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Moonbeam Howls

December 6, 2017
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Governor Moonbeam is howling, and it’s not on account of this week’s supermoon.

“This bill will divide the blue states from the red, the Democrats from the Republicans. It is evil in the extreme,” Gov. Jerry Brown said in a call with reporters.

Governors howl: Why tax plan would hammer blue states, SF Chronicle, 12/5/17

I’m not a fan of the GOP tax bill, but when my governor calls something “evil in the extreme,” my ears perk up.

What’s so evil about the bill? It gets rid of the state income tax deductions, so Californians will have to report higher incomes on their federal returns than citizens of states with lower income tax.

California has much to lose because it relies heavily on the income tax. It has the nation’s highest state income tax rate, 13.3 percent. And the income tax generates 32.2 percent of all state and local tax collections, the fourth highest of any state.

On its face, eliminating arbitrary deductions should be a neutral way to raise taxes – something we need to do at the Federal level unless we drastically cut spending. But blue states like California and New York tend to have higher income taxes, so it’s perceived as warfare.

Policy always involves winners and losers. A complex tax code, replete with special deductions and exceptions, makes any changes to the policy a source of contention and division. Governor Brown is under a lot of pressure because of California’s own long-term financial outlook. Now, increasing the income tax will be an even less popular option for digging out of the fiscal hole. I honestly sympathize–and I’m bummed that I will no longer be able to deduct state income tax–but this what happens when states become overly dependent on the Federal Government. California is a net contributor to other states, tax-wise, but the fact that it is so sensitive to small distributional changes in the tax code makes me think there’s a structural problem, and it’s not the GOP’s fault for exploiting it.

Mark this as another data point for “bad Federalism.”

Assorted Links

November 28, 2017
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1. World’s first floating village to breathe new life into old dream, NBC News seems to like the environmental angle of the floating city project in French Polynesia:

A community afloat on the ocean, sometimes known as a “seastead,” has appealed to generations of thinkers and dreamers. Among the notable ideas is Triton City, designed in the 1960s by the American inventor Buckminster Fuller: a town of 5,000 people floating on Japan’s Tokyo Bay, as a seaborne extension for one the world most densely populated cities.

Bucky lives.

2. Trump advisors aim to privatize oil-rich Indian reservations, Reuters.

Native Americans make a distinction between privatization and self-determination:

“Our spiritual leaders are opposed to the privatization of our lands, which means the commoditization of the nature, water, air we hold sacred,” said Tom Goldtooth, a member of both the Navajo and the Dakota tribes who runs the Indigenous Environmental Network. “Privatization has been the goal since colonization – to strip Native Nations of their sovereignty.”

3. Man investigates noise, finds turkey knocking on window

Offered without comment:

“I heard a knocking on the window and took out my phone thinking it was something peculiar… and worth recording,” Seastead said.

What distinguishes a seastead from a vanity project?

November 27, 2017

 

When a writer of the calibre of Izabella Kaminska critiques the economics behind seasteading, it’s wise to take note [On the (non) viability of start-up islands, Financial Times, Nov. 17, 2017]. Right off the bat, however, she’s blinded by the assumption that seasteads are fundamentally akin to special economic zones or tax havens, rather than being something brand new.  She’s right that a seastead cannot compete with the existing options on the basis of tax or regulatory evasion alone. Dubai, Shenzen, and the Cayman Islands already have that market cornered.

She also takes issue with the analogy of seasteads to the member nations of Hanseatic League – a maritime trade alliance among medieval city states – since the latter were not governed anarchically, but were subsumed under the authority of the Holy Roman Empire:

To the contrary, they boasted highly complex systems of civil governance which levied domestic populations. Some had a democratic flavour where decisions were forged according to representative consensus, some less so.

But no one has suggested that individual seasteads be governed anarchically. An alternative slogan for seasteading to “Let 1,000 Nations Bloom,” could be “Let’s have more, better rules,” or more accurately, more systems of rules.

Hansa League

The institutional ecosystem precedes the technological development.

But while Kaminska appears not to have done her homework on these counts, she does have two valid, related points:

1) Although she entertains the idea that seasteaders might be motivated by other concerns – like the American settlers escaping persecution – she maintains that there would not be enough intrinsic resources to sustain even the most die-hard pioneers. With nothing to trade, the platform would have to sustain itself with constant injections of capital.

2) In the absence of any real “homesteading” opportunities, artificial islands would have to provide services, and would be economically-disadvantaged compared to the aforementioned havens:

 

“In a global economy which already provides plentiful access to much cheaper special economic zones and tax havens, the exercise amounts to nothing more than a vanity project for billionaires with more money than sense.”

This brings me to the essence of seasteading, which has to embrace and the alleged “ocean tax.” Patri has predicted that seasteading will become a reality when the land tax (i.e., the costs of increasingly dysfunctional governments) exceeds the ocean tax, or the added engineering costs of building on the high seas. This formula computes the current (non) viability of politically autonomous artificial islands – vanity projects that may or may not ever come to fruition. But a politically autonomous artificial island is not a seastead. A seastead becomes a seastead when it turns the ocean tax into an ocean windfall, and reimagines the vast expanse of wind-swept waves as a dynamic, moist solar collector, ripe for harvesting in novel forms like algal biofuel.

What distinguishes a seastead from a vanity project? The seasteader isn’t afraid to get wet.

Settling the seas no longer science fiction, says NY Times

November 14, 2017
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The New York Times has an article about seasteading:

[I]n 2017, with sea levels rising because of climate change and established political orders around the world teetering under the strains of populism, seasteading can seem not just practical, but downright appealing.

It mentions Ken Neumeyer’s “Sailing the Farm,” and gives an early history of the Institute – starting with Patri Friedman’s Burning Man talk, and  Peter Thiel’s 2009 Cato Unbound essay. The article is surprisingly optimistic about the prospects, and with good reason. It’s worth remembering that Thiel framed seasteading as the more realistic option for building the future when compared to outer space:

 In a 2009 essay, Mr. Thiel described seasteading as a long shot, but one worth taking. “Between cyberspace and outer space lies the possibility of settling the oceans,” he wrote.

The open oceans are still a desolate place. Outside of a few die-hard cruisers, we don’t really know how to safely, comfortably, and affordably inhabit them.

French Polynesia lowers the barriers to entry, by allowing certain geographic and political barriers to perfect mobility and autonomy. It makes sense to try to align the seastead’s interests with the political unit – in this case French Polynesia – to achieve something like an incubator for seasteading technology. These are the same technologies that islands will need in the event of extreme climate change: steady open-ocean platforms, next-generation transport vessels, and life-support systems for a new kind of society.

Seastead incubator

Update: Both the NY Times piece and a more recent VICE news article strike a different tone from most previous coverage. The change in major media reports on seasteading brings to mind Thomas Kuhn’s idea of the paradigm shift – the tipping point, when a new theory becomes recognized by a majority of the scientists in a field. First a theory seems crazy, but gradually, it begins to explain more and more of the anomalies of the old paradigm. Seasteading can be thought of as the ultimate counter-cyclical industry. As government/climate/the economy become less tenable in their present, a radical “reset” becomes more attractive.

Reading between Trump’s lines –– Jurisdictional arbitrage at it’s most comical

November 10, 2017

The on-going political theater – a real-world House of Cards – brings to mind the old Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times.” Some are happy to sit back and enjoy the show, but it’s even better entertainment if you can apply filters to understand what’s happening beneath the surface of the statements coming out of Trump’s White House.

The latest episode is “The Meeting With Native American Leaders,” [The unfiltered version of Trump’s meeting with Native American leaders, Axios.com] in which Trump can’t stop calling the tribal leaders “Chief,” and makes creative use of the Nike slogan to imply that regulators won’t go after tribes for using aggressive drilling techniques on their lands.

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“Chief, chief,” Trump continued, addressing one of the tribal leaders, “what are they going to do? Once you get it out of the ground are they going to make you put it back in there? I mean, once it’s out of the ground it can’t go back in there. You’ve just got to do it. I’m telling you, chief, you’ve just got to do it.”

Trump’s opponents will seize on this episode as more evidence of his simultaneous brilliant criminality and sheer idiocy. I’m neither a Trump supporter, nor a fracking enthusiast, but this analysis is lazy (it’s also not very funny). Fracking may be the least bad solution to America’s dependence on the Middle East, in spite of the big unknowns, like the effects on the water supply (not to mention those weird Oklahoman earthquakes).

Scott Adams has proposed the “persuasion filter” for understanding Trump’s methods: speaking directly in simple words, repeating himself, starting a negotiation with an outrageous first bid to frame a more sensible middle ground, pacing and leading, and on and on. That’s not my specialty. I’m exploring a new filter for the hip/woke/based reader in 2017. The Straussian filter helps you read “between the lines” to grasp Trump’s sometimes hidden, and sometimes not-so-hidden meaning.

Political theorist Leo Strauss suggested that this way of reading has been out of fashion in the West for many years (centuries?) because we’re used to an atmosphere of free expression. Historically, the consequence of speaking truth to power was death, so the best writers/orators learned to conceal their esoteric message within a harmless coating. A Straussian might embed a single line “in a terse and lively style,” which contradicts the rest of a writing that otherwise promotes the established narrative. Shakespeare used villains and fools to deliver the bitterest truths about humanity because it placed a layer of plausible deniability between him and the message.

Imagine the “unfiltered version of Trump’s meeting” if he had explicitly stated, “You don’t need to follow the EPA regulations. They’re a paper tiger, and besides– you guys are the left’s favorite historical victim group. EPA v. Cherokee Nation is never going to happen.” A lot of people would have to feign outrage, and Cherokee Nation would probably get fleeced again. Instead, we end up with another funny article about “Trump acting crazy.”

Trump appears to be playing both the fool and His Royal Highness. Although he’s ostensibly the most powerful man in the world, Trump still needs to use jester tactics to advance his agenda. The previous administrations installed a new governmental operating system called the administrative state that keeps their technocratic worldview crunching away in their absence. In a sense, Bush/Clinton/W. Bush/Obama are still in office.

Trump may be king, but secretly he is a weak king. More than legislation, his main instrument is his voice, which cuts through red tape by its implicit message: “I am stronger than the shadow state. I am a real person; I speak in words you understand. The faceless bureaucrat who you think is breathing down your neck is not going to be around forever.”

The Obama administration passed over 3,000 rules and 30,000 pages of environmental regulations. There are too many rules for bureaucrats to be expected to enforce them all. However, a business person in a regulated industry like energy won’t know which laws will be enforced, leading to paralysis. That’s why the native Americans are knocking on Trump’s door, why the U.S. still exports its pollution to the third world, and why you and I still have to fund radical brainwashing every time we fill up our gas tanks.

Trump’s esoteric, or hidden message is one of jurisdictional arbitrage. By calling the leaders “chief,” he is affirming that native American lands are a sort of special economic zone in which new technology can be tried. If it works, the tribes will get more revenue, the U.S. will lessen its dependence on foreign powers, and this meme will be more appropriate than ever:

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This is also a great opportunity to create funds and zones for testing renewable energy. Much like Saudi Arabia has started to plan for its own post-oil future, the native peoples of America could dedicate a portion of the windfall to developing clean energy alternatives.

Let 1,000 reservations bloom.

The #New95 Reach The Home of the Free Speech Movement

October 31, 2017
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This weekend’s 1517 Assembly went swimmingly for an event made up of a bunch of rabble-rousers and contrarians. Danielle Strachmann and Mike Gibson – collaborators on the 1517 Fund, and formerly the Thiel Fellowship (aka 20 Under 20) –  introduced the morning’s speakers as those “doing what they have no business doing.” These included the first female tech CEO in Afghanistan, and Stripe co-founder Patrick Collison (who started the multi-billion dollar payments processing company before the age of 20).

Balaji Srinivasan spoke on how to enable discussion of truly new ideas, which may be unpopular. Nowadays, everyone is a journalist and a public figure. If you want to speak “truth” to “power,” Balaji suggested separating one’s earning name from one’s speaking name. This can be done through his new company 21.co (soon to be Earn.co). He also advised extending your personal runway by living as a digital nomad – maximizing your savings, and minimizing your burn rate.

There was a common theme: the avant-garde eventually becomes the system. Sadie Valeri explains how this has been the norm in the fine art world for decades. Students learn to imitate Picasso’s abstract art, rather than the human figure, as the masters – including Picasso – did for centuries. “You’re not a revolutionary by copying revolutionaries,” she said, suggesting that those looking to take charge over their education should find a solid teacher who has the skills they want, and learn everything they can from them.

I wrote about the original event that inspired the Assembly – Luther’s publication of the Ninety-five theses on October 31, 1517 –  including my own spin on the #new95.

I was fortunate to meet a Berkeley econ student (my major at Cal) – David Zhou – who picked up a poster version of Mike’s new 95 to post on Berkeley’s campus. After a bit of dramatic staging, we taped it up to one of the bulletin boards outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union. Some of the lettering on the old building had fallen down, leaving only “Martin Luther” standing. Both Luther and King were great reformers in their own right. As Berkeley activists struggle to find a coherent voice for the civil rights issues of our day, they could do worse than to look at these men, and the much older tradition of protest that inspired them.

Update:  It looks like someone reposted the sign on Sproul in a better location. Good on whoever pushed this boundary.

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Sea-“steading” Semantics and a Socratic Dialogue on Seceding from Spain

October 30, 2017
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Four years ago, DeltaSync debuted a preliminary plan which estimated that a series of platforms for 20 to 30 people would cost around $15 million. With one-fifth of the space reserved for open greenery, the firm estimates living space would cost about $500 per square foot, which is just over half as much as the average price per square foot in New York City (and less than a third of the price of Manhattan’s tony Upper East Side).

Later, Wachs is critical of frontiersman language – like “homesteading” – which she associates with genocide and colonialism. I don’t hesitate to speak positively about homesteading, which has a noble intellectual tradition when bound up with the Lockean proviso: while individuals have a right to homestead private property from nature by working on it, they can do so only “…at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.”

Still, we must remember that the Homestead Act gave rise to the Trail of Tears, and reflect on the maladies the global north has brought to the western and southern hemispheres.

trailoftears

What is the modern equivalent of cholera?

It is equally important to push back against the idea that seasteading is somehow ‘colonialism 2.0.’ The subtle art of subjugation has been evolving all along, and the right to self-determination was never re-established in the South Pacific. After all, this was just 50 years ago.

Hopefully seasteading will help countries like French Polynesia in the on-going quest for self-determination.

2. Dialogue on Catalan Independence, By Jason Sorens, Pileus Blog

If you haven’t followed the news out of Catalonia, this socratic dialogue between an imagined opponent and supporter of independence will get you up to speed on the issue, from the right to self determination…

TONI (Independence Opponent): The right to self-determination is not an individual right like freedom of expression or the right to vote; it’s a collective right and therefore subject to far stricter limits. Your right to secede infringes on the rights of others who do not want secession. Like me.

…to the political status…

TONI: [Independence] could happen, but only if we stay in Spain and make the case. Persuasion is the way to go, not just leaving. Once you leave, you can’t go back.

GEMMA (Independence Supporter): If you had a girlfriend who told you that she would beat you violently if you ever tried to leave her, wouldn’t that make you want to leave her more?

…to the economics…

GEMMA: No one denies there will be short-run costs to independence. The long-run benefits are larger. If Spain is willing to harm Catalans by keeping us outside the EU after independence, they will also be willing to harm us when we are under their thumb. At least independence lets us negotiate with other European countries as an equal. WTO membership will happen relatively quickly. Also note that as long as other countries do not recognize Catalonia’s independence, our goods will have access to European and global markets on the same terms as Spanish goods. There is no reason recognition of our independence and accession to the WTO and EU could not happen around the same time.

TONI: It’s odd, you have to admit, for independentists to hope that Catalonia’s independence is denied recognition so that Catalonia’s citizens are still treated as if they were Spanish citizens. If Catalonia is denied recognition, other European countries are not going to negotiate with Catalonia as an equal. You cannot have it both ways: all the rights and benefits of independence but none of the duties and costs. The short-term costs of secession could be huge. Just look at all the businesses moving out of Catalonia.

I guess exit works both works ways.