged for postal services. James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, thought the debate was nonsense. He thought there should be no charge, that it should be completely subsidized by the government, because anything less would interfere with the free flow of ideas and opinions, which, again, was recognized as the cornerstone of liberal democracy. Madison wrote, “Whatever facilitates a general intercourse of sentiments, as good roads, domestic commerce, a free press, and particularly a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people … is favorable to liberty.”

In order for there to be liberty, there needs to be a free press in addition to a vibrant press that offers a whole range of ideas. Madison and other key Framers understood this well. It’s the only way that independent voices could actually challenge, for example, state power. It’s how the abolitionist press stayed alive even during the years Congress banned any debate about slavery. Journalism and democracy are intimately linked, and so it is our imperative that we support it to its fullest. If one role of government is to protect and ensure democracy, as some libertarians might agree it is, then there exists an obligation on its part to protect and ensure independent journalism, in the same way it ensured it during the early years of the republic. One idea that Nichols and McChesney offer is vouchers or tax write-offs for citizens to give money to independent news sources. Again, you can read their book or listen to their interview for a more in-depth discussion. When you look at the subsidies the early republic offered to the press as a percent of the GDP, it would translate into roughly $30 billion in today’s money. Moreover, when you look at the places recognized as the freest and most open democracies in the world, where the press is rated as the most independent and freest, it’s places like Finland, Norway, Sweden, and so on, where they also offer roughly $30 billion in subsidies. It is in this way that vibrant, healthy, and independent news is ensured and maintained. Writing for the CATO Unbound blog, Paul Starr says, “we should be open to the idea” of public subsidies for journalism. I also think we should be open to the idea as a viable and pragmatic alternative to Stevens’ solution, to ensure that independent journalism can survive, that it is vibrant and healthy, and that it can continue to challenge corporate and political power.

RE:God debate Thursday, Feb 25 2010 

Wow! I would like thank Campus Crusade for Christ (CRU) and Secular Student Alliance (SSA) for hosting and Professor Suzanne Stangl-Erkens for moderating last night’s debate between August Berkshire and Joe Boot on whether God exists or not. Mr. Boot argued in the affirmative, while Mr. Berkshire argued in the negative. The turnout was spectacular. There were 700 seats set out in the Atwood ballroom and an additional 200 were brought in to accommodate the influx of people. Even then, there were still people standing, so attendance was close to 1,000 people. That’s way more than I think anyone was expecting. This is clearly a subject many people are interested in, including even for college-aged students. In most of these types of events on campus, there is usually a high ratio of older adults to college students. I didn’t notice that here. It did seem to me that God-fearing Christians outnumbered the secular nonbelievers in the crowd, but that would be consistent with the broader demographic, though there was still strong support for Mr. Berkshire. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any polling beforehand to gauge the beliefs of those in attendance, though I did notice more people went towards SSA’s table than to Mr. Boot’s near the entrance of the ballroom. I think free material enticed people more than books for sale. 😉

As for the debate at hand, I cannot make much of a reply to Mr. Boot’s positions, as my knowledge on metaphysics is not very strong. I do, however, like how he took a philosophical approach and touched on some epistemological issues. Philosophy is one of my favorite subjects and I find it very interesting, so I do not take for granted his appeal to many philosophical arguments for the existence of God. Indeed, I believe it is only through these types of arguments that anyone can ascertain the existence or non-existence of God or a god. Moreover, I thought Mr. Berkshire was rather calm, straightforward, and concise, while Mr. Boot always seemed to be yelling and went over the allotted time on several occasions. At the same time, though, the debates were on quite different levels. By that, I mean they took very different approaches to their arguments. Mr. Berkshire was very concrete and straightforward in his arguments, in my opinion, whereas Mr. Boot was much more philosophical and abstract. Mr. Boot, for example, argued that the existence of God is necessary if we are to make any intelligible sense of the world, whereas Mr. Berkshire referred to this line of thinking as “God of the gaps”; Mr. Berkshire contended that since Mr. Boot could not find any natural explanation for certain phenomena (e.g. natural laws), that he was merely trying to fill the void (in knowledge) or gap with the invention of a god. So Mr. Berkshire’s argument was that there lacked any compelling evidence to lead him to believe in the existence of a god, whereas Mr. Boot argued that such an existence is logically necessary.

Who had the stronger arguments? Me being a member of SSA, I’m naturally inclined to say Mr. Berkshire did, just as I’m sure most of the Christians in the crowd would say Mr. Boot did. Did anyone in the crowd change their mind? I don’t know, maybe a few (as I said, there was no polling to objectively gauge this). For those coming in unsure, I hope either debater helped clarify the positions so that informed and educated decisions could made. I very much enjoyed the debate. It was great to hear from Mr. Boot a new perspective that I had not heard before. Mr. Berkshire also brought interesting arguments that I also had not heard before, which helped me solidify my beliefs. I do have to admit though, one my favorite quotes from the whole thing was from Mr. Berkshire: “According to Christian theology, God sacrificed himself to himself to save us from himself.”

In the end, I think the debate was very constructive. Open, intelligent, and civil discussion serves an important function in liberal democratic societies. The fact that we’re able to hold discussions on such topics is a testament to progress of society, even within the past few decades. Where just a few decades ago atheists were relegated to second-class citizenship who should not be “considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots” according to the then-Vice President Bush, I am pleased we are able to discuss the topic rationally, respectably, and with impunity. While I do think much progress is left to be made in this area, I appreciate greatly the time and effort both Joe Boot and August Berkshire gave to bring this great experience to SCSU. I would again like to thank CRU, SSA, and Professor Stangl-Erkens. I would also like to thank all those in attendance who also took time to listen to perspectives they may have disagreed with it. In all, I believe there was a positive outcome.

God debate Tuesday, Feb 23 2010 

For those in the St. Cloud area, there is a debate being hosted by Campus Crusade for Christ (CRU) and the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) on the topic, “Does God Exist?” The debaters are August Berkshire, who wast a past president of Minnesota Atheists, and Joe Boot from the Ezra Institute for Contemporary Christianity. It will be from 8:00 P.M. until 10:00 P.M. at SCSU in the Atwood Ballroom. It is free to the public. The event was not advertised as well as it could have been, but I think there’s going to be a fairly large turnout still. For those planning on attending, there will be time for Q&A, so come with question in mind (or submit them beforehand at SCSUGodDebate@gmail.com). I think the debate will be interesting, and I might have a post responding to the event afterward. Religion tends to be a touchy and heated subject, but I always find intelligent, open, and civil discussion to be a great benefit for all people. In this vein, I hope you you show up and get some value out of it!

Edit: See my response to the event here.

American ungenerosity – part I of II Saturday, Feb 20 2010 

In their pompous belief in American exceptionalism, there are some people—typically on the right—who claim that the United States “is the most charitable country on earth.” Next, they try to explain why we’re so generous, and they have plenty of ideas indeed. But, really, what we ought to ask first is whether or not it’s true. Is it really true that the United States is the most generous nation on Earth? It depends.

It depends, first of all, on what we’re measuring and how we measure it. In the first of a two part series examining “American generosity,” I’ll look at how the United States compares as a nation to other nations in terms of its charitable contributions. In the second part, I’ll look at the generosity of the American people through private donations.

On a national scale, how does the United States compare? As a nation, are we the most charitable? If the American people are truly as generous as the believers in American exceptionalism say we are, this should be reflected in the national policies and agendas set by the people we’ve elected to represent us. Is it? Is giving a priority the American people are concerned about? Using some measures, it is. For example, if measure how much Official Development Aid (ODA) the United States gives compared to other nations, the United States far surpasses any other nation according to data compiled by the OECD. In absolute terms, the United States gave away $26.01 billion in ODA in 2008—nearly twice as much as the second most charitable nation (Germany) gave away.

But is this really a good measure of charitableness? The United States is the third most populated country and is by far the richest in the world (more than the next three richest countries combined). We would expect that the United States should have the highest donation rate in absolute terms, based on that fact alone (there is, in fact, a strong positive relationship between the total wealth of a nation and the absolute amount it gives away). How does the United States compare when we look at ODA relative to the nation’s gross national income (GNI)? According to the same OECD data, the United States ranks dead last among industrialized nations in terms of the ODA it gives away as a percent of GNI. In 2008, the United States gave away just 0.18% of its GNI in ODA, while Sweden, the most charitable of industrialized nations, gave away 0.98%. In other words, the United States is the least charitable industrialized nation relative to its wealth, while the Scandinavian countries are the most generous. Looking at the data, there is a slight trend showing the inverse relationship between a nation’s GNI and how much it contributes as a percentage of that GNI (in other words, nations with higher GNIs tend to donate a smaller percentage of it), as shown in the figure below.

By this measure, then, which I find much more reasonable, the United States is not very charitable at all. As you can see in the above graph, the United States is a big outlier, with very high GNI but very low percent of it going toward ODA. As you might have noted in the OECD data, there is a UN target of 0.7% of GNI being donated towards ODA, which only five nations have surpassed. More sobering is the fact that this goal was made 1970—40 years ago. In 1970, the General Assembly passed Resolution 2626, stating, “Each economically advanced country will progressively increase its official development assistance to the developing countries and will exert its best efforts to reach a minimum net amount of 0.7 per cent of its gross national product at market prices by the middle of the Decade.” The Millennium Development Goals, a set of goals 192 nations including the United States have agreed to achieve by 2015 to improve human existence, includes the goal of having rich nations contributing a minimum of 0.7% of GNI towards ODA. By 2015, when the Millennium Development Goals are to be reached, it will have been 45 years since the target was established. While the last administration balked at the pact to fight poverty, the question is now if the Obama administration is going to renew America’s commitment to eradicating global poverty.

However, is simply increasing the amount of aid the answer to all the world’s problems? Clearly not. A lot of people, e.g. William Easterly, argue that foreign aid is ineffective or that we have no moral obligation to extract from our coffers to give to the disadvantaged—and they have strong arguments. Writes Easterly, “It is heart-breaking that global society has evolved a highly efficient way to get entertainment to rich adults and children, while it can’t get twelve-cent medicine to dying poor children.” Indeed, there are many problems that plague foreign aid. If the quality of the aid is not very good, then the quantity won’t make much of a difference. The problem becomes clear when we adjust aid figures for the quality of the aid. When we adjust the aid figures to reflect quality, for example by penalizing proliferation of programs or tying aid, the United States delivers only 0.07% of its GDP in quality aid, according to a paper by to a paper by David Roodman for the Center for Global Development. Similarly, according to a report by Action Aid, “roughly half of global aid is ‘phantom aid’, that is, it is not genuinely available to poor countries to fight poverty.” Argues Pekka Hirvonen in a 2005 paper for the Global Policy Forum, “development assistance is often of dubious quality. In many cases, aid is primarily designed to serve the strategic and economic interests of the donor countries or to benefit powerful domestic interest groups. Aid systems based on the interests of donors instead of the needs of recipients’ make development assistance inefficient. Too little aid reaches countries that most desperately need it, and, all too often, aid is wasted on overpriced goods and services from donor countries.” So, for example, during the Cold War, the superpowers were very “charitable,” and gave a lot of money away to client states that acquiesced to their political and economic interests. But does that promote development or help the people in most need of it? That’s “dubious.”

Clearly, there is both a quantity and a quality issue with foreign aid. To bring it to the present, some commentators, such as Ann-Louise Colgan, have noted, “aid flows are largely dictated by geo-strategic concerns rather than by efforts to reduce poverty.” For example, an overwhelming majority of U.S. aid goes to Israel, a lot more than any other nation. A majority of this is Foreign Military Financing (FMF). In fact, when you look at U.S. FMF, an inordinate amount goes to places like Israel, Egypt, and Colombia—in other words, the leading terrorist states. A lot more could be said about this, but the point should be clear. “Aid” is being to used to bolster strategic and ideological interests, not for the purpose of helping the poor escape their poverty or find a more decent life. Of course, all of this is perfectly transparent. Take, for example, Ronald Regan’s Secretary of State, George Shultz, who stated, “our foreign assistance programs are vital to the achievement of our foreign policy goals.”

What should we take from all of this? First, it should be clear that the United States is not nearly as generous as it is touted to be, certainly not “the most charitable country on earth.” We, like most developed and rich countries, continue to fall significantly short of the levels of aid promised. Second, we should also be concerned with the quality of the aid (rather than just the quantity). So long as our “generosity” is guided solely for self-interests, the issues of poverty and despair will continue to be with us well beyond the 2015 marker established to eradicate the world of this blight.

One year later… Monday, Feb 15 2010 

Exactly one year ago, I started this blog as a response to the SCSU Scholars blog, authored primarily by King Banaian, the chairman and a professor of the economics department at SCSU. Following a particularly egregious post where he characterized the civilian victims of the the U.S.-Israeli offensive in Gaza as virulent terrorists deserving to die, I was fed up and thought I should have a place to voice my own opinions. I did not know much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before the Gaza offensive, but with a greater awareness of global issues I began to investigate the issue further. I spent countless hours researching the issue, exploring the history, reading articles, watching videos, and hearing the personal testimonies. What I learned was shocking and disturbing. My response had to be principled: I had to oppose all aggressive violence. In this vein, I stood firmly against the Israeli attacks on Palestine. I wrote a letter to the school newspaper condemning U.S.-Israeli war crimes and posted a modified version of that letter on this blog. That same week, two professors led a panel along with some students discuss the plight of Palestinians, which had caused some controversy after another professor in the audience had erupted during the presentation. I criticized both the professor and the school newspaper’s handling of the story, which I found to be highly biased. That post still remains the second most viewed post since I started this blog. From there, things took off.

The blog has expanded to cover a wide range of topics, from the abstracts of moral theory to the goings-on around campus. Today I mostly write about economics and politics, evidenced by the “Categories” section to the left. On occasion, I’ll still respond to posts made by Dr. Banaian at the SCSU Scholars blog, but I prefer to explore independent issues that are on my mind. I believe this process, this blog in general, has been very transformative for me. It has helped me develop my ideologies and beliefs, has fostered my understanding of important issues, and has allowed me to sharpen my writing, arguing, and explaining skills. Who says writing blogs is useless? 😉 I admit that I am often brash, crude, or sometimes even impudent in my writing—surely a function of writing online. I apologize for this and will always try to improve. Many times things can become disconcerted by the vary nature of the topics I write on, which are often highly ideological or controversial to begin with.

However, I believe open debate and the flow of information and ideas are critical to a healthy society and community. For this, I owe a tremendous thanks to people to who take the time out of their day to visit this blog and read my ideas, even if you don’t always (or ever) agree. Your interest is what makes writing this blog worthwhile. To the people who comment, I cannot say thanks enough and am highly appreciative. Your input is important and highly valued. One year later, and 95 posts and 275 comments later, none of this would possible without you guys. Thanks.

How do we end child labor? Friday, Feb 12 2010 

I’m in international economics this semester with Professor Ming Lo. The class is very interesting and Dr. Lo is a great professor. The topic of child labor came up in class as we were discussing globalization. Most people today agree that child labor is unethical. The question becomes, how do we stop it?

One response has been to simply outlaw it. For example, in 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act in an attempt to curb child labor and protect children from the horrors of industrialization, which had brought with it brutal, and often fatal, working conditions. This had an effect in domestic markets, but it did not stop similar abuses of children in foreign markets. This is why Senator Harkin (D-IA) introduced the Child Labor Deterrence Act in 1992 and several other years after that. The bill would “prohibit the importation of products that have been produced by child labor, and included civil and criminal penalties for violators.” Well this had an effect. According to Jagdish Bhagwati, the University Professor of economics at Columbia University and author of the 2004 book In Defense of Globalization, garment employers in Bangladesh laid off an estimated 50,000 child workers, fearing passage of the bill. We don’t know what happened to these children, but it is believed that these children moved to the underground economy. That is to say, they found worse jobs in worse conditions. These included, for example, unregistered garment factories. At least in some cases, however, these may have included child prostitution and being sold into the sex trade. Very few people could agree this is a positive result.

So how do we stop child labor if we agree that it ought to be stopped? Clearly, banning imported products made with child labor will likely have the effect of not eliminating child labor, but rather making it more concealed and even more dangerous and exploitative than it was before. Not doing anything doesn’t seem to be the solution either, evidenced by the fact that child labor still exists and has always existed until actions were undertaken to deal with the problems too. Dr. Bhagwati suggests in his book that we label products that are are made by child laborers. In this way, consumers can make a decision as to whether to buy the product or not. Although I agree it is a good idea to label products in this way (it increases consumer information), there are some problem. For one, many consumers still purchase goods even when they are aware of the negative aspects associated with it. People still continued to buy Nike products, for example, even after it was exposed that many of their products were produced in sweatshops and unethical working conditions. Sometimes the benefit that we receive from purchasing a product outweighs any negative thoughts we have about the ethical standards of its production. That is, even if we agree that the production of what we’re buying was done unethically, we still are inclined to purchase the product. Second, even if demand for products created with child labor does decrease because of increased awareness, the effect won’t be much different than prohibiting the import of these products. Children will be forced into other sectors, including underground markets that help conceal the true abuses to these children. While it may help us feel better, it doesn’t do much in the way of ending the exploitation of children. There does not seem to be any clear and easy solution to this problem, and I certainly don’t have the answer. I do believe, however, that a principal component needs to address the underlying causes that drive parents and their children to pick child labor as their available best option. In other words, we need to tackle the issue of world poverty and the social conditions in developing countries that lead to child labor. Decreasing our demand for these products is a step in the right direction, but clearly not enough to end this blight on human affairs.

Where I stand Tuesday, Feb 9 2010 

I often get asked about what I actually advocate. People elsewhere say I criticize a lot of things but do not offer any suggestions or alternatives. I admit this is true enough. So, for those interested, here’s a little bit of my personal philosophy, along with links to posts I have written in the past to get a more in-depth understanding.

First of all, let me say I consider myself a libertarian. Particularly, I would say I am strong civil libertarian; I believe firmly in civil liberties and negative rights. For example, I believe it is the right of women to get abortions, that people should be allowed to sell and purchase organs for medical purposes, that the state does not have the right to murder its citizens (e.g. in capital punishment), that people have the right to speak their mind, that pornography should be legal for adults, that the War on Drugs is misguided, that gay rights should be observed, that torture is never right, that social rights are among the most important of our rights, and so on. I believe there are strong deontological justification for these beliefs, though I recognize utilitarians might say the same about their own moral theory (I consider myself a deontologist).


If you look at a political compass such as the one above, I would say I’m close to the bottom on it. As such, I consider myself a libertarian, actually fairly close to anarchist. I find it highly questionable that states contain legitimacy and that “social contract theory” may very well be a bad theory. I believe all authority should be presumed illegitimate and that it is up to those who wield the authority to prove that it is legitimate (including even non-statist authority). So I find states to be illegitimate by assumption, as they are the very essence of an authoritarian institution. Too borrow the words of Marvin Harris, “In many ways, the rise of the state was the descent of the world from freedom to slavery.” In this way I am suspicious of states and their exercise of power.

So how do I reconcile these beliefs with my economic beliefs? First, where do I stand on economic issues? I think it’s hard to say, but I think I might consider myself a centrist. I recognize the limitations that completely free capitalistic markets have (so I’m not far-right), but I am also somewhat suspicious of leftist economic theories (e.g. that workers should own the means of production), particularly for a lack of empirical support (so I’m not far-left). (By “left,” I mean the traditional understanding of leftism, not how “leftism” is defined in American politics, e.g. the Democratic Party. Here I mean the left that opposes both government and completely unregulated and private corporations running the economy.) When it comes to economics, I prefer to observe the way it’s practiced and comment on that. For example, I observe that all modern and highly developed economies (i.e. the West) have achieved this through radical violation of free market principles. I observe that America has never been “free market,” despite claims by some on the right, and that it is actually a strongly state capitalist society that is defined by a sort-of “lemon socialism” and is involved in the market quite heavily. I also believe that decisions guided solely on profit-maximization (i.e. the profit motive) and self-interest (or egoism) are not in the best interest of society and lack moral justification, just as classical economists like Adam Smith and others keenly pointed out in their time. So if free and unregulated markets do not always lead to efficient or desirable outcomes and if the theories of the libertarian left are questionable, what alternative can we turn to? I don’t pretend to know the answer to this. If I were that smart, I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog. I recognize that state capitalist systems have become abundantly wealthy, but also that there exist profound inequalities and sharp disparities within these systems, which breed conflict and economic inefficiency. Often, state power is wielded to the benefit of large corporations and the business class; I believe that if state power is to be used, it should be used to correct for obvious market failures (e.g. in climate change) and ensuring the most disadvantaged within society are afforded some protection.

Finally, I strongly support the anti-war movement and believe we ought to follow a non-interventionist foreign policy. I believe the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War were not only mistakes but also fundamentally wrong. I believe that jingoism is dangerous and that we should apply to ourselves the standards we apply to others. As far as Middle Eastern politics are concerned, I believe that we ought not to be so confrontational with Iran and that we should stop supporting Israeli war crimes (and I applaud the efforts of SCSU student Amber Michel and SCSU professor Fouzi Slisli to raise awareness for this issue).

What’s wrong with government intervention? Saturday, Feb 6 2010 

Many things, the neoliberal will answer. Many neoliberals believe government intervention in markets result in inefficiencies. Interferences make the market unfree. Of course, free markets allocate resources efficiently, so you reduce inefficiency when the government interferes. That’s a fairly typical argument. You can look at all sorts of neat equilibrium models and graphs that might show this to be the case (particularly when you accept the assumptions on which they are based).

One problem that government can introduce is the reduction of competition. Competition within markets is believed to achieve better results (economic efficiency) than when there’s no or little competition. For example, society is better off when there exist perfect competition within a market than when there’s a monopolistic firm that exerts market power. (Perfect competition doesn’t actually exist in the real world, but it does in theories, so we restrict ourselves to theoretical discussion.) So government is decried for making markets less efficient. But, quite curiously, this criticism is very selective. We can’t have government enforcing a minimum wage, for example, because that creates an outcome that diverges from the market equilibrium (i.e. creates an inefficiency). At the same time, however, we need copyrights and patents to protect our works and government needs to protect this.

As I said, it’s selective and actually fairly ideological. One opposes government when it suits one’s beliefs and one supports government when it suits one’s beliefs. When you oppose it and when you support it is often reliant on your ideology. So let’s look at copyrights, which are widely supported by anti-government right wingers. It’s a form of protection. It’s something the government provides to producers that results in less competition. In other words, it makes the market less efficient. The technical term is called a “government-granted monopoly.” It provides the exclusive right to a firm or individual to produce something. If I want to produce (or reproduce) it, I’m not allowed to. Keeping to neoclassical economic theories, society is made worse off. Those on the right like to rail against “coercive monopolies,” but not this coercive monopoly. In this case, we need government. Specifically, we need government to protect our monopolistic power. So you can’t even begin to talk honestly about “free markets” when you’ve got government enforcing monopolies, yet “free markets” remain to be hailed.

So why do right-wingers support copyright? There are reasons. One reason to support government intervention is because free markets are inefficient. (You probably won’t it hear stated in this way.) It’s stated that copyrights, patents, and so on are required for innovation. If I can’t get the sole right to write a book (or this blog post), I won’t write it. That’s the argument. If people can simply copy a song file and torrent it to everyone for free on peer-to-peer networks, then I’ve got no incentive to produce the song. (Note: I wrote a letter to the University Chronicle in 2007 in support of music copyrights.) If we accept this, then we should probably accept that free markets aren’t perfect and require government intervention to work properly. That might be reasonable to accept. But should we really accept the argument that copyrights and such are necessarily required to incentivize production? Are copyrights really what incentivized the great works of Shakespeare, Mozart, Michelangelo, or Newton? Actually, they didn’t exist back then. And when you actually look at copyrights today, particularly in the music industry, it’s the not the original creator that retains those rights. Many famous creators of “intellectual property” actually forfeit their rights to corporations, usually even before the product is created. In fact, nothing I write on this blog is copyrighted; yet, I continue to write. Maybe nobody wants to reproduce what I write, but look at Wikipedia, the content of which is not copyrighted and yet forms the basis for one of the most successful Web sites and encyclopedias in the world.

However, there can also be very dangerous aspects of copyrights. When you simply say “the market becomes less efficient,” that’s one thing. But what this might actually translate into in the real world is hundreds of thousands of Africans dieing. That’s a consequence of patents. When you simply talk of it in terms of “efficiency,” you sort of remove the moral dilemmas of what’s actually being talking about. This is one of the criticism Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate at Columbia University, levels against patents for medicines and vaccines. In his book Making Globalization Work, Stiglitz devotes a chapter for an idea he calls “prizes, not patents.” Explains Stiglitz in the Post-Autistic Economics Review, “But the patent system not only restricts the use of knowledge; by granting (temporary) monopoly power, it often makes medications unaffordable for people who don’t have insurance. In the Third World, this can be a matter of life and death for people who cannot afford new brand-name drugs but might be able to afford generics. For example, generic drugs for first-line AIDS defenses have brought down the cost of treatment by almost 99% since 2000 alone, from $10,000 to $130.” For more of Stiglitz on intellectual property and medicines, please see this video or read the article I just linked to.

Stiglitz’s proposed solution is setting up a prize for developers who develop important life-saving drugs. He writes:

There is an alternative way of financing and incentivizing research that, at least in some instances, could do a far better job than patents, both in directing innovation and ensuring that the benefits of that knowledge are enjoyed as widely as possible: a medical prize fund that would reward those who discover cures and vaccines. Since governments already pay the cost of much drug research directly or indirectly, through prescription benefits, they could finance the prize fund, which would award the biggest prizes for developers of treatments or preventions for costly diseases affecting hundreds of millions of people.

Of course, the patent system is itself a prize system, albeit a peculiar one: the prize is temporary monopoly power, implying high prices and restricted access to the benefits that can be derived from the new knowledge. By contrast, the type of prize system I have in mind would rely on competitive markets to lower prices and make the fruits of the knowledge available as widely as possible. With better-directed incentives (more research dollars spent on more important diseases, less money spent on wasteful and distorted marketing), we could have better health at lower cost.

I think it should be clear now that government-granted monopolies are not the only way to incentivize production and there a lot of problems in the way contemporary copyrights are constructed. With the greater success of copyleft and open source in recent times, I think it’s time we begin to contemplate alternatives. The dispersion and sharing of knowledge—e.g. the very purpose of university—is of paramount importance to society. We should not be trying to restrict it through government interventions.

The death of a hero Wednesday, Feb 3 2010 

On January 27, Howard Zinn died of a heart attack at the age of 87. Howard Zinn was a historian and a professor of political science at Boston University and a great inspiration to the anti-war movement. Writing for the New York Times, Bob Herbet writes that Zinn “was an unbelievably decent man who felt obliged to challenge injustice and unfairness wherever he found it.” Zinn was an outspoken intellectual who championed liberty and the author of what I consider his magnum opus, A People’s History of the United States.

A People’s History is a revisionist examination of American history, from the perspective of working people, of war resisters, of suffragists, of the black minority, of the indigenous populations—in other words, the people who have shaped America, the people whose voices are often overlooked in history. The painting of America as “exceptional” is replaced by the sober reality of the America’s massacres, invasions, secret bombings, assignations, coups, and brutal domestic repression. It becomes evident that what we call “civilized society” today is a product of popular struggles, won by the efforts of ordinary people. These are “the people who have given this country whatever liberty and democracy we have.”

That’s the central message you can find in Zinn’s The People Speak, which was shown on History and which I had wrote about in December when it aired. The People Speak tells the story of America through the history of dissent and resistance and activism. It examines the role of ordinary people who rose up in opposition to state violence and oppression. It evinces the point that democracy comes from the bottom, not from above. If there’s a message it gives, I think it is that what lies ahead is largely up to us.

In a recent interview with Big Think, Zinn stated that he wants to be remembered “for introducing a different way of thinking about the world, about war, about human rights, about equality … I want to be remembered as somebody who gave people a feeling of hope and power they didn’t have before.” That’s certainly how I’ll remember him.