Thursday, May 30, 2013

Mark Lynas has done it again

You may remember environmentalist Mark Lynas from his lecture at the Oxford Farming Conference in January about his own reversal on genetically-modified organisms.

This week he came back for more, giving a lecture at Cornell University about the conspiracy theorist nonsense from anti-GMO activists:

Here's a sample:

The anti-GMO campaign has also undoubtedly led to unnecessary deaths. The best documented example, which is laid out in detail by Robert Paarlberg in his book ‘Starved for Science’, is the refusal of the Zambian government to allow its starving population to eat imported GMO corn during a severe famine in 2002. 
Thousands died because the President of Zambia believed the lies of western environmental groups that genetically modified corn provided by the World Food Programme was somehow poisonous. I have yet to hear an apology from any of the responsible Western groups for their role in this humanitarian atrocity.

Lynas goes on to gut-punch pseudointellectuals like Vandana Shiva, Paul Ehrlich and the Union of Concerned Scientists. As usual, Lynas stresses the horrible consequences from these anti-science hucksters and lays out the facts in an engaging manner.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Get to the choppa!

There's a post going around showing some fools on Twitter that made a silly mistake while dreaming of winning the Powerball lottery. The jackpot was about $600 million and the U.S. population is a little more than 300 million, so some people said why doesn't the winner just give everyone $1 million and keep the rest.

All obvious jokes aside, what if the jackpot was big enough to give every American $1 million on a whim. Would that really make everyone rich?

No. I argue it would make everyone poor.

Sure, inequality would go down, student loan and credit card debt would be wiped out, but we could do that any time we wanted with a simple Federal Reserve policy. The reason we don't is the consequences would be worse.

Economists have a similar concept called a helicopter drop. The idea is to imagine what would happen if the FED printed a lot of money and dropped it on the public from a helicopter, or went into everyone's wallets and bank accounts and doubled their money.

Money is just a proxy for resources and when you have more and more green pieces of papers representing the same amount of goods and services, the value of those green pieces of paper plummets. We know that concept as "inflation." That house on the lake someone was willing to sell for $400,000 will fetch a much higher price now, as anyone can afford it that price now and they will try to outbid each other to get it.

Now picture every American's amount of money on hand. Picture a person with $200 to their name, another with $5,000 saved up, a third with $50,000 saved and one more with $100 million.

There are some big differences between them now, but watch what happens when you give them each $1 million. They are now each worth $1.0002 million, $1.005 million, $1.05 million and $101 million. Congratulations  you've reduced inequality, but you've also destroyed most peoples savings.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Good riddance to Rawitch

The Wall Street Journal has a great opinion piece from James Taranto about the retirement of his anti-mentor Cynthia Rawitch this week.

The short version is a student newspaper at another school printed a comic strip that mocked affirmative action policies. Left-wing students and faculty members lied about being offended by the comic and their attempts to intimidate that student newspaper lead to a student paper at a different school to publish the comic as context in an article about the overreaction.

This lead to journalism professor and unlikeable villain Rawitch to threaten and punish the staff at the second school paper, one whom grew up to be Taranto. The students ended up winning a free speech lawsuit after years of litigation, but Rawitch went on as a university employee, rising to the rank of vice provost of California State University, Northridge.

I'm glad to say that I had a very different experience at my college newspaper, even as an outspoken conservative at a far-left school. All in all, it was a great experience.

Sure, I had some trouble. I heard that the student government president bragged he could have me removed from my position as opinion editor, but that never happened. He was forced out of the school after being accused of raping a girl in the student government office over break.

A disgruntled student complained that I wouldn't print his article because it disagreed with my politics, but I showed how I tried to get him to expand on it so it would meet minimum word count requirement and he refused.

I ran into some yellers in the hallways now and then who recognized me from my headshot and one time some angry girls rolled up a pair of newspapers to the page of one of my articles and swatted me in the student union, but it was nothing I couldn't handle. The hate mail was even fun to read.

But all of that was from students. I never had any problem with the faculty, even when I ran a piece exposing a university employee's drunk driving arrest and criticizing the head of judicial affairs for his lawsuit against a fraternity that had exposed his drunk driving record.

In fact, I received a lot of positive feedback from my very liberal professors. My favorites were the ones who said they don't agree with me but respected my arguments. That was the tops for me.

I'm happy to say I never ran into a mealy-mouth Rawitch the whole time. Most journalism professors really do seem to "get it" when it comes to free speech.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The folly of reclaiming slurs

I was a member of the Gay-Straight Alliance for the two years I attended my first college and at one meeting we had a very frank conversation about the word "fag."

It turns out there is a segment of the gay population that uses the word in the same manner a segment of the American black population uses the word "nigger."

A young man who in my memory looks exactly like Larry B. Scot's character in Revenge of the Nerds spoke up and said that means he could use either of them if he wanted to, but he found them both offensive and vile and refuses to do so.

I think of that young man every time I hear some overly-confident white progressive claim that the issue is settled and black people are free to use the racial slurs like the term "nigger" without criticism. It's usually summed up as being a word that black people took from racists and we're told it's "empowering" for black people to say it. It may even be a term of endearment.

That position reveals several things. The first is that the speaker is unable to distinguish their own personal value judgement from metaphysical truth. How someone could take such an obvious personal opinion and  confuse it with a provable fact is beyond me.

The second is that they believe some people are able to speak for entire groups, including groups that people do not choose to join and members of that group who haven't even been born yet. This is complete hogwash. Only individuals can reveal their own personal preferences.

Readers have no doubt noticed my decision not to write "The N-word" in place of the word "nigger." That's because I wish to have a straightforward adult conversation about a real topic.

Reginald Vaughn Finley, who's known online as the Infidel Guy, is one individual who doesn't approve of the word. In a 2007 video he said he'd like to use the real word to make his case against it, but was concerned he would be blocked from YouTube. He criticized the idea that it was really a term of endearment.

"Why is it the case that when you get mad at somebody who's black the N-word flies out of your mouth like it's an attack... that kind of proves that you know it's negative."

Here's the situation. We have an ugly, ugly word that has no place in normal conversation, but at the same time well-educated progressives want to give black people permission to use it, even though they know full well some black people find it deeply offensive when anyone says it.

When I hear them make this case I picture that young man, forever frozen in 2001, being lectured at by a white liberal that he his opinion doesn't count and he needs to endure racial slurs because some other black people think it's fun to say.


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

No one believes you, Tim

That is to say, no one in Massachusetts believes him, as the Huffington Post reporter did and missed some major nuances in the coverage of the resignation of Lt. Govenor Tim Murray.

Money appears to have been a motivating factor for Murray. He earns less than $125,000 per year, while as head of the Chamber he is expected to earn over $200,000, according to the Globe.

In a press conference today Murray claimed he was approached by the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce and asked him to become the president and CEO. He said this was a great opportunity and he's taking it now because it wouldn't be available in a year and a half when his term ends.

The first question from a reporter called him on his fake story, asking if this has anything to do with his possible upcoming indictment for possibly breaking multiple campaign laws. He already dropped his bid for governor after his connections to salary-stuffed bureaucrat Michael McLaughlin were exposed.

That time his explanation was he wanted to spend more time with his family.

His worst excuse was after he crashed his car at 5:30 a.m. far from home and said he was in the area surveying Hurricane Sandy storm damage in the dark. It didn't help when he changes his story after police learned he had been driving at 108 m.p.h. He claimed he must have sped up after falling asleep at the wheel.

Sure Tim, sure.

Tim Murray is a serial liar, and he's not even a good liar. Bill Clinton was able to fool people from time to time while Murray can't even seem to convince himself. Even when he's quitting in shame he has no shame.

Monday, May 20, 2013

In support of Ronald A. Lindsay

Ronald A. Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, gave the opening address at his organization's Women in Secularism conference this weekend. During a section of that talk he criticized people who automatically bleat "check your privilege" as a way to avoid discussions.

It's the same point I made last year, and we both included the caveat that privilege is a legitimate concept that is being abused by some feminists.

Well, surprise surprise some people freaked out and distorted what Lindsay said and are making him the witch of the week.

Lindsay is doing a great job defending himself and doesn't need my help. The one thing he could use is more support and I'm glad to lend my voice to that end. Please consider doing the same.


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Settle down, Stevens

Does anyone know what is up with Vsauce host Michael Stevens? The guy's face is always shifting around and he sways like a wavy tube man when he's on camera. He does some great research on some very interesting subjects, but he mugs the camera so much I have to turn it off or hide the window.


Thursday, May 16, 2013

Elizabeth Warren thinks you're stupid

...Because she couldn't possibly be that dense

Senator Warren has introduced her first bill, the Randian-named Bank on Student Loans Fairness Act, which pegs the interest rate of Stafford Loans to the Federal Reserve's discount window, which is currently at 0.75 percent.

I'd like to introduce the concept I call "Fellow's Law" after blogger Nathan Fellows, where any bill with the word "fair" in the title must be met with mockery. Warren makes it simple when she backs it up with populist jibber-jabber:

According to Warren, the federal government makes an average of 36 cents for every dollar it lends to students. As a result, this year, the government will make some $34 billion from students making payments. “We shouldn’t be profiting from our students who are drowning in debt, while giving a great deal to the banks,” she said. “That’s just wrong.”

Warren is banking on the ignorance of young people with her message. She wants people to believe that banks come to the FED for long-term loans and walk out with a tiny interest rate because of corruption. In fact, that scenario involves a different, higher interest rate. The discount window that she's talking about is when banks need to balance their books and borrow money overnight only to repay it the next morning. It's barely even a loan, it's more like holding someone's place in line.

People who aren't ignorant on these matters have been roasting Warren for her purposely-misleading rhetoric. The best so far came from Megan McArdle:

It's probably true that some say banks need low interest rates to keep the economy growing. But no one except possibly a lunatic has told Elizabeth Warren that banks are getting 0.75% at the discount window as a thank you for all the hard work they're doing helping the economy. Discount window loans are cheap for three reasons: the borrowers have assets and income that are easy to seize, the loans are quite short term, and the banks are required to put up collateral... 
Students, on the other hand, are borrowing for a decade, and the only thing they're putting up as a guarantee is their character. How good a collateral is their character? In 2011, 9.1% of borrowers had defaulted on their student loan within the first two years of the payment period.

The interest paid by the folks who don't default is the only thing keeping this program from hemorrhaging money.

Does Warren really think that someone could make it to Washington and attempt to change government policy on financial matters if they don't know what the FED's discount window is? Well... yeah. There's Rep. Maxine Waters.


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

No national abortion regulation debate

For the last few years my favorite example of politically-opportunistic regulation has been safety regulation legislature for abortion clinics, which are always promoted by pro-life Republicans.

It never occurred to me that they might be worth doing.

Now that the Dr. Kermitt Gosnell case has become a national story and he has been sentenced to prison for illegally killing just-born children with scissors at his abortion clinic, a reasonable person might consider supporting some of those regulations.

Yet, that option isn't on the table the same way gun control was on the table following the Sandy Hook shooting.

Plenty has already been written about the media's reluctance to cover this story, and how much of the subsequent focus has been on the media itself and not the actual case. I found Megan McArdle's explanation for the lack of coverage to be the most compelling:

...I understand why my readers suspect me, and other pro-choice mainstream journalists, of being selective—of not wanting to cover the story because it showcased the ugliest possibilities of abortion rights. The truth is that most of us tend to be less interested in sick-making stories—if the sick-making was done by "our side."

...If I think about it for a moment, there are obviously lots of policy implications of Gosnell's baby charnel house. How the hell did this clinic operate for seventeen years without health inspectors discovering his brutal crimes? Are there major holes in our medical regulatory system? More to the point, are those holes created, in part, by the pressure to go easy on abortion clinics, or more charitably, the fear of getting tangled in a hot-button political issue? These have clear implications for abortion access, and abortion politics.

After all, when ostensibly neutral local regulations threaten to restrict abortion access--as with Virginia's recent moves to require stricter regulatory standards for abortion clinics, and ultrasounds for women seeking abortions--the national media thinks that this is worthy of remark. If local governments are being too lax on abortion clinics, surely that is also worthy of note.

Moreover, surely those of us who are pro-choice must worry that this will restrict access to abortion: that a crackdown on abortion clinics will follow, with onerous white-glove inspections; that a revolted public will demand more restrictions on late-term abortions; or that women will be too afraid of Gosnell-style crimes to seek a medically necessary abortion.

I have never considered that abortion clinics actually need more regulation before this, but as McArdle said 17 years of Gosnell's unsanitary, brutal practice implies it should be considered.

While we should expect the pro-choice crowd to have this conversation in their own sphere, shouldn't we also have a national conversation about increasing health standards for abortion clinics? Why isn't the media leading that charge now that they cat is out of the bag? I submit it is because they are afraid of where it would lead.


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Another knight for our round table

I just discovered the YouTube channel of Bailey Norwood, an agricultural economics professor at Oklahoma State University. He also takes in interest the economic arguments of the "Buy Local" movement

And man on man does he put them out to pasture.

I'm always interested in seeing what approach other people make when they tackle this issue. The "transfer of wealth" focus is a solid tactic, as a major trade fallacy is that wealth is being lost in exchange for nothing when people trade. In fact, the amount of wealth on average stays the same and it is the form of wealth that is exchanged.


Friday, May 10, 2013

Strong start, weak finish

I was excited to when I stumbled across the BBC's Masters of Money miniseries that presented a trio of one-hour documentaries on economists John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek and Karl Marx, all available free online. Sadly, that enjoyment turned to annoyance and resentment when I watched the series and it unraveled from educational material into a slanted, ill-informed personal opinion piece.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first piece on John Maynard Keynes, which I felt was a celebration of his ideas wrapped in a detailed biography of his personal life. Keynes is a great subject and it's a shame his legacy hasn't soaked into the broader culture the way Albert Einstein's visage has extended beyond physics.

I anticipated a similar treatment of Friedrich Hayek, but never received it. Instead, I saw Hayek treated as a flawed extension of Keynes, the way Ptolemy would be presented in a documentary on Copernicus. What irked me the most is how they were shown as bitter rivals when in fact Keynes and Hayek became good friends despite being the leaders of opposing camps.

Host Stephanie Flanders really went off the deep end with the third piece on Karl Marx, who she gave way more credit than deserved. Flanders is hard to take seriously when she endorses Marx's criticism of capitalism. She does not endorse socialism or communism and the piece made a great point of showing that Marx never adequately fleshed those ideas out - something that irks the hollow-headed Stalinists of our generation. As Brad DeLong said, Marx's real contribution to economics was presenting the best arguments for modern mainstream economists to combat, not for advancing any sort of alternative.

The series constantly flouts The Open University tie in on the BBC website which promised several cartoon shorts on basic economic concepts. I thought most of them were garbled and visually ugly. Worse of all, the short on comparative advantage makes the cliche outsider argument that the concept is outdated and irrelevant, something Paul Krugman demonstrated has been happening for ages as a form of intellectual hipsterism.


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

It doesn't work that way

Two years ago I wrote about attempted "food sovereignty" municipal ordinances in Maine. While I support their goal of deregulating food, even if it's only small-scale production, I said the approach was doomed for failure.

Well, the update is obvious. The courts reminded them that state and federal legislation trumps municipal ordinances.

A [Maine] Superior Court ruling against a Blue Hill farmer who has been selling unlabeled, unlicensed raw milk will have farmers in several Maine towns wondering about the future of local “food sovereignty” ordinances that seek to exempt them from state oversight.

Sorry kids, but a strong top-down federal government prevents natural experiments in local government. It's a shame, although an obvious one, as there was never a reason to believe this plan would work in the long term.

Monday, May 6, 2013

I fear the worst

This weekend I got to try the Steam version of Monaco, the new $15 co-op heist game. It's good, very good, just as all the reviews said.

A review from made an interesting observation that the traditional obnoxious microphone chatter with online games was gone. Completely gone.

Right now.... if you go play Monaco on PC right now, online, with can assume you'll have a very good time. I've been having that very good time all week. 
Monaco is a pretty simple game, but one that benefits greatly from teamwork. Perhaps those of us who are playing it now just instinctively get that and realize that being annoying or angry will only make things worse. For now, then, it's all helping hands, banding together and piling into the getaway car while cackling. The game's a thieving paradise. 
What is this game going to be like when it comes to Xbox Live Arcade? That'll be the test. There are some monsters on Xbox Live.

If you don't know what he's referring to, stick this video in your ear: It's highlights from when a player logged in to Halo 3 using the name xxxGayBoyxxx but did not provoke anyone. Playing Xbox while female is another way to get harassed.

While macho big-name games like Halo and Call of Duty are obvious cesspools, the trash-talking has no limits and I've even experienced it in calm multiplayer games like Civilization: Revolutions. There was even a problem with perverts using the in-game camera in Xbox Live UNO to flash strangers.

If UNO isn't safe, what is?

My theory on why Monaco players are so civil is that the game is so different and good people are stunned by it. One would think that its focus on cooperation would lead to civility, but my experience it leads to self-appointed warlords rudely ordering other people around and cursing them out when things go wrong.

And in Monaco, things go very wrong all the time. I expect the novelty will wear off and when the Xbox version comes out later this month it will be a better game with other players muted.


Saturday, May 4, 2013

Are you part of an Internet lynch mob?

We know lynch mobs are a bad thing. As a nation that believes in giving criminals a fair trial, a team of vigilantes who murder a suspect upsets and overturns the civil rights of the accused. Even when that person is guilty, lynch mobs violate important aspects of civilization and have no place in our society.

But is it fair to compare them to Internet lynch mobs, where people post scathing criticisms and personal information about a supposed criminal? I maintain that it is. While they are not using actual violence against their target, they are doing everything they can to demolish that persons life.

In some cases, they reveal home addresses in order to enable others to commit actual violence on the target.

I imagine most people who join these crusades think they are on the side of justice. After all, because of activists in the Steubenville case who spread the names of both those accused of a sexual assault and those accused of witnessing it but not reporting it, it's reasonable to believe that public pressure lead to the case going to trial and the suspects were found guilty.

But that's not the only case of Internet vigilantism, and if they had been found innocent their reputations would still be ruined.

What about all of the pictures of people in the crowd holding bags at the Boston Marathon Bombing that self-appointed Internet detectives passed around? It wasn't just the New York Post that spread photos of potential victims and labeled them suspects; that was vigilantism and it hurt innocent people.

Lynch mobs often get their facts wrong, as could be seen by the major revisions and reversals in the Trayvon Martin shooting.

Then there's the online activism around the sad story of Rehtaeh Parsons that managed to "name and shame" an innocent person and advanced a narrative that may have been fictional. From the Edmonton Journal:

What they had was a complainant whose evidence was all over the map, independent evidence that supported the notion that any sex was consensual, and no evidence that Rehtaeh was so drunk that she couldn't consent: The case was a mess. 
But the names of four boys are online anyway - one a boy who wasn't even at the party and who went public to defend himself last week.

Online activism has a potential to do a lot of good, and you probably have the noblest of intentions when get involved with a public shaming. However, when you declare a person is guilty based on limited information or third-hand knowledge and then act upon it in a life-destroying manner you are playing on primitive emotions wrapped in ones and zeros.


Thursday, May 2, 2013

Racism, racism, everywhere I see

In honor of Gawker hack Cord Jefferson's 44 word post accusing The Week of  racism because the Boston Marathon bombers were drawn slightly tanned and not washed-out white, I have made my entire response the tag for this post.