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.