Ayn Rand (The Horror! The Horror!)

Over at Cafe Hayek, Donald Boudreaux cites an excerpt of something Christopher Hitchens wrote as the "Quotation of the Day" (a daily Cafe Hayek feature). The quote is an alternative send-up of the Golden Rule, which Boudreaux compares to similar ideas as expressed in the Bible and in the works of Ayn Rand:
...It is a principle of peace that, when expressed in the Bible (“And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” – Luke 6:31) is justly celebrated.  But when the very same idea is expressed by Ayn Rand it is somehow thought to be uncivilized and absurd.

I am not a Randian or an Objectivist.  But my interpretation of Rand’s core principle has always been “Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you” (Hitchens 2001: 140)....
Clearly, I agree with Boudreaux on this. Furthermore, it makes me a little sad that people are forced into caveats in order to acknowledge the truth and wisdom in Rand's work. ("I'm not an Objectivist, but...")

I'm largely unfamiliar with the Ayn Rand Institute, the Institute for Objectivist Studies, and all the rest of the Objectivist infrastructure out there. But for the last fifteen years or so, I've read pretty much every piece of material written by Ayn Rand that I can get my hands on. I am as much of an "Ayn Rand expert" as any casual reader can possibly be. When I think carefully upon what I've read, it's extremely difficult for me to understand what the core criticisms of Objectivism are. Most of the objections don't hold a lot of water for me.

It's not as if Rand was a faultless thinker who always and everywhere spoke the unbridled truth. Like everyone else in the known universe, she was not a perfect human being. Her misinterpretation of Immanuel Kant, for example, is a notorious intellectual flaw. Libertarians who prefer the Murray Rothbard view of the universe are furthermore harshly critical of Rand's view of epistemology, which she mostly imported from Empiricism.

But that is a rather pedantic point, from the layman's perspective. Epistemological quibbles are stuff for academia. When most people roll their eyes, sigh, and go red in the face at the mere mention of Ayn Rand, they are most certainly not objecting to Empiricist epistemology.

So what are they objecting to? Rand wrote - as Prof. Boudreaux remarks - about the Golden Rule. She wrote about achieving world peace through free trade. She wrote about individual rights and the value of the individual over the collective. She was a capable critic of groupthink and the politics of group association. She celebrated mankind's achievements in science, technology, business, art, and sport. She wrote highly celebrated novels that some people find moving and others find boring. She excoriated what was known at the time as "The New Left," a movement that, for the most part, died with the 1960s; a movement that most people under the age of 50 couldn't even explain if they had to. She led discussion groups in New York, in the 1960s that aimed to promote her ideas about free trade and individuality. Free trade and individuality are not only core American values, they are core human values, which you will find expressed all over the world.

In short, all criticism of Ayn Rand is either personal (see Murray Rothbard's criticism, a criticism which he would levy at his every other libertarian contemporary) or academic (see above re: epistemology). So why the vitriol? The world's hate-fest against Ayn Rand is warped and bizarre.


Some Links

I have been to exactly zero of the 50 best restaurants in Canada, and only own 10 of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

Hendrik Hertzberg doesn't like the fact that Texas has a unique and annoying, in-your-face culture that is altogether different from New York's unique and annoying, in-your-face culture. Amazingly, this article does not appear in The Texan magazine.

David Henderson reminds us that "Capital gains per se are irrelevant." (And he's right.)

The inimitable Sonic Charmer invokes high school algebra, ably demonstrating that election polls are more about propaganda than electoral bookkeeping.

Sandra Tsing Loh so ably captures the unbearable neuroses of Modern Alpha-Female that James Taranto stops reading half-way through and gets the wrong message. (Scroll to the bottom of the WSJ link.)


Music As Art

Today, I'd like to add a new feature called "Music As Art."

Part of my own ongoing musical evolution has been my having to confront the uncomfortable fact that rock music is a dead artform. What I mean by that is that there is no longer any hope of the rock genre - or any of its subgenres - providing any additional musical innovation.

Like big band swing music and Romantic-era orchestral music - or impressionism or cubism in visual arts - rock music will continue to be an art form pursued by many. Whereas in the past rock offered musicians a new set of rules through which to innovate, in the present day environment, those rules are no longer new, and consequently offer more restrictions than blank canvasses.

In short, rock as a method of artistic innovation is as dead as its precursors. If musicians wish to be innovative, they will have to innovate outside of a rock music context.

In confronting this fact, I have recently been in pursuit of artists who manage to produce music that is genuinely artistic. That is, the most important feature of the music I've been seeking out is its artistic merit (moreso than, say, the proficiency of the performance, the emotions behind it, and so forth).

What I've been looking for is music that is unapologetically delivered as art. I'd like to start sharing my discoveries with the readers of my blog.

First up is a musical ensemble called Gordion Knot. You can find their music on YouTube here. I have inserted one particularly great piece below.

A Case Against Patents

I was recently engaged in a debate among acquaintances about patents. Some - like most of my acquaintances - feel that patents foster innovation by granting special rights to innovators. I, on the other hand, oppose patents on grounds that are moral, economic, and philosophical. Perhaps I have spent too much time in the libertarian vortex, because I had nearly forgotten that this is a controversial issue. Indeed, when I first started blogging, I myself was undecided on the issue.

Part of my indecision was the major shortcomings of the Rothbard-oriented arguments against intellectual property. My opinion on those shortcomings still stands, and regular, attentive readers already know that my position on Rothbard in general is one of extreme criticism.

Nevertheless, the notoriety of Stephan Kinsella's Against Intellectual Property speaks for itself: His work has made a major impact on the world's view of copyrights in general, and nothing I say can take that away from what is obviously an important work on the subject.

While his argument is primarily philosophical, I'd like to put forth a more practical set of arguments against patent legislation, and eschew as many Robinson Crusoe arguments as I possibly can. What follows is an attempt to do just that.

Specifically, I will show:
  • There is no evidence to support the claim that patents actually succeed at being reliable incentives for innovation.
  • Patent protection does not offer disproportional benefits to smaller firms relative to big ones.
  • It is, in fact, patent protection that allows a firm to grow so large as to impede the progress of smaller firms in the first place.
If I succeed, then I will have made a robust case for why the patent system is a net burden on society, and that we would all be better off if it were eliminated entirely.

The Virtues Of A Robust Patent System
In order to properly argue against the patent system, we must first understand what its supposed benefits are. According to (the remarkably forthcoming) James Yang, the benefits of patents are: (1) Higher profit margins via market exclusion; (2) Reduced competition via barriers to entry; (3) Incentive to financially settle disagreements rather than litigate; and (4) Expanded market share via patent licensing agreements.

Of course, all of this must be understood in the context of the core claim that patents protect small, start-up investors by allowing them exclusivity while they build their businesses.

A final claim about the patent system is that it provides incentives to innovate. This is the first claim I will attempt to address.

Innovation Incentives
The innovation claim is remarkable in that there is absolutely no evidence to support it. More remarkable still is the fact that major advocates of patents - such as law firms, consultants, and government patent offices - never even mention innovation as a major incentive.

We don't live in a world without patents; patents are the status quo. Any claim that innovation would decrease in absence of patent protection is pure speculation. Therefore, my challenge as a patent critic is to address a non-falsifiable claim for which there is no evidence. Because that is impossible, I am going to focus on the best case patent advocates can make in favor of innovation: pharmaceuticals.

The argument goes that developing pharmaceutical products is such a lengthy (15-20 years sometimes) and expensive process that pharma companies would be unable to do so without their having patents to protect their resources as they develop their drugs. This claim can only be true if one or both of the following conditions are true: (1) Brand pharmaceutical companies require patent protection during the drug development phase, and/or (2) Brand pharmaceutical companies require monopoly profits to compensate them for the development phase.

To the first point, patents are wholly unnecessary for drug development. Regulations mandate that every pharmaceutical product must be thoroughly tested and demonstrated as safe and effective prior to being taken to market. This means that, during the development phase, no company could ever profit from "stealing" any other company's intellectual property without having to undergo clinical research and regulatory navigation. In short, the cost of bringing a stolen patent to market is identical to the cost of bringing a legitimately owned patent to market.

The second point is likewise demonstrably false. (And again, I reiterate that this claim is mere speculation.) That there are insufficient profits to justify research and development would certainly come as news to the multi-billion-dollar market for generic pharmaceutical products. Many of these generic drug manufacturers, by the way, produce their products under patent license of the original brand firm - no joke. In fact, even now, brand companies often produce their own generic versions of drugs they themselves developed. (!)

Given the above evidence, which deals with the industry that supposedly profits most from a robust patent system, I contend that it is fully unreasonable to claim that patents are required for product innovation in that or any other industry

Finally, Bessen and Meurer have shown that "the patent system discourages investment in innovation by the average publicly traded American firm."

Protecting The Little Guy
Having dealt with what I believe to be the most difficult argument in favor of patents, I now turn my attention to the other arguments I listed above. Let's quickly review the pro-patent argument.

Advocates state that patent protection helps the "little guy" by offering the little guy (1) higher profits from exclusivity, (2) greater market share from barriers to entry, (3) a pro-settlement/anti-litigation environment, and (4) access to an expanded market share via patent licensing.

First, let us acknowledge that (1) and (2) are really two ways of saying the same thing. Patent owners earn higher profits because they are the only ones entitled to sell their products. Thus, as monopolists, their market share is obviously 100% and they may charge higher prices free from worrying about competition.

Second, let me make clear that I dispute none of the above claims. They are factual benefits of patent ownership.

The assumption in all of the above, however, is that the patent owner and the "little guy" are the same person. In other words, every benefit of patent ownership is as true for the "big guy" as it is for the "little guy." There is nothing intrinsic in the benefits of a patent that default the scenario in favor of the "little guy."

The "patents protect the little guy" viewpoint took a decided hit on August 24th, when Apple became both the largest company in the history of the world and the recipient of the largest punitive patent settlement in the history of law. For my money, no further remarks are necessary for showing that patent law primarily protects behemoth corporations.

But a few additional points should be noted here:
  • The "little guy" often sells his patent to the "big guy" long before the two ever choose to compete. This is because it is often more profitable to the little guy to sell the rights to his invention outright than to attempt to build a business around it. In these instances, the "big guy" is no worse off than if he had simply stolen the technology and had subsequently been forced to recompense the inventor in a court settlement ex post facto. In fact, this phenomenon is known among economists as the Coase Theorem, named after Nobel laureate Ronald Coase.
  • The above point deals with supposed patent benefit (3), above, too. Whether a patent is legitimately purchased by the big guy or a compensatory agreement is reached later on, the "little guy" is always out-matched. A larger firm will always have greater access to legal resources than a smaller one; therefore, if a "big guy" really intends to steal a patent, the "little guy" is no better protected in an environment in which he cannot afford equal access to the legal system than he would be if there were no patent issue at all.
  • Bessen and Meurer furthermore have it that "patents also impose expected costs on innovators as defendants in litigation." 
Therefore, patent ownership is not a "strict win." It is a win with conditions, a win with costs. One can only reap the benefits of a patent if one has sufficient financial means to defend one's patent in the first place.

The Big Guy Is Only The Big Guy Because He Owns The Patent
Perhaps the most important reason why patents are bad for "the little guy" (and for the consumer) is that it is only through patent protection and corporate welfare that a company can grow so large as to defeat the little guys in the first place.

Absent a patent monopoly, any little guy could copy a product and sell it at a cheaper price (assuming that little guy could capture sufficient economies of scale to do so). If the large firm truly is a coercive monopolist, then it is possible for the large firm to sell the product at a loss for a while, until the "little guy" is out-competed. This, of course, is the very fear held by patent advocates.

It is possible for that to occur for a while. But, in real-world circumstances, we are no longer talking about a single "little guy" up against a single "big guy." When forced to compete against myriad little guys, the large firm cannot possibly sell a product at a loss long enough to put every little guy out of business. It is an economic fact that, with a sufficient number of competitors, no one company however large or small can sell a product for anything other than the equilibrium price in the long run.

Indeed, it is only through monopoly protection that a company can avoid competing with other firms. Thus, it is this very patent protection that enables a firm to grow sufficiently large as to be able to obstruct the "little guy's" market.

One important final note here: If it happens that one firm in a given market captures economies of scale so significant that it can under-cut the price of all other competitors in the long run, then the net gains to consumers of this product are no different than the purely competitive outcome. (See your Fundamentals of Microeconomics course for details here.)

Above, I have shown the following:
  • The innovation incentives of patent law are, at best, highly over-stated with little evidence to support them; and they are, at worst, entirely false and baseless claims.
  • All direct financial benefits to patent holders apply equally to large firms and small firms, therefore patents offer no disproportional benefit to "little guys."
  • The largest single beneficiary of patent legislation also happens to be the largest corporation in the history of the known universe.
  • Large companies only grow as large as they grow because they hold legally enforceable monopolies that enable them to exclude competitors from the marketplace; absent that legal protection, no firm would ever grow so large - and even if it did, the long-run outcome would be equivalent to the purely competitive market.
Considering the above, I consider all arguments in favor of a robust patent system to be thoroughly defeated. ;)


Why Doesn't Society Just Think With One Brain?

Many of you, like me, think you have it all figured out. What's more, you probably do have it all figured out. Let's face it, if people just thought and behaved more like you, the world would be a better place.

The problem, as we all keep hearing, is that people aren't rational. For one thing, we have people telling us that human decisions in the economic realm aren't rational, and can be improved with helpful suggestions / increase transaction costs (however you want to look at it). On the other hand, we have people telling us that human decisions in the political realm aren't rational, either.

Because you and I have it all figured out, we can appreciate theories like these. After all, if people weren't so stupid, the world wouldn't have so many problems. People make bad decisions, right? And quite frankly, this is because people want the wrong things. They want to spend thousands of dollars on flashy cars and fancy parties rather than pay public school teachers more. I mean, where are their priorities? They prefer fun to work! I can't understand that, and neither can you, because you and I know better. Who cares what people prefer? The fact of the matter is, some preferences are perhaps in some sense "better" than others.

Wouldn't it be great if anyone who didn't think properly could simply be prevented from thinking at all? Wouldn't it be great if we could construct a giant surrogate brain that thinks properly, so that those who don't know how to use the one they've been given could just hook up to the surrogate and think the correct thoughts?

What might such a brain think, on a regular basis? Such a brain might think:
  • That reading Stationary Waves is an incredibly worthwhile thing to do.
  • That football is thuggish and stupid, while soccer is cosmopolitan and gender-neutral.
  • That any behavior that adversely impacts "society" is wrong and should never be engaged in (such as drinking soda pop, self-tanning, or using Primatene Mist).
Above all, the brain wouldn't be stupid or irrational. That's the main thing. If stupid people can't think smart, then the last thing we want them to do is think stupid.

But Seriously
Has anyone actually considered what life would be like if people were more uniform, reliable, and more like me/you/whoever? What might such a universe actually look like? How would it be?

For one thing, you wouldn't have to worry about all those pesky people who disagree with you about stuff (especially political stuff). Think about that for a minute. Really, think about it. This sort of implies that most people on Earth would resemble your closest circle of friends, the ones who know you best, the ones who offer you the best advice, the ones who are interested in the same stuff you are, the ones who generally get it.

So think about your closest circle of friends for a minute. Of those friends, how many of them are:
  • Particle physicists?
  • Nobel laureates?
  • Inventors of new medical procedures and/or technologies?
  • Inventors of useful things, in general?
  • World-class artists or creative people on par with society's most celebrated living artists?
  • Olympic-caliber athletes?
  • Visionary businesspeople?
Doubtless, some of you are good friends with people in one of those categories. Even more of you know people like that in your extended circle of friends. A great many of you have met or know of people in those categories. But we're not talking about mere acquaintance. We're talking about your closest personal friends, the ones you wish the world were a lot more like.

I'm sure you see where I'm going with this.

The fact of the matter is that human society is diverse for a reason. Diversity is good for human survival. Genetic diversity, for example, is the benchmark of a hearty and adaptable species. Intellectual diversity is the hallmark of a great society.

The best way I can think to put it is this: A society that looks more like you is a society that has fewer people who are not like you, and that includes a great many people you desperately need to survive, whether they are doctors, security officers, accountants, computer techs, farmers, or anyone else.

There are too many wonderful people who are nothing like you. Society would be far worse off if it looked and thought more like you, even if you really do have it all figured out.

What Is Scott Sumner Thinking?

Scott Sumner replies to Larry White and says (among other things) the following:
I’d also point out that the US has experienced 3 major equity or residential real estate bubbles in periods of relatively low inflation and NGDP growth (1929, 2000, 2006) and zero major bubbles in periods with high inflation and NGDP growth (1968-81).
What is the poor guy thinking? What do the years 1929, 2000, and 2006 all have in common? If you guessed, "They are all years immediately preceding major recessions (or, in one case, the Great Depression)," you're absolutely right!

Prof. Sumner quite frequently makes statements like these in order to bait critics into having debates on his terms (read: NGDP level targeting). But I'm not going to bite. At a certain point, it just gets silly.


Will Wilkinson: Football Critic Extraordinaire

I confess that I am not a football fan. I never have been, and I never will be. I have nothing against the game, I just prefer spectator sports of a slightly different stripe. So, with all the rigamorole over NFL referees, it's not surprising that I haven't really been following along, and don't intend to start now. Stationary Waves is not a place to get your football fix.

I would anticipate the same would be true for Will Wilkinson's Twitter feed. Not so! This morning I inexplicablly discovered that I have somehow managed to "follow" Wilkinson on Twitter. I didn't realize this, until I saw this tweet from last night:

...followed by this tweet:

...followed by this one:

Willy, you rascal, you've really put your finger on the pulse this time!


Adventures In New Standard Tuning

A Facebook friend turned me on to something I had never heard of before: New Standard Tuning for guitar.

There isn't a lot of information out there available for New Standard Tuning. Most of what's out there seems to reference everything else that's out there. In hopes of contributing something useful to the topic, I will briefly summarize the information you can get elsewhere, and then provide some of my own impressions on the tuning itself and its underlying logic.

The Stuff You Can Read Elsewhere
According to every other internet website out there, New Standard Tuning is a variant on perfect-5ths tuning developed by Robert Fripp, and most notably used by Robert Fripp's guitar ensemble, The League of Crafty Guitarists, named after Fripp's Guitar Craft educational enterprise, or possibly vice-versa. Apparently, the tuning has also been used by the California Guitar Trio, who is a bit of an offshoot from Guitar Craft and the League of Crafty Guitarists.

A simple YouTube search yields other, similar work by the Viljandi Guitar Trio, and a few other daring individuals. The vast majority of information and demonstration of New Standard Tuning more or less comes down to music that is essentially Fripp-ish in style and substance. Fans of Robert Fripp are unlikely to find anything "new" about other musicians' experimentation with NST - indeed, even the California Guitar Trio, who is arguably the most recognizable of the non-Fripp material out there - delivers NST with incredibly familiar construKction, if you catch my meaning.

At any rate, the story goes that one day Robert Fripp came upon the idea of tuning his guitar in intervals of perfect 5ths, like a 19th century double-bassist, rather than perfect 4ths, like a normal guitar. He gave it a try, and found that his highest string kept snapping, so he reduced the pitch all the way down to a minor third with respect to the next-highest string. The result is New Standard Tuning, tuned from low to high as follows: C, G, D, A, E, G.

Again, as you will read from other blogs and websites dedicated to the topic, the obvious benefits of this tuning are an extended range (the C is two full steps lower than the lowest note in Standard Tuning, while the high-G is a minor-third above the highest open string in Standard Tuning) and... freedom from any possible creative rut you may be experiencing. Maybe.

The recommendation is that we all adjust our string tensions if we want to play with NST, buy a composite set and go to town. But you don't have to do that to play around with it a bit. I use standard, .009-gauge electric guitar strings, and they work fine enough for the purposes of playing around.

When you first tune up to NST, right away you will want to start playing your most Fripp-inspired improv licks. The unconventional intervals between the strings will pull you into free-jazz territory. For at least an hour, you will make a lot of abstract noise and use droning strings a lot. It's inevitable. You're learning and experimenting.

New Standard Tuning - First Impressions
If you come from a rock background like I do, then the first thing you will notice about NST is that the lowest two strings are essentially identical to Drop-D tuning, tuned a full step lower. This makes for some groovy power chords, but this grows boring after a while.

One immediate benefit you will find, however, is that power chords are instantly available on every string pairing, save the highest two. Still, power chords don't sound great on the higher strings, so the applications are limited.

NST, Level Two
The next thing you are bound to try out is soloing. Here is where things start to get a bit interesting.

The way we are used to playing the guitar involves 4ths that want to resolve to 5ths, and 7ths that want to resolve to roots. That's because in standard tuning, the index finger is typically in a position to play a 4th or a 7th, and the ring finger is typically one step above. We get so used to this that we hardly think about it.

NST doesn't allow for this , however. The index finger is always in a position to resolve, either via the root or the 5th, unless we move our hand down two frets and force a 4th or a 7th to happen. Meanwhile, the ring finger tends to fall on intervals that want to resolve: 2nds, 6ths, or possibly major 3rds (two strings up).

The tonal result of all of this is that, while improvising in NST, the guitarist finds himself accidentally creating new dissonances that must be resolved in order for the musical passage to properly "close." The tuning gives the ear the impression that there is more to be said. This can only be good as a source for inspiration.

Take Another Step
Power chords and unresolved dissonances are an unsatisfactory place to leave-off with a new tuning, so I decided to inject a little more structure into my playing. I thought to myself, "If someone thought to call this New Standard Tuning, then one must be able to play some pretty standard tunes like this, if one tries."

I started off simple: "When I Come Around" by Green Day, the first song anyone my age ever learned on the guitar. I briefly worked out the intervals for the five chords in that song, and ended up teaching myself some three-string major and minor chords in the process. Making the adjustment was actually quite easy. Sticking to three strings at a time and playing some basic material helped wrap my head around the underlying logic of the tuning.

Next, I tried "Man in the Box," by Alice in Chains. Again, this song is dead simple in standard tuning, so I figured it would be another good one to figure out - especially considering that, unlike "When I Come Around," there are actual lead guitar licks in the song. What I discovered was that, not only was playing the entire piece quite easy despite my not having access to the open strings that are crucial to this piece when played in standard tuning. This was a real surprise. I didn't transpose the piece at all - I played it in the key of E, just as it's written. And the lead guitar parts were possibly even easier to play in New Standard Tuning.

I tried a few more songs that are familiar to me: "Spoonman," "Message in a Bottle," "Welcome to Paradise," and so on. The more I play with NST, the easier it is to play in NST. It sounds obvious, but it is not at all where I anticipated I'd end up when I first started playing around.

Some Final Thoughts
A few closing remarks on tonight's experiment...

First of all, the ease of access to power chords and a great extended tonal range makes picking up rock songs dead simple in New Standard Tuning, and makes transposing them a breeze.

Second of all, playing chords on more than three strings starts to get a little funny, especially when attempting more sonically "thick" chords, like diminished or augmented chords. That said, playing chords on three, or occasionally four, strings is an absolute breeze. For this reason, I actually think New Standard Tuning may lend itself particularly well to 12-string guitar applications (although string gauge issues may arise). I haven't yet attempted tuning my 12-string to NST, but I can easily envision a situation in which I tune the 12-string neck of my double-neck to NST and leave the 6-string neck in standard tuning. If I really get the hang of NST, I see this as being the most logical way to incorporate it into regular use.

Third, because the tuning is so incredibly power-chord oriented, I cannot immediately see applications outside of rock and experimental acoustic guitar music. I do think jazz soloists may fare well here, but when the solo is over, they may also find themselves locked into a limited chordal vocabulary that restricts more than it inspires. But I am certainly no jazzer, and this is just an impression I have.

Fourth, and most importantly, when one finally starts to wrap one's head around NST, it no longer feels "weird," or "awkward," and consequently doesn't even feel particularly innovative. It is a surprisingly normal tuning that offers players the ability to simply play a lot of standard songs in a different way. In that sense, I can see it ultimately failing as a source of inspiration, while I already consider it a smashing success as a way to learn and transpose songs quickly and easily.

In all, I am surprisingly impressed by NST. It is not nearly as useless as I expected it to be. It is so surprisingly comfortable, in fact, that I am a bit disappointed that it's not "weirder" than I expected.

Which begs the question: Why are so many of the internet's NST demonstrations so quirky and Fripp-ish? Where are the videos of people playing songs from the standard guitar repertoire in NST? Perhaps these questions answer themselves in disappointing ways, or perhaps the answer is that only a very small fraction of people stick with NST long enough to really figure it out.

Either way, I am glad I started fiddling around with this, and indeed I will continue to do so. It's a fun spin on an over-played instrument. Try it yourself and see!


Casual Looks

The New York Times reports that life expectancy is shrinking for US whites with low levels of eduation.

The Washington Post follows-up on this by providing a map of regional life expectancy changes (where red is a decrease and everything else is an increase):
Source: The Washington Post
Pop quiz: What simple error is being committed by journalists in both articles covering this "disturbing trend?"

Answer: Both articles fail to account for migration. By and large, those regions experiencing a decrease in life-expectancy are also those regions experiencing a high emigration rate. While both articles present empirical truths, demographic shifts can often be misleading.

I just wanted to take this opportunity to remind readers to critically question what they're reading and carefully assess what claims actually mean. Remember, it's not sufficient to process information; we have to be able to distinguish between good and bad information.



It's my birthday, and I don't want to write about anything serious.

So instead, here's a lenghty instrumental prog-rock piece by the band Redemption, whose primary songwriter is a friend.


My Strange Sense Of Humor

One of my favorite books is the 1988 precursor to Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, otherwise known to more discriminating readers as Foucault's Pendulum, by Umberto Eco.

Foucault's Pendulum tells the fascinating story of a group of intellectuals who - for the sake of pure entertainment value - begin re-writing the history of the world by making a few simple assumptions about a lost crypt carving uncovered by an eccentric explorer.

I won't spoil the end for you, but the book is largely about how different the world looks if you make a few different assumptions about the things you think you know. Fascinating.

On a related note, I have found myself engaging in jokes with friends and family in which I start from a flawed assumption about what's been said, and I quickly construct an alternative universe that reconciles the false assumption, resulting in a patently ridiculous view of whatever situation we happen to be talking about.

If I pull this off in total deadpan, people really think I'm being serious, which actually sweetens the joke for me. More commonly, though, people know I'm pulling their leg, but they can't put their finger on where the joke ends.

Either way, this kind of joke ends up being funnier for me than for others. It just makes me laugh - I'm not sure why. Try it out on your friends and see if it works for you, too.

Sick? Stay Home

I have an open request to anyone who might be feeling ill today: Please stay home and rest up. Please don't go to work, please don't go to the grocery store, please don't run errands, please don't meet your friends for coffee, please don't go anywhere. Just stay home.

Full disclosure: My sister, who is excellent about staying home, inspired this post. But it's not because I'm writing directly to her. Rather, her falling ill reminded me that this is an important topic, one that I have been meaning to write about for a long time. So I am using this recent experience as a springboard here.

We're More Susceptible
Okay. Here's what non-diabetics don't know about diabetics. The fact that our blood sugar tends to be slightly elevated all the time puts our bodies in a moderate state of stress all the time. Part of this is excess cortisol, part of it is mild dehydration, part of it is comparatively poor absorbtion of vitamins and minerals...

In short, there are a multitude of factors that all contribute to a weaker-than-normal immune system. This is why our doctors recommend that we get flu shots, plenty of sleep, and maintain very good diets. We catch colds more easily than do you non-diabetics, much more easily. So while a mild cold that you choose to fight through may not have a significant impact on the majority of your friends and colleagues, if you know anyone who is diabetic, you are basically choosing to give them a cold by seeing them socially or professionally.

And that's not nice. It's not even "just rude." Frankly, it's mean. Why would you choose to deliberately give someone a cold?

Of course, you may not have known this about diabetics prior to reading this blog post, so you can be foregiven your prior transgressions. But you know it now, so stop doing it. Period.


It's Also A Lot Worse For Us
Even if you think your cold is just "the sniffles," some minor annoyance that you can't be bothered to keep out of society for a little while, there is something else you need to know about diabetics.

As you may have heard, diabetics are supposed to wear nice socks all the time. Why? Because, like everyone, if our feet dry out, the skin cracks, or we get blisters, or something. Basically, all the normal things that happen to human feet happens to diabetic feet, too. But if it's normal, why do we need special socks?

We need them because even small sores cause major problems for diabetics. The reason for this is because slightly elevated blood sugar does long-term damage to capillaries and the circulatory system. Blood, of course, is what carries white blood cells (duh) throughout the body to fight off infections. Blood cleans wounds and fights off infection. Blood is a very good thing.

So, because diabetic bodies have a damaged circulatory system, every small wound that takes days to heal for normal people can take weeks to heal for diabetics. In some cases, such foot wounds don't just take a long time to heal - they never heal. This is what happens to diabetics who have to have limbs amputated. What started out as a simple sore became so serious that the person had to undergo amputation to survive.

What's true of foot sores is also true of viruses and bacteria. When diabetics get sick, even with something that feels mild to you, it is incredibly serious for us. I catch a cold, and it's an automatic two-day stay-at-home session for me. Automatic. If I catch something worse than a cold, then I end up being ill for a month or more.

And it need not be understated: What would be a significant cold or flu for you could well prove fatal for your diabetic friends.

Understand? Good. Then stay home.


The Usual Suspects

Peter Lewin from George Mason University remarks:
Lazear (and his coauthor James Speltzer) have investigated this “structural story” in more detail. Though referring to the skills-mismatch of the labor force (we might say its human capital structure), they investigate the employment situation across industrial sectors – the implication being that different industries require different skill-sets. (This carries its own set of structural assumptions – a kind of fixed production coefficient picture). It turns out that the dramatic rise in unemployment can be accounted for primarily by a few industries – the usual suspects from previous downturns – construction, manufacturing and retail. And when unemployment fell from 2009 to 2012, those same industries accounted for the majority of the change.
Emphasis mine. Unrelatedly, I happened to browse to Google News to see what the latest business headlines were...

So what do we see? FedEx (shipping) cuts their forecast while Kohl's (retail) plans on going on a hiring spree.

Anecdotally, at least, it appears that Boettke is correct.

Some Links

Apart from saying that most educational methods need to be dynamited, and replaced by learning-by-doing, there is nothing more I’m able to add. There are 1,001 specializations in the modern world and growing. At least 1,001 unique learning environments need to be developed. So far in the course of the industrial revolution, business has got away with the expense of education and gladly left it to the state. The result is that business is increasingly complaining of the sub-standard quality of school-leavers and graduates.

Well, what a pity! If nation-states can’t be prevailed upon to dynamite their educational methods, then business will have to start taking over — as indeed some large corporations are doing so already. Quod erat demonstrandum.
-- Keith Hudson, All Is Status

The economist's version of bankruptcy (not the lawyer's version) is simple: If what you contractually owe is (very likely) greater than the value of your assets, then you're bankrupt.  It's not primarily about missing a payment: It's about the prediction that you won't be able to repay everyone you've made promises to.  If your assets can't pay off all your debtholders (including depositors) then it's time to head to court.
-- Garrett Jones, on why bailouts are "totally unnecessary."

-- Tyler Cowen on yet another example of the Food God movement killing small businesses and reducing supply, all in the name of a ridiculous cult.

-- You just clicked this link, either in this universe or another one, but no matter what, you clicked it.

The sad fact is that most Americans right now do not believe they live in a police state, even though the New York Times openly discusses the fact that the president and his advisors have a secret list of Americans whom they are trying to kill with flying robots. I can’t believe I just typed that sentence, but I did, and it is true. As Jar-Jar Binks would ask, “Whensa yousa thinkin we’s in trouble?!”
-- Statements like this make me a regular reader of Robert Murphy's blog.

-- Sonic Charmer and Scott Sumner have competing takes on 47%. Charmer's is better. In light of this discussion, here is a graph of 2010 income distribution among the US population:


Everyone Must Change Except Uncle Sam

Today's online version of The Wall Street Journal alerts me of a heretofore unknown fact: The gas tax is broken and needs to be fixed.

For as long as I can remember, the gas tax has been the closest thing I have been able to think of to a genuine, widespread, and successful user fee that really did succeed in raising large amounts of revenue in a way that nobody objects to.

I guess I am slow on the uptake. The Journal reports:
Transportation experts have been warning for at least a decade about the looming crisis in the motor-fuels tax. The federal tax, at 18.4 cents for gasoline and 24.4 cents for diesel, hasn't changed since 1993. As a result, the tax buys about half the concrete, steel and other materials it did 20 years ago.
That sure sounds like a problem. What could have caused such a thing?
The problem is twofold: First, the tax has failed to keep up with the rising cost of highway construction and repair. And second, improved fuel economy and the rise of hybrid and electric vehicles means that more driving won't be matched by higher gasoline sales, and that how much people pay for the roads won't necessarily reflect how much they use them.
Thus, as The Journal indicates, the reason the gasoline tax needs to be "fixed" is because government construction contracts are too large, and cars too energy efficient. The really amazing thing about this issue is that it highlights the tragicomic paradox of government.

On the one hand, government expects private industry - in this case, automoble manufacturers - to innovate endlessly, on the government's personal schedule. Let us not forget that the EPA and its political supporters routinely take credit for causing the auto industry to improve its fuel efficiency standards - without the benevolent EPA and government in general, we would be hopelessly stuck in the world of the Model T. The EPA sets fuel efficiency standards years in advance and requires the automobile industry to adhere, just somehow. Amazingly, the industry responds effectively, thanks to profit motive and private ingenuity.

And yet, on the other hand, the government itself refuses to innovate. The government itself will not economize. Its construction contracts increase year after year, with no watchdog group setting "infrastructure expense standards." As the cost of raw materials increases, the world's single largest producer of infrastructure plans and expenditures continues down the same fiscal path it was on twenty years ago.

The message here is that everyone must innovate - except the government. When costs rise so high that they can no longer be supported, it is the tax that must change, not the spending pattern. The government cannot think up new ways of designing highways to make infrastructure less costly - they must simply collect more money.

Not Doublespeak: Flexibility Through Routine

At long last! Today marks the beginning (okay, technically the second day) of a return to my precious daily routine.

Things have been busy in my neck of the woods, which is always rough on a person's routine. Now that they have finally settled down, and I'm back in a stable environment, I find that my blood sugar has almost immediately gone from being always slightly high to being in complete control. I feel like a new man.

Now, the internet is replete with personal accounts of type 1 diabetes, and I don't want this post to get lost in the fray. If you're reading this, and you're a newly diagnosed type 1 diabetic, here's what you need to know.

Some Basic Information About Routines
For diabetics, a daily routine is not a source of boredom or plainness, it is a source of comfort and stability. This is not because diabetics are obsessive compulsive, but rather because the only way to maintain tight control of a diabetic's blood sugar is to adhere to a strict and healthy pattern of predictable behavior.

The reasons predictable routines work so well are as follows:
  • It eliminates guess-work with the mealtime insulin bolus.
  • It allows peaks and valleys in blood sugar to be easily predicted (because you can always count on what happens next).
  • Thanks to the above, it allows for predictable impacts from minor routine changes, such as a one-off exceptional meal or a particularly hefty bout of exercise.
  • If things start getting out of control, it allows one to quickly regain that control.
To put it concisely, managing your blood sugar is a matter of always keeping track of a long list of variables, and making small adjustments so that you mimick in behavior what other people can do with their pancreas.

Getting it perfect is, simply stated, never going to happen. You'll have occasional lows, you'll run high from time to time. What the routine does is it takes the most common and important things you do on a regular basis, and holds them in place, so that you don't have to worry about unpredictability every time you, say, eat breakfast.

A Few Personal Anecdotes
I'm a pretty healthy guy. I like being healthy. Maybe you've noticed. Anyway, it is important for people who like being healthy to get a good and varied diet, but variety is difficult for diabetics to achieve. Furthermore, certain important foodstuffs don't lend themselves well to blood sugar control. Case in point: fruit. I love fruit, and it is an important source of nutrients, but it is also high in sugar and has a big impact on blood glucose levels. It's tough to just "add a fruit" to lunch, especially if that lunch includes other healthy foodstuffs like sandwiches or lentils.

Through routine, though, I can ensure that every breakfast I eat a piece of fruit - typically a banana - which I can vary in order to get a wider variety of dietary nutrients. I can replace my daily banana with an apple or an orange, or add some blueberries to my oatmeal instead of eating a piece of stand-alone fruit.

What's important here is that I only have this kind of flexibility with my breakfast fruit intake because the other aspects of my routine remain intact: I eat a bowl of oatmeal, some fruit, and two cups of milk, every day, at about the same time in the morning. These things never change; the fruit can be varied.

Alternatively, I can swap-out the oatmeal for some toast, grits, buckwheat pancakes, whatever. But only if the other aspects of the routine remain the same. See how that works?

What you want to avoid is switching something different every day. In other words, don't swap out your fruit one day, your carb the next day, your protein the third day, etc. etc. Then you'll start getting out of control.

How about exercise? I do cardio (ahem, running) every day. Every other day, I do some sort of strength training or plyometric routine. This happens every single day, unless I need to take a rest day or something. I can easily swap out the strength training for a particularly long and grueling session of housework or yard work. I can forego the cardio in exchange for a long day of walking around at the zoo or something.

But again: I can only do this if my core routine remains the same. I cannot go to bed at widely varying times, take multiple rest days, never get the same type of exercise two days in a row, etc. I cannot simply vary everything all the time, without losing control of my blood sugar.

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, we diabetics actually have more flexibility when we adhere to a strict routine than we otherwise would have.

Were I to do-away with my routine, I would have to hound my blood sugar constantly. I would have to test five times a day or more. I would have to give myself a correction bolus at every meal, and perhaps at other times of day, as well. I would wake up in the middle of the night all the time. My immune system would be compromised, and I would fall ill more frequently. My eyesight would deteriorate noticeably. Simply stated, I'd always be thinking about my diabetes.

So, amazingly, I can enjoy a great and refreshing level of variety and flexibility when I keep tight control of my daily routine. This is the kind of thing non-diabetics will never understand, but it is nonetheless very true.


Things That Used To Be Legal

Courtesy BrandChannel.com
The New York Times has the report:
Seeking to reduce runaway obesity rates, the New York City Board of Health on Thursday approved a ban on the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks at restaurants, street carts and movie theaters, the first restriction of its kind in the country.
As I argued in a previous installment, once something is illegal somewhere, it is only a matter of time before it is illegal elsewhere. New York City's ban on soda is, therefore, merely the first instance of what will soon become a widespread phenomenon.

There has been a huge public relations effort up to this point. We have been talking about it for a very long time. There have been scholarly journal articles arguing for the ban, doctors' associations arguing for the ban, politicians arguing for the ban.

From every angle, the discussion has always centered around the following argument: (a) The US is experiencing an "obesity epidemic" and a "diabetes epidemic," (b) All other things being equal, drinking large amounts of soda increases one's risk for obesity and diabetes, (c) Therefore, soda should be banned.


Well, what's to be argued with? That soda - especially in large quantities - is unhealthy is an objective fact. That there are rising rates of obesity and diabetes prevalence in the United States is simply and plainly true. On these things, there can be no dispute.

Opponents of the ban have always argued that a ban on soda is the epitome of the Nanny State. It used to be a joke, you know. People used to say things like, "What's next, a ban on soda?" The belief had been, until recently, that people should be persuaded not to do stupid, unhealthy things, rather than forced to conform to medical standards. The broader context here, though, is that we Americans are progressively becoming total wards of the state, and that means that if we engage in activities that cost the state money, the state will get angry at us and force us to stop.

Who is the state? Who is the government? There seems to be a vague impression that "we all are," but specifically who do we mean? Whose idea is it to force us to conform to a soda quota, and how did that person gain greater access to the corridors of power than the rest of us, who are more than happy to leave each other alone?

More importantly, if we really are a society that believes in the principle of "my body, my decision" then how is a ban like this even remotely tenable?

The answers to questions like these are irrelevant. In a short while, no one will remember what it was like to have the ability to purchase large quantities of the controlled substance known as soda pop. Coffee shops will experience a huge windfall as people spend their dollars on substitute goods that come in smaller sizes, and in time we will become a more coffee-oriented society than a softdrink-oriented society. The next generation will not know about Big Gulps. All will be forgotten.

Well, almost all. I will still remember, and I will have made note of how things used to be, right here on my blog.


Some Links

It is not unusual to see in city squares or outside shops in Benghazi the American flag along with that of France and Turkey and Qatar, countries that, albeit almost never without ulterior motives, helped Libya’s revolution. Yet notwithstanding that sincere gratitude, many Libyans continue to associate America, because of its actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and its defense of Israeli policy, with violent imperial pursuits and double standards.
-- Hisham Matar, in The New Yorker.
Yevgeny Y. Satanovsky, president of the Institute of the Middle East in Moscow, said American leaders should not expect “one word of sympathy” from their Russian counterparts.
“It is a tragedy to the family of the poor ambassador, but his blood is on the hands of Hillary Clinton personally and Barack Obama personally,” Mr. Satanovsky said. He said Russian warnings against intervention in the Middle East came from the bitter experience of the Soviets in Afghanistan.
“You are the Soviet Union now, guys, and you pay the price,” he said. “You are trying to distribute democracy the way we tried to distribute socialism. You do it the Western way. They hate both.” He said dictators were preferable to the constellation of armed forces that emerges when they are unseated.
-- From this New York Times article (HT: Anti-Gnostic)

-- The notorious NYC large-sized soda ban is up for a vote today. (Things that will soon be illegal?)

-- Another great day in a very good year for Sanofi investors.

This little vignette from the always-fabulous Best of the Web Today is too good not to quote in full:

Aloha, Red Ink
"Washington [D.C.]-area consumers have the second highest average credit card balances in the nation, and mortgages that rank in the top 10, according to credit monitoring service Credit Karma," reports the Washington Business Journal:
Nationally, consumers currently have outstanding credit card balances averaging $5,403. In Washington, the average outstanding balance is $6,439, second only to Honolulu, at $6,846.
That's nothing. We know this guy who was born in Honolulu and moved to Washington a few years ago, and you'll never believe how much debt he ran up!

Last Post On This Topic For A While

I don't want to beat a dead horse.

My journey on this Austrian School of Economic Thought trolley has been about six years long. From the beginning, it was racked by controversy, most notably the epistemological controversy I caused at the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada. What readers don't know is that the views I expressed in that article lead one Austrian School insider to tattle on me, running to the well-heeled guardians of Austrian (read: Rothbardian) thought and proclaiming me essentially evil.

I have never played well with in-groups. My personal view of in-groups is that they are more about excluding other people than they are about taking pride in commonalities. I have over three decades of personal experience to back me up on that.

Frankly, I refuse to belong to any group that attempts to force me to tow the party line. That goes for politics, religion, and ideas in general. It also goes for social groups, clubs, workplaces, and anything else. To me, life is about individual happiness, not about inclusion. If the majority of people dislike what I think, do, or say, I can still be a happy, satisfied person. My life does not hang on the words of an in-group.

George Selgin does not go nearly as far as I do when he makes a case this morning for being a good economist, not just a good Austrian economist:
Here it is: search for the word "Austrian" in your research papers, delete it, and rewrite where necessary. Next ask yourself whether what's left can stand on its own merits. Would your fellow Austrians find it interesting and persuasive without the help of all the winking, nodding, and fraternal handshaking aimed at declaring yourself one of the team, and at thereby evading friendly fire? Would they find the conclusions firmly attached by a series of solid links to some indisputable premises, as they should if you are really a competent praxeologist? Are they likely to find the evidence you supply persuasive, should you be so bold as to offer such? Would they, in short, find merit in what you've written even if they had no reason to suspect that you are one of the gang, or even a fellow traveler? If not, then your paper is good for nothing but joining a club that is, face it, all too willing to have you as a member.
Recall that I also quoted Selgin yesterday with regard to the recent Austrian School identity crises occurring out there in Austrian-Land.

Ideas should not be subject to group approval. Ideas are simply sparks of individual thought, brought out into the world by people who believe the world might benefit from knowing them. We can disagree with another person's ideas on the merits or demerits of the ideas themselves.

But when we start believing things merely because those things are attached to our favorite in-group, we are no longer thinking for ourselves.

In light of recent mob-behavior tragedies this past week, it is particularly important to remind my readers and Austrian-adherents in general that in the realm of ideas one can score points with the general public by appealing to their groupthink; but one cannot score points with the truth except by appealing to truth.

I now depart the "shortcomings of orthodox Austrianism" themes. In the future, I intend to take on themes involving groupthink, social pressure discouraging individuality, and the institutions that make it all happen.

I also intend to blog a bit more about fitness.


Austrian Identity Crisis

This month's Cato Unbound is all about Austrian School economics, what it is, what it is not, and who thinks so. Cato Unbound is always interesting, and this month is no exception.

It is particularly interesting to me, in light of my oddball Austrianism. I have previously argued that Rothbard was not just wrong, but incredibly wrong to reject mathematical reasoning in economics. The thrust of my argument is that deductive logic itself is nothing other than a different language used in the application of verbal logic. Mathematics is a condensed language that enables us to express quantitative and logical ideas more concisely than verbal logic. Changing the symbols doesn't invalidate the logic, far from it. And, as my previous post on the topic points out, Mises himself didn't feel the same way Rothbard did about it.

Fortunately for me (considering my limited readership), George Selgin makes my broader point for me in his recent contribution to Cato Unbound. He writes (emphases his):
For Mises and Rothbard, and for many other Austrian economists, the term “economics” means what is elsewhere referred to as theoretical economics, at least when they use it in the course of a methodological pronunciamiento. That is, it means (as Mises indicates in one of the passages quoted above) the set of extant economic theorems. Understood this way, the claim that “economics” is a purely deductive undertaking ought not to strike even the most mainstream of economists, or anyone who has worked through a standard graduate microeconomics text, as particularly controversial, let alone absurd.
Then, the coup de grace: Selgin states, "But for most of us, Steve included, 'economics' doesn’t just mean pure economic theory or analytical economics. It also means applied economics, which includes everything from economic history to economic policy appraisal to econometrics."

This is the key point. Mises didn't reject applied economics. He conducted applied economics for the Vienna Chamber of Commerce, for heaven's sake! Rather, when Mises wrote essays and books on theoretical economics, he made clear that "praxeology" is economic theory.

In those works, he often referred to applied economics as "accounting." Take, for example, the following excerpt from Human Action, which for my money (no pun intended) is the best showpiece of Mises' advocacy of applied economics, including math:
Monetary calculation reaches its full perfection in capital accounting. It establishes the money prices of the available means and confronts this total with the changes brought about by action and by the operation of other factors. This confrontation shows what changes occurred in the state of the acting men's affairs and the magnitude of those changes; it makes success and failure, profit and loss ascertainable.
Here Mises isn't just lauding the profession of accounting and its ability to estimate costs, he's describing comparative statics, i.e. the bread-and-butter of microeconomic analysis. These are not words uttered by a man who rejected mathematics or applied economics.

Instead, these are the words of a man who used a specific term - praxeology - for economic theory (as Selgin rightly argues), and another specific term - accounting - for applied economics.

On this point, we can concede that Danny Sanchez is technically correct with respect to Mises' views when he (Sanchez) writes (emphasis his):
Mises wrote, "There are two main branches of the sciences of human action: praxeology and history." For Mises, praxeology is one of the sciences of human action, and history is another science of human action.  Praxeology does not include “all” of the sciences of human action.
Yes, Mises' terminology specifically differentiates between praxeology, economic history, and accounting.

Where Sanchez goes astray, however (and I mean, besides his tremendously uncharitable language regarding Steve Horwitz), is when he fails to realize that this is not the question posed by Cato Unbound at all. The question is not, "What, according to Mises' terminology, is the exact definition of praxeology." No, the question is, as the folks at Cato themselves put it:
In his lead essay [Horwitz] argues that logical deduction has a strictly limited role to play in economics, and that Austrian economists are indeed making important empirical contributions to the field. Further, he argues that the Austrian school stands to teach mainstream economics a good deal about how to conduct empirical observations and interpret them properly.
In fact, the title of this edition of Cato Unbound is Theory and Practice in the Austrian School. Mr. Sanchez would do us all a favor if he took time to understand that the purpose of this series is not to quibble over what can be properly understood as "praxeology," but rather in the Austrian School of economic thought, what is "theory" and what is "practice?"

For my money, Horwitz does an admirable job of pointing out both the importance of praxeology and its unique method for elucidating economic theory and the importance of embracing quantitative analysis in applied economics of the Austrian variety, which - if we are to use Mises' terminology - includes both "economic history" and "accounting."

A broader issue here might be whether there is any benefit to be gained by quixotically clinging to Misesian terminology to the point that one can no longer have a productive conversation with non-Austrian School economists. I would argue no. I would argue that such dogmatism is precisely what keeps Austrian School theories out of the mainstream, and furthermore puts many people off of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in general.


Start Two-A-Days

Here's an easy way to phase twice-daily exercise into your daily workout routine:

Start by getting up early every day for a week. Don't exercise, just stretch. You'll feel alert and more agile, and you'll have an easier time waking up and getting ready for your day. Best of all, you won't necessarily feel like you're "exercising," even though you are!

Woolley On Carbon Taxes

Over at Worthwhile Canadian Initiatives, Frances Woolley suggests that carbon taxes would be more politically palatable if they were re-branded as "atmospheric user fees." She writes:
When faced with political opposition and image problems, there are three possible courses of action. The first is to argue ones point logically, hoping to change people's minds through reason and evidence.

A second is to admit defeat.

The third is to rebrand, and change the image. For example, Canada's bitumen deposits were once called the tar sands, a name that conjures up a (fairly accurate) image of a thick, sticky, black tar-like substance. They have been successfully rebranded as the oil sands, which sounds like clean sparkling oil, with just a bit of sand mixed in. 

Given how well economists have been doing with the first strategy, and that the second strategy gets us no where, I think it's time carbon taxes got a rebranding.
In contrast, my position is that even the re-branding of carbon taxes fail to address the reason such taxes are unpalatable, namely, people have other things to worry about, too.

Set aside all issues of climate science and instead focus on the fact that nations consist of individuals with limited resources.

First, I take it for granted that it is possible to tax a population to the point that they experience diminished economic welfare. That is, there exists some tax rate x at which (x + y) results in inferior economic growth nationwide for all positive y and superior economic growth nationwide for all negative y. (Note that we need not invoke the Laffer Curve here, even though I have essentially described a point at the apex of that curve.)

Second, I take it for granted that every tax increase or new tax makes every individual who pays it worse off, at least with respect to personal income. That is, while we can argue about whether a new government tax or policy improves our lives, we cannot argue about whether new costs restrict our incomes. In all cases, ceteris paribus, higher costs impede our personal wealth, regardless of what non-wealth benefits we may obtain from a new policy or tax.

From these two very defensible assumptions, it is obvious that the economic cost-benefit analysis of any new carbon tax must address the actual economic utility experienced by real people.

In other words, although we can assume that cleaner air increases our utility, we cannot assume that this increase in utility must automatically be sufficiently large an increase to offset the disutility of having to pay a new tax.

For some, the new carbon tax will certainly be "worth it." For others, the new tax will certainly not be "worth it." The difference between these two groups is how urgent "carbon reduction" is in their personal set of values and desires.

So, to sum up: If Prof. Woolley's objective is to promote a carbon tax, she must address the economic issues that actually matter to people. She must promote the tax as something that produces such a large utility increase for individuals that each of them believes he/she will be better off despite the disutility of a tax increase. Failing that, she must describe air pollution in such a way that people begin to believe that a marginal increase in CO2 emissions makes each individual worse off than the disutility of a corrective tax increase. Clearly, climate scientists have taken the second approach. I am unaware of anyone who has taken the first approach. Therefore, I suggest Prof. Woolley start there.

Instead, Woolley merely assumes that everyone who opposes a carbon tax is a global warming denier. Indeed, she follows up with a comment:
The case for an atmospheric user fee is based on three assumptions: (a) carbon emissions contribute to climate change (b) Canadian carbon emissions contribute, on the margin, to the amount of climate change (c) there are some low-benefit activities for which the cost of emissions exceeds the benefits (e.g. using heaters in the summer because the air conditioning is turned on so high). If one rejects these assumptions, there is no case for an atmospheric user fee, and no point in taking the argument further. End of discussion.
If one simply assumes that one's objective is a noble and worthy cause, then there is little to convince anyone of. It is tantamount to saying, "Assume I am correct. Then, re-branding a tax to be more palatable to people who don't believe me is a good idea."

But what if people who don't want to pay additional carbon taxes have no beef with global warming? What if, for these individuals, the disutility of a tax increase is greater than the perceived benefits of marginally cleaner air and higher prices for carbon-related goods and services? In that case, Woolley would be completely mistaken. Rebranding won't work, because people have already made the correct assessment of their personal values and preferences.

Is it possible to convince people that carbon taxes come with a non-income utility increase that offsets the income utility decrease associated with the tax? That is the real question.


Killer Cell Phones

Way back in May of 2010, I argued that Ontario's ban on cell phone use while driving made little rational sense. To this day, I believe what I wrote then. Here in Texas, using a cellular phone while driving is not against the law. People seem to do it about as often as they do in Ontario. I don't have any accident statistics to report, but a little perspective goes a long way: Both in Texas and Ontario, people use cellular phones while driving all the time, and while some accidents can be attributed to cell phone use, so too can a vast number of safe, uneventful automobile rides be attributed to instances of cell phone use.

That is, when we see a few accidents caused by cellular phone use, we are quick to condemn cell phones. When we see no such accident, we seldom go back and revise our perspective on the relative safety of talking on the phone while driving.

Similarly, Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris argue in The Wall Street Journal that it is time to re-visit the ban on cellular phone and personal electronic use on airline flights:
Why has the regulation remained in force for so long despite the lack of solid evidence to support it? Human minds are notoriously overzealous "cause detectors." When two events occur close in time, and one plausibly might have caused the other, we tend to assume it did. There is no reason to doubt the anecdotes told by airline personnel about glitches that have occurred on flights when they also have discovered someone illicitly using a device.
But when thinking about these anecdotes, we don't consider that glitches also occur in the absence of illicit gadget use. More important, we don't consider how often gadgets have been in use when flights have been completed without a hitch. Our survey strongly suggests that there are multiple gadget violators on almost every flight.
Considering cell phone bans both while driving and while riding in a passenger plane, it is fair to say that humans fear cell phones.

But wait - there's more! In the hilariously titled blog post "Ur Cellphone Asplode?" rjfrankenberger debunks yet another cell phone fear-mongering urban legend: the notion that answering your cell phone while pumping gas will trigger a massive explosion. He/she concludes:
The moral of this story? Just because it’s on a sign, doesn’t mean it’s true. Oh… and make sure that you touch the frame of your car and discharge those e-fields before the next time you pump gas. Especially if your pumping gas next to me. I’m not in the mood for being exploded.
So why do we humans let cellular phones scare us so much? Any ideas?

This Week In Exercise

It has been a little too long since I scheduled my last personal training session. It's not that I didn't want to go, it's just that I have been incredibly busy lately, both professionally and during the process of purchasing new property. So I have been forgetting to schedule a training session.

I have not, however, neglected my workouts. I have been doing the same brutal workout my trainer gave me the last time, every other day, for approximately two weeks. It is an extremely difficult workout that has done very good things for me, but I'm ready for something new.

Furthermore, as I noted last week, I have a little over a month to build an endurance base if I want to be serious about running a marathon in the near future. To that end, I plan on building my endurance base for sure, and then making a more informed assessment as to my marathon readiness once it's time to either put up or shut up. I'd like to do it, but of course it is a big commitment.

So, I have my next PT session on Wednesday, but my mail objective this week is to attempt to run 40 miles. It will be tough, but do-able. The goal, as I just said, is to start increasing my endurance base. Part of that will be a return to twice-daily exercise. However, unlike my previous two-a-days, I will not simply be doing strength training in the AM and cardio in the PM. Instead, I will simply attempt to phase-in morning cardio workouts in addition to my regular fitness routine.

The result of this should be a deepening cardiovascual base and an overall increase in my activity level, built up week-by-week until I'm perhaps in the 60-80 mile/week range by the end of October. It's an ambitious plan, let's see where it takes me. Here's the plan for the week:
  • Mon: 5 miles easy
  • Tue: 5 miles tempo + 0:30/mile
  • Wed: Strength training + 5 miles easy
  • Thu: 7 miles easy
  • Fri: Strength training + 5 miles easy
  • Sat: 8 miles long run
  • Sun: 5 miles easy
Let's see if I can do it.


Politics & Religion

Today, I'm going to break from tradition and lead-in with my thesis statement: There is a clear implication in my definition of faith that the sphere of politics is quasi-religious. That is, it's not "politics and religion," it's "politics is religion." Anyone who feels otherwise simply isn't paying attention.

Those of us who grew up around a lot of religion know the routine very well. The mass assembles in a large, fancy building. There are refreshments, suits, conversation, networking, and laughter. A few key opinion leaders stand up and make speeches about what "we're" supposed to do, and what "they" are trying to get us to do instead. They urge us to resist this terrible temptation, because it is a folly that strikes at the heart of what it means to be a human being. Songs are sung. The rabble is roused. People slowly filter out and go home, feeling an uplifting of the spirits that stays with them as they embark on a path toward changing the world.

Never are the similarities more obvious than during national convention season. The religious themes are omnipresent, of course. Even the Democrats have joined in the over-indulgence of the phrase "God bless America," and "God bless you all," and so on. Then there is the commentary. One CNN correspondent I saw used the phrase "Teach, baby, teach," a reference to Southern Baptist terminology, to describe Bill Clinton's speech. The convention crowds are shown in glowing rapture, hanging on the words of their Masters with baited breath and tears in their eyes.

I'm telling you, I come from a highly religious community, and I have seen all this before. This isn't politics, this is religion.

And, as I previously wrote, faith is the act of favoring what you wish were true over what you know to be true. Deep down, we all understand that we are only pretending to believe. We know that electing Obamney won't change the course of the country. We know that our false saviors don't really offer us salvation.

Deep down, we understand that politics offers us nothing more than a common language by which to express our wishes about the way things ought to work. Wouldn't it be great if rich people gave poor people all their money, if poverty and natural disaster could be eliminated by simply writing it down on a piece of paper, if jobs could be distributed to anyone who wants them simply by act of Congerss.

It would be great, wouldn't it? Wouldn't it be great? These wishes are so terribly, tragically, heart-breakingly juvenile. There is no hope in politics. We are fooling ourselves.

For the most part, I have avoided commenting on the conventions because I still believe what other people seem to forget when the conventions are happening: politicians are all liars.

There is no doubt about this, no uncertainty. One need only compare a candidate's pre-election promises to their actual behavior once in office. Here I choose not to cite specific examples because I want the reader to fully understand that this is a pan-partisan fact. It is no "more true" of one group of people than it is of another. The spin doctors like to call it "flip-flopping" and peg it to one or two politicians, but it is true of all of them. They were all for it before they were against it, and vice-versa.

When one party disavows them, these same people simply hop over to another party. The goal is not to represent a consituency, but rather to represent themselves. Their objective is winning office; once they have it, they don't need us anymore. Challengers appear, and they, too, have their own agendas. They try to convince us that this new agenda is better for us than the old one. But we're not electing people who represent our interests, we are bestowing corrupt people with positions of wealth and power, paid for out of our own pockets, in the format of a popularity contest.

This is how politics works.

Some of us are inclined to believe that the reason is that "power corrupts." But this is not true. Power does not corrupt. Those who seek power were already corrupt. The fact (fact) that they lie in order to achieve power is ample evidence.

One of the great ideas Ayn Rand expressed in her work was the concept of the sanction of the victim. That is, certain kinds of wrong-doing are only possible with the sanction of the victim. Government cronyism, corrupt politicians, hideous and bloated bureaucracy, etc. are the kinds of things that we wish upon ourselves. We wish them to be effective, desperatelly.

But it is a wish, nothing more. You cannot move mountains with a hand gesture, you cannot quell the tides with a wink, and you cannot achieve prosperity through the drafting of rules and regulations. When we dispell with the religious myths, we are left with the simple truth that the only way to improve our own lives is to make ourselves better, more productive people.

Stationary Waves is about exploring ways of making ourselves better, more productive people.