Posts from December 2013

The Age of Bronze

As we approach the New Year, we naturally think of ends, and of beginnings; what has changed, and what we have lost. So hey, libertarians, let’s all get together and feel sorry about the golden age of Limited Government and Individual Liberty we have lost. Remember the ancient liberties that we all enjoyed only 60 years ago, back in the 1950s? Back when all military-age men were subject to the draft, people were being interrogated before a permanent committee of Congress over their political beliefs, the FBI was conducting massive illegal wiretapping, surveillance and disruption against nonviolent civil rights activists, the National Security Agency was established as a completely secret surveillance arm of the federal government, it was illegal for married or unmarried women to buy basic birth control, it was made illegal for anyone to buy any scheduled drug without a doctor’s prescription, government was conducting medical experiments on unwilling human subjects[1], Urban Renewal was demolishing the core of every major U.S. city to build government highways and housing projects, and massive community-wide immigration raids were terrorizing undocumented migrants throughout the Southwest.

Or like back in the 1940s when government spending was over 50% of GDP, nearly the entire consumer economy was subject to government rationing, Japanese-Americans were forced into internment camps, and a secret government conspiracy was building an entire network of secret cities in order to build atomic bombs to drop on civilian centers.

Or like back in the 1930s when the entire institutional groundwork of the New Deal was being implemented, Roosevelt was making himself president-for-life, government attempted to seize all gold or silver bullion in private hands, the federal government first instituted the Drug War, Jim Crow was the law of the land, Congress created the INS, Jews fleeing the incipient Holocaust in Europe were being turned away by immigration authorities, and psychiatrists were using massive electric shocks or literally mutilating the brains of women and men confined to asylums.

Or like the 1920s when it was illegal to buy alcoholic drinks anywhere in the United States, tariff rates were nearly 40% on dutiable imports, Sacco and Vanzetti were murdered by the state of Massachusetts, the Invisible Empire Second Era Klan effectively took over the state governments of Colorado, Indiana, and Alabama, hundreds of black victims were massacred in race riots in Tulsa and Rosewood, when Congress created the Federal Radio Commission[2], the US Border Patrol, passed the Emergency [sic] Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924, and the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the authority of the state to forcibly sterilize women deemed “feeble-minded” or “promiscuous” for eugenic purposes.

Or the 1910s, when the federal government seized control of foreign-owned companies to facilitate production of chemical weapons, imposed the first-ever use of federal conscription to fight an overseas war, invaded Haiti, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Mexico[3], Russia, and Europe, passed criminal anarchy and criminal syndicalism statutes, tried and convicted hundreds of people for belonging to radical unions, imprisoned hundreds of people for protesting the draft during World War I (ordered by the President of the United States and upheld by the Supreme Court in one of its most radical anti-free-speech decisions), deported hundreds of people solely for holding anti-state political beliefs, the Mann Act made it illegal to “transport women across statelines for immoral purposes” [sic], the Colorado National Guard machine-gunned and burned alive striking miners and their families in order to break a UMWA organizing campaign, and Congress created the Federal Reserve, the Income Tax, the Espionage Act, and the Sedition Act.

Or maybe like the 1900s. . . . .

  1. [1]See also the biological and radiological experiments documented here, and the Guatemala syphilis experiment conducted from 1946-1948.
  2. [2]Created in 1926; later converted into the Federal Communications Commission in 1934.
  3. [3]In 1914, and then again in 1916-1917

Taking a stand

And in local journalism, we turn to the Op-Ed page of the Opelika-Auburn News, where the editorial board has — with their characteristic courage and insight — taken a bold and controversial stand by saying that Auburn’s football team is pretty good this year.

Markets Not Capitalism on the Air!

Edited by Gary Chartier & Charles W. Johnson
Published by Minor Compositions

To-day (Thursday 12/12) at 9pm US/Eastern, 8pm US/Central time, my co-editor Gary Chartier will be appearing on the John Stossel show on Fox Business Network, to discuss our book, Markets Not Capitalism. We just got confirmation from the show that the segment would be airing tonight; here’s a blurb from the show’s blog:

MARKETS NOT CAPITALISM: Gary Chartier, co-editor of Markets Not Capitalism, says there’s actually a lot to hate about capitalism when the word suggests capitalists using political connections to get special privileges. . . .

Well, that’s not really quite the point of the book.[1] But of course we appreciate the chance to talk about some of the themes and to get the good word out.

Setcher DVRs. Markets Not Capitalism is coming to prime time.

WHO: Gary Chartier
WHAT: Prime-time interview on Markets Not Capitalism
WHEN: Thursday, 12 December 2013 9pm EST (8pm Central)
WHERE: John Stossel show, Fox Business News

  1. [1]Cf. illud, hoc, and Is this all just a semantic debate?, if’n you’re looking for a different sort of gloss on the point of the book.

Free Millions

Here’s an article from Gina Luttrell at Thoughts on Liberty. In one way, the article is a defense of libertarianism against a common rhetorical attack from political status-quo Progressives. In another way, — and for much the same reason, because of the libertarian ideal that it appeals to — it is also a challenge to actually-existing libertarians. This is in many ways what the ideals, priorities and focuses of a sane Liberty Movement ought to be. If what you’re doing doesn’t live up to that, then you need to think more about what you’re doing, and why. Here’s Luttrell, in Tales of a Non-Male, Non-Christian Libertarian:

. . . In the history of mankind, who has been the most responsible for death, destruction, and oppression? Government. States are the entities that wage needless wars to prop up their own economies. Governments are the ones that systematically hunt down and slaughter their own peoples. Governments were responsible for Jim Crow, and it was the laws of the day that condoned, regulated, and perpetuated slavery. Even in our country today, a liberal, Democratic government is responsible for the mass incarceration of millions of people who have harmed no one. It is because of government policies that two people of the same sex can’t share property, have hospital visitation, or in some cases adopt children.

To my mind, and to the mind of many libertarians, the real enemy of the non-white, non-male, non-straight, non-Christian people in this country is not libertarianism, but the government. And when you greatly limit or even, dare I say it, abolish government, you free millions of socio-political minorities.

I will freely, perhaps more freely than most, admit that libertarians royally suck at understanding the societal oppression that faces minorities in our country today. I am about to make a trip to a conference to make that argument to them. They outright deny it in some cases. But not all of them do. . . . I don’t deny that libertarians very often have issues recognizing these problems as legitimate, but there are also scores of them who do and who are developing free solutions for a free world–for everyone. This is not a problem of libertarianism, it is a problem with some libertarians, and it is a fixable problem.

Are there problems with libertarianism as a philosophy? Possibly–but that depends on what type of libertarianism you’re talking about. . . . Libertarianism is a multi-faceted ideology, with a diverse group of adherents who all think different things about what liberty means and how best to achieve it.

–Gina Luttrell, Tales of a Non-Male, Non-Christian Libertarian
In Thoughts on Liberty (November 15, 2013)

Bitcoin got back.

I don’t have any utopian expectations about Bitcoin. The protocol design is thoughtful, and the underlying technology is kind of cool, especially if you’re interested in peer protocols or in cryptography. It’s an alternative form of money, which allows for near-instant transfers and substantial anonymity in transactions across long distances. Like other alt-currencies and like other craftily designed peer protocols, it may become a useful component in developing counter-economic institutions and helping to build social and economic infrastructure beyond the control of the state-capitalist status quo. I hope it will. But if so, it will be because it is one useful hack among many that we can employ. Bitcoin is not magic; it’s not the only thing that’s important; it’s not a revolution by itself. It is a tool; and one that I’ve found it a useful one from time to time. Evidently other people do, too.[1]

As people have become more interested in Bitcoin, a lot more articles have been published about it. It’s common for gold bugs to publish increasingly shrill apriori denunciations of Bitcoin because it is (they claim) not backed by a scarce commodity of independent economic value; and (they are convinced) only money that’s backed by a scarce commodity of independent economic value can be sustainable in the long run. I think that idea is probably wrong from the get. But even if it’s correct, it’s irrelevant: Bitcoin is backed by a valuable commodity. Or more precisely, Bitcoin blocks are a valuable commodity; they are constituted by scarce, computationally-expensive, cryptographically useful calculations performed by participants in the network (especially by Bitcoin miners). Those are scarce resources (it takes computing equipment and network communications and electricity to generate them). And they are valuable goods. They are valuable in virtue of the computational work they make possible. Almost none of the blanket attacks on Bitcoin take the value of cryptographic computation, or of the communication protocols that it establishes, into account; see, for example, this silly article from Gizmodo, which starts out by pointing out some really pretty awesome facts about the power of distributed computing, and how much dispersed computational work is being harnessed to keep the Bitcoin network and blockchain in working order:

According to Bitcoin Watch, the whole Bitcoin network hit a record-breaking high of 1 exaFLOPS this weekend. When you’re talking about FLOPS, you’re really talking about the number of Floating-point Operations a computer can do Per Second, or more simply, how fast it can tear through math problems. It’s a pretty common standard for measuring computer power. An exaFLOPS is 1018, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 math problems per second. The most powerful supercomputer in the world, Sequoia, can manage a mere 16 petaFLOPS, or just 1.6 percent of the power geeks around the world have brought to bear on mining Bitcoin. The world’s top 10 supercomputers can muster 5 percent of that total, and even the top 500 can only muster a mere 12.8 percent.

–Eric Limer, The World’s Most Powerful Computer Network Is Being Wasted on Bitcoin
In Gizmodo (May 13, 2013)

… and then bizarrely concludes that, therefore, this awesome computational power is being wasted, when it could have been devoted to an awesome real problem, like processing SETI@Home data:

. . . because the new ASIC miners—machines that are built from scratch to do nothing but mine Bitcoins—can’t even do other kinds of operations, they’re left out of the total entirely. So what we’ve got here is a representation of the total power spent on Bitcoin mining that could theoretically be spent on something else, like real problems that exist naturally.

Because of the way Bitcoin self-regulates, the math problems Bitcoin mining rigs have to do to get more ‘coin get harder and harder as time goes on. Not to any particular end, but just to make sure the world doesn’t get flooded with Bitcoins. So all these computers aren’t really accomplishing anything other than solving super difficult and necessarily arbitrary puzzles for cyber money. It’s kind of like rounding up the world’s greatest minds and making them do Sudokus for nickels.

Projects like Folding@Home and SETI@Home use similarly networked power for the less-pointless practices of parsing information that could lead to more effective medicines or finding extra-terrestrial life, respectively, and either are hard-pressed to scrounge up even half of a percent of the power the Bitcoin network is rocking. And with specialized Bitcoin-mining hardware on the rise, there’s going to be an army of totally powerhouse PCs out there that are good for literally nothing but digging up cybercoins.

It’s incredible to think about the amount of power being directed at this one, singular purpose; power that’s essentially being “donated” by thousands of people across the globe just because they have skin in the game. It’s by far the most computational effort that has ever been devoted to a single purpose. And sure, Bitcoins are fine and all, but can you imagine what we could do if this energy was put behind other tough problems? We’ll you’re going to have to imagine, because so long as mining Bitcoins can earn you money and folding proteins can’t, it’s pretty clear which one is gonna get done.

–Eric Limer, The World’s Most Powerful Computer Network Is Being Wasted on Bitcoin
In Gizmodo (May 13, 2013)

I guess that would be a pretty big waste, if the Bitcoin network did not provide a useful service with the results of that work.

But it does.

The implicit claim that maintaining the blockchain in working order, — a computationally-expensive task which provides an anonymous, cryptographically-verified international account ledger and a free peer-to-peer global money transfer service to anyone in the world with an Internet connection, — somehow provides less of value to the world than SETI@Home is of course completely unsubstantiated by anything in the article, and is really pretty laughable.

For what it’s worth the article’s other direct claim — that Bitcoin mining is somehow taking up scarce spare cycles that might otherwise have been put to use on other distributed computing projects — is also an odd claim, and not one substantiated by anything in the article. What is far more likely is that the opportunity cost of Bitcoin mining is something completely different — if miners weren’t building ASIC rigs, they would almost certainly not be spending the money on equipment and electricity for Folding@Home or other distributed computing projects; they’d be spending it on some other money-making venture, or on leisure.

  1. [1]I have no idea whether or not the current, massive jump in Bitcoin prices means that it is in the midst of a speculative bubble; or whether it just means that demand is increasing because more people have a genuine use for what Bitcoin provides. I don’t think much turns on this unless you’re trying to make money by timing the market. Which is probably not a great idea in the first place.