Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Occupy Wall Street is aimless nonsense

I don't like public protests.

It doesn't matter what the cause is, from calls for violent Marxist revolutions to the small government Tea Party rallies, there is something about public demonstrations that just turn me off.

They're loud, clumsy and mindless and they praise crude signs and annoying chants. Instead of the marketplace of ideas, protests are a monopoly of conformity. As Jean-Francois Revel said:
A human group transforms itself into a crowd when it suddenly responds to a suggestion rather than to reasoning, to an image rather than to an idea, to an affirmation rather than to proof, to the repetition of a phrase rather than to arguments, to prestige rather than to competence.
Enter Occupy Wall Street, a completely generic protest that has no real goals and is now trying to shoehorn every broad liberal talking point under a common banner. The idea of deciding what a protest is about after it's started isn't revolutionary, it's moronic.

This is the perfect example of the sad state of modern protests - self-righteous feel-good antics that have little chance of accomplishment.

If the goal is to change the world in a targeted way, than public protests are a poor investment of time and money. If instead the goal is to develop an undeserved sense of accomplishment, then by all means, paint those brown cardboard signs and repeat those slogans.


Sunday, September 25, 2011

What is Elizabeth Warren's point?

The lefties on my radar were enthusiastic this past week about a stump speech on taxes from "consumer advocate" and 2012 senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren.

Warren's statement, which can be read by clicking the image at the beginning of this post or heard in the video at the end, does a great job of dismantling an argument that no one is actually making.

If I find someone arguing that rich people shouldn't have to pay any taxes, I'll be sure to send them to Warren's Den of Intellectual Dishonesty. But as it stands, she is getting a lot of mileage with empty rhetoric.

From The Economist:
Of course, not unlike a tea-party Republican making the case for small government, Ms Warren paints in over-broad, simplifying strokes. It is not actually true that "the rest of us" paid for the roads, the education of workers, or police and fire protection. Some of us paid for them, and some of us paid a lot more than others. Rich people, for example, have paid and continue to pay more than the rest of us.
I hear on NPR almost every morning the debate phrased as "should the rich have to pay a little more." Did I just wake up in Estonia? We already have a progressive tax structure, where the rich pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes, but the left seems to forget that detail and acts as if taxes are flat.

I understand and respect the progressive tax viewpoint. Wealth brings diminishing returns to someone's quality of life. In effect, the rich can afford to lose a bigger percentage of their money. That's a reasonable position.

But just how unbalanced are they willing to make the tax structure? Is there a point where they will be satisfied the rich has paid enough? We want details, not vague hand waving. I understand there are many other types of federal taxes than income tax, but the rich are already paying more of the taxes than anyone else, and here's Elizabeth Warren acting like they don't pay any.

Warren's rhetoric is a cover to justify arguments that unchecked amounts of wealth belong to the government because the government made a limited contribution to its creation.

So not only did the rich help pay for it, they paid for more of it than anyone else.

Keep a big hunk of it? Just how much are we talking about? This is drivel, and I have no idea what she means by "pay forward for the next kid that comes along" either.

Everyone should pay taxes Liz, not just the rich, and for all the reasons you mentioned.


Thursday, September 22, 2011

Protectionism served sunny side up

Following the Solyndra scandal, where President Obama championed a sweetheart $535 million loan to a California solar panel company that spent it frivolously then went bankrupt, alternative energy subsidies are getting more of the scrutiny they deserve.

But to me, the issue highlights the protectionist hypocrisy surrounding our trade relations with China. A recent statement from U.S. Rep. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) demonstrates this inconsistency:
Chinese producers often receive large subsidies from their government and price their goods at levels that do not reflect the reality of the marketplace thus putting U.S. industries at a distinct disadvantage unless remedies are used to level the playing field.

Wyden identified the Department of Commerce’s authority to self-initiate an investigation into the application of anti-dumping and countervailing duties as one remedy as well as conditions place on China’s entry to the World Trade Organization that give the president the authority to impose tariff safeguards on surging Chinese imports that disrupt U.S. industry.
Reality of the marketplace? Did an unsold Solyndra solar panel fall and bonk Wydon on the head?

American solar panels do not reflect the "reality of the marketplace" because they receive subsidies as well, as well as tax breaks for people who use them. These unrealistic, artificially low prices happen because America does exactly what he's accusing China of doing.

Perhaps Wyden is unaware of the "green jobs" kick that's going on in Washington?

Nope, he's bringing home green eggs and pork for his constituents.

This is the kind of garbage you get when you put economic illiterates in positions of power. Wyden is just the latest in a long line of fools who say they want Americans to use environmentally-friendly energy sources, but when Chinese tax payers offer to pay part of the bill, these so-called environmentalists spaz out and threaten to place higher taxes on American consumers.


Monday, September 19, 2011

Don't take investment advice from lottery winners

I was listening to an NPR interview this morning with actor Aaron Paul of the show Breaking Bad, and he told host Terry Gross that he had the blessing of his family and teachers when he moved to Los Angeles immediately after graduating early from high school to pursue an acting career.

Paul said when he was getting ready to leave, one of his teachers pulled him aside out of concern and asked if he had a Plan B in case he can't make it as an actor. He did not, and his mother was so angered that she went to the school and yelled if the teacher had a Plan B in case the education field doesn't work out.

This drivel annoys me, that people should follow their dreams no matter what and ignore the naysayers. Gross really did her audience a disservice by not challenging Paul's arrogance. The reason is something I call the VH1 Behind the Music effect.

I'm open to a punchier title if anyone has one.

The idea is similar to the Anthropic principle in physics, where we only observe a universe that appears designed for life because we won the cosmic lottery and are alive to observe. VH1 interviews musicians who say they were told they'd never make it in the cutthroat entertainment business, and every one of them turned out a success.

But VH1 only interviews successful musician, they don't talk to the miserable record store clerk who never wrote a hit song. There is a survivorship bias at play, where the successful musicians give advice and the failures don't share their experience.

My generation has been fed this awful "follow your dreams" advice that has lead a lot of them into pursuing useless college degrees for fields where they can't make money. The problem is, everyone wants to do these fun jobs so there's a lot more applicants than positions. Instead of having a rewarding job that never feels like work, most of them have to settle for a different job that pays poorly, or rack up more debt and go back for a degree in something practical.

Kids don't benefit from bogus feel-good advice. Paul's teacher was right to be concerned with his future because he was using a risky strategy. It doesn't matter that it turned out reasonably well for him, it was still a bad move to make without a back-up plan. As Greg Mankiw said, it's better to judge on the logic of ones decisions than their results.


Saturday, September 17, 2011

Darwin the economist

The newest episode of EconTalk should not be missed. Guest Robert Frank served as a great balance to Russ Roberts, so listeners got a good mix of "left" economics and "right" economics.

Frank scored so major honesty points when he said that before the government intervenes in the economy, it should make sure its plan won't make things worse. Yes, sometimes the market returns results that are not socially optimal, but there's no point in applying government pressure if you have no reason to believe the results will be better.

He also made a tremendously concise comparison of the wastefulness of both evolution and free markets. For example, male elephant seals fight each other for harems of females, so genes that make them better combatants get passed on. As a result, a male elephant seal weighs about 6,000 pounds. That's wasteful. They'd all be better off if they all fell a third in size.

Compare that to hockey players, who can see more without a helmet. If given a choice, most players will opt not to wear one. That means no one gets an advantage, and everyone is at risk of an injury. Because of this, players will vote to enforce helmet rules on everyone.

Message to Michael Hawkins: this one is perfect for you.

Also, in the final minutes, Frank went into the advantages of replacing the income tax with a consumption tax, and I was impressed at how simple the mechanism is. I know Dan over at Crumb City is a fan of this policy, even if most of his work is about slaying trolls and stealing tomes.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Can we take back the word "attack"

I despise exaggerated language.

Case in point: President Obama's re-election campaign has started, a website to collect and respond to criticism of the president. The campaign also encouraged Twitter users to include #AttackWatch in their messages to help them collect information, but that strategy has humoursly backfired as only Obama critics are using the hashtag and as I write this are flooding Twitter with comments like "I'd like to report a crime. All of the Obama stickers on cars are disappearing" and "I think my friend's a Tea Party Terrorist; keeps talking about paying down debt & personal responsibility."

My issue isn't the strained Orwellian comparison to reporting on your neighbors that some people are making, it's this trend of using the word "attack" when talking about criticism.

Attack is a word associated with violence and malice. It drips with negativity and contempt. Criticism, however, is a necessarily part of free speech. When you see something you disagree with, you should be able to respond to it. That's a hallmark of scientific skepticism. As Ken at likes to say, speech is not tyranny.

When Naomi Klein wrote "The Shock Doctrine," her manipulation of statistics to prove that liberalization of economies harms poor people was like building a pirate ship from a Lego blocks packaged in a fairy princess castle set - it required a lot of creativity and a willingness to place things incorrectly. Economist Jonah Norberg responded to her claims, and she wrote back with an essay titled "One Year After the Publication of The Shock Doctrine, A Response to the Attacks"

Emphasis added. To his credit, Norberg sarcastically called his slam-dunk reply "Three Days After Klein's Response, Another Attack" and in the subtitle stated "In Klein's world, criticism is an attack, unless she does the attacking." He then proceeded to give the greatest political, scientific and statistical uppercut of the decade on Klein's thesis.

Saying you were "attacked" when someone criticizes you is thin-skinned and cowardly, and it's not just liberals who are throwing the word around. If you aren't emotionally stable enough to be criticized, then you have no business speaking up in the first place.


Sunday, September 11, 2011

Yes, Social Security is a Ponzi scheme...

...and if you don't agree, then you don't know how Social Security works.

The other day I sat in my parked car several minutes after I arrived just to hear NPR's promised response to candidate Rick Perry's criticism that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme.

Unfortunately, all the reporter said was that it wasn't. She did not go into details.

A Ponzi scheme masquerades as an investment plan, but instead of generating more money and paying investors, money from new "investors" is simply given to established "investors." There is no actual investment taking place, money is simply shuffled around. A Ponzi scheme works as long as more and more people come in - but it's a vicious circle, because they will have to be paid with money taken from more people. Eventually, the numbers get too big and it goes broke.

Social Security works the same way, it's just a much slower system. It simply takes money from working people and hands it over to the retired, and it depends on having new blood at all time. The ratio of contributors to collectors has been dropping for decades, and since the world population is expected to level off in 40 years, it's going to crash,

Social Security was sold to the public, dishonestly, as an investment plan. But to defend the program before the Supreme Court in 1937, supporters said it was a welfare scheme. In practice it is a welfare program for the rich that is paid for with a regressive tax.

There is no room for debate. Social Security is a Ponzi scheme. It was doomed to fail from the start. The mechanism is the same, Social Security is a Ponzi Scheme.


Thursday, September 8, 2011

A foolish act to follow

You know, President Obama, maybe it's not a good idea to speak at a rally where the opening act is Jimmy Hoffa Jr.

The monopolistic power unions wield has always been a big temptation for organized crime, but modern union supporters try to gloss over big labors entwined history with the mob. In 2009 I attended a small gathering of lefties campaigning for pro-union legislation and they laughed about a rival ad that played up mafia connections with unions as if it were a far-fetched joke.

So why in the name of Anthony Provenzano would the Teamers let themselves get within Tommy gun distance of Hoffa 2.0? And worse, why on Earth would Obama endorse him?


Monday, September 5, 2011

Evolution is being used for a cheap political stunt

Imagine this:

You're a political activist. Your side is in trouble; the sitting president you want to see re-elected failed to keep most of his campaign promises. He doesn't have any major successes to run on. The economy is still given up and at best they are too apathetic to vote.

What do you do?

In 2011, the answer from the left is to stir up as much reckless fear that any potential challengers from the GOP will turn the nation into a Christian theocracy. After all, these candidates have some associations to strange branches of Christianity and some of them support teaching Intelligent Design along with evolution.

Byron York nailed it when he said this is what running on fear looks like.

What's worse here is that my lefty friends in skeptical, secular and biological science communities are allowing themselves to be used in this political game and fearmongering.

Secular writers who already write about problems they see with mainstream Christianity are all too eager to echo these trumped-up "Dominionism" cries, possibly because of confirmation bias. Biologists like Richard Dawkins, who do a great job of defending evolution, are quick to jump to the unsupported conclusion that being wrong about evolution correlates with being wrong about other things.

Now when a Republican politician talks about science, I listen with the same anticipation of ignorance as when an older person talks about the Internet. Those talks are always a countdown to ignorance.

But compared to what? Since when has the left dedicated itself to defending evolution? It's awful that 60 percent of Republicans believe in creationism, but 38 percent of Democrats believe in it too. President Obama's pledge to "restore science to its rightful place in society" was just another empty campaign promise. As Ken from Popehat wrote on a similar incident;
You won’t find much creationism or global warming denying at the Huffington Post, but you will find it to be a cesspool of junk science and assorted twittery.
There are some major problems with the assumption that being dead-wrong about evolution disqualifies someone from holding office. Smart people can be very wrong about subjects outside of their area of expertise, and still right on the money in other cases. I don't know of any politician I've voted for that I didn't think was dead wrong on a few issues, and I doubt one will ever rise to power that I completely agree. Personally, I choose to vote for politicians who are wrong about things unrelated to the office they are running for. As David Harsanyi said in one of my favorite columns of 2010:
After all, what's more consequential than a faux pas about nature and/or nurture? Who cares that Democrat Michael Bennet was busy moralizing about the cosmic benefits of dubious economic theory and science fiction environmentalism — ideas that have already cost us trillions with nothing to show for it?
But there's one nagging question remaining. How did evolution end up on the table in the first place?

From the same Byron York piece I linked earlier:
Out on the campaign trail, Democratic activists are trying to maneuver the candidates into statements to feed the Republicans-are-religious-nuts narrative. For example, in New Hampshire a few weeks ago, a young boy approached Perry with a series of questions about science. How old is the Earth? the boy asked. As Perry answered (he said he didn't know), the boy's mother pushed her son to confront the governor. "Ask him about evolution," she ordered the boy. "Ask him why he doesn't believe in science." Perry's answer -- that evolution is a theory that has "some gaps" -- provided more material for [New York Times Executive Editor] Keller and the subject-changers.

Elsewhere on the trail, so-called "trackers" from the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, David Brock's American Bridge, and other organizations follow Republicans around, sometimes posing out-of-the-blue questions in hopes of throwing a candidate off message. "It's all about homosexuality, Islam, anything that is remotely sensitive socially," says Ellen Carmichael, spokeswoman for frequent target Herman Cain. "That's what they usually ask about."
Its clear what's going on here. The left wants to move the fight to a scientific issue the GOP will stumble on, so they are using children as puppets to throw anything they think will stick. Evolution was not selected because they think its an important subject; they just wanted a battle they know they can win.

It's telling that questions about the disproven link between vaccines and autism are not being lobbed at the Republicans. The anti-vacc movement is popular on the extreme left and extreme right, and my Google searches to find vaccine dirt on GOP contenders Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann did not return any, although I did find Perry being criticized by right wingers for supporting a mandatory HPV vaccine - a view supported by the left and medical science.

Keep in mind that Candidate Obama screwed up the vaccine issue, endorsing a pseudoscience belief of a vaccine-autism link, despite having the opposite stated on his campaign website.

I am not defending Republican ignorance of science. Despite these trolling questions being a hunt to produce gaffs, candidates like Perry willingly endorsed teaching intelligent design along with evolution. They set a trap and he was foolish enough to fall for it.

But don't pretend this was the result of the left displaying a Sagan-like love for science. This would be about Star Trek if the number polled that way. Evolution supporters are being used, plain and simple, and they will be unceremoniously dumped when the issue is over.


Saturday, September 3, 2011

This isn't satire

I was browsing a paper on using film clips to teach economics when I saw several references to a movie from 1998 I had never heard of called "Pentagon Wars."

Here's a clip:

Imagine my horror to discover that this is a fair assessment of what really happened with the evolution of the "Bradley Fighting Vehicle" from a troop transport into a tank.

Good grief.