Sunday, July 26, 2009


I once dated a lady who told me that politics is for young people. "Older people," she said, "have no time for it." Yet I've found for myself that as I get older, I become more concerned about it, and not just because Healthcare and Health Insurance Policy affects me deeply and personally.

A colleague and I were having dinner the other day, and he complained to me that his significant other wasn't taking her impending job loss seriously, either by searching for another job, or starting her own business. My response, "Well, I used to puzzle over that, and then I realized that I went to school working two jobs rather than taking on debt, while others were happy to go to school full time, and I take vacations that are ambitious and difficult. The number of people in the world willing to work as hard or hustle as much as you and I are is very limited, which is why when I meet them I am willing to invest in them."

When Pengtoh and I were roommates in college, he was on a scholarship while I was working my way through school. He and I started doing system administration in Silicon Valley as a side-job --- we would drive down in the evenings around 7pm, and work till 6am setting up workstations for Crescendo Communications, which would pay us $20/hour. I would then stagger into the class I was the TA for (I was an undergraduate TA) at 8am with bloodshot eyes and graded papers, scaring the heck out of my students.

With that kind of background, you would think that I would grow up to be one of those wild-eyed libertarians, and to be honest, I've had one date accuse me of being a Republican during our first date (needless to say, we didn't have a second). But the truth is, what I've noticed is that it's usually the white, over-privileged types that become Libertarians, not those of us who struggled and hustled like mad when we were younger.

The reason is that most of us who were under-privileged were grateful to our lucky breaks. In my case, the Pell grant paid for my first year's tution, and the work-study program paid for my second year's, whereupon I had built up enough credit and reputation (together with a half year's paid internship) to land both the gigs I discussed above, and then a career in Silicon Valley. Without those breaks, my life would have been even tougher.

The federal government and the state of California invested in my brothers and I in terms of our education (Berkeley's tuition is an incredible bargain). At this point, that investment has paid off hundreds of times, maybe even thousands, in terms of taxes we've paid back to the state and to the federal government. That's one reason why when several folks I knew were fleeing for lower-tax regimes, I didn't feel like I had to join them (the other reason was --- if I'm rich enough to retire, I'm going to do it some place where the weather is actually decent --- you're not rich if you can't afford good weather so you can go cycling/sailing/hiking year round).

What amazes me, though, is that the Libertarian party line seems to be that investing in smart, under-privileged people (in other words, people who are under-valued by the market) is considered robbing the deservedly wealthy to giveaway to the undeserving poor, rather than investing in under-valued properties that has potentially high returns (sure, not all such investments make back the money --- but just like with startups, you only need one such good investment per hundred to pay off all the non-performing ones). No wonder Libertarians have given up on Democracy! With that kind of anti-social attitudes, no wonder so many of them dream of building their own country --- they have to, because if they moved to a tax-haven, their own body guards would be tempted to murder them. I'm going to be very entertained to see if such Libertarian paradises work out (I suspect they won't, unless they're simply monarchies owned by the "libertarian").

What amuses me more is that many Libertarians try to hide their anti-social attitudes (which is really more like, "I've made my millions, screw you!") by posing as defenders of freedom. I grew up in Singapore --- I've seen what it's like in a totalitarian society --- the people who defend freedom are the ones going to jail there, not these posers, who're really only out to cut taxes on themselves. They certainly aren't the ones speaking out on behalf of civil liberties, and are in fact, frequently complain that giving women the vote was a bad idea.

I had a conversation with Brad Delong a few years ago when he visited Google. I asked him if he had any hypothesis on the number of libertarian programmers out there. He had what I think was a very plausible theory: "There is a need for a 23-year old to justify his sudden wealth. It's against his ego and self-image to imagine that he had been lucky, somehow he must deserve it." Hence, I call Libertarianism a religion --- it makes you feel good about yourself, gives you justification to consider outsiders worthless, and makes you think that democracy is a terrible idea and theocracy is a better one. Too bad the recent financial crisis has given the lie to the free market ideology.


KameraKevin said...

>> I once dated a lady who told me that politics is for young people. "Older people," she said, "have no time for it."

I've always thought the reverse would be more natural. Young people are too busy to get education, to sysadm from 7PM to 6AM then back to school. Then they get a job, get married, get a dog, and worry about getting mortgage and insurance and kids and stuff. On the other hand, old people have already established their career and home (and their kids are gone to college, etc) so they have more spare time for politics, community work, etc.

Piaw Na said...

More importantly, old people vote. The youth vote has repeatedly turned out to be a non-issue.

Keif said...

So you generalize from Pell grants to the idea that we should all work for the government?

Private industry can also provide loans, and would if the government didn't muscle them out.

History has demonstrated that companies innovate much faster than the government; the free market is *us*. It is inexplicable that so many want to their hand over their their property and their liberty to bureaucrats.

It isn't out of guilt that we are libertarians, it is out of wisdom of understanding that limited government and maximal free enterprise (voluntary transactions) is best.

Go read a book like Capitalism and Freedom and educate yourself.

Piaw Na said...

No, I generalize from the fact that libertarians deny the validity of Pell grants and society investing in poor smart people (i.e., people like me and my brothers when we were young immigrants) to libertarians being anti-social and therefore unable to build a working society. When you manage to build a working society based on libertarian principles, it'll be worth my time to pay attention.

All the facts fit --- I haven't met a single colored libertarian. And again, companies don't innovate faster or better than the government, as the government funded internet versus AOL/Compuserve/Prodigy demonstrates. (And as other countries with universal healthcare for their citizens demonstrates!)

How quickly we forget the lessons of history!

Keif said...

You never responded to my point that the free enterprise could easily provide something as simple as pell grants.

There are many examples of history that show that more free societies generate faster progress, going back to Rome. And the US became a superpower in 200 years because it is the most free society ever created, not because of its bureaucracy!

There are plenty of "colored" libertarians. Just because you don't know any is not evidence of anything. Maybe you have a bunch of drone friends? Here are some:

And don't pick one example of compuserve as evidence of anything. The Internet is what it is mostly because of free enterprise.

And there is plenty of evidence that national healthcare leads to rationing and bad healthcare.

You parade your vast ignorance as evidence. I'm sorry, but you forget the evidence of history much more than we libertarians.

Anyway, I can't hope to educate you fully here, but I'll bet my sandwich sitting next to me that you haven't read Milton Friedman, or Hayek, or Ayn Rand. Just go read Capitalism and Freedom and review it on your blog. It is a short book. Post a comment here when you are done.

Keif said...

I just want to say that you are an idiot.

You know nothing about libertarians, claim to psychanalyze us (we act out of guilt) rather than understanding our ideas, and that because you don't know any "colored" libertarians somehow means something, etc.

I'm not even sure why I bother to post on this worthless blog. Anyway, go read some of the great libertarians and then become one, and apologize for your arrogance and ignorance.

And then I'll apologize for my rudeness. But hopefully a little of my straight talk will wake you out of your slumber. Just remember that the free market is us.

Piaw Na said...

This is hilarious. Nowhere did I say libertarians behave the way they are because of guilt. They are the way they are because they're selfish people who can't see the long term good of a society as being something worth striving for. This includes things like education, healthcare (and I grew up in foreign countries with universal healthcare --- no sign of rationing in those places --- if you choose to believe WSJ editorial pages you're not living in the reality based universe the rest of us live in).

I've read Friedman and Hayek, sorry, while I think Friedman's a great economist, I think he swallowed quite a bit more of his own hype than he should have. :-)

All in all, I don't believe libertarians have anything to offer American society today (other than acting as dopes for Republicans who pretend to be for small government), which is why the libertarians I've met seem as angry as you are. This is not to say that I don't think that getting rid of the draft, for instance, was a great idea (and one that Friedman deserves all the credit for espousing). But ultimately, I don't believe any of the libertarian societies proposed today (by Patri Friedman, amongst others) will actually work.

If they manage to prove me wrong, of course I'll change my mind.

And no, there are no examples of any private enterprise equivalents of the Pell Grant with as much reach or impact among people who come from a poor background. That libertarians keep denying the legitimacy of a society investing in its disadvantaged members to make them productive members of society does them no favors amongst voters.

Peter said...

“The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” — John Kenneth Galbraith.

I wasn't as lucky as Piaw in finding computer-related work when I was at university (I'm from the generation before PCs), so I worked summers as a logger or sawmill worker. I once refused an order to drive a truck with bad brakes; I knew, and my boss knew, that the union would back me up. The union saved me life and I'm grateful. And also grateful that because of my state-subsidized university education I no longer have to do hard physical labour.

What these libertarians/conservatives forget is that economies are not just about the exchange of goods working to everyone's benefit; they're also about power. Programmers have a fair amount of “pricing power” because their skills are scarce. If their skills were common, they'd quickly abandon libertarianism.

Keif said...

What if we believe that people spend their money more wisely than the government?

What about the idea that taking away property is taking away liberty? And even motivation: how much harder would you work to make yourself a million dollars versus making someone else that same amount of money?

It is these principles that made the US a superpower in 200 years.

You paid for your education in taxes. The money doesn't come from thin air. And, BTW, K-12 education is terrible (compared to other Western countries), precisely because it is government run and there is very little choice and competition.

If you are worried about too much power, you should be afraid of government. Free market transactions are voluntary.

Keif said...

Here is a quote from Liberty and Tyranny:

The Statist has an insatiable appetite for control. His sights are set on his next meal even before he has fully digested his last. He is constantly agitating for government action. And in furtherance of that purpose, the Statist speaks in the tongue of the demagogue, concocting one pretext and grievance after another to manipulate public perceptions and build popular momentum for the divestiture of liberty and property from its rightful possessors. The industrious, earnest, and successful are demonized as perpetrators of various offenses against the public good, which justifies governmental intervention on behalf of the endless parade of "victims". In this way, the perpetrator and the victim are subordinated to the government's authority -- the former by outright theft, the latter by dependent existence. In truth, both are made victims by the real perpetrator, the Statist.

The Statist veils his pursuits in moral indignation, intoning in high dudgeon the injustices and inequities of liberty and life itsef, for which he can only provide justice and bring a righteous resolution. And when the resolution proves elusive, as it undoubtedly does -- whether the Marxist promise of "the workers' paradise" or the Great Society "war on poverty" -- the Statist demands even more authority to wring out the imperfections of mankind's existence. Unconstrained by constitutional prohibitions, what is left to limit the Statist's ambitions but his own moral compass, which has already led him astray? He is never circumspect about his own shortcomings. Failure is not the product of his beliefs but merely want of power and resources. Thus are born endless rationalizations for seizing ever more governmental authority.

Piaw Na said...

Other countries also have government run education systems. They are much better not because there's private competition, but because the funding method is a nation-wide tax instead of local property taxes, which leads to huge inequities between rich and poor areas and bidding wars in school districts with good schools.

Taking away property is not taking away liberty if the reason the property exists at all is because of the society and infrastructure that enabled it. I use this example frequently: the same brilliant programmer in Singapore cannot command the salary he can in Silicon Valley. That some of that difference in salary is taxed away by the society that enables him to make that kind of money is entirely justifiable.

And the government can and does spend wisely --- our expenditures in the National Institutes of Health has generated more health-related research than all the pharma. companies combined. So has our collective investments in the interstate highway systems and the internet to just name two.

As for how hard I worked to make others billionaires? I worked pretty damned hard! I was a pre-IPO Google employee. :-) I don't believe there's any issue at all there.

Keif said...

Studies have shown that there isn't a correlation between K-12 funding and quality of education. Look at DC as an example: spending there is like $13,000 per student and the results are still terrible.

Of course a government can do an okay job, just as the DMV does an okay job, but it will never do as well as the free market where parents get to decide where to send their kids (via vouchers or even better, tax credits / rebates.)

Of course, some government spending is okay, but right now, it is 50%, and much of the money is wasted. We'd be much better off privatizing medicare and social security, etc., etc.

The conclusion is this: nearly every problem in American society is caused by too much government. I'll grant that some government is good if you agree with that.

Piaw Na said...

Money isn't correlated with success in education past a certain point, but you can't tell me that inner city Oakland schools are on the same playing field as Palo Alto High!

I'll agree that government can't always do everything superbly if you'll agree that markets are subject to externalities that aren't reflected in the market prices.

Eduction is the prime example of a positive externality. It's a good thing *for everyone* to have a population that's well educated and able to tackle complex work. For rich people to get to duck out of paying for the education of kids outside their rarified school districts is a perfect example of positive externalities not being reflected in the market.

Similarly, pollution poses a negative externality on everyone else, and that's not reflected in market prices when you drive your giant SUV around. These situations occur far more often than libertarians grant credit for, which is why I continue to think libertarians are out of touch with reality.

And seriously, after the market meltdown of the past couple of years, you still want people to put their social security money in the stock market? I don't think that's a great model at all. Most people are no more fit to be their own financial planner than they are fit to be their own plumbers. Same goes for choosing doctors.

Or would you like all the food regulations to go away as well. After all, you should be responsible for checking to make sure that everything you buy from the supermarket is free of E. Coli. I think that's the kind of thing that libertarians are really stupid about.

Keif said...

Friedman answers all the points you make regarding: education, the environment, food safety, social security, etc. We are all aware of externalities.

I just want to add that scratch the surface of every socialist like you and underneath you will find an elitist who has contempt and disdain for his fellow man. People are perfectly capable of picking their own school, doctor, planning for their retirement, etc. It requires no more technical knowledge than any of the other decisions people have to make in this society. My dad tells me the Internet has made his patients smarter than ever before.

Anyway, now that you grant that our problem today is too much government, we are on the same side. So vote with the GOP until the New Deal and Great Society has been rolled back.

P.S. The stock market crash was caused by government interference. Freddie and Fannie and GSEs. The regulations and their unintended consequences in the supposedly private sector are enormous. You can't blame me for problems in the free market when we don't have one. We are 50% socialist already, remember?

Piaw Na said...

Hahaha. Try a fully free market society and I'll show you a collapsing society. What keeps your bodyguards from killing you and taking yours stuff? A contract that's not worth the paper it's signed on?

I think you'll just have to continue living in your fantasy world while I live in the real one.

Piaw Na said...

And no, I don't think that people are capable of dealing with their own retirement money. I've had to help enough otherwise smart people with their financial problems to know that it's a lost cause. Fortunately, the stock market crash has robbed any momentum social security privatization ever had (not that it had much --- even George W. Bush at his most popular couldn't make it stick)

I'll no more vote Republican than you'll vote Democratic, thank you very much. And until I see a truly libertarian society work, I remain a skeptic that libertarian societies can ever exist and provide any kind of value whatsoever to human civilization.

Keif said...

Here's a little Ayn Rand essay for you:

Peter said...

Impressive, the number of non-sequiturs and baseless assumptions in the first two paragraphs. I can see why Ayn Rand is so popular.

We cannot live without society. It is impossible to be the kind of selfish individual that Ayn Rand advocates, and neither Kaczynski nor Thoreau could be completely self-sufficient.

Anyway, enjoy your libertarian fantasies; but it would be nice if Rand were a more skillful writer.

    Oh dear, I forgot that I shouldn't feed the trolls ...

Keif said...

Libertarians never argue there should be no government. I have written that multiple times, but it clearly hasn't sunk in yet. Our founding fathers would be called libertarians, even though they clearly wanted government.

I grant there are some non-sequiters, they are the axioms she uses for her essay.

Of course you can't just disagree with her on the merits, you have to think you are better than her as well. (Like you have books that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies and a movement of followers.)

Thoreau was a poet, not an economist.

I noticed you didn't respond to any of the meat or thesis of her essay.

Jim Norris said...

"K-12 education is terrible (compared to other Western countries), precisely because it is government run and there is very little choice and competition." And libertardians wonder why more people don't take them seriously?