The Disadvantages of Being a Government Monopolist

I don’t mean being the dominant player in a market. I mean here a much tighter definition of monopoly: legal monopoly.

Governments suck.

The reason they suck is because they are monopolists. The good news is, this means opportunity to outcompete governments for all the stuff they do badly. (At least the parts that anyone actually wants done).

The challenge of competing with governments is of course that they can kill anyone who doesn’t want to be a paying customer. This gives them a huge customer base.

It turns out, people don’t like to be killed. So they pay government to avoid it. They take the services since they had to pay for them anyway to avoid being caged (or killed if they resisted being caged).

But this provides the opening for competitors.

It also turns out, you don’t get good information about how to make your product valuable when everyone is buying it out of fear you will kill them if they don’t. So governments plod along delivering unimaginably stupid services in unimaginably backward ways with terribly high costs and the worst employees in history.

It’s so bad, in fact, and so hopelessly, systematically deaf to information on how to improve, that people clamor to pay even more money to service providers who can do better, even though they are forced to pay government for their services already.

A customer willing to double pay for your service is a great customer!

Companies that deliver services to compete with government get quick feedback from the market on how to do it well. If they don’t act on it, they don’t survive. It’s very tough out there when your customers don’t have the looming fear that you might kill them. But that’s also what makes real value creation possible.

I am bullish on competing governance services. I love them.

Yes, governments can come threaten to kill such service providers if they don’t stop. But luckily governments move slow, are always trying to figure out the laziest way to maintain power, and often lack the foresight to realize a competitive threat before it’s too late.

The real bear case against competing upstarts is that they will succeed, get tired of competing, and morph into one of the many fat sloppy formerly-private rent-seeking appendages of the government. Yuck.

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Siege at Ruby Ridge: The Forgotten History of the ATF Shootout That Started a Militia Movement

The Siege at Ruby Ridge is often considered a pivotal date in American history. The shootout between Randy Weaver and his family and federal agents on August 21, 1992, is one that kicked off the Constitutional Militia Movement and left America with a deep distrust of its leadership – in particular then-President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno.

The short version is this: Randy Weaver and his wife Vicki moved with their four kids to the Idaho Panhandle, near the Canadian border, to escape what they thought was an increasingly corrupt world. The Weavers held racial separatist beliefs, but were not involved in any violent activity or rhetoric. They were peaceful Christians who simply wanted to be left alone.

Specifically for his beliefs, Randy Weaver was targeted by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) in an entrapping “sting” operation designed to gain his cooperation as a snitch. When he refused to become a federal informant, he was charged with illegally selling firearms. Due to a miscommunication about his court date, the Marshal Service was brought in, who laid siege to his house and shot and killed his wife and 14-year-old son.

Randy Weaver was, in many ways, a typical American story. He grew up in an Iowa farming community. He got decent grades in high school and played football. His family attended church regularly. He dropped out of community college and joined the United States Army in 1970. After three years of service, he was honorably discharged.

One month later he married Victoria Jordison. He then enrolled in the University of Northern Iowa, studying criminal justice with an eye toward becoming an FBI Agent. However, he dropped out because the tuition was too expensive. He ended up working in a John Deere plant while his wife worked as a secretary before becoming a homemaker.

Both of the Weavers increasingly became apocalyptic in their view of the world. This, combined with an increasing emphasis on Old Testament-based Christianity, led them to seek a life away from mainstream America, a life of self-reliance. Vicki, in particular, had strong visions of her family surviving the apocalypse through life far away from what they viewed as a corrupt world. To that end, Randy purchased a 20-acre farm in Ruby Ridge, ID, and built a cabin there.

The land was purchased for $5,000 in cash and the trade of the truck they used to move there. Vicki homeschooled the children.

Continue reading Siege at Ruby Ridge: The Forgotten History of the ATF Shootout That Started a Militia Movement at Ammo.com.

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“Nuance” in Politics and Public Policy? No, Thanks

In 2004, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry called his ever-shifting position on the war in Iraq “nuanced” as a way of explaining why he was for it before he was against it and why his prescriptions for its future kept changing.

“Nuance” pops up frequently in debates on politics and public policy, almost always as an excuse for either non-specificity on a current position or flip-flopping from a past position.

Of all the words in the political lexicon, none makes for a brighter neon DO NOT TRUST sign than “nuance.”

According to WordNet, “nuance” is “a subtle difference in meaning or opinion or attitude.”

Nuance is a wonderful characteristic in painting, literature, music, and the other arts.

In political philosophy and public policy, it’s  a cheat mechanism used for the purpose of creating unwarranted wiggle room.

“Define your terms, you will permit me again to say,” wrote Voltaire, “or we shall never understand one another.”

That’s the whole point of resort to “nuance” in political and policy discussions. The “nuanced” advocate or candidate doesn’t want to be understood, or at least doesn’t want to be understood clearly. He’s trying to create a loophole through which he can escape his position when that position becomes inconvenient.

“Nuance” is the excuse of the civil libertarian who’s all for free speech until someone says something she doesn’t like, at which point we learn that “hate speech isn’t free speech.”

It’s the talking point of the pro-gun-rights politician who announces that a 30-round magazine is too large and must be banned — but that his views on guns haven’t changed.

And yes,  it’s the plea from the formerly anti-war politician who votes to invade Iraq and then wants to be treated as the anti-war candidate.

What it’s not is a desirable quality in politics and public policy.

From our political candidates, we deserve clear statements of principle and position, not “nuanced” attempts to avoid declaring any principles or positions at all which they might later be held to. If a politician changes her mind, we deserve to know — and to know why — rather than just being told she hasn’t and that we just don’t get the “nuance.”

From our laws and proposals for laws, we deserve specificity. We’re expected to abide by those laws. Letting the cops, prosecutors, judges, and bureaucrats who implement and enforce them write post-passage “nuance” into them is letting them make the law up as they go and leaving ourselves at their “nuanced” mercy.

Regardless of one’s position on any given issue, it’s important to define our terms  and then either stick to them or admit that we’ve abandoned them.

In politics and public policy, “nuance” is where truth goes to die.

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College Degrees are Dying Proxies

A College degree was a proxy for employers to help them see if people have what they value.

The cost of tuition plus the time it takes to complete the degree were the key ingredients. Not anything learned.

The logic was, if you can pay the cost and complete it, it’s probably because you are ambitious and resourceful and reliable enough to get a job, get a loan, get a scholarship, borrow from relatives, etc. and stick through it.

So ambition, work ethic, consistency, resourcefulness, basic professionalism, were traits sought. Not degrees. There were not easy ways to prove those traits, and the thinking was you probably couldn’t complete college unless you had them.

But we can now go one level closer to source with a much better proxy for talent. We now have access to demonstrable activities much more directly related to those traits. And the degree is a worse and worse proxy for them.

Being able to spend a ton of money one college is a weaker and weaker proof of these qualities, because college loans are handed out like candy, parents have way more education money for their kids than they used to, more scholarships, grants, etc. In fact, spending a lot of borrowed money on college is now as likely to be a sign of poor judgement, and a lot of your parents money is as likely to be a sign of not being independent or responsible.

Being able to spend a lot of time to complete a degree is weaker as well. Not only because it’s easier to defer earning due to more access to money, but because the college experience itself is less challenging and less connected to the marketplace, and because being able to do the same thing for a long time is no longer highly valued in the workplace. Jobs are far more dynamic and less monotonous, and average tenure is short.

So degrees are dying proxies for desirable traits like ambition, work ethic, consistency, resourcefulness, basic professionalism.

Good! Because now you can show them in better ways. Now you can have a proof closer to source. Proof of work. No long guesswork involved in assuming the action is a real indicator of the trait.

Now you can learn things, build things, and do things out-loud for all to see. You can create a digital footprint that gives a window into your character, skill, and ability. That’s what Crash profiles, pitches, and job campaigns are all about. But there are many ways.

It’s not just about showing expertise or the product of skills, it’s also about showing the process. You can list “Ran a marathon” on a skills profile, but better yet, you can share a series of blog posts breaking down your decision to do it, you training regimen, etc. This provides deep insight into the way you think, pick challenges, engage in self-improvement, overcome obstacles, show up consistently every day for a long period, etc.

You can communicate a history of personal progress as well as the current state of your skills in powerful ways today, and these projects and pitches and media are more directly related to the traits desired than purchased paper.

That’s the world we’re already in and I love it!

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Lung Disease Outbreak: First Casualties of the War on Vaping?

On August 15, Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services announced “a cluster of people with severe lung disease who all reported recent vaping or dabbing (vaping marijuana oils, extracts, or concentrates).”  CNN reports more than 120 similar cases nationwide based on a survey of state health departments.

“Vaping” has been a thing  for a decade or so, practiced by 10 million or more Americans (including, sometimes, me). While some studies indicate that there may be down sides to using e-cigarettes, most of the evidence says it’s not nearly as bad for you as tobacco, and this is the first significant supposed “outbreak” of  vaping-related illness I’ve heard of.

What’s going on here?

The likely answer, sometimes alluded to but certainly not very well covered in the press, is that the outbreak is a sign of “success” in the FDA’s war on vaping and in the US government’s war on drugs in general.

Because marijuana remains illegal in most states, and because the FDA and state and local governments have cracked down hard on the sale of e-cigarette products to minors by retailers, nobody uses marijuana and teens don’t vape.

No, wait a minute. That’s not quite right. Let’s try this out instead:

Because marijuana remains illegal in most states, and because the FDA and state and local governments have cracked down hard on the sale of e-cigarette products to minors by retailers, there’s a booming black market in e-cigarette products, including “juice” that supposedly contains cannabis.

Teens are still vaping, and teens and adults are still using marijuana. But instead of buying “juice” from a reputable company at a local convenience store, they’re buying it on the street.

If companies like JUUL and retailers like Wawa sell dangerous products, they’re likely to face lawsuits, regulatory fines and sanctions,  and damage to their brand reputations. They try to avoid killing their customers, if for no other reason than that killing their customers would be bad for their bottom lines.

That guy on the street corner selling a cheap tank of cannabis sativa “juice” for your teenager’s e-cigarette may be an artisan who takes pride in his work. Or he may be a scam artist looking for a quick buck and your kid may be getting a cocktail of dangerous chemicals intended to simulate cannabis from someone without a name who will have moved to another corner — or another town — by the time your kid shows up at the ER with a breathing problem.

Stay tuned as the same “public health” advocates who brought us the first wave of e-cigarette regulation for the chillllllllllldren  label the current outbreak an “emergency” and demand more of the same measures that made that outbreak inevitable.

The war on drugs, in which the war on vaping is quickly becoming the latest front, has done far more harm to Americans than the drugs themselves. If you care about your kids, talk with them — and if necessary buy their vape products for them instead of sending them to the street corner.

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The Difference Between Public Libraries and Public Schools

Plans for the Boston Public Library, the nation’s second-oldest public library, were approved in 1852, the same year Massachusetts passed the country’s first compulsory schooling law. Both public libraries and public schools are funded through taxation and both are “free” to access, but the similarities end there. The main difference between public libraries and public schools is the level of coercion and state power that public schooling wields.

Voluntary vs. Compulsory

Libraries are open and available for anyone to access. You can quickly sign up for a library card if you want borrowing privileges, but you don’t have to. You can come and go freely, spend time in whatever library sections most interest you, ignore ones that don’t, and leave when you want. You can ask for help and support from a librarian if you choose. You can participate in a class that the library offers or access one of the library’s many online resources, but those are all optional. You may not always like a library’s programming, but you don’t have to participate in anything you don’t want to. If you don’t like your neighborhood library, you can freely visit one in another neighborhood or another town. You mix daily with a wide assortment of people of all ages and backgrounds at your library, reflecting the diversity of your community. Aside from the public levy, everything is voluntary.

Moreover, you don’t ever have to step foot in a library and still have access to books and resources through bookstores and online retailers. Your library has no control over what your local bookstore sells, and the library system can’t dictate rules to Amazon.

Parents are required to register their children for school under a legal threat of force, and the ages at which a child must attend school are lengthening.

Public schools, which are more aptly called government schools because of the force associated with them, are nothing like public libraries. Parents are required to register their children for school under a legal threat of force, and the ages at which a child must attend school are lengthening. Parents can choose to homeschool or enroll their child in a private school, but in most states, homeschooling and private schools are regulated by the state under compulsory schooling statutes. Education is controlled by the state, even for non-public entities that receive no public money.

This is akin to your public library monitoring the books that Barnes & Noble sells, but it goes well beyond that. In each state, young people are required to meet certain attendance thresholds in terms of hours of classroom learning. It would be like the library system mandating that you visit your library—assigned to you based on your zip code— a certain number of days and hours each year, or, alternatively, visit Barnes & Noble for those same number of days and hours with a report to the state to prove it. While you’re at your library or bookstore, you are also required to learn about specific subjects whether you want to or not. And there may be a test.

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Freedom over Force

If the public library system had the same power as the public schooling system, there would be far fewer private booksellers. When you are required by law to receive library services for a certain number of hours per year, you will likely go with the “free” option rather than paying to receive your mandatory library services at Barnes & Noble, which would charge a fee. Indeed, this happened with mandatory schooling.

Most of us would never tolerate a level of coercion and state power associated with public libraries that we routinely accept with public schools.In his book Schooled to Order, historian David Nasaw explains that as government schooling became compulsory in Massachusetts, the number of private schools in the state dropped from 1,308 in 1840 to only 350 by 1880.[1]  Similar trends occurred in other states as they enacted compulsory schooling laws, with private school enrollment subsequently plummeting. It’s hard to compete with “free” and compulsory.

Most of us would never tolerate a level of coercion and state power associated with public libraries that we routinely accept with public schools and education more broadly. As back-to-school time nears, it’s worth celebrating the many ways that public libraries facilitate non-coercive, self-directed learning for all members of the community and questioning why we would ever want our children to learn in spaces where force, not freedom, prevails.

[1] Nasaw, David. Schooled to Order: A Social History of Schooling in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 83.

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