We Are Not That Far Apart


Nearly everyone desires to live in a better world, whatever that means. Here, I will stipulate a “better world” has an abundance of resources, peace, and happiness, and less struggle to achieve them. It has been sold to us that politics is the means to these utopian aspirations. It has been sold to us that, through politics, we must regulate both government and markets to achieve these ends. It has also been sold to us there are two sides to the political spectrum, and that we must climb aboard one of the two warships to survive the political battles that will follow as a result of this pursuit.

To crudely summarize American politics: the Left sees the government as the arbiter of equality, and believes the markets must be restrained in its pursuit. On the Left, democracy is the core value. The Right, however, sees the markets as the arbiter of liberty, and believes the government must be restrained in its pursuit. On the Right, freedom is the core value.

Those four terms – equality, democracy,  liberty, and freedom – all mean different things. And they mean different things to different people. But few people would totally discredit any of those terms outright; although, individially, we will certainly be predisposed to some over others. One person may have different ideas than another on what mix of these ideals would work best in pursuing utopia. And that’s fine. It would be weird if we all held the same policy beliefs – or the same ideas of utopia, for that matter. But most would prefer a better future, in the aforemetioned “better world.”

The point is, collectively, we are not very far apart in our utopian pursuits. It is collectively that we devise programs – through politics – that tinker with government and the markets to achieve these ends. And it is collectively that we fail to analyze what human incentives work best to achieve them. This mismanagement results - in real terms - in wasted capital and human pain.

Whereas government can ignore these incentives, markets cannot. Markets must balance supply and demand at a price, monitor these pricing signals, and adjust. Likewise, whereas government can respect human irregularities and protect them as rights, markets cannot. Markets reward merit sans discretion through profits and losses. So neither government nor markets are perfect.

The fact is, neither perfect liberty nor perfect equality can ever be achieved due to basic incentives and human action toward them. We can only hope for equilibrium between the two. But both Left and Right are deluded about human action in both government and markets – and how they differ – because they are stuck on their proverbial warships.

The only way we get to a better – albeit imperfect – future is to annotate our policy goals, adapt to changes, measure the results, and alter them accordingly. We shouldn’t be afraid to overhaul or scrap systems that aren’t working. We also shouldn’t be afraid of expanding on things that work. To continually improve in government and markets – that is, society in general – we cannot live in fear that others might perceive we have jumped ship.

In other words, we don’t need politics to have a better world. Indeed, politics keeps us from a better world.

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Crimea in Crisis: Ultimatums to Surrender

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Over the weekend, Russian President Vladimir Putin took steps to retain influence in Ukraine by gaining military control of the Crimean peninsula. As the pro-Russian government in Kiev gave way to Euromaidan protests, Putin had the following appeal approved by the Russian Parliament:

“In connection with the extraordinary situation that has developed in Ukraine and the threat to citizens of the Russian Federation… I hereby appeal to the Council of Federation of the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation to use the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on the territory of Ukraine until the social and political situation in that country is normalised.”

Making matters more ominous, the Russian military has issued ultimatums to Ukraine: surrender  - even Ukrainian warships in Crimea – or face “a military storm” by 9 PM EST today. How far will he go?

Let me start by saying, I don’t know what’s going to happen, and neither do any of the supposed experts I may cite herein. The purpose of this writing is to catch the reader up on developments, which are quickly unfolding. (Click here for a live blog of events)

The Crimean crisis is extremely complicated. Ukraine is a culturally, ethnically, and politically-divided country, as evident by its 2010 election. Crimea is part of Ukraine due to arbitrarily-drawn post-war borders; in truth, the Ukrainian Crimea is only 60 years old. For more on this, see the Ukraine crisis in three maps, and (of course!) Crimea’s Wikipedia page.

It seems the rather shaky arrangement Ukraine had as a quasi-European Russian satellite state was thrown off kilter by the Euromaidan upheaval, which I discussed here last week at unitedliberty.org. Professor Charles King, an expert on post-Soviet politics at Georgetown University, states: ”What actually started as a kind of pro-European, pro-democratic set of demonstrations is very quickly becoming ethnicized.” Ukraine has been weakened after the Kiev upheaval, and as Mr. King notes, ”Ethnic conflicts thrive on moments when the state seems weak.”

Seizing on this weakness, Putin is attempting to maintain strategic advantage in the region: To do otherwise would put three of Russia’s warm water ports in the Black Sea, and Putin’s own legacy as the leader of the largest country in the world, in jeopardy.

This puts the rest of the world in a tough spot. Ultimately, Crimea may indeed be better off separate from the Ukraine; but simply dividing the Crimea from Ukraine carries its own perils, and allowing Russia to do so militarily destabilizes any sense of post-hegemonic global security we have enjoyed since the end of World War II.

What to Do?

Obviously, saying “This is a bad thing” and “We should do something about this bad thing” are two different statements. One can, actually, make the former without implying the latter. It didn’t take long, however, for the interventionists (on the political Left and Right) to offer suggestions. Retired Admiral Stavridis claims “NATO needs to move now” on Crimea, stating: “Action may provoke, but so does doing nothing.”

Of course, the GOP’s most vocal foreign policy strategist, Senator John McCain, issued an automatic and perfunctory statement:

“Every moment that the United States and our allies fail to respond sends the signal to President Putin that he can be even more ambitious and aggressive in his military intervention in Ukraine. There is a range of serious options at our disposal at this time without the use of military force. I call on President Obama to rally our European and NATO allies to make clear what costs Russia will face for its aggression and to impose those consequences without further delay. (emphasis mine)”

This recommended reading in the New York Times offers a litany of suggestions from a range of political players:

“Create a democratic noose around Putin’s Russia,” urged Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. “Revisit the missile defense shield,” suggested Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida. “Cancel Sochi,” argued Representative Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican who leads the Intelligence Committee, referring to the Group of 8 summit meeting to be hosted by President Vladimir V. Putin. Kick “him out of the G-8” altogether, said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip.”

Naturally, as he occupies an office with unrivaled power on global foreign policy matters, all eyes fall on President Obama for leadership. While he takes criticisms from all sides to defuse the situation, it appears he’s playing the long game. From that same New York Times article:

“Mr. Obama offered Russia what aides called an “offramp,” a face-saving way out of the crisis, by proposing that European observers take the place of Russian forces in Crimea to guard against the supposed threats to the Russian-speaking population cited by the Kremlin as justification for its intervention.

“Mr. Obama’s aides said that they saw no evidence of such threats and considered the claim a bogus pretext, and that they wanted to call Mr. Putin’s bluff. Privately, they said they did not expect Mr. Putin to accept, and they conceded that Mr. Obama probably could not reverse the occupation of Crimea in the short term. They said they were focusing on blocking any further Russian move into eastern Ukraine that would split the country in half.

“Some regional specialists said Mr. Obama should ignore the talk-tough chorus and focus instead on defusing a crisis that could get much worse.”

The President is expected to perform this balancing act from a continent away (for a situation yet-without bloodshed): to stay engaged and maintain pressure with no incitement, yet no appeasement. He is sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Kiev to meet with the new (flailing) government there in an act of solidarity. Going further, the President would be weighing economic and diplomatic sanctions. But these come with costs of their own. For example, the G-8 ejecting Russia would be a provocative move, and could possibly further align axis powers against the West; China has already issued a statement “in agreement” with Russia’s move to annex Crimea.

We too quickly assume Obama and the West appear weak without action; I disagree with that premise. All eyes should be on the United Nations – and specifically regional players – for leadership during a crisis in their backyard. Next, the European Union has more clout in the matter than NATO, which has more clout than the United States alone. Ukraine is not a member of NATO or the EU, and for this we should be thankful, as those member nation treaties would obligate partner nations to act.

There are, of course, other forces that could serve to our advantage; as Jason Karaian points out, the markets are punishing Russia more swiftly than diplomats ever could:

“The two main Moscow stock markets, the Micex and the RTS, have fallen by more than 10% at the time of writing, in a broad-based selloff. Big Russian companies like Gazprom and Sberbank saw their share prices plunge as traders dumped their shares.”

Russia must understand, however, that the long-term economic consequences it faces due to the political damage it inflicts upon itself would be worse than any short-term economic pains it may be experiencing now. Like so many things here, that – for now – is unseen.

Perhaps it sounds callous (and a little too easy) to say “so what” during foreign dust-ups like this, but it seems applicable here. There are some things the US “could” do; but I can’t think of a single thing we “have to” do. And while hope is not a strategy, I am hoping clearer minds prevail and conflict ends without bloodshed in what  R. Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat and undersecretary of state during the Bush administration, calls: ”The most important, most difficult foreign-policy test of (Obama’s) presidency.”

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Euromaidan Protests in Ukraine Turn Deadly


Halfway across the globe, a political protest known as Euromaidan continues into its 12 week in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. As an emerging free market, Ukraine is a pivotal trade partner with the US, the EU, and Russia. As of this morning, 25 have been killed, and as the death count rises, the West tunes in.

As a quick review, the public protest began late last November when more than 100,000 Ukrainians filled the streets of Kiev in response to President Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of trade agreements with the European Union in favor of continued bailouts from Russia. As Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute, states:

“It is now apparent that Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovich, had no effective strategy to resist intense pressure against the EU deal from Moscow. The Kremlin promised big cash loans, a gas discount and debt forgiveness, while explicitly threatening to block Ukraine’s access to the Russian market and implicitly threatening to stoke separatism in regions of the country.”

For more on Euromaidan, click here for a more in-depth background, here for a livestream from Kiev, here for a liveblog of events, and here for photos of the riot taken yesterday.

Over the past decade, President Yanukovych has slowly aligned the Ukrainian government more so with Russian interests, abandoning the democratic reforms that resulted from the 2004 Orange Revolution, and adapting more totalitarian tactics like imprisoning opposition leader in Yulia Tymoshenko in 2011.

This created consternation with the Ukranian people, and the protests, which began in Maidan Square, have spilled throughout the rest of the country. As the protestors were met with “shocking violence, it appears Ukraine is possibly – possibly – headed for civil war.

What to Do?

When does a protest become a revolution? For what it’s worth, this author does not think Euormaidan is a revolution – yet. Successful revolutions place the common man between the probable death due to their actions and the certain death of inaction. Nevertheless, Ukraine is certainly on the brink.

At what point do foreign affairs necessitate action? This is an important question, as the EU - and now the United States – measures the use of sanctions against Ukraine. Of course, the best way to facilitate change is with economic means. In business, for instance, if individuals disapprove of a clothing line’s advertisement campaign, a boycott can send a signal to management to change tactics. This has proven to be somewhat effective over time.

But sanctioning the economic activity of a country does not work that way. In fact, it often hurts the weakest members and those being oppressed by government in the first place. Remember, economic activity is a result of a nation’s people, not its government. By the same measure we use in deciding not to sanction a foreign government, we should be resolute in not arbitrarily providing them with foreign aid, either.


There are many things we (and the EU) can do to express solidarity with particular factions in Ukraine without explicitly choosing sides or monetary aid, such as news coverage, medical assistance, and most importantly, sanctuary during diaspora.

What we are witnessing in the Ukraine is democracy at work. Democracy is not perfect, but it’s the best bad option we as free people have.

“Trying to stop democracy is to struggle against God himself.”
- Alexis de Tocqueville

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Another Midnight


Don’t want to watch TV today
No, I’d rather look away
And think about the day
When my fingers turn to gray

Another midnight comes
With the spinning of the clock
A calendar push pin hums
A cuckoo and a tick tock

But I don’t want to wait
Don’t want to wait until that day
To tackle what I should do
What I should do and I should say

Don’t want to read the news today
I mean, what else could it say
No I’m thinking about the day
the mirrors of my eyes fade away

This whirlpool’s spinning shallow
It’s hum humming but not for me
I’m leaving only a shadow
Of where I used to be

How long should I wait
Should I wait until midday
When the sun cooks off the fog
The fog lifts and I find my way

But I’m taking out the trash
On this quiet suburban street
And the world keeps spinning
Spinning, spinning beneath my feet

Yes, another midnight turns
And again, nothing to show
Throw my thoughts into the cavern
Where the cold deep waters flow

And another midnight’s gone
And here comes another day
And my dreams stay bundled up
On the pillow where I lay

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Overcoming the Post-Scarcity Blues


Predicting the unforeseen is difficult. Trend analysis can be misleading, fooling us to believe things either: 1) Continue according to their current trend path; 2) Revert back to the way things were; 3) Jump off the tracks altogether; or 4) Do anything in between. But humans will make predictions anyway, and especially about the economy. Why? Because - well, we are human. We are motivated by our fears. And, let’s be honest: Predictions are fun.

Matthew C. Klein highlights our economic concerns and some of the predictions being made about the future in his recent column for the Bloomberg View entitled, “Why Work If a Machine Takes Your Job?” He asks:

“Is it possible that machines and trade might eventually polarize the rich world’s labor force into two distinct classes: servants and elites? If we want to prevent that, we may need to reconsider how we think about work and income in an age of abundance.”

Call it the “Post-Scarcity Blues.” What are we going to do for income so that we can survive? Pascal-Emanuel Gobry dubs this the “biggest problem in political economics of the past 20 years.” How bad could it get? Will we descend into some anarcho-feudal-digital state, trading in our gold for bitcoins and bartering with chickens?

Professor Tyler Cowen renders a few predictions based on his own formidable analysis in a new book Average Is Over. In it, he lays out a vision for the new landscape proceeding our current economic period he calls “The Great Stagnation.” In his view, wage polarization continues and economic stagnation persists (kind of like a lingering cough) for the next 20 years. Some of this is due to the advent of smart technology in manufacturing (and elsewhere); some is due to raw demographics. Either way, as we better understand human behavior (with the help of technology) and as we further specialize our labor (with the help of technology), the better we will be able to measure value in the marketplace. He surmises these changes will require a leaner and smarter workforce.

First off, I don’t believe more technology necessarily creates more long-term unemployment. Technology enables innovation, research and development, thereby uncovering new markets while making the old ones obsolete. Technological changes beget labor market changes; this is nothing new. We (or more adeptly, our children) will move on. What makes our current period any different? R. H. Mabry and A. D. Sharplin made predictions about this period in their 1986 Policy Analysis:

“Flatly in error are those that predict no more jobs for a very large sector of the population as a result of advancing technology, creating a massive problem of involuntary unemployment. It is not at all clear that a large number of jobs are about to be destroyed; even if they were, such long-run unemployment as would occur would certainly not be involuntary. Rather, it would take the form of even shorter workdays, shorter work-weeks, and fewer working members in the family, as it has throughout our history.”

Working less is not the crux of the matter. How we spend our downtime, however, is. Do we reinvest that time in ourselves, our children, our communities, and – in turn – our economy, or do we dither it away? Generation after generation hopes their children won’t have to work as hard as they did. Did they – and do we - actually mean that? And how do we even define labor anymore? This is a subject I discussed this past May in my Labor Day post.

So I am not fearful of the post-scarcity future, just as I am not fearful that human activity will have a lasting effect on the earth’s climate, and for similar reasoning: As the earth has the capacity to right its climate (regardless of the insignificant number of people who populate it), market economies also have a self-righting tendency. In other words, this is cyclical. That’s not to say I don’t fear short-term unemployment, or short-term climate effects. I’m just hopeful about our future.

Further into his Bloomberg View article, Klein highlights a Wall Street Journal article “the rising demand for high-end butlers, maids and housekeepers” that, while troubling in the short-term, actually gives me hope for our future:

“These jobs pay as much as $200,000 a year and, unlike many other lines of work, odds are against butlers being replaced by machines. After all, the people who like having human servants probably won’t want to part with the one luxury that never goes out of style. (This also suggests that few people will be able to get well-paying jobs as butlers to the super-rich.)”

This reminded me of something I read about the fall of feudalism, chronicled by none other than Adam Smith, in Chapter 4, Book III of The Wealth of Nations; herein Smith describes what happened when the common rank and structure of feudalism began to break down, which had previously been held together by threat of coercion. The impending threat that had trickled “violence, rapine, and disorder” throughout the countryside was beginning to subside, giving way to trade:

“But what all the violence of the feudal institutions could never have effected, the silent and insensible operation of foreign commerce and manufactures gradually brought about. These gradually furnished the great proprietors with something for which they could exchange the whole surplus produce of their lands, and which they could consume themselves. Without sharing it either with tenants or retainers. All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind. As soon, therefore, as they could find a method of consuming the whole value of their rents themselves, they had no disposition to share them with any other persons. For a pair of diamond buckles, perhaps, or for something as frivolous and useless, they exchanged the maintenance, or, what is the same thing, the price of the maintenance of 1000 men for a year, and with it the whole weight and authority which it could give them. The buckles, however, were to be all their own, and no other human creature was to have any share of them; whereas, in the more ancient method of expense, they must have shared with at least 1000 people. With the judges that were to determine the preference, this difference was perfectly decisive; and thus, for the gratification of the most childish, the meanest, and the most sordid of all vanities they gradually bartered their whole power and authority.”

Indeed, the more that people are allowed to exchange freely, the more equal we become in our resource allocation. That is the essence of the aforementioned “righting arm.” What can neither be measured nor predicted are: 1) The motivating factors towards those resources; and 2) The interference exchange of those resources could sustain; both of which could slow recovery. These topics worry me, as they will lengthen the duration of adverse effects we feel from the economic adjustments being made; I’d rather they not span my entire lifetime. But as I stated, these movements are cyclical. Mankind can – and eventually will – overcome the changes wrought in the post-scarcity marketplace. I just hope it’s sooner rather than later.

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Thoughts on Sarvis


First, apologies for the crudeness of this post, composed on my phone… but while we bathe in the afterglow of the #vagov race, some thoughts on the Libertarian Party candidate, Robert Sarvis:

1) Many conservatives found Sarvis as an opportunity to define/pigeonhole what “libertarian” means (to them), and although they admittedly do not prescribe to libertarianism, conservatives used this definition to disavow the Sarvis candidacy, and libertarianism as a whole.
2) But Sarvis didn’t run as a traditionally-defined “minarchist” libertarian; he ran as a “moderate” libertarian; that is, fiscally conservative* and socially liberal. (* the moderate honestly searches for leaner policies by aligning goals with their results; tax cuts alone do not suffice.) This moderation was particularly pronounced with his positions on Medicare and taxes, and more specifically, the mileage tax.
3) The “moderate libertarian” candidate exposed many of the fissures between the competing factions of the libertarian/liberty caucus, with Ron and Rand Paul campaigning for SoCon Cuccinelli at Liberty University – of all places – while Gary Johnson campaigned for Sarvis.
4) In the end, polls show that Sarvis wasn’t a spoiler for Cuccinelli; if anything, his 7% took away from McAuliffe, who won anyway.
5) Whatever elements of libertarianism will be “electable” in 2016 remain to be seen, but I don’t think the issues that animated the Sarvis campaigned can be broken down and metabolized for the benefit of Rand Paul and the GOP.
6) Personally, the factions in the libertarian/liberty movement leave me both uneasy about, and excited for, 2016 and beyond.
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