25 August 2009

Tuesday Tab Clearing

Katherine Mangu-Ward points out that $3 Billion was spent to scrap 2% of the 42 million "gas guzzlers" on the road. She calls the program "midnight basketball for jalopies." Man... midnight basketball. I almost forgot about that shenanigan. Anyway, she concludes:
When Obama said "they are getting the oldest, dirtiest and most air polluting trucks and SUVs off the road for good," he probably just misspoke, and didn't actually mean to imply that Cash for Clunkers would actually get the oldest, dirties vehicles off the road.

No worries, though. If there's one thing we learned from the Bush presidency it's the wisdom of keeping several justifications handy for each major policy decision. No WMDs? That's OK, because...freedom! No environmental gain from cash for clunkers? That's OK, because...stimulus! Ta da!

I had to link that because I like the "midnight basketball for jalopies" moniker, but mostly because the "Ta da!" reminds me of GOB Bluth "escaping" from prison after getting stabbed by White Power Bill Dirty Ears Bill. That was a great moment in television. (I can't find a clip, but I think it's in Season 1, Episode 4.)

(BTW: All three seasons of Arrested D are available on Hulu for your viewing pleasure. You have no excuse for not having seen it now.)

From the "All Politics is Interest-group Politics" File, OpenSecrets.org has a nice table of the top institutional donors to political campaigns over the last 20 years. Here's a capture of the top 20:

Note well the preponderance of labor unions and professional guilds.

David Henderson has important clarifications about the corporations on the list:
It's illegal for U.S. corporations to donate to individual politicians and it has been so since 1907. Here's what economist Jeffrey Milyo wrote on it in The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics:
Consider that large firms spend ten times as much on lobbying as their employees spend on campaign contributions through PACs, as individuals, or in the form of unregulated contributions to political parties (i.e., soft money). I mention employee contributions because, contrary to the sloppy reporting that appears regularly in U.S. newspapers, corporations in the United States do not contribute to political campaigns: they are prohibited from doing so and have been so prohibited since 1907. When you read that Enron has given X million dollars to candidates, what that really means is that people who identify themselves as Enron employees have given X million dollars of their own money.

Physicist Rick Trebino of GaTech has a great explanation of how to publish a "comment" (that is, a critique or correction) of an article in an academic journal. I've never tired to publish a comment, but I'm finally at the end of my first long, dark gauntlet of journal publishing (idiosyncratically, CS people publish mainly in conference proceedings) so I think I can sympathize. In case you don't read to the end — though you should, since it's a tale that Joseph Heller would be proud of — be advised that this is a true story.

A new theory about why time only flows one way. I don't have my metaphysics/epistemology/cosmology hat on, but it sounds reasonable. To risk a one sentence summary of the theory: time doesn't have to flow one way for any physical reason, but a consciousness is only capable of perceiving it moving in one direction. I can't say I've really wrapped my head around this, but it sounds reasonable, and it jives with what I remember from some philosophy classes. (And, oddly, brings to mind something from a theology class. I remember a professor trying to describe God as being atemporal. He doesn't know what will happen in the future but rather experiences the past, present and future concurrently. Somehow this seems connected to me, though I'm sure Hitchenites the world over are upset that I'm getting religion into their science, or chocolate into their peanut butter, or something.)

Patriotism & Dissent: UK Edition
To Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, the British National Health Service is, he warns Americans, a "60-year failure" that he "wouldn't wish on anybody." For uttering such heterodoxies on American television, writes Michael C. Moynihan, Hannan was denounced as "unpatriotic" by the Labour Minister of Health while the Conservative Party leader in the European Parliament said Hannan "should be disciplined for his comments about the NHS."

Read all about it here.

Bryan Caplan on the ever-so-cheerful subject of prison rape. Here's a surprising result, which is sadly only a little surprising:
The most striking result, though, is one that only fans of Gary Becker and/or Lord Acton would have expected:
More prisoners reported abuse by staff than abuse by other prisoners: 2.9 percent of respondents compared with about 2 percent.
I remember seeing similar statistics for prostitutes. That is, they were either assaulted by or forced to provide free services to police more often than to pimps or gang members or other criminals in order to secure protection. In fact, prostitutes in Chicago are more likely to sleep with police for protection than they are to get arrested by them.

Via Brian Dunbar:
A Place to Stand | An American Government X-Prize Works

I got this story via Jerry Pournelle who says
I have never understood why prizes are not popular. They cost almost nothing -- perhaps a million a year total to fund a commission that determines if a prize should be awarded -- and you know the total to be paid. A ten billion prize for a Lunar Colony Prize (keep 31 Americans alive and well on the Moon for 3 years and one day) would either get us a Moon Base or it would cost nothing. A reusable space ship prize of 5 billion (send the same ship to orbit 13 times in one year) would again get us a space ship or would cost nothing. We spent more than half that on the X-33 fiasco.
Perhaps it is the ultimate proof of Pournelle's Law - that the prime purpose of government spending is to pay government workers & their friends & X-Prizes are devoted almost entirely to the nominal but secondary purpose of achieving results.
Unsurprisingly I'm also in favor of more prizes. I think this is related to the way that modern technology companies conduct R&D through buying start-ups, rather than through their in-house research arms. (Well, in addition to their in-house arms.) Every time some founders set out with the end goal of being bought up by Google or Microsoft or Apple, which is most of the time in the software industry, they're essentially entering an open-ended contest, in which the actual challenge is only vaguely defined as "develop some technology that we [GOOG/MSFT/AAPL/etc.] like." I can envision a similar procedure for the government, so that we might encourage more useful things like Recovery.org and waste fewer dollars developing execrable sites like Recovery.gov.

(Actually, I rescind that recommendation, since the process of choosing winners for relatively open-ended prizes would quickly become too corrupt. You'd probably need to specify things in at least as great of detail as used in the Netflix Prize, less in less detail than the current federal procurement process.)

Steven Pinker on the decline of violence throughout history. I think I've actually had this debate with my father before.
When the archeologist Lawrence Keeley examined casualty rates among contemporary hunter-gatherers—which is the best picture we have of how people might have lived 10,000 years ago—he discovered that the likelihood that a man would die at the hands of another man ranged from a high of 60 percent in one tribe to 15 percent at the most peaceable end. In contrast, the chance that a European or American man would be killed by another man was less than one percent during the 20th century, a period of time that includes both world wars. If the death rate of tribal warfare had prevailed in the 20th century, there would have been two billion deaths rather than 100 million, horrible as that is.
If you don't want to compare us to hunter-gatherers, here's something more recent, though limited to just murders:
When the criminologist Manuel Eisner scoured the records of every village, city, county, and nation he could find, he discovered that homicide rates in Europe had declined from 100 killings per 100,000 people per year in the Middle Ages to less than one killing per 100,000 people in modern Europe.
Pinker concludes:
Man's inhumanity to man has long been a subject for moralization. With the knowledge that something has driven it dramatically down, we can also treat it as a matter of cause and effect. Instead of asking, "Why is there war?" we might ask, "Why is there peace?" If our behavior has improved so much since the days of the Bible, we must be doing something right. And it would be nice to know what, exactly, it is.
My answer is that we've all gotten too rich to run around killing each other so much, but you'd expect that from a proud capitalist running dog like me, wouldn't you?


  1. You'd probably need to specify things in at least as great of detail as used in the Netflix Prize, less in less detail than the current federal procurement process.

    Pournelle claims this would be sufficient for a grand prize.

    “Be it resolved by the Congress of the United States:

    The Congress has determined that a permanent colony on the Moon is in the national interest of the United States.

    The Treasurer is directed to pay the sum of $20 billion (Ten Billion US Dollars) to the first US-owned company that shall place 31 American citizens on the Moon and maintain them there alive and in good health for the period of three years and one day.

    This payment shall be exempt from Federal taxation. No money shall be paid under this act until the conditions set forth above are fulfilled.”

  2. I love the brevity, but I still think you'd need to define "US-owned company." What if they get a moon base running by subcontracting to a foreign corporation? And does this company need to get the people back to Earth? Alive? In decent health? What if they put 100 people on the moon and all but 31 die? Do they need to be active while on the moon, or would some kind of induced coma for the three year period be acceptable.

    I don't want to over complicate the situation, but I think you'd need a spec of the prize at least as complicated as the lease on my apartment in order to be prudent.

  3. but I think you'd need a spec of the prize at least as complicated as the lease on my apartment in order to be prudent.

    I (briefly) looked for the actual terms of the Ansari X PRIZE - in my opinion they were not very detailed.

    All of the objections you raised could be resolved by an impartial board, as the X-Prize was.

    Of course, the same Congress that delivers bills that are thousands of pages thick is not very damned likely to just pass something simple like this.