2014-08-27

Do Vile Views Matter?

This morning, Bryan Caplan favorably quotes H. L. Mencken at EconLog. This is hardly the first time an EconLog author has done so, so we shouldn't be too hard on Caplan in this one case. Here's an example of the late Murray Rothbard writing glowing praise of Mencken. Here is Jeffrey Tucker doing the same. Here is Donald Boudreaux calling Mencken "great." Here is Peter Boettke. Here's Thomas DiLorenzo quoting Mencken to make a case against democracy.

This is a who's-who list of notable libertarians. I could cite additional examples, but I think I've made my point. One seemingly hasn't proven one's libertarian bona fides until one has read and quoted H. L. Mencken.

Meanwhile, Wikipedia.org attributes the following H.L. Mencken quote to a work entitled Men Versus the Man: A Correspondence Between Robert Rives La Monte, Socialist, and H.L. Mencken, Individualist.
I admit freely enough that, by careful breeding, supervision of environment and education, extending over many generations, it might be possible to make an appreciable improvement in the stock of the American negro, for example, but I must maintain that this enterprise would be a ridiculous waste of energy, for there is a high-caste white stock ready at hand, and it is inconceivable that the negro stock, however carefully it might be nurtured, could ever even remotely approach it. The educated negro of today is a failure, not because he meets insuperable difficulties in life, but because he is a negro. He is, in brief, a low-caste man, to the manner born, and he will remain inert and inefficient until fifty generations of him have lived in civilization. And even then, the superior white race will be fifty generations ahead of him.
Have any libertarians out there considered the possibility that no one who is capable of such thoughts ought to be considered a libertarian if the word "libertarian" is to mean anything at all?

In refreshing contrast to the above, this laudable take-down of Stefan Molyneaux at Buzzfeed.com (of all places) uses direct quotes and first-hand accounts to make clear the fact that there are people out there who might be despicable people despite the fact that they nominally share one's policy preferences.

The question is, does it ultimately matter that key libertarian thinkers are ultimately revealed to be racists, sexists, megalomaniacs, etc.? On the one hand, we can take the position that no men are angels, including those who wrote a lot about libertarianism. On the other hand, we can define libertarianism in such a way that it excludes jerks from qualifying.

What I mean is, racism is perhaps the most un-libertarian mode of thinking I can imagine. It's tribalistic, primitive, unscientific, and cruel. It's opportunistic and tyrannical. It is a blight on the human psyche. The way I think about libertarianism is that libertarianism is the opposite of all of that; it's the solution to all of that. So what does it mean to know that many high-profile libertarians are also racist? Does it matter?

On a related note, we are told ad nauseum that Ayn Rand turned her inner circle into a cult. Assuming that claim is true, and applying equivalent reasoning to the the Buzzfeed account of Molyneaux, and observing the cultish fervor that some libertarians apply to Murray Rothbard, we start to run into problems here. Libertarians are traditionally the rebels, the individualists. What does it say about this great collection of individualist free-thinkers that they tend to be so susceptible to cults of personality?

Perhaps this is the dawn of my de-coupling with libertarianism. After all, how comfortable can a person be with an association that puts one in the same camp as a racist like Mencken or a sexist like Molyneaux? I'm tolerant of a wide array of opinions, but at a certain point, don't we have to stop and think about whose side we're on?

Eradicating bigotry would be a huge win for liberty. Writers can serve this goal by finding non-racists and non-sexists to quote when they're making their points. One needn't quote Mencken to make a good point, so why tarnish a good idea by attaching it to a vile racist? If we don't hold ourselves to this standard, no one else will. But more importantly, what is liberty to you if it does not include an unequivocal damnation of bigotry? Hollow rhetoric!


2014-08-22

Why Are Americans So Filthy?

I.
Rebecca Schuman's review of the new German movie Wetlands contains the following quote:
The film is one that even the sexually laid-back Germans watch with half-covered eyes (“Nothing was spared,” said one of my German friends who’s seen it). So I’ll be interested to see how American audiences—stereotypically both prudish and hygiene-obsessed—receive it.
Reading this, I couldn't help but remember a passage from Jack Kerouac's Big Sur:
But Dave Wain that lean rangy red head Welchman with his penchant for going off in Willie to fish in the Rogue River up in Oregon where he knows an abandoned mining camp, or for blattin around the desert roads, for suddenly reappearing in town to get drunk, and a marvelous poet himself, has that certain something that young hip teenagers probably wanta imitate -- For one thing is one of the world's best talkers, and funny too -- As I'll show -- It was he and George Baso who hit on the fantastically simple truth that everybody in America was walking around with a dirty behind, but everybody, because the ancient ritual of washing with water after the toilet had not occurred in all the modern antisepticism -- Says Dave "People in America have all these racks of dry-cleaned clothes like you say on their trips, they spatter Eau de Cologne all over themselves, they wear Ban and Aid or whatever it is under their armpits, they get aghast to see a spot on a shirt or a dress, they probably change underwear and socks maybe even twice a day, they go around all puffed up and insolent thinking themselves the cleanest people on earth and they're walkin around with dirty azzoles -- Isnt that amazing? 
give me a little nip on that tit" he says reaching for my drink so I order two more, I've been engrossed, Dave can order all the drinks he wants anytime, "The President of the United States, the big ministers of state, the great bishops and shmishops and big shots everywhere, down to the lowest factory worker with all his fierce pride, movie stars, executives and great engineers and presidents of law firms and advertising firms with silk shirts and neckties and great expensive traveling cases in which they place these various expensive English imported hair brushes and shaving gear and pomades and perfumes are all walking around with dirty azzoles! All you gotta do is simply wash yourself with soap and water! it hasnt occurred to anybody in America at all! it's one of the funniest things I've ever heard of! dont you think it's marvelous that we're being called filthy unwashed beatniks but we're the only ones walkin around with clean azzoles? " -- The whole azzole shot in fact had spread swiftly and everybody I knew and Dave knew from coast to coast had embarked on this great crusade which I must say is a good one -- In fact in Big Sur I'd instituted a shelf in Monsanto's outhouse where the soap must be kept and everyone had to bring a can of water there on each trip -- Monsanto hadn't heard about it yet, "Do you realize that until we tell poor Lorenzo Monsanto the famous writer that he is walking around with a dirty azzole he will be doing just that? " -- "Let's go tell him right now! " -- "Why of course if we wait another minute
    ... and besides do you know what it does to people to walk around with a dirty azzole? it leaves a great yawning guilt that they cant understand all day, they go to work all cleaned up in the morning and you can smell all that freshly laundered clothes and Eau de Cologne in the commute train yet there's something gnawing at them, something's wrong, they know something's wrong they don't know just what! "
 II.
Now, I was born and raised here in America, so I can sympathize with my shocked American readers who shift a little bit in their (now filthy) seats at the prospect of washing yourself after using the toilet. But one day while we were dating, my wife - who is from Bangladesh - gently suggested that the next time I use the toilet, I ought to wash myself with the little pot she kept in the bathroom specifically for that purpose.

The suggestion was mildly embarrassing, but it only took one experience to learn that using the pot is much more hygienic than not using it. When I visited Bangladesh, I discovered that there they use a separate hose and spigot. Using the hose and spigot is more hygienic than using the pot

Of course, as my income has risen over time and I've had the opportunity to do even more world travelling, I have been exposed to facilities that included a separate bidet. This is the most hygienic option of all.

A couple of months ago, I installed bidets in every bathroom in my household. If this sounds luxurious to you, you're wrong. The total cost was $60 USD. Each individual bidet unit was about twenty dollars and installed on my existing toilet in minutes, using only a wrench. My bathrooms are now the most hygienic bathrooms in the entire neighborhood.

Once you've come over to the clean side on this issue, if you're anything like me, then you start to get a little squeamish. I have to consciously put the matter out of my mind when I shake hands with people. I know they wash their hands, but their hands still get dirtier than they need to. And all it costs to prevent this from happening is $20-$40 and a little swallowed pride.

III.
My question is the same as that of Jack Kerouac's friend, Dave Wain. The United States of America is the largest economy in the world. We have some of the world's highest incomes, not by a little, but by leaps and bounds. Compared specifically to Bangladesh, we Americans live like kings. So, the question is why are bidets not installed in every bathroom in the entire country?

But if cultural biases prevent you from driving over to Home Depot to spend less on a device that will keep you clean than you likely spend on beer in a week, then I will make the question slightly weaker: Why are bidets not standard-equipment in every hospital in America? How about standard-issue for the staff bathrooms only? Why are our medical professionals walking around in a state of compromised hygienics?

2014-08-14

Time Is Money

One quibble with his piece. Madrigal writes, “No policy solution could have intervened in our situation. The variables were few and personal: two parents, two jobs, one sick kid.” But in fact, there’s one policy solution that would help in the U.S., which is paid sick days for everyone. I assume that Madrigal gets paid sick days, but nearly 40 million Americans don’t. And if you don’t have paid sick days, a sick kid and two working parents doesn’t just mean a few days of stress; it means you might have to choose between caring for your kid and keeping your job.
That is from a Slate.com article entitled "When A Kid Is Sick, Why Is It Mom Who Stays Home?"

I agree that paid sick leave is a wonderful fringe benefit. It's a fringe benefit that carries a real and demonstrable economic price tag for the employer. That is to say, your "compensation package" as an employee of any firm consists of (1) your salary, (2) your bonus, (3) your paid time off, (4) your insurance, and (5) your additional perks. Adding up the monetary value of all of these things arrives at a bottom-line value that you are paid for performing services for the company.

Of course, compelling employers to provide (3) to all their employees would likely mean a decrease in salaries, or bonuses, or the frequency of raises, or etc.

There's a flip side to this. Some people - especially young workers and very poor workers - would rather have the cash than the time off. If they choose to work for companies with cash-heavy compensation packages rather than expansive PTO policies, who could blame them? After all, time is money, and the way one likes to get paid is a personal preference.

In short, I don't think the author of the piece, one Jessica Grose, has ever taken the time to fully understand that time is money.

2014-08-07

Suspicious Activity

Overnight I received some 1000 hits from Venezuela.

I welcome my genuine Venezuelan readers, but this activity is suspicious.

Previously, I have had suspicious activity from China, Russia, Israel, and Indonesia.

When I say the activity is "suspicious," what I mean is that my blog gets a big boost in hits, but not to any post in particular. That is, lots of "people" suddenly "reading" the blog, but they do not appear to be interested in any particular post.

I assume these are either adbot/spam algorithms or some sort of hack-type-thing. But who knows?

2014-08-05

My Fantasy Is More Realistic Than Yours

Matt Zwolinski writes:
Not only does the U.S. welfare state spend a lot; it spends it badly. Poor Americans receiving assistance face a bewildering variety of phase-outs and benefit cliffs that combine to create extremely high effective marginal tax rates on their labor. As a result, poor families often find that working more (or having a second adult work) simply doesn’t pay. And still, despite massive expenditures by the welfare state, some 16% of Americans are left living in poverty
Wouldn’t it be better just to scrap the whole system and write the poor a check?
Later, Zwolinksi outlines an imaginary political deal in which the pro-welfare crowd agreed to scrap existing welfare programs in favor of the "Basic Income Guarantee." Then he askes, "Suppose, to indulge in a bit of speculative fancy, that this deal was actually on the political table. Should libertarians take it?" (emphasis mine)

After outlining the major benefits of "B.I.G." over the status quo, Zwolinski takes pains to say that "utopia is not an option."

I completely agree with that last part. My question for Zwolinski is: What makes him think that the "speculative fancy" he is currently indulging in is any more realistic than a "libertarian utopia?"

No, really - what makes him think so? I don't see a giant, let's-completely-redesign-the-welfare-state plan on the horizon any time soon. Why, then, does Zwolinski fantasize about coming up with an awesome compromise to a situation that will never occur while simultaneously critiquing others for demanding an equally imaginary libertarian utopia?

It's silly. An imaginary situation is exactly that. There's no special reason to be won-over to Zwolinski's position, given that it requires a situation that will never exist in reality.

2014-08-04

Don't Put Yourself In Someone Else's Shoes

I.
Consider if you will, the case of Wendy, who recently asked her friend Penny to help her plan a dinner party. Penny declined, explaining that she wanted instead to go to a big concert with another group of friends, without Wendy. Wendy explained  that she really needed Penny's help with the dinner party - she was in a big pickle and needed a helping hand! Penny, however, had a once-off chance to see a favorite musician, and that meant a lot to her. Ultimately, Penny went to the show and Wendy planned her dinner party alone, but Wendy was so upset about it that she uninvited Penny to the party itself. Penny didn't understand why Wendy was so upset; Wendy didn't understand why Penny didn't understand. It was a big mess.

Complex ethical systems might help us arrive at the best decisions in our lives, but they seldom offer deep insight into the every-day disputes we're most likely to face. Knowing that Penny is a consequentialist utilitarian offers no deeper insight into whether Penny made a good utilitarian decision or a selfish and unhelpful one.

Penny's actions may be justified or unjustified. Wendy's anger may be justified or unjustified. The question is, how do we know? How could Wendy and Penny sort it out?

II.
For as long as we've been introspecting, human beings in every known culture have chosen to differentiate between "the heart" and "the mind." Today, we tend to view the dichotomy as being one between the "emotional centers in the brain" and the "regions of the brain associated with abstract reasoning." Our language is getting more precise, but the situation remains the same.

Strong proponents of logic and reason, among which I count myself, often like to argue that coming to the correct conclusions means preventing one's emotions from getting the best of one. They suggest that we try hard to follow our most stoic logical heuristics to prevent momentary passions from interrupting our good sense. One can hardly find fault with their suggestions.

Still, even at our most logical it's impossible to ignore our emotions. You don't decorate your house, for example, based on which furnishings have the highest probability of appealing to people in general. Instead, you only look at things that have the highest probability of appealing to you, personally. From that array, you select those furnishings which you like best. Logic has precious little to do with it.

While one might argue that matters of taste fall outside the purview of logic and reason, I would defy anyone to be able to draw a line between matters of taste and "other matters" reliably and predictably. Our ideas about fairness are matters of taste, as are our ideas about moral responsibility. Our obligations to other people - even those closest to us - are subjective value judgments. We can use logic to determine what we feel is the best course of action in light of value preferences, but we must always remember that our starting point is a subjective one.

In short, even the most logical approach to decision-making is couched on a set of assumptions that are based on personal, emotional values. The danger here is that if one is especially dedicated to reasoning, then one will be inclined to gloss-over the fact that the emotional inputs are driving the whole decision-making process.

This is easy to see when considering matters of pure taste. Suppose there were an argument between Tom and Faye about which movie to see that night. Tom prefers comedies and Faye prefers action films. Tom might reason that all of Faye's suggestions are worse movies than his suggestions based on an analysis of how many good jokes Faye's suggestions have in them. He'd be correct, assuming Faye places as high a (subjective) value on good jokes in movies as Tom himself does; unfortunately for Tom, Faye has other criteria on which she forms judgments about movies.

"Duh, Ryan," you might be thinking, "Movie taste is subjective." I agree.

But so are arguments between friends.

III.
Here's what definitely will not help sort things out between Penny and Wendy: Putting themselves in the other's shoes.

Why not? Because the only thing that accomplishes is to reiterate that both Penny and Wendy made the right decision. Penny, based on Penny's values, decided that going to the concert was the best choice. Wendy, based on Wendy's values, thought the Penny should have helped her plan the party. There is no reason to believe that either would feel differently in the other's shoes. In fact, such an exercise might actually make things worse.


Musician Ian Thornley once wrote, "I've never been played as the villain in the stories I've told." This is a nice, poetic way of saying that we have a tendency to excuse our own actions through rationalization. I'm not a bad person, you might say, I was completely justified in making the decision I made.

The risk here is that Penny, in putting herself in Wendy's shoes, will still come to the same conclusion: "If I were Wendy, I'd be more understanding about the concert!" And Wendy could certainly do the same: "If I had a friend in need like me, I'd gladly miss a concert to give her a helping hand!"

What good does that do?

IV.
Instead, Wendy and Penny need to assess their own behavior, based on the other's value system. Only then will either stand a chance of seeing where the other is coming from. Penny will start to understand how important the dinner party was to Wendy, and will begin to understand the pain Wendy felt when Penny went to a concert instead of helping out. Wendy will start to understand how important the concert was to Penny, and will begin to understand the surprise Penny experienced when Wendy reacted poorly over Penny's decision.

Even this has no guarantee of solving the argument, but at least it's a start. It's a start that many arguments, unfortunately, never reach.

The next step is even more difficult: Wendy and Penny must agree to negotiate with each other in good faith. Penny needs to know exactly what Wendy's expectations are. Wendy needs to know exactly when Penny is willing to help plan dinner parties.

In the end, it may be that Penny is simply never willing to help Wendy plan dinner parties. Penny is entitled to set that boundary, and Wendy must respect it; but Wendy, too, is entitled to decide whether Penny's unwillingness to help means that Wendy no longer feels close enough to her to invite her to parties.

Realistically, when the true parameters are known, Penny has a strong incentive to do more helping, and Wendy has a strong incentive to be more forgiving. It's likely that, through negotiation, they could find the point that makes the most sense. Since nobody can turn back time, what likely happens next is that Penny expresses deep and heartfelt empathy toward Wendy's feelings about the party, and probably apologizes for not being there when she was needed. Wendy, for her part, will ideally learn that her plans and the feelings attached to them are not necessarily foremost in the minds of her friends, and that she should forgive friends who occasionally fail to realize the significance of the requests she makes.

In the future, it's likely that Penny will be more attentive to Wendy's feelings when Wendy makes a special request of Penny; and it's likely that Wendy will make more effort to make her feelings clear, and to understand how those feelings relate to Penny's needs and desires.

But neither Wendy nor Penny will ever reach that point by merely placing themselves in the other's shoes, by merely swapping circumstances. Resolving this kind of conflict requires more than swapping footwear. One has to swap values.

2014-07-31

Suppose Everything You Know Is False

In a series of posts (mainly here and here) at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Jason Brennan makes an ambiguous case about Ayn Rand. His point seems to be either that Rand (despite her own claims) was not an ethical egoist, or that ethical egoism itself is an invalid ethical system. Both of those blog posts, and the less-closely-related Brennan posts leading up to them, are worth reading and understanding, so I encourage you to do so.

Regarding Brennan's claim that Ayn Rand was not truly an ethical egoist, he almost has me convinced. I do not have much objection to his reasoning. Many commentators at BHL also seem to share his view that Rand is a type of virtue ethicist. That seems consistent with my understanding of her philosophy, and explains a lot of the disparity between how I interpret Objectivism and how a lot of self-described Objectivists (and critics) seem to interpret it. That is to say, if Brennan is correct about Objectivist "egoism," then he has done a great service to Objectivism by helping to clarify their ethics.

Regarding Brennan's claim that ethical egoism is wrong because it results in unethical conclusions, I remain unconvinced. Here I shall explain why.

First, I would like to clarify that I am not really an ethical egoist. I am, perhaps, an "ethical-egoist-flavored virtue ethicisit," as Rand perhaps was. I say this only to point out that I don't really feel that I have any "skin in the game" here, other than that I find the game interesting to think about.

Second, I should qualify this discussion by pointing out that Brennan accepts the concept of "moral truth," whereas I myself do not. What this means is that, for Brennan, the statement "murder is morally wrong" is true in the same sense that "force equals mass times acceleration" is true. It is a fact of the known universe. To me, the statement "murder is morally wrong" is a conclusion based on the output of a person's ethical deliberation. It is a belief based on a person's moral code, not a "fact."

While Jason Brennan references a zap-the-homeless-people scenario created by Michael Huemer, he lays out a more concise scenario as follows:
Suppose my younger son is hurt. A genie appears and gives me two options. 1. He fixes my son’s injury. 2. He casts a spell instantly killing my son, erasing him from everyone’s memory, erasing all traces of him, and thus allowing us to go on as if he never existed at all. If I were just trying to avoid the bad feelings, I’d be indifferent between these two options. But I’m not–I’d pick option 1 over option 2, hands down. This means that I’m concerned not merely to avoid bad feelings, but to help for his sake. Again, it means I’m genuinely altruistic.
Notice that if I derive any pleasure at all from my relationship to my sons, then 1 will always be preferable to 2, and that preference will be fully consistent with ethical egoism. Thus, commentator "TracyW" adds an additional caveat:
So, specify that the genie will, in option 2, that the genie will make Jason's life in option 2 so much better that overall, Jason's own well-being will be about the same with the two options.
Taken altogether, this scenario is perfectly analogous to Huemer's. The point is to deny the egoist any ability to allow his egoism to reach the ethical position, i.e. Brennan's "moral truth." Paralyzing it in this way, Brennan and Huemer are then able to say, "Look, see? Egoism doesn't work."

It should be obvious, though, that every ethical system fails any test that was specially crafted to disqualify it. For example, I could disprove utilitarianism by crafting a scenario in which every outcome is specified to result in exactly the same net utility. I could disprove deontology by crafting a scenario in which the force that establishes the ethical rules is assumed not to exist. And so on, and so forth.

There is nothing interesting about any of these scenarios. They are paradoxes, or contradictions. Suppose everything you know is false. Then, what is true? No system of ethics can answer questions in which the ethics themselves are assumed to be impotent.

So Brennan's criticism falls flat to me. I can only imagine what actual egoists think about it. 

2014-07-29

The Parable Of Buried Treasure

Although I no longer remember how it happened, we became aware of buried treasure in our backyard. Tens of millions of dollars in antique Spanish gold doubloons lie waiting for us beneath the surface of the grass. The job was too difficult for any one of us to do it ourselves; it required the coordinated effort of the four of us dig down into the earth and uncover our buried treasure. We agreed to split it equally. We regaled ourselves with tales of all the things we would do with our share of the treasure, including our buying many extravagant gifts for one another.

As a group, we all went out the back door, into the yard, and set about to dig up the buried treasure. Two of us found a spade each, and started digging. The third one insisted on helping, while mysteriously suggesting that we use feathers to brush the dirt away, rather than actually dig with spades. While I never saw the fourth one dig, I found out later that she would only dig when I wasn't looking, and only with her hands.

Despite the others' criticism, I proved to be handy with a shovel. My portion of the job was getting done slowly, but surely.

I was genuinely awed by the second one's capacity to dig, and the good attitude that accompanied the digging.

At a certain point, the second one said to the third, "We will never get to the treasure if you insist on using that feather. There is another spade right over there against the wall. Why don't you go pick it up and help us dig?" I concurred.

But the third one became very upset, for not only were we digging in what the third one felt was an inappropriate way, we were now also promoting our own chosen way of digging over and above other methods.

The fourth one, expecting an apology, looked to me and suggested that it was rather mean-spirited to insist that only spades be used for digging. I didn't understand, and I felt no apology was necessary. I tried to argue my case, but it proved fruitless. The fourth one took it as a personal affront. I went back to my spade.

It was very slow-going, but even I have to admit that with the four of us working together the only way we knew how, we were still making progress. Working regularly at the job, it was likely we'd unearth the doubloons in a few years, and what's a few years' work in the face of such a sweet payout?

One day, I looked up from my digging and noticed that the third one has moved to an entirely different location of the back yard, feather in hand. For all I know, we had the location of the treasure wrong, so I went over and asked.

The third one said, "This is where I have decided to dig, with my feather. You're welcome to join me, but you have to use a feather." Again I asked about the treasure, and this time I was told, "What matters is the feather. If I dig in the right place with the proper implement - a feather - then I am sure the rest of you will eventually catch on."

I spent a week pushing blades of grass around with the third one. We had many nice, long chats about our shared values and mutual interests. But at the end of the week, we were no closer to our doubloons, and I had to admit that I had been making better progress with my spade. I knew I'd never unearth that treasure without the third one's help, even if it meant that the help came in the form of a feather. So I tried to be as nice as possible, and every so often the third one would come join us at the original digging site, and we'd make a little progress.

As time went on, I really started to improve at my digging. I developed a technique involving a slight twist of the wrist, so that I could loosen the soil and pull it up all in one movement. I showed everyone how to do this. The second one said only that it was a good idea and that I should stick to it. The third one burst forth with raucous laughter and condescendingly told me, "Let's just say that if someone is going to dig with a spade, that might be a good way to do it." In response to my puzzled look, the third one added, "Look, I'm going to use my feather!" and then moved over to the other site for the rest of the day. The fourth one said that I shouldn't think I'm any better than anyone else just because I found a technique that works for me.

It went on like that for quite some time. Eventually the third one just didn't come around anymore, preferring the other site, and the feather, of course. Friends and neighbors came around, picked up feathers and sat at that other site, pushing blades of grass around as I had once done. The third one looked happy, but that was the end of the third one's contribution to our excavation for buried treasure.

The fourth one always remained within eyesight, fretting over something. When we tried to talk, the fourth one would shed a little tear and cry, "No!" We found we had better success keeping an upbeat attitude through the fourth one's mood swings.

Progress had slowed to the point that we knew we would never unearth those doubloons. But, at that point, it had become a matter of principle. So long as we continued digging, we were putting forth a combined effort toward a worthwhile goal, and that itself was noble. We, the remaining three of us, still told each other happy stories about how we intended to help each other. We'd never be rich, but at least we'd have fun.

Every day, however, the fourth one stood exactly one inch further away from the hole we were digging. I hardly noticed it at first, but eventually it was a distance that couldn't be ignored. Questioning the fourth one resulted in the usual tears and bad blood, so eventually we gave up on that, too. The last time I remember, the fourth one was standing near the house, one foot in the door. Within another week or two, the fourth one was not in eyesight at all. That was when I finally took notice of the extent of the fourth one's contribution to the dig. It wasn't as large as mine, but it was substantial, and we missed it when it was gone.

The second one and I had developed a strong rapport in the meantime. We traded jokes and tips and kept each other digging with a reasonably good attitude. Occasionally we'd lament the fact that we missed the other two. But between the two of us, we had enough to keep ourselves occupied. I think we were both there for entirely different reasons, but even so, we seemed to agree that digging was a worthwhile goal. We'd never get there, but we'd survive on principle.

The day the second one broke a spade, I was off-site, working at my day job. I returned to find that the second one had stopped digging. The three of them were playing cards instead, and I joined them for a game. It was a lot of fun.

I returned to digging the next day, this time alone. Again, the day after that I dug alone; and then again the next day. I ran into the second one during lunch and suggested we use one of the other spades and continue digging, but the second one seemed unsure.

Some days later, the second one came out at midday to help dig: Me, with my spade, and the second one with a feather. I was stunned. I pointed to the shovel right over there, but the second one just said, "I thought I'd use this today." The second one now only came out to help once every so often, always with a feather.

A confrontation was inevitable. We were the only ones left. Why wouldn't the second one use a spade to help? The argument ended badly. I only ever saw the second one at a third site after that, "digging" with a feather. I was not involved.

It was sunny and hot outside the day I realized that none of them were ever coming back. Briefly, I reminisced about the fond stories I remember our telling each other about the nice things we would do for each other when we finally had our hands on those doubloons. I realized that we'd all have our doubloons if we had just pulled together with the spades and committed to a week of digging.

I smiled wistfully and set my spade down. I was very tired.

2014-07-24

Grab The Popcorn

Over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, one Andrew Cohen has just proposed mandatory licensing for becoming a parent. There is a blossoming smack-down going on in the comments section that currently well worth reading, and sure to become more so as the day progresses.

Libertarian-economics-blog-comments-section mainstay Morgan Warstler currently has the comment of the hour.

Do pull up a seat and get comfortable.

2014-07-22

Home, Part III

I mentioned last week that a move to Texas makes perfect financial sense. This is true. You would be hard-pressed to find a location within the United States that has as many economic opportunities coupled with such a low cost of living. Texas has much to offer to anyone seeking to get the most for her cost-of-living dollar.

But I also mentioned last week that wealth is of little value if it leaves a hole in your heart, and it would be a poor bargain indeed to make a move to strike it rich, only to discover that you've traded every other good thing in life to get it.

So, how does Texas fair at feeding the soul?

Let me begin with a caveat. There will always be an escape-hatch available to anyone hell-bent on rejecting the pleasantness of something. No matter where you live or what you like, someone could always come along with a trump card of sorts. "What, you live more than five blocks away from your local barber? I could never live in such a place!" "Isn't there one, single Azerbaijani restaurant of even medium quality in your entire home town!? Preposterous! I just couldn't live there!" "It takes you more than twenty minutes to get to the nearest petting zoo? P'shah! Not for me, thanks!"

For the most part, I believe this comes from a good place. When people say these things, they're not so much disparaging other people's homes as they are expressing their enthusiasm for their own home town in a roundabout way. Someone might choose not to live in Texas because it lacks the grandiose, purple mountains that form the backdrop of the inter-mountain west. Another might opt for the urban splendor of Manhattan over the suburban landscapes of Houston.

These are fair choices to make, based on personal preference. My purpose in writing these blog posts is not to claim superiority, but to hopefully articulate the finer features of life in Texas, in hopes of helping the reader come to a better understanding of his own preferred locale.

All that is to say, Texas does not offer everything, and if you're secretly baiting your breath in hopes that your primary criterion will make a cameo appearance in this post despite your own best knowledge, I would consider revising my expectations if I were you.

But what does Texas offer in the way of local pleasantries?

People tend to either prefer rich, walkable urban landscapes or the great and unpopulated outdoors, and the good news is that Texas has you covered, no matter which preference more closely matches your own.

Texas is home to four of the largest and most vibrant metropolitan areas on North America, each with its own unique charm. All of the amenities you might want from urban life - designer shopping, fine dining, the arts, parks, and so forth - is available in spades. As an added bonus, the warm weather here makes those walkable urban landscapes walkable all year long. It's never too cold to hit the pavement and walk to the nearest coffee shop, if you live downtown. And while some may argue that the summertime heat is a bit too intense for walking, it is certainly no more so than the wintertime cold is in other nice urban locations. In short, if it's urbania you want, urbania you will find in Texas.

And yet, with the great expanses of wilderness, natural wonders, preserved nature, and boat-able reservoirs, even the most avid outdoorsman may find his bliss in Texas. From beaches, to deserts, to prairies, to plains, to the incomparable Texas Hill Country, there is a near-limitless array of natural beauty of which to partake in this state. While most lakes in Texas are man-made reservoirs, they offer ample opportunity for water sports and recreation. There are plenty of natural rivers, and extensive beaches along the Gulf coast. Camping is to be had virtually everywhere. There are plenty of trails on which to get your hiking and biking fixes. And of course, Texas is home to a long list of professional sports teams, NASCAR tracks, and so forth.

So whatever form of entertainment you prefer, Texas has it. The most discriminating judge, of course, may counter that Texas shopping pales in comparison to 5th Avenue, our outdoors don't offer as much as what you'd find in Boulder, CO, or that our nightlife can't compete with that of Las Vegas. That may be true, but even if so, Texas offers enough of each kind of entertainment to ensure that you won't miss out anything in particular, unless your interest is in experiencing the best-in-class.

However, let it never be said that Texas doesn't offer its own set of best-in-class cultural amenities. With world-famous barbecue and steak, and vast stretches of restaurants offering the finest in Southern cuisine, Texas does Texas-style cuisine best. We even have our own unique spin on southwest cooking, called "Tex-Mex," and while it truly isn't authentic Mexican food, it belongs in its own category. If you're into cars, you'll find any kind of car imaginable here. I personally have seen vehicles on the road from Maserati, Tesla, Astin-Martin, Rolls-Royce, and so on. If you have a dream car, you'll find it in Texas. The spacious Texas-style mansions that line the landscape here are also in a class of their own, offering uniquely Texan architecture, and commonly containing swimming pools, ranch space, outdoor grills, and so on. If building a large and well-equipped home is for you, I'd argue that there's no better place to build it than Texas.

Finally, the arts scene in the state is both vibrant and unique. Texas country and Texas blues are to be considered sub-genres of country and blues, respectively, and a thriving "Red Dirt" music scene - which combines the best of rock, blues, and country - has become the signature local sound. Visual artists inspired by not only the American Old West and Mexican Norteno aesthetics, but also the flavor of the local indigenous people, have made their impact on all aspects of artistic life here.

Now, I'm not going to argue that Texas culture is bound to appeal to everyone, but I will say that Texas has a strong and thriving cultural landscape. For those of us who like to live in a place with its own vibe, Texas provides much to feed the spirit.

2014-07-15

Home, Part II

It's no secret that one of the main things driving us to a US move was the lower overall tax rate. In Canada, we were losing a lot of money to the government. Without commenting on the relative merits of an expansive array of social services, it is a very expensive way for a middle class family to live. The incentive is strong for a lower-income family to stay in an area that pairs higher taxes with expansive social services, because such a family contributes little money to the operation of these services while drawing heavily upon them. That is, after all, the whole point of social welfare programs.

For a middle-income family like mine, though, the incentive is weaker to the point of being a disincentive. We don't have the kind of capital-driven income that earns a lower tax rate than so-called "ordinary income" under the tax code, so we are the meat-and-potatoes of the tax revenue base. Meanwhile, our relative wealth disqualifies us as recipients of welfare - not that we're looking to get it, anyway. Taking the politics out of the decision, and looking at it logically, yields a simple and obvious conclusion. We draw $0 in social welfare and pay $X; we will always be financially better-off in a situation in which we draw $0 in social welfare and pay $Y, whenever Y < X.

Hence, we utlimately decided to seek Y over X. US federal taxes are lower than Canadian taxes (for us, anyway), and Texas famously has no state income tax. Even sales taxes are much lower here, coming in at about half of what we were paying in Ontario. Even property taxes - which are notoriously high in Texas, compared to other US states - are about the same as what we would have had to pay in Ottawa. Add it all up, and it represents a huge financial win for our family.

It's true that money can't buy you happineess, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone in the known universe who would suggest that a person will be significantly happier with significantly less money. So long as no other key elements of one's lifestyle changes as a result of an increase in wealth or income, more money does indeed translate into more happiness in the form of better luxuries, a more comfortable emergency fund, higher quality vacations, a few extra minutes of air conditioning, a nice rose bush in the front yard, or whatever else you might want to purchase in order to make yourself happier.

Long story short, the political regime in Texas is more affordable for my family than Ottawa, Ontario was. There's a good chance that it's more affordable than where you live, too. It's easy to reject this argument on political grounds, but if you do, you simply have to be aware of the fact that, in your life, paying high taxes for expansive social services that you never use is a form of consumption spending. You pay those taxes to make yourself feel good about your political ideology. That is entirely fair.

But me? I would rather spend that money on my family; that's what makes me feel good. If you're the kind of person who would rather buy your wife jewelry than pay a high tax rate, then Texas has a lot to offer you.

Of course, it doesn't stop there. Housing in Texas is about half of what it was in Ontario, where a semi-detached townhome can easily reach into the $300,000 territory. Here, not only do we pay less for housing, but we get more. Texas has more empty space than any other state in the lower-48, the economy is growing, and Texas developers have gotten extremely good at putting up really nice, comfortable subdivisions with "resort-style amenities" and large, cosmetically beautiful structures. The haters try to dissuade you from this sort of thing by calling these houses "McMansions," as though a large, beautiful house built in a subdivision tailored to suit the needs of a growing suburban population is somehow worse than a smaller, older, and more expensive home in, say, Boston. Yes, it is possible to come up with disparaging words that make Texas housing seem like less of what it is, but at the end of the day, houses here are big, nice, and affordable. Once you get over any underlying snobbery, it's easy to see why people like the housing situation so much here.

So, lower taxes and nicer, more affordable housing. Incomes must be low in Texas, right?

Wrong. Between the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex and the greater Houston area, Texas is home to some of the largest corporations in the entire world. They're not just energy and cattle-driving companies, either. We have Pepsico, Radio Shack, Intuit, Game Stop, American Airlines, and the list goes on and on. All major accounting and consulting firms have a large presence here. The population is well-educated, tech-savvy, and ambitious. So, not only are there many different kinds of employment opportunities here, the jobs pay very well, relative to the low tax rates and affordable housing. When I first moved here, my salary was identical to what it was in Ontario. Now, it's higher.

To top it all off, we have excellent shopping here, and we're not paying exhorbitant import prices. Food, gas, clothing, and consumer goods are probably not the lowest in the country. I'd put it at about average -much, much lower than urban centers like Boston, LA, and New York City, but not so low as Evanston, Wyoming.

If you really have it out for Texas, it would be easy to wave away the money factor. You could say that moving somewhere just for the sake of money is crass, crude, greedy, and low. You could say, "Sure, you've got your money, but what about quality of life?" This is an entirely fair criticism to make in the abstract. If you decided to move some place solely because it offered you the most financial incentives, you very well might go on to discover that the location doesn't meet any of your other needs. It might feed your belly, but it might not feed your soul. Human life is, after all, about more than materialism.

Yes, if Texas offered high incomes and low expenses in exchange for a very low quality of life, then I would totally agree that it isn't an attractive place to move. But, as I will describe in subsequent posts, the quality of life in Texas is actually pretty good, even by your standards (yes, you).

2014-07-14

Home, Part I

In early 2010, I started weighing the pros and cons of moving back to the United States from Canada. From my perspective, there were almost exclusively pros. The major cons involved the logistical and financial challenges associated with any large move. But, where there's a will, there's a way, and I'm not one to be daunted by these kinds of hurdles. It's not that they're not serious concerns, it's that they can almost always be overcome, if you're dedicated enough to the matter at hand.

It took a couple of years for it to finally happen, but by the summer of 2012, I was living in Texas.

When my friends and colleagues from Ottawa first discovered that I intended to move to Texas, they were incredulous. To them, Texas is more than just cowboy country, it's a symbol of everything uncouth and distasteful about the United States. They see it as some sort of horrible political antithesis to the Canadian way of life.

My family, Stateside, did not respond much more favorably. They teased me about buying a cowboy hat and a pair of boots, about getting a big pickup truck and a gun rack, and developing the iconic accent. Where they once finished off every sentence with the phrase "...eh? Ehhh?" (because I lived in Canada), they took to doing the same sort of thing with the word "y'all." I can take a ribbing, but there was something more serious beneath the surface of it: that same wide-eyed incredulity that my Canadian friends had experienced. Each, in their own way, were frantically trying to understand why a cosmopolitan math-and-data geek with an extreme proclivity toward openness-to-experience and a beautiful wife exactly like myself would ever want to move to the dusty heart of Red State America.

All that is to say, nobody really got it.

At the time, I told them about the warm weather. I told them about my previous trips to Texas, which had been full of good times and good music. In my naivete, I went into my move from the perspective that Texas was a warm place filled with nice, albeit predominantly conservative, people. What's not to like?

So, we moved here two years ago, and we moved here to stay. We packed all of our things in a U-haul trailer that was probably a couple of sizes too large for our small-sized SUV, and drove the distance from Ottawa, Ontario, to New York State, over to Ohio, due south to Arkansas, and finally into Texas.

The world we discovered here exceeded some of our expectations, and completley up-ended others. When I rave about how happy I am here, my friends and family just assume I've sort of "drunk the Kool-Aid," and become another insufferable Texas braggart. But that's not why I appreciate my life here so much. Instead, there are a number of key attributes here that have made my life go from pretty good to pretty-freakin'-awesome, and these are attributes that I feel would appeal to anyone, not just me.

In a series of posts over the next little while, I'd like to discuss the various elements of life in Texas, good, bad, and indifferent. I'd like to paint a picture of why life feels good to me here, and why I think Texas has the bad reputation among non-Texans it has.

In the process, I hope to establish a bit of a philosophy around how to choose a good locale to make yourself happy in the long run. No place on Earth really "has it all," but if you choose to live in a place that has the best of what you want - and as little of what you don't want - as possible, then you can make yourself as satisfied in your own home as I am in mine.

Stay tuned!

2014-07-10

Book Review: Last Train To Istanbul

I recently purchased a shiny new Samsung Galaxy 4 tablet. It's fun for many reasons, but one of the main ones is the Amazon Kindle application that came with it, which effectively turns the tablet into an e-reader. That alone is good, but what's even better is that the Kindle application includes monthly "Samsung Kindle Deals," which are a selection of free books Amazon offers to Samsung tablet users, a different selection each month.

Predictably, the free books don't seem to have a lot of appeal to me, but then again, I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. Last month, I chose a book called Last Train to Istanbul by Turkish author Ayse Kulin.

I say, "Turkish author Ayse Kulin" because every online review and reference to the book I have ever seen puts it that way. Ayse Kulin isn't an author. She's a Turkish author. Rest assured this raised a few red flags for me as I downloaded the book, because I tend to be skeptical of niche authors. Either one is a good writer, or one is not. Saying, "good Turkish writer," translates in Ryan-parlance to "she's a good writer... for a Turk."

I also hesitated over the subject matter: the Nazi occupation of France during World War II. I am admittedly a bit of a World War II buff (just a little bit), but stories about the Holocaust are so pervasive that their over-supply has stunted their emotional power. There are simply too many of them for any one such story to resonate with the same kind of power that The Diary of Anne Frank once did.

Finally, I was reticent to read the book because the synopsis made it sound like another in a long line of ethnically themed young-woman-loves-despite-cultural-pressures novels. I have two problems with these: (1) they're maybe the only kind of story more pervasive than Holocaust stories, and (2) they seem to be the very reason that phrases like "Turkish author" and "Bengali author" exist in the first place.

As you can see, even before I had opened the book, I was skeptical. It was unlikely that I would end up enjoying this book. As expected, I did dislike it.

Unexpectedly, however, I disliked it for entirely different reasons than I anticipated. To my delight, this was not merely a Turkish novel; it was not merely a Holocaust novel; it was not merely an ethnic romance novel. It contained partial elements of all of these, but thankfully steered clear of all the stereotypes. On that level, the novel delivered.

The plot was surprisingly interesting. I didn't know a lot about Turkey's role in World War II, so it was interesting to read about some of the historical events that tend not to make the American history books. The plot synopses available online tend not to adequately describe what the book is actually about. What it's really about is a Turkish family trying to bring their estranged expatriate daughter back to Turkey before the German occupation kills them all. That's a genuinely good, and remarkably refreshing plot.

Unfortunately, the book is written on a fifth-grade reading level. The language is simple to the point of distraction, which is a fault I would typically try to overlook in a novel that has had to undergo translation into English. But the poorly constructed narrative of the story leads me to believe that the fault is not in the translation, but in the original. New characters are introduced moments before they become relevant to the plot. Back-stories of main characters are given not when we meet the character, nor even as we come to absorb the character, but simply a couple of paragraphs before their back-stories come into play in main plot. To do this once over the course of the novel is excusable, but to do it repeatedly is little more than poor writing.

The effect of this is to present a story in a rather odd way. The story one feels like one is reading at the beginning of the book is completely different from the story one feels like one is reading at the end, and not in a good way.

All said, I give Ayse Kulin full marks for coming up with a fascinating story that really could have been literary. I hope that, over time, she hones her writing skills. For me, Last Train to Istanbul simply fell flat.

2014-07-01

Hobby Lobby and Coase Theorem

In light of all this Hobby Lobby stuff people have been talking about, I think it’s worthwhile to remind ourselves of the Coase Theorem. Here’s an explanatory link from About.com: (http://economics.about.com/od/externalities/a/The-Coase-Theorem.htm).

A good way to think about this is to, as The Last Psychiatrist might say, “add up all the wants.” If the (monetary) value of Hobby Lobby’s paying for birth control is greater than not paying, the efficient solution would be for consumers to purchase their own supplemental birth control or pay for it with cash. If the value of Hobby Lobby’s paying for birth control is less than not paying, Hobby Lobby will pay.

The SCOTUS may have developed a legal rationale for their decision, but all we really needed to know in the very beginning is how much money things would cost in all scenarios.

Birth control is extremely inexpensive, relative to other types of covered health care expenses. Were an insurance company charged to pay this expense, the result would be high prices and deadweight loss. My insurance company, for example, charges a flat $20 fee for every prescription refill, regardless of its actual cost. So while that is a great deal for insulin, it is a terrible deal for birth control.

In short, many women whose insurance covers birth control are probably paying more in copayments + insurance premiums than they would pay if they simply bought birth control with cash. Note that under no circumstances would such an arrangement be good for poor women.

This is what we mean by an inefficient solution. We all pay the least amount of money for birth control when we cut out the middle men and foot the bill ourselves. Whatever the Supreme Court’s legal reasoning, they could by no means justify a decision that would subject consumers to higher average costs than they would be paying.

Finally, it would be equally as wasteful if the US government were to pay the cost of birth control instead of either consumers or Hobby Lobby. This is not because “government is bad,” but simply because middle men don’t reduce costs, period.