Saturday, June 30, 2012

Is this naive?

There's a lot of speculation that at one point, Chief Justice John Roberts was going to strike down the health care individual mandate, but switched sides at the last minute.

There's some decent evidence that implies the dissenting opinion was originally written with victory in mind, but no solid information has come forward to explain what motivated Roberts to change his vote.

I've heard theories about concern for his legacy, political pressure or even ninja assassins holding his family hostage. My theory is a little different.

Maybe he changed his mind because he found the arguments compelling.


Thursday, June 28, 2012

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Supreme Court Ruling

Like every last one of you, I was caught off guard today by Chief Justice John Roberts swing vote that upheld the individual mandate. This was the linchpin of President Barack Obama's health care legislation and as such, there was a lot on the line.

I realize I'm supposed to be upset about this result, but to be honest, I think Roberts makes a strong argument that the financial punishment given to people who do not buy health insurance is a form of taxation.

Don't hold your breath waiting for Obama supporters to update their lists of tax increases the president is responsible for, of course. I expect the president and his supporters to pull an explanation-free 180 and say yes, this was a tax the entire time before quickly changing the subject.

I also expect Obama critics to say he broke another campaign promise by bringing tax increases to the middle class. I expect they will say this a lot, even if they personally disagree that it was a tax.

I hear naysayers claiming that it was wrong for the Supreme Court to introduce the taxation justification when defenders never argued that point. I think those people would be right if they were judging a high school debate team, but this is a major Supreme Court ruling and the resulting legal precedents shouldn't be constrained by the competence of the lawyers it hears.

Count me among the legion of people who are glad that the ruling not only failed to uphold that vague and limitless interpretation of the dreaded Commerce Clause, but also set a precedent limiting it. I was prepared to write about how that bogus justification for unconstitutional laws has been an ongoing farce, but that angle has been covered by scores of bloggers already.

I do worry, however, that punitive taxes may become the new Commerce Clause. What's to stop congress from putting a tax on homeowners who refuse to house soldiers during peacetime, or large taxes on guns or abortions?

Constitutionality aside, we may have dodged a major bullet here. In a 2009 post about my healthcare wish list items I wrote in regards to pre-existing contions:

This is the big riddle in health insurance. Poor people who already have a health problem can't get coverage for something they already have, but simply forcing health insurance to cover these costs would drive up costs. Just like letting people buy car insurance after an accident, covering pre-existing conditions would discourage people from buying insurance. That defeats the entire idea of insurance. One solution is forcing everyone to buy health insurance, but that didn't work very well in Massachusetts. I don't know the solution to this problem.
While I've never liked the individual mandate solution, adverse selection is a very real problem and with the president's ignorance on insurance issues, there's a big change he would have gone ahead with his health care legislation anyway, only with the individual mandate neatly cut out.

If Obama critics turn out to be right and this ruling will create more problems then it solves, those troubles will fall short of the absolute disaster that would have followed if insurance companies were forced to cover ailments after they've occured.


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Swedish strawberries prove prices matter

Just like Norway's government was busy this winter blocking foreign butter, Sweden's agricultural officials are having a tough time keeping foreign strawberries out of the hands of consumers.

While the black market butter was a response to a butter famine, the strawberries are being brought in because they're cheaper and sellers are dishonestly labeling them as being grown in Sweden.
"We have taken a few samples and they’re on the way to Germany for analysis," Waldemar Ibron, an official at the Swedish Board of Agriculture told the Dagens Nyheter newspaper. Ibron is referring to an ongoing epidemic in Sweden where foreign strawberries are being repackaged and sold at markets for cheap--underselling local farmers and growers
It seems like only two days ago I was hearing how strawberries robust enough for transport taste like Styrofoam and expensive locally-grown strawberries taste much better. It's true there is a taste difference, but there are also significant price and availability differences between the two.

We see countless examples of expensive hand-made crafts that have acceptable, mass-produced versions that are much cheaper, including furniture, soaps, clothing and desserts. It is an act of snobbery to turn up one's nose at commoner furniture, so why should food be any different?

What's interesting here is that despite the quality differences between the strawberries, the Swedish customers love the cheaper strawberries and often prefer them. If the berries are as different as the locavores insist, it's hard to argue the Swedes don't know what they're buying. The Swedish public clearly has a different set of priorities than the protectionists and locavores.

Update: United Kingdom strawberry fans are fortunate that we have a global food system, as this year's strawberry harvest has been ravaged by mold.


Sunday, June 24, 2012

I have seen the present, and it works

I had a delightful surprise this weekend when I heard a locavore debate on the NPR's show Q with Jian Ghomeshi. And we won

Pierre Desrochers, co-author of
The Locavore's Dilemma, was pitted against locavore activist Jill Richardson. It was a complete massacre.

As always, there was the hydra-like aspect of the "Buy Local" movement. When one one of their ideas is knocked down, they respond with two new, unrelated justifications for their position. What was interesting is that Richardson actually distanced herself from some of the major local purchasing arguments, such as food miles.

The highlight of the 20 minute conversation was when Desrochers made a comeback to Richardson that drew laughter from the NPR crew. She started by saying:
When my California strawberry gets to you in Toronto it will not test very good... What I would do, and I did do when I lived in Wisconsin is eat the best, most delicious sweetest ripe strawberriess for about one month a year. I would buy a lot, I would can them, make jam... freeze them... and that was it for strawberries for the year. But, later in the year I would eat what was ripe then and what tasted good then instead.


Friday, June 22, 2012

Taxing the poor to benefit the rich

I always hear calls to increase taxes presented as a simple, morally-neutral transfer of money from the rich to the poor. When there are cuts to things like food stamps, public housing or welfare my friends on the left like the juxtapose them with suggestions to tax the rich more.

Morally, we are asked, what's wrong with taking money from the rich to help the poor?

Except, of course, it doesn't really work that way. A lot of the money goes to the usual suspects, agricultural subsidies and other forms of corporate welfare, boondoggles like the Big Dig and bridges to nowhere, frivolous historical and cultural district grants that are treated as free money, stadiums for private sports teams and the occasional war.

There's also programs that give designer goodies to people like you and me, like the Beaon Food Forest in Seattle. Sometimes, tax money goes to projects for people who are doing OK or are even rich.


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What's next, Mr. President?

I've been mulling over President Barack Obama's recent announcement that he will not deport young illegal immigrants who meet certain positive qualifications. This is an important issue and I don't want to put this breezily.

I think he's both power-hungry and condescending to voters.

He's power hungry because he is willing to set horrible precedents to get what he wants. I want to end immigration restrictions and I think the country is better off keeping those young people here, but I can't support cheating to make that happen. It's no different then last year when he said the Justice Department wouldn't defend the awful Defense of Marriage Act in court.

Are we to believe that presidents deserve the ability to arbitrarily declare which laws they will and will not enforce? What happens if a future president instructs the EPA to stop enforcing certain environmental laws with no checks and balances? This is bad news, even if one is on the same side of this issue.

The is another cheap gimmick like last month's attempt to energize voters with a transparent election year conversation. In May he said he now supports gay marriage, but can't be bothered to do anything about it. Who didn't read that as an attempt to win votes and shift attention away from his broken promises to fix the economy? The O-man clearly doesn't think much of the intelligence of Americans.


Monday, June 18, 2012

New Freakonomics Radio episode on local food

Stephen Dubner has a great new podcast episode on Freakonomics Radio about falsehoods in the environmental claims of the local food movement. The focus is on a study from Santa Barbara Calif. on why a place that already has a comparative advantage in producing food wouldn't benefit from consuming local food.

Economist Ed Glaeser makes a guest appearance and says, among other things:
The idea of there being something wrong with our food cuts to the very heart of our stomachs; of our souls, almost. So it’s not so surprising that people have these deep emotional reactions to food. And we certainly are right to worry a lot about whether or not our food is fresh, and good, and tasty, but I just keep coming back to feeling a certain amount of satisfaction that I’m eating grapes that are keeping up the standard of living in Chile.
At the end they confronted members of the general public on the fallacies of the local food movement. As expected, people did not change their view when confronted with the evidence, but shifted to other explanations. As Dubner said near the end:
The responses were interesting and diverse.Some denial, some rationalization, some switching over to the other ways local food is superior, like, it tastes better. When you make decisions about something as important as the environment, and as personal and emotionally charged as food, it's hard to hear that the factual foundation of your decision is a bit wobbly. It can be easier just to stick to your beliefs, your intuitive beliefs, than it is to deal with the weird complexities of the modern world.


Saturday, June 16, 2012

Yes, the Nazis were socialists

"The thinking worker comes to Hitler"
Over and over again I find myself clarifying that fascism and Nazism were sister movements to socialism and communism. This runs counter to the cheap political trick where modern capitalist-loving right wing movements are likened to Hitler and his followers. This is married to the false belief that free market economic policies and racism are intertwined, and therefore the Nazis must have loved capitalism because they hated Jews so much.

This is complete nonsense.

The socialist roots of Nazism doesn't require any digging; it's right there in the groups official title "The National Socialist German Workers Party." Sometimes this is waved off by saying they were "right wing socialists." As Jonah Goldberg wrote in Liberal Fascism, that remark is justified by the warmongering nature of fascism, not by its economic policies.

People make associations between the two by mistakenly projecting the hawkish nature of modern American conservatives into the 1930's. They do the same thing with the modern right wing tendencies of modern white supremacists, but that's also a mistake.

I recently stumbled across an in-depth video on Netflix from Philosophy Professor Stephen RC Hicks entitled "Nietzche and the Nazis" which attempts to explain the intellectual beliefs and philosophy of the Nazi party.

Hicks completely knocks it out of the park. He repeatedly highlights the embrace of socialism and contempt of capitalism that swam through the Third Reich and backs it up with specific quotations and excerpts.

There's been plenty of academic analyses that go into the collectivist nature of Nazi Germany's policies, including Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, but Hicks presents something in a format that's easy to digest by anyone.

He also drew attention to a pamphlet written by Joseph Goebbels, the head propaganda minister. Here are some notable lines:
What does anti-Semitism have to do with socialism? I would put the question this way: What does the Jew have to do with socialism? Socialism has to do with labor. When did one ever see him working instead of plundering, stealing and living from the sweat of others? As socialists we are opponents of the Jews because we see in the Hebrews the incarnation of capitalism, of the misuse of the nation’s goods.
Combine that with
I can love Germany and hate capitalism. Not only can I, I must. Only the annihilation of a system of exploitation carries with it the core of the rebirth of our people.


Friday, June 15, 2012

Wisconsin Epilogue

Something has bugged me since I wrote about Scott Walker's victory in Wisconsin last week and responded to the talking point about his ability to raise eight times as much money as his opponent.

I have since learned those numbers are highly misleading. The failed opposition spent a lot of soft money that wasn't counted in the comparisons, the comparison leaves out union money spent early in the process and then there's the money spent on other candidates. It's not like the left had trouble getting their message out, and those comparisons don't include the massive rallies and demonstrations the left held that were very much a part of the campaign.

After all that chanting about how this is what democracy looks like, the election results was treated by some members of the left as the end of democracy because their side didn't win.

Even though it's blatant idiot hunting, here's some cheers for the assassination of Walker by members of the left who felt a little too confident in their interpretation of events.

Walker won fair and square, and by a larger margin than when he was elected governor in 2010 against the same opponent.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

We'll miss you, Lin

I just learned within the hour that Elinor Ostrom died of cancer this week. I am deeply saddened by her passing. As if being a nobel prize winner wasn't enough, Ostrom was a true rebel. Her work in how people enforce property rights outside of the government is both important and fascinating. She was a revolutionary thinker in all positive ways possible.


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Oatmeal versus Funnyjunk

If you haven't seen The Oatmeal today, please do yourself a favor and read today's post. A ridiculous Internet lawyer sent a threatening letter to Oatmeal creator Matthew Inman, who responded with brilliant mockery. Inman has previously written about a so-called humor website that has repeatedly posted his work to drive up ad revenue, and that website hired lawyer Charles Carreon to silence him.

I was wondering if Inman should make more preparations to be dragged into court, but blogger Ken from Popehat, a successful lawyer, cheered him on. Perhaps this is all Inman needs to do in response.

When people misuse the court system to try to thwart free speech, public mockery is needed.


Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Cycle of Ignorance

One of the great tragedies of the human existence is the way certain problems are defeated at a great cost, only to resurface later, fully rejuvenated and dangerous as ever.

Take the snake oil and patent medicine craze, where hucksters sold phony cures using a variety of tricks and specious reasoning. It went away, but several generations later it has returned under the banner "alternative medicine."

I call this phenomena the cycle of ignorance. People are victimized by some problem, such as a natural disaster or the consequences of a bogus idea, and after much suffering, they learn how to protect themselves. The problem is fixed and everything is fine, but time marches on. Those dark days are forgotten and younger generations who never experienced them fail to protect themselves. The hard-learned lessons are forgotten.

Look at HIV and AIDS rates among the gay community in America. After surviving the gruesome AIDS crisis of the 1980's and early 1990's, gay men embraced condom use and infection rates dropped off quickly. However, the younger generation of gay men never lived through the horror of the AIDS crisis and as a group, have been less careful and have seen a large spike in new cases.

Disproved economic ideas always come back. The central issue of this blog, the "Buy Local" movement, is just a rehash of Mercantalism. That bogus idea never fails to show up as a scheme to boost the economy whenever times are tough.

Price controls made the gas shortage of the 1970's worse and as soon as that generation dies, we can expect to see it considered as a solution again.

The embrace of socialism among even well-educated young people is a horrifying trend, albeit a minor one. We can expect to have Marxist prophets fling themselves in front of crowds for the rest of civilization. Hopefully, the high death count can dissuade people from giving it one more chance.

It appears that unfortunately, real-life experience is a better educator than text and testimonials. How many of the problems we bury today will be dug up by our children, like an unwitting explorer opening the cell door that imprisoned a demon.


Friday, June 8, 2012

Sweatshops make the world a better place

It's been a while since I wrote about this topic, but unfortunately, the issue isn't likely to go away anytime soon.

The most important takeaway message here is that closing the sweatshops doesn't do anything to address the poverty of the workers. 

Like Mike Munger said about blocking voluntary exchanges that are not euvoluntary, people who try to thwart these helpful agreements are merely objecting to the situation itself. They believe no one should have to work in a sweatshop. I wish that were the case, but taking away their jobs doesn't make them any richer. Instead, it hurts the very people the activists are so concerned about.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Scott Walker didn't buy the election

Now that the votes have been counted and the effort to remove Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is a dismal failure, I'm seeing an excuse by union supporters that Walker bought the election by raising nearly eight times as much campaign money as opponent Tom Barrett.

People come with all sorts of excuses when things don't go their way to avoid coming to terms with an uncomfortable truth. Walker was able to get the vote of 38 percent of union households, and 18 percent of his voters told exit pollsters they plan to vote for Barack Obama in the presidential race. Clearly, Walker was about to draw votes from the left to win. Does that mean those supporters were brainwashed with political ads.

Steve Levitt presents a much different explanation to why elections favor the big spenders. The candidates that attract donors tend to already have better odds of winning
When a candidate doubled their spending, holding everything else constant, they only got an extra one percent of the popular vote. It’s the same if you cut your spending in half, you only lose one percent of the popular vote. So we’re talking about really large swings in campaign spending with almost trivial changes in the vote.
The usual canard, that the election was compromised by money from outside the state, can't be used here because both candidates got a ton of outside money. Walker still raised about three times as much money from within the state. Fundraising levels themselves are the only thing left to blame.


Monday, June 4, 2012

Are controller designs done evolving?

Video game controllers have had a lot of different shapes over the years, some were relatively similar to each other but the look of Nintendo's newly-announced Wii U pro controller isn't just familiar. It's uncanny.

Here's the Wii U controller:

and here's a standard Xbox 360 controller from rival Microsoft:

The only functional differences I can see in the shape are the right analog stick and the four-button "face" has been reversed. The "Home" button and "Power" button for the Wii U model are separate, while the 360 has them as the same button. The 360 also displays which slot the controller is taking by lighting a quadrant around the center "Guide button." This is not shown above. The Wii U model has a different display at the bottom of the controller with one of four boxes lighted.

In Nintendo's defense, and this may be the basis of a legal defense if Microsoft pursues a lawsuit, there is such a thing as convergent evolution in nature, so why not in technology? The gentle slopes at the bottom fits human hands of different sizes. Many modern games require two analogue sticks and a directional pad. The Super Nintendo controller had a four-button face and two shoulder buttons up top for the index fingers. The Xbox 360 may have drawn its inspiration from that and added the two trigger buttons under them. Those triggers are now universal.

Maybe this design of eight buttons spread across two fingers and a thumb is the end of the line for controller shapes, much the way crocodiles and dragonflies reached a point of evolutionary stability millions of years ago. The differences between the Playstation 2 and Playstation 3 were minor in terms of button layout. Maybe we're at the end.

The current console generation saw the introduction of motion controls, so perhaps engineers will focus on improving those and let controller shapes stay where they are.


Saturday, June 2, 2012

Why we need a government

Every now and then, it's important to go back and focus on the little nuances in my views that critics exploit and twist beyond recognition.

In this case, it's the important need for a government to protect and manage society.

We've all witnessed the condescending snickering from lefties who present Somalia as a model for what libertarian and the Tea Party politcies would bring. They are blurring the line between classic liberalism and anarachy, which is no different from labeling someone a Stalinist because they support food stamps.

But critics do have a point that we spend all of our time talking about the problems with government, but are often silent on the good it can do. It's the same way flood victims speak little of drought and dehydration. We're fighting an uphill battle and we don't think we can budge the pendulum, let alone cause a backswing.

There are important roles for government, such as thwarting violent savages and thieves, and our society would crumble without a legal and judicial system. We also need to fund basic education and infrastructure like roads to keep the country operating.

I did a story a few years ago about a private road with a dozen houses. The homeowners wanted it to become a public road so it would be plowed by the public works department in the winter. The town required it to be leveled and graded just to apply for consideration. This would cost about $30,000 and there was no guarantee the town would accept it.

The residents could not get everyone to pay. Some people wanted to be free riders, and the road was never fixed. They would all have been better off if the government could step in and force everyone to pay.

Economist Robert Frank spoke about the economics of hockey helmets. Players can see more without helmets, and if given the choice, will not wear one. However, that only gives them an advantage if the other players wear helmets. Without rules, no one will wear helmets and the chances of injuries increase, yet no one will get an advantage. Rules are needed to enforce hockey helmets.

The same is true for the business world. If you can save money by dumping unwanted toxins in the river, the companies that do will gain an advantage. That's why we need a government to restrict pollution and other negative externalities.

Even Ludwig von Mises had good things to say about governments:

Government as such is not only not an evil, but the most necessary and beneficial institution, as without it no lasting social cooperation and no civilization could be developed and preserved. It is a means to cope with an inherent imperfection of many, perhaps of the majority of all people. If all men were able to realize that the alternative to peaceful social cooperation is the renunciation of all that distinguishes Homo sapiens from the beasts of prey, and if all had the moral strength always to act accordingly, there would not be any need for the establishment of a social apparatus of coercion and oppression.
Just because I don't want the government telling people what increments of soda they are allowed to purchase doesn't mean I don't want the government to stop people from selling turpentine labeled as soda. The government can, and often does, screw things up, but I would never seek to abolish it.