Monday, December 25, 2006

Friday, December 22, 2006

A weighing system.

Tyler Cowen wrote this post on moral arithmetic a while ago and it predictably caused a storm of protest from commenters. The post reads:
1. For reasons of practicality and cost, nations should in many cases devote more resources to their own citizens than to foreigners.

2. Once the costs mentioned in #1 are taken into account, foreigners are still "worth less" than citizens.

#2 does not follow from #1, that is a mistake in moral arithmetic. #2 is false.
The moral is that all individuals count equally, but individuals will be best off if governments focus on serving their own citizens. This is a general rule and should be broken for things like Boxing Day tsunamis, in other words governments should still take foreigners into account, but less so than citizens.

Samuel Brittan talks of a weighing sytem assigning more value to citizens than foreigners in the same way that parents do for their children, it's ok to save your kid instead of 5 other kids maybe, but surely not 100 000.

This is all fine, but if governments start thinking this has some deeper significance rather than just a useful rule of thumb then they will seriously underestimate the costs of war.

When you venture past your borders, all lives count equally as well as property etc. Can citizens and governments be trusted to mean it when they pat lip service to these ideals?

You Are Never Entitled to Your Opinion

Ever! Robin Hanson explains. There's a nice discussion too.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

jack and jill

Jack and Jill both work for the same high school. Jack is the principal and Jill is the vice-principal. One day the government tosses Jack in prison for being Jewish and Jill is promoted to the top job. 5 years later a more liberal government takes over and releases Jack who reapplies for the job as principal of the school. Jack is a better candidate and so gets the job and Jill gets demoted to vice-principal.

Has the new government harmed Jill? Is she due compensation?

Addendum: The issue is not weather Jill should have been demoted, it's the extent of the government's moral responsibility for the harm done to Jill by releasing Jack.

what is your dangerous idea?

Daniel Gilbert is the author of "Stumbling on Happiness", which Tyler Cowen recommends as book number two of the year. I love his answer to the question, "what is your dangerous idea?":
The idea that ideas can be dangerous

Dangerous does not mean exciting or bold. It means likely to cause great harm. The most dangerous idea is the only dangerous idea: The idea that ideas can be dangerous.

We live in a world in which people are beheaded, imprisoned, demoted, and censured simply because they have opened their mouths, flapped their lips, and vibrated some air. Yes, those vibrations can make us feel sad or stupid or alienated. Tough shit. That's the price of admission to the marketplace of ideas. Hateful, blasphemous, prejudiced, vulgar, rude, or ignorant remarks are the music of a free society, and the relentless patter of idiots is how we know we're in one. When all the words in our public conversation are fair, good, and true, it's time to make a run for the fence.
This instantly elevates him to hero status, now I really wanna read the book (hint hint).

I doubt Phil will like the quote as much as I do.

Lots of other clever people were asked the same question, go check out their answers.

Millions Participate In Cuban Version Of Survivor

This is, of course, from the Onion:
HAVANA, CUBA–Inspired by the hit CBS show Survivor, Cuba's 11 million citizens are participating in their own version of the popular island-survival game. "I hope very much to make it to next week," said contestant Livan Ordonez, eating a rat as part of a "Starvation-Immunity Challenge" during last Wednesday's episode. "If I do not survive, who will provide for the Ordonez Tribe?" Under the somewhat altered rules for Cuban Survivor, contestants who fail to remain on the island are declared the winners
This isn't funny to those people who still believe that Cuba is a socialist utopia.

Update: Since I clearly have nothing better to do (like Christmas shopping), here are some more articles from the Onion:
Family dog Loki experienced the best day of his life for the 400th straight day Monday, the black Labrador retriever reported. "I got to go outside! I got to sniff the bush!" Loki said, wagging excitedly. "I saw a squirrel and I barked at it and it ran up the tree! Then I came back inside, and the smoky-smelling tall man let me have a little piece of bacon and then I drank from the toilet!" Loki will experience the best day of his life once again tomorrow, when he digs a hole, chews on a slipper, and almost catches his tail.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Says noted legal scholar Harry Hutton. A 17 old boy (man?) has just been sentenced to 10 years in jail, without possibility of parole, for having consensual oral sex with a 15 year old. He will also be registered as a sexual offender for the rest of his life. So he'll be known as a pedophile when he gets out of jail, I'd say his prospects are good!

Eugene Volokh has some more serious things to say here. If he had had regular sex with a 14 year old the maximum sentence would have been 1 year. This is the craziest thing I've read since the guy who was shot 51 times.

Friday, December 15, 2006

bangs, crunches, shrieks and whimpers

Here's a really fun article examining various extinction scenarios, except the only actual extinction scenarios are the "bangs", some of the crunches, shrieks and whimpers are pretty horrible, but I would guess that a lot of people would actually prefer some of them to the "non-extinction" scenarious. Here are the mst interesting "bang" scenarios:
  • We're living in a simulation and it gets shut down
    A case can be made that the hypothesis that we are living in a computer simulation should be given a significant probability. The basic idea behind this so-called “Simulation argument” is that vast amounts of computing power may become available in the future, and that it could be used, among other things, to run large numbers of fine-grained simulations of past human civilizations. Under some not-too-implausible assumptions, the result can be that almost all minds like ours are simulated minds, and that we should therefore assign a significant probability to being such computer-emulated minds rather than the (subjectively indistinguishable) minds of originally evolved creatures. And if we are, we suffer the risk that the simulation may be shut down at any time. A decision to terminate our simulation may be prompted by our actions or by exogenous factors.
    While to some it may seem frivolous to list such a radical or "philosophical" hypothesis next the concrete threat of nuclear holocaust, we must seek to base these evaluations on reasons rather than untutored intuition. Until a refutation appears of the argument presented in, it would intellectually dishonest to neglect to mention simulation-shutdown as a potential extinction mode.
  • Badly programmed superintelligence
    When we create the first superintelligent entity, we might make a mistake and give it goals that lead it to annihilate humankind, assuming its enormous intellectual advantage gives it the power to do so. For example, we could mistakenly elevate a subgoal to the status of a supergoal. We tell it to solve a mathematical problem, and it complies by turning all the matter in the solar system into a giant calculating device, in the process killing the person who asked the question.
  • Physics disasters
    The Manhattan Project bomb-builders' concern about an A-bomb-derived atmospheric conflagration has contemporary analogues.
    There have been speculations that future high-energy particle accelerator experiments may cause a breakdown of a metastable vacuum state that our part of the cosmos might be in, converting it into a "true" vacuum of lower energy density. This would result in an expanding bubble of total destruction that would sweep through the galaxy and beyond at the speed of light, tearing all matter apart as it proceeds.
    Another conceivability is that accelerator experiments might produce negatively charged stable "strangelets" (a hypothetical form of nuclear matter) or create a mini black hole that would sink to the center of the Earth and start accreting the rest of the planet.
    These outcomes seem to be impossible given our best current physical theories. But the reason we do the experiments is precisely that we don’t really know what will happen. A more reassuring argument is that the energy densities attained in present day accelerators are far lower than those that occur naturally in collisions between cosmic rays. It’s possible, however, that factors other than energy density are relevant for these hypothetical processes, and that those factors will be brought together in novel ways in future experiments.
    The main reason for concern in the "physics disasters" category is the meta-level observation that discoveries of all sorts of weird physical phenomena are made all the time, so even if right now all the particular physics disasters we have conceived of were absurdly improbable or impossible, there could be other more realistic failure-modes waiting to be uncovered. The ones listed here are merely illustrations of the general case.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Cognitive enhancement

Cognitive enhancement could come in two forms; it could help us think faster or improve our memory. We would have more of what we already have. It could also allow our minds to work in entirely new ways that we could never imagine with our current puny brains.

Both seem likely to me. We are all evolved from the same little clay crystal or electrified methane molecule (or whatever) that had less capacity for empathy or abstract thought than most of us today and we aren't so great that we couldn't be further improved.

One of the possible arguments against cognitive enhancement is that it would probably be expensive and thus out of reach to the poor; this would increase inequality. People who dislike discussing IQ and the fact that it is correlated with income will surely not like cognitive enhancement.

I don't want to downplay the challenges raised by a cognitively enhanced elite, but here are some thoughts. Most innovations were initially available to the rich. TV's cost more than cars when they first appeared and however crap you think today's TV is, it was worse then. But now most poor people have access to TV and it isn't seen as bad for inequality. The same is true for plenty other innovations, especially medical advances. Money incentive helps these things being invented in the first places which is surely good.

I often hear complaints that people lack the imagination or empathy to fully realise the plight of the very poor. I would guess that the same people would be suspicious of cognitive enhancement. Our increased capacity should help us better understand the plight of the poor and be better equipped to do sensible things about it.

Or would we only enhance the money making parts of our mind?

when was the best time for humans to be alive?

When was the best time for humans to be alive if not now? Why?

This is a serious question. I'll post substantial suggestions and explanations on the normal blog.

do you want a punch on the nose?

I'm a rule utilitarian, so I think that the morality of actions should be assessed by their consequences. If someone offered me R50 000 for the privilege of breaking my nose I'd take it; I'd be happier with the R50 000 than an unbroken nose. So the actions of this weird stranger are good as long as he has my consent. The money raises my "good" meter by more than the pain etc lowers "bad" meter.

There are others who would also prefer the money, including Joe. Suppose our mystery stranger punches me in the nose but gives money to Joe. Total utility still goes up but I can't agree that the action is good.

Intuitively, most of us don't accept that benefiting somebody is a good reason for hurting someone else, even if the benefit is quite great. This is a general principle that we'll ignore under certain circumstances but it's still a principle that I think is common (and good).

Public policies normally create winners and losers so they involve the above kind of trade off. How can we choose between policies? One way is checking the levels of coercion. If two policies result in the same amount of utility then the less coercive one is better and highly utility doesn't necessarily justify coercion.

If this point has any value, it is relevant to the minimum wage question. Economists agree that a minimum has a negative effect on employment, but many argue that those who benefit benefit more than those whose employment prospects are (often very slightly) worse. Others argue the other way. They disagree about which policy will maximize utility.

The non-coercive option is the no minimum wage option. A minimum wage involves punching some in the face and giving cash to others.

This post was prompted by this post on The Economist blog. They suggest that on average the minimum wage helps the wrong (i.e. well off) people and hurts those most in need.

Happiness research also suggests that unemployment makes people particularly miserable; this should be included in "utility calculations".

Friday, December 08, 2006

the future

What will the world look like in 1000 years? There are indefinitely many options but here are a few broad categories that our future could fit into. I haven't really thought this though, so please suggest improvements.

  1. Apocalypse; either we all die, or most of us do and the survivors end up eating pinecones (and possibly each other).
  2. Gentle decline, this happens in Lord of the Rings and similar stories. I’m not sure why people suddenly stop reproducing but I think it has something to do with imagined golden ages when people were smart and moral.
  3. Human race splits into the “haves” and “have not’s” and possibly start to evolve into separate species.
  4. We settle into a stable equilibrium, possibly at about the current level of Western Europe.
  5. Technology and living standards increase at a constant rate.
  6. Technology and living standards increase at an exponential rate indefinitely.

Have I missed any? Which is the most likely? I think a dramatic apocalypse scenario is quite likely and this seems to be a popular option to judge by sci-fi movies. I really don’t buy the slow decline story, any takers?

I think that some countries will go for the stable equilibrium version but I don’t think it will be stable because if only one country grows just 1% a year faster than the others they will be a lot richer in 100 years. Humans are a sulky and acquisitive bunch. I doubt that people living in the static societies will be happy with the status quo, especially if people in the rich countries are living substantially longer. So I think that this is unlikely.

I think the option 3 might be popular, especially to those who see various forms of inequality relentlessly rising for the last however many years. I wouldn’t rule this out, but I doubt that governments would let this happen even if it looked like it was happening. I also doubt that western society is unequal compared to most societies of the past 2000 years.

Constant increases in standards of living would be great but it’s impossible to know where we’d end up. We could keep improving but never achieve some things that might be desirable, like significantly longer (healthy) lives. I also don’t see why the rate would be constant, seems unlikely to me.
The last option is the most interesting. What things could humans not do in principle? We should be able to colonize the galaxy, extend our lifespan indefinitely and make ourselves way smarter than we are now. Even things that we think of as physically impossible may turn out not to be.

Tyler Cowen's favorite young philosopher has much more to say

Here's a letter from utopia to strain your credulity.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Right-wing hacks in action, part CXXXIV (Arnold Kling edition)

Crooked Timber is a leading left-wing group blog. Its contributors are highly intelligent academics. If I want my blogroll to be balanced (which I don?t) I should include them right? I used to link to them (and read them) but found them to be arrogant and mean spirited. Here's an example from Chris Bertram:
Dasgupta, as someone with a record of concern for development and the well-being of the global poor, is someone who should be taken seriously when voices them and might be expected to devise and support policies that benefit the worst off. Right-wing hacks, are, needless to say, a different matter.
Arnold Kling blogs at Econlog; calling him a "hack" is wrong and insulting. What is it with left-wingers assuming that libertarians don't care about the poor? Kling describes himself as a bleeding heart libertarian and Bertram would know that. Jane Galt decided not to let him get away with it. Chris responds in the comments where he and Jane have a fun exchange. Chris ends up calling Jane a hack as well! Classic.

Much of the debate has focuses on whether Kling is correct in his initial post. While that is interesting it isn't relevant to question of whether or not he is a hack; he could be wrong without being a hack. Bertram needs to show that Kling was being dishonest or deliberately distorting someone else's position. Same thing goes for Larry Summers; he repeatedly said that he could be wrong but that based his belief on the evidence he had read.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

51 times!?

That's the number of times that a black man was shot by the police in New York. I cannot imagine how that could possibly seem reasonable.

From Free Exchange.

My most boring post

David Friedman and Will Wilkinson recently blogged about status. One of the complaints about our materialist society is that people earn money for status, not for what they need thus making them less happy. Status is a zero sum game so Tom's gain is Dick's loss. Hence government should force people to work less, everyone will be happier (insert example of trees all agreeing not to go so tall fighting to get more sun).

I'm not arguing that there isn't something to this, but status simply isn't zero sum in the way implied. The argument above assumes that money is the only thing determining status but it isn't. Money status is zero sum, but there are an indefinite number of different status hierarchies. There's one for blogging, one for Quake, one for performers at the Grahamstown festival and on and on. Money has nothing to do with the status involved in these activities and there are lots of them.

One response is that there is another hierarchy for different activities. The World of Warcraft champion is lower status than Brad Pitt and he probably knows it. If we're back to one big status game we have the same problem.

But people are not all that rational. Most people overestimate how good looking they are and how smart. Sure, Brad Pitt has it better, but they're still above average. Same probably happens to the World of Warcraft champ; he will likely overestimate the status he has gained and so will all the other Warcraft players. But if he enjoys this status, then it is real status!

But there is more to it than that. Remember those boring domains (semiotic domains to be a pons)? Well, when you're being inducted to the domain, you're not just learning skills; you're learning a new value system. You don't know what?s good or bad till you become a part of it. The domain doesn?t just teach you how it also encourages you to think of certain things as desirable that you may not have thought before. So, most people are usually completely oblivious of the status conferred by these other domains. They might think it's totally weird or even hilarious, but they just don't get it. We don't need to be irrational to believe there are independent status hierarchies. Most of the characters in Fight Club were nobodies with crap jobs before fight club came along.

Why care? Because it's better to have a society with lots of different clubs and organizations and where people choose what they like and value than one where people are forced to do things that others have told them. Socialist societies fetishise material equality and dictate what people will do with their lives determining what is valued, resulting in one big zero sum status game.

immigration # 687

Thought I'd forgotten about immigration didn't you? Well I haven't!

Don Boudreaux has a nice quote from Milton Friedman; it's a little heavy going but the point is that high rates of immigration can mask the amount of good it does. People tend to move from poor countries to richer countries; most immigrants picking grapes in America are earning more than they used to so it's good for them. But, GDP per head in America goes down because the wage he earns is less than the average.

From 1870-1914 (a period that gets me all misty eyed) American GDP per head grew by 2% a year, not bad. But during that time there was enormous immigration and the vast majority of immigrants were starting out at the bottom and dragging the stats down with them. America was doing really, really well.

In the last 30 years America has had higher rates of immigration than most European countries, a straight comparison with Europe understates American prosperity. But it at first glance it makes them look bad because they have quite a lot of poor people.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Kansas Outlaws Practice Of Evolution

Although the full impact of the new law will likely not be felt for approximately 10 million years, most Kansans say they are relieved that the ban went into effect this week, claiming that evolution may have gone too far already.

"If Earth's species were meant to change over successive generations through physical modifications resulting from the adaptation to environmental challenges, then God would have given them the genetic predisposition to select mates and reproduce based on their favorable heritable traits and their ability to thrive under changing conditions so that these advantageous qualities would be passed down and eventually encoded into the DNA of each generation of offspring," Olathe public school teacher and creationist Joyce Eckhardt said. "It's just not natural."

Some warn that the strict wording of the law could have a deleterious effect on Kansas' mostly agricultural economy, since it also prohibits all forms of man-made artificial selection, such as plant hybridization, genetic engineering, and animal husbandry. A police raid on an alleged artificial-insemination facility outside McPherson, KS on Friday resulted in the arrest of a farmer, a veterinarian, four assistants, one bull, and several dozen cows.
Update:This is from The Onion by the way. Naughty.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006


The Dutch are considering banning the wearing of burqa's and niqab's in all public places. This is stupid; The Economist (subscription) explains why:
Moreover, there are powerful counter-arguments against bans on Muslim dress. For a start, it is illiberal to dictate to others what they can wear, especially when those others form a religious minority. A ban may foster, not deter, harassment or religiously motivated attacks. It would play into the hands of those who argue that Islam is a non-European religion, even though there are at least 15m Muslims in the European Union. And it can make it harder for mainly Christian countries to demand that mainly Muslim ones practise greater religious tolerance?a demand that the pope will, rightly, be making again when he visits Turkey next week.

Here's a Prospect article on the Muslim Concil of Britain. Ruth Kelly, the "communities secretary" complained
"It's not good enough to merely? pay lip service to fighting extremism," she recently told a stunned audience of Muslims. "I want a fundamental rebalancing of our relationship with Muslim organisations from now on."
The response
Noting Kelly's comments with "some amazement," the MCB?s secretary-general Mohammed Abdul Bari wrote to her, saying that what she had said was "arguably unlawful" and warning that sidelining the MCB would be "both dangerous and counter-productive."
Here's what the article says about general attitudes
Last summer Channel 4 reported that 51 per cent of young British Muslims still believe that 9/11 was a plot by Americans and Jews; 31 per cent agreed that 7/7 was justified because of Britain?s support for the war on terror; and that 36 per cent of all British Muslims believe Princess Diana was killed to stop her marrying a Muslim.
Continuing the discussion from yesterday, Phil suggests that we should assume that some types of remarks will cause violent reactions and modify our behavior accordingly (I hope this is fair).

I think Phil believes that this kind of self censorship won't change the behavior of the type of people who react violently but I disagree. The more concessions are made the more that type of behavior is encouraged. Bookstores won?t stock certain books and magazines, a play was prematurely closed and a Dutch politician was allowed to be hounded out of the country. These are concrete examples but I am more concerned about the general ethical climate that is more concerned with how some guy phrased comments about veils than the destruction of Danish embassies. The British government and the US government are both responsible for fostering this climate as well as many others.

To me it seems obvious that this attitude will lead to more demands and more violence but it probably isn't. I've seen abortion debates where the pro abortion side argues that legalizing abortion won't affect the number of unwanted pregnancies. They argue that abortion is (relatively) expensive and can be emotionally devastating; besides, who wants to go through the operation? Just because you can sew a hand back on, nobody is going to chop it off. The other side argues that legalization will take its effect at the margins. Women have been having backstreet abortions for centuries and there are plenty of women who are only slightly on the side of prudence because the cost was so very high, reduce the cost and they end up on the other side.

Now, I don't really think that this line argument is all that relevant in the abortion debate but people who argue that there will be more unwanted pregnancies are right. When abortion was legalized in America the number of conceptions went way up even as the number of births went down. Now, almost a third of pregnancies are terminated.

Plenty of examples can be suggested (seatbelt laws are an example), but they all make the same point; if you reduce the cost (or increase the benefit) of something, there will be more of it. Destruction of property during strikes is less severely punished than similar crimes under other circumstances, so people are more likely to destroy property during strikes! The violent reactions we have become used to have been encouraged by our tolerance. Is it really a coincidence that some Christian groups in England have become more "assertive" (i.e. willing to use violence) recently?

Exactly the same reasoning lies behind rules like, "don't negotiate with terrorists". It is possible that a terrorists group could get their hands on WMD's and demand the release of a few people from prison. The cost benefit analysis clearly suggests releasing the prisoners but that will show other terrorists that they can get their way using their techniques; there will be more of it.

The violent reactions are not inevitable as Phil suggests.

Addendum: When I was in London two men had an argument over who was looking at the DVD selection in the library (in Holborn, pretty swanky). The man of Middle Eastern appearance started choking the other man and screaming at him about his being an Islamophobe. Does the ethical climate contribute to incidents like this?

random stuff

The chess world champion overlooks mate in one. Scroll down for the most amazing blunder you'll ever see.

Libertarian blogging hero (not just to me, he saved a man's life with blog related activity) Radley Balko loved Borat but has a little rethink after reading Tierney and Hitchens (I don't this Tierney chap). I really can't believe he needed help to have thoughts like this (although I also didn't know the bit about Borat's "home village").

I've improved my blogroll! You just gotta read Jamie Whyte's article's, Nick Bostrom and the overcoming bias are also cool.

Monday, November 27, 2006

secret debate

Phil and I have been secretly debating over the last month or so (very slowly, there's only a couple of comments each). I'm not sure if either of us know how much we disagree with each other, so maybe someone else can clarify (click the heading, or follow the link at the bottom).

As in the discussion on Borat, there is a tension between politeness and honesty. Different people can legitimately disagree over where to draw the line between the two.

I think is an interesting question in ethics. A rule utilitarian is concerned with the consequences of his actions and realises that he will seldom be able to predict consequences of his actions. We think that rules like, "don't tell lies' and "keep promises" on average have better consequences than the alternative and so become moral rules to follow unless we have excellent reason to believe that another action will be better.

I argued earlier that profit seeking in a free market is also a moral rule that should generally be followed. Another rule related to don't tell lies is (could be?) "truth seeking". If you are a journalist you can?t have much of an idea what consequences your articles will have. Trying to get at the truth will usually have the best consequences. Same thing goes for a debate or any occasion where differences of opinion are being expressed.

People love talking about the "truth" and the best way about finding the truth is to try and evaluate other arguments critically and honestly and to sincerely and honestly argue your own case, even if you know it might hurt somebody's feelings.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

please explain

Assume a grossly consumerist, materialist view of the world, one in which we all agree that a pay increase makes us better off (other things being equal).

Now instead of getting a pay increase, every time you go shopping some stranger pops up and pays 10% of your bill. Are you better off? If not, why not?

Update: Before I forget that I had a point, this does actually happen on a large scale and people do moan. Where?

I nearly crushed a man's legs today...

what did you do?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

is borat funny?

I admit that I laughed quite a lot during the movie, but I also laughed during American Pie and for exactly the same reasons. Toilet humor is like that, sometimes you just can't help laughing, it's like being tickled. Plenty of people (including people I normally go out of my way to agree with) think it's clever and witty. It's like satire man, exposing peoples (Americans) prejudice and stuff.

I just don't get it, what should the people do? Would people in other countries behave differently? If it shows anything it shows that Americans have been browbeaten into accepting just about any behaviour from people of different cultures. I've listened to plenty of racist conversations where I've just sat there awkwardly silent without challenging any assertions. This happened quite a lot in Stellenbosch, so some of my experience is just personal. But surely many people of my generation have listened to racist comments by their parents or grandparents without getting into an argument. It's awkward and there's probably a point where we would speak up but most of us judge that it wouldn't be worth the strife.

Fortunately some of my hero's agree with me. Here's what Christopher Hitchens has to say about the movie. Follow the link provided to read a review by someone who "gets it". Jane Galt hasn't seen it and here's why:
And the self-congratulation of much of the commentary I've read (those people need to be exposed for the bigots they are) hasn't exactly endeared it to me.

king fed

I've never seen him celebrate like that before and it was just a semi final in a non-slam event. Seems to take his record against Nadal seriously. He's lost nine matches in the last two years, five against Nadal.

His record over the last three years is the most impressive three year run ever (at least statistically). Here's a comparison with the other players who have finished 3 consecutive years at number 1. I'm actually surprised by how good the other records are. Shows how entrenched my bias is.

I think this year is his most impressive year, but you argue for each year. His grand slam performances (French open apart) were most impressive in 2004, but there is a general trend towards him becoming more difficult to beat. Of the nine matches he's lost the last two years, five were in finals and two in semi-finals. He had match points in 3 of them and was 30-0 up serving for the match in another. His loss to Andy Murray is a strange blip on this record and it is the only match he lost in straight sets.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Milton Friedman

Milton Friedman died last night aged 94. I was surprised by how sad I was to read that he had passed away. He is the ultimate libertarian hero and just an all around good guy. Stephen Pollard tells the story of how he became Friedmans pen pal, Jane Galt and Arnold Kling also have nice things to say about him.

He is a hate figure to many. Here's what someone at the Guardian thinks of him.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

minimum wage

The post below was motivated by the minimum wage debate. I find it a little mysterious that people favour the minimum wage over cash top-ups funded from general taxation. Maybe it's just about the principle and not about the consequences.

I don't believe that a minimum wage is effective in helping the poor, but I would oppose it even if I did on the grounds of freedom. Maybe those in favour of the minimum wage are also more concerned about the principle; the need to make a statement about what workers deserve regardless of the consequences for the poor. Of course we would never actually say this, but I'm sure it must be something along these lines.

principles or consequences

Most of our opinions (on politics at least) are informed by a combination of principle and consequences. In different circumstances, we give different weights to both. A lot of people would argue that if a government allowed torture, the long term consequences would offset any short term gains made by, for example, preventing a terrorist attack. However, even if overall welfare was demonstrably increased over time by a torture policy those same people wouldn't suddenly become torture enthusiasts. That's because torture is wrong no matter what the consequences. When it comes to torture, most people would agree (I think!) that principle trumps consequences.

I feel the same way about free speech. I believe we?re all better off for having it, but even if we weren?t I don?t think anybody has the right to deny us that right.

In other cases, consequences trump principles. I doubt most people care about the principle involved in how the government controls the money supply; they are more likely to be concerned about the effects of any decisions on unemployment or inequality or something.

I think there is a huge temptation to try and merge principles and consequences when intellectual honesty requires that we do our very best to keep them separate.

Say for example Joe has a deeply held conviction that gays should be allowed to adopt children and a study comes out showing a negative impact on children raised by same sex parents. Joe immediately argues that the methodology is flawed and questions the motives of the authors, possibly before he has read the paper. Joe is confusing principle and consequences; there is no formula for weighing one against the other and Joe could still be in the right even if there are negative effects on children.

I read some fancy article explaining that it is impossible to untangle the two concerns. That doesn't mean that we can't try.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Kim Jong-il

The other day I saw a girl wearing a t-shirt that had "I rule" written on it and for some reason pictured Kim Jong-il wearing a similar shirt. I found this extremely funny and made a strange snorting sound which attracted a few looks.

Does anybody else find the image funny?

Frito-Lay Angrily Introduces Line Of Healthy Snacks

"Here," said Frito-Lay CEO Al Carey as he disgustedly tossed a bag of the company's new Flat Earth-brand snack crisps onto the lectern during a meeting with shareholders and members of the press. "Here's some shit that's made from beets. I hope you're all happy now that you have your precious beet chips with the recommended daily serving of fruit, or vegetables, or whatever the hell a 'beet' is."

"Mmm, dehydrated bulb things," Carey added. "Sounds delicious."

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

how rational are voters?

Considering Bryan Caplan's hero status it's odd that I'm not over excited by his new book, "The Myth of the Rational Voter". Somehow, the title didn't grab me. Reading this long essay of his has changed my mind though. It's very interesting and mentions something that I often wonder about:
In my book, however, I argue that rational ignorance has been oversold. Rational ignorance cannot explain why people gravitate toward false beliefs, rather than simply being agnostic. Neither can it explain why people who have barely scratched the surface of a subject are so confident in their judgments ? and even get angry when you contradict them. Why, to return to the case of immigration, do people leap to the conclusion that immigration is disastrous, and have trouble holding a civil conversation with someone who disagrees?
Of course I'm not particularly calm when it comes to immigration, but that doesn't change the fact the comments on post's about immigration are very different from other topics. There is always a longer discussion and commenter's are often aggressive, even to the blogger who they otherwise like.

He also discusses the "negative externalities" of irrational voting. I never thought about it like that. Just as driving a car harms others by polluting the air, making a noise and requiring roads, voting for bad policies harms other citizens. How can you deal with that, not by taxing stupid voters surely.

Finally, I agree that economists should spend more time talking about things like free trade, outsourcing and immigration (at least when trying to communicate to a popular audience). Everybody has views on these things, but they are often poorly informed:
when economists get the public's ear, they should not bore them with the details of national income statistics, or quibble with each other about marginal issues. They should challenge the public's misconceptions about markets, foreigners, saving labor, and progress.
These things are really important, many of the things that economists find interesting are probably about as important as number theory or cosmology.

Update: Steve Sailer responds to Tyler Cowen's post on irrational voters
On immigration, the elites and the masses have different interests. Anyone who has followed the immigration debates on blogs like this one, Caplan's, Mankiw's, or DeLong's knows that most academic economists tend to be palpably ignorant of the basic facts about immigration, and frequently get taken to school by their commenters. Academic economists, other than the tiny number who specialize in immigration, show little evidence of being more rational than the masses, just more ideological.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Japanese love hotels

Harry Hutton explains. Here's an extract:
As soon as I hit the money I'm going to buy a ROTATING round bed. I'll get my servants to lay out trays of snacks around the edge. Then, instead of having to stand up to get food, I can lie on my bed and take snaps at it as I rotate past.

And I'm definitely going to get a mirrored ceiling. Consider the advantages: while you are having sex of yourself you can check that your hair is still looking stylish, and perhaps trim your moustache. It allows you to look your best, no matter how frantic the debauchery. And if there is a ninja hiding behind the curtains, plotting a surprise attack, you can spot him before it's too late. "You there! Come on out, you little bleeder. The game is up." (Don't forget to confiscate his fighting sticks, or he'll be back, mark my words.)

Tip from me: there will be several channels of free filth on the TV; do not touch this as it will cause a row with your girlfriend and, at several dollars a minute, the very last thing you want is any kind of conversation breaking out. They?ll charge you an extra hour.

I'm getting better

Not that I was sick? more of a sickness of the mind. And I'm not better yet, just getting better. I'm less outraged by opinions contrary to my own these days. I don't always leap to conclusions of malice or stupidity. But I do sometimes. This pisses me off. This is Steve Sailer response to Alex Tabarrok's open letter on immigration. It's long, but here's a taste
Well, first let's not blame all economists. The vast majority had the self-respect not to sign.

Notably lacking from the list were the biggest names in the field?such as Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell, Paul Krugman, Paul Samuelson, and Gary Becker Apparently, they have risen high enough that they can afford to dissent from their colleagues politically-correct happy-face groupthink on immigration.
Friedman and Becker are outspoken in their advocacy of immigration. Both have said, recently on the net, that they are in favour of much more immigration (especially for high skilled workers) and would be in favour of free immigration if the welfare state were smaller (which they also want). I've come across other economist bloggers (who are the most likely to be aware of the letter) who didn't sign but are very pro-immigration. In other words, not signing the letter doesn?t mean you are anti-immigration. Sailer knows all this.

His post is nasty and dishonest. Sailer is not stupid so he must be evil.

another hero

Hero of the moment Don Boudreaux, who blogs at Cafe Hayek (blog of the moment), has a lot to say about immigration. Well written, nicely sized chunks that persuade with arguments not data; oh yes, there is a good time to be had by clicking on that link.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Bastiat Prize

Jamie Whyte and Tim Harford share the Bastiat Prize. Follow the link at the bottom for a selection of essays by all those shortlisted. I've only read a few and this is my favorite so far:
The entitlement-based policies of all the main parties muddle up two quite different goals: one worthy, the other disgraceful. The worthy goal is redistributing wealth. Since a pound is worth more to a pauper than to a millionaire, transfers from the rich to the poor increase aggregate wealth (at least, until the size of the transfer undermines incentives to work). It also helps to avoid civil unrest, which benefits everyone, including the rich.

The disgraceful goal is to compel people to live in ways that they would not choose for themselves, or to buy things they do not think worth the cost. This is precisely the effect of confiscating a large portion of someone?s income and then providing him with services to which he can no longer afford an alternative.
I've linked to this article before.

The Bastiat Prize, "... celebrates journalists and writers whose published articles explain and promote the institutions of free society, emulating the 19th Century French philosopher Frédéric Bastiat."

Friday, November 03, 2006

Tyler Cowen

I didn't ask if I could make our correspondence public, but somehow I don't think he'll mind.

Stuart writes

About 8% of all Zimbabweans have fled to South Africa (we recently deported 50 000 of them, aaahh, I was so proud). That's a lot; what do you think would happen if most rich countries (Of course the US would be the most important) opened their borders to Zimbabweans? Surely there's money to be made smuggling people out (most speak good English).

Would the country empty out almost completely? Wouldn't this be a good thing?
Tyler replies
yes, and yes...!
Very rewarding.

The benefit of writing these silly e-mails is that it forces you to look critically at your own writing.

It seems to me that I sound like a moron every time I e-mail someone clever and Albert Camus the rest of the time.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Spartak Moscow pay penalty for traffic jams

This is the funniest news story I've read since Vilas "congratulating" Nadal:
After sitting in traffic that did not move for more than 45 minutes, Spartak's coach Vladimir Fedotov, decided that the team would have to abandon their bus and run to the nearest underground station over a mile way.

Even though Moscow metro attendants allowed the team through the ticket barriers without paying, the experience proved a challenge.

"I was afraid that we would lose some of our players because most of them probably have never used the metro before and could have got lost there," Mr Fedotov said. "I had to chase after everyone and make sure no one was left behind."
It was a difficult experience for the poor players
"I was shocked by how crowded it was," said Martin Stranzl, an Austrian international and Spartak's star fullback. "It was very hot in there," agreed Yegor Titov, the captain.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

comment is free

Comment is free is pretty cool. It's hosted by the Guardian but David Boaz (libertarian) and Bill Emmott (last editor of The Economist) are regular posters, Bill Emmott even responds to some of the comments! Real bloggy like!

Here's a good post by Boaz and here's the best bit:
Take a rapidly growing part of a county or a school district -- the newspapers will be full of stories about how difficult it's going to be to build enough schools there, and how it takes five years to plan a new school, and how the county should limit growth and encourage people to live in areas that already have schools. But you don't see any stories about how difficult it will be to create grocery stores or video stores: businesses just go build them.

Touchy feely immigration

A while back I wrote about immigration aiding self actualization. I think it's true, but many unsentimental people living nice countries don't much care about the dreams of foreigners, so it's useless for my quest to change people's minds.

There is a corollary to the self actualization point that should be more convincing; innovation. We all benefit every day from the cleverness of other individuals. Individuals save our lives by finding cures for things, save us time by making microwaves and keep us safe by helping to prevent bloody land grabs (thinking of Mandela). I'm not sure exactly what comfort would be missing from my life if Einstein had died as a baby, but I'm glad he did the things he did and I think the world is a better place for them. The thing about good ideas and innovations is that we don't know what they are till they happen. We didn?t miss the internet before it existed and there are plenty of other things were not missing now but could be making our lives better if they had been made.

How many potential Einstein?s have died before their 18th birthday or spent their lives just trying to get enough food to eat?

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Struggling Blockbuster Eliminates Rental Fees

"Why rent from anywhere else?" Waters added. "Seriously, let us know of any reasons you may still have for not renting from us, and we?ll remedy them immediately. Immediately."

While two pieces of identification, a valid credit card, and proof of residence were previously required to open an account at the store, customers will now only need to walk through the door of any franchise location, whether by accident or not, and make brief eye contact with an employee to qualify for membership.
Under the Gold Rewards Membership, customers can rent up to 50 movies at once as well as be driven home by Blockbuster chauffeurs, who will also install a brand-new 32-inch flat-screen TV upon the first rental.
They also plan to unveil new promotions, including a company pledge to go out and purchase, on the spot, any movie customers cannot find on their shelves, as well as a new policy allowing customers to keep rented material for seven years, and up to 12 if it is not a new release.
"And if that's not enough?which many of us fear may be the case?as a special introductory offer, cancel your membership with Netflix anytime in the next three months and we?ll do literally anything you ask of us," Antiano added. "We mean it."

Barron's financial reporter Steven Hirsch said that though the new plan is risky, even getting curious potential renters in the door could double the company's 2005 profits "just from the loose change that may drop out of customers' pockets."

Miami resident Scott Patterson, however, was only one of many consumers who said they were unimpressed with Blockbuster?s new offers, including "Two-Dollar Tuesdays," in which customers are handed $2 cash for every new release they rent.

"I don't know," Patterson said. "Something about that place just rubs me the wrong way."

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

careful now

A careful reading of the Koran shows that just about everything that Western feminists fought for in the 1970s was available to Muslim women 1,400 years ago.
Maybe, but what is that carefully placed careful doing there? What about careless readings? Is everybody who disagrees with her being careless?

Maybe she's right, but I'm sceptical.

I carefully read her comment like this, "it is possible to interpret the Koran as describing a feminist utopia without obvious logical error"

against equality of opportunity


Monday, October 23, 2006

what's wrong with polygamy?

I don't know. It depends on how common it would be. The more common, the more single male losers out there. This has an impact on their happiness of course, but also social stability; I'd bet that rape would increase for example.

Polygamy is the topic of the week on the Becker-Posner blog. Here's Becker. Here's Posner.

Posner should be a hero of mine and I take what he says seriously, but I can't help it, I just don't like him.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

tiger killing

Short post over at Tracy's blog.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Should seatbelts be compulsory?

Assume they should be. Other things being equal, it's safer to crash while buckled up and many people wouldn't wear a seatbelt if they didn't have to, so an enforced seatbelt law should reduce the number of road deaths right? Not necessarily, people may choose to drive faster or more recklessly instead. So other things are not equal; people change their behavior. When America made seatbelts compulsory motorists had more accidents, killed more pedestrians but got killed at about the same rate.

Does this affect your opinion about seat belt laws? One response is that the law is fine, but people should drive as carefully as they did before (or more carefully!); then there would be fewer deaths. That's true, but if scolding motorists into new attitudes is a viable strategy, why do you need the seatbelt law in the first place? Surely you can just scold drivers into buckling up? When making new laws you can't simply will people to change their behavior in ways you find desirable.

Should seat belts still be compulsory?

who, whom?

Since I started blogging I've become more aware of the crapness of my writing. I read a book about punctuation (!) and I take more of an interest in grammar (Tracy seems to have learned a lot that I somehow missed out on).

So, anyway here's what Harry Hutton has to say about the who/whom controversy:
Simon writes:
"Harry I think you'll find there's a push to stop using "whom" at all... if I find the link I'll let you know."

Harry replies:
"Get stuffed. Who?s the fucking English teacher around here, me or you? Most Australians couldn't distinguish a subject pronoun, an object pronoun and a poke in the eye with a fucking lump of wood.
Made me laugh.


Suppose you woke up to discover someone else was "plugged" into you. You didn't agree to this, it just happened. He's a stranger, but otherwise just a regular guy. The trouble is that he is completely dependent on you to survive, if you unplug him, he'll die. If he doesn't bother you at all then it's just weird, you can't unplug him. If his presence is demanding but you can cope if you try then it still seems harsh to unplug him. But surely there is comes a point, before his presence threatens your life where you can justifiably pull the plug, he can't expect you to devote your entire existence and all your resources to keeping him alive can he? I don't know what the answer is but I wouldn't consider it murder.

This thought experiment is for people who think abortion is either murder, or not, ever. It's how I normally think of it but even if you incline to the murder side, things might not be so clear, especially in the case of rape victims.

"He is the worst rubbish there is."

Jesus. Over the last couple of years I've been impressed by how little sniping there is between the top tennis players. Everybody except for Leyton Hewitt is normally pretty graceful in defeat and makes sane comments about the other players. This is in start contrast to just about every other sport, including snooker and chess.

I guess David Nalbandian can be scratched off the list of nice guys:
All this selling himself as a gentleman is not true. He is the worst rubbish there is.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

teachers are not underpaid

Well, some are, but my guess is that most teachers (in South Africa at least) are overpaid. But that's just a guess, I could be wrong, any suggestions on how to find out?

If there were a free market in education I think most teachers would be paid more, but they would also teach differently, and probably different stuff.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


Am I unlucky? Do other people dodge? Do other people get hit and then keep quiet? Do other people get hit but don't notice? What?!

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

veils and burkas

There's been a ruckus over veils in England recently. Jack Straw says he doesn't like them. So what? I donno, strange days.


People should be able to wear whatever they want, including swastikas and Che Guevara T-shirts.

That doesn't mean that organizations (including government ones) can't have dress codes. A private company should be able to ban veils if it wants, but I don't have any views about what government policy should be generally. I have reservations about teachers wearing veils though. It makes a statement about gender relations, it says, "As a man you are incapable of seeing me as a person if you see my face". Maybe that's true for some men (a lot of things are true of some men), but I think it's a dubious message to send kids. Of course veils are fine in private schools.

Steven Pinker claims that one of the reasons we have such big brains is because we got into an arms race with other humans trying to deceive each other and trying to detect deceit. Much of this involves facial expressions. We have a special bit of our brain just for recognizing human faces, nothing else. It makes sense for people feel uneasy talking to someone behind a veil, part of it is just biological.

Women who like wearing veils often say that they want to be treated by the content of their ideas not the prettiness of their face. They don't want to be objectified; fair enough, but by wearing a veil or burka you take away what makes you look human. Instead of being a sexual object, you become much more like an inanimate object, talk about objectification! But anyway, I think it's pretty weird to think that men are so sexually affected by seeing a woman's face. If this is true, maybe women really are to blame for their rape if they were wearing a short skirt or tight top.

All that said, what the hell is wrong with people not liking veils? Nobody minds if people dislike Americans.
I'm wearing a balaclava on campus today. I'm getting a lot of looks. People are so prejudiced.

Monday, October 16, 2006


They forced me to read about Marxism recently. It's actually quite funny how similar they are to libertarians in some ways. Marxists are concerned that the state uses education to indoctrinate children. Yes! They also believe that those in control use the media to regulate what we know. Again there is something in this many countries.

Liberal democracies still often have centrally controlled, state run schools. England has the BBC and we have the SABC. I also want to stop those in power deciding what children are taught and what the masses see on the news. Of course part of the reason I want to stop them is because education and the media have pervasive left wing bias.

Libertarian and communist utopias are pretty similar in some ways. Take a look at this site. It provides details about anarcho-capitalist Patri Friedman pet project. It's kinda crazy, but Marxists should be able to see where he's coming from.

Update: Oh, and marxists note that government has a monopoly on the use of force. Some libertarians also think that's a bad thing.


If you find some Far Side character crawling through the desert about to die of thirst and you can save him without endangering yourself clearly you should do so. Not to save him would be terribly immoral, but should it be illegal? Free societies allow their citizens to do immoral things all the time without tossing them jail.

Unflinching libertarians will argue that a government shouldn't force you to help the dying stranger but I'm sure just about everybody else would disagree (including me). This isn't a post about how evil libertarians are; they'll cheerfully point out that they'd help the poor chap and argue that under their system more people might get saved because the average person has no incentive to avoid the edges of stranger infested deserts. Libertarians don't hate the idea of helping, but they worry about some dork forcing them to do stuff when the case is less clear.

I think this silly example helps distinguish between different types of liberals. In the real world there are millions of cases that resemble the desert example; people die deaths that rich people could stop, the only difference is that we don't see it in front of our eyes. The trouble is that saving people can be very expensive; feeding a starving man is one thing, the latest cancer treatment is something else entirely. What about somebody who has food but of such a poor quality that he is vulnerable to diseases which could hasten death? What about an elderly person who would die in a few weeks no matter how much is spent on medical care?

Once you start forcing the rich to save people it is difficult to find any principled place to stop and any country that has welfare programs less generous than Sweden looks heartless. I think its one reason left liberals differ so much from libertarians. It's also a challenge to people like me who fall somewhere between the two. I'm in favor of a basic minimum income for everybody so I can't offer a principled and opposition to taxation, but I also know that people will continue to die preventable deaths (of course this happens anyway, the important thing is principle!)

Saturday, October 14, 2006


I'm going to stuff it and put it down my trousers

Some have expressed doubt about the catch, noting that no one was around to witness it. Professor Von Schnarchen of the Guinness Book of Records told them to quit carping. "It is bigger than average, certainly, but fish this size are increasingly common. There is certainly no reason for suspicion."

Fishing cheat Brad Delong was left red-faced last year when he won a bet by catching a haddock that he bought from pet shop three days earlier.

Friday, October 13, 2006

You must be joking

Last Saturday Greg and I were discussing Tyler Cowen?s webpage. The bread of his knowledge and interests is barley credible. Within hours of the Noble Prize for literature being awarded to Orhan Pamuk (have you even heard of him?) Cowen had posted thoughtful comments on every book he has written, recommending particular books for different types of readers and pointing out where he differs from the literary critics.

Yes, I said shit

Here's a post offering advice on swearing. Swearing can be effective and funny but quickly becomes crude and stupid if overused. As one of Harry's commenter's points out:
thats right its more afective if u wait real qiuet an then yell 'fuck' in someons ear by suprise than if u walk arond muterin 'fuck fuck fuck' all th time.

What is it with these bloody birds?

I have just been shit on by a bird for the 50th time. Does this happen to anybody else? If not, why me?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

what does bin laden think of 24?

I wonder what Osama Bin Laden thinks when he watches 24. Does he feel smug? Does he ridicule the unrealistic plot and the personal attachments of the characters?

I bet he wonders how the evil mastermind is able to employ 600 committed villains, all highly skilled in computer programming, martial arts and English, in America, for years as they plan their attacks, without anybody getting even a sniff that anything is happening. This is especially weird considering how sensitive Jack Bauer and his CTU agent friends are to "chatter".

You are a British fox. How would you most like to be killed?

a) I would like to be shot by a farmer.

b) I would like to be chased cross country by posh people, then bitten by dogs.

c) I would like to be dug out by terriers, then bashed on the head with a shovel.

d) I would like to be mown down by traffic.

e) I would like to be caught in a wire snare.

f) I would like to be trapped in a cage, then stoned to death with champagne bottles in an Oxbridge college.

Answers in the comments

(This is a joke, I like option c)

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Young Communist League protests Israeli wall

The Young communist league was involved in protesting the famous Israeli wall at UCT last week. A cardboard replica wall was erected to divide the campus and students wrote graffiti protest comments on it. There were two major complaints; the wall is a land grab and the wall violates human rights by limiting movement.

Communists hate walls; they imprison workers in capitalist societies, preventing them from fleeing to communist utopias like North Korea.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Philosophers are a useless bunch. They don't know if other minds exist, they don't know if the external world exists (we could be minds in vats or something) and they don't know if the sky will still be blue tomorrow. So what should we do? We toddle along believing in other minds, the world and tomorrow's blue sky unperturbed. Not to do so would literally be insane.

Many philosophers agree that we have free will but when they explain exactly what they mean by that you will (if you are anything like me) be left feeling confused and unsatisfied. Some people worry about free will because, if we don't have it then how can we punish criminals for their actions? It's not fair! Some worry, but most don't. Not believing in free will might not be insane, but it's still a little weird.

But these philosophers are serious, clever people and should be taken seriously. In the same way that you can start to question the existence of free, you can start questioning whether anybody can ever deserve more income than anybody else.

A person's income is determined by a host of factors; how hard they work, how talented they are and luck. People don't deserve the luck they get and they have nothing to do with how talented they happen to be, so at first glance people only really deserve the part of income they get from hard work. But, someone's willingness to work depends on a combination of innate inclination and upbringing, neither of which she controls. So maybe we don't deserve that bit of income either. It will always be unfair for one person to earn more than another, so the only just way to organize society is to enforce strict material equality.

This is a serious argument in political philosophy and I can see its appeal, but why is it so different from the other examples I gave? It all looks like the same philosophical weirdness to me, but we dismiss the other examples without a second thought.

While I can?t really comment on the substance of any of these issues I can offer a though on free will and responsibility. Even in a world without free will, the threat of punishment is one of the factors that influence a decision to commit a crime. More crimes would be committed without the punishment. So the punishment may not be ?deserved? but it still serves the valid function of deterrence. Thinking like this takes the emphasis away from retribution and views punishment as a necessary evil rather than an end in itself. Also, some people do not respond to the threat of punishment no matter how great it would be. These people are considered insane and are treated differently. Their actions are not considered freely chosen in the same way that a normal person?s would be (even in a world without free will). One way to think of free will is the way that we respond to incentives.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

instant executions

Many bloggers have their signature posts. Marginal Revolution have their "markets in everything", Jane Galt has her "department of awful statistics" and Tim Worstall has his Brit Blog Roundup. I've toyed with the idea of "instant death penalty offences", but my list of offences has grown slowly for fear of offending people and ending on death row myself. The idea comes from my dad who wants to shoot anybody found in possession of a gun (he was trying to be funny). Pointing out that pro wrestling (the WWF type) is fake and that getting a job in London helps you cope with the high prices are the offences on the top of my list.

I've finally got a new one. Any tennis player who describes Roger Federer?s play as "scary" should be summarily executed. Tim Henman is the most recent offender:
It's difficult to hurt him as he's got so many strengths and so few weaknesses and, the scary thing is, he's still improving.
This is about the tenth time this year that one of his opponents has said something like this. The first player who describes playing Federer as depressing; or something like that, should get a prize.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

quick questions

Do economists prefer quotas or tariffs? If there is a consensus that something is a negative externality, would they suggest you tax it or ban it?

Flustered Bush Misses Air Force One Flight

The president was left "high and dry" at Andrews AFB today
The 12-person crew was not able to accommodate the president due to strict federal guidelines requiring all passengers to arrive at their departure gate 15 minutes prior to takeoff?guidelines flight officials say are especially important considering heightened security around the president. When Bush inquired into the possibility of being placed on standby for Air Force Two, the exasperated commander in chief was informed that the flight was full and Vice President Dick Cheney was unwilling to give up his seat.
Morganson was able to offer the president a standby seat on an affiliate airline's 3 p.m. flight to Reno, though Bush said he failed to see "how that helps [him] in the slightest." After concluding a "pointless talk" with desk personnel at Gate 14, Bush took questions in the air-base food court, where he denounced the airline's actions.

"This is so typical," said Bush while eating a $9 chicken-Caesar-salad wrap. "Of course, they had all the time in the world to check my bags and they told me I'd be all set, but all of a sudden, I'm not allowed on the plane. Now my biggest suitcase is halfway to who-knows-where and I'm stuck in this stupid airport. Don't these people ever communicate with each other?" said Bush, who refused an offer to put him up at a nearby Radisson Hotel for the evening.
Bush, who describes himself as a "perpetual traveler" who had exclusively used Air Force One for both work and his frequent vacations, said he will begin looking into other carriers.

"They just lost their best customer," said Bush after purchasing a Robin Cook novel and settling in at Runway Café. "I remember when Air Force One used to care about customer service. Now it's all about their bottom line."

Muslims To Boycott All Pope Merchandise

Our only recourse is to refuse to buy anything?be it candles, incense, Pope Oaties breakfast cereal, Popeshine shampoo, or Craftspope-brand power tools?and, by destroying consumer confidence, bring the worshipper of the cross and all his subsidiaries to their knees.
We will rain down death and destroy profits wherever the infidel is found, from the rivers of Diet Papal Cola to the mountains of Pope-Tarts.
Not everyone was persuaded though
I am a Muslim warrior, and I will gladly take to the streets in wrathful indignation," Malaysian-born Montreal resident Ridhuan Amir said. "But papal products mean higher quality. He may be the great infidel, but the fact is, he makes the best odor-absorbing scoopable cat litter on the market.
And the Vatican went into damage control mode:
the Vatican released a statement expressing regret over the Pope's remarks and reaffirmed his respect for the Islamic faith in his goods, announcing plans to offer its own line of long-burning Li'l Benedict effigy dolls, with prices starting at $39.95.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


Tyler Cowen responded to Will Wilkinson's post claiming theists should die lots of accidental deaths:
They have their own selfish reasons, plus whatever role they think they are supposed to be playing in God's plan. So they ought to take fewer chances
Yeah, well, here's what I had to say on the topic.

Reading what Cowen has to say does make me squirm a bit, I'm satisfied that, unlike Charles Murray, he is not evil (or going senile), so I don't pass so lightly over what he has to say when it conflicts with my views.

answer sought

Of course Tyler Cowen is a hero of mine, so I take this type of thing seriously:
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. I'm still at p = .05, if only because I fear such a heavy reliance on the anthropic principle. This book didn't sway me one way or the other. And while I am not religious myself, I am suspicious of anti-religious tracts which do not recognize great profundity in the Bible.
I'm not exactly sure what his comment about the anthropic principle is about. I think he has a problem arguments for God based on the incredible fine tuning of the universe (Anthony Flew, the once prominent atheist philosopher, renounced his atheism because of the fine tuning argument), and is suspicious that there are not other, better arguments, but I could be wrong. Anyway, he seems to really like the bible, it's reasonable to assume that hell should be considered a live possibility. 5% refers to what? Christian God? With or without hell? When declaring religious views I think it should be mandatory to be clear about your views of the afterlife. Many people are undecided about God, or Christianity (for example Jesus may not be the Son of God, but was like, the best person ever) but suppress the fact that they are absolutly certain about hell (they have reasons for this of course, but none that will win over your local evangelist). I think this involves a more committed theological stance than said people are willing to admit. Considering the importance of an afterlife, and the apparently concrete views of most agnostics, I don't really get why attention is so often focused on atheists confidence about the non-existence of God. It seems trivial.

So what is Cowen's 5%?

I know I've written about this before, but I really think its worth thinking seriously about hell. I find it weird that people worry about shark attacks. Sure they're horrible, but they are just so incredibly rare. There are plenty of other horrible things with better claims to our fear. But I have my own irrational fear, being tortured. I don't mean in the way you see on 24, electric shocks or burns, I mean much more exotic things (I'll leave it to you to ponder what I'm talking about). The odds of me being tortured are pretty low, billions to one against probably, but not trillions. I agree it's a weird concern, but not so weird considering how much worse it would be than being attacked by a shark, for example. Say, for example you are ten times more likely to be shark attacked than tortured, if torture is ten times worse it might be rational to fear shark attacks and torture equally.

If the odds were one in a thousand that I would be tortured in my lifetime I would be terrified, I suppose the terror would wear off, but I can?t believe all the anxiety would. How about one in twenty? What would your life be like? Remember some of the people you know will definitely experience it. I don?t think it would be possible to live life in anything like the way we live it now.

I'm no expert on the details of hell, but people spend eternity there, so I think it?s fair to say that hell is worse than any possible torture. So my question is: What makes the suffering in hell different enough from the suffering available in this life to justify the vastly different attitudes?

Friday, September 29, 2006

what's your vice?

A while back Tyler Cowen wrote about the libertarian, (US) liberal and conservative vices. He has this to say about the lefty vice:
The modern liberal vice is to think that everyone can be taken care of, and/or to rule out foreigners from the relevant moral universe.
This is why my posts on immigration are normally directed at leftist types (of course those on the right are evil and cannot be reasoned with). Leftists enjoy being on the side of the poor and oppressed, they are keen on giving truck loads of their tax money to poor countries yet they scream bloody murder if you suggest loosening immigration restrictions because it depresses the wages of local unskilled workers. A leftist will often not be able to understand that a $2 an hour job could be a desirable step for some people. They think keeping them out is much better than allowing them to be "exploited".

Anyway... what was my point? Oh yes, the vegetarian vice.

Vegetarians can be pretty confrontational and self righteous, but so can just about every religion or cause you can think of. Vegetarians often apply their ethical standards inconsistently; I am more concerned about consistency than exactly where I draw the line between what is acceptable and what is not. Vegetarianism is also almost indistinguishable from environmentalism. I think the connection between animal rights and carbon emissions is pretty loose, but some people are surely put off vegetarianism because of its association with activism.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

more marxism

A complaint that I've heard before is that schools are in the business of putting kids in their place in the name of the market, "Joe, you will be a manager because that is what you deserve and Billy, you will be a worker." I have no idea how much influence business leaders have over education policy but I doubt that they are in favour of dumbing down the curriculum in the way some of our lecturers claim. The complaint is part of a broader claim that the state is indoctrinating kids to its chosen ideology (which I kind of agree with, but not for the same reasons).

I don't think business leaders should decide education policy, that would be very un-free markety. The thing is that it is that education is one the most socialist parts of our society. The state controls the curriculum and most of what goes on. In a free market there would be different types of schools emphasising different kinds of things. It would be an excellent way of avoiding the awful indoctrination that is currently taking place on such a large scale. When the Marxists finally gain control of education I don't get the impression that there will be a huge diversity of ideas taught and I somehow doubt that capitalism will get much time in the classroom. Of course that would be because capitalism is wrong and bad, Marxists will teach the true and good stuff, to all the kids. Lucky them.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

'The Scream' Returns From Two-Year Vacation Relaxed

Report: Iranian Science Teachers May Be Enriching Students

WASHINGTON, DC- A recently released Pentagon report is raising new worries that Iran has been operating several large facilities designed solely for the purpose of enriching mass quantities of high-grade students...

Leading analysts believe that the teachers are using a widely applied enrichment process in which students are isolated from such elements as family, play, and cartoons, and are rotated through seven separative work units over the course of each day. This cycle is repeated for months, until the students are made highly reactive to reading matter, which enables them to absorb large amounts of information in short periods of time.

The students are then continually exposed to heavy material, taught to achieve critical thought, and finally graduate to a state of explosive productivity...

"While we believe that a majority of these students were developed within Iran's borders anywhere from 13 to 17 years ago, there is also evidence that they are importing older students from former Soviet republics and Pakistan in what officials have dubbed an 'exchange program,'" CIA Director Michael Hayden said...

In a nationally televised Oval Office address Tuesday, President Bush expressed the concern that if Iran is allowed to enrich its students unchecked, many of them could end up anywhere, with some potentially landing in major university centers in New York and Los Angeles.

"The U.S. stopped enriching its students decades ago, and we call upon Iran to do the same," Bush said. "If the Iranians do not put an end to this program by the middle of December, and impose final examinations, they could face further isolation from the international community."

Monday, September 25, 2006

gun run

I ran the Gun Run for the fourth time yesterday. My time was 1 hour 51 minutes which is very much in line with my other half marathon times. The difference this time is that I wasn't hung-over, injured, detained by the other runners or otherwise impeded.

So, it looks like improving my time is going to be a lot harder than I thought. More interesting is how little impact those other 'disasters' seem to have had. I had guessed that they added 5-10 minutes to my time, but that is way overstated. I find that pretty surprising.

federer worship

One of the hazards of worshiping your sporting hero's is that they might not be attractive personalities off the court (or field or whatever). This can lead to ridiculous mental gymnastics trying to rationalize vicious head butts or deliberately crashing into opponents. Sometimes your hero might just be boring and spout stupid slogans after a match. Roger Federer makes me cringe a little when he explains how great he is after his latest triumph (though it normally comes off better when you actually watch the interview).

I think this shows honesty as much as arrogance, nobody would deny that he has dominated tennis over the last three or so years, it just doesn't sound right coming from him. I've watched two matches where I thought he was going to lose but ended up winning. In both cases he said he was lucky.

I just found this quote after the US Open:
After winning Wimbledon, I sort of said: 'OK, whoever wins the US Open is really better'.
You see? Not arrogance, honesty!

Saturday, September 23, 2006

made me laugh

Occasionally I?ll read that atheists have turned their back on God, or rejected Him or something. That seems to be the moral of this picture. But atheists are not rejecting God like they would reject a helping of asparagus or a potential boyfriend.

If you think this picture is in slightly bad taste, don't follow
this link. Browse through the archives if you have time. I'm surprised I haven't read about this site on the news.

jane galt

Jane Galt has had a lot of good posts recently. Here's one of them:
I think one of the biggest problems facing economists, and to some degree other social scientists, is the feeling that if you're just a little bit willing to fudge facts, you could do a great deal of good. If you'd torture the numbers just a little--not even torture, really, just waterboarding and a few stress positions--you could convince people to do what you know, deep in your heart, is the right thing. If you produce numbers showing that tax cuts increase tax revenue, or the minimum wage increases jobs, or GDP doubles for every 10% increase in the salaries of economists--why, you ccould do a whole world of good.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

the pope and islam

I think the Pope is a moron for saying the things he did and to prove I mean it here's an article by Christopher Hitchens saying just that. I find it a bit sureal reading sophisticated (I'll take the Economist's word on that) Catholic stuff. There is so much waffling about reason, but it's different to anything I've ever read before. Obviously all those other book just are not reasonable.

However stupid he was though I find this type of response way worse. My heart sinks even though it's so predictable:
"You're saying that the language itself is an act of violence?" "Of course it is," Nasr replied. Discussing the violent reaction to the Pope?s quotation, he declared, "He who uses the sword shall perish by the sword."


I just sat through a lecture on the wonders of marxism. Of course, every last word that flowed from Marx's pen was true (even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff as Ned Flanders would say) and towards the end of the lecture he said without irony, "We insist on following an economic model (capitalism) that has been thoroughly discredited".

Other highlights included his delight that there was at least one "leftist" in the class, you know, cos we are drowning in a sea of capitalist pigs and his disgust at the sale of the Waterfront. The nationalism that appears in the sports pages is awful, but not as awful as South Africans being allowed to sell their property to anyone they like. I don't know the details of the sale but it was clear (to me) that he found the idea of foreigners owning South African land was just outrageous.

Update: Apparently the US is suffering through the worst recession in its history.


Here's an interesting post about torture. The liberal in me says that torture is never ok but the utilitarian in me says that under some circumstances torture is the best way to go.

I squirm out of this with rule utilitarianism. We don't always know what the consequences of our actions will be so we follow certain rules most of the time. The more information we have the more justifiable deviations from the rule generally becomes: knowing the rules is not a way out of moral reflection. Torture should always be illegal, but the next time Jack Bauer gets a little physical with the terrorist and saves the day we shouldn't judge him harshly. I still think he should be prosecuted etc, maybe even go to jail for forms sake but I don't think it is morally wrong.

Maybe that would be a good time for a presidential pardon.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

immigration # 437

After slyly smuggling immigration into the last post I will be bolder here. While I?m keen on focusing on the benefits to potential immigrants I am getting less keen on talking about the rights of wannabe immigrants. Not because these are not significant but because people focus on their own citizens and don?t care much about foreigners. Restrictions on immigration involves coercing citizens of recipient countries by preventing them from hiring or housing (or whatever) people that they choose.

Rich people are the ones who would normally make use of this freedom, but, however appealing; simply thwarting the rich is not a noble goal.

are you keen on self actualization?

"money can't buy you happiness" is a bit of a cliché. Philosophers have been saying it for thousands of years and it is embodied in the message of half of the movies I have ever seen. Recently happiness studies have been reaching the same conclusion. Money does buy happiness but only untill your income reaches a relatively modest level (about $10 000 per person per year I think, of course this all my blogging takes place in America) but then levels off dramatically. The message is clear, "tax the rich! They won't miss the money". Of course you could respond in a different way, "Most Americans are at that level already, top up the incomes of the poor to that level then leave the rich alone" which is not the same thing.

But I digress; the message of all those books and movies is that you should try to do the things you love, friends, family and love are super important and that achieving something can be very satisfying. To put the last point a little differently: Earning $50 000 is better than being given $50 000 and it's even better if you earned it doing something you like doing. This is not controversial, but underpins the attitudes of many on "the right", that making your own life is a good way to live a happy/fulfilling life and should be encouraged. It isn't surprising that happiness research finds that the unemployed are particularly miserable (even after adjusting for levels of consumption).

This is one reason why high employment rates are good, but it would also be good (and you knew this is where I was going) if we had opportunities to do things we (more or less) like. A really good way to do this is to have open immigration. America is a good place for academics; Italy is probably a good place for aspiring opera singers and Brazil is a good place for plastic surgeons (as far as I know).

If we are keen on self actualization (and who isn't?) then we should take these benefits of immigration seriously.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Libertarian Reluctantly Calls Fire Department

After attempting to contain a living-room blaze started by a cigarette, card-carrying Libertarian Trent Jacobs reluctantly called the Cheyenne Fire Department Monday. "Although the community would do better to rely on an efficient, free-market fire-fighting service, the fact is that expensive, unnecessary public fire departments do exist," Jacobs said. "Also, my house was burning down." Jacobs did not offer to pay firefighters for their service.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

where did all the great art go?

Dear reader(s). I realize that you may not make it through this boring post, but I would love to hear your views on what makes great art and whether or not it is still being produced. Stick em in the comments.

I've been thinking about great art recently. Yesterday I was browsing a book on philosophy where the author makes the same point as Charles Murray: no great art has been produced recently. I think that this is ridiculous but at the same time I am reluctant to point to anything recent that I would insist is great, apart from some Beatles stuff. I like lots of stuff but I can't call everything I like great. I'm willing to suggest that Elvis is great, Bob Dylan and a few others who I don't really like myself, but I?m just guessing really.

When I think about this I normally get stuck on what exactly great art is. It seems to me that the cultural backdrop is important in establishing greatness. For example, I don?t think another rock band will ever be greater than the Beatles but I am confident that there have been better rock musicians; I think it is extremely unlikely that another band will be as popular, as innovative and as prolific at the same time while still being a rock band. It must also be more difficult to invent a new genre without appearing totally crazy. Just about any idea you have has likely been had by someone else, there are so many of us.

I recently read about the Flynn effect. Basically, the average IQ of the population has been increasing by about 3 points every ten years and this rate seems to be increasing. The IQ of the top 0.1% isn't increasing though; our actual mental capacity is staying put. Maybe great achievements don't seem as great because the average mind is more capable of absorbing it.

Since there are so many of us around now and we have so much money, free time, education and huge resources, maybe there is simply so much MORE great art. Like the kid in the Incredibles said, "If everybody is special, no-one is". Great stuff is less scarce and so less valuable compared to other things.

Something that I think may have an effect on the amount of greatness is the worship of characters like Beethoven, Bach et al. Time spent playing other people?s music is time not making your own. Also, if that stuff is simply defined as perfect or great then no wonder there isn?t new great or perfect stuff.

Since there are so many different genres, someone who dominates a genre may be likely to be a cult hero rather than great.

Today, we are rich, educated, free and many. I've met plenty of people way more talented than me and way more committed to what they do. They will probably say the same thing about their own experience. This means that there are a lot of supremely bright determined people out there. To suggest that none of them, over the last fifty years has done anything that should be considered great is to believe in some magic power thwarting our best efforts.

Charles Murray thinks that we are an impoverished society (despite our material riches). I think Charles Murray is really weird.

Video-Game Character Feeling Healthier After Eating Turkey Leg Off Ground

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

envy or spite?

Are the poor jealous of the rich or are the rich spiteful (or both)? Brad DeLong goes as far as to say that the rich ?transfer? utility from the rich to the poor by buying fancy stuff. This sounds like magik to me but what do I know. Here is what DeLong has to say, and here. My Hero's pileon so follow the links. Will Wilkinson is the most thorough.

I think that a lot of people will buy the spite theory. I don't doubt that it's sometimes true but think about the way things are in South Africa. DeLong must think that my lifestyle is designed to make the poor feel bad but I refuse to accept that. I would be happy if all the poor were as well off as I am; it upsets me that so many people live in poverty. To claim I enjoy their poverty (or my relative affluence) is stupid and insulting.

This debate also reminded me of Simon Blackburn's ethics book. People are keen to distinguish themselves from those just below themselves in status, they don't bother so much with those way below because they won't be mistaken for one of them. Like Tyler Cowen says, any spite is likely directed at other rich people.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

atheist or agnostic

Will Wilkinson takes on Richard Posner over atheism. Posner thinks there's something hugely different between not believing and actively disbelieving. I think a lot of people will say that it marks the difference between atheism and agnosticism. Since I've become an atheist (not agnostic) I've believed that most agnostics would better be described as atheist. Will Wilkinson explains why better than I could.