28 October 2009

zombie funding seeking head shot to the brain

Daily Show dealt with this a couple weeks ago with the Democratic majority busy passing, not the liberal agenda, but the conservative one. So we already were getting abstinence funding, even though the Obama team and almost any credible sociological studies find it wasteful and counterproductive. Good luck killing it off.

More interesting is the process of attaching these weird pet issues as amendments onto bills that will pass anyway. I may not find a requirement to "read the damn bill" that important. But I might agree that there are means of simplifying bills. One of which would be not to attach totally unrelated amendments to these omnibus type major reform packages. The "bill" to restrict and ban online gambling, passed as an air-dropped amendment on an anti-terrorism bill for example. Same thing appears to be at work here, tacking on an abstinence funding amendment to a bill that will almost certainly pass (eventually).

Tacking that on with no intention of then voting for it does nothing to improve the bills. So in my opinion, this sort of idea is even worse. At least Leach voted for entire bill that had the damn anti-poker provision ("SAFE port act", note also that there's more text there relating to the gambling provisions than the actual bill...). Of course, he promptly got booted out in the next election from the out-of-state funding of his opponent raised by poker players from all over the country, after having been in office for 30 years. Maybe that's a deterrent to people like Hatch now, but it seems like a sensible deterrent to require people to do their jobs responsibly. Killing a bill doesn't happen because you can push stupid things into it (that your ideological or political foes will disagree with). In fact, given the rate of passing stupid things to begin with, it would seem like it just enhances the stupidity. I don't think it a good ideal to be associated with something stupid. If you don't like the bills, don't put stuff in it that makes it worse. Just advocate against it and explain why.

more on oil and economic incentives

Looking at the various points brought up here.

1) This is known. This is great. This is not happening because it requires a massive number of people changing their behavior. Without incentives, that will not be happening. Even if the incentives are tangible long-term benefits in terms of cost savings for consumers because the costs for energy consumption are already very low. Simple way to encourage changes like that to happen: raise the tax and cut the subsidies on energy.
2) Bills in the Senate are generally dumb in many ways. Seems like this problem is one of the many problems of "more government" not always being a good response to a problem by imposing costs on gasoline without imposing these costs in a flat carbon tax or a Pigovian system instead of our goofy attempt to call something cap and trade.
3) This is also known. In fact, it is precisely those costs that to me require some intervention in the first place because they are known and capable of being calculated easily with commonly available economic data and environmental studies. They are costs which have already happened in many cases and haven't been paid by producers or consumers of energy (or food in the case of meat, this is also true of water rights relative to agricultural efficiency). I think this is more why you need an externality tax at all (a straight carbon tax), because it imposes property and health costs that aren't accounted for in the generation of energy. Any global warming effect is, to me, secondary, because these costs are immediate and already exist. Setting the tax is therefore easy because you can simply tab up the costs (health and environmental costs which are not yet regulated) and weight them against the benefit of cheaper energy, and include whatever costs are uncompensated (which are substantial) in the bill paid by producers and consumers of energy. That has significant benefits for the overall global warming cause in that it starts the path of conservation or conversion away from carbon.

The national security implications are a fairly weak argument (we don't get most of our oil from "our enemies", much as people like to claim), but the self-dependency or a relative interdependency involving renewable resources would be a big help over a dependency on a carbon spewing product. In fact, one such motivation to me that we should be moving away from oil: Saudi Arabia wants to have a pay-out in the event that we successfully steer developed/developing economies away from petroleum energy sources. To which I reply: fuck off. You had almost a century to build up your infrastructure and public development with petro dollars. You have squandered it. That's a "you" problem. Enjoy.

Refining my Mill-ism

The reason article/debate from last week is getting quite a lot of circulation in my blog circle (it's heavily libertarian of course, so debates about libertarianism naturally should be of interest to other libertarians of their varying stripes). I wanted to circle back to a couple points as a result.

I think the structural argument of libertarianism is to say that coercion by force is the highest evil and that this is generally reserved to the state. So the state or the government is the first line of defence. But it would be fair to acknowledge, as Mill did, that there are a large variety of social forms that coerce people into conformity against their will or consent. The trouble becomes how to parse out the positive impacts of some of these (ie, the functional aspects of a society which has a large percentage of people who tend to agree on a few basic principles) from the negative impacts (ie, those social and non-governmental stigmas which are harmful to individual's rights and choices without any just cause, such as race, gender, religious affiliations/lack thereof, or sexual orientation rather than strict harmful behavioral issues such as criminal activity). So Kerry's point that many libertarians will tend to assume very often that people who are in fact oppressed by social forces are instead conforming by choice is probably valid and important. But again, it is a thin line to then argue that individuals should always be the tyranny of importance and that their choices should be totally free. Mostly because not all individuals subscribe to that set of value, even if it may or may not be to their advantage to do so. And partly because there are legitimate concerns, at times, about the ability of minority powers brought by individual choice (I would suggest that it is possible for too much to go on the plate at once and upset the fragile order that individuals could otherwise establish and maintain themselves). The way you escape this is then to have very decentralized power centers. So if the social conformity is in one place unacceptable to one's personal preferences, you can move and find a location which is more acceptable. Or you can advocate (supposing that the establishment of free speech is respected).

There are several concrete examples of these balance considerations that I go through regularly. Religion is one of the foremost. It is undoubtedly a powerful societal coercive force. It has in its history constructed powerful repressive agencies against social tolerance, expressed racial or sexist preferences, and been engaged in acts of repression and violence against people of other faiths, women, minorities, and so on. These acts are not in simple terms caused by "faith" however. They are largely caused by the societal coercion that the institutions of faith have created over centuries, and are used by an extreme few to justify acts of intolerance, bigotry, hostility, even abhorrent actions of torture and violence. None of which seem remotely consistent with the actual beliefs or tenets of the majority of religious peoples. It is easy for me as an atheist to express a preference that religion, in particular organized religion, be removed from its societal totem pole placement. But it is less necessary for me as an atheist to express a demand for a coercive removal of religious faith from those people that hold it. It's simpler instead to call on and appeal to those tenets that are likely to engage us in something positive (tolerance, love, relative obedience and fidelity rather than absolute and unquestioning, charity, and so on). The reason these are difficult to appeal to is in my mind because the individual beliefs of religious people are afflicted by organized religion to start with (tendency to groupthink, us vs them scenarios, and the ability of centralized religious authorities to abuse their position and advocate for silly things like slavery or sexism). Though it is possible that a central control over a flock of religious peoples has some benefits, it appears that many of the extremist movements are themselves a sort of reaction against such central control. Islam in particular works in this way, franchising out a radical interpretation of itself in direct opposition to a perception of a weaker faith. Christianists in Europe and America are, in my view, no different. At least if the movements of repression and retrograde society are limited to a fringe, they'd be easier to manage and counter with more reasonable approaches.

That brings us to how to oppose such forces while still retaining individual choices and liberties. There is, fortunately, little justification for using state coercive force on religion at all (reason being that such justifications could almost certainly be turned against reason or minority views such as atheism, all such views demand protection against the law of majority opinions and beliefs). So how do you create a force in opposition, or rather, is it necessary to? I'm not sure that it is necessary to create a homogeneous front opposing the plagues that organised social forces foment in society. I do agree that there is a need for individuals to express their preferences in a heterogeneous way and even to demand them. For example, I think that in the long run, the justifications for secular-basis of law, for movements such as feminism, opposition to racial stereotypes, acceptance of equal rights for homosexuals, and general charitable attitudes toward the poor or disenfranchised of any cause, are largely that the societies that have embraced such movements have benefited in a variety of ways over societies that have not. States with "expanded" rights for homosexuals have attracted the productive and intelligent homosexuals and benefited economically and culturally. Nations with relative equality between women and men have tremendous economic dynamism (though we're still shaking through the social choice problems and the roles of men and women in a world of nebulous gender roles, I think this is small potatoes relative to the gains of having more and more women, or people generally, who can be productive and influential in society). So it seems more likely that the best conception of libertarianism over the interests of individual libertarians is to expand and defend the individual rights that a society has gained and to ignore social constructs of the intended roles of individuals as a basis of irrelevant characteristics.

There's one caveat I make to all that: free speech. Advocating for an expanded protection of free speech is necessary, but as a consequence it means putting up with a wide variety of repulsive or irritating viewpoints that others will express. By "putting up with", I mean: allowing people the access and audience that will have them and be persuaded by them, for the very reason that allowing that access and audience gives the freedom to express your own controversial views, such as they are, in societies that do not allow for individually defended liberties against social forces or extra-governmental agency. In the long run, advocating a positive position against those who would demand a social negative is probably a better strategy. In that respect, I find a great deal of power to an argument like Kerry Howley's. But the reason for that power is that it is "limited" in its ability to create its own coercive authorities within society. Conforming to the cult of individualism is not for everyone, but defending the rights of other individuals is most certainly for libertarians.

Put another way, libertarianism, not the libertarians who subscribe to all or portions of its ideological conclusions, is simply another vehicle for conformity unless it is a message of anti-conformitity and permits people their egregious views, if only so they will permit us our radical individualism and expressions. Libertarians themselves are thus free to have pet causes, to express and advocate for views which liberate individuals where possible, but stops short of a conclusion that there are socially desirable outcomes for those individuals that they ought to choose instead.

26 October 2009

yet another wedding

I have no photos. Since I have no camera. I do however have some observations.

1) Wedding cake is a terrible human invention. Pies are far superior to decorative food. Also: BBQ.
2) Small children are very unpredictable. Given a traditional wedding, it seems very hit or miss whether they will be a nice addition to a ceremony.
3) There are enormous advantages being anti/non-religious in a semi-religious setting and family. As in: you will not be even asked to do much of anything, if at all. Much less having actual formal requirements beyond eating food.
4) The main advantages come from being a total stranger to people and anti-socialite however. I can now say with great confidence that nobody will ever ask me to serve some official function at a wedding (this will include being one of the essential parties of a wedding "ceremony"). I find this realisation of my social habits quite remarkable. And it is good.
5) Nobody should ever ask me to operate a camera (that would be of the modern digital variety). They're not very cooperative and I have no interest in learning how to make them more so.

Updated 6) For my comfort, it will probably be a while before anyone gives me statements like "you're next". Or rather it better be a while. Because that shit is just annoying. I don't need an implication or accusation that:
1) I should be married or want to get married anytime soon (much less be actively sifting through any options to achieve such a goal)
2) that I will bother wasting time with pomp and ceremony.
3) Or a party. You all can go to a party that I wouldn't be at. Ink Spots music selections to the contrary, I'm not enthusiastic about being the center of attention. Ever.

Updated again:
I forgot to mention: seeing the bride doing martial arts demonstrations at the reception was, however, very cool.

24 October 2009

because as we all know, you have to speak the lingo

in my country, you speak English

Except we don't have those kind of laws. Right? Apparently we do. Or at least, in the fictional universe of some cops, we have very expansive requirements to speak (not even merely to read as some would have us do) in English. I think I shall have to speak in Russian if I get pulled over and see if the полиция can follow along.

Still though, when did we pass a federal law requiring commercial traffic to speak English? The supposed explanation I see from law enforcement is that they have to be able to read road signs and converse with police about basic things. It seems more or less like a method to either 1) tax Mexican/Hispanic immigrants extra by issuing fines for having accented speech or 2) continue our lazy American tradition of pretending to have a superior culture that doesn't require people who police it to be able to converse across a now common language barrier. As in: taking some basic Spanish classes in order to be a cop. Most of our signs are designed to be handled by even our illiterate moron citizens who we still issue licenses and there are rarely local driving requirements that so demand English-only conversational abilities as to navigate our streets. Seeing as the alphabet and especially the written numbers are similar, that the street signs mostly in English, and there are plenty of Spanglish words already in both English or Spanish, I'm not that worried that a trucker wouldn't be able to tell how to get around by obeying the traffic laws. Much less a local. Much less with GPS being widely available (and presumably more widely used by commercial drivers who have obvious market incentives to its purchase).

Of course, given that I'm still unimpressed by the Obama administration's decision to nix the pilot program that allowed for Mexican truckers to haul Mexican freight rather than imposing a tax on all of us that required the loads to be removed at the border and loaded onto trucks of American drivers for some reason, maybe I'm just un-American generally.

Superfreak reviewed part 2

(apologies for the delay getting the second part up here, it was a busy weekend)
I had some already to say on the most controversial, chapter 5, status report on geo-engineering. I have now read it for myself. I did not read it as saying "we are global warming skeptics". I read it as "we need solutions to global warming that are efficient, cheap, and powerful". The underlying theme of the entire book is that solutions do not need to be overarching and complicated. They bring up a number of simple things, like white roofs and albedo effects. Or like the ideas behind doctor hand washing nudges and their effects on patient health and mortality and seat belts. And then they bring up geo-engineering relative to the costs or economic drag imposed by cap-and-trade or proposed costs of moderating carbon and other chemical pollutants contributing to global warming (methane for example), and the speed and immediacy at which you could deploy this. What they didn't say was that you then shouldn't need to go out and fix carbon, replacing it with renewable energy sources. There are several critiques on which to base the argument for geo-engineering.
1) Political will is very difficult to assemble for international, much less national, schemes for carbon reduction. This is in spite of places like India and China being, in principle, on board with a need for carbon moderation and reduction. What they aren't willing to trade off, and what most economists aren't from what I can tell, is the probability of growth and the associated development of billions of rural Asians (and Africans) into first world citizens with access and opportunities at the lifestyles they wish to hold. Economics, when it comes down to it, is about trade-offs like this. It is difficult to believe, given history, that a reliance on innovation or simple market solutions is somehow worse than a reliance on severe government interventions in this area.
2) It is difficult to believe that we have a market for these various effects (positive and negative) and that we could then properly place a price for a tax on carbon relative to its total damage, methane, water vapor, whatever it is. This is sometimes given as a support for cap-and-trade over a straight carbon tax. It isn't. A straight carbon tax would do exactly what environmentalists want: raise the price of energy and products based on petrol to reduce consumption rates. And it will do it immediately and obviously. The reason that's not popular is because politicians won't like it. It's not that a simple Pigouvian tax couldn't work (better).
3) Getting people to change patterns en masse by using conservation over innovation will be really, really, really hard. This is true no matter what policies we pursue through national, international, or even local levels. We may need to buy time to let that happen if the climate starts to look like it will fall off a cliff (say with massive ice sheet melting or rising ocean temperatures releasing millions of tons of frozen methane).

That said, I still think that raising the price of gasoline or coal (both by placing a Pigovian tax and decreasing subsidies for both, as well as corn ethanol) is an effective policy. It does appear that rapidly increasing or substantially increasing the price of gasoline eventually has a crunch on their use patterns. Presumably, much as with some sort of water premium on agriculture, you could apply some sort of carbon capture or methane cap and trade on livestock that would raise the price of inefficient farming relative to efficient, less wasteful and less polluting methods. I like having cheap beef and gasoline as much as the next American. I don't think either is properly capturing their underlying costs when we choose to have them (just as cigarettes are dramatically underpriced for their end users, though the effects there are more direct costs). But I think we have to be honest that this is a long-term adjustment (probably taking the better part of a half century to complete on a global scale without some super efficient anti-carbon energy source to replace coal and gasoline). It's one that probably won't be in place, at all, given our apparent insistence on having a fake cap and trade bill instead. And by the time this is in play, it won't be in effect quickly enough to matter. Nor will it likely be working broadly enough as there is no legal means to apply an international premium tax on pollutants. The structural function of national tariffs will help, but only slowly against exporter nations and it will be extremely difficult to apply to importer nations, like the US.

Probably the best chapter in the book is the one on altruism and the new game theory experiments with "Dictator". These help explain a lot of our political processes now, in particular tax policies. But these experiments themselves aren't that complicated and don't have that wide ranging focus that the authors aim for elsewhere. It mostly ends up shining some bright, bright lights on experiments that proclaim they measure altruism (they don't) and the police and media-sexed up version of the infamous Kitty Genovese story as being implausible, possibly even totally false. A side chapter on terrorists and how we can come up with their criminal profiles more effectively is also interesting (essentially describing terrorism as voter participation on steroids), but has a glaring error. Namely, that life insurance policies in most jurisdictions allow for an exception for suicide and will pay out for it. Even suicide bombing. So long as it occurs after a contractually obligated time frame. Thus a profile that excludes life insurance policy ownership is probably a valid criticism if true, but it's mostly just a mythology about insurance that would prevent such efforts. And not a sense of familial and fiscal irresponsibility on the part of the often educated, middle class urban terrorist.

Which leaves only the simple mixture preceding the publicity mess that was the global warming chapter. A story about how doctors don't wash their hands and get their ties in everything. Interspersed with a story about Ford's introduction of seat belts (and the relative effect of car seats on children) and the success of vaccination. Primarily what you would get out of all that is that human beings are terrible at applied risk assessments and their solutions as a result tend to be very simple. Either a subject isn't that big of a deal and isn't worth the media and public panic (car seats for most children over the age of 2, shark attacks, airline safety) or a subject is a big deal but it can be resolved at a minimum of personal effort (washing hands, putting on a seat belt). And it isn't. I'd like to see more of why this resistance to change is around, what it reflects. Bad training or habits? Inertia? Ignorance? Cognitive biases? Because with a subject like global warming, "the answer" seems to be a mixture of conservation and innovation. The public seems instead to be putting a lot of weight on innovation with very little interest in conservation (or no understanding that public policy is, thus far and certainly for the near term, weighted more toward conservation).

I'd like to understand how we could sell "all of the above". My impression from the book was that there isn't a way to do that. So the incentives needed to be changed where possible to do "one of the above, and for that, the one which is cheaper and easier to do". And then let people work out the "we can do better", "more with less", and so on, on their own.

Also, one of the 4 horsemen rides

Because comedians are more accurate than economists with a column

But they're also more trusted by consumers of their product. Which is a good thing.

I'm coming to the opinion that the core problem Krugman is having is that he has a column, which is nice in that it allows him to express opinions and attempt to influence policy. But he apparently has no editors capable of fact-checking him or willing to do so. Which is very bad. At least in a blog or a forum, there are comments which people can examine to see counter-arguments and perspectives immediately valuable to the topic at hand. NYT columns, not so much.

Mill keeps getting into my way

Libertarian contest consisting of slapping reasons around

First off, Kerry (no, not that Kerry, this one) is now my new hero. I'm thoroughly ashamed to be me when I know there are people like her around.

I don't give her a 100% supportive argument because the seductive appeal of technocratic worlds don't quite work 100% of the time when it comes to social values and the various incentives and dogmas that they create. They work very well for simple, unobtrusive things like hand washing, starting a 401k, or vaccinations. I'm not so sure they work as well for complex cultural issues like women's liberation, racism, or other variously good or bad forms of human diversity of opinion and formal behavior.

There's some sort of balance needed between tolerance and behavioral control that I'm not sure is fully appreciated when one advocates strongly for societal progressivism, even coached in the language of individual rights and boundaries as she suggests. There is still too much of a seduction to think that we, as reasonably informed subjects, always know better than individuals or other forms of local knowledge and that there are objective formal answers which can be attained instead. There are specific circumstances where the costs are imposed upon others, through injury, death, or property damage for which we may have some social value in imposing those answers (my perspective on education or vaccinations for example). But even these are more closely tied to property rights and personal harm limitations than a sort of cultural revolution.

My own moral theory would lead me to conclude that there are indeed "objective" formal answers but that these are reached through often very subjective evaluations of circumstances. That is, I think there is in any case a best case scenario answer that one should strive for. But that this best case is necessarily very different from someone else's situation and expresses itself through a variety of personal preferences and modifications. So primarily it makes more sense to advocate for individualism and individual rights but to assure that this does not stray into its own breed of tyrannical collectivism (as I think Rand did by imposing an effective tyranny of the self). Kerry's own argument here seems to note that important social changes of the sort she envisions are happening. But they seem to be happening because of changes in local conditions brought about by market changes (that is: incentives are re-aligning because of market shifts and property rights). Not because people are advocates for them.

These changes, I agree I think, are happening slowly and in rather specific ways. But because they are largely internalized responses to the external world, they're far more lasting and valuable to the societies that spawned them, even if unintentionally. Simple nudges away from sexist aligned preferences, racial prejudices, and other culturally imposed tyrannies can be devastatingly effective over time even if radical shifts have often produced results in our recent history with equal, perhaps greater, aplomb. What is more essential is the underlying quest of a classical liberal to free individuals, and to provide them with a society that requires minimal societal compulsion to coordinate itself. I think she gets this more than most (certainly more than phase two of the debate there). But I'm troubled by the amount of coercion required to reach that happy state of affairs. I look at the damaging effects of religion or racism or nationalism on the individuals who hold those views and find that I cannot compel them away if that is what they wish to hold. All I can do is punish them for taking overt harmful action and demonstrate for others with more openness to ideas the error and folly of their ways.

It becomes necessary to recognize that there are other societal forces which work to compel or to control. Religion has long been such a force for example. It does not automatically compel us as libertarians to create alternative forces in the form of a unified political philosophy to combat these. Instead it seems sufficient to deconstruct any of these external forces into their various components and still allow people to select them if that is their wish, retaining the central unifying philosophy that individuals should have the maximum autonomy they wish to have (and can responsibly use). I am reminded of France's attempt to ban burqas when considering this. It is clear that this is an imposed "choice" for some, perhaps many Islamic women living in France. But a state ban to oppose this societal force? Sure you can conclude that on average it is a symbol of oppression, but it's not exactly a marker of it in all factual cases such that it demonstrates a reliable and certain proxy for harm and societal damage in the women who wear them. As another point, in Superfreakonomics, there's a case mentioned in 2002 where 50 Islamic states met and agreed to condemn "terrorism". What they couldn't come up with was a basic definition of what it was, what it was doing, what it's goals were, and so on. They have no idea what it means because it means different things to each society or its various state actors (businesses, labour forces, parents, children, and terrorists themselves). Sort of like "pornography", "obscenity", or even more deliberate terms like "racism", it's actually substantially difficult to define legally and socially what these things are, what they do, why they are bad, or what the goals of the individual or state actors are. We end up tossing them out on things that they don't quite apply to and in so doing risk broadening the definitions to render them useless for our purposes.

There's some danger in getting caught up in moral and ethical arguments like these and pushing for them because the net result is that too often people ask "how is your world better" and it's not always clear how to explain that it is. Simply because the benefits and costs are measured and internalized against very different worldviews. That's in part why the moral police systems that Americans rely on are so successful politically. Rather than rational solutions to issues like the drug war or prostitution, and especially with less defined issues like marriage/divorce rates. I noticed this line of argument with the Ron Paul interview on the Daily Show where Stewart asks if you get rid of the Fed or much of the regulation, what's to protect us from corporations. Economic arguments like that are pretty easy to batter back down once you understand economics and things like regulatory capture or lobbying and protectionism (and interest group favoritism in politics). And yet people still cannot imagine how a system with nobody in charge doesn't result in a tyranny. It's even harder to explain to people how this works to protect them against drugs, against perceptions and changes of race and gender roles (as if such things were actually important to begin with relative to individual autonomy). So the criticism that "property rights are hard enough" is one valid, if limited, problem with her argument. Realistically, the problem is that it's too ambitious to consider that "we" know better than everybody and can impose some sort of "repressive tolerance". Even if we should and, somehow, could demonstrate that people will benefit, I fear the tyranny of the majority there just as much as I might fear a tyranny of our current bureaucracies and corporatism sentiments. I would rather live with a position of advocating tolerance, even toward those whose views and sensibilities are repugnant, and simply not feeding most of the infamous social beasts with attention to arguments we "should" find irrational to provide them with fuel on which to muster support and action. Arguments which gain credibility or societal currency, sure, these must be battered into submission and dissected for points of contention. Those which have the backing of experts and careful study? Absolutely. These must be examined and argued over to prove their value to others. Arguments which have no value should be attached none to allow them to wither and die. There is not a need to power them with substantive debates because they are silly and incredible. They can be simply buried under either mountains of facts or other topics of credible interest.

Update: Ilya over at Volokh had some fine words to say on the subject here as well.

Superfreak reviewed part 1

I finished my copy. For the record, should I ever be involved enough in society to have some FTC restriction, it was a purchased copy for my own amusement and not a review submission. I don't think very many people care about my opinions. It's not established that they should or that I have much luck at moving theirs by my force of expression anyway.

As with the first book, it was a broad cross section of topics. And a wide variety of rather, I suppose I shall describe them as socially pungent, opinions and/or conclusions. The last book included a rather non-political survey of the economics of drug dealers (or lack there of) and the conclusion that abortion bans have had substantial impacts on crime rates over a generational cycle, far more so than many popularized theories.

This one has a rather interesting (though probably less controversial) claim that TV has had another impact on crime rates. No, not the "watching violent TV produces violent criminals", but rather just watching TV. The impact starts from people born back in the supposedly pure 50s and 60s with shows like Leave it to Beaver and the annoying Andy Griffith theme whistle rather than the "A-Team" and a plethora of modern crime dramas of my own formative years. They did not really elaborate on the particulars of why that might be (there isn't a clear sociological explanation for why this would occur on average, though the "TV as parent" theory is as good as any other). But then again, TV does have some additional side effects all the way over in India. It lowers the birth rate, along with the dowry effects, increases the demands of Indian brides for working plumbing, lowers domestic abuse, and so on. Why? Cosmopolitanism seems to be one explanation. I suppose that couples staring at the screen rather than fighting over their own domestic troubles or busily producing more children in the absence of more mindless entertainment are as good an explanation as any other here too.

Then again there's the problem of Indian condoms failing more often. The cause here is not surprising, and it's related to a similar problem they report on later with children's car seats relative to regular old seat belts in terms of safety effects. As in:they're not sized correctly so they don't work as effectively as they should.

Of the more controversial reports, they started off with a chapter on prostitution (along with other economic effects related to women). After reading that link, one might assume that the conclusion reached was that women should all be headed out to buy some high heels and miniskirts. But they prefaced the entire chapter by examining an wide raft of data points on pay and other economic disparities and how they have effected women over the history of economies everywhere. The conclusion reached out of all that is largely that of sensible people everywhere: that women individually suffer some economic discrimination in the marketplace for everything from personal employment choices (such as fields or occupations with less direct economic incentives than those of men), to maternity and child-raising choices (for which women should suffer, but in my view they suffer unfairly because men do not make the same choices or have the same immediate biological costs) to menstrual cycles to outright sexism (for which nobody suffers legitimately and should be penalized where it exists). Except for one historical industry: prostitution. Which has been dominated by women for the simple fact that men have apparently always been willing to pay for sex and, at a high enough premium for the costs of accepting the offers, some women have been willing to trade sex for money.

The authors, being from Chicago, have a wealthy history of brothels and bordellos in the late 19th to early 20th century on which to compare the trade to its current market. But to contradict the previous arguments, they preface the subject by stating that a current street prostitute may well have the worst job in the nation (though the previous book's examination of a street crack dealer is probably worse in my view with higher risks of death and jail time). Even with an average rate of about $27 an hour, the job brings with it considerable costs of legal penalties (prostitutes are far more likely than their customers to be harassed and detained because of our idiotic legal codes), disease, abuse, even, as the recent stories would highlight, death. The job they were describing instead as a desirable economic position was that of a high-priced escort. With economic prospects enhanced by the internet to cut out the middleman services provided by a brothel or a pimp (some of which are legitimately dangerous and/or predatory themselves), this economic position is now properly comparable to those of the infamous Everleigh club in 19th/20th century Chicago (the owners of which were women themselves, as was customary at the time, and who had doctors and tutors on staff to invest in their "butterfly girls"). This would be the brief job description: Make 6 figures a year for very little work (10-15 hours a week), a great deal of autonomy, and with an apparently inelastic demand curve meaning you can charge more and do even less work if you want. Men will continue to pay more for high-end prostitutes compared to the low end of the spectrum where they can often just find another prostitute to do the same functions at their demand point; it's sort of a buyers market at that end which the legal codes do nothing to constrain.

Again, they preface this by stating there are most definitely specific job requirements, as with any high paying job, that not all women should or would be comfortable with (the basic having unorthodox sex, at least sometimes, with strangers being one major factor, along with having to maintain a "marketable" image or simply having a desirable enough sexual physical characteristic in the first place). In both cases, their primary question is to ignore the legal factors. High end prostitution is largely ignored without serious "moral" police demands as of the Prohibition Era of the early 20th century. Street prostitution is not, but as they detail, is more than likely to be a source of free sex for patrolling officers as it is a source of arrests (this also has happened in Europe with legally regulated brothels). Also to ignore the presumed answer of "why are women prostituting their bodies?" and, to my mind, the more important question, though they briefly touched on this as well, "why are men still paying to get women to do so?". Instead their mission is to examine the underlying incentives. If we assume that women become prostitutes out of hardship, destitution, or, as was commonly assumed at the turn of the last century, slavery, then we have an answer for a percentage of women in this industry. That answer is, unfortunately for people legally or morally opposed to prostitution, totally insufficient for most of the rest of the women involved. That is, in the case of "hardship" or destitution examples, their options for other sources of employment are hardly better. If we were designing a system to get women out of prostitution the answer would be to give them better primary education or better social infrastructures and not to go around policing their work. Because once you cross out of the street prostitution market, there's very little coercion and harm involved. Almost all of it is a voluntary response to incentives. Probably totally appropriate responses. Their case study escort even turns down a hypothetical obscene amount of money to have condom-less sex one time (she insists on condoms, as well she should), because she understands that this isn't likely to be a good customer from the incentive structure she lives within. Ie, he's too crazy to be safe. Her story doesn't strike me as a totally illogical representation of how women can respond to economic incentives and do so with a modicum of safety/responsibility and personal autonomy. It's just not likely to be typical (as the authors then ask).

So the reason fewer women are involved is probably several fold:
1) Most women, especially women in the middle and upper class of status, education, and neighbourhood employment options, will have better opportunities for satisfying their demands/needs for employment and income. Opportunities which they are more comfortable satisfying through personal preference. Also which have lower market risks to themselves than selling their company and sex while setting up a profitable business to do so.
2) The demand curve for high-priced women in that business is inelastic in part because it is illegal (in most states). If it were legal, there would be more competitive forces and a more dynamic marketplace. The escort they use for the story admits, as a druglord would if you could find one who admits their trade, that legalization is the last thing they would want because of the introduction of a more or less sensible market curve rather than two clearly distinct markets (one high and one low). There would be some sort of middle class options in between the Wal-Mart's and the Tiffany's and less means to use price discrimination (as evidenced by the story from German brothels). This is not to the advantage of the high-end independent escort service.
3) There just aren't that many women who would want to do this anyway, partly because of a stigma, partly because even with high incomes there are trade-offs that many women would not be able to accept were their work to be a public issue (as it would if they were to be arrested for doing it). Such as damage to social relationships, in particular romantic partnerships.

Because this all comes at the end of the chapter, and is tossed off in a rather cavalier way "why aren't more women doing this", it's basically just a rather undiplomatic way of asking a legitimate, and possibly important, question. To be fair however to the various criticisms, the authors don't focus on the developments, such as they are so far, that have allowed women to sell something other than their bodies at an economically advantageous rate (in particular reason #1 I listed up there). They instead asked a far more limited question, directed and leading toward asking why women in the middle part of that market in effect sell sex for "free" and then rather than actually looking at why (there are incentives, economic and sociological that benefit women in that scenario, possibly even mutually beneficial incentives), they simply mention that there is a why out there and toss aside its implications.

Tucked into that chapter is a more pressing issue still, the effect that women's expanded choices have had on primary education. I'm not sure that my high school experience is a representative sample since it was a fairly decent public school with fairly decent teachers and I was in mostly college track coursework anyway. Since those classes are the eggs in the basket as far as most schools are concerned one would expect them to have the better teachers. What interests me on reflection is the age disparity. The men teaching those classes seemed a lot younger on average than women. As an explanation, women used to dominate teaching ranks because it was one of the few places educated women could get flexible and respectable employment outside of the home for decades. One result of this was that the improved quality of teachers in our educated system was for decades in effective subsidized by standardized sexism. We now have to work out how the hell to get enough qualified candidates back into classrooms to replace the women that now become lawyers, bankers, and doctors rather than teachers (and to a lesser extent nurses, a profession which is at least partially responsive to market conditions and seems to be slowly fixing its own problems without nudges from public policy). This, in my opinion, is a good problem to have (in part because it appears women are, on average, better doctors than men). But it's still a problem to have a brain drain ongoing in the education field because it provides such a large public good relative to these other fields. Banking bailouts and protectionist measures to the contrary, simple and substantial investment in properly educating people would fix a lot of our social and economic woes a lot more productively than throwing money at failing banks and companies. I've long expressed a variety of solutions for how to resolve these problems, and the superfreaks don't get their hands dirty with them in this book (I suspect a few paragraphs on the various incentives involved in public education, much less private and charter education versus public would easily expand to an entire book with little difficulty). But it suffices to say that we do need to fix the incentive structure as to how and why people become and stay teachers to replace the gaps left that our previously sexist system was unintentionally providing us. I don't particularly care which sex the teachers are to do it and neither should they.

(I broke this up into two parts after I realized I'm intoning for ages about things that nobody will care about anyway)

23 October 2009

Science media continues to advance in a different direction

Vaccines, and the lousy science used to oppose them

In the Apologia, Socrates makes an implied point to demonstrate that in every field, already in Classical Greece, there are experts to whom the people and even the leaders of a nation will defer to.

"Come hither, Meletus, and let me ask a question of you. You think a great deal about the improvement of youth?"
"Yes, I do."
"Tell the judges, then, who is their improver; for you must know, as you have taken the pains to discover their corrupter, and are citing and accusing me before them. Speak, then, and tell the judges who their improver is. Observe, Meletus, that you are silent, and have nothing to say. But is not this rather disgraceful, and a very considerable proof of what I was saying, that you have no interest in the matter? Speak up, friend, and tell us who their improver is."
"The laws."
"But that, my good sir, is not my meaning. I want to know who the person is, who, in the first place, knows the laws."
"The judges, Socrates, who are present in court."
"What do you mean to say, Meletus, that they are able to instruct and improve youth?"
"Certainly they are."
"What, all of them, or some only and not others?"
"All of them."
"By the goddess Here, that is good news! There are plenty of improvers, then. And what do you say of the audience, - do they improve them?"
"Yes, they do."
"And the senators?"
"Yes, the senators improve them."
"But perhaps the members of the citizen assembly corrupt them? - or do they too improve them?"
"They improve them."
"Then every Athenian improves and elevates them; all with the exception of myself; and I alone am their corrupter? Is that what you affirm?"
"That is what I stoutly affirm."
"I am very unfortunate if that is true. But suppose I ask you a question: Would you say that this also holds true in the case of horses? Does one man do them harm and all the world good? Is not the exact opposite of this true? One man is able to do them good, or at least not many; - the trainer of horses, that is to say, does them good, and others who have to do with them rather injure them? Is not that true, Meletus, of horses, or any other animals? Yes, certainly. Whether you and Anytus say yes or no, that is no matter. Happy indeed would be the condition of youth if they had one corrupter only, and all the rest of the world were their improvers. And you, Meletus, have sufficiently shown that you never had a thought about the young: your carelessness is seen in your not caring about matters spoken of in this very indictment."

While the logical consistency of Socrates' arguments (comparing horses to people) is rather fluky at best, the point is that experts are to be trusted with the care and improvement of human beings. Indeed, throughout society we do this in the form of public and bureaucratic insistence for childhood safety rules or the reliance on public schools and education, entrusting to experts to tell us what improvements we might make. So for whatever reason, we object when the expert is an educated doctor providing a product which in fact makes us safer? It is true that there are on occasion drug product failures or vaccines which are perhaps most useful for a few over the many, or are not as effective as their cost would demonstrate. This is not the case for vaccines which have been developed and marketed all around the world for decades to use on a variety of childhood diseases. Considering the massive importance we place upon children already, it is not surprising that development of treatments and prevention schemes for their health and well-being have been funded at an accelerated rate and have successfully eliminated or substantially reduced various scourges of disease and illness. Such efforts however only work when people follow the learned advice of experts. Which leads us now to this paradoxical world where people ignore this advice and place their children (and, more importantly, other people's children) at greater risk.

It is curious to me that people would accept these greater risks in favor of an illusion of safety from other risks. Risks which are in fact, almost non-existent. But it doesn't seem any different from any other pursuit of security. We accept and tolerate all sorts of intrusions on basic liberties in order to get on board an airplane when we ourselves offer so rare and so incomplete a risk to other travelers that this sort of policing is utter nonsense to design and implement. It provides instead an illusion of safety from a nondescript risk. More likely the general fear that people seem to have of flying in the first place is to blame more than "terrorists". I'm assuming in the case of vaccination that the invisible germ warfare involved, something which is still incompletely understood by the public if it is not to be called deliberately ignorant of it, becomes a proxy for the general fears of parents at surrendering their children into the broader world.

Yet there are not these associated autism scares in European nations which use vaccines, indeed vaccines of the accused type, more commonly (denser urban population for one thing is a good excuse). Why would this be? Probably one explanation would be a greater amount of deference to authority generally, but also a greater scientific literacy. There seems to be a good deal of questioning that goes on when a scientific study is put out in this country which contradicts a conventional wisdom. Much less when a whole series of them does. Scientists are said to be in the pocket of major businesses and dismissed as business advocates (rather than scientific advocates). Rather than looking at a basic and simple scientific explanation for a child's autistic tendencies (Autism is a not uncommon neurological and largely genetic development which occurs naturally at around the time children get many of their vaccines), it becomes a causal linkage that must be regulated away or have new, more expensive products designed to satisfy our curious want of "safety" where it already exists.

What's more, we have an even more curious reliance on expertise to demonstrate these tenuous logical links. Only now instead of scientists and journalists who have clearly investigated the correlations and causation chains, we enter celebrities and anecdotal stories from tortured parents. In a world where Jim Carrey and John Kerry are united on something and appealing to our populism, I will gladly run the other way.

All of this then brings me to the issue of consent regarding vaccines generally. It appears to be a general wish to appeal to individual choice and parent autonomy to allow citizens to disregard vaccination as a personal whim or based on some sort of religious or other anti-scientific belief. Where there are legitimate and credible scientific claims, or significant and valid economic cost/benefit considerations against a mandate for a vaccine, the vaccine, in my opinion shouldn't become mandated. This might be the case, as I posted earlier regarding men and teenage boys getting the HPV vaccine shot or anyone with the current H1N1 vaccine (I am not a scientist or a vaccine expert, but both of these groups seem less convinced of a need for a required shot than usual on these two in particular). This is most assuredly not the case regarding MMR shots and the various battery of vaccines children get as they prepare to enter primary schools. The reason a mandate overpowering individual choice can be acceptable is because of the costs of not having a vaccination. These costs affect not only the children involved (who are presumably not at an age of consent), but also the entire social structures of schools and the children of others. The benefits of largely eradicating a disease from the map are enormous in terms of social welfare, public health, and general education; lost time to sickness, additional opportunity cost of health care treatment rather than prevention, general ease and comfort provided to parents whose children are protected from potentially life-threatening childhood diseases. On a simple cost-benefit, these decisions ought to be no-brainers for anyone. Which brings back the mandate "problem". This can be easily and certainly provided a basis from the utilitarian grounds that it will prevent significant harm inflicted on others from behavior. It is flatly irresponsible to ignore the expert scientific advice and government legislation and not get a child their normal routine vaccination shots. One can believe all they want that their vaccination shots gave their child autism, that doesn't give them some entitlement to ignore a public responsibility to vaccinate a child. If they can prove that this was true in court using scientific evidence then I say they are entitled to some sort of compensation and we would be entitled to perhaps more carefully monitored vaccines (as if there isn't already plenty of government and industry oversight into public health). They cannot so demonstrate any claim with scientific inquiry, only anecdotal "wisdom" of the uninformed, so quit wasting our time with debates over public safety where there ought not to be. It's bad enough we have to fight back against safety considerations on a civil libertarian grounding with "proper" car seat use or airplanes with all the attending supervision and government/public intrusion that these have entailed. There shouldn't have to be a fight over things that actually do incentivize and create safety with a minimum of intrusion as a result.

One other good point addressed in the article. "They ain’t curing AIDS. They ain’t never curing AIDS. Don’t even think about that shit. There ain’t no money in the cure. The money’s in the medicine." - Chris Rock. Vaccines are not "big Pharma". Know what is? Heart disease medication or erectile dysfunction pills. Health problems that are caused, in large part, by lifestyle choices that people are well aware (from scientific advice and media scare tactics) should be more considered and personally harmful than vaccines. But are instead more than willing to have health insurance pay for thousands of dollars over a lifetime of medications than to make minimal effort on their own to improve their own health. Seems to me if people want something to be afraid of for public health, it might be at least marginally sensible to look at what they're putting into their bodies by choice that ends up in their arteries. And then wonder why their medication bill is skyrocketing.

22 October 2009

Rant on Rand. Nothing to see here.

I read Friedman, Smith, and Mill before I got around to Rand (though I think we read Anthem in high school and I recall not being all that fond of it). Nozick and Hayek came later. There are definitely better ways to be introduced to libertarians or to arrive at a libertarian ideology. Many people I talk to with Rand or to some extent Rothbard as their gateway are even totally intolerant intellectually (in the same way that Rand is). In particular, the hostility toward Kant and Mill seems to be utterly misplaced, forming a sort of tyranny of its own under Rand's philosophy. The tyranny being that of the individual. I also am just not sure what the benefit of these super-man type philosophies are when the characters themselves are assessed such massive and glaring deficiencies in their ability to do much of anything with other human beings. There are not, generally speaking, human beings that can do without in this manner. Seems more practical, and probably moral, to conclude out that the other people are going to be in the way and try to get them organised in the least amount necessary to keep them from being an annoyance or a barrier to the things that make a person capable of fulfilling their wants and needs.

I think I would concur that the lack of alliance between left-leaning liberals (particularly social liberals) and libertarians wasn't just Rand's fault though. The emphasis on markets, the dogmatic certainty that this was correct to rely on them more than not, is not a particularly Rand-limited trait. As anyone who has ever seen an interview or speech with Friedman can attest. There is not, from what I can observe of the current crop of libertarian economists and theorists, a big drop off on this. As in, that isn't a point that can be easily compromised off. You can say for example that the public should invest money in defence, or in education, or in care for the elderly or poor. But the libertarian will consistently figure out ways to do these things with the minimum of government involvement and insist on that, if there is to be any state involvement at all. That isn't a position that's very likely to be easy to compromise with and gain some obvious collective action over things like (at the time, as with now) foreign wars and various civil rights, even though liberals/progressives and libertarians are in considerable agreement on those issues. Sure Rand is even less likely to compromise over anything at all than the average libertarian. But you don't trade away the things you are certain of. More over, much of the power of the present liberal coalitions is derived from interests (as was true at the time when Rand was a major figure). Interests which may be opposed or shared by conservative interests, but interests which are quite often antithetical to libertarian considerations of individual interests. It's hard to say that the actual figures shaping policies for liberals are going to be intellectually independent enough to consider divorcing these interests as a base of support.

There's a definite paradox to the practicality of noting this weakness in a potential ally and the inability to do anything about it. See how big the libertarian party is, as a band of "rugged" individualism without major sponsorship outside of the economics field and few civil liberties issues like narcotics decriminalization, and then consider how much influence the Democratic party would have without its various trade unions backing them up (farmers, teachers, labour workers, lawyers, etc). I don't imagine they would matter very much either. Given that I, and many other libertarians, end up picking bigger fights on the conservative front rather than the liberal one, what with the tendency to rely on tradition for the sake of tradition or institutions which are not universally shared or reliable (religions, corporations), this leaves it rather difficult to get enough people to take seriously the core position of a free market. Which I guess is where Ayn Rand enters the scene. So I shouldn't complain of her resurgent popularity. But it's just not that much fun to have these new "allies" who are still living in the "weak man" argumentative world where Hayek is to be considered some sort of ideological foe.

21 October 2009

Vitter me this

Yup, Louisiana, business as usual

Following up on the story from last week with the denied marriage license for an interracial couple. Apparently "no comment", or an effective "no comment", is considered okay. Even Jindal jumped all over this one calling for the JP to resign.

This isn't 1950 folks. There isn't any going back down that road.

19 October 2009

For the Cause!

It always strikes me as curious that there's never a serious debate after some traumatic event (like 9-11) about WHY. Sometimes in the wake of something like Columbine or Virginia Tech, the answer isn't very useful and there are other questions like "how" that matter. But on something planned and executed over a long time frame, with various levels of state sponsorship or other means of public support, there might be some useful fruit to be plucked by asking a simple question and demanding an answer.

Instead we seem perfectly content to be placated with "they hate us for our freedoms". Which turns out to be rather absurd in the case of many who would oppose us with action and rhetoric. The problem is in the hostility and indifference our country has acted toward people of other cultures in advancing its foreign policy agenda over the past several decades. Not in the manner in which people might exercise their basic liberties. To be sure there are Islamists out there who are diametrically opposed to our own Christianists, fighting over which brand of god to franchise into law. But this is not by and large the story of Afghanistan (or Palestine). The problem there is the occupation and the subsequent impressment of our values rather than the accumulation and acculturation of them. Yes there are Afghanis, in the form of the Taliban, who impose and impress their own system on others and have done so by force. But they tend to gather easy fruit in asking their countrymen why the Americans hate them so to send a force halfway around the world to play empire, to bomb and imprison the people of their land. We gather no such easy fruit ourselves by asking the same questions because the answer and the proof is less obvious and apparent. Appealing to the memories and ghosts of 9-11 does not recruit soldiers in a great army of liberation because there was no invasion and occupation of American soil and there are fewer and fewer legitimate stories of the pain and suffering of Americans at the hands of Islamist radicals to counteract the pains and sufferings we imposed both on others and ourselves.

There was only a senseless attack conducted with the aid of some religiously deranged folk inspired by our own tactics and inhumanity in a region halfway around the world. One wonders why the view of our enemies as it applies to us should be any different than that and why it should not impact their determination to resist and to fight. But perhaps asking why was too complicated for people to do over the past 8 years.

18 October 2009

variations on a theme

Comparisons of the underlying features of forms of affection

The most interesting debate to me (not the most pressing or important naturally to most people) is the examination of comparisons of nationalism/patriotism toward racism in its nature of discriminatory feeling. It's usually a sort of expanded "family" sensibility to care about your neighbours, your friends, and to a degree, one's countrymen and most people have no problem with an expectation that one should (and will) care most about their closest companions (family and friends). The distinction comes in where there's a blind spot, through that loyalty and it permits attitudes and behaviors of us vs them bloodshed and conflict (rather than mere competitiveness).

And I found the comparison of a coffee cup as one's country as great. It's kind of important to consider the idea of love of country as an often one-way relationship just above that of a crazy person. It begs the important question "does your country love you back?" If so, how? What is it doing? And what if it doesn't, in its way, communicate back, listen to your concerns, and so on?

17 October 2009

since I'm on here, more, and more

I am sort of at the same opinion with the HPV vaccine that is reached relating to circumcision. I don't see a problem with recommendation. It's not clear that with women and girls getting this vaccine already at a requirement like level there's enough of a social benefit (in the US) for this to be a requirement imposed on men simply because there is probably a very small, at best, externality or social benefit (as added protection for women) and probably no benefit relative to the opportunity costs for men at all. It's possible for example that there are greater benefits (both for society at large and for women) simply parking more resources in cervical cancer treatments and detection, combined with (improving) vaccinations for women.

The aside point brought up if this were a reversed position relating to testicular cancer is a good one though. That is worth considering what, if any, impact it would have. And whether the altruism involved in the societal benefits of mass scale vaccination campaigns of infectious diseases (many of which DO have very large externality benefits because the diseases themselves are fatal or debilitating and were far more infectious and common) has some value of its own.

Also, as my own aside, all of my postings tonight were done during the Yankees-Angels game. This one right as the Angels took the lead in the 11th inning. It looks like they are playing in a snowstorm in some of the close up shots. It's that cold and rainy.

more torture

"The 25 lines edited out of the court papers contained details of how Mr Mohamed's genitals were sliced with a scalpel and other torture methods so extreme that waterboarding, the controversial technique of simulated drowning, "is very far down the list of things they did," the official said. "

Reported as part of the British High Court ruling (pending appeal) on the documents relating to a joint-CIA/British detention and interrogation/torture of a British national. More here.

People really need to keep in mind that coercion has levels. But beyond a line, a line drawn in international and US law, that coercion becomes something else. Something like a window into the darker corners of the human condition. If the Brits can release information like this and doing so won't (on its own) affect negatively their security presence and abilities, why can't we? It seems to me that there are times when the public needs to know what is done in its defence so it can judge the costs and benefits of continuing to do it and start to understand the depths of what is in fact being done (without referring instead and only to popular media conceptions of what is being done).

superfreak(onomics. )

I've got the book on pre-order, but I suspect some of the skepticism I share with the authors on this issue is directed at "what is the most economically efficient and environmentally realistic solution" and not on "is this something we can control".

A straight carbon tax is probably okay. If it is invested in low or non-carbon generating energy infrastructure and development generally. Cap and trade doesn't impress me that it will work for carbon in the same way it works for industrial byproducts like sulfur for example, simply because carbon is produced by things like agriculture, deforestation, transportation and private energy consumption in ways that sulfur isn't. It's everywhere in the economy and so a general tax on it is probably smarter. You can just slash the income or corporate income taxes instead (and dump the subsidies on, agriculture, oil, and coal).

The problem to my mind isn't that the solution is hard to come by for policy concerns. It's that the solution is hard to come by on political concerns. Moving the American economy to a lower energy footprint just isn't going to happen quickly enough to make a difference on the need for carbon. The cities aren't designed that way. The infrastructure isn't set up for anything useful, and isn't very efficient. As a result the geo-engineering solution is one that some countries, though it appears perhaps not us, will take seriously. In part because there are no international rules to the contrary (there are in effect no meaningful international rules because Kyoto doesn't seem to have been enforced by the signatories anyway).

Of course, the other issue is that these guys like examining tough solutions to see what actually and clearly has an impact. I remember all the fuss over the simple conclusion that abortion bans have drastic correlations with rising crime rates over the next 15-20 years after they take effect (or when they are relaxed, with lower rates). Global warming has taken on for policy considerations a highly emotionally charged nature for debate. Even health care, with its silly "death panels", is not a subject that Americans equivocally disagree needs to be done and argue over. Global warming by contrast is a scientifically based debate that has a wide range of adaptations that it proposes doing, and yet is somehow more disagreeable than an ideological struggle over the range of policies for health care. It's more like the debate over evolution (the public debate, not the scientific one in both cases) in that regard, with these somehow fixed and rigid positions on all sides that are unmoved by new analysis and facts and end up projecting policies that are hostile even to mild amendments toward something in between that better acknowledges the present realities of energy production and use patterns in developed countries and the needs for such in developing countries.

I guess it would be nice if we could re-engineer American society such that it wastes less energy, water, or other natural resources, or that it encourages personal recycling. But it doesn't appear that there's any political will to do anything like that and there's a gap between the science and the public in as far as explaining the need to do any of those things. There's still some sort of absurd belief that water and energy waste is controlled by rationing better than the market (even a slightly rigged market involving punitive end-consumer or Pigovian taxes) for example. Even though it does clearly work: when energy or water prices are allowed to go up, people and businesses will use less. For whatever reason, people and some businesses have decided it is more important to keep prices low than to use (and by extension waste) less. That has to be overcome somewhere and somehow.

revisiting the kosmo

The sad part is I recognized about 70% of the episodes from the entrance alone. Even with the repetitive nature of his dramatic appearances.

The economics of sports stadia

Which don't add up

On a brighter note, San Francisco's new Giants stadium actually sort of paid for their beautiful ball park through private ownership and development (at about a 50/50 rate). But obviously the Yankees and Mets and virtually everyone else with a new temple homage to the glorious days of youth is funded largely out of the deep and endless pockets of the public.

I've yet to figure out how this works, even taking into account the incalculable value of civic pride at having a major sports team that a city receives, but it does.

What you are asking for, already exists.

What's funny about this is that I recently debated people on the issue of college admissions which were supposedly skewed against white/Americans in favor of foreign, especially Asian, kids. It first had to be established that I have no idea where this logic is coming from that there's a bias involved at high level institutions. If anything, it seemed to me that the bias was already for European-descended Americans because of our generally lower math and science scores. Let me know where there is compelling evidence that there's a bias moving in the other direction and then maybe at least there's a quasi emotional justification for college admissions protectionism. Though I still would say that the "bias" is that there's a pool of better qualified students. Which is not the fault of the college admissions boards.

Granting that this study only tracks Americans, I would imagine that there's a fairly consistent racial profile for admissions of foreigners.

Water. Perfectly safe. Trust us.

Why does it take 3 government agencies to oversee the same water?

I am sort of curious. What was the result or the penalty for airlines or airplanes that failed? Because it sounds like nothing (or at least, they decided to come up with a new rule instead). What's the point of new rules if you won't or didn't enforce the old ones?

And of course, this "cleaning the water" problem would not be a big deal if there were not all these rules about what passengers could bring on an airplane that are at least marginally enforced.
You: not important, rules must/should be applied.
Company: important, rules are optional.

Sounds perfectly in line with our anti-market, pro-business governing style.

16 October 2009

big deal, out of thin air

So now he's a literary hero character?

Yep. So to justify the excessive coverage yesterday, the boy is now being compared to famous stories and there's a rush to explain the childhood habit of playing hide and seek (minus the seek part). The Huck Finn/Tom Sawyer analogy completely escapes me. I was pretty sure a big part of that story was the quest of young people to strike it out on their own, not to escape feelings that they are uncomfortable with.

To me, it is a sign of how excessive this story became that even I heard of it. Because the particulars in retrospect do not strike me as particularly newsworthy. Even if we reflect that many of them were unknown at the time, they were relatively obvious if you asked questions that were going unanswered by news coverage: like how do they know for sure the kid is even on the thing, something which became more painfully obvious that nobody asked when he wasn't in the crash. I personally am going to side with Ariana Huffington on this one: we bumped off coverage on Afghanistan for this, really? Are we that paranoid about children in this country that we cannot ask sensible questions and move on until there are more facts? Had this been a movie mystery, I would have figured it out by the first 10 minutes and taken a nap for the rest of the hour. Apparently we have no need of rational moderation on such things.

As an update, it appears they're considering filing charges against the boy's parents. If this results in some sort of fiscal compensation for the costs accrued by the state agencies chasing down their false report (when they could have been doing something else more productive like shaking down..., err I mean arresting people), I will consider this whole sage to have had a happy ending.

15 October 2009

What is this, the twilight zone?

A bit late to that party, racist buffoon

This has only been illegal for an officer of the government to do for almost 50 years. I'm frankly amazed it even can still come up.

Of course, it would be nice if the government could apply the same logic to homosexuals at some point (as in: the government cannot tell people who they can or cannot marry, within some justifiable limitations such as consent to contract issues). But it's been established practice for decades not to do this crap relating to interracial couples. What. The. Fuck. Happened? I mean, I know this was Louisiana, but the attitudes expressed in this piece don't make any difference to the laws of the country and state. It's not a JP's job to make the laws or to enforce such laws as they see fit. They may express their personal opinion and oppositional views but they cannot carry them out as official state policy. I also love his 99% "statistic". What difference would that make first off, second, who cares, and third, it's not much of an accurate statistic. Even for the state of Louisiana and his jurisdiction. I'm really not sure how that was supposed to appeal to our logic centers to demonstrate that this was not some racist bigot who was elevated to a state office.

I suppose one simple suggestion would be to simply erase the state's involvement in marriage entirely. But I don't think that will be happening any time soon either.

14 October 2009

Mission statement I can get behind

(1) If Obama takes action or makes a decision that you think is good and constructive, say so and give him credit
(2) If Obama takes action or makes a decision that you think is bad, wrong and/or destructive, say so and criticize him for it
(3) If there were things you claimed to find so horrible and wrong when Bush did them (indefinite detention, denial of habeas corpus, renditions, state secrets, endless wars, military commissions, compulsive secrecy), and Obama does them, apply the same standards. As Bob Herbert put it rather simply: "Policies that were wrong under George W. Bush are no less wrong because Barack Obama is in the White House."
(4) If there are ongoing debates about policy, agitate for the outcome you think is best rather than the one the White House wants, where those two are different. If there are policies you think should be adopted that aren't, complain about that, critique it, and find ways to maximize pressure.
(5) Don't personalize political leaders and be driven by emotional attachments to them one way or the other. They're nothing more than public servants -- an extremely powerful one in the case of the President -- who should be assessed based exclusively on their actions.
(6) If anything, when it comes to the most powerful political official on the planet, it's best to err on the side of excessive checks and criticism rather than excessive deference and trust. Presidents have no shortage of people and institutions loyally devoted to their message and agenda.


I have had a number of problems with the sudden appearance of conservatives as budget hawks, anti-war advocates (or at least, anti-Afghan war, but still pro-Iran war), and other various intonations that get splattered around the political landscape as though they were well-meant and intentioned. They're not. They're false prophets because they ignored all this bullshit when Bush did it or when Reagan did it or when Palin does it or whoever their hero de jour happens to be. Obama's already adopted some Reaganesque positions on things like nuclear arms reductions and torture, totally ignored by the right who cannot conceive of their champion idol being anything but "illiberal". There are people who called this sort of activity out at the time. They're mostly called libertarians, and to some extent, liberals. The problem now seems to be that there's no shortage of people who are critical because they have a cause to be (but don't understand their cause, which is that they lost the election, and not much else was really lost) and who deserve to be silenced because they're idiots. And there's no shortage of people who deserve to be silenced in support because they're not like the "disciples of Obama". They're like worshipers instead. There has to be room for people in the middle to talk without being shouted over, and down, by these two sides. It would help if they could ignore one another for example and just shout amongst themselves, like Faux news does or maybe MSNBC does (I don't watch either, but Faux ends up on Stewart's docket far more often, and it seems to be for good reasons). Basically, I don't think it is too much to ask for people who want to express an opinion to use a consistent ideology to do it.

At least we'll know where they are coming from instead of trying to figure out the various cults and the directions they will lead their sheep.

China equals the old school

China is really beginning to remind me of late 19th century America. Fossil hunting was a big deal at that time here. It's become sort of a museum hunter thing, in part because it's harder to conduct digs here and in part because we have fewer native talents in sciences anyway to spare a few to go out and dig things up. At least the really old things like fossils rather than anthropological or geological research digs. But fossils are just so much more fun to find for society than looking at temperature variations recorded in sediment deposits. They're like jigsaw puzzles distorted by tens of millions of years.

Anyway, there's also the savings rates and philanthropic efforts of its state run industries, which aren't that different in some respects from the monopolies of Carnegie or Rockefeller. The money for state public works or the purchases of American debt is still basically coming from (some) deferred wages of workers at the bottom of the food chain. But it's doing a fair amount of amazing things instead, like setting up research institutions or colleges and investing in human capital development (just as Carnegie did with libraries and education grants and Rockefeller did with research). For a country that has some mighty political flaws for individuals, I'm beginning to find it looks an awful in its habits like a country that we over here were once pretty familiar with.

Ahh, this is Ohio after all

Forgot to mention this

Yep. That sounds like the Cincinnati area to me.

13 October 2009

Ostrom and the fake nobel

I think this gets trotted out every time the Nobel for economics gets presented to someone who isn't considered "an Economist", with the capital E, by the field. Nash had the same complaints, from basically the opposite direction (that he was too mathematical rather than the theoretical or applied research that Ostrom does/did). More or less, economic theorists should have little trouble embracing the applications and research into the applications of Coase theory. Even if it's more a political science venture or an application of game theory than raw economic theory (like Real Business Cycle or the Efficient Markets Theory), so what? Virtually everything out there has economic applications or implications because virtually every decision we make has either financial consequences or involves a distribution of our limited resources. It's as pervasive to the study of human beings as a study of our processing of oxygen molecules. Of course there's always this wisdom to consider on their field of study: "If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion."

Anyway, I am not surprised that simple rules between or within communities will often trump enforced rules from without. The difficulty is that we have a system which is setup now to enforce rules from without rather than to create them naturally or internally and a population which tends to demand such arbitrary rules rather than seek accommodation and balance. There are simple clear positions which do need such enforcement, but these are, on balance, signals of individual autonomy such as basic civil liberties. Which individuals could then use to create binding agreements with their foes and friends in arrangements of their choice or prospective leanings in the form of ideology and demeanor.

In other words, you can certainly use free speech to say something controversial. But you must also understand that others will align themselves either for or against it in social pressures. Sometimes their reactions will be categorically silly and unproductive (the Whole Foods boycott), and other times they may be of note and use (the social pressure in support of DADT is no longer a majority position). People need to be free to consume these opinions and take their measure, argue for or against, and find them lacking in order to ultimately discard them. The trouble is not that some people hold controversial opinions. It is that nobody will call them for often making them unsupported by reasoned arguments or real and factual citations.

Some perspectives are better than others

Daily Dose of laughter

Also this, to keep in mind the present chain of "logic" for why we don't need equality of civil rights in this country.

The key point I've noticed over time is that comedy is the best way to highlight the ways people view reality as distorted. As in, people are not willing to deal with reality as is with its variously complex and simple problems, so they make something up instead to project their anxiety and fear upon. And then demand someone else do something about it.

It's important to keep in perspective that this is a position to be mocked and treated with laughter at best, and pity when laughter is inappropriate. Because otherwise you will get into arguments with people who think they are seriously living in the real world by avoiding any ounce of logical resistance to their worldview, and that shit is just depressing.

I laugh when I hear things like "Sarah Palin has a conservative vision or agenda". Because it's funny to observe the amount of logical inconsistency that is involved to project that upon her actual accomplishments. I pity people who need someone (or something) to tell them right from wrong, and who want someone to tell everyone else right and wrong too. Because it's just not that hard to figure out basic ethics. I think it is okay to laugh when "they" (authoritarians) try to make sense. Because shouting back at their volume level doesn't seem like a healthy response.

10 October 2009

More Obama fallout

"What's particularly bothersome about yesterday's attacks is the premise that it's improper, unpatriotic and even Terrorist-mimicking to do anything but cheer -- have a "national celebration" -- when Obama is awarded the Nobel Prize. Whether Obama is actually pursuing policies of peace happens to be an extremely legitimate topic of debate. The same is true for whether he's done anything meaningful yet to merit the award. Numerous liberals in good standing objected to Obama's award -- from Ezra Klein ("It is undeserved. It is a bit ridiculous") to The Nation's Richard Kim ("I woke up, read the New York Times website and thought I had come to the Onion instead . . . Obama doesn't deserve the prize, yet") to Naomi Klein ("disappointing, cheapening of the Nobel Prize"). While there are arguments to make in his favor -- I even made some myself yesterday in the first two paragraphs of what I wrote -- there is something unquestionably bizarre about awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to a leader who did not merely "inherit," but is advocating, actively prosecuting and escalating, a major war that is killing large numbers of civilians with no plans to stop, while at the same time building prisons to house people who will have no due process."

More here

I think this basically summarizes the problem I'm having with this. "We're not there, yet". And it doesn't seem clearly established enough that we are wanting to move 'there' on the basis of the policies the Obama administration is pursuing. Yet.

09 October 2009

Books, books everywhere.

That's an office I'd like to have.

Too bad I'm going digital with the books.

Obama for peace

It was suggested that I would have some thoughts on this issue. The Nobel Peace Prize. To Obama. Already.

No. I don't have any thoughts.

Actually I do have some.

1) What the fuck?
2) So what dirty laundry does the current Prime Minister of Zimbabwe have? Morgan Tsvangirai, for those unfamiliar with the details of Sub-Saharan African politics, was at least among the favorites to win the award. I'm not really impressed with the two people listed as the major favorites. Both of them would look pretty much like the Obama award, without the attention. Human rights in Afghanistan is sort of a joke after this last election. And Colombia is a country that is as much a mess as Iraq. Sure it needs peace advocates, but it also needs something like a peace DEAL.

Look, I think most people in the foreign policy department can admire his stance on nuclear weapons. Or his speeches abroad appealing to multilateral efforts. I think it would be fair to say that American diplomacy is at least more engaged and engaging now than it was 8-9 months ago. I am still waiting for it to bring in the harvest however. We're still fighting two wars. One of aggression in my opinion and the other, for no particular reason except.. I'm not sure what the justification for Afghanistan is this week. Maybe we should have ended one of them? Iran is still out there and is a mess, though I think it's getting somewhere as far as the international community's reaction over its nuclear program, if not its internal repression of dissent. We made a lot of mostly reasonable talk about the Israeli peace process. But Netanyahu hasn't budged and I haven't seen what our effective response will be yet (cut off military aid for example?). We ended a regime of torture. But that sort of happened a while ago, and we still have abuses of prisoners to account for (which we are avoiding doing), abuses of civil liberties in progress and in our past to account for (which we are not doing anything in either direction), and some military contractors who committed atrocities abroad (Blackwater) who are still operating abroad, if not in Iraq.

So I decided to make a list of things we did do and things we promised to do
1) We killed some pirates and sent some ships to kill more. Yay us!
2) We made a symbolic amount of progress on climate policy, with the EPA now commanded to regulate CO2 emissions.
3) We settled some Russian misgivings over Eastern Europe by moving our "missile shield" to a mobile system in the Med instead of in Poland somewhere. I guess this has helped Russia back off on clear support for Iran. Some.
4) We caught a terrorist cell this week. (Good luck ever seeing them in court though)
5) We signed a treaty with Russia to cut nuclear arsenals by 25%
6) Overturned Mexico City Resolution
7) Called the police stupid (which I thought was great) and supervised a beer summit on race relations with assistance of the fool.

And then promises
1) International cooperation over climate policy. Good luck. Kyoto was pretty much universally ignored by the Senate. Even Al Gore didn't vote for it. I'm not sure how they think they'll get something through on this. Waxman-Markey, our own internal policy shift, is basically DOA.
2) Some excellent speeches in Egypt and elsewhere relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the schism of the Bush years between his Christian coalition and Islam. Not a whole lot of measurable progress on this front thus far.
3) America as an equal in the game of nations seems to be the public relations spin. But we're still engaged in two wars and debating internally about how to basically run other countries affairs (Iran). I recognize that we have a realism interest in not seeing Iran as a nuclear power. I get that, there's nothing wrong with expressing that position. But we're basically arguing about how to achieve it without involving Iran (sanctions won't work, they'll only solidify the power base around the Revolutionary Guards, Ahmadinejad's right flank). Bombing, by either us or Israel won't help. And nobody apparently trusts the Iranian people to make decisions in the best interest of their own nation (with some justification, seeing that they're apparently not trusted by the Iranian government to vote the way they want). By comparison the decisions in Afghanistan look like a cakewalk.
4) More participation in global poverty funding, etc. I'm not sure that anybody is living up to these self-imposed obligations yet (except maybe China). So this one isn't so much Obama's problem as it is the lack of public will to deal with starving and sick Africans or indigenous peoples in Latin America as compared to unemployed American, Asian, and European peoples.
5) Promised to close Guantanamo. But left open Bagram and other foreign prisons and abandoned a promise to come up with a legal framework for our detention programs and policies relating to terrorism suspects (I'm somewhat ambivalent now about whether we should do this, I think it might be enough to simply try to put people on trial eventually. What a strange notion that is..).
6) Condemned the coup in Honduras. Not much happened after that though.

I think you could look at the length and breadth of the Obama foreign policy proposals and assume that he will work vigorously on it and that this might be worth a Nobel at some point. But this was a bit too soon. The only explanation I might have is that there was a very broad field of candidates (supposedly it was a record number) and nobody else jumped out. It's sort of like in baseball where every team has to send a representative to the All-Star game. And there's always a couple teams that are so terrible they have no good candidates, but somebody has to go. Now it's possible that the team Obama plays for will get better (his own team, the White Sox weren't so good this year for example, they were an aging ball club with lots of dead-weight on the roster). Or maybe you could look at him like a prospect that you draft a bit earlier than you think you should because there aren't any other good looking prospects, as in a weak draft class like last year's NBA draft. So long as he fills out well, it becomes worth it. But from what I've seen so far with his domestic policies (in so far as his ability to deliver his promising agenda), I'm not so sure he will do that much better in foreign policy, where Presidents have a much freer reign.

I compared him favorably with Clinton back when I was looking at Presidential rankings. Clinton was a slightly above average President in my opinion (mostly because he was shrewd politically and made some good calls economically, his foreign policy was a mess of bad and some shreds of decent, and I'm not one to care that much if Presidents get sex from women who are not their wives, or in the eventual future, men who are not their husbands). There's nothing wrong with being average. I like his rhetorical style, his speeches, and some of his politics and agenda, and he seems quite personable with a nice, perhaps even fun, family. But he's also tabled a lot of civil liberties after selling himself as a Constitutional scholar, hasn't vigorously advanced rights for homosexuals, hasn't pursued justice regarding our abuses in the "war on terror", and I've seen several unpleasant economic positions show up in trade issues already. If you toss in his throwing under the bus the killing of the employer health system (a political calculus that may have been necessary, but is the only thing that liberals and libertarians agree must happen), and the inability to fight over the "death panel" issue (one really good idea in the damn bill in the first place, funding living will decisions is the closest thing to a "free lunch" in the thing), the Sotomayor SCOTUS pick being another possible blow to property rights, I'm pretty sure "average" is coming down about where I'd be most comfortable putting him right now with it so early in the term(s). There's potential to go either way is why. For example, I was okay with the GM/Chrysler bailout/bankruptcies because I'd said from the start an arranged bankruptcy was the best option (back when Bush was handing out money). I disagreed with some of the terms, but if they do "what I tell them to" once in a while, I cannot get too upset if some compromises are made in the details (so long as they don't totally alter what was done). I'd like to see more progress on educational policy next (I'm guessing that's after health care and climate issues, though it's been #1 on my agenda for years now, ever since NCLB). The extending of the school year push is a start. I happen to think this is necessary. Perhaps it would be easiest to phase it in, but in the long run there's no reason not to do this. Our ultimate goal in public policies shouldn't be to keep Americans happy, it's really to keep Americans competitive and employable so they can keep themselves happy. The upcoming SCOTUS cases on issues ranging from free speech, the religious establishment clause, to gun control will be a nice test for Justice Sotomayor (and hence Obama's selection of her) even though these cases are likely to be decided without her acting as a key swing vote. There's still room to investigate and prosecute abuses of the anti-terrorism infrastructure, or to dial back our abuses of our own civil liberties (even though we're showing no signs of starting on these paths). So there's some room for improvement and some signs that there could be some in the years to come.

But seriously, giving a guy who has been in office 9 months an award like this one? I've been withholding a lot of judgment and referendum calls on his term simply because it's so early in the game. It's like trying to predict who will win a game in the 1st quarter when both teams are still trying to establish their game plan and mostly being stymied by each other. It is ugly and it is very tricky to find the right signs of hope or defeat. I've had to battle off the dogs calling for his head as a "communist" or a "fascist" or a "Kenyan", and patiently try to explain economics and the politics of our country (which are at the federal level consistently anti-market and pro-business, just as Obama has been). The people who wanted him to have no shot at all and those idiots who cheered when Chicago lost the 2016 Olympics bid basically made up their minds without actually looking for any evidence. Now it's looking like the rest of the world is doing the same.

Update: It looks like Obama at least kept himself in perspective. His immediate reaction speech was pretty good. I'm still going to await some results before I pass judgments, but it sounds like he has had the same "prospect draft pick" explanation that I did. Now the question is will he be Dirk Nowitzki or Robert Traylor.

The onion punk'd us all approach?

As another reaction, I'm noticing the predicted "right-wing" reaction (Greenwald is probably like my reaction, he's a civil libertarian, and definitely not a right-winger, so I will apologize for the lack of appropriate segue) is for him to give back the award. I don't think this is necessary either. Even though I'm skeptical of the choice thus far, there is some potential to do something worth an award (after all, who else would be able to end these two wars other than the American President elected who opposed one of them entirely as a Senator). My complaint would be that usually they give these awards when someone has done something or is in the midst of doing it. Not when they say they're going to and haven't yet accomplished or started doing it.

He was nominated 8 months ago. Not last week. Not after the Cairo speech. That just feels weird to me. Was it that much of an accomplishment to be "not Bush"? Maybe it was. The Bush track record is admittedly very ugly and Obama does have some of it on his plate still to clean up after. But for myself, I have a hard time squaring that with the realities still going on, and often stances adopted completely by the Obama administration that came out of the Bush team, as establishing an atmosphere of peaceful cooperation.