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Mon Oct 07, 2013 at 04:38 AM PDT

Work as Intrinsic Moral Good? Not So Fast

by Zyx

Philipp Jakob's Coalbrookdale by Night, a painting that symbolizes the birth of the Industrial Revolution

Recently, and for obvious reasons, there’s been much discussion of work and the notion of 'desert' when it came to how any particular system should treat people who do not or cannot work; that moral worth in some sense comes from their actions, that work is virtuous by virtue of its enabling of the engine of economics, the market.  This is a very Proceduralist and therefore Kantian viewpoint.   But it’s not a very common one.  Much more common is that work, as work is intrinsically virtuous, that good, successful people work hard.  This is an Intentionalist account of the moral goodness of work.

Seems reasonable, and taken in isolation, sure, one can see the value in considering work as such.  But it fails in the real world, totally.  Follow me below to find out why...

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Here is the text of the letter I wrote to the Commonwealth Medicaid Innovation and Reform Commission in their debate as to whether to accept Medicaid Expansion or not.  You can write your own comments by sending an email to  They don't ask for a location, and they don't accept 'form' letters, so use what's below to write your own.

To the Commissioners,

Thank you very much for the opportunity to comment.

I would like to point out three important things that tend to get lost in the partisan debate about whether or not to expand Medicaid.

Follow me below the fold for the rest.
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Okay, I exaggerate (slightly).  If you follow Libertarian/Conservative economic arguments (and can take the pain), you'll eventually hear a plaintive call to either go back to a gold standard for money or use a 'basket of commodities' that's 'representative of the market'.  Why the simpering need for commodity currency?

Follow me below the fold...

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Free-Marketeers (Em-Ay-Ar-Kay-e-Tee-E-E-Ar-Ess, Em-Oh-You-Es-EEEEE!) simply do not understand how modern economies work.  Their theories of economics are thoroughly rooted in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the Gold Standard was sovereign.  Granted, the nitty-gritty of Macroeconomics is very difficult work, but the basics of a modern Monetary Sovereign macroeconomy are easy enough to grasp if you're willing to listen.

Here's an actual quote I encountered as a 'response' to Kevin Drum's piece over on MoJo (and Kevin gets it wrong TOO!)

We don't need charts & graphs to understand that liberal socialists want to tax, spend, & print money, while common-sense conservatives believe in fiscal prudence and personal responsibility, with as little government meddling as possible.
Follow me below the fold to learn what differentiates households, businesses, states, cities, counties and more from the U.S. Government...
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Mon Sep 23, 2013 at 08:54 AM PDT

Of GUTs and Inclusivity

by Zyx

First off, I'd like to welcome msszczep to the community!

msszczep has written a couple of thoughtful posts about unifying the Left, here and here.  Both very thoughtful posts, you should go read them.

I do however, think that msszczep's idea of emphasizing reduction in markets is substituting one course of action for another. Their preferred course of action is on the same rhetorical 'level' as an emphasis on Voting Rights.  It's not that it's incorrect because some other course of action is better, it's incorrect that it's not broad enough.  It's exclusionary.  Only the people who come to the Left because of voting issues will be enthused.  But let's take a closer look as to why.

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Fri Feb 01, 2013 at 05:30 AM PST

Show Me This Contract I Signed, Dagnabit!

by Zyx

Ahh, the famous Missouri Argument, favored by Internet Libertarians of all varieties.  What can you do about it?  It's so simple - If I'm under contract, I must be able to point to a piece of paper that details the contracts, right?  And if you can't produce such a thing, then any and all action taken against me is unlawful (heh) aggression!

With less ranting, here's the usual formulation:

Q: Can you please show me this contract that I signed obliging me to the agreement that you speak of, please?
And if you'll read on, I'll explain just how it is that you're under contract:
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Getting my liberal friends to add emotive content to their arguments is like getting my three year old to eat anything we call chicken - it's not that she doesn't like chicken, but if we call it that, she won't eat it.  She'll instantly claim that she doesn't like it.  

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There's a new blog in the liberal blogosphere that's made a bit of a splash recently.  It's called Bleeding Heart Libertarians and it's from and by a couple of the much speculated upon but rarely seen Left-Libertarian.  You know, those are the libertarians that actually mean it when they say that they're socially liberal, as opposed to simply too embarrassed to call themselves republican.  That sounds unfair, but what else are we supposed to think when someone says constantly "I agree with you!" and then, just as constantly uses their actions to say "Just kidding!"  No, these people actually vote their consciences, but do so from a differing set of premises than most liberals.  This does not make them any less wrong when it comes to understanding economics and the domain of appropriateness it encompasses, but it is a nice and refreshing change to see people talking about libertarian ideas without having to put up with the overt racism of the Tea Party.  (For those wanting to just skim the article, I've bolded what I think are the important sentences)

A post made by blogger Teson over there came up with the thought that the difference between Left-Libertarians and Liberals is the Liberal's willingness to use expensive signals in order to show support or solidarity.  Some good examples of expensive signalling are

  • Claiming that Obama is a Muslim - it's demonstrably not true, and it makes you look the fool, but looking the fool to out-group members is vastly less important than showing solidarity with in-group members.
  • Ostentatious religious displays - if you can afford frivolities like gilded altars, you must be doing well enough that other people might be interested in joining your in-group.
  • In the example given by Teson, supporting minimum wage legislation - apparently it's demonstrably inefficient as a market tool and therefore is classified as a 'costly' signal.

Of course Teson is rather missing the point and he's getting roundly trounced in the comments.  Here's my response as posted on his blog:

"I suggest an answer: in the political arena, a person often supports a policy, not because of the effects he thinks that policy will have, but because his supporting it has symbolic value for himself or others."


Ok, let me elucidate:

First: the Modern (non-Classical) Liberal understands that a market is but one tool among many that can and should be used in order to improve the "human condition", however you care to define that nebulous phrase.

Contrast this with the 'rights'-based approach that seems to effectively mandate that markets are the ONLY solution to ANY problem.  Why? I dunno, I haven't figured out where the exclusivity comes from.

Markets fail - spectacularly - at many many things.  In fact, all unregulated markets will fail spectacularly to improve wealth for everyone at some point:  small imbalances in information will inevitably grow into large imbalances in wealth. Disparities in what you know, when you know it, how you came to know it and who you know that can assist you will always immediately unlevel a level playing field with the consequence of concentrated wealth as compounding takes effect.

Markets are good at one thing and one thing only: Finding efficient solutions to not-overly-complex logistical problems.  Anything else is asking far too much of such a limited tool.  Think about it, markets are essentially a simple evolutionary algorithm set up to find an (not the) equilibrium point where individual actors are the least dissatisfied with the amount of one particular variable in their possession: wealth.

Unfortunately for the rights-based approach, wealth is only vaguely correlated with other variables related to improving the human condition: How do you set up a market for happiness?  How do you set up a market for freedom?  How do you set up a market for the love of a parent?

The takeaway is this: Markets are an inappropriate tool to use if you want to improve upon anything that doesn't involve moving physical things around, and much of living a good life has nothing to do with physical goods.

That's the intangibles side.  The tangible side of the objection is this:

Look around you.  Go find some statistics on poverty in the US.  The US has relatively unregulated markets compared to other first world nations.  It also has higher rates of poverty.  Now, look at Europe.  Markets in Europe are vastly more regulated than here in the US, yet there is less poverty. Now look at countries that are unable to afford much if any effective regulation at all, even if they wanted to: massive amounts of poverty.

To get me to agree with the premise that unregulated markets fix all, you'd have to find a way to persuade me that when I look in the direction of more regulation and see people who are demonstrably happier, that there's something even better than that in the other direction where all I see is poverty, misery and war. That somewhere past the unregulated paradise of Somalia is a 'true' paradise of human flourishing.

I'm sorry if I don't buy that, but really, I'd have to be as gullible as a conservative christian before I did.  When I look dispassionately at the available information, any approach that calls for de- or un-regulated markets sure seems to me to be, at best, begging for trouble - there is a very good reason why the strength of social programs is a very strong indicator of the overall Gini index of a country.

The Post on BHL

Crossposted to Zyx' Mix for those who prefer a quieter discussion.

Edit: I can't spell Criticism apparently.  


Thu Feb 17, 2011 at 10:15 AM PST

Wisconsin Elected a Winner. Not.

by Zyx

Shorter Gov. Scott Walker of WIsconsin:

Paraphrased -

“Wisconsin doesn’t have anything to bargain with or about: we  have no money for improved pay or retirement, therefore the unions shouldn’t have any bargaining power related to pay or retirement.”

Now, let us add the suppressed premisses -

“Wisconsin doesn’t have anything to bargain with or about right now: unless we obtain new revenues or receive Federal aid we currently have no money for improved pay or retirement, therefore the unions shouldn’t have any bargaining power related to pay or retirement, ever.”

What an ass.

Listen: If you're pro-free market, you're pro-union.  Labor hiring firms have a monopsony or a near monopsony on jobs - especially skilled labor jobs.  Unions allow wage contracts and negotiations to be held on a firm to firm basis, not a firm to individual basis where a firm can afford to hold out much longer than an individual - that's not freedom.  That's not fair use of resources.  That exactly the problem that libertarianism cannot prevent: raising the barriers to entry for class mobility.

If the firm goes under because of high labor costs, then that is the fault of the firm for not correctly accounting for the cost of labor - when you account labor too cheaply, of course it's going to impact your profits.  The union then has a choice: renegotiate or allow the firm to expire properly and bring in a new firm - if there's demand, then there'll be somebody to supply it.  Labor is not a fixed cost, much as hiring firms would like it to be.  Labor cost depends on local conditions in effect at the time of the contract and can and should be renegotiated from time to time.

Crossposted from Zyx' Mix
Update: Great comment by Blue Aardvark added another subsumed premise.


Wed Feb 16, 2011 at 07:02 AM PST

Libertarians Have it Backwards

by Zyx

Taxes are not theft.  Failure to pay taxes is theft.

We the member-owners of the corporation/society The United States of America, have collectively decided that we are going to implement a system that allows for firms to practice their arts competitively while maintaining a minimum standard on things including wages, safety, air and water quality and others. If you wish to operate a firm or benefit from the fact that our society is set up in this manner, to pay less than your fair share of the maintenance fees necessary to operate this environment, you are a thief and we, the member-owners of the US have decided that the appropriate punishment for theft from society is jail time. Simultaneously, if you happen to disagree with any of the standards that we the member-owners of the US have decided upon, you are more than welcome to use your expressly granted right of free speech to persuade people of the correctness of your cause, provided you stick to facts and do not lie. However, until such time as you can get a majority of the member-owners to agree with you1, if you so much as breath the air that we keep clean you are entirely obligated to pay your fair share. There are no free riders.

Among the many many things that Libertarians and their erstwhile allies on the Republican side of the fence fail to understand is that there is simply no difference between a government and a firm.  A government is a firm that is set up to allow for other firms to operate in a fair environment.  The methods of formation are exactly the same: A group of people collectively decide that situation A is not ideal and convince enough people that situation B is better.  A non-governmental firm takes the position that Situation A is a place where the owners and the employees are not producing and that the firm is not producing a useful benefit whereas a governmental firm is one that takes the position that imbalances of information, physical power and others should be mitigated somewhat in the practice of firms competing.  Within the confines of a firm, there is absolutely no difference between a government and a firm.  None at all.  Most firms are set up as dictatorships, though some (like SAIC, credit unions and labor unions) are democracies.  We all have one share in our governmental firm, we are all voting members.  Convince me I'm wrong and I'll vote with you.  Until then, you're a theif if you think that you shouldn't have to pay for the largesse that my fellow member-owners have provided for you.

1Certain things do not traditionally go up for the vote - the most important being allowing the majority to define the rights of a minority.  But Libertarians generally agree with progressives on that issue, so I'll tend not to bring it up much

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