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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

What a Bunch of Liars

I know truth is the first casualty in war yada yada yada. I can't believe they're even saying this about the "Mission Accomplished" banner. Why can't they just say, "Yeah whoops"?

After shifting explanations, the White House eventually said the "Mission Accomplished" phrase referred to the carrier's crew completing its 10-month mission, not the military completing its mission in Iraq. Bush, in October 2003, disavowed any connection with the "Mission Accomplished" message. He said the White House had nothing to do with the banner; a spokesman later said the ship's crew asked for the sign and the White House staff had it made by a private vendor.

"President Bush is well aware that the banner should have been much more specific and said `mission accomplished' for these sailors who are on this ship on their mission," White House press secretary Dana Perino said Wednesday. "And we have certainly paid a price for not being more specific on that banner. And I recognize that the media is going to play this up again tomorrow, as they do every single year."


Yeah it's all the liberal media, Ms. Perino.

I Think Obama and Wright Are in Cahoots

I think Barack Obama asked Jeremiah Wright to say shocking things so that he (Obama) could then officially denounce them. Those two are extremely clever. Read this Slate analysis; the quips from Wright are priceless. (BTW I think Wright is awesome, the way I think Michael Savage is awesome.)

I'm just expanding on the Slate analysis now: Clearly the Republicans are going to use Wright against Obama. So better to get it out of the way now, so people can be sick of it during the general election. Sean Hannity interprets the latest events like this:

(1) Obama agrees with Wright and so doesn't denounce him in the beginning.
(2) Wright inexplicably goes on tour over the weekend, and says crazy stuff about AIDS at the National Press Club. He must be mad at Obama.
(3) Obama can't believe this treachery, and has no choice but to sever their relationship to save his presidential run.

I think the above interpretation is totally wrong. Wright would have to be one SERIOUSLY self-centered s.o.b. to sabotage Obama at this point, especially when Obama was incredibly, almost politically suicidally, understanding of Wright in his famous race speech. You can say a lot about Wright, but I don't get the sense that he would do everything he could to ruin Obama's run. (And for what, exactly? What did Obama do to anger Wright, Hannity?)

If I had more time I would get really into this and look at the primary schedule, when the Wright stuff first broke, etc. I mean look, Wright didn't give his crazy speech right before the Pennsylvania primary, right?

And you could say, "But if Wright is trying to help, why the crazy stuff? Why not be real moderate and say he got carried away in some of those sermons?"

Because (a) that would sound like BS and (b) Hannity et al. are saying Obama can't be president because he won't denounce Wright. Thus, the Obama camp must have decided very recently that the famous race speech wasn't enough, that the right-wing talk radio people were demanding Wright's head.

And so in order for it to make sense that Obama would give it to them, Wright had to say something "crazy," like the government was capable of giving AIDS to black people.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

I Quit

I have to stop arguing with this guy Alex on the Mises blog, before I take a hostage. Now let's be clear everyone, I am not upset because he is challenging my theory that recessions should lead to higher price inflation (other things equal). Rather, I am going crazy because he doesn't see why CPI growth spiking during a recession should be evidence in my favor. Rather, he thinks it should count against me, because it shows that inflation rates were rising going into the recession, and then fell after the recession.

I pointed out that his argument would also show that summer has a cooling effect, but he dealt with that observation by explaining how the sun and the angle of the earth's axis cause seasonal changes.

If someone can mediate our dispute, I would appreciate it. In his mind I am crazy. And if I continue arguing I soon will be.

France I



A public square in Haguenau, France.



The top linguists in France gather at the Institute Phonetique du Strasbourg: Adam, Rudolph, Fabrice, and Kofi.



OK, but why do you need them to do this?



Rudolph, Adam, and me -- Adam is polishing off a plate of frogs' legs.

My Plan to Make the World Safe for US Interests

I explain by way of criticizing Fred Kagan's halfhearted strategy.

Government Takes Kid Away for Drinking Hard Lemonade

This stuff is really getting ridiculous. (And by the way, I am aware that there was plenty of crazy cr*p going on with the FLDS sect, aided by local government.) This professor took his kid to a baseball game, ordered a "lemonade," and let his kid drink Mike's Hard Lemonade because he says he didn't know it was alcoholic.

A security guard saw it, and next thing you know the kid is in foster care for two days. The dad wasn't allowed to return home for a week. HT2LRC.

As always, what's truly sickening is how many of the posters at the story above support the action. I.e. this guy had it coming, letting his kid drink Hard Lemonade! Serves him right.

Amsterdam Images

Click on an image for a larger view:


Yes, the Dutch ride bikes a lot.


One of Amsterdam's 100 or so canals.


In MaxEuwePlein, the Dutch like their chess big.


Some houseboats, including one with a lawn on the roof.


Mr. Man works on a Dutch pancake.


At least the Dutch admit what their parks are for. (Remember the 'v' is pronounced as our 'f'.)


Adam with my friend Robert Hensgens.




Yes, it's true what you've heard about Amsterdam. (Adam and I did not make any purchases.)


Near the Riyks Museum.

Don't Make Me Pull Out a Chicago Price Theory Book, Buddy

A blog devoted to Bushwick real estate. The blogger has very cool political and economic views.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Why Fill the SPR?

At first I thought it was just to funnel more tax dollars into the hands of the oil companies.

But then it occurred to me that if you were going to start a war with Iran, it would be good to have extra stockpiles of crude oil.

Why I Fear a Clinton Presidency

No, it's not that I directly fear a woman with power. Rather, I fear what would happen if a Democratic woman were in power, and then something happened--heaven forbid, another attack on US soil. To prove how tough she was, Hillary Clinton would have to respond far more than Obama, and a million times more than McCain.

That has been my view for some time. It was reinforced when I read that she said she would "totally obliterate" Iran if it attacked Israel.

However, in fairness to Clinton, the reports of her statement are a bit misleading. Below is the actual answer she gave. It's no Sermon on the Mount, I grant you, but it's not nearly as crazy as what you would have thought from my paragraph above.

A New Solution for High Gas Prices

I need to keep this idea in mind the next time I'm doing a radio show about windfall profits taxes.

California Dreamin'

Wouldn't it be nice to hop on a plane out to sunny California...and spend two hours listening to me give advice to the state on how to tax people?

Are Recessions Deflationary?

I say no.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Tres Bien Mr. Rockwell!

While Gene is on the lam, I'll give some props to Lew Rockwell's recent article, "Prison Nation." Did you folks realize that the U.S. has a higher rate of incarceration than Cuba? Did you know the U.S. government locks up more Americans than the Chinese communists lock up Chinese?

To deal with the objection that we need government prisons to keep crime down, Rockwell ends with this wonderful quote from Robert Ingersoll:

The world has been filled with prisons and dungeons, with chains and whips, with crosses and gibbets, with thumb-screws and racks, with hangmen and headsmen – and yet these frightful means and instrumentalities and crimes have accomplished little for the preservation of property or life. It is safe to say that governments have committed far more crimes than they have prevented. As long as society bows and cringes before the great thieves, there will be little ones enough to fill the jails.

================

Back in grad school I embraced pacifism mostly for religious reasons. But now that I view the world from that viewpoint, I see all sorts of confirming evidence that a punitive "justice" system, especially when run by governments, is counterproductive.

This is a bit tangential, but let me share the following experience. When we lived in Brooklyn after I left teaching (and so I was in between jobs), my wife and I were trying to find a cheap apartment. We looked at a place way way uptown, I think it was actually in Harlem.

The police there were not the friends of the residents. They were quite literally an occupying force. The ones patrolling on foot looked at passersby with threat assessment, rather than, "How can I be your public servant today, Mr. Employer?" Of course the cops who work in that area could tell you horrifying stories to explain that attitude, but the fact remains that that was the attitude.

We were crossing a major street and a cop car zoomed past. It pulled a really quick U turn and got into the other lane, going the other way. It was an incredibly dangerous maneuver; there were pedestrians all over the place. They didn't even bother turning their lights on.

The people knew to get the hell out of the way. One older guy just sort of whistled, "Wheeeew!" when the car flew by.

Some people reading this might think, "What the heck is your point? They didn't hit anyone, right?" I'm telling you, if a cop car had done that in the suburb where I grew up, in a comparably crowded street littered with pedestrians, somebody's outraged mom would have called the sheriff and bitten his head off. I'm not saying anybody would have been formally disciplined, but I bet the driver would've had a talking-to.

I don't think anybody in Harlem bothered complaining about unsafe officer driving.

Tyler Bashing, Installment #34

It seems Tyler Cowen, my good friend Megan McArdle, and some others were pontificating on the drug war. I don't know if Tyler held this view, but one school of thought (or "model" in this apparently stuffy party) argued that legalization wouldn't do much:

Under one model, local gangs have a more or less fixed ability to terrorize a neighborhood....In this model, legalizing drugs doesn't do much good. The local gang either shifts its monopoly to another area (milk and sugar, if need be), or de facto the gang's local monopoly on the drug trade continues. The gang busts you if you try to get your supply of crack cocaine from Merck. I call this the Rio de Janeiro model; no, drugs are not formally legal there but I don't think it would much matter if they were.

Now I've never been to Brazil, so I was giving Tyler the benefit of the doubt. Surely, I thought, if he's going to test whether the drug war affects drug gangs, and one of his data points is a place where "drugs are not formally legal there but I don't think it would much matter if they were," then he must be talking about a place where the drug laws aren't actually enforced.

So I set out to show Tyler et al. how much the police must be doing in Rio to enforce drug laws. I thought I would spend 10 minutes or so trying to find their drug budgets, maybe look at number of arrests, etc.

I simply googled "Rio de Janeiro" and the first hit was a news story titled, "Brazil police kill 11 in Rio de Janeiro slum raid."

Here's the short article:

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Police killed at least 11 people in a raid on Friday in the Cidade de Deus (City of God) slum, made famous in a hit film of the same name about Rio drug gangs.

Law enforcement officials said 10 of the people killed were suspected drug traffickers and one was a woman who lived in the neighborhood.

Two women were also wounded during the shootout between police and the suspected traffickers, who had taken refuge in a house in the slum after fleeing from authorities.

Police seized six automatic rifles, five grenades and drugs during the raid. Authorities also sent reinforcements after the raid to prevent retaliation from drug gangs or protests from residents of the neighborhood.

Rio police are notorious for rough tactics against drug gangs that control many of the city's shantytowns.


I wonder if U.S. foreign policy came up at this party. One school of thought might say that foreign occupations don't affect the amount of violence in a country, and point to Iraq as evidence. Sure, formally speaking Iraq has an occupying force there, but I don't think it would matter one way or the other if US troops left. So I will point to present-day Iraq as evidence of what happens when the U.S. military leaves people alone.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Are These Criminals Going to Start Another War Before They Leave?

I don't know, but they sure are leaving their options open. And hey, that's not conspiracy talk; it's what the chair of the Joint Chiefs says.

These weekly updates serve two purposes, it seems to me. First, it desensitizes Americans to the subject, so that if and when they wake up to hear, "The U.S. last night began bombing key Iranian weapons depots," they won't be shocked.

Second, these little trial balloons give the government more information about the likely reaction should they start bombing. I think libertarians sometimes overrate the power of the government. For all their guns and money, let's remember that there are a at most a few hundred key people in Washington running the show, and really you could whittle that number down to under 50 if you wanted to raise the threshold on your definition of "power."

Their control of millions of Americans and (less) control of billions of Earthlings rests on widespread perceptions of not only legitimacy but also obedience from everybody else. If the 50 people running the show in DC really overstepped, the jig could quickly unravel. That's why they spend so much time manipulating public opinion; it is crucial to their efforts.

(If you have never read it before, I strongly encourage you to read at least the first 5 pages of Rothbard's Introduction to Etienne de La Boetie's The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude.)

So what does this mean, folks? It means that if you don't want your "representatives" to give the green light to blow up some more foreigners, then you should let that opinion be known. I'm not saying write a letter to your congressperson (though you can do that if you want). I'm more saying, let your friends and neighbors know that you think it's a nutjob idea. If you don't want to sound like a wuss, couch your objection in terms of the marooned U.S. troops in Iraq who could be really screwed if all the countries in that region said, "Oh, so that's how it's going to be, eh?"

(BTW I'm not just making stuff up. I've heard pro-military people speculating about supply lines being cut off etc. if Iran really declared all-out war with the U.S.)

Seasteading Institute

Courtesy of MR, I learned of the intriguing Seasteading Institute. Cool stuff. One of the principals is Patri Friedman, son of David, son of Milton...son of Abraham. I haven't had time to look this over very carefully, but I think it's great that things are this far along. Once it becomes profitable to produce a platform capable of housing, say, 1000 or more people anywhere in the world, I think you'll see the average amount of human liberty (whatever that means) explode.

My only objection so far is Patri's overzealous use of apostrophes. On the Institute's front page, he talks of a Twain quote from the "1800's," and then on his personal website he talks of "100's of pages" and talks of the Institute, "who's mission..."

Finally, his personal website features a cycle of pictures, some of which concern my prudish sensibilities. I attach the link below, but as I say, he has rigged it so that the picture changes very often. Try refreshing your browser to see if it changes. I am not sure if this type of hooliganism would be legal on Hans Hoppe's sea platform.

Bradley Explains Enron as CSR Poster Child

I explain here.

Friday, April 25, 2008

The Brain and Free Will

Here's Roderick Long on why recent brain studies say nothing about free will.

On a similar topic: When I read some dogmatic materialist asserting, "While we donùt know how brains create consciousness, it is obvious that somehow they do," it brings to my mind the image of some primitive tribe coming upon a working radio. After studying it for some time, the tribe's shamans proclaim, "We don't know how radios compose music and write news programs, but it is obvious that somehow they do."

Sean Bell Case

I need to learn more facts before I make any definitive assertions (after all, that's what I do) about this case. In the meantime, check out this ridiculous piece by Susan Filan, Esq., on the The Man Network, er, MSNBC. How could (a) someone possibly write this with a straight face and (b) an editor sign off on it? Just look at this:

And I believe that even though the officers cannot yet express their remorse, they are saddened by this incident and by Sean Bell’s death. No officer ever wants to take a life, even when the shooting is justified. Clearly, even if mistakes were made, the officers did not engage in deliberate and intentional misconduct. I know they grieve.

How the hell do you know that, Ms. Filan? I'm not saying they aren't grieving--though only one of them apologized according to the article I read. (If you were legitimately scared for your life, and ended up killing an unarmed guy the day before his wedding, don't you think you might, um, apologize to the family after the trial?!)

And what is this, "No officer ever wants to take a life"? What kind of asinine, we-live-in-a-great-country-so-turn-off-your-brain line is that? Does any dentist ever want to take a life? What about firefighters? What about plumbers? How does anyone ever get murdered in this country, anyway?

Oh wait, I forgot about drug dealers, polygamists, Mexican immigrants, homeschoolers, and oil speculators. Those characters are shady. They must be responsible for all of the murders every year.

Alsace

My son Adam and I now are relaxing in Haguenau, Alsace with my old friend Rudolph Sock, eating pizzas made with cream instead of cheese, and Alsatian sauerkraut. Alsace is lovely. The section I am in is a valley of fertile farmland set between two mountain ranges. It is so nice, in fact, that I told Rudolph that, on my next visit, I am bringing an army.

By the way here's how to make sauerkrut at home -- it's supposed to be tastier and better for you than the store-bought variety.

Le Cafe Bizzare

I just found a loaf of "Le Cake Anglais" on my host's counter, a cake I never saw while living in England. And that reminded me of something I did see there: Le Cafe Anglais. Now I can see the point of naming your London cafe, if it is French-style, "Le Cafe Francais," to add an extra dash of "authenticity." But what in the world is the point of naming your English cafe, sitting in the heart of England, in French? However, that naming absurdity was topped by the "New Jersey Fried Chicken" just up the street.

UPDATE: A photo, and a whole thread on weird chicken-shack names.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Murphy's Solution to the Housing Slump

The INS grants citizenship to foreigners on the queue who have a clean criminal record, and for whom a US employer agrees to buy a house (for at least $150,000) as an advance on their salaries.

To make US employers willing to do this, presumably these would be moderate to highly skilled immigrants. But I bet there are at least 400,000 potential immigrants in the world who qualify. So this alone would knock out about 10% of the existing housing inventory.

Next problem?

BTW if any reader who is also a writer finds this intriguing, feel free to run with it. I won't have time to develop this further.

One final thought: You might worry and say, "Well we'd have to require also that the official owner--whether the employer or the immigrant--doesn't try to resell the house for x years."

I actually don't think that's correct, since it can't hurt to allow people voluntary trades. I.e. once the immigrant is in the country and has a house, from that point on if you allow him to sell to a willing American buyer, then that buyer's gain offsets whatever harm accrues to other American house sellers.

Really the solution works by bringing in more people who need housing, whether purchased or rented. But by directly tying the immigration to a house purchase, I think it would be a lot more popular politically.

They're Lying Through Their Teeth

Occassionally, one hears a pro-war voice saying something like, "Well, no one ever said Iraq would be quick or easy!"

It's a lie, folks. It was supposed to be very quick and very easy, and pay for itself as the US robbed Iraqis of their oil:

"And then, with the resources from Iraq, the oil, for example, will cause it to be able to transition very quickly and actually cause a big change, I think, in the Middle East."

-- Gen. David Grange on CNN in 2003, quoted by Glenn Greenwald

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Evolution Confusion

Thoreau cites this article on the myths of evolution. Unfortunately, the article is full of the usual philosophical rubbish put out in these pop-evolution pieces. As Eric Voegelin said, Darwinism has provided a "new creed for the semi-educated."

Here are a few examples:

"Darwin presented compelling evidence for evolution in On the Origin and, since his time, the case has become overwhelming."

Kind of like the case for Newtonian physics in 1880, heh?

"Countless fossil discoveries allow us to trace the evolution of today's organisms from earlier forms. DNA sequencing has confirmed beyond any doubt that all living creatures share a common origin."

Fine. Neither of those statements has any bearing on the truth of NeoDarwinian evolution as opposed to other evolutionary models.

"Innumerable examples of evolution in action can be seen all around us, from the pollution-matching pepper moth to fast-changing viruses such as HIV and H5N1 bird flu. Evolution is as firmly established a scientific fact as the roundness of the Earth."

Once again, the authors are confusing (deliberately?) the issues of "Do species evolve?" and "Is NeoDarwinism the correct model of how they evolve?"

"For those who have never had the opportunity to find out about biology or science, claims made by those who believe in supernatural alternatives to evolutionary theory can appear convincing."

What about supernatural evolutionary theories (such as those accepted by the Catholic Church, e.g., evolution happened much as the Darwinists claim, directed all the while by God)? And, in any case, the whole distinction is fatuous, given that the existence of nature itself is not susceptible to anything other than a "supernatural" explanation.

Have the people who write this stuff taken even an introductory course in the history or philosophy of science? Have they ever heard of the Duhem-Quine thesis?

Aargh!

Only YOU Can Produce Market Anarchy Documentaries

Details here.

The Cult of the Presidency

I recommend you pick up this excellent book by Gene Healy of the Cato Institute, the Washington, DC based Paul-smearing, neocon sock puppet, sell-out think tank. Uhh, sorry, I was channeling Justin Raimondo for a moment there! But get the book - it's quite good.

A Startling New Theme in French Art

I saw a poster in Paris for a production entitled ¨"The Decadence of the Consumption Society." I was very happy to see this, as French artists have never addressed this theme before, and it's well-nigh time they got around to it.

In other nezs from French theater, there is a series appearing called "The theater of Claude Levy-Strauss" - plays based on structural anthropology, apparently.

I Have Work to Do

Here's a comment (about the 40th down, from "odograph") from an MR blog post that is completely understandable in context, and yet is absurd on its face:

"kevin, I agree that the government should tax carbon and get out of the way."

This is reminiscent of the WSJ editorial from a few months ago, that in the same sentence lauded the Colombian president for his commitment to free trade and the war on drugs.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Oh My God

Now I am being put through some sort of diabolical French torture device that my host tells me is called the - there will be a pause here while i spend half an hour looking for a quote key - couldnt find one, so screz it - QUOTE azerty UNQUOTE keyboard. But I suspect that name is only for foreign consumption - locally, this is known as the QUOTE f*ck thosze filthy american bougeoise pigs UNQUOTE keyboqrd.

How did I wind up in this predicqment? Well, Adam qnd I came in fro, Pqris today to Strasbourg, zhere ze were met qt the stqtion by so,e Africqn ?an who demanded we get in his car. Then he drove us out to so,e town nqmed after lamb or something, and ordered me to blog on this waterboqrding style keyboqrd.

The mornings arrogant Parisian cab driver who had NO idea where I was asking to go when I asked for the Tuh-lle-rie instead of the Too-lle-rie was nothing compared to the torture this man has put me through by lending me his laptop.

Overpopulation? Bah! The Whole WORLD Could Live in Texas Easily

An extremely provocative essay by Greg Rehmke. Incidentally, I've known his name for a few years now, but just met him at the APEE conference. I think his work warrants more attention from free market fans than it has thus far received.

I didn't read this whole essay word-for-word, but I think the one major stumbling block is that densely populated cities such as New York and Hong Kong rely on imports of food etc. So it's a bit too flippant just to say, "If NYC can have that density, so can the rest of the world!" But as I say, maybe Greg deals with that objection and I just didn't see it.

Generally, I am aghast when people say things like, "Our Earth can't support so many people," and when even free market types like Tyler Cowen lecture us on the number of our children being the biggest determinant of our "carbon footprint." Next time you are in a plane, just pay attention to how much empty space you fly over. Then realize that the Earth is 70% covered with water.

Once humans figure out how to profitably build floating colonies, the Earth could easily support one quadrillion people. And in terms of us using natural resources? We have quite literally only scratched the surface of the material wealth in this oblong spheroid.

CU's Smoke-Out Draws 10,000 Fans of Thoreau

...or just stoners? Either way, the cop's quote is interesting:

"There’s no way our 12 to 15 officers are going to be able to deal with a crowd of 10,000. We just can’t do strong enforcement when we’re outnumbered 700 or 800 to one.”

(HT2DC)

Monday, April 21, 2008

Quotes from Einstein

Gmail sometimes puts up quotes and I couldn't help clicking on an Einstein one, which brought me to this list. He's actually cooler in his general worldview than I realized. (I already knew he was rather good on matters of physics.) Some gems:

A question that sometimes drives me hazy: am I or are the others crazy?

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

Force always attracts men of low morality.

He who joyfully marches in rank and file has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would suffice.

Heroism on command, senseless violence, and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism - how passionately I hate them!

I am not only a pacifist but a militant pacifist. I am willing to fight for peace. Nothing will end war unless the people themselves refuse to go to war.

I think and think for months and years. Ninety-nine times, the conclusion is false. The hundredth time I am right.

Tabarrok on NPR on Profit Motive in the Criminal Justice System

Did you know bail bondsmen (people?) are "unheard of" outside the US? Find out more!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Musings on China: The Synthesis

My first blog on China was the thesis, namely that their performance over the past few years needn't indicate irresponsible monetary policy.

Then came the antithesis: Although it was theoretically possible for a weak-yuan policy to cause domestic price inflation, even without growing the Chinese monetary base, it would require falling asset (or rather, non-CPI basket) prices, which I ruled out. Hence I thought my friend was right, and that China's rulers must indeed be guilty of running the printing press.

And now the synthesis: I just read in the WSJ that China's stock market is down something like 50% since its peak in the fall. I knew it was down, but I had no idea how much!

Therefore, my new back-of-the-envelope summary: China's free market reforms have indeed spurred genuine economic growth. But they grew the monetary base rapidly for a while, and that surely spurred malinvestments. (It didn't appear reckless to them perhaps, because they were tied to the dollar. But the Fed was reckless at that time!!)

Lately, they have become alarmed. With the "sterilization" process, they are not expanding as they once were. But as with the Fed's belated halt in double-digit rates of monetary expansion, methinks it's too late.

I don't know enough about China's institutional structure to say whether the authorities will allow a full-blown "recession," but they would have one if they were a true market economy.

International Trade and Monetary Theory: My New Vice

Although the standard Austrian tools are capable of handling these types of issues, I have been ill-prepared in dealing with things like a falling dollar when inflation is moderate. As I said, the way I used to think about these things wasn't actually wrong, but there are a lot of subtleties I have only recently realized.

I may have to suck it up and read Mundell's textbook. And I thought I was done with matrix algebra.

Fair Trade?

Bob's not the only one with an article in The Freeman.

Greetings from Sunny Amsterdam

Off to the Van Gogh Museum with Adam today. Yesterday I told my friend Robert Hensgens that I find his country frustrating -- I like being forced to speak a foreign language when I travel, as its the only way I ever really learn one well. But here, everyone speaks English better than I do. Adam remarked, "No, what about that guy in the airport?"

"Adam," I replied, "that was Heathrow Airport."

The worst English speaker I've encountered on my trip to the Netherlands was a BA employee in London.

In other matters: Last night, Adam was asked by a friendly burgher what the most notable difference was between New Amseterdam and Amsterdam. He said, "The bicycles."

Some of them are more equipped than a basic car: Multiple storage compartments, two or three child seats, headlamps, windshields, etc. The bikes even have their own traffic lights.

UPDATE: Thinking of my travels --
Bad places to be forced to learn a foreign language: Montreal, Quebec, Florence, London, Cancun, Dublin, Cardiff, Amsterdam.
Good places to be forced to learn a foreign language: Sicily, working in an American grocery store.

More on Self-Ownership

(One UPDATE below...)

Below Gene questioned the typical libertarian endorsement of self-ownership:

I've always thought the concept of "self-ownership," so loved by many libertarians, is a little screwy: Man is not a good he owns, he is himself. To the common comeback, "If you don't own yourself, then who does?" my answer has been, "No one, just like no one owns arithmetic or the night sky."

Insofar as he goes, I agree with Gene. However, all it takes is a simple change of terminology to body-ownership, and then the standard libertarian view is fine. Is that all you're saying, Gene?

If not--i.e., if you're really disputing that it makes sense to view human bodies as being objects of ownership--then what were slave auctions all about? Traders never grabbed the night sky and sold it to plantation owners.

Also, the more I think about it, the less coherent I find the view that rejects the ability of someone to sell his body to another. What's especially odd is that Rothbardians believe that a victim can rightfully enslave his aggressor, at least until the crime is rectified. So if John can own Jim's body because Jim shot John in the leg, then why can't John own Jim's body because Jim signed a contract in exchange for money?

Whatever metaphysical objections you might have--"what if Jim later regrets his decision?"--don't work when Jim was an aggressor. So why do they work when he isn't an aggressor? If Jim doesn't like his body being owned by John, he shouldn't have shot him. Or, he shouldn't have signed the contract and accepted the $200,000 that he blew in Vegas.

UPDATE

In talking with (the young) Dick Clark, we clarified one of the stickling points on this issue. I said, "Rothbard's right, you can't alienate your will. But you're selling your body, not your will." To this Dick said, "But your body doesn't work without your mental controls."

I think this is the crux of the dispute. In order for someone to be a productive slave, he has to have his heart and soul in it.

Or does he? After all, I think the vast majority of slaves had their body ownership stolen. Their (unrightful) owners figured out ways to motivate them to order their "own" bodies to do the tasks that the (unrightful) owners wanted.

I think we need to remind ourselves what it means to be an owner. To paraphrase Kinsella, it means that when you and someone else have a disagreement on how a scare resource should be used, you are "in the right."

Let me give some more examples to illustrate that libertarians are wrong for conflating mental control with body ownership.

(1) Suppose you have telekinetic powers and can control "my" car just by thinking. Does that mean you are necessarily the owner of "my" car? No, of course not. It makes perfect sense to say I still own the car, and I can use my vastly inefficient means of controlling it. If you use your superior mental influence to have it perform the tasks you desire, then you just stole from me.

(2) Suppose you have a terminal illness and agree that your estate will get $1 million, in exchange for which you will be killed and your organs will be sold on various markets. After you accept the $1 million, I don't see why the title to your body is still in your hands. It's gone. (Of course in a civilized society they would probably have standard "backout" clauses in these contracts, but that's a practical detail; it's not a bedrock principle.)

(3) Suppose you have a huge gambling debt. An eccentric millionaire says he'll pay off your debts, but you agree to be his prey in a hunt on his estate. If you can reach the green zone, then he gives you back your freedom. So long as this contract is truly voluntary, how does it violate Walter Blockian precepts? Isn't this very similar to Block's "Murder Park"?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

A Very Tough Issue: FLDS Child Custody

I have long thought that child welfare issues were the biggest stumbling block for conventional libertarian theory. After all, children are the one group for whom paternalism is appropriate!

A few libertarians have (understandably) been going nuts over the government raiding a community in an armored personnel carrier (see photo below), and literally kidnapping hundreds of children at gunpoint, all on the basis of a phone call that has yet to be verified and may very well have been a prank.


I think a lot of people are holding back their criticism, because this polygamist compound surely had some nutjob activities occurring. If the police really did get a phone call from a woman claiming to be subject to beatings and rapes, it's reasonable that they would go in. (Obviously as an anarchist and pacifist, I don't think armed men are ever the "answer," but I realize well-meaning people differ with me on that score.)

What troubles me though is that the state of Texas has taken 400+ kids from their parents, and it seems it is now up to the parents to prove they should get them back. This is outrageous.

If it doesn't strike you as such, change the scenario. Suppose "Sarah" called and said her husband just killed her brother, and that murder was commonplace and accepted among these religious wackos. Even so, would the state of Texas be able to lock every adult up for murder, and only release each person on a case-by-case basis, after he or she had proven (somehow) his or her innocence?

I would much rather be convicted of a crime I didn't commit, than have the government take my son away and put him into its "protective custody." And this isn't just some idealistic principle on my part; there are many accusations of horrors in Texas' foster care system.

The only reason this is happening so brazenly is that most people don't care about religious wackos. If someone called from a housing project, and said drug dealers went around and raped girls with impunity, there's no freaking way the cops could just round up the whole project and keep the kids from their parents while they "sorted it out."

Yes, there are differences between this last analogy and the FLDS compound, but I hope I've made my point. Do we really want to just trust the government's version of what was going on in that compound?

Finally, I don't think it's unfair to bring up another effort to rescue children from religious nutjobs in Texas.

Cantor set IV

Those of youse who have been following this thread will be interested to hear that the digit analysis problem at the heart of the set membership challenge indeed has a partial (very, very partial) solution, much to my surprise. Three mathematicians recently discovered an algorithm:

{digit # in expansion of pi} --> algorithm --> {value of the said digit}

So you *don't* need to crank through digits 1-99 to find digit 100. The catch? the digits in question are binary. As far as anyone knows (I think) you still need to know decimal digits 1-99 before you can get to finding decimal digit 100.

Friday, April 18, 2008

More Murphy vs. Cowen

This apparently has been available for a while now, but I didn't realize it because the link was below the "fold" on the Freeman's table of contents. I.e. I thought it was going to be in the next issue.

Anyway, here is my critique of Tyler Cowen on whether the Fed is bailing out Wall Street.

Last Theorem

I have a truly discovered a theorem, the margins of this blog are entirely adequate to contain, but which refers, for its expression, more type faces than email seems able to honor.

Nerd in Nashville

A very cogent letter to the WSJ today. But you should read the earlier letters to get the context. We were all responding to a doctor who wrote an op-ed "The Health Insurance Mafia," in which he compared health insurers to parasitic goons who muscle their way into transactions without providing benefits.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Revised Musings on China

In an earlier post I suggested that it was theoretically possible that China's rapid price inflation wasn't the result of a loose monetary policy, but instead its efforts to curb the appreciation of the yuan. However, at the time I hadn't quite worked out the mechanics of how this would be possible; it was just a hunch based on the obvious fact that an appreciating currency would have a deflationary tendency.

After thinking about it some more, I think I've come up with a mechanism whereby this could occur. However, in order to get it to work, I have to assume things that I'm pretty sure aren't true. Hence, when all is said and done I think my friend (the "Chinaman") was right when he thought they had sown an unsustainable boom, and we might have big trouble in big China.

==============

THE THEORY

OK so if China were a capitalist country, here's how it could work: We're trying to show that consumer goods prices could go up, even if the government doesn't run the printing press. Absent any changes in the demand for yuan, the only way is to have prices of other things (which aren't included in the CPI basket) go down. So for example, if the Chinese government raised taxes and then spent all of its revenue on grain and milk, this might cause a spike in the Chinese CPI. The citizens before the tax hike would've spent their money on a wide range of things, and so the government in effect concentrates a fraction of that money in goods whose prices indicate "inflation" in the official measures.

OK let's make it a little closer to home. Suppose that instead of buying the consumer goods itself, the Chinese government buys assets from foreigners, and then they use the yuan to buy finished goods from China. So the Chinese government is basically stealing purchasing power from its people and handing it over to profligate Americans, who then pump it into consumer goods.

Now this actually could be part of what is happening. Suppose that for whatever reason, it just made economic sense for higher order (in the Austrian sense) goods, such as tractors, supercomputers, drill presses, etc., to be produced abroad, whereas it made sense for lower order goods such as peanut butter and TVs to be produced in China. Then when the Chinese government forced its people to save a ridiculous 40% of its GDP (I think that's the figure), they would invest it in foreign assets. Thus, the giant Chinese factory wouldn't be converted into churning out those higher-order goods--it would still crank out consumer goods. And as the process intensified, you would see the prices of those goods go up, thus boosting measured inflation.

If you had the whole world on a gold standard, it would be clearer what was happening. There wouldn't really be price inflation in Chinese consumption goods, just like there wouldn't be deflation in the Western countries. But with regional currencies I think you could get false snapshots as I've described above.

=================

THE REAL WORLD

As I said, I think the above process is in fact part of what's going on. But in order to get an absolute--not just relative--rise in yuan-prices for consumer goods in China, you would need a fall in Chinese asset prices. And that's clearly not happening. In fact, foreigners want to buy not only Chinese exports, but also Chinese assets. This is why the yuan needs to appreciate even more.

So in conclusion, although I think it is theoretically possible for a country to experience high domestic price inflation even though it isn't running the printing press, in this case I don't think that's what is happening. Especially when you consider how high China's real GDP growth has been, I have to believe they've been expanding their money supply. It's hard for me to go "look and see," because (a) my initial google attempts literally landed me on Chinese webpages and (b) I don't know anything about their institutional arrangements so the official numbers could be quite meaningless.

My final observation is this: Up until mid-2005 China had a pretty stable peg against the USD. Some have said that it was this peg that allowed China to weather the Asian financial crisis fairly well back in the day. Remember, it wasn't until the last couple of years that people really started questioning the solvency of the dollar.

So, in that context, I think the Chinese could have been quite comfortable expanding their monetary supply, so long as it wasn't putting downward pressure on the yuan vis-a-vis the "solid" dollar. It's as if they had a gold standard, and kept accumulating tons and tons of gold reserves every year. They would think they were doing a great job, being perfectly responsible.

Where does this leave us? Unfortunately it could mean that China is sitting on a bigger pile of malinvestments than the U.S.

"Why didn't you tell the vorld, EH?"

Folks, once you just entertain the possibility that the State doesn't do a good job protecting you from military conquest, you start seeing evidence all over the place. My favorite paragraph from this story (HT2LRC):

The Britons were seized because the US-led coalition designated a sea boundary for Iran’s territorial waters without telling the Iranians where it was, internal Ministry of Defence briefing papers reveal.

They're Finally Admitting Who's Da Best!

Brooklyn Nursery Rhymes

Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet
Eating her curds and whey
Along came a spider
And sat down beside her
He's sleeping with the fishes today

***

Mary, Mary, quite contrary
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and...
Hey! Wait a second! Keep your friggin' nose outta my garden, OK?

***

Fee! Fie! Fo! Fum!
I smell da blood of a Brooklyn man
Whether he's dead or whether he's alive
He still gotta pay me back my five!

Bad News!

Checking the score of the NCAA basketball regional finals, I find that Davidson is still down by two to Kansas.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Voegelin on "Self-Ownership"

I've always thought the concept of "self-ownership," so loved by many libertarians, is a little screwy: Man is not a good he owns, he is himself. To the common comeback, "If you don't own yourself, then who does?" my answer has been, "No one, just like no one owns arithmetic or the night sky." But Voegelin is a little harsher:

"The history of political thought does not offer an attack on the dignity of man comparable to [Locke's] classification of the human person as a capital good, to the undisturbed economic use of which one has a natural right. The ancient division of men into freemen and natural slaves, or the modern distinction of superior and inferior races, admits at least of the dignity of a part of mankind and justifies he disregard for the rest by the argument that it consists of an inferior breed of man. But the blunt assertion that man is an instrument of economic production... is again as unique an idea as the Lord's Lunch."

The Lord's Dutch Lunch

I'm reading the section of Eric Voegelin's History of Political Ideas on Locke at present. Voegelin was no fan of Locke's, considering him more of a purveyor of popular ideas than a philosopher. He quotes Locke on why the State has no interest in excommunication as a civil rights violation:

"For there is no civil injury done to the excommunicated person by... refusing him that bread and wine, in the celebration of the Lord's Supper, which was not bought with his but with other men's money."

Voegelin comments: "This exquisite interpretation of the Lord's Supper as the Lord's Dutch Lunch, to which one may have a title because one has paid in advance for the victuals, is Locke's unique contribution to Christian doctrine..."

From the same section:

"The seventeenth century produced a curious assortment of Gods. For Grotius, God was a roving merchant who wants all men to keep commercial intercourse over the seven seas; for Hobbes, he was the Leviathan sitting on the proud; for Louis XIV, a king with a court; for Locke, he is a manufacturer who does not want his property to be damaged."

Open Sesame

My daughter is going to be making a brief appearance on Sesame Street, in an episode being filmed Thursday. I'm bringing her to the shoot, and you know I'll just have to walk around asking everyone, "Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?"

Man, this will be so much fun! Maybe even more fun than the day when I was walking through Phoenix Park and someone asked me the time! (Which was an unintentional reference to...?)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Musings on China

My friend has lately been a Chinaman (is that the preferred nomenclature?), in that he is fixated on China's political and economic policies. He suspects that China may have been printing money like crazy, which would explain their massive growth rates and rampant inflation. With price controls, shortages, etc., it looks like all hell could break loose. Not something you want breaking loose in a country with so many men aged 18-35 who can't find wives.

Now I haven't done any formal research here--I did a quick search but everything that looked promising was in some strange language--but it is possible that China is actually in good financial shape. To repeat, I am not making predictions here, I am just saying that the stuff we are seeing from China is consistent with them making good improvements. So:

* In the last ten years (say), China has allowed itself to become more and more capitalist. With a billion people who are still underdeveloped compared to the West and who have been living under actual communism, this is huge. Double digit real growth rates are entirely plausible in this scenario.

* The high price inflation could be due to the Chinese government's suppression of the yuan, rather than irresponsible use of the printing press. I confess I haven't fully worked the mechanism out in my head, but I think you could come up with a general equilibrium model with all your ducks in a row. Here's the intuition: You've got foreigners wanting to buy Chinese exports and invest heavily in the country. Normally that would push the yuan way up; it's impossible to be a net exporter and have a net capital inflow at the same time. (If you prefer, just think that everybody has to trade his or currency for yuan, in order to invest in Chinese assets or buy Chinese products.)

* Suppose the Chinese government just sits back and lets the yuan appreciate rapidly. This would reduce Chinese exports (their goods are more expensive) while it would probably increase investments in China. (Yes the prices of the assets go up, but then you're holding more valuable assets. You wouldn't say, "People buy $100 bonds but not $1000 bonds, because the latter are too expensive!") The appreciating currency amplifies whatever the nominal yield is on the Chinese assets, making them more attractive to investors. At the same time, goods from around the world would become cheaper for Chinese consumers, since the yuan is stronger. The influx of direct foreign investment would allow the Chinese economy to grow even faster, boosting GDP and lowering prices even more.

* Alas, these processes are held in check, because the Chinese government artificially props up the USD vis-a-vis the yuan. I'm not sure exactly how they do this, i.e. I'm not sure if their yuan come from the equivalent of taxes or their earnings from assets or from state-run enterprises or the printing press or what. In any event, the Chinese government takes yuan that it could spend on tanks, roads, or diapers and instead buys US dollars, then US government debt, with them. This keeps the Chinese people poorer than other potential uses of that yuan, and more important keeps foreign imports more expensive than they otherwise would be.

* Because of the high domestic price inflation, the Chinese government foolishly enacts price controls. These cause shortages, as they always do.

============

With the riots in Haiti and elsewhere, I hope the Chinese government allows the yuan to appreciate even more than it is already doing. (If you look at a chart of the yuan versus the dollar, you'll see that it hasn't really been "pegged" since mid-2005, or rather that the peg keeps moving.) This would ease domestic price inflation, bring a lot more prosperity to its citizens, and give the government cover to remove the dumb price controls. I'm not sure what the downside politically would be; presumably there are powerful exporting interests that want the yuan weak.

But I don't think you want a billion people rioting over food prices.

CPI Number Tomorrow--What Bar Will You Celebrate In?

Are you guys excited?! Tomorrow the CPI number for March comes out. You may recall that Gary North has been strutting because of the flat February number, so I am very anxious to see what happens.

For those who can't stand the suspense, let me up the ante: The producer price index for March came out today, and was 1.1 percent higher than the previous month, i.e. it is running at over a 14% annualized rate. That certainly doesn't seem too deflationary to me.

For the real thinkers out there, who might wonder whether the PPI and CPI move together: The PPI is certainly more volatile, but they tend to move together. I hope this link works, but try checking out this graph. You see how the red line jumped up at the end? Which way do you guess the blue line will go? I will be very surprised if it's flat again.

Ah the joys of being a libertarian economist! You don't get the thrill of running people's lives, but it has its perks.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Site-Specific Search Engine

Has anyone EVER found what he or she was looking for using a search engine on a specific site? E.g. if you want to find out a list of apple prices from 1980 onward, don't you dare search for "apple prices" at the BLS website. And just now I was trying to find the academic homepage of Robert Balling, a climate scientist at Arizona State University. I tried at first to go through the hoops of "Academics" and then different departments, but that wasn't working. In desperation I tried searching the site for "balling." Ha ha why would that work?

In all honesty, has anyone EVER found the desired information using a site-specific engine? I think I'm about 0 for 50 in such searches. I usually don't even bother anymore.

Tautologies Are a Valid Part of Science!

These Creationists think they have a crushing complaint about Darwinism -- it's based on a tautology:

"Waddington is not alone in his assessment of the serious problems facing evolution as a result of natural selection having been shown to be a circular argument. G.A. Peseley joined the ranks of those criticizing natural selection as evolution’s mechanism when he stated:

"'One of the most frequent objections against the theory of natural selection is that it is a sophisticated tautology. Most evolutionary biologists seem unconcerned about the charge and make only a token effort to explain the tautology away. The remainder, such as Professors Waddington and Simpson, will simply concede the fact. For them, natural selection is a tautology which states a heretofore unrecognized relation: the fittest—defined as those who will leave the most offspring — will leave the most offspring.

"'What is most unsettling is that some evolutionary biologists have no qualms about proposing tautologies as explanations. One would immediately reject any lexicographer who tried to define a word by the same word, or a thinker who merely restated his proposition, or any other instance of gross redundancy; yet no one seems scandalized that men of science should be satisfied with a major principle which is no more than a tautology (1982, 38:74).'"

I know what they mean! Think of the notorious pseudo-scientist Sir Isaac Newton, who declared that an object will continue in uniform, straight-line motion (rest being a special case of this) unless acted upon by a force. And how do we know that's right? How do we find out if a force is present? We use F=MA, in other words, we detect a force by seeing if some mass is deviating from uniform, straight-line motion! As the famed physicist Sir Arthur Eddington re-phrased these two laws, "Objects move in straight lines unless they don't."

This is not a criticism of Newton, but of the afore-mentioned Creationists. They, along with many others, have not realized that such tautologies are crucial in a science, for they set up the concepts that will direct further research. Of course, they themselves are not subject to empirical investigation -- they are the assumptions underlying empirical work, which never starts from a blank slate -- to do so is impossible, in fact. You can't set out with zero conceptual apparatus and "just start testin' sh*t" -- how would you ever have any idea what you were testing?

Oh, and the silly Mr. G.A. Peseley, whoever he is, seems unaware that a dictionary is a giant tautological network!

Minor Gripe #838

Blogger provides a feature where someone commenting can be notified of future comments on that thread. What baffles me is why, once I check that box, Blogger notifies me of my own comments? They know my e-mail address when I comment, and they're sending the notice to the exact same address. Is it really so hard for them to guess that I am probably already aware that I just posted a new comment?

Quick Critique of Gary North

I really don't want to devote too much time to this--I've already wasted an arbitrarily long amount of time on the sneezing riddle. But Gary North was such a jerk to some young gold bug, that I feel I must weigh in.

* North has been patting himself on the back ever since the February CPI growth was flat, and then again when gold prices fell in early April. He takes credit for these outcomes because--unlike most other libertarian economists--North has said that we are in a deflationary environment. He said this at least as far back as April 2007, where he explained that M1 is the best predictor of price inflation, and based on that, we should have low, possibly negative, price inflation.

* First, North's argument to show the superiority of M1 is just plain goofy. His method is to look at the total percentage growth in various monetary aggregates over different time frames, and them compare this with the percentage change in CPI. All of the aggregates overshoot, if memory serves, but M1 does the least. Hence M1 is the best predictor of inflation, and since M1 has been flat for a while, February's flat CPI was just what North was warning us about!

* That is goofy, as I said above. There are a lot more sophisticated ways you could use monetary aggregates to try and predict price movements. E.g. you could try correlating changes in an aggregate with changes in price. To simply look at gross percentage increases over a given time interval is very crude. To give you a ridiculous example, North's method would "prove" that in some settings, me telling you the Celsius temperature would be a poor predictor of the Fahrenheit temperature. (Suppose in year 1 it's 10C, i.e. 50F. Then the next year it warms to 20C, i.e. 68F. The Celsius reading doubled, while the Fahrenheit went up 36%. So the Celsius scale tends to overpredict changes in Fahrenheit; we need to find a better predictor of Fahrenheit scale changes!)

* More important, M1 has been flat before. Look at it here in the mid-1990s. Did we have deflation for a years back then? Of course not. So why should we expect it now?

* What is absolutely ABSURD about North's taking credit for the February CPI number is that he made his "maverick" prediction back in April 2007. I.e. North was calling for deflation four months into the calendar year with the highest inflation (4.1%) in over a decade.

* And if you want to talk about individual months, that's fine. Well after North's prediction, where he warned his readers to watch out for deflation, there was an annualized monthly increase in the CPI of over 10%. This was the 2nd most inflationary month going back at least 17 years. (From the graph I can't quite make out which month; it looks like it was either October or November of 2007.) I.e., if North wants to take credit for the 0% annualized CPI growth in February 2008, then he also has to explain the 10%+ annualized CPI growth in late 2007. Again, he called for deflation back in April 2007.

* Finally, North was tearing Seville a new one over the fall in gold on April 1. Well, do you think it possibly had to do with the change in quarter? North writes: "Of course, he can wait until gold rebounds above $1,000 and the CPI goes back to 4% a year." Well, gold's already risen about $10/oz. since North wrote that.

* In conclusion, I'm not saying I liked Seville's analysis. But I think North was WAY too cocky in his treatment of the young punk. I'm also not predicting that gold or inflation will go through the roof in 2008. (I think if the credit markets recover, then those things will indeed happen, since the Fed is primed to flood the system with new money, plus the recession will reduce the flow of real output.) But even if 2008 turns out to be a year of moderate inflation, I'm not convinced North should be credited with a brilliant prediction.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Brian Wilson Paradox

"Happy times together we've been spending
I wish that every kiss was never-ending
Wouldn't it be nice?"

My daughter Emma, upon hearing those lines, asked, "But Dad, if every kiss was never-ending, wouldn't that mean there could only be one kiss?"

"Hey, that's right," I responded.

To which my son Eamon replied, "No, there'd be zero kisses."

"Huh?"

"Well, he'd never finish a kiss. And what's more, he'd never even really get any fraction of the way into a kiss."

(His point here being, by the way, different than the Zeno paradox -- he wasn't saying you could never cover any finite time of kissing, but that no finite amount is ever more than 0% of an infinite kiss. Similar problem: Throwing a dart at the real number line from 0 to 1, what is the probability you'll hit 2/3? Answer: 0!)

Discussing this with Wabulon, he noted that there are (theoretical) super-Turing machines that can do x amount of processing in time t, then x more in time t/2, then x more in t/4, and so on, thus completing and infinite amount of time.

"Good point," I said, "but given that Brian Wilson couldn't even get out of bed for around 20 years, I don't think he is an instantiation of one of those machines.

But, thinking it over a bit more, we figured out a way that Wilson could make his kiss never-ending for the rest of us, while it would end for him.

What did we come up with?

Mea Culpa on the Sneeze Guy, and a Riddle!

This is rare: I think my earlier post about the sneeze guy was wrong, or at least didn't contain the full picture. What's even rarer, is that it took an email from Tyler Cowen to prod me to reverse myself.

Although Mike in the comments of my last post had talked about the sneeze working its effects backwards through the line--much like a traffic accident can cause a delay to ripple backwards through the highway--I don't think that's the way to analyze this situation. Or at least, that's not what the sneeze guy had in mind.

Suppose the security line originally has 10 people in it. After 6 seconds one person walks through the metal detector, and a new person arrives at the end of the line. So the line is a constant 10 people long, and each person has to wait a total of one minute to get through security.

Now some guy at the front has a sneezing fit. He ends up taking 12 total seconds to go through; i.e. he "wastes" 6 seconds. This means that the line now grows to 11 people in length, and it stays like that.

So because of that guy's 6-second delay, every single person who ever joins this line has to wait for an extra person to go through, i.e. is delayed an additional 6 seconds. If a million people go through in the next year, that's 6 million people-seconds wasted.

Now relax the assumption that the line is fixed in length, but still insist that it never hits zero. Even so, the initial 6-second delay causes the line to always have one more person in it, than it otherwise would have--so long as we assume that people entering the line don't take its length into account.

I think the above analysis is correct, insofar as it goes. Since that's all the sneeze guy was claiming, I think we have to admit he was right.

===============

RIDDLE

There are still weird things with this. I think we've established above that if one million people go through that line, they each lose 6 seconds. But now suppose that it's the same 10 people who keep going around and around the security gate. I.e. once you go through the metal detector, you go around to the back of the line.

To get rid of the infinities, suppose for some reason that 10 people need to go through the metal detector a total of 1,000 times each.

Now if we had just said there were an initial pool of 10,000 people who had to go through the metal detector once, the analysis above shows the sneeze costs a total of 60,000 person-seconds in lost time.

But what in our new scenario? Does it cost the same amount?

That seems weird. Just imagine you're watching the group of ten people from the ceiling. They form a ring that is rotating, where every 6 seconds the people all walk a little bit around the ring, with one of them going through the gate. Do you mean to tell me that if this rotation pauses for six additional seconds, that each person loses 6,000 seconds of time? No way.

And yet, this seems to be equivalent to the original scenario, with 10,000 strangers forming the line. Surely the amount of time wasted shouldn't depend on the identity of the person in line. If the guy sneezing at the front causes the 8,000th person going through to lose 6 seconds, why does it matter who the 8,000th person is?

I'm pretty sure I know the solution to this riddle, but it's just beyond the reach of perfect obviousness in my mind. So I'm hoping someone can spell it out clearly and I can say, "Yep, you got it!"

A Man Versus a Boy, er, Girl

I don't know much about Megan McArdle. I first heard of her when she was ripping the gold standard. Needless to say I wasn't impressed. Now she and Glenn Greenwald have come to fisticuffs. It seems GG accused her of supporting torture, she flipped out in outrage and said he was nuts, and then GG--as is his wont--went back and dug up quotes of her supporting torture.

Don't mess with Glenn.

But the Car Is Only Worth $300!

You must have heard this argument when someone is contemplating repairs to an old auto. "It's nuts to put $400 into it when it's only worth $300."

This argument seems to me to be entirely beside the point, unless one is repairing the car in order to sell it. If you intend to drive it, the relevant question is, "Will I get more satisfactory car service from my present car after $400 of repairs or from a $400 slice of another car?"

If, say, $400 of repairs are likely to keep the old car running fine for a year, they are almost certainly the cheapest way to get a year of decent automobile use. Why would the book value of the car make any difference to a person in this situation?

A Rare Bubble in the Primordial Soup?

Jeffrey Kluger writes in Time Magazine review of Ben Stein's new Documentary on Evolution, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed:

The man made famous by Ferris Bueller, however quickly wades into waters too deep for him. He makes all the usual mistakes nonscientists make whenever they try to take down evolution, asking, for example, how something as complex as a living cell could have possibly arisen whole from the earth's primordial soup. The answer is, it couldn't--and it didn't. Organic chemicals needed eons of stirring and slow cooking before they could produce compounds that could begin to lead to a living thing.
Is this brush-off really fair? Someone please correct me if I'm wrong, but the current theory has it that Earth's early atmosphere was conducive to the production of organic compounds, and somehow the first cell came about from this. I understand there are tentative hypotheses as to various proto-cells that could be created, or that DNA could somehow have come about that would start reproducing, but is this not all speculation? Is there a theory (with positive evidence in its favor, of course) that asserts something that is not ultimately reducible to "lightning struck this soup, DNA was formed and happened to be near a membrane bubble, and voila!"?

Granted science is a process and unanswered questions do not nullify its current theories, but should not such a question should put a considerable burden upon the biologist to provide a more satisfying answer than the oft heard "an infinite time anything could happen".

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Infinitely Bad Argument

OK this intriguing blog post (HT2MR) has taken up a good 15 minutes of my day. Summary:

You're in an airport, about to go through the security line. You sneeze, which delays you by two seconds. It doesn't just delay you by two seconds, though; it also delays everyone waiting in line behind you. And everyone who will show up while the people currently in line haven't gone through yet. In fact, if you assume that the queue is never empty...we're talking about arbitrarily large quantities of wasted time.

Some of the responses at MR pointed out holes in this logic. There are all sorts of ways that eventually people behind the sneezer end up at the same position, at the same time, that they would have in the absence of the sneeze. E.g. if the sneezer is behind someone else and the line stops moving for a few seconds, then obviously his sneeze does nothing. And even if his sneeze delayed himself and 30 people behind him, so long as there would have been a few seconds when the line weren't moving forward for the 31st person, then the sneeze did nothing.

I think this is probably "the" solution in this case to deal with the apparent paradox. However, I'm wondering if there are other, deeper flaws with the logic. For example, suppose that the line always moves, and is never empty. Then it seems that the sneeze is infinitely costly, and this just seems crazy. After all, it's not as if people start arriving 400 hours late to their destination, so something is screwy.

At first I was tempted to deal with this by saying, "Oh, it's because this 'infinite' cost is dispersed among so many different people. If you have an arbitrarily large number of people suffering a tiny cost, then you obviously get arbitrarily large aggregate costs. No paradox."

But that's not good enough. Suppose that the queue is never empty, but that it consists of the same 10,000 people who fly very often. Then you get these arbitrarily large delays spread among a finite group of people.

Indeed, if our sneezer himself will end up at the end of the queue before it empties out, his sneeze will delay HIM many times over.

So something is really screwy with this logic. And I don't think we should dispose of it with appeal to time preference. That's a definite complication and it mitigates whatever the "total cost" is of the sneeze, but again it seems to be missing what (must be) fundamentally wrong with the analysis.

One thing that occurs to me is the notion of "waste." After all, everything that happens in the queue slows people down. When they were deciding how much time to allow for the queue, they presumably took into account real world possibilities, such as people sneezing and elderly people walking slowly. So it seems to me that a guy sneezing on January 1 couldn't possibly mess up the plans of people traveling on March 15, if for no other reason than that these later travelers would take the sneeze's effects into account when driving to the airport etc.

A New Contributor to Econlib

Move over Caplan and Kling, I'm here to talk oil prices.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Sure, It's Cool, But...

As insomnia eats away at the thin threads of my rationality, I lay awake, picturing Emily Litella:

EL: So why did this P.S. Eliot say 'April is the coolest month'? Yes, it's pretty mild, and the nights can get cold...

CC: Emily.

EL: But really, I think January is much cooler. And for that matter...

CC: Emily!

EL: February is usually much cooler too. And December...

CC: Emily!!

EL: Yes, Cheddar Cheese?

CC: That's 'T.S. Eliot,' and he said 'April is the "cruelest" month, not the "coolest."'

EL: Really?

CC: Yes, really.

EL: Oh, that's very different... Never mind.

"Professional Courtesy"

From Roderick Long, I found this story about how special California plates allow government officials and their families to routinely break the law. Being from a law-enforcement family, this is no news to me. But what I "love" is the way this is justified in the article:

'"It's an unwritten rule that we would extend professional courtesy," said Ron Smith, a retired Los Angeles Police Department officer who worked patrol for 23 years. "Nine out of 10 times I would."'

Smitty, "professional courtesy" is, for example, when a dentist gives another dentist a 10% break. And he can do that, because, you see, it's his money! But the laws you're allowing other cops to break aren't supposed to be yours to "courteously" suspend as you wish.

No Wonder Heidegger Became a Nazi!



He blamed capitalism for his green, concrete windows: "Mein Gott, I have bought a cottage on this beautiful mountainside, but the capitalists have filled my windows with green concrete so I see nothing!"

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Human Stuff

First I read Mises's Human Action. Then I read Oakeshott's On Human Conduct. Then I read Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition. And now I'm reading Stephen Toulmin's Human Understanding. So what other books with 'Human' in the title should I read to complete this tour?

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Vegas Update #3

I'll actually talk econ in this one. I was a bit amused at what seemed to happen during one of the sessions. The presenter was talking about bans on smoking in "public" places, and how proponents argued that it was a myth that such prohibitions would hurt restaurants' earnings. The presenter said that statistics showing an increase in aggregate earnings weren't proof, since some restaurants could have benefited and some could have suffered.

In the Q&A I asked how this could be possible. Since we were assuming Coasian arrangements (which was the whole point of the session), if the restaurants all optimized before the ban, the institution of the ban could only hurt them. So wasn't it weird that aggregate profits went up?

The chair of the session jumped in to show me that my logic was wrong. He pointed out that even a pre-ban restaurant that had a no-smoking policy could have been hurt, since it would have lost its niche market. I answered by saying, "Right, that's exactly my point. Those restaurants are hurt, and clearly the restaurants who had catered to smokers are hurt too."

People were kind of stumped, and then one guy in the back said something like, "No, I've talked to restaurant and bar owners, and they don't like smoking. It ruins their clothes, employees need to be paid more, it ruins the walls, etc. But if one restaurant unilaterally bans it, it loses too much business. So they form a cartel and have government ban it everywhere. Our analysis is still right: The ban hurts consumers more than it helps the restaurants."

Everyone was satisfied with this and we moved on. But it struck me that this was a totally different theoretical justification from the one initially offered. I.e. we all knew the ban was stupid, and we just kept adjusting our argument to fit the facts.

Incidentally I'm not saying the people in the room did anything wrong or unscientific. I'm just pointing this out, because if something comparable happens in the leftist camp, I imagine many libertarians would flip out at the unethical statists.

My Favorite Thing About This Time of Year?

The peepers are coming! And why do I love them so much? I think it's that I've heard several million of them in my life, and never seen one! (They are sort of "anti-children.")

Vegas Update #2

OK so we're talking about liberty, free markets, blah blah at the APEE conference. Now let's talk Blackjack.

So I can't resist sitting down at my hotel's (Harrah's) single deck $10 minimum table. The house pays 6-5 on Blackjack but that doesn't seem like such a big deal. They also hit soft 17s, which I assume must help the house but again doesn't seem like a big deal.

(Now what the dealer tells me 10 minutes after I sit down is that you can't take even money when you have blackjack against the dealer Ace. Gee whiz, I thought Vegas was supposed to be fun.)

OK so I am a little hesitant with the whole I-hold-the-cards thing. The dealer starts baby-talking me through the routine, e.g. I have to flip the cards if I want to double down and so forth.

Anyway, I have an 18 (face down, mind you!) and the dealer shows an Ace. The count wasn't anything special, so I don't take insurance. The dealer checks, he doesn't have it. So I push my cards out--FACE DOWN--by my chips, to show that I'm standing.

The dealer says, "A push," and flips his seven. THEN he flips my hand.

Do you folks understand the significance of that?!?!?! I have two theories:

(A) I misheard him; he didn't say that we pushed.

(B) He realized I was counting cards (it's pretty obvious with a single player and single deck) and thought that my awkwardness with handling the cards in the face-down game was an attempt to hustle him. So he wanted to subtly let me know that he was my daddy.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Objections to the Movie 21

I don't want to give spoilers, but I don't know how to implement a "Click here to read more" in this environment. So if you're planning on seeing the movie 21, don't read the following...

======================================

OK I enjoyed the movie but only because of the subject matter. I actually thought it had several serious flaws. Among them:

(1) That kid couldn't act very well.

(2) All of the exposition. Give me a break. My wife pointed out (in regards to a different movie) that movies always do a dumb job of portraying geniuses. For example (back to this movie), would Kevin Spacey's character have spelled it out so sloooooowly when quizzing the kids in their secret room about what the count was? No, he was clearly just reiterating how it worked for the benefit of the audience. And when the kid first plays at a live table, and you're in his head? Give me a break, he wouldn't have been spelling out the rules like that.

(3) Near the end, Laurence Fishburne's character is both driving the limo with Spacey, and is right there to rip off the kid and his girlfriend when they pop out of the building. Those two kids must have been one or two minutes behind Spacey, tops. So even if you give me a JFK-style story about how this could be physically possible, I don't believe Fishburne would have taken such chances with his retirement on the line.

(4) The movie gave the impression that once given the signal to sit down at a hot table, the high roller would stay there for a while. Clearly he was there through a shuffle. Yet Spacey yells at the other high roller for missing the signal to leave and playing three times "into a cold deck." So what's the deal? Do the high rollers get up when the count goes negative or not? The shoe can't stay good for as long as it portrayed them sitting at the table. It evens out by the end, which takes about 15 minutes, and even less if there are only 3 people at the table. Plus the high roller wouldn't sit down until the shoe was +17 or so, which means the shoe was probably half gone at that point. He'd maybe get 5 or 6 hands in, and then have to switch tables.

Vegas Update #1

Here at the Harrah's hotel waiting for the annual APEE conference. Yesterday I walked away from the blackjack tables when I was down about 60% of my bankroll for the trip. I sat with the most annoying guy ever.

First, he was really slow in deciding what to do (like hit his 16 against the dealer face card). I'm not superstitious so I don't care if you "take" the dealer's bust card or anything like that. But if you're slow, that's just annoying.

Second, he was inconsistent in his dumb plays (so I guess that's a good thing). The best (worst) was when he split his kings against the dealer 7 or something, then got another king. Mercifully he stayed on that hand.

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised to be able to sit at a $15 table and not be crowded. I had worried that the tables would be much pricier. (My first time in Vegas.)

Anyway, I was treading water and then the shoe was about +10 and I got crushed after five or six hands. Then later the final blows occurred when the shoe was around -10 and I kept getting things that I "had" to double down against the dealer 5 or 6, knowing full well I would get a 3 and the dealer wouldn't break. Ah well.

Elephants: They're Stronger, Taller, and Better Painters than Me

Is this for real? It's a bit slow to actually watch, but start playing it and check back every 20 seconds. Even if it's purely memorized, it's still incredible.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

I Love It! More Fed Bashing

Jerry Bowyer at NRO piles on. He isn't calling for the Fed's abolition, but just the fact that we're debating its existence is amazing. I almost don't mind being stuck with my house (which we bought in the fall of 2006).

Gravel Sings the Blues

You have to check this one out.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Hyperlink Grammar

Is there a consensus on the appropriate words to hyperlink? For example, in an article I have the sentence, "...many mainstream economists have recognized the pernicious role played by the Fed."

First, put aside your objections to my use of the passive voice. Now then: I am hyperlinking to this blog post. But which words in the excerpt above do I hyperlink? I see four plausible contenders:

(1) The whole thing.

(2) "mainstream economists"

(3) "mainstream economists have recognized"

(4) "recognized"

For my article I chose (2), which (incidentally) is not how I would have footnoted this in a written paper. Any thoughts?

Roderick Long on Greenspan

Long reviews Greenspan. Man, it is almost embarrassing how shallow some of Greenspan's political/philosophical musings are. He would honestly get crushed at the Newbie board at anti-state. In contrast, somebody like Noam Chomsky could hold his own indefinitely, even though I would strongly disagree with many of his positions.

Poverty "Causes" Obesity

Proponents of Western-style economies often point to the obesity of the poor in modern nations as evidence that, obviously, these poor are not really "poor" in terms of historical standards. There is a quite fatuous way of dismissing that idea based on claiming that poverty "causes" obesity. Well, first of all, even if the claim were true, that still would be a lot better than the previous situation of poverty causing starvation. And secondly, the claim is silly in and of itself.

Over in a letter at Salon.com, I found someone making a typical version of this case:

"Obesity is not a measure of prosperity for the poor. It is a consequence of economic inequality.

"Go down to the ghetto. Try to find fresh food. You'll find convenience stores where you can buy Cheetos and beer. But what if you want fresh chicken, whole wheat flour or broccoli? How do you buy those if you live in the inner city?"

I live in Brooklyn, and there is not a single neighborhood I've ever been in, no matter how poor, where you can't get "broccoli" within 4 or 5 blocks. To the extent that junk food dominates in those areas, it is because of demand. If the poor really were craving steamed vegetables every day instead of Cheetos, wouldn't the vegetable sellers would be working to accommodate them?

Secondly, notice his fetishizing of "fresh." Sure, fresh broccoli is somewhat better for you than frozen broccoli. But both are a lot better for you than Cheetos. And frozen broccoli is even more widely available in poor neighborhoods than fresh -- around here, even little delis are likely to have a small frozen foods section. This fellow has to stress "fresh" because otherwise his case would be way less plausible than it already is.

Look, every poor neighborhood here has at least one Chinese take-out, everyone of which is going to sell both steamed broccoli and deep-fried chicken puffs. Why don't the people claiming "lack of access" as the cause of obesity among the poor go survey those places and ask which dish sells better? The people making such claims are living in a fantasy world where the poor habitually would be dining on tofu and sprouts if only someone -- God knows whom! -- wasn't conspiring to keep those things from their waiting lips. To the extent that poverty correlates to obesity, it is a matter of the preferences of the poor.

Finally we get this gem of wisdom: "One good thing they're doing in LA is installing small public mini-gyms featuring cheap, durable versions of equipment found in gyms the poor are too poor to join."

Riiiight. Because there's no way anyone could be fit without "fitness equipment." It's not like they could go walk to the friggin' supermarket where all the friggin' broccoli is being hidden, or anything like that!

Iraqi Insurgency Now in Its Last, Last, Last Throes

See details here.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

M1 Growth Versus Price Inflation

Gary North caused me to doubt my forecast of high price inflation when he pointed out that M1 had been virtually flat for years. In conjunction with (what was to me) a shocking flat CPI for February, it was enough to make me squirm.

But as this FRED chart shows, annual % change in M1 is almost the mirror image of the same in CPI. In particular, during recessions M1 growth usually drops through the floor, while CPI growth goes through the roof. (Yes that's right, inflation goes way up during recessions, at least since the mid-1960s.)

BTW, if anyone knows how I can embed these FRED graphs directly in the blog post, please let me know.