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.