12 September 2013

Before Contempt of Cop people could get arrested with panache

Daily Telegraph | Tim Blair | Diner Arrested
“What is the charge? Eating a meal? A succulent Chinese meal?”

Gawker describes this event as “the classiest, most gentlemanly arrest ever.”
What strikes me is not the poise of the arrestee, its that of the arresters. If this were America, 2013 how long would it take before the non-lethal* tasers came out? How many extra charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and assaulting an officer would this guy be getting? How long before the photographer's equipment was confiscated to "ensure officer safety"?

08 September 2013

Credibility -or- Obama's mouth wrote a check his constitutional authority can't cash

For approximately the dozenth time in my life we're having a national debate about whether to go play Sheriff in some far off brawl that doesn't concern us. Is it just me, or is this debate even more tired than the last? Is everyone as bored with this as I am?

I couldn't muster the energy to wade into this one even if I wasn't spinning too many plates already. I do want to make one observation just to keep it from rattling around in my mind every time I listen to the news. (Which is increasingly rarely.)

So... this issue of needing to fight to protect America's credibility... What the hell?

The best I can figure the Hawks' argument on this front goes as follows:

(1) The President of the United States promised that if Assad used chemical weapons then we would do something.

I'm not being purposefully vague with the "something." I believe the phrase Obama used was that chemical weapons would "change his calculus." There was no "If X then Y" with an actual definition of Y that I'm aware of.

(2) Now that POTUS has made an explicit promise*
NB: not actually explicit; see #1
and the conditions have been met, we will look weak if we don't follow through.

(3) Looking weak in this way will limit our future ability to verbally bully other dictators into submission.

(4) Therefore it is imperative that we "do something" to Assad to show that no one can take POTUS' demands lightly.

Put aside whether or not the Hawks who say this are correct in practice. Never mind that the President has written checks he doesn't have the authority to cash. Never mind that the President does not unilaterally determine the course of the American State. Never mind that he got the order of events backwards: first commit to a war, and then go about asking for permission to do so. Ignore that no amount of "altered calculus" removes Article 1, Section 8 from the equation. Forget all that.

What interests me is that you could use this same argument to justify any government action. Just promise anything, and then when you have to follow up you can silence your critics with the "credibility" argument.

How long until a President discovers this trick works on domestic matters too? I give it... one administration.

Prediction: by the end of 2020, the President will have committed/promised/pledged/whatever that the US Government would do something strictly internal. Extend unemployment, tax carbon, reassert control over state narcotics laws, whatever. Something that isn't actually in the president's power to unilaterally decide. Then (s)he will use that very same promise as a (the?) justification for why it needs to happen. That allows you to nicely sidestep the debate about whether or not it's a good idea, or whether the President has the power to do that*
* apparent de facto answer: yes, always
and replace it with an argument about "credibility." That's much easier to win. Who is against American credibility? What, you want everyone to think we're weak? That we're liars? That we can't be trusted to follow through? Of course not!

Here's my response to the people who say we need to go to war to protect our credibility: it's not our credibility that's at stake. It's Mr. Obama's. There is no "us" here. He made a promise that he shouldn't have. The rest of us are going to make a decision about what to do regardless of whatever he spouted off about, and we're going to make that decision through the proper channels in the proper ways.

PS As best I can tell, Obama is telling us we need to go to war because "Assad has lost legitimacy" and "Assad crossed the red line of using chemical weapons."

(1) I didn't realize US Presidents were empowered to determine which leaders did and did not have legitimacy in their own countries. For a former law professor, Obama is putting himself on awefully shaky philosophical ground. At what point do other Heads of State get to determine how legitimate our President it? Is there an approval rating threshold I should keep my eye on? Some point at which we're supposed to pass out ballots to Prime Ministers and Premiers about whether the guy in the White House needs to start packing his bags? I'm just trying to figure out what the principal here is besides "do what the President says because he has lots of bombs."

(2) Syria isn't a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention. What's the legal reasoning behind us getting to enforce — at gun point — legislation that a sovereign nation explicitly doesn't recognize? And don't get me started on the Geneva Conventions. For one thing, they were never designed to cover civil wars, and for another if Obama insists that this isn't a war but some linguistic vomit like a "kinetic military action" he's put himself in another bind: the conventions apply specifically to war and not other "conflicts" or "actions."

If what we're doing is running around the world enforcing the whim and will of the US President, then let's be honest about that. Everyone else step the hell off; we're in charge.

PPS (9 Sep '13) What he said:

30 August 2013

Panem et Circenses

Toothpaste For Dinner nails it:

My preference would be for the American citizenry to react to our slide into autocracy with rebellious disobedience. Barring that, I might actually prefer full-throated, populist approval from the rabble to what we've actually got: bored yawns and shrugs.

29 August 2013

Religion and Mental Illness (pt 2)

I didn't want to have to grapple with Sean Thomas article mentioned in my previous post, but it got the better of me.

(This is where you can picture my shoulder angel whispering "battle not with monsters, SB7, lest ye become—" at which point his opposite number cuts in with "Oh shut up, you winged twit! Someone on the internet is wrong!")
The Telegraph | Sean Thomas | Are atheists mentally ill?

So which is the smart party, here? Is it the atheists, who live short, selfish, stunted little lives – often childless – before they approach hopeless death in despair, and their worthless corpses are chucked in a trench (or, if they are wrong, they go to Hell)? Or is it the believers, who live longer, happier, healthier, more generous lives, and who have more kids, and who go to their quietus with ritual dignity, expecting to be greeted by a smiling and benevolent God?
If anyone at Sherwin-Williams or Valspar is reading this, could you please supply Mr Thomas with a broader brush? I'm not sure he's generalized quite enough here.

I mean... wow. Even Dante had some good things to say about Virtuous Pagans.

(Side note: how did I not know of Gustave Doré until earlier this year? He's such a boss.)

I can't even begin to explain what's wrong with that paragraph. The slightest life experience ought to show anyone that not all, or even most, believers go happily to their graves. Nor, obviously, do all non-theists die alone and afraid. Does Thomas really not know any good, smart, healthy, happy people outside of his church? If not, the guy needs to get out more.
Death, therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.
— Epicurus, "Letter to Menoeceus"
Thomas ratchets up the invective:
Obviously, it’s the believers who are smarter. Anyone who thinks otherwise is mentally ill.

And I mean that literally: the evidence today implies that atheism is a form of mental illness. And this is because science is showing that the human mind is hard-wired for faith: we have, as a species, evolved to believe, which is one crucial reason why believers are happier – religious people have all their faculties intact, they are fully functioning humans.
This really grinds my gears. The mind is wired for nothing. The brain is wired for a lot of things. Things like attending to moving objects in the visual field. Transform-invariant facial identification. Irrational risk assessments. Tribalism. Violence. Just because there exists an anatomical structure correlated with something doesn't make that thing a good idea.

We've evolved to do a whole lot of things. Most of us aren't even evolved to drink milk or eat wheat, barley or rye. What relation does eating grilled cheese sandwiches on white bread have to either mental illness or divinity? Things like dyslexia, schizophrenia, ephebophilia, and ADHD are in many senses "evolved." Most of what Christians consider sins are evolved behaviors. (Sloth: conserving energy when possible can be evolutionarily advantageous; gluttony: stockpiling nutrients in your body when possible can be evolutionarily advantageous; lust: seizing breeding opportunities when they present themselves can be evolutionarily advantageous.)

To be clear I do think religion is a good idea. But don't feed me some bullshit hackery about "the brain is wired for blah blah blah..." Don't hide behind that pseudo-science chicanery.

Even if the brain was "wired for faith" that doesn't tell us anything about whether faith is good or bad. The brain is barely capable of coping with the modern world. Barely. The fact that we've dragged along some anatomy or function from the last million years tells us nothing about the value of the associated behavior.

I don't have any patience for the Dawkinsian "God Delusion" rhetoric either. Can we all just calm down and realize that there are good people and there are bad people and there are people in between, and all of those types exist both within and without our own little tribes and parties and sects?

I'd like to see the DSM to try to define this one

Mangan | Are atheists mentally ill?

Much like the fact that no vegan society exists, since such a society would fail to make use of vital resources, and would be vulnerable to malnutrition and outside attack by stronger people, so with atheist societies. If any exist now, they probably won't for long. They fail to make use of a vital resource, religion, leaving themselves vulnerable to all sorts of ills.
(1) On the one hand, "when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything." Chesterton is usually given as the source, but I believe it was actually one of his biographers.

In addition, life is too complicated to go through without some cognitive scaffolding to help you understand it, and inventing your own scaffolding is difficult, so you might as well rely on some of the structures that have already been generated and tested. And many of those structures are religious.

So yes, I think religion is useful for a society.

(2) On the other hand, Mangan is being fallacious. It would have been as easy to assert at various times and places the same thing about there being no societies without polytheism, or monarchy, or slavery, or tribes, or nomadic lifestyles.

With veganism we can actually point to physical resources that are being underutilized, and we know what those resources do for us and how. We know what the alternatives to those resources are, and what their relative costs and benefits are.

Smart people have been arguing about what religion is, and what it's for, and what its effects are since at least the pre-Socratics. As much as I loved my theology classes, I can't say all those smart people have come to much in the way on conclusions. In contrast, we know pretty damn well what amino acids are found in a pork chop, and what we need them for, and what happens when you don't get them.

These resource that a vegan society fail to use (i.e. animal products) also — at least until a generation ago — had built-in stabilizers that prevented people from consuming too much of them. Namely, they were too expensive. It's difficult to eat too little meat, because it's tasty and easy relative to a vegan diet, and it is (or was) difficult to eat too much meat, because it costs a fair bit of coin. Religion has no such feedback mechanism to prevent people from falling into either the excessive or insufficient vices.

I think it was Daniel Dennett who posed the following scenario: suppose there are two armies, both equally matched in skill and weaponry, but one side is composed entirely of economists, and the other fanatically believes that God is on their side. Who do you imagine would win? Who would you want as allies?
Honestly, I don't know. There have been thousands of battles lost when people took foolish risks because their religion made them overconfident. For every brave paladin wading fiercely into battle with a prayer on his lips there has been a crazed zealot who didn't bother to sharpen his sword because he thought God was going to provide.

Thomas states that atheism is a form of mental illness, and that could be close to the mark, since belief or unbelief does not appear to be a choice. We are compelled to believe, or compelled to disbelieve. We cannot choose, consciously at any rate.
Wait... what? How does "atheism is a mental illness" follow from "belief/unbelief is not voluntary"? I don't think I voluntarily like spicy food or fair-skinned redheads. I don't choose to believe those two things are good. Does that mean I have two more mental illnesses? Or am I the healthy one, and everyone who prefers bland food or brunettes are sick?

I'm truly struggling to follow the logic here. If something is good for you, and you don't do it, but your failure to do it is compulsory, then you have a mental illness. Shouldn't we be more concerned about people consciously deciding to reject something beneficial? This is going to rapidly descend into a sticky mess of metaphysics, theology, free will, predestination, mind/body problems, and who knows what else.

(5) How does framing this in terms of mental health, which already struggles to cope with describing and defining thoroughly-studied neurochemical and behavioral conditions, help us understand religion? Our esteemed psychiatric professionals have already managed to define everything from temper tantrums to gluttony to boyhood as diseases. Do we really want to mimic the APA in this trend? Or is this just some columnist dressing up their pet theory in a lab coat to give it a veneer of 21st century respectability and authority?

What's next? Cops and firefighters writing letters politely asking serial arsonists not to burn buildings?

Isn't the very fact that they asked pretty disturbing?

Hey... ummm... excuse us, Mr. President sir? Could you please, you know, maybe, ummm... consult us about that war thing? You know that whole "Constitution" thing? The one you swore to protect and defend? You see, we think we remember seeing this bit in Article One — somewhere around Section Eight maybe — about us being the ones to declare a war.

We don't want to be rude or anything, it's just that this seems an awful lot like a war to us, what with the firing missiles into another nation and all. And that's sort of our thing. Declarations of stuff, not the rockets. Most of us honestly don't even know which end you're supposed to point at the other guy.

So you know, you're not too busy giving speeches or working on your fantasy football draft, could you maybe, perhaps, if you get a minute, please consult with us? Because if you don't, we're going to have to... well... write another letter I guess.

Yeah! We're gonna write another letter. But this one will be slightly angry. Mostly still polite, but you can count on their being a minor undercurrent of hostility. Maybe not hostility, per se. But definitely some prickliness. Because of the whole "violating the constitution which you solemnly swore to uphold" issue.

That's sort of a big deal. Well, it's a medium sized deal. A deal of some size, anyway. Maybe not as big of a deal as what Roger Clemens was injecting into his acne-scarred ass cheeks. We spent ages worrying about that. Can you imagine if we paid that much attention to a potential war, or passing a budget, or actually writing legislation instead of passing everything off on you guys over in the executive branch to hash out? Ha! We wouldn't have any time left to hustle for donations or get in front of a TV camera. What a mess that would be.

Where were we... uh... oh! Yeah, the letter situation! We really don't want to have to write another letter. So maybe just, you know, ask us next time? Or at least pretend to? All we really get to do over here on the Hill is talk about stuff, and this would make for some great kabuki Democracy in Action!™.

27 August 2013

Is TV's Golden Age more of a dark ecru?

Bloomberg View | Megan McArdle | Why Is the Golden Age of Television So Dark?

Crime and war are the only two places where the stakes are still life and death, or exile. War has been, um, done to death, and it’s expensive to shoot well. So what makes the perfect television drama for the novelty-seeking sophisticate? A crime drama -- told from the point of view of the criminal
I think this is why high school dramas remain and will remain popular. To adolescents — even the ones who see through the ridiculous facade to the vapidity and impermanence underlying — everything is vitally important. You might realize on some level that who makes the baseball team or who you go to the dance with or how well you do on you History final isn't actually that important, but that's not the way it feels to you. Adolescence gives a story-teller built-in stakes.

I think McArdle is definitely on to something here. Stakes matter a lot. I'd also endorse the end of the 'graph I quoted above:
... often a criminal with a surprisingly ordinary, bourgeois domestic life, which serves to heighten the novelty. Not to mention the dramatic tension offered by a secret life.
I'd add another factor to the explanation though: television's inferiority complex. The TV industry has spent decades as "the idiot box," "the vast wasteland," etc. At best TV has been Film's idiot little brother, and Film itself carried the stigma of being "not really art" into my lifetime. I don't think it's a coincidence that HBO got the modern TV renaissance off the ground and that this was their tagline:

They wanted to distance themselves from TV, the "chewing gum for the mind." Hence the enthusiasm initially for shows which are "gritty," "dark," "morally ambiguous," "ethically uncomfortable," etc.

Throw on top of that the follow-the-leader way that media is developed, and you get an (almost) self-sustaining crop of dark shows.

14 August 2013

Moral Overlearning, Liberatianism, and Arete

EconLog | Bryan Caplan | Libertarianism as Moral Overlearning

"Overlearning" is a key idea in educational psychology. One good explanation:
Overlearning is a pedagogical concept according to which newly acquired skills should be practiced well beyond the point of initial mastery, leading to automaticity.
In experiments, researchers often test the effects of overlearning by (a) making subjects practice until they reach 100% accuracy, then (b) practicing some more. Intuitively, though, the idea is simply to make perfection routine. [...]

Libertarians often argue that they are merely holding governments to ordinary moral standards. It's wrong for a private individual to physically attack other people who are behaving peacefully. It's wrong for a private individual to take other people's property without their consent. So why is it OK for government to do these things? Yet non-libertarians usually find these observations unconvincing.

My claim: The fundamental difference between libertarians and non-libertarians is that libertarians have overlearned common-sense morality. Non-libertarians only reliably apply basic morality when society encourages them to do so. Libertarians, in contrast, deeply internalize basic morality. As a result, they apply it automatically in the absence of social pressure - and even when society discourages common decency.
I think what Caplan is describing is "Aretē" — variously translated as "virtue" or "excellence of character." The idea of virtue, as I understand the Aristotelian usage, is not just doing Good things and refraining from doing Bad things. It is more about making good decisions as a habit. You should not only have good intentions, nor simply make good decisions. The good decisions should be routine.

You don't have to contemplate deeply, nor construct lengthy pro and con lists, nor engage in tortuous casuistry, nor consult expert exegesis, and certainly not refer to opinion polls. Virtue, character, Aretē, or moral overlearning make all these things superfluous.

Caplan concludes:
The "libertarianism as moral overlearning" framing is self-congratulatory. I freely admit it. [Me too! —SB7] Perhaps the real story is that libertarians stupidly generalize narrow moral principles to situations where they're entirely inappropriate.* Either way, though, the concept of moral overlearning deserves your attention. If you only apply moral principles when other people encourage you to do so, how much about right and wrong do you really know?

* If that's what you think, I highly recommend Mike Huemer's The Problem of Political Authority, which explores these questions forwards and backwards.
I think Caplan is right, but I'll go a step farther. If you only apply moral principles when society encourages you to do so, and you apply them in the same way everyone else does, then answer me this: how confident are you that the morals and mores and norms of our society are perfect?

What is the probability that we have hit upon the optimum set of moral guidelines? And if we haven't, shouldn't you be operating in contradiction to the particular ways the majority would have you apply moral rules? Isn't it a near certainty that society has rules that either need to be changed, abandoned, introduced, or modified in scope? Which ones do you think these are? How can you tell? And which version of these rules to you act according to, the extant, flawed but popular version, or your own version? How consistently? How publicly?

Edited (15 Aug '13): I should point that I'm more interested in the connection between moral overlearning and Aretē than in the connection between moral overlearning and libertarianism.

09 August 2013

Behavioral Econom{ics, ists}

Bryan Caplan | EconLog | Nudge, Policy, and the Endowment Effect

I believe in behavioral economics. But behavioral economists deeply disappoint me.
One thousand times: Amen!
They ought to be paragons of rationality — to puritanically avoid the foibles they so ably document. In practice, however, behavioral economists are all too human. They use nudge to rationalize a little extra paternalism, when they ought to use their insight to systematically rethink paternalism from the ground up.
I am a big believer in epistemic and cognitive humility, not only when it comes to economic modeling, political philosophy or policy debates, but in all aspects of living. I appreciate behavioral economics for emphasizing these and related concepts. But I will find it hard to truly respect the field until they turn their scopes on themselves and begin considering not only the bounded rationality and finite knowledge of citizens and consumers, but of regulators and rule-makers as well.

21 July 2013

Security: moving to higher levels of abstraction

Ars Technica | Use of Tor and e-mail crypto could increase chances that NSA keeps your data

Prediction: at some point non-steganographic encryption will be a small niche.

There will be a need not only for strong security to hide our secrets, but for people to be able to hide how hard they are trying to hide their secrets.

On second thought, I need to make that prediction more specific.

Personal communications will increasingly be steganographic in nature. There will still be huge needs for traditional crypto. It's no secret, for instance, that an ATM needs to communicate with the bank's transaction processing computers. So there's no point in hiding the fact that they're sending messages to each other. But I might very much wish to conceal not only the content of a blog posts I write, but also what blogs I am posting that content to, and how much effort I am putting into maintaining that concealment.

Installing BitMessage is on my task list for this week. As of yet I don't actually know anyone else on the BitMessage network, so I have no one to send messages to. But if I ever did I could do so quite securely.

From the limited amount I've learned of BitMessage, it has all of the cryptographic advantages of BitCoin without its one big drawback. (Which is that the State doesn't need to put pressure on the BitCoin network itself if it can successfully shut off the flow of other currencies into and out of BitCoins. Which is seems able and willing to do.) If you haven't heard of it, here are two articles:
  1. Businessweek | Max Raskin | Bitmessage's NSA-Proof E-Mail
  2. ReadWrite | Matt Asay | Bitmessage: Choice Of A Rightly Paranoid Generation

Status Games

askblog | Arnold Kling | Education, Status Goods, and Economics

Rory Sutherland makes a valid point about education.
while we may want everyone else to be equally healthy (bee), we want our children to receive a better education than our neighbour’s children (chimp). If parents were more honest about their chimp heritage, they might also admit that, when choosing a school, they care less about the staff or the facilities (something government might solve) than about placing their children within an appropriate peer-group (something it can’t).
... However, Sutherland goes overboard in his description of life as “Darwinist.” He focuses on status as a zero-sum game. The point that economists make is that while this game is going on, there is also a positive-sum game, involving trade, innovation, and growth.
Kling's point is an important one. The existence of a zero-sum game does not preclude the existence contemporaneous positive-sum game as well.

So what do we do about the zero-sum status game? Our political class either asserts it doesn't exist, or is willing to move heaven and earth to rig the game. And no, these two responses don't map as neatly on to the Red Team and Blue Team as you might think. Witness the grotesque farm bill we got from the GOP recently. This is a particularly foul subspecies of reaction which revolves around willfully misidentifying who the winners and losers in the game are.

The state puts it's thumb on the scales of the status game in one of two main ways: prevent people at the top from winning too much, and distributing extra resources to people at the bottom to give them a leg up.

You are familiar with all of the standard libertarian objections to this: it curtails freedom, it perverts incentives, it silences signals, it engenders moral hazard, it's inefficient, it's ineffective, etc. You've heard these arguments and their counters before. I'll give you two objections I wish were made more frequently.

The first problem with trying to disrupt the results of the status game is that people just change the game. They find new ways to measure status, new ways to compete, new dimensions to rank themselves on. For example, the last century has seen an epochal shift from determining status by what we consume to determining it by what we produce.

Sutherland mentions the status jockeying that plays out by parents via their children's education. I think one of the reasons we see so much competitiveness in this is because adults no longer have much room to compete directly. We fight proxy wars through our children. It's vulgar to brag that you are the best Foo, but it's still polite to boast that your progeny is the best Baz.

The second problem with trying to rig the competition in a status game is that it reinforces the implied importance of the status game.

If Jimmy is pitching a fit because Betty got more candy on Halloween you don't tell him "Oh no! You're right Jimmy, that's so unfair! You're a victim! I wish we could take some of Betty's candy and give it to you." That's only going to make Jimmy feel his relative loss more acutely. What you do is remind him that even though Betty has more candy than him, he's still holding a sack of free candy. We expect six year olds to be able to handle that kind of moral reasoning, but somehow we don't expect it out of the American electorate.

I'm not holding my breath for politicians to stop harping on about voters' relative rankings. That's bread and butter for them. But I do expect better from civic leaders, and especially religious figures. (I'm staring at you, Roman Catholic Church.)

Does society have zero-sum competitions? Yes. Are they important? Yes, sometimes. Should we make sure the rules are fair? Yup. Can we help people on the losing end of these competitions? Sure. But let's not forget one of the best ways to help people is to remind people that there is more to life than their relative standing in the herd.

11 June 2013

You can't have sumptuary laws without having Fashion Police

ProfessorBainbridge.com | "The IRS is a tax collector; it shouldn’t be allowed to be the speech and belief police"

It's all well and good to say that the IRS should stick to collecting taxes, but you can't have the kind of complex, subjective, largely arbitrary tax code we have and also have a bureaucracy which implements it simply, impartially and consistently. Part of having complex laws is having complex (difficult to control, easy to subvert) enforcement mechanisms.

Or more simply: part of having laws is having enforcement mechanisms. Libertarians can get a little shrill about "all laws are violent" but at the core this is what they're dealing with. Legislation is just words. You can't make it affect people's actions without some instantiating force -- an enforcement mechanism.

It doesn't matter how pure your motives or how noble your intentions are. All new legislation must be backed up with bureaucrats, committees, regulations, three-ring binders, check lists, forms, file cabinets, councils, reports, fines, inspectors, permissions, certificates, licenses, records, clerks, judges, tribunals, ... and so on up to constabularies, jails, wardens, and armed guards.

If you don't believe me then pick a law. Any law. What happens if I don't comply? What if I don't cooperate? And then what? And then what? And then? And then? Then? The end of that chain of questions can only end in one of two places: (1) a toothless, hollow shell of a threat which is attempting to bluff subjects into compliance; (2) a guy with a gun.

You simply can not have laws which control who can spend what, and who can say what when about which things, and not end up with some "Speech Police." You have to choose.

29 May 2013

Live by the paint, die by the paint

BBC News | German railways to test anti-graffiti drones

These drones are just going to have IR cameras to detect trespassers in rail yards.

I was really hoping for quad-rotors mounted with paintball guns to give the hooligans a taste of their own. What a wasted opportunity.

10 May 2013

New on the curriculum in Suffolk, VA: there is no difference between a thing and a representation of that thing

via Hit & Run:
CBS Local / AP | 2 Va. Boys Suspended For Using Pencils As Guns
Holy shit! How did they figure out how to turn a wooden writing implement into a firearm?! I can see maybe a bow and arrow, possibly, if you have a very bendy pencil, but they used them as guns?!! How do you even... oh wait... hold on a second...
A Suffolk second grader has been suspended for making gunlike noises while pointing a pencil at another student.
See, when you said "used pencils as guns" I thought you actually mean those words and not "pretended one thing was actually another thing using their imagination." I get it now.
Suffolk Public Schools spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw says a pencil is considered a weapon when it's pointed at someone in a threatening way and gunlike noises are made.
Ooooh! Ooooh! I like this game! Let me play a round of "redefine a word to mean something completely different so I can justify my own pusillanimous idiocy and abuse of authority." Here goes:

A public school system spokeswoman is considered a weapon when she opens her dumb mouth and says something so daft that it overwhelms the listener with her contempt for boyhood, the intelligence of everyone listening to her, and the very nature of language and semantics.

I win! Okay Bethanne Bradshaw — get the hell off school property. No weapons (err, "weapons") allowed here.

"Some children would consider it threatening, who are scared about shootings in schools or shootings in the community," Bradshaw said. "Kids don’t think about 'Cowboys and Indians' anymore, they think about drive-by shootings and murders and everything they see on television news every day."
Yes, perhaps some children would consider having a pencil pointed at them while a classmate says "bang!" scary. But:
  1. These two boys were playing together voluntarily, so I think we can presume they weren't feeling threatened.
  2. They were both suspended, so they are each somehow both the perpetrator and victim of this apparently heinous crime.
  3. To the extent children think of drive-by-shootings it's because timorous nitwits like Bradshaw are running around screaming about how the world is a terrifying place full of demons, and policies like this only encourage such fear.
  4. Children are also afraid of monsters in their closets and under their beds. The proper reaction to a child who is afraid of a pencil is not to ban the pencil, it's to teach the child that a pencil is a pencil, and they have nothing to be afraid of.
  5. They weren't playing "Cowboys and Indians," they were playing "Marines and Bad Guys," because one boy's father was a Marine. Marines shooting "bad guys" is very much a real part of this boy's life, while drive-bys and school massacres are part of the confabulated world that school administrators attempt to construct for him.
These sorts of policies may be great for CYA, and they make people like Bradhaw feel better about exerting some agency over what is ultimately a chaotic world, but they also engender the very terror they claim to protect us from. They teach children to not only be afraid of violence, but to be afraid of the very idea of violence, the very imagining that violence occurs, the very possibility that someone somewhere may be doing something less gentle than Tinkerbell doing a trust fall into a pile of giggling Care Bears.

Rearden Hammers

EconLog | Bryan Caplan | Public vs. Private Sector Compensation: A Case of Curious Controversy

Bewerunge and Rosen's working paper on public- versus private-sector compensation begins with a discussion of recent controversy:
... Exploring [compensation parity] is challenging for two reasons. First, the human capital of public and private sector workers may differ. If, for example, public sector workers have more education than private sector workers, then it is neither surprising nor objectionable that they earn higher wages. This is precisely the argument made by former White House budget director Peter Orszag
On the one hand, yes. On the other, no.

The yes is obvious, so why the no? Because adjusting for education is a measure of inputs, and what we're really concerned with is outputs.

What if every hammer the government owned cost $1000, when private sector hammers cost $50? That's outrageous, right? The Government is drastically overpaying for hammers! Taxpayers are being cheated!

Then along comes the White House to explain that no, no, no, it's perfectly reasonable for federal hammers to cost more because they're made of mithril. Mithril is more expensive than steel, so the gov't is totally justified in paying more. Once you do the proper regressions and clean the data up just so... presto bango! the government is paying a reasonable price for its hammers.

But do they need a mithril hammer? Is the mithril hammer doing a better job of driving nails? Are they getting things built any faster with the mithril hammers? Are their buildings more robust? Are they hammering adamantine nails into cavorite boards? Or are they just banging things with top-of-the-line, A1 grade, gold star, best-in-class, Hephaestus-approved, super-premium, special reserve edition Mjölnir-class mallets for shits and giggles?

If thisis getting the job done fine, you don't need one of these. Which, by the way, is $200 and made of solid titanium.

To a first approximation you should definitely account for things like education when doing these comparisons. But keep in mind that's just an approximation. It's assuming an implicit conclusion: that the government needs all the highly credentialed people it hires.

For example, the number of K-12 teachers with advanced degrees has ballooned to 48%. Are we getting any better education with all those MAs we're paying for? When even the Center for American Progress says no I think the answer is pretty clear. (HuffPo and NPR are also in agreement, so this is clearly no radical capitalist thing.) Statistically "correcting" for the education level of half of the teachers in the country seems reasonable until you stop to ask whether those extra years of schooling are actually providing any extra benefit in addition to their cost.

PS I expect everyone in this debate who's putting such high stock in accounting for human capital to do the same when the topic of conversation turns to, for example, pay disparities by gender & race, or comparisons between CEO and average employee compensation.

PPS It's important to note the actual thesis of Caplan's post: despite Orszag's assertive claims, the literature completely disagrees. This just goes to show that if you speak in a confident enough voice and start your sentences with some version of "Studies have shown..." you can get away with making almost any claim.

Of course, it helps immensely to have a sufficiently sycophantic or credulous audience.

07 May 2013

Matching Problems

Center for Immigration Studies | David North | America Has More Trained STEM Graduates than STEM Job Openings It has become quite clear that America has more high-tech college graduates than needed to fill high-tech jobs now and, importantly, the nation will keep producing many more such graduates than job openings in the future — so why the shrill calls from the industry that there is a shortage?
The senior class at Analogy High School has 300 boys and 200 girls. Who's more likely to get asked to the homecoming dance by a senior boy: the 200th most attractive senior girl, or the single most attractive junior girl?

Do I really need to spell out why an employer would prefer the best foreign-born worker they can find to an American in the 33rd percentile?

Does it need to be said that STEM grads are not uniform round pegs and STEM jobs are not uniform round holes?

06 May 2013

It's a short step from local sales taxes to local licensing requirements

In fact it's not really even a step between them. More of a phlegmatic shuffle. The kind that obese women in air-brushed cat sweatshirts always seem to do right in front of me in airports when I'm most in a hurry. But I digress...
Coyote Blog | Warren Meyer | Licensing is Anti-Consumer

That is an advantage of the Internet I had never considered -- it allows new businesses to challenge old ones without harassment by local licensing and zoning authorities.
This is, in one sentence, why I oppose an internet sales tax. I'd rather see far more government revenue be consumption taxes, so to a first approximation I ought to support this. But I don't. It is a bad idea.* (I don't know how to say it any better than that.)

Internet companies aren't beholden to local busybodies, and we need to do whatever it takes to keep that camel from getting its nose under the tent. One of many lessons from ObamaCare ought to be that the line between a ban, a penalty, and a tax is blurred to the point of irrelevance.

One idea I think I could be convinced to back would be a single, Federal-level internet sales tax. Then online companies still have to collect sales taxes, so physical sellers aren't at a permanent price disadvantage, but you don't have the same distortions or little-guy crushing regulatory burdens that we're going to get from the plan Congress is working on.

* See Megan McArdle:

Calling something "social insurance" doesn't make socialized costs any less socialist

Bloomberg | Josh Barro | Why Cash Can't Replace Health Insurance

The Douthat and Yglesias plans would each make insurance against catastrophic losses universally available and provide redistribution from the rich to the poor, but they would do much less than Obamacare (or even the status quo) to redistribute from the healthy to the sick.

Some people have the misfortune to have chronic illnesses -- diabetes, HIV infection, kidney disease -- that can cost thousands of dollars a year to treat. A system of catastrophic-only coverage, say one that only covered health expenditures exceeding 10 percent of income, would leave these people poorer while making healthy people better off, even if it came with cash grants funded by the savings from reduced health-care costs.
Some people have the misfortune to be dumb or unmotivated or have poor impulse control. This makes those people thousands of dollars poorer than they otherwise would be! The system Barro advocates here would allow these people to continue to be worse off than people who are smart, industrious and disciplined. What injustice!
Comprehensive insurance that covers routine care is not “insurance” in the sense of covering expenses that are unexpected at the individual level. But it is social insurance that covers the unexpected event of being a person with high ongoing needs for routine care.
I don't want to be one of those people that screams "Socialism!" at the slightest provocation, but that's what Barro is advocating here.

Look: some people are going to have bad luck or make bad choices. Those people will have worse outcomes than people who got a better roll of the dice or made better decisions. Some of that luck or those decisions will fall under the very broad domain of "health." It doesn't make any sense to protect people from every small negative consequence of bad luck/decisions in health but not everything else.

By all means, let's protect people from the most severe negative consequences. That's called a minimax objective, and it's what the catastrophic insurance schemes that Douthat and Yglesias advocate would do. You can't just wave your hands, slap the label "social insurance" on anything health-related and thereby make it everyone else's responsibility to deal with bad consequences.
Maybe [only partially socializing the costs of chronic diseases] is an acceptable outcome. The government does not enact policies to compensate people for every instance of bad luck. Doing so for poor health might be especially wrongheaded, since it often arises from a mix of luck and choices; offsetting the financial penalty associated with chronic illness may be reducing people’s incentives to stay healthy.
What the...

At first I thought Barro simply didn't see the flaw in his thinking. Plenty of people treat health expenses like some sui generis thing that we need to analyze in its own little moral bubble. But then Barro went and stared right at the flaw, admitted it existed, and then goes back to completely ignoring it.

How do you do that? What kind of anti-Mentat mind calisthenics enable you to handle that level of cognitive dissonance?
And if health-care costs continue to rise faster than overall inflation, a universal guarantee of comprehensive coverage would require ever-higher marginal tax rates and eventually become untenable.
This is the best chance I think there is for convincing anyone on the Left that socialized health insurance insulation is a bad idea. Not the higher tax rates part: they love that idea.

What I mean is that very soon we're going to face the trade off between, say, protecting everyone from having to pay for their own z-packs and progestin, or protecting a few very unfortunate people from, say, being born to deadbeat meth heads. Are you going to make sure that a thousand people don't have to pay for their own annual tooth cleaning, or are you going to make sure one kid gets fed, clothed and educated? Because sooner or later (hint: sooner) we'lll be facing those sorts of trade-offs.

And no, "make the rich pay" isn't an answer. There's a finite supply of resources owned by rich people but an infinite demand to get other people to pay for stuff.

02 May 2013

Absurd Pitches

Marginal Revolution :: Tyler Cowen :: Absurd pitches (pull out the Hayek and Polanyi lesson)

Facebook - the world needs yet another Myspace or Friendster except several years late. We’ll only open it up to a few thousand overworked, anti-social, Ivy Leaguers. Everyone else will then join since Harvard students are so cool.

Mint - give us all of your bank, brokerage, and credit card information. We’ll give it back to you with nice fonts. To make you feel richer, we’ll make them green.

Instagram - filters! That’s right, we got filters!
These are funny. I really should resist the temptation to take these jokes seriously, but I'm not going to.

You can make a lot of things seem ridiculous if you ignore the point (e.g. Mint, supra).
Tesla - instead of just building batteries and selling them to Detroit, we are going to build our own cars from scratch plus own the distribution network. During a recession and a cleantech backlash.
I would add: "But it's okay, the DOE is giving us a sweetheart deal on half a billion taxpayer dollars, which is about what the entire equity stake of the company is valued at."
Dropbox - we are going to build a file sharing and syncing solution when the market has a dozen of them that no one uses, supported by big companies like Microsoft. It will only do one thing well, and you’ll have to move all of your content to use it.
Wait. Doing one thing very well is a fine thing. Especially when you're surrounded by a bunch of lumbering mastodons who do many things moderately poorly.
Twitter - it is like email, SMS, or RSS. Except it does a lot less. It will be used mostly by geeks at first, followed by Britney Spears and Charlie Sheen.
Any mass-market internet company's description probably ought to read "it will be used mostly by {geeks; Bobo teens; hipster/yuppy crossovers*} at first."

(* By which I mean people who buy into hipster aesthetics but still have careers.)

25 April 2013

No one gets to draw blueprints until they've layed bricks

Asymmetric Info | Megan McArdle | Obamacare Won't Be Doing Much for Small Business Next Year

I don't get the sense that at the time of passage, people had spent a lot of time thinking about the sheer mechanics of how this would all work: how the IT would be built, the rules written, the necessary information assembled. They spent a lot of time staring at the blueprints, not so much thinking about the building materials and the labor.
This is one of the advantages of studying CS: you actually take things from conception to execution. You can't just brainstorm up a bullet point that your system will have feature X or accomplish goal Y; you actually have to work out the rules for how to do X or Y and then implement those rules in such a way that X or Y actually happen — on time and without breaking everything else.

I don't think there are many other disciplines where that happens. I heard a story when I was touring Taliesin West that Frank Llyod Wright wouldn't take on a new student until they had actually built their own shelter on his grounds. We could use that kind of qualifier more often.

I think this is also a symptom of politicians failing to ask the crucial question and then what? You pass Law A, establish Department B, implement Regulation C. And then what? The vote isn't the end of the line. People change their behavior. The environment shifts. Incentives change. Agents react.

I want more lawmakers who are good at chess, poker, Civ, Supremacy... any game that forces you to think "if I do this, he'll probably respond by doing that, in which case I can do this, which will cause him to..." and so on down the line.

Attention lawmakers: you're playing an iterated game; act accordingly.

Kilts — I thing I want to have most when I'm told I shouldn't have one

I interupt this unintentional blogging hiatus for the following important announcement: Laura Beck at Jezebel can kiss my pale Clan Mackay ass.

I don't even have time to get all fired up about this, so I'm outsourcing it to Judgy Bitch.

Also, Laura: why are you illustrating your post about men in kilts with women in Aboynes? This is a dude in a kilt:

What you pictured is very much not this.

PS No, this is not me. But it will be when I have a few hundred extra dollars to spend on wool. Because a kilt is one of those things where you come correct or you don't come at all.

PPS On behalf of the gardeners out there, I have another note for Laura Beck: you can't build a roof out of peat moss. Peat moss, or sphagnum, is a crumbly stuff typically used for upping the organic content of your soil or occasionally planting epiphytic orchids and the like. If you're going to pull stereotypes out of the air for shits and giggles at least aim for them to have some connection, however tenuous, to reality.

13 April 2013

...for sufficiently narrow values of "everybody."

Bloomberg BusinessWeek | Alex Nussbaum | Insurers Scream Rate Shock. Is It for Real?

To compensate [for having to ignore preexisting conditions, offer generous benefits, and being unable to fully account for customers' age] insurers say they'll have no choice but to raise rates, particularly on young, healthy people. ...

"It's the people from 26 to 45 that you want to make sure are in the pool to balance it out," [Karen Ignagni, CEO of the health insurers' lobbying group] says. "It's in everybody's best interests to get the young and the healthy into the system."
Everybody's interests? Not the interests of the young and they healthy, you selfish, rent-seeking harpy.

12 April 2013

"What I'm complaining about is not being told 'no.'"

In a post a few weeks back I complained about authoritarian decision-making that masquerades as being cooperative and "consensus-driven."
So much focus is put on "cooperation" and "community" and "getting input from all the stakeholders" but at the end of the day, we're doing what whoever holds the most cards wants to do. Sometimes that's the traditional elite, sometimes its whoever can wave the biggest victim flag, but it's still a unilateral decision.
Commneter Petwer W. linked to a great David Mitchell video that covers this, and needless to say, he does it much better than I could.

This, like the rest of the "David Mitchell's SoapBox" series, is highly recommended. In fact, most of his work is recommended. If you haven't seen the Mitchell & Webb sketch on homeopathy, do so now.

Obfuscated Judgmentalism

Why do I get the feeling that the people with the "Don't like gay marriage? Then don't have one!" bumper stickers would not only disagree with but also be bewildered by a "Don't like Wal-Mart's new program? Then don't participate!" slogan?
Hit & Run | Scott Shackford | Wal-Mart’s Proposed Customer-Assisted Delivery System: Brilliant or Predatory?

The problem isn’t really Wal-Mart. The problem is that some Americans don’t like the choices other Americans make and they blame retailers for offering consumers those choices.

You could replace Wal-Mart in that passage with about a thousand other things and be left with a perfect explanation of our social/political dynamics.

I feel like we were better off in many ways a few generations ago when people were willing to evaluate (and condemn) other people's choices openly. Now we're too enlightening and non-judgmental and afraid of confrontation to do so openly, but since deep down we're just as annoyed by people who disagree with us we spend our energy lobbying the State to condemn other people's choices for us. We get all the same satisfaction of telling other people how to live without ever having to get our hands dirty, appear mean, or risk getting punched in the nose.

How many Americans would physically interpose themselves between a shopper and a Wal-Mart entrance to prevent them shopping there? How many Americans would be willing to actively prevent a stranger from buying a large Coke? How many Americans would walk in to a store and confiscate all of their plastic bags and bottled still water?

How many of us are willing and more to direct our public servants to do those same things on our behalf?

As long as we're judging each other (and we are, just as much as ever) we ought to be honest about. I'd much rather have someone criticize the choices I make themselves than play these charades of blaming the guy who offered me the choice. At least when some scold personally tries to stop me from doing whatever gets their knickers in a bunch they don't simultaneously have the taxman pick my pocket in order to use my money to hire some badged thug to stop me.

04 April 2013

Why more vintners (and butchers, bakers, candlestick-makers, ...) aren't libertarians

ProfessorBainbridge.com | Stephen Bainbridge | I don't understand why more winemakers aren't libertarians

[...] something I've heard from many winemakers, as they also almost uniformly bitch and moan about land use regulations, which seem to be the bane of their existence. So if a conservative is a liberal who just got mugged, why aren't winemakers all libertarians?
For the same reason that conservatives who don't trust government employees somehow do trust government employees once they've been given me a gun and a badge: people don't connect the dots.

The State's lifeblood is coercion and violence. It is arbitrary and amoral and inefficient. Not only when you happen to hit some friction with a department or bureau or organ you dislike: always.

Sometimes individual state actors do a good job. Some of them care. But sometimes a bear in the woods doesn't eat you.

Sometimes Mama Grizzly doesn't devour you; Nature is nevertheless red in tooth and claw. Sometimes governmental employees do good works; the State is nevertheless an institution premised entirely on using violence to compel other people's behavior.

We've been trained to believe that the Government are the Good Guys. (This is why conservatives love cops and soldiers: they position themselves in contrast to the "the Bad Guys" and thus look more like the Good Guys.) Almost everyone with power reinforces this belief, from your elementary school teacher to the President. But they aren't the Good Guys. They aren't necessarily the Bad Guys either. They're just Guys. This is the Fundamental Insight of Libertarianism.

That's a scary thing to come to grips with. It's comforting to think the guy with the power of life and death is the best and the brightest. He's not. He's the same jumped-up dweeb you remember from 8th grade who promised that if you elected him class president every day would be pizza day in the cafeteria, but really was only running because he thought if he won then maybe the cute brunetter in homeroom wouldn't ignore him. That's who's in charge of the State. The only difference is now he has better hair, a winning smile, and a raging case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

PS For an excellent contemporary example of this Government == Good Guys illusion, check out the infuriating and dismal consequences of letting a girl cross the street. If any citizen threatens to kidnap a child it's a community-wide pants-shitting moment. If someone with a business card from Child Protective Services knocks on your door to take your child away you're expected to acquiesce no questions asked.

03 April 2013

Driverless cars will affect our cities; let's not make assumptions about the sign of those changes

Meeting of the Minds | Issi Romen | How will driverless cars affect our cities?:

1. Cities will greatly expand, again: Faster and more efficient transportation will convert locations that are currently too remote for most users into feasible alternatives, abundant with space. Like suburban rail in the early twentieth century and the mass consumer automobile that followed, driverless cars will generate a gradual, but dramatic expansion of cities.

2. Buildings and parking will be uncoupled, freeing up valuable land: After dropping off passengers, driverless cars will independently seek parking (or their next car-share customers) and they will show up for the return ride at the tap of an app. As soon as driverless cars are common enough, the demand for adjacent parking will dwindle and parking lots in areas where land is sufficiently valuable will be ripe for conversion to other land use.
These two things are at odds with each other. Lowering the time and psychic cost of commuting will make outer suburbs more attractive. Lowering congestion and the amount of land focused on parking will make downtown areas more attractive. How can we be certain which will dominate?

Issi assumes the former. If I had to bet I would choose the former as well, but I would not consider it inevitable. Further, while the overall diameter of a city may increase, I expect the density within that region will be less evenly distributed that it is now. The combination of #1 and #2 may mean that the farthest suburbs are farther away, plus there are denser, smaller pockets of activity closer to the core, but there are spaces in between which are less developed than they are now.
And what about the carbon footprint, you ask? Traveling greater distances at greater speeds will require more energy. Full stop.
This is simply not true. The energy required (in the form of fuel) is the integral of the positive acceleration. This is only equivalent to the speed if you do no braking. Autonomous cars, inter-vehicle communication and intelligent roadways will all reduce the amount of braking and congestion. There is zero reason to believe the net effect on energy use will be positive.
Car sharing will not undo this in spite of reducing the total number of cars, because car sharing essentially only does away with the time cars spend parked.
Again, false. A significant portion of a car's energy is used in its construction. You conserve more energy by buying a used car than by buying a new hybrid. If car sharing results in fewer vehicles, each of which travel more miles per day total energy usage may be higher or may be lower.

02 April 2013

Fairytale Movies

Charlie Jane Anders asks "Why can't Hollywood make a decent fairy tale movie?"

Because fairy tales don't make any damned sense.

I just got finished reading Philip Pullman's new edition of the Grimm stories, and two things stood out:

(1) They're violent. I think everyone realizes they're a lot darker than what Walt Disney told us, but I wasn't prepared for Cinderella's bird friends not only helping her get gussied up for the ball but also gratuitously pecking out the eyes of her evil step sisters. I lost count, but I think there were a dozen stories in a row in which someone was casually executed.

(2) They don't make any sense. Characters pop in and out of the narrative, completely unrelated stories are strung together, and everything has the logical coherence of a fever dream. They're the kinds of stories children tell: "first there was a princess, and she ran away from home because her stepmother was evil, and then this guy found a mountain made of gold after a witch gave him some magic socks, and then the king went hunting and ordered his sons to go find a rabbit made of rubies which was living in the golden mountain with a singing donkey. The end."

Add to this that characters in fairy tales are almost universally one-dimensional (often by design) and you're not left with much to build a movie around. There's few compelling characters. There's no rising action or climax. The stakes are often ridiculously high or non-existent. There's often no love interest until the prince shows up at in the last paragraph and instantly falls in love with the heroine. Dei ex machina show up to resolve conflicts left and right.

If you try to fit that into a standard contemporary three act structure all you'll be left with is the syntactic trappings of a fairy tale instead of the semantic meat of the story. And that's usually not a good recipe to work from.

In fact I think that's the problem with a lot of sub-par movies. You can't start with the syntactic pieces you're interested in and mash them together until a story comes out. You need to start with the story. This (partially) explains why so many Hollywood trend-following movies are so bad. People sit there and think "oh, audiences are in the mood for werewolves and plucky heroines and [whatever]. Let's keep jumbling those bits and bobs around until a movie pops out." It's not a Mr Potato Head. You can't keep sticking parts on it until it works.

This is also why I dislike such a vast majority of superhero comics. Too many writers grew up enthralled by their favorite character, and wanted nothing more than to play with those costumes and sidekicks and powers and villains when they grew up. So then they land a job writing for DC or Marval and they're given the keys to the toy chest and they just start banging all the pieces together. No no no no. Start with a story that's worth telling, and then figure out if and how it fits into Spiderman's universe.

I have to disagree with something Anders says: "Fairytales don't have a lesson at the end, unlike fables."

I don't want to get into a big thing about Charles Perrault and Romanticism and the difference between fairytales and folktales, but yes, fairytales do often have lessons.

Sometimes fairytales are discombobulated knots of hallucinatory story fragments. But sometimes they have lessons. They're not deep or complicated, but they exist. They're things like "be kind to strangers," "don't trust everyone you meet," "fortune favors the bold (sometimes)," "don't fall asleep while you're on guard duty," and "stay out of the woods."

Even the really weird stories have an important, Tom Robbins-esque meta-lesson: the world is a really weird place; don't expect to be able to make sense out of it all the time. That's a lesson we could all use some reminding of.

Staffing Agencies will be the New Normal

Hit & Run | JD Tucille | Obamacare a Huge Boon ... For Temp Staffing Companies

Well, let me quote an Investors Business Daily story from last week, noting that "the bullish outlook for staffing firms is reflected in their current stock prices. The 20 stocks in IBD's Commercial Services-Staffing group are trading at a five-year high. The group's value has risen about 40% over the last four months."
Question for EMH people: why are these stocks up 40% over the last four months?

Surely this has been predictable for a couple of years. In fact I'm pretty sure I did predict such staffing changes. And I'm far from alone.

I've no doubt ObamaCare is a bonanza for temp agencies. I'm curious why the market would only respond to this now.

27 March 2013

Surprise! Cry Dctrw doesn't understand what free exchange is!

Bng Bng | Cory Doctorow | Summary of experimentally verified pricing heuristics

A post on ConversionXL sums up a bunch of experiments on pricing and suggests ways of combining them to best effect. All electronic goods can be had for free, so every person who buys an electronic good is essentially entering into a voluntary transaction.
Jesus wept. Allow me to re-write that for you, Cory.

Every person who buys an electronic good is essentially entering into a voluntary transaction.

That's what makes it a purchase and not theft.

And what does the first half of that sentence even mean? Practically, not all digital goods are available for free, even illegally. Even ignoring that, there's a difference between marginal and average price. And how do you begin to...

You know what? Never mind. I would need to divert entires rivers to wash away the fetid heaps marxist ignorance than Doctorow defecates all over the internet, and I have better things to be doing.

(For starters, actually running a study on online conversion behaviors rather than just reblogging summaries of summaries of other people's studies.)

PS The post Dctrw links to is worth looking over. If you're vaguely familiar with things like anchoring and decoy pricing you won't learn much, but if you're new to this cognitive economics type stuff then it's a decently practical way to dip your toes in.

PyCon Brouhaha

Jezebel | Lindy West | Woman in Tech Tweets About Sexist Dudes in Tech. Dude Gets Fired. Internet Meltdown Ensues.

Regardless of what you think of the joke itself, it is sexist to contribute (willfully or cluelessly! Ignorance is not an excuse!) to a hostile work environment for women. Full stop. If you didn’t realize you were doing it, that means you haven’t bothered to think critically about women’s comfort and needs.
Not two weeks ago Amanda Marcotte and others were pitching a fit that girls were being asked to moderate their clothing because they were a detriment to the learning environment for boys at school. They were outraged by the sugestion that people's choices affect those around them, and scorned the idea that "girls were being held responsible for boys."

Now the shoe is on the other foot, and that whole crowd is dashing about telling tech guys that they need to stop what they're doing to consider the affects on others.

And people should! Avoiding giving unnecessary offense is the polite, adult thing to do. But it's also adult to avoid taking unnecessary offense.

It cuts both ways. Don't act like you're the center of the universe when you make decisions. Don't expect other people to act like you're the center of the universe when they make decisions.
JudgyBitch | Delicate flower has her sensibilities offended. Gets her ass handed to her.

Because we all know women get to define what constitutes an appropriate work environment, what behavior and language is considered polite and acceptable and if a lady is offended then the entire world must screech to a halt to address that tragedy. Because equality.
This reminds me of a scene in the History Channel's new Vikings show. Our protagonist has organized the first raid across the North Sea into England. His brother has agreed to go with him, but not to sail under his command. They'll go only if they go as equals. Bro#1 agrees.

So they get to Lindisfarne, and they're looting and killing, and Bro#1 wants to take the only Norse-speaking monk back with them as a slave. Bro#2 wants to kill him. They argue. Then Bro#2 says something utterly baffling but entirely common in contemporary society. Paraphrasing, "You're not in charge. Your word isn't law. We're equals. I want to kill him. Therefore, we kill him."

There's no way to connect "you don't get to make unilateral decisions; we make decisions together" with "we're unilaterally doing it my way." There's simply no valid way to jump from A to B.

That's what I see with this PyCon tempest. "We're all equals in the tech world (with respect to gender)." True! "I get to unilaterally decide what constitutes appropriate utterances and what is so insulting that you should be fired!" No! You don't!

I see this at Universities all the time. So much focus is put on "cooperation" and "community" and "getting input from all the stakeholders" but at the end of the day, we're doing what whoever holds the most cards wants to do. Sometimes that's the traditional elite, sometimes its whoever can wave the biggest victim flag, but it's still a unilateral decision.

You can't define an appropriate environment as whatever the most easily offended person wants. Jezebel thinks you can, ought and must do it that way. But I know they're wrong. You know why? Because Jezebel itself thinks it's absurd. They're totally cool with using that standard when it comes to dick jokes, but when it comes to breast feeding suddenly it's outrageous (eg one, two). Mothers can't be expected to make decisions based on the whims of whoever is most repulsed by strangers' breasts. Well guess what? That means I shouldn't be expected to conform my behavior to whoever leasts wants to overhear terrible puns about dongles.

(PS See also: "Back to the USSR by Way of Twitter")

25 March 2013

victimization-based ideologies continue to confuse me

This is even weirder when you consider that leftists (corr(feminist,leftist) ≈ 1.0?) consider most employments to be slavery rather than voluntary, mutually beneficial exchange.

It seems that employers are definitionally exploiters, unless we're talking about SAHMs.

In any other context Big Business is evil, until someone mentions housewives, and then suddenly COO of Facebook is the most virtuous thing you can aspire to be.

Q: Are driverless cars illegal? A: Cops don't give a shit about legality, so who cares?

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | Are driverless cars illegal?

There are different notions of the word “legal,” but from a practical point of view what the police will let you get away with is surely relevant. It seems to me that your protected sphere here is quite small.
His point is well taken, but I see very low correlation between what is illegal and what the police will attempt to punish you for.

Would Cowen say that nibbling breakfast pastries into gun-like shapes is legal or illegal? How about photographing public buildings or uniformed police? How about demanding that the government follow its own laws? Are these things legal?

If you think the police let you get away with legal things but not illegal ones, you haven't been reading Popehat. And frankly, you haven't been paying attention.

Again, Cowen's point is a good one, but the underlying assumption*
(which is unfortunately increasingly accurate)
is that we do not live in a society with the Rule of Law any longer. It matters more what the guy with the gun and the badge will let you get away with than what the actual, ostensibly legitimate, legislature has decided.

Just one more reason your precious "social contract" isn't worth the imaginary paper it's (not) written on.

20 March 2013

Miscellany for 20 March 2013

The New Republic | Adam Kirsch | The New Essayists, or the Decline of a Form?: The essay as reality television

Recommended. This touches, incidentally, on why I have never been able to stand David Sedaris, et al. Sedaris — err, excuse me -- the "David Sedaris" character that David Sedaris writes about, is a miserable person to spend time with.

That's only a side point. The main theme of the piece is that our contemporary essayists are both narcissistic and a-truthful. That is, they inhabit a borring in-between which is neither turthful enough to be non-fiction, nor untruthful enough to be fiction.

L'Hôte | Freddie | bullshit social climber faux-antiracism

Has all the privilege checking in every cultural studies class in the history of creation ever put clothes on someone's back or food in their belly? Ever stopped a single cop from beating a black man senseless? Don't mistake your purification rituals for progress, please.

∞ Cafe Hayek | Don Boudreaux | Sequester Question for Minimum-Wage Proponents

If employers of low-skilled workers can, in order to remain profitable in the face of a 24-percent increase in the minimum wage, rather easily and with success adjust the ways they manage and work low-skilled employees, why cannot Uncle Sam, in order to continue to ‘serve’ the public as before, adjust the ways it manages and works its employees so that the effects of a 3-percent budget ‘cut’ are unnoticed by the general public?

Hit & Run | Katherine Mangu-Ward | New Bill to Legalize Gun-Shaped Pastry in Maryland Schools

Jesus wept. Do we really need the state legislature to pass a law recognizing that there exists a difference between a thing and a symbol of that thing??

No! Don't answer that. It will only depress me.

As It Should & Ought to Be | Morgan Warstler | Guaranteed Income & Auction the Unemployed

This is a very interesting proposal. However, I think Warstler is papering over a lot of problems. For example: doesn't it become practically impossible to purchase labor at any price between $7 and $10? What if you don't have 40 hours/week worth of tasks to be done? Why do we want to subsidize hiring by small/less efficient companies but not large/efficient ones? I love feedback and reputation systems, but how will it protect the reputation of employers in situations like this? Aren't we being a little optimistic about how little friction their will be in assuming that every single person will be able to be matched with some job every week?

Side note: I think the idea of a 40-hour work week is going to be increasingly antiquated. Low marginal product workers will have difficulty getting up to 40 hours a week, especially in the current regulatory environment. High marginal product workers will be salaried and work much more than 40 hours. Let's not forget that 40 is a plucked-from-the-magician's-top-hat magic number not a law of nature.

Minding the Campus | David Wilezol | CNN Notices the Value of An Associate's Degree

Nearly 30% of Americans with Associate's degrees now make more than those with Bachelor's degrees, according to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. And some data is suggesting that community college grads are outearning bachelor's degree holders altogether in certain states. [...] The truth is that, in the aggregate, the value of a B.A. is shrinking because a greater percentage of bachelor degree holders are majoring in subjects for which there is little demand.
I would rather save money to let my future children study something practical for an associates and then front them money to start their own company than save money in a 529 for them to go to a four year school if they're going to study liberal arts.

Crisis Magazine | Jeffrey Tucker | There Is No Third Way

I want to print copies of this and leave them all over ND's Center for Social Concerns.

Asymmetric Information | Megan McArdle | What Happened at Intrade?
Rajiv Sethi, a Columbia economics professor, suggests that they may have failed to properly segregate their trading accounts:
My best guess is that the margin posted by traders was not held, as it should be, in segregated accounts separate from company funds. [...]
That would explain a lot. It would also, of course, be exactly what happened at MF Global. This is starting to look like some sort of epidemic. Which is rather odd, if you think about it. While I'm generally pretty pessimistic about the ability of regulators to keep ahead of financial innovators, this seems like the sort of thing that regulators should be pretty good at enforcing. If we can't even ensure that trading firms segregate their clients' money from the firm funds, then the state of financial regulation is even worse than I thought.
This would make a good jumping off point for a game of Left/Libertarian Ideological Turing Test. The progressive response is based around "see, this financial firm was shady; we need more regulation to protect us from their malfeasance!" The libertarian response is "this was clearly illegal already; if we can't trust regulators to catch & enforce these rules why would we give them new rules to enforce?"

I worry that this will cast a shadow over the entire concept of prediction markets, which is a bloody shame.

Ars Technica | John Timmer | We broke the tomato, and we’re using science to fix it

This is a great piece. I am very excited about science enabling me to get something better than the styrofoam stripped mined red things that pass as tomatoes around here. However, this 'graph grinds my gears all sorts of ways:
In the words of a panel at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of science, we "broke" the tomato by allowing the plant breeders to respond to the needs of farmers, instead of the tomato's end-users: consumers. As a result, their breeding has produced a product that most people don't actually enjoy eating. And that's a public health issue, given that tomato-rich diets have been associated with a variety of beneficial effects.
By this standard everything is a public health issue. Anything which is marginally good or bad for your health, however broadly defined, is now something that "the public" — which in practice means "the state" — has an excuse for meddling in.

Also I'm going to disagree with the very notion that modern tomatos are liked by farmers but not consumers. Sure, I hate them. Strike that: I hate how they taste. I love that they stay (mostly) fresh forever and that they cost less than $2/lb and I can get them all year round. Of course I want the best tasting tomatoes. But I want the best of everything, provided I don't have to pay for any of it. If it was true that modern tomatoes are liked by producers but not consumers then the producers wouldn't have been able to sell them.

I'm really tired of journalists putting the cart before the horse on this. Have these people ever tried to sell something? You have to respond to consumer desire; you don't get to tell consumers what to want.

CostCo as Bootlegger

Rhymes With Cars & Girls | Crimson Reach | Another case of ‘liberals’ being against the little guy

In the course of making some larger point I’ve already forgotten, Matthew Yglesias said, casually,
Liberals tend to like Costco since it’s a relatively high-wage employer for the retail sector, and thus a vocal supporter of minimum wage hikes that would create problems for lower-paying competitors...
This struck me. I realize that here Yglesias is just doing his occasional stark-honesty thing. But it’s worth pausing to ask ourselves: Why do ‘liberals’ ‘like’ anticompetitive regulation? Why is that a given nowadays?
I like RWCG's "binning" theory.

My alternative explanation is that they don't 'like' anticompetitive regulation per se. Or at least this is not an example of that liking.

Instead it's simple tribalism: they want higher wage floors, CostCo wants higher wage floors, so they like CostCo. The anticompetitiveness never enters the equation. It's simply preference affiliation.

The progressives are like Baptists, thrilled to have anyone else come inside their revival tent. Even the Bootlegers. No, especially the Bootleggers, because that let's them throw it back in the face of their opponents. "See, even this guy thinks we have the right idea!"

Sadly, the Red Team usually lets them get away with this. Their rhetoric about free markets is so shallow, and they spend so much time hiding behind crony groups like the Chamber of Commerce, that they're powerless to defend against the Blue Team's "even this business supports our policy!" The GOP has so many arguments-from-authority that rest on incumbent businesses that they can't fight back when the Dems use the same bullshit against them.

Anytime you treat, e.g., "it's good for Dow Chemical, therefore it's good" as the beginning, middle and end of an argument you're inviting the other guys to do the same to "it's good for CostCo, therefore it's good."

Neither party has any interest in differentiating between "good for these businesses" and "good for free markets."

12 March 2013

ObamaCare vs IT

Asymmetric Information | Megan McArdle | Administration Extends Obamacare Deadline Yet Again

At some point—some point very soon, I think—it will simply no longer be possible to get a state-based federal exchange up and running in the required time. It's not clear to me why HHS is running the risk of a major, catastrophically embarassing delay, rather than simply acknowledging that they're probably going to be running exchanges in at least half the states, and moving forward accordingly. So far I have three possible theories, all of them unsatisfactory:

1. HHS has a crackerjack squad of IT Ninjas who can parachute into a state on March 1st and deliver a fully working data application, securely integrated with local agencies, insurance companies, and the IRS, less than nine months later.

2. It will be less complicated than I think to build this system, or it does not require nearly as much procurement or integration with local agencies and companies, so that functionally you can just stamp out 25 or 30 identical copies of the exchange in very little time.

3. HHS has wildly underestimated what is involved and is going to badly slip its deadline in the desperate hope of coaxing a few more states on board, most of whom would anyway badly slip the deadline.

As I say, I don't find any of these entirely convincing. But one of them must be true.
I think I can resolve this. Which is more likely to be true of the decision makers at HHS who are doing this: are they (a) acutely aware of software engineering difficulties and IT processes, or (b) are they focused on political problems and processes?

If you ask a software engineer if it will be easier to deal with a technical roadblock or a beauracratic one, he'll tell you the latter is easier. Technical problems require real man hours hunched over a keyboard; political problems are solved by clueless people blathering at each other across conference tables.

If you ask the beauractrat the same question, he'll tell you the former is easier. Technical problems are things you can hire geeks to deal with; political problems require him to have uncomfortable conversations that may lead to his reputation taking a hit.

So who did HHS put in charge of rolling out these exchanges? I don't know, but I'll eat my shoes if that person knows their way around a Makefile.