Thursday, September 30, 2004

Dr. Phil the Psychological Philanderer?

Does Dr. Phil take advantage of the American viewing public by successively dealing with different family and personal issues for profit and gain? That's the thrust of a new Slate editorial, and while I'm sympathetic, I can't endorse that accusation.

I'm not favoribly disposed towards large, bearlike mental health facilitators such as he; I believe in my heart of hearts that he wants to help people, but I find the way he does it in repugnant. Nonetheless, I will defend to the death his right to be whatever sort of human being he wants to be.

He's selling a service, not forcing it down anyone's throat. That's the crucial distinction. Remember folks, if you don't like it, don't consume it. He's serving the demand of consumers everywhere, and power to him.

In short, feel free to dislike him for any reason, but don't attack the profit motive. He wouldn't be selling himself if nobody wanted him.


Worth mentioning is the fact that the Presidential debates begin tonight. Even if you're decided or disaffected, tune in and see what happens.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Taxes Too Low?

To everyone out there that thinks that taxes are too low: pay more.

I love how so many celebrities whine about the unfairness of the tax code, and how Bush's tax cuts raise the tax burden on the poor (sigh...). Their brilliant solution to nearly every problem ends with taxing the rich. After all, they've plenty to spare, so let's just take more from them, right? Wrong.

To anyone thinking like this, just remember that there's an effect you see, specifically the increased tax revenues steming from such a policy, and an effect you're blind to. If that money hadn't been taxed away, it would have been spent. That means that whoever the money would have gone to is now worse off. The rich guy down the street would have bought a yacht? Too bad for the boat builders and craftsment, the shipping company, etc. You can't pay Paul without robbing Peter first. And Mary just doesn't like it when that happens.

So if you've a problem with tax rates, feel free to pay more. The government isn't going to complain, I'm sure. They might even send a nice little sticker or badge to thank you, but don't count on it. There's not a law on the books that I'm aware of that prevents you from charitably giving all of your wealth beyond that which you require to survive to Uncle Sam - and after all, he knows how to dispose of it so much better than we do, right?


Too often I hear people exclaiming that they felt taken advantage of in an exchange relationship. "I paid $5 for a beer! What a rip-off!" or "Gasoline's over $2 a gallon, and I paid $40 to fill up! What a rip-off!"

The first thing to note is that so long as the products purchased were what was expected (i.e. not sold fraudulently), the exchange was by definition worth it to both parties. Were the value of the good being exchanged for not in excess of the value of the money, no transaction would have occured. To say that such exchanges weren't worth it ignores the fact that the buyer could have simply put their money back into their pocket and walked away.

The problem being highlighted here can't then be with the actual values of the goods in question. What we're really getting at is a dissatisfaction with the rate of exchange itself. In other words, the buyer or seller considers the rate to be worthwhile to make the exchange, but not fair or just. The problem complained of is, in essence, that one party can't set the value of the goods being exchanged for the other party.

In other words, because I can't control what price you're willing to offer a good for, I'm upset and feel wronged. Surely, I think, I should be the rightful owner of the goods being sold, that I could more effectively regulate their disposition. Frankly, this sort of thinking is a bit disturbing, because it ignores the subjectivity of value, and expresses the desire to control that which is not one's to control (i.e. not one's own property).

To say that another is incorrectly valuing a good is nearly meaningless without qualification and considerations that only that individual is able to apply. And to wish to control another's property is dangerous, in that this impulse furthers the destruction of the mutual respect for property necessary for cooperation and market interaction. This is the sort of impulse that ultimately leads to efforts to subvert property by one of two means: illegitimately or legitimately.

THe former technique is simply crime. I take from you because I wish to, though the taking is regarded as wrongful and indefensible. Therefore, I am able to respond to the crime in order to prevent it. The latter is called government, and it's a form of expropriation to which no recourse can be had. There is no preventing it, only submission.

Ultimately, the feeling of being ripped-off discounts the rational faculties of judgment inherent in fellow human beings that lead to thesubjective valuation of the goods at their disposal, and edges one down a road that ends with expropriation. Expropriation leads to a general increase of time-preference rates and schedules, which leads to a reduction of the availablility of present goods in society, and ends in a process of "decivilization," wherein individuals in society become more and more present-oriented in their actions. I've said it before, I'll say it again: this is not a good thing.

So, is the ballpark hotdog worth it? Your call.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Monkey Business

About a year ago, I read of a study done by animal behaviorists claiming to demonstrate that a sense of justice inheres in haplorhinid simiiforms (basically, monkeys and apes). There's a certain niceness to this whole proposition, and I don't want to dispute the ultimate conclusion, which generally supports the idea that human beings are wired with a propensity towards rule-generation that leads to spontaneous cooperation. But in all fairness, the study should be seen on its own terms for what it is.

The experimental setup involved several monkeys that were able to observe each other as the researcher had them perform a task for a reward - sometimes a cucumber, sometimes a more preferred banana. If a monkey received a cucumber yet observed another getting a banana, it sometimes refused to participate in future experiments, sometimes throwing the garnished reward at the researcher.

I shouldn't have to say it, but humans are not monkeys. We're apes, they're not. If you want to apply results from one branch of our family tree to another, it's important to test to see if the behavioral characteristic is in fact found on both ends. This study says nothing about human behavior under similar circumstances, nor does it try to trace it back to a common ancestor.

The authors of the study also fail the basic standard of parsimony - is the explanation of the result unencumbered by unnecessary presumptions? In this case, the assumption is that the monkeys were upset because they felt wronged. It's hard enough to say why a human being does something; are we really so confident in our psychoanalytic acumen that we're making bold statements about the cognitive states of monkeys? A simpler alternative explanation seems available.

If we limit the extrapolations of the data to the conclusion that monkeys get jealous when another monkey has something better, I'm confortable. But when we try and say that the monkey is moralizing and thinking about the application of some sort of Kantian categorical imperative for the equitable distribution of goods in society, I have to step off. I'm not going to say they're not doing just that, but I'm not going to place a bet on it on the strength of this study.

In the end, the study, while compelling, isn't worth going bananas over. Are monkeys moral animals? Perhaps. A better question might be "are humans moral animals?"

Monday, September 27, 2004

An Everyperson's Guide to Taking It to the Man

Who ever says that corporations have us under their thumb need to get out more.

The Wall Street Journal ran a front-page article Friday about a retire real-estate developer and his new online hobby: screwing over a business development firm called Allied Capital Corp. James Brickman, who mockingly labels himself “tellmeitsnottopsecret” on Yahoo chat rooms, spends his days digging through public records and elaborating on all the weaknesses of the company. Over the past two years, he has posted over 2,000 articles about Allied. Some posts, like the one that details their loan-transfer data, literally causes their stock to tumble (in the week after that information was posted, Allied stocks dropped by $2).

For Mr. Brickman, it’s not a matter of revenge. Allied is just a company that has a lot of problems, ones that the gadfly thanks them for (he started doing this literally because he was bored with retirement). Not only does it create a lot of material to post on, he’s made some money shorting the stock. (For all you non-economists, this basically means you sell borrowed shares and give them back later by buying the stocks at a—hopefully—reduced price.)

Mr. Brickman has no training in the stock market. He’s just a man with time on his hands, a trait shared by many of the people that hate “big corporations.” For all you college students out there, if you want to “take it to the man” and make a little money on the side, why don’t stop complaining and start posting? The economy will appreciate the accurate information, you will appreciate the income and empowerment and I’ll appreciate the cut you’ll sure to give me.

Suburban Sprawl Sickening

So says the Chicago Sun Times (Mon. Sept. 27, p.4).

This article deals with a study that found a relationship between living in sprawling suburban zones and illnesses such as diabetes, migraine headaches, and hypertension. I'm no great fan of the suburbs, so reading this was a "yeah, duh" moment of sorts. I'm going to ask you to stretch your imaginations now and picture this article bothering me. Got it? Ok, I'll continue.

Someone mustn't have bothered to brief Mr. Jim Ritter, the Sun Times' health reporter, on elementary logic. Says he:

The study found that living in a high-sprawl area has the equivalent effect on your health as aging four years.

Oh does it now? Sorry jimbo, that's a fallacy and you know it. It's called post hoc ergo propter hoc - it happened after therefore it happened because of it. Since the health problems are observed in association with suburban sprawls, he concludes that the sprawls caused the health problems. Just what prevents the exact opposite from being true? Is it inconceivable that poor health causes people to seek out solitude and relative isolation in a white-picket-fence community?

And we're just getting started! This assumes the study wasn't flawed to begin with, since it controlled for demographic characteristics such as age, race, and income, but other behavioral and cultural factors such as family history, religious affiliation and level of participation, political orientation, etc. Ultimately, even if the correlation is there, we can't determine how much change is accounted for by it - or even in what direction!

Finally, the conclusion of co-author Deborah Cohen is that city planning should take this into account and prevent the development of sprawls that are dangerous to our health. Thanks a lot, Deb! Glad someone's looking out for me, but isn't it my choice if I want to trade 4 years of life (let's assume her data is accurate) for the satisfaction of living in a pleasant little community?

This smacks of nanny-statism, and I don't need to express how much this irritates me. And since when did a medical health professional become qualified as an economist, to decide that the unseen costs of so doing were exceeded by the known benefits?

To the Sun Times: Naughty! Check your facts and logic, don't be like Dan Rather/CBS.
To Deborah Cohen: Hands off, and you do your job while I do mine.

Morality Matters

I've been dealing with moral relativists lately, and thought I'd opine. Their essential argument is that there's no right or wrong, no objective values, etc. You know the drill.

I basically agree. In abstractio, that is. Practically speaking, I think it's about as nonsensical as the polar opposite, that there are perfectly objective a priori analytic moral imperatives that can guide our action.

Ultimately, human beings and morality go hand-in-hand; in a sense, it's what we're built to do, and without it, things get unpleasant and we cease being human as we know it.

Starting from the top, human beings need society. Let's speak of society as being pesistent patterns of cooperative behavior. We're given our language, a perspective, meaning, values, etc. Without socialization, we simply don't develop properly - take a look at the wild children such as Victor and Genie, who at best were able to function as children throughout their lives.

Society itself requires cooperation. Just to be clear, a predatory relationship doesn't constitute social interaction of itself. Now cooperation is where things get really interesting.

Stripping it down to its bare essentials, game theory does a fair job of helping us understand the process. Robert Axelrod's contests evolved a number of stable strategies that relied on a iterative system in which agents learned how to behave in order to maximize their benefit. Cooperation, in the form of a strategy of cooperating with cooperators and punishing non-cooperators (tit-for-tat, or TFT) emerges as one of the most successful strategies.

One way to make cooperation more reliable is to inject a normative control into the system. That is, let an interacting community accept certain behaviors and reject others, responsing to the latter with non-cooperation. Norms stablize the cooperative network by decreasing the chances of an unforseen response. For example, I can cooperate with nearly anyone, but if they're self-interested, I need to know that their interests align with my own, or else I can count on their defection. If they cooperate not because they think it will most satisfy their needs, but because it's the right thing to do, the anxiousness of uncertainty is ameleroated somewhat.

Of course, a general consequence of morality and predictability is future-orientation, as time-preferences shift downward, creating a larger supply of present goods by deferring present consumption. This is a good thing, friends.

I'm not going to say that X is right and Y is wrong - but I can't imagine a human society that doesn't do this to some degree. Even modern liberal tolerance imposes itself on others no less than the intolerance it was generated in response to; their essences are fundamentally the same. They're both normative.

Norms can change, via drifting or outright revolution, but the fundamental fact remains the same: Morality really does matter.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Michael Moore in my Mailbox

I love getting e-mail. Hearing the latest news on the goings on of the world, catching up with friends, and sometimes getting a recipe or two from that viscious, evil, Phillip-Morris lovechild, Kraft. So you can imagine my joy at discovering that I'd received an announcement from Michael Moore, an inspiration piece attempting to stir the Democratic base (i.e. lazy college students) into action.

Well and good so far; true, I'm no fan of the corpulent crusader, but he can say what he wants. Unfortunately, his entreatment to take heart in the face of a Republican-dominated country (?) steers right into a far more dangerous alley.
"Turn off the TV! (Except Jon Stewart and Bill Moyers -- everything else is just a sugar-coated lie)."

Good lord! Can this fruit really think like this? Talk about killing the messenger! But for us, the rational people out there, we realize that the truth of a proposition does not depend on the person delivering it, nor on their motives. I don't like Michael Moore, but that doesn't mean that he's wrong - the merits of his arguments must be disposed of on their own grounds.

Of course, if someone develops a reputation for lying and mistruths, fairly or not, rational ignorance will tend to guide people away from them. While the worst-case scenario is exemplified by the fairy tale of the boy who cried wolf, things normally don't go so badly for the ignorant. But when someone rationally chooses ignorance, it should be a subjective judgment, not the result of an "expert" opinion.

Asking people to ignore dissenting opinions is disingenuous and flies in the face of every liberal ideal that bomb-throwers like Moore claim to uphold. Ultimately, some people will listen to Michael Moore. Fine. Go ahead and tune out, but you do so at your own peril.

This mad pied piper can play his tune all day long, and feel free to follow away, but that doesn't mean that he's right.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Hurricanes and Price Gouging

The power of nature can be awe-inspiring at times; of course, when one finds themself in the path of a hurricane, as have many Floridians this season, the majesty may be lost to you. Having personally witnessed the aftermath of hurricane Charley, I can well appreciate the dangers that can be posed: a storm that can bend steel light poles like blades of grass is a force to be respected for its capacity for destruction.

In the preparations for the storm and in its aftermath, consumers will adjust their behavior in order to weather it with as little trouble as possible. Goods with particularly high utility for such circumstances will tend to be sought more aggressively - that is, they will be more dearly valued. Items such as plywood for boarding up windows, generators for electricity, and foodstuffs, amongst others, will commonly undergo this variation.

Ultimately, as the value of these goods rises, market prices will tend to rise along with them in the short run. The present supply is limited, and before additional demand can be met, shortages may occur. Higher prices will offer additional incentives for entrpeneurs to rush the desired goods in quantity to the region where the price spike occurs; ultimately, the price will reach equilibrium as supply increases to meet demand.

All here seems well and good, except that in Florida, this process does not occur. The State, in its benevolence and wisdom, has made it a crime to engage in the vile act of "price gouging," taking advantage of the misfortune of others.

While perhaps well-intentioned, the ultimate effect of such a law can only be to slow the flow of desired goods to the emergency zone. If shortages are called kindness, then I shudder to think of what the wrath of a government would bring.

Furthermore, this misguided policy serves to punish entrepeneurs for their foresight, having successfully predicted the increase in prices of the goods that they had previously stocked. In doing so, it diminishes the benefits of successfully reading the future state of the market, and limits the incentive of a consumer to be future-oriented enough to foresee their future needs. In essence, this regulation results in a rise in general time-preference; present goods will be consumed more readily in favor of future goods, leading to a general trend of "decivilization" (in the terms of Hans-Hermann Hoppe).

Lower rates of time-preference correlate with lower levels of investment, riskier personal behavior, increased incentives for crime, and a general shift towards present-orientedness that seems to offer little to the project of establishing and maintaining the norms necessary for society and cooperation.

So the question must be asked: is such a policy truly just or fair? Isn't it exactly the sort of thing we ask for, regardless of the consequences, from our government?

Hail to the chief, baby.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Looking God in the Eye

Glen posted this article on Agoraphilia today. He tangentedly alluded to the creation of land and how, despite real estate agents' claims that God's not creating any more of it, it is possible. Though Glen said he'd explain how this possible in a post-to-be, it's a phemonomen too exciting to pass up on. I'd thought I'd beat him to the punch (and if more than six people read this blog, that would mean something).

Technically, Glen is wrong. It's true that more land won't be created. For all intents and purposes, the amount of land is finite and fixed. But that's a nit-picky distinction because I know that Glen isn't really referring to land; he's referring to space.

Space is what people care about, not land. That's why companies build higher and higher buildings. Space is created though land remains fixed. To illustrate, consider the country of Bangledesh.

Bangledesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Naturally, people thought that lots and lots of tall buildings would be needed in this small, dense country to house the ballooning populations. Skyscapers soared all over the country, especially in the capital of Dhaka.

Then something strange happened. The price of renting these apartments plumented; builders built too many buildings. Too much space was created.

Don't listen to your real estate agent.

Alphabet Soup

For anyone who thinks that the US government isn’t that big, check out this site; just another not-so-subtle reminder of the encroaching bureaucracy in our everyday lives.

My favorite facet of the creation of these hundred of departments is their inherent contradiction. The IRS takes money away from US citizens (especially the richest ones), thus preventing them from buying art. Thus, there’s a “need” for the National Endowment of the Arts because “A Great Nation Deserves Great Art.” Yeah, and a handful of Washington bureaucrats know what great art is, especially when they are spending other people’s money.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

The Chronicles of Tim

My good friend, Tim Piatek joins the blog this week. We all would like to extend him a hearty welcome and hope his stream of economic insight helps hide the fact that we’ve been a little skimpy lately due to scholarly (and not so scholarly) obligations. Glad you could join us!

Oil Me Down

It seems as if no matter how much evidence there is, people always get resource economics wrong. Dr. Colin Campbell, the leader of the peak-oil movement, claims that there will come a time very soon that oil companies will have produced half of all the oil there is in the world. After that day, prices will skyrocket and governments will be forced to sponsor alternatives lest we run out of oil and the economy grinds to a halt. According to today's Wall Street Journal, Dr. Campbell is claiming that peak day arrived last week.

For the moment, let’s set aside that Dr. Campbell is apparently magical; oil companies, whose very livelihood depends on being right about this exact thing, say the amount of recoverable oil in the world is over 10 trillion barrels, far greater than Campbell’s projected 900 billion. The only way he could be right is if he knows something they don’t; that’s highly unlikely.

Campbell’s claims point to the deeper problem of his argument, one that’s emulated in most glances of resource economics. He premises, “if things continue as they are now…” If you’re projecting years down the road, as Dr. Campbell is, that’s a ridiculous assumption. By assuming a static world, we can also conclude that people never get raises, student loans will never have to be repaid and no one would ever die. I’m writing this in the afternoon. If all things stay exactly as they are, night would never come.

We don’t live in a static world; the nature of economic activity is fluxing, constantly making billions of tiny adjustments (and thousands of big ones) every day. Casual observers rarely notice all the nuances of change so they assume they can predict the future. The reality is far more dynamic, especially now because the rate of technological change is more pronounced than it ever has been.

We will never run out of oil. As the world supply decreases, oil prices will rise, that’s true. But prices will rise steadily, not violently—it’s simply not possible to extract oil that quickly. Alternatives will be created and improved on while current reserves will be stretched. Mass transit will become more popular. Solar panel sales will rise (as they did during the California energy crisis). People, all by themselves, will adapt.

Some people demand that I tell them what the new source of energy will be. I have no idea. That’s part of the point. If I did, I would be developing it to make my first billion. But the people who do have an idea are trying to form it because the rewards of wealth are so great. We know this happens because that’s how polymers (instead of rubber), computers (instead of the abacus) and plastics (instead of metals) developed in the first place. The alternative was too expensive.

I’m occasionally confronted with people that are still skeptical because they feel we’ve reached the limit of technological growth. There are few statements as arrogant as that. These doomsayers are literally saying because they can’t imagine what form new inventions could take, we’ve reached the apex of progress.

No one has a monopoly on innovation. The collective inventions that make up our world were once thought impossible or fanciful in another time. Anyone who declares that humanity can’t invent or adapt fast enough is either a crackpot or a deity. Considering Dr. Campbell already had to change his projection once, he’s clearly no god.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Understanding Ads Will Make You More Attractive

I love advertising. Sure, it’s annoying but it’s far better than putting a coin in the television every time you want to watch a show. Plus, they act as bathroom breaks and fridge runs. But much to my dismay, some people don’t like them. I was having a conversation with a friend of mine today about the role of advertising and it occurred to me how much disdain I have for loud, poorly-developed arguments, especially ones about marketing.

My friend, a rhetoric major, insists that advertising is evil and makes people buy things. I argue that’s not possible. He cited, as evidence, that he knows “bunches of people” that live beyond their means. They buy $300 Nike shoes (forget the fact that Nike shoes are in the $100 area) while they are on food stamps. I argue that they buy those shoes because they are on food stamps—they save so much money on food because the government pays for it. Therefore, they buy other stuff they want.

Apparently, I’m wrong. I was told that these people cannot afford these shoes. But that’s clearly incorrect—they have them, don’t they?

My friend insists that lower income groups lack the knowledge to know that advertisements exaggerate. I told him that if I was a member of that group, I would find that endlessly offensive. He says that’s unfortunate, but it’s true.

Now like all arguments based on rhetoric rather than reason, there is some truth to it. People in this country live way beyond their means—most Americans have credit card debt. But these people can consolidate their loans, return items, tighten their budget and do countless other things to overcome their financial difficulties. To say there are people in this country so stupid that they wouldn’t be able to learn and adapt in such a fundamental way is to say that these people have IQs of eggplants. It’s not only insulting, it’s just not true.

If the poor similarly drove themselves deeper into poverty without adapting, they would have died out a long time ago.

For more information on why advertising is actually really great, read my previous post on the subject.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Oprah's On!

Today marked the beginning of the 19th season of Oprah so the star-studded host invited 276 people in need of a car to sit in her audience. Then she each gave them a new Pontiac.

Later in the show, she gave a four year college scholarship to a young woman who spent much of her life in foster care and homeless shelters.

Still later, Oprah gave over $100,000 to a family with eight foster kids. The family was on the verge of being kicked out of their home.

To those of you that say that the rich are selfish and greedy and step on the backs of poor people, it’s simply not true—today just marked a dramatic example of it. Private charity (as opposed to government programs) is faster, too. If the family in the last example sought government help instead of Oprah help (all these individuals wrote the show, telling their stories), they will probably still be waiting for their check while sitting out in the cold and there’s no guarantee it would be enough, either.

Critics of the rich are quick to point out that this was a ploy to increase ratings. Of that I have no doubt. While Ms. Winfrey certainly got a lot of joy from giving these things away, I don’t think it would have happened if her billions were earned out of the limelight (at least not to the level that happened today).

But so what?

Some people have a nasty habit of confusing self-interest with selfishness and imply that anything people that’s not out of pure charity is egocentric and evil. But acts with self-interest in mind are simply acts that benefit the behaving agent in some way. Sometimes they manifest in selfish acts—acts that benefit the agent at the expense of others. Other times they benefit both parties, like on Oprah. That’s called trade.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Teacher, I need you

A few related incidents have been prevalent in the news in recent years. You may remember the Mary Kay Laturno story, the 35-year-old teacher and mother of 4 in Washington State, who had been charged with 2 counts of rape for having a consensual sexual relationship with a 13-year-old student. Another more up to date story involves a young (twenty-something) Florida middle school teacher who found out to be having consensual sex with her 14-year-old student. I would like to comment for a moment on perceptions of sexuality, and our society’s response, and the mixed signals it sends.

First, let me preface by saying that I do not necessarily support intergenerational sex, which is a euphemism for adults having sex with minors. But what is a minor? Is it merely the legal distinction of being 16, or 18, or 21? Or is it the ability to accept the consequences of the make decisions one makes? I would argue that it is the latter. We designate parents as responsible for children because young children cannot make decisions on their own in a reliably responsible fashion, and cannot be expected to understand the implications of their behavior. But as we emerge into our teenage years, while parental guidance remains important, most recognize that short of being confined to a prison, parents can do little more than teach by example and provide little-listened-to advice. Those are years of experimentation, exploration, and transition. The experiences we choose to take part, whether sex, drugs, alcohol, church, community, travel, these will provide us with invaluable knowledge about the world around us, and our place in it. Not all experiences are good, and not all are bad. But as libertarians, we have to hold that what is done consensually and with deliberation should, in most cases, not be criminal.

Let’s look at the sex thing for a moment. Historically, and biologically, men are driven to want sex, a lot, from about the time they are 12 until about 30 years of age. Those are the peak productivity years and the years where hormones tell your body to have sex. Only the prudishness side of our society could have thought up the idea of having teens suppress the first decade of this drive and act as though it isn’t there. But it is there, and we all know it. Women have the same drive, though textbooks tell me that it comes around a few years later than for boys. And, the machismo elements in our culture have long respected men who are successful in their sexual conquest; among teens it is especially important. So everything in a 13 year olds’ head is telling him to go out and get laid. And a successful conquest with an older women – well that’s even better.

Consider for a moment the trend by our legal system to try teens as adults in capital crimes such as rape and murder. Although the exact age at which one is an adult in these cases is not clearly defined, we have taken more and more to prosecuting so-called minors who commit these kinds of crimes as adults. And I think that this is very telling. The implication is that these individuals, regardless of their legal age, were able to make a decision, understood that decision, and now must live with the consequences of that decision. Yet the poor “children” in our stories above are treated as if they were unwitting victims who couldn’t possibly understand that they were being assaulted. At the least there is a mixed signal here. At the most, this is out and out hypocrisy. Lord knows if I were gettin' it on with the teacher of my fantasies, I would not consider this at all a negative thing in my life. Probably a great boost to the ole' self esteem too.

As a matter of form, I tend to think it a bad idea for teachers to be aiming to sleep with their students. I tend to think it creates an ethical problem. So setting aside for the moment that these stories involve their teachers, is it really such a bad thing that young men are attracted to lonely older women? Aren’t they in fact helping to generate stability in society by enduring that these women don’t have to leave their husbands and families for some fleeting affair? Certainly Ben Franklin thought so, and urged men to direct their sexual experimentation at older women specifically, and gave 10 reasons to support his argument. We men know darn well that our early sexual experiences did not cause us to become traumatized, unable to function in society, unable to support a marriage or family, and it is unlikely even that we will be burning in hell for that experience. This country needs to seriously rethink its legal fictions where sex is concerned, and leave consensual relationships to the privacy of the bedroom, where they belong.


My sincere apologies for not posting much these last few weeks. The semester just started back, and I have 24 hours that I am taking. This makes these next few weeks critical if I want to keep up and not fall behind, so I will be in and out for the next couple weeks. Thanks for your patience. I’ll be back with gusto soon.


Saturday, September 11, 2004

Making a Mountain Out of a Tragedy

For the past few days I’ve been ill, hence my lack of presence on the blog. I’m not alone: something’s going around on campus. Most people think it’s a bug or a virus or some other biological phenomenon. I think it’s this.

September 11 left a scar on all of us, that’s true. But I’m tired of hearing the same sob speeches, the same stories about the victims. I swear in another few years, I will have seen the families of every victim of the tragedy. My sympathy goes out to them all but our constant obsession with the tragedy is pointless and demeaning. (Paradoxically, we have yet to have a better name for it than the date it took place on.)

I’d hate to break it to everyone but the attacks were not the worst thing to happen in the history of the world, they weren’t even the worst thing to happen in the history of the country, and they certainly are not the worst thing going on right now. I’m all about remembering the victims but when that remembrance adds up to nothing more than recalling the personalities of the victims and using the service for political gain, it becomes cheap and betrays everything this country stands for.

The America I know has perspective and looks forward. We should know better than to call the former Twin Towers site after the point of impact of the nuclear bomb. We should know better than to allow the constant bickering about the site which only results in an ugly memorial. We should know better than not let the families of the victims to imply that the world should change for them: in the building site (because the memorial isn't "big enough"), the compensation (also not "big enough"), the politics of the War on Terror (not doing "enough") and anything vaguely connected with the attacks. We should know better than to name the new Trade Center something as corny as “Freedom Tower.”

Again, my heart goes out to them but it doesn’t go out any more to anyone else who have lost a loved one. More people have died from drunk drivers, cancer, AIDS and murders than from those of the attacks. It’s only because the 9/11 victims died in such a stunning way do we honor their memories en masse. But they are no more important than those who died from other causes and the families of those victims don’t demand monuments or holidays or monetary compensation or revenge in the name of their loved ones. Why? Because the loved ones of those victims lack the hype around their own personal tragedies and, therefore, gain something very important: perspective.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Children of the Clubs

It’s that time of year again. Today is Beloit College’s annual Student Activities Fair, where the students cart out their favorite cause and present them to the campus, desperately hoping they join their club.

Walking around, I met the head of the Beloit Fair Labor Action Network, whose entire existence seems to revolve around eliminating so-called sweat shops. The AIDS Task Force main area of expertise is distributing condoms and red ribbons (the former is something the Health Center does; the latter does nothing).

The League of Pissed-Off Voters (along with the Democratic and Green Parties) reminded people to vote. They had a lot of help; the voting registration table was quite busy. The Womyn’s Center (no, that’s not a typo) offered a flyer by the Feminist Majority Foundation listing woman’s issues that are hot this election: reproductive rights, gender rights here and abroad, economic equality, environmental protection and trade policies.

Perhaps Beloit Peace and Justice should tell them that the environment and trade are decidedly not women’s issues. Not exclusively. I guess BP&J is too busy offering “educational and social forums for the discussion and exploration of peace and justice-related issues,” as they say in their flyer. It’s a good thing they’re talking about it. God forbid they actually do something. But even there, they are overwhelmed: “we try to focus on topics and develop programs which will spark discussion and raise awareness for the whole campus community.” “Try to focus?” Reading a book while on a roller coaster is “trying to focus.” Writing a paper while your roommate is having sex is “trying to focus.” They are sitting in a meeting of their own making “trying to focus.” Enough said.

The Fair sported the Pagan Fellowship, the Christian Fellowship, the Spiritual Life Program and the InterFaith Council. Why is it so difficult to combine these? Perhaps their members are too occupied with DDR Club, Funk Club, Breakdancing Club and the Beloit Free-Style Walking Club (not making that up) to think about reorganizing. Talking to members, the main focus of these organizations seems to be “holding meetings” and “raising awareness.” Perhaps I should start a club that raises awareness of efficiency, synergy and scarcity because these are concepts that are obviously escaping the campus at large.

Normally, I wouldn’t care if there was an ironing club or a watch-the-paint-dry club but all student-run organizations (no matter how superfluous) get college funding, funding that comes from the student activities fee that everyone has to pay. And yes, Beloit is a private institution and if it really pissed me off enough, I could just go somewhere else. But to some degree I accept the activities fee and I reserve the right to criticize it. Especially when organizations get so bloated, redundancy and uselessness reach such new heights.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Defending Hate

Why is culture one of those things that some people always assume needs to be preserved and protected, no matter how evil it is? In my Caribbean history class yesterday, a student compared the Spanish attacks on the Indians to the West’s attacks on some Muslim sects—we hate their culture. I would have loved to challenge her that us hating a culture built around bloodlust, hatred and intolerance but it was a class on the history, not current events.

Thank God for blogs.

Let me tell you a little something. I hate many aspects of some Muslim cultures and any person who cared about humanity would agree with me. I hate any sect that stones women because they weren’t a virgin before marriage. I hate any culture that beheads men for being gay. I hate any society that fanatically demonizes any other society and thoughtlessly tries to kill it. Don’t give me any of that “it’s just their religion” crap. Our war against religious extremists is nothing compared to the Spanish’s war against the Indians. Not all cultures are created equal--some are worse than others.

PS. Granted, I’m no expert on the cultures of the Caribbean (hence the class) but my professor said that sacrifices, for example, were a position of honor for the sacrificed. (After a battle, the greatest hero of the losing side would be sacrificed to the gods—a compliment because of the religious undertones and the implicit recognition that you are the number one warrior.)

Sunday, September 05, 2004

The Market of Corporate Force

Don Boudreaux wrote at Cafe Hayek today about a WSJ article which asked the following question of Noble Prize economists: "In what sphere of life, if any, do you think it most important to limit the influence of market forces?"

Most of them talked about dispersing wealth: limiting the inequalities of income. That's a silly thing and worth an entire article's attention to refute. Instead, I want to focus on the answer of Dr. Boudreaux's colleague, Vernon Smith, who said, "None, because 'markets' are about recognizing that information is dispersed in all social systems, and that the problem of society is to find, devise and discover institutions that incentivize and enable people to make the right decisions without anyone having to tell them what to do. The idea that market forces should be limited stems from a fundamental error in beliefs about markets. This is the wrong question." Dr. Boudreaux fully endorses this reasoning.

And for the first time I see myself disagreeing with him, both of them. I'll agree, that's the point of the market--an institution that creates the most efficient distribution of resources. But I refuse to believe that markets are the best thing in absolutely every sphere of life.

Number one on my very short list of places I don't want the market to go is force. I don't think companies should have a license to kill. That tends to encourage socialism, oppression and economic destitution. Every industrial monopoly is subject to some unknown, new form of competition (such as the once powerful IBM bowing to Microsoft) but the moment society says it's ok to use the sword, that kind of genuine uncertainty (which keep the economy vibrant) ends. IBM kills Microsoft (and with it my Freecell).

A great example is the Catholic Church. The Church was once a mere religious organization until it grew an army. Then it did everything from start wars (the Crusades) to force Medieval peasants to pay to use the Church's mill (just like a noble would). If they decided to use their own mill or grind the grain themselves, then they would have to pay a fine (if lucky). If not, they would be hauled off to jail and probably killed. Giving companies the power of the sword isn't akin to free market activity. It's civil war.

Running Down the Road, Part II

A few days ago, I posted this article about President Bush's words and real world events concerning the War on Terror, drawing parrells between the Bush Administration and Orwell's 1984.

I recieved a critiquing quote--something I enjoy as I like being challenged--and thought since I haven't written a post in the past few days, I'd write a response.

I agrued that the President lied about four issues--the safety of the average American, his sudden downplaying of Osama bin Laden, the strength of the intelligence and his inability to capture bin Laden. My reader correctly pointed out that these were not technically lies. The first is debatable, the second was an action, the third was a normal mistake and the fourth was understandable because it was about the future. Technically, he's right.

And if we lived in a world that was run by a giant computer, I wouldn't have written the article in the first place. But the fact of the matter is, in the real world, we have something what I call the "Oh Come On Rule."

For example, intelligence reports are wrong, a lot. That's true. It's a fickle thing and what was once true a week ago is rarely true now. Accurate information is the best weapon in any war, but it's always been the hardest to get. So when the President says that he's certain that the intelligence is accurate and he completely backs it, its reasonable to assume that he actually made sure it's accurate. That the facts won't suddenly change, that the information is checked and double checked and triple checked, that the intelligence agents who work for him know what they are doing. Saying its an honest mistake makes me say "Oh come on!" It could be that it was a mere error but its far more likely that the man is either a liar, an idiot or lazy. I thought I'd stick with the least damaging one.

My reader violates the Oh Come On Rule, too, so I'm not surprised that s/he is unaware of it. In my first post, I wrote: "[T]he President acted as if that didn’t matter—that he never cared about bin Laden in the first place—and shifted seamlessly to Iraq" to which my reader replied, "[Y]ou are now describing Bush's actions, but the topic was supposedly how Bush's rhetoric is the opposite of reality." Yes, technically, that's not true and according to the most literal interpretation of my language, you have a point. But again, we live in the real world and in the real world, writers use different words to describe the same action in order to keep their writing interesting. When I say acted, I'm saying that's what Bush said or implied in his speeches. And as long as we are on the subject, there is NO--count them NO--credible evidence that there's a link between bin Laden and Hussien. Osama bin Laden hated (and he still might) Sadam because he saw him as a Western puppet. If you want to tell me that intelligence gathering isn't a perfect science, read the paragraph before this one again.

In my original article I said, "one year Osama bin Laden was the main target and our forces will find him, but then we didn’t." It's true that's about the future and technically he couldn't know that but when you divert resources away from searching for bin Laden and to the War on Iraq--something you have to do if the military is as strained as I'm told--then you loose a lot of crediblity that bin Laden was ever a main concern. Technically we haven't given up but for all wants and purposes, we have. (Though I'll concede we might get lucky.)

The safety of the average American is debatable, I'll admit that. But the President himself told us that he's expecting an attack any day now. I hardly call looming threats, constant terror warnings and the dreaded Patriot Act "safer." Technically my reader is right, but come on... (Though I'll admit that in this case, it's more like "Words speak louder than words.")

There are other things that remind our President of Big Brother: that he has so few press conferences, thus limiting the opportunity to be faced with a hard quesiton; that he insists anyone who attends an open meeting sign an oath of loyalty; that he's proud he doesn't read the paper; that he looks down at having debates; that his administration blacks out scores and scores of lines of declassified texts on the grounds of "national security." There's a pattern here and it's more unAmerican than anything Kerry has even been accused of doing. For anyone that cares about this country, they should be holding out their leg in hope that our President will trip while sprinting down that cold, slippery road.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Kill Them All?

This semester I’m the teaching assistant for Emily Chamlee-Wright’s microeconomics class, which implicitly includes me doing a few other miscellaneous things, too. One of them was getting Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Explosion for economic development. As I was flipping through it on my way from the library, I couldn’t help but ponder the book’s subtitle: “From Global Warming to Rain Forest Destruction, Famine, and Air and Water Pollution—Why Overpopulation Is Our #1 Environmental Problem.”

Does anyone know what “overpopulation” is? I have no idea when a population becomes big enough to be “too much.” What’s too much? Last semester, I friend of mine and I got into a discussion about population growth and he mentioned that fatal word. So I asked him what it meant and eventually was able to get out this (paraphrased) definition:

“Overpopulation occurs when the human population has a detrimental effect on the environment.”

To which I responded, “So one person is ‘overpopulation?’” My friend quickly changed his definition to include only “significant” amounts of pollution—whatever that means.

For a much less ambiguous discussion about population, read Julian Simon’s The Ultimate Resource, though his conclusions are polar opposite of Ehrlich’s. It’s a much more thoughtful book, too, as Simon carefully considers his opponents’ arguments. He even dedicates over ten pages of his epilogue in the second addition to answering critics of the first. Long time intellectual rival, Paul Ehrlich, never even mentions Simon or his arguments in The Population Explosion.

If anti-population environmentalists are going to make claims that implicitly justify the taking of human life, they could be a lot more definite and thoughtful in their arguments.

Running Down the Road

Last night, The Daily Show continued their belayed coverage of the Republican National Convention. Among other things they poked fun at they paid special attention to the upcoming Bush promotional movie, providing their own version—George W. Bush: Words Speak Louder than Actions.

It was a brilliant summary centered on the President’s use of words, even if they are completely contrary to the truth. The piece painted our Commander-in-Chief as battling rhetoric with facts—he often said one thing, while the exact opposite was happening. Most instances of this concerns the War on Terror. For example, President Bush has said over and over that “the American people are safer,” despite that terror attacks have increased overtime. Or that one year Osama bin Laden was the main target and our forces will find him, but then we didn’t. The President acted as if that didn’t matter—that he never cared about bin Laden in the first place—and shifted seamlessly to Iraq. The intelligence they receive is solid, though it’s proven it’s not.

The reason why I bring this up is because it eerily reminds me of George Orwell’s 1984—the ultimate Nightmare Scenario. In it, Oceania—one of three super states in the world—switch between being at war with Eurasia and Eastasia. When they switch alliances, the Party declares it had always been so and documents by the millions are changed to confirm the lie. Admitting they changed sides would be like admitting they were wrong, and the Party is never wrong.

The President seems to think he is Big Brother—a horrific thought in itself—but lacks the Ministry of Truth to make his claims “factual.” This is why I’m not voting for the man and why he’s sometimes compared to Hitler. While he lacks the actual effects of a tyrant, he shares some of their key assumptions: ignorance is strength, accountability is treachery, silence is patriotic, war is peace and transparency is weakness. Not surprising, two of these are directly from Orwell.

The Road to Serfdom is a long, long one—I’m first to admit that. But it is one of the few slippery slopes; once you start walking down it, you have a hard time stopping, let alone turning around. Orwellian nightmares may be at the end of that road but our President is joyfully speeding down it. It scares the hell out of me.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Making Our Own Welcome

“Wit makes its own welcome, and levels all distinctions. No dignity, no learning, no force of character, can make any stand against good wit.”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson, Letters and Social Aims: The Comic, 1876

We libertarians aren’t stupid; we know we’re in society’s peripheral vision, if we’re lucky. There are a lot of reasons for this but Don Bordeaux illustrated a source in a recent post by describing his experience on a talk radio show. He and the host—Jay Diamond—were discussing “price gouging” and Mr. Diamond kept using the hypothetical, but powerful, example of a poor family not being able to buy food while a rich drug dealer fills his belly.

Even though the argument is economically unsophisticated, you have to admire its rhetoric. It plays on the public’s distrust for the dealer—an unfounded hatred in the first place—and pits him against a poor family. You can just image the stereotypical gangster doing everything but point a gun at a young couple and baby to steal a morsel of bread. It doesn’t matter that Mr. Diamond is ignoring the horrid and real effects of price ceilings nor that his illustration is nothing more than imaginary—wit makes its own welcome.

Hence, libertarians must counter with wit. I don’t like it any more than you do but the fact of the matter is Emerson’s right. We are at a disadvantage, however, because our arguments are more involving than those like Mr. Diamond’s. And like many people, I for one am not very witty. So I’ve found I can command the attention needed to explain economics (expanding my time from one sentence to three or four) with an eleven-word question:

You honesty don’t think the world is that simple, do you?

I’ve found my opponents usually respond with “What do you mean?” because they obviously can’t say “yes” and they obviously can’t say “no.” By asking me a question, they lend their supporters’ attention to me. It’s a great position to be in when you know you have some time before being interrupted—after all, you were asked a question.

If your opponent is really clever, he’ll deny it is simple or that its simplicity doesn’t matter and then proceed to elaborate. That’s when I like to borrow from my professor, Emily Chamlee-Wright, when a student proposes government as an answer to market question: Okay but now you have to ask yourself the tough questions. And then proceed to ask one, which usually demonstrates the world isn’t as straightforward as the opponent implied.

Of course, these too can be switched around and the former question is rather hard-handed—dropping “honestly” and/or using a different world as simple softens the tone. If your rival continues to obsess with the hypothetical scenario, as Mr. Diamond probably would have done, then we need some more help.

Like all things worth exploring, this one can be better understood through Star Trek. In the episode Time’s Arrow, Data goes back in time to San Francisco and meets Mark Twain who says that if life existences on other planets, humans become a minor creation. When challenged that one could say a diamond is still a diamond, even if it is one among many, Twain says: “Someone might say that, dear lady, if someone thought the human race was akin to a precious jewel. But this increasing hypothetical someone, would not be me.”

It’s far from a perfect fit but Twain’s words provide the necessary inspiration. To the aptly named Mr. Diamond I say, “One could reasonably claim that such a scenario is relevant if this someone thought it defined all of society and every other connotation of your proposal was irrelevant. But this increasing hypothetical someone, would not be me.”

I’m no speech writer and I’ve already mentioned I lack good wit. But Emerson is right; libertarians have to seriously contend with the watered-down pithy arguments of non-economists. For all of us that can’t turn complicated paragraphs into punchy statements on the fly, we have to learn to prepare them ahead of time and expand our realm of less pithy, but still powerful, general phrases. When in doubt, build off of another’s wit. Good writers borrow. Great writers steal outright.