Monday, April 29, 2013

Ripple and RipplePay: same thing?

The Economist just published a story about the expanding influence of bitcoin, in which it mentioned Ripple, a new open-currency system. This reminded me of Ripple Pay (which I was very excited about in 2006), but I cannot figure out if it is actually the same system. The Ripple Pay websites are offline, and the Wikipedia article only mentions the name of a single developer, who does not seem to be involved in the new service, Ripple. Also, the logo is different for the two companies.

Still, the new Ripple does seem to include an IOU system, which was the core of Ripple Pay. Does anyone know more?

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Books: The Problem of Political Authority

I'm looking forward to reading this book: The Problem of Political Authority, An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey by Michael Heumer ($36, paperback). Excerpts can be found on Heumer's website.

A strong recommendation from John Danaher (Philosophical Disquisitions) is enough to convince me to drop a few bucks on this.

Needless to say, I think that the problem of political authority is the fundamental issue in political philosophy, and I was sorely disappointed by how it was dismissed as an issue in the political philosophy survey course that I took in college. Even those who support political authority should grapple with this issue, because the nature of political authority has profound consequences for determining the appropriate use of political authority (which seems to be what political philosophers care about).

While we're on this topic, I want to reiterate my recommendation of Common Sense, as a beautiful example of how to demolish the perception of political authority ($0, online). 

For completeness, here is related content that I noticed:

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Anti-government derivation of Rawlsian justice

The other day, I got into a Facebook argument over the fairness of a progressive income tax and means-testing of the retirement income assurance system (e.g. Social Security and IRAs). When faced with the assertion that it is unfair to discriminate against relatively wealthy citizens, I responded that true impartiality is impossible given that the state does anything, and therefore the closest thing to fairness is to provide income support to the least well-off members of society.

This is essentially Rawls' "maximin" criterion. As I superficially understand it, Rawls took this as an a priori principle of fairness, and used it as justification for extensive state intervention in a fundamentally free-market (liberal) economy. I want to look at it from the perspective where the state has already intervened in the economy, and we use the maximin principle as a way to minimize the unfairness of the outcome. This is similar to Kevin Carson's maxim that the state "breaks our legs and then gives us crutches", and that we must keep the crutches until our legs have healed. For the sincere statist, this can be seen as a principle of fairness; but for the ruling class managers, it can be seen as a social engineering paradigm to minimize the number of individuals who are willing to rebel despite exploitation.

I start with the premise that every state action produces winners and losers. This is true even if most state actions are positive-sum interventions. To neo-liberal economists, positive-sum interventions should be pursued whenever possible without consideration of fairness, because some of the excess produce can (ideally) be redistributed to the losers to achieve Pareto efficiency. The problem is that it's impossible to identify the winners and losers of each action. Given a large population and a large number of interventions, there will be some people who have repeatedly been on the losing end of these interventions, to the point that their ability to make a living (or save for retirement) has been crippled. Abandoning these people to poverty would be a great injustice.

In this context, we can only observe and manipulate the outcomes. Some people will have done very well for themselves -- through a mixture of effort, benefiting from state policies, and luck (i.e. everything else) -- while others will have done poorly. If we were to select the people who have the least success at life, we would probably also be selecting the people who have been harmed the most by state policies, along with those who exerted the least effort and were otherwise the most unlucky. As such, the provision of an economic safety net can be a strategy for mitigating the cumulative unfairness of those who lose out due to numerous state policies. To take it further, if we're asking the state to compel citizens to provide public goods, then we've already accepted the premise that "we're all in this together", and an economic safety net is justified as a way to mitigate bad luck (which is more in line with the Rawlsian idea).

A typical conservative rejection to the above argument may be that very few (if any) people have been impoverished by the policies that have allowed others to become wealthy, and that differences in effort account for the vast majority of the differences in economic success. For instance, they may say that tax rates on poor people are low, so that even if someone doesn't benefit from state spending, they still have not been crippled by it. Likewise, they may assert that the per-person economic costs of interventions like copyright are minimal, either because they believe that culture would collapse in the absence of copyright or because they believe copyrighted items are essentially frivolous luxuries. While I would point to mass-incarceration for victimless crimes as an example of how state policies "for the greater good" can impoverish some individuals, conservatives would likely assert that the criminal activity (e.g. illegal drug use) was bound to leave the prisoner destitute anyway, or that the criminalization of this activity was only a minor imposition on the criminal, and that their poverty is due to their choice to disobey legitimate authority. Many of the other policies that increase living expenses and depress incomes are so complicated that tracing cause and effect is nearly impossible. Suffice to say, I think that they are sufficient to impoverish many people, through the cumulative effect of many small burdens.

To solidify this viewpoint, I turn to a theory of the exploitative state. The first component of this theory is that while some state actions are positive-sum, many are zero-sum or even negative-sum. The reason that such outcomes are common is that political power is unevenly distributed among the population, and the determinant of state action is that it benefits the powerful -- not that it benefits the population as a whole.

This imbalance of power has a consequence that is even more important than the existence of negative-sum outcomes -- it biases the outcomes such that some people (the powerful) systematically win, while others systematically lose. This scenario does not even require that the powerful consciously exploit the powerless, only that they obstruct any policy that hurts them and promote policies that help themselves (regardless of their impact on the powerless). In this environment, the gains and losses of government action pile up and account for a substantial amount of the wealth variation in the population.

Given this systematic transfer of wealth from the powerless to the powerful (and the consequent construction of both a wealthy and an impoverished class), a person concerned with fairness should not be too bothered by policies that appear to exploit the rich. While an excessively populist attitude can be leveraged by the agents of the state to stuff their own pockets and intimidate critics, adding a clearly defined progressive component to a tax system does not facilitate such shake-downs. By shifting the tax burden from the poor to the rich, we can mitigate the systematic unfairness of government actions. It's only a superficial solution, but it definitely is not the problem.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Did Macklemore & Lewis sell out to the NBA?

You may have heard of this hip-hop duo, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. They are all "anti-consumerist" and shit, but they just made a promo for the NBA with their song "Wings". This has lead to accusations of selling out, with them  responding that it is all part of their grand strategy to bring their message to the masses. I'm not going to criticize their professed strategy, but I couldn't let stand their assertion that the NBA is tangential to the problematic thinking that is targeted in the song.

Basically, they say that the song is about the idea that you are defined by what you wear, and therefore their beef is with Nike but not the NBA. They excuse the NBA on the grounds that it is just an industry that exists within the capitalist/consumerist system. However, the reality is that the NBA (and pro-sports in general) are the epitome of the consumerist pathology. At the one extreme are companies that provide us with simple commodities that provide a simple utility; at the other extreme are the brands that manipulate our perception of society in order to convince us that we have to give them money in order to be accepted. This is just sick, and it is all pervasive in sports fandom.

At some level, the sports leagues are selling us entertainment -- the spectacle of high-performance athletic competition. But as with the Air Nike, the product is only part of what they are selling. In fact, sports may be the industry that sells us the least real product and the most image. We watch sports because our friends are doing so. We wear logos to show solidarity with our neighbors. Our emotions are ridiculously affected by the outcome of the games (and it's not simply a matter of whether the playoffs will include the team whose performance we appreciate most). Pro sport leagues have managed to tap into our primal social impulses, and claim them as their own property.

They have stolen our own society from us. They are making us pay just to participate in our own community. Other industries do similar things (e.g. the music industry and software firms such as Facebook and Microsoft), but pro sports is particularly gratuitous about it.

To top it off, they have special anti-trust exemptions from the Federal Government. What a bunch of pigs.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

The product of America's mass-incarceration policy: racist gangs

The Aryan Brotherhood; the Mexican Mafia; the Black Guerrilla Family.

All three of these gangs originated in American prisons and gained influence by providing protection for inmates in the context of the state-imposed war of all-against-all that occurs within the prison.

Lessig sees the corruption of the system; gives rousing speech. Nothing follows.

Lessig comes so close to seeing that the democratic legitimacy of the Republic is a sham. As a big-shot talking to a bunch of other big-shots, it's understandable that he would think that the system is ultimately responsive to the people.

"Fixing the problem" is not impossible, but his strategy is a non-starter. A broken system cannot fix itself. The law-making process cannot be fixed by passing a law.

He's trying to be radical, but he stops short. His analysis is superficial -- the thinks that the problem is in how money is obtained, but he doesn't ask why money is necessary. He doesn't answer this question, and therefore he doesn't realize how detached regular people are from the rule making process. He doesn't realize that the system is elitist (and "corrupt") at its core.