Thursday, March 31, 2011

"Training Wages" would benefit Maine teens

Maine State Rep. David Burns (R-Whiting) is sponsoring a bill to lift minimum wage requirements for Maine teens during their first six months of employment.

LD 1346 would also reduce limitations on hours worked by teens in school. Opponents are spinning this as a return to child labor. It always amazes me how laws designed to keep children out of dangerous factories and coal mines are still used to keep kids away from air-conditioned offices.

Minimum wage laws are a ban on the hiring of workers with low skills, and teenagers are some of the biggest victims on these well-intentioned laws. It's a price floor, and like all price floors, it distorts and lowers demand. Minimum wages raise the wages of workers who have jobs, but it also reduces the number of jobs and increases unemployment for those with skills to low to justify the artificial wage.

By allowing teens to sell their labor cheaper, this legislation would help the young workforce market itself better in the future.

This bill is a rare treat - a direct and faithful economic principle as a template for legislation. I hope this passes and Maine becomes a natural experiment in the employment level of teenagers.


Monday, March 28, 2011

A Target for extortion

The Target stores versus gay rights groups issue has been stirred up again recently when Target filed a lawsuit against Canvass for a Cause to allegedly stop the group from harassing customers on store property.

I try to give me friends on the left the benefit of the doubt when I can, and that's why this issue has me so flabbergasted. What happened is the Target corporation, which has it's headquarters in Minneapolis, gave $150,000 to MN Forward, a political action committee that funnels campaign money to politicians with a pro-business agenda.

One of those candidates was Tom Emmer, a Republican candidate for governor who supports positions that favor large businesses. He also is against gay marriage, and that's why all the ignorance spilled out last July.

Gay activists said they couldn't understand why Target, a company that voluntarily gives marriage benefits to same-sex partners of employees and sponsors gay pride events and gay workplace advancement groups, would turn around and give money to thwarting gay marriage. They seemed absolutely baffled, and that's why the protest signs and the boycott threats came so fast and furiously.

It seemed to never occur to anyone that the Target corporation had no interest in gay marriage, and instead, instead gave money to a group it believed would aid their bottom line and unfortunately, that usually overlaps with anti-gay sentiments. If the politicians who support gay marriage didn't have such a bitter anti-corporate agenda then no doubt Target would have given them money as well.

But gay rights groups like the Human Rights Campaign pretended not to notice and as the AP reported, tried to use the protests and boycotts to extort money from Target, promising to call them off if Target gave them $150,000 to match what they gave MN Forward. Target wasn't the only corporation they were trying to hit up either:

The group is also demanding donation from electronics retailer Best Buy Co., which gave $100,000 to the same group backing Emmer.

So the only way to satisfy the protesters would be to pay them off or pony up an equal amount of money for pro-gay candidates - candidates that companies feels specifically work against their business interests.

Target CEO Gregg Steinhafe even released a statement identifying Target's voluntary support for gay rights and that it gave to MN Forward to support the bottom line. It should never have needed to explain this - it was transparently obvious from the get-go. I suspect that progressives aren't as dense as they're letting on and are just pretending to not understand this simple concept.

The left seems to be saying that we should all be single-issue voters on gay rights issues, and there is no justification for supporting any candidate who works against it. They are usually better at remembering that a corporation's goal is to make money and increase profits - they usually complain about that idea, but in this case they seem to have forgotten and instead believe the Target corporation is willing to sink valuable money on a social issue that will not benefit the bottom line.

The protesters have treated this issue superficially. They've never even scratched the surface or made any effort to understand this issue. Shame on gay rights groups for their political opportunism here and attempts to extort money.


Friday, March 25, 2011

Criticism is not suppression

Inside Higher Ed ran a story in the past week about Timothy J. L. Chandler of Georgia's Kennesaw State University. Chandler was on his way to becoming provost when an op-ed piece in a local newspaper criticized his nomination, and cited a rambling paper Chandler had written in 1998 with Walter E. Davis, who later became a 9-11 troofer.

The infamous paper heavily quotes Marx and was sprinkled with academic jargon and clueless anti-capitalist gems like:

Although the close connection of capitalism to violence is easily shown, it is seldom acknowledged. The allocative resources, which are increasingly disproportionably possessed, were obtained by individuals and groups, at one time or another, by physical force, coercion.

That's an odd way to describe a system of voluntary cooperation, especially from a mindset that has always ended up replacing it with actual force and coercion.

What really bothered me about the spin this story is getting is that Chandler is being held up as the victim of an assault on academic freedom - that op-ed pieces and and blog entries critical of Chandlers nomination are an assault on free speech.

People - that's one of the worst free speech fallacies out there. Freedom of speech means you have the right to express ideas - it is not freedom from criticism or the consequences of expressing certain ideas. Popehat has a great running tally of cases where fools claim the free speech of their critics is tyrannical.

This issue has made me question my position in a post I wrote last year about "take them off the air" campaigns where sponsors are pressured into dropping advertisements for a targeted show, like what happened to Don Imus. I still don't approve of this tactic, but I no longer label it as solid anti-free speech behavior because it's hard to draw the line between lobbying to remove a venue for speech and criticizing a venue being used to express a certain view.

However, no one pressured university donors to pull strings and drop Chandler - all he got was a few editorials and blog entries critical of his appointment. Academic freedom has never meant freedom from the public's ridicule. That's not tyranny or suppression, it's a normal response. It doesn't matter if the criticism is warranted or justified - those concepts don't matter here.

Criticism itself is a form of speech and it needs to be respected too.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Idiot Hunting

There's a simple trick I see all over the Internet, talk radio, newspapers and television that people use to unfairly portray groups they don't like. Anyone can do it, and it's easy to pull off with a simple search engine.

I've dubbed the process "idiot hunting" and the formula is easy to follow:

1) Pick a group to smear.

2) Search for something stupid said by a member of that group. They do not have to be a typical or important member.

3) Prop up the idiot as a fair representative of that group.

4) Conclude that the entire group is idiotic.

For example, yesterday a friend on Facebook linked this article from the Huffington Post about a Republican Congresswoman sponsoring a bill to declare pi as valued at exactly three. She must not have read much of the article, because it was sprinkled with lines like:

New York City Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) responded to Roby's legislation with a massive brain aneurysm. Democrats are hopeful to retain his New York City seat in an April special election.

The article was a joke, and not even an original one. The setup has been around for more than a decade.

But hoodwinked Facebook liberals posted the article over and over again, introducing it with snaps about the stupidity of republicans and conservatives. Because they thought one Republican had a stupid view, it confirmed their belief that all of them are.

There's a search engine for public Facebook status updates called OpenBook that got a lot of popularity last year over the "Ground Zero Mosque" episode. Someone discovered if you search recent status updates for "mosk", you will mostly return angry right-wing Christians who abuse caps lock.

Of course, this was idiot hunting at its finest. Searching for a poor spelling of "mosque" filtered the search on intellectual lines. The joke doesn't actually work anymore, the results I got this afternoon were mostly calm young Arabs.

But using OpenBook to find "conservative pi" today I was able to find a steady stream of angry liberals fooled by the satirical pi-equals-three article who would soon be eating their words when they discovered they'd been fooled. I could easily compile a large collection of liberals to mock.

But look closely at the comments from the middle gentleman in the screenshot I just linked in the above paragraph. He was clearly in on the joke. But if I wanted to go idiot hunting, that wouldn't stop me. I could have just skipped him and cherry pick the people who had been fooled. I might not even be aware I'm doing it, confirmation bias being a powerful force.

Any large group is vulnerable to idiot hunting because large groups are very likely to contain at least one idiot. Heck, they don't even have to have a single idiot, they just need one member to say a foolish thing once and the opposition can claim it's part of a pattern.

Remember when the right wing blogosphere lit up after President Obama was photographed eating black power ice cream? I don't, but I certainly read enough times that it did. Allegedly, all kinds of right wing blogs were convinced the president was sending some subtle signal to nefarious interlopers.

But look closely. None of the blogs cited as getting upset over this non-issue were important or influential. Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh weren't saying it. It was just some idiots I had never heard of, but critics kept insisting they were major players.

Here's a handy hint: If a blog updates a post to beam that someone out there cited it, even if its The Bar Harbor Times, then it's not a major blog. Essentially, there were major news stories out there to prove once and for all that some people write stupid things online.

More recently, I didn't hear anything stupid spoken about the tragedy in Japan on the radio, read it online or see it on television. But still, people wanted to prove the point that America has a lot of evil, stupid people so they used OpenBook to find fools who thought the earthquake and subsequent tsunami were karmic payback for Pearl Harbor.

The Internet is a vast and accessible place where anyone can say anything they want. It's much easier to seek out living straw men like Sarah Palin to knock down instead of challenging fierce warriors like George Will. Hank Johnson's membership in the Democratic party doesn't have any bearing on the intelligence of the average liberal, but it's much easier to mock him than engage in any sort of reasonable debate.


Sunday, March 20, 2011

200 years of Luddites

May your hearts swell with pride this year, locavores, because 2011 is the 200th anniversary of Luddism.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Maine town deregulates safety laws for local food

Earlier this month the town of Sedgwick passed an ordinance to exempt local food producers from various food safety inspection requirements and other consumer protection rules.

Despite the supporters being the usual nutty locavore Luddites arguing the same pseudoeconomic drivel, I think this story stumbles in a positive direction by bringing some deregulation into the marketplace.

I don't know about specific examples in agriculture, but most large industries pull something called "regulatory capture" where big companies write the regulations to drive out competitors. It's the small companies that usually lose because they can't pay the higher overhead costs created by the regulations. It's a classic Bootlegger and Baptist story.

This ordinance attempts to circumvent that. I don't like that it gives special rights to small companies. I would like to see all companies treated the same under the law, but at least this move gives some companies justice, while others are still harmed. As I've written before, regulation is often unnecessary because companies that wish to keep customers must consistently put out a good product. It doesn't matter what size the company is

What I find unrealistic about this ordinance is that it declares the town has the power to overrule federal and state laws. Section 6.1 reads:

State and Federal Law. It shall be unlawful for any law or regulation adopted by the state or federal government to interfere with the rights recognized by this Ordinance. It shall be unlawful for any corporation to interfere with the rights recognized by this Ordinance. The term “corporation” shall mean any business entity organized under the laws of any state or country.

Emphasis added is mine.

I'm not a legal expert, but it's my understanding that lower municipalities can not declare that state and federal laws no longer apply to them. Look at the federal raids on marijuana clinics after California legalized medical use of cannabis. The FDA may strike back.

If town ordinances could nullify existing laws, wouldn't there be a push to buy a few plots of cheap land in one of Maine's unorganized territories, declare it a municipality and legalize drugs, gambling and prostitution?

The ordinance was written as a template to be passed in multiple towns in Maine, and if enough towns attempt to succeed from food safety laws, federal and state agencies will crack down on them. Until then, it looks like Maine will get a taste of the free market.

The locavores like to make a big deal out of things being "natural." Well, this ordinance will create a great natural experiment in free markets. Even though I don't think smaller farms are any cleaner or safer than large ones, I don't expect to see hobbled masses schlepping to the hospital after consuming raw milk and grass-fed beef.


Monday, March 14, 2011

Dilute NCCAM funding

As a skeptic, I see the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine as a pure waste of about $121 million in taxes annually and would jump on any chance to eliminate the department.

Now, realistically I know this department is the baby of Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and because a part of his reputation is tied up in its success, he will fight for its survival. His interest is concentrated, while the interest of the public to save a little more money is spread out. So elimination is a tough fight that our side can't expect to win.

But I think I have a compromise. Following the principles of homeopathy, where a substance gets more powerful if you dilute it in water and shake it up a little between steps, we should dilute the NCCAM funding down to $12.1 million. How's that for shaking things up?

With the alt-med crowds philosophy, the NCCAM would be more powerful and productive with only 10 percent of its current level of funding. If that fails to produce the results they want, we could dilute it again down to $1.21 million. I'm willing to take this as far they want and dilute it to the point that no actual funding exists.

That should guarantee the department will be properly shaken.


Saturday, March 12, 2011

There is no link between abortion and breast cancer

...but try telling that to Indiana state Rep. Eric Turner (R), who wants to require doctors to tell patients that having an abortion increases their risk of breast cancer.

The big flaw in Turner's bill is that the evidence shows no link between abortion and breast cancer. So Turner is demanding that doctors tell patients something they know isn't true in order to discourage abortion. Lies are bad enough in politics, but forcing them them into medical world is just sick.

You know, like that awful federal agency created just to promote alternative medicine.

Science has this nasty habit of being politically inconvenient. Look at the big fuss Maine liberals made when Gov. Paul LePage said he wouldn't ban the chemical BPA. It didn't matter that he was following the World Health Organizations recommendations. In both cases, opponents pulled up some minor study or something thrown together by an activist hack and declared science is on their side, or it's at least contested. That's not how it works, folks, and beware of any scientific debate fought with press releases.

Leave science to the scientists, Eric. We've got enough trouble as it is.


Friday, March 11, 2011

Economic Reality Check #6

The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan will hurt the overall economy, not help it.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

GOP wins the battle of the loopholes

The unions just lost in Wisconsin because the republicans got out of the quorum requirement by placing the collective bargaining issue in a non-budget vote.

I usually avoid linking Fox News articles because readers may dismiss it as slanted, so if that bothers you just pretend this was part of an editorial:

Senate Democrats have been in hiding in Illinois for nearly three weeks in an effort to keep the legislation from advancing (a reminder: Indiana House Democrats also remain in hiding to block a school choice plan). The Wisconsin Senate Democrats swiftly denounced the Republicans’ breach of parliamentary protocol. Democrats said that the two-hour public meeting notice on the vote was inadequate despite approval from the nonpartisan clerk of the state Senate.

But it was not lost on local reporters that it was more than a little churlish for people who have been hiding in Illinois motels for nearly a month to block legislative action to be lecturing anyone about procedural niceties.

I can already see the left crying foul. Well, all the republicans did was close that loophole with one of their own.


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Protectionism is pseudoscience

No matter how many times I say it, or how many other people say it, or how much research they have to back it up, or how much historical evidence we have, or when the scientific consensus is so strong that Paul Krugman and the Cato Institute come to the same conclusions, there will always be people who oppose free trade. I no longer think it's appropriate to refer to these people as skeptical of free trade.

Borrowing from the bloody climate debate, I think the only appropriate label for the opposition is "free trade deniers." I'm not the first to coin this term, a google search today kicks back 36 results, but I will wield it with the full brunt of a real scientific consensus. If you think the near-unanimous agreement of all relevant experts in a scientific field holds any weight, than the consensus for free trade should mean something.

And if you want more proof that protectionism is pseudoscience, than look at its prominence at the faux-intellectual anti-science cesspool Huffington Post.


Sunday, March 6, 2011

A few quick links

As I wrote a few months ago, the elimination of Don't Ask Don't Tell pulled the rug out from the Ivy league bans on military recruiters. This week Harvard agreed to let recruiters on campus for the first time in 40 years.

In a completely unrelated story, the left-wing version of the Tea Party left a $7.5 million cleaning bill behind in the Wisconsin capital building which the actual Tea Party voluntarily helped clean up - a metaphor not to be ignored.

And because two links are not enough to justify a post, The Onion asks something we all want to ask.


Thursday, March 3, 2011

Buy Local criticism on

Read my article introducing the "buy local" issue to skeptics here.

We lost a brave man this week

Pakistani Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a vocal opponent of a national blasphemy law that punishes insulting Islam with death, recorded a video in December to be released in the event of his assassination.

The BBC released that video yesterday.

This is not the same blasphemy law that the United Nations attempted to pass, it is a national law.

I live in a country where freedom of speech is still respected on the whole, for example this week the Supreme Court ruled that the obnoxious protests by the Westboro Baptist Church are protected by the First Amendment. It's important to remember that not everyone has that right, and to honor the people who die fighting for it.