Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Trump Accidentally Right, Again

Wanted to write a quick post, re this article from CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2016/10/18/politics/donald-trump-rigged-election/

In it, they chronicle Trump's assertions that the election is rigged, presumably to disenfranchise the people in terms of selecting their government. They note that in addition to various politicians from both parties refuting the assertion, there is not evidence of wide-scale voter fraud or election rigging (they ignore, of course, the tangible evidence of smaller-scale electioneering on the part of the DNC, as documented by Project Veritas Action, but that's to be expected from a liberal media outlet).

The thing is, though: Trump is, once again, sorta accidentally and indirectly correct. While there's little evidence of the type of election rigging which would typically be associated with the term(s), there is reasonable evidence of media outlets attempting to influence the election. Moreover, though, and probably more importantly, there is good, tangible evidence that the American people are substantially disenfranchised by the election system on the whole, and that's probably a bigger deal than any small-scale electioneering.

Consider the current presidential election: roughly 78% of the people consider Clinton untrustworthy and unfit for office, while roughly 83% of the people consider the same of Trump. For either candidate, over three quarters of the population consider him/her to be a miserable representation of corruption and dishonestly, and yet those are the only two people who could possibly become President of the United States. That means our current system is producing, for the American voters, a no-win choice in which inevitably a corrupt scumbag is going to be running the country, in spite of the documented fact that an overwhelming majority of voters are aware that both candidates are corrupt scumbags who are both unfit to hold any office, much less the highest office in the land.

If that's not disenfranchising of the ability of the people to choose someone they would want to be in change of the country, it's hard to see what would be. It's basically as bad as people "voting" for Kim Jong-un, despite the fact that he's well-known to be a brutal dictator that most people secretly despise, but its irrelevant because he's the only person on the ballot, and the election is rigged anyway.

So, I guess the take-away if that Trump is more/less right on this point, irrespective of his influence on the process, and strong evidence that he's unaware of why he is right.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Peter Thiel has Some Good Points

Recently, I was pointed to an op ed in the Washington Post by Peter Thiel, which was in part a rehashing of his speech at the RNC convention. In it, he makes some pretty excellent points about the current state of the [federal] government, and how nominally the government wasn't always the unmitigated disaster and national embarrassment which it currently is. One could quibble with some of the finer points (eg: that Jeb Bush lost the primary because he spent money poorly, rather than primarily just because of being representative of the entrenched entitled politician class which voters are sick of), but on the whole, I think he makes some pretty good points.

I'm going to also take issue with his nominal conclusion (ie: that we should take a chance on Trump to fix the system), but I'm not going to spend a lot of time dwelling on that point. If you're reading this blog, chances are you're reasonably well-informed, both in terms of current events and relevant historical context, and it should be self-evident that change does not necessarily imply improvement. Obama brought change: he doubled the national debt, and saddled the country with a massive unfunded health care entitlement program which is wrecking the remains of reasonable health care. Trump would certainly being chance also, but judging by his character and rhetoric, that change would likely be far worse than the damage that Obama has done. As I said, though, if you're reading this, chances are I don't have to tell you how bad Trump would be, so I won't dwell on it.

Instead, I was inspired to contemplate how, in my adult lifetime, the idea of the federal government (legislative and executive branches, in this context) being a positive force in the country is so foreign that it seems ridiculous. As far as I have been aware of the government, it has been an obstructive, dangerous, and looming evil force in the country: something to be wary of, and feared in direct contact situations. This is true from the casual bureaucratic elements, to the boots-on-the-ground foot soldier enforcers: none of them are there to help you, and they are all dangerous.

Now obviously, this is not the case for many long-standing institutions and policies which predate my adult lifetime. For example, I'd generally consider the post office to be a good thing, fire departments (setting aside the trends toward unions and begging) are valuable, police have value (at least in the "peace officer" sense, in contrast to the current trend toward "law enforcement" and "revenue generation"), the highway system is a good thing, etc. However, when pressed to think about it, I actually struggle to come up with many ways the federal government has improved anything substantial, of their own accord, in the last 20 years or so.

I mean... what has the government done? Let's make a short list of some selected actions of historical import, to see if any of them qualify as "national improvements".

  • Roughly quadrupled the national debt ($5T -> $20T)
  • Pumped up the .com bubble until it burst (see: Greenspan's term, and Congress' cheerleading)
  • Created the housing bubble (see: cheerleading that bubble, approving banking actions, etc.)
  • Launched the "war on terror", a perpetual state of military action allowing the President to circumvent Constitutional requirements to use the national military
  • Implemented the TSA, the gigantic farcical Kabuki-theatre program designed to instill the idea that the 4th Amendment doesn't apply when the government says so
  • Invaded Iraq under questionable pretense, deposed their ruler, and left a vacuum for ISIS to form
  • Expanded the NSA's activities to spy on everyone, collect all digital information, and ignore any Constitutional checks on government surveillance
  • Established a national policy of arbitrary extra-legal execution of American citizens (drone strike program, etc.)
  • Engaged in torture, in violation of international accords
  • Shifted the Fed's role from "keep unemployment low" to "keep the party going" (see: Yellen comments on propping up the stock market)
    • Expanded the Fed balance sheet roughly 4x as well, creating additional direct inflation, held in check only by lack of real economic growth under Obama
  • Stole a $20B private company (GM, during bankruptcy proceedings) to give to political supporters (unions received equity, rather than legally entitled bondholders)
  • Transformed health care from a semi-working system to a subsidy-driven debacle, with much higher costs and much worse care, as well as a massive unfunded future liability
  • The various things that Thiel mentioned, as anecdotals:
    • The $1.5T debacle which is the F-35 program
    • Systemic corruption between unions and government causing actual death to people
    • The failure of Obamacare to affect any of the promised improvements
That's an abbreviated list, to be sure... but is there actually anything good there? I briefly thought I'd come up with one, with the marriage equality thing... but then I remembered that was because of SCOTUS, and they don't really count (SCOTUS is hit and miss for effective improvements, but doesn't really change public policy, so I'm not including them in terms of what the government does). Which brings me back to: has the government done anything positive, at all, in the last 20 years?

There was a time, at least in theory, when the government worked on behalf of the people, and was not public enemy #1. Peter Thiel is right in extrapolation, though: that time is so long in the past, that it's beyond the window of recollection for everyone today. I don't know what happened, or if the idea that the government was a force for positive change was always a pipe dream anyway. But it's pretty amazing, in an impressively depressing sense, that I cannot even imagine a vision of America in which the government was not the most dangerous and oppressive force upon the people. The government today is the reality in which I grew up, and I realized that I now take the pervasive malfeasance and corruption as a contextual given.

I don't know if there is any way to fix that (although I'm fairly certain that Trump is not the answer, for whatever that's worth)... but it's fascinating to think that maybe that wasn't always the case, and in some conceptual version of the US, the government itself could be better.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

My Main Issue with Donald Trump (at present)

Donald Trump is nothing if not polarizing; his life has been defined by self-promotion, and his political campaign so far by insulting various people. He has found himself the beneficiary of a populist sentiment of frustration with the political establishment, and a pervasive (and accurate, although oft inaccurately attributed) sentiment that in contradiction to the government's proclamations of prosperity and stability, the trend in the country is anything but. At this point, he has secured his position as one of the two miserable options for the next presidential term in the US, and has (at present) roughly 45% of the population supporting his bid for such.

One could make the case that he's the lesser of two evils, but that's not saying much. Trump is an egotistical, bloviating, and aggrandizing figure, with a thin skin and a tendency to lash out at people he perceives to offend him. He has no governmental experience, and although he has managed several businesses, his track record at doing so (with many failures, questionable growth achievement, and hidden financials) is tenuous at best. He has capitalized on the [accurate] perception of Hillary Clinton as a corrupt insider, for whom honesty and integrity are concepts to be scoffed at, and who has even more tenuous credentials for actual accomplishment in management. But for all his other flaws, the one that is bothering me the most at present isn't even one of the highlights listed so far, which have defined his public perception to date.

My main issue with Trump, actually, recently, is his tendency to define his main advantage as a candidate as the ability to be a "strong leader", and provide the "very strong leadership" which he believes the country has been lacking.

Now, on the face of it, you might think, "Gee, strong leadership sounds good, we might need that." But Trump's assertion is in comparison to Obama's leadership, who he explicitly perceives as "weak". Under Obama's leadership, the President has asserted the right to assassinate his own citizens, has overhauled the previously barely-functional health care system into a hopelessly broken version in his name, and stretched credulity in justification for waging several wars unilaterally, without any Congressional oversight or approval. He has presided over increasing the national debt by more than all his predecessors combined, while also allowing the Fed to create another $3,500,000,000,000. Obama has even defied his own oath of office, refusing to enforce the laws that he personally found distasteful, in direct and overt opposition to the Constitution. Obama's tenure has not been defined by weakness in leadership; to the contrary, Obama has perhaps been the most audaciously unchecked would-be dictator the country has had to date.

And Donald Trump perceives that level of power as demonstrative of weakness, and were he in office, he would strive to exercise a much stronger degree of power and "leadership".

Uh... I think there's a word for that kind of leadership, and that word is "tyranny". If Trump truly believes Obama has been constrained in his actions as President, I'm sorta terrified at what powers Trump would claim. At this point, you're basically talking about someone who would make Erdogan look reasonable and restrained in comparison, and not only does that bode incredibly poorly for freedoms and liberty in the United States, but that in no way whatsoever represents anything that I would conceivably support enacting.

So yeah... Hillary is a corrupt scumbag who is representative of everything which is wrong with the status quo of inherent corruption in government. She has a lot of faults, personal and professional, and no substantial accomplishments to her name. Were she elected as President, I would expect no meaningful improvement in the lives or welfare of the people, and even more creeping normalcy of degradation of the basic systems of the country, carrying on Obama's momentum. And I'd be 1000% more likely to support her than Trump, because even with all of that, she really is the lesser of the two horrible options.

Of course, that's just my opinion, I could be wrong.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Thoughts on Brexit

So the UK recently voted on a referendum to withdraw from the EU. Naturally, as with any popular vote, there is some concern that the voters were uneducated, manipulated by misleading propaganda, didn't know what they were voting for, etc., but regardless of those concerns, the UK government has indicated that it will respect the "will of its people", and move to withdraw from the EU.

A big motivating factor for a withdraw, at least in the propaganda message, was to gain the ability to regulate immigration into the UK. There is a sentiment, accurate or otherwise, that immigrants from other EU countries are straining the UK's economic system, and/or straining the public benefits system. In general, one would surmise that the UK is hoping to preserve as much of the rest of the existing relationship dynamics with the other EU countries, while saving the money the pay to the EU (which is not insignificant), and gaining the ability to better control their borders.

Of course, that's not in the EU's interest, which they were quick to make clear after a meeting. To wit, they said:
"Any agreement, which will be concluded with the UK as a third country, will have to be based on a balance of rights and obligations. Access to the single market requires acceptance of all four freedoms."
The "four freedoms" which they note are the freedom of movement of goods, workers, services and capital.

The thing is, while this is meant to be an opening salvo in the negotiations with the UK in a post-EU sense, it's actually not all that bad in a literal sense. I don't think the UK would have much issue with freedom of movement for workers, in the sense of citizens of the EU which are participating in the economy... that seems an entirely reasonable compromise, if they can restrict the movement of non-workers (ie: refugees, and/or persons intent to take advantage of the social services without contributing to the economy).

Of course, that won't be the way the EU will see it, in all likelihood, so it will be a more contentious negotiation. It will be interesting to see how it turns out; I don't think the relationship between the UK and the EU will end up much different than it currently is, but there's a lot of uncertainty there.

Lastly, as sorta an epilogue, I think it's a really good thing that this negotiation might establish some sort of a road map for a relatively bloodless separation of a province from a larger nationalistic organization. There are many instances where that would be very helpful for society in general, and to-date has been a monumentally difficult task for the civilized world. If the outcome of this is something approaching a framework to better establishment of self-governance through voluntary separation from oppressive (or perceived oppressive) regimes, that would be a win for civilization, regardless of the outcome for the UK/EU.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

How Being a Liberal can Really Warp Your Perspective

This opinion piece is too interesting to ignore, even if it's admittedly sorta fringe in comparison to "real" issues. Salon being an ultra-liberal publication, and the author being a political writer for such, I'd think it's fair to conclude that we're solidly in the mindset of a hardcore liberal here. And that's what I want to focus on, because the gripe expressed is to wacky and left-field, that it really makes you wonder about the mental fitness of liberals in general.

Here's the synopsis the train [wreck] of thought, for those too lazy to read the article:

  • Captain America is the quintessential representation of American idealism, in terms of moral compass and judgement
  • The author lauds this expression in the previous films, noting Captain America's loyalty, solid judgement, and [importantly] unequivocal stance that too much government power/control was ripe for abuse, and thus needed to be countered by the people
  • There is praise for Captain America's valuing equality, protecting people from the machinations of powerful entities, and insisting that the government be transparent and accountable to the people, not the other way around
  • ... and then, in a monumental 180 of blind cognitive dissonance...
  • Baffled disappointment that Captain America fails to embrace total governmental control of all powerful individuals
  • Equating the definitive moral correctness that Captain America actually inhabits, both figuratively and literally, as libertarianism, about which the author is dismayed
As it not atypical with presumably well-educated people, the observations themselves are perfectly valid. For example, Captain America's political ideology, such as it is, could certainly be described a libertarian: favoring less abusive government, more government transparency and accountability, and individual freedom. This was fairly conclusively established in The Winter Soldier, and although the author seems to acknowledge each individual point, for some reason the sum total implication escapes her.

If I can speculate for a moment, I believe I also understand the root of the problem (causing the mind boggling cognitive dissonance). See, liberals tend to assume that [the will of the] government and [the will of the] people are the same, and that government is an extension of the people. This is obviously inaccurate, both in the real world and in the MCU (which largely mirrors the real world in this sense). In the real world, government is controlled by powerful people and institutions, seeks to ever increase its own power and control at the expense of individual freedom, and makes a mockery of the values which Captain America stands for (making it natural and obvious that he would oppose the government control in the MCU, as he does).

In liberal fantasy world, reality is ignored, and the pinnacle of perfect society is complete government control of every aspect of people's lives. Thusly (following the mindset), Captain America's rejection of complete government control is disappointing, as it is a betrayal of the liberal ideal. But here's the thing: the liberal ideal is a betrayal of American idealism itself, as hammered home eloquently and repeatedly by the Captain America movies themselves. What's really amazing, though, is the liberal author's complete inability to grasp the obvious: her political ideology is so pervasive in her thinking that she seemingly cannot even comprehend her absurd her conclusions are.

It really just goes to prove the point that having a strong mental political indoctrination can blind you to acceptance of facts, even if they are obvious. It's also a good object lesson on why its profoundly dangerous to have people in power who are political zealots (of any "side").

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Thoughts on Fixing California Property Taxes

(Note: This is another area-specific post, so if you don't care about politics in California, this won't be very interesting to you. Consider yourself noted.)

Property taxes in California are kinda messed up. For a quick primer, skim the Wikipedia page on Prop 13; this is not the only problem, but is the genesis for a lot of the issues. Note that Prop 13 itself was a voter backlash against the inability of the state to constrain its tax & spend addiction, which has not really abated since its passage, and also represents a huge ongoing issue for the state... but that's a topic for another blog post. In this one, I'm going to concentrate on things I would change with property taxes alone, to make that system more sane.

I see two fundamental problems with the current taxation scheme, which will be the basis for three changes I would suggest (two to address the issues, and an additional one which I think would just be a great improvement in general), and one substantial thing I would leave alone. First, the issues:

  • There is no substantial advantage, tax-wise, for people owning property for a single family residence (as opposed to owning property for investment purposes, or owning multiple properties)
  • The tax system incentivises "creative" accounting to advantage corporations even further, because of the ability to skirt change of ownership (which would trigger re-assessment of property value)
So, ignoring the political infeasibility of such, these are the things I would change. Each one will get a section, and I'll try to include enough context as possible for justifications.

Change Prop 13 Qualification and Benefit

First, I would fundamentally change the qualification criteria for inclusion in the primary benefit of Prop 13 (that is, the limit of increase of assessed value for properties). This benefit would only be applicable to a primary residence, as declared on a tax return, owned by a member of a family residing there. Secondary residences, and properties used for income/business purposes, would be adjusted annually for assessed value purposes.

Further, I would change the maximum increase to be the lesser of 4% and the official inflation value. This would, on average, imply around a 2% maximum, but would allow faster increases in times of greater inflation.

Why this change? Simply, it would achieve the original nominal goal (of preventing people from losing their primary residences from increased taxation over time), without the absurd, counter-productive benefit to investors and the very wealthy.

What would the effects be? Well, rent would increase, but that would be absorbed by the market (and/or making buying more financially attractive). Some wealthy people holding investment property might make slightly less non-productive income annually. Other very wealthy people would pay slightly more for their summer homes. So, there would basically be no appreciable downside to average people.

Change Homestead Exclusion Amount

The homestead exclusion (or equivalent; essentially, the amount of assessed value you're not taxed on), for primary residences, should be set to be the average home price for the area. Area could be done by zip code, or city, or school district, or any other reasonable criteria, as long as it was reasonably local and objective. Again, similar to the above, one would only be eligible for the exemption if the property was claimed as a primary residence on a California tax return for a head of household.

Why this change? This would dramatically reduce the tax burden for most people who own their primary residence in the state, and for which the residence is not extravagant for the area. This would substantially incentivise people to own a home (compared to present), which would be beneficial to the society as a whole.

What would the effects be? Well, obviously there would be an effective decrease in tax revenue, which would ideally be entirely offset (and more) by the other proposed changes. There would be several indirect societal benefits, equally obviously.

Increase Taxation for Vacant Space

Currently, lots of usable real estate space goes unused for long periods of time, for a variety of reasons. Some of these include outside investment (eg: REITs) with no strong incentive to rent the space they own, vacant properties in various states of foreclosure where the lender doesn't move quickly to transfer ownership (so they don't need to be liable for the taxes), companies who sit on vacant storefronts in struggling areas, etc. All of these instances cause available space to be more expensive elsewhere, and increase city aggregate maintenance costs for the affected areas (ie: there may be more crime, more litter, less occupant involvement in the community, less business tax revenue, etc.).

I would change the law to mandate an increase in property taxes on all properties (or proportional parts of properties) which are vacant. There would be a leeway period (say, 3 months or so) to allow for normal turnover, then a ramp up. I'd suggest that after 1 year of vacancy, the property tax rate be triple the normal rate, and to continue at that rate until the property was inhabited productively (either leased to a person of business unconnected to the owner, or sold and occupied).

Some of that additional tax revenue would naturally go to a new governmental organization which would track vacancies and investigate fraud. The penalty for fraud should be a multiple of taxes due, plus all back taxes. I'd suggest tracking occupancy by looking at power consumption and utility hookup, with visual inspection and random visits as another method to be utilized in suspicious cases. I don't think it would be overly difficult to detect fraud, though.

In addition to this, I would alter the existing law slightly to make any lien holder on a property explicitly also jointly responsible for property taxes on a property (if that's not so already). Banks often are slow to reclaim and sell properties for which the owner has walked away, and I imagine a 3% annual property tax bill for them send directly to the bank would provide sufficient motivation to alter that behavior.

Why this change? This would provide a strong financial incentive to productively use real estate space in the state, in addition to lowering overall vacancy. The latter would mean more individual vestment in communities and consequently less opportunity for crime and/or vandalism; the former would force prices for space to better track the market (and/or make space less expensive in general). In addition, more occupied commercial space means more local tax revenue, more services for communities, and generally less potential for blighted spaces. So it would be a win/win/win/win/etc.

No Change: 1% Limit on Taxation at State Level

The other crux of Prop 13, the limit on the amount the state could impose in property taxes, is unequivocally a good thing, irrespective of the government's continuous complaints about it since. California has strongly and repeatedly demonstrated (and continues to demonstrate, to this day) a complete inability to be financially responsible at a government level, leaving the onus squarely on the people to reign in otherwise limitless tax-and-spend tendencies. There are better ways to potentially increase tax revenue, as detailed above, which do not impose any additional tax burden on the typical working families of the state (and indeed, for the proposals above, would decrease the burden in most cases). There's no reason to give up the hard-fought gains in limiting the government's otherwise self-destructive behavior in this respect, imho.

Anyway, that's my current thought on this matter, for what that's worth.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Thoughts on Trump's Campaign, at the Present Time

So these ruminations are somewhat prompted by this current event, in which Trump is railing against the RNC establishment for having a rigged system which favors political insiders at the expense of anyone trying to mount a campaign as an outsider. As is typical, Trump is more or less accurate in his assessment, which was delivered with all the political nuance and subtlety of an elephant on PCP covered in feces.

But a actually want to examine another aspect of the Trump campaign story, which is the idea that if he does not receive the nomination, he may decide to continue to run as a third party candidate. In the aforementioned linked article, the Washington Post reiterates the perception that this would be devastating for the Republican party, as voters are split between an establishment candidate, and the offensive and dangerous egomaniac who is connecting with the population's distrust and dissatisfaction with the establishment.

Yes, such a run would likely split the vote, and also quite likely disastrously for the Republicans in the current presidential election. But I would submit that this outcome would not be terrible for the Republican party on the whole; in fact, it could be the best possible outcome, given the current circumstances.

Consider the current state of the race, with my subjective observations included:

  • Trump cannot win a general election, as the RNC candidate, against either potential Democrat candidate. He's reviled by too large a percentage of the voting population, even if he does not manage to alienate any more voters during the main campaign period (which would be very likely). At the end of the day, the independent voters will vote for someone who is a known evil over someone unfit for the office.
  • Cruz also cannot with the general election against either Democrat candidate. While his conservative "values" play well to his base, they play poorly to independent voters, who are (by a large) socially liberal, and don't want religion dictating government policy. The same regressive thinking that makes him popular in the RNC would kill his hopes of winning the general election.
  • A contested convention "dark horse" candidate would reek havok on the RNC establishment, causing everyone who rallied around Trump as the anti-establishment candidate to look elsewhere, possibly away from the RNC entirely. This is probably the worst long-term outcome for the RNC, and they know it, which makes it likely they pick Cruz in a contested convention anyway.
  • As a side-note, Paul Ryan obviously knows which way the wind is blowing... he's already written off the 2016 election, campaigning for the 2020 nomination.
So basically, there's no scenario in which the Republicans win the 2016 presidential contest, but several in which they emerge not only defeated, but fundamentally fractured. There's no way to "take" the nomination from Trump without generating a backlash, and Trump would do substantial damage to the party if he's the nominal leader in the general campaign. For the RNC leadership, it's a lose-lose scenario.

However, consider this: a possible saving grace might be if Trump mounts an independent campaign after losing a contested convention. This would have several benefits to all parties, even if it would be irrelevant to the outcome of the race itself.
  • Trump could continue to rally people against the establishment, and say offensive and insulting things in the furtherance of self-promotion, without sullying the RNC any further.
  • The RNC, through Cruz, could "get back to its roots" in campaign message to inspire the base, possibly enticing more votes for RNC candidates in other races.
  • It would give Cruz a nominal chance at the candidacy, such that in 2020 the RNC can disqualify him (which is essential to try to win then, because of his backwards societal views which will be even more absurd and offensive in four years), since he would have had a chance and lost.
  • Possibly most importantly, Trump can "save face", so to speak, by blaming his inevitable loss on the corrupt establishment, rather than his own personal failings. This is important not just to Trump, whose massive ego would allow nothing less, but also in trying to retain as many of Trump's supporters for the 2020 candidate, and whatever anti-establishment campaign message he/she can promote.
All in all, I'd speculate that a third-party run by Trump would actually be ideal for the RNC, given the present circumstances. Yes, it means a Democrat wins the presidency in 2016, but that was inevitable anyway, given the abysmal quality of the front-runner candidates (on both sides, but especially on the RNC side). It would cause the least long-term damage to the RNC, and allow them the opportunity to try to field someone less comically offensive to the rest of the voting populace next time around. They may not see it now, but that's actually probably their best chance to preserve the RNC, such as it is.