Privatization woes

I was listening a bit ago to a piece on NPR about the privatization of Ghana Telecom, which is being protested by folks who think that Vodafone isn’t paying enough. This seems to be a frequent problem when state-controlled industries are privatized — consider, for example, Russia’s oligarch problem.

Now, it may be that simple corruption, or its lemon-socialist cousin, “what’s good for General Motors is good for the country,” adequately explains this phenomenon. But I also wonder if there may be a problem of an inadequate market. It’s not easy to assemble the resources to bid on a large national company, and many of these sales have a handful of potential buyers at best.

Perhaps worse, however, is that there often seems to be no reserve price in privatization sales; the government commits to sell, and then goes looking for buyers.  And as every negotiator knows, a party that has to make a deal is going to get absolutely worked over.

It also reminds me of a hypothesis I developed a while back.  One hears bandied about (though less so in these post-Washington-Consensus days, largely because no one seems to want to nationalize industries anymore)(Ed. Note 2021: OK, more so in these post-post-Washington-Consensus days) the principle that nations with leftist tendencies suffer from a dearth of private investment because capital shuns the risk of nationalization. I wonder if there may be a parallel phenomenon where nations with rightist tendencies suffer from a dearth of infrastructure because the electorate shuns the risk of privatization.

This was, for example, what I thought when I heard about the high-speed rail plan proposed for California; I think it’s a good idea on the merits, but I think it’s highly likely that we would wind up spending ninety hojillion dollars on the thing and then Sacramento would sell it to private investors for eighty-five cents and a meatball hoagie.

Originally published on LiveJournal


It’s not a particularly stunning insight, but I don’t recall seeing it elsewhere on the Internet, so I thought I’d throw out a theory of mine.

It seems like a lot of people are baffled by the legs that the Muslim Obama rumor has, and so we see a lot of talk about neuroscience and racism and GOP mind control and so on. I, however, have always assumed that people believe the rumor when they hear it because they’re confusing Obama with Keith Ellison. Both of them are Democratic* African-American members of Congress from the Midwest who first took their seats during the second Bush term (Obama in 2004, and Ellison in 2006). Ellison, however, actually is Muslim, actually did use a Koran** during his swearing-in ceremony, and the right wing media had a cow about it. It would not surprise me if many people, upon being told that Obama is a Muslim, have a vague memory of the Ellison controversy (some black Congressman a couple years back or something) and assume that Obama’s Muslimness was something they already knew about.

*Ellison actually belongs to the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, which I think is awesome. It sounds like a poorly translated Maoist group.

**He used Jefferson’s Koran. I also think this is awesome.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Experiences That Have Shaped My Thinking: The National Security Decision Making Game

Back in 1994, I went to the Origins game convention, which was in San Jose that year. One of the things I did was to play a game called the National Security Decision Making game, which was a simulation run by a couple of guys who had taught at the Naval War College. It was intended to model, in abstract form, most of the major players in international politics and their important interactions. I was all set to mix it up international relations style. However, upon drawing my role, I got to be a region of the United States.

This was 13 years ago, so I don’t remember the game’s details terribly well. I do, however, remember the basic dynamics of the US’s domestic politics in the game, because that was what I mostly had to deal with. There were, I believe, five regions of the US — New England and the Mid-Atlantic, the South, the Midwest, the Plains States, and the West Coast. I was New England. The main objective of the regions was to secure national resources for themselves, in the form of a share of the national budget, which was refigured regularly. A region could accomplish this by lobbying the President, who determined the budget.

There were also three politicians, whose base condition was to be a Senator, but one of whom would be elected President by the regions every so often. I don’t remember the politicians’ names, but let’s call them Senator Gravitas, Senator Unctuous, and Senator Nonentity.

At the beginning of the game, we had a choice to make, and the senators made their pitches. Senator Gravitas seemed intelligent, trustworthy, and possessed of good plans for the nation. Senator Unctuous, meanwhile, mostly seemed ambitious. He said the right things, but his eyes were a little too clearly on the prize, and he just seemed a little sleazy. Senator Nonentity I don’t remember at all; I merely assume he must have existed because I’m pretty sure there were three senators, and we shall not speak of him again. Instead, let us assume he retreated to the ranks of those elder statesmen who are always discussed as potential presidential candidates, and whose chances always seem quite good except for their inability to excite either donors or voters. Needless to say, President Gravitas was elected, and it was morning in America.

The Gravitas administration was probably quite successful; he threw himself into foreign affairs with a will, and things seemed to be mostly going his way. I, however, was not paying that much attention, because I wasn’t allowed into some of the most important stuff, and I was mostly concerned with the fact that my share of the federal budget was not what it could be.  I managed to wheedle some concessions out of the President, but the other regions were pushing hard too, and he had a lot to do.

Shortly before the election rolled around, Senator Unctuous asked if he could have a word with me, the Midwest, and the West Coast. “I have a proposition,” he said. “If you three vote for me, I will give you the entire federal budget.” We were startled. We were a little scandalized. We could do the math. Thus began the Unctuous Administration.

Sen. Gravitas was really pissed off. Here he’d been doing a good job, getting things done, treating everyone fairly, and we had straight up stabbed him in the back. I felt a little bad about it, but I was getting a much bigger slice of the pie, and pie is a wonderful cure for guilt. The South and the Plains States were pretty ticked off too, but there wasn’t a whole lot they could do about it. Unctuous wasn’t about to throw them a bone, because if he annoyed one of the regions in his coalition enough to lose it, he was going down for good.

I don’t remember how the game went from there; it had been running a long time, it was late, and I think I went to bed before we got through another term. Still, I think about that experience a lot when I think about national politics.

originally published on LiveJournal

The Company You Keep

I just finished working out my sample ballot for tomorrow. It’s pretty long; this is a proposition-heavy year even for California, and the propositions are of particularly poor quality. Even the ones I’m voting for I’m holding my nose a little bit.

The race I find most troubling, however, is my state assembly race, between Ira Ruskin and Steve Poizner. Ira Ruskin is a Democrat; I think I voted for him for City Council last year. I have no particular beef with him. But he’s run a campaign you could almost use as an example of how not to reach beyond your base. His home-stretch TV ad essentially says, “I’m an environmentalist because I was at the first Earth Day.” The whole campaign message boils down to, “I was a hippie, and I have the blessing of the Democratic machine.” I don’t usually have reflexive Gen-X reactions, but every time it comes on I find myself muttering, “Fucking boomers”.

Steve Poizner, on the other hand, is the kind of Republican the California GOP needs to find more of. He’s a pro-choice, pro-education fiscal conservative. I’m not totally thrilled with all his positions, but on the merits, I would feel compelled to give him a good hard look. Would, except for one important point.

I hate the Republican caucus of the California state legislature. I hate them a lot. They’re like the unscrupulous wing of the national GOP, without the moral and practical responsibility that comes from knowing you might someday have to run the joint. Every year, they dig in their heels and hold up the budget (to the extent that they have in the past refused to vote for any budget which included tax hikes while simultaneously refusing to suggest spending cuts. In some ways, thank God for Governor Schwarzenegger*; he seems to at least be able to drag them kicking and screaming to the table). They are, I think, an important reason why this state’s government is such a mess.

I just can’t bring myself to vote in any way that might strengthen their hand. That makes me sort of sad; I’d prefer to think that I’d vote for a Republican of sufficiently sterling qualities (and I would, in an executive position like Controller or Secretary of State — in fact, I have, though it’s been a few years). But in a legislative position, it just ain’t gonna happen. So Poizner gets no love from me.

It makes me wonder what the hell is wrong with the Greens, that I only have one Green candidate on my ballot. If the Greens have a shot at state and local offices anywhere, it should be around here. If there were a Green in this race, I might have mixed it up a little.

*There’s a phrase I never expected to use.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Equal Time

The “balance” thing in discussions about publishing and media is starting to drive me up a wall. At work, we pretty regularly get people complaining about how we stock more liberal books than conservative books, and therefore we must be biased. In the grand tradition of retail workers, because I can’t say to them what I want to, I will say it to you.

Look. There are just more liberal books than conservative books right now. I can’t say whether there’s a publisher-side conspiracy; personally, I think it’s because it’s easier to write an interesting book which is contrary to the establishment. Let’s face it, a book entitled Everything Is Fine doesn’t inspire you to pick it up, and the “Liberals! Liberals comin’ to get you!” screeds which made Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity famous just look stupid when the right controls two and a half branches of government.

Second, look around you. You’re in frickin’ Northern California. People are going to buy that big stack of Against All Enemies, or Bushworld, or What Went Wrong. I do not anticipate that Ann Coulter’s new book, How to Talk to A Liberal (If You Must), will be a brisk seller. (I can’t imagine what she would have to say beyond, “For some reason, calling liberals slanderous traitors seems to get the conversation off on the wrong foot. Those wacky chick pie wagons.”) Nevertheless, we’ll be carrying it. We just won’t have dozens and dozens of copies, because *they won’t sell, and we would lose money*. It’s that free enterprise thing; I thought you liked that.

On a related note, customers have started editorializing the display tables. We have one guy who likes to turn over the top copy of all the liberal books, and another who just covers them up with Unfit for Command. On the left, we apparently have a customer who enjoys moving the stack of Unfit for Command over to the Fiction table.

It’s for the best, I think, that crowbars are not typically considered part of excellent customer service.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Unfit for Command

It’s a little late, but I have some tidbits about the whole Unfit for Command foofarah that might be interesting. (A disclaimer: I am not a journalist, and my ability to back some of this up is limited. Anything prefaced with “I am told” is something that I have in fact been told, and have no reason to doubt, but cannot verify.)

I work in a bookstore, you see, and thus selling Unfit for Command, the book written by the head of Swift Boat Vets for Truth, is part of my job. Or it would be, if we could get some in. I wish we could, because then the conservatives might stop yelling at me.

Unfit for Command is published by Regnery Press, a publisher of conservative books of various stripes. (Its owner is also currently involved in setting up an online dating service for heterosexual white Christians, it seems, for fear that they will be outbred by all the dirt people. Perhaps that was needlessly inflammatory. But I digress.) Regnery, it appears, was totally unprepared for the major media blitz that ensued; I am told that they printed 30,000 copies, which is about what you would do for a first novel. Demand was way, way higher.

Ordinarily, one deals with such a situation by sending some portion of each customer’s order. This is not what Regnery did. Instead, I am told they filled some orders fully, but not others. No one in the Bay Area had it, except for Borders, and they ran out within a few days. Some have speculated that Regnery may have tried to focus their efforts on supplying swing states with the book, but I have no evidence on that.

At this point, the angry phone calls began. It appears that right-wing talk show hosts have been telling their listeners that “liberal bookstores” are suppressing the book; at least, that’s what the legions of customers calling with venom in their voice to demand the book said. We will leave aside the question of what sane bookstore would buy dozens of books and then not sell them.

By now, the surge is subsiding; most of the charges the book needed to make are out in the public sphere, I think, so the point is probably sort of moot. Somewhere in there, we got a handful of copies which we used to fill special orders; this helps a bit, in that it’s easier to mollify an enraged conservative by telling them “we’re sold out” than with “we don’t have it yet”.

Ironically, very few of the livid legion actually want to order the book; they just want to test the liberal conspiracy. We may wind up sitting on a pile of books when Regnery finally fills our order.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Recall nonsense

The deeper we get into this recall nonsense, the more annoyed I get at section 11322 of the Elections Code. It’s the section that provides for the election of a replacement.

See, to my mind, a recall should be a mechanism to get rid of a bad official, not to call a do-over of the election. A recall election should, therefore, simply take the official out of office, and he or she should be replaced in the normal way. In this case, the lieutenant governor should take office. That’s what the lieutenant governor is for.

But instead, we’ve given ourselves a situation where anyone with enough cash can force a do-over (let’s face it, you can get enough Californians to equal 12 percent of the last election’s turnout to sign anything if you take enough time), we’ve done it on terms where the official subject to recall faces a more difficult standard than the original election, the state gets to shoulder the cost of a special election at a time when our budget is in shambles, and we’ve now seen a world where Larry Flynt is a gubernatorial candidate. It ain’t right.

Besides, the current state of affairs promotes a distasteful level of game-playing, where the Democrats hesitate to advance a candidate lest a viable Democrat tempt voters to vote for the recall. This is not how elections should be, damn it.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Consumption, Monopoly, and Protected Classes

As I read the coverage of all that Microsoft foofarah a few weeks ago, I was struck by something odd. The people who are really out for Microsoft’s blood are people like Netscape, various computer manufacturers, and other companies who have been seriously screwed over by Microsoft doing some pretty messed up stuff. Some of these people have lost a lot of money, and all of them have lost a lot of freedom of action, because Microsoft was a butthead at them (a brief word, just so you know where I’m coming from, on what being a corporate butthead means to me. Offering price incentives or preferred stocking to buyers who sign exclusivity contracts is being competitive. Refusing to deal with someone unless they sign said contract makes you a butthead in my book).

However, the complaints and sufferings of all these people are not what got talked about, on the whole. Instead, there was a lot of talk about “the freedom to innovate” and the consequences for consumers. Which was for me, initially, rather confusing. Microsoft’s sins against the consumers have been indirect, for the most part, and it seemed odd that consumers should be at the center of the debate.

Upon further reflection, though, it became clear that the discussion has to be carried out on that level because of what categories of people antitrust law, and to a certain extent all of American society, considers deserving of special protection by the law.

In traditional laissez-faire capitalism, theoretically no one is a protected class, but in practice the large capitalists are the protected class–their massive financial clout gives them special freedoms of action, and thus a government which refuses to regulate economic activity in effect privileges the large capitalists. In traditional communism and socialism, theoretically the workers are the protected class–government is supposed to intervene to make sure the workers are getting a fair deal.

There isn’t really a surviving system which privileges the small capitalist. There was a political philosophy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries called artisanal republicanism, which glorified the individual skilled craftsman over unskilled labor and unskilled capital. The remnants of it are why our collective national gut still thinks it’s a bad thing for mom-and-pop stores and family farms to fall by the wayside.

In modern American society, however, the privileged class is the consumer. There is substantial debate and skepticism about whether government should intervene if businesses are being hurt, or if workers are getting the shaft. But it is more or less generally accepted that if the consumer is being hurt, government can and should intervene. “Let the buyer beware” no longer applies; we expect the government to protect us from unjustly high prices and shoddy products (see, for example, the current furor over gas prices).

In our lives as producers, meanwhile, we receive little active and systematic attention. We do get legislation controlling all forms of discrimination, and minimum wage laws, but those laws are the constant subject of debate, and don’t provide for systematic protection of any segment of the productive sector. Antitrust law, however, is generally not debated in principle. Businesses try to make cases that their business is too unique to be subject to antitrust law, but they don’t attack the fundamental idea. This is because the monopoly equation creates goods for the large capitalist while screwing the consumer, and the consumer is a protected class. Globalization is a lot more controversial because it creates goods for the large capitalist while screwing over the worker, and neither of those are protected classes.

I was a budding socialist when I was younger, and I think the sentiment that spurred that was the fact that although I’ve been unimpressed by socialist institutions, I think that the workers should be a protected class. I don’t think capital is particularly worthy of protection, and I’m disturbed by the notion that our society protects us as consumers but not as producers. I would prefer to think of my identity as a consumer being secondary to my identity as a producer.