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Sunday, June 23, 2013

But The Grocery Store Knows Everything!

I haven't written much of anything about the NSA data collection brouhaha - neither blog posts or comments.  My main reaction has been, "What did you expect?"  If you build a massive government that deploys nearly half the resources of the country representing many trillions of dollars and consists of a huge bureaucracy where the bureaucrats have their own self-interest guiding their actions, encourage the government to solve all sorts of problems with nearly unlimited amounts of regulation and enormous programs, and then set up elections between dogmatic political parties where the one currently in power can derive overwhelming benefit by abusing its power, then it seems inherent that there will be enough bad actors that are more than willing to spy on the citizenry.

Oh sure, I suppose we have to feign surprise and even outrage, demand investigations and new oversight (yet another layer of watchers - but who will watch those watchers?), and wring our hands and wail about how it should never have happened.  As least some of us have to perform this charade to maybe slow it down a little. But realistically, it won't slow down and will get ever worse because such activities are inherently part of the system and amplified by the huge size.

I do have to laugh at some of the justifications put forth by some of the citizenry to defend the government.  There's of course the somewhat boring and silly "I have nothing to hide, why should I care?" (if you have nothing to hide, can I put a webcam in your bedroom and broadcast to the web?  No? Well maybe privacy does have some subjective value to most people then).

But my favorite so far is a friend who points out that grocery stores have a great deal of private information about you.  They know when your period is (for fertile females), they know when you're sick, they know when there's a new baby in the family, etc.  They know all this from your buying patterns coupled with that discount card that you swipe at the cash register.  So, my friend asks, "where's the outrage there?"

Ummm.  Oh, I don't know.  I guess I'm just not terribly worried about the grocery store sending in a SWAT team to haul me off to jail for not conforming to their cherished notions about correct buying patterns.

But the government can do exactly that.  Some call me paranoid (actually, I'm not terribly worried, but rather see a distinction between the grocery store and the government), but the possibility of being personally harassed by the government isn't all that far fetched.  Economist Alex Tabbarok writes:
I broke the law yesterday and again today and I will probably break the law tomorrow. Don’t mistake me, I have done nothing wrong. I don’t even know what laws I have broken. Nevertheless, I am reasonably confident that I have broken some laws, rules, or regulations recently because its hard for anyone to live today without breaking the law. Doubt me? Have you ever thrown out some junk mail that came to your house but was addressed to someone else? That’s a violation of federal law punishable by up to 5 years in prison.
Harvey Silverglate argues that a typical American commits three felonies a day.
So we're all felons.

Glenn Reynolds adds:
Though extensive due process protections apply to the investigation of crimes, and to criminal trials, perhaps the most important part of the criminal process -- the decision whether to charge a defendant, and with what -- is almost entirely discretionary. Given the plethora of criminal laws and regulations in today's society, this due process gap allows prosecutors to charge almost anyone they take a deep interest in.
So we're all potential targets of government and the recent IRS scandal shows that discretionary targeting of individuals and entities is a very real possibility.  One thing that gave us some protection from such discretionary, arbitrary, and capricious prosecution was the huge cost of collecting evidence on a significant percentage of us.  Now however, as Tabarrok concludes:
...the NSA spying machine has reduced the cost of evidence so that today our freedom - or our independence - is to a large extent at the discretion of those in control of the panopticon.
 reduced the cost of evidence so that today our freedom–or our independence–is to a large extent at the discretion of those in control of the panopticon. - See more at:
And that's the difference between the grocery store and the government.


Bret said...

Of course even more scary than the government is hordes of lawyers having complete access to our personal information:

Lawyers eye NSA data as treasure trove for evidence in murder, divorce cases"

Peter said...

I'm not so troubled by grocery stores either. But what about banks, insurance companies and prospective employers?

Bret said...


Banks are quasi-governmental (fiat currencies are a public good) so they're borderline. But still the banks, insurance companies, and prospective employers don't have the access to coercion that a government has with its military.

Also, employers are definitely not a fixed pool. If some of them refuse to hire good people, other folks will, or some of those unhired can start businesses as well.

Peter said...

I think that's a bit glib, Bret. Sure, the state has a monopoly on violence, law-making and incarceration, and so it's theoretical ability to oppress is greater, but it's also a hard fact that the Western postwar state has never come close to wielding the full extent of its theoretical powers and the vast majority of the population looks to it to broker many aspects of relations between private unequals and "even the playing field" in cases of private exploitation. Since Reagan and Thatcher, a very large number of conservative politicians have run on promises to lessen the role of government in our lives and make it smaller--usually by conjuring up nostalgic images of hardy pioneer self-reliance without mentioning how many of them died sick, illiterate or in penury. By and large, they've all failed. In seven years of Conservative government up here, and despite many high-profile and controversial cutbacks of programmes, departments, etc., the Canadian public service has grown by 14%, and that doesn't include the military.

Assuming conservatives are not satisfied being a marginal voice of pure abstract principle forever in opposition, I think the Right should be thinking harder about why this is and resist just blaming "the liberal establishment" (the counterpoint to the left blaming all their woes on shock jocks and the Religious Right). As your post above intimates, we're rich far beyond basic necessities and that has consequences for public expectations--how many people today would really accept 19th century standards of chance and fortune? Those Tea Party protesters with signs saying "Obama, Keep Your Hands Off My Medicare!" expressed a political reality very humorously. Plus the explosion of technological progress in many areas has had all kinds of implications for our public priorities and perceptions of civility, decency, entitlement, etc.

I trust you know that I'm not saying we should all give the state a big hug or stand by sanguinely as it's tentacles spread, but I'm not going to give my grocery store carte blanche to stick its nose into my private life while I'm sleeping simply because it doesn't have the power to shoot me.

And, c'mon Bret, "Go start a business" is hardly a realistic response to invasions of privacy concerns that have real consequnces for credit, insurance, employment, etc. That sounds like something a certain failed Republican presidential candidate might have said. :-)

erp said...

Peter, you're right about the old days, ... nostalgic images of hardy pioneer self-reliance without mentioning how many of them died sick, illiterate or in penury ... , but you fail to mention that in today's world where we are our brother's keeper in the most literal sense, those in custodial care are also sick, many with self inflicted maladies brought on by not being required to be self-reliant, i.e., drugs, booze, obesity and other life-style diseases although free medical care is and has been available for many decades through Medicaid. Many of our fellow citizens are also literally illiterate and many more just barely literate (despite spending untold trillions of tax payer dollars on public education practically from birth to doctorate), but to be fair, you are right that most of the downtrodden are not in debtor prisons, but a lot of them are in prison for crimes against society (talk about biting the hand that feeds you ... and your families).

Better to let individuals, local communities, religious institutions and other civic groups handle charity. They get a much bigger bang for their money and are able to readably indentify those in need from the slackers and substance addled.

It’s been bandied about that only about 15% of total confiscated from us for doing good deeds ends up anywhere near the needy. The rest goes into union coffers and inflated salaries and perks of the vast public service sector.

Bret said...

Peter wrote: "it's also a hard fact that the Western postwar state has never come close to wielding the full extent of its theoretical powers..."

First, thanks heavens! Second, it certainly has wielded some of that theoretical power - the IRS and other scandals recently, incarceration of millions of people simply for ingesting or transferring various substances, crazy injunctions by the EPA, etc. Third, your use of "never" seems funny to me when you limit it to such a small time frame and government types. Are you so confident with the recent scandals that the state is not moving towards wielding much more of the full extent of its powers? I'm not.

Peter wrote: '"Go start a business" is hardly a realistic response'

Why? I've started three of them in my lifetime (so far) with modest success. It's not hard - IF the government stays out of your way. The grocery store certainly can't stop you.

Anonymous said...


One does wonder that if perhaps that losing candidate had said it, and forcefully, pointing out why it is is good, maybe he would not have lost. He was doing better when he was forceful about it, and dropped when he stopped doing so.

Peter said...

Bret, I'm with you all the way when you argue that a prosperous society should encourage and honour entrepreneurship, but that doesn't mean everybody has the potential to be a successful entrepreneur anymore than everyone is suited to be a doctor, artist, soldier or teacher. Unless you are talking about subsistence stuff like selling fish bait or walking dogs, it's not just about hard work any more than success in athletics is just about training, it takes fortune, character, brains and natural aptitudes too. And to be blunt, even Adam Smith recognized entrepreneurs as a class tend to be a little weak on some important values every successful society needs. Plus where are all the employees a successful entrepreneur needs supposed to come from?

I feel a bit like I am being challenged ideologically for arguing the limits of ideological thinking. I acknowledge all of erp's complaints about corruption and the modern "bloated" state, but when arguing ideals, I simply cannot imagine modern society operating without a sizeable role for government, and I'm pretty sure a large majority of the population thinks the same way. Look at law enforcement and security, the management of mega-cities, utility management, transportation, health and safety regulation, etc., etc. Is it really realistic to imagine all that can be privatized by honest people of good will? Should the profit motive really be guiding the delivery of them? As for social security, it's fine to tout charity, but surely we have learned that the public will simply not accept even one uneducated or sick child, or one homeless senior, and will soon vote out anyone who does. I've written before about how the thirties proved that democracy itself can become endangered when there is widespread want.

Years ago, Orrin was touting private tax-free retirement savings as a potential replacement for social security. Leaving aside where such would leave the poor and dysfunctional (I'm sorry, but there will always be losers in a society that celebrates success), I asked him what he would do about the impoverished war hero who spent all his retirement savings on expensive medical care for his critically ill child, and why would he want to rely on a scheme that so obviously favoured the childless. I never got much of an answer.

Bret, you yourself have recognized we are living far above subsistence level. That the public would want and expect some of the surplus to be applied through government for common, public needs and to supply common needs and prevent destitution strikes me as very natural and, however naive, certainly not ignoble. Reform away, but the right seems to me to be falling sway to siren calls for quick fixes. All I am saying is that rote calls for privatization or private charity grounded in 19th century ideology and misplaced nostalgia shouldn't be magic solutions that get a pass on critical analysis. Also, the right shouldn't be afraid to admit that some things are or should or can be done better by government. Long live empiricism!

Anonymous said...

"Is it really realistic to imagine all that can be privatized by honest people of good will?"

I would say more realistic than that it can be publicly managed by honest people of goodwill.

"Should the profit motive really be guiding the delivery of them?"

Better than the petty power motives of public bureaucrats.

People are people. They don't get better or more honest because you give them a gun with which to coerce their fellow citizens.

I wish I had the time to explain about robust system design, dispersed power / competing interests, and single point of failure issues. A large, intrusive government is simply bad design. If you tried to tell a skilled computer scientist to design a complex system like we do government, he'd just laugh at you.

"we have learned that the public will simply not accept even one uneducated or sick child, or one homeless senior, and will soon vote out anyone who does"

Then Bret is right, we're utterly doomed, nothing we do makes particle of difference, might as well enjoy the ride. We're simply too stupid and delusional to govern ourselves. For example

"the public would want and expect some of the surplus to be applied through government for common, public needs"

Why through government, except because conditioning via tranzi propaganda? I think it's ignoble to do "charity" through coercion and extortion. If that's how you get the money, it's not "charity". Empirically I think it's clear that long term, private charity works far better for the poor than government welfare.

P.S. With regard to the widespread want in the 1930s, it is my view that it persisted and was dangerous precisely because of government intervention and had (as in similar crises before and after) the government just done nothing there would have been far less want and people would not have been conditioned to expect government to "solve" problems. Perhaps it was FDR who doomed us all.

Bret said...

Peter wrote: "I'm with you all the way when you argue that a prosperous society should encourage and honour entrepreneurship, but that doesn't mean everybody has the potential to be a successful entrepreneur..."

True. I was addressing your concern with "prospective employers" having access to too much private info and therefore, I assume, hypothetically not hiring or otherwise oppressing people who'd like to be hired.

Since entrepreneurs often hire others, only a small percentage of those who are not hired due to privacy infractions need to have the wherewithal to start businesses. That will increase demand to employ others.

Empirically, this happens all of the time. During boom times, employers get a lot less picky on who they hire. The beautiful thing about greed is that if the employer thinks he can make a return by hiring someone, he will.

When our children were younger we often sought college age people to drive them to soccer and/or dance lessons as both my wife and I work. We used to "request" temporarily friending them on facebook and we disqualified a few of them based on that info. One young woman had many pictures on her facebook pages where she was clearly sh*tfaced drunk and mostly naked (along with everybody else in the pictures). Was that the sort of information you're concerned with employers getting access to? That I was incorrect to be a little concerned about the safety of, and her influence on my children?

Peter also wrote: "I simply cannot imagine modern society operating without a sizeable role for government..."

And I simply cannot imagine a society that I enjoy and feel part of that has a sizeable role for the central or federal government. And like everyone else like me who is dogmatic and feels in conflict with the society he lives in, I put some degree of effort into undermining that society and will continue to as long as it has this large federal government and I admit that it is the mere existence of that government (with the associated taxes and regulation) that I find annoying.

One of the points of my other recent post is that these sorts of things are so untethered from survival or subsistence or objective reality or whatever you want to call it, that neither of us are right or wrong, rather we're simply in conflict over this one point. We're obviously surviving well above subsistence with the current and ever growing behemoths that governs us. On the other hand, if the U.S. federal government was one-quarter the size, we'd almost certainly survive well above subsistence too.

We can argue until we're blue in the face, and do, and I generally find it stimulating and entertaining, about which is objectively better and by what measure, but the fact is that for you a "sizeable government" is apparently better and for me a much smaller federal government is better, not because of some objective measure calculated by some utility function, but simply because those are our different ideologies.

I spent a decade supporting a futures trader and read thousands of pages of economics texts and papers and have continued to do so during the more than decade of the current robot gig, and I believe the numbers, according to a narrowly defined utility function of average GDP growth and prosperity happen to align with my ideology (or at least don't contradict it). Many others disagree. But it hardly matters because even if you could prove to me beyond a shadow of a doubt (which you can't) that the world is a better place because of federal government beneficence, I'd still advocate for a smaller federal government.

Note that I particularly believe the federal government should be much smaller, and as the governments become more localized (and therefore less powerful overall) I have less problem with them.

Peter said...

I believe the numbers, according to a narrowly defined utility function of average GDP growth and prosperity happen to align with my ideology

I don't doubt that for a minute. I'm not a leftist who sees society as a disordered jumble of logs ( or an untended garden) we can fashion into a beautful mansion through government. It's not so much that I resent government power less than you, it's that I seem more wary of private power--like investment bankers with gargantuan notions of personal entitlement. A plague on both their houses! And I do quesion the claims of a lot of libertarian-oriented conservatives (AOG, come on down!) about the ability of the market to deliver beyond individual wealth and into the realm of what many people see as either outside the realm of wealth acquisition or even at times at odds with it.

It seems to me that you are a bit hoist on your own petard by the very material success you acknowledge as having lifted us far beyond subsistence. I take it as a certainty of human nature that people who no longer worry about satisfying basic wants will start worrying about other things I will loosely group under the rubric "quality of life", and that many of these worries will be focussed on things like perceived social injustices, penury and want, legal protections from private exploitation, environmental degradation, aesthetic improvement, etc. These are not ignoble concerns and, in fact, I admire them more than Hollywood-style private self-indulgence even when I disagree with the other side's solutions. The improving impulse is eternal and it extends well beyond individual material improvement.

These are by and large the preoccupations of the well-fed. I can be persuaded that many (not all) of them may be naturally self-correcting over time--when we are all millionaires we presumably won't have a problem with urban squalor. But in the longterm we are all dead and no democratic state can expect the electorate to take such a longterm perspective except in crisis situations. The baying mob may fecklessly demand immediate relief, but the intellectual that demands or condones widespread short term want or injustice as a necessary path to better days is playing with fire.

Do you think Jim Crow would have been better corrected by waiting until the South achieved the economic take-off that would have made everybody finally realize how it was costing them money? Do you imagine the sparcely-populated 19th century frontier is a good model for massive high-tech 21st century resource extraction in a country of 300 million? Should my right to use my property as I see fit compel me to accept my neighbour using his to open a Triple X porn shop? Are you that confident that limited government and low taxation will answer all those biblical injunctions and spiritual thirsts grounded in natural human yearnings?

Your economic analysis is bang on. Now, what about democracy, national cohesion, common moral purpose and social peace?

P.S. I wasn't really addressing federalism, an issue that plays out quite differently in our respective countries. I basically agree with you that local and regional governments should be doing much of what central governments have appropriated, but some cautions here too. Corruption and racial/ethnic tensions can sometimes be more effectively addressed from afar. I'll take democracy any day, but I don't think I'm naive about its weaknesses.

Anonymous said...

"it's that I seem more wary of private power"

I'm not sure that's true. I am wary too, but what can you do? Except give more power to the same sort of people but who can use phyiscal coercion. I also tend to think that much of the worst of private enactions are essentially enabled through government power ("too big to fail"). Clip the State and you clip the worst of the private actors as well.

"the ability of the market to deliver beyond individual wealth and into the realm of what many people see as either outside the realm of wealth acquisition or even at times at odds with it."

Why? As we tell Eagar over and over, the market is not autonomous, it is people. It is the market that lets people chose to value things more than wealth or power and act on that. It is precisely those things which are snuffed out when the government gets too big. On a personal level, one need only spend some time among the true collectivists to see how little they value such things both personally and as policy, in the latter case seeing them only as political tools. Anyone who tells you "you have to have a welfare state or the poor will rise up and kill you" is a good example of that sort.

This ties in to your later comment "These are not ignoble concerns" with which I agree, but they become ignoble when the proponents use coercion to make it happen, like Hollywood stars with gartantuan notions of personal entitlement. And thus I illustrate my first paragraph as well.

"Do you think Jim Crow would have been better corrected by waiting until the South achieved the economic take-off that would have made everybody finally realize how it was costing them money?"

Ah, but Jim Crow was a legal construct, made by the state, which doesn't care about how it was costing them money. Remember, Rosa Parks was violating a municipal ordinance, not a private sector restriction. It is precisely that kind of power of the government we libertarians want to remove.

"Are you that confident that limited government and low taxation will answer all those biblical injunctions and spiritual thirsts grounded in natural human yearnings?"

Not at all. But I am confident it will answer less poorly than intrusive government. As always, I am driven more by "the cure is worse than the disease" views than "markets will make it all better".

Bret said...

Peter wrote: "Do you think Jim Crow..."

I always chuckle when people bring up Jim Crow Laws as an example of the importance of government in correcting social injustices. That's because Jim Crow Laws were created by governments who thought they were correcting social injustices! That there happened to be a bigger, more powerful government, that was formed with important limits described by a impressively concise and coherent constitution, and that that government was willing to enforce provisions of that constitution and overturn those laws, was a good thing in this case. A reasonably good constitution based on the rules of law and a limited but strong government enforcing that constitution is a good thing in my opinion - I'm no anarchist.

However, a quick thought experiment informs me that having a bigger government correct regional ills is unlikely to generally be a good idea. If the U.S. Federal Government can be relied on to correct localized social ills within America, would it follow that a powerful world-wide government would be likely to enhance social justice within the various nations of the world? If we revamped the United Nations and made it more of a representative democracy and let them rule the world, do you think places like Canada and the United States would be better off? Would anybody be better off? Many think so, but I think it would be an absolute catastrophe. Power corrupts, concentrating power in the central government leads to a large amount of corruption, absolute power in a one-world government would lead to absolute corruption. I cringe to think of what such an organization would come up with for social justice but I'm certain it wouldn't be good for me or those I associated with. So I think that, in general, smaller government entities coupled with freedom of movement (if you don't like the social justice in your jurisdiction you can leave) is the better choice, especially when coupled with a very limited central government that acts as a watchdog of last resort. In other words, federalism.

Also, majority thinking and social justice are NOT the same thing. For example, if the majority of the country supported Jim Crow Laws would that have made them socially just? I don't think so. One person's justice is another's horror - the whole abortion debate is an example of that.

erp said...

How is social justice defined?

Anonymous said...

"For example, if the majority of the country supported Jim Crow Laws would that have made them socially just?"

That's my point. When a government is capable of correcting a social injustice, it is only because the populace (in general) supports the correction. And if that's the case, why do you need a government to do it? All you really need, and what works best, is what Bret outlined in his comment. But Peter's right in that people are generally too impatient to wait for real healing, they prefer the quick quackery of government intervention.

Bret said...


I think that "social justice" is just an excuse to take from A to give to B.

I like this thought about to social justice: "Either 'social justice' has the same meaning as 'justice' – or not. If so – why use the additional word 'social?' We lose time, we destroy trees to obtain paper necessary to print this word. If not, if 'social justice' means something different from 'justice' – then 'something different from justice' is by definition 'injustice'"

I'm happy to equate social justice with injustice.

erp said...

Social justice = jury nullification and Kangaroo courts like the Zimmerman trial. Government interference worsened integration and fomented hatred and resentment among people where there was none. Add affirmative action, Obama phones and EBT cards and we have today's world.

Clovis e Adri said...

There is a little and almost untouched tribe (the Suruwahas) in the Amazon forest and I happened to know two missionaries who were the only ones to ever live among them (for a few years).

They are quite the self-reliant kind of people: they kill every newborn who has any kind of defect, they do not help each other unless the next one is direct family - for example, an adult who got some food to eat will not share with a widow starving a few meters from him (they all live in a common big hut or "oca"). They do abandon sick and old ones to die whenever needed.

They have no written memory, but their oral histories all talk about a past when they were more numerous (they are about two hundreds people only nowadays). Some researchers believe they were never touched before because they went further and further inward to the forest as they saw traces of "our civilization" appearing nearby.

I tell this little story to say: when you look to people who have 100% of their GDP directed to basic survival, the fact of the matter is that societies who foster a "no mercy enviroment" tend to disappear.

It is so much easier to mock "social justice" when you won't have to worry about what to eat any day soon.

erp said...

C&A - if your comment is directed at me, please note that I no where say that I support a “no mercy environment.” What I mock is the semantics of propaganda in which a term like “social justice” is bandied about as if it had some intrinsic meaning. Please provide a coherent definition if you can and if you care to know what I said, read earlier comments where I say explicitly that local charities are much more effective in ameliorating needs than huge federal bureaucracies which exist only to further their own existences and which apply only a fraction of their ridiculously bloated budgets to those in need.

After 60+ year and many trillions of dollars, the war of poverty has only served to confiscate tax payer funds and redistribute it to the public service unions and leave an ever larger portion of our fellow citizens dependent on handouts and who in the process keep re-electing those who’ve kept them in custodial care. A far worse system IMO than that which you describe above.

The tribal customs of a handful of denizens of the jungles of South America are interesting in that primitive as they are by our standards, they’re smart enough to want to be left alone and get away from the government.

Bret said...

Clovis e Adri wrote "...the fact of the matter is that societies who foster a "no mercy enviroment" tend to disappear."

I agree.

But my question is not whether societies with a sense of mercy and charity to help their family, friends, community, and fellow man in general, are going to be more successful. My question is whether or not a large, powerful, and distant entity (i.e. government) is the best way of doing that. I explore that in many of these posts and my observations lead me to believe that not only is it not the best way to do it, but it is often and overall counterproductive.

Clovis e Adri said...

Erp: I am not sure it would be useful to discuss semantics, so I'll not even try. Take any definition of social justice you want, if it implies not letting the next one to die of hunger in a world that produces much more food than we can take, I am OK with that.

Now, to say that the war on poverty is an excuse for bloated governments fails one simple test of logic: how much of the government (any government, take your choice) budget is actually used for that? Now cut it out - I assure you that you'll barely feel any relief in your taxes . In the end of the day, you'll have acomplished a lot of pain, but you'll end up with much the same bloated government. So what's the point in all this "social justice" rage?

Bret: as corollary of my last lines, I believe that you miss the mark by far if you think that we set up powerful and centralized governments to help the poor. Now, given that we have that structures (for entirely other reasons), it is just natural that we use them to coordinate budgets that also incur some help to them. It is usually as inefficient as many other things government does. If you would like to argue over a more efficient way, fine. Now to argue that, given the government inneficience, we should not even try to alleviate poverty, is as logical as saying we should never collect garbage since the government does it so badly...

erp said...

I guess you didn't read or understand any of my comments because poverty HASN'T been alleviated and it's arguably worse since the War on Poverty spent multi trillions of our dollars.

So I'll ask you the question: Do you think we should waste our resources on useless, nay counterproductive, measures that keep many of our fellows in poverty just to make you and others like you feel good about yourselves?

If you want to help someone, try doing it locally. There are ever so many groups who desperately need people as well informed and willing as you guys to pitch in with their own time and resources and make an immediate difference in an actual living human being's life.

Bonne chance.

Anonymous said...


Yes, that anyone who can look at the destruction of culture and hope visited on the poor by these anti-poverty programs and say "yes, we need more of that", is incomprehensible to me. One need only look at Harlem before and after the "Great Society" to see what is meant.

P.S. As far as I can tell, over half of the federal budget is devoted to technically anti-poverty efforts, that is transfer payments. I think I can safely say I would very much notice it if all of that were eliminated.

erp said...

... bbbut aog, it makes lefties feel sooooooooo good that they are doing something about the situation. Ditto recycling. It's a useless exercise and costs a bundle in additional fuel costs, pollution, etc. but separating out all their little cans and bottles makes them feel good even though deep down they must know it's going to the exact same spot in the dump that the gets the regular garbage.

Bret said...

Clovis e Adri wrote: "If you would like to argue over a more efficient way, fine."

Yes, that's mostly what I'm arguing. In particular, the large U.S. federal government is a particular poor and even counterproductive entity to administer most local safety nets.

I'd like to retouch on your previous "no mercy environment" comment. Mercy, charity, giving, taking care of ones neighbor and fellow man comes from inside people and I believe this should be nurtured whenever possible. By replacing the need for individuals to be compassionate and charitable, I argue in this post that government giving will actually "[r]educe the capacity for societal cohesion at the family and community level."

In the long run, I think that that's a bad thing, and that's what I mean when I call government "giving" counterproductive.

Clovis e Adri said...

Erp: I do prefer to maintain exchanges in a higher level. I mean, to go for derogative language and assumptions on the other side is a waste of both our time - how about using the same space to actually deliver a point?

For example, I would like to see you to substantiate your opinion that poverty has only worsened. I have the contrary opinion: hundreds of millions have been taken out of it worldwide in the last 30 years. Doubt that? It is easy to go for facts:

Answering your question: I do believe we use our resources far from optimal (as for so many other things), but I do not think they are a complete waste, nor that they are incentive for maintaining people in poverty in most cases - I would say approx. 70-90% of people on those programs are not "enslaved" by it, depending of course on which country and program we are talking about.

AOG: I would say that approx. 550 billions of the last US budget of 3.5 trillions were in fact directed to effective poverty alleviation. Cut it out and you have 15% of discount in your taxes (not really, due to other factors something more like 10%), plus a far worse country. Good luck with this choice.

Bret: Paraphrasing Churchill, I think federal govt. administration of safety net is the worst form of administration, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. I look forward to hear any new (really workable and efficient) ideas on that.

By the way, I agree with your referred post in that our present "govt. does all mercy" practice indeed helps to reduce societal cohesion and interaction. Though I see it not as cause, but only as patterns of a process initiated by other trends of much more impact and importance. We have basically structured our modern lives in ways that imply diminished cohesion and interaction.

erp said...

C&A – thanks for the lesson in good manners. In your opinion or was it an assumption, my language was derogatory. How so?

You also say I should deliver a point. As I vociferously did deliver one, albeit not one with which you agree, your statement is not factual, but another assumption or an opinion. Which one I wonder? It’s sometimes so difficult to decide which is which.

You also advise that I consult Wikipedia to read what those who do well by doing good have to say about their efforts. I think I’ll take your advice and not waste my time.

I prefer the evidence in front of my eyes. Detroit a once a beautiful prosperous city now a ruin after decades of being victimized by people who think like you and it’s hardly the only example.

Churchill, a favorite of mine, is also said to have said, “If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty, you have no brain.”
Since by your comments, you are all heart and unlikely to be twenty, alas, the latter must be true.

Clovis e Adri said...

Erp: textbook derogatory language and attitude: to imply the next one has no brains because he has opinions (and/or age) different from yours.

Since you look to really prefer this line of communication, better to let our differences rest.

erp said...

C&A - textbook projection and inability of the average academic/leftwing government official to make a coherent argument for a system that has not had a single success in over 100 years (with the possible exception of Scandinavia - jury's still out on that one).

Our differences as you put it are your inability to discourse in other than in the same old talking points and platitudes. Socialism hasn't and doesn't work. Venezuela is out of toilet paper for goodness sake!

The U.N. which I'm guessing is your employer, has been spending (mostly U.S. taxpayer) money like drunken sailors for 50 - 60 years with officials staying in five-star hotels, etc. and has few if any success stories. Haiti is a particularly horrible example of how not to "help" victims.

I've had this conversation with countless people with your point of view and have perhaps lost the ability to speak in politesse, but I see my country being torn apart and my fellow citizens confined to poverty by the same measures you relentlessly want to pursue.

From one of your previous comments: ... I look forward to hear any new (really workable and efficient) ideas on that.

It's an old idea, but one with a great track record for peace and prosperty, it's called small government, free enterprise, individual responsibility and most of all equality under the law.

Clovis e Adri said...

Erp: I do not remember to be defending here any 100 years system, socialim, Venezuela or Haiti. As I said before, your assumptions of what I think before I even say anything is a waste of both our time.

Since you like to guess, may I help you introducing myself - it may also bring home that you are punching a real person, not just bits on your screen. I am indeed an academic (PhD in Physics), but to love science is not my fault, it just happened. I am a researcher in a major Brazilian university and have never been employed by U.N. (so rest assured you never paid me a single cent). I am not 20 nor 40, but 32, which I guess makes me half-brained and half-hearted in your classification system.

Being a citizen of a much more unequal country than yours, and having lived in Europe (I've paid some visit to US too), I have spent a great deal of time thinking about poverty policy - just as a citizen, my field of research in Physics is far away from that.

What I can tell you is that I have experienced in my lifetime a great deal of change brought by anti-poverty policies. Brazil today is quite different from the country I've grown up. (Maybe somehow analogue to the new deal changes in the US)

I also could observe the workings of the main anti-poverty program in Germany (there called Hartz IV), and had many conversations with Germans on the topic. They spend a great deal more than the US on social programs, as you may be well aware. I hope you may agree that we are talking about no lazy country here, where you would be hard pressed to argue that anti-poverty money has created a mass of lazy people - they are after all one of the main exporters in the World (with a population of only 80 million), beating US (300 million) and China (1.35 billion) year in and out.

If you stop acting on your gut feelings about whatever you think is Right in terms of policy for modern massive populations of big countries like ours, and start to address issues from a pragmatic and fact based perspective, you'll realize that we all have a lot more to learn before shouting slogans and stereotyping whoever thinks different.

By the way, Erp, feel free to introduce yourself, and I am pleased to "meet" you (even if it may not be reciprocal). Cheers.

Bret said...

Hi Clovis,

Nice introduction and you have a cute kid (I'm guessing the pictures with the baby on your website are yours - I can't read Portuguese so I'm not actually sure who's in the pictures).

On the Internet everybody's a dog, so I don't usually bother introducing myself, but I'll have to admit knowing your background has made your comments a lot clearer, so if your curious I'm a roboticist specializing in machine vision for agricultural applications in San Diego. Before that I spent more than a decade working with a futures trader and during that time spent a great deal of effort learning about economics, markets, and finance.

There's no doubt in my mind that Brazil had done spectacularly well (though it was perhaps a bit erratic looking from the outside) in your 32 years of life, going from very poor to getting to be respectfully well off, if not yet quite at the level of Europe and the United States.

I do have a question though. You wrote, "I have experienced in my lifetime a great deal of change brought by anti-poverty policies."

What were those changes?

erp said...

C&A, First let me remind you that the quote was Churchill’s, not mine and after I sent it, I realized that what he said was those who are still liberal at 40 have no “head,” not no “brain” – a subtle, but significant difference. Sorry about that.

I am a 78 year old first generation American woman born in New York City. I have three children and six grandchildren. One of my sons is also a (theoretical) physicist.

Our problems here in the U.S. are mostly those inflicted on us by the socialists who destroying everything which made our country great.

The best of luck in your efforts to make your country into what you want for your family.

erp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter said...

With respect, erp, you are illustrating my concerns about conservatives succumbing to the lure of ideological simplicities to address brain-bleedingly complex problems. You seem to throw around the words "socialist" and "socialism" the way a dogmatic leftist uses "capitalism"--as all-purpose shibboleths designed more to forestall empirical thinking and close off, rather than encourage, debate. Even leaving aside that America has never been more prosperous or more powerful, no socialist would recognize the U.S as expressing his dreams since at least the sixties, and he didn't really think it did back then.

Let's transcend rhetoric and get practical. We all know that welfare supports far too many single mothers of little education or aptitude trying with varying degrees of competence and commitment to care for the children of multiple feckless and irresponsible males living on the edge of the law. Sometimes they work part time minimum wage, sometimes not, but they and their children are very dependant on the state. In your dream world, after government vacates this field, what would you say to them and their homeless and malnourished broods? Start a business? Be careful what you wish for because they just might take that advice in ways you didn't foresee.

erp said...

Peter, commenting on blogs is shorthand. I deliberately use socialism because it zeroes in on the problem. Substitute any of the left’s other aliases, liberal, progressive, collectivist, statist … that you may like better. The Obama administration certainly fits Harry's definition of fascism.

Single mothers are a symptom of welfare. No welfare checks or EBT cards, Obama phones, etc. and most of the problem is solved. Do you really think infants born to teenage girls who would be unable to take care of a kitten nevermind a baby are better off than those in Dickensian orphanages? I don’t because I actually worked with these girls and I’ve heard with my own ears a social worker say that they couldn’t take away a little boy of two who was being horribly abused by his mother’s boyfriend because the checks for the child were their only income!

That didn't happen in a black ghetto, but in an idyllic Vermont village.

One girl, a beautiful blue-eyed blond who could have been a movie star, sticks in my memory. She had seven half-siblings who had five different fathers and attended half a dozen or so different schools. She was 19 years old and a graduate of the local high school. Her academic skills after 12 years in our public schools? She could count to a hundred and knew the alphabet. Her reading was practically nonexistent and she had no idea what arithmetic was all about. Counting on her fingers was how she managed. When I asked her how she figured out many packages of birthday hats she'd need for her little girl's upcoming birthday party if there were six hats in a package and there were ten children. She said she'd count it out and get two packages because she got to ten counting in the second package!!!!

Anecdotal I know, but not isolated cases either. I got plenty more like that. What’s a concerned citizen to do? Whom to call when the forces of social justice were already in full swing.

The public schools were completely taken over by the teachers’ unions in the 60’s and are along with the media merely parroting the party line so that today the AP World History book conveniently omits inconvenient truths that interfere with the narrative. Things like the Hitler/Stalin Pact and the fact that is was Israel who was attacked in the Six-Day War not the other way around.

My opinion is backed up several decades of unrelenting evidence. The left has created and continues to build on the model of a citizenry more and more dependent on a central government which serves up one crisis after the other peppered with scandals and titillation to keep We, the People frightened and confused.

It sure would be nice if mom and dad in the White House would take care of us so we can all continue to remain carefree children and not step up and take care of ourselves and our neighbors who might be in need. The price for that kind of life is too high for me.

Be careful what you wish for as well for as well because it might not be the utopia of fairness that you thought/hoped it would it be.


Bret, sorry this is so long. I'll get off your bandwidth now.

Anonymous said...

Clovis -

I get 70% of the federal budget when I look it up.

But I would certainly notice a 10% or 15% tax cut, and I think we would have a better, not worse, society, including the poor. One need merely look at poverty statistics before and after the Great Society programs to see that welfare spending has basically stalled out the gains that were occurring before it. As other have mentioned, look at what has happened to the urban poor as these programs expanded. Don't results count?

Clovis e Adri said...

Bret: Thanks, it is my kid indeed and (ok, not surprisingly) we also think he is very cute. I have some friends who also work with machine vision, it is a quite interesting area.

Brazil has indeed an erratic trajectory and for sure many miles to run before being really an
advanced country, but it also provides some interesting laboratory in terms of social policies.
I think a good part of the more advanced world has been experiencing a "brazilianization", in
the sense that their populations are becoming more mixed (think Latinos and Asians in US, Muslims and
Asians in Europe) and their social inequalities are growing. So there may be (good and bad) lessons somehow for everyone.

On the changes in the last two decades: it was customary, when I was a kid, to see almost African-style images of hunger and despair in the poor rural and arid regions (mainly in the northeast). Once in a while
you would hear about Katrina-like scenarios of rebelling people. The consequence was decades of an immigration flux to south and southeast metropolitan areas, today flocked with "favelas" (slums) and a different urban poverty, that was still marked by famine and a much worse problem of urban violence.

Nowadays: the anti-poverty programs were most effective in those rural areas (by what I also include the small and medium cities around it). They were marked by families of a woman with many kids, whose husband went a thousand miles away and never returned. As the programs kicked in, the economy in those areas grew at Chinese levels - although initially the money was purely government injected, the better conditions soon attracted a growing private market whose activities enhanced the whole situation. Now families are growing and being fixated locally, and there are reports even of people going back to their original areas, to some extent. They have still a lot to develop, but many areas are unrecognizable from mere 10 years ago.

On the metropolitan/urban side of poverty, I believe the results are more mixed. Famine is no longer a problem, which is good, but violence levels have generally not receded and, depending on the definitions
and markers, you may argue that the programs have generated more dependency than desired. It is also
more complex to judge success, since it depends on other factors (educational levels and market dynamics)
that are not coupled to the anti-poverty relief. I would say then that we have some visible improvements of
urban areas, but not as marked as in the above case.

A common complain (voiced here by Erp, for example) about this kind of program is their political use. Although you'll find many conservatives here too arguing so, it is quite clear that elections at the federal level have been very competitive.

Well, of course those programs are no source of eternal progress, so we may also be experimenting its limitations as of late, but I already used too much of your space. I hope at least I gave a clear picture.

Clovis e Adri said...

Erp: my congratualtions for that nice family, I'll be happy if I get to your age and count as many heads in mine.

But looking from afar, it is difficult to understand what you mean by your country being destroyed. As Peter pointed out, this is the most rich and powerful nation in the world. Whatever damage the liberals (I think "socialists" is no longer in my generation dictionary) may be doing, it is not showing up that much, is it?

Unfortunately, going back to the initial topic of this post (surveillance), a few beautiful and old "American values" may be eroding, but it also looks like from afar that it is Democratics and Republicans alike (this last NSA thing started with Bush and got bigger with Obama, right?)

AOG: the problem here is use of different metrics. I've counted only medicaid, food stamps and tax credit, that benefits mainly poor people. You are counting programs that benefits mostly middle class too. If you could be more specific on your argument (links and graphs to the statistics?) that welfare has stalled economic gains, I'd appreciate it.

Bret said...

Peter asks: "In your dream world, after government vacates this field ...?"

A few things to note. First, I can't speak for erp, but I would have the federal government vacate the field over a period of many years so people wouldn't be hung out to dry in an instant. Second, I would have part of the vacating of the field involve transferring the money to the States with no strings attached so that they could set up their own programs as they see fit. And third, I would use the disastrous unforeseen consequences of things like AFDC as a cautionary tale before we rush off to yet more engineering for "social justice".

Peter wrote: "... to address brain-bleedingly complex problems."

Due to limited availability of information, a centralized organization is simply the worst approach to solving brain-bleedingly complex problems. Decentralize, push decision making and resource deployment closer to each instantiation of the problem. Again, not overnight, but head in that direction. That was Hayek's insight, for which he got a Nobel prize.

It's simplicity itself - let complexity happen.

Peter wrote: "America has never been more prosperous or more powerful..."

It's also never been more fragile.

Bret said...


Thanks for the info about Brazil. Americans (and I'd bet most of the rest of the world) get very little information about Brazil even though it's 5th or 6th in the world in terms of population, geographical area, GDP, and probably military strength as well (though you seem to only ever attack yourselves).

Hopefully, you'll drop by this site from time-to-time and we can pick your brain a bit more.

erp said...

Bret, I said I'd get off your bandwidth, but just one more comment. My ear didn't fail me and my original impression of C&A was correct. Their rhetoric was true to form. They have the skewed vision of presented by their professors and the media. Check out the "Katrina" reference -- no doubt meaning how Bush let the darkies die because he hates people of color. You know the CW yada yada.

Of course socialism isn't in their lexicon. The left has to keep changing its name to protect the guilty. I've been out of the game for a while. Anyone know what the correct PC construct is?

Even though my only claim to fame now is my lovely family, I still like to use the right buzz words.

Bret said...


No reason to get off my bandwidth. I appreciate all comments.

C&A has an interesting perspective being from a country that was quite poor and still isn't terribly rich. Keep in mind that he still (especially in this day and age) qualifies as Churchill's young man and needs to have a heart.

As far as his "skewed vision" goes, realistically, where else could've he gotten his information. For example, I know very little about Brazil - the information is not easily accessible.

erp said...

Bret, exactly my point. As a scientist, perhaps two scientists, C&A obviously have a brain or two between them, but what could they know about us except what global mis/disinformation is available to them.

Our information is no doubt similarly skewed, but from the other direction possibly exaggerating the improvements not only in Brazil, but south of our borders in general especially the countries in the control of, dare I say it, socialists.

Since you don't mind using up your bandwidth, when I was a youngster, my plan was to drive down the west coast of S.A. take the ferry across Lake Titicaca and then drive down the east coast to Patagonia. A physician friend of mine actually did it although he didn't get all the down to Tierra del Fuego. What an adventure that was.

After we retired, we did a very truncated version of that by driving along the west coast of Mexico and back up along the east coast. It was fabulous. Spent about six weeks and encountered the most gorgeous sights and friendly welcoming people. My Spanish is primitive, but I brushed up and it was serviceable. Along our travels in the backwaters, we actually saw people washing their clothes in muddy rivers and other sights of poverty that were staggering. No need to say, we came back with no pesos in our pockets, but memories of a lot of smiling kids. Very few ATM machines where we were traveling.

Too bad that politics make a trip like that practically impossible today.

Anonymous said...


The supporters of programs such as Social Security proclaim that it is an anti-poverty program, to prevent poverty among senior citizens. That it has been captured as a middle class entitlement should be an object lesson for you on how such things work in the long run.

If you want to understand erp's point of view, read up on the history of Argentina, and how it was changed from a top tier nation to today's basket case through exactly the sort of "help the poor" programs you advocate. Or look at Venezuela as a more recent example (plenty of parallels between Chavez and Obama governing styles and "help the poor" rhetoric).

Also, I didn't write that welfare stalled economic advancement, but the reduction of poverty. That is, poverty was trending downward until the advent of the massive welfare society, at which point those trends flattened out. Here is a typical chart. One needs to be a little careful because poverty metrics have been jiggered to justify continued spending, although that's simply another aspect of the corrupting influence of such programs on governance.

These programs are like cocaine - the first hit is great but the long term effects are devastating. Letting general economic development ameliorate the problems seems slower but it's sustainable and beneficial to the poor. Contrast Chile and Venezuela. My understanding is that Brazil is starting to feel the first effects of the hangover in this regard.

erp said...

aog, what you say about poverty trending downward before Johnson’s War on Poverty of is also true of race relations. After WW2 and Truman's integration of the army, things were slowly changing and the first Civil Rights Act forbidding segregation in public buildings, parks, etc. and mid-60’s TV programs like "I, Spy" showing a black and a white guy fighting crime as equals and movies like "Look Who's Coming to Dinner," etc. also helped show in a non-threatening way how silly discrimination was and how we were all Americans no matter our level of melanin.

However, instead of letting these lessons sink in for awhile and continuing to try to change public opinion, the far left pushed the second civil rights acts forcibly integrating private property which opened the Pandora’s box of government intrusion into our private lives.

Both the War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Acts were the direct result of the backlash after Kennedy’s death and neither would have had any chance of getting through congress except that they were presented as a tribute to the sainted martyr who, of course, cared not a wit about anything but himself.

My question, still unanswered after decades of asking, name one instance (other than Scandinavia which may or may not be the exception that proves the rule) of the success of socialism.

In today’s news, Obama is asking employees to rat out each other. Looks like Dear Leader is moving on from Alinsky to Hitler’s game plan.

FSA (Fascist State of America) anyone?

Clovis e Adri said...

Sorry, I am travelling and could not keep up with the posts. But a few points:

Erp: I used Katrina trying to figure out an image of a population in chaos thay could ring a bell to you. I did not know it could get a political or racial tone. We are lost in translation here.

As for my usual source of information on America, I read almost daily the New York Times. This is probably a somehow liberal newspaper for you, but it is the biggest one in US right?

The problem, erp, on answering your question is that your definition of socialism is not clear at all. In the original one (appropriation by the state, abolition of private property and markets and so on), of course every case we know were long gone failures. But you look to call every modern state with a strong welfare system a socialist one, in which case we have a dozen case of successes all over Europe - do not take my word at it, just take a good ride there in your next trip.

AOG: since they are our neighbors, I do believe I know something about Argentina and Venezuela. And I tell you, they are very, very different countries in too many ways. Take care before throwing them in the same basket. Also, the kind of anti-poverty relief I am talking about was not tried before in those countries (Brazil was a first in the region, some of them are trying to implement analogues now). You are mistaking technical anti-poverty actions for gross politics and rhetorics.

erp said...


BTW - which you?

Not to be patronizing, but you are very young and your sources for the truth are few and far between. The NYT may have the largest circulation, but doesn't deliver the truth.

I have very good idea of European socialism. My son married a French woman and has lived in France for the last 25 years. Not only that but I worked with and am friends with people from all over the globe including the USSR.

I really do know what I'm talking about. The future is in your hands. Keep an open mind about opinions outside the main stream of public discourse.

Clovis e Adri said...

Erp: the one writing right here is Clovis, but our blog and pictures are mostly done by my wife (yes, she is a physicist too).

I understand that Americans take joy in mocking France and the French, but really: they are a nice country. I would like to understand in what sense you think them to be a "socialist failure". (I know they are far from perfect and are no role model of efficiency... but a total failure?)

If you would be so kind to give me links for better places to find out the truth the NYT is hiding, erp, I will sure follow it.

erp said...

Sorry, it's not that easy. You have to do the hard work yourself, but what is it I said that makes you think I am mocking France or anywhere else.

From your perspective, Europe must look good, but that's not how it looks from here, but If you support socialism and believe it's the best system, don't deny it, justify and defend its principles.

erp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
erp said...

Sorry about the duplicate comments. This expletive deleted i-pad has a mind of its own.

Clovis e Adri said...

Erp, it is not just a generational change of words, it is really different to defend socialism in its old (and well defined) meaning and modern capitalist states that happens to favor strong safety nets. Here semantics do matter, for you are being sloppy in its use to say the least.

As for France, I believe that the poor and the midle class French are better of than the American one in general (sure, this is not easy to compare, so emphasis in "general") and we could argue so based in objective numbers so that you should not shrug it off easily as "my perspective". But I can foresee that numbers and objectivity will not do the trick here. You know what you know right? Anything else is pure communist conspiracy or whatever...

Bret said...

Clovis wrote: "I believe that the poor and the midle class French are better of than the American one ... we could argue so based in objective numbers ..."

So one set of "objective numbers" that I find telling is this. Based on three wikipedia pages:




We can calculate absolute government spending per capita (with PPP adjustment).

For France, a proudly socialist country, we have 52.8% of GDP is government spending and per capita GDP (PPP) is $35,548, giving $18,769 spent per person by the French government.

For the United States, supposedly not a socialist country, we have 38.9% of GDP is government spending and per capita GDP (PPP) is $49,922, giving $19,420 spent per person by U.S. governments.

So the U.S. actually spends more per person than France. Since the base definition of socialism is pretty much related to the amount of resources controlled by the government, the U.S. is more socialist per capita than France.

So what gives?

Well, lots of things, but the point is that even supposedly objective measures are misleading.

The other thing to consider is that if you want to compare France to the United States, perhaps you should consider comparing France to French Americans? This has been done for Swedish Americans (because Sweden is one of the favorite examples of those favoring government spening) and it turns out that Swedish Americans are on average, substantially better off than the average American and suddenly Sweden doesn't look so good in comparison.

The point being that to make objective comparisons, one probably has to consider culture and possibly genetics. That's even harder to do, of course.

I've found that looking at these things over the years, there is very little meaningful about supposedly objective aggregate numbers.

So what do you end up with?

Subjective preference. Nothing less, nothing more.

erp said...

Thanks Bret. I was laughing so hard the tears in my eyes prevented me from typing.

I wonder if Clovis has spent as much time in la Belle as I have -- seeing things with my own eyes, not the eyes of lefty academics.

Also my best friend was born in Denmark and has many interesting stories about the socialist paradise there.

... and pretty soon we'l hear about Harry's tar paper shacks the darkies live in ...

It's amazing we're only grumpy

Clovis e Adri said...

Bret, as good as your answer is, I beg to disagree.

You argue two main points: i) there are measures that would indicate a greater spending per person in America, ii) A restriction to a subset of the population would take any significant difference away.

As for (i): it is beforehand an improper measure, maybe the worst you could choose. If we are trying to measure the well being of the population, we should restrict ourselves to clear measures of it. Total expenditure is clearly a bad one, since any country can spend money in so many things that have negligible impact on that.

In terms of budgets, the American Joe decided to have far more military toys than the French Jean, and to pay for that he foots a bigger bill - which by no means imply he will have a better life. To say it even makes him more "socialist" is quite ironic, given those toys importance to defeat real old socialism.

ii) Sure you can find any subset of a population faring better than the whole of another one - so what? I guarantee the 0,1% of upper class Mexicans are having much fun in life, maybe much more than you (actually I have no idea of your income, so I take that back).

So Bret, what you are demonstrating is that we can always choose numbers to fit our prejudices - but that lesson we learn too soon.

Erp: I am happy if you are having some fun, after all, grumpy people need it more than anyone else. But I can give you a better tip: open up your window, breath some fresh air, take joy in the blue sky and rest in peace for 1 minute with the thought that the world is not this dark place with communists ready to jump on everything you collected in life. After that you can go back to your old self, but I hope the 1 minute of rest may make your day - and help you to see the world from other peoples eyes.

Bret said...

CeA wrote: "...what you are demonstrating is that we can always choose numbers to fit our prejudices..."

Yes, that's almost exactly my point. Except that I think a much better word than "prejudices" is "preferences". "Prejudices" has a very negative connotation in English (your English is excellent but American English is not your natural language), while "preferences" is neutral and an outsider can never know if someone prefers things because of prejudice or just because that's the way that person is.

But ultimately, while we can construct utilitarian functions based on supposedly objective metrics to "prove" that one societal structure is better than another, it's all meaningless simply because we can't adequately capture the individual preferences of hundreds of millions of people. There's also the problem of deciding which utilitarian function denotes "goodness" and how is one better than the other?

I personally hugely value economic and non-economic freedom. In my lifetime, in America, that freedom has been greatly diminished and it's absolutely true from sitting inside my head, that I'm far, far worse off than my ancestors because of that loss of freedom. Note that I didn't say I value economic "success" - in fact I'm not particularly materialistic. I value freedom, even if that were to make me worse off in some materialistic way.

A couple of other things. The dictionary definition of socialism is "a theory or system of social organization that advocates the vesting of the ownership and control of the means of production and distribution, of capital, land, etc., in the community as a whole." Note that it doesn't say how the ownership, control, distribution, etc. is set up or what's done with the resources, only that the community (typically via the government) has that ownership or control. Thus, since the United States governments controls and expends more resources than France, it is more socialistic than France by the definition of the word in English. The fact that it deploys more on things you find less than optimal (like the military), doesn't change that.

Also, regarding Sweden, the well-being of poor Swedish Americans compares favorably with poor Swedes (and of course non-poor Swedes are much better off). Here's an excerpt from one of many articles on the subject:

"The 4.4 million Americans with Swedish origins are considerably richer than the average American. If Americans with Swedish ancestry would form their own country their per capita GDP would be $56,900, more than $10,000 above the earnings of the average American.

"The old Sweden, in contrast, has not done as well in economic terms. In 1960 taxation stood at 30 percent of GDP, roughly where the US is today. As taxes rose, economic growth decreased, with Sweden dropping from being the 4th richest country in 1970 to being the 12th richest in 2008. Swedish GDP per capita is now $36,600, far below the $45,500 of the US, and even further behind the $56,900 of Swedes in America.

"A Scandinavian economist once stated to Milton Friedman: "In Scandinavia we have no poverty." Milton Friedman replied, "That's interesting, because in America among Scandinavians, we have no poverty either." Indeed, the poverty rate for Americans with Swedish ancestry is only 6.7%, half the U.S average. Economists Geranda Notten and Chris de Neubourg have calculated the poverty rate in Sweden using the American poverty threshold, finding it to be an identical 6.7%."

Clovis e Adri said...

Bret: Thanks for the English lesson.

I agree that assessments of "well being" by entire populations deal with subjective aspects. So usually only more objective economic factors - as income distribution and access to services - are taken in account (and, for sure, even that deals with some degrees of subjectivity). But it does not mean that all utility functions would be useless to the matter, only that we need to couple them with further analysis and methods. In the end of the day, it is still possible to argue that country X delivers "better conditions" to a subset of population than country Y.

As for the subjective part, it truly puzzles me that you feel more constrained in America 2013 than ancestors decades (centuries?) ago. You have today more mobility, access to information and, if you are part of some minority, far more rights and protection from abuse. Am I wrong?

As far as I can understand from your blog and comments, you regret most taxes you are obliged to pay - but even that is not necessarily greater than what your ancestors had.

As for the comment on socialism, sorry, but I believe you've stretched the definition too far, to the point that every country in the world is a socialist state. The US does not control the means of production of most of its economy nor promotes the vesting of ownership. It simply collects taxes and spend it accordingly to what democratically elected representatives choose. Or are you suggesting we should define a threshold of taxes after which we declare a country to be socialist? If so, what would be the number? (You are well aware of the subjectivy we are leaning too again, right?)

As for the Sweden thing, I insist: it is meaningless the whole comparison. That Milton Friedman took part does not lend more meaning to it. We can easily find many subsets of a population using other markers than ancestrality to reach the same conclusion or even its contrary, just to make clear how the whole exercise is a truly bad statistical procedure. It reminds me of my students in the laboratory who tend to discard the experimental points they do not think were good enough.

erp said...

... Full blown socialism is not complete yet, but they're really working hard on it. Right now they've only attained fascism.

Bret, you know how Obama said if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin? Well if every dogmatic brain washed tunnel-visioned lefty I ever met had a son, he would sound like Clovis who apparently is unaware that except for our military, Europe would be part of the Third Reich.

Oh, I forgot, the Russians won WW2. ;-{

Only the very young can be so smug and sure they know all the answers when in truth, they don't even know any of the questions.

It's actually almost nostalgic. I haven't heard these arguments in decades since the last communist delegates to the U.N. we're guests in my parents home. They simply couldn't believe anything was real and that everything outside of NY was no different than the USSR and the cars, travel, etc. was all pretense.

Clovis e Adri said...

Erp: well, I know you do not mean those comments as compliments, but I will take them as such anyway. I mean, if I can evoke good memories of your past and also manage to be a candidate for Obama's sons club, I must at least be entertaining. I confess you sound to me like that grumpy aunt of some funny and crazy american movie, which means I am far from bored too.

erp said...

You can't be serious. You really don't get us and I bet you don't understand Americans at all. Stay well.

Clovis e Adri said...

Erp: finally, on that we agree completely. My regards.

Bret said...

Clovis wrote: "... it does not mean that all utility functions would be useless to the matter"

I didn't say useless, I said subjective and that any two people would prefer different utility functions as being optimal.

Clovis wrote: "it is still possible to argue that country X delivers "better conditions" to a subset of population than country Y"

Yes, from subjective perspectives, but not from any objective measure of "goodness".

Clovis wrote: "You have today more mobility, access to information and, if you are part of some minority, far more rights and protection from abuse. Am I wrong?"

Yes and no. First a metaphor, then some data.

The domesticated dog gets more calories, better health care, more nurturing, lives a longer life, etc. than a wild wolf. Yet if you put the wolf in captivity like a domestic dog, it tends not to live very long. Prior to the emancipation of slaves, one of the arguments for not freeing them was that the southern slaves had more calories, better health care, more offspring, lived longer lives, etc. than the northern free blacks. No one thinks that was a good argument for keeping them enslaved.

Now some data. It's hard to describe all the niggling little encumbrances imposed by the government during my lifetime (it's a really long list), so I'll just put forth one statistic that gives you an idea of the oppressive increase in regulation. In the United States, the Federal Register "is the official journal of the federal government of the United States that contains most routine publications and public notices of government agencies" and basically reflects the regulations of the United States. In the year I was born, there were 11,116 pages in the FR. In 2012, there were 80,050 or nearly eight times as many regulations. That probably does include more "rights", but unlikely that any of them do me or my family or my community any good.

Clovis wrote: "'ve stretched the definition too far, to the point that every country in the world is a socialist state..."

It's a spectrum, and yes, every country in the world is socialist to some degree. My hope is simply that the United States at the federal level begins to move the other direction. I don't believe that it makes sense to define a threshold where below some level of taxes or regulation or something a country isn't socialist, otherwise it is. I don't see how one would come up with such a threshold or why that threshold would have meaning.

Clovis wrote: "As for the Sweden thing, I insist: it is meaningless the whole comparison..."

Yes. All comparisons of utility functions are meaningless except at the subjective level.

Clovis e Adri said...


Your metaphor is very strong.

I wonder if you could add a few real life situations where you personally feel affected by this growth of regulations represented in the FR.

You my agree that, as your society today is more numerous and complex than decades ago, it is natural that regulations may also grow. If they still have grown much faster than naturally should, is a point I have not how to judge - here I will agree with Erp that not living in the US hinders my capacity to understand your view.

Clovis e Adri said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...


I'll give you one - political speech. Once upon a time I could simply speak out on political issues. Now I risk (literally) fines and possible imprisonment if I don't fill out the correct forms. Here is a recent example and I can provide more if you want.

Clovis e Adri said...


An interesting example indeed.

Not only because it really looks a serious constraint of his political freedom, but also a demonstration that the motto "get the feds out of here and let all be locally decided" has its own pitfalls. After all, it is the federal justice that he is looking for to save the day.

Bret said...

Clovis wrote: "I wonder if you could add a few real life situations where you personally feel affected by this growth of regulations represented in the FR."

Personally, the whole babysitting thing is a lot harder. Child Protective Services will come by in a heartbeat if they feel you've left your kids with someone too young (or whatever) to babysit. And there's so much liability associated with having your own children babysit that many parents won't let them, reducing the availability of babysitters. And it's a felony punishable with jail time if you don't keep track of your kids' earnings and report them to the tax authorities.

Also, though I have yet to be arrested for many regulations that I've no doubt violated, that doesn't mean I don't feel any effect. Basically, we're all guilty of something and now with the NSA and other agencies keeping track, I find it worrisome that they may choose to target me, or I may just inadvertently run afoul of the authorities for some regulation I don't even know about (80,000 pages is a lot to keep up on).

One of the biggest areas of worry to me is what the authorities may do to my kids. Here are some examples:

Texas teen makes violent joke during video game, is jailed for months

Dodgeball Banned: ‘Turning Into a Nanny State’

7-year-old Student suspended for shaping Pop-Tart into gun

Minor in Possession of Tea is Suspended from Cali School

Texas schools punish students who refuse to be tracked with microchips

Cops Interrogate Family For Allowing Kids To Play Outside

State Inspectors Searching Children’s Lunch Boxes

My older daughter has asthma. Regulations around inhalers are damaging her. The first one is a common thing of asthmatics helping each other. Someone who's ever been severely short of breath (my daughter has been blue before - a nice color on a smurf, but rather disconcerting on your child) is not going to withhold an inhaler from someone who's having an attack and doesn't have an inhaler handy.

2 Students Face Expulsion For Sharing An Asthma Inhaler

Another problem is that they've prohibited the inhalers that work. My daughter has had to go to the hospital because these new, supposedly environmentally friendly inhalers don't work.


Anyway, the list goes on and on and on...

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, restrictions like this have flowed down from the federal level (e.g., Mcain-Feingold incumbent protection act, I mean campaign finance "reform"). The idea of political action committees and the laws regulating in Ohio are simply local replicas of federal level laws. I wouldn't expect much actual relief to happen.

On the other hand, he's going for help from the part of the federal government that basically just overturns state legislation. That's probably not such a bad thing and could be quite libertarian.

erp said...


You've misunderstood aog's example regarding freedom of speech.

The Supreme Court's job is (in broad terms) to decide the constitutionality of laws and/or to decide whether a lower court made a mistake in an interpretation of the Constitution or a state legislature enacted a law contrary to the Constitution as the example contends.

There is no analogous relationship between the U.S. Congress and President and state or local executives and legislatures. IOW, if the mayor of a city does something his or her constituents don't like, the president can't be called in to the right the matter. His job is to execute the laws of the land, Congress' job is to enact those laws and the Supreme Court's job is to interpret the Constitution.

The Constitution rules.

No law or action may be unconstitutional. The only way around it is to amend the Constitution, a very long and cumbersome procedure. In our history there have only been 27 amendments including Amendments 1-10 known as the Bill of Rights, so since the very beginning of our country there have been only 15 changes (prohibition was passed and then repealed) in 237 years.

Pretty smart guys those Founding Fathers of ours.

Anonymous said...

Here is another example - needing government permission to have parties on your own property. What Bret was talking about is the creeping bureaucratization of what used to be normal, private actions. The examples you ask for will not be some major impediment, but thousands of little cuts.

You say society is more complex. Speaking as someone (like Bret) who spends his life designing complex systems and being responsible for making them work, I can say that as the problem gets more complex, it gets more important, not less, to have as few general rules as possible. Bogging down in centrally managed detail is a recipe for failure.

Anonymous said...

I can't resist mentioning, in this context, the disaster plans for magician's bunnies as another example. Yes, here in the USA, you are not free to simply have a rabbit to use as a hobby magician. You must fill out a lot of paperwork with the USDA.

Clovis e Adri said...

Bret & AOG:

Thank you for the examples, they are all very intersting. Now I am beginning to realize what you are talking about.

Part of my initial difficulty is that there has been a mix of a too broad range of subjects - I have the impression that the libertarian thinker sees it all connected, but I do not (or not yet).

For example, I do not understand why anti-poverty relief goes against individual freedom, other then the fact that your (obligatory) tax helps to pay the bill (e.g. as you help to pay for garbage collection, which I do not see complaints about).

But I do see how this thousand of little cumbersome and arbitrary regulations can make life not easy. Or that they can have the overall effect of restricting your individual, political and property rights.

Somehow, I also have the impression that the libertarian fight would be easier if more focused on countering the bureaucratization of life, instead of "fighting socialism" or something like that...

I, for one, would be a subscriber.

Bret said...

aog wrote: "...but thousands of little cuts."

Exactly! Or at least thousands of little knives pointed at you wherever you turn.

Clovis e Adri said...


I once again thank you for your explanation of the US system.

The passion with which you can describe things like library financing and division of constitutional power is... truly beautiful. I believe you are indeed an authentic American.

As I described in other thread, my country copied with no shame from yours - well, we could argue that everyone copied those democratic ideals and that much started with your not so beloved French, but this is another topic.

So we have much the same structure of federal power division between the executive, legislative and judiciary branch. One important difference is that our code of justice is based in the French one, while yours in the English one ("law of the land"), but it does not change the big picture.

All to say that, in this case, I do not think I misunderstood AOG. I was just doing a remark over how the federal powers (be it the judiciary or executive) are not always the bad guys.

Bret said...

Clovis wrote: "I also have the impression that the libertarian fight would be easier if more focused on countering the bureaucratization of life, instead of "fighting socialism" or something like that."

From a marketing standpoint, that's probably true.

From a standpoint of actual positive (from my perspective) change, I'm pretty convinced it's the same thing. All politicians and bureaucrats pay lip service to more efficient government and directing more of the resources to important areas, but government only grows more bureaucratic and corrupt. The only way to make government less bureaucratic and corrupt is to make it smaller which will also make is less socialistic, by definition.

Clovis e Adri said...


The assumption that smaller government is necessarily better government may be a bit simplistic, too.

Quite a few analysts (including some Nobel prize economists) agree that the last crisis was in good part caused by excess leverage of the private sector. They argue that most of this excess leverage was possible due to deregulation of the financial sector, that was able then to package garbage as good stock and sell it to everyone.

So, it looks like that an absolutely unregulated market can run amok and cause much damage too. To my best knowledge, Adam and a few of your founding fathers were aware of that too.

So what do you propose? The same way you fear an ever stretching government that can harm you with its heavy hand, other people fear an unleashed market promoting a "no country for old man" way of life, where only the rich and powerful would stand a chance. Libertarians are too aware of the first evil, but will have not much sucess until they adress the second one too.