Monday, January 31, 2011

How to tax the rich

Scott Adams is a smart guy.  In general, I find that truly funny people are very smart--funny requires broad knowledge and keen insight.  I don't agree with him on several topics.  But his recent article about taxation is compelling (and amusing.)

His big idea is that the rich need to get something in return for paying their higher taxes.  There are some big devils in the details.  What sorts of perks should they get?  But the idea is definitely worth exploring.

Some would argue that the rich are already getting special treatment.  They get laws written the way they want.  They get loopholes that only they can afford the lawyers to exploit.  They have been getting increasing income inequality for decades.  But we must concede that those are things that they are already getting, without actually paying the higher taxes.  So we have to come up with some new benefits for them.

As he says, bad ideas are easy to come up with.  What are your good ideas?

My heart is in Egypt

My heart is in Egypt right now.  If I were free to go, I would have been there a week ago.  But I am not free to go.  So I will write this article instead, and explain what I would do if I could go.  Because I am American, they would not listen to me anyway.

If I were in Egypt I would find the people who wrote this protesters' manual.  I would hide with them in whatever closet they are holed up in.  And I would talk their ears off about what's next.

Transition to what?

Mubarak is trying to hold on to power and save his own life.  He needs the military to protect him.  He is giving more power to the military in order to get their help.  When Mubarak leaves, the military will be in the best position to take over.  Military dictatorships have a poor history of turning power over to democratically-elected civilian governments.  In the short-term, the protesters need to pay more attention to who will be in power after Mubarak leaves.

It is unfortunate that they began the protests without a a new constitution to offer, or a clear non-military candidate or two.  Now they need to find a core group of protest leaders to form a provisional government that will work with the military to administer free and open elections as soon as possible.  They will need to elect two bodies:
  • A constitutional congress that will have no powers except to write a new constitution.
  • A transitional government that will manage the country while the new constitution is being written.

The transitional government will be tasked with making as few decisions as possible.  Just keep the trains running and power on.  They should draft business people for these positions--people who want to go back to their businesses as soon as possible.

There are two basic types of government:
  • Governments based upon people: dictatorships, kingdoms, secret police states, mafia states, etc.
  • Governments based upon laws: representative democracies, police states

The stories I'm hearing about the protesters lead me to believe that they want to form a government based upon laws.  This means that the constitutional congress will be where all the action is.  That is where I would like to be--offering advise and helping them form a good law-based government.

Democracy is not enough.

I would bring three books with me to Egypt:
What is the point of government?  Peace, safety, freedom, economic opportunity, and justice.  These are outcomes that only democracy can provide.  But there are many forms of democracy that fail to deliver.  Kim Jung Il and Adolph Hitler were both democratically elected and re-elected, after all.

So, what does it take to build a good government?

I've identified 7 features of government and 4 features of society that are required in order to achieve peace, safety, and the rest.

Government Features
Equality Under the Law
  1. Every person who is excluded from having a voice in the government will have no rational choice but to oppose the government.
  2. A government that can exclude someone else will eventually exclude me.
  3. A government that can grant special status to someone else will exclude me from that group, and will eventually exclude me entirely.
  4. If anyone is above the law then they will eventually establish themselves as dictator.
  5. Corruption cannot be allowed at any level in government, because corruption favors the rich--the poor cannot afford to pay the bribes.
  6. The rich gain and the poor suffer as the body of law grows, because only the rich can afford the legal expertise to remain innocent.
    1. A country where everyone is guilty of something will devolve into a prison.
  7. The rich gain and the poor suffer as the process of complying with the law gets more complicated (licenses, permits, and the like), because only the rich can afford the legal expertise to operate businesses.
    1. The poor will be limited to operating in the grey or black markets, where they lack legal protection.
  8. Corporations and religious groups are organizations, not people.  Organizations must be treated fairly, with respect to each other.  But organizations must be governed under a distinct set of rules specific to them.

Popular Control
  1. Only the people may change the constitution.
  2. The people define the government's goals, priorities, and long-term vision.

Protection of Rights
  1. The primary purpose of government should be to protect the rights of the people.
  2. A people who fail to understand and properly value these basic rights will achieve the bad outcomes that they deserve:
    1. Freedom of Speech
    2. Freedom of Property
    3. Freedom of Religion
    4. Freedom of the Press
    5. Freedom of Assembly
    6. Freedom of Vocation
    7. Freedom of Contract
    8. Freedom of Sexuality
  3. Governments are not the only infringers on these rights.  Corporations and religious groups must be constrained to protect these rights

Limited Government
  1. A government that can change the rules under which it operates will slide into corruption, allowing the rich to buy special privileges.
  2. A government that can kill citizens will eventually kill me.
  3. Governments are good at enforcing the rules by which everyone must operate--making and enforcing laws
  4. Governments are very inefficient at delivering services.  
    1. Some services can only be reasonably delivered by government, like military protection.  In these cases, the governments operations must be monitored closely for waste and corruption.
    2. Some services could be provided by the free market, like mail delivery.  In these cases, the government contracting process must be monitored closely for corruption.
    3. All of this monitoring is an expensive overhead.  The best way to reduce the overhead is to limit the scope of government.
  5. Find creative ways to limit government spending.  Make them report everything they spend in clear terms.

Separation of Powers
  1. Government is, by definition, a concentration of power.  Power corrupts.  Don't give any person any more power then you absolutely must, and don't let them hold on to that power any longer than you must.
  2. There are certain categories of power within government.  These must be clearly and irrevocably separated:
    1. Legislative: write laws
    2. Police: enforce the laws
    3. Judicial: apply and interpret the laws
    4. Executive: manage the government itself
    5. Ambassadors: official interactions with other nations
    6. Military: defense and war
    7. Measurement: measure and report the government's performance
    8. Oversight: watch the watchers

Balance of Powers
  1. The parts of government will have to interact with one another.  Each part needs to be reigned in by other parts.  Each line of power needs to be carefully laid out, to avoid any one part gaining too much power over the others, or to avoid having two or three parts forming a ruling coalition over the others.
    1. Within those interactions there will be some natural power struggles.  These interactions must be planned out. For instance:
      1. The police are completely subject to the judges when it comes to detaining and punishing wrongdoers.
      2. The military is completely subject to the legislature to for funding.
    2. Some un-natural power struggles need to be established, to keep any one part of government from gaining too much power.  For instance:
      1. Military senior commanders must be approved by the judges before they can take office.
      2. Executive branch officers are nominated by the legislature and confirmed or rejected by a jury made up of judges, police, and military personnel.

Regular Orderly Transition of Power
  1. No one may serve in more than one part of the government at the same time.
  2. No one gets to hold on to any power for an extended period of time.
  3. No one gets to control how or when they will relinquish power.
  4. When the people are unhappy, they must have a non-violent means for replacing the government and amending the constitution.

Social Features
  1. Government must be watched, or it will devolve into corruption.
  2. The people must tell the government what they want, or they won't get it.
  3. Some people must serve in the government for a time, and then return to private life without gaining undue advantage in the marketplace from their time of service.

  1. The people must speak up when they have a problem with the government.
    1. They cannot wait and let problems fester for too long before they do something.
    2. They must continually exercise their right of criticism so they don't lose the right through lack of use.
  2. Criticism must be public, so the public can weigh and judge the importance of the criticism.
    1. Kooks will abuse the right to criticize, and use it as a platform for their craziness.  The public should be the judges of legitimate problems versus craziness.
    2. The better your government gets, the more that legitimate problems will look and sound crazy at first.
  3. The government must be strictly forbidden from silencing critics.
  4. The government must have mechanisms for accepting criticism and making positive changes, when the people agree that the problem should be addressed.

  1. The people must understand that the government cannot meet their every need.
  2. The people must accept responsibility for the outcomes of their own lives, so long as they have been dealt with fairly.

  1. My freedom to swing my arm ends just before I hit my neighbor's nose.
  2. People who are not dedicated to freedom will be too thin-skinned, constantly imagining that their noses have been hit.
  3. Freedom will be constantly challenged by would-be authorities.  The people will have to continually defend freedom, primarily against religious authorities.
    1. When a religion has the authority to enforce its will on non-believers then freedom of religion has been violated, and a religious kingdom has been established.  All non-believers are outsiders, and rationally must work to overthrow that government.

What's Next in Egypt?

Maybe the powers behind the scenes in Egypt already know all of this.  Even if they do know it, it will be incredibly difficult to pull off.  If the protesters are not simply massacred, then a military dictatorship is the most likely outcome of their present course.

If I were a gambling man then I would place my money on the military reporting that they received the order to massacre, refusing the order, arresting Mubarak, and then seizing control.  This gives the military control and a large measure of goodwill.  Notice that they don't have to actually get the order to massacre, they just have to say they got it.  There will be no way for Mubarak to prove otherwise once he is in jail.

Life in Egypt will go from bad to worse under a military dictatorship.

What's Next in the Region?

America has been a big supporter of Mubarak for a long time.  In response, Mubarak has been an ally of the US and Israel.  No matter what happens now, America and Israel are losing that ally.  This is a dark day for the US, and a terrifying turn of events for Israel.  Calling Obama "the President that lost Egypt" is somewhat unfair.  From the moment this broke out Obama has had no option for saving Mubarak.

American could have supported the rebels, but at the price of losing Saudi Arabia.  Doing that would not have likely won friends in the new Egypt, because America was the biggest military supplier of Mubarak's government.  And it would have been very difficult for America to denounce Mubarak, seeing as how they are giving him so much money every year.

It may not be Obama's fault, but the importance of this for Mid-East relations is still immense.  This weakens every state in the region.  The likely benefactor of that instability is Al Qaeda.  They will gain influence either by supporting existing countries or by supporting the overthrow of enemy countries.

Egypt has a fairly healthy current tradition of religious moderation.  Christians and Muslims have been living in peace there for a long time.  I pray that won't change.  But I'm afraid that religious freedom will be curtailed by the next government--no matter who runs it.

Saudi Arabia is already locked in its own civil war--the pragmatic king against his religious extremist cousins fighting through their proxies.  Saudi Arabia is the biggest domino in the region.  Egypt is the second biggest.  Iran is third, and already unstable.  Iraq was fourth, and still unstable.  Expect more wars and civil wars in the region.

Talks with Israel will be on hold until several of these major countries stabilize.  But when talks resume Israel will have no friends in the region.  There is really only one issue that the citizens of these regions can agree on, and that is hatred of Israel.  This period of instability would be a good time to get out of Israel.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


If you make time to read one article about the unrest in Tunisia, make it this article.  As usual, the Telegraph produces commentary that is thoughtful, compelling, and takes a broad view of the issues.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The most encouraging news I have seen in a long time...

Moderate Egyptian Muslims are taking a stand against extremists in their country.  Last year at this time the extremists attacked several Christian churches.  Egyptian Christians celebrate Christmas in January, and it was last year's January Christmas celebrants that were attacked.

This year Muslims are attending the Christian ceremonies, mingling among the Christians, acting as human shields.  Their courage is worthy of praise.  Their devotion to peace is inspiring.  These acts of faith will not go unrewarded.

Prince plays guitar?!?!?!?!!!!

While My Guitar Gently Weeps, done my Tom Petty and several other great guitar players. I think that's Clapton behind the beard and glasses.

About 3:30 in Prince starts playing a solo. He goes on for the remainder of the video. Utterly unbelievable.

I seem to remember him playing lead guitar on 1999 and Little Red Corvette.  But I don't remember anything like this sort of skill.  Of course, that was a lifetime ago.  So maybe he's been practicing.

That guitar solo could stand with some of the best I've seen/heard from Clapton, Vaughn, and Hendricks.  I had no idea.


XKCD is always brilliant.  Yesterday's is especially so.

The Wikipedia List of Common Misconceptions article is real, and quite well done.  It is the sort of thing that everyone ought to read through at least once a year.