Search This Blog

Thursday, October 30, 2003

North Korea and the 2nd Amendment

Oh man! Excuse me while I go blow chow after reading this story regarding North Korea:
"Family members of traitors don't even get food rations. They are starved to death, "said the wife of Soon Yong Bum, a fishing boat captain.... Lee, who asked that her given name not be used, was a clerk in a government office who notarized the deaths in her town. She is a pretty young woman, 29, with tumbling hair curling to her shoulders and smooth, flawless skin that belies the hardships she has faced and struggles to explain. "We started seeing cannibalism," she recalled, pausing. "You probably won't understand."

She went on: "When one is very hungry, one can go crazy. One woman in my town killed her 7-month-old baby, and ate the baby with another woman. That woman's son reported them both to the authorities.

"I can't condemn cannibalism. Not that I wanted to eat human meat, but we were so hungry. It was common that people went to a fresh grave and dug up a body to eat meat. I witnessed a woman being questioned for cannibalism. She said it tasted good."

When I read stories such as these, I wish the citizens of North Korea had been armed to the hilt like Americans. Perhaps the horrors there would have happened anyway, but at least it would have been a deterrent

I'm a hypocrite when it comes to guns. I've never owned and can't see ever owning a gun. Yet I think it's very important that citizens be armed in order to avoid genocide/politocide. In my opinion, it's worth the thousands of potential extra gun deaths per year we endure.

Many people say it can't happen here. Contemplate this:
Consider a thought experiment suggested by Professor Robert Cottrol. Let us travel by some means back in time to the year 1900, and there convene a committee of the most exalted thinkers from all over the world. We inform them that within fifty years a great and cultured nation will try to exterminate, with near success, one of its most important ethnic, racial, or religious minorities. We now ask them to forecast who the victim group and the perpetrator nation will be. Would any predict the Holocaust?

It is hard to see why anyone would. Jews as a likely victim group might have been foreseen, though other candidates would surely have ranked higher. As for potential perpetrators, surely the United States would have been high on the list, what with that proverbial culture of guns and violence that Europeans find so quaint, to say nothing of our many minorities--immigrant, indigenous and racial. Germany, the homeland of music, philosophy, mathematics, public sanitation, environmentalism, physical culture, social security, and the rule of law could hardly have figured at all."
In other words, don't think it couldn't happen here. Sure it won't happen tomorrow, but from now to eternity is a long time for things to change for the worse. It could have happened already when we interned Japanese Americans during WWII. If the war had gone particularly badly, and Japan had invaded the mainland, are we sure it wouldn't have happened?

As the article points out, when the Nazis came to power, "first, they forbade Jews from owning guns or any other weapon." In other words, the confiscated the Jews' firearms. And then they slaughtered them. When the authorities come to collect your guns, it's time to go buy your gravestone (though it won't do you much good in a mass grave).

At Least the Debate Will End Eventually

From a Washington Post article about the sun:
"... the sun will be around for billions of years yet. But it'll change. Eventually it will cool, expand and turn into a "red giant" that completely consumes the Earth -- which may finally end the global warming debate." [italics added]

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Don't Hold Your Breath...

...'cause you might turn blue - regarding seeing my logic on my direct referendum approach. It's turning out to be a lot more work than I originally envisioned to work through all the details and to read up on what's already been done. It's easily 200 hours of work and at the 1 or 2 hours a week rate that I'm contemplating it - well, you do the math.

Nonetheless, I'll post some stuff I encounter on the subject. For example, this article describes some issues and mechanisms for a national referendum. The approach is interesting, though, being an experimentalist I wouldn't even vaguely consider doing anything like this at a national level until far, far more experimentation is done at local and state levels.

Also, as I get a little farther along I can post some outlines of my logic for discussion. But I'm not there yet.

Regulation,externalities and public goods

I will provide more material when there is time, but for now enjoy this Reason Magazine interview of Ronald Coase.

Here is another book on the subject I'm contemplating tackling.

The End of Slavery and Other Acts

Howie, I don't dispute the fundamentals of the politics of the time that you've highlighted. My point is, it was Lincoln, the head of our government, who delivered the Emancipation Proclamation.

I've also read speculation that slavery would have ended without government intervention due to declining economic rationale. However, that does not justify the idea that we simply need to wait for the market to right all wrongs, and government is superfluous. Unless, of course, you believe that the unfettered market will ultimately generate the most good for the most people (as opposed to what I believe it does -- which is to maximize total wealth with a tendency to concentrate it in the hands of a relatively few people). Not to say that the market can't be a powerful force -- perhaps the most powerful force -- for generating lots of good for lots of people. But, other forces are necessary to keep the market pointed in the right overall direction, and, to some extent, to undo the concentrating effects. These other forces, of course, include democracy itself and the limits the people (through our government) put on an unfettered market.

Bret's and your challenges to my list of things the government has done for us are fair enough as far as this debate goes. Let me throw out a few more for you to challenge. How about anti-trust laws? How about the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act? How about the Clean Water Act or the Clean Air Act?

I don't see the market dealing with these issues well. Ultimately, some form of governmental leadership was necessary. Perhaps Bret's direct referendum approach could have addressed them, but I'll have to see his logic before I'll become a believer.

On Hayek

Last night, I finished the first chapter of "The Fatal Conceit." Definitely some interesting ideas, although I find the obscurity of the writing a bit annoying. When I read books like this, I'm struck by two impressions: (a) the author must take great pride in such an elitist writing style so full of references that it would take a Torah-like devotion to untangle it all (which, I'm guessing, he hopes will spawn cultist devotees), and (b) perhaps such opaqueness is necessary to hide flaws in logic. My point is, I think he could have made his points much more simply and clearly.

Self-organizing structures
Instinct -> tradition -> reason
The unpredictable nature of biological and cultural evolution
(Perhaps Hayek should have been forced to stick to a PowerPoint format)

Nonetheless, I'm intrigued enough to continue reading. While contemplating what I read, I jotted down some ideas and questions in my journal. This morning, I found a website with an interesting critique of the book that reflected some of my initial concerns -- which perhaps Hayek will address in later chapters. Feel free to comment. I expect to learn much more as I read on, and, no doubt, will have more opinions of my own to post.

Slavery and the Civil War

My favorite books on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War are still boxed up from the move, but this is my best recollection of the relevant material. The founding fathers of this country were deeply aware of the moral problem of allowing slavery and they knew that it would have to be confronted at some point. In order to have a chance of successfully breaking away from England, the issue was put on hold. After the invention of the cotton gin changed the economics of processing raw cotton and thereby the price of cotton finished goods, the practice of growing cotton with slave labor spread widely throughout the South. Even as this was happening during the early 1800's, the Quakers were growing quite vocal about the abolition of slavery. Eventually other groups picked up the banner of abolition. Many but not all of these groups were deeply religious and various sects of the church split on opposite sides of the issue. Political deals like the Missouri Compromise continued to punt the issue.

As Bret mentioned, the government instituted and enforced laws which preserved slavery. Abolition was a hot issue of the day, but it was not the major issue behind the civil war. This country was founded as part of a tax revolt and that was the major issue behind the Civil War. The industrial North wanted the mercantilst protection of high tariffs and customs while the agrarian South wanted low trade barriers(the South paid the bills under a high tariff regime). The South said 'no mas' and threatened to secede. Lincoln decided to fight in order to preserve the existing order. It is no accident that the fighting began at Fort Sumter, a customs house. Yes, there were other issues, but they were of lesser importance. Lincoln was a very skillful politician and he timed the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation to sway public opinion and demoralize the South. It freed slaves only in the states of rebellion not already under Union control. If Lincoln did not feel it was politically advantageous then abolition would have had to wait. There are also arguements that the economics of slavery were in decline and that the practice was doomed. I have not done enough study to know how valid this view might be.

This is not how these events are portrayed in junior high school history class, but I think this is quite valid. Now, how much credit do you want to give government for ending slavery?

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Wallach goes yard with the bases loaded

Bret clarifies the Joyce Rogers Brown comments:

I would have said it as follows:
where government moves in, people lose the ability to even imagine possible alternatives to solve problems without involving government, community retreats, civil society disintegrates,...
Then follows up with this:
Nonetheless, the disturbing thing to me, is that for all these things, non-government solutions aren't even imagined to be possible, much less contemplated, articulated, debated, refined, and proposed as alternatives. We are destroying our creativity and ingenuity "and our ability to control our destiny" by turning these problems over to the government. This is what I believe that Brown meant by her statement and I agree with that interpretation of it.

Yes, statism is a disease that has many ill effects. If we change course can civil society recover?

Subtleties
Many policies have subtle effects which might compound into huge effects over time. Think about the issue of school choice and vouchers. Beyond any possible improvement in education which a child might receive they would be witness to an interesting set of behaviors by the parent. Not all parents would handle their new responsiblity well, but many would. They would feel positive, hopeful and empowered to make changes if their childs' educational situation was unacceptable. They would learn to ferret out information, make decisions and change that decision if the results of the initial decision were not acceptable. This could have a profoundly positive effect on a child witnessing these behaviors. This positive effect could grow over several generations.
Another area where subtle positives could accrue would be with a flat tax. A sense of fairness and cohesion amongst the electorate could be a powerful force binding people together. Also, political signals for higher taxes and more spending or lower taxes and lower spending would be communicated much more effectively. And on it would go...

Monkey in a Fez

This inteview with Mat Gleason, a LA Punk Rocker cracked me up:
Newtopia: As a resident of Los Angeles, how do you feel about the California recall election?

Mat: F**k yeah. It is funny how the spin doctors tried to make what was democracy in action seem reactionary because it did not conform to their narrow ideals. Too many Democrats are shrill, hopeless, undersexed squares. It will be funny if the Republicans are hip all of a sudden and the left is suddenly me, you and our high school English teachers lecturing about the triumph of the 60s. That is what is happening here, the Republicans are hijacking culture. And the Democrats are a bunch of squares in suits saying tsk-tsk-tsk. It is funny. I lost any hope in politics after what Clinton did to Jerry Brown in the 1992 primaries. The first issue of Coagula was a pamphleteering plea to elect Jerry Brown. Clinton was a hopeless square and now that is coming home to roost. The true intellects and creative forces in the Democratic party have been marginalized in favor of Centrist conformists, and now the Republicans are saying "Hey let's party!" and the true strengths of the Democrats are seen as fringe, risky strategies by the Democratic leaders, and the Republicans seem like visionaries, but a monkey in a fez would seem like a leader and visionary standing next to Bustamante or Davis!

Monday, October 27, 2003

Janice Rogers Brown

As mentioned below, Brown wrote:
"where government moves in, community retreats, civil society disintegrates, and our ability to control our destiny atrophies. The result is: families under siege, war in the streets, unapologetic expropriation of property, the precipitous decline of the rule of law, the rapid rise of corruption, the loss of civility and the triumph of deceit."

Jim writes:
The results she lists do not, in general, square with our historical legacy. We have had a strong, active government for over two centuries, and, in general, the results of governmental engagement have been good. Or, are there some among you who feel that slaves should not have been freed, women should not have the vote, non-elite children should work and not attend school, the races should be segregated, the disabled should be left to their own means?

I don't think there should still be slavery, etc., and somehow I seriously doubt that Brown thinks that either, nor do I think that she implies that with her statement. In fact, this exchange illustrates to me one point I think Brown left out of her tirade. I would have said it as follows:
where government moves in, people lose the ability to even imagine possible alternatives to solve problems without involving government, community retreats, civil society disintegrates,...

I think this addition is very important. We have become so used to the government doing things for us that we assume that there is no alternative. Not only is this not true, I believe this attitude is holding us back.

Have we really "had a strong, active government for over two centuries?" If so, that's news to me. I thought the government (federal, anyway) became active last century, and really didn't meddle domestically much at all in the 18th and first half of the 19th century.

A few other points. Government enforced slavery until the emancipation proclamation so I think that it's quite a stretch to give credit to government for freeing them. In other words, if government hadn't enslaved them in the first place, they wouldn't have had to free them. The same concept applies to women's right to vote.

We were actually a pretty literate nation long before government got involved, as shown by this excerpt:
By 1820, there was even more evidence of Americans' avid reading habits, when 5 million copies of James Fenimore Cooper's complex and allusive novels were sold, along with an equal number of Noah Webster's didactic Speller - to a population of dirt farmers under 20 million in size.

In 1835, Richard Cobden announced there was six times as much newspaper reading in the United States as in England, and the census figures of 1840 gave fairly exact evidence that a sensational reading revolution had taken place without any exhortation on the part of public moralists and social workers, but because common people had the initiative and freedom to learn. In North Carolina, the worst situation of any state surveyed, eight out of nine could still read and write.

In 1853, Per Siljestromm, a Swedish visitor, wrote, "In no country in the world is the taste for reading so diffuse as among the common people in America." The American Almanac observed grandly, "Periodical publications, especially newspapers, disseminate knowledge throughout all classes of society and exert an amazing influence in forming and giving effect to public opinion." It noted the existence of over a thousand newspapers. In this nation of common readers, the spiritual longings of ordinary people shaped the public discourse. Ordinary people who could read, though not privileged by wealth, power, or position, could see through the fraud of social class or the even grander fraud of official expertise.

And do you really think schools are better now than in say, 1950, which is prior to when the federal government began funding education? I'm not saying that they're not, but I don't think they're much improved either, and, in fact, the complaints about inner city and other schools for the poor are still the most emphatic.

The races are still quite segregated. For example, I can't remember the last time I saw a black person here in San Diego, and I can't imagine that San Diego is radically more segregated than say, Mississippi, so I think the government didn't quite succeed on the desegregation front. I have no idea why San Diego is so segregated. I'm also not saying that's okay, I'm just saying that government didn't solve that problem very well.

Lastly I didn't realize that before the ADA or other government intervention, the disabled were left to their own means. In the community I grew up in they were taken care of by their families, church groups, and other community services. It certainly is possible that the disabled were left to die on the streets in droves in other places, I just wasn't aware that that was the case.

Nonetheless, the disturbing thing to me, is that for all these things, non-government solutions aren't even imagined to be possible, much less contemplated, articulated, debated, refined, and proposed as alternatives. We are destroying our creativity and ingenuity "and our ability to control our destiny" by turning these problems over to the government. This is what I believe that Brown meant by her statement and I agree with that interpretation of it.

A Matter of Degrees

After reading Howie's last post and the embedded website, "Debt the Wrong Enemy," I felt a need to reply. It seems to me you are falling victim to oversimplification. If the last tax cut was good for the reasons you cite in your postscript, how about another one? And another one? If I follow the path you're suggesting, it would end with no tax levies at all, and all government spending being debt-financed (say, about $2 trillion per year).

Howie, as you know, these are subtle issues. Your website friend cites the success of Walmart's debt management. And, indeed, Walmart has managed its debt well. Many companies have not, and have run into liquidity problems resulting in bankruptcy filings. As we also know, it can happen to countries, too. The U.S. doesn't appear to be on the brink -- interest rates would be much higher if it were -- but I'm not too thrilled about a number of longer term trends that may push us into dangerous waters, such as the potential for retiring baby boomers to stop saving, stop producing, and start consuming savings.

I'm not sure who holds the mortgage debt record among us, but mine is $638,000. Believe me, that keeps me highly attuned to my ability to handle that debt.

Interestingly, I think your website friend is basically correct. The difference of opinion arises with regard to decisions within the Adam Smith model. In my opinion, we're over-"investing" in security, and we're underinvesting in education, infrastructure, and a stable currency.

Here's a link to an interview with Bill Gates, Sr., about his campaign to reinstate inheritance taxes. He, for one, believes our government has, in general, done tremendously good things with its investments of taxes collected.

Frankly, I find it amazing that Bret and Howie sympathize with the statement of Janice Rogers Brown. The results she lists do not, in general, square with our historical legacy. We have had a strong, active government for over two centuries, and, in general, the results of governmental engagement have been good. Or, are there some among you who feel that slaves should not have been freed, women should not have the vote, non-elite children should work and not attend school, the races should be segregated, the disabled should be left to their own means? Yes, sometimes governments -- even ours -- do become horribly corrupt, and visit upon their citizens horrible consequences. But, to blame all those ills on government per se, rather than on lack of good leadership within government, seems to me to be a terribly distorted view of causality.

I'll end on a general point of agreement, with one small caveat. I agree that we need to do many more local experiments. Perhaps the most powerful federal leadership would be one that devolves more power to the states (and to counties and cities beyond that). Even on some issues of national importance, such as education, devolution of power and money to the local level makes sense. Here's the caveat: some problems are not efficiently solved at a local level. I've experienced this in ChevronTexaco where we are currently in the process of moving toward more standardization across our business units so problems don't have to be solved again and again at the local level, and so suboptimization doesn't take place. In government, also, some things are probably better done at a federal level. Some standards, some infrastructure, national security, the general system of justice -- probably better done federally. Bret, I'll be interested to read your articles on this issue of experimentation when they're ready for peer review.

Skidding to a Halt

Some excerpts from "We're Not Losing the Culture Wars Anymore" by Brian C Anderson:
The Left's near monopoly over the institutions of opinion and information - which long allowed liberal opinion makers to sweep aside ideas and beliefs they disagreed with, as if they were beneath argument - is skidding to a startlingly swift halt... Almost overnight, three huge changes in communications have injected conservative ideas right into the heart of that debate...

The first and most visible of these three seismic events: the advent of cable TV...

Gavin McInnes, co-founder of Vice - a "punk-rock-capitalist" entertainment corporation that publishes the hipster bible Vice magazine, produces CDs and films, runs clothing stores, and claims (plausibly) to have been "deep inside the heads of 18-30s for the past 10 years" - spots "a new trend of young people tired of being lied to for the sake of the 'greater good.'" ...

Polling data indicate that younger voters are indeed trending rightward - supporting the Iraq war by a wider majority than their elders, viewing school vouchers favorably, and accepting greater restrictions on abortion, such as parental-notification laws (though more accepting of homosexuality than older voters)...

...the rise of the Internet, the second explosive change shaking liberal media dominance. It's hard to overstate the impact that news and opinion websites like the Drudge Report, NewsMax, and Dow Jones's OpinionJournal are having on politics and culture, as re current-event "blogs" - individual or group web diaries - like AndrewSullivan, [GreatGuys,] InstaPundit, and "The Corner" department of NationalReviewOnline (NRO), where the editors and writers argue, joke around, and call attention to articles elsewhere on the web. This whole universe of web-based discussion has been dubbed the "blogosphere."

While there are several fine left-of-center sites, the blogosphere currently tilts right, albeit idiosyncratically, reflecting the hard-to-pigeonhole politics of some leading bloggers...

The third big change breaking the liberal media stranglehold is taking place in book publishing. Conservative authors long had trouble getting their books released, with only Regnery Books, the Free Press, and Basic Books regularly releasing conservative titles. But following editorial changes during the 1990s, Basic and the Free Press published far fewer conservative-leaning titles, leaving Regnery pretty much alone...

I think the blogosphere will end up being by far the most important. Of course that may be personal bias since I don't watch TV, but the problem with TV, radio, and books is that they all have a tendency to spin and lie whether they are left, center, or right. So does the blogosphere, but because there are so many sites, and because there is google, you can get a better idea of whether or not something is true and the different spins partly cancel each other out.

This shift in the control of information is critical and revolutionary. In a democracy such as ours, especially one where the populace is heavily armed, the only route to exploit power to one's advantage and tyranny is to control information. Those that have controlled the media have controlled the information and therefore our minds for at least the past century.

We are finally being freed from this control. Now that my eyes have personally been opened, I am outraged at how badly deceived I've been in the past and how gullible I apparently am. It's not that I think I know what's going on yet. It's more that I at least know now that I don't know what's going on. At least I now have the opportunity to learn and figure it out.

In my opinion, the Democrats and the Left are going to be the first casualties. Why? Because a whopping huge majority of journalists are Democrat (greater than 90%), and even with that information advantage, in the last century the Democrats have only had small majorities in Congress and the President has been a Democrat about half the time. It's no surprise to me that as these new channels of information have increased during the past 20 years, the Republicans are gaining ground.

Many Republican politicians are gloating. Well, they better enjoy it while they can because I think that politicians of all stripes are going to be the next casualties of this information control shift paradigm. Politicians' abilities to lie and deceive with impugnity are going out the window and the populace isn't going to put up with it much longer. They will lose part of their power simply because they will be unable to control the flow of information. I will speculate that they will further lose power because we will have the ability to reign them in. We will strip them of their power and prestige and turn them into civil servants. Truly a government by, of, and for the people.

MYSTICAL BELIEFS

The Sunday New York Times Magazine section had an article about the rise in cannibalism in parts of Africa. It seems that there is a resurgence in the belief that one gains power by eating the flesh and especially internal organs of a slain enemy. We sophisticates think that this is all rather primitive and mystical. The rationalistic thinking of the Enlightenment went further by considering the received truths of all religion to be mystical and unwarranted. Never mind that the major monotheistic reliqions of the past few thousand years gave most people a universal set of morals. The lost faith in a set of revealed truths has set many people in search of new beliefs. As mentioned in earlier posts, Statism, the belief in the state/government as the solution to all problems in society, is the new accepted faith for many people. I think this a big part of Diane Feinstein's complaints over the Janice Rogers Brown speech mentioned in Bret's post - Bush Judicial Nominee Slammed.
Certainly the richness of civil society in mid-1800's America marveled at by Alexis DeTocqueville in his book Democracy in America would lend considerable support to JRB's(Janice Rogers Brown) views.

There are a number of beliefs expressed explicitly and implicitly in the public forum that are essentially mystical in nature. One myth repeated over and over again is the idea that a balanced budget is the sine qua non of fiscal responsibility. I'm sure that everyone on this blog who believes this bought their house for cash, no mortgage. This view ignores the impact of the policy mix on the larger private sector, the wealth generating sector. If you want to rethink this view, spend some time looking at this website about debt,deficits and growth. There is some partisan material on this site, but if you can get past that there is much to learn. Another implicit myth is that regulations(labor,health, environmental...) involve only benefits and no costs. Isn't it wonderful that we don't have to make tradeoffs? Another myth is based on a zero-sum mentality. If an individual or a nation is wealthy then somehow that must cause other individuals or nations to be poor. Wealth generation is not a zero-sum game. Much of the thinking about helping developing economies simply ignores reality. Fortunately, the late Peter Bauer breaks through this "unreality" in much of his work. His From Subsistence to Exchange is a worthwhile read. Yet another great myth might be called "the garden of eden view". Once upon a time life was wonderful and idyllic but then the evil capitalists came along and exploited the hell out of everyone. Many people believe this but with considerable variation in degree. I'm just getting warmed up but I'll leave this alone for now.


ps Jim, I am averse to grand centralized plans but not to lots of little experiments or additional impowerment of individuals where the individuals are the decision makers

pps re taxes, even if you don't care about your tax cut, putting more resources back in the hands of individual decision makers to deal with spending, saving and investing will have a positive impact through more flexibility and diversification...

Go Fish!

As the Yankees and their fans learned, a Marlin is a damn tough fish to reel in.

Orwell Observation

"It is, I think, true to say that the intelligentsia have been more wrong about the progress of the war than the common people, and that they were more swayed by partisan feelings. The average intellectual of the Left believed, for instance, that the war was lost in 1940, that the Germans were bound to overrun Egypt in 1942, that the Japanese would never be driven out of the lands they had conquered, and that the Anglo-American bombing offensive was making no impression on Germany. He could believe these things because his hatred for the British ruling class forbade him to admit that British plans could succeed. There is no limit to the follies that can be swallowed if one is under the influence of feelings of this kind. I have heard it confidently stated, for instance, that the American troops had been brought to Europe not to fight the Germans but to crush an English revolution. One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool. " George Orwell, Notes on Nationalism, May 1945

Sunday, October 26, 2003

Bush Judicial Nominee Slammed

From the Sacramento Bee
California Supreme Court Justice Janice Rogers Brown, President Bush's controversial nominee for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, ran into a firestorm of criticism from Democrats ...

In her questioning, Feinstein zeroed in on a speech Brown delivered three years ago to the Federalist Society at the University of Chicago Law School that the senator said was disturbing because of its anti-government tone.

In that speech, Brown said that "where government moves in, community retreats, civil society disintegrates, and our ability to control our destiny atrophies. The result is: families under siege, war in the streets, unapologetic expropriation of property, the precipitous decline of the rule of law, the rapid rise of corruption, the loss of civility and the triumph of deceit."

Well, yeah. And what's Feinstein's problem with that statement?

It's Snowing in San Diego!

Oh wait, never mind, that's not snow, it's ash! Just seasonal fires in East County. I have about 1/8 inch of ash covering my house and yard. Oh well, looking on the bright side, last time this happened the rose bushes started producing more roses. Something in the ash must be good for them.

Update: It's a snow ash day, no school! Well, it's Sunday so there wouldn't be school anyway, but the "fall festival" at our kids school has been canceled. I've never had an ash day before.

Update: Looking up through the smoke the sun is totally red. What's more interesting is that I can see the sun spots! I guess this is a taste of what the lighting would be like during parts of a nuclear winter. Oh joy!

Update: At least one of Cassia's friends' families' houses is on fire. Fires are within 3 miles of my sister's house - she's packing it up and probably heading over. Bummer! We're pretty safe here near the beach. There is a massive freeway (I-5) between the fires and us. There's a saying in San Diego: "There's no life east of I-5" which is supposed to mean that all that's "happenin'" in San Diego occurs in the beach area. I hope it doesn't turn out to be literally true.

Update: Yes, they did evacuate my sister. Fire didn't get her house yet, but she's not allowed to return home. County schools are closed on Monday, no garbage collection, the Mayor has asked us not to go to work, ash is still falling, and the air quality is poor. Other than that, things are just hunky dory.

Saturday, October 25, 2003

Directed Change

Jim writes two statements:
"...most... attempts to direct social change are doomed to failure, or actually create more problems than benefits."
and
"...without directed change -- regardless of the odds against it -- we are doomed to careen through history from one crisis to another; and, since the crises are getting bigger due to the sheer power of humans (both individually and collectively), this is an unacceptable option."
I firmly agree with both those statements. I don't believe they are mutually exclusive in any sort of way.

Howie and I spent tremendous effort researching different trading techniques (and of course Howie is still doing it). The vast majority of the experiments were failures. Nonetheless, Howie's trading is more profitable today because of those efforts. Granted, we had (and have) the luxury of trying new things without actually committing money ahead of time. However, even if we had to commit money before testing, if we kept the experiments small, it would have still been important to try them. In fact, we wouldn't have survived without doing the research (in my opinion, Howie's opinion may differ).

Most scientific experiments fail as well. That doesn't mean we shouldn't pursue science. Indeed, we often learn from the failures as well as the successes. The failures are rarely publicized. Everybody knows Edison invented the light bulb, but few know that he had to try thousands of filaments before he found one that worked for even 24 hours.

And the same goes for government and social change. Certainly many or most of the things we try will fail. But without incremental experimentation, I agree that we will careen from crisis to crisis. In fact, I'd go farther than Jim. If most attempts at social change are not failing, then we're not making enough attempts.

But (and you knew there was going to be a "but", didn't you?), I think the experiments (i.e., attempts at social change) need to be well designed.

They have to be designed with the possibility of failure (since most experiments will fail). This includes minimizing the cost of failure and having an escape hatch enabling the experiment to be undone if necessary. The easiest way to minimize cost is to not do the experiment at the national level until it's been shown to work well at local and state levels. This also provides an escape hatch. If an experiment turns out to be catastrophic for some locality, the rest of the country can always bail out those affected. If a policy fails catastrophically at the national level, well, then like communism and Russia, it may take a long, long time to recover.

The results of the experiments should be quantifiable. In other words, can we measure the impact of the experiments? For example, Clinton's efforts to get welfare recipients back to work seems to have helped. There are now significantly fewer people on the dole. Would have this happened anyway? Maybe or maybe not. Perhaps an even better experiment would have been to do it in half the states. The other half would be a control group. At least the welfare experiment didn't seem to hurt.

Lots of small experiments are better than a few large experiments. First, it provides more data. Second, it enables experimental design to take into account local factors and needs. For example, a policy that would work well in Berkeley may not work so well in San Diego, may work poorly in Coral Springs, and may be a total, complete, and irreversible disaster in Mississippi.

A recurring theme in the experimental design is to devolve money, responsibility, and authority for the experiments to as local a level as possible. At the national level the cost of failure is too high, it makes it difficult to quantify the results of the experiment (since there is nothing to compare it to), and it limits the number of experiments which reduces the data and what we can learn from those experiments.

The next question is who should direct these experiments? The president of the United States? Congress? Ahnold Schwarzenegger? Mayor Willie Brown? Some combination of the above?

I think this may be where the biggest disagreement lies amongst members of this blog. I think it is extremely unlikely that any politician (current or future) in any political office (current or future) can provide the most effective and efficient leadership to promote social change. Power corrupts, and giving our politicians the power to effect significant change will corrupt them more deeply. As described by Mancur Olson ("The Rise and Decline of Nations"), Jonathon Rauch ("Demosclerosis"), Charlotte Twight ("Dependent on DC"), and even David Corn ( "The Lies of George W. Bush, Mastering the Politics of Deception"), politicians inherently deceive us for their own advantage. In other words, the change they will effect will benefit them, their families, and their cronies far more than the population. This is due to the relationship between special interests and politicians, the ability of politicians to increase transaction costs that hinder the public from limiting the politicians' ability to further his or her personal agendas, and a huge number of other factors that are described in those books and numerous other places. As a result, I would like politicians to get out of the leadership business and instead be civil servants.

So, you may be wondering what's the alternative. We don't need politicians to be leaders because we have many other leaders in our society. Paul Krugman is a leader. So is Christopher Hitchens, Andrew Sullivan, Bill Gates, Victor Davis Hanson, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, and so forth. There are lots and lots of leaders who are not politicians. They're smart, they debate the issues, and we listen. Because of the Internet and blogs and email and online media we provide feedback for their debate. Eventually, for a given problem, we'll agree on a possible solution and on an approach to implementing that solution.

Then we should tell the politicians what to do. And they should implement it. I have a set of essays that I'm working on that will describe the details of how this will (or at least could) happen. Because of enormously better communications capabilities, we have a huge number of options available to us regarding democracy and governance that simply weren't possible even a few short years ago. Direct democracy in a society of 300 million people is now possible, and as I will argue in future essays, desirable.

Krugman becoming too popular

Bret, I tend to agree -- Krugman is not only becoming incredibly popular, he seems to have crossed the line into populism. Power corrupts. The problem is, our society so greatly reinforces popularity. Tens of millions of dollars for sports figures, pop stars, movie stars. Even pundits and news anchors are multi-millionaires. The more outrageous, the more popular, the richer. I'm not saying I would do anything about it. Just bemoaning the unintended consequences of our great society.

Howie, I particularly liked your relaying of observations by Edward O. Wilson. I agree that it's hard to start with transcendental arguments and expect a desired change to emerge. There's a necessary pragmatism that all change must be subject to. It's important not to oversimplify this because social systems are incredibly complex. Examination of incentives, consequences, and the barriers to adoption of new behaviors in any change effort is a good place to start.

Nonetheless, I think there is one transcendental question through which changes should be filtered: will the change provide more freedom for self-determination without significant detriment to the empowering infrastructure (which can be physical, economic, social, etc.), or will the change convey sufficient additional power for general self-actualization that it is worth any trade-off in reduced freedoms? Differences of opinion on this question will persist, but at least it would frame the argument for change in terms that people could relate to.

An example is the illegal drug policy issue that we discussed previously in this blog. The current policy creates all kinds of freedom-limiting conditions, including imprisonment for tons of small time pot users. What power for general self-actualization does this policy convey? I suppose the argument of proponents of our current drug policy would be that it protects people (esp. children?) from the ravages of drug use, and therefore allows them to otherwise pursue self-actualization. Pretty flimsy argument if you ask me. The data don't seem to support it, and, as previously noted, it is patriarchical. Might it not be more self-actualizing to decide not to do drugs on your own, based on an understanding of the facts rather than compliance with laws? If drugs really are so evil that they can hardly be resisted, then we'd better get busy outlawing candy and soda pop as well because those seem to be having a much more devastating impact on the health of our nation than illegal drugs.

Let's look at another -- harder -- issue: Bush's tax cut. Certainly, since I am in the upper percentiles of earners in the nation, the tax cut provided me more freedom in the sense that I have more money to spend on what I want to spend it on. This seems compelling in that it is so direct. The counter-arguments are harder to make, but are worth considering. What power for general self-actualization are we giving up? Because the federal budget is a giant marshmallow, it is necessarily messy to say that the tax cut will specifically disempower children because of less money for education, or cause the poor elderly more economic misery, or result in less national security, or eventually send interest rates skyward. As Bret rightly pointed out, the choices are not being honestly debated. Bush is, like so many others, a tax-cutting, high-spending politician. Why? Because it's generally the popular thing to do, and because of all the time lags, the problems associated with not making an honest choice might be pushed beyond the next election.

Don't get me wrong, I like tax cuts. But, what am I -- as a citizen who cares about the general health of our nation -- giving up? Until a taxcut-professing politician answers this, I'm not going to support him/her.

I also don't buy into the idea that cutting taxes will spur the necessity of cutting expenses. It's too easy to finance debt and avoid the issue.

Which brings us to reform, which is basically a fancy name for efficiency, which, in most cases, is the result of exposure to market forces. In general, I like the idea of reform because its promise is the same or better services at lower cost. The problem is, it almost never happens in the political arena. Yes, I agree, our educational system probably should be privatized. Maybe our highway system, too. Maybe social security. Or at least substantially so. Anyone want to place a bet on the likelihood of such reforms without the nation first experiencing a crisis? There's not even a remote chance of such reform without much greater leadership than we have now.

So, what do we need to do? We definitely need to cut spending. The federal budget is an interesting thing to contemplate. $318 billion for interest on debt -- a growing expense that is crowding out other expenditures because we have no fiscal discipline. Close to $400 billion on defense. Absolutely absurd. It should be half that much at most. What about NASA? Cut it 90%. Make it stick to science, not spectacle. Department of Energy? Cut the damn subsidies for the oil industry. I'm in the industry, and, believe me, we don't need them. Same with agriculture.

What we should not be cutting are programs that under a reasonable cost-effectiveness analysis are shown to help people become productive or programs that help prevent people from becoming a bigger drain on the rest of society. Education and training, safety nets that incent people to bounce back, preventive healthcare, a life for the elderly without physical misery, well-vetted infrastructure improvements -- these are good places for a government to spend money. Reform the way they're delivered? Of course. But not without a lot of work and great leadership.

Unfortunately, as citizens, often with good reason, we don't trust our governments to spend money in these areas wisely. What is the answer of the right? Don't even try to take on these challenges. As if somehow, magically, the market, or some other forces will make things right. The problem is, the need is not going away. It's intensifying.

Our blog has been very interesting to me. We seem to agree on a lot of things. If I can characterize one thing that we may disagree on, though, it's the role of political leaders to create change. Howie, especially, and Bret, to a lesser extent, seem to believe that most -- perhaps all -- attempts to direct social change are doomed to failure, or actually create more problems than benefits. On the other hand, I believe that without directed change -- regardless of the odds against it -- we are doomed to careen through history from one crisis to another; and, since the crises are getting bigger due to the sheer power of humans (both individually and collectively), this is an unacceptable option. Do you agree with that characterization of our differences? If not, can you better state your positions?

I've started reading Hayek's "Fatal Conceit," which, of course, is relevant to this topic. I'll let you know what I think.

Friday, October 24, 2003

Unemployment Statistics

It looks to me, that right this second, Paul Krugman is one of the top ten most famous American economists of all time. It seems to me that every 5th article or so that I've been reading, whether blog or old media, and whether left, right, or center, mentions him. His book is a best seller and his NY Times column is hugely popular. Very impressive.

I started with that introduction because I want to make it clear that I'm not going out of my way to criticize Krugman. It's just that when I follow links, I often end up at something Krugman has written, and as I've mentioned previously, usually his economic columns are (I think) pretty good.

However, in today's NY Times OpEd by Krugman, Too Low a Bar, the following made me roll my eyes:
"So Mr. Snow is predicting that his boss [Bush] will be the first occupant of the White House since Herbert Hoover to end a term with fewer jobs available than when he started. "

A pretty damning indictment of Bush's domestic economic policy, don't you think? Clearly the worst since Herbert Hoover started the great depression!

But wait a second, though the statement is true, does it really have any significant meaning? Might events, economic cycles, and sheer luck converge to produce an isolated statistic to make Bush look bad? Just for amusement, let's try some other spins of the data instead. It's also true that (barring catastrophic developments not projected by anybody including Krugman), that at the end of Bush's first term, he will preside over more jobs than at the end of the first term of any other president in the history of this country (Bush at about 130M jobs, Clinton the runner-up at about 122M jobs). Or how about this. With the possible exception of Clinton, the unemployment rate will be lower at the end of Bush's first term than the unemployment rate at the end of the first term for any other president since Nixon (Ford 77: 7.5%, Carter 81: 7.5%, Reagan 85: 7.3%, Bush I 93: 7.3%, Clinton 97: 5.3%, Bush II 05: 5.3-6.3%). I'm surprised Krugman didn't point out these interesting anomalies to provide a fair and balanced look at the data.

My statements are also meaningless of course. But I think this is an interesting example of "Figures don't spin, but spinners figure" or however that old saying goes.

Understanding The Past

Instead of trying to understand events or policy debates on an ad hoc basis it can helpful to relate them to circumstances in the past. Of course this only helps if you have a realistic sense of the relevant history (I know, everybody has their own take). Revisionism often becomes part of the political game.
These provisos aside, anyone interested in economics eventually asks questions about The Great Depression. The most basic question is what the f*** happened?!?! In very simple terms, it was the culmination of the collapse of the old political order (monarchy)in Europe (also in China)and a turning away from the market order of economy on a global level. I said the culmination because the wave of change had its origins in thoughts and events of the mid-1800s. Two really terrific books dealing with this era and the sweep of events into more recent times are Against The Dead Hand and Heaven On Earth. Some of these thoughts were utopian, some were based on class struggle(Marx) others were purely rationalist. If large scale industrial companies were the newest part of the economic landscape, wasn't this the wave of the future for how to organize all of society? Many people thought so. Along these various paths of thought and action the move towards statism was underway on a global scale - a rather grand experiment or exploration.

The forces loose in the world were larger than anything that domestic policy makers could contend with and they did not have the benefit of lessons culled from the past century. That forgiving note aside, what do I think happened? The Smoot-Hawley Tariff raised trade barriers to global trade. Domestic "trade barriers" were raised through huge hikes of income tax rates as part of an obsession over balancing budgets. A long list of New Deal policies prevented the economy from undergoing adjustments that would have allowed a resumption of growth. The attempt at centralized overcontrol made things worse. Both Hoover and Roosevelt were responsible for these policies. Also, the damage done to the banks a financial system crimped the availabilty of capital. Much of this is given a reasonable treatment in this Robert Bartley column. I would highlight this disturbing excerpt:

The New Deal, that is, was not about economic recovery, but about displacing business as the nation's predominant elite. FDR harked back to the founder of his party. In his 1832 veto of renewing the Bank's charter, Jackson complained that its profits went to foreigners and "a few hundred of our own citizens, chiefly of the richest class." Daniel Webster replied that the message "wantonly attacks whole classes of the people, for the purpose of turning against them the prejudices and the resentments of other classes." The tradition, of course, runs strong even today in the party of Jackson and Roosevelt.

That's where my study of the matter has led me.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

New Feature

I've added a comments capability. Each post has a "comment" link. If a reader (or one of us) clicks on it, he or she can enter and browse comments. I'm thinking this might (a) facilitate discussion amongst us since it's much quicker and easier to add a comment than a whole new post and (b) make the whole blog more interactive if we invite other people to read it or point people to links. If the comments get nastily out of hand because of outsiders, I'll have to shut it down, but let's give it a try for now.

Media dreck - nothing new

As Bret points out in Americans Are Losing the Victory, media portrayal of events or circumstances can be wildly misleading. Going back even further in time, New York Times columnist Walter Duranty reported how terrific things were in Stalin's paradise.

Duranty reported that Soviet citizens celebrated their “freedom” from religion by increasing factory production on religious holidays.

"...Duranty’s 1931 pieces were “very effective renditions of the Stalinist leadership’s style of self-understanding of their murderous and progressive project.”

Though Duranty has achieved lasting posthumous fame for covering up the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 in which as many as 10 million people died, the Pulitzer was awarded for his writing in 1931.

As reported here, Duranty might be stripped of his Pulitzer.

Free vs. Unfree

One of those simplistic dividing lines that can often provide illumination in a complex world is the difference between a free and unfree society. Communism/socialism, facism and the current Islamofacism are more similar than dissimilar as various faces of totalitarianism. There have been apologists for Communists around the world but they couldn't be more wrong. In yet another example of where this all leads to, I highly recommend this Claudia Rosett column.
Here is an excerpt:

The report presents the grim individual stories of 30 defectors interviewed by Mr. Hawk in-depth, and culled from these, to further clarify the customs of the camps, is a long list of the tortures described. "Worst of all," as the report puts it, is a roster of stories detailing the routine murder of babies born to prisoners, as told by eight separate eyewitnesses. One common denominator is that when pregnant women are forcibly repatriated after fleeing to China, it is policy to murder their newborns, because they might have been fathered by Chinese men. One account describes babies tossed on the ground to die, with their mothers forced to watch. In another interview, a former prisoner, a 66-year-old grandmother, identified as "Detainee #24" to protect relatives still perhaps alive in North Korea, describes being assigned to help in the delivery of babies who were thrown immediately into a plastic-lined box to die in bulk lots. The report notes: "The interviewer had difficulty finding words to describe the sadness in this grandmother's eyes and the anguish on her face as she recounted her experience as a midwife at the detention center in South Sinuiju"--one of the sites shown in detail in the accompanying satellite photos.
This is why all forms of totalitarianism are essentially a crime against humanity.

Holding forth on the importance of freedom, here is a pretty good little piece I received in an email:

FLOTSAM & JETSAM: An Army Of Principles - From John Pugsley, Chairman, Sovereign Society
"An army of principles will penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot. Neither the channel nor the Rhine will arrest its progress. It will march on the horizon of the world and it will conquer." -Thomas Paine (engraved on the headstone of Rose Wilder Lane)
"...Paine was correct in his belief that an army of principles will penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot. History shows us the power of adhering to principles; the stunning advances in science and technology are based on exactly this concept. Yet, the principles of freedom have failed to attract many followers. This is a tragic puzzle considering the consistent failure of governments. In our lifetimes we have witnessed the failure of communism and fascism and the stagnation of socialism. Leaving decisions and responsibilities in the hands of individuals produces progress and peace, while transferring them to the state leads to stagnation and conflict. Why then don't all thinking people join Paine's army of principles? The failure lies in the erroneous premises on which liberty's intellectual pioneers built the case for freedom. The philosophy of liberty was built on transcendental arguments, not on science. Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson, the great synthesizer of sociology and biology, identified the problem. "If we explore the biological roots of moral behavior and explain their material origins and biases, we should be able to fashion an enduring ethical consensus. We can't start out from a transcendental, a-priori starting point."... As biology, anthropology, and genetics advance, we are discovering the truth about human nature. From this is emerging the realization that nature endows no species with rights, but, through evolution, endows them only with a specific "nature." By understanding our own nature we have the opportunity to discover principles on which a new, more rational and scientific social contract can emerge. ...the most fundamental principle is that any workable system must leave individuals sovereign over their lives and property. For whenever an individual passes his or her sovereignty on to another person or group, those given power are bound by their natures to first weigh their own self-interest, before considering the interest of the person who has entrusted them with power. Power will tend to corrupt, as it always has..."
"It's tragic that this river of logic has not swept away mankind's dependence on the state," Pugsley continues. "In spite of prose from the likes of Thomas Paine, Adam Smith, John Locke, Frederic Bastiat, and 20th century giants like von Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, Lefevre and Rand, we seem further away from a world where individuals are sovereign. Wars rage, tyrants rule, and in the large democracies, the masses vote themselves into bondage."


Explaining Mahathir's Motivations

Perhaps I am being overly sensitive (along with here, here, here, here, here, here, here, etc.), and it's certainly a subjective interpretation, but if Krugman had written the following paragraph I would have considered the tone and gist to be almost exactly identical to what he did write:
Mahathir's "remarks are inexcusable", but hey, he is "as forward-looking a Muslim leader as we're likely to find", his anti-semitism is perfectly rational given the current state of affairs (you'd do the same thing if you were in his shoes), it's really no big deal and we need to support him, so get over it.

Though I agree that Krugman knows and admits that Mahathir is anti-semitic, I find it unacceptable that Krugman downplays the potential impact of Mahathir's anti-semitism and implies (in my subjective perception) that we should just ignore it and continue to support him.

I wish Krugman would stick to economics and stay away from other policy issues (where he knows no more than any of the rest of us). I often agree with his economic analysis and sometimes even learn new things, but I think that most of the rest of his columns, like the one we're currently discussing, are at best, weak.

As far as his economic columns go, I'm usually surprised at the intensity of criticism he has of the Bush administration. Krugman is a 'tax and spend' democrat, Bush is a 'don't tax but still spend' republican. They overlap completely on the 'spend' part, so I'm surprised their relationship isn't more collaborative. Personally, I would like to try a 'don't tax and don't spend' leader, but we've never had one of those.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Krugman?

Bret, I certainly don't want to be insensitive on this subject, and if I am in any way, I apologize in advance.

I have watched Mahathir's antics for a long time -- starting in Singapore in 1985. He has always been anti-Semitic, and he clearly uses this to advance his own popularity among radical Muslims (while the more enlightened ones, to their discredit, have looked the other way).

With regard to Krugman's statement, though, I'm not sure I see the error in it that you and the letter-to-the-editor writer see. To me, it seems that Krugman is simply pointing out that Mahathir was being "hateful" for purposes of covering "his domestic flank." I didn't take the initial question in his statement to mean that Krugman didn't believe Mahathir was being anti-Semitic. He's simply answering the question -- and, in fact, agrees that Mahathir was being so. I don't think his words were in any way meant to excuse Mahathir -- only to explain his motivations.

I did a few minutes of research on the internet, but couldn't find anything about Krugman's own religious upbringing. It seems like something I once read suggested he was Jewish. But, I'm not sure about that.

Anyway, perhaps Krugman should have been more clearly condemning of Mahathir's statements. They certainly appalled me when I read them earlier this week.

Regarding other provocative postings you've made, I've been too busy to do much responding the last several days. I'll get to them eventually...

Free State Project

Well, I do like experiments. This one is pretty wild and think likely to fail but it's certainly innovative and interesting.

Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Paul Krugman Whacks Multiple Hot Buttons

Ooooowwwwwwwww!!!
"The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million. But today the Jews rule this world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them." Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister of Malaysia, at an Islamic summit meeting last week.

"So what's with the anti-Semitism? Almost surely it's part of Mr. Mahathir's domestic balancing act... When times are tough, Mr. Mahathir also throws the Muslim majority rhetorical red meat. And that's what he was doing last week... Now Mr. Mahathir thinks that to cover his domestic flank, he must insert hateful words into a speech mainly about Muslim reform..." Paul Krugman, NY Times, 10/21/2003

So apparently anti-Semitism is okay or at least tolerable as long as it is used to maintain one's position of power (via a balancing act) over a population? Now that he's helped instill hate in some of his people and they kill a few, is that okay too?

No, none of it's okay or anywhere near okay. I think the following sums it up pretty well:
Letters to the Editor
The New York Times October 21, 2003

To the Editor:

In his obsession with criticizing U.S. policy, Paul Krugman underestimates the significance of the anti-Semitic diatribe by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad before the Organization of the Islamic Conference ("Listening to Mahathir," Oct. 21).

Mahathir's comments cannot be explained away by themes of domestic politics. They come in the context of a surge of anti-Semitism in the Islamic world, and not only on the fringes. Conspiracy theories about blaming Jews for 9/11 are believed by tens of millions. Denial of the Holocaust is rampant in the media. Images of Jews in op-ed pieces, editorials, and cartoons reflect classic anti-Semitic stereotypes drinking the blood of Muslims, all-powerful, secretive and conspiratorial.

The last time the world saw such a hateful anti-Semitic tirade by a national leader, there was a tendency to play it down as well as only politics, as buffoonery, as a passing thing. We know how that ended up in Germany. Let's not make that mistake again.

Sincerely,

Glen A. Tobias
National Chairman

My Jewish wife has been doing a lot of business with Malaysia lately (in fact she was over there just two weeks ago). Till now she hasn't been exposed to any anti-Semitism or anti-Americanism of any kind from Malays. She felt sick when she read the news regarding Mahathir Mohamad's speech.

I know he has a long, long history of similar remarks. And I don't really feel any strong anger towards him. My anger is directed at someone who should know better, someone who's supposedly smart, someone who should be more enlightened, and that someone is Krugman, who has crossed a line that I will never forget.

Sunday, October 19, 2003

Re: Drug Policy

Jim, you listed effects of our current drug policy. There was one that I wasn't sure I understood: "Does not reduce addiction rates." Do you mean that if drugs were legalized, there would not be any additional addicts? If so, why would that be case?

Friday, October 17, 2003

Americans Are Losing the Victory...

...in Europe. Allegedly according to two articles (Article 1, Article 2) from the January 7, 1946 issue of Life magazine.

I think this must be a hoax because the writing style doesn't look right to me, but enough bloggers who normally aren't particularly gullible seem to believe it and it hasn't yet shown up on the Urban Legends website. So I'll take a chance, because it's at least amusing whether or not it's true. Some highlights of the articles:
"Destitute nations feel that the U.S. has failed them"

"We’ve lost the peace"

"Friend and foe alike, look you accusingly in the face and tell you how bitterly they are disappointed in you as an American."

"Never has American prestige in Europe been lower."

"We have swept away Hitlerism, but a great many Europeans feel that the cure has been worse than the disease."

"The taste of victory had gone sour in the mouth of every thoughtful American I met."

“Europe is threatened by a catastrophe this winter which has no precedent since the Black Death of 1348."

"No child born in Germany in 1945 will survive. Only half the children aged less than 3 years will survive.”

"blame will fall on the victor nations"

If true, it's impressive how bad the media (at least part of it) was back then too. If anybody happens to have that particular issue of Life magazine, please check its authenticity and let me know.

A Perspective

From Jim: tax policy, trade policy, substantial portions of international policy, and drug policy.

Let me suggest that: a complex and steeply progressive income tax, trade barriers beyond very modest uniform tariffs, more activist and interventionist foreign policy and criminalization of drug activities are largely the result of our failure to adhere to the principle of limited government during the 20th Century.

"...statism, which my dictionary defines as the concentration of economic controls and planning in the hands of a highly centralized government, and which I further define as the belief that the state is the mechanism best suited for solving most if not all of society's ills, be they health related, natural disasters, poverty, job training, or injured feelings. Statism is the great political disease of the twentieth century, with Communist, socialist, and many democratic nations infected to a greater or lesser degree. When the political history of our century is written, its greatest story will be how a hundred variants of statism failed." Jim Rogers from Investment Biker

Drug Policy

Bret, I couldn't agree more. Well said.

Here are some of the many effects of our current drug policy:
- Enriches drug lords across the world thus exacerbating violent crime
- Imprisons hundreds of thousands unaddicted, unmalicious users
- Unnecessarily "criminalizes" millions more
- Drives underground those who need treatment
- Foregoes tens of billions of dollars in potential marijuana-related employment opportunities and sales tax revenues
- Costs billions to support interdiction, policing, and incarceration
- Militarizes relationships with drug-producing countries
- Messes up the economies and politics of drug-producing countries
- Prevents innovation to make recreational drugs less harmful (and more recreational)
- Inhibits intelligent discussion and unbiased research about the effects of drugs
- Does not reduce addiction rates
- Propagates the patriarchical assumption that the government should legislate a domain of moral standards that are "for your own good"

This is good. We've got tax policy, trade policy, substantial portions of international policy, and drug policy worked out. Before long, we'll have a platform for transformation that will be radical, but compelling for its logic and underlying principle of human empowerment.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Drug Policy

One of the areas where the "truth" is nearly impossible to find is Drug Policy. There seems to be nearly universal acceptance of the standard "Drugs are Bad" meme, pushed by the government and actively supported by the Media and research community. I have reason to doubt that drugs are quite as bad as they're made out to be. Why? Well, while I'd never admit to using drugs, not since college anyway, well, at least not in the last few years, or, er, not recently, ok, ok, at least not today, I've known a few several many dozens hundreds of light, well maybe not so light, say moderate, possibly heavy (I never realized one could ingest so much and survive) recreational drug users, and they all seemed to do quite well at school, work, life, etc.

On the other hand, I've never known anybody to use heroin or opiates in general and know very little about these drugs. Reasononline has an article H The surprising truth about heroin and addiction. Unfortunately, I don't trust it, as per my rants below about the lyin', cheatin', media. Especially when they throw the word "truth" in the title. That's almost a guarantee that it's not the truth. Other than that, it's an interesting article.

The main point I'd like to make is that Drug Policy, and the millions of peoples whose lives are affected by it, seems to be based completely on intentional lies and other perversions of the truth. But real data, trustable data, data that could be used objectively to make people better off is nowhere to be found.

I Can't See Something on the Fringe

Being Linux based (both at home and at work), and having no speakers attached to any of my computers, I can't view the video about the "depth of corruption and deceit within the highest ranks of our government and the first family". Sounds interesting, is there a transcript?

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Does it Feel Right?

The world is a complicated place with enormous uncertainty. Our understanding of the world has, at best, lots of little misconceptions, and quite possibly even some very large misconceptions.

The outcome of any decision or set of decisions has a luck component. That is to say the outcome of a decision set is probabalistic. Even if we make good decisions, the outcome may not be what we hoped for. What we would like to do is to make the optimal set of decisions which will provide the maximum utility given the probability distribution of all possible outcomes. I don't want to get too much into utility and decision theory here, but it is close enough to say that maximum utility maximizes the likelihood of the desired outcome after adjusting for some subjective level of risk aversion.

Utility is inherently subjective. This is desired subjectivity. People have different tastes, desires, and perspectives. A significant part of utility theory is dedicated to making the inherent subjectivity quantifiable so that an objective, mathematical analysis can then create the decision set to maximize that subjective utility.

However, to be able to calculate the optimal decision set to maximize utility, the subjective preferences must be based on an accurate perception of reality and the rest of the input data also needs to be accurate. Therefore, we would all like to have the best understanding of the world and the most accurate data possible in order to maximize our utility.

Jim writes that it's not necessarily critical whether or not all the facts are accurate in what he reads because he has healthy skepticism and constantly asks himself:
"Does this feel right? Does it jibe with the way humans act and systems operate? Does the thread of logic make sense?"

I think that everybody views the world through these exact same filters. In fact, given the uncertainty we usually have to deal with, there is generally little choice except to use these subjective filters and the results from using them are usually sufficient to get us through life.

Let's consider what we're really saying here. I'm going to rewrite Jim's words a little to explicitly state the subjectivity of our perspective:
Does this feel right to me? Does it jibe with the way I understand that humans act and systems operate? Does the thread of logic make sense to me?


These filters contain undesirable subjectivity. We have to use these filters because we often don't have better information. However, they do not enable us to increase our understanding of the world, nor do they help us make decisions that maximize utility. In fact, the filter biases and errors tend to be self reinforcing and, as a result, they tend to make our understanding of the world more inaccurate over time.

To see why the errors are self reinforcing, let's take a simple, hypothetical example. Let's say you think Bush is a good president. When you read something positive about Bush, it passes the "does this feel right" and other filters. So you say "yeah, that's quite possibly true." And now you have more evidence that Bush is a good president so you're even more likely to accept future data that supports that. On the other hand, if you read something bad about Bush, your filters make you skeptical, and you tend to reject the evidence so it has little influence on the future performance of the filter. Eventually, accepting the news that matches your belief and rejecting the news that doesn't, you end up believing that Bush is a great president and there is no way you could be convinced otherwise.

There are many, many people who are so strongly convinced that Bush is a good President, that no amount of evidence could convince them otherwise. Of course, the converse is true as well. There are many, many people who are so strongly convinced that Bush is a bad President, that no amount of evidence could convince them otherwise.

This is the definition of having a closed mind. Given that you have to have some filters to get through life, if you can't trust the information to which you have access, the closing of your mind is inevitable.

There are other factors which further exacerbate this trend. Rejecting information is painful. When the filters kicks in and rejects data it hurts (it "doesn't feel right"). So people tend to expose themselves to information and data that doesn't create cognitive dissonance. If you're going to ignore everything in an article because of your filters, you might as well skip reading it in the first place. It's a waste of time and unpleasant to boot.

In order to avoid the filter based psychic pain, people like to associate with those that agree with them. Sometimes they even move to certain areas of the country or world in order to be near those that think like them. Most blogs are just groups of bloggers and readers where they pretty much already agree on everyhing. The Great Guys Blog is a rare exception.

I'm the same way. I'm simply not interested or willing to read or watch anything that takes significant time and effort if I'm not going to agree with it.

Unless I feel I can trust the contents to be accurate! If I'm confident that it will be accurate, I'm willing to put in the effort and tolerate the cognitive dissonance. Otherwise, if I can't trust the contents to be accurate, it's simply pointless for me to read it. Therefore, no Michael Moore for me. No Bellesiles, No Lott, No NY Times, No BBC, No CCN, No LA Times. It's very limiting.

That is why I think it is excruciatingly important for the media and significant authors to provide accurate information as the basis for their arguments. The American mind has been closed, both on the left and on the right, because of lack of trust in not only the politicians, but also the media and traditional content providers.

Something from the fringe...but interesting

Hey, check out a couple minutes of this. The first two minutes is in Dutch, but you can get to a player with a fast forward button on it if you click on the file link below the original screen. It might be interesting to try to debunk this one. Whatever the truth of the material, it's interesting to note that some Dutch people find it interesting. We don't see many shows like this on TV here. Can't wait to hear your comments!

Erogonomics

The melding of ergonomics and Eros: ergonomically correct sexual positions. The missionary position gets harder on my wrists every year!

Where is everybody?

So Honey Bee posts one item, then disappears. Benj, Pode, Drake, Frank -- what's with them? Is it just Howie, Bret, and me who are the insufferable policy wonks?

Just the facts, ma'am?

Regarding inaccuracies in journalism, I guess they bother me some, but perhaps not as much as they should. Here's my rationale. I read everything skeptically. When facts are presented, I don't necessarily accept them as valid. If it's important enough, I'll try to check on them -- but who's to say that the place I check is accurate either. The important point, though, is I don't read to accumulate facts. I used to -- I'd even write them down (and sometimes still do) -- but I never could remember them. Then I realized I mainly read for the ideas, the intentions, the meaning, the message. Of course, writers present facts to support their ideas. And, by weaving in a few inaccuracies, they can develop ideas that are pretty far from any truth. That's why I'm skeptical. No matter what facts are presented, I'm always asking myself, "Does this feel right? Does it jibe with the way humans act and systems operate? Does the thread of logic make sense? Regardless of the facts, what are the underlying motivations for this to be happening, and for this author to be writing about it?"

So, why do I like reading Michael Moore? (By the way, I'm going to see him in person this Saturday at Berkeley.) Because he presents new ideas, a new perspective on the events of our day. Yes, I think it's unfortunate that his work is so full of inaccuracies - it reduces the seriousness of his ideas. But, he does have an incisive and funny way of pointing out disconnects between core values and the actions of our leaders. Whether every fact he presents is correct about how Bush stole the 2000 election from Gore is not that important to me. His portrayal, though, of Bush and his campaign team as people who would do almost anything to win, including, if necessary, cross ethical lines, seems to me to be reasonably accurate. On the other hand, his views on trade relations just seem ignorant, no matter how many facts he presents.

I think my approach would only work for those who have done a considerable amount of reading. The background information -- with various inaccuracies cancelled out and reduced in relation to the larger body -- acts as a template against which new information can be judged. If you're the kind of person who reads Mary Baker Eddy for the first time then becomes a Christian Scientist, then you're probably pretty susceptible to inaccuracies. I doubt that you have that problem. No doubt, though, that everything we read will have some effect on us - so it's worth choosing carefully.

Leadership or luck?

Good reflections on leadership, Bret. Here are a couple more thoughts about presidential leadership.

I, also, did not like Reagan's policies (and, like Bush, I thought he was intellectually deficient for the office). One thing he was very good at, though (and which George W sucks at) is communicating a clear, simple message based on his personal values.

Whether Reagan made good decisions is another issue. At this relatively close point in history, people ascribe the demise of the Soviet Union to Reagan's ante-upping defense spending. But, he may have just been lucky. Lucky in the sense that Gorbachev came along, in 1985, and was the perfect Soviet leader to be receptive to Reagan's approach. Brezhnev (until 1982), Andropov (until 1984), and Chernenko (until 1985) were all unreceptive. It's not out of the question that one of these leaders (had they lived) or another one other than Gorby might have acted much differently under the economic pressure felt by the Soviets at the time. Perhaps some would have acted in desperation in a way that would have been terribly bad for the U.S. and the rest of the world. Reagan's decisions, then, may not have looked so good.

Further, the Soviet Union would have collapsed eventually. Reagan's policies may have sped the demise, but maybe not. Gorbachev was a change agent with a pretty good feel for what was happening to his country regardless of Reagan's policies.

The point is, I'm skeptical about giving too much credit to Reagan's policies. However, in this domain, I do give him high grades for execution of them. His policies and their execution in other areas, e.g., in Latin America, are another story altogether.

How about Bush? Could he wind up looking good in Iraq?

Of course he could. Again, it may depend on chance -- e.g., the emergence of a progressive Arab leader. Most likely, there will be a mix of good and bad which will attract proponents primarily according to partisanship. The other possibility -- remote, in my mind -- is that Bush will actually do something that significantly helps things turn out well. It could be something visible and symbolic, or it could be lots of behind-doors canvassing. Nothing suggests to me that he is good at either of these. Nonetheless, it might be a little interesting to think about the symbolic things he could do to change the equation.

In my opinion, the best defense against terrorism is to marginalize it. I doubt that terrorism can be beat through confrontation -- it's too amorphous to confront. This is our current approach, and, on the surface, it appears successful. Frequently, we hear reports about disruption to terrorist cells or financing or weapons flows. But, I don't think this will be successful. This approach acknowledges and empowers the beast -- which, in turn, attracts the desperate and disaffected around the world.

While I'm not against some degree of security precaution, I don't think it will be very effective in the long run. The fluid beast of terrorism will find its way through our defenses, eventually.

Perhaps it would be better to ignore terrorism as a serious threat, and emphasize a different reality? A reality that only acknowledges construction -- rather than destruction -- as a winning strategy.

So, when Bush finally gets Saddam (I'm convinced we will not leave Iraq until that happens -- unless Saddam cleverly figures out how to get himself to another country willing to host him -- don't think he's not trying), he should declare victory, then come out with a powerful symbol of anti-violence that all countries can participate in. For example, he could declare that he is asking the U.N. (this is really dreaming, isn't it!) to administer a grassroots-oriented "peace and development fund" into which all countries will divert 1/4 of their weapons expenditures for a year, with the U.S. making the initial commitment. He could explain that a new era of peace is within our grasp, and it is only a matter of everyone committing to make it happen. Target development funds to go to extremely poor countries as well as to the most troublesome countries. North Korea would be near the top of the list. (North Korea, as Madeleine Albright rightly says, is the most threatening country on Earth. But, all its power is based on repression -- which is inherently unstable. With the demise of a few key leaders -- maybe only one -- its current incarnation will crumble. Our main goal should be to make sure that it doesn't take down others with it.)

OK, so maybe my proposal is not realistic. But, the concept is important. Eliminate terrorism through marginalization, i.e., by giving desperate people more interesting things to talk about and to be involved in. So long as our mindset revolves around terrorism, terrorism will be fed.

By the way, about 3000 people died in the 9-11 attacks. 43,000 died in automobile crashes last year. Perhaps our money should be going to an Office of Homeland Automotive Safety?

Tuesday, October 14, 2003

On On Leadership

Jim provided numerous examples of leadership which also answers my question of whether or not it's rare or common: apparently it's common. I need to think about why I was unable to come up with the examples myself and how this new insight affects my philosophical outlook. The Yeltsin and Mandela ones I might have gotten, but for our Presidents, here is how I've associated them with events up till now:

Kennedy - Cuban Missile Crisis
Johnson - Vietnam
Nixon - Watergate
Carter - Stagflation and Iranian hostage crisis
Reagan - OK, well, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" is probably my first association, but at the time I thought Reagan was an idiot and a lunatic (sort of how many people view Bush now).
Clinton - One of two presidents ever to be impeached.

So, anyway, I'll have to think about why I've focused on the bad instead of the good.

VAT Taxes

In Jim's last tax post (Back to taxes), he proposes a combination income and Sales Tax. The VAT (Value Added Tax) is a close relative of the sales tax and is very common. VATs are usually preferred since the tax is collected in small increments at each point in the supply chain and therefore reduces the incentive to evade taxes. This post lists many VAT rates, for example, France 19.6%, Denmark 25%, etc., which are similar to the level that Jim is proposing. Since most countries with VATs have reasonably well functioning economies, there is nothing inherently catastrophically wrong with it.

On the other hand, is it true that consumption taxes keep people from "living beyond their means"? I don't see a lot of evidence of this in the literature one way or another. Also, what does it mean to live beyond ones means? Where do people get the money to do that? Does that really mean they spend more money than you personally feel is prudent when they are younger and less money than you personally feel is prudent when they're older? Is it a good idea to impose this particular fiscal choice on everybody whether they want it or not?

Knowing, or Not!

Bret brings up a good point about being duped by supposedly serious authors even beyond misinformation in the media or on the web. Even after studying something enough to be willing to hold a strong opinion, it is good to allow for being wrong. There are problems of what we don't know but also of thinking things to be true that are not. There are also various forms of knowing as well as limits to any and all form of knowing. This idea is expressed in this Dinesh D'Souza article. Here is an excerpt:

The Fallacy of the Enlightenment is the glib assumption that there is only one limit to what human beings can know, and that limit is reality itself. In this view, widely held by atheists, agnostics and other self-styled rationalists, human beings can continually find out more and more until eventually there is nothing more to discover. The Enlightenment Fallacy holds that human reason and science can, in principle, unmask the whole of reality.

In his "Critique of Pure Reason," Kant showed that this premise is false. In fact, he argued, there is a much greater limit to what human beings can know. The only way that we apprehend reality is through our five senses. But why should we believe, Kant asked, that our five-mode instrument for apprehending reality is sufficient for capturing all of reality? What makes us think that there is no reality that goes beyond, one that simply cannot be apprehended by our five senses?

Kant persuasively noted that there is no reason whatsoever for us to believe that we can know everything that exists. Indeed what we do know, Kant said, we know only through the refracted filter of our experience. Kant argued that we cannot even be sure that our experience of a thing is the same as the thing-in-itself. After all, we see in pretty much the same way that a camera does, and yet who would argue that a picture of a boat is the same thing as a boat?

Kant isn't arguing against the validity of perception or science or reason. He is simply showing their significant limits. These limits cannot be erased by the passage of time or by further investigation and experimentation. Rather, the limits on reason are intrinsic to the kind of beings that humans are, and to the kind of apparatus that we possess for perceiving reality. The implication of Kant's argument is that reality as a whole is, in principle, inaccessible to human beings. Put another way, there is a great deal that human beings simply will never know.

More or Less on Moore

By the way, I don't mean to imply that only Michael Moore's works have lots of errors. One thing the blogosphere has done well is to fact check everything. And the dismaying thing is that they've found errors and lots of them in virtually everything, left, right and center. We've basically been continuously lied to by everybody for the last several decades.

One quick example that borders on absurdity. Michael Bellesile's Arming America was considered a brilliant and stunning work, showing that gun ownership in early America was actually quite rare. This had two important policy implications: (1) it would be unlikely that gun ownership would have been considered an individual right and (2) homicide rates were very low when gun ownership was low. Bellesiles won the prestigious Bancroft Prize for his work and his book has been cited as evidence in federal court cases and has had a significant effect on gun policy (pro gun control).

Only one minor problem. He fabricated the data. Because he fabricated the data and misrepresented a few other things, he was forced to resign from Emory University and the Bancroft Prize was taken away from him.

Not to be outdone by a pro gun control fraudulent scholar, John Lott, an anti gun control fraudulent scholar wrote More Guns, Less Crime. The main thesis is described by the title. An incredible concept that more guns could lead to less crime. Turns out that it is not only incredible, but not credible. He cooked the numbers.

Won't anybody tell the truth?

On Reading

Is the New York Times a good alternative source juxstaposed against the conservative sources I sometimes cite? Actually, since junior took over from senior (1995 I think) it sometimes borders on the crazy fringe of the left but dressed up in a tone of respectability. There was a time when you could read the NYT and be reasonably well informed, that is no longer true. After reading the old gray lady almost everyday since I was 12 years old I nolonger do. I only give the dead tree version a thorough going over on weekends. During the week limited articles from the online edition is all that I spend time on. Aside from accuracy of reporting issues on both the left and the right in the media there is rarely any decent historical perspective. Without a context, reading about the events of the day does very little to advance anyone's understanding of the world, which is what I am pursuing. Besides news events and opinions are oh so perishable, there is no intellectual sustenance. At any point in time I have a stack of anywhere between 5 and 25 books next to my bed. Ploughing through the material is an ongoing process and the stack is frequently replenished depending on what hole in my knowledge I am trying to plug. In contrast to an author like Michael Moore, who's views are based upon false assumptions and sloppy research I would rather spend my limited time reading William Greider (Who Will Tell the People; Secrets of the Temple..). As a liberal, his views are very different from mine and I usually disagree with his conclusions. He writes well so the narrative of his books is enjoyable to follow. His research is terrific, the footnotes and bibliography are a treasure trove of great sources for additional learning. He provides intellectual sustenance!