Monday, July 28, 2014

Week of 07/28/2014

The Dirty Truth About Capitalism And Free Markets
For those that don’t know (or haven’t yet bothered to read more of my works), I consider myself to be more of a practical libertarian.  I believe in the ideas of libertarianism, but I also know that you can’t just immerse people into it cold turkey and expect them to appreciate what it means.  Hell, we still have no idea what simple concepts such as the freedom of speech really means!  The late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas may have understood what the words “Congress shall make no law” means in the First Amendment, but he was in the extreme minority compared to the bulk of self-professed “Constitutional experts” who all swear up and down their own bibles that those same words mean the exact opposite.
Anyway, one of the things that libertarians support – at least in principle – is the idea of “free markets”.
In other words, if you want to create your own widget company and make and sell widgets to the masses, you should be free to do just that.  You should be free to hire people and pay them accordingly in a way that would allow you to market the product so people would buy them and you can still make a profit.  Because, isn’t that why you’re in the business in the first place?  To make a profit, right?  I mean, you’re not going to try to tell people you would be in the business simply because you like to do stuff, are you?
So, you hear the words “free markets” and you immediately think capitalism, right?  Because “we all know” that those two things go hand-in-hand, don’t they?  Like “bacon and eggs”, “biscuits and gravy”, “Oreos and milk”, “cape and cowl”, “death and taxes”, “tax and spend”, and let’s not forget “truth, justice, and the American way”.
Except that “capitalism” and “free markets” don’t really get along.
In fact, I’ll even go so far as to say that a good number of supporters of “capitalism” are really not fans of the idea of “free markets”.
Capitalism itself is a mechanism.  Let’s just get that out of the way.  You can’t really say that “capitalism” itself either supports or condemns the idea of a free market any more than you can say that a car’s transaxle supports or condemns the car’s diesel fuel system.
Supporters, however, are a different matter.  And they really do the mechanism a grave disservice when they claim to champion both it and the idea of free markets when they really don’t, or when they champion the mechanism and then excuse the gross abuses of it.
Here’s a real test for supporters of free markets: if you really support a free market system, then you should have no problem whatsoever seeing a strip club, lingerie store, adult video store, and/or a tobacco shop next to your favorite place of business.  After all, it’s just another place of business, right?  You’re not being forced to shop there.  You just have to acknowledge that they exist and that other people do business there, otherwise they wouldn’t be there.
You’ll find a lot of so-called “supporters” of free markets fail that test.  Oh they don’t mind if a Chinese restaurant shows up, or a Starbucks, or a dance studio, or a payday loan service.  They would much rather see some shady fly-by-night “buy here pay here” auto dealership fill up the parking lots instead of patrons to a strip club.  They would rather see a ton of “We Buy Gold” stores in their community – complete with those annoying sign-twirling minimum-wage workers – than to allow even one lingerie store.  And to make sure that happens, they use the power of the government to try to bully those kinds of businesses out.  The same government that they will later scream and shout bloody murder about should it dare look at their businesses.
But that really isn’t the “dirty truth”.  Mealy-mouthed hypocrites are a dime-a-dozen, and they infest pretty much every cause out there.
The real “dirty truth” is how capitalism and free markets really don’t work together.
As a mechanism, capitalism is pretty straightforward.  “A” leads to “B”.  You buy, they sell, you pay, they give, done deal.  Buyer, seller, two points, a straight line.  Employer has a task that needs to be done, the employee does the task, and the employer pays what he or she thinks is a “fair wage”.  Employer, employee, two points, a straight line.
What it doesn’t care for are complications.
This is why supporters of capitalism seem to have a fetish for small businesses; because the line between employer and employee is as short as possible.  Big businesses and corporations have multiple layers and levels of management, which complicate the line.  Their only saving grace is the money and power that big businesses wield.
It doesn’t care for regulations and taxes, because that also is a complication from the straight-line model.  Taxes are added costs, and regulations force a business to comply to an outside manager – namely government – which interferes with the direct line between employer and employee, and between buyer and seller.
This is half of the idea of free markets that supporters of capitalism love to preach about: the absence of government interference.  They love the straight line between employer and employee, and between buyer and seller.  No regulations, no taxes, no limitations, and no outside management.
But it’s the other half of the free market idea that gets shot down… the idea of competition.
The idea of free markets is that the buyer supposedly has the “ultimate power” when it comes to the transaction.  If he or she doesn’t like the product or the business, he or she is supposedly “free” to take their business elsewhere.  Choices and competition are supposedly what keep the marketplace honest.
But what if there are no choices?
Let’s get brutally honest here… this is where capitalism actually works against the concept of a free market system.
Capitalism is authoritative in nature.  You buy, they sell, case closed.  You work, they pay, case closed.  Management is to be obeyed because they are the ones that pay you for your work.
They don’t like competition.  They don’t like the idea that the consumer can choose a different business.  To them, two businesses selling the same product is one business too many.
This is why they love corporations and big corporate mergers, because they slowly eliminate competition.
Oh, you don’t like your cable choices?  Too bad.
You don’t like the phone choices in your community?  Too bad.
You don’t like the big-box store that replaced your local markets?  Too bad.
You don’t like the price of gasoline?  Too bad.
Your only “choice” is to either go along with it or try to go without them.
But that’s really not a choice.  That’s economic blackmail.
And yet, that is what capitalism loves… because it maintains that straight line.
We’ve seen in the 1980’s how unrestrained mergers resulted in economic crashes, as companies merged together and cut away duplicate services.  Sure it resulted in insane profits for the people up top, but for the workers it meant layoffs, and eventually that is what did in the “robust economy”.
As much as supporters of the “free market” hate it, they unfortunately have to accept that at some point there needs to be some restraint put on capitalism in order to keep real choice in the marketplace.  For a libertarian such as myself, this kind of practical application is what differentiates between theory and a practice.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Week of 07/21/2014

The Fox Crier Hypocrisy
Two hundred and twenty-five years ago this year… earlier this month as of this column’s publishing… French citizens stormed the fortress and prison known as the Bastille.  This began the long quest for freedom from French aristocracy known as the French Revolution, as well as the prologue to “The Terror” that would last pretty much until the end of Napoleon’s reign in 1815.
Prior to this event, there was a failed effort to bring American-style democracy to the French people.  Having helped America free itself from the tyranny of Great Britain, French people decided they too needed to be free from the tyranny of aristocracy and the Catholic Church, both of which held a stranglehold on the country.  Although the legislators were stymied by debate, forces loyal to both the conservative elites – otherwise known as the “Second Estate” – and the supporters of the masses, or the “Third Estate”, began positioning themselves and gathering arms and soldiers to stop what many saw was a building coup.
The Bastille itself was not being used as much of a “prison” when it was stormed on July 14th, 1789.  There were only seven actual prisoners there at the time.  But in addition to the arms and munitions stored there, the Bastille was infamous for being the preferred place to lock away the people that the “Second Estate” considered to be a threat.  Basically it was the Guantanamo Bay of its time.  So the “Storming of the Bastille” was really done for symbolism; as a way to say “no more” to the abuses of the elite.
For over two hundred years since, the French people celebrated this day just as Americans celebrated the Fourth of July as a monumental period in that country’s history.  A day symbolizing freedom from tyranny.
The irony was not lost, however, in how I was reminded of the importance of that day on its two-hundred-and-twenty-fifth anniversary.
I was reminded of the day by… of all places… Fox News.
Shepard Smith was wrapping up his show with his “On This Day” segment.  As Fox personalities go, Shep is tolerable.  He doesn’t read from the Fox script too much.  He’s not trying to re-write history to suit the GOP.  In fact, on more than one occasion he called out some of the GOP myrmidons on their garbage.  Anyway, it was Shep that was reminding me that it was 225 years ago that the French peasants, upset at the abuses of King Louis XVI, staged a revolt at the site of the largest abuse of government power at the time and kicked off the French Revolution.
But what got to me wasn’t the messenger or the message… but the specific medium.  Specifically, Fox News.
Why does it bother me, you ask?
Well it bothers me because of their recent history of dealing with people protesting the abuses of power by an elite few.
Let’s go back a few years, shall we? 
Large groups of people were upset at the ruling class and their ongoing abuses.  They gathered in various cities across America to voice their dissatisfaction, but most notably their presence was known in front of the source of our collective misery: Wall Street.
Hence their name: Occupy Wall Street.
How did Fox News handle this news?  Were they as “fair and balanced” as they continually claim to be?
Well in all fairness, it depended on which “personality” was covering the story.  But for the most part, they weren’t on the side of the modern-day “Third Estate”, seeking justice and a redress of their grievances with the “Second Estate”.  They painted the “Occupy” crowd as a bunch of clueless lazy liberal socialists and communists demanding something for nothing.  They were seen as rabble-rousing anarchists looking to overthrow the whole economic system simply because of a few “bad mistakes” made by so-called “job creators” in lending money to “deadbeats”.  And some of the personalities rejoiced when New York City’s notorious jackbooted thugs-with-badges moved in to remove the supposed “troublemakers”.
“The Occupy movement is dead” proudly and pompously proclaimed their prime-time personality.
It seems impossible to believe their arrogance until you keep in mind that Fox News is owned by News Corp and Rupert Murdoch, who also own the Wall Street Journal and the Dow Jones.  In other words, they are Wall Street!  They were the ones being protested against!  They are the modern-day “Second Estate”!
And that should make you wonder just how they would have reported the Storming of the Bastille when it was happening.  Given how certain personalities handled the “Occupy” movement, do you really think that “Ye Olde Fox Crier” would have been on the side of the Third Estate then?  Do you really think they would paint the scene the same way as Shepard Smith would two-and-a-quarter centuries later?
I’m thinking… no, they wouldn’t.
I’d be more inclined to think that “Ye Olde Fox Crier” would be condemning the Third Estate for their “treasonous actions” against the whole “Estates of the Realm”.  They might even accuse the “rabble-rousers” of being in league with the dreaded King George III of England, their old enemy, as revenge for helping out the American colonists.  They could even paint the commoners as “lazy good-for-nothing deadbeats that want something for nothing”, since their chief complaints at the time did involve the abysmal conditions they were left in while the First and Second Estates (church and nobility) were living comfortably.
While this is all just speculation on this commentator’s part, it is based on a simple truth when it comes to media groups such as Fox News: that despite their promises of reporting on the truth and “nothing but”, that they are really supporters of the status quo.  And when given the choice between our modern-day Second and Third Estates, the so-called “Fourth Estate” would rather side with the Second over the Third any day.
Let’s get brutally honest here… the modern-day multimedia world of news is, at the end of the day, just a business like any other.  They need to make money to survive.  Fox News certainly wouldn’t want to be on the side of the people criticizing Wall Street, since a major part of it is owned by their parent company.  That’s financial suicide for them.
And it’s not just Fox News.  MSNBC and NBC are owned by Comcast.  CNN is owned by Time Warner.  ABC is owned by Disney.  CBS used to be owned by Westinghouse and Viacom before finally splitting off to form their own company.  But none of them are really in a position to bite the Big Corporate hands that feed them.
Of course it’s easy for a cable news service like Fox News to talk about the plight of struggling commoners when the struggle is long over with and the commoners were victorious.  There’s nothing on the line for them then.  Just don’t expect that media to be as supportive of those struggling commoners when history repeats itself in the here and now.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Week of 07/14/2014

Isn’t It Strange…
I’m usually not prone to conspiracy theories.  Barack Obama was born in Hawaii, not in any foreign nation.  George W. Bush won the 2000 Fiasco and did not know about 9/11 before it happened.  I also don’t believe that 9/11 was an “inside job”.  I don’t buy the “magic bullet” theory behind John Kennedy’s assassination, but I do think that there’s stuff that we don’t know about that tragedy and we won’t know more about it until the full details of the Warren Commission get declassified – if ever.  I do believe the claim that Bush Junior once called the United States Constitution a “Goddamned piece of paper”.
But I also know patterns when I see them.  I see reports of us getting more and more prone to allergies here in the South, and of pollen counts getting higher and higher, and I can’t help but see a connection between those things and our over-development of the area.  Developers have a fetish for stripping the ground bare and putting in fresh landscape with their projects that may “look good” but may not be native to the area.  It’s not a conspiracy that we mess up our eco-system because we don’t think about the consequences of our actions.  It’s been proven time and time again.
I have been very successful in predicting when the economy would take a downturn.  I am so far three-for-three in that area, which is far better than the accuracy rate of the so-called “experts” who seem to predict the economy going one way, and it actually going another.  What do I know that they supposedly don’t?  I’ve seen the patterns that led up to those downturns.
But I also have to wonder… are they really that “wrong”?  Or are they saying that the economy does great when it isn’t because that is what “the script” tells them to say?  Are their false proclamations of economic good times part of a PR campaign to deceive the masses so they won’t take precautions while the elite cushion their own butts for the fall?  Who knows?
Patterns tell us things that the so-called “experts” and those in the media will not.  And the patterns are far more accurate than the experts.
I remember Desert Storm and Desert Shield and the funny thing that happened with gas prices during the build-up to the Gulf War.  Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and gas prices here skyrocketed.  They continued to go up and up as we entered Desert Shield, and again as we went into the air assault of Desert Storm.  But then, right after the ground assault of Desert Storm started, gas prices took a phenomenal drop.
Since then, I’ve seen patterns emerge when it comes to gas prices.  Excuses are cobbled together to explain raising the price at the pump during the summer months.  These reasons, such as “unexpected shutdowns”, may be enough to justify a price increase one time.  But when they happen over and over and over again, year after year after year, almost like clockwork, then you either have perpetual gross incompetence in management, or you have blatantly orchestrated price-fixing.
So here we are in the summer months of 2014, and not too long ago, gas prices took another spike because of the news concerning Iraq.  Sunni insurgents, don’t-cha-know?  They want an Islamic caliphate.  Dangerous thing.  Gotta stop them.  Sound the bugle; send the soldiers back there.  Their instability is causing gas prices to go up, don’t-cha-know?
Or… are they?
You see, this past week we saw gas prices actually fall!  The Sunni extremists haven’t stopped their little self-appointed jihad.  We haven’t sent over the thousands-and-thousands of troops like some of our neo-conservative chickenhawks demand.  So… why?
According to (a damn good place to look for cheap gas), the speculation is because of a lack of hurricanes, the Iraqi insurgents aren’t harming the oil refineries like some have feared, and also because we’re not as dependent on foreign oil like we used to be.
Now that’s a scary thought if you’re a fat and rich Big Oil executive!  Once upon a time, gas prices used to take a ten-cent-per-gallon spike the minute some Saudi sheik stubs his toe.  Now, the word that Sunni insurgents throwing a temper tantrum in Iraq is no longer enough to justify filching hard-working Americans.  What is this country coming to, huh?
So… funny thing… almost overnight the media changes its focus.  It’s no longer about ISIL (what the media wrongly calls “ISIS”) in Iraq.  It’s about Israel-versus-Hamas… again.  Missiles are launching!  People are getting bombed!  Lives are on the line!  We need to “do something” about this!
Here’s the thing… this is actually an ongoing pissing contest.  It did not just manifest itself overnight.
So… why is the media focusing on this now?
Is it because people really don’t care about Muslim-versus-Muslim as much as they do Palestinians-versus-Israelis?
Or is this simply “Plan B” for the media?
As in “Whoops!  The Iraq thing didn’t get us enough traction to cause a price spike at the pumps.  Let’s go to Plan B and see if chaos in Israel will do it!”
It certainly seems like that, doesn’t it?
Makes you wonder if North Korea’s panda bear leader, Kim Jung-un, is warming up for his turn in the “crisis” spotlight; keeping the tradition left by his predecessor of throwing tantrums just to get attention.  Or maybe there’s another “Al Qaeda” message in the wings.  Or perhaps the mullahs in Iran will throw a tantrum next.
Because let’s get brutally honest here… when your corporate business plan calls for fear and panic to justify seasonal price hikes, this world has plenty of that to go around.
The real question is… why should the rest of us accept that as business-as-usual?
Big Oil and their acolytes in both politics and the media all swear up and down that gas prices have always been determined by the rule of Supply-and-Demand.  Except when they’re not.  A little fear and panic does wonders to tip the scale of Supply-and-Demand in Big Oil’s favor.  And they really don’t have to be the ones to lift that finger to tip that scale… because the media eagerly does that already.
Of course we have our own ways of tipping that scale.  We can always cut back on our driving, not going on vacations, not taking planes, no road trips, limiting our driving to only the absolute essentials, carpooling when possible.  We’re already using services like and opting for hybrid vehicles when we can afford them.  All-electric vehicles are already on the market, and Harley Davidson is making an electric motorcycle!
Don’t get me wrong, the tragedies going on in Iraq and Syria and Israel are horrific in and of themselves.  But equally horrific is the idea that we should be coerced into taking action in these areas, or at least to take a side, while big corporations profit from the fear and panic generated by it.
Like I said, I’m not prone to conspiracy theories, but I do recognize patterns when they happen, especially when they go on for as long as this one has.  And when it does go on and on enough times for people to notice it as a pattern, then there’s a word for that kind of activity… racketeering.  And, if memory serves, that’s supposed to be a crime.