Voting against their own interests?

We are often told by our friends on the left that the poorer among Republican supporters are voting against their own interests, and that conservative politicians induce them to do so by appeals to their racism or to their unreasonable attachment to their weapons.

I won’t comment here on their alleged racism or the wisdom (or lack thereof) of gun control. But I will declare them not guilty of voting against their own economic interests and Republicans, by implication, not guilty of “tricking” them into it.

How can that be, you say? Lots of areas where conservative economic policy holds sway, the people tend to be poorer than average. Surely, you say, I should admit that the idea that lower taxes and less regulation leads to more wealth for anyone but the elites has been soundly refuted by the evidence?

Not so fast. While it is true that the average income of such areas is unusually low, that doesn’t mean that conservative economic policies have made those particular people poor. The question we should ask ourselves is not “why are those people poorer on average?” but “why do so many poor people tend to live where relatively non-leftist economic policy holds sway?”.

I submit to you that the answer is simple: Because they can.

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I owe my health to the Company Store

We are told that, prior to the current enlightened age, one of the ways that evil corporations would rip off their workers was the Company Store. Instead of giving you money, they’d operate a Company Store and give you goods. Problem was, without real money, you couldn’t go to a competing store that might give you a better deal unless you switched jobs. You’d have to put up with whatever inferior, overpriced merchandise they felt like stocking.

Kind of a bummer, right? It’s a good thing that our Corporate Overlords saw the light and quit that nonsense.

Or did they?

The Company Store isn’t gone, it’s just been reduced in scope. Now the Company Store mainly offers health insurance and retirement investments. But, in the areas where the Company Store reigns supreme, the same problems keep cropping up.

You can’t switch health plans without switching jobs. The insurance company’s customers is your employer, not you. The insurance company doesn’t have any reason to keep you happy (it just has to keep you from getting so unhappy you’ll switch jobs in order to get rid of its policy), and it shows every time you have to deal with it.

Oddly enough, while its customer service is busy treating you like the non-customer you are, the plan itself winds up paying for things that make no sense whatsoever from an insurance standpoint. This is because a company insurance plan functions partly as a tax-dodge to spend pre-tax dollars on routine maintenance that it would never make sense to buy actual insurance for. If not for tax rules, you would never buy an insurance policy that covers routine checkups you know with absolute certainty that you’re going to get; you know you’re going to end up paying the full cost of the checkups plus a markup for the insurance company.

Also, since company health plans must offer the same rate to every worker, your company gets hit with the cost differential when it brings in older or less healthy workers. Giving companies a direct financial incentive to engage in age discrimination doesn’t strike me as an especially good idea. Setting things up so that their costs, and their profits, are affected by unhealthy things you do in your off time is also just asking for trouble.

And, since all policies must cover the same things, you get stuck buying coverages you don’t want, and can’t specify coverages you do want. Lawmakers have also taken to piling on coverages that must be included in all group plans, such as birth control pills (!).

And, of course, it would be nice if periods of unemployment had no impact on your health insurance other than by way of your ability to pay the premium. Business creation would be more common if getting off of someone else’s payroll didn’t impact your health plan.

Now we’re told that the only way that we can get employers out of the loop is to bring government into the loop. Apparently, individuals can’t just buy healthcare on their own, someone (either the employer or the government) has to “give” it to them (with their own money, of course).

This is, of course, nonsense. The standard objections to individual insurance purchases are:

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What’s our next job?

As programming jobs get progressively simplified, and more people learn how to do them, will all of our skilled high-tech labor end up working at Wal-Mart?

Well, no. First of all, our skilled high-tech labor won’t really be through with programming until Wal-Mart’s run themselves – checkout would be done by detecting RF tags as they leave the store, and charging it to a credit card you swipe on your shopping cart, which has a bag dispenser so you put your items into the bags as you take them down from the shelves, while the shelves get stocked by automated wheeled gizmos that read that same tag and know where everything goes. The Indian programmers will be helping with that, too, of course; us programmers aren’t the only ones their programmers will be competing against.

And don’t think plumbers and other tradesmen are safe either, nor anyone that thinks they add value by being on-site. Given enough bandwidth and the right software, you can remote-control a humanoid robot to do everything from the other side of the planet from fixing someone’s toilet to waving your hands and drawing on a whiteboard at a meeting.

Second, there’s plenty more work to be done by people that can use their brains and solve problems. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the sky. Air traffic is depressingly thin; most of our traffic crawls along the ground on little narrow strips and keeps getting caught in innumerable bottlenecks. The Solar System is completely deserted, as is everything beyond. The aging process is still just as lethal as it’s ever been. Portable computers are still kind of clunky, since you have to either have a big, bulky keyboard or input letters one at a time through an awkward phonepad-style interface; gizmos to read brainwaves are still in the prototype stages. While we’re on the subject of brainwaves, a reliable lie detector would be most helpful.

Oh, and those monster particle accelerators? How about little tiny ones instead? I’m sure we could find all sorts of profitable uses for those.

And that’s just the beginning. Down the road, we’ll be looking into things like breaking Einstein’s speed limit and seeing if there’s something interesting we can do with dark matter. We’ll work on gravity generators; couple those with brainwave interfaces, and everyone will be able to move things and build things just by thinking about it.

The point is, there’s thousands of years worth of work for all of us to do at the very least. Maybe millions of years. Maybe there isn’t a limit at all. If there is, we can’t even see it from here. It’s extremely short-sighted to say that we’re all going to be working at Wal-Mart because foreigners have learned how to program – if programming is the ultimate in human achievement, then the human race isn’t what I thought it was.

Whether foreigners learn to program or not, there’s so much other work to do that the most important questions we should be asking ourselves is:

1. What barriers can we remove to make it easier to turn a profit chipping away at that multi-millenia backlog of advancement that stands between our pathetic Earthbound civilization and our future as a truly advanced species? The computer industry offers a clue; it’s the closest to pure laissez-faire that we’ve seen in quite some time, and it’s had unparalleled success in pushing performance and quality up and prices down in its offerings.

2. How do we best streamline the process of retraining for the new tasks as the old ones become commoditized? Universities are not especially efficient at this task; we need something better, for everyone from the high-end talent on down.

3. How do we ensure that we continue enticing the world’s best talent to our shores? Lots of economic and personal liberty would be my suggestion.

Demography may be destiny, but…

Twenty-five to fifty year projections of relative economic strength based on demographics have one key assumption that (I hope!) isn’t really safe to make:

Older people will always lack health and vigor relative to younger people.

This assumes in turn long-term stagnation in the advancement of medical technology.

If we’re the least bit optimistic about our future, we’ll tend to regard such pronouncement as being about as reliable as 25 or 50 year projections made in 1900 about the quantity of horse droppings littering the streets of our cities.

If the projections are valid, and anti-aging treatments don’t get developed over the next fifty years, then most people reading this are pretty much screwed. Even a continuing absence of such treatments over 25 years would be a very disturbing sign that long-term stagnation is the order of the day.

But let’s assume that National Health Care never comes to pass, and a working anti-aging treatment successfully runs the FDA gauntlet (or gets developed overseas by researchers that have more latitude in playing with stem cells). What then do current demographic trends portend?

Predictions based on the age distribution in a population get turned on their heads. Having lots of older people becomes an advantage: they’ve got their youthful vigor back, plus lots of experience. Age demographics will tend to favor Europe, Japan, China, et al, rather than the United States, especially if they get the treatment first.

Of course, it won’t be a complete reversal. As it stands, older people are a positive burden on the younger people, while with anti-aging treatment, younger people will be productive, only less so than older people, so extra younger people in places like the United States won’t be a drag on the economy the way extra older people in places like Europe and Japan are projected to be in the absence of anti-aging treatments. Proportions won’t be as important as sheer numbers, where we’ll still be in good shape, or economic freedom and attraction of talent, where we’ll probably be relatively better for the foreseeable future.

But, either the aging of our trading partners and competitors will at some point end up working to their relative advantage, rather than ours, or you and I have significantly less than a century to live, and will not get a stay of execution.


This is Ken from AlienLandscape I’ve just landed here at ChicagoBoyz, where I’ll be doing some of my blogging from now on. I’ll keep posting over there as well, and maybe even put in something besides text while I’m at it.

I’m in the IT business, with a Computer Science degree, so I’ve benefitted as a consumer from international trade (not to mention automation) pushing prices down and quality up for my entire life; a little competition from India in my own industry is just par for the course. The best thing government can do for me is (a) stop jacking up the cost of housing, medicine, and education, (b) drop barriers to entry to other fields, and (c) open up immigration and entice their best talent to keep coming here (mainly by offering the blessings of Liberty in as many ways as we can); as long as we’re competing against them anyway, we might as well compete against them while they’re bearing an American cost of living.

(Much) more to come…