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.