Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Happy birthday, Milton Friedman

Today would have been the 100th birthday of Milton Friedman, who we lost in 2006 at the age of 94.

There's been a lot written about Friedman, the best of which is from Thomas Sowell and Brad Delong, but nothing sums up the man as well as his off-the-cuff response to a question at the end of a 1978 guest lecture at Standord University.

If you can spare an hour and a half, the PBS documentary The Power of Choice does a great job of illustrating just how big an impact this one little man has already had on our civilization.

Milton Friedman taught me one last lesson that I always try to keep in mind when I talk to people about issues of capitalism and freedom: Be a diplomat, not a preacher, and always remember to smile.


Monday, July 30, 2012

What's wrong with politicizing a tragedy?

I haven't written about the Aurora shooting before, although I've been tempted to write about how stupid it is to ask people involved in making the Batman what they think about the shooting. Yahoo News thought it important to tell us that they were shocked. A different reporter revealed that Gabrielle Giffords did not support the shooting either.

Uninspired reaction stories aside, some members of the left are using the shooting for momentum so they can bring out gun control proposals they already supported before the shooting. This has drawn some criticism as "politicizing" the tragedy, but I can't find a convincing argument for why that should be off-limits.

When a judge overrules a piece of legislation, critics will say they are legislating from the bench and supporters will say they are simply righting a wrong. With that same duality of perspective in mind, gun control can be viewed as a short-sighted, foolish policy or a life-saving measure, depending on the viewer.

I reject most of the gun control arguments I've heard after this shooting, such as Lawrence O'Donnell's ridiculous suggestion that limiting rifle magazines to 10 rounds would have led to the unarmed crowd overwhelming the shooter. That being said, I can completely understand why they would want to use this tragedy as a spring board to talking about their side of the issue.

From the gun control advocates perspective, America would be a safer place if guns were harder to obtain legally. They think tragedies like this are examples of the terrible events that could be stopped with tighter controls, and now is the perfect time to win public support.

In the movie Braveheart, I don't recall the Scots allowing a period of mourning for William Wallace before they returned to war with the British. Instead, they used his death to invigorate their troops, and that's what gun control advocates are trying to do here.

I don't like that they will end up making a lot of rushed emotional arguments instead of letting cooler heads prevail, but this is as good a time as any for my intellectual opponents to make their play. Let us have it.


Saturday, July 28, 2012

A better mayoral letter to Chick-Fil-A

I've been surprised by the lack of nuance among my fellow gay marriage supporters. Many fellow supporters of gay rights have been applauding a notorious letter Boston Mayor Tom Menino send to Dan Cathy, president of the Chick-Fil-A fried chicken franchise, who recently revealed that he opposes gay marriage.

In his letter Menino wrote he had heard Cathy was looking to expand into Boston and added "There is no place for discrimination on Boston's Freedom Trail and no place for your company alongside it." He told the Boston Herald “If they need licenses in the city, it will be very difficult — unless they open up their policies.”

What Menino was threatening to do is illegal. Public officials do not have the ability to cast out businesses or residents merely because of political views they hold. This is hostility to the rule of law and while I can understand applauding the mayor for standing up for gay rights, I am sickened to see support for his thuggish boasts. This is the left-wing equivalent of the 2010 "Ground Zero Mosque" debacle.

 Menino has since taken back his threats, but he wouldn't have had to if he'd written a more thoughtful letter. This is what that letter should have said.

To Dan Cathy,
I recently became aware that you are a vocal critic of gay marriage, but also have an interest in opening a location in our fair city of Boston.
As you are probably aware, Boston is the capital of the first state to legalize gay marriage. I speak for the majority of our residents when I say we are proud of our support for equal marriages rights. I was so moved by the issue that I personally stood at City Hall Plaza to greet loving couples as they came here to be married on that historic day.
Despite our differences in opinion, I want to assure you that as a public official I will do everything my office requires to clear the way to our open, tolerant city should you decide to come here. If you file the correct paperwork and meet all of our rules and regulations, I will not allow any arbitrary roadblocks to stand in your way. If you open a Boston location, our police officers will protect your business just like any other one. You will be treated with the dignity and respect all members of our community deserve by the city government.
However, as a private citizen I will oppose you in thought, word and action. I will not patronize your restaurant on any occasion, and I will urge any neighbor looking for a quick fried chicken meal to choose Kentucky Fried Chicken instead. If there are demonstrations outside the store, I may pick up a sign denouncing you and what you stand for. If anyone asks for my personal opinion, I will proudly say I hope no one buys a single nugget from you. That is my right as an American.
Rest assured, if you choose to come to Boston you will be greeted with tolerance. However, if it's acceptance you seek, you won't find it within city limits.


Thursday, July 26, 2012

Our tax dollars at work

If everything PBS produced, and the government in general, was this good I might turn liberal.

I don't buy the concept of post-scarcity, as time is a resource, but Minecraft can always teach us something as it approaches post-scarcity.


Tuesday, July 24, 2012

House cleaning

I've been extremely busy lately and have a backlog of excellent links I want to share before they go stale.

Pierre Desrochers was interviewed by Reason.com about The Locavores Dilemna.

Not to be done, U.S. rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) has is successfully pushing locavore pork into the federal Farm Bill.

Ken from Popehat called out Boston Mayor Tom Menino for claiming he will exceed his authority and block Chick-Fil-A from setting up show in Boston for opposing gay marriage. Most importantly, Ken did it in a way that was still critical of gay marriage foes.

Nate has turned me on to Crash Course, a history and biology YouTube video series from the Vlog Brothers. About halfway through the episode on Mesopotamia narrator John Green humorously presented the unfairness of Hammurabi's Code when is declared that if a house collapses and kills the owners son, the son of the builder was to be put to death. Green said fairness suggests the builder, not his son, should be killed.

I want to contrast that to Nassim Taleb's interpretation of the same ancient law he revealed on EconTalk, among other places.

Taleb saw this as Hammurabi's brilliance in understanding risk and incentives. Instead of looking at it as a punishment after the fact, Hammurabi saw this severe punishment as a way to discourage the builder from cutting corners. Hammurabi also required bridge engineers to sleep under the completed bridge for a few nights for the same reason.

Harsh and unjustifiable today, yes, but also very effective.


Sunday, July 22, 2012

Maybe it's good the rich have more political power

Whenever the mournful dirges start about the supposed death of American democracy and how the rich have too much power, I've never stopped and asked if that's always a bad thing.

This morning a book review from Tyler Cowen stirred an idea that will bring me blank stares and quiet frowns from my friends, but it's still important to ask. Do we really want the poor to have more political power?

The argument that the rich have too much influence over legislation is usually constrained to the realm economic issues, and it props up the myth that richer Americans on average pay a smaller percentage of their income in in federal income taxes as a result of their political influence. What about other issues?

Cowen references his mood affiliation fallacy concept, which means mistakenly rejecting an idea because it criticizes something you think deserves a better reputation. He wrote:

I would be falling prey to the fallacy of mood affiliation if I simply assumed the author wanted policy to be more responsive to the wishes of the poor and middle class. Still I can ask whether this would be a desirable end. Aren’t they less educated and less well-informed on average? Don’t they also care about politics less and derive less of their status from political processes and outcomes? Do I want them to have a greater say over social issues, including gay marriage? No.

We know that education correlates with both higher incomes and higher support for gay marriage, so that issue could regress under power redistribution. Cowen also listed contradictory wishes from the uneducated, such as wanting tariffs and cheaper goods. These are impossible and more power from uneducated voters would hurt the poor.

Matthew Yglesias made a similar point:

Needless to say, the disproportionate influence of the rich on the political system is also troubling from an accountability perspective. It suggests that elected officials will be more responsive to the objective needs of the prosperous at the expense of those whose objective needs are more pressing. But pining for a world in which policy outputs precisely reflect the views of the public is neither here nor there in terms of obtaining a better political system.

No one wants a system where the poor have no political power. However, believing that giving more political power to the poor will produce benefits universally is flawed and reads like a chapter out of The Myth of the Rational Voter. The average American leftist would have a tougher time passing the social issues he or she cares about if the poor had a larger platform and voted more

This should be uncomfortable idea for anyone who believes in representative government.

Friday, July 20, 2012

We understood the context just fine

The dutiful left has come out of the woodwork to claim President Obama's famous "You didn't build that" remark I recently wrote about is being distorted, and his true message was about the need for government programs and infrastructure to exist.

Good grief, what a bunch of naive wishful thinking.

I quoted it in full context to make my point and came away with the same conclusion. He said that the government has given some amount of help to the people who build wealth, therefor they deserve no praise or credit for anything they created. Those things were a community effort and could have been created by anyone, and it's really the government who deserves credit.

Last month when he famously said the private sector is doing just fine, I chose not to write about it because it was such an obvious mistake. His supporters and staff said it wasn't something he meant, and I didn't feel it revealed any insight into his thought process. A lot of people went after him on it and they were wrong for it.

But this is different. This time President Obama and his supporters won't admit he said something stupid off the cuff. Instead, it's people like me who are at fault for misinterpreting his clear, straightforward message.

The noble thing for the president to do is take it back and say it came out wrong when he said it. I'm not asking him to crawl on his knees, just fess up and move on. But for some reason, he'd rather blame people like me for his folly.

Give it up people. The president said something stupid, don't blame us.


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Obama jumps the shark

Elizabeth Warren had so much success last fall with her stump speech about interdependence as an excuse for progressive taxes that this week President Barack Obama plagiarized it. He said:
There are a lot of wealthy, successful Americans who agree with me -- because they want to give something back. They know they didn’t -- look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business -- you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
President Obama is attempting to use public goods to taint any hard work individuals have done that results in success. That is to say, any success the person has had that has had the slightest contact with something created by the government is now a full-fledged government creation. This misapplication of credit works the same way a virus assaults a living cell.

Mark Perry insists we also look at the way businesses have been destroyed by the government, such as the 13-year-old who went through the city to start up a hot dog stand only to be stomped by an unknown zoning issue. There's also the teen on Peaks Island, Maine who was hit with exorbitant fees to prevent him from competing with a taxi subsidized by the city.

Don Boudreaux, however, nailed this issue cold:
Government’s success at persuading taxpayers to fund the hiring of more teachers and the construction of new highways does not thereby give government (or teachers or highway workers) an open-ended claim upon the wealth of private citizens who benefit from these teachers or who use these highways.
He goes on to say that all of those government systems were built under a certain agreement, and the government has no right to come back and demand more than what was agreed upon.

Indeed, to take the president's logic seriously, we would have to see success in America as some kind of Faustian bargain, where individuals are free to sweat and toil in a wonderful market economy, but the moment anyone pulls ahead Mephistopheles draws near and takes it back.

Sometimes when I'm alone and the house is quiet I ask myself if I'd rather have president George W. Bush or Obama in office right now. While Bush has wasted oodles of taxpayer money and contributed to future deficits, I can't think of anything he ever said that was as half as outrageous as the communitarian nonsense from the O-man this week. I've never called President Obama a socialist, but I'm having a hard time interpreting what he said any other way.


Monday, July 16, 2012

Outsourcing is not a scandal

Even though I have no intention of voting for Mitt Romney in this election, it looks like I have to defend him again.

President Obama's reelection campaign is trying to stir up economic illiterates by accusing him of being in charge of Bain Capital when some of the firms it dealt with outsourced jobs. That is to say, they are accusing him of giving jobs to foreigners when he should be reserving them for privileged Americans.

Romney's response was to say that he diverting all of his attention to running the Salt Lake City Olympics at the time and was CEO in name only, and the bickering is about how accurate that telling of events is.

What both sides are taking for granted is that outsourcing is some kind of scandal.

The American left seems to love foreigners when they want to move here and work, or stay in their place of birth, but the moment they try trade with us they become the enemy. The American right is different; they seem to dislike foreigners across the board.

Is there any trace of a legitimate scandal here? The only room for criticism I can see is that Romney is denying he was responsible for outsourcing, and if it turns out he is, the lie is the scandal, not the outsourcing. That's a pretty tall order, especially from people who are willing to overlook President Obama's Fast and Furious scandal.

Romney is accused of trying to cover up his role in giving jobs to foreigners. Obama is accused of trying to cover up his role in killing foreigners. Even if it's true, I have trouble seeing why he's the one I should be upset with.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Why I'm not at TAM this year

Last year I had an amazing time at The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas. I flew in Friday night and left Sunday evening after giving a short presentation on my views of why the skeptic view is rarely represented in the media.

But this year I'm not going.

Other people have spoken up why they're sitting this one out, such as political reasons or to avoid conflict. I do not fit into either one of these camps.

For me, it's all about the money.

In April I attended the North East Conference for Science and Skepticism in New York City. By the time I returned home, I had spent around $300 on my ticket, bus pass, subway, food and optional events. Part of that cost was offset by having a gracious host let me stay with him for free so I had no hotel fees.

The three times I've gone to TAM have cost around $1,000 for the ticket, airfare, hotel room, food and optional events.

I had a great time at TAM, don't get me wrong. As much as I enjoyed NECSS, TAM was the superior experience. It attracts more people and provides convenient nearby spaces for attendees to find each other and talk outside of lecture, which is the true point of going to any conference.

However, for a third of the cost, NECSS was a good deal. It's not as elaborate or memorable as TAM, but people on a budget and with little vacation time need to take into account the cost of an event, not just the experience itself.

Next year I will probably decide to go to TAM, but for now, NECSS was an amazing substitute and a great change of pace.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Focus on the consumer, not the merchant

This week I stumbled across two mournful articles about trends that benefit the consumer. The first was about how Amazon.com is gearing up to offer faster deliveries for free, including same-day deliveries, and the second was on how the country is suffering from a "glut" of lobsters that is pinching lobstermens' bottom line

"Glut" being a negative way to describe an abundance.

The Amazon article reveals an interesting twist. Brick and mortar retailers have (falsely) claimed that Amazon's low prices come from online purchases being free of sales taxes, not the massive economies of scale. Now that multiple states have started forcing the company to collect that tax, Amazon isn't restricting its warehouses to tax haven states and will have less distance to cover when it ships from these new locations. The slight price increase for Amazon goods will be offset with faster deliveries.

In all fairness, the lobster story did manage to give a decent amount of focus on a customer who benefits from these lower prices.
While lobstermen wring their hands, consumers are making the most of the low prices. At a busy intersection in South Portland, Maine native Barbara McFarlane parks her car and heads for an early lunch at Docks Seafood restaurant and market.
 "We just love lobster. We're Mainers, and usually we can't afford it," she says. "It's grand to be able to afford it this year." 
I can sympathize with the reporter here. I've had to write multiple stories for different newspapers about how a warm winter didn't allow specific merchants to profit off of customers. I made sure to include some examples of those who benefited from the weather, such as a motorcycle shop and a public works department that saved a lot of taxpayer money in road salt.

Despite some good efforts from the reporters, the headlines their editors gave the pieces were unreasonably negative for two stories about consumer benefits. They were "Lobster Glut, Low Prices Leave Boats High And Dry" and "I Want It Today: How Amazon’s ambitious new push for same-day delivery will destroy local retail."


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Nick and Rachel get furious, fast

I am completely smitten by a 10 minute clip of Nick Gillespie's appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher where he begins to set the record straight on the Fast and Furious scandal. But first, here's the background:

Under President George W. Bush, the ATF conducted Operation Wide Receiver, where guns were sold in a classic sting operation. In theory, the guns were to be tracked through surveillance, hidden transmitters and cooperation with the Mexican authorities so they could be recovered. When this system started to fail the program was scrapped.

Under President Barack Obama, the ATF conducted Operation Fast and Furious where the guns were sold to people working for drug cartels. The serial numbers were recorded, but there was no surveillance, hidden transmitters or cooperation with Mexican authorities. The idea was to get the guns in the hands of the Mexican drug cartels to try to establish a link with the original purchasers.

After guns ATF agents put in the hands of the drug cartels were used to kill a Border Patrol Agent and an ICE agent, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee investigated the Fast and Furious program.

It's entirely possible that the Obama administration, including Attorney General Eric Holder, did not know about Fast and Furious until it started, and then shut it down when they learned about it. We don't have proof of any further knowledge on the subject.

What we do know, however, is that Holder told Congress that he knew nothing of Fast and Furious. He said that no emails of conversations about the operation existed, but later President Obama used Executive Privilege to block the congressional committee from seeing the documents - the same documents Holder said did not exist while he was under oath.

A vote declares Holder in contempt of congress, despite a failed attempt from democrats to protect Holder and paint the vote as a partisan witch hunt.

For more information on Fast and Furious, see Jon Stewart and Mike Munger.


Sunday, July 8, 2012

How not to defend local food

Fresh from losing a debate with author Pierre Desrochers, loco-vore Jill Richardson has posted an article responding to several arguments she claims he makes. Tellingly, the article provides no link or mention of their interaction two weeks ago.

It's as if she wants the public to see her respond to Desrochers, but not in a venue where they can immediately hear his response.

Some of the arguments she attempts to thwart are straw men. For example, I don't know of anyone who is claiming GDP is the end-all way of measuring progress. There's also some slimy cherry picking. When trying to decide if eggs from free-range chickens are better or worse than conventional ones, she could have cited a USDA study or an experiment conducted by Mother Earth News. The two gave conflicting results, but her article ignores this and just focuses on what she wants to be true.

There's no need to dig further than her fourth point. Like so many failed DIY economists before her, she claims comparative advantage can be rejected and ignored. This is like a creationist rejecting Gregor Mendel's work on genetics as an outdated concept. She wrote:
The idea is simple. If Idaho can produce potatoes cheaper than California can, and California can produce strawberries cheaper than Idaho can, then Idaho should grow all of the potatoes and California should grow all of the strawberries, and they should trade. To some extent, this makes sense. No one is suggesting that Mexico attempt to produce its own maple syrup or that Vermont should try to grow its own pineapple. But relying on large-scale monoculture as suggested by the notion that California should supply the nation with strawberries runs into the need for toxic agrochemicals.
Richardson goes on to hype fears of toxic death from living near large-scale food production. This is more of a wandering response to economies of scale, not comparative advantage.


Friday, July 6, 2012

Pierre Desrochers on food security

Pierre Desrochers is becoming one of my favorite commentators on this subject. Behind, of course, me.

On NPR's Marketplace he recently stated:
The most preposterous claim of locavores is that their prescription increases food security. Yet, no local food system can ever be completely protected from insects, plant and animal diseases, drought, floods, earthquakes and other natural catastrophes. Fortunately, trade liberalization insures that the surplus of regions with good harvests can be channeled to those with below average ones. In the long run, good and bad harvests cancel each other out. Locavorism, by contrast, puts all of one's agricultural eggs in one regional basket.
As always, be sure to click the link for the deliciously enraged comments from locavores.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Video games need to be more female friendly

I've been playing the new Spelunky game on Xbox that was released this morning and as much fun as I'm having wandering through the levels, my favorite moment so far has been the options menu.

Spelunky pays homage to Indiana Jones-style pulp stories and one essential part of the game is the blonde-haired red dress-wearing damsels in distress that give you a kiss after a successful rescue. I was happy to see that the four playable characters includes a woman, but I thought the helpless damsel would rub lady gamers the wrong way and push them away.

That is, until I saw the options menus.

After the sound level adjustments there is an option for "Damsel Style." The helpless blonde can be replaced with a beefy blond guy wearing a red bow tie and speedo.If neither of those are your thing, the damsel can take the form of a pug. The choice of damsel is independent from the choice of playable character, so if you want to play as a dude who kisses other dudes, you can. Spelunky doesn't care.

Well played, Spelunky designers, well played.

This isn't the norm, of course. Female gamers are often forced to play as a male protagonist, and that knocks down the immersion factor a few notches. There are some wonderful exceptions, of course, like modern role-playing games that let you build your character from scratch.

I don't think Gears of War 3 gets enough credit for its presentation of racial and gender diversity. There are important characters from every major nationality in the plot and there are multiple playable female characters - with no ridiculous bikini armor. Both genders have the same amount of protection.

I usually play as the blond-haired Damon Baird in Gears multiplayer because I want a character that somewhat resembles me. In far too many cases, female players are hopelessly out of luck and can't even select a character of the same gender, let alone race or hair color. Maybe this is too nuanced to be listed as a male privilege, but it is inherently unfair.

I understand that story-focused games often don't have the luxury of making the protagonist moldable. Grand Theft Auto IV was a masterpiece of storytelling and the protagonist had to be a man from Eastern Europe. That's the way the plot was written.

Some games aren't as story focused and there's no reason the game designers can't provide a female option the way Spelunky did. We shouldn't expect anything less.

I realize I'm not usually on the same side of feminists on a lot of contemporary issues, but when it comes to the culture of video games, there's a lot of room for improvement. This includes both the way women are portrayed in games, such as the bikini babe warrior archetype that is so absurd it's an insult to players' intelligence, to the terrible way some cretins treat female players online.I'm glad to see Spelunky is taking a step in the right direction.


Monday, July 2, 2012

Cowen on eliminating agricultural subsidies

I'm a sucker for a good anti-agricultural subsidy remark. Here's what Tyler Cowen had to say in a recent reader-submitted Freakonomics Q&A:
Q. Let’s say the ~$20B in U.S. subsidies for corn wheat, rice, soybeans, dairy, etc. are gradually dialed down to $0 in the next 10 years. What do you think the impact on food would be ? Would prices rise? Would flavor and health improve?<
A. Eliminating agricultural subsidies would improve the federal budget and the long-term fiscal outlook. There is no reason not to do it.
That said, sometimes foodies overemphasize how much those subsidies skew the world of food. Many of the bad sides of our corporate food world would still remain, or be virtually as prominent, though only customers would have to pay for them. We will still have too much corn syrup in our diets, and too many fruits and vegetables without much real taste and too much processed food.
Some agricultural subsidies make food more expensive, such as when they are combined with price floors, other subsidies make it cheaper, or lead to a distribution of surplus abroad, keeping food off the home market but boosting the amount of aid. The overall effects of agricultural subsidies on food prices are quite complex.
How many times have we all heard someone criticize agricultural subsidies, but before we could bring our hands together to applaud, the speaker went on the say the only problem with them is they are going to the wrong farmers.