Sunday, November 20, 2011


I plan to stop writing on this blog. Will keep the blog up for a while, then take it offline perhaps at the turn of the year. Thanks for reading!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Notes on the Occupy movement in America

There is nothing that I agree on with those in the Occupy movement.  At the same time, I support their right to demonstrate and put their viewpoints across.  Some of the force and violence directed by local police against the demonstrators is misguided and should never have occurred.

Now back to the points of disagreement.  A few thoughts:

1. The rich are rich because?

Because we make them so.  LeBron James can dunk like few others, and we freely pay to see him do that.  Steve Jobs had a mind like few others, and we paid him profusely to use it.  Surgeons are rich because few go through the rigor and have the skill to cut open humans to save their lives. Of course, not all rich are exceptionally skilled or gifted like Mr. Jobs or brain surgeons, but are so simply because there is a big demand for what they do.  Take bankers for instance.  If you take out the rogue few who created ingenuous financial instruments, the others do mundane stuff like maintain your bank accounts, sell you loans, and invest your retirement kitty.

America is a country hooked on debt; people take out debts to go to school, to buy cars, to buy household appliances, and to buy houses.  Someone organizes, administers and collects that debt. Naturally, bankers lead good lives in America; is it their fault?  Which brings us to the second point.

2. The bankers were surely to blame. But blame yourselves too.

There is no debate that some unscrupulous bankers conducted acts with criminal intents; acts which had far-reaching impacts on the greater financial system.  Yet, if the American people were not linked so closely to the financial system through their debts, the impacts would have been softer.  In China, for example, where the average citizen owes little money and has larger savings, a few economic blows don't snowball into a fatal punch.  In 2010, the average US household debt was 136% of income; in China the number was 17%. Leveraging amplifies your vulnerability to factors beyond your control.

As a society, America decided at some point that leveraging was okay.  Granted that the big-business-dominated mainstream media promotes spending, but if the voices promoting the Occupy movement today are sane, where were they when America was going crazy and taking on debt in various forms?  As we speak, the American government is trying to promote even more debt through various monetary measures.

Had the American public not been so severely leveraged in 2008, would the housing meltdown had caused such deep-reaching effects? I venture no.  As it is, by pinning all the blame for the economic crisis on the few (or many, does not matter) bankers, Americans are missing an opportunity to learn a lesson.

3. Stop feeling sorry for yourself

This goes beyond those in the Occupy movement.  All of American seems to be in a grip of self-pity and pessimism.  It is fashionable, for everyone from the president of the country down, to say that "America is broken", to say that this country needs a reformation, to say that that American infrastructure is falling down, to conjure up visions of doom unless one thing or the other is done.  I disagree.  The miserable state exists in the American psyche only.  As such, apart from its criminal martial intervention in other countries, the country is a place where most people are free, the rule of law prevails, accountability and order are the norm, public corruption is not widespread, life is considered valuable, commerce has a good chance, and education and innovation flourishes.

Perhaps Americans should see this as the time of renewal.  For all its faults, America's fundamentals remain strong. If anything, America needs faith and patience.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A beat deconstructed

Musical, cultural, and legal fallout of the 6-second Amen Break.  Good stuff.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Killing without anesthesia

Here is an excerpt from In Evil Hour by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The setting: The 'lieutenant', an agent of a regime that has murdered and brutalized the people of town, has a painful tooth that is making his life hell. The town dentist is staunchly against the regime, so the desperate lieutenant raids the dentist's office with his men, and the tooth extraction proceeds under gunpoint:
The dentist located the sick molar, using his index finger to push aside the inflamed cheek and adjusting the movable lamp with the other hand, completely insensible to the patient's anxious breathing. Then he rolled his sleeve up to the elbow and got ready to pull the tooth. The lieutenant grabbed him by the wrist.

"Anesthesia," he said.

Their eyes met for the first time.

"You people kill without anesthesia," the dentist said softly.
Strangely familiar, isn't it? Even as half of Americans quibbles about namby pamby things like universal healthcare and the other half quibbles about namby pamby things like traditional social values, America's relentless warring machine rages on, abroad. Since Barrack Obama took charge of the machine, about 6,800 people have died in Iraq. Anywhere between 200-1000 people died in the US' uncalled-for bombing of Libya.

In the carefully constructed "fog of war", mistakes happen, brutalities happen, and even if they didn't, many kills are murders. For all the panty-wringing over inane issues at home, when abroad, things are easy. For native fucks, hope stops at the terminal end of a amputated limb, knowledge is distributed far and wide as brainmatter split open by a 50 cal litters a street, and everyone who avoids being blown up stays in the pink of health.  Without anesthesia.

Notice how, at 9:50, a van picking up the wounded is engaged. Without anesthesia.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

This made my day

Tuesday, September 27, 2011


Think of a Mobius strip when listening to Kelly Rowland's Motivation. The Mobian tone flips that Ms. Rowland produces stand out; it probably does not take an exceptional effort from a trained singer to perform it, but it is pleasantly startling because of its uncommonness, like seeing somebody do acrobatics in a doctor's waiting room.

Another exceptional thing is the unabashed, unrestrained carnality of the song-content. Makes a grown blogger blush; one has to block it off the mind to get the Mobius-strip experience.

Lil Wayne is featured on the song; while his performance is nothing to write home about, one line attributed to him is particularly amusing:
"...she hold me like a conversation."
See it? Personification is a rather common tool in the literary arts, but such anti-personification is rare. Its the difference between saying "I had a sweaty jog today" and "I jogged like sweat today". But Lil Wayne makes it works here.

* * * *

Talking of personification, whenever the stock market falls sharply, I keep my eyes peeled for a certain headline that is expected to follow. Inevitably, some copy-editor somewhere thinks it fit to use the phrase "the stock market swooned...". Literarily speaking, even delicate ladies don't swoon any more; its awfully cute of stock markets to keep the tradition alive.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

On dogmas

Another insightful proclamation by Danae. In the American political jungle, I would suggest that flexible dogmas are more a characteristic of the right than the left.

While not agreeing with any liberal positions, I must concede that those positions - such as social justice and a propensity for a large central government - are relative constant and internally consistent.

But, not so with the other camp. For instance, some bedrock dogmas of conservatives such as free trade, personal liberty and pro-life are countered by other dogmas held by the same camp. For example, an onerous border policy is at odds with free trade, a propensity for laws against marijuana and gay unions undermine personal liberties, and the pro-life position is corroded by the pro-war one.

Of course, liberals have one gaping hole in their otherwise stellar reputation.  One dogma that liberals held during the Bush years was an aversion to war; personally, I got completely fooled into thinking this was a permanent liberal position.  Of course, as we all know now, that aversion has quickly diffused once their own warmonger came to power.  Far from the Bush wars being wound down, the American militaristic orgy has been expanded in scope since 2009, when a liberal president was elected.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

That Palestinian entity

Palestine seems to have mightily unsettled the United States by approaching the United Nations for statehood.  In a speech at the UN today, the American president insisted that the Palestinian move was misguided, and that "there is no shortcut to peace".  His Secretary of State has said that "the path to an independent Palestinian state lies through direct talks (with Israel), not through the United Nations".  To paraphrase the American position:
Palestine, wait another 60 years while we jerk you around some more.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has derided the Palestinian decision to seek statehood for being "unilateral".  It seems that the word 'unilateral' has come to mean 'without American support',  which would explain why the Prime Minister does not consider Israel's successful bid for statehood in the UN in 1949 as unilateral. Double standards, you see, lie only in the eyes of the beholder.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Capitulation - a tiny bit at a time

The Indian media's obsession with any references to India in American media or government is morbid, but one does not expect the same from senior Indian statesmen.

After a US congressional study was reported to have praised Narendra Modi's governance and predicted a future national leadership role for him, LK Advani picked up the story and posted it on his blog, as if the report was vindictive.

This is sovereignty turned on its head. Next, perhaps Mr. Advani will suggest that elections are unnecessary in India. Why bother when the US Congress does the job of picking leaders for you?

Friday, September 16, 2011

Baby deserves to be thrown out with the bathwater

Rick Perry, candidate for the Republican presidential  nomination, is catching flak for claiming that Social Security is like a "ponzi scheme".  I am not sure what is wrong with the comparison.  Even if you set aside any kind of personal judgment about Social Security, it does fulfill the definition of a ponzi scheme to the extent that it pays off previous "investors" based on the the income from new investors, without any kind of new-money-making activity taking place.  Yes, it is a ponzi scheme, just like the housing market (yet, how common it is for commentators to yearn for the housing market to come back up).  Or like religion.

On that subject, Mr. Perry has been effusive about his religiosity at a number of public appearances.  He deserves to not be nominated for just that reason (sir, what part of separation of church and state do you not understand?).

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ball and chain

For a long-past period of time, I considered Ball and Chain sung by Janis Joplin as one of my better-liked songs. I had assumed she had also written the song, till I recently discovered it was by blues singer Big Mama Thornton, a discovery most satisfyingly accompanied by a video of Big Mama performing it.

A powerful, powerful voice. Art with unmistakable force, like stone-sculpting the form of a feather. Notice how muted, almost minimalist, the accompanying music is.

Here is the Janis Joplin version, with its emphasis on distortion of both the vocal and rhythmic parts.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Three years in, where is the change?

The US is still in Afghanistan and in Iraq, like it was under George Bush. As a matter of fact, American diplomats are presently putting the screws on the Iraqi government to extend the agreement to keep their troops in Iraq after the end of this year. And of course, under the current administration, America opened yet another war of aggression against a country which posed no danger to it (Libya).

And to think that Barack Obama was ostensibly elected on an anti-war sentiment. Regarding those who yelled out against Bush's wars, supported Mr. Obama, and are silent now, there is only one explanation: they were disingenuous in their opposition to war.

As I have quibbled before, a dangerous moment for democracy is when there is no disagreement, and consequently no debate, about a major policy decision. When it comes to American militarism today, Republicans have no inclination to oppose it because war-mongering is their adopted gene characteristic and Democrats have abandoned their briefly+conveniently adopted anti-war position. If America's finances were not so messed up, this would be a golden time for the military industry.

* * *

A friend of mine has always argued that the bell curve of American political positions is tightly clustered around the average position, and that average position is too much to the right for his comfort. An example of this: a number of people I know who call themselves liberals think that while the Iraq war was a bad idea, American should intervene militarily in humanitarian situations (e.g., genocide). That means, of course, that America should keep a standing army at all times, capable of striking anywhere in the world where humanitarian duty beckons.

It is up to anybody's imagination if a powerful standing army like this is open or not to abuse. I find this mindset analogical to that of those who who keep pitbulls "with good intentions"...

Sunday, September 04, 2011

A step backwards

My father being a keen follower of scientific developments, I first heard of Annasaheb Hazare from him in my early teens, around the time the successful story of the village of Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra became more widely known. There, Annasaheb had employed what is now known as a 'comprehensive watershed treatment' approach to tend for natural resources and transform the village agriculturally and economically. A few years later when I chose a career in watershed hydrology, I may not have listed Anna Hazare as a direct motivator, but thinkers/doers like Anil Agarwal and Rajendra Singh who influenced me certainly did count him as an inspirational figure.

Anna Hazare would sometimes be invited to speak/advise at Center for Science Environment, a New Delhi environmental think tank where I worked for a period of time. As a rookie, I was once charged with receiving Anna at the railway station and riding back with him to the office. At that point of time, he had little recognition in broader public life but was already a hero in water/environmental circles, and I remember feeling privileged and in awe. Being a non-native Marathi speaker, I don't look forward to conversations in Marathi with native Maharashtrians for fear of sounding boorish, but Annasaheb was quite comfortable conversing in his Marathi-accented Hindi, and my last name never came up, so it was all good.

In my later years in rural watershed development, Anna Hazare and Ralegan Siddhi were always in the backdrop, as ideological tools to be employed during friendly debates with colleagues about our work. For rural watershed practitioners, Anna holds a place similar to what Frank Lloyd Wright holds for some young architects or John Milton does in the minds of some aspiring economists.

The purpose of the above passage, besides gloating about my remote brush with fame, is to preempt the projection of prejudice against Anna Hazare when I make the following argument. I hold the man in very high personal and professional esteem.

I do not have the same warm feelings for what went down with the Lokpal bill. As unreasonable as the idea of an unelected ombudsman is, let us assume for a moment that it is a good idea. But it is certainly questionable whether the way it was hustled to debate is a healthy precedent for a democracy. Ironically, the blame for it does not lie with Anna Hazare's movement. As a free citizen, he has the complete right to advocate a position in an orderly and non-violent way like he did.

Should the central government have acted on such a long-range and weighty issue, given the fact that it had no electoral mandate on it (i.e., the government was not elected on a manifested position for or against the Lokpal bill)? Perhaps not. It had two options - to negotiate tabling the issue till the a mandate for it is won in the next election, or offer to dissolve the government and see if the Lokpal bill is mandated by voters in the resulting election.

There is no disagreement about whether many Indians want the Lokpal Bill enacted, the question is whether implementing policy changes through a show of strength at Ramlila Maidan is not an abuse-proof way to proceed.

I rarely agree with Nitin Pai on anything, but when he says that this development has "injected a dangerous element into the Indian polity", I must grudgingly nod in approval.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Some kind of post-modern feminism, perhaps?

One of the more intriguing songs on today's hip-hop charts is Super Bass.  The melodic portions of the songs are quite unlike anything you hear in that genre. If you have no patience for the full song, skip over to 0:47, when the first chorus begins.

Equally intriguing is the singer, Nicki Minaj. Much has been written about her brand of feminism; read about it here, here, or here. If at all, I relate to a rather orthodox concept of feminism and Ms. Minaj's outward demeanor and song themes are certainly a bit perplexing. Need to work on my dogmas.....

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Time it is to me. Space it’s unto you.

Bend has an ongoing series of "shameless broadcasts" of his various trips.  With no pretense to poetic greatness, the broadcasts offer warm familiarity to anyone who relates to rural India in any kind of personal way.[Link]

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Abusing a beautiful idea

The idea of individual freedom is a compelling one. Free trade is only the natural result of the freedom of individuals. This duo of liberty/free trade then forms a coherent, elegant and free-standing intellectual argument which has been debated for centuries, yet today it is the bed rock of modern "western" civilization.

But how much intellectual authority does the idea wield today?

In a 1992 article "Intellectual Authority and Institutional Authority", Charles Collier says (albeit in the context of jurisprudence):
Intellectual authority is defined as the authority of arguments that prevail by virtue of good reasoning and do not depend on coercion or convention.
Collier goes on to define another term:
A contrasting notion, institutional authority, refers to the power of social institutions to enforce acceptance of arguments that may or may not possess intellectual authority.
When the American president asks Syrian president Assad to step down, it is a perfectly acceptable act within the realm of the intellectual authority of the idea of individual freedom and democracy. But when bombers roll over Vietnam, Libya or Iraq to tamp down undemocratic regimes, all intellectual authority is lost, that is when the idea is being forced.  As an ardent proponent of individual rights and free trade, it distresses this writer to see the abuse.

Communism's fundamental appeal to the senses was mauled for generations by the repression that Communist states subjected their populations to. The idea of Islam has been corrupted in the minds of modern observers by the random violence inflicted on others by some of its proponents. It follows that the intellectual weight of freedom is also tarnished to some extent at least when its proponents use military might to advance it.

Instead of using the force of persuasion, the persuasion is through force.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Industrial revolutions

The song is The Wolves by Ben Howard. The wheeled artist is Danny Macaskill.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

On Buffett

A few months ago, when the US Congress was in the middle of a debate about tax breaks, Republicans had to face shame because of a widespread misrepresentation of their position. They were asking for continuing an across-the-board tax break, while Democrats were asking to continue the breaks for everyone but rich Americans. Many commentators critical of the Republican position framed it as "They want tax breaks for the rich!" which was not fully accurate.

Republicans and fiscal conservatives now seem to be using the same trick on Warren Buffett. The latter recently wrote a piece in the New York Times wherein he advocated:

(a) Straightening out the tax code that allows the rich to pay taxes on a smaller proportion of their incomes than their wage-earning fellow citizens
(b) Increase the tax rate on the rich

Note that an increase in tax rate is only part of the proposal. Yet, fiscal conservatives have continuously been bashing Buffett for his "damaging" advice. Even when tax reform has been on nearly everyone's agenda for a long time, conservatives included!

The small-government lobby that this writer belongs to has gotten the reputation of being the pro-rich lobby, and it is unfortunately true for at least some of my brethren, as these reactions to Buffett show.

It then has to be put on record that I do not support either selective tax breaks or selective tax increases. Consequently, I do agree with with Buffett about getting rid of tax subsidies for the rich and super-rich, but not with the argument that the rich should pay at a higher rate.  A government of the people has no reasonable justification to subsidize or penalize the activities of some people - whether it be the rich through tax breaks/increases or the middle class through the mortgage tax deduction.

If you are richer than me, you should certainly pay more money in taxes, but you should not be paying a bigger (or smaller) proportion of your income than I do. A flat tax is the only fair tax.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Like jazz

Ralph Ellison, famous for Invisible Man, has often been criticized for being too personal and not political enough in his depiction of black American life, and for freely using European writing styles thus not contributing to the advancement of a distinctive African-American style.  That surely accounts for Ellison not being in the same class as "politically black" writers such as Toni Morrison, but does that really deserve of criticism?

This unnamed anti-critic offers a jazz-supported defense of Ellison:
Ellison drew heavy fire for being, in their view, politically disengaged and removed from the collective plight of black America. A lifelong lover of jazz, Ellison sought to create its literary equivalent. Invisible Man follows the stylistic foundations of jazz by using discordant rhythms, drawing on other literary works, and synthesizing prior traditions into a new art form.
Makes one want to read Ellison again, this time with jazz playing in the background. Jazz is good, jazz metaphors are better.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Paul is wrong, and under-represented

This blogger supports Ron Paul for the Republican nomination, but that doesn't mean he is gorgeous at all times. His strong anti-abortion message in his Ames speech was disturbing to say the least. See below, till the 4:40 mark.

His message was that life comes from "our creator", is precious, and neither humans nor governments can "play god" and make the decision to terminate life (i.e., via abortion). This line of argument always leaves me befuddled. If parents "play god" when they decide to terminate a pregnancy, do they also play god then they conceive? Or is conception a divine act? Contraception is what separates man from animals, yet why such a hands-off attitude towards conception?

Mr. Paul, any discussion about the morality of abortion is incomplete without sorting out the morality of conception. Why draw an arbitrary line between god's work and Man's work right at the moment after fertilization?

* * *

As a Paul -supporter, it is a bit stunning to see how little coverage he gets in the mainstream media.  If one's only source of news is major newspapers and network channels, you can miss him completely.  Paul is actually doing well on at least two metrics - he has raised more funds than any other candidate other then Mitt Romney and he came in second after Michelle Bachmann in the Ames straw poll.  Yet, switch on the TV and the focus is on Bachmann, Romney, and Pawlenty (and even Gingrich!).  The institutionalized media is used to the clout its powers of making self-fulfilling prophesies bring, but thanks to diverse sources on the internet, that clout is slowly eroding.

Friday, August 05, 2011

FYI, Mr. Wilson

Check out the last panel.

Dennis the Menace, the cartoon strip, has been around since 1950 so I estimate Mr. Wilson to be approximately 120 years old now. There is statistical evidence that older citizens are more aware and engaged in public policy and political affairs, so I would have expected Mr. Wilson to not make the error of writing to his Congressman.

In the United States, minimum legal ages for driving are mandated by individual states, not the federal government. If at all, Mr. Wilson's letter should be directed to his representative in the state legislature, not Congress.

Too much power invested in distant, central government is bad. But when citizens attribute power that it does not really have to central governments, it is scary.

In the wake of the long-running debate over the debt ceiling, Americans have been wringing their hands about their government which cannot agree about something so important, and worry how the country will run properly.  My question is, which government? The error in their fears, and the silver lining to the situation, is that America is thankfully not (yet) run by Congress and the President.  The county has a fascinatingly decentralized and autonomous system of governance.  Community governments are not answerable to state governments, and state governments are not answerable to the federal government (as long as they are breaking no laws).

Granted, the federal government does have the authority to make some choices that have a profound impact on the nation (defense, interest rates, federal taxes), but America functions on a day-to-day basis on the backs of  local governments.  FYI, Mr. Wilson.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Day in the life of a dentist

I find it odd when economic commentators talk of the "informal economy" as a remote, sometimes undesirable, entity.  All you can expect from a healthy business is here: a consumer base, customer service, brand loyalty, operating principles, and yes, money.  Respect, respect.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

TINA to US debt?

I picked up the term TINA while living in Anand from friends who were graduates of the Indian Institute of Rural Management where, apparently, its usage was rampant. TINA stands for There Is No Alternative. A typical instance usage would go thus:
Question: Why are we eating at this crappy restaurant again??
Answer: It is 2 AM. TINA.
The ongoing knicker-bunching about the lack of a debt/budget deal between the US Congress and its executive oft brings up the notion of TINA to mind. One asks oneself, so what will the sovereign bond-buyers buy if they balk from buying US bonds (remember, selling bonds is how nations borrow money)?

Those who raise the specter of horrible consequences of a US default choose to ignore the fact that the transaction of a loan is a win-win situation, in most situations. The creditor finds a place to gainfully park his wealth, and that parked wealth floats the debtor's boat. If you were a sovereign bond buyer, what other bond-issuer would you go to, who has the ability to issue you such dependable paper, and in such volume?

As a matter of fact, the long painful discussions within the American leadership only reinforce the fact that the nation is serious about fulfilling its obligations. They are not fighting about whether, they are fighting about how (to pay off the debts). Contrast this with Greece, where thousands descended on the streets and rioted because they didn't want their country to make peace with its creditors. Remember, nobody in America - not the politicians, not the people - is talking about stiffing the country's investors.

This is not to say that a default would not raise interest rates on US bonds. However, that would be a long-overdue manifestation of America's suffering economic strength and its profligacy, not its inability to reach a political consensus. Indeed, if there was an example of good democracy, the current debt fight is it - two groups strongly entrenched in their principles fighting each other in a perfectly civil way. While most in the country may wish for a quick resolution, they will as quickly also add that "their" side's plan is better than the other.  Long live democracy, long live the debt talks.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Bridge of love

Graffiti-ed on the structural member of a road bridge...

(Click to expand)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Ginger dance of individual freedom

This blog has always advocated gay rights, bad-mouthed the concept of state-sanctioned marriages, and defended the freedom to enter a consensual polygamous relationship.  Wendy McElroy (link) talks about the "lurking urges" that prevail with such positions.

Saturday, July 16, 2011


Ron Paul has started his video campaign for 2012 with a disaster.  It is titled "Conviction, Not Compromise' and is so trite in its message that put any current runner for the Republican nomination in the ad, and it will still work.

"Millions unemployed"? "No compromise"? "Standing up to Washington"?  These are not the reasons I want to see Ron Paul as the president of the United States.  This is not the Ron Paul.

This is Ron Paul. Having the balls to talk about the blowback arising out of interventionism. In the middle of a Republican debate.

This is Ron Paul. With the sense to say that the state should have no role in deciding marriages. Gay or otherwise.

This is Ron Paul. Talking about how federal intervention in the markets is feeding the housing bubble. In 2001.

Perhaps he is trying to attract the average Republican voter. The problem is that the average Republican ideal is in the woods, having completely replaced the idea of limited government with that of favorable government.

I don't expect Mr. Paul to ever win the Republican nomination, let alone the presidency. But with messages like these I wonder if I will even support him throughout.

The state government shuts

For the past few days, the Minnesota state government has been shut down because of a dispute between the executive and legislative branches about how to pass the state budget. There is much hand-wringing, and a lot of national attention on the matter.

But when you ask: so what happens when a state government shuts down, the answer is likely to surprise. For instance, a few days into the Minnesota shut-down, NPR ran a story in which they reported (with a straight face) the following "impacts" of a shut-down :

1. State parks (i.e., recreational use) have been shut down
2. New road construction has stopped
3. Some alcohol vendors are having to stop selling since their licenses are not renewed
4. Some state workers have been laid off

Barring the last, where is a real impact on those individuals, state government shut-downs have little impacts (in the short term) on the general population.

The reason for this is the highly fragmented and autonomous way in which America is run. Most public services are provided either by local governments or private companies; both of which depend on user fees, not top-down tax revenues.

For instance, I explored what services a Minneapolis (a city in Minnesota) resident uses on a day-to-day basis and if any of these are at the mercy of the state of government:

1. Police protection: Forces are raised and managed by the city
2. Schools: Run by locally administered school districts
3. Roads: Most managed by city and county
4. Electricity: Excel Power, a private utility company
5. Gas: Centerpoint Energy, a private utility company

Some of these functions do get funding from state and federal governments, but local agencies run a lot of their operations on fees and/or assessments.  If there is an example of the benefits of decentralized governance, it is this.

Ditto with the federal government.  When a shut-down was feared earlier this year, the top-quoted example of an "impact" of a shut-down that many fear-mongering commentators came up with was that tourists would have to be turned away from federally-administered national parks.  Really?

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The curse of leverage

As argued before, this blogger thinks tax deductions on mortgage interests that American homeowners enjoy are a mistake.  At the level of public policy, this subsidy is as reprehensible as any other subsidy; at the level of individuals, it exacerbates the moral hazard of buying stuff with someone else's money.

The good news is, the said blogger is finding new friends in high places.  Recently, a Federal Reserve President, N. Kocherlakota, went on record that tax incentives to mortgage interests should be trimmed. 

Read about it here.

Kocherlakota notes that:
"...leverage made the financial sector more sensitive to downward movements in the price of land."
Indeed so. What is true for the financial sector, so is it for housing. Compare the highly-leveraged American housing market with the barely-leveraged Chinese one. In 2009, there were fears that the Chinese market would crash too in the wake of the American one, but nothing of that sort happened. Leverage made all the different. Or the lack of it.

Why to win friends and influence people

Iran and the United States on the same side? Nitin Pai thinks so.
"...Washington has allowed a dogmatic petulance over Iran take over strategic sense."

But unfortunately Pai buttresses his rebuttal of one dogma with yet another. Namely, why China and India's geopolitical interests cannot converge is something I have never understood...

Monday, July 11, 2011

What two-party stranglehold?

Commentator Bruce Maiman asks in the Sacramento Bee: "Is it time to break the stranglehold of Republicans and Democrats in American politics?" Maiman argues against the two-party system of America, claiming that it is radicalizing the democracy.

I myself often bemoaning the lack of a viable "third" option (or fourth, or fifth,...) in the American electorate so the argument should strike a chord with me.

But it doesn't. Because, for all their visibility, the two main political parties in the United States do not dominate the political process as much as one would think.

For starters, unlike notable parliamentary democracies where the "majority party" gets invited to form a government, America's system of separation of powers ensures that the chief executive officer will be elected even if no political parties exist. Indeed, it is theoretically possible for an independent/third-party candidate to be elected as president even as the legislature stays under the domination of the two major parties.

Secondly, the system of primaries for nominating party candidates in state and national elections opens another major pathway for non-conformist candidates to win nomination. This also speaks a lot for local independence, a major break from some other electoral systems where party headquarters patronizingly nominate candidates. A recent manifestation of the success of this system was when numerous Tea Party candidates dislodged well-entrenched Republican candidates to win nominations and elections. Indeed, my candidate for the 2012 Republican nomination - Ron Paul - is far from your stereotypical Republican, but he is still a legitimate runner for the party nomination.

Lastly, observe how legislators in US states and federal governments vote. While contentious issues are sometimes sharply split along party lines, voting on many other issues is not. Because candidates do get elected without the patronage of the centralized party bureaucracy, the system of "party whip" is much weaker here.

So, while Mr. Maiman's outrage at the "stranglehold" of the two main parties is rightly placed, there is nothing that needs to be done. A few minor tweaks like discontinuing public sponsorship of party primaries and banishing the use of partisan titles in state and national legislatures (e.g. "Democratic leader" or "minority leader") would be nice. But besides that, the apparent domination of political dialogue by the two parties is as fickle as Justin Bieber being wildly popular. Nobody can do anything about it, but there's no harm coming out of it either.

Monday, July 04, 2011

I'll scratch your back...

Candid words from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in justification of the Libyan war:
"These allies, particularly the British and the French, and the Italians for that matter, have really been a big help to us in Afghanistan. They consider Libya a vital interest for them. Our alliance with them is a vital interest for us. So as they have helped us in Afghanistan, it seems to me that we are in a position of helping them with respect to Libya."
Hmm. Anyone familiar with the term "imperialist war"?

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Stuff that makes the internet precious

Miscellaneous political note: I had a lot of fun replacing "honey badger" with "John McCain" in the above video. Try it.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Worth reading

Amit Verma wants this from India's Second Freedom Struggle (link):

One: Limit the power of government
Two: Unleash Private Enterprise. Remove the License and Permit Raj
Three: Reform the Indian Penal Code
Four: Ensure Free Speech in India
Five: Respect Taxpayer’s Money
Six: Treat the Right to Property as Sacred

I only included the first six of his list of eight. 7 and 8 are moot if 1 and 2 happens.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

When messengers become too important

For a few months now, western news reports about Libya and Syria have had a common theme - they all complain about how western reporters are not allowed freedom of movement and liberty to report. For instance, NPR's Cairo-based Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson starts many of her otherwise impeccable reports with how she has been cooped up in her hotel, not allowed to cross a certain border, or somesuch hardship.

I cry foul. Not because of lack of sympathy for news staffers who risk life and limb to do their jobs, but because:

1. In the backdrop of the profound historical events happening in the Middle East right now, focusing on the reporters' difficulties is absurdly out of place. Even in normal circumstances, it is unprofessional to do so.

2. In this age of cell phones and Twitter, it is hard to understand why basic reporting should be hostage to the physical presence of foreign reporters. With some wads of cash, a few satellite phones and a network of informants, all that remains for foreign reporters to do is sit at their desks and put their spin on field reports. Western governments have no scruples about fomenting violence and insurrections in foreign countries with supplies of cash and weapons to locals, why are western news publishers shy of using subterfuge for the legitimate purpose of getting information from locals?

In a free market, one should be able to walk away from an unprofessional service provider to another who is not, but with global news there are none I know who think their newspersons are less important than the news. Even Al-Jazeera, which is rooted in the Middle East, seems as stodgy and bureaucratic as the others.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Coming to terms

It was at the height of the Iraq war that I started earnestly tracking American politics. Because of my anti-war position, I naturally often found myself aligned with liberals, whose anti-Iraq-war stance I mistook to be a genuine anti-war sentiment. Hobnobbing with them to the point of calling myself liberal, I shared jokes with them at George Bush's expense and roundly criticized the war policy many a time.

But come 2011, come the Libyan war, and I found myself betrayed and left alone. Where were my liberal friends now? When, in response to a Congress reprimand, Mr. Obama claimed there were no hostilities in Libya, where was the uproar from the liberals? There was none.

It has since dawned on me that the anti-war stance of the liberals in case of Iraq was simply partisan positioning. It was not the Iraq war they were against, they were only against Bush's Iraq war. Liberals do stand for many things, but pacifism is not one of them. As I write this, many liberals are bending backwards in Congress and outside it to defend the Libyan war on behalf of "their" president.

The president is hardly to blame; as the leader of a warmongering nation, he is only fulfilling his mandate. It is civil society that has failed itself. As I pointed out earlier, in a democracy, all sides agreeing on something is dangerous.

* * *

The president has an unlikely bedfellow in his defence of the Libyan no-hostilities war: Senator John McCain, who has been berating his own party colleagues and warning Americans of the risk of isolationism. This is only another episode in Mr. McCain's never-ending war.

When I speak,
the military-industrial complex speaks.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Some high standards in journalism...

...pertain to the level of readers' tolerance/apathy.

This blogger was just reminded why he never goes to the Times of India website, instead filtering their content through Google News. Here are three headlines, which were found in close proximity to each other:

1. "Jaipal Reddy's niece's husband arrested" (Say what??)

2. "Aung Suu Kyi ready to shun non-violence" (No other journalist in the world seems to have made that interpretation from her speech)

3. "I am ugly, so no chicks: Rahul" (With reference to Rahul Bose; I can't decide if the copy editor is innocent, cynical, or trying to be funny)

I am ordinarily too indolent a person to be WTF'ed easily, but here I am.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

More on equality

On Cafe Hayek (link), Don Boudreaux compares muscles with wealth to make a point about economic inequality.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A slippery slope to equality

There is an Indian fable about two quarreling cats and a monkey. The cats are fighting over a treat when a monkey offers to help out by splitting the treat into two equal parts for them. He brings out a weighing scale, cuts the treat into two, and places each part in a pan. Finding that one part is slightly heavier than the other, the monkey bites off a little chunk to make them equal. Sure enough, the other part is now heavier, so he takes a small bite off the other. And so on, till he finishes the entire treat himself before the cats know what is going on.

Large, centralized governments are like the shrewd monkey. Their quests for equality only make them fatter.

Instances of the slippery slope to equality are numerous. Corn ethanol producers want subsidies because the oil industry has it. Now soy growers want it too because the corn/growers have an unfair advantage. That immediately raises the rent on land that wind farms operate on, so they want a break too. The solar lobby clamors for a subsidy since they are now at a disadvantage. Coming a full circle, the oil industry now wants another break since the subsidies are now too much in favor of other energy sources. And so on goes the downwards spiral.

One prospective sled sitting on the slippery slope to equality is a bill in the U.S. Congress (H.R.1834) that is proposing to give American multinational companies a repatriation tax holiday so they can bring in billions earned worldwide back home while paying little taxes. Proponents such as Google, Apple and a host of other companies claim that up to $1 trillion in earnings are sitting outside the country, waiting for a tax holiday. Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers tugs at our heart-strings by telling us that all this money is "trapped overseas" (awww, poor money) by punitive federal tax laws.

Of course, the backbone of the argument for this tax holiday is that the money coming in will help spur new jobs and help the economy. Remember what this smells like? The bank bailouts, which were supposed to help the economy and people and not the banks themselves. Once the bailouts were done with, people said "if you bailed out the banks, why not us?". Once the corporations have their tax holiday, guess who will be asking for it next?

And so it goes on...

Friday, June 17, 2011

The way of the proud

When it comes to the debate on abortion I am generally in favor, from the perspective of the bearer's right and the belief that humankind has irresponsibly over-reproduced. Yet, convince me that a fetus is human, and I may be willing to reconsider my position from the point of view of common law.

However, when it comes to euthanasia, it is hard to believe there is a viable argument against it. We have no say over our own births, we should have a right to decide when it has been enough.

BBC2 recently aired a documentary on assisted dying. Watch part of it here, and judge as you will. Be warned, it shows a person swallowing a prepared poison and passing away.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Dark lining in the cloud

Ten U.S. Congressmen have sued the president for violating the Constitution by going to war with Libya without Congress' authorization.

Momentarily encouraging,except that even if the president had gone to Congress, there is not a slim chance that he would have been rebuffed.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Censorship by consensus

There is a cliche in American political culture about autocratic societies where individual speech and mass media are controlled. Conjure up the popular image of China, Iran and the former Soviet Union. The narrative that goes with the cliche is that opinions that don't agree with that of the ruling power are suppressed, which leads to terrible things.

There is surely some truth in that; yet, terrible things also result where there is textbook freedom of speech. Case in point is the USA Patriot Act, for which the Warmonger-in-Chief signed an extension on May 26.

The liberal president wanted it because he has no reason to not want it. The majority conservatives in Congress did not oppose it because it was originally drafted under their watch. The minority liberals in Congress did not oppose it because they have nothing to gain from opposing it. The media did not mention it because there is no controversy surrounding it.

Indeed, there has been a stunning mainstream media silence about the extension of the Patriot Act. Maverick liberals and conservatives in Congress have raised voices against the extension but those voices have barely made it through the media filter.

When the ruling power, the opposition, and the media all agree on something, it creates a proxy for censorship. Consensus is supposed to be good for democracy but then again maybe not. Think of horrors like racism and slavery which lasted too long not because opposition to them was stifled, but because there was overwhelming political consensus that it is okay for these institutions to exist.

The lack of a vocal opposition and debate by elected representatives or civil society on any public policy issue is dangerous.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Even one is one too many

From the environmental perspective, God is the enemy of earth.

While the general narrative in most religions runs to the effect that "God created this world", that may not be the case. Think about this: over the past thousands of years, and especially in the last couple hundred years, human beings have prospered at the cost of other species of flora and fauna. Human development has been intimately proportional to the detriment of other earth-dwellers; for all our so-called "environmental awareness", this continues to be the case.

Every new house that is built takes the earth underneath away from its former inhabitants. Ever new square foot of cropland takes away from forests. Nearly every act of significance you do in the modern world leaves some kind of effluent on earth.

It is then plausible that God is really the antithesis of earth. God is in a perpetual fight with earth; human beings are His/Her soldiers.

The two most important institutions of God's war/propaganda machine are religion and economics. The dominant doctrines in both these areas are based on a heavy reliance on procreation or growth. Think of the anti-abortion movement as an example of the former, and the the idea of "demographic dividend" as one of the latter.

Read this letter by one of my favorite libertarian writer/economist, where he berates a newspaper for suggesting that bigger populations bring misery. The pro-population thinking is almost the bedrock of libertarian thought. Etlamatey consider himself libertarian-leaning in most affairs, but here he peels away.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Two stories

A few days ago, US Congressman Joseph Crowley from New York did this on the floor of the House:

I'll be! For those too young to know, too old to remember, or too disrespectful to care, Crowley stands on the shoulder of a giant. Bob, the Bob, the mother of all lyrical Bobs, did it first:

Note: The message in both presentations is make-believe.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Denial of a crisis foretold

Buttonwood has an interesting chronology of the widespread denial that has accompanied the financial crisis. It is worth your time:
Back in 2005 and 2006 received wisdom denied that the rapid growth of subprime mortgages was a problem. American house prices were extremely unlikely to fall at the national level. In any case, the debt had been widely spread among investors thanks to the derivatives market.

Once the subprime woes became obvious optimists still argued that their economic impact would be limited. The banks downplayed the extent of their exposure to subprime lending. As the scale of their exposure was revealed they switched tack to argue that they had a liquidity, rather than a solvency, problem.

When the banks duly had to be bailed out and debt was transferred from the private to the public sector, a further layer of denials was needed. The finances of governments are not like those of individual households, it was said. Governments have the power to tax and to print money, and have recovered from high debt-to-GDP ratios in the past.
The denial continues as we speak. For instance, most bits on punditry on popular media talk about how the housing market has now surely "bottomed out", the very same assessment that has been made for the past 3 years...

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Why entitlements make no sense

Click image to enlarge.(Link)

Monday, May 02, 2011

I have no love to spare for warmongers...

....but funny is funny.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

There are no human rights abuses when you are at 30,000 feet

What is the difference between suicide-bombing innocents in a bus for a purported cause, and blowing up innocents in an air attack, also for a purported cause?

A NATO assassination attempt on Moammar Gaddafi in Tripoli is said to have killed one of his sons (who had little involvement with his father's regime) and three grandchildren. For all we know, the news may be fabricated, but only underscores the fact that 'targeted' NATO bombing in Libya is likely to have killed innocents.

This is not to defend Gaddafi, but to point out the moral hazard involved with foreigners' intervention in a quarrel that is not theirs to fight.

* * *

In other news, US Senator John McCain lambasted the Chief Warmonger for "taking a backseat role in Libya". He wants America to lead NATO's war on Libya, not just be a part of it.

Two weeks ago, McCain was in rebel-controlled Libya himself, whence he argued for greater material support to the rebels. Said he:
"Same thing we did in Afghanistan...weapons delivery can be facilitated."
Of course, delivering weapons is second nature to the federal government of the United States.

Ever since the Libyan revolution started, there has been an argument that the violent but relatively secular Gaddafi regime will be replaced by a more Islamist one. McCain turned this argument on its head:
"If there is a stalemate (in Libya), it could open the doors to radical Islamic fundamentalism..."
True that. Except that it is likely to happen even if the rebels come to power. Just like the fall of Saddam Hussein opened the doors of Iraq to religious extremists (Psst, here is a secret - Mr. McCain egged on that regime change as enthusiastically as in Libya).

It is hard to say who the more attention-hungry performer is: McCain or Donald Trump.

See, you go to war for me, and I clown for you.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The economist rappers are back

Sequel to this.

"One data point and you're jumping for joy.
The last time I checked, wars only destroy"

Friday, April 22, 2011

What, me sacrifice?

A Washington Post-ABC News poll asked Americans what they thought of a few solutions to reduce the national debt. It stands that:

Only 30% supported cutting Medicaid;
Only 21% supported cutting Medicare;
Only 42% supported cutting military spending;
But, 72% supported raising taxes on richer Americans.

As The Freeman succinctly puts it, these people want no cuts in services, they just want to "let someone else pay".

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Taxes that kill

The Warmonger's Lair (i.e., the White House) recently released a nifty tool that allows American taxpayers to see exactly what their taxes are spent for. Check it out here. Punch $100 as a sample amount and see where the money goes.

The biggest drain on the taxpayer, at 26.30%, is "National Defense". Let us hear it again: The United States, an entity with friendly nations to the north and south and oceans on the east and west, spends a quarter of its tax earnings on "defense".

When you put American "defense" spending in the context of taxes, it seems unfathomable why the so-called anti-tax Republicans and Tea Partiers would not have anything to say about it. Indeed, when Obama rebuked so-called fiscal conservative Paul Ryan, he was on the money:
"This is the same guy that voted for two wars that were unpaid for, voted for the Bush tax cuts that were unpaid for, voted for the prescription drug bill that cost as much as my health care bill -- but wasn't paid for."
Presently, Ryan is leading the charge against Obama on cutting federal spending, but defense is not on his radar. Indeed, if the anti-tax lobby wants my respect, it needs to own up to its dirty past during the Bush years and treat "defense" for what it is.

America is fighting three wars today, only one of which would vaguely fulfill the definition of a just war. Former Warmonger-in-Chief Dwight Eisenhower warned in 1960 of the military-industrial complex:
"Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."
The said citizenry, drugged by the opium of power, happens to be fast asleep.
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