Monthly Archives: January 2012

Self-Interest And Tautologies

The Libertarian take on “self interest” can be annoying:

A colleague of mine still insists — after a good twenty years of our discussing the subject — that people can act altruistically. “Give me one example,” I ask, “just one. We have numerous and varied interests we pursue, and we act only in anticipation of being better off afterwards than if we had not acted,” I tell him. “In other words, all volitional action is self-interest motivated.”

I like Butler Shaffer and a lot of what he writes, but when you start bandying about “all” statements you’re bound to wind up in a logical wasteland.  Your seemingly emphatic statement about this or that becomes, when further considered, meaningless and without content:

A rhetorical tautology can also be defined as a series of statements that comprise an argument, whereby the statements are constructed in such a way that the truth of the proposition is guaranteed or that the truth of the proposition cannot be disputed by defining a dissimilar or synonymous term in terms of another self-referentially. Consequently, the statement conveys no useful information regardless of its length or complexity making it unfalsifiable. It is a way of formulating a description such that it masquerades as an explanation when the real reason for the phenomena cannot be independently derived.

Grant the point:  all volitional action is self interested.  So what?  Then on that score, no act can be distinguished from any other, by definition.  Murder is the same as a self-sacrificial effort to heal the sick.  Yet because these two acts are obviously so profoundly different they can still be distinguished; we’ll just call it something else other than the one being “altruistic” and the other being “self interested”.

Logic is not a silly word game.  The world is a real thing.  You can dogmatically define yourself into a corner and claim victory, but you’re still painted into a corner.  What’s the point?

Ayn Rand had some valuable insights.  But “all volitional action is self interest motivated” is not one of them.

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The Inexplicable – Explained, Sort Of

We get all upset around here at the things police sometimes do:  lying, cheating, framing people, wrongfully convicting people.


But it’s also fair to get upset at the things police sometimes don’t do.  Take the Canadian case of Robert Pickton.  Please.

This guy is sort of a classic straight from a slasher/horror flick real life creepy monster.  Operates a pig farm in British Columbia.  Yes, a pig farm.

On the side he killed prostitutes.  Many of them, perhaps dozens.  Over years.  Long after some in the various police investigative agencies began to suspect him.  Long after there was ample evidence implicating him, to be had for the asking.  Right under the noses of police, the top brass of which repeatedly looked at what can only be described as the overwhelming proof and….scoffed.

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Another Tragic Death Row Tale

Jeffrey Havard, sentenced to death for sexually abusing a baby and killing her.

He had always maintained that he accidentally dropped the little girl after bathing her.  She hit her head on the toilet and suffered a brain hemorrhage, resulting in death.

Now, in the so often meaningless post-conviction proceedings, a respected expert says that all the evidence is consistent with Havard’s story and there’s no evidence of sexual abuse or “shaken baby syndrome” in the record.

Two interesting quotes from the linked article.  First the guy who prosecuted the case:

District Attorney Ronnie Harper remains convinced Havard is guilty, saying proof of sexual assault was overwhelming. “I had doctors crying on the witness stand,” he said.He said he’s “never seen a guy look more guilty” than Havard did in his videotaped statement.

He “looked guilty” and the doctors cried.  The idea that someone of the mental acumen of Ronnie Harper is entrusted with the power to prosecute people for crimes, including death eligible crimes, is a searing indictment of the legal profession, the judiciary and the system as a whole.  People that stupid are supposed to be weeded out by law schools and bar exams, and it’s past time to figure out why that doesn’t work. More excellent graduates of law schools and criminal justice colleges are needed.

The other thing that kind of jumps out is a quote from Havard’s sister, in his “defense”:

She believes he is innocent of any sexual abuse and shudders to think he is still behind bars. “We know he dropped the baby,” she said. “We’re not saying he is totally innocent, but he’s been in there for 10 years. It’s very heartbreaking.”

Strange, isn’t it?  If he just dropped the baby by accident, he certainly is “totally innocent” from a criminal standpoint,and has no business being in prison at all, to say nothing of being on death row and slated for execution.

But victim blaming is very common, even among people who are close relatives with natural bonds of affection.  Group think wears everyone down.

(H/T Radley Balko)

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Occupy DC (Update)

Things are getting a little hairy at these Occupy things:

Now honestly?  The lady cop was a little quick on the trigger.  There’s obviously a back story, because even though the police don’t say anything the guy knows they’re coming for him, and so do they.  They should still tell him what the charge is.  They should still tell him he’s under arrest. The taze didn’t look necessary at that point, though I would admit the guy was being a tad unruly.

Overall, it’s hardly the worst police behavior to have been caught on tape in recent years.  Not by a long shot.

But you know what is kind of disconcerting?

There’s been what you might call an entrenchment into hostility.  It has a long term feel, like this is one of those things that’s going to go on until some kind of climax is reached.  And the police job is getting more difficult it seems.

They bring it on themselves.  And by catering to them so much, the courts haven’t helped either.  In the short term it makes everyone’s life easier to do that, but things always erupt eventually.

Update:  If you wade through this post and the comments to it, it appears the incident in the posted video is collectively viewed more or less the same way it was described here:  not perfect, not a cause for outrage against the police.

But this was interesting:

It was obvious early on that this pointless Occupy nonsense would end in violence, and I only hope the media and the Obama administration pays a high price for encouraging, enabling and trying to legitimize the most juvenile, incoherent and narcissistic protest I’ve ever seen….and I’ve seen a lot. Even been in one or two…

Is the “Occupy nonsense” continuing, and doomed to “end in violence” because the Obama administration has encouraged it?  I don’t think so.  It is an outgrowth of the failure of institutions provided for the just resolution of disputes.  Such as the courts.  Primarily the courts.  They don’t work anymore, and too many people know it.

Every single unjust decision by a judge has ripple effects, extending from the parties to the witnesses to the relatives and friends of the parties, and on and on.  I’ll ask my fellow lawyers:  think about that.  Think about how many injustices you have witnessed on your own cases or the cases of others, and just run with the idea.

It’s frightening.  And it’s obvious.

In the law we have the idea of “proximate” causation because disputed incidents invariably have many causes and you have to draw the line somewhere.  And because we’re constantly trying to make it easier on ourselves  (okay, not just that – we also have an obligation to make things clear for others) we don’t want to get metaphysical about causation.

But to me at least, this is a no-brainer.  You can call the “Occupy” thing “nonsense” and ridicule the participants all you want.  It’s not going away.  It’s genesis is the same social pathology that caused the French revolution.  Most of the participants can tell you a story of terrible injustice un-redressed.  I know this because it could not possibly be otherwise, given the depth and breadth of the perfidy of judges.  Other officials too, but especially judges, whose perfidy, when it occurs, is peculiarly socially destructive:  it does not simply take away justice in the particular case, it takes away the very hope of justice for a much larger group.

I agree with one of the commenters over at SJ that it’s not fair to say that the Occupy movement has no clear message or purpose.  They want the rule of law.  They have explicitly demanded that, meaning they know it does not now exist in the US.  And they are right, right down the line.  That’s where their energy and strength comes from:  reality that they know through personal experience, or the personal experience of their friends or neighbors or loved ones.  There is too much of it now to be glossed over with media propaganda and perp walks.

This has nothing to do with encouraging words from Obama.  This is a manifestation of a rupture in the basic fabric of society, and history is repeating itself word for word, note for note.



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“Absolute Priority To Debt Service”

That’s what the EU “troika” wants Greece to do.  Constitutionally.

See, this is the problem with the 99%:  they’re so behind the curve.  For months I’ve been crying in the wilderness, encouraging them to use the constitution to liberate themselves from the 1%.  No luck.  They’d rather get tear gassed in Oakland and have their tantrum.

Meanwhile, the 1% are already using constitutions and law to further oppress the 99%.  For now it’s in Greece, but it won’t be long before it’s here, too.  And once the 1% gets a leg up in that fight, good luck trying to stop them or reverse their gains.  Then they’ll proceed under color of “law” to drive whole countries into servitude and peonage.

This shouldn’t happen.  One idea of the constitution is that it requires super-majorities so that small cabals – the 1% – can’t run everything.  The 99% are surely a super-majority, right?

Some days I just wonder.

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Occupy Oakland: Fall Back, Regroup

Pretty good discipline here on the part of the crowd:

The Occupy thing may have legs, as they say.

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Welcome To Oakland, CA 2012

I imagine this image will go viral.  (H/T Lili Loofbourow on the photo.)  Occupy Oakland had a busy night.  So did the Oakland Police Department.  Lots of other photos here.

The continued ‘peacefulness’ of this movement is doubtful.


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You’ve Got To Be Kidding…

Professor Anderson, for God’s sake:

Because clients and society want better, faster and cheaper law, I believe lawyers (including legal educators) have a professional duty to ardently pursue this goal.  The hardest part of this assignment – and the most vexing and interesting – is how to parlay this transformation into a decent living.

One of the themes over here is that the law trumps economics.  And no lawyer worthy of the name should think otherwise.  “Better, faster, and cheaper law”?  We’re living in a time of utter lawlessness in the judiciary itself.  The only way to make it “better” is to slow it down or stop it entirely before it kills us all.

How do you “parlay” that into a “decent living”?  What has that got to do with anything that a lawyer should be concerning himself with in the face of the collapse of the third branch of government?

What planet are these guys on?  What are they smoking?

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Crisis Continues And The AG’s Have Been Had (Update)

Matt Taibbi is as brilliant as they come, but he’s wrong here.  This development is classic bankster bait and switch.

The important thing for them -the banksters – right now, is for foreclosures to proceed.  This “preserves” the “value” of the mortgaged backed securities (MBS’s), the collateralized debt obligations (CDO’s), and the endless derivatives that have been piled on top of them, and which together form one of the most important bearing walls of the house of cards-casino-make believe financialized “global economy” structure.

The robo-signing thing was an imminent and deadly threat to that.  And now it isn’t.  It doesn’t matter that they did all that robo-signing before, and more importantly, they can keep doing it.  And for this, to preserve (however temporarily) their trillions or quadrillions worth of ponzi derivative architecture on the backs of millions of families who will be made homeless, they paid a mere $25 billion?  What a deal.

The country’s AG’s were taken to school on this one.

Oh sure, the AG’s can now subpoena and investigate and prosecute.  Good luck with that, guys.  If you get even a thousand banksters convicted of anything over the next twenty years I’ll be impressed.  They won’t make it easy, of course.  And unlike typical criminal defendants, these guys will have millions upon millions to defend themselves and drag it out, not to mention the ones you actually get will probably be surreptitiously served up by the other banksters you should really be prosecuting.

But hey, these things are a challenge.

Rule #1 when dealing with these creeps:  whatever they seem to be bargaining for, that is exactly the thing you must not agree to.

At least now we know, if we’re paying attention.  The most necessary thing right now, in the short term, before we do anything else in this whole mess, is a formal, dejure and indefinite moratorium on foreclosures and evictions.  Nationwide.  Worldwide, if you ask me.

If the Occupy thing is looking for some focus there it is.  Right now they are occupying houses that are being or have been foreclosed to stop the evictions.  The effort would be better directed at Washington to get a moratorium law passed.  Occupy Washington until they do, says I.

Update:  New York’s AG Schneiderman continues to remain in play by filing this lawsuit.  He’s hitting all the right notes, but is he lip-synching the tune?  Dunno yet.  Filing a complaint isn’t much.  We’ll see where it ends up.

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“Plain Money” And “Seigniorage Reform”

Interesting idea here, in a paper presented to the British House of Lords in 2001.

Still, the authors advocate a “fiat” monetary system, declaring that the age of commodity money is over.  In its 21st century stead, they coin the term (pun intended) “information money”.

It’s funny how many people, fairly educated in this area, appreciate the problem that there is a natural aversion to fiat money, but like the idea anyway, as if the natural aversion was simply something to be overcome rather than heeded, even a little bit.  Some natural aversions are irrational or sub-rational (e.g., xenophobia), but many are not.  There is no reason to operate with some kind of presumption against them; they should simply be tested with reason like everything else.

Seigniorage is an important concept in this whole thing.  It’s strange that it took me so long to think of it, because I remember it was a big idea for Richard Timberlake when I first developed an interest in these kinds of things back in 1996.  In the conversations I had with him he brought it up often. Discussed it a lot in his book, too.

Then again, Timberlake is (turns 90 this year) a hard money guy and a libertarian.

What is the aversion to fiat money about?  It’s an understanding in the bones of just about every human being that we don’t dictate to reality; rather, reality dictates to us.  Our task in this regard is, and always has been, to bring our minds and wills into conformity with reality, however imperfectly.  To embrace fiat money is to repudiate this task; indeed to invert it, to command that reality will conform to our minds and our wills, not the other way around.  We can pretend that our minds and wills are more benign and benevolent than the reality they seek to supplant, but this is a fatal conceit.  Yet that is the basis of our monetary regime and any fiat money regime, and the reason why ours is not only failing but doomed to fail and always has been.

Attempting to address our many and serious economic issues in this second decade of the 21st century without taming our ideas of what money should be is empty tinkering.

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Antal Fekete

Hadn’t heard that name for a while, but he’s mentioned here.

Apparently he’s been busy saving the world himself.  He wants to start with Greece, Italy and Spain, and it has something to do with “gold bonds“.

I’ll study it and get back to you.  Initially it looks like it has some similarities to what I have proposed, absent those remedial and transition-easing measures, such as a five year moratorium on evictions for non-payment.

That moratorium thing seems to be growing in importance as we think this thing through.  You can always tell you’re onto something when a fairly intelligent and informed commenter says you’ve gone “off the rails“.

If we’re going to change the monetary system around, starting with a jubilee – and at this point that’s the proposal not just from me but from Steve Keen and maybe even some others – you’re talking about something that is very chaotic in implementation.  The basic problem is that nobody is going to know what anything costs for while.  The measures will have completely changed.

In the meantime people need to eat and they need a place to live.  They need some stability in otherwise stormy seas.  This is what the eviction moratorium is about.

Beyond that, though, I wonder if it shouldn’t be that way always.  I don’t think the threat of homelessness hanging over everyone’s head all the time is healthy.  It doesn’t lead to good economic decision making; it leads to desperate economic decision making.

So I’m thinking no real estate taxes either.  No mortgages, no rent, no real estate taxes.  You get a place to live by buying it, and once you buy it no one can take it from you.  I think this is consistent with property rights, but also consistent with some of what socialists advocate, though not for the reasons or in the way they advocate it.

You can do things like this with the law.  Economists don’t get that.  Not even Antal Fekete.



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The More Things Change…

Officials in Toronto opened a time capsule from the Maple Leaf Gardens dating from 1931.  It contained the newspapers pictured above.

The UK (then Great Britain) famously went off the gold standard (“suspended”, says the headline, but more than 80 years later it’s still in effect).  The British government had pegged the price way too low, which as you can see caused a “run”.  Then redemption in specie is “suspended”.  Then the currency collapses in value.

Was the guy who packed that time capsule a Canadian gold-bug?

Note that the sub-headline is “Canada will maintain gold basis”, which is noteworthy because Canada didn’t have a central bank until 1933, I think.  Before then they had paper money, but it was mainly issued by private banks such as Royal Bank of Canada.  If anyone ever gets to a vacation place in Ontario called Parry Sound, on the Georgian Bay, there’s a restaurant there the name of which escapes me, but they have a fascinating display case with all kinds of bank notes from the pre-1933 era.  Very interesting stuff.


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It Isn’t Just Western New York

It’s a national thing.  Even the genteel and effete New Yorker is beginning to notice.

Something is very fundamentally wrong with the judicial “system”.  It’s the third branch of government, and it’s in a state of collapse.  The signs of terminal dysfunction are every bit as clear as they would have been to a disinterested observer of the Soviet Union in the 1980’s.

In the face of this disaster the SCOTUS, in its occasional but increasingly rare departures from routine rubber stamping of the status quo, generates puzzled and frenzied commentary among a small group of people, and little else.

One thing about fundamentals is that you never really get past them.  You have to revisit them from time to time.  There’s a temptation to regard them as settled, and to believe that you can comfortably tinker around the edges of it all, like an old man puttering around his house fixing the screen windows while the foundation of the house is crumbling.

It’s a conceit of the mentally slothful:  we’re past all that, we did all that yesterday.

Grave mistake.  People with a good track record for discernment see what’s happening.


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It means “prevalent or peculiar to a particular locality, region or people.”

William Black – economist, lawyer and white collar fraud prosecutor – describes the ethical cesspool that lurks behind the scenes of Apple’s glittering success.  The thesis is that fraud is very common in certain areas of the world, areas that are corrupt and do not have the rule of law.  Unlike the US, he seems to believe, where people won’t stand idly by while workers and others are defrauded and victimized.

Would that it were so.

It’s worth quoting at length:

If there is one single thing that drives us white-collar criminologists around the bend it is the implicit assumption that fraud cannot be common. There is, of course, no logical (or experiential) reason for this belief. Nevertheless, it is a common belief and among economists it is a virtually universal dogma. Economists have a tribal taboo against even using the word “fraud” to describe individual frauds. The surest way to be considered an un-serious economist is to use the “f” word to describe frauds by elite economic actors. Economists’ taboo is particularly bizarre because it is economic theory, developed by a Nobel Laureate that explains why fraud can become endemic. George Akerlof, in his famous article on markets for “lemons” (largely describing anti-customer control fraud), explained the perverse “Gresham’s” dynamic in 1970: “[D]ishonest dealings tend to drive honest dealings out of the market. The cost of dishonesty, therefore, lies not only in the amount by which the purchaser is cheated; the cost also must include the loss incurred from driving legitimate business out of existence.”

There’s a lot at stake when a lawyer uncovers official lying and cheating in the legal system.  Of course it will pertain to a particular case and a particular client, but the implications are much bigger.  It is moral poison and contagion, threatening to infect the entire apparatus if not checked.

Black goes on:

Anti-employee control fraud creates real economic profits for the firm and can massively increase the controlling officers’ wealth. Honest firms normally cannot compete with anti-employee control frauds, so bad ethics drives good ethics out of the markets.

This is the dynamic that develops, very quickly.  Unchecked and endemic fraud, extremely destructive in the long term, is short term profitable.  So it snowballs.  The guilty are rewarded and the honest and innocent are driven out.  Pretty soon, as  practical matter, if you’re not committing fraud you can’t even participate.

Fraudulent suppliers, therefore, have compelling incentives to locate in nations and regions in which they can commit fraud with impunity. The best way to evaluate the fraudulent CEOs’ view as to the risk of prosecution for their frauds is to observe whether they take cheap means of hiding their frauds. When the CEOs do not even bother to avoid creating a paper trail documenting their frauds one knows that they view the risk of prosecution as trivial.

To be fair, it is a characteristic of any incorrigible criminal – the psychopaths – that they are brazen, because they never really fear prosecution until it happens.  All too often they are right.  They have nothing to fear.

What’s especially poignant to me about Prof. Black’s observations is this astonishing behavior, where the fraud is openly documented.  The perpetrators are so confident, and so devoid of the normal human instincts of shame and embarrassment they no longer make the effort to hide their conduct.

For those who have been reading here, I needn’t point out that this is exactly the situation in western New York State.  Indeed, it is even worse than what Prof. Black describes:  for not only do the perpetrators have no fear of being prosecuted; they can also assume that the objectives of their frauds will be achieved, even when their fraudulent character is known beforehand.

As long as the perpetrators are police and prosecutors, that is.

I’m not sure that I share Prof. Black’s faith in the efficacy of prosecutions, though.  Perhaps ironically, it is the whole process of prosecuting and convicting that has been discredited.  When criminal conduct of this magnitude is institutionalized and endemic it may be that something else is required.  The game of identifying the villains and externalizing them so that we can punish them and expiate ourselves may not be adequate to the task at hand.

What is to be done, then?  I’m not sure.

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I was going to say that Newt Gingrich is detestable, but that’s not quite right.  After all, I don’t know him personally.  A man runs for President and all of a sudden qualities of character that would otherwise seem innocuous if a bit unpleasant are magnified into matters of grave concern.

Which is more to the point.  It’s one thing to have a beer with your neighbor who is always in and out of marital and other personal troubles but you like him because he’s smart and entertaining and knowledgeable and just overall interesting, and occasionally even inspiring and lucid and visionary. Not that you agree with everything he says, or even understand him half the time.

But the idea of electing the guy President of the United States is lunacy.  You don’t hand positions of frightful power to men who are unstable, erratic and undisciplined, even though they might be brilliant in their way.  And that’s really what this amounts to.  It would be like electing the late Christopher Hitchens president.  Endlessly interesting, but frivolous and dangerous at the same time.  A toddler with a loaded gun.

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