On the Soapbox

ABC's earth2100

Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Keywords: Politics, Economics

So I watched ABC's earth2100 tonight. I did not have very high hopes for this show (I often avoid TV in general), but I was pleasantly surprised, though I think their projections were still too optimistic.

First, I think that everyone must read Garrett Hardin's The Tragedy of the Commons, in which he famously declared that "[the] freedom to breed is intolerable." I should add that the amount of moral value that we accord human life is dependent on the quality of life. Historically, even as recently as the early 20th century, we have treated human life with relatively little value; in a country where the euthanasia of one person in a vegetative state could cause an uproar, it is hard to imagine that this same country had embarked on a civilian construction project, the Panama Canal, in which tens of thousands of Americans died. Historically, the amount of value that we accord to life has not been a function of religious awareness or moral advancement, but rather to the quality of life and the amount of capital and resources available per capita. It is no coincidence that the Black Death also marked the start of Western advancement and political reform. Of course, most people are oblivious to history and are thus not aware of this relationship. Perhaps this ignorance of history is why the Catholic Church smugly declares birth control as evil even though such a claim depends on a level of life value that cannot be sustained without population control.

Second, I like that ABC brought up the fall of Rome because most people have the faulty notion that Rome fell because of external invasion. And while external invasion may have been the proximate cause, the Rome's fall was really the result of a breakdown in the economy and trade and the collapse of various regions into autarky. By the time the city of Rome fell, Rome had already long collapsed from within. The result were the Dark Ages in which much of civilization and accumulated knowledge was lost for centuries. Civilization is very fragile, and the sort of collapse imagined by ABC is actually quite possible and had already happened to the civilization that most resembles our own.

Third, I liked the analogy that our problem is that we are drawing from our bank account and that we will soon realize that the account is empty. By consuming at unsustainable levels, we are effectively borrowing from the future, but because that borrowing is covering up for the current shortfall, many people will not recognize that there is a shortfall until the futures starts to collect on those debts.

Finally, our society loves to look for a technical solution to problems, because technical solutions are non-disruptive. But there are limits to what we can achieve with science and technology, and technical solutions can only serve as a catalyst. For example, over the past two or three decades, engine efficiency has steadily increased by 30%, but instead of converting that increase in engine efficiency into energy savings, we have squandered it on larger, heavier vehicles. Across the board, cars today are heavier than comparable models of the same class three decades ago, and compounded with more people driving cars of a larger class (e.g., SUVs), our average aggregate fuel efficiency has actually decreased despite our technical advancements. In another example, instead of ensuring food security, the world has squandered advanced in agriculture by growing in population. As Hardin noted in The Tragedy of the Commons, there is no technical solution. And as such, I think that earth2100 is far too optimistic, because it glosses over the need for a fundamental rethinking of the problem of externalities.

This entry was edited on 2009/06/03 at 00:08:20 GMT -0400.

The Language of Public Opinion

Monday, April 6, 2009
Keywords: Politics, Economics

A sad and unfortunate fact of politics is that the choice of language can have a large influence over public opinion. As defenders of the estate tax learned in the 90's, once the language of "death tax" became common, the battle was lost, as the new terminology obfuscated the debate and led many voters to unwittingly support a measure that ran counter to their own self-interests.

And so it is with great disappointment that I see the widespread use of the word "nationalization" in the policy debates surrounding the financial crisis. Nationalization is a term tinged with statism, evoking images of bureaucratic morass and fears of government-run banks that offer customer service comparable to that of the local DMV. The use of such a word with so many negative connotations in our mostly libertarian society rallies opposition and all but guarantees the failure of whatever plan that has been associated with it.

But aside from the emotional and political obfuscations of the word itself, there is also a significant amount of substantive obfuscation, to the point that the use of "nationalization" in the debate is, quite simply, inaccurate and misleading. The proponents of "nationalization" solutions are adamant that they do not want government to run the financial institutions and that their plans are temporary: government would take control, wipe out the shareholders, replace the management, sell the healthy parts of the institution back to the private market, and hold onto the unhealthy parts, doing damage control and shouldering the losses. The government would hold onto the firm for only as long as it is needed to complete the process. For smaller institutions, this process can literally take place overnight—the government would have "nationalized" the firm for only a matter of hours before it would be privatized again (for huge firms, this could take a few months, which is still a short amount of time). One must keep in mind that, without the string of government financial interventions, the shareholders would have already been wiped out months ago and that these institutions would have ended up in a bankruptcy court. Effectively, a "nationalization" of this sort would not be very different, in principle, from the bankruptcy that would have been dealt to these firms by the free market—anything seized by the government would probably have been forfeited if it were not for the government interventions. As Simon Johnson, one of the most vocal proponents of this approach noted recently, the plan is really just a "managed bankruptcy." A former banking regulator who worked on the savings and loan crisis recently noted, "Ronald Reagan did receiverships. Nobody called it nationalization."

These managed bankruptcies do exactly what needs to be done: it punishes those who deserve to be punished (owners of the troubled firms), and it flushes out the toxic assets so that the financial sector can finally return to health. In fact, these managed bankruptcy plans do what the free market would have done, except in a less chaotic, less destructive, more orderly, and more expedient manner. Economists generally agree that the financial market's return to health is a necessary prerequisite for an economic recovery, and that the fiscal stimulus can work only if the financial sector works as well. Despite the recent string of hopeful news, the financial sector is still far from recovering. The recent increase in credit and lowering of mortgage rates was made possible only by radical, unprecedented actions taken by the Federal Reserve to fill the void left by the financial institutions. While I applaud Bernanke for taking these bold steps, the Fed's involvement cannot be sustained indefinitely and should be seen only as a temporary stopgap measure to buy us time—time that the Obama Administration so far seems intent on squandering.

The managed bankruptcy solution is not radical, either. This is a process that, under the moniker of a "FDIC intervention", is regularly used to deal with small and medium institutions. This was the process used to resolve the savings and loan crisis two decades ago. This was the process that the IMF and the United States government have recommended and prescribed time and time again when financial crises hit other countries. This is a solution that will soothe the anti-bailout sentiment in this country. This is a solution that will please Democrats who want to see Wall Street firms punished. This is a solution that will please Republicans who have been calling for bankruptcy and for the government to stop shielding the financial sector from the judgment of the market.

Opponents of this plan—the Obama Administration under Geithner and Summers—claim that "nationalization" does not work because markets work best. But the proponents of "nationalization" are not suggesting anything that remotely resembles what most people associate with "nationalization"; in fact, it is the "nationalization" plans of managed bankruptcies that are the most faithful to the market—the Obama Administration's plan is nothing more than a dressed-up version of crony capitalism.

Although it is understandable that opponents to managed bankruptcies would seek to smear such plans as "nationalization," it is strange to see its proponents, such as Paul Krugman and Simon Johnson, use that same terminology. Perhaps it is because they are not seasoned political players, but it seems clear to me that the first step to selling this plan is to regain control of the message. So let us take one small step in the right direction and stop talking about "nationalization" and start talking about "receiverships" and "managed bankruptcies" instead.

This entry was edited on 2009/04/06 at 22:05:38 GMT -0400.

Hoover, version 2

Sunday, March 8, 2009
Keywords: Politics, Economics

The words of John Boehner, leader of the House Republicans:

American families are tightening their belts. But they don't see government tightening its belt.

The very reason why people are being forced to "tighten their belts" is because everyone is trying to do some belt-tightening. I find it incredible--stunning, even--that these Republicans cannot grasp the concept that Alice cannot save money unless Alice gets money to save (i.e., Bob needs to buy goods and services from Alice), which is not going to happen if Bob is trying to save money at the same time (which is also a doomed endeavor since Alice is also trying to stockpile money and will not buy from Bob). It is like the economic equivalent of the conservation of momentum: any amount of savings (consider it a "surplus" budget) must necessarily be balanced by an equivalent amount of "deficit" elsewhere, and because everyone has been spooked into saving, the government must embark on deficit spending to counteract this, or else we will be repeating the mistakes that another Republican made 80 years ago.

Boehner has gone as far as push a vote to freeze government spending for the year (the measure failed, but it did get the vote of every House Republican). I sincerely hope that the Republicans are merely engaging in political theatrics, knowing that their destructive policies cannot be passed, since the alternative--that they actually believe that freezing spending will help--is a terrifying prospect.

Another common Republican refrain is that public spending will crowd out private investment and thus worsen the problem. In a recent (and very popular) op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, we hear this tired old line:

[Taxes will] reduce incentives for our most productive citizens and small businesses to work, save and invest ...

I doubt very much that there is any shortage of an incentive to work in this recession; the labor market is very much a buyer's market right now. As for saving and investing, while this argument may hold some water during good times when the economy is running at capacity, the problem of a recession is that we are underutilizing capital due to slackening demand. Both physical and human capital--e.g., factories and talent--are being idled, and the very notion that the solution to underused capacity and idled capital stock is to increase capacity and capital stock is absolutely ridiculous.

Finally, Republicans are fond of raising fears about the effects of high government debt. What they (and the media) fail to mention is that, while our public debt is at historically high levels in nominal terms, our public debt as a percent of GDP is very low: approximately 40%. In contrast, following the Second World War, our public debt as a percent of GDP was nearly 110% and yet we experienced a long post-war economic boom. For further perspective, consider that Canadian, German and French public debt currently exceed 60% of their GDPs, Italian public debt exceeds 100% of their GDP, and Japanese public debt is currently at 170% of their GDP. Aside from a failure to put things into perspective, people also confuse private debt (mortgages, credit card debt, etc.) and public debt (government borrowing). Our problem now (and our problem at the start of the Great Depression) is that private debt had grown to unhealthy levels. While we can all agree that a high level of public debt is undesirable, it is less undesirable than high levels of private debt. Increasing public debt through government spending is an effective way to reduce private debt (think of it as a transfer from private debt to public debt: government spending creates the paychecks necessary for people to pay down their debt), which is the way to dig out of this crisis. This is how we dug out of the Great Depression--the "high" levels of public debt following the war was matched by substantially lower private debt--and this is what needs to be done again today.

The Republican opposition--driven by ideology instead of a pragmatic application of basic economic principles--is harmful in two ways: first, this high amount of political pushback makes it difficult for government to do what needs to be done, and second, the Republicans are destroying themselves, and as much as liberals may rejoice at the spectacle of the latter, a one-party system is not healthy in the long-run.

This entry was edited on 2009/03/08 at 22:45:39 GMT -0400.

Obviously not a student of history

Monday, September 29, 2008
Keywords: Politics, Economics

One of the people to vote against the bailout, Rep. Mike Pence (R-Indiana) said:

Stand up for limited government and economic freedom. Stand up for the American taxpayer. Reject this bailout and vote no on the emergency economic stabilization act.

Perhaps he should ask Hoover how well that strategy worked. Or the Japanese, who, after two decades, still have not yet fully recovered from the meltdown of their financial system.

This is a mess caused by a myopic Wall Street that fell into the pyramid scheme known as the housing bubble. But it seems that Main Street's ignorance (their failure to understand the importance of liquidity) is about to make things much worse. It's appalling how many in Congress do not comprehend the causes of the Great Depression, for if they did, today's bill should have passed with unanimity.

Is education a public good?

Friday, April 6, 2007
Keywords: Economics, Politics

I read this post in my RSS reader, and it got me thinking about the economics of education.

This is a topic that I have not thought much about before, and if someone asked me about education, I would usually give a canned response about how education is a public good and thus public education makes sense. But the explicitness of the language used in the post that I read caused me to pause and reconsider whether or not education really is a public good.

"... situations where there is very, very little control over who gets the benefits of the good (no matter who paid for the good)."

For starters, I would not make the argument of education as a public good quite that way. If a parent were to spend lots of money on private tuition, their child will be the direct and most significant beneficiary of that expenditure.

This is not to say that education is not a public good, though. In my view, education has what I would call an institutional public good effect. The public good benefits are of an educated public in general...

  1. Democracy requires good, informed public discourse and a public that understands and appreciates the principles of the social contract into which they are bound. We can look at the United States and scoff at the state of our public discourse, but if we look at many other worse-off countries where democracy has stumbled or outright failed, we would see that a poorly-educated public plays a large (though by no means exclusive) role in their failure.
  2. Inheritance is one of the kinks of the libertarian ideal. Dynastic wealth and aristocracy are generally not things that libertarians embrace, and they are most certainly not compatible with free markets. Our notions of equal opportunity and the self-made person necessitate public education (and other things like the estate tax). One could consider the support of these ideals to be public goods.

Those are the two public good arguments that can be made for education. Argument #1 is limited in scope because it really only covers things like reading, economics (that this subject is not a high school requirement is tragic), history, and civics. Argument #2 covers the problem of inheritance (which we would never eliminate unless we establish some sort of Brave New World system where the family unit is abolished), and the public goods argument here is fairly weak and limited in scope as well, since the public good is just the promotion of what we hold to be a positive ideal.

It would seem, then, that my support for public education based on the notion of it being a public good is a fairly weak one, and as I more carefully thought about the role of education in society, it became clear to me that I have been falsely attributing many of the arguments for public education to the weak (though non-dismissible) notion of public goods.

Education is an investment in human capital. In an efficient market, resources will be allocated such that those who would gain the most from the investment will get the most. On some levels, this works. A student with a low IQ who struggles in school will probably not spend much on higher education: either no college or an inexpensive community college, and this person will most likely opt for a job that requires just labor and not labor with a lot of invested capital. Similarly, a student with a high IQ who learns things very quickly will most likely invest more in education: take out large student loans to pay for expensive medical school, for example, and in the end, this student will be in a high paying job that requires that its labor have a lot of invested capital. In such a case, the market has allocated resources efficiently: the factory has a laborer with an appropriate IQ and an appropriate level of education, and the hospital has a laborer with an appropriate IQ and an appropriate level of education. The problem, however, is that family ties make it such that capital is often allocated based on who the child's parents are and not necessarily on the child's abilities or potential. The children of rich parents will often receive a lot of educational investment regardless of their abilities or potential, and children of poor parents will often receive a low level of educational investment regardless of their abilities or potential. The former case is just a waste of resources, while the latter is a more tragic case where someone may be deprived of opportunity. Although some exceptionally bright children will develop very well even with a very low level of investment so that poor resources do not play as large of a role, for many children, the level of educational resources that they receive do play a large role. A higher degree of financial freedom (e.g., student loans, financial aid) along with a clearer picture of each person's abilities make it such that wholesale privatization of higher education makes some amount of sense (and before the post-WWII boom of state universities, this was the norm in higher education), but this is not a sensible approach for primary, or to a lesser extent, secondary education, especially since it is difficult to gauge a child's abilities (and thus the appropriate level of capital investment) until secondary education at the earliest. I would thus say that the most important argument for public primary and secondary education is that it corrects for a market failure brought about by ties of blood interfering with the efficient allocation of resources. And by giving everyone a fair and equal chance, it will also result in a better, more accurate picture of what someone's abilities are when they reach a stage where there is increasing differentiation of investment (e.g., this will increase the likelihood that if a poor child fails to get into college or into an AP class in high school, it is because of factors inherent to the child and not because an unfair lack of educational investment), thus correcting for another market failure brought about by imperfect and distorted information.

Finally, proponents of public education see an educated population as a public good in respect to industries having a better labor pool to draw from. I think that this claim should be dismissed. Instead, I would like to approach this from a different angle and propose the idea that public education encourages more investment in human capital because it diversifies away the risk of this sort of investment. If public education did not exist, then the tax dollars spent on education would end up in the hands of individuals and businesses. Individuals could use that same money to put themselves through private school and businesses could use that money to educate and train their employees, thus resulting in, at least on paper, the same level of education spending as before. However, let us consider a thought experiment where each person has $100 to spend on education. In this thought experiment, $100 spent on education may result in either $220 worth of extra income for a net gain of $120, or it may result in failure, no extra income, and thus a net loss of $100. Assuming equal probabilities of both outcomes, the expected result is a positive gain of $10, or 10%. However, as most people are risk adverse, many will not make such an investment, and society as a whole will miss out on that 10% gain. If, instead, the investment costs were paid by society, the risk is diversified away, and that overall social gain of 10% will thus be realized. Similarly, employers educating their employees about the things that public education would otherwise teach will face similar risks in addition to a free-rider problem where one company can lure away employees educated by another, thus gaining an educated employee while forcing the other company to bear the costs. This will generate risk and will discourage companies from spending too much on human capital investment. Thus, assuming a positive overall return on education, then public spending on education will have a positive overall effect and would thus benefit society as a whole (though, individually, the effects would be mixed).

On the whole, I think that the market inefficiencies introduced by public education are far outweighed by market efficiencies gained from the correction of market failures and from the diversification of risk. That, coupled with the secondary, though still important, public goods arguments, is why I believe public education is an institution that must exist.

Note: Upon further reflection, I suppose I should clarify and say that the arguments for public education are really the arguments for publicly-funded education. Through the use of vouchers, it should be possible to maintain public funding for education while also giving schools an incentive to operate efficiently and effectively. While I do strongly support vouchers in principle, I have many reservations about their actual use because in most cases, vouchers are just a cleverly dressed-up vehicle for people to shield children from secular education and to indoctrinate them in religious schools. Legitimate use of vouchers to transfer a child to a better school do exist, but they account for only a small minority of cases. I also have many reservations about implementation, practice, and how the way reality plays out may differ from the theory on paper.

This entry was edited on 2007/04/06 at 03:04:52 GMT -0400.

Mistakes were made?

Sunday, March 18, 2007
Keywords: Politics

Has anyone noticed the Bush Administration's fondness of the phrase, "mistakes were made," which was most recently used to describe the political firings of eight US attorneys. As a commentator on NPR pointed out this morning, instead of using the active "I made mistakes" or "we made mistakes," the Bush Administration habitually uses the passive "mistakes were made," to acknowledge the making of mistakes but never explicitly admitting to making them and thus never explicitly accepting the responsibility for making them. For an administration whose 2000 campaign war cry was responsibility and accountability, it certainly has a clever way of dodging it.

Are religious moderates just as much to blame?

Saturday, March 17, 2007
Keywords: Politics, Religion

I recently read this column by Sam Harris* at the LA Times. The crux of what he has to say is neatly encapsulated in the 5th-to-last paragraph:

The problem is that wherever one stands on this continuum, one inadvertently shelters those who are more fanatical than oneself from criticism. Ordinary fundamentalist Christians, by maintaining that the Bible is the perfect word of God, inadvertently support the Dominionists--men and women who, by the millions, are quietly working to turn our country into a totalitarian theocracy reminiscent of John Calvin's Geneva. Christian moderates, by their lingering attachment to the unique divinity of Jesus, protect the faith of fundamentalists from public scorn. Christian liberals--who aren't sure what they believe but just love the experience of going to church occasionally--deny the moderates a proper collision with scientific rationality. And in this way centuries have come and gone without an honest word being spoken about God in our society.

While I have never liked religious extremists and fundamentalists, religious moderates and liberals are those whose beliefs I do not agree with, but that I will happily respect and accept. Harris' argument that moderates serve as an enabler and shield for those who are more extreme is thus a troubling--though interesting--take on things. On one hand, I think it is intriguing. But for the most part, I have some doubts about how true it is in reality and to what extent those in the middle of the spectrum really do provide a favorable environment for those at the extreme, and this is certainly not helped by Harris being a poor articulator of ideas. I am curious what others think about this.

________________
* He is basically condensing what he wrote in his book, The End of Faith, into a much shorter form with this column, and quite frankly, I think it is much more lucid and well-articulated here (though still scatter-brained) than it ever was in his tediously long-winded book.

This entry was edited on 2007/03/18 at 14:10:02 GMT -0400.

The Degeneration of Conservatism

Sunday, January 28, 2007
Keywords: Politics, Religion

A person once said,

On religious issues there can be little or no compromise. There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs. There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls this supreme being. But like any powerful weapon, the use of God's name on one's behalf should be used sparingly. The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent. If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both. I'm frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in "A," "B," "C" and "D." Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me? And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of "conservatism."

No, this was not a bleeding-heart liberal; in fact, this is someone who most bleeding-heart liberals have learned to detest. This was a 1981 Senate speech given by Republican Senator Barry Goldwater. It is ironic that most people consider Ronald Reagan to be Goldwater's ideological successor. Various authors have pointed to the loss of the Goldwater campaign as the start of the modern Republican Party. John McCain remarked that Goldwater created the "breeding ground for the election of Ronald Reagan." A conservative columnist for the Washington Post described the 1980 Reagan election with the words, "it took 16 years to count the votes [of the 1964 election], and Goldwater won." But Reagan was not Goldwater's ideological successor. Goldwater was a libertarian. Reagan's right-conservatism was an unusual and hideous marriage of libertarian principles with religious zealotry. And 26 years after Reagan's election, moderate Republicans are beginning to see just how pernicious Reagan's alliance has been.

This entry was edited on 2007/01/28 at 19:26:32 GMT -0500.

Shooting Down Peace: The Perplexing Chinese Missile Test

Friday, January 19, 2007
Keywords: Politics, China

I wasn't planning to comment on the Chinese missile test, but after hearing the near-hysterical American reaction on the evening news, I'll throw in my two cents.

  1. China is not the Soviet Union, and this is not the Cold War.
    • China does not share in the hegemonic goals that the Soviet Union had of spreading Communism and destroying capitalism.
    • China has abandoned Communism in all but name. With the rapid erosion of the state's roles, China is by some measures even less socialistic than the United States is.
    • China is even on the slow--though often uneven--path of political reform and is gradually creeping towards democracy and the rule of law.
  2. China has been historically pacifist. They like the boast that, unlike white nations, they have never invaded and occupied foreign soil. Additionally, over the course of the past several years, China has reduced the size of its armed forces by over half a million.
  3. China is all but drowning in growing domestic unrest and strife. The political instability of a war would likely put the ruling party at grave risk, especially since the only thing that is keeping China's head above the rising waters of unrest is the tremendous economic growth and income that comes from trade with the West. Any disruption in that trade would hurt both China and the West, but it would hurt China much more as their economy is less diversified and more dependent on trade and because of the importance of that trade on its political stability--something that the exceedingly self-preservationist ruling party is keenly aware of.
  4. The European Union was founded on the principle that economic trade would make wars all but unthinkable in a region that was once the greatest hotbed of wars. This is certainly the case with China. Strong economic ties and trade are the best and most permanent guaranteers of peace.
  5. Although American foreign policy has been less rational lately, it strikes me as very odd that China would see the West as any sort of military threat that it needs to compete with, especially given how very allergic to war the West has become. The only real potential flash point is over the status of Taiwan (to be sure, a point that is not to be underestimated), but it seems that both China and Taiwan have now comfortably settled into the status quo of Taiwan's de facto but not de jure independence.
  6. Right now, the greatest threat to American national security is Islamic terrorism, and the greatest threat to Chinese national security is also Islamic terrorism. Lost in all the news about Iraq is the fact that China, which borders a number of Islamic countries and whose western provinces are the home to a significant number of Muslims, was the victim of well over 200 Islamic terrorist bombings in 2005, some of which even happened in the capital Beijing. Like the bombings in Iraq, many were conducted by foreign fighters who infiltrated China's western borders. I trust that in the long term, the national security interests of both China and the West will be identical.

For all these reasons, the missile test perplexes me. It perplexes me how the Chinese government (which, by the way, is not a monolithic and single-minded entity, much like how the American government, divided between the two parties and the factions within the two parties, is far from monolithic and single-minded) ever got the notion that testing this sort of weapon would be in its interests. Political Islam and terrorists are China's newest and most immediate enemies, and they won't have have any satellites to shoot down. In fact, recent newscasts from China paid little or no attention to the missile test whereas the state of the conflict in Iraq and the battle against Islamic extremism seems to get much more spotlight and coverage. At the same time, the American overreaction is puzzling, too. Perhaps this is because most Americans are still stuck in a Cold War mentality and fail to realize just how different China is from the Soviet Union. In any case, I think that China and the United States are much more alike than either side would admit and that ultimately, I think that that it would be most sensible for the two to act as allies instead of rivals.

This Un-Christian Nation

Thursday, January 11, 2007
Keywords: Politics, Religion

I have long known that the notion that the United States was "founded as a Christian nation" is nothing more than a fabrication of the historical revisionism of the religious right. What I didn't know was that this concept was actually expressed in a government document. As it turns out, the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli, as ratified by the United States Senate, contains the following phrase:

... the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion ...

While reading about this, I also came across these words from the famous infidel who penned the Declaration of Independence:

Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person's life, freedom of religion affects every individual. ... Moreover, state support of the church tends to make the clergy unresponsive to the people and leads to corruption within religion. Erecting the wall of separation between church and state, therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.

It is amusing, then, to observe the revisionists of the religious right painting this "wall" as a liberal fabrication unsupported by the views of the Founding Fathers. Ironically, members of the religious right should be grateful for this wall of separation, as Jefferson was right about the wall of separation helping stave off corruption. This wall of separation is arguably the most important reason why the United States today is, for better or for worse, more devout than Europe, Canada, or even Israel, where there currently is or has been state-supported religion.

Rant: The road paved with good intentions

Sunday, December 10, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Economics, Libertarianism

This article in the Washington Post makes me very angry. Especially the last line:

"I still think this is a great country," Hettinga said. "In Mexico, they would have just shot me."

Gee. What consolation that is. But why couldn't this country be even better?

This sort of thing is the main reason why I hate Democrats (and this new breed of equally corrupt big-government Republicans). I am certainly not opposed to government playing a role to correct natural market failures, but why do people always insist that government play a regulatory, rule-making role? If there is a market failure that needs to be fixed (externalities or insufficiently informed consumers), then fix the market failure. Why is there always this itch to go one step further and to start making rules to regulate and control? Want something to happen? Fine, go and incentivize it, don't force it. Even if people don't accept the moral argument against governments forcing behavior, why not the practical argument that regulatory policies--no matter how good-intentioned they may be at the outset--represent "security holes" (to use a software engineering analogy) that almost invariably invite "exploits"--corruption and abuse at some point in time; to those who say that libertarian policy is built upon idealistic wishing, I say that expecting government to always do good is even more unrealistically idealistic.

While I'm on the topic, the recent ban on trans fats in New York City is an excellent example of a gross regulatory overstep. Why is the city imposing a blanket ban on this stuff? Yes, most restaurants can do without it for most foods, but there may be some dishes that require odd ingredients that may contain some amounts of this stuff. Even if that were not the case, why go as far as ban it? Why not just inform the customers by requiring that restaurants post information about the trans fats in their foods, and let the consumers decide if they want to patronize someone using harmful ingredients (given the amount of money that is made hawking heart health products in this country, I think consumers do care very much about their mortality). Or if the city is concerned about the rising health care costs that result from these fats (since health care is taxpayer-subsidized), they could even tax trans fats to offset the costs to the taxpayers and also to give businesses a cost incentive to switch away from them. Any of those methods would've been just as effective and much less blunt (and immoral!) than just tossing in an outright ban.

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

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.

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.

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.

Is George W. Bush incredibly smart?

Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Keywords: Politics

I'm beginning to think that "Dubya" might actually be a heck of a lot smarter than we think he is.

It all started when I read that a former White House staffer, David Kuo, recently published a book alleging that the White House was not really serious about the religious right. According to the book, the administration would cater to the religious right in order to win their support, but privately, Christian conservatives were described as "goofy" and "nuts". My first reaction was one of disbelief. How could a President who claimed that his favorite philosopher is Jesus Christ and who the media has reported as getting down on his knees every day and praying in the Oval Office be so indifferent to the religious right? It quickly occurred to me that all the reports and stories of Bush's religiosity have been based on his public displays: his speeches, his campaign statements, and his public actions. Even reports of what the President does in "private" come from members of his staff, who could very well have been told to tell such stories to the media (or perhaps what Bush does in "private" in the view of his liable-to-talk-to-the-media staff is different than what he does in private when consulting his trusted circle). This leaves open the possibility that Bush's much-publicized religiosity was really an elaborate façade and that he is saying things and pushing Congress to legislate things for the purpose of gaining the support of a certain large and powerful voting bloc. If this was the case, this certainly won't be the first time in human history that someone has exploited religion for political gain.

A couple of days after reading about Kuo's book controversy, I came across a comment on the Internet saying that Bush was not a poor speaker prior to the 2000 elections. This prompted me to search for old videos of Bush. I found two videos, and both of them seem to confirm this comment. The first video was from the 1994 gubernatorial race in Texas between Bush and Ann Richards. It was striking how natural he sounded in 1994: he spoke rapidly, without stumbling, and without grammatical gaffes. Although the person who compiled the video thinks that the change between 1994 and 2000 was due to a medical condition, I have a different theory. The second video, which appears to be a candid video from 1992, also featured a lucid Bush.

Could it be that Bush, who majored in history at Yale, has a much better understanding of American history than we give him credit for? Perhaps he was inspired by Andrew Jackson, whose presented himself as a more down-to-earth person, contrasting against the more bookish John Quincy Adams. The people who would criticize Bush for his grammatical gaffes are those who are well-educated and who are more likely to vote Democratic anyway. His folksy manners has appeal in a country with a long history of distrust of the educated élite. I suspect that he may have purposefully changed his speaking style and peppered his language with errors so that he would appeal to the average American and so that he could present himself as one of them instead of someone perched atop an ivory tower. Indeed, during the 2004 debates and recently during an interview, Bush acknowledged that his English was poor, but he phrased that acknowledgment in a way that had struck me personally as carrying a tone of "look at how these people talk; they do not represent your interests."

I realize that this is all speculation and that it's all a stretch, but if it is true, then it would seem that appearances are indeed deceiving. It would be diabolically brilliant to so completely and fully paint oneself as a religious everyman because that is the image that resonates with American's plebeian voter base.

Why are Libertarians disenfranchised?

Sunday, October 22, 2006
Keywords: Libertarianism, Politics

Excerpts from The Economist:

That is easily enough libertarians to tip an election. And their votes are up for grabs. In 2000 George Bush won 72% of the libertarian vote, to Al Gore's 20%, by repeating the mantra "My opponent trusts government. I trust you." But in 2004, after Mr Bush increased the size of government and curtailed some civil liberties as part of the war on terror, his margin dropped to 59%-38%.

[...]

Mr Boaz and Mr Kirby argue that wooing the libertarian vote could propel either party to electoral success. Yet with an election only weeks away, neither shows much sign of trying. Republicans are rallying their religious base with jeremiads about stem-cell research and gay marriage. Democrats, on the other hand, would put up taxes, block school choice and lead a witch-hunt against Wal-Mart.

Libertarians are ignored partly because they are hard to find, not least because they just want to be left alone. (There is a Libertarian Party, but it gets hardly any votes.) [emphasis mine] Politicians can reach social conservatives through churches or union members through their unions, but where do libertarians gather? Parties will always court the votes that are cheapest to court because, for once, they are spending their own money.

Well, The Economist is right about the cost part of the cost-benefit analysis, but I am not so sure about the benefit part. Sure, it is easier and less costly to fire up the religious right or the labor unions, but those are people who already support you, and there is a significant problem of diminishing returns with getting your base to turn out on election day.

But it is also worth asking why libertarians are a disenfranchised group in American politics. As the article rightfully points out, "[F]ew Americans are familiar with the term 'libertarian'." Well, why is that? The word itself should not be a problem; people are probably more familiar with the root word "liberty" than they are with "republic". Libertarians do tend to be more educated and academic, but there is really nothing inherent to preclude someone who is poorly-educated from saying, "Government should mind their own business." I think that the education bias may be a result of self-selection in the sense that, when an ideology is so obscure in the mainstream political landscape, those who are not well-educated will be less likely to be exposed to it. But this brings us back to the original question, why are libertarians so obscure in the first place? And for that answer, I direct the reader to the emphasis that I added to the Economist excerpt above: the Libertarian Party of America, I think, is the primary reason for this political obscurity and for the subsequent disenfranchisement.

The problem is that there is a large number of libertarians who believe in a very black-and-white view of libertarianism. But taken to such a polar extreme, there is really little difference between libertarians and anarchists. What makes a libertarian a libertarian and not an anarchist is that a libertarian recognizes that there is indeed a need for government, and that the goal is to meet those needs efficiently with as few unwanted side effects as possible. An unconditional desire to reduce government without any regard to the need for a government is the hallmark of an anarchist. However, the failure to recognize this distinction is not the fault of people, but instead, it is a fault of the history and perhaps even nature of libertarian belief. This distinction regarding the role of government is easy to see and to recognize in the realm of personal freedoms, as the role of government can be fairly easily defined, which is, in rough layman's terms, "let people do whatever they want as long as they don't hurt others, and government should exist to ensure to make sure people aren't hurting (killing, stealing, etc.) each other." This is, in a nutshell, what Locke and Jefferson believed in, but they also formulated their beliefs before Adam Smith and modern economics.

The world of Locke and Jefferson was one of autarky. Yes, there was trade, but there was, relatively speaking, very little of it, and most of that trade was local in nature. It is because of this that there was never much thought given to the role of economics in the political discourse. There was the protection of property and a general desire to limit the amount of taxation, but that was about it. This changed, of course, with the Industrial Revolution. People were no longer islands isolated from the world. As economic specialization grew (and as populations grew), people became more dependent on each other and with this greatly increased interpersonal interaction, the general condition of "not hurting others" became much more complicated to define in the economic context. What used to be a simple "don't steal other people's property" now included issues like factory working conditions, monopoly pricing, pollution, etc. There is, of course, much controversy, even to this day, of whether or not these sorts of things constitute the sort of malevolent action that, like murder or robbery, government should try to control: the traditional way of looking at government's proper role does not make provisions for the new conditions that arose out of the Industrial Revolution. Because of the tangled web of unclear rights and wrongs that emerged out of this (how does one weigh an employer's "right" to pay whatever wage s/he feels is appropriate with an employee's "right" to a minimum standard of living?) and because it is difficult for government to address these issues efficiently and in a way that does not cause more problems than is solved, libertarians have traditionally stuck with a traditional Jeffersonian view of the role of government: prevent obvious crimes like murder, robbery, etc. and leave everything else alone.

While this traditional form of libertarianism is seductively simple and free of the controversial and sticky gray areas, this comes at a cost of turning a blind eye to reality, as reality is never this tidy. Fortunately, the field of economics--especially the work that has taken place over the past five decades--offer a sort of clarity that had previously been unavailable. Not only has the study of economics offered a more systematic and comprehensive way to precisely identify and describe the sorts of problems that need government solving, it also offers solutions that are efficient and that also minimize undesirable side effects. (I will not go into more detail here, as I have already written about some of these things, and it is impossible to go into detail in a meaningful way in the limited space here, but I do promise to write more about these things in more detail later on.)

Unfortunately, many libertarians are still living in a Jeffersonian fantasy world. They recognize the need for government in the traditional contexts, but they fail to recognize it in the modern contexts. The principles are still the same: government does have a role to play, but it should pursue that role as efficiently and unobtrusively as possible. The difference is that moderate libertarians (a number of whom are economists) hold a more realistic view of the role of government and recognize that government does need to address, in additional to murder, robbery, etc., issues such as monopolies, externalities, and the need for wealth redistribution, but in ways that are efficient and consistent with free market economics (e.g., see my essay on the merits of pricing/taxation instead of regulation as a way to address environmental issues). (Aside: there is a huge difference between some of the solutions that a moderate libertarian would support and what a leftist would support; as I like to say, Republicans and traditional libertarians try to brush away the problem, Democrats valiantly try to fix the problem, but in the wrong way because they have been blinded by socialism, and moderate libertarians try to fix the problem the right way.)

There are invariably objections from traditional libertarians. Some will claim that government intervention flies in the face of free market economics. This is a common myth held by many who do not fully understand the nuances of economics. This flies in the face is laissez-faire economics, but not free-market economics, and the two are not the same. Asymmetric information, externalities, natural monopolies, etc. are features of real-life laissez-faire economics and are things that preclude an efficient free market. An efficient free market thus requires that these problems be addressed (but also addressed in such a way that does not destroy other aspects of free markets, which is why the moderate libertarian approach of pricing rectification is better, less intrusive, and more efficient than the socialist approach of regulation; the poorly-engineered regulations of the left are sometimes just as bad as the traditional libertarian approach of ignoring the problem). Another common objection is that doing this is increasing the role of government. I do not dispute that this is true, but I do dispute that this is a problem, considering that the goal of libertarianism (as opposed to that of anarchism) is not to blindly whittle down government, but instead to accomplish what needs accomplishing in a way that is efficient and unobtrusive, thus constraining the whittling down of government only to cases where it makes sense and is appropriate.

And this brings us back to the question that I was asking: why are libertarians out in the political wilderness? The Libertarian Party is a party of traditional libertarians who inhabit a Jeffersonian illusion and who are in denial of the realities of the world. This detachment has made the Libertarian Party a radical fringe party that many libertarians (such as myself) would not support. Yet, they are the closest thing libertarians in this country have to a banner under which to rally. Needless to say, there is very little in the way of libertarian leadership, and without this leadership, there is no infrastructure to organize like-minded libertarians, to educate voters about the party, and to get the libertarian name out into the public spotlight. Even the Green and Reform parties have more effective leaderships, which is quite remarkable for a country whose founding was so profoundly rooted in libertarian philosophy. As the age-old cliché goes, "Every journey begins with a step." The first step that libertarians must take if they wish to emerge from obscurity is to acknowledge that the traditional Jeffersonian flavor of libertarianism is an outdated relic from another era and that, with the help of economists, effective, efficient, libertarian-style solutions are possible. Once this first step is taken, the libertarians can finally begin to provide the rational political middle ground than this country has been in desperate need of for so long.

This entry was edited on 2006/10/22 at 16:28:11 GMT -0400.

The Electric Car, Part II

Sunday, October 15, 2006
Keywords: Technology, Politics

This is a follow-up to a post that I made back in July.

As I wrote in July and as I will write now, I am not a fan of conspiracy theories. As a result, I approached the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? with a fair amount of skepticism, but since I had not seen the film when I first wrote about it in July, I held back on passing judgment. Well, I finally got a chance to watch it last night...

  1. This film takes a surprisingly balanced view in that, in addition to presenting its side of the story, it takes the time to explore and address a number of the counter-arguments as well.
  2. The film seems to be more documentary in nature than some of the other politically-motivated "documentaries" in the sense that I did not get the feeling that it was frothing at the mouth with anger. It was fairly rational, and does not try to take the conspiracy too far (unlike Loose Change, which made a number of claims that bordered on the ridiculous).
  3. Lingering objection: If electric cars were really that great, why did they not take off in environmentally-friendly countries? The film indicated that Toyota made electric vehicles, but they are not an American company. Why did they not introduce such vehicles in Japan? Japan's consumer base is more rational and adoring of new technology. They do not have a powerful oil industry, and their government, in certain respects, is less corrupt than ours. The same could be asked about Europe.
  4. Lingering question: Is the film representative of EV1 drivers? Were most EV1 drivers really as satisfied as those portrayed or did these people represent a minority of those who tried out the EV1? I have no reason to suspect that the latter is the case, but I would be interested in knowing the answer to this.
  5. Lingering objection: This still does not address the problem that our electrical infrastructure is in no way suited to handle the sort of strain that electrical vehicles would produce on a large scale. Granted, a hydrogen infrastructure would be even more costly, and the cost of upgrading the electrical infrastructure could easily be pushed off to the utilities who would stand to profit in the long run from this.

Overall, I think that the film is surprisingly good and presents the case without exhibiting much of a tin-foil-hat syndrome. Go watch it.

How do you stop North Korea?

Saturday, October 14, 2006
Keywords: Politics

Something tells me that imposing sanctions on a country that has been in autarky for all these decades isn't going to do much good. Yes, this is the fault of the regimes in Russia and China being annoyingly uncooperative as usual, but one does have to wonder if there was a way to make them more cooperative. We have no choice; we need stronger international consensus in order to deal with North Korea and Iran, and while alienating the international community with our post-9/11 arrogance and the sacrifice the our foreign policy moral high ground in Iraq may not necessarily be the cause of this fragmentation of international politics, it certainly does not help us gather together the allies and cooperation that we need.

This entry was edited on 2006/10/14 at 21:55:57 GMT -0400.

More Bush Signing Statements

Friday, October 6, 2006
Keywords: Politics

Despite the firestorm of controversy over his excessive use of signing statements to overrule Congress and to undermine the separations of powers, Bush continues to make ample use of them, this time to defy Congress over provisions of the Homeland Security bill signed into law on Wednesday.

The final three paragraphs of the Associated Press article are worth noting, however.

Bush's signing statement Wednesday challenges several other provisions in the Homeland Security spending bill.

Bush, for example, said he'd disregard a requirement that the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency must have at least five years experience and "demonstrated ability in and knowledge of emergency management and homeland security."

His rationale was that it "rules out a large portion of those persons best qualified by experience and knowledge to fill the office."

The portion of the signing statement from which the above was derived:

Section 503(c) of the Homeland Security Act of 2002, as amended by section 611 of the Act, provides for the appointment and certain duties of the Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Section 503(c)(2) vests in the President authority to appoint the Administrator, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, but purports to limit the qualifications of the pool of persons from whom the President may select the appointee in a manner that rules out a large portion of those persons best qualified by experience and knowledge to fill the office. The executive branch shall construe section 503(c)(2) in a manner consistent with the Appointments Clause of the Constitution.

So Bush is essentially insisting that the new requirement that the FEMA director be experienced and knowledgeable will somehow rule out people who are "best qualified by experience and knowledge."* Bush's predecessor was certainly not a perfect president, but at least Clinton appointed people based on qualifications, even if that meant appointing Republicans to prominent administration positions such as the Secretary of Defense. Has Bush learned absolutely nothing from the case of FEMA director Michael Brown or about the consequences of appointing people to office based simply on their passing his litmus test of loyalty?

________________
* Of course, this is not the first time that his astounding command of logic has been on display.

This entry was edited on 2006/10/06 at 20:21:28 GMT -0400.

Those Who Cannot Remember...

Tuesday, August 29, 2006
Keywords: Politics

Donald Rumsfeld said today that those who oppose the Bush Administration's war in Iraq "seem not to have learned history's lessons." He specifically referred to the appeasement of Hitler in the 1930's, comparing our resistance against the war in Iraq to Chamberlain's policy towards Hitler. With Rumsfeld echoing Santayana's famous "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," the apropos retort would be, "Those who misinterpret and misapply the lessons of the past are condemned to make even worse blunders."

Rumsfeld's analogy of the anti-war sentiment to British appeasement is flawed in that, before the destabilizing invasion, Iraq was not a source of terrorism. A failure to pursue al-Qaeda would be appeasement, not a failure to pursue Saddam. It should be noted that many in the CIA believe that Rumsfeld's early preoccupation with Iraq in 2001 resulted in insufficient resources and troops for Afghanistan and the subsequent failure to capture top al-Qaeda leaders at Tora Bora. In a way, this obsession with Iraq instead of the real targets has resulted in us giving our modern-day "Hitler" quite a helping hand.

So what is the correct analogy, if there is one? Our war in Iraq has effectively amounted to something that would have been analogous to us going to war with the Soviet Union in the 1930's: Hitler would have been delighted at the prospect of the Allies exhausting their resources fighting an enemy that (at the time) posed no threat to the Allies and that was not closely aligned with Hitler. Not only has Iraq weakened us, Rumsfeld's foolhardy invasion of Iraq has created a breeding ground for new terrorists where none existed before. It is still not a perfect analogy (as perfectly analogous situations are really quite rare in history), but it is certainly a better one than what Rumsfeld is proposing. Methinks Rumsfeld would have done poorly with the SAT's analogies.

This entry was edited on 2006/08/29 at 23:48:48 GMT -0400.

Orrin Hatch on Stem Cells

Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Keywords: Politics

I never thought that I'd say this, but Orrin Hatch makes a pretty good argument towards the end of the first half of this video. The first half of this video is about stem cell research, and Mr. Hatch did a surprisingly good job (for a conservative Republican) of smacking down the anti-stem-cell guy. In any case, it's a video worth watching.

Too Much Security?

Saturday, August 12, 2006
Keywords: Politics

As reported by C|Net, the New York Times, and the BBC, the new flight restrictions in the UK extend beyond just a ban on liquids, but a ban on just about any sort of carry-on item, including cell phones, laptops, and even newspapers. The NYT article mentions people who were forced to discard cell phones and iPods because there was no time before the flight departure to check in those items. Thankfully, the US has so far been more sensible about this and has limited the restrictions to just liquids.

There are several problems with the UK's approach. First, not everything should be checked in. Sensitive electronic equipment and fragile objects are not things that should be checked in. This also includes valuables, which up to this point, airlines have recommended carrying on due to the risk of damage or loss of checked items. And in today's digital age where laptops can often carry sensitive information (like those government laptops with sensitive data that were lost, or in my case, where my laptop contains an archive of a decade of personal correspondence), there are things that people will simply not feel comfortable letting out of sight.

Second, there is a problem of diminishing returns to security. There are only so many resources that society can afford to spend on security, and because of diminishing returns, every extra resource spent in this whack-a-mole game of turning airplanes into flying prisons will yield fewer gains. There are countless better ways to spend those resources, from securing borders to developing programs to identify and address the social causes of militant religious extremism. One has to wonder just how much security is added by prohibiting books on a plane. (See this March column by security expert Bruce Schneider in Wired for more about the problem of diminishing returns in airport screening.)

Third, while the marginal benefits of this extra security is decreasing, the marginal cost is increasing, and not just in the form of the direct cost of implementing the extra security, but also in the cost of lost time (especially now that time spent on a long-haul flight is totally wasted as the UK bans things as mundane as reading material), lost convenience, and discarded, lost, or damaged items.

And finally--and most importantly--we seem to lose sight of the goal of terrorism. Their goal is not to blow up planes or to kill people; to think that is to mistake a means for an end. Their goal is to convince us to give in to their demands and desires, and blowing up planes is just one way to cause the fear and disruption necessary for their goals. They hope that we would grow so sick and tired of them that we would give in, much like how Israel grew so weary of Hezbollah's attacks that they withdrew from Lebanon back in 2000. Thus, their goal is to cause the most amount of fear and disruption, and not necessarily to blow up the most number of people (though that helps). With that in mind, we have to ask, are the actions that we are doing do "protect" ourselves helping to stem fear and disruption or helping to spread it? To be sure, there is a certain amount of security that is necessary to make their activities more difficult, and up to a certain point, more security is a good thing. But beyond that point, the marginal benefits are so low and the marginal costs are so high that the extra security actually helps their cause more than it hurts it. Perhaps a good analogy would be the human immune system. We must have an adequate immune system (which people with AIDS lack) in order to survive, but an overzealous immune system can sometimes be just as damaging (such as in the case of multiple sclerosis, arthritis, diabetes, allergies, etc.). If a terrorist attack was the bite from an insect such as a mosquito, then a security overreaction would be the itchy bump that forms, and just as in the case of a mosquito bite, it is entirely possible that we could inflict upon ourselves more suffering than the terrorists could ever dream of inflicting by themselves. Looking at the way that the UK has reacted recently, one might even say that just by being caught, the terrorists were successful in their goal of terrorizing.

Up until the recent foiled attacks, I think that we have had a good balance of security. I am encouraged by the fact that the US has not resorted to the sort of Draconian measures adopted by the UK and that DHS Secretary Chertoff has promised to do away with the extra measures regarding liquids once the TSA has had a chance to find a better solution. I hope that this is all true and that we would soon return to the sort of balance that we had before. If not, then perhaps we should adopt a tiered security system where there are flights with this extra prison-camp security and flights with normal security. Then, people who believe that the benefit outweighs the cost (after all, this cost-benefit analysis is quite subjective, as it depends on how risk-adverse each person is, how much each person values convenience and personal freedom, how long the flight is, etc.) could ride on the "safer" flights and people who are willing to accept the consequences of increased risk could fly on reduced-security flights (and on routes without enough traffic to warrant separate flights, they could just default to extra security to be on the safe side). This would at least allow people to individually decide for themselves their cost-benefit equation instead of some whimsical government agency. I have a feeling that if people were given the option to choose, there would be a surprisingly large number of people who would choose less security. After all, even with terrorists, flying is still much safer than driving.

This entry was edited on 2006/08/12 at 19:12:55 GMT -0400.

Why we must stay in Iraq

Friday, August 4, 2006
Keywords: Politics

Imagine that you are at a theatre to see a play. As you enter, you find that you have lost your ticket. Would you pay $10 to buy another ticket, assuming that there is no assigned seating? Now imagine that you had not acquired a ticket in advance and that instead of losing the ticket, you have lost a $10 bill. Would you pay $10 for a ticket? In a well-known experiment conducted by Kahneman and Tversky, a majority (54%) of the people who were presented with the first scenario said that they would not buy a new ticket if their ticket was lost, but 88% of the people presented with the second scenario said that they would buy a ticket if only money was lost. In the first scenario, because the ticket had already been purchased, it is a "sunk cost". Therefore, losing the ticket is effectively identical to losing the $10 bill, yet there is a large discrepancy in how people would react. Economists call this phenomenon the failure to identify and ignore sunk costs, and it is one of ways in which people act irrationally. But what does any of this have to do with the title of this post?

Although there are many different arguments against the deployment of American troops in Iraq, one of the most prominent arguments is that this war was a mistake--that we were deceived and that we entered under false pretenses without a plan. This, I do not dispute--and have not disputed since 2003. In many ways, this war has been a disaster. We too quickly shifted our resources and focus from Afghanistan to Iraq, without having devoted enough energy and troops to stabilize Afghanistan--a mistake that is growing increasingly apparent as the Afghan government stumbles about while the Taliban is reclaiming power. We have significantly boosted the power of the Iranians by removing the most significant check against their power from the region, by helping establish a pro-Iranian government in Iraq, and by tying up our resources in such a way that Iran no longer sees our military as a significant threat. We have destabilized a country and turned it into a massive terrorist training camp, which reverses any gains that we made by neutralizing their Afghan infrastructure. And finally, we have soiled our image and reputation within the international community. Thus, in so many ways, this war was a grand mistake and an enormous disaster.

However, that the Iraq War has been a huge mistake should not inform our judgment about what needs to be done next. Yes, we should draw lessons from it so that we do not repeat such a mistake in the future, and we should strongly rebuke those who are responsible (especially since the Administration has yet to act honorably by admitting to this mistake), but when it comes to deciding what to do next, we must act rationally and thus treat this mistake as something akin to a sunk cost; we must ignore it. The main question that we should ask ourselves is whether or not withdrawal from Iraq would make the situation better; any argument for withdrawal that is based on the war being a mistake is irrational and is a failure to recognize the what-is-done-is-done nature of this war.

With that in mind, it is my belief that withdrawal would not make things better. It cannot undo the damage that has been done (that would require a time machine, not a troop withdrawal). If we consider the problems in Iraq right now--that it is destabilized, that civilians are being killed every day, that there has been an exodus of skilled and educated citizens, and that it is a training ground of terrorists--withdrawal will in all likelihood make these problems worse. Remember the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan? The mistake of entering the war has already been made, and leaving now would not change that, but it would magnify the effects of that initial mistake, and for that reason, I believe that we cannot withdraw until the "job is done", even if that requires (and I think it does) more troops.

Lessons from Suez

Monday, July 31, 2006
Keywords: Politics

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the Suez Crisis. Marking this anniversary, the July 29th issue of The Economist ran a special feature on this subject, giving its readers a historical refresher while highlighting the parallels that can be drawn. It's an excellent article that I think everyone should read.

In a nutshell, for those who do not wish to read the article, when Egypt's Nasser seized and nationalized the Suez Canal, the British and French viewed the act as threatening and unacceptable. They decided to use military force to retake the canal (there was even hope for a regime change to rid themselves of the troublesome Nasser, who they had compared to Hitler and Mussolini). To avoid international criticism, they accepted Israel's under-the-table offer to invade the Sinai (Israel was looking for a chance to retaliate against Egypt's involvement in Gaza), which would give the British and French an excuse to send in troops to secure stabilize the region and to keep the peace. Israel invaded, the British and French feigned surprise, issued an ultimatum demanding a cease-fire, and then joined the fray. The United States, under the Republican president Eisenhower, demanded that the British and French stop their offensive, and with the threat of withholding reconstruction funds, they succeeded in forcing the British and French to a ceasefire. They then proceeded to call an emergency session of the UN (therefore bypassing the British and French vetoes) and established a UN peacekeeping force to secure the area.

In my opinion, what was most striking about all this is the degree to which things have reversed themselves over the course of these fifty years. Saddam, in many ways, tried to follow in the footsteps of Nasser, and, like Nasser, his critics compared him to Hitler and wished for regime change. Except that in 2003, instead of the French wishing for an invasion and regime change, it was the United States, and instead of the United States opposing military action, it was the French. In 1956, the United States masterfully used the UN to resolve the problem, and in 2003, the United States more or less brushed aside and dismissed the UN. In 1956, it was the French and British who sided with Israel and it was the United States who opposed the Israeli invasion; of course, in 2006, the opposite is true. And while the United States were allergic to imperialistic notions in 1956, it is often accused of such today.

So what had changed? Perhaps it was the fifty years of superpower status? Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and as a nation, it may be that the United States had forgotten the sorts of principles that it once cherished. Have those who support the American troop presence in the Middle East forgotten how violently allergic colonial Americans were to British troops in the days leading up to the Revolutionary War? Or perhaps the shift over the past fifty years was the result of the Cold War, where we took on a quasi-imperialistic agenda in order to thwart the spread of Communism (opposing the spread of Soviet Communism was good, but we may have allowed our principles to be compromised in our zeal). Or perhaps it is the resurgence in American politics of the more bellicose and fundamentalist South over the past fifty years (with its virtual takeover of the GOP) after having been marginalized after the Civil War. Or perhaps nothing really has changed, and the Iraqi invasion of 2003 and the opposition to an Israeli-Lebanese ceasefire in the past two weeks are simply the result of a misguided (and clueless) leader who has obviously not learned much from history.

This entry was edited on 2006/07/31 at 20:15:37 GMT -0400.

Label Politics

Friday, July 28, 2006
Keywords: Politics

Last weekend, I heard a wonderful interview on the radio where a professor of political science was discussing the results of his research.

It would appear that in the United States, "conservative" is a more popular and desirable label than "liberal". This has been true for "as far back as [is] capable of tracing with the data." So we live in a country where people aspire to conservatism and values commonly associated with conservatism. This is not surprising, but what was really fascinating is what happened when the researchers asked their subjects what positions they hold on a range of issues. For people who identify themselves as "liberal", 3% of them held issue/policy positions that were mostly conservative. However, for people who identify themselves as "conservative", nearly a quarter of them held mostly liberal policy positions. This would suggest that, because the conservative label is more desirable and is what more people associate with "American values", people will label themselves as "conservative" without any clue as to what this actually translates to in policy. Whereas people who are liberal are going against the grain in terms of labeling and thus have would be more likely to have actually thought out their positions before labeling themselves as such.

The interviewee then goes deeper with his analysis. The other side of this issue is how the Republicans have been exploiting this tendency to associate "American values" with "conservative". They have tried--successfully--to claim certain values as their own and to associate such values, such as "patriotism" and "hard work" with "conservative". This creates a false dichotomy as it is certainly not the case that all Republicans are patriots and that all Democrats are not (if anything, flaunting the Constitution Bush-style is quite unpatriotic) and it is certainly not the case that conservatives are all hard workers while liberals are not (think of Bush and his long, lazy vacations and of the rich who are born with a silver spoon in their mouth). This is also why the Republicans tend to focus on broad strokes and labels in their rhetoric. They talk about "freedom", "patriotism", and "family values" because they have been able to associate these labels with themselves and with "conservatism", and as such, they are able to avoid substance and rely on such sweeping and lofty labels to prop up their positions. This may explain why the Democrats often talk wonkishly about policy while the Republicans often fire back with broad-stroked attacks involving "too liberal", "patriotism", or "hard-working Americans".

Unfortunately, this is not a problem that can be solved easily. Average Americans are not very bright and have little understanding of government and politics. The problem is as much Republicans distorting politics as it is Joe Sixpack--who is more concerned about voting for trash shows like American Idol than voting for government--having no idea what is going on, and thus allowing a quarter of "conservatives" to confuse themselves. And of course, the group that really gets screwed by this are the libertarians; how many Joe Sixpacks will label themselves as "libertarian" (how many even know what the word means?). It is times like this that I question of wisdom of allowing the masses vote for President; I know this is blasphemous, but the Electoral College, in its original form, might not have been that bad of an idea after all...

And speaking of Electoral College, I'm going to finish this post off by going off-topic and pointing out this article, which proposes a fix for the Electoral College. Instead of the electors from each state informally agreeing to toss in their vote for whoever won the state, they'll just agree to toss in their vote to whoever won the national popular vote. And thus, through an informal agreement not too unlike the existing agreement, we can essentially eliminate the Electoral College without revising the Constitution or doing anything Draconian. Not only will this eliminate anomalies such as where Gore loses the election that he won, but it will also give Massachusetts Republicans and Kansas Democrats a voice that they haven't had. I think it's a marvelous idea; if the President is going to be elected by popular vote, then we might as well do it right by implementing a system like this!

This entry was edited on 2006/07/28 at 14:43:39 GMT -0400.

The Electric Car

Wednesday, July 26, 2006
Keywords: Technology, Politics

There is a new documentary movie this summer titled Who Killed the Electric Car? Although I have not seen it, I did see the trailer for it, and I have been reading about it in the news media (e.g., at CNN). It's a big conspiracy theory movie, and I'm not sure I'm sold on their claims. Of course, I should reserve full judgment until after seeing the actual film, but here are some of my preliminary concerns:

1) As we have witnessed in recent weeks, our power infrastructure is severely strained. In California, the problem is generation capacity. And throughout the country, but especially in the east, the problem is transmission capacity. Forget about the hassles and logistics of adding new power plants; just upgrading the existing $1-trillion electrical transmission infrastructure with millions of miles of wiring to handle the enormous extra load that electrical cars would generate would not be trivial in either time or money.

2) Batteries are imperfect devices. How efficient are these batteries that are used, and how long will they last?

3) While Americans have not exactly been the greenest people on this planet, there are other wealthy industrialized nations that are much more environmentally conscious. Why hasn't there much in the way of electrical car development in Europe or Japan?

4) While electrical cars may be more efficient and environment-friendly (yes, there is pollution associated with electrical generation, but it will be concentrated and easier to deal with) than gasoline cars, the real standard that should be used is whether or not they are that much better in terms of efficiency and practicality than the other green alternatives, like hybrids or hydrogen fuel cells. Hybrids are nice in that they achieve a large efficiency gain without any infrastructure requirements.

5) Did they really kill the EV1 because of some evil conspiracy, or was it killed out of purely economic concerns, such as the worry that not enough people would buy it to justify manufacturing and support costs?

In the end, I still think that the best solution is massive gasoline taxes to address the issue of the unpriced petrol externality. I think we may finally be getting to the point where Americans are finally starting to let go of the absurd notion that cheap gasoline is some sort of basic human right, which would make European-style gas taxes possible. And once that's in place, the market will take care of the rest. In the meantime, this is an interesting--albeit a bit off-topic--article from the July issue of the Scientific American.

What does Israel seek to gain?

Saturday, July 22, 2006
Keywords: Politics

The coverage of the latest Middle East conflict has been plastered with cheesy sensationalism, like the bolded all-caps CNN.com headline of "Bombs and Tears" that persisted for a few days and the focus on the great nail-biting escape of Westerners from Lebanon. But there doesn't seem to be much said about what Israel hopes to accomplish...

Are they trying to disarm Hezbollah and Hamas? Their official line and their sending of ground forces would suggest this. But recall that Israel had occupied southern Lebanon for many years (it is even the reason why Hezbollah was founded) and during those years, they have failed to destroy Hezbollah. Do they seriously expect that re-occupying that area would allow them to accomplish what they have been unable to do in the past? Likewise, do they think that ground forces in Gaza would stop Hamas, considering that Hamas prospered through the Israeli occupation of Gaza?

Are they trying to get local governments to disarm these groups? The Lebanese government is, at best, weak, following the end of the Syrian occupation and the end of the long Lebanese civil war. They are in no shape to do anything about Hezbollah. Israel seems to acknowledge this, however, as they have made it clear that they do not expect the Lebanese government to be of much help in disarming Hezbollah. As for Hamas, when Arafat was in power, he was unable to control Hamas and their militias. Israel had tried many of the same tactics: sending in troops, punishing the government, etc., but the end result has always been the same: the Palestinian government remains impotent in dealing with the militias, and Israel is unable to stem the violence. Now that the Palestinian authority has a relatively weaker and more divided leadership and government, they are in an even worse position to deal with these mostly independent militiamen; it has been reported in the news that even Hamas itself is divided and that not all of its elements heed the words of its political leadership.

Are they trying to drum up international support and get pressure placed against Hezbollah and Hamas? The international community had long ago called for the disarmament of Hezbollah (complete with a UN Resolution and what little good that did) and there was already pressure on Hamas to moderate. If anything, the recent conflict is turning international opinion against them. The leaders of the Arab world have condemned Hezbollah, but these are mere words, and the people still overwhelmingly support Hezbollah.

Are they trying to send a message that they will not stand by and let themselves be attacked? If so, when has such a gesture ever deterred an irrational people who are willing to die for their cause?

In the end, the thing that bothers me about all this is the bleakness of the outlook, as I'm not sure that what they are doing will bring them any bit closer to neutralizing Hezbollah, and at the same time, it is destabilizing a fledging moderate democracy (a rarity in the Middle East), and we all know what destabilized Middle Eastern governments will produce... Did they learn anything from their 1982 invasion of Lebanon?

This entry was edited on 2006/07/22 at 23:03:43 GMT -0400.

The irony of it all...

Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Keywords: Politics

It seems that while everyone is focusing on Bush's use of "shit", most people are overlooking the true gaffe: See, the irony is that what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it's over. This misuse of language is probably much more revealing of Bush's nature than his mild cursing. :) It is also amusing to see the media act like the stereotypical child who utters, "Oooh, you used a bad word! I'm telling!"

The Difficulty of Free Speech

Tuesday, April 18, 2006
Keywords: Politics

It is easy to defend free speech for journalists, political groups, and everyday people. It becomes harder to defend free speech for pornographic and violent content. And the defense of speech that almost everyone finds utterly distasteful is sometimes a Herculean task.

When people talk about defending the right to deny the Holocaust, rosy principles of free speech look dim and many people are understandably left to wonder exactly what social good and value is to come from the defense of such speech. Slippery slope arguments carry little weight as people scoff at the naïve black-and-white binary nature of such arguments. Alan Dershowitz's pet example of how he would support the right of neo-Nazis to peacefully* march through Jewish neighborhoods would strike all but the most staunch civil libertarians as aloof and overly idealistic. While I am staunchly libertarian and idealistic when it comes to such matters, most people, understandably, are not and require arguments of pragmatism. In the end, we have overblown racial hysteria when an art project that resembled a cross was burned** and a number of European governments whose lofty stances on liberties are marred by bans on Holocaust denial.

The New York Times published a review that criticized the handling of a new documentary on the Armenian Genocide on PBS. For those who are not familiar with it, the Ottoman Empire is accused of killing about 1 million Armenian civilians within its borders during WWI. The Turkish government, however, has been and is currently still in denial; the trial in Turkey of an author accused of "insulting" the state for talking about the Genocide made the news just a few months ago. PBS broadcast the documentary this evening, and because of Turkey's continuing denial, it was going to broadcast a panel debate tomorrow pitting two deniers against two affirmers. However, due to pressure from the Armenian lobby and from Congress, a number of PBS stations will not broadcast this debate because of the offensiveness of the Turkish state-sponsored denial of this event. The Times made an excellent case for the broadcast of the debate: it would show just how deluded the deniers are. Without the airing of this debate, the deniers would be armed with rhetorical ammunition as they point to this and cry Armenian conspiracy, and those who are trying to break through the Turkish government's censorship and tight grip on the debate of the issue would be labeled as hypocrites.

As another example, the cartoon controversy may not have degenerated as much if laws against Holocaust denial did not exist in Europe. Instead, Muslims were very quick to harp on the hypocrisy of the West's free speech defense: how is it free speech if anti-Semitic speech is banned but not anti-Islamic? The vast majority of arguments that I have read from the Muslim side have pointed out this glaring discrepancy. How can you expect them to cherish and to respect Western values when the West does not do so itself?

History has shown us that the restriction of speech, even outrageous speech, usually backfires. It makes martyrs out of wicked and hypocrites out of the righteous. However, this is not to say that nothing should be done about such fringe speech. The best way to combat speech that one does not agree with is not through a clamp-down but instead through an engagement in debate and through the use of speech to counter that of the offender. As the Times points out, the panelists pits a "condescending and defensive" denial against an affirmation that is "smooth and [kept] cool", and as The Economist's editorial board pointed out last month, "[F]ar better to let those who deny well-documented facts expose themselves to ridicule than pose as martyrs."

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* Of course, there are definite limits set for speech. The classic "shouting fire" scenario where false speech such as shouting fire in a crowded theatre results in immediate action that leads to death or injury (by way of a panicked stampede) is one such example. In criminal law, credible verbal threats can be prosecuted as assault, and in 2002, the Supreme Court upheld that cross burning is illegal if the intent is intimidation. This is why Dershowitz is careful to stipulate that the march be peaceful.

** A few years ago, some drunken students on a deserted campus during winter break burned an art project that resembled a cross. Ignoring that there was no audience, much less an intended audience, that there was no evidence of racist or otherwise sinister intent, and that there was no evidence to suggest that the cross-like shape of the object was anything more than an unfortunate coincidence, the Claremont Colleges erupted in a fury of outrage that was grossly disproportionate to the act and the students received punishments that were inappropriate for the simple crime of drunken art project destruction.

Some Quick Numbers

Friday, April 14, 2006
Keywords: Politics

It's interesting to read that the House immigration bill calls for a 698-mile long fence that comes with a price tag of $2 billion. Do the math, and that's well over $500 per foot.

For contrast, the plans that Panama recently put forth for the widening of the Panama Canal (no small task, considering that the original canal took decades to construct) comes in at only $5 billion.

Of course, in the greater scheme of things, $2 billion is but a drop in the bucket considering the size of the federal budget and the GDP of the country, but when you get enough of these little things, they add up...

France, Labor, and Transfers

Monday, April 10, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Economics

"We need revolutions [...] Changes do not come gradually in France; they happen in jolts" Those were the comments (at least, as best as I could remember) that a French interviewee had to offer today to NPR's The World in regards to the protests over the French labor law. One of the most memorable passages that I remember from McKay, Hill, and Buckler's A History of Western Society* was a quote in reference to 1848 by a Briton that was to the effect that the British reform while the French throw up the barricades. With the violent riots of last fall, the recent 1968-esque massive street protests and strikes in response to the labor law, and the general tendency towards mass protests and strikes in France, it seems that this observation is, sadly (and amusingly), applicable to the 21st century.

It seems odd to me that French university students would be so interested in a law that generally does not affect them; for the most part, the labor situation is such that these people would be past the age limit by the time they enter the workforce. Perhaps they were put off by de Villepin's strong-arming the bill through parliament. Or perhaps they see this as a step down the slippery slope of the dismantlement of the French labor system. Whatever the case, whether or not the French are willing to admit it, their labor system is in need of reform: this is a country where the vast majority of young people aspire to hold government jobs for a career. In today's fast-moving economy, an inflexible and protectionist labor market is a dangerous anchor for a country to be attached to.

However, this is not to say that the left's social and moral concerns about the human condition need to be necessarily tossed aside in the name of free markets. Socialists are often quick to point out the problem of externalities in economics. While most people generally think of externalities as someone polluting the air, the externalities that the left is eager to point out are the more subtle ones that affect every economic transaction. For example, by manufacturing automated checkout machines, a company decreases the economic value of a cashier's labor. Those who are familiar with trade theory will recognize this as another way of describing the winners-and-losers effect of trade. The French problem revolves around how one should deal with these externalities. One solution would be to restrict and regulate activity by instating labor protection laws, adopting protectionist trade policies, or enforcing strict rules on factory emissions. This sort of mandate-and-regulate solution is what France has adopted. The other solution would be to harness the power of the market by "fixing" the externality problem through pricing of the externality. The use of high gasoline taxes in lieu of fuel efficiency standards, the adoption of the sort of carbon trading intended for use with Kyoto are clear-cut examples of the externality pricing approach in environmental policy, but what about labor and trade? Transfers. Since trade (which can actually describe all normal economic activity) is a positive-sum game, it means that it is possible to take enough from the "winners" to compensate the "losers" to achieve Pareto optimality without depleting all the gains. Of course, while this sounds nice on paper, is very difficult to implement because the winners and losers are hard to identify and their gains and losses are hard to quantify. The income tax and welfare system is a reasonable approximation of this sort of externality pricing at play. It's not perfect, but it is certainly better than the alternative of dealing with the problem by destroying market forces by creating an inflexible labor market. On that note, perhaps the French should look north towards Scandanavia, where a combination of free and flexible labor markets with lavish social welfare guarantees shows that it is possible to pursue leftist social goals while maintaining a market economy. Unfortunately, if even the well-educated university students in France are unable to see beyond the labor dogma, then perhaps France is indeed in need of a "jolt"... in the other direction.

Afterthought: The opposition to transfers in the United States is based not on the principles of free markets, but instead on deeply-ingrained libertarian ideals. Is it possible to be a libertarian and still believe in transfers? I certainly hope so, as that is what pragmatic economics would seem to dictate. After all, there does need to be a distinction between libertarianism and anarchy (one that the Libertarian Party seems to forget about).

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* Given how bad my memory generally is, it surprises me that I was able to correctly recall off the top of my head both the title and authors of a textbook from eight years ago. Well, it was a good book...

This entry was edited on 2006/04/10 at 21:45:51 GMT -0400.

Ehud Olmert on Frontline/World

Tuesday, March 28, 2006
Keywords: Politics

Tonight, PBS's Frontline featured a report about Ehud Olmert and his family, and of all the Frontline features that I have watched, this was one of the most delightful. It was interesting to hear his wife and children speak about the political differences in the Olmert family. Olmert was once upon a time one of the most extreme right politicians in Israel, but his entire family is very left-wing. Despite that, they have managed to hold together because, as Ehud jokes, his family has been tolerant of him. The interviews were both charming and frank: his family admitted that they usually did not vote for him, and he even joked at one point that his family had every right to be wrong.

Of course, things are different now, as Olmert in 2003 was the first major right-wing politician to move towards the left and to advocate Israel's unilateral pullout from Gaza. For those of you who don't follow the news, acting prime minister Olmert is currently the leader of the fledgling centrist Kadima party founded by Sharon when the former prime minister abandoned right-wing. Preliminary results show Kadmina in the lead in the recent general election.

Why can't American politics be like this, where people can get along even if they share radically different beliefs? And why can't we have political leaders who have the humility to embrace the other side when the evidence shows that the path that they are traveling is wrong? I know almost nothing about Israeli politics, but if this Frontline feature is any indication, then I think that Olmert will make a fine prime minister.

The "Jane Galt" Healthcare Plan

Tuesday, March 28, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Economics

A couple nights ago (I meant to post this earlier, but I kept forgetting :P), libertarian Megan McArdle of The Economist, writing under the "Jane Galt" pseudonym, proposed this interesting healthcare reform plan that is seductively simple and that tries to strike a balance between the moral argument for government payment and the need for market forces.

Have the government pay for all health care expenditures above 15% of adjusted gross income, and cover 100% of health care expenditures by people living under 200% of the poverty line.

The justification and reasoning for this plan is laid out in a series of four blog posts (1, 2, 3, 4), though if you do not feel like reading all four, the last of the four might work as an executive summary. It's not perfect, and the author admits it. For starters, there is an incentive disconnect at the 200% of poverty line, but that is a minor technical problem that can be easily fixed by either using a sliding scale instead of a flat 0% that steps up to a 15% or by exempting any income below that point from this cap calculation. There is the potential problem of freewheeling spending after the 15% cap is reached, but people generally do not visit hospitals for fun and there can always do some basic rationing (no botox injections on the coverage). There is also the problem of how one defines and tracks income, but for better or for worse, we already have that infrastructure in place, thanks to the IRS. (I went into a wee bit more detail on these points in some comments on her fourth post) There are other problems too, but not nearly as many as HSAs or single-payer. Overall, I think it's a pretty nice idea: a nice balance between free market and government, don't you think?

Alternatives and Relativism

Tuesday, March 28, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Economics

Consider this simple quiz problem:

You won a free ticket to see an Eric Clapton concert (which has no resale value). Bob Dylan is performing on the same night and is your next-best alternative. Tickets to see Dylan cost $40. On any given day, you would be willing to pay up to $50 to see Dylan. Assume there are no other costs of seeing either performer. Based on this information, what is the opportunity cost of seeing Eric Clapton?

(a) $0
(b) $10
(c) $40
(d) $50

Concerned with the de-emphasis of basic economic reasoning in economics, two researchers asked some Ph.D. economists this question. Surprisingly, only 21.6% answered correctly, which is lower than the 25% that would be expected if everyone simply made a random guess. The question is fairly straightforward and explicit in laying out exactly what the next-best alternative was and any necessary assumptions; this was a problem that one might expect to find in the textbook of an introductory economics course. In case you are not sure, the correct answer is (b).

If people who believe themselves to be economists could not correctly and fully grasp the concept of the opportunity cost, what does this mean for public discourse?

Example: Scientology

What prompted me to recall this particular study was the recent South Park vs. Scientology controversy. I became curious, and a bit of Googling lead me to this text by an ex-Scientologist: (Source)

[A]lmost everything that occurs in Scientology that a Scientologist experiences and believes in comes about as the self-suggested result of a kind of auto-hypnosis. Everything that seems to work or be positive is attributed to Scientology, and everything negative is assigned to personal failure or lack of understanding of Scientology.

One might say that this is applicable to many belief systems in general, whether or not they are religious. A friend once told me that he believes that when good things happen and when inspirations come, it is the result of God. To which I responded, what about the bad things that happen and all the many moments of the day when no inspirations flash by? In a non-religious context, one might apply this to optimism or pessimism. Just as the true cost of an action must also figure in the opportunity cost of not executing the alternative action, it is necessary to consider and account for this alternate point of view in order to make unbiased assessments.

Example: Evolution

This principle of considering alternates can be said in defense of evolution. Those who tout intelligent design are quick to point out how seemingly well-suited everything is. But by doing so, they are turning a blind eye to the alternate perspective of how poorly suited many things are. Why do we have a useless colon? Why are our ears so prone to damage from a wide dynamic range? Why is our environment so fragile? For every wonderful thing in this world that "clicks" perfectly, I am sure that people can think of something that does not "click" together so well. (aside: of course, the best argument against ID is still the anthropic principle, which deals with the huge logical fallacy made by ID-proponents of confusing conditional probability with joint probability)

Example: Google in China

The controversy over Google's entry to the Chinese market is another fine example of this sort of principle at play. Those who opposed the entry were highly critical of the Chinese government and of the notion of an otherwise saintly American company cooperating with Beijing. Through public stunts such as the "breakup with Google" on Valentine's Day, they demonstrated their failure the assess and evaluate the alternate course of action. They failed to grasp that not entering the market would do nothing to change the political infrastructure (by giving more market share to local companies, not competing there would actually strengthen Beijing). The protestors either ignored this critical "what-if" question or fell prey to the delusion that the alternate choice was some sort of liberation when it was really a potentially worse version of the status quo.

Conclusion: Using Relativism

In decision making, the value that is used is not the absolute value of something, but its relative value. If you are sitting in a prison cell and for some odd reason the prison is showing a free opera, you would likely attend. If, however, you were free and the alternative was lounging in your backyard instead of languishing in a cell, then it becomes less likely that you would attend (assuming for the sake of this example that your preferences towards opera are similar to that of the majority of the population). And of course, a good economist would talk about this using opportunity costs. In debate, it is never enough to show that the status quo is flawed (an absolute evaluation); one must also show that a change would be better than the status quo (a relative evaluation).

Unfortunately, not everyone fully considers relative values in every circumstance. If given free opera tickets (or baseball tickets or whatever) that cannot be resold, could you imagine that there would be some people who would go anyway simply because they do not wish to "waste" the ticket and end up being bored out of their minds? People who dogmatically disagree with Google's decision in China often cite the absolute evil of such cooperation, and those who expound arguments for intelligent design fail to evaluate how their evidence weighs relative to the counter-evidence.

Relativism is a very broad term, ranging from cultural relativism to moral relativism to epistemological relativism, etc. The "relativism" that I am advocating here is nothing more than rationality: the evaluation of things not based on their absolute value, but how they stack against alternatives. Unfortunately, this is not something that people always do, and as such, it may be the case that in some circumstances, the best way to argue a point is to get the other side to see beyond an absolute value.

This entry was edited on 2006/03/31 at 11:41:40 GMT -0500.

What Democracy Means

Sunday, March 26, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Libertarianism

I was listening to the BBC in the car today, and there was a segment about the release of Abdul Rahman, the Afghan who was charged with conversion away from Islam. What was striking about this particular news segment was the report on the Afghan reaction. This is not a matter of a small number of fundamentalists calling for his death; in fact, the vast majority of the country believe that he should be executed per Sharia law. One man who was interviewed was quite passionate in his defense of the Afghan constitution, which holds this Islamic law as the basic law of the land. Like many Afghans, he was displeased with what is seen as Western meddling in their government, their own affairs, their constitution, and the sovereignty of the will of their majority.

At first, I was conflicted when those sentiments streamed through the radio. After all, I support popular democracy and the rule of law, and it is clear that in this particular case, intervention on his behalf and making an exception for him was in violation of all that. But I also know that the very notion that this man was being charged with what essentially amounted to a thoughtcrime is perverse and fundamentally wrong.

That state of internal conflict lasted for only a few seconds, as this entire controversy brought into perfectly clear relief the problems of majoritarianism, or as Alexis de Tocqueville famously put it, tyranny of the majority. There are a number of historical examples of this, the most famous being the (brainwashed) majority in Germany during the Nazi era. In American history, the South's treatment of blacks and the treatment of Native Americans are all fine examples of policies that were supported by the popular majority that we know today to be wrong. This particular incident is noteworthy because it is one of the few cases of very clear-cut majoritarian abuse outside the confines of history books.

This distrust of the goodness of democracy's majority rule is also one of the reasons why I am a libertarian: the less power the majority can wield, the less damage a misguided majority can inflict. So what exactly is the purpose of a democracy, then? Last month, The Economist ran an op-ed arguing that although the Bush Administration has blundered just about every aspect of Iraq, its promotion of democracy is one thing that it does deserve praise for (even if it is the result of an Administration war justification "flip-flop"). I believe that democracy is not an end; it is only a means to an end. But is it a necessary means? I think so, but I am not entirely sure, and I certainly do not wish to dogmatically answer yes. Thus, to the extent that I think that democracy is a necessary means, I agree with the editors of The Economist. But what exactly are these ends that we are trying to accomplish with democracy? Beyond sweeping generalities such as stability, rule of law, justice, freedom, etc., I do not have a specific answer, nor do I think that anyone does. What is certain, however, is that despite the introduction of democracy, movement towards these ends--whatever they may be--is slow, if not stagnant. Democracy is not perfect and it is not a silver bullet, and our foreign policy's naïveté about this nature of democracy is a cause for concern.

This entry was edited on 2006/03/27 at 09:32:19 GMT -0500.

Protectionism, Round 2

Friday, March 24, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Economics, China

Earlier this year, there was the controversy where misleading claims about security serving to veil a mix of protectionism and xenophobia sunk the transfer of operations of six American ports to a company owned by the Dubai government.

Today, the New York Times and C|Net published an article about the criticisms that the State Department is facing over the purchase of 15,000 computers manufactured by the Chinese company Lenovo.

  1. Lenovo is the new owner of IBM's PC division. Its product lines have not changed (they often even include the IBM logo). If the State Department has used IBM computers in the past, it makes sense from a logistical standpoint to continue to use the same product lines and to use the same products that they are already familiar with.
  2. Security is a red herring. In fact, IBM/Lenovo Thinkpad laptops are one of the very few that feature fingerprint scanners for use in security authentication. Putting this irony aside, the real core of the issue is that security comes from how people use the computers, how well the network is administered, and how secure the software is, in roughly that order. Hardware's role in security is all but non-existent.
  3. Dependency on foreign companies is yet another red herring. The vast majority of the components used by all PCs are not manufactured in the United States. For example, every single CD/DVD computer drive manufacturer has its factories located in Asia. Almost all memory chips are manufactured in Asia. Even for the few component manufacturers headquartered in the US (notably Intel/AMD for microprocessors and nVidia/ATi for graphics processors), most of their manufacturing capacity is overseas. All that Lenovo does is buy components from the commodity market and assemble them into a computer, which is really not that glamorous of a task. Whether your PC comes from Texas-based Dell or China-based Lenovo, pretty much every single part of that computer was manufactured overseas.
  4. As the article points out, even though Lenovo is supplying the machines, IBM is providing the support. But even if IBM was not providing support, because PCs are mostly made from standard commodity components, just about any IT professional can provide support.
  5. Finally, protectionism here will not accomplish much. Since most of the components are purchased from the market, assembly constitutes most of Lenovo's business, and like most other computers sold in the United States, these computers are assembled in the United States using American labor. Okay, but what about money at the top: the corporate profits that are going to a foreign company? This business of acquiring components, assembling them, and selling the finished products is not very profitable, and the margins are very slim; why else was IBM so interested in shrugging off its PC division?

Hopefully, people will be sensible enough to make sure that, unlike the ports deal, this does not become overblown and overhyped.

This entry was edited on 2006/03/24 at 11:53:40 GMT -0500.

Side Effects of Islamic Terrorism

Thursday, March 23, 2006
Keywords: Politics

First it was the IRA. Now it's Spain's Basque separatists who are giving up the use of force to attain political ends now that popularity costs of such acts are much higher in the west. So there's a bit of a silver lining, I suppose.

Checking Power

Monday, March 20, 2006
Keywords: Politics

"It takes a lot of degeneration before a country falls into dictatorship, but we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings." That was the retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor during a recent speech about the balance of power. It is a pity that someone like Alito is now sitting in her seat.

In other news, this Patriot Act Game looks like fun...

Pranking the BBC and Jabbing Falun Gong

Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Keywords: Politics, China

Last Wednesday, I read an article about two prominent Chinese blogs that were apparently shut down, only to re-appear a day later. The article raised the possibility that this was a prank, and today, Slashdot and the Wall Street Journal confirmed that this was indeed a prank that attempted to highlight Western overreaction and misunderstanding of Chinese politics. The WSJ:

Within hours, English-language bloggers and Western news media spread the word that the Chinese government had closed the sites. [...] French free-press group Reporters Without Borders issued a statement condemning the closure of the blogs. [...]

[The blogger] calls the Western press "irresponsible" and says that the hoax was designed "to give foreign media a lesson that Chinese affairs are not always the way you think."

"They are not just supposed to report based on their own perceptions, without understanding the circumstances in China," he says, noting that the BBC's report was exactly what he expected. [...]

"There is a knee-jerk reaction amongst journalists -- including myself -- to stories that seem to show the Chinese cracking down on freedom of expression on the Internet," [the BBC reporter] wrote in an email.

As I have noted before, there is a complexity to the Chinese political landscape that most Westerners fail to grasp, and this was certainly evident in the sort of absolutist black-and-white good-vs-evil overreaction that was seen with the Google-in-China controversy. I applaud this stunt.

One final note: As I skimmed through the comments about this posted on Slashdot, I came across this little gem: "Falun Gong is a rung away from Scientology on the crazy ladder to spiritual enlightenment." That got a laugh out of me. The West seems to keep forgetting that Falun Gong really is an eccentric quasi-religion that advocates things that are often associated with religious irrationality (e.g., refusing medical technology) and that the Chinese government's labeling of Falun Gong as a "cult" is fairly accurate. Of course, that does not mean that suppressing it is right, but many Westerners have used this wrongful suppression to validate Falun Gong's otherwise unpalatable tenets; whenever I see people sitting on the grass on a college campus promoting and practicing Falun Gong, I shake my head. If it were not for the government's suppression, Falun Gong would have remained in its place in the Hall of Crazy Ideas. I am reminded of The Economist's take on Holocaust denial: "Denying the Holocaust should certainly not be outlawed: far better to let those who deny well-documented facts expose themselves to ridicule than pose as martyrs." In hindsight, the Chinese government would have been better off had they followed such advice.

This entry was edited on 2006/03/14 at 13:49:59 GMT -0500.

Looking Forward, not Backwards

Monday, March 13, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Religion

Slashdot reported on a government-endorsed exhibit in the UK titled 1001 Inventions, which spotlights the contributions of "Muslim Heritage" to the world.

History serves two purposes: cultural heritage and lessons. While giving a nod to cultural heritage is important to personal identity, it does not solve problems and it does not help society advance. On the other hand, learning what we did right and what we did wrong does help society advance. I have no doubt that this exhibit was created for the purpose of soothing tensions with Muslim culture, but if such is the goal, then harping on the importance of cultural heritage will not accomplish that goal. Mending the gap and the tensions ultimately requires a fundamental social reform of Muslim society, which is by no means an easy task and which will require confronting the deeply-embedded fundamentalist threads of Islam. This is not the sort of problem that can be solved by putting lipstick on a pig. Fawning over one's past glory is no substitute for forward-looking reform and progress, and what Muslim cultures should be extracting from their past is the lesson that the relatively liberal and enlightened rule that they enjoyed a millennium ago was the source of their past greatness. The recent rise of China came from market and political reforms*, not from obsessing over its past glory or cultural inclusiveness.

In addition, there are a few other peripheral problems with this:

  • If you read some of the "inventions", you will find that a number of them originated in other parts of the world, but they were popularized by Muslims or introduced to the West by them.
  • If anything, this exhibit shows the stagnation of the Muslim world. What good are contributions from antiquity if they have sat still for the past several centuries?

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* Although much more political reform can and should be done, China is nevertheless much more politically open than it was two decades ago.

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.

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.

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.

________________
* 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Great Tom Toles Cartoon

Tuesday, January 31, 2006
Keywords: Politics, Humor

...I especially love that punchline at the bottom. :)

Google and the Great Firewall of China

Friday, January 27, 2006
Keywords: Technology, Politics, China

I have to admit that I was pretty surprised at how very negatively and intensely most of the tech community is reacting to Google's censorship in China. So anyway, here's my take on this whole thing as a Chinese-American...

Background: .com vs. .cn

Google's actions simply involve the establishment of a new google.cn domain. Searches on this new .cn domain are censored. They are not on the .com domain. So anyone who wants to get the uncensored results can just use the .com domain. There is a Chinese language interface for google.com (there's even a Klingon language interface), and that was where I was taken when I tried to use Google search from China last summer: the uncensored google.com domain served from a server in the States using a Chinese language interface (because it detected that I was visiting from a Chinese IP address). Even gmail.com (a service that Google does not intend to officially introduce in China for some time) worked. None of these .com services are affected, as they represent servers not located in China. The downside was that these services were often slow and were sometimes completely inaccessible (considering that I could get fairly decent speeds when I SSH'ed into a private server in the US, I suspect some sort of government foul play). Not that these uncensored results did me much good, since I couldn't access a number of sites (without setting up a SSH tunnel :p), and believe me, there are a LOT of sites (even cnn.com!) that are affected by the vaunted "Great Firewall of China," which certainly lives up to its name.

In the end, nothing has changed. Google has simply added some servers in China and are being forced to comply with the standard set of government restrictions for those .cn servers only (i.e., if google.com is still accessible, then people can still get uncensored results). And before people bash Google too much, let's not forget about all the other companies doing business in China who are being forced to obey these local laws, and unlike the other search providers in China, Google openly discloses the censorship when displaying results.

But it's the principle of the matter!

Many claim that Google does have an option, and that's to not do anything. Not entering the Chinese market will certainly hurt Google's bottom line, but Google's mantra of "do no evil" seems to suggest that doing the right thing should trump the pursuit of treasure. Despite being a free-market economist, I do admire and strongly believe in this "do no evil" mantra, but there is one very important point that I think people are missing: what is the evil that is being done? What would things be like if Google does absolutely nothing? Does it make the Chinese more free? No. Would Google refusal to officially enter the Chinese market inspire the Chinese? Considering that Google's presence in China is so small (gee, I wonder why?) that most Chinese are not aware of it, no. Does Google's entrance into the Chinese market help the Chinese government in any way? Considering that the Chinese government could probably care less if there's one more search provider in China, no. Does this action by Google hurt the Chinese in any way? No (remember, there's always google.com, which is unaffected!). Does this action by Google affect users outside of China in any way, shape, or form? No. Does this action by Google serve as an endorsement and statement of support for the ways of the Chinese government? Only if you want to read it that way; remember, censorship in china is mandatory, not voluntary, and Google's official statement contains no statements that can be construed as support for the policies of the Chinese government. Of course, just because a law exists doesn't mean that it should be honored; it is the duty of people to resist unjust laws. But what can Google do? Google is in no position to offer any sort of challenge to Chinese laws; only the Chinese people are in such a position. So, um, where's the "evil"? Ruining the environment is an evil that is not easily justified by profit. Installing spyware is an evil that is not easily justified by profit. But, I ask again, where is the evil in setting up restricted servers in China? There was a photo on a news website showing supporters of the Free Tibet movement holding signs and protesting Google's move. Despite being sympathetic to Tibetans, I have to wonder if these people ever considered for just one second exactly what kind of harm Google has done to their movement. Anyway, to sum it up, if there is no true "evil" involved, then why shouldn't Google try to firm up its bottom line?

General Thoughts: China

China is slowly becoming more and more democratic. I was struck by how willing people were when it came to criticizing the government. Hop into any random taxi cab, strike up a conversation about government, and out comes a string of harsh words directed at the government. I find it odd that foreign news services doesn't seem to be able to pick up on this. In any case, the liberalization of China is a gradual process fueled by growing affluence and growing influence from the outside world (I'd imagine that the Internet helps). A bold (and foolish) gesture of defiance from Google is not going to do nearly as much good for democracy as the gradual improvement of China's information networks. Every Chinese knows about censorship, and they even joke about what can or can't be said. Censorship isn't working, and it's only a matter of time before the dam breaks. By offering services in China, Google is contributing to the water behind that dam. In the end, censorship in China is not Google's problem and there's nothing that any foreign entity could do anything about; it's ultimately a problem with the Chinese government that only the people of China can do anything about.

General Thoughts: Google

I have always been impressed with Google track record. Resisting the DOJ's ridiculous crusade against pornography (before someone compares this to the China scenario, remember that challenging the Chinese government and challenging the US government are two very different ballgames), being forward and upfront about controversial points that less honorable companies would've tried to hide, supporting open source, setting up strict guidelines for its software installers, supporting open chat standards, supporting open source, etc. are all examples of Google's "do no evil" policy, and my faith in them have yet to be shaken. Besides, I would much rather have the Chinese be introduced to the wonders of the Internet by way of Google instead of by way of Microsoft. ;)

This entry was edited on 2006/02/10 at 01:36:05 GMT -0500.

Potpourri (Random Stuff)

Wednesday, January 25, 2006
Keywords: Economics, Politics, Technology, Potpourri

"Dark Matter" in Economics

As mentioned in the latest issue of The Economist, there is a recently-published economic theory about something called economic "dark matter", which tries to explain why, despite having a huge negative account balance (i.e., our debt to the rest of the world), the US has a net positive flow of capital returns, which suggests a positive account balance. The idea here is that we are underestimating our true foreign account balance, much like how "dark matter" in physics serves as a fudge to account for what appears to be an underestimation of the amount of matter in the universe.

In depth: http://www.rgemonitor.com/blog/setser/113810

Ignoring the Facts

There's an interesting article about how people, once they have made up their minds on an issue, will tune out things that contradict that view, hampering rational judgment and discourse. This comes as no surprise. For example, I've noticed this in the debate about abortion, and even in personal interactions (i.e., how one's perceptions of others' actions are very strongly colored by how one already views other people). It's just interesting to see a scientific confirmation of this.

On that note, I wonder if this is how religions work: there are some who tend to attribute positive things that happen to them to God while glossing over the many neutral or negative events. And to be fair, I've also spent quite a bit of time wondering how much of this "filtering" colors the views of atheists.

Google Reader

There's a shocking lack of good RSS readers for Windows. Sage is nice, except that the interface is a bit awkward (probably because it's a Firefox extension). Thunderbird displays the whole page instead of just the content from the feed (plus, I don't use Thunderbird anyway). Opera's reader was okay, except that I don't use Opera. And all the other readers are either bloated, slow, .NET-based (eewww), and/or clumsy in implementation. I was so tempted to just write my own. But I thought that it might be worthwhile to try some web-based readers, so I first tried Bloglines, but the interface was clumsy at best. And then, I discovered Google Reader, and I'm impressed. A well-written software reader would still be better, but this comes close enough.

Google Sitemaps

Although the Google Sitemaps tool has been around for some months now, I didn't know that it existed until today. I'm going to try it out tonight; it looks like it could be pretty useful.

This entry was edited on 2006/01/25 at 17:36:13 GMT -0500.

Democracy vs. "Electocracy"

Tuesday, January 24, 2006
Keywords: Politics

From the 21 Jan 2006 issue of The Economist...

... even free elections, on their own, do not constitute a democratic system. "As a rule, 'electocracy' should not be confused with democracy," rightly avers Richard Haass, head of policy planning in the State Department in 2001-03 ...

I wonder to what extent Iraq's new system of government is a democracy. How truly democratic is a government built along old sectarian power blocs and loyalties?

On that note, I wonder how much our own government here in the United States is an "electocracy"; even though the article is about the "other" countries in the world, this nevertheless made me wonder about ourselves. We have free elections, but what good are free elections if there is a lack of bona fide debate on key issues, either through chronic apathy or a poorly directed sense of patriotism? To clarify, I think we're still mostly a healthy democracy and we're still a shiny beacon given how bad most of the rest of the world's governments are, but I sometimes get the feeling that this is all slowly eroding away.

This entry was edited on 2006/01/25 at 13:36:10 GMT -0500.

The real issue with Roe vs. Wade

Thursday, January 19, 2006
Keywords: Politics

I remember an incident a few years ago when I was dining with some friends. I announced at the table that I felt that Roe vs. Wade should be overturned. One of my friends had a look of dismay about her (especially since I was a card-carrying member of the ACLU) and immediately started to attack that assertion. The incident was a bit amusing, but it also illustrates a certain lack of understanding about the issue. Unfortunately, I never got a chance to fully defend and explain my position, as we were close to finishing dinner and leaving, and the bustle of the college dining hall did not provide an ideal environment for such a discussion, so I let it slide.

The Alito hearings last week has prompted me to revisit this issue, and I think that I should lay out in detail what I meant when I said that Roe vs. Wade should be overturned and also elaborate on why I feel that overturning Roe vs. Wade would be good for the country and for abortion itself.

A little background

Years ago, when I was still in high school, I was an unquestioning supporter of abortion. I believed very firmly that it is not the government's place to regulate what people do medically. Today, I still hold the view that government should not meddle with medical affairs, and I applaud the recent Supreme Court decision in favor of assisted suicide. So why would I advocate an overturn of Roe vs. Wade? As an unwavering supporter of abortion in high school, I tuned out most of what the pro-life people threw at me. It was easy to dismiss them as irrational and being on the fringe, but that did not quite fit, as there were pro-lifers who were rational people and who I respected. This intrigued me, so I tuned in a little and it quickly became clear why the entire abortion debate is so intractable...

The trump card

For the sake of argument, let us say that an embryo/fetus is alive and is a legal person in the eyes of the law. If so, then, like everyone else living under our system of law, this entity is entitled to the protection of law. The problem with the abortion debate is that, for the most part, the pro-choice side does not seem to grasp what exactly this assertion means. I was discussing the Alito hearings with Carl last week, and he said that people who do not believe in abortion should just avoid having one and let everyone else decide for themselves. This is a perfect illustration of what I mean by the failure of most abortion supporters to grasp the full implications of the assertion made at the start of this paragraph. If abortion is labeled as murder, then it does not make much sense to tell people to decide for themselves if they should have one or not. A serial killer cannot claim that people who believe in killing people should have the right to go about doing so. I have heard many abortion supporters say that pro-lifers should just go about minding their own business, but if a serial killer hits a town, do the people of that town instruct the police to ignore it and to mind their own business? The pro-choice claim that a woman holds the rights to her own body is somewhat more convincing, but it, too, runs into problems. For example, parents hold the rights to their own property and resources. Yet, if they withhold those resources by choice from their child such that it results in the child dying, they would be charged with criminal negligence. In this particular example, you have the conflict of two rights: the right to control your own property and resources and the right of a person to not be deprived of life, and most people would agree that the latter trumps the former. Likewise, I think that many pro-choice advocates would agree that the right to bodily sovereignty trumps is trumped by the right to the life of a born child (assuming there are no health risks at play that could potentially jeopardize life, in which case it becomes an issue of right to life vs. right to life).

Peeling back the onion: the real issue at stake

In reality, while a large number of people are comfortable with saying "mind your own business" when it comes to the issue of abortion, there are very few who would say that if it was a serial killer, even though both are classified as "murder". The discrepancy is that while virtually everyone would agree that a grown person killing another grown person without provocation (i.e., not in self-defense) is murder, many people do not believe that killing an embryo is murder (hence my emphasis on "born child" in my final example), bringing us to the first sentence of my previous paragraph, "For the sake of argument..." The whole discourse about murder is hinged on the assertion that an embryo should be granted legal status as a person. Ultimately, this is a question of when life begins. Nothing else matters. Arguments about privacy, about minding one's own business, about bodily sovereignty, etc. are all irrelevant and empty if it is held that the thing in question is a life and thus a legal person and not just a cluster of cells.

Thus, the real issue that needs to be argued is not whether people should have rights to their own bodies (I believe that they should) or whether people should have a right to privacy (I believe that they should) or whether people should mind their own business and leave others alone (I believe that they should), but instead, the real issue is where do we draw the line between life and non-life, because all other issues are secondary if murder is involved.

Take a look at pro-choice bumper stickers and the signs held at pro-choice rallies. What do they say? For the most part, these signs say things along the lines of "uphold Roe vs. Wade", "hands off my body", "keep abortion legal", etc. Very few actually address the real issue that is at hand. Perhaps it is because pro-choice advocates believe that the issue of when life starts is a personal one and thus they will leave the pro-lifers to believe what they want as long as the pro-lifers leave them alone. But this is not possible because whoever believes that an embryo is a legal person simply cannot leave the issue alone. This also has an effect of creating problems of understanding and dialogue between the two sides. Pro-choice advocates are frustrated with the stubborn inability of the other side to leave the issue alone, and pro-life advocates are frustrated with the other side's inability to grasp the heart of the issue (and the subsequent inability to appreciate the pro-life perspective).

It is thus my belief that the first step to resolving the abortion controversy is for the pro-choice movement to open its eyes, see what this issue is really about, and to engage the debate over this very narrow issue of where the line should be drawn between life and non-life--or to put it another way, how we should define "life" in our society.

Roe vs. Wade and the judicial entanglement

The issue of how we should define "life" in our society is a political and social issue. It is not a judicial one. How is the legal definition of "life" a constitutional issue? When the Supreme Court makes rulings that clarify legal definitions, they do so in accordance to the spirit and intent (or their interpretation thereof) of the law. But on what basis should the Court make such a ruling about what a life is?

If Roe vs. Wade is overturned, then it will free the issue of abortion from the judiciary and send it back into the political realm so that the people can decide on it; the Court is not the ideal place for political battles. Furthermore, it would be the first step in undoing the damage that Roe vs. Wade has done to the judiciary.

Damage to the judiciary? Abortion has become such a hot-button issue that when the Supreme Court is mentioned, many people will think about abortion. Just look at the Alito hearings. Despite the many issues that come up before the Court, from issues of federalism to issues of legislative and executive power, the single issue that received more time and attention at the hearings than any other was abortion. I would imagine that there are many Americans who have made up their minds about Alito based primarily on abortion. The extraordinary amount of time devoted to pressing the abortion issue during the Alito confirmation hearings was frightening. To be sure, other important issues such as executive power were aired as well, but for one single issue (and one that probably will not directly affect the country as a whole in the long run--abortion simply does not carry the same kind of substantive weight like the colorful spectrum of various federalism issues) to receive what seemed to be at least a quarter of the time is remarkable.

The political cost of entanglement

While I do not think that abortion is substantial enough to change the country directly, it has become capable of affecting the country very substantially indirectly through its debate. There are Supreme Court nominees who are put onto the Court partly because of what they feel about abortion (if abortion was not an issue, do you think that Miers would have been nominated?). We now have confirmation hearings that sacrifice time that could have been used for substantial issues for a grilling about abortions (do you think that Alito would have the kind of support that he has if abortion was not such a major issue?). We now have people who would otherwise be Democrats voting Republican simply because of abortion (and thus voting for other policies that they otherwise would not have supported). There are people who support Bush primarily because of abortion (would he have been elected if abortion was never an issue?). The research that I did for my IB essay about the religious right as a political bloc in the United States reveals that galvanizing people around a few emotional issues such as abortion is one of their major sources of power and appeal.

I feel that the entanglement of abortion in our political system has been extremely harmful. It has diverted our attention from important issues and it has also served as a vehicle upon which other unrelated issues may ride (e.g., if someone who opposes war but who feels strongly about abortion voted for Bush). In the judiciary, it has eroded the precious political insulation that protects the judicial branch. There was a time when justices were selected for their qualifications and not for how they would vote one or two issues, and while there are many Supreme Court decisions have contributed to this erosion, abortion has certainly contributed more than its fair share in recent years.

The ideal solution

Overturning Roe vs. Wade would be a step in the right direction. By repudiating that decision and throwing the issue back into the political arena, it will free the Court from the issue (as long as it does not issue a judgment that affirms the exact opposite of Roe vs. Wade).

It is also important to divorce the issue from the standard political process. Ideally, the issue of how "life" should be defined should be presented as some sort of referendum to the population at large, which would free politicians and lawmakers from being associated with the issue. I believe that such decisions made directly by the people would also be more acceptable, as they can no longer blame biased courts or irresponsible lawmakers. This kind of clarity in definition would also settle other issues such as stem cell research.

Finally, I believe that a decision such as this should be made at the State level. There is no reason for the federal government to be involved, and because how people view the definition of life is largely cultural, it is a perfect example of something that should be left to the States.

Personal thoughts

It is my personal belief that life begins when the mind is capable of self-awareness, which would probably put it some time before birth, but past the earlier stages. It is my hope that if (and that is a big if) this debate finally settles down and zeros in on this key issue, that people would draw the line at somewhere around that point. The pro-choice movement has been complacent and relatively dormant for the past few decades thanks to Roe vs. Wade (studies suggest that pro-choice people outnumber pro-life people, so I imagine that their lower profile is due to silence), and an overturn would probably restart the debate in earnest, which is something that I think would be healthy for the country and which I would look forward to. In the end, if a decision is made by the people and not be the Court or by politicians, I would be happy to live with that decision, regardless of what it may be.

PS...

Does anyone else find it ironic that liberals who clamour for animal rights and who push for certain legal rights to be extended to them are also the ones who oppose the extension of legal rights to embryos? I always found that to be a bit funny. ;)

This entry was edited on 2006/01/19 at 21:54:23 GMT -0500.