Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The best reason to buy local

Comedian David Cross has an old bit about wishing there was a pizza place where for an extra $100, your order would be delivered in a limo by a guy in a tuxedo.

From an economic standpoint, that's not a bad idea as long as there are customers willing to pay for it. People go to expensive restaurants thinking the food is going to be much better, when they're really just paying for a nicer tablecloth and a certain atmosphere.

Which brings me to the only point I readily give localists: aesthetics. I've touched upon the idea before that if someone enjoys meeting the craftsman or farmer who creates the product, or gets some kind of kick knowing it was made in the area, and the product is still in their price range, than by all means they should buy it. Consumers should buy the products they think are the best deal.

Personally, I get more of a kick knowing I have a product made by someone who didn't need to speak the same language, or know anything about me, to help me, and that we're both better off when we trade.

I don't buy from farmers' markets, but I can understand why people would be willing to pay more for the experience. Customers get to talk with the food producers and there's a friendly community atmosphere. Attending a farmers' market is a perfectly rational thing to do, even though there are no benefits to the economy or environment.

I've spent the last two years writing about why I reject the economic and environmental arguments of local-purchasing advocates, but that doesn't mean I have to categorically reject every aspect of their world view. Aesthetics have value, and while I don't share the aesthetic preferences of localists, I respect their right to pursue theirs.


Saturday, June 25, 2011

Why I read Popehat.com

If you've never read Popehat before, yesterday's post in response to Hilary Clinton's awful remark will show you what you're missing.

It's the only law blog I regularly read, and as much as I love the snark, libertarian politics and good advice, I have to hand it to Ken here for going above and beyond and displaying what should go through every observer's mind when Clinton defended the Obama administration's fantasyland claim that bombing Libya doesn't count as hostile actions or war by asking, "Whose side are you on?"

I just want to reiterate how absurd the situation is: The president is telling an absurd fable to the public in an attempt to circumvent the Constitution, and Hilary Clinton's response is to accuse war critics of treason.

Where's Keith Olbermann when you need him?


Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Looking for Keynesian test subjects

I'm looking for some anonymous writers who hold informed progressive economics views and would be willing to answer a few general questions as part of an experiment.

I've been toying with the idea of writing some pieces as if I held a Keynesian view to see how faithful I can do it, and this recent Bryan Caplan piece outlining an experiment got me thinking.

Please respond to this post or send me an e-mail if you'd like participate in the experiment I have in mind. I'm going to keep some of the details secret, but volunteers need to be able to write a one-paragraph response to some general questions about the modern economy without Googling their entire answers.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Don't let nutcases write their own introductions

BoingBoing writes:
Meanwhile, outside, "a bunch of politically articulate, highly intelligent, engaged individuals: many of whom are scarily young and energetic" have gathered outside the Bilderberg's conference hotel in Switzerland to gather and report what they can:
This yarn always bugged me, about how well informed and intelligent activists are who downloaded all their views from a 1,500 word PDF file or copied them out of the brochure in their back pocket.

You are not politically astute because you allow exposure to one side of an argument to move you to action, especially if that action includes wearing a stupid costume in a line of sign-wielding social misfits chanting slogans.

What they refer to as "educating" people is really an incestuous closed-loop information life cycle, where an idea is passed from seasoned activist to new recruit without any exposure to outside context or contrary views, and that new recruit grows into the next generation of activist without ever venturing outside the ideological camp.


Saturday, June 18, 2011

Keep affirmative action out of skepticism

There they go again.

I really try to keep scientific skepticism and my politics separate. Sometimes it can't be avoided, like when politicians make flawed scientific claims through ideas like creationism or protectionism. But generally, I keep my value judgments and my cause-and-effect beliefs separate.

That can't be avoid here, because the progressives at Skepchick.com have picked up the banner again and are pushing their politics onto the skeptic community and declaring that racial and gender quotas need to be introduced at skepticism conferences when choosing speakers and panel members.

Good grief.

I signed up to fight misinformation, not appease someone elses white guilt. This idea, that with the right policies in place, these champions of equality can transform the world into the rainbow-colored utopia they dream about is absolutely unrealistic. White males are speakers so often in skepticism because white males make up a large chunk of the community and tend to be the movers and shakers as well.

Don't blame me, blame reality.

Infact, that's exactly what the same activists did this month when they had a scholarship contest to get more women to attend a conference, and all 12 winners were white. The poster Amy said:
I agree it is a problem but we only could pick from who applied. No women of color applied that I am aware of.
The obvious cost of pandering to diversity here is to elevate undeserving speakers. The potential gain is to make the movement slightly more marketable, so the question I have to ask is, at what cost?

As someone who's been trying to nail a small presentation slot at The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas about getting skepticism in the media, is it fair to deliberately hamstring me for being a white male? The main benefit they claim - a different perspective - is something I do indeed bring as a member of the mainstream media. Is that quest for a different perspective really worth the cost?

What about the speakers who are selected. I know Neil deGrasse Tyson was selected as the keynote speaker in 2008 for being a great scientist and the host of Nova. He gave a great talk and clearly deserved to be there. But, he's headlining this year again, which is pretty soon. I'm forced to think he got bumped up so quickly to appease these activists. I'm sure I'm not alone, and even if wrong, doesn't that question unfairly detract from the honor he is receiving?

I'm really sick of liberals treating skepticism like they own it. They don't. Science is about cause and effect, politics is about value judgments. Science can be very inconvenient for politic movements - like how the president is threatening to veto to save the discredited ethanol program.

As an experiment, I decided to not use any links in this post written by white males. If you clicked the "creationism" text in the second paragraph, you'll find a so-so dismissal of Intelligent Design by Dinesh D'Souza. It's not the best take down I could have linked, but its what I came up with after three times the normal amount of work in finding a supportive link. My ethanol link wasn't the best one either. I also had to keep some ideas unsupported by links, and cut out other ideas I couldn't find links for.

That, in a nutshell, is the cost of satisfying these activists.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Congress can't stop subsidizing the rich

There's a little econ riddle I like to ask people to plant a thought in their brain: Say a sweater costs $10 at a store, and the government wants to decide between putting a $10 tax on the merchant who sells that sweater, or the customer who buys it. What is the difference?

The answer is, there is no difference. Those policies will switch who "writes the check" for the tax, but it will not change who actually pays the tax. It's the same thing with the illusion that employers pay half of social security.

So turning that metaphor around from taxes to subsidies, a recent Marginal Revolution post from Alex Tabarrok got me thinking about who a subsidy really goes to.

Farm subsidies are the perfect example of corporate welfare. They are big checks given to rich corporations that let them sell their product cheaper. My friends on the left can easily relate when I tell them why I oppose farm subsidies.

But what if instead we sent cards out to consumers that let them get a discount for the American food that purchased. When that happens, some people jump ship to support that program. I can understand why when the checks are only written to the poor, but sometimes they're written to everyone.

The USDA's "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" program gives loans and grants to "local food producers," but since this is an unproductive, needlessly expensive way to produce food, and the product they make costs more, isn't this simply subsidizing the rich?

What's next, subsidizing opera tickets? Don't worry, we already do that.

The Trabarrok posts says that the Republicans are cutting some food aid, where the check is written to the poor, but keeping a ton of the farm subsidies intact, where the check is written to the rich. This is the worst way to go about this.

Interesting point from Trabarrok at the end. We love our agricultural subsidies so much, when the World Trade Organization told us to stop paying $147 million each year to the American cotton industry, or give the same amount to Brazil's cotton industry (and the customers of that industry), our leaders chose to double down instead of leading the table.

What an absolute mess.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Moral hazard in Gears of War 3

Horde mode in Gears of War 3 is slated to feature a new hazard - the moral hazard.

In Gears 2, horde mode is an endurance match where waves of enemies swarm a small squad of up to five players. It uses the games multiplayer deathmatch maps as arenas and players “win” after completing 50 waves of increasingly difficult monsters.

If you die in horde mode, you don’t come back until the next wave. A wave fails the moment the last player dies, so staying alive is very important.

But that’s going to change in Gears 3 horde mode. Players will win currency to purchase fortification (to be fair, horde mode was unbeatable without using shields as improvised barriers), traps, weapons and - get ready for it - resurrections for dead teammates.

Now this isn’t going to be the cliche “how dare they make changes in the new version” post that nerdblogs are so prone to include. It’s entirely possible this will be more fun, and I look forward to having randomly-selected bosses every 10 waves instead of a pack of bloodmounts each time.

Instead, I want to make a prediction - more players will die stupid, risky deaths because the permanent buzzkill of an in-game death will be gone.

I tend to only play horde mode with friends, and I imagine that will be become an official policy when horde 2.0 matches feature reckless players looking to rack up more kills kamikazing into packs of enemies, then demanding in squeaky voices that I spend hard-earned currency to bring them back so they can do it all over again.

I theorize that a no-rez policy may make some groups more successful on average, as players will see their risk and reward curves bend, take less chances, and have more money leftover to buy explosive-tipped arrows.


Saturday, June 11, 2011

What the crisis revealed about Anthony Weiner

I first heard about Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) a year ago when he was injured by a goat in a publicity stunt to fight against the mohair subsidy.

This is an issue I care a great deal about, as it's a perfect example of how politics welcomes concentrated benefits and dispersed costs and the awfulness of agricultural subsidies.

Basically, we needed lots of mohair for WW2 pilots, so subsidies were created to encourage goat farmers to produce more of it. We don't need any of it now, but the subsidy remains because its a tiny piece of the budget, but millions of dollars for certain producers. There's more political will on the mohair producers side as they make a ton of "rent" from the subsidy, as taxpayers are only out a little each.

I gained a lot of respect for Weiner there. He was willing to make a principled stance for something that won't woo a lot of voters. I've followed him ever since and although he's a liberal firebrand, he's a firebrand I can stand. Unlike that smug manatee from Florida.

But now Weiner finds himself in a stupid scandal with jokes too obvious to bother making. My occasional sparring partner Michael Hawkins sums up an idea nicely I've heard a lot lately, that Weiner's personal life isn't important enough to care about.

However, what is relevant is how poorly Weiner handled this crisis. As Popehat's Ken said,
If a politician can’t address a personal crisis without flopping all over the networks like a dying fish on a dock, then there’s reason to question whether he can manage crises of leadership. Hell, even if a politician is falsely accused of sexual impropriety, if he adopts a strategy that makes him look like he’s being controlled by that alien who wore Vincent D’Onofrio for half of Men in Black, then it’s reasonable to question whether he can hack the big jobs.
Weiner screwed this one up. I can perfectly understand why someone would lie about breaking the vows of their marriage. I think that's a rational thing to do. However, there's really no excuse for someone that bright to act like such an idiot about it and refuse to adopt a consistent story about it.

I lost a lot of respect for Anthony Weiner this month, but it wasn't about his Internet-based infidelities. It was his incompetence.


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Modern mental disorders need an overhaul

I feel vindicated.

The New York Review of Books combined three different books on mental illnesses into a single review that asks some hard-hitting questions about the prevalence of mental disorders and pharmaceutical solutions, including questions I've had for the past decade:
What is going on here? Is the prevalence of mental illness really that high and still climbing? Particularly if these disorders are biologically determined and not a result of environmental influences, is it plausible to suppose that such an increase is real? Or are we learning to recognize and diagnose mental disorders that were always there? On the other hand, are we simply expanding the criteria for mental illness so that nearly everyone has one?
The simplistic "chemical imbalance" explanation for depression is something I've found fishy and I'm glad to see it's getting the attention it deserves.

How can depression be caused solely by biological factors and be a constantly-increasing disability that prevents a large share of people from going to work. If that were true, wouldn't it have prevented people from going to work a century ago? We can plainly see it didn't, so how can the defenders of brain chemistry determinism cling to the excuse that people were always this depressed, we just didn't know to look for it or record it.

In Anatomy of an Epidemic, Robert Whitaker writes:
The number of disabled mentally ill has risen dramatically since 1955, and during the past two decades, a period when the prescribing of psychiatric medications has exploded, the number of adults and children disabled by mental illness has risen at a mind-boggling rate.
The other two books, Unhinged by Daniel Carlat and The Emperor's New Drugs by Irving Kirsch, expand on these themes and present psychiatry as a science compromised by its relationship with the pharmaceutical companies. I'm reminded of the Louis Menand episode of Econtalk about the state of psychiatry, and how the DSM-V is going to erase the line between grieving and depression.

As I've written before, it's dangerous to oppose a scientific consensus if you're not intimately versed in the subject. I'm willing to take a stand against these elements of modern psychiatry because I feel I know enough about this subject, I can see the logical flaws in the reasoning and I've listened to the responses and do not find them compelling.

Diagnosed mental problems have been creeping into the lives of normal, healthy people. Depression is not a disease and neither is alcoholism. I think we will see some major changes in the scientific views on these subjects in the next decade.


Sunday, June 5, 2011

Jim Crow and the minimum wage

I was rereading one of Dylan's post on racial issues over at Blindsight 20/20 and I got to thinking about how any legislature that impacts blacks negatively more than other groups - crack-cocaine punishments, welfare reform, public housing cuts, etc. - are presented as racist in nature and motivation.

Under Jim Crow laws, this was absolutely the case. Legislation that said in order to vote, you must ace a difficult voting test unless your grandfather was a voter was designed to target blacks without actually mentioning them.

Jim Crow laws were a horrible blight on our record, which makes it politically convenient for some lefties to invoke them to smear modern laws that would impact blacks more than whites.

So with that template in mind, shouldn't minimum wage laws fall under the 21st century Jim Crow umbrella?

I've added emphasis to the minimum wage entry on the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics:

At current U.S. wage levels, estimates of job losses suggest that a 10 percent in crease in the minimum wage would decrease employment of low-skilled workers by 1 or 2 percent. The job losses for black U.S. teenagers have been found to be even greater, presumably because, on average, they have fewer skills. As liberal economist Paul A. Samuelson wrote in 1973, “What good does it do a black youth to know that an employer must pay him $2.00 per hour if the fact that he must be paid that amount is what keeps him from getting a job?”

This has been well-understood for a long time. The white labor unions in South Africa under apartheid pushed for minimum wages to push blacks out of jobs. It doesn't matter that the proponents today are no longer motivated by racism when the results are identical.

If one is in the habit of calling racism on any legislation that makes things difficult for minority members more than anyone else, than they should see the minimum wage as nothing less than a Jim Crow law.


Thursday, June 2, 2011

DLC as a carrot, and not a stick

Very interesting business decision from Rockstar Games this week. Detective thriller L.A. Noire is going to have downloadable missions released over the summer and while players can buy them one at a time, they also have the option of buying them in a lump before they're released through the new "Rockstar Pass."

What's novel about this is that in addition to urging tightwads like me to cough up $10 now, it's also a very clever way to combat the used game market.

Gamestop stores have made a huge impact on the video game world by giving consumers a reliable place to sell games they've finished. The ease of finding a used Gamestop copy means the game companies are missing out on a lot of sales, so they started giving players an incentive to buy new copies. The normal way to do it is to cut off certain features unless the player uses a one-time code included in the new copy.

But that's aggressive, and some consumers resent getting the stick.

But with the Rockstar Pass, players on the other side of the exchange are the ones being given an incentive - and a positive one at that. Those used copies have to come from people who don't want to play anymore, and by slowly releasing new content over the summer, Rockstar has found a way to delay Gamestop from getting its hands on those used copies.

The carrot is more missions for the customer, instead of less missions for the Gamestop customer.

Very clever, Rockstar. Well played.