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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Historically Privileged?

I've seen (like everyone else) a lot of arguments for and against affirmative action. I found a very curious comment to a Left2Right post on the subject. Here's the excerpt that startled me:
In my opinion, those that push the "color blind constitution" ideal want to make the competition "fair" now that the historically privileged have been given a head start.
The term "historically privileged" has me somewhat confounded. On the one hand, it should surely seem that I should know what the person who wrote the comment means, but the more I think about it, the more confused I become. The United States is full of descendents of people who came here because history was not particularly kind to them, and when they got here, the current inhabitants of the United States were not particularly nice to them.

Consider my own ancestors' history. While I don't know for sure the history of my ancestors more than four generations ago, being jewish, there's a reasonable chance one could trace at least a tiny fraction of my genetic heritage back to the slaves in Egypt, being conquered by the Romans, and driven to flee to eastern Europe, where living under the various rulers was tenuous at best. At the point where I actually have details to the story, it sounds rather like "Fiddler on the Roof," where the families of the entire village are told to pack up and get out. My family foresaw that sort of thing and so left before actually being forced to, but nonetheless, they arrived in the new world with pretty much nothing but the clothes on their backs, not knowing the language, and coming to a country that had no great love for jews (but at least it wasn't as hostile as from whence they came). Indeed, the only historical privilege that my grandparents had at the time they immigrated as young children was that they were still alive (no doubt there is a lot to be said for that given that the distant cousins who stayed weren't so lucky!).

Some variant of that story is repeated for numerous immigrant groups last century: Irish, Italians, Poles, Asians, Mexicans, you name it. The only historical privilege they had when they arrived was that they were still alive.

Yet clearly I (and many of the rest of the descendents of immigrants) must be classified as "privileged" for the comment to make any sense at all. One of my grandfathers, who arrived under the tenuous circumstances described above when he was three, managed to complete the 6th grade, got a job as a "go fer" at Detroit Steel, and managed to work his way all the way up to become President of Detroit Steel during the heyday of steel in the United States. As a grandchild I didn't see much in the way of an inheritance (the intervening generation is thankfully still alive), but I did have a very comfortable, upper middle class upbringing.

But the privilege was based on being born into a well off circumstance, and had little to do with history. In fact, it seems to me that my ancestors beat the odds given by the cards history had dealt. So if "historically privileged" means born into a well off circumstance, I guess I understand it, but it's still a funny way to put it.

It also seems to defeat the commenter's argument. Because I don't think anyone (serious) is talking about disallowing economic status as a factor in admissions. The poor should be given an advantage. But race? Why should any rich persons of any race have an advantage over poor ones of any other race? If I'm historically privileged, then it seems that someone born into a rich black family is also historically privileged, and, if so, that person really doesn't need preferential treatment based on race.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Trip Report

I've just returned from Osaka, Japan, where I (and another colleague) met with seven different organizations with potential interest in our technology for mobile robots. I won't comment much on the interactions regarding robotics except to say that the Japanese companies we met with weren't nearly as sophisticated regarding machine vision and mobile robotics as I suspected they were prior to this trip.

Osaka is amazingly homogeneous. We stayed at probably the most "western" hotel in Osaka (the Osaka Hilton), and even there, virtually all of the hotel guests were Japanese. Once I left the hotel, I only saw one other Caucasian person in two days, even though I passed tens of thousands of people on the streets and trains and train stations. I suppose that would be little or no different (except exactly opposite) to being in someplace like Boise, Idaho, where it would be rare to encounter a non-white person. Still, being the only white person for miles around is not something I'm used to, so I was somewhat startled by it. At least nobody seemed to notice me or make a big deal about it.

English may be the world language, but it hasn't yet arrived in Japan. Even though these were technical and business meetings with highly educated people, we needed to rely on an interpreter for most of the meetings. It was amusing to get business cards with only Japanese (Kanji) characters on them - I'm saving them, but they didn't and won't do me much good.

Osaka has a pretty high population density. It's nowhere nearly as dense as Manhattan, but much more dense than San Francisco. There are 10 to 40 story buildings (very few shorter, a few taller) as far as the eye can see (which isn't very far, only a few miles, since it's a fairly hazy place). The subways and trains are crowded, but no worse than Boston, and not at all like those famous stations in Tokyo where the guys in the white gloves push people onto the trains in order to cram 'em in like sardines. I've concluded that you really can't tell much about population density and its effect on living conditions from sampling one part of one city in one country. Not much surprise there I guess.

Overall, I enjoyed both the business and non-business aspects of the trip. The people were very polite and even friendly and I really like Japanese food.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Off to Osaka

I've made many statements to the effect that I think Japan will be better off in the long run if their population shrinks because it's very crowded there. I've never actually been anywhere in Japan before, but tomorrow I leave for Osaka for the week, so I'll get to check it out first hand. I'll report back on what I find next weekend. Any place in particular I should see while in Osaka?

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Pontifications on the Extended Order - Part 1: Primitive War

Civilization is amazing. We take it for granted, never noticing how much we rely on it, yet we're completely dependent on it for life itself. Without the enormous increase in productivity that the global extended order supports, the planet could not support all six billion of us. If civilization we're to disappear overnight, most of us would die in short order.

The extended order encompasses a wide variety of topics: human nature, genetic and memetic evolution, societal organization, belief systems and dogma, and economics, to name a few. I find these topics so fascinating that I'm planning on posting a series of related essays on the subject. Hopefully, my plans won't come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines, but will develop into something coherent over time. I'd like to say that I've already outlined the whole series, but that wouldn't be true, so success, at least on the "coherent" front, is probably not terribly likely. But I've got to start somewhere. The place to start, I think, is before humans existed and the topic to start with is something that I'm convinced was inherently part of primitive human nature. And that's war.

The topic begins by contemplating when, in primate evolution, did war, or at least war like behaviors, start. Did war exist before homo sapiens, or was it "invented" relatively late in the game? Some have contended, like Rousseau with his "nobel savage" concept, that civilization itself caused war. But looking at some moderately recent archaeological research, Rousseau's ideas were flawed.

According to this discussion of Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence by Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, there is now a large and growing body of evidence that other primates also frequently engage in violent and warlike behavior:

Demonic Males discusses new evidence that killer instincts are not unique to humans, but rather shared with our nearest the common chimpanzee. The authors argue that it is this inherited propensity for killing that allows hominids and chimps to be such good hunters.

According to Wrangham and Peterson, the split between humans and the common chimpanzee was only 6-8 Mya [Million years ago]. Furthermore, humans may have split from the chimpanzee-bonobo line after gorillas, with bonobos (pygmy chimps) separating from chimps only 2.5 Mya. Because chimpanzees may be the modern ancestor of all these forms, and because the earliest australopithecines were quite chimpanzee-like, Wrangham speculates (in a separate article) that "chimpanzees are a conservative species and an amazingly good model for the ancestor of hominids" (1995, reprinted in Sussman 1997:106). If modern chimpanzees and modern humans share certain behavioral traits, these traits have "long evolutionary roots" and are likely to be fixed, biologically inherited parts of our basic human nature and not culturally determined.

Does this mean chimpanzees are naturally violent? Ten years ago it wasn't clear....In this cultural species, it may turn out that one of the least variable of all chimpanzee behaviors is the intense competition between males, the violent aggression they use against strangers, and their willingness to maim and kill those that frustrate their goals....As the picture of chimpanzee society settles into focus, it now includes infanticide, rape and regular battering of females by males (1997:108).

Since humans and chimpanzees share these violent urges, the implication is that human violence has long evolutionary roots. "We are apes of nature, cursed over six million years or more with a rare inheritance, a Dostoyevskyan demon...The coincidence of demonic aggression in ourselves and our closest kin bespeaks its antiquity" (1997:108-109).

Why does this matter? Because the narrative that forms the basis for hypotheses regarding how the extended order evolved is profoundly affected by whether human nature is non-violent (according to Rousseau) and we've become more violent over time, or if we've always been a nasty, brutish, and violent species (the Hobbesian view). Given the accumulating evidence regarding chimpanzees, I'm pretty convinced that latter view is more representative of the truth.

But what about all those stories of primitive tribes, isolated from civilization, that when discovered, were completely peaceful? The ones that didn't have a word for war? It turns out that they are all just stories. Primitive people were and are virtually universally violent and frequently engage in war. This point is argued extensively with supporting data in War Before Civilization by Lawrence Keeley and Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage by Steven LeBlanc. First, an excerpt for War Before Civilization:

The high war death rates among most nonstate societies are obviously the result of several features of primitive warfare: the prevalence of wars, the high proportion of tribesmen who face combat, the cumulative effects of frequent but low-casualty battles, the unmitigated deadliness and very high frequency of raids, the catastrophic mortalities inflicted in general massacres, the customary killing of all adult males, and the often atrocious treatment of women and children. For these reasons, a member of a typical tribal society, especially a male, had a far higher probability of dying "by the sword" than a citizen of an average modern state.
Keeley claims that the typical tribal combat casualty rate in a typical tribal society was 0.5 percent per year. While that may not sound like much, that would be the equivalent of nearly 1.5 million Americans dead from combat each year. By contrast, since 9/11, we've only actually lost around 1,000 Americans per year because of war and war-like events.

LeBlanc, who wrote his book after Keeley's came out, "unequivocally argue[s] that, for most of its existence, homo sapiens has waged almost constant war on its own kind and that primeval society was far more warlike than any of its civilized successors."

Convinced about the inherently violent nature of humans yet? No? Well, neither am I. And here I need to discuss belief systems, which is itself an important extended order subtopic, a bit before continuing on. One things humans must do to survive is to make decisions and come to conclusions in the face of great uncertainty. The universe has essentially infinite information and by the time we learn everything there is to know about all but the most trivial topics, it's way too late. The purpose of a belief system is to provide the structure to be able to make decisions in a timely fashion based on extremely limited information.

My belief system, combined with my observations accumulated during my lifetime, resonates well with the views of Keeley and Le Blanc. So I'm going to buy into their view, hook, line and sinker. Or, more accurately, I'm not actually totally convinced, but I've spent all the time researching this particular aspect of humankind that I'm going to spend, and I've made my tentative conclusion for now.

In summary, I'm going to start the narrative regarding the evolution of the extended order based on the belief that the starting point was a bunch of violent primitive tribes frequently at war.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Blogs and Comments

I have a general "rule" that I don't bother to read any blog that doesn't have comments. The blogosphere is a big place, with gazillions of excellent blogs, so I figure I might as well frequent those where I can interact with that blog's community, if I so choose (though, due to time constraints, I rarely do). I do make several exceptions to my rule, however, and there's a different reason for each exception, and I think those reasons are somewhat interesting.

I read Instapundit because it allows me to skip reading news. If anything important happens in the world, I feel that I would find out about it at least as fast by scanning Instapundit as I would if I read the various news sites.

Left2Right was an interesting blog for awhile. The bloggers there were attempting to reach out to the Right in order to increase the ratio of dialogue to diatribe, or something like that. Unfortunately, after just a few months of not making much progress convincing anyone on the Right of anything, and being subjected to malicious comment spam, they "temporarily" shut down comments last summer. In order to provide a forum for continued comments during the "temporary" shut down, I created a comments blog called Left2RightComments with supporting scripts that automatically scanned Left2Right for new posts and created a parallel post with comments enabled. Unfortunately, the frequency of posts at Left2Right has become extremely limited and they've never reintroduced support for their own comments. I would stop supporting the Left2RightComments blog as well, since there is very little activity anymore, but it would take more effort to disable the scripts than to just do nothing, so that site is still operational. Since there is technically a forum for comments for each post, I guess reading Left2Right posts doesn't really violate my rule. I was considering creating comments blogs for sites like Instapundit and Powerline, but I'm afraid I would end up having to moderate the comments for those blogs and I don't have time (if anybody is interested in giving it a shot, let me know).

Brothers Judd is my latest disappointment. While there supposedly are comments at Brothers Judd, they are very carefully controlled, so that it's not a real comment forum at all. Orrin Judd allows comments that either support his general viewpoints, or that have a contradictory viewpoint but are silly or stupid (so that they make liberals seems silly and stupid). In my experience, comments that don't fit into one of those two categories are often deleted. For example, the last two comments of mine in the following sequence were intentionally deleted (confirmed by email with Orrin) (oj is Orrin Judd):


Name a people who's ever benefitted from population decline?

Posted by: oj at February 13, 2006 04:01 PM


Well, for example, I believe the black death which hit Western Europe in the mid 1300s and greatly reduced the population (especially in the cities) accelerated and extended the renaissance which, of course, led to modern times. It did so, I believe, by increasing the productive capital (farm land, infrastructure in the cities, etc.) per person, with that wealth enabling a portion of the populace to pursue science and technology.

Posted by: Bret at February 13, 2006 04:22 PM


That's not population decline but a natural disaster. Wars too have little long term effect. The conscious decision to decline demographically is never reversed.
Posted by: oj at February 13, 2006 04:52 PM


Oh, I see, we're playing the oj definitional game again. If we asked 100 people on the street what "population decline" meant, I'd bet at least 90 of them would say any reduction in population would qualify.

But, ok, I'm curious. Which examples of "population decline" did you have in mind? Any with an actual reduction in population? Or all they all declining in some other sense?

Posted by: Bret at February 13, 2006 05:01 PM



Yes, not many folks, particularly you, grasp demographics.

Posted by: oj at February 13, 2006 05:22 PM


What's hard to understand about "population decline". If the replacement rate is greater than 2.1 and there's a disaster that kills 50% of the people---then the population takes a drop down but continues upward at the same slope, just from a new lower base. Kinda like the stock market.

If the replacement rate is 1.5 or any number significantly less than 2, then the population size is on a downward slope and shrinks exponentially with each generation.

To paraphrase Jim Cramer, "it's where the number is going that counts".

Posted by: ray at February 13, 2006 07:17 PM


Bret, Europe may indeed live longer than OJ, but it won't live longer than his great-grandchildren. I don't think you have a good intuitive grasp for what happens when you are on the righthand side of an exponential curve. It drifts slowly, gently, but gradually steeper and steeper----and then suddenly it goes vertical.

Posted by: ray at February 13, 2006 07:22 PM



Secularists measure things by their own life spans.

Posted by: oj at February 13, 2006 07:53 PM


Nope. First, the 2.1 number you cite is not constant. It's based on life expectancy, which during my renaissance example was much, much shorter. Second, the "disaster that kills 50% of the people" in that case, took decades. In other words, it wasn't like a tsunami. The reduction in population (which most english speaking people would consider a "population decline") was pretty slow - a few percent a year. It was rough, but when it ended, it spawned the modern age.

As far as "where the number is going" for the western european population, the long term trend is up. There will be at most a relatively short (a century or two max) downward blip before it stabilizes or heads back up.

Posted by: Bret at February 14, 2006 12:08 AM



Regarding your 2nd post at 7:22 PM. You've (sort of) described what an exponential curve with a POSITIVE exponent looks like. A growing population has a positive exponent, a shrinking population (I would usually say a "population decline", but I don't want to be misunderstood by oj), has a NEGATIVE exponent, and such curves DO NOT go "vertical" on the right hand side. They are "vertical" on the left side and then flatten out asymptotically on the right.

As an example, consider a birthrate of 1.5 children per woman with the replacement rate of 2.1 that you seem to like and a generational timespan of 30 years (since they don't have children until they're fairly old in Europe). Then, every 30 years, after reaching steady state, the population will shrink to 1.5/2.1 times as large as it was. 1.5/2.1 = 0.71.

The population of France is currently about 60 million. The following would be the future population of France predicted by the above numbers:

2005 60 million
2035 43 million
2065 31 million
2095 16 million
2125 11 million
2155 8 million
2185 5.7 million
2215 4.1 million
2245 2.9 million
2275 2.1 million
2305 1.5 million

So after 300 years, they'll still have more than 1.5 million people. That's probably more people than there were in France in biblical times. Keep in mind that the 8 million in the 2155 is roughly the same population France had in the year 1500, when the renaissance swept Europe, and at that point, they'll have a population density more similar to that of what the United States has now.

So this exponential trend won't get really worrisome for hundreds of years. By which time the trend will reverse.

Posted by: Bret at February 14, 2006 01:12 AM
The deleted comments are pretty tame, I think, and well supported with actual numbers. And they took me some time to put together. Since I don't have time to waste, no more commenting for me at Brothers Judd.

However, Orrin does a great job at excerpting the money grafs from a few dozen headline articles from numerous papers around the world - so I'll still be reading Brothers Judd and heartily recommend that portion of it, at least for now.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Good Day for the Democrats

I figure any day where rich and powerful Republicans accidentally shoot each other must make those who frequent the Daily Kos and the Democratic Underground ecstatic.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Blind Improvisation

I've been playing piano for over 40 years, never professionally, but I'm a pretty decent player. During that time I've always been amazed by artists such as Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder. I had every right to be amazed, of course, since they are excellent artists. But I was amazed for the wrong reason. I was amazed because they could play piano without the use of their eyes. Instead of being amazed at that, I should've considered that it might actually be an advantage.

Over the past couple of years, I've learned to play with my eyes closed. Obviously, it's a little tough to read music with closed eyes, so I stick to improvisation. It turns out that the keys don't move. They stay exactly where you last played them. You can count on it. And speaking of counting, when I close my eyes, I've got rhythm, and keeping the beat used to beat me up, and still does when my eyes are open.

Playing the piano and improvising with my eyes closed has become a transcendental experience. Sometimes, I get so lost in the notes and textures that I forget where I am, even who I am. I know it sounds hokey, but I become one with the piano and the sound waves. If some external event occurs, for example the phone ringing, it often takes me many seconds for me to realize what that sound is and take action. It's like a drug experience. Er, well, I wouldn't, of course, know what a drug experience is like, so let's just say that I imagine it's what a drug experience would be like. But, of course, much better, especially since I don't seem to be developing an addiction to the piano.

While my playing sounds good to me, I have no idea whether or not it sounds good to anyone else. While my family (they have no choice but listen) is very kind, I've learned from recording two CDs that what you think you sound like when playing has only a very vague relationship to how you actually sound. The recording device is the most cruel critic of all. Eventually, I'll turn on the recorder just to get an idea of what I sound like. But not yet - I don't want to deal with that disappointed quite yet. I'll just keep rollin' along and improvising with my eyes closed.

They are Doomed!!!

I've been exposed to an ever increasing stream of hyperbolic pontification regarding European demographics. I'm not sure if it's because there's actually an increase in the amount of alarmist writing on the subject or I'm just being exposed to it more often. Fine, fine examples include:
The fertility bust: Very low birth rates in Europe may be here to stay; and
Is “Old Europe” Doomed?
Doomed, I tell you, Doomed!!! The ideas being put forth include the following:
  1. The native populations of Europe (and Japan) are shrinking;
  2. Those populations are shrinking because they aren't very religious; and
  3. The trend will continue until they shrink away to nothing.
Hmmmm. Where have I seen this argument before. Oh wait, I remember, except it was exactly backwards (except for the religion part). When Paul Ehrlich and the population bombsters (would be a good name for a rock band, don't ya think?) predicted doom for the planet a few decades back, they based their prediction on population growth trends that had been trending for thousands of years. The bombsters turned out to be somewhere between wrong and absurdly wrong. These new pundits are making predictions based on trends that are a few decades old. I think that the idea that these trends will continue long term is likely to turn out to be as misguided as the bombsters' assumption.

Birthrates in the developed world are strongly correlated with population density. As an example, the following chart shows some of the more populated countries in the developed world, their population density, and their birthrates (defined here as births per year per 1000 people). These numbers are all derived from the CIA's world factbook.

The correlation coefficient for this data is -.73 which gives a R2 of over 0.5 which means that over half the variance in birth rate is explained by the variance in population density.

So how important is religion when it comes to birth rates? This data doesn't say anything about it directly, only that it at most explains less than half of the variance in birth rates. If one thought religion was important for predicting birthrates, one might guess that the more religious countries would fall above the yellow trendline (in other words, even more births than predicted for the level of population density). For sure, the United States is religious and falls above the trendline, but I'd be surprised if France and Japan, which fall above the trendline, are really all that much more religious than Catholic Spain and Italy or even Protestant Germany. So I'm currently pretty skeptical about the correlation of religion and birth rates.

So why are birthrates low in Europe (and not so high in the United States either)? Well, I don't know, but here's an idea. A population adjusts its fertility rates over time to push the its size towards an equilibrium point. As the population grows and gets more crowded, birth rates fall. As the population falls and more space becomes available, birth rates increase. Other mammals, such as coyotes, vary their litter sizes hugely to achieve exactly this effect. So why not humans?

So how did the populations of Europe and Japan get so large that it's causing birthrates to fall? Again, I'm not sure, but it may be that the rapid success in raising life expectency caused overcrowding and now the people in Europe and Japan are adapting. The basic concept is that if you double life expectency, you also double the population and population density in short order, all else being equal. As an illustration, I've run a population model that's illustrated in the following graph:

The population (shown on the y-axis) in the model is steady at 1 million people for the first 25 years. In other words, the birth rate and death rate are in equilibrium during that period.

At 25 years the life expectency is instantaneously doubled. While nothing happens instantaneously in the real world, we did defeat disease and hunger amazingly rapidly during the 19th and 20th centuries. In this simple model, doubling the life expectency basically means nobody dies for a while.

The population soars and the birth rate begins to fall. Eventually, people start dying again (but at a slower rate since they live twice as long) and the population plummets as the system tries to get back to an equilibrium of 1 million people. As is common in real world systems, the population actually overshoots the other way and the population drops below 1 million, before the birth rates increase enough to stop the fall in population size. Over the next couple of hundred years the population oscillates about and slowly converges towards the equilibrium population of 1 million.

Europe and Japan may simply be in the middle of this sort of change in population. In the above graph, Europe and Japan might be at the equivalent point of somewhere around year 50. I can believe that it's possible that their populations may decline for a lot of years and they may end up with a far smaller population than they have now. But given how crowded Europe and Japan are, that may be a good thing in the long run.

At any rate, I don't think they are doomed. Unless they are doomed to get ever richer at a somewhat slower pace than other countries. Doomed to a comfortable life, riding on the coat tails of the hard working and innovative Americans. Doomed to having their security provided by others. Doomed to eat cheese and drink fine wine during ever increasing leisure. Doomed, I tell you, DOOOOOMMMED!

Friday, February 10, 2006

Yet Another Thing to Consider...

... when naming your child. My older daughter's name is Cassia. It means cinnamon (well, actually it means "any of the coarser varieties of cinnamon bark," but close enough).

Oddly enough, when Cassia goes to log in to various Internet kids' sites (games and/or learning type sites), her name is often rejected because "it contains an inappropriate word." When she told me this, I didn't believe her, but then she showed me some examples. Those sites wouldn't accept names like "Lassie" either, while "Casia" (with one 's') was no problem.

So, it seems that because the sequence of letters 'a' 's' 's' appear in Cassia's name, her name is "inappropriate." How absurd. Now she's all bummed out about her name.

Should I sue these sites for causing great emotional trauma to my daughter? That would be the American way, wouldn't it?

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Deficit Cost Advantage

Once the government has decided to spend money, it needs to finance that money. The money is primarily raised by taxes and debt. One of the problems of using debt is that the government has to pay interest on the debt. Those interest payments represent the main cost of the debt. There are other costs, like the cost of selling the debt, but those costs are negligible - it turns out our government can auction off billions of dollars worth of treasury debt for a miniscule fraction of the money raised.

Many people don't realize that there are also costs associated with taxes. According to a report by the Tax Foundation, the cost of complying with the income tax code in 2005 represented 22 percent of the income taxes collected from individuals, businesses, and nonprofits. That's an estimated compliance cost of over $265 billion for $1.2 trillion in federal income taxes collected. That's a lot of money!

However, before we can compare the compliance costs of taxation with the costs of debt, there are a few considerations that must be addressed. The Tax Foundation's mission is to put out alarmist reports like the one above in order to illustrate to the world that the tax code should be greatly simplified and the tax burden reduced. All well and good as far as I'm concerned, but let's face it - they have a very strong underlying bias. I've studied the report and I think (but admittedly haven't verified) that they've overestimated a number of the compliance costs. Nonetheless, I also think that the basic concepts of the compliance costs described in the report are sound. I think that if their compliance cost number is cut in half it's probably a reasonable estimate. So let's assume 11% instead of 22%.

The next issue to be considered is the difficulty in determining the marginal costs of collecting another dollar in taxes instead of borrowing it. The compliance cost for the next (or last) dollar collected may cost far more or less than the first dollar collected. The Tax Foundation's report does not address this, there's no such data available, and there's no easy way to calculate the marginal cost of the next tax dollar.

However, I think a linear approximation is justified and possibly even conservative. The reason lies in figuring out why there are nearly 1.3 million words in the federal tax code. The primary factor, I believe, is that the collected income tax is such a huge amount of money, that it's worth it for every politician, every lobbyist, every business, and every special interest group to fight over it and carve out special favors for themselves. As the amount of money has increased over the last decades, so has the size of the tax code in an almost lockstep fashion (see Figure 3 on page 5 of the report). Thus, the more taxes collected, the more it will cost to comply.

The United States pays a real interest rate of between 2% and 4% per year on its treasury instruments. So using my 11% estimate, when choosing between taxes or debt, it takes about 4 years for debt to start costing more than taxes to collect. That's assuming that having that extra 11% available in the private sector yielded absolutely no other benefits for those 4 years, such as the benefits that usually accrue from capital investment, the stimulation to economy from the demand side, and the resultant creation of new knowledge and intellectual property that arise from the combination of the supply and demand side stimuli. But those benefits (which are actually much more important), I'll visit in another post.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Bret's Hierarchy of Rights and Freedoms

Abraham Maslow created a hierarchy of needs arranged like a ladder. On the lowest rung are physical needs like breathing, eating, and adequate food and shelter. Moving up his ladder we find safety, belonging (being loved), self-esteem, and then self-actualization at the very top.

I view rights and freedoms in a similar fashion. The problem with ordering rights and freedoms is that it is much more subjective than Maslow's hierarchy. Pretty much everybody agrees that the need to breathe comes ahead of the need for food which comes ahead of the need for love, etc. On the other hand, I'm certain there would be wide variance in how people prioritize their rights and freedoms. An even bigger complication is that there are no exact definitions for most of these freedoms. While breathing is pretty well defined, freedom of speech has an enormous body of case law associated with it and is still not completely and exactly defined.

Nonetheless, the following is a partial list of how I prioritize various rights and freedoms (from most important to least important):
  • Right to breathe
  • Freedom of private thoughts/beliefs
  • Freedom of private speech
  • Freedom of public speech (i.e. the press)
  • Freedom of assembly/association
  • Right to a jury trial
  • Freedom from seizure (Part of Amendment IV)
  • Freedom of public belief/worship/religion
  • Tangible Property Rights
  • Right to Bear Arms
  • Freedom from Racism (by the government)
  • Freedom from search (Part of Amendment IV)
  • Intangible Property Rights
  • Right to Privacy
  • Right to not have international calls wiretapped
One area I disagree with most people, possibly just because I haven't studied it thoroughly enough, is that I believe the above set of rights and their priorities is at least mostly, and possibly completely, subjective. I don't believe in the concept of "God Given Rights" nor do I find the arguments that there are objective "Natural Rights" even vaguely convincing, though it seems to me that most people do subscribe to one of those two notions. My view is that each culture evolves a definition of what freedoms and rights are available to its citizens. Thus, the above list is just my ordering, though it probably, at least in part, reflects the immediate culture which I am a part of.

At first glance one might think that if various groups move around the priority of the above rights or eliminate and/or add a few, it wouldn't really cause any conflict with any other groups. However, consider someone like myself, whose freedom of public speech includes freedom to publicly mock other religions and cultures (and indeed, I do hold that freedom dear, even if I am generally supportive of certain religions); and compare my list of rights and freedoms with someone or some group who orders their most important rights and freedoms as follows:
  • Freedom from exposure to blasphemous behavior (i.e., blasphemous speech and actions)
  • Right to breathe
  • etc.
There's clearly now a pretty serious conflict between me and any group that holds most dear the above rights in the above order. Basically, members of this culture would rather die or kill than be exposed to blasphemy (according to their definition). Rationally, when exposed to blasphemous cartoons (such as the ones published by a Danish newspaper), there's nothing left to do for members of such a culture except to strap on a suicide bomb belt and try to kill the perpetrators of the blasphemies.

It's a virtually unresolvable conflict. There are only two possible paths: (1) One side has to kill the other or (2) one side has to change its beliefs and its ordering of fundamental freedoms and rights.

What's interesting and unfortunate is that the above lists of rights give a strong indication of the outcome if path (2) is taken by both sides. Since I hold breathing (living) more dear than the right to public speech (including uttering or writing public blasphemies) and the other side holds not allowing blasphemies to occur more dear than allowing me to live even if it leads to their own death, there's no reason for them to change their ordering (i.e., killing those with the blasphemous speech and dying in the process does not conflict with their ordering of rights), making my only rational response being that of avoiding any behavior that might be found blasphemous to such people.

Right now, that means avoiding producing cartoons or other written material on this blog and other public media that might offend someone. However, I think this really is a step down a slippery slope. Does it mean that if I don't require my daughters to wear headscarves, that will eventually be considered adequately blasphemous to trigger their murderous behavior? If I don't convert and become a muslim, will that be blasphemous (praise be to Allah!). If we don't all subject ourselves to the coming grand caliphate, are we all to be slaughtered? Where exactly will it end?

To me, the Danish cartoon fiasco is by far the single most disconcerting development in the global socio-political situation since 9/11. It starkly illustrates a severe conflict between two dearly held belief systems: that of extreme Islam and that of the liberal west. It may ultimately leave me with only two choices: (a) support those from the west who would kill those who support, threaten, and/or commit violence and/or murder those in the west who exercise their right to free speech and other rights; or (b) throw in the towel, become muslim, and be done with it.

Unfortunately, neither of those choices are acceptable to me.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Untold Story About WWII and Iraq

One day, in August of 1938 (one month before the "Peace in our Time" speech), Neville Chamberlain was walking by a pawn shop and noticed a beat up and cloudy crystal ball in the window. The swirling of the fog in the crystal ball intrigued him, and since he had a few minutes to spare, he walked into the shop and peered into the depths of the crystal. Since it was an oppressively hot day (it was August after all), the swirling fog in the crystal had a hypnotic effect and caused Neville to fall into a deep trance. During this trance, he had two visions of the future. In the first, he saw the future as it actually unfolded with WWII, its tens of millions dead, the holocaust, and the cold war. Chamberlain broke out in a sweat when the vision revealed him resigning as Prime Minister in disgrace.

In the second vision, he saw an alternate history. In the alternate history, he saw himself fabricating a story (a lie) in order to convince the British public to summon the will to confront and preemptively attack Germany and remove Hitler as leader. The fabricated story was that British intelligence was certain that Hitler was about to finish the development of a doomsday weapon, a weapon of mass destruction of unimaginable power, and that Hitler intended to use such a weapon to conquer Britain as well as other countries. Chamberlain would convince his intelligence services to go along with and support the deception. He would then have to deploy a sizeable military force without any support of any other country and attack the Germans. The plan would succeed and tens of millions of lives would be saved. However, there was also a downside. There would be 10,000 dead British soldiers. His deception would be uncovered. Because of the dead British soldiers and the fact that no one knew the horrors he had prevented, he would be prosecuted for treason and hanged. Because, let's face it, the British people would have been so outraged by the deception and dead soldiers so soon after WWI, that without experiencing the tremendous calamity of WWII, they would have wanted revenge against Chamberlain in this version of history.

Disgrace or death. Bummer. I hate choices like that!

Even if this story were true, it's easily possible to see someone picking the first vision anyway, hoping that it was just a dream. The main point is that even if the second vision didn't turn out quite so badly, a leader in Chamberlain's position really has no upside. If he lies and schemes in an "ends justifies the means" fashion, the political price could be quite high one day when the scheme unravels, even if the ends are achieved. If he tells the truth, the truth won't be adequately compelling to get the needed public support for the actions required. If he just lets events unfold and the appeasing of the tyrant does backfire, the political price is higher still. Chamberlain was in an awful situation. His lack of vision and courage was unfortunate, but not surprising.

After 9/11, George W. Bush was in a similar position with regards to Iraq. Talk about being caught between Iraq and a hard place! However badly Iraq turns out, we'll never be able to compare it too what would've happened if Saddam was left in power. Would've he eventually got the bomb? Would've he eventually used it to control the flow of middle east oil, badly damaging the economies of the rest of the world? Would've he nuked Israel? Would've he smuggled briefcase nukes into Europe and the United States? Could've Saddam ended up being as destructive as Hitler? Who knows?

If those things would've happen, we'd be terribly glad that Bush deceived us (and perhaps himself). I can't blame Chamberlain for his decisions. Neither do I blame Bush - no matter how Iraq turns out.