Online Discussions

From an online discussion on

saysni wrote:

There seems to be a core of folks on this board (that, if you read here much, you will very quickly recognize) who enjoy ‘debate’, and will publicly pick apart almost anything anyone has to say if they can find an ‘in’, or any perceived ‘chink in the armor’. This is not to rap those whom i reference, it is merely to point out the pitfalls of any indirect communication-via-internet.

I think perhaps this is something of an over-simplification. It seems to me that there are several different kinds of posters involved in these debates, and shades between. One could say that there is a fundamental split on what is often called Western or reductionist science. At one end of the scale are those (and I should hasten to say that the furthest extremes of these points of view are not necessarily often expressed in this particular forum; most opinions fall somewhere along the scale between the extremities) who believe completely in science and consider anything that has not been or cannot be proven by the scientific method to be beneath their consideration. Then at the other extreme are those who, while often (even proudly) ignorant of the scientific viewpoint on any given subject, automatically and categorically reject anything that any scientist or scientific body has to say, and rely entirely on their own intuition (call ir what you will) for their truths.

Then there is the scale that one might call “debating styles”. At one end of this scale are those who know and have studied logic and critical thinking, and rigidly apply the rules of those bodies of thought, and reject any statement that can be shown to contravene them (while sometimes neglecting to address the actual content.) At the other end of this scale we find those who simply regard a debate as an opportunity to score points, and also fail to address the content while picking on any opportunity to contradict what someone has said.

Fortunately we have a substantial number of participants who fall somewhere in the middle of both of these scales, who believe that science can and does serve us in many vital ways that we would certainly not want to give up (dentistry without anesthetic, anyone?), but is nonetheless run by people with their own agendas, and it is wise to both listen to what science has to say, and examine the motives and assumptions behind its statements. 

Similarly intuition has enormous value in alerting us to possibilities worth investigating (and most great scientific discoveries started off as brilliant intuitions) but unless it is verified by actual study and experimentation (where such a thing is possible) we cannot rely on the veracity of our intuitions. We may believe them completely ourselves, but to try to convince others or base public policy upon them is very unwise.

Then finally there is the scale between those who believe that every debate should be vigorously pursued down every (often blind) alley and hunted down and done to death, and those who find such pursuits a complete waste of time (and can often be quite verbose in saying so!).

Maybe if we all try to find a balance somewhere around the middle of each of these scales, it would improve the quality of our discourse.


We do not choose our challenges, we either face them or we ignore them. The measure by which those alive today will be judged in the future will be the degree to which we face our challenges. When we look back in history for inspiration who do we look to? The Founding Fathers, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, MLK and so many others who faced down the challenges of their times. Not perfect, any of them, but they did the very best they could according to their lights with what they were given. They did not have to do that; they could have stayed home and left the heavy lifting to others, but they stepped up to the plate. No doubt there was always ego involved, but then it takes some kind of ego to believe that you have something valuable to offer.

We live in a cynical age, and we see public figures as power seekers with little thought for the public good. Certainly the halls of power have always been well seeded with such types, but there are many who genuinely see themselves as a force for good. Sadly today we have such a corrupt system that even the well meaning almost always get sucked into the muck, seeing it as the only way to get anything done. 

The industrial system has saddled us with a power system that seems all-powerful, that seems to control every aspect of our lives, and that seems almost impossible to successfully overcome. It owns our means of communications, it has bought our system of government. Armed insurrection in the face of the US army is unthinkable. The only answer seems to be to surrender to the system, find a comfortable berth within it and look after number one. 

I do not think the situation is so dark, and I think we have every reason, in fact an absolute duty, to get involved. The system is not impregnable; the history of empires and civilizations tells us that the empire seems strongest when it is already undermined. Empires are the victims of the sweep of history. New ways supplant old ways and make them irrelevant. Mankind has gone through two gigantic shifts in the past which completely changed society. The first was the invention of agriculture which enabled us to settle into cities and build the societal system that lasted some ten thousand years pretty much unchanged except in the details. The movement that swept all of this away so that only the barest traces remain was the Industrial Revolution. It is hard for us to even conceive of how different life was in 1850 from that of, say, 1650. And all of this happened, in historical terms, in the blink of an eye. 

What does this have to do with today? I believe that we are right now undergoing a third great shift as profound as the industrial revolution. The Industrial Age reached its peak around 1955, and since then we have been seeing the birth of the next age. Like any great movement in its early stages it is still very indistinct, but it is well underway. This is why we need to participate. We are privileged to live at one of the hinge points of history. Or to put it another way, one can imagine history as a railroad. For most of the time (ten thousand years in the case of the agrarian age) the train is thundering across the prairie, and to significantly change its direction requires putting it off its tracks. Very rarely the train of history enters a switching yard, and during this time very small application of power can have very far reaching results. This was the case in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, for instance. Today we are in another switching yard. Everything is up for grabs. We have both the tools and the knowledge needed to make the world a better place; The question is, do we have the wisdom to learn from the past and take the tools out of the hands of those who would use them to control us, and instead use them for the good of all?

Scientific Studies

From an online debate on

ThePhiant wrote:

as you probably know, any study or data can be used to prove anybody’s point. bunching a number of study’s together and coming to a conclusion is always subjective. having said that my main point is that generalizations however subject-ive they may be, don’t mean a thing in the real world. Your partner in life or at work is more than likely the opposite of what those studies are telling you. Just because your studies say you are just as good at math as boys, that doesn’t imply that YOU are good at math. In the real world we are dealing with individuals, not statistics. Talk about YOUR experience,

Now wait a minute here. You may have your own views about the value of scientific study, but what you say is simply not true. Studies cannot legitimately be used to support any point of view, and they are certainly not subjective. In fact studies are very carefully designed to be objective, and where this is not possible, this fact is pointed out. A properly presented study includes an estimate of confidence; the authors’ estimate of likelihood that their conclusions are correct. Science includes in its procedures mechanisms for the discovery of error, and acknowledges that some error will always be present. 

And what exactly do you mean by the “real world?” Is your world any more real than that of thousands of dedicated and hard-working scientists (plus, of course, the normal admixture of charlatans, thieves and cheats; a minority in this as in most pursuits)? To say that generalizations mean nothing is wrong; they are valuable evidence, and to simply dismiss them as valueless is a waste of a precious resource, knowledge. Certainly a study incompletely reported can be used to support a point of view contrary to its true meaning, but this is true of any piece of infomation. It is up to the consumer to decide what is good information and what is bad. Go and read the underlying data and make up you own mind.

As for the contention that “your partner in life or at work is more than likely the opposite of what those studies are telling you”: since the precise purpose of studies is estimating likelihoods, by definition you cannot be more likely to contravene the generalization than follow it.

ThePhiant wrote:

Since when is a study’ objective? Do you mean to say that studies are chosen at random. Studies are chosen to prove or disprove something, and the way to go about is to test certain variables that are CHOSEN not objectively but subjectively. Just like the 11 blind men studying an elephant. They can and want to see only what is in front of them, subjectively. Antioxidants were supposed to be a lifesaver, turns out they actually can shorten someone’s life. Which scientist do you believe?

I will respond, not because I hope to persuade you of anything, but because I think it is important to supply the contrary point of view for others who might be reading this.

Scientific studies, in order to claim that designation, must conform to certain criteria. Among them are the requirements that both the initial assumptions and the methodology used are incorporated as part of the report. These results are studied by others, who are free to critique them. 

Yes, many studies are commissioned by interested parties hoping to prove something, but this does not always succeed; many studies go the other way. Yes, this often results in the suppression of those particular studies, and that is unfortunate, but is part and parcel of the capitalist system. I do not believe that there is a significant number of studies that are falsified for financial gain. Scientific hoaxes have certainly happened, but generally in important cases a lot of scrutiny is brought to bear, and it is hard to sustain a lie. There is a great deal of rivalry in science, and there are a great many scientists who are genuinely motivated by a search for verifiable and useful truths. They are constantly checking each others’ work in hopes of finding errors.

So it would seem extreme to simply reject all scientific studies categorically as unreliable. In a previous post you commented that “bunching a number of study’s together and coming to a conclusion is always subjective”, but i would submit that the more studies agree on a subject the more likely they can be relied on. One study might be a good indicator, especially if its methodology passes scrutiny; five studies that show similar results show a strong likelihood of truth.

Let’s face it; studies are like hamburgers and television sets and cars; some are very good and some are very bad. Most are in the acceptable range. Unlike hamburgers and television sets and cars, however, the way they are constructed can be examined by the user because the map is part of the product.

This, as I see it, is the case for the defense of science; no doubt there are other points that would be helpful, but someone else will have to supply them.

ThePhiant wrote:

Unfortunately you are not supplying the contrary point but actually, you are extrapolating my point that science is not as reliable as it pertains to be. Good science, bad science?  Science is only as good as the next study who proves otherwise. Case in point; antioxidants! btw; I have neither hamburgers, nor tv’s nor cars in my life to examine

Well, as I said, I had no ambition to persuade you from your views; I can see that you twist whatever input you receive to feed your preconceptions. If I am correctly understanding your somewhat idiosyncratic way of using words (extrapolating, pertains?) then once again you state the exact opposite of the case. Since scientific studies include estimates of the likelihood of error, scientific studies are in fact pretty much as reliable as they claim to be!

Maybe you are confusing the studies themselves with the way they are used by people who do not necessarily even understand them, and are all too often willing to omit whatever parts do not suit their arguments.

I know it can be confusing when studies show that something that has been previously thought to be useful also has dangers under some circumstances (antioxidants, for instance). That is where clear thought and judgment come in; my own observation is that pretty much everything in life has a medicinal dose and a toxic dose, and it is up to the consumer to determine from the information provided what those doses are.

Making sense of these kinds of complex issues, where conflicting evidence needs to be properly weighed and evaluated, is greatly facilitated by the use of critical thinking skills. Critical thinking was developed for exactly this purpose; to provide a tool for examining controversial questions and coming to the conclusions that are best supported by the available evidence. Critical thinking does not tell you the answer, any more than a good sharp knife makes you a good cook. If the evidence in fact supports your point of view, then you can use critical thinking to establish that fact. As it is, even though you may in fact be correct about some of your conclusions, your ways of arguing them, and your insistence on making statements that are at the very least highly misleading, do more to conceal that possibility than to reveal it.

I think at this point that I have said pretty much everything I have to say on the subject, and for me at least this discussion is reaching its toxic dose!

Taming Technology

As the power of technology grows we face the same ethical dilemma again and again. Each new power that we harness is capable of enormously benefiting mankind. At the same time we are creating the means of our own potential destruction. Which side of the argument you favor depends on whether you believe that basic human nature is selfish or altruistic. It is said that all weapons that have ever been invented have eventually been used, and that there will always be people who will use whatever technologies we invent to harm others. Many are persuaded by these arguments into opposing the creation and use of new technologies. 

I do not agree with this point of view. I agree that there will always be bullies and greedy people in the world, and no doubt crime will continue to be a problem, and different groups will continue to have grudges against each other; these will continue to be challenges no matter how enlightened we become in our social structures. I do not agree that we need necessarily continue to be dominated by our most violent and greedy elements, but rather that by changing our social attitudes towards them we can reduce them to the nuisance they should be rather than the disaster they are. 

In any case the toothpaste is already out of the tube. We have these capabilities, and we are not realistically going to give them up, so we need to figure out how to use them to our advantage and consciously act to minimize their harm. We can examine our technologies and recognize the dangers in their misuse, and actively work to reduce the likelihood of such misuse. For example, with smart phones it is trivial to keep track of a person’s location at all times (and much more besides, but let us consider a simple case.) For the person in question this can be very useful information, and for society in general large aggregations of such information are of great benefit. As a small example traffic systems can be optimized using such location information on a large scale. The problem is that in the wrong hands this information can be used for all kinds of nefarious purposes. I am sure I do not need to cite examples, and in fact it is this perception that makes people ask the question at the top of this piece. 

How, then, given what we know about human nature, can we benefit from this kind of technology without giving up our privacy? I do not believe that this is an insoluble problem, but solving it will require some of that growth we talked about. It is not the technical part that is difficult. Systems can certainly be designed to be very secure, but systems are designed and implemented by people, and these days we find it very hard to trust people. 

The developments in both computer hardware and software over recent years present social challenges that it is vital that we examine, identify and contain. The power we have achieved in these areas have created a two edged sword. On the one hand they are being used increasingly as a method of social control, while on the other hand they have the potential to be of enormous benefit to all of us. I sometimes think the NSA could be of tremendous public benefit if they would only make the information they have about us available to us. They probably have a copy of that email that went missing, and they could sell it back to you. 

There is nothing inherently evil about collecting and storing comprehensive information about people; in fact it is extremely useful. All social systems can be improved by the collection of information. Similarly some kind of electronic voting would be far simpler and more reliable and accurate than the old paper based method. The problem is to devise a workable system. There are a number of technological challenges we face of this nature, and the attribute they share is that they are social systems. We do not question the nature of the air traffic control system, yet one could see it as “the government controlling where and when you fly your plane.” We must accept that the nature of belonging to a group is that in return for the benefits of belonging to the group we agree to give up some of our personal freedom of action. We agree to conform to the rules of the group. A group with no rules has no meaning. Even anarchists do not favor a society without rules. Anarchy means without rulers, not without rules. We have certainly seen graphic demonstrations in recent years of the results of the contrary view. Starting with Reagan in the 1980s we have gone on a rampage of deregulation in banking, savings and loans, airlines and other areas, always with disastrous results. We have seen countries reduced to lawlessness with even more terrible consequences. Can we agree by now that this philosophy has been given a fair trial and has failed miserably?

The question is not should we have rules, it is who should make the rules and who should enforce them.

Campaign Contributors and Influence

A candidate for County Supervisor has come under fire because much of her funding comes from interests that seem to be at odds with her professed values. In a local public forum she spent much of her opening statement complaining about how she is being treated, and expressing outrage that anyone should suggest that she could be bought. 

Her second line of defense was to point out all the positions she is taking that are against the interests of her contributors, and that she should be judged by her positions and programs and proposals not by her contributors.

Contributors and their money are solid fact, the rest is just words. It is easy to come up with high flown rhetoric, but it is a poor predictor of what you will do when you are elected and have to deal with the day to day grind of actually doing the work. Positions change, often quite legitimately, with changing circumstances. Campaigns are like first dates: everyone is trying to show their best face. Only later do you find out the real truth. 

With regard to the claim that she cannot be bought, I am willing to stipulate that she really believes this to be true, and that she is indeed an ethical person. But that is only to be expected. There is never a quid pro quo, especially at the start. We say politicians are bought, but that is not really an accurate description of what happens. It is much more subtle than that. You cannot usually point to any specific vote or action as having been done in return for a campaign contribution, but there are many invisible ways in which a contributor’s interests can be served. Much of the work of a supervisor is out of the public eye, and often involves monitoring the actions of officials such as those who enforce building codes, for instance. The fact that a supervisor expresses concern about a case will certainly change the way the official handles it, and it seems likely that if the supervisor shows a bias towards a particular outcome, the likelihood of that being the actual outcome is increased. Of course all of this is done with hints and innuendo, but bureaucrats become very skilled at divining the unspoken wishes of their bosses; it is an important survival skill. People with large financial interests have much more frequent interactions with officialdom than most people, and being known as a friend of a supervisor will certainly ease their passage. This kind of thing is often more important to the contributor than actual legislative matters, most of which they do not care about. 

The other thing that they buy with their contributions is access. They get their calls returned. They get to put their point of view, which is always dressed up so as to be politically palatable, directly to the politician. Everyone else has to stand up at meetings and try to get across a coherent message while the board secretly check their Facebook.  Politicians are only human, and when they are constantly exposed to a particular point of view cleverly expressed they tend to adopt that point of view. They find that these people who are portrayed by the protestors as evil are in fact charming and urbane, and really seem like quite reasonable people. They give money to charity and support the ballet. They are easy to like, unlike all those angry and rude people on the other side. 

The movie depictions are wrong: the devil never appears in smoke and flames with red eyes and a tail, he is dressed impeccably with polished shoes and is polite and solicitous. He has no need to play the heavy, he has people for that, and they make sure he is never bothered with the sordid details. 

There is no arm twisting, no threats, just the underlying realization on the part of the politician that they need to get reelected, and they need to keep that money flowing in, and people do not give money to politicians who thwart their interests. Of course everyone concerned realizes the political realities. If a politician could be seen openly voting in their favor he or she would be open to attacks on the subject, so that is saved for the direst situations. In general the contributor will not make demands that would damage his politician. But you can be sure of one thing: when the chips are down, and there is an important vote that will, say, stop a large development, you are better off having someone there voting who is not beholden to developers. 

The solution for all this is obvious: get the power of the money out of the system. One way would be public financing of campaigns. Another intriguing idea would be to erect a wall between donor and recipient. Anyone would be allowed to donate any amount to any candidate, but it would be illegal to do so directly, with very severe penalties. Instead they would pay the money to an Election Finance Board who would then forward it to the designated candidate, but broken into amounts that would not match the amounts of the donations, and with a random delay. The donor would get a receipt for the money, but the receipt would not specify the recipient candidate. Under such a system the donor could never prove to the candidate that he had given him money. Indeed donors could give a large amount and get a receipt and then go to each candidate and say that the money went to them, and the candidates would be none the wiser. With modern technology and a well designed system it would be quite feasible for no person, including those working for the Election Finance Board, to be able to identify both ends of a transaction. 

Candidates claim that their donors just want to get good people elected and do not expect any direct payback. If that is indeed the case the money people should have no problem with such a system, which allows them to support candidates as heavily as they want, but makes sure that they will not see any direct benefit for doing so. Some might object to introducing yet another government bureaucracy; to those I would say that there are some functions that are the proper function of government, and elections are most certainly one of them. Fair elections are the very basis of our power as citizens to affect the activities of those we elect.

Privacy and Encryption

If I were to propose a law that would authorize the Post Office to open your letters and packages, observe and record the contents, sell the resulting information to anyone who will pay them for it, and insert their own materials inside (without informing either you nor the recipient) before delivering them, you would rightly think me crazy. Why would we give such power to any organization? Yet this is exactly the situation with the companies that handle our email and other internet activities. They are free to do all of this and more, and they are making truly staggering amounts of money in the process. One of the hallmarks of civilized countries has always been their postal systems, and privacy has always been a feature of such systems. Just because we have invented a faster and more efficient means to send materials to one another does not change the fundamental nature of those messages. They are still private communications and we should have the right to expect that privacy to be respected.

The argument that the nature of the technology makes it impossible to prevent the owners of the wires and routers from being able to do these things is not correct, and even if it were would still not provide a justification for allowing it. There are countless human behaviors that we have collectively decided for various reasons cannot be permitted in a workable society, and many of them rely on harsh penalties to deter people even when it would be impossible to physically restrain them from breaking the law. One might as well say that since people in the privacy of their homes are free to abuse their spouses and we really have no way to change that, it is useless to pass laws against it.

We could relatively easily prevent much of this abuse, by the use of strong encryption. It is true that advances in computing power make it very difficult to devise unbreakable encryption, but this is not needed. What we need is strong enough encryption to make it not worth the time and trouble of trying. It could be made completely transparent to the users. 

The problem is that strong encryption methods are considered items of national security, and their use by ordinary citizens is against the law. This is justified by the perceived need for the government to be able to monitor all communications so as to be able to effectively counter terrorist groups. If strong encryption were generally available these groups could communicate freely unmolested. In truth, though, if they cared enough terrorists could in fact use very effective encryption. In spite of the law, strong encryption is out there, but there is no evidence that terrorists make any effort at all to use it. However national security makes a powerful case in peoples’ minds for keeping the status quo.

Another factor that comes into play is the commonly heard “If you have nothing to hide, why do you care about privacy?” The question that springs to my mind when I hear this is “Do you lock the bathroom door when you are on the toilet?” An activity does not have to be shameful or harmful to the community for me to want to keep it private. In addition it all hinges on what kinds of communications or behavior the authorities are interested in curtailing. Points of view that are quite acceptable, even admirable, today have a way of suddenly becoming  unacceptable with a change in the political scene. In England during the time of the Tudors, the social and legal position of Catholics and Protestants switched places several times with the death of a monarch and the accession of a new one.

It is also argued that this (and many other abuses) are simply a matter of contract law. If you read the fine print, they tell you everything they are going to do, and you agreed to it when you clicked “I have read and agree to the terms of business,” probably by now the most told lie in all of history. However it cannot truthfully be said that users enter willingly into these agreements; they have no reasonable choice. All of the useful services on the internet are for all intents and purposes monopolies. Sure, you can buy a computer that runs on Linux, and use secure browsers and virtual private networks, but then none of the social networks will work properly. This is not by chance; they deliberately make their products compatible only with the mainstream platforms. Also with such a setup you will spend a significant portion of your time just keeping it running, and have to deal with all kinds of difficult installers and drivers. 

We should require the use of strong end to end encryption for all of our dealings on the internet, and establish the clear principle that the function of Internet Service Providers is solely to see that everything is delivered to its proper destination, and looking at the content of the messages should carry harsh penalties.  If this means that Google would only make million rather than billions, the so be it. There is no inherent unfettered right to make money.

Voting Machines

Most states now use electronic voting machines of some kind. It is reported that in at least 43 states the machines in use are more than 10 years old. There have been countless allegations and reports of irregularities concerning these machines. It has been shown that the use of these machines is frequently correlated with election results that differ unusually widely from pre election polls and/or exit polls.  In the past exit polls were considered the best way to detect election fraud; now, because of frequent anomalous results, they are no longer considered reliable.  It seems plausible that this is the result of widespread cheating rather than some change in the reliability of exit polls. 

All voting machines in use in the US are proprietary machines made by private companies. In some cases the top management of these companies are know supporters of a particular political point of view (pretty much exclusively the Republican point of view). It has been said that gambling machines in Nevada are better regulated than the machines that perform perhaps the most important task in any democracy, that of counting the votes. This is an unacceptable situation. 

I propose that a public interest group be set up with the aim of developing a voting machine that cannot be tampered with and that could be guaranteed to render the correct result. The code would be open to inspection by anyone. A large bounty would be offered to anyone who found a flaw, either a bug or an opportunity to alter the result. The penalty for exploiting such an opportunity would be so severe as to make the bounty much more attractive. 

The reason I am confident that this could be done successfully is that running an election is perhaps the simplest task a computer could be asked to do. The first requirement is that this be a completely purpose built machine. It should be designed to do only the minimum required to fulfill its function, and have no parts that are not necessary to that task. In other words it would not be a repurposed Windows or even Linux box. There is no need for any great degree of complexity, and certainly no need for any way of altering the code once the machines be had been set up for a particular election. Even then the only part that would be alterable would be the details about the candidates or propositions on the particular ballot. 

The underlying code would be burned into chips and completely unalterable. It would be able to handle any known voting system (first past the post, proportional representation, instant runoff etc). I am not sufficiently technically knowledgeable to be able to design such a system, but I know enough to be completely sure that it can be done, and indeed that it is not very difficult. As is often the case in our competitive system, most of the complexity is deliberately introduced either to discourage competition or to cover up opportunities for cheating. 

Part of the specification, and perhaps the hardest part, would be the requirement that there be some way for the voter to verify that his or her vote has been correctly recorded, while keeping in mind the principle that the vote be secret. It must be impossible for one’s employer, for instance, to demand proof of how someone voted, and the existence of a printed receipt that showed this information would enable him to do so. This would not therefore be a suitable way to provide this assurance. Again, I am confident that such a scheme could be devised if enough thought is given to the problem. This requirement might even be considered unnecessary in view of the fact that the code is available, and the voter can be sure that it has been vetted by a great many very smart people and that the machines had been tested according to a known protocol, and therefore perhaps be willing to take it on trust. After all, such an assurance is not available for any current method of voting. 

The machine itself could be made literally transparent for a powerful symbolic effect. Manufacturing should be a very straightforward matter and could be subcontracted. All machines would be thoroughly verified and the firmware loaded following a procedure designed to preclude cheating. This is perhaps the most critical aspect, as once the chips have been burned and permanently installed and the machine sealed no further tampering will be possible. I am confident that a group of intelligent people can come up with a suitable protocol, and this would also be published and feedback sought. The entire process would be as transparent as is humanly possible. 

Along with the machine the group should specify a complete protocol for its operation. This would include such topics as how it is protected from tampering between elections, and all aspects of its secure use. 

Once such a machine had been developed and tested, the group would turn its attention to getting it universally adopted.  A model law would be made available so that any state could easily require the use of our machine in all elections, and ban the use of proprietary machines.  It is hard to think of any valid objection that could be raised against such a proposal if it could truly be shown to be completed proof against tampering. 

The organization in charge of this project would be a nonprofit and would seek out highly respected people for its board. Bill Moyers and Jimmy Carter spring to mind, and I am sure a little thought would come up with many others. I feel that this is something that many people would regard as a public duty to participate in. 

One persistent puzzle is that all systems must be operated and managed by people, and given today’s extreme suspicion of governments how are we to design a system that is as close to incorruptible as is humanly possible, and persuade people of this fact? The goal should be to limit any potential tampering to only single machines as much as possible. If each machine has to be attacked individually it becomes much harder to mount an effective attack on the system. In addition all systems should be self checking and multiply redundant. 

Wealth Distribution and Inheritance

From an online debate on

Speak2Truth wrote:

Wrongs are most commonly inflicted by Government, especially seizing the hard-earned product of one’s labor to be redistributed to whomever the folks in power favor. That is one of the greatest wrongs, essentially enslaving one portion of the population to enrich another. The folks at the receiving end have no legitimate claim to ownership of what was seized and handed to them

Even if we take into account people who actually work day to day in their businesses, I would venture to state that the vast majority of the top income “earners” can not in any reasonable sense be said to labor. Managing money is not laboring. It may be hard work sometimes (though people at this level pay others to do that); it is certainly not labor. In truth, neither is being CEO of a company. Therefore we can rule out this entire class as people who are being robbed of the product of their (non-existent) labor. They are in fact, as I have pointed out in another thread, the very people who are robbing others of the well-earned fruits of their labor, while simultaneously operating a system of debt slavery. (The Company Store is alive and well, only now it goes by names like Visa and MasterCard.) I agree that these folks have no legitimate claim to ownership of what they have seized. They are also the principal recipients of the largesse of governments. Welfare for low-income people is vastly eclipsed by corporate welfare. Who do you think owns the corporations that profit from the ludicrously overpriced hardware that is so profligately wasted in constant warfare? 

So let us indeed stop seizing the product of labor and giving it to those who do not labor. Let us instead tax the income of those who do not labor, but live off the labor of others. 

And while we are on the subject of legitimate claim to ownership, I would like to know where you stand on the topic of inheritance, which is one of the mechanisms by which institutionalized power is concentrated and maintained. I would like to hear an ethical defense of this system from the point of view of a conservative who believes in personal responsibility. 

There are two ends to this, and most argument on the subject centers around the right of someone who has earned a fortune to distribute it as he wishes upon his death. I would argue that no such natural right exists. There is no natural law that mandates what rights inhere in the concept of ownership, and we are free to define those rights as we choose. We might decide, as we do with many activities that we define as crimes, that the social cost of this practice outweighs the desires of those who wish to indulge in it. We might take the view that a dead person no longer has any interest in the game, and therefore should not have any decision-making power beyond the moment of death.

This is not as revolutionary an idea as might at first appear. Several of the Founding Fathers wrote and spoke against the concept of inherited wealth, and Adam Smith himself said that it was perhaps the hardest concept to justify ethically.

But even if we concede the right for someone to dispose of his estate, we have a much harder time justifying allowing the recipient to receive it. Where is the personal responsibility there? What has this person done to deserve the money? Should he not be required to earn whatever he receives, as you are so fond of saying, by his own labor?

So other than “It has always been that way” and “People want to leave their money to whomever they want”, neither of which is a persuasive argument for the continuation of something, what justification can you offer for inheritance? 

And please, let us remain above the level of “well, what are you going to do, give it all to the Government to distribute?” stuff. If we can indeed agree on the principle, it should not be hard to come up with a reasonable mechanism. After all, the Social Security system works extremely well, and performs a similar function. It could be run like a giant mutual fund, and we are well-practiced at running those. It is untrue to say that government can never do anything right. If government departments function poorly it is because they are managed poorly by those we elect to see to their proper functioning. There is nothing inherent in the concept of government that prevents it being run properly. Unfortunately our electoral system has been hijacked by means of the campaign finance laws by people who have an interest in weakening government (which is the protection the people have against powerful interests.) So by deliberately mismanaging and underfunding government departments that do not function as money conduits for them they are able to demonstrate how badly government works. 


It is easy to whip up hate. Encourage some ultra-extreme group to do something stupid and destructive. Then fill the papers with diatribes against the guilty group, and convince everyone that these barbarians are poised to attack on every side; the barbarity of the crime proves that they will stop at nothing. So the conflagration begins again, and each new outrage adds fuel to the fire.

This same scenario, with regional variations, is played out all over the world. And it is all based on the perception on all sides that people who are different from us are out to get us. It works between social groups as well as ethnic. Women are constantly being told that men are out to control them. Farmers are set against city dwellers, commercial interests against residential, the middle classes fear the poor, the list is endless. Whatever groups we can identify ourselves as belonging to, it seems that there is some other group to be suspicious of.

And yet the whole thing breaks down at the only level which is in fact intrinsically reliable, which is the personal level. The only thing we can really judge is that which we have experienced personally. And our actual personal experience is that people are people no matter where they come from and no matter what color they are. Some of them are saints, and some of them manifest only evil, and the rest are somewhere between. Almost everyone has a capacity for cruelty, and almost everyone has a capacity for selfless courage. It all depends on which buttons are pressed and by whom.

So if people are just people, and if a bomb set in the midst of your enemy’s camp will kill an equal proportion of good and bad people as one set in your own camp, how do you get people to kill each other willingly? It is not an easy or inexpensive task. You need a class of people who are unthinking enough to accept uncritically whatever attitudes you feed them. It also helps if they do not actually have to see or hear their victims. Ever since the advent of the crossbow we have been moving further and further in the direction of impersonal warfare. You need to inculcate in them an attitude of fierce group pride. They must believe that their way of life or religion is the only true one, and that everyone who is different is automatically inferior. You also need to dehumanize the enemy in their eyes. They are less than people and need to be eliminated.

So who benefits from all this? Not the regular citizens of either the winning or the losing side. Another effect of modern warfare is its effect on non-combatants. Even as late as the Napoleonic Wars (the early 1800’s) it was possible for an Englishman to travel freely in France even though the countries were at war. If you were unfortunate enough to actually live at the spot where two opposing armies decided to duke it out, you would of course be highly inconvenienced. Also if you were a peasant you would probably find yourself involuntarily donating your grain and flour to any army that was passing through, but by and large the only people who got killed were in uniform. Today, of course, this is far from being the case. As a matter of government policy civilian populations are subjected to military attack, and houses and public building of no military significance destroyed. Economically, too, the population must inevitably suffer. Certainly weapons-building can give some temporary and local prosperity as a result of war, but this never lasts beyond the end of the fighting. The net result is that money passes from the population in general to a small group of people who own the businesses who make the armaments. Even the politicians, often perceived as the warmongers, do not really gain from the situation except perhaps for a momentary rise in popularity.

What can we do? First we can educate ourselves. We can travel, see for ourselves what people of other lands are like. We can recognize that no matter what, warfare does not benefit us or anyone we know and like. We can understand that the ordinary population of every other country in the world is far too busy scrabbling about to make a living to want to fight anyone. We can see who in fact keeps it all going. Wars take huge amounts of money. No government today can afford to pay for a war of the taxes they can raise; they have to borrow money. This is done by selling government bonds, which are bought largely by people in high tax brackets, who benefit most from their tax-free status. The profits from these bonds further enrich the already rich, at the expense of the national debt. Thus an ever-greater proportion of our current taxes (which are born disproportionately by the middle classes) goes to pay interest payments to the wealthy, effecting a constant upward transfer of wealth. The whole thing is a scam. The same people who are making and selling us the weapons are also lending us the money to do so, and, to add insult to injury, the profits on the money lending are tax free. It shouldn’t be hard to think of creative ways of fixing the situation if you could ever achieve a political climate that was conducive to actually doing so. Until then, at the very least we need to be aware of what is happening.

Public Health Care

We hear a lot about the cost of health care, when what is actually being described is the price of health care, an altogether different thing. The idea that a fair price is what a willing buyer is prepared to pay to a willing seller assumes that if the seller asks an outrageous price, the buyer is free to walk away. If the seller has the only drug or procedure that will keep the buyer alive, he is not free to walk away. He has to pay whatever price is asked. There is no meaningful competition in the health care industry.

The so-called health care industry is in the business of trafficking in human life. If you do not have the money to pay them to keep you alive, they will let you die. If you are in severe intractable pain and do not have the money to buy their drugs, they will let you suffer in agony. They are permitted to charge whatever the market will bear. What will you pay to stay alive? Everything you have, if necessary.

Even the Medicare system is forbidden by law from negotiating prices with the drug companies. The one organization which is in the position of being able to deal with the drug companies on a relatively level playing field is forbidden to do so. They must accept the “market” price derived from the process of extortion described above.

I am constantly amazed that so many people seem to prefer the notion of privatized health care to a public system. The executives of a publicly traded corporation are obliged by law to act in the way that will best benefit their shareholders at all times. Nothing takes precedence over this. A publicly traded health care corporation is not in business to provide health care; that is a side effect. They are in business to provide as much profit as possible to their shareholders. This means that the person deciding what treatment a patient is going to get is going to make the decision that best benefits the corporation, not the patient. It also means that the extortion is not just a morally reprehensible policy, it is dictated by law.

A publicly operated health care provider, on the other hand, such as is found all over the rest of the industrialized world, exists to provide health care to the patient. Its employees will make the decision that best benefits the patient. 

Which would you prefer? To have your medical decisions made by someone who is paid to deny you care if they can find any reason to do so, or by someone whose job it is to make and keep you healthy?