Thursday, October 31, 2013

Local Kleptocracy

Are locavores really so entitled that they will steal from local gardens. A recent Reddit post from Portland, Ore. claims they are.

Homeowners: How do you keep local sous chefs from harvesting urban edibles on your property?
I have tried posting signs, yet they still seem to find a way into my yard to harvest everything from nettles and catmint to borage and grape leaves. I even built a six-foot tall fence, but they are still managing to get in. I have called the offending restaurants to ask them to tell their sous chefs to stop trespassing, but so far they seem undeterred. I have also offered to let them onto my property with my supervision, but they mostly seem to come out while I'm at work so everything can be prepped for their dinner service. It was fine when they were just harvesting pineapple weed and mallow from the alley and the parking strip, although it was admittedly a little off-putting. I'm also totally cool with them picking the crab apples because some of the branches are in the public right of way. But yesterday my neighbor called to let me know she had to help a sous chef who got stuck on top of my fence holding a baggie full of chicory leaves. I get that part of living in inner SE is dealing with locavore sous chefs and all the problems that follow them, but it is frustrating and kind of scary knowing that they are constantly combing my yard for garnishes while I'm away.

I'm skeptical about the authenticity of this post. The caller somehow knows which restaurants to call. The repeated name-dropping of herbs seems like a literary device. Most quizzical of all, there are plenty of dishonest people that sell to locavores by lying about the origins of their ingredients, so why wouldn't they simply lie to people instead of taking such strange risks?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Unmasked censorship

Students at one of the University of Colorado campuses have been forbidden to wear Halloween costumes that will upset the Easily Offended Community

University students in America have been told not to wear "offensive" Halloween costumes including cowboys, Indians and anything involving a sombrero. 
Students at the University of Colorado Boulder have also been told to avoid "white trash" costumes and anything that portrays a particular culture as "over-sexualised" - which the university says includes dressing up as a geisha or a "squaw" (indigenous woman).

Cowboys? Cowboys? They don't need your steeeeinking protection, senor. I thought this was just going to be a group of racial stereotypes, but its apparent institutionalized emotional weakness knows no bounds.

Do college students even realize when their freedom of expression is being trampled anymore? This bogus notion that people have a right not to be offended is taking root in their minds and it has to have come from somewhere. While colleges love to give shout-outs to free speech, their actions betray the hollowness of those statements.

Personally, I'm offended that male newpaper reporters were left off the list of overly-sexualized stereotypes. When will my personal suffering ever stop?


Sunday, October 27, 2013

Speech has consequence

While in traffic yesterday NPR stole nearly half an hour of my life with a polemic against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

It wouldn't be so bad if NPR would just acknowledge that it has a slant in its coverage. That would be one thing. Instead, it pretends to be neutral while airing obviously biased pieces like yesterday's 28 minute one from Ben Calhoun. It starts at the 30 minute mark at this link.

More than 900,000 people signed a petition in 2011 and 2012 to hold a recall election intended to remove Walker from office when he took several measures against public unions. Walker ended up winning that election with 53.1 percent of the vote, higher than his 52.25 percent win in 2010 against the same opponent.

NPR followed the story of Josh Inglett, a college student who was vying for a seat on the state college's board of regents. There are 18 seats, two of which goes to students, and all are nominated by the governor's office and approved by the state senate. Board members appoint university administration members and give money to student groups collected from student activity fees.

After Inglett was nominated by one of Walker's cabinet members but before the senate confirmed him, conservative bloggers matched Inglett's name to one of the people who signed the recall petition. Walker's office took back the nomination.

Calhoun played interview clips from four other people in the piece: Inglett, a state senator who supported Inglett, a judge who lost an election after bloggers revealed that he also signed the petition and one of the conservative bloggers. In all cases, he selected clips to say that Walker was using the petition signatures as an "enemies list" and weaved a narrative that said the GOP is using that list to destroy people.

This is, of course, ridiculous. As demonstrated in Calhoun's own narrative, it was bloggers who combed through the list and put Walker on the spot asking why he nominated someone. It was only after that that the offer for a ceremonial position on a board was taken away.

Signing the recall position was a pretty extreme act, and while people have the right to do it, they need to remember that publicly stating political positions has consequences. That's Free Speech 101.

If I was so inclined I could write a foolish, angry post calling president Obama a socialist. I'm not going to do it, but technically, I could. If I chose to do that and was later set to appear in a White House photo op, shouldn't I expect trouble when the post comes to light?

Calhoun makes a big deal that Inglett is a registered Republican and says that he supports Walker, but only signed the petition on a whim because he thought it would save his mom from being fired from her substitute teaching job. He later added that he doesn't regret signing it. That's a major contradiction and I don't buy it. I also noticed that since Walker got what he wanted there was no mention about Inglett's mom losing her  job after all.

There was also a part where Calhoun said he spoke to Joe Voiland, the new judge who outed petition-signing Tom Wolfgram, but we never hear Voiland himself speak. I imagine it's because he made too many good points when he spoke and it might turn out like this:

When Voiland announced his candidacy in January and called Wolfgram out for signing the petition, the judge said his signature was "not a political statement" in opposition to the governor. 
Voiland described the explanation as "misleading hogwash." 

Wolfgram got to talk on the program, but was paraded out like his signature was meaningless. We're told that he is a loyal Republican who signed it because Walker's anti-union actions happened too fast for the public to weigh in.

"Misleading hogwash" sounds about right. Can't any of these people own their actions?

Speech has consequences, and despite this report's attempts to act like signing a recall petition is a trivial affair, no one here should be surprised what happened. People were held accountable for taking sides, nothing more.


Friday, October 25, 2013

Where do wages come from?

We've all heard the imaginative tales innocent children will concoct when they try to figure out where babies come from. Does the mother's belly open like a breadbox to deposit the child when it's ready? Do storks or pixies or ancestral spirits bring the child from another realm? Kids don't know so they make up the best answer they can, despite lacking important information.

That's a perfect parallel to what happens when many adults try to explain where wages come from. There are oodles of stories surfacing about how workers of major corporations often collect some kind of government assistance, and they make the claim that the company is costing the government money because its wages aren't high enough.

Here's a typical example, with its description of Domino's:

Domino’s has more than doubled its net income since 2008, when the company posted $54 million in earnings. Many of Domino's employees are likely enrolled in government programs. According to [the National Employment Law Project], the company could have raised employee wages rather than spend that money expanding aggressively overseas and investing heavily in technology aimed at easing the ordering and delivery process. The stock has surged over the last five years with the share price up more than 900%. Meanwhile, the compensation of J. Patrick Doyle, Domino’s CEO since 2010, amounted to more than $6 million in 2011 and more than $9 million in 2012.

Somewhere in America, a writer thinks that wages come from the stork.

How else could you explain this reckless assumption that Domino's would have dumped its investment money onto its low-skilled employees? To the economically-ignorant, wages are a gift employers give to employees because they are nice. To those with economic understanding, wages are determined by the market and will reach the dollar amount required to attract a competent workforce

I was a Domino's driver in college and it was best money I had made at that time. It paid more than the small businesses and large corporations I had worked at before. It also took little skill and there were tons of people qualified to do the same job. If wages were raised, I doubt I would have been able to keep my job, as adults with more work experience would leave their fields and take the positions away from people like me. Without these kinds of low-paying jobs, young workers can not get a break into the workforce.

Noticeably, the article's estimate for what the government gives in assistance to Domino's Workers ($126 million) is more than the companies annual profits ($112 million) and CEO compensation ($9.1 million) combined. The author insists that the company should have avoided expanding their business and making capital investments and instead give cash gifts to employees.

Does this person also believe in unicorns? What a downright idiotic thing to write.

By the way, since the writer is so bitter about the $3 million increase in the CEO's compensation package between 2011 and 2012, why not simply divide it between all the employees. I'm sure that annual increase of $40.58 per employee would go a long way.

Welfare programs that cut off benefits when workers find some work trap people in poverty. If someone has low skills and few offers, they can lose money if they take a job and sacrifice their government benefits. It's a positive thing that these people are working while on government assistance. The alternative these shallow activists seek would lead to higher government assistance costs and more people blocked from working.

By the way, anyone worried that Domino's pizza workers aren't making enough money can try giving a generous tip.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Silent snobs

The pretentiously-named New York City restaurant "Eat" serves all of its meals in total silence. No one, not even the waitstaff or diners, are allowed to speak once they enter.

Of course, it's also got a plan to save the world.

Our philosophy is simple: Local organic food is best for the community, the environment, and your body, and that is what we choose to serve.

The facts say otherwise about local and organic, of course, but let's set that aside for a moment. How could anyone possibly enjoy local, organic food if they can't spend half of the meal praising themselves for sacrificing excessive amounts of money on versions of food that are out of reach to common people? Are we to believe they simply gloat in silence?


Monday, October 21, 2013

The veil of money

One of the simplest ways to think of John Maynard Keynes revolutionary idea of increasing aggregate demand to end a recession is to forget about money and just think about people working and consuming.

Keynes rejected the classical idea that unwanted unemployment only came from two sources: Workers were unwilling to work for the wages offered and workers had trouble finding the jobs that were out there. He proposed the idea that there could be more unemployed workers than jobs available to them, and his solution was to have the government create more jobs for the unemployed.

That's the basics right there, with no calculations about money. I find this is an effective way to think about economics, as money brings needless complexity that confuses and intimidates people who are new to economics. Money is just a proxy for resources and my advice for novice economic thinkers is to strip away the veil of money and concentrate on the activities in the economy: What workers are doing, what technology is helping them along, how much they are consuming and how much they are producing.

I've long argued that Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel is a great place to start when thinking of how economies work. Diamond spoke of a primitive tribe where five people labor to feed five people and the tribe never advances. However, a tribe in a fertile land where four people can work to feed five people leaves that extra worker to build, research, invent or craft other things. Another society will have three people work to feed five people and see more advances. Our current society has gone very far on that same spectrum and needs two people to feed 100.

Sure, those 98 people who are not producing food need some way to get the other two to give them food. In modern times we recognize that that comes from money, credit, trade, sharing, charity and welfare payments, but those concepts are part of the veil that can be stripped away.

When trying to think about economies, try forgetting about money and many things will start to make sense. Conversely, needlessly including money can lead to many fallacies, such as the fabled free lunch myth.


Saturday, October 19, 2013

We're stuck with Marxism forever

Writing for Tablet magazine, Michelle Goldberg tells us that Marxism is gaining popularity with young people.

Of course it is. Marxism will always be with us.

It's like a remake of "No Exit" where human society's punishment for its frequent callowness and ignorance is to be trapped with Marxists for all eternity.

Like it or not, we will always have capitalism and Marxism in our social order, but for very different reasons.

Capitalism will always be with us because it works. It's not very popular, its imperfect and causes known problems, but still it works. Even if a group of people destroy it and forbid its return, the general public will secretly toil to bring it back simply because it works.

Marxism, in its many forms, will always come back because its general platitudes appeal to the uninformed. It makes great promises and forms a secular religion, where all the inequalities of society can be burned away in the casting of a great utopia.

Goldberg's piece tells us that the 20-somethings of today are too young to remember the Soviet Union but old enough to have their lives damaged by the 2007 financial crisis, and while the group as a whole isn't turning to Marxism, there is a large trend. She even referenced a 2011 Pew Research poll that showed 18-to-29-year-olds buck the trend and have a more favorable view of socialism than of capitalism.

What's going on here is the Cycle of Ignorance, where past generations have experienced the folly of things like Marxism, patent medicines and doomsday prophecies but the younger generation missed those lessons and have to learn the hard way. Eventually they become the older generation, but by then there are more young people who just won't listen.

Naturally, some of those who lived through the first iteration of these arguments—and the subsequent cultural disillusionment with left-wing radicalism—will find all this irritating, if not infuriating. There are, after all, good reasons that Marxist political economy fell out of fashion. And it’s true some of the leftmost communist revivalists are disturbingly blithe about the past; at times one senses a self-satisfied avant-garde delight in making outrageous pronouncements. In The Communist Horizon, part of Verso’s Pocket Communism series, the newly fashionable academic Jodi Dean, a professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, airily dismisses the “circumscribed imaginary” in which “communism as Stalinism is linked to authoritarianism, prison camps, and the inadmissibility of criticism,” as if such links are a neoliberal fabrication.

There will be countless articles in the future about the return of Marxism. Long after the current generation of Marxists are dead and the mass graves of citizens subjected to a socialist revolution have been paved over, there will be other revivals. Each time, those enlightened by calamity will swear that they will never let it happen again, but after they die their books and essays will be shrugged aside by innocent little monsters who think they have stumbled onto something foolproof.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Piling on the Zelda piece

If you thought my post on Jon Hochschartner's article titled "'The Legend of Zelda' is classist, sexist and racist" was harsh - and it was - you need to see Matthew Julius's response.

Hochshartner’s article reads like something just the worst kind of English major would vomit up after two days of class. It’s a muddled mess of poorly developed points depending on overdetermined signifiers and false profundity; Hochshartner’s article is the equivalent of a high school AP Literature student writing about how everything in a book totally makes sense when you think about how trees are totally penises... 
Even the better argued parts of the article are completely flawed: the racism paragraph is oversimplified to the point where any actual analysis is impossible, and the sexism section is 100% lifted from someone else’s argument (which probably suggests there’s no coincidence why it’s considerably better than the rest of the article). 
Overall, Hochschartner’s article is attention-seeking, minimally-researched, and flimsily-argued drivel. It reads like an unfocused early draft, written the night before the deadline and passed off as a completed piece. It is excessive in its complete lack of content. It is Kaepora Gaebora, the much-reviled owl from Ocarina of Time, who blathers on and on and on, not saying anything of any value to anyone.

That burn is so intense it must have come from a fire arrow.


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Milton Friedman's opposition to corporations

This is a short clip of Milton Friedman where he both defends both the idea that corporate power needs to be held in check and a hands-off approach from the government.

This is an important concept in free-market economics that its critics have notoriously misunderstood. If this concept was widely understood, that opposition to corporate welfare is a central tenant of capitalism, then we would have a lot more libertarians in the world.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

Obamacare pulls in the wrong direction

There are two major issues with health insurance in America. One is that it is too expensive, and the other is that it doesn't cover enough treatments.

Point one is universally understood and the clear winner in national priorities. Point two is secondary, and while still important, parts of it are up for debate. Unfortunately, the president's actions as a whole have addressed point two while making point one worse.

There are plenty of articles out there about Obamacare "sticker shock" for those who have just seen their premiums go up dramatically. Some see them go down, but more people end up paying more. Instead of linking to one of those pieces, I will prove the same point in a stronger way by linking to a pro-Obamacare website's defense:

ObamaCare Insurance premiums are a sore subject with many readers; however, ObamaCare insurance premium increases are a response to the protections contained within the law, such as the mandate for insurers to cover people with pre-existing conditions.

We need health reform to make it affordable. Unfortunately, the health reform we have has made it more expensive. The real problem is worse.

Friday, October 11, 2013

NPR loves this stupid idea

I get a lot of my news NPR and it's blatantly clear that their reporters and producers want to give as much attention to the activists who are demanding that McDonald's pays their low-skill workers $15 an hour. That's more than many reporters make, but the good people at NPR like to present this lunacy like it should be taken seriously and considered.

Come on guys, don't you have friends from journalism school who are limping along in the low wages of the field who would jump for joy to receive $15 an hour? Do NPR reporters secretly plan to become fry-cooks to boost their income if this impossible suggestion is met?

One of the many forms of media bias is story selection and NPR has put a lot of resources into bringing this story up over and over again. The latest example is an activist crashed a corporate event and yelled a bunch
of slogans, saying she's worked there for a decade and makes $8.25 an hour and "that's just not fair."

Not fair? That's what a whiner says when they're out of compelling arguments. I imagine she has been a part-time employee for that decade, and seeing as how she couldn't get a raise or another job years before the recession hit I imagine that she's simply not a capable or reliable employee.

I've already written about how obnoxiously ignorant these mathematically-challenged arguments are, where we are told that the employees are paid little while the company itself is rich, so therefor the company can afford to pay limitless sums to more than a million employees. Tom Blumer has already done the math - something the activists skip over in their talking points.

Yelling and making public spectacles to demand that notoriously unskilled jobs should have some of the best starting wages is a fringe cause, and NPR's shallow coverage of these ridiculous idea reveals the organization has an agenda. That's more than fair to say.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

In defense of screen-gazing

A story just started making waves about a gunman who couldn't get the attention of commuters on a train because they were engrossed in their smart phones and tablets:

The man drew the gun several times on the crowded San Francisco commuter train, with surveillance video showing him pointing it across the aisle without anyone noticing and then putting it back against his side, according to authorities. 
The other passengers were so absorbed in their phones and tablets they didn't notice the gunman until he randomly shot and killed a university student, authorities said.

The reactions to this story are all about how awful it is that people are too engrossed in their electronic devices. The assumption here is that people only do fanciful things with them, like exchanging inane messages or make shallow social media posts.

That's because onlookers are looking at the back of the device and have no idea what is on the other side. If someone had viewed me on the airplane to Las Vegas this summer they would have seen me using my tablet for hours. Some of that time was playing video games, but most of it was reading an economics book.

Device users can also be going through work emails or coordinating family matters with their spouse. Lots of people aren't doing anything productive, but the important thing is outside observers don't know who is doing what and the assumption is always pessimistic.

How can a mobile device user signal that they are doing something important? Are commuters who want to read expected to downgrade and bring paperbacks with them? That solution has problems of its own. Are we supposed to go back to the dark ages where people who didn't bring fresh reading materials with them on public transportation are supposed to waste their time sitting quietly in boredom?

Personally, I think the best way to deal with judgmental people who don't approve of my public use of technology is to ignore them and go back to reading my e-book.


Monday, October 7, 2013

Who gets offended by medieval farming?

If you haven't seen it yet you need to check out Jon Hochschartner's piece at "The Legend of Zelda” is classist, sexist and racist. This is a great white shark in a sea of sheltered, oversensitive, grumpy, perpetually-grieving guppies.

The article's existence on a major news website obviously followed a horrible series of errors in the editorial process. Somehow, it even made it into the Salon Twitter feed.

To post a point by point response would be like debunking the plot of a dream. The writer aimlessly drifts from poorly cribbing Anita Sarkeesian's shtick to nonsensical pearl-clutching because the criticism of greedy rich people didn't cut deep enough to quoting Karl Marx to complaining when one of several non-white races is cast as villains to, well, this:

From the perspective of domesticated animals, agriculture of the past was a gentler prospect than the modern, factory-farm system. But for non-humans the pre-industrial farm, as symbolized by Lon Lon Ranch, was still a place of exploitation and violence, where their lives, in general, would be significantly shorter and more circumscribed than those of their nearest, wild cousins. 
But in the game, domestication is portrayed as a mutually beneficial, voluntary arrangement. The anthropomorphized cows of Hyrule speak to Link, literally saying, “Have some of my refreshing and nutritious milk!” Of course depicting a relationship as anything like symbiotic when one party kills and eats the other, as well as the latter’s children, would be laughable if it weren’t so appalling.

Not only is Hochschartner appalled, but he expects the reader to be as well. Hey guys, the happy cartoony cow upset you too, right? Right? Holstein solidarity!

It's obvious from the context that Hochschartner is upset that this go-lucky milk cow isn't plotting to overthrow the farm. I think he read the first three pages of Animal Farm, closed the book, and assumed everything turned out well and wishes Link could visit that perfect little place.

The entire article reads like a rushed essay from a C-average high school student, a student who didn't go to the prom or shower regularly.

We are fortunate that Hochschartner is cursed with an unusual name, as we can easily find his other writings, including grunt work at a regional newspaper, another whiny Salon piece complaining that Grand Theft Auto publisher Rockstar Games dared to portray corruption in a socialist revolution, Marxist drivel and Marxist drivel directed at vegans.

Probably the most disturbing thing here is not that Salon published a low-quality, sophomoric piece, but that the company presented the ramblings of a social misfit Marxist as if he possess a legitimate place in modern society.

Last week I came across a piece titled Datings tips for the feminist man that started with:

You’re a straight monogamous cismale who identifies as a leftie. Maybe you’re a Marxist or a socialist; maybe you’re an anarchist. You respect women. You would never act like a player. You fall in love with strong, smart, feminist women. You believe that our movements are stronger if they include everyone.

Excuse me people, this is the real world, not a university campus. What's with the lack of shame and ostracism for these fringe beliefs? What's with all the... acceptance. Mentally, being a Marxist in the 21st century is akin to being a Klansman, a flat-Earther, an AIDS denier or a Westboro Baptist Church member. These people need to be pushed into the shadows and ignored, not given a platform and treated with anything other than contempt.


Saturday, October 5, 2013

Douthat on the myth of the radical right

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat proposes the greatest explanation to why small-government conservatives are painted with the "extremist" label so recklessly by the left:

This divide, I think, explains a lot of the mutual incomprehension surrounding size-of-government debates. To liberals and many moderates, it often seems like the right gets what it wants in these arguments and then just gets more extreme, demanding cuts atop cuts, concessions atop concessions, deregulation upon deregulation, tax cuts upon tax cuts. But to many conservatives, the right has never come remotely close to getting what it actually wants, whether in the Reagan era or the Gingrich years or now the age of the Tea Party — because what it wants is an actually smaller government, as opposed to one that just grows somewhat more slowly than liberals and the left would like. And this goal only ends up getting labeled as “extreme” in our debates, conservatives lament, because the right has never succeeded in dislodging certain basic assumptions about government established by F.D.R. and L.B.J. — under which a slower rate of spending growth is a “draconian cut,” an era of “small government” is one which in which the state grows immensely in absolute terms but holds steady as a share of G.D.P., and a rich society can never get rich enough to need less welfare spending per capita than it did when it was considerably poorer.

There is more here.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Milton Friedman the skeptic

A few years ago I stumbled across an interesting exchange between Milton Friedman and a religious man who was concerned about Friedman's secular beliefs. Friedman nailed it, and since then I've noticed a variety of off-hand comments Friedman has made that would would excite the secular and skeptical communities if they heard them.

Today as I was listening to a lecture he gave on inequality and I saw another gem worth digging out. In his comparison between religion and concerns over inequality, Friedman said:

Like most religious beliefs - and the reason it is to be called a religious belief - this one is unexamined, and preached rather more than it is practiced.

Later in the same talk he summed it up again:

As I said at the outset, religious beliefs have the characteristic that they tend to be unexamined. 

There are many more statements like this made by Friedman. As a side project I will be transcribing them here under the tag "Milton Friedman the skeptic" so they can be compiled later.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Survivor's journal from the Great Shutdown of 2013

Remember folks, it's the political party you don't like that is holding the nation hostage when neither of them will budge.

Bill Clinton exemplified the hypocrisy of this viewpoint perfectly:

Former President Clinton steadfastly defended President Obama and Senate Democrats Sunday morning on their position in the debt-ceiling fight and criticized House Republicans for not being interested in real budget negotiations. 
"This is the House Republicans and tea party saying, 'We don't want to negotiate with Democrats,' " Clinton told This Week's George Stephanopoulos."They're mad because they don't want to negotiate."
Clinton defended Obama's position while calling the House Republican position "almost spiteful." "If I were the president, I wouldn't negotiate over these draconian cuts that are gonna take food off the table of low-income working people, while they leave all the agricultural subsidies in for high-income farmers and everything else," Clinton said. "I think it's chilling. It seems almost spiteful."

Clinton is simultaneously saying he wouldn't negotiate in this situation and shame on the GOP for not negotiating. What complete rubbish.

Republicans are using their power to defund Obamacare. They know full well that doing so would mean president Obama would choose to shut down the government rather than let them smother his health care act.

But in response we have both sides saying it's the other guys fault: Obama and the Democrats are to blame for his decision to shut it down or the Republicans are to blame for putting the president in that situation.

This is what gridlock looks like, and I'm sick of people saying it means Congress is "broken." This is how checks and balances are supposed to work, and neither party is required to back down when they lack overwhelming votes.

Despite all the fear mongering we're hearing today, the government shutdown of 2013 will be a brief inconsequential footnote in history.