Thursday, February 28, 2008


Now I have to vote for McCain

as a vote against Obama and I'm not happy about it. Certainly the patriotic corporations act had a role in that decision, but it's really a decision I made after seeing Obama lay out specifics on his national defense policy in this video.

Some quick notes.
1. Contra my prior assertion that Obama wasn't being very specific in his speeches, this is pretty specific. So maybe he's getting more specific as part of wrapping up the nomination, in response to general criticisms, or he's been specific all along and it just hasn't gotten play on the news. I'm leaning to the latter as this is a four-month old speech.

2. The reason I saw it today is apparently members of the Hillary camp are pushing it. Interesting angle.

3. The full speech is here and the excerpt is basically 80% of the full speech and just excludes an anti-not-our-side-special interests promise (this is basically what everyone means when they rail against special interests - interests they agree with, like Obama and unions, are not "special", they're representative of broader interests), so it's in context.

4. Contra Geraghty (where I saw this today), I'm pretty certain that Obama's reference to cutting back funding to "future combat systems" is actually in reference to "Future Combat Systems" - a major DoD initiative to integrate networked sensors and unmanned vehicles/robots into combat forces. There's already been cuts to FCS due to Iraq having a higher funding priority (though UAVs, UGVs and sensors have been critical in diminishing the effectiveness of IEDs - the most significant threat to our troops in Iraq). In light of Obama's stated plans to pull out of Iraq, I think this is not aimed at FCS as a specific program (JTRS would be a better program to scrap and retool [again]), but rather as part of the larger Obama plan to cut the size of the military and disarm in general.


Monday, February 25, 2008


Democrats for the FairTax

Here - it's argued along the lines of soak the rich (wealth, not income) / help the poor (eliminate payroll taxes), which is unfortunate from my perspective (don't like the group-oriented mindset as opposed to the individual / institution mindset), but I've long thought the FairTax was a no-brainer for Democrats (eliminate payroll taxes + tax wealth) and Republicans (improve economic efficiency).

Side note - if you think you'll get a lot of tax avoidance under the FairTax because of its high rate (23 or 30% depending on your perspective), consider a self-employed person who pays income taxes at 35 (fed income) + ~7.65 (ss + med) + 5 (state income) = 47.65%. Not naming names, but they just might now make as many things as possible a business expense and be actively looking for as many ways as possible to shelter income (see the SEP, for instance - up to $45,000 annual tax free contribution - yeah, tax free savings / Red Stripe, boo inefficient lock-in effects).

That hypothetical person might currently be legally avoiding maybe half of his taxes and thus would likely pay more under the FairTax, but recognizes that under an income tax his decisions are being made horribly inefficiently (ceteris paribus, but approximately optimal given the tax structure), that he's losing an insane amount of time on adminitrivia1, and doesn't like the massive privacy invasion inherent to an income tax.

1. For a practical example of adminitrivia time, my company had 7 "sales" last year (engineering services go for a smidge higher than retail), but 500ish billable expenses. I have to keep track of both expenses and sales under the current tax system, but only sales under the FairTax. Which do you think takes more time? (Hint, I lose a 1-2 hours a week accounting for expenses, but lost maybe 3.5 hours all year accounting for sales). Add in my tax compliance cost inherent to interfacing with an intruisive government, and a *lot* of time gets lost (one of the reasons I blog less than I used to, and have a bad habit of leaving posts unfinished).

Note that even companies which have more sales than expenses are not made worse off time-wise, and most of those kinds of companies are retailers who are already implementing sales taxes.

2. Contra-Boortz I don't expect the reduction in embedded taxes to be enough of an offset to fully compensate those living off of their wealth - e.g., seniors. But I think that can be best handled in other ways, like modifying the SS payout.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Collectivism and fascism/Fascism

*Warning post in progress*
I'm posting this half completed because a) I have work to do, b) I think this could turn into a nice little essay and feedback in progress could be useful, c) it really forces me to eventually finish writing this, d) I can. Concepts likely won't change, but formatting and wording definitely will.

In the comments to a post below, Matt wonders if I really mean Collectivism when I speak of fascism and gives his definition of fascism (what I would term Fascism).

I think they're all similar and highly related, and because I think it's an interesting distinction, I'm writing a post on it. (What else is blogging but intellectual onanism after all?1)

Let's begin with definitions.

Collectivism: the theory and practice that makes some sort of group rather than the individual the fundamental unit of political, social, and economic concern.

A later definition on that same page says
collectivism ... treats society as if it were a super-organism existing over and
above its individual members, and which takes the collective in some form (e.g.,
tribe, race, or state) to be the primary unit of reality and standard of value
Matt cites a workable wiki checklist definition of Fascism (recall I'm using Fascism to refer to the system of government and fascism to the philosophy)
Various scholars attribute different characteristics to fascism, but the following elements are usually seen as its integral parts: patriotism, nationalism, statism, militarism, totalitarianism, anti-communism, corporatism, populism, collectivism, autocracy and opposition to political and economic liberalism.

Previously I defined fascism as

the belief that the individual is subordinate to the interests of the collective.

in contrast with Fascism as

an authoritarian political ideology (generally tied to a mass movement) that considers the individual subordinate to the interests of the state, party or society as a whole.

Individualism, definition 1 (differentiate from classical liberalism???)

the theory and practice that makes *the individual* the fundamental unit of
political, social, and economic concern

Individualism, definition 2

the interests of the individual should trump the interests of the collective

collectivism vs individualism
The key concept to collectivism is that the only entities endowed with "agency" in a meaningful sense are groups, not individuals. The opposite end of the spectrum would be individualism (def 1) wherein the only entities endowed with agency are individuals.

In practice the world is a mix of collectives and individuals. Examples of collectives include firms, voting blocs, alliances, and cartels. Because collectives are comprised of individuals, they tend to break down over time as individual interests diverge.

collectivism vs fascism

(Or fascism: group > individual; collectivism: individuals don't exist in the calculus)
or collectivism is the envisioned end state of fascism

fascism vs Fascism
Fascism is fascism where the collective is the nation-state. Matt's / wiki's list of nationalism, patriotism, statism/totalitarianism, and opposition to political / economic liberalism all directly flow from making the prioritized collective the nation-state (with statism and totalitarianism just affecting the # of spheres for which the nation-state is prioritized over the individual). National collectivism is of course the goal of Fascism. Populism (fascism where the group is "the people") comes from the nation part of nation-state, though is strictly not necessary for Fascism (but very useful for reasonably homogeneous states).

The link between Corporatism (fascism where the groups are corporations) and Fascism is an accident of history not central to the concept of Fascism. Likewise for anti-communism and autocracy - see Oceania2 for an example of a Fascist state that is neither anti-communist nor autocratic nor corporatist (and I guess it wasn't really populist either).

individualism vs Liberalism
Liberalism is a system of government/set of institutions which promotes individualism (def 2). However, by creating these institutions, liberalism creates a society where individualism (def 1) doesn't hold (as the institutions must retain some agency to be effective).

1. Ok blogging is lots of things for lots of people, but I'm all about the onanism, baby!

2. I know that 1984 is really a warning about Communism (fascism where the group is the Proletariat), but as presented in 1984, Oceania cleaves3 more closely to my definition of Fascism (fascism where the group is the nation-state) than to Communism. Of course that Communism could morph into Fascism (see Stalin) shouldn't be a surprise to anyone working from my definitions of Communism, Fascism, and fascism.

3. Don't you love words like "cleave" which mean opposite things depending on the context?


Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Futility Vote

Just voted for Fred. In related news, spitting in the ocean was recently found to have a negligible effect on sea levels.

But when you spit on the sidewalk, it's really easy to see. I was one of two voters for Fred in my precinct (scroll down to precinct 402 - TJ elementary went FT 2, JM 115, MH 244, MR 3, RP 11, RG 2). Preethi thinks my neighbor was the other one. I'll ask her next time I see her.

Update 2
Nope. She didn't. Almost did though. It'll remain a mystery.


Friday, February 08, 2008


Obama, fascist Everyman

Ilya has a post up on Volokh wondering why Obama's appeal to unity is resonating so well.

One of Barack Obama's major campaign themes is the promise that he will "unite" America. Obama is an incredibly skillfull campaigner, so I must assume that he wouldn't be pushing this trope unless there were good reason to believe that it works. Of course, Obama is far from the only politician to promise unity. Remember when George W. Bush promised that he would be a "uniter, not a divider"? That was a fairly successful campaign theme too.

This emphasis on unity for its own sake seems misplaced. After all, unity is really valuable only if we are united in doing the right thing. Being united in doing the wrong thing is surely worse than being divided, if only because division reduces the
likelihood of the harmful policies being enacted. And even if the policies proposed by the would-be "uniter" really are beneficial, it's not clear why broad unity in support of them is preferable to just having enough votes to get them passed.

He seems to come close to saying it, but then backs away. So I will.

I think it works because most people have a fascist streak. (I actually believe "people have a fascist streak"; "most" is just a weasel word. If you're insistent on claiming that you have no fascist impulses, feel free to exclude yourself from the rest of society, you enemy of the state.)

Before we go any further, let's carefully define fascism. Wikipedia defines Fascism as:

an authoritarian political ideology (generally tied to a mass movement) that considers the individual subordinate to the interests of the state, party or society as a whole.

As a more general definition (so we can move beyond the purely political spheres), I'll define fascism (note change in capitalization) as
the belief that the individual is subordinate to the interests of the collective.

I think you can see how wiki's definition of Fascism is just my defintion of fascism applied to the political sphere.

Even though I'm a libertarian, I can conceive of situations where the collective should trump the individual, actions during the heat of battle being the most prominent example with any situation which is significantly complex and dependent on coordinated action potentially being an attractive candidate for fascism.

Even though individualism (which I'll define as the opposite of fascism - the interests of the individual should trump the interests of the collective) is a core value of the US (and people in general), so is fascism. The notion that the individual is subordinate to the collective has occured throughout US history even at our inception (see "United we stand, divided we fall." which was a fascist argument applied to the states) and obviously occuring during times of war. This also occurs in boardrooms where great value is placed on "reaching a consensus" and a lot in our every day life (see team sports and family activities). And of course it occurs in the political realm as well ("We're going to take things away from you on behalf of the common good" or the various implied sentiments of if you don't do X you're not a patriot/the terrorists will win). While those last two examples may not be indicative of the value of fascism, there are so many situations where the fascist belief is beneficial because coordinated action is actually preferable to individual action that I think it's reasonable to assume that a predisposition towards fascism has been bred into us from fascist tribes outbreeding / killing off individualistic tribes.

So what's the deal with fascism then? Why is it such a loaded word that I'm certain Godwin's law will hold in the comments? In my mind, fascism only works when its degree and implementation are properly tailored to the spheres in which it is being applied/considered and when this isn't done, really bad things happen.

To consider when fascism might make sense, I think one should address the following issues:

On implementation/degree issues with fascisms, consider various past mechanisms for dealing with those who oppose consensus. Execution is certainly used, but is almost always excessive (I think that execution can make sense on a battlefield when it's literally a matter of life or death) as well as ostracism (which was more severe when actual ostraka were used). I'm a big believer in the value of shame (or "churching" to a Baptist) so I at least think there are situations and mechanisms acceptable for enforcing community over individual. Of course there's excessive situations and mechanisms as well (think pogroms or most cliqueish behavior). So a key problem of fascism is that enforcement mechanisms need to be carefully tailored so the value of unity is not outweighed by the costs incurred by punishing those who deviate from the community.

Imperfect information is also a problem. By this I'm generally referring to situations where it is difficult to assess if the person being punished actually worked against the collective will. Imperfect information strongly impacts the efficacy of enforcement as erroneously assigning punishments can outweigh the fascist benefits and can even break down the entire collective if done erroneously enough (oddly enough, this was a topic in my dissertation, but as applied to punishment schemes to get individual radios to act in the interests of the network). Imperfect information is a key reason why we discourage vigilantism. As the world is always a noisy imperfect place, it is important to ensure that punishment is appropriately matched to the scenario (e.g., battlefield versus wearing the right clothes to school) and to the level of certainty.

Likewise there are certain spheres where it's just impossible to apply fascist enforcement mechanisms in a way that don't outweigh the benefits and spheres where consensus holds no intrinsic value. For instance, I think the fascist calculus is impossible in the economic sphere as people's utility functions are time-varying and not well known to themselves and there's just way to many interactions to manage and too much highly localized information. This is why collective decisions about the economy inevitably underperform individual decisions - the sphere simply does not have enough quality information to make intelligent decisions that the entire populace should conform to.

An example of a sphere where consensus holds no intrinsic value is science where what should matter is what models/theories make verifiably correct predictions, not how many people believe X to be true. (This is why I'm am completely unpersuaded by "consensus" in the AGW debate. FYI, we've come down from having much more sea ice than normal and have about leveled out at the average line for the last few weeks. Also note that there's no particular value to individualism either in science.) You can quickly conceive of numerous other places where unity holds little to no particular value (e.g., dress, sexual mores) where the default position should be one of individualism (actually I think the default position should always be individualism barring a very compelling case for fascism, but then again, I'm a libertarian).

So when Obama makes calls for unity, it is not surprising that it resonates with people because at its heart its a call for fascism (unity over division; collective over individual) and we're all fascists and there's lots of situations where fascism makes sense. Conservatives are fascists; liberals are fascists; and to a certain extent so are libertarians. Pretty much only anarcho-capitalists are not fascists - but even them I'm not so certain as the ones I've met have seemed at the least cliqueish. So we all exhibit certain fascist sympathies though the spheres of application and mechanisms for implementation vary from person to person.

However, as Ilya points out, Obama is not unusual in his calls for unity, so why has he been so successful in his calls for unity? In my opinion, Obama's relative success, is due in part (he's also a hell of a speaker) to his lack of specifics (at least on the stump). By avoiding specifics, each person assumes that the unity being called for is the specific unity they crave in the sphere in which they hold fascist tendencies and that this unity will be enforced via the mechanisms they think are appropriate. Because of this, Obama is a fascist Everyman while the remaining candidates are just fascists.


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