Saturday, April 30, 2011

Round Two: Fight!

If you haven't seen it yet, here's the second Hayek vs Keynes rap video in all it's glory.

Last time there was a brief Mike Munger cameo. This time, however, Prof. Munger is impossible to miss as the security guard.


Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Birthers, readers and irrelevant secrets

I'm worried something I say here will be taken out of context, so I'm going to mention in every paragraph that my president, Barack Hussein Obama II, was born in the Unites States and is legally qualified to hold the Oval Office.

I have been opposed to the poorly-named "birther" movement since they appeared in 2008 and wanted candidate Obama to show his birth certificate to prove he was born in America. Obama has since provided a "certificate of live birth," a similar document that proved beyond all reasonable doubt that Mr. Obama was indeed a naturally-born citizen.

Now there is a second group lumped in with the birthers that wants to see the original birth certificate - a different document from the certificate of live birth. This groups, who I shall refer to as "readers," claim that the president has some piece of information on his birth certificate that he wants to hide from the public. It may be something like his father's nationality is listed as "Arab" instead of "African" and the fringe right would have a field day over it. This call for a second document sounds like a moving goalpost, and its important to remember that the readers are not going to find anything that disqualifies him from being president, and they willingly acknowledge that Obama was born in Hawaii.

However, I don't think the birth certificate the readers are after would reveal anything we need to know or that has any relevance to Obama's performance as president and the whole issue is a complete waste of time. We know Obama was born in America, and I can understand him wanting to keep something under wraps that is both harmless and would be used unfairly.

For example, if Mitt Romney had spent some time living in Westboro, Mass. he might try to keep that out of the news because some of his opponents would lump him in with the Westboro Baptist Church. It doesn't matter that the Westboro Baptist Church is based out of Kansas, the comparison would be made. Both Romney and Obama are naturally-born citizens, but I can understand why they'd want to keep something like that out of the hands of their enemies.

Both the birther and reader movements are a waste of time. We already know President Obama was born in America on Aug. 4, 1961 and there may be some irrelevant detail on his birth certificate that silly bloggers and Michael Savage will want to know, but has no other purpose. I consider the birthers the conservative answer to 9-11 truthers - loud fools who just don't get it. The readers aren't crazy per se, but they are spending a lot of time on an empty issue that just doesn't matter.

The birthers get a lot more flak than those who think Bristol Palin gave birth twice in eight months, but they shouldn't be lumped in with the readers who don't share the same conspiratorial thinking process. Obama was born c in the United States and doesn't need to prove that ever again, and the difference between the birthers and the readers is subtle but important. It may be that the left makes a lot of political gains by blurring the line between the two groups, and if that's the case, the White House profits by keeping the birth certificate out of view while the birthers and readers burn away their credibility in public opinion polls.

EDIT: I just learned that earlier today the Obama administration released a long-form certificate of birth that clearly shows he was born in America. I am currently trying to find out if that answers all the "reader" questions as well.

EDIT: From everything I've read, this issue is over and the document released Wednesday answers all the reader questions. There are some birthers who are trying to make something out of President Obama's father not being an American citizen - something we already knew - and that being born in America isn't enough to meet the requirments if your parents aren't citizens. That's a pretty silly view. This issue is dead, and the distinction between birthers and readers has faded.


Sunday, April 24, 2011

Good news from Mark J. Perry

A lot of my lefty friends have been reciting the mantra that the rich don't pay enough in income taxes because some specific and atypical investment profits have low taxes.

I normally respond by saying the top 1 percent pays almost 40 percent of income taxes, and the bottom 50 percent pays zero. But leave it to Mark J. Perry to show that even while the top tax bracket has fallen, the percentage of income taxes paid by that same top group has risen steadily.

Of course, this is because of the "Harry Potter" effect of increased productivity and winner-takes-most market effects, but still, shouldn't my friends on the left see this graph as good news?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Power Shift 2011, boiled down

Earlier this week starry-eyes idealists poured into the Power Shift 2011 conference and youth rally to listen to speakers like Van Jones and Bill McKibben - yes that Bill McKibben - on how to, like, save the world and stuff.

Apparently, the conference called for a push to use local food production to benefit local economics and the environment.

Well, I've tackled this issue enough times. Let's let Ezra Klein handle it for a change:

Despite the dreams of many foodies, I can't think of a major industry that went from small, decentralized production methods to large, scaled industrial production -- and then back again. Are there any examples I'm missing? Maybe so. But for now, I think of the preference for farmers markets and small producers as being mainly important in sending certain signals about production methods and branding preferences to Big Ag than in actually creating some sort of viable alternative.

Well said, Ezra.


Monday, April 18, 2011

Why I believe in man-made global warming

I make a point to illustrate my views when they drift from what people expect them to be, such as my support of gay marriage and taxing health care benefits. I do my best to look at each issue individually instead of "checking" to see which partisans support or oppose it.

So in that tradition, let me explain my lazy way of supporting the idea that human action is a significant cause in global warming:

There is a scientific consensus supporting the idea.

That's really all there is to it. Now this may be surprising because I am distrustful of experts, I support the Hayekian view of organizing society through emergent order instead of letting professionals plan everything.

However, I have no interest in climate science. The subject bores me, to be perfectly honest, and this is coming from someone who finds international trade and regulatory strategies to be exciting. I have tried to wade through climate revisionist articles and the best I can say is "I guess so."

It's dangerous to learn the basics of a discipline from someone with an ax to grind. Look at the terrible crash-course in physics 9-11 "truther" videos give to prove their bogus thesis - wouldn't it be better to learn physics 101 from a neutral source? Why would social activists have any incentive to make sure the basic building blocks of a science are accurate when they can just leave out inconvenient information?

That's assuming the activists actually understand the basics. I'm looking at you, localists.

If you want to have an informed opinion on a contested scientific issue, you need to learn the subject from the ground up. I was pretty confused for a while on global warming because both sides had points that sounded possible, but since I was out of my element I was unable to choose a winner.

What finally convinced me to take sides was hearing Steven Novella on the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast refer to the consensus as both real, and that the research suggests about 90 percent certainty for the position.

That's all it took.

I had heard plenty of times before that there was a scientific consensus, but I also heard claims from the right saying it wasn't real. I no longer take those arguments seriously.

A consensus does not make something an absolutely proven truth, but what it does do is lend the credibility of the scientific community to a viewpoint. It's always possible that the consensus will be overturned in the future, but for the time being it is safe to go with the scientists.

If I really wanted to, I could read up on climate science and then take on the different arguments with some wisdom under my belt. I enjoy doing that with economics and risk-reward decisions in medicine, for example. But like I said before, I don't have an interest in climate science so the rational thing for me to do is ignore the issue and let a specialist handle it.

In economics this is called "rational ignorance," where it would be irrational for me to spend hours and hours reading boring climatology books so I could comment on an issue that has already been picked apart by everyone else.

I believe strongly in science as a way of figuring out our world. I do not think the scientific community is corrupted or bought off, and that's why I feel comfortable believing things like the safety of vaccines, the damaging effects of rent control, the benefits of international trade and the impact human beings have on global warming.

That doesn't mean I have to support the exaggerated risks or proposed lackluster solutions coming from the political realm, but I do believe in having a firm place to start from.


Friday, April 15, 2011

New Zealand city gets it right

The city council in Dunedin, New Zealand has released a report that recommends dropping the requirement to purchase public vehicles from local dealers because it was costing the city too much money.

It was one of 14 recommendations that together would shave at least 20% off the $921,000 annual bill for vehicles accrued by just one council department, the water and waste services (WWS) unit, the review found.

By the way, that $921,000 New Zealand dollars converts to $730,850.34 American.

What's interesting here is not that limiting the pool of dealerships on average raises the price - that's simple enough to predict - it's the pained reluctance here for the city to take a simple, smart action action.

The review acknowledged an end to the buy-local policy "will be unpopular with local dealerships", as the policy aimed to support the continued viability of Dunedin businesses.

Well yes people. When you have a policy to give special favors to certain businesses, I would expect those businesses to be unhappy when the favors stop.

There are a lot of debates about what is the role of government, but what I don't hear anyone arguing is that that role includes being a customer to residential businesses. No government should fall into the habit of funneling taxpayer money into private businesses at the expense of the public. This has a lot more in common with corruption than good governance.


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The gender wage gap is a myth

Activists have dubbed today "Equal Pay Day" in reference to the idea that discrimination causes employers female workers to receive less pay for the same labor. It's usually presented in the form of "women make 75 to 80 cents for every dollar men make."

This is a myth, and a painfully transparent one. It can not survive slightest prodding or even a casual investigation.

The crude or "raw" gender wage gap is calculated with the Bureau of Labor Statistics data by comparing hourly income of all full-time employees - those who work 35 hours or more per week. The advocates compares these results and assume discrimination causes the gap.

But this raw number does not control for tenure, education, job title, flexibility, exposure to danger on the job, and hours worked per week. All of these factors impact wages.

From the 2009 Consad Research Corporation study for the Department of Labor:

This study leads to the unambiguous conclusion that the differences in the compensation of men and women are the result of a multitude of factors and that the raw wage gap should not be used as the basis to justify corrective action. Indeed, there may be nothing to correct.

Sometimes the activists claim the wage gap is for the same work, but it is not. The adjusted gap is not politically convenient

I do not see anyone upset about the college degree wage gap, or the gender job fulfillment gap. Women tend to take jobs that are more flexible, fulfilling and as a result, pay less.

I have seen “controlled” comparisons branded about that compare male and female doctors, where the gap is as low as 90 cents on the dollar, and this is supposed to disprove my side's view.

Pause here and note that this new number is much less of a gap, and the authors are admitting the “dramatic gap” is dishonest. However, this new gap is based on a broad category. It compares ER surgeons who work 60+ hour weeks* (typically male) to pediatricians (mostly female, and a lot of them are part-time) “Doctor” is still a wide category and these studies fail to adjust for all factors.

Compensating differentials are also important here. Look up the gender of most on the job fatalities - at least 90 percent of the victims are men. Women tend to avoid dangerous work. They also avoid the extra pay that attracts workers to dangerous jobs.

Yet at the end of the day, women control 80 percent of consumer spending in America. Female workers have learned to make trade-offs to focus on having a better life instead of a larger paycheck - and they still end up with most of the wealth. We should be learning from female workers, not trying to save them from a problem that doesn't exist.


Saturday, April 9, 2011

World Bank: In-game gold benefits third-world economies

A World Bank report claims that Asian economies are benefiting by about $3 billion a year in the sale of virtual gold. That is, the workers in nations like Vietnam log onto video games like World of Warcraft and "farm" for in-game currency. This in-game money is transferred to Western players in exchange for real dollars and euros.

From the BBC:

Increasingly, the report said, Western players who have limited time for gaming are buying game cash, gear and high level characters from people in China and Vietnam that are paid to play as a job.

Translation: American and European players are spending their time performing productive labor. Workers in poor nations have a comparative advantage in gold farming and can justify spending their fireballing online demon boars all day because the pay is better than most of the other options available to them.

The Western players value their free time more than the money they pay, and the Eastern workers value the money more than the time it takes to earn it. This transaction benefits both parties, and there is only one possible trade barrier: the selling of virtual gold is against the rules of games like World of Warcraft and there is a small risk of having ones account shutdown and banned.

This is not a traditional illegal industry like drugs or arms smuggling, but it is against the rules in the virtual world of the game. There have been a lot of complaints that gold farmers harm the in-game economies, but this report suggests that the trade-off is a huge benefit to the real world economy.

The whole report is pretty interesting and worth a read.


Friday, April 8, 2011

Two anti-vacc bills loom in Maine

Activists who cling to the belief that vaccines cause autism have persuaded Maine politicians to introduce two anti-vacc bills in Augusta.

Rep. Andrea Boland, D-Sanford is sponsoring L.D. 694, which requires doctors to tell parents what's in vaccines and to inform them they can opt out for philosophical or religious reasons.

The intention is to discourage vaccinations by playing off the fear that vaccines contain, among other things, trace amounts of aluminum and a form of formaldehyde. The ingredients are not kept secret now, and the anti-vacc activists do not understand that substances are not worth worrying about when they fall below toxicity levels.

The second bill, L.D. 941 is sponsored by Sen. Doug Thomas, R-Ripley and would end the vaccination requirements to enroll in Maine public schools. This is being presented in terms of personal liberty, but it's really another attempt to discourage vaccinations.

As an outspoken libertarian, I think an adult should be able to buy clove cigarettes and drink four loco in a restaurant lit by incandescent light bulbs while they gamble and marry someone of the same gender. There is something very different about vaccines.

For starters, the government is not snatching children and jabbing needles into their arms. Instead, it is currently requring vaccinations as a requirement to get into a public school. Parents who are terrified of vaccines can seek other forms of education, or they can use a simple loophole and declare philosophical or religious opposition to vaccines and still enroll their child in public schools.

This has allowed Maine vaccination rates to fall to 80 percent.

Libertarians like me are aware of something called externalities - where bystanders are impacted by a decision I make. There is not a libertarian push to legalize drunk driving, and one reason is that it endangers other people. That is a serious negative externality.

I see the vaccination requirement in the same light. Allowing unvaccinated children into the public school encourages the spread of disease. This is not a libertarian stance - its an anti-vacc stance borrowing the rhetoric of libertarianism to promote bad science.

The anti-vacc crowd is not a collection of gifted experts who know something the medical community does not, nor are they the last bulwark against a vast pharmaceutical conspiracy. They are a collection of hysterical social activists with a crude understanding of what's going on, and their ignorance has inspired them to action. They do not know what they're talking about, and as a result the actions they suggest endangers the public.


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Kinect's positive externalities

Who says video games don't make the world a better place?

Microsoft released the Kinect late last year - a motion sensor that allows Xbox players to control specially-designed games with gestures instead of buttons.

While the developers may only have had entertainment in mind, the technology they created is finding a host of other applications. The most striking example is Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital is using the Kinect to bring up medical images during surgery without having to re-sterilize or leave the operating table. Other uses include classroom interactions, a virtual reality interface, an interactive movie ad and a way to manipulate music.

In essence, Microsoft's work in developing the Kinect motion controller created a positive externality by giving the world an effective way to interact with computers with gestures instead of physical contact. There's no telling what other uses we will dream up for this technology, and most of the grunt work was done by a for-profit company that probably will not be paid for most of the advances.

Another positive application of video game technology has been the increased detail in medical imaging technology thanks to all the hard work game companies put into developing top-notch graphics to make games more enjoyable. All medical companies had to do was re-purpose this technology to show the internal organs of living people, instead of the internal organs of dead enemies.

With all the baseless accusations video games get for harming the world, shouldn't we take time to appreciate them for making the world better place sometimes?


Sunday, April 3, 2011

Don't let violent mobs destroy freedom of speech

While the stupidest thing to happen in the past week was the murder of 12 people in Northern Afghanistan by a mob angered by a recent Quran burning in Florida, the second stupidest thing happened today when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) suggested we let that same mob write our policies for us.

Graham told Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation this morning that "Free speech is a great idea, but we're in a war" and we should put legal restrictions on blasphemy.

That's not how it works, people. America should not pass legislation against specific messages just because certain groups promise to use violence when that message is expressed.

Instead, let us behave like civilized adults and remind people that the answer to speech we don't like is more speech, not violence or suppression.

I will lead by example. Terry Jones, the Florida pastor who burned the Quran, is irresponsible. We get it Terry, you've proven for us once again that Islamic extremists currently present a great danger than the extremists of the other major religions. One would have to be a fool to think otherwise. If someone burns a Bible or Torah people get offended, if someone burns a Quran people get beheaded.

So knowing that, why would Jones go ahead and make a gesture that he knew would cause the death of innocent people? I don't want the law to stop people from desecrating holy books, but I thought common sense and human decency would have kicked in by now.

There is a lot of shame to go around here. Most of it belongs to the rioters, but Graham and Jones deserve plenty as well. There are no good guys here, and and I don't expect anything positive to come from this whole wretched incident. This is just awful.