Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
Vroman53 Hours With Kafka in St. Louis
Posted at 7:05 pm on March 4, 2014, by Vroman

UPDATE: I discussed this incident as a podcast guest, starting at 1:04:00.

I spent the two worst nights of my life in the St. Louis City Justice Center. I did not experience nor witness any physical violence, not even credible threats. What I got was plenty of apathetic incompetence, banal sadism, and agonizing obtuseness. The vast majority of people dragged through this institution are poor and black, though plenty were educated. Their complaints are evidently easily and frequently ignored. I hope to convince people outside that demographic the City Jail really is run absurdly poorly.

I run a small real estate business specializing in North St. Louis City. This winter ravaged my bottom line. Repair costs are running five times over this time last year. I was quickly reduced to a 24 hour cash cycle, so when I got two traffic tickets in the city, and summons for unpaid vacancy code fine in Florissant, I was forced to choose between paying arbitrary fees to the government, or keeping my tenants homes operational. Many of these people are behind on their rent, yet when its 5 degrees out, I still fixed water heaters and roofs every time, with no breathing room left over for my own problems. Thats the decision I made, wise or not, which got me multiple warrants. I was finally pulled over noon Tuesday 2-18-14, at Grand and Shaw for expired plates.

I was politely cooperative, immediately informed cop I have CCW and a pistol. My permission is not asked, but my vehicle is searched. He finds a google route map of every Bank of America in the city. I collect rent in cash in places like Fairground Park. I need to know the closest bank wherever I happen to be. A sergeant arrives and uses this very flimsy evidence to charge me as an “armed fugitive”. This seems pretty farfetched, so I am still mainly concerned about a wasted evening. My passenger was also arrested with no charges or warrants.

An FBI agent arrives to interrogate me at 2nd District station, about what he has been told is a possible bank robbery conspiracy. I talk about my business 10 minutes and he leaves, and person riding with me is released. I hope the sergeant who felt it necessary to bring this matter to the Federal government’s attention is at least embarrassed. I wait in the 2nd Dist holding cell for several hours, with Lovelle Robinson, 26yo Benton Park resident, who by the end of this ordeal, I’d consider a friend. He’s trapped in a vicious cycle of fines he can’t afford which cost his license, and inevitable jail time, which costs his job, six times, and half his demographic is in this snare. What good is providing a transportation network for your citizens, but enforcing rules so draconian –allegedly for their safety– that they are pauperized out of using the system at all?

The sergeant informs me he has graciously dropped the weapons charges and I am being shipped downtown for the traffic warrants. My gun is mailed to Jeff City for a ballistics tests. Allegedly I get it back in 4-6 weeks, assuming I haven’t shot anyone.

4p, we are handcuffed together en route to the Justice Center. We arrive on the loading dock of this monolithic cube, with 15′ ceilings, and are detail searched. Routine processing questions are answered. And now I am expecting some kind of briefing of what are my options and how long until the next step. Instead my questions are deferred to “later” and I am uncuffed and placed in one of four 10’x20’ cells, standing room only, with 25 other prisoners. The door is plexiglass, naturally lots of shouting, very difficult to hear guards.

And the hours begin to pass.

I am hearing from several different repeat visitors that we are waiting to go up “upstairs”, presumably to smaller cells. I am not hearing how and when you can pay money to get out of here. At 6pm we are given a dinner of single slice of bologna on two slices of bread and six very stale tortilla chips.

By 8pm I was eager to make a deal. The atmosphere in the cell was convivial, but grumpy to the say the least. And yet still absolutely no communication of substance from anyone in authority. The blue shirts refer you to the burgundy shirts, who refer you to the white shirts, who say they don’t have your file. And you get one sentence in passing every ten minutes.

Around 11pm we are marched en masse upstairs. And placed in an identical cell, on an identical laid out floor. Two hours pass. Its 1am and dawns on us, this is it, there are no bunks coming. The people who designed this system expect 25 adults to sleep shoulder to shoulder on the concrete floor of a 60degree, urine rank cattle car, regardless of what they came in here wearing, or committing. Some percentage of these people will be found not guilty.

I have a leather coat, and resign myself to optimizing for some pathetic local maximum of comfort. I’ve got to choose between a terrible pillow, or a terrible blanket, nuzzled against total strangers stuck here against their will. I’m not fearful of them, but holy hell, doesn’t mean I’d invite them over to snuggle. Every 45-90 minutes prisoners are swapped for unclear reasons. Its impossible to relax, the anticipation of the next door opening, that my existence will be acknowledged, and I will be given a glimmer of an opportunity to bargain for release, or at least some kind of ETA.

Ambient noise is extremely disruptive, even as most prisoners try to fall asleep. I am very hungry. I doze shallowly until about 4a. I sit up, look around at this tight row of poor wretches, and just jawdrop that this is a normal night here. Every single night our city makes 70-90 citizens submit to this, a majority of them for inconsequential violations, and many of them innocent. I thought this was my night. The second was worse.

At 5a Wednesday, I receive another meager snack and people are starting to be called to court. The entire morning goes by no further updates. 11a at last I hear my name again and I am marched to videocourt, a term I never heard before this incident. I am taken to a camera booth with an old man glancing over from a flickery monitor. Well isn’t this charmingly Orwellian. Judge Headroom tells me court date is 3-13-14, I owe $50. “Ok” says me. That is the entirety of information I receive about my case. Back to cells. As lunch arrives we enjoy 2hr window only 10 people in the cell. Spirits are lifted as presumably this is the last stop for us in the Justice Center and we’re being stamped for export, either to free world or another facility.

No. By 2pm, cell has filled back up to the 25 headcount which covered the entire squarefootage of floorspace the night before. Now we are getting antsy. Some are supposed to be cut loose, some people going to various County jails like me, or more serious offenders waiting for the Hall Street workhouse, or Bonne Terre.

But nothing happens. Except more prisoners. They are constantly badgering the guards re: pickups, or even where they are wanted. All inquiries totally rebuffed. After dinner Wednesday, headcount hits 29 and stays there for the night. This forces two people to sleep immediately adjacent to the toilet, and two to sit upright all night; all others 4-6 inches apart on their backs on raw concrete. As the evening wears on, I am again dismayed. I can’t believe this is how this place is run, that I am sleeping like this another night. Ironically I had planned to attend a Lewis Reed fundraiser this evening, and now I really have something to talk to him about.

The slightest change in routine is a minor hope that some crack will form in this surreal wall of silence. A new batch of guards every 8 hours, means someone might let slip what the hell is going on behind the curtain.

I am struck with how sympathetic this crowd is to each other, its about 80:20 black:white, and there’s an effort to accommodate each other as much as possible in the circumstances. I got along fine with every inmate I met, some of them were fascinating conversation subjects.

The stories I am hearing from them over and over drive home what a paralyzing force the police exert in many Northside and state street neighborhoods. The aggressive tactics, and senseless spillover economic consequences, give powerful vibe of an uncaring occupation, not protective servants.

Around 1a Thursday its beyond shadow of a doubt no more pickups for the night, frustrations get more vocal. An Elliot Davis fan demands an investigation and lawsuit. Our collective action is thwarted by mere lack of a contraband pen. No means to record a contact list among a group that will never naturally convene again.

My opinion on the plan is sought, as the token capitalist present at the birth of the movement. I give a quick lecture on how lobbying works. Have your people blow up your alderman’s phone, state rep, mayor, sheriff, stake out their office. Demand meetings, call Town Halls. Don’t waste your time waving a sign in his parking lot. Make sure every elected official directly hears this every day.

I unsettle in under unyielding fluorescents. I go fetal in front corner of cell, and just try to endure semi-consciousness. I smell exactly like you’d expect. Around 9a shuffled around the bowels of this monstrosity, and finally loaded into Florissant’s custody about noon.

The contrast is simple but stark. Florissant has a whiteboard listing everyone locked up here, what they did, what they owe, where they’re going next, and when that pick up is. Wow, that is so easy to give a foothold of peace of mind. When I finally got a lumpy plastic mattress and blanket and more than coffin sized personal space, I was so relieved it was almost as good as being free. Having to openly strip naked to change into jumpsuit didn’t even phase me at this point.

My bizarre episode concludes around 5p Thursday. If you were in the Justice Center with me between 2-18-14 and 2-20-14, I would like to hear from you. If you are responsible for how that place is run, I challenge you to justify yourself.

I am the Missouri Republican 5th District committeeman. I am running for MO 79th State Representative. Please vote August 5th.


Robert Vroman




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VromanRand Paul is right(ish)
Posted at 6:54 pm on August 18, 2010, by Vroman

Lets look at Rand Paul’s outline of political stances.

I agree with Rand about 85%. I hold more or less polar views on the bioethics and immigration categories, and Paul’s anti-war feelings are a little tepid for my tastes. The remainder though is quite inspiring. I suppose if you ever find a candidate you agree with 100%, you are probably looking at your own name on the ballot. So Rand Paul is strikingly wrong on a handful of issues, but on net would be a welcome addition to the Senate.

I establish this backstory in order to discuss Rand’s controversial Civil Rights Act statements a few months ago.

Speaking for the anti-Paul critics, I appoint my magic card rival Stephen Menendian, who got face time on Huffington Post. Nice work Steve.

First let me tell a personal anecdote regarding the consequences of racial job discrimination. I currently work for the business my grandfather started in 1951. Between that time and his death in 2005, grandpa was the sole decision maker and as far as I know, never once hired a non-white employee. All my memories of my grandfather are very fond ones of an incredibly hardworking, charitable, devoted family man. Though its pretty unavoidable looking back he was passively racist. And he suffered because of it! By subtly passing up qualified colored workers, we got stuck with a lot of burn out white trash guys. Many headaches developed over the years via his perverse hiring criteria. Gramps was a visionary businessman on the big picture deals, but certainly cost himself a lot in the details. This is exactly the result one would expect when arbitrarily limiting oneself to a smaller pool of applicants via a non-relevant criteria. Its a Gresham’s Law scenario where the bad apples are foisted off on to the firms who refuse to compete for the full range of workers. Not only do you lose good black workers, you tend to get the worse white workers as well.

Since I’ve been responsible for hiring, we have actually had a disproportionately high representation of black and hispanic workers, relative to St. Louis demographics, even accounting for this income bracket. Not because I want to help out minorities for its own sake, but because I’m an unapologetic capitalist. I want to pay as little as possible, and this is who shows up to accept our offered rates, while meeting my minimum standards. In fact in my dedication to laissez faire, I am an even more color blind employer than typical corporations, since things like criminal records, functional illiteracy, and active drug addictions, do not deter me, if the applicant comes recommended. Given the unfortunate higher likelihood of low income minorities coming from environments that have left them with such negative characteristics, my company is slightly easier job opportunity.

Discrimination is bad practice for both employee and employer. But Smennen makes it clear he doesn’t care about the efficiency arguments of non-racism, its solely a moral issue to him. I could make the more abstract case that there is no difference between the two. I will remain on more familiar territory today.

We’ll take the simple case of a sole proprietorship as opposed to publicly traded company. This business is some individual’s property, just like his home. An employment contract is an invitation by the employer to show up on his property, do some work, and receive payment. The invitee is free to decline. I do not see this as fundamentally different from an individual inviting individuals into his home for social purposes, which they are likewise free to decline. The fact that money changes hands is the business of these two people after they have agreed to meet on the owner’s property. There is no reason an individual should have any less discretion in who he extends invitations to at his business, than at his home. If said businessman were to foolishly only offer invitations to work for pay to select ethnicities, this is not force or theft against them.

Like, Rand Paul, I would support a non-discrimination policy for tax funded posts, and other public functionaries, but it is really not the government’s place to enforce morality upon citizens that does not transgress others rights. One does not have a right to a job at any particular business, any more than they have a right to walk in to a stranger’s house. To say otherwise, would give government carte blanche to enforce other moral paradigms regarding citizen’s private behavior; for example their sex partners, etc. Since we have relatively little control of what moral agenda is advanced by the ruling party of the moment, it is a wiser policy to reject government’s power to dictate morality at all.

This said, I do think Smennen has a point that Rand is dissembling somewhat by trying to obfuscate exactly what portions of the Civil Rights Act he opposes. I presume Steve’s analysis of the legal history is correct, and thus as a libertarian, I, and Rand, should indeed openly oppose the Fair Housing Act in entirety. I would stress that there exist far higher priorities though for the goal of reducing government interference. We are so far removed from an acceptable political environment, that I would hesitate to even call it progress should the FHA be repealed as a first step.

Paul is in a difficult position of course, since the logical conclusion of laissez faire leads to very politically incorrect places. Rand is presenting himself as more mainstream than his father, which is hard to do and remain ideologically consistent. I sincerely hope he does not give in to populism. Still, Rand Paul is undeniably a step in the right direction.

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VromanI’m not going to get speaking engagements with an attitude like this
Posted at 1:05 am on June 18, 2010, by Vroman

I heard Russ Roberts, noted rapper , speak tonight at some Republican club. Roberts expounded on strategies to rebrand small government propaganda efforts, and why this inspires a recent optimistic upturn in his perception of near future politics. Roberts is a good speaker, but I remain unswayed. Certainly his ideas have merit, but I don’t follow that implementing such will make a difference. Status quo corporatism is going to grind on indefinitely until cities are burning.

Roberts makes the facetious observation that big-govt proponents have more marketable objective, and lofty goals are more attractive than a concrete method. Its more engaging to claim one is “saving the children” and yet be fuzzy on the details of accomplishing that, or even abjectly fail; than to have a clearly logical economic algorithm that results in pedestrian outcomes like marginal increases in prosperity. “No one writes folk songs about efficiency”, Russ quips. The upsides of decentralist thought are more about opportunity cost and deadweight loss, and other painfully real, but not readily visible effects. This results in us defaulting to the easier rhetorical tactic of simply exposing a litany of government failures, and thus getting a reputation as unfun cynics relegated to the sidelines.

Roberts goes on to suggest re-framing the debate as not government vs business or collectivism vs individualism, but rather recognize that people are drawn to comforting concepts such as community and cooperation. Thus small-govt advocates should boldly co-opt the left’s central term, Socialism, re-defined as a system where people are given the incentives to freely socialize in all respects from the bottom-up, rather than top-down central planning.

All well and good, and maybe this or variations on the theme could indeed spark some life into general anti-statist sentiment. But bottomline, I see no reason to predict any change in the underlying systemic variables that allows continual siphoning of wealth into the inner circle of lobbyists and decision makers. Ever.

To people who naively accept face value assumptions that policy output ever has true common-good motivations, I suggest imagining the company you work for ran the government. Would your co-workers, bosses, and employees do a good job running the country? Of course not. They would have the exact same personality clashes, vested interests, and petty power plays they do in mundane private industry. Government bureaucracies are no different than any other institution composed of self interested human beings. Sure there are exceptions of self-sacrificing crusaders, but on net, structural incentives dominate.

These are the key powerful incentives faced by government and those it serves:

-Regulatory capture
-Majoritarian redistributionism
-Collective action problem

At any given juncture, if a negative-sum policy is on the table that reduces overall economic activity, but diverts a net gain in resources to a minority, there is a tendency for the minority to devote a greater percentage of their aggregate potential gains towards lobbying efforts to ensure the policy is enacted, than the percentage the majority is willing to spend of their potential losses. Making the reasonable assumption that behind the scenes government policy is a flat bidding war, then the special interest will get its way the lion’s share of the time.

In this way there is a ratchet effect that generates on net ever more restrictive regulation and protectionism. On the other end of the equation, in terms of transfer payments, a slim majority will always have the incentive to take any opportunity to vote itself payouts from the fund that all of society pays into. Again a ratchet effect that ensures ever larger welfare schemes and public projects.

Government will always be called on to tax, spend, and regulate more, because it serves those with the power to make the decision at that moment, regardless of the damage to overall standard of living. The economy will produce less, while spending rises. The deficits will be financed by borrowing for a time, but in the end inflation has to take over, and yet still nothing changes the underlying incentives, so trade will be stifled even more, more taxes will discourage remaining productive opportunities, and more spending will be piled on. Even up until the final moment, none of this changes. Wheelbarrows of fiat currency, martial law, emergency powers, etc. There has to be some kind of violent disconnect between our current structure and any hypothetical stable growth encouraging system. There is no way the political process as it exists now can smoothly self correct toward a laissez faire environment.

I suspect what Roberts and other optimists think they can accomplish via re-education is effectively increasing the percentage of potential losses that majorities are willing to spend to defend themselves from predatory minorities. A large part of this is just making many people in the non-special-interest-bloc aware that they stand to lose at all. However, I posit that its a natural law of political science within non-constitutionally constrained democracies (ie USA since at least 1860 if not earlier) that the legislative process is in effect a shadow market and special interests will always bring disproportionately higher bidding power to bear. They won’t always win if the stakes are too mismatched, but the tendency over time will always be to create more restrictions and spending excuses, rather than remove them. Thus in a weighted random walk, results inevitably in a fully restricted, hyper-inflated economy.

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VromanGross Misesian Product
Posted at 11:20 pm on March 25, 2010, by Vroman

In Human Action and elsewhere, Ludwig von Mises asserts that GDP and other aggregate economic data are meaningless; furthermore that economics is categorically not an empirical science; no economic experiments are worthwhile, and no intertemporal comparisons between transactions can be validly made.

Mises insists that the whole of economic theory can be derived logically from correct standard axioms, without relying on real world proof.

Mises makes the analogy between Galileo rolling marbles down ramps with consistent results, and then converting this data into laws of motion; as compared to the very muddled, psychologically sensitive, reality of human behavior, whether concerning finances or any other matter.

However, if I were a 17th century Natural Philosopher, I could take Galileo’s marble data and then come up with an answer for the speed of light, and be derided for using ‘meaningless’ numbers since I would surely be orders of magnitude off, and would be missing entire categories of subtleties like the reference frame paradox, etc.

The point is that there is a definite speed of light, though the tools available at the time were grossly insufficient to precisely nail it down. Just so, I hold that it is possible to empirically prove economic theory, we simply are not able to cost-effectively achieve the necessary level of precision. Because economic theories can only be demonstrated by people practicing them, and if the theories are incorrect, those people will endure possibly extremely miserable conditions. And then you get a bloody coup de’tat and your whole experiment is ruined. Thus it is not feasible to run strictly controlled nation-wide econ experiments, though not necessarily impossible.

On the other hand, I certainly am sympathetic to the Misesian conclusion that economic data should not be trusted currently. The problem with economics as a science is that it directly impacts the standard of living of those espousing competing theories. Select groups of people have much to gain or lose from which theory is put into practice, so have huge incentive to twist data, if that is the deciding framework. If we’re trying to determine the speed of light via marbles and the naked eye, and group X somehow stands to win a free ride in life, depending on the answer, they will come to a different conclusion than scientists genuinely interested in c for its own sake. So group X shows up to conferences with skilled lobbyists and a propaganda barrage to confuse the debate among laypeople, and insert tremendous amounts of unnecessary emotional morality play theatrics every step of the way.

Thus in practice I am a firm supporter of Mises’s idea that economic theory should be provable by internal logic, and outside data isn’t necessary, but only because this is the best we can do at the moment. While I certainly appreciate the manipulability and questionable methodology of CPI and such, I disagree with Mises that such numbers are fundamentally unknowable. In the long run the transaction costs for data collection will diminish. For example, as online commerce becomes an increasingly large part of total economic activity, it will be cheaper and cheaper to number crunch the whole of human transactions, and eventually come up with “real” real GDP, et al.

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Henry Hazlitt"[T]he whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson






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