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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

That Sucking Sound is Your Brain on Journalism

I have a fair amount of expertise in a narrow field. Almost without exception, when I read a newspaper story related to aviation — typically tin-kicking — I come away knowing less than I did when I started. Okay, that's not exactly right. More accurately, if I replaced what I knew with what the story told me, then I would know less. And not just less, but opposite. I would replace knowledge with negative knowledge.

Michael Crichton called this the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect. (Presumably, this has some connection to Murray Gell-Mann, but for the life of me, I don't know what it is.)

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward-reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

The NYT Op-Ed page perpetually gives me G-M Amnesia. Sometimes I can fight it. I know in advance that Krugman, for one notorious instance, routinely abuses reality. I dislearn less by, instead of reading him, staring slack jawed at lolcatz videos.

Other times, though, it is harder. Having been to South America all of twice, I'm very superficially aware of societies that are very different from the US, and they have some stark problems that the US doesn't.

All on account, no doubt, of reasons.

One problem that seems to be more or less endemic south of the Rio Grande is the truly jarring juxtaposition of sumptuous wealth with grinding poverty. In Buenos Aires a scarcely more than a mile is sufficient to make the journey from first world opulence to hopeless third world deprivation*. Of course, similar trips are possible in the US. Three miles is sufficient traverse the chasm between Grosse Pointe and Detroit.

The New York Times recently carried an Op-Ed about Brazil's unaffordable homes. In it, I learned prices in São Paolo have skyrocketed over the last half dozen years, to the point where "… a 970-square-foot apartment here costs the equivalent of 16 years of an average family’s total income. By comparison, this cost-to-income ratio is eight in New York, 6.9 in Berlin and only three in Chicago." Where purchase costs go, rents inevitably follow: those earning the minimum wage spend nearly all of it renting a dantean shack in a seventh level favela.

Which can only mean one thing: Brazil has a severe housing shortage. (While that short drive from Grosse Pointe to Detroit is shocking enough, it is worth noting that at least no one is living in those Detroit tumbledowns, and they are the exact opposite of expensive.)

It’s no wonder we’re the country of favelas, urban slums built by desperate people using poor materials such as cardboard and tin. They pop up in areas without basic infrastructure or sanitation, and are sometimes vulnerable to landslides, floods and fires.

In early 2009, the government took note and began a program called Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life). The public-private partnership aimed to reduce [the housing shortage] by facilitating credit and financing construction.

But from the beginning, it favored families that earned three times the minimum wage or more. As of 2012, after the first and second stages of the program, only 40 to 45 percent of all contracts were assigned to the poorest families. The program appeared to be more about improving the economy than helping the poor. Many critics also complained about the quality of the 344-square-foot houses destined for the poorest, which were built in remote areas without adequate infrastructure.

Highlighting mine, to indicate likely onset of G-M Amnesia.

Now as if all of this isn't bad enough, the housing industry is bound and determined to scotch any reforms because it has "… deep interests in sustaining the old urbanization model marked by segregation and inequality." What those interests might be, or why …?

[One of the strongest groups fighting these issues is the Homeless Workers Movement, which also] advocates the occupation of abandoned buildings or areas that are kept vacant by real estate companies (some of them bankrupt); the resistance of forced evictions; and the government expropriation of housing for, as written in our Constitution, “public necessity.” Its leaders also quote our Constitution when saying that “property shall observe its social function,” and that the economic order is “intended to ensure everyone a life with dignity, in accordance with the dictates of social justice.”

Unfortunately for the author, the entire rest of this Op-Ed piece drives home the contradictory point that saying so doesn't make it so. Therein lies a whiff of wet streets causing rain. But not nearly as much as the conclusory paragraph:

[The Homeless Workers Movement] claims that adequate housing is a human right and shouldn’t be ruled by market logic alone. That argument is convincing, especially when you look at the numbers: There are more than six million vacant housing units in Brazil — more than enough to cover our shortage.

Prior to reading this, I knew of, but nothing about favelas. Now, I'll bet I know even less.



*With time to kill in China, I thought I would finish this. Every time I come here, I'm appalled at how gooned up the internet is, and convinced it can't get any worse. Wrongo, wonderwings. Even getting something so simple as a map of Detroit, to fill a place name gap that, no doubt, came from reading too much Krugman, is impossible to get.

Thomas Friedman, here is a pro-tip: China's throttling the webz does not bode well for your collectivist fascinations.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Physics, and a Stroke of Luck

This morning I flew from Paris to Newark. Thanks to physics, I should probably change the spelling to "moooooooooooorrrrrrrrrrrrnnnnnnnnnnniiiiiinnnnnnnngggggggggg".

At that latitude, about 47 degrees north, the airplane's angular velocity (number of degrees longitude crossed per unit of time) is very close to the earth's angular velocity, but in the opposite direction.

One consequence is the apparent fixing of the sun in the sky. In this case, we had an early sunrise that lasted for seven hours.

Another consequence, if you time it just right, is you get to see the International Space Station.

Twice.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Hand-Me-Down

And now for something completely different.

The man-child will be turning 20 in a couple months. So I started thinking about what he might like in the way of a birthday present. Since I am a mere guy, my gift ideas are typically late-to-need, and frequently rubbish.

But this time even my dodgy skills were sufficient to grasp the obvious: a car.

He goes to a large college, so getting out to do even simple errands like food shopping are a multi-hour chore involving schlepping groceries on public transport.

And dating. Feminism be damned, there are at least two things young women expect: the guy will drive, and he will be taller. At just a tick shy of six feet and still growing, my son has the latter knocked, but comes up short in the former.

As it happens, deciding on which was just as easy as what: a BMW.

Woah, Piketty fans. Calm down. You bangers on the inequality drum, you reflexive looters, give it a rest for a second.

Born in 1991, it is old enough to drink, which would bring a whole new meaning to DUI. TOSWIPIAW and I bought it before we got married. Both critters came home from the hospital in it. With more than 220,000 miles on the clock, it has traveled nearly the equivalent of going around the world nine times.

This thing is seriously old.

Since it is twice the age of the median US car it is clearly a rare survivor; the vast majority of its peers have long since gone to the knacker's yard. For those that remain, many, perhaps most, have emotionally attached owners.

I'm not one. Really. No, really.

Afflicted with a Mittyesque notion of being, except for profound deficits in bravery and talent, a Grand Prix race car driver, I have always been drawn to cars with sporting pretensions. And possessing a modicum of mechanical aptitude has meant I could make tolerable a series of cars that others with more sense would shy away from. In order, starting when I was in college: MGA, Porsche 911, Alpha Romeo, Mazda RX-7, Triumph TR-6, and another 911.

Average age when they fell into my grease stained mitts, 13 years. I kept most for six to 12 years (I held on to the Alfa for only six months; long enough to have my fun, dumping it before it caught fire.). The second 911 was 27 when I sold it in 2007. The reason in each case was clear: I was various combinations of unable and unwilling to pay for anything newer. (BTW, each was a daily driver.)

So this car, a 1992 325i, the first new car I, 37 at the time, had ever owned, is either another example of thrift, or further manifestation of illness. Also, and I'm not sure which theory this supports most, underneath its commonplace sedan exterior it is seriously fast, with razor sharp handling, brilliant brakes, rear wheel drive, and a manual transmission.

As if that isn't enough for a mere car, it also bears lessons in economics and social inequality. And road trip.

A car, like most material goods, is a wasting asset. Just driving one off the lot will take 10% off its resale value. Within a half dozen years, no matter how delicately driven and meticulously maintained, it will be worth about a third of the gaping hole buying the thing left in your wallet. This is why, in the mere terms of dollars and cents, it saves much more of both to buy a 2-3 yr old car; or, if one must buy new, to keep the thing a bloody long time.

Unfortunately, no matter how pristine even the most fastidious owner keeps a car, its market value will inevitably decline below the cost of a major repair. The critical problem here is that an old car with, say, a newly rebuilt engine is worth scarcely anything more than the same car with an old, but still functioning, engine. Spending $4,000 on rejuvenating that mechanical festival of suck-squeeze-bang-blow will be no help at all should you be rear ended by someone finding out they cannot, in fact, successfully juggle texting and driving. The imprudent juggler's insurance company will pay out the market value of the car, and not a dime for the engine.

And that is in addition to the more obvious accumulation of failures as a car ages. As the miles and years accumulate, decrepitude and increasing unreliability make the sum of remaining market value and ongoing repair costs better spent on selling or knackering the thing and replacing it with something newer.

The market obviously believes this optimum tradeoff to be at 11.4 years, hence the current median age for cars.

So how does keeping a car twice as old make any sense at all?

Without some backstory, it doesn't. When the car was seven years old, a mere child, I heard about premature water pump failures. Uncharacteristically and unfathomably, I didn't jump all over replacing it. I think I convinced myself the pump would give signs of impending failure.

It did. Just like an earthquake.

I paid the price, first with my very annoyed wife stuck on the side of the road. Towing: $60. Water pump: $35. Unfortunately, that isn't the end of it. Beknownst to me, the failure was fairly violent. The bearing had seized, bending the housing, shattering the impeller, derailing the drive belt and running the fan into the radiator. Far less obvious, a piece of the shattered impeller found its way into a water passage, insidiously causing uneven heating between the #2 and #3 cylinders, making them ever so slightly oval. Two years later, at 155,000 miles, and at least 75,000 miles before what should have been its time, the engine was junk. Since cars are designed to last about as long as their most costly component, at the time it still made sense to replace the engine. However, doing so threw a monkey wrench into the car's lifecycle.

Moreover, aside from big ticket items, I almost never have to pay a mechanic. That cuts maintenance costs by more than half. Add to that a reasonably finely tuned eye and ear for things getting dodgy, and a pilot's deeply ingrained preference, reinforced by experience, to replace things before they fail, this car reached its 22nd birthday in unusually good fettle. It wasn't an eyesore, had no accumulation of aggravating gremlins, and depreciation was a done deal.

With the critters gone at school, we had more cars than drivers at home. Rather than sell one just to buy another, I decided to give my son the statistical outlier. Makes sense, right?

Ummmmm, perhaps not.

Being blessed with a spacious garage, a reasonably extensive array of tools, and decades of learning from mistakes, I can take things as they come. However, since my son has none of those things, and goes to school 2200 driving miles from home (a great many bringing "trackless" to "wilderness"), I had to take a rather more comprehensive approach.

Because the engine in these cars has a life expectancy of about 230,000 miles, the rest of the car is designed with that in mind. Among other things, that includes suspension bits that most people never even think about: the bushings and ball joints separating modern cars' ride and handling from that of Conestoga wagons. Beyond that, the car's air conditioning had quit working several years ago. That verges on irrelevance up here in Alaska, but practically constitutes a life support system in eastern Washington, where temps are routinely in the high double digits from late spring to early fall.

Almost time to start setting money on fire.

Right about the point where we discover we need new half-shafts. Add 30% to project cost.


The parts list came to $3500. Brakes, struts, shocks, control arms, tie rods, unanticipated drive shafts, bushing sets, and an AC compressor (just to name the big chunks) have a way of adding up. Onto that monetary bonfire that would leave even Congress in awe, toss another $2500 for persuading professionals to dedicate their time, expertise and specialty tools to do things like pressing old bushings and bearings out and new ones in, and a four wheel alignment after it was all said and done.

Back together. All it took was dodgy economics and lavish swearing.


So how does putting $6,000 into a car worth only $3,000 to begin with make any sense at all, unless prefixed with "non"?

Especially since I have no affection for the thing. Really, I don't.

In pure monetary terms, it is looking stupid-ish. For $9000, there is a decent array of cars with half the mileage to be had. All gutless, mushy, slush box, front-wheel drive econoboxes, to be sure. Against that, all the running gear on this near-antique is now newer than than the econobox alternative. And it's a known quantity. So there's that.

But still, at best the margin is razor thin, and only a fool ignores loss risk. To balance the books, the car has to last 42,000 more miles, and have nothing more than normal operating and maintenance costs along the way. Why? That yields depreciation of 15 cents per mile, which is what it had going in.

Of course, mere dollars and cents are rarely the total measure of economic decisions. The joy of working with my son on an extensive and complex task is impossible to measure. And the knowledge he gained will save him buckets o' bux along the way.

So, (Dodgy Economic Decision) + (Unquantifiable Rationalizations) = TOTAL WIN!

Funny, that's how progressive math works. Start with the desired answer, and mathify as required.

Tying economics into car maintenance is obvious. But how can it possibly bear upon family inequality? That seems an awful lot to ask of wrenches, screwdrivers, and the occasional sledge hammer.

Never mind the money, this project took three solid weeks of physical and mental labor. As well equipped as my garage is by amateur standards, I don't have a lift. Jack stands give enough clearance to work underneath, but no more. Repeatedly getting off the floor, then right back onto it with yet another right tool this time amounts to a day long workout. Hauling on wrenches and twisting screwdrivers all day gives hands every reason they need to ache all night. Sussing a series of unfamiliar mechanical tasks left my brain as fatigued at the end of the day as my body was.

All on something I was going to give away.

There were some ulterior motives here, of course. Besides a chance to teach my son some of the manly arts, there was the pleasure I felt in his pride at making his own, substantial, contributions to the project. More importantly, he now has skin in this game: this car wasn't just something handed to him; rather, it contains a substantial amount of his own labor and ingenuity. As a young man, thoughts of his own mortality rarely, if ever, intrude upon his cortex. However, the thought of rendering pointless all his work just might.

Obviously, this isn't the sort of thing I'd do for just anybody. Certainly not for neighbors, or even very good friends. And while I thankfully don't have the first hand experience, I doubt very much I would do it for a stepson, or even perhaps my own son if I wasn't married to his mother.

In Coming Apart, Charles Murray made the case that America is suffering a moral decline encouraged by intellectual elites, but primarily affecting the less well off. The successful espouse, but do not themselves practice, social libertarianism. In contrast, the poor practice what the successful merely preach.

The consequence in microcosm is this car project. Through it, and other less ambitious examples over the years, my son has a huge head start. Compared to the children of single or remarried mothers, he has received a far more extensive ongoing education in self-discipline, planning, work, pride in a job well done, and an introduction to some very valuable skills that very, very few women alone can provide. Moreover, he knows he got all that because he very specifically matters enough for someone else to make the investment. This is not Julia's World.

The inequality that matters isn't merely, or even mostly, that of income and wealth. Rather, it is the inequality that comes about from the presence, or absence, of things which can't be measured monetarily. The former are ephemeral; the latter gifts that keep giving. To the extent US society is bifurcating economically, it is also doing so culturally. I was brought up by a single mother, and didn't have a dad to teach me what my son takes for granted. However, in the 1960s, single mothers were still a relative rarity, surrounded by intact families. Proximity enabled learning through osmosis: most of my friends had dads in the house.

Two generations later, it looks as if we are running a real risk of "coming apart". Entire zip codes have scarcely an intact family to be found, which means essentially no involved dads to hand down those manly arts. Family advantages my son didn't earn make him a social capital plutocrat. Family disadvantages others didn't deserve make them social capital poor. That's not "fair." Unfortunately, it is hard to think of anything more constructive to do in the face of that unfairness than throwing one's hands up in despair.

And that can mean only one thing: road trip.

Having dismantled and, ideally, reassembled all the bits that hold the car off the ground, and other things besides, it was time to shift the thing from Alaska to Spokane.

Where trackless meets wilderness.


Twenty-three hundred some-odd miles of shifting, to be sort of exact.

A few words about maps. We are jiggy with technology. I have an iPad and iPhone; the man-child a Samsung Imitator S3. That said, when it comes to a road trip, I'll take a good paper map any day over the digital version. When trackless meets wilderness, the landscape isn't exactly chock-a-block with cell towers, so forget about updating. Screens are hard to read during the day. And since a mobile screen is so much smaller than a map, it is like looking at the world through a soda straw.

Despite not having a map, we were pretty certain we weren't in Kansas.


Unfortunately, sometimes we ran into heavy traffic.


Mostly not, though.


Coincidentally, my son and I drove out of Alaska seven years to the day after first setting foot there. Some things have changed.

When I was a kid, getting driven across country on the actual Route 66, whenever we crossed into another state, I looked for the line the map said should be on the ground. Well, imagine that, here it is. (In the bottom picture, the state line is carved out of the forest all the way to the horizon.)

This is an aerial view of part of our journey (right about where the distance tag is in the map above). No cell phone towers, service stations, cars, towns, people. Instead, nothing but miles and miles of miles and miles and a 22-year old car. What could possibly go wrong?

Midway through the third day, we were reaching southern Canada, which stops being quite so devoid of cell service, service stations, cars, etc. We saw a sign indicating that a road looking like being much less traveled than the one we were on ended up where we wanted to go. Despite not having a map, on the spur of the moment, and spurning mapquest's directions, we took it.

Great choice, as it turned out. Considering the amount of traffic it was an incongruously well paved road winding through the mountains. It was a beautiful drive, open enough to go fast, yet winding enough to give our new brakes and suspension a workout.

As we started on this road, I noticed a car well behind. Despite our brisk pace, it was catching up. Hmmmm. Can't have that. So I went faster. And it kept catching up. And I went a faster. And it still kept catching up. And I went a little faster, then finally ran out of stones. And it still kept catching up, until it got close enough for me to suss the competition. What I assumed had to be a guy driving sports car turned out to be some late model Chevy. With a bike on top. And a blonde behind the wheel. I had a sudden flashback to my childhood.

Unfortunately, as with all good things, this road trip came to an end. Three days of scenery veering between spectacular and merely beautiful, followed by another half day through the wide open countryside of northern Washington took us to Spokane International Airport, and my flight home.

More than the road trip ended there. When my son dropped me at the curb, he said, simply, "Dad, thanks for everything", before sliding back into the car and driving off. That, right there, was the moment his childhood ended.


Monday, July 21, 2014

Hey Skipper hits the Blogging Big Time

Granted, not very hard or noticeably, but still.

From today's Best of the Web (regrettably, behind a paywall), courtesy of your humble and obedient servant:

Two Magazines in One!

"Mangroves are on the march. . . . From 1984 to 2011, mangrove forests doubled in size at the northern end of their Florida range. What's enticing the mangroves north? Fewer cold snaps. These days temperatures rarely dip below 25ºF, a vital threshold for the trees."--Rachel Hartigan Shea, National Geographic, July issue

"The future of goliaths is also tied up in those mangrove nurseries, where the fish live around the trees' tangled roots until they are about five years old. Coastal development, agriculture, and pollutants threaten these shallow-water habitats. The current trajectory suggests 20 percent losses of remaining U.S. mangroves in the next 50 years--devastating for young, developing goliaths, which are already reeling from unusually cold winters that took out thousands of the fish from their juvenile habitat throughout South Florida."--Jennifer Holland, National Geographic, July issue

When I read the magazine a few days ago, I got to the second mention of mangroves and did a "Wait. Huh? Wot? In the same issue? YGBSM."

For NatGeo, warmenism is a religion. They accept it so thoroughly, so uncritically, that it explains everything. As it is for the vast majority of their readership who — aside from those getting as a gift that which they would never buy — are progressives.

And as good progressives, they no doubt sneer at fundamentalist Christians, while being completely blind to their own fundamentalism: that which explains everything, explains nothing.

Criminal Parenting

A number years back, I was sitting on the grass in a park by the boardwalk along Mission Bay in San Diego. I noticed this guy sprinting past me with panic in his eyes.  He abruptly changed direction and sprinted the other way.  I began wondering what was going on so I observed the scene and began laughing my ass off.

He had two children: one, roughly four years old, was on a big-wheel tricycle and that little boy was riding as fast as he could away from dad in one direction; the other, an approximately six-year-old girl, was clearly just starting to learn how to ride a bicycle and was heading for the water screaming, "help, I don't know how to stop!!!!"  I was laughing because there was clearly no real danger in the situation, yet if I was in the dad's shoes, I probably would've been a bit panicked too.

The girl, as was easily predictable, encountered the sand before the water which gently slowed her down and she fell over into the soft sand without a scratch. The mischievous boy kept riding, but was not even a hundred yards away when the girl was safely on the ground, and visibility was probably 5 times that.  The dad easily retrieved him and everyone was safe and sound, the dad a little worse off for the wear and tear, and much of the rest of us in the park quite entertained.

That was roughly the same era as when my daughters were two and five years old.  I was at a different park with them and was right next to my two-year-old.  My five-year-old had somewhat different age-appropriate playground interests and was maybe 30 feet away on the other side of the park.  A mother came up to me and scolded me for allowing my five-year-old to be "so far away."  She said, "somebody could snatch her, it's very irresponsible of you!" Yes, that's me - Mr. Irresponsible.  I apparently should've forced both my children to play within a 3 foot radius of me at all times.  And probably bubble wrapped them while I was at it.

It was then that I became increasingly aware of how bizarrely overly concerned with safety society was and is. Unfortunately, it's become far worse in the intervening years and perfectly adequate parenting (in my opinion), is now being criminalized.  You know that it's gotten really bad when even the NY Times starts to take notice:
For instance, they might have ended up like the Connecticut mother who earned a misdemeanor for letting her 11-year-old stay in the car while she ran into a store. Or the mother charged with “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” after a bystander snapped a photo of her leaving her 4-year-old in a locked, windows-cracked car for five minutes on a 50 degree day. Or the Ohio father arrested in front of his family for “child endangerment” because — unbeknown to him — his 8-year-old had slipped away from a church service and ended up in a nearby Family Dollar. 
Or (I’m just getting warmed up) like the mother of four, recently widowed, who left her children — the oldest 10, the youngest 5 — at home together while she went to a community-college class; her neighbor called the police, protective services took the kids, and it took a two-year legal fight to pry them back from foster care. Or like the parents from two families who were arrested after their girls, two friends who were 5 and 7, cut through a parking lot near their houses — again without the parents’ knowledge — and were spotted by a stranger who immediately called the police. 
Or — arriving at this week’s high-profile story — like Debra Harrell, an African-American single mother in Georgia, who let her 9-year-old daughter play in a nearby park while she worked a shift at McDonald’s, and who ended up shamed on local news and jailed.
I'm going to focus on this last one a little bit as I actually sent money to a legal fund for Ms. Harrell because I'm so unhappy with her treatment:
Here are the facts: Debra Harrell works at McDonald’s in North Augusta, South Carolina. For most of the summer, her daughter had stayed there with her, playing on a laptop that Harrell had scrounged up the money to purchase. (McDonald’s has free WiFi.) Sadly, the Harrell home was robbed and the laptop stolen, so the girl asked her mother if she could be dropped off at the park to play instead. 
Harrell said yes. She gave her daughter a cell phone. The girl went to the park—a place so popular that at any given time there are about 40 kids frolicking—two days in a row. There were swings, a “splash pad,” and shade. On her third day at the park, an adult asked the girl where her mother was. At work, the daughter replied. 
The shocked adult called the cops. Authorities declared the girl “abandoned” and proceeded to arrest the mother.
I think it was pretty cool of McDonald's to let the daughter hang out and use the WiFi.  It was also, I might've thought, pretty cool that there happened to be a park less than half-a-mile from where Ms. Harrell was working that her daughter could hang out at. I might've guessed that that was what parks with playgrounds were for.  I, of course, was wrong. I don't know what they're for, but apparently not for children to hang out at.

The "shocked adult" who called the cops explained her reason for contacting the authorities: "this day and time, you never know who's around. Good, bad, it's just not safe."  Not quite true.  You do indeed know that the government is around. And that they will snatch your kid and arrest you if you let your child go to the park by herself! From Ms. Harrell's point of view, is it really better that the child was basically abducted by the government and is on her way to the foster care system where abuses of all kinds are continually documented, rather than the extraordinarily small chance that someone not from the government might take her instead?

Who's better off here?  Certainly not the daughter who now doesn't have access to her mother.  Certainly not Ms. Harrell who now has an arrest record and needs to fight felony charges in court.  Certainly not society who has to foot the bill now for jail, court costs, foster care costs, and will probably end up with a basket case to deal with when the daughter gets through the foster care system.

Nobody's saying that leaving a nine-year-old at a park every day is the best possible situation.  However, given that Ms. Harrell was a low-wage McDonald's worker with limited day care choices, it may not have been a terrible choice, and almost certainly better than the government's choice:
You needn’t approve of the parents’ actions in any of these cases to understand that dumping them into the criminal justice system is a terribly counterproductive way of addressing their mistakes. ... The mere fact that state officials were essentially micromanaging these parents’ decisions is creepy enough. That the consequences for the “wrong” decision are criminal is downright scary.
I think that the Ms. Harrell might likely agree with Ronald Reagan that:
The nine most terrifying words in the English language are "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help."
She's certainly in a terrifying situation dealing with the government now.

Monday, July 14, 2014

How Many Ethnicities Are There?

The title of this post is a trick question. It depends on the subject. If the subject is culpability in killing people, Richard Fernandez of the Belmont Club claims there are only two ethnicities: poor and non-poor.

Rule 1 is that if poor are killing other poor, nobody much cares:
The deep dark secret of media coverage is that poor people killing other poor people is page 20 news.
For example, he asks, how much did you hear about the poor-on-poor conflict called the Second Congo Civil war?
The Second Congo Civil war has killed more people than any conflict since World War 2, perhaps five million people, fifty times more than the combined US casualties of the Korean and Vietnam wars. Have you ever heard of the Congo Civil War?
I had to go to Wikipedia to refresh my memory. I vaguely remember hearing a little something about it, but I don't recall it being headline news:
By 2008, the war and its aftermath had killed 5.4 million people, mostly from disease and starvation, making the Second Congo War the deadliest conflict worldwide since World War II. Millions more were displaced from their homes or sought asylum in neighbouring countries.
Poor-on-poor killings within rich counties are page 20 news as well.  For example, can you remember seeing a news article about even one of the "260 [poor] schoolchildren who were killed in Chicago over a recent three-year period?"

That is in contrast with Rule 2, which is that non-poor-on-non-poor killings are front page news for days on end for each event.  Certainly you've heard of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and many other such massacres?  Even though the number killed during those events were tiny compared to the number of inner city poor children who were killed during the same period?

Rule 3 is that, at least at the international level, everybody roots for an underdog, so poor can get away with killing non-poor with limited or no condemnation.  For example, many twist rationality beyond recognition (to me) justifying Palestinians lobbing rockets from Gaza into Israel:
It’s those Palestinian rockets that that are dominating the headlines, and that cause even normally sympathetic progressives to waffle in their condemnations of Israel’s ongoing collective punishment of the 1.7 million people corralled in Gaza. Yet there is very little direct, probing discussion of the topic. Is the line between provocation and retaliation really that clear? Is the use of violence to fight violence by some Palestinians somehow abnormal or unique? And what proportion of the population in Gaza is actually involved in the rocket attacks or supports the practice?
But Rule 4 is that non-poor countries may not kill, even to defend themselves.  When Israel retaliates when rockets rain from the sky on their children, an awful lot of the world is outraged.  Yet it's clearly not about merely killing Palestinians as shown by the following graphic from the Belmont Club article:

Syrian civil war casualties vs Gaza

You've probably at least heard of the recent Syrian conflict. But given the vitriol directed at Israel relative to Syria, would've you guessed that almost 50 times as many people died in the Syrian conflict. It's an easy guess when you remember that Rule 4 is used for the Israeli conflicts while Rule 1 is used for the Syrian conflict. Therefore, the Palestinian deaths at the hands of Israel are intolerably outrageous, while the Syrian deaths are page 20 news.

There are, of course, many exceptions to these very general rules, but I find it interesting just how often they accurately predict the reactions to murder and slaughter.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Dust in the Cosmic Wind

In the middle of writing my post Creation Myth, big news was announced regarding the Big Bang Theory:
On March 17th researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, led by John Kovac, held a press conference at which they announced that they had discovered interesting patterns in the cosmic microwave background, a type of weak radiation left over from the universe’s earliest moments. They said they had spotted the signatures of primordial gravitational waves, ripples in space formed just after the Big Bang. 
The existence of such waves would give strong support for the theory of inflation, which holds that the early universe underwent a brief burst of faster-than-light expansion. Inflation was put forward in the 1980s by theorists as a way to resolve various knotty problems with the standard theory of the Big Bang. But although it is widely assumed to be true, direct evidence that it happened had been lacking.
Because of that announcement, I almost didn't bother publishing my post, but since my post was a light and humorous piece (filed under "chocolate" and "humor"), I decided to publish it anyway, even though the Big Bang suddenly had yet more compelling observations matching the theory.

And those observations may still be correct.  However, the claim was, according to The Economist, possibly a little premature:
This concluded that Dr Kovac’s data, which came from an Antarctic telescope called BICEP-2, may well have been contaminated by space dust, and that the purported gravitational waves may be much weaker than the team first claimed—if they exist at all.
Fortunately, the controversy should be at least partly resolved soon and I will no doubt report on it when the new data becomes available:
New data expected within weeks from the Planck satellite of the European Space Agency and other experiments should help clarify the situation, the authors say.
In other words, how much dust, if any, impaired the BICEP-2 observations? It must be a bit of a roller coaster for those working in the dusty field of the Big Bang Theory. One picosecond, compelling evidence is presented regarding inflation of the universe, the next picosecond the evidence deflates, and in the near future it might inflate yet again.

Not that it really matters.  Just because a theory can explain what's observed, doesn't mean that the theory does explain what's observed.  Turning "can" into "does" requires a leap of faith and there's no reason the Big Bang Theory faith would've been shaken for its adherents by this bit of dust in the cosmic wind.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Is that not exquisite writing and insight?

The opening and closing paragraphs of this piece about the Hobby Lobby ruling are just beautiful:

 That's a pretty stunning display of sheer ignorance, or more likely deliberate mendacity.  The liberal response to Hobby Lobby is all about emotional exhibitionism, going over the top, conjuring a fantasy villain so everyone can join hands and sing "We Shall Overcome."  It's a hysterical release of energy, bottled up by frustration at Obama's disastrous second term and the looming midterm-election catastrophe.  The Left really needed a win here, but more importantly, they needed emotional validation.  They can still get that by squalling like babies with soiled diapers, and taking note of how many fellow travelers are squalling right along with them. 
 ...

Ben Franklin said his colleagues gave us a republic, if we could keep it.  A nation of adult babies and shrieking neurotics doesn't have much chance of hanging on to a republic... as you can see from the big push to abandon it, in favor of a benevolent-dictator Sugar Daddy model of the presidency.  Followers are encouraged to hold their binkies tightly as Daddy tells them another scary bedtime story about the evil corporations and nasty judgmental Bible-thumpers he protects them from.

Brilliant!

Friday, June 27, 2014

Would You Pay to Work?

Many years ago, I was at a rock concert in the San Diego stadium and there were around 50,000 people in attendance. I forget who the main act was, but the warm up band was decidedly mediocre in my opinion. And given that the crowd's response to the band was tepid at best, apparently a lot of people agreed with me.

I'm a musician and songwriter and I remember thinking that I would pay money, perhaps even a lot of money, to be able play a venue with 50,000 people. That was the moment that I began thinking about the sorts of circumstances where someone would pay to work.

There are actually quite a few circumstances where people either pay to work or work for free.  The most widespread example of paying to work are graduate students.  They work their asses off and pay tuition for the privilege of doing so.

Let's move from the skilled and somewhat elite graduate students or hobbyist songwriters and consider the meaning of jobs at the lower end of the skill spectrum. It turns out that for many people, the job itself has a significant positive impact on happiness:
[T]he well-established finding that unemployment has major negative effects on well-being, including both mental and physical health. And the effects are remarkably persistent. A study using German panel data examined changes in reported life satisfaction after marriage, divorce, birth of a child, death of a spouse, layoff, and unemployment. All had predictable effects in the short term, but for five of the six the effect generally wore off with time: the joy of having a new baby subsided, while the pain of a loved one’s death gradually faded. The exception was unemployment: even after five years, the researchers found little evidence of adaptation. 
Evidence even more directly on point comes from the experience of welfare reform – specifically, the imposition of work requirements on recipients of public assistance. Interestingly, studies of the economic consequences of reform showed little or no change in recipients’ material well-being. But a pair of studies found a positive impact on single mothers’ happiness as a result of moving off welfare and finding work.
It turns out you may be able to buy happiness and that happiness takes the form of a job.  If you didn't have a job but did have money, it might be worth buying the job with that money.

Picture of the Day


Saturday, June 21, 2014

Move along, nothing to see here

From Restating the Obvious, a year ago:

... RtO cannot restate the obvious about the imaginary IRS scandal. It will have to state the position as if it were new, although it really isn't. The key points are: 1. The Teadiots and conservatives were not singled out. Other, evidently leftish groups, also had to demonstrate their fitness for the 501(c)4 exemption. For example, Progress Texas. The difference is, the leftists have not been caterwauling about it. 2. What the IRS did was completely ordinary and necessary. In 2010, there was an explosion in new groups, partly, probably, because of the egregious Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case.

Now:

“Not even mass corruption — not even a smidgen of corruption.” — President Barack Obama when asked in February if corruption was to blame for the IRS singling out Tea Party groups seeking tax exemption for extra scrutiny.

“WASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service said Friday it has lost a trove of emails to and from a central figure in the agency’s tea party controversy, sparking outrage from congressional investigators who have been probing the agency for more than a year.” — from the Associated Press, June 13.

Rrrrrright.

Progressives want the gummint to run our lives. Yet neither it, or its minions, can manage something so simple as basic backup properly.

(This isn't a pop quiz, so the correct answers are: 1) Yes, they were. 2) No, it wasn't. And for the bonus round, further proof progressives have absolutely no respect for the Constitution. From the Citizens United decision: Although the First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech,” §441b’s prohibition on corporate independent expenditures is an outright ban on speech, backed by criminal sanctions. And that is just a start.)

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Intellectual lessons from a father to his children

Given my own experiences in intellectual inquiry, I wanted to give my children a few simple ideas that would be helpful for them in their pursuits.  They all have a bit of curiosity which is a good fuel for learning.

Intellectual lessons from a father:

1. "I don't know" is a perfectly acceptable answer.  (brights often have a hard time with this...)

2. "This is my best understanding so far" is often an appropriate answer.  (even hard won knowledge is contingent...)

3.  There is no substitute for doing the homework. Most people won't do the homework. (they're  too busy or are unwilling to put in the effort)

4. Many things are complicated, they entail tradeoffs because there are no good answers.  (they have to be studied from many perspectives and many layers deep because of their complexity - "Ogres" was a fun reminder when they were young)

5. People say stuff.  (could be blind parroting, intentional deception, best understanding that comes up short, or simply valid)


Friday, June 13, 2014

Splodey Head

A recent article titled Libs Go 'Splodey Head As Kochs Donate To United Negroe College Fund concludes:
There are few things more delicious than watching reality smack around a carefully crafted progressive lie. While Harry Reid is spending all of his time portraying the Koch brothers as Satan incarnate, they quietly give to a variety of charities, as well as to Democrat candidates and have long been supporters of same sex marriage.
 It gets even better when Walter Hudson weighs in on the matter:
This story stands as evidence that the political left holds no genuine concern for the well-being of black Americans, or any other minority group. Professor Gasman would rather see the 3,000 students who will be helped by the Koch Brothers donation go without scholarships than have her preferred political narrative discredited.
Professor Gasman also has something to say about the Tea Party, something of which Mr. Hudson has first hand experience:
As a black man operating within and alongside the Tea Party since 2009, I can speak to the movement’s agenda for black Americans. It involves a lot of freedom to do what we want, with whomever we want, on whatever terms we agree to. The Tea Party agenda includes such dastardly highlights as free association, true tolerance, security in person and property, and an unfettered pursuit of something called “happiness.” 
By all means, listen to the delivery in his own voice on the podcast.

Caution: (not a trigger warning - being offended is under an individuals control - take responsibility)
If you listen to the podcast with a Prog take the same precaution you would take if sitting in the front rows of a Gallagher concert (in case they go splody head.) 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Not a Perfect Place

"Now, Iraq is not a perfect place.  It has many challenges ahead.  But we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.  We’re building a new partnership between our nations.  And we are ending a war not with a final battle, but with a final march toward home.  This is an extraordinary achievement, nearly nine years in the making." President Barack Obama, December 14, 2011, Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
"Not a perfect place" but, nonetheless, an extraordinary achievement?

From ABC News, June 12, 2014:

Less than three years after pulling American forces out of Iraq, President Barack Obama is weighing a range of short-term military options, including airstrikes, to quell an al-Qaida inspired insurgency that has captured two Iraqi cities and threatened to press toward Baghdad. [...]
Obama, in his first comments on the deteriorating situation, said it was clear Iraq needed additional assistance from the U.S. and international community given the lightning gains by the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Levant.
 And here's a current picture of refugees fleeing from the captured cities in the "not a perfect place."


If you want particularly scary and pessimistic commentary about "not a perfect place," see today's column entitled The Day of Reckoning by Richard Fernandez.  Note that he predicted this current situation in Iraq over 4 years ago in The Ten Ships along with a lot of other prescient commentary over the years about the War on Terror.

Read the whole thing - if you want nightmares.

Now I Wish I Had Bought the Tesla

Well, it's still out of my price range, but I sure do like this ("All Our Patent Are Belong To You") from CEO Elon Musk at the Tesla Blog.  Maybe I'll be able to afford one of their future cheaper models.

I seriously dislike the patent system and its effect of stifling innovation and it's nice to see that Elon agrees with me.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Word That Must Not Be Named

Someone forwarded an email critical of Hillary Clinton to a mailing list of old fraternity brothers that I belong to with the subject line "Padding her bra & resume!"  I don't find that subject line clever, cute, humorous, or particularly good in any way. It's clearly meant to be kind of offensive in a sexist way, but not something I would've paid any attention to at all. It was kind of a stupid email with kind of a stupid subject line. Pretty commonplace on the Internet.

Much to my surprise, one of the fraternity brothers was offended:
hey.... just call me mr-pc but duz it strike anyone else that the subject line is disgustingly sexist / misogynistic? i find it objectionably so...
I actually thought he was kidding at first, especially since, as you might gather from his writing style, he comes across as a rather rough character.  And did I mention this is a frat boy mailing list? But no, as shown by the following retort to my questioning and a comment about being thin-skinned, he seems sincerely quite offended:
is it also ok for us to throw around the N word?  should thin-skinned blacks just suck it up & get freakin over it?! 
yeah, i'm REALLY offended by both the N word and the erstwhile subject...
Ahhhh, the n-word. Last I looked, there were tens of thousands of words beginning with 'n' but no doubt he's referring to "The Word That Must Not Be Named."  I was rather wondering if it was even in the dictionary anymore. It is. Here's an excerpt from the definition:
The term nigger is now probably the most offensive word in English. Its degree of offensiveness has increased markedly in recent years, although it has been used in a derogatory manner since at least the Revolutionary War. The senses labeled Extremely Disparaging and Offensive represent meanings that are deeply insulting and are used when the speaker deliberately wishes to cause great offense. It is so profoundly offensive that a euphemism has developed for those occasions when the word itself must be discussed, as in court or in a newspaper editorial: “the n-word.”
This important excerpt actually comes before the definition as you must be warned before seeing what it means.

Impressive. The MOST offensive word in English. If we ask google, we find that there are 1,025,109.8 words in the English language (not sure how you can have eight-tenths of a word, but that's what google says).  One in a million, six-sigma, and given the size of the population, probably the Most. Offensive. Word. Evah! For all time. Anywhere in the universe. Seriously.

That's a lot of power for a word. How did that word obtain such power? I'm pretty sure the answer to that is Political Correctness. We're afraid that someone, somewhere might be so upset or so outraged, that the world will explode if the word itself appears instead of the "n-word" euphemism. Or something.  So we tiptoe around trying not to break the epithet eggshells.

It is not illegal, and in my strong opinion it is neither unethical nor immoral nor should it be considered offensive to write the word nigger.  To call someone a nigger, yes, that would be very offensive.  Especially if you mean it.  But just writing it? Just using it to state facts? Not substituting the n-word euphemism? No, no, and no.

The whole concept of not being able to write "nigger" keeps reminding me of the Jehovah stoning scene in the movie "Life of Brian."

At least I can understand why some might consider the sacred name of god a word of power. But nigger should not be a powerful word. It would be much better to reduce the power of a word like nigger. But alas; because it's ever more powerful, it becomes ever more offensive; because it becomes ever more offensive, it becomes ever more powerful. Because of political correctness, we become ever more easily outraged, thin-skinned, and pathetic.

I'm going to file this under humor.  Not because it's funny, but because, in my opinion, we ought to be thick-skinned enough to laugh at this.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Who's Non-Profit?

At first blush, it might seem that a non-profit company would always be a good thing.  After all, since there's no profit motive, there must be no greed involved, and so the company must have been created for the sole purpose of doing good.  Or, as the economist Arnold Kling points out, at least that would seem to be the intention:
The intention heuristic is what generates the veneration of non-profits. One can readily suppose that the intentions of a non-profit are better than those of a for-profit institution. Accordingly, it seems morally superior to work at a non-profit.
As an example, here in San Diego, we have a non-profit company called Family Health Centers, that I happen to be very familiar with.  They provide health care for the underserved (i.e., the poor) and their headline mission statement is "[c]aring, affordable, quality healthcare for anyone in need." An excellent mission, and they do indeed, at minimum, make significant inroads towards their mission statement.  What's not to like?

In the past, the Veterans Administration has been highly lauded as the pinnacle of socialized medicine in America and an example of what's possible.  As Glenn Reynolds (of Instapundit fame) points out:
Writing in the Washington Post during the debate over Obamacare, Ezra Klein suggested that we should expand VA coverage to non-veterans, because the government just does health care better than the private sector: "Medicare is single-payer, but VA is actually socialized medicine, where the government owns the hospitals and employs the doctors. ... If you ordered America's different health systems (from) worst-functioning to best, it would look like this: individual insurance market, employer-based insurance market, Medicare, Veterans Health Administration."
A couple of years later, in 2011, Klein hailed the VA health system as an example of "when socialism works in America": "The thing about the Veteran's (Affairs') health-care system? It's socialized. Not single-payer. Not heavily centralized. Socialized. As in, it employs the doctors and nurses. Owns the hospitals. . . . If I could choose my health-care reform, I don't think I'd go as far towards government control as the VA does. But the program is one of the most remarkable success stories in American public policy, and it needs to be grappled with."
All government organizations are inherently non-profit, so the Veterans Administration is therefore, according to Mr. Klein, a shining example of what can be achieved by non-profits.

But what does non-profit mean?  Does anybody make money?  Or is it all volunteer?

Back to Family Health Centers (mentioned above).  Their CEO, Fran Butler-Cohen, made more than $550,000 in 2012 (I believe her current compensation package exceeds $600,000).  So it's certainly not all volunteer and $600,000 is pretty good compensation for someone running a fairly small operation ($80 million per year).  Especially when much of that $80 million comes from taxpayers (medicaid, medical and other federal health funding) and grants.  So we have to remember that non-profit simply means that the organization itself doesn't make a profit.  All of the employees at the non-profit company can make ludicrous amounts of money and, if they do, it's very profitable for them as individuals.

The shine on the Veterans Administration has lost a bit of its luster as of late due to a series of scandals. Back to Reynold's article:
Now that the VA has erupted in scandals involving phony wait lists, and people dying because of treatment delays, an audit reveals a "systemic lack of integrity" in the system. According to the auditors, "Information indicates that in some cases, pressures were placed on schedulers to utilize inappropriate practices in order to make waiting times appear more favorable." 
In other words, they cooked the books. And what's more, they did it to ensure bigger "performance bonuses." The performance may have been fake, but the bonuses were real.
People sometimes think that government or "nonprofit" operations will be run more honestly than for-profit businesses because the businesses operate on the basis of "greed." But, in fact, greed is a human characteristic that is present in any organization made up of humans. [...]
The absence of a bottom line doesn't reduce greed and self-dealing — it removes a constraint on greed and self-dealing. And when that happens, ordinary people pay the price. Keep that in mind, when people suggest that free-market systems are somehow morally inferior to socialism.
Yes, the problem with non-profits and government organizations is that they're made up of people and they have all the defects, foibles and imperfections of all other humans, with greed being one of the prime examples of those imperfections.  So what if people died?  They got their bonuses!

From Cosmopolitan, here's another description of the Veterans Administration:
Our disabled veterans are being betrayed by the incompetency, bureaucracy, and callousness of the Veterans’ Administration, the agency set up … years ago to ensure the finest medical care for them.
What's interesting about the excerpt above is that it's from the March, 1945 issue of Cosmopolitan, so apparently these problems have been going on for quite a while.

The economist Don Boudreaux captions the expectation that government organizations should be expected to be any better than any other organizations: "Then a Miracle Occurs:"
This famous Sidney Harris cartoon (below) captures what is wrong – what is deeply unscientific – about far-too-much modern economics.  The miracle assumed by the unscientific ‘scientific’ modern economist is that government will act (1) apolitically, (2) without any of the human imperfections, myopia, and psychological quirks that (are assumed to) give rise to the market imperfections that allegedly justify government intervention, and (3) with more information and wisdom than is discovered and used in markets.
For the purposed of this post, I consider non-profit and government to be very similar if not synonymous and we're specifically focusing on the "human imperfection" of greed. Once you eliminate Kling's "intention heuristic" and Boudreaux's "miracle," there's no reason to expect non-profits or governments to be better organizations than for-profit organizations.  In fact, as Reynolds points out, the bottom-line of a for-profit may actually constrain things like greed:
The absence of a bottom line doesn't reduce greed and self-dealing — it removes a constraint on greed and self-dealing. And when that happens, ordinary people pay the price. Keep that in mind, when people suggest that free-market systems are somehow morally inferior to socialism.
It's not that markets and for-profit companies are perfect, or even good.  It's just that it's naive to expect other organizations to avoid things like greed and be any better.

By the way, Washington D.C. is easily the greediest place in the country and probably the world.  It has nearly 2.5 times the GDP per capita ($146,000) as the next richest state (Delaware at $61,000) and more than 3 times the GDP per capita as the rest of the country.  Not a lot of for-profit companies in D.C., but a heck of a lot of people making a heck of a lot of money.  Sort of like the Hunger Games, but not quite as extreme. Yet.

When counties embrace true socialism, they essentially turn the entire country into one giant non-profit organization. Especially in a diverse populous such as that which exists in the U.S., I think that will be an utter disaster.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

In Defense of Racism

My defense of racism is quite narrow.  I'm not going to try to defend any sort of institutional racism enforced by national or regional governments like slavery or Jim Crow laws.  That level of racism is unconscionable. Instead, I'm going to focus on the individual, and argue that the primary person the individual racist hurts is himself; and groups of racist individuals, themselves.

In the past I've pointed out that I'm a "romantic racist."  That is, I find Caucasian women more attractive than women of other races.  I call this racism where it counts the most and statistically, it seems that a lot of people of all races suffer from this particular variant of racism. This puts me clearly at level 6 in Bret's Hierarchy of Racism (BHR)tm. Because of my racism, I've reduced my range of opportunities by billions of women. Bummer! On the other hand, what have these billions of women lost? At worst, access to 1 decrepit old guy. In other words, nothing at all. Certainly in this case, racism hurt the racist and nobody else.

Let's say I move up the BHR from level 6 to level 4 and I discriminate, based on race, as either a prospective employee or a prospective employer.  It's the same thing as in the romantic version.  I've substantially reduced the pool of prospective companies or employees and have therefore damaged my prospects as an employee or my company's staff.  Nobody else has really lost anything at all, just access to one employee out of billions or one position at one company out of millions. The impact nearly completely only hurts the racist.

One thing that I find interesting in the racism debate is that in Japan, racism is perfectly legal (note the "JAPANESE People ONLY" in the sign below) and moderately widespread.



But there were plenty of people in Japan willing to take my Yen and so I was able to eat quite well (I love Japanese food, especially Japanese food in Japan).  The vendor pictured above (hypothetically) refused my business but his competitors were quite happy to serve me.  His loss was their gain.  His racism mainly hurt him. Note that his competitors may well be racist too, but for them, profit trumped racism, and that's a good thing.

It's an important point that people trade to make profit and trade brings people together. Indeed, economists use that line of thinking to cast doubt on the alleged gender and racial gaps in wages.  Why would a greedy businessman pass up the opportunity to hire a cheaper woman or minority if the return-on-investment of hiring them was higher than hiring a white male?  Greedy businessmen hiring women and minorities would then drive wages up to the point of having the same ROI as white men.  In other words, you can be greedy or racist/sexist but not both, or, more accurately, for any given hiring decision one motivator inherently trumps the other.  As long as enough businessmen are greedy (and it doesn't take many), wages reach parity.

It's hard to know exactly how pervasive racism is in Japan, but for the purposes of a thought experiment, assume that it's universal; all Japanese feel superior to everybody else. So who does that affect?

In this case, it probably affects the whole world by a little bit since it probably makes trade more difficult. But this is no different than a government restricting trade for whatever reasons governments restrict trade (possibly some of those reasons for some governments are racist).  And Japan would be the most adversely affected in this hypothetical example because it would have more difficulty getting crucial imports such as food and energy.

So now let's say there was a large immigration of whites into this hypothetically ultra-racist Japan.  Let's say those whites were totally racist against the Japanese as well as the Japanese being totally racist against the whites.  However, let's say there was no government institutionalized racism - everyone is still equal before the law.  Then it would be like two separate countries with restricted trade.  It would be better if the racism didn't exist, but it wouldn't be that big of a deal.  Everybody could still do pretty well in their portion of the resulting highly segregated society.

But what if the whites who immigrated started with nothing, perhaps because they were fleeing severe oppression somewhere else? Would they be stuck with nothing forever?  No, they wouldn't. There are a few points to consider for this argument:
  • Once upon a time, wealth and productivity were mostly based on land ownership.  That's simply not true anymore. Looking at the world's wealthiest people, very few, if any, are wealthy because they own a lot of land (for example Jobs, Gates, Ellison, etc.).  So the fact that the white's start out owning no land is immaterial.
  • There are several examples of countries and their peoples starting out with nothing and within two generations becoming wealthy with some help but also some hindrance from the rest of the world. Taiwan is good example.  Just after WWII, their GDP per capita was less than one-tenth that of the United States.  Now they're approaching parity with the United States.  They had help from the United States but a lot of hindrance from the mainland Chinese.  South Korea and Singapore (and Hong Kong to some extent) are similar examples.
  • Taiwan is a small speck of a country with no significant natural resources.  Innovation and hard work were the main factors of their success in building a wealthy society from nothing.
The example of Taiwan (and others) show that a people can pretty much start with nothing and catch up with the first world within a couple of generations.  Thus the whites in the hypothetical example could have caught up with the Japanese even starting with nothing.  Racism by itself, even group racism, as long as it's not institutionalized, cannot keep a people down.  They can always rise to the task and make their own productive and wealthy future.

Even in the case of institutionalized racism, the racist is also hurt according to the economist Tyler Cowen:
I would suggest that most living white Americans would be wealthier had this nation not enslaved African-Americans and thus most whites have lost from slavery too, albeit much much less than blacks have lost. For instance it is generally recognized that freer and fairer polities tend to be wealthier for most of their citizens. (We may disagree about what “fair” means for many issues, but slavery and its legacy are obviously unfair.) 
More specifically, many American whites benefited from hiring African-American labor at discrimination-laden discounted market prices, but many others lost out because it was more costly to trade with African-Americans. That meant fewer good customers, fewer eligible employees, fewer possible business partners, fewer innovators, and so on, all because of slavery and subsequent discrimination. The wealth-destroying effects are surely much larger here, even counting whites alone. And the longer the time horizon, the more likely the dynamic benefits from trade will outweigh the short-run benefits from discriminating against some class of others. 
Empirically, I do not think whites in slavery-heavy regions have had especially impressive per capita incomes.  And a lot of the economic catch-up of the American South came only when the region abandoned Jim Crow. 
In every case, the racist is always hurt.  In the case of non-institutionalized racism, the racist is hurt the most.

Given all that, I've concluded that calling someone racist is sort of like calling someone fat.  Just like being racist, eating too much primarily hurts the person doing the eating.  If the person's not fat, then calling him fatso is pretty silly.  If he is fat, it's just a childish and mostly meaningless and unhelpful insult.