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2012 September 05 Wednesday
Elections As A Distraction And Sanctification Of Ideas

Thinking about the constrained range in which issues get debated during US elections. My thoughts on this: Nothing can get on the election agenda that is not already part of the mainstream discussion. Elections are between competing sets of ideas. The realistic ideas are not allowed into the discussion. So realistic and useful ideas about fundamental problems do not compete and do not become part of the election agenda.

Elections are for sanctifying already competitive ideas. Elections are a distraction from the earlier stages of policy and idea development in the public sphere. Our problems lie at much earlier stages.

By Randall Parker    2012 September 05 08:07 PM Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
2012 May 30 Wednesday
Celebrities Hurt By Supporting Politicians

Since most celebrities lean left and many have impractical views their hurting their own careers probably helps the country overall.

In this case, the data showed that people who are not particularly fond of Republicans were turned off by Manning's support for the Republicans and adjusted their opinions of him accordingly. Similarly, people who disliked the Democratic Party viewed Jennifer Aniston more negatively after learning about her support for Democrats.

"If this study has a practical meaning," Nownes said. "Its advice for celebrities: keep a low profile."

Even celebrities who have leanings more similar to my own cause me to have doubts about celebrities when they support individual candidates. Think about it. Do you lean Right? Think it was a good idea for right wing action hero actors to support George W. Bush? I don't think so.

What we need: Better ways to identify who is a good judge of political character. Primaries decide the major presidential and Congressional candidates months before the general election. We need better advice for voters in primaries. We also need better voters too.

My preferred voters: serving military officers. My guess is they'll do the best job of any major group I can think of. They'll be smarter than cops. Though the advantage of cops is that they deal with lots of evil people and know how dangerous the evil people are.

By Randall Parker    2012 May 30 08:14 PM Entry Permalink | Comments (5)
2012 May 28 Monday
Randomly Chose Small Subset To Serve As Voters?

Obviously having many tens of millions of people voting leads to very sub-optimal outcomes. A couple of research initiatives argue for a return to the ancient Athenian practice of randomly choosing a small subset of the population to serve as voters. The idea is that the smaller set, knowing their votes count for far more, will take their responsibilities more seriously and try harder to become informed.

Two separate research initiatives—one from a pioneering cryptographer and a second from a team based at Stanford University—have proposed a return to this purer, Athenian-style democracy. Rather than expect everyone to vote, both proposals argue, we should randomly select an anonymous subset of electors from among registered voters. Their votes would then be extrapolated to the wider population. Think of it as voting via statistically valid sample. With a population of 313 million, the US would need about 100,000 voters to deliver a reliable margin of error.

Since these proposals would tend to pull in people who do not vote today I think the outcome would be even worse. The people who do not vote are, on average, both less intelligent and more apathetic. Giving the dumb and apathetic incentives to vote seems like a bad idea. Prospective voters should be subjected to both IQ and knowledge tests. Any who can't make the intellectual grade should not be granted the power to vote.

The Founding Fathers did not grant everyone the power to vote. Neither did the Athenians. The modern liberal Blank Slate view of everyone as capable of intelligent and responsible citizenship has caused us to lose the benefits of wisdom of the these innovators in civic decision making. Since America's democracy has become increasingly dysfunctional I think we ought to consider a return to more ancient practices of democracy.

By Randall Parker    2012 May 28 10:32 PM Entry Permalink | Comments (11)
2011 November 20 Sunday
California High Speed Rail Triples In Price

The editors of the Washington Post, who already have front row seats to the on-going federal follies, are amazed at California's unsound plans for a high speed rail system.

THINGS JUST WENT from bad to worse for high-speed passenger rail in California. After the Golden State’s voters approved a $9 billion bullet-train bond issue in 2008, officials said they could build an 800-mile system by 2020, for $35.7 billion. The cost projection now, as issued by the state Nov. 1: $98.5 billion, with a completion date of 2033.

Time to pull the plug, right? Not according to Gov. Jerry Brown (D). The new “business plan is solid and lays the foundation for a 21st-century transportation system,” he said. Equally upbeat, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood offered Mr. Brown his congratulations on “a sound, step-by-step strategy for building a world-class high-speed rail network.”

The Post editors are amazed at the brazen delusion.

This is unreal.

The state government still faces budget deficits and the need to cut spending further. But in spite of Jerry Brown's maverick persona he's in bed with the state public employee unions. Those unions (and faux independent Jerry) oppose cuts in their excessively high and unsustainable compensation.

California used to be a state with a rapidly rising living standard, high quality of life, and students who performed well in school. It led the country in many developments of a more positive nature. That was before it grew too large and imported a large lower class from Latin America. That was before the political system became thoroughly corrupted by public employees unions. Now California is the poster boy of governmental dysfunction while politicians like Jerry Brown still pretend the fundamentals have not changed. Perhaps when San Jose goes bankrupt (more here) and other cities get dragged into bankruptcy by employee retirement costs the state's fallen condition will become harder to deny.

BTW, $100 billion for a high speed rail system for a state of about 40 million works out to about $2500 per resident (can't really say per citizen). But the vast majority won't live close enough to use it much if at all. Also, the majority pays too little in taxes to contribute much toward its construction. In fact, just 1% of the state income tax filers pay almost half the state income tax. So effectively Jerry Brown's asking less than 150k taxpayers to pay about $50 billion over a couple of decades. What if they leave the state instead?

By Randall Parker    2011 November 20 09:42 PM Entry Permalink | Comments (9)
2011 November 05 Saturday
Americans Leaders In Denial About Social Security

We live in an era where big glaring problems go unfixed and grow in size. Example: The US government's retirement program Social Security. In 2010, several years early than expected, Social Security shifted to net outflow of funds. The old folks lobby blocks any change in benefits and Obama even supported cutting Social Security taxes to stimulate the economy.

Now, Social Security is sucking money out of the Treasury. This year, it will add a projected $46 billion to the nation’s budget problems, according to projections by system trustees. Replacing cash lost to a one-year payroll tax holiday will require an additional $105 billion. If the payroll tax break is expanded next year, as President Obama has proposed, Social Security will need an extra $267 billion to pay promised benefits.

But while talk about fixing the nation’s finances has grown more urgent, fixing Social Security has largely vanished from the conversation.

The message from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is total denial.

“Let’s worry about Social Security when it’s a problem. Today, it is not a problem,” Reid said to applause.

Harry Reid is in office because the majority of voters in Nevada voted for him. I present this as evidence for a need to vet the competence voters.

In an MSNBC interview, he added: “Social Security does not add a single penny, not a dime, a nickel, a dollar to the budget problems we have. Never has and, for the next 30 years, it won’t do that.”

The better people in society need better ways to override the will of the majority. I do not know how best to filter for better voters. But the need is really. America's voters, like America's elites, do a bad job making decisions for the commonwealth. The resulting damage is building up and causing serious problems. I question the long term sustainability of democracy.

Also see my previous post Americans In Denial About Medicare And Social Security.

Update: In a review of Dietrich Dörner's The Logic Of Failure The Social Pathology (a blogger medical doctor writing under a pseudonym) opines the average man just is not up to voting intelligently on complex issues. Therefore he expects democratic government to fail over the long term.

Dorner's book also has implications for political theory: Take for example democracy. It would appear that the average man is suited to understanding simple and immediate problems and such would vote intelligently on such issues, but what about complex issues with long term consequences? Democratic government, given human cognitive limitations, is surely to fail over the long term since the bulk of men are not able to grasp the long term consequences of even moderately simple decision.

Does democracy slowly degrade? Do cognitive limitations of the overwhelming majority of voters doom democracy in the long term? This isn't just an IQ problem. Plenty of biases built into even high IQ brains cause systematic misunderstanding of big problems.

Update II: The Social Pathologist says we have a clear need to limit the voting franchise. I think improvement in the quality of voters is essential to prevent the decline of the democracies. And by that I do not mean transforming each voter into an excellent decision-maker. Clearly, that's not possible.

The stable democracies of the west were initially set up with a limited franchise, as the respective constitutional architects were well aware that limiting the power of a irresponsible or evil monarch was of no benefit if political power was passed onto to an irresponsible, stupid or evil mob. They wanted political power wielded by responsible hands to ensure system stability as they were well aware of both the malice of kings and the stenosophism of the proles. Something that seems to be forgotten in today's deification of the common man and unquestioning approval of the universal franchise. A lot of righties, who otherwise vigourously defend current democracy, fail to note that the leftward shift of modern culture is correlated with the expansion of the voting franchise.

Now, how you limit the franchise is open to honest debate. Personally, I'd like the qualification to be based on a proven ability of an individual to successfully manage their own affairs. A man who can't get his own stuff together has no right lecturing me on mine. Bankrupts, adulterers, criminals, people who still have a mortgage, certain welfare recipients, those who are not paying taxes, people possessing too much wealth, etc, would all be excluded the franchise in my scheme things. The point here is not where you draw the line, but in recognising that a line needs to be drawn. To many people on the right worry endlessly about the responsible and limited government power without paying any attention to responsible voting: not recognising that one is impossible without the other.

Democracy fails when the imprudent prevail.

The imprudent are winning.

By Randall Parker    2011 November 05 11:49 AM Entry Permalink | Comments (10)
2011 October 08 Saturday
Clueless Voters Defeat California Reform Attempts

In a recent post I pointed you all to a piece by Michael Lewis about sick American states in which California plays a big role. If you haven't read it yet here's an excerpt from page 3 about Arnold Schwarzenegger's failed attempt to turn around the state's finances. He was badly beaten by the public employee unions which used their money to get the public to oppose the public's interests.

Two years into his tenure, in mid-2005, he’d tried everything he could think of to persuade individual California state legislators to vote against the short-term desires of their constituents for the greater long-term good of all. “To me there were shocking moments,” he says. Having sped past a do not enter sign, we are now flying through intersections without pausing. I can’t help but notice that, if we weren’t breaking the law by going the wrong way down a one-way street, we’d be breaking the law by running stop signs. “When you want to do pension reform for the prison guards,” he says, “and all of a sudden the Republicans are all lined up against you. It was really incredible, and it happened over and over: people would say to me, ‘Yes, this is the best idea! I would love to vote for it! But if I vote for it some interest group is going to be angry with me, so I won’t do it.’ I couldn’t believe people could actually say that. You have soldiers dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they didn’t want to risk their political lives by doing the right thing.”

Arnie was ready to fix the place. If he'd been dictator he could have made California a much better state. But its decay will continue. Democracy has failed.

The clueless voters were every bit as irresponsible as their elected representatives.

He came into office with boundless faith in the American people—after all, they had elected him—and figured he could always appeal directly to them. That was his trump card, and he played it. In November 2005 he called a special election that sought votes on four reforms: limiting state spending, putting an end to the gerrymandering of legislative districts, limiting public-employee-union spending on elections, and lengthening the time it took for public-school teachers to get tenure. All four propositions addressed, directly or indirectly, the state’s large and growing financial mess. All four were defeated; the votes weren’t even close. From then until the end of his time in office he was effectively gelded: the legislators now knew that the people who had elected them to behave exactly the way they were already behaving were not going to undermine them when appealed to directly. The people of California might be irresponsible, but at least they were consistent.

This is one of the many reasons I am very bearish on the future of California. The coastal region will continue to have great weather. But the voters want plenty of services without paying for them. The voters of California are a microcosm of the voters of America. The American people are deluded into thinking their living standards can be maintained. They engage in reckless actions to try to maintain them. Time to admit government must do less and the public must spend less.

Click thru to the page above and read the details about just how thoroughly the public employee unions have managed to make the California government exist more for the employees than for the voting public.

We need some form of modified democracy. The voters are clearly not up to the task. Got any ideas on how to reform democracy?

By Randall Parker    2011 October 08 07:15 PM Entry Permalink | Comments (20)
2011 July 19 Tuesday
Ignorant TV Watchers Vote On Looks

No surprise here.

Using data from the 2006 U.S. Senate and governors’ races, the study shows that for every 10-point increase in the advantage a candidate has when rated by voters on his or her looks, there will be a nearly 5 percent increase in the vote for that candidate by the uninformed voters who are most firmly planted on their couches. Yet that same advantage in looks is worth only about a 1 percent increase among low-information voters who watch little television.

“It’s not that this effect influences all voters exactly the same way,” says Chappell Lawson, an associate professor of political science at MIT and a co-author of the study. “Voters who watch a lot of television but don’t really know much about the candidates, besides how they look, are particularly susceptible.”

Lawson and Gabriel Lenz — who worked on the study as an associate professor of political science at MIT and is now at the University of California, Berkeley — detail the results in a new paper, “Looking the Part: Television Leads Less Informed Citizens to Vote Based on Candidates’ Appearance,” published this month in the American Journal of Political Science.

So if the less informed TV watchers vote on looks what about the less informed who don't watch TV? How do they decide? The sound of a name? What their friends say? What they see on Facebook? Bumper stickers?

Will we witness the rise of voting systems where less informed or less intelligent people don't get to vote? How about competency qualifications for jurors so that incompetent jurors do not let off guilty people? I know smart people who've served on juries with incompetent people. Their stories about the deliberations do not inspire confidence in the criminal justice system.

By Randall Parker    2011 July 19 10:21 PM Entry Permalink | Comments (12)
2011 May 14 Saturday
Michigan Financially Takes Over Basketcase Cities

The state of Michigan has basically passed a law to handle severe cases of local democracy failure. Republican governor of Michigan Rick Snyder and his Democratic treasurer Andy Dillon (a corporate turn-around expert according to Businessweek) have gotten a law enacted that allows the governor to take over financial basket case local governments and appoint basically a financial dictator for each town.

The law gives those managers—often former politicians or civil servants—broad and controversial powers, including the authority to void union contracts and remove elected officials. It has also given other outsiders, namely private consultants and restructuring experts, an opportunity to do to distressed places what they've done to distressed companies. "Ninety percent of the law is an early warning system," says Representative Al Pscholka, who sponsored it. "The fundamental point is that if the municipality had made the hard choices there would be no need for an emergency manager."

The tacit assumption here is that some electorates will not choose competent elected officials who will live within the (often very modest) means of their taxpayers. Competent management has to be imposed on them. This assumption is a rejection of the idea that democracy is a universal balm. Of course bankrupt, decayed, and corrupt cities, captured by their public employee unions, already provide strong enough evidence that democracy is no panacea.

The management of Detroit's school system by emergency management is now so well established that appointed emergency managers get replaced by new appointed emergency managers when their terms expire. In some cases local governments basically ask for emergency financial management. Flint Michigan's mayor Dayne Walling has asked for state review of the city's finances, a move that could lead to appointment of an emergency financial manager. Walling wants the power to break union contracts.

State-appointed accountant Joseph Harris now runs Benton Harbor Michigan.

The city is now run by Joseph Harris, an accountant and auditor from miles away, one of a small cadre of "emergency managers" dispatched like firefighters by the state to put out financial blazes in Michigan's most troubled cities..

Of course, if government profligacy to the edge of financial disaster is reason to appoint restructuring financial managers with near dictatorial power then the United States of America should be put under the rule of an appointed emergency manager with a strong background in corporate restructurings. The problem: Who would be competent enough to appoint an emergency manager? The Joint Chiefs of Staff?

The 2010s will bring us many more government financial crises including large sovereign government financial crises. The US government will most likely respond to its own worsening crisis by eventually inflating the currency. But state governments, lacking their own currencies, need to develop laws based on the Michigan model.

By Randall Parker    2011 May 14 03:34 PM Entry Permalink | Comments (12)
2010 August 29 Sunday
Razib On Stupidity In Democracy

Razib gives Mitt Romney about a 30 point IQ edge over Sarah Palin. If she's at 115 then that'd put him at 145. Anyone got a way to quantify their IQs?

Kingmaker: Why Sarah Palin’s Endorsements Really Are That Big A Deal vs. Romney’s Problem in a Nutshell. I estimate that Mitt Romney’s IQ is around two standard deviations above Sarah Palin’s. That’s democracy.

Mitt's too smart to get elected President. I hear "We are DEVO, D-E-V-O".

Here's what's sad: Sarah, by making babies (excepting the Downs one), raised the average IQ in America. Women as smart as her should make more babies. Her kids are smarter than the average IQ in America.

I suspect there's an optimal IQ range for voters. Too low and they haven't a clue about what's happening. Too high and they tend to embrace impractical complex theories that are untethered from real life. Maybe voters with IQs in the range 120-130 would vote in the best leaders. Or maybe 115-125.

Giving the voting franchise to the masses was obviously a mistake. We need to figure out how to cut back on the voting power of the masses. How to do it?

By Randall Parker    2010 August 29 10:30 PM Entry Permalink | Comments (38)
2009 November 04 Wednesday
Social Security Bonus Illustrates Decay Of Common Bonds

David Leonhardt asks which group in American deserves $14 billion dollars.

If you wanted to help the economy and you had $14 billion to bestow on any group of people, which group would you choose:

a) Teenagers and young adults, who have an 18 percent unemployment rate.

b) All the middle-age long-term jobless who, for various reasons, are not eligible for unemployment benefits.

c) The taxpayers of the future (by using the $14 billion to pay down the deficit).

d) The group that has survived the Great Recession probably better than any other, with stronger income growth, fewer job cuts and little loss of health insurance.

Obama chose option d: retirees. The Obama Administration wants to send a special bonus check to all Social Security recipients because the inflation rate was too low (negative really) for them to get a cost of living increase in their monthly checks.

My answer: c, the taxpayers of the future. Do not pile up more debt. This isn't free money.

The trajectory of US government debt, heading toward 100% of GDP, makes me think some form of social glue has dissolved. The people who live within the borders of the United States of America do not feel a large enough sense of common bonds to see the US government's debt as their debt. A sense of common ownership of some aspect of American identity might be expected to cause people to demand restraints on their government.

I'm not sure how to put this into words. But if people identify with each other and they all feel members of the same club you might expect them to see the club's decay as their own decay. But instead there's a greater demand to deliver stuff to people today a little sense of owing something to the people of the future.

By Randall Parker    2009 November 04 10:04 PM Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2009 November 02 Monday
Lots Of American Children Living On The Dole

The future of the American family will get even worse than this.

Nearly half of American children – including 90 percent of black children and 90 percent of children who spend their childhoods in single-parent households – will eat meals paid for by food stamps at some point during childhood, reports a Cornell researcher.

When poor people have babies you pay. When people with children get divorced you pay. When single girls let themselves get knocked up and decide to keep the baby you pay.

Nearly one-quarter of U.S. children will live in homes that receive food stamps for five or more years. Food stamps are important indicators of poverty and risk of food insecurity, "two of the most detrimental economic conditions affecting a child's health," says Thomas A. Hirschl, Cornell professor of development sociology and co-author of a study published in the November issue of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine (163:11).

The study is based on an analysis of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a 32-year study of about 4,800 U.S. households; it builds on the authors' 2004 research that reported that half of all Americans will use food stamps during adulthood.

The welfare state supports this. Guess who has more babies?

Putting those risk factors together, the researchers found that 97 percent of black children living in non-married households where the household head has less than 12 years of education will have received food stamps, compared with 21 percent of white children living in married households whose head of household has 12 or more years of education.

By Randall Parker    2009 November 02 10:02 PM Entry Permalink | Comments (21)
Texans Get More For Their Tax Dollars Than Californians

In a piece written for City Journal William Voegeli argues that Californians get less per tax dollar and that high tax states fail to deliver higher quality services.

State and local government expenditures as a whole were 46.8 percent higher in California than in Texas in 2005–06—$10,070 per person compared with $6,858. And Texas not only spends its citizens’ dollars more effectively; it emphasizes priorities that are more broadly beneficial. In 2005–06, per-capita spending on transportation was 5.9 percent lower in California than in Texas, and highway expenditures in particular were 9.5 percent lower, a discovery both plausible and infuriating to any Los Angeles commuter losing the will to live while sitting in yet another freeway traffic jam. With tax revenues scarce and voters strongly opposed to surrendering more of their income, Texas officials devote a large share of their expenditures to basic services that benefit the most people. In California, by contrast, more and more spending consists of either transfer payments to government dependents (as in welfare, health, housing, and community development programs) or generous payments to government employees and contractors (reflected in administrative costs, pensions, and general expenditures). Both kinds of spending weaken California’s appeal to consumer-voters, the first because redistributive transfer payments are the least publicly beneficial type of public good, and the second because the dues paid to Club California purchase benefits that, increasingly, are enjoyed by the staff instead of the members.

Spending is up even after adjusted for population growth and inflation. Most Californians have nothing to show for it.

Californians have the best possible reason to believe that the state’s public sector is not holding up its end of the bargain: clear evidence that it used to do a better job. Bill Watkins, executive director of the Economic Forecast Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has calculated that once you adjust for population growth and inflation, the state government spent 26 percent more in 2007–08 than in 1997–98. Back then, “California had teachers. Prisoners were in jail. Health care was provided for those with the least resources.” Today, Watkins asks, “Are the roads 26 percent better? Are schools 26 percent better? What is 26 percent better?”

See the graph on that web page that shows the proportion of total revenue that goes to each of several categories in Texas and California. More money goes to government administration and public employee retirement in California than in Texas. But curiously, a larger fraction of the total budget in California goes to public safety. I assume that means prisons, police, and judiciaries. I'd like to see the ratio of police to population as well as prisoners and prison guards to population. Are Californians jusy paying more for the same (or lower) level of public safety services?

California has lots of obsolete commissions and boards that exist so that politicians can parachute into them after their legislative careers come to an end.

The resistance comes from the blob of interest groups, inside and outside government, that like California’s public sector just fine the way it is and see reform as a threat to their comfortable, lucrative arrangements. It turns out, for example, that all the pointless boards and commissions are bulletproof because they provide golden parachutes to politicians turned out of the state legislature by California’s strict term limits. In the middle of the state’s most recent budget crisis, State Senator Tony Strickland proposed a bill to eliminate salaries paid to members of boards and commissions who, despite holding fewer than two formal hearings or official meetings per month, had received annual compensation in excess of $100,000. The bill died in committee.

We pay for some awesome retirement packages.

Take entitlements and public-employee pensions, which are, Watkins says, “the real source of the state’s fiscal distress.” A 2005 study by the Legislative Analyst’s Office (California’s version of the Congressional Budget Office) found that pensions for California’s government employees “surpassed the other states—often significantly—at all retirement ages.” California government workers retiring at age 55 received larger pensions than their counterparts in any other state (leaving aside the many states where retirement as early as 55 isn’t even possible). The California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility periodically posts a list of retired city managers, state administrators, public university deans, and police chiefs who receive pensions of at least $100,000 per year. The latest report shows 5,115 lucky members in this six-figure club. The state’s annual bill for polishing their gold watches is $610 million.

I don't see how California gets better. The taxes and other problems drive out the people who are most eager to vote against out-of-control parasitism. California's demographic trends don't hold out hope for a more responsible electorate.

The optimistic assessment is that things are going to get worse in California before they get better. The pessimistic assessment is that they’re going to get worse before they get much worse.

Vicious cycle that keeps getting worse? Or will a backlash ever cause needed fixes?

By Randall Parker    2009 November 02 09:39 PM Entry Permalink | Comments (7)
2008 November 06 Thursday
Irresponsible Spendthrift Voters

Steve Sailer criticises the California initiative process as spendthrift voters show themselves just as irresponsible as politicians who buy votes with pork.

Every year in California, we get to vote on about a dozen initiatives, most of which we voters are completely clueless about. I'm not talking about the much publicized gay marriage one -- everybody is entitled to an opinion on that. It's all the bond issues. Shall we issue $10 billion in bonds for a supertrain from LA to SF? How about $7 billion to removes asbestos from LA schools? (I think they both passed. I'm too depressed to look them up.)

Sure, why not? They're bonds, right, not taxes? So we won't have to pay them. I guess, theoretically, we're supposed to pay them sometime, but no doubt we'll just flip the state to a greater fool before that happens.

Obviously, the initiative system is broken. The state is completely broke, with a predicted illegal shortfall of $25 billion next year in the state budget. Yet voters are continuing to take on debt with no idea how it will be paid. This is the state that sank the world economy. We're too childish to have that kind of spending power.

We hear a lot of criticism lately of irresponsible financial institutions. But what about irresponsible voters? California's voters just went on another spending spree.

Voters in California narrowly approved a $9.95 billion bond issue for high-speed rail, okayed $980 million for projects at children's hospitals, and gave the nod to $900 million for a veterans mortgage program. In Los Angeles, voters approved a $7 billion facilities bond issue for the Los Angeles Unified School District with nearly 70% of the vote, easily eclipsing a 55% requirement, as well as a $3.5 billion measure for the Los Angeles Community College District.


California voters approved three separate state general obligation bond authorizations, including the largest, a $9.95 billion authorization to finance a high-speed passenger trains system. They rejected a $5 billion bond measure that would have financed rebates for buyers of a variety of alternative-fuel vehicles.

In Los Angeles County, 67% of voters approved a half-cent sales tax that will raise $30 billion to $40 billion to fund light rail, subway and other transit projects over the next 30 years. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority hasn't yet said how much it will spend on a pay-as-you-go basis versus bond financing.

Voters approved $2.1 billion of GOs for the San Diego Unified School District with 69% of the vote. In Long Beach, voters approved a $1.2 billion GO bond measure for the Long Beach Unified School District.

San Francisco voters overwhelmingly approved an $887 million GO bond measure to rebuild San Francisco General Hospital, giving the measure 79% of the vote. Santa Clara County voters gave their public hospital, the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, 78% support in an $840 million GO bond referendum.

The East Bay Regional Park District passed a $500 million open space bond with 71% of the vote.

Schools and trains bring out the profligacy in California voters.

Steve wants to put limits on how much money an initiative can spend. But the problem here goes deeper than the initiative system. Democracy is broken. While democracy is becoming more broken the idea that democracy will break in this way goes all the way back to Aristotle in his "The Politics volume 1": The many poor can abuse power and use democracy to plunder just as much as the tyrant can in a dictatorship.

Yet another question: Who ought to have the supreme authority in the state? The many,—the wealthy,—the tyrant,—the good,—the one best man? Any of these alternatives may lead to bad results. If the poor rule, they may divide the property of the rich. Is not this unjust? ‘Nay,’ will be the reply, ‘the people did it.’ But if they go on and on, the poor majority dividing by force the wealth of the rich minority, the state will be ruined. And on the same principle the rich or the tyrant may rob the poor. Yet surely justice is the preservation and not the destruction of states. The people, if they plunder the rich, are no better than the tyrant; both make might prevail over right. ‘But ought not the good to rule?’ Then a slight will be put upon everybody else. ‘Or the one best man?’—that will make the number excluded still larger. Or, shall the law, and not the will of man, have the supreme power? And what if the law be defective?

Here is another variation on Aristotle's look at the unjust poor fleecing the rich. You can find more great passages in classical Western books in the Liberty Fund's Online Library of Liberty.

By Randall Parker    2008 November 06 08:12 PM Entry Permalink | Comments (10)
2008 September 27 Saturday
Megan McArdle: Persuadable Voters Crazy

Voters whose minds are not made up do not like the existing Iraq war but are excited by the idea of attacking Iran.

CNN has a running poll of "persuadable" voters which shows up as a sort of red, green and blue ekg on the bottom of the screen--though only, I'm told, for those who are viewing in HD. It's completely mesmerizing. So far I've learned: McCain talking about Iraq is not popular (though mostly that's "persuadable" Democrats dragging down the average). But McCain bashing Iran is like one of those third world dictators who win with 99.4% of the vote.

Conclusion: "persuadable" voters are crazy people who don't like the war we have, but want to start another one just in case that one's more fun.

Do these people only learn the hard way? Or do they think we'll just bomb Iran and they like bombing wars?

Remember, once the United States commits to some country the leaders who made the original decision have a hard time reversing it because admission of failure is something most leaders are either very averse or extremely averse to. Reagan could pull out of Lebanon. But Bush Jr. can't pull out of Iraq and McCain feels just as bound to this mistake as a Senator.

If only Reagan was still President maybe he'd attack Iran to give himself political cover for pulling out of Iraq. Whether Reagan attacked Grenada to give himself political cover to pull out of Lebanon is debated by historians. But if a decision could be made to attack Iranian nuclear facilities in exchange for pulling out of Iraq would that deliver a net benefit?

By Randall Parker    2008 September 27 08:59 AM Entry Permalink | Comments (9)
2008 January 27 Sunday
Ethnic Cleansing And Population Growth In Kenya

One month ago Kenya had an election. In some circles elections are held to be a sort of universal balm or cure for what ails a society. Terrorism? Elections will cure it. Poverty? Just need elections. Corruption? Elections will throw the bums out. Well, in reality elections sometimes tear a society apart into warring tribes.

NAKURU, Kenya — Nairobi, the capital of Kenya, may seem calm, but anarchy reigns just two hours away.

In Nakuru, furious mobs rule the streets, burning homes, brutalizing people and expelling anyone not in their ethnic group, all with complete impunity.

On Saturday, hundreds of men prowled a section of the city with six-foot iron bars, poisoned swords, clubs, knives and crude circumcision tools. Boys carried gladiator-style shields and women strutted around with sharpened sticks.

The police were nowhere to be found.

The "international community" ought to consider a partition of Kenya. But partition is anathema. It is an acknowledgment that we can't all just get along. If ethnic groups aren't compatible in Iraq or Kenya, heck, they might not be compatible in Brixton or in the suburbs of Paris. So deny that one with venomous vehemence.

In large area of Kenya - including Nairobi - ethnic cleansing is turning ethnically mixed neighborhoods into ethnically pure neighborhoods. This is happening at a faster pace than what we've seen in Baghdad. Without American troops dying to prevent it the ethnic cleansing plays out much more rapidly..

Nakuru, the biggest town in the beautiful Rift Valley, is the scene of a mass migration now moving in two directions. Luos are headed west, Kikuyus are headed east, and packed buses with mattresses strapped on top pass one another in the road, with the bewildered children of the two ethnic groups staring out the windows at one another.

Some UN-organized mission could go into Kenya and move the ethnic groups away from each other with trucks.

Part of Kenya's problem is that population growth increases competition between ethnic groups for limited resources.

In only 80 years, Kenya's population has jumped from 2.9 million to 37 million. Had America grown at the same rate since 1928, when it had 120 million people, it would now have 1.56 billion citizens.

Kenya belongs to a group of some 40 countries that have extremely high population growth - rates of increase that I call "demographic armament." In a typical nation of this group, every 1,000 males aged 40 to 44 are succeeded by at least 2,500 boys aged 0 to 4. In Kenya there are 4,190 such boys.

Most of the world's population growth is occurring in countries that generate little or no new technology or science. They are firmly in the column "Part Of The Problem" and in no way in the column "Part Of The Solution". So the Problem is becoming bigger. Oh, and you might want to go see any endangered species you've ever wanted to see now because all those hungry human mouths are doing to devastate the remaining wild habitats. Good bye other species.

A Christian Science Monitor reporter says if a Democrat wins the US presidency then US policy might shift toward more support for population growth control.

If a Democratic president enters the White House about a year from now, some experts in family planning anticipate a boon for mankind: a greater effort by the United States government to restrain world population growth.

As it is, when a baby born today enters kindergarten, the number of people in the world will have grown by more than 300 million. That's on top of the 6.7 billion individuals alive today. That four-year population-growth projection is comparable to the 303 million people now living in the US – the third most populous nation in the world after China and India.

I think Barack Hussein Obama would have a hard time convincing himself that Kenya's most pressing issue is birth control. He's got a big need to feel ethnically authentic and politically correct on race. So how's he going to admit that more Kenyans is a bad thing? That's like saying that more Kenyans are not a blessing and not valuable resources. Why would that be? He won't like some of the obvious answers to that question.

So could Hillary bring herself to make a serious effort at birth control in Africa? On the one hand, she can win points with her feminist supporters by supporting a woman's right to an abortion. On the other hand, if she tries really hard she opens herself up to charges of racism since birth control for the poor people of the world ends up focusing on non-white peoples. What, we need fewer non-white people? Heresy! "The inquisition, lets begin. The inquisition, look out sin."

By Randall Parker    2008 January 27 08:58 AM Entry Permalink | Comments (4)
2007 December 27 Thursday
Assassinated Benazir Bhutto No Saint For Human Rights

John Burns of the New York Times paints a portrait of Benazir Bhutto as someone not very morally principled.

A deeply polarizing figure, the self-styled “daughter of Pakistan” was twice elected prime minister and twice expelled from office amid a swirl of corruption charges that ultimately propelled her into self-imposed exile in London and Dubai for much of the past decade.

She claims to have been framed on corruption charges by political enemies. But given what is known about her lifestyle, attitudes, and the assortment of people making the accusations her claims of innocence seem hard to credit.

Burns said her admirers compared the Bhuttos to the Borgias. The Borgia Popes were huge scandals.

Violence ran like a thread through her family life, to an extent that caused her admirers to compare the Bhuttos, in the contribution they made to Pakistan’s political life, and in the price they paid for it, to the Kennedys — and her enemies, pointing to the Bhuttos’ bitter family feuds, to compare them to the Borgias. The younger of Ms. Bhutto’s two brothers, Shahnawaz, died mysteriously of poisoning in 1995, in an apartment owned by the Bhuttos in Cannes, France. French investigators said they suspected that a family feud over a multimillion-dollar inheritance from Zulfikar Bhutto was involved, but no charges were filed.

Ms. Bhutto’s other brother, Murtaza, who along with Shahnawaz founded a terrorist group that sought to topple General Zia, spent years in exile in Syria beginning in the 1980s. When Murtaza finally returned to Pakistan, in 1994, he quickly fell into a bitter dispute with Ms. Bhutto over the family’s political legacy — and, he told a reporter at the time, over the money he said had been placed in a Swiss bank by their father when he was prime minister. In 1996, Murtaza was gunned down outside his home in Karachi, and his widow, Ghinva, blamed Asif Ali Zardari, Ms. Bhutto’s husband.

Okay, one or both of her brothers might have been killed in family feuds. Also, they both operated a terrorist group against the Zia government (and Zia was the one who said "Charlie did it!" about former Congressman Charlie Wilson's glorious war against the Soviets in Afghanistan).

She and her husband Asif Ali Zardari were accused of embezzling $1.5 billion dollars.

After her second dismissal from office in 1996, a friend said Ms. Bhutto’s sense of herself as inseparable from the fate of Pakistan contributed to actions that led Pakistani investigators to accuse her and Mr. Zardari of embezzling as much $1.5 billion from government accounts.

Pakistan is a pretty corrupt place. Benazir claimed her government was less corrupt than the military governments. Maybe that's true. But then is Pakistan incapable of a low level of corruption? Do the people have personalities and moral codes that make large scale corruption inevitable? After all, they do not possess the extreme genetic shyness that helps make Finland so uncorrupt. They might be innately corrupt people.

Anyone see a parallel with Ahmed Chalabi's tireless efforts to ingratiate himself with Washington DC power brokers?

The American bid to restore her to power in Islamabad reflected her tireless efforts to maintain a network of the powerful among the political media elite in Washington and in London.

So I want to know: Which foreign individuals are currently living in exile in Washington and London plotting and lobbying to be returned to power with American and British help? Which ones have a decent chance of pulling off their ambitions? Who are future Chalabis and Bhuttos? Do any of the people we put into power end up turning out well for us? We need to know.

Oh the irony. The New York Times editors simultaneously point to Bhutto's indifference to human rights and her supposed "electoral legitimacy". Um, aren't liberals supposed to view those indifferent to human rights as illegitimate?

Ms. Bhutto and her father and political mentor, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, were democratic, but imperfect political leaders — imperious, indifferent to human rights and, in her case, tainted by serious charges of corruption. The father was deposed by a military coup and then hanged. The daughter was twice elected and twice deposed. But both had one undeniable asset: electoral legitimacy — legitimacy that the generals and the Islamic extremists could only seek to destroy or, in Mr. Musharraf’s case, hope to borrow.

Democracy is not an end in itself. The will of the majority is not (or at least should not be) the definition of the moral and ethical. The will of democratically elected dictators (which describes what electoral politics produces in many countries) should not be accorded legitimacy.

Someone who appoints herself "chairperson for life" for her own political party is not a friend of limited government.

That confidence led her to declare herself "chairperson for life" of the opposition Pakistan People's Party and to an imperious style that rewarded loyalists but alienated many others.

Mansoor Ijaz, described as a New York financier of Pakistani ancestry, describes Benazir in unflattering terms.

During her two terms in office as prime minister, Ms. Bhutto earned a reputation among many as an imperious, venal, and corrupt politician, bringing Pakistan to the brink of financial ruin on more than one occasion.


I knew Benazir well. I am often blamed by her supporters for having helped bring her government down in 1996 by exposing her hypocrisy and corruption in two Wall Street Journal Op-Ed pieces. We remained in touch over the years after she went into exile, even developing a begrudging respect for each other over time. She struck me as a terribly conflicted person who deep in her heart wanted to save Pakistan from its evils, but was unable to put her personal lifestyle choices aside in doing so.

Lots of people refer to the woman as imperious. They also call her corrupt. But did she have any redeeming qualities? Well, yes, one big one I can think of: She tried to hold power as a woman in a country where fundamentalist Muslims hate women in high places. But aside from that what can be said in her favor? The answer is not clear to me.

Update: Fatima Bhutto, Benazir's niece, wrote an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times arguing that Benazir's brother was assassinated by the Pakistani government while Aunt Benazir was prime minister.

And I am suspicious of her talk of ensuring peace. My father was a member of Parliament and a vocal critic of his sister's politics. He was killed outside our home in 1996 in a carefully planned police assassination while she was prime minister. There were 70 to 100 policemen at the scene, all the streetlights had been shut off and the roads were cordoned off. Six men were killed with my father. They were shot at point-blank range, suffered multiple bullet wounds and were left to bleed on the streets.

My father was Benazir's younger brother. To this day, her role in his assassination has never been adequately answered, although the tribunal convened after his death under the leadership of three respected judges concluded that it could not have taken place without approval from a "much higher" political authority.

Benazir's husband prospered from his marriage to her.

Zardari's reputation as a dodgy businessman was cemented by his remarkable transformation from a bankrupt into a fabulously wealthy man shortly after marrying Benazir, earning him the tag "Mr Ten Percent". Nevertheless, Benazir Bhutto stood by him, appointing him to her cabinet in 1996. After her second government fell, a stream of real and dubious corruption and criminal charges was brought against him, keeping him in jail without trial for eight years.

Benazir tried to control the press just as she criticized Musharraf for doing.

The strongest backlash was provoked by her attempts to control the press and manipulate the judiciary. The appointment of judges on the basis of loyalty to her party caused great damage to the judiciary's already dwindling credibility, not to say her own.

Connections got her into elite schools and she lived the high life.

In 1969, aged 17, she was admitted to study comparative government at Harvard, aided by a recommendation from the economist J.K. Galbraith, a friend of her father's. "I was amongst a sea of women," she later wrote, "who felt as unimpeded by their gender as I did." From there she went to Oxford, where she was remembered as a cosmopolitan Asian girl about town, known to her friends as Bibi or Pinky. She drove to lectures in a yellow MG, and spent her winters in Gstaad and summers on the Cannes lido. She had a penchant for royal biographies, slushy romances and 1970s easy listening, and she liked to browse in Harrods. Yet her ambitious side was to surface later.

Three years before he was killed by the police Benazir's brother Murtaza Bhutto was accused of trying to stir rebellion against his sister's government.

Charges of rebellion were filed today against Murtaza Bhutto, the younger brother of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and a trial was scheduled for Jan. 2.

Saying "the prosecution has enough evidence to establish the involvement of the accused in the case," a special court accused Mr. Bhutto of mounting an insurgency, undertaking activities to destabilize the Government by force, spreading hatred and rebellion against the state and anti-state activities.

Benazir had lots of enemies. But the Muslim fundamentalists were her biggest enemies and probably killed her.

Bhutto had returned from eight years of self-imposed exile with a pledge to reform Pakistan in ways that would upset entrenched political interests, powerful fundamentalist religious organizations, and Al Qaeda and the Taliban. She was aligned with the U.S., and vowed to crack down on the increasingly popular radicalism spreading through the country. And she had publicly accused the government's military and intelligence establishments of coddling terrorists.

With lots of ties between elements of the Pakistani government and the fundamentalists it is hard to tell whether elements of the Pakistani government are close to whoever did a hit on Benazir.

Complicating the situation is the fact that many of the extremist groups have ties to Pakistan's political establishment, including elements of the government loyal to President Pervez Musharraf, as well as close ties to the military and its intelligence agencies. Bhutto had long criticized such links, and in the wake of her killing Thursday, some of her supporters accused the government of playing a role. One senior U.S. counter-terrorism official also said Washington suspected that rogue officials within the military or intelligence agencies could have been involved, noting that though there is no evidence, they have detested Bhutto for more than a decade.

If the US government really wanted her to go in there and purge the Pakistani government of Muslim fundamentalist radicals then the US government should have done far more to ensure her security before she returned to Pakistan. Bush should have worked out her security with Musharraf in advance in detail.

Before you start feeling sympathy for Shahnawaz and Murtaza you might want to know that Benazir's brothers ran a group that carried out bombings in Pakistan.

*Ms Bhutto wrested control of the PPP from her mother, Begum Nusrat Bhutto, while her two younger brothers, Shahnawaz and Murtaza, set up a militant group called al-Zulfikar, which orchestrated a string of bombings in Pakistan. They were both killed in 1985 and 1996 respectively.

*Shahnawaz, 28, was found dead in his apartment while in exile on the French Riviera. His family insisted he had been poisoned.

Steven R. Weisman of the New York Times says Benazir represented Pakistan's feudal aristocracy.

What did she represent? There have traditionally been three major power bases in Pakistan: the army, the clergy and the feudal aristocracy. They make shifting alliances with each other. Benazir “is feudal to the core,” a friend of hers once told me. She was a brilliant debater as president of the Oxford Union, and wore blue jeans, drove a sports car and enjoyed parties, and she was devoted to her father without that much of an ideological set of beliefs. She knew her father was a man who trusted no one, especially the army. They often talked about it.

Well, that explains why George W. Bush liked her. She's just like the feudal aristocracy in Mexico that the Bush family see as kindred spirits. Pakistan has other parallels with Mexico such as the Benazir's assassination compared with the circumstances surrounding the assassination of Mexican presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in 1994.

By Randall Parker    2007 December 27 10:20 PM Entry Permalink | Comments (21)
2007 June 15 Friday
Bush Helped Islamic Fundamentalists Come To Power

Pressure from George W. Bush forced an election that brought Islamic fundamentalists to power in the Palestinian territories. Now that Hamas is wiping out (i.e. killing in street executions) Fatah members in the Gaza Strip Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post points out that Bush's push for democracy created the conditions that allowed Hamas to take over.

Five years ago this month, President Bush stood in the Rose Garden and laid out a vision for the Middle East that included Israel and a state called Palestine living together in peace. "I call on the Palestinian people to elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror," the president declared.

Some people might see Bush's statement as in pursuit of a noble cause. But no. If one has a realistic view of human nature then seeing the probable result is not hard to do. Therefore Bush is either irresponsible or he is deluded. If he is deluded then the costs of delusions about human nature are once again demonstrated just as the costs have been demonstrated in Iraq and elsewhere.

The first step toward peace was really a first step toward civil war and Islamic theocracy.

The takeover this week of the Gaza Strip by the Hamas militant group dedicated to the elimination of Israel demonstrates how much that vision has failed to materialize, in part because of actions taken by the administration. The United States championed Israel's departure from the Gaza Strip as a first step toward peace and then pressed both Israelis and Palestinians to schedule legislative elections, which Hamas unexpectedly won. Now Hamas is the unchallenged power in Gaza.

Democracy brings Islamic fundamentalists to power in the Middle East. Western style freedoms and individual rights are not the unversal aspirations of all humanity.

In the Middle East people have different values and loyalties. Democracy does not bring peace between Sunnis and Shias. Democracy does not liberate women. Democracy does not increase Muslim tolerance of Christians, Baha'i, Zoroastrians, Druze, or Yezidi.

Pseudo-conservatives who embrace liberal delusions about human nature pursue policies that cause the same sorts of damage that liberal policies cause. The same idiotic assumptions about human nature that brought us the debacle in Iraq and the empowering of Hamas in Gaza are bringing us yet another illegal alien amnesty. We need to oppose the idiocy and call it for what it is.

By Randall Parker    2007 June 15 10:52 PM Entry Permalink | Comments (1)
2007 February 18 Sunday
Hugo Chavez Threatens Supermarket Takeover In Venezuela

The President of Venezuela is threatening to take over supermarkets that sell meat for market prices.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez threatened to nationalize supermarkets that sell meat above the government-set price as his administration struggles to stem a surge in the cost of basic foodstuffs.

Chavez told a gathering of pensioners Wednesday in Caracas, Venezuela, he's waiting for the "first excuse" to take over butcher shops and supermarket chains that manipulate stockpiles of beef and other foods to artificially boost prices. The government blamed manipulators for a 4 percent surge in the cost of food in January that pushed inflation to the fastest in two years.

"If they continue to violate the interests of the people, I'm going to take the meat markets and supermarkets," Chavez said. "I'll nationalize them." Chavez, who won re-election for a third term in December, is raising the prospect of seizures to push companies to support his social programs and transform the oil-rich nation into a socialist state. Chavez is completing state control of companies in the energy and telecommunications industries, which he deems a strategic part of his socialist plan.

You might be thinking: Wait, everyone knows that price controls produce shortages. Everyone knows that below market prices end up below production costs and then the producers stop producing and shortages get worse. You might be thinking that the old USSR was characterized by long lines and empty shops. Surely, the Venezuelans have learned the glaringly obvious lessons of economic history?

Venezuela (and Russia and Iraq and quite a few other places) illustrates why progress is not inevitable and why democracy does not always work. Stupidity and ignorance hold back most of the world. If people are too unwise and intellectually incapable then they'll do damage with their power to vote and as bureaucrats and elected officials.

The government is combining price controls with subsidies to produce food.

The Venezuelan Farmers' Federation (Fedeagro) welcomed Monday the government decision to remove the value added tax (VAT) from meat and implement subsidies to agricultural products, said Fedeagro head Gustavo Moreno.

However, the senior representative added, this action must go along with additional policies, including a review once in a while of price controls.

The National Association of Supermarkets and Services (Ansa) backed also the government offer to remove 8 percent of VAT from beef. "This will be translated into a direct benefit for consumers," said the agency in a communiqué.

Venezuela makes enough money from oil sales to subsidize lower prices for food. This might work for a while. But eventually declining oil field production will make all the costs of price control unavoidable.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez rules by decree and he was given dictatorial power by the democratic process.

To illustrate just how democratic the country is, the 167 members of the National Assembly — all of whom support the president because the opposition boycotted the last parliamentary election — convened outdoors in Caracas last month, to be better seen by the throngs of red-shirted Chavistas gathered in the square, and unanimously voted themselves into irrelevance.

The vote gave Chavez the power to make laws by decree for 18 months, with no need to even use his Assembly's rubber stamp. Seeing as how Chavez already had total control over the judicial branch, how he is taking steps to quell opposition media and how he could have rammed any law he chose through the Assembly with barely a semblance of debate or a whisper of protest, his new powers seem gratuitous. But even symbolic oversight can be messy, bureaucratic and slow. Kind of like democracy.

The Assembly effectively voted to say that they are not competent to create legislation.

Dictatorial powers over government actions, firm control of the judiciary, and nationalization of major industries aren't the only ways that Chavez has extended his powers in Venezuela. Chavez is also undercutting the independence of so-called Non-Government Organizations (NGOs). Chavez is also working to cut back on TV broadcast stations that are critical of his government.

As Chavez accelerates his country's shift toward "21st-century socialism," a decision not to renew RCTV's broadcast license is among the government's more dramatic steps, and one that has caused serious concern among free-press advocates. While Venezuelan officials have accused the 54-year-old station of having collaborated with organizers of a 2002 coup against Chavez, the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York, the Organization of American States and the Catholic Church have warned that press freedoms in Venezuela are in danger.

The case has attracted widespread attention from officials in Washington and Latin America, for whom the non-renewal of a license has echoes of right-wing dictatorships of the past, when newspapers and broadcasters were closed if they veered from the party line. Though self-censorship and slayings of journalists remain common, particularly in Colombia and Mexico, the closing of a media outlet for political reasons has not occurred in years.

Vladimir Putin's government has done the same thing with opposition press in Russia and to an even greater extent. Putin's been in office longer and so he's had more time to reduce the size and influence of a free press.

The underlying political conflict driving events in Venezuela, and in much of the rest of Latin America, is between a lower IQ Amerind lower class and a smaller higher IQ ethnically Spanish upper class. The Amerinds have less. The want governments that'll take from the more affluent Spanish and give to them. Hugo Chavez rules a country which is perfectly suited to satisfy their desires because Venezuela is a big oil exporter. The oil revenue finances the wealth redistribution.

By Randall Parker    2007 February 18 12:28 PM Entry Permalink | Comments (14)
2007 January 17 Wednesday
Hugo Chavez Nationalizing Industries In Venezuela

Fresh from a landslide reelection Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is moving to silence dissenters as he puts much of the Venezuela government under state ownership or control.

In the past week, he has purged his cabinet of ministers deemed insufficiently radical, bringing in a new group of loyalists that includes his brother, Adan. He has begun to merge the more than 20 parties in his governing coalition into a single force under his control. And, under a controversial new law, he is set to take control of nongovernmental organizations that could oppose his government.

"I don't think there is a lot of ambiguity about what Chávez is doing," says Michael Shifter, an analyst at Interamerican Dialogue in Washington, DC. "He wants to hold on to power for as long as possible, and even though he just won a resounding reelection, he doesn't want to take any chances of dissent building."

Independent groups are going to get regulated out of existence. I've been getting emails warning me that Nancy Pelosi is trying to implement a weaker version of this approach with more grass roots organizations required to register with the federal government and to abide by more federal restrictions.

Chávez is also moving to take control of civic groups, some of which have been critical of his government. Under a proposed law now in Congress, NGOs will have to reregister with the government, even if they have been operating legally for years. Foreign funding will have to pass through the government, and NGOs would have to open their files to anyone that requests it. Human rights campaigners say it would effectively end their work.

"If approved, it will [effectively] outlaw all nongovernmental organizations" working in Venezuela, says Liliana Ortega of the Venezuelan human rights group, Cofavic. "There will only be groups approved by the government."

Amnesty International has called on Chávez to revoke the bill, with a spokesperson saying it would "restrict the legitimate work of human rights defenders in Venezuela." But Chávez shows no signs of retreating.

Phone, utilities, and oil are all going under state ownership.

VENEZUELAN President Hugo Chavez's plans to nationalise the nation's largest phone company and utilities, gain greater control over the oil industry and seek authority to make laws by executive order are sending investors racing for the exits.

Chavez wants to rule until 2021 and wants to rule by decree.

Mr Chavez's move to assert state control over the economy mirrors his efforts to cement his political control; with Cuba's President Fidel Castro ailing, the speech amounted to a claim of leadership of the Latin American left. In his speech, he said he would ask the Venezuelan Congress to allow him to rule by decree, a power he enjoyed for a year in 2000-2001. Last month, the 52-year-old President said he would seek to change the constitution to end presidential term limits.

This man was democratically elected and reelected.

If democracy is such a total cure-all for what ails the world then why did Hugo Chavez win a landslide reelection victory in December 2006?

Chávez, who won a second six-year term in a landslide election victory in December, also hinted at moves to increase state control over privately run oil refineries, change the laws governing private business and revoke the constitutional autonomy of the Central Bank of Venezuela.

To all the Panglossian democracy campaigners around the world (and especially in neoconservative and liberal think tanks in Washington DC): Democracy only works if a populace is smart enough, truly believes in political freedom, and is willing to restrain their own desires to take everything from the most productive. Not every populace has the needed qualities to make democracy work. Democracy is failing abysmally in Venezuela, Nigeria, South Africa, and other countries.

By Randall Parker    2007 January 17 10:41 PM Entry Permalink | Comments (3)
2006 December 01 Friday
Nigerian Elections Contested With Murder And Bribery

Nigeria contains one sixth of the population of Africa and the New York Times reports signs that democracy is failing in Nigeria.

ADO EKITI, Nigeria — Early one Sunday morning in June, a mysterious text message flashed across Kayode Fayemi’s cellphone.

“Since you continue to oppose Governor Fayose, we shall kill you,” the message read, referring to the bare-knuckled incumbent at the time, Ayo Fayose. It was signed, “THE FAYOSE M SQUAD.”

Mr. Fayemi, a candidate for governor in this tiny state in southwest Nigeria, tried to brush off the threat. But if there was any doubt what the M in the message stood for, it evaporated six weeks later, when another candidate for governor, a World Bank consultant, was stabbed and bludgeoned to death in his bed.

So lucrative is public office here that even in a backwater like Ekiti, a state of only 2 million people in a nation of 130 million, the state house and the spoils that come with it are apparently worth killing for. Of Nigeria’s 36 governors, 31 are under federal investigation, mostly on suspicion of corruption, and 5 have already been impeached, including Mr. Fayose in October. He is now in hiding.

“This is democracy at work in Nigeria,” Mr. Fayemi muttered as he drove between campaign stops in Ekiti in early November. “Murder and money, violence and fraud.”

Since the military dictatorship ended in Nigeria 7 years ago public trust in democracy has plummeted to to less than a quarter of the population.

Nigerian oil money goes to whichever politicians are brutal enough to kill, stuff ballot boxes, intimidate, and bribe to get and keep power.

Here in the state of Ekiti, that check is typically $14 million, but lately it has been more than double that because of soaring oil prices. In a tiny state like this, that money could go far toward meeting the basic needs of the population — schools, roads, health clinics, running water.

In reality, many governors steal with impunity, buying the loyalty of the legislature and using state money to erect systems of patronage that help keep incumbents in office, analysts and political leaders say.

Democracy is supposed to be a panacea according to neoconservatives and liberals. Use of the popular will to choose leaders is supposed to result in wiser government and much preferred to any other form of government. Democracy and liberal government are supposed to be the universal aspiration of all mankind (and womynkind). But reality is far from these pretty myths. The belief in myths about human nature does not make the world a better place. The mythical beliefs that lie at the foundation of the Iraq debacle have cost thousands of Americans dead, tens of thousands (perhaps more) permanently damaged, hundreds of billions of dollars wasted, and even larger human costs incurred by the Iraqis.

The evidence that makes Nigeria easily understandable has been ruled taboo by America's Leftist commissars. So the New York Times article above sketches political behavior in Nigeria while providing no insight into why Nigeria is in such a wretched state and likely to remain that way for a long time to come. Mainstream political debate now stagnates in an ignorance about human nature that the elites have imposed upon themselves.

By Randall Parker    2006 December 01 07:48 PM Entry Permalink | Comments (14)
Corruption Surges In Venezuela

Writing for the libertarian Cato Institute Gustavo Coronel says Hugo Chavez's government in Venezuela is very corrupt.

Gustavo Coronel was a member of the Board of Directors of Petróleos de Venezuela (1976–79) and, as president of Agrupación Pro Calidad de Vida, was the Venezuelan representative to Transparency International (1996–2000).

Executive Summary

Corruption has existed in Venezuela since at least 1821, when it gained independence. In the 19thand 20th centuries, the level of corruption fluctuated, depending on the government in power. During the government of President Hugo Chávez, however, corruption has exploded to unprecedented levels. Billions of dollars are being stolen or are otherwise unaccounted for, squandering Venezuelan resources and enriching high-level officials and their cronies.

The windfall of oil revenues has encouraged the rise in corruption. In the approximately eight years Chávez has been in power, his government has received between $175 billion and $225 billion from oil and new debt. Along with the increase in revenues has come a simultaneous reduction in transparency. For example, the state-owned oil company ceased publishing its consolidated annual financial statements in 2003, and Chávez has created new state-run financial institutions, whose operations are also opaque, that spend funds at the discretion of the executive.

Corruption now permeates all levels of Venezuelan society. Bureaucrats now rarely follow existing bidding regulations, and ordinary citizens must pay bribes to accomplish bureaucratic transactions and have to suffer rampant neglect of basic government services. All this has been encouraged by a general environment of impunity: officers implicated in major corruption scandals have sometimes been removed from their posts, but they have not otherwise been held legally accountable.

The dramatic rise in corruption under Chávez is ironic since he came to power largely on an anti-corruption campaign platform. To truly fight corruption, the government needs to increase the transparency of its institutions and reduce its extensive involvement in the economy, something that has placed Venezuela among the least economically free countries in the world.

Chávez was democratically elected by Amerinds voting against Spaniards. Neoconservatives and liberals who extol democracy as a cure for what ails societies around the world need to take a hard look at Venezuela. How can a democratically government be such a disaster? Could it be that some electorates are incapable of the minimum wisdom needed to make democracy work? Could desire to support those who share a common ethnic identity trump the need to vote for the most competent and most honest?

You can read the full report (PDF format).

By Randall Parker    2006 December 01 07:41 PM Entry Permalink | Comments (13)
2006 August 13 Sunday
Democracy Debate Needs More Realism

A seminar at Stanford showed a clash between academia and those living in the real world.

Shahmahmood Miakhel was polite but adamant after listening to Hoover Senior Fellow Larry Diamond define democracy at the opening session on July 31 of a three-week seminar on democracy and development at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI).

"You have separated the political dimension from the social dimension," said Miakhel, a former deputy minister of interior in Afghanistan and a fellow at the seminar organized by the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at FSI. "In my view, if a democratic society doesn't serve the people, what is the use of it?"

Diamond, an expert in comparative democratic development, agreed that democratic societies should support social criteria but said his definition focused on the minimum political threshold—instituting free and fair elections. "Democracy doesn't ensure that every wrong will be righted," Diamond said. "But democracy gives us the best bet."

We held an election in Afghanistan. Why hasn't the invisible hand of democracy swept away the corruption and forces of reactionary Islam? Why hasn't the result been an Enlightenment featuring local democracy of the sort which characterised small New England towns in the 19th century?

During the program's opening session, Nigerian journalist Sani Aliyu remarked that the concept of peaceful opposition is not well understood by political elites in much of Africa. "Opposition equals enmity, and enmity has to be crushed," he said. "In the West it's different." Diamond replied that democracy requires tolerance and an ability to distinguish between political difficulty and illegitimate condemnation. "In Africa, the problem is not the society but the political leaders who murder and abuse the opposition out of a desire to maintain office," he said.

Larry Diamond belongs to the "blame democracy failure on the elites because otherwise we'll have to admit the masses are seriously lacking" school of Panglossian democracy advocacy. Why do political leaders murder the opposition in Nigeria and not in, say, Norway or Finland or Britain? Could the Brits, Norwegians, and Finns have qualities (whether genetic or taught or both) that make them more inclined to choose leaders who won't murder the opposition?

Diamond served as senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq from January to April 2004. He went on to argue in Foreign Affairs that if only the US had sent more troops and trained them for a different mission then Iraq would have come out much better.

In truth, around 300,000 troops might have been enough to make Iraq largely secure after the war. But doing so would also have required different kinds of troops, with different rules of engagement. The coalition should have deployed vastly more military police and other troops trained for urban patrols, crowd control, civil reconstruction, and peace maintenance and enforcement. Tens of thousands of soldiers with sophisticated monitoring equipment should have been posted along the borders with Syria and Iran to intercept the flows of foreign terrorists, Iranian intelligence agents, money, and weapons.

But Washington failed to take such steps, for the same reasons it decided to occupy Iraq with a relatively light force: hubris and ideology. Contemptuous of the State Department's regional experts who were seen as too "soft" to remake Iraq, a small group of Pentagon officials ignored the elaborate postwar planning the State Department had overseen through its "Future of Iraq" project, which had anticipated many of the problems that emerged after the invasion. Instead of preparing for the worst, Pentagon planners assumed that Iraqis would joyously welcome U.S. and international troops as liberators. With Saddam's military and security apparatus destroyed, the thinking went, Washington could capitalize on the goodwill by handing the country over to Iraqi expatriates such as Ahmed Chalabi, who would quickly create a new democratic state. Not only would fewer U.S. troops be needed at first, but within a year, the troop levels could drop to a few tens of thousands.

That's sounds like the ideological pot calling the ideological kettle black. Nowhere in his long article did he mention that democracy always fails in low per capita income countries or that most US interventions in other countries have failed to create sustainable successful democracies (especially not in poor countries as one would expect from the previous link). Germany and Japan are huge unusual exceptions most notable in that they were so organized and technologically advanced they could cause US military forces to fight a huge war. Nor did Diamond mention that the high rate of consanguineous marriage in Iraq and Arab non-democracies creates conflicting loyalties that work against the development of a civil society and against the attitudes needed in the populace to sustain a healthy democracy. No, Diamond isn't up for even that moderate dose of realism let alone the really strong realism that comes from looking at IQ and wealth of nations.

Prestigious Stanford University flies people in from around the world to spend 3 weeks talking about democracy and yet, as near as I can tell at a distance, some of the biggest and most glaring factors for determining democracy success or failure are out of bounds for discussion. The social sciences in America are pretty intellectually bankrupt for the most part. Greater realism could help us avoid enormously costly debacles such as Iraq. But greater realism would require more honestly and courage about human nature and so far few American social scientists seem up for that.

By Randall Parker    2006 August 13 03:52 PM Entry Permalink | Comments (14)
2006 May 29 Monday
Gangs Gaining More Power In Latin America

Why do I want to keep Latin America out of the United States of America? A Der Spiegel article about organized crime in Latin America provides excellent evidence. Organized crime groups of all sizes are taking control increasing of parts of Latin American countries.

Gangs of kidnappers spread fear and terror in Caracas and Mexico City. Cocaine cartels control the area around Mexico's northern border. El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are the territory of the "Maras," adolescent street gangs that live mainly off extortion. The paramilitaries and guerrillas of Columbia support themselves by raising money through kidnappings and drug trading.

They relay anecdotes of Brazilian neighborhoods which gangs have physically closed off with gates guarded by automatic rifle toting teens.

I do not want the United States government and US local and state governments to become more like Latin American governments. Do you?

An entire continent is slipping backwards in time. The spread of violence and crime show that large parts of Latin America are far from joining the leading industrial nations of the Western hemisphere. In constantly expanding their power, the gangs demonstrate the weakness of the region's governments; wherever there is a power vacuum, the gangs take over. "Organized crime can only survive as long as it escapes punishment," says Alba Zaluar, a Brazilian researcher who specializes in the study of violence, "so it creates its own territories in order to assure that it won't be punished there."

Latin America's often decrepit democracies are easy prey. The court system barely functions in most countries; the police are often corrupt and cooperate with drug dealers. Many politicians can be easily bribed, and parliamentary positions are perceived as opportunities for self-enrichment.

Last week's events demonstrate just how powerful the gangs of Sao Paulo have become -- gangster squads plunged Latin America's largest city into a state of terror for days. They carried out 293 attacks, murdering 41 policemen and security officers, burning 83 buses and firing gunshots at subway stations and fire departments. The terrified police reacted unusually violently, shooting 107 suspects in seven days. Many of the city's residents no longer dared to leave their homes. Schools and stores closed for fear of violence. The bustling metropolis turned into a ghost town.

You have to read the whole article to appreciate the extent of the decay. The Brazilian government negotiated a peace with the leader of a large Brazilian gang, granting his group all sorts of concessions in order to get a halt to the fighting. The Brazilian government conceded some sovereignty to a drug gang. Think about it. Officially Brazil is a democracy. In reality parts of it are not ruled by the elected government and in other parts the elected government does the bidding of the bribe-payers and extorters against the interests of the electorate.

Meanwhile, back in the United States the Imperial Senate has gone over to the Dark Side of the Force and beat back attempts to totally eliminate criminals from their massive amnesty program for illegals. Why does the Imperial Senate want the US to become like Latin America? I understand that El Presidente Bush is promoting his family dynasty by building up an electorate for George P. Bush. But what turned the Senate to the Dark Side? Our own corporate bribers?

A lot is at stake in the current fight in the US Congress over immigration. Lawrence Auster tells the US House of Representatives say NO to the Senate's monstrous Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act (CIRA, S.2611). I agree. Contact your US House Representative and tell your rep you expect his or her strenuous opposition to the Senate CIRA bill. Complained about immigration? Direct your complaints where they will matter. Yell at your elected representatives. Write your newspaper. Send emails to friends telling them how to contact their elected representatives and urge them to do so. A lot is at stake.

By Randall Parker    2006 May 29 04:41 PM Entry Permalink | Comments (7)
2006 February 26 Sunday
Philippines And Thailand Face Protests Against Governments

Thailand and the Philippines both face popular street protests against governments.

In Manila, President Gloria Arroyo declared emergency rule to defy an expected military coup on the anniversary of an iconic popular uprising in 1986. Security forces later dispersed 5,000 protestors who had gathered to vent their fury against Ms. Arroyo, whose administration has been dogged by charges of incompetence and vote-rigging.

In Thailand, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra ended weeks of speculation over the legitimacy of his rule by dissolving parliament to make way for an election on April 2 - three years earlier than expected. He called this the best way to end the "mob rule" - the mass protests that have been growing in recent weeks. An estimated 30,000 Thais rallied again Sunday in the capital Bangkok to urge Mr. Thaksin to resign over alleged corruption.

While the two leaders face differing political challenges, both are struggling to satisfy expectations among voters for sustainable reforms. Their plight, say analysts, suggests that unless young democracies develop the institutions that support the rule of law - going beyond the simple right to vote - their governments remain vulnerable to "people power" coups that will usurp the democratic processes.

Democracy is as much a result of factors that create good government as it is a cause of good government.

The Filipinos have discovered that popular overthrows of governments does not lead to less corrupt successors. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Arroyo has lost support, but many middle-class voters see little alternative among the squabbling political elite. And with many disillusioned with past protests that have ousted one leader only to get another corrupt leader, few are rushing to the streets to join the latest protests. "People power is currently exhausted. People don't see it as a viable way to improve governance," says Mr. Rood.

The Filipinos need one leader with enormous virtue. Maybe a popular referendum should be held to give Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore a post where he is given the power to appoint and dismiss the leader of the Philippines. I'm serious. I bet such a system would produce far less corrupt government. When Lee becomes too old to make such decisions maybe his son could take over the role.

Update: Yet another attempted military coup happened in the Philippines this weekend.

MANILA, Philippines – A challenge to Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's leadership by disgruntled marine officers ended without violence Sunday but signaled that efforts to oust the president probably will persist even without widespread popular support.

The five-hour standoff by marines began when their commander was relieved of his duties after what the government said was a foiled coup plot.

It left no doubt that the military has extremely restive elements that are fed up with neglect and corruption and are susceptible to being drawn into political adventurism.

Maybe the major branches of the Filipino military should set up a rotation where each branch gets its chance to try for a coup once a year. Or, hey, how about their best poker players play a poker game and the winner's branch of service gets to do the coup?

Or how about a game with their pay where whenever a branch launches a failed coup their salaries all go down and the salaries in the other branches goes up. But if a branch of the military succeeds in launching a successful coup then their salaries go up and the salaries of the other branches would go down. Such a reward system would reduce the number of abortive coups.

By Randall Parker    2006 February 26 11:55 AM Entry Permalink | Comments (13)
2006 January 16 Monday
Liberalism Continues Retreat In Russia

Writing for the Christian Science Monitor Christopher Walker of Freedom House argues that freedom is on the retreat in Russia and countries of the former Soviet Union.

NEW YORK – President Vladimir Putin is poised to give the Russian government the tools to exert even greater control over the country's already beleaguered nongovernmental sector. The restrictive NGO law that awaits his signature broadens the grounds for denying registration to or closing Russian NGOs, setting the stage for greater government interference in their work. The draft law on his desk, however, represents only the most recent blow in what is a larger, systematic effort by the authorities to curb independent voices in Russia.

Moreover, this Kremlin measure is just the latest in a string of repressive steps throughout the former Soviet Union. This tightening by autocratic regimes is in no small part a reaction to the recent democratic movements in neighboring countries. The ferocity with which post-Soviet strongmen have reacted, while not entirely surprising, confirms that these regimes are dropping even the pretense of democratic practice.

I haven't written as many posts as I should have on the decay of democracy in some parts of the world including the former Soviet Union. I read the reports of liberal aides forced out of the Kremlin in Moscow and TV stations brought under government control and it just seems so depressing. I'm not surprised really. But the reality is such at odds with the neocon and liberal faith in inevitable democracy (assumed to be liberal and free of course) as the cure for what ails the world. In reality breaks with historical patterns of cause and effect do not happen as often or as easily as the promoters of the latest Panglossian fad for how to fix the world would have you believe.

Russia's a great example of how historical patterns keep recurring. Paul Hollander has a review of Richard Pipes' latest book on Russia Russian Conservatism and Its Critics: A Study in Political Culture. Pipes sees a recurring pattern of authoritarian rule under Tsarist and communist Russia and again in the current trend toward greater authoritarianism. Pipes believes local conditions and history provide explanations for why Russian political culture remains so different from that found in Europe and the United States.

Another question often raised by historians is why the evolution of Russia diverged so sharply from that of other European states, and especially those in the West. Part of the answer is that Russia has never been a fully European country, neither geographical ly nor culturally. Secular political theory in Russia did not emerge until the 18th century. Russia did not benefit from the Renaissance or the Reformation - phenomena that in Western Europe promoted individualism, political pluralism, a sense of property rights, and a work ethic.

But, as Mr. Pipes points out, there are further, more specific explanations of why a country such as Russia was more likely to become (and remain) autocratic. As a large country, it had insecure borders, and so was exposed to foreign invasion. Such insecurity created pressures for a centralized government, and the state's expansion by conquest created a diverse ethnic composition that added to the authorities' determination to bring and keep things under control. Nor were 2 1/2 centuries of subjection to Mongol rule conducive to nurturing self-government, political pluralism, and habits of tolerance.

Local conditions and the nature of the local people also keep the Middle East so different from the West.

Meanwhile Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko's attempt to democratize Ukraine may be backfiring because he's devolved power to a thoroughly corrupt and illiberal parliament.

Mr Yushchenko's main difficulty is that, under the deal that saw his predecessor Leonid Kuchma surrender office peacefully just over a year ago, power is being transferred from the presidency to parliament. In theory this should strengthen Ukrainian democracy by reducing the possibility of a future president establishing a Kuchma-style authoritarian regime. In practice, the reform is moving power from Mr Yushchenko - the one man who was able to rally Ukraine's democratic forces - to an assembly riddled by corruption and self-interest and easily exploited by the Kremlin. With parliamentary elections due in March, deputies are more concerned about saving their seats than saving the country.

Will Ukraine become more Western and liberal or will it follow Russia back into authoritarianism? The US and Europe have a far better chance of influencing Ukraine's development than the Middle East. Though whether a big push to Westernise Ukraine will be made remains to be seen. The EU seems more bent on bringing in a far less tractable Muslim Turkey than in trying to modernize Ukraine. Bush has his attention diverted by the mess he's gotten us into in Iraq. Putin might be able to pull Ukraine back in Russia's orbit.

Dahlia Khalifa seems to think the democratic minority in the world are getting too condescending and dictatorial toward the non-democratic majority.

Carrying such exclusionary logic further, this emerging "democratic-caucus" is now laying the groundwork for the disenfranchisement of all states who are not members of the club. The argument here is while the United Nations is based on the democratic principle of one-nation, one-vote, this is not actually democracy because not all the states represented at the United Nations actually democratically represent their respective peoples. Accordingly, if the government itself is not of a democratic state, how can it have a vote at the United Nations and still maintain that the United Nations is democratic?

Once again, while interesting selective reasoning, with perhaps some slight fallacy in composition, it flies in the face of the very essence of the United Nations in respecting all nations, large and small, based on the sacrosanct principle of state sovereignty and inclusionary diplomacy.

What then is the emerging scenario from this logic? As of 2004, there were 88 countries rated by Freedom House as being free or democratic. The United Nations has 191 member states. Do states such as China, Russia, and even Iran then lose their right to vote at the United Nations? Shall the other 103 states be stripped of their sovereignty and be relegated, perhaps, to observer status, like the Palestinian Authority, while the club of 88, assuming they even all want to join the caucus, then vote on all issues before the United Nations such as the respect and creation of international law, to maintain international peace and security and promotion of human rights?

You might say that the democratic minority are not respecting the rights of the undemocratic majority. Oh the irony.

By Randall Parker    2006 January 16 10:21 PM Entry Permalink | Comments (11)
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