Kejda Gjermani her miscellaneous musings

13Mar/080

Moonbat Canadienne

My early rants on this blog were about how the University pisses my money away on stupid events and services virtually no one on campus cares about. I think I have possibly found the vilest waste yet of our incidental fees. Why is the University of Waterloo inviting 9-11 Troothers to campus??

You can read the poster yourself (double-click on image to blow it out)... Who the hell are these turtlenecked moonbats!

9-11 Truthers at University of Waterloo

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11Jul/0732

Waterloo’s Larry Smith and his disciples: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I wish I had some sort of backhanded entry into the Larry Smith phenomenon, but here I am without any tangent to get started on. After all it’s been a long time since I last showed up for his class.

I'm afraid that ramming into the topic cold-turkey in reverse might stir up my already strong ambivalence toward him to a point that I find myself unable to write a single intelligible sentence. Indeed writing about Larry Smith in any other fashion but drooling babbling adoration is a task of epic proportions and I’m afraid I am already way in over my head. However, this influential figure deserves to be followed and analyzed in the annals of his greatness by someone who wouldn’t get lost inside.

…If not now, then when? If not I, then who?

No better pictures online? What a shame...For those of you who didn’t attend my school (University of Waterloo), suffice it to say, Larry Smith is the second coming as far as whoever has taken his class is concerned. Genuine boss of charisma. Students love him. I loved him too, but I’m talking about an evangelical glow in the eyes of his worshipers.

He’s got his own sinister Politburo, roaming with zealous spies planted throughout the Fortune 500, tipping him off about the latest and greatest plots to subvert markets around the world. His courses of intro economics are a legend, probably the most likely experience for any two random Waterlooians to have in common. Every other sentence coming out of his mouth is a classic quote belonging on the wall. But what is Larry Smith’s universal appeal? What does his magic really consist of?

Two different types of people are magnetically attracted to him for different reasons, and sometimes within the same person two conflicting character traits compete for the perk-up effects of his rhetoric. For those on the margin, which of these two inner drives ends up prevailing by the time their ride in Larry’s ideological tornado is over will probably mark a turning point in their lives.

And the funny thing is I suspect Larry has no idea about the full extent of his power. Oh I know he knows he’s damn influential, but I don’t think he really understands what he does to people.

The Good: Larry’s appeal to the free spirit in all of us

This is the part I bet Larry is most aware of. It’s the reason he loves recruiting snot faced frosh into his class. He picks these comfortably confused kids, indoctrinated from their years in high school, most of whom have probably already picked a major but probably for the wrong reasons, and whose intimidation by what’s all out there has cornered them into their current pathetic expectations about life. Oh my God! He WAS young once!

Larry Smith just loves bursting these kids’ haze bubble. He teaches his students that life is a friendly experience for reasoning people, and the world is an exciting and intelligible place that you can make sense of! He makes you sense it in your gut that the real world can be figured out, that you are responsible for your life.

That’s all he teaches, really. He makes you see that you don’t have to be a follower to get by, that nothing is beyond the reach of your abilities if you employ your reason and imagination, and, well, growing a pair of balls wouldn’t hurt either.

And there, suddenly nothing seems mystical about value creation. For many students that’s the first spark of the spirit of entrepreneurship right there. He’s a spectacular motivational speaker.

For those of you who find this cliché or trivial commonsense, I’d like to smack you off your pedestal so you can come down and smell the coffee: The half-baked pseudo intellectuals with a license to spread cynical and self-victimizing bullshit are the norm at universities; no-nonsense professors trying to instill a dignifying sense of life in their students are the exception. In that regard Larry has little to no competition that I know of at Waterloo. Many of his alumni make the best out of his teachings and go on to start successful multi-million-dollar enterprises: hard core entrepreneurs.

The Bad: Larry’s appeal to the little authoritarian in most of us

Now you all know this is what I’m dying to get to. After every class Larry attracts around him a little crowd of zealots who stay and talk for at least another hour about all sorts of things. Well, most of the time it’s Larry talking, and I can’t say he seems to mind the sound of his own voice.

I used to go up to listen to him too, but I usually kept my mouth shut because there was a weird vibe to that little crowd: They were all so uncritically enamored with Smith that a lot of things coming out of their mouths were just excuses to flatter him in some way, and there was something embarrassing to that.

So I felt uncomfortable engaging him in front of everyone, assuming that at least on a subconscious level, he would have expected me to pay lip service in one way or another. As much as I admired the man, I could not bring myself to have a conversation where I didn’t feel an equal.

In a way it was good though, because I focused all my attention in observing Larry’s interaction with the others instead of worrying about sounding smart. I was more comfortable talking with the zealots on the side, and I befriended a bright Serbian guy and a hysterical Taiwanese girl among others. The girl would scream at the top of her lungs that people are sheep who don’t know what they want or what’s good for them and need the government to protect and guide them. It was funny, she quoted the results of the Penn & Teller Dihydrogen Monoxide hoax, which was actually a scathing attack on environmentalists, leftists, and the type of people who generally are the first to think we need the nanny state to keep the citizenry in check.

In the “Penn & Teller” example, a fake activist asks random hippies at a hysterical environmentalist crap-fest to sign a petition to ban Dihydrogen Monoxide (H2O) and they sign in droves without even asking what it is. She saw this segment as the perfect example of how people are idiots who need a paternal government to get by in life.

Here she was, shouting this at my face, as I was trying to tell her that all her example showed was that people are quick to make idiotic policy decisions involving banning something, regulating something, or basically telling others what to do. The irony of using this example was certainly lost to her, but that was really the point of the hoax.

Policy decisions often have very considerable yet unforeseeable micro effects which are hard to discern because they get spread out across many sections of the market. Henry Hazlitt explained how we must consider the true opportunity cost of any government policy on the marketplace and society. (I preferred to talk markets; she liked ‘society’ better so I kept alternating between the two)

Typically, there is no immediate feedback loop to provide a reality-check for the ‘legislator’: deliberations are made from his office desk, often in the company of interest group lobbyists. In time, the negative effects are incrementally diffused across society, often while the public has forgotten the initial law, and the legislator is on to the next pet project. Unable to factor in the true costs of knee-jerk prescriptions to purported market problems, “corrective” market interventions are often just as bad.

So I was trying to explain her that her argument boomeranged because it showed only just how stupid people can be at making universal decisions for everyone else, i.e. being authoritarian cocks. The market has shown time and again that people are not such stupid sheep whenever it comes to budgeting for their own lives. I challenged her to repeat the experiment, only this time she should try to sell people some Dihydrogen Monoxide; then I’d be curious of the findings she’d report back: how many shelled out their cash, and how many and what kind of questions were asked.

Larry was standing a few feet away and heard some of the commotion. He said professors will usually promote levelheaded discussions, but he actually liked it better when people screamed and swore at each-other. I don’t know if he was being sarcastic. I’ve got to say, she was the one doing all the swearing, and jeez, for conversing with me, that’s noteworthy.

But I mean, these were most of the people who gloated over Larry Smith’s charisma, this is the kind of people he’d throw a bone at once in a while. They weren’t all as annoying as this girl, but there was a definite underlying pattern in their thoughts. When in doubt whether any of them belonged to this category, my test was to confront them with the flaming ones: if they were not annoyed at any significant level by the flamers’ bullshit, then they were all in it together as far as I was concerned.

I have often been asked about my libertarian epiphany and I never had a good answer. I don’t remember a specific moment. It span more across days, or actually weeks, like a slow but confident chain reaction in my brain. The first node on the chain was this particular sense I got from getting to know some of these Larry Smith zealots.

How do I say this? They just sounded so stupid! Many of them were bright kids too but there was something off about them, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. After talking candidly for a bit, something would always get on my nerves, a deep antipathy that made my lips curl up.

It was their arrogance stemming from utter lack of epistemological consideration for the prescriptive bullshit they’d spew out. Their deliberations were so cheap because they never ever considered the possibility of… Being wrong! …and the human and moral cost of that possibility. Neither did they seem to ask themselves “How do I know for sure?” The people at the bottom were fine to experiment with and apply their half-baked ideas to.

They were all signing blank petitions on Dihydrogen-Monoxidic-equivalent economic matters with total disregard for the principles of human action. In this context they were all very similarly minded, however strongly they happened to disagree on concrete matters. And at one point or another during any serious conversation most of them exhibited this distinct though subtle (sometimes not even much so) contempt for ‘people’.

I didn’t want to be one of them —that much I intuitively decided. And such people shouldn’t be the ones making decisions for everyone. I began analyzing what made them that way. I have concluded that it's principally sheer megalomania expressed as irrational subjectivity and intellectual arrogance. I wrote an entire essay as an appetizer to this post, where I explain in detail my thoughts on the authoritarian personality. At the end of the day, people lacking even the basic sensitivities of the vigilant unpretentious mind can be found sitting on top of their own self-generated smug clouds, making outlandish deliberations with an unjustified sense of authority and appearing like utter dicks to those who do posses such sensitivities.

Intuition can be a shortcut to reason, and at the time I only loosely sensed that there was something malignantly arrogant about a lot of these Larry Smith zealots. But my formation in economics was not sufficiently robust for me to confidently rebut many propositions being thrown around which I felt were full of shit. The class was ECON 101 after all.

However I did get all stirred up because the supremacist traces of thought in the zealots’ discussions must have been inconspicuous to a noble and untainted intellect such as Larry’s. To me he was an unknowing victim. I wasn’t comfortable being in the middle of it so I stopped staying after class.

The Ugly: Maybe they are a perfect match?

About a year and a lot of econ-literature later, I returned once more to introduce my friend Saad to the joys of Larry’s inspirational rhetoric as well as to get a Larry-fix for myself, for which I had grown nostalgic.

I was in a constant state of déjà vu throughout his lectures: being an exceptional stand-up performer, Larry can effortlessly deliver a memorized speech and make it sound like he’s coming up with every line on the spot. I remembered everything from the year before, but I was absolutely shocked and overwhelmed by how much between the lines I had completely missed the first time around! The subliminal messages Larry was sending through the ether were disturbing to say the least.

In an illustration of inelastic demand Larry reveals his advocacy of the thug-state: he thinks it’s preposterous that George W. Bush does not intervene to cap the profits of pharmaceutical companies. Nonintervention in this market must be the result of the crony pharmaceutical lobbies bribing legislators into betraying their constituents’ interests. The state can and should approach the industry and be like:

Yo, bang-up job inventing and manufacturing this cool drug that’s saving people’s lives, but I’ve got citizens who can’t afford it at the market price. That’s unacceptable! I understand you’ve been making some serious monopoly profits here with your fancy little patent exploiting the inelastic demand for your good, so it’ time for us to negotiate some reasonable profits for you. We’ll get together and talk about it… What? You don’t like the sound of it? Dude, I’ve got legal monopoly over the use of force, I can jail your ass! Nah, I don’t need to do that, I can just revoke your patent so everyone else can manufacture your drug.

Stunned, I raised my hand and asked if it wouldn’t perhaps be more effective and less arbitrary to just make patents expire sooner, so the public at large would be deprived of the generic drugs for a shorter period of time, or maybe just subsidize the bottom income bracket thus making drugs affordable for all without brutalizing the market. He bit the bait, disinterestedly replying that those were all fine alternatives.

He couldn’t have meant it! Being an economics PHD, Larry must know the purpose and effects of patents. He must be aware of the colossal investment involved in R&D: entire teams of the best chemists, molecular biologists, technicians, and computer scientists that money can buy, expensive computer technologies for simulations, state-of-the-art logistics for large-scale experiments and their countless replications, legal costs, the risk of harming research participants, the risk of reaching a dead-end, the risk of sudden obsolescence from a new competitive drug entering the market, the years of accumulating interest on debt and no revenues waiting for the FDA to finally approve the product. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg!

We are talking about great but calculated costs and risks, which pharmaceutical companies decide to undergo based on the prediction that they will be able to sell their new drug at a markup for 20 years, or until whenever the patent is supposed to expire. Until they recuperate their colossal fixed costs through monopoly margins they won’t even see any profits, regardless of how cheap it is to actually manufacture the drug.

So would they invest billions of dollars if they knew they could keep their monopoly for only 6 months, or even 5 years? It obviously disrupts the incentive structure, so no, Larry, shortening the patent’s life would not be a long-term solution. Not if you want there to remain such a thing as a private pharmaceutical industry that will continuously take investment risks and put those drugs on the market for the government to have anything to regulate at all.

I am sure Larry knows all this, and he would either like to eventually nationalize the pharmaceutical industry to complement his beloved universal health-care, or (and this is even more sinister), he likes predatory discretionary state policies. I'd put my money on the latter: the state making rules of thumb, issuing patents and guaranteeing their enforcement, but reserving itself the right to break its own rules once in a while to ‘promote the public good’; a policy that ignores the extraordinary costs from the resulting stifling of innovation and investment...

Discretionary Thugerry

This evokes the image of the cheetah waiting in the bushes for the antelopes to come prancing around in herds; they will run for their lives once they see the cheetah is for real, and one of them is going to get it. But the cheetah knows they will be at it again tomorrow, each feeling that the chances of being the one out of the entire herd to get clawed in the ass are small.

After all, discretionary thuggery is how central banks roll! I would argue that there’s plenty wrong with the government at large taking after central banks but that’s not even the point. What disturbs me is how liberally (deliberately?) Larry slips such controversial tidbits under the table. Blemishes of legal and moral considerations are airbrushed into irrelevance so that Larry’s conceited solution can pretend to be self-evident and logically necessary. Perhaps it is acceptable for an economist to deliberate in a moral and legal vacuum, but how can he keep a straight face giving his students a piece of mind while conveniently neglecting to mention the very economic dynamics of incentives which his 'solution' would blast off?

He won’t tell students that companies wouldn’t keep investing in proprietary material if they knew the government would steal their hard-earned intellectual assets, so such a 'solution' cannot work in the long run. These are subtle economic issues ECON-101 students wouldn’t need to be bothered with if Larry could manage to refrain from presenting his personal master plans for humankind in class, but since he chooses to indulge them, he has an ethical obligation to fully inform his students of the common side-effects of his prescriptions.

The student who knows nothing of economics just sits in class taking notes with the filter of criticism completely turned off, absorbing like a sponge everything coming out of the trusty instructor’s mouth. It’s upsetting to hear Larry feeding his students so many subjective prescriptions, rarely if ever hinting at the difference between fact, mainstream economic theory, and pure “Larrysmithonomics”. He polishes his value judgments with iridescent charisma until the unwitting student sees only a gem whose value and splendor are self-evident and indisputable.

Does Larry know his effect on students? If so, it’s reproachable that he instrumentalizes his influence to indoctrinate and deceive them. I am not talking about just a few odd cases, since objectivity can temporarily betray any of us. Unfortunately Larry Smith’s indulgences in pompous subjectivity are systematic. Below are just a few eyebrow-raising instances.

In his seemingly innocent recap of the industrial revolution, I caught an innuendo of the overtired Marxist theme of ‘alienation’. Although the medieval farmer lived in destitution, his sense of ‘self’ and perceived place in the world was cohesive. How romantic, but then automatized mass-scale manufacturing turned him into a brain-dead appendix of the machinery he was to operate. This notion helped Erich Fromm sell books but I don’t see how it belongs in an introductory course on economics.

In a subsequent turn of thought Larry contemplates the possibility of custom-programmable robotization replacing mass-manufacturing in the near future. His forecast is that of a classic technophobe: machines will put people out of work, this next wave of automatization will be for real, and so on and so forth. Once we have programmable robots doing customized work craftsmanship will go extinct. There will be no room for unskilled labor so only highly creative intellectual work will have any market value; the same old Marxist argument repackaged for the 21st century.

He was using this prospect as a warning that we better be prepared to use our heads very hard in our careers, which is of course good advice. However the alternative to fully using our intellects is unlikely to be starvation, like he proposes!

If anything, robotization will bring down the real cost of production in all sectors, affording abundance especially to the poor. Unskilled labor will shift to tasks involving basic cognitive operations in new industries Larry Smith or I cannot even fathom at the present day.

Man as a nano-engineered machine, which he technically is, cannot be exhaustively replicated in his full spectrum of faculties by any conceivable man-made robot. Abilities like ours come bundled with a consciousness. The duplication of our neural-network is impossible even with futuristic nano-technology.

Human reproduction as prescribed by our DNA and as implemented by coitus, is the most efficient way of generating beings with human abilities. The fully-and-creatively-using-intellect elite will certainly find innovative ways of making plain people useful: feeding, sheltering, and providing social interaction for unskilled workers will always be more cost-effective than fully replacing them by robots.

What else… Larry loves using the hint of externalities as a pretext for nationalizing industries. If fire departments worked for profit then no one would bother putting out fires in uninsured buildings which would quickly spread across insured buildings, and everybody would fry. So fire services must be owned by the state.

A bit radical, don’t you think, since a similar argument for car-insurance only dictates that insurance be mandatory, at most, not that the state must provide it. Fire departments don’t need to be state owned and operated. Simply making subscription to fire service compulsory would do: let the market actually provide it.

But even this conclusion is too radical, because the imminent possibility of fires spreading across uninsured to insured apartments in one building would be sufficient incentive for the owner to contractually mandate fire service for all tenants. Conversely, the insured tenants and buyers of individual apartments would themselves put pressure for such contracts to be extended to everyone in the building. Neighbors can treat the few remaining uninsured buildings pretty straightforwardly: they can put the fire out to prevent it from spreading to their own property, cover the immediate fire-service expenses if need be, and then demand the court to freeze the uninsured’s assets to pay through the nose for the effort and expenses they had to incur on his behalf.

Externalities find no room to emerge when third parties at risk can flex their transactional muscles to guard themselves from the eventuality. The market knows how to close such gaps all by itself. Of course externalities do exist but not in the liberal range Larry describes them to students: a lot of his examples are only plausible if property rights of third parties are not respected or enforced by law, which render his arguments straw-man attacks against free enterprise.

It’s manipulative to not provide any context on what kind of society he places his examples. If he’s talking about anarchy, then of course, almost everything is an externality in the war of all against all. But under free enterprise externalities can potentially occur only in cases where property rights are hard to define. So if he wants to keep it straight, Larry would have to shave off a lot of his examples in which state intervention doesn’t have to go any further than enforcing contracts and protecting private property.

But all of this is small potatoes compared to his ‘boo-hoo’ exposé of the supposed economic evils of collusion, natural monopolies, and predatory pricing. Antitrust legislation is championed by ‘progressive’ capitalists who see competition as a tame game which no one should lose, and therefore no one should win. It’s just an excuse for big government to orchestrate a grotesque rat-race in the big-business world for its own gain. If your prices are lower than your competitors’ then they’re predatory, if they’re the same as your competitors then you are colluding, and if you can afford to charge higher prices you must be conspiring to establish a monopoly. Damned if you do, damned if you don't!

Give me a break! The little farts who can be bled to death by the big guys deserve to go under. ‘Predatory pricing’ would be ineffective if the small competitor’s product/service was truly superior: investors would back his venture through the times of pressure until the incumbents realized they could not forever operate at a loss. The little guy would eventually succeed in tearing himself a hole in the market.

Collusion only invites newcomers. Sharks smell the blood and bite themselves a piece. There is no such thing as long-run abnormal profits for a cartel, unless of course, it owes its existence to government license.

A natural monopoly is a living testimony of great technological efficiency in a niche market: Either the upfront fixed cost (usually of buying excess capacity) is so high that the seemingly everlasting profits barely cover the initial investment if taken in perpetuity with the interest rate of capital factored in, or the monopoly is temporary and will eventually crack under competition. Some ‘monopolies’ are great because they provide a common platform in areas where a good standard is more efficient than a multitude of competing poorly-integrated differentiated products. One example is the standard keyboard design. Another one is Windows being the central node of the market for operating-systems.

…Which brings me to Larry’s scathing attack on Microsoft for being such a big bully. A lot has already been said about it and yet more remains to be said. I would wrap up my position more or less like this. Ultimately Netscape didn’t make it because its browser was crap and incompatible with Windows. It was Netscape’s responsibility to go out of its way and adapt its product to Windows, not the other way around. Look at the market for browsers today. With Microsoft off its back, where is Netscape now? And most importantly where are Microsoft’s coercive superpowers now that Firefox is taking over the internet? There has been nothing but continuous innovation online since this debate started over ten years ago.

Microsoft was very deliberate in its attempt to take over the web browser market, yet no one was ever forced to purchase Windows. What right does the state have to dictate how Microsoft should bundle its products, and how is it economically sound to prevent it from offering consumers Internet Explorer for free? Oh but it would hurt Netscape: same argument for protectionist tariffs. One thing you can’t say is that they benefit the consumer.

In a world with no legal antitrust considerations, try to imagine if Microsoft could yet get away with blocking Google, its greatest competitor, off of Internet Explorer or Windows altogether. Ask yourself if consumers would stand for it. Only shitty products and companies need antitrust protection, but to hear Larry exuberantly airbrushing the bumps and holes of his argument you wouldn’t have a clue.

Canadian Healthcare

He fervently supports Canada’s nationalized health-care system, but I think he talks about it only after class, which is forgivable. The economic preposterousness of backing universal health-care is perhaps not so forgivable to an economics professor. If groceries were nationalized, I’d consider it animal cruelty to not feed my cat caviar every night. Likewise, making health care ‘free’ effectively fuels the demand for it to a point where shortages are inevitable, hence the 12-hour average waiting period at Canadian hospitals. The entire industry degenerates into slack incompetence from lack of internal competition, with an extensive range of specialized services ceasing to be provided at all since they are vital to only small fractions of the population. Of course the bulk of the population would be best served by directing those funds toward more generic treatments. Universal health-care is so democratic, isn’t it? Without any alternatives to mass-scale generic health-care, no wonder so many Canadians have to travel to the U.S for proper, timely, specialized medical care every year.

Nonetheless Larry vaguely brings up this gigantic high-cost structure inherent in private health-insurance which would be crushed to a pulp if only the industry were nationalized. He couldn’t possibly be talking about the asphyxiating regulations that forbid private providers from differentiating their coverage rates according to risk, or force them in some states to include absurdities such as hair-transplant surgery in their coverage plans. Nor couldn’t he be talking about the legal cartel of pharmacies. It must be some other kind of intrinsic high-cost structure which has got nothing to do with idiotic government regulations but which is just so convoluted and puzzling that Larry doesn’t care to elaborate on what it actually is.

But perhaps the most outrageous statement Larry Smith has ever uttered, in class or otherwise, perhaps in his entire life, is that... ... ... Lack of foresight into the usefulness of electronic databases for central-planning applications, held the soviets back from investing into the IT sector, and because of this bad investment decision, they were unable to manage their central-planning databases once their complexity started growing out of proportion, and this was consequently responsible for the collapse of communism in the USSR.

hint?I don’t even care to comment on the stupidity of such a theory, except that seeing a politico-economic problem and its alleged forgone solution as a technical issue, is the classic mark of an authoritarian (see my essay). Being a granddaughter of communism myself and having some personal idea of what it means, it’s distasteful to hear my economics professor present such a ‘theory’ in class. For him to even entertain such a thought seriously enough to voice it is unjustifiable. Food for crazy thought… Who knows, maybe it will stick with a few, —most likely some of the little authoritarians who drool all over him after class—and it will be up to the pointy headed software engineers among them to bring Neo-Communism into the Web 2.0 era. I’m sure it will work out much better this next time around, with slick electronic databases and all.

I have partially confronted Larry about some of this, his explanation being that his hero is Adam Smith, who was a social revolutionary. Lame… Perhaps Adam Smith was his economic-childhood hero but he found himself much more resoundingly in Keynes as a grown-up. His charismatic authoritarianism must have been yearning for an ideological shelter and Keynes’ theme of the interventionist hero perpetually saving the Capitalist day from itself was right up his alley.

I still respect Larry in many ways, but I am deeply disenchanted. His skill at making everything he says sound like common sense can be a sweet stroke to the ego for those who like the tone of what they hear. Little authoritarians adore Larry Smith because he makes them feel smart and important for having all sorts of master plans of their own for humankind, his arrogant charm validating their arrogant stupidity. They want to be just like him, prescribing solutions to everyone with effortless charisma and being listened to with awe and respect.

Identifying with him makes them feel superior to those who challenge their dogmatic 'solutions' to world problems. They close their eyes and abandon themselves in this larger-than-life figure’s river of allure, and when that river eventually discharges in their own ocean of complacency they see only its majestic delta of intellectual aftertaste. With Larry’s holy image as a continuous source of inspiration and facilitation in their daily attempts to prescribe humankind what’s best for it, they emerge as a born-again authoritarians.

I understand now how this student walked up to Larry after class and asked with a laid-back smirk on his face: “Then why doesn’t the US government intervene? I mean, we can all absolutely see that capping pharmaceuticals’ profits is the way to go. It’s so obvious. How come they don’t see it?” Of course, everything you want to prescribe becomes oh so blatantly obvious, even though he himself didn’t see it as such until Larry Smith told him and the rest of the class that it was. I replied that the U.S constitution doesn’t allow for that kind of intervention because it was founded on libertarian ideals that are irreconcilable with one politician’s or another economist’s whim. In return Larry claimed that most constitutional scholars would disagree with me. Sure Larry, whatever.

The good in what Larry Smith has to teach is very straightforward and easy to grasp, but it is also commonly accessible to everyone who has set some time apart for reading in university. The subversive, controversial and misleading ideas he also teaches are equally easy to absorb but very hard for most students to discern for what they are.

Both the closet entrepreneur and the closet authoritarian in all of us are receptive to Larry’s magic: He is a catalytic force to be reckoned with. What’s the bottom line? I remain unconvinced one way or another whether he ultimately does more harm than good. Perhaps a more important question is: Does he subvert students on purpose or are his slips from objectivity largely subconscious? I don’t know, but I suspect that he is not aware of the full extent of his deceptiveness. It would be constructive to hear Larry’s own thoughts on the matter. We have heard great things about the entrepreneurs he has cultivated, but I dare not even imagine what kind of people his authoritarian disciples grow up to be. I know of only two:

One of them is the boring and pedantic Prof. Van de Waal who seems to have sprained an ankle in the dark basement of Plato’s Cave of Ideas. He stares at the shadows on the wall with dilated pupils, mentally masturbating at the patterns of utility curves as they vary across utility functions. He passively exercises his authoritarian streak by punishing students who try to think outside the box and who dare divert from his formulaic lecture notes ever-so-slightly. Only his way of solving what essentially are mathematical problems is legitimate. He clings to irrelevant rules, making an issue out of petty things for lack of creativity and decisiveness in devising an actual master plan for the world at large.

The other one is the malignant and deranged Prof. Picard who has desperately and embarrassingly turned his persona into a disturbing Larry Smith clown: he steals Larry Smith’s quotes, ideas, mannerisms, and lecturing approach. This man is evil, with a keloidal chip on his shoulder, having embarked on a sloppy career in economics for the sick sake of being closer to Larry, and now seeking professorship for the pure sadistic joy of harassing students. If you dare challenge him intellectually he will go after your average. And he’s not repressed or passive-aggressive about it either: his vindictiveness is so premeditated that he will openly confide in his officemate that he intends to do everything in his power to destroy you. All he really wants is to be loved like Larry Smith but it never works: the genuine allure, the beautifully-sculpted intellectual muscles, and the quirky sense of humor are simply lacking. Being loveless brings Picard down, and his impotent emotional response is to sublimate frustration into cruelty toward students.

These are examples of failures: pseudo-intellectual douche-bags who couldn't make a decent living in the real world outside the bubble of a university environment. Who knows what the star pupils will achieve…

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22Feb/0711

The Passion of the FEDS

My previous post on Jonah Levine got some interesting secondhand comments from FEDS officials but you won’t find them on the blog. Apparently the content and language of my post have failed to meet the FEDS minimum standards of respectability so they will not even grace me with their official dissent. One of the comments was that mine was simply a rant serving no productive purpose, rather than an argument, and that I am as guilty of wasting everyone's time as the people I criticize. Serves me right.

The opinions in my blog are expressed for the sake of my entertainment only, and I apologize to nobody for the way they come across. However, the pleasure I derive from my work would be greatest if the ideas I articulate were conveyed fully and clearly to all of my readers. So if the FEDS claim—that my argument has no credibility due to the personal attacks and language used—is not just a preemptive pretext to evade the serious underlying critique, then I shall reformulate my position to cater to all parties, including the most sensitive ones, in anticipation of productive and purposeful discussion.

That comment about how I am as guilty of wasting everyone’s time as the people I criticize got me thinking: Perhaps I have been too harsh on the FEDS. Perhaps I have unjustly mistaken our young politicians’ utter obliviousness to social reality for utter corruption. Just what do I mean?

When anyone reads my blog, they are exercising their freedom of choice, to use their time as they see fit. They use the impression of the first few lines to determine whether reading my post is likely worth three minutes of their life, then act accordingly. There is no voting process over what to do, no ruling by majority, and I am certainly not forcing anyone—at the point of a gun—to keep reading.

If a reader is dissatisfied with the time investment in my blog, he has nothing to blame but his own judgment and cannot hold anyone guilty of wasting his time for him, certainly not the author. He can unsubscribe, block the page altogether, tell his friends just how awful this site is so they better watch out to never get stranded on it, but that’s about it. It is an individual choice, the consequences of which are contained within the agent who made the choice.

So I am not guilty of wasting anyone's time with my rants!

To draw a comparison between this situation and the condition of a student-citizen who is dissatisfied with her student government and is blaming her student politicians, might be just a sloppy simile, but I would be naïve to see it as simply that. What it reflects is this FEDS executive’s disturbing ignorance on the principles of Government.

If you think my blog sucks, x out of it in a heartbeat! No harm done... But if I believe my student government is wasting my time and money, how do I opt out? Which office do I file a claim through, so I can forfeit my privileges as a student citizen and in return get a full FEDS tax refund? What is my choice? The comparison doesn’t hold so well to scrutiny, does it?

But before anyone screams “Anarchy!” let me clarify a distinction between student government and real government. The government serves some essential functions such as national defense, domestic law and order, basic infrastructure maintenance, and the protection of individual rights in general, which for reasons outside of the scope of this post, require a legal monopoly over the use of force. If citizens opted out of this minimalist system, if people ceased to support it and to subordinate to it, the resulting chaos would pose a threat to the very foundations of our civilization.

Waterloo FEDSA student government serves no such essential functions. If it were to be dissolved tomorrow, academic life would go on as usual, administrative life at the university would be intact, our university degrees would be worth just as much, and each of us students would be $32 richer every term. Our student government is nothing but another student association in the purpose that it allegedly serves, so its alter-ego “Student Union” describes its true nature better than “Student Government”, or at least it would, if the word “Forced” were prefixed to it. FEDS is nothing but a forced union.

Freedom of association is ubiquitous in a liberal society, and it is in fact easily derived from a few fundamental individual rights, namely the right to property, liberty, and freedom of speech. Beautiful institutions capable of channeling and amplifying their individual members’ will are founded on this framework. Like the Corporation, and the Unions, let’s not forget!

University of WaterlooBut nowadays we have forced unions. And our student government is just an example of just that. Workers of a certain profession have little say on whether they want to join or not, students have no say on whether they want to be part of it or not. We all have to pay our compulsory fees, and our freedom is castrated: it is reduced to freedom to vote and have a diluted say over who shall rule over all of us, who shall decide for us how to spend our money, instead of the freedom to rule over ourselves, instead of the freedom to decide for ourselves how to spend our money.

The student government would fulfill a very legitimate and productive purpose if each student could voluntarily opt in and out of its jurisdiction. FEDS would have to offer genuine value: the kind of value all members would deem worthy of the membership fee. We would have virtually 100% turnout in elections: The students who chose to walk the walk by paying a fee for FEDS services would usually care to also talk the talk.

But what does it matter to me if Jonah Levine or his opponent wins, if I don’t want their services at all? ...If I don’t want their representation at all? With a 16% turnout, what can be inferred about the silent 84% of the student body? Are they indifferent between Jonah and the other guy because they are convinced that both are equally capable of doing a bang-up job so there’s no reason to worry about who ends up winning? Or are they indifferent between them because they don’t care either way since their services and representation aren’t really worth shit to them? (Here is South Park's perspective, which really nails it)

Deep hypothetical questions I am bringing up here, but finding out the answers is astonishingly simple: Make FEDS fees refundable next term, and for God’s sake, make the claiming procedure something a couple of notches short of excruciating, and let’s see how many people choose to renew their no longer forced membership. … … …

Dead silence...

Look everybody. I don’t have a specific problem with Jonah Levine, or anyone in particular. I know the platform of the VP Ed is basically the same across all candidates, with minor twitches here and there. I don’t have a problem with student politicians BECAUSE they are student politicians. But I do have a problem with the breed of student politicians we have recently been dealing with, and I don’t know there to have ever been any other kinds. People who ought to know how corrupt the system is because they are the ones who can see it from the inside, because they are the ones executing its functions: how is twists the notion of freedom of association and transforms it into a grotesque form of crypto-tyranny, perpetuated through apathy, indifference, and justified through a “democratic” process. If people who work with FEDS know it, then why don’t they talk about it, why don’t they work to change it, to make FEDS an open organization of voluntary membership? I think it is part corruption/opportunism, part ignorance of the ethical implications.

Michelle ZakrisonI met Michelle, our latest Lady of the Manor, on the last day she still hoped of being reelected. I was under a lot of pressure from schoolwork but I was excited to be talking to our president. I was asking questions, trying to further ideas, to get reactions: I have never in my life met someone so transparent, pretending to be so interested in ideas yet unwilling or unable to propose or discuss any of her own.

The friends I was with noticed it too, and they don’t even share most of my political leanings. Oh I am sure she has ideas! She just wouldn’t want to clash with mine in any way. She doesn’t want to be disagreeable; she wants me to believe she is on my side, no matter where I stand, and wants you and every student voter to believe just the same. She is not alone. Loose platforms painted with clichés, general feel-good slogans, but no actual substance, are purposefully engineered to be all things to all people. Is the word spinelessness being primed here for future use?

FEDS is part of a powerful plot of hypocrisy that extends beyond its institution. It is an all-pervasive yet underhanded ideological attack on our institutions of individual rights and liberties. It is a plot of the clan against the individual. This likely story suffices for illustration:

At some point during FEDS' history, some members got together, held some sort of referendum preceded and followed by some meetings, and granted themselves the right to represent every student, whether they liked it or not. Taxation with pseudo-representation aside, the real problem is the philosophical claim made and left unchallenged: that it is up to the group, the clan, to rule over the individuals. The pinnacle of freedom under this arrangement is democracy at every level, not adherence to individual rights.

It is the group, as defined by the majority, that dictates what everyone gets, what everyone will do, what everyone’s values are. No single individual can decide for himself what he gets, what he wants, what his conscience dictates. So the group is transcended from the sum of the individuals comprising it, to an entity of its own: the mother of all entities, outside of and aside from which, the individual is defunct and impotent. How else can it be if the only power I have left is to influence the group I belong to, instead of being able to make decisions for myself? Who holds the ultimate power in this headless system?

Statism is the new religion. And freedom of religion does not mean freedom to a religion, no matter how hard religious fundamentalists try to twist the meaning of this constitutional provision. It also, and most importantly, means freedom from religion at all! A forced union, a group we are forced to be represented and ruled by, is tyrannical no matter what anyone says. If we don’t have the freedom to join our hands together for a common purpose when we choose to, and take them apart and walk alone when we change our minds, then we are slaves.

Jonah and the new student executives will now lobby on our behalf about anything. I feel most strongly over the role of the VP Ed, because now Jonah will take that twisted representative power he acquired through the devious workings of a system that dilutes and castrates the freedoms of all students, and use it to lobby to dilute and castrate the freedoms of other people he doesn’t even represent on paper: the taxpayers.

Does it all even out in the end? Is it an authorless crime? Maybe, though I am not sure, but it is certainly not victimless.

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20Feb/073

Future Politician in the Making

Jonah LevineI saw him for the first time sitting on a couch at the SLC cramming away on his laptop, as I was lining for RideSafe. I noticed the Business Stats book in his pile of junk, and I realized he was working on the assignment that was due that night for ECON 221, a distance education course I am also taking. As the line started moving when the RideSafe guy showed up, I got to get closer, and I figured this guy was really screwed; it was about 10 pm, he only had time until midnight to finish and submit, and he had barely gotten started.

I had finished my assignment over a week before, and was pretty proud of my work. I must have been in a weird mood because I felt like rubbing it in this stranger's face. But really, I had been in that situation before myself, and all those times, how nice would it have been if some stranger had just shared her work with me and bailed my ass out, juuuust that one time. So long story short, I just offer this guy my finished assignment as a reference to help him speed up his work, but to my surprise he sorta declined, under some chivalrous pretense that he would rather earn his mark fully, well, kudos to him, put me right in my place, but he wrote down my email address just in case.

So indeed, by the time RideSafe had dropped me off at my place, I had received a pleading email about how he had underestimated the difficulty of the assignment and such, and he would really appreciate it if he could still take me up on my offer and take a good peek at my work. Shaking my head I just forward him my assignment as a PDF, and in a burst of gratitude he replied with an offer to take me out for coffee and donuts at Tims anytime.

Fast-forwarding to about a month later, I meet Jonah Levine in the SLC again. He sounds perky, yearning to satisfy my Tim Hortons cravings as promised, and gets me a hazelnut smoothie and an herb & garlic cream-cheese whole-wheat baguette. That's great, some small talk, and then he makes the move! BAM!

Of course he's with Team Yellow and wouldn't mind my vote in the upcoming FEDS elections. So I listen to him explain his platform and what he and his team are all about, but as he is doing his magic, I swear some voodoo metamorphosis starts taking place right in front of my eyes and Jonah Levine turns into the cheapest politico monster I had seen up close in a long while.

I can clearly see him 30 years from now, expressionless, popping out his empty rhetoric like hard candy to a callous audience that is listening just because they don't give enough shit either way.

Jonah Levine personifies my disgust with too much of my generation. I have seen people cheer for politicians who are so clearly corrupt, that it is embarrassing for anyone to be as blind and self-deceived as to be taken in with them. But I have always been apologetic to those who didn't know any better, because I saw it as a thing of the past and the past only. If our parents didn't know any better, it is the past generation, the old biases, the old fakeness, the baby-boomers' arrogance and stale values that produced today's leaders I am ashamed of. In my mind, our new generation has all the prerequisites to make a discrete leap forward; we have the experience of all those political and economic experiments gone bad in the 20th century, fresh interests and values, a new mission, a new voice and a newly found disdain for bullshit. And we should know better, god damn it!

Sadly, from what I can see it's an unchanging cycle; the faces of tomorrow are just like those of yesterday, and people's standards don't seem to have risen. The same kind of people are going through the drill: compounding mediocrity in their resume unlocks the doors to a bright future in politics. I see you were in the Co-op Student of the Year Committee, Jonah, is it because you don't stand a chance to be co-op student of the year yourself? Cool by association, eh? Indeed. Those are the same faces that will be spewing fakeness on TV in the next few decades, and it seems like people will keep eating it up.

It is hard to recover the full spectrum of disgust as I was listening to this 20 something-year-old trying to spoon-feed me nothing but the same stale old shit, as he was mentally masturbating to the notion of this socialist utopia upon Waterloo, of no student left behind in this cruel for-profit capitalist world where no one but the rich can afford education as tuition keeps growing at rates much higher than inflation, with the bulk of prospective students thus being deterred from even pursuing an education. Lame prelude to a plea for hardball lobbying at the federal level for more loans and lower interest rates, because obviously, there is a problem with the current system where not everyone can afford schooling.

My offended libertarian sensitivities aside, truly, what made the blood in my veins boil was the sight of his face, his comfortable monotonous voice: he really didn't see an issue of accountability with all these prescriptive deliverables he was proposing. The single most serious problem was that he, nobody Jonah Levine, who doesn't even have the discipline or brains to complete a first-year-level econ assignment on time, thinks he is qualified to decide what's acceptable tuition, suitable subsidy level, and appropriate taxation for the Canadian taxpayer.

Just what the hell makes him think he is qualified to make all these prescriptive statements with the moral entitlement to go through the administrative channels in order to lobby for his vision to be imposed on everyone else?

Yes, no shit, there is a problem with our current system, where some Political Science majors, brain-dead leeches like Jonah Levine, can infiltrate and breeze through four years of university, courtesy of the Canadian taxpayers, and use an educational institution as a playground for their degenerate cliche-ridden campaigns to recruit the most feeble-minded amongst students, exploiting their pseudo-representation as a means to further their personal agendas, allegedly in the name of the public good in general, and of everyone of us in particular.

It makes me sick that the brightest minds of our generation, students of one of the most distinguished Canadian universities, have nothing better than this slug to represent them, to personify their values and approach to problems and solutions. Jonah Levine did win in these elections and is now VP for Education.

So what is happening to us? How many social workers want to work their profession into obsolescence? How many politicians would want to be problem-solvers in a world where it is so much easier to just create and inflate problems, then present quick-fix solutions that justify any budget and platform, dump the real consequences on the future administration, and get away with it? Oh how pretty it will all look in the extracurricular section of Jonah Levine's resume. Dig a hole, digging-o-a-hole!

Alright, Jonah, let's examine what you were just granted power by 6.75% of the student body to lobby for on behalf of all of us. Some day you might have come across this in your not-sufficiently subsidized university career, but let's just not take any chances. You see Jonah, there are such dynamics that determine what economists call demand and supply, and if you mess around with them kinky shit tends to happen. Education is great, right, and like everything good it should be subsidized? Wait a minute... I thought good things didn't need to be subsidized!

It's the economy, stupid!

Supporters of increased aid to education note that the cost of attending college has been rising faster than the rate of inflation for the last two decades. Yet easy money at taxpayers' expense fuels this escalation. Basic economic theory tells us that boosting the demand for a product or service, which is what government loans and grants effectively do, tends to raise its price.

Different types of schools respond differently to increases in subsidies, and price hikes can take several forms, including cuts in state funding and internal aid as well as increases in the official tuition. But the general effect is pretty clear: When someone else is paying part of the tab, consumers do not worry as much about the cost, so the cost tends to be higher. This phenomenon creates a vicious circle in which subsidies push up prices, leading to demands for increased subsidies, which push up prices again.

-check out this excellent brief article By Jacob Sullum for the full picture.

Should you succeed in increasing subsidies, Jonah, maybe you'd be the hero of the year but it seems like your quick fix would encapsulate the seeds of its own future ineffectiveness, and in a year or two, it would be up to your successor try to perpetuate the same bullshit under the same pretense, bitching at the feds to obtain a higher dose hoping to achieve the same high. Tolerance to your favorite drug is a painful thing, isn't it?

And the rest of us will still be here, waiting, yearning for the next hero of the year, the next crusader to deliver us an incrementally higher dose of the same shit. What goes up must come down Jonah, but you and your breed of already corrupt student politicians are the first thing I want to see free falling.

We don't need your web of premature bureaucracy at the university level to compound the strain from what we already have to bear at the local, provincial, and federal level. You create no value Jonah, absolutely no value. I see your little heart is bleeding over how expensive tuition is. Then how is a budget of $725,536 per term for FEDS justifiable? How does all that money help any students except for you, Mr.Polisci poster-boy on payroll? Why don't you instead try to lobby internally to lower tuition by cutting corners on the funding of boondoggle projects that have nothing to do with education instead of reflexively turning to pinch the government's bitter teat?

All these endowment fees, student service fees for services I have never used or known they existed, radio Waterloo, dental plan fees, FEDS, student societies... Wow, all incidental fees minus health insurance, which is the only thing we actually do need from all of that, mount up to about $400 per term; that's almost 20% of tuition, Jonah, I know math is not your strongest subject but if you could even halve that, holy shit man!

Until the very last student claims the very last portion of the refundable fees, you and your administrative goons don't have the least bit of a right to extort more funds from the taxpayers on our behalf because obviously most students don't care enough about their tuition fees to take the necessary steps at the individual level to minimize their cost by claiming back what they can.

But you don't even want to cut corners on the bullshit, do you? You need to drown us deeper in debt, easy tax-payer-subsidized debt, so your Yellow Team can have plenty of coin to toss around to all those student clubs—mostly groups of five people who don't even bother organizing lame events but just write off the pizzas every other Friday night, to all those loony douche bags who write off their plane tickets to Saskatchewan or wherever, to "study native villages" or participate in "conferences" on our dime. Thanks Student Government for taking our money by force and spending it on crap none of us would consider paying for even under hallucinogens. Great gateway to real government I suppose.

Why is it that the herd has been institutionally primed to dominate over the individual at every level of organization? A group of five students can claim that over 22,000 others, mostly strangers they have little to do with, split the cost of buying the former group pizza, or of hosting an event those 22,000 don't care for, just by virtue of being a group, a club, a student association. But five individual students wouldn't even entertain the thought of doing just the same.

What is a group but the sum of its individuals? What is that metaphysically mind-bending margin between the sum and the whole that we are to subordinate our will to? It's nothing but the Philosopher's Stone which corrupt politicians use to dilute and twist the will and the power of the individual. Your government wants your indifference; FEDS wants a 16% turnout, so every candidate would need to worry about swaying in at most only 8.5% of the electorate to secure victory. Most of that 8.5% are friends (I am sure our Jonah is a super popular boy) and members of student clubs, all the vested interests lined up. And once the bums are in office, they can tax all of us "on our behalf", not just the 8.5% who voted for them, to pay the tab of their electoral victory. Everybody wins!

Such, my friends, are the perks of democracy, filtered through selection-bias and diluted representation, in a majority-rule winner-takes-all system. It always works like a charm for the winners, and the losers don't seem to realize they're losers after the results have been reflected and refracted through all the administrative channels and regurgitated back to them. There's little room for freedom, accountability, and good leadership in a system where clans rule over individuals and responsibility is processed, fairly and squarly redistributed, and often simply obfuscated. It's a world of the Jonah Levines. Let them have it.


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