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[P]
Ratchet

By skyknight in Op-Ed
Tue Feb 22, 2005 at 09:21:49 PM EST
Tags: Freedom (all tags)
Freedom

ratchet

  • n : mechanical device consisting of a toothed wheel or rack engaged with a pawl that permits it to move in only one direction
  • v : move by degrees in one direction only


Humans are ever about the task of bettering their condition. It is the natural pursuit of all organisms. Unfortunately, a limited event horizon often leads us down a suboptimal path. We may be optimizing our utility over the depth of possibilities that we are considering, but by failing to look far enough ahead we are often painting ourselves into a corner, ratcheting things ever upward, setting the stage for increasing discomfort.

The crux of this issue is our proclivity toward band-aid fixes. In the short term it is far easier to effect a simple solution that keeps things reasonably comfortable than it is to fix something for the long haul. We fall into this trap for two reasons. First, we greatly overestimate our ability to fix problems in the future. Second, we underestimate how troublesome things may get as a result of our shortsightedness. As such, we often favor putting the brakes on a crisis instead of properly averting it. As the US Declaration of Independence so aptly states, "all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed".

If you don't think that people suffer from such planning related delusions, consider for a moment the credit card debt load in the US as an exemplar. According to American Consumer Credit Counseling, the total U.S. credit card debt in the first quarter of 2002 was approximately $600B, with an average interest rate of 18.9%. It is further estimated that half of credit card holders pay only the minimum required amount each month, that the typical card holder is carrying ~$8,500 in debt, that total finances charges paid totaled $50B in 2001, and that 1.3 million card holders declared bankruptcy in 2003. This is quite troublesome given that the median family income in the US is on the order of $50,000. People are either hopelessly convinced that things will be immeasurably better tomorrow, or just can't be bothered thinking of it. With every purchase they gain some momentary comfort, but in doing so crank the ratchet up one more notch.

Consider also the US income tax code. How big must such a thing be in order to be fair and effective? 7.5 million words should about cover it, right? In any case, that is its present length, approximately ten times the volume of the Christian Bible, and it is a rare person who can read that in its entirety. So, how did we get here, a state in which only the rich who can afford accountants and tax lawyers are capable of navigating it with reasonable success? Succinctly, it stems from the fact that taxation on income is a fundamentally flawed method for governmental generation of revenue, and yet the US has categorically refused to address this fact, instead relying on patch after patch over the course of decades, culminating in the hopelessly snarled mess of today. Yes, transitioning to a new system of taxation will be painful, but how much more painful must income taxation be before people are willing to make the jump? How much more unsufferable must the evils become?

Another apt example of our propensity for taking the path of least resistance no matter how terrible the ultimate consequences may be is represented in the economics of software, or more generally information technology. There are huge gains to be had as the result of monopolies in this field, both in economy of scale and interoperability, but is it worth it in the long run? Microsoft, for example, presently possesses an overwhelming majority of the share of desktop operating system and application deployment. The phenomenon is self-perpetuating; the more people who use the software, the greater the impetus for others to adopt so as to gain the interoperability and user base familiarity advantages, and their "defection" further drives the transition of the remaining hold-outs. As such, it is no small wonder that Microsoft holds such sway. Yes, they do make some excellent products, but how much of their success at this point is driven not by superior ideas and innovation but rather barrier to entry? It doesn't have to be this way, but most people lack the foresight to see where this is headed, and thus the ratchet continues its inexorable procession. We could make a drive for standardization of the operation of the core business applications that everyone uses, thus fostering their commoditization, but that seems like a far off utopia more than anything else.

As a final example, consider the emergent organizational structures of our society. The government seems to be growing without bound in power, scope and taxation level. Corporations are relentlessly gobbling up smaller rivals and merging with their equals to create ever larger mega-corporations. In fact, these two phenomena are intimately related. The greater the power of corporations, the greater the perceived need for government to gather power to control them. Veritable mountains of legislation are shoveled upon businesses. This has the tragic result that only the largest of businesses, the ones who can afford high-powered legal departments, can navigate the red tape. Consequently, small businesses find it increasingly difficult to operate, both from the crushing burden of legislation and from the hopeless barriers of entry to markets erected by gargantuan corporations. As small businesses are squeezed out or killed in the cradle of a would be entrepreneur's mind's eye, large businesses consolidate their hold, increasing the perception that they must be further regulated so as to rein in their power, and thus the vicious, autocatalytic cycle continues, spiraling evermore out of control.

What then can we humans do? Perhaps, tragically, the answer is "nothing". It may forever be our curse to suffer various tolerably intolerable systems, the inevitable constructs that arise from the essence of our being. Really, though, it's not all that bad. Or maybe it is worse. Perhaps the adage that it often must get worse before it can better has rung true through the ages. Thomas Jefferson famously quipped that "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants", but really there is a much more general lesson to be learned.

It would seem that destruction, in the proper doses and at the proper junctures, is precisely the grease that keeps the world turning and moving in the right general direction. Many forest ecosystems require the occasional fire to clean out underbrush and maintain biological diversity. In science, theory often can only progress with the death of theoreticians. So, too, is it with civilization and cultural progress. The world is better for Rome having existed, and it is better still that it is gone. While Rome did many terrible things, it also did some great things, and furthermore created a wealth of knowledge from which future civilizations could draw whilst hammering out their own destinies. Centuries worth of British civilization influenced the direction of America, and presumably a couple of thousands years from now people will speak of America and England as people today speak of Rome.

We cannot change how ratchets work, but by being cognizant of their presence we can build a better world over time. Of course, that may be of little consolation to the Carthaginians.

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Display: Sort:
Ratchet | 146 comments (73 topical, 73 editorial, 0 hidden)
i'm not sure (none / 1) (#3)
by wampswillion on Sun Feb 20, 2005 at 03:10:56 PM EST

about your posit that humans are ever about improving their own condition.  i think actually the whole rest of your article is about that they aren't truly about that at all.  

i can see it both ways.  one in that they are always trying to make things comfortable as possible for themselves with the least amount of effort and movement.  but two, in that they are really only just putting on bandaids which doesn't really improve their condition at all.

and when i typed that it made me think of kenny rogers "i just dropped in to see what condition your condition was in...."  

anyway, i never vote on here, but if i did, i'd vote to keep the article.  

Well, the point I was trying to make... (3.00 / 3) (#6)
by skyknight on Sun Feb 20, 2005 at 03:38:12 PM EST

is that they go about improving their conditions, but operate under an overly short-sighted heuristic. They make things better for tomorrow by mortgaging next week.

It's not much fun at the top. I envy the common people, their hearty meals and Bruce Springsteen and voting. --SIGNOR SPAGHETTI
[ Parent ]
that i agree with (none / 0) (#9)
by wampswillion on Sun Feb 20, 2005 at 03:48:50 PM EST

they are very pain-averse.

[ Parent ]
And that pain aversion... (none / 1) (#10)
by skyknight on Sun Feb 20, 2005 at 03:52:00 PM EST

typically fails to take into account that things could be a lot better down the road if only they would accept a little more pain and forbearance now. That was a major theme in my article.

It's not much fun at the top. I envy the common people, their hearty meals and Bruce Springsteen and voting. --SIGNOR SPAGHETTI
[ Parent ]
so how do you (none / 0) (#13)
by wampswillion on Sun Feb 20, 2005 at 04:14:57 PM EST

go about getting people to accept pain?

[ Parent ]
How do you... (none / 0) (#15)
by skyknight on Sun Feb 20, 2005 at 04:17:47 PM EST

go about getting people to have unpleasant surgery for life threatening conditions?

It's not much fun at the top. I envy the common people, their hearty meals and Bruce Springsteen and voting. --SIGNOR SPAGHETTI
[ Parent ]
i tell them (none / 0) (#17)
by wampswillion on Sun Feb 20, 2005 at 04:32:04 PM EST

they are going to die without it?

[ Parent ]
Don't just tell them (3.00 / 2) (#81)
by Sgt York on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 02:22:36 PM EST

The trick is to make them believe (truly understand) that they are going to die without it.

If I were to tell you right now that you are going to die if you don't have emergency open heart surgery, you probably wouldn't even respond. However, if you went to your doc this afternoon and he told you the same thing, you'd be calling a surgeon.

There is a reason for everything. Sometimes, that reason just sucks.
[ Parent ]

nah (none / 0) (#92)
by wampswillion on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 04:46:55 PM EST

quite truthfully, i'd just let it happen. i'd have no surgery.

[ Parent ]
youch (none / 0) (#93)
by Sgt York on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 04:49:20 PM EST

OK, hypothetically, then.

There is a reason for everything. Sometimes, that reason just sucks.
[ Parent ]

so what you are saying (none / 1) (#94)
by wampswillion on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 04:59:51 PM EST

is that you'd have to find people that are credible to the public to make them believe this. (that they are going to die without it.) gee, perhaps if we had brittany spears and brad pitt to tell them.

[ Parent ]
Yeah (none / 0) (#95)
by Sgt York on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 05:15:28 PM EST

But if those two started spouting it off, then I wouldn't beleive it was really happening.

But apparently, neither will the rest of the nation/world. How many celebrities have taken on some Green issue? People still don't give a damn about the environment.

The trick is to get people to really belive it is in their best interest to act a certain way. you can't just tell them to, and a credible source doesn't always work, either (your case, for instance).

To continue the analogy, I'd have to give you some reason that it would be in your best interest, that you would be happiest/richest/have good sex/good scotch if you have the surgery.

There is a reason for everything. Sometimes, that reason just sucks.
[ Parent ]

well but i don't trust you (none / 0) (#96)
by wampswillion on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 06:00:37 PM EST

yeah, i was just making a joke about how people take celebrities seriously over anyone else (like the dixie chix and their EXTREME knowledge of politics and all)  
but...
so how you gonna get me to believe that there's going to be goodscotchandgoodsex? (and that's really all you'd have to convince me of, i don't care much about the other stuff.)

i still think the issue is trust.  
i don't believe anything anyone says anymore.  
hell, the sky is always falling according to someone.  

[ Parent ]

*waves bottle of 12 year old single malt* (none / 0) (#97)
by Sgt York on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 06:13:19 PM EST

Can't help ya on the sex part, though.

There is a reason for everything. Sometimes, that reason just sucks.
[ Parent ]

liquor with out the sex? (none / 0) (#101)
by wampswillion on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 08:00:09 PM EST

geez. i mean sex without the liquor- sure. but the inverse? forget it.

[ Parent ]
But (none / 0) (#118)
by Sgt York on Tue Feb 22, 2005 at 12:16:48 PM EST

communistpoet offered you the sex, kinda. In his own way.

I doubt it would be very good from your perspective, but if you drink the scotch, you probably won't care.

There is a reason for everything. Sometimes, that reason just sucks.
[ Parent ]

well but communist poet (none / 0) (#126)
by wampswillion on Tue Feb 22, 2005 at 05:44:11 PM EST

has done nothing so far to convince me that it would be good sex.

[ Parent ]
You can believe me (none / 0) (#98)
by communistpoet on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 06:13:48 PM EST

when I say I want to cum on your face. BELIEVE IT!

We must become better men to make a better world.
[ Parent ]
your charm (none / 0) (#102)
by wampswillion on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 08:00:42 PM EST

escapes me.

[ Parent ]
So you think I'm charming? (none / 0) (#124)
by communistpoet on Tue Feb 22, 2005 at 04:14:49 PM EST

do you?
  1. find me charming but don't know why.
  2. don't find me charming at all, at best annoying.
Remember I made you laugh more than once. So I'm definately onto you. Apparently all I need to do is respond to somthing you say with somthing witty, and you laugh. A year from now, you will become my love slave, you may not believe it now, but in time you will grow more and more attracted to my brilliant personality.

We must become better men to make a better world.
[ Parent ]
high apple pie (none / 0) (#125)
by wampswillion on Tue Feb 22, 2005 at 05:41:18 PM EST

in the skyyyyyy hopes.

[ Parent ]
I would be very impressed (1.75 / 4) (#32)
by Kasreyn on Sun Feb 20, 2005 at 06:20:39 PM EST

if you weren't skynight, and if you hadn't used "t'would", which is really kind of a giveaway that you're talking out of the corner of your mouth.

-1, probably a troll, and in any case, you don't provide any realistic solutions aside from vague rambling references to Jefferson and forest fires. Yawn.

In science, theory often can only progress with the death of theoreticians.

Yeah, and then occasionally in the middle of a battle some assfuck burns down the Library of Alexandria. Might want to keep your forest fires away from the books, there, Paine.


"Extenuating circumstance to be mentioned on Judgement Day:
We never asked to be born in the first place."

R.I.P. Kurt. You will be missed.
T'is an odd comment... (none / 0) (#34)
by skyknight on Sun Feb 20, 2005 at 06:33:42 PM EST

I removed the "T'would", seeing as you found it so irksome. I'm not sure what you have against this skynight fellow, someone who I am not. In fact, I am skyknight. I am not talking out of the corner of my mouth, and I am not trolling. I wrote this piece with the utmost sincerity. I'm sorry if you don't believe me. It resulted quite at random from a thread that started here on a rather unrelated topic. In any case, why in particular does my having written it, as opposed to someone else, cast it in such a negative light? Have I really gotten such a bad reputation around here? I didn't even know that I had a reputation. Why the hate?

It's not much fun at the top. I envy the common people, their hearty meals and Bruce Springsteen and voting. --SIGNOR SPAGHETTI
[ Parent ]
dude (none / 1) (#40)
by trane on Sun Feb 20, 2005 at 07:14:06 PM EST

stop trying to impress ww. u can do better! may i interest you in an ai-enabled realdoll?

[ Parent ]
damn you should have rolled with it (none / 0) (#43)
by Hana Yori Dango on Sun Feb 20, 2005 at 09:25:24 PM EST

I thought for sure this shit must have been written by some imposter, because anyone with so much k5 time under their belt as you would never have expected this shit to pass vote... of course now you've gone and ruined things...

[ Parent ]
Eat your liver. (none / 0) (#44)
by skyknight on Sun Feb 20, 2005 at 10:00:57 PM EST

I don't owe you anything.

It's not much fun at the top. I envy the common people, their hearty meals and Bruce Springsteen and voting. --SIGNOR SPAGHETTI
[ Parent ]
so thats true... (none / 0) (#51)
by Hana Yori Dango on Sun Feb 20, 2005 at 11:50:01 PM EST

so what's your point? Nobody here on k5 owes anyone anything... unless you're just trying to hurt my feelings. Shame on you!

[ Parent ]
Decently Written, but... (3.00 / 5) (#52)
by brain in a jar on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 05:18:49 AM EST

I disagree with you on a few points.

There have been a lot of comments on this complaining about comma usage or flowery language, but personally I found this an easy and fluid piece to read.

Perhaps some of the commenters are just expressing a preference for a minimalist writing style, but I think in many cases there is a whiff of anti-intellectualism there. The suggestion that people only use words that are not in everyday usage to impress others, rather than because they express the authors intentions more precisely.

On the idea of the ratchet, there is also the related idea of the law of unintended consequences. There are plenty of examples of this and the ones I am most familiar with relate to the environment. For example polychlorinated biphenyls(PCBs) were widely used in electricity transformers because of their stability and desirable physical properties. Only much later was it realised that they are toxic, and very persistent in the environment and that they accumulate along food chains.

Or the other classic example is the introduction of the Cane Toad to Australia to control agricultural pests. The problem being that the toad, with its poisnous skin has no natural enemies in Australia, its numbers have boomed and several native species have been driven to local extinction as a result of being poisoned after eating cane toads.

Finally, I don't think income tax is necessarily a bad system. I think there are plenty of countries which have income tax systems that work. The problem with the US system is that it has been from the start deliberately filled with loopholes. Some of these are subsequently patched and these patches are then circumvented and so it continues to increase in complexity and decline in effectiveness. The tax code needs simplification, there should be a minimal number of things which can be deducted, and if this would cause too much money to be reaped by the government as tax, then the tax rate can be adjusted accordingly.

A wealth tax might be a good idea. As this page points out, the distribution of wealth is much more uneven than the distribution of income. A good start would be undoing some of the changes Bush has made to the tax code which disproportionately benefit those with inherited fortunes. Death duty exists for a reason, and should perhaps be strengthened. It helps to reduce the power of "old money" and helps to make the myth of the meritocracy a little more true. Capital gains tax is also a tax which disproportionately effect the rich, and it also has an important role in reducing the stratification of society and preventing stagnation.

These measures are needed as the gap between rich and poor in the US is now wider than at any time since the Gilded Age. The last US election should have been a wake up call, both candidates were rich with old money, if this happened anywhere else people would be worried about the quality of the democracy on offer.

Finally, so called "green taxes" are valuable tools. Taxes on emissions e.g. a carbon tax not only raise income and reduce the amount of a pollutant emitted, but they also allow the government to abolish or reduce the level taxes which distort the economy. It can be shown that whereas most taxes reduce the efficiency of the economy by introducing distortions, green taxes correct for the presence of externalities and thus can increase the efficiency of the economy while raising revenue.


Life is too important, to be taken entirely seriously.

It's a fine line to walk. (3.00 / 4) (#55)
by skyknight on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 07:10:57 AM EST

In fact, I thought that this piece read pretty fluidly too, though I admit that sometimes I can tend toward the verbose. In this case, though, it did feel like some of the comments were petty and vicious, indicative of a degree of anti-intellectualism. I find the comment that complains of having to use a dictionary four times during the course of reading to be somewhat disappointing. I don't think that any of the words I used were overly arcane. Oh well... I think that one must simply except that a certain fraction of one's readers are going to react thusly and deal with it. Of course, "dealing with it" may mean having your article voted down if the distribution of people is unfortunate and the piece posting is contingent on a democratic vote.

Regarding pollution and its hidden costs, I have certainly thought about it quite a bit. It's a very sticky problem. Costs are being externalized, and a proper accounting is a very difficult goal. What constitutes a proper tax on emissions is not an easy thing to determine. When you've got people deliberately building smokestacks extra-tall so as to have the pollution carried away as far as possible, observing cause and effect proves nearly insurmountable.

As I mention in another comment, I like the idea of a wealth tax philosophically, as your wealth represents your stake in a nation and thus your interest in seeing it defended and maintained, but I think that assets are as troublesome to define as income. I like the idea of a consumption tax of sorts, with allowances for basic necessities to avoid regressiveness. I think the main goals in taxation should be simplicity, well-defined targets of taxation, and a single endpoint. Wealth tax fails it on the second point. A consumption tax might be tenable on all three grounds, though I worry that in attempting to avoid regressiveness that we'll be introducing the possibility for gaming the system. I could see various industries lobbying to have their goods classified as necessities, and getting opponents competing product classes classified as luxuries. I think that we are more or less doomed to having a tax system that sucks, but we need to pick the one that sucks the least. It's sort of like picking a form of government. As Winston Churchill noted, "democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried".

I think the issue of green taxes is a very tricky one. It is important for people to bear the full costs of their actions, and in the case of national policy green taxes can serve that end, but we live in a world filled with competing nations, nations who seldom agree on very much, and certainly not on issues of environmentalism. How do you get businesses to accept having their competitiveness undercut by foreign nations that are not bound by emissions taxes?



It's not much fun at the top. I envy the common people, their hearty meals and Bruce Springsteen and voting. --SIGNOR SPAGHETTI
[ Parent ]
Green taxes (none / 0) (#57)
by brain in a jar on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 07:24:27 AM EST

are at their most difficult when they deal with global pollutants with hard-to-quantify impacts. Carbon dioxide being the perfect example.

In this case the temptation for nations to hitch a free ride and rely on others cutting their emissions is very strong indeed. This is one of the reasons why as much as it is needed a global carbon tax will be a long time coming.

Conversely, regional pollutants such as sulfur dioxide (which causes acid rain) have been the subject of highly succesfuly green tax schemes. I include tradable permit systems (like the US one) and other economic measures under the umbrella of green taxes.

I think there is still a lot of potential for improvements in society through new green taxes. The landfill tax in the UK is already acting as an incentive to improve recycling rates, and a tax on disposable plastic shopping bags in Ireland has also been very successful in reducing waste and litter.


Life is too important, to be taken entirely seriously.
[ Parent ]

It would seem... (none / 0) (#59)
by skyknight on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 07:33:27 AM EST

that people who are starving don't care about pollution, and there are always going to be people who are starving, and consequently there will always be people polluting. As such, there will always be people undercutting any kind of economy where prudence is exercised regarding pollution, at least in the global arena.

I'm somewhat suspicious of tradable credit systems, though perhaps I don't know enough about them to proffer a fair assessment. I just know that they put me in mind of the "Rearden metal credits" from Atlas Shrugged in which industries were entitled to their "fair share" of that resource, somewhat irrespective of their actual need for it, and thus were given a sort of handout in that these entitlements were transferable and very valuable. Perhaps that is a very contrived example, and I should not admit to reading Rand on K5, but I think it is at least an issue worth considering when implementing such systems.



It's not much fun at the top. I envy the common people, their hearty meals and Bruce Springsteen and voting. --SIGNOR SPAGHETTI
[ Parent ]
again (none / 0) (#63)
by army of phred on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 08:16:20 AM EST

it seems the objection is about your priorities, in other words you debate the color and texture of turds while neglecting to consider why the turds are in your bed to begin with.

"Republicans are evil." lildebbie
"I have no fucking clue what I'm talking about." motormachinemercenary
"my wife is getting a blowjob" ghostoft1ber
[ Parent ]
The point about tradable permits (none / 1) (#69)
by brain in a jar on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 10:04:15 AM EST

Is that they achieve a given level of abatement (pollution reduction) at minimal cost to the economy.

Essentially you decide how much pollution you are prepared to put up with and then issue that number of credits and then allow them to be traded. Companies which can reduce their pollution relatively cheaply do so, thus freeing up emissions credits which they can then sell to other companies who for whatever reason find it more difficult to reduce their emissions.

As you say the problem is always who has the permits at the start of the scheme. The solution you go for largely depends on your views on property rights. If you believe that society collectively owns the environment then it is natural that companies have to pay for emissions credits at the start of the scheme, buying them off the government in what is effectively a windfall tax on the industries effected. If however you believe that the industry has a right to pollute which they are being made to forfeit then the government can issue credits equal to the present level of emissions and then buy some back at the market price to produce an emissions cut.

It is even possible for third parties to club together and buy emissions credits and then not use them, thus causing further reductions.

Credits are really not all that different to taxing pollution directly. With the tax you adjust the tax rate until the desired level of abatement occurs. With the permits you decide on the desired level of abatement (ie. how many permits to issue) and this determines the market price of the tradable permits.

Blueprint for a Green economy is a well written and reasonably readable introduction to environmental economics if you want the nitty gritty.


Life is too important, to be taken entirely seriously.
[ Parent ]

Credits as a property right (none / 1) (#121)
by pyro9 on Tue Feb 22, 2005 at 01:56:53 PM EST

As you say the problem is always who has the permits at the start of the scheme. The solution you go for largely depends on your views on property rights. If you believe that society collectively owns the environment then it is natural that companies have to pay for emissions credits at the start of the scheme, buying them off the government in what is effectively a windfall tax on the industries effected. If however you believe that the industry has a right to pollute which they are being made to forfeit then the government can issue credits equal to the present level of emissions and then buy some back at the market price to produce an emissions cut.

Really, it seems to me that the environment is a commons collectively owned by individuals. Perhaps the best bet is to issue the credits to individual citizens to be held, bought, or sold as appropriate. The number of credits issuable each year should be based to the best of our knowledge on the biosphere's ability to act as a sink for the pollutants.

As I implied above, I believe such credits should be on absolute amounts rather than on rates of pollution.

In practice, it may be necessary for government to act as a default custodian of individuals' credits, but for best effect a citizen's absolute right to administer their credits themselves or to designate another custodian must be recognized. Where government does act as custodian, the proceeds must be applied against any taxes due.

While some will certainly argue that this is just some sort of 'liberal wealth redistribution scheme' I believe that in every case an equal and opposite argument can be made that it is a conservative respect for individual property rights that have too long been subject to widespread thievery.

The idea is by no means fully formed, discussion is welcome.


The future isn't what it used to be
[ Parent ]
I've been thinking along these lines (none / 0) (#146)
by masse on Sun Mar 13, 2005 at 10:49:13 AM EST

and I think that the credits could actually be the base for monetary value. money would enter the economy as it is issued periodically and equally to all citicens and exits the economy as it is used to buy resources or emission rights. that way, the money value would be attached to real value, something like in the old days when it was attached to gold. I don't think there would be much inflation in this scheme; actually, when productivity increases there would probably be deflation as you get more commodities for less resources (i.e. less money in the end).

and if you don't want to participate in the economy, you just use your credits to buy a piece of land and live there, farming your own food and stuff. there's your individual property rights! the point is: it would be your own choice to use the resources individually or collectively.

-- Be yourself. There are already so many others.
[ Parent ]

This is precisely the problem (none / 0) (#85)
by trane on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 03:25:55 PM EST

with adopting such a prescriptive approach to grammar and spelling, as you do:

"I think that one must simply except that a certain fraction of one's readers"

Live by the sword, die by the sword...

[ Parent ]

Ha. I Fail It. /nt (none / 0) (#87)
by skyknight on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 03:26:52 PM EST



It's not much fun at the top. I envy the common people, their hearty meals and Bruce Springsteen and voting. --SIGNOR SPAGHETTI
[ Parent ]
I'm going to vote this up (none / 0) (#90)
by trane on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 03:37:38 PM EST

because you changed the t'would. and i almost sort of generally agree with your point, though i probably have more hope than you seem to.

[ Parent ]
You seem pained... (none / 0) (#105)
by skyknight on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 08:53:28 PM EST

to admit in public that you might vaguely agree with me on something. :-) I'm not all that pessimistic. I think that there's a lot of good stuff happening in the world. I'm just trying to rationalize the frustrating stuff so it doesn't get me down.

It's not much fun at the top. I envy the common people, their hearty meals and Bruce Springsteen and voting. --SIGNOR SPAGHETTI
[ Parent ]
Speaking personally (none / 1) (#88)
by trane on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 03:33:18 PM EST

"I think in many cases there is a whiff of anti-intellectualism there. The suggestion that people only use words that are not in everyday usage to impress others, rather than because they express the authors intentions more precisely."

I ain't anti-intellectual. It's the honesty of the voice that concerns me. As I said elsewhere in these comments, Tolkien's archaisms in Lord of the Rings are tolerable because he's aiming for a certain effect, and he writes with what seems like a fairly honest tone of voice, appropriate to his subject matter. Skyknight on the other hand, to my ears, sounds as if he's using archaisms partly because he expects people not to understand it, so he can feel superior due to the vast amounts of reading he's done. (I do not get the sense that he's using them simply because they express his intentions most precisely.) I bet I've done more reading in the classics than he has, but I don't feel the need to write with that tone. Anymore...

[ Parent ]

Superb (none / 0) (#65)
by shambles on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 09:51:13 AM EST

One of the best written things I've seen on this site. Concise and thought provoking. Not that I agree with most of it

People are more important than Truth - Edgar Malroy
Thanks. (none / 0) (#67)
by skyknight on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 09:55:48 AM EST

What in particular has caused you to shake your head and say "no, that's not quite right" with regard to the arguments that it makes?

It's not much fun at the top. I envy the common people, their hearty meals and Bruce Springsteen and voting. --SIGNOR SPAGHETTI
[ Parent ]
I think you need to rethink the issue of (none / 1) (#74)
by Battle Troll on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 12:42:10 PM EST

What constitutes rationally calculating one's utility.

FWIW, I agree with rmg about the futility of speaking for humankind as a whole. Any statement more specific than 'all men are men' is problematic.
--
Skarphedinn was carrying the axe with which he had killed Thrainn Sigfusson and which he called 'Battle Troll.'
Njal's Saga, ca 1280 AD

Actually... (none / 0) (#75)
by skyknight on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 12:44:49 PM EST

You will not that I did not accuse anyone of irrationality. I am extremely conservative in my use of that word. People can do things that are incredibly stupid, as far as I am concerned, but still be acting in an entirely rational fashion. They may just have assigned really stupid values to probability and utility vectors, and perhaps have a poor conception of what is an appropriate level of risk.

It's not much fun at the top. I envy the common people, their hearty meals and Bruce Springsteen and voting. --SIGNOR SPAGHETTI
[ Parent ]
s/not/note/; /nt (none / 0) (#76)
by skyknight on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 12:45:19 PM EST



It's not much fun at the top. I envy the common people, their hearty meals and Bruce Springsteen and voting. --SIGNOR SPAGHETTI
[ Parent ]
either way (none / 0) (#78)
by Battle Troll on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 01:42:16 PM EST

I don't think my criticism succeeds or fails on the use of the word 'rational;' intelligent (with 'stupid' as antonym) works just as well.
--
Skarphedinn was carrying the axe with which he had killed Thrainn Sigfusson and which he called 'Battle Troll.'
Njal's Saga, ca 1280 AD
[ Parent ]
So in that case... (none / 0) (#141)
by skyknight on Wed Feb 23, 2005 at 04:15:23 PM EST

shall we just stick to "all men are men" to avoid the risk of falsehood? That could get rather boring, and in the age of sex change operations even that might not be entirely true.

It's not much fun at the top. I envy the common people, their hearty meals and Bruce Springsteen and voting. --SIGNOR SPAGHETTI
[ Parent ]
Excellent article (3.00 / 2) (#82)
by pHatidic on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 03:18:16 PM EST

The only thing I disagree with is the Microsoft example. I switched from XP back to Apple a little over a year ago, and I have yet to find a single thing that I can't do on Apple that I could on PC. I know there are some very specific applications like CAD, but 99.9% of people never use those and if they did then I'm sure it could be easily ported.

What keeps people from switching is not that there is incompatibility, as you suggest, but rather because there is a perceived incompatability. This is more because people are stupid than because Microsoft has more marketshare, and as they say you can't legislate stupidity.

I think your ideas are very good though.

Thanks... (2.33 / 3) (#84)
by skyknight on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 03:23:35 PM EST

About Microsoft... I think two of the issues are IE and Outlook. Some companies will have enterprise web apps that required IE to be rendered properly. Others still will organize meetings with Outlook and an Exchange server. This complicates things if you want to run Linux, and I presume Mac as well.

It's not much fun at the top. I envy the common people, their hearty meals and Bruce Springsteen and voting. --SIGNOR SPAGHETTI
[ Parent ]
Exchange server (none / 0) (#134)
by Alannon on Wed Feb 23, 2005 at 07:39:24 AM EST

I do contract work for a large organization.  While I'm not a part of their exchange system, one of the folks I work with is one of the only Mac users in the org.  He uses MS Entourage for his Exchange needs.  It's included with MS Office for the Mac.  It's not perfect, but it serves his needs.

[ Parent ]
But... (none / 0) (#135)
by skyknight on Wed Feb 23, 2005 at 07:42:22 AM EST

What if I'm using Linux? I won't be getting any love from an Exchange server, that's for sure.

It's not much fun at the top. I envy the common people, their hearty meals and Bruce Springsteen and voting. --SIGNOR SPAGHETTI
[ Parent ]
Evolution... (none / 0) (#142)
by JahToasted on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 12:46:19 PM EST

Has a plugin that lets you interface with exchange. Although they (Ximian/Novell) do charge a small fee for it.
______
"I wanna have my kicks before the whole shithouse goes up in flames" -- Jim Morrison
[ Parent ]
no fee (none / 0) (#143)
by mpalczew on Thu Feb 24, 2005 at 07:04:25 PM EST

I think they stopped charging the fee.  I have the plugin installed on my debian box, and I certainly didn't pay.
-- Death to all Fanatics!
[ Parent ]
Is something wrong with my math? (none / 1) (#89)
by SocratesGhost on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 03:35:17 PM EST

U.S. Credit Card Debt: $60 billion
U.S. Population: 280 million souls

If we assume that 2/3 are old enough to have credit cards (186 million), that means that the average debt is about $300.

Now, if the average credit card account is $8,500, this implies that there are only about 7 million card holders. If I were American Express, I would be concerned that about 1/6th of my card holders every year were filing for bankruptcy.

Are we sure we're including the people with a $0 balance? Also, given these numbers, few people in our country even have credit card debt. It would be great if no one had debt, but as it is, this doesn't seem so unmanageable and unreasonable.

The one stat the does seem interesting to me is the number of bankruptcy filings because your methodology is flawed. You showed concern only for credit card customers who filed, when you should be concerned for all 1.6 million people that filed. You have to ask whether 1.6 million in a nation of 280 million is a reasonable number. (Incidentally, when I went looking for these numbers at ABI, they indicated they were "pleased to provide information". How cheery. That's like being pleased to give a tsunami news report.)

I think your heart is in the right place but--for one thing--these numbers seem incomplete. More than that, they're also out of context. Sometimes, when we see numbers like 60,000,000,000 they seem insurmountable until you realize that you need to distribute it across a similarly large number and then it's not as much of a problem as you make it out. Instead, you gave the impression to everyone reading this that everyone in the U.S. is $8500 in the hole. Instead, it's less than 5% and it's probably much less than that.

-Soc
I drank what?


$60Bn Seems low (none / 0) (#91)
by Sgt York on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 04:05:00 PM EST

If I'm reading this right, this says there is about $2.1 trillion in consumer debt in the US, not $60Bn. That probably doesn't even cover the interest charges.

That comes to about $7600 each, assuming all 280M men women & children have credit debt. Assuming 2/3 gives you over $11k each on average.

There is a reason for everything. Sometimes, that reason just sucks.
[ Parent ]

It's because I actually lost a zero. (none / 0) (#104)
by skyknight on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 08:46:20 PM EST

It's supposed to be $600B, not $60B. The number you are citing, $2.1 trillion is not credit card debt, but rather consumer debt, a superset of credit card debt which also includes pretty much any debt except for home mortgages I think.

It's not much fun at the top. I envy the common people, their hearty meals and Bruce Springsteen and voting. --SIGNOR SPAGHETTI
[ Parent ]
You're right (none / 0) (#117)
by Sgt York on Tue Feb 22, 2005 at 11:27:09 AM EST

That's all consumer debt. Includes car payments, credit unions, and student loans (Sallie Mae has their own category!). Mortgage is not included in it.

I can't really see a breakdown for credit cards only, but I think that all personal credit except mortgage and student loans would qialify with your argument. Buying a Lexus when you make $30k/yr is along the same psychology.

There is a reason for everything. Sometimes, that reason just sucks.
[ Parent ]

Argh, I lost a zero. (none / 1) (#103)
by skyknight on Mon Feb 21, 2005 at 08:44:22 PM EST

That was supposed to be $600B, not $60B. That's why the numbers don't work. Obviously the finance charges I cited wouldn't make sense for a total load of only $60B. I'm going to see what I can do to get an editor to fix that for me.

It's not much fun at the top. I envy the common people, their hearty meals and Bruce Springsteen and voting. --SIGNOR SPAGHETTI
[ Parent ]
+1 nice writing (none / 0) (#114)
by saodl on Tue Feb 22, 2005 at 10:35:28 AM EST

It is nice to see decent prose combined with a cognizant argument.

Thanks. (none / 0) (#115)
by skyknight on Tue Feb 22, 2005 at 10:38:00 AM EST

It's nice to see comments like this as they offset the myriad other ones that are of the form "ror omg u suck at writing plz kill urself u pretentious ass k thx bye". Scroll down to get a sense for what I mean.

It's not much fun at the top. I envy the common people, their hearty meals and Bruce Springsteen and voting. --SIGNOR SPAGHETTI
[ Parent ]
hmm (none / 0) (#128)
by mpalczew on Tue Feb 22, 2005 at 07:31:17 PM EST

> succinctly, it stems from the fact that taxation on income is a fundamentally flawed method for governmental generation of revenue,

you explain how it's flawed in the US, but not how it's fundamentally flawed. What is a good method for revenue generation then?

> Corporations are relentlessly gobbling up smaller rivals and merging with their equals to create ever larger mega-corporations.

well, big corps either manufacture, or sell stuff. That is where economies of scale pay off.  Small companies invent something and then get bought by a big company.  I don't see this as a bad system and it seems to me that each is maximizing their usefullness.  
-- Death to all Fanatics!

Let me take a stab... (none / 0) (#130)
by The Amazing Idiot on Wed Feb 23, 2005 at 01:37:10 AM EST

---you explain how [taxes are] flawed in the US, but not how it's fundamentally flawed. What is a good method for revenue generation then?

I cant answer the first question, cause I'm not an economist. Though, I can tell what good tax and bad tax is by reason.

Property tax: Pay every year, assumes you make money. If you cant pay it, you lose all your money  and the property. Bad tax.

Income Tax: Pay on how much you make. In the US, its books and books of how much goes to each govt entity. The US seems to be very graduated. No matter what, you can always pay income tax. Good tax.

Sales Tax: Pay a flat % on top of item you buy. Many times, it does not include staple foods. No matter what, you can always pay this tax. Good tax.

I know it's a very limited list of taxes, but in general, a tax you CAN (as in have the ability) pay versus one you must pay or LOSE X is a good tax.

As an example, if you wanted that iPod but couldnt afford the tax, you just dont have the iPod. You can save up and then later buy the iPod. Instead, when the state assesses your new land and house and says it's worth to us $3000 a year NO MATTER WHAT, what do you do? If you cant cover their ransom (what else is it?), you lose the land and the house! Someone down on their luck (med bills, lost job, bad XYZ situation) can easily lose everything with little or no recourse.

---well, big corps either manufacture, or sell stuff. That is where economies of scale pay off.  Small companies invent something and then get bought by a big company.  I don't see this as a bad system and it seems to me that each is maximizing their usefullness.  

Wrong. Basic tenants of Capitalism accounts for separate entities to go against each other (competing). They strive for the cheapest product and the most sales. Go read The Communist manifesto to see where pure capitalism leads (hint: the lowering worth of the working class to slave wages, and eventually disenfranchisement from society).

First, problems I see though have to do with the basis of a company in the US.

1: They should NOT be taxed. People pay taxes. People buy products companies make. Companies buy products only to aid in creating their own product.

2: Rights of a citizen should not br granted upon a company. A company should have a very limited working functionality within government. Specifically, companies should not, under any circumstances, be intertwined with government.

3: Companies shold not be able to keep liquid money for long periods of time. Companies can amass wealth at astonishing rates. Because of this, penalties for saving money (or not growing, as I see it) should be assessed.

4: Destroy Corporations for disregarding the public. Companies were ALLOWED to be created in the US for the peoples benefit. Because of this, any company greviously exploiting the will of the people should have their company charter to be annuled.

[ Parent ]

Well, at least you have an apt user name. (none / 0) (#133)
by skyknight on Wed Feb 23, 2005 at 05:37:11 AM EST

You gloss over so many details and issues, neglecting anything that doesn't support your position, that you really haven't done anything to convince the skeptic, and at best you're just preaching to the choir. There are countless counter-arguments to what you've said, but I'll just present a few...

I agree that property tax can suck, but that's only because the present system of property taxation sucks. A much safer system of property taxation is to tax the land based on its unimproved value. This still requires people to contribute to their community, but prevents them from being held hostage to some development project or other that suddenly and unexpectedly makes their land wildly valuable.

The claim that "you can always pay" an income tax or sales tax is an incredibly disingenuous argument on your part. You've just twisted things around to look like they support your argument. You can always pay an income or sales tax or choose to go without something, sure, but the exact same logic can be applied to property. You can choose to go without the property just like you can choose to go without the car that you might have bought if a third of your income hadn't been burned on taxes. Yeah, it might be a little trickier if you already own the property, but in the end you're still being deprived of something regardless of the mechanism of taxation. Don't forget this.

As for your four bullet points... I agree that companies should not be taxed, as it only makes sense to tax end points. I think issue two is more complex than you are willing to admit. Point three strikes me as ridiculous, as no company will keep a large amount of cash in liquid form unless it has to do so, and furthermore the fact that it own various wealth generators may be essential to its operation, for example in the case of an insurance company that needs to invest in markets so it can make payouts, or an R&D facility that is using dividends to fund research or what have you. On point four, you're just being wholly lazy. Companies are just arbitrary associations of people, and the right to freedom of association is so fundamental to US society that it is explicitly in the Constitution (see the First Amendment).



It's not much fun at the top. I envy the common people, their hearty meals and Bruce Springsteen and voting. --SIGNOR SPAGHETTI
[ Parent ]
Idiots were the few to actually tell the truth ;P (none / 0) (#137)
by The Amazing Idiot on Wed Feb 23, 2005 at 08:25:53 AM EST

---You gloss over so many details and issues, neglecting anything that doesn't support your position, that you really haven't done anything to convince the skeptic, and at best you're just preaching to the choir. There are countless counter-arguments to what you've said, but I'll just present a few...

Of course there's counter-arguments and "details" I skirted over. What do you want? a 7.1 million word discertation?

---I agree that property tax can suck, but that's only because the present system of property taxation sucks. A much safer system of property taxation is to tax the land based on its unimproved value. This still requires people to contribute to their community, but prevents them from being held hostage to some development project or other that suddenly and unexpectedly makes their land wildly valuable.

Unimproved land in Manhattan is stilll going to be wacko-insane price (or say a little house build 50 years ago in now a business district) for the land.

Once I pay my Income taxes (on the INCOME) to buy the Land and House, I then have to pay Tax on the insurance, Tax on the utilities hookups, title transfer tax, property tax, ad absurdum. Think there's a wee overboard of taxes? We're paying taxes on taxes on taxes.. and for what? With property tax, the govt will liquidate to pay their tax and over-padded fines.

---The claim that "you can always pay" an income tax or sales tax is an incredibly disingenuous
argument on your part.

But it's true. You CAN always pay it.

---You've just twisted things around to look like they support your argument. You can always pay an income or sales tax or choose to go without something, sure, but the exact same logic can be applied to property.

Oh yeah, you buy a small house for when you get old and not able to work well. Oh yeah, cough up 2000$ per YEAR no matter what for tax. Sales tax goes away after that sale. Income tax goes away cause there's a small percentage out of 100% being taken. But your house/land can be forfeited cause you couldnt pay a tax.

---You can choose to go without the property just like you can choose to go without the car that you might have bought if a third of your income hadn't been burned on taxes. Yeah, it might be a little trickier if you already own the property, but in the end you're still being deprived of something regardless of the mechanism of taxation. Don't forget this.

Not having to begin with and being forced to forfeit are 2 totally different things. Nobody's going to take away your computer because you didnt pay your yearly computer-tax cause you already PAID it up front.

---As for your four bullet points... I agree that companies should not be taxed, as it only makes sense to tax end points.

Least we agree on something ;-D

---I think issue two is more complex than you are willing to admit.

Yep. My main jest of that is the political clout big corporations have in government. Corporate money takes away from the peoples power. Along those lines, corportaions should NOT be able to "donate" (read: buy laws) to politics or its members.

Of course it's much larger.. but I did what I intended: start a talking point about it.

---Point three strikes me as ridiculous, as no company will keep a large amount of cash in liquid form unless it has to do so, and furthermore the fact that it own various wealth generators may be essential to its operation, for example in the case of an insurance company that needs to invest in markets so it can make payouts, or an R&D facility that is using dividends to fund research or what have you.

True, but you've got to admit that we've all heard that this company X has this much reserves and does nothing with it... Perhaps a form of punishment should be involved..

---On point four, you're just being wholly lazy. Companies are just arbitrary associations of people, and the right to freedom of association is so fundamental to US society that it is explicitly in the Constitution (see the First Amendment).

Youre right, people can associate. I can join with you and all k5'ers in a  big clusterfuck. Thats not what that amendment meant. It meant associations of people for political means. (have to get back to class.. )

[ Parent ]

Well, (none / 0) (#132)
by skyknight on Wed Feb 23, 2005 at 05:11:28 AM EST

You ask what I think it a good system of revenue generation. This is not the first time I was pressed for details on this, and I answered it already in another comment down toward the bottom of this article's comments. The main issue I take with the taxation of income is that it is such an ill-defined thing. Do we really want to tax the creation of wealth? Are we trying to tax productivity? I think a reductio ad absurdum is the best way to go about attacking an income tax...

Consider the scenario where we are friends/associates/whatever, and we have some kind of bartered transaction: you go the grocery store and pick up some stuff for me, and I return the favor by getting you a few things at the hardware later in the week, so we each end up taking one trip each, not two. Now, if we did strict accounting, then for each act there should be payment for services rendered, and that would be subject to income tax. Does that make sense? Mind you, that is an extreme example, but it illustrates a point. Why are we taxing this?

If you want a more gray example, consider when a few years ago I ended up doing software work for my landlord. I did an amount of labor roughly commensurate to my monthly rent. Instead of a bartered agreement, though, we each ended up writing checks to one another for roughly the same amount, in both cases it being classified as taxable income. Does this not strike you as odd?

I readily admit that designing a good system of taxation is a very hard thing to do. Any replacement for income tax would have problems as well, but I still think we can do better. You have to tax something, and in the end all taxations strike me as somewhat arbitrary. I think if we could tax wealth, that would be best, as your wealth represents your stake in a country, but I think that is impractical, as wealth is as ill-defined and fungible as income. Probably some kind of consumption tax would be best, but that can be tricky too. What defines consumption? Is your consumption of oil when you drive your car any more tax-worthy than your consumption of intellectual man-hours if you hire me to write software? I don't know... I'm inclined to say yes, but this is a very difficult argument to make, and I have yet to fully thing it through to its consequences. I feel like this could readily be a whole other article, and maybe when I get around to it it will be.

As for business, I wholly recognize the value of having inefficient companies destroyed by more efficient ones. This is the natural way of a market economy, and I am extremely libertarian in my economic thinking. However, I think that this process has a propensity to go off the rails. It's a very bad thing for power in any sector to get concentrated in a small number of hands, as at that point we lose the benefits of a market economy, and functionally speaking it is as bad or worse than a state planned economy. If things are going to be good, we need competition, and also a variety of providers. Walmart is nice, but it's also nice to have smaller stores with more personalized service. I think the death of small stores in the wake of the super store juggernaut is sad, but I also think that business protectionism is a very bad thing. As such, I'm basically stuck watching in horror at what is happening.



It's not much fun at the top. I envy the common people, their hearty meals and Bruce Springsteen and voting. --SIGNOR SPAGHETTI
[ Parent ]
short-sightedness (none / 0) (#129)
by speek on Tue Feb 22, 2005 at 09:47:25 PM EST

It seems to me for every example of short-sightedness leaving us an unholy mess, one could find an example of over-planning that resulted in a complete failure. One might argue that at least over-planning usually fails faster (and that's also why examples of such are harder to find), but those failures still represent large expenditures that returned nothing. At least the unholy messes are giving some kind of return on investment.

The trick is knowing when to plan, and when to not sweat it.


--
al queda is kicking themsleves for not knowing about the levees

It's a very hard act to pull off... (none / 0) (#131)
by skyknight on Wed Feb 23, 2005 at 04:52:33 AM EST

I know from personal experience that it is especially so in software. Major software projects often start accidentally, and by the time people realize that they have become a major project it's often too late to decide "oh, well, now we have to do things right". This is why most software projects of non-trivial size are ungodly messes.

I think the trick to engineering good systems, all systems, not just software, but maybe software in particular, is to avoid making overly grandiose plans, but also to shrewdly craft the system such that your design choices will scale well. Don't try to plan for everything, but do plan to have the flexibility to extend your system in ways that you might not have anticipated at the point of ground breaking. This is a matter of adhering to basic principles, always striving for extensibility, scalability, maintainability, debuggability, discoverability, and so on... These are virtues in all engineering domains. A bridge needs to be debuggable just as much as a piece of software when things go wrong. If the electrical system fails for the lighting or ventilation, then electricians need to be able to get at stuff easily, just as much as a software developer needs a nice log to peruse when a system crashes.

I suppose some of my biggest engineering heroes are the civil engineers who build bridges for a given capacity, but also design in future expansions to increase capacity as demand grows. One of the more famous examples of this is the George Washington Bridge, originally built as a six lane roadway and opened in 1931, but designed such that it had the capacity and strength to add a railroad or a second roadway with an additional six lanes, the latter of which ended up happening in 1962.



It's not much fun at the top. I envy the common people, their hearty meals and Bruce Springsteen and voting. --SIGNOR SPAGHETTI
[ Parent ]
regarding your example (none / 0) (#136)
by speek on Wed Feb 23, 2005 at 08:25:19 AM EST

Not to disagree with you, cause I don't, but I think it's interesting that another way of looking at your George Washington Bridge example is to take the amount of extra money that was spent in 1931 for extra capacity and consider that money invested in a 30-year CD (no possibily of early withdrawal) with an interest rate equal to inflation. Still sound like a good investment? Of course, one also has to figure in how much was saved in 1962 because they didn't have to tear down the bridge and build anew or just build a second bridge. It's hard to say which wasy is better - in that case, multiple bridges is probably not so bad as there are several places one could cross the river, and also with new materials, building a new bridge might have all sorts of advantages.

I just think the range of possibilities is far more complex than it at first seems.

--
al queda is kicking themsleves for not knowing about the levees
[ Parent ]

Well, sure, but... (none / 0) (#138)
by skyknight on Wed Feb 23, 2005 at 08:32:36 AM EST

not only would you have to tear down the old bridge, but you'd also be leaving traffic in an intolerable state for years while the new one was built, unless you could build them side by side, leaving the original one intact, which I presume is often impractical or you'd just build another bridge altogether and keep the old one. I suspect that one of the biggest costs in building a bridge is laying the foundation underwater.

It's not much fun at the top. I envy the common people, their hearty meals and Bruce Springsteen and voting. --SIGNOR SPAGHETTI
[ Parent ]
Another example (none / 0) (#139)
by Coryoth on Wed Feb 23, 2005 at 11:54:16 AM EST

US Intelligence Agencies.  Currently there are (I believe) 15 different US Intelligence Agencies including the NSA, the CIA, the FBI's intelligence division, Naval Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, Army Intelligence, the Nuclear Regulatory Comission's intelligence division, plus many many more.  What's worse, intelligence is seen as a problem, and solutions are being sought.  The solutions, so far, have taken the form of adding another bureaucratic layer to the whole structure to get some sort of "unity" and "information sharing" going.  The system is already over clogged with bureaucracy, adding more will not fix it.

Designing a sensible/ideal structure for Intelligence Agencies is not hard.  There should be 3: Domestic Intelligence, Foreign Intelligence, and Military Intelligence, which should all be cleanly delineated from each other: no toe-stepping allowed.

Why those 3? Clearly they will cover the spectrum of required intelligence, the question is why divide there.  The domestic/foreign split should be clear - Intelligence Agencies need government approval to do things that would otherwise be illegal (like spying on people).  Ideally you want to give your foreign intelligence people a (relatively speaking) free hand; However, you also want to protect your own citizens from such intrusive operations.  It is far easier to make sure that the rules governing domestic operations are much more restrictive than those governing foreign operations if they are entirely seperate agencies with different mandates and seperate rules for each.  Finally it is wise to disassociate general intelligence (foreign and domestic) from military intelligence.  For starters collecting and analysing intelligence for active battlefield operations is clearly a very different job than most intelliegence collection and analysis.  More importantly, however, it makes  very good sense to divorce those collecting and analysing the intelligence that may precipitate military actions from those responsible for prosecuting those military actions; that is, we want to remove any possibility, or even perception , of bias in intelligence collection and  (importantly) analysis.

Having made those 3 divisions it makes little sense to make any more - the more you divide intelligence agencies, the harder information sharing becomes.  You also want to make sure that these 3 agencies (more so the domestic and foreign agencies) have good interfaces available so that every other government department doesn't need to set up their own intelligence agency (ones of the problems with the US system right now, and part of the reason there are so many agencies).  That is, you want to make sure any intelligence goes through one of the 3 agencies.  No setting up of side intelligence collection and analysis groups.  Again, this is for information sharing purposes - we want intelligence to be as centrally collected as possible for analysis purposes.

Now, how does the present US system compare to this?  Hopelessly.  Not only does every government department have their own intelligence agency (due , in part, to a lack of publically accessible points of contact in the major agencies, and in part to pointless empire building within government departments), but the 3 divisions above are not even respected.  The NSA, which is supposed to be the foreign signals intelligence agency for the US is part of DoD, and intimately intertwined with defence.  Then there is the CIA, which is even worse, not only do they conduct domestic and foreign intelligence operations (toe treading on the NSA) they're responsible for various active (non intelligence related) operations (which hence lack oversight), and are also well embedded in the military.  In the meantime the FBI is essentially hung out to dry.

Can recent intelligence failures be, at least in some way, attributed to thes problems?  Yes.  Take Iraq.  There were two significant issues on that one.  First was that Rumsfeld set up his own little intelligence collection and analysis group specifically for Iraq.  We've already said setting up extra groups is a no no.  Secondly we have the fact that the CIA is intimately tied with defense and the military (even carrying out their own operations).  It was in the CIA interests to find eveidence to support war.  Of course analysts are supposed to be objective, and most probably are, but in the end being part of defense must influence the culture at the agency: it will effect the way people think, and the things they look for.  How about 9/11?  Well, that's much less of an intelligence failure, in the sense that seeing such things coming, managing to spot some particular pattern amongst the noise (or, amongst the million other possible patterns) is hard.  Still, the issue there was largely to do with intelligence sharing, and the fact that there were several small intelligence agencies beholden to their own little government department that had useful information, but no concept of the big picture.  As long as there aren't clean and obvious divisions between agencies, along with clear channels of access (allowing information to be centralised at the agencies) the issue of everyone wanting their own agency is going to occur.

So what should be done to remedy US intelligence woes?  A complete gutting of the current structure to set up something along the lines outlined above.  Ask anyone who actually specialises in intelligence what the ideal would be and they'll tell you much the same.  The current system is old, and layered with cruft and excessive bureacracy.  Adding new layers of cruft and bureaucracy to patch perceived holes is not going to fix it.

Jedidiah.

Oh dear God! (none / 0) (#140)
by vera on Wed Feb 23, 2005 at 01:29:28 PM EST

I <3 it.

You tickle my mind with your saucy schema.

you (none / 0) (#144)
by fleece on Wed Mar 02, 2005 at 05:00:48 AM EST

had me at Humans are ever about the task of bettering their condition.



I feel like some drunken crazed lunatic trying to outguess a cat ~ Louis Winthorpe III
Meaning what, exactly? /nt (none / 0) (#145)
by skyknight on Fri Mar 04, 2005 at 08:05:24 AM EST



It's not much fun at the top. I envy the common people, their hearty meals and Bruce Springsteen and voting. --SIGNOR SPAGHETTI
[ Parent ]
Ratchet | 146 comments (73 topical, 73 editorial, 0 hidden)
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