The Time Element in Alchemy

“Everything he touches turns to gold.”

The Midas idea, or Rumpelstiltskin, or alchemy in general brings to my mind an instant transformation from cheap material to gold. It’s a useful analogy, but it lacks something.

On the way to the office this morning, a thought popped into my head. Everything I touch turns to gold. It was a weird thought, because it doesn’t seem true. I’ve had tons of failures, and many more long, slow slogs through the shit-trenches to get success.

But it struck me that, if I collapse my life into a single set of before/after descriptions, the Midas idea may appear true. I have made some valuable stuff I’m proud of. If you look at the resources used before I mixed my labor with them, then look at the final outcome, it’s like alchemy. If you add one missing element: time.

What if Midas had to touch something, and keep touching it, working it, adjusting it, sweating over it for years before it turned to gold? What if alchemy is as much about time and work as it is magic?

Even the great wizard Gandalf had to labor and sweat to transform the world with magic. Witches need rare, difficult to obtain ingredients and hard to learn spells and rituals to perform their feats.

If viewed outside of time, most human lives and activities resemble alchemy. We are masters at transforming lower order inputs into higher order goods. Adding time doesn’t make it less magical.

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There’s No “One Size Fits All” For Living

How much of what you want government to do is based on your emotions? On your feelings about what you wish other people would do or believe they should do, and your willingness to use government violence to make it happen?

If it’s more than “none” it’s too much.

I recently ran across a quote by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in which he said, “Some people are less emotional, more reasoned. We call these people ‘libertarians.’ There’s actually data on this — that libertarians are lower on emotion, higher on reasoning ability. They have worse relationships; they care about people less, but they are better able to just reason through a lot of data.”

Fortunately, he’s not quite right.

Libertarians are not less emotional, but — at our best — we are less controlled by our emotions. I can hate drug abuse and still understand I have no right to use government violence to impose drug prohibition. As long as I don’t let emotion overpower reason I won’t advocate harming someone who isn’t violating anyone’s life, liberty, or property.

Libertarians know a crime requires the intent to harm. An accident might result in the same harm as a crime would, but without an intention to violate someone there is no crime. Emotions triggered by the event might try to steer us along a different path, but it would be a wrong path.

A debt is often created by an accident, but again, a debt isn’t a crime. To confuse these things creates tragedy for individuals and sickness in society.

He’s also wrong about libertarians caring less about people. I care about people very much. This is why I don’t accept any justification for violating them. How can staunchly respecting people’s natural human rights be mistaken for not caring?

It’s not “caring” to use taxation to steal from some in order to fund government programs that keep people impoverished. It’s not caring to force people to live as you believe they should.

So would I support government if only libertarians, with their superior ability to reason, were in charge? Not at all. Even those who are better able to reason have no right to govern anyone but themselves.

No matter how well a person can reason through data, they can never know all the circumstances of everyone else’s life as thoroughly as each individual can know their own life. There is no “one-size-fits-all” way to feed a family, dress, or live … or to govern. It’s foolish to pretend otherwise.

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Mike Munger: Permissionless Innovation (1h7m)

This episode features an interview of economist Mike Munger from 2017 by Russ Roberts, host of EconTalk. Munger argues that the ability to innovate without permission is the most important concept of political economy. Munger defends this claim and explores the metaphor of emergent order as a dance, a metaphor coming from the German poet Schiller.

Listen To This Episode (1h7m, mp3, 64kbps)

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The Real Emergency Isn’t About the Wall; It’s About the Separation of Powers.

US president Donald Trump recently declared a “national emergency” under which he intends to divert money from the US Department of Defense’s budget and use it to build a wall on the US-Mexico border.

No biggie, Trump said as he announced the “emergency.” Happens all the time (59 other times since 1976, to be exact).  Purely routine.

But it’s not routine at all. It is, in fact, a declaration of presidential dictatorship that shreds the US Constitution’s separation of powers requirements.

Most presidential emergency declarations have been either on matters supposedly requiring immediate action which Congress could be expected to subsequently approve (for example, George W. Bush’s 2001 declaration of emergency in the wake of 9/11), or pursuant to policies already approved by Congress (for example, specific sanctions on countries already condemned by Congress to general treatment of that type).

Trump’s declaration is different — but there is applicable precedent to consider. We’ve been down this road before, just not quite so far.

In 2013, Republicans in Congress flirted with refusal to raise the  “debt ceiling” — a limit on how much money the federal government allows itself to borrow.

As  a deadline approached after which the US government would be in default to its creditors,  House Democrats urged president Barack Obama to ignore Congress  and raise the debt ceiling by emergency decree.

How are the two situations alike?

Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution assigns the power to “borrow Money on the credit of the United States” exclusively to Congress.

Article I, Section 9 of the US Constitution similarly empowers Congress to decide how money may and may not be spent: “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.”

By unilaterally raising the debt ceiling, Obama would have become an outlaw, an extra-constitutional dictator rather than a president. Republicans pointed this out at the time. Fortunately, an 11th-hour deal averted the possibility of Obama following his co-partisans’ advice.

By asserting the “emergency” power to spend money on  a project that Congress has explicitly declined to fund by appropriation (multiple times, in fact), Trump has effectively resigned the presidency and declared himself an absolute monarch.

And THAT, friends, is a REAL emergency.

If Congress has any desire to save what’s left of the Constitution — and any political will to act on that desire — the obvious, immediate, and absolutely necessary next step is the impeachment of Donald Trump and his removal from the office of President of the United States. Nothing less will suffice, and the case against him is airtight.

Over the course of more than two centuries, the Constitution has frayed, and sometimes broken. Maybe it’s time to let it go. If that’s the case, I’d personally rather it gave way to something better than the banana republic style dictatorship the American presidency has descended toward in recent decades.

If Congress doesn’t make Trump the bottom of that slide, there is no bottom, and we are doomed to suffer through a dark new era of uncontested presidential tyranny.

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Deadlock and Partisan Bitterness

Why does American politics seem so deadlocked?  The media mostly focuses on issues where Democrats and Republicans refuse to compromise because they strongly disagree: immigration, guns, health care.  But American politics often seems deadlocked even when both parties agree.  For example, supermajorities of both parties want to protect DREAMers, but they’ve never reached an agreement to do so.  How is this possible?

1. Transactions costs.  Hammering out a deal is hard work, so many mutually beneficial deals don’t happen.

Critique: Economists routinely appeal to these alleged costs, but how high can they possibly be?  Seriously, why should it take more than a single day for the DREAM Act to become a law?  Vote, vote, sign, done.

2. The hold-out problem.  Suppose we agree that X is good, but you want X a lot more than I do.  In this situation, it makes sense for me to demand some “compensation” from you even though we basically agree.

Critique: This might make sense for a year or two.  But if we’ve failed to reach an agreement after many years of negotiation, you’d expect both sides to moderate their demands to cut their losses.  Yes, they could conceivably be investing in their reputations for intransigence to secure favorable terms in the future, but does anyone seriously expect to see the day when one party finally submits to the other?

3. Insincerity.  For example, perhaps Republicans only claim to want to protect DREAMers in order to seem nice and reasonable.  In fact, however, they never genuinely favored the DREAM Act in the first place.

Critique: This is often plausible, but it’s hard to see it as a general explanation.  Politicians have clear incentive to lie about their goals, but why would average citizens bother to lie in anonymous polls?

4. Partisan bitterness.  The two main parties intensely dislike each other.  Like a quarrelsome couple, they could find something to fight about at a fancy restaurant on Valentine’s Day.  As a result, the two parties have trouble cooperating procedurally even when they agree substantively.

Critique: This is my preferred story.  What I wrote about divorce a decade ago cleanly explains political deadlock as well:

Unfortunately, the Coasean argument overlooks a pretty obvious fact: Couples contemplating a divorce often hate, loathe, and despise each other. We’ve all heard of stories of divorcing couples deliberately destroying objects of sentimental value to each other. Indeed, many couples in this situation wallow in petty spite; they can’t stop bad-mouthing each other to anyone who will listen.

With these facts firmly in mind, how confident are you that Coase’s zero transactions costs assumption is remotely true? At risk of sounding Austrian, transactions costs are subjective: Bargaining with your mortal enemy hurts.

If this story seems grim, I should add that bitter politics has one major advantage over bitter divorce.  Namely: Partisan bitterness throws much-needed sand into the gears of the state.  Given public opinion, amicable government is likely to be big government.  As long as political antipathy is too shallow to cause civil war, both libertarians and pragmatists should welcome it.  Will Rogers once mused, “Be thankful we’re not getting all the government we’re paying for.”  I’d add, “Be thankful we’re not even getting all the government both parties support.”

P.S. I’m well-aware that deadlock locks existing bad policies in place, too.  But I see little political support for repealing such policies, and broad political support for adding new bad policies.  Tragic, but that’s the world we live in.

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The First Rule of AIPAC Is: You Do Not Talk about AIPAC

Washington’s political establishment went berserk when US Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) publicly noted that US-Israel relations are “all about the Benjamins”  — slang for $100 bills, referring to money shoveled at American politicians by the American Israel Public Affairs Group (AIPAC).

Omar was accused of antisemitism — immediately by Republicans, shortly after by members of her own party — and bullied into apologizing. She may or may not be prejudiced against Jews,  but even if she is, that wasn’t her real offense.

Her real offense was  publicly mentioning the irrefutable fact that many members of Congress take their marching orders from a foreign power’s lobbying apparatus (an apparatus not, as required by law, registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act), at least partly because those marching orders come with promises of significant donations to those politicians’ campaigns.

AIPAC itself doesn’t make direct donations to political campaigns. But AIPAC and other pro-Israel lobbying groups like Christians United For Israel punch well above their weight in American politics, largely by motivating their supporters to financially support and work for “pro-Israel” candidates in general elections and help weed out “anti-Israel” candidates in party primaries.

By the way, “pro-Israel” in this context always means “supportive of the jingoism of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party,” and never “supportive of the many Israelis who’d like peace with the Palestinian Arabs.”

One AIPAC supporter  alone, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, spent $65 million getting Republicans elected, including $25 million supporting Donald Trump, in 2016.  But that $25 million was only put into action after Trump retreated from his early position of “neutrality” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, publicly prostrated himself to AIPAC in a speech at one of its events, and pronounced himself “the most pro-Israel presidential candidate in history.”

But: We’re not supposed to talk about that. Ever. And it’s easy to see why.

If most Americans noticed that many  members of Congress (as well as most presidents) are selling their influence over US policy to a foreign power, we might do something about it.

For decades, howling “antisemitism” any time the matter came up proved an effective tactic for shutting down public discussion of the “special relationship” under which Israel receives lavish foreign aid subsidies, effective control of US foreign policy in the Middle East, and lately even state (and pending federal) legislation requiring government contractors to sign loyalty oaths to Israel’s government.

The Israeli lobby’s power to prevent that discussion seems to be slipping, however. Why? In part because the lobby’s money and political support, which used to be spent buying both sides of the partisan aisle, has begun tilting heavily Republican in recent years, freeing some Democrats to not “stay bought.” And in part because the newest generation of politicians includes some like Ilhan Omar who aren’t for sale (to Israel, anyway).

Decades of unquestioning obedience to the Israel lobby has drawn the US into needless and costly conflicts  not even remotely related to the defense of the United States. We’ll be better off when the “special relationship,” and the corruption underlying it, ends.

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