Ferguson and Big Government Hypocrisy

goodcop_badcop

You probably asked for it to become this way, even if you don’t yet realize it.

I live near St. Louis, MO, which as you probably know by now, is the metropolitan area where the city of Ferguson is located. My house is less than 25 miles away from Ferguson, which suddenly became the focus of the nation last month. The killing of Michael Brown by a police officer has set off both a figurative and literal firestorm in the city and the nation.

The entirety of the Ferguson situation become much larger than the initial incident. There are 3 main plots to this story. First, obviously, is the question whether the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer was murder or self-defense. That evolved into protests encompassing the larger issue of police brutality. When the protestors (or other people who were only interested in starting trouble) became violent and destructive, the perceived overreaction of the local police brought up questions about the militarization of local police forces and violations of free speech. The three issues are obviously interrelated, but they are also distinct. Each point deserves a thorough discussion.

I’m not going to say much about the killing of Michael Brown because there are so many unanswered questions. None of us know for sure what happened that day so it is impossible to make a conclusion. However, I know there is a lot of suspicion regarding the integrity of police departments so I completely understand the concerns people may have regarding the investigation itself.

I’m certainly no fan of police brutality. Those who choose to “serve and protect” must always remember the second part of that statement. I don’t believe that police should have any special protection if they violate people’s rights.

I will say that violence is wrong and I think all sides are united against violence, whether it is from police or rioters. Preventing violence is truly the core of all the issues surrounding the Ferguson situation, yet I think many people are missing a big common thread.

One thing became pretty evident over the first few nights of the protests and riots. The way the police handled the situation with military-style equipment pushed a lot of people’s buttons. Many claimed to be shocked and appalled at the sight of highly militarized police forces on suburban American streets. From the TV reports, especially the live ones, it certainly seemed like heavily armed police using tear gas and rubber bullets were going overboard attempting to clear people, including journalists, from the streets. Scenes like that set off a frenzy on social media with people decrying the brutality of police trampling people’s right to protest. Certainly I’m no fan of anybody’s rights being infringed upon. But what I found hypocritical was that many of the people who were criticizing this overreach of government are people who consistently advocate for government overreach in other ways.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too when it comes to big government! If you want more government control in one area, you must be willing to accept big government across the board, including more powerful police and more intrusion into your personal life. If you don’t like overly-powerful government agencies, you must be willing to shrink government entitlement programs and allow other people to live their lives as they see fit. Big government is two sides of the same coin. You can not honestly expect to have a government that is powerful and manipulative on one hand, yet unintrusive and peaceful on the other. Government only knows one way to get things done. When you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Government, at its core, is the authorized use of violence. Note that I didn’t say “justified”. I said “authorized”. There is a big difference. Justified means that an action is morally sound. Authorized simply means an action was permitted or commissioned. I think a lot of people misunderstand the functioning of government. Governments, and the laws created by them, are not the shining ideal of virtue. Nor can we expect them to be. Simply because government takes an action doesn’t make that action justified, even if a law authorizes their conduct. Laws are made by imperfect people, especially considering those who make laws are very imperfect and possibly corrupt politicians. There are many examples in history of very bad laws if you need proof of this. These imperfect laws are then enforced by other imperfect people, some of who may be unethical themselves, and you can begin to see the recipe for disaster that too many laws brings us. The more laws we have increases the odds that there will be the authorized but unjustified use of violence.

Because government is violence incarnate, it should be an option of last resort. Ideally government should only be there to protect people’s rights when certain people will not cooperatively respect the rights of others. When we begin to ask government to do more than protect our natural rights, we open a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences. The more we ask of government, the more powerful it becomes. Ultimately, that power is concentrated into people with guns and armor.

I often tell people that all government actions are at gunpoint. A lot of people push back against this statement. They claim that they don’t have men with guns forcing them to comply with the laws or pay their taxes. However, this is not a metaphor. It is reality. All government laws, taxes, regulations, etc. are enforced by the threat of violence. Usually just the threat is enough. But if anyone choses to disobey a law or decides not to pay a tax, the threat would become real. It doesn’t matter if the law or tax is truly justified, breaking laws or not paying taxes will eventually result in men with guns taking you to jail or forcibly taking your property. Continue to resist and force will be used against the “perpetrator”, up to and including lethal force if deemed “justified” by those enforcing the laws. Perhaps those that didn’t believe me before saw what happened in Ferguson and have begun to understand.

This isn’t a partisan issue, either. Government has grown steadily since the beginning of the last century, but under the current and previous presidential administration, government at all levels have seen unprecedented increases in scope and corresponding overreach. It is probably easy to correlate the militarization of local police with the Bush administration’s war on terror. But government growth is government growth. Whether you supported the so-called “Patriot” Act and its liberty destroying actions, or whether you called for the government to force free people to purchase health insurance with Obama’s ironically named “Affordable” Care Act, the end result is the ultimately the same. If the militarization of police is now becoming visible due to the war on terror, how long will it take for the militarization of the IRS to be felt from Obamacare? Laws must be enforced, and the more power government has, the more powerful those enforcers will become. Whether it’s BLM agents with helicopters and armored vehicles killing cattle at the Bundy Ranch, state governments dictating who and who may not marry, or local police SWAT teams with body armor and tear gas terrorizing residents and journalists in Ferguson, these incidents have more in common than some people would care to admit. The common thread of big government weaves throughout.

Perhaps hypocrisy is too strong of a word for some people in this situation. They honestly don’t yet understand the correlation between the expansion of big government and violent government overreach. The scenes in Ferguson in the aftermath of the Michael Brown shooting should serve as a wake-up call for these people. Every time you want government to make a new law, think about what you saw in Ferguson. Every time you want government to raise taxes, recall those images from Ferguson. Every time you want more government, remember Ferguson – because ultimately that is exactly what you are asking for.

Sharia Law? Hobby Lobby Ain’t a Government, It’s a Private Business

george takei

I want equal rights for everyone as long as I agree with those rights.

I appreciate people like George Takei who have used successfully used social media to leverage their celebrity status into large followings. Especially when they not only use their platform for entertaining, but also to comment on social issues. Sticking out one’s neck in support of a cause they believe in is a risky thing to do, but I believe it is a worthwhile endeavor to speak out, especially against establishment. However, at times it seems that people like Takei need to educate themselves a little before speaking, for they highlight their ignorance of the issues.

The recent Hobby Lobby decision by the Supreme Court has set social media on fire, with people on one side claiming this is a defeat for women’s rights. George Takei wrote an article, Hobby Lobby Ain’t A Church, It’s A For Profit Business, in which he asks what the decision would have been if Hobby Lobby were run by Muslims and they attempted to enforce Sharia Law on their employees. While at first the comparison may appear relevant (Christian beliefs vs Muslim beliefs), the difference between the two are so big that it borders on intentional distortion of the facts, assuming Takei truly understands what rights are.

Sharia law, as any system of laws, require government enforcement to be of any influence. Or at least a group of people claiming authority using violent force, or the threat of violent force, to coerce people into compliance. To my knowledge, Hobby Lobby does not force anyone to work for them. Nor do they force anyone to purchase from them. Nor do they stop any of their employees from purchasing anything, let alone birth control. They simply are choosing not to offer certain types of birth control on the insurance benefits they offer their employees based on their moral conviction.

Takei, as do many others on his side of the debate, go into various arguments attempting to show hypocrisy with Hobby Lobby’s beliefs regarding what they choose to offer or invest in. Others I’ve read similarly go into supposed scientific arguments why Hobby Lobby isn’t being consistent with their beliefs. The bottom line is it doesn’t matter. Hobby Lobby is a business owned by free individuals in a free market. Unless one has an ownership interest in a particular company, one should have no say into how a company runs their business, no matter how silly or illogical one believes they are acting. Just as one should not have a say into how another chooses to live their life, something Takei strongly crusades for.

Takei is a fervent advocate of gay rights and has been especially vocal regarding the issue of gay marriage. He even states in this article, “Our personal beliefs stop at the end of our noses, and we should therefore keep it out of other people’s business — and bedrooms.” The hypocrisy in this statement is practically self-evident! He literally states that our personal beliefs should be kept out of other people’s business. Yet here he is advocating that the Supreme Court should have upheld a law that literally sticks the nose of government squarely into other people’s businesses. A law that is based upon the arbitrary belief that a business is somehow obligated to offer a particular set of insurance benefits as defined by others.

The real problem here is that we have a system where certain people believe that health insurance is a “right.” There is also a correlated belief out there that employers are the anointed dispensers of health insurance for the country. Since certain people believe that health insurance is a “right,” and these same people generally believe that employers have an obligation to provide health insurance for their employees, it seems to make sense that employers should offer health insurance that covers virtually every potential need a person could have. This was the motivation behind the so-called Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, which attempted to force employers to offer exactly this type of health insurance. Now that the Supreme Court has ruled against this aspect of the law, it should be no surprise that those supported this law are up in arms. It flies in the face of their personal morality.

Therein lies the problem. People like George Takei don’t understand what rights are. I will write on this more extensively in a future article, but for now it is suffice to say that true and natural rights do not involve infringing the rights of others. In this case, the example is clear. People have the right to purchase birth control. A purchase transaction is a voluntary exchange between the buyer and the seller. People also have the right to purchase health insurance. Once again, the transaction is voluntary. The idea that employers are obligated to offer a particular type of health insurance is advocating a coerced transaction. Whether or not the employer actually wants to offer a particular type of insurance, the advocates of health insurance as a “right” believe it is justified and moral to use the threat of government violence to make sure an employer delivers an arbitrarily defined set of insurance – even if this defined set is against the morality of the employer. They believe their definition of morality is superior to any other morality. Exercising one’s true and natural rights does not involve the infringing of the rights of others. Otherwise, it is not a right. Especially when the attempt to exercise this so-called right requires violence or the threat of violence.

To be clear, the most hypocritical aspect to this whole situation is that just as Sharia law is an arbitrary system of morals, the idea that health insurance is a right, as well as a raft of related ideas, are also an arbitrary set of morals. Accusing Hobby Lobby of the equivalent of Sharia law ignores the fact that the accusers are attempting to use real government violence to enforce their own arbitrary set of moralities. So who are the bad guys here? Free individuals running their own privately-owned business according to their beliefs, or the people attempting to use government to coerce others to comply with a particular set of moralities? George Takei and others need to take a look in the mirror. If they want others to keep their beliefs out of their bedrooms, they need to make sure to keep their beliefs out of others’ businesses. You may be a big celebrity, but that doesn’t give you the authority to extend your personal beliefs beyond the end of your own nose.

IRS: Bad Sectors or Bad Intentions?

obama_open_governmentIn my previous article, I mentioned that all the attention paid to the details of Lois Lerner’s hard drive crash was just a red herring. I believe that the IRS attempting to use the hard drive crash excuse is simply the least important link in the chain of a comprehensive “innocence by incompetence” campaign. However, as weak of an excuse as it is for the IRS, the technical details of Lois Lerner’s hard drive could actually could end up being a smoking gun if we investigate far enough.

As I mentioned in my last article, I’ve seen more than my fair share of hard drive failures in the course of my 20 year professional career. I am very familiar with the functioning of hard drives, both in their mechanical and digital operations. So allow me to offer a quick primer on hard drive failure.

Any hard drive failure is commonly referred to as a hard drive “crash”. Technically the term “crash” has a very specific meaning in reference to hard drives – a head crash, if you care to know – but non-technical people may use the term “crash” to refer to any number of hard drive problems. Usually most people will say a hard drive crashed if the failure prevents data being read from the drive by normal methods and/or the computer will no longer boot from that drive. However, there are many less serious problems that could seem like a hard drive “crash” to non-technical users and restoring the drive to normal operation in those cases would not be difficult for a technology professional. More serious failures involve problems with the physical drive mechanism and may require the drive be sent to a data recovery specialist or forensic lab with highly sophisticated equipment to retrieve data.

In my experience, hard drive failures are unfortunately far too common. I have no problem believing that a hard drive crash could have befallen the computer used by Lois Lerner. Sure the timing seems questionable, but from a purely technical standpoint, this isn’t the smoking gun by itself. We must begin by questioning the specifics of the actual drive failure. Was it an actual head crash or a less serious glitch? Unfortunately the IRS has reported that the hard drive in question has already been recycled so no further attempts at recovery can be made, nor can the true cause of the hard drive failure be verified. All we know is that an e-mail from an IT manager to Lois Lerner in August 2011 said, “The sectors on the hard drive were bad which made your data unrecoverable.”

At this point I don’t believe the technical diagnosis of the hard drive failure nor the details of the recovery efforts made by the IRS IT department have been made public. These details need to be uncovered because if we know the diagnosis of the failure of the hard drive, we can begin to understand if the drive and data on it was intentionally destroyed. Alternately, we can also begin to deduce if the IRS IT department was using proper procedures during the recovery attempt and if there was any intentional wrongdoing within the IT department – or simply further incompetence.

According to the e-mail trail provided after Lerner’s hard drive failed, the data on the drive was deemed so important that the IRS IT department even went to the unusual lengths of sending the hard drive to their criminal investigation division’s forensic lab so they could attempt data recovery. A forensic lab often is able to piece together some data from a failed drive even if all the data on a drive is not recoverable. For a forensic lab to not be able to recover any data at all is highly unusual. This indicates that either the drive was wiped clean using advanced data deletion technology or it suffered extreme damage. Extreme damage is a rare occurrence for normal hard drive failures. Because the drive was sent to a criminal forensic lab, in theory the forensic specialists should have been able to tell if the hard drive was intentionally damaged or if there was anything unusual about the condition of the drive.

Lerner’s hard drive was reported as crashed on June 13, 2011. It wasn’t sent to the forensic lab until August 5, 2011. That’s a long time. Talk to any technology professional who is competent in data recovery and they will tell you the longer a failed drive is running in an attempt to recover data, the more damage that can be done. What was the IRS IT department doing that it took two months before they determined the drive was so bad it needed a data recovery lab? Especially if it was later determined that the “sectors on the hard drive were bad”. That type of failure should have been fairly obvious early on. Regardless, “bad sectors” do not take out all the data on a hard drive unless virtually the entire drive was damaged. In theory it could be possible that the efforts over two months by the IRS IT department could have damaged the drive beyond the point of data recovery even by a forensic lab. That would be a fairly inexcusable case of incompetence – or an intentional effort to scrub data from the drive. Either way it’s not a show of good faith on the IRS’s part.

Bottom line, there appears to be a chain of IT employees at the IRS that had access to the hard drive at any point in time, as well as “HP experts” and forensic specialists at the IRS’s criminal investigation division. If there is in fact a cover-up, the weak link in the chain may very well be any one of these IT people. Assuming they are not as politically motivated as IRS officials, it may be possible to get expert testimony from any one or more of the IT people that worked with and examined Lois Lerner’s hard drive that would conclude the drive had been tampered with or intentionally damaged. At the very least, we could find out why no data could be retrieved at all.

My hope is that if Lois Lerner’s hard drive is a smoking gun, one of the IT people involved will be brave enough to testify to this. The world could use another Edward Snowden right about now.

IRS: Innocence by Incompetency

obama-foia-2009Ever since the news broke a little over a week ago that the IRS lost e-mails connected to Lois Lerner because of a computer hard drive crash, I’ve been wanting to write an article addressing the technical aspects of this situation. However, the story kept growing as each day went by so I waited. As I sit down to begin this article late in the evening of June 23rd, I’ve just spent almost 4 hours watching the latest hearing live on CSPAN-2. Yes, you can’t get much geekier than spending an evening watching a government hearing discussing hard drives, backup tapes, and IT department policy. But I am who I am and the intersection of technology and politics is my wheelhouse. In all of history, there probably hasn’t been a more famous political story revolving around technology issues. Because of the size and scope of the various technical issues involved, this article will be the first of a likely series of articles tackling each major point in this long chain of events.

I almost feel that I don’t need to write these articles because it seems even technology laypeople instinctively know there is something highly suspicious about this situation. In this day and age of advanced technology, a simple hard drive crash simply doesn’t seem like a justified excuse to lose an important trail of digital communication. This is especially true for a government bureaucracy that purportedly symbolizes accurate record keeping. However, I still think a thorough review of the technology and management issues are worth examining.

As a technology professional, I’ve seen more than my fair share of hard drive failures. In my experience, hard drive failures are far too common, so I have no problem believing that a hard drive crash could have befallen the computer used by Lois Lerner. However, looking at the big picture, the hard drive failure really shouldn’t be relevant. All the hubbub about a hard drive crash is truly a red herring. Nonetheless, I will address the hard drive issue in my next article.

Any organization with halfway competent IT management that is required to preserve e-mails will have an e-mail archiving system in place. They will not defer responsibility of preserving required communications to individual employees – unless, of course, the negligence is intentional. One very important idea behind archiving is that e-mail communication may be used for criminal investigations among other things and it should be obvious that employees may decide not to preserve e-mails that are incriminating. The reality is that it is much easier to archive messages as they pass through a central server than it is to attempt to store and retrieve them from individual computers. And of course, automated centralized archiving eliminates the possibility of employees “losing” e-mails to cover their asses. To not archive messages at the server level is literally “so 1990’s”.

There are many archiving products and services available that work with common e-mail servers. It is well-known that the IRS uses the Microsoft Exchange platform, easily the most popular e-mail system for large enterprises. Therefore the IRS would have had its pick of any number of e-mail archiving systems to choose from. In fact, the IRS did have a contract with a company called Sonasoft that specializes in e-mail archiving (their tagline is “Email Archiving Done Right”). This contract was terminated at the end of fiscal year 2011 (August 31st), which seems highly unusual given the timing of the Lois Lerner hard drive failure and the supposedly lost e-mails in June of 2011. It was testified that the IRS only contracted with Sonasoft to archive the e-mails of the Chief Counsel within the IRS, which covered just 3,000 employees, not all 90,000. This also seems highly unusual to select such a small subset of employees. If archiving the e-mails of 3,000 IRS employees is deemed important, why not all 90,000 employees? At the very least, shouldn’t the heads of major divisions within the IRS, such as Lois Lerner, have had automated e-mail archiving as well? If nothing else, just from a productivity standpoint, the loss of e-mails for key personnel would be highly detrimental and an e-mail archiving system would be well worth the cost for the protection it provides, not to mention compliance with federal regulations in case of wrongdoing.

From a technical standpoint, the costs to archive the e-mails of all employees would not have been significantly greater. As with many technology systems, the greatest costs are in the initial implementation and baseline infrastructure, not in scaling of said systems. While archiving the volume of e-mail generated from 90,000 people would require a large amount of storage, it is not an impossible task. There are many companies in the United States that have hundreds of thousands of employees and are required to archive e-mails in order to comply with federal regulations. Or that being said, we know the NSA has enourmous data centers that are more than capable of monitoring and archiving communications on hyper-massive scale. Certainly it wouldn’t be beyond the capability of another gigantic federal agency such as the IRS to properly manage their own required records. The agency that has been charged with enforcing the president’s signature legislation shouldn’t have a problem archiving emails of a piddly 90,000 accounts, should they? They are in charge of maintaining records of hundreds of millions of American citizens, after all.

But that’s exactly what the current IRS chief wants you to believe. That the IRS’s technology infrastructure plus the policies and procedures that manages it are so woefully antiquated and out-of-date, they just couldn’t prioritize the archiving of e-mail messages. This is true even though e-mail messages are considered official records by the IRS’s own handbook and they are required to preserve them. The excuse has been given that properly archiving all the e-mails of the agency would cost between $10-$30 million and they just didn’t have the proper funding. I would love to know where this figure was arrived at because this seems like an extraordinarily high number, given that they were already contracting with a company that was doing e-mail archiving and scaling it shouldn’t have approached anywhere near these costs. Even several hundred terabytes of storage didn’t cost anywhere near $10 million in 2011.

What the IRS wants the American public to accept is that they can’t be proven guilty because they were incompetent. The truth of the matter, speaking as a technology expert with 20 years of professional experience, is given the laughable policies and procedures the IRS had in place, the chain of events as they describe them are entirely plausible. The burning question is whether or not these policies were in place due truly to incompetence or for convenient plausible deniability. At this point, we can only assume they are “innocent by incompetence.” But this can not be acceptable. If anything, the hypocrisy implicated here is far too much for anyone but the most ardent authoritarian to embrace. The IRS, nor would most law enforcement agencies, accept the excuse that a technical problem resulted in the destruction of evidence. In fact, the term “spoliation of evidence” is a legal concept that allows for courts to assume that evidence destroyed for any reason (whether claimed “accidental” or otherwise) would have been detrimental to the defense and assume the worst. Given the stringent federal regulations that require publicly held corporations to archive years worth of e-mails, it would be a significant case of “do as I say, not as I do” statist double-standards to allow the IRS to get away with this highly convenient set of circumstances.

While many apologists claim that the scandal is unfairly targeting Barack Obama, the reality is that he is the Chief Executive and that the IRS is a agency of the Executive Branch. That alone should prompt any leader of integrity to take charge and demand answers. But what is especially disturbing is that Obama was elected under the auspices of “Hope and Change” and one of those key tenets was “transparent and open government.” In fact, one of his first acts as president was to release presidential memorandums addressing the free flow of information from government agencies, regardless of the protection of personal interests. So for Obama to turn a blind eye on this situation is an egregious violation of his own proclamations. Do we really want a president that doesn’t stand by his own promises?

While “innocence by incompetency” may keep certain IRS figures out of jail or the president from being impeached, it won’t help the IRS in the long run. As I mentioned before, even technology laypeople realize there is something extraordinary about this situation. People from all political persuasions are incredulous at the arrogance and audacity shown by the IRS management over having their credibility questioned. We the people can not stand and let this pass. If the IRS is wanting to prove just how incompetent they really are, they need to have this incompetence severely punished. Instead of rewarding them by increasing their budget, we need to drastically reduce the power this agency has over the American people. The first step is to eliminate or rescind any further increases in power the IRS receives, such as that dubiously authorized by Obamacare. The ultimate step would be to abolish the IRS completely. While such a thought seemed like fantasy only a short time ago, the unprecedented nature of this situation has people seriously questioning the justified existence of such an agency and their legitimate role in a free society.

What steps do you think should be taken against the IRS for their seeming incompetency?

Christians and Jim Crow and Gays, Oh Myyy!

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
– a quote often (mis)attributed to Voltaire and Patrick Henry

we_reserve_the_right_signI’ll be honest. I hesitated to write this article. I hesitated because at times I will be defending people whose actions I disagree with. I also know that gay rights is a very hotly-debated topic right now so take the risk of offending some people. In fact, I risk offending people on both sides of the issue! However, for all the rhetoric going back and forth I think most people are missing the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is very important to consider in the framework of the debates going on right now. So in the interest of adding to the dialogue and hopefully presenting a fresh viewpoint, I am just going to put my thoughts out there and let come what may. But first, let me tell you a personal story.

My father died of cancer when he was 50 years young. Most likely the cancer was caused by his many years of smoking. I was only 29 when he passed 10 years ago. He died on the same day my second daughter was born. Besides my own loss, smoking robbed my daughters of a grandfather, my wife of a father-in-law, and my mom of a husband. More than most people, I have every reason to hate the practice of smoking. So several years ago when laws to ban smoking in “public” places were being debated in my area, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that I would have been supportive of passing those laws. However, then as now, I put my own personal feelings aside for the sake of freedom. While I certainly am supportive of and applaud any establishment that chooses to not allow smoking on their property, I do not support a government-enforced ban. I knew then as I know now that even if I vehemently disagree with someone’s actions, a free society does not attempt to enforce their own morality on a person’s life or business. Rather, we make our viewpoints known by actually expressing our thoughts to those who run businesses and ultimately with our dollar vote.

Prior to any legally-enforced smoking bans I was more likely to visit restaurants that were voluntarily non-smoking. And I generally did not visit bars or places where smokers hung out. I made my thoughts on smoking known to anyone who would listen. But I wasn’t going to advocate for the use of government violence to enforce a ban on smoking. As a business owner I knew that how I choose to run my business, just as I choose to live my life, is my right. I wouldn’t tolerate anyone else telling me how to run my business or live my life, so I wasn’t about to support doing the same to others, no matter how much I couldn’t stand the decisions they were making.

Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too.
- Voltaire (he actually did say this – in French of course!)

Fast forward to today and the same basic issue of the rights of business owners has arisen again. Only this time the question is whether businesses can choose to deny service to a customer. Several states at the time of this writing, most notably Arizona although Missouri is about to jump in the mix, are debating passing laws that absolve business owners of any liability if they choose to deny service to gay people based on moral objections. This issue has primarily been brought about by the new legality of gay marriage in many states. Businesses that revolve around the marriage industry, such as cake bakers and wedding photographers, are now being asked to service gay couples. Some are turning down this business, often on the grounds that they do not support gay marriage because of their religious beliefs. Some couples who were refused service have taken to prosecuting business owners for discriminating against them in these instances, often citing various equality or civil rights laws. Therefore the reaction by several states has been to propose new laws that are designed to protect business owners if they are exercising their right to refuse business on moral grounds. And that is where things get real sticky.

First let me state that as a human being, let alone a business owner, I do not discriminate based on a person’s sexuality. I have several clients who I believe are gay and I’ve employed people who were apparently gay. I say it in this way because I don’t really bother to ask or investigate people’s sexuality. Whether someone is gay or not is really no matter to me, especially when it comes to earning their business or having them help me service my clients. Therefore, I do not personally agree with any owner who chooses to not do business with gay people. However, I also respect their right to make that decision. Just as I respect their right to serve or not serve people based on other criteria, such as dress code, behavior, ability to pay, or if they are smokers in a non-smoking establishment. I may not agree with their decisions, but I won’t try to force my personal morality upon them. In fact, I wrote an article almost two years ago discussing this whole topic, titled Freedom, Discrimination, and Morality.

In that article I discuss the infamous Jim Crow laws as well as the equally infamous Apartheid laws of South Africa. Many gay rights advocates are claiming that proposed laws such as Arizona’s SB 1062 are the same as Jim Crow laws because they institutionalize the practice of discrimination. Again, while I disapprove of discrimination against gay people, the fact is that there is quite a bit of difference between Jim Crow laws and Arizona SB 1062. Where the new bill is purported to protect the rights of business owners to turn away business as they see fit, Jim Crow laws and Apartheid FORCED discrimination upon the population. As a business owner in those southern states, you were required to keep “separate but equal” facilities for “people of color”. Apartheid enforced similar rules. Even if you weren’t a racist, the governments required you to follow these laws, which were true examples of state-sanctioned, institutionalized discrimination. The proposed Arizona law, as well as the laws being proposed by other states, do not require businesses to turn away gay people. They simply protect business owners from prosecution under other laws in case they get sued for refusing to serve particular customers. To reiterate, I do not approve of or condone discrimination based on sexuality, but I also respect the rights of business owners to serve who they choose. Ultimately, the freedom of a business owner to run a business the way they see fit trumps any objections I have. I believe this because I believe in freedom. Others should believe this as well, if for no other reason than protecting other people’s rights is the best way to protect their own. However, this doesn’t mean people should sit quietly when they believe strongly about something. We can choose to show our objections by not supporting a business with our money and encouraging other people to do the same. Which is ultimately the best way free people can help shape society.

In fact, the history of Jim Crow laws are an interesting case study of the forces of free markets on society. After the civil war, there was a lot of racial tension. Many white landowners didn’t want to hire black workers. Many white business owners didn’t want to serve black people. However, the free market began to erode racist attitudes. Black workers who were willing to work for less enticed white land owners to hire them. Business owners who were turning away black people began to lose business to those who would serve them. Black people started running their own businesses, putting competitive pressure on other businesses to hire black people at better wages and service black people as well. It seems that “evil” profit turns out to be a greater motivator than racism. It was only after reconstruction when racists, unhappy at the way the free market was giving black people the same opportunities as white people, gained the power of a government. It was with that power that they were able to institutionalize racism through the violent force of government laws. First, they disenfranchised black voters through measures such as poll taxes. Then laws were passed that used licensing as a way to restrict black people from starting their own businesses. Regulations were created that restricted black people from owning guns and protecting themselves. And finally the Jim Crow laws were passed making racism a government-sanctioned and enforced way of life. Without the violent force of government, the free market was well on its way to minimizing racism. Institutionalized racism only endured because of big government.

In the same way today, the free market is helping reduce homophobia, regardless of proposed laws like Arizona SB 1062. These laws don’t require discrimination based on sexuality, they only claim to protect the freedom of business owners to serve who they choose. As business owners found out after the civil war, you stand to lose business to other companies that do not discriminate for bigoted reasons. We don’t need laws that force business owners to serve people – we just need government to NOT pass laws that enforce discrimination.

Before you think I am a proponent of laws like Arizona SB 1062, slow your roll. Just as I don’t want government to institutionalize discrimination, I don’t want government to pass laws that serve no purpose or are band-aids for other bad laws. There should be no reason for proposed laws to be necessary in the first place. If a business owner doesn’t want to provide service to a customer, that is their right. There should be no recourse against them as they didn’t violate anyone else’s rights. To be perfectly clear, you DO NOT have the right to make a business owner serve you. It is only because of other government regulations in force today that people think they can force others to work for them. Instead of passing new laws that seem to have the insinuation of government-sanctioned discrimination, we should be repealing those laws that allow others to sue companies and put them out of business. It simply isn’t right in a free society to force someone to work for another. If we really want to get down to it, the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution outlawed involuntary servitude. I’m not sure if a better example exists of involuntary servitude than using the violent force of government to compel a business owner to work for someone else.

Let’s go back to my original story. I hate smoking. As part of my business, I go into a lot of people’s homes. I have thought about no longer doing business with people who smoke in their homes because I simply can’t stand the smell of cigarette smoke, not to mention the nasty residue that cigarettes leave all over the computer equipment I work on. Luckily for me, it seems that fewer and fewer people smoke in their homes anymore, so this isn’t as big of a problem as it was when I first started working in people’s homes almost 20 years ago. However, I reserve the right to refuse to service anyone who smokes if I so choose. Imagine if someone tried to sue me because I refused to serve them in their smoky homes. That would be ludicrous. Or worse, imagine if a gay smoker decided to sue me because they thought I was discriminating against them for being gay or at least spun it that way to be malicious. As it stands, I could be liable under various laws even though I’m not doing anything wrong. I’ll say it again, it is simply wrong in a free society to force someone to work for another. Disagree with that and you start running down a very slippery slope.

Imagine a gay business owner who wants to refuse service to a homophobe. Perhaps this person wants “God Hates Gays” baked on a cake or T-shirts made with that phrase. Or they want a gay photographer to take pictures of a Westboro Church Rally. The knife cuts both ways when we infringe upon business owners’ right to refuse service. Now some of you will try to rationalize this away by saying something like homophobes choose to be hateful and being gay is the way people are born so it’s not the same thing. Rationalizations work all well and good when choosing to infringe certain rights – as long as your group has political power. Rationalizations can be used against you when the other side has power. Rationalizations are the reason institutionalized discrimination has existed. Rationalizations are the reason “Separate but Equal” was allowed to exist. Be careful how you rationalize away people’s rights because your rights might be next.

I can appreciate people’s feelings getting hurt when they are discriminated against. As a hispanic person, I’ve been lucky enough to avoid most racial discrimination in my life, but I’ve held my tongue a few times when people have made racial remarks about hispanics in front of me. They obviously didn’t know my heritage and it wasn’t worth the confrontation to say something. But I’m not about to go advocate for laws forcing people to not speak their mind if they are saying things I don’t agree with. Even with laws on the books that allow me to sue people for discrimination, I would not prosecute if I faced it. Why? Because I believe in the power of free people solving their own problems and because these are the sorts of actions that lead to reactionary laws like Arizona SB 1062.

I have a self-professed bisexual friend who frequently posts on Facebook, “Love is Love and All Love is Good Love“. To those who fought and still fight to make gay marriage legal I must ask, what are you fighting for? Because if you are fighting for love, then ask yourselves this: is it love to force someone else to work for you? Is it love to force someone to do something that is against their morality? Whether or not you agree with someone’s beliefs, don’t you ask of others that your own beliefs are at least respected? You have long fought for tolerance and respect. Don’t now become the aggressors. Don’t become like the very people you have fought and continue to fight against. Everything you have worked for can come crumbling down if you use the violent force of government to enforce your morality on others, just as they have done to you for so long. If you are fighting for love, then show love to your neighbors who may not yet completely accept your way of life. Respect their beliefs as you ask them to respect yours. Ultimately, you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar. If a business chooses not to serve you, just find another that does. I have no problem if you choose not to do business with that company in the future and feel free to encourage others to not support them either. But you cross the line when you ask government to threaten a business with violence if they don’t serve you and in turn become the very people you claim to be fighting against.

In the same vein, it is certainly within people’s rights to boycott businesses that they don’t like for whatever reason. However, I would caution people like George Takei who advocate boycotting all businesses in an entire state because that state passed a law they don’t like. Guess what? There are many more businesses in that state who would not discriminate against gay people then there are who would, even if given the legal room to do so. And lots of those businesses are probably owned by gay people. Don’t do your cause a disservice by throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Target those businesses directly that have policies you don’t like, but don’t punish innocent businesses simply because their state government did something you don’t approve of.

If you truly believe in freedom you must be willing to allow others their freedom, even if you don’t agree with what they advocate. Otherwise, we are hypocritical to fight for some freedoms while denying others theirs. Freedom is Freedom and All Freedom is Good.

With that, I’ll leave you with part of the famous speech from the movie, “The American President”.

America isn’t easy. America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say, “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.” You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country cannot just be a flag. The symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Now show me THAT, defend THAT, celebrate THAT in your classrooms. Then you can stand up and sing about the land of the free.

 

Why Obamacare is NOT Good for Small Businesses

Obama Doctor GloveI stumbled upon an article on the web site of The New Yorker titled, “Why Obamacare is Good for Small Businesses.” As a small business owner myself, in addition to being well connected with many other small business owners across the country, I found the title of the article curious. All evidence to the contrary, Obamacare has been terrible for businesses in this country, small or otherwise. But I took the bait anyway and read the article just in case the author had come across some worthwhile knowledge.

Given the matter-of-fact tone of the title, boldly exclaiming that Obamacare is good for small business, the article reveals itself to be little more than conjecture. As stated in the first paragraph “… Obamacare may well be the best thing Washington has done for American small business in decades.” Later on the article states, “… the likely benefits of Obamacare for small businesses are enormous.” These two statements should be red flags that the author isn’t stating fact, but merely speculating why he thinks Obamacare might be good.

The article first talks about the employer mandate which only affects businesses of 50 or more employees. He out-of-hand dismisses the impact that Obamacare will have on the overall economy because he claims ninety-six percent of businesses in this country have fewer than 50 employees. I won’t argue this point because I’m not a business owner with over 50 employees. Plus this argument doesn’t explain why Obamacare will actually be good for small business, as the article’s title proclaims. Rather it simply tries to refute arguments why it will be bad. Regardless, simple observation of news headlines shows that large numbers of employers are in fact making workforce reductions because of Obamacare. At the very least this appears to be a significant enough trend to warrant further scrutiny, instead of simply shrugging off the very real ramifications this will have on very real people.

The first affirmative argument the author attempts is that Obamacare will make it easier for people to start their own business. The justification being that starting a business was risky because finding affordable health insurance was not guaranteed. People would prefer staying employed to keep their health insurance through their employer rather than try to find private health insurance. This phenomenon, labeled as “job lock”, I agree exists, but not to the extent that the author claims. Certainly one barrier to starting a business is finding health insurance. But starting a business is risky all the way around. Finding health insurance is a risk that can be mitigated (or at least could be until Obamacare). First, many people starting businesses join their spouse’s plan when possible. I know many examples of entrepreneurs who got around job lock in this way. Second, while there is no guarantee of finding affordable health insurance, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to verify this one way or the other. Someone considering starting their own business will know for sure if they can find affordable insurance with just a few phone calls. The simple “threat” of not finding affordable health insurance won’t actually stop someone from starting a business (at least not anyone who is serious). True, if someone actually can’t find affordable health insurance that might stop them from starting a business. But the author gives no supporting evidence to show that this is truly a problem. And if job lock actually was a problem, Obamacare has definitively made this situation significantly worse!

I run my own business consisting of myself and my wife as the only employees. When I launched this business full-time over 11 years ago, initially I went on my wife’s health insurance plan. That lasted about a year until my wife was downsized. Since that point, about 10 years ago, we have had private insurance. We too were initially fearful at the loss of our health insurance that we received from her employer. And while we did end up paying more once we went private, it was a lot less than many people were telling us it would be. While our private health insurance costs have increased steadily year over year, we recently received a letter from our health insurance company stating that our premium had gone up significantly. Additionally, the plan we currently have can not be renewed after December 31st of this year (hmmm … I wonder why?). The new plans they offer cost even more than our newly increased premium and have a higher deductible. Shopping around so far shows that other insurance carriers show similar trends. Obamacare has definitely effected my personal economy in a negative way. But I guess that’s an impact that is too small for the author to care about.

It would be one thing if my family’s siutation was an anomaly. But I’ve heard from many other business owners that they received the same news from their insurance companies as well. I’m actually lucky. My increase, while significant enough, is small compared to some other stories I’ve been personally made aware of. And if you don’t take my word for it, perhaps you’d take the word of another small business owner? Or if that isn’t enough, perhaps you’d take the word of people who championed Obamacare and voted for Obama twice? They’ve been shocked to find their private healthcare costs have skyrocketed recently.

The author states that Obamacare could enable 1.5 million people to become self-employed by eliminating “job lock”. The reality is that if health insurance “job lock” was keeping people from starting their own business, Obamacare has just thrown away the key. The increased cost of private health insurance due to Obamacare is yet another example of big government intrusion hurting entrepreneurship and the little guy.

The author then goes on to state that Obamacare will provide tax credits to small businesses that want to insure their employees, evening the playing field with large companies. He also states that “community rating” will restrict insurance companies from charging certain small businesses more due to higher risk employees. First, insurance costs are based on risk for good reason. It allows companies to charge fairly. Those with higher risk are more likely to use insurance, therefore are more costly to carry. But those with less risk benefit from lower premiums. As Obamacare has now proven with individual private insurance, if insurance companies can’t charge higher premiums due to higher risk, then they must charge everyone higher premiums! Just as I and many other business owners who have private insurance must now pay higher premiums due to Obamacare’s mandates, what do we think is going to happen to the cost of health insurance for small business? Obamacare will in fact further de-incentivize small businesses from carrying health insurance for their employees. I don’t think this supports the author’s assertion that Obamacare will be good for small business.

Interestingly the author points out that the fact most Americans get health insurance through work is a “historical accident”. During World War II, the government forced private businesses to freeze wages. In an attempt to work around what the government had done to the free market, employers started offering health insurance and benefits as a way to increase overall compensation. He then states that Congress gave corporations tax incentives after the war to keep providing health insurance (blaming conservatives and doctors for stymying the creation of universal health care, as if government-run health insurance is something to aspire to). What the author fails to point out is that this “accident” was caused by government interference in the free market. If government hadn’t instituted unconstitutional wage freezes and then given tax breaks only to corporations for providing health insurance (why had tax levels risen to such high levels that tax “breaks” were significantly beneficial and why didn’t they give tax breaks to small businesses and individuals?) then the whole “job lock” situation wouldn’t exist today. Hmmm … the overreach of government caused this problem? I wonder what other problems government overreach has caused?

The battle over Obamacare truly is a big waste of time and energy. Obamacare ultimately is just a symptom of a bigger problem. The real issue we all must deal with is the high cost of health care and the correspondingly high cost of health insurance. At the root of the problem lies big government. As the article titled, “Let’s Make Health Care Inexpensive Again,” correctly points out, the cost of health care and health insurance has steadily increased in direct proportion to the amount of government interference in the health care industry. Note that this article was written in 2002! As recently as the 1950’s, this country had the highest standard of health care at a fraction of what it costs today,  health insurance was available to nearly everyone – even people with pre-existing conditions, and doctors made house calls. As an example of the costly encroachment of government, the article points out that every time the government forces an insurance company to cover a particular medical procedure, the cost of insurance goes up for everyone. 11 years later, this should have been obvious to most people, but if it wasn’t, Obamacare has just made it painfully obvious to the entire country.

Instead of tackling the real cause of skyrocketing health insurance costs – big government overreach and interference in healthcare – Obamacare has doubled-down on failed policies, virtually guaranteeing that healthcare costs will continue to rise – except this time it will be a rise of unprecedented proportions. I’m not sure what the author was thinking, but increased healthcare costs aren’t good for anyone. Obamacare is definitely NOT good for small business.

Obama and Apple

President, I've worked with Apple. I know Apple. Apple is a friend of mine. President, you're no Apple.

Obama, I’ve worked with Apple. I know Apple. Apple is a friend of mine. Obama, you’re no Apple.

As usual, please read my Obligatory Obama Disclaimer if you haven’t already.

As expected, the rollout of the online Obamacare exchanges was plagued with issues. In an effort to make excuses, Obama compared the launch of his exchanges with the release of Apple’s iOS 7 just a couple of weeks earlier. He said Apple found a glitch at release, fixed it, and nobody was suggesting that Apple should be shut down. He suggested that we should give Obamacare the same latitude while it works through its glitches, even after they’ve had 3 years to get it ready. Well, Mr. Obama, you started this game, so let’s take your comparison for a little spin, shall we?

If Apple had a record of terrible programs and systems like that of the federal government, they wouldn’t be the most valuable tech company in the world. They’d be more like … well … Microsoft. Obamacare is to the federal government what Windows 8 is to Microsoft: disasters of unprecedented scale that threaten to bankrupt their creators.

Like Windows 8, if Apple had put out such a terrible system, a system that many experts predicted would be awful, there would have been a huge uproar from their customers. Why is Obama so surprised that his “customers” are pushing back?

Unlike Obamacare, if I don’t like a product Apple puts out I can choose not to buy it. Apple’s products don’t cause other increases in my cost of living. And Apple damn sure doesn’t forcibly take my money if I refuse to buy their products.

Comparing a socialist program like Obamacare – supported by forced taxation, coercion, and threats of violence to ensure compliance – to a product developed in free market – in which customers freely make the choice to purchase – is a slap in the face to the principles this country was founded upon.

Happy Shutdown Day!

Government Shut DownDon’t worry, I guarantee the “shutdown” of the United States federal government will not last very long. Those who stand to lose the most from a prolonged shutdown are the establishment politicians. A protracted shutdown of “non-essential” federal government services will only serve to show the people just how non-essential they really are. Which will then make people start questioning why the federal government is handling those operations in the first place. Establishment politicians need their entitlement programs as leverage to get reelected. If entitlement programs start disappearing, this opens the door wider for small-government politicians to get into office. So again, don’t worry about the shutdown. The federal government will soon start spending our money (plus money it doesn’t have) at the same voracious rate it was before – likely even faster once the politicians make their deals.

The only thing I wish we would see is a tax break for every day the federal government was shutdown. If people would actually see a larger paycheck because they weren’t paying taxes on the days the government was shut down we’d see some serious reduction of government!

In the meantime, celebrate the idea of a government shutdown, even if it only lasts a little while. The reality is that the federal government in a partial shut down is much closer to the government the founders envisioned and that ran the country during the early days. You know, when the United States was truly considered the land of opportunity. Perhaps a little taste of small government might help us return to those days.

What Elizabeth Warren Really Said …

There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there - good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory... Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea - God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.This quote by Elizabeth Warren shown in the picture floats around the Internet every so often, touted by many as some sort of great wisdom. But if we break it down, we find that it isn’t quite the benevolent quote many take it to be. So let’s take a look at my version of what Elizabeth Warren “really” said.

There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. I can say this because I’ve never started or ran a business myself.

But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads that were paid for with money forcibly confiscated from the people. You hired workers that were educated in a forced monopoly system which is paid for with money seized from the people. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that are paid for with money forcibly extracted from the very people they protect. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory … unless you’re counting your own government.

Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. Because I know better than you just how much of your own money you should be “allowed” to keep. Part of the underlying social contract – that you never agreed to – is that people like me forcibly confiscate a hunk of the wealth you gave your blood, sweat, and tears to create and give it to the next kid who comes along – so they can have their wealth forcibly confiscated too.

Doesn’t sound so wise now, does it? Another thing that is really, um, “interesting” about her quote is that she says “the rest of us”, as if business owners didn’t pay taxes for all the things she talks about. If in fact all that taxes actually paid for were those things, we’d be talking about tiny little slivers, instead of hunks. But instead they often pay for politicians’ pork projects, making those who exert influence on the government rich. So maybe she is right. Nobody gets rich on their own – they need a politician’s help for that!

A Different Way to Think About Freemium

free-managed-services.jpgOftentimes, I find that entrepreneurship and liberty are inexorably intertwined. Sometimes, even the terminology used seems to hint at this unalienable truth. A shout out to Amanda at amandabillyrock.com for bringing up a discussion about the freemium business model. I’ve recently discovered her online and I must say her writing reads as if they are thoughts coming from my own mind. Check her out if you haven’t already.

I won’t go into too much detail about the freemium model or argue the merits. Lots of other people have done that. But core to the model is the idea that information is given away for free, in order to develop a following and establish oneself as a category authority.

Of course, “free” as in pricing is different than “free” as in liberty. Yet for many, the belief that information should be free covers both cost and availability. This is one place where entrepreneurship and liberty intersect.

Certainly I believe that the free flow of information is the greatest gift the Internet has given us. The decision to get paid for information I leave up to each individual. But in the age of the Internet, consider the following. Those who set information free are viewed in higher regard. Perhaps one day we will look at the liberation of information as a turning point in human history.