Thursday, December 30, 2010

Government privilege

While attempting to call a state government 1-800 number, I was forced to listen to a long message being slowly read before hearing any menu options. It didn't really matter, all choices lead to a second long, slow message that included "due to high call volume we are unable to take your call at this time" and then automatically hung up on me. No option to be put on hold for an hour like usual - just a dial tone.

Imagine the outrage if a private company tried something like that.

Monday, December 27, 2010

A better survey for media ratings

A reader wrote a reply about the flawed study that proposed to show Fox News misinforms the public. Because Blogger is having some comment section problems right now, the reply was emailed and I have reproduced it in its entirety:
It is irrelevant to the Obama-tax question whether or not deficits are future taxes. The fact is taxes have not gone up under President Obama; that was the question and most people got it wrong.

That said, the study takes a small correlation and goes much too far with it, especially since its entire methodology sucks. Of course, we always have other studies to show how misinformed FOX News viewers are. And is there any question about that? Does anyone doubt that those who watch FOX News as their primary news source - and especially if it's their only news source - are getting bad information or highly selective information? Nobody goes to that channel to actually see anything fair and/or balanced.

(Also, I find Klein saying that to agree to the statement that "American companies exploit workers overseas" is to be unenlightened rather...cute. It's such an ambiguous question. Does it mean all companies? Most? Just some? At least 2? Are we talking about American companies taking advantage of cheap goods from China where workers and especially child workers are not treated well? And what does "exploit" mean? Surely it can be argued that most companies exploit most workers, especially young ones. Should we be applying some ethical theories to this question in order to derive an answer? The others parts of the survey seem reasonable, but this question is just doltish.)

While I still insist that the tax question was worded poor enough to attract wrong answers, like the Palm Beach butterfly ballots were designed poor enough to fetch incorrect votes, I think Michael is right - people who want biased news get it, and Fox News is one of those outlets. The study he linked was exactly what I insisted would show a misinformed public; general questions about the news, such as who is the president of Russia.

Interesting to note that the study showed Fox News viewers a little bit behind CNN viewers, but it showed the most informed were fans of The Daily Show, PBS, Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh.

As an occasional Limbaugh listener, I think it's clear why - he dissects the news stories of the day, often in great detail. It'd be hard to listen and not pick up who Nancy Pelosi is. I imagine the same is true for Daily Show and O'Reilly viewers. I suspect the PBS watchers are a self-selected group who happen to follow things closer, but that's conjecture.

Unfortunately, MSNBC viewers were not listed for comparison. I'd be curious to see how they panned out, as I wonder if self-selected political extremists bring down the numbers for both sets of viewers. It's also possible that some of these viewers only tune in for commentary shows, and miss some of the questions asked, such as the name of their state governor.

Even if it does, that effect may be small and I think this study makes a real case for biased new stations like Fox concentrating too much on following a political narrative then on informing the public.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repealed

This morning President Obama just officially ended the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy.

Good. What more is there to say?

Update: My friend Mark asks, "The big question, on repeal of DADT, is what excuse will the universities use NOW to prevent ROTC recruiting on campus?"

He's right, they will find something.


Monday, December 20, 2010

Political Science

‎Greek historian Thucydides wrote,
When a man finds a conclusion agreeable, he accepts it without argument, but when he finds it disagreeable, he will bring against it all the forces of logic and reason.
Both edges of that sword come up when a study makes the rounds online claiming a failed mind is responsible for conservative political positions. Be it lower IQs or outright derangement, these studies will try to show that certain positions are wrong indirectly by marginalizing those who believe them. These studies are automatically accepted among the bitter left and instantly challenged by the right.

Some flaws are more obvious then others. A study claiming conservatism is a mental illness claimed Joseph Stalin was a right winger and antisemitism is an entirely right-wing concept.

The study making the rounds this month claims Fox News misinforms viewers about current events, but the questions it asked appear hand-picked to the flatter the left and challenge the right. Someone who draws zero information from their news source and simply answered with their political beliefs would have the same result with these carefully-selected questions.

For specific examples, click to enlarge the following charts from the study:

This is the same criticism the left presented this Spring when Daniel Klein released a survey showing the left flunked Econ 101 because they didn't understand things like the minimum wage can harm people with low skills. The self-identified libertarians and republicans were not asked questions with challenging answers and scored much higher.

This is not a study that took blank people, exposed them to either news source, and then gauged what they learned. It assumes viewing certain news sources causes opinions when it merely correlates with them because right wingers become Fox viewers and left wingers tune in to MSNBC.

The study tried to deflect this criticism by claiming that democrat voters who watch Fox News showed more negative results than other democrats, but again this can be explained as an artifact of self-selection. A democrat who chooses to watch Fox News is more likely to be a moderate and provide the answers the researchers didn't like.

As for what should people answer correctly, the study failed again. Researchers took a number of debatable issues and declared the left-friendly answer was the correct one. How did they go about determining what is absolute metaphysical truth? They hit up debatable and flawed government agencies for the answers:

In the course of this study, to identify “misinformation” among voters, we used as reference points the conclusions of key government agencies that are run by professional experts and have a strong reputation for being immune to partisan influences. These include the Congressional Budget Office, the Department of Commerce, and the National Academy of Sciences. We also noted efforts to survey elite opinion, such as the regular survey of economists conducted by the Wall Street Journal; however, we only used this as supporting evidence for what constitutes expert opinion.
Since when does the CBO have a reputation for being immune to partisan influences? Since when does the CBO even have a reputation for being correct? It doesn't change anything that they got their facts from the Wall Street Journal. Some of these positions are highly contested, even if 50 percent plus one of economists are on one side. For example:

"Only 10% of voters believe their taxes have gone down under President Obama. In fact, over 97% of Americans paid less in taxes in the Obama administration then they did under the Bush administration. 38% of voters believed their taxes went up under the Obama administration."

Some short term taxes went down under Obama, but long term taxes must go up because Deficits Are Future Taxes. This reads like a dumbed-down press release from the administration, not an uncompromising statement of the truth.

"68% of Americans said the stimulus package saved or created only a few jobs. 20% said that the stimulus caused a loss of jobs. Only 8% said the stimulus saved or created millions of jobs. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates the stimulus saved or created anywhere between 2.0 to 5.2 million jobs. A survey of economist from The Wall Street Journal found that the stimulus had a "net positive effect" on growth."

This is a poor question to ask because it ignores the jobs destroyed by the taxes needed to pay for it. Displaced jobs is erroneously recorded as created jobs. The Wall Street Journal survey in question had 38 out of 54 economists answer in the affirmative and from the following paragraphs they seemed to be speaking in the short run. In effect, they are counting the visible and ignoring the invisible because that's how the question was asked. They are declaring the truth based on a small newspaper survey of 54 experts.

Read all the questions. Most of these are designed to make President Obama look good to the right. Those questions that were challenging to the left, like the voting record of TARP among democrats, had the same results of misinformation. Why would anyone expect the results to be any different with these questions?

This study was a collection of questions about which political positions are correct, it was not a survey of random news events as its being promoted. The only thing it proved is that people believe in the major opinions that other people with similar views belief; a tautological conclusion. It is useless in answering how informed various viewers are.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Why so many Obama comic books?

A friend shared an interesting article about some of the weirdest comic books featuring president Obama in some weird setting, such as a jungle or alien invasion.

My theory to why there are so many of them is that the president is a popular character that no one holds the rights to. He is both well-known, well-liked by the target audience and in the public-domain.

Popeye is well-known, has a good reputation, but he's not in the public domain. If he was free from copyright restrictions, we should expect to see him linked to a lot of products. Paradoxically, as a fictional character enters the public domain I would expect to see them used very little as their cultural relevance has probably passed. For example, Alexander Dumas's three musketeers first appeared in 1844 but outside of a chocolate bar and the occasional movie they are rarely used to sell products.

President Obama, however, is still culturally relevant and very much in the public domain

While a comic book could feature a celebrity like Bono, that might run into trouble if Bono wanted to do his own comic series - possibly about him yelling about stopping supervillains without actually following through.

I doubt that trouble would come up with a sitting president who wishes to be taken seriously, and politicians are a different kind of public figure than entertainers. Now that President Obama comics have been shown to be a safe trend, you can expect more people to jump on board.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

"You're smart, it's everyone who agrees with you that's stupid"

A lot of my friends are liberals and as such I regularly witness conservative bashing, either in person or over the Internet. What's odd is I will have a friend go from telling me how much they respect me and and my intellect, to immediately sneering at everyone who holds the same views I do.

One moment I will be a shining star, and the next I'll hear how everyone who stands up for issue X is stupid, evil, insincere and even insane, even if they know I support X.

Even more telling is the open hostility I'll get from friends of friends who see something I write in an online conversation. It's as if I had just donned a Klansman robe. I realize peoples online interactions can be ruder than in person, but there should be more constraint when you know a loved one is friends with the person and will probably see everything you write.

So in that spirit, here are some views I strongly, sincerely hold that a big chunk of my friends associate with being an evil, greedy dolt:

I believe the Tea Party is correct in all the major issues they advocate politically. I don't call myself a member, but I went to the first protest on April 15, 2009 at our state capitol. I was given a turn at the microphone and told the crowd exactly what I thought and was applauded heavily. I told them I think public protests are a waste of time but since we're here we now have an opportunity to network with each other and exchange contact information.

I attended because I expected to see a caricature of the protests online and in the news, which has proven true. Critics simply cherry pick a few statements or protest signs from nutcases to mischaracterize the group.

I find claims that opposition to President Obama is motivated by racism to be shallow and wishful thinking. I think he is a weak president and fundamentally fails to understand how the world works. In addition, my biggest problem with George W. Bush was his big-government economic policies. I didn't like his social conservatism either, but that's secondary.

I support the free market and capitalism. I think it's the government that creates monopolies and if capitalism can handle a problem then it should be used instead of governmental interference. For example, I oppose all price gouging restrictions, as they harm people's ability to get the supplies they need.

I want America to try a free-market based health care system. I think it's government interference that inflates the cost of health care and college education and it's government interference that caused the current recession. I think welfare programs and the minimum wage cause poverty. I think foreign aid harms the poor while sweatshops help them.

I don't like government programs that help small businesses at the expense of large ones. I have zero problem with factory farming and I oppose subsidizing small farms, as I see no virtue in them. The only sustainability problem I'm worried about is Social Security.

I think fascism is a form of socialism and I think the Nazis had a lot in common with the American progressive movement at the time, as outlined in Jonah Goldberg's book Liberal Fascism and while I don't think most of the left are socialists, I think some of their policies are.

I think Karl Marx cemented his entire philosophy on the unrepresentative city of Manchester and lacked the intellectual discipline to change his mind when proven wrong. I don't think he contributed anything of importance and his popularity in colleges is a scandal.

I think the media has a liberal bias. I don't think it's a conscious plot, and it also tends to side with underdogs and people who are willing to talk. I don't think Fox News has reached some sort of peak of bias, and I see it as no worse than PBS, CNN or MSNBC.

I am glad the Supreme Court ended the ban on corporate speech and I have no problem with wealth inequality. I love guns, meat, genetically modified food, fast food and Walmart.

I think the biggest threat to freedom of speech is the left. Occasionally I listen to Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh, although I prefer Russ Roberts, Mike Munger, Tyler Cowen, Don Boudreaux, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Frédéric Bastiat , George Will and Charles Krauthammer.

I think high speed rail, net neutrality, green energy, alternative medicine, organic food and protecting American jobs are boondoggles. I oppose politically correct speech, third-wave feminism, labor unions, all bond issues, media pirating and anti-discrimination laws (with the exception of bans of discrimination by government employees.)
So dear friends, you have a choice to make. Either change your notion that holding a selection of these ideas qualifies someone for villianhood, or significantly lower your opinion of my intellect and motivations.

Sure, I'm leaving out some of my other views - like support of gay marriage, drug legalization and open borders - but none of the quick dismissals I'm writing about include a person's entire body of views

This reminds me of my favorite Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn quote:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

I think the biggest factor in dismissing people with opposing political beliefs is the prejudice and stereotyping of rival groups demonstrated in the Robbers Cave experiment of 1954. Two competing groups of strangers quickly became hostile to each other. They perceived their own faction as a diverse cluster of individuals, but saw the other group as homogeneous and interchangeable.

What better way to describe America's left and right. Politics cannot be reduced to a simple good versus evil battle. It's an impossibly complex mess of balancing endless value judgments. It's not easy and waxing superiority over your opponents is an exercise in vanity. A real flexing of intellectual muscles comes in understanding ideas one disagrees with, instead of assuming the worst of motives for their supporters.

Update: I am not criticizing conservative bashing - I do it too. I'm calling attention to people who tell me "you're different" and I see that as mere extension of tribalism - that I'm not different, and they are imagining some right-wing bogeyman holds all of these beliefs. The only reason they see me differently is they have met me. People's responses are very different to strangers with identical beliefs to mine, such as my example with hostile friends of friends.


Saturday, December 11, 2010

We're losing a science

This week the American Anthropological Association officially stopped considering its goals to be scientific in nature, exposing the world to a civil war within the discipline between evidence-based researchers and social activists.

Dr. Peregrine, who is at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, said in an interview that the dropping of the references to science “just blows the top off” the tensions between the two factions. “Even if the board goes back to the old wording, the cat’s out of the bag and is running around clawing up the furniture,” he said.

He attributed what he viewed as an attack on science to two influences within anthropology. One is that of so-called critical anthropologists, who see anthropology as an arm of colonialism and therefore something that should be done away with. The other is the postmodernist critique of the authority of science. “Much of this is like creationism in that it is based on the rejection of rational argument and thought,” he said. is a science blog, as I spend most of my focus on the social science of economics. I love science and economics is my major field of interest, but it wasn't always this way. I was a sociology minor in college but I grew frustrated with the discipline when I kept seeing weak arguments that appeared to be more politically motivated than scientific.

The gender wage gap is the perfect example. My sociology professors kept drilling into my head that it can only be explained by discrimination. I learned on my own that male and female employees and the jobs they gravitate towards have different qualities. Even if discrimination is a factor, it is one of many. There wasn't even a mention of this important view in any of my classes. The sociology argument was a simple correlation-equals-causation yarn and it's widespread acceptance shook my faith in the discipline and I left.

Perhaps social sciences are doomed to be hamstrung by political bias. Look at the peer-reviewed psychology study that concluded that conservative politics are a mild form of derangement. It sloppily claimed that Stalin was a conservative and anti-Semitism is a "right-wing cause." History books don't do a good job of presenting events from multiple perspectives. Even my beloved economics is vulnerable to political bias, and I don't mean just the Keynsians. The freshwater economists are just as likely to be blinded by their world view.

What's happening to anthropology is a scandal. Science is getting in the way of the story the social activists are trying to tell, and research with a desired outcome has a habit of misrepresenting reality. Postmodernists deserve no place in academia, let alone anthropology. They manage to be both pretentious and anti-intellectual at the same time. My heart goes out to the pro-science anthropologists.


Friday, December 10, 2010

This is what opposition to free speech looks like

I love sites like because, for free, they will host video clips I want to see without adding any comments. Sometimes they even type up the transcripts for me. We all love to see someone takes a brave stand and says something that's potentially unpopular, and Media Matters gives them a soapbox.

But unfortunately that's not all Media Matters wants to do. This week it hired an activist who harasses Glenn Beck advertisers in an effort to get his television and radio shows off the air. Angelo Carusone says 302 companies have stopped advertising with Beck since he started his campaign. That's a classic post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy because presumably Carusone and his followers have repeatedly contacted all of Beck's advertisers on both shows, and advertisers routinely change when and where they place ads. Some of them would have left on their own.

As is usually the case with anti-speech crusaders, Carusone claims he's not trying to gag people with different opinions, he just believes Beck is lying and wants him off the air. That doesn't pass the straight-face test. The solution to bad speech is more speech, not silence. Any campaign to take someone off the air by targeting their advertisers is an anti-free speech campaign. If someone is lying, prove it.

I don't want to trust someone else to figure out what messages I should be allowed to hear. That's why anti-free speech campaigns are not just an assault on the speaker - they are an attack on every potential listener. I don't care if everything Glenn Beck has ever said is a willing lie - the decision to hear it should belong to me.

One line from the article that convinced me this is something I need to post and save for the archives wasn't about free speech, but it was just too good to let go. Media Matters CEO David Brock said:

"Advertisers need to be aware that they are funding a network that promotes a climate of fear and suspicion that could lead to another Oklahoma City [bombing]."

Irony is lost on some people. Using fear mongering to end a sentence accusing others of fear mongering is amazing.


Thursday, December 9, 2010

Economic Reality Check #4

There is no difference between saying a Mexican immigrant took your job and saying a resident of China took your job.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Wikileaks question

If Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is executed, who will leak the video of his death?

Can't believe I'm praising a lawyer

Stranger things have happened.

I can only describe as having a pro-pirating stance. The blog links a lot of articles defending people getting sued for pirating material. This week they linked Eric Ruth's response to a cease and desist letter. Ruth took down a version of the game DJ Hero he modified using 8-bit graphics to make the game look like it came out in the 1980s.

Clearly, making a free version of someone else's intellectual property with a slight cosmetic change is copyright infringement. It robs the owner of the property, which is either someone who created it or paid them for it. Ruth, on the other hand, never got that lesson and feels entitled to use other people's property. In this case, both the game and the music it features. He wrote:
In fact, the game may even be helping to sell some copies of music, which of course, benefits you in the end. Anyhow, I’ve used other “copyrighted” material in the past and have gotten no flack from it. This is the first time a C&D has ever reached my desk, and while I will honor it, I will also be honest with you about how I feel in regards to it. “It blows.”

I've never respected that gambit, that they should tolerate infringement because there's a chance it will pay off in the end. That decision belongs to the copyright holder, no one else. It should be their call to make. If they agree that it will benefit them, they will allow others to use it. No one else gets to make that decision for then.

But my real point, the one I pointed to in this post's title, is the lawyer's short, sweet reply.

US law is US law. If you think "it blows," write your Congressman.

Best regards,
J. Grannis

Well said.


Economic Reality Check #3

Total wealth can not be increased by being purposely inefficient.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

No discount for Rock Band song repurchases

Video game fans always make a fuss when a developer charges them for something, even if it's completely justified, so it feels weird for me to be on their side this time.

I support companies that charge users to access parts of the game that are included on the disc. I don't have any problem with using downloadable content to kill the used game market. I think the legions of forum rats feel they are entitled to the whole carnival just because they bought an entrance ticket. Usually they're wrong. This time, they have a point.

But this time is different.

Here's the scoop: Harmonix makes the Rock Band video game series where players use fake instruments to simulate playing popular songs. Besides the songs on the disc, players can pay to download additional songs. Players can also pay to export songs from older versions of the games onto their hard drives, so they don't need to swap discs around to play those songs.

This fall Harmonix released Rock Band 3 which includes a new instrument, the keyboard, and songs with multiple singers, known as harmonies. All of the old DLC works in this game, it just doesn't include keyboards or harmony parts. A lot of the older songs like Queen and Bon Jovi featured them musically, but nothing was programmed in to make them interactive.

So that's where the trouble starts. Harmonix said they did plan to add keyboard and harmonies to "legacy" songs, but were unsure how they would charge for them. The three major options to upgrade songs to include the new parts were:

*Upgrades will be free.

*Upgrades will cost a fee, but it will be less than the cost of purchasing a new song.

*Songs will be re-relased entirely and no discount will be given to customers who purchased the original version of the song.

This morning Harmonix re-released several Queen songs using the third option. A lot of fans expressed their anger on the official forum when the pricing scheme was confirmed at the end of last week. Again, this is exactly how they respond when the cost is entirely justified. This time is different.

I was hoping they would choose the second option, and I think it would have been the best solution. We got a preview that they were going with the third option a few weeks ago when some Bon Jovi songs were re-released the same way, but fans said it wasn't a big deal because all of the legacy songs were exported disc songs bundled together with a large swathe of other tracks - not DLC that fans individually chose. They were hoping it would be different for legacy DLC.

Making the upgrades free would have been entirely unrealistic. As other fans have discussed, it takes resources to engineer these upgrades. Harmonix deserves to be paid for the work it does. I expected the price of new songs to rise about the $2 standard rate, as they now require more work to create each song. Harmonix kept the price the same, and they deserve credit for it.

Harmonix also has a way of upgrading their new songs. They've introduced a special realistic guitar controller with actual strings, and it costs an extra $1 to upgrade new DLC songs to get the "pro guitar" upgrade. That's why I imagined paying an extra $1 to upgrade legacy songs.

But apparently that is not possible, engineering-wise. I've seen several references in the official forum to Harmonix claiming it's not possible to upgrade legacy DLC or to know what songs the user has purchased. Also, the contracts Harmonix makes with the rights-holder of the songs may not allow it. I can't find an official statement anywhere, but let's assume they said it. This raises several questions.

Is it really impossible, or did they just not find a feasible and cheap way to do it?My Xbox Live account is aware of which DLC I purchased. Is there really no way to access that information?

I realize that post-Rock Band 3 DLC can be upgraded, but I'm aware that the files are very different for the new DLC songs. If the old tracks can not receive upgrades, is there a way to patch the files to make it possible? Since they invented the file types, didn't they already know this six months ago when they would not reveal the pricing strategy?

Would Harmonix be open to letting the fans pool some money together with a PayPal account to put up a reward for someone to solve the technical problem? I imagine a few code monkeys would be tempted by reward money to solve the problem and if one of them succeeded, would Harmonix agree to change plans?

This pricing option is a recipe for a major public relations setback. Music games peaked in sales a few years ago and the genre leader doesn't need to take any risks. I think Harmonix should make a stand here and explain the technical hurdles they claim forced their hand in choosing this payment option. Their website does not have an easy-to-find statement, and I have not seen one released anywhere else. Either they are keeping quiet when they shouldn't, or they are speaking very softly.

Perhaps the company is afraid speaking up would draw more attention to the situation. That's a risky strategy and we'll see how it works out. I don't think they made the right choice.

I have to admit that when I purchased the older versions of songs, I made a deal with Harmonix. They gave me a product I thought was worth $2. They promised me nothing more. This is why I find myself on the same side with the complainers, but still don't feel like one of them. They have a point, but that doesn't make them entirely right.

A lot of this is a reflection of the nontransferable nature of DLC. A fraction of the legacy DLC I purchased in the past is redundant and if it was any other product I could sell it or give it away. Instead it's a sunk cost.

I don't feel like Harmonix owes me the upgrade option, but I am disappointed I didn't get it. That's as close to their side as I'll get.


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Economic Reality Check #2

The purpose of work is to produce something of value. It is not to keep people busy.

Economic Reality Check #1

The cost per unit produced is more important than the labor cost.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

More applications of putting a cost on lives

My last post was about making difficult trade-offs of things we all find important; human lives, money, safety, education and freedom.

After posting it I've been surprised to how many different stances can be boiled down by someones refusal to make one of those trade-offs. They assume their current level of something we all value is optimal, and will not accept anything to compromise it just a little. It's not that we don't value the things they seek to preserve, it's that we value the things we would gain even more.

Another way of looking at this is the Nirvana Fallacy, where only solutions with no trade-offs will be accepted, even if it means suffering from horrible preventable harm. Here are some more examples:

Everyone wants to keep their children from dying from a direct medical intervention, but some of them care so much that they are unwilling to expose their children to a tiny amount of risk. Vaccines protect children from larger, likelier, deadlier threats.

Most people want our military to be as effective as possible, but some believe allowing gays to serve openly could lower that effectiveness. They are unwilling to risk any changes in effectiveness, even if we will gain civil rights as a result.

Nobody wants the poor to be stuck collecting unemployment benefits or to drive taxes up, but some people think that risk is worth it to keep families from starving.


No one wants anyone to suffer because they lost their job as a result of the recession, but how much is that worth compared to a guaranteed raise in taxes and disincentive to look for work which harms everyone?

As I said last time, "Imagine spending all your time collecting crosses, stakes and holy water only to be mutilated by werewolves." All threats are threats, and rankings should not be absolute and uncompromising.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

We must put a price on human lives

I don't know how many times I've heard people speak out against institutions they claim puts a price tag on human lives. Both anti-corporation and anti-government activists accuse their foes of valuing money more than humanity.

When a car company declines to install a safety device, that's putting a price on human lives. During the 2008 debates Sarah Palin declared a national health care program would use "death panels" to decide which lives are worth saving.

But coming at these issues from the economic mindset, the real scandal would be car companies that install every safety device possible and the horror of a national health care program would not be in having death panels, it would be in not having them.

This principle of only saving lives if the cost is low enough is well accepted with most people, they just don't realize it. It takes three different forms I will focus on in decreasing order of popularity.

Risking lives to save more lives

At the cost of a few lives, you will save many more lives.

This is straight-up utilitarianism. If three hundred people have a deadly disease that will kill them in less than a week, and you have a drug that will cure it outright but also kill two or three of the patients, you give it to them.

This is a no-brainer. At the cost of a few lives you have saved hundreds. You're exposing people to a little risk to avoid a bigger risk. This is the idea behind vaccines, airbags, triage and a lot of other things. You're trading risk for risk, and on the average you win. There is little controversy when people properly understand what the stakes are.

Risking lives to save quality of life

At the cost of a few lives, you will improve the quality of many lives.

There are things that anyone can do to lower their risk of a specific cause of death. As oncologist Dr. David Gorski wrote, there's a lot of danger in riding an automobile, playing sports and even swimming. Foregoing these activities will increase safety, but is it worth it? What about eating salads for every meal, wearing a helmet at all times and never leaving the house?

Some of these actions will expose the actor to other risks, such as a weak body, malnutrition or poverty, but the main factor is the quality of life. Lenore Skenazy writes about how the obsession with child safety is ruining childhood on her blog Free-Range Kids. This principle was the focus of my recent piece on invasive searches for airline travelers. Sure, it may eventually save a few lives, but at the cost of harming the quality of millions of lives.

Now some people do think the harm of the TSA searches is worth it for the extra protection we get. I must ask, are they really disagreeing with the principle, or just the price? What if the searches were more invasive? I imagine terrorists would have a difficult time getting weapons on a plane if all passengers were naked and had no carry-ons. Would that cost be worth it too? If not, then they clearly agree with the principle I'm presenting.

Risking lives to save money

At the cost of a few lives, you will save a lot of money.

This is where people start to back away. Philosopher Peter Singer recently wrote that because most people can agree that extending someones life a month for the cost of millions of dollars may not be worth the price, they are therefore open to the idea of rationing health care:

Remember the joke about the man who asks a woman if she would have sex with him for a million dollars? She reflects for a few moments and then answers that she would. “So,” he says, “would you have sex with me for $50?” Indignantly, she exclaims, “What kind of a woman do you think I am?” He replies: “We’ve already established that. Now we’re just haggling about the price.” The man’s response implies that if a woman will sell herself at any price, she is a prostitute. The way we regard rationing in health care seems to rest on a similar assumption, that it’s immoral to apply monetary considerations to saving lives — but is that stance tenable?
Milton Friedman made a similar point when asked if its ethical for an automobile company to avoid installing a cheap safety device. He argued that he doesn't know if the cost of the device was worth the limited amount of safety it gave, and it should be up to the customer to decide how much safety they are willing to pay for. At the heart of his response, Friedman said:
Nobody can accept the principal that an infinite value should be placed on an individual life.
So in effect, arguing that a company should install a safety device to combat a specific amount of risk is haggling the price of a human life. It is not rejecting the principle.

Never assume your current level of safety is optimal, so that increasing risk is out of the question.

Say there was a device that made your home 100 percent safe from asteroids. Any space-borne rocks that hit your home will be safely deflected each and every time, and at a cost of $12,000 a year. Of course, asteroids do not pose a substantial risk to the public; a person's chances of being injured or killed by an asteroid in a given year is one in 70 million.

But say you already have the device in place and decided to discontinue it's use. You'd save yourself $1,000 each month, but you'd have to accept the principle that you are increasing your chances of an unnatural death in order to save money. You can't get around this fact, and that's what I mean by not assuming your current level is optimal. If it's right to avoid paying a big fee for a small amount of protection, its no different to cut big costs in exchange for a small increase in risk.

That was my point when I wrote that it doesn't matter if hiring more nurses, teachers or soldiers will improve outcomes if it comes at too high cost. It's possible we have too few nurses, teachers and soldiers, and it's also possible we have too many. We should always be open to changing the number we have, even if it means spending more money or lowering our health, test scores or national security.

It's also important to remember the opportunity cost of protecting ourselves from one threat could leave us vulnerable to another. I have added emphasis to something Carl Sagan wrote in The Pale Blue Dot:

Public opinion polls show that many Americans think the NASA budget is about equal to the defense budget. In fact, the entire NASA budget, including human and robot missions and aeronautics, is about 5 percent of the U.S. defense budget. How much spending for defense actually weakens the country? And even if NASA were cancelled altogether, would we free up what is needed to solve our national problems?

Imagine spending all your time collecting crosses, stakes and holy water only to be mutilated by werewolves. Still, buying one more clove of garlic will make you a little bit safer from Dracula. If we sink too much of our budget in one program, we have to neglect others.

Sacrificing life for money at all costs is indirectly sacrificing quality of life and other lives to save specific lives. Those are all costs as well, and money is just a stand-in for the resources that must be sacrificed. Increasing one form of spending too much will cannibalize the rest of the economy and make everyone worse off. The big question is where that line is drawn.

It's clear that its worth saving a human life when the only cost is the effort of throwing a life preserver overboard, and not worth saving at the cost of all the resources of an entire continent. The extremes are easy, but making decisions at the margin is tough. Finding the optimal point is beyond tricky: it's impossible. No one can discover the value of an unspecified person's life, and any number they come up with will be arbitrary.

Protecting lives comes at a cost, be it in terms of sacrificing other lives, the quality of life or money. This is a single principle, not three separate principles, and one must accept or reject them all.


Sunday, November 28, 2010

Why don't video games encourage carjacking?

A great George Will piece today about Puritanical progressives trying to restrict sales of video games made me wonder, why bother focusing on the impact media has on violence when they're a much easier statistic to isolate.

Violence is a broad concept. It's always been a popular subject in books, movies, music and now video games, and its so vague and universal it's difficult to tease it out what specific factors influence it. If someone reads a book about a shooting spree and then punches someone, didn't he just commit violence after reading about violence?

I have never played a game in the infamous Postal series, nor have I met someone who mentioned playing one. It always gets brought up in news articles, but inside video game circles I've only heard it mentioned in the context of censorship. It's not something people actually seem to pick up and play for fun and sounds more like a slightly-interactive menu than a game.

But that isn't true for the Grand Theft Auto series, which were obscure top-down games until 2001 when they hit on the third-person formula and became popular. Unlike Postal, these are actual games that people play. You know, the kind that present challenges for people to overcome. These games are well made and fun, and as a result became incredibly popular. In May 2008 Grand Theft Auto IV sold almost 3.7 million games on opening day - an industry record until Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.

Grand Theft Auto games notoriously allow players to murder prostitutes, a point never missed by its critics. However, the games have never suggested players do so - they merely present an open world where people can shoot anyone, if they so choose. In the same vein, someone can draw a swastika in MS Paint or write racial slurs in a word document.
The games also feature taxi drivers and there's nothing stopping a player from getting a ride somewhere then shooting the driver to "get their money back," but that point is never made to demonstrate how violent the games allow people to be.

Unlike Postal, the Grand Theft Auto series actually has fans and high sales. It also prominently features a crime no other popular media focuses on - carjacking. You can find murder up and down the library, video store or history book, but video games have a monopoly on carjacking.

So if video games really do encourage players to act out the activities in real life, you would expect a prominent carjacking game like the Grand Theft Auto series to rush in a wave of carjackings.

But they didn't. In fact, carjackings went down from a high in the 1990's. So if the opponents of violent video games could drag up some figures showing a simple correlation between carjackings and carjacking video games, I'd consider their case. But they can't even do that.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Nurses union claim strike is for the good of the patients

...and if you believe that one I have some oceanfront property in Montana for sale.

In Maine this week unionized nurses went on strike claiming that the ratio of nurses to patients is too high, and more nurses should be hired to bring the ratio down. I can understand why a union would want to use strikes to increase their membership levels (and membership dues), but what bothers me is that they are claiming their sole motivation is for the good of the patients.

It reminds me of when unions lobby for higher minimum wages. They frame it as a charitable act for non-members, when in fact its really in their own interest.

The real story is summed up in a 1988 paper by Matthew Kibbe:

As would be expected, labor unions are the main political force behind minimum-wage legislation. Although unions already hold privileged positions in labor markets, minimum wages further increase their gains by raising employers' labor costs. As long as union members earn wages above the minimum rate, their positions are made more secure by the government policy that eliminates those who might undercut the union wage. People willing to work for less than the government's minimum are not allowed into the labor market at all. Indeed, union leader Edward T. Hanley stated in a catering industry employees' publication, 'The purpose of the minimum wage is to . . . provide a floor from which we can upgrade your compensation through collective bargaining.'

So the obvious reason a hospital would not want to hire more nurses is that it's expensive to do so. Nationally, registered nurses command a median wage of $31.99. That adds up to $63,750 a year an hour plus benefits. That's a pretty expensive position to increase.

A friend of a friend was one of the striking nurses and said the following:

It is unsafe for nurses to be working past their 12 hour shift, but many nurses consistently work 16 hour shifts because we are so short staffed. Patients don't always get their medications on time because each nurse commonly has 5-7 patients, which is too many for one person to be able to take care of.

In addition, she said there are numerous studies that show a lower nurse-to-patient ratio results in better outcomes for patients. I completely believe her, but I think it misses a larger point.

It costs money to increase the number of nurses, and that will mean higher health care costs, which will in turn raise the cost of health insurance. But don't hold your breath expecting the union to take responsibility for those increased costs: it will be blamed on the insurance industry.

Increasing the ratio of nurses to patients will probably have even better outcomes if two nurses look after on duty for each patient, but the importance of a cost-benefit analysis becomes even more apparent at that level. More nurses means better patient outcomes, but it is also prone to diminishing returns. There must be some optimal point for the nurse to patient ratio.

And I have no idea what ratio is optimal.

But I have to be skeptical when the people who to push or pull those figures will profit if we take their advice.

When the American automobile CEO's went to Washington DC to ask for a bailout, they didn't frame it as something good for their company. They said it was good for the American public. We knew they were a biased source, and we knew it was foolish to believe them.

I don't know how many nurses we should have at a given hospital, but I do know that the union is hiding behind the patients. I've never heard of a nurses union of asking to reduce the number of nurses when there are too many on duty, and I don't see them offering to lower the wages of nurses so hospitals can afford to hire more. I would rather hear it from someone who doesn't stand to gain from the action they advocate.


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

Of all of our naitonal holidays, Thanksgiving is the one I get into the spirit of the most. I celebrate it with no modern twists or wrinkles, and follow the celebration template to the letter. I eat a big stuffed turkey meal with my family and call it a day.

So as we all sit down to enjoy our traditional American Thanksgiving meal, if any of you have a twinge of fear that immigration is going to influence our culture, I have to say you're exactly right. That turkey you're eating is a Mexican immigrant, and if you're not eating a "Meleagris mexicana" today it's downright Un-American.

Monday, November 22, 2010

FBI: Blacks more likely to commit hate crimes than whites

CNN offered a quick summary of a new FBI hate crime report. Of course, CNN was quick to point out that 62.4 percent of the offenders were white, while 18.5 percent were black.

What they forgot to include was a population comparison. Whites make up 74.8 percent of the population, while blacks are only 12.4 percent. That means that an average black person is 78.9 percent more likely to commit a hate crime than a white person. That's not a shame all people of a race should be burdened with, but it should dispel some of the popular views in our culture.

In addition, Jews were victims of 71.9 percent of the religiously-motivated hate crimes, while Muslims were 8.4 percent. Between 1.2 and 2.2 percent of the population is Jewish, and between 0.6 and 1.6 percent is Muslim.

Every hate crime is a problem, but it's good there were only 6,600 in the whole country in 2009. The crimes against gays lined up with the popular opinion, but the idea of the white hate monger and the anti-Islamic bully did not. The public underestimates the problem of Antisemitism and minority hate mongers, and how can we stop a problem if we don't understand it?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Prediction: TSA to scale back searches

My biggest regret for January 2009 was I never got around to making a video of me predicting President Obama was going to be the next Jimmy Carter; that he was hyped up by the public and had no idea what he was getting himself into, and would fail to meet his central campaign promises.

It's one thing to make predictions, it's another to publicly record them. Since I didn't make that video, I really can't take credit for being right. In that spirit, here's a specific prediction:

The search methods of Transportation Security Administration will be scaled down within a year. What's more, this is the peak of airport screenings, and there will not be an increase in the level of searches. If this prediction fails, and searches becomes more intense, then the public outcry will force it to be reversed within six months. In the first scenario, we will still be unable to bring liquids on board airplanes. If the second scenario occurs, that rule will be omitted.

Maybe I'm old fashion and believe the whim of the public can influence our laws for the good, but I feel we're at the breaking point of this issue. The TSA really has set itself up to lose by givings customers the ultimatum of being photographed naked or allowing a stranger to touch their genitals. People are standing up to this, and the TSA is foolishly making martyrs of them.

Hint: If you get taken to court by the TSA, ask for a jury trial.

We've silently accepted that flying is a privilege and not a right and that no cost is too high to be a little bit safer, but now the public is learning why that's wrong.

Let's examine that concept, that being safer is always better and costs don't matter. If that were true, I have an easy solution to improve automobile safety - drive a dump truck.

When you drive a dump truck, hitting a tree is a much safer occurrence - you might not even notice when you do it. Same with a deer or a tool shed. The safety of drivers and passengers go up when you're in a lumbering metal monstrosity.

But the costs would be high. Even a hybrid dump truck would be a gas hog, and finding a parking spot would be a real pain. In a typical accident between a regular car and a dump truck, the occupants of one vehicle walk away and the others get covered with a tarp. Hitting a house with a car can be deadly, but imagine what a a larger vehicle would do. Add on to that the horror of being too big to use the drive-through window at a Burger King and you can see there are some costs that just aren't worth additional safety.

Safety and freedom are on opposite ends of a sliding scale, and increasing one can reduce the other. Safety is a wonderful thing, but it's not the only thing that matters. You can be too careful, and we shouldn't just assume our current level of security is optimal. I'm willing to accept a little more risk in exchange for a lot more freedom and sensibility in our airports, and I believe America is learning that lesson right now.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Adam Smith through the localist lens

I can't help it. I came across a familiar passage by Adam Smith from The Wealth of Nations today, which I know all too well is a book about mercantalism. Yet, to me, he's speaking directly about its final boss battle form of localism:

By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.
As I've said before, local purchasing preferences is a form of neo-mercantalism. It's the same old protectionist fallacy, and its weakness is still the arguments Smith made.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Freedom of speech trumps tolerance

Being under 30 and disagreeing with progressive politics, I often find myself on the dark side of the issues my friends bring up. Case in point, this post a friend recently shared showing a 14 year-old-boy criticizing a Detroit school board's decision to suspend a teacher for punishing an "anti-gay student."

Now I don't like to kick puppies down hallways or snatch lollipops from toddlers, but I might as well for wondering what exactly they meant by an "anti-gay student." I can already see that the video is very popular online, but the focus is on the boy's speech about the teacher, not the background story. Wanting to know more, I clicked the embedded link, but isn't that kind of like stepping on someones sandcastle? Shouldn't I just accept the one single-paragraph summary?

Being a vicious bully, I saw that the link brought me to a gay rights news site that said the punished student was wearing a confederate flag belt buckle and told the class, "I do not support gay individuals." The writer then speculated that this must be a cleaned-up version of what he said, as no one really talks like that, but a hoodlum like me can't be satisfied with well-intentioned wild guesses so I kept looking.

The Associated Press had a few things to add. For one, another student was wearing the rebel flag accessory, which lead to a classroom discussion on the appropriateness of pride symbols. Still, the punished student is not a hero. It said he was wearing an "anti-gay bullying shirt," but with no way for the reader to find out what that meant. Still, the student was not disciplined for his shirt, but for saying that he doesn't accept gays during the discussion.

McDowell said he told the student he couldn't say that in class.

"And he said, 'Why? I don't accept gays. It's against my religion.' I reiterated that it's not appropriate to say something like that in class," McDowell said Monday.

McDowell said he sent the boy out of the room for a one-day class suspension. Another boy asked if he also could leave because he also didn't accept gays.

So being in league with evil, I have to ask, what good are classroom discussions if certain viewpoints on contemporary topics results in punishment? For example, I honestly do believe that transgenderism is a disorder of some variety, and not a normal variation in human identity. I don't want them harmed or ridiculed, I just disagree with their explanation of what the condition is. I have the same interpretation listed in the DSM IV and it's going to be in the DSM V, but it's not acceptable with certain groups of social activists, who see an unemotional factual disagreement as hate speech. And that's what happened in Detroit: A teacher decided the admission of a belief he doesn't like is automatically malicious.

While I strongly support gay rights, I have to admit that our society has not reached a consensus on gays. It's good that the definition of hate speech have grown to include anti-gay slurs, but that doesn't give a teacher the ability to punish students for mildly disagreeing with gay rights. Clearly if the student had said something vulgar about gays or expressed a desire to use violence against them he should have been punished, but that's not what happened, so like a crazy street pamphleteer I have to say this issue is about freedom of speech.

Fortunately the ACLU, my usual accomplice in tying damsels to train tracks, wasn't shy about calling a spade a spade in the same AP article:

Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan's LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Legal Project, credits McDowell for trying to create a "welcoming environment for all students." But Kaplan said the "teachable moment" would have come if the students stayed in the classroom.

"We believe, based on those statements - as offensive and upsetting as they were - they were protected speech," Kaplan said. "The only way we're going to create a better environment in schools is to start talking about this."

So yes, my liberal friends, I can see why you'd applaud a boy saying the school was wrong for punishing this teacher, and how that relates to the KKK and hatred. Between twirling my sinister mustache, I've learned a thing or two about using extreme examples to make a point. But before I put on my tall black hat and eye patch and ride my black horse to my secret volcano lair, I ask that you keep in mind your inspiring speech was based on a fanciful version of events and the white knights you ride with are making an assault on our freedom of speech


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Why does Biden support Cap and Trade?

Vice President Joe Biden insists that government investment is what pushes technology forward, while people in my camp insist it's the free market and the quest for higher profits.

Regardless of who is right in that argument, I am confused as to why Joe Biden simultaneously holds that view and supports the cap and trade system to control greenhouse gases.

A central argument for cap and trade is it gives private companies an incentive to invent new technologies to reduce pollution. This is called a "performance standard," where companies are free to reduce emissions any way they can, as opposed to a "technology standard" where the government forces companies to use a specific approach.

Bruce Yandle explained that the requirement for catalytic converters in all automobiles to reduce emissions made Honda stop developing a rival technology. If instead Congress had used a peformance standard, Honda may have developed a superior technology, one they could sell to other automobile companies. But they didn't, so all companies must pay General Motors to use the catalytic converters they invented. They have no incentive to develop something better, so they don't.

So if Biden believes private companies don't find it profitable to sink money into research and development and invent new technologies, why on earth would he support a performance standard like cap and trade? Shouldn't he instead support funding specific technologies and forcing companies to use them?


Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Who's manipulating their currency?

Mark. J. Perry thinks we are. Alvaro Vargas Llosa thinks everyone is. Don Boudreaux, however, thinks it's a foolish thing to do.

And I think they're all correct.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Adam Werbach on localism

The empty word "sustainability" sets off my skepticism, and a response written by Adam Werbach to the UK television special "What the Green Movement Got Wrong" did not prepare me for some hard-hitting criticism on the localist movement. See, Werbach was introduced as "chief sustainability officer" for an advertising company and started off the article about being chewed out by a Greenpeace representative for harming the cause.

But at towards the end, Werbach let out this gem:

Perhaps nothing is more damaging than a legacy view among some greens that humans are locusts on a perfect earth, eating more than their fair share, and doomed to destroy our species while bringing down lions, tigers, and bears in the process. There is a profoundly conservative streak in modern environmentalism. You hear it in ideas of localism, which are beautiful concepts that can hide a bitter streak of NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard) and xenophobia. It's wonderful that you want to get everything within fifty miles of your home, but if everyone in the developed world went local, global trade would grind to a halt, slowing the forces pulling billions of people out of abject poverty.

It's not a slam-dunk dismantling of all the localist claims, but it's a great start.

Supreme Court unsure if virtual violence can be measured

The Supreme Court is weighing the constitutionality of a California law criminalizing the sale of ultra-violent video games to children

Zackery Morazzini, deputy attorney general of California, is arguing that a ratings board can determine what is "patently offensive violence" and impose a fine on retailers who sell games featuring it to the 17-and-under crowd.

The opposition, which I rest on, believes that this will having a chilling effect and impact the content of video games released to adults. As the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated showed, ratings boards have a side effect. The rated material is often shaped to fit into the parameters of the rating categories, so violent or sexual content on the margin is often cut.

Manhunt 2 is a perfect example of this phenomena. The game was initially given an "Adults Only" rating, which would have kept it off the shelves of most stores, so most of the violence was obscured like a 1990's unpaid premium channel. This meant people adults like me could never purchase a copy of the uncensored version of the game.

Now while video game ratings already exist and have some impact on what consumers can buy, this forced enforcement of the ratings "guide" would increase the side effect and consumers like me would have to live in a sanitized world. It would be enough to push the current world of prior restraint into actual censorship.

The Supreme Court is treating this as a First Amendment issue, and a highlight of some of the proceedings shows the justices are concerned the ratings will be too vague and arbitrary:

Justice Antonin Scalia: What's a deviant — a deviant, violent video game? As opposed to what? A normal violent video game?

Morazzini: Yes, Your Honor. Deviant would be departing from established norms.

Scalia: There are established norms of violence?

The article is pretty interesting. I was happy to see President Obama's nominees Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan had some pretty clever questions and comments. Sotamayor got Morazzini to reveal a simple loophole: if video game publishers simply declare that the victim of violence is an android or space alien than it escapes the law.

Kagan brought up how the law would treat Mortal Kombat:

" an iconic game, which I am sure half of the clerks who work for us spent considerable amounts of time in their adolescence playing."

It reminds me of being a young reporter at municipal meetings and exchanging glances with the other 20-somethings when a crusty politician would declare something unfounded about youth culture. Kagan hit that point home when she said the law clerks right there in the judicial branch were exposed to this form of entertainment and didn't become sociopaths.

This will be an interesting case to see play out. I support the idea of keeping children away from Mature games, but I'd rather it be from active parenting than active government. It's not just a principled stance too. I dislike playing multiplayer games like Grand Theft Auto IV and hearing a band of elementary students jabbering away over my headset.


Thursday, November 4, 2010

Taxing marijuana

Now that Prop 19 has failed in California, a strange battlecry has returned to the Internet:

"Legalize marijuana and tax it!"

Two things come to mind:

First, don't worry, they would never forget to tax it.

Second, if they tax it enough the violent black market for marijuana will still exist. Imagine if they taxed it $500 an ounce. Clearly most people would continue buying it from drug dealers and nothing would change.

The stuff grows like a weed, remember, so anyone with a sunlamp in their closet can harvest it. The tax needs to be low enough so that the trouble of buying it illegally isn't worth the risk.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Paul LePage is Maine's next governor

Republican Paul LePage has won the gubernatorial election in Maine and it's time to make some predictions.

Even with the GOP in the governor seat and in control of the state legislature for the first time since 1964, I don't expect too many cuts to spending. To make my prediction disprovable, I'll say say the yearly budget will not go down by more than 8 percent in the next four years. It will be great if they manage to keep it from increasing, as I expect they will, and I do expect some impact on red tape and business taxes, but I don't see this election as a complete revolution in Maine.

Don't get me wrong, I think there is some great potential for progress here, but I don't want to make the same mistake the rapid Obama supporters made and set my hopes too high.

It's awkward to see Facebook posts from my lefty friends talk about this election as the end of the world. It's downright annoying, however, to see people write that LePage shouldn't serve because he did not get a majority of the vote. LePage got 38 percent, independent Eliot Cutler got 37 percent and Democrat Libby Mitchell got 19 percent.

I've read a few times that Cutler would win if only we used run-off elections to have voters pick between the final two candidates. This principled stance was made after the results were in, of course. While there are valid proponents of run-off elections, the Johnny-come-latelies just look like sore losers. It's also questionable what the results would have been.

Changing the rules means the players would change their strategies. Imagine a soccer game where a kick misses the goal by a foot. The kicker declares, "If only the goal was moved further to the left, I'd have made it." What he forgets is that the goalie would have moved to the side too, as well as the other defending players, and the kicker may not have kicked from the same spot.

With a run-off election, more candidates would have entered the race, and more voters would have supported unlikely candidates. The primaries would have been different as well, if they still mattered. It's possible that Cutler voters would have split into different factions and Libby Mitchell or some unknown candidate would be in Cutler's spot in the run-off..

It's silly to lose a game and then declare you only lost because you weren't playing a different game, one with new rules that happen to help you.


Sunday, October 31, 2010

So there is a name for that!

I stumbled across a great little vocabulary lesson on Aid Watcher: Aid Fungibility:
Aid Fungibility is when the Donor gives the Government Aid for Good Thing A and refuses to fund Bad Thing B. The clever Government then reduces its own spending on Good Thing A one for one with the aid, so that total spending (Donor + Government) on Good Thing A is unchanged. The government uses its savings on A to spend more on Bad Thing B. So de facto (compared to the pre-aid situation) the Donor really has no effect on A and only has the effect of increasing total spending on Bad Thing B.
Fungibility is why giving homeless people food instead of money simply frees up the dollars they do have for alcohol, if they so choose. It's why a bond issue to make a state university more eco-friendly simply means the school doesn't have to pay for the "green" technology they were going to get and funnels that money into other boondoggles. It's why buying food for a poor nation is really an indirect purchase of AK-47s for the dictator's goons.

I was talking to a relative recently about why her support of casinos that give money to school departments are no different from casinos that give money to SWAT teams, and I failed to explain it as neatly and concisely as William Easterly did, or the World Bank economist who said "It’s when we think we’re financing a power plant, and we’re really financing a brothel."


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Not hearing much about LePage's innocence

Maine gubernatorial candidate Paul LePage was cleared on any wrongdoings this week. Earlier this summer his wife was investigated for applying for dual residency in Florida and Maine so her son could get lower tuition rates in Florida. LePage also drew a lot of negative attention after loudly storming out of a press conference after an obnoxious reporter kept pestering him about it.

From the Portland Press Herald this week:

Though an initial investigation by Florida tax officials determined that she was ineligible for the dual homestead exemptions, the Florida exemption was deemed legal on Monday.
My big problem is this story appeared on the front of the Local and State section - not the front page of the paper. But before I jump to the conclusions of liberal media bias, I also have to wonder about another type of bias: The guilty bias.

If a person if accused of a crime, it's front page news - often for a long time. However, if they are revealed to be innocent it's a mid-paper story and usually it's only news for a day before it's forgotten and the press moves on. Innocence just isn't newsworthy enough. A lot more people hear about the accusation than the clearly of the accusation, and thus the person's reputation is damaged.

I didn't hear this story once on the Maine news radio station I listen to. It's possible I just missed it when it was on, but they did play several weeks of accusations.

It doesn't even make sense as a scandal - sure the candidate and his wife are assumed to do their taxes together so if it was unjust he would have been in on it, but the point of giving lower tuition rates to residences is that their tax dollars go into the university system, while the taxes of a student from another state does not, so therefor the cost should be different. The LePage's own a house in Florida so they have put money into the college system and deserve the instate

With less than a week to election day, you'd think this story would be bigger news. The latest polls imply it won't matter - LePage has 40 percent of the vote while his two rivals are tied at 26 percent.

Whatever kind of bias is keeping LePage's innocence out of the news, I think it's clear that political bias is keeping it silent off the lefties I see on social media sites. They were so triumphant in posting the accusations, but they've been quiet this week.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

No choice but to vote for a pseudoscience believer

A letter I sent to the Portland Press Herald this morning

As a Paul LePage voter, a former Intelligent Design defender and co-organizer of the Southern Maine Skeptical Society - a science discussion group based in Portland - I'm in a unique position to respond to Les Dawson's Oct. 25 opinion piece encouraging creationism in public schools and defending LePage's belief in the idea.

I agree with Dawson that there is a place for creationism in a biology class. However, I feel the Intelligent Design criticisms of evolution should be addressed, not taught. For example, some people wonder why there are still monkeys if humans came from monkeys. The answer your biology teacher didn't have the opportunity to tell you is that humans do not come from modern monkeys, we simply share a common ancestor that branched off in different directions. It's like how Cherry Coke is a spin-off of Coca Cola, even though Coca Cola is still around.

Intelligent Design proponents repeat ancient fallacies like that one to cast doubt on evolution, but don’t present evidence for their own position. Normal, intelligent people like Dawson, LePage and at one point myself can be hoodwinked by this fallacious trick.

Dawson attempts to negate evolutionary science by saying that biologists have rapidly different spiritual beliefs than the general public. They do, but that's entirely irrelevant. This naked appeal to popularity ignores that scientists must base their beliefs on evidence. That's why they support evolution and don't pretend to know what caused the Big Bang. Their religious beliefs are irrelevant. Most engineers who design bridges are men, and the gender ratio is much greater than the ratio of men-to-women who drive on those bridges. That doesn't mean there is a flaw in bridges simply because engineers are not a representative sample of the driving public.

Liberal voters should not be smug about LePage’s creationist beliefs because all three major gubernatorial candidates publicly believe in some form of pseudoscience. LePage's creationist beliefs are an embarrassment, but not something he intends to put into policy, or could if he wanted to. Mitchell and Cutler, on the other hand, promise to put their protectionist "Buy Local" beliefs into state policy. As an economic blogger at I often write about how local purchasing preferences are unanimously panned by economists, as they are based on Mercantalist theories disproved by Adam Smith in his 1776 book "The Wealth of Nations."

It's a matter of judgment to endorse a candidate who believes in an obvious myth like creationism or one who supports a popular movement like "Buy Local" that has yet to be publicly thrashed in any large capacity. The creationism is an indicator of a distrust of the scientific community, but as this election is to select a governor and not a state science education chairman, it will probably be benign. The worst it does is serve as a marker for possible bad judgment.

However, getting roped in by the "Buy Local" movement indicates a politician who does not understand economics - something entirely relevant to a governor - and a weakness for nonsense presented by social activists. Shouldn't support of useless policies trump irrelevant superstitions?

I'm not sure which is more frustrating, having to vote for politicians who in their private lives support ideas I know are wrong, or hearing supporters of doomed policies condescendingly talk about them.


Saturday, October 23, 2010

New documentary, same old ideas

Quick piece on the National Post about "Strange Fruit," the next "Buy Local" documentary I expect to hear breathlessly referenced again and again. It will stress that people grow their own food or purchase from local sources.

Back in those days, peasants basically ate what they could grow or kill. And many times they would starve to death. I am sure those emaciated peasants would have felt a lot better knowing they were dying in accordance with left wing principles.

Anyway, I wonder if Arellano thinks we should also slaughter our own pigs and butcher our own cows. That could get a little messy around the backyard. And I suppose we Canadians should forget all about eating European cheese or American oranges or drinking coffee and tea.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Wal-Mart to sell local food

The retailer is jumping on the bandwagon for one reason: profits. Intellectually flawed as it is, it's a no-brainer way of attracting more customers. From Salon this week:

Last week, Walmart trumpeted a major new commitment to sustainable agriculture and supporting local small farms. Coupled with the enormous numbers -- training for 1 million farmers! Investing $1 billion to make its produce supply chain more efficient! -- there were nuggets of common-sense wisdom, the kind that is music to sustainability advocates' ears.

They're right about one thing, the entire mindset relies solely on common sense, which as I've said before, is a recipe for disaster.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The economic argument against pseudoscience

From XKCD today:


Monday, October 18, 2010

Who's allowed to oppose government support?

There's a brand of Ad Hominem dismissals against welfare state opponents that keeps coming up. It simply says the target's opinion is invalid because they belong to the wrong group, no matter how well-informed they are on the subject. Here's a typical example:

"Of course we should extend unemployment benefits. You have no idea what its like to be unemployed and poor so your position is irrelevant."

Now if the target is indeed outside the group the policy is supposed to help, the position stands. However, if the target reveals himself to be a member of the intended group, in this case the unemployed and poor, there is a quick follow-up: They are simply called a hypocrite.

I've gone over this one before, that it's logical for someone to oppose a scheme, be forced into it, but accept the rewards when offered them.

Imagine being forced to buy a lottery ticket. Say the ticket costs $5, the jackpot is exactly $100 but the chances of winning are a paltry one in 1,000. I would never choose to buy that ticket, but if I was forced to by the government, would it make sense to refuse to cash in a winning ticket? No it would not. I'm still opposed to the system and its misplacement of incentives.

To the opposition's credit, some of them stop there. However, some keep pushing. For example, I had one person tell me only the unemployed have the right to oppose unemployment benefits. I revealed myself to be one of them, and was then asked if I had any children. I do not, so in a very obvious move the goalpost was moved to say only unemployed parents can be in opposition.

But say someone is opposed to unemployment benefits becomes unemployed and changes there position to support the payments. They aren't a hypocrite anymore, but they are marginalized as an ignorant dimwit.

Anyone who is unemployed, opposes unemployment benefits and does not accept the payments would probably not be admired either. They would be dismissed as irrelevant because they had some other access to money, such as savings or a spouse, that separates them from most of the unemployed.

So please tell me, what group of people is allowed to oppose the social safety net?


Saturday, October 16, 2010

Economic ignorance in action: Cost of living edition

I listened in mild confusion this week as news stories about Social Security payments remaining stagnant were presented as some sort of folly for the elderly.

Here's the Washington Post in a typical story:
The Social Security Administration is expected to announce Friday that more than 58 million retirees and disabled Americans will go a second consecutive year without an increase in benefits...

Cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs, are set automatically each year by an inflation measure that was adopted by Congress in the 1970s. Because consumer prices are still lower than they were two years ago, the last time a COLA was awarded, the trustees who oversee Social Security project that there will be no benefit increase for 2011.
So let me see if I understand this. The cost of living has not gone up, so there will be no cost of living adjustments. That seems pretty logical to me. In fact, if consumer prices are lower like the report said, then the adjustment should be to lower Social Security payments.

So what do the politicians do? The Democrats have introduced a bill to give a lump sum of $250 to everyone on Social Security.

Seniors who rely on their modest Social Security payments need these cost-of-living adjustments for their day-to-day survival," said [Rep. Earl] Pomeroy (D-North Dakota), who chairs the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security. "Passing this bill will ensure that the lack of cost-of-living adjustment will not jeopardize seniors' ability to survive on their benefits.

I try not to get snobby because I know it's common to be ignorant on economic matters, but this issue should be obvious to anyone with zero prior knowledge. If these annual increases are really about the cost of living, then they should be able to rise, fall and stay static along with the value of the dollar.


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Console fanboyism as a coordination solution

A few months ago a friend's Xbox 360 broke and I heard instead of fixing it he was going to buy a Playstation 3. Instead of a neutral, ho-hum response, I was downright annoyed with him. Why?

I don't consider myself a fanboy. If you're lucky enough to be out of the loop of angry nerdom, console fanboys are consumers who go beyond brand loyalty and into brand nationalism. They hate the rival companies and the people who play them.

Growing up in the rural community, I've observed the same behavior with brands of snowmobiles and pickup trucks; such as GMC owners who badmouth Ford and Dodge. With New England sports, some of the Boston Red Sox fans hold actual contempt for people who like the New York Yankees.

So why would I have a negative response upon hearing a rumor that one of my friends plans to use a Playstation 3 instead of my brand, the Xbox 360?

It's a coordination problem.

In game theory, coordination games are where problems occur if people don't make the same arbitrary choice.

For example, when designing cars and roads it doesn't matter which side people drive on as long as they all drive on the same side. America has chosen the right side of the road while England has the left. As a result, the drivers seat is placed on the opposite side of the vehicle. Both systems run smoothly as long as people are coordinated together - the decision to coordinate to the left or right is completely arbitrary.

When I was in college my friends and I could talk online with instant messages. Two major programs were AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and Windows Live Messenger. We all used AIM, not because it was a better program, but because we could only talk to each over the same program, and most people already used AIM.

The same coordination logic applies to dating websites, World of Warcraft realms and even the choice to play World of Warcraft over other MMOs. Imagine if a new social networking site came out that was slightly better than Facebook. It wouldn't steal the market because most people are already on Facebook and the whole point is to be on a system connected with everyone else. That doesn't make Facebook invincible, but look how long it took for it to take that market from the entrenched MySpace.

So while a lot of fanboyism is brand pride, there are some major benefits to a group of friends coordinated to one system. I play a lot of online games with my friends, and I can't play with my friends who only use Playstations. There are a lot of games that come out for both consoles, but both systems have some exclusive titles and I can lend, borrow, recommend or talk about games with my Xbox 360 friends that might not apply to the others.

The difference between my position and that of the fanboys is that I am not saying my console is better than the other. It doesn't matter if one is better than the other. I benefit by coordinating my console choice with my friends.