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Friday, December 21, 2012

Sailing, Sailing

I'm leaving this weekend for a family sailing vacation in the British Virgin Islands.  We're renting a 37 foot sailboat and will sail hither and thither around the islands for a week.  Hopefully, we won't run into any pirates!

Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Public Shooting Musings

With any change in government policy there are always winners and losers.  Modifying gun control laws would be no exception whether making them stricter of less strict.  Different people will die at different times depending on the changes.

Whenever I put significant effort into yet again contemplating gun control, I start by re-reading "Of Holocausts and Gun Control".  There are many chilling excerpts in it, and the two I found most chilling and focusing are (emphasis added):
"Governments have exterminated or cooperated in the extermination of something like one hundred and seventy million of their own people in the twentieth century"; and

" is nevertheless an arresting reality that not one of the principal genocides of the twentieth century, and there have been dozens, has been inflicted on a population that was armed..."
If you think that something like that can't happen here, as explained by the essay mentioned above it almost did at least twice.  Examples include Japanese internment camps during World War II and the violence of the KKK in the south.

I then notice that:
"With a single exception, every multiple-victim public shooting in the U.S. in which more than three people have been killed since at least 1950 has taken place where citizens are not allowed to carry their own firearms."
This follows the genocide paradigm on a smaller scale.  In this case, the killings are too few to be a statistic, not too many to be a terrible tragedy (to paraphrase Joseph Stalin). We feel the pain of public shootings more intimately than a genocide lost in history, because they are more intimate.  We can watch each parent cry on TV and cry along with them.  We can read the notes that the small children wrote to their parents that they would meet them in heaven as tears well up in our eyes.  Anything but this, we say.  Anything but this, I say.

But then I dry my eyes and realize that the similarity is striking.  Unarmed people are sitting ducks, whether for populations of millions or for a building full of school children and unarmed teachers, administrators and other workers.  Predators are attracted to the easiest prey: the sick, the weak, the old, and the unarmed.  School-zone mass shootings didn’t begin until after passing Clinton’s Gun Free Schools Act. The gun-free zone designation is a giant neon sign to the predator: "We're here and helpless. Kill us."  And killed they were.

So the choices are: take weapons away from predators or arm as many people as possible so there's a chance of defense against the predators.  The former seems impossible.  Building guns is not rocket science. Even if every gun magically were confiscated, anyone with minimum determination could build one and each day it gets easier and easier to do so.

That leaves arming as many people as possible.  School teachers should be heavily encouraged to get concealed carry permits.  They should be reimbursed for training to use those weapons.  Same with administrators and even janitors.

But in the end it is a judgment call, a matter of opinion.  I'm not risk adverse, I value individual freedom and responsibility heavily, I don't trust governments, and I'm wildly skeptical that any form of gun control will substantially reduce access to guns by criminals and psychopaths.  If someone else believes the opposite on most or all of these things, they're likely to reach the opposite conclusion.

Since the process is incremental in either direction, there will be more mass killings, more tragedies and more tears.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Minimum Wage Arithmetic

A recent article in the Economist discusses minimum wage laws.  Some representative excerpts about the current state of empirical evidence include:  "... minimum wage has done little or no harm..." and "... a moderate minimum wage probably does not do much harm and may do some good...".

This hardly seem like a ringing endorsement of minimum wage laws to me.  I interpret the article as basically saying that this particular government intrusion and loss of freedom at best has little effect other than to increase the size and power of government and limit freedom of the populace.

While that seems like a bad thing to me, many are thrilled to know that their favored approach of having the government do as much as possible is probably not going to screw things up too badly in this particular instance.  The Economist, for example, seems quite happy with minimum wage laws.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Barbarism and Tolerance

Richard Fernandez describes a couple of events in far reaches of the world (Tunisia and the Philippines) and concludes that barbarism is at least partly made possible by tolerance.

Possibly that is because moderation itself — with its emphasis on tolerance and rational cogitation — is vulnerable to violence in ways that the raw human instinct is not.  The moderate Tunisians are far too well mannered to act against extremists. Like tolerant people the world over, they withhold judgment until the last. Their moment of presentiment never happens; rational thought is retrospective to start with and the decision point may come not at all.

The basic man still has some advantages over the supreme intellectual in the immediate face of danger. What saved [some people] was not their education or refinement. It was the memory of living in dangerous places and the instincts formed thereby. ... education as much as anything else, prepared many Jews to voluntarily walk into the gates of Auschwitz. They could not conceive of something as awful, as barbarous as that death camp, even as they passed it portals. Only the men who had seen others at their worst could perceive the danger and ready themselves to resist what rational man could not apprehend.
He explains in more detail (In the comments):
It is fundamentally a good thing to be tolerant and civilized. But in order for civilization to work, barbarism must be constantly kept at bay. In the state of nature tolerance is repaid with death. Hence, it is the duty of the King’s Justice to keep totalitarian influences in check in order to preserve the luxury of civility. You need a fund of safety in order to afford to be decent. Run out of safety and you run out of civility.
Tolerance spent wastefully may eventually so empower extremists that it will destroy the tolerance itself in the long run. So while tolerance is good it must shelter beneath a roof through which the rain must never pour.
Barbarism was defeated so thoroughly 70 years ago that most of the Western World think it is just a boogeyman story; something that never existed except in the stories of old people to scare children today. They feel so secure they can’t comprehend the dangers of letting the plague get a foothold again. It is unfortunate they cannot conceive of the Design Margin running out.
In Michigan today, barbarism reared its ugly head.  In addition to a union thug punching out conservative comedian Steven Crowder at a protest, the crowd pulled down a tent and began walking across without knowing whether or not people were left inside the tent.  If there had been people inside, they would've been killed.

We're seeing more violent protests like this one in the west and in the United States.  Violent mobs that don't meet violent resistance and/or rapid retribution and punishment for their violence are likely to embolden others who have a penchant and/or use for violence, possibly causing violence, intimidation, and terrorism to snowball.  Like the moderate Tunisians, conservatives in the west may also be too well mannered to resist effectively.  The curse of interesting times may be rapidly approaching.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Employer of Last Resort

Businesses are subjected to lots of constraints such as competition, regulation, and taxes for example.  Each of the constraints renders certain activities either unprofitable or unable to provide an adequate return on investment to be viable.  That's how the world works and it's no big deal.

From the perspective of a business, a minimum wage law falls in that category.  It makes certain activities not worth doing because the value that potential employees could provide does not provide an adequate return after taking the wages required by the minimum wage law into account.  Again, no big deal, just another constraint.

However, from the perspective of an unskilled and inexperienced person who cannot provide adequate value to justify being paid the minimum wage, minimum wage laws are egregiously unfair.  The minimum wage law says to that person, "you may not work for anybody, any time, under any circumstances since no rational business person can justify hiring you at the required wage".

One way to rectify this situation is to have the government offer employment to all takers at or somewhat below the minimum wage.  That way the incredible imposition of the minimum wage law on the unskilled worker is mitigated by providing employment in the public sector.  The concept is that the government becomes the "Employer of Last Resort" (ELR). 

As you can probably tell, I personally am strongly opposed to minimum wage laws because of their severe oppression of young, unskilled workers.  However, given that we're probably stuck with them, having an ELR sounds almost reasonable to me.  There have been some experiments with this sort of thing (for example, one in Britain), and the results haven't been terrible.

Nonetheless, I think the concept is very dangerous.

The problem I have with it is that setting it up puts us one very short step away from all out communism.  All a regime has to do once an ELR mechanism is in place is to begin raising the minimum wage.  This would cause layoffs requiring an expansion of the ELR program.  Further incremental increases in the minimum wage would drive even more workers out of the private sector into the ELR program.

The ELR program would need capital equipment, other assets, and an ever growing management structure to successfully employ the workers and would end up inefficiently producing ever more goods and services.   Eventually, this would drive the vast majority of companies out of business and we'd all end up working for the government and that'd be the end of history.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Might Makes Right: Marauding Bandits

Marauding bandits use violence or the threat of violence to steal and then use the resulting gains for whatever they fancy.  While marauding bandits are generally considered immoral, the legend of Robin Hood shows that marauding bandits are not universally considered inherently immoral, since Robin Hood and His Merry Men were nothing if not marauding bandits*.  In the case of Robin Hood, it seems that the ends can justify the means if the bandits take from those who are rich and/or not well-liked and/or not particularly innocent and the bandits give at least part of the plunder to the poor or other "deserving" group or cause (I suspect they kept most of the loot for themselves - that's why they were merry, or as Robin Hood sings in the animated film "Shrek", "I steal from the rich and give to the needy, I take a wee percentage, but I'm not greedy").  The tales of Robin Hood and other similar stories and legends transform Marauding Banditry from being immoral and despicable into at least sometimes being honorable and even heroic.

From a sheep's perspective, a shepherd and a wolf have a lot in common and they both look like marauding bandits.  One fleeces you and eats your young (and maybe you) and the other eats you and your young.  The sheep might be somewhat grateful to the shepherd for protecting it from the wolf, but that protection comes with a cost and if the shepherd is particularly incompetent or bad, the sheep might be better off with just the wolf.  The primary difference is that the shepherd is more powerful than the wolf and might makes right so "shepherd" has a good connotation while "wolf" has a bad one.

A government has many things in common with marauding bandits.  Both use violence or the threat of violence to take from those too weak to resist and use the resulting gains for whatever they fancy. "Government" generally has a better connotation than "bandit", but from the perspective of the populace, the government may actually be worse than bandits because the populace at least has a prayer of protecting themselves from bandits while the might of the government is overwhelming.  It's a popular notion that the government provides benefits that couldn't otherwise be obtained by the populace, while the bandit does not, but this notion assumes that the populace could not provide those benefits for themselves.  This notion seems unlikely to me, since the government is comprised of people - the same people that make up the populace, so it's unclear why those same people in government would suddenly be able to provide those benefits.

Each of us has some shepherd, wolf, and sheep in us.  Each of us is tempted to be part of the government to shepherd (and take from) others to do those things we think should be done (i.e. that which we fancy), each of us is tempted to swindle, loot, beg, borrow, or steal and play the part of the wolf, and each of us is consigned to live in society and play the part of the sheep.  In the end, each of us is going to attempt to maximise our power and the power of those people and things that are important to us by playing our roles as best we can.

* Depending on exactly which version of the folklore of Robin Hood one is considering.