Friday, April 28, 2006

More Gassy Discharge

Yes, I am a little bit obsessed. I need to stop reading the news. But there are a couple of good articles from the Washington Post here (showing how politicians make speeches about high gas prices and then hop in an SUV to drive 2 blocks back to the office) and here (reminding us of two important concepts - supply and demand).

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Stink of Gases

In case I haven't made myself perfectly clear, the blowing coming from windbag politicians over the "issue" of high gas prices is one of the most frustrating and annoying sites on today's political landscape. I've lost complete patience with the endless news reports, the political posturing, and Bill O'Reilly. The entire debate is based on two false premises: 1) that politicans should be "doing something" about the price of gasoline. As Cicero puts it: "No American should ever have to live in fear of being fined or jailed for selling a product at a price higher than bureaucrats think it should be." And 2) that the government actually could do something to lower gas prices that would actually do any good (more likely, any move to control prices would cause a significant amount of harm).

What's worst about this situation is that it brings out the absolute worst in politicans, with generous helpings of hypocrisy coming from all sides. Jacob Weisberg has a great piece in Slate about the political games being played with gas prices - it's a must-read if you're interested in the issue.

UPDATE: Tim Cavanaugh also has a good piece over at Reason.

A Higher Education

Over on the links sidebar, you'll see a new addition to the list: The Siebel Institute of Technology, home of the World Brewing Academy. The question is, how can I get a summer grant for professional development to go check it out?

Jimmy Kimmel is F*&#ing Funny

Via the Agitator, here's a link to Jimmy Kimmel's absolutely hilarious series on "Unnecessary Censorship". You can see more of the videos by changing the number in the URL from 13 to 12, 11, etc.

The Summer Vote-Buying Season

This must qualify as one of the dumbest ideas yet for dealing with hyperventilating over high gas prices. And believe me, the stupidity on this issue has been "epidemic".

Judicial Cleverness

Some justices have been known to have quite a decent sense of humour in the writing of their opinions. It appears that the judge in the recent Da Vinci Code plagarism case in England managed to slip in a code of his own into the ruling.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Wednesday Morning, 11 A.M. Fun Link

Baylen Linnekin at To The People points out an enjoyable little piece by Jonathan Stern in The New Yorker: The Lonely Planet Guide to My Apartment. A sample of my favourite section:

The inhabitants of My Apartment tend to be insecure and combative. This is likely the result of living under the thumb of a series of illegitimate dictators (see “History”) that have dominated the citizens in recent years. Since the Breakup of 2004 and the ensuing electoral reforms, the situation has become more democratic.

Solo female travellers are often subjected to excessive unwanted male attention. Normally, these men only want to talk to you, but their entreaties can quickly become tiresome. Don’t be afraid to be rude. Even a mild polite response can be perceived as an expression of interest. The best approach is to avoid eye contact, always wear a bra, and talk incessantly about your “fiancé, Neil.”

The ongoing economic recession has led to a large increase in petty crime. For the most part, this is limited to the “borrowing” of personal items and the occasional accidental disappearance of the neighbor’s newspaper. However, the U.S. Department of State has issued a warning about several common cons—such as the “I’m out of small bills” scam, typically perpetrated when the delivery guy arrives.

The Pro-Growth Environmentalist

The anti-capitalism overtones to much of the environmental movement have turned me off for a number of years. As an advocate for free markets, economic growth, and technology, I thoroughly enjoyed this Wired article on the "next green revolution". I definitely believe that if we are to achieve any of our environmental goals, we need to start to embrace markets and businesses, allowing for the kind of innovation that has fueled a few hundred years of unprecedented economic growth in the western world. Some key sentences:

With climate change hard upon us, a new green movement is taking shape, one that embraces environmentalism's concerns but rejects its worn-out answers. Technology can be a font of endlessly creative solutions. Business can be a vehicle for change. Prosperity can help us build the kind of world we want. Scientific exploration, innovative design, and cultural evolution are the most powerful tools we have. Entrepreneurial zeal and market forces, guided by sustainable policies, can propel the world into a bright green future.

Americans trash the planet not because we're evil, but because the industrial systems we've devised leave no other choice. Our ranch houses and high-rises, factories and farms, freeways and power plants were conceived before we had a clue how the planet works. They're primitive inventions designed by people who didn't fully grasp the consequences of their actions.

And now that we've getting some of these things figured out, we can use our technology to lessen our impact on the planet and create a more sustainable world, without having to give up the standard of living that we know and love.

Definitely read the whole thing.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

F the FDA, Part II (Times Two)

A big middle-fingered salute to the FDA, who this week made two really objectionable calls. First, they came out with a statement, completely lacking in scientific evidence, which denied that there were potential health benefits from medical marijuana. This is in opposition to the 1999 finding by the National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine, and is the first example of politics trumping science. The second one is even more troubling. The FDA has again hedged on approving Plan B (the “morning after pill”) for availability without a prescription, citing health concerns. The reasoning behind this decision (or lack thereof) is bordering on the absurd – they’re now using teenage sex cults as a reason to be concerned about Plan B:

“…we could not anticipate, or prevent extreme promiscuous behaviors such as the medication taking on an 'urban legend' status that would lead adolescents to form sex-based cults centered around the use of Plan B."

Seriously. Truly stunning.

The FDA is an organization that has completely lost credibility as a scientific body able to make rational decisions about the safety of food drugs. It's all politics, all the time at the FDA, and they should be stripped of their power. They should be able to provide information and let individuals (with help from their doctors and pharmacists) decide what's appropriate in terms of risk vs. reward. Only an individual can make this call for themselves. A politically-captured government agency certainly can't.

Monday, April 24, 2006

A Great Argument For Free Speech

The Onion nails it again:

"If we don't protect freedom of speech, how will we know who the assholes are?"

via the 'Dredge Report.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Little Mr. Mollohan Can't Be Wrong

The lastest piece coming from the Democrats spin doctors Daily Kos brings attention to the fact that Rep. Allan Mollohan has stepped down from his post on the House Ethics Committee because of ethics allegations. While I commend him for stepping down when under investigation, this Kos piece borders on laughability (surprise!) when defending Mollohan and deriding Republicans for not doing the same when in similar positions:

Republicans don't understand the greater good, the sense that politicians have an obligation to the institutions to which they are elected and the people that they serve. That's why the King of Corruption, Tom Delay, selfishly clung to his House seat even after he was indicted, resigning only when it was politically opportune for him to do so. That's why Republicans have stalled ethics reform. Because for the GOP, it's always party above principle.

Sorry, but they both put party before principle - and any decision made by Mollohan to step aside is occuring because he and his advisers felt it was an opportunity to show voters how principled they are and get some digs in at the GOP while their at it. That's what's known as acting politically, and not one member of Congress from either party is immune to it. Matt Stoller from the other major Dem-apologist site MyDD added this gem:

I know the press is going to report that a Democrat is under investigation, but that's not the real story. The real story is that faced with the perception of an ethics problem, Democrats chose to confront it directly and honorably even though they knew it would cost them politically.

Not the real story? Wow, that's a pretty sweet switcheroo you've pulled there, Matt. I'm pretty sure that it IS a fairly important part of the story. How exactly is taking the high road going to cost them more politically than not doing so?

Don't get me wrong, the GOP-apologist sites annoy me just as much with their Republicans-can-do-no-wrong and the Democrats-can-do-no-good shtick. So both sides, give me a break.

Drives Me to Distraction

As I've long argued, eating and changing CD's while driving is probably at least as distracting as talking on a cell phone without a hands-free device, which is now banned in NJ as well as a few other states. Now research shows that drivers under the influence of distractions are involved in 8 out of 10 car crashes. My take on this is that this is relatively good news: you can make yourself substantially less likely to be in a car accident if you just avoid these types of distractions. And convice the other people driving around you to do the same, of course.

And Now For Something Completely Frivolous

Why is it that Major League Baseball can’t equalize the number of teams in each division? All the divisions have 5 teams, with two exceptions: the American League West has only 4, while the National League Central has 6. Since divisional winners advance to the playoffs, it’s easier to make the post-season coming from a division with only 3 opposing teams to beat, rather than 5. The NL Central is a tough division already, and with this added challenge it makes it even less likely that my (and Matt Welch's) long-shot pick for the World Series, the Milwaukee Brewers, will make the playoffs. My modest proposal: move Houston to the AL West, achieving equity across the divisions.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Quiet Canadian

One of the more frustrating things about the current immigration controversy in the US is the complete lack of attention given to skilled, educated immigrants. Most, such as myself, are here on H1-B visas, which are good for 3+3 years, and then not available for renewal after the second three year period. The government has recently cut the number of these issued to 55,000 per year. So my question, echoed here by Ilya Shapiro, is why every proposal being made in Congress and the White House offers options for unskilled workers to obtain permanent resident status when their visas expire, with further possibilities for full citizenship later, when the same courtesy is not offered to skilled workers. In all likelihood I plan on returning to Canada at some point - but I'd prefer to have that decision come because of what my home country means to me and the job and lifestyle opportunities that exist there, rather than because I'll be forced out of the US because my visa expires. The complaints (which are mostly illegitimate ones, anyway) about illegal immigrants don't typically apply to skilled workers, yet nobody is offering proposals that will make it easier for them to stay in the country, despite what they have to offer. In some way, the fact that this gets so little attention makes leaving more appealing as it doesn't really seem like we're wanted, anyway - except by the companies that hire us.

Seeing What You Want

One of the problems that arises from having strong beliefs in the existence of some misdeed (i.e. liberal bias in the media, sexism, racism, or my personal favorite, corruption and excess in the government) is that once you’ve convinced yourself it’s there, you start seeing it everywhere, thereby further confirming your beliefs. This came to mind while reading a couple of comment threads at Alas, a Blog, where some snippy remarks made by some of the posters (one of whom is Brandon Berg from Catallarchy) who obviously disagree on the growth (or lack thereof) of government spending on social programs over the past 30-odd years were sidetracked by claims that a couple of the (male) commenters were sexist in their comments:

By now it’s hard not to note a consistent pattern:
1) Alsis states an opinion.
2) Male conservatives rush in to correct Alsis, usually in an incredibly condesending manner.
3) Said male conservatives demonstrate that they in fact don’t know what they’re talking about and are incapable of citing even their own chosen statistics correctly.
4) Repeat.
In the thread I’m discussing, Alsis - despite being far more modest about her economic knowledge - displayed a more accurate understanding of the economic statistics under discussion than either Robert or Brandon. (Admittedly, a low bar). And in return, she’s been treated with nothing but condescension.
I consider Robert a friend, and writing this post doesn’t give me any joy. But frankly, the whole exchange stinks of sexism to me. And considering how much they got wrong, I think Brandon and especially Robert both need to buy some fucking humility - and they both owe Alsis an apology for their condescending ways.

Hmm, who's being condescending now? (Personally, I didn't think the orginal criticsms were overly harsh). What is funny is that in all the posts on this thread, the ONLY time I can find any remarks that might be construed as sexist come in rebuttals like the one above that claim sexism on behalf of males. The said male commenters did not leave any comments deriding Alsis for her gender (or even casually linking to it), only her ideas and disputes over various facts. I wasn’t the only one to notice this, as commenter Carla says:

After reading this post and the offending commentary thread in question, I don’t think the condescension is about sexism at all. I believe its conservatism.
Conservatives have become so steeped in their own rightness and its justification at all costs–that their arrogance permeates everything. In my view, that’s the only way they could remain conservative after watching their leaders practice such inept governance.
Had Alsis been a man, its my opinion that the disdainful treatment would have been just as offensive.

Which was pretty clear to me, reading the thread – the liberals want to claim that government services have been gutted, while conservatives want to push the theory that spending is way up. And they each take opposition to that view pretty personally. End of story? No, Alsis responds:

You think that Robert and his idelogical pals would have tried their little game-bordering-on-gangpile if I’d been male ?
I don’t. Nice of you to notice what they were up to, Amp.
Robert, you can issue that apology any time you’re ready. You, too, Brandon.

So now, not only are they sexist, it’s a conspiracy, too! Sigh. First off, if you’re going to post relatively controversial ideas or opinions on a blog, you better be prepared for some personal attacks and condescenion, whether you’re male or female. And second, just because someone criticizes your viewpoint, it doesn’t mean they’re criticizing it because of your gender. This kind of reaction is just as inherently sexist as whatever they are trying to read into the comments made by the males. And thirdly, the assumption that an apology is in order seems a bit over-the-top.

There’s no real point to all of this, other than to pass along this thread that really frustrated me and to point out that once you’ve got an ideology implanted in your brain, it becomes very difficult to dislodge and very easy to find evidence that confirms that belief. I’m definitely not innocent on this point, so I’m not trying to criticize others hypocritically – as I mentioned above, government excess is firmly ensconced as part of my belief system, and now I see it everywhere, rightly or wrongly. It's probably something we should all try to be careful with.

The Trouble With Language Is It Always Gets Worse

The most widespread and annoying "epidemic" right now appears to be the use of the word "epidemic" to describe anything vaguely (and arguably) undesirable and (perhaps) somewhat more common than it used to be. See examples: obesity, internet porn, and (as always) illegal drugs.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

I Heart Windmills

Personally, I find the modern wind turbine to be a thing of great beauty. The graceful arc carved through the air by the giant blades paints a stunning mix of simplicity and modern technology. I always get excited when I see the big windmills in a field, cleanly producing electricity (although admittedly, not much of it). Coming from this aesthetic viewpoint, I find it very annoying when people who claim to be supportive of alternative energy production to complain about the “blight” on the landscape caused by wind installations. I can understand wanting pristine views, but people need to start accepting the fact that we might not have the opportunity to preserve all of these if we want to start producing energy some way besides burning fossil fuels. Complaints about property values, etc (particularly coming from those living in seaside mansions on Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard) fall on unsympathetic ears (on mine, at least).

This arises in part because of an op-ed in today’s Washington Post by Anne Applebaum entitled “Tilting at Windmills” (which has to be one of the most overused literary references in journalism). Applebaum shares my love of windmills, and she recognizes that beyond the usual NIMBYism being applied here (Not In My Backyard), there’s also a good deal of BANANAism entering into the energy debate (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything), where wind installations are being turned down because of the "environmental damage" they’ll cause…even when they’re being built next to a coal mine. Her final paragraph asks a good question:

Still, energy projects don't even have to be viable to spark opposition: Already, there are activists gearing up to fight the nascent biofuel industry, on the grounds that fields of switch grass or cornstalks needed to produce ethanol will replace rainforests and bucolic country landscapes. Soon the nonexistent "hydrogen economy" will doubtless be under attack as well. There's a lot of earnest, even bipartisan talk nowadays about the need for clean, emissions-free energy. But are we really ready, politically, to build any new energy sources at all?

Many people, including environmentalists, aren’t, it seems. But we need to start looking seriously at alternatives to fossil fuels, including nuclear. Granted, there are seriously hurdles to overcome with nuclear power (storage of the waste being the primary one), but the real-world alternative to nuclear is not nothing – it’s coal. And coal actually produces MORE radiation than a nuclear plant and has the added downside of high levels of particulate matter and carbon emissions. So while we may not have to embrace Ayn Rand’s vision of a beautiful landscape (which seemed to consist mainly of coal-burning power plants, factories, refineries, and smokestacks stretching off to the horizon like what you’ll find at Exit 13 of the NJ Turnpike), we need to accept the fact that conservation is not going to solely meet the energy needs of our society in the future. And one of the things we are going to have to accept about our energy future is that it is probably going to include nuclear power, and it certainly should include windmills.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

All Work and No Play Make Kids Something Something

The culture-whiners are at it again. Their target this time: cartoons like Bob the Builder that (gasp!) instill the idea of a work ethic in children. It seems there's an amazing amount of nostalgia for classic lazy cartoon dads like George Jetson and Fred Flintstone being role models for kids. Now, I'm all for letting kids be kids, but it doesn't seem to me that introducing kids to the value of hard work and responsibility is such a terrible thing. Certainly not one worth 2 pages of hand-wringing about our kids growing up with the drive to do a bit more than the characters in a Jack Kerouac novel.

Via Nobody’s Business.

Congress Shall Make No Law...

Pop quiz time! Which major American political party stands up for free speech more consistently?

Here’s a hint: it’s a trick question. The correct answer is neither of them. Before you start arguing with me (or after you stop caring, my Canadian friends), consider the evidence coming from the recent vote in Congress limiting the amount of money that can be given to partisan “527” groups – which started receiving gobs of money during the last election cycle because the McCain-Feingold campaign finance laws forbade giving the money directly to political parties. Originally, Republicans were more supportive of this loophole, while Democrats wanted it closed. Now that it’s become apparent that Democrat-supporting groups were more successful at raising money through 527’s, the Republicans have performed an about-face and overwhelmingly supported a bill that would restrict donations to 527 organizations.

George Will has a great op-ed on this issue in the Washington Post. My favorite line:

Candice Miller (R-Mich.) said that restricting 527s would combat "nauseating ugliness, negativity and hyperpartisanship." Oh, so that is what the First Amendment means: Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech unless speech annoys politicians.

…And no party will support free speech for citizens unless they think that free speech will help their election chances (or hurt the other guy’s).

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Locke is My Co-Pilot

From the learning-new-words category…

Although I call myself a libertarian, and believe this political ideology adheres to my value system more closely than others, I might have to add meliorism to my mantra – the belief that the world tends to improve and that humans can aid its betterment.

Hey, look out the window – it’s true! A beautiful spring day! I think I’ll go enjoy it. You should, too.

Closing the Umbrellas

In an unprecedented move, I finished my taxes a few weeks early this year. But with tax day arriving on Monday, here’s a quick post about taxes.

Concerns over the “super-rich” paying little or no taxes are, for the most part, borne out of class envy and a pathological focus on equality as an objective that trumps all others in society, arguments that I want no part of. However, I agree that it is outrageous that the wealthy can avoid paying taxes through accounting gymnastics, while the rest of us don’t have the ability to shelter ourselves the same way. But let’s ask ourselves how they are able to do this. The answer is that they are exploiting the multitude of loopholes, exemptions, tax credits, and deductions that exist in the current tax code. Most of these have been put in place to please some voting constituency or another, and the left-liberals are certainly not immune to pushing for tax exemptions for various activities in the name of helping, supposedly, the lower/middle class (particularly those with families). But as the tax code becomes more complex, it becomes more difficult for (especially) the poor to negotiate the system and take advantage of these exemptions, while the upper-middle and upper classes can have a professional accomplish this for them. What is supposed to be a way to ease the burden of the working poor (in theory) ends up helping the wealthy and the relatively wealthy (i.e. people who vote). How many times do we see that happening? (It’s often, by the way).

I think there are plenty of reasons to detest the various tax exemptions in the current code on principle, but here’s a reason to fight them for practical purposes: it’s allowing the very wealthy to get away with paying very little in taxes. Get rid of all the exemptions, create a moderately progressive tax scheme (yes, I’d prefer a flat tax, but let’s be realistic), and have people do their taxes on the back of a postcard. No shelters, no complex series of rules and incentives, and no more free rides for anyone who can afford to have someone game the system for them.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Sgt. Pepper's Juggling Club

Via Brooke Oberwetter comes this grin-inducing video of a juggling act set to the mini-suite of songs that comprise the final 6 minutes or so of The Beatles' Abbey Road. Put this one in the just-for-fun files, a category that can always make me appreciate the culture we've got all around us and how we find new ways to re-invent little pieces of it.

A Griswold Family Christmas Ordinance

Authorities in Aurora, Illinois have finally stepped in with a cure to a problem that has plagued residential neighborhoods across the country for years: people who leave their Christams lights up too long. Lazy men everywhere recoil at this development, which stipulates that decorations for any holiday must not be up more than 60 days before or after the big date, or residents will face a $50 fine.

While it's easy to laugh about another stupid law being passed, let's go through the process that actually causes this to occur.
- first, some nosy neighbor has to take it upon themselves to complain to city officials about someone's Xmas lights being up too long, because it looks "trashy" (who are these people?)
- then, a city councillor has to think "yes, this is a real problem that we need to do something about" (thank you, democracy)
- legislation must be written up and the proposal must be brought to city council for discussion, at which not one person seriously questions whether this is really the government's business (for the record, I think the "property values" argument is complete bunk)
- a majority of aldermen (in this case, the vote went 9 to 2) must support the legislation, again giving no thought to either the merits of using the time and money to worry about this when other, more serious problems are at hand or to the rationale for government involvement

Now imagine that some line of reasoning applying to something else that some person finds objectionable about what you do on your property ...and our slide down the slippery slope towards government regulation of everything continues.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

The Darwin Awards for Journalism

Our winner for April, 2006 is John B. Sotos, for writing the dumbest proposal in recent memory in the op-ed pages of the Washington Post. His brilliant plan? An emissions trading scheme. For calories. And I don't think he's joking. That's right, the obesity nannies have taken what is a great idea in something that represents a true externality (air pollution) and thought themselves so clever in applying it to their own so-called public health crisis. Well, there's a fine line between clever and...stupid. I can only hope that natural selection edits this guy from appearing in newspapers in the future.

Consequences Work Both Ways

I’m not a big fan of protests in general, and most of the protests (and protesters) we’re seeing in support of immigration probably share a little too much in common with your union-produced garden-variety anti-capitalism Marxists than I’m comfortable with (I know, I know, I’m prejudging…but you know what I’m talking about). That said, I’m a supporter of immigration and think it should be expanded for both skilled and unskilled workers. We have a problem with illegal immigration largely because the legal process of immigrating is so difficult, time consuming, and expensive. Schemes to limit it are grounded in, mostly, racism and a misunderstanding of how markets work to create efficiencies that make us better off.

In a piece at, Thomas Sowell raises the point that there are potentially large (and arguably, negative) implications to open borders because of the cultural differences of some immigrants and how some of these will become ingrained in American society because people beget more people. He also cites the effects on the welfare state and public services with the influx of poor immigrants. I was surprised to see this coming from Sowell, who I believe leans strongly towards free markets and libertarian-style economic policies. He states:

"Some free-market advocates argue that the same principle which justifies free international trade in commodities should justify the free movement of people as well. But this ignores the fact that people have consequences that go far beyond the consequences of commodities."

My response to this statement touches on something familiar to many libertarians – the unforeseen effects of “doing something” about a perceived problem, which often creates other difficulties. If immigration causes some consequences beyond that of products, that also means that policies against immigration have consequences that go far beyond the consequences of commodities (such as tariffs, which are universally (and correctly) derided by free-market economists such as Thomas Sowell) And if we’re discussing principles, with which are more concerned about limiting freedom: people or products? With all due respect to the distinguished Mr. Sowell, I’m more comfortable limiting the liberty of a shirt than a person, although really, I don’t want to limit the liberty of either. Human beings should be able to live anywhere they can earn a living.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Picture It...'re a young boy, 16 or 17 years old, awkward and lacking self-confidence, especially with girls. A hot new girl at school befriends you, shows some interest in you, tells you she's really depressed and asks if you would be able to get her some drugs to help her cope. Although you don't do drugs yourself, you have an idea of the people you could talk to in order to get some. Do you, as that young boy, come through in that situation and get her some pot? I betcha most of them do. And in Falmouth, MA, they also get arrested for dealing drugs to an undercover cop and are cited as a great example of how well the "war on drugs" is going. Yeah, it's a big victory when you're taking on the math club at the local high school.

Desperately Linking to Post-Modern Blog Meme in Attempt to Appear Hip With Blogging's Inner Circle

If you read the comment threads on a lot of blogs, this might be the funniest thing you've seen this year.

[HT: The Agitator & To The People]

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Kyoto No-Go

In the second anti-surprise of the week, the Conservatives are now saying that Canada should scrap the Kyoto Protocol and do something different about climate change. The thing is, they're probably right. Kyoto was/is a terrible plan (especially for Canada), and no serious-thinking person with a gram of understanding of economics could have ever believed we'd achieve it's targets without resorting to "pulling people out of their cars and shooting them".1

The hilarious (and somewhat scary) part of this article is when they say:

Canada is not the only country that agreed to the protocol on global warming in Kyoto, Japan, nine years ago only to find now that cutting greenhouse gases is a lot tougher than first thought.

Really? Did they really believe that it was going to be easy? My god, the inmates are running the asylum.

Rona Ambrose, the Canadian Environment Minister had this to say:

Canadians need to talk about "action and solutions long term. We need solutions that are out by 50, 100 years, not two years, five years."

Well, she's partly correct. We actually need both. The big changes do need to happen over longer time periods - the Kyoto window was ridiculously short. The problem with the 50-year target is that it's basically an excuse to do nothing for 45 years and then realize we're not going to make it. What we should do is create very moderate short-term reductions (or even slowing the growth of GHG emissions), and have those reductions ramped up over time to allow for turnover in the capital stock of the economy. This provides long-term signals about future costs that can be incorporated in business planning, which will stimulate innovation while avoiding the huge up-front costs associated with restructing the economy in a short time period. Additonally, the cuts could presumably be accelerated over time as the economy adjusts to new realities such as a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme.

1 - this fine little quip can be attributed to a former professor of mine, Mark Jaccard, who teaches ecological economics at the School of Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University. And just to clarify for Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, et. al., he was not actually advocating doing this - it was just way of stating how unreachable Kyoto's goals were.

The Softer Side of the Hand That Slaps You

As evidenced by it’s appearance in a lengthy article and editorial in The Economist recently, the idea of “soft paternalism” (aka “libertarian paternalism”) has been receiving a bit of mainstream attention lately…at least in the circles in which I travel. The gist of the theory is that governments should provide a guiding hand rather than hard rules about human behavior (the “hard paternalism” that myself and other libertarians find so objectionable).

There are some good examples of how soft paternalism might be successful. For instance, a study of optional pension plans demonstrated that the percentage of people enrolled almost doubled when the default option became enrollment rather than non-participation. People still had the choice to remove themselves from the plan, but a much greater number decided to stay in – the barriers to entry in terms of time and comprehension appear to have been keeping people out of a program they would actually like to be in. In this instance, however, it must be noted that we might be merely seeing an example of the endowment effect, in which it has been demonstrated time and time again that people value losses more highly than gains (in other words, people find it worse to lose something they already have, compared to gaining something new) rather than an unqualified increase in utility. This pension plan example feels to me, at first blush, like a reasonable application of government influence. Another commonly cited proposal is a list for compulsive gamblers that they can self-select for, thereby banning themselves from casinos.

Without question, I prefer the soft form of paternalism to the hard from so commonly practiced by governments today. And since, realistically, we’re not going to be seeing them get out of these types of social engineering schemes anytime soon, I’m willing to offer cautious support for soft paternalism, given the set of options we are am actually faced with. It’s non-coercive, so I like that. However, I am rather suspicious of this new kinder, gentler parenting by the state, for a couple of reasons.

The first, and most obvious concern I have is that soft paternalism can quickly and easily morph into hard paternalism. If the government doesn’t get the results they “want” (and they know what they want…just like they know what YOU want), then it’s extremely easy to imagine that they will abandon soft coercion for hard-and-fast laws. Smoking follows this pattern, historically: when the dangers of smoking were discovered, the government began an information campaign to raise people’s awareness . Good! (although arguably a waste of taxpayer’s money, but I can live with it). Then, over time, we’ve seen the anti-smoking lobby transform our cities into places where the government has completely forgotten the principles of private property and individual choice that underpin the structure of our economy and are the foundations of our common-law. Bad! (and remember, this is coming from a non-smoker who really likes smoke-free bars).

The more hazy concern I have with soft paternalism addresses the wisdom of those making decisions. I have no doubts that people make very bad decisions sometimes, and act in ways that are at odds with rational thinking (seemingly, at least – but we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that the hedonic pleasure someone gets from (for example) risk-taking behavior outweighs the potential downsides, for that individual). Making incorrect choices is a big part of how we learn, and a fundamental aspect of human nature. So with that in mind, why is that we often assume that if we outsource the decisions to another body (i.e. the government), that is comprised of other human beings, that they are somehow immune to making poor decisions? I would also argue that potentially, they have even less incentive to get the answers right, because in theory they aren’t the ones being affected. Government is not infallible - because it is made up of human beings who are perfectly capable of committing errors in judgment. Is it the “wisdom of crowds” mentality that leads so many people to believe that the state is a more rational decision maker than the individual? The problem with that theory is that the concept behind of the wisdom of crowds is that a large group of individuals will on average reach an optimal decision, but only through the free interaction of individuals – having one person speak for the group will not result in the same outcome. In essence, I am saying that the government is prone to errors in judgment, just like people are. And they clearly don’t have as good information about the personal lives of the people being governed as those individuals do about themselves, making them actually more likely to make mistakes. Ed Glaser makes this case in this paper entitled "Paternalism and Psychology" in the U. of Chicago Law Review, where he argues very convincingly that “the flaws in human cognition should make us more, not less, wary about trusting government decision-making”. He has a number of behavioral economic models that support this thesis, and I agree with his conclusions. While soft paternalism can no doubt result in positive outcomes, we still need to be careful about placing too much control in the hands of others about just what constitutes a “positive outcome”. The Economist puts it very well:

Its champions will say that soft paternalism should only be used for ends that are unarguably good: on the side of sobriety, prudence and restraint. But private virtues such as these are as likely to wither as to flourish when public bodies take charge of them. And life would be duller if every reckless spirit could outsource self-discipline to the state.

And we need to make sure that it stays strictly voluntary. But given the imperfect nanny-state in which we live I can say bring on the soft and cuddly panda-brand paternalism, because I’d way rather ignore a public service message about some bad decision I’m making than get thrown in jail for it!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Burn, Yonek, Burn

…But when an angry mob torches a police car, we’ve probably passed the line from a protest to a riot. So why is the story of the Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn getting up in arms over the supposed rough treatment of a elderly Jewish man by the cops arresting him being reported as a “protest”? I'm all for drawing attention to the often heavy-handed cops (and they pulled him over for talking on a cell phone, for god's sake), but is that what it would be reported as if the “protesters” were predominately black?

Conclusion: I think this analysis is spot-on.

(FYI: I'm thinking that "yonek" is the Hebrew word for baby...although I could definitely be wrong on that)

Freaky Fish

Those genetic engineers with a god complex are at it again. Now they've created a fish with proto- shoulders, arms, wrists, and digits. IS THERE NO SANCTITY FOR NATURE??!!

Just kidding. The fish (named Tiktaalik) is actually a 375-million year old fossil discovered on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut that bridges the evolutionary gap between the fishy eusthenopteron and the early amphibian ichthyostega. Which you might think will convince some people that evolution might have happened sort of how we think it did. But sadly, it probably won't convince them at all.

Via Ron Bailey at H&R.

McKinney Swallows

In a delicious twist, Cynthia McKinney is now apologizing for her ridiculous behavior during her altercation with the police and says she will support the stupid bill introduced by the GOP commending the officers for doing their job.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

In Praise of a Bumbling Government

As a libertarian, I am placed in a bit of dilemma with respect to government effectiveness and efficiency. On the one hand, the gross incompetence and non-stop holiday-taking of our elected officials infuriates me because of the waste of time and money that accompanies their meaningless debates (see previous post for a great example) and trips across the country. But on the other hand, a government that’s spending a bunch time on unimportant issues (or on holiday) has less opportunity to screw things up and pass laws and spend money on things they have no business getting involved in. So, do I want even want an effective, efficient government? (I think the answer is a qualified 'yes', but I can certainly see the problems with having them getting better at what they do. Because, by and large, I don't like what they do.)

Profiling We Can ALL Agree On

The fiasco surrounding Rep. Cynthia McKinney has certainly been blown out of proportion. But in my opinion, she brought in on herself with her intitial reaction and then with her ridiculous charges of racial/gender profiling. What the whole case really reveals is how strongly many politicans believe that they are above the law and superior to the rest of us common fok and therefore shouldn't have to be subjected, for example, to searches when entering government buildings. So with that in mind, I'm calling for political profiling - of members of Congress. We need to put these people through ALL the hassles and impositions on civil liberties they support for regular citizens with legislation like the PATRIOT Act. Maybe it will make them think twice about how their laws impact people if they are subjected to living with the consequences of them. So if you're in law enforcement, get out there and start profiling!

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Harper's Honeymoon is H'over

Alright, my tentative support of giving Stephen Harper a try as PM is already being severely tested, in way that I guess we all could have predicted (and I should have been more wary of). In a speech to police chiefs (who of course have plenty of vested interests in keeping lots of things illegal, therefore giving them something to do and a justification for their budgets), Harper said that the government will not re-introduce to Parliament the marijuana de-criminalization bill conceived by the Liberals. This proposed change in policywas a sensible compromise, although it didn’t go far enough to really start changing the perverse incentives and negative consequences of the war of drugs. I do somewhat like Harper’s “tough on crime” stance from the same speech (at least when it comes to violent crime), but I’d really like it if he stuck to things that were really crimes. This is it, Steve-o: pull a stunt like this on abortion or gay marriage and I've had it.

Monday, April 03, 2006

You Gotta BEE-lieve

Today I was placed in a situation that really started me thinking about how much many people have invested, psychologically, in the current size of the government. If you start to accept that the level of taxation we are currently at is even somewhat appropriate, then you really have to convince yourself that the things we spend tax revenues on are necessary. I say this after paying almost $1000 in taxes to bring a car purchased in New York into New Jersey. Setting aside the issue of having to pay taxes on something purchased elsewhere (which could be argued as just plain wrong…or maybe I’m just bitter), the rate of taxation is a real killer. Utterly ridiculous, in my opinion…but if you don’t feel that way, then you better REALLY believe in the way that money gets spent. And since I feel that probably (at least) half of it is completely wasted, I balk at paying that kind of money.

What I’m really trying to say is that there is a kind of cognitive dissonance that must occur in many people when they are confronted with the possibility that a large percentage of tax revenue is going down the drain. Rather than admit that taxes are too high, we try to convince ourselves that everything they pay for is immensely valuable to society. Thereby solving any internal conflicts we may have with coercing others to pay for our pet projects. This faith in government programs is a kind of belief is a psychological coping mechanism – which creates an interesting and difficult problem for those of us who want to convince others that we’ve let the government grow too large.

The $10,000 Sponge Bath

Reading up on lefty health care ideas at TPM Café, I came across the statistic that two nights in the hospital in the US can cost upwards of $10,000. A couple of nights in a hospital costs five figures? (And Canadians, remember that's it's probably "costing" somewhere in that ballpark up there as well - it's just not coming right out of your pocket). To me, that’s pretty overwhelming evidence of an EXTREMELY inefficient market. There’s no way two nights in a hospital undergoing some relatively routine tests “should” cost anything close to that amount, given how cheaply we can get so many other important products and services (like food). More often than not, I’m amazed at how little things cost in the modern economy. Think of how much goes into making a car (the number of parts, the distances traveled, the ingenuity and skill in putting it all together) – they're an absolute steal if you really think about it. In my opinion there’s a much higher objective level of embodied value in that car than in a short hospital stay (I’m not saying it’s actually more valuable, just that it takes a lot more resources to build a car). The fact that health care is so incredibly expensive must have something to do with both the absence of competition and the high (artificial) barriers to entry. There really must be a way to drive those costs down over time - there's just no incentive to do so under the current system. With that in mind, if we want to develop a health care system that will actually become more efficient over time, that system needs to embrace some of the principles that have driven down costs to unthinkable levels in various industries subject to free markets.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

You're A Tool

Possessing very limited physical capabilities, human beings are incredibly dependent on tools. Forbes has complied a list of the 20 most important tools ever (they limited the candidates to ones that could fit in a person's hand). I know some of you will be happy to see that the abacus came in at number 2.