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.
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