Thursday, November 10, 2016

What Trump Could Do

In the post election shock wave, there has been plenty of speculation as to what Trump might do, in terms of things which would be [perceived to be] very bad for the country. Much of the speculation is probably overblown, but some it could be on point, and the country could certainly be in for a rough few years.

However, rather than jump on the bandwagon of what horrible things might happen, I figured I'd take a different rhetorical track, and speculate on positive things which could happen. Trump is, in actuality, in a fairly unique position as a president elect, being both relatively unbeholden to special interests, and being historically less partisan than most nominated candidates. He will find himself, in a matter of months, in a fairly unique position, at least in recent memory, and actually capable of accomplishing things which no traditional partisan candidate could hope for. So in that spirit, I'm going to speculate on some things he could do, which could actually turn out really good for the country.

Disclaimer: I don't pretend to think, nor make any representation that I actually believe, that Trump will do any of the things below. I do not believe he is either capable of, or inclined to attempt to do, things which would truly help the country at the risk of his own standing. However, I didn't think Trump had a chance to win the election either, so recent history has once again demonstrated that I certainly could be wrong.

Foreign Affairs

This could be a really easy win for Trump, actually. Coming into office, Trump is an unknown, which is a distinct advantage when dealing with foreign leaders and negotiating deals. As long as Trump doesn't get drawn into a military conflict through ego and/or belligerence, foreign leaders are likely to give him a good amount of slack as they feel him out.

Moreover, you could improve the military situation for the US by simply not doing anything in terms or foreign military interventions. The US has been strained for a while trying to play police-nation for the world, and taking a step back wouldn't be the worst thing. The military-industrial complex has a lot of pull with "institutional" politicians, but Trump could buck that trend, save the country some money in the process, and appease a lot of people who dislike more hawkish foreign policy.

Judicial Appointments

This is another area where Trump could actually be very good for the country. He's in a unique position of being able to nominate people that the Congress would more/less have to approve (or risk alienating their voting base). He could use that position to appoint actual non-partisan, middle of the road type of judges, which would be virtually impossible for any other partisan politician. He could, if inclined, actually foster quite a bit of bipartisan goodwill in this regard, as well as negating one of the primary fears for his presidency, while keeping with his historical political leanings. Moreover, more than most other things, this would have the best chance of creating a positive legacy for himself.

Border Security

I don't know that building walls along the country's borders is a good strategy, but frankly the US could use better border security, and a half-measure here (between campaign rhetoric and doing nothing) would be just about right in terms of magnitude. Scaling back campaign rhetoric into something more achievable would be a marked improvement over Obama's backdoor amnesty, in any case.


Obamacare is a mess, and it needs fixing. I don't know that anything proposed so far (by politicians, anyway) is substantially better, but now that the realities of Obamacare are more apparent to people, most people are going to be on board with "something needs to be done to fix the costs". You'd need to tread carefully, but I think some improvement would be fairly easy, and substantial improvement would at least be possible. This could really be a win for Trump and the GOP together, as long as they don't f it up too bad in the process.

Trade Agreements and the Economy

This is another area where, presumably, Trump's specific knowledge and experience could serve the country well. More than most politicians, Trump could have a reasonable grasp on economic consequences, and how to create and protect jobs for Americans. Yes, this might come at an environmental cost, but with other countries essentially taking advantage of the US anyway in terms of environmental destruction, a little more push back wouldn't be a terrible thing.

LBGT Rights

This is, in my opinion, a sorta hidden victory Trump could have, if he wanted it. Everyone expects Trump to scale-back hard fought rights victories for the LBGT community, per the GOP platform (and certainly per his VP's ideology). But in actuality, the best thing Trump could do here is nothing: just don't take any action on it, claiming (when pressed) that other issues have priority, and you'll get around to it. The truth is that the country will need some time to normalize the changes which happened under the Obama administration anyway, and doing nothing would be an easily defensible strategy in light of other priorities. If nothing happened for 4+ years, no amount of rhetoric is doing to diminish that as a win for people's rights... and that would be great.

Bonus Points: Actual Improvements

Now, at the risk of getting from hopeful speculation into full-on la la land, there are also some things Trump could do with his unique position/opportunity which would actually improve the country (rather than basically just not messing it up like people fear he will). I won't get into too many details here, but here's a very abbreviated list of things which could be actually made tangibly better, if Trump were so inclined:
  • Simplifying the tax code
  • Making Social Security stable and guaranteed (and in private accounts)
  • Changing offshore tax avoidance by multinational corporations to encourage domestic investment
  • [the holy grail] Improving relations among people in the country, to heal some of the internal divisions

Last Thoughts

Will Trump accomplish any of these things? Will he even try? Will his presidency instead be as bad as his opponents fear, or worse? Only time will tell, and quite frankly, I wouldn't bet on the country being better off four years from now. However, I do think it's important to hold out hope for what could be, even if the vision may ultimately be a fleeting fantasy.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Trump Accidentally Right, Again

Wanted to write a quick post, re this article from CNN:

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.

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:

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.

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:

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.