“With your head on my shoulders we could wreck civilization!”

I haven’t followed the story surrounding The Pirate Bay closely, but I know enough to find no outrage at the recent conviction of the four founders. I don’t share what seems to be the typical libertarian revulsion at copyright laws. Although I agree they’re flawed as they’re written, there are legal ways for content producers to contract with customers that ignore the process. The system is broken but the free market created a work-around. So, I’m not ready to hoist a Live Free or Die banner on this issue.

That’s my short version. I like this longer, more detailed version from Eugenia’s Rants and Thoughts.

In my opinion, they are indeed guilty — they have been total assholes to lawyers who have sent them takedown notices over time. These dumbasses think that they are some kind of revolutionist heroes. Yes, a revolution is needed for copyright laws and the entertainment industry today, but these guys haven’t realized that in this day and age there is only one way to start a revolution: work through the existing system’s limitations and lobby extensively for new laws. Anything [sic] other approach will be shot down by the system and the corporations. This is not 1789 France. You can’t win with riffles, and picketing or rage anymore. You simply can’t ignore the laws. We live in a bureaucratic, corporation-led world, and so you will have to work through these constrains to change the world (e.g. via Creative Commons which is a clever approach that doesn’t cancel the current laws, so it can’t piss off the establishment to come after you). This Gandhi approach works: if you don’t buy the RIAA/MPAA-bound products, these empires will eventually fall, but it’s the only way to do it.

I’d change “corporation-led world” to a more general reference about special interests, but that’s mostly semantics based on politics. The basic idea is correct. If you don’t like the rules, refuse to participate or change them. Violating them instead is not a valid option.

Title reference here.


LINK: From the April issue of reason, Matt Welch addresses the ongoing topic of “liberalterianism” and how it’s doomed. The heart of his argument, which I agree with completely:

It is certainly no surprise that any party, let alone the Democrats, would want to use that fancy government once it held the awesome reins of power. Unified Republican governance this decade should disabuse even the most gullible from the notion that either of our two major parties is ever going to enact a small-government agenda, especially during a perceived crisis. But already during Obama’s first 100 days we’ve seen how quickly liberals will turn against libertarians once they’re no longer swinging at the same piñata.

Small-l libertarians will never find sufficient common ground with anyone interested in maintaining partisanship at the expense of ideas.

LINK: Also from reason Ronald Bailey discusses a free market approach to health care coverage proposed by University of Chicago economist John Cochrane.

So how does health-status insurance work? As Cochrane explains, “Market-based lifetime health insurance has two components: medical insurance and health-status insurance. Medical insurance covers your medical expenses in the current year, minus deductibles and copayments. Health-status insurance covers the risk that your medical premiums will rise.” Cochrane offers the example of a 25-year-old who will likely incur $2,000 in medical expenses in a year. His medical policy component would thus cost about $2,000 per year, plus administrative fees and profit. For purposes of illustration, Cochrane then assumes the 25-year-old has a 1 percent risk of developing a chronic medical condition that would increase his average medical expenses to $10,000 per year. In that case, he would be able to buy medical insurance for $10,000 per year—which is a big financial hit. That’s where health-status insurance comes in: It insures that you can be insured in the future.

I’m not fully convinced that this would work, but I’m not unconvinced, either. I don’t know enough. However, the idea seems to be based in personal responsibility. Life is unfair, so some of us get sick. There are costs involved. It’s unfortunate if medical costs cause financial distress. We should mitigate that, but provide individuals the options to do that for themselves. That is the right approach.

Mr. Cochrane also discusses how his plan would help separate health insurance from employer provision. That will be a feature of any responsible health care reform. (Transferring the incentive from employer to government does not qualify as that type of responsible reform.)

LINK: Harold Meyerson is an incurious propagandist:

But in the United States, conservatives have never bashed socialism because its specter was actually stalking America. Rather, they’ve wielded the cudgel against such progressive reforms as free universal education, the minimum wage or tighter financial regulations. Their signal success is to have kept the United States free from the taint of universal health care. The result: We have the world’s highest health-care costs, borne by businesses and employees that cannot afford them; nearly 50 million Americans have no coverage; infant mortality rates are higher than those in 41 nations — but at least (phew!) we don’t have socialized medicine.

Universal education is not “free”. The minimum wage costs jobs. Financial regulations overlooked obvious warnings of Bernie Madoff. “Nearly 50 million” uninsured is not true. Infant mortality is more complex than a quick comparison can demonstrate.

He also wrote this, so it’s clear that he’s interested in his narrative more than facts.

Take it from a democratic socialist: Laissez-faire American capitalism is about to be supplanted not by socialism but by a more regulated, viable capitalism. And the reason isn’t that the woods are full of secret socialists who are only now outing themselves.

We do not have laissez-faire capitalism. No amount of stating preferred explanations will make them true.

LINK: Steven Pearlstein defends President Obama’s budget in a way I don’t fully understand.

In the meantime, the federal government is one of the few entities that is still able to borrow in the current environment, and given the perceived safety of buying government bonds, the cost of that borrowing is about as low as it has ever been. From a purely cash-flow point of view, substituting 18 percent credit card debt with 3 percent Treasury bond debt is a positive development for the grandchildren.

The 18 percent credit card debt makes no sense here. Government borrowing isn’t replacing that. And my hypothetical grandchildren do not have any debt right now. Adding more, even at 3 percent, is hardly a positive development for them. The administration intends to grow the debt, not refinance it.

Refinancing costs are relevant, too. If the so-called positive development of new debt at 3 percent interest helps us, what will this new debt look like at 4, 5, or more percent when interest rates rise, as they will? Maintaining the apparently-permanent interest payments is a cost.

He continues with a bit about how infrastructure creates lasting economic value without defending it. Would the Bridge to Nowhere have justified its cost? Doesn’t matter, it seems. He reassures:

Strange as it may sound, there are times when it’s necessary to make things worse in order to make them better. Fighting a war to achieve a lasting peace. Making a patient sick to cure his cancer with radiation or chemotherapy. And, yes, taking on more debt to help get the country out of a debt-induced recession.

Unlike chemotherapy, where doctors eventually stop dosing a patient, what evidence do we have that politicians will ever believe we’ve reached the “ideal time for the government to deleverage and put its financial house in order”? The new deficit spending is permanent. The only open question once the budget passes is who will pay for it. Right now, the answer is “the rich” and the Chinese. Eventually, it will be the middle class, including all of our grandchildren.

LINK: Wanting an iPhone does not mean a consumer is entitled to an iPhone with the carrier of his choice.

The Consumers Union, the New America Foundation, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, as well as software provider Mozilla and small wireless carriers MetroPCS (PCS) and Leap Wireless International (LEAP), are lining up in opposition not only to the Apple-AT&T partnership, but to all manner of arrangements whereby mobile phones are tethered exclusively to a single wireless service provider.

Apparently a voluntary contract between two parties means nothing if it means a consumer has to then make a choice that she doesn’t like. I want an iPhone with Sprint, but I can’t get it. My response is to decide which has more value and act accordingly, not whine to the government.

More Consumers Union nonsense here and here.

Creating a Market in Coupons for Dead Technology

For those who can’t wait to have government take over health care and make it super fantastical and free, maybe another example will demonstrate the fallacy of this idea. The ongoing stupid party surrounding the subsidization of television as a right inherent in Congressional action protecting consumers from the forced national conversion to digital television continues with a new twist: Consumers have already demanded more $40 coupons than Congress authorized.

As of this past Sunday, consumers who request a $40 coupon to help offset the cost of a converter box are being placed on a waiting list. They may not receive the coupons before Feb. 17, when full-power television stations will shut off traditional analog broadcasts and transmit only digital signals.

Members of Congress are now scrambling to find ways to allocate more money to the program.

“We saw a massive spike in coupons in the past six weeks,” said Meredith Atwell Baker, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency within the Commerce Department that runs the coupon program. She said a record 7.2 million coupons were ordered in December, while the agency was expecting roughly 4 million requests. She urged consumers to make sure at least one television set is ready for the transition, with or without a coupon.

The government guessed incorrectly in its attempt to centrally plan the American television viewing method and failed to fund nearly half the unsurprising demand. When something is “free” (i.e. offered below market value), consumers will demand the service or good more than they would at the market price. Who knew? Yet, Congress is competent to predict exactly how many doctors we need? It can accurately predict how many maternity beds we need?

“[NTA has] left us precious little time to respond,” said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass), chairman of the House Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet. “They’ve created a mess by not admitting that there was not sufficient funding until the very last minute. So now we’re looking for creative ways of solving the problem.”

Perhaps if the market could respond to a signal as clear as rising demand, the price could rise to compensate for a finite supply. Nope. Just get in line and pray enough coupons expire. Or find more money for every critical demand, since every demand is critical. Somewhere.

It’s clear that Congress doesn’t understand the inevitable, arbitrary rationing that results when artificial demand intersects with finite supply. But health care will be different. Somehow.


Want to know why I’m not a big fan of consumer advocacy groups?

“NTIA is going to stop processing coupons precisely at the time when people need them the most,” said Joel Kelsey, policy analyst for Consumers Union. “Whatever Congress decides to do, it needs to be done as soon as possible to help people through this complicated transition,” he said.

When people need them most. Congress is throwing money around recklessly, with a potential $1,000,000,000,000 deficit for the fiscal year, and we’re discussing television as a need worthy of public subsidy. There is no way to advocate for that, unless the system is broken.

I’m sure I’m on the No Fly List now.

I had a post planned to mark today’s fifth anniversary of Rolling Doughnut. I tossed that idea after a bit of fun morning travel. An encounter at the airport, rather than boring platitudes about writing and obstacles, reminded me why I love what I’ve built here and why I will continue (despite recent appearances to the contrary). The ability to say when something is not right and what should be done to make it right matters, however small my reach. So.

I flew to Buffalo this morning. Everything was fine until I reached the security checkpoint at Dulles. A TSA employee approached me with a strange device strapped to his arm. Allow me to roughly quote our conversation:

TSA: We’re testing a new device that scans for liquid explosives. Do you mind if I scan your bag? It will only take about 20 seconds.

Me: Do I have a choice? Can I say no?

TSA: Yes.

Me: Then I’m saying no.

First things first. I worded my question with the same careful consideration TSA – all law enforcement, really – used to craft theirs. If they could search my bag just because, they would’ve demanded rather than asked. I’ve watched enough episodes of Cops to be wise to the game. Anyway, I already knew the answer to my question. But initially playing dumb makes sense because authority has a tendency to get mean after realizing it’s been out-smarted. Also, it’s more fun.

After I said “no”, the TSA employee walked away. I watched as he returned to the security desk rather than moving on to people behind me and began a conversation I could not hear. I knew what it was, though, because our national security-at-all-costs mindset is so predictable. I also saw what happened in front of me. I reached the front of the line and handed my boarding pass and ID to the next TSA employee. He eyed me a moment too long, then looked at my ID. He carried this on for several cycles, apparently trying to stare me into submission. Another TSA employee had also stepped in front of the line and held everything up. Crisis management with manufactured crisis.

The TSA employee with my boarding pass and ID handed them back. I stepped forward and another TSA employee, flanked by two more employees, motioned me aside from the other passengers and away from the metal detectors. The two extraneous individuals stood behind her, one looking over each shoulder. Our conversation:

TSA 1: Sir, is there a reason you refused the scan of your bags when we asked?

Me: Yes. I asked if I had a choice. He said yes. So I said no. I don’t see how that gives you a reason to pull me aside now.

TSA 2: You do understand why we do this?

Me: I have rights. I’m exercising them. Are we done?

TSA 1: Yes.

I proceeded through security with no more trouble, which was a nice surprise. Still, the TSA’s policy approach to security is clear. Submit. Don’t question. Stand up for your rights, or even mere logic, and we will make your life hell, even if it’s only in this inconvenience. You don’t want another 9/11, do you? But who feels better knowing that the full attention of at least seven TSA employees focused on one man exercising his rights? That’s nothing more than security theater.

It was an interesting way to celebrate Rolling Doughnut’s fifth anniversary and to remember why I’ll be here for another five and beyond.

Update: I just opened my checked bag. Everything had been searched thoroughly and haphazardly, or perhaps maliciously. My toiletries bag was unzipped, a pocket in my suitcase was unzipped, and the car charger case was unzipped. All three were zipped when I finished packing my suitcase this morning. And my clothes were stuffed back in.

Life Lesson of the Day

I thought everyone knew this by now, but microwave ovens and metal containers do not mix. I’ve known this for twenty-five years. I also have second-hand experience proving this. I witnessed a beef sandwich quickly appear as its flaming foil wrapper melted away one evening while working fast food as a teenager. Yet, there I stood today in my office pantry, smelling the remnants of some food item burning inside an aluminum foil bowl inside the microwave. The fun was over before I arrived, but I established a mental note in the front of my mind to always know my location with respect to the nearest fire exits in my building. It appears I will need them at some future date.

As you were.

At least the stock is up today.

The latest news in the proposed Sirius-XM merger is too similar to recent demands to be anything other than caving to someone’s rent-seeking, so only a quick summary is necessary:

FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, a Democrat, wants the companies to cap prices for six years and make one-quarter of their satellite capacity available for public interest and minority programming, among other conditions.

If the companies agree, Adelstein told the AP that he will support the deal.

Let’s ignore the death reality the merged company would face if it agrees to cap prices for six years and the government continues to contribute mightily to inflation. Why bother with concerns that expenses for the company could increase substantially in six years? Forget¹ that. And let’s also ignore how the influence is being peddled here to benefit Adelstein. It’s offensive, but I do not care more now than my already high libertarian frustration with our unnecessary, unwise regulatory scheme. Hopefully his vote won’t be necessary because two commissioners have already announced support, with a third, Deborah Taylor Tate, expected to support the merger. (She, like the commissioners who’ve decided to vote “Yes”, is a Republican.) Instead, I’m more cynically amused by Adelstein’s concern:

“It’s critical that if we’re going to allow a monopoly, that we put in adequate consumer protections and make sure they’re enforced,” Adelstein said.

The government dictated the existing market when it determined exactly two companies would offer satellite radio services. It is irrational to now complain about unacceptable market conditions. If we humor Adelstein’s fears, a duopoly is hardly better than a monopoly, yet years of experience have shown that satellite radio is not able to price itself as it pleases, or offer limited entertainment choices as a cost-saving measure. Customers began flocking to Sirius when Howard Stern joined the company. I suspect they will flee when he retires. The range of entertainment choices is too large. The executives of Sirius and XM know this, so they seek to stay competitive with a merger. The members of Congress and the FCC are the only people under the delusion that the merged company will gain monopoly power.

Adelstein has an interesting, if unsurprising, solution:

Adelstein also wants to set up an enforcement regime to make sure the companies adhere to the conditions, something that was not outlined in the previous voluntary offer.

So it’s not okay for a merged Sirius-XM to have (the perception of) monopoly power, but it’s necessary for a new regime to have monopoly power to enforce the FCC’s limitations. A government enforcement regime would be benevolent in ways that Sirius-XM would be inherently incapable of acting. Obviously. Would a central planner mislead you?

When the companies announced their proposed merger in February 2007, I’d hoped they could complete the merger in time for me to receive part of the 2008 baseball season on Sirius. I’m now doubting I’ll experience any of the 2009 season on Sirius. I will not thank the FCC for its awful effort at looking after my interests as a consumer.

¹ <cynicism>Obama won’t let that happen!</cynicism>

They speculate that you’ll buy.

Those evil capitalists, looking to screw customers at every opportunity!

Car buyers trying to cut gas costs face a tough choice regarding hybrids: Buy now, or wait for a more capable and potentially cheaper next-generation car?

But automakers also are pushing hard to build more capability at less cost into their next generation of hybrids.

CEO Takeo Fukui said last month in Japan that Honda wants to cut 33%, or about $900, out of the extra cost of a Civic hybrid over the conventional model, so “customers can choose hybrid purely for economical merits.”

Carmakers have a product in hot demand, given the current price of gasoline. How do they respond to increased demand? By trying to reduce the price. The bastards! At least we can enjoy the feeling of intellectual superiority in knowing that capitalism is evil because we all know a car today is hardly any better than twenty-five years ago. Ha! Gotcha, Honda.

It shocks his conscience (that he might not get more donations).

With the news that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin would support the proposed Sirius-XM merger after achieving “voluntary” “concessions”, a merger (without the extorted concessions) I’ve loooooooong supported, I should’ve known some further rent-seeking would interfere. It’s just too obvious for politicians to bypass the blood in the water when the companies are willing to cut themselves. And so it was yesterday:

Senior members of the Congressional Black Caucus yesterday criticized a compromise plan for the proposed merger of the XM and Sirius satellite radio companies, saying the deal does not provide enough opportunities for minority-owned programming.

The companies already agreed to lease 4% of their channels. Central planning now should surprise no one since the FCC created this mess by stipulating from the beginning that exactly two companies would be involved in the satellite radio business. Hubris is a bizarre flaw inherent in central planners. Still, this new extortion extension of the sleaze is amazing. I can think of no recent examples quite as bold and shameless.

[North Carolina Democrat Rep. G.K.] Butterfield said he got the idea for the 20 percent set-aside for minority-owned companies from Georgetown Partners, a minority-run private-equity firm based in Bethesda, and its managing director, Chester Davenport.

The firm, which has invested in wireless and media companies, objected last year to the merger, arguing that a monopoly could limit opportunities for minority programming.

Georgetown Partners isn’t claiming that it expects to receive that 20 percent. (Nor does it suggest terms that will inevitably be dictated rather than negotiated.) And I’m sure its political donations to certain Democratic congressmen is entirely coincidental.

Delving further into the role of mafioso as public servant, this:

“It’s shocking to the conscience in this day and age, where “the minority populations” comprise a significant part of the satellite radio audience, that Mr. Martin would settle for what I deem to be crumbs that have fallen off the table,” [Maryland Democrat Rep. Elijah] Cummings said. “We can do much better. I am hoping that this can be revisited.”

If “the minority populations” are listening, it’s incomprehensible to think that Sirius and XM are not already serving this market in a manner that the market deems acceptable enough to pay $13-plus-taxes each month. It’s also incomprehensible to imagine that “the minority population” does not already own a portion of the satellite radio market. I am neither a minority nor a woman, but I imagine that many individuals who qualify for one or both of those distinctions own stock in Sirius and/or XM, just as I do. Amazing as it is, no one is restricted from being financially involved. With Sirius’ stock price, each 100-share block is under $300. The Free Money Congress is mailing could buy nearly 250 shares.

As I suggested above, it’s also possible for anyone, minority or not, to approach Sirius and/or XM about creating programming aimed at segments of the market. I’m speculating, but I doubt executives at either company would refuse to consider such new ideas. Not that they’re actually new.

This is just another example of the inevitable embrace of ego, greed, and power become the only reason for regulation. Protecting consumers is the ruse. Whether regulatory actions benefit consumers is irrelevant to the regulators. Cummings demonstrates this with his contradiction that “the minority populations” demand minority-owned channels, even though they’re already listening to satellite radio and have yet to advocate for divesting of some assets to (other) minority-owned companies at shareholder meetings.

A MINI is more fun to drive.

At one point I considered buying a Prius. I even put down a (refundable) deposit to reserve a soon-to-arrive car. Then I did some research while I waited and came to this realization stated concisely by Reihan Salam:

Consider the eco-conscious automobile par excellence, the Toyota Prius. As it turns out, manufacturing the Prius’s battery is extraordinarily carbon-intensive. Paying off this carbon debt through fuel savings will take 46,000 miles, according to Wired. Only after 100,000 miles would the Prius catch up with carbon savings offered by a ten-year-old Toyota Tercel. And the Prius would never catch up with a 1994 Geo Metro XFi.

I’ve driven approximately 80,000 miles since the beginning of 1999. I’m on my third car. Knowing my driving and buying pattern, the Prius makes no sense from a “green” perspective.

I wasn’t primarily trying to go green. I wanted the excellent MPG. The numerous (anecdotal) reports of much-lower-than-advertised MPG results convinced me that the extra cost was not worth the risk.

Link via Andrew Sullivan.

UPDATE: This reader dissent to Andrew Sullivan’s original post makes useful points. In my case, only the “46,000 miles” argument was relevant since I bought a new MINI instead of a ten-year-old Tercel. It’s also possible that I didn’t take a long-enough view into the future. Fair points.

I still love my MINI more than I ever would’ve loved a Prius.

“I don’t look at your bum, bum-looker! Cheeky monkey!”

Via Boing Boing, speed cameras in England are clearly not automated or tied to any sort of radar. Rather, the only conclusion is that someone receives a paycheck to observe every moment the camera captures. How else would it capture – much less alert authorities – a passenger in a car traveling within the speed limit mooning the camera? (mildly NSFW link)

Police may take action against the man for public order offences and not wearing a seat belt.

The police lineup should be interesting.

Jeremy Forsberg, of the Northumbria Safer Roads Initiative, said: “This behaviour is simply ridiculous – it’s clear what he was thinking with what he had on show.

“Not only is it disrespectful, but distasteful and offensive, particularly to children who may have been exposed to this nonsense.

Of course the behavior is ridiculous. And as a driver, I’m sure it would’ve been distracting. But it takes a special kind of “liberty-minded” authoritarian mentality to express moral outrage at such an action by releasing a photo for broadcast all over the world – where our fragile children will see the offensive image – because children may have been exposed to the man’s bum. They’re certainly exposed now, genius. Although I suppose the government censor the BBC. For the children.

Post Script: Obvious title reference here.