Friday, July 31, 2015

Democrat vs Socialist

There was a recent exchange between Chris Matthews on MSNBC and the DNC Chariwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz regarding the difference between a Democrat and a Socialist. She was unable to articulate a difference, which is telling in itself, but it warrants a little more discussion than to say that there is no difference.

The main difference between the Democrats and Socialists is really a matter of degrees. There is no fundamental philosophical difference between the two, which is why it is so difficult to articulate an answer. Fundamentally, both Democrats and Socialists think that government should be used to help those who have been disadvantaged for some reason. The philosophical standpoint is the same: that the Government is 'the people,' and so the Government is morally responsible when we use the phrase 'We should do xyz.' Examples include 'We should help the poor,' 'We should feed the hungry,' 'We should educate children.' While these are morally laudable goals, there is the equivocation between the personal (we, as individuals, should help the poor), and the political (we, through taxes, should help the poor).

Once we accept this frame that the personal values should be reflected in government, Democrats and Socialists are only really different in the degree to which they think these policies should be implemented. In some ways, the Democrats are just politically viable Socialists. They would be in favor of Socialist policies, but they might not be able to remain politically viable after they propose them.

Republicans and conservatives have a slightly different philosophy, at least in theory. The rhetoric that they use tends towards acknowledging the difference between the personal and political, and there is an understanding that just because you think that the state should not be involved, doesn't mean that you advocate against that thing. There are a few major (and quite troubling) exceptions: religion and gay marriage, and abortion. For the most part, in issues other than these two, conservatives and Republicans are willing to separate the personal and political (at least rhetorically).

The philosophical problem with Conservatives is when they get into the political. In the political arena, they end up playing the part of militaristic nationalists. Because America! They also tend to agree with the vast majority of the policies of the Democrats. The disagreement is at the margins, like what the tax rate should be, or how large the benefits should be, rather than if there should be benefits at all. They also tend to equate whatever the current system is as free market capitalism, even though it is very much not, even if it is more free market capitalism than whatever the Democrats are proposing.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Bernie Sanders: Problems with Soundbite Policies

Bernie Sanders is a self described democratic socialist who has become fairly popular among young liberals. He is technically independent, but he is running for the Democratic Party nomination. I disagree with most of his economic policies (as I will outline below), but I'm glad that he is at least open about his stances, and he often correctly identifies problems with the current system.

The Policies:
Going through his website, his own promotional material, we have the following headlines:

Real Family Values
Create Decent Paying Jobs
Income and Wealth Inequality
Getting Big Money Out of Politics
Climate Change and the Environment
A Living Wage

As headlines, these might be things I could support in sentiment, but not in practice.

Real Family Values
Bernie Sanders uses 'real family values' as things like mandatory paid vacation, sick leave, and other benefits.These are not the responsibility of the government to provide workers. This is something that workers should negotiate with the employers themselves. How can the government know how much vacation each worker needs or wants? Furthermore, with medical leave, he proposes that it be paid for by an 'insurance' program like Social Security. Government programs are not insurance, and it would not be optional, it would be mandatory.

Many of these policies focus only on the workers' side of the equation, with out recognition that the employers are people too, and have to look out for the interests of the consumer. Suppose a key employee gets sick for an extended period of time. Okay, they now have paid leave. The project that they were working on is sitting around waiting for them to get back. The project is on a tight deadline. What is the employer to do? If this is a key project, and required for the future profitability of the company, then a replacement needs to be hired to do the work of the person on leave. Now, when they get back, what happens? One of them is redundant, and should be fired (or reassigned in the wider economy, if that makes you feel better). The worker is not entitled to pay from an employer without the corresponding exchange.

All of the proposals under this heading are additional regulations on what people are allowed to negotiate with employers. In my ideal world, employees would be able to freely negotiate these terms without the need for a government program or system to require the terms of the employment contract.

Create Decent Paying Jobs
This is a typical view of both the political Left and the political Right. He advocates for a large spending program to build infrastructure and employ young Americans. He doesn't go into the details of what this would mean exactly, but it is a government intervention into the economy which will lead to more problems down the road.

He does correctly point out that the official unemployment rate is inaccurate, since the official numbers ignore the people who have given up looking for work, or those who want more hours. The solution is not, however, to spend other people's money to have people doing what no one cares enough about doing. At least part of his program will include job training, which is less than useless, since it will be paying people to teach other people how to do jobs no one else wants. If they did want them, they would be paying already.

It is conceivable that there are some people who would benefit from these job training programs. The problem is that it is essentially the broken window fallacy. The gains that we see are at the cost of actions we don't see. We can't see how the teachers and instructors would be spending their time if they weren't employed in this government program, and we don't see how the taxpayers who are paying for them would otherwise spend the money.

Income and Wealth Inequality
I've touched on this before, but it bears some repeating. Income inequality is not important. At all. The problem is that the poor are poor. If they are getting even poorer, that is an even bigger problem, but the richness of the wealthy is not at all a problem. There is some degree that this is a complaint about how the world is not fair, and how the rich and the poor should be closer together. In addition to the complaint being about how life is not fair, there are no reason to think that government intervention would improve the situation. In fact, I think that the government intervention has made the problem worse. It is government intervention and regulatory capture that leads to these problems in the first place, and if the banks had been allowed to fail and go through bankruptcy, maybe we would need his plan to break up the banks,

Getting Big Money Out of Politics

Here, I think is one of the worse misinterpretations of the First Amendment that is the problem on the Left, and one that I would hope Bernie Sanders understands better than he is letting on, since he is an independent.

First, I will give him due respect for advocating for a constitutional amendment rather than just overturning the ruling, though he is advocating for that too. But the problem with these ideas is that while money might not quite be speech, money must be spent to make speech effective.

He goes into a little more depth with his interview on Vox, where he gets into ideas that could get very dangerous for democracy, even more than he thinks ours is in danger from the oligarchy. His first idea after reversing the Citizens United decision is to at "at least make sure that candidates who are running will have as much money as their opponents." This might sound okay at first glance, but consider these questions:
Who determines a candidate?
What kind of paper work is required?
Can anyone become a candidate?
Is there a limit on the number of candidates in each race?
Will it be restricted to official political parties?
What if the candidate is religious? Will the state fund the campaign even if it is a religious one?
What about independents?
These are all questions need to be answered about publicly funding candidates. The power is shifted from the voters to the people who pick the candidates. This has already happened to a sad extent because of ballot access laws that impose additional requirements on candidates outside the two party system. Public funding of elections will only exacerbate this problem.

His other idea on this vein is not as bad, but seems somewhat redundant. He thinks that a $100 tax credit for donating to any candidate as a way to 'democratize' the election funding process. It is better than the previous idea, since it doesn't spend taxpayer money on candidates, but my $100 contribution is already a vote. If I'm giving $100 to a candidate, I'm voting for them, and paying them $100 to help convince other people to give their vote to them. At that point, you could basically hold the elections as fundraisers, and each person has 100 votes to spend on the candidates of their choosing. It seems a little redundant.

Climate Change and the Environment
Here, he claims that we need to move away from fossil fuels, and use government funds to 'stimulate' the economy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This doesn't address part of the problem in that the traditional energy companies receive other government subsidies. The way to solve the problem is not to add additional stimulus, but to take away subsidies from the traditional system.

Living Wage
The debate about the minimum 'living wage' is an interesting one, but it again gets into a question of entitlement of the workers. Workers are not entitled to a living wage. Also, the living wage is different in different areas of the country. A national minimum wage doesn't make sense, since the living wage in New York City will be much higher than in Podunk, Anywhere. Personally, where I am now, I can live quite comfortably on $10 an hour full time. That is significantly lower than the living wage that he proposes.

Many people advocating for the living wage also claim that it is not possible to raise a family on the current minimum wage. That sucks for the kids, but why should the bad choices of those parents be our responsibility? It is a very simple solution: don't have kids. Having kids is a choice, and it is one with many long term consequences. If you can't afford children, make the choice not to have them. If you do have them, then make the sacrifice and work your ass off to take care of them, but don't complain to the people who haven't made your choices for you.

The living wage also runs counter to personal agency. People should be allowed to set their own price for their labor, even if it is below what anyone else thinks is tolerable. The living wage infringes on the rights of both the employer and employee to set the prices of their own services.