Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Another word for 'nothing left to lose'

Freedom worked as Mel Gibson's last breath in Braveheart, and it worked for Janice Joplin (sort of, she apparently died shortly after recording the famous cover of Bobby McGee).

As a political philosophy though, not so much. If Buddhism is the serious pursuit of happiness, libertarianism is the serious pursuit of freedom.

And it's pretty unpopular. What's going on here?

Well, there are two strains of libertarianism that can get mixed up for one another: the ideological and the practical/pragmatic.

The ideological strain is pretty rare. Pretty much no one is actually committed to the idea of liberty for its own sake. Find someone who says they're pro-freedom. Then ask if they support the right to smoke crack on a park bench. Or sell a drug that wasn't approved by the FDA, or a car that wasn't approved by the NHTSA, etc. The folks who are all about sending soldiers to defend "freedom" aren't exactly talking about Freedom with a capital 'F.' I mean, abortions, gay marriage, these aren't part of their picture.

Now, there are some famous ideological libertarians. Patrick Henry, for one. Thomas Jefferson is popular in some circles. These are not people who would be popular today. Someone who argued for the liberty vs death dichotomy probably wouldn't support a citywide ban on trans fats. TJ wouldn't get caught up in the various models for whether or not single payer health care would work. He'd reject the very notion out of hand.

The pragmatics now, they can kind of fit in. These are economists like Tyler Cowen who note the inconvenient truth that free trade results in things like... prosperity. It's the pragmatic view that Yglesias attempts to espouse in his summary. This view focuses on the fact that economic growth is very good. So good that in the medium- to long-run, the absolute gains coming from compounded growth dwarf any concerns about relative inequality at any point in time.

The central thesis to the pragmatic view runs like so: The poorest among us now is better off than the richest a few generations ago. Today we're complaining that some folks can't afford medical treatments that couldn't have been purchased with the crown jewels 20 years ago. These treatments don't exist without economic growth, and economies grow in proportion to the degree of economic freedom in a society.

Now, there are two major quibbles with this thesis. First, some folks reject the primacy of absolute over relative prosperity. There's all this happiness research you see, that seems to suggest that seeing folks who are way richer than you makes it difficult to enjoy the fact that you have access to things that your great grandparents could never have dreamt of .

Second, some folks reject this idea that, at any point in the scale, more economic freedom will result in more economic growth. No one used to take this quibble very seriously. The US was more economically libertarian than Europe, and grew at a faster rate. The Asian tigers were more libertarian than the US and grew at a faster rate. Europe was more libertarian than USSR... and grew at a faster rate. North Korea vs South Korea. You get the picture. Then the Asian currency collapse happened, and the dot com bubble burst, and the US started financing some expensive wars, and the sub-prime derivatives market popped... and this second quibble started looking a bit more valid.

Neither of those two quibbles, mind you, matter in the least to an ideological libertarian. The trouble of course comes in when you've got a libertarian who's in both camps: sympathetic to the ideological claim, but also to the practical benefits. Such a libertarian is very vulnerable to confirmation bias. Since their desire for freedom is axiomatic, they tend to ignore any evidence that their system isn't also optimal from a utilitarian perspective as well. Many Randians fall into this camp, and they're the ones that have, by and large, made libertarianism a dirty word.

Of course they're not alone. Almost everyone who gets picks a political side for ideological reasons falls victim to confirmation bias. Most fall victim very quickly, and very spectacularly. If you don't believe me, pick a position that you absolutely disagree with, find a blog supporting that position, and read the comments. The folks supporting the hated position are morons, aren't they? Hypocritical arguments, logical fallacies, cherry picking. Yuck. Now go to a site that you agree with and look at the comments... carefully...

Anyway, there are two questions here: would you rather be comfy than free? And, can you be comfy without being free?

Bonus question for another day: which do you fear more: concentrated power in the hands of corporations, or concentrated power in the hands of the government? Why, and what's the difference?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Indicators, economic and otherwise

Well, they haven't started their own ninja amazon collective, but the women of our fine land apparently have something to offer as well: the hot waitress index. For the record, I was most recently served by a gray haired, male bartender who ridiculed me (justifiably, I should think) for not drinking enough beer during the Colts-Cardinals game.

Then again, perhaps dive-bar attendance is an economic indicator as well.


Operating under the assumption that this isn't some elaborate ruse, surely there is some social scientist somewhere studying the post-feminist, pre-modernist, para-globalizationist implications of Asgarda, the Ukranian ninja Amazons. It's like Goth meets Xena.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Unemployment Game Theory

So I'm unemployed and I've been looking at a couple of small contract jobs to earn some money while the hunt for more stable re-employment continues.

This is small-time work, nothing compared to my original salary, or even compared to my current unemployment benefits. In fact, my unemployment benefits will be reduced by 75% of the amount of my side-job earnings. So, if I do $400 worth of work, I end up $100 richer... and then I pay taxes on the $100 I've got left.

So my choice here is 1) spend some time working to earn a small amount money, or 2) spend my time playing video games or hanging out at the beach and end up with almost as much unearned money.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


It's no secret that I'm kind of a pessimist when it comes to regulation. Not opposed to the idea anywhere and everywhere so much as concerned that most attempts fail, and many are worse than the sickness that they hoped to cure.

This gentleman makes the point that perhaps we're just not trying hard enough.

I'm sympathetic to his sentiment, but I'm still concerned, since we don't tend to abandon failed attempts. The War on Drugs has endured in spite of its miserable failure, as has it's cousin, the experiment where we put an insanely large portion of our population in prisons.

So... what rules do we have on the books now that should be jettisoned, and if so, in place of what?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Isn't it ironic, don't you think?

7/31 - Laid off from job where I developed on a Mac but had to muck about with our Exchange server for email

8/28 - Apple releases Snow Leopard, which adds much better Exchange support to Mail.app

My Mail.app is now all dressed up with nowhere to go, but I'm happy anyway since life without Exchange is still a blessing.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

50 minutes of your life

is a large commitment for a video on the internet. But if you watch this, I'd be quite surprised if you later thought those minutes were poorly allocated.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Evolution vs Revolution

Us humans, we're great at constructing complex, useful systems... so long as that's not what we're trying to do.

Consider the systems required for you to be reading this post right now: the internet, the web browser, RSS, the laptop on which I wrote the post, the machine on which you're reading it.

Consider the systems powering those systems: http, tcp/ip, dns, high level programming languages like C++ or Java, operating systems, MVC frameworks, XML parsers, hard drives, network cards, lcd monitors, microprocessors.

Consider the systems powering those systems: RFCs, low level programming languages like C and assembler, kernels, I/O theory, U/I theory, transistors, precise machining, sophisticated alloys and chemical production, all sorts of mining, etc.

I'm going to finish writing this in less than half an hour, and you're going to read it in far less time, but we're standing on the shoulders of giants here. Millions of man hours went into the technologies and systems that make this communication possible.

That's quite an effort, considering that no one ever planned all of this. Nobody ever sat down at a desk, put pen to paper, mapped out all of that stuff, and then put a plan into motion that would make it all happen. Many of the individual components were planned out in that manner, but by different people, at different times, responding to different needs.

Consider also our constitution, with over two dozen amendments, the doctrine of judicial review, and the entire corpus of legislation passed since the founding of our nation.

The key to great and useful systems is incremental design and loose coupling. Any time you see a large group attempting a revolutionary plan with a huge design and lots of moving parts, be wary. Whether it's Windows Vista, or the French Revolution, any scheme that bites off more than it can chew is destined for trouble. A small group isn't going to understand all of the interactions, incentives and hidden consequences necessary to pull off a plan of that magnitude.

It's in that light that I respond to things like TARP or the stimulus or current health care reform initiatives. They might work, they might not, but no one can really know what's going to happen. We've got frameworks like Keynesian demand theory, and theories on public choice, but the models all have far fewer moving parts than reality does.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

A: "It's Complicated"

Q: "How would Facebook describe the relationship between health care and government?"

So... why is HR 3200, "America's Affordable Health Choices Act," 1017 pages long?

Stakeholders. The "HR" means that the bill has to answer to a majority of the house. The Senate will eventually have to reconcile, and the President will eventually have to sign, so it's going to have to answer to them too.

Congresspeople, Senators and Presidents have campaign promises to keep. The Legislators have lobbyists to answer to.

Finally, there are already scads of laws on the books that address the health care system. It's not like the government is out of health care presently. We've got Medicare and Medicaid already, and tax breaks for businesses who provide health care to employees, and probably a few dozen initiatives in that you and I have never heard of.

In the face of this kind of complexity, folks need to fall back upon simpler heuristics in order to make sense of what's going on.

At a basic level, you'll see those who simply believe, a priori, that government intervention is either good or bad. They don't need to know anything more to make up their minds.

At a secondary level, there are those who might note that other nations have attempted similar plans in the past. These folks would want to compare major parts of our bill with systems in Canada or Britain or elsewhere abroad.

Spend enough time studying comparative politics though, and you'll run into a chaos theory mindset. It's very difficult to measure the interactions between institutions, laws, culture, and economy. You just don't know.

One thing that I do know is that 1) laws usually have unintentional consequences, and 2) it's far easier to pass a law than it it is to change one or repeal one.

Of course, NOT doing anything ALSO has unintended consequences.

Anyone who believes that they really know, to a certainty, what will happen when 1017 pages of legal code are or are not released upon a country of 300 million citizens and hundreds of billions of dollars of health care spending is not to be trusted.

So, I guess we'll just have to see what happens.

Monday, September 7, 2009