Thursday, August 31, 2006

Justice For All

Right now I'm watching Law and Order, one of the great dramatic shows on television. I enjoy taking the journey of the case with the characters. The twists and turns. But then there's that turnabout where the guy everyone knows is guilty gains some kind of advantage usually because the main characters, the protagonists, extended themselves a little bit beyond the law. Perhaps if the cops or lawyers had more discretionary power, our world will be better.

Enter last night's premiere of Justice. Instead of following the state, the viewer sees the action from the defense's point of view. Special emphasis is placed on the advantages the DA's side has in prosecution. The research before the arrest. The first crack at the crime scene, evidence and/or body(ies). The complete dependence the defense has on the prosecution to provide this information. Instead of the defense lawyer concocting a desperate insanity or self-defense plea, we see government lawyers building a story to prosecute an innocent man.

The messages are clear. Law and order are for statists. Justice is for libertarians.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Biting The Hand You Shop At

Politics is the art of the impossible. If people like apples but hate apple trees then politicians claim we can have tree-less apples today (or at least after election day). If people like low prices but not Wal-Mart, then politicians tell us it's an easy matter to fix. There's "something wrong" with the free market and politicians have the magic "make it work" button.

AEI recently published a short essay on Delware Democrat Joe Biden who blasted Wal-Mart for supposeably not caring about the middle class. This is a strange claim for a company who relies on the middle class for a good hunk of its business. It's an even stranger claim coming from a party who's constituents shop at Wal-Mart and who's standards of living rise because of Wal-Mart.

Biden, and Democrats like him, are probably thinking people believe in magic. "It's a simple matter to get everything we want. We'll just declare it." But laws aren't spells and even though Wal-Mart (like any firm) could be nicer, no amount of legalese will instantly make it so. Hopefully, people will recognize hurting Wal-Mart hurts them and we can move past all this. Hopefully, people don't believe in magic.

Monday, August 28, 2006

A Typical New Experiment

On the first anniversary of Katrina, Kudlow and Company dedicated a segment to the role of government in times of crisis. Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute argued the administration missed a golden opportunity for a "bold new experiment." I'm not sure what he meant by this. Presumably this means more free market activity and less government. Drastically less government, allowing New Orleans to just be rebuilt but reimagined.

Bernstein, however, works for a leftist think tank and has agrued for more spending on "rebuilidng the Gulf Coast" and fewer tax cuts so I doubt he has much faith in the market.

People always tell me the market is great but it can't handle emergencies or disasters. I don't get this. In times of crisis information is incomplete at best. Normal lines of communication fly apart. Scarcity hits new heights. Do we really believe politics, which ignores the pricing mechansim (arguably the best way to convey information) and relies on the good will of bureaucrats to distribute these scarce resources, to be better than the private sector?

Look around you. Virtually every great service or product in our society was forged by free minds in free markets. Virtually every shameful or horrid thing an institution has done was done by politicians of one breed or another. In times of crisis, it simply make more sense to involve the institution that best handles information and scarity. It would certainly be a new experiment to allow freedom in times like those, but the record of markets is so good, so proven, I would hardly call it "bold."

Friday, August 25, 2006

Proportional Remonstration

When I was in college, I took a course in alternative voting systems. Americans may be surprised by this but there are actually several ways to choose candidates, and the method can fundamentally change the result. For example, proporational representation (PR) is a voting system where, for a given district, voters elect multiple candidates. This is in stark contrast with the majoritarian system used in the US and UK: one candidate per district. The latter system tends to encourage a two-party political landscape while the former encourages multiple parties.

A recent publication in AEI discusses some of the reasons behind American success and it cites it's two-party system as one of those reasons. Two parties keep taxes low while many parties encourage higher taxes.

Under a PR system, several parties will compete, while in majoritarian systems, only two parties usually contest elections. If there are several parties, middle-class voters will support programs that tax the rich and benefit them, knowing that they can change their voting habits if a government wishes to tax them more. But if there are only two major parties, middle-class voters will worry that voting for leftist parties will mean more taxes for them, and so they will be inclined to support right-wing parties.

I don't see how this logic holds. In multi-party countries, these parties create coalitions and effectively transform into a handful of contending parties. A majority still have to approve the new government. In practice, three changes in the system come to mind: the minority view is more likely to be considered, platforms are more flexible because parties can mix and match their allies and, my favorite, politicians have to spend a great deal of time forming coalitions, time they can't spend governing.

The author, James Q. Wilson, is confusing voting for parties with voting for policies. If a vote to raise taxes for the rich were held to the people, they would probably cast in favor for it. But if a party wants to do that, there is still the danger that they could raise taxes on everyone. I'll buy that competition tends to create things people want but politicians tend be expections. They are package deals of package deals. Almost anything goes and everyone knows it.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

I Want a New Drug

When I start playing a particularly good computer game, I can spend hours upon hours playing with little notice of the time passed (Civilization and World of Warcraft come to mind). These games are few and far between. Only the really good ones are ones I can get lost in but it happens, it my commitment can be debilitating to my normal affairs.

Enter a new study from the UK claiming people can suffer medical addictions to their BlackBerry. Like certain video games, this amazing piece of technology can be all-consuming to the user, especially when employers ask employees use them all the time. There are obvious flaws in suggesting that using technology is addictive in the same way as smoking. There are more subtle flaws in suggesting that employees should be held accountable if it is as bad. But the least noticable consequence legal repercussions could have is discouraging new technology.

People want to pull out their BlackBerries all the time because the devices are so very useful. In fact, people use work as an excuse to use their hand held devices. Claiming the company gets them "hooked" doesn't do the job either. Firms also require everyone to use word processing but we don't see Microsoft Word addictions. Information and communication technology (ICT) addiction only happens when people want to use the device for whatever reason. This requires good devices. The moment we start punishing companies for making their employees use great technology is the moment we just gave someone a reason to invent sub-par devices.

A Scholarly Reminder

The 1421 hypothesis is a fringe historical theory developed by Gavin Menzies, claiming China discovered the Americas seventy years before Europe. Emperor Zhu Di sent a fleet of ships (led by Zheng He) which discovered the Northeast Passage, Antarctica and everything in between. In the 1420s, a lightning strike burned down the newly consturcted Forbidden City which the administrators took as an omen which denounced the voyages. A year later, all new explorations were banned and evidence of them were ordered destroyed.

Menzies' theory is about as popular among historians as Creationism is around biologists. There is no real need to go into the details, but across the board they refer to it as "usless" and "without substance." So the question becomes "why." Menzies' made too many errors for his theory to be honest mistake. He might be trying to make a name for himself or creating more interest in his area of expertise. But I think he's also motivated by a hunger to downplay Europe's role in history.

In The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, David Landes argues the key reason why Europe developed faster than the rest of the world is because its people are free. Sure, other countries might stumble upon a new development but governments never allow people to expand on them. Terence Kealey echoes the same point in The Economic Laws of Scientific Research. While China had gunpowder centuries before Europe, it was Europe's free societies that developed the technology. Both works could easily be called "Eurocentric" (Landes is proud that his is) and be annoying to those who specialize in the history of the rest of the world.

There is good reason for Eurocentricism when discussing economic growth. Europe developed and continued to develop technology and trade as other parts of the world grew into stagnation. Any historical discussion of the underlying causes of economic growth must include the only success story. But this does not jive with the instinct for inclusion and fairness so people choose intellectual mediocrity. New ideas are great to have, but to quote Richard Dawkins, "You don't want to be so open-minded your brain falls out."

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Prize Watch

Given my research interests of prizes for technological invention, I've decided to start a list of such prizes in order to keep better track of them. This is an ongoing list and if you discover any technology prizes, please let me know via comments or e-mail.

-The Grand Challenge, a DARPA prize. Robotic vehicles traversing an urban or desert course.
-The Lander Challenges, X-Prize and NASA prizes. Landing on and breaking the Moon's gravity.
-The Auto X PRIZE, an X-Prize contest. Creating a new order of magnitude of fuel efficiency.
-The Genome X PRIZE, an X-Prize challenge. Speeding up the ability to sequence the human genome.
-Centennial Challenges, NASA, et al. prizes. A plethora of space-related prizes intended to ease humanity's jounery into the final frontier.
-The M Prize, a Methuselah Foundation contest. Extending human life starting with mice.
-The NetFlix Prize, improving the accuracy of predictions of who loves which movies.

Notable for the list is the X Prize Cup, an annual exposition where some of these competitions are held.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Naming Game

You can tell the news has been slow lately when International Astronomical Union's debates reach international headlines. For those that don't know (which I assume is all of you), the IAU is an international collection astronomers who's primary function seems to be naming things. Right now they're debating if they should redefine what a planet is, an act prompted by 2003's discovery of UB313: a body larger than Pluto but farther out. Safe to say by the end of this, we will no longer have nine planets. It may become 12 or 53 or over 200.

To be sure, definitions and names require consistency. We have to be sure we are all calling something the same things so having a single, official agency makes sense. I'm not so sure I agree with the agency's working definition (paraphrasing, "a big round object that orbits a star") because it's too inclusive. The definition holds little value if it suddenly includes every large lump of matter in the system.

I was also amazed how the organization names things. Planets, for example, have a strict regulations: they "must be named after deities of creation, with the exception of plutinos, which are named after underworld deities," according to Wikipedia. Why does a committee name a planet?

Sure it's neat knowing all of our currently named planets are named after Roman gods (especailly for students who have tests on planets and Roman mythology) but that desire for thematic consistency is misplaced. We loose all the neat names for things because they don't fit into a pre-conceived pattern. Why not just let the person(s) who discovered the thing name it? That's how everything else was named. Imagine a world where all oceans are named after a god of the sea or every mountain be named after a lanuage's word for "towering." I can (somewhat) see the need for a body to officially recognize who discovered (and thus gets to name) what, but to say how things are named for the sole purpose of thematic consistency is just intrusive.

"But what if someone names something silly?" you might ask. There's always that possiblity, but if no one wants to call Jupiter "Aunt Edna," then no one will and a better name will emerge. When was the last time you called your car a "horseless carriage?"

Friday, August 18, 2006

Google Search Humor

Go to Google, type in failure, and look at the first link. I don't know how long this will stay up.

Friday, August 11, 2006

What's the Deal With Ann Coulter?

Ann Coulter was on Kudlow and Company tonight. She seems to be on it a lot. She seems to be on a lot of shows a lot. And I'm not sure why.

It's not that I hate Ann Coulter nor am I a fan. I just don't find her very relevant for understanding the important issues of the day. Ann Coulter is like an episode of Seinfeld. A lot of people either love her or can't stand her and few that are likely to change their minds. She's entertaining (to those who like her) but rarely important. She makes a very big deal about small things which becomes bigger and bigger as she talks to the point of absurdity. Often this results in making fun of others which usually isn't a big deal unless you're trying to learn something.

The only differences here are that everyone on Seinfeld knew they weren't that important and the show's a lot funnier.

Telling Tales

In the wake of the 2006 transatlantic aircraft plot (we really need to come up with better names for things) the Wikipedia article offers a nice overview. I found the following paragraph most interesting:
On 9 August, hours before the arrests, the UK Home Secretary John Reid gave a major speech to Demos (a UK think-tank) hinting at a new round of anti-terror legislation and claiming that the country was facing "probably the most sustained period of severe threat since the end of the second world war".[31] The following day he broke the news, the Prime Minister being abroad on holiday.[32]

Wait a second. A major victory against this incredible and constant threat and no one can be bothered to haul a podium to the beach so Tony Blair can make this announcement himself? Why is this clearly important development too mundane for a out oworld leader to dry himself off, put on a suit for two hours and make a simple speech? It's not like he was giving a press conference about embaressing sexual exploits; that I can understand wanting to skip.

Seriously, this kind of stuff is political gold. Why did Blair opt out? The first thought is that he wants to give someone else the limelight, seeing how he's not running for a fourth term. The second thought is scarier: by having the same person who called this time an era of great and sustained danger in need of more laws announce these major arrests so soon afterward, it makes the legislation seem all the more urgent and his calls all the more justified.

In the US, we see the National Guard being mobilized, air marshalls being sent to the UK and the banning of all liquids on US flights, all to prevent something that's already been prevented. I'm no expert about police investigations in England but I doubt requiring passengers to take off their shoes or turn in their gatorade helped London Metropolitan Police foil this plot.

Thinking on the Mundell

Brian posted this link recently which offers a quick and easy interactive tool for playing with the Mundell-Flemming model. Great for when I don't want to get out yet another sheet of paper. (Brian posted another one for Solow.)

He also provided a video he found which nicely demonstrates growth in the world. It's a twenty minute show and really interesting. The topic also speaks to an interest of mine: being a better advocate for liberty. The lecturer didn't talk about liberty much but he did remind us of one of the few things all macroeconomists agree on; growth is good.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Great Hope For Mankind

A few days ago, Julian Benson of The Star commented on the prospect of Castero dying and Cuba adding more market activity in the island nation. Defending socialism, he said Cuba "has a lower infant mortality rate and a higher literacy rate than even the United States or Canada, let alone her peers in the developing world. Cuba also has one of the highest doctor per-capita ratios in the world. There is no illiteracy or homelessness, something that only a precious few nations can boast. These benefits exist precisely because of the planned economy."

Let us assume that this is all true; socialist governments love changing their numbers for the world stage and naturally these are all things they would love to alter. I still find these claims insufficient to overturn capitalism's ashtonishing track record. For example, a high ratio of doctors does not mean the doctors are (on average) very good or make a large impact in the health of the population. Cuba has national health care, which would increase the demand for doctors to treat minor problems, taking time away from those smart MDs. We can make similar arguments of illiteracy.

The homelessness claim is simply too absurd to try to explain how it could be true. Quoting a (cited) paragraph from Wikipedia's entry: "Paramount issues have been state salaries failing to meet personal needs under the state rationing system chronically plagued with shortages. As the variety and amount of rationed goods available declined, Cubans increasingly turned to the black market to obtain basic food, clothing, household, and heath amenities."

It's worth noting that for much of its history, Cuba relied on subsidies from the Soviet Union and currently recieves gifts from Venezuela. When the Soviet Union fell in the 1980s, Cuba was forced to engage in more market practices; "only" some 78% of its work force is now employed by the government.

For some reason, people hate accepting capitalism as a means of bettering people's lives despite the volumes of evidence. They point to half-assed attempts of creating free markets as evidence of capitalism failure and economic expansion as somehow undesirable. Benson claimed "capitalism has done few favours to the poor of the world," a strange assertion in a time when China's liberalization is directly followed by her people buying record numbers of cars.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

In the Year 2000

The Washington Post ran an article “Efforts Begin to Compute the worldwide Eco-Crisis” by Claire Sterling on July 20, 1970. This paragraph got my attention.

There will be 7 billion people by the turn of the century, twice the number now. They are not going to have enough to eat: half the world’s population is starving already, and 4 or 5 of the 7 billion are expected to. They will not have enough habitable living space, even by our own generation’s shrinking standards: the more affluent may live 50,000 to a skyscraper, the poor in cement warrens of “conurbations” spreading across continents from end to end. They will not have enough parks, beaches, woods, open countryside to escape maddening urban pressures, or enough psychiatrists for any but the basket-cases. They might not have the physical room to travel freely, They may not have enough breatheable air or drinkable water.

There are so many things wrong with this I’ll only highlight a few. The easiest is the population, the 7 billion figure was off by a mere billion. The writer claimed that we wouldn’t have “enough habitable living space,” although I don’t know what “enough” means. That’s vague and doesn’t tell us anything. Ditto for “parks, beaches, woods” etc. Enough for someone might not be enough for a different person. I don’t know the actual figures, but I assume there are “enough” psychiatrists to go around and the basket-cases don’t have a monopoly on their services. The air, at least in America, is getting cleaner.

Another eye catching paragraph was:

There are a lot more such fright stories, and others possibly in the making as bad or worse; earthquakes caused by manmade dams, deserts spreading relentlessly across overgrazed land, a new Ice Age induced by human tinkering with the atmosphere, lifeless oceans, terrestrial floods. And all the ravages we are just beginning to notice will have doubled within 30 years, when twice as many human beings will be scrambling for food and water, excreting, piling up garbage, consuming fuels and manufactured goods, emitting noisome vapors and deafening sounds as the crisscross the globe in cars and supersonic jets.

This sounds like it could have been spoken yesterday, although the Ice Age prediction is outdated has since been replaced by a new hysteria. Sterling some how didn’t mention all the people solving problems, coming up with better things, and improving the standard of living.

Writings like this make it hard for me to take any eco - apocalyptics seriously, regardless if they have something intelligent to say. For all our problems, I’ll take life today over life 36 years ago and enjoy the company of the ultimate resource.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Dater's Curse

Imagine you're at an auction at the auctioneer unveils a locked chest two hundred years old. He says it has never been opened and nobody knows what's inside. How much are you willing to put down for it? The answer depends on what you think is inside. Some might think it's filled with old socks and only pay based on if they think the chest would look good in the guest room. Some might think it's filled with some interesting artifacts from the era--mostly junk but a few treasures--and be willing to pay a bit more. Some might think it's filled with gold. These people tend to win these kind of auctions.

Generally speaking, people are, on average, right about unknown in straightforward scenarios like these. Some people overestimate, some underestimate and the errors tend to cancel each other out. But the person with the highest estimate will bid the most, open the chest and cry over the pile of blankets and love letters. Economists call this the winner's curse: the person who estimate the value of an unknown object the most will tend to pay the most for it and end up regreting it.

The same could be said of dating markets. The guy that's spent a lot of time and attention on a girl at a party "wins" her and she usually isn't worth it. We've all been there; I certainly have. Experienced daters, like frequent participants at auctions, know better: tone down your guesses when you bet on the unknown. You're be a lot happier and win--really win--a lot more.

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

Hazing at universities in Brazil. A pretty long article for such a narrow topic. For additional information, check out the lengthy list of ideas provided in the more general, hazing article.