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Friday, July 31, 2009

Priests of Warmenism

In a comment on a totally unrelated topic, Peter Burnet wrote:
Hardly anybody is qualified to build or interpret climate models. We are all beholden to what the experts say. Even if a layman sets out to study the competing claims of climate scientists carefully, he still is pretty much restricted to comparing theories/conclusions and has a hard time critiquing their underlying methodologies systematically by measuring them against experience.
The "experts" want you to be beholden to what they say and Peter has closed his eyes and walked blindly into their trap.

Virtually all of climate science is based on typical everyday experience and a few minor and easily understood bits of physics. We've all noticed that sunlight (also called visible radiation) makes objects warmer when it strikes them and that when those heated objects are moved out of the sun they begin to cool but we can't visibly see the warmth emanating from them. We've all noticed that hot air rises (in a hot-air balloon, thermal, etc.) and that when the hot air is also moist (humid) that clouds form when it cools sufficiently as it rises. Etc., etc.

The climate is difficult to predict not because the physics is difficult, but because it is so chaotic. All the bits of earth, ocean, and atmosphere heating and mixing at different rates and interacting with each other produces really, really complex responses that are impossible to characterize analytically. So scientists make statistical climate models to try and mimic the past and predict the future. They are really little more than software hackers and statisticians and know little more science (physics) of relevance to their task than the average layman.

So no, we aren't beholden to the priests of warmenism unless we want to be.

The Road to Serfdom by VDH

From an article by Victor David Hanson:
Otherwise we know the ultimate end of the present road: a vast bureaucracy of non-taxpaying incompetents, damning the estranged few for not producing ever more to be taxed, convinced that they are geniuses—and only due to some sort of unfairness have been surpassed by others.
Sounds like he's channeling Hayek's Road to Serfdom. But that does seem to be where it always ends up in the long run. Personally, I'm thinking of joining the vast bureaucracy of non-taxpaying incompetents. It looks like that's where the money will be in the future.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The jobs fairy

When thinking about practical understandings of economic matters the matter of jobs is pretty meaningful to most people. Shannon Love provides illumination over at Chicago Boyz:

We talk about jobs as if they are physical objects. We find jobs. We lose them. We trade them. We save them. We export them by shipping them overseas. Occasionally, we believe they are stolen. Metaphors are common in language and usually harmless, but sometimes we seem to forget that they are metaphors. This in turn causes us to misunderstand the phenomenon under discussion.

In the case of jobs, the metaphor stops us from asking what physical event actually occurs when jobs “go away” and “don’t come back.” Examining this metaphor tells us something that is very important and ignored in most political discussions.

First, what is a job? A job is a task you perform for someone else’s benefit in return for compensation of some kind. If you mow your own yard it’s not a job. If you mow your neighbor’s for $10 it is. If you grow food for your own consumption, that’s not a job. If you grow food and sell it for money, then it is. A job requires that an economic exchange for the results of labor occur between two or more people.

Here we see the limits of metaphor. In the metaphor jobs are treated as objects, but in reality a job is an event or an action. It is the act of exchanging labor for money. The word job should be a verb instead of a noun.

When we talk about jobs leaving, moving, shifting etc., or being exported, we’re really talking about a particular subset of people leaving, moving, shifting etc. Who are these people? They are the job makers.

For example, a job in a factory does not exist before someone invents the technological item to be manufactured, designs the assembly line, buys the land, builds the factory and does all of the other thousands of tasks necessary to make, distribute and sell a product in the modern world. Until a job maker does all of that creative work, no job exists.

The ugly truth is that although we work hard, most us don’t create jobs for ourselves or others. Instead we rely on a small minority of job makers to create tasks that we can perform in exchange for a living. Only about 20% of us make any jobs at all. Of those 20%, about half, 10% of the total, are self-employed and make a job only for themselves. The remaining 10% make all the jobs for the rest of us. We rely on this small minority to identify solutions to problems and to create organizations that can implement those solutions. They then hire us to carry out the tasks associated with that solution. Without them, the rest of us would still be subsistence farmers.

When jobs “go away” it’s really the job makers, as living and breathing humans, who go away.

It’s easy to see why leftists would eagerly adopt the metaphor of jobs as objects. It lets them ignore the fact that a small minority of economically creative people create jobs for the rest of us. In turn, this lets them advocate policies that drive away job makers, without being held responsible for the loss of the jobs the job makers create.

The leftmost 25% of the American political spectrum do not for the most part consider themselves Marxist but they clearly work from a model strongly influenced by Marxist thought. Marx asserted that the economy and technology were the results of impersonal natural forces. No human created a job or any other economic good. Instead, the jobs and goods just happened, and a minority of evil people unjustly claimed the lion’s share of the benefit of these natural resources for themselves by shear brute force. The entire intellectual and moral argument for Marxism stands upon the idea that business people don’t actually create anything. This is why contemporary leftists honestly don’t understand why taxing and over-regulating the economically creative destroys the jobs of the economically uncreative. They think jobs just happen like the rain, and that the only real decision to be made is how we distribute the benefits of those jobs.

When the job makers leave, and the non-economically creative no longer have work, leftists do not wonder what they did to drive the job makers away. Instead, they treat the loss of jobs-as-objects like some act of God or natural disaster.

The rest of us should have that conversation. We should stop talking about impersonal and abstract “businesses” as creating jobs, and instead make explicit that a small and valuable minority of individual human beings creates the jobs and and wealth that the rest of us depend on. We should make it clear that the proper role of government economic policy is to support the creativity of such individuals, and it should do so mostly by getting out of their way.

The world has become “flat” in the sense that the geographical advantages no longer exist that once made one region inevitably wealthy and another inevitably poor. Today, one can build a factory or almost any job-creating system almost anywhere in the world. Today, prosperity simply requires that you have a sufficient mass of economically-creative job-makers. The great tragedy of Michigan, the other rust belt states and California is that nothing physical or material whatsoever prevents them from becoming economic powerhouses again. All they need do is change their political culture and laws such that instead of vilifying, hounding and looting job makers, they encourage them to create. If the states do that, then nothing can stop their rise to prosperity.

If they do not, then nothing can save them.

In my discussions over the years, most people seem unaware of the importance of the economically creative people who provide them with opportunities. The jobs fairy is my fun little rhetorical device for labeling the vital few but it also captures the common mistaken notion that jobs mysteriously appear out of thin air.

Additional info.: America Runs on Small Business

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Did he realize what he said?

This is a bit old by now in terms of the news cycle. Nonetheless, it's still a teachable moment. (see here also video)
The Administration is "trying to tamp down talk that it didn't get it quite right -- talk created by Vice President Biden," who told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that the Administration "misread the economy." Obama "tried to modulate the impact of the vice president's words." Obama said, "No, no, no, no, no. Rather than say 'misread,' we had incomplete information."
Which is almost always the case on anything of consequence regarding the economy. Fortunately, Hayek is available to help:
The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.
However, only someone with an open mind can grasp this idea if it is in conflict with their existing beliefs!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Self-Healing Bicycle Tires

I find it funny that often inventions that have a really positive impact on my life come from completely unexpected places. The latest example of this is self-healing tubeless bicycle tires. I'm not what you would call an avid bicyclist, but I probably ride around 1,000 miles in a given year, nearly all of that on a mountain bike.

The Southwestern United States is infested with the goathead thorn (Tribulus terrestris). These thorns are intensely sharp and hard and can penetrate just about anything that you could make a bicycle tire out of including kevlar and steel belts. As a result, for most bicyclists out here, even (or especially) mountain bicyclists with their heavy duty tires, frequent flats are an inescapable part of life.

Or so I thought until a guy at the bicycle shop recommended (and then installed) a kit that turns regular tires and rims into self-healing tubeless tires. Basically, a special rim strip is installed, the tube is removed and discarded (or saved for an emergency), and a liquid sealant is added to the tire. The liquid sealant is distributed all through the outside of the tire while the bicycle is being ridden because of the force due to the rotation of the wheel. When something penetrates the tire, the sealant is forced into the hole by the tire's air pressure, and immediately heals the tire.

The most impressive recovery was when I somehow managed to get more than 10 goathead thorns in both my front and rear tires at the same time (it looked very much like the picture above). I only ever carry one spare tube, I didn't have ten patches left, and I was riding alone, so it would've been a long, long walk home if I had still been using tubes. But I just pulled all of the thorns out of the tires, the holes bubbled for 10 seconds or so then stopped, I got back on the bike, and rode off with no loss of pressure and no problems.


I have to admit that I particularly like the philosophy of the approach1. The alternative of trying to design impregnable super tires seems rigid and Statist to me. In that case you have to foresee everything that can make a flat and design solutions to protect against them. You end up with somewhat better protection against flats than standard tires, but at higher cost and lower performance (such tires tend to be heavier and more rigid so they don't grip as well). And such tires still are susceptible to flats from goatheads.

On the other hand, Self-Healing Bicycle Tires are a Resilient Approach. Instead of trying to prevent a situation, allow the damage to happen and then recover quickly. It doesn't matter if the damage is from a 3 inch diamond spike or a piece of glass or a tiny sliver or whatever.

Recover and just keep truckin'.

1Note that this particular approach is apparently not for everybody as shown by a few of the reviewers.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Supreme Court nomination hearings past

Activity surrounding current nomination hearings make me think back to a past hearing. Michael Barone recalls:
He is a man who says he does not read newspapers and seldom if ever watches newscasts. If true, it’s probably a good thing, because he has been the center of political controversy since his confirmation hearings in 1991 and the object of patronizing and dismissive commentary by many legal scholars. But though he was confirmed by the Senate by a slim 52-47 margin, he holds a lifetime appointment and has said that he intends to serve for 40 years — longer than any previous justice.

Thomas’s confirmation and role on the court are of special interest as the Senate Judiciary Committee begins its hearings tomorrow on the nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to succeed the retired Justice David Souter. The vetting of Sotomayor promises to be a tame affair compared with the tumultuous and controversial grilling of Thomas in 1991, which he characterized as a “high-tech lynching.”

Sotomayor seems to share the views of Hispanic politicians and advocacy organizations and will face a committee controlled by the party of the president who nominated her. Thomas, by contrast, appeared before a hostile committee majority as a nominee who had disagreed with the views of most black politicians and civil rights organizations.

Thomas told the story of his life up to the time he took his seat on the court in his best-selling memoir “My Grandfather’s Son.” It’s a dramatic story, of growing up in the segregated Deep South, raised by a stern and hard-working grandfather (“the greatest man I have ever known”), of rebelling against him and rejecting his church (“I was an angry young black man”), of academic achievement and personal failings. At Yale Law School he took tax and corporation classes and did better than his detractors have suggested; tax law professor Boris Bittker every year set aside several anonymous exam bluebooks as examples of good work, and one year one of those bluebooks was Clarence Thomas’.

Having recently read Justice Thomas's memoir, I'm reminded of the appalling indecency with which the man was treated in his hearing. Fortunately he had the courage and the will to defend himself appropriately.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Text Message: Your Time's Up

This is kinda cool: the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) is deploying new technology to warn people about incoming rocket attacks:
Code Red (early warning radar system) to your cellular device? This will become a reality two years from now, according to the plans of the Home Front Command. For the past year, the IDF Home Front Command has been working on warning civilians of rocket attacks via cellular devices. [...]

The Cellular Broadcasting Technology works according to the device's location. When a warning about a missile attack is received in a certain area, a warning message will be sent to whoever is in the zone.
Whereas this will clearly be very useful in Israel as soon as it's ready, I think it will be readily adopted in the United States as well given the proliferation of nuclear missiles to regimes such as North Korea. I expect the text message will look something like:
A nuclear missile will land in your vicinity in the next 90 seconds. Please go indoors, sit on a chair away from any windows, place your head firmly between your legs -- and kiss your ass goodbye!
At least we'll have some warning.

(HT: Israel Matzav)

Hurricanes Versus Bill Gates

Question: What's the difference between Bill Gates and God?
Answer: God doesn't think he's Bill Gates.

Gates' latest area of playing God involves the simple matter of stopping hurricanes:

Recent patent filings have shown Bill Gates and his friends exploring subjects as diverse as electromagnetic engines and beer kegs. Now they're thinking even bigger -- trying to stop hurricanes.

Microsoft's chairman is among the inventors listed on a new batch of patent applications that propose using large fleets of vessels to suppress hurricanes through various methods of mixing warm water from the surface of the ocean with colder water at greater depths. The idea is to decrease the surface temperature, reducing or eliminating the heat-driven condensation that fuels the giant storms.

The filings were made by Searete LLC, an entity tied to Intellectual Ventures, the Bellevue-based patent and invention house run by Nathan Myhrvold, the former Microsoft chief technology officer. Myhrvold and several others are listed along with Gates as inventors.

The idea is actually pretty simple. Large tubes from the surface of the ocean to some depth are attached to floating platforms. Waves slosh over the edge of the platform and the warm surface water from the waves run down the tube to the depths, requiring no external energy source. Build a gazillion of them, stick them in the possible path of a serious hurricane, and presto!, the hurricane is downgraded a couple of notches relative to what it would've been since it no longer has access to that very warm surface water that would fuel it.

Since these could be completely passive devices, it wouldn't cost all that much to build them. The only question is could you actually build and deploy enough of them to make a significant difference.

Oh! And in the long term, there'd be even more heat and energy in the ocean which would mean even more intense and destructive hurricanes. But hey, that's for another generation to worry about.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Where's the Buzz?

On June 2nd, Richard Lindzen, Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at MIT, made a presentation at a conference showing empirically that the climate sensitivity to a doubling of CO2 is 0.5 degrees Celsius. Since the climate models show a sensitivity that is 3 to 10 times larger, if Lindzen's findings are accurate, this would simultaneously invalidate the results of the climate models and eliminate the possibility of catastrophic man-made global warming. Indeed, at the end of his presentation, Lindzen states:
However, for the low sensitivity obtained from the actual climate system, we see that sensitivity is narrowly constrained to about 0.5C, and strongly implies that there is little to be concerned about.

In a normal field, these results would pretty much wrap things up, but global warming/climate change has developed so much momentum that it has a life of its own – quite removed from science. One can reasonably expect that opportunism of the weak will lead to efforts to alter the data (though the results presented here have survived several alterations of the data already).
It seems to me like this should be fairly big news. Lindzen is well known, with a long track record, from a relatively prestigious institution, with astounding results.

But there is remarkably little buzz. There's no mention that he's going to submit these results in a paper for peer review. The global warming skeptics don't seem to have much noticed these appealing results. The global warming believers haven't bothered to refute it.

The quiet seems strange to me. The debate has never lacked volume before.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Boy Am I Jetlagged

We're back safe and sound from London and France with no significant glitches in the entire trip.

The jetlag due to the 9 hour time difference is really bad though. It was bad going the other way too. I'm gettin' too old for that kind of travel.

I'm so jetlagged that I accidently clicked the 'Publish' button instead of the 'Save Draft' button on some notes I was making for a future post. So if your feed aggregator shows you a post titled 'I Shrugged', ignore it, it wasn't meant to be seen and I've since deleted it.


Thursday, July 02, 2009

Key points in the health care debate

Much of the public discussion does not even grapple with determining the most important criteria in determining policy changes. That can be the subject of another post. George Newman goes bowling, lining up several nonsensical shibboleths and knocking them down:(here)

The health-care debate continues. We have now heard from nearly all the politicians, experts and interested parties: doctors, drug makers, hospitals, insurance companies, even constitutional lawyers (though not, significantly, from trial lawyers, who know full well "change" is not coming to their practices). Here is how one humble economist sees some of the main arguments, which I have paraphrased below:

- "The American people overwhelmingly favor reform."

If you ask whether people would be happier if somebody else paid their medical bills, they generally say yes. But surveys on consumers' satisfaction with their quality of care show overwhelming support for the continuation of the present arrangement. The best proof of this is the belated recognition by the proponents of health-care reform that they need to promise people that they can keep what they have now.

- "Forty-five million people in the U.S. are uninsured."

Even if this were true (many dispute it) should we risk destroying a system that works for the vast majority to help 15% of our population?

- "The cost of treating the 45 million uninsured is shifted to the rest of us."

So on Monday, Wednesday and Friday we are harangued about the 45 million people lacking medical care, and on Tuesday and Thursday we are told we already pay for that care. Left-wing reformers think that if they split the two arguments we are too stupid to notice the contradiction. Furthermore, if cost shifting is bad, wait for the Mother of all Cost Shifting when suppliers have to overcharge the private plans to compensate for the depressed prices forced on them by the public plan.

- "A universal plan will reduce the cost of health care."

Think a moment. Suppose you are in an apple market with 100 buyers and 100 sellers every day and apples sell for $1 a pound. Suddenly one day 120 buyers show up. Will the price of the apples go up or down?

- "We need a public plan to keep the private plans honest."

The 1,500 or so private plans don't produce enough competition? Making it 1,501 will do the trick? But then why stop there? Eating is even more important than health care, so shouldn't we have government-run supermarkets "to keep the private ones honest"? After all, supermarkets clearly put profits ahead of feeding people. And we can't run around naked, so we should have government-run clothing stores to keep the private ones honest. And shelter is just as important, so we should start public housing to keep private builders honest. Oops, we already have that. And that is exactly the point. Think of everything you know about public housing, the image the term conjures up in your mind. If you like public housing you will love public health care.

There are many more gems in the article!!