I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Saturday, September 20, 2008

A long, cranky rant about our economy and our government

This morning I discovered something called the "Drew Carey Project" and heard he'd had put some videos on the web talking about the positive effects of immigration. It turns out that he has a whole series of short documentaries he produces and hosts on a wide range of topics. I've spent the last two hours absolutely absorbed in these things.

If I've ever had any wavering doubts about my libertarianism, they've been completely blown away by the video on bacon dogs. Drew tells a story of a street vendor in LA who was actually JAILED FOR 45 DAYS for the unthinkable crime of selling hotdogs wrapped in bacon. I'm not sure how to link to any individual video, but you can find a complete list here. Scroll down to the video labled "food fight."

On the surface, this was a bad week to be a free-market libertarian. When the stock market tanked early in the week, the blame fell on unfettered free markets and a lack of regulation. When they rose at the end of the week, it was because the government rode in on a white horse and rescued Wall Street and promised regulation to make certain this would never happen again.
In reality, the government's fingers are deeply dug into the current market woes, and the proposed action to save the markets are only going to lead to further woes. First, where is the government going to get a trillion dollars to buy all these insolvent loans? They'll either borrow it, tax it, or create it by printing more (not that I think any actual printing is involved). If they borrow it, it's just another shackle we're locking onto the legs of our children and grandchildren. Our debt is already pushing 10 trillion dollars. If they actually raise taxes to cover this, it's safe to say that will depress the economy enough to drag the stock market down as much as it was going to fall anyway. And, if we print the money, we'll add to inflation.

By intervening in the market this week, government has again rode to the rescue of people who made irresponsible choices. Borrowers shouldn't have been lending money to people with horrible credit scores and no verifiable income. And people with horrible credit scores and shaky income shouldn't have been buying properties they couldn't afford. Investors around the world shouldn't have been investing in portfolios they didn't understand.

Lending money to people with bad credit isn't risk free, or at least, it hasn't been. Now, as I understand the proposed bail out, the government is going to be buying the bad mortgages from banks so that they will no longer bear the risk, allowing their stocks to rise once again. Wall Street has learned a lesson, of course--not the right lesson, which is that they should be careful with the money they invest, but instead the perverse lesson that the government will bail them out if they make risky investments and those investments explode badly enough to cause the stock market to plunge.

If you do check out the Drew Carey Project videos, another eye-opening video is called "Living Large." The point of the video is that the middle class is more affluent today than at anytime in history. But, I think there's a point Carey missed: I'm willing to bet that all the middle-class boat owners he talks to in the video are in hock up to their eyeballs. My biggest worry about America's seeming affluence is that it's borrowed affluence. The government borrows money to keep our taxes low and our social benefits high and to fund foreign adventures and bank bailouts. But the American consumer is no more responsible with their own money--they finance furniture, televisions, boats, tanks of gas, lunches, etc. The concept of saving money to make major purchases is something that seems to have faded from American culture in the span of my lifetime. I remember going with my mother to the layaway department at Sears to make payments on appliances we were buying. The idea behind layaway was that you would go each week or month and pay a little on something you wanted to buy, and when you'd finally paid enough to buy it, you took it home. It requires patience and discipline to purchase stuff this way. Now, it's all been flipped; you buy first, then pay. Layaway departments no longer exist.

We've become a country where responsible choices are increasingly punished. If you choose to live within your means you will have a smaller house compared to your free-spending neighbor who buys a house he can't afford using a subprime mortgage. And, next year when he defaults--no big deal. The government will have backed his mortgage and will take it over, offering some sweetheart plan to prevent foreclosure.

The free market can only encourage responsible behavior if prudent behavior is rewarded in risky behavior is allowed to fail or succeed on its own right. Sometimes, when you go into a casino and put in a silver dollar and pull the handle, the slot machine gives you a million dollars back. Imagine how many more gamblers we'd have in this world if, everytime you put in a dollar you lost it, there was a congressman behind you telling you that it wasn't your fault, that it was the fault of the wicked old slot machine manufacturers, and here's a tax dollar to replace the one you just lost? Because if that's not what's happening on the large scale, I need someone a lot smarter than me to explain how all this makes sense.

In the meantime, I think I'm going to console myself by going to the grocery store and buying some hotdogs and bacon... don't tell the cops.


Loren Eaton said...

I dunno, bacon dogs sound so loaded with saturated fat that they might be considered a deadly weapon ...

James Maxey said...

My first experiment with bacon-wrapped hotdogs was unsatisfying. I tried grilling them, but the flare ups kept charring half the bacon before the whole thing was crispy. I'm thinking they might do better skillet, but even then I see problems with getting the bacon uniformly cooked.

I can now see why these might actually be dangerous. But, it still doesn't alter my libertarian feelings that no one ever should be jailed for selling one of these concoctions. The folks buying them can't be suffering from the illusion they are buying health food.

Gray Rinehart said...

I don't see how wrapping a hot dog in bacon is fundamentally different from wrapping a filet mignon in bacon. Shoot, one of the ladies at our church makes bacon-wrapped dates for get-togethers; I'm not big on dates, but bacon makes everything better .... (She bakes them in the oven; that might work for the hot dogs, too.)

James Maxey said...

My friend Cheryl also suggested the oven was the way to go. Luckily, I still have hot dogs and bacon left over to take another stab at this project!

To represent LA's side in this, I think the basic argument is that you can't handle bacon safely in a street food cart situation. That said, when the interviewed the head of public safety about whether anyone had ever reported getting sick from eating these, he gave an evasive answer that I think could fairly be taken as "no." And, so what if a thousand people a day were dropping from eating these things? Every action in life has its risks. Somehow, it's become an article of faith that governments exist to remove all risk from life, from the large scale of what the value of the stock market should be to the trivial details of whether whether street vendors should sell bacon.

As a population, we have surrendered ourselves from cradle to grave to the nanny state. Actually, from before the cradle, since there are plenty of government projects focused on prenatal care.

rastronomicals said...

"And, so what if a thousand people a day were dropping from eating these things?"

How can you pretend that that kind of thing wouldn't matter? While I'm all for sense and sensibility in the doings of our government, the current situation in China with the melanine-tainted milk reminds us that government controls have a place: America used to be this way, before we passed the Pure Food and Drug Act.

No-one wants to be told that they can't have the freakin' hot dog of their choice, no doubt. And I'm pretty sure that we as a nation have lost the knack for knowing where the line should be drawn.

But at the same time, the idea that a sane government should look out for the general welfare of its citizenry is pretty much a pre-assumption of our republic.

You'd think that the invisible hand of the unhampered marketplace would act in such a way that its products do not shorten the lifetimes of its
customers, but sadly, such is not always the case, and sadly, government intervention has thereby historically been indicated.

I think it's a good thing that DDT is banned, if not necessarily bacon-wrapped hot dogs.

I also couldn't help but notice that the website you directed us towards mentioned SETI by name as an example of wasteful government spending.

Gosh, I make a habit of reading science fiction, so you can probably guess what I think of that. To highlight SETI and its paltry 1.6 million dollar allocation while giving no mention at all to the War in Iraq and the 1.6 million that gets spent there every 3 minutes is not just sloppy, it's disgraceful.

When I was growing up, a senator by the name of William Proxmire made the papers every month by ridiculing government-funded science research, but we live in more-enlightened times now, when most people intrinsically understand the value of scientific research.

Or do we?

James Maxey said...

Insightful comments as always. My comment about the 1000 deaths a day was, of course, absurd. If there was such an outbreak of death rates, people would stop eating them. This summer, there was an outbreak of deaths from salmanella associated with tomatoes (though later tomatoes were cleared). The day after the first news stories hit the air, I couldn't order a tomato at a major chain restaurant if I wanted to. Subway pulled 'em, so did Burger King. The same thing happened the year before with spinach.

But, if I'd kept going until I found a restaurant serving tomatoes, I wouldn't have wanted to see that restaurant owner jailed because he sold me a product I wanted at a time when I knew the potential danger.

I think that the posting of inspection scores in restaurants like we have here in NC is sufficient. If I choose to eat at a restaurant with a sanitation score of 75%, well, it's my choice. I should bear the consequences.

As for SETI... it may surprise you to know that I actually wouldn't vote to fund it either. You're right, 1.6 million isn't that much money, so why should we rely on the government to fund it? If 1.6 million American's find it to be a worthy cause, can't we all just chip in a dollar? I also wouldn't have voted to fund the Iraq war. If you are deeply in debt, does it make sense to be charging cups of coffee on a mastercard? Right now, America is putting all new spending onto its credit cards. If we were running budget surplusses, I think it would be fair to look at spending on science. While we're in a hole, I think we should obey the first rule of holes, and stop digging.

John Brown said...

Amen, Brother Maxey. Amen!

mightymur@gmail.com (Mur Lafferty) said...

My six year old wants a nintendo DS. My husband and I want her to save up half of the money to pay for it. I was in Target when suddenly the idea of layaway seemed perfect to teach her the discipline to save up for something she wants. Sadly, I knew that wasn't a possibility, and Target (and, admittedly, the kiddo) would just say "why not just put it on your credit card?")