Monday, July 27, 2009

Can we stop calling it racial profiling yet?

Now that enough of the the Henry Louis Gates Jr. 911 call has been released to rule out any race-based motives for the original police response, can we stop framing this as a race issue?

We live in a post-racist society. We've weeded out most of the racism from our cultures' past, possibly as much of it as we can. Some people are still looking for examples of racism, and it's only natural that sometimes we'll hit upon a few false-positives. It would be amazing if there there weren't any false-positives

With that in mind, a quick review of the Gates case reveals race was just a coincidence, and the charge of racial profiling is a non-sequitur.

The racial profiling charge says that after Gates found himself locked out of his house and broke in through the back, police were motivated by his dark skin to consider him a likely burglar and investigated. Finding nothing, Cambridge police got into an argument with him and used a
disorderly conduct charge out of spite and to show their power.

This view follows the left's view on race, but it doesn't follow reality very well.

The turn of events were:

-A neighbor spotted Gates and another man force their way into the back of the house. She told police dispatch it may be a break in, or they may be locked out.

-Police are dispatched to the house and find Gates inside.

-After a loud shouting match with Police, Gates is arrested

-The story becomes public and the charges against Gates are dropped.

The police didn't know the man in the house would be black until they arrived. A brash, rude civilian has a good chance of being arrested by police, regardless of their race.

It's tautology to say that Gates was arrested because of racism, and the way we know racism was a factor is because Gates was black. The burden of evidence, which is on the people claiming racism is a factor, hasn't been met.

Racial profiling is completely out the window. Gates' race wasn't known until police had already arrived. Any firm conclusions of demonstrated racism are unsupported by evidence and therefore are impossible to separate from coincidence.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Federal concealed weapon law: position versus principal

A bill to force state-issued concealed weapons permits to be honored when the gun-bearer steps into another state was narrowly defeated yesterday, and I feel an uneasy relief.

I'm a firm supporter guns, armed citizens and concealed-weapon programs, but I found myself in an uncomfortable position when I heard about the bill. While I like the idea of extending gun rights, I found the method of a federal law to be a little too Gabriel-Over-the-White-House for me.

An armed citizen has more freedom than an unarmed citizen. That's why I take a pro-firearm position. But positions come from principals, and an important principal for me is to keep the power of the federal government in check through states rights.

As principals determine positions, they are more important to protect.

Federal anti-states rights bills, like the villainous Fugitive Slave Act, force states to enforce laws within their own borders that their voters never approved – and often voted against. What good are "laboratories of democracy” if we expose the subject to outside contamination?

Thanks, Congress, for offering something we want. But I don't want to compromise my principals to get it.


Monday, July 20, 2009

Locally-produced Marxism?

My editorial on the Portland Buy Local campaign in the Portland Daily Sun finally generated a response, although not from the intended group. A Portland resident posted a response in the newspaper, as well as online.

I disagree with most of what April Thibodeau wrote, but nitpicking at the little details makes for a dull response, so I'll boil her philosophy down to this: Purchasing from big companies sucks the wealth from the public, it also hurts our area's individual nature. The cost of these cheap goods includes the damage to Portland's character as well.

I think she did a great job of removing the masks from the two sides of the buy local debate. She correctly identifies the buy local supporters as anti-corporate consumers, and my side as pro-market and pro-economic scholarship. There's a lot of times where our arguments don't line up because she was making a more emotional appeal while I took a colder, calculated stance.

The first part of her argument went like this:

“...there is an inherent tendency for the greater wealth to be distributed unevenly so that most of the wealth goes to a few, while the majority are actually worse off. As companies get bigger and fewer, there are less and less owners, and more and more workers, thereby concentrating power at the top of these companies.”

This argument, according to Friedrich Hayek in The Road to Serfdom, “...mainly derives from the Marxist doctrine of the 'concentration of industry,' although, like so many Marxist ideas, it is now found in many circles which have received it at third or fourth hand and do not know whence it derives.”

Modern Keynesian economist Sean Masaki Flynn ridiculed this old myth in Economics for Dummies on page 319. He wrote, “...competition does not lead to each industry being dominated by a single monopoly firm. Rather, competition remains robust in most industries and consequently delivers all the benefits of Adam Smith's invisible hand.”

The reason, Flynn explains, is that there is a limited number of workers, and companies have to compete by bidding wages and benefits up to attract them.

While companies are getting bigger, this doesn't mean that workers are getting poorer. This zero-sum game argument is dead wrong. Companies are getting richer because efficient productive methods mean there is more wealth in the world. So while the rich are getting richer, the poor are also getting richer.

Without all their money tied up in dull things like food, shelter, electricity and transportation, the people of Portland have more money to splurge on fun things like locally-produced blackberry jam or handmade clocks that bigger stores don't carry. This means that Portland can still have a local merchant culture, it just has to earn that right by offering products people want at prices they can afford, instead of their current tactics of guilt and wild voodoo promises.

I stand by my submission for an economical crash-test: Does the plan attempt to increase wealth by being purposely inefficient?


Friday, July 17, 2009

An Amazing time at The Amazing Meeting 7

According to Jason Epstein of San Francisco, The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas isn't really a science education conference.

“It's an exercise in sleep deprivation,” said Epstein, 35. He's a former Japanese-to-English translator, starts med school in August and just last week attended his fifth Amazing Meeting of scientific skeptics.

Skeptics confront harmful misinformation, such as medical quackery and financial swindles, as well as sillier subjects like UFO encounters. Skeptics brush up against supernatural claim makers, like psychics, as well as more sinister ones like Holocaust deniers. In all situations, they promote critical thinking and scientific literacy.

Skeptical rock-and-roller George Hrab signs an autograph for Brian Engler of Burke, Va. at The Amazing Meeting 7 in Las Vegas.

The Amazing Meeting, known as TAM, is the largest annual meeting of skeptics. They attend lectures from famous science popularizers like Michael Shermer, as well as take in the bars, restaurants and shows Las Vegas offers, although few skeptics seem to spend much time actually gambling. Skeptics like Epstein say that the real fun of TAM is meeting other skeptics and interacting with them.

“It's a week-long party with 1,000 of my closest friends,” said Epstein. “Sometimes the conference gets in the way.” The conference officially started Friday, July 10, but he arrived in Las Vegas a few days before to spend more time with fellow skeptics. Some skeptics enjoy booze-soaked conversations over cluttered bar tables while others never touch the stuff and share intellectual exchanges late into the night.

Linda Shallenberger, administrative director of the James Randi Educational Foundation, the nonprofit group which puts The Amazing Meeting on each year, said the organizers are fully aware that social interactions are the real draw for TAM attendees.

“We have no problem with that,” said Shallenberger. She said it's good that the skeptical movement has a place to gather each year as a community.

“We're very isolated as skeptics,” said Richard Prairie, 75, another fifth-time attendee. “Here we can find like-minded folks, swap stories... it's energizing and we can take something back to the local groups.”

Prairie, treasurer of the Association for Rational Thought in Cincinnati, Ohio, said he also felt encouraged by the steady increase in attendance each year.

The official attendance count for this years TAM was 1,007, according to Jeff Wagg, outreach and communications manager for the James Randi Educational Foundation. He said in addition to being the biggest TAM, this year had the highest satisfaction rating from attendees.

Wagg said the first TAM in 2003 drew about 125 people and has been growing each year. In 2008 TAM 6 had around 900 skeptics in attendance.

Andrew Gould, of Canberra, Australia, smashes a cinder block on top of high school science teacher Matt Lowry, who is masked and wedged between two nail boards. Lowry, who was unharmed, said he has been doing this demonstration for his students for the past 10 years.

The structure of TAM 7

New this year was a one-day medical conference co-produced by the James Randi Educational Foundation and Dr. Steven Novella.

Novella, who founded the anti-quackery blog Science-Based Medicine at the beginning of 2008, is also the host of the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast and president of the New England Skeptical Society, as well as a clinical neurologist and associate professor at Yale.

The Science-Based Medicine Conference counted as six hours of category one Continuing Medical Education credits for registered physicians who attended.

Speakers at the Science-Based Medicine conference, all of them medical doctors and bloggers on the site, spoke about the dangers and prevalence of medical misinformation.

Speaking at the podium, Novella said medical misinformation movements, most under the banner of “alternative medicine,” are a hodge-podge of opposing viewpoints and explanations that contradict one another.

“Science doesn't do that,” said Novella. “We like all the pieces to fit together.”

The Science-Based Medicine Conference was held on Thursday, July 9, the day before the official start of TAM, but at the same time as two of the optional TAM workshops.

“Since it was all day, we had no choice but to do them at the same time,” said organizer Jeff Wagg. He said the simultaneous scheduling drew some complaints.

Neurologist, podcaster and skeptical blogger Dr. Steven Novella speaks about the critical differences between evidence-based medicine and science-based medicine. Novella said science-based medicine rejects flawed studies and uses logic and reason in selecting treatments.

The conference had two days of speakers, including Bill Prady, executive producer of the nerdy sitcom The Big Bang Theory, molecular medicine expert Dr. Fintan Steele and skeptical magicians Penn & Teller.

During a question and answer session of a live taping of the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, podcaster Rebecca Watson received a staged wedding proposal from her boyfriend Sid Rodrigues, leader of the London Skeptics in the Pub social group. The two were immediately married on stage in a legal ceremony.

Foundation founder and namesake James Randi is a magician, escape artist and is the patriarch of the scientific skepticism movement. He uses the stage name “The Amazing Randi.”

He was originally slated to perform a magic act, but an unnamed medical procedure left him too weak. Attendees were asked not to shake hands with Randi to avoid contamination.

“I don't want to catch anything, and I don't want you to catch anything,” said Randi while on stage.

“I intend to stay around for a long time,” added Randi, who turns 81 on August 7. “I'll beat this problem inside me, I assure you of that.”

From left: Magicians Jamy Ian Swiss and James “The Amazing Randi” Randi discuss the concept of “half-smart;” people who are easily fooled because they get cocky.

The million dollar challenge

Sunday, July 12, was the final day of TAM 7 and after six individual half-hour presentations on various skeptical topics, there was challenge to claim $1 million from Randi.

The contestant, Connie Sonne, claimed she could prove she has supernatural powers by reading numbers written inside a sealed envelopes by dowsing. Sonne was just the latest contestant to apply for Randi's million dollar challenge. The test is always conducted in a carefully-controlled environment to rule out both chance and trickery. Contestants agree ahead of time that the rules of the challenge are fair, and no one has ever passed the test.

Randi, who has a long career of trickery-detecting, has used his knowledge of deception and sleight of hand to make sure the only way anyone will win the prize money is if they demonstrate a real supernatural talent.

Sonne went back home to Denmark empty-handed, but skeptics were energized that the million dollar challenge is back on the table. Randi said he started the challenge as a way to reference how unsuccessful paranormal claim makers are when carefully tested.

The challenge was retired recently because Randi's staff was only getting applications from the mentally ill and deranged and in high volumes, but Randi announced at TAM 7 that they have decided it's worth keeping on the table.

“The million dollar challenge is a hammer,” said Phil Plait, the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation. He said it's an excellent tool to show that paranormal claims are bogus.

The money set aside for the prize was donated anonymously, and the same donor also provided the building in Fort Lauderdale where Randi's foundation is based.

Joe Nickell, skeptical paranormal investigator, signs the scrapbook of Jennifer Young, 32, of Midlothian, Va. at The Amazing Meeting 7 in Las Vegas.

Skeptical allies for life

Jones Hamilton, 55, of Huntsville Ala., returned this year for his seventh TAM. He's been to all the TAMs except for the small TAM 5.5 held in January 2008 to bridge the long gap when the event was moved from the winter to the summer between TAM 5 and TAM 6.

“I like the people here,” said Hamilton, who designs and builds generators for a living. “They're open-minded, but not so open-minded their brains fall out.”

Eran Segev, president of the Australian Skeptics, said he's been wanting to go since he heard about TAM 3 but didn't get a chance until this year. He said after his 20-hour plane ride it wasn't what he expected.

“It's better,” said Segev, who also appears on the Skeptic Zone podcast. He said TAM isn't all fun, as some of the serious skeptical players he's talked to have full schedules of meetings and recording interviews, and no time for attending lectures and socializing.

Ed Baehr, 57, of Bayville N.Y., is a dedicated TAM goer. He volunteers to work behind the official merchandise and book table each year.

“I enjoy it, it's like being on the inside,” said Baehr. “It's not so much face time with the celebrities I like, it's the community aspect.” He has attended all the TAMs, including TAM 5.5.

“I have a very understanding wife,” he added.

The assembled Science-Based Medicine Conference speakers. From left: Steven Novella, Kimball Atwood, Mark Crislip, Val Jones, Harriet Hall and David H. Gorski.

In addition, Baehr was one of about 80 people who attended the fund-raising convention Randi held a few years before the first TAM that ended up losing money because of low attendance.

“It was nice for the attendees I guess,” he said. “They got to sit around and talk to Randi.”

Jeff Wagg, the TAM organizer from the James Randi Educational Foundation, said all of the TAMs have made money, except for the small TAM 5.5 which broke even.

Wagg, who was highly visible running up and down the conference aisles with a black ear piece and a pair of Ecco high-impact dress shoes, was responsible for everything from overseeing the stage production to the height of microphone stands.

“I'm kind of the advanced guard,” said Wagg. “I come in first and leave last.” Wagg arrived the Saturday before TAM and didn't finish until the Monday after.

Wagg said TAM costs more than most conferences, full attendance costs a few hundred dollars at minimum, because it lacks corporate sponsorship, with the exception of a grant from the John W. Carson Foundation.

“Most of the expense is food,” said Wagg. TAM attendees are treated to two meals each day of the conference and a single evening reception the night before it starts. Wagg said speakers are provided with travel expenses and a place to stay, but are rarely paid.

Wagg said it's too early to know how much money TAM 7 generated. Although the Internet has helped the skeptical community grow exponentially in the last decade, the tough economy had the potential to decrease attendance this year and skeptics weren't sure which direction attendance would go. He said organizers planned to make sure TAM wouldn't lose money if attendance was as low as 600.

Outreach and Communications Manager Jeff Wagg, hard at work through all of TAM, said he has been trying to get TAM attendees referred to as “TAMsters.”
“TAMsters rhyme with hamsters, and anything associated with hamsters is good,” joked Wagg.

Linda Shallenberger from the James Randi Educational Foundation said the 1,000-strong attendance record was much higher than they expected. She said TAM is the largest fund-raiser the foundation does each year. Other sources of revenue include private donations, Randi's speaking fees and interest from the $1 million prize money.

“That has not been as good a source as in the past years,” said Shallenberger. She said the foundation has an annual budget of about $700,000 and spends most of it hosting its website, paying personnel costs and providing college scholarships.

“In this economy, the fact that we had more people is amazing,” said Wagg. He later corrected himself to say “astounding.”

“Randi get upset if we use that word too much,” added Wagg. “It's his title.”


Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The "Buy Local" swindle

When it comes to economic nonsense, there are plenty of local options

I remember almost two years ago when I first noticed "Buy Local — Keep Portland Independent" signs sprouting on Old Port shop windows like dandelions on a lawn. I told a store-owning friend that I didn't think the “buy local” campaign she joined is actually good for the local economy and relies on faulty logic.

She gave me the most honest response I have heard on the subject; “I don't care, it's good for my business.”

And that's what has been driving the buy local campaign all along. Normal businesses compete by offering things like low prices, superior products or expert advice. Instead, buy local activists rely on guilt and economic witchcraft. They promise Portland will become rich if it becomes an island to itself, and anyone who buys from a competing business is a marked traitor.

Portland Buy Local activists appear unable to distinguish between micro and macro economics. They didn't learn anything from the disastrous Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1929, they don't understand the folly of make-work programs or protectionism. This is a Luddite movement that hasn't heard Adam Smith or David Ricardo's basic arguments on the role of specialization in wealth, or even know of comparative advantage.

In plain English, they don't know what they're talking about. Their motivation is simply to increase sales for their members, and they don't mind telling a few howlers along the way.

Recently Portland Buy Local has launched a campaign with the empty promise that if we all shift 10 percent of our purchases to local vendors, 600 new jobs and $50 million in new “economic activity” will be created here.

Not so fast, buy local activists. This is a part of a big New England-wide campaign and the website fails to mention exactly where these numbers come from. The page of official supporters lists only politicians. Funny, but I couldn't find a single professional economist cited anywhere. Instead I found biased reports from activist groups like Civic Economics and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

In their own 2007 study, Portland Buy Local reports the campaign has worked because more than 60 percent of their members saw increases in sales. Pardon me, but that simply means their members are making more money – it forgets about all the benefits to Portland's economy it promised. Perhaps this is because the “buy local” approach is a recipe for poverty, not prosperity, and the only people who benefit are the merchants.

Wealth is created by specialization and trade, not xenophobicly discriminating against business owners from away. You can not create wealth by being purposely inefficient. Instead, The "buy local" approach encourages inefficient production and wastes resources — and for the record, wasting resources does not help the environment.

If you're curious to see what a truly "independent" community would look like, gaze upon "the 100 mile suit" to see the results of 500 hours of labor from 20 skilled artisans. They attempted to make a men's business suit using local materials and talents, but instead created a lumbering burlap caveman. If the workers were paid a modest $10 an hour, the labor cost alone of this itchy eyesore would be a staggering $5,000 and they could only produce four suits a year working full time.

But don't tell the buy local people that. They heralded this project as a success, even though the consumers in such a backwards system would be in grinding poverty.

The same thing would happen if we only listened to local music. Sure, the Portland bar bands would see their album sales go up, and I'm sure most of us would find at least one song we can enjoy. Still, we'd be robbed of The Beatles, Pat Benatar and David Bowie and our musical enjoyment would suffer.

In addition to our own local campaign, Maine businesses have to deal with the impact of buy local activists in other areas. These movements threaten to keep customers from other states away from Portland – not the best thing for our summer tourist trade. Maybe “Boston Buy Local” should be seen as a hated enemy of the Portland economy. Does Portland Buy Local think cities should break into warring camps?

Perhaps buy local activists should push a “sell local” campaign, and advise Maine businesses like LL Bean and Poland Spring to stay independent of foreign customers. This would make Maine truly independent, but only an idiot would think this would help our economy.

The alternative to that stupid idea is for Portland Buy Local to try to minimize purchases from outside Portland, and maximize sales from out of town. If you see this as a good approach then congratulations, you are now arguing for mercantilism, something economists have ridiculed since Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

What's wrong with the "Buy Local" movement

As the Internet's home for criticism of the "Buy Local," I often find myself telling the same story over and over again.

There is a movement that promises communities wealth if they simply agree to restrict their purchases to local merchants. The argument is that this will encourage job growth within the community. In addition, the local merchants will spend that money again in the community, creating a cycle of wealth creation.

This idea, which I call "localism," sounds like a good common sense solution. Unfortunately, it defies a number of basic economic concepts. It is akin to mercantilism, only instead of restricting the economy to the nation, localists want to restrict them to the immediate community.

Wealth is created by efficient productivity and the gains from trade. As Adam Smith observed, it makes more sense for two nations to each specialize in separate industries and trade with one another. David Ricardo added the brilliant idea of comparative advantage, where people will work in industries where they are the most efficient as compared to others. This is the framework of modern economics.

The problem is not that localists have discovered a flaw in the economic framework and have moved past it. Instead, they are ignorant of the economic framework and make arguments that fail to acknowledge it exists.

Localists are willing to pay more for something, and produce something less efficiently, than they could get imported to them. They pay close attention to how much money the merchants are collecting, but they ignore how much money the customers are shelling out. The jobs that will be created will not be enough to offset the higher prices. You will end up with a community that has a lot of cash on hand, but the money will have very little buying power because of the price hikes.

By their logic you should ban all automated farm machinery - from tractors to harvesting equipment. You would indeed see more agriculture jobs. However, that is not a rational thing to do. The price of food would go up, jobs would be lost in other industries, and the standard of living would go down.

This is a very big subject, and you will find it approached from a lot of different angles. I started paying attention to this issue in early 2008 and was not swayed by the arguments. A simple Google search of the words "buy local" and "economist" turned up criticism from economists- not support. However, localists often treat their economic scheme like a religion and do not listen to heretics or scientists.

There are plenty of sources that criticize the environmental claims of localism, but I'm not aware of anyone else who is dedicated to exposing localism as an economic pseudoscience. There are other people making this claim, but not in an ongoing fashion. I welcome like-minded people to let me know they're out there.