Responsible speech

A few days ago, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D, AZ) was shot in the head at point-blank range by Jared Loughner. After shooting her, Loughner continued shooting, eventually killing half a dozen and wounding a dozen or so. When he stopped to reload, bystanders tackled him and he was arrested.

Notebooks and scribblings belonging to Loughner show first, that he is a disturbed young man, and second, that he was targeting Giffords. He referred to her by name and wrote of his assassination plans.

Did the violence-laden rhetoric of current political speech play a role in Loughner's actions? Many think so. In particular, Sara Palin's map of Democratic "targets" has been criticized; this map showed several Democrat-controlled districts in crosshairs, and Gabrielle Giffords was mentioned by name as a target. "Don't retreat, reload!", tweeted Palin. Other republicans spoke of "second-amendment remedies", and said "if ballots don't work, bullets will". Right-wing radio and TV pundits used equally explicit language as they exhorted their listeners to "take out" opposing political figures.

But then, in the tradition of a cover-up being worse than the original problem, Palin denied that the imagery was violent at all. The map symbols were not crosshairs, they were "surveyor's marks". Reloading was simply a metaphor for trying again. Palin went on the attack, claiming that accusations of any contributory blame in her direction were ludicrous and reprehensible, and constituted "blood libel" (sic). The only person to blame was the deranged individual who pulled the trigger. Anyone who suggested otherwise was trying to curb Palin's God-given (not to mention First Amendment-given) right to free speech, and probably hated America.

I joined several discussions of these events in various forums. Few seemed to actually get to what I feel is the core of the matter, so I decided to address it here.

I see the problem as one of judicious use of speech. Politicians and TV/radio pundits have a bully pulpit; people listen to them. They have influence. Those who have widespread influence have the right of free speech, but also have the responsibility to anticipate possible repercussions from that speech. The more prominent the public figure, the more responsibility.

Palin did not pull the trigger. A nutjob did. He is the guilty party. But could Palin and other media figures have reasonably anticipated that the use of violent imagery in their free speech might influence the unbalanced? That is the core of the accusations against Palin. Many feel that she should have known, and so shares part of the blame.

I'm no fan of Palin (to put it mildly), but I'm not quite willing to assign her blame for these killings. But I AM willing to say that her ill-advised words and metaphors have contributed to the atmosphere of violence currently surrounding political discourse. She should take responsibility for THAT, and tone down her rhetoric.

Perhaps Palin didn't realize that some people can't distinguish metaphor from exhortation. Perhaps she didn't realize that her words were influential (ha!). But now that the concept has been raised, she can no longer claim ignorance. She, and all public figures, have a responsibility to use their influence judiciously.

Henry II, in a drunken rage, yelled "Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?" and the result was the murder of Thomas Becket. Henry later wept for his friend, and claimed he had not intended his knights to commit murder. History nonetheless judges him as the guilty party.

Because, as a monarch, he should have known some toadies might act on his words. Because, as a monarch, he had a responsibility to speak judiciously, even when drunk.

It's been 840 years since then, and today it is not Kings and Barons who have influence and power, but rather media figures and politicians. But the principle remains. Noblesse oblige.

Straw arguments and fear-mongering.

This is in response to a guest editorial in today's Bangor News.

Republican spokesperson Josh Tardy makes up an exaggerated and completely fictional combined version of the various Democratic proposed health care bills, then tries to claim the sky is falling because of it.

Guess what, folks. The sky is already falling, because the employer-based healthcare insurance model just doesn't work. Maybe it used to work, when most people stayed at one company for most of their career, and companies could be relied on to paternalistically look after their employees. News flash - that scenario went the way of the dodo quite a while ago. And even then, it only worked for people employed at those companies.

Right now, few of us have any choice in healthcare. We are forced to go with the insurance company chosen by our employer. We are forced to go to a doctor on their list, and undergo only the treatments that company approves (with or without medical consultation on their part). We must use only the drugs they approve, in the dosages they designate. It's no better from the doctor's end - I know doctors who now refuse to work with any insurance companies, because the insurance companies restrict their treatment options and require so much paperwork that it it simply not worth it.

We cannot shop around to compare prices - the one thing that is the foundation of the free-market system.

Imagine if restaurants first got your credit card, then fed you. You would have no idea what the individual items on the menu cost, or if the cost was reasonable. You would have no idea if "steak" meant a $5 Bonanza special or a $150 Kobe filet mignon. You might have meal insurance which would cover certain ingredients, but not others. Neither you nor the restaurant would have a clear idea of what was covered; they could only submit their bill and wait to see what was covered. But the restaurant would get paid eventually, and the rest would be billed to you. Could you imagine anyone in their right mind using a system like that?

The current health insurance system is badly broken. Patients don't like it, doctors don't like it, hospitals don't like it. Only the insurance companies, which get to pick and choose who to cover for what, and make immense profits, like it. But they have successfully brainwashed the Republicans into believing that private insurance equals free enterprise, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth. Our current private insurance system eliminates the informed choice necessary for a free market.

Fascism occurs when a government, instead of regulating business, is controlled by business. (Check it out - that really is the definition). If the government is reluctant to perform its regulatory duty, then only the free market - the economic voice of the people - is left to rein in business.

The Republicans fear governmental regulation, preferring to use the free market. I will not say they are wrong in this. But in this case, they do not see that the free market has been hamstrung. Either the government must step up to the plate or the free market must be restored or both.


The Great Health Care debate

When talking about Universal Health Care on facebook, I said:

"I think we should have a two-tiered system, with free or low-cost clinics providing routine care, checkups, vaccinations, etc. - the sorts of things we set up in other countries, but don't have here! Private insurance plans would then cover advanced procedures or more personal care. We'd still have a problem with underinsured people needing advanced care, but at least everyone would have access to a minimum level of care."

To elaborate:
There is a principle in customer support (and in project management and business in general) sometimes called the 80/20 rule. Basically, 20% of your customers/problems require 80% of your resources. This is the justification for the now-ubiquitous telephone menu self-help guides; the idea is that if you can help the customers with minor problems - a majority, supposedly about 80% - easily and with little effort, you will be able to allocate more resources to the tough problems.

This principle applies to health care. Most people are reasonably healthy, and need only minor support. They need checkups; someone to see whether that itchy mole is is anything to worry about. Vaccinations, an annual flu shot, the occasional tetanus shot. A source of birth control and basic medical information. A medical authority who can determine when antibiotics or cortisone creams are appropriate, and most of all, to decide if a condition warrants further investigation.

This is the sort of care provided by most university clinics. If anything is seriously wrong you are referred to a hospital or a private doctor. But for most people, most of the time, it is sufficient. It is also the sort of care provided by inner city or mission clinics in third world countries and is found to a limited extent in commercial "doc-in-a-box" clinics found at the big box stores.

I think the federal government can and should establish a network of clinics across America.

Patient records per se would not be kept. Instead, each participant would be asked to buy a medical smartcard which would record basic information about each visit. This purchase - it should be less than $20 - would constitute enrollment in the program.

Keeping medical records like this would be a huge boon. The government wants to encourage computerized medical recordkeeping; this would provide an initial minimal format on which to build a standardized data interchange format. This card would hold data in something as universal as comma-delimited text file, so it can be imported into any spreadsheet or database. Hospitals and advanced medical practices would be able to read and import the basic data into their system, without the government needing to impose specific data requirements. An added benefit is that patients would have a record of their doctor visits that travels with them, and would remind both patients and medical caregivers that medical care requires coordination. The card would, of course, be encrypted, and certain data - such as psychiatric visits or treatment for certain ailments - could be read only with the patient's permission.

All personnel would be on salary, including doctors. There would be therefore no reason to bill on a per-patient basis, nor any reason for either patients or medical personnel to falsify treatment. Doctors and other caregivers could spend most of their time with patients rather than billing insurance companies. The "access to service" rather than "metering service" model is used by internet providers, and  technical support providers, and it is rapidly replacing metered phone service. The model is viable and has a proven track record.

I have polled doctors to find out what they would think of this system. Several have said it would be wonderful to spend time actually treating patients, and some have said that they thought being relieved of insurance hassles would be worth a lower salary. However, doctors are in a catch-22 where they have to make lots of money; first to pay back their student loans, then to set up their practice.

Connecticut has a program in which the State loans money for teacher training. If a graduate chooses not to teach, or takes a job out-of-state, then the loan is like any other, and the state makes money on the loan.  But if that teacher takes a job within the state, the loan payments are forgiven and considered paid for as long as they are actively teaching. The government could easily do the same with doctors, and young doctors could repay their student loans by working in these clinics. That and some sort of umbrella coverage against malpractice would go a long way towards giving doctors an incentive to work at wages lower than they could get in private practice. I believe the government already has such a program aimed at getting doctors into the military; this would be a civilian equivalent.

Best of all from a political standpoint is that this in no way interferes with the current medical insurance situation. Clinics would provide only very basic care; there is still a need for insurance or other programs to cover advanced procedures. The clinic scheme primarily focuses on the uninsured (though since elimination of paperwork is a major source of savings, there would be no means test to prevent those with insurance elsewhere from using the clinics).

This is a "Public Option" that might well be welcomed by the insurance industry. While it does not add to the insurance company coffers, as mandated insurance coverage might, it is not a direct threat. It primarily deals with those the insurance companies have declined to cover, and if anything provides a marketing opportunity, since young healthy adults would presumably initially seek medical care at clinics, where they can be convinced of the need for advanced coverage.


Abortion, murder and Dr. Tiller

Dr. George Tiller was one of the few doctors in the country who did late-term abortions. Last Sunday, he was murdered, while at church with his family, by an anti-abortion activist.

This re-ignited strident arguments on various lists about the morality of abortion. I am struck by how often the arguments go off on tangents, and how often the stance of each side is demonized by the other. There are no easy answers.

Anti-abortionists ("pro-lifers") believe that fetuses are babies, and for many (not all) this belief justifies even murder to protect them. They equate the situation to a terrorist holding a schoolroom of children hostage. This is a compelling image: the evil doctor bent on mass murder of unborn children. Who wouldn't applaud the sharpshooter who takes out the terrorist and saves the hostages (even while regretting the need for such dire action)?

But let's try another analogy. Someone kidnaps you to take your kidney (you are the only person with the right histocompatability). A police sharpshooter can shoot the hostage-taker, but will not do so unless you ask him to. What do you do? Do you give up your kidney? Does it make a difference if you will lose your job because of this (for instance, if you are active military)? What if this person only needs some blood? Are you more likely to agree? What if they need your heart, and you will certainly die? And if you don't want to make that sacrifice, is the sharpshooter morally culpable if he shoots the hostage taker?

A fetus can be considered to be holding its mother hostage. In certain circumstances, continuing a pregnancy can damage, maim, or kill the mother. Does the fetus have the right to demand that sacrifice of the mother? Does our government have the right to demand it, in the name of the fetus?

Our government cannot demand that a person donate blood or a kidney to another person, even when the recipient will die without it. Our laws give us the choice to make such a sacrifice voluntarily, but imposes no obligation. It does not matter whether the sacrifice asked is minor (blood) or major (say a lung), the government cannot compel you to make it. 

Our law extends that choice to whether or not a woman has to endanger herself by undergoing pregnancy.

It clarifies the discussion to consider it in these terms. What does the law demand? How does the law balance conflicting rights? That is, after all, the main purpose of law.  The other arguments are moot - which doesn't mean unimportant; it means you can discuss (moot) them endlessly without changing anyone's mind - because they are based in religion or a belief system that the other party simply refuses to accept.

I personally believe it is immoral to refuse to give blood or even bone marrow, without a darn good reason. I believe donating a kidney is something everyone should be willing to do. On the other hand, I believe it is totally unreasonable to demand a heart donation, but if someone were to commit suicide to provide a heart for a loved one, I would not condemn the action. But those are simply my beliefs, and I would not (and cannot legally) impose them on anyone else, even if I think society would be a better place if I did.

The law places some limits on the choice to sacrifice yourself. Even if you are willing to make such a sacrifice, it is not legal for you to donate an organ such as a heart if it will kill you. I would not condemn it, but that is the law. It does not matter if the person demanding the organ is innocent or the next Nobel prize winner, or if the person whose organ is demanded is a criminal already sitting on death row. The law does not allow that sacrifice. And it does not compel any sort of lesser sacrifice, such as donation of a minor organ or of blood, regardless of the relative merits of donor and donee.

So the question of whether a fetus is a baby is not definitive. Saying it isn't makes it easier to refuse to make the sacrifice. But saying it is does not mean there is no sacrifice demanded. Pro-choice does not mean pro-abortion; it means having the same right of choice in this difficult decision as you would have when asked to donate an organ that could save someone's life.

That is the legal core of the abortion argument. What follows is 'relevant to the discussion', as one would say in court.

The consequences of sex are asymmetrical. Women can get pregnant, men don't. This is biological fact.  A fetus has DNA different from the mother. That too is fact. But whether a fetus is therefore the same as a baby is a matter of semantics. What is a baby? What is an individual? Before you answer separate DNA makes it an individual, consider that twins have the same DNA, but are different individuals. And certain types of tumors have modified DNA, but are not even a potential human. We have crossed from facts into opinion. Even the facts are not absolute.  With modern science, a fetus could be implanted in a male, for instance. Perhaps cloning could grow a unique human from a tumor.

The notion of when a fetus becomes a child has changed over time. The bible speaks of a fetus "quickening" - literally, becoming alive. This is a real-world event that typically happens at about 24 weeks, and signals when, in many societies, a pregnancy is legally recognized.  In about 1592, Pope Gregory XIV declared that a soul entered the fetus when it was 80 days old, and this was the date when killing a fetus became murder in church law. These two dates are arguably the origin of the trimester classification system. In the first trimester, the fetus has no soul, and aborting is no problem. After the second trimester, it is human and abortion becomes murder. In 1869, Pope Pius IX, in order to strengthen the arguments against contraception, declared that a fetus had a soul from conception. This is what many Christian fundamentalist groups believe. (If so, then the mortality rate in the first trimester is through the roof. I have heard that 60-80% of fertilized eggs never make it past 8 weeks; the pregnancy ends before the woman even knows she is pregnant). The idea that "life begins at conception" is a belief, based more in religious teachings than in science.

Certain religious groups believe that sex itself is sinful. Those same religious groups tend to put a premium on the idea of innocence, so if there is a conflict between the life of the mother (who is seen as sinful) or of the child (who is seen as innocent), the child "wins". The man involved in the engendering never faces this possibility, even though he participated in the so-called sin. This is especially repugnant to feminists. Those steeped in that belief system see no merit in the feminist objections, however, and beliefs are again unlikely to be changed.

The rhetoric itself holds pitfalls. How can you be "pro-life" if you believe in killing? Logically, you should be a pacifist, against both the military and the death penalty. But this is rarely the case, and is seen as simple hypocrisy by those in the pro-choice camp. Similarly, a "woman's right to choose" sounds like mere self-indulgence to those who believe that the "choice" involves murder. While this charge is steeped in a set of religion-based beliefs, it is nonetheless the crux of the argument, and deserves honest reflection and a reasoned rebuttal.

Belief systems certainly play a role in the arguments. But since our society is made up many religions and many belief systems, it is the law that we must ultimately go by.

The law arbitrates behavior, and for good or ill, it stands apart from both religious beliefs and from science.  A law may be based on scientific fact, or not. It may be based on moral principles that are not shared by the entire population. It may be utterly arbitrary. But the law comprises the set of rules that society has agreed upon.

Disagreeing with the law does not exempt you from following it, nor does it give you the right to be a vigilante and impose your notions of what the law should be on someone else.

At this time, in this country, abortion is legal if done following the rules set out by the government. Killing a born human is illegal unless the government sanctions the killing, and even then certain legal procedures must be followed. By legal definition, if a killing is legal, it is not murder; conversely, murder is a type of illegal killing.

What the doctor did is legal and was therefore not murder, no matter how much it violates a belief system. His killer probably committed murder. I say probably because under the law, designating it murder requires a trial and conviction.

It is perfectly appropriate for people to attempt to change the law to match their moral principles. But it is important to realize that in a country based on law, not on religion, the law will reflect an amalgamation of moral and religious beliefs. Our laws do not allow one group to impose its moral precepts on the rest, not without going through an elaborate process to change the law. The best an individual can do is constrain their own behavior, and hope to convince others to do likewise. You have the right to proselytize, but you do not have the right to threaten or intimidate.

If you don't believe in abortion, don't have one. If you don't want others to have abortions, then work to make them unnecessary. Promote birth control. Provide a support network and social acceptance for unwed mothers. Even if you feel sex is sinful, surely having sex is a lesser sin than killing a fetus! Choose your moral priorities.

Work to streamline the adoption process. Adopt a child yourself, or at least offer to be a foster parent. Put as much effort into defending life after birth as you do to life before birth.

To live simply, or simply live... musings on a Living Wage

The "living wage" is a calculation of the money needed to maintain a minimal standard of living. It is based on actual budget costs. This is unlike the official "poverty level" calculation, which ignores such necessities as housing, insurance, and transportation (among other things). (Mimimum wage is a political construct which may or may not be based on actual cost data.)

2006 data from the Maine Center for Economic Policy :
A family of four with one wage earner needs $34,248/year. ($16.47/hr).
A household with 2 children and 2 wage earners  requires $51,844/year. (@$12.46/hr). 
A single parent with 2 children requires $40,250 ($19.35/hr).
A single parent with 1 child needs $33,639 ($16.17/hr)
A single person requires $21,211 ($10.20/hr) to meet basic living needs. 

(hourly wage is calculated on 52 weeks of 40-hour work. No vacations.)

This is interesting.

First of all, it allows us to assign a value to being a housewife. A family of two kids and two parents can live on $34,248 a year if one parent works, but needs $51,844 to achieve the same standard of living if both parents work.  Therefore, the presence of a "non-working" parent is worth $17,596 a year ($8.46 an hour).

A single person, according to this study, can get along on $21211 dollars a year.  Two people living separately would need double that, or $42,422.  How much would a couple need?

MCEP didn't have that category, but if you take the cost for two working adults with two kids, and subtract the amount needed for the kids, you should get a reasonable figure.

What is the amount needed for two kids? A single parent with two children needs 40,250 to live; subtract 21,211 for the parent alone, equals a cost of $19,039 for the kids. Subtract this from the amount needed for two working parents/2 kids and you get $32,805.  This should be the minimum amount a couple needs to live in Maine (a minimum livable wage of  $7.88/hour for each wage earner).

Let's play with that. Since a single person can live on $21,211, the cost of adding the second person is $11,594.  The second person saves $9617 by moving in with someone. Or, if expenses are split evenly, each pays $16,402, which is $4809 less than living alone.

Therefore, $4809 to $9617 could be considered the cost one pays to live alone.

It's interesting to have a figure to start from, since so often our society makes an unspoken assumption that if you are single, you somehow have it easy, you are cheating in some way, you are evading the burdens of adulthood, and living without a partner is somehow 'selfish' or 'self-indulgent'. Never mind that you lack the components of a normal support network, that emotionally and physically you have to do everything yourself. The calculations demonstrate a very real financial burden on those who are single.

I almost said 'those who choose to be single', but why do we assume that being single is a deliberate choice? Becoming a couple IS a choice; when the opportunity arises, you can agree to pair up or not. If the opportunity doesn't present itself, if you do not find someone who chooses you as much as you choose them, you remain single by default, no matter how much you might wish otherwise.

A few years ago, there was quite a bit of talk about the IRS's "marriage penalty". Pretty ludicrous, when you realize that they were comparing the taxes of a married couple to those of an unmarried couple. They did not compare the taxes of a couple (married or not) to that of bona fide independent singles. They focused on whether a couple had a piece of paper, rather than whether there were two wage earners in the household. In addressing their own administrative shortcoming, they increased the burden on bona fide singles.

Looking at the tax data, the 2a/2c family with one wage earner pays $1200 in tax, on a $34,248 income. The same family with two wage earners pays $6542 in tax.  A single with a child is taxed $4551, in this case. Two adults, each with a child, would therefore pay $9102; $2560 more than if they combined their households, and $7902 less than if they combined households and one stayed home.

Before you protest tat the taxes are based on different incomes, let me point out that the point of the "livable wage" calculations is that these are the incomes needed to the same base standard of living. Money is only meaninful for what it buys. So although raw wages vary, all these scenarios represent the same standard of living, so it's fair to compare the tax figures.

Iit seems to me that the tax code provides a pretty big incentive for people to pair up, and even for one to become a stay-at-home parent.

A single, meanwhile, pays $3655 in tax for the same standard of living (and doesn't have a built-in social support network).

You can also look at these figures with reference to a divorce. A divorce takes a 2-wage earner/2 child household (needing $51,844) and converts it into a 1-w.e./2-child unit (40,250) plus a 1-w.e. unit ( $21,211). The two units together now require $61,461. The cost of the divorce (apart form legal, emotional, etc.) is therefore $9617 per year. That's a pretty good incentive to immediately jump into another relationship, even if - as is so often true with rebound relationships - it is not a good one.



OK I've seen the cutesy internet-speak posters featuring semi-literate cats. And I was vaguely aware that the expression LOLcat referred to them. But I hadn't realized the meme had gotten quite so ..serious? ..elaborate? Maybe just so big.

Someone has been translating the bible into LOLcat language. Seriously. Or I should say, srsly.
The thing is, I don't think it's a parody. Purposefully funny, yes, but it somehow still seems reverent.
Ceiling Cat Creed
We blieves in one big kitteh, Ceiling Cat,
who maded teh urfs an teh skiez
an all teh cheezburgers an teh invizibul bicycles an stuff.

We blieves in one happycat, Jeebus,
onliest son ov Ceiling Cat,
bornded beefor all teh cheezburgers an stuffs,
He gots some Ceiling Cat in him, srsly, k?
He helpded Ceiling Cat makes all teh cheezburgers an stuffs.

Fer all teh kittehs he comez down frum teh ceiling
an beez a kitteh thru da Force an teh virjn Hello Kitty! wit no hankie pankies,
an was reely a kitteh, srsly.
He got teh crucify fer us kittehs by Pilate;
An gots todally pwned and faceplanted.
An caem bak to lief on teh thrd dai liek it wuz fortolded in teh Bible
An went bak up to teh Ceiling, an tuk a nappy in teh sunbeam nex to Ceiling Cat.
He will come bak daon frum teh Ceiling, to be teh judge ov teh live kittehs an teh dead kittehs.
An hiz kitteh kingdum bees furevr.

We blieves in Hovercat, teh giber ov life,
who comes frum Ceiling Cat an Happycat,
who we lurves jus like Ceiling Cat an Happycat,
an who tellz teh profits whut to sai.
We blieves in teh itteh bitteh kitteh committeh.
We DO NOT WANT baffs, but will hav wun fur furgivness.
We spektin to caem bak to life after we faceplant,
an lives furever in teh Ceiling.


Can a War be Just?

(The Socrates Cafe on NPR has this as a question this month. Because of the format of that discussion, I am trying to be somewhat provocative; this is meant to be part of a conversation, not my final considered word.)

In short, no. Not as we wage war today.

The theory of the Just War requires that first, there be a just cause. It cannot be just to recapture property or punish wrongdoers; it must be to prevent imminent danger to innocent life.

Second, all other means of solving the problem must be exhausted or shown to be ineffective.

Third, there must be serious prospects of success; the cause must not be futile.

Forth, the damage (including disorder afterward) caused by the war must not be greater than the damage caused by the original threat.

There are some situations that meet the first criterion; genocide in Darfur comes to mind. There is an immediate danger to innocent life. But those are not the situations we as a nation choose to involve ourselves in, or if we do, it is with measures that fall short of war.

We have a lousy record of meeting the second criterion. Political posturing is not the same as seriously attempting to negotiate or avoid war. Serious attempts to "exhaust all alternatives" would include actions that might cause us to lose face. But a Just War is waged to save lives, not face.

The third criterion requires that we have a clearly defined goal, and that we will know objectively when we have reached that goal. That goal should be just so much, and no more, than is needed to correct the original danger to innocent life. Again, our history is not good in this regard. Our so-called "war on terror" does not and cannot meet this criterion.

Lastly - and the real reason I answered "no" at the beginning -- when the theory of Just War was formulated, war was waged with swords. It was possible to restrict damage to combatants and prevent innocent deaths. This is no longer possible. Today, "collateral damage" in the form of innocent deaths is an accepted part of war. As long as that is true, war cannot be waged according to the criteria of a Just War.

Check the Wikipedia entry for "Just War" for more on the theory.

Note that, in true Socratic fashion, this question really hinges on "What is War?" Under "exhausting alternatives", would a well-planned police action count as war? How about an assassination? They are violent measures, but might more easily meet the third and fourth criteria.

Economics (minus) 101

I think I just got some validation of my common-sense (as opposed to book-learned) economic ideas.

I've mentioned to various economists over the years that credit cards increase the money supply. This is usually part of a conversation about how raising interest rates is actually inflationary, despite the orthodox economic stance that you control inflation by raising interest rates. The economists I've talked to have usually looked a bit uncomfortable, but declined to explain why I'm wrong.

But I recently heard on the radio an economist talking about the recent crisis. He was asked "but where did all the money go?" His answer was money was not actually disappearing, but that since loans were not being made, the money no longer existed in essentially two places and this had the effect of shrinking the money supply. Aha! The flip side of that remark is that loans, including credit card usage, increase the money supply, as I've been saying for years.

Suppose I buy something for $100 and charge it. Now I have the goods worth $100, but the credit card company also has an asset (my loan) worth $100 on their books. That extra $100 has been created, just as surely as if the bank had a printing press in the basement. The money supply has been increased.

So the Fed doesn't really control the money supply; banks and credit card companies do. Increased money supply is both inflationary and results in a higher standard of living; the second is desirable but the first isn't.

Now if I don't pay my bill, the bank adds interest. I might spend as much as $125 for goods worth only $100. This doesn't represent any additional goods. That extra $25 doesn't need to be backed with bills; it's just made up. Once again, that increases the money supply and is therefore inflationary, but it doesn't contribute to a higher standard of living (it doesn't represent either goods or labor). The bad without the good.

Therefore, to control inflation, the interest rate should be lowered, not raised. The traditional theory of raising interest rates to lower inflation is based on the idea that debt is always discretionary. The reality today is that it isn't. Students graduate from college with tens of thousands of dollars of debt. The average credit-card holder has $6000 in debt. Here in New England, an average worker with an average salary has to borrow money to pay the winter heating costs. Debt has become a normal and unavoidable part of the consumer economy.

One way to control the money supply would be to stop lending and wait for all the loan balances to be paid off. To really stop creating money, we would also have to stop charging interest. Ultimately, everything would be on a cash basis, and the Fed would have complete control of the money supply.

Without meaning to, this is what we have fallen into (except the stop charging interest part). But the sudden change has caused economic chaos, so the government is frantically trying to jump-start the lending process again.

An alternative, albeit still cataclysmic solution might be to assess the actual size of the money supply, adjust salaries and prices so that consumers would not find it necessary to borrow money, and then severely limit access to credit. That solution would put us back into the monetary state of the fifties or sixties, when consumers did not routinely use or need credit. This might not be a bad thing, but it would be incredibly hard to transition to from today's state (witness today's economy).

But the real question is, what does the government want the economy to do? Is it really necessary to control the money supply? If not, why not; if so, why? The "free market" favors unrestricted access to credit (ie an unregulated money supply) but it also doesn't "care" about either workers or consumers except as variables in an equation. I would posit that the first responsibility of government is to care for the populace.

I don't mean 'care for' in the sense of 'meet all their needs'. One also cares for the populace by creating a situation in which they can thrive. Politicians can debate the merits of encouraging people to make and keep as much money as possible versus an obligation to provide health care, jobs, or retirement.

But it is people who must thrive, not the abstract concept we call the "economy". We should never lose sight of that.


We have a new president!
Funny, the news is now saying how much of a centrist he is. A few days ago they were saying he was the most liberal of liberals.

Anyway -- I logged onto BBC this morning to see what our cousins across the pond were saying. Good articles. But I was amused by the juxtaposition of a certain ad...



Maybe it's a bit late to be furious, but I just found out about the 1823 Supreme Court case Johnson v M'intosh.

This piece of racist, imperialistic *sh*t* has never been overturned and in fact is relied on for later court decisions. Arrgh!!! My regard for the Supreme Court is now no higher than for other branches of government. I am ashamed.

Why am I so upset? Because this case not only twists history and incorporates self-serving stereotypes to provide a legal justification for the appropriation of Native lands, it does so using circular logic that wouldn't stand up in a good debate, and is thoroughly unworthy of the highest court in the land. And which pulls the foundations out from under those who acted honorably.

Details: One person bought land from tribes in 1773 and 1775. These were transactions authorized by the entire tribe, and the tribe shared the money from the sale. Later the state of Virginia sold the same land to someone else. The question before the Supreme Court was, which title was valid?

The Supreme Court ruled that land title purchased from Indians was not valid because the land was "discovered" by European explorers, and since two valid titles could not coexist, the Indians only held a right to occupancy, not a right to conveyable title.

The European legal principle of discovery stemmed from a Papal decree which allowed Christian nations to claim any land owned by non-Christian peoples. That this principle applied was 'proven' by the fact that the European nations recognized each other's claims and had made treaties with each other that conveyed land back and forth as if their title was valid.

Treaties with the Indian nations were dismissed as unnecessary PR gimmicks; something to pacify the tribes, but nothing with any legal standing. The fact that land claims in the northeast, based on title purchased from the Native tribes, had been recognized by the United States, was seen as a historical anomaly (in Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, and other parts of the Northeast, the original colonial founders insisted on purchasing land upon which to plant the colony). The implication was that the purchase was unnecessary and somewhat regrettable, since it muddied the clean application of the so-called law of discovery. The fact that those colonies then sought European grants for the same land was seen as proof that the purchase from the tribes did not actually convey title.

In dismissing Indian treaties, Justice John Marshall exhibited an appalling lack of knowledge of the history of colonization, and promulgates the worst stereotypes. He characterized the Indian nations as being composed of nomadic hunters, little different from deer or game animals who live on but do not own the land. He says they had no government to speak of -- notwithstanding the fact that the earliest explorers spoke of kings and nations, and that our founding fathers acknowledged the debt the US constitution owed to political practices of (at least) the Iroquois confederacy.

OK. Maybe you are not as surprised as I am. Sure, I've heard these ideas before. But I've always assumed that they were the ill-reasoned, ill-informed, historically inaccurate, and racist views of those who needed to justify the crimes of their ancestors. Instead, I find they are ill-reasoned, ill-informed, historically inaccurate, and racist judgements that have unfortunately (under the doctrine of stare decisis become part of our legal system and a basis for further judicial travesties.