Tuesday, November 30, 2004
“However, the more intense discussion at the meeting involved diversity at the newspaper, as several minority staff members lamented that a white man recently was chosen over a woman and a black man as the paper's new managing editor.”
Wait, what? Circulation is down 10% over the past two years and they are talking about that? Now perhaps the Post staffers have legitimate reason to complain—we don’t really know the details—but it points to a disturbing trend in our society. Swept up in the politics and legislation of diversity, the public has developed a fetish for pointing fingers and yelling “bigot,” especially when inappropriate. Yes racism is bad but so are lost priorities—it denies you from talking about something more worthwhile.
Now as much as I blame the public, I also blame the government (big surprise) as they affirm the public’s views that racism is the world’s greatest evil and everything possible should be in place to stop it. Ironically they go to such extremes they end up being racist.
The goal, ladies and gentlemen, is not a manufactured world where everyone is the same or where everyone’s orderly different. And while today the white man in charge may sound the alarm of racism, I beg you to follow the words of one of my favorite speakers: “Just not by the color of the skin, but the content of the character.”
And oh yeah: lay off already!
Monday, November 29, 2004
Not surprisingly, Nature’s Services is built on economic fallacies. While it tries to incorporate economic ideas (most notably the idea that people make decisions on the margin) it fails to take into account fundamental economic realities. Unfortunately, this is hardly the exception in the environmental debate.
One of the worst problems is how the book approaches value. Over and over again the authors claim that because nature provides services necessary for human life, then the natural world has infinite value. First, that’s simply wrong. If we look at other goods required for human life—food, water and shelter—we discover that people don’t assign them an infinite value. Their prices are most definitely finite. Moreover, declaring certain aspects of the natural world has infinite value sets a dangerous precedent: if these things are boundless in their significance, then they are worth any price. Loss of property, jobs and even human life become justified because it’s for the “greater good.” The authors defy one of the fundamental principles of economics: there are always opportunity costs. Deciding to ignore these costs deny the people the authors are trying to protect things the public needs.
The authors also have a nasty habit of being to sure of themselves without having any real evidence. Yes, they are experts in their field and I believe them when they say that the environment provides us with things we don’t always see in ways we don’t always understand but they also claim to be experts on everything else because they say “it would be difficult today for even the most optimistic rates of innovation and of adoption of improved technology (broadly defined) to offset the rates of increase in human disruption caused by rapid population growth and increases in per-capita impacts.”
How on earth could they possibly know that?
Like nature itself, knowledge is disperse and filled with complexities and intricacies we don’t always see or comprehend. How could a group of scientists from one field possibly declare with such certainty that we’ve—as a society—reached the apex of human progress? They can’t; no one can. Especially because it’s also wrong; the rate of technological progress is increasing, not decreasing, and for every mind that’s added, our capacity to reach farther increases. There’s no hard evidence that technological improvements won’t change our world. Arguments like this are based on conjecture and unimaginative doubt.
The role of incentives is similarly ignored. Their solution, they say, is to get all the interested parties involved—governments, companies, environmentalists, engineers and so forth—to value the services nature provides (which is weird because apparently their value is infinite; I guess that’s the problem with an assembly of essays instead of making a comprehensive book). They don’t say, however, how they will get all of these people to work together and why they would gather to talk about this. They touch on the idea of making this monitoring system an international government agency, but that, of course, has its own problems.
Furthermore, there’s little to no mention of private property in the book, which would solve the problems of incentives, opportunity costs and knowledge.
I really wish that people who want to use economics in their analysis would actually use economics in their analysis and not throw some in just to make their claims seem more viable.
Tuesday, November 23, 2004
At the beginning of the movie the ghostbusters are kicked out of the state-run university right after they make a major discovery about the nature of ghosts. I argue that a private organization would have a) insisted that the scientists formalize their methods a long time ago (one of the reasons the state kicked them out of the university) and b) examined their new evidence (the ghostbusters caught the apparition on tape and have an eyewitness).
After they become successful entrepreneurs, the state (manifested this time by the EPA), shuts down the reactor—a piece of technology they admit they don’t understand—and end up hastening Armageddon. This is all due to unfounded claims that the containment field is damaging to the environment.
The ghostbusters are then arrested, accused of violating EPA standards. This is happening as an untold number of ghosts spill out into New York City proper.
The mayor releases the ghostbusters from their control not because it was wrong to arrest them or because it’s the right thing to do but because Bill Murray reminded him he’d be saving millions of registered voters. In other words, the mayor doesn’t care about saving people, he cares about being re-elected. After realizing his job’s at stake, he’s willing to hand the ghostbusters unlimited state resources (which they didn’t really use, except to get to the building in question).
In Ghostbusters, the scientist, with the local knowledge about a wild theory, is the hero, fighting to save the world against ghosts and the state that gets in the way of him acting on his local knowledge. More after I watch Ghostbusters II.
Wednesday, November 17, 2004
Regular visitors of LL&L will notice that it’s been nearly a week since any new published posts. Frankly, it’s a busy time of the year for all of us—the semester is beginning to wind down, Tim has one of those job-thingies I’ve heard so much about and a few of us are scrabbling to set up what we’ll be doing next semester.
But I swore to myself I wouldn’t let a whole week of inactivity pass by unless absolutely necessary so as not to disappoint our millions (or sixth root there of) of fans, I offer you this bit of good news.
The Wall Street Journal reported today in a front page article by Deborah Ball that environmental activists are increasingly switching sides to work for “the Man.” Mostly former heads of environmental groups, these people literally started working for the businesses they fought against, believing they can do more good from the inside.
Some environmental groups aren’t so happy about these transformations of their formal colleagues and some say it hasn’t resulted in real change. This, of course, does not surprise us and alluded to a fact I’ve repeated over and over: politics is about confrontation and economics is about cooperation.
We’ve all heard the opposite—government is where people come together and the market is where they compete. While competition is an important dimension of market activity, what’s often overlooked is the cooperation behind it. Firms have to work together—newspapers have to work with paper mills that have to get along with lumber mills; computer manufacturers have to be on the same page as software firms and sellers of operating systems; nearly everyone has to cooperate with the power company. These relationships are built on negotiations and contracts, a rare thing in Washington.
Why? Politics is about all-or-nothing power. You win or you lose. There are few benefits to compromise (so there’re lots of reasons to make the other side look evil). If two firms want something from the other but each has conditions on providing their service, they can come to an agreement. But if they have to go through the government, they can use it to force the other to get them all of what they want while sacrificing very little. This is why environmental groups and corporations almost never reach an agreement when the government’s involved (this includes, but is not limited to, water rights, ANWAR drilling and air pollution). Each side wants everything perfectly.
Which is why environmental leaders want to work from the inside. “Defector” Tom Burke said, “I’m not going to listen to someone who says, ‘Go away until I can be done perfectly.’” He’s tired of the inherent confrontation so he adapted. On of the first things he learned was the art of compromise—offering executives real solutions instead of reporting environmental solutions. They can now synthesize using their tacit and local knowledge from both view points. The company Tom Burke went to work for—Rio Tinto—is developing fast growing trees to replace the ones lost in the mining operations and will assist the natives in learning to live off the land in light of the sparse tree population.
Burke also sees his new colleagues as people who also care about the environment (especially after he took them on bird watching expedition), and not as the soulless monsters environmentalists claim they are. Capitalism isn’t just about freedom, it’s about harmony. Makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
Thursday, November 11, 2004
Last night on Law and Order, getting the bad guy in jail depended on the testimony of a gay man because the defendant confessed to him. The catch was the two were legally married some time ago after a small town made such marriages legal. The defense pulled the spousal clause, meaning married couples can’t testify against each other even if one wants to.
The logic behind the law is that people tell their spouse things they tell no one else. Thus all such conversations are outside the boundaries of the state. All things equal, that’s right: government should stay out personal lives and people tell their spouses things they tell no one else.
Some people, I should say. This is the first problem with the law—it’s literally deciding for you who you trust more. Some people trust their siblings, parents, peers or even strangers more than their spouse. Your best friend of fifty years can testify against you; your wife who cheated on you and is about to divorce you cannot.
I’m not saying that all conversations should be held in private—quite the opposite. When it comes to crimes, if someone wants to testify against someone else, no one should be barred. The fact that some tell their spouses things they tell no one else is a reason to let them testify, not prevent them.
Yes, it will probably tear apart the marriage (though I think it was the murder that would tear it apart) but it’s not the state’s job to protect marriages. It’s their job to protect us from crimes and punish those that engage in them.
Wednesday, November 10, 2004
Hungary has recently banned the export of paprika. One of the largest producers of the savory spice, its culinary and cultural roots run deep, back to the time of the pepper (capsicum) plant's introduction into eastern Europe. Used in great abundance in all manner of fine dishes, from Goulash to Porkolt, the ramifications for the domestic industry in Hungary from this legislation is potentially very large indeed.
But what, pray tell, is the cause of this could-be-crisis? Fungus, or Aflatoxins in particular. You see, spices are notoriously dirty, swarming with myriad pesty critters. Many spices can be contaminated with diseases - some harmful to plants, as in the case of America banning importation of Sichuan peppercorns (fagara) to protect domestic citrus groves from potentially dangerous disease common therein.
My question is simple: why need we worry? The technology exists to make spices nerely perfectly sterile and safe. It's known as irradiation, and you may have heard of it before in frightful news stories decrying the process as dangerous and potentially harmful in itself.
In the absence of evidence supporting these chimeras, opponents of irradiation have largely succeeded in preventing wide-scale implementation of the procedure, which would, through dosing with radiation (of which, remember, light and heat are forms), destroy harmful bacteria and fungi. Steak Tartar and Sushi lovers would be free to indulge in their favored dishes with impunity, free from the realistic concern of food poisoning.
So here we find ourselves, solution in hand, yet no will to implement it. I'd call it cultural nearsightedness, but then, I'm one of those not overly scared by the procedure. We absorb radiation all the time; eating bananas will dose you, and don't even think of flying if you're worried about becoming a glow-bug - levels of cosmic radiation are far more prevalent at altitude, having less protective atmosphere to dissipate their damaging energies.
Is the fear realistic, proportional to the actual risks? I don't think so. We pursue these hobgoblins to keep peace of mind, and in doing so, often sacrifice genuine safety and security, much in the way airline security is treated (to be touched in a few days). What is seen is apparent, but the hidden costs are (forgive me for being tautologically pedantic) just that: hidden.
So gentlefolk, start your ray-guns and let's cook some irritatingly robust microfauna!
Sunday, November 07, 2004
We were discussing that there are huge aspects of the world that can’t be captured mathematically or empirically (something us Austrians are more than willing to concur) when he offered this conclusion as evidence. He said you can’t capture “lostness” numerically; you have to depend on their perspective of it. He moved to conclude that capitalism has a long way to go because so many people feel “lost.”
To a degree, he’s right. People are the sole experts on themselves and if anyone is to ascertain their closest level of “lostness,” it’s them. But there are three big problems with his argument from that point forward.
I’ve had more than my fair share of experience with bad studies. People tend to quote them like biblical doctrine without even knowing how they were conducted. So when my friend said that more people were feeling lost, my bullshit meter went off. How are these researching phrasing the question(s) that determine “lostness?” How are they measuring degree? How much time does the respondent have to answer? I asked my friend these questions and he said he didn’t know (meter goes off again), but that’s not important (meter really goes off again).
That takes us to problem two. He says this is something that can’t be measured—that’s the point. Of course I forgot to point that that because it’s a study (or rather a series of studies), it has to be measurable—how else are you going to determine if there’s more “lostness” in the world? Guess? It’s true that the person in question has all this tacit and local knowledge about their state of affairs thus they can’t define it quantitatively, but how do you use that to conclude something so concrete as “people are feeling more lost?” I’d imagine he’d deduce that the study asked people to rate on a scale of one to ten how lost they feel, but that’s not good enough.
Why? Because we still have problem three: how do you get around the perspective problem? This is really two issues. First, people have a tendency to dwell on all the negative things going on in their life and ignore the positive things. This is why lots of Beloit College students (along with far too many other people) think life was better fifty or a hundred years ago. Thus if someone “feels lost,” it’s very possible that it’s not that bad; their just thinking about their problem a lot and it just seems overpowering. The second issue is more interesting: maybe feeling lost isn’t a bad thing. Fifty years ago, people had fewer options today in nearly all things. This includes, but isn’t limited to, careers, food, places to live, things to do and people to meet. These are all important (especially the first one) so options aren’t bad. In fact, they’re quite good and in our society, we have so many we may feel overwhelmed. We feel lost (I know I did).
The world is a wide, wide place, seething with ideas and nuances we don’t always see and understand. It’s no wonder that studies don’t capture all those important details and we should always be wary of studies that claim they have. Sometimes they’ll be really bad and sorting through the bullshit will make you feel lost.
Saturday, November 06, 2004
Don't get me wrong; some of my best friends are conservatives. I don't dislike them, just their ideology, and for most people this compartmentalization is both possible and functional, permitting interaction on multiple levels: both as philosophical adversaries and as members of a valuable friendship.
But what is it about Conservatism that I dislike? Put simply, it's the clinginess of it all. Much like a Buddhist views a soul not far along on the path to enlightenment and transcendence, I see Conservatives as clutching desperately to that which is, the reality around them. They want to prevent change, to impose stasis, etc.
Now let's be clear: many of those we call conservatives are not. I don't think there is really a totally ideal Conservative; just as I compartmentalize my relationships with people, we all often do the same thing in our judgments of situations. We may come to the conclusion that A is desirable (and so we will act to preserve it) and B is not (so we will act to change it) - ultimately, the closest to perfect conservatism that one can come is this: to wish on the balance of things that they should so remain, and to act with a view of bringing this about.
So really, there's not just one Conservatism. We're dealing with two totally different animals: the former is total (and impossible), the latter is partial. I don't mind the latter, but abhor the former. We all embody some elements of Conservatism in this second imperfect sense - we all find things existent that we would like to preserve, from lives to sunny days, or even a deep-dish pizza. This is normal, and harmless.
The other kind isn't so benign. While impossible to achieve, it may still be a stative goal of a person - in this sense, it still may cast its shadow on the imperfect Conservatism. Absolute conservatism denies the basic nature of existence: change. In doing so, it denies that which is, and can't help but being a permanently dissatisfied goal, persuit never generating satisfaction, merely more misery as the realization is made that the goal endlessly regresses.
Grasping at a state of being is like grabbing at a beach, a handful of sand rushing through your clenched fingers despite your best efforts to the contrary. Holding on to an idealized state can bring nothing good; the viable alternative is to embrace reality and its changing nature. To do anything else is to be in denial.
My suggestion: go read Epictetus's Enchiridion, available online from the Internet Classics Archive and Perseus Project, amongst other places. It's a great introduction to Stoic philosophy, which encouraged an involved life, attempting to moderate stresses and aggravations thereof by recognizing the difference between things that we can control, and things that we can't. Maybe it'll bring you some piece of mind; I know it well served me in that capacity when I needed it.
Friday, November 05, 2004
Granted, I’m no “physicist,” but I don’t see why this can’t happen. Energy turns into matter everyday. So I’m offering you, the reader, a unique opportunity—invest in this technology and I promise you that you’re never have to worry about money for the rest of your life. Any takers?
Well, too bad the Pentagon isn’t reading this; I could retire by now. USA Today reported in their latest paper that the Air Force already tried investing in another Trek technology: transporters. You read that right: transporters. Wait, it gets better because they’re not just any transporters; they’re psychic transporters. Star Trek doesn’t even have these. According to a report the Air Force paid $25,000 for,
This study was tasked with the task of collection information describing the teleportation of material objects, providing a description of teleportation as it occurs in physics, its theoretical and experimental status, and a projection of potential applications…Contemporary physics, as well as theories that presently challenge the current physics paradigm were investigated.
Thank God they didn’t limit themselves to science; it would have stopped them from referencing UFO sightings and Soviet and Chinese studies of the paranormal. (Not a joke.)
Now I’m all for pushing the boundaries of our knowledge. Challenging the established and accepted norm is at the heart of the dynamic world libertarians revel in. I wouldn’t even mind some scientist claiming he can turn lead into gold or overcome the laws of gravity through sheer force of thought; I just don’t want to pay for it.
The bedrock of a dynamic society is creative destruction. Lots of people try to pull off something. The winners get piles of cash; the losers go into debt and are forced to stop their work. We get more of the winning idea and less of the ones that don’t work. It’s a messy process, full of trial and error, but it works. So when an organization takes people’s money by force and gives it to some crackpot idea, it ruins the whole process of creative destruction. A spokesman for the Air Force Research Lab—Ranney Adams—justified the spending saying, “If we don’t turn over stones, we don’t know if we have missed something.” It’s that kind of stupid, all or nothing logic that’s so popular when turning over a stone costs nothing. Adams would look for an aircraft carrier under a million separate pebbles, “just to be sure.”
So call me crazy, but I think the funding is better off in hands of the people who have a vested interest in making it work. Time and money are scare resources—it doesn’t make sense to turn over every rock, to explore each idea thoroughly. That’s not what creative destruction is about. Scientific progress goes through many stages: idea to theory to proof to more proofs to planning to building to rebuilding to testing to rebuilding to adjusting to more planning to more testing… Knowing when to give up and try another avenue requires a great deal of tacit and local knowledge. Every successful investor of technology has to know a lot about the research in question. Every successful scientist has to be brutally honest and open with themselves in order to get funding. Governments are neither.
If the Air Force really wants transporters, try holding a prize, Ansari X-Prize style. You want a faster way to deploy and reploy troops? Try offering the $7.5 million the report recommends for “psychic transportation” as prize money instead. Sure, you won’t be beaming any where but at least the new technology will actually work.
Thanks to our wonderful friends at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, we now know that smoking cigarettes can have a heroin-like affect on the brain. While the MSN webpage linked to frames this as a significant discovery, I'd like to offer a different interpretation:
For starters, is this really a surprise? Drugs can cause pleasure, and use is correlated with addiction and dependency (in fact, almost contingent thereupon - it's very hard to become addicted to nicotene or heroin, and even impossible to become chemically dependent upon them, if you don't first indulge in their consumption). This isn't exactly earth-shattering; we've known that cigarettes can be addictive and pleasant (in some way) for years.
Finally, consider this: the brain is awash in chemicals, some of which resemble opiates. Endorphins, for example, which can dull pain perceptions and affect emotions. If you're happy, guess what: there are drugs floating about in the gray lump sitting between your shoulders. If you're ecstatic, trembling with job, almost crying, believe-you-me, you're flying just as certainly as a crack-monkey.
Even something like love is known to have drug-like effects; via a chemical cocktail of endorphins, norepinephrine, monoamines, dopamine, oxytocin, and vasopressin (to name a few), love gives us "wings," a metaphor not entirely dissimilar from that used to describe an LSD trip.
So when researchers come to comclusions like these, is it really good science, or just lunacy?
Wednesday, November 03, 2004
"The Sphere Institute, a California public-policy think tank founded by Stanford University professors, charted the economic path of workers in the state from 1988 to 2000 and found extraordinary mobility across industries and up the economic ladder. Over 40 percent of the lowest income group worked in retail in 1988; by 2000, more than half of that group had switched to other industries. Their average inflation-adjusted income gain after moving on: 83 percent, to over $32,000 a year."
Go and click on the title to read it; it's well worth your time.
Tuesday, November 02, 2004
I never realized it, since I've never before voted in Illinois (and pity the fact, for my vote is far less valuable here than elsewhere), but there's no requirement here for showing identification documents of any sort when voting. I was ready to produce valid ID at the polls, but none were actually needed!
The sense in this is what, exactly? How does this help ensure accurate voting?
And I thought things were bad in Wisconsin (where you could register and vote on the same day of an election) - voting fraud doesn't seem like it would be hard to commit thereabouts.
But it’s around here he stumbles. He asks you to consider California to illustrate the last point.
It is completely open to people from Mississippi. California’s median household income is a whopping 54% higher than is Mississippi’s. Californians enjoy environmental and social amenities – beautiful beaches, snow-capped mountains, fabulous weather, big and exciting cities, professional sports franchises – that Mississippians lack. And yet, despite being free to move to California en masse, Mississippians don’t do so. Nor do West Virginians, or Arkansans, or Alabamians.
Okay Don but there’re some things that Mississippians lack that most immigrants do not: a tyrannical government trying to kill them or a devastating economic that’s starving them or both. Of course Mississippi isn’t emptying to fill California; moving sucks. And if you don’t have a pressing reason to leave (like you need to go or you die), then it’s not an accurate analogy.
This doesn’t speak to the logic of immigration law, but to their lack of humanity. Immigration is not only good for the economy, it’s not only something the US can “absorb,” it’s also the right thing to do. People, through no fault of their own, are born into repressive, nightmarish conditions. To turn them away because they seek to rid themselves of such poverty is exactly what libertarians are often accused of being: heartless. Classic liberalism isn’t just about freedom and progress; it’s about dignity and compassion.
Monday, November 01, 2004
Follow your heart and mind, vote or not, and let's get on with Life As We Know It (TM).
Can a nation that doesn't let people make mistakes and bad choices really be free?
If you can't make a wrong decision most of the time, what will you do when you can?
Our country has decided that the public's interest is in protecting individuals in all circumstances - not only from invasion, but also from each other (violent crime, negligence, etc.), as well as from themselves.
Something as simple as a cheeseburger is heavily regulated, as are doctors, insurance companies, pillow manufacturers, et al. We create barriers to error to prevent them from happening in the first place, yet by doing so, do we erode the natural disinclinations to these behaviors that would otherwise exist? I think that this is a reasonable assumption.
People are not taught that they must bear the costs of their behavior as often as I would like - instead, an imbecile that scalds themselves with hot coffee is given thousands upon thousands of dollars, and wastes countless more in court fees. Someone that takes up smoking, decades after the link between tobacco use and cancer was revealed, is not asked to bear their own medical expenses, but are permitted to ride on the backs of others, and on the backs of the cigarette companies themselves. We can't even turn off the warning beeps in our cars that sound when we have the keys in the ignition and the door is open.
Remember: the less responsible you think of people and treat them, the less responsible they're likely to act. Ask any ye shall receive, seek and ye shall find. Just be careful what you ask for; as foolish as people may be, stupidity is often magnified by the context in which they operate. It's not, I'll propose, the person that's really so stupid as much as the situation that they exist in that permits them to be so. Most people when their actions hurt themselves will modify their behavior.
A little faith in humankind would do us all a world of good.
In this column in the Washington Post (thankfully just a column, but I think it betrays some larger issues), the "free" market is blamed for the flu shot shortage. The juiciest part of the article is here:
Why doesn't the market work?
One reason is product liability, drug companies said, which keeps them out of the flu vaccine business. That is not a big issue, however, Pavia said, because lawsuits over flu vaccine have not been successful.
Another is the high cost of regulation...
Exactly which parts of the regulation constitute the "free" market? But there is a deeper problem here than blaming the negative effects of regulation on a "free" market. What exactly is the solution to product liability lawsuits? I cannot see any possible way to address this issue other than yet more regulation, either in the form of limiting lawsuits, which protect the vaccine makers from their mistakes, or in the form of regulatory oversight of the production and maintenance of vaccines, which will of course raise costs for the vaccine makers. Given how strongly the author feels about protecting the nation's health, I can't imagine him supporting a solution that increases the chance of a mix-up in the system. But since regulation is, according to him, such a huge problem, why do we want more of it?
The problem, of course, is a failure to understand what exactly the free market is. It is telling that the author quotes two people:
"The market has failed," said Andrew Pavia, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Utah, who chairs the flu task force of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, based in Alexandria.
Drug companies don't want to take on those costs because of the third problem with the flu vaccine business: it's a low-profit business and the demand for flu shots is "exceedingly fickle," said Poland, the Mayo clinic expert.
Neither man, along with the author, appear to have much understanding of, or much to say about the "free" market other than that it must be the root of our problems.