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.