Why Buy RHEL?

Yet again, I’m going to post about something related to my employer. Yet again, I’m going to reiterate that this is not an official Red Hat position. In fact, I more than half expect I’ll get in trouble for saying it, but it just had to be said. You see, there’s a discussion on Slashdot about How Can I Justify Using Red Hat When CentOS Exists? The poster wants the functionality of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, but the CIO doesn’t want to pay for it and demands that they use CentOS instead. A lot of people have tried to explain the various aspects of what a RHEL subscription gets you. I’m not going to expand or correct those comments, because that will definitely get me in trouble and partly because I just don’t care. Here’s the reason that apparently carries no weight at all with CIOs and never even occurs to Slashdotters.

Because it’s the fucking right thing to do, you assholes.

Yeah, I used profanity on what has almost always been a family-friendly blog. I did that because it’s so utterly infuriating that such an obvious and important principle has totally escaped notice elsewhere. If you value something, you pay for it. Even the worst free-market zealots claim to believe that. They often use the same rationale to justify eliminating regulations (especially environmental ones) or replacing public aid with private charity. Red Hat folks do more work than anyone to improve the Linux kernel, GNOME, and dozens of other projects. They write the code, do the testing, fix the bugs, write the documentation, and provide all kinds of logistical support. The beneficiaries include not just obvious derivatives like CentOS and Scientific but even commercial competitors from Oracle and Amazon’s obvious clones to completely separate distributions like Ubuntu which also package that code and fixes. This work isn’t done by volunteers. It costs a lot of money. The fact that we allow the code to be distributed for free should have nothing to do with the principle that you pay for what you value. When you violate that principle you ensure that there will be less of what you value. The result will be a net loss for everyone, as less innovation occurs and more energy is wasted making sure everyone’s “intellectual property” remains under lock and key. Even the thieves lose.

I’d really like to hear from someone who can offer a better moral justification than “we can so we should” for using CentOS on thousands of machines without paying for even one RHEL subscription, because nothing I’ve heard so far is even close. “Duty to maximize profits” arguments will be deleted, because I’ve already turned that one into swiss cheese enough times in my life. Does anybody seriously believe that freeloading should be on the “good” side of our collective moral map?

Libertarian Watch

Alex Tabarrok has written what might very well be the stupidest thing I’ll read this year, about the Mexican Mafia. In it, he portrays their extortion as “taxes” because folks like him love to do the opposite and portray taxes as extortion. He takes it a little further than most, though, by claiming that the MM “became a kind of government” because some of their actions could be construed as protecting property rights or adjudicating disputes. Is that enough to make a government? Is it really equivalent to the torts and courts on which even the most free societies and markets depend? Does the MM provide anything equivalent to national defense – the one institution even the most radical government-haters seem to favor? No, they rely on prison guards, and beyond them the real military, for that. In fact, their whole enterprise depends on Real Government doing all the hard work of delivering victims by incarceration. Tabarrok concludes that the Mexican Mafia has “much to teach us about crime and governance” despite all this. I disagree. An unelected and unaccountable authority defined by ethnic homogeneity and engaging in “taxation” without representation would have no legitimacy as a government, and bears no resemblance to the one with which Alex is not so subtly comparing it. Even a meth habit doesn’t explain that kind of writing.

In other, slightly better, news, Radley Balko has finally figured out that the limited-liability corporation is really an exercise in political economy, and might not be truly compatible with libertarian ideals. Yeah, the “limited liability” part, unaccompanied by anything in return for that governmental favor, kind of gave that away. The corporate structure is to liability what an address in the Caymans is to taxation. Many people have recognized that for years. They’ve suggested that, if we’re going to break the relationship between profit and risk (which real free-market theory tells us is essential), we should at least try to limit or recover the losses that result. Do you suppose that whole careers spent attacking such people as socialist might explain why normal people see “libertarian” as nothing to do with free markets? Of course, the comments to Radley’s article make it quite clear that even asking an innocent question is viewed as heresy. Ours is not to question. Ours is only to accept our position below the New Aristocracy in Washington and Wall Street.

Are Unions Leftist?

Yesterday, it being Labor Day and everything, I made a comment expressing appreciation for the gains organized labor has brought. (It turns out that Labor Day might not really be about labor unions so much as the labor – i.e. work – itself, but that’s immaterial here.) My views were immediately branded “leftist” but that seems to be a particularly useless way to consider views toward organized labor. To be sure, unions and strikes have often been used by communists/socialists as weapons against capitalism, and many early union leaders here in the US were very red indeed. On the other hand, some leftist regimes such as China or the old Soviet Union have been markedly intolerant of unions. Go on strike there and you could get yourself shot. Show me a room full of trade-union members here in the US and I’ll show you a room where the dominant political beliefs are those of right-wing Limbaugh, O’Reilly and Beck rather than any “leftist” you could name. These contradictions spring from the fact that, in some essential ways, pro-labor vs. anti-labor sentiment isn’t really a left vs. right thing at all.

Left vs. right has traditionally been about the influence of government in people’s lives, and particularly in their economic lives. The union debate is about tension between two non-governmental centers of power – the providers of capital vs. the providers about labor. Unions are, at the most basic level, just voluntary associations pursuing common goals. The right of free association that’s involved is the same one exercised by the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock or the patriots at Lexington Green. Government has continued to honor this right not only by directly protecting its exercise but also by granting many kinds of associations favorable treatment – especially with respect to taxation. In the particular case of capital holders forming the associations that we call corporations, the benefits extend even further to limited liability, political influence, taxpayer-funded trade diplomacy, etc. If capital providers can voluntarily associate and receive all these benefits for doing so, why not labor providers (i.e. workers)? Why not allow the two groups to work things out directly between themselves, in the market, without government interference in the form of requiring government sanction for unions, enforcing exclusivity (labor monopolies are just as evil as capital monopolies), and so on? How is it “leftist” to recognize that voluntary association in the form of unions is an alternative to direct government interference in the market, and to support that alternative? Support for or opposition to unions is really more of a populist vs. authoritarian issue that doesn’t fit neatly into any simplistic “left vs. right” model. Those who would outlaw unions and replace them with government are leftist authoritarians. Those who would outlaw unions and replace them with nothing at all are neo-feudal authoritarians. I reject both. It’s absurd to think of “power to the people” as a leftist idea . . . but I guess if the right wingers want to make it clear that they’re against that idea then I shouldn’t complain.

[NB: if you go back far enough, to seating arrangements during the French revolution, the identification of "left" with populism and "right" with hereditary aristocracy does seem pretty strong. The axes have shifted since then, though, and by modern definitions the idea of opposing the left by favoring government interference with the right of free assembly seems rather absurd.]

By the way, my support of unions as a concept does not imply support of specific unions as they exist and operate today. Because of government interference such as I’ve mentioned, they have become another form of oppression for individual workers. That’s true whether they’re acting in league with company owners or in opposition to them. Having formerly lived in Detroit I reserve special hatred for the UAW, which in my view has harmed its members more than anyone by steadfastly resisting necessary adaptation to changing technology and globalization. They’ve done as much as the auto companies themselves to destroy that industry and that city. The kind of union I believe in, driven by voluntary participation and popular will of its members instead of being either neutered or captured by the politico-economic elite, hardly exists today. For the sake of real free markets the return of real unions would be a good thing.

Tax Lies from Mankiw

My wife, a former math major, freely admits that she’s not particularly good at arithmetic. Knowing group theory and being able to calculate a tip quickly are two different skills. Similarly, knowing economic theory and handling your own money competently are two different things. This is illustrated quite well by Greg Mankiw, who uses some really bad assumptions to claim that his effective marginal income tax rate is 90% . . . and of course it’s all Obama’s fault. Now, I might not be a Harvard economist, but even I know about tax-deferred investments and about half a dozen ways to avoid the estate tax – especially on money saved for a child’s education. I know that very few individuals actually pay their top marginal rate, even fewer corporations do, and that a tax rate on earnings is not the same as a tax on dividends and capital gains. Mankiw pretends to know none of these things, so either he’s not smart enough even to find Harvard on a map or he’s deliberately misrepresenting facts to his readers.

Behind the mathematical lies, though, lurks an even worse deceit. What applies to Mankiw doesn’t apply to everyone. He may be able to forego $1000 in income out of petulance at what he sees as a too-high tax rate, but anyone at or below median income would have to consider it more seriously even if the tax rates were as high as he claims. Also, economics might not be a zero-sum game but, at an annual growth rate of only a couple of percent it’s damn close and taxes are even closer than income. We’ve all heard about trickle-down and the “bigger pie for everyone” and so on but, Brad DeLong points out, Mankiw also helped shape policies that do a notably poor job of demonstrating any such effect. DeLong also quotes Friedman as saying, “To tax is to spend.” Somebody has to pay for all of the costs Mankiw helped impose on us. If not the rich, then who? If not now, when? If Mankiw pays less in taxes so that his children can have more money – which they’ll hardly need – for college, who else’s children will have less? Almost certainly someone who has benefited less from our system of tax and property and liability and regulatory law than he has. Maybe someone who pays the taxes Harvard doesn’t, or whose taxes in other years were directed into Mankiw’s pocket while he as an adviser to George W. Bush, or who got screwed by one of the policies he promoted.

Yeah, go take a break, Greg. The fewer hours wealth-destroyers like you work, the better off we’ll all be.

Don’t worry, I won’t make a habit of writing political posts. It’s been a long time since the last one and it will probably be a long time before the next. I just had to get this off my chest, and it’s my blog. I’ll be returning to the technical content shortly.

Best Comment about the Nobel Peace Prize

By Doghouse Riley, in a comment on a post by Roy Edroso.

take it up with the … Committee. I don’t remember them clearing Milton’s Friedman’s award with me first.

I also think that the award was more about Bush than about Obama. I have said publicly that I believe it was petty, and insulting to other candidates, and I stand by those beliefs. Nonetheless, I believe the people on the right who are going all apoplectic about this, using it as another excuse to drag out the tired old “worst president ever” aping of a true observation about their own Chosen One from 2000-2008, are just being boors. They would have said the same thing if the award had been deserved, and we all know that.

Just a Thought

Imagine, if you will, someone who gets a degree from a publicly-funded college, and/or relying on taxpayer-subsidized financial aid. Someone who studies technology for which practically all of the important advances came from taxpayer-funded institutions. Someone who develops their skills at a company whose market is defined by government agencies and academic institutions, then starts their own company serving those same markets. Then how does this person – whose skills, knowledge and wealth are all to a significant extent the outcome of public spending – respond to every policy question?

Wealth transfers are bad. People should be allowed to keep what they earn.

I believe that people are entitled to all the returns for the risks they take and the efforts they make. On the other hand, I recognize that a great deal of what many people actually have is not derived from either of these sources. An investment was made in them, and the investors – like all investors, public and private – have every right to expect a return on that investment. Someone who accepts private investment and then walks away with it instead of delivering anything in return is called a thief. What do we call someone who does exactly the same with public investment? They call themselves libertarians and patriots, but another word comes to my mind. Nine letters, starts with H.

Open Source Support

Stephanie Zvan wrote an article about how open-source support must be better than closed-source because being motivated by pride is so much better than being motivated by money. Greg Laden and some of her other friends applauded predictably. I’m not going to mince words: I thought it was a singularly uninsightful article. I’m not even sure it was meant to be insightful so much as to be provocative or even outright insulting. Both are common motivations on the web, but attribution of motive is a fallacy and I have a few choice words later on for those who indulge in it so I won’t discuss motivation any further than to say that attributing a constructive motive where none is in evidence would be just as fallacious. Here’s a partial list of reasons why I think the article was bad.

  • Motivation is not strongly correlated with open vs. closed source. There are plenty of open-source folks who are motivated primarily by hopes of cashing in their open-source cred for cold hard cash some day, and couldn’t care less about whether their users are well served in the process. Many people working on closed-source projects, on the other hand, do care very much about their users and have passed up more lucrative opportunities so that they could do something they believe in.
  • One particularly important example of this is the people who start companies. People who start computer companies (and to a lesser extent those who choose to work at startups) have willingly consigned themselves to long hours for less immediate reward than they could get working for somewhere else or as consultants, risking their retirements and their marriages and much else in the process. That takes a lot of commitment and passion, which is reflected in concern for every single user. Some open-source workers can match that, but they’re far outnumbered by those who wrote something for themselves in their spare time and whose last involvement with it was to post it on Sourceforge or Freshmeat. Zvan’s whole theory falls apart when the “good guys” have the “bad motivation” and vice versa.
  • Open-source programmers’ pride, which Zvan presents as an unalloyed good, can lead to bad behavior as well. The Linux Kernel Mailing List is a notoriously nasty place, the Gentoo project is only one of the most prominent to be ripped apart by developers’ ego wars, bitter disputes over KDE vs. GNOME have raged everywhere, etc. For every example that fits Zvan’s model of kind and diligent open-source programmers being nice to users, there are at least two examples of immature and antisocial open-source programmers demonstrating utter contempt for users. The perception of users as an alien species at best, The Enemy at worst, is common among programmers regardless of their software-distribution model.
  • Discussing what motivates people is a tricky business, especially when discussing people clearly different than yourself. I’m sure the answer would be that the principles involved are universal and scientifically validated, but “it’s science” isn’t just magical pixie dust you can sprinkle on your biases and brainfarts to make them more credible. Real science involves applying appropriate analytic and explanatory models to actual data, accounting for exceptions or confounding factors, not just forcing made-up data into the mold of one pet theory. Programmers are people, not lab rats, engaged in a complex task that often involves conflicting motivations. Simplistic behavioral models do not suffice for them any more than for editors or travel coordinators.
  • If we want real science, and the question is whether open-source or closed-source products have better support, the way to find an answer is not to cook up some pet theory and try to fit data to it. The real scientific way is to look at user-perceived outcomes of support encounters in both realms. Stephanie doesn’t even consider it, and the one guy who offered such data in Greg’s thread was completely ignored except by me.

In the end, I’ll just say what I said in Greg’s thread. Open source is just a way of distributing software, with its own unique advantages and disadvantages. Ease of participation and likelihood of a project continuing beyond it’s originator’s withdrawal are among open source’s inherent advantages. Kind or level of motivation are not. Open source is not a panacea, and shouldn’t be a religion. Like any religion, those who relentlessly proselytize but don’t even practice what they preach – for example by actually writing some open-source software – are boors and hypocrites.

Bad Faith

I have a lot of respect for Radley Balko. Really, I do. His tireless efforts to document the disgusting militarization of our police, and the heinous abuses often committed by these soldier-wannabes in blue, is much appreciated and he deserves kudos for them. When he turns to economic and particularly tax policy, though, he’s just plain nuts.

even journalists, I’d think, if they were true believers, could afford to send a quarterly $500 check to the federal treasury.

Think of it as a donation to your favorite charity–only a really, really awesome one that’s filled with noble, self-sacrificing public servants; is run by selfless politicians who run for office only out of the goodness of their hearts; never violates our rights, despite that it has the power to do so; wastes virtually no money at all on overhead or bureaucracy; and generally makes all of us all-around better human beings.

Does anyone think of government that way? Has anyone, ever? Anyone? I doubt it. Not even Marx or Mao, not even Mandela or Gandhi. It’s pure strawman, so far beneath Balko’s usual standard that I honestly wondered whether he or someone else had really written it. The libertarian camp followers lapped it up, of course, showing that the very worst glop Balko has ever dropped on their plate is still caviar compared to their usual fare (let alone anything they’re capable of themselves). Strawmen aren’t very interesting, though, so let’s move on.

At first I characterized Balko’s suggestion that liberals pay more taxes as an example of the Volunteer’s Dilemma. He gives an example that even “scott” (who didn’t recognize it as a term from game theory) should be able to understand.

Game theorist Anatol Rapoport noted (1988), “In the U.S. Infantry Manual published during World War II, the soldier was told what to do if a live grenade fell into the trench where he and others were sitting: to wrap himself around the grenade so as to at least save the others. (If no one “volunteered,” all would be killed, and there were only a few seconds to decide who would be the hero.)” Another military example occurs in Joseph Heller’s war novel Catch-22. When Yossarian balks at flying suicide missions, his superiors ask “What if everybody felt that way?” Yossarian responds, “Then I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way. Wouldn’t I?”

As I said in my initial response, just because I think X would be good if everybody did it doesn’t mean I’m willing to do it all by myself while others freeload. Just because I think a lighthouse should be built, doesn’t mean I’m willing to pay for it all by myself, or even disproportionately, while others freeload. Unfortunately, everyone else feels the exact same way, and even if some (doesn’t matter which) are misguided none are acting in bad faith. The very idea that someone should have to pay to show their sincerity and have their views considered – which Balko quite literally suggests for liberals but tellingly not for conservatives or libertarians – is anathema to open debate or democracy. It’s just a form of credentialism, trying to use a double standard to exclude some from the discussion while allowing others in free of charge.

Besides the sleazy debate tactics that form its outer covering, though, there’s something seriously rotten at the very core of Balko’s argument. He’s absolutely right about the misguided war and the systematic violation of our rights by government. Those are clearly bad things that the government should stop doing. Where he goes wrong is trying to connect these to his attacks on people who were specifically talking about taxes and (so called) tax protests. Was torture at Guantanamo a matter of tax policy? Will NSA wiretapping be stopped because of tax cuts? Of course not. When has the government ever shown an ability or willingness to economize in the right way, to cut the right things? If the teabaggers had their way and the federal government had to make deep cuts, the things that Balko rightly complains about would not be the most affected. More likely, food and health-care subsidies for poor people would be affected. Environmental or workplace-safety regulators would be far more likely to lose their jobs than snoops or torturers. Balko’s collective-punishment response would cause the burden to fall most heavily on exactly the wrong people and functions, and I think he knows that. Nobody in their right mind, and especially not those who believe in the utter fallibility of government, could or would expect tax protests to end civil-rights abuses.

When someone proposes a policy change, and claims it might have certain effects, they can be wrong. There’s nothing bad about that. We all learn by considering and debating alternatives. When someone can’t even credibly claim to believe in a connection between the change and the effect, though, then it’s entirely reasonable to conclude that the change is one they want regardless of whether it has the effect or not. Since people don’t generally go around prescribing policy changes at random, one may assume that they have some other reason that they chose to hide behind the publicly stated one. That’s called arguing in bad faith. It’s exactly the same tactic that got us into Iraq. It’s exactly the tactic involved in most of the “security theater” and terror-mongering that’s used to justify all those abuses Balko complains about. For those exact reasons it should be condemned, even when the “good guys” use it.

Tea Parties

On this day, when many are planning or attending “tea parties” to protest high taxes, it might be good to remember what the original Boston Tea Party was really about. It was a protest against repealing a tax, creating equal competition between legitimate importers and smugglers (who were behind the raid). Here’s what no less of a libertarian authority than the Ludwig von Mises Institute has to say about it.

a gang of a hundred or so thugs violently deprived their countrymen of access to desirable goods to which the gang had not the slightest claim of ownership, depriving them at the same time of the right to boycott this and other English imports, an entirely laudable exercise of individual discretion that the gang preempted with violent destruction.

This incident was the response of American tea smugglers to the recent act of the English Parliament exempting the British East Indies Company from the tax on importation of tea to North America that was so high that it provided a livelihood to those who brought in tea covertly, circumventing the tax.

And let’s not forget, either, what happened in the aftermath.

This ragged bunch returned home to bankrupt farms and state governments. The burdens of taxation under the British were a pittance compared to the financial obligations they now faced. The war had to be paid for and taxes, even with representation, were going to be enormous.

Loyalists suffered most. Their property was seized, and tarring and feathering was common. A long stream of refugees moved north to Canada.

Protectionism, vandalism, seizure of private property because of political beliefs – those are some of the finer sentiments that today’s Tea Party particpants represent. Liberty is nowhere in sight – we celebrate that next week with Patriots’ Day – but selfishness is very much on display. Enjoy your little tantrum, folks.

The Big Three

I got drawn into a bit of a discussion about how GM’s CEO was basically fired by President Obama. It got me thinking about what I think should happen to the Big Three. That can be summed up pretty simply.

The Big Three can rot, but let’s save the workers.

First, let’s get one fallacy out of the way: it is not unreasonable for the government to exercise this kind of control over a company that’s asking for a bailout. Private investors routinely make these sorts of demands as conditions for their investment. The government has effectively been an investor in the Big Three for a very long time, and is being asked to make another large investment. Why should they be uniquely forbidden to attach any strings to the money – taxpayer money, I shouldn’t need to remind anyone – that they invest? Besides the general phenomenon of people complaining about government meddling in commerce while they turn a blind eye to commerce meddling in government, in this case there’s a very specific issue of this kind of exchange – capital for control – being utterly commonplace. It would be unacceptable for there not to be some conditions, for this to be a pure giveaway that would almost certainly end up benefiting the executives and stockholders without serving the public good of ensuring security for the workers and stability for the economy.

Of course, this raises the question of whether the public good is really being served. Believe me, I understand the whole “creative destruction” part of free markets. I’ve worked for small and innovative companies all my life. To some extent, it has been my job to destroy some competitor’s business. However, the Big Three aren’t part of the free market. For decades, our government has pushed energy and transportation and environmental and trade policies that were more notable for their friendliness to the Big Three than for any public good they served. Whether presidents from Reagan to Bush Jr. (including Clinton) were consciously “in the tank” for big business or merely blinded by an ideology that “just happened” to have the same effects doesn’t matter. The point is that they bear a lot of responsibility for the Big Three being where they are, not even counting the financial tsunami that has its origins in many of the same ideologically-driven policies. Letting a company or an industry fail because it couldn’t compete in a free market is one thing. Setting up a distinctly non-free market, then punishing those who acted as economic rationality and fiduciary duty within that market dictated, is something else. Letting the workers bear the consequences, while the people who made those decisions stay on their private islands in the Caribbean or government-protected ranches in Texas, is unconscionable.

So, let’s save the workers. Much like withdrawal of troops from Iraq, though, this is something that has to be done in an orderly fashion to minimize disruption and damage to innocent people. Even if we decide that it’s not in our national economic or security interest to keep the Big Three and their suppliers, and the capabilities they represent, intact, then we should still “wind them down” gradually. That means shedding one business unit, and the workers it represents, at a time. That in turn means supporting those that (temporarily) remain at a level that keeps them semi-viable until its their turn. This isn’t mere charity, though. Make no mistake: if the whole thing collapsed overnight we’d still bear plenty of costs associated with unemployment, health care, crime, and more subtle or longer-term effects that such mass misery might have on our body politic. There will be a cost to the public, i.e. to the taxpayer, either way. The idea is that an “orderly withdrawal” will actually cost less than the alternative, even in the dollar terms that are all-important to some people and even more in the less-material terms that morally mature people care about. Our health-care system can only absorb so many uninsured needing care at once. Our educational system can only absorb so many for retraining in more long-term-viable industries or specialties at once. The public good is well served by spreading that load over time instead of throwing several parts of the country (notably southeast Michigan) into utter ruin all at once.

Yes, it will cost some taxpayer dollars in the short term. It will cost less than the alternative, less than the multiple bailouts of a corrupt financial industry, less than the war in Iraq. Get over it.