There Ought To Be A Law

You occasionally hear people use the phrase “there ought to be a law” or “the government should …”. But what does that actually mean? What does it imply?

To give people the benefit of the doubt, what they probably think they mean is, “I think the world would be a better place if [something].” But what does it actually imply when we bring government into it?

When we bring government into the equation, a statement like that basically translates into something like the following:

I wish X. I’m not actually willing to put my own time, money, effort, etc. into actually achieving said thing, but I am quite happy to have other people be forced to comply with whatever our rulers decide is required to make my wish come true.

So next time you or someone you know says “the government should” or “there ought to be a law” remember, that implies the use of force.

Patriotism or Propaganda

In the news and on social media recently, there have been lots of people arguing about whether a certain group of people should be standing or kneeling during some specific renditions of the Star Spangled Banner. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see how this in any way directly impacts the lives of anyone I have seen be upset about it.

Let’s look at this from the point of view of our Liberty Framework. Does this activity in any way violate anyone’s rights? Has it killed or harmed anyone? Has it damaged anyone’s property? No. And since it hasn’t negatively affected anyone’s life at all, I don’t know see why anyone would be so upset about it as to call for boycotts and people being fired.

So are these people breaking some code of patriotism? Maybe. If you believe standing and saluting the flag is required for you to be patriotic, by all means, do exactly that. But don’t forget that one of the principles that patriotism is supposed to stand for is that everyone has a right to express themselves in whatever manner they see fit; including not standing or saluting a flag during a song. So is it really worth coercing people to salute a flag and stand during a song? Even if that coercion doesn’t come from government or actual violence?

I still salute the flag, and stand during the national anthem, because I still respect and believe in the principles it once stood for. But I am in no way upset about anyone who doesn’t wish to do so. Because our government, and the people who would like to force everyone to “be patriotic”, no longer represent those principles.

Is any who wishes to boycott a sporting league within their rights to do so? Of course they are. And if that league wants to set some rules regarding this issue of the national anthem and what its players must do during it, and fire any players who failed to comply, they would be fully in their rights to do so as well. But if that is what you would advocate, you are no longer a patriot. You have become part of the propaganda wing of a tyrannical government that is wholly antithetical to the founding of this country.

P.S. The tradition of the players standing on the field during the national anthem didn’t even start until the Department of Defense started paying them to do it [1]. If that isn’t a demonstration about how this whole thing is propaganda and not patriotism, I don’t know what is.

Net Neutrality Isn’t Neutral

Net neutrality has been in the news again recently. Most people don’t seem to understand what it entails. Let’s take a closer, more logical look at what it means.

First of all, what is the internet? Who owns it? The common answer is that the internet is a network of computers, and no one owns it. That answer is mostly true, but if no one owns the internet, what are you paying for when you buy it from your provider?

When you pay for internet service, you’re paying for access to that network of computers. You need the line that they ran to your house to access that network. Also, they own the computer(s) that all those lines they ran connect to. The computers they own are in charge of making sure that when you want to watch a movie, the request your computer sends, makes it to Netflix, and that Netflix’s response, the movie you wanted, makes it back to your computer.

All these computers that your internet provider runs are really fast, but they’re not infinitely fast, and they cost money to run and maintain. At some point, all those movies, and websites, and whatever else goes flying across the internet, starts to bump up against the limits of how many requests these computers can actually process. When that happens, they need to buy more, or faster computers to keep up.

So who pays for these upgrades? Some would argue that the internet provider should eat these costs. But eventually the numbers of requests and the numbers of customers will rise to the point that they will have to raise prices somewhere to stay in business.

Then the question becomes, in what way should prices be raised? The fairest way would probably be to charge the customers who send and/or receive the most requests (i.e. use the most bandwidth) more. That would mean large companies like Netflix, or Google, or Facebook would be charged more, and your average consumer or startup could be charged less. But under the rules of “net neutrality” the internet service providers (ISPs) aren’t allowed to discriminate between types or the amount of traffic. So the only option they have is to raise prices equally for everybody.

So, who does net neutrality really help, and who does it hurt? It helps the big companies avoid paying for the large amount of internet traffic they use. It hurts the small consumers and companies, because the ISPs have to cover their operating costs somehow, and under net neutrality it has to be everyone’s rates equally.

What about the ISPs? Isn’t net neutrality supposed to keep them in line? Why would they care? They weren’t trying to discriminate between traffic before, and now they don’t need to bother figuring out how. Also, they don’t have to care about what their rate structures look like so long as they on net cover their costs, so now they don’t need to figure out what a new rate structure would look like. Finally, any additional cost of conforming to these regulations makes it even harder for competitors to get started. So even if you are mad that they raise your rates to pay for it, what choice do you have? Any competition they would have had encouraging them to keep their prices low has now been prevented.

But won’t ISPs be able to restrict what you can and can’t access on the internet without net neutrality? No. The technology already exists to circumvent any restrictions they would try and impose. People are already using VPNs to circumvent restrictions that governments try to impose on the internet, and it would be no different with ISPs. Besides, why would they want to? If they prevent their customers from using their product the way the want to, aren’t they less likely to buy it? It’s pretty hard to stay in business if you drive your customers away.

So the next time someone says we need net neutrality rules to keep ISPs from sticking it to the little guys, remind them, we didn’t have any net neutrality rules in place until 2015, and the ISPs weren’t doing it before that, and net neutrality wouldn’t allow them to go after the big companies for driving up their operating costs. So in reality, net neutrality is what sticks it to the little guys and prevents the big companies from paying their fair share.

Automation Won’t Lead To Poverty

Robert Reich just can’t stop making bad economic arguments (which is pretty bad for a professional economist). His latest mistake comes in the form of an argument that industrial automation is grounds for taxing the rich into poverty, so that the wealth can be redistributed in the form a basic universal income.

You Can’t Tax Your Way to Prosperity

Putting aside the obviously contrived example of the iEverything, Mr. Reich forgets one of the key basic economic facts about taxation: the government doesn’t put all of those resources it takes out of the economy towards productive use. In so doing, these resources are now no longer available for productive use, and the amount of wealth in society decreases, or at least cannot grow at a rate that would have been possible.

A common argument for taxation, especially in this instance, is that while the total amount of wealth in society may grow, that wealth will only go to small subset of the population, even to a degree that the wealth of other portions of the population will actually decrease. But how could that possibly occur?

In order for the wealthy to continue to build wealth legitimately, they must have a continuing supply of income from customers. In order for these customers to continue purchasing, they must perceive they are gaining something from the exchange. So in their eyes their wealth is actually increasing, not decreasing as others would have you believe.

Also, if the iEverything is such a fantastical machine that it can produce things so cheaply, won’t lots of people have the incentive to buy one and go into business for themselves? After all, the barriers to entry would only be the cost of a single machine. All these new business would tend to drive prices down as they competed for market share. Thus, the simple incentives of the free market would mean that, even if wages fell, the cost of living would tend to fall even farther. This results in higher standards of living (i.e. greater wealth) for everyone, no government intervention required.

Additionally, the argument that we’ll all be at a disadvantage because we won’t be able to afford to buy an iEverything assumes that we all should buy one. But this also misses a key economic principle, the division of labor. We don’t all need to have one to enjoy its benefits. We can simply trade with people who do have one. In the same way that people with different skill sets trade with one another in order to enjoy the benefits of those skills, so too can people with access to different resources trade with one another to enjoy the benefits of those resources.

In the same way that employing automation to make cars resulted in a greater standard of living for everyone because the quality of cars increased and their prices decreased, allowing ever poorer people the ability to purchase ever improving cars, so to will the automation of other production processes increase our standards of living.

Wealth Redistribution Isn’t Compatible With Freedom

Let’s also look at the situation of automation and the proposed universal basic income from the stand point of our Liberty Framework. Who’s rights are violated by companies employing automation instead of labor, and how does this justify the confiscation of profits it might produce?

The typical argument is stated as though by employing automation, companies are depriving workers of jobs. But are those workers entitled to those jobs? If a worker is fired for poor performance, do we consider his rights to have been violated? If a company stops its operations entirely, do we consider the rights of all its employees to have been violated? No.

An employee/employer relationship is a mutually beneficial arrangement in which an employee sells their services to the employer. If at any time either party no longer views the arrangement as beneficial, they are free end it. Just as we wouldn’t say the rights of the company have been violated if an employee decided to stop working there, we wouldn’t say the rights of a worker have been violated if a company decides they no longer wish to employ them.

So whose rights are violated in a system of taxation? The rightful owners of the property that was taxed. And who are the rightful owners of property? The entities which produced or voluntarily traded for said property. And who are the rightful owners of property that is produced? The owners of the resources and tools employed in producing it.

Since taxation is not voluntary, in order to fund a system of universal basic income, we must first violate the rights of the people producing the goods the people in favor of said universal income desire. And since stealing from someone is generally a poor way to convince them to continue trading with you or producing the things you want at all, maybe we shouldn’t violate the rights of the producers in a society.

Having demonstrated that a universal income is both a bad idea from an economic stand point, and that it is a violation of individual rights, I am going to suggest that once again Robert Reich is wrong.

Govt v Govt v Govt

The debate about nuclear waste has been starting to heat up a bit recently. A google search of “Yucca Mountain” turns up dozens of articles from just the last few weeks. Being a nuclear engineer myself, I have a decent understanding of the science involved, and have kept myself abreast of the developments and arguments on both sides of the issue. Being a libertarian, I also have a bit of a unique perspective on the issue.

Some History

First, some history. In the early days of nuclear power, the federal government was concerned about the possibility that nuclear fuel, new or used, could be diverted towards the production of nuclear weapons without their knowledge. As measure of protection against this threat, they passed very strict regulations concerning the tracking of nuclear materials. Down to the milligram.

Also, in the name of public safety, they required that all facilities with the potential to generate radioactive materials, have money set aside, up-front, designated for the decommissioning and restoration of the site to “green field”, with no residual traces of radioactivity above background levels.

Finally, the Department of Energy (DOE) placed a high tax on all commercial nuclear fuel, under the proviso that they would be responsible for its final disposal. But the DOE has thus far not made good on its promise to dispose of the fuel, and has not taken possession of a single bundle. Which brings us to today’s argument.

Current Status

As of now, some decommissioned nuclear plants have shipped fuel off site, and managed to return to green field status. But most used fuel remains at the plant sites were it was used to generate electricity. Much of it is stored in pools, that act as coolant to keep the highly radioactive material from melting itself, and to act as shielding from the radiation. Some of it has cooled off enough and been placed into large concrete canisters for temporary storage. But none of the fuel is in a place that could be considered permanent storage.

Some utilities have begun suing the DOE for return of the funds they collected for the purposes of used fuel disposal, since they have failed to fulfill their end of the bargain. But thus far, no rulings have been made, and no funds have been returned.

The Battle

So why is this article titled Govt v Govt v Govt? Well, decades ago, the DOE chose a site called Yucca Mountain, as there intended location for permanent disposal of the nuclear fuel. The site is located in the desert of Nevada. Geologic studies have been done to determine if the site is stable enough to keep the waste entombed for thousands of years, and construction has been performed to get the site ready and it is nearly complete. But the state of Nevada has blocked the site from opening, claiming they refuse to be the countries nuclear waste dump.

As libertarians, we tend to come down of the side of state’s rights. That the Federal government shouldn’t be allowed to bully states into doing things their citizen’s don’t want. But there’s a twist. The local, county government is in favor of opening the site. Their county commissioner has stated “The county’s official position has been the same for years, it is that we want to hear the science.” and “It gets frustrating, you know, as an elected official, we need all the facts before we make a decision, and for the state to continue to stick their fingers in their ears and say ‘no,’ puzzles me,”

What Should Be Done

So who’s right? What should we think about this situation? Well, whose rights have been violated? Technically, the rights of the owners of the nuclear power plants were violated by the DOE, when it extorted money from them and failed to hold up its end of the bargain. So what should be done with the nuclear waste? The DOE should return the money it stole, and individual site owners should be allowed to decide how it is disposed of.

We could hold individual companies liable for any damages caused from the release of radioactive material, and then a business case can be made for a private nuclear waste repository, probably in Yucca Mountain. A private company could purchase the site, and accept the liability of storing the waste, for a fee from the utility. This would probably amount to a sizable investment, and the owners of such a site would want to purchase insurance to protect themselves financially in the event of accidental release of radioactive materials. The insurance agency would then have a strong incentive to require strict regulations and safety precautions to prevent such a release.

This is another example of how federal government intervention has created a battle, this time between three separate government entities, where the problem could have been solved by private companies in a free market with a just system of compensation for damages.

Additional Reading

Decades-old war over Yucca Mountain nuclear dump resumes under Trump budget plan

Nye County still interested in Yucca Mountain Project

Senator Feinstein Doesn’t Get It

I started to hear some clips from Senator Diane Feinstein during the confirmation hearings for Neil Gorsuch for his appointment to the US Supreme Court over the last few days. My initial thought was that, Senator Feinstein doesn’t really understand the role of he Supreme Court, or the US Constitution. It’s actually even worse. I don’t think she even understands the ramifications of what she and her party claim to believe. Continue reading “Senator Feinstein Doesn’t Get It”

Moving Across the Country

It’s been a few weeks since I wrote anything, but that’s because I was moving across the country to start a new job. It’s been an adventure. I am excited to be done with the harsh, snowy winters (Chicago area) and to start my life in relative paradise (San Diego).

To anyone else who is, or is considering, moving across the country, I’ve got some lessons learned and advice. Continue reading “Moving Across the Country”