On the Soapbox

Rant/peeve of the day: E-mailing Photos

Monday, November 27, 2006
Keywords: Technology

At the risk of sounding like a zealous e-mail nutcase, I am going to put my foot down and firmly declare my belief that sending large binary attachments (e.g., photos, big PowerPoint presentations, MP3s, etc.) by e-mail is simply immoral and wrong. They are, dare I say it, sinful. Here are the three reasons why attachments in e-mails are evil:

First, e-mail was designed as a way to send messages, not parcels. It was designed from the start as a way to send plain text. It was not designed as a way to send parcels of binary data because there are a number of other, more suitable, ways to accomplish that, through methods like UUCP (though it too was 6-bit), FTP, and later, HTTP, SFTP, and various P2P protocols. If one ever looked at the source of an e-mail containing a binary attachment (e.g., the "Show Original" option in Gmail or the "Message Source" option in Outlook Express), one will quickly see just how text-oriented e-mail is. There is simply no way to send binary data using SMTP (although the new 8BITMIME handling can potentially alleviate this, it is rarely ever used). As a result, binary data must somehow be encoded as plain text if it is to be transmitted via SMTP. The most common encoding used today, Base64 (other encoding methods--e.g., Uuencode--work in a similar way and suffer from the same problems), converts 8-bit binary data (base-256) into 6-bit plain text (base-64; 26 capital letters, 26 lowercase letters, 10 digits, and two other characters make up the 64 characters). This means that any binary data transmitted via SMTP automatically incurs a 33% storage and bandwidth penalty in addition to a processing penalty because of the need to encode and decode between 8-bit and 6-bit data.

Second, in addition to this overhead inefficiency, there is now a certain inelegance added to e-mail. There now needs to be a way to tell the difference between regular text data and binary data that has been re-encoded into a block of text. This is done rather inelegantly by randomly generating a string of text, checking to make sure that this random string does not already exist somewhere in the encoded e-mail, and then inserting this random bit of text as needed to serve as a sort of ad-hoc boundary between the text and attachment sections of e-mails. Coupled with the encoding and decoding, this adds a certain degree of complexity to e-mail handling software, making the e-mail handling process more error-prone and adding more hurdles to the process of writing custom e-mail handling tools. Although modern webmail interfaces and e-mail programs are now so good at handling attachments that all the underlying grotesqueness is obfuscated and hidden far away from the user, this was not the case a decade ago when it was not too uncommon to encounter problems sending, receiving, and decoding attachments (been there, done that, got the t-shirt). Just because e-mail attachments work smoothly nowadays does not change the fact that underneath the veneer, it is still an ugly bastardization.

The final argument against e-mail attachments is one of infrastructure. Unlike HTTP, FTP, etc., e-mail is not a way to directly send data between two computers. For example, when someone at gmail.com e-mails someone at hmc.edu, the e-mail first travels from the user's computer to Gmail's "server". It then travels from Gmail's "server" to a server run by the Postini company, which then scans the e-mail for viruses and also determines if the e-mail is spam (it used to be that this filtering was handled by HMC's own server, but it was eventually outsourced to a commercial company, presumably because this filtering process was overloading the system). After processing, the Postini server then sends the e-mail back to yet another server at HMC that the students can then connect to and retrieve their e-mail. That is, unless they have an e-mail forward set up, in which case, that e-mail is transmitted once again to yet another chain of mail servers. So in this scenario, in the process of getting from one person's computer to another's, an e-mail message passes through at least four (and maybe five or six if there is a forward) different servers! Aggravating this problem SMTP retransmission, there is no pipelining. A SMTP server must fully receive the entire e-mail, save it to memory or to disk, perform any necessary processing (spam checking, virus scanning, or digital signature verification in the case of DomainKeys, all of which are somewhat taxing, hence why more and more organizations are outsourcing e-mail processing), and then finally retransmit it. In contrast, when a file is passes through a bunch of routers when going from one computer to another, there is pipelining because each router does not have to wait for all the packets to arrive before sending it off to the next. While this feature of SMTP (which is what gives e-mail the robustness needed for reliable communication) is not very problematic when dealing with small messages a few kilobytes in size, multi-megabyte files are not well-suited to this form of message transmission and will result in high latencies and even delays. In the worst case, some SMTP servers will simply fail when the message size becomes too great for them to efficiently process.

Trying to shoehorn the ability to send files into a system that was never designed for such use introduces a significant inefficiency in the packaging of the message, introduces ugliness into the structure the message, and involves the use of a system of message transmission that is far from ideal for the transmission of large data. The problem, unfortunately, is that none of the other ways to transmit data is as accessible. A peer-to-peer method, such as using the file sending function of various instant messaging systems, is very efficient, but will work only if both people are online at the same time. HTTP, FTP, SFTP, etc. will work, but requires that people either run their own servers or have easy and quick access to one. Unfortunately, while companies seem perfectly happy to promote and offer an inefficient system like e-mail for transmitting large amounts of data, they often put a lot of restrictions on any proper file storage and transmission services that are offered (and usually fail to offer easy, user-friendly ways for people to upload and manage data). This is probably because people who would abuse the system by transmitting things like warez would never use e-mail because it is so inefficient and unsuitable and thus e-mail providers are generally not worried about nefarious uses of large file transmission through SMTP like they are about nefarious uses of large file transmission through other means, which is unfortunate because this is effectively forcing people to resort to SMTP.

So make this your New Year's Resolution: Try to send files via a proper medium, if possible. Oh, and while you are at it, please set the default in your webmail or your mail software to use plain text by default instead of formatted HTML mail (my three e-mail pet peeves are attachments, HTML mail, and people forgetting to use BCC for multi-recipient messages).

Together, we can help purify the Internet... either that, or at least hold out like a bunch of Luddites, but the former sounds better. ;)

A Tribute to Friedman's Libertarianism

Saturday, November 18, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Economics, Libertarianism

Since his death on Thursday, I have read a number of Milton Friedman tributes and obituaries. My favorite one so far has been this one at Salon by left-of-center economist Brad DeLong, which I think captures Friedman's world-view fairly well. DeLong's obituary is both amusing and insightful, and I highly recommend that people read it.

I think that Friedman's particular brand of libertarianism very closely matches my own. He believes in limited government, but unlike Ayn Rand and her wayward ilk, he believes that government does have a role to play because the natural order (e.g., markets) is imperfect and that, as a result, intervention is sometimes necessary. Like all economists, he is aware that perfect free markets do not (and will never) exist for a variety of reasons ranging from externalities to asymmetric information. For example, here is his take on externalities:

"Free markets" is a very general term. There are all sorts of problems that will emerge. Free markets work best when the transaction between two individuals affects only those individuals. But that isn't the fact. The fact is that, most often, a transaction between you and me affects a third party. That is the source of all problems for government. [source]

The DeLong obituary brings up the example of the London congestion tax, and in the case of environmental policy, Friedman has voiced support for controlling atmospheric emissions through a cap-and-trade system (the most well-known example of a cap-and-trade system to reduce pollution is the Kyoto Protocol). I have read comments from the left end of the political spectrum denouncing Friedman as heartless and as not caring about the losers problem of economics. While Friedman did support abolishing Social Security, welfare, and the minimum wage (all three of which I would like to see abolished as well), his calls for their abolition were not made in vacuum. Most people are not aware that he had championed for the negative income tax1 as their replacement. Unfortunately, the NIT never gained political traction, and today, Friedman is remembered more for his attacks against the minimum wage than for his support of the NIT.

Although I agree with Friedman in principle, I sometimes do not come to the same conclusions that he does. For example, while he advocates selling off public lands, I think that the market's tendency to fail to properly price future value (a common problem with non-renewable resources) will make this a bad idea. Friedman justified government intervention based on pragmatic cost-benefit analyses: if the benefit to be gained from a market correction outweighed the cost of giving the government that extra bit of power, then there should be intervention, otherwise, it's not worth it. I personally am not as skeptical of government as he is because, at least amongst civil servants (politicians are a different story), there are many people who genuinely believe in doing good and not abusing power. This is not to say that government can be trusted, but that because people tend to have a non-zero sense of ethics and principle, the cost of granting that power to government may be lower than he estimates, and thus there are a larger number of circumstances where the cost-benefit analysis works out. I also think he sometimes overestimates the efficacy of private institutions that could take over some of the roles of government. In the case of selling off public lands, the private institutions that have power and influence right now are generally industrial in nature (which is partly the fault of government having taken the place of private institutions in conservation and partly the fault of markets being unable to price long timescales), and in the time it would take for opposing private groups to gather in strength to counterbalance industry, a lot of irreversible damage could be done. In any case, the differences in conclusions come mostly from technical points and not from points of principle, which is why I, too, will say that Milton Friedman will be missed.

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1 Although I will not go into detail about the NIT here--the pros and cons of the NIT is something that I've been planning to write about in a separate blog post for some time now--the NIT would have not only served the same social welfare functions, it would have actually been even more effective at doing so.

The rise of populism

Thursday, November 16, 2006
Keywords: Politics

Several days ago, I saw this NYT headline: Incoming Democrats Put Populism Before Ideology. Um, on last check, populism1 is ideology.

The strong Christian support for the Republican party in this country has long struck me as a curious oddity. Religion has always been a populist institution at its core. It preaches traditional social values and morals while, at the same time, it frowns upon massed wealth and generally advocates a socialist economic agenda. After all, free market capitalism is an extremely Darwinian institution and can be considered the social counterpart to biology's evolution. The Republicans tend to be right-conservative, so while they share the same social agenda as populists, they have conflicting economic agendas. The Democrats tend to be left-liberal, so while they share the same economic agenda as the populists, they have conflicting social agendas. Similarly, libertarians, who one may regard as the foil to populists, dislike Republican attempts to legislate morality and Democratic attempts to hinder the free market. While libertarians tend to be fairly evenly split between the Republican and Democratic parties (based roughly on whether social liberalism or economic liberalism is more important in the eyes of each libertarian), evangelical Christians (who technically should be populists) are overwhelmingly Republican. But as the Democrats tone down their social liberalism in an attempt to win over the evangelical base, the populists are starting to find a greater voice. Indeed, there is a growing number of Christians who are starting to consider a fuller picture of populism and are putting more emphasis the economic dimension of populism instead of myopically focusing on the social/cultural dimension. The Republican party recognized this trend when, in 2000, Bush ran with the message of "compassionate conservatism", though that failed to win the hearts of populists when it quickly became clear that it was nothing more than a superficial label.

Why it has taken so long for religion to rediscover its populist roots may lie in the 19th century. While many socialists were Christians at the time, the spotlight shifted in 1848 and the atheistic Marx and his Communism became a sort of poster boy for socialism. Fast forward a hundred years to the Cold War, the fact that our Communist rivals were staunchly atheist probably contributed greatly to the rift between religion and socialism. Also, 19th century religion was more corrupt and was more interested in advocating the status quo than in notions of social justice. Only in more recent years, as the evangelical movement has grown, have more people began to take in the populist message of religion, and coupled with Communism fading away from our collective consciousness, religion in America is started to rediscover it populist nature.

In any case, I think that the 2006 elections can be marked as a victory for populism. A number of the Democrats who were elected (e.g., Bob Casey, Bill Ritter, etc.) were populists instead of the usual left liberals. A small, but growing number of Christians are also abandoning the Republican party as they decide that economic issues like minimum wage are more important than social issues like abortion. I wonder if this is the beginning of another great political realignment in America (the previous one, which changed Democrats from the party of white Southerners to the party of multiethnic Yankees, started with FDR's new deal and ended with the Civil Rights Act) as the strength of the religious vote forces one of the parties2 towards a populist position. The next few decades will be interesting indeed. Perhaps if the country gravitates from a left-liberal vs. right-conservative mindset into a populist vs. libertarian mindset, libertarians may finally find a party to call home.

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1 For those of you not familiar with the terms that I will use, here is a very over-simplified comparison of the four general poles of belief. Populists are people who are socially conservative (supporting traditional values) and economically statist (skeptical of the free market), right-conservatives are people who are socially conservative and economically liberal ("liberal" in the classic sense; i.e., pro-markets), left-liberals are those who are socially liberal and economically statist, and finally, libertarians are socially liberal and economically liberal. Taken to their ideological extremes, populists are authoritarians, right conservatives are fascists, left liberals are communists, and libertarians are anarchists.

2 Though it is unclear which party it will be, whether it will be the Democrats toning down their social liberalism or whether it will be the Republicans further embracing "big-government conservatism".

RIP, Milton Friedman

Thursday, November 16, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Economics

Comment spam update

Thursday, November 16, 2006
Keywords: Technology, Spam

On November 11, I switched on my new anti-spam system (it had been running in a test mode for a little while before that). Since then, there have been 492 comments* received by this blog...

  • Legitimate comments: 9 (1.8%)
    • Incorrectly filtered: 0 (0%)
    • Not filtered: 9 (100%)
  • Spam comments: 483* (98.2%)
    • Caught by filter: 476 (98.6%)
    • Not caught by filter: 7 (1.4%)

I like that there are no false positives (the old system of content filtering and post age lockout was very problematic in this area). The 7 false negatives were rather unexpected, though. This means that spammers are now going as far as integrating scripting engines in their bots (either that, or those 7 were entered by a human and not by an automated bot). Oh well. A 98.6% catch rate isn't too bad.

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* This is an understated number because some of the spam bots are so poorly written that they can't even fill in the right blanks; those attempts that fail basic validation are not logged by the new system and are not included in this count.

Rant/peeve of the day: Moral Equivalence

Tuesday, November 14, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Religion

How many times have you heard someone oppose abortion or stem cell research because they claim that embryos are the equivalent of people and that they are morally the same thing? Now, if someone says that they oppose abortion or stem cell research because they think that it is unethical and that any benefit that is gained for the two does not outweigh the moral cost, then that's fine, and I respect their conviction. It is when people say make the claim of moral equivalence that I start to wag my finger.

A popular thought experiment is this: imagine that you are in a burning building. There is a container full of embryos that you could save, and there is a little kid in the room that you could save. You could save only one, not both. Which would you save? If someone truly believe that they are morally equivalent, then they would save the container containing multiple embryos (and potentially many kids) instead of saving just one child. I would venture a guess that almost everyone would opt to save the kid. The tradition of women and children coming first before men when evacuating a ship is another example, and the murder of a mother and a child typically carries a stronger sentence and attracts much greater moral outrage than killing a pregnant woman.

Of course, these are not choices that people would like to make, and these are choices that most people would not face. And if people want to say that the destruction of an embryo is so terrible that we should not do it, that's fine. Just don't say that it is so terrible to the point of it being the moral equivalent of killing a living person. One can argue that embryos carry enough moral value that they should not be destroyed without having to go as far as to establishing this false equivalence.

Unfortunately, this is a practice that is not going to go away anytime soon. This false equivalence is more effective as a rhetorical tool because it plucks people's emotional strings. Also, I suspect that people actually believe in this false equivalence because it allows them to deal with absolutes, even though reality is clearly relative (and you know how conservative moralists just hate relativism). That most people never have to make these sorts of choices makes it easy to avoid the reality that this equivalence is false and untenable. This equivalence keeps them off the slippery slope of trying to relatively quantify the moral value of something. But reality is reality, and people should not resort to the delusion of absolutism simply because they want to stay off an unpleasant slippery slope. Unless you have someone who would rather save a box containing multiple embryos instead of a single living, breathing child from a burning building, then the cold hard reality is that this is indeed relative and that there does need to be an open debate on the relative moral values to be assigned.

Edit: Perhaps a better illustration would be this: An apple and an orange are both classified as fruit. However, that they have the same classification does not necessitate that an apple and an orange are thus equivalent and the same thing. Similarly, if people want to claim that embryonic destruction is in the same "morally incorrect" category as killing a living human, they can do that, but such a classification does not necessitate that the two are also morally equivalent (and as the thought experiment above shows, they are quite far from it). In short, people should not mistake similarity for equivalence. While this point may seem like a mere quibble, it does have implications in the nature of the rhetoric because people should defend and explain the reasons for assigning a certain amount of moral value to embryonic life instead of just conveniently invoking a sleight of hand by calling them morally equivalent.

This entry was edited on 2006/11/15 at 11:19:25 GMT -0500.

Election 2006 Miscellanea

Tuesday, November 14, 2006
Keywords: Politics

Lincoln Chafee is certainly very graceful about his defeat. According to this article, "He said his loss may have helped the country by switching control of Congress." Wow. Not everyday you get a politician who thinks that his defeat might have been a good thing. He also penned a nice post-election NYT op-ed in which he laments the hard-line position that the GOP has taken with its movement conservatism. Interestingly, his op-ed mentioned Jeffords. I wonder, if he had managed to hold onto his seat, would he have pulled a Jeffords and switched sides in order to change control of the Senate?

I feel sorry for Chafee. He was one of the few decent Republicans in the Senate: a Republican of the old Eisenhower pedigree instead of one of the new Reagen-Bush abominations. He deserved to keep his seat. That, and CNN did a good job of picking a very effective "sad face" for their article's picture.

I have also been reading about the election margins. Apparently, House elections favored the Democrats by something roughly on the order of 5% while the Senate elections favored the Democrats by something roughly on the order of 13%. Interestingly, some liberals are complaining that because of the huge 13% senate margin, the slim Democratic victory in the Senate does not fully reflect the extent of the victory. Are these people forgetting that the long Senate terms and the staggered Senate elections were specifically aimed at making the Senate relatively stable and static? Besides, of the 33 Senate seats up for election, the Democrats won 24 of them, which is a seat-wise victory margin of 45% (the House seat-wise victory margin is between 6% and 7%, so it closely matched the electoral victory margin). Of course, a disproportionately high number of Democratic seats, many of them in "blue" states, were up this term, so this large discrepancy between 45% and 13% is to be expected.

And finally, Tom Toles:

This entry was edited on 2006/11/14 at 21:00:01 GMT -0500.

Rant/peeve of the day: Excessive Domains

Saturday, November 11, 2006
Keywords: Technology

Did you know that TIME has a blog? Can you guess what the address is? blog.time.com? Nope. time.com/blog? Nope. It's time-blog.com. Instead of the usual microsoft.com/windows website, Microsoft is running ads for Windows Mobile that point users to windowsmobile.com. Chevron's ads for their alternative energy initiative point users to willyoujoinus.com instead of something like alternatives.chevron.com (and this isn't an attempt to disassociate the brand name from the campaign because the URL in the print ad appears right next to a big Chevron logo). And there was a recent pharmaceutical ad that I saw that pointed people to a domain that looked like askabout[drugname].com.

Ideally, Internet addresses that belong to the Example Corporation should be in the form of division-name.example.com or example.com/product-name or example.com/campaign-name or service-name.example.com or region.example.com (for the company's regional divisions) or something else that is located squarely within the example.com domain. But instead, companies are now using promotion-name.com or company-service.com or companyusa.com. Instead of adding new addresses to the company's main domain, they are using a new domain name for every new website that they put up.

This is annoying and bad for two reasons. First, this is semantically impure and defeats the hierarchal and organizational structure of DNS and URIs. This is organizational equivalent of dumping all your paperwork in a single box instead of filing them into different folders and drawers. But this is only a minor problem that probably only purists like me would angrily shake their fists at.

The second problem is one of security and trust. A recent article discusses how scammers are registering sites that try to fool users into inputting their login information into a fake look-alike site. These scammers would register domains like citibank-secure.com, citibank-update.com, citibank-login.com, etc.; these are addresses that look like they belong to and are affiliated with CitiBank. The obvious solution would be to educate users that anything.citibank.com and citibank.com/anything are the only legitimate addresses because they reside within the CitiBank domain and are thus under the control and jurisdiction of CitiBank. This is where the issue of trust comes in because citibank-login.com resides within the domain of .com and is thus under the jurisdiction of, effectively, nobody. Unfortunately, few people realize that, because of how DNS works, any guy off the street can create a website at citibank-something.com while only CitiBank can create a website within the citibank.com domain. This lack of understanding is strongly reinforced as people are trained to accept that sites like time-blog.com are legitimate sites owned by TIME (why on earth blog.time.com couldn't be used it beyond me; if anything, "blog dot time dot com" is easier to say and remember than "time hyphen blog dot com") and that companyname-service.com is a legitimate site owned by companyname.com, then this attempt at user education becomes futile (to be sure, it was mostly futile to begin with, but now it's even more futile). Oh well. Companies have long been shooting themselves in the foot in terms of security.

PS: There are a number of companies that do it right, however. AMD's ad campaign directs people to amd.com/lessmoney. Similarly, Xerox, IBM, Intel, and Computer Associates do the same thing with the websites for their ad campaigns. While some of Microsoft's campaigns use improper domains, most of their print ads direct people to addresses like microsoft.com/peopleready. Unlike TIME, The Economist's blog is located within their own domain at economist.com/debate/freeexchange (though they could've picked a shorter name). Finally, while Google uses gmail.com for the domain of their e-mail service because it's shorter to remember and type for the @ part of their e-mail addresses, the actual login and webmail interface is located at mail.google.com. These offending companies should take a cue from the companies that handle domain usage properly and do things right.

PPS: Now that people are accessing websites via search engines, the need for short, memorable domain names isn't nearly as important, which makes the use of a separate catchy domain name fairly pointless. Not to mention that in many cases, these separate domains can be just as hard to remember, if not more. For example, when you sit down at the computer several minutes after hearing a pharmaceutical ad, could you remember if it was askabout[drugname].com, learnabout[drugname].com, or tellmeabout[drugname].com that was mentioned in the ad? Furthermore, that drug company's rivals could register "learnabout" and "tellmeabout" in an attempt to capture confused visitors who didn't remember the name quite right. Of course, this wouldn't be a problem if the first company made proper use of its domain names because there is no memory ambiguity in companyname.com/drugname.

Edit: Another addition to the Wall of Shame: verizon.net vs. verizonwireless.com vs. vzwshop.com.

This entry was edited on 2006/11/11 at 14:07:27 GMT -0500.

Blog Spam Numbers

Friday, November 10, 2006
Keywords: Technology

I'm starting to log the number of blog comment-spam attacks that are launched against this blog. Can you guess how many attempts1 there were over the past 12 hours?

Answer: 66.

So that's about 5 per hour. And it extrapolates to nearly one thousand blog spams per week. There is also a very healthy IP address diversity; there are only a few IP addresses that launch more than one attempt; most of the addresses are unique. These IP addresses also span the globe and come from every continent (to my surprise, even Africa, where there aren't many computers). These are the trademarks of a botnet. And if this is what a small, obscure and low-traffic site like mine gets, I hesitate to imagine what the big blogs experience.

BTW, this is a very good article that people (especially laypeople) should definitely read because it is one of the few articles that actually paints a fairly accurate picture (vs. the inaccurate crap that comes out of the mainstream media) of what computer security nowadays is really all about.

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1 None were successful, of course. :)

Why did the extraction tax initiative fail?

Wednesday, November 8, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Economics

Looks like the extraction tax proposition (#87) is going to be defeated in California. Guess Big Oil's millions spent in that campaign did the trick (they tried to paint the extraction tax as a gas tax that will raise prices for consumers), but I'm still surprised; California, of all places! The thing that the opponents of prop 87 fail to mention is that California is the only state without an extraction tax, and that it is illegal for the extraction tax to be passed onto the consumers. Furthermore, because market demand has driven up the price of oil while extraction costs remain fairly constant, this means that the price of gas is dependent not on its extraction and production cost, but instead on market demand. Because there is no free entry into this market, this discrepancy between the price set by demand and the price that would have been set by production costs translates directly into an economic profit and this also makes it such that such a tax would have no effect on the final price seen by consumers (because those prices are bottlenecked and thus set by demand, not by extraction costs). So not only were the oil company's disinformation ads (which implied higher gas prices) completely misleading and false, this also means that California remains the only state without an extraction tax, making it the most oil-friendly state (what irony!).

Although an extraction tax is not perfect (a perfect solution would be an extraction tax coupled with a gasoline tax), it is important because it corrects for the market's failure to properly deal with exhaustible resources and an extraction tax is a perfectly market-compatible solution (in a state that is very regulation-happy, taxing instead of regulating is a step up for them). And it was defeated. Sigh. This is probably the single most disappointing result of the entire election1, and I don't even live in California any more.

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1 For some people, anti-taxes is their main issue. For some, it's pro-abortion, for some, it's anti-abortion, etc. Me? I really don't care about those issues. The one issue that motivates my politics more than anything else is the environment because what the heck do taxes or birth control matter if we destroy this planet? Moderate libertarianism is important, too, and I often couch my environmental views in that context: correcting for the market failures of environmental externalities is perfectly compatible with free-market libertarian ideology, but ultimately, the environment is still the litmus test issue for me, and if I had to choose between a populist anti-abortion environmentalist and a libertarian pro-abortion anti-environmentalist, I'd go with the environmentalist.

This entry was edited on 2006/11/08 at 02:12:04 GMT -0500.

2006 Election Thoughts

Wednesday, November 8, 2006
Keywords: Politics

Before I talk about the national elections, the races that interested me the most this election were a number of races in my former home state.

  1. Kansas Governor: In a heavily Republican state like Kansas, not only did Kathleen Sebelius get re-elected in 2006, she cruised to an easy victory, winning, according to CNN, many of the rural counties of Kansas (instead of just winning the big cities). She even managed to get the former chairman of the Kansas GOP to switch parties. She's the sort of politician the this country needs more of. Solidly moderate, clean campaign ads, and the ability to genuinely reach out to the opposition party instead of resorting to partisan rhetoric (that both the soon-to-be-Speaker Pelosi and Bush are very guilty of). She was rightfully named by TIME as one of the best governors in the country. Unfortunately, she's pretty much unknown outside of the state, but wouldn't it be nice if she ran of President? A Democrat with broad rural support in the midwest is rare and would be good for this divided country.
  2. Kansas #2: I remember how remarkable it was back in 1998 when one of the four Kansas seats went Democratic. And now, another Kansas seat has gone Democratic? The Third District with Kansas City and few rural residents is one thing, but the Second District is mostly rural, and while Lawrence is very liberal, it is tiny compared to Kansas City.
  3. Kansas #3: Speaking of the Third District, CNN is reporting that Dennis Moore is holding onto his seat there by a 30-point margin, 65-35. Considering how he barely won his seat in '98 and barely defended it in '00 (I left Kansas after '00), it's interesting to see a victory margin as large as this.

As I write this (around midnight EST), the Democrats, as expected, are projected to win the House but not the Senate. The numbers don't look good for the Democrats in Missouri and Tennessee, so it looks like that we'll have a GOP Senate for the remainder of the Bush Presidency. I think I am pleased with the outcome.

  1. After six years of one-party rule, a divided government is exactly what we need to tamp down on government spending and abuses. House control will accomplish that.
  2. The Democrats not winning the Senate may be a good thing; it will reduce the likelihood of them shooting themselves in the foot, which they have a great tendency to do.
  3. The House can now investigate the Administration and hopefully tease some truth out of a very secretive and shadowy White House.
  4. People wanted a referendum on Bush, and they got it.

However, if one compares tonight's election to the one held 12 years ago, it'll become apparent that this was a lukewarm victory for the Democrats. The approval rating of Congress was much lower in 2006 than in 1994. Likewise for the Presidential approval rating. There wasn't an unpopular and costly war in 1994. There haven't been gross abuses of government power and encroachments on the Constitution (issues that have not only angered Democrats, but also the libertarian wing of the Republican party). In that respect, I think that the Republicans have been victorious tonight because despite all of those things, their loss in 2006 is nothing like the Democratic loss in 1994.

The problem is that the Democrats are disorganized and incoherent. This is not to say that the Republicans are marching in lock-step (they aren't), but they do a much better job of exuding confidence and displaying unity. For starters, the Democrats have moved further to the left. Clinton signed the NAFTA free trade agreement, and Democrats are now back to toying with protectionism. They also fail to stand for something aside from "we're not Republicans". Gingrich was successful in 1994 because the Democrats were imploding and because the Contract With America was a brilliantly crafted piece of coherent marketing that defined what the Republicans stood for and what their vision is. In contrast, Democrats are successful today only because of a Republican implosion; they lack a coherent vision to let them further capitalize on the moment. The Democrats will stand little chance of winning in 2008 if they continue to allow the Republicans to dictate for them what their vision is (since the Democratic vision is reactionary).

The Democratic victories in 2006 would not have been possible without the many libertarian-leaning people who jumped ship from the Republican Party and voted for the Democrats in protest (after all, a country with economic liberty but no social liberty is really no better than China, where the "communist" regime is hoping that free-market capitalism will serve as the bread-and-circuses that make their citizens forget about political rights), and the Democrats would be wise to cater to this group in hopes of making them new members of the party's constituency. If anything, these new additions to the party could very well offer the seductive Big Idea that Democrats have lacked for so long.

Update: Hmm. Guess I was wrong about the Senate prospects looking dim. Apparently, a lot changed in the Missouri count over the course of two hours.

This entry was edited on 2006/11/08 at 02:15:38 GMT -0500.

Global Warming and Insurance

Sunday, November 5, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Economics

Here is an idea that I recently read about: why not treat the combating of global warming as a form of insurance? Businesses and industry are no strangers to the notion of insurance: paying a small amount of money now to guard against the unlikely event of a loss of a much larger amount of money in the future. The main stumbling block for environmentalists is the argument that a catastrophe is unlikely because the scientists are overestimating the effects of global warming. While I personally do not believe in this argument (it is the product of an elaborate propaganda campaign against science), there are many people who do take stock in such a view. And therein lies the beauty of marketing of this as a form of insurance because one can now sell the idea of fighting global warming without having to convince people that catastrophe is a likely scenario.

PS: It puzzles me to see conservatives, who are typically very risk-adverse (remember Reagan's rather expensive military-buildup insurance policy against Soviet aggression?), take such a risky position on global warming by refusing to do anything. I suspect that this may be because environmental legislation have historically involved heavy-handed regulations instead of market-oriented methods of rectifying the pricing failures of environmental externalities. On that note, the Kyoto Protocol, which aims to cap greenhouse gases through an emissions-trading market, is a fine example of a market-oriented solution.

PPS: Yea, yea, I know, there is one big glaring problem with this whole insurance idea: The Tragedy of the Commons. But if the marketing is done in such a way as to convince people that they do have a tangible stake in the outcome, then this idea may still be workable.

Are you sure you want to win in 2006?

Saturday, November 4, 2006
Keywords: Politics

As it becomes more and more certain that 2006 will be to the Republicans what 1994 was to the Democrats, I can't help but wonder if a 2006 victory would actually be good for the Democrats.

For starters, Americans tend to be allergic to one-party rule. Therefore, if Democrats are in control of the Hill when 2008 rolls around, the public would be less likely to vote a Democrat into the White House. Of course, there have been exceptions to this one-party aversion over the past few elections (keep in mind that, by the popular vote, Americans supported split-party rule in 2000), but September 11 and a weak Democratic candidate in 2004 may have had an effect. If the Democrats win the Hill in 2006 and if the Republicans nominate an electable candidate (vs. an unelectable one), then chances are, a Republican will be elected to the White House in 2008.

Another problem is that, come 2008, Democrats can no long scapegoat the Republicans for the nation's woes if they control the Hill. I am confident that the two topics that Americans care about the most--the economy and Iraq--will remain bleak for the next two years.

In the case of the economy, there is very little effect that government has on the market. It is a pet peeve of mine whenever a politician talks about "job creation" because jobs are created and destroyed by the market, not by some politician in Washington. The economy has been growing for the past several years, and it will most likely continue to grow from now until 2008. Despite this growth, most of the people on the street have a pessimistic view of the economy. This is because the world economy is currently in a long and painful process of correcting of the gross labor-capital imbalances brought about by centuries of Western imperialism (this, by the way, is just another way of describing globalization; I like to use this when I'm talking to left-liberals because they tend to balk at the "g" word). While globalization is good for our national economy, it is imbalanced in that those who derive income from labor are worse off and those who derive income from capital, who tend to be fewer in number and richer, are better off (of course, added together, the net gain is positive; trade is not a zero-sum game). However, this imbalance is not the fault of any Republican or Democratic policy. Just as investors should have a diversified portfolio, people, ideally, should have diversified income streams (vs. relying just on labor wages) so that they can cash in on economic prosperity regardless of whether labor or capital is gaining. Of course, this does not happen in reality partly because those who rely on labor for income are generally not well-educated enough to know the importance of putting money aside for investing and partly because our overly consumerist culture means that there is actually a negative savings rate, so that instead of saving and investing money, most people are racking up debt and indulging in consumption. Ultimately, the problem of the income disparity is due largely in part to poor economic decisions by individuals (CEOs reaping lots of money may make the headlines, but those causes of income disparity represent only the tip of the iceberg), and there is nothing that any party can do about it except step up government's Robin Hood role, but that would only serve as a bandage and not as a lasting solution (a lasting solution would be to make microeconomics a required part of high school curricula).1

In the case of Iraq, an immediate withdrawal will be disastrous. As I have argued before, once the mistakes of the invasion and the mismanagement of early reconstruction were made (to be sure, these are serious errors for which the Republicans must be made accountable), there is no turning back and we must finish what we started lest we want to exacerbate those mistakes. The Democrats seem to have trouble understanding this, and even if they did opt to try to clean up the mess, it would still be exceedingly difficult to reach a mediocre resolution, especially by 2008.

So come 2008, Americans will be disappointed as income disparity continues and as Iraq remains in turmoil, despite having the Democrats in Congress. The Republicans, humbled by the 2006 defeat, will have two years to shake down the party and to rediscover the discipline and principles that they have lost. And with the Democrats in charge of Congress, Americans will likely vote in a White House to counterbalance them. Since he (or she) who controls the White House controls the upcoming Supreme Court vacancies of Stevens and Ginsburg, I would much rather that a Democrat win the White House in 2008--even if that means secretly hoping for a Republican victory in 2006.

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1 I should clarify that I am not necessarily opposed to government playing the role of Robin Hood. Any good economist knows that money is an imperfect proxy for utility and that, as a result, defining taxation in terms of money is rather silly. This is because while utility, by definition, experiences no diminishing returns, money does. Therefore, a flat tax on utility necessitates a progressive tax on money and a flat tax on money is necessarily a regressive tax on utility.

Rant/peeve of the day: "Security" Questions

Thursday, November 2, 2006
Keywords: Technology

It seems like more any more sites are using security questions. Forgot your password? Not to worry, we'll let you log if you can answer the question, "What was your mother's maiden name?" or "Where were you born?" or "What is the name of your dog?". So on one hand, people are being instructed to create better passwords that do not comprise of any personal Google-able information and on the other hand, more and more sites are offering these weak "back-door" logins that ask questions whose answers a Google search may reveal. But that isn't what bothers me; what bothers me is most of these places require that you provide these "security" questions (what a misnomer!). Great, so now my relatives (who will know my mother's maiden name, the city where I was born and that I have never owned a dog) can, if they wanted to snoop, request for a password reset? At least some sites are courteous enough to let you specify no security question or your own custom question (in which case, I use "What is your password?"). My solution has been to create a secondary secure password for use exclusively as security question answers and to use that as the security question answer regardless of what the actual question is. But it would be much easier if the idiots operating these sites respected user choice more (i.e., make the SQ optional) so that this wouldn't be a problem in the first place.

n.b.: Some places don't use the security question as a back door, but instead as a challenge that must be answered in addition to the password before one could log in. These are, I think, legitimate uses of security questions, but it is still rather patronizing because, while most people are idiots about creating secure passwords and thus such secondary authentication is necessary for them, for people who do practice "safe passwording", this is yet another nuisance.

This entry was edited on 2006/11/02 at 19:26:27 GMT -0500.

Not again...

Wednesday, November 1, 2006
Keywords: Politics

I go to check the news today, and what do I find? Front-page coverage of Kerry's remarks (okay, he may be partly right, but how stupid is he to offer the Republicans such a tasty sound bite on a silver platter?). Sigh. Yep, leave it to John Kerry to, once again, snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Why, oh why did Democrats pick Kerry to represent the party in 2004 instead of someone sensible like Clark? Oh right, I remember now, as the Republican outrage builds, the Democrats, like good little lemmings, moved further and further to the left and off the cliff, so of course they had to go Kerry, who was almost as unelectable as Dean, because they couldn't swallow the idea of nominating someone who had once upon a time voted for Reagan.

PS: The VRWC is going to have so much fun with this.