Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Kachalsky Advances to the Second Circuit

The right to carry in 2011.
The opening brief has been filed at the U.S. Court of Appeals in the case of Kachalsky v. Cacace. The appeal challenges the constitutionality of New York’s discretionary handgun-licensing scheme. Currently, the state requires “proper cause” for the issuance of a license to carry a handgun, creating a prior restraint on the fundamental right to bear arms under the Second Amendment and violating equal protection under the 14th Amendment.

Monday, October 17, 2011

An Economic Crisis (and Miracle) Revealed

Wages and Salaries as a Portion of Gross Domestic Product
So I took the predictable flack from my “liberal” friends on Facebook after my recent comments on the “occupy Wall Street” business. There has also been much discussion of the protests elsewhere on the Internet. Eventually, these discussions turn toward uncomfortable things, such as facts and data.

An article cited made much out of the fact that the portion of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) comprised of wages and salaries has shrunk quite dramatically over the last 50 years. While this apparent disparity isn’t necessarily a cause for concern, the article’s evocative graphic led me back to its source, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. There, I examined the data for myself and built some of my own graphs.

The Federal Reserve data yielded two interesting and somewhat unexpected facts. First, the sharp decline in income (adjusted for inflation) beginning in A.D. 2008 is one of historic proportions. That alone can explain the unprecedented anguish so many people are feeling. They are suffering, or at least they’ve received quite a shock after decades of relative prosperity. It also explains why “occupy Wall Street” took me personally by surprise, as I will explain shortly.…

Real Personal Income
Second, the overall growth in real income was equally unexpected. I had long subscribed to the “liberal” economic theory that real wages had been generally flat or even declining for several decades, driving the proliferation of the two-income household. Now, if the data are to be believed, that notion must be largely false. Yes, we can surely parse the numbers to show how certain segments have not benefited, but that would turn us toward other uncomfortable things, such as personal choice and responsibility.…

However, my own observations have now been confirmed, repairing a troubling logical contradiction. Since the late 1980s, I have watched a dramatic increase in personal wealth among the general population. Since that increase only rarely applied to me, I explained it away as a personal sampling error. Nevertheless, the people around me in a variety of income brackets seemed to have plenty of food, personal electronics, and expensive telecommunication contracts. Indeed, prices in these sectors were either fairly flat or even declining in some cases.

Real Income, 1991–2010
I’ve been a formal member of the workforce for 20 years now. As the graph above shows, change in real income was entirely positive during this period … until the financial crisis. My personal experience was very different. Though my working life has seen only three official recessions, my real income has been recessionary in nine of those 20 years. In other words, coping with declining wages has become normal for me.

The time when I felt the richest came shortly after I finished college and before my wife and I bought our house. Working full time, our disposable income increased rapidly but was still moderate. This allowed us to pay off our vehicles and student loans on time or early, so we were effectively debt free until buying our house.

M. D. Van Norman’s Real Disposable Income
That brief window of perceived prosperity came to an end when we became homeowners. In fact, the opening phase of my next personal recession was part of what enabled us to buy into an affordable housing program. Thereafter, my income continued to decline in real terms for six out of eight years. When it arrived, the great recession was simply treated as more of the same in my household.

Without digressing into those other uncomfortable matters, the moral of this post is that the financial crisis has had a profound effect on real income, much more so than I had thought. (Consider me properly chagrined.) However, the data also show the heretofore dramatic and largely sustained growth of that income. This latter fact should not be forgotten as we find our way out of the current crisis.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Occupying Wall Street

As I’ve said before, emotions run high in hard times, and people look for someone (usually someone other than themselves) to blame for their financial woes. That observation has been starkly illustrated in the last few weeks as thousands of mostly young people have rallied to protest flaws in the American economic system. This so-called occupy Wall Street movement began in New York but has spread to other cities.

Actually, my description above is a charitable one. Most of the protesters don’t fully understand what they are protesting. Instead of challenging they very real problems within our economic policy and regulatory structure, they are lashing out at big corporations, free markets, and capitalism in general—and griping about having to repay their student loans.

The more strident critics of the “occupy” movement are quick to point out the apparent hypocrisies and contradictions among the protesters. The protesters, they note, have arrived wearing designer clothes, bearing the latest smartphones, and enjoying many other accoutrements provided by the very corporations that they’ve come to decry. However, such criticism is as misdirected as the protests themselves, even if the observation is an extremely important one for a different reason … which I will explore shortly.

Predictably, the “occupy” movement has been met with approbation from the leadership of the Democratic Party and generally favorable reporting by the mainstream news media. In his panegyric for CNN, Douglas Rushkoff writes that the protesters “are pointing the way toward something entirely different than the zero-sum game of artificial scarcity favoring top-down investors.…” While something different may be on the horizon, Mr. Rushkoff displays some of the same economic ignorance shared by the protesters he admires.

Before I explain why they are misdirecting their rage, I must confess my sympathy for the “occupiers.” I understand their desires and frustrations. It is perfectly natural to want more for oneself and to envy those who appear to already have it. Channeling those feelings onto productive courses is the challenge that we all face.

Now, here is where they’ve gone wrong. Economics is not a zero-sum game. In fact, capitalism itself is predicated on an increasing-sum paradigm. Therefore, investors aren’t trying to take wealth from others via any sort of zero-sum chicanery. They are instead risking some of their existing wealth to build even more for themselves and by extension for society at large. The evidence of this and for capitalism’s unmitigated success is so ubiquitous that it often escapes notice. Capital investments and market forces have created and distributed so much wealth in a few short centuries that it boggles the mind. Human expectations are only just now catching up with this economic accelerando.

So the wealthiest people who have ever lived are presently complaining about the very economic engines that have delivered their wealth. Yes, if you have fine clothes on your back, magical electronics at your fingertips, and thousands of calories easily within your grasp, you are rich in absolute terms. Some of us have more than others, but we are all rich beyond almost any previous imagination.

And that brings me to why so many people are so angry. Our imaginations and expectations can expand. Revolutions may be triggered when expectations rise more quickly than they can be met. That is clearly the environment we see today, even if many of the heightened expectations are still unwarranted … still belonging to a future that we can’t quite touch.

Nevertheless, a new economic revolution may be on the horizon. Unfortunately, revolutions are always an uncertain business, prone to failure and fraught with potential danger. If there will be change, we must identify the right targets for reform, but that is not what I see happening within the “occupy” movement. If this economic anguish remains misdirected, it risks being co-opted by the very forces that have always sought to maintain that anguish for political gain.

I don’t know what shape the new economic model for a “post-industrial” America will take, but I do know that the best course into the future won’t be the quickest or the easiest one. Let’s begin with an inventory of our enemies and allies on the journey forward. Capital investments and free markets are not our enemies. They are our tools for building and distributing wealth. (We just have to learn to use them correctly.) Our only real enemies are those who would abuse economics for political gain and those who would abuse politics for financial gain. They aren’t that hard to identify.

Meanwhile, here is the best way to occupy Wall Street.

Investing has never been easier.
If you have no stake in the system, then you have no right to change it. Fortunately, in a free market, you can buy yourself a stake. Your dollars will often speak louder than your votes or your misdirected rage.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Incredible Shrinking Man

M. D. Van Norman in 2008 and 2011.
So … I’ve been fat for a very long time. However, if the scale, the comments, and the new clothes in my closet are to be believed, I am much less so today. In a little more than a year’s time, I’ve shed at least 50 lbs., going from medically obese to merely chubby. Indeed, a neighbor recently called me “the incredible shrinking man.”

Most people embark on a weight-loss regimen for some combination of health and vanity. In my case, it was almost all about my health, since absent thousands of dollars in cosmetic surgery, I still won’t be turning any heads. I was also just tired of being fat. I was tired of my own body getting in my way, tired of always feeling hot, and tired of the annoying aches and pains that attended carrying dozens of extra pounds on my back for decades on end.

How did I get here? I may have inherited a metabolism bred to survive northern European winters 10,000 years ago, but I live in the land of plenty that is southern California in the 21st century A.D. I like to eat (and drink), so I gained weight easily and steadily for many years. Cutting out junk food such as candy bars and soda pop slowed the process but never stopped it.

From time to time, I would make efforts toward diet and exercise. I would find some limited success, but eventually life would intervene. I would lose my opportunity for regular exercise, and gradually my caloric intake would creep up again. Nevertheless, this ill-fated methodology still helped me back away from my heaviest weight and keep those pounds off for several years.

As my 40th birthday approached, I wanted to do better for all the reasons mentioned earlier. I also knew that I had to try something different, or I would surely face the same failures as I had before.

First, I finally rejected the notion that I would ever “find enough time” to exercise. Obviously, if I spent four to six hours in the gym or walked 10 miles every day, I could be lean and fit, but I already didn’t have enough time to do the things I wanted to do. Second, I accepted the fact that I needed very little food to survive. For my office-worker lifestyle, a few bites here and there should be sufficient. In fact, to lose weight, I would have to eat even less than that meager amount.

So I reduced my consumption rather drastically. I started eating a third to a quarter of the amount of food I used to, replacing several meals per week with just fruits and vegetables. I also curtailed the alcoholic beverages that had snuck into my diet in place of soda pop. Even allowing myself the occasional indulgence, I slowly but surely began to make progress, usually dropping two or three pounds per month.

The process wasn’t easy or painless or without setbacks. I had to watch my leaner co-workers consuming buckets of tasty food at lunch, while contenting myself with a piece of fruit, a small salad, or a few spoonfuls of some leftover dinner. I had to ignore the gnawing hunger that gripped me at various times throughout the day. I had to reverse my tendency to fret about having too little food and worry instead about eating too much. Otherwise, a single big sushi weekend could erase two or three weeks of progress.

Fortunately, things have gotten easier. As the weight has come off, my appetite has gradually declined. This has made it easier for me to eat less and to further limit my indulgences, accelerating my downward progress in recent months. Measurable results have also helped to strengthen my resolve.

I’m now scarcely 10 lbs. away from my preliminary goal, a weight I haven’t seen since I was about 16 years old. I was already fat then, so I’m prepared to discover that I’ll still have 10 or 15 lbs. more to go after that.

I suppose the moral of my story is that these goals are obtainable without fad diets or inordinate amounts of exercise.

Please forgive my photograph. I wouldn’t normally post something so unpleasant, but it illustrates the progress I have made … and still have to make. It was either that or a dramatization starring George Clooney.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

No Correlation between Firearms and Violence

American Population, Firearms, and Deaths
As a supporter of the right to arms and of human freedom in general, I am prepared to accept a high price for those liberties if need be. However, it is always nice when the evidence shows that more freedom is at least not more dangerous than less freedom.

Please see walls of the city for methodology and sources.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Defeat in New York

Southern District of New York
The predictable decision has been released for Kachalsky v. Cacace at federal district court. Judge Cathy Seibel ruled that New York’s discretionary handgun-licensing scheme does not violate the U.S. Constitution.

An appeal is expected. We fail upward again.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Appealing for the Right to Carry

Though it’s a few days after the fact, the first appeal brief has been filed in Richards v. Prieto, the case challenging the constitutionality of California’s discretionary handgun-licensing system—or at least the administration thereof. At this point, Richards is no longer in the vanguard of right-to-carry litigation, thanks to an accomplished bit of judicial stalling surrounding the once related case of Nordyke v. King. However, there is now a raft of cases throughout the federal court system that will likely demand a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court within the next two years.

Even after a right-to-carry victory at the high court, there will probably be holdouts in California and the other restrictive states. Much like the long aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, subsequent enforcement actions will be required if that proves to be true. Richards v. Prieto may ultimately become the first such action here.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Assault on “Assault Weapons” Begins

Sponsored by the Calguns Foundation and the Second Amendment Foundation, a lawsuit has been filed in federal court to challenge California’s ban on so-called assault weapons. Richards v. Harris attacks the ban itself on Second Amendment grounds and as a bonus also challenges the constitutionality of warrantless gun-related searches under the Fourth Amendment. The lawful possession of a firearm is not probable cause that a crime has occurred.

As I have noted before, “assault weapons” do not actually exist. They are an artificial and arbitrary category of weapon, functionally identical to many non-banned semi-automatic firearms, and much of the legislation passed against them was done through subterfuge, exploiting their superficial resemblance to machine guns, which have been tightly controlled since A.D. 1934 and effectively banned since A.D. 1986. Even in California, there are hundreds of thousands of firearms that have been modified to comply with the law’s confusing definitions.

The time has come to strike down this unconstitutional statute that prohibits firearms “in common use for lawful purposes.”

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Economic Musings

As a libertarian, I advocate for individual freedom and responsibility. However, I focus mainly on the personal aspects of this and am fairly content to let economic matters wait. While economic freedom is tremendously important and has far-reaching implications, the route to more libertarian economic policies must first pass through such subtler points as the right to privacy and the freedom of association.

Nevertheless, economic questions have been impossible to ignore in the face of the most recent financial crisis. When jobs are lost and financial security evaporates, emotions naturally run high and hot, and frightened, angry people look for someone or something to blame. Predictably, capitalism and free markets end up taking much of that blame.

The irony is that we don’t actually have free markets. Even in nominally capitalist countries such as the United States, the markets are managed, regulated, influenced, and manipulated by governments. This often, if not usually occurs with the participation or at least the tacit approval of powerful corporate interests, which are happy to see a regulatory status quo that protects their profits from potential competitors. In the latter respect, a private company can be as unfriendly to free markets as any state socialist.

In fact, free markets have never really been given a fair shake. While the young United States embraced the idea of capitalism after throwing off the legacy of British mercantilism, the federal government was still quick to regulate international trade. The industrial and banking magnates that rose to prominence after the Civil War also sought to control markets by building monopolies when possible or by colluding with their competitors when not. The legislation and regulation that followed, though born of good intentions, created new problems, especially for organized labor.

Regulations or rather bad regulations helped turn the recession of A.D. 1929 into the Great Depression. As with the latest crisis, easy credit fueled bad investments and outright speculation. Governments worldwide tried desperately to solve the problem through deficit spending, increased taxation, and ultimately warfare. When prosperity began to return after the Second World War, this had the curious effect of appearing to be successful. Government intervention in the economy had surely ended the depression!

The corollary observation was that capitalism and free markets had failed—though it’s hard to imagine that the economy wouldn’t have recovered naturally after nearly two decades. If greedy bankers and speculators had triggered the depression, then obviously the government needed to keep these dangerous “capitalists” in check by maintaining an active regulatory role and to help their victims by providing generous social welfare supported by significant taxation. This became the framework that encloses “free markets” today.

Therefore, it is now effectively a given that governments should step in to “fix” economic problems caused by “failures” of the free market. Indeed, many high schoolers learn about John Maynard Keynes, but few college graduates have even heard of economists such as Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, or Milton Friedman. Public education has framed the discussion very thoroughly, if incompletely in this regard.

Of course, under the right fiscal circumstances, Keynesian economic policies make perfect sense. We should set aside some funds in the good times and spend them in the bad times, smoothing out the ups and downs of the “business cycle.” However, governments are almost always spending beyond their means, abusing fiscal power for political favor. In the end, rampant Keynesian interventionism provides the would-be socialists with the power they crave and the so-called capitalists with the wealth they cherish.

When both of the factions that would destroy free markets are happy, I have to worry.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Right-to-Carry Loss in District Court

Seeming to deliberately misread the Heller and McDonald decisions, Judge M. C. England has ruled in favor of Yolo County in the case of Richards v. Prieto at federal district court. Citing the fact that it is not yet technically illegal to openly carry an unloaded firearm, Judge England concluded that the county’s arbitrary licensing policy is “constitutionally valid.” However, in an ironic coincidence, the California Assembly voted to eliminate this technicality earlier today.

A notice of appeal has been filed.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

May 1st

I had planned to write about economics tonight, but war news intercedes. Osama bin Laden has been killed in Pakistan.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Right-to-Arms Rally in Los Angeles

Mayors Against Illegal Guns sounds like an innocuous organization. Who isn’t against illegal guns? Illegal guns are those used by criminals in the commission of their crimes … right? Not exactly.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns come to Los Angeles, but times have changed.
Michael Bloomberg’s pet gun-control group operates on the standard prohibitionist model. Not only would these mayors make owning and using firearms more difficult for law-abiding citizens in a vain attempt to thwart criminals, they would manufacture even more “illegal guns” by broadening the already broad categories of prohibited persons. Maybe that’s not so bad, you think? However, they would also circumvent due process of law and proper adjudication in order to do so, which is the much graver threat to personal freedom and civil rights.

Right-to-arms activists rally to the cause.
This week, Mayor Bloomberg brought his show to Los Angeles, and that is how I found myself at a rally sponsored by the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. Under a blue but slightly cloudy sky, I joined fellow civil-rights proponents in front of the dilapidated headquarters of the Los Angeles Times. For a weekday event scheduled with short notice, it was fairly well attended, given that these were working people who had to use vacation credits or sacrifice a day’s pay to be there.

One gun owner and his sign cut right to the heart of the matter.
Gene Hoffman, Jr., of the Calguns Foundation spoke to the news media and addressed the public. Contrasting the Bloomberg group’s focus on the dozens of daily gun-related homicides, he cited conservative statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice that estimate more than 2,100 defensive gun uses per day. In other words, guns save far more lives than they take.

Gene Hoffman talks to a reporter.
The gathering was also somewhat noteworthy in that rallying and demonstrating are not things gun owners usually do. Instead, we let our factors (such as the National Rifle Association) in Washington or Sacramento do the talking for us … and grumble quietly when things don’t go our way. Expectations are clearly changing, even if today’s event was little more than an exchange of propaganda.

Andrew Mendez meets with police officers summoned by L.A. Times staff.
As it often is, the “after party” was as interesting, if not more so than the event itself. I had the opportunity to listen to Mr. Hoffman discuss the constitutional, judicial, and legislative factors that should firmly recognize the right to carry a firearm within the next two or three years. He even let us in on the ironic but nearly foolproof method that should soon moot California’s ban on so-called large-capacity ammunition-feeding devices.

Like the skies over Los Angeles, so much has changed since I met with the NRA’s California leadership in early A.D. 2008, several months before the Heller decision. Gene Hoffman was there then too and ever more diplomatic than I in explaining to the old guard how the information revolution had affected the situation and our ability to organize and motivate people. I saw that again today, with renewed confidence that while there may still be minor setbacks, the overall victory appears inevitable.

And then things should start to get interesting.…

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Right-to-Carry Update for California

Right-to-carry reform inched forward in California today as oral arguments were heard for Richards v. Prieto. Arguing for the plaintiffs, Alan Gura challenged the constitutionality of the state’s arbitrarily applied discretionary licensing system (and specifically how such discretion is exercised in Yolo County). With very narrow exceptions, the only legal way to carry a functional firearm for self-defense or other lawful purposes in California is to have a concealed-handgun license issued by the county sheriff or local police chief. As Gura argued, for these licenses to comply with the Second Amendment right to bear arms, they must be provided to all applicants not prohibited from owning firearms and cannot be denied for arbitrary reasons.

Regardless of how the judge eventually rules, appeals are expected.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Back to Work

Now that I’ve had some of the fun I promised, it’s time for Loyal Sedition to return to more serious, philosophical topics. In the coming weeks and months, I will be writing about the nature of rights and privileges, the relationship between the right to privacy and the right to arms and their importance to the civil-rights movement, and the history of cultural economics and its effects upon wealth and poverty. No doubt, I will also continue to report and muse on new developments in the civil-rights landscape and on the continuing revolution in the information economy.