Thursday, December 29, 2011

Mic check!

Like most aspiring pundits, I enjoy Googling things just to make myself upset. That's why I just ended up doing a news search just to see what Michael Moore has been up to. I clicked on exactly two articles about him and the contrast was beautiful.

One was a list of suggestions he made for organized trespassers and the other was his cancellation of a comedy festival he helped organize out of fear that drunks from a brew fest would trickle in again.

Here's a quote from each:
Students should spend this winter doing what they are already doing on dozens of campuses -- holding sit-ins, occupying the student loan office, nonviolently disrupting the university regents meetings, and pitching their tents on the administration's lawn.
You may have noticed my introduction of a bold font at one point. Prepare to see it again.
...A number of shows were interrupted by drunks who had been to the beer fest and decided to visit the Comedy Fest for some yucks. Unfortunately, no one told them that the audience was there to see the famous comedians we brought in, and not them in their happily inebriated state. We didn't have to deal with this in our first year, when we were a stand-alone event. In our second year, anticipating problems, we had paid security, but we didn't have enough to deal with the disruptions...
An unwanted loud band of drunks competing for the spotlight sounds like the right medicine for Moore's comedy festival. It's too bad he canceled it, the irony would have been the best part of the show.


Monday, December 26, 2011

Are local people the master race?

Forgive the post title's accusatory tone, but after reading this classic Bryan Caplan piece titled "Are Low-Skilled Americans the Master Race?" I can't stop myself from drawing the same comparison.

Localists claim that shifting production and purchases to inefficient local sources will make the community richer as part of a zero-sum game, where one group takes wealth from another. What they don't fill in is why the local people deserve to prosper at the expense of others. As Caplan writes:
OK, suppose you could give American high school dropouts an 8% raise by deporting every man, woman, and child from Latin America back to their home countries. Would that be the right thing to do?
Clearly not.

I don't think my opponents are inspired by racism, but it is true that the people they aim to help will typically be members of their own race, while the people they intend to harm will often be from another race.

Occasionally you do see localists arguing their strategy is a positive-sum game (it's not) but the majority of the time localists claim that the local people need to be the ones profiting, not outsiders.

This parasitic philosophy should be right at home with the people who ignore tragedies because they occur in non-English speaking countries.


Friday, December 23, 2011

The future of academic rap

There are two guiding texts that shaped the way I write. The first one is Politics and the English Language by George Orwell, which I've written about before, and the second is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.

This week Russ Roberts linked a mustache-enhanced rap video about The Elements of Style between students playing William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White.

The project was an attempt to communicate the ideas from Strunk and White with the same rap formula used for Keynes and Hayek. I don't think the song is well done or catchy so I'm not embedding it here, but it does present a good question: Is this the start of a trend, and if so, where is that headed?

Will we see clever rhymes and slightly cartoonish costumes with Milton Friedman trouncing John Kenneth Galbraith? Will Paul Samuelson and Greg Mankiw take to the mic to decide who wrote the better textbook? Will there be a duet between Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman? OK, there already is, but you get the point.

There is one set of econ rappers I'd love to see, although their song topic would be pretty open ended. Can you picture two 20-somethings try to replicate these mugs?


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The stupid, it burns!

Norway's butter protectionism just jumped the shark.

Last week I showed how Norway's stupid "buy local" style butter laws reveal the real consequences of restricting consumers to local producers. The country is experiencing a butter famine, thanks to unexpected low production and high demand, and those trade barriers are blocking butter from entering the nation.

Now two Swedes have been arrested for helping the public by bringing butter into the Norway. Remember how 250 grams, or about two sticks, was selling for the equivalent of $13? These guys were selling the same amount for $42. High, yes, but not as high as some Swedes were asking for online.

Mike Munger double posted on this issue, on his regular blog and the new euvoluntary exchange blog, and came to the same conclusion: Norwegian consumers are suffering from a lack of butter and the authorities are still patrolling the borders to keep any new butter out.

This is akin to the Haitian government blocking post-earthquake volunteer doctors from entering the country to promote the domestic medical industry. After this incident if you require more proof before you'll believe that "buy local" is a wasteful pipe dream, odds are you won't be literate enough to read it.

Sorry Norwegians, I'd love to help you out, but if I did I'd be arrested.


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Goodbye, Chris

Out of respect for Christopher Hitchens I am not calling him a personal hero, the way he declined to call George Orwell a hero.

I have been a fan of Hitchens since his 2006 appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher where he said George W. Bush IQ jokes require zero creativty, but in a way that did not defend Bush. A lot has already been written about his honesty, wit and refusal to fall neatly in line with any political orthodoxy. He was a self-described socialist who wrote a book called "God is Not Great," yet supported the Iraq war and opposed abortion.

Instead of retracing that ground, I am just sharing my all-time favorite "Hitchslap," which is the first four minutes of the following video, a link to his appearance on Econtalk and an excerpt from a talk he gave to the Cato Institute.

In 2004, Hitchens said on the Orwellian nature of public smoking bans:
But suppose all this was really a good idea—people might live longer. Suppose all that was really true. There would still be the question of enforcement, that awkward little bit that comes between your conception of utopia and your arrival there. The enforcement bit. You could appoint regulators and inspectors to enforce the law. It would take quite a lot of them, but you could do it. There are such people. I know about them because they’ve come after me.

My editor, Graydon Carter, the splendid editor of Vanity Fair, and I were having a cigarette in his office. And someone on our staff—it’s not very nice to think about it—was kind enough to drop a dime on us. And round the guys came. “You’re busted!” These people are paid by the city, which evidently has no better use for its police.

I think that’s bad enough. But then Graydon went on holiday, and I went back to Washington. And his office was empty. But they came round again and they issued him another ticket because he had on his desk an object that could have been used as an ashtray. In his absence. With no one smoking. But there are officials who have time enough to come round and do that.

The worst part is that the staff has to become the enforcers. The waitresses have to become the enforcers. The maitre d’ has to become the enforcer. He has to act as the mayor’s representative. Because it’s he who is going to be fined, not you. If you break the law in his bar, he is going to have to pay.

So everyone is made into a snitch. Everyone is made into an enforcer. And everyone is working for the government. And all of this in the name of our health.

Hitchens often said the public would be willing to vote for an atheist president, they just haven't been smitten by one yet. If asked, he continued, no one in the 1950's would say they'd vote for a "washed-up B-movie actor" because they hadn't met Ronald Reagan yet. With that in mind, I'm glad to see from the public outpouring that I'm not alone in my reverance for the passing of a godless chain-smoking combative anti-abortion bisexual warmongering rich white male immigrant socialist.


Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Tyler Cowen on food snobs

I'm a big fan of economist Tyler Cowen, even though I have to overlook his embrace of the ugly term "foodie" which I associate with food snobbery. While I can't use his excellent ethnic dining guide of the Washington DC area directly, I have benefited from the universal advice on finding a good ethnic restaurant.

Cowen recently spoke with Freakonomic's Stephen Dubner about American food, foodies, and in particular why he's not a food snob.
Let me just give you a few traits of food snobs that I would differ from. First, they tend to see commercialization as the villain. I tend to see commercialization as the savior. Second, they tend to construct a kind of good versus bad narrative where the bad guys are agribusiness, or corporations, or something like chains, or fast food, or microwaves. And I tend to see those institutions as flexible, as institutions that can respond, and as the institutions that actually fix the problem and make things better. So those would be two ways in which I’m not-only not a food snob, but I’m really on the other side of the debate.
While I'm on the fence about Cowen being a food snob himself, he does hit home an important point: the people I associate as food snobs get tied up in shallow anti-capitalism and blatant conspicuous consumption.

Last night I made Swedish meatballs from an earl 1980's cookbook. Ingredients included standard ground beef, sour cream and bread crumbs made from a slice of cheap white bread. The tomatoes were the cheapest ones I could find and the egg noodles I served it on fell under the generic supermarket label.

The recipe even called for a packet of onion soup mix, so I wouldn't be able to say it was from scratch, if I cared about that sort of thing. I don't, and nothing was organic, locally-made or "fair trade."

It was a great dish, and not despite those details. Most of the details the food snobs spend so much money are simply irrelevant.


Sunday, December 11, 2011

Local butter famine

It's a tragic comedy when costly actions designed to help a situation only make it worse. Hat tip to Kevin "Angus" Grier for this most recent example, Norway's clunky tariffs combined with a new butter-heavy fad diet and lower milk production to create a massive butter shortage.

Localists talk about "food security," the idea that focusing on local food production will protect civilization from food shortages, contain outbreaks and save humanity when doomsday strikes and all interstate deliveries stop.

But instead of having food security, the protectionist policies have created a butter famine. Those same tariffs that block foreign goods with the intention of tilting the market in favor of local farmers is hurting the country. The Norwegians are experiencing food insecurity, as the only way the average person can obtain a basic food item like "smør" is through the Internet at a price around $13 for two sticks.

Clearly, the dairy farmers are making a mint right now, but it's at the expense of the general public. It takes a certain breed of ignorance to conclude that this is good for society.

Blocking foreign butter is hurting, not helping, the people of Norway. Just like insurance spreads risk among a large group of people, free trade spreads local shortages out among the entire world. Norway is not experiencing a butter famine because of low milk levels and a sudden high demand. Those two problems alone would hardly made a dent in the world butter market if the country embraced free trade.

If you want to make sure your local community has access to something as basic as butter, the last thing you want to do sign legislation to limit who the public can buy butter from.


Thursday, December 8, 2011

What's the real Occupy theme song

The band NOFX wrote a sympathetic anthem for the Occupy Wall Street movement, but the lyrics are the same old drivel. These platitudes don't cover what the movement is really about - a loose alliance of radical anti-capitalists and mainstream liberals so eager to protest a grab bag of progressive talking points that they're willing to tolerate law breaking.

"The Trees" by Rush is tempting. It's a metaphor for progressive "fairness" polices told through a group of trees that aren't getting enough sunlight because of the tall oaks.
So the maples formed a union
And demanded equal rights
"These oaks are just too greedy
We will make them give us light"
Now there's no more oak oppression
For they passed a noble law
And the trees are all kept equal
By hatchet, axe, and saw
The lyrics do a great job of showing how progressive economic policies end up destroying wealth, not simply redistributing it, and are inherently unfair. However, it's not targeted to protests and isn't specific enough to be considered a theme song for the Occupy organized trespassing movement.

This one is too easy and plenty of other people have made the connection for "Bang the Drum All Day" by Todd Rundgren. The lyrics don't matter because all everyone knows is the chorus:
I don't want to work
I want to bang on the drum all day
This one isn't fair. While the movement is maggoty with lazy non-stop drummers, it's not fair to say the core of the group doesn't want to work. Most of the protesters want to perform labor under a different economic system. Plenty of sympathetic college grads majored in "fun" things like literature or music that don't prepare them for obtainable careers and while they bear some responsibility for their foolishness, it's still hard to find work for everyone.

That's why I distance myself from other critics who say the protesters want the government to provide everything for them and just need to get a job. Most of them want to work and can't find it.

"Baby, I'm an Anarchist" by Against Me! is a radical protester telling a progressive that they may be on the same side of a few issues, but the progressive underestimates how extreme anarchist positions and tactics are and the two will never see eye to eye.

'Cause baby, I'm an anarchist
You're a spineless liberal
We marched together for the eight-hour day
And held hands in the streets of Seattle
But when it came time to throw bricks
Through that Starbucks window
You left me all alone (All alone)

This song plainly spells out to progressives that the anarchists don't respect them, don't believe the current system can be reformed and are eager to use violence. It'd a great choice for the movement's theme song, however a more fitting song exists.

"Anarchy means you litter" by Atom and His Package is the perfect song to criticize spoiled pre-packaged anarchists.
I got a patch. I got a pin
Obtained political beliefs from the same songs as my friends
I got a five finger discount to the little record store
It's easier to get the stuff I want out

And if you want fair compensation for the work that you do
Well then your greedy, get out, we have amazing names to call you
Ever think there's a difference who you're stealing from?
So, fine, I'm not punk and you are (a moron)

We're gonna tear this stupid city down
Throw our trash on the ground
Liberate that bottle of malt liquor!
Oh, I get it. Anarchy means that you litter (nice!)

So, if you're flying the flag, and you're naming the name
Then you're setting back the ones who know how to behave
It's a good thing this replenishes itself
Or who would be left to take advantage of your "help?"
Consider it a frustrated liberal speaking back to the clueless bomb throwers who learned everything they know from song lyrics and hurt their own allies.

Loyal readers, if you know of a more fitting song, please post it below.


Monday, December 5, 2011

ABC's "Made in America" series is a disgrace to journalism

Just watch this, and in the event that the video doesn't work, just click here.

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

ABC news has abandoned journalistic neutrality and is trying to stir consumers up with a call for mercantilism. They are telling Americans that evil China is stealing jobs and the patriotic solution is simple and easy. If you know anything about international trade and protectionism, you will see these claims are a xenophobic swill of myths and ignorance.

Apparently, ABC was beating this drum last year, and I'm not the only one who had this reaction. Forbes contributor Dan Ikenson wrote "ABC is selling dangerous, nationalistic propaganda."

If you've read this blog for more than a month, you should recoil from lines like:

So after nearly a year of crisscrossing the country as part of our Made in America journey, we remembered what economists across the board told us at the very start: If every American spent $64 on something made in America, we could create 200,000 jobs right now.

In the four and a half minute video, these activists in journalists clothing referenced unnamed economists several times. They did not show an interview with a single economist or name one. Where do these numbers come from?

After sitting through a barrage of these awful clips, some of which include flag waving and rallies organized by ABC, I finally saw a vague attribution to Moody's Analytics that spending 18 cents a day would create 200,000 jobs. However, I have been unable to find the original source, even on Moody's website.

Since economists across the board reject this protectionist nonsense, I find it hard to believe. ABC has cherry-picked a minor report and used it to overturn economic science, and now they won't even cite the source and dishonestly present it as a scientific consensus. Shame on ABC for committing journalistic negligence and telling these nationalistic lies.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Should the government standardize codes?

Yesterday I went on forestry management tour, where we saw how foresters choose which trees to preserve and which get the ax, and I ended up talking to a lefty about timber markings.

Foresters mark trees with paint or pieces of bright ribbon to identify the tree's fate with different symbols and colors. There is no universal code, so each company has its own language of timber marks.

This can cause problems like homeowners who panic and assume the "save this tree" mark means "turn me into a Jenga set" or laborers who misread the code and chop down trees that were supposed to stay up.

My new lefty friend instantly concluded the solution is for the government to draft and enforce a standardized code. I thought that would be a mistake.

Languages, such as codes, typically emerge through spontaneous order and sometimes we end up with redundancies. Boxes of chocolates have a squiggle code on top identifying the filling with lines of chocolate. Sorry Forrest, but you can know what you're going to get if you just learn to read.

The problem is the different chocolate companies have different squiggle codes. This is a coordination problem, but a small one. Workers sorting chocolates don't regularly bounce between companies and a forestry management company marks trees for repeat contractors who can learn the code. We can prosper with standardization.

Who says standardization depends on the governments help? Gay swingers developed a hanky code, where wearing a colored handkerchief in a certain pocket lets observers know what sexual acts the wearer is interested in. What regulatory jurisdiction would that fall under?

As a consumer, I see a problem with cell phone and laptop batteries being proprietary, where each model can have its own shape and there is no generic product to purchase. AA batteries are universal and interchangeable and their standardization is the result of the federal government working with battery manufacturers and major purchasers.

Since then, private industry has created standardization plenty of times. There's the Video Home Systems, the Compact Disc, the Digital Versatile Disc, the MPEG Audio Layer III, the Joint Photographic Experts Group, the Universal Serial Bus and the Blu-ray Disc. Standardization can occur

Sometimes, users don't want standardization. Linux and Mac users don't want to use the same operating system as Microsoft. Sometimes there are flaws in the accepted standard, and having options lets people choose the one they feel is right.

What if the government wrote a timber marking system that was problematic? If forestry companies were required by law, they could get in serious legal trouble just for using the best system. Imagine if we were required to speak Esperanto, the dismal failure that was designed to be a superior language. Its entirely possible the government could create a poor timber marking system that would handicap companies that adopt it.

I told new lefty friend that I'd be happy if there was a recommended universal timber marking system, and companies could ignore it at their own peril. To her credit, she agreed. If it's worth the trouble of switching over, firms will do so. There's no need to bring guns and the brute force of the law down on forestry companies that mark trees with one line instead of two.


Thursday, December 1, 2011

I'm glad this gay rights video went viral

About a year ago I criticized a video praising a teacher who punished a student for calmly expressing his rejection of gay rights during a class discussion. The video went viral as a celebration of gay rights, but I found it was unworthy as it championed an attack on free speech, no matter how well-intended.

Yesterday a friend posted a video titled "Zach Wahls Speaks About Family" where an accomplished college student from Iowa talks about his success after being raised by two women before the state legislature on a gay marriage vote.

I'm happy to say that the video has since gone viral, despite being available online since February.

Wahls defended the structure of his family and argued something I've only heard one place before, that gay marriage already exists, the legislation is just to get the government to admit it's there.

He said:
My family really isn’t so different from yours. After all, your family doesn’t derive its sense of worth from being told by the state: “You’re married. Congratulations.” No.

The sense of family comes from the commitment we make to each other. To work through the hard times so we can enjoy the good ones. It comes from the love that binds us. That’s what makes a family.

So what you’re voting here isn’t to change us. It’s not to change our families, it’s to change how the law views us; how the law treats us.
Two years ago I wrote on this blog:
With those two points in mind, we need to make sure our laws coincide with reality. Right now in Maine there are thousands of romance stories between people of the same gender that will be here on Nov. 4 no matter what the outcome.

In social circles, gay marriage already exists in Maine - it just hasn't been legally certified... The only difference is Augusta currently doesn't admit these romances exist, and the legal rights and responsibilities that come with marriage are not automatically included.
Congratulations to Mr. Wahls. His important message deserves to be heard by as many people as possible, and I'm glad to see that it's spreading. This is exactly the sort of message that should spread.