Saturday, December 15, 2007

A decisive victory in the war on terror.

If you were worried that La Migra was so focused on keeping you from having to press 1 for English that they'd let any old terrorist come in across the 5,522 mile border with Canada, rest easy knowing that Uncle Sam has it all under control.

Yes, you can rest easy, knowing that the US will put the lives of Americans first. Keeping Paco from stealing jobs at Chrysler or Hodgie from blowing up the Renaissance center is worth delaying a mere Canadian's life-saving angioplasty.

And you can rest easy knowing that your Border Patrol is too smart to fall for dirty tricks like terrorists dressing up as firemen. Business owners counting on foreigners to put out fires must respond to the will of the people, despite long-standing local sanctuary "cross-border aid" policies.

Your tax dollars are hard at work, sending a message to Al Qaeda of Canada that we, in America, will never forget "9/11", and are always at the ready.

Nota Bene: I found out about the Anchorage Hotel fire from Randy Cassingham's This Is True, a listserv to which I've subscribed since the late '90s.

Monday, December 3, 2007

¡Por una Venezuela libre!

Few things are more irritating than foreigners with ill-informed opinions about one's homeland's domestic policy, for example, Europeans who look down their noses at Americans for not being sufficiently socialist, despite our better overall outcomes.

I'll risk hypocrisy in congratulating the people of Venezuela for standing up to socialist tyrant Hugo Chavez, overcoming the usual threats of reprisals to reject the constitutional amendments that would expand his control of the economy and make him President for Life.

Sorry Hugo, 51% of your people decided to have no bananas today. On the bright side, this means that in just a few years, you can retire to the paradise known as Cuba.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Sokal'd "climate skeptics" show their true colors.

For a while I've maintained that:

  • Most climate skeptics are convinced that Man's activities are causing global waming.
  • "Skeptic" is not a mere synonym for "doubter"; most of those who fancy themselves to be "climate skeptics" are not approaching the topic in a skeptical fashion.
  • Of that number, many are merely parroting each other, without critically evaluating the arguments.

Like Schumpeter's enemies of capitalism, the "climate skeptics", or denialists, already know the verdict against the theory of anthropogenic global warming: what changes is the indictment. First the earth is not, in fact, warming, then the warming is a Milkanovitch cycle, or of solar origin, or a rebound from the (nonexistent) worldwide Little Ice Age. Climate models are not to be trusted, because they don't fit the data with an R^2 value of zero, because they don't predict next week's weather, because they're missing this feedback or that. Uncertainty means that a 5% chance becomes categorical doubt. We've all seen the game played before: it's foolishness, the scientific illiterates being willingly defrauded by the scientific illiterate, court-room flim-flam thrown up against physics, convincing to people who can't tell the difference.

At much risk to his reputation, Reason science correspondent Ronald Bailey admitted that his approach has been less than honest. Bailey "hoped that the scientific evidence would lead to the conclusion that global warming would not be much of a problem, so that humanity could avoid the messy and highly politicized process of deciding what to do about it," (emphasis mine), and he let that hope cloud his judgement, to the point where he totally discounted computer simulations (how else can we tell what climatological theories predict?), instead of approaching the scientific question with a frank attitude and an open mind.

The boiler rooms, 'blogs, and talk-radio shows chugged on long after Bailey's admission, but they've been relatively quiet for the past month, having been caught with their pants down. Rush Limbaugh, Neil Craig and hundreds of other 'bloggers, and even Reason Magazine, promoted patent nonsense as a damning argument against the theory of anthropogenic global warming. The journal, "Journal of Geoclimatic Studies", was fake, its home university, Okinawa University, doesn't exist, moreover, there is no Department of Climatology at the University of Arizona. I work in the building that houses the closest thing, the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, and I can tell you that there's no Dan Klein, either.

If that wasn't enough to alert the authors to the hoax, the text of the paper itself is a dead giveaway. Like Alan Sokal's foray into "cultural studies", it's nonsense interspersed with passages to flatter the prejudices of the targets. In this case, that means symbols strung together meaninglessly in place of formulas, and technolalia--for example, "concretised diachronic invariance"--that would make a Star Trek writer blush. The graphs are smooth curves where they should be of data points and error bars, and their scales are hilarious; just what does a sine curve mean on a semilog plot? A comparison between benthic bacterial mass and temperature is clearly the same hand-drawn squiggle translated and drawn on a different color on the same plot. Strong correlation, indeed! This was no subtle hoax and the denialists can't say they were tricked; the authors went out of their way to make the paper look bogus!

It was already doubtful that the denialists read scientific papers, and even more so that they read them critically. The discussion section, with its firm rebuttal of AGW, its gratuitous scare quotes around "consensus" and its portrayal of scientists as cowering in fear of funding agencies, was enough. We're left to conclude either that the denialists don't bother to check arguments for scientific merit (plausible, since they repeat debunked claims over and over) or that they can't distinguish between science and nonsense.

Regardless, they're on their heels. Score one for the Good Guys. Can we get to talking about solutions?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

This happens all the time, and it usually doesn't make the papers.

Gunmen break into homes, demanding pot, sometimes murdering the occupants. Worse still, fighting back is a virtual death sentence.

Usually these goons wear bulletproof vests and blue shirts with yellow letters spelling out DEA. Sometimes they're anti-social characters from that same gang that harasses, intimidates, and even threatens to make up charges on the spot.

Today in Tucson, it may have been another group, although it's hard to tell from the story. Expect a manhunt; the government hates competition!

Monday, October 29, 2007

How to bring down an airliner II

I didn't try bringing a boxful on board today, but it may be possible to smuggle explosive or poison-gas precursors onboard using bouillon cubes, without requiring the participation of a dozen others as in the full bladder scheme.

The only major terrorist bombing of an airliner was carried out using a full pound of plastic explosive, set off by a barometric fuse, hidden in a fully functional tape deck. Accordingly, the TSA makes us take off our belts and shoes, regards breast milk with high suspicion, and forbids carrying on full bottles of contact-lens cleaner. If we were thinking of bringing explosive or poison precursors onboard as shampoo and conditioner, perhaps to be mixed on the suicide attackers head, it's not going to work. Gel colloids that can be squished out of a tube are out, but firmer gels that look like they're made from salt, hydrogenated oil, and autolyzed yeast extract may just make they cut; they seem solid to most people.

Barring that, bring on something that appears solid, with the chemicals micro-encapsulated inside (like scratch-and-sniff stickers). A plastic cube, a cell-phone case, a foam pillow, all could be insidious when combined with the complementary glass of water or when thrown in the toilet.

In order to keep us safe, TSA is going to have to rule out carry-ons altogether. Banning one phase of matter isn't enough; two others, and an infinite array of colloids, remain.

Those familiar with Frank Herbert's Dune may be worrying even more; not only can liquids be concealed in solids, but gases can perhaps be hidden in tissue. Prepare to get your teeth pulled if you want to fly!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Confusion or bias?

Hostility to foreign trade and worry about trade defecits is cited by Bryan Caplan in his Myth of the Rational Voter as evidence of the "anti-foreign bias". While I don't doubt that such a bias exists, I'm not convinced that this particular case can't be explained at least in part as mere confusion.

Many of today's voters came of age when the Bretton Woods system was still in place, thus in a time when the balance of payments was a serious political issue, and not something that would be smoothed out by the invisible hand of the market. Surely some of them--including commentators--haven't realized that trade defecits are nothing to worry about, and they've perhaps passed their concern down to a younger generation, which worries about trade defecits simply because they don't understand but see other people are worried. Could part of many of the biases cateogrized by Caplan be accounted for by a sort of instinctual, ignorance-driven groupthink, as opposed to innate statist preference?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Is David Horowitz hypersensitive about campus bias?

Education gadfly David Horowitz takes issue in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education with the assertion, contained in the American Association of University Professors's Freedom in the Classroom report, that "It is not indoctrination for professors to expect students to comprehend ideas and apply knowledge that is accepted as true within a relevant discipline."

That's so in fields like physics, chemistry, or climatology, but as Horowitz recognizes, it's not cleanly applicable to the humanities and social sciences. The AAUP goes on to say that "Students must remain free to question generally accepted beliefs if they can do so, in the words of the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and
Academic Tenure
, using "a scholar's method and . . . in a scholar's spirit.""

This is ignored by Horowitz, who goes on to find the former statement "deeply troubling", bringing up Women's Studies as an example of what can go wrong and concluding that

If, as the AAUP contends, the assumptions of a certain discipline provide the criteria for what is academically "true," then intelligent-design advocates have only to establish a field of intelligent-design studies in order to teach their theories as truth — and astrologers, Republicans, or communists likewise. Indeed, if the attitude now enshrined in the new AAUP report should become an academic standard, it will spell the end of the modern research university as we know it.

Bombast! Applying the principles of the AAUP report, one must conclude that disciplines such as Women's Studies, based neither on the scientist's concept of truth nor the analytic philosopher's, have no place at the Academy. Disciplines founded on ideology meet the AAUP's narrow criterion for indoctrination

Indoctrination occurs only when instructors dogmatically insist on the truth of such propositions by refusing to accord their students the opportunity to contest them.

That Women's Studies and most other "studies" departments ought to be liquidated, their faculty merged into legitimate academic departments like sociology, history, and philosophy and judged by those disciplines' more rigorous standards, is a conclusion surely unpalatable to many; there is an unspoken gentlemans' agreement between academic departments that they not attack or interfere with each other. Accordingly, the AAUP report does not explicitly recommend shutting down problem departments.

One who follows Horowitz's work gets the impression that he takes primary issue with the faculty's pronounced leftist tendency. (The report on which the Inside Higher Education article is based relies on self-reporting and the archaic, often ridiculous "liberal-conservative" dimension, but its results give at least a crude impression of the faculty's political tendencies.) As usual, he's missing the heart of the problem. This isn't so much about student freedom as it is about the intellectual integrity of the academy when faced with organized third-rate scholars. As astutely noted by Jacques Barzun, ideologues don't do scholarship, they merely lay a sieve on a problem and see what comes through. We need to quit being "nice" to such sham-scholars, even if they have PhDs and even if they flatter our prejudices. Austrians don't belong in economics departments, Randist Objectivists have no place in academic philosophy, feminist or Marxist critics aren't really critics at all, and Women's Studies needs to die.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Cobden Press

I missed the announcement, but found out this morning in a sort of roundabout way that Cobden Press, which in the past brought hard-to-find books of interest to libertarians, ranging from von Mises's Liberalism to Tuccille's It usually begins with Ayn Rand back into print.

In its new incarnation, it is actively seeking original work.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Wrongheadedness: Nature or nurture?

Here's something to think about between two posts about people victimized by loutish government officials who were brought into the picture by panicky, foolish citizens: are people innately stupid or are they taught things that stifle critical thought?

It would seem as though the answer is "yes" to both: man has rather nasty instincts left over from our days spent in tribal societies with nearly zero-sum economies, and children are taught strange things about the history of the world around them which happen to be easier to process than the truth, due to better compatability with those caveman urges.

Here's one example from a popular children's book, If You Lived 100 Years Ago:
Not all rich people were selfish. Many cared about the poor. A newspaper reporter, Jacob Riis, wrote a book called How the Other Half Lives. Riis's photographs showed people living and working in miserable conditions. Men and women who cared about the way the poor lived began to work for changes.

They started settlement houses where poor people had classes in health and education. The poor could even take baths in bathtubs! They could listen to music and see paintings.

In the 1900s, laws were finally passed to protect children. New laws said all children under the age of fourteen had to go to school. They were laws that called for better housing, safer foods and medicines, shorter working hours, and improved public schools. Things began to look up for many people.

Today on EconLog, Bryan Caplan asks a salient question: can reality, which is much more interesting but more complicated than salvation-by-strongman, also be explained in a such a way that an intelligent five-year-old can understand. Co-blogger Arnold Kling takes the next logical step: can journalists learn a thing or two about the market, to keep from perpetuating myths through poor framing and subtle editorializing.

I'd like to think the answer to both questions is "yes". We can teach the caveman bigotry, vindictiveness, and bloodlust out of five-year-olds, and we teach more and more in each successive generation, by the time they're 18, that magical thinking is foolhardy, because nature can be understood--quantitatively!--through application of the principles of biology, chemistry, and physics. There's room for economics and sociology in there. How does one teach a substantial number of children something most adults don't understand, and even actively contradict? We can't teach all the voters, but steps can be taken to ensure that tomorrow's leaders are less brutish than their predecessors.

Journalists may be a hopeless case. I suspect that the Logan Airport worker who got antsy at the sight of a breadboard still thinks it was a (real or fake) bomb, and I suspect that, even when presented with evidence, most adults will prefer their own prejudices to economic science.

Idiocracy I: Star Simpson's "hoax device".

The reaction to Star Simpson's arrest at Logan Airport has been crazier than the arrest itself, with one kook named McPhee, who some how managed to land a job at the Boston Herald, claiming that the young lady's murder at the hands of ill-trained, adrenaline-pumped airport security guards would have been "rightful", and many a blogger or commenter (one example) making the bizarre claim that Simpson was wearing a fake bomb. MIT, for its part, has been milquetoasty, opting to agree that Simpson's actions were reckless instead of condemning the reckless endangerment, false arrest, and malicious prosecution of one of its own.

That's not a "hoax device"; I can tell at a glance that it's no more plausibly a bomb than a Gameboy or Walkman. (Then again, Walkmans have gotten airport security panties in a bunch in the past.) It's a common breadboard, with a few LEDs crudely attached in a star shape (get it?) and powered by a nine-volt battery. There are no visible stray wires (leading to explosives inside the sweatshirt or elsewhere), nor are there any control switches or active electronics. A 35mm camera is more bomb-like. As for the "Play-Doh" being carried, it's likely it was a wad of Smart Mass putty or a similar knock-off.

Wayne Margolis, the prosecutor assigned to the case, attempted to secure unreasonably high bail, claiming, among other things, that Simpson showed a total disregard for her situation. If anything, as I see it, it was mere failure to realize that compared to a techie like herself, the average airport functionary is an ignorant, stupid, and dangerously loutish barbarian. Bostonian officials, especially, have shown themselves to be dumber than bricks when confronted by electronics. Still, a reasonable person would have pegged Simpson as a geek, not a threat, and there's no accounting for the behavior of the truly unreasonable.

Can we raise a legal offense fund for Ms. Simpson? I'm not willing to do the paperwork, but I'll contribute at least $10 to the effort of suing the pants off of:

  • The arresting officers, for false arrest.
  • The State or County, whichever is engaging in the baseless and possibly malicious prosecution.
  • Prosecutor Wayne Margolis, who is plainly disregarding the letter of the "hoax device" law several times over.
  • The unidentified lady at the counter, whose provision of false information to security nearly (according to police spokescritters) resulted in Simpson's wrongful death.

Additionally, Margolis should be disbarred for violation of Rule 3.8 of the State's Professional Rules of Conduct.

There's no need to shoot the bastards yet: If we start making malice and willful stupidity pay dearly, the powers that be will be more mindful of our rights and dignity, and our fellows will perhaps behave more like responsible citizens and less like Stasi.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

"Where there is a Mexican, there is Mexico"

Weeks later, the usual xenophobic rubes are still foaming at the mouth over Mexican presidente Calderon's statement that "Where there is a Mexican, there is Mexico" in his 2 Sept 2007 State of the Nation address.

Allow me to clarify for the simple-minded. "Mexico" can refer to two things:

  1. The United States of Mexico, a sovereign republic located south of the USA.
  2. The Mexican nation, sometimes called La Raza

The former is limited to providing consular assistance outside its borders. The latter is an idea, a sense of identity, and has no borders.

The anti-immigrant Right is prone to distort meanings and invent outright lies (listen to them talk about criminal tendencies among immigrants!), consider this yet another one. Calderon made a statement of solidarity with the Mexican nation overseas, and the boors are taking it to mean that a developing state is trying to conquer the world.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

What does a union endorsement mean anyway?

More on the front-running LOLcandidate:

The United Mine Workers of America and the United Steelworkers have endorsed John Edwards.

Not really. Neither the miners nor the steelworkers polled their membership and based the endorsement on a majority or supermajority vote. Union officials--usually labor lawyers and professional bureaucrats--decided that their organizations should tell their members to vote Edwards.

Having grown up in a union household in a neighborhood full of them, I'm well aware that the connection between union "leadership", union policy, and workers is very much like the connection between banana-republican presidentes and banana-farming peasants. Somewhere along the line there's an election, but it sure isn't an open corner of society.

Union leadership has an agenda, centering on expansion of union power over workers, the better to collect dues from the unsuspecting and divert earnings to "salting" campaigns (agitation) and political causes. Telling the workers how to vote is just part of that. Whether they listen is another story; quite a few union members are known to vote Republican because they like tax cuts and their right to keep and bear arms.

Edwards has slimeballs and swindlers on his side. So what?

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Did Walter Block inadvertently illustrate the problem with Noninitiationism?

A necessary, but not sufficient, condition for an ethical philosophy to be worthy of consideration is the possibility for humans to follow it. Religions can afford to have original sins because they may also have mysteries of faith; serious philosophers cannot play such games of Calvinball.

Quite a few libertarians, with more tolerance for cognitive dissonance than myself, espouse (or think they espouse) something called the Noninitiation of Force Principle, also known as the Nonaggression Principle, Nonaggression Axiom, or Zero Aggression Principle. The trouble is that, like Derrida's deconstructionism, Noninitiationism is a mere intellectual wrecking ball, a rhetorical flourish that can be used to discredit all law as immoral and impugn, given a creative enough crane operator, all human action. Despite this, belief has become so pervasive that many confound this ethical proviso with libertarian political philosophy and some, perhaps realizing and perhaps not realizing that they would exclude Hayek and Friedman, actively attempting to redefine "libertarianism" so as to mean noninitiationism.

It's a terrible problem on the political end of the libertarian movement, as it's wielded like a club to justify the arbitrary whims of the true believers. Land ownership as absolute sovereignty is OK, shooting trespassers is OK, arrest for drunken driving is not. Bring up an idea from the academic libertarian mainstream, perhaps something straight out of Epstein or Nozick, that's unfamiliar to pop libertarianism, and it's bound to have at least one lout rambling about initiation of force, turning the rest against it. The enemies of liberty could not have invented a better way to keep a libertarian movement from gaining traction!

Prominent among noninitiationist wrecking-ball swingers are the so-called Austrian Economists. Austrian Economics as actual economics will just about die with Israel Kirzner and George Reisman, if it can't be said to have died with Hayek; what we see now is a mix of ideology, metaeconomics, and nonstandard philosophy going by the same name, rooted largely in what amounts to an argument-from -incredulity about the applicability of mathematics (and hence quantitative reasoning) to economics and a bizarre rejection of empirical, quantitative verification of predictions. In other words, the Austrians reject the notion that economics is or can be science.

Austrians are as largely and rightly ignored by mainstream economists as a Phlogiston School of Statistical Mechanics would be ignored by physicists. A few bother to take them on, mainly out of dismay at the number of libertarian-minded potential economists they attract, most prominent among them Bryan Caplan, who has in turn attracted the Austrians like an open pop can attracts wasps. In particular, Walter Block has had it out for Caplan. Given Caplan's newfound rockstar status, it was only a matter of time before Block started gunning for The Book.

In the grand Rothbardian tradition of Not Getting It, Block, in his review, takes issue with Caplan's treatment of tradeable emissions rights neither because he disagrees with the underlying economics nor because he explicitly believes that public mistrust of TERs is not primarily caused by anti-market bias, but rather because Block himself believes TERs to be immoral. To quote:

He errs by classifying opposition to tradable rights (TERs) as an instance of anti-market bias. Not so. Rather, TERs are akin to tradable rape or murder rights. Pollution is necessarily an invasion or violation of property rights. It constitutes a trespass of smoke and dust particles emanating from the aggressor to the lungs or land of another person. As such, there is not and cannot be a "right" to do so. Just because TERs "get you more pollution abatement for the same cost" does not gainsay this fact. Tradable murder or rape or assault and battery "rights" would undoubtedly function in the same manner, but this does not in any way render them compatible with libertarian theory.

How "libertarian theory" entered the picture is anyone's guess, but, back to the point: I necessarily pollute to live. Even if I were to cease using modern technology, I'd still pollute, giving off CO2, methane, and various other gases and fine particulates, some of which end up in the lungs or land of others without their consent. Furthermore, the first two cause a diffuse harm to the whole of humanity. I cannot live without being, in Block's terms, an "aggressor" or initiating force.

Thank you, Walter Block, for making clear--in a nonsequitur!--a point I've been trying to drive home to pop-libertarian ideologues for at least five years! Noninitiationist libertarianism, properly realized, is voluntary human extinction, at least down to the level where people can all seek each other's consent for every action, until a pathological character emerges who consents to nothing but being alone.

Edwards: "I can has candidacy?"

John Edwards is a LOLcandidate.

Unless we've "come from nothing", "supported workers", and "fought corporations" he'd like the Federal government to restrict our choice of automobile. Like purple-lined togas to the Romans, ownership of SUVs is to be restricted to those in professions the deemed noble by the soi-disant elites.

Both Edwards and myself support a cap on carbon emissions. Where we differ is in implementation. It appears as though Edwards would like the government, despite both its inability to know the best way of cutting emissions, to determine what CO2 emissions are allowed and which are forbid. Instead of implementing a system whereby people trade the right to emit CO2 into the atmosphere and determine for themselves whether each source of emissions is worth the cost, Edwards would implement the cap indirectly and incompletely by restricting gas mileage, "rebound effect" be damned!

Apparently Edwards has either never heard of emissions trading, doesn't understand it, or thinks his method superior. He's making Tancredo look reasonable, Paul look educated, and Obama look experienced. Can anyone tell me why he's considered a front-runner? And, moreover, given that Bill Richardson isn't, what's wrong with the Democratic Party?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

How to bring down an airliner.

The best in paranoid bureaucrats and genre fiction authors must be hard at work for the TSA. Remove your belt, remove your shoes, get used to minor indignity, "yes sir," "yes ma'am", little slips of paper saying your (obviously harmless, if one bothers to check the X-ray) bag has been rifled, have become the way of life for travelers. Need to urinate or grab a sandwich while awaiting a connection at the Kansas City airport? Be prepared to do the pockets, belts, shoes, doff-and-don dance; who knows what's been hidden in the urinal!

One thing egregiously overlooked is the contents of our bowels and bladders. Surely an exploding passenger would be ineffective, but what of mixing a bomb in the forward and aft lavatory. Ahmed, Ousman, Hillary, George, Dick, and Barack can all lift a leg in turn, the final flush stirs it up nicely, and down goes an airliner.

Homeland Security Threat Level Orange, anyone?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Mitt Romney: None too bright

Campagins for both major parties' Presidential nomination tend always to feature a race to the bottom. The Democrats' is a perennial pandering to labor unions--especially government-employee rent-seeker unions--and other class warriors. The Republicans' is variable but equally tawdry, with two recent topics being "family values" and gay marriage.

This time around the race is to see who can best stick it to illegal aliens, the approximately twelve million American residents here without proper visas, usually breaking the law because the government, distinguishing between skilled and unskilled labor as though we're still in the Economic Stone Age, offers no means to comply.

This race has come with its own code-words and jargon, most of it euphemisms crafted to make peaceful activity sound nefarious: "Anchor babies", "stealing jobs", "our culture", etc. Ron Paul, although he's stayed out of the macho jingoist pissing contest, is not above these in general. On his website he frames amnesty as a "reward for breaking our laws," as though letting someone who is in violation of the law off the hook is the same as giving him a C-note.

Mitt Romney makes this look positively intelligent by portraying amnesty as a proposed solution to the problem. This is either a revelation of idiocy or an insult to the voters' intelligence: the questions of what to do about our obviously flawed immigration policy and whether to give 12 million illegal aliens amnesty (as opposed to rounding them up and deporting them) are separate. Nobody is proposing that by simply regularizing those already here, we will stop the flow.

I'm guessing that thousands of people who'd never let Joe Biden wave his hands and equate union members and the middle class are willingly hoodwinked by the hayseed fallacies of Romney and Paul. If politics were done like academic science, with open minds and respect for reason instead of appeals to the voters' often twisted ideas of reality, we'd be in better shape. Unfortunately we must deal with people as they are and not as we think they ought to be, however, what ever happened to the notion of leadership? We ought to be able to expect Paul and Romney to be above the rubes, not be one with them!

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Libertarian Meme Pool

My fiancée and I recently attended an appearance of one of the lawyers representing Guantanamo detainees, an enlightening and altogether worthwhile use of an hour on a Sunday. As is usual, it was followed by what was nominally a question-and-answer session that, we noted, turned out to be more of a statement-and-answer session. I had thought that this discourtesy was reserved to the younger generation, but most of the audience had at least 40 years on us and ranted nonetheless. Aside from my dirty looks and question pre-screening, there should be some way to keep people from taking advantage of the captive audience to say something; I came to hear the speaker, not someone off the street who doesn't have more to offer than the average Joe and can't bother to even organize his thoughts!

Radio callers, too, are tending toward this behavior. Case in point: a caller about 38 minutes into Bryan Caplan's recent appearance on Wisconsin Public Radio decided it OK to give a shout-out for Ron Paul and tell the George Mason economist (and, thanks to his book, rockstar-du-jour), that "central planning doesn't work."

Caplan, of course, isn't advocating economic central planning or even an ironic iron-fisted rule by free-marketeers. Maybe Libertarianism Makes You Stupid: pop libertarianism, of the type that has influenced the nonlibertarian Paul, loads its adherents up with clichés, this one being especially popular. Dick Clark recently replied to a message of mine suggesting he and others would be better served by thinking about the question of animal rights than merely declaring, cart before the horse, that because animals are property no moral imperatives apply, with a request to not "think like a central planner", inadvertently putting me in the same camp as Caplan! I'm flattered.

When in doubt, throw out a cliché. Central planning doesn't work! You own yourself! A is A! All rights are property rights! It's sure to make you feel really good, and give those of us whose thought processes don't consist of re-arranging our bumper stickers a headache. Mix it with the use of a Q and A session as a bully pulpit, and it becomes a migraine!

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A few guidelines for would-be climate skeptics.

The first rule of climate skepticism is to, when coming across a new refinement or correction to current climate science, take a deep breath, pour yourself a glass of wine if so inclined, mellow out, and wait.

"Skeptic" carries with it a connotation of prudence, a studied approach to a question, but most of the self-styled anthropogenic global warming (AGW) skeptics have a tendency away from this, towards believing everything they hear, or at least everything that could be naively taken to mean that the climatological consensus is incorrect. There is thus a tendency towards a petulant "Gotcha!"-ism, whereby countless individuals with little technical training, who haven't searched the literature for explanations, and who usually haven't even reasoned quantitatively about their objection, come to believe that they've outwit the dozens of working scientists (paid skeptics!) who've devoted careers to this problem.

To a scientist, even one like myself who specializes in something else, this looks like bad behavior behavior. Coming from economists like Dwight Lee and Jeffrey Clark it could be called unprofessional intellectual misconduct--pure hubris!--to assume that climatologists have simply "ignore[d] what seems to be a warming trend on Mars." But, pace Dawkins, we should not assume the lay denialist (reflexive rejector of the thesis that Man is a significant contributor to global warming) to be wicked.

That's a difficult proposition. Whereas a few generally stick with a calm albeit premature bandwagonism, the norm is venom, perhaps motivated by the crank belief that AGW is a conspiratorial hoax devised as a backdoor route to socialism.

We must remember that both scientific humility and the capacity to be a skeptic regarding technical issues are learned, not innate. Most of the public does not understand quantitative arguments, even more are so confused about science that they can't distinguish good from bad, and treat bumper-sticker flim-flam such as "Mars is warming!" as as solid an argument as anything found in Geophysical Journal. The tendency to translate quantitative uncertainties to categorical ones--to take the basic truth that climatologists are not always 100% correct, that there are error bars, and that they disagree with each other at the margins as evidence that the AGW thesis itself is in doubt--is perhaps instinctual. Some carry with them another misconception about science itself, no doubt picked up in grade school, which causes them to doubt climatology beyond reason climatology simply beacause it is an historical and observational science. "Control group, experimental group, laboratory..." These folks will not be satisfied until an experiment is run on a separate Earth we have on reserve and, in 500 years, one is shown to have warmed. Years of miseducation compound with arrogance to make bringing people to at least make cogent arguments an uphill battle. How can someone who doesn't even understand science be brought to argue scientifically?

I can't answer that one, but for other would-be skeptics, I offer an algorithm of sorts for prudence and responsibility, and that will ultimately help their case if their argument turns out to have merit:

  1. Give a little thought to the nature of your objection, and then state it clearly. For example, "Mars is warming!", if taken to be a prospective argument contra AGW, is a statement that what climatologists call AGW is actually caused by the sun, since solar irradiance and solar activity are what Mars and the Earth have in common. Similarly, if the small error in US climate data uncovered last Friday would falsify AGW or reopen the scientific debate, it would mean that, after revision, the global mean temperature would contradict the models and attribution studies on which the AGW thesis is based.

  2. Check the FAQs. Many of the common arguments contra AGW have been addressed and most do not deserve repetition. Do your part in lowering the noise level by refusing to spread any objection that lacks merit. Informed layman (climate skeptic) Coby Beck has done much of your homework for you by compiling an FAQ entitled "How to talk to a climate skeptic." The IPCC report itself has an associated FAQ document; New Scientist magazine and the Logical Science weblog have also put up high-quality FAQs which reference the technical literature.

    A weblog, Real Climate is maintained by a group of climatologists for the purpose of communicating with the educated public. Searching it with Google is usually a good way to find discussion of climate controversies. Had the angry mob waited six hours last Friday, they'd have found there a definitive argument for why the error uncovered by McIntyre was a molehill, not a mountain.

  3. If the FAQs don't hold an answer, search the literature.
    This is a prerequisite for the next step, anyway, and it's been made ridiculously easy by Google Scholar, which indexes most academic journals. I have found it an invaluable tool in my day-to-day biophysics research.

  4. If the answer cannot be found in the technical literature, write your argument as if to convince an expert in the field. The best way to do this is to prepare an article for submission to a mainstream scientific journal, so that it will pass the BS-check that is peer review.

In short, think like a scientist.

It's been brought to my attention that it's somewhat difficult to be a bona fide lay climate skeptic, as most people don't have access to a university library and can't afford to purchase article after article. There are admittedly few resources for the intellectual self-starter other than the technical literature. Even the Wikipedia article on the Greenhouse Effect doesn't present the underlying physics in anything more than a qualitative fashion. Real Climate is perhaps the best source for the educated layman. but Real Climate, being a weblog, doesn't start from the beginning.

I can certainly lay a lot of blame on the "skeptics" for not doing their homework, for believing conspiracy theories about the scientists, for claiming (contra common sense) that they're statist shills, and for general bad behavior, but climatologists could stamp out a good deal of this if they made a better effort at explaining AGW's peculiar logical structure and its underlying physics to interested, quantiatively competent free marketeers. Reflexive deniers abound, but not all doubters are denialists, even if it appears as though they don't even bother to check their concerns against the literature. All the majority of the public sees are hand-waving, qualitative arguments, most of them coming from journalists and activists, not scientists. They don't necessarily know that there's any deeper to dig!

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Why left-wing reactionaries:

One of the benefits of keeping a messy apartment is stumbling on reading material while cleaning up. From "The Tide in The Affairs of Men", Milton and Rose Friedman, Notes from FEE, December 2006:
...Success made residual evils stand out all the more sharply, both encouraging reformers to press for governmental solutions and making the public more sympathetic to their appeals.

Friedman was writing about the "Progressive" tide in the early 20th Century, but this could very well be a partial explanation of why medical treatments that would have been tantamount to magic in our great-grandparents' day are now considered "rights" by many who haven't thought things through.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The latest scam from the reflexive global warming denialists.

Shades of Kent Hovind here: Steven Milloy's (ironically named) is purportedly offering a $100K reward to a person who "proves, in a scientific manner", that the following hypotheses are false.

  1. Manmade emissions of greenhouse gases do not discernibly, significantly and predictably cause increases in global surface and tropospheric temperatures along with associated stratospheric cooling.
  2. The benefits equal or exceed the costs of any increases in global temperature caused by manmade greenhouse gas emissions between the present time and the year 2100, when all global social, economic and environmental effects are considered.

If #1 was all that was needed, the winner can be found in the pages of (e.g.) Geophysical Journal. #2 is tricky and largely subjective.

Don't think for a minute that this is an honest offer., Milloy--makes the final call, which means that the objection to any submitted argument doesn't even have to be scientifically valid! Milloy has yet to voice any bona fide and quantitative objections to the prevailing theory, yet persists in denying it, even calling it a scam.

Furthermore, #2 is a weasel clause, especially from someone who thinks that air pollution, even in 1970, was "more of an aesthetic than a public health problem." That's false in itself (consider urban ozone, smog, and pollution related asthma), but it's also equivocal; one can't call (e.g.) acid rain and the associated ecological damage merely "aesthetic." We can expect Milloy to similarly discount ecological damage this time around. Even if not, the 93-year window provides an out; if AGW is a problem for our great-great grandchildren in 2201, it doesn't matter.

It gets better: Data cited must be readily available to the public. Scientific journals, as I've been reminded of late, aren't.

This contest is a scam, and its 14th Rule prohibits the defrauded from suing over it. Presumably, anyone smart enough to understand AGW also has a good nose for BS.

Anarchy, State, and Polyanna

Cato Unbound is seemingly taking a summer vacation from issues of broad interest this month to focus on anarchy, a topic which wouldn't even catch my eye, were it not for ten years of dealing with arrogant, anti-intellectual, exasperatingly doctrinaire, largely Rothbardite pop anarcho-capitalists at the grassroots level in the libertarian movement. The level of discussion at Cato Unbound is sure to be above this; the lead essay, by George Mason public choice economist (and Austrian who publishes in mainstream journals!) Peter Leeson, offers something both new and far distanced from the fantasylands and houses-of-cards of the slouches.

Leeson's thesis is that anarchy--taken here to mean decentralized, minimal, semi-voluntary, and spontaneously organized governments--works better than its detractors would think. The evidence cited comes in two parts, the first being the world's relative lack of "effective governments" until very recent times, the second being the success of spontaneous governmental mechanisms in 18th Century pirate vessels and modern-day Somalia.

The State is still neither omnipresent nor omnipotent; social order depends, as surely as it did in the Middle Ages, on voluntary obedience to the law. That people were able to live their daily lives and conduct their business before the days of police raises the fundamental questions about legitimacy. Why do people obey the law? Out of custom, fear of being caught, or common decency? By Leeson's argument, fear is not the only reason, although in an era when thieves or even debtors were sent to the gallows, it cannot be entirely discounted.

Likewise, the interruptions of warfare aside, the Somalian was and in some regions is able to live his daily life in the absence of a central and powerful state. It must be remembered that while many anarchist theories depend on pre- or non- institutional property and contract rights (and are every bit as stupid as that implies), after any collapse or withering away of the state, the property and contract rights are post-institutional. People carry with them some notion of what property rights are and are not, and what obligations are entailed by contract. It doesn't surprise me one bit that the country is doing better under the makeshift institutions set up to protect against criminals and enforce these customary rights and obligations than it was under Siad Barre's "Scientific Socialism" and kleptocracy. That's not much of an accomplishment. What remains to be seen is whether, pace Nozick, the answer to the inadequacies of Somalia's anarchic regime will be increasing standardization and cooperation between the governing institutions spontaneously created in the wreckage of the state.

Someone less friendly to anarchism than Leeson could take the pirate constitutions as evidence of Man's tendency to form governments in his enlightened self-interest. The pirate governments, as described, were as central as can be; Leeson does not describe an on-board free market in governmental services. Neither separation of powers between captain and quartermaster nor the lack of an outside authority to make sure the government follows its law makes pirate ships anarcho-capitalist, no more than the United States is anarchist because it has a President, Congress, Supreme Court, and no higher power enforcing the Constitution. The questions that come up are, again, about legitimacy. A pirate vessel's charter is easily legitimated because joining pirate society is voluntary. Lysander Spooner would be delighted: "Sign here!" On the ground such things simply do not apply, except to clubs and business partnerships.

The question of what happens when the law must be changed remains. Strict universal consensus is out of the question even on pirate ships. When the law changes, take it or walk the plank. Not even anarchy satisfies the aforementioned doctrinaires' precious "non-initiation of force principle".

Especially tricky for anarchies would be diffuse harms with diffuse sources of harm. It does not seem as though people in an anarcho-capitalist society have any means to get around the prisoners' dilemma and ratify a planet-saving Montreal Protocol or create a new property right out of thin air to correct the externality called anthropogenic global warming. Those who, out of stupidity or spite, deny that they're doing anything harmful would secede, a legitimate move in an anarchy. The harm would persist, with war (between a camp with roughly below and roughly above average IQ?) being the only solution.

It is not sufficient for anarchists to merely show that people will create decentralized institutions to enforce customary rights. It must be shown that

  1. Anarchy would not represent a dimunition of liberty, especially a system in which the poor simply do not have rights, to those living under liberal regimes.
  2. Anarchy can accomodate solutions to environmental problems, including those characterized by diffuse harm, diffuse sources of harm, or both.
  3. Anarchy can accomodate pluralism and dissent.

The way for anarchists to show this is to, step by step, effect change towards a more voluntary social order and decentralized government, in other words, to demonstrate. Leeson attempts to show by example, but it, by his own admission, is unconvincing, as pirate ships are situationally much different than common society, and "better than the old Somalia" doesn't stand for much. At least he's not badgering minarchists and undermining the efforts of people supposedly on the same side. This anarchy of the possible is always welcome.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Bridge collapses are like train wrecks...

Bridge collapses are like train wrecks, in that they provide a prime opportunity for "Objectivists"--the modern-day followers of Ayn Rand's pseudo-philosophical thought--to show their true colors.

How long will it be until someone from the Ayn Rand Institute or Objectivist Center puts out a list of imagined moral errors of those who perished in last week's bridge collapse in Minneapolis? I haven't even found anything in the blogosphere. Maybe they've suddenly grown a sense of decency. I'll give it a week.

Friday, July 20, 2007

You can do more than Bono to help the African.

Stéphane Gouyo is a 27-year-old Togolese father of two who makes his living selling lamp fuel. As far as I can tell, he is not starving, nor dying from some readily treatable disease. Given that he's been in business for ten years, I would venture to say that he's doing rather well for himself, so well, in fact, that he recently took out a $1000 loan to expand his business.

Being a PhD candidate, I live, more or less, from paycheck to paycheck, but do find myself "ahead" some times with money to save and even, occasionally, to give to good causes. I can't say that I've ever contributed even a cent to help the truly miserable of Africa, but through, I loaned $25 of that $1000 to Mr. Gouyo.

Giving aid to people who've fallen on hard times, or helping to fund scholarships and the like for the economically less well-off, in areas with developed economies is one thing: giving to the poor where everyone is poor is another. Human misery is human misery, yes, but helping someone on the path to success is somehow satisfying, while most Third World aid is futile. You may feed a person today, yes, but they will still be hungry tomorrow, and you will be poorer. A loan to the bourgeoisie, for lack of a better word, of the developing world, would seem to go much farther than a donation to a relief agency.

Guoyo, for one, barring some Zimbabwe-like political disaster, is not likely to become part of the problem. He and his family will not become mouths to feed, consuming wealth but lacking the means and sometimes the initative to produce it. Rather, he will raise the standard of living for his family and his countrymen. His children, and their children in turn, in a sort of Togolese version of the American Dream, will likely have opportunities he did not, to learn skills to make more productive (in the economist's sense) and hence wealthier. He may someday hire an employee or two. The kerosene producers and distributors are certainly better off in having someone to bring their product to market, and sitting in a fluorescently illuminated Arizona apartment, I can only imagine the benefits of lamplight to West Africans.

Unless I were to visit Togo and observed idly, with a pen and notebook, I could hardly begin to describe the economic growth created by the success of a business, and even then I would lose track at the second or third order. So long as Guoyo's business remains successful, I am confident that my $25 will go far. Furthermore, I will receive it back in 16 months, to use as I please. (Were it not for arcane and bizzare US law, I could even receive interest!)

According to Bono, singer of a reasonably good rock band and recent self-appointed champion of the African, I must be delusional, as such thinking is, to quote, "bollocks." That's what he said of Stanford scholar Andrew Mwenda's remark that "holding out the begging bowl" is not the means to lift Africa out of poverty. Apparently, Ireland became prosperous because, unlike the governments of the Continent, it found the magic formula that makes social democracy work.

What Bono advocates is a sort of neo-colonialist cargo-cultism: through direct aid to governments, finance First World infrastructure and First World education, and the market will somehow develop. Forget that, as Mwenda--who, unlike the singer, seems to have passed his economics classes--explaned, Africa is full of entrepeneurs, and that aid has distorted the incentive structure, causing many of the brightest Africans to work for corrupt government.

In other words, Bono would like you to forget that his approach is not only known to the economically literate to be a nonstarter, but also that it's been tried for nearly four decades, with little success. Being a celebrity, Bono may be able to bring millions of dollars to bear, but if you have a spare $25 to loan you can, through, do infinitely better by helping the African help himself.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Kubby out of the LP race.

Due to factors ranging from low registration, to the perception (perhaps usually correct) of holding fringe values and endorsing nutty policy schemes, to the widespread (fallacious) belief in the "wasted vote", the Libertarian Party's Presidential candidate is usually a nonstarter, to the point that, for example, nobody in the press even bothered to show just how nutty sham "Constitution Scholar" Michael Badnarik was. That he was in the race was barely newsworthy, and then usually as human-interest journalism; the details didn't matter.

Despite taking the same approach to Constitutional scholarship that Ayn Rand took toward serious philosophy, Badnarik had many positive qualities: that he was a bona fide libertarian was not in question, and, moreover, he had a gentlemanly sense of propriety. When asked why he's in the race if he can't win, his reply was usually to the effect of: "The one way I can win is for you, your family, your friends, and millions of others to vote for me." Surely, his chances were slim, but he was doing what the LP should expect from a candidate: campaigning full-time and in earnest.

All but one of the Presidential candidates, from any party, will lose, but the running is not wholly vain. Having the press's ear (more so if they are serious contenders, but even if they are third-party dark-horses), they--as Ron Paul is doing regarding the War--determine, to some extent, what the issues of the day are, and where the Overton Window lies on the space of political possibilities. They also help bring attention to a party's local candidates and serve as their party's de facto spokesman for the duration of the campaign. This is especially true in the case of minor parties, nearly invariably unfamiliar to the majority of citizens.

To do these things is the duty of any Presidential candidate. (Many libertarians, especially of the big-ell LP variety, would argue that there is no "duty" other than that specified in a written contract. Perhaps that's one of the reasons they haven't gained much traction.) It would be improper for a candidate to refuse to campaign, or to unilaterally express support for another party's candidate for the same office!

Steve Kubby has done just that, in endorsing the candidacy of paleoconservative Republican Ron Paul.

Ron Paul was once the Libertarian Party's Presidential candidate, and he may even have once been a libertarian, but it seems that, at least of late, he takes a different approach to the issues, one which leaves him with about as much overlap with libertarians as Tom Coburn. Hatred of government is not synonymous with love of liberty.

Kubby's intent, as expressed to Paulie Cannoli is to support Paul, and encourage other Libertarians to do the same, and to, if Paul doesn't receive the nomination, to run a strong Libertarian campaign in 2008. The trouble there is threefold:

  1. The Libertarians hold their nominating convention in late May; the Republicans won't have theirs until early September. Suppose, since the whole field is lackluster, Paul becomes one of the frontrunners. Will Kubby not campaign--or campaign for Paul--until then? If Paul gains strength, nominating Kubby means running a weak campaign, even by Libertarian standards.
  2. Encouraging Libertarians to support Paul means, in many states, encouraging them to re-register and vote in the Republican primaries, endangering ballot access for local and state-level candidates.
  3. Encouraging Libertarians to support Paul means diverting resources from libertarian causes and candidates.

Even if Ron Paul radiated liberal values, Kubby's endorsement, as he put it, is a statement that he will not upohld his duty to support the Party. If Paul were to receive the Republican nomination, the extent to which he, and not a Libertarian candidate, should receive the support of libertarians, is most properly determined by that contituency. Nominating Kubby would be a waving of the white flag to the paleoconservatives, a repudiation of the idea that libertarians should do what they can to move policy in their direction, even if just by making major-party candidates fight the "spoiler effect". Pledging to shirk his duty to support Libertarians down the ticket means he's no longer worthy of Libertarians' support.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A quick hit

From this week's Chronicle, letters section.

To the Editor:

Alan Contreras's "In Defense of Self-Defense" (On the Contrary, The Chronicle Review, June 15) is so uninformed by facts and so drenched in NRA-produced fictions (you don't have to be a card-carrying member to be fully deluded by the nonsense the organization has spread) ... that one has to ask why The Chronicle felt it a good idea to print it. Some bizarre notion of the need for balance in the wake of the several intelligent criticisms of guns in American culture The Chronicle printed in the wake of the Virginia Tech murders?

The problem in this reasoning, of course, is that there is no need for balance when one side of a debate bases its position on facts, and the other depends fundamentally on myths and simplistic and obfuscating moral binaries. The framing of good guys versus bad guys, central to Contreras's argument, is simply not helpful in considering the dangers of guns to people. ... Good people sometimes drop their guns, which discharge — harming or killing others. Good people have their guns stolen by bad people. ...

The evidence that good people with guns do a significant amount of harm is very strong. But the evidence that they do much good with their firearms is flimsy and challenged by data. The use of guns in legal acts of self-defense against crime is actually quite rare. ...

Sorry, Mr. Contreras, but your "right" to compensate for your lack of biceps does not trump the societal imperative of a safe environment for all those who are endangered by your gun every day that you carry it. Only when the gun issue stops being presented within the simplistic frame of individual liberty and self-defense, and is reframed in a public-health perspective — where the dangers presented by guns to everyone in their vicinity, including their legal owners, are the focus — will we have an adequate and sane policy on guns.

And only when media sources work harder to disentangle themselves from the fiction that this is a legitimately two-sided argument, with reasonable cases to be made pro and con, will we get a real effort to solve the problem of guns in American society. The bottom line is that there is no rational case to be made for the omnipresence of guns in American society. ...

Alexander Riley
Associate Professor of Sociology
Bucknell University
Lewisburg, Pa.

Riley is right about one thing: this is not a legitimately two-sided argument. The case for self-defense is supported by both ethics and the statistics; the case against has to do with painting the opposition as being deluded by a somehow sinister NRA and spreading irrational fears about guns discharging when dropped. And just how are people endangered by the mere presence of Contreras's gun?

Anyone who really harbors such bizzare fears is either too ignorant to speak on the subject or too afraid to be rational. Presumably Riley does not yet have tenure. If he approaches his specialty as he approaches this issue, he'll never deserve it.

Robert Mugabe, the great teacher.

Can anyone really be this stupid?

President Robert Mugabe's order that all shop prices be cut by at least half, and sometimes several times more, has forced stores to open to hordes of customers waving thick blocks of near worthless money given new value by the price cuts. The police and groups of ruling party supporters could be seen leading the charge for a bargain.

If I had to write humor about banana republics, I'm not sure if I could make such price controls up! It almost leads one to think that Mugabe is but an insane performance artist, devoting his ouvre to the illustration of what could be learned at community college remedial Economics 99. Perhaps I should thank him for providing yet another illustration of what happens when price controls are instituted in any market.

Or not.
Economists say the price cuts will only deepen the national crisis, leaving many shops bare because they will not be able to afford to restock while official retail prices remain lower than the cost of buying wholesale or importing. Mr Mugabe has dismissed such warnings as "bookish economics".

Isn't the journalistic practice of writing "Scientists say" or "economists say", as though scientific opinion and superstition or the whims of madmen are equally valid, amusing in a sick way? Editors really should check for "false balance".

But more to the point: Is Michael Moore the American Robert Mugabe? It would seem as though the man doesn't consult economists, even before making a film that proposes a healthcare policy solution.

Perhaps he believes they're being funded by the drug companies in the same conspiracy which led CNN to dare tell him he's wrong.

A new drinking game: take a big, big swig if you hear Moore use the term "bookish economics." And send me the video clip!

UPDATE: Moore has come pretty close in the past, feeling it desirable to "educate" George Mason law students about the sinister underpinnings of their studies.

This law and economics nonsense is nothing more than an attempt on the part of the corporate state to extend its reach into the legal field; and I think the graduating students should know they are little more than pawns in Corporate America's plan to erode the American way of life

Monday, July 16, 2007

Straight talk for the "NO AMNESTY!" set--and an explanation of why they are called bigots.

Wrap your heads around this one: If the mass deportation of group X would cause an economic recession, group X is not a drag on the economy.

Mass deportation is, by definition, what the "NO AMNESTY!" crowd advocates, and they've taken lately to justifying it by poiting to statistics such as those found on as though such figures alone constitute an argument that the presence of illegal immigrants makes us worse off.

That's a subtle matter, and even subtler still is the question as to whether, supposing the impact on the rest of us is negative, it would be positive were illegals' status regularized (amnesty) and, if it is currently positive, how much better off we'd all be were there an amnesty. Merely looking at wages, as the uneducated hayseeds who make up the bulk of the "NO AMNESTY!" set tend to do, isn't enough.

As was discussed today on Classically Liberal, a recent Udall Center study quantifies the net impact of immigrants, legal and illegal, on Arizona's economy, as well as the effect of removing the illegals from the picture. Not only is the net effect positive, one can't argue that a few superstar legal immigrants are distorting the picture. Removing the illegals results in, as expected, recession. 15% workforce reduction in agriculture, 15% workforce reduction in construction, 10% workforce reduction in manufacturing; one can't find that many unemployed good white folks citizens whose "jobs were stolen" to fill the gap, and even if one did, other things wouldn't be done. It bears repeating: that sort of shrinking of an economy is what's called a recession! would have you believe that the story may be told by government outlays alone--without even taking into account the taxes paid by undocumented aliens, let alone the economic impact calculated by the Udall Center scholars! The dishonesty isn't very subtle, but it plays right into what the "NO AMNESTY!" crowd wants to believe. Even if we take into account only the impact on the welfare system, undocumented aliens are putting in more than they take out. Among others, Shikha Dalmia of the Reason Foundation has worked out the net effect. Illegals pay taxes, and don't get much in return save (lousy) schooling for their children.

Of course, they commit "identity theft"--if paying taxes using someone else's Social Security Number can be considered stealing an identity--to do so, because the government gives them no choice! Open immigration would mean people could choose to not cross the desert, choose to not commit document fraud, etc. But that doesn't mean anything to the "NO AMNESTY!" set. "Illegal is illegal is illegal", "what part of ILLEGAL don't you understand?", they're all trespassers and thieves, to be hated because they work, hated because they draw welfare without paying taxes, and hated because they pay taxes.

It's often said by the sensitive "NO AMNESTY!" screaming souls that calling them bigots is unfair and an attempt to shut down discussion. Let's suppose that the above attitude is the result of a sincere--sincere meaning the tail is not wagging the dog--belief that the presence of undocumented immigrants makes us worse off and that such a situation would not be remedied by amnesty. By citing--never mind the factual accuracy or lack thereof, and never mind the incompleteness of the style numbers as justification to deport people (deporting them all is what "NO AMNESTY!" means), they are reducing the question of just treatment for particular individuals to one about group identity. "You yourself may be an upstanding member of the community, but a group in which I may place you is, on average, dead weight, so you must go." That is the very definition of bigotry.

C'est donc quelqu'un des tiens...
--La Fontaine: Le loup et l'agneau

Do they know something I don't?

Excluding perennial non-contender and Rothbardite kook Dave "Contract Insurance" Hollist, I count eight contenders for nomination as the Libertarian Party's presidential candiadte in 2008, including George Phillies, Steve Kubby, and a host of newcomers. Phillies and Kubby are longtime big-L Libertarians; why the others are seeking the nomination of a Party which can't give enough support to even produce effective spoilers, let alone contenders, is a mystery to me.

A few oddballs--and I don't count Christine Smith, a progressive firmly in the libertarian end of the political spectrum, as an oddball--are in the running, among them one Daniel Imperato. Imperato bills himself as an "Independent Libertarian", which seems to mean "I'm so independent I didn't bother reading any Cato Institute whitepapers or even learning what the Libertarian Party is all about, even though, according to his pamphlet (sitting on my desk) he "solemnly swears" to "defend, abide, and deploy libertarian principles for our society as best as [he] can with [his] solutions and strategies all the way to the White House."

The strategies to which he refers are those of a cut-rate Ross Perot; Cliff Clavin-esque schemes for fixing--or not fixing--what ails us. Whereas most libertarians want to privatize Social Security before it collapses, Imperato proposes to save it through a reform of the 501(c)3 tax deduction law. To wit:

I propose a new charity system where the only charity that can receive unlimited contributions is the Social Security 501(c)3 Charitable Fund. Wealthy Americans who wish to have the largest tax deductions through charitable donations, will donate back to the American people and the Social Security Charitable Fund that will be run by we the people

In addition, this will hold the principals accountable of our current charities for their distribution of funds. It is necessary to close down the rest of them that are abusing our system. Charities that maintain honest business practices will be categorized numerically, with a rating system, and preference will be given to the ones that direct money towards America, and its people first.

It appears as though Imperato has a gripe with charities that spend too much on overhead, and moreover, charities that help (e.g.) Africans instead of Arkansans. To fix this, it seems as though he'd limit where Americans could contribute. How absurd it is to limit benevolence! "If you're going to do something nice despite having no duty to do so, you will do it for this cause or you won't do it at all!" sounds like the words of a banana-republican! Here's a "Libertarian" who could be Hugo Chavez's drinking buddy.

It gets worse: Imperato proposes that drug companies pay an "approval fee" to the "US healthcare system" for each drug which receives the FDA's nod. "In addition, a percentage will be added to the wholesale costs of the drugs that are sold around the world that will be contributed back to the healthcare system. It is about time the drug companies support our healthcare needs in order to ensure healthcare for all American citizens run by we the people.

Can anyone tell me, what does he mean by the "US healthcare system". Does he mean my doctor? My insurance company? My personal health savings account? Somebody else's? Medicare? And don't the drug companies support our healthcare needs by...developing drugs and selling them to us? Why is it about time the drug companies "ensure healthcare for all American citizens", anyway--why do they have that impossible duty?

Imperato is right about one thing here; the world is not picking up its share of the burden. The most brilliant LTE I've seen in a long time was printed in the latest issue of Reason (a publication of which I suspect Imperato is not even aware!), calling for US reimportation of drugs from First World social democracies, in order to break the pricing agreements which effectively shift development costs onto US consumers. Such a plan flies over his head. That the fee and tax scheme is all Imperato has to say about healthcare is telling. I don't think he understands the issue. If he did, he'd be proposing to restore market mechanisms and eliminate the perversion known as comprehensive care insurance.

It gets worse, with Imperato proposing a national Online Education System, addressing the immigration issue by somehow extending US labor unions to Latin America, two bits of incoherent nothing about energy and Iraq. See the campaign website if you really want to know.

I retain my belief that, if any libertarian political movement is to succeed, it must have a "big tent". I suppose that, with tents come clowns, or better still, dunk tanks. I presume that the LP delegates will give Imperato and anyone else who's nuttier than Ron Paul, let alone anyone who's platform doesn't manifest liberal values, a nice cold bath. "How do you ensure that the LP stays libertarian?" ask the small-party "purist" ideologues, a question that seems more ridiculous by the month.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

"Shapes of Space" at the Guggenheim

The final work in the Shapes of Space exhibition is by un-noted performance artist B. Kalafut. At the top of the ramp, Kalafut turns into an organic 190 lb sphere, shattering the notion of static form, and rolls down the ramp, bowling over gawkers as he goes, opening a dialogue about the effect of dramatic transients on the meaning of space.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Libertarian Party's dishonest fundraising pitch.

Yesterday I received three separate automated phone calls from the national Libertarian Party informing me that my membership had lapsed and asking me to renew.

For reasons that are my own, I'm still a registered Libertarian and an officer of the local party. Registering LBT is enough in Arizona to be a member of the Libertarian Party and to be eligible to hold office.

Since the passage of the Squyres proposal to eliminate the Unified Membersip Program and move away from a dues-based model, being a member of the national Libertarian Party has been even easier. One must merely sign the Libertarian Party Pledge, which means different things to different people.

To be a sustaining member, one must contribute at least twenty-five dollars per year. This is the equivalent of the trendy tote-bag level of public television support; it gets the contributor a subscription to the always Pollyannaesque LP News, and perhaps more junk mail.

When I told two of the callers that the LP was no longer on a dues-based model and that I had nothing to give at the present, they let me go politely, but the third argued and said that some director of fundraising told them that members must pay dues. My reply: "When Bill Redpath or Chuck Moulton call me up and tell me we're charging dues again, I'll pay."

I'm usually reluctant to donate to the national LP, as although they maintain a classy website these days and handle quite a few inquiries, the party is moribund, laden with ideologues out to prevent it from doing what it is supposed to do, and perhaps with a bad name due to years of failure and attrition. On occasion I can be convinced that this effort or that is worthwhile, but now that I've been lied to over the phone, I don't think the national office will see a contribution from me for a long time.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Yes, I support amnesty. No, it is not a "reward for breaking the law."

"Amnesty" has become a dirty word in the immigration debate, as someone has fouled the meme pool by putting out the idea that giving visas to people here illegally is somehow a "reward" for breaking the law.

Back up a bit. How can giving a visa that was previously not available legally to someone be a reward? Only if it is a privilege that others are denied. I am also a vocal proponent of open immigration. The xenophobes are right about one thing: the undocumented immigrant here should not be given preference to those who haven't decided to come yet. Amnesty makes no sense without comprehensive immigration reform.

Time Magazine rarely publishes any controversial stand, but this week's cover story explains, in simple and patient terms, to those who don't get it yet, why amnesty makes sense. I couldn't have put it better, unless you paid me!

Monday, June 4, 2007

And it isn't that, either.

An eye-catching letter from the June issue of Scientific American, which has been giving economics its due lately:

"License to Work" [News Scan], by Rodger Doyle, suggests that the reason the number of dentists in the U.S. has not grown substantially compared with other professions is restrictive licensing practices. Doyle has the cart before the horse. The license to practice dentistry is obtained after the completion of educational requirements and is typically passed by most dentists, although it sometimes calls for more than one attempt. The restriction on numbers is at the beginning of the road, where the educational system has not changed the number of dentists it is capable of training on average since the 1970s.

Fair enough; dental licensing is not the barrier to entry that most trade licensing turns out to be.

But the author goes on:

This restriction is not caused by the licensing board but by the cutting of direct and indirect federal and state support for dental education (number of schools, class size, faculty members, student loans, and so on).

Keith J. Lemmerman
Graduate Periodontics
University of Kentucky
College of Dentistry

So there is something about dentistry--which doesn't apply to, say, auto mechanics, computer programmers, nurses, and the like--which requires the government, not the market, to provide the impetus to start or expand training programs? What is that?

Or is there something wrong with professional education?

Mr. Lemmerman thinks the trouble is with public policy, perhaps he needs a shovel. Dig deeper. If you find yourself saying "well, the government isn't driving the economy...", that you'd even find yourself thinking that the government should drive the economy in a particular sector is a symptom of much deeper structural problems.

Friday, May 25, 2007

But I do know what "unconstitutionally vague" is.

As if we needed more proof that Democrats don't understand economics, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to combat so-called "price gouging" at the gas pump.

Laws prohibiting taking undue advantage of lifeboat situations, e.g. charging someone about to die of thirst a million dollars for water, are something virtually everyone except Walter Block (famed defender of the undefendable) could see as acceptable were such practices to become a problem. Their absence from the books is a sign that inherent rarity, market forces, common decency, charity, and the protection bankruptcy gives against debt slavery combine to make the one case that even a liberal like myself would restrict more of an academic question than a real-world concern.

Outside of the lifeboat context, however, I don't know what price gouging is. But I do know that this new law is either toothless or unconstituionally vague. (Never mind, ad argumentum whether a gas station's sale to someone at the pump is an act of interstate commerce.) Let's take a closer look.

HR 1252 makes it unlawful to sell gasoline, during a declared emergency, at a price that is "unconscionably excessive" and "indicates the seller is taking unfair advantage of the circumstances related to an energy emergency to increase prices unreasonably." Whether a price falls into this category will be determined by some unspecified mix of factors, necessarily including, "among other factors", four listed criteria:

(A) whether the amount charged by such person for the applicable gasoline or other petroleum distillate at a particular location in an area covered by a proclamation issued under paragraph (2) during the period such proclamation is in effect--

(i) grossly exceeds the average price at which the applicable gasoline or other petroleum distillate was offered for sale by that person←→ during preceding the 30 days prior to such proclamation;

(ii) grossly exceeds the price at which the same or similar gasoline or other petroleum distillate was readily by other purchasers obtainable in the same area from other competing sellers during the same period;

(iii) reasonably reflected additional costs, not within the control of that person, that were paid, incurred, or reasonably anticipated by that person, or reflected additional risks taken by that person to produce, distribute, obtain, or sell such product under the circumstances; and

(iv) was substantially attributable to local, regional, national, or international market conditions; and

If the "other factors" provision doesn't do this one in, Constitutionally, all by itself, (i-iv) in conjunction kill it. (i) says the price must be high due to the disaster. Big deal. Why the bill's sponsors didn't realize that implicit in (ii) is the reason--near absence of true geographic monopoly in the retail gas market is beyond me, although (iii) provides a clue. It's a leftist's understanding of the proper circumstances under which to raise prices. Forget supply and demand--forget that, especially for commodities such as gasoline, replacement costs set the price--cost-plus is the justification for social democrats baffled by the prestidigitation of the invisible hand.

It is (iv) which unravels all of this, as whether or not the price was increased due to market conditions must also be taken into account. Assuming that gas retailers and wholesalers will act reasonably in their own interest in the market, it's hard to imagine prices going up above a level justified by market conditions. That is, assuming that mainstream economic science is used to determine whether or not the price level is attributable to market conditions.

If physics were treated with as much disregard as economics, we'd see headlines in CNN Money saying, about some bill, that "critics say the Department of Energy's plan violates conservation laws." As Jeff Jacoby patiently explained to the readers of the Boston Globe, prices go up during a disaster for the same reasons as they would in normal circumstances. The supply chain gets constricted or broken, demand subsequently increases, merchants see their wares get scarce, and raise the price as a result, so they don't run out of things to sell. The result is in the public interest, as it means people think twice before buying--cutting down on hoarding and frivolous use and inducing hoarders to sell--and sends a signal to outsiders that profit is to be made by delivering more. The same laws of economic science apply to shortages of gasoline and microchips.

If (iv) is not determined by mainstream economics, or if in practice the four criteria above aren't treated as each being necessary, then the law does have some teeth, in that it will provide a few gas stations or oil companies a headache until, much taxpayer money spent on legal defense later, it's proven unconstitutionally vague. Given precedent, that result is the one certainty that applies to HR 1252.

Millions in defense of clearly unconstitutional law is too high a price to pay for mere political posturing. Let's hope the Senate kills this one. And would that Congress went (prudently) after the real market-manipulating culprits instead!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

It's easy to be an Internet gadfly:

Just write something spontaneously for someone else's website and hope for the best.

It's what I did, making the case for a Paul-Giuliani policy debate over at Rational Review.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Understanding Libertarian Party reform and the Libertarian Reform Caucus

Back in 1974 (a long time ago; way before my time and long enough ago that it looked as though the political party founded in Dave Nolan's living room might actually gain some traction) the Libertarian Party in convention formally welcomed anarchists into its ranks in what became known, bombastically, as the "Dallas Accord".

The Dallas Accord was an agreement that the Libertarian Party not take any official stance on whether or not government ought to exist. (I used to be able to find the associated declaration on the Web; if you know where it's at, send me an e-mail.) In principle, it was entirely sensible; political gains are won through coalition-building, not attrition and group polarization. Anarchists, who believe that civil society ought to and could, given time and inducement, totally take over the functions of the State, share, by definition, so long as the State exists, political goals with liberal minarchists who believe that the role of the State should be diminished and that of civil society increased.

Similarly, the character of liberal minarchists is such that they believe that the State should exist only in such a capacity that it liberates; they do not value government as an end in itself. Thus the two groups, treated as hypotheticals, not only share common goals, but also have compatible values.

If matters were that simple, there'd be no need for a Libertarian Reform Caucus. History, however, conspired to do away with both the common values and the common cause. Perhaps most damningly, failure to make significant gains in over three decades of election cycles, and resulting attrition, rendered the LP vulnerable to subversion by those who'd rather evangelize for pop "philosophy" than move public policy in a more liberal direction.

Murray Rothbard's destructive romp through the Party, didn't help. If nothing else, Rothbard had a Leninist conception of politics, believing that the best way to effect change was to maintain a vanguard party adhering to an ideological plumb line defined by--no surprise here--Rothbard himself. (Rothbard also seemed to belive that revolution is morally necessary, even if it brings one back to square one.) What Rothbard didn't understand is that vanguards become effective by attracting thugs to their side in a state of social chaos, and that they tend to achieve little in a representative system of government.

Exacerbated by the Randist/Objectivist influence on the libertarian movement, which brought with it a poisonous mix of the Continental obsession with consistency and the dubious sin of "sanction", Rothbard's vanguardism didn't achieve anything in the political sphere, but it did bring a thugishness to the LP. The "nonaggression principle", "zero aggression principle", or "non-initiation of force principle" preciptated a moralistic nihilism. The sort of anarchism-of-the-possible that is compatible with the Dallas Accord was ovewhelmed by an anarchism driven by the belief that the State was evil. For example: to those who, like Rothbard, retained a folk belief in preinstitutional property rights (a concept on the ash heap of serious philosophy), taxation is theft! Not a possible means to theft, and not something that deserves much contemplation due to its coercive nature, but an absolute moral wrong.

Not only, then, were the minarchists, regardless of how well-read or well-grounded in serious political philosophy, adding noise to the vanguard's evangelical efforts, but they were advocates of evil, too, subject to obnoxious "internal education" efforts, exclusion where possible from positions of leadership in the Party, and, worse still, backstabbing. The Party's nihilists do their best to persuade others than minarchist candidates, or even anarchist candidates running on incrementalist Platforms, aren't worthy of support, because they advocate evil or the continuation of evil. By 1996, the year I joined the Party as a wide-eyed teenager, the Party's official documents, with the exception of the LP News, were explicitly anarchist, and efforts to bring them into line with the Dallas Accord were and are treated like advocacy of rape and robbery. Forget what Tullock had to say in The Politics of Persuasion; one must not advocate for anything less than the utopian ideal!

Honesty demands that I note that this was not true everywhere, and that some local Libertarian Parties avoided this tendency and even achieved moderate electoral success, albeit with the national Platform and reputation as twin anchors tied to the neck. I merely describe the general climate of the LP, and it was is in this climate that, fed up with the miserable failure of vanguardism to so much as move the Overton Window in a libertarian direction, let alone get libertarians elected to public office, that calls for radical reform of the Libertarian Party began springing up, starting, most notably, with Gene Trosper's Libertarian Mainstream Caucus, and terminating solidly in the Libertarian Reform Caucus.

Libertarians tend to fancy themselves as being smarter than the general population and ahead of the curve on many issues, but the general response to reform, nearly impossible to separate from the dishonest caricatures of the vanguardists, has revealed that they tend to be confused about the nature of politics and hence of the reformers' goals.

Jacob Hornberger infamously described calls for candidates to run on realistic platforms and advocate real-world solutions as compromise and concealment and declared such efforts the "road to defeat." (Hornberger may also have been writing in response to Michael Emerling Cloud's "Essence of Political Pesuasion" tapes, which called for responsible but perhaps slick communication of libertarian policies and values, but I digress...) Hornberger's errors, characteristic of the common misconceptions, were twofold. Compromise is not pre-concession of defeat; compromise is something one does to achieve gains when actually at the decision-makers' table. It does not properly describe acting intelligently to get a seat at that table. Running for office on a platform of real-world solutions and not utopian speculations, thinking about how to get from point A to point B in a socially responsible fashion, and not leading the voter to think you care more about your ideas than the general welfare, none of that is compromise and none of that is defeatist.

Likewise, Hornberger accuses reformers of calling for dishonest "concealment". Asking that candidates not talk about irrelevancies is not the same as asking that they hide something like a skeleton in the closet. When the total end to taxation isn't even within the Overton Window, it's about as relevant as the color of the candidate's underwear. That a candidate doesn't discuss the shade of his skivvies doesn't render him a liar, and neither does his choice to discuss policies, not fantasies. Hornberger goes on, in a strange inversion, to accuse incrementalists of dealing solely in vague generalities. The last time I checked, "there should be no government" is vague with respect to what a candidate will do in his term of office, whereas incrementalism requires a plan: privatize this, cut the budget of that, pass X law and repeal Y and Z. If anything, the former could be honestly mistook for concealment, albeit of the blundering kind.

Carl Milsted, the LRC's organizer and de facto spokesperson, recently published an essay, calling, provocatively, for an end to the "Party of Principle", thus feeding the same old misconception that drove Hornberger. Contrary to the common confusion, Milsted is not advocating that libertarians wrap their principles in tin-foil and stick them in the freezer for use at a later date. He is advocating an end to vanguardism, adoption of a big tent policy, to wit, a Party that is "a diverse coalition of somewhat similar interests".

This is not too different, albeit more explicitly broad, than what anarchist T.L. Knapp called for back in 2003: a new Dallas Accord. Granted, Milsted launches a salvo against anarchism, but reading carefully it's only against the anarcho-nihilism of the vanguardists. By pointing out the moral failings of the smash-the-state, government-is-evil crowd, Milsted dispels the illusion that they hold the ethical and philosohpical high ground, and that incrementalists and pragmatists believe the same as they do. There are times when regard for human welfare and liberty demands incrementalism.

There's room in Milsted's tent for anarchists-of-the-possible, like Knapp (and Dave Bergland and Harry Browne!) who recognize the common goal. There's even room, I would guess, for the previously linked Mike Renzulli, if he rejects smash-the-state zero-aggression dualism for a more principled and nuanced view. As a reformer, the Libertarian tent as I see it is open to all who support using the political process to effect liberalization, regardless of their position on the ultimate compatibility of real human freedom and a stateless society. For those whose beliefs prohibit the use of the political process, including those who make the perfect the enemy of the good, and for the old vanguardists, who view most other libertarians as advocates of evil, the door is closed. There's room in my tent for Milsted and I suspect room for me in his despite differing opinions on use of military force.

Milsted is damn right: a tiny Party with a history of being effete makes it look as though only a few people want liberty. I'll add to that: the LP's dominance by cranks and their followers makes liberty seem nutty! If Milsted goes wrong anywhere in that essay, it's perhaps in his conviction that making over the LP is preferable to starting a new Party. (I stick around, grudgingly, for lack of better options.) Even if the LRC succeeds in 2008, I suspect we'll find that the Libertarian Party is long past its shelf life. Its name is mud and prospects of luring back the silent majority of libertarians, who read Reason or contribute to the Cato Institute but won't touch the LP with a ten foot pole are dim. Better to forget about our sweat equity, cut our losses, leave the thugs, bullies, and dimwits the Party they ruined and to start with a clean slate.

There are legitimate places for disputes between the various flavors of libertarianism: academia, think-tanks, weblogs, and magazines. And discussing philosophy with people met through politics, whether for fun or for persuasion, can be done constructively. There is always a place for introducing a young Objectivist to serious analytic philosohpy before A is A, existence exists, qua qua qua stunts his intellectual development. There is always a place for passing around economics or philosophy tracts to empower candidates and activists in their efforts, and arming one's self against the Rothbardian dualists with Nozick, Epstein, and the like is a virtual necessity. It is only vanguardism, the notion that it is not enough within a Party to share and advocate for common, immediate policy goals, that must go.

In Milsted's words:

"I am not a libertarian in order to promote a simplistic, impractical and inhumane philosophy. I am a libertarian because I love liberty...building the party around one narrow principle results in a tiny party...a party of principle is a joke, and it's the statists who are doing the laughing."

Yes, let's have a new Dallas Accord: Lovers of liberty, unite!