Friday, March 8, 2013

Theft and Taxes

I received this short and to the point comment on a post I made on Google+ recently regarding the difference between subsidies and tax breaks: 

Ah, it's the same old 'taxes are theft' horseshit. Your kind never gets tired of that malarkey.
This caused me to stop and think.  Is the idea that "taxes are theft" malarkey or is there some basis for it in reality?

First, what exactly is theft?  Unfortunately we cannot simply go to the dictionary and find out in one quick look because the main definition of theft doesn't tell us very much.  (All definitions come from  
The dictionary defines theft as "the act of stealing," which is not terribly helpful.  Referring back to the dictionary, we find that stealing is, "to take the property of another or others without permission or right, especially secretly or by force."  That helps, but what does it mean to do something by force?  Back to the dictionary where we find that force is “unlawful violence threatened or committed against persons or property”, “the power to influence or control”, and when used as a verb “to coerce.”

With that we have a pretty clear definition of theft:

To take the property of another or others without permission or right, either secretly or through the threat or commission of violence against their person or property.
Does our definition reflect the reality we observe when we see theft?  

“Your money or your life!”  says the mugger as he brandishes a gun or a knife.
“I have a gun, put all money in an envelope, no dye packs, no alarms, no one will get hurt,” says the bank robber’s note. These examples of what I think of as “confrontational” theft certainly fit our definition.  The thief is attempting to take the victim’s property without permission by the threat of injury.

Thefts such as burglary, pick pocketing, fraud and other crimes that I think of as “non-confrontational” also fit the definition as the property is being taken without the knowledge of the victim.  In the case of fraud, it is being taken by deceiving the victim as to the nature of the reality of the situation.

Now that we have a clear idea of what theft is, let’s take a look at taxes.  Taxes are defined as "a compulsory financial contribution imposed by a government to raise revenue."  We should clarify what is meant by compulsory, which is defined as "required by regulations or laws; obligatory."  We have two choices here to clarify things - required or obligatory.  They both get is to the same place, obliged.  The definition for oblige is "to bind or constrain (someone to do something) by legal, moral, or physical means."  Constrain in turn brings us to compel which is defined as "to secure or bring about by force."    With force we are back to ground already covered in the discussion about theft.

After this, our definition of tax has become: 

The transfer of money to the government under a declared, or implied, intention to inflict legal, moral or physical punishment for failure to comply.  

As with theft, we need to look at some real examples of taxes to see whether our definition matches reality.  While there are many types of taxes they are similar in many respects.  They all involve the transfer of money to the government and they all carry the threat of punishment for failure to do so.  For property taxes, the threat is the loss of your property even if you own it without mortgage or other claim against it.  With sales taxes, individuals have no choice whether or not to pay them, but if the merchant fails to collect them and remit them to the government they can face, in Vermont, up to $10,000 in fines and 3 years in jail, depending on the amount involved.  Similarly, failure to pay income taxes can lead to monetary penalties, forfeiture of property and jail time.  

So in both theft and tax, we have a transfer of property from one person or group to another under the threat, explicitly stated or implied, of punishment.  In neither case do we need to consider what the transferred property will be used for, the victim only cares that he no longer has his property.  Also, we do not need to consider whether the government has the right to take your property or whether their use of force is lawful.  If the government has a right to part of your property, they have a right to all of it and simply haven’t decided to take it.  Yet.  As to lawful, well, who writes the laws?

In order to flourish, individuals must have a right to their property, to use and dispose of it as they see fit.   This right is not something granted by the government, but arises from the basic necessity of life.  If you lived on a desert island, you have to work to stay alive.  You would need to gather the goods necessary for your survival, be it food, materials to create shelter, tools, clothing and etc.  Imagine if periodically a canoe arrived at your island and strangers came and took part of your food, raw materials, tools, clothing, and destroyed your shelter.  If this continued, you could not flourish on your island and, if they took enough, your very survival would be in jeopardy.

It is no different in modern society.  If you do not have the right to use and dispose of your property in the way that you see fit, you are in exactly the same position as on the deserted island.  When someone else is able to take some or all of your property to dispose of how they see fit, your chances for thriving and even surviving will certainly be in question.

The Founding Fathers recognized this fundamental right of the individual and secured it in our founding documents.   The Declaration of Independence states, "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."   Liberty and the pursuit of happiness require that man be free to work, to keep the fruits of his labor, and to dispose of them as he sees fit.  Further, the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution says, "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated."  While this is most often quoted in terms of criminal matters, it can also be read as affirming the right of an individual to keep his property.  The Fifth Amendment contains similar language - "shall not be deprived of life, liberty or property" and "nor shall private property be taken for public use."

As the Founders noted, these rights are unalienable, i.e. they cannot be separated from the individual by any means.  We recognize, for example, that we have the right to freedom of speech regardless of whether a majority of the people disagree with what we are saying, as long as the exercise of that right does not demonstrably injure another person (the classic example of crying fire in a crowded movie theater).  In the same way, we have the right to use and dispose of our property in any manner that we choose regardless of what others may think, as long as such use does not demonstrably injure another person or actually damage their property.  

It is obvious that theft is a violation of the victim's rights and immoral.  It should also be obvious that taxes are violations of individual rights and immoral, and for the same reasons.  The fact that the government, the majority, or some group currently in power has decided that taxes are legal and "necessary" does  not make them any less so.


Saturday, March 2, 2013

On Global Warming, Keystone Pipeline and Bernie Sanders

On Google+ today, I saw a post by Wil Wheaton quoting Senator Bernie Sanders, one of my state's Senators, which linked to this article and supplied a quote from it:
“It is bad enough that some people in Washington deny the overwhelming scientific evidence and claim that global warming is a hoax and a Hollywood conspiracy. In my view, it would be equally absurd to claim concern about global warming while then approving decisions that will literally throw fuel on the fire of this planetary crisis. The president must reject the Keystone XL project.”

My initial response to this was the following:

While I do believe that there is a fair amount of proof that there has been an increase in global average temperatures over the last 100 years or so, I am unconvinced about the possible future effects.  It appears, as noted here that the upper end of predictions for potential future warming are inconsistent with past warming, and thus unlikely to occur.
Additionally, even if you accept that the models of temperature increase are correct, one should consider whether a given action will serve to actually reduce the warming in any meaningful way?  As this post shows, it likely will not.   
Take the Keystone Pipeline as an example.  Would preventing the oil from Canada being burned, not simply preventing the construction of the pipeline, actually serve to reduce warming by any meaningful amount?  As this post shows, the "benefit" from this would be in reducing the temperature increase by something on the order of .0001 degrees centigrade per year. The benefit will likely be even less than that given that it is unlikely that this oil would simply be burned in addition to current sources (Mid-East oil or domestic coal for example) rather than replacing it.

I received two responses to my post, neither of which seemed to be from people who had taken the time to actually follow the links:
Yeah, quoting from a Koch brothers site known for pushing the oil agenda.
you "cite" from the cato institute which has been founded partially by one of the Koch brothers. And you have probably heard, the Koch brothers are those who would earn the big profit from building the keystone pipeline. And maybe you heard, that the Koch brothers heavily funded anti-GW propaganda. 
Below is my reply to these comments.

Sadly, both responses were mostly ad hominem attacks on the Koch brothers rather than a response to the science described in the posts I linked too, so I will summarize here. 
Using figures from the US Department of Energy in recent years world CO2 emissions have been in the neighborhood of 30,000mmt (million metric tons) per year.   
According to wikipedia (not necessarily the best source but the easiest to lay my hands on), atmospheric concentration has increased about 2ppm (parts per million) per year over the last 10 years.  So recently it has taken 15,000mmt of CO2 to increase atmospheric concentration by 1ppm.  One of the initial posts I linked indicated that this appears to have stayed relatively constant for at least the last 60 years. 
The site "Discovery of Global Warming" states that in the last 150 years or so, global average temperatures have increased 1 degree centigrade while atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have increased 104ppm.  This gives a global temperature increase of .01 degree centigrade for each 1ppm increase in concentration.  This gives us 1,500,000mmt of CO2 to increase global temperatures by 1 degree.  This is of course dependent on the assumption (and a risky one) that ALL increase in warming is attributable to the increase in CO2 concentration. 
According to Scientific American, burning the estimated 170 billion barrels of currently available oil from the Alberta tar sands would yield 22 billion metric tons of carbon, or about .13 metric tons of carbon per barrel.  According to the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, to convert from carbon to carbon dioxide you multiply the carbon by 3.667, which in this case gives us .48 metric tons or .00000048mmt per barrel.  
If the Keystone Pipeline is built and pumps 800,000 barrels per day, 365 days per year, this would result in about 140mmt of CO2 per year which would yield .0001 degrees per year, assuming there is no accompanying reduction in other fossil fuel use which would reduce this amount even further.  This is a figure likely impossible to measure let alone notice.

So it is extremely difficult to see how one can reasonably make the case, as Senator Sanders tries to do, that building the Keystone Pipeline is "throwing fuel on the fire of a global crisis."

One would hope that when it comes to public policy, there would be some balancing of costs and benefits before making a decision.  Such as balancing the potential for a .0001 degree per year rise in temperature against the economic gain, which in Nebraska alone is estimated to be significant:
Governor Dave Heineman noted in a letter to Obama that construction of the pipeline would bring his state $418.1 million in economic benefits and result in $11 to $13 million a year in additional property taxes. 
HT: Paul C. "Chip" Knappenberger, Assistant Director, Center for the Study of Science who wrote the posts I initially was exposed to all this.

Edit - You can also find data on the increase in CO2 concentration at the NOAA site.  Since 2000, the increase has averaged out to 1.96ppm per year which is for all intents and purposes the same as indicated on Wikipedia.
Edit - A letter to Senator Sanders that was written based on this article, which I sent to all Vermont's Congressional delegates, just appeared as a letter to the editor in our local paper, the Caledonian Record.  Sadly you need an online subscription to see it.