Sunday, April 30, 2006

May's Most Random Wikipedia Page Is....

This month we honor RTÉ One On-Air Identity, a page that carefully catalogs the various logos of an Irish television station. For other "ident" chronicles, see here for ABC, here for NBC, here for BBC and here for PBS.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Into the Mind of a Statist

Taking a break from studying, I decided to watch a Star Trek (Voyager) episode entitled Future's End. The crew are taken back in time due to an accident with a vessel (the Aeon) from the 29th century (fyi, this series of Star Trek takes place in the 24th century). The (far) future vessel is also flung back in time. Both ships end up on earth, which the 29th century vessel crash landing the 60s and the 24th century vessel, Voyager, appearing in the 90s.

Star Trek has a general anti-libertarian bias but this two parter easily stands in the top ten. A local discovered the Aeon which he used to create massive advancements in the computer industry, building an extensive corporate empire. The crew realizes that the digital revolution that swept the 20th century was never supposed to have happened.

We find the CEO getting ready to send the Aeon to travel back into the future so he can get more technology to develop in (our) present. When told he doesn't understand the ship enough to safely travel and if he tries, the entire solar system in the 29th century will be destroyed, he proceeds anyway. "Captain, The future you're talking about, that's 900 years from now. I can't be concerned about that right now. I have a company to run."

While attempting to capture the CEO, two Voyager crew members crash land in Arizona where they are taken by redneck locals. They are clearly libertarian, believing the pair are from "the Beast" (the Federal government). The unnamed leader turns to them at one point and says "The are two forces at work in the world. The drive toward collectivity and the drive toward individuality. You are the former and I am the latter." They are painted as racist, arrogant, paranoid, violent and stupid.

From this episode we can peer into the mind of a statist with chilling clarity. They find libertarians crude and violent at best, dangerous and twisted at worst. So wanting to demonstrate the virtues of solidarity over capitalism, the writers transformed one of the greatest free market victories in recent history (the computer revolution) into cheap thugery.

People tend to clump with others like them; it's only natural. But with that internal association comes the danger of trivalizing the other side or misrepresenting what they complain about. There's a tendency to revel in what they dispise as we (libertarians in particular) remember only how our fellows perceive the display and forget how others will misunderstand it. Sometimes this tactic holds important shock value (such as when I call greed potentially ethical) but often it is counterproductive. One of the major neglected areas of libertarianism is remembering what the counter-argument is so one can better understand and relate to others. This is why I find this Voyager episode so painfully valuable.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Noise Is Golden

I hate loudness. Few things are as intrusive as someone pumping up their stereo to some ungodly level or the sound of screaming kids. But I like freedom, more. If someone wants to run around and do those things in their free time, go for it. Just stay the hell away from me.

What's "loud" is of course a relative term. Just like chemicals, it's the dose that makes the poison. And because it's expensive to establish property rights over the air, we enter into a lot of commons problems. This is why it's not so confusing that Turkey bundled their new environmental laws with banning "noise pollution" with a $150 to $4,500 fine if you break the law.

A lot of these laws seem to stem from reasonable logic. A lot of people like silence. A lot of people like clean water. We get those things from a source no one owns, so a law is made to force everyone to comply. No free riding.

Yet this reasoning carries with it an assumption that we live in a world of black and white, right and wrong. In the real world, what's noise pollution to you is natural to me is too quiet for my Great Aunt Esther. Setting absolute standards for all of society, which is needed for laws due to enforcement reasons, ignores the fact that people are different.

A better solution would be to throw out the law and privatize public places. Those that like it quiet can congregate in Park A, where a local rules set the acceptable decibles very low. Noisy people can go to Park B, where it's fine to be louder. Just as some restaurants have a dress code, some places can have a noise code.

Admittedly there's potentially still spillover, especially if Park A is next door to Park B. But banning "noise pollution" all together suggests those in B are worth less than those in A. Laws tell everyone how to live. At least without the law there's the opportunity to discover a way for both parties to be happy. But I guess some people just can't stand knowing others are having a good time.

Instant Lion

Paradoxically, South African Environmental Affairs and Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk will soon be presenting legislation that harms not only the tourism industry, but also the rich animal diversity the country offers.

According to Business Day, the regulation will probably ban "canned hunting," which is just a strange way of saying "breeding animals so people can shoot them later." Sounds like canned hunting is great for the environment. There are clear private property rights established over the animals, prohibiting the tragedy of the commons. Just like sheep, cattle and pigs are unlikely to go extinct, allowing people to raise lions and elephants ensure they never will, either.

The "problem" with the old system was it lacked coherenty. Filled with loopholes and difficult to enforce, they might as well not exist. But like a madman bent on jumping out of a window, the government is now reworking the laws to create "national uniformity." Sameness. Conformity. Solidarity.

It's just tragic.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Our Extra States

Brian Hollar recently referenced Alex Tabarrok and Arnold Kling concerning America's number of states. From Tabarrok, 1789 the United States had 13 states and four million people. If the number of states had grown as fast as the number of people or if w in the United States had about the same amount of federalism as do the contemporary Swiss we would today have about 1000 states.

Having fewer people per state can be quite nice: easier for governments to understand the needs of the people, creates more accountablity, creates more competition between states. Of course, it could also be worse; the local knowledge can be used to better control the locals and people are more likely to be compliant.

But that's really another post. Instead I'd like to point out to Brian (and Alex Tabarrok and Arnold Kling) that in a lot of ways, we have more than 50 states. No, I'm not talking about Puerto Rico. I'm talking about cities. NYC, Chicago, Houston, LA, Boston, and so on create a sort of competition between living in the metro area and living outside the city limits.

This may or may not be a good thing. At the same time, some of the most invasive rules come not from DC or your state capital but from the city you reside in. But I'm not sure adding states will change much unless you split parts of a city into federalized units with equal and independent power. Good luck with that.

Monday, April 24, 2006

War On Drugs Claims More Victims

A plane carrying an anti-narcotics team overran the airstrip and crashed into several buildings earlier today. Among the dead was a three-year-old Afghan girl; a casualty of war.

The Helmand province, where the crash took place, is a hot bed of opium growing, supplying an astonishing 20% of the world's supply. The area is also claimed by Taliban insurgents who no doubt use the drug moeny to fund rather nasty practices, a fact the DEA surely uses to justify their presence in the area.

I have a better way of tearing apart this source of income for the Taliban: make drugs legal. Suppliers in more suitable countries (closer to the demand, better infrastructure) who don't fund terrorism will pop up and at the least the Taliban will have to lower its prices (if that arm of their organization don't disappear altogether). It's worth noting drug lords want drugs to be illegal, just as the mafia loved prohibition: less competition and more profit. That alone is a good sign to end the war on drugs.

And a little girl just might be alive right now, too.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Dancing in the Rain

Earlier this week, Lou Dobbs commented on President Hu's visit to the US. In a move that resonated in the minds of economists and non-economists alike, Hu paid a visit to Bill Gates before President Bush.

Like most non-economists Mr. Dobbs groaned at the news. Calling China a "Red Storm Rising," he blamed the US government for allowing manufacturing jobs to go abroad and creating a "...dependency on China for our clothing, computers, consumer electronics and a host of other products..."

Mr. Dobbs is incorrect. The US is not dependent on China for these products no more than I am dependent on McDonald's for lunch. Firms choose to have their goods made there because it's cheapest and if China disappeared, we would still have them; they would just cost more.

Dependency implies the US economy is vunerable which is why this word is so completely inappropriate for describing outsourcing. Opportunities like moving factories to China makes the US economy more resilient, not less. Options can never make a person worse off. "Dependency" would require laws that force firms to produce in the country and no where else. Thankfully, the government isn't demanding people to put all their eggs in one basket.

Storms are violent but helpful things. They nourish the worthy and wash out the decripted so new life can grow and maybe florish. This process of creative destruction is one Mr. Dobbs finds so unfair, if he lived a hundred years ago he would certainly call for trade barriers so people wouldn't leave their farms to build the manufacturing sector he is now so desperate to protect.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Really Thick Silver Lining

As French car manufacturer Peugeot-Citreon shut down a British plant, cutting 2,500 jobs, the BBC thought it would be informative if they relayed the thoughts of one laid-off worker, Paul Taylor.

Mr. Taylor is 46 and has worked for the plant for seven years. No doubt his whole life is turned upside down, a reality made worse knowing his once-co-workers are in the same position. He's concerned: "Now we have got 2,500 people looking at the same job....It is easier for them to close this plant than a plant in France. They can get away with it here....It is hard to see a future in this industry - manufacturing is dying." He ends his thoughts with "It would be nice to hear something positive."


-Because the operations are moving to Eastern Europe, those there will benefit from the new job openings. Families in Eastern Europe grow richer.
-Because it's cheaper to operate there, the company will save money, allowing them to spend it on other things and by definition employ yet more people.
-Either that, or cars will be cheaper, but probably a mixture of the two will happen.
-Society will benefit from the additional services these newly employed people provide.
-2,500 are not looking for "the same job." I doubt you can build a car with over two thousand people who only know how to install windshields. The compeition isn't as bad as he thinks.
-There are now 2,500 smart people hungry to fill new gaps in the economy, contributing something valuable to society along the way. Some of them might retire but I'm confident the rest will find jobs.
-The ease of closing a plant in England as opposed to France is a testiment to progress. Adaptability in a world of constant change ensures society will continue to grow richer, even in unpredictable weather. Capitalism rarely stagnants.
-Manufacture IS dying in most developed countries, just as farming was mostly phased out a hundred years ago. Not a bad deal as most would prefer an air conditioned office to a factory floor to a dirty patch of land as a work environment.
-As long as the UK economy remains adaptable, a new sector(s) will rise up. Adaptability means opportunity.
-In all, there is a small net gain for global society in the short run and a much larger gain in the long run once new jobs are found. That might not matter much to you but your children (and their children) will thank you.

If you don't believe me, ask what you think would happen if UK textile manufacturers couldn't fire expensive workers during the twentieth century. Even if you weren't working a loom, your clothes would cost a lot more.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Greed's Trilemma

Last week I ranted that greed has a bad rap and it some forms (especially in capitialist societies) it is actually quite ethical. In part this argument spawned from a post I did last year about how greed's definition is arbitary and effectively useless in today's society.

Last week's greed rant attracted a bit of response, notably from Brian, engendering a lengthy debate between the two of us (and some others). The biggest criticism I've faced is that I'm turning greed into the same as self-interest in order to make it a good thing. My counter is, again, that greed's definition is arbitary and unless I want to throw aside the wisdom of crowds, that's the only way. I have yet to hear a more satisfying definition.

Thus I turn to you, the reader. In effect, my argument is that defining greed faces a trilemma. There are three elements it should have but we can only pick two. Here are the choices:

1. Congruent with popular use.
2. Contains no arbitrary words.
3. Always undesirable.

We can ignore #1 and call greed "demanding beyond what's earned," which means forcibly taking what you have no right to take, though this would not fit when people refer to "corporate greed," etc. (I admit, this is still a little arbitrary but it's good enough to satisfy 2, though if someone comes up with something better I'll listen.)

We can ignore #2 and refer to the dictionary, knowing that the definition is insufficent because "excessive" is a matter of taste and perspective.

Or we can ignore #3 and admit that greed can be a good thing. I've used definitions of "focused self-interest," a burning desire to want more of X, and "the desire to improve our own welfare regardless of the impact it has on others." (The latter being suggested by Brian, though I showed how such a definition doesn't have to be bad....see the link to Brian's post.)

The question for the reader is: can you break the trilemma?

Friday, April 14, 2006

Free Market Gives Us More Free Stuff

Google now offers Google Calander, which is supposed to be quite good (and given Google's reputation, I bet it is). I don't really have a lot of meetings and events to keep track of, but I'm going to use it anyway, just to see.

Some people don't like it when firms give away their product (like Microsoft's Internet Explorer). These are the same people who run up the free sample ladies in grocery stores and kick them in the shins.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Virtues of Capitalism

Deirdre McCloskey kicked off the first annual James Buchannan seminar this past Friday. I've only known McCloskey through the book she wrote on the rhetoric of economics (entitled The Rhetoric of Economics) and naturally assumed this was to be her topic on Friday. It is, after all, one of her most famous and important areas of research.

I was completely wrong: McCloskey instead tackled the virtues of economics and how economists focus too much on "prudence." Prudence is a strange virtue in that it descibes a sort of patience and sound judgement, in other words things that are smart to have in them of themselves. The other virtues are good--if that's the right word--because they help others. Prudence, in its most basic form, helps the actor only.

Economists talk about prudence a lot and we have different names for it. Self interest. Risk-aversion. Rational expectations. The other thing we talk a lot about is greed, much to McCloskey's dismay.

She feels greed is not a dimension of capitialism and capitalism requires all the virtues. Vices have no place in genuine free market activity. I take issue with this. Not only does greed play a fundamental (and moral) role, the flavor of greed economists talk about captures the very virtues McCloskey thinks we are ignoring.

Greed can be quite holy. Most generally it is about desiring a better life (usually for yourself, but it can also be for others). This is Hope. It also must, by definition, include the idea that people believe money (or whatever tickles their fancy) is a means to the end that is the better life. This, for a lack of a better word, is Faith. (We can expand the means framework beyond "money" to explain suicide bombers and so forth, again finding they have faith that their strategy will grant them what they hope for.)

We economists talk about the ethics of greed, we do not say greed is always good. We agree that taking others' stuff by force is not a moral manifestation of the so-call vice. Greed must be the motivation for trade (not theft) for it to be ethical. This is Justice. Greed also generates Courage, for it is what motivates people to take chances and stand up for what they believe in, and Temperance, for those that are too "couragous" don't achieve their desires. Love is perhaps the most closely connected to Greed itself: Love for money, Love for fame, Love for others.

It's just like Quark (from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) said. "Greed is the purest, most noble of emotions."

Sunday, April 02, 2006

April's Most Random Wikipedia Page Is...

On Mike's request, I decided to repeat last month's theme post and offer the most random Wikipedia page for April: TLA. Be sure to check out this subsection of the article.

A close runner up was The Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands, which is quite an extensive article for a country that doesn't exist.