Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Gaming the election

It's not too soon to start building our nation's immune systems against electoral cheating. And yes, I will get around to poking at both parties.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have each issued a list of reform priorities that would go a long way to making voting easier. Both include universal automatic registration at the DMV (already done on California), longer early voting periods, and a renewal of the Voting Rights Act. Sanders would also make Election Day a national holiday, so people who have to work would have more time to vote.  

There’s a simple difference of philosophy and goals at work, which is that Democrats want to make it easier to vote and Republicans want to make it as difficult as possible.  The interesting thing is that they are actually… actually… able to concoct incantation rationalizations for the latter position. Cheaters do that.

See elsewhere how to tell whether a state's Voter ID law is sincere, or just a tool to rob poor people of their rights. The telltale is not the requiring of gradual increases in ID at the polls! (You dems are wrong about that.) No, it is the hypocrisy of demanding an onerous new regulation without providing what's called compliance assistance.  In every case, there's been not one penny of CA, laying bare that these are monstrous traitors and thieves.

Oh, but watch as the Trump Effect alters the styles of cheating! Already, Super Pacs lavishly funded by the Koch-Saudi axis have learned from the failure of their anti-Trump blitz that TV ad-buys have lost effectiveness, this year. 

They are shifting tsunamis of cash over to "social media consulting firms" that hire agents provocateurs to rile up passions on Facebook, Twitter etc... 

...e.g. "Sanders supporters" who - against Bernie's clearly-state wishes, stir Limbaugh-style hatred of Hillary. (Hint: ask for their real ID.) See more on this, below.

But the ground is shifting. Some cheats, like gerrymandering - a foul, indefensible travesty - will go away if a democrat appoints three more Supreme justices. But one has become essential to the oligarchy... rigged voting machines.  If the Trump Debacle truly does hit the GOP hard, in November, then Republicans could lose many of the state legislatures and governorships that are the true locus of their power. At which point their only hope is to alter vote counts, something that cannot happen much in blue states, because their voting machines generally keep paper audit trails, allowing random precincts to be double checked -- a safeguard that is conveniently absent in most places where republicans control the process of selecting and purchasing voting apparatus. 

See: How Republicans are gaming the voting system to tip the 2016 election in their favor.

There is a way to stymie this almost-certain cheat.  Some rich person can and must offer a whistleblower prize for any employees at the companies or bureaucracies that engage in vote-rigging, rewarding any henchman who steps up with clear evidence of this foul and treasonous crime.

== What Hath Bernie Wrought ==

I have long maintained that – were he alive today – Adam Smith would be a vociferous democrat.  Smith knew what today’s most vociferous proclaimers of capitalism have forgotten – or strive to conceal – that flat-fair-open-creative enterprise is one of the chief victims of an incestuously conniving aristocratic class, which Smith deemed the great enemy of competitive capitalism, across 6000 years.

One way that special interests destroy flat-fair markets is through regulatory “capture. Professor George Stigler, the Nobel Laureate (1982), in “Theory of Economic Regulation” (1972), explained that regulation, which is presumably put in place to protect the public, will eventually be acquired, or “captured,” by the very companies, industries, or their trade unions that are supposed to be regulated.

It’s not hopeless. Our institutions and competitive arenas need perpetual refresh and re-tuning and – across the last couple of centuries – it has happened, often enough to keep us free and creative. “Captured” agencies like the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) and Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) were dissolved and competition in rails and airlines restored. (Democratic Congresses did that, and deregulated telecom, GPS and the Internet, go figure.)

So where does Bernie Sanders fit in?  This article shows that he has pushed the argument to where we can clearly see how U.S. Capitalism is in trouble, threatened by a foe Adam Smith would recognize: 
“…over time, most capitalist democracies develop “distributional coalitions,” aka special interest groups, which organize to get the government to provide them with special subsidies, laws, and protection from competition. The dispersed public, be it taxpayers or consumers that are footing the bill, will fail to overcome the free rider problem and lose in the democratic battle with those coalitions.”  
The author then goes on to show how Sanders crystalizes this problem, in both his rhetoric and his actions. 

== Provocateurs, really? ==

Janell Ross, in the Washington Post’s “The Fix,” assails what she deems to be an undercurrent of “unprogressive” attitudes among some of the more shrill supporters of Bernie Sanders.  Alas, what she most clearly reveals is her own inability to see the obvious.  

Are some Berners getting carried away with over-wrought emotion? Sure. Do some of them too-readily imitate the hate-reflexes that volcanically typify the Republican side? You bet.  Will Bernie himself come down hard on those over-reactors, chiding them to grow-up?  He already has, many times, and he will.

No, what amazes me is that Ms. Ross and so many others look at vitriolic comment-section postings and interprets them as… real! 

OMG what decade are you living in, Ma’am? You call yourself a pundit, yet ignore the obvious? Let's return to our first topic.

In this U.S. election cycle, we’ve just seen a collapse of the power of well-funded PACs to affect electoral outcomes through traditional means such as television and other media buys. Jeb Bush spent $100 million for nothing. What’s an oligarch to do?

Why, emulate China, of course.  The Chinese government now pays up to half a million young web-junkies to spend all their working hours posting disinformation via social media, sabotaging non-compliant sites, denouncing flickers of dissent and praising patriotic tendencies. You can bet that right wing Political Action Committees are investing in social media operations, big-time, as we speak. And that their absolute top priority will be to demolish any chance of unity among democrats in the fall.

I would bet my house that we are already seeing this, in the vituperative shrillness of some Sanders “supporters” online.  Look up the term “agent provocateur.”  All your European friends will be happy to explain it to you.

And no, I do not dismiss all passionate Bernites as agents provocateurs, plotting to prevent another Clinton presidency!  Most, probably are simply devoted to a very smart and good candidate who’d make at-minimum a pretty good president and whom I’d support, if you guys earn him the nomination, fair and square. There are two ways to tell the difference between over-wrought sincerity and a spy-provocateur: 

First, true Bernites will listen, when Sanders himself chides them to remember the Supreme Court and Donald Trump… and work for the democrat in the fall. And if they can't stomach working for Hillary, they will find some local, state assmbly race where their passion could make a real difference.

Second, check for identity clues. Ask the loudest and most outraged to identify themselves. To email you from their home addresses.

Compile a list of the most vituperative comment postings and tuck them away, in case the Democratic Party hires a team to investigate collusive, PAC paid comments-sabotage. (And the DP should be hiring those investigators now.) The ravings that repeat endlessly under a variety of names are surely canned.

They have realized we're no longer passively glued to TV and manipulative ads no longer work well.  But they think we're still morons. Moreover, that billion dollars from Koch and Saudi and Macau manipulators will be spent, desperately clinging to the power they have used to harm America.  Ultimately, the immune system that will overcome this fever must be us.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Recent SciFi: a grab-bag of books for you

Looking for some great Sci Fi books to read? We'll get to a recommendation list of recent novels, below! But first, here are the nominees for the Nebula Awards for Best Science Fiction & Fantasy novel of 2015, to be awarded in May:

The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu
Raising Caine, by Charles E. Gannon
Ancillary Mercy, By Ann Leckie
The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemison
Uprooted, by Naomi Novik
Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard, by
      Lawrence M. Shoen
Updraft, by Fran Wilde

Oh, great news... the guest speaker at this year's Nebula Awards Conference and Banquet in Chicago will be comedian and Daily Show veteran - and bona fide SciFi fan - John Hodgman. Wish I could attend! 

(Update: The award for best novel went to Naomi Novik's lovely Uprooted!)

Meanwhile, the Hugo Awards are open for nominations through March 31. 

My recent story, The Tumbledowns of Cleopatra Abyss from the anthology Old Venus is posted online on my website...and also (ahem) available in my just-released short story collection, Insistence of Vision. Your comments are welcome on Amazon, Goodreads etc!)

== Terrific books by others ==

More Than Human author Ramez Naam has won the 2016 Philip K. Dick Award for his novel Apex -- the conclusion to his near-future, global-spanning thriller Nexus trilogy -- imagining a genetically enhanced, technologically linked, post-human world.

A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction: Nisi Shawl gives an introduction to notable black authors ranging from W. E.B. DuBois to the great Samuel Delaney, from Octavia Butler to N.K. Jemison, Steven Barnes and Nnedi Okorafor, who have shaped - and continue to shape - the literature of science fiction.

From Ursula K. Le Guin to Octavia Butler, Nalo Hopkinson to Joanna Russ and Joan Vinge, to the magnificent Alice Sheldon, a look at some memorable titles in feminist science fiction. Perhaps my novel Glory Season? Naw. Though I wrote it in that spirit, aiming for a worthy contribution to the pro-liberty and equality conversation, I never really expected it to be well-received, though the matters raised remain interesting.  Anyway I am a big fan of the sub-genre and I hope you'll be, too. It's stuff that needs ongoing discussion.

Covering topics from the metaphysics of The Matrix to the nature of free will and the ethics of robot rights, Science Fiction and Philosophy: From Time Travel to Super Intelligence, edited by Susan Schneider, uses science fiction as a window to explore big philosophical issues, with incisive essays by Ray Kurzweil, Daniel Dennett, Nick Bostrom, as well as relevant works from the likes of Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury.

Tech Insider takes offers recent science fiction novels that envision a future of climate change – termed CliFi for Climate Fiction -- from Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road to Liu Cixin's The Three Body Problem, and a new anthology of Climate Fiction: Loosed Upon the World (ed. by John Joseph Adams), as well as a couple of the novels mentioned below...

And this from io9: Nineteen times someone gets thrown out into the vacuum of space in Sci Fi movies.

== Recent Science Fiction Picks ==

The latest novel from Neal Stephenson, this 880 page epic portrays a devastating planetary-level extinction event: Seveneves begins with the sudden disintegration of the moon (by unknown forces) into seven pieces, which continue to collide and disintegrate. Anticipating the 'Hard Rain' of debris and fire that will rage across earth’s surface and annihilate its population, humanity comes together to construct an orbiting space colony -- a Cloud Ark to preserve the genetic legacy of our ecosystems. Billions left behind on the surface die in the ensuing conflagration, while a couple hundred develop the technological, political and social skills to survive long-term in space. Seveneves offers lovingly detailed descriptions of futuristic robots, space modules, docking maneuvers and orbital mechanics. The Big Picture comes in when the final third of the novel picks up five thousand years later…

A riveting and philosophical quasi-steampunk read: The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis, presents an alternate history of the early 1900s, where the Dutch Empire has ruled much of the world for a quarter of a millennium, in an ongoing war against a Catholic France-in-exile (based in Canada). The Dutch have melded Newton’s mysterious alchemy with sophisticated clockwork technology to power and enslave mechanical servants called Clakkers -- which wait upon their human taskmasters and serve as terrifying soldiers afield. When the century-old robot Jax overrides the compulsive ‘geas’ that constrain all Clakkers to complete their assigned tasks, he knows he will be relentlessly hunted down… even as he discovers a sense of free will and the essence of his own humanity. If you enjoy this, try its sequel in the Alchemy Wars, The Rising.

“War is always coming – it’s only ever a matter of time. And right now, beyond our porthole, the time comes…” By the author of Wool, Hugh Howey’s Beacon 23 imagines an interstellar ‘lighthouse’ on the edge of space, emitting a Gravity Wave Beacon to help starships traveling at FTL in hyperspace navigate past gravitational disturbances. When the beacon fails, the isolated operator – a battle-scarred war veteran suffering from PTSD, with a questionable grip on reality -- is pulled into an alien war he wants no part of. And yet, the war may not be quite what it seems. A fun read, full of action, with interwoven humor and pathos. The final chapter offers a vexing moral quandary for ending the war. 

The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi, offers another entry into climate fiction, with a dystopic noir-future where the American Southwest has been devastated by drought and climate change, dust storms and wildfires. A gritty tale of no-holds-barred battles between states engulfed in brutal legal squabbles over water rights to the dwindling Colorado River. The rich live in glass-enclosed lush Arcologies funded by the Chinese, while cities and suburbs wither as their water supply is cut off. The wealthy Catherine Case, "Queen of the Colorado", divvies up the precious flow via her amoral 'water knife' Angel Velazquez. Murders, torture, betrayals, and constantly shifting alliances guide the ensuing action in Bacigalupi's dark (and dry) near future.

Another book where wars are waged over scarce water, the beautifully written Memory of Water, by Finnish author Emmi Itaranta. A near future of global warming where a rising Chinese dictatorship dominates Europe and occupies a Scandinavia that knows no winter -- termed New Qian. Officials keep water (and knowledge) under tight control, with rationing, penalties and punishment. Our young protagonist Noria Kaitio is following her father’s footsteps, learning to become an honored tea master, with secret knowledge of a hidden water source. After his death, she is isolated by the heavy silence of secrets and burdened with ancient traditions which know no place in a changed world. 

What might result if the current trend toward economic inequality continues? The Subprimes, by Karl Taro Greenfeld offers biting (if heavy-handed) satire of a dystopian plutocratic America where have-nots are defined by their credit rating (subprimes), unable to find unemployment and subject to imprisonment in debt prisons (Credit Rehabilitation Centers). These subprimes (vilified as Takers) seek daily labor on fracking sites and congregate in homeless camps – termed Ryanvilles. Schools, police and prisons have all been privatized; government welfare, benefits, public WiFi and all regulation discontinued, along with environmental restrictions. A dark look at families struggling to survive… Still, a future low on the plausibility score. Would Americans really tolerate this?

Full Fathom Five (part of the Craft sequence), by Max Gladstone offers up fantasy of a non-traditional flavor, a fully modern world where magic is integral to the day-to-day affairs of conducting business. People trade pieces of their soul-stuff in exchange for goods and services; stone-like penitents encase the bodies and restructure the minds of those who have transgressed; idols are constructed to enhance business deals and sway stock exchanges. But these idols are supposed to be non-sentient; when one begins communicating and reaching out to the general population, even inspiring poetry, our protagonist Kai uncovers a deep-seated conspiracy that could undermine society.

The Best of Gregory Benford has also just been released (edited by the late David Hartwell), with thirty-eight of Benford's finest short stories. 

Finally, after that extensive recommendation list, can I be forgiven for tooting, one last time?

Don't forget to get your hands on my latest collection Insistence of Vision -- with some of the best recent David Brin stories, including The Logs, Mars Opposition, Stones of Significance, Transition Generation, Chrysalis, The Tumbledowns of Cleopatra Abyss, A Professor at Harvard, Paris Conquers All (written with Gregory Benford). Sample my short story, Reality Check here. Plus essays including The Heresy of Science Fiction and Waging War with Reality. 

I am heading off to a book signing (see my calendar).  Amid all of our contemporary ructions and dismal, dyspeptic news reports remember: we are a people who dream big dreams!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The ongoing war on cameras and freedom: It's the Sixth Amendment, stupid.

Continue tracking this! The War on Cameras Just Went Code Red: It is one topic area where true citizen militance is called for. 

Elsewhere I’ve already discussed how a U.S. District Court judge ruled against the right to film cops. Yes, wagers are strong that this ruling may be overturned. Fields vs. City of Philadephia concerns two people photographing and filming the police in public areas. Each had their cameras confiscated.

As I’ve long said, few civil liberties matters are more important. (Indeed, major steps toward establishing this citizen right meant that 2013 was an important milestone in U.S. civil liberties.) But even the plaintiffs in this case -- paladins who are fighting for our right to see -- have been doing it all wrong! Their point of law is overly narrow because it seems the only Amendments from the Bill of Rights that anyone seems to remember, anymore, are the first and second and maybe the fifth.

But in this case, the judge’s ruling can be proved desperately and blatantly wrong by referring to one of my favorite, under appreciated amendments… the absolutely vital and powerful Sixth

The Sixth Amendment is the one that empowers citizens to aggressively demand to see.  To confront their accusers, to compel witnesses on their own behalf and to have access to any information that might exculpate them from a crime.

Let's be clear about what is at stake.  In any conflict between a citizen and the State, there is such a vast disparity of power that only one weapon can possibly level the field and give an innocent person a fighting chance. That weapon is The Truth. It is necessary and should be entirely sufficient. The whole and entire purpose of the Sixth Amendment is to give innocent citizens a fighting chance to use the truth in their own defense. 

It is simple, straightforward and obvious to extend the 6th to a citizen's right to (in a manner that does not interfere) record interactions with police. By expanding the number and variety and verifiable quality of "witnesses," such recordings enhance the ability of citizens to compel exculpatory witnesses in their own defense. When the mighty act to suppress such acts of witnessing, they are reducing the very resource the Sixth gives us a right to use. See where I go into this, elsewhere.

It is shameful... simply shameful... that the attorneys fighting these court battles have missed this key argument, obsessing as they have on just the First Amendment. Someone needs to get through to them. 

Yes, the First Amendment vitally protects your right to speak. 

But the Sixth protects your right to exist.

== The Cameras! ==

About a third of police departments in the United States have started to use body cameras, and they typically have almost complete control over the programs. Police departments decide when cameras should be rolling, how long the footage is stored, who gets to see it and how it can be used in the future.  This article - The Real Problem with Police Video - is perhaps too one-sided… there are some solid arguments for process restraint in releasing raw footage.  But the core point is a valid one… that police body and dash cams should be almost-always-on and deposit their footage directly to safe caches that are under neutral control.

Unlike many civil libertarians, I do not demand instant access to public and press! So long as some due process - even one that is slow and careful - ensures eventual transparency, then “eventual” should be good enough. Good enough to deter most bad behavior, good enough to ensure convictions of the blatantly guilty, and good enough to allow defense attorneys access to exculpatory evidence.  Instant access to the press is of much lower concern to me. "Eventual" will suffice to get 99% of the good from cop-cams.

It is protecting the data that must be ensured.  That alone will make clear to all good cops one essential need, in their own best-interests: “Hey, we better do something about our own thugs on the force, asap.” Indeed, as predicted long ago in The Transparent Society the problem of police tampering with cameras has an inherent solution… which is more cameras. 

Take this recent example - one of many: “In May, Burger King district manager Jay Darshane accused officers of deleting the security footage (of the Laquan McDonald shooting) after spending over three hours in the fast food restaurant on the night of the shooting. According to Darshane, the video equipment was working properly, but 86 minutes of footage, from 9:13 p.m. to 10:39 p.m., disappeared after the officers left. We had no idea they were going to sit there and delete files,” Darshane said. “I mean we were just trying to help the police officers.”

Unable to clearly explain why the 86 minutes disappeared, Police Supt. Garry McCarthy blamed the missing files on technical difficulties. But “NBC5 obtained screenshots taken from a surveillance video inside Burger King on the night of McDonald’s death. The photos appear to show officers using the computer console that recorded the fatal shooting.”

Good cops.  You must make examples of the bad ones.  Omerto is over. And we will catch this crap, more and more. It’s time.

== Liberal activists and lazy thinking ==

Indolent and reflexive thinking is rife in all directions (except those who have read The Transparent Society ;-)  For example: why is there so little acknowledgement that technology helped to make Black Lives Matter come alive? 

Demand more tech! Chant it! Urkle should be as big a symbol as Rodney King. 

The very first piece of tech that's needed? Simple clips that let folks pin cell phones to their shirts, so they can keep recording while showing cops that their hands are empty! Why have we not seen those clips handed out at every march or rally or to every ghetto youth?  Some things truly ought to be obvious.

Oh. This interactive website shows the range of state laws on police body cams: Some states restrict public access to recordings, others require all-party consent, while some states dictate when and where cameras or audio can be used:

== Saving Liberty and Privacy ==

Commercial companies are now specializing in selling hacking services to police agencies and governments, eager for side door and backdoor methods of getting around encryption.  While this story is disturbing on many levels, it also shows just how fragile are the quasi-religious hosannahs to encryption that are sung, almost across the board, by would be liberty defenders, ranging from Anonymous to the Electronic Frontier Foundation to Edward Snowden.  

Oh, I will credit some of them with good intent.  Indeed, my own dread of Big Brother is no less impassioned!  No, I am simply amazed that otherwise smart people can actually convince themselves that commonfolk will ever play a game of shrouds and shadows as well as can elites of government, commerce, criminality, technocracy or adversary nations. Refutations come every single week, in an endless litany of (surprise!) leaks.

Liberty can be preserved.  But we must start by asking “how did we get the freedoms we already have?”  That simple question reveals a basic truth.  We did not get them by cowering, or following todays reflexive cry that “everybody should hide!”  

We got it all through open assertive citizenship.  By demanding to supervise.  To see.

And finally... pulling back a bit...

== The abstraction: Liberty is primary. Privacy is desirable, but contingent ==

Look at how our definition of "privacy" changes from generation to generation, even yearly.  That malleability is indicative of a CONTINGENT right... one that is important to free humans, but that each generation can redefine to suit its own needs.  Like the right to property.  Both privacy and property are implicitly  supported in the US Constitution, but only in very vague, general terms, leaving each generation free to redefine them.

PRIMARY rights are different. They are rights that we cannot allow any generation or set of leaders to dilute.  Because once they are damaged we may never get them back.  These are the rights that allow us to knowingly argue about the contingent rights! Primary rights empower us to back out of a mistake.

What rights are paramount and primary? The freedom of citizens to know most of what's going on.  The freedom then to openly and in confident safety argue!  Freedom of knowledge and of speech are fiercely and explicitly and repeatedly defended in the U.S. Constitution, because almost any constraint - once rationalized - can lead to more, then more. Then a return to the brutally stupid rule by oligarchy that ruined almost every other society.

Our problem is simple: those who place privacy on a pedestal equal to freedom of knowledge and speech are making a huge error. We can have some privacy!  But only if freedom comes first.

Alas, many of the measures that are proposed, to "save privacy" will shut information that we'll need, in order to stay free. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Two Very Different Excuses for Government Intervention

Although I have a new book published today, let's put that aside, for what I feel is a vital topic. A way to put all of our "left-right" political wranglings into a much, much deeper and more calmly mature perspective. Get ready for some basics underlying it all.

Largely unspoken, amid hand-wringing over Donald Trump’s potential Republican nomination, is a scenario that could deeply discomfit GOP elders. Oh, Trump would battle Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders hard. But at some point in the summer and autumn debates, he is almost certain to say: “Of course the rich pay too little tax!” 

Moreover, with both nominees agreeing, on live TV, that needle would shift, hard. With almost a consensus sigh, Supply Side will be finished, precipitating the first of several convergences of left- and right- populisms.

At one level, this is only to be expected. Today’s American uber-rich are now paying their lowest averaged rate since income taxes began. The latest budget bill, passed by this GOP Congress, sweetened the deal even more, helping accelerate, as economist Robert Samuelson wrote the "hollowing out of the middle class."

And yet, the public rightfully frets over “interventions” to level the playing field. Government is inherently worrisome and “leveling” strikes a dissonant chord to American ears. We can argue over ways and means to improve both fairness and competitiveness. But is there a fundamental metric to differentiate among our options?

Two kinds of “meddling”

Americans have a tendency to differentiate between government interventions that increase opportunity versus interventions that aim at fairness in outcomes.

Step back a bit. Most of us fret about fairness to some degree. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and others have shown that human moral reasoning has an innate modularity divided into: Care, Fairness, Liberty, Loyalty, Authority, and Purity.

Progressives tend to stress the first two: Care and Fairness. 

Libertarians stress Liberty and Fairness, while conservatives stress all six more equally. Brain function scans show, for example, that conservatives tend to have a stronger sense of visceral revulsion to things they find distasteful (impurity), hence judging them morally, and we all know their stronger fealty towards authority. However, regardless of partisanship, all three groups overlap with a clear moral concern about fairness.

So, now let’s go back to why people differ between fairness of opportunity or of outcomes.

Types of fairness

The latter of these two – aiming to flatten or level economic results or wealth - would strike some as a "European thing." Which is, of course, ironic since oligarchy has always been (and in many ways remains) far more embedded in European life than in North America.

Even when well-motivated, outcomes-leveling can become a calcified, meddlesome process, providing sinecures for paternalistic bureaucrats. It can also - as bruited by conservatives and libertarians - foster dependency. 

Outcomes-equalization puts negative pressure on what Americans feel are positive sum games that, in order to function well, must remain competitive and thus have winners. Viscerally, they feel it undermines ambition, encouraging laziness and whining. We have all heard this story told, often in its nastier-prejudiced forms. And yet, there is some sound, underlying basis. 

Our spectacular successes - which created the wealth enabling us to do many good deeds - arose from positive sum competitive arenas: markets, democracy, science, courts, sports, and now, crudely, the Internet. These all require some degree of inequality of outcomes in order to spur creative vigor.

At one scale or another (subject to fierce argument) outcomes-intervention by the state could stifle these arenas. Americans tend to set the boundary farther to the "right" in that demands for government outcomes-intervention should face a burden of proof. 

Now mind-you, very few of my fellow citizens would express it in the way I just did, using five dollar words, game theory and such. Still, it is important to recognize this underlying motif of American sensibility. Some might attribute it to the long Frontier Experience, or to the “American founder” who never actually visited the continent, Adam Smith. There is a sense that equalizing outcomes is a self-defeating process that could kill the golden egg-laying goose – a reflex that has been manipulated skillfully by right-wing media.

To be honest, I share all of these reservations! Surprised? Given my denunciations of the madness that has taken over U.S. conservatism? And indeed, my harsh critiques of today's version of libertarianism? Well, there is a simple explanation. It arises when you look at the other modern approach to bringing economic fairness.


Things are very different when it comes to opportunity-equalization. 

Even most Americans see real value there, voting repeatedly over two centuries to build highways and schools that can be used by all, subsidizing research shared by all, expanding rights protection (albeit far too gradually) to all races and genders, and building the finest universities on the planet. To the extent that we have been failing in this mission -- e.g. the horrendous student loan scandal, and allowing even a single American child to lack nutrition and health care -- I tend leftward, just as I tend rightward regarding outcomes equalization.

In this disparity, I think most of my countrymen would agree, if only the choice were put to them plainly, as I just did here. Moreover, the distinction was made very clear as long ago as 1776, with publication of Adam Smith's founding document of western society, The Wealth of Nations, wherein he asserts that the state should take actions to increase the number of skilled and confident competitors, in order to stimulate a vibrantly competitive and creative capitalism. Investing in infrastructure and schools and sanitation would - Smith avowed - allow more children to rise up and participate in vibrant markets for goods, services and labor. 

The economist-idol who has been quasi-deified by the American Right - Friedrich Hayek - in fact said pretty much the same thing! Hayek deemed valid those taxpayer supported interventions that will clearly increase the number and fraction of citizens who are skilled and confident market participants. A fact that is now repressed by today's self-described "Hayekians."

(Indeed, to be even more ironic, this is an area of agreement between Hayek and Karl Marx.)

When a state action aims to address a clear and blatant disparity of opportunity - an inequality that limits the supply of new, capable competitors - then the burden of proof must fall upon those who object to the intervention.  The default should be to intervene in favor of opportunity, until challengers show that the problem can be eliminated by non-governmental means. Feed these children now! Save those bridges now! Improve schools now! Then show us how state programs can wither away.

The burden of proof shifts when it comes to outcome equalization, or leveling of wealth and income. Because we know that some substantial disparity in outcomes is necessary, as an incentive, in order for our competitive arenas (markets, democracy, science, etc.) to work at all. We also know that outcomes equalization - if taken too far - could lead to tyrannical horrors as awful as any conceived by Orwell. 

In illustration, let me cite Kurt Vonnegut's wonderfully chilling short story "Harrison Bergeron" which portrays a future in which the Handicapper General of the United States rigorously enforces actual equality of outcomes.  Ayn Rand's "Anthem" also portrays this extremum, though turgidly preachy and unrealistic.

Sure, make some outcomes more equal

Am I excluding all outcomes equalization, by demanding that they bear burden of proof? Not at all. Such burdens can be met! Those competitive arenas I mentioned do not maintain themselves. If we can glean one truth from six thousand years of varied human societies, it is that they will always tumble into oligarchic cheating and feudalism, unless kept in tune by careful regulation. Over time, wealth disparities always widen till they become outrageous, warping both politics and markets.

Clearly that has already happened in America and the world, when 62 near-trillionaires own as much wealth as humanity's entire bottom half. Conservative economist George Cooper reaches the same conclusion from a different direction in his recent Evonomics article “Piketty Debate Exposed The Failure of Economics. 5 Steps to Fix It.” Cooper shows that our civilization must continue a “circulation” pattern of government actions to stimulate the bottom while capitalist processes feed the top.

Up to this point my aim has been to make clear a dichotomy of twin generalities. And while in general, opportunity-levelers get benefit of the doubt, outcomes-levelers bear the onus to show clearly why it is necessary to reduce this or that caste's economic gains.

 That onus may be easy to satisfy, right now! Indeed, I deem it to be blatantly so. Still, it should still be kept clearly in mind, lest we tumble into the nightmare worlds -- the leveling extrema -- of "Harrison Bergeron," or even "Anthem."

It gets complicated

Now, these two notions - equalization of opportunity vs. outcome - do overlap!  When a competitor fails in the marketplace of labor or business, there should be a limit to how low they are allowed to fall. This wonderful civilization is not, as Tennyson put it, “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” We have a better version of creative competition than Nature, more cognizant and less wasteful. In a market, or in elections, or in science, this year's loser might come roaring back next year, with improved products, policies or data. Second and third chances come under opportunity enhancement, though the major effort must be yours.

The most controversial overlap comes in wealth redistribution, which certainly sounds like outcome equalization! But, as Gershwin reminds us, it ain't necessarily so
Let's go back to that earlier point and restate what is blatantly obvious, yet utterly ignored by mavens of the right. The worst destructive force that ruined flat-fair-open-creative markets and suppressed equality of opportunity across 60 centuries was inherited oligarchy and feudal overlordship. That was the normal system in most large-scale human societies. Feudal inherited oligarchy was the system of cheating despised by Adam Smith.

Indeed, partly influenced by Smith, the American Founders, in the 1780s, seized up to a third of the land in the former colonies, owned by aristocratic families, and sold or redistributed it to make the playing field more level. States also banned primogeniture and fiercely enforced equal inheritance so that rich family fortunes would break up among many heirs. The Founders' economic meddling and redistribution was thus vastly greater than ever attempted later, by either Roosevelt!

Today's inheritance tax has similar (if much smaller) effects, incentivizing wealthy families to create charitable foundations, rather than let the feds get their clutches on it. In practice, this limits the likely creation of neo-feudal castes, made up of kids who never produced any goods or services or earned the wealth and power they would then exert over the rest. And yes, a progressive income tax helped to foster the sense of general, middle class justice that today’s conservatives ironically yearn for, in the 1950s.

Wealth redistribution is thus a tricky middle ground. Equalization of opportunity (and maximization of competitive creativity) is impossible without some. On the other hand, some inequality of outcomes is absolutely required in order to maintain the kinds of incentives that spur creative people to take risks and develop great new things.  

This is one more area in which we need to again be a people capable of thoughtful negotiation and pragmatic compromise. But always bearing in mind what is fundamental: the incentive of some wealth-disparity is a necessary fuel to propel our competitive arenas to maximum effort. But those creative arenas will seize-up and grind to a halt, unless lubricated by maximized opportunity for all children -- all of them -- to confidently participate.

If we fail to enhance opportunity, we’re guaranteed to regret the outcome.


Addendum: Here’s a cantankerously different take on the plusses and minuses of contemporary libertarianism and other oversimplifying dogmas: Models, Maps and Visions of Tomorrow. 

This article is reprinted from Evonomics