Friday, November 29, 2013

Gay unprotected sex and the cycle of ignorance

The New Yorker has an interesting piece on a phenomena I call the cycle of ignorance and how its harming young gay men too young to have lived through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

Michael Specter writes:

I have covered wars, before the epidemic began and since. They are all ugly and painful and unjust, but for me, nothing has matched the dread I felt while walking through the Castro, the Village, or Dupont Circle at the height of the AIDS epidemic. It could seem as if a neutron bomb had exploded: the buildings stood; cars were parked along the roadside; there were newsstands and shops and planes flying overhead. But the people on the street were dying. The Castro was lined with thirty-year-old men who walked, when they could, with canes or by leaning on the arms of their slightly healthier lovers and friends. Wheelchairs filled the sidewalks. San Francisco had become a city of cadavers.

But today's young gay population never witnessed those horrors, and they're letting their guard down to the AIDS menance. Specter quotes Thomas R. Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where he lays out the dangers:

"Unprotected anal intercourse is in a league of its own as far as risk is concerned," he said. Three decades of data demonstrate the truth of that statement. If unprotected anal intercourse is rising among gay men—a trend noted not just in America but in much of the Western world—the rates of HIV infection will surely follow.

Just like with socialism, alternative medicine and vaccines, people living today need to learn about the past before they doom the rest of the world to relive it.


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The sheep of a different shepherd

I'm still trying to wrap my head around this.

For as long as I can remember, the left has been mocking the clout of the Pope, and lamented whenever he and other religious leaders weighed in on issues outside of their realm or understanding, such as family structures, evolution and the direction of society.

But suddenly, the new Pope makes some generic anti-capitalist proclamations and the liberal blogosphere breaks out its rosary beads.

Pope Francis wrote some liberal arts-style paragraphs filled with left-wing buzz words like "trickle-down" and "justice." For example:

...Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.
Even Yglesias got in on this, and less than a week after he wrote a great post blasting a self-described socialist loony. A real shame with that boy, sometimes.

Matt Welch completely closed the book on this issue, saving me from having to go through the monumental task of explaining to a potentially hostile audience why we should support capitalism, something that has unquestionably made the world a better place.


Monday, November 25, 2013

Bogus trade arguments are often made in America

Once again I am compelled to remind people that good graphics and snazzy background music are no substitute for proper academic research.

Someone sent Mike Munger a video entitle "Million American Jobs Project" that rehashes the old protectionist get-rich scheme of diverting consumer spending to domestic products while ignoring higher costs and the wealth destruction that follows.

The entire thing appears to be a rip off of ABC's Made in America political campaign from a few years ago, right down to the bogus claim that unnamed economists back up what they're saying.

If each of us spends just 5 percent more on things made in America, economists say we will create a minimum of a million new jobs for Americans.

That's a lie. You're a liar, Mr. nice sweater with rolled-up sleeves to express you devotion to hard work. Your "research" was also a complete farce, as American manufacturing jobs didn't leave so much as get replaced by labor-saving technologies. That's why production levels rose as employment levels fell.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Conspiracy theory reality check 101

I have a column printed today giving a hard introduction to the pitfalls of conspiracy theories. I used the anniversary of JFK's death as a leaping-off point. For example:

The most important thing to understand about conspiracy theorists is that they do not work to build a solid case to prove their conclusion. Instead, they hunt for anomalies -- little things that seem odd to someone who doesn't know much about the subject.

The piece will be old hat for anyone familiar with skeptical analyses of conspiracy theories, as I was writing for a general audience and I wanted them to walk away a little better prepared to combat the nonsense conspiracy theories lob at the world.

Friday, November 22, 2013

A lesson we never learned

It's very difficult to make it through this week without learning that today is the 50 year anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

There's a big misconception that JFK was an important civil rights leader, and that that may have cost him his life. This is very wrong for two important reasons.

Despite what folk songs tell you, Kennedy did not consider the civil rights of black Americans a priority and did little to help them. He was much more concerned with the future of the Democratic party and as a senator in 1957 he voted against civil rights legislation. In the words of the BBC's Nick Bryant, he was a bystander on civil rights for the first two and a half years of his three years in office. The only contributions he made were in words, not actions:

At times, however, his rhetoric was considered inadequate. James Meredith, whose determination to register as the first black student at University of Mississippi led to one of the climactic battles of the civil rights era, submitted his application in anger at Kennedy's failure during his inaugural address to denounce the evil of segregation... 
On civil rights, his early inaction as president led white segregationists to believe they could prolong segregation, and prompted black protesters to adopt more provocative tactics and make more radical demands.

The other big reason why Kennedy should not be considered a civil rights martyr is that we know what motivated his killer. For reasons I won't get into here, it's well established that Lee Harvery Oswald assassinated the president. Oswald was a communist and Kennedy focused a lot of his energy on fighting communism.

A recent New York Times piece about the political climate in Dallas in 1963 as compared to today tried to blame right-wing extremism on Kennedy's death, but it had to admit that Oswald was to the left of Bernie Sanders with this reluctant paragraph:

Lee Harvey Oswald was a Marxist and not a product of right-wing Dallas. But because the anti-Kennedy tenor came not so much from radical outcasts but from parts of mainstream Dallas, some say the anger seemed to come with the city’s informal blessing.

"Some say" being reporter lingo for "A point I wanted to make in the story but couldn't find anyone to say it for me."

Kennedy was behind the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, went through the tense Cuban Missile Crisis and was a friend and defender of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. His policy of containment and reversal for communist influence was called the Kennedy Doctrine.

In his book "Death of a President" William Manchester quoted JFK's wife Jackie as saying "He didn't even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights... It had to be some silly little communist."

Kennedy's murder is a tragedy, and a tragedy we should learn from, but we can't ever learn anything if we hide behind myths and stories. Something Steven Pinker said tells us exactly what that lesson is:

...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.

Kennedy was a martyr in the battle against communism, a battle that we may have to fight again one day. Let's make sure we learn before history repeats itself.


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Real or fake?

There's an anti-gun website that is so off the wall that it's difficult to decide if it's sincere or genuine.

Trayvon's Amendment is supposedly written by Richard Cabeza, who is using the online moniker StabAGunNut to promote a web page supposedly showing his idea for "common sense gun reform."

Why is it that whenever someone invokes common sense they are unable to use hard evidence?

The 12-point "amendment" proposed by the author starts in a believable fashion, but then it begins to pile on specific policy measures and short-sighted contemporary references into what is supposed to be a timeless document.

The first point is to repeal the Second Amendment. No big surprise there, but the author keeps cobbling on bizarre, unrelated left-wing issues in an amusing fashion.

For example, provision four:

An income tax equal to 4% of an individual’s income will be assessed by all gun owners. In states which were at any point in time a part of the Confederate States of America, this tax shall be equal to 10% of an individual’s income. Taxes levied under this amendment shall be appropriated in equal portions to programs to expand Affirmative Action programs and begin to pay reparations to the descendants of African slaves.

Number seven isn't even possible:

All firearms must be retrofitted with both a global positioning transmitter as well as a fingerprint activated locking mechanism. Failure to comply with this provision will result in a fine, prison time, and forfeiture of the privilege of firearm ownership.

Number eight is just left-wing fury:

The National Rifle Association, Michigan Militia, and other “gun rights” groups shall be considered terrorist operations.

At first reading, it really does look like someone created this to mock liberals. The proposed amendment mentions president Barack Obama and the Affordable Care Act several times in a way no serious person could expect an actual Constitutional document to be written.

And yet, I believe it's 100 percent serious.

If not, the author is doing a remarkable job on Reddit playing the role of someone defending these ideas. The replies to serious criticism are just as over the top as the website

Some choice gems from the Reddit thread are when he was told gun manufacturers would just move to Canada, he responded with:

We can replace those minimum wage manufacturing jobs with high paying government enforcement jobs.

If a comedian wrote that it'd be brilliant.

When told that labeling pro-gun groups as terrorists and if he ever heard of McCarthyism, Cabeza responded:

Yes, I do remember McCarthyism, and I am still treated as a terrorist because I openly vote Socialist. Turnabout is fair play.

No one is this talented a satirist. No one. This website is absolutely real, and I will continue to say that until someone pries my keyboard from my cold, dead hands.


Monday, November 18, 2013

It's like rooting for the Washington Generals

Forgive C. Bradley Thompson for not having a wall of books in his office and being forced to record this short video in a library. He asks a very good question:

"Why do [people] become communists, despite everything we know about communism?"

The full video, with his answer, is here.


Saturday, November 16, 2013

Planned obsolescence doesn't exist

In 1992 my 4th grade public school teacher gave me a religious pamphlet.

It wasn't about Christ, the paper was cheap recycled newsprint and the sermon was about environmentalism and the depravity of capitalism, but it was very much a religious pamphlet. That's not to say that preserving the environment is an unworthy cause, but unexamined faith is required to believe the fable in this comic book-style magazine.

The pamphlet each student in my class received told about a fictional video game console that was hugely popular. Players needed to buy the system and its game cartridges, but the catch was they were designed to break and shut down after three months so parents would have to buy new ones. Which, of course, they did.

"Of course" meaning it's what people did in this flimsy narrative. In the real world they would switch to a competitor.

The strained hook at environmentalism was that these video game systems wasted resources when they were purchased over and over again and thrown away. The muted-color comic told us that real-life corporate executives are so evil that they actually do this and the toys we want so bad are tainted with their greed and must be shunned.

Even as a 10-year-old I knew this was a far-fetched and dishonest story, but sadly many adults fall for similar tales today.

For years I've heard anti-capitalists talk about a conspiracy theory called planned obsolescence, where companies design products to become outdated or useless in a short amount of time to force customers to buy replacements. A recent example is the idea that Apple is purposely using software updates to slow down older iPhone models so people will have to buy new ones.

But as New York Times economics columnist Catherine Rampell recently wrote there are perfectly rational explanations for these things:

Of course, lots of these signs of “planned obsolescence” have alternative and more benign explanations, related to design, efficiency and innovation. Sure, software upgrades may make older phones run more slowly, but that could be a side effect rather than the primary intention; newer software does more sophisticated stuff (3-D maps! Photo filters! AirDrop!) intended to take advantage of the hardware capabilities of the newest phones, and these more sophisticated features happen to be quite taxing on previous-generation hardware.

She went on to say that Apple knows its customers want to upgrade to the new models every few years anyways, so why bother making them more expensive just so they will last forever. Imagine if a 1970's tailor made leisure suits that would stay crisp for all eternity, and charged extra for them.

It's telling that when she spoke to people alleging planned obsolescence, their accusations always came without evidence:

I spoke with a lot of technology experts for the Magazine column, and their interpretations of Apple’s design decisions were all over the map. Some suggested that yes, Apple is deliberately limiting its technology’s lifespan to harvest more sales from its existing user base. Others said no — the brand hit that Apple would take for doing this would be too damaging, and Apple knows it. Since the column was published, I have likewise seen plenty of reader emails and technology blog posts insisting that Apple is either obviously engaging in planned obsolescence or obviously not.

Some of the accusations of planned obsolescence are downright stupid. For example, the ones in the poorly-researched "Story of Stuff" video.

After alleging that DVDs were introduced in 1995 with the intention of replacing them with Blu-ray discs, streaming video and digital downloads, but before she suggests that flat screen monitors were held back from production for several decade so consumers could purchase bulkier versions, narrator Annie Leonard says something so moronic about personal computers that an Amish minister would laugh.

I opened up a big desktop computer to see what was inside and I found out that the piece that changes each year is just a tiny little piece in the corner. But you can't change that one piece because each new version is a different shape so you gotta chuck the whole thing and buy a new one.

No one, absolutely no one, should believe such an outrageous tall tale about mysterious unnamed computer pieces that don't fit and don't have converter cables. She must live in a world where nerds don't build their own desktop computers or use expansion slots. Anyone competent enough to plug in a monitor knows what she's saying is an inexcusable lie. She flat-out made that up.

Her follow-up line "So I was reading industrial design journals from the 1950's" should be accompanied by a rimshot. No she wasn't. According to Lee Doren, those journals she claims were talking about making products break were really talking about weighing the cost of the expensive indestructible leisure suit from paragraph 10.

The most important thing to remember when considering planned obsolesce is Bertrand Russell's cosmic teapot analogy, where anyone can claim a China teapot is caught in orbit around the planet Mars and dare others to prove them wrong. The burden of proof lies on the claim-maker, otherwise buffoons can invent fanciful stories and proclaim them true until another person can muster the evidence the disprove it.

Planned obsolescence is a legend, and a far-fetched one at that. It is up to the claim-makers to present their evidence, and after decades of spinning stories they have failed to do so.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

SeaTac is the canary in the coalmine

It looks like we have a natural experiment on our hands, although not the best one.

Voters in Washington state approved a $15 minimum wage for SeaTac airport employees. Sort of.

This is being misreported as a minimum wage for all of Seattle or all airport employees. SeaTac is technically a city, but this is mostly about the airport. The wording for Proposition 1 is long and complex, and the exceptions are getting lost in the shuffle.

This new minimum wages does not affect restaurants outside of the airport, grocery stores, most small businesses and hotels with both less than 10 rooms and 30 rank-and-file employees. It doesn't even affect some small businesses inside the airport.

While I look forward to a natural experiment to show the effects of the minimum wage, such as pricing low-skilled workers out of the job market, this experiment has a lot of variables that will soften the damage.

It's bad enough that Seattle voters accepted a socialist economic instructor who supports rent control (this is like a Republican biology professor who supports creationism) but their golden opportunity at a natural experiment is bogged down in compromises. The harm from this policy will still be real, but it won't be as acute and jagged as an actual across-the-board $15 hourly wage would. I fear that more people will have to suffer when the experiment is inevitably repeated.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A political parallel

I think left-wing veterans fill the same role as black republicans. In both cases, political activists can display them as if to say, "See, he's one of them and he agrees with our politics."

Sunday, November 10, 2013

No more blacklists

This weekend I saw Ender's Game in a theater. I probably wouldn't have if I hadn't heard so many shallow protesters rallying against it.

The skinny is the book is based on a novel written by Orson Scott Card, who is an opponent of gay marriage. While that element makes no appearance in his work, lefties have been leading unsuccessful boycotts of anything vaguely related to him for years.

Which makes simply watching this movie a political act.

While I've been a firm defender of gay marriage for more than a decade, I am opposed to blacklisting art because of the personal beliefs of the creator, such as the ban on Wagner's music in Israel.

Now personally I won't watch a Roman Polanski film or listen to a Chris Brown song. I thought the University of Southern Maine was correct to pull an art show painted by a cop killer. So what's the difference? For one, those are actual illegal actions committed by people, not ideas. At this time, about 40 percent of Americans are opposed to gay marriage and while I reject their reasoning, I find it absurd to treat each and every one of them as history's greatest monster.

Meanwhile, as much as I loathe Marxism, I've never boycotted a movie because an actor in it supports socialism. If I did, I'd have very few movies I could see.

These boycotts of Card's work are a disproportionate response to a common view that is on it's way out. It is troubling that there is more organized opposition to card's film than there is to the ongoing work of an escaped child rapist.

These protests both drew my attention towards the Ender's Game movie and made it into a sort of forbidden fruit. I doubt I would have bothered to see it otherwise.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Sadly, it wasn't true

Remember that Reddit post about sous chefs stealing from someones garden? That thing I said was probably a hoax?

The author admitted it was a hoax on a podcast. Before doing that, had gone on a local TV news station to reiterate the story, adding more artful, unlikely details like finding beard nets and recipe cards left behind. This thing is faker than a socialist utopia.

Rereading my post about it, I'm glad to see that every single line I wrote about it was skeptical. However, I still feel kind of sheepish that I didn't hit home a firm conclusion. In my defense, I didn't grasp that all of the items he accused them of stealing were weeds. I thought there was a garden somewhere in there too.

That being said, the idea of food snobs going out of their way to eat weeds is very real.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

How not to save journalism

Lori Kilchermann, the editor of the Sentinel-Standard in Ionia, Michigan, has lost her defamation lawsuit against readers who accused her of "yellow journalism." A circuit court judge dismissed the case, saying those opinions were protected speech under the First Amendment.

Of course.

It's a complete travesty that this case made it to court, and the defendants will still have to pay for their legal defense. It's bad enough that a newspaper editor tried to silence her critics with a lawsuit, but where was the rest of the paper's employees? Why didn't the publisher or paper owner tell her to knock it off? Why were there no young reporters quitting out of protest in public displays? Why is there no known criticism from inside the paper that went public?

Newspapers already have enough problems today; we don't need nonsense like this added to the pile.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The superficiality of secular political cries

Why do I even bother clicking on links at anymore?

The title of CJ Werleman's new piece Atheists can't be Republicans caught my eye and I got my hopes up, expecting a good challenge to my views. I thought it would go along the lines of what I wrote about last year piggybacking Andrew Sullivan's calls for gays to avoid the Republican party. The GOP treats both groups poorly and Sullivan argued they don't deserve their votes, even if they agree on economic issues.

Instead, what I got from Werleman was a collection of left-wing talking points and a statement that secular people should support his solutions to them. In all cases, the political points were shallow and his solutions were left unexamined. Here's a typical example:

Atheists like to talk about building a better world, one that is absent of religiosity in the public square, but where are the atheist groups on helping tackle the single biggest tear in the fabric of our society — wealth disparity? They are nowhere. Its absence on the most pressing moral issue of our time makes it difficult for the movement to establish meaningful partnerships with other moral communities.

At several points Werleman calls income equality the biggest issue of today, a dubious and myopic position. At no time does he make a strong case for why left-wing solutions are the correct answer. Instead, he preaches to the choir and insists that people like me don't care about the suffering of others.

This isn't as bad as last month's Salon piece about a 10 year old Zelda game, but this is bigger than one cranky website. As a secular conservative I'm constantly berated with these perfunctory and glib recitals of left wing views. As Jonathan Haidt put it, there's a lot of locker room talk where everyone assumes they are on the same page.

I'm not demanding that secular people change their views or drift to the right, but I don't think they realize just how pig-headed they are being when political issues come up. Maybe if they bothered to learn what people like me actually think they wouldn't considered every political issue settled and resolved.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Why you're wrong about rhino hunting

Everyone is freaking out about a Texas hunting club's auction for a permit to bag an endangered black rhino in Namibia.

Don't worry, it's going to be OK. I realize it sounds crazy, but there's a program here most people haven't heard about that really is helping endangered rhinos, elephants and other species make a comeback in Namibia.

The knee-jerk response is that the members of the Dallas Safari Club are being insincere when they say the money will help save the black rhino herd. People assume this is Daenerys Targaryen selling one of her dragons to buy slave soldiers to take back the throne, a price that will mutilate the very body they are trying to save.

But really, this is about incentives. As longtime EconTalk listeners will remember, Karol Bourdreaux explained the idea behind Namibia's community based natural resources management program in 2008. In her words, they wanted to treat elephants more like chickens and less like whales.

Humans eat chickens, and instead of depleting the number of chickens in the world that has caused the world chicken population to rise to 50 billion. People take care of chickens because they are a source of food or profit.

Whales, on the other hand, are threatened and people in most parts of the world are not allowed to hunt them for blubber. Some still do. The only people that try to stop them are activists and authority figures, and neither of them are doing a particularly good job.

Namibia's program empowers the people of villages to sell a limited number of hunting permits for endangered animals. Yes, that should stir your belly in a bad way at first, but listen to the logic. The villagers all profit from the sales, and because there's money in those rhinos and elephants they step up and fight poachers as a community. They all have a financial incentive to protect the animals, and the ones that are shot tend to be old and no longer able to reproduce.

The Dallas Safari Club is simply auctioning off one of those permits on their own.

CNN spoke with Chris Weaver, head of World Wildlife Fund-Namibia, about the program and it's knee-jerk reaction from animal rights activists.

There are other effects of the conservancy program, some that don't follow strict principals of conservation. The practice of trophy hunting has proved controversial, invoking ire from various animal rights activists. Yet Weaver sees it as beneficial to preservation. 
"From my perspective, we're trying to conserve the species, not the individual animal, and this creates a benefit when it's done in a well-regulated fashion, and the benefits go to the local community," he says.

That's really all one needs to know about the program, which has been in place since 1996. The people of Namibia have a successful program to save endangered species that has the slight disadvantage of being morally repugnant to Americans who, at best, possess a superficial understanding of how it works. It's our turn to listen to them about how to save their own animals.