Monday, December 30, 2013

False equivalence can be special pleading

I've seen the following scenario played out again and again in online discussions: An observer notices a blatant contradiction in someone's worldview and calls them on it. Instead of being floored and addressing their own hypocrisy, the subject make a lazy deflection and declares a false equivalence is afoot.

False equivalence means the two things being compared are actually not comparable. Sometimes they come with an explanation, sometimes they don't. 

Click the following cartoon and be reminded that arguments are much easier to win when you write the script for both sides:

...And they're harder to win when a critic adds a zinger at the end.

Of course people really can make bad comparisons. Drone strikes are not the same as housing construction ordinances. Driving faster than the speed limit is not the same as breaking child pornography laws. Opposing the abortion of an unborn child is not the same as opposing the execution of a convicted killer.

Sorry guys, it's really not.

But when people want to hold on to a real contradiction, such as believing that female fitness models shame women while male fitness models don't shame men, they engage in a form of special pleading by declaring that the comparison is bogus because of some strained, trivial difference.

Be careful when one claims an opponent is making a logical fallacy; you could be making one of your own.


Saturday, December 28, 2013

I think we're going to win

Whenever I find myself worrying that mobs of the uninformed are going to pull down the edifices of our civilization and regress us to a feudal society, I'm going to dig out this video of Bono talking about what works in foreign aid.

Maybe, just maybe, careful study and research can defeat blind emotions. The future looks bright.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Rafi Sela doesn't have to be polite

An airport security expert from Israel wrote an article for a humor website about what's wrong with America's system, but the only joke is the TSA.

This is exactly what we need - more professionals saying exactly what they mean in a frank, direct manner. No apologies, no kind backpedaling to soften the blow.

The frustrating thing is that I have little expectation that he can get these problems resolved. The Washington machinery grinds slowly, and almost exclusively when there's a profit in it. That's one of the major differences I have with leftists - I have no illusions that the experts employed by the government will ignore other incentives and do what's best for the country.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Lajoie to the world

I know this song has been out for a year, but it's still funny and I've already listened it to a dozen time this week.



Sunday, December 22, 2013

The 6 hour workday is still a bad idea

I saw this posted as a serious argument today by an adult who should really know better.

The idea is to change the standard workday from eight hours to six. This is a pretty old, dead idea once championed by labor unions to "spread the work." The idea is to make people work 30 hours a week and hire more workers to fill the gap, and increase everyone's pay 33 percent so they don't lose any income.

Henry Hazlitt demolished this argument about 70 years ago, reminding people that if we increase the labor cost by that much, the products and services will get more expensive as well. Once again, there is no free lunch.

But this author tries to dazzle the reader with new scientific-sounding idea, but they all fall flat when one tries to take them serious. We're told that workers are the most productive two to four hours after they wake up, so starting the workday later will make them more productive.

I wonder if the author has ever interacted with college students. When you start later in the day, you tend to go to sleep later and wake up later. There goes that idea.

That wasn't the only productivity-increasing argument.

A shorter workday works particularly well for knowledge workers - people in creative or professional jobs - who can work productively for about six hours a day, compared to the eight hours manual laborers can churn out, according to Salon. Unlike machines, humans operate on a cyclical basis, which means our energy and motivation fluctuate in peaks and troughs. Cognitive workers tend to be more focused in the late morning, getting another energy boost in the late afternoon when lung efficiency peaks.

The unstated major premise here is that productivity will more than compensate the loss of one-quarter of the workday. There's no evidence that this difference in productivity per hour is particularly large. It would need to be 33 percent just to break even. The differences in productivity- if they actually exist - might be so small to the point that they are unnoticeable, and even then they only apply to a limited number of jobs. Productivity would fall, not rise, under this scheme.

Losses to productivity and/or higher prices equal a fall in real wages. That doesn't help anyone.

Another benefit of the shorter workday, Kellogg’s discovered, was that employees were happy to work less when they were paid 12.5% more per hour, meaning the company was able to offer more jobs. Maybe the six-hour workday could be a solution to the US’s current minimum wage debate.

Maybe not, as this last paragraph practically proves the scheme will make workers poorer. The union activists from a century ago had the good sense to demand a 33 percent increase in wages so their paychecks don't change. This scheme is asking for the same reduction in hours, but a pay increase of only 12.5 percent. That's nearly a third less.

Cutting supplies, increase the cost of goods and services and reducing how much each worker receives is not only a bad idea, it's an unoriginal one.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Will locovores consume these berries?

One of the neighboring towns from where I live has a large, struggling factory that makes the body for BlackBerry devices.

As most people are aware, BlackBerry dropped the ball on the smartphone battle and iPhones and Android devices crowded them out of the market. The company is practically dead.

However, BlackBerry is trying to hold on and win back a share of the market. It's not going well, as the iPhone is extremely popular and already had a loyal customer base.

Still, I can't help but notice the overlap between locovores and iPhone users. This brings me to my question:

Knowing that this factory, which is a major employer in the area, is at risk of shutting down because BlackBerry, its biggest client, has flagging sales, would locovores actually put their philosophy into practice and switch to BlackBerry?

It's one thing for spoiled hipsters to throw more of their plentiful dollars at a frowny farmer so they can feel better about themselves, but I doubt very many of them would purposely downgrade their smartphone. That's not the kind of sacrifice they are used to making.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

It's not a free speech issue. We get it.

During my workday today I heard three conservative talk radio show hosts defend Phil Robertson, the 60-plus conservative Christian who was fired from the show Duck Dynasty by A&E after he explained his opposition to the gay lifestyle in a magazine interview.

In all three cases, the radio hosts started off their defense of Robertson by saying this was not a free speech issue. That concept applies to the government punishing or restricting speech, and this was a case of a private company deciding it didn't want to be associated with Robertson and ending their agreement. After all, speech has consequences and A&E has that right. The hosts then proceeded to criticize A&E for the action they took.

You know, because criticism is a form of free speech.

The hosts in question were Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Pat and Stu, co-hosts of Glenn Beck. Beck himself had retired early for the day.

So imagine my surprise when I got home and every left winger online had written about how Robertson's defenders, and therefor all conservatives, are all claiming A&E violated his freedom of speech.

Truth be told, there were some real examples of folks who said that, including Sarah Palin and apparently, Glenn Beck. There were also some nobody-guests on Fox News at some point during the day and nobodies on Twitter and Facebook pages.

This post isn't about defending Robertson's anti-gay attitudes - a position I reject. It's not about the idea that people who say things we don't like need to go into exile immediately. It's about the categorical thinking involved today.

I'm glad to see people are standing up for the idea that private consequences are not a violation of free speech. They are absolutely correct when they say that and I wish more people understood it.

However, they paint with too wide a brush. There's no evidence to suggest that a majority of conservatives made that too-common error. Some people certainly did, but please don't tell me that an entire group did it. Even Rush Limbaugh dismissed the idea; that's not trivial.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Fake sign language dude signals all the real problems

Thamsanqa Jantjie, the infamous fake sign language interpreter at the Nelson Mandela service president Obama spoke at, represents everything that's wrong in South Africa we don't want to read about.

NPR has revealed that Jantjie was part of a lynch mob that murdered two people in 2003 using a local approach known as "necklacing," where a tire filled with gasoline is forced around the victims neck and lit on fire. He escaped legal punishment by being declared mentally unfit to stand trial.

Following the death of Mandela, South Africa has tried to stuff all of it's problems out of view, and the rest of the world has looked the other way. The high rates of violence, rape and unemployment aren't going away and the African National Congress political party that Mandela belonged to has a corruption problem.

Jantjie is part of that problem, just like he was part of at least one lynch mob. The ANC hired him before to wave his hands around pretending to interpret. It's essentially a no-show job, at least how he does it.

Tellingly, Jantjie tried the victim card when he was exposed. He wants us to believe that he really can perform sign language, but his schizophrenia made him unable to perform so he just waved a lot. There are at least three occasions where he has just waved his arms at an ANC event, so he is at best unfit for the job. That's assuming he does know sign language, which no one should believe.

South Africa has made tremendous strides with the end of the Apartheid government, but let's not fool ourselves. The country still has a long way to go.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

I, Nutella

That simple spread of hazelnut and cocoa that everyone loves has a cross-continental pedigree, as emphasized in a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Nutella combines vanilla flavoring from France, hazelnuts from Turkey, palm oil from Malaysia, sugar from Brazil and cocoa from Nigeria. The OECD used it as an example in a recent report to demonstrate global supply chains and it's gathered a lot of attention.

Nutella would not be possible without globalization. Like a famous essay said about the pencil, each jar contains the labor of thousands of people across the globe. There's no single location on earth that could ever make it without outside help.

Unlike other foods with a lot of ingredients, such as sour cream and salsa pork rinds, Nutella has a highborn reputation. It's artsy to like Nutella. The spread is borderline pretentious. That's very different from the low-status products that are usually associated with globalization like McDonald's food.

Globalization needs a new symbol that can engage people, and Nutella is a perfect choice. Globalization simply means the extension of human cooperation over international lines, instead of restricting it to the immediate area. Violent mobs and fringe speakers have given the word an unpleasant edge to the general public and not enough people name "globalization" as something they support.

Only a gullible fool would balk at spreading delicious Nutella across their bread. Nutella is the beautiful child of international cooperation, and people need to appreciate and understand that origin along with its captivating taste.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Max Alper is an unconvincing liar

Just how long do you have to hold someone hostage before it's considered a crime?

There's a hidden gem inside this news article about anti-gentrification (ie anti-prosperity) activists who held a bus of Google workers captive for half an hour in San Francisco:

A man who screamed at protest organizer Erin McElroy, 31, was later identified as a union worker who was pretending to be a Google employee upset at being delayed by the protest.

Modern protesters love to emphasize that what they're doing is "nonviolent," as if that's the standard of decency. Tell me, does it cross over into violent territory when a mob of brigands holds a group of workers hostage?

Alper tipped his hand by pretending to be a too-convenient obnoxious tech worker, which makes me wonder if McElroy is legit as well. Who outside an Ayn Rand novel would revel in mediocrity with lines against successful companies like "It's creating a system where San Francisco is being flooded with capital, and creating a technology class where other people can't compete" ?

Hat tip to Tyler Cowen for the original link


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Give the O-man a break

President Barack Obama shook hands with Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela's funeral this week, which has brought fake outrage from his critics.

People are reading way too much in this non-incident. Raul Castro is a filthy brute partially responsible for major human rights violations, but his hand is not made of burning embers. Our president is considered the nation's top diplomat, and it does not serve America's interests for our top diplomat to snub someone at a state funeral like high school students at the homecoming dance. It would have be downright rude.

I'm not a supporter of our president and enjoy criticizing him, but this is a petty thing to get upset about. He walked up a set of stairs, Castro offered him his hands and he took it. They exchanged a few pleasantries and the O-man moved on to the next person. It was a simple, spontaneous exchange unworthy of deep analysis.

Our president is a man of empty words and shallow gestures. This is just another one of them.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Would you?

I've seen a few segments from ABC's What Would You Do passed around online. Most of them are good to watch. They're anecdotal examples, not hard data about human behavior, but they always make for great discussions.

This one is different. It's inspiring, and each one is better than the previous one.

I like to think I would have said something, but that's because I'm an opinionated loudmouth who enjoys conflict.

Friday, December 6, 2013

What is Nelson Mandela's legacy?

Too many people assume it's fun to be a contrarian.

I recommend they try wading through this week's inescapable sincere and heartfelt celebrations of the life of Nelson Mandela with a little voice in the back of their minds whispering that they've got it all wrong.

It's not the least bit fun.

When I was a kid our church had a viewing of the movie Sarafina! about South African activists who struggled against the Apartheid government using non-violent protests. This shaped my view on the struggle against Apartheid. I never learned many details about Mandela's life and I always just assumed he was a political prisoner who spent 27 years in prison for nonviolent activism against the clearly evil and racist government before an international campaign convinced them to free him.

I was wrong.

A dozen years ago I did a project for a college class about how South Africa was still plagued with violence, rape and poverty even after Mandela became president. I didn't understand economics at the time but I hit upon the idea that while Mandela was a great resistance leader in an important struggle, he didn't have the right skills to manage a country.

Fast forward to yesterday when after his death this picture surfaced online:

Oh boy.

I'm willing to cut Mandela some slack here. Although he dishonestly denied being a communist, Mandela was something of a Stalinst. However, he adopted these views decades before the fall of the Berlin Wall and wasn't presented with the same evidence we have today. He downgraded slightly over time and became a democratic socialist, and political interference prevented him from putting most of these views into practice when he was president.

He also allied himself with the USSR, China, Fidel Casto and even Muammar Gaddafi.
Yes, he was wrong, and he really should have known better, but having these terrible ideas can be overlooked when it's the man who ended Apartheid.

But that brings up a much more disturbing issue. Mandela's fight against the Apartheid government included terrorism. That's why he went to prison. Mandela tried non-violence and found it ineffective and was one of the founders of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the fighting force for African National Congress, which is the socialist political party that now dominates South Africa. Besides receiving combat training from communists, Umkhonto we Sizwe (which is abbreviated as MK) committed numerous acts of terrorism.

If MK restricted its activities to violence and bomb blasts at government soldiers and buildings I could understand comparing Mandela to America's Founding Fathers in the revolutionary war. However, they also bombed civilians and Mandela may have been part of the planning process, and it seems he continued to do so during his prison sentence.

While some MK operatives went rogue and bombed places without any guidance, such as Andrew Zondo when he bombed a shopping center because it was filled with white people, the group also planted antitank land mines on rural roads, killing at least a score of black laborers.

Did I mention Amnesty International refused to take his case because of his embrace of violence?

Details are murky on what MK actions were planned by Mandela and how many of them he gave his blessing from prison. This is all new to me and many of the sources linking Mandela to terrorist acts from MK are unknown to me and should be treated skeptically. One even has John Birch Society ads next to it. Because of this source quality, I don't feel comfortable labeling him a terrorist.

I asked some friends who studied international politics about this and I was told "I thought everyone knew Manedela was a terrorist." His story, they said, is one of redemption.

Contrast that to the left-wing search results that come up about Mandela and terrorism. There are numerous links out today trying to shame right wingers like Dick Cheney and Ronald Reagan for calling Mandela a terrorist in the past. None of them even mention MK or attempt to discuss the issue. They just want the reader to think it's a wild allegation.

Joan Walsh of Salon declared that Mandela renounced his violent past, but I've been unable to find any quotations where he did so.

This revelation of Mandela using violence to fight Apartheid undermines a lot of the inspirational quotes from Mandela people are passing around, such as "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." Clearly he didn't believe that when he was forming MK.

The Apartheid government was evil, and Mandela made a major contribution to the world in his pivotal role in dismantling it. However, the superficial and outright fanciful stories about his life floating around today are glossing over a lot of important information. It's an extremely lonely feeling to witness everyone else compare a man to Gandhi when you know he had grenades stuffed in his pockets.

Addendum: I'm surprised and impressed to see the most fair, positive, mature, warts-and-all obituary come from Breitbart. Some of the facts I came across are different than in here, such as its distancing him from terrorist planning, and I still endorse it. Please read.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

At least the title is honest

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services' Healthy Young America video contest is over, which was a contest for someone to write a song encouraging young people to sign up for Obamacare, something they are legally required to do anways.

Announced this week, the winning song is titled "Forget About the Price Tag."

There's nothing I could add here that would be more scathing or humorous than that, so I'm going to say it again.

The winning song is titled Forget About the Price Tag.


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The White House and the economy

I've long held the belief that what party holds the presidency has little impact on the economy. Perhaps I'd hold this view less if the economy didn't do better on average when the Democrats are in the White House, but that's the nature of bias.

Still, there are plenty of people who claim that the economic policies of Democrats must be superior because of GDP performance during their terms as president. Here's what the GDP growth numbers look like from an analysis by Alan Blinder and Mark Watson of Princeton:

Notice that the numbers leave out FDR, who took office during the Great Depression, and start during Harry Truman's second term. However, if one starts with Nixon in 1969 the averages look a lot more even, although the Democrats still win the contest.

What Blinder and Watson set out to do was respond to that claim that a Democrat in the White House is the reason the economy got better.

The superiority of economic performance under Democrats rather than Republicans is nearly ubiquitous; it holds almost regardless of how you define success. By many measures, the performance gap is startlingly large--so large, in fact, that it strains credulity, given how little influence over the economy most economists (or the Constitution, for that matter) assign to the President of the United States.

My usual response has been that the president is a small factor and the party distribution in Congress also plays a role, such as the Republican led Congress during Clinton's time in office. But they found that on average, the party in Congress is not the deciding factor either. It's also not the conditions the president inherited when he came into office. Instead, it's a bit of luck:

Democrats would no doubt like to attribute the large D-R growth gap to better macroeconomic policies, but the data do not support such a claim….It seems we must look instead to several variables that are mostly “good luck.” Specifically, Democratic presidents have experienced, on average, better oil shocks than Republicans, a better legacy of (utilization-adjusted) productivity shocks, and more optimistic consumer expectations.

Please keep in mind that Blinder has been a high-profile economist for Democrats and the conclusion is not a love letter to those connections. Bravo to him.

It looks like we all need a reality check on our political positions now and then, myself included. Luck is a very unsatisfying answer, as I strongly believe that institutions matter and one would expect the policies we choose would play a larger role in growth.

Perhaps in a way they do. Are the macroeconomic policies of Republicans and Democrats really that different? We think of them as opposites, but both parties agree on a lot of issues. Our current president has an economic team filled with people who believe in markets; heavily regulated markets, but markets none the less. The GOP gets votes by saying it will shrink the size of the federal government, a promise it always breaks. Tax rates are a point of disagreement, but President Obama isn't seriously considering bringing a single bracket above the Clinton rate.

In a historic perspective, the policy differences are small and from a quarter that already has a limited impact on the economy. From the small sample size of the modern presidents, luck is a perfectly rational explanation.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Greg Mankiw takes on the Pope

Pope Francis's anti-capitalist remarks have received the attention of Greg Mankiw as well. He made two points that I made in my response, that it's well established that capitalism has made the world a better place, and the Pope's use of "trickle-down" was a pejorative and not the name of an actual theory.

But then Mankiw made a point I wish I had though of:

Third, as far as I know, the pope did not address the tax-exempt status of the church. I would be eager to hear his views on that issue. Maybe he thinks the tax benefits the church receives do some good when they trickle down.

In the Communist Manifesto Karl Marx wrote that capitalism has been an essential part of the world's progress, but that it is no longer useful. Specifically, he said:

It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.

There is a thought being passed in some parts of the modern left that capitalism has never contributed to advances in civilization, and Pope Francis appears to subscribe to that view. It's troubling to think that there are people today, serious upright breathing people, that hold views to the left of Karl Marx.