Ramble on...

July 2005

Okay, so I know that this is the second post that I’ve used this title for. But I really have no idea where this one is going, so it’s kind of a profilactic title.

It’s July 16th, so more or less the midpoint of summer. And also more or less the midpoint of the time I have committed to at Gristmill. Writing there has really opened my eyes to how frutstrating it can sometimes be to just be writing about exciting developments. Don’t get me wrong, I like writing for Gristmill but sometimes I just want to get out there and start working for a company that is doing these great things.

This is related to another conclusion I have “come to” recently, which is that the best way to really know what you’re talking about is to get out there and actually do something yourself. I’ve known that for a while, but I have discovered it anew of late. More specifically, if you really want to know how stuff works, say you want to know how people get food and water because you want to make sure that we are batting better than .667 when it comes to getting food and water to 6 billion people, the way to do that is to get out there and DO IT. Even more specifically, get out there and work for a company, or better yet start your own company, that deals in that sort of thing. You can write all day on your blog about the benefits to water market privatization or of polluter pays regulation but it’s all going to be based on second hand information until you actually get out there for yourself and see what the issues are.

Related to that is the “realization” that if issues were simple and cut and dry, they wouldn’t be issues. Dave Roberts at Gristmill recently brought up some good points related to this about how corporations are not “evil” entities bent on destroying humankind. There have even been cases where corporations have hidden the fact that they are doing some good for the environment so that they don’t attract the attention of radical environmentalists who will demand that they do more, more, more even though the environmentalists don’t have a clue about basic business practices.

Related to this notion of radical environmentalists, I think this is what Shellenberger and Nordhaus are getting to in their infamous essay and that Jeremey Carl is getting at in his posts on the death of enviroliberalism. Environmentalist as a term conjures up so many connotations for people, most of which are negative, that it’s time to abandon the term. Let Rush Limbaugh and the others continue to attack the straw man, beat the dead horse.

Appending the term to be “free-market environmentalist” seems to help a little. It’s more nuanced than that, though. It’s being an environmentalist while realizing that some of the most basic tenets of economics are, in fact, true. That there’s no such thing as a free lunch, that life is all about deciding what to do in the face of scarcity, and so on.

This is why I get so excited when I see stuff like this, economic principles being applied to environmental problems, because that’s what needs to happen. Or blogs like Environmental Economics, and posts like this one in particular. The first commenter on that post has a good point, but that is the gauntlet as it’s thrown down.

Some of this “get out there and do it” stuff might seem like an attack on blogging itself. But it could also be an attack on academia. You can study and theorize and write paper after paper. Why not just take your hypothesis and go to a company with it? That’s how it’s going to have an impact. Legislation is not the way to do it.

That last line also highlights a trend that I have been noticing in myself as of late: a surprisingly strong and ever growing libertarian streak. I might even say anarchism is rearing its head based on my limited knowledge of that set of ideas but I don’t know enough. Funny thing is, no more than a year ago I would have dismissed anarchism (like most people do) because all I knew of it were its negative connotations.

But back to this somewhat disturbing turn toward libertarianism. I read Catallarchy and Hit and Run. I get the Cato Daily Dispatch. I don’t agree that The Commons is a “libertarian greenwashing pitch” as this reader put it. On the other hand, I get emails from truthout.org and the Center for American Progress. But at the same time I find myself agreeing more with John Tierney than The Nation, and not just because Tierney references Monty Python and the Holy Grail and not just on Karl Rove (a.k.a. NadaGate).

Part of this may be frustration with what I perceive as partisanship on both sides of the aisle. If you’re fed up with both parties and the senseless bureaucracy of government, libertarianism is the place to turn. Another part of this may be that I really think that people can think for themselves. Everybody’s better off if no one uses their position of power to impose their values on others. This is not just that “moral values” bullshit exit poll question from last November. Any time you tax anything or subsidize anything, the government is imposing a value on its citizens. The government is saying that “they” think that you “should” or “should not” do [this] and therefore “they” will pay you or demand payment from you each time you perform the action.

Now this could just be a perception on my part (which is why I want to get out there and do it), but I would say that as we move into the information age, government is needed less and less. Many of the tasks that were previously allocated to government because of sheer size and the huge capital investment that would be necessary to form a company to perform a task (like getting mail to all 50 states) are no longer out of reach of the private sector (FedEx).

The government is like a big black box. You pay your taxes to it, and you get back…..what? Services? Unlimited use of government infrastructure? What if I don’t want those services, or want to use the government infrastructure? Too bad, right? The government should have to be very specific about where tax dollars are going, and then get (a very small amount of) them from the appropriate place. This is what is supposed to happen with Social Security taxes (but it doesn’t). The other thing about this black box is that there is no incentive to improve what comes out. It’s guaranteed to continue getting that revenue stream. And so Uncle Sam figures, well, I guess the services I’m providing must be agreeable to people otherwise they would stop paying taxes. NO! People keep paying taxes because they aren’t forced to write a check for the full amount every April 15 but instead get bled dry via payroll deductions.

So what’s to be done? Same thing that you do with a large business that sucks. Break it up. Make it transparent. Transparency is becoming essential for businesses now – why not for government? Instead of a department of transportation under the huge branch of the federal government, assign the task of maintaining roads (and especially deciding when new ones are built) to a seperate entity with its own budget that has to be more or less balanced every year. If it tanks, it gets restructured or bought out, maybe even privately (Microsoft Buys Out US Government.)

I can see two objections to this right away, though. 1. A private company would charge user fees for its income, so it incentive would be to increase traffic, expanding highways and increasing pollution 2. This could lead to an even further stratified society, since some roads (in places where people can pay for them) will be nicer than others.

There’s a group on the facebook at Princeton called “Afraid of Libertarians”:

For people who fear Libertarians (not Librarians)

More specifically, for people who believe that unrestricted capitalism would destroy society as we know it.

I think a lot of the fear comes from concerns similar to the two above. First, society as we know it can be improved (creative destruction, anyone?). And second, it wouldn’t be unrestricted capitalism. Going back to what I said before, I think that the rapid pace of improving technology is enabling people, not government, to be the restriction on capitalism.

A big problem is inertia. The highway system is already built. The tax code is already 4 billion pages. There are already hundreds of thousands of people that depend on government and the complex tax code existing for its own sake, called politicians and lobbyists and tax houses.

Where is the point in this? Nowhere. Hence the title. But I do think I will post something else, nonpolitical, about work and things…soon.