Tax It Your Way

The recent announcement that Burger King will merge with a Canadian food chain (Tim Hortons) and shift its corporate headquarters from the US to Canada has predictably tripped the frothing at the mouth reflex of tax-hungry statists. Why? Because such a merger and move (known in tax lingo as “inversion”) means that Burger King no longer need pay the 35% US corporate tax rate (one of the highest in the world and despite popular media propaganda that focuses on a sliver of corporations avoiding it, it is in fact paid by 99.5% of US corporations) on income earned outside the US (they will still pay 35% on their US income). They instead will pay the much lower Canadian rate of 15%.

“Unpatriotic” is the word President Obama has used in the past to describe such tax inversions (which are completely legal) and his retinue are now all too eager to join that chorus – uncritically parroting the approved talking points put out by the administration. This sentiment of “economic patriotism” demands that one’s love of country directly correlate with one’s willingness to hand over whatever the state demands.

Obama has also said tax minimization may be legal but it’s “wrong.” Really? This is a rather warped interpretation of right and wrong. Traditionally “wrong” is reserved for those actions that violate one’s natural rights (theft, murder, rape). If Mr. Obama’s use of this term is technically correct then it betrays a scary proposition: individual ownership can not exist because all is owned by the collective, otherwise how else could it be wrong to keep one’s property, unless it was never yours to begin with.

This sentiment is shared by both the left and the right insofar as both are statist at their core. While they may differ in degree, they stand in solidarity on substance: the role of the individual in society is to serve the interests of the state. A vehement disagreement over whether 35% or 25% is a “fair” tax rate is much sound and fury signifying no disagreement. Shall the master allow his slaves one hour or four hours of rest? Clearly those in favor of one hour are godly and moral men while those supporting four are raving lunatics. But truly insane is the man who says slavery itself is immoral. Pay no heed to him, what he proposes would never “work” in the real world. So you see dear citizen, the profits earned by Burger King (or any company or person) are not really theirs. It belongs to us all, to the state, to the Homeland. How dare you attempt, even legally, to reduce by one red cent your contributive fair share to the communal pot?

The usual sort of justifications for unbounded taxation is that because a company receives benefits from the state (courts, policing, military, roads, research, education, etc.) this therefore establishes an obligate contractual relationship necessitating payment (of a unilaterally determined magnitude) for such benefits. If that is indeed true, then mobster-extorted protection money is equally legitimate.

Ignored in this false choice analysis is the possibility that these supposed benefits of the state would exist in the absence of the state. Naturally they would exist except in the minds of those bereft of an entrepreneurial spirit. The only difference is that privately produced “public” goods would be of higher quality and lower cost. If you’re unconvinced of this fact, just insert the word “public” in front of any good and consider which you would prefer in relation to the privately provided alternative (e.g. toilet, school, transit, food, clothing, car, healthcare, etc.) The difference in costs and quality between tax supported goods and market provided goods is the true dead weight tax cost and represents a net loss to society no different than if the government paid a million men to dig holes and fill them in.

It seems the tax-hungry-economic-patriot can’t decide what they want. If you protest the system they claim you’re unpatriotic and hate America and should leave. But when you take their advice and do leave you are then targeted with the vilest of epithets. But that sort of inconsistency should be expected; the ethics of the statist is consistently inconsistent insofar as they owe their allegiance to the mantra “the ends justify the means.”

September 01 / 2014
Author Greg Morin
Comments No Comments

If you have the right to work…

What is hypocrisy? Hypocrisy is a chain smoker that proselytizes on the dangers of smoking. Hypocrisy is an outraged thief discovering he’s been robbed. Hypocrisy is the state taking away our rights and then warning us to be vigilant against those that would deny us our rights. Or perhaps that is irony – I’m never really sure on that one. This past week my family and I stopped into an Arby’s for a quick dinner. Hanging on the wall adjacent to the registers was the most patriotic looking DHS labor rights poster you will ever see (red, white and blue with an overt flag theme to top it off). It was one of those silly “workers rights” posters that the government forces employers to post in effort to ensure that employees everywhere are aware that without the helpful fist of the state they’d all be earning 5¢ an hour on 16 hour shifts. Over the years these posters have grown in size from a mere 8.5×11 sheet to blockbuster movie poster sizes. I don’t know if this particular Arbys posted it where the customer’s could read it because they wanted their clientele to know they are doing their patriotic duty to keep them ‘ferners from stealing our jobs or if they simply ran out of wall space in the back.

In any event, what caught my eye was the prominent byline, “IF YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO WORK, Don’t let anyone take it away.” That most people absorb this without comprehending the underlying violation of their rights is a masterful stroke of state propaganda. It first takes root within our public school system and is then nourished over a lifetime of exposure to popular media state-apologist indoctrination. People now blindly accept that our rights come from government. Most have the Bill of Rights backwards; it did not establish our rights, it simply delineated what was already ours to begin with. This enumeration was done in order to keep at bay those who believe that all that is not permitted is outlawed (a view clearly contradicted by the 10th amendment).

So at the very first word, “IF,” we find evidence of an egregious violation of a basic human right: the right to work. There can be no “if”; all humans, everywhere and always have the right to work. To work is to provide for oneself (or those in your care) with those things that make life possible (food, clothing, shelter). To deny this right is tantamount to murder. Of course by “right” I mean that in the negative, not positive, sense. No one may interfere with my right to work, however no one is obligated to provide me with a job either. If no one will (willingly, free of state interference) employee me then I am free to work for myself.

The sentiment expressed on this poster transmutes this negative right into a positive one through mere fiat, that is, the right to work becomes the privilege to work, a privilege that may only be granted by the state. So naturally once the state has given you something valuable, they want to foster a sense of dependency and gratitude by warning you to remain vigilant against those who might try to do the very thing (deny work) the state is doing through their E-verify program.

This is where the hypocrisy gets really rich. The big concern about all of these “illegal” immigrants is that they are coming here and acting as a burden on our social safety net. But, if they had jobs they would not be a burden. So naturally the response is to make it impossible for them to obtain jobs by filtering all potential employees through the E-verify net thus thrusting them into the open arms of state social support. Brilliant. E-verify does not change behavior; it merely removes the least bad option and replaces it with an even worse option.

Even if you are in the “keep them out” anti-immigration crowd, do you really desire to see America become a neo-fascist utopia where employers are mere puppets of the state? Where providing for oneself depends on the integrity of a US government database that is assumed to never produce false negatives? Where we have become so xenophobic that we willingly turn our borders into prison walls and slowly transform America into a permission based society, where all is forbidden except that which is blessed by the state? Is that price not too high?

August 26 / 2014

Stop mining!

Yes, I am a big dumb idiot. I, like many others, fell prey to the bitcoin frenzy last fall as the price continued to climb, and climb and climb, and just when I thought it couldn’t go any higher, it did. Although I had managed to purchase a small amount of bitcoin (0.16 BTC)  at the Cryptocurrency conference in Atlanta (October 2013) for the now-unbelievable price of $120/BTC (using a bitcoin ATM they had there), I felt I had for the most part missed the boat on this whole bitcoin thing. But better late than never. I looked into mining equipment. Too expensive and too complicated (I’m an old school Mac guy, I’m not into compiling my own code in Ubuntu just to get some command line miner to work – I want point and click). But this cloud mining thing looked interesting. I knew just enough about Austrian economics to dupe myself into believing the business model of cloud mining companies made sense (“they are simply renting out time on their hardware to make an additional return on it” I thought). I read stories on line about how mining is for suckers, that the difficulty changes too quickly to make anything, but I dismissed those in my fervor to get some bitcoins at a really good price. I did some back of the napkin calculations that showed I could indeed make my investment back and then some. I was convinced! As it turns out, lazy, back of the napkin calculations don’t work. You actually need to do the fully detailed calculations… which I did not do until several months into it at which point it hit me like a ton of bricks, “YOU’RE AN IDIOT!” – it is mathematically impossible to make money in cryptocurrency mining. But so many people are doing it you say? That’s because they are wishful thinkers like I was or simply have not done the math yet.

From a strictly basic economics approach it should have been obvious to me that this business model made no sense. Why would you spend money on a piece of hardware and then you yourself not use it but rather rent it out at a rate of say $100/period even though if you used it yourself you could make $150/period? That’s the premise behind cloud mining: make more than you spent, otherwise what is the point. Intuitively it seems to make sense since we invest in all kinds of assets that produce returns (stocks, bonds, depreciable capital equipment, etc). The key difference here though is that if a stock produces a 2% dividend for me the stock itself still has value (assuming no insane market crashes). I can sell that stock at some later date for as much if not more than what I paid, and even if I sell for less, as long as the loss there does not exceed the dividends produced during that period, I still have realized a profit. But, with crypto currency mining the asset your are purchasing is simply time. As soon as it is used it is gone and worthless. When a mining contract is over there is no underlying asset for you to sell. In other words, for crypto mining to work you have to expect an investment return that approaches Ponzi-esque levels: a minimum 100% return during the holding period (of the contract). Even if we assume the crypto price in terms of fiat is increasing, the numbers still do not work. Why? Because you could have simply bought the crypto on the same day you started the mining contract and would have realized the same gain due to fiat inflation.

For example if it is $1/BTC on day 1 and you spend $1000 to mine for a year, you could have just bought 1000 BTC instead. So let’s say you mine for a year and only mine 500 BTC, but the price has gone to $10/BTC. You think you made out well because you spent $1,000 but now have $5,000… but you must recognize that you could have just bought 1000 BTC on day 1 and would now have $10,000. The loss must be accounted in the crypto currency you are mining relative to what you could have bought at the market price on the date the contract started.

I actually also dabbled in some Litecoin mining as well and bought one of those pre-built rigs off of Ebay. It was mostly plug and play… but it was extremely LOUD and HOT. As I considered where I could relocate this rig in my house I decided to run some detailed calculations to determine when I would turn a profit. And that is when I discovered I would never get my money out of what I paid for the rig, let alone all the electricity use as well. So I made the smartest move one can make when mining; I sold the rig. Because I sold it a mere 3 weeks after I had bought it the difficulty level had not changed appreciably and the market rate for the rig was the same. I sold it for exactly what I paid for it and managed to pocket the litecoins produced. So in all I netted about $100. So it is possible to make money mining but you must (a) buy the actual equipment so you have something to sell when done and (b) mine for under a month so difficulty increases do not depreciate your equipment by an amount exceedeing what you made in mining (as denominated in the currency being mined). Of course that is not really practical, but it is possible. The only other way to make money is if you just happen to already own the hardware needed to mine and can build a rig yourself (and live where electricity rates are low). Of course you must factor in the opportunity cost of any other endeavors you could have participated in that could have made more of a return. It wouldn’t make much sense for a neurosurgeon to waste his time building a rig, although for someone in high school or college it might (if they are not employed) in terms of opportunity costs.

So to help people out I have put together a spreadsheet using Google docs where you can estimate mining returns. It is set up for BTC but one could do the same for any crypto currency, the principle is the same. The document shows an example of the currently most expensive Cloudhashing.com mining contract (1 TH for $2999) using the Global Hash rate of 8/19/2014 as the starting point and an average change in difficulty of 20%. With those numbers you can see you lose 75% of what is spent. The only way to make a return is if difficulty changes were 1% or less (or they could cut their price by a factor of 4). The spreadsheet is Read Only on the web but you can download it and then make changes to it offline. Trust me, no matter what mining contract you see, plug it in here and you’ll see it’s a loser. And if it is a winner then you can be sure it is a “pre-order” contract. Don’t do it, trust me. I fell for the pre-order Butterfly Labs mining contract last December. Had they delivered that product on the day I purchased it, I would have made a return. But they knew it would be months before it was delivered so they could price it aggressively such that it appeared to be a money maker. Six months later after no delivery on the contract I luckily qualified for a 100% refund (which I had to wait another 45 days to get). But to their credit they did finally refund all of my money. I made out far better getting my money back than if they had delivered the contract in the February time frame originally promised. Their reputation for taking money and not delivering for months (if ever) suggests to me they are simply using their customers as a source of 0% financing. They collect pre-order money from suckers like me, then hold our money for 7 months, and then finally return it with 0% interest. But like a Ponzi-scheme, this will only work as long as they continue to entice new suckers into doing the same. I will give them the benefit of the doubt and assume it is not a pure Ponzi scheme, but rather that they are using the “loaned” funds to invest in their business and grow it. I’m just glad I got out when I did.

Cloudhashing.com is a bit different from Butteflylabs.com. Cloudhashing actually delivers their contracts when you buy them, it’s just that given their pricing it is not possible to ever make a return. They have a “revenue reinvestment” scheme which sounds like it makes sense; reinvest your mined returns in order to stay ahead of the difficulty changes. But all you’re doing is running to stand still if you participate in the RRP. But in theory and in practice it can’t work as it falls prey to the same problem of mining itself; you’re better off just buying the BTC. Ultimately I think they and all other mining companies operate on the same principal. Instead of investors they have customers who freely give them their money, they use that money (risking none of their own) to buy the equipment, they then charge the customers 10% of their return (and may very well be mining on the side using the equipment paid for by their customers). A parallel would be this: I sell the ability to receive a dividend from some penny stocks. You give me $100, I use that $100 to buy shares of penny stocks. Those stocks pay a $2 dividend per month. I give you $1.80 and I keep $0.20. After 1 year you’ll be lucky to have made $20 (thus an $80 loss), I’ll have $2, and then the “contract” is over. I’m making $2 per account/per year risk free by using your money to buy the stock. After a year the penny stocks are worthless so there is no way to recoup that initial investment. Now all I need to do is scale up to a massive level and make a pretty decent amount of money risk free.

So, this whole essay begs the question, “If it always make more sense to buy than to mine, shouldn’t it be impossible for any crypto currency to get off the ground?” Yes, quite literally that is true. But, fortunately, turning a profit is not the sole motivation behind everyone’s actions. I’m certainly not saying turning a profit is bad, simply that people do things for reasons other than profit. A painter might paint his whole life for pleasure and never realize a profit from that endeavor. Then when he dies his painting shoot up in value and then people are buying and selling them for profit. In a sense that his how crypto mining operates. The miners don’t make anything, but the traders who buy their product do.

Mine because it is fun. Mine because you want to help grow the market. Mine because you want to be a part of history. Mine for any number of reasons, just don’t mine because you want to make a profit. You won’t. The only people that make a profit in the crypto currency game are those that are (a) very lucky and found good deals on hardware or (b) people selling mining equipment or mining contracts. If you just want to make money then just buy what you can afford to lose. It is a purely speculative market so the only profit you’ll see is if the crypto you buy gains value relative to other goods.

So there you have it, the perspective of a former miner and cloud miner on why neither makes any sense if your sole intention is to make a profit. I hope this information gets out there and helps others to avoid buying mining contracts that are a total loss from Day 1. I was a victim of my own lack of due diligence and placement of trust in companies that I expected to deliver what was implied (net gain) by the nature of the product. That’s the free market, if you aren’t careful you can get hurt. Well now I’m here as part of that market to warn others away from participating in these “products”. Eventually there will be enough of us warning everyone else that these companies will simply go away, but sadly not without having made off with a lot of money. Caveat emptor.

August 23 / 2014
Author Greg Morin
Category Uncategorized
Comments No Comments

Ferguson is the New Black

I was shocked and saddened, as most were, to read about the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last week. What I was not, unfortunately, was surprised. Stories of police overreaction to the most innocuous of infractions (or none at all) are seemingly no longer the exception in a society where mere behavior, words, or possessions are sufficient evidence of criminality that is too frequently repelled with lethal force. The trivial nature of Brown’s misdeed (walking in the street) coupled with the rapidity and disproportionate response of the officer involved (6 bullets, including 2 to the head!) was illustrative of the small amount of daylight between life inside and outside the prison system.

I (fortunately) lack any direct experience with the prison system; however, what I have read is a realistic portrayal of that system can be found in the television series “Orange is the New Black” (warning: definitely not family friendly). In this series the main character is incarcerated (as are many others) for being involved in one of the many victimless crimes related to the “war on drugs.” The prison depicted is a federal, minimum-security women’s prison. But even under this lightest of all prison environments, life is clearly a stressful and miserable experience, in no small part due to the capricious and vindicate nature of the guards coupled with the lack of autonomy over ones life.

Naturally this is what one would expect; we all know prison is not supposed to be a vacation. It is supposed to be miserable so that it may act as a deterrent. And even when it is not a deterrent then we the public can still rest satisfied in knowing the “bad” people are being appropriately punished. But as it becomes clear that the vast majority of these prisoners are party to “crimes” with no victim, it makes the US prison system less like Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and more like Stalin’s Gulags. But I digress.

The most frightening aspect of the TV series is not its portrayal of life within prison but rather the realization that we ourselves live in a much larger prison known as the State. This prison has no escape, no furlough and no time off for good behavior. Consider: in prison perceived disrespect toward a guard or failing to immediately and mindlessly follow their directives is met with an immediate and violent response. The same fate is not uncommon for any of us who might fail to immediately comply with the “lawful order of a police officer.” In prison the guards can search the prisoners or their living space at any time for any reason. This is likewise true in many parts of the country under “stop-and-frisk” laws or with the now infamous no-knock-raids. In prison the mail correspondence and voice conversations are closely monitored. Outside prison we have the NSA to take care of that task. In prison the inmates must plead to their intermediaries (the administrative staff) for permission to engage in heretofore-unapproved activities. Outside prison we must plead with our intermediaries (elected officials) for permission (licensing) to engage in an activity so that we can avoid violent reprisals from the state. In prison the belongings of any inmate can be confiscated at any time for any reason. Outside prison our property may be confiscated (civil asset forfeiture) for nothing more than baseless whims of suspicion.The dream of the statist is to push society toward being more, not less, prison like. The statist wants nothing more than to have the power to force all to conform to their vision of the ideal society: behave this way that, not that, eat this, not that, run your business this way, not that, express yourself artistically this way, not that, smoke and drink this, but not that. Where else but in a prison are such visions of the ideal society possible through strict enforcement?

Many might say “hogwash” to all this. They’ll insist they don’t feel like prisoners, they can do whatever they want, whenever they want. That may be true, for some actions, but even prisoners may do things without asking permission or running afoul of a guard; but that does not make them free. They are simply the pinball that has not yet hit the wall. Inside prison the walls are narrow, outside prison the walls are wide – but both have walls. If you remain unconvinced and still need proof that you are but a mere serf living on the master’s (that is, the state’s) land then consider the truth found within an instinctual and visceral emotional response. What do you feel in that moment when you see flashing blue lights in your rearview mirror?

August 18 / 2014

Moneyball

A US District Court judge recently ruled that the NCAA can not prohibit student athletes from receiving remuneration that goes beyond scholarships and related costs. The ruling was based on the argument that the NCAA was violating antitrust laws (trust = a small group of individuals conspiring to limit options of its customers or members). That such antitrust pronouncements emanated from a federal court (itself a monopoly) is no less ludicrous than if the KKK were to condemn the racism of the Aryan Brotherhood. Perhaps the people should file an antitrust lawsuit against the Federal Government. The executive, judicial, and legislative branches regularly conspire in trust-like behavior in order to deprive us of our rights. If we were permitted to choose from whom we will rely on for governance (without imaginary border constraints), then, and only then, could we live freely.

Apropos voluntary governance; the NCAA is a non-geographically constrained, self-governing, voluntary organization whose existence is based on the concept that those with common goals and interests can better achieve those goals through cooperation. In many respects the NCAA operates like any government. It has a legislative body that passes “laws” that its members must adhere to, it has a dispute resolution process (judiciary), and it has a chief executive (president). There is, however, one crucial difference; it relies on voluntary membership and voluntary dues payments. It cannot force schools to join merely because other member colleges happen to be nearby. All schools voluntarily join and in so doing agree to abide by its rules. Also, unlike state governments, it has competition (NAIA, NCCAA, USCAA, etc) in its metaphorical backyard. But unlike state governments, they cannot and do not use violence to inhibit such competition. Somehow this crazy, anarchical voluntary system has worked for over one hundred years! Imagine that, anarchy does work!

Or rather it works until the top gang (the Federal Government) decides it has a say concerning what the serfs do on its “turf”. You see the Crips, err, I mean the Feds decided monopolies/trusts are bad and must be stopped (even though monopolies cannot exist in a free market – only in one that suffers state interference). In order to stop them they pass “laws” that they interpret to arrive at whatever outcome supports their ideological stance du jour. Today’s seems to be “fairness.” It is only “fair” after all to allow student players to be paid. Only a troglodyte would oppose fairness. The substance of this conflict is the usual sort of economic interventionism (e.g. minimum wage, worker’s “rights”, etc) one can expect of the state. The actors may change but the narrative is always the same: Party A and Party B came to a mutually agreeable relationship, however Party C thinks that Party B is too stupid or weak to know what is best for them.

Whether students should be paid or not is irrelevant. This is not a moral issue; there is no right or wrong answer because there is no rights violation. All relationships are voluntary (NCAA, schools, students). The only ones that get to decide what is best are the students and the schools. If a school wants to pay an athlete, then they must weigh the costs and benefits of leaving the NCAA. If enough students demanded pay, then the rules would change. The fact that the rules have not changed (other than this recent external one) suggests that the vast majority values the free education and experience more than they value the other things they could be doing. In other words, if someone offers you $10 for something that you value only at $5, then it is ill advised to demand $50.

Although this issue is often cast under an egalitarian light, this ruling will result in a rather perversely inegalitarian outcome. The 1% (of athletes) will attract the lion’s share of money to themselves leaving that much less for others. On the margins fewer athletic scholarships will be given, thus harming those most in need. To paraphrase H.L. Menken, “[the student athletes] know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

August 11 / 2014
Author Greg Morin
Comments No Comments

Restoring Freedom?

Following the President’s recent signing of the cellphone unlock bill (“Unlocking Consumer Choice and Wireless Competition Act”) the White House issued a press release extolling the benefits of the bill. Amidst the usual self-serving propaganda (“democracy at its best”, “broke through gridlock”, etc.) we find two telling phrases that betray the consequences of accepting dominion of the state over our lives: loss of freedom.

The first is found here, “The story of how we broke through Washington gridlock to restore the freedom of consumers…” and the second here, “…consumer will now be able to enjoy the freedom…”. The unspoken but obvious question here is, How exactly did consumers lose these freedoms in the first place? Oh, that’s right, it was due to the very institution now taking credit for “restoring” those freedoms. The state exhibits the character traits of a thief with self-esteem issues: he robs you but then returns your stolen goods in order to bask in the ego trip of being praised for having done the right thing.

The story of how these freedoms were lost has its genesis in the most basic function of the state: interventionist protectionism for the few at the expense of the many. It started with a bit of intellectual property crony capitalism known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Under the DMCA it is a crime to duplicate digital intellectual “property” (music, movies, books, etc) as this is considered theft. Of course it is not really theft since IP is not intellectual property but rather imaginary property; a business model that necessitates state intervention to succeed is necessarily defective and thus invalid (more of my thoughts on this here and here). Sometimes digital IP is secured with digital locks (digital rights management or DRM) and thus just as it is considered a crime to defeat someone’s padlock in the real world, it is also considered a crime under the DMCA to defeat a digital lock, even if no duplication of the unlocked software ensues. So this is where we get to cellphones; cellphones are locked by the carriers with digital locks, thus breaking those locks is likewise considered a crime under the DMCA. For many years the Librarian of Congress (no idea why it would fall to that department) had issued waivers to the DMCA for phone unlocking, however those waivers ended as of January 1, 2013 due to the increasing availability of unlocked phones directly from carriers. There soon followed a consumer backlash, which manifested itself in a “We the People” petition at whitehouse.gov, which garnered over 100,000 signatures. Congress and the White House soon worked out a bill to permanently restore this exception to the DMCA and the rest is history.

Many are now touting this series of events as a model for how democracy should work: the people spoke, the government listened, case closed. Not so fast. This is yet another lesson in the political slight of hand that hopes to misdirect a gullible public into forgetting some recent history. To be fair we need to review the whole trip, not just the last 5 minutes. The bigger picture of this “democracy in action” includes: the passage of a bad bill that provided for aggression backed support of crony capitalist imaginary property rights, that had obviously foreseeable unintended consequences which could only be avoided with a regular legislative Band-Aids, and that took 16 years to permanently fix, that whole process, that is a model of democracy in action? No wonder the state must exert monopoly control over governmental duties because I can’t imagine anyone voluntarily choosing to pay for the service of these clowns.

With a subtle edit I think this quote by Harry Browne (1996 and 2000 Libertarian Party candidate for President) captures the essence of what has transpired here: “[The State] is good at one thing: It knows how to break your legs, hand you a crutch, and say, “See, if it weren’t for the [state], you wouldn’t be able to walk.”

August 05 / 2014

Poison Pill

A “poison pill” is a clause added to a contract with the express intent of providing a disincentive for anyone affected by that contract to contest it. It is typically employed when one anticipates animosity or disagreement among the parties (such as a Will where a beneficiary might be dissatisfied with their inheritance). In other words, it’s a legal stick (as opposed to carrot) used to keep otherwise discordant individuals in line. Unsurprisingly the most contentious legal artifact in recent memory, Obamacare, contains just such a legal provision. Naturally political prudence demanded that the punitive measure remain carefully camouflaged. Otherwise the Feds ran the risk of their private beliefs becoming public knowledge, namely that Federal paternalism gives them the right to punish impudent states.

A poison pill provision in Obamacare was recently unearthed in the wake of a ruling early last week by a D.C. Circuit Court (Halbig v. Burwell) which stated that contrary to an IRS rule and the Obama administration’s contention, the plain language of the Obamacare statute says that subsidies for health insurance were limited to STATE-run health exchanges (and therefore subsidies are not possible in exchanges created and run by the Federal government). There was of course an immediate howl of objection by the administration and those on the left. They said that this was silly, clearly that is not what Congress meant – even if they used very simple and unambiguous language to the contrary – of course they meant to include federal exchanges as well, silly rabbit, only some backwards troglodyte would think otherwise. Funny thing how selective memory works; anything that might contradict your current position is conveniently forgotten. So it was rather embarrassing indeed when it was found that in 2012 (long before this suit was initiated), a Jonathan Gruber (an MIT economics professor who played a key role in drafting Obamacare) was recorded (twice) unequivocally endorsing the very core of that ruling – that only state exchanges were eligible for subsidies. But it wasn’t that admission that was the most telling, but rather what followed.

 

“What’s important to remember politically about this is if you’re a state and you don’t set up an exchange, that means your citizens don’t get their tax credits—but your citizens still pay the taxes that support this bill. So you’re essentially saying [to] your citizens you’re going to pay all the taxes to help all the other states in the country. I hope that that’s a blatant enough political reality that states will get their act together and realize there are billions of dollars at stake here in setting up these exchanges.” Jonathan Gruber, 1/18/2012

 

He clearly admits that this circumstance (no tax credits) is intended to influence state behavior in order to compel them (get their act together) to carry out the demands placed upon them by this legislation. This language was no mistake, no typo, no oversight; it was clearly intended to act as poison pill to keep the contentious “red” states in line. But then something unexpected happened. Overwhelming civil disobedience. A majority of states (34) chose to swallow that politically poisoned pill anyway. Uh-oh, now what to do we do? Establish federal exchanges and pretend that the poison pill language was a typo. Nothing to see here, move along, move along.

Even if one is inclined to believe it’s all just a big misunderstanding and perhaps only Gruber thought it had this purpose, then that still means the law as plainly written diverges from the intentions of Congress. So how do we fix bad law in this country? Apparently now we allow the executive branch (the President) to unilaterally change it to fit his own subjective interpretation. Extend this deadline, remove this penalty, change the rules, all at his whim.

It certainly is much easier to rule and get things done if you don’t have to deal with a pesky Congress that would never permit such a change without also compelling other, less ideologically palatable, changes. Who needs the slow and incremental rule of law when you can have the fast and instantaneous rule of man? As Mel Brooks said, “It’s good to be the King.”

July 28 / 2014
Author Greg Morin
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Invisible Borders

The recent influx of unaccompanied immigrant children has once again brought discussions of borders and immigration to the top of the brewing cauldron of crisis de jour news reporting. The xenophobic response as usual gets the most play with calls to “send them back,” and “seal the border,” accompanied with just a dash of fear-mongering regarding “disease”. Considering America’s sordid history of erecting legal barriers to immigration, (often hypocritically spearheaded by the descendants of the previously disfavored group) nothing is perhaps more American than rallying to the cry of “keep out them ‘ferners!”. This response is actually not so surprising when you consider there is no greater threat to majority rule (i.e. democracy) than new people who can transform a majority into a minority. America’s immigration policy is not about extending our ideals of equality, fairness or justice to newcomers; it’s about power and who has it. If the system of governance (democracy) is built on a foundation of denying a basic human right (movement) in order for that system to continue serving those in power, then there is something foul within that system.

Everyone has the right to move and go wherever they please insofar as they are not trespassing upon the justly acquired property rights of another. Ah! So that settles it then – America is “ours”, so our property rights in it allow us to establish a border and keep people we don’t like out. Not so fast. Part of the problem is the imprecision of the English language. We can say “this is my school, team, job” etc. without meaning literally we think we own those things. However, when those possessive pronouns are applied to our localities (“this is my city” or “ this is my country”) most fall sway to the fantasy that the geographical coordinates of their residence conveys to them an undiluted ownership interest in an arbitrarily defined area surrounding said residence. Thus they conclude they have a “right” to have a say in what products may be sold, what wages may be paid, what businesses may exist, how buildings and homes can look, what moral code must be followed, and lastly, who may be permitted to enter this ill defined fiefdom. This is the foundation upon which statism and communal governance is founded: you’re near me, so I get to tell you how to live, and your refusal to move I take as tacit agreement with these rules.

The reality is that borders are a fiction. If you don’t believe me, just look at a photo of the Earth from orbit. I have yet to find “America” printed across the Rockies. This is not to diminish the legitimacy of private property boundaries insofar as both they and political boundaries share the “invisible” line property. What makes the former legitimate and the latter not, is that the latter’s existence relies solely on a fiat declaration of its own legitimacy (n.b. if a particular piece of private property was acquired through rent seeking and cronyism (e.g. eminent domain, subsidies, etc), it too is illegitimate). Declaration of political boundaries is akin to insisting that saying “I am the King” makes me King because my rights as King make it true.

The only principled position on borders and immigration is 100% open borders with no restrictions whatsoever. As long as one does not trespass on private property then no rights violation can occur. This is not to say, however, that such travellers have a right to assistance. There is no obligation upon others to provide newly arrived travellers with shelter, food or an education. However, conversely, the right to provide such assistance should not be infringed upon. Sending these children back or walling them up in detention centers runs contrary to the humanitarian imperative of every religious and spiritual ideology; it prevents those who take those teachings seriously, and who are able, to exercise their right to help those in whatever manner they so desire. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, “Mr. Obama, tear down this wall” – by which “wall” = border + welfare state.

July 22 / 2014
Author Greg Morin
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Tootsie Pop Justice

Amazon.com has been accused by the Federal Trade Commission of permitting unauthorized in-app purchases by children. The FTC has filed a lawsuit against Amazon in U.S. District Court on behalf of parents affected by the activity of their children. So, apparently we need the government to protect us from our own children. This case exudes a breathtakingly absurd lack of parental accountability. Equally bad is the sycophantic credulous reporting on this case by the state media Apparatchik (in this case USA Today). Their putatively neutral reporting is laced with subliminally opinionated phrases that imply Amazon duped parent into using their children as pawns in some grand scheme. For example, USA Today says Amazon “willingly allowed” kids to make purchases within apps. Notice the clever shift of responsibility here? This phrase implies it was Amazon’s responsibility, not the parents, to be the final arbiter of their children’s behavior. No, Amazon did not “allow” the purchases. The parents allowed the purchases when they handed their unlocked and credit card enabled device over to their child. This is no different than parents handing their child a wad of cash, pointing them in the direction of the toy store and then telling them to be frugal. Meanwhile the parent wanders off somewhere else and then becomes enraged at the toy store when they find out little Johnny spent all his money there.

But, even though it was not Amazon’s responsibility, they (as well as the other two players in this market, Apple and Google) implemented some basic gatekeeping controls to mitigate (yes mitigate, not 100% eliminate all possibility of) such undesirable purchases. They required the entry of the account’s password even on an already unlocked device (the presumption being the child did not know the password but was merely handed an unlocked device by the parent). But you know what? The problem persisted. Which means parents were telling their children the password so they could make some purchases. At this point even if one were to try and make an argument that the companies had some culpability, however tenuous, that argument is completely shattered at this point. If you give your child your password for desirable purchase A then you must know there is nothing stopping them from making undesirable purchase B other than yourself. This is the classic case of the programmer’s conundrum when dealing with user feedback: I want it to work this way, except when I don’t. Stated differently the parent says: I want my child to make purchases I approve of without pestering me for a password every two minutes, except when I don’t, then I want the device to magically know I don’t approve of the purchase.

But even here Amazon did not stop in trying to please the consumer. They responded to complaints and implemented requested controls to try to solve the problem (all without any threat of state action). They implemented dollar value thresholds that required password entry, then they removed the value threshold entirely but still allowed for a short time window where re-entry of the password was not required. This was to avoid the annoyance of trying to buy five things all at once and having to enter your password five times in a row. But of course the problem persisted. Why? Because parents had already given their child the password! Outcomes did not change because the root cause of the problem remained: the parents.

And so now the parents, not recognizing their own culpability, have enlisted the aid of the state to force Amazon (after having already done so to Apple ) to protect them from their own inability to parent. The real loser in this case however is everyone else who uses similar smart-devices. We will have to endure increasingly annoying draconian licks to get to the center of the digital Tootsie Pop.

July 14 / 2014

Irony Day

There is no holiday more incongruous with its stated celebratory raison d’être than the 4th of July, otherwise known as Independence Day, but perhaps more appropriately Irony Day. It purports to celebrate the complementary combination of political and individual independence (aka freedom and liberty). That it takes place in a country that actively thwarts the former while ignoring, for utilitarian reasons mind you, the latter, is perhaps more sardonic than it is ironic.

Consider for a moment what the representatives of the nascent United States did in July 1776: they made a declaration of secession. That is, they formally declared their disassociation from a larger political entity. Such is the right of all individuals. But from the vantage point of the state they had committed the most unforgivable of sins: treason (the crime of betraying one’s country wherein “betray” is equivalent to “desiring to no longer be ruled by”). It is curious indeed that a universal feature of states is that no crime is considered more egregious than for one to undermine its authority by leaving it. In this regard the United States is no different than every other country; from the Civil War to various state secession movements the US has been quite consistent in operating contrary to its founding principals. This is the mantra of the hypocrite: do as I say, not as I did. The propaganda of inviolable political solidarity permeates our most holy, secular prayer to the state-as-god, the pledge of allegiance. With its appeal to profession of undying allegiance to the very idea of “one nation… indivisible” we are indoctrinated nearly from birth with childish appeals to Manifest Destiny. Consider the absurdity of that idea for a moment. If Maine joined Canada or Florida became an independent nation, do we truly believe the other 49 states somehow could no longer continue on? One is left to wonder how 200 odd countries get along without being part of our union. The fear of secession movements is predicated on one thing: money. It is no different than a mob boss acting out against a business that decides to “secede” from the mob’s extortion racket; there is little daylight between what the State and the Mob are willing to do to retain their power.

It is easier to erect a fence around sheep than to hunt down the wolf.

 

While the 4th of July is one part celebration of history, it is another part celebration of what we believe that historical event granted us: liberty. All people have a natural and instinctual love of liberty. No one relishes the idea of being subjugated and told what to do. So this begs the question: why do we with one hand pay lip service to notions of independence and with the other hand pull the voting lever for politicians who enact laws that restrict our independence? I call it The Cage Effect: only those at the edge are aware the cage exists. Laws affect other people (at the edge), not us (in the middle). We have allowed the political class to build this cage around us; we naively believe them when they promise to keep us safe. It is easier to erect a fence around sheep than to hunt down the wolf. But the web of laws, regulations, edicts and arbitrary enforcement serve not to protect us but to subjugate us into dependence. The entrepreneurs, free thinkers, and non-conformists who try to break free are routinely frustrated. They, and those who witness their trials, try to rouse those in the interior to fight back, but they prefer to remain blissfully ignorant or assure us it is for our own good. The mantra of the statist is that if anyone leaves the cage, all will suffer, therefore no one may ever leave.

As a state becomes more totalitarian, its cage shrinks. Eventually it becomes small enough that all are affected. On July 4, 1776 the cage was quite large. Today it is much smaller. Perhaps one day we shall break free. That day will truly be Independence Day.

July 07 / 2014
Author Greg Morin
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