Saturday, January 23, 2016

Smart Guns, Misrepresentations, Expectations, and Consequences

Several articles recently cite a recent web study from Johns Hopkins concluding that roughly 60% of Americans wanting to buy a gun would buy a smart gun if one was available.

No, wait, that's not actually a correct representation of the study. The actual study found that nearly 59% of people buying guns would consider purchasing a childproof gun if one was available. Note the subtle, but profound, intentional misrepresentation of the results of the study, by the article about the study itself (compare paragraph one, the summary, to paragraph eight, the actual findings). Also note the heavy dose of unrelated statistics and propaganda, intended to emphasize how vital it presumably is to propagate the use of "smart" guns in society.

But that's only the start of the problems around this topic. See, there's no particular definition of "childproof" either, which allows people to extrapolate their own impressions. One could suppose that the 60% who would consider purchasing a childproof firearm would extrapolate that to mean a weapon which was impossible for a child to use, but for which that additional feature did not impede an adult from using such in any way. Of course, the reality is much different, as gun proponents have correctly observed: adding complexity to anything adds more possibility of failure. One could suppose that of those 60%, less would be inclined to consider such if the childproof capability came with an implicit 10% failure to function for the rightful owner when needed stipulation.

Also, let's not forget that, even setting aside the problems with ignoring the consequences of adding additional electronic safeguards, consider is fundamentally different than buy. I, personally, would consider a lot of things which I would not ultimately purchase. I have, for example, considered GM automobile offerings, even though I have no intention whatsoever of purchasing a car with an always-on, non-removable, government surveillance and tracking system always built in. On the other hand, if someone asked if I would consider buying a car which could give me directions, I'd say sure... and in the same intentionally deceptive way, I might thus be included in a survey group of people who would want OnStar (*shutter*).

But even that is not the end of the issues with smart gun development and adoption. Even if all the issues could be worked out, and something made which was childproof and 100% functional for the intended owner(s), and imposed no additional overhead on use... there would still be a problem. You see, in their "infinite wisdom", several states have passed ordinances which require that as soon as any smart gun is available for purchase, all non smart guns cannot be sold. So as soon as the most onerous, non-functional, atrociously invasive smart gun is made available, all other guns are effectively banned from those states. Naturally, that has caused a huge push by gun rights advocates to prevent any smart guns from coming to market, and for very valid reasons. In essence, those states are creating a massive barrier to anything coming to market, through their idiotic policies.

Moreover, in today's era of ubiquitous government surveillance, is there anyone actually naive enough to think that smart guns will not spy on their owners for the government? I can think of many worse ways to construct so called "watch lists" of people who might be resistant to government control. Presumably smart guns can be turned off... which is great for the government, especially if it can be done remotely. After all, the Constitution gives people the right to bear arms, but not actually fire them without government approval, right? I guarantee it will only be a matter a time before that argument becomes a reality, in an era where the government has unfettered and secret access to all digital data and control systems. As much as that's a joyous thought to those intent on banning all firearms (ie: President Obama), it should give pause to anyone concerned about or aware of their Constitutional rights.

I can see a situation where smart guns would be better in/for the country. Heck, I've thought about how I'd make them if I were doing so, and I'd love for weapons to be childproof. But I can't really see a path between where we are today and there, primarily because of all the politicized misinformation, subversive agendas, and barriers put into place by people who want to ban guns altogether. As with many areas, this is one where you would need to fix the societal situation first, before the technical solution would become feasible.

... or we could just keep derping along with lots of people getting shot because the idiotic "ban the guns" people can't pull their collective heads out of their asses long enough to see how they are the largest part of the problem. I'd bet we'll actually do that, sadly.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Thoughts on the State of the Union [speech]

I was going to not write anything about the SOTU, political drivel as it primarily is, but as usual in reading the text a few things jumped out, and motivated a sort of response. I'm not going to cover every point, of course (most of which are vapid and well-trod by this point), but a few bear mentioning.

Obama on "progress" over his term:
It’s how we recovered from the worst economic crisis in generations.
... yeah, if by recovered you mean stringing the economy along in a strange sort of limbo, where the Fed keeps housing affordable and stocks mostly positive after printing roughly $3,000,000,000,000 of additional money to buy up all the junk bonds the government created during the housing bubble. The recovery which has brought us to the precipice of another crash, which you're desperately hoping to postpone until you're out of office. Oh, and you has to create another roughly 7 trillion in national debt so that people in the middle class still cannot afford housing. Great job there.
It’s how we reformed our health care system...
First, you didn't reform the healthcare system, you reformed the health care insurance system. Second, it wasn't so much reform, as create a gigantic new entitlement and tax the working middle class to pay for it. Third, it wasn't a beneficial reform, measured against all the promises of cost reductions and overall savings which have not materialized (and never will, of course). Forth, although Obamacare does do some good things (in my opinion), it has made the healthcare system worse on balance. But, to be fair, it is reform.
... and reinvented our energy sector
Huh? We're still dependent on foreign oil, last I checked. You didn't build any more nuclear plants, or substantially move the needle on clean energy. About the only thing energy-related which got reformed was using the EPA as a power-grabbing unconstitutional bludgeoning policy tool, but that's really only temporary, until SCOTUS gets around to slapping it down again. Elon Musk has done more for energy sector reform than you, and he doesn't run the entire country. No points for that item.
... we delivered more care and benefits to our troops and veterans...
I'm pretty sure Jon Stewart might have something non-flattering to say about that point; feel free to ask him the next time you do his show (whatever the next one may be) while in office. I don't think you want to be using that as a talking point, though, what with the abysmal VA situation and all.
... we secured the freedom in every state to marry the person we love.
 If by "we" you mean the SCOTUS, then you would be accurate... but you would still be a self-serving sycophant for taking credit for someone else's victory. But, in fairness, that is the one positive progress item you could point to in the whole list, and actually the one most likely to be associated positively with your term in office.

On the state of the economy:
... an unemployment rate cut in half.
... by conveniently forgetting to count all the people who have been out of work so long that their prospects of ever becoming employed again have decayed beyond the threshold of being considered "looking for employment." Which is a distinction that most politicians ignore, and I'd be willing to overlook, except for the last sentence follow-up:
And we’ve done all this while cutting our deficits by almost three-quarters.
Wait, WTF? Oh, right... there was a massive "stimulus" handout program in 2009, which raised the "normal" deficit of ~$450B to something much higher, as a one-time abnormal deficit. Obama has reduced the structural deficit to only ~$485B... oh, wait, that's not even a decrease, that's an increase!

But wait, it gets even more ludicrously disingenuously stupid. That's the structural deficit, or the deficit which is built into the budget, not including extra spending. Obama has increased the national debt by roughly ~$8000B while in office, or just over $1000B per year. And even that amount doesn't include the ~$3000B the fed printed to buy junk bonds to prop up the housing and stock markets. Obama has presided over the largest increase of national debt in history, and created massive new entitlements for which the full cost has not even yet been accounted for. The deficit statement is quite possibly the most asinine, insulting sentence ever uttered by Obama during his terms, and that's saying quite a lot.

On the economy, and education, and energy plans, and climate change, and foreign policy, and the "middle part":

Honestly, I don't have much to say about these topics. There are some reasonable ideas, some expected exaggerations, some agenda items, and a lot of boilerplate rhetoric. There really just isn't much "interesting" there.

On partisan divide and distrust on politics:

Finally, a point which is absolutely correct, even as Obama totally ignores his central role in fostering the very problem he's articulating. Everybody wants government to be better, politics to be less fractious, and the system to be less rigged (except the people gaming the system for their own benefit). Unfortunately, nobody knows how to get there from where we are, and Obama offers no clear path either.

Overall, I guess, it was a fine SOTU: long on flowery rhetoric and embellishments of accomplishments, short on actual plans to accomplish vague goals, and a few huge whoppers to cover up monumental failures while in office. It will be interesting to see what Obama will be remembered for, and how much that perception is altered by how negatively the next president is viewed.

Sometimes, Obama is Befuddling

So this morning, this happened: http://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2016-01-12/obama-regrets-divided-u-s-before-final-state-of-the-union

Let me see if I have this right: Obama, the great Divider in Chief, said he regrets how divided and partisan politics has become. As Jon Stewart might have articulated [cue dramatic head turn to close-up camera], "Whaaah?"

This is the Obama who blamed Bush for overstepping presidential power to push agenda items, then used the same mechanism to do the same thing more than any previous president. Before that, this was the Obama who used the "Rahm it down their throats" strategy to pass his signature massive reform and entitlement program over the substantial and well-founded objections of every single legislative member of the other party, without anyone even reading the whole bill. This is the president who constantly blames his Republican predecessor for every problem he can, even when it's absurd to do so. The president who was all about working with Congress, until he had to actually work with them, then ignored (and continues to ignore) the Constitution to push his agenda. Yes, that president just said he regrets the strengthened partisan divide in the country.

Tone deaf? Monumentally ignorant? Just ignoring the facts, and saying whatever he thinks will resonate with potential voters the best? A sociopath who is totally incapable of conceptualizing his own culpability in the very problem he's lamenting? I honestly don't know any more... it's befuddling.

Upside: in a year, he'll be gone, and the country will have a chance to start repairing the damage he's done. Downside: the country is going to elect Hillary, who is all the bad things that Obama is, and an overt criminal. So there's still quite a bit of dark road ahead.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Problem with [a lack of] Trust (and Due Process)

One of the recent hot-topic issues in the news has been how to address gun violence in the United States. From cops shooting unarmed people, to the uncounted number of civilians murdered every year by "law enforcement", and with the extremely rare instances of mass shootings perpetrated by civilians getting hugely disproportionate media coverage, everybody seems overtly concerned with trying to do something to fix the problems. President Obama had an overtly emotional televised announcement that he was going to once again ignore the Constitutional limits of power imposed on his office to try to make it more difficult for people to acquire guns in the United States. Everybody is interested in reducing gun violence in the US... or are they?

You see, there's actually some contention on that last point. President Obama is certainly intent on reducing gun possession in the US... but only for civilians; he's actively funneling military ordnance and equipment to the domestic military organizations (aka "the police"), and is responsible for the ATF gun running operation which caused large numbers of assault rifles to be distributed to criminals in the US. With the Democrat party's frequent attacks on private gun ownership in the US from all potential angles, you could be excused for thinking Obama's action was more about restricting gun ownership rights than actually reducing gun violence. This is reinforced by the reality that none of the unilateral and unconstitutional actions would have actually helped with most of the situations being touted as the nominal excuses and justifications for said action.

What about his previous suggestion, though: to prevent people on the no-fly list from buying guns? Surely that's a relatively controversial-free suggestion... right? Well, it might be, but for one niggling issue: the no-fly list is kinda an unconstitutional power-grab in the first place, which totally ignores rights and due process. It's been accepted by the mainstream as a necessary "compromise" to fight terrorism, but some people (read: anyone who understands what rights are) are understandably somewhat reluctant to allow the government to expand its arbitrary, "we take your rights away when we want" program to more things beyond travel, warrantless search and seizure, and indefinite detention without habeas corpus. So while it sounds like a reasonable idea at first blush, the real problem is that the fundamentally unconstitutional nature of the underlying program makes it untenable for expansion into other areas without controversy, even though people otherwise might be in favor of it (ie: in concept, not allowing terrorists to buy guns seems like a perfectly reasonable idea).

Getting back to the gun violence issue, though, it's reasonably apparent that parties on all sides would like to find ways to reduce gun violence. The problem is not the desire... and I'll assert that the problem is also not the plans. There are plenty of reasonable plans which have been suggested, which would be fine in theory (eg: "don't let terrorists buy guns", and "don't let people ignore background checks by going to gun shows"). The real problem, it turns out, is the lack of trust: trust in the parties, trust in the motivations, and trust in the fundamental basis of the system.

Republicans don't trust that Obama is sincere in his desire to reduce gun violence, and not just ban guns, and for good reason: his party is constantly trying to ban guns, and their laws and regulations are constantly running afoul of the Constitution (Obama's executive actions being no exception). Obama can't use the no-fly list to preclude people from buying guns, because people don't trust that the TSA programs respect rights and due process (again, for good reason, since they absolutely and definitively do not). People shouldn't trust Obama's expansion of background check requirements and mental health qualification, because they are quite arbitrary, and could be used to backdoor blanket prohibitions on gun ownership (as denying carry permits were used by Democrats for such in California, to some success). It's not that there are not good plans there; it's that the people do not (and should not) trust the Democrats to not have ulterior motives in implementing them, and fear for their other rights being confiscated as a result.

The problem with lack of trust goes beyond gun control, of course. The government is currently struggling with damage control from the Snowden revelations, as they attempt to preserve the ability to conduct blanket unconstitutional surveillance on everyone, and the nominal appearance of some oversight and legality of their programs (the former being easy and automatic, but the latter becoming more challenging with every new revelation of gross misconduct and abuse). There's a justified lack of trust in police organizations across the country (primarily because they kill lots of people and cover it up, collectively). There's a lack of trust in government itself (because of the rampant corruption at all levels, but especially at the highest levels), and the system itself (because the people have effectively no say in government). Each of these deficits of trust, at all levels and seemingly with respect to most facets of the government, make it increasingly more difficult for the government to implement what would, in some cases, be reasonable ideas to make society better.

The crux of the issue, if you will, is that someone who is trusted to not be corrupt, not have ulterior motives, and be actually interested in solving the actual problems, be the one proposing the solutions. Unfortunately, that sort of person doesn't really exist in Washington DC in today's day and age, and the current situation is the result.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

IMF Concurs on Evaluation of Greece

So, the IMF published a memo on the Greece debt situation (memo is here, link referencing story is here). Basically, the memo outlines why the IMF will refuse to give Greece any more money, unless the other EU countries sign up to give Greece their money first. It is, by all appearances, a rational response to the most recent asinine bailout "agreement" reached over the weekend, which calls for (among other things) the IMF to dump another 50B euros into the bottomless monetary waste pit that is Greece.

Yes, by refusing to participate in the latest round of handouts, the IMF might be writing off its loan to Greece. However, with the current economic and political realities in Greece, they probably should have written off that money at the point they "lent" it, and certainly should have penciled it in as "gone" at the point of the latest elections. Greece simply has no will to repay their national debts, even if they had the ability to do so (which they also do not).

The important point, though, as the article somewhat notes, is that the EU basically has two options at this point. Option one, as laid out in the IMF memo and echoed in the article, is that the EU countries subsidize Greece indefinitely, creating a wealth redistribution funnel from the prosperous (read: capitalist) countries to the fiscally irresponsible (read: socialist) ones, where the people in Germany work hard to pay for the generous vacations and pensions for the people in Greece. Option two is for the EU to find/craft a way for Greece to denominate its debts in its own currency, so the market can punish their fiscal malfeasance over and over and over again, until the people finally "get it", and change their political policies.

Here's hoping they pick the second option, and not some half-measure somewhere in between to just delay the inevitable, while the people of Greece continue to suffer.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Simple Solutions for Greece, et all

So Greece has been in the news a lot recently, as a predictable culmination of a sequence of intentional steps which have brought the world to this point. To recap, an abbreviated summary:

  • Greece develops a culture of entitlement, with an economy heavily dependent on tourism and healthy government benefits for the people, such as government pensions and a retirement age of 50
  • Greece joins the EU to establish a common currency, which helps their tourism industry, but like other socialist-leaning countries ignores the nominal requirement to be nationally fiscally sound
  • Greece runs up large deficits which they cannot pay, requiring initial bailouts, which are granted because the EU is afraid of collapse should a member state default (and due to pre-existing financial rescue efforts and organizations, such as the IMF)
  • Greece doesn't change any of their policies, or enact any meaningful reform, and in a couple of years obviously needs further handouts to pay their ever-increasing bills
  • The EU government balk at funneling any more of their citizens' wealth to the effectively financially (and arguably morally) bankrupt Greece
  • The people of Greece double-down, and elect a pure socialist ruler on the premise of giving the colloquial finger to Greece's international creditors, while increasing the government benefits for the people (method of paying bills is unspoken, of course, since it doesn't exist)
  • Greece's government goes to the EU and demands more multi-billion euro handouts, but the EU countries have developed a modicum of common sense, and rebuke the idiotic demands
  • Greece's prime minister doubles-down again, calling for (and winning) a referendum from the people of Greece to say "FU" to their creditors, because somehow (in the prime minister's logic) this will make them more likely to throw their money into the black hole of Greece's bankrupt system
  • Greece submits a new proposal to get a new handout, which is just as absurd as the previous ones, but inexplicably the EU states consider agreeing to it (or at least pretend to, which is equally absurd)
So that's where we are, going into this weekend. It would, of course, be monumentally stupid (as well as a financial betrayal of their own people) for the EU countries to give Greece any more money, but that's not what I really want to write about. What I'd like to consider, instead, is how to conceptually fix the EU's charter to prevent the inevitable repeats of the Grecian meltdown (looking at you, France, and other unsustainable socialist "economies").

See, the real problem is not that hard to solve (looking past political issues). What Greece needs, and indeed what the EU needs in general, is for the member states to be required to denote all of their own borrowing and governmental obligations in their own state currency. Note that this currency might not even need to exist in any physical form; rather, all that is required is an electronic market for currency exchange between the individual nation-state currencies and the euro.

How would this help? Well to start with, countries would no longer need bailouts; they could, in cases of high debt, simply create more money to pay those debts (since all debts are, by charter/definition, denoted in the national currency). Creditors will, of course, demand interest rates proportional to the risk of devaluation through monetary creation, but that's a good thing: the demanded rate will be a direct reflection of how successful the monetary policies of the states are perceived. Moreover, the country could never run out of money, again by definition.

What about the people? Well, it turns out that the proposed scheme would address many of the governmental fiscal policy issues automatically as well. Overwhelming pension obligations? A non issue: the would be denoted in the national currency, and devalued automatically. Too many highly paid government workers? Not for long, as effective salaries are reduced through monetary devaluation. Essentially, the unsustainable debt load would fix itself, automatically.

Is that bad for the people? Well, that's a more complicated question. In the short term, it would certainly be painful, there's no question. However, it could actually be beneficial in the longer term, as perceptions and behaviors change by necessity. With the advent of devaluations and inflation, the countries would be forced to confront economic realities, with much more real-time feedback. Moreover, it would be much more difficult to create unrecoverable circumstances, as the economy would be constantly adjusting to economic reality. Thus, hopefully no more politicians winning elections by ignoring reality, as the realities would be much more obvious to the electorate.

Lastly, perhaps the most important question: would it work? Well, I think it would... but that's just my opinion, I could be wrong.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Celebrating Idiot Masses Day

This year, Tuesday November 4th marked the day I'd colloquially term the Idiot Masses Day in the US. This is the day, bi-annually, when the idiot masses get to go to the polling stations, and help steer the country inexorably forward toward its destined idiocracy. It's the day when, no matter how informed or educated you may be on any particular political issues or candidates, there are an order of magnitude more people going to the polls to vote purely based on idiotic partisan categorization, some partisan or paid-for endorsements, or worse, a combination of distilled and filtered sound bites randomly garnered from media exposure. The setup virtually ensures we'll get a mediocre outcome at best, and reinforces the monetarily corrupt native of the current voting process.

Which begs the question: could we do better? Well, that's a more difficult question, with no easy answer. Conceptually, there are several ways we could hope to have a better overall outcome, but they all have substantial drawbacks.

For example, we could have some sort of political literacy test required in order to vote, which would eliminate some of the people influencing the process without the faintest comprehension of the effects of the things they are voting for. Depending on the test, this could do wonders to screen out the easily manipulated votes (and by extension the corrupting influence of money), but whoever was setting the test criteria would have enormous influence over the election process. Since this would be done by elected leaders (directly or indirectly), and they are generally contemptible and thoroughly corrupt, this would be untenable in practice.

We could also weigh votes, based on some objective criteria, designed to elicit more educated voting indirectly (eg: count votes by property owners as worth more than votes by people with no land holdings). While this could certainly work to increase the quality of opinions expressed by the voting populace, it would (again) no doubt elicit much debate as to what criteria was used to select for "good" opinions on political matters. While I'd love to see this employed for some sections of government, to allow specific points of view to have a voice (eg: elect the US Senate with votes weighed based on actual taxes paid, to allow the people who pay for government a say in government actions), I don't think this is really viable for general elections, due to the potential for abuse of the criteria.

There are also optimizations which could be made to make it more feasible for working professionals to vote, and/or for people to express indirectly-educated opinions. For the former, something like online voting would be a great alternative to visiting a polling place. For the latter, the ability to proxy your vote on specific people/issues to others who you trusted to be educated and like-minded would go a long way toward raising the effective education level of the voting populace. However, both of these also have issues, primarily related to the required anonymity of voting itself (ie: the moment voting has a identification trail, it's a certainty that the intelligence agencies, who don't particularly care about rights or ethics, will compromise the data, and politicians will then be able to use it to intimidate voters and influence the process). So this, too, is probably a non-starter.

Where does that leave us? Well, where we are now: celebrating Idiot Masses Day, as the abysmally poor way to make political decisions, which also happens to likely be the best methodology our corrupt system/people can actually support. The day when you can spend time going to the polls and do your best to correct the direction of the state/country (within the very narrow and practically meaningless confines imposed on you by the politicians determining what measures get onto the ballot, and/or choosing between two horrible corrupt partisan liars), only to have your potentially educated and insightful opinion drowned out by the masses of drooling idiots casting their votes for the highest media bidder. Congratulations.