Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Well, that would be one way to "get home"

I was using the direction fetching capabilities of my phone, and accidentally asked to get from where I was (which was right inside my apartment) to home.

Now my building is very long and stretches about a third of the way down the block. The directions I received basically told me to climb out my window, walk up that third of a block, and come back in the front door. A very interesting combination of extreme precision with complete ignorance of context.

Freaking fracking

I pass a student of mine standing at a table with a petition.

"Hey Professor, would you like to sign an anti-fracking petition?"

"No, I don't really know anything about it."

"What do you mean?" He looked dumbfounded.

"Well, I would need to read up on it for a while before I signed any petition, either for or against it."

"Oh, I can tell you: it's bad!"

Given the amount of studying that my students do, I would be willing to bet that he knew no more about the subject than I know. But he made up for that with lots of extra certainty.

I've got crabs...

on my mind.

Specifically, horseshoe crabs. I spent my summers at the beach when I was young. One of the things we kids would do would be to catch horseshoe crabs as they passed by in the shallow water. We would grab them by their spiny tails, stare for a minute at the writhing mass of legs and claws beneath their shells, and then whirl them around and toss them back in the water.

Only much later did it occur to me to imagine this activity from the crab's point of view. Let us suppose the crabs to be mildly reflective creatures. They have formed an image of the cosmos. The sea they call the Great Mother, who encompasses all that there is, and the other inhabitants of the sea take on different roles in a cosmic myth. This mythology endured for millions of years.

But suddenly, certain individuals have an experience of a beyond, something past the Great Mother. When they return to the sea, they try to express this experience of a beyond to those who remained behind. But it is not at all a simple task: it was confusing, there was stunningly bright light, great and powerful beings, a swirl of colors, dizzying motion, great dryness. How to describe it all?

It turns out that different crabs use different words to convey their experience. This is going to be confusing to those who have never left the sea. If they are at least good empiricists, they should be able to settle on this much at a minimum: to some of those who venture near the edge, something profound occurs, they catch a glimpse of... well, something, and this experience leaves them changed.

But this thought is disturbing: if I have never left the sea, have I missed something? I am comfortable here: I want to ignore whatever might disturb the cozy world I am living in. And thus I might ignore the many great similarities reported by those who return to the sea from beyond it, and instead fixate on the differences in the details of what they report. And if I want to appear clever and superior, I can turn this fixation on the details into what might pass in some circles for an "intellectual critique" of the whole idea that there is a beyond: "Oh, so you believe in a 'beyond,' do you? But whose beyond? Buddha-crab's beyond? Plato-crab's beyond? Lao-Tse-crab's beyond? Moses-crab's beyond? I'll tell you what: you disbelieve in all beyonds except one. I've just gone you one better, and tossed out the childish belief in that last beyond as well."

And if I find a group of like-minded crabs, and we continually congratulate each other for how smart we are to ignore these ludicrous reports of the beyond, perhaps we will be able to convince ourselves that nothing at all really occurs out there at the edge.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Come on guys!

I am subbing in a Micro I class tomorrow. My assignment is to go over chapter 11 of The Economic Way of Thinking, "The Distribution of Income." There, I just found the following:

"We persuade [others] to hire us, to buy from us, to lend to us, or simply to recognize that our status entitles us to income. The last technique is the one employed by children to extract income from their parents..."

Really, guys, do you want to make it that easy for critics of "economism"? As I've been caring for my children, unbeknownst to me, they have been employing "techniques" to "extract" income from me?!

UPDATE: I should note that this atrocity was removed in the subsequent version. Good work on that, Boettke and Prychitko.

Dunderheads to the left, dunderheads to the right

Right-wing ninnies call everyone with whose policies they disagree a "socialist."

Meanwhile, left-wing ninnies call everyone with whose policies they disagree a "fascist."

Look, I disagree with the Koch brothers on a number of issues. But "fascists"? No, I am pretty sure they are not for the massive government intervention in the economy that characterized fascism. Nor are they for the militarization of society that characterized fascism.


"The modern deformers of humanity, when they have gained power in the form of a totalitarian government, use the same threat [of murder] as their ultima ratio, while in the so-called free societies they use milder forms of violence, such as social boycott. What happened to Camus after the publication of his L'homme révolté and the break with Sartre is a representative example of the treatment meted out in a Western society to a man who dares to think." "The Eclipse of Reality," Collected Works of Eric Voegelin, Vol. 28, p. 135

What was the moth up to?

I was reading on the porch tonight when a moth landed on my hand. (Yay, spring has arrived in the Poconos!) I watched it for several minutes. During that time it walked slowly around my hand, frantically nudging my skin with its proboscis.

Does anyone have any idea what it was doing? Was it finding some sort of nutrition on my skin? Is this behavior common in some species of moths?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

A place where you can use a contraction in English but not the uncontracted form?

I just wrote: "Why shouldn’t public policy ameliorate this problem?"

Then I thought, "Should I really be using a contraction here?" (Thinking about what level of formality my audience would expect in this article.)

But then I tried the sentence without the contraction: "Why should not public policy ameliorate this problem?"

Wow! The version without the contraction sounds completely awkward to my ear, as though it were written by someone for whom English is a clumsily spoken second-language, while the one with the contraction seems just fine.

Is this a recognized linguistic phenomena? Is there a name for it?

Note, there are many cases where the contracted form would be more normal in everyday speech:

"No, I can't go."

But in writing, or even in speech when one wanted to emphasize the "not," "No, I cannot go" would be entirely acceptable and unexceptionable. But "Why should not X?" seems different: it is not just less usual, but almost out-right wrong. I would never expect to hear a native speaker say "Why should not I go to the mall today?" On the other hand, "Why shouldn't I go to the mall today?" is just fine.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Why Has William F. Buckley's Best Idea Been So Universally Ignored?

I certainly don't consider myself a "Buckleyite." But I will confess that, as a grade-school kid, I was such a nerd that I used to beg my parents for permission to stay up late so that I could watch Firing Line. It was Buckley who taught me that slouching and mumbling could be effective public-speaking techniques!

In any case, I have never forgotten one particular proposal of his. The argument he sought to address with this proposal was that "safety-net" government welfare programs could not be left strictly to the states, because then residents of relatively poor states would have a much more flimsy net under them then would residents of relatively rich states. And such a situation might be held to violate the idea of "equal protection under the law."

Okay, let us set aside any question of whether government should be in the welfare provision business at all. For purposes of this post, let us just assume that this role will be taken by some level of government. And let us further assume that it is a real problem for social policy if a poor person in Mississippi only gets $4000 a year in assistance, while an equally poor person in Connecticut gets $12,000 a year in assistance. Given these two assumptions, don't we have to accept that welfare services must be largely provided at the federal level?

Buckley's brilliant (I say) answer is "No," even given the two assumptions made in the previous paragraph. All the federal government need do to avert the second problem is to tax richer states a certain amount for welfare provision, and then hand that money over to poorer states for their own welfare programs. (And the same could be done for education, by the way.)

And though I don't recall Buckley ever making this point, the same procedure could be applied at the state level to equalize resources for welfare (or education) provision among the cities and towns within a state.

Buckley's suggestion is, broadly speaking, an instantiation of the principle of Catholic social teaching called "subsidiarity": social problems should be handled at the most local level possible. Why should this be a principal guiding social policy? It is not because local government is without its flaws. Communities can be very provincial and filled with prejudice. The principle of subsidiarity does not rely upon any utopian view of local governance. And, in fact, Buckley's proposal would allow higher levels of government to exert significant checks on local malfeasance: for instance, a higher level of government could require that all compensatory grants be allotted in a race-neutral fashion, as a condition of poorer localities receiving their compensatory funding.

Given these acknowledged problems of local governance, why should we favor local solutions in general? My thoughts run back to an actual incident in my neighborhood that happened a few years ago. Two of my friends had a young son who fell out of his chair and broke his arm. Naturally, they brought him to the hospital to get treated. For the bureaucrats at the hospital, a three-year-old with a broken arm was a "red flag" signaling that an investigation of child abuse must be launched. After treating my friends' child, they held the boy in the hospital for three days, not for medical reasons, but in order to investigate this potential abuse.

If this had been handled at a more local level, everyone in our community would have immediately declared that it was absurd to think that this couple deliberately had broken their own child's arm. After treatment, he would have been right back home with them. Of course, local communities can make mistakes about such things: we see it on the news all the time, when we hear the neighbors say "I never would have imagined that X would have been capable of Y." But utopia does not exist! All possible social arrangements have flaws.

The bureaucratic decision-making body operating in this case could not take into account any local knowledge of the character of this child's parents. The end result was that this child, already traumatized by having broken his arm, was then further traumatized by not being allowed to return home to his loving parents for three days.

Ask yourself: if you were the parents in question, and that child with a broken arm was yours, who would you want to be deciding when he could come back home with you, your friends and neighbors, or some faceless bureaucrats?

The valley of dry bones

Down in the valley of dry bones
There I make my bed
Down in the valley of dry bones
Among the living dead

Turn up the music
Hide the void
Dark hollow in my skull
Turn up the music
Hide the wound
Make the sorrow grow dull

Roll 'em roll 'em
Shake them bones
Rock 'em rock 'em
Toss them stones

No man is an island
White duke on Mars
Snowman and rainman
Lift off for the stars

To survive is not to thrive
To live just talking jive
No man is an island
He is a peninsula

Roll 'em roll 'em
Shake them bones,
Rock 'em rock 'em
Toss them stones

Your hand was upon me
I smacked it away
You told me "Prophesy!"
I said: "Another day."

But the breath of the four winds
Swept me off my feet
In the valley of dry bones
On a lonely street

Rock 'em rock 'em
Roll 'way that stone
Roll 'em roll 'em
Stitch up that bone

Turn up the heat
Stop the cold
Creeping through my soul
Turn up the heat
Block the wind

Whistling past this knoll

Down in the valley of dry bones
There I bake my bread
Down in the valley of dry bones
Among the living dead

Why you should never going to a New York deli without a few 20s on you

Here is why:

You will put some items on the counter. A very pleasant, but heavily accented person will say a number to you. This is how much you owe. The problem is, you will not understand what number was said.

If you did not follow my advice in the title, what happens next is and embarrassing repetition of you asking the person working the register to repeat himself, while he becomes increasingly upset that you are not understanding what he is saying.

If you did follow my advice, the solution is simple: you put a $20 bill on the counter. Now watch the person working the register. You will find yourself in one of two states. I have listed the appropriate actions to take depending on which of them you are in:

STATE A: He picks up the $20: all is well.
1) Take your change. 
2) Leave with your goods.

STATE B: He frowns or shakes his head.
1) Put another $20 on the counter.
2) Watch the cashier again.
3) Repeat until you move to STATE A.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Yes, SSM Opponents Realize That Homosexuals Are People

Several times in the last couple of days, I've seen people claiming that anyone who is against SSM does not think that homosexuals are people.

Okay, by the same logic, does anyone who is against group marriage think that polygamists are not people? Does anyone who is against marriage between two siblings think that people who want to marry their one of their siblings are not human?

The fact of the matter is that marriage is not, unlike expressing one's opinion, something one can do on one's own, so long as no one interferes. It also is not, unlike f&*#king, something any two people can do on their own, so long as no one interferes. No, marriage is a request for public approval of a relationship. If you want to believe that spiritually you are married to the planet Neptune, I don't think anyone should get in your way. But if you come and ask for public approval of your "marriage" to the eighth planet, then don't be surprised if the public does not, in fact, approve.  And if it doesn't approve, it does not mean people think you are not human. (They probably just think you are a very silly human.) It does not place those who want to marry planets in an "apartheid regime," as one commenter here ludicrously contended SSM opponents wish to do to homosexuals.

To drive on public roads, one needs a driver's license. (Please don't bring up anarchy here: there is no reason to think that private road owners would not be even more restrictive than the government is about who can drive. This, in fact, probably would have been seen by, say, Rothbard, as a great advantage of private road ownership: crappy drivers could just be denied all access to "the better sort" of roads.) Today, we do not grant drivers licenses to blind people. Perhaps soon, with the onset of automated cars, we should consider doing so. But that we don't do so today does not mean that we think the blind "are not people," nor does it mean that the blind are living in "an apartheid regime."

Similarly, when one wants to get married, one goes and applies for a marriage "license," right? Maybe, as some libertarians believe, the State should have no part in this process. But as long as it does, some people will be turned down, or the license will cease to have any meaning at all.

It is fine to vigorously disagree with someone else about who should and who should not be granted a marriage license. But it is really not cool to demonize those who disagree with you about where that line should be drawn. You do realize that traditional Christians, Jews, and Muslims are people too, don't you?