On the Soapbox

No Monty Python for You!

Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Keywords: Ranting, Humor

PBS was supposed to air new some new Monty Python specials this spring. Well, according to the local listings, my local PBS is not airing them. WTF? Even the station in Kansas City is airing them. Grrr. So what are they showing tonight here? "Great Scenic Railway Journeys" You've gotta be kidding me.

In other news, there will be six editions of Windows Vista. Yikes. Which sorta reminds me of this hilarious video clip (it's less than 3 minutes long and definitely worth it).

Fun with Gaaagle

Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Keywords: Technology, China, Politics

Speaking of evil Chinese governments and technology, I got an e-mail today (by way of my contact form) from some guy telling me to visit a site named Gaaagle (if you let it sit for a couple of minutes, you will be taken to this page).

I have already expressed my views on this controversy twice, and if you were to guess that I will not have many nice things to say about Gaaagle, then you would have guessed correctly. I won't rehash what I've said before; you can click on the links in the previous sentence for that. Is there something that is glaringly missing on Gaaagle, especially the page that you are taken to after a couple of minutes? You see lots of mocking images, parodies, and cartoons. You see accusations of greed. You see an outpouring of anger. What you do not see is a rational discussion. Is this how debates are to be carried out this day and age, by seeing who can shout the loudest and make the cleverest Normal Rockwell defacement? There are no arguments. No presentations of facts. Nothing that addresses the arguments put forth by the other side. Most notably, I have yet to see a single response in the past month to the paramount question of what exactly would be gained by Google pulling out. In fact, this has been how the entire debate has been carried out, in almost every online community, since the first day of this controversy. Every anti-Google/Yahoo/Microsoft argument has been along the lines of "The CCP is evil, and thus these companies are just as evil." Every response to arguments have been along those lines. It's like talking to a repeating record. Sure, they'll throw in some red herrings every now and then to spice things up, like the accusations of Chinese torture (yes, it's bad, but remind me again how that has anything to do with this?). This is especially true with the Free Tibet people. Although I personally support Tibetan independence, the sort of methods used by these people are not only comically ineffective, but even counter-productive at times (explain to me again how carrying out this protest like a bunch of hippies is going to win you any sort of broad support?).

Google faced an imperfect choice, and I believe that the choice that they made will make the situation better (or at least be neutral in effect), and if these people are so intractable in their narrow black-and-white "if you're not with us, you're against us" view of the world, then all that's left to do is to nod and smile.

PS: Speaking of discourse filled with outrage but little substance, doesn't this sorta remind you of the Democrats? Sigh. If only Clark had won the nomination in '04 instead of Kerry.

Slashdot Ignorance Strikes Again!

Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Keywords: Technology, China

I like Slashdot; I really do. It makes keeping up with technology easy by gathering all the interesting headlines all in one place. That having been said, the tendency of Slashdot towards sensationalism, knee-jerk reactions, fan-boyism, and ignorance is quite annoying (to its credit, Slashdot is actually much better in this regard than other places, like Digg).

So I saw this Slashdot headline in my RSS aggregator today: China Prepares to Launch Alternate Internet. My first reaction was, "Oh no, what are those commies dreaming up of this time?" I read the blurb, the comments that were modded up, and then the articles. Admittedly, the articles were vague, and I think that the translator should have been fired, but it seems that Slashdotters had no idea what they were talking about.

First, most people thought that China was going to set up their own DNS system to handle domain names with Chinese characters (e.g., 刘锴.net). Since the existing .com and .net registries already allow International domain names (IDNs), this would certainly be a major conflict; this exact system was implemented some time ago. After reading the article, it seems that all that the Chinese government is doing is setting up three new TLDs whose lingustic translations are .cn, .com, and .net (e.g., 刘锴。网络), so there is no overlap or conflict whatsoever with the existing .com and .net setup, contrary to what most misinformed Slashdotters think. Just to make sure, I picked out a random Chinese-based domain registrar, and sure enough, these were just new TLDs that are listed alongside existing TLDs.

Of course, adding new TLDs without getting ICANN's blessing is not quite kosher, but ICANN's power is not legally binding, and since these involve adding new namespaces that other countries couldn't care less about, it doesn't really matter that much. Furthermore, to label this as an "alternate Internet" is really misleading. Screwing ICANN isn't quite the same as screwing the IANA; remember, this is only DNS that we're talking about; the network is still interconnected (and firewalled).

Finally, as expected, the "Chinese-government-is-evil" card was played. Not that I disagree--I think that it is "evil" and that it shouldn't have bypassed the ICANN like this--but this ignores two important problems. First, it is not clear how exactly this could be used to thwart freedoms. Yes, the government has control over the registrations under these new TLDs, but that was already the case with the original .cn, and all the other TLDs in the world are unaffected. Also, if they wanted to censor access via DNS, they could do so without any of this. Second, there are some legitimate benefits. It widens the cramped DNS namespace a little bit, and it is also convenient to not have to switch the keyboard input between the Latin and Chinese character sets, which is genuinely confusing for some people (including me at first).

This entry was edited on 2009/03/08 at 17:40:59 GMT -0500.

Religion, Life, and Rights in the UK

Tuesday, February 28, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Religion

Despite being a moderate libertarian, I do read right-wing blogs every now and then. For one, it is interesting (and even amusing sometimes) to see what the right is talking about. More importantly, by seeing the sorts of arguments that they present, it helps me keep things in perspective.

Anyway, while doing so this evening, I came across this particular controversy in Portsmouth, UK. The subject is a child named Charlotte who was born premature in 2003 and has subsequently suffered damage to various organs, including the brain and lungs. She is currently dying, and is suffering from an "aggressive chest infection". The doctors, believing that it is now futile to try to keep her alive, has petitioned a judge to rescind an order mandating that she should always be resuscitated. The only problem is, the parents are against this, and as one might expect, this has caused quite a stir with the religious right, who have sensationalized this with labels such as "death sentence".

This smacks of Terry Schiavo, where apparently, the parents* and the right-wing commentators know more than the doctors. If the doctors qualified their belief that attempts to keep her alive are futile with "medical evidence speaks with one voice", I think it would be prudent to defer to their assessment. Admittedly, it does seem odd that they would overrule parental judgment, but should they be obligated to perform a procedure that they do not believe would be effective solely at the insistence of the parents? Nevertheless, it seems that the doctors could have saved a lot of trouble if they just conceded and let the unfolding of events speak for themselves.

But in respect to religion, there is something that I don't quite understand. What if it was God's will for her to die? Would resorting to such medical solutions constitute meddling? If they counter by holding that God is omnipotent and that it is not possible for these medical procedures to meddle with the issue of life and death, then why bother using them, for if that is so, then she will live as long as such is the will. Furthermore, shouldn't they be happy that she will be going to heaven? It seems to me that even on religious grounds, there seems to be a degree of irrationality here. Then again, it is by no means fair to expect parents to be rational during such emotional situations, and their response is certainly justified. But what about all the right-wing commentators who are raising a fuss over this? My problem with this is mostly against the religious right rallying around this banner; why on Earth is Stop the ACLU concerned about a case like this in the UK anyway?

From the perspective of the secular humanist, I think that the doctors are right. Imagine the kind of life this person would have with such a damaged brain and body! Of course, there is also the burden to society that such a person would pose. I know that last bit sounds extremely distasteful, but it is a sort of consideration that is taken into account more often than one would think. Imagine how many lives would be saved each year by way of quicker response if there was a fire station and a hospital located on every single city block. Yet, we do not have this because the costs of such a proposal, and by doing that, every one of us has just placed a price on life without explicitly acknowledging it.

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* Although it is politically incorrect to point this out, the mother is 24 and is apparently quite religious, and as such, I think that it would be prudent to side with the doctors when it comes to medical opinion.

This entry was edited on 2006/02/28 at 01:45:19 GMT -0500.

Book Review: Freakonomics

Monday, February 27, 2006
Keywords: Books, Economics

I went through two books this past week, which is why I have been neglecting this blog somewhat. Titled Freakonomics, the first is a book about "economics" that talks about things that people generally do not associate with economics. Those who know me in real life will know that I am enamored with economics because it deals with human nature in a rational fashion and is in a way a bit like psychology. I am fond of looking at everyday behavior and decision-making--especially my own--in terms of marginal costs and marginal benefits. For people familiar with economics, this is not anything terribly new: about half of the papers that were required reading for the Advanced Microeconomic Analysis class that I took had nothing to do with money or production and instead were more about human behavior. Well, in a nutshell, that is exactly what this book was about. The author tries to introduce to the average person the non-monetary, non-production side of economics that most people are not aware of.

I would categorize this book as light and fun reading. The author looks at an odd assortment of topics from wrestling to parenting to online dating to even the social effects of abortion through the lens of economics, each case meticulously supported by data. My one minor complaint is that there are times when the author segues so far that I often found myself saying "Um, we stopped looking at this economically about three paragraphs ago," but the subject was interesting enough that this did not really bother me. Being already familiar with this dimension of economics, this book offered me no new insights into economics, but because I have never thought about the specific topics discussed from this particular perspective, I still enjoyed the book on a gee-I-didn't-know-that-before level. It is definitely worth a read for non-economists, and for the economist, I would still recommend it just for the interesting data and findings that are presented.

This entry was edited on 2006/02/27 at 21:58:54 GMT -0500.

Defending Bush Over Ports

Saturday, February 25, 2006
Keywords: Politics

Despite being extremely dissatisfied with President Bush, there are still some instances when I have to admit that he is right, and the recent ports controversy is one of them.

Perhaps being too eager to grandstand in an election year, Congress has been critical of Dubai's takeover of operations at six major ports. Opposition has come from a large and diverse crowd of Republicans and Democrats alike, including Senator Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Frist. Admirably, McCain has not joined his fellow congressmen in this ill-conceived circus. But why shouldn't Americans be concerned that a company owned by an Arab government is taking over operations at something that is so critical to our economy and our security?

  1. Before pending takeover, these ports have been operated by another foreign company, based in the UK. This is a global economy, and there should be nothing inherently wrong with doing business with global companies if they can operate efficiently and economically, lest we wish to invoke protectionism and toss aside the spirit free trade.
  2. The company's chairman and chief operating officers are Americans.
  3. Dubai may be Arabic, but it is pro-Western.
  4. Security, customs, etc. have always been--and will still be--handled by the American government.
  5. The laborers employed have always been--and will still be--drawn from the local workforce.
  6. They will not own the ports; they are only operating them.
  7. The only change will be in the upper levels of management.

This company should be judged by its merits: if it can operate efficiently and economically, then there is no rational reason for this kind of fuss. Let's hope that Bush will stick to his guns and use his veto if Congress continues down this asinine path.

Clarifying My Previous Post

Friday, February 24, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Economics, Libertarianism

Okay, I'll admit: 2400 words is far too long for a rant. After re-reading what I wrote last night, I realized how lacking in coherency my post was. So here's a condensed version: I think that libertarian ideals can constitute a compelling political platform, but in order for that to become a reality, hard-line libertarians need to recognize reality and abandon some of their dogmatic approach to things. Furthermore, in order to introduce libertarianism to the average person, the very first step that needs to be taken is the abandonment of the sorts of radicalism that the Libertarian Party of the United States advocates. There, how's that for a short 100-word condensed version? :P

This entry was edited on 2006/02/24 at 20:04:39 GMT -0500.

The Libertarian Big Idea

Friday, February 24, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Economics, Libertarianism

This is worth a read: Is the left out of ideas? Here is an excerpt, though you should read the whole thing:

The left used to have a Big Idea: The free market doesn't work, so the government will fix it. The social democrats disagreed with the Socialists and the Scoop Jackson democrats about how much fixing was necessary, but they all agreed on a basic premise, and could sell that simple message to the public. Then, after fifty years or so, people noticed that the government didn't seem to work any better than the free market . . . worse, actually, in a lot of cases . . . and it was awfully expensive and surly. Conservatives stepped in with their Big Idea: the government screws things up, so let's leave more stuff up to individuals, which, if nothing else, will be a lot cheaper. Obviously, liberals disagree with this . . . but they have not come up with a Big, Easily Sellable, Idea With Obvious Policy Prescriptions to replace it. Some of them have just kept repeating the old Big Idea, which it seems to me that fewer and fewer people believe, as the US continues to pull ahead of its economic peers. Others have focused on coming up with lots of little ideas . . . but those take up too much time and energy to attract voters. Gore tried to whang up anger against pharmaceutical companies, and Kerry tried to stoke anger against Bush, as replacement. But in politics, there's just no replacement for the Big Idea.

How about this for a new Big Idea: adopting moderate libertarianism as a new platform. By adopting Bush Sr.'s NAFTA and by slimming down welfare, the Democrats under Bill Clinton have already taken a step in this direction. Why not take it further?

Libertarianism? Surely you jest!

David Boaz of the Cato Institute notes that, according to the Gallup Poll's annual survey on government, 27% of Americans are conservative, 24% are liberal, and a surprisingly high 20% are libertarian. The 2004 exit polls back this up: about 45% of Bush voters supported gay marriage, and 29% of Kerry voters did not believe in big government. As for me personally, I hoped for a Kerry victory only because virtually anyone would have been better than Bush; if there was a third candidate that had even a semi-reasonable chance, I would have rooted for him instead (assuming that he was not worse than both Bush and Kerry, which would have been quite a feat). I think that there is sizeable support, and there would be even more support if the American people were told about it. How many people outside of the educated élite could tell you what the word "libertarian" meant?

Um, there is a Libertarian Party, you know...

What? There is a Libertarian Party? Oh, you mean those folks who could not even manage to pull in one percent of the vote? As you may imagine, I am not too fond of them, but readers of this blog should not be surprised at my stance on this. Hop on over to their website and take a look at their platform. To their credit, the platform is fairly sound on several points, including free speech and crime control, but on a number of other points, their positions are quite remarkable--and I did not intend that as a compliment. I believe that the problem with the Libertarian Party and, most notably, with the objectivist wing of libertarianism, is the absoluteness and tenacity with which they cling on to their basic principles; in short, they are too dogmatic. This is not a trivial condemnation, so I wish to take a few moments to clarify exactly what I mean.

Green grass meets green money, under clear skies...

Let us consider the Libertarian Party's position on the environment. They skirt the issue of environmental protection by ignoring the pollution produced by private entities and instead, shifting the focus to government pollution and mismanagement. I do not doubt that the government is quite capable of polluting, and I do not doubt that the NPS has suffered from instances of mismanagement (they neglect to mention that this has already been mostly fixed by making the NPS largely independent, relying solely on user fees, sales, and donations for its finance), and I do not doubt that reducing the powers and role of government would curb government-produced pollution and the many cases of government serving special interests. This position, however, completely fails to take into account private pollution and, most importantly, externalities. For example, if I dump waste into a stream, it would not affect just the portion of the stream that crosses my property; every person who encounters that stream will be affected. While I would bear the costs (loss of aesthetics, property value, etc.) of polluting my segment of the stream, I would not bear the cost of polluting everyone else's. Lumber companies will suffer the cost of devalued properties when they clear-cut a forest, but when the subsequent erosion leads to severe flooding (as is typical in many developed countries), they will bear none of those costs. Any first-year economics student can tell you about externalities, and every textbook on market economics will note that free markets will work utopian wonders only when, among other conditions, externalities do not exist, which is by no means a reasonable assumption. Yet, this platform fails to acknowledge this basic reality. The case could be made that environmentalism and externalities are very tightly intertwined; indeed, most economics textbooks refer to some form of pollution--whether it be water, air, or even sound--as a canonical example of an externality. If your neighbor's property was laced with various toxic chemicals, how concerned would you be, assuming that there is no way that those chemicals could somehow leak or seep onto your property? Would your concern level be higher if these chemicals could leak or seep onto your property? What if your neighbor was also fond of setting things alight and the smoke billowed through your back yard? It is largely because of externalities that environmentalism even exists, and it is largely because of externalities that government must have a role in protecting the environment.

That having been said, the current decree-style approach to protecting the environment is ineffective. Any sort of decree-style solution is bound to alienate many people, and this alienation has led to the politicization of environmentalism, which has led to absurd claims from both sides (imminent doom claims are often overblown, and the flat-out dismissal of global warming is even more absurd). Let us look at how the government deals with cars. We have very modest gas taxes, EPA fuel efficiency and emissions mandates, tax breaks for hybrid owners, and subsidies to encourage companies to develop efficient technologies. Not only is this complexity undesirable for proponents of smaller governments, but it also increases the opportunities for abuses, from the use of various loopholes by SUV makers to the incentive to lobby the government for favorable regulations. What if a hefty gasoline tax, similar to those in Europe was enacted? First, it would be relatively simple to implement, and this simplicity would result in cutting the administrative costs associated with a myriad of regulatory solutions. Second, it would increase the consumer demand for better fuel efficiency, leading the market to favor smaller and more efficient cars (companies are much more eager to respond to market demand than government regulations). Third, increasing the cost of gasoline would also cause the market to favor gasoline substitutes, thus generating market incentives to develop new fuels. Fourth, since there is a rough correlation between mileage efficiency and emissions, this would help reduce emissions (although there are other factors such as filtering that effect emissions, so this may not suffice to completely replace emissions standards). Finally, as an added bonus to national security, by using gasoline taxes to exert downward pressure on oil demand (rather than letting the prices associated with an ever-shrinking oil supply exert that same downward pressure), this allows the government to capture a portion of the profit instead of the oil producers, which would certainly ease the fears held by neo-conservatives that oil is a tidy jihad fundraiser. For those who would balk at the idea of using taxes to solve a problem, the revenue from this tax could be used to reduce other forms of taxes, such as the income tax. In the end, high gasoline taxes would represent a relatively simple way for government to place a price on the externalities of gasoline consumption.

This digression into environmental policy is, I hope, an illustration of how one might try to accomplish the same sorts of goals that we have today by using a simpler and natural (i.e., market-based) solution. The same could be said for cutting industrial carbon emissions: instead of draconian regulations, set a cap for total national emissions and let companies buy and sell this supply of emission allowances on the open market, just as they would buy and sell any other form of capital. This allows for Kyoto-style compliance and a gradual step-down of industrial emissions, while reducing regulatory overhead and letting the free market guide the implementation. Such solutions would be consistent with the spirit of reduced governments and free markets while also acknowledging that protecting the environment is important and that government does indeed have a role that it must play. Do government policies need reform? Yes. Does this necessitate throwing government out of the picture? No. By viciously denouncing the government while providing no real solution, the Libertarian Party fails to make any worthwhile contribution. For liberals who are skeptical of market-based solutions, I can understand such skepticism. It is important to not confuse the solutions that Bush peddled with true market solutions. This current administration's policies have been mostly opportunistic: it pays market-based solutions lip service while pursuing policies that cater mostly to special interests.

Enough about the environment, already!

Okay, so my foray into environmental policies went on for a bit longer than I had hoped. To be sure, that is not the only area where I think that the Libertarian Party concedes too much to its government-is-bad dogma. Although entirely eliminating welfare and replacing it with private charity may look good on paper if we also just ignore Keynes (which I do not suggest that we do), it is a very radical move, especially when there is little evidence to suggest that charity and a predicted economic boost would be sufficient. Economists have dreamed up of various ways to reform the system, including this one proposed in the 1970's: give every person, regardless of income, a fixed stipend. This would slash the enormous social services bureaucracy needed to administer the current system, make the system more "fair" by giving everyone a stipend, eliminate the penalties that people suffer when they try to move out of welfare by getting a job, and reduce somewhat the moral necessity for progressive taxes. Yes, it would involve higher taxes, but for most people, the stipend makes up for it, and yes, there are a number of other potential problems with this, but I do not wish to jump off on another lengthy tangent tonight. It also seems foolish on both moral and pragmatic grounds to abolish foreign aid, especially given its relatively low cost and the benefits that stability would offer if one wishes to enact the sort of open immigration policies favored by libertarians. Their calls to privatize utilities may be a good idea, but what about the natural monopolies? A heavily-regulated private utility is not much different than a public utility. Education should never been fully privatized because an education is an extremely important positive externality: it is crucial for democracy (and there are some moral arguments about equal opportunity as well). I could go into much more detail and specifics about these and other platform points, but I will save that for another day; what I hope to establish tonight is the notion that government does serve a purpose and that careful reform could reduce the size and role of government while at the same time achieving the same sorts of goals. As I have argued here and in another entry that I wrote a few weeks ago, one of my gripes against the most prominent versions of the libertarian ideal is that it can sometimes be blind to reality. As I am often fond of saying, pure libertarian ideals are very much like an object sliding on a frictionless surface, attached to a massless pulley, and economics represents a more pragmatic, but realistic approach to things. In the end, the best policies are those that embody the spirit of libertarian ideals while also acknowledging reality, and it appears to me that the Libertarian Party is too caught up in its doctrine to recognize this.

So, why the heck not?

If the economic morass that is Europe is any indicator, free market economics have been vindicated. The political climate in the United States would also suggest this. What resistance remains in the United States comes from a misguided fear of globalization (a topic for another day) and the ease with which the average person mistakes corrupt corporatism with true free market economics (i.e., one that compensates for externalities, natural monopolies, and at least some of the most serious issues of information asymmetry), which is a misunderstanding that the Republican party's special interests are partly to blame for. Market economics must be embraced; if liberals, excluding the far-left, have nothing beyond a few specific cases of corporatism and a paltry mix of globalization fears to use as ammunition, then it is time to finally accept market economics and its flaws. Mainstream liberals today do not directly condemn market economics, but by failing to embrace it and by couching some of their causes in strongly populist tones, they send an odd message. They should embrace markets while acknowledging the responsibilities that need to be undertaken to ensure that markets work, and by adopting a well-defined moderate libertarian platform, they can offer themselves as a shining alternative to an ever opportunistic Republican party that has grown too dangerously close to religious fundamentalists. Unfortunately, political realignments like usually happen over the course of many decades--if they happen at all--so I will not be holding my breath.

This entry was edited on 2006/02/24 at 02:25:52 GMT -0500.

It depends on what the meaning is...

Sunday, February 19, 2006
Keywords: Politics

Many people are familiar with Bill Clinton's famous words, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is." Despite the ridicule that this definition jockeying earned him, it would appear that the current administration has not taken this lesson to heart.

During last Thursday's Senate Budget Committee hearings, Senator Conrad questioned Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about the progress of rebuilding in Iraq. "Madame Secretary, did I hear you right when you said that water and sewer has [sic] improved in Iraq?" "Yes, you did." To which Conrad replied with a report that the Inspector General for Reconstruction in Iraq gave to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The report stated that the number of people with drinking water has dropped from 50% before the war to 32%, and the number of people with sewage has dropped from 24% to 20%. When asked about this discrepancy, Rice read out a set of numbers that indicated an increase in water and sewage service, without making any attempt to answer for the discrepancy. She then quickly tried to change the subject: "So the numbers have been going up on water and sewage. The problems--you are absolutely right, Senator--have been on oil and electricity." Dissatisfied, Conrad interrupted, repeated the Inspector General's numbers, and once again asked for her to explain the discrepancy. Finally, Rice replied, "I think this may be an issue of whether we are talking about delivery or capacity." According to Rice, the Inspector General looked at how many people actually received services, and the numbers that she cited represented only capacity.

Is the Bush Administration trying to sugar-coat the issue by playing technicalities with definition? As the IEEE Spectrum has pointed out, there are major difficulties in establishing electrical service in Iraq because the infrastructure is so spread out. It is relatively easy to build and defend a power plant, but to erect, maintain, and defend miles upon miles of distribution infrastructure is difficult. I would imagine that the same could be said about water. But ignoring the distribution infrastructure and by focusing on what is probably the easiest component of the system--the capacity of treatment plants--the Administration is not only riding on a technicality, it is doing so in a way that is disingenuous and distorting.

In other news, the United States has finally recognized the need to win the battle for public opinion. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said, "Our enemies have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in today's media age, but... our country has not." I believe that any long journey begins with a first step, and in this case, it is to establish trust, which is difficult to earn and easy to lose. It would appear that the Bush Administration has not yet learned this lesson. Take, for example, the accusations of torture. Playing its favorite card, the White House has defended it on technical grounds. The Geneva Conventions do not apply because these are not enemy soldiers in the traditional sense. That may very well be true, and it may very well be true that in a legal court, such a technicality would be defensible. But what would such a technical victory gain us? In the court of public opinion, playing this technical defense is not only unconvincing, but leaves people with the impression of insincerity. When Clinton used those famous words, not only was it unconvincing in the court of public opinion, but it also backfired by convincing people that he was disingenuous and not to be trusted. If the court of public opinion is as important as they believe it to be, then playing on technicalities, opposing McCain and the Senate, and quickly dismissing the recent UN call to close Guantanamo* do not help the American case. That is not to say that we should take a soft tone with terrorists, but it does mean that we need to handle such issues much more delicately and with much more humility. It may be terribly inconvenient, but we cannot afford to let the Bush Administration's reckless arrogance in handling such sensitive issues squander away what little public opinion in our favor we still have left, especially because negative public opinion is what fuels Islamic extremism.

For starters, in light of the recent rekindling of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, it would be nice for Rumsfeld to resign. In societies such as Japan where "honor" is so important, company leaders have been known to accept blame and step down even when the blame lies entirely with their underlings (arguably, Rumsfeld might not even be entirely blameless for fostering the prisoner-treatment culture that allowed this abuse to take place). When building public opinion, such gestures are necessary to establish a sense of sincerity, and most importantly, trust.

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* If Bush feels strongly that Guantanamo should be kept open, then he needs to defend that position convincingly and adequately, without resorting to arguments couched in legal technicalities. He must also actively engage the critics of Guantanamo and address specifically their concerns and objections. And if he is unable to mount such a defense, then perhaps he should reconsider how strongly he feels about this prison.

The Joys of Blogging

Friday, February 17, 2006
Keywords: Blogging, Me, kBlog, Potpourri

I think that I have been somewhat sheltered from the world these past few years. I used hungrily consume news and keep up with the world in high school, but I stopped doing that at HMC, partly because of time and also partly because the place oozed apathy. Also during these years, I had completely missed out on the rise of the blog, despite my usual desire* to keep myself atop the crest of technology. It wasn't that I didn't have a blog; since 1998, my website has always featured a blog-like section where I would post my latest ramblings on a somewhat regular basis (though it was somewhat different structurally from the canonical blog of today). No, it was because I simply did not believe in it. Over half a decade ago, people were rushing to get Blogger accounts, "blog" was starting to turn into the latest new buzzword/hype, and places like LiveJournal were brimming with people posting daily details of their personal life (it took me a while to finally disassociate blogging from LJ-esque diaries). All this left a me with a sour bias, which is why I never even referred to my now-defunct second-generation blog (which was an awkward mix of a heavily sanitized diary plus some dull commentary) on my old website as a "blog" and why I never paid much heed to the growth of the "blogosphere", both as a word and as the thing itself. Ultimately, I was oblivious to the blog...

...until now. And boy, is the blogosphere addictive or what? There are many precious nuggets that I read every day, such as this little excerpt (source) that I read today about what it means to be a moderate:

Perhaps the best definition of a moderate is someone who does not derive all of their political opinions from one or two first principles and stick to them no matter where that may lead them. Those first principles may be relatively crude ("the moral environment that prevailed in the 1950s should be held onto") or fairly sophisticated ("we must maximize the power of the weak over the strong"), but regardless of their origin, they tend to make people into extremely rigid voters. People who see themselves as trading off a whole bunch of values, will have political opinions that are in general less extreme. They will also be more tolerant of other peoples' viewpoints, because they tend to assume that other people are simply weighting different values differently--rather than concluding that the difference of opinion must be caused by some terrible moral failing on the part of others.

I now have about 20 feeds (and quickly growing) in my RSS aggregator. But perhaps most importantly for me, blogging has allowed me to reemerge from the sheltered bubble of HMC's apathy and reconnect with my old self. I enjoy reading a variety of perspectives and insights on the affairs of the world, and my blog has become a delightful outlet for a lot of my own thoughts. Instead of letting the thoughts that occupy my mind during mundane tasks like showering, brushing, and eating evaporate or get lost on the countless pieces of scrap paper that litter my archives (yes, I do think about free markets in the shower; call me a freak), I can now preserve and express them here. I know I don't have much of an audience here, but that doesn't matter because this is mostly for me, and if I get an audience, that would just be a nice bonus. :)

I thoroughly love this, and I only wish that I had started this blog years ago and that I had paid more attention to the rich blogosphere. Of course, that is not to say that the blogosphere is entirely good; most of the blogs are not that interesting or well-written (that probably includes mine), and most of them are not very thoughtful or carry too much bias of dogma (see the above excerpt on moderation or my own rant about lack of moderation), but there are enough gems out there that all this is much more satisfying than watching yet another movie or the other mundane things that I could do to fill my free time.

Anyway, that's enough of me gabbing on about this topic. I've been blogging and reading blogs for nearly a month now, and I've learned a lot. For one, I have learned that my features wish-list for the blogging system that I use has grown a bit lot. Remember what I said** about kBlog 0.1.0 being nearly feature-complete? Never let a non-blogger decide what features would be nice. I'm currently in the middle of a major overhaul (most of it is stuff that visitors won't notice) of kBlog (version 0.3.0), so that will occupy my free time for a few days, and I'll probably end up doing a couple more versions to add new features after that before finally going for 1.0. I've considered moving to one of the mainstream blogging software packages, but the hassle of installing, configuring, and migrating to something like Wordpress is simply not worth it (and I hate reading manuals), especially since the hassle of hacking up Perl to add some pet features to kBlog would probably about the same, and, most importantly, I'm too comfortable with the control and flexibility of using an in-house system, and for a control freak like me, that means something. ;)

* I started browsing the WWW back in the days of Netscape 1. I used VoIP for the first time in the 90's when AIM added voice to one of its betas. I got a Hotmail account back when it was the Gmail of its era, before it was bought by Microsoft. I first encountered Google back when it was a little-known beta with a very, very crappy-looking logo. I've installed Mozilla-based browsers since Mozilla 0.6, and used Firefox long before it was named Firefox. So I would at least like to think that I keep up with technology. ;)

** That reminds me, I never did get around to posting the kBlog source code. Oh well. I'll post the source when 0.3.0 is finished.

In Defense of Google

Wednesday, February 15, 2006
Keywords: Technology, Politics, China

I have already written about this topic back in January. Google made a statement in January about this, and today, Google posted its Congressional testimony on this matter. The testimony is definitely worth a read.

Do no evil? But censorship is evil!
As Google states in its testimony and as I can attest from experience, the censorship was already going on before this started. The government tries to filter requests as they are sent to Google's U.S. servers and accessibility to the U.S.-based google.com is slow and spotty. Most importantly, even when the search results are not censored, access to most "undesirable" websites are blocked anyway. Offering a new google.cn service in addition to google.com and giving users the choice between fast but censored searches on google.cn or government-crippled but uncensored searches on google.com is not evil (especially since many day-to-day searches are on uncensored non-taboo subjects). Those in China who really care about politics often are aware of how to use proxies to bypass China's Internet security (which is what I did when I visited), and those people were never affected before and will continue to remain unaffected. In the end, offering choice is not evil. Google has not taken anything away from the users and while implementing de jure censoring on content that was already censored de facto does not stand on the highest of principles, it has no real effect good or bad in reality. And remember, these are just search results.

They are making a quick buck over there!
And this is wrong because...? They have employees to pay, servers to run, etc. They are a business, and businesses are supposed to make money. It is not ethical for businesses to make money by doing evil, but if they are not doing evil, then there should be no reason why they cannot pursue some profit. So the argument about making money works only in conjunction with being evil; it does not stand on its own. Considering Google's support of open source, open standards, encouragement of employees to drive green vehicles, etc., Google certainly strikes me as less evil than other money-seeking entities.

IBM helped the Nazis kill the Jews, just like how Google and others are now helping China!
Confirming Godwin's Law, House Rep. Lantos compared this to IBM's punch card technology helping the Nazis exterminate the Jews by facilitating logistics. When in doubt, sensationalize. There are differences here, however. First, filtering is fairly easy and can be crudely implemented without any sort of special technology. This would be akin to the Nazis having bought screwdrivers from the United States; they could make screwdrivers themselves fairly easily. Rep. Christopher Smith at one point expresses dismay that American technology is being used by the Chinese government for their nefarious deeds, demonstrating poor understanding of the issue; the Chinese have their own filters that they will happily apply if Americans do not use their own. Second, the Great Firewall of China is already quite adept at filtering, so this would be akin to the United States supplying the Nazis with excess screwdrivers when the Nazis already had enough of their own. More importantly, one must ask what the alternative is. Not doing business in China? In that case, then Chinese companies will quickly fill that gap, and I would much rather have an American company with headquarters safely outside of China censoring search results than a Chinese company under the nose of the Chinese government doing it.

[added] But Google actions are endorsing and legitimizing the CCP!
This was an interesting objection raised in one of the comments to this blog entry. I doubt that Google complying with the laws constitutes any real political effect beyond the touch Romantic symbolism that activists hold so dear. Furthermore, it is a mistake to confuse doing something out in response to circumstances with doing something because it truly believes in it, and we must not forget that the real political weight lies with the Western governments' legitimization of China.

Will someone please think of the children?
House Rep. Lantos asked Google today, "I'm asking you a direct question (about families)--I don't want your philosophy." This was after Lantos had asked Yahoo! about the well-being of the family of the journalist whose name Yahoo! handed over. Google has done no such thing (and by keeping Gmail and other services out of China, it is avoiding such a possibility), and no family has ever been hurt by image searches of Tian'an'men showing rosy pictures instead of tanks. That Lantos asked Google and Microsoft a question that was appropriate only for Yahoo! demonstrates either a lack of understanding of the issue, or, more likely, a desire to politically capitalize off of the sensationalism. Listening to some of the remarks made by Congress today, it seems that this has turned into a three-ring circus and that some people are using it for political gain.

But none of this changes the fact that the Chinese government is evil and totalitarian!
I agree! The problem is not the moral compass of these companies, it is the evil regime in China (I think we would all rejoice the day when it finally falls). But in the meantime, whether we like it or not, when in China, you have to obey Chinese laws. Americans would balk if other people came to the United States and ignored American laws. If Congress has such an aversion with China, then perhaps it should be considering diplomatic solutions. Is the American government prepared to back companies up if they do business in China, refuse to obey Chinese laws, and are faced with an angry Chinese government? Unless Congress can somehow give American companies some sort of teeth with which to resist the requirements of the Chinese government, then it is in no moral position to criticize companies for things that are out of their power.

In the end, critics attack the censorship, but they fail to offer any insight as to how that censorship can be dealt with. There is nothing that these companies can do that can change the political reality in China, and when an absolute "non-evil" is not possible, then one has to accept the lesser of evils. Understandably, people are not comfortable with that notion, but perhaps this analogy would help. Normally, shooting your pet would be an immoral and "evil" thing to do. What if your pet is ill and will die soon? Ideally, you would take it to a vet, but what if that was not possible? Is shooting it to put it out of its misery still immoral? This is what I mean by choosing the lesser of two evils. It may very well be that because search engine technologies have matured and are converging that the contrast between the two evils is not so well amplified, but this principle is still applicable.

This entry was edited on 2006/02/16 at 13:53:16 GMT -0500.

Clarifying the Chinese Censorship Letter

Wednesday, February 15, 2006
Keywords: Politics, China

To expect people on Slashdot to understand a topic and to be able comment on it intelligently is, well, dumb, and reading some of the comments that people posted to the Slashdot article about the Chinese anti-censorship letter just reinforced that. I guess most people do not really understand what this is all about. In any case, I am reposting in this blog a (revised) comment that I posted on Slashdot about this:

  1. A government for a country of that size is not monolithic. For example, it would be foolish to say that everyone in the American government is in favor of having troops in Iraq: there are a lot of senators who are not happy at all. Likewise, the Chinese government has various factions. Because there is only one political party in China, political differences are expressed in the form of intra-party factionalism (whereas in the West, it is normally expressed in the form of different parties, though there is also a lot of intra-party factionalism as well). A lot of this in-fighting also happens privately, so many are not aware of it. As such, the casual observer would think that the Chinese government was a Borgish collective of identical viewpoints when it really is not.
  2. This letter was written by what NPR news describes as the "liberal wing" of the party and can be considered to be more or less a dissident voice. Such opinions are not new in China, and if you ever go there, you will notice that a lot of people will express these views (Chinese brainwashing is not 100% effective), except that they will express them privately, and you never hear about it in the media. I was personally very surprised that this letter was published. These folks are sufficiently powerful and well-connected that they are able to dissent like this.
  3. I think that their target audience is the Chinese people and the rest of the government. You have to understand that the appeal of the Chinese Revolution was that the old government was corrupt and abusive, and there are many Chinese who have not forgotten that and who are well aware of the irony that China threw out an abusive government and replaced it with another abusive one.

So I would not view this as some sort of public press release (that was earlier today, when they justified censorship on grounds of "pornography", which is BS). The earlier announcement today would be like Bush telling the U.N. why we need troops in Iraq. This letter would be like the Democrats grumbling about Bush putting those troops in Iraq.

Fuzzy Definitions: Unlimited = 5

Wednesday, February 15, 2006
Keywords: Ranting

Probably in response to the Domino's promotion in which you can buy three medium pizzas with unlimited toppings for $7 per pizza, Papa John's latest print ad features an identical deal: three medium pizzas with unlimited toppings for $20.99 total. Ah, the wonders of free-market competition... or so I thought. I hopped on over to Papa John's website, and on the order placement page, it lists the advertised special: "Three Medium. Unlimited Toppings. (Maximum five toppings per pizza) $20.99" Mmmkay, so right underneath the big prominent words "Unlimited Toppings" is fine print that defines unlimited as being limited to no more than five. Even more fishy is the fact that this fine print was conspicuously missing from their glossy print ad. Granted, it's still a good deal, but the advertising is clearly misleading: a limit of five is most definitely not "unlimited". There was other language that could have been used instead of "unlimited" that would not involve pulling a Clinton with definitions, and they could have at least added this fine print to the print ad instead of springing this detail when someone goes to order.

Yes, this is all very trivial, but it still pisses me off because one of the biggest reasons why free markets do not work like they do in textbooks is the problem of imperfect and asymmetric information, and this kind of deliberate attempt at information distortion that you see everywhere and every day is ruining the already soiled reputation of free markets.

This entry was edited on 2006/02/15 at 20:46:56 GMT -0500.

Internal Criticism of Chinese Censorship

Tuesday, February 14, 2006
Keywords: Politics, China

This is a bit of a surprising news item that I heard on All Things Considered: senior members of the Chinese Communist Party's liberal wing wrote a letter criticizing the government's censorship, which they think is born out of "delusion". BBC News also has a blurb about this. Now, if the mainstream Chinese TV news report on this, I would be really surprised.

Wiretapping in Europe

Tuesday, February 14, 2006
Keywords: Politics

Did you know that Italians conduct tens of thousands of wiretaps each year (source: Slate)? Or that new wiretaps are granted "every few seconds" in Britain (source: The Economist)? Or that even the prime minister of Greece was tapped? Or that, unlike the United States, there are no substantial angry reactions over wiretaps on the other side of the pond? And all this time, I thought that Europe was liberal about civil liberties; well, I guess this makes me feel much better* about the state of American politics.

* Of course, I would feel even better if Bush was censured (or even impeached) for these wiretaps. It's not that using wiretaps to fight terrorists is bad; I think that they are necessary, but the issue is that, by bypassing the secret and easy FISA court (it almost never turns down tap requests, and it also allows for retroactive warrants so that you can tap without asking first), the administration broke the law. It is the principle of the matter: one of the core values separating us from regimes like Saddam's or China's is that the law is supreme and that not even the President is above it. Adding insult to injury, this violation of principle is made worse by the lack of any mitigating benefit from circumventing a secret court that grants retroactive warrants. Perhaps Bush needs a refresher in American history?

My "Flip-Flop" / Political Realignment

Monday, February 13, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Libertarianism

I have to admit, I was probably a bit too smug and deriving a bit too much enjoyment from poking at the Republican Party when I was chatting with Carl on Sunday. But it did make me reflect a bit on my own political journey.

My chat with Carl

The focus of my gratuitous soapboxing was the idea that the Republican Party of today is not the Republican Party of, say, Lincoln or, less gloriously, Herbert Hoover. The old Republican Party was more closely aligned to the libertarians of today: they believed in limited government. But times change, and with the social upheaval of the 60's and 70's, Republicans found a power base in the form of social conservatives angry at the social changes embodied in the Warren Court, the Civil Rights Act, and Roe vs. Wade. This relationship between the "limited government" wing of the party and the "traditional values" wing has a long history, but with Reagan, this relationship turned into a marriage (incidentally, there are old Republicans like Gerald Ford who advocate for abortions). This admittedly over-simplified view of the party would be incomplete without the foreign policy hawks who have been resurgent ever since 9/11. Known as the neo-conservatives, they form the third partner in this group of strange bedfellows. But I am sure that many are already familiar with this history, so why am I rehashing this? These alliances have, I think, caused the Republican party to do a complete 180. Their principles of limited government retreated from the personal arena in the Reagan area when the religious right jumped on board, and in recent years, they are losing their fiscal conservativeness. With an aggressive foreign policy, the new projections of the federal deficit place it above $400 billion. Does it not seem odd that such a budget would come from a party that a just a decade ago was clamoring for the Balanced Budget Amendment? And what about the 10-fold increase (yes, a whole order of magnitude!) in the number of earmarks (i.e., pork barrel spending), from 1,439 in 1995 after the Republican take-over of Congress to 13,997 in 2005? Indeed, a growing number of Republicans are not of the traditional libertarian sort and are instead big-government conservatives who spend money like Democrats but without the same sort of respect for individual freedoms. Of course, the Republicans still give free markets lip service--they have no desire the lose the votes of the old Republicans, but that is all that it is: lip service. Instead of embarking on broad reforms to help the free market, they instead focus mostly on helping businesses in certain sectors, hoping that the voters will mistake "corporationism" for free-market libertarianism (I think that the Republican version of "free markets" over the years have given true free markets a terrible black eye, but that is a topic for another day). This is also why I feel that, as a moderate libertarian, the Democrats are much more closely aligned to what I believe because, if there is going to be a big government no matter what, I would rather have one that does not restrict civil liberties and one that is at least honest about its view of big government.

Of course, political realignments of this massive scale are not new. FDR created the most bizarre of political marriages when he forced together intellectual progressives and Southern whites. In time, the Southern whites bolted from their long-time party and joined the Republicans, converting the Democrats from the party of the South to the party that over 90% of blacks vote for. I always find it amusing that Republicans like to refer to themselves as the party of Lincoln even though they have broad support from southern Whites and virtually no support from blacks. Who they were a century ago is irrelevant, especially if they are the polar opposite today. Anyway, on the topic of political divorces, I wonder how long it will take for the old Republicans to realize that their party has been hijacked and that the time has come to abandon ship and join another party like what the white Southerners did.

My own political journey

Having spent the first seven years of my life in China, I came to the United States thoroughly brainwashed. This was just a few months after Tian'an'men, and I remember strongly believing how great the Communist government was for China's well-being and how terrible it was that the protestors were disturbing law and order. Yes, political indoctrination starts at a young age in China. ;) Incidentally, because of the Republican Party's favorable stance on immigration at the time and because of their anti-Communist policy (which translated towards sympathy towards those who have left China) at the time, my parents told me that they supported Bush, and so I did as well. So I started out as a statist and as a Republican.

In hindsight, I am surprised at how little political education I received before high school. Of course, there were lessons about American history, our founding fathers, patriotism, etc., but glorified pictures of Washington do very little towards touching on the core political values of this country. Those who knew me well in high school will remember that I was one of the few masochists who had very fond memories of Jane McCue's mercilessly grueling and superbly-taught classes. European History AP (or as I like to call it, History of the Evolution of Western Civilization) opened my political eyes, and I grew enamored with the writings of political philosophers such as Locke. Because I took the summer version with other do-gooders, American Government AP with McCue was filled with excellent students who made for lively debates and discussions. I came away from those the two McCue classes with a profound appreciation for the principles of civil libertarianism, and as the unfortunate souls who had to tolerate my overbearing soapboxing in my junior and senior years of high school could easily attest, I was solidly a bleeding-heart liberal and staunch Democrat (I still believed in the principles of large-scale government intervention in the economy). Further readings about the topic of civil liberties over the years only solidified and polished my stance on civil libertarianism. On that note, I was still very conservative in respect to my personal behavior (having been raised with traditional values), but in respect to politics and policy, I was a staunch civil libertarian, which led to a high school classmate to describe me at one point as "the most conservative liberal" she had ever met.

It was not until I started to study economics for USAD during my senior year of high school that I gained appreciation for the power of free markets. Many people learning economics are given at some point some sort of example that illustrates the concept of the winners and losers. For me, it was the parable of the Xerox machines, a fictitious tale of the importation of newly-invented Xerox machines into a society with no such technology and where a third of the population earned a living as scribes. Introducing such time- and labor-saving technology would certainly boost the productiveness and well-being of this society in the long run, but in the short run, it would entail a very angry scribe union and the loss of jobs for many if these devices were imported. Of course, the overall net economic benefit to the society would be positive and a protectionist scheme to block the imports would lead to long-term stagnation, but these benefits would be unevenly distributed as many people lose jobs. However, if government could step in and channel some of the benefits towards temporary welfare and job retraining, the "winners" will still reap a benefit (albeit diminished), the "losers" would not be so badly off, and the devices are imported, avoiding the stagnation of protectionism. It is interesting that, after all these years and numerous economics courses, this little example that I read as a part of my initial introduction to economics is still somewhat iconic of my beliefs. I believe that free markets are, on the whole, wonderful, but I also believe that it would be naïve to think of them as being perfect. I have come to believe that limited and very carefully-targeted government intervention is inevitably necessary to help free markets work because to be dogmatically opposed to any government role would be to deny the true nature of free markets (as an economics professor once quipped, "the first year is spent teaching textbook economics, and every year after that is spent teaching why textbook economics are not quite right"... it is a lot like Newtonian physics vs. relativity and quantum, actually). And so here I am, a moderate libertarian who believes in the principles of civil libertarianism and free markets. Quite a change for someone who used to be the polar opposite, no?

PS: Actually, shortly after being converted to free market economics, I was a libertarian who did not know what a libertarian was; I was still living in the world of right vs. left, and it was not until one of my high school friends pointed it out that I realized that the best label for me libertarian.

PPS: While most people receive their belief indoctrinations in college, I had already received mine before college. Studying economics in college helped solidify and refine my belief in the underlying wonder of free markets, and the extreme liberal campus activism turned me away from my old liberal stance a bit, but for the most part, college had surprisingly very little affect on me politically.

This entry was edited on 2006/03/24 at 17:31:39 GMT -0500.

What is a "Moderate" Libertarian?

Saturday, February 11, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Libertarianism, Ranting

The Economist posted an article (subscriber-only) a few days ago about the United States budget. Here are some excerpts:

George Bush's state-of-the-union address last week may have set a new standard for involuted meaning when he urged Congress to "act responsibly, and make the tax cuts permanent". At that time, the official White House projection of the budget deficit for the 2006 fiscal year was $341 billion, a substantial portion of which could have been erased by rolling back the tax cuts so dear to Mr Bush's heart. On Monday February 6th, the use of the word "responsibly" suddenly looked even more idiosyncratic, as the administration released a $2.7 trillion proposed budget, and announced that the 2006 deficit projection had grown to $423 billion, or 3.2% of America's GDP.
If a Republican Congress and president can only manage to cut their least favourite programmes by a paltry amount when faced with a budget deficit soaring towards the half-trillion mark, then it is time to concede defeat and raise taxes.
Bringing the budget back to balance will require a politically unpalatable combination of tax increases and spending cuts.

Here is a fairly libertarian news magazine advocating tax increases, but I think that it was being realistic about the issue. It concedes that if there is going to be a high level of spending (and it duly notes that the lion's share of the budget is taken up by military spending, debt interest, and health care, which are areas that cannot realistically be cut in the short-term), then it would be the responsible thing to do to raise taxes to cover this spending. This makes sense; taxes are born out of spending, not the other way around.

I was a bit surprised, however, at how negative some of the reactions that I read on the web were towards this notion of raising taxes. I guess this pretty much sums up what I mean when I tell people that I am a "moderate" libertarian and that I do not subscribe to everything that the Libertarian Party would subscribe to (one pet peeve of mine in regards to libertarian politics: cutting education spending; education is a public good in that it is necessary for democracy and, ironically, better education would bolster the the number of people who would subscribe to the aloof libertarian cause). Of course it would be great if the government does not spend so much money, but one has to be realistic: if the government is going to spend this money, then you had better raise taxes sooner or later. I guess "realistic" is the operative word; many of the hard-line libertarians that I have met are simply not that realistic.

Anyway, here is a great blog post (pretty humorous, too!) that I came across that discusses this issue.

This entry was edited on 2006/02/11 at 02:11:00 GMT -0500.

Yahoo!: Incentives & Trying Out New Mail

Thursday, February 9, 2006
Keywords: Technology

Yahoo!'s search incentives

A writer at C|Net has reported that Yahoo! is considering offering incentives to people who use Yahoo! as their primary search engine. Here is an excerpt of a survey that Yahoo! sent to some of its users:

Yahoo! is considering launching a program to reward people who make Yahoo! their primary search engine. Yahoo! Mail users will be given early access to this program. You will receive a monthly reward if you make Yahoo! your primary search engine. This means that most of the searching you do each month must be on Yahoo! Search. To ensure users receive credit for all searches conducted on Yahoo!, you may need to log in or use a search box specifically designed for this program (e.g., a Yahoo! rewards toolbar).

I thought that Yahoo! had given up on the search engine wars and is going to now concentrate on services instead? Whatever the case, I think that this is an interesting idea; we are simply starting to see some of the same marketing tactics of the traditional economy being adopted by the new economy. There is one thing that strikes me as a sticky issue, though: there is no foolproof way for them to be sure that you use Yahoo! for "most" of your searches. They can tell how many times you use Yahoo! search per month and then grant you rewards if you pass a certain threshold, but there is no way whatsoever that they can be sure that, at the same time, you used Yahoo! more than you used Google and thus "most" of the time. Since they will have to do this rewards program based on the raw number of searches, this invites other problems. According to Google's handy search history tool, I performed 26 unique searches yesterday. I would imagine that for casual users, that number would be less. For people who do a lot of searching, it would thus be easy to do the minimum necessary for Yahoo! and then use Google for the rest. In the extreme case, I could picture myself rigging up a simple program that will send a number of random search requests to Yahoo! each day, thus fulfilling the requirement without me actually touching the Yahoo! search engine; obviously, this would be undesirable for Yahoo!, but countering it is no trivial matter.

Anyway, enough about that. So what kinds of rewards are they thinking about offering?

  • No Yahoo! Mail ads: This is worthwhile, but then again, it is only because Yahoo! uses graphical ads and, even worse, animated Flash ads. Google ads are not only more pleasing to the eye, but they have actually been useful on occasion.
  • Unlimited Yahoo! mail storage: If you are anywhere close to using up the 2.6+ (and growing) gigabytes of storage that Gmail offers, please raise your hand...
  • Outlook access to Yahoo! Mail: Ahem. Ya know, Gmail offers this for free.
  • Five free music downloads each month
  • Discounted music subscription
  • Donations to charity
  • PC to phone calling credit
  • Netflix discount
  • Discounted Yahoo! Personals
  • Frequent Flyer Miles: Yep, they threw in the kitchen sink.

Not too bad; I guess could see myself springing for some of these offers, if all it took was for me to do some searching...

Taking Yahoo! Mail Beta out for a spin

In other news, I finally got invited to try out Yahoo! Mail Beta. This is the new mail product that people have been buzzing about for a while now as the Gmail-killer, so I have been quite anxious to see what all the fuss is about. Like many Gmail and many other products, it uses asynchronous JavaScript (AJAX) for smoother user interaction. Unlike Gmail, which tried to redefine the mail experience by introducing many features that average users were uncomfortable with (e.g., replacing folders with labeling and getting rid of the delete button), Yahoo! Mail emulates the Outlook Express interface so that people will get something that they are familiar with. I have to admit, the whole thing looks very slick and shiny, with a tabbed interface to switch between composition drafts and your mailboxes and even a spiffy drag-and-drop interface. The Gmail interface took a bit to get used to, so for Yahoo! to offer something more traditional is advantageous. The integrated RSS reader is a pretty cool feature that I wish Gmail had. Unfortunately, Yahoo! reported an error when I tried to add some feeds; well, it is a beta (if Google could just integrate Google Reader into Gmail, that would be wonderful).

Yahoo! Mail Beta Screenshot

That is about as far as my love affair with this beta will go, however. My biggest gripe is that the slick interface comes at a hefty cost: responsiveness. The interface seemed very sluggish and unresponsive, and any form of rich text scrolling is annoyingly slow. After clicking the inbox, I had to wait a couple of seconds for it to show up. Mind you, I am using a fast and stable broadband connection and a decent modern processor (2.8 GHz P4 with 1.5 GB RAM). When loading the inbox, the usage meter on one of my virtual processors (HT) shot up to 100% for the duration of the load. Not only does Gmail load the inbox in less than a second, Gmail barely registers a blip on my CPU monitor. I then tried Yahoo! Mail Beta on my old 800 MHz laptop, and the process of loading and starting Yahoo! Mail Beta not only caused the CPU usage meter to hit 100%, but it remained at 100% (rendering the computer unusable) for the entire duration of the startup, which took a remarkable 57 seconds (vs. 7 seconds for Gmail on this same laptop; startup times were 15 seconds vs. 2 seconds for my P4). This is e-mail, not Adobe Photoshop for goodness sakes! Gmail's minimalist interface may lack slickness, but it is fast, responsive, and efficient, and when you are using e-mail day in and day out, what matters the most? That you have nicely shaded tabs or that you have a nice, responsive interface? For Gmail users who like to use a traditional interface, Gmail offers free and secure POP3/SMTP access, which will allow you to use software like Outlook Express with Gmail; Yahoo! wants you to pay for this. Gmail also allows people to specify different "From:" addresses, so that I could use my Gmail account to both send and receive mail for kailiu.com. Lacking this feature, Yahoo! would allow you to receive this sort of mail, but not to send it. Oh, and the ads in Yahoo! Mail Beta are neither useful or unintrusive (can we say Flash animation?). So while I am truly very, very impressed as a programmer with the fact that they were able to build such a slick and familiar interface using JavaScript, Yahoo! Mail Beta is simply unusable. It is great eye candy, but that is about it. Gmail took risks when it abandoned a number of traditions of e-mail interfaces, but now I see that they were right in doing what they did: they were able to build an interface that was intuitive in its own way and that was suitable for the web medium. By clinging to old interface styles, Yahoo! stuck with an interface that is not really suitable for the web, and while they managed to pull it off, it does not really work.

This entry was edited on 2006/02/12 at 17:05:48 GMT -0500.

One More Cartoon Post

Wednesday, February 8, 2006
Keywords: Politics

This is starting to become an old topic, and I have pretty much said all that I have to say about it, but there were two noteworthy things that caught my attention today.

First, Alan Dershowitz appeared on Danish television with some surprisingly angry comments. As I had expected from this staunch civil libertarian, he sided with the right to publish these cartoons. What surprised me was how he approached the issue. While he is generally quite eloquent and measured in his writings, he was more or less seething in this interview. Instead of defending the cartoons on the principles of free expression, he went on the offensive to point out the relatively mild nature of these cartoons (the turban-bomb one is probably the most offensive of the twelve; most of the others are not nearly as bad) when compared to the kinds of Islamic publications that "are a staple out of Gaza every week." Not that I disagree with him, but I personally would have picked something a bit more substantial than a "but they did it too" to start things off. He then makes a point that most people have not actually seen these cartoons and that, if they had, they would realize just how relatively mild they are. Okay, good point, but still failing to really touch on the issue of free speech. Finally, he describes the entire situation as a form of terrorism where news outlets are afraid to publish because they fear violent retaliation (vs. angry letters and some peaceful protests, I suppose). I think that fits the definition of terrorism quite well, and I think that this is a great point that he brought up. Nevertheless, I was a bit disappointed, as this is probably as far as he got to defending the core principles of free speech. Oh well; he was speaking to a different audience.

Second, something that has been spreading through the "blogosphere" is the revelation that six of the twelve cartoons (including the notorious turban-bomb cartoon) were printed in Egypt last October without any sort of reaction. As much as I dislike conspiracy theories, this does lend quite a bit of weight to the argument that these cartoons are not really offensive on their own and that the protests have been more or less engineered by governments and/or fundamentalist leaders.

Europe's Woes

Wednesday, February 8, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Economics

I just finished reading a very well-written essay titled "Is 'Old Europe' Doomed?" published by the libertarian Cato Institute. Incidentally, just a few days ago, I was reading an article in the latest issue of The Economist that explored in some detail the economic side of this issue in France. From the Economist article: "This year, for the first time, almost the entire proceeds of French income tax will go to pay interest on public debt." Anyway, go give the essay a read. Edit: Here is a reply essay.

This entry was edited on 2006/02/08 at 04:46:11 GMT -0500.

Google vs. Verizon

Wednesday, February 8, 2006
Keywords: Technology, Economics

Here's yet another article about the recent lust for content taxation that seems to be infecting various broadband ISPs. Read the article.

As if asymmetrical up/down bandwidths aren't enough, they are incensed that content providers don't have the right to use their pipes for free. Excuse me, their pipes? Their arrogance is extremely infuriating. Of course, Verizon owns the pipes, but the millions of Verizon customers pay a hefty monthly toll, and as a result, these customers should be expected to have the content that they want come through those pipes without meddling; by no means is Verizon giving away its pipes for free, contrary to what they would like for the public to think. If Verizon feels that its fees are not enough to cover the costs of maintaining those pipes, then it perhaps it should charge those people who requested the data, which it won't do because it can more easily get away with squeezing money out of various Internet companies than its customer base. Google is not enjoying a free lunch, either. It has to pay a hefty price for its bandwidth and for its connection to the Internet, though those payments do not necessarily go to Verizon. If someone makes a phone call, the caller is paying his local phone company for the right to use the lines to make outgoing calls and then the callee is paying her local phone company to for the right to use the lines to receive incoming calls. If this sort of thing goes through, it would be akin to forcing the caller to pay twice--once on his end and again on her end for the call, even though the callee is still paying on the receiving end, for a total of three charges.

In the end, Verizon and the other ISPs are doing this because they feel that they are in a position to dig into the profits of Google et al. and also because they fear that as Internet voice calls and other services become more common, they will lose out. Bundling their own (mediocre) services with their connection service is akin to Microsoft bundling their own software with Windows. While vertical integration can often be a good thing, this sort of alliance between content provider and connection provider is dangerous as the latter is monopolistic in nature. It produces a conflict of interest that has led to them toying with the idea of charging rival content services, which would be a gross abuse of market power, much akin to Microsoft charging rival companies for the their software to run on Windows.

This is a perfect example of when a small amount of government regulation is necessary (simply affirming the principle of network neutrality would suffice). Although there may be some token competition, the cost of switching ISPs and the impracticality of multiple companies laying multiple lines make it such that broadband ISPs wield near-monopolistic powers (and in some places, they do wield monopolistic powers). They are natural monopolies, which governments have the obligation to regulate in order to protect the free market, and if nothing is done to reign in abuses of power, then the Internet--one of the finest specimens of free market economics--will suffer. Much like the railroads of long ago, the Internet is the essential connecting fiber that binds our New Economy together, and we can ill afford the 21st-century equivalent of railroad robber barons.

Side note: I was greatly disappointed by the article, as it mostly dwells on arguments given by John Thorne, the Verizon executive, and the prominent placement of biased language such as "free lunch" will not help the average reader of this mainstream newspaper fully grasp both sides of this issue. That the arguments against the Verizon plan are presented very briefly and almost in passing at the very end is also unfortunate.

This entry was edited on 2006/02/08 at 12:50:23 GMT -0500.

More on the Cartoon "Row"

Tuesday, February 7, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Religion

(This is a follow-up to an earlier post.)

I want to start off by commenting about the choice of words used by the news media. Cruise through Google News or the BBC, and you will notice something striking: the widespread use of the word "row" to describe this situation. Ambassadors are withdrawn, embassies are torched, a few people have been killed, radicals are calling for a holocaust to be brought upon Europe, and they call this a row? To call this "a noisy dispute or quarrel; commotion" is a gross understatement (though, admittedly, an amusing one).

This is a row?! (Image © Associated Press.)

Drifting towards neo-conservativism

In my over-simplified view of the GOP, it is a marriage of three ideologies: there are the libertarian-ish conservatives who favor free markets, there are the religious fundamentalists conservatives, and there are the foreign policy hawks, also known as the "neo-conservatives."

My liberal stance towards foreign policy has been rooted in the idea that American woes in the Middle East are really our own doing. Historically, our foreign policy there has been an unflattering one of exploitation (or at least bearing the impression thereof), and the people of the Middle East are more or less justified in being angry at us. Although that does not justify acting violently on that anger, it does suggest that in order to resolve the problem (and not just the symptoms of the problem), we must eliminate that anger, thus rendering a hawkish foreign policy incompatible and counter-productive. I still believe in this liberal foreign policy stance, but I am starting to have my doubts.

If the incident involved the burning of American flags and embassies, the world would not care, and most Americans probably would not care because this sort of thing has become commonplace and because our foreign policy tends to spark such things. But for once, the outrage of the Middle East is not centered around the United States, but around Denmark. This is a country that has made large humanitarian contributions to the Middle East. This is a country that is fairly neutral and that does not arrogantly prance around the world. This country is almost a bit like Switzerland (incidentally, even a Swiss flag was burned in this "row", probably by some jihadists who did not know the difference between the Swiss and Danish flags). In a way, this serves as a sort of looking glass into a what-if scenario. What if the United States was not hawkish and arrogant? What if the United States took a liberal foreign policy and spent significantly more money on foreign aid than on military hardware? Denmark did just that, and look at where it is now. Perhaps the neo-cons might just have a point.

There are two key problems with the neo-conservatives that prevents me from adopting their politics, however. Economists stress the importance of valuing something not in absolute terms, but in terms relative to all possible alternatives. All that this incident has shown is the liberal foreign policy stance is not as good as one might have hoped for it to be, but it does not show that a hawkish foreign policy stance is any better; it may very well be that a hawkish stance is even more flawed than the liberal stance; it is hard to say for sure. Second, the alliance between the neo-conservatives and the religious right in the United States is unsettling. While religious fundamentalists in the United States, unlike their counterparts in the Middle East, are not known to go on jihads, a small minority of them have on occasion resorted to violent acts (e.g., bombing abortion clinics and killing homosexuals) to deal with those who share different perspectives.

Additional thoughts...

  • There is an interesting piece titled Live Free or Die by The Brussels Journal. I am not sure I agree with parts of this editorial (especially the latter half), but it does bring up a few good points in the first half.
  • Muslims have every right to be offended, but why must they be violent? The practice of writing angry letters to the editor exists for a reason...
  • Iranian paper to run Holocaust cartoons (The Guardian)... it is not exactly the most mature response, but perhaps when they see the lack of Western protests to their cartoons, they will learn something (or not).
  • I still find it ironic that the rule prohibiting depictions stems from the prohibition of idolatry. Ignoring the fact that one does not worship satirical images, doesn't this extremely strong defense of one of their prophets strike people as bordering on worship... idolatry?
  • Why do Muslims care so much about what gets printed in Denmark for a Danish audience? The last time I checked, the Jyllands-Posten is not distributed in Muslim countries. Why on Earth should the cultural norms of Muslim countries trump the cultural norms of free speech of Denmark for something printed in Denmark? I suppose the unsolicited meddling of the affairs of other countries is not an activity limited to the United States.
  • Furthermore, most Muslims have never even seen these cartoons, as their publication is prohibited in the Muslim world (in fact, two newspaper editors were arrested for it). Never mind the fact that a cartoon does not deliver physical, financial or material harm, but can a cartoon even deal emotional harm if someone has never even seen it?
  • Why does the Danish government have to apologize for the acts of an independent media company that it does not even have a single iota of control over? Furthermore, why does the action of one news outlet in Denmark condemn every person in that country?
  • Regarding Muslim immigration in Europe: There are a number of things that Europe has done wrong in this department. Failing to do something about the dismal unemployment rates is a start (historically, discontent breeds radicalism). More importantly, there is insufficient pressure for people to assimilate. Total Westernization of immigrants is by no means necessary, but at the very least, people who join a society must explicitly agree to accept that society's social contract and be indoctrinated with that society's most basic values (i.e., democracy and mind-your-own-business).
  • I find it a bit disappointing that most media outlets in the United States are refusing to reprint the cartoons as a show of support for the principles of free speech. For a country that has generally been not as concerned about these sensitivities (from support of Israel to military involvements) to do this is a bit ironic (granted, the United States is not monolithic and the decision to print these things is made by individual private companies).
  • It is very distressing to see how many people do not really understand what free speech is. Many Muslims are saying that they support free speech, but that they think that speech must also show respect. That is even the stance of the State Department. Granting someone the "freedom" to do good while prohibiting them from making mistakes is not "freedom", but only an illusion thereof. True freedom is the ability to both do good and make mistakes (and hopefully voluntarily electing to do the former). Free speech constrained by respect (i.e., political correctness) is not free speech. If everything in the world is censored so as to not offend anyone (Muslims, Hindus, vegetarians, feminists, Southern WASPs, Marxists, free market advocates, conservatives, liberals, etc., etc.), there would be nothing left to say. Political correctness and free speech are incompatible, and too many people mistake the former for the latter.
  • Finally, the paper has apologized, and Europe governments are scrambling to offer amends, yet the violence continues. What more do they want?

Updates: First, in fairness (I do feel guilty about having so far presented only one side of the issue), here is a well-written piece by a Westerner condemning the cartoons. Very good and valid points are brought up. For those who believe that speech has limits (beyond those of "shouting fire in a crowded theater" where speech directly translates into physical harm), this is a convincing piece. There are few who believe in the absolute unlimited nature of free speech (once again, exempting the "shouting fire" case), and in recent years, even the ACLU has started to back down from this sort of stance in favor of political correctness. As one of those people who still cling onto the absoluteness of the freedom of speech, I remained unchanged in my stance after reading this, but I nevertheless think that it was worth a read. For me on a personal level, this is also what makes this whole thing so fascinating: it is in many ways a test of the limits of free speech and how far it should go. Would neo-Nazis peacefully marching through a Jewish neighborhood constitute legitimate free speech? A Jewish law professor at Harvard, Alan Dershowitz, thinks that it would be legitimate, and so do I, but, quite understandably, many do not, and this is the sort of debate that is at the core here.

Second, I forgot to mention earlier that these cartoons were first published many months ago, and that they are only now stirring trouble because a Muslim group in Denmark circulated these cartoons. According to some sources, additional images that were much more offensive and that were not produced by the cartoonists were fabricated and included, presumably with the intent of rousing anger. By no means does this justify the sort of reaction that the world is seeing, but it does make me wonder if things would have been different had these images not been included.

Another Update: Here's an excerpt from an interesting post on an Iraqi blog:

You know that those cartoons were published for the 1st time months ago and we here in the Middle East have tonnes of jokes about Allah, the prophets and the angels that are way more offensive, funny and obscene than those poorly-made cartoons, yet no one ever got shot for telling one of those jokes or at least we had never seen rallies and protests against those infidel joke-tellers.

This entry was edited on 2006/02/08 at 02:59:25 GMT -0500.

The Economist vs. Oil Addiction

Monday, February 6, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Economics

I was delighted to see a brief article in 4 Feb 2006 issue of The Economist titled "The pusher-in-chief" gleefully taking punches at Bush's State of the Union energy policy proposals. In addition to the objections that I made last week, The Economist touched on a good point that I did not mention. It notes that last year's Energy Act handed out billions of dollars to the energy industry, but it did so without any sort of guidance. By failing to force the pricing of externalities (e.g., carbon taxes and raising efficiency requirements), the administration has failed to generate the market forces necessary to guide the money spent. The problem with energy policy is not money; the major energy companies are swimming in revenue. The problem is the lack of market forces to guide that money towards useful solutions. This failure to force the market to correct its lopsided pricing, in my opinion, suggests that while Mr. Bush claims to be on the side of market economics, he really is not (to be cynical, I personally think that he chooses market solutions not out of principle, but only when it is politically convenient). In addition, his utter failure to recognize that "oil is a fungible, globally-traded commodity" in his ill-constructed speech certainly does not help his economic credentials. To quote the article, Bush "is firmly on the side of the pusher, not he addict."

This entry was edited on 2006/02/06 at 16:30:30 GMT -0500.

Reconciling Libertarianism and Socialism

Sunday, February 5, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Economics, Libertarianism

As the people who read this blog already know, my core philosophical/political principles are libertarian, and as such, I am a free market economist. But at the same time, I am also very centrist, and I view platform of the Libertarian Party as a platform of cold anarchy. Worse yet, I am a free market economist who is intrigued by Karl Marx--not the radical Karl Marx of the Communist Manifesto, but the economist Karl Marx of Das Kapital. I have long turned this around in my mind trying to find a way to reconcile and to unify these beliefs, and here is my (hopefully concise) attempt at doing so.

Libertarianism was born out of government abuses. It is believed that governmental powers pose the greatest threat to freedom, and as such, libertarians prefer a hands-off approach to virtually anything. Libertarians (generally) do not support anarchy, however, as they believe that the government is needed to provide justice (i.e., a way to deal with thieves, etc.) and to provide certain (limited) public goods. Marxists believe that the preservation of freedom involved eliminating concentrations of capital so that economics does not become a means of enslavement. The difficulty here is that this violates the property rights that libertarians hold dear, and although there are no specific provisions on precisely how reallocated capital should be managed, this, realistically, necessitates the transfer of authority to some form of governing body (though ideally, this would not be the case).

I want to start by trying to define what our goal is. Both conflicting views advocate freedom, but how should we define this freedom? I propose that we define it in terms of power. Random House Webster's dictionary defines it as the possession of control or command over others, which I think is a suitable definition for this purpose. Thus, in the absence of government, people can exert power on others through physical coercion (e.g., seizing of property, killing, etc.), and when government is formed, people surrender the right of physical coercion to the government, thus instituting and protecting freedoms such as property and life. Libertarians believe that government should not do much more beyond confiscating the powers of physical coercion, fearing (rightfully so, as history attests) that governments with too much power will tend to exert them in ways that suppress individual freedom. What is lacking from this perspective, however, is economics. In a world of abundant resources (capital), this may not have been a serious oversight, but it is nevertheless an oversight, and in our world, it is a serious one. But to what extent is economics power? If Mr. Smith decided to do work for Mr. Jones so that Mr. Smith would have the money to buy korfball equipment for his hobby sport, should this be viewed as Mr. Jones exerting economic power over Mr. Smith or should this be viewed as a voluntary economic exchange initiated by Mr. Smith in which he trades some amount of his time for equipment for his pet sport? What if the situation was a little different? Let's say that Mr. Smith is struggling to pay the rent on his run-down low-cost apartment and barely has any money for meager amounts of food, and he is working for Mr. Jones to pay for just these basic necessities of life. Would Mr. Jones' ability to have Mr. Smith do work on his behalf constitute power in this case? Would it make a difference if Mr. Jones was the only employer or if Mr. Smith could choose between different employers? A distinction needs to be made between economic activities where the parties act voluntarily and where there is a coercive element (a non-economic example of such a distinction would be Mr. Doe deciding whether to go to a police station so that he can interview the police chief versus Mr. Doe deciding whether to go to a police station because he's surrounded by policemen with guns drawn--while he technically has the option to resist, the consequences of that option are such that the option does not realistically exist). The study of free market economics addresses this to some extent with the notion of market power: monopolies, monopsonies, etc. and the notion of inelastic demand: demand for food and shelter, etc., but how does this fit into politics?

Classical libertarianism is somewhat myopic in this regard, as it focuses on the protection of people from the coercive powers of government and pays little attention to the possibility of coercive powers from other sources, mostly because a perfect free market economy would necessarily be free of these problems. However, just as many people could claim that a perfect Marxist society is an impossibility, so is the notion of a perfect free-market economy. Just as the frictionless surfaces of physics textbooks do not exist in the real world, many of the assumptions of free market economics are limited only to textbooks: perfect symmetrical information, lack of externalities, no natural monopolies, perfectly rational people, perfectly mobile capital and labor, etc. It is true that much of the power held by the rich are really the product of misapplied governmental powers (fine examples include the federal grants that established the crooked railroad monopolies of long ago and the corruption of government through lobbyists) and that a general reduction of governmental powers would reduce the amount of power that could be "bought" and abused, but there are many cases where power could be had without the help of a corruptible government, through deception (it has been proved mathematically that asymmetric imperfect information will produce undesirable economic results in a free market model), natural monopolies, natural monopsonies, the disregard of externalities, etc. Alan Greenspan's 1961 paper titled Antitrust is a perfect example of the commonplace libertarian view that economic problems like trusts are caused by government and that, had government not meddled in the first place, there would be nothing to fix. This perspective, as I have just argued, is flawed because while it may be true for certain cases (such as the railroad example brought up by Mr. Greenspan that so conveniently fit his argument), it is by no means all-encompassing. It should also be noted that even if the economy was perfect enough that it is able to correct itself, the process of correction can oftentimes be slow. It took about a decade for U.S. Steel to lose its grip on the market, Alcoa did not lose its monopoly until after a number of decades and a government jump-start of its competitors.

While classical libertarianism is naive in respect to the economy, Marx was blind in respect to government and the power and efficiency of free markets. Although Marx does not advocate a government per se, reality implies the necessity of granting government a lot of power if reallocation of capital of the scale he imagines is to take place, hence my motivation for a perspective that takes both concerns into account.

I would like to see a version of libertarianism that takes into account the realities of the economy and thus tries to address the kinds of issues that Marx tried to address without taking a radical approach to the allocation of capital. Locke believed that, as a whole, people were good and that if it were not for the small minority of aggressors, government would not be necessary. If these concessions can be made for the imperfections of human nature, why can they not be made for the imperfections of economics? While excessive government intervention in economics is undesirable (e.g., agricultural supports), government intervention is necessary to establish the foundations necessary for a true free-market economy, which in turn will ensure freedom. Laws are needed to regulate information disclosure, to force the pricing of externalities (e.g., pollution and gasoline taxes), to regulate natural monopolies (e.g., utilities), to regulate mergers and other anti-competitive activities, etc.

I suppose the difference between what I am advocating and socialism is that, as a libertarian, I believe in a different standard to which these laws must be held. Their purpose is not to help specific groups of people, but instead, they should be carefully targeted at the natural defects of the economy in the hopes that all groups of people will benefit once a true market economy exists, and as such, these laws need to be limited so that they grant the government only as much power as necessary. In the end, I believe strongly in the power and efficiency of a market economy. One needs to look no further than the high unemployment and discontent in Europe to see that, ultimately, free markets are the best that we have, and that with some ironing out of the natural kinks (a process that many hard-line libertarians oppose), it could do wonders for the world.

Anyway, this is just a short (though not as short as I was aiming for) preliminary sketch of my take on libertarianism. One of these days, I should flesh this out to something more carefully researched and written, but for now, I'm just curious to see what people think of it.

This entry was edited on 2006/02/07 at 19:23:43 GMT -0500.

The Self-Substantiating Cartoon

Sunday, February 5, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Religion

I was going to let this whole issue slip by, but a headline caught my attention as I was about to go to bed: Embassies in Syria Are Burned in Furor Over Prophet Cartoon. While this was not very surprising, considering the attack in Gaza days ago, it was nevertheless outrageous. All this over some political cartoons?

Muslims claim that depictions of Muhammad are blasphemous (edit: it should be noted that the reason for this is to discourage idolatry; in which case, one has to wonder how a satirical image can be conducive to idolatry, and one also has to wonder if this strong fervor that Muslims are raising over Muhammad is itself a form of idolatry), but it is curious to note that for hundreds of years, there have been numerous depictions of this final prophet by Muslims and by Westerners, all without inciting this kind of a ruckus. It is also interesting to note that Muslims have never raised a fuss about the countless depictions (both satirical and non-satirical) of Jesus, who has a place in Islam alongside Muhammad as one of the Prophets of Islam. Even Christians are not known to burn down embassies or initiate large-scale boycotts over the large number of unflattering depictions of Jesus in media (remember the dancing Jesus in The Simpsons?), so why do we see this with Muslims? And as for the satire itself, Muslims are no foreigners to the use of unsavory cartoons to express a political perspective. The problem, I think, stems from the strong currents of fundamentalism that courses through the region in addition to the lack of a notion of religious freedom; in fairness, I would imagine that a few hundred years ago, Christians would have been equally unhappy at someone who draws a satirical image of their deity.

Of course, the great irony is that by reacting the way they did, through excessive violence, death threats, and boycotts, the Muslim world has validated the cartoon and did more harm to their image than any satirical cartoon could alone. If the Islamic world is truly concerned about "Islamophobia," this reaction certainly does not help (besides, since when does a cartoon suddenly represent the views of everyone in an entire country at large?). A web poll (i.e., this is not scientific) on aljazeera.net showed that 53% of respondents felt that boycotts were inappropriate. Assuming that those who oppose the boycotts would be sensible enough to also oppose the violence, it is certainly a relief to see that a majority of the people believe that there has been a gross overreaction, but that the margin of the majority is so small is somewhat worrisome.

Finally, the other impetus that drove me to write this entry (and thus putting off finishing the other entry that I was hoping to post tonight; I'll get around to that some time tomorrow :P) was this headline that I saw in Google News: Don't reprint cartoons, begs sheikh. As a staunch supporter of free speech, I feel that these cartoons need to be shown, as a vindication for the principles of free speech and as a show that this kind of extreme overreaction is unproductive. Ultimately, this is a matter of respect--not respect for a religion or any other belief or point of view, but respect for something far greater: the right to express those beliefs and points of view, regardless of what the content of that expression may be.

And so, here is the worst of the twelve cartoons printed in the Jyllands-Posten:

Edit: I should note that when I speak of freedom of speech, I am referring to true freedom of speech. A liberal who invokes freedom of speech when publishing sexually-oriented literature that is offensive to religious groups but who then tries to get racist remarks censored is not a true supporter of freedom of speech. It is easy for one to support speech that is beneficial to their aims, but it is only when someone is willing to support speech that is directly contradictory to their aims that they are a true supporter of freedom of speech. Political correctness is just a sugar-coated form of censorship. So on that note, I think that this political cartoon appearing in Arab newspapers is inaccurate because the people who would outlaw the racist and anti-Semitic images are the same politically correct people who would refuse to show the Muhammad cartoon (e.g., CNN, the US State Department, etc.), and the true supporters of freedom of speech would not try to outlaw any of the three scenarios depicted.

The freedom to swing your fist ends where the other person's nose begins, but freedom of speech has no limits. There are so many people in the world who are offended by so many different things. If you censor things so that nobody would be offended, this would be very, very dull world.

Update: Instead of constantly editing this entry, I have posted more of my personal thoughts in this entry and this entry.

This entry was edited on 2006/02/09 at 17:05:10 GMT -0500.

A Short History of Medicine

Saturday, February 4, 2006
Keywords: Humor

This is a joke that I came across today, titled A Short History of Medicine:

"I have an earache."

- 2000 BCE: Here, eat this root.
- 1000 CE: That root is heathen. Here, say this prayer.
- 1800 CE: That prayer is superstition. Here, drink this potion.
- 1920 CE: That potion is snake oil. Here, swallow this pill.
- 1975 CE: That pill is ineffective. Here, take this antibiotic.
- 2000 CE: That antibiotic is artificial. Here, eat this root.

Hollow Words: Breaking the Oil Addiction

Wednesday, February 1, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Economics

As expected, there was not anything really new in the State of the Union address, as it was more or less a rehash of policies that the public has been hearing about for quite some time (which, to be fair, is typical of modern State of the Union addresses from Presidents of both parties). There was one thing that stood out, and that was Bush's remark about our addiction to oil, and indeed, it is quite an addiction, with an extraordinary inelasticity of demand. I must applaud him for finally acknowledging that this is a problem, but beyond that, there is little worthy of praise.

First, cutting 75% of our reliance on Middle Eastern oil by 2025 is hardly a monumental endeavor, especially since only 20% of our oil comes from that region. Most of our oil supplies come from much closer sources, such as Canada and Latin America. A 15% reduction in oil consumption in the course of nearly two decades is hardly remarkable, especially since this does not necessitate any reduction in energy consumption, and I would even venture a guess that the natural maturing of technologies such as hybrid engines or ethanol algae farming would have brought about modest changes of comparable scale without the help of a Presidential speech. One does not inspire with such restrained numbers. Additionally, it is projected that the production rate of Middle Eastern oil has reached its apogee (or is close to it) and that rates of oil production will fall as existing wells are tapped out and the remaining reserves become increasingly difficult to extract at current rates. Companies are now looking at places such as Africa for oil supplies, so a reduction in the Middle East's share of the global oil market over the course of the next two decades is an inevitability that is more or less written in stone.

Second, Bush's call for a reduction on Middle Eastern oil imports suggests a defective understanding of economics. Reducing dependence on imported Middle Eastern oil will not insulate us from the effects of a Middle Eastern oil supply shock. As a global commodity, oil from Canada or from Latin America is by no means priced independently from Middle Eastern oil, and a sudden collapse of Middle Eastern oil supplies will raise oil prices and crimp supplies for the United States even if the United States did not depend on even a single drop of Middle Eastern oil: the effect of an oil shock would be identical regardless of whether 100% of our imports were from the Middle East or if 0% of our imports were from the Middle East. The only real solution would be to cut our dependence of oil, regardless of origin.

Finally, his remark about our "addiction" is in contrast to previous positions taken by the administration that put strong emphasis on expanding oil capacity. That this comes so late and bears such contrast suggests to me that he was more or less forced by circumstances to make this admission. Criminals seem more willing to renounce their ways after hearing the gavel of a judge than before. Without the help of a couple of hurricanes and Iran's President (and to a lesser extent, Venezuela's President), would this initiative have found its way into the State of the Union?

In short, while I do like the public direction that Bush has taken, it would seem that this initiative is deceptively hollow: they are, in my opinion, well-crafted words to calm the masses and nothing more.

From Time to Time

Wednesday, February 1, 2006
Keywords: Politics

Kudos to Carl for pointing out to me the existance of a passage of the Constitution that states that State of the Union addresses were intended to be given only when needed. The following is from Article II, Section 3, Paragraph 1:

He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union

I didn't know about that "time to time" phrase until tonight. :P