January 2010

I’m linking directly to his comment rather than the top-level post.

Elsewhere, Robin Hanson defends a style of replying to comments from accusations of status-grubbing. As it happens, I make use of the same style, even at blogs other than my own. It is only natural in places without comment-threading.

As with Scott Sumner, I can’t simply link to every good post at Modeled Behavior. Otherwise, you should just be reading Modeled Behavior. Karl Smith asks us to imagine the ideal citizen, “Citizen X“, who maximally produces positive externalities without imposing costs on others. We might also call him “sucker”, or “sap”, but let’s not insult the hand that feeds us. I don’t think the idea gets much attention in the first-world, but I imagine it did under communism. I imagine the same would be true for Fnargocracy. As I note in a comment at M.B, this topic should be relevant for immigration policy.

A comment at GNXP’s open thread (too messed up by the recent switch from Haloscan for me to link to) led me to Epistemology & Endocrinology, at a blog I hadn’t heard of before titled “The Unsilenced Science”. The author’s background is in medicine, and for more from that perspective he recommends this segment on NPR. The main topic would be of interest to n/a, as it concerns racial differences in hormones, but I thought his discussion of anthropocentric global warming and human biodiversity was more interesting. Genetics/psychology and climatology are rather distant branches of science. We shouldn’t a priori expect someone’s position on one topic to correlate with their take on the other. But that does seem to be what we see. Perhaps there are some GSS questions I could look at, but for now I’ll just have to use examples. Half Sigma has been a great proponent of the acronym “HBD”. He is also very critical of AGW, often highlighting low temperatures and claiming that environmentalism of “Gaianism” is a religion taking the place of Christianity. Mencius Moldbug used AGW and HNU (human neurological uniformity) along with Keynes-Fisher macroeconomics as examples of the bogus pseudoscience we have been afflicted with ever since our rejection of monarchy. Dennis Mangan dissents from the mainstream (which I’ll define in terms of popular media rather than scientific specialists or the general public) on those as well as many other scientific issues (and speaking of Mangan and ideological combinations…). Similarly, I’ve heard a few creationists claiming that ClimateGate undermines the scientific case for evolution, and “fundamentalist” at the Mises blog once argued with me that Austrians should learn from the successful strategy of creationist intellectuals! As “nooffensebut” argues in the original post, I think people are just reaching for arguments, however plausible they may be on their own merits, that support an agenda they have. The common thread here seems to be that “liberals” or “the establishment” believes in one thing, and boy would they look stupid if that was shown to be wrong.

The author also dissents from the term “human biodiversity”, preferring instead “race realism”. I disagree, because the differences aren’t just cosmetic. One obvious thing “race realism” leaves out is gender. Furthermore, there’s a lot of biologically-based differences within race/gender categories. The Bell Curve was originally going to be about individual differences generally, before it became focused on IQ. Even after that, race only took up a relatively small part of the book, with most of the text focusing on differences within whites just to avoid the distraction. If group means were made equal, it would not greatly diminish the amount of variance that exists in the entire population. It might, however, become easier to discuss that variance.

As a follow-up to my previous post, he also seems sympathetic to China’s activities in Tibet, as evidenced by Why I am a Supremacist. I agree with his general gist: science has done a lot for me, what have most white people done that they should deserve any loyalty from me?

Derek Currie recently alerted the good (or not so good, depending on your perspective) readers of Attack the System of a blog post of his on China. I new I had to share when he linked to a video of Chinese propaganda. Not generic “Mao was great, don’t spend so much time on the internet, nothing happened at Tiananmen Square, eat your vegetables” variety, but about Tibet and made by a little kid. Public opinion in the U.S is pretty one-sided in favor of Tibetan independence, with everyone else not caring. New York cops do sometimes beat up pro-Tibetan demonstrators, but they’re viewpoint neutral deliverers of beatdowns. Chris Hitchens is one of the few people to talk smack about the Dalai Lama, but he’s hard to take seriously for a number of reasons. If you read the mainstream media you’re already exposed to plenty of anti-China sentiment, how about sampling something completely different? Or not all that different, as Derek suggests.

I thought that I should have more in depth knowledge of notable Supreme Court decisions rather than merely relying on the filtering of others, but that leaves the problem of all the prior cases cited whose decisions are again filtered through disputing judges. Unlike Wikipedia, the graphs here are directed backward and so logically have endpoints, but most SCOTUS opinions are a lot longer than the average wiki article.

The specific case I’ve been reading is (as you might have guessed) Citizens United (who no longer have “Not Terrified” at the end of their name). I’ve just read through Stevens’ dissent and plan on reading the rest later today. The prior cases I’ve read are Heller & Ricci, and I notice a somewhat disturbing trend in my selections: in none of them do I agree with the dissent. That’s not to say I agree with the majority, but in the main points in dispute between them I generally find the majority more persuasive than the dissent. Just as I gave credit to the dissent where it’s due in Ricci, I’ll do so again here: Stevens point that Citizens United dropped the facial challenge for a more narrow argument resulted in the Government not even arguing it’s case, making it a one-sided case. Or perhaps less than one-sided, since it’s the majority rather than C.U making the argument. On the other hand, Kennedy’s point stands: all judges agree that C.U’s narrow argument fails, so the majority plainly cannot accept it. The court has a duty not to violate the Constitution, so (accepting for argument the majority’s constitutional view) it plainly cannot rule against C.U either. I have heard that the court adopted an obviously wrong statutory interpretation in NAMUDN in order to avoid declaring the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. I guess I’ll have to read that as well and in the meantime chalk it up to justice Kennedy‘s lack of principle.

To sum up my main disagreement with Stevens, most of his rationales for why the government can restrict the behavior of corporations could apply just as well to a wealthy individual or a media corporation. It is a matter of statutory law that media corporations are exempt, but but he fails to explain why they have first amendment protection. You might object that they are singled out by the word “press”, but as with all the other clauses of that amendment it refers to a behavior rather than an entity exercising it. As I mentioned with Heller, I completely reject any “interest” based reasoning from judges. It is the job of legislatures to take interests into account, it is the job of judges to carry out the law. That brings me to his one argument that does apply differently to a wealthy individual: dissenting shareholders. It is not the job of judges to preemptively prohibit actions on the part of corporations that shareholders MAY disagree with. If actual shareholders disagree (which we may assume would not be the case for a corporation with only one shareholder), there are other mechanisms to handle that problem. If current ones are insufficient (which I think is the case), changes should be made to empower shareholders.

Debates had been going on in various comment sections before I read any of the decision. I argued at most length about the issue in response to Crispin Sartwell. I made shorter comments to John Robb, IOZ and La Rana. I didn’t bother in the original thread at Overcoming Bias because the argument had already gone in all sorts of directions I didn’t feel like engaging in. I’m pretty sure Robin didn’t read the decision, or he’d know that Stevens’ dissent actually makes use of the “right of listeners/hearing” logic. Where that fails is that we are ruled by law rather than intent: everyone in the country could sign a petition saying they had no interest in hearing what Carrot Top has to say about politics, and yet Carrot Top would still have the first amendment right to speak about politics. Similarly, legislators could pass legislation because they assume it won’t actually be enforced, but legally speaking it is still enforceable.

Some other assorted complaints with Stevens logic: Stevens focuses on corporations corrupting our democracy by giving disguised quid pro quo support to a candidate. The Citizens United case it not an example of that, rather it is a group relentlessly attacking a politician they dislike. Imagine that a politician was considering a tax on soda. Coke declines to do anything, while Pepsi sponsors ads attacking that politician. The politician is greatly irritated and after his electoral victory thanks Coke for not following Pepsi’s lead and proposes that legislation be enacted to screw over Pepsi. Coke is being rewarded for not engaging in campaign activity, most would agree it would be absurd to say they are prohibited from doing so. On the other hand, Pepsi is not gaining special favor through ingratiating itself with a poltician, just the opposite. It would be quite perverse for our politicians to say “You cannot be permitted to criticize us, for then we would be biased against you, so we must protect you from yourself”. This helps to clarify why Kennedy ruled earlier that a judge must recuse himself from a case involving a prominent supporter: it is the conduct of our officials that we regulate, not those that support or oppose them. Not all of Stevens decision relies on criticism of corporations. He makes the quite plausible point that some corporations feel compelled to give support to politicians under the veiled threat that they will be punished otherwise. If you’ve watched The Wire, you get the idea. It may indeed be unfortunate for those corporations such behavior occurs, but that is by no means sufficient ground for depriving others of their constitutional rights.

UPDATE: If you don’t care about all this legal constitutional mumbo-jumbo but are a results-oriented legal consequentialist, Eugene Volokh has some data.

I’m still lazily progressing toward the bottom of last year’s Edge.org world question about what will CHANGE EVERYTHING. I was surprised by a remark made by David Bodanis: “The internet is any many ways an even more powerful technology (based on early 20th century quantum mechanics, and mid 20th century information theory)”. I was under the impression that the internet is just built off of previous telecommunication technologies which don’t require any physics beyond Maxwell.

Peter Boettke complained that they cause more harm than good due to their immunity against the necessary social function of shaming. It’s not hard to figure how he came to that conclusion given his recent experience with “Beefcake the Mighty” and other nyms chosen by that character (although if you were previously unaware that Pete is heavy and Tom Palmer is gay you might have learned something from them). In the comments I argued against that in favor of Hopefully Anonymous’ view that more people should use pseudonyms, I even said that scientists and journalists should publish some of their work in that manner. I also gave a number of examples of people who lost their jobs for airing controversial views. The comments died out there, but I thought it a worthwhile enough topic to have it here as well.

Speaking of real vs fake names, one of my favorite commenters who previously just went by “Tino” now blogs at Super-Economy under his full name. He previously contributed to Truck and Barter, but not for very long.

Bryan Caplan has called law “a shockingly phony discipline“. Many feel the same way about economics, and in fact Caplan says that would have been his second-best career choice after economics. I just came across something more they have in common: lax boundaries.

On a completely unrelated note, this is one of the worst union stories I’ve heard.

The idea of generic fascism is commonplace, as evidenced by a couple of empirical tests via Google and Bing. Type “generic fascism” into Google and 13,000 results appear. For Bing, an astounding 2, 950, 000. (I wonder about my naiveté of the search methods in Bing, however, as an unquoted “generic fascism” returns far fewer findings.)

A search for “generic communism,” in contrast, delivers a mere 379 results in Google and a paltry 23 in Bing. (Unquote “generic communism” and, as expected this time, the number rises to 315,000.)

It would seem that unlike generic fascism, the idea of generic communism has little currency. The first result for “generic fascism” is a scholarly article entitled Fascism: The Origins of Generic Fascism.  The first result for “generic communism” is an article by Marxist philosopher Alain Badiou, wherein he reads into Marx and Engels’ Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts an idea of “generic communism” that could be termed such, as a kind of mental exercise.  

Enter “list of fascist parties” into Wikipedia and a convoluted set of lists of nominally fascist parties – actually, described as “movements” – by country appear.  Nominally because a disclaimer at the top of main page warns that there is no “single, universally accepted definition of fascism,” making most of the entries “bound to be highly controversial.” Said movements are without political power but likely on the FBI’s watch list,  e.g. the Aryan Brotherhood. Note the word “fascist” appears very infrequently in these listings. By my quick count, 230 entries total.

In contrast, type “list of communist parties” into Wikipedia and a one-stop shop for a worldwide listing of parties is presented. Unlike the above listings, movements are not included, omitting some number of “antifa” squads no doubt.  Note the word “communist” appears in almost every entry. 182 entries total.

Given the global dissemination of communist ideas, one would think the concept of generic communism would have gained some adherence by now. I suspect that the generic part – the egalitarianism, the populist conception of capitalists vis-à-vis the working folk – is undermining the recognition of such a concept as something deserving of a category all its own. It’s essentially the default condition of the modal western intellectual, not something to be observed or “on the lookout” for.

Adam Ozimek will get the reference.

Hopefully Anonymous thinks we should all be atwitter about Obama’s picks for ambassadors. He was too lazy to make a front-page post at his own blog about it and I thought the OB open thread was a poor location to focus discussion, so I’m putting it here.

My impression from years back was that ambassadorships were cushy jobs where you get to travel and don’t have much responsibilities (Carol Moseley Braun was from my state). H.A views them through a more technocratic lens where we want the most competent people there (with caveats about comparative advantage). H.A’s link indicate that usually they go to career foreign service officers and so Obama is deviantly engaging in patronage for campaign donors. I remarked earlier that the standards for FSOs seem to have dropped a lot recently, so maybe we’re not missing out on any George Kennans. The State Department in general is in bad shape, with Defense having gobbled up many of its former duties. In “Bureaucracy” James Q. Wilson writes that State has one of the vaguest missions – representing and advancing the interests of the United States abroad – which is a major factor in its perennially disappointing performance.

Via Ilkka I came across a blog called The Programmer’s Paradox, whose author claims he has refuted Cantor’s diagonalization argument through the discovery of a new mathematical object he calls “magic sequences“. Rather than that guy specifically, I’d like to talk about his general type. There are plenty of cranks out there who claim to have build perpetual motion machines, shown the age of the earth to be 6000 years or refuted all the claimed evidence for the Holocaust (more like Holohoax with a dollar sign thrown in somewhere, amirite?). If they’ve been polishing their crankery for a while, it can be somewhat intimidating for a skeptical layman to try to take them on. Not so for the armchair crank, there is just their argument in a short readable form. They probably don’t have any credentials or a bibliography to check out. This short argument is supposed to be revolutionary, totally upending an established field but people just hadn’t thought of it until now. Another example is the expositor of “Post-Austrian Economics”, whose wish to remain nameless will be upheld here. Standard economics these days can involve tricky empirical analyses and complicated models, but PAE rested on philosophy and even verged (explicitly!) toward theology. Finally, I’ll add mjgeddes through he implied I could get sued for calling him a crank. There’s something charmingly egalitarian about armchair cranks. Anyone can produce armchair crankery themselves and anyone argue with an armchair crank on a level playing field. As knowledge becomes more specialized there is less room for armchair crankery (Caledonian/melendwyr says philosophy is what is left over when actual knowledge becomes science), so perhaps we should enjoy it while it lasts.

Speaking of Ilkka, he appears to be on vacation again. Let’s hope it isn’t as long as the last one. Other news in blogdom is that The Money Illusion and the blog formerly known as The Austrian Economists have new urls.