Monday, August 31, 2009

Letter to the editor

This is the letter I submitted to the local newspaper today after reading this story. I suppose I should don a red flannel shirt and sneer out of one side of my mouth when I talk now.

Are reality-based stories on the way out?

I was disappointed to see the Portland Press Herald promote the guess-based Farmer's Almanac this week as a legitimate source of weather information (“Farmers' Almanac calls for a cold one,” Aug. 31) and that people should worry about an extra-cold winter this year.

The story, a sloppy Associated Press piece glanced over by a negligent editor, repeated the fable that the Farmers' Almanac has a 80 to 85 percent accuracy rating. Unmentioned were the tallies by anyone outside of the organization – they always show the almanac has a rating no better than guessing.

The piece tried to save credibility by saying “many people read the forecasts only in fun.” Yet, towards the end of the story, almanac editor Peter Geiger bragged people call him to help decide if they're going to lock in their heating oil costs for the winter.

This doesn't sound like fun. It sounds like The Portland Press Herald is presenting a band of cranks as legitimate sources of information on an important subject. What's next, high-risk investment tips from a clairvoyant? Cancer treatment advice from a witch doctor?


Friday, August 28, 2009

Half-mast has a cost

Driving by the local prison, I've seen the American flag flown outside has been at half-mast the last two days; which is a signal of respect for an important tragedy or loss. However, I wasn't sure what tragedy the honor was for.

The only explanation I could think of was the recent death of Ted Kennedy from a brain tumor, but that didn't seem quite right. Sure, Kennedy was a well-known politician from nearby Massachusetts, and he had been in the senate for a long time - 47 years - but why does that warrant a half-mast flag in another state, and why two days in a row?

So I called the prison and sure enough, it was for Kennedy. The employee who answered the phone said the flag will continue to be at half-mast until Sunday. A little digging revealed a presidential proclamation for the lowered flags until Sunday, Aug. 30.

I don't care to get into the details of Kennedy's life, accomplishments, mistakes or politics. Whatever my opinion is on Kennedy, he was a senator from another state and therefore of lesser relevance to Maine. Can his death really be quantified in Maine exactly as terrible as the loss of five Maine soldiers?

My problem with half-mast days is that they occur too often. Reasonable people can disagree on what qualifies as a half-mast day in an individual state; such as the death of a soldier from that state, elected leaders, beloved individuals and tragedies with large body counts. In our current system, each individual death has a value. An event like the Virginia Tech massacre would qualify not because of any single individuals value, but the sum of the victims and the shock of the event itself.

That being said, when you lower the value required to trigger a half-mast, the relative value - and impact - of a half-mast day goes down.

And thus, we have consecutive days of flags at half-mast. The death of presidents John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan triggered entire half-mast months because one day was considered too low a value.

I don't know, but I do suspect, that we have a creeping inflation rate of half-mastitude. Unlike monetary inflation, however, there are a finite number of days in the calendar and we can agree that a year where the flag is flown at half-mast everyday is a problem. Events like the death of Pope Jean Paul the second and Coretta Scott King were certainly tragic, but did they really warrant a national display

While there are rules to how many half-mast days some event triggers, responses to events like Ted Kennedy's death are open-ended (and therefor arbitrary; I can't find anything firmly stating if Bush ordered flags at half-mast for the death of Strom Thurmond in 2003. He was also a senator for 47 years)

I'm curious to how people would respond to a quarter-mast flag - one fourth of the way from the top of the flagpole. On the one hand, it might show respect for some tragedies while not dampening the power of the half-mast for the bigger ones. The risk, however, is that some people may resent having their loved ones honored with anything less than a half-mast.

Another option is to limit half-mast displays to a single day for all tragedies. This would take away the implied value of any individual tragedy and keep us from watering down the impact of this symbolic gesture of respect.


Thursday, August 27, 2009

A lefty paradox

A friendly CNN piece this week on how one of the Jena 6 boys has profited from a racially-motivated ambush led me to perplexing thought: How would the left respond if some of the Jena 6 members were offered guard jobs at Guantanamo Bay?

I haven't heard anyone outright say that the six attackers who jumped a single victim were gentle bunny rabbits, but the way they were presented left the impression that their supports believe they're just nice boys. In all fairness, the opposition didn't say they were innocent; they were saying they were getting too harsh a punishment.

Still, their reaction was a pendulum swing too far and left an understatement of the violence.

So what if instead of working in a law office, the eager lads joined the armed services and were recruited to guard terrorist suspects: a group that is clearly more likely to be brutalized by guards than the average prisoner. Would members of the left say their violent past should prevent them from the position, or would they stick to their guns and say they trust them?

I honestly don't know. Any takers?


Monday, August 17, 2009

The problem with conservatives

Austrian-school economist Friedrich Hayek wrote a great essay in 1960 titled, Why I Am Not a Conservative. In it, Hayek laments on the creeping on the English language, such as how what economists classically called liberalism now means conservatism. He also performs one of the greatest slam-dunks on conservatives.

"At a time when most movements that are thought to be progressive advocate further encroachments on individual liberty, those who cherish freedom are likely to expend their energies in opposition. In this they find themselves much of the time on the same side as those who habitually resist change."

What I gathered from Hayek's point is, conservative and liberalism are simply directions on a political compass, devoid of values and landmarks. When a view is called “conservative” it simply means the old, traditional way of doing things, and “liberal” means a new, exciting concept.

Push me back in time far enough, opinions and positions intact, and I would by no means be considered a conservative. The world view I hold, which is called “classic liberalism” was a radical view during the ages of feudalism, monarchy and theocracy. Collectivism, on the other hand, would have been in friendly company. The main difference is the emphasis on the leader and his subjects.

As someone who finds himself in agreement with a lot of the old ways of doing things, such as individual rights and a weakened federal government, I find myself rubbing shoulders with people whose' world view I do not share, but who's conclusions I often mimic.

I'm against socialism not because the idea of cooperating with other people and singing songs around a campfire with hippies disgusts me – it's because it's a flawed system that erodes individual rights and promotes corruption. But, sometimes when I'm with political allies, I notice a deep-seeded level of ignorance, and I feel like they stumbled into opposing socialism for all the wrong reasons.

There are some great exceptions, however. The rekindled love of the United States Constitution in some right-wing circles is promoting good scholarship and intellectualism. What I hope comes next is a push towards logic and reason, perhaps even a new wave of objectivism.

Don't forget science

Maybe if the right wing rediscovers reason – much like it rediscovered Thomas Paine – it will try to snatch science from the weak grip of the left.

The problem is, neither side will ever be able to claim science because science will always be simultaneously conservative and liberal.

Science is conservative because it treats new ideas skeptically, and believes in holding onto what it already knows until new evidence overturn it.

Science is liberal because once new evidence outweighs the existing data, the old information is unceremoniously dumped. There are no saints or exalted legends immune to review and intellectual assaults.

Of course, this is an idealist view of science. Science is also conducted by people, and people tend to mess things up. Some scientists do hold onto rusty old ideas and rejects new ones offhand. Others get so excited about new ideas that they outrun the evidence. This isn't a flaw of science, its a flaw of human scientists.

It's the same as rationality. No one, including myself, lives their life entirely with rational decision making. We have biases and blind spots that we can never completely overcome. Still, we can always push ourselves to do better. We'll never be completely rational, just as we'll never be able to push an object at the speed of light. But we can always come just a little closer.

And when it comes to some conservatives, people can be right for all the wrong reason.

So if I'm so against the conservative world view – of letting tradition rule our actions - why would I write this essay on a blog with the word “conservative” boldly in the title?

It's not because I changed my school of thought or the way I identify myself. In fact, I read Hayek's essay before I ever named this blog. The real reason?

Young, Hip and Classically Liberal just didn't sound sexy enough.


Monday, August 10, 2009

The fuel transportation cost obsession

A great post today on the Freakonomics blog about how little fuel transportation costs factor into the production of food. Tellingly, however, the comment section lit up with locavores as if they were unleashed by a mad wizard.

The distance food was transported to your plate is a very poor yardstick to measure the amount of resources (including gasoline) that went into the food's production. It ignores all Ricardian specialization and presents a skewed result. It's like trying to judge the radiation level of an atomic bomb with a tablespoon.


Sunday, August 9, 2009

The joy of a consistent foe

In a rather bland rundown of the “buy local” argument – as always from the side of the business owner - Nova Scotian business professor Karen Blotnicky ventures a little off the economic argument and ties local-only consumption in with the unshaven root-chewing Luddites lurking in the aisle of Whole Foods supermarket.

She writes;
There is also a movement towards better eating and living through wellness centres, holistic medicine and organic remedies. Naturopaths are beginning to make inroads in the medical community, often being chosen over traditional medical practitioners.

As cringe-inducing as that negligent last sentence is, I feel a pang of joy when I see two nonsense beliefs lining up in the same world view. While a person who is wrong about medicine isn't necessarily wrong about economics as well, I like seeing them lean against each other for support.

During my frustrating march as a sociology minor in college I had to read culture critic bell hooks rattle on about the “White-Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy” hydra that fatally slashes and gouges society. I found it annoying that her world view was so simplistic and infantile that she lumped everything she disliked into a single, evil pulse.

I constantly have to check my mind to make sure I don't do it as well. The union thugs, PC patrol-officers, Bible-thumpers, mercantalists, jihadists, race-baiters, evolution-deniers, anti-intellectuals palm-readers and magic healers don't form a cohesive group or blend into a single mindset, even though it would be awfully convenient for me if they did.


Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The economics of drinking a milkshake

As a lifelong cheapskate, I was always attracted to the large-sized milkshakes at fast food restaurants. The price was only a few dollars, and a quick scan of the different sizes showed that the largest container had the cheapest ratio of ounces of drink per penny. Burger King even hung a mobile of its cups with a “Best Value” laurel wreath around the biggest cup.

Even though I didn't realize it at the time, the biggest cup was never the best value for me. What the price-to-size ratio leaves out of the equation is the true cost of a milkshake and the actual benefits gained.

I buy milkshakes to gain enjoyment by drinking them. The first few sips are the best, when the inside of your body is first cooled by the cold, creamy material and you really take in the taste. Enjoyment tapers off after that and the remainder of the drink is consumed with far less attention.

These diminishing returns in milkshake consumption mean that the first few ounces of 'shake are the most valuable to us in terms of enjoyment, and subsequent ounces bring us less and less. Forty ounces of milkshake does not give twice the pleasure of twenty ounces. Because of diminishing returns, it gives less than forty.

Milkshakes are drunk to increase happiness, so the real value is in the price-to-happiness ratio, not price-to-size.

Economist and textbook author Greg Mankiw says the cost of anything is what we give up to have it. The cash price of the milkshake is only part of the cost. Milkshakes are filled with sugar and since my diet already includes plenty of dairy, I have to admit that milkshakes ever so slightly tax my health. Each straw sucked to the very bottom rim of the cup means just more fat for my body to process.

So while the amount of enjoyment in each ounce of milkshake diminishes over time, the health cost remains constant. Spending more money means I get more ounces of milkshake, but the enjoyment increase - if any - is minimal and the cost to my health goes up linearly.

When you compare actual cost to enjoyment, the small size is the best value. Like I said from the beginning, I'm a cheapskate, so now I always buy a small.