April 2009

Lawrence Auster was gracious enough to post one comment I sent to him. He never fixed his comment system after Movable Type broke (moving to Haloscan seemed to work out for Gene Expression) and so the only way to comment is to email him. To see my responses after the first, you’ll just have to read this blog. (more…)

Testing99 was airing his evidence free B.S again so I decided to fact-check it.


This morning my manager asked to step inside a conference room with him and his manager. The company hadn’t been doing well, my division in particular. The former was mostly because of disorganization, the latter because there simply wasn’t enough work for all the employees. The fat needed to be trimmed. I knew I hadn’t been pulling my weight both because so little was assigned to me (I was the new guy after all) and because I had grown lethargic and lax in what little I did. I was told my sort-of-manager (to whom I’d been making unfulfilled promises to get my shit in order) was let go, as was another employee on loan to our sister company. The second I had gone to college with, though we weren’t in any of the same classes. He remembered seeing me on campus, I had no memory of him. I was replacing him because I had just been given responsibility over one feature of our software. I hadn’t shown any special competence at it and if I had been in charge I would have canned me (or my analogue, since being in charge is generally incompatible with being entry-level) a while ago.

To receive a boon you do not deserve, even if is merely the avoidance of a loss, is known as “grace”. The example my pastor gave a little while ago was of a traffic court in session near the holidays in which a judge simply voided everyone’s ticket so they could go home to their families. Grace is then a violation of justice. It is getting better than you deserve. The Christian conception of undeserved bounty owed to God rather than self was the starting point for Rawls’ moral philosophy as a young man, and that disregard for desert survived the purging of God from his thinking. Desert has tended to lose its luster as we entered a more scientific age in which God plays less of a role. A rare outspoken atheist who forthrightly defends desert is Bryan Caplan. This should not be terribly surprising as he also believes in objective morality, Cartesian dualism and genuine free will. Even he is offended by the undeserved good fate of first-worlders, and likely would be for those born after Malthus if he considered it.

What are the implications of abandoning desert? Joshua Greene & Jonathan Cohen explain when it comes to our conception of legal justice here. It does not mean we absolve people of their acts because they couldn’t help it. It may mean punishing people for things they didn’t do. A good example of someone who jumps to unsupported conclusions based on grace is Lew Daly of the Demos Institute. I’m not really a fan (I’d have to take Rawls specifically and moral philosophy in general more seriously), but I have to acknowledge that Will Wilkinson cuts to the nub in his response to Daly’s egalitarianism. That I do not deserve my good fortune does not imply that everyone else deserves any of it either. We cannot even conclude that it is better for me to have less even if nobody else receives more as a result. Even when he have conscious knowledge regarding the workings of the brain and its determination in genetics, we intuitively think there must be a residual “Ghost in the machine” somewhat like a God of the gaps, and so when we trace causality back and find something other than the Ghost, we deem the lucky sod a recipient of stolen goods. But if there is no Ghost then there is no theft, and once we abandon desert we cannot use it as a standard to indict the graced.

If we are to set up a system of rewards and punishments we are left with the guidelines of ensuring more of what we want and less of what we don’t. If you are to be upset at the high compensation of investment bankers it should be because they were not raking in millions sitting on their asses and writing software that we could get some use out of. I’m thankful that so many people are willing to create innovations whose surplus value they are greatly uncompensated for, but I don’t have much faith in supply-driven ludic or “gift” economies separated from the winner-take-at-least-a-good-deal rewards of market demand resulting in an efficient allocation of human capital. I certainly wouldn’t count on the benevolence of the garbageman and dog-catcher. I don’t think we’ll need to worry so much about our random goofy video needs though.

UPDATE: What a coincidence, Jeffrey Friedman has an article on non-profits titled “There is No Substitute For Profit and Loss“. Hat tip to commenter Current at the Austrian Economists.

This time for monetary theory. The general case is discussed by Alan Crowe here.

You can’t download it yet, but you can view it here.

I’m reminded of a moment from my women’s studies class, when the student consensus was that the relatively high wages of dog catchers compared to daycare workers was a matter of social injustice. Right, because there’s no risk premium involved with capturing angry rabies-infected pitbulls, and the skills involved in babysitting aren’t common.

I’ve earlier discussed how Diamond was mistaken about Easter Island in “Collapse”. Now it appears that the Greenland Norse actually did eat fish and so were not as culturally inflexible as he claimed. Hat tip to Gene Callahan. I was suspicious regarding just that in my post on the book.

I’ve been doing a lot less book reading lately but last week I took some minor steps to rectify that. I could have finished the two books I’d been putting off reading for months, but instead I checked out David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed & Pat Buchanan’s Churchill, Hitler and the Unnecessary War. The latter is on audio CD and I listen to it while driving, the latter I read after midnight before going to sleep.

I had previously thought Buchanan’s book was just about WW2, but it is as much about WW1 and gives the background to that war going back to the late 19th century. It does focus very heavily on Churchill, as he played a major role in both wars, but it focuses on the mistakes of many others (primarily British politicians) as well. One niggle is that it seems like an endless list of blunders without any correct decisions and is completely done in hindsight with little focus on the ex ante rationality of many decisions. Nevertheless it’s quite interesting and I learned a lot of things I didn’t know before. I’m currently past Munich but before the invasion of Poland.

I was surprised at the length of Fischer’s book and how old it was. People reference it so often that I thought it came out recently, but I guess he simply did such a complete job that there’s no reason to write or reference anything after it. Reading it stirred up the feelings of identification with the Puritan/Roundhead dissenting Protestant tradition that had been stronger when I was younger and the corresponding contempt for the south & Catholicism. The chapter on the Cavaliers is a rather repulsive portrait of a dysfunctional (or to use Banfield’s term “morally backward”) society created rather intentionally. I was reminded while reading it of this from Cavalier-fan Mencius Moldbug. While MM was indicting our own society, his description of the vices engendered by aristocracy fit the Cavaliers to a T. Currently I’m in the section on Quakers, who people should reference instead of the Puritans when it comes to prudery.

On a final unrelated note, I’ve been involved in a big argument at Who is IOZ? on whether the New Left was sensible or deranged (I argue for the latter). In short I agree with Unqualified Offerings commenter John Markley that IOZ was highly selective in his description. My comment about a number of those in the “anti-war” movement merely supporting the Viet Cong was vindicated when another commenter (at IOZ’s) defended his having done so.

Justin Raimondo puts it better than I could. It might be the case that the bigots are facing entirely private ostracism & punishment (fully consistent with freedom of association), but Kip Esquire’s* logic is simply ridiculous. Do we lose rights through hypocrisy? No free speech for Nazis & commies (or even fairness-doctrine liberals, anti-obscenity conservatives and campaign finance restricting Broderists) then! Considering how rampant hypocrisy is, Esquire’s ideal would result would probably result in less freedom than currently found in any first-world liberal state. Why does he even bother calling himself a libertarian (at least a lot of pot-smoking pro-war Republicans only call themselves libertarian-leaning) when he supports flagrant violations of negative rights on the basis that “we aren’t debating the creation of Libertopia”? In an earlier Will Wilkinson post I explained why it is perfectly sensible for a libertarian to oppose equality under the law (when the law itself is unlibertarian and is going to be extended). Libertarianism is about liberty, not signalling a socially acceptable form of classist racism, less stuck-up progressivism or hipper conservatism.

In completely unrelated news, Eric Crampton highlights some of the great work of the Fijian media.

Man gets on bus
15-Apr-2009 11:44 AM
IN what is believed to be the first reported incident of its kind, a man got on a bus yesterday.
“It was easy,” he said.
“I just lifted one leg up and then the other and I was on”.
Fiji Daily Post reporters found witnesses willing to confirm the happening.
“Yes”, said one who asked to remain anonymous, “I saw him get on the bus”.
Another witness who also preferred to remain unidentified told this newspaper it was “the early morning bus”.
“I was waiting opposite the shop when I saw him run to catch the bus.”
What happened next was a remarkable feat – the man actually got on the bus, we believe.
Students from a local school who had been waiting for two hours in the rain for the bus also confirmed that they saw the man board.
“We are happy for him”, one student remarked in terms reminiscent of Neil Armstrong (the first man to step onto the moon): “it may be one small step for him, but it is one giant step for the people of Fiji”.

*Long-time readers may recall that he erased all my old comments from his blog after banning me. I have asked him several times why and have never received any sort of response.

My favorite internet anti-semite has brought to my attention the public-use Natality Detail Files. The CDC website says you have to buy the CD-ROMs from them, but some googling turned up the Simple Online Data Archive for POPulation studies, courtesy of Penn State. If you click on the “data collections” tab there you’ll find a lot of other ones with the “web accessible” tag.

I almost feel embarrassed now for not doing more stat posts. Razib claims that the World Values Survey has an interface on the level of the GSS, but so far I’ve only used the latter.

There’s a post I’ve been wanting to write for a while and started in the beginning of February, but because I’m a lazy procrastinator I just pasted a few links and then let it sit for a few months. I came across some relevant links and decided to add them, but reconsidered and elected to make them their own post that I could get out of the way right now.

Steve Walt has a post titled “The cult of irrelevancy“. It complains about academics who excuse their irrelevant work by saying that nothing they do would matter anyway even if they tried. The question of whether or not they can have any influence is for another day, for now I’ll discuss the normative issue. Granted that they can influence policy, do we want them to do so or seek irrelevance?

And let’s not forget that tenure isn’t granted to allow a life-time of self-indulgent scholarship, but to allow scholars to take risks in their research and to confront controversial subjects without fear of coercion. In exchange for job security, a decent living and a high level of intellectual autonomy, our fellow citizens have a right to expect us to take our teaching responsibilities seriously and to use our knowledge to address serious issues.

To me Walt’s sense of duty immediately brought to mind Charles Murray quoting Richard Herrnstein (and not just because I’ve got yet another proto-post on all three of them):

For Dick, being a tenured professor at Harvard was not just the perfect job, but the perfect way to live his life.

“It was too good to be true; there had to be a catch. What’s my part of the bargain? he had asked himself.

“’And I figured it out,’ he said, looking at me with that benign, gentle half-smile of his. ’You have to tell the truth.’

Around the same time, coincidentally, Robin Hanson has a response to Bryan Caplan on their liberty vs efficiency debate giving his Efficient Economist’s Pledge.

I’ve mentioned at Overcoming Bias that I distrust people who proclaim high-minded motives, including that of truth. I think people who claim to be devoted to truth or reason or whatever can easily become unmoored and devoted to nonsense unless reality smacks them upside the head. If you are not devoted to rationality itself (or rather devoted to being devoted to rationality) but are using it instrumentally because you have something to protect (even if that something is your bank account) you may be more exposed to such external smacks. The people who love truth the most are not those who claim to, but those who use truth.

Being a cynic, I don’t think academics are responsible enough to be devoted to truth with authority. I agree with Bryan Caplan that we’d be better off if the average economist was making public policy than the average voter/congresscritter. But part of the reason economists are as sensible as they are and have the reputation Robin cites is precisely because they’ve been separate from governance. If the AEA were to become a Supreme Council of Economists as Caplan (perhaps not seriously) proposed, corruption would proceed apace. Caplan admits that he is more extreme than the average economist, and academics in general (the group to whom the modal-Democrat economist seems like a right-wing nut) are self-selected for the biases that made William F. Buckley prefer random pages of the Boston phone-book. Even if I granted them among the best of motives, there would simply be huge epistemological hurdles for the problems they’d be pushed to solve while relying for information on people with other motives. Bill Clinton famously said “I feel your pain”, but he wasn’t literally hooked up to a machine that gave him negative feedback as the aggregate utility of the nation dipped.

In short, I don’t hold out a lot of hope for academics improving public policy. Walt can cherry-pick examples like the Iraq war and Hanson could point to silly licensing restrictions but I’m not convinced that academics would prevent those specific mistakes had they been “the decider” or that their other errors of High Modernism as discussed in James Scott‘s Seeing Like a State wouldn’t outweigh their improvements. Right now I primarily view the value of public policy academics is to provide me with entertainment now that I have become uninterested in fiction. In that respect I benefit more from them the my fellow citizens but would still prefer that my tax-dollars not subsidize them, considering all the low-quality entertainment they also produce that I don’t get any enjoyment from.

Disclaimer: I do note that Hanson’s pledge sounds like a lawyer’s oath to serve their client rather than that of a public servant and that Hanson actually does work for Consensus Point developing prediction markets. Prediction markets are just the sort of skin-in-the-game mechanism I do take seriously. Perhaps I should add “except Seasteading + futarchy” to my pessimistic generalizations.
UPDATE: It seems William Easterly agrees with me.

Tim Harford & Dan Ariely have a running discussion at Omnivoracious. If you’re too lazy to read, I’ve got two videos for you.

I believe Mario Rizzo has invented a new syncretic discipline. He’s mostly taking the piss, but it’s a real problem people have grappled with. It even has a special name: “the time consistency problem“.

On a completely unrelated note, I think Ross Douthat is alright. Before I just thought of him as the less interesting member of the Salaam-Douthat duo, but I like this post and think he gave the better performance in his diavlog with the often-rambling Heather Mac Donald (who I like and would tend to agree more with on an issue-by-issue basis). The latter devotes a lot of time to theodicy (aka “the problem of evil”), which the Distributed Republic has been coincidentally tackling at the same time in response to Vox Day.

If Hitler is the most memetically successful person after Jesus (who was it that said aliens would ask “take me to your Hitler”?), the holocaust is his enduring monument which everyone remembers. Naturally people seek to attribute everything to it. A recent example is at the Volokh conspiracy, commenting on Justice Ginsburg’s defense of judicial review over democracy as a bulwark against future holocausts, when it can claim no credit against the actual one.

Though he has less evidence, Steve Sailer is similarly skeptical about the holocaust resulting in John Rawls’ loss of faith. I think he’s right to be skeptical about what Rawls wrote about his own cognitive process. Rawls is most famous for writing a huge philosophical treatise about how the the society we surely must agree is just is the one that just happened to have been created in the New Deal and was still the dominant paradigm among 70s liberals such as himself. His argument for why baseball must be the greatest sport is only a more glaring example of failing to grasp the hold that provincialism rather than reason determined his conclusions.

In the spirit of Godwin’s law, I propose a moratorium on citing the Holocaust as a support for your politics. That goes for you too, Warsaw-uprising loving gun-rightsers. If you even find yourself thinking it privately to yourself, do a double-take. I also shouldn’t have used the word “paradigm”, but I’m going to leave it up as an example of bad behavior so I can make this very point.

I found Nonicoclolasos via a trackback to my Putnam/diversity post. He (or she, who knows?) helpfully provides a link to the google-translate version of the blog. From a quick perusal it seemed of high quality, though pics of shirtless dudes are sprinkled intermittently (while I may be accused of the mind-projection fallacy, I will hazard that both men and women will generally agree that the fairer sex tends to be easier on the eyes). Those who can read it are encouraged to do so.

The title of this post comes from Ilkka Kokkarinen’s idea of “synergessays“, although perhaps it doesn’t count when they come from the same source.

The first is Patri Friedman’s talk at Cato on Seasteading, which roughly coincides with his initiation of this month’s Cato Unbound on the same subject. I’ve said before and I’ll say again (even contra Patri) that his is the only viable plan for libertarianism, though it would also help other ideologies achieve their country (to possibly misuse a phrase of Rorty’s). It could best off the ground quickly if there were a very profitable industry which would have a large advantage in operating from a seastead. Unfortunately, Patri notes that governments will likely reach out and crush any “libertopia” that goes full scale into legalizing anonymous banking and the manufacture/exporting of large quantities of illegal drugs, leaving more mundane law-skirting like medical tourism. As someone not especially socially liberal, I’m fine with settling for (if I could get in and obtain a good job) Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Singapore, Hong Kong & Dubai rather than insisting on combining them with the Netherlands or Sweden. However, just as we all gain consumer surplus from the penny-pinchers at the supermarket (to that spillover isn’t contained by coupons) I think the effect of competition and innovation on the rest of the world will outweigh the importance of any particular policy regime on a single seastead.

Though on a different subject, similar constraints popped up in Glenn Greenwald’s talk on drug decriminalization in Portugal. Tim Lynch introduces it with some background on the policies before 2001 with the quote “The U.S’ drug policy is the world’s drug policy” (or something along those lines). Portugal went farther than the Netherlands in that it applies to all drugs and the decriminalization laws are on the books rather than merely unenforced (citations have in fact increased over time, as there is less paperwork police need for mere misdimeanors). The commission that ended up recommending that change in the law convened with the starting constraint that full legalization was off the table (so trafficking is still a criminal offense) due to international treaty obligations. While seasteads do not start out with treaties in the first place, the experience of countries like Portugal (and I would add many tax havens, included landlocked ones like Liechtenstein) shows how far a small nation may go without incurring the wrath of other countries. We may need policy libertarians to retard the response of the U.S to those places pushing the envelope. Peter Reuter began his talk by noting that he doesn’t normally receive such large audiences when the subject is drug policy, though money laundering is another story as people are simply more interested in money. I think the people on the internet who were recommending policies for Obama to discuss were disproportionately drawn from those interested in marijuana, and money is where the real money is (obvious, I know) when it comes to starting up seasteads.

Finally, in a completely unrelated video, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita gives a TED talk on predicting the outcome of complex negotiations, and more specifically the Iranian nuclear program.

Next Page »