Wednesday, October 31, 2007

An Interesting Puzzle with an Easy Answer

Overcoming Bias has a cool conundrum "directed to Free Market admirers." Since I qualify, I'm posting my answer.

The conundrum is this: in a company of 100 employees, there is a sure chance to make $1billion in profit if either (a) a specific employee dies or (b) 3 randomly-chosen employees die. Now, let's suppose the specific employee in question will not agree to the option in which he certainly dies, but all 100 employees are willing to take the slightly greater than 3% (precisely 3.0305%) chance that they will be chosen to die in exchange for $1million of the profit. In other words, the company can bribe its employees with $1million bonuses to get them all to agree to a random-selection process in which three will be chosen to die.

The question is this. As a government regulator aware of the situation, do you

  1. intervene and prevent the company from from completing the job?

  2. not interfere?

  3. force the specific employee to complete the task and then force the company to give $5million to each of the remaining 99 employees?

Now, of course such a situation is so extremely unlikely to happen in reality that some may say it's not worth considering. But I happen to be one of those who thinks intuition pumps like this are useful philosophical exercises - and I happen to find this one particularly useful as a "test" for that peculiar disease known as "Libertarianism." This is because not only is there a "correct" answer for any true Libertarian, but the circumstances of this particular problem get right to the heart of the matter and really test a person's conviction in free market principles.

The correct answer, of course, is unequivocally (2). And here's the cannonical Libertarian reasoning for why: if people do not own themselves, then it's hard to see how we can be sure a system of ownership is actually functioning. If we really believe in individual rights and liberties, then people are free to risk and even give up their lives if that is what they truly desire. Whether or not $1million is "enough" in exchange for risking one's life is debatable - but that is a decision left to the individual - i.e. the person who actually owns/is the life in question.

Of the three options, the WORST one is (3). No one - and ESPECIALLY not the government - may coerce anyone else to give up his life or property except in cases of self-defense. In the Libertarian universe, people who favor option (3) are the lowest of the low - true enemies of liberty and property.

Option (1) is what we expect from most of the population. It's what you might call the "Democrat" option. It's coercive in the sense that the regulator purports to know better than the people themselves what decisions they ought to make, and we reject it for that reason. But it at least has the virtue of not being option (3). The regulator is (unfairly) removing extraordinary options from the table - but he is at least not coercing anyone to do anything extraordinary (like submit to being killed) either. This is, I think, why Libertarians are often mistaken for conservatives: we have less of an aversion to enforcement of the status quo than we do to "social engineering" projects that force people to act in such a way that will be "ultimately to the benefit of us all." Option (1) is soft regulation, option (2) is hard, Soviet-style regulation.

One of the commenters on the original Overcoming Bias thread makes a point that I very much agree with - that option (3) is deceptive in the sense that it doesn't mention the full cost. The full cost of an option like (3) is much greater than just the individual employee's murder - because we're also agreeing (implicitly) to a system where governments can intervene in private affairs to such a level that they can specify who lives and who dies for arbitrary reasons and control economic policy to such a minute level of detail that they regulate how much companies give their employees in bonuses. To clear the fog a bit - there is no guarantee in such a system that you get to keep your $5million in the long run; property doesn't have any real value under such an arrangement.


This is why it is frustrating to hear things like what the New York Times thinks about S-CHIP. To listen to them tell it,

The health of millions of children who lack insurance cannot be held hostage to the president’s visceral distaste for government and its essential role to protect the weak, or his desire to protect the tobacco industry.

This is a tired old tactic: trying to contrast Libertarian "theory" that small governments are better with the actual "on the ground" children who will benefit from S-CHIP. Fine, as far as that goes. The trouble is that reality goes much further. If we could only confine things to the issue at hand, then the New York Times might have a tiny bit of a point. But in reality, we can't. In reality, when you give the government the power to take money from people to give to (what it classifies on its own terms as) "needy" children, you are giving the government the power to take money PERIOD. Perhaps it is not your intention to expand government power - but by expanding government power you are ... expanding government power. Every little tax and every little spending program we approve is just that much more of the total wealth and property we produce that no longer belongs to us. As Ronald Reagan aptly put it - "you cannot control the economy without controling people." It IS about control. Whether or not it is the intention of the authors of these spending and welfare bills to increase government control over our lives, that is the very real effect. In other words, our "theory" isn't just academic, it's real.

And as the commenter points out, this moral puzzle illustrates that point well. It's nice to think that with a one-off regulation we could give everyone $5million - but there is no possible world in reality where any such thing ever happens only once. For it to happen at all, the government would have to have virtually unfettered power. Unfettered power is not something any government ever uses "only once."

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

More Slander

Michael Medved has a charming little bit out today accusing Ron Paul of accepting support from wackos.

As a guest on my syndicated radio show, you answered my questions directly and fearlessly.

Will you now answer these pressing questions, and eliminate all associations between your campaign and some of the most loathsome fringe groups in American society?

Which really does beg the question: if Ron Paul appeared on Medved's radio show and answered all his other questions, why didn't Medved have the balls to ask him this one too?

Twin Peaks!!!

Finally, a full DVD release of Twin Peaks! Soon to be in my collection. Hat tip Noah.

Democracy Index?

Today's bit of silliness comes from The Economist in the form of its Intelligence Unit Democracy Index. Apparently, the United States is only the 17th most democratic nation in the world, behind Canada (???), Sweden (!!!) and FINLAND.

In fact, Sweden tops the list. Sweden, ladies and gentlemen, is meant to be the the model democracy. Yes, you read that right - the country that essentially has one-party rule, virtually legislates how many women and men can serve in parliament and has no judicial review is the example for the rest of us to live up to. It has hate speech laws and a film censorship board (the longest-functioning in the world, in fact), regulation of radio and TV. Nearly all major industries are owned by the government, and the taxation rate is among the higest in the world.

But of course, I'm confusing "freedom" with "democracy." The two are NOT the same thing (though they are highly correlated). I guess the US is pretty definitely a freer country than Sweden. But I believe it is also more democratic.

Let's take a look at some of the Economist's sleight-of-hand.

The methodology is as follows: in each of five categories (Electoral Process and Pluralism, Functioning of Government, Political Participation, Political Culture, Civil Liberties) there is a number of questions, usually 12-15. The question is scored either 1 or 0 depending on whether the nation in question meets the requirement or not. Presumably, therefore, it is possible to get a score higher than 10 in some categories, but this is only scored 10, thus biasing the entire survey upward - but critically more in some cateogires than others. A further complication here is that some questions arbitrarily have a 0.5 rating option available, so the questions also have the drawback of being "categorical" in an uneven fashion. Another obvious problem with this methodology is that it gives equal weight to disparate measures, something that is almost certainly inaccurate. To pick an example from the survey - "Do laws provide for broadly equal campaigning opportunities?" is deemed equally important as "Can citizens cast their vote free of significant threats to their security from state or non-state bodies?" So a nation in which gangs of ruffians routinely beat up people who do not vote the way they like loses ... one point. And a nation which does not provide public campaign financing loses ... one point. Each of which actually comes out to 0.2 points, as the overall final score is an average over the 5 categories. Yeah, this sounds like an informative survey.

Of course, it will be objected that any survey which tries to weight various things according to significance will have engaged in spin and/or bias. That is, it will have veered away from those things which Everyon Can Agree constitute a functioning "democracy" and instead prejudiced the results to favor its chosen candidates. And I suppose to some important extent this cannot be denied. But that rather speaks to the futility of trying to come to an "objective" analysis of what constitutes a functioning "democracy" in the first place. It would probably have been preferable to simply draw up one's own subjective list and then try to justify it. But even if we're committed to continuing the "objective" analysis in this way, it strikes me as being a better approach to simply rate the surveyed nations on tiers rather than with continuous scores. That is, come up with five "levels" of democracy or something, rather than attempting, on the basis of absurdly weighted all-or-nothing scores, to give a rating on a continuous scale of 1-10 of "relative democracy."

Now, I could really take two attitudes to this - one to say it's bad (or at least questionable) methodology, and another to say that the results have been deliberately skewed. Since this is the Economist, I opt for the latter.

Of course I have nothing but circumstantial evidence and my general displeasure with the Economist to go on. But a close look at some of the questions seems to render my suspicion that the test has been biased in favor of Sweden in particular at least plausible.

Consider this question:

10) Do opposition parties have a realistic chance of achieving government? 1: yes. 0:no.

And there's a 0.5 option "There is a dominant two-party system in which other political forces never have any effective chance of taking part in national government."

This question seems not only tailored to come out against the United States, but specifically tailored in such a way to make sure that Sweden still makes the grade. Sweden, you see, is in a situation where the ruling party has won every major election since 1932 save four - and until very recently those aberrations resulted in at most a 6-month stint for the opposition. So Sweden has something much worse than the two-party "monopoly" that the United States has: its politics are completely dominated by a single party and have been in living memory. However, there is no 0.5 rating for "Has an effective single-party system where the majority party has been known to lose an election or two once in a very blue moon, but usually isn't out of power for long." I suspect there's also some sleight-of-hand going on with the parliamentary system here. In nations like Sweden and Japan - both of which absurdly score higher than the US on "plurality" - even though both are de facto one-party states (Japan is much, much worse than Sweden here - the LDP has as good as never lost a national election - only one aberration in 1992 when the Socialists won, and that only happened due to LDP party-internal intrigue) - other parties are technically "represented" in parliament to a greater extent than, say, the Libertarians or the Socialist Worker Pary are in the US. But when your electorate has a habit of putting the same cronies into a majority every time, and when Parliament is the whole of the law (unlike in the US, where we have separation of powers), then the reality translates into something much less "plural," I'm afraid.

It will, of course, be argued that if 56% of Sweden wants this one-party rule, then isn't it "democratic" to let them have it? Quite so - but then if a much greater percentage of the American population is satisfied with the current two-party system, then isn't that "democratic" as well? There's nothing specifically barring the Libertarians from Congress, it just happens that they're not popular.

Another bit of annoyance is that lots of questions seems to be weighted against systems that have had recent changes. For example:

Is the process of financing political parties transparent and generally accepted?

It's the generally accepted part that, again, seems biased. Political financing in the US is completely transparent, but new regulations were adopted recently and are still controversial (indeed, I am staunchly opposed to McCain-Feingold). Nations like Canada, Sweden and the Netherlands, which have long had draconian speech and finance regulations for elections, don't fall afoul of the "generally accepted" addendum because those issues were decided long ago. A less biased way of phrasing this would have been "followed according to the rule of law" or some such.

Extent to which the government invokes new risks and threats as an excuse for curbing civil liberties. 1: low 0.5: medium 0:high

This seems like an uncontroversial question, but what constitutes an "excuse" for curbing civil liberties? Somehow I imagine the US got a 0.5 on this because of the PATRIOT Act, even though I highly doubt that the 9/11 attacks were an "excuse" for curbing liberties. I don't personally agree with the PATRIOT Act and would vote against it if in Congress - certainly I'm against its renewal - but neither do I think it's based on an "excuse." I believe that most of the people who support it are sincere; it's not a trojan horse to dictatorship.

The use of torture by the state

This one only has yes/no options. There is no 0.5 option for "used, but only against enemy combatants." Again, one can't help but wonder whether the US got a 0 on this one because of Abu Ghraib, even though there is no policy of torturing citizens over domestic matters - i.e. Abu Ghraib has little to do with democracy here at home.

The question on free speech includes a clause "bar only generally accepted restrictions such as banning advocacy of violence." So again, it seems designed to prevent the US, with its much more liberal speech laws, from having an advantage over places like the Netherlands and Sweden, which have Holocaust Denial restrictions and heavy hate speech codes.

The tell-all example, though, is an opposition between the question on voter turnout/participation and the question on women in parliament. Under the question on voter turnout, there is an instruction to score 0 if the country has a mandatory voting policy (like Australia). Fair enough - if we're measuring "participation," I suppose it's actually "voluntary participation" that we're interested in. But then there's a question on the representation of women at the national level. There are three categories here too: score 1 if more than 20% of your legislature is female, 0.5 if it's 10-20%, and 0 if it's less than 10%. The US may or may not have made the 10% mark. The Senate is 13% female, the House 7%. The telling thing here, though, is that there is no corresponding instruction to exclude countries like Sweden where women are overrepresented in parliament due to quota laws. Apparently, forcing people to vote does not constitute "participation," but forcing people to vote for women is off the hook when we're studying sexism.

The real question, of course, is why we're measuring female participation in terms of outcomes in the first place. A more appropriate category would've been whether or not women can safely run for and hold office.

Anyway, I could pick at this all day. The reader is invited to have a look for himself and see what I mean. Let me just close with my personal take:

  1. I am not so concerned with whether the US is at the top of any international ranking on how "democratic" any given nation is since I'm sure we're not number one no matter how you draw the charts. My beef here is with nations like Sweden and Canada outranking the US. I don't consider either one an exemplar of democracy. Certainly I'd rather be Canadian than Burkina Fasan, but Sweden and Canada are NOT model democracies, and they're certainly NOT more "democratic," on any sensible measure, than the US. Australia might be. New Zealand might be. The Netherlands might be. But Sweden and Canada? Nope.

  2. Any survey that thinks Japan is a strong democracy is smoking crack.

  3. It is probably futile to try to rank nations on the basis of how "democratic" they are - and it's ultimately useless. I don't think this can be boiled down to a single term. Even so, if we must do a survey, I would prefer categorial results rather than a continuous scale.

  4. Democracy is less important than freedom (civil liberties). I'm happy choose to live in an undemocratic oligarchy that guarantees my rights over a democracy that might not.

That is all.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Shogi vs. Chess

Recently my interest in Shogi has been rekindled. This is the Japanese version of Chess (literally - the two games are probably derived from the same source) - similar in some ways, but played on a 9X9 board with some different pieces (notably without a queen) and with drops allowed after captures.

I first got acquainted with this in Japan. I mentioned being interested in Chess and was immediately told about Shogi. I learned how to play in my second month and played on and off over the course of the three years I spent there. Partners were hard to find: the Japanese seem to invest a lot of nationalistic pride in Shogi, and losing to a foreigner (without hinting at having thrown the game) is something of a face issue. But there was a weekly program on NHK featuring an hour-and-a-half tournament between two masters that I watched religiously, and when I wanted to play there was always a Gameboy version. There were also endless books of tsumeshogi(checkmate) problems at the bookstores for working while on the train.

I was quite good for a time - but then the years went by and I'm afraid I'm more or less back where I started. I have this impression because last week I downloaded GNUShogi (a variant on GNUChess, actually - the sourcecode is adapted). I have the impression it's not very good, and yet I've played it three times and haven't beat it. And this is even without the "learning" mode on (in a certain mode it remembers your past games and learns from you, apparently). So I guess I need to start over.

For Americans wishing to learn the game, let me recommend above all this book. It's the only introduction in English I know that's worth a damn. (Which isn't to say there aren't plenty I just don't know about, you understand. I learned Shogi in Japan, after all.) The link above to checkmate problems is also quite useful: most of my quantum leaps in skill were from working checkmate problems on the train, or in bed trying to sleep. There's also a free software downloads page here.

As for the game itself - well, I highly recommend that too. And in fact, the purpose of this post is to breifly make the case that it's more complex and interesting than Chess.

That's a bit of a sore point for me, I have to admit. Mainly because, as noted, Shogi is kind of nationalistic thing in Japan. Players literally belong to a guild that borders on being a secret society. They join at a young age (there's a cap) and go into an apprenticeship - after which point they spend the rest of their professional lives in the guild. It imposes all kinds of xenophobic rules - like, for example, that professional Shogi players aren't allowed to play official matches against computers. (They train with them, but the only time a Shogi master has played a computer(link goes to play-by-play), it was with special permission of his guild.) And although they aren't specifically forbidden from playing foreigners, the low bar entry age makes it highly unlikely that they ever do. Most ordinary Japanese people are completely convinced that Shogi is the most complicated strategy game in the world. While I rather doubt that (probably that honor goes to Igo - at least among traditional games) - I do think it's probably more complex than chess. Here are the reasons:

  1. Bigger board, more pieces - the board in Shogi is 9X9, compared with 8X8 for chess. In addition, each side in Shogi has 20 pieces to worry about, compared with 16 for Chess. While this naturally doesn't guarantee a greater combination of possible sensible games, it does more or less guarantee a greater number of possible games (and hence probably a greater number of decisions per turn).

  2. Drops - adding to the idea that there are more possibilities to consider per turn is the drop factor. In Shogi, captured pieces convert to the capturing player's side. He keeps them in hand and, in place of moving one of his own pieces, he may drop one of the captured pieces anywhere on the board. This alone greatly increases the number of potential configurations that a player has to consider when making his decision. More importantly, it removes the option of "simplifying," as Chess players like to call it: killing off pieces to clear the board when one has a slight advantage.

  3. Shorter range - adding to the problem is the shorter range of most of the pieces. In Chess, there is a greater number of pieces that can travel several spaces in a single move. In Shogi, by contrast, pieces generally move only one space at a time (with several important exceptions, of course). This means that the conflict in Shogi is less direct; one is required to plan further ahead and generally doesn't have the luxury of anticipating specific moves. It takes longer to build up to actual battle, and one must plan in the abstract.

  4. No center of battle - anyone who's had a crashcourse in Chess strategy can tell you that the second thing they teach you is "control the middle four squares of the board." (The first thing is "get your pieces out and into play fast!") This is good advice in that lots of the pieces seem to be naturally trained on those four squares anyway. It's like the boardgame version of Palestine - a crossroads any aspiring power needs to control to maintain hegemony. Just because of the setup, there is no such nerve center on a Shogi board. Action typically takes place along both flanks at once - and there never seems to be a complete focus of action the way there often is in Chess. Players really do have to pay attention to the whole board; there don't seem to be as many heuristics available for help.

Naturally, "more complex" doesn't necessarily translate into "more fun." Considering gaming as an art form, I much prefer Chess - and largely for the reasons outlined above, actually. I like "simplifying." Indeed, that's the whole thrill of Chess for me. What I live for in Chess is that moment when I realize that I've subtly got the upper hand and can press my advantage. That's less subtle and more bloodthirsty, I suppose, but isn't the kill what it's all about? My favorite Chess game, in fact, is one of Bobby Fischer's, which he describes as a "lightningbolt," in which he absolutely castrates a fussy opponent who spends so much time setting up the perfect defense net that Fischer is able to just zap him with an unexpected sacrifice. That kind of thing happens a lot less often in Shogi, and this makes it less thrilling. I also like the fact that Chess is more integrated. It isn't a mess of separate battles being fought here and there all over the board, and (and this point can't really be explained - you have to play Shogi a lot to really know what I mean) there are fewer pointless "loop exchanges." Because of the dropping rule, it seems like Shogi captures get drawn out into pointless detail a lot of the time. Rather than simply taking a piece and advancing your position, you sometimes have to go through a series of captures, recaptures, drops, redrops, etc. before staking claim to a particular area on the board. Because of the more direct and involved (all pieces are trained on the same areas, usually) nature of Chess, Chess seems more integrated and elegant to me. It's a beautiful thing in the hands of skilled player. I never get the same feeling of being in the presence of beauty watching Shogi players at work.

All the same, at the end of the day I would rather play Shogi - and that's simply because it's mindfood. Chess is a kind of aesthetic for me - I enjoy winning it, and I enjoy watching other people win it, but I'm less motivated to study the subtleties. I am willing to read transcripts of Chess games, but I'm not so much interested in listening to commentary on it, or on working endgame problems or memorizing formations. Shogi is more fun to pick through because it's harder to spot the moment when the game switches. Mistakes aren't as easy to unearth - and tracing back just what went wrong where can be more absorbing than it is with Chess (where it's usually plenty obvious). In addition, mate problems are actually interesting with Shogi, whereas I mostly find endgames in Chess tedious. Chess is about simplifying for me. There's a point where you just know who has the upper hand, and beyond that it's just fussing. The fact that a game can slip away from someone who dominated the middlegame in Chess just seems unjust - because it's all about the middlegame for me. With Shogi, I don't mind the endgame. The mate problems are truly challenging - and it's really not uncommon to pass opportunities for mate just because they're often so subtle it's almost not humanly possible to know they're there.

So the conclusion is - for me, Chess is more fun to watch, and more fun to play for amusement. It's a truly beautiful thing when done right - and thus better appreciated as a spectator sport. But I ultimately like Shogi better. It's not as pretty and not as transparent, but it wins for me on straight logical complexity. My programmer's love of problem solving and arcane detail just has more to cut its teeth on, I suppose. I may consider starting a club here at IU.

Mozart and Salieri

Like everyone who grew up in the 80s, my perceptions of musical history are greatly skewed by this excellent movie, based, in turn, on Peter Shaffer's highly successful play. Everyone knows the premise: Antonio Salieri drives himself to suicide (attempted and failed) over his obsession with the idea that God is taunting him through Mozart. Indeed, he believes he has poisoned Mozart to death out of jealousy. Though I always wondered if the main point of the play, really, wasn't to have been highlighting what a boor the real Mozart was - in contrast to his apollonian music.

To the extent that the play is meant to have a bit of fun at the expense of the prim churchgoers who idolize Mozart, I suppose it's only fitting that someone should have come out with an internet quiz testing the listener's ability to distinguish between Mozart and Salieri compositions. The link goes to just that - and I'm ashamed to say I scored barely above chance (6/10) - missing even the passage from Don Giovanni. So Shaffer gets a well-deserved laugh at my expense, I suppose.

Reality seems to have been that there was some minor rivalry between Mozart and Salieri. Their respective positions in society as portrayed in the film are accurate - but the lengths to which Salieri went to discredit Mozart might not be. Rumors that Salieri blamed himself for Mozart's early death are real, but the substance behind them apparently not so much (all of the witnesses to this supposed deathbed confession - converted in the movie to a suicide attempt - denied having heard it when questioned). In fact, Salieri seems to have largely given Mozart his due in public, even promoting some of his operas and masses.

As for where the perception Shaffer's play is based on came from - it's Pushkin's fault.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Don't Think of a Ticking Timebomb

Andrew Gelman over at Overcoming Bias proposes that there is a "one-sided bet" fallacy. He describes it as "see[ing] only half the problem" and "not realiz[ing] that there are any tradeoffs at all."

To get my nitpicking out of the way: his description isn't quite accurate as he applies it to many situations where the person has simply underestimated (or actually MISestimated - not necessarily just "misunderestimated") the real tradeoff rather than being completely unaware that there is a tradeoff. On top of that, I'm not entirely comfortable calling this a "fallacy," probably due to the scalar nature of its application. That is, people can be more or less guilty of this (corresponding to the extent to which they misjudge the actual tradeoff they're making), and so it seems like a data-gathering problem more than a logical problem. And in those examples where it IS an absolute failure to recognize the existence of a tradeoff, then isn't it simply a normal false dichotomy?

But never mind - I think "sure bet fallacy" (if I may restyle it such) is a useful term all the same - because it certainly is true that people frequently misjudge the tradeoff they are making when they make decisions when they really ought to know better. One of Dr. Gelman's examples is particularly frustrating for me in this age of rampant smoking bans. He talks about asking students whether they will accept a large sum of money in exchange for the one-time one-in-a-billion risk of instant death. Of course you should take the wager - because you FREQUENTLY accept the same wager for much smaller sums of money (you might go running across the street because you left your wallet, which contains credit cards with limits much less than the hypothetical sum of money, and in so doing you incur a MUCH greater than one-in-a-billion chance of instant death in a traffic accident, for example. And to add injury to insult here, you're not even guaranteed to lose your money to theft if you simply wait for the light to change to cross, etc.). People get really irrational when someone tells them that something could kill them. IN fact, most things can kill you if applied properly, and, in the immortal words of Frank Drebbin "We all take risks. You take a risk just getting up in the morning, crossing the street, or sticking your face in a fan."

I would like, however, to take issue with this one of Dr. Gelman's examples:

Torture and the ticking time bomb: the argument that it's morally defensible (maybe even imperative) to torture a prisoner if this will yield even a small probability of finding where the ticking (H)-bomb is that will obliterate a large city. Again, this ignores the other side of the decision tree: the probability that, by torturing someone, you will motivate someone else to blow up your city.

Hmmm.... seems like Dr. Gelman is falling victim to his own fallacy. That is, he's here insisting that this decision be approached as a tradeoff when for all practical purposes it probably isn't. I mean, right, we can get nitpicky and acknowledge that there is a real risk that there's actually someone alive in the world who would resort to bombing another one of your cities just because you tortured someone to save the city in question from certain doom - but I think any detached observer will admit that this is SO unlikely and implausible as to be hardly worth our time considering. After all, anyone who will resort to bombing a city is probably already in the situation where he hardly needs this single incident of torture to motivate him. If torturing this man to save your city from certain doom will set him off, then as likely as not you'll do something else next week without even knowing it that will set him off as well. He's either not a rational agent, or he's already your sworn and deadly enemy (or, mostly likely, both) - and in either case it seems futile to worry too much about how your actions will affect his decisions as he's coming after you in the end anyway.

This particular application of the "sure bet fallacy" strikes me as particularly dangerous, and particularly rampant among anti-war leftists, in political discourse today - so much so that it's worth countering it.

Jonathan Rauch describes himself as "anti-anti-war" in an essay apologizing for his pro-war stance - an essay that I found quite a good read simply because it spoke to some of my own feelings on the subject. I was more vocal in my support of the Iraq War than Rauch (and I "technically" still support it, where he has recanted) - but I have also admitted that a lot of my motivation back in 2003 was "anti-anti-war" sentiment. And yes, fine, that's an emotional and irrational motivation. But the point is it's there for a lot of us. The anti-war crowd is so maddening that it's sometimes really hard to say things that please them, even if those things are right. And the main reason, in my opinion, that the anti-war crowd is maddening is because they make EXACTLY the mistake that Dr. Gelman is making here. They overestimate the extent to which things we do form the basis of a terrorist's motivation. Maddeningly, they also seem to be in a position to believe that people who blow up innocents are in a position to make moral calculations in the same way that we do. That is, they tend to assume that bad things we do will result in further attacks, but they neglect the possibility that many of the good things we do (such as treating women as equals or allowing for legal sodomy) will form an equal or even more powerful motivation for terrorists. And so they form their opinions about our policy based on seriously skewed tradeoff parameters.

While we're making up logical fallacies, I would like to call this the "Star Trek Fallacy." Or maybe the "Picard Fallacy," or the "Roddenberry Fallacy." And I would like to further be so bold as to say it's the product of a weak moral sense.

Star Trek - ESPECIALLY Next Generation Star Trek (which I despise largely for exactly this reason) - is replete with examples where doing "the right thing" turns out to be politically expedient in some grander scheme of things. We get a couple of scenes of obligatory moral agonizing, but we the viewers know that in the end things will work out. Doing the right thing will end up being proof to some megapowerful entity that humanity is worth being given a shot at continued existence after all, and so it turns out in the 47th minute that the REAL choice we were facing wasn't whether or not to torture our captured terrorist and in so doing save a city, but rather whether or not to torture a terrorist and in NOT so doing ensure the continued survival of our species (???).

It's maddening how often a show that purports to be atheist pulls this trick - which really is the equivalent of what you were taught in Sunday school. You can lie and net a minor short-term benefit, or you can face GOD'S WRATH! Well, as Immanuel Kant points out, this isn't a moral choice at all. Moral choices are made to preserve the rule that demands them - but traditional Christian moral choices are very much made on the basis of a reward system - i.e. aren't moral choices at all.

Someone will point out, of course, that Picard/Kirk don't know that there are all-powerful space entities watching them when they make the choices they make. But damnit after 50+ episodes of this they bloody well OUGHT to know, right? The point is that it gives the audience the same sort of goofy (misnamed) "moral" sense that believeing in God does: the illusion that every action is being scrutinized by someone with a psychotic sense of reward and punishment. Even if Picard and Kirk aren't allowed - for purely dramatic purposes, you understand - to get used to this schtick, we the audience do (and some of us, in fact, get REALLY sick of it). And the effect of all this is to allow the writers to justify what really is a sense of skewed priorities on their part. I.e. that torture is always bad, or that carrying a gun only leads to trouble, or whatever else the Hollywood cause du jour is.

Now my problem is in trying to describe this concisely! Here's a stab:

The Star Trek Fallacy is the assumption that all moral prohibitions are absolutes - the elevation in status of a rational constraint to religious taboo, complete with (implied) mystical reward and punishment system.

I suppose Dr. Gelman, if he ever were to read this, might object that this is but a particular instance of the "sure bet fallacy" since it, too, involves an essentially skewed look at the actual tradeoff being made. But I think there's another dimension to this one; the difference is that people are operating as though there were a clear and one-sided tradeoff (an "offer they can't refuse") but telling themselves that their motivations are pure and moral. Or, more accurately, they have imagined a tradeoff more extreme than the one that actually exists for the purpose of flattering their moral sense. They want to have an absolute moral prohibition, but they can't quite bring themselves to it, so they concoct an implied punishment and act as though that were real (or at least, as though it were more of a threat than it actually is).

And alright, so this is even less of a "fallacy" than Dr. Gelman's "sure bet fallacy." I never claimed that this was a real logical fallacy - just that it's an annoying and frequent error that you have to face when arguing with irrational people.

Which brings me back to the anti-war crowd. Although I, unlike Rauch, consider myself a supporter of the War (even now), like Rauch I'm probably more "anti-anti-war" than I am "pro-war." After all, my ideal foreign policy is Ron Paul's - a policy of complete withdrawal from meddling in the world. Meaning: no wars, no foreign aid - only trade and extradition treaties on a case-by-case basis. My support for the war is very much a "given the circumstances" kind of thing.

So I get really tired of people who base their political opinions on fantasy - and I think a lot of the hand-wringing about torture is exactly that. It's the best example of the Star Trek Fallacy anyone is likely to see. People talk as though their opposition to torture is based on a deep moral concern, but in the very next sentence they give away the farm and tell you that torturing people will only embolden terrorists and recruit more disaffected Arab youth to the cause. Meaning really it's based on an irrational fear and they're just styling it as "moral." If this were stated rationally, of course, it wouldn't be a "fallacy" (in our new, looser use of the term, of course) at all. It would be an ultimately empirical argument that we could resolve by taking an honest look at the situation and evaluating our chances. But since the way in which they're stating their position is dishonest, we can't ever have that discussion. Because the "tradeoff" is really just an excuse to allow them to morally simplify. What's at stake, ultimately, is their need to feel "civilized." They think that's what "civilized" people do, and this is a club they want to be in.

It's much the same with arguments for gun control. The most common one you hear is that "guns are bad." As though that were the whole of the situation. Guns are tools. True - their purpose is to kill or injure in the same way that a hammer's purpose is to drive in a nail, and since we dislike killing and injuring we tend to think that guns, which have this as their purpose, are inherently bad. But this is a gross oversimplification. Sometimes killing and injuring result in something better than not doing so - specifically, they prevent unjust killing and injuring. It's a nice fantasy to think that you're the kind of person who has no killing or injuring in his life, but that's not the real world. In the real world, we're often in situations where killing and injuring are the least-bad options. (You don't even have to think of a criminal attack here. Imagine a pack of dogs attacking one of your children - if, say, you live in the UP.) People who like to think of themselves as exemplars of "civilized behavior" are of course "against injury," but then aren't we all? So they elevate the prohibition on guns to an absolute so that they can feel "civilized," even though it's based on an improper reading of the situation. The telltale sign that we're in the presence of the Star Trek Fallacy are the frequent claims that "people who try to defend themselves with guns are more likely to have their own gun used against them." There's that practical consequence of "wrong thinking" again. The implication is that "if you sully yourself by owning a gun, the unnamed entity that watches everything we do and punishes the uncivilized will see to it that you are attacked and that your gun makes it worse than it would otherwise have been."

The truth about torture is this: it's COMPLETELY justified to save a city from a certain bombing. I would say that it is, in fact, the "civilized" thing to do in this case. There is nothing "civilized" about refraining from torture and so letting hundreds of thousands die. If torture seems to be the only way to save their lives, and you are reasonably sure that the person before you is guilty of (or at least complicit in) trying to murder hundreds of thousands of innocents, then it is truly perverse to get all morally squeamish about torture. Just as I believe it is perverse NOT to shoot someone who breaks into your house in the middle of the night. You may safely presume, at that point, that he intends to do you harm. Shoot the fucker. He started it after all.

As for the supposed "tradeoff" - i.e. that torturing this guy (and saving the city) will only result in another city being bombed - PLEASE! Surely this is Dr. Gelman's Star Trek Fallacy imagination at work. If we resort to torture, the cosmic entity that watches us to make sure we're civilized will see to it that something terrible results. But something terrible is already going to happen if we DON'T torture. And of course, in reality, the supposition that terrorists are all that motivated by our decision (or not) to torture probably doesn't hold up. We spent decades not torturing terrorists before we decided to start doing (a pussified version of) it, and yet they still attacked us. So fine - technically I suppose it's possible that there's someone out there who would actually refrain from ever attacking us again if we only just don't torture and let this one pet bombing go through. But in the real world, that risk is so negligable as to be something we can practically ignore. For all practical purposes, the "sure bet fallacy" in this situation isn't a fallacy at all. If there's a ticking timebomb and a man in front of you who will tell you how to disarm it if your torture him, and thousands of lives really do hang in the balance - the for God's Sake (heh) torture the guy!

But alright - to be fair, Dr. Gelman worded his hypothetical in a different way than we're used to seeing it. He adds in the "even a small probability." That's not something you normally see in this scenario. Normally the "ticking bomb" scenario is that torturing the man in front of you is more or less guaranteed to net you the information you need - and the finesse comes in at the end when the questioner, having gotten you to agree that torture under these circumstances would be fine (or even imperative, as I personally believe), then asks what your certainty threshold is. That is, how "certain" do you have to be that torturing the man in front of you will get you what you want? And that's the rub, of course - we'll all have different threshholds, and there's virtually guaranteed to be someone in the government whose threshhold is lower than yours - i.e. who is willing to torture for less than you are. And so the point is generally that you should oppose torture ATB rather than run the risk of having given your stamp of approval to someone who will abuse the permission you the voter "gave" them to torture in your name. And this is indeed something worth thinking about. Because the lower the threshhold of certainty, the more, I suppose, we run the risk of inspiring people to further bomb as a result of our actions.

Nevertheless, I think the real tradeoff in such situations is a moral one and not one of military consequences. The real tradeoff is one of whether we're torturing innocent people - something we avoid not because it will lead to further bombings, but because we value justice. Because even with Dr. Gelman's revised version of the normal way this conundrum is pitched, the risk of collateral damage from torture is probably pretty low. Unless torture by our military is rampant and completely random, it seems unlikely to inspire anyone to plant bombs who wouldn't have already done so for independent reasons. Sure, they may cite it as justification - but that doesn't mean we need to take them at their word.

And so I think this case is misstated. I agree that "sure bet fallacy" can be a useful (if informal) term in debate - but I do not think it really applies to this situation. Unless the person is advocating systematic torture (something that no one, as far as I am aware, is even hinting at advocating), then the tradeoff Dr. Gelman is talking about is so negligable as to be something that we can ignore for the purposes of practical discussion.

Torture is morally permissible in situations where it is applied to someone who is likely guilty and its application will result in saving innocent lives. This point cannot be rationally disputed. The question is how "costly" we want to make torture so as to avoid mistakes. I agree with Noah (pc) who wants to make the cost absolute in legal terms. We can forbid torture across the board and trust in human nature. That is, we trust that anyone who actually finds himself in a classic "ticking bomb" scenario will be willing to break the law and risk the penalty to save thousands of innocents. We then put our trust in an executive pardon to override the legal consequences. This is, after all, precisely the kind of situation that executive pardons were intended to cover. So: a full legal ban on torture, but with the moral understanding that it is sometimes necessary, albeit only in extreme circumstances. The legal ban just enforces that we only use it as a last resort (a notion that probably cannot be coded legally to everyone's satisfaction and/or without some pretty nasty unintended consequences).

Now - in the interest of fairness I will admit that I may have grossly misrepresented things. I'm going, after all, off of a three-line blog entry from someone I don't know rather than an indepth conversation with someone I do. But Dr. Gelman's speculation about torture smacks of Star Trek Fallacy to me. We've been given an excuse based on a gross exaggeration of consequences to elevate something to the status of an absolute prohibition that isn't actually, nor should it be.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

An Exercise in Selective Offense-Taking

Anyone looking for a reason to support Islamofascist Awareness Week need look no further than to the fact that James Watson has been suspended for being racist.

Ok - but before I go on, the Rules of Commentary© require that I unequivocally declare my opposition to racism in hyperbolic terms - preferably including the words "reprehensible," "despicable" and/or "disgusting." So I would just like to say from the bottom of my heart that racism is a blight on modern society, and, um, it has, like, no place in the modern world, and it's really reprehensible and disgusting and that I in no way condone Dr. Watson's ... oh, what's the word? ... ignorant! (right! whew) ... opinions about Africans. May his rotting corpse hang from a tree ... or something.

Anyway - he's apparently been suspended from his genetics lab, where he's worked for the last 35 years - some of that time in the capacity of director. And this for making a racist statement or two in public.

It's pretty clear that one of three things is going on here. Either the lab has long been dissatisfied with Dr. Watson's performance and is using this as an excuse to rid themselves of a scab who would otherwise have been hard to fire, or else he really is being fired for expressing the wrong political opinions in public, or else the lab is genuinely concerned that Dr. Watson's opinions - which, after all, he peppers with references to Genetics, which is meant to be his specialty - will be taken as its research conclusions and thus damage its scientific reputation.

All three are plausible. And crucially, whichever of the three it happens to be, it's a good reason to hold an Islamofascist awareness week. Let me explain.

Julio Pino still has a job. Far from suspending him for supporting a backward religion that wants to kill Jews and Homosexuals and keep women at home having babies rather than participating in public society, Kent State has consistently stood by Dr.(?) Pino's right to express himself - regardless of the content of his speech. That, they say, is what free speech is all about.

And so it is.

Neither has Nicholas de Genova been fired. This is the (untenured) assistant professor at Columbia who wants the US Army to suffer "a million Mogadishus." See - Mr. de Genova thinks it's cool when American soldiers die. Lee Bolinger did the obligatory by calling this statement "outrageous," but of course de Genova was never in danger of losing his job. Columbia University also believes in free speech.

And then there's dear ol Ward Churchill. This is the "little Eichmanns" guy - you know, the faux "indian" former head of the University of Colorado's Ethnic Studies Department - tenured without a PhD. He thinks that just going to work in the Trade Center makes you guilty of a Crime Against Humanity and therefore a legitimate target for radical Islamic attacks. He was eventually fired, but only after 4 years of sstained pressure, and then only because his copious plagiarizing had been exposed in the press.

All three of these people said things easily as offensive as what James Watson said. All three of them were held up as "victims" of vicious "attacks on free speech."

Well, well. So free speech protects openly wishing for murder, but making the wrong kind of scientific suggestion (one which can be tested and easily debunked in public, one hastens to add) is beyond the pale?

Clearly there's a double standard at work here. Dr. Watson's racism is offensive, no question about it. But then, so is Dr. Pino's pro-Jihadism. So is de Genova's treason. And so is Ward Churchill's very existence.

In all of these cases, the universities in question probably should have been looking for an excuse to fire the individuals. In all of these cases, the universities in question probably should have been worried about the potential damage to their reputations. And certainly in all of these cases the content of the speech was at least as offensive as Dr. Watson's. Watson is, after all, not proposing that we kill black people, or enslave them, or even that we cut off aid to Africa. All he was really saying was that we need to give aid to Africa in an even more condescending way than we're doing it now. Offensive? Certainly. But forgive me for finding it a tad less offensive than openly praising terrorist attacks that have claimed actual innocent victims as part of a greater goal of rolling back western civilization.

My proposed solution is that Dr. Watson should keep his job. As should Drs. Pino and de Genova - not that they were ever in danger of losing theirs. (I support firing Ward Churchill because his promotions were suspicious and he was, after all, a plagiarist. Plagiarism - a form of fraud - is a proper reason to fire an academic - much the same way you fire anyone who lied on their resume.) And I further propose that all the cowards in England and Scotland who cancelled Dr. Watson's lectures on account of his not being up to scruff on political correctness should invite him back and face him. After all, if they thought he had nothing useful to say, why did they invite him in the first place? And I further propose that people expose Dr. Watson for the racist he apparently is. And of course I have no problem with public denounciations of racism. Like every Libertarian, racism is anathema to me, as it is nothing but another form of collectivism at diametric odds with our individualist political philosophy.

But you know what else is anathema to me? Islam. Especially the violent "lets go back to the Stone Age" Taliban type. So I really don't see what's so wrong with publicly denouncing that as well. If Dr. Watson's racism is offensive, then so are the views of those who want to force oppression of gays and women and Jews and generally anyone who doesn't share their vivid and twisted imagination. And if we have time to make quick work of the one, then I think we have time to make quick work of the other.

This is a double standard, and a pretty frightening one. I don't have very high expectations of "Islamofascism Awareness Week," but if it can hold up the mirror a bit and let academia take a look at its double standards it will have done something useful. Hopefully then academics can start approximating something like real commitment to free speech - i.e. not the current selective commitment to only protecting certain kinds of free speech on a wholly irrational basis. It's very simple: if what Pino and de Genova say is not worth a firing (and it's not), then what Dr. Watson says isn't worth a firing either.

Now - I wonder how long it takes IDS to come out with something condemning Dr. Watson, and thereby completely missing the point, as usual?

Monday, October 22, 2007

The Quantifiability Constraint (on Leftism)

A week or so ago I blogged about Warren Buffet's pedestrian leftism - which gave me more occasion to ponder just why it is that there seems to be no shortage of leftist celebrities. Some speculative answers offered by Lew Rockwell(via his favorite dead Capitalists):

  1. Arrogance - intellectuals and celebrities fancy themselves smarter than the herd, and they honestly think they can remake soceity in a better image than the free market can. (Hayek)

  2. Resentment and/or Guilt - people with overinflated egos resent the fact that they're not rewarded by the system better than they are - or else they feel maybe they're over-rewarded, as Buffet does. (Mises)

  3. Security - in the case of intellectuals, the ones that know their skills don't amount to much in the business world need funding, and in the case of celebrities, they've seen money come at them so fast they worry it can be taken away again as quickly. (Rothbard)

I think all of these are plausible explanations with a grain of truth in them. But I can't quite shake the Warren Buffet example. Buffet is a smart and capable guy - specifically smart and capable on applied economics matters. So I feel like we'd have to dig a bit deeper to figure out the cause of the ailment. Originally I suggested that maybe it's genetic. Maybe there's just a leftist gene (more accurately - hugely complicated combination of genes that predispose people to certain kinds of philosophical errors that underly leftism rather than "causing" it). But of course that's as hand-wavy as anything: no genetic configuation can ever be causally linked to a personal philosophy in the required way.

So let me make this more serious suggestion: leftists are more likely to be found working in professions where renumeration is unpredictable and divorced in some way from the quantity of work input.

This at least explains all my stereotypes. Under this model, people who build up manufacturing firms by their bare hands are unlikely to be left-wingers - or BigGuv types of any stripe. This is because in industries that produce material things, the amount of reward you receive is more or less proportional to the amount of output. The more "stuff" you make, the more money gets thrown back at you. So it's very simple: work harder, get richer. Taxes and intrusions will be more offensive to such people simply because they can, with a reasonable degree of accuracy, measure the cost of the intrusion. They know exactly how much profit could've been turned by the money they instead had to pay in taxes, and they begin to ask themselves whether it's worth it to remain productive if the government's just going to keep stealing the fruits of their labor.

On the other side of the coin are people in professions like Buffet's - and like the professions of most pop musicians and movie stars, actually. Think about it: when a movie star goes to make a movie, they have no idea whether it will be a hit, really. Sure, by virtue of their name, some people are guaranteed to command a certain minimal cut. But whether the movie will make fabulous amounts of money or else end up costing the studio? In principle - it's impossible to predict. More relevant still: whichever way the balance swings, how far it ends up swinging really is anyone's guess. How much a movie makes really has very little to do with how much "work" goes into producing it. It's a crapshoot every time. Ditto pop musicians. Ditto fighters like Mike Tyson. Ditto, ultimately, investment bankers like Warren Buffet. There isn't any real sense in which "working more" directly correlates with more success on Buffet's part. Certainly there isn't any magic ratio that tells him that being x more productive (whatever that means in the investment world) will likely net him y worth of increased profits. No - really he just has a fixed amount of money, and he puts in a certain amount of time planning strategy, and his strategy either works in a given period or it doesn't (mostly it works), but how well it works (or doesn't) really isn't something that can be predicted with any great degree of accuracy. The best Buffet can do is hedge and protect himself - but he can't reasonably say "c'mon, Warren, just three more hours a day in the office for a month. Then we'll net an extra hundred million! It'll be worth it in the end."

And so I submit that there is a "quantifiability constraint" on leftism. The more your industry affords predictable reward for known amounts of work, the less likely you are to be a Socialist. And the less predictable the reward scale in your particular industry is - put differently, the more decoupled work input is from profit in your particular industry - the more likely you are to be a Socialist of some kind.

Naturally, these are generalizations, so all the normal caveats apply. But I would note that working in academia is a classic example of an environment where work input is decoupled from financial reward. For the most part, our salaries and opportunities don't change much based on what we academics do or don't, and there's just no effort-based formula for coming up with the Next Brilliant Idea in your field. So I guess in some important sense it isn't really surprising that lots of academics are leftists. I would say that it isn't so much that academia encourages leftism as it is that there's nothing in the environment discouraging it - and so we're on fertile soil for it.

I would further note that professions where effort is decoupled from reward (at least in any quantifiable feedback sense) seem also to disproportionately include those professions that afford people a public forum. Intellectuals, for all their griping about being ignored, are, I'll wager, a lot more likely to be interviewed on the news than the average CEO. Certainly they're a lot less likely to make the news than Hollywood celebs - but then, Hollywood is an even better example of a profession where reward is decoupled from effort.

Further still - I think this also goes a long way to explaining why so many blue-collar people fail to be leftists, even though most leftist intellectuals think that they're fighting for exactly these people's "cause." Again - most blue-collar people work in jobs that are paid by the hour, by the output, or even both. More work equals more renumeration, and so they fall into the category of those that can reasonably calculate the cost of government intrusion into their lives. Not surprising that they end up resenting it.

Alright - just a thought. Some sociologist should now go out and prove it for me.

More Logic Lessons from my Favorite Teacher

I have often thought that if, by some miracle, IU decided to include argumentative logic in its core requirements, and if, by a further miracle, they asked me to teach it, I would simply use the IDS Opinion Page in place of a textbook. It's a cornucopia - YES, a COR-U-COPIA - of lessons in "what not to do if you want to make a coherent argument." And today's staff editorial is like the classic example of a false dichotomy.

So apparently it's Islamofascism Awareness Week. This is all the brainchild of David "Affirmative Action is OK when it's for Conservatives" Horowitz and Ann "Gayboy" Coulter - which are two immediate and pressing reasons to consider opposing it, I admit. But an idea is not responsible for the people who hold it, and I don't mind going on record saying that a week devoted to denouncing professors who apologize for Islamic fascism isn't necessarily a bad idea.

Of course, since it's not necessarily a bad idea, IDS could only be in favor of it by accident - and I guess no one spun three lemons today, so they're not.

That isn't to say there aren't good reasons for opposing it, of course. The most obvious one that springs to mind is that anything headed by David Horowitz is a witchhunt waiting to happen. It's like joining the Red Army to fight the Nazis, really: fun while it lasts, but once it's all over you have to go home to the Soviet Union. Oops!

But of course the IDS isn't opposing it because it might turn into a witchhunt. They're against it because ... wait for it ... it targets professors rather than actually fighting islamic terrorists.

You get how this works. "You can either fight Islamofascism, or you can fight college professors, but you can't do both." Hmmm....

What hasn't occurred to IDS is that you can do both. You can even do both at the same time. And that's largely because there are professors like Ward Churchill, Julio Pino, and Nicholas de Genova mucking about. Part of fighting Islamofascism involves arguing against the people who support it, and to the extent that there are people who support it here in the US on our college campuses, we can and do fight it when we denounce these people.

Of course "denounce" should not mean (as Horowitz no doubt intends it to mean) "strip of tenure" and/or "censor." As I said, the good reason I can think of to be wary about an "Islamofascism Awareness Week" - at least, one with Horowitz at the helm - is that we don't need a revival of McCarthyism. But here in Reality(tm), we know that's unlikely to happen. Indeed, any "Islamofascism Awareness Week" as can be scraped together by a ragtag band of long-suffering College Republicans groups on our campuses is more likely than anything to amount to exactly what IDS wants to see "instead:"

...[having] actual scholars (not conservative pundits) teach about how terrorist groups work, familiarize students with the political and cultural context that gave rise to these groups, sponsor debates on how to counter them and otherwise do things that are actually educational.

I fail to see how calling attention to the ideas of professors the Right thinks are enabling Islamofascist ideas would be anything other than "educational." The sponsoring groups are a very very long way from the level of influence that would allow them to burn books in public and/or actually get anyone banned or censored. The Second Coming of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution ... won't. And so the only effect I can really see this having is that a handful of thoughtful people will actually go out and read some of the references conservatives offer as evidence (assuming they've bothered to dig any up - and I'm optimistic here). To the extent that those references really are pro-Islamofascist, the protetst will have opened some eyes. To the extent that the protestors are exaggerating, people will smirk at them and go about their business.

What I don't see happening in any possible universe is that resources that would've otherwise been devoted to "countering these [Islamofascist] groups" will now be taken up denouncing professors instead. The IDS Editorial board should come clean: what have they really done in the struggle against global jihad lately?

Most of us just don't think about it. And another thing I don't mind going on record saying is that I think that's OK too. I find it really bizarre, to tell the truth, that anyone pays much attention to Islam at all. Like Christianity and all religions, it's a silly superstition. Its only distinguishing characteristic, really, is that it's a lot bloodthirstier than most religions, which just makes it, in my humble opinion, the worst major religion on the planet. We hardly NEED to argue against it - the material prosperity of the West has already won that little battle.

Communism was a real intellectual threat. People believed in it. Astonishingly, some even still do. I don't think anyone with half a brain believes in Islam - or if they do, they're highly unlikely to believe in the brand of it that wants to bomb everyone back into the Stone Age. It just isn't really that scary, and I don't think there's much students can do, have to do, or even should do to help fight it; it will go away on its own in time. The Conservatives can do us all a favor by calling attention to just how many apologies have been made for the styled "Religion of Peace," but it isn't a very big favor. And it's not a very convincing favor either coming from people who mostly believe in Jesus. But if they want to do it for us anyway, why not let them? I don't mind looking at their evidence, and IDS shouldn't either.

What's silly is saying that somehow the energy that goes into mounting this protest could've been better spent fighting Islam in other ways. How, I wonder?

But here is IDS' opinion of the people behind this in black and white for all to read:

“Never mind those with the bombs,” they seem to think. “It’s academics who criticize U.S. foreign policy and society, who are reticent about military force, who keep repeating that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims aren’t terrorists and that Westerners need to better understand their cultures, and who fret about global warming who are the real enemy.” This is a load of rubbish.

No, the idea that anyone in the real world actually fits this strawman description is rubbish. Horowitz et al are very much concerned about "those with the bombs." This is why they support the War in Iraq. Leaving aside whether this war will actually do anything to stop the people with bombs, the point is that Horowitz and most conservatives support it for that reason. Denouncing (they would say "exposing") college profs here in the States who support radical Islam is but one front in their greater war. It's all part and parcel of the same fight - to them.

And so this is a classic false dichotomy. It's easily swatted away in a realtime debate. What concerns me, actually, is that this kind of shoddy argument makes the press in college newspapers. It the core curriculum were worth its salt, it wouldn't.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Man with no Plan

TOWM quote of the day comes from Cyd Malone, writing on the Mises Institute's Daily Article log.

Ron Paul's Big Plan is that there is no Big Plan.

That's probably the best "in a nutshell" summary of why I'm voting for him anyone could have thought of. Sure, it's simplisitc - and if there's one thing I guess politics suffers from, it's an overdose of oversimplified. But there's "simplified" and there's "simple." In the case of most politicians, I guess they simplify issues to avoid having to deal with the messy details, or to avoid telling the public things they know it doesn't want to hear. Other times, of course, they simplify because they don't have a clue what they're even talking about. But now and then the clouds lift, and you get someone whose political philosophy really can fit in a single sentence for the right reason: because it's integrated, whole and consistent.

I'm voting for Ron Paul becuase he has no plan - right. Because that's honestly the best way to run the government. Because I'm sick to the fucking core of watching the major-party candidates trip over themselves scrambling to be the one who can be the most things to the most people with money they didn't earn and will only mismanage in the end. Because I want a government run according to the UNIX philosophy:

Write programs that do one thing and do it well.

Beautiful! I want a government that does one thing only and does it well - and that's protect our rights. Healthcare? People can and should manage that on their own. Never mind that healthcare would be cheaper, more efficient, and more universally available if the government would clear out of the way - I want people to manage it themselves because healthcare isn't in the government's job description. Social Security? Ditto. It's a nice thought that we should take care of our elderly - but whose bright idea was it to hand the government this task? Where in the concept of government does it say that it's supposed to provide for people in their old age? That's an economic problem - not a political problem. Unemployment? Don't even get me started. Never mind that governments, and not markets, cause unemployment - again, it boils down to the simple matter that government isn't meant to provide people with jobs. That's not what it "does," so its unsurprising that it's no good at it. Mortgage crisis? Again, the government created the mortgage crisis by allowing banks to defy market reality and lend to people they well knew weren't good for the money. It isn't the government's job to manage housing loans, so why are we letting it?

The government exists to maintain the rule of law. That's it. The rest of us are responsible for everything else. So I want a guy as President whose "Big Plan" is that there's no Big Plan. I want, for once, to see someone up there at the debates who, when asked what he is going to do about healthcare can honestly say "nothing, because managing healthcare is not my job."

Back in 1964 we had such a guy.

"I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel old ones that do violence to the Constitution, or that have failed in their purpose, or that impose on the people an unwarranted financial burden. I will not attempt to discover whether legislation is 'needed' before I have first determined whether it is constitutionally permissible. And if I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents 'interests,' I shall reply that I was informed their main interest is liberty and that in that cause, I am doing the very best I can."

I don't know if they make 'em like that anymore. That's Barry Goldwater in his book. I guess everyone frames each passing election as a battle between good (their guy) and evil (the other guy) where nothing less than the future of the country is at stake. But in 1964, it really was that way, and the good guys lost. I doubt Ron Paul is man enough to fill Barry Goldwater's shoes, and I know "they"'re not going to give us a rematch this year. But it isn't hard to see he's by far the closest thing to a true politician in the current field of micromanaging nitwits. His Big Plan is there's no Big Plan. That's exactly what I've been waiting to hear.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Return of Captain Disingenuous

Well, well - Captain Disingenuous is at it again. The link goes to Paul Krugman's latest op-ed piece in the New York Times - a fairly transparent attempt to stake a leftist counter to Charles Krauthammer's popular Bush Derangement Syndrome meme. According to Dr. Krugman, we're expected to beleive that there exists such a thing as "Gore Derangement Syndrome."

What is it about Mr. Gore that drives right-wingers insane?

Hmmmmm... Well, let's start with the obvious. Does Mr. Gore actually drive any right-wingers "insane?" It's worth revisiting Dr. Krauthammer's definition of Bush Derangement Syndrome:

Bush Derangement Syndrome: the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency -- nay -- the very existence of George W. Bush.

In other words, there is a large contingent of people who believe that whatever George W. Bush does as president, whether or not they would independently agree with the policy, is motivated by a scheming and cunning malice, whether or not they can prove it. That is "Bush Derangement Syndrome" - when someone spits venom against a policy they would otherwise agree with but that Bush favors it.

You don't have to look very far to find sufferers. A simple Google search for "Bush Hitler" turns up no shortage of links to websites - like this one - that are excellent cases in point. In a walk down Memory Lane, it also happens to turn up's ads along the same theme. And in fact, nearly any search for "George Bush" of any kind turns up troves of similar items.

Sufferers from any reputed "Gore Derangement Syndrome" are considerably harder to find. On the first page of a Google search for "Gore Hitler," all the links but two go to a Glen Beck quote (to the effect that Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth uses Hitler-like propaganda techniques). And those other two? Well, one is a bonafide right-wing nut site. The other goes to yet another environmentalist comparing a conservative politician to Hitler. Ah, the irony.

But alright - this isn't exactly a scientific approach. The point is just to show that it isn't obvious that there is such a thing as "Gore Derangement Syndrome." Quite the contrary - most rebuttals of Gore that I'm aware of are just that: reasoned rebuttals. In fact, I can't remember a time I heard Gore accused of anything truly nefarious. Certainly people criticize him, and certainly they accuse him of cherry-picking data and exaggerating facts to make his point. But I can't remember ever having heard anyone call him insincere, or accuse him of pushing a darker hidden agenda. By and large, Gore's critics take him at face value. They debate him on the issues. The same can't be said for George W. Bush's critics, who are as likely as not to say that he's "evil" or a "Jesus freak" or "the oil cartel employee of the month" or what have you. It isn't the same at all.

To the extent that people make fun of Gore, it mostly has to do with his wooden delivery style as constrasted with the celebrity status afforded him by a certain chronically-underinformed luddite section of the population. However sincere Mr. Gore himself may be in his crusade to save the planet, it's clear that most of his followers are not. I have yet to meet someone urging me to see An Inconvenient Truth, for example, who had the slightest idea what they were talking about. For the most part, they've taken the movie as holy writ, like the religious zealots they are, and they have no interest in discussing either the science behind it or the finer economic points of his proposals. Any suggestion that the movie may have made some mistakes is met with sneers - and yet make mistakes it did (nine of which are so egregious they now officially have to be corrected by any teacher showing the movie in UK public schools, for example). So yes, Gore bears his share of criticism from conservatives - but for the most part that criticism plays the ball and not the man. When it does play the man (which it admittedly sometimes does), usually it's some of his crazier followers who are intended - not Gore himself. And that's par for the course in politics; hardly what can be fairly styled a "syndrome."

But let's hear some of Dr. Krugman's "arguments." Just what is it about Al Gore that "drives right-wingers insane?"

Partly it’s a reaction to what happened in 2000, when the American people chose Mr. Gore but his opponent somehow ended up in the White House.

Oh dear, this again. That Dr. Krugman can't let this shibboleth go surely says more about him than conservatives. The 2000 election was close, but it was decided according to the laws of the land. If Krugman would like to change the electoral college system to something more populist, he is certainly free to take up that cause. But until the law actually changes, it is the Electoral College, and not the population directly, that elects the president. To be fair, Krugman did once try to make the claim that Gore also won the electoral vote, but his arguments have long ago been dispensed with.

The worst thing about Mr. Gore, from the conservative point of view, is that he keeps being right. In 1992, George H. W. Bush mocked him as the “ozone man,” but three years later the scientists who discovered the threat to the ozone layer won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

You almost have to marvel at the audacity of the sloppiness. First, we're generalizing from a single example. George Bush Sr. mocked Gore, therefore a substantial majority of conservatives must've agreed? These would, one presumes, be the same conservatives who turned out in droves to re-elect Bush in 1992 - because they loved him so much they stood by him when Ross Perot ... wait a minute ...

But even ignoring the fact that Bush I was decidedly not a conservative darling (as Krugman well knows), it's hard to forget that this was the same Bush who pushed through the Clean Air Act of 1990 - the only major revision to the Clean Air Act of 1970 (the one that created the EPA in the first place - which was, incidentally, pushed through by President Nixon), and the act that established the emissions trading scheme that Mr. Gore now favors extending to carbon emissions. Bush I was no foe of environmental causes. Probably if he mocked Gore it's because Gore didn't have a lot of basis for his claims at the time. The fact that scientists won a Nobel for coming to the same conclusions Gore did three years later does nothing to convince me that Gore was standing on an open-and-shut case at the time he made the claims. Anyone can be right by accident. To establish credibility, you have to have been right for a good reason. If carbon emissions were left out of the Clean Air Act of 1990, then it can only have been because there wasn't solid evidence at the time that they were so harmful. In other words, Gore had a lucky hunch.

In 2002 he warned that if we invaded Iraq, “the resulting chaos could easily pose a far greater danger to the United States than we presently face from Saddam.” And so it has proved.

Has it? It's certainly true that the war has gone badly, that chaos has ensued. But what about this chaos is actually dangerous to America? Quite the contrary - the chaos seems to be accomplishing exactly what Bush had repeatedly claimed he wanted - to fight the terrorists "over there" rather than "here at home."

But Gore hatred is more than personal ... for the truth Mr. Gore has been telling about how human activities are changing the climate isn’t just inconvenient. For conservatives, it’s deeply threatening.

“We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals,” said F.D.R. “We know now that it is bad economics.” These words apply perfectly to climate change. It’s in the interest of most people (and especially their descendants) that somebody do something to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, but each individual would like that somebody to be somebody else. Leave it up to the free market, and in a few generations Florida will be underwater..

This, at least, is partly right. It's true that advocates of small government do not want to admit that there is a climate crisis - but not because they doubt that a libertarian model of government can handle it (indeed, they believe it would be the best way to handle it). It is rather because they worry that the public will panic into adopting a strong-arm BigGuv solution. Indeed, they are right to be alarmed: people advocating state solutions to problems have, throughout history, resorted almost exclusively to public panic over a looming crisis (sometimes real, more often imagined or at least exaggerated) to justify their newfound powers. So yes, as an advocate of individual freedom and self-determination, I myself find Gore's version of the "truth" deeply threatening - because I am afraid of what the public can be coaxed into accepting in its name.

Krugman himself illustrates the point nicely here, actually. Notice first the claim that Florida will be underwater in a few generations. In fact, even Mr. Gore hasn't claimed anything so outlandish. But even if he had, this would hardly be the kind of "truth" that one could establish beyond any reasonable doubt - and that is because technology keeps on progressing. True - assuming that technological development stays the same, maybe the looming crisis will eventually be so bad that Florida will be underwater. Who knows? One thing I do know is that technical know-how has progressed throughout history. It is inconceivable to me that in a few generations we'll be relying on the same kind of industrial technology that we use today. And yet Krugman doesn't even want to consider the highly likely possibility that industry will itself develop cleaner technology with time (as it has always done in the past). For him, it's simply "true" that Florida will be underwater in a few generations if we don't approve massive government intervention in the economy to stop it. And this without any mention of the fact that China and India will presumably continue plugging along polluting at their current rate - but with massively expanded economies, meaning a much, much greater volume of pollution. In other words, whatever we in the US do to deal with our pollution problem is unlikely to change the future scenario much unless we get India, China and the rest of Asia on board - something that I don't recall hearing Gore or Krugman ever advocate. Any wonder why I'm scared?

And indeed, Krugman's claim (via FDR) that selfishness is "bad economics" - i.e. better let Uncle Sam tell us what to do instead - is simply not true as it applies to Gore. It has been estimated, for example, that Gore's proposals would reduce the cost of environmental damage by $12trillion, but would themselves cost over $34trillion. If that's Krugman's idea of "good economics," I'll have to ask he return his degree.

But of course I'm giving Krugman too much credit as usual. That he isn't arguing so much as burning straw men becomes evident in the next paragraph:

Today, being a good Republican means believing that taxes should always be cut, never raised. It also means believing that we should bomb and bully foreigners, not negotiate with them. So if science says that we have a big problem that can’t be solved with tax cuts or bombs — well, the science must be rejected, and the scientists must be slimed.

Ah yes, why argue when you can call names?

Which brings us to the biggest reason the right hates Mr. Gore: in his case the smear campaign has failed. He’s taken everything they could throw at him, and emerged more respected, and more credible, than ever. And it drives them crazy.

I'll have to give him this one. The reason I hate Mr. Gore is indeed because so many people listen to him when they shouldn't. His movie is inaccurate - relying, as it does, on cherry-picked data, his proposals are economically unsound, and his "crusade" shows every sign of being aptly named. And yet he has followers. That shouldn't be possible among a public that discusses things honestly and intelligently. That Mr. Gore is a success at all is yet more proof (along with the success of Michael Moore,, and, yes, Ann Coulter, Pat Robertson and Bill O'Reilly as well) that the public is primarily emotional and partisan. I find that as frightening as it is discouraging. Dr. Krugman should too.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

They've Really Outdone Themselves

OK - so the Nobel Prize Committee completely lost credibility with my generation over a decade ago, and had in fact already done so for the previous generation 20 years before that. And, well, to be fair, it was never very easy to take it seriously.

But something about Captain Planet winning it this year makes the annual Smorgasbord International Celebrity Bureaucrat Award funny all over again. I was going to write a witty, scathing satire peace piece - really I was! - but fortunately Jesse Walker beat me to the punch, and I can spend my valuable gradschool time reading ... oh ... about Linguistics ... or something. Click on the link and check it out! (Reason also has a serious piece on the same subject.)

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Can't Be Right ALL the Time...

I'm used to hearing retarded opinions about Capitalism, so nothing much shocks me on that front anymore. But you kind of get thrown a curve when it's Warren Buffet - who at $52+billion in assets is probably the second-wealthiest person in the world at the moment - doing the spouting.

Here are some select quotes:

I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I've earned. If you stick me down in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru or someplace, you find out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong kind of soil... I work in a market system that happens to reward what I do very well - disproportionately well. Mike Tyson, too. If you can knock a guy out in 10 seconds and earn $10 million for it, this world will pay a lot for that. If you can bat 360, this world will pay a lot for that. If you're a marvelous teacher, this world won't pay a lot for it. If you are a terrific nurse, this world will not pay a lot for it. Now, am I going to try to come up with some comparable worth system that somehow (re)distributes that? No, I don't think you can do that. But I do think that when you're treated enormously well by this market system, where in effect the market system showers the ability to buy goods and services on you because of some peculiar talent - maybe your adenoids are a certain way, so you can sing and everybody will pay you enormous sums to be on television or whatever -I think society has a big claim on that.

Ah - and here we have the standard "it's all luck" fallacy. Or, more accurately, what I would call the George Lakoff Bromide - namely the idea that a progessive income tax system is justified because anyone in the upper income brackets is benefiting disproportionately from the system and therefore "deserves" to be taxed disproportionately.

It seems quite plausible on the surface. After all, Buffet is certainly correct that if you plunked him down in Bangladesh his particular talent wouldn't be worth a damn. But of course, he's missing the point (and apparently expecting us to as well) that any such country is bound to be ... oh, how to put it ... somewhat economically unsuccessful?

The part of this equation that's being left out is that Buffet's enormous wealth didn't come ex nihilo by the sheer force of will of the market-system philosophy. No - his wealth came in its entirety from making correct investment decisions. Buffet may think of that as a fortunate accident, but people who can do what Buffet does as well as he does are sine qua nons of a well-oiled market economy. The idea that so-called "planned" economies are anything but was convincingly advanced by Ludwig von Mises some time ago. Indeed, the whole problem with Socialist economies, according to Mises' line of argument, was that they cannot be effectively planned - and this is because they monkey with prices. If prices are an indicator of the real worth of something, then by regulating prices (i.e. telling everyone that something is worth what your imagination wants it to be rather than what consumers are actually willing to pay for it against what makes it worthwhile for people to produce it) you destroy vital economic information. What "planning" then takes place is ineffective at best (see Republics, Union of Soviet Socialist), since the planners now have no idea what the worth of things is. Contrast this with market economies, which Mises argues are (ironically, given the nomenclature) much better planned than Socialist economies just because (a) economic information is vastly more accurate and (b) the planners actually get rewarded or punished by the system according to the degree to which their plans succeed or don't. Buffet is the most successful known of such planners. More accurately, he's a kind of banker - directing the money supply to those places where it is most likely to grow. His wealth comes from being a highly effective planner - and the entire world economy is better as a result of it.

So sure, you could plunk Buffet down in Bangladesh and he would be useless, but that's because Bangladesh is useless. If it were a place worth living in, then people like Buffet, whose services are invaluable to the overall health of the economy, would be rewarded handsomely. Put more simply, we all get richer when the Buffets of the world are allowed to do thar thang, so his money is earned and he can, in my book, rest easy that it belongs to him and not me or anyone else. If Buffet thinks society has a "claim" in his wealth, I hereby renounce mine.

I renounce it even with regard to people like Mike Tyson. I mean, sure, Buffet's on to something here. There's something grotesque about someone like Mike Tyson being a millionaire (well, actually his dumb ass is massively in debt, but he was a millionaire once upon a time) just for hitting people. I nevertheless don't begrudge him his earnings - because every dollar of those earnings was given to him freely by people who parted with it willingly so that he could entertain them. Either that, or they came from sponsors willing to pay to have his fights televised - thereby bringing them to many, many more people than can stand around a dusty barroom in Bangladesh - so that they could advertise hoping to sell more products, increase their profits, and thereby employ more people, etc. Mike Tyson himself may be a worthless human being on some etherial moral level - but he provides the public with two things it really needs: (a) entertainment and (b) product information. If companies can't get people's attention on their own, they can turn to people like Mike Tyson to help them get their message out. He provides them, in other words, with a valuable service - and thanks to our capitalist economy, they are forced to pay him what that service is actually valued at.

So even though I don't personally like Mike Tyson, I don't begrudge him his wealth either. Like Buffet, he earned it by supplying people with something they want and are willing to pay for. And that's the golden rule of Capitalism, really. People are rewarded for providing utility. It is the ONLY economic system that can truly make that claim. All other systems reward people primarily for having the right connections, or spouting the "correct" opinions. Only Capitalism throws economic reward after economic utility. Which is to say, only Capitalism is based on sound economic good sense.

The reason why teachers and nurses aren't rewarded as well as we might like them to be is because, in some important sense, anyone can be a teacher or a nurse. Their skills are easily allocated because there are so many people with those skills to allocate. There aren't many people with Buffet's skills, and so what we do with his talent is a more precious decision than where any given nurse ends up living and working. It is proper that he should earn what he does.

Here's Buffet again getting stumped on the inheritance tax:

[Abolishing the tax is like] choosing the 2020 Olympic team by picking the eldest sons of the gold-medal winners in the 2000 Olympics

Weeeelll, sort of. To be more accurate, it's like giving the sons of the current Olympic team access to better training facilities. This gives them a huge advantage, granted, but it hardly guarantees that they will qualify. So it is with inherited wealth, too. Some people go on to do brilliant things with it, of course, but a great many others just piss it away.

What's really galling about this, though, and where the analogy goes wrong, in fact, is the tacit assumption that there are only so many positions "at the top" to be doled out. That's feldercarb. There are as many positions "at the top" as there are people doing things that the market system rewards. Wealth expands with time - something Buffet, as a star investor, should be well aware of. Dollar Cost Averaging is, after all, the first thing they teach you in Investing 101 - and Buffet himself has been a huge proponent of something very similar. So he knows better, actually. I expect to hear this kind of "limited money pool" crap from dyed-in-the-wool Soclialists (synonmyous with "economics moron"); I didn't really expect to hear such a pedestrian fallacy from an expert like Buffet.

But there you have it. I'm more and more convinced every day that voting Democrat is simply a genetic disorder. Shouldn't blame the people who do it, really - it's not their fault. Even if they're otherwise intelligent and can apply their thinking skills to solving real-world problems (like Buffet can in spades) something short-circuits when it comes time to pull the levers at the voting booth, and you find people who really ought to know better making the most elementary logic mistakes.

I'm not saying the Republicans are any better, mind you. They're bad in their own ways, but not in any consistent way. Really, the Republican Party is a ragtag fleet of people who, all other things being equal, wouldn't choose to travel together, but all have their reasons for wanting to resist Socialism, and so they pool their resources. Colonials fleeing Cylons indeed.

The Democratic Party, however, is a reliable logical fallacy machine. It isn't just that they're wrong, it's that they're consistently wrong, and in predictable ways. You can tell them until you're blue in the face that the way to fight poverty is to create more wealth, but somehow no matter what you say they walk away from the discussion convinced as ever that taxing productive people (i.e. those who create the wealth) is a good solution. You can tell them till your're blue in the fact that there is no fixed limit on wealth (there's as much of it "out there" as we're willing to work to create), but somehow no matter what you say they walk away from the discussion convinced as ever that there's only so much money in the world and that we have to divide it "fairly" (and - astoundingly - that "fairly" somehow means paying people whether they work and contribute to wealth creation or not).

Nothing helps. And so it's gotta be some sort of congenital defect. Or maybe a virus. I mean, if even the Warren Buffets of the world can be infected...