£s for Brexit

With my perfect betting record hanging in the balance, I follow Brexit news to the point of obsession.  Out of the many hundreds of stories I’ve read, though, I have yet to hear anyone point to the simplest path to Brexit: Let Britain buy its way out! In Theresa May’s failed deal, the UK was supposed to pay the EU about £38 billion for the “divorce.”  Yet there is nothing magical about this price tag.  It could just as easily be £40 billion, or £140 billion.  Why, then, can’t the UK just tell the EU, “The backstop is a deal-breaker.  How much money will it take to make this issue go away”?

If this were any normal business deal, this straightforward path would be on the tip of every Brexiteer’s tongue.  It’s the logic of any familiar real estate transaction:

“We won’t buy unless you fix the roof.”

“OK, that will cost me $25,000, so let’s add that to the price.  Ready to sign now?”

As far as I can tell, however, there isn’t a single prominent British or European politician who even mentions the possibility of letting the UK pay more to get more, much less advocates it.  Instead, we see British politicians demanding better terms for free, and Europeans saying that the current deal is Take-It-Or-Leave-It.

But politics isn’t like business, you say?  I know!  I’ve been saying so for decades!  The very fact that elementary monetary bargaining on Brexit is so unthinkable is yet another symptom of the psychological chasm between the relatively rational, instrumental world of business and the irrational, expressive world of government.

Brexit now hogs the global stage, but politics is packed with look-alike impasses.  Why can’t Israelis just pay Palestinians for the land settlers have taken?  Why can’t the EU just pay Russian to withdraw from Ukraine?  Why can’t the U.S. just pay Maduro to resign – and Russia to welcome the regime change?  Indeed, why can’t Bay Area developers just pay local governments to approve a hundred more skyscrapers?  In each case, the answer is a multilateral mix of foolish pride and wishful thinking.

Since I think that Brexit is a bad idea, why am I telling its advocates how to proceed?  Because I know Brexiteers won’t listen – and even if they did, the EU wouldn’t budge.  While I can understand the failures of politics, I have near-zero ability to solve them.  Not coincidentally, this is precisely what my view predicts.

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One Cheer for Trump on Iran

On June 21, President Donald Trump informed the world (via tweet) that after getting US forces “cocked and loaded” to carry out strikes on Iranian targets the night before, he had canceled those strikes at the last minute rather than prospectively kill 150 people. “Not proportionate,” he wrote, “to [Iranian forces] shooting down an unmanned drone” earlier that week.

Anti-interventionists (including me) cheered the move. US hawks moaned that Trump had suddenly and inexplicably gone soft by avoiding the war they want so badly. Pretty much everyone thinks the “proportionality” claim isn’t the true explanation, given Trump’s over the top predisposition on most things.

But hey, I’ll take it, and I’ll thank Trump for it. Every time he avoids escalation toward outright war with the Iranians or anyone else, he’s doing the right thing and should get credit for it.

As to the bigger picture, the question now is whether Trump will undo his earlier errors on US policy toward Iran instead of compounding them.

He doesn’t seem inclined to. On June 24, he signed an executive order imposing new sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, also in retaliation for the downing of a US drone — possibly over Iranian airspace, certainly  more than 5,000 miles from airspace it had any business in.

Unfortunately, Trump considers his warlike attitude toward Iran a campaign promise and seems to have every intention of keeping that promise. He was elected president on, among other things, his stated intention of undoing former President Barack Obama’s most significant foreign policy accomplishment, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, (the “Iran nuclear deal”).

That JCPOA began winding down four decades of mutual belligerence  that began when Iranians had the gall and temerity to overthrow a dictator installed by the US , replacing him with a government more to their own liking. In exchange for partial lifting of sanctions and return of some money stolen by the US government after their revolution, the Iranians gave up a nuclear weapons program they don’t appear to have actually had, going above and beyond their already existing (and apparently kept) obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Trump violated the deal, pretending that he was “withdrawing” the US from it (the deal is codified as a UN Security resolution; the only way to withdraw from it is to withdraw from the UN itself). He’s reimposed US sanctions and pressured US allies to do likewise.

In violating the agreement and returning to a belligerent footing, he confirmed something the Iranians, like the Sioux, have long had good reason to believe:  That the US government can’t be trusted to keep its word.

That’s a lot of toothpaste to get back in the tube, and it’s not clear that Trump intends to even try.  Canceling the strike may have just been a message to Iran and to recalcitrant US allies: “We could have gone to war but CHOSE not to.”

We should be glad he chose not to, and hope he keeps choosing not to.

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Libertarianism is The Balance

One objection I frequently see against libertarianism is that it’s “too extreme”. “There needs to be a balance between the extremes of libertarianism and fascism” (as illustrated by “border enforcement” and so forth).

This misses the reality.

(Of course, the act of governing others won’t be referred to as fascism. Statists aren’t that self-aware or honest. They’ll call it “rule of law” or will conflate political government with society. You can use whatever substitute terms you wish, as long as you keep this in mind.)

The extreme ends of the spectrum are not libertarianism and fascism– the extremes are nihilism and fascism. Libertarianism is the healthy balance which avoids both of the toxic extremes. It’s the only way to avoid ruin.

Libertarianism is not “extreme” unless your wish is to watch the world burn; unless you want to kill off everyone with your chosen politics. If you choose something other than libertarianism you are choosing one of the deadly extremes. You are choosing to be extreme in defense of something indefensible.

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Facebook’s Libra Isn’t a “Cryptocurrency”

In mid-June, Facebook — in cahoots with 28 partners in the financial and tech sectors — announced plans to introduce Libra, a blockchain-based virtual currency.

The world’s governments and central banks reacted quickly with calls for investigation and regulation.  Their concerns are quite understandable, but unfortunately already addressed in Libra’s planned structure.

The problem for governments and central banks:

A new currency with no built-in respect for political borders, and with a preexisting global user base of 2.4 billion Facebook users in nearly every country on Earth, could seriously disrupt the control those institutions exercise over our finances and our lives.

The accommodation Facebook is already making to those concerns:

Libra is envisaged as a “stablecoin,” backed by the currencies and debt instruments of those governments and central banks themselves and administered through a “permissioned” blockchain ledger by equally centralized institutions (Facebook itself, Visa, Mastercard, et al.).

To put it a different way, Libra will not be a true cryptocurrency like Bitcoin or Ether. Neither its creation nor its transactions will be decentralized and distributed, let alone easily made anonymous. A “blockchain” is just a particular kind of ledger for keeping track of transactions. It does not, in and of itself, a cryptocurrency make.

In simple terms, Libra is just a new brand for old products: Digital gift cards and pre-paid debit cards.

The only real difference between Libra and  existing Visa or Mastercard products is that Libra’s value will fluctuate with the “basket” of currencies and bonds it’s backed by, instead of being denominated in one particular (also fluctuating — you experience the fluctuations as changes in the prices of goods) currency like the dollar or the euro.

When it comes to the goal envisaged by cryptocurrency’s creator, the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto — to free money from control and manipulation by  governments and central banks — Libra is a dead end. Instead of being manipulated by one government or central bank, Libra will be manipulated by all of them.

Cryptocurrency is, to get biblical, new wine in old wine skins — it bursts those skins, by design. Libra isn’t new wine. It isn’t even a new wine skin. It’s a blend of the same old wines, in the same old skins, with a fancy new label. And there’s nothing to suggest that the old wine is getting better with age.

Fortunately, these structural defects also mean that Libra isn’t a threat to real cryptocurrency. Accept no substitutes.

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Edward Snowden: The Untold Story of How One Patriotic American Exposed NSA Surveillance

I can’t in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, Internet freedom, and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building… the NSA specifically targets the communications of everyone. It ingests them by default… they are intent on making every conversation and every form of behavior in the world known to them.

-Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden might not yet be a historical figure, but he certainly is a hero. He is the whistleblower of all whistleblowers, the American who blew the lid off of Washington’s spying on private citizens. But Snowden’s leak revealed that it’s not just the U.S. government that is spying on virtually every American – big American telecommunications companies are also helping them to spy as well.

Snowden’s upbringing is largely uneventful. His maternal grandfather was a Coast Guard rear admiral and his father was also an officer in the Coast Guard. His mother was a U.S. District Court clerk. His parents divorced around the time that he would have graduated high school in 2001, but Snowden is a high school dropout. After a nine-month absence due to mononucleosis, he simply took the GED exam and then began taking community college classes. Despite a lack of a bachelor’s degree, he worked at a master’s online from the University of Liverpool.

Snowden had a keen interest in Japanese popular culture, and even worked for an anime company early on in his career.

Continue reading Edward Snowden: The Untold Story of How One Patriotic American Exposed NSA Surveillance at Ammo.com.

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The Entrepreneur Who Became a Billionaire After Being Rejected by Facebook

Jan Koum had a rough upbringing. At 16, he immigrated from Europe to the United States with his mother and grandmother, who were fleeing political unrest and religious persecution. Jan’s mother got a job as a babysitter in California while Jan went to school and worked at a grocery store cleaning floors.

His father planned to join Jan and his mother once they were settled, but he got sick and died five years later, unable to be reunited with his family. Jan’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, to which she would succumb just three years after Jan’s father passed away.

Jan Overcame Adversity

Perhaps not surprisingly given the adversity in his life, Jan acted out in school and got into trouble. He disliked school and what he found to be the shallow relationships of high school students. He barely graduated, but during his teen years in the US, Jan began to teach himself. He became interested in computers and networks and bought books and manuals on these topics at a nearby used bookstore, returning them when finished to get his money back.

He taught himself network engineering and eventually enrolled at San Jose University to study computer science and mathematics while getting involved in online network groups and hacker communities. Like high school, college also wasn’t appealing to Jan. “I hated school,” he told Forbes.

During college, Jan took a part-time job with the large accounting firm Ernst & Young, helping with computer security audits. One of E&Y’s clients with which Jan worked was Yahoo! and he was offered a job with the tech company while still studying at San Jose University. He quit college soon after to work full-time at Yahoo!.

Jan got bored with Yahoo!. At 31, he quit and took some time off to travel the world with a friend who also left Yahoo!. The duo applied for work at Facebook, but both were turned down. Two years later Jan bought an iPhone. He saw the potential of the App Store world and began working on code to create a new application that would streamline communication and conversation. Frustrated by his inability to get it working, Jan Koun almost gave up.

American Success Story

He stuck with his invention a bit longer and in 2009, at age 33, Jan Koum founded the text messaging platform WhatsApp with his former Yahoo! colleague Brian Acton. In 2014, it had 400 million users worldwide, and the pair sold the company to Facebook for $19 billion.

They might not have gotten that job offer at Facebook, but the offer they eventually got was something far better. By 2017, WhatsApp had 1.3 billion monthly users and billionaire Koum, who spent his childhood in communist Ukraine, became an American success story, showing the transformative power of freedom, entrepreneurship, and self-education.

Koum told WIRED Magazine:

I grew up in a society where everything you did was eavesdropped on, recorded, snitched on…Nobody should have the right to eavesdrop, or you become a totalitarian state – the kind of state I escaped as a kid to come to this country where you have democracy and freedom of speech. Our goal is to protect it.

Koum’s teenage self-education took place in the 1990s, before knowledge and information were so widely available and easily accessible, often at our fingertips. Today, a kid like Koum wouldn’t have a used bookstore as his only resource. He would be able to learn network engineering or any topic that interested him through free, online information portals and connect easily with people from around the world, finding mentors and like-minded peers—thanks in large part to inventions like WhatsApp.

Technology increasingly facilitates self-education, leading to new opportunities to pursue passions and uncover talents. Unlike formal education, that to many people like Koum can be stifling, self-education can be liberating. With self-education, you can become the agent of your own life and livelihood, setting your own path. As the author and entrepreneur Jim Rohn wrote: “Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune.”

For Koum, that fortune was big, but the rest of us gained too. Freedom and entrepreneurship lead to the innovations that improve our lives and give our own dreams a boost, and self-education is the pathway to get there.

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