Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Common Sense Conservative Agenda

With the presidential election now over, the future of the conservative agenda is being examined. Even as a liberal, I would be attracted to a conservative agenda like the following.

Fiscal responsibility is essential to the long-term strength and prosperity of our country. Steps to reduce the deficit and move toward a balanced budget are steps in the right direction.  Economic discussions must include frank discussions of economic externalities. These externalities must be honestly identified and some plan for meeting their costs has to be established. For example, if fracking is being advocated, then the full effects on the environment, along with the consumption of the resource must be accounted for. This may require establishing effective environmental regulations, careful choice of fracking fluids, planning for the restoration of polluted water, restoration of lands, and creation of an annuity to offset the rapid consumption of a nonrenewable natural resource.  In addition, the simplistic nature of many prevalent economic models must be acknowledged and corrected. For example, GDP is clearly a poor indicator of wellbeing, and myths about the effects of certain macroeconomic actions, such as trickle down theories, need to be abandoned.

Use the tax code only to raise revenue, not to shape a social or cultural agenda.  Simplify the tax code dramatically to include only reasonable definitions of income and a progressive tax rate on that income. This simplification will make taxation transparent and much fairer. At the same time we need to migrate to a system where we tax what we want less of, such as pollution and financial speculation, rather than what we want more of, such as work that create lasting value.

Recognize that tax policy and spending decisions simultaneously affect macro-economic status such as growth rate, employment rate, inflation, and the deficit. Only a broad discussion of the many effects of any policy proposal, rather focusing on only one effect, is a fair representation of that policy. 

Government regulations may be good or bad, depending on the protections they provide and the interest they serve. They are often an effective countermeasure to economic externalities.  For example, regulations that preserve clean air and water are essential protections against exploitation of these common goods by private interests.  Move toward fewer regulations when this can be done safely. Don’t add regulations that unfairly protect special interests, including various corporate subsidies.

Deciding on the size of government is less important than deciding on the role of government. Certainly legislating restrictions on sexual expression between consenting adults is not a role of government and it certainly is not a role of small government.  Reduce even military spending to the level needed to defend our country.  Rely more heavily on diplomacy and promoting peace. Don’t use military spending primarily as a mechanism for subsidizing military contracts. 

Embrace moral virtues based on principles that transcend religious dogma. Promote democracy, not theocracy. Religious dogma is fundamentally inconsistent among the various religious traditions and is therefore divisive rather than unifying.  When calling attention to the importance of values, take care to identify what particular values are being advocated.

Recognize that contraception prevents abortion. Reducing unintended pregnancies improves woman’s health, strengthens families, and reduces the incidence of abortions. This is an important common ground.  Advocate birth control.

Promote good faith—the virtue of honesty.  Advancing falsehoods, distortions, and misleading information is wrong, even if it is used to defend or promote a strongly held ideology. Increase fidelity to consistently align what is, what is believed, what is said, and what was said. If promoting a particular ideology requires compromising the truth, abandon or modify that ideology. 

Because facts define the political center, it is important to assimilate reality more quickly:
  • Denial resists positive change; it certainly is not leadership. When facts challenge a particular worldview, ideology, or agenda, then these conceptual models must assimilate this new information and change to align with reality.  When the facts differ from the ideology, go with the facts and abandon that ideology.
  • Embrace settled science, especially including the age of the universe, the age of the earth, the history of the dinosaurs, the evolution of the species including humans, and the threat of global warming.
  • Acknowledge and plan for reaching limits to ecological growth and limits to economic growth.
  • Welcome our increasingly diverse population including Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, homosexuals, Muslims, self-reliant women, and so many others who bring their rich cultural heritage to this country.
  • Remain curious and open to new ideas, discoveries, and experiences.
  • Recognize false dichotomies as logical fallacies. Pursue solutions on common ground rather than restricting ideas to only one pole or the other.
  • Seek simplicity while rejecting simplistic thinking.
The basic principles of conservatism—smaller government, personal freedoms, and personal responsibility—are sound. Political leaders need to align more closely with these principles while they assimilate the many changes that define our modern world.  I hope that some of these ideas can help us identify common ground and reduce the polarization of our politics.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Hearing

You can imagine my surprise when the Dali Lama himself called to ask if I could accompany him, as his translator, on an urgent and secret visit to North Korea. I accepted immediately and was curious to find out more about the trip. I learned that on January 8, 2012 an organization called the International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea had sent an open letter to Kim Jong-un,  the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The letter expresses condolence on the passing of his father Kim Jong-il, congratulates the young new leader as he assumes his duties, and raises concerns about a long list of human rights violations occurring throughout the country.

The accusations in the letter infuriated the Supreme Leader, and he demanded immediate and violent revenge on the many signatories to the letter.  In an attempt to placate the enraged leader, the Dali Lama offered to meet with him, hear his grievances, and do what he could to resolve the conflict.

“Both Kim and I were thrust into leadership at a very young age, facing great challenges while our countries were being ravaged by dangerous and violent conflicts” His Holiness explained to me. “We will have much in common to talk about. But I must listen much and talk little.” And listen we did …

“My most important purpose here is to listen and understand what you want to tell me” began the Dali Lama, when we finally met privately with Kim.  “I’ll spend as much time or as little time as you want meeting with you. We can meet as often as you want. Our meetings will be entirely private; nothing you say here will be repeated to anyone. I want to understand your viewpoint and what your concerns are. When you are ready, please begin. What’s on your mind? “

Kim unleashed a tirade. He ranted incessantly about the immense difficulties he faces, how hard he works, the lack of appreciation he receives, how his greatest love is for the welfare of his people, and how hard his people work for the good of the nation. He renounced the accusations in the coalition letter point by point and in immense detail. “Who are these people writing to me? What do they know? Don’t they realize how hard I work? Why do they blame me? This is just another part of the international conspiracy to shame me and attack my people.  Look how many cowards signed the letter. Why are they ganging up on me? Don’t they know I put traitors in prison only so the loyal people of our great country are not harmed by these thugs? We face great threats from so many people in so many nations outside our country who do not understand us and want to harm us. The United States alone has thousands of nuclear weapons atop missiles aimed at our small and peace-loving country. Yet they denounce us as the axis of evil. How can that be? We need a great army to protect our tiny nation from so many threats. This is very costly, but we all understand the need and are willing to make the sacrifice. Our people encourage the military by showing their great love for this country and their unwavering loyalty to our cause. After supporting our military with their donations, sacrifices, and loyalty, not much else is left for the hard working people of our country.  The peasants choose to go hungry so our military has what it needs to protect us against so many belligerent nations. What else can we do?”

The Dali Lama sat quietly, listened closely, nodded gently, and spoke rarely. Occasionally his Holiness would carefully reflect, clarify, and affirm what he was hearing by simply stating “You are angry.” Knowing he was being heard encouraged Kim to continue.

The Dali Lama radiates calm and compassion. Kim Jong-un, not so much, but after days of listening and accurately reflecting what Kim had to say, the young leader began to trust the gentle old man. Compassion was beginning to make inroads.

After days of patiently listening, the Dali Lama asked his first question. “The letter mentions the Kwan-li-so. I am curious to learn more about that.”

“These are rehabilitation centers my father and grandfather worked to create,” Kim began to explain. “Many outsiders are entering our country, misleading our people, telling lies, and producing discontent. We need to find out who these enemies are, and who has been misled by them. We will not tolerate traitors working against our good people.”

Kim went on to explain, “The traitors in these rehabilitation centers have betrayed their Leader and thus deserve execution.  However our kind Workers’ Party has decided, in its mercy, not to kill, but to keep alive these people and allow them to repay the nation for their treachery by providing rehabilitating labor for the rest of their lives. We teach these traitors collective responsibility where individuals ultimately take responsibility for their own class’s wrong doing. We help them learn by allowing them to carve inspiring excerpts from my Grandfather’s speeches into wood signs and door entrances. We expect much work of these traitors. To encourage them we reduce their food rations if they fall behind in their rehabilitation duties.”

“When a dentist fixes a toothache, he must dig deep and remove all the disease so the infection does not recur. Many of these people have been taught treachery and disloyalty over several generations” Kim explained. “Therefore we retain three generations of family members and provide rehabilitation to all of them so we can properly educate everyone who may have been wrongly influenced. This is very costly to our government, but it seems to be the only way we can protect our people from those who are determined to destroy our simple way of life. “

“Have you ever visited the Kwan-li-so rehabilitation centers and spoken to any of the people there?” asked the Dali Lama.

Kim suppressed his outrage, thought for some time and responded, “The duties of a great leader are great indeed. I spend my time with the loyal people struggling to protect and serve our country. I have no time for traitors. I do, however, take time to listen to reports from the courageous men running the rehabilitation centers. They tell me of the enormous struggle they are enduring to reeducate these ungrateful traitors.

“With your permission, I would like to travel to a Kwan-li-so rehabilitation center, meet with some of the detainees, and learn more about your approach to rehabilitation. Would that be possible?” asked the Dali Lama.

Kim was surprised by this request, thought about it for some time, and responded, “Go ahead, visit the traitors, I will send a military unit along to protect you. Learn what you can and tell the world of our great struggle. “

“Thank you for your sincere kindness and generosity. I have learned much from you. I look forward to visiting the rehabilitation centers. Is there any chance you would be willing to join me and meet some of the traitors who are threatening your country?  You could teach them yourself. It could have a great and lasting impact.”

Image courtesy of Wikicommons 

Copyright 2012 by Leland R. Beaumont, All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Contraception Thought to Prevent Abortion

A recent survey suggests that abortions may be a leading cause of death to the unborn. Concerned by this finding several journalists worked to research this issue further. Traveling to street corners across small town America, reporters asked passersby if they ever had an abortion. After eventually excluding girls under six, people who have never dated, and men from their results they did find some women who were sexually active yet never had abortions. Concentrating on this select group, they went on to ask several questions, including questions about the use of contraceptives. These survey findings suggest that even sexually active women who conscientiously use contraception almost never seek abortions.

Could this surprising finding provide some new approach to reducing the number of abortions? To research this question journalists set out this time to interview anti-abortion activists. After carefully including only girls under six, people who have never dated, and men in their survey the results were disappointing. Anti-abortion activists seemed baffled and desperate. One was quoted as saying: “I just don’t know what more we can do. We have picketed the Supreme Court, murdered doctors, mobilized religious fundamentalists, voted for TEA party candidates, required medically unnecessary and intrusive examinations, worked to reduce the intrusion of government into our private lives, demonized women seeking abortion, trivialized rape, and cut off funding to Planned Parenthood.”

Vigorous efforts continue to seek some effective approach to reducing the incidence of abortion, but progress remains slow.

Friday, January 27, 2012


Our beloved smartphones and iPads hide a dirty little secret. Low labor costs combined with an efficient supplier infrastructure make particular Asian factories the economic choice for electronics manufacturers.  Many smartphones, most Apple products, and many other technology products are manufactured at Foxconn, headquartered in Taiwan. Unfortunately labor conditions at Foxconn are oppressive, almost barbaric by Western standards. Pitiful wages, long hours, tedious work, bans on organized labor, abusive management, and even suicides are prevalent at the massive plant. While American-designed iPhones are manufactured in oppressive Asian factories, Americans face high unemployment and a troubling decline in manufacturing jobs at home. What can be done?

Perhaps working conditions will improve if we begin to tax oppression. It might work like this. A panel including human rights experts, labor representatives, manufacturing executives, economists, and government trade analysts would begin by creating a reference standard and index for quantifying oppressive working conditions. Let’s call it the sweatshop index. The most worker-friendly factories would score zero; the worst factories would have high scores. Next a team of independent auditors and examiners would visit factories around the world and score individual factories on this index. If examiners were barred from visiting the factory or hindered in their examination, they would assume the worst and assign a high score. No doubt the Foxconn factory would receive a high sweatshop index score, unless of course it was reformed. Finally, the United States would impose an import tariff on products based on the weighted sweatshop index of the factories used in their manufacture, regardless of the host country. Smartphones and other products manufactured at worker-friendly plants are subject to little or no tariff.  Products manufactured in sweatshops pay a high tariff. This would provide a direct financial incentive for factories around the world to improve working conditions. Work would begin to flow out of sweatshops into the worker-friendly factories, including American factories, because they now have an economic advantage. Workers around the world would all benefit. 

While a traditional import tariff diverts money away from workers, this sweatshop tariff would shift money toward the benefit of the workers. Factory managers would have a clear financial incentive to improve working conditions because the better working conditions would decrease the final cost of their product to the American market. For a smooth transition to this system, the tariff could increase gradually over time. It might begin at zero while the index is being created and factories are being assessed. This will give adequate time for factory managers to plan reforms before any financial penalty is assessed. The tariff can then be systematically increased to drive reform at a managed rate.

Perhaps this concept could be extended to include oil imports. Here an import tariff based on human rights violations in the supplying country is added to each barrel of oil imported. This would provide a financial incentive for the exporting country to eliminate these violations and improve life for its people. 

Choosing to internalize these externalities—transaction costs not fully reflected in the product price—can leverage free market mechanisms to improve human wellbeing.