Monday, December 28, 2009

Why is it OK to hate rednecks?

One of the big frustrations with the secular community is you can't excommunicate anyone.

Wishful targets include the lawsuit-happy Freedom From Religion Foundation, which wastes resources on little details like attempting to block missionaries from American prisons and promotes the "Winter Solstice" as an alternative to Christmas.

Another ripe target is an atheist YouTube user who posted their version of the ten commandments. More of a text slide show with pirated music then an actual video, this submission is a cluster of heavy-handed and awkward political insertions like "thou shalt not kill - nor empower your government to kill for you."

But it was commandment number six that really caught me off guard.

"Thou shalt treat all human beings as equal regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation and culture." [SIC]

Sounds well enough, but then it was immediately followed by this message.
"This one is the hardest. It is difficult for the yokels sitting on the front porch playing the banjo to understand abstract notions such as belonging to the tribe of humans not just the immediate tribe in which they marry their sister."
How ignorant does someone have to be to write a message of tolerance than betrays ones own prejudices in such a harsh manner? I'm not one to run around being offended all day, and I'm kind of used to seeing this view, but not smack in the middle of a tolerance lesson.

If we look at that this through the lens of Thomas Sowell's Black Rednecks and White Liberals, where the divide between urban blacks and rural whites is blurred, we see that the statement could be rewritten as:
"This one is the hardest. It is difficult for the darkies sitting on the stoop drinking malt liquor to understand abstract notions such as belonging to the tribe of humans not just the immediate tribe in which they rape a white woman."
How is the second, modified statement any less crude, offensive or hateful than the first? Unfortunately, the first statement is socially acceptable in American culture, while the second one is thankfully unacceptable.

The word for this prejudice put forward by Dr. Warren Farrell in his 1993 book "The Myth of Male Power" was "ruralism." The term is badly needed, but obscure in the popular culture. What I find frustrating is that the same people who are leading the charge against the more antiquated forms of prejudice and discrimination, like sexism and racism, have no interest in thwarting ruralism, and worse of all, are unabashed to make ruralist statements and jokes in public.

It's very painful to watch sometimes. I know there are other people that see ruralism the same way, but I feel very alone when I witness it. Maybe it's a good thing I can't be excommunicated from the secular community for asking this, but why is it OK to hate rural people?


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The superficial nature of video game protests

When Microsoft put the download-only Shadow Complex on sale this week for a mere $10, it renewed my amusement in a politically-motivated boycott of the game.

The reason for the boycott is a little drawn out. Shadow Complex takes place in the same world as Orson Scott Card's Empire novel. Besides being a sci-fi author, Card is also a vocal opponent of gay marriage. While Card was not directly involved in the development of the game and his unwelcome message is not included in the game, he did receive royalties from Epic Games.

While the Shadow Complex boycott failed to make a significant impact, it's mean-spiritedness and feigned outrage is reminiscent of the campaigns to scare away the advertisers of radio hosts Glenn Beck and Don Imus. The difference is the Shadow Complex protesters sound like they would indeed like to play the game, while the anti-radio protesters don't actually listen to those programs.

Other superficial video game protests included a push to not release Devil May Cry 4 on the Xbox 360 and a general whine-in that Left 4 Dead 2 came out too quickly after the first title.

When did gay marriage become the litmus test for human decency? Don't get me wrong, I'm a strong supporter of gay marriage and it will be a victory when it becomes the norm. That being said, it is not equal to the American civil rights struggle that peaked in the 1960's.

Some on the left try to compare the quest for the rights of blacks to the modern gay rights movement. You can't compare an era of reckless racial violence and oppression to a period with rude talk from religious figures. Indeed, it seems some on the left have a nostalgia for the civil rights struggle - when good and evil was easy to see - and wish they'd had the chance to participate in that noble effort.

While Card is on the wrong side of the gay marriage debate, his view is actually pretty common and his involvement in Shadow Complex is minimal. In addition, Card's view on gay marriage is completely separate from the Shadow Complex experience - one has to read up online to know anything on the subject.

Compare that to some of the direct progressive political messages in video games. The Mirror's Edge intro cutscene includes a left-wing fable about the evil police state beating up peaceful protesters. Every Mass Effect subplot involving a corporation reveals they have zero ethical standards and break the law whenever it can result in higher profits. Even the Fallout universe has an intact Republican party to draft evil presidents from.

While these sort of views may make me groan, I have learned that video games are just one more place I have to tolerate different ideas. Perhaps the people who really want to play Shadow Complex, but won't allow themselves to, haven't learned this lesson yet.


Friday, December 18, 2009

Youth rebellion takes dressy turn

A New York times piece on young men dressing better than their parents outside of work raises an interesting question.
Today the well-off 55-year-old is likely to be the worst-dressed man in the room, wearing a saggy T-shirt and jeans. The cash-poor 25-year-old is in a natty sport coat and skinny tie bought at Topman for a song...

“I think it’s a reaction against the homogeneity of casual wear,” said Gordon Henderson, the design director of Topman. “There’s nowhere to go with that in terms of personality, whereas a suit sets you apart. And now there are suits that are cut for young people. There’s never been that before, so it’s new to them.”
Why has youthful rebellion always been restricted to a narrow template of automatically rejecting societal norms and the signs of achievement?

I remember a class in high school categorized our political views and I was shocked to find myself in the dreaded republican camp. I didn't know any of the positions the different parties or philosophies took, but I had it in my head that Republicans were the bad guys in Washington. It was just the natural thing to believe after hearing all the jokes and snide remarks over the years.

As I came to terms with this, I realized that youthful rebellion was sort of stupid and predictable. Instead of taking it in the direction MTV wanted me to go, I ended up rebelling against my generation.

In college I started wearing suits, ties and vests for fun. I got it into my head after watching the scene in Trainspotting where Sick Boy dresses up for the big heroin deal. After college, I was the one guy in my newspaper office who regularly wore a tie. I now own more suits than pairs of jeans.

It's interesting to me that more of my generation has come around on this issue, although it took them a little longer to get here.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

More proof health care reform is needed

An econ blog entry from the New York Times makes a good argument for why some form of health care reform is needed.

I hear a lot of people on the right say America has the best health care system in the world. I think what they mean is America has the best health technology. Although a bad reform plan would destroy further innovations in health technology, the focus is on the way we distribute that technology. That's what the issue is about today - changing our health care insurance laws.

The current system is heavily regulated and filled with flaws. It is not, as some on the left assume, a market-based system. While our current system does encourage some technological innovations, it could still be better and the GOP is currently backed in a corner where they have to fight a nationalized health industry.

Unfortunatly, this fight, while important, takes the form of preserving our current system - and our current system of health care distribution is flawed.

Thanks to Brad Delong for the link.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Can you spot the fallacy?

Allstate has been making a claim on television for a little while and today they mailed it directly to me.

There was a logic failure in Allstate's premise that jumped right out at me. Do you see it too?

"Nearly 7 out of 10 customers who switched their auto insurance to Allstate paid less. In fact, drivers who switched saved an average of $396 per year!"

Someone who reads this quickly may believe seven out of 10 people will save money by switching to Allstate, but that's not what it's saying. The figure listed only considers the people who did switch, not the entire pool of potential customers.

Here's a possible scenario: Gordon already has car insurance, but thinks about switching to Allstate. He gives Allstate his information and the quote reveals that switching would cost him more money than staying with his current insurance company. Gordon does not switch, and is therefore not calculated in the advertisement.

Jack, on the other hand, has a different driving record and lifestyle and is given a quote from Allstate that will save him money. He gets counted in the "Nearly" seven out of 10. Because he'll save money, it's reasonable to see why he switched.

Unfortunately, this figure doesn't tell us how much of the population is like Jack and how much is like Gordon. It doesn't even tell us if the people who switched opted for less coverage.

When you strip away the clever wording, the only thing Allstate has told us that it is indeed possible to save money by switching to their service, but winning customers with that lead is a hard sell.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Most people have good intentions

One thing I have a hard time tolerating is when I hear an activist speak about the secret evil intentions of their opposition.

How many times did I hear that George W. Bush was making all of his policy decisions to help the oil companies? What about Republicans who were "obstructing" the government health care plan in congress to help the insurance industry. From the right we hear people say President Barack Obama is purposely trying to destroy the American economy with welfare state programs.

The big assumption these people make is that the opposition agrees with them on economic matters. For example, that President Obama believes a government-run health care program would cripple the American economy and drive up costs because he wants to orchestrate a post-America totalitarian state. Perhaps he also dons Abe Lincoln's hat and twirls his mustache while tying women to train tracks.

But here's the rub - reasonable people disagree on some pretty big subjects. Economists are split pretty close to the middle on the impact of minimum wages. About half believe they help poor people by raising their income, the other half believe they destroy jobs that unskilled, impoverished people can hold.

But outsiders - most of whom haven't bothered to learn the issue in any great detail - say the other side is lying to cover a hidden agenda. The anti-minimum wage economists were bribed by corporations, they may say, or the pro-minimum wage economists are part of a secret socialist cabal.

Look at the rancor around the reputations of John Maynard Keynes and Milton Friedman in political discussions. Conservative activist David Horowitz includes Keynes' book "The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money" on his list of 50 worst books of the 20th century. Conversely, the mere mention of Friedman's name is enough to bare the teeth of any sociology grad student.

But the economists aren't on board for either of those extremes.

Bradford Delong and Greg Mankiw identify themselves as students of both Keynes and Friedman, saying that although the two economists disagreed on some policy directions, both shaped our understanding of modern economics. Friedman picked up where Keynes left off and you need to read both to understand the world.

While Keynes and Friedman disagreed on a lot of policy decisions, they both shared the scientist's role of trying to find the truth. Both of them made political recommendations that they thought were in the best interest of everyone.

But sometimes good intentions aren't enough. The law of unintended consequences shows that very good people, with the noblest of intentions, can do some pretty terrible things.

Take socialist Julius Nyerere, the first president of
Tanzania. Nyerere, a former teacher, was a wise man of great integrity. His priority was to help the people of his nation - a rare leader in the corrupt African political world. Unfortunately, his collectivist policies destroyed the Tanzanian agricultural industry.

Nyerere is best remembered by his send-off from The Economist following his death in 1999:
“He was a magnificent teacher: articulate, questioning, stimulating, caring. He should never have been given charge of an economy.”
My favorite line from the 2008 presidential debates is when Barack Obama said that his opponent John McCain really does think his policies would help America, but "He just doesn't get it."

Funny, that's exactly what I think about President Obama.


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Sci-Fi Socialism

The biggest flaw of a planned society is information. My compatriots will usually say the flaw is the lack of incentive to spend other peoples' money responsibly, or the different values people place on things. Both of these points are valid, but they are smaller hurdles than the information problems.

The big problem is that information is not centralized, and a central planner doesn't know the best way to distribute all resources. As Sean Masaki Flynn wrote of the Soviet Union:

"The entire problem is far too complex and requires too much information to be solved. The result was that resources were constantly being misdirected and wasted. For instance, food often rotted at farms because no railcar had been scheduled to take it to cities; the officials hadn't accounted for an early harvest, and the railcars were busy elsewhere. In a price system, the farmers would have simply paid to bid the railcars away from other uses. This solution wasn't possible in a centralized economy in which prices weren't used to allocate resources.
However, as much as I agree with this, one thought has always stood out - what if someone designed an intelligent computer program that could include every detail of every persons waking life? Wouldn't that solve the problem better than capitalism.

Like many hypothetical solutions, it turns out someone already thought of this plan - and implemented it in 1970's socialist Chile. That brings us to the link I stumbled upon today that inspired this post. Project Cybersyn was an attempt to rule an economy from a digital center.

So how well did it work?

Awful. It didn't work at all. Partially because of tech limits of the day, and partially because the focus was making a project that looked like it would work, instead of actually making it work.

But if Cybersyn had both of those problems what would happen if they were fixed? What if we had modern computers, or even futuristic computers? Wouldn't that work.

Well, no. This still doesn't solve the problem of centralizing information. Each person has their own wants and desires that cry out to be satisfied. How can we understand all of those at once? Look at the trouble the government ran into trying to centralize information on it's own "stimulus package."

The only way the government knows how to get information together to its central command is to ask people to fill out forms in great details. We can see how well that turned out. It doesn't look like there's a new way solving this problem - just an existing one.

That solution is capitalism. People will simply spend their money on the wants and desires they find the most important. When they don't have enough money, they will have to make some compromise. This is also a quick response - a lot quicker than the slow wheels of government.

But hey, if you can think of a new system that communicates what resources people needs, takes into account how precious those resources are in relation to the actual important of the desire, and does so in a fast, productive manner that doesn't violates basic human rights standards, than I'm all ears.


Saturday, December 5, 2009

Conservative litmus test

There's been a lot of undeserved attention to a list of supposedly conservative principles grandiosely named the "Resolution on Reagan’s Unity Principle for Support of Candidates." A "true conservative" is supposed to support at least eight list of the ten positions.

Naturally, I expected a bunch of TheoCon blathering about Bibles, taxes and abortion; a dead-serious parody of Glenn Beck's nine principles and 12 values, with the name of The Gipper plastered onto the title for undeserved credibility.

I was hoping to fail out miserably, just to confirm my belief that the Republican party members who speak up are the no-nothing yokels. So how did I do?

Sadly, inconclusive. Two of the issues I honestly couldn't answer with a simple yes or no, and two I disagree with. The list reads:
(1) Smaller government, smaller national debt, lower deficits and lower taxes by opposing bills like Obama’s “stimulus” bill
(2) Market-based health care reform and oppose Obama-style government run healthcare;
(3) Market-based energy reforms by opposing cap and trade legislation;
(4) Workers’ right to secret ballot by opposing card check
(5) Legal immigration and assimilation into American society by opposing amnesty for illegal immigrants;
(6) Victory in Iraq and Afghanistan by supporting military-recommended troop surges;
(7) Containment of Iran and North Korea, particularly effective action to eliminate their nuclear weapons threat
(8) Retention of the Defense of Marriage Act;
(9) Protecting the lives of vulnerable persons by opposing health care rationing and denial of health care and government funding of abortion; and
(10) The right to keep and bear arms by opposing government restrictions on gun ownership
Questions 1 and 2 were basic libertarian fiscal positions, although they really had no cause to mention Obama in the wordings. Free market economics are an eternal concept, Obama is just modern representative of the opposition. Perhaps the authors simply found it politically convenient to paint the alternate view in terms of Obamitude.

The third question doesn't have an easy answer. Can't I support market-based energy solutions without taking a stand on cap and trade? I've studied the issue extensively and it's got a lot of advantages over past legislation. The most obvious being that is solely measures the output of pollution - instead of forcing a specific measure of reducing emissions. Basically, it is a market-based solution, although in a government-regulated arena. I'm not sure where I stand on the issue so I can't say I support that principal.

Questions 4, 5 and 6 are fine, although I don't try to gussy up my opposition to amnesty by saying I'm motivated by protecting legal immigration.

What worse than that is the cowardly working in question 7. In specific that phrase "
particularly effective action" in place of what I can presume means going to war. I'm reminded of my favorite line from George Orwell's essay "Politics and the English Language" just after the sample paragraph of an English professor defending murderous Russian totalitarianism with cloudy wording. Orwell wrote:
“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”
I believe in keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of the Iranian government, which operates under the belief that Allah has given them the right to kill infidels. I believe in going to war for that, if we must. What I don't believe in, however, is lending my name to a principle written like what a human resources manager would say to a crying orphan.

Question 8 I just flat-out disagree with, and as I've said before, is inconsistent with conservative principles. Opposition to gay marriage is about limiting what social contracts adults can make, passing an official interpretation of the Bible and all under a big federal law signed by Bill Clinton (and sadly sponsored by Libertarian Bob Barr)

Question 9 takes something I agree with, keeping payments for abortions private, and grafts it with something unrelated that I don't; opposing rationing. Other possible phrases for rationing: Medical triage, cost-benefit analysis and not putting an infinite value of human life.

Question 10 is an easy one - keeping guns in private hands. It's too bad, because this far in this frustrating list I was really hoping for a third item I could conclusively disagree with.


Thursday, December 3, 2009

Health care wish list

There's a lot of talk today on why health care is so expensive, and there's plenty of explanations being offered. I've heard speakers on the left say its as simple as greedy insurance companies, and speakers on the right say... well, there isn't really a consensus from the right, just a lot of talk about how our current system helps people pretty well and it would be ruined by a government plan.

I've already demolished the silly and intellectually lazy "greed" explanation, and the Republicans are confusing our health care technology with the way it's distributed. Both of these views are wrong, but still dominate the debate today. The truth is, our current system has a lot of problems and needs to be reformed.

With three weeks until the 25th, it would be a Christmas miracle if our representatives could address the following issues that drive health insurance costs up:

*Stop covering routine checkups. Insurance is about spreading the risk of a catastrophe around; a bunch of people pay a little and the ones who are unfortunate get to use it. Instead, we have health care plans that cover yearly checkups, and people have no incentive to shop around for the cheapest doctor. Instead of a restaurant model where you pay for what you take, the American health insurance system is set up like a cruise ship: Once you get your ticket and board the ship, you stuff yourself at the buffet until it hurts to eat. Stop insulating people from these costs.

*Bring higher co payments into the equation. One of the biggest problem we have with is people consuming too many health care products; resource-heavy treatments with few benefits - if any at all. Robin Hanson explains why using more drives up costs, but not health. We need a way to discourage people from taking what they don't need.

*Thwart the insurance oligarchy by allowing people to purchase health insurance from other states. Currently no states allow it, and that's why we don't have a Geico equivalent for health insurance. These silly restrictions bring costs up by blocking competition.

*End mandated coverage requirements. Special interest groups, such as chiropractors, lobby to force insurance companies to provide their services. Chiropractors are like Shriner clowns - silly on the surface, but surrounded by the hurt and writhing. I want to be able to find a health insurance plan that doesn't cover nonsense like spinal massages, magic wands or therapeutic astral projections.

*Provide "death panels." I'm sure they're rather be called triage teams, but there's nothing logical about this right-wing scare tactic against a government-run health care plan. As Milton Friedman said, "Nobody can accept the principal that an infinite value should be put on an individual life." There is a limit on how many resources should go into helping one person, be it in a life-or-death matter or something trivial. It's what the health insurance companies do now, and should continue doing.

*Tax health care benefits. Companies don't "provide" health insurance to their employees - they lower their wages and buy health insurance with the money. One of the reasons companies do this is a tax dodge - this switcheroo currently keeps people from having to pay their full share of taxes, even though health care is just as much a part of their salary as the dollar bills.

*Snag the freeloaders. I suppose it's good that we have legislation that force hospitals to treat everyone, but hospitals have little recourse for people who choose not to pay for health insurance and just head to the Emergency Room when something comes up - knowing they won't have to pay. We could install some kind of debtors prison system or work-release program. Anyone who doesn't like this solution is free to start a charity to pay for those bills.

*Cap malpractice insurance. People don't sue bad doctors for malpractice; they sue doctors they don't like. These lawsuits drive up the cost of being a doctor- even good doctors have to pay an armload to insure against it. Even if this has no impact on insurance rates, this solution comes with the added bonus of keeping money out of the hands of lazy freeloaders and black-hearted lawyers.

*Accept that price increases will not go away. Health technology is unique that instead of getting cheaper over time, like calculators and televisions, the price keeps going up. We have to realize that as we find more and more ways to improve the quality of a life, it will consume more and more resources in line with the complexity.

*Don't cherry pick the examples when talking about other government-run health care programs. There's a lot of talk about how well a government program works in another country. However, there are relevant examples of programs that failed in America. If you want to talk about the strengths of these programs, make sure you address the problems that caused similar programs to fail.

*Solve the pre-existing condition puzzle. This is the big riddle in health insurance. Poor people who already have a health problem can't get coverage for something they already have, but simply forcing health insurance to cover these costs would drive up costs. Just like letting people buy car insurance after an accident, covering pre-existing conditions would discourage people from buying insurance. That defeats the entire idea of insurance. One solution is forcing everyone to buy health insurance, but that didn't work very well in Massachusetts
. I don't know the solution to this problem.

I hope my list is enough to lay the foundation for a good understanding of what's wrong. I make no claim to have the solution to a very complicated problem, but I do believe these concerns need to be part of a real reform.


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Feel good about buying from sweatshops

With the Christmas shopping seasonal in full swing, it's easy to be scared away from buying perfectly good gifts because some activist has told you they were produced by sweatshop labor. For a long time, I thought that's a good caution to factor in. Like most people, I had never heard what economists had to say on the matter, and was unaware that my "moral" position wasn't merely wrong, but harmful as well.

I'd love to be able to punch out the perfect post on why sweatshop labor is the best thing to happen to the people of poor nations, but Paul Krugman already wrote the definitive short essay back in 1997.

Go on, read it. I'll wait right here.

Krugman convincingly states that as bad as sweatshop labor is from our perspective, it's better than the inhumane labor alternatives the workers would otherwise be doing. It also has the unintended consequences of improving the standard of living for the poorest of the world's poor - something foreign aid has failed to do.

Krugman isn't alone in this view. Other liberal econ bigwigs such as J. Bradford Delong and Jeffrey Sachs have not been shy about the positive effects of sweatshops, although Krugman has the harshest words for the opposition.

The Nicholas D. Kristof piece from the Delong link probably has the best introduction line for sweatshops:
They should start an international campaign to promote imports from sweatshops, perhaps with bold labels depicting an unrecognizable flag and the words "Proudly Made in a Third World Sweatshop!"
I've seen plenty of liberal churches host bazaars selling handmade third-world crafts, such as wicker baskets and wooden bookends, with the intention of drumming up business for the impoverished artisans. However, the same feeling of generosity isn't there when someone buys a top-notch pair of GAP Original Khakis. Still, the money is going to help the same sort of person, although perhaps one who was not blessed with artistic talents.

On that subject, Krugman closed his aforementioned 1997 piece with the following: long as you have no realistic alternative to industrialization based on low wages, to oppose it means that you are willing to deny desperately poor people the best chance they have of progress for the sake of what amounts to an aesthetic standard--that is, the fact that you don't like the idea of workers being paid a pittance to supply rich Westerners with fashion items.
Couldn't have said it better (or as harshly) if I wanted to. Happy holiday shopping, and please remember to buy global.