Thursday, December 29, 2005

Just in time to compete for the "Biggest idiots of 2005" award

Iraqi "insurgents," i.e. terrorists, have been holding a French engineer hostage for three weeks. The BBC now reports that his captors are threatening to kill him, clarifying something that his captors don't seem to know:
The channel said the previously unknown group had demanded French troops leave Iraq. France has no forces in the country and opposed the US-led war.
I really don't know what to say. Someone please give these guys a dinar so they can buy a clue.

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Freedom of thought: it's most dangerous to the state

I'm surprised (or am I really?) to find conservative blogs silent about Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's most famous novelist. The latest development is that prosectors announced they will not file additional charges, but Pamuk still faces, this AP article simplifies it, "charges that he insulted 'Turkishness'":
Nationalist lawyers had petitioned prosecutors to file criminal charges against Orhan Pamuk for reportedly telling German newspaper Die Welt in October that the military threatened democratization in Turkey....

Prosecutors decided there were no grounds to try Pamuk for insulting the military, said nationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz.
However,
The novelist still faces charges for telling a Swiss newspaper in February that "30,000 Kurds and 1 million Armenians were killed in these lands, and nobody but me dares to talk about it."

The remarks highlighted two of the most painful episodes in Turkish history: the massacre of Armenians during World War I which Turkey insists was not a planned genocide and recent guerrilla fighting in Turkey's overwhelmingly Kurdish southeast.

On Wednesday, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul acknowledged that charges brought against Pamuk had tarnished the country's image abroad and said laws that limit freedom of expression may be changed. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also said laws could be changed if there were serious flaws.

It was the first time the government indicated it could amend laws making it a crime to insult Turkey. But officials said the government would likely wait for the outcome of the trial against Pamuk and dozens of others before moving to amend the laws.

"This is a new law, let's see how it works, what the outcomes are," Erdogan said. "If there are serious problems, then of course the legislature will sit down, make a new assessment and take a new decision."
Nationalism at its finest. Sadly, this proves that a nation does not have to be as hard-lined as Iran to stifle freedom of speech and thought. Turkey is, in fact, regarded as very secular compared to other predominantly Muslim nations. Religion, however, is hardly a requisite for government to mold people into its desired image (whereas it should be the other way around).

Most curious is how Pamuk perceives freedom of speech and thought in the EU:
In an interview published Thursday, Pamuk said the government must expand freedom of expression if it wants to win EU membership.

"For a country to enter the EU, there has to be full respect of minority rights, freedom of thought and expression," Pamuk told Aksam newspaper. "If you drag your feet and make cosmetic changes ... then this won't do. To believe that, you would need to be a child."
Curious indeed, because Germany and France have made "Holocaust denial" a crime. Therefore they do not have the "full respect of...freedom of thought and expression" that Pamuk thinks is a condition of EU membership.

I have no doubt whatsoever that the Holocaust occurred, and that six million Jews (and others, but principally Jews) were brutally murdered. But if I believe in true liberty, I must accept what Evelyn Hall of the Friends of Voltaire said: "I may disagree with what you said, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Note that he did not say "defend what you say," which is key. I must accept that my freedom to speak truth is the same freedom allowing someone to speak non-truth, especially when I am aware the other person is incorrect.

If we are to have true freedom of speech and thought, we must accept that those freedoms allow others to say things which are ignorantly untrue, if not outright lies. Only until such statements cause us injury do we have legal remedies. If someone lies to me in a business transaction, he can be punished for fraud. If someone tells me that the sky is chartreuse, that does not harm me. Similarly, someone can swear by whatever he'd like that the Holocaust never occurred, and I may think him a damn fool, but he has not affected my rights to life, liberty and property. Recall the Jefferson quote I used a few nights ago: "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

If someone sprays paint on my car or along my house wall, declaring the Holocaust a myth, then that is damage to my property: it can and should be punished. However, that does not mean government can then pass laws against "Holocaust denial," because there is the chance someone can spray graffiti in support of Holocaust denial. Arrest and punish the person for what he did to my property, regardless of any messages he left. Someone might start a volatile gathering of Holocaust deniers that turns into violent riots, but arrest and punish the people for the damage they do while rioting. Have so few of us read Orwell's 1984, do so few of us remember the several millennia of recorded human history, that we do not see the slippery slope of government outlawing one thought, then another, then another, under the pretense of saving ourselves from "wrong thinking"?

But how do we combat untruth, then, if we do not avail ourselves of government's power to forbid and subsequently punish? Is it not a disservice to society that people remain ignorant? Thomas Jefferson put it so well:
It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. But is uniformity of opinion desireable? No more than of face and stature. Introduce the bed of Procrustes then, and as there is danger that the large men may beat the small, make us all of a size, by lopping the former and stretching the latter. Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of a Censor morum over each other. Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth. Let us reflect that it is inhabited by a thousand millions of people. That these profess probably a thousand different systems of religion. That ours is but one of that thousand. That if there be but one right, and ours that one, we should wish to see the 999 wandering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority we cannot effect this by force. Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments.
Many Christians would take great personal offense and begin questioning the man's greatness if they were well acquainted with Jefferson's criticisms of Christianity. They extended to religion in general: he was a critic of the organization, the methods, and the perpetuated ignorance.

Are Holocaust deniers' arguments so strong, and the truth of the Holocaust so flimsy, that government must support the latter by physical force? By Jefferson's wise standard, does that not reduce it to the status of error? Jefferson said elsewhere, "Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it." It reminds me of the complaint that Wikipedia is filled with erroneous information because anyone can edit it. That is true, but the counter is, why do the people not use their equal powers to edit, to remove the bad?

Are we all doing our part, instead of crying out for government, to combat error? Orham Pamuk certainly is. I wonder if he's familiar with Edmund Burke, especially his famous admonishment, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Pamuk has found a very sensitive nerve in his native Turkey, and it hurts people to hear the truth, but they must face it. As Jesus Christ told us, "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free."

A consumer preference quiz to my readers

As I write this, I'm sipping some Jack Daniels (regular No. 7), my first in several years. The reason I rarely drink it is that, like my father, I like Jim Beam Black better. At least I did. Perhaps it's because I'm extraordinarily exhausted, after only six hours of sleep over the last two days, but JD seems to taste smoother.

So a little quiz to my readers:

Favorite American whiskey? I may have to change my answer with regard to JD versus JBB, but I like Maker's Mark.

Favorite Scotch? Johnny Walker Blue. However, for a quarter of the price, Glenmorangie's single Highland malt in a sherry wood finish is truly lovely...almost as much as a beautiful woman's face in the moonlight. (OK, now I know I'm really tired.)

Johnny Walker Black versus Chivas Regal? Like my old man, I prefer Johnny Walker Black, though neither of us would disgrace ourselves by declining Chivas. When recently meeting Don Luskin in person, I had two Johnny Walker Blacks on the rocks.

Favorite Irish whisky? I like Jameson's. A classic. I think it has more body than Bushmills.

Favorite whiskey or whisky overall? I like Scotch. Though technically it's a liqueur, I love Drambuie, which is based on a single Highland malt.

A conversation about the necessity of government

I previously posted an e-mail dialogue with Tom, who does seem like a nice guy with good, unselfish intentions. He supports the notion of subsidized public transportation, and as a libertarian, I do not. I might accept a government-run transportation system if and only if it could stand completely on its own. However, the New York Metro Transit Authority and Amtrak don't collect enough revenues from selling fares and advertising space, so they need government subsidies. The U.S. Post Office almost always needs subsidies.

Here's Tom's reply from two nights ago:
In an urban area like southern Westchester, existence of usable transit is a necessity, just like fire, police, water, sewer, and garbage service. We saw NYC collapse last week during the transit strike. Parts of Westchester (like downtown White Plains) couldn't fully function if all its transit (bus and rail) shut down. Private transit operators aren't the answer; there were totally private transit systems in the US as recently as the 1970's; each was failing and therefore converted to subsidized operations.

Many people cannot drive--because of age (too young or old), medical condition, or economic circumstances. Saying those people should only work, shop, and go to school within walking distance of home is unrealistic (how many domestics can afford to live in Scarsdale?) and detrimental to the economy. It's hard to imagine a more effective way to ensure that some of the poor never attain middle class status than by virtually restricting them to ghettos 24/7; surely you agree this is unacceptable! Also, transit takes cars off the road reducing congestion for the rest of the people that drive. Increased vehicle occupancy (like transit) is cheapest method of addressing the problem of overcrowded roads and parking lots.

All transportation is subsidized. Do you oppose government spending for roads and airports? Yes, there are gasoline taxes which partially pay for construction and expansion of trunk highways, but minor maintenance (like line painting, street lighting, and snow removal) comes from general revenues. Also, the entire network of local roads (and there are far more miles of local roads than there are trunk highways) comes from general revenues (aka subsidy).

Airlines received massive subsidies after 9/11. They have also had a continuing federal subsidy for air service to small cities. United Airlines is forcing everybody to subsidize its pension systems.

And don't forget the huge subsidy gasoline is getting now by our military presence in Iraq and before that in Kuwait. (Even Rush Limbaugh said the first Gulf War was all about the "free flow of oil".) How many dollars of each fill-up go to corrupt middle-east sheikdoms? While buses & trains use petroleum too, they are far more fuel-efficient than automobiles. (Transit subsidies mainly go toward labor costs.)

Among government services, transit is unique because it gets cheaper (for taxpayers) and better (for riders) with increased use. Because the marginal cost of carrying an additional passenger is almost zero, nearly 100% of the added fare revenue passes through to the bottom line. Increased fare-paying ridership on existing buses reduces subsidy and benefits taxpayers. If ridership grows so much that additional buses must be added, riders benefit from more frequent service. Adding service to eliminate overcrowding shouldn't cost taxpayers anything because an overcrowded bus is a profitable bus. 119 passengers/hour (the largest Bee-Line buses cary up 119 passengers) at $1.75 each (the lowest adult Bee-Line cash fare) far exceeds operating costs for a single bus. The best way to reduce transit subsidies is to increase ridership on existing vehicles.

There are many things in life that I subsidize without ever directly using. I pay for schools even though I have no children. I pay for a fire department even though I (knock on wood!) have never needed them. I pay for Westchester County's golf courses even though I've never golfed. Why should something as vital as transportation be any different? And if highway subsidies are OK, why not transit subsidies (especially when transit can reduce the need for wider, more expensive roads)?

Besides, people living near the Bee-Line subsidize it disproportionately by increased property taxes. Look at real estate ads in the paper. Notice all the ads that say "on bus line" or "walk to train". (I've never seen one boast of NOT being on a bus line.) Living near transit is something for which (some) people are willing to pay a hefty premium. That premium translates into higher property values along bus lines which translates into higher property taxes along those lines. So while all Westchester taxpayers subsidize the Bee-Line somewhat, people living near bus lines support it more through higher property values.

You also might be interested in how many people rode the free Bee-Line buses in May: 3.45 million (free trips) in May 2005 vs 2.41 million (paid trips) in May 2004. As far as I know this increase was accomplished without increasing the operating cost; no additional bus runs were operated. Also, most Bee-Line subsidy comes from NYS, less than half comes from Westchester itself. In 2004 the subsidy figures were Westchester County $13 million, NYS $30 million.
And my reply:
I wouldn't say the city collapsed last week. It lost a not insignificant quantity of economic production, but I don't think it was as bad as some economists predicted. Quite a few people, those who couldn't take vacation or sick days, still found ways to get to work. The Post talked about people driving to work, who would hire three people for $5 each just to ride two blocks beyond 96th Street. It was worth it to get to work. Others walked as I did, or bicycled, or rollerbladed.

Faced with long-term prospects of not getting to far-away jobs, people would find work that they could get to. What you're saying assumes that people can only work the jobs they have today. A shift in the ability to travel would also shift people's comparative advantages. Someone relying on public transportation to get from Yonkers to White Plains might cease working at the Galleria and instead work at a local grocery store. Sure, you would no longer have White Plains as we know it, but that isn't the only option. Instead of one big locus, there will be various smaller loci spread throughout a geographic area. What did people do before long-distance commutes? My father grew up during the Great Depression, and he alloted time to walk to school and work. Sometimes a housekeeper stayed in a small room. Grocery stores operated close to or right in residential neighborhoods, because they had to. And what you might consider unrealistic was very much reality even during the glory days of the 1950s.

Free market economies are remarkably resilient and will adjust themselves. If people cannot travel long distances, for example if I could no longer commute to the city, then I would find another job closer to home. Before people were able to drive, or ride horses, they walked. The economies' physical extent, naturally, was based on the possibilities of travel. Things would simply become more concentrated, but not necessarily smaller. Also, remember that if I pay $x in taxes to subsidize bus routes, that's $x simply disappearing from my wallet. If people take jobs that don't require subsidized busing, then I'll have $x more to spend on the goods and services they provide. It's far more efficient than pouring it into subsidies, which feed the waste in government-run services.

If roads become heavily congested, then the full cost (time) of getting to work will be greatly increase, and people will seek jobs closer to home. Few things encourage you to look for another line of work than being stuck in traffic for a couple of hours, or trying to find a parking spot, which has an incredibly high opportunity cost. People could spend that time working a little more or just enjoying themselves. Economies have lots of unseen self-correcting mechanisms like this. A while back I wrote a bit on congestion, and how people will leave an area that gets overcrowded. Businesses, left to themselves, will find their own balances between higher resource costs (like housing and having things delivered) and lower commute costs. And then there are lots of government policies that exacerbate congestion.

Government creating problems it says only it can fix

I disagree that a lack of transportation reduces people to ghettos. Ghettos are simply symptoms of the people themselves. In fact, in modern times, it's government that creates them. With the best of intentions, it establishes housing projects for the poor and fails to control the criminal element, which concentrates people who have poor comparative advantages with those who don't care and those who are criminals. The way for the poor to improve their economic condition isn't to subsidize their commutes, but for people to improve their skill sets so they can produce goods and services of higher value. Decades of social programs have shown it's futile for government to throw more money into education, because people must care first. They have no reason to care about improving themselves when they can just get by, subsidized by others.

It's interesting you should mention the attempts at private transportation. They failed because had they charged high enough fares to break even, people wouldn't have paid the fares. They worked with subsidies, i.e. coercing people to pay for others' consumption of goods and services. And even if the subsidies are paid for by state taxes and not the county, it's still morally wrong. When it gets to the federal level, we have Robert Byrd taking tax monies from all over the U.S. to fund his pet projects that benefit only West Virginians. There's no incentive for West Virginians to decide what they really need and what they can afford, because they can coerce the money from others.

For the same reason, I opposed the transportation bond act, which as you may know a big majority of Westchester voters loved. They loved it out of pure selfishness, because as Bastiat said, they're living at the expense of everyone else. Their income level and overall wealth didn't matter. I, on the other hand, would rather have all subsidies eliminated, and I'll simply pay whatever fare the MTA requires to stay operational. I take Metro-North into the city all week long, and I ride the subway. There is no reason for someone in the city, Albany or Buffalo to pay for any portion of my transportation, or for any of us to subsidize a project we don't use.

As I said, the problem with subsidies is that they encourage wasteful operations. Amtrak has needed federal money from day one and always will, so long as the umbilical cord is uncut. There's no incentive for it to streamline operations. While I support gasoline taxes (they're a form of user fees), they've grown so much over the last few decades that government has no incentive to spend the money efficiently. How often have you seen the tiniest bit of I-287 construction take months, or a few workers standing around while only one is doing work? And along the lines of what I said before, the idea of using general tax monies is wrong because not everyone uses every road. It's also a bad precedent because government can simply increase taxes to pay for whatever new road it thinks is necessary, instead of carefully weighing costs and benefits.

I fully oppose government subsidies for airports and airlines. They should be left to stand -- or fail -- on their own. I've written about the airlines' woes, most of which can't compete because the fare wars exposed their inefficient operations. American Airlines is still trying to use the power of government to keep Southwest from servicing more passengers with its ultra-cheap but adequate flights. And it's flatly immoral, bordering on evil, for United workers to expect a taxpayer bailout. The pension problems stem from the basic fact that the workers aren't saving enough for their own retirement. It's true that the companies are contractually obligated to provide certain retirement benefits, but the workers need some common sense. I might sign a contract with my bank, who will be obligated to pay me 25% annual interest on a plain savings account, but I shouldn't be surprised when the bank can't perform.

Protecting pensions: not government's responsibility!

Gasoline is actually far from subsidized by our presence in Iraq. While I have supported ousting Saddam (and have since 1990), we're spending hundreds of billions of dollars and have yet to see our military intervention reduce the cost of oil. If we'd really wanted to reduce the price of oil, we'd have simply forged a deal with Saddam and turned a blind eye to his evil.

We send a lot of of dollars overseas for oil, but they do return to us in one way or another. OPEC nations buy a lot of American-produced goods and services, they buy luxury housing all over the U.S. (which generates jobs for us with money we'd just sent them), and the rest they put into Treasury bills. It's quite a benefit for both sides. It expands everyone's economies. When foreigners invest in our Treasury securities, it doubles a small portion of our income for minor interest, and foreigners get to save their earnings in high-quality, virtually risk-free bonds.

You point out that the marginal cost of an increased rider is minimal, but only to an extent before a new bus is required, and not all buses are full. It also doesn't preclude the private sector doing the same thing, and with greater efficiency insofar as calculating routes, how often to run, and the size of buses needed at various times. On the other hand, it's easy for a subsidized transportation company to provide great service when the taxpayers foot half the bill. You're also contradicting yourself: you say that an overcrowded bus is very profitable, but that adding a new bus shouldn't cost anything. Adding a new bus adds another fixed cost and therefore reduces profitability. Riders will benefit, certainly, but at taxpayers' expense. You can't have it both ways.

Don't you think it's morally wrong that you pay for schools when you don't have children? I do. I think it's even worse when parents want to send their children to private schools yet must still pay the same taxes. I oppose every kind of government subsidy to every kind of business, whether it's to golf courses, sugar farmers or transportation. It's morally wrong for government to decide for you how to spend your money, and completely selfish for people to demand that money for their businesses.

Fire and police departments aren't subsidized in the same way that transportation is, however, because they're truly public services. Ben Franklin once ran a fully private fire brigade. If they came to your house and didn't see the medallion indicating you'd paid the fee, they would march back and let your house burn down. It's a little different today with structures being so close.

Personally I favor an elimination of every tax, especially on businesses (because their taxes are simply passed on to us), and replacing them with a flat income tax. That would eliminate any disproportionately greater property taxes from proximity to public transportation. Ideally I'd like a head tax, which forces a very limited government, but most people don't understand that or don't want that. People have become accustomed to paternalist government that makes things cheaper for us, but at everyone else's expense. What most don't realize is how that lower price is offset by the higher taxes we pay.
And his reply last night:
Perry, you didn't say whether you support using general tax revenue (well above and beyond gasoline taxes) for the local road network (every road in the USA other than a toll road or an Interstate, US, or State highway). Are these local roads "true public services" (as you described fire and police departments) and therefore OK to subsidize? Or do you favor turning every county lane into a toll road with EZ-pass transponders everywhere? Should pedestrians be charged tolls too?

As to the head tax you favor, roughly how much would it be? $20 or $2000/head? (The Pentagon budget alone is over $1,000 per capita!) How could the poor be expected to come up with that much money? (And if they can't, what would you do, throw them in debtors' prison?) Isn't that like the property tax on steroids? At least you can move to someplace cheaper to lessen the property tax, but there would be no way (short of death) to avoid an unaffordable head tax.

As to NYC and the subway strike... I went to Manhattan Thursday night to look at Sak's and Lord & Taylor's Christmas windows (I guessed correctly that I would be able to walk right up and look without any waiting). Traffic on the east side was not moving at all--total gridlock even after 6pm. Outside Lord & Taylor, I saw people waiting for buses to Brooklyn (Command Buses were running) and saw jammed buses pass them without stopping. One person walked up to me near tears asking if I had any idea how he could get back home to Brooklyn (other than spending $8 to take the LIRR to Atlantic Ave--not where he needed to go). When I pointed out the bus stop, he said people there had been waiting 3 hours. Lord & Taylor was unable to stay open past 8pm three days before Christmas. People missed life-and-death medical appointments for chemo, radiation, and dialysis. If NYC didn't actually collapse, it came pretty close.

The world you envision with no subsidies (except for those few things somebody deems "true public services") seems pretty unappealing to me. No public libraries, no transportation either within cities or across the country (people who can't drive would just be totally screwed!), no universal education or widespread literacy. Presumably no public hospitals, the poor left to die on the unpaved streets, orphans forced to beg for food (and money to pay their head tax), no sewer subsidies, epidemics (no public health subsidies), no standards regarding food quality, etc. Am I missing something?
My reply tonight:
I completely oppose using general revenues (which should be extremely limited) for roads. The problem with general revenues, whether or not for specific outlays, is that a government quickly realizes it can always raise taxes to get more revenue. Instead of trimming its fat, it bleeds the people a little more. We've seen it with Andy Spano, who may not have campaigned on a lie, but his claim to have "lowered or frozen property taxes for three of the last seven years" is only 43% of the story.

Roads don't have to be toll roads, and the reason we don't tax pedestrians is because their impact is infinitesimal. Gasoline taxes as an indirect type of user fee aren't as specific in targetting like tolls, but overall gas taxes can be more efficient than tolls because time is valuable. There's another self-adjusting mechanism there: if heavy road damage necessitates higher gas taxes for the repairs, then lower-mpg vehicles will be driven less frequently. Those tend to be heavier vehicles that have the hardest impact on road surfaces (other than natural damage like potholes).

Since you see how much money a head tax would cost per capita, you should see my point that it forces a strictly limited government. It's morally wrong for a person to pay just $20 into the system and get $100 that is effectively taken from someone else. It's fair, though, for everyone to pay $20 for the equal benefit of things like police, fire and courts. People of better means can also demonstrate compassion by paying the burden of someone who is in tough times. It's not a stretch considering Americans, for as much as we're taxed, donate $250 billion a year to private charity. It's the same principle by which schools do fundraisers: you've already paid your taxes, but you'll give additional money regardless of how much others put in.

Gone will be all the wasteful social spending (up to $1 trillion a year now) and all the bureaucracies that aren't worth pennies on the dollar. Then people can start to take care of themselves, rather than depending on government taking from Peter to give to Paul. Today only the top half of wage earners pay any income taxes, making it easy for the rest to vote for politicians that promise new spending for every social ill...but the spending never gets us anywhere. For all the trillions we've spent combating poverty, it's been futile because government simultaneously creates successive generations of dependents. Government-built communities for the poor earned such bad reputations that "the projects" quickly gained a bad connotation.

One doesn't have to be a Jude Wanniski disciple, let alone a supply-sider, to see how low tax rates boost economic production. Kennedy and Reagan proved it. And wealth, even if concentrated at the top at its creation, does "trickle down," or more properly put, it does spread through the rest of the economy. If "the rich" have more money, it means they have more to spend or save, which will create more jobs. We might not have a big government that tries to pay for our health care, but it will be a society where people can find work, and where those that work can earn enough to take care of the less fortunate who can't. That's why I support people, of any economic status, keeping what they earn. When they spend it, it supports someone else's job. When they save it, that's money that goes into business loans, auto loans and mortgages, which not only creates jobs but increases wealth. The problem with government spending in general is that there's so much pork, and so much rent-seeking by special interests, that it can't possibly be as efficient as private sector spending. Like the transit union showed, we pay certain government employees far more than what they are really worth.

I'm glad you brought up public libraries. If you've ever tried to get help at the one in White Plains, you'll know exactly why I hate them. Never before have I encountered such incompetent people who ignored me when I had a legitimate complaint, lied to me, then ignored me again. Yet my money is forcibly taken from me to help fund these people's paychecks. In the private sector, I simply stop going to that business.

Regarding the city, it still survived. It did after 9/11 when people had no choice but to walk home to the outer boroughs. As far as gridlock, well, people were warned, and it's not like the FDR, Major Deegan or other major thoroughfares haven't been virtually shut down because of big accidents. Sure, it was tough for a lot of people to get around, and my heart went out to them, but didn't God give us legs? The Post had an article on a one-legged man who, using crutches, walked three miles in the cold. He did what he had to do.

http://www.nypost.com/news/regionalnews/59303.htm

It's true that a lot of businesses made hardly any money, and that will ripple through the economy, but they're a fraction of total businesses. Most people did what they could to get to work, which shouldn't surprise anyone. It's for no light reason that New Yorkers are called the toughest and most resilient people. Some in my office are working longer hours to make up the lost time, if they couldn't use days off, so I don't think the people who lost a full three days of income will be as many as we feared. Those who spent more on transportation will likely to cut back on other expenses, but it's important to note that shifts in spending are not losses. If I spend $10 on a cab ride and then spend $5 on lunch instead of $15, the economy is still the same.

I doubt it will be anywhere near the $400 million per day that some economists claimed. Besides, when people couldn't shop in the city, they shopped closer to home. From the news, friends and co-workers, I heard about malls in the outer boroughs being packed with people, at the expense of the city. If people didn't spend, then they saved their money, which is then borrowed. Either way, it's still zero-sum with no economic loss.

People may have missed scheduled medical appointments, but I haven't heard any news reports of a single person dying because public transportation wasn't operating. If the medical needs were really of an urgent nature, 911 and emergency vehicles were operating. That's partially why Bloomberg ordered a couple of avenues shut down to passenger vehicles. Radiation treatment isn't as time-critical, and a delay of a few days generally doesn't jeopardize a person's life. Dialysis might, but as I said, ambulances were still running.

You talk about my world having no transportation and no educated people, and no sanitation system, leaving the poor left to die on the streets, but why do you think government the only power capable of alleviating those problems? What did we do before government? My father walked to school and work because that was his only option; and the local economy developed and localized around people having to work. One of my friends works full-time yet home-schools his three children, and I know they will get a far superior education than in the terrible public schools. And when the poor died of hunger, do you count the 20 million that Stalin starved, or the possibly 70 million that Mao starved? Those were governments that claimed to have the way, that said they'd take care of everyone equally.

Throughout human history, it's never been government that lifted the poor. It's technology, which was spurred by capitalism, which you can't have without free markets. Now, when the poor died on the streets, it wasn't because government didn't redistribute wealth, but because our agricultural technology couldn't produce enough for everyone. Today our agricultural output is so great that the U.S. is the world's largest food exporter, AND our poor can eat so many calories that they're starting to have an obesity problem. Technology is also what made our food quality standards possible. Such standards are certainly nice, but putting Sinclair Lewis aside, unless the technology to achieve them existed beforehand, government could have mandated the answers like a Marine drill sergeant telling a recruit to defecate little green apples. You can do it till you're red in the face, and he still won't be able to do it.

Things like food standards, clean water and sanitation systems developed for the same reason. They're manifestations of a society that grew wealthier so it could afford such things, not because government sat around and dreamt up a good idea. When a society as a whole advances and gains wealth and technology, people will naturally want higher standards of living, and they'll spend larger portions of their higher incomes to get them. Faced with the demand for these goods and services, companies have an incentive to provide things like better food, or a septic system for your house, because people naturally want it. Then competition comes into play: if you can provide the same product at a higher quality and at the same (or slightly higher) price, you'll get more business. Cafe Hayek recently had a very poignant entry on Frank Perdue, who didn't need the government telling him what to do.

It Takes a Tough Man to Make a Tender Chicken

I'll finish with something that Bastiat said over 150 years ago, which is still extremely profound yet simple. There is really very little government can do that we can't on our own. It's just that for the last several decades, government schools have taught us that we can't do these on our own.

Do those worshippers of government believe that free persons will cease to act? Does it follow that if we receive no energy from the law, we shall receive no energy at all? Does it follow that if the law is restricted to the function of protecting the free use of our faculties, we will be unable to use our faculties? Suppose that the law does not force us to follow certain forms of religion, or systems of association, or methods of education, or regulations of labor, or regulations of trade, or plans for charity; does it then follow that we shall eagerly plunge into atheism, hermitary, ignorance, misery, and greed? If we are free, does it follow that we shall no longer recognize the power and goodness of God? Does it follow that we shall then cease to associate with each other, to help each other, to love and succor our unfortunate brothers, to study the secrets of nature, and to strive to improve ourselves to the best of our abilities?
Tom raised some good points, I will say. It comes down to these questions. Which do you have more faith in, government or people? Is the purpose of government to prevent us from harming each other and otherwise leave us alone, or to protect us from the risks and ravages of life?

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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Big deal, I guess

Last Friday afternoon after work, while a friend and I were walking down Fifth Avenue, I wondered if that was really Sarah Jessica Parker near Rockefeller Center. She was walking in the opposite direction, coming within several feet, so I got a good look at her face without having to stare. My friend didn't seem to notice, and I said nothing about it. Celebrities aren't a rare sight in New York; the New York Post has a small part of "Page Six" titled "Sightings."

Something tonight prompted my recollection, so I looked up her height on the Internet Movie Database. Hmm, 5'4" fits with the slender woman I saw. It shows how much of an impression she made on me that I would have forgotten it but for one of her celebrity photos on the New York Post website. Personally I liked her original nose better. Now, had it been Michelle Yeoh...

Eliot Spitzer: New York's crazed King Kong, on a rampage again

Eliot Spitzer, the state Attorney General of New York, has issued subpoenas to several major firms in the music industry. Just be careful if you click on the link, because that is a hell of a creepy picture of Spitzer's beady little eyes:
ALBANY, N.Y. - State investigators have subpoenaed several major music companies as part of a preliminary inquiry into whether the digital music services have engaged in any illegal price-fixing activity.

Darren Dopp, a spokesman for state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, said the office was seeking information on wholesale prices the music labels charge for digital music files that can be downloaded. Dopp said Tuesday that it would take months for the office to launch a full investigation, if one is warranted....

In September, Apple Computer Inc. CEO Steve Jobs publicly criticized music companies, calling some major labels "greedy" for pushing Apple to hike prices on its popular iTunes service. Recording company executives have scoffed at the suggestion.

In a speech before an investors conference, Warner Music Group CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr. said that Apple's 99-cent price for single tracks ignores the issue that not all songs are the same commercially and, like any other product, shouldn't be priced the same.

Such discord has not kept the labels from licensing their music videos to Apple. Still, as their contracts with Apple come up for renewal, the music companies are seeking to improve their take.

"All the prices do seem to move in lock step," said industry analyst Phil Leigh, who runs U.S. market research firm Inside Digital Media. "There has been talk of raising prices for several months. I'm surprised (music companies) raised the issue. It's clear the industry convention is 99 cents."

The subpoenas issued this month are not the first time Spitzer, a Democrat running for governor in 2006, has looked into the music industry.

In November, Warner Music agreed to pay $5 million to settle an investigation into payoffs for radio airplay of artists. In July, Sony BMG agreed to pay $10 million and stop bribing radio stations to feature artists.
So let me get this straight: it will take months before they can even commence the investigation, and after spending how many millions of state taxpayer dollars?

Spitzer and Jobs have apparently never heard of "supply and demand," or really looked into how music royalties really work. Despite what "industry analysts" like Leigh claim, and I wonder how he can even call himself an "analyst," there's no conspiracy to keep the same prices. There's as much "price-fixing" between the big music companies as there is between competing grocery stores that happen to have similar prices on groceries. I can say this because I used to work in the music industry, specifically in royalties, and I learned a thing or two.

There's also an innate problem with price-fixing conspiracies: someone will eventually start selling for less than the rest, forcing competition. It's virtually impossible for cartels to stick to their own terms, especially big ones like OPEC (some of whose members regularly sell more than the established quotas). So even if Apple and most others were engaging in collusion, they don't have the power of the state to inhibit market entry: they can't stop Wal-Mart, which offers its own selections for 88 cents each. So Eliot...what price-fixing, when consumers can go elsewhere, and in fact for less? Ten cents per song is actually a lot, but it's nothing new to Wal-Mart: its strategy has generally always been about low profit margins and high sales volume. Apple and the rest, however, gravitated toward about $1 per track, competing against each other with audio formats, the interface, and service quality.

Edgar Bronfman is completely correct, and I don't say that just because he heads where I worked. One thing that irks me about most albums today is that you get a few great tracks and a couple of good ones, but the rest are often junk. Few will want to buy bad songs online, but people will be willing to pay a little extra for a great new hit. Let's say someone pays the new higher price of $2 for it: is he somehow being forced? I don't see how Apple, WMG or anyone can put a gun to his head, or twist his arm, so it seems to me such a decision would be completely voluntary. Such a transaction is of great benefit to both sides. The consumer might pay $10 for five tracks he wants, instead of $15 for an entire CD that he mostly doesn't like. The company saved on distribution costs. I don't know what Spitzer calls this in the reality he lives in, but I call it "win-win."

It's not "greed"; it's the free market. If Apple won't charge more for more popular songs, which consumers would most likely be willing to pay, then the music companies will not renew their contracts with Apple and go with someone else. Steve Jobs had better tread carefully, otherwise he might kill Apple's revenues (its iTunes Music Store is highly profitable) in the same way Steve Case wrecked AOL and Time Warner with the disastrous merger.

I personally think the earlier investigations into Warner and Sony were 100% bogus, and more manifestations of Spitzer's shakedown tactics. The money paid was essentially promotional fees, which is one form of advertising. Advertising is not just a matter of competition, but how companies try to reduce consumers' search costs. If you hear a new song fairly often, you'll want to buy it on CD or download it. If it's played so rarely that you never hear it, you might never get it and instead buy inferior music.

Should a music company push what consumers think is a bad song, the free market will take care of it. Consumers are hardly captive, and one of their most powerful abilities is to choose not to buy (New Coke, anyone?). If they wish to take a stand on principle, they won't listen to a radio that accepts money to play certain songs more often, and they won't buy music from a company that pays money to radio stations. We don't need a self-anointed messiah like Spitzer to protect us from commercial situations where there is no force or fraud, because we are in more control than any government official could imagine. As Ludwig von Mises said:
The direction of all economic affairs is in the market society a task of entrepreneurs. Theirs is the control of production. They are at the helm and steer the ship. A superficial observer would believe that they are supreme. But they are not. They are bound to obey unconditionally the captain's orders. The captain is the consumer.
After years of Spitzer's crusades, we shouldn't be surprised that he doesn't know what real competition is. When it comes to radio airtime, since the consumer is completely in control, it's as simple as changing the station. Or is he trying to get "fair" and "equitable" airtime for each song? Would this be some twisted form of affirmative action for bad songs "that ought to have a chance" to be heard?

If that's a stretch, well, so are his accusations of price-fixing.

Previous entries about Spitzer:
Maybe Spitzer isn't so bad after all (or maybe he is)
When government turns people into sheep
Big government: yo, where's our cut? Part II

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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

When e-mail comes back to bite you

This past Friday, two co-workers and I talked a little about how some guys approach women very badly (vulgar, annoying, and/or just plain stupid lines). To illustrate that there are still some nice guys in the world, I later e-mailed both a little story about how I approached someone some years ago. She was my first love, and I remember that morning like yesterday.

However, I'm not the one after whom I titled this entry. One recipient had already become a good friend; she is trustworthy. The other, well, was not becoming a friend like I thought. I was wrong. The title refers to how my e-mail, or rather what she did with it, came back to bite her. She forwarded the e-mail to three others (who I know a little), adding a few comments that were not only completely unkind (literally every word) but wholly untrue. She apparently has difficulty comprehending the English language, judging by her erroneous conception of what I said. Or is it so hard to believe that someone can be a perfect gentleman when introducing himself to someone he has seen a couple of times before and would like to get to know?

I found out this morning that she forwarded the e-mail, because one of her recipients then accidentally forwarded it to me. My job often involves extremely time-critical e-mails, so I check out new messages as soon as I hear Outlook's notification beep. I reflexively opened this new message almost instantly after it arrived, and not two seconds later, before I even knew what was happening, Outlook started beeping many times. My inbox was starting to fill up with notices that he was attempting to recall that forwarded message. The accidental forwarder had realized his mistake and tried to cover it up, but not quickly enough! I couldn't help but laugh as the notifications kept pouring in. After 20 or so, a final notification informed me of a failure to recall it. I also laughed at the futility of his attempt, which I must confess is a little schadenfreud in itself. Even if he had successfully recalled it, I would have known: I'd have seen that he had initially forwarded me an e-mail with a unique but very familiar title.

My revenge consisted in teasing him about his inability to recall it, cc'ing the others (including the gossip). I concluded, "The story is true and you all may take it as you will." There's no reason to debase myself by justifying something that needs no justification. Moreover, the only remedy needed is throwing a spotlight on the sin, so that those involved can see their own wrongdoing and judge themselves.

It has saddened me to discover that I misjudged this person as better than she actually is. Oh, I'm hardly angry, far from it, that she spread my story around. It's hardly so personal that I'd tell only a few people. Even though her editorializing revealed her as a real twit, I can't even say I was hurt in any way. I'm just disappointed. This is someone who seemed a genuinely nice person, who seemed enough of a Christian that we talked a little about God on a few occasions. I had even shared Bible verses with her, so perhaps in the near future I should forward her a few verses about gossips. My friend Charlie suggested a great one, 1 Peter 4:15, which is striking because of how severely it categorizes gossips:
But let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men's matters.
When I was getting lunch in the building cafeteria, she and one of her other recipients saw me but didn't dare look me in the eye. The best revenge is what Proverbs 25:21-22 challenges:
If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink:

For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the LORD shall reward thee.
I have never been the best about this, but continuing to be nice, and doing good to those who do evil to you, really does work. It confounds them, conquers them in the end, and testifies to the glory of God.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Is limited government in accordance with the Bible?

[I updated a little at the end, 12:05 a.m. Eastern Time.]

[Update #2, Tuesday, 8:35 p.m.: I forgot to include the second and third times Christ identified himself as God.]

A few days ago, I again brought up one of my favorite Jefferson quotations: "The care of every man's soul belongs to himself. But what if he neglect the care of it? Well what if he neglect the care of his health or his estate, which would more nearly relate to the State. Will the magistrate make a law that he not be poor or sick? Laws provide against injury from others; but not from ourselves. God himself will not save men against their wills."

Then I received an e-mail from someone, Daniel, who discussed it with a friend. Daniel's questions about the Jefferson quote were, "Is this scriptural? Does it correctly limit the role of government according to scripture?" His friend's take:
1. The care of all men's souls does belong to themselves -"The fool hath said in his heart there is no God" and, "Fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee." The fool neglects his own soul and is accountable.

However...

God saves all men against their wills - There is not a righteous man, not even one; there is not the man that understands, there is not one that seeks after God.

2. Romans 13:1-7 sets the role of government. It's limited by Acts 5:29.
Well, I have to disagree. God wants all men to come to Him, and God will draw people to Himself, but ultimately people must choose to accept God. One of my problems with predestination, even in its mild forms in some Christian denominations, is that it denies free will. When I first attended college in Utah, I was part of the local Baptist Campus Ministries (called the Baptist Student Union elsewhere). A few weren't Baptist though still Christian, including one acquaintance who attended a church that's known for an emphasis on predestination. I could never buy into that concept of God, not because some would be saved and others would not, but because God deliberately choose to damn certain people no matter what. Not only do I find that arbitrary (and I should add I'm far from a universalist), I find it destroys the very purpose of God creating people.

Romans 3:10-18, the passage about there being "none righteous, no, not one," is actually quoting Psalm 14. The original psalm and Romans' expansion tell us that, apart from God, it is the nature of people to sin and follow their own wicked desires. God, however, draws people nigh. Christ said in John 6:37, "All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out." Then in verse 42, "No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day." But that still doesn't mean God saves people against their wills -- in fact, if that be the case, why did Christ say He would not reject people to came to Him? That should be irrelevant if the people are coming against their will.

Many Christians, including some college friends (fellow Baptists, too), take that first portion of Romans 13 in a very dangerous way. The belief that all governmental authority originates with God is precisely what gave us such dangerous concepts as the divine right of kings. And who are these "powers"? Passages like Ephesians 3:10 refer to "principalities and powers" that are actually angelic in nature, if we examine early church writings that clarify the angel hierarchy. So we shouldn't always take "powers" to refer to earthly ones.

If it is true that all earthly authorities, i.e governments, derive their power from God, and that their rulers are acting as God's ministers, then God was responsible for instituting murderous tyrannies like Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany and Red China. So should we take Romans 13:6 to mean that it was good for Germans to dutifully pay taxes to Hitler's Third Reich? And why does Ephesians 6:12 refer to Christians' proper struggle "against principalities and powers" if we are supposed to obey them? Instead, I take it how Romans 13:7 tells us to deal with anyone: "Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour."

George III deserved no tribute, nor honor -- thus it was perfectly proper for Jefferson to assert in the Declaration of Independence, "That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

It is worth quoting Acts 5 more extensively than just verse 29. Verses 25 through 33 give a better illustration:
Then came one and told them, saying, Behold, the men whom ye put in prison are standing in the temple, and teaching the people.

Then went the captain with the officers, and brought them without violence: for they feared the people, lest they should have been stoned.

And when they had brought them, they set them before the council: and the high priest asked them,

Saying, Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man's blood upon us.

Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men.

The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree.


Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.

And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him.

When they heard that, they were cut to the heart, and took counsel to slay them.
There's a perfectly Locke-like quality to this. The Jewish priests demanded to know why the apostles continued teaching at the temple in defiance of the council's order. Peter retorted "We ought to obey God rather than men" because the council was directly infringing on the apostles' natural rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Now, the temple was originally built by a theocratic government, but it was meant, with the exception of the "holiest of holies," to be a true public place.

Then Peter nailed them (no pun intended). He reminded the council that they were the ones who illegally arrested and tried Christ, then handed Him over to Pilate for summary execution. We should remember that Christ wasn't crucified for being a heretic. The members of the Sanhedrin trumped up charges to arrest Him, but they admitted that they had no authority to execute Him. All they could do was drag Him to Pilate, then to Herod, and back to Pilate. Pilate finally acceded and had crucified Christ as a political dissident, though he found no evidence to any of the charges: fomenting sedition, fomenting tax evasion, and claiming a kingship (i.e. equal to Caesar in authority).

I take the King James Version phrasing quite literally: "saying that he himself is Christ a King." The name Christ comes from the Greek word Christos, meaning "annointed" (the same as the Hebrew word mAshIah, which we anglicize as "Messiah"). So what Christ's accusers were saying was, "saying that he himself is annointed a king." This multiplied the severity of the charges, to both the Romans and Jews, because this wasn't a kingship taken through physical force: Jesus was claiming kingship by divinity.

Jesus had previously implied his divinity on three (I originally said two) occasions. He identified Himself as the same God who spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai by using the same name "I am" (YHWH, literally from the verb "to be," which became Yahweh, and then Jehovah). In Exodus 3:13-14, Moses asked God what he should tell others is God's name, and God replied, "I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you." Later, in John 10:30, He said, "I and my Father are One." On both these occasions He was threatened with stoning. The third time, possibly earlier chronologically, was related in Matthew 9:2-7 and Mark 2:4-12. A man "sick of the palsy" was brought to Jesus to be healed, to whom Jesus said, "thy sins be forgiven thee." This appeared to be blasphemy, for as the passage in Mark clarifies, "who can forgive sins but God only?"

The one question we haven't asked yet is, was Jefferson a Christian? Perhaps not. Clearly he believed in some sort of deity, though he was strongly against organized religion (mostly because of what he and I perceive are problems with a dominant priestly caste). His writings indicate that he really didn't believe in Jesus Christ as the divine Son of God, i.e. the one who performed miracles, spoke of Himself as "the way, the truth and the life," and lay down his life and took it back up on the third day.

Still, I could not know the man's heart, no more than I could know any of yours. What we do know is that throughout his writings, Jefferson effectively said that his religious beliefs are none of anyone's business. In one of his letters to John Adams, he wrote, "Say nothing of my religion. It is known to my god and myself alone." I have learned this the hard way when younger and didn't know any better: it does not profit anyone to keep pestering others about their religious beliefs, when those beliefs cause no harm to others. It shouldn't surprise us how it is easier to cause harm instead of good when trying to save another person's soul according to our own fashion.

Jefferson knew this well, and he often criticized entire Christian sects for intolerance and even attempts at religious domination. He was a man who, more than anything, simply wished to be left alone with his friends and his books. While I sometimes talk with people about Christ, I share his sentiment: "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." I think it fits quite well with Christ's admonition to "shake off the dust of your feet" and move on, when the intended recipient of your message is unwilling.

Jefferson's religious beliefs still do not inhibit me in the least from sharing his beliefs about the proper role of limited government. I believe in a God who commands me to live as peaceably as possible with all men. I believe in a God who wants liberty for the flesh so that it may join the spirit in worship, but if you wish to worship Buddha, or a tree, or no God at all, that is your right too. Just do not deny me the liberty to worship mine. One of the foundations of my "libertarian Christianity" is 1 Corinthians 7:21-23:
Art thou called being a servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather. For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord's freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ's servant. Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men.
And most importantly, how am I harming any of you in your rights to life, liberty and property? Is it not the essence of real freedom and real tolerance (unlike what Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton call "tolerance") to allow anyone to believe what he would, i.e. pure freedom of conscience, so long as he causes no injury to others?

Let me add a final thought. I disagree with my fellow Christians who believe in complete submission to our persecutors, including government. God does allow bad things to happen to believers, and Christ commanded to turn the other cheek, but I say some take that to an extreme. It's the same extreme that some claimed we should do no labor at all on the Sabbath day, of whom Christ asked in Matthew 12:11, "What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out?"

Some quote Hebrews 13:17: "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves." But the verse says right afterward, "for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account," and verse 7 makes it more clear: "Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God." These are leaders to whom God has given a spiritual entrustment, which does not apply to purely political leaders like Pontius Pilate, Thomas Jefferson and George W. Bush. Furthermore, if we examine the word in context, we see that "obey" is far from slavery or servitude. It's no more servitude than "Wives, obey your husbands," which sadly has also been taken to an extreme. One half demands full "obedience"; the other half questions the Bible for something taken the wrong way. And both halves forget the following verse, "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it."

We are commanded to pray for and bless our enemies, but that doesn't mean willingly having our heads cut off, or to accept a big government stealing our property. Christ did command, "he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one." If complete submission was the way, wouldn't Christ have long since forbidden Peter to stop carrying a sword, when Peter cut off the ear of the high priest's servant? A complete rejection of self-defense lacks pragmatism, if anything. There was also a purpose to Christ's lack of resistance: "resistance was futile" because man had to be redeemed. But if it were as simple as that, why did Christ escape several times when crowds attempted to arrest or stone Him, and why did Christ live an essentially covert life during His ministry?

The simple answer is in Matthew 26:56: "But all this was done, that the scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled." Indeed, "That it might be fulfilled" is a recurring phrase throughout Matthew's Gospel.

More on the "free" month of Westchester-subsidized bus rides

Last May, I wrote about the allegedly "free" month of Bee Line bus rides, which are hardly free. Someone has to pay for them, so if they're not charging for fares, who else but taxpayers will foot the bill? I recently received some feedback:
Hi, I just came across your blog about the "free" Bee-Line bus rides last May, and I wanted to add my two cents.

I believe the County taxpayers came out even (or maybe ahead) because of the free rides. The Bee-Line takes in about $40 million/year in fare revenue, so the 39 days of "free" rides cost the County around $4 million. The offsetting savings comes from the fact that, after fares were restored to normal levels, the Bee-Line reported no drop-off in ridership. It's VERY unlikely this would have happened without the freebies. If ridership had dropped, say, 10% after the strike, the Bee-Line (and the County taxpayers) would have lost about $4 million in revenue each and every twelve months.

Consider August ridership for example... In August 2004, the B-L reported 2,214,433 non-paratransit passengers; in August 2005 the comparable number was 2,259,490.

It's like an airline giving out free travel vouchers after overbooking and involuntarily bumping somebody. Yes, the voucher costs money, but so does a dissatisfied customer.

As to the unstruck (non-Liberty) bus routes also being free... Only three Bee-Line routes (16, 18, and 76) are run by somebody other than Liberty. Total ridership on those three routes in August 2004 was reported at only 24,586 passengers--barely a rounding error in a Bee-Line budget of at least $80 million/year.

As for extending the March Passports through June, that was only fair. The Bee-Line only operated 2 days in March (the strike started March 3) so throwing in 30 days of June was only just. People paid for 31 days of transportation in March and ended up getting 32 (2 in March and 30 in June). Is that being overly generous?

There are MANY things wrong with the Bee-Line (if you're interested, I'll send you a list!), but last May's freebies aren't one of them.
My reply (my first and then a small followup, with a minor edit):
I would agree with what you said about the county breaking even, but for a different reason. By definition, the county in aggregate should have come out even, for the same reason you exchange $1 for something you value at $1. But as I said, someone has to pay for it. So people might think the rides are free, but the money ultimate must come from our tax dollars. Someone like me hardly came out even, because I have never ridden the Bee Line, yet I pay tax dollars for it.

A recurring theme in my blog, and I do write from a libertarian standpoint, is that it's wrong to make others subsidize a service that others use. That's the one great thing that's wrong with the Bee Line. While $40 million in subsidies may not seem like a lot to a generally wealthier county like Westchester, that's $40 million that would have spread around the economy in other ways. The subsidies to the Bee Line, MTA, Amtrak and other transportation services tend to promote inefficient operations, so it's not a very good use of that money, not compared to private expenditures.

Also, while the county and Bee Line would have lost revenue, people would have spent the same money elsewhere. Faced with long-term difficulties in getting to their old jobs, people would have found other ways of commuting to work, or other jobs. Economies tend to adjust, admittedly not without pain, but all on their own, because people still need to live. Now, perhaps the only jobs they can find pay less, but an important consideration is that the county is no longer spending $40 million to make those jobs possible. Though their new wages might not be as high, they would experience the effects of $40 million flowing more efficiently.

I don't know that ridership would have dropped off without the "free" month, but that would have been a good thing. Subsidized services need a good dose of competition. In the private sector, a business that throws a temper tantrum will deservedly lose customers. While I see nothing illegal about people organizing unions and demanding contracts, I think it's stupidity on government's part to surrender the right to fire them and hire new people. I certainly have the right to tell my boss in the city that I won't come in until I get a raise, and he has the right to fire me and hire someone who'll do my job for the same money.

If an airline gives free travel vouchers to retain customers, like any other business expense, they're ultimately part of the ticket price. If a business has such poor service that it must dole out a lot of freebies, it will naturally have to charge so much that it won't get any business. On the other hand, it's an entirely different matter when the Bee Line gives free bus rides, because they're paid for by the taxpayer (especially unwilling ones who wanted no part of the business in the first place). It's also a government monopoly on that type of transportation.

Instead of free rides, people should have been offered refunds on the tickets they were unable to use, or credits toward their next pass. There was certainly a little increased ridership from people who hadn't bought tickets and wouldn't ride the buses afterward, which means more that taxpayers must pay for.

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Sunday, December 25, 2005

The mostly forgotten role of big government in the first Christmas

I liked Scott Johnson's Power Line entry last year on Mary and Joseph hardly being homeless, where he refuted the claims of the ever-ignorant Nick Coleman of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. I myself get pretty annoyed by apparent non-Christians (especially self-righteous state-worshippers) who accuse me and other Christians of lacking compassion for the poor just because we advocate limited government. One of my atheist friends used to insist I'm a hypocrite because I stated that government has no role in welfare or other forms of "public charity," that charity must come privately. It stems from a confusion (or worse) that when I say "It's not government's role or duty," it does not mean I oppose private charity.

Scott also reminded us that Herod ordered the inhuman slaughter of all male babies younger than two years old. So when Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled to Egypt, it wasn't after Joseph lost his job or because of any other economic hardship. It was purely because big government, feeling its power threatened, put countless male children to the sword. Having been warned by an angel, Mary, Joseph and Jesus escaped and became refugees.

Until that Power Line entry a year ago, I didn't realize just how much big government -- tyrannical government -- played a part in Jesus' early years. First, Luke 2:1-3 tells how the absolute ruler of the highly centralized, imperialist government decided to perform a census:
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.

And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.

And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
This was no ordinary census, hardly like those the U.S. Constitution mandates. Augustus' census required each person to return to his town of birth, which was a great inconvenience to many. Not only would they incur great expenses in traveling, but they wouldn't be earning income.

However, as most everyone knows, Mary and Joseph couldn't find a room. Scott was along the right track to say it was like trying to find a hotel room during the Super Bowl, but Jesus wasn't born in a manger because people in a normal market economy were competing for a limited resource. Jesus wasn't born in a manger because government didn't subsidize housing for the poor, or enact price-controls; there literally were no rooms available, apparently at any price. Like Reagan said, government was the problem. By requiring people to travel to their hometowns, the government had artificially created the scarcity of housing! And this has become all but unknown for the last two millenia.

And a very happy Hanukkah too!

To our Jewish friends, may you have a joyous Hanukkah.

I apologize for not doing it just before sundown, as I had originally intended, but I was visiting someone in the Bronx this afternoon and was delayed both going and coming. The traffic was bad enough, but infinitely worse with the heavy rains. The top thirds of Co-op City's apartment buildings, normally prominent, were clad in fog. By the time I got back, it was time to help finish cooking dinner, then eat dinner.

Anyone who lives in or visits Co-op City can attest to the extreme dearth of parking during peak times. Heavy traffic is bad enough, but nothing makes me curse like circling around Co-op City for an hour and not finding a parking spot. (I will confess that, at rare times when I am frustrated enough, even holidays won't prevent me from stringing together several epithets in such a way that a Marine drill sergeant would be impressed.) I was tempted to park just inside this "No Parking" zone, but after 0.68 seconds (Star Trek reference there) I decided not to. A major holiday isn't likely to stop the notoriously overzealous parking police, who once gave me a $130 ticket for parking two feet inside a 100-foot-long bus zone.

There's an economics lesson here. Parking is hardly a public good, because it is rivalrous (if you consume it, another person cannot). What Co-op City needs to do is establish pay-per-hour visitor parking. Applying a price will naturally reduce the demand, and it will encourage people to carpool when visiting their friends, instead of taking a few different cars and tying up more spots than necessary. It will also greatly reduce search costs, not just time, but all the gasoline I wasted in a futile search.

So my friend came down, and since I couldn't go up to her apartment, we drove over to a pastry shop in Bay Plaza to spend time together and browse the treats. She considered getting some cannoli but went with a strawberry shortcake. I bought a strawberry-topped cheesecake, which is just EXCELLENT, possibly the best cheesecake I've ever had.

Junior's, which originated in Brooklyn and has a shop at Grand Central Terminal, is said to have the best cheesecake in New York City (talking about all five boroughs). This little bakery's cheesecake blows away Junior's, which until today I regarded very highly. It has a creamy, slightly crumbly consistency that's reminiscent of Italian (ricotta-based) cheesecake, which isn't to everyone's taste. However, as something of a cheesecake connoisseur, I find the flavor is unsurpassed.

A twisted Chipmunks Christmas

Be very careful. This is PG because of a mild oath, and because "Melvin" shows a body part as a sign of disrespect. But those aren't why I caution you to be careful: this will either make your jaw drop to the floor in disbelief, or make you die laughing.

The Twisted Chipmunks Christmas song (with Flash video!)

In the holiday spirit: Star Trek Christmas carols

My favorites, authors unknown, collected from the Internet since 1994. If you know who wrote them, please let me know so I can give proper credit.

First, Worf's version of "White Christmas":
I'm dreaming of a dead Pakled
Just like the one in Rec Deck Eight
They all think they've hidden
But this one didn't
And I'm using him as bait

I'm dreaming of a dead Pakled
Their mental skills are rather lame
May your foes die sonless, in shame
And I hope you're wishing me the same!
Next, he sings "The Klingon Christmas Song":
Phasers flashing in the depths of space
Ripping up an airtight hull
Signs of fear on your enemy's face
And life-support signs reading null

Ev'rybody knows a Romulan's a spineless foe
Who lacks the Klingon will to fight
Phaser beams set his torso aglow
He'll find it hard to breathe tonight

He knows that Worf is on his way
And soon he'll demonstrate for us the verb "to slay"
And ev'ry slinking Rom and Pakled spy
Will soon become the subject of the verb "to die"

And so I'm offering this simple threat
To Roms, and all Ferengi, too
You'll be as dead as a life-form can get
Merry Christmas to you!
Then the Bajorans get into the holiday spirit with their own "Festival of Gratitude":
Ye merry folk of Bajor
May the Prophets guide your way
This Festival of Gratitude
Will only last a day
So join us by the fire for some
Redemption-scroll flambe'

O tidings of Peldor Joi, Peldor Joi
O tidings of Peldor Joi

The liturgy that starts things off
Is less than ten words long
They're all in Old Bajoran, and
They always say them wrong
Then burn a piece of paper in
A complicated bong

O tidings of Peldor Joi, Peldor Joi
O tidings of Peldor Joi

So go and find a friendly fire
To tell your troubles to
(With all the troubles in it
It's no wonder that it's blue)
Then drink until you can't tell
"Peldor Joi" from "Jolan Tru"

O tidings of Peldor Joi, Jolan Tru
O tidings of Peldor Joi.
Data then is his usual verbose self:
Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the way!
Oh, what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh!
Or so I am reliably informed, lacking a subjective and intuitively perceived reference for the term "fun," I am able only to report the phenomenon as experienced by others, whose individual perceptions somewhat color the -- yes, sir.
We saw in the TNG episode "Allegiance" (Picard is kidnapped and replaced with a mostly convincing double, but the double gave himself away with little things like a strange pass at Beverly Crusher) that Patrick Stewart has a pretty good singing voice:
Oh, the vacuum outside is endless
Unforgiving, cold, and friendless
But still we must boldly go
Make it so, make it so, make it so!
The pre-"Nemesis" Will Riker lamented:
Here's a vexing Christmas riddle
Fa la la la la la la la la
Why must I play second fiddle?
Fa la la la la la la la la
How can I impress Deanna
Fa la la la la la la la la
When I'm number two banana?
Fa la la la la la la la la
Finally, not a Christmas carol, but a great parody:
'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the ship
Not a circuit was buzzing, not one microchip;
The phasers were hung in the arm'ry securely,
In hope that no aliens would get up that early.

The crewmen were nestled all snug in their bunks --
Except for the few who were partying drunks;
And Picard in his nightshirt, and Bev in her lace,
Had just settled down for a neat face to face...

When out in the halls there arose such a racket,
That we lept from our beds pulling on pants and a jacket.
Away to the lifts we all shot like a gun,
Leapt into the cars and yelled loudly, "Deck One!"

The bridge Red-Alert lights, which flashed throught the din,
Gave a luster of Hades to objects within.
When, what, on the viewscreen, should our eyes behold,
But a weird kind of sleigh, and some geek who looked old.

But the glint in his eyes was so strange and askew,
That we knew in a moment it had to be Q.
His sleigh grew much larger the closer he came,
Then he zapped on the bridge and addressed us by name;

"It's Riker! It's Data! It's Worf and Jean-Luc!
"It's Geordi! And Wesley, the wonderboy fluke!
"To the top of the bridge, to the top of the hall!
"Now float away, float away, float away all!"

As leaves in the autumn are whisked off the street,
So the floor of the bridge came away from out feet,
And up to the ceiling our bodies they flew,
Then the captain called out, "What the hell is this, Q!"

The prankster just laughed and expanded his grin,
And, snapping his fingers, he vanished again.
As we took in our plight and were looking around,
The spell was removed, and we crashed to the ground.

Then Q, dressed in fur from his head to his toe,
Appeared once again to continue the show.
"That's enough!" cried Picard, "You will stop this at once!"
And Riker said, "Worf! Take your aim at this dunce!"
"I'm deeply offended, Jean-Luc," replied Q.
"I just wanted to spend Christmas with you."

As we scoffed at his words, he produced a large sack.
He dumped out the contents and took a step back.
"I've brought gifts," said he, "to show I'm sincere.
"There's something delightful for everyone here."
He sat on the floor and dug into the pile,
And handed out gifts with his most charming smile.

"For Counselor Troi, there's no need to explain,
"Here's Tylenol-Beta for all of your pain.
"For Worf, I've got mints as his breath's not too great,
"And for Geordi LaForge, an inflatable date.

"For Wesley, some hormones, and Clearasil-Plus;
"For Data, a joke book; for Riker, a truss.
"For Beverly Crusher, there's sleek lingerie,
"And for Jean-Luc, the thrill of seeing her that way."

Then he sprang to his feet with that grin on his face,
And clapping his hands, disappeared into space.
But we heard him exclaim as he dwindled from sight,
"Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good flight!"

Merry Christmas to all!

It was a busier Christmas Eve for me than usual. It began as I concluded an 11-hour sleep, uninterrupted as far as I know, which I desperately needed after another work week of 3-4 hour nightly naps. There was a little last-minute shopping to do, including going to the Danbury Fair Mall. Lord & Taylor is the one place in New York, or in this case Connecticut, where you can buy See's Candy. It's so far superior to the expensive Godiva junk, which has never impressed me.

Then it was back to New York, first to my aunt's wine store for a little visit, and to pick up a bottle of Merlot to accompany the beef roast I will be cooking for Christmas dinner. Afterward, I took a long detour to Mamaroneck to pick up dinner, and around 9 I did something filed under "Better Late Than Never": I finally put up my Christmas tree. It just isn't Christmas without one. It's become a faithful old friend, a plastic tree I bought for Christmas 2001. It's not the same as a real tree, but there's no hassle of pine needles or watering, and each year I only have to disassemble it and return it to the storage closet for next Christmas.

Midnight Christmas services have never been my thing. Instead, I went to a dance club, 11 Ives, on Ives Street in Danbury. My friend Lance has helped manage it for a long time, and with our schedules for the last couple of years, it's about the only place we ever get to meet. What shocked me was how dead it was, as was Tuxedo Junction across the street. In fact, Lance was tending bar tonight instead of his usual duties. There were only a dozen of us there, including him and a few other staff. But, he said as he poured me a Drambuie (one of my favorite drinks), the owner insisted on opening for Christmas Eve.

I've previously emphasized a central point of Austrian economics, that people tend to make economic decisions rationally. That doesn't mean the decisions are always correct (or more precisely, that they turn out to be the most efficient choices), but that doesn't preclude the decisions being made rationally. In this case, the club owner was likely incorrect to believe that there would be enough business to justify opening. However, because he was dealing with money, and in fact a significant quantity of his own money, he did not arrive at his decision emotionally or without thought: it was an economic calculation.

Friday, December 23, 2005

The perils of yuletide singing

I was chatting for a minute with a co-worker, who's going to the airport straight after work. So I thought, since I'm known for singing at the drop of a hat but she's never heard me before, that I'd do a few notes for her. It went something like this:

Oh there's no place like home, for the holi -- AHHH!

The "AHHH!" was because I started to focus so much on my singing that I nearly dropped my steaming cup of Earl Grey. We both laughed, but for different reasons. It was not the first singing impression I wanted to make. Still, I must admit it was funny.

When government kills people

Since the dawn of human civilization, big government has killed people via outright massacres and deliberate starvation. In modern times, big government very much kills people by denying them the freedom to choose experimental medical treatments that might be successful.

Don Ho (link is to an AP article at Yahoo! News) underwent a highly experimental procedure for his failing heart. It was successful, and as he said, "It was my last hope."

Are government bureaucrats God, or agents of the Almighty, that they can approve or deny this procedure, though the patient fully accepts any and all risks involved? These were Ho's own stem cells. The procedure involves no embryos, so neither side of the "culture of life" debate applies here. Ah, but government steps in to save us from ourselves, because like Paul Krugman and big government's other proponents say, government should reduce the risk in our lives. Even if we accept those risks, and even if we believe we have much to gain?

As Jefferson said, and this is worth quoting as often as needed, "The care of every man's soul belongs to himself. But what if he neglect the care of it? Well what if he neglect the care of his health or his estate, which would more nearly relate to the state. Will the magistrate make a law that he not be poor or sick? Laws provide against injury from others; but not from ourselves. God himself will not save men against their wills."

When my father had a stroke at 80 years old, there was at least one clot that immediately threatened his life. With standard treatment, he had very poor odds of survival, let alone recovery. The then-new "clot-buster" drugs were the only treatment capable of clearing the blockage. These particular substances had recently been approved by the Food & Drug Administration for use on stroke patients outside of tests.

I was 22 at the time and still living at home, but I was out when my father suddenly fell down in the kitchen that night. He later told me that he knew instantly that it was a stroke. What he didn't tell me was that he begged my mother, the only other person home, to help him to bed so he could die in peace. Thankfully she refused to give up and instead called 911. She was too distraught to go to the hospital with him, however. By the time I got home, learned what happened and rushed to the hospital, I found that my father was lucid enough that he had chosen and had already taken the new drugs.

The doctors had explained to him very carefully that the "clot-busters" had but a 10% chance of success; there was a 90% chance they would work too well, causing an uncontrollable brain hemorrhage and subsequent death. Aware that standard treatment, at best, meant he'd spend the rest of his life as an invalid, my father figured he had nothing to lose. He chose to take the new drugs, which succeeded without causing a hemorrhage. They succeeded well enough that, true to his style, he was busy charming all the night shift nurses. He still lost a lot of strength and his sense of taste, but he did hold up pretty well -- until about 18 months later when he started dying of cancer.

Now consider this: when the drugs were still experimental but not yet approved, how many stroke victims could have been saved? How many would have gladly accepted the high risk of dying if it meant a solid chance at recovery? Isn't that their choice? It's one thing if the doctors simply give potentially deadly medicine, but if the risks are completely, properly and sincerely presented to the patient, who is government to decide? Had my father suffered a stroke just a year or two prior to the "clot-busters" approval by the FDA, government would have told him, "You'll just have to die. We won't let you take this stuff, because it could kill you."

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Thursday, December 22, 2005

A close shave

Am I talking about the Gillette M3Power Nitro that I bought the other day? After a few days, I say more than ever that it's great. Am I talking about barely making the Metro-North train this morning? I could have sworn it was early.

Actually, I'm referring to almost getting into an auto accident last night. Among those who know me well, I'm infamous as a magnet for bad and unattentive drivers. I was very fortunate last night. After taking the train home, I drove out to Connecticut to do a little shopping at the Danbury Fair Mall. There was heavy traffic at the mall exit, and we came to a sudden stop. I had to brake hard like the car in front of me but was in no danger of hitting him. At that moment, I had the split-second thought, "Hope the guy behind me brakes in time." He was following too closely and would have certainly rammed me, had he not been lucky enough to turn a bit onto the shoulder and avoid a collision.

It reminded me of the night of December 30, 2003. I remember the precise date because I later thought, "Sheesh, it's only the day before New Year's Eve, has he started to drink already?" I had stopped at a red light on Newtown Road in the Danbury-Bethel area, right before the left-leaning curve to get onto I-84 westbound. Suddenly my car was hit from behind, with enough force that my seatbelt cut hard into my chest as I was thrown forward.

I turned off my engine and got out to inspect the damage and confront the other driver. It was dark, and with just the street lamps I couldn't really see any damage to my car. I didn't notice if his headlights were working, but I did see a bit of damage to the front end of his very old Ford Escort. A jet of steam was exiting from under his hood.

The scraggly looking, 40-ish man suggested we get our cars off the road. I reluctantly agreed. I had wanted any responding police to see exactly where our cars were, but we were blocking traffic (though it was past 8 p.m. and minimal). After pulling onto the intersecting road, the other guy was nowhere to be found -- he had simply driven off! So I drove to the nearby Mobil station, where I could report the hit-and-run to the police and inspect the damage to my car.

However, there was none. Not even a single scratch, let alone a paint mark from the other car. Maybe he didn't hit me as hard as I thought, and maybe his car's damage was pre-existing, but I'm still surprised my rear bumper didn't have any paint damage. I reported the incident to the police anyway, just to get it on record, knowing there wasn't anything they could do about the other driver. Since then, and thankfully I haven't needed to use this, I've resolved to write down the other person's license plate right away, to prevent this from happening to me again. Most likely he fled because he didn't have insurance, but you never know if someone's intoxicated or a fugitive.

There was no harm done to me, so it didn't matter that he sped away, right? Yes, but I didn't know that for certain at the time. He might have caused damage I didn't see, or given me a case of whiplash. I got my driver's license at 16, and one of the most valuable pieces of advice I had read a few years before in Reader's Digest. Even if there's no apparent damage, or minimal damage, don't accept several $100 bills from the other driver. It's good policy to report it, because you might not realize the full extent of the damage or medical costs.

That being said, I think laws compelling people to report accidents are morally wrong. However, when one of the parties voluntarily requests it, law enforcement examining an accident scene and making records is a proper function of good, limited government.