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?