Thursday, November 29, 2012

Sugar tariffs are sour, not sweet

Every once in a while someone makes an argument so bad that it just draws more attention to how wrong they are.

This week's fool is U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Florida. A protectionist, Rooney penned a recent Gee-Willikers-I-Don't-Like-Government-Intervention-But-This-Is-Different piece for the Daily Caller called A Conservative Case for Sugar Tarrifs.

His basic argument is that limiting sugar imports protects American jobs, and it's good for consumers because if we let our sugar producers compete under a free market, they would go out of business and the foriegn nations would start a sugar cabal and charge more.

This fooled absolutely no one, as our tariffs already make Americans pay twice as much for sugar as the rest of the world. Why wait for foreigners to impose higher prices later when we can have them now?

I wonder if Rooney's protectionist policies have anything to do with the $14,000 U.S. Sugar gave to his campaign, or the $75,000 from "Crop Production and Basic Processing" or all the sugar cane production in his district?

Of course they do. Rooney is a stooge for the sugar lobby, and a rather unskilled one at that. He had the nerve to write that the tariff program "operates without a federal budget outlay, which means it doesn't cost taxpayers a dime."

Reality check. This program costs Americans between $2.4 million and $3.5 million every year.


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Intrade is in the public interest

Events like these are the reason I hold my hyperbole back. I would hate to water down genuine outrage when I really need to express it.

Yesterday the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission shut down the prediction market website Intrade by filing a civil complaint in federal district court.

Prediction markets are an innovative way to predict the future by asking what a broad range of people believe, and uses wagers to filter out the people that are merely guessing. There was even talk of establishing a prediction market by the government on future terrorist attacks, but that was shut down for political reasons.

So what great threat did Intrade present to the American public to justify this enforcement? Listen to the CFTC itself:

As a result of reviewing the complete record, the CFTC determined that the contracts involve gaming and are contrary to the public interest...

"Gaming" being a modern euphemism for gambling.

It's tempting to say that Intrade deserved to be shut down for not getting a proper license from the CFTC to operate markets for questions like who will win the presidential election. It turns out that the CFTC won't let anyone do that. A rival prediction market firm, the North American Derivatives Exchange or Nadex, is regulated by the CFTC and sells prediction markets in things like jobless claims numbers but not election results. That's because the feds rejected their request to have markets in political elections back in April. The reason?

The same vague claim of the public interest.

By the way, Nadex is gloating about the enforcement. Their press release is almost honest, as it declared the company "commends the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) for its aggressive action yesterday to protect U.S. traders."

Notice it didn't say that the action protects the public. No, it instead said it protects traders. And since there is only one prediction market company that legally operated under the CFTC, it referred only to Nadex.

Do yourself a favor and take this time to learn more about prediction markets, an important scientific tool worthy of a Nobel Prize that the United States government just declared a criminal act. Whatever happened to the public interest.


Sunday, November 25, 2012

Rubio isn't stupid, he's spineless

I've been following the aftermath from when Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida was given an ambush question by GQ magazine about the age of the Earth and said:

I'm not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that's a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. 
I'm not a scientist. I don't think I'm qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. 
I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in seven days, or seven actual eras, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to answer that. It's one of the great mysteries.

Yes, it's true that Republicans are put on the spot with these science questions, but it's also true that they are the ones providing the terrible answers. In the spirit of Ken's Law, yes a trap was set for him, but he threw himself into it when it was sprung.

There's a boiler plate response from the science-friendly left when these issues come up, that this level of scientific idiocy is a marker for incompetence in a leadership position, and holding these incorrect views will spillover to other areas. Phil Plait took that angle in a recent piece.

Rubio is exactly and precisely wrong. Science, and how it tells us the age of the Earth, has everything to do with how our economy will grow. 
 By teaching our kids actual science, we can guarantee the future of this country and its economic growth. By hiding it from them, by equivocating about it with them, by providing false balance between reality and wishful thinking, what we guarantee is a future work force that can't distinguish between what's real and what isn't. 
That's a formula for failure. And you don't need to be a scientist to see that.

I think this card is overplayed, and it misses the real problem with Rubio's reply. He said nothing to indicate that in his opinion the Earth is a mere 6,000 years old, as opposed to 4.54 billion years. Instead, he presented those views as equal.

Which I see as much worse.

Rubio has demonstrated that he is willing to pander to the extreme fringe by throwing a bone to young-Earth creationists. This isn't something he did casually, but a deliberate attempt to play it safe instead of taking a very basic, acceptable stance. Rubio wasn't being stupid; he was being a spineless worm.

When the pro-science left tries to dismiss the economic ideas of Republicans because they have stupid views on science, I'm reminded of the 2000 presidential debate. Conservatives tried to argue that Bill Clinton's lies and betrayals as a husband implied he was also dishonest as a politician, which lead to Al and Tipper Gore sharing an eye-melting kiss at the Democratic National Convention to "prove" he was a trustworthy husband, and therefore, would make a trustworthy president.

Well, we now know he fell short of at least one of those roles.

If we're going to write off the economic policies of a politician because they are ignorant of geology or biology, shouldn't we be all the more eager to write off politicians who demonstrate wacky views about the economy? Look at the blunt-headed foolishness of  Bernie Sanders shakedown on the Smithsonian gift shop, Chellie Pinegree's localist job-conjuring pipe dream or now-disgraced Jesse Jackson Jr.s claims that the iPad is a threat to the economy. Shouldn't those foolish ideas be bigger disqualifications?

I would like to see these science questions be given to more Democrats to see what level of pandering they will give, such as in 2008 when all the major contenders for president rejected the scientific consensus that vaccines do not cause autism. Just like Rubio, it's not that they revealed themselves to be stupid, but instead demonstrated that scientific truth will be sacrificed to win the approval of fools.


Friday, November 23, 2012

Pseudoeconomics starts early this year

Everyone likes to complain about Christmas breaking down the door the moment Thanksgiving is over, if not sooner. Well, the large retailers aren't the only ones trying to win over shoppers today - the localists are in full force with campaigns combining empty promises, guilt trips, nationalism and misinformation. The following Facebook image is a perfect example:

What's funny is that the tagline "people not profits" is used to justify an advertising scheme to increase profits to local businesses.

I wonder how option number 10, of using cash and not a credit card, is going to accomplish the goal of harming bank profits if the person ends up paying ATM fees.

Some people don't have a dozen hours to spend knitting a scarf or have skills that can produce gifts that anyone wants. Purchasing gifts is an old tradition, not a plot by capitalist overlords.


Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Obama is still a Christian

There's a group of extremists who are convinced that President Barack Obama is lying when he claims to be a Christian and is instead secretly a member of highly-despised group.

They're called far-left atheists.

The idea is simplistic. President Obama is supposedly a secret atheist, but lied about it to get re-elected. During his first term he expanded faith-based initiatives and made numerous references to his faith, but now that the election is over and term limits prevent him from running again, he can finally be himself. There's even calls for him to leave the Bible home when he is sworn into office next year.

This wild conclusion comes from some people who should really know better like Richard Dawkins, and the evidence they suggest is embarrassingly weak, such as that he doesn't attend church regularly in Washington D.C. He said it's because his presence is disruptive to the service.

The conclusion clearly outpaces the evidence. I think this idea comes from some kind of emotional need fulfillment from the secular far left. Candidate Obama did a great job of presenting himself as a blank canvas people could project their own ideals upon, and a lot of atheists have fallen into a sort of trap where they think he is just like them. It's true in other realms so why not this one?

Other atheists have spoken out against this and made some strong counter-arguments, such as how he called himself religious before he entered politics, the long list of anti-secular comments and policy decisions he's made and the problems presented by embracing someone because you think they are lying about being religious.

Even if the president is a secret atheist, his actions as president have been directly in line with that of a serious Christian who believes faith has a crucial role in the government, so functionally the entire point is moot. President Obama does not, and will not, behave like a secular president.


Monday, November 19, 2012

Rent seeking runs more than skin deep

I've noticed a lot of the tragedy of the anticommons in video games since I wrote about it a year and a half ago, where a swarm of different permission, copywrite and trademark rights prevent a game from being sold. It often takes the form of music licensing rights preventing older games from being re-released, but occasionally someone tries to profit off the game by claiming something they own was depicted in a game that has already been released.

This new case sets a new watermark for frivolous copywrite claims that abuse copywrite laws.

Arizona-based tattoo artist Chris Escobedo gave mixed martial arts fighter Carlos Condit a lion tattoo. THQ made the game UFC Undisputed 3 which features Condit, and the graphics of the game depict the same lion tattoo. Escobedo is suing UFC because he owns the copywrite to the tattoo, not Condit, and wants a piece of the action since it can be seen in the game and the game's website.

The Constitution said that we have patents and other intellectual property rights to "promote the progress of science and useful arts.” What Escobedo is doing is rent-seeking; he is trying to profit just because he can while creating nothing of value, and in doing so he threatens to stifle creative expression.

The worst part is, this has come up before and the law may fall on the rent seekers side

Although it settled out of court, the makers of The Hangover 2 faced a similar situation for the reproduction without permission of Mike Tyson's facial tattoo in their film. Had it made it to court, legal experts suggest that the film makers would have lost.

It's bad enough that someone trying to negotiate the re-release of a game has to track down permission from all the voice actors and soundtrack, but now they might have to contact the guy who made a similar tattoo in real life? Good grief, this needs to change.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

In all due respect, you're stupid

I've heard before that John McCain has a short fuse. This video lends credibility to that idea, but his anger was clearly justified. See what happens when a reporter asks him if the Gen. David Petraeus scandal is a bigger threat to national security than the Sept. 11 2012 embassy assault.


Thursday, November 15, 2012

I'm tired of biology having better visuals

This one video, in five and a half minutes, captures every ounce of wonder, joy, mysticism and optimism I feel when I study economics, and it does so in a way anyone can grasp and embrace.

Milton Friedman did a great off-the-cuff summary of this idea on PBS, and I've recommended that clip for years. The catchy graphics and updated supply chains featured in this new video give Milton a run for his money. When you add in this companion video, you end up with a straightforward, refined and elegant summary of why I believe so strongly in capitalism and the power of markets.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The fetish of breaking the law

It was December 2008, back when the American left was smiling itself to sleep every night that Barack Obama had been elected and would be able to fix most of America's problems in his first term, when environmental extremist Tim DeChristopher infiltrated an auction for oil-drilling land. He won 13 bids and drove up the prices on others. I remember reading an alternative weekly at the time that implied DeChristopher believed he would get a pardon from the new president.

Well, he got a felony conviction instead. Unfortunately, he only received a two year sentence and is now free, despite the untold amount of damages he inflicted.

Every left wing loon has praised DeChristopher for his so-called civil disobedience, which has come to mean a willingness to commit crimes because one thinks their personal value judgments makes them above the law and traditional moral values.

For what it's worth, President Obama can not be understood as a far-left extremist because people like Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein show how out there they can be. She saw fit to get arrested on purpose to draw attention to herself, hoping the public would assume she is being arrested merely for her political views and not trying to storm into a building where the president is located or aiding "human shields" who hold themselves hostage to block work crews. And that was just in the past month.

I'm written before how the American left likes to fantasize that they are in a good versus evil struggle like the civil rights movement was, and will justify engaging in civil disobedience not over racist laws but anything they disagree with, even if it involves violence against innocent people. They don't just see getting arrested as a means to an end, they revel in it. It reminds me of what Bryan Caplan said that the protagonist of Crime and Punishment was a Leninist because of, among other things, his:

Eager, poetic embrace of the implication that mass murder is conceivably morally justified; indeed, morally required.

The big problem with this rush to break any law that stands in the way is that sometimes these people have a warped view of reality and the greater evil they think they are fighting turns out not to exist, leaving them to commit crimes in a way that does not actually benefit the greater good. Steven Pinker hit upon this idea as well:

...there are ideologies, such as those of militant religions, nationalism, Nazism, and Communism, that justify vast outlays of violence by a Utopian cost-benefit analysis: if your belief system holds out the hope of a world that will be infinitely good forever, how much violence are you entitled to perpetrate in pursuit of this infinitely perfect world? 
 Well, as much as much as you want, and you're always ahead of the game. The benefits always outweigh the costs. Moreover, imagine that there are people who hear about your scheme for a perfect world and just don't get with the program. They might oppose you in bringing heaven to earth. How evil are they? They're the only things standing in the way of an infinitely good Earth. Well, you do the math.  

When people believe their political positions allow them to transcend the morals of following the law, no matter what level of severity that takes, they are committing a major act of hubris. They don't think the rules apply to them anymore because they know something everyone else doesn't. Sadly, there is nothing stopping fools from reaching these conclusions and acting on them.


Monday, November 12, 2012

A disproportional response

In the first season of The West Wing newly-elected president Josiah Bartlet rejects strategy suggestions from his military advisers when a plane carrying Americans, including his personal physician, is blown up by Syrian operatives. They recommend a series of small air strikes as a "proportional response." Bartlet has another idea.

He asks for a disproportional response. He wants total war.

Eventually his advisers convince him that this would be too costly. He'd lose the support of his allies and many innocent people would be harmed.

This idea of a disproportional response has been leading my inner opposition to several recent boycotts, such as the ones against Target and Chick-Fil-A. In Target's case, the company gave money to someone who supports business policies that will favor Target, but he also is against gay marriage. Boycott.

In Chick-Fil-A's case, it was a small fast food chain most of my friends have never seen that was suddenly evil because the CEO is against gay marriage and gave money to anti-gay marriage groups. Massive boycott, supported by people who don't live close enough to a location to actually make a purchase. There were also some crude assumptions about everyone who works for the company. The protesters weren't necessarily wrong, just disproportionate.

Now the left's disproportional response is against Papa John's pizza chain because the founder and CEO said he will respond to a government mandate requiring him to provide health insurance to all full-time employees or pay a fine by simply turning those full-time employee into part-time employees.

So up come the stupid memes and canned slogans. Remarks insulting the company's products are tossed around and the CEO John Schnatter is criticized for being rich and having a mansion.

As a former pizza delivery guy, I can say that it was a great job. The money is really good because of the tips (which the above link conveniently left out) and it required no formal training or education. There's nothing special about the employee-employer relationship that implies my boss should have offered me health care in exchange for a reduction in wages. If you make it more expensive to hire people, they will hire fewer people. The increase in compensation would also mean that more people would want to be delivery drivers and you'd see those with the least employment options pushed out.

The assumption among lefties is that this mandate would be a smooth transfer of money from Schnatter's pocket to those of his employees. After all, he lives in a mansion.

Well, that money is the company's, not Schatter's. CNN said while the cost of meeting the mandate is unknown, the company would have to pay $28 million in fees as an alternative to buying all that expensive health insurance. Think of that as a ballpark.

In 2011, the company's revenue was $55.7 million. That is, the ballpark for the cost of this measure is half the company's profits. Schatter's own annual compensation is $2.75 million.

They think that because Schatter lives in a mansion, he should pay 10 times his salary in health insurance bills for employees at a McJob. These numbers are easy to find, but are being left out because they are inconvenient to the envy-based activists.

The company is simply responding to incentives by cutting hours to avoid providing health care, and market interventions are mad that their plans are making things worse for the employees, not better. That is the power of the law of unintended consequences.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Fish in a barrel

Twitter is the perfect practice area for idiot hunting, but it still doesn't prove anything.

This week the feminist website Jezebel shared a collection of Twitter chatter of racially offensive remarks about President Barack Obama after the election results came in. Like all idiot hunting expeditions, this was an attempt to demonstrate something about our society, but it really only proved that there are stupid people on the Internet.

Earlier this year conservatives passed links back and forth that showed Twitter users in America calling for the death of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker after he won the recall election and the death of Mitt Romney for winning the first debate. Many of them said they intend to assassinate Walker or Romney.

So what have we learned from this, are conservatives racists and do liberals want to murder right-wing politicians after they lose an election? Some of them are guilty, but not the entire group. There is no attempt to defend these online messages because they are a childish reaction from the fringe.

Which group is more likely to post these sort of message, liberals or conservatives? We don't know that either.

People pass around these Twitter lists to prove a point, but they are merely a collection of anecdotes, not hard data, and they prove nothing more than the idiocy of some young people on the Internet.


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Malawi's failed local corn growing policies

Tyler Cowen recently posted this video detailing the flaws in Malawi's corn policies, which restrict the import and export of corn.

As of a result of locavore-style food production policies, we see extreme volatility in corn prices, about 60 percent, from the harvest season to just before next year's harvest season when corn is scarce.

This is what happens when your food supply is restricted to the local area's climate. Imagine if there was a natural disaster that ruined the harvest in one year. This is the polar opposite of making the food supply more secure. 

Instead of hedging with the world's food supply, Malawi's corn supply depends on the whim of chance and as a result, corn becomes scarce each and every year.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

We're all doomed, doomed, doomed!

Marginal Revolution shared this pleasant little video showing how we're all going to die.

Just imagine that slow robo blade coming down on your, err, neck. Thanks, Japanese researchers, for arming the robots now that a way to power them with human blood has been developed.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Gay marriage in Maine

While I will be voting in Massachusetts to legalize medical marijuana and doctor assisted suicide on Tuesday, my former neighbors in Maine have a vote to legalize gay marriage.

I understand some people think of this as redefining marriage. I think that is correct to an extent and it's also why we need to pass this law. Everything I wrote about this issue back in 2009 is true today when it was last on the ballot.

I confess to suspecting a lot of things about homosexuality, but only knowing two of them for sure: Gays exist, and they are not going to go away. 
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.

Our current views of marriage are outdated and passing Question 1 will give them a needed update.

Friday, November 2, 2012

I would vote for Obama if...

I enjoyed Mike Godwin's piece on on why libertarians should consider voting for Barack Obama, but I didn't find the arguments compelling.

It's not that I've totally written off the idea of voting for the O-man. In fact, I would instantly switch from my vote for Gary Johnson if l heard the president say:

"You know folks, I've been thinking it over and it's not right that I casually joke about my drug use while ramping up prosecution on California medical marijuana, as well as all drug users. This was a bad policy to begin with, and the damage it does to young people who behave the same way I did was a mistake. That's why I am ending the war on drugs right now."


"It's been said that circumstances of history choose what a president's legacy will be. If I am granted another four years in office I will do everything within my power to be known as the Free Trade President, and have begun phasing-out all tariffs, including sugar, solar panels and tires. This will save American consumers needed money and allow our economy to prosper."

Or how about:

"As many of my liberty-focused critics have said, my administration supports killing suspected terrorists with drone strikes, even if they are American citizens overseas. This is a very complex issue and I regret moving ahead without first having a conversation with the American people. We're going to begin that dialogue right now."

Or even:

"It's well known that my economic policies have failed to rescue the economy like I said they would in 2008. Rather than blame others, I have decided to take responsibility and expand my knowledge of macroeconomics with the aid of my new advisers Gary Becker, Greg Mankiw, Tyler Cowen, Mike Munger and Russ Roberts. I haven't switched teams, but I am more open to opposing ideas."

Not likely. But what about:

"Is it just me, or does Alan Grayson remind anyone else of a smug manatee?"

If any of those lines come out of his mouth I'll be on the front lines chanting "Four More Years!"


Thursday, November 1, 2012

Not convinced

I've seen an article passed around this week from Patheos blogger Libby Anne called How I lost faith in the pro-life movement. It presents itself as a character arc from a liberated woman who was born into a far-right family and has come to terms with her own beliefs, but instead it's a weak argument that insists no one really opposes abortion because they don't support a hodgepodge of left wing political positions. She concluded:

The reality is that so-called pro-life movement is not about saving babies. It’s about regulating sex. That’s why they oppose birth control. That’s why they want to ban abortion even though doing so will simply drive women to have dangerous back alley abortions. That’s why they want to penalize women who take public assistance and then dare to have sex, leaving an exemption for those who become pregnant from rape. It’s not about babies. If it were about babies, they would be making access to birth control widespread and free and creating a comprehensive social safety net so that no woman finds herself with a pregnancy she can’t afford. They would be raising money for research on why half of all zygotes fail to implant and working to prevent miscarriages. It’s not about babies. It’s about controlling women. It’s about making sure they have consequences for having unapproved sex.

Well, there's some big assumptions here. Her conclusions far outpace the arguments she attempts to use as a foundation.

The theme reminds me of a series I did back in 2010 about simplistic arguments where people assume their opponents secretly agree with them, but have hidden motives. It's a lazy way of thinking in black and white terms to avoid seeing a world of gray.

Anne does make a strong point that people who are opposed to abortion should support birth control because it stops fertilization from happening. She then makes a few assertions that those in the pro-life movement are universally opposed to birth control. There were no citations to back this claim up.

She does not make it clear the extent is she talking about the people who actively campaign against abortion and the people who say they are morally opposed, but are not politically active. The most charitable reading is that she is referring to those who are activists, but her failure to distinguish will leave some readers misinformed.

Data from a Gallup poll released in May revealed 50 percent of Americans identified themselves as pro-life (compared to a mere 41 percent who said they are pro-choice) while only 8 percent of Americans said they are morally opposed to birth control. With 3 percent of responders in between, that left 89 percent of Americans who reported no moral objection to birth control.

I will write a correction if someone can show that I'm wrong to assume the entire group of people who do not support birth control are also opponents of abortion. That means that the overwhelming majority of abortion opponents, 78 percent, have no moral objection to birth control and a mere 16 percent of them fit the image Anne painted.

Anne repeated a ridiculous argument that one can tell the pro-life movement isn't serious because it doesn't finance itself with 5K fundraising events. Clownish statements like this both clutter up the essay with junk and erode her credibility.

Then there's the barrage of left-wing assumptions. Merely supporting birth control isn't enough; to meet the unrealistic standard she has set to prove moral motivation one has to adopt left wing economic policies like increasing welfare for mothers and government funding of birth control.

It runs through the entire checklist of cliche progressive birth control misdirection. Use of the word "access" to dodge public vs. private debates; check. Assertion that President Obama's gave everyone birth control out of the aether, instead of mandating health insurance companies provide it by raising rates, and labeling the whole thing free, check. Assuming opposition to any of these means of paying for it is the same as opposing the legality of birth control, check.

She also quotes a study that insists this method of forcing private health insurance companies to provide birth control without a co-pay (mistakenly referred to a "free") is going reduce three-quarters of abortions in the country. I wanted to see if any of the anti-abortion folks have come up with good counter arguments and I found this piece by Ben Domenech.

What Libby Anne completely ignores is that the majority of abortions are sought by women who are the least likely to have employer-based insurance – namely, the poor. While the vast majority of insurance plans prior to the contraception mandate already covered abortion and contraception services (with co-pays), according to the Guttmacher Institute, only 13 percent of abortions are charged to insurers. These employer-covered women aren’t the ones who are seeking more abortions. While abortion rates are trending down overall, they are increasing among the poorest Americans – 42% of all abortions were from American women below the federal poverty line in 2008. 

 For these women, the likeliest to seek out and obtain abortions, Obama’s contraception mandate for employers will make no difference whatsoever.

The whole thing reminds me of the essays written by former atheists who have seen the light of God, where its clear that they were so easy to convert because their now-discarded views were primitive and shallow. In both cases, we would learn much more from someone who had a deep understanding of the issues and has shed strong arguments in favor of superior ones.