Liberal Commons: Social Security

A big piece of our national commonwealth is Social Security, particularly OASDI (Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance.)

Conservatism, as it has run screaming toward the Cliffs of Insanity, has put out a lot of crap about Social Security, so let’s set a few facts straight.

Social Security is not welfare.

Social Security isn’t the federal food stamp program. It isn’t Project Head Start. It isn’t the school lunch program. It isn’t national welfare.

70% of its payout is OASDI — Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance — plus Medicare. You get these when you reach retirement age or become permanently disabled, after you have qualified. It takes ten years of contributing through FICA taxes to qualify for Social Security or Medicare, and what you are paid is based on how much you put in. So this isn’t available to the non-working poor. It isn’t available to illegal aliens. It isn’t available to legal immigrants who just arrived in the country.

Another 15% of Social Security is Medicaid, which is a welfare program, and is worth a separate post. It promotes public health, and is primarily intended to prevent epidemics of common third-world diseases preventable by basic medical care for those who can’t afford medical care. It protects the rich more than it serves the poor.

The remaining 15% goes to various specific groups: you can look them up, and find out what it takes to get that money.

Social Security does not tax the rich.

Social Security is funded by FICA (Federal Insurance Contributions Act) taxes, which are capped. No one pays more than $15,000 in one year — whether they make $100K or $100M that year. Investment income isn’t taxed at all, so the very wealthy, who generally collect only investment income, pay no FICA tax whatsoever.

Social Security isn’t of much use to rich people, anyway, because the piddling couple thousand a month (at best) that Social Security provides won’t even pay the catering bill for the Christmas party.

Social Security is an income redistribution system.

Social Security is not a Ponzi Scheme, nor is it a Retirement Fund, nor is it any kind of Investment Plan. I went back and read Republican Alf Landon’s speech entitled “I Will Not Promise the Moon” from 1936, and whatever he may have thought was the case in 1936, it is no longer true that Social Security is a forced savings plan.

Social Security is a straightforward income redistribution. It takes money from person A’s wages and gives it to person B.

It can be a strange trip when you talk to conservatives about this, particularly the older ones. “It’s MY money!” they’ll cry. My father used to say this, especially as he slipped into senile dementia. Well, no, it isn’t your money. Never was.

“No!” he’d protest. “It’s MY money! It’s for MY retirement! It’s my RIGHT!” He would get so angry that it wasn’t worth talking with him about it.

If you are one of these elderly conservatives who can’t bear to hear this, stop reading now. The rest of this post will only frustrate and confuse you.

For the rest of you, here’s how it works: those who are working today are taxed a fraction of their wage income by FICA. This is not income tax. This is on top of income tax. That FICA money is then immediately redistributed to all the current Social Security recipients, who are mostly retirees.

When today’s workers get to retirement age, their Social Security will be paid by the young whippersnappers who have taken over the workforce from them. When those whippersnappers retire, their retirement will be paid by their children. And so forth.

Social Security will not “go broke” in 2033.

Social Security has a Trust Fund (actually, it has several) that it uses to hold excess contributions in a calendar year, and from which it draws in short years. This trust fund does not pay for Social Security — it only supplements payments in short years. The bulk of all Social Security payments each year are paid by FICA taxes collected that same year.

The trust fund is exactly the same as your household rainy-day fund. You build it up in good months, and you spend it down in bad months.

As of April 2012, the retirement trust fund is still growing just as it has been for decades, not shrinking. In fact, here’s a breakdown of the numbers:


sstrust.pngIncome exceeded spending in 2011, so the trust fund grew. The fund is projected to grow until 2021, when it will reach its maximum of about $3.1 trillion dollars. However, in 2021 the bulk of the Baby Boomers come into retirement and stop contributing their FICA taxes, and they will place a drain on the trust fund for the next twenty-some years.

The main reason for building up the trust fund over all these years — the reason it stands at nearly three trillion dollars — is to handle the Baby Boomers when they retire. The Baby Boomers are the rainy day that the trust fund is for.

When the last Boomer passes through the pearly gates, the trust fund should be pretty much empty (actually, by law, “empty” means it has to have one year’s worth of expenditures in it). Let’s say “empty” happens 20 years from when the Boomers hit the system, or 2041. Unfortunately, according to current projections, the trust fund will be empty by 2033, about eight years short of where it needs to be. The Baby Boomers will still be draining the trust heavily when it runs dry.

What horrors need we endure to fix this eight-year projected shortfall? There are many options, the most straightforward of which is to temporarily increase the FICA tax to increase the rainy day fund.

What horrible tax rate must we endure to fix this? A 2.2% increase in FICA taxes, split between employee and employer. FICA will go from 15.3% to 17.5%. If you’re an employee, you’ll see your FICA go from 7.65% to 8.75%, and your employer will pick up the other half. Once the Boomers are through, they can reduce the rate.

Problem solved. That’s all it takes.

What’s more correct to say is that the conservatives can create a problem for Social Security in 2033 by refusing a temporary increase in FICA taxes as part of normal fiscal prudence in managing the fund. And they seem hell-bent on causing that problem.

Congress has not been stealing from the Social Security Trust Fund.

This appears, after a little bit of research, to be nothing more than some random bit of Internet propaganda that has gone around conservative circles, much like the Obamacare “death panels.” Congress has never tapped into the Social Security Trust Fund. Not ever.


I’ve heard a few people try to say it has something to do with the way Social Security has its money tied up in Treasury Bonds, and when it tries to cash those bonds, the whole financial system will go under. As near as I’ve been able to tell, this is based on confusion about the machinery of money, which is a bit complex, but fairly elegant. Some other post, perhaps.

Let me summarize all this in pithier terms:

  • Social security is welfare: bullcrap.
  • Social security taxes the rich: bullcrap.
  • Social security is a Ponzi scam: bullcrap.
  • Social security is a forced savings plan: bullcrap.
  • Social security is going broke: bullcrap.
  • Social security has been robbed by Congress: bullcrap.

I can’t say that I automatically knew these things were bullcrap. In fact, I even believed a few of them myself, until I decided to write about them and had to do some research. As it turns out, they are all 100% pure bullcrap.

So we’ve finally reached the beginning of this post. I’m sorry it took so long to get here, but I really can’t claim responsibility for how badly the conservatives and Faux News have bullcrapped up the discussion with nonsense about Ponzi schemes and Social Security going broke.

Let’s talk about what Social Security is.

Social Security is the working class taking care of the working class.

Specifically, it’s the working class young taking care of the working-class old. It’s me paying for your mother’s dentures. It’s you paying for my father’s rent.

It’s one of the benefits, and responsibilities, of citizenship in the United States. It is part of the Commons, even though it is restricted to the working middle-class.

Why is Social Security important?

Social Security is important because old age is one of the biggest crap-shoots most of us will face in our lives: how we prepare depends on when we reach the point where we can’t work any more, and how long we think we’ll live after that.

There is an old saying that there are two things forever hidden from the wisest of men: the hour of his death, and the manner of it.

Exactly how much should I have saved up on the day when I have to stop earning a living? This also is hidden from the wisest of men.

Since everyone faces this problem of uncertain late-life dependency, it is what they call an “actuarial” problem. It’s a straightforward bit of mathematics, and one of the basic rules is that the larger the group you deal with, the less the uncertainty.

When I am trying to figure it for myself, I have a group-of-one, the smallest possible group, and my risks are enormous — that I will run out of money and starve, or that I will impoverish my life by saving money that I will never live to spend. No mathematics can help me figure this out. I might as well sacrifice a goat and read the entrails. Good luck with that.

What Social Security does is to spread this uncertainty over millions of people. With a group that large, the uncertainties all but vanish. Social Security can guarantee to pay me my stipend for the rest of my life, however long it may be, and they truly do not care whether I live to be 70, or 110. They already know, statistically, how many people will die at 66, and how many at 110. They’ve planned for it.

Social Security is something called a “hedge.” It’s related to the expression “hedging your bets” as well as the term “hedge fund.” It’s a way for the community as a whole to reduce risks. It is a way for each citizen to reduce risks by participating in the community hedge.

Government isn’t the only way to manage this. Let’s look at some other ways it could be handled.

Nonsense proposals first: we again need to shovel some more right-wing bullcrap out of the way.

The Tea-Party Free Market Libertarians demand “individual responsibility.” Which translates to: “We don’t need no stinkin’ hedge. To hell with other people, I can get by on my own.”

This is exactly how it works in places like China and Colombia, as well as third-world countries. We have personal experience with Colombia, because my wife’s father lives there. There is no safety net in Colombia. His private insurance fund was embezzled by its director, and it has taken years of legal action to get the matter sorted out, during which he’s received zip. He is still receiving zip. He was a successful surgeon and general practitioner before he retired, and now he is Shit-Outta-Luck.

That’s what individual responsibility means. If anything goes wrong with your personal plans, you are SOL. You turn to begging. From family, if you have it, until they stop speaking to you. Then friends. Then charities and strangers on the street. Then you die under a bridge.

Individual responsibility also includes the individual 401K investment fund.

Your 401K tanked? You didn’t put in enough? You lived too long? Boo-hoo. Sucks to be you. Mine got 30% returns and I’m taking a cruise this year, ha-ha-ha. You screwed up, so you deserve to starve under a bridge. Here, have a mint.

I call this the “Are there no workhouses? Are there no prisons?” system of retirement. You could also call it the Sociopaths United Retirement Plan, since its main challenge is kicking the lingering elderly out of the path of the living, and investing in heavy equipment to dig their trench graves.

A slightly less antisocial fragment of the Tea Party — the States’ Rights Tea Party — wants the states to handle Social Security. It’s merely a shift of responsibility and taxation — Social Security on a state-by-state basis, rather than federal.

It will cost states exactly the same 15% on wages that the Feds currently charge, overall: federal taxes will go down by 15%, and state taxes will go up by 15%.  However, since we’re talking about splitting the one system into fifty smaller systems there will be a lot of variation from state to state. States that have a younger and more prosperous average population will be able to reduce their tax rate and provide more benefits, while others will have to raise tax rates and slash benefits to stay afloat. Taxpayers in high-tax, low-payoff states will move elsewhere, making the problem in that state even worse.

There is no practical upside to splitting Social Security fifty different ways, and there are many downsides. The only reason to do this is to satisfy an irrational obsession with shrinking federal government (and bloating state government) no matter what the consequences.

The Religious Republicans want to turn Social Security over to the churches. “Americans are generous!” they say. “The most generous people in the world! Charity can work!”

Religious Republicans may be generous — though somehow that doesn’t sound right — but they clearly can’t count.

Let’s say we abolish Social Security. Every non-wealthy working person gets an immediate 7.5% reduction in taxes, and the employers that hire them suddenly find their employees are 7.5% less costly to retain. Of course, employers will immediately give that 7.5% savings back to its employees as a pay raise. Right. I’m being sarcastic. Employers will pocket the savings, and the employees will see a 7.5% rebate.

Now, each employee has to turn around and join a church, or a charitable lodge, or some other kind of collective (like the Odd Fellows used to be), and turn over that full 7.5% tax rebate to them. Right.

Those groups will turn around and redistribute this to the old folks.

But there’s a basic math problem. These charitable groups are only collecting 7.5% of the working wages of the nation, and it costs 15% to house, clothe, and feed the old folks. Where are they going to get the other 7.5%? Steal it? Double-up retires in their homes and tell them to eat half as much? Shoot every other retiree?

There’s yet another problem. Most churches want a “tithe” (10%) of their parishioners’ income just to cover overheads: the minister’s salary, the roofing fund, the sound system, the outreach program, and current charity programs. They never get that, but they push for it.

So a young family that joins a church is now going to be hit up for the tithe, plus the full 7.5% tax rebate they got from the abolition of Social Security, plus another 7.5% they don’t have. That’s 25% of their income.

You want to see churchgoers break the doors down in their rush to exit?

Of course, you can restrict your “charity” to active congregation members in good standing. This is the States’ Rights problem all over again, but times a million. Those megachurches with 5000 parishioners and a median age of 25? The old folks are going to fall on you like a tree, and you’ll be posting guards at the doors to keep them out. And the old, grey-haired Presbyterian congregations are going to have to huddle in the church basement, because they won’t have enough income among the lot of them to buy movie tickets. Without the popcorn.

This is fiscal policy by people who can’t add.

The Wall Street Republicans want Social Security privatized. What they mean by this is that they want the Social Security Trust Fund converted from T-bills to stocks. Wall Street drools over this prospect. Nearly three trillion dollars dumped into the markets! Yummy!

They promise “higher returns” than T-bills, but this is a salesman’s promise, worth less than nothing, backed by nothing. We’ve seen the horrific volatility of the stock market twice in the last decade. I think this idiocy is off the table for now. It will come back after the public has forgotten 2008 and the next trading bubble forms, but for now, I don’t think I need to say much more.

What a long list of nonsense proposals! Again, I apologize, but not one of them is mine.

So let’s at last come down to the only two proposals that make any sense.

  • Socialized safety-net (what we have right now), or
  • Privatized safety net, e.g. a pension fund.

These represent the two basic ways to set up a hedge. You either force everyone to participate, or you lock out anyone who doesn’t buy in early.

The privatized safety net simply doesn’t work very well.  There are two very obvious problems.

The first is fund mismanagement, which is a polite way of saying that the fund managers wrote themselves a check and were last seen boarding a flight for Rio. How many corporate pension plans were illegally drained by their corporate sponsors? How many corporations were ever prosecuted for doing that? How many corporate pensions are left? Being privately managed means there’s a lot more opportunity for hanky-panky, and with this kind of money, there will be hanky-panky.

The other problem is that buy-in is voluntary, which is pretty much the whole point of a “private” solution. Yet it’s a simple fact of human nature that almost no one actually plans and puts out money for their own death. They don’t really even like to think about it, especially when they are young.

So no matter how you manage your pensions, you are going to end up with huge numbers of old people who never participated when they were young, and now they want in. What do you do with them?

I can’t even think about that question without hearing Eric Idle’s voice calling out “Bring ou’ cher daid! [clang]” We’re right back to Sociopaths United.

Mandatory participation — and a tax to fund it. It’s the only thing that actually makes any sense.

Best of all, that’s exactly what we have: a system put together by some very smart people who could actually count, that has been running extremely well for seventy-five years.

Social Security is one of the great American achievements of the 20th century, all the more so given the time period in which it was created, and it’s still running strong. It’s one of the commons, and our birthright as American citizens.

To the people who want to tear it down, all I can say is, “What on Earth is wrong with you?”

On the Issue of Stupidity

I’ve probably said out loud (at least once) that conservatives as a class are stupid. As in not the brightest bulb in the pack, three bricks shy of a load, easily led by the nose, three dollar bill stupid.

Oddly, their stupidity does not inspire my pity. Their stupidity makes me angry. Positively wrathful, in fact.

Now there’s a truism that when you find yourself angry with other people, particularly a whole class of people, you’re reacting to something in yourself that is similar to them — a similarity you dislike about yourself, or that has caused you great pain in the past.

It’s a truism, not a truth: that is, a useful idea that’s mostly true often enough to warrant giving it a good chew before you spit it out.

So what is this wrath that I feel?

It feels like the kind of anger that follows betrayal. It’s the same anger you might feel when you learn that your own daughter has been stealing from you, or when you find your spouse in bed with your best friend, or when you discover that your retirement fund has been embezzled by its trustees, who are now living a life of ease in the Cayman Islands while you’re looking at foreclosure and bankruptcy.


Dante placed the Betrayers at the deepest level of Hell, frozen in contorted, painful positions for eternity beneath the surface of an icy lake. It seems appropriate.

Thinking about this, it’s immediately obvious to me that I’m a trusting and somewhat credulous sort of person. I don’t automatically assume that everyone I meet is a liar who is out to take advantage of me. This is mostly temperament, I think. I won’t make the mistake of trying to say it’s good or bad. It’s just the way I am.

The downside of being a trusting sort of person is having your trust abused.

It’s happened to me more than once, as you might expect. I’ve been cheated of money. I’ve been lied to, and I’ve believed the lies to the point that I’ve stuck my neck out for a liar and had it (my neck) shortened a fingerspan or two when the lies finally came to light. My credulity is one of the many reasons that I’m not the most successful businessman in the world.

Heck, you might even say I’ve been pretty … stupid. As in not the brightest bulb in the pack, three bricks shy of a load, easily led by the nose, three dollar bill stupid.

So the truism would appear to have a nugget of truth in it after all. But there’s still the question: why do I pass this particular self-loathing off on conservatives? Why not the liberals? Why not blame the French? Why not despise left-handed violists who wear tennis shoes to a concert?

It has to do with the lies, I think. Lies lie at the heart of any betrayal.

It isn’t the lies the conservatives tell. It’s the lies the conservatives are told. The lies they so credulously accept. The betrayals they apparently don’t see coming. The betrayals that they screw their eyes up tight against in denial, as they pursue the fallacy of sunk cost.

In case you don’t know what the “fallacy of sunk cost” is, it’s the fallacy addressed by the expression “Throwing good money after bad.” It’s the belief that after “investing” so much in a failure, you have no choice but to continue with even more investment because otherwise you are somehow “dishonoring the sacrifice” you’ve already made. It’s doubling-down on a tanking stock portfolio. It’s giving your lying, cheating spouse a seventeenth chance because you’ve invested twenty years in the marriage. It’s mortgaging your house for a doomed business to honor the hard work you and your employees have already put in. It’s continuing to fight a losing war to “honor” the soldiers who have already died.

It’s continuing to vote Republicans into office long after they’ve betrayed everything you’ve ever believed in.

The fallacy of sunk cost is a very human thing. And it’s really quite stupid. Three dollar bill stupid.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, thank God for term limits.

I went through years of thinking that Social Security was going to “run out of money.” Then I did the least little bit of actual research — I went to the Social Security website to see how the damn thing worked, and how much money they actually had left — and discovered the lie. It’s a whopper.

The truth? Social Security is income redistribution. It won’t “run out of money” unless everyone stops working and paying taxes. It does have a “rainy day fund” that is going to fall short of covering all the Baby Boomers at full benefit levels starting in 2033 because the Republicans have stopped them from fixing a minor problem. It’s a leaky faucet in the kitchen, and rather than simply buying new washers for the faucets, the Republicans have prevented anyone from touching the sink. They’ve instead moaned about the inevitable basement full of water, rotten floorboards, and total structural collapse of the house. Social Security is doooooomed. Dooooooomed, we tell you!

The Republicans want us to sell the doomed house. Because of a leaky faucet. So to whom should we sell? Glad you asked. The Republicans have some friends who would be happy to take it off our hands…. They’re called Wall Street. You know, the guys who brought us the 2008 recession? The guys who have been manipulating LIBOR? Yeah, those guys.

Getting taken in by that lie, even peripherally, left me feeling kind of … well, stupid.

Just a couple of weeks ago I was agreeing with some conservative about how Congress has robbed Social Security blind. I even started a blog entry about Congressional theft from the Social Security Trust Fund, which forced me to do the least little bit of actual research — and I found out this is utterly false. It’s based on the twisted argument of someone who has no clue what a Treasury Bond is — or who knows perfectly well but just wants to tell a lie to frighten people and take advantage of them.

Again, I felt pretty stupid.

I’ve wasted a lot of time and energy in the last ten years researching bullcrap.

  • Social Security is a Ponzi scam: bullcrap.
  • Environmentalists are the cause of rising gas prices: bullcrap.
  • Illegal immigrants are stealing American jobs: bullcrap.
  • High US taxes suppress investment: bullcrap.
  • US financial regulation inhibits economic growth: bullcrap.

The list could be extended to many, many pages. All bullcrap.

It isn’t bullcrap because I’m a liberal and I disagree with it. It’s bullcrap because it isn’t true.

Conservatives are stupid because they have fallen for these lies.

Just as I have.

That’s why they make me so angry. They remind me of me, back in the day when I was young and stupid.

Like a few weeks ago.

Liberal Government

I’ve asked conservatives to describe the purpose of government. After the usual spate of smart-assed answers (e.g. “nothing” or “taxing us to death”) they usually fall silent. They don’t know.

The answer is so obviously correct that it sounds like a trick question.

The purpose of government is to govern.

What doesn’t it mean, “to govern?”

We have a company here in town named Woodward Governor, and it has that name because one of its first products, over a century ago, was a “governor” for steam engines. A “governor” is a regulator. It keeps the engine from running too fast.

The purpose of government is to regulate.

Government traditionally regulates on at least three levels:

  1. individual behavior,
  2. business behavior,
  3. the Commons.

We’re all familiar with the governing of individual behavior in the list of “Thou Shalt Nots” we consider requirements of civilization. Prohibitions against murder, theft, false witness, and the like.

But there is really nothing fixed about this. The governing of a Catholic monastic life, for instance, is based on a Rule that tells individuals when to get up in the morning and when to go to bed at night, when to eat, when (and how) to pray, when (or whether) to speak. The governing of peasants in Medieval Europe had restrictions on meeting the eyes of someone of higher rank; in ancient Hawaiian society, it wasn’t meeting eyes, but stepping on the shadow of a higher-ranked person. In ancient Rome and Greece, individuals were required to make sacrifices to the local gods. In Inquisition Spain, attending the local auto da fey was mandatory.

Most US Americans — including most self-proclaimed conservatives — favor a liberal (or libertarian) view toward government regulation of individuals: they don’t want the government telling them what they can and cannot do.

Not all Americans favor this liberal/libertarian view. Some want go back to the Puritan Colonies, which had very tight religious control over individual behavior, sometimes only a little short of Catholic monastic rule. These people say that our “liberal” government is a “libertine” government that allows people to do too much. They have a long laundry list of “immoral” behaviors they want prohibited by law, and another long list of “moral” behaviors to be required. Some of this comes from the political left, but by far the bulk of it comes from the political right, particularly the religious right. They often snark about Sodom and Gomorrah.

I’m definitely liberal/libertarian on this aspect of government, though I’m not an extremist: your rights, as they say, end where my nose begins.

Still, unless someone can show the harm in it, I don’t care what other people do. I don’t care what they smoke or ingest, or with whom they have sex, or how. I don’t care what rituals they perform in their basement or their backyard or the city parks, or what gods they worship. I don’t care if they curse up a blue streak, or dance, or play cards, or drink.

This is, in fact, a liberal attitude toward government regulation of individuals, at least as I understand it. And I do embrace that ideal.

Business regulation makes trade safe, predictable, and profitable. A lot of Tea-Party Libertarians idolize “free” markets, and claim that all government regulation of business practice is harmful: they consider themselves safe from criticism because they claim that government regulation is everywhere, therefore there are no real free markets for them to use as examples of how the uninhibited market is supposed to work.

This is nonsense. There are plenty of truly free markets, and they illustrate exactly why government regulation is beneficial to business, not harmful. Consider the heroin trade. Consider any other black market. Governments do not regulate black markets, because they aren’t supposed to exist. They are entirely “free” markets.

It’s illustrative to note how a truly free market functions.

  1. It’s a cash-and-carry proposition. Both parties bring their goods or money to the meeting, and when they walk away, it’s over. No money-back guarantees. No lawsuits. No complaining that the goods were shoddy, or the money was counterfeit. The only recourse to being cheated is personal vendetta.
  2. Parties need their own quality inspectors who know the goods, or they stand to be cheated. The bigger the trade, the greater the need.
  3. Parties need their own “muscle” to protect themselves as they come to market, and as they leave, and during the trade. The bigger the trade, the greater the need.
  4. The natural tendency of the marketplace is to form vendor cartels, which collude on price and quality rather than compete. Individual suppliers who step out of line with the cartel are killed, or have their business ruined by violent means.

Personal trust between buyer and seller, based on the desire for repeat business, can level out some of this risk. But nothing removes the need for security, since both parties bring valuables with them — going to market is a good way to get robbed. If you’re buying or selling potatoes, a strong son with a big stick is probably all you need. If you’re buying or selling precious artwork, you’re going to need armed guards.

The formation of the great Medieval markets of Troyes show how government regulation benefits business: the local Lords got together and provided soldiers to protect vendors and customers, established a common currency, and settled on a common system of weights and measures. They paid for all this with a market tax. As a direct result, the marketplace expanded hugely, because people knew what they were buying, what they were paying, and that bandits weren’t going to ride in and take all the goods and the money.

I also like to use the example of Prohibition in the 1920’s. With the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the government removed itself from regulating the alcohol market — instead, it prohibited the market. This resulted in a huge black market for alcohol, which was quickly consolidated by cartels headed by “businessmen” like Al Capone. Competitors were shot or brutally murdered, sometimes accompanied by collateral damage and public panic. Prices were high, product quality was low — local spirits were often made carelessly and contained poisons like methanol and formaldehyde. That all ended when the Twenty-First Amendment repealed the Eighteenth, the government began to regulate the alcohol market, and Al Capone gave way to Almadén.

When people talk about business regulation today, they get confused, and for a good reason.

Certain segments of society — mostly the bankers and investment classes — have sold everyone on the idea of “deregulation” through the Republican party. That political branding has caused this deregulation agenda to be confused with traditional pro-business conservatism. These folks harp on the so-called “overregulation” of the workplace in some states like California (which admittedly gets silly) and have raised a huge stink about how this makes US business non-competitive in the global markets.

But fixing workplace regulation was never any part of the deregulation agenda. This has been bait-and-switch from the start. A snow job. A fraud.

The real target of deregulation was the post-Depression banking laws like Glass-Steagall, which tightly regulated the banks and prevented the banking class from gambling with other people’s money as it did prior to the market crash of 1929. While the silly workplace laws in California have remained largely untouched by deregulation, Glass-Steagall was successfully abolished (1999, Republican-controlled Congress), and the bankers immediately began the gambling that led to the housing and derivatives bubble, followed by the Great Recession of 2008.

The deregulators have further confused the issue by saying that corporations are people. This is the stupidest statement I’ve heard to date: an offense to reason, common sense, and the English language. Businesses have no inherent right to exist, and they have no natural liberties to protect. Like governments, businesses exist solely with the consent of the people.

I’m strongly pro-regulation on the business side. Here’s the question I ask to cut through pro-business whining and double-talk: “Are you telling me that you can’t make a profit without hurting people?”

Because if that’s true — if they can’t make a profit without hurting people — they ought to go out of business, if for no other reason than to clear the way for a more competent business. But more often than not, the answer is, “Well, yes, we can make a profit, it just isn’t very much.” Well, boo-hoo.

This attitude apparently makes me a liberal.

Regulation of the Commons, or the commonwealth, is a concept tangled up almost beyond redemption. I think this is because we’ve been so diligently packaging and selling off our Commons, and there is so little left.

Let’s start with something we haven’t sold off yet: military defense.

Yes, sweethearts, military defense is part of the Commons. Everyone pays for it, whether they think it’s necessary or not. Compulsory military service is a civic duty, when needed. Everyone benefits equally from having it.

From each according to ability (taxes, service), to each according to need (wherever we are attacked). Wait… isn’t that what the Communists used to say? Our agreement with our own military is Communist?!?

In a sense, yes. Ironic, isn’t it?

But this isn’t really “communist” — the Russians didn’t invent the idea — it’s simply the way all healthy families and churches and communities are run. It’s also a big part of any healthy nation.

The Commons are the responsibilities and benefits of citizenship, as well as the resources we hold collectively in trust for ourselves and for future generations.

Here are some important basic characteristics of the commonwealth:

  1. It is paid for by all citizens, typically through taxes or compulsory service.
  2. It is available to all citizens for, at most, a token cost.
  3. Its management and regulation is one of the necessary functions of government.

When you privatize the Commons, it is no longer the Commons. It is just another commodity to be sold to the highest bidder. We’ve been racing down the path of privatizing everything. Some people insist this is good and moral.

I disagree. I disagree almost completely. I disagree almost violently. I’ll be exploring this in subsequent articles.

Apparently, however, thinking that we have a responsibility to conserve the Commons — surely that’s a conservative idea? — makes me a liberal.

So I favor a government which is light on regulating individual behavior, heavy (and fair, and consistent) on regulating business, which puts people before corporate profits, and which conserves and manages its commonwealth carefully.

I am opposed to a government which is heavy on regulating individual behavior, light on regulating business, puts corporate profits before people, and which packages and sells off its commonwealth to the highest bidder for short-term gains.

This apparently makes me a liberal. (?!!?)

Liberal Environmentalism

I happen to be a dirt-worshipping tree-hugger. A Druid, and a Pagan. That’s a personal choice — it’s not something I’d push on anyone else. I’d even go so far as to say it wouldn’t be a good idea for most people to become Druids or Pagans.

But my main concern for the environment is not as a Druid, nor as a Pagan, but simply as a matter of practical common-sense: if we poison the water, we die of thirst. If we destroy the land, we starve. If we fill the air with choking fumes, we suffocate.

We die.

Not some spotted owl or unlovely fish. I eat birds and fish: they’re prey. But I also understand that they are a measuring stick for how much stress I’m putting on the land and water and air with my eating habits. When my eating habits begin to alter the landscape, I need to find a way to scale back my eating. Because I’m killing myself.

Here’s the simple truth of the matter: the spotted owls and unlovely fish and wolves and pandas and bears will do just fine after humans have gone extinct. Life will continue even if we humans royally crap on the earth. It will just do so without us.

My principal concern with the environment is what used to be called conservative, in the sense that any old-school farmer or rancher would have recognized: don’t destroy the land, because in the end, the land is the only thing of value that you have. Don’t destroy the things that live on the land and keep it healthy. Tend it, treat it with care, treat it with respect as something you don’t fucking understand, so that it will still be fruitful for the next generation, and the one after that, and the one after that.

Somehow, in this decade, that conservative sentiment makes me a liberal.

Now personally, I go beyond this principal concern. As a Druid, I think that the environment has a lot to teach us about how to live as humans. I think that the idea of approaching the natural world with a sense of awe and reverence is useful and beautiful and spiritually appropriate.

I don’t demand that anyone agree with me on this.

However, when I find people who think they can hasten the return of Jesus by helping Satan to destroy the world through environmental devastation, I cannot help but conclude that they are insane. As in stark, raving, drooling mad. I was once a Christian, a long time ago, and I don’t recall Jesus ever saying that he would delay his return until his followers had made a big enough mess of things. I have heard something like that from certain modern Christians who appear to be outright enemies of appropriate environmental stewardship. Like James Watt, Secretary of the Interior under Ronald Reagan.

Even the secular profit-seekers who poison other people’s wells are clearly morons or sociopaths.

As a twenty-first century “liberal” I promise I will stop whining about the environment as soon as we stop shitting where we eat. More specifically, when the profit-minded stop shitting where I eat.

But not before.

A Liberal Manifesto

Not really — just kidding.

I’m not a liberal. I’ve merely found myself standing miles to the left of the putative “center” of US politics as it races rightward toward the Cliffs of Insanity, making me a liberal-by-default. Moreover, I don’t have any idea how to write a Manifesto, nor am I certain I would want anyone following it were I to accidentally write one.

On the other hand, I’m tired of being slandered as a liberal by people who have barely enough intelligence to pick their own noses. I wanted to explore a few concepts that seem to separate me from the self-proclaimed conservatives.

After I started the post, it expanded into a book. You know how that goes. So I created a category, so I can put out little pieces rather than a monolithic rant.

I hope it proves interesting, perhaps a little thought-provoking. If not, tough.