The Problem of Bureaucracy: A Blast from the Past

I can’t believe this.  Well, actually, yes I can, but I shouldn’t be able to.  It should be unthinkable.  What, you may ask?  Well, a bureaucrat just complained about the President of the United States interfering in the foreign policy they (the bureaucracy) were making.

Um, From Article Two of the United States Constitution, setting foreign policy, is pretty much his job (with “The Advice and Consent of the Senate”).  Bureaucrats derive their power from him, to execute his policy, not the other way around.

But this problem is one that stems from the inherent nature of entrenched bureaucracies.  Elected officials come and go.  The bureaucrats are forever.  And that’s the problem.  Thus the following, which focused more on educational bureaucracies but applies equally well here:

The late Dr. Jerry Pournelle described what he called “The Iron Law of Bureaucracy” as follows:

In any bureaucratic organization, there are two kinds of bureaucrats:  those whose interests are the reasons for the bureaucracy, and those whose interests are the bureaucracy itself.  The Iron Law states that in every case the second category will achieve control of the bureaucracy, write its procedures, and control promotions within the organization.

The world does not appear to present any counter-examples to the iron law.  New and vigorous bureaucracies might, at first, vigorously pursue the goals of the bureaucracy but sooner or later (usually sooner) the Iron Law takes over and the bureaucracy becomes its own reason for being.

A useful marker is to look at the size and cost of the bureaucracy with no commensurate increase in results.

Take, as an example, education in the United States.  Spending (after adjusting for inflation) on each student over the course of their schooling from Kindergarten through High School  has more than tripled since 1970.  Yet despite this massive increase in spending, test scores in basic subjects like math, reading, and science have not improved:


We see the same thing in health care.  In this case the extraordinary grown of administration compared with the very modest growth in number of physicians:


Time and again we see the same thing, wherever there’s a bureaucracy the iron law takes over and those in charge of the bureaucracy become those less interested in the goals for which the organization was created, and more those of the organization itself.  Education, Health Care, Public Safety, The Environment, anything.

This is not to say that everyone in those organizations cares only about the bureaucracy and its size, power, and influence.  The Iron Law does not say that the first sort of bureaucrat goes away.  Those dedicated to the purpose of the organization–the teachers who care about the kids’ learning, doctors working hard to promote the health of their patients, police for whom “to serve and protect” is not just an empty slogan, and so on–still exist.  They’re just not the ones “driving the bus” as it were.

Unfortunately, the Iron Law is the Iron Law because their is no cure, not completely.  Most attempts to “fix” the Iron Law fail because, the people called on to implement those changes in the first place are bureaucrats of the second type.  And the implementation simply becomes another opportunity to enforce the Iron Law.

There are a few things that can mitigate the effect of the Iron Law.

One way to alleviate the problem of the Iron Law is to tie the power and influence of the bureaucracy to its success at meeting its goals.  One of the most effective ways to do this is through the market.  In businesses that have to compete with others, if the company (which is, itself, a bureaucratic organization) does not produce products and services that meet the wants of the customers those customers will go elsewhere.  Thus bureaucrat of first or second type matters little here since both types will have to meet the goals of the bureaucracy if the bureaucracy itself is to thrive.

While far more things than many will credit can be handled that way, not all things for which bureaucracies are created, even legitimately, are amenable to that treatment.  In those cases, there remain a couple of things that can be done to minimize the problem of the Iron Law.

The first of these alternate methods is to keep the bureaucracy small and local.  The tendency of any bureaucracy is to grow, but if you can restrict that growth, you can minimize its appeal to the second class of bureaucrat and delay the problem where the bureaucracy becomes its own reason for being.

The second is to simply reset the entire process periodically–sweep the bureaucracy clean from time to time and start over.  This is what the “spoils” system of the past did, where the new administration essentially replaced everyone top to bottom.  While that system certainly had its problems, I am not certain that the problems of an entrenched bureaucracy, as developed in the Iron Law, are not worse.

So, while the Iron Law may be iron indeed, even iron will bend if you hammer it enough.

Trade and Political Policy


Sadly, as I write this (a couple of days before it posts) it looks like events in Hong Kong are coming to a head, and heading for an unhappy ending.  In the lead-up to this I have had some of my friends express their disgust at trade with China–which is doing such horrible things–and speculating that if we cut off trade, the government would fall within…

Well, that’s wishful thinking at best.  In the past, I’ve written on why free trade is the best approach economically.  (Here and here specifically.)  This is true even if you hate the other guy’s guts.  This is true even if the other guy does not engage in free trade.  There may be a few specific cases where that does not hold, but by and large, that’s they way to bet.

Carl von Clauswitz is supposed to have said that war is politics by other means, i.e. that the purpose of war is not its own sake but to achieve political ends.  The same might be said of trade wars.

The questions that one has to ask, however, are threefold:

  • Is the goal to which the war (physical or trade) is intended to achieve worth the price.  While the host in pain, suffering, and death are obvious in a physical war, the same applies in more subtle fashion in trade wars.  Trade wars hurt the economies of all the parties involved.  They reduce the prosperity of all of them.  And, as I have pointed out before, a reduction of prosperity costs lives.  That this cost is more easily ignored does not make it any less real.
  • Does the war actually further that goal.  Flipping the old dark humor joke on its head, if your goal is to save the village, destroying seems a funny way to accomplish that.  Likewise, if your trade war is unlikely to achieve whatever political goal you have, then you’re harming not just your opponent’s economy, but your own to no end.  The goal may be a good one, and worth a war, but not if the war is unlikely to bring about the goal.
  • Are there better, and less costly, ways of achieving the goal? Even if your war can bring about the goal, if there are other ways with less breakage, would it not be better to pursue them?  War may be your only option.  It may be your best (or least bad) option.  But then again, maybe it isn’t.  Nowhere is it writ in nature that there has to be a better way, but if there is, why not pursue it?

What do we have in the case of a trade war with China, in an effort to ameliorate their rampant human rights abuses?

Well, personally, I’d say that ending their human rights abuses would certainly justify the economic hardship of a trade war.  Even the skyrocketing prices of key resources like Rare Earth Elements (used in things like high strength magnets) would be worth it if that goal could be achieved.  And if we could get them to end the abuses, we could then go back to free trade and turn the hardship into nothing more than a memory.

But then we get to Step two:  will a trade war actually accomplish that end.  There are folk who think it would but…I am less sanguine.  For one thing, economic sanctions are rarely successful at bringing about regime change or even significant change in the behavior of a government.  In the specific case of China, never were the Chinese Communists more secure in their control of China than in the period between the Communists attaining control of mainland China and Nixon’s re-opening of diplomatic and trade relations with them.  During that time the US orchestrated a diplomatic and trade embargo against China.  During that time, horrors such as the “Cultural Revolution” and the “Great Leap Forward” saw the Chinese government slaughter tens of millions of its own people.  Yet never was there any serious threat to Mao’s rule of China.

What more could a modern trade war do to China than was being done then?  Such a trade war might inconvenience the leadership who siphon off much of the wealth that international trade brings to China, but the hardships would fall most heavily on the Chinese people.

Perhaps, some say, that hardship would inspire the Chinese people to rise up against their communist leadership.  Perhaps.  Or perhaps with a trade embargo the Chinese government would have an external enemy to point to as the cause of their increased suffering–and actually have that claim have more than a grain of truth to it.  The rulers of despotisms rarely suffer much from trade sanctions.  It’s the people who bear the brunt.

Trade sanctions utterly failed to upset Chinese Communist rule of China in the two decades of the span from 1949 to 1969.  I am highly skeptical that trade sanctions would be any more effective now.

While I would love to see China throw off the yoke of Communism and enter the world market as a free (or at least freer) nation, I don’t see trade sanctions from tariffs to a full embargo accomplishing that end.  And if it won’t accomplish that end, then it’s just virtue signaling.  And we never even get to the point three of “are there better, less damaging, ways to accomplish that end?”

Unfortunately, I don’t have any answers.  I won’t say that sometimes the world just sucks because in cases like this people make it suck.  However, there is hope.  For all their flaws, Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev at least cared a little about their country and its people.  They had at least some desire for their nations to prosper as they were not under communism.  This led to “Perestroika” (change) and “Glasnost'” (openness).  And once that crack in the wall was permitted, it was only a matter of time before it all came down.

Sadly, Xi Jinping does not appear to be such a ruler and with the abolition of term limits on his position, barring a miracle it may be decades before a new chance arises.  The Chinese people will have to hold on until then.

Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your point of view, the Chinese people have a long history of holding on.

Barriers to Entry: A Combined and Expanded Blast from the Past


A couple of years ago, starting with a nice parable produced by Frederick Bastiat, I talked a bit about capital and interest and why those who own capital–the means of production (not money; money is just something that can be traded for capital).–are entirely deserving of being compensated for making that capital available to others to use and that the compensation is based on what capital is made available not how much a particular person has.  A particular amount of capital rates so much compensation, whether that capital is owned by one person or split up between two, ten, or ten thousand.  You can’t charge too much for the use of that capital (Whether it’s a plane, or a rolling mill, or a semiconductor fabrication facility) or people will produce their own rather than use yours and pay the compensation you demand.

Or that will be the case if there aren’t barriers to entry.

Let’s go back to James and his plane.  James wants to charge more for his plane but he finds when he does so his customers, instead of paying his higher charges, say “no” and take the time to make their own planes.  The revenue they lose for taking the time to make their own plane (opportunity cost in economic terms) is less than James is charging.  James either has to lower his prices or watch his customers go away.

Enter government to provide a third option.

James goes to the local Baron shows him his plane, explains how using that plane folk can make fine, splinter-free thrones for the Baron to sit upon and fine tables for his feast halls.  But other people are making planes too.  And, well, who knows what quality they are.  Really, they should not be able to do that.  And if those inferior planes were prohibited and only James were allowed to make planes, why James would be able to contributed, say 10% of the charge from renting out planes to the Baron’s feast fund.

The Baron’s stricture that only James shall be allowed to make and provide planes in the Barony is what we call a Barrier to Entry.

Barriers to Entry are anything that gets in the way of competition.

And you don’t need a complete ban to have a barrier to entry.  If, for instance, James simply suggested that anyone making planes should complete a year long “plane building course” then anyone coming in would have to charge for their planes based on the cost to them of that year spent just completing the course.  And James, already comfortably in the field, can charge that higher price confident that no one is going to undersell him.

Some barriers to entry are natural.  If a particular field requires unusual skill or talent few people will be successful in it.  The ability to hit a major league fastball is a pretty strong barrier to entry to playing major league baseball (and/or throw or field that major league fastball).  This means players can charge pretty high salaries without fear of thousands of others who can do the same thing for less money.

Same principle if something requires a rare or difficult to access resource.  Lack of that resource, or lack of access to it, is a barrier to entry.

This is how monopolies happen.  There are only two ways you can have a monopoly.  The first is that someone is so good at providing a good or service that they give better value than any potential competitors.   The second is where barriers to entry are imposed artificially.  And while there are some “natural monopolies” (rare skill set or access to resources providing the barrier)  this second category is usually the result of government regulation.  It takes force to impose such a barrier.  And the only organization that can lawfully (pretty much by definition) use force is government.

Government regulation serves as a barrier to entry and always either increases the cost of goods and services or creates a shortage.  Or both.

Now let’s look at that first category of monopoly–where someone is so good that they can undersell all competitors and so the competitors go out of business.  When that happens, people wring their hands and worry that once the competition is gone, the monopoly can then raise its prices without limit.  However, in the absence of barriers to entry the moment they do that competitors can once again arise.  They cannot raise their prices higher than that required to make competitors profitable.  So, while there may be no competitors (nobody’s able to match that first person’s ability to produce at low cost) there’s still competition because other folk are just waiting, champing at the bit to jump in should prices rise.  Others are looking diligently for their own ways of being able to produce the good at a price less than the “monopolist” so they can get all the customers and make all the money.  In this case, it’s the consumers who benefit by the lower cost of the goods and services.

When there are strong barriers to entry, however, the monopolist (or oligopolist) can safely raise prices until customers groan, save in the knowledge that those barriers will prevent others from entering the market and underselling him.  Yay for him.  For the consumer, not so much.

When the barriers to entry are “natural” there remains the risk that someone else will break in.  Someone else may develop the requisite skills or find a way to accomplish the same end without such skills (teletype replacing Morse telegraph operators as one example and that largely replaced by telephone with telephone operators largely replaced by computers and so on). New sources for difficult to access resources can be found or, again, new ways of providing the same consumer desires found.  Artificial barriers, raised by government, are not so amenable to “work around” largely because government adapts to “work around” attempts and shuts them off too. (The rise of freight trucking providing an alternative to rail freight instead of eliminating or reducing the need to “regulate” rail instead led to equally, if not more, restrictive regulation of interstate trucking.)

It’s those artificially imposed barriers to entry that really screw things up for the consumer.  So the question should not be “is there a monopoly” but rather “is the monopoly caused by artificially imposed barriers to entry.  From a strictly economic point of view, you want the fewest barriers to entry as possible.  Ideally only natural ones and even those we would do well to mitigate.

Now, there are situations where its advisable, for reasons other than economic to distort things from the ideal “minimum barriers to entry–let everything sink or swim on its own” approach.  But that’s a topic for another day.

Another aspect of barriers to entry is the effect they have on economic profits.

This is a bit more complex than some of the topics I’ve talked about here, not because the concepts are difficult, but because it brings together several seemingly disparate ideas.

First there’s “Economic Profit.” As defined in my Introduction to Microeconomics course it’s profit where you include not only the expenditure, but also the “opportunity cost”.  Allow me to expand on that a bit.  Opportunity cost (metioned above) is counting as a cost whatever would be the most valuable use for a given resource.  If the resource is money, it’s the “opportunity” you lose by spending it on one thing rather than another.  This is a little complicated, so let me illustrate with an example if you could invest $100 in an investment that has a 5% rate of return your opportunity cost of some other use of that money is the present value of the $100 plus what it would gain in interest.  First let me briefly address the idea of present value.  Present value simply means that some resource today is more valuable than having that same resource in the future.  See my telling of Bastiat’s The Plane for an illustration of how that works.  For instance, if we presume an interest rate for calculating PV of 3% (including both inflation and the loss of the use of the money in the interim) and invested that $100 in something offering 5% (compounded annually) for 10 years, the future value at the end of the 10 years would be $162.89 and the Present Value would be $121.21 (inflation eats up about $40 of that future value).  This assumes that there is no risk in the investment and that you can rely on inflation to be stable.  Investment risk and uncertainty in inflation would tend to reduce the present value to reflect the chance of lesser returns or greater inflation cutting into the value of that money.

So, if that 5% investment is the best you could do with that money the “opportunity cost” of using that $100 is $121.21 rendered as present value.  Whatever you use that $100 for doesn’t just cost you $100 (although it’s convenient to think of it that way).  It costs you the $121 of present value you could have had if you’d invested it.

With that idea in mind, an economic profit is one where the return is greater than the opportunity cost of the invested resources.  Basically, it has to return more (after adjusting for risk and uncertainty) than anything else that could be done with those resources.  In short, it has to be the best possible use of that money, better than any other use you could make.

Generally speaking and left to themselves, investments won’t be economically profitable, at least not for long.  If, for instance, you had a business that sells widgets at higher price, with a lower cost to produce, than other people, competitors will see that and say “I’m gonna get me some of that!” and start producing those widgets too.  This will increase the supply and tend to drive the costs down you’re back in line with everything else of similar risk.  This doesn’t happen in an instant, of course, so a business can be economically profitable for a while before others grab on.  Note, this does not mean that all investments will tend to have the same return because risk factors in.   More risky investments will have to have higher returns to compensate for the increased likelihood of losing some or all of the initial investment.

Don’t confuse economically profitable with “profit” as a business considers it.  Balance sheets don’t generally show opportunity cost.  A business can be making money, making a profit as its investors and the IRS sees it, but only if it’s making a higher profit than businesses of similar risk is it economically profitable.

As I said, left to themselves businesses and investments won’t generally be economically profitable for long.  But there is something that can make them so.  That’s “Barriers to entry.” What prevents a business from becoming economically profitable is competition, others being able to see those profits and coming in, increasing supply until the market brings the profitability down to everyone else.  If you can prevent others from doing that, then you can continue being economically profitable.

One barrier to entry is if your business requires a talent or skill that’s in short supply.   Sports franchises are an example of this.   You can’t just pick up 53 people off the street and throw them (in groups of 11) at an NFL team.  Sports franchises aren’t the only example.

The big barrier to entry, however as mentioned above, is government regulation and licensing.  If you can get the people who are allowed to use actual force to stop others from competing with you, then you’ve got one massive barrier to entry.  It may be a relatively porous barrier (pay a modest fee, sign your name, and get your license).  It may be a solid one (only a handful, or even a single, government chosen business need apply).  Those barriers can include such things as requiring long and expensive training before being allowed to work in the field (Doctors, Lawyers, Barbers…Barbers?).  Anything the government puts in the way that makes it harder for someone to enter a field is a barrier to entry.  And all barriers to entry, all licensing and regulation by government, act to stifle competition, limiting supply and therefore keeping prices high.  Attempts to alleviate the price problem by further regulation merely aggravates the shortages.  (Barriers to entry reduce supply.  Price controls reduce supply.  Both is a double whammy.)

This is why you’ll often find the strongest supporters of government regulation and licensing among those already in the field.  After all, it’s barriers to entry, not barriers to those already in the field.  As Thomas Sowell and the late Milton Friedman were frequently wont to point out, government regulation usually means protection for incumbents already in a field (at the expense of anyone who might enter the field and the customers those new entrants might serve).  Existing companies can get the government to restrict future competition that might cut into their business?  What’s not to love (if you’re in that field wanting to make money). It may not even be deliberate cupidity on their part.  They may honestly believe their rhetoric about safety and protecting the public and the consumers.  But the incentive is there and will have an effect.

This is not to say that the regulation and/or licensing is always a bad thing on balance.  But all too often people proposing regulation neglect to consider the economic effects of that regulation.  One cannot ignore those economic effects however justified one may believe the regulation is on other grounds.  And since one of the effects is reduction of supply of the regulated good, the question then becomes if you’re really trying to protect people, ensure “exceptional quality”, or whatever legitimate reason you have for the regulation, the question becomes, what are the people who aren’t able to obtain the good because of the reduced supply supposed to do?  Just do without?  Are they really better off than if, say, some lower quality were available under less strict regulations?  Is “nothing” really the better option for those people?

These are questions everyone needs to ask themselves whenever new barriers to entry are proposed or an old barrier comes under scrutiny.  The whole package, not just the heartfelt rhetoric.

The Ongoing Ice Follies

I know that this is pretty soon after the last one, but I’ve again made some significant progress.  This has actually been a very productive week for me.

In addition to the two-foot turn that I mentioned before as one of the key skills I have to learn to finally complete “Basic 3” there’s a “Bonus Skill” called the Forward Inside Pivot.  That’s a move that’s supposed to look like this:

I fumbled around a little bit with it in the last session but in this most recent I spent a little more time and actually got it a bit better.  But the real thing was that I was able to transition from the pivot to an actual two-foot spin (a Basic 4 technique) as follows:

Now, the girl in that video isn’t actually doing a pivot as a lead into the spin–she’s not up on the toe picks of the foot that’s not pumping–but that’s what at least one of my local instructors teaches.   And I got there.  I only made one revolution (they want two for Basic 4), but it’s a start.

I also managed a few crossovers on a circle and some work on the two foot turn front to back.  Didn’t come to a complete stop this time.  So…progress.  Indeed, in my most recent class the instructor had us do a lap of the entire rink with instructions to use our crossovers in the corners.  Managed actually.   More of a confidence thing than anything else.  She told us that that’s what we should do during public skate–crossovers in the corners.

Next thing, I started working on Backward Pumps on a circle.  This is one of the stepping stones to more advanced backward working.

The second session of the day, the rink was too crowded to do much technique practice.  Some work on my balance in one foot glides (so important for anything I really want to do) and that’s about it.  However, during the session someone took a bad spill.  Hit the ice face first and it looks like he’d bloodied his mouth.  Left a big blood-spot on the ice.  The “Ice guard” was standing there, trying to divert traffic away from it but there was only so much one person could do.  I stopped and asked if he’d like some help directing traffic.  He accepted gratefully and I spend some time standing “upstream” of the mess directing people to go around.  We lasted until some other people could come out with a scraper to clean up the mess and get it off the ice.  Nice to know that I was able to help.

The really great thing was on Sunday’s public skate.  A young lady flagged me down while I was skating.  I stopped and skated back to her and she said she was helping the younger boy with her (guessing her at late teens and the boy a couple years younger) learn to skate and she asked if I could help.  Not a problem.  We went over forward marching and taking several steps in forward marching then two foot glide.  I then showed them how to do a forward swizzle and suggested that once he gets comfortable with the march and glide bit he can try that.  It seemed to be helpful.  I was about at the end of my session–wanting to get plenty of rest between public skate and class–but if they had any further questions to not hesitate to come and get me.

The thing that made it so nice, though, was that out of all the people out there on the ice I was the one they asked for help.  I’m still working on it and really, really need a lot of help myself with this but even with much better skaters out there, they asked me.  Maybe it was the way I dressed?  I mean, the dress shirt and slacks, red jaquard cravat and red and black brocade vest is just “walking around clothes” to me, but an outfit like that wouldn’t look out of place in figure skating competition.  Mind you I’d look quite out of place, but the outfit?  Fit right in.  So maybe I fit their image of a “real figure skater” rather than just some guy goofing around on the ice.

Different vest and no cravat here, but you get the idea.

All told, between the two sessions I spent a good hour on the ice.  And another hour the next dab between public skate and class.  Maybe I can nail down that pivot and spin a bit more.  My plan for this week is to bring my skates into the house (they usually just stay in the back of the car) and practice the crossover movement on the floor (blade guards protecting blades and floor from each other of course).  Hopefully that will help me get the movements down so I can get comfortable with it again like I used to be.

Power and Government

militarized police

This one’s a bit of a ramble.

When people talk about the government having the power to do something there are two things they could mean.  The first, which can also be worded as “the right” (governments do not have rights–people have rights–governments have power and authority) to do something, is that they have the legitimate authority to do it.  The second, is the have the main strength, the “force majeure” to impose their will on the populace.  Unfortunately, entirely too many people confuse the latter for the former.

A quote attributed to George Washington (probably erroneously) is “Government is not reason.  It is not eloquence — It is force.  Like fire it is a dangerous servant and a terrible master.” Whether Washington ever said that, or anything like it, it remains true.  Indeed, “the license to initiate force to achieve certain ends” is a pretty good definition of government.  What makes government different from other forms of organization is that it has some presumed legitimacy in using and initiating coercive force to accomplish at least some ends.  Government can use the threat of force to take money to pay for things like police, defense (and, yes, roads) and have that considered legitimate.  Private individuals or groups cannot.  To accomplish that, government has power in the second sense above–the main strength to impose upon others and force them to behave in certain ways (pay taxes, obey traffic laws, fight in wars, whatever).

This power, this ability to use force, can indeed be necessary.  In the case of invasion, one cannot take the time to discuss everything in committee, to hope to gather up sufficient volunteers to form a force sufficient to stave off the invasion, to hope that others will voluntarily pony up enough resources to arm and equip that force, train it (and that everybody will voluntarily go along with the training and not say “this is BS” and walk out), supply it, and get it to where it needs–all quickly enough to minimize the damage done by the invaders.  Well, one could but the results are unlikely to be anything we would want.  So, someone needs to be able to say “you must provide arms and equipment for a body of fighting men, ready to act at once to resist invasion” and when things happen they need to say “you, you, and you, go here.  Fight there” and so on.  And that someone needs to be able to enforce that promptly, and without debate.  This is an extreme example of the principle but it illustrates the point.  A nation needs the force of the second sense in my opening paragraph.

That government has the power to do something–in that it’s able to marshal sufficient force to impose that something on the populace–however, does not mean that it has the legitimate authority to do so–the “power” in the first sense of my opening paragraph.  It needs that as well.  The areas in which that first sense power can legitimately be exercised, and the limits to which it can be exercised, must also be circumscribed.  It is this limitation, this structure, that differentiates a legitimate government from tyrannical strong-man rule (whether by an individual, a committee, or even a majority of the people).

It was this that the Founders of the United States tried to establish first with the Articles of Confederation and when experience showed that those articles did not grant enough power to central authority to handle even the issues they had at the time, with the Constitution and its first ten amendments, “The Bill of Rights”.  These spelled out certain, specific powers granted to government and further certain things that were placed beyond government’s purview.  The “power” of government in the first sense.

Since then, however, the Government of the United States has grown far beyond those circumscribed limits.  That process began at the very beginning of the nation but was slow for a while.  It gained momentum in the Civil War and its aftermath.  Picked up real speed with FDR and his “New Deal” and made the jump to lightspeed in the 60’s.

Government kept accumulating powers to itself to dictate this, restrict that, control that other thing.  All without bothering to limit itself to those legitimate powers delegated in the Constitution, nor bothering to avoid aspects expressly forbidden.

But, the government had the power (second sense) to do this.  Congress would pass the law.  The President would sign it (or simply not veto it) or Congress would override the veto.  Law enforcement would enforce it.  Worse even, administrative agencies were granted power to create “regulations” which had the force of law, without bothering with the entire legislative process.  And the courts would permit it.

It wasn’t all one way, of course.  The courts would sometimes strike down a provision of law or an entire law.  Sometimes.  And sometimes the courts would find entire new “rights” to use as justification for overturning legitimate functions of government.

Still, the limits on the power (first sense) of government have come to be largely ignored in pursuit of power (second sense) of government.

And we, the people, have largely been forced to stand by and let it happen because the government has had the power (second sense) to enforce those laws.  Voters, entirely too many voters, would let their legislator’s behave this way–largely because they benefit from some aspect and don’t really see the extent of the harm, or they’ve been deceived into believing that the government legitimately has the power (first sense) to do what it’s doing and so…why fight it.  Those few who have are simply called “crazy” and, indeed, many are.  Robert Heinlein said “tilting at windmills hurts you more than the windmill.” Even if the “windmill” really is a giant, few “sane” people will rush headlong into when the only result is to be knocked onto ones backside, bruised and perhaps bloody (or worse, dead).

The problem is, this can only go so far.  Many will be driven to attempt to use existing political mechanisms to try to push things back.  To be honest, I am somewhat skeptical of how likely that is to be for reasons I’m not prepared to go into here.  In addition, there will be other, less acceptable responses. As the power (second sense) outstrips the legitimate power (first sense), more and more people become disturbed by the dichotomy we can expect to see more and more “crazies”. It would not be that there are more crazies, but that the situation has changed so slightly less “crazy” people are driven to act.  Their actions will be horrible, unjustifiable really (through poor target discrimination if for nothing else).  And please note that I am neither endorsing nor encouraging such action.  The prospect, to be honest, terrifies me.  But those “crazies” will serve as a warning of things to come, a “canary in a coal mine” if you will.  And it will come from not just one side.  Resistance, legitimate or otherwise, to the increasing power (second sense) of government will be seen as an attack by those who like the government gaining more power (second sense)–at least when it’s using that power for ends of which they approve.

The problem is, people who like the increasing use of government power (second sense) in causes they favor often don’t recognize that the same increase in power (second sense) will also be used in causes they don’t favor.  And they presume that the problem is the specific causes government power (second sense) is being used for rather than the government exceeding its legitimate power (first sense).  Instead of reducing government to it’s legitimate power (first sense) they try and use its power (second sense) to shut out people who want to use government for things of which they disapprove (while keeping their own use of power (second sense) intact).  That way lies tyranny.

So hang on to your hats, folks.  It’s going to be a bumpy ride.


Operant Conditioning (Previously The Problem With the Education/Industrial Complex)

Well, “a” problem, but I think a lot of the various problems stem from this one.

skinner box

Consider operant conditioning.  As a quick summary, it’s how organisms behavior is modified in response to stimulus.  Behaviors that are associated with a “good” stimulus become more common and behaviors that are associated with a “bad” stimulus become less common.

It worked on rats in B. F, Skinner’s experiments.  It works on people in general (although there are always a few stubborn cusses that will push hard against such conditioning, at least when it’s blatant).  And I submit that it works on institutions.

Now consider that in the context of an educational bureaucracy.  The stimulus is money.  For a long time most of the time the folk who find reasons (however sincerely believed) why they “need” more money were rewarded with more money.  Need computers?  more money.  Need more teachers so we can have smaller classes?  More money. “Need” sports facilities and a coach so we can have a winning football team?  More money.  New textbooks for the latest educational theory to come down the pike?  More money.

And what happens to someone who is frugal and comes in under budget?  There’s a saying about budgets in bureaucracies:  use it or lose it.  Reward is based on coming up with reasons why the kids aren’t learning what they ought (or why the schools should be “teaching” even more things even though they aren’t teaching the basic skills the schools were created for in the first place).  It is not based on how well the kids are actually learning.

For a long time we, as a society, have been rewarding the educational industrial complex for excuses for failure rather than for success.  It doesn’t even require any dishonesty.  People who honestly believe that this is the reason why the kids aren’t learning or that is important enough to take time away from “three ‘r’” work are rewarded.  Folk who say “we need to go back to what works” or “we’re trying to do too much, we need to cut back to basics, get that right, and then think about what’s most important to add without losing those basics”…aren’t.

And the ones who are rewarded end up in positions of power and influence within the education-industrial complex.  It’s the Iron Law of Bureaucracy at a nutshell.

We’ve been rewarding excuses for failure and penalizing success.  As a result we get more excuses for failure and less success.  Exactly the opposite of what we should be doing:  rewarding success and penalizing failure, regardless of what excuses are presented for that failure.

Operant conditioning at work.

The Ongoing Saga of the Ice Follies

First off, the Christmas show I had volunteered for was put off.  Too much other stuff going on on the ice to get the ice time for choreography and rehearsal.  So, show put off to February-ish.  I’ll still be going it, just it won’t be a Christmas show.

I hadn’t had a lot of progress to report lately.  Mostly I’d been consolidating what I had recently learned.  Building confidence and fluidity with my existing technique rather than learning new ones.  But this last session I finally branched out a bit.

Latest breakthroughs in the actual skating.  First was a new technique, one I’d been a bit leery of trying because I’m still recovering from injury–my ankle hadn’t healed quite right from the sprain six months ago and I’m going through physical therapy with it now–so I’d been hesitant about new techniques which have a greater risk of falls and new injuries on top of old.  Still, things were going well with other things I was doing so I thought I’d try it.  Two foot turn on the circle, front to back.  You start going forward, you’re gliding on both feet with knees bent.  You rise up and at the top of the rise where you’ve unweighted the skates slightly (it’s not a jump, you don’t come off the ice) you flip around so now you’re going backward.  Something like this. (Okay, exactly like this):

I’m not doing it well.  By the time I complete the turn I’ve pretty much come to a complete stop.  But it’s at the point where I can practice it with some confidence and I think coming in with a bit more speed will mean the drag inherent in the move won’t completely stop me so I can continue with a backward glide.

The next technique is one I used to be able to do pretty well when I was younger.  As I’ve said before, ice skating is not like riding a bike.  In the intervening years (okay, decades) I’d lost everything I’d been able to do before and was basically starting over.  And it’s harder to re-learn now than it was to learn in the first place.  This is the Forward Crossover:

Here’s an example of forward crossovers in action.  It allows you to accelerate through a curve.  You can see it in action in speed skating as they go around the track:

Forward crossovers is the last of the techniques that I had when I was younger.  Once I have that back, I’ll have everything I could do on ice at 18, plus some.  As I’ve mentioned before, I never learned backward skating when I was younger so I’m already way ahead there.  This will mean that there’s nothing still lagging.

The big challenge of re-learning as opposed to learning when I was younger is that falls that, when I was younger would be a simple matter of getting up and dusting myself off mean injuries now.  And injuries take a lot longer to heal than they did when I was eighteen.  So it’s a balance.  Don’t push enough and I don’t progress.  But push too hard and, boom, injury, which means that progress stops while I heal and I even lose some of what I’d gained.

My daughter suggested pads and I’ve considered it, but the injuries that I’ve had that are likely to keep me off the ice are hyperextensions–sprains–and pads don’t do a lot there.  Bruises?  I can skate with bruises.  I can’t skate with a sprained knee.

So, caution remains the watchword, but not too cautious.

“Lie about Confiscating Guns.”


Joy Behar’s “recommendation” to gun-grabbing freedom-denying politicians is to lie about their intent to confiscate guns, then just do it once they’re in office.

Well, we’re used to politicians lying to us.  It’s more surprising when they tell the truth.  However even their lies can be informative.  The thing to remember is that a politician has only one raison de etre.  Anything they say, anything they do, has only one purpose:  to win their next election.  There may be occasional exceptions (for instance, a President heading toward a second term being more “flexible” after their last election), but that’s the general rule.  This is especially true when it comes to lies:  they lie because it’s what they need to do to get elected.

Now consider that in the light of Ms. Behar’s recommendation.  Lie about gun confiscation because that’s what you need to do to get elected.  After all, consider how Robert “Beta” O’Roark’s” campaign tanked on his “ban the guns, have mandatory ‘buy backs’, and police going door to door if people don’t comply with the ‘buy back’.” (How can you buy something “back” that you never sold in the first place?)

If you want to be elected, you have to lie about confiscating guns.  At the very least you have to couch it in indirect terms such as “Australian-style gun control” or “UK-style gun control”.  Both of those were widespread confiscations but most people on hearing those terms don’t think of it in those terms.

But here’s the flip side of that.  The same people who are lying about their positions (unless you catch them in unguarded moments), or at the very least are spinning a net of words so you don’t think of it in those terms, are also the ones claiming that there is broad support amounting to a majority of Americans for the “Australian” or “UK” style gun control–for bans and confiscation.

So which is it?  Do you have to lie about banning being the goal to win elections or does banning have the broad support claimed for it?  Because you can’t have both.  If it were really something that a majority of Americans supported, then you would be touting it to the heavens in order to win those votes.

Oh, sure, you point to public polls saying that a majority of Americans support this ban or that ban, “mandatory buy-backs”, and so on and so on. And a correctly designed and implemented poll can give one a good idea of what ideas are popular among the American people.  But not all polls are well designed and well implemented.  Some are designed not so much to measure public opinion but to try to shape it.

And, by your own actions, concealing that you really do want to take their guns in order to win elections, you show that you do not believe those poll results yourself.  Perhaps your internal polls, those aimed to actually measure public opinion rather than attempt to manipulate it, tell a different story than the publicly reported ones?


Then show us you have the courage of your convictions.  Go all-in on gun confiscation, whether called a “buy back” or simply a legal requirement that a person divest themselves of their firearms (with no one else legally able to buy them so the only de fecto legal option is surrender to law enforcement).  Show us that you actually believe those polls.

Or just watch the rest of us as we keep pointing and saying “liar.”


New Release: The Chooser


$0.99 on Kindle, Always free on Kindle Unlimited

Göll is a Valkyrie, a chooser of the slain. She takes those who die in battle first to Hel for judgement, then on to their final destination, whether it’s Valhöl or elsewhere. When her latest slain is an eight year old boy she finds herself facing a new challenge, one she had never before faced in all her centuries of serving the Lord of Battles.


A story of modern Valkyrie.

The black horse descended from the sky to land softly on the immaculate front lawn.  Göll slid off the horse’s back to stand on the grass.  She adjusted the sword at her side, a frown carving ugly lines into the perfection of her face.

Most of her missions brought her joy.  But missions like this?  These she hated down to her core.

Three steps took her up to the front porch of the sprawling ranch house.   The door, though locked, swung open at her touch.

Overturned furniture, scattered books, and shattered glass greeted her; a sharp contrast to the pristine exterior of this house.  Göll’s frown deepened at the scent that assaulted her nose.  Blood and urine, both fresh.

Before Göll could step through the door, a young woman emerged from the shadows inside.  She said nothing, merely looked at Göll, her expression haughty.

With a sigh, Göll stepped aside.  No sense berating that one for what had happened here.  Even the lesser Norns, those who followed each person, dictating their fate, were far beyond her power to influence, far beyond even the Allfather’s.

The Norn emerged from the house, and was gone.  Göll entered.  She heard movement in the back of the house, then running water.  A low, masculine voice was swearing.  While Göll could speak all languages, the man’s words held no interest for her.  Her duty lay elsewhere.

The man’s voice was coming from her right.  Göll turned left.  A short hallway led her to a bedroom.  As in the front of the house, overturned furniture and other wreckage filled this  room.  Göll carefully stepped over the debris, leaving it undisturbed until she came to the small body.  A young boy, his head turned at an unnatural angle.  Not even eight years old.  Yet, in his right hand he held a small craft knife, blade stained with blood.

A weapon in hand.  A death in combat.  That made the lad Göll’s business.

Slowly, carefully, Göll dropped to one knee.  She bent and touched the boy’s still-warm cheek.  His eyes opened, his head twisted as his neck straightened and bones popped back into place.

The boy scooted away from Göll, his eyes wide in terror.  Göll remained still, schooling her face to be soothing and calm.  Even adults in this day, in this land, often greeted her appearance with fear.

“How are you called, Boy?” Göll reached out with her power.  Meant to calm those killed on the battlefield, warriors who would wake still in a battle-frenzy, her power also served to soothe wild-eyed fear.

“Kamil,” the boy said. “My name is Kamil.”

“There is no need for fear.  I am not here to harm you.  You are beyond harm.”

Kamil looked at the floor that lay between the two of them.  His eyes widened as he spotted the shell, his former shell, which remained twisted in death.  Göll saw understanding pass across his face.

“Are you…are you an angel?”

The question brought a smile to Göll’s face. “Not as you think of it.  I am merely a…well, a ‘Chooser of the Slain’.”

She shook her head.  The truth was, despite what the tales might say, she did not choose who died.  Not even the Allfather chose.  Only the Norns chose who lived and who died.  Göll merely carried the fallen to their fate.

Kamil shuddered.  After a moment, he stood and bowed his head. “I am ready, then, Chooser.”

A chuckle escaped Göll’s lips.  She stood and held out a hand. “Not so formal, young one.  But come.  We have far to go.”

The boy took her outstretched hand and she led him back through the house.

Rights and Government, Take Two.

When I wrote about how Rights have to exist independently of any particular government in order to exist at all, I thought that with only a little explanation it would be obvious.  That the “government grants rights” concept was something that people believe mainly because they just haven’t thought through the consequences of that position.  And yet, there was this person:


Seriously, how can a person seriously hold such a position?  How can a person be such a sheep as to believe that they only have a right to life if the government grants it to them?

If the only rights you have are those granted by government than no government can ever be said to violate “human rights.” The rights, after all, are what the government says they are, neither more nor less.  The UN Human Rights Council is meaningless. (Well, I agree it is, but not because rights are only what governments say they are, but because of the UN’s penchant for putting representatives there whose positions are anathema to the very idea of human rights.) All the “sanctions” against various nations for violating human rights?  In error because how can a government that gets to decide what rights one does or does not have possibly violate rights.  If it kills you, has it not simply decided you don’t have a right to life?  If it imprisons you, has it not simply decided you do not have a right to liberty?  If it impoverishes you, has it not simply decided you do not have a right to property?  And so on.

I would like to think that the person with the obscured name was engaging in satire or sarcasm but the wording of the comment suggests otherwise.  This person apparently truly believes that the right to life–the most fundamental of all rights as one cannot hold any other right from the grave–is only yours if government permits it to you.

“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men [in the vernacular of the time, this structure was general–all persons male, female, or the occasional other] are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men deriving their just power from the consent of the governed.”

How remarkably naive that seems in the light of Obscured Name’s comment.  What should be self-evident is not so very evident at all.

With positions like that Obscured Name up there is sowing the wind.  Let us pray that we do not reap the whirlwind.