Thursday, January 27, 2011

Court Suspends 'Amazon Tax' For Now

I haven't seen this break on the big media sites yet, so I'll reproduce a media release I just received as-is. I have not had time to check out the claims or the decision. For background, see my post from last year.

Majority Leader Stephens Praises Amazon Tax Court Ruling
Plans to Introduce Legislation to Repeal Online Retailer Tax


State House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, R-Monument, today is praising a court ruling by the U.S. District Court of Colorado that has granted a preliminary injunction against enforcing, House Bill 10-1193, the controversial tax on online retailers, such as Amazon.com, and on Colorado consumers.

In a decision issued late yesterday afternoon, the court ruled that the law shall not be enforced due to violations of the Commerce Clause of the United States Constitution while litigation continues.

"House Republicans have questioned the constitutionality, and the rationale, of this online tax since it was introduced," Stephens said. "We knew from the beginning that this tax placed an undue burden on businesses and consumers across Colorado, and the nation."

The law is being challenged by the Direct Marketing Association as unconstitutional. In addition to Commerce Clause concerns, the DMA has repeatedly cited privacy issues arising from the requirement that companies turn over confidential purchasing history information to the Colorado Department of Revenue.

"The decision by the court should be applauded," Stephens said. "Unfortunately, this tax proposal was rushed through the legislature, causing concern for consumers and leading to the immediate loss of Colorado jobs."

The law mandated online retailers to start collecting use tax, or to provide information about online purchases made in Colorado in order for the state to collect taxes on the transactions. Passage of the law led to an Amazon.com decision to end their association with 4200 Colorado marketing associates.

Majority Leader Stephens still plans on introducing legislation to repeal the entire online retailer tax.

"A full repeal of the Amazon tax is still necessary," Stephens said. "This court ruling is just one step in the long process of repealing this unconstitutional tax. I am hopeful that with this most recent decision, along with a full repeal by the legislature, we will see these jobs return to Colorado."

The court decision is available to read online here.

Spare Us the 'Sputnik Moment'

Am I the only one creeped out by Obama's loving references to Mother Russia? He can't get enough of his "czars," and now we are supposed to be inspired to greatness in a "Sputnik moment."

Yes, even the socialist Soviet Union could produce a functional space vehicle, the Sputnik. Meanwhile, the Soviet government oppressed, starved, and looted its subjects for the benefit of elite rulers. Like the Egyptian pyramids, the Sputnik was impressive, but I wouldn't want to live under the government that produced it. Notably, to the degree that the Soviets succeeded at anything, they did so mostly by accepting help from the West, stealing intellectual property from the free world, and permitting its people to violate Communist principles by trading on the underground market.

Of course Obama did not mean to imply that we should strive to model our own efforts after those of the Soviets. Instead, he alluded to the American response of the moon missions. He may not have noticed that the last moon walk was in 1972, and the federal government has made little progress toward space exploration since then. Thankfully, private space companies are now kicking off a real space race.

Here's what Obama said:

This is our generation's Sputnik moment. Two years ago, I said that we needed to reach a level of research and development we haven't seen since the height of the Space Race. In a few weeks, I will be sending a budget to Congress that helps us meet that goal. We'll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology –- an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.


In other words, Obama wants central planners to redirect forcibly seized wealth to corporate welfare for medicine, technology, and energy. Because if there's one thing you can say about the Soviets, it's that they proved the efficiency of central planning. But forcibly transferring wealth from those who earn it to those adept at kissing bureaucratic ass does not "create jobs" or benefit the economy; it takes resources out of the free economy to benefit the politically connected. Obama would know this if he bothered to check in with Bastiat or Hazlitt.

It is indeed telling that Obama wishes us to draw inspiration from the "achievements" of the Soviet Union. But neither our economy nor our liberties can handle much more of Obama's Soviet-inspired controls.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

There Ain't No Such Thing as a Free Breakfast

In the context of massive federal welfare programs, "free" breakfasts for school kids in Colorado may seem like a minor issue. But the Colorado debate over breakfast welfare reveals the fundamental principles at stake regarding forced wealth transfers in general.

These are the basic facts, as reported by the Denver Post. The Colorado government faces a budget shortfall of around a billion dollars. Unlike federal politicians, state legislators cannot spend money they do not have. In this context, three Republicans on the Joint Budget Committee voted against spending $124,229 to provide around 56,000 children with "free" breakfast, "though more than 270,000 children are eligible for free breakfast and lunch outright." Without the additional subsidy, the children must pay 30 cents for breakfast.

(According to my calculator, spending an additional $2.22 per child would finance about seven extra days of "free" lunch, so the numbers make no sense to me. Nor does the "untapped balance" mentioned by the newspaper square the figures. However, my purpose here is not to get to the bottom of the figures but to address the moral issues involved, so I'll take the figures as reported.)

Now two of the Republicans on the committee are thinking about changing their vote and allowing the additional subsidy to go through. Republican Cheri Gerou told the Post, "We are not looking to starve the children of Colorado. We care about the children."

Democrat Cherylin Peniston told the Denver Daily, "Being able to provide breakfast each day for our neediest kids is an important function of government."

So, according to these popular media accounts, providing "free" breakfasts is an essential function of government, and anyone who opposes the program hates children.

On the contrary, those who truly love children want to protect their right to live their own lives and control their own income when they become adults. Those who value the education of children want to convey to them the importance of individual rights to individual autonomy and happiness and a healthy republic.

The educational function of the "free" lunches is to indoctrinate children into the primacy of the welfare state.

A government that can force today's adults to subsidize "free" breakfasts for other people's children can force tomorrow's adults to devote their entire livelihoods to the state on the alter of egalitarianism. Nothing is more important for the future of today's children than preserving liberty.

Nobody is stopping anyone in Colorado from voluntarily donating a portion of their income to pay for the breakfasts of anyone they please. But don't try to force other people to hand over their earnings and pretend that's morally virtuous. It's not. It's the moral equivalent of theft.

The only legitimate function of government is to protect individual rights. Forcibly seizing people's income to subsidize other people's breakfasts violates individual rights.

In economic terms, there's no such thing as a free breakfast. A breakfast that is "free" for some parents seizes wealth from other parents and single adults.

That adequately summarizes the basic moral issues involved; however, I also have some questions about the particulars of the program.

1. Of the 270,000 children who supposedly desperately need the "free" breakfasts, how many of their parents spend their own money on any of the following: cigarettes, booze, fast food, expanded cable, outings to bars, regular trips to the mall and cinema, video games, an extra family vehicle, or extra cell phones for the kids?

2. How many of those parents, whose children legislators so desperately want to "help," are forced by federal, states and local politicians to pay sales taxes on food and other essentials, payroll taxes to subsidize people with much greater resources, and property taxes for the education of other people's children?

3. How many of those parents have been unable to find work because of the union-empowering wage controls of the left?

4. Why do reporters for the Denver Post and Denver Daily News believe they are doing their jobs when they completely ignore all of the additional issues mentioned above?

Update: I've thought of a couple of other questions.

5. State Senator Shawn Mitchell points out on Facebook, "A federal FREE meal program feeds school kids in poverty. For families who earn more, there's a 30 cent copay." So how much are those families actually making?

6. How many of those families also receive food stamps?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Denver Post Politicizes Murders to Push Gun Restrictions

Today's condescending, factually inaccurate, and intellectually dishonest lead editorial from the Denver Post politicizes the horrible murders in Arizona by advocating more useless, rights-violating gun restrictions.

The Post wants to limit the capacity of gun magazines, yet the paper declines to tell us what number it deems appropriate. "The standard Glock magazine holds 15 rounds," the paper notes. But the editorial also favorably mentions the so-called assault weapons ban of 1994, now expired, which restricted the importation and manufacture of magazines for civilian use to ten rounds. So which option does the Post prefer? Fifteen? Twelve? Ten? Four?

Of course, for the anti-gun lobby, ten rounds is ten too many. I've heard anti-gun activists argue that all guns that hold magazines should be banned, and at most single-shot guns should remain legal.

The Post incorrectly states, "It wasn't so long ago that [the murderer] couldn't have bought a gun magazine of that size," under the expired ban. But sales of higher capacity magazines remained perfectly legal under the ban; what was banned was importation and manufacture for civilian sales.

The Post speciously claims, "The NRA is apparently worried Americans won't be able to defend themselves against the possibility of a 33-person, home-invasion team." The number refers to the capacity of the magazine used by the Arizona murderer. But the NRA defends normal capacity magazines, not just the higher capacity ones.

The Post's comment could only have been written by someone who has never devoted a serious thought to the problem of self-defense -- or who is intentionally lying about it. Home invasions by multiple assailants are actually fairly common, so far as home invasions go (which thankfully are relatively rare due to high gun ownership rates in the U.S.). Home invasions often take place at night. The perpetrators often wear heavy clothing and sneak about. Because gun wounds usually aren't fatal, a criminal might remain quite dangerous even if shot. For all of these reasons, having fifteen or more rounds might be essential for effective self-defense.

Self-defense -- a fundamental human right protected by our Constitution -- deserves more than derision by Colorado's largest newspaper.

(True, for most tactical purposes, carrying a gun with a magazine that extends far beyond the grip makes no sense. But artificially limiting magazine capacity beyond the natural limitations of the grip size is insanity from a self-defense perspective.)

I found this line from the Post interesting: "A reader sent us an article which cited the Glock website where, we're told, the Glock 'pistol magazines can be loaded with a convincing number of rounds.'" That line has certainly made the rounds. The quote is accurate; however, the Post neglects to mention the qualifier, "up to." I've verified that a 33 round magazine is available for the Glock 19.

Notably, the murderer bought four magazines. Ludicrously, a Brady Center spokesperson pretends that he had only one magazine and could not have used more than one magazine in the assault. Perhaps the Denver Post could enlighten us as to whether it believes carrying forty rounds total (ten rounds in each of four magazines) is just fine, whereas carrying 33 rounds in a single magazine must be outlawed. By the logic of the anti-gun crusade, guns with magazines per se should be totally outlawed, if not all guns.

The Denver Post is targeting guns because they make a convenient scapegoat. Nevermind the fact that the murderer suffered severe mental illness. Nevermind the fact that he had numerous run-ins with the authorities over a span of years. No, forget all that: the thing to do is restrict the ability of law-abiding, decent people to buy gun magazines.

The absurdity of the Post's "case" is illustrated by juxtaposing two headlines: "Gun Sales Surge After Obama's Election," and "Violent Crime Falls Sharply." While this does not demonstrate that the additional guns helped drive lower crime rates, it does offer a reminder of how weak the case is for imposing additional gun restrictions.

'Citizens' Budget' Points Toward a Wiser, More Frugal Government

The following article originally was published January 21 by Grand Junction Free Press.

Will we live our own lives or take directives from politicians?

Or, as Jon Caldara puts the question, "Will we as a People expect only those public goods that allow for a vibrant, growing private sector, or will we demand an ever-larger, more intrusive government on which we depend for our every need and decision?"

Caldara's organization, the Independence Institute of Golden, recently published a "Citizens' Budget," a detailed guide for getting state spending back under control. (Ari has written guest articles as well as a contracted paper for the Institute.)

Raiding cash funds, violating the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights by raising "fees," and whining for federal "stimulus" funds will no longer work, the authors of the paper point out. Instead, the legislature should "establish a sustainable trend line for balanced budgets into the future" through "realistic spending revisions with no increases in taxes or fees."

While many citizens have lost their jobs or taken pay cuts, Colorado politicians have continued to spend more of other people's money. The 2010-11 budget is $19.8 billion, the paper relates, up "6 percent from the previous year." On average this "places a demand of $3,830 on every man, woman and child living in Colorado."

The legislature's shenanigans can no longer delay the day of reckoning, and now our elected officials must close a billion-dollar gap. How can they do that without further seizing the wealth of productive, job-creating citizens? The Citizens' Budget offers a variety of ideas:

* For current state employees, raise the age to receive pension benefits. Change the pension plan for new state employees so that their benefits are based on the yields of their contributions.

* Phase out the state's Old Age Pension Plan, for which "a recipient may qualify even if he or she has never paid any taxes in Colorado," and allow other existing welfare programs to fill those needs.

* Move to a voucher or stipend program for higher education, "ending direct subsidies to state colleges and universities." And give colleges the freedom and incentives to economize.

* In K-12 education, use tax credits to allow parents to choose alternative schools and save the state money. The added benefit is that more students would get a better education.

* "Reduce incarcerations, but only for non-violent offenders." Violent criminals should be in prison. In our view, others usually should work off their crimes or, in cases of "victimless crimes," not be arrested in the first place.

* Tighten eligibility requirements for Medicaid, increase enrollment fees for subsidized health plans, and introduce health savings plans to give patients an incentive to economize.

Moreover, the Citizens' Budget recommends the broad implementation of "priority-based budgeting," in which spending is evaluated against clearly defined goals rather than automatically increased each year.

We think the Citizens' Budget is a good start. However, ultimately we would go much further in limiting political power.

Let's return to fundamentals. Insofar as government protects individual rights to control one's own property and associate with others voluntarily, government lays the foundation for free market prosperity.

When government surpasses those bounds, it forcibly transfers wealth, interferes with economic liberty, and dampens productive achievement. That is why Thomas Jefferson famously championed "a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned."

What has become clear over the past decade of Colorado politics is that, no matter how high taxes or government spending climbs, it will never be enough for the bread takers.

The animating principle of the modern welfare state is egalitarianism, the forced equality of resources. So long as anybody earns more than anyone else, wealth should be seized from the "haves" and given to the "have nots." The fact that the end result of the doctrine is equal misery for all causes its proponents not the least hesitation.

The fundamental thing that honest, ambitious people need to succeed is economic liberty, not "help" from politicians. Indeed, politicians routinely muck up the economy with protectionist measures that hurt competition, subsidies for special interests, labor controls that cost jobs, and financial policies that create recessions.

Then, after damaging economic opportunities and thus placing people in need, politicians take further action to make people dependent on forced wealth transfers.

In a truly free society in which opportunities abound, fewer people become poor, and the prosperous many readily and voluntarily supply their needs.

Government programs that protect individual rights, most importantly the police and courts, consume a small fraction of the state budget. Projects that genuinely may be said to benefit everybody, such as roads, add somewhat more.

Most state spending involves forcibly taking money from those who earn it in order to benefit those who don't. A just budget would respect each person's rights to his own earnings.

Friday, January 21, 2011

A Miraculous Shooting?

We can indeed be thankful that Gabrielle Giffords survived the attempt to take her life. It was a horrifying event, a slaughter of innocents, and an assault on our Republic. No doubt Giffords faces a tough recovery.

But was her survival a miracle, as I have heard numerous people claim? Today The Christian Post reported, "About 77 percent of American voters said they believed that prayer literally helped Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords survive the Tucson shooting, according to a Fox News poll released Thursday."

Was it miraculous that the murderer killed six and wounded fourteen more?

If God were interested in miraculous intervention (and if he existed), why would he wait until after the bullets struck their victims to take action? Following are some examples of what might have been truly useful and impressive miracles. God could have placed the murderer in a force field to prevent him from shooting people. God could have called down from the heavens, "Be warned! Take cover! A mass murderer is approaching your location!" God could have given all the victims temporary superpowers, such that the bullets bounced off of them (like Superman). Or, God could simply have totally healed Giffords on the spot.

If miraculous intervention kept Giffords alive, why didn't God step in to save the six people slaughtered? Did God not care about them? Were they not worthy of miraculous intervention? Were the prayers of their loved ones not honored by God?

True, people shot in the head often die, so, given the fact that Giffords was shot, she was relatively lucky to survive and start down the path to recovery. But she was immensely unlucky to be shot in the first place, so to call her subsequent survival a "miracle" is to abuse the language. One might as well claim it was a "miracle" that she was shot and six others died.

We take some comfort in the fact that Giffords survived the shooting, and we hope for her recovery. But, in recognition of the immense trauma she in fact suffered, and out of respect for those who died, let's not chalk up the events of that day to miracles and prayer.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Mugging of Comcast

The Washington Post reports, "Federal regulators on Tuesday blessed Comcast's $30 billion acquisition of NBC Universal, imposing a slew of conditions on everything from competition with rivals to the price of Internet service for poor families out of concern that the firm's vast sweep could harm consumers."

In other words, Comcast must pay protection money to the welfare statists and its own competition for the privilege of conducting business.

The antitrust laws allowing federal bureaucrats to obstruct and control mergers are unjust and should be abolished. Instead we should demand the restoration of free markets, in which businesses are free to offer services to willing consumers at mutually agreeable prices. Business owners should be able to run their enterprises as they see fit, consistent with the property rights of others, which entails the right to expand and merge as they deem best. In a free market, businesses that meet the needs of their customers succeed; the rest properly fail. If a consumer does not like the services or practices of a business, he holds the ultimate trump card: he may withdraw his business and spend his money elsewhere.

The government's only legitimate role in a free market is to uphold property rights and contracts and root out force and fraud. And yet, rather than serve to stop criminals, in this case the federal government itself is acting as the criminal entity, forcibly limiting property rights and voluntary associations. In the name of justice, such practices must be stopped.

For additional reading about the injustices of antitrust laws, please see the Liberty In the Books pages about Alex Epstein, Eric Daniels, and Dominick Armentano.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Ritter's "New Energy Economy" Based on Old Fallacies

The following article originally was published January 11 by the Independence Institute. The Institute's Jon Caldara offered additional commentary. The article also was published by Denver Daily News and Colorado Daily.

If you think corporate welfare "creates jobs," you might be an outgoing Colorado governor.

As governor, Bill Ritter signed "an unprecedented 57 clean-energy bills into law," a January 5 release from Colorado State University reviews. Now Ritter will join the university's Center for the New Energy Economy, drawing a privately funded $300,000 annual salary.

Whether wind and solar energy actually can significantly reduce carbon emissions remains debatable. The online news source Face the State recently reported that an $11 million "new energy" project in Fort Collins actually relies partly on dirty diesel. The irregularity and wide dispersion of wind and solar energy make them difficult to harness.

But advocates of the "new energy economy" do not merely claim that alternative energy reduces carbon emissions. They claim it benefits the economy as well. Such claims about the alleged economic benefits of "new energy" rest on basic economic fallacies.

In a free market, consumers turn to new energy sources when they offer lower costs and better quality than the competition. For example, in the late 1800s consumers turned from whale oil to the "new energy" of petroleum. Advances in nuclear power or some other energy source may in turn largely replace coal and oil without political interference.

Political interference in the market is precisely what Ritter advocates, and that is why his policies harm the economy rather than help it. Ritter's "new energy economy" relies on a combination of political controls and corporate welfare that raise your energy bills and your taxes.

Last year Ritter signed a bill "requiring that 30 percent of electricity be generated from renewable sources by 2020," a release from the governor's office notes. The fallacy is that the bill "will create thousands of new jobs."

Ritter's claims about jobs rest on what 19th Century French economist Frederic Bastiat called the "childish illusion" that such measures do anything other than reallocate wealth and wages. Bastiat urges us to consider the unseen as well as the politically obvious. Ritter's controls will destroy jobs in the oil and coal industries, and they will destroy jobs that consumers would otherwise finance, if they weren't paying higher energy costs.

Another document from the governor's office claims, "Ritter's vision and strategies are helping to create and save jobs, support small businesses, increase manufacturing and spur innovation." The document lists various businesses subsidized by the state, including Vestas Blades, IBM, and Abound Solar. Ritter conveniently neglects to mention the costs.

Corporate welfare does not just fall from the sky. It comes from taxpayers. That money is no longer available to those who earned it to create jobs and support businesses in other sectors. While Ritter creates jobs with one hand, he destroys them with the other. The difference is that the jobs Ritter creates serve political interests rather than the interests of consumers.

Consider, as Bastiat might do, the logical absurdities of Ritter's position. If mandating "new" energy creates jobs, then why stop at 30 percent? Why not 100 percent? Why not expand subsidies 1,000 fold? Why not outlaw all coal, oil, and natural gas in Colorado, and force every property owner to install solar panels and windmills? Think of all the new jobs that would require!

Of course, Ritter could argue that, insofar as he has attracted federal funding for "new energy," he has helped forcibly transfer wealth and jobs from citizens in other states to citizens in Colorado.

But that would seem to be a losing game. Last year the Denver Business Journal noted that "Colorado ranked 33rd among the 50 states in the amount of per-capita federal spending." If Ritter can "create jobs" in Colorado by bilking the citizens of other states, then politicians elsewhere can do the same to us. The net result is not more jobs, but more political favoritism and more economic waste.

Ritter's "new energy economy" is built on old economic fallacies about the alleged benefits of central planning and corporate welfare. For productive employment, we should instead turn to a subsidy-free New Liberty Economy that favors free markets and rewards companies that seek to please customers instead of politicians.

Ari Armstrong, a guest writer for the Independence Institute, publishes FreeColorado.com and moderates Liberty In the Books.

Monday, January 17, 2011

NTU's Stephenson Visits Colorado

John Stephenson from the National Taxpayers Union recently addressed Liberty In the Books in Denver.



Following are some of his remarks:

"We are the nation's oldest, and one of its largest, grass-roots taxpayer advocacy groups."

"We've been focused a lot on income and sales taxes over the years. We've also gotten involved in some discriminatory taxes -- these are taxes on alcohol, "sinful" products."

"I indicated to [Colorado lawmakers] that a government... lets the private sector do what it should, allows jobs to be created, allows revenues to grow, and allows people to prosper."

"We've also been concerned that government is growing too big nationally, and needs to be checked a little bit." [A "little bit?"]

"States that have reduced their influence on the economy, that have... kept themselves limited to a narrow focus, providing the essential services that the private sector cannot or should not provide, have weathered the recession best... They've let the private sector grow, and increase, and lift up the state..."

"A basic fee is not a bad thing... But when it's a fee to pay for something else than that... that's where I have a problem. Fees should be restricted to a specific use."

"The federal government encourages states to spend more money, through Medicaid, through education, in order to get funding. One of the things we're looking on are ways to adjust those formulas so that the state, rather than encouraged to spend, is encouraged to save."

"Pension costs are going up in every state. Perhaps instead of a defined benefits plan, looking at a defined contribution plan... might be a way to save money."

On the "Amazon Tax:" "A lot of affiliates have been talking to their elected officials here in Colorado about how that has cost them their livelihood, so there's the potential that that could be fixed... Going after a private business just because they're out of state, forcing them to do something they're not constitutionally required to do, is just wrong."

Friday, January 14, 2011

Skousen Reviews Life in CIA, Finance, and Economics

Mark Skousen recently spoke in Denver about his job in the CIA, transition to investment writing, entry into the field of professional economics, brief stint with the Foundation for Economic Education, and creation of Freedom Fest.



I've also published a video in which Skousen discusses his work on The Completed Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin:

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Vietnam Vet Linn Armstrong Discusses Service

Recently I interviewed my father, Linn Armstrong. Here I've pulled out a couple of his stories about Vietnam. In the first video, he discusses volunteering to teach English in downtown Da Nang. In the second, he discusses his flight home -- on which he sold two rifles to the pilot.



Wednesday, January 12, 2011

John Wren Promotes Small Business

John Wren of the Small Business Chamber of Commerce hosts a weekly meeting to promote startups. In this interview he discusses the projects of his group and the prospects for small business growth.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Skousen Discusses Completed Franklin Autobiography

Economist Mark Skousen, a direct descendant of Benjamin Franklin, completed the founder's autobiography from letters. Recently Skousen came to Denver for the American Economic Association conference, and he made time to speak at a Small Business Chamber of Commerce event. Skousen also discussed his history as an economist and financial advisor, the subject of a future video.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Resolve to Expand, Use, and Produce

The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published January 7 by Grand Junction Free Press.

The number of people living on our planet has nearly quadrupled in the past century, expanding from 1.8 billion in 1910 to 6.9 billion now, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the United Nations.

For many environmentalists, all these people provoke woe and despair. People keep growing crops, building structures, having babies, and -- horror of horrors -- using energy from sources like coal and oil. Various environmentalists pray for some plague or catastrophe to wipe out much of the human race. They decry the alleged environmental harm of having children. In short, they hate people.

We happen to like people, and we think the more the merrier. Given continued technological advances possible with free markets and political liberty, our planet can comfortably support many times the current human population.

True, where violence and political corruption reign, as in much of Africa, often people cannot produce enough to support themselves. But this is not fundamentally a problem with the number of people; it is a problem of bad politics, cultural decay, and the ubiquitous violation of individual rights.

Environmentalists preach, "Reduce, reuse, and recycle." The people-haters want fewer people to use less energy and fewer natural resources. Those who love life and cherish people reject such environmentalist pablum and instead embrace the motto, "Expand, use, and produce."

Our goal should not be to reduce the amount of energy we use, but to radically expand it. The point is not to waste energy, but to use more of it as efficiently as possible to meet human needs.

Energy enables us to control the temperature, humidity, and other elements of our immediate environment in the structures we build. Energy lets us light our homes and cities and travel around the world, whether for health or vacation. Energy empowers us to produce the vehicles, buildings, computers, and other things we need to live well.

We look forward to the day when technological innovations allow the average American to use many times the amount of energy as today. We also gleefully anticipate people in other parts of the world catching up with U.S. energy use. To achieve such advances, people need economic liberty and political systems that protect individual rights. Only freedom enables people to use their minds to the fullest to produce the wealth we need to thrive.

When it makes economic sense, we should indeed reuse and recycle things. But we should not squander what Julian Simon called the "Ultimate Resource" -- the human mind and our time spent using it. The major goal is to produce things. Recycling is valuable only insofar as it improves human life, as indicated by price signals showing that the rewards of recycling merit the time spent doing it.

We hope that, in another century, many more people live on the Earth, and even more live places other than our home planet. People should colonize the moon, space stations, and asteroids. How glorious will be that day when the human population of Mars reaches a billion.

Thankfully, some people are working toward that end. Various private space companies have launched crafts into space for commercial purposes. Here in Colorado, one space scientist has coauthored a novel about homesteading Mars. Thomas James, a cofounder of People's Press Collective (to which Ari contributes), helped pen "In the Shadow of Ares."

James's novel is about the first family to homestead Mars. At age fourteen, Amber Jacobsen, the first person born on Mars, moves with her parents to a settlement that operates mines and builds greenhouse domes. James discussed the novel in a recent video interview; see http://tinyurl.com/MarsNovel for his complete comments.

James hopes the novel will inspire young readers. He said, "We did aim it toward kids, to get some of these ideas in front of kids that they're not seeing from other sources."

James worries that the fantasy so popular today "is not driving kids into math and science careers. It's not getting them to think about things rationally and logically the way you would with science."

Beyond the science, what sorts of ideas does James explore? "Capitalism is good, honesty is good, reason, integrity, they're all good things, and if you follow these good principles," you'll ultimately achieve good ends.

"Along the way we throw in lessons about economics," James adds, noting that one problem of the novel is "how you would set up an economy on a blank-slate planet."

The novel embraces controversy, as any visionary work must. The Mars settlers depend on nuclear energy as well as genetically modified organisms for their basic needs.

James predicts: "We're starting to see the beginnings of what we describe in the book, as the commercial development of space. And once that takes off, it could be sooner than we think."

Space settlement is the next step in the human effort to expand, use, and produce, in order to thrive.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

James Reflects on People's Press Collective

People's Press Collective, which aggregates conservative and free market writings in Colorado (and on which this post will appear), started with the idea of covering the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Thomas James, a cofounder of the project, reviewed its history and goals at a recent Liberty On the Rocks event.



James said of the DNC, "We were going to show what was really going on on the street, with protests and riots, and who knows what... the things that the media really didn't want you do see." (At the time, various organizers and pundits discussed the possibility of riots.) The organization's coverage of the event runs through August of 2008.

And, for those who missed it, James also discussed the new hard science fiction novel about Mars he coauthored, In the Shadow of Ares:

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Tobin Spratte Reviews Goals of Liberty Ink Journal

Tobin Spratte, the new managing editor of Liberty Ink Journal, describes the publication and its goals. "We're a free market, liberty-oriented publication," he says.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

My Interview with Sam Adams Alliance

As my regular readers may recall, I received a Sam Adams Alliance award in 2009. In anticipation of this year's contest, Nic Hall of the Alliance interviewed past winners, including me.

The entry deadline for this year's contest is January 28; I strongly encourage my activist friends to enter.

Following are a few of my remarks from the audio file. I appreciate Nic's fine job of paring down my lengthy remarks.

"What I'm trying to do is serve as the go-between, between the intellectual theory of free markets and the on-the-ground activism. So I don't do a lot of electoral politics, for instance. Nor am I in academia. But I try to keep tabs on what's going on in the academic discussions about free markets and related issues, and distill that down and popularize it, and educate other activists so that we can be effective in moving the free-market message forward."

"Since I started writing online [in 1998] there's been an explosion of activity... So, even though I was one of the first online writers in Colorado, in terms of free market politics, recently I've been surpassed by a lot of other younger, hipper activists who have been faster to take advantage of social media... So I'm playing catch-up again even though I was one of the early ones online."

"I've been interested in free market politics and the philosophical foundations of the free market since high school. And my dad had a fairly big influence on me, in that he gave me a couple of books when I was in high school. The first was Free to Choose by Milton Friedman, and the second was Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. My dad and I work together now; we write a column together for a small newspaper in Western Colorado called Grand Junction Free Press."

"I've certainly been strongly influenced by Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism. A funny thing happens with Ayn Rand: her ideas seem very exciting to youthful readers, but it's easy to miss the subtlety of her ideas. So a lot of people read her and then sort of fall out of those ideas, because they're not seeing the greater depth there. But I had the fortune of getting back into some of those ideas and exploring them in a more deep sort of way."

"Anybody who reads [my book, Values of Harry Potter] will recognize that there are crossover themes between what I'm finding in Harry Potter and themes in Ayn Rand's novels. Now, of course, I don't want to make too much of those, however. But, when you're looking at things like the importance of free will, the importance of heroes struggling after their values, then I think there are some real similarities. But then I of course go into the differences, too, and a big part of my motivation was to explore both the similarities and the differences."

"You see activists burn out all the time, because they have unrealistic, short-term expectations, such as some grand political victory... And when that doesn't happen they burn out and drop out. And that's not really the way that activism works, usually, though there can be short-term political victories. But activism really is a very long-term, educational process. And, yes, we do some practical politics, but... we're not going to shift the culture without educating the population. And this is an inherently slow process."

"This is a big problem that I think a lot of potential activists have. They look out there and they see some expert, whether a great radio personality or a great writer, and they think, 'Wow, that person is so great, that I could never do anything like that.' But the fact is that that that person started somewhere. That person started out just doing college radio, or doing a podcast, or something like that. Everybody starts small and grows from there. So if you wait to become the expert before you start doing anything, you'll never be the expert, because you're not building the experience. So the way to learn how to write letters to the editor is to write a letter to the editor, then send it out to your friends for editing, improve it, and eventually you'll be able to write it with a lot less trouble... People wait for other people to do the work for them, or to push them into it, and you can't do that. It's too late in the game now to have that luxury. You have to get out there and be self-motivated, and jump into the game, even if you don't know quite how to swim yet. Because, damn it, you're not going to learn how to swim until you get in the water."

Listen to the entire interview!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Atwood Pitches Approval Voting

Frank Atwood promoted "approval voting" at a recent Liberty On the Rocks event:



While I was skeptical of approval voting at first, Atwood convinced me that it's a good idea -- even better than the "instant runoff voting" I've previously praised.

What is approval voting? You the voter can vote for any number of candidates on the ballot for a given position. For example, in the last gubernatorial race, you could have voted for both Dan Maes and Tom Tancredo, rather than just one of those candidates.

Now, in fact, John Hickenlooper won more votes than Maes and Tancredo combined, so it's hard to claim that either Maes or Tancredo "spoiled" the race for the other candidate. (Democrat Hickenlooper won 50.7 percent of the vote, lackluster Republican Maes won only 11.1 percent of the vote, and third-party Tancredo won 36.7 percent of the vote.) But let's consider a realistic possibility of a third-party conservative "spoiling" the race for the Republican or a Green candidate "spoiling" the race for the Democrat, meaning that if the minor-party candidate were not in the race, enough votes would go to the major-party candidate to make the difference.

In such cases, approval voting would allow a voter to approve both a major and a minor party candidate. Let's consider a hypothetical three-way race with 100 voters under the two scenarios:

WINNER TAKE ALL VOTING
Chickenpooper gets 48 votes.
Tancledo gets 38 votes.
Maze gets 14 votes.

Under the "winner take all" voting we currently use, Chickenpooper (who we'll assume is the left-leaning candidate) is the winner.

APPROVAL VOTING
Chickenpooper gets 48 votes.
Tancledo gets 49 votes.
Maze gets 25 votes.

In this scenario some voters are voting for both Tancledo and Maze (so the total number of votes cast exceeds 100), and Tancledo emerges victorious. In this case, whereas Maze otherwise would have "spoiled" the election for Tancledo, under approval voting people can vote for Maze and still allow Tancledo to win.

Of course, in the real recent election, many people thought Maes was a complete joke, so some might have preferred both Hickenlooper and Tancredo over Maes and voted accordingly.

I favor approval voting because it allows minor-party participation without creating the risk of "spoiled" elections.

Why do I now think approval voting is better than instant runoff voting? Approval voting is both easier to implement and less prone to quirks.

Under instant runoff voting, a voter may rank candidates. For example, a voter could have picked Maes first and Tancredo second. Then, assuming Maes again came in third, all the votes that ranked Maes first and Tancredo second would go to Tancredo.

But think about ranking candidates in the voting booth. On a paper ballot, one would either have to write in numbers for the rankings or mark a candidate for the same race in successive votes. Electronic voting would require successive votes. But this process would confuse a lot of voters. For example, a voter may not realize that a second-place vote is not required.

Approval voting is a lot easier to set up. A voter simply marks a bubble (or the equivalent) for as many candidates as desired. It's easy to understand and easy to implement.

It is true that any system of voting is subject to possible quirks; today's quite pronounced quirk is that a minor-party candidate can "spoil" a race. Either instant runoff voting or approval voting would be less quirky. But I think approval voting would be best of all.

The Wikipedia entry on instant runoff voting suggests a problem which I'll illustrate with the following scenario:

Suppose Lefty Lou is a fire-breathing leftist who excites his base but genuinely frightens much of the citizenry; for 34 percent of voters Lou is the first choice candidate. Suppose Righty Rick is a social conservative and the first choice of 35 percent of voters. And suppose Centrist Cal, a war hero and former NFL quarterback, is liked by pretty much everybody but the first choice of only 31 percent. Cal is the clear second choice for everybody who more strongly prefers one of the other two candidates. Let's say that, due to imprecise polling, every poll shows the candidates within the margin of error, so voters have little idea who will actually win.

If voters simply voted their first choice under a winner take all system, Rick would win. But of course people can vote strategically under a winner take all system. Cal can argue, "Look, I know many of you are tempted to vote for Lou or Rick, but if you do that, you'll risk putting your least-favored candidate in office. So vote for me!" And such an appeal may very well work.

But consider what happens under instant runoff voting. Assuming people vote their preferences, Cal is eliminated in the first round, throwing the election to Rick, despite the fact that, for 100 percent of voters, Cal is either the first or second choice. That seems like a bad outcome.

Under approval voting, Cal would easily emerge as the victor.

Nor am I persuaded by the critics of approval voting. For example, FairVote offers the following scenario:

To illustrate how approval voting violates majority rule, consider a primary with 100 voters and two candidates liked by all voters. 99 voters choose to approve of both candidates even though slightly preferring the first candidate to the second. The 100th voter is a tactical voter and chooses to support only the second candidate. As a result, the second candidate wins by one vote, even though 99% of voters prefer the first candidate.


The first problem with this example is that it is totally unrealistic. In a race with only two candidates, most voters would pick between the two based on their preferences. If someone were truly ambivalent between two candidates, voting for neither would have the same effect as voting for both. If 99 voters truly preferred the first candidate, many or most of them would vote that way. Does this involve a certain amount of strategy? Yes. But every system of voting does. The difference is that approval voting is more likely to generate a winner most voters can live with.

Another significant problem with the example is that obviously the 100th voter prefers the second candidate. Let's say 99 voters barely prefer the first candidate to the second, and therefore vote for both candidates, not really caring which one wins. But one voter truly loathes the first candidate and therefore votes only for the second. Why should the very strong preferences of the one voter not outweigh the nearly-nonexistent preferences of the 99? But again this scenario is so implausible that we can safely ignore it.

Of course, if every race had only two candidates, a winner take all system would be fine (and a voter could approve of neither candidate simply by not voting in that race). The entire point of approval voting is to handle races with more than two candidates and thereby prevent scenarios of "spoiled" races.

Frank Atwood is right: Colorado should adopt approval voting.