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.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Props, but Caution on Wording

So John Brennan, the acting CIA director, made it clear in a recent interview that the CIA would not carry out torture again, even if order to do so by a future president. Presumably, this was somewhat in response to Trump's campaign assertion that he would bring back torture, and even more sever forms of such [violations of international treaties], if elected president. So even if Trump gets elected, the US will not torture people any more.

Well, that's the way it's supposed to be interpreted anyway... but as with many things in politics, a careful examination may reveal a different version of the truth than what the headlines are designed to lead you to believe.

First, let's note that Brennan, for whatever nobility may be in the stance, isn't taking this stance because he thinks torture is fundamentally wrong, and/or he wouldn't authorize it again in the abstract. His quote, specifically:
"I will not agree to carry out some of these tactics and techniques I've heard bandied about because this institution needs to endure," Brennan said.
See what he really said there? To paraphrase, he said, "I know that if we keep torturing people, eventually the US will be dragged in front of some international court for gross violations of treaties and such, and the CIA will be made the scapegoat, as they were before. I think the survival of the CIA is more important than any specific intelligence goal or presidential mandate." This is somewhat comforting, in an "ends justifying the means" sort of way, but less so in a "institutional survival should not trump the interests of the country" sort of way. But not to worry, because...

The director of the CIA is appointed by the president anyway, so if Brennan is uncomfortable authorizing torturing people, the president could simply find someone else who is less so. The political sphere has no shortage of psychopaths, as with the business executive world, and Trump is now in the Venn Diagram overlap. Brennan is free to take his stand, knowing full well that it wouldn't impact presidential policy, and he can still come out looking like the good guy if Trump prevails.

Moreover, Trump wouldn't even necessarily have to advise Brennan on what he was ordering. Remember, the statement was that Brennan wouldn't "agree" to using torture, not that he wouldn't agree to look the other way. In a world of compartmentalized information by-design, it would be easy for the president to co-opt part of the CIA to do black ops work, and/or part of any number of other semi-acknowledged paramilitary government organizations. The fact that Brennan professes to refuse to publicly rubber-stamp such is much more about cover for the CIA than affecting government actions.

So, credit where due: Brennan refusing to actively participate in torture, even if that means defiance of presidential order, is unequivocally a good thing. Nominally, it's what our military is already supposed to do (ie: duty to disobey order which is illegal), but having failed to do so in the past, an affirmation of intent to do so in the future isn't bad. However, I wouldn't take a victory lap for regaining the moral high-ground or anything: we still have a presidential front-runner who wants to conduct even worse torture than the CIA did previously, and the objections of one person in the CIA isn't going to impede that much. Props to Brennan, although at best, it's still a somewhat hollow victory for humanity.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Not Wrong, but Not on the Right Page

So Obama was hanging out at SXSW, and has this to say, re the current smartphone encryption debate: http://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2016-03-11/obama-confronts-a-skeptical-silicon-valley-at-south-by-southwest

To summarize the article, the salient point are in these quotes, imho:
"The question we now have to ask is, if technologically it is possible to make an impenetrable device or system, where the encryption is so strong there’s no key, there’s no door at all, then how do we apprehend the child pornographer? How do we solve or disrupt a terrorist plot?" Obama said. "If in fact you can’t crack that at all, government can’t get in, then everybody’s walking around with a Swiss bank account in their pocket." 
Compromise is possible, he said, and the technology industry must help design it. 
"I suspect the answer is going to come down to, how do we create a system that, encryption is as strong as possible, the key is secure as possible, and it is accessible by the smallest number of people possible for the subset of issues that we agree is important," he said.
 Now, notwithstanding the canned government appeal to "think of the children" and "terrorism" (which, generally speaking, should probably invalidate any argument a priori, given the Constitutional abuse which usually accompanies these phrases, especially of late), he's not wrong in the abstract. The government should, with the right safeguards, potentially have methods to get at data which would be crucial to protecting the people. The problem, in this case, is where the abstract meets the reality, and the government craps on everything.

Fundamentally, it's really an issue of trust. In order to be comfortable with a system where the government can get people's private information, you need trust: trust in the system which protects your rights, trust in the government to not abuse its access, trust in the oversight to catch and dissuade abuses, etc. Without trust, you can't have compromise or solutions, because you know that giving an inch implicitly means giving a mile, and while you might be comfortable giving several feet, you don't want the government taking everything.

And that's where Obama is still on the wrong page entirely. The problem, such as it is, is not that the tech companies are unwilling to work with the government, and (to a reasonable, although depressingly not universal, level) the people are not willing to give up their rights as Obama would like. Those are the symptoms of the problem, which is that the government has profoundly (and repeatedly) worked to destroy any trust which might have existed in its ability to enforce (or even respect) any of the controls and limitations enumerated above. Without that trust, it's not only natural, but entirely proper that the people should be fighting back against the ever-growing encroachment of government surveillance, with every tool that they have. The abstract ideal, in this case, has been shit all over by the reality of the government's actions.

So how would you cut this Gordian knot? Well, first you would need to get on the right page; in this case, start by working to address the trust problem. Make no mistake: that will take years, in an optimal scenario. The government could start, for example, by pardoning Snowden unilaterally, bringing him home, and giving him an f-ing medal for sacrificing more to defend the Constitution than all of the government scumbags collectively put together. Then, start work on fixing the problems that Snowden brought to light, and working to rebuild the trust the government shouldn't have ever lost in the first place.

Step two: get some credibility into your protection process. Nobody believes that the government is able to regulate themselves, with secret kangaroo courts and secret "national security" letters. Involve trusted third parties to review warrant applications (eg: the ACLU), and while you're at it, re-familiarize yourself with actually getting warrants from real courts. And for f-sake, stop using "child pornography" and "national security" to justify every single unconstitutional BS rights violation you want to engage in. Here's a free clue: if you want the American people to mistrust you less, stop ignoring the laws and lying about it. Looking at you, Clapper et all.

Step three: get some accountability and penalties in place. Caught lying to Congress, Clapper? How about jail time. Lying to Congress, James Comey? Jail time... and we'll deal with the irony. Caught voting for or authorizing something which was clearly unconstitutional? Immediately removed from public office, loss of all benefits, and banned from serving on office ever again. You can't just expect everyone in government to follow the rules, if breaking them carries no consequences.

Anyway, that's my 2c on the matter, for whatever it's worth. I don't have much hope there will be any "clean" solution to the current fight, because while the government might have some valid points, until they get on the right page, they won't make much progress addressing the real problem... they will just continue to piss people off.