Monday, February 27

Poor Ben Gammage

I am a 13-year-old boy. My school has a monthly pizza sale. Parents buy pies from a pizzeria and sell them to us for $1 a slice. I bought a whole pie at the pizzeria and offered slices for $2 to kids at the end of the long line. A school counselor stopped me. She said that I was unethical and was "taking advantage of people." I thought I was providing a service to people based on the principle that "time is money." Who is right? Ben Gammage, San Diego
Randy Cohen shows hostility to market-based solutions,
Time may be money, but how much, really, for an eighth grader, who is not paid to attend school?
Isn't everyone's time worth something?
And do we really want all our interactions based on the variable-pricing airline-seat model?
Translation: Randy wants all prices to stay the same and not reflect supply and demand.
Were pizza a necessity of life (as many teenagers regard it) and in short supply, you would have been been guilty of profiteering, as your counselor charged.
Price gouging is one of the great myths of our time. Because it doesn't exist, one should be wary of the motives of anyone who claims it does.
But there was plenty of pizza, so you didn't exploit anyone. And pizza does remain a luxury, so nobody was compelled to buy your pricier slices....Thus your actions were not unethical, but they were poor social policy — if that's not too fancy a way to describe undermining a pizza party.
There we have it: it's all about social policy. But if that's the case, what about means-testing for determining the price of pizza?Indeed,
Your counselor's concern was valid, if poorly expressed. The dollar-a-slice deal made possible a schoolwide pizza party, affordable fun for everyone. Judging by the long line, it's something people enjoy.
So long lines are a good sign. Does Randy hope for the same thing at gas stations?
You turned it into a two-tiered system — kids with money don't wait; kids without money do — shifting it from a we're-all-in-it-together event to something less communitarian (if more profitable).
More here.

Friday, February 24

Why is the median net worth of U.S. households so low?

The Federal Reserve's Report on U.S. Family Finances is out. The Big Picture, from whose site I took the pic below, would no doubt argue that it's all Bush's fault for imporverishing people. But even if that is the case, I can't believe that my fellow citizens save so little.

Even the wrinklies aren't doing very well, if we can believe the NYT. Financial assets of only $30,000? Unbelievable!

According to Andrea Hopkins, also apparently citing the Survey of Consumer Finances
Net household worth averaged $448,200 in 2004, up from $421,500 three years earlier. The number looks high because it is skewed by very wealthy households. Median net worth -- the point at which half of the nation's households are richer and half poorer -- rose just 1.5 percent to $93,100.
That's "average" vs. "median" for you.

Thursday, February 23

The "New Socialist Countryside" not really Socialist:
The Chinese government, faced with rising inequality and unrest in the countryside, formally announced major initiatives this week to expand health, education and welfare benefits for farmers but left unresolved the fundamental issue of whether they should be allowed to buy or sell their land.

In recent days President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao have given speeches about the "new socialist countryside" initiative, and the National People's Congress, the Communist Party-controlled legislature, is expected to make the rural program the centerpiece of a new five-year plan during its annual meeting next month.

The program, which emerged in broad form in October, includes
  • free education for many rural students,
  • increased subsidy payments for farmers,
  • new government financing for medical care and
  • further government investment in rural public works.
...Chen Xiwen, the top government adviser on rural issues....said the program did not include any immediate changes in rural land policy, an issue that many experts consider to be at the heart of the urban-rural inequality problem. Illegal land seizures have caused rising rural protests and violence in recent years as local officials have confiscated farmland and resold it to developers for fat profits. Farmers are often cheated and left with little compensation.

...Inequality has also widened in recent years, with rural residents each earning about $400 a year, less than a third of the incomes of their urban counterparts. But many researchers say the gap is actually far larger when health care and other social benefits provided to many urban residents are factored in.

Under the Chinese Constitution, farmland is collectively held by villages, so individual farmers, who hold leases, have limited control. Local governments have easily exploited the law to claim land for development projects.

Some experts say that government should be eliminated as a middleman in land sales and that farmers should be granted rights to negotiate and profit from selling land. In cities residents cannot own land, but they can own apartments, houses or commercial real estate that sit atop it. As a result, a real estate boom has helped city residents but largely bypassed the countryside.

Pointing into the indefinite future, Mr. Chen acknowledged that China would eventually need "to propose steadily reforming the land acquisition system itself." But he said any changes must happen slowly to protect the country's farming output.

Meanwhile, Mr. Chen said, farmers will be given more compensation after land confiscations. He suggested that urban social welfare benefits should be extended to peasants who were left landless.

He said China already had strict laws on land confiscations but conceded that the "implementation" of those laws had lagged. Indeed, violent protests by farmers trying to block local government land grabs recently erupted in Guangdong Province. At least four people were killed in the city of Dongzhou after the police fired on protesters.

Mr. Wen....added that defusing social unrest is only one incentive for China to improve the rural economy. China's economy, now built largely on foreign trade, depends on expanding its consumer market, and rural areas represent a drag on domestic demand. Even though roughly two-thirds of China's 1.3 billion people are rural residents, the countryside accounts for only a third of retail sales for consumer products in China.

"If you can invest in rural areas and increase the cash income of people," Mr. Wen said, "you can increase domestic demand. China must increase domestic demand and not just depend on foreign trade."
Here's more:
The net per-capita income of farmers in 2005 was $402.80, while the per-capita income of city dwellers was $1,292, according to government statistics. "What's more," Chen said, "the gap is widening."

...The Public Security Ministry estimated that about 87,000 riots and protests occurred during 2005, most of them in the countryside.

The unrest has arisen most frequently in response to land seizures by local governments to make way for industrial development on the edges of growing cities. To ease such transitions, the government plans to organize retraining and job programs for farmers left without their fields and to usher them into city-based health insurance systems, Chen said.

In addition, Chen said the government was studying how farmers could benefit in some way from the resale of their land. In a related move, the Land and Resources Department of Guangdong province, which has experienced a number of violent village protests, suggested recently that compensation for seized land should be paid directly to affected farmers, without going through local governments.

Villagers frequently have complained that promised compensation never reaches them because corrupt local officials pocket a large percentage of the money as it flows from the upper levels of government through provincial, county and township offices down to village committees.

Chen said the party had not yet envisioned a fundamental change in the constitutional provision that makes all land in China government property, with farmers accorded only a contract to use it for a given period. It is that provision that gives local governments power to seize farmland and transfer it to developers, often at a price several times the value of farmers' compensation.
"Compensation for seized land should be paid directly to affected farmers, without going through local governments." No kidding! I'm guessing they still won't be happy.

Wednesday, February 22

Are we "only getting what we deserve"?

Keith Windschuttle's The Adversary Culture: The perverse anti-Westernism of the cultural elite is right on target:

For the past three decades and more, many of the leading opinion makers in our universities, the media and the arts have regarded Western culture as, at best, something to be ashamed of, or at worst, something to be opposed. Before the 1960s, if Western intellectuals reflected on the long-term achievements of their culture, they explained it in terms of its own evolution: the inheritance of ancient Greece, Rome and Christianity, tempered by the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the scientific and industrial revolutions. Even a radical critique like Marxism was primarily an internal affair, intent on fulfilling what it imagined to be the destiny of the West, taking its history to what it thought would be a higher level.

Today, however, such thinking is dismissed by the prevailing intelligentsia as triumphalist. Western political and economic dominance is more commonly explained not by its internal dynamics but by its external behaviour, especially its rivalry and aggression towards other cultures. Western success has purportedly been at their expense. Instead of pushing for internal reform or revolution, this new radicalism constitutes an overwhelmingly negative critique of Western civilization itself.

According to this ideology, instead of attempting to globalise its values, the West should stay in its own cultural backyard. Values like universal human rights, individualism and liberalism are regarded merely as ethnocentric products of Western history. The scientific knowledge that the West has produced is simply one of many “ways of knowing”. In place of Western universalism, this critique offers cultural relativism, a concept that regards the West not as the pinnacle of human achievement to date, but as simply one of many equally valid cultural systems.

Cultural relativism claims there are no absolute standards for assessing human culture. Hence all cultures should be regarded as equal, though different. It comes in two varieties: soft and hard.

The soft version now prevails in aesthetics. Take a university course in literary criticism or art theory and you will now find traditional standards no longer apply. Italian opera can no longer be regarded as superior to Chinese opera. The theatre of Shakespeare was not better than that of Kabuki, only different.

The hard version comes from the social sciences and from cultural studies. Cultural practices from which most Westerners instinctively shrink are now accorded their own integrity, lest the culture that produced them be demeaned....

Something is obviously going terribly wrong here. The logic of relativism is taking Western academics into dark waters. They are now prepared to countenance practices that are obviously cruel, unnatural and life-denying, that is, practices that offend against all they claim to stand for.

To see how decadent these assumptions have become, compare today's relativism to the attitude that prevailed when the culture of the British people was in its ascendancy. Sir Charles Napier, the British Commander-in-chief in India from 1849 to 1851, signed an agreement with local Hindu leaders that he would respect all their customs, except for the practice of suttee. The Hindu leaders protested but Napier was unmoved:

You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.

The moral rationale of cultural relativism is a plea for tolerance and respect of other cultures, no matter how uncomfortable we might be with their beliefs and practices. However, there is one culture conspicuous by its absence from all this. The plea for acceptance and open-mindedness does not extend to Western culture itself, whose history is regarded as little more than a crime against the rest of humanity. The West cannot judge other cultures but must condemn its own.

Since the 1960s, academic historians on the left have worked to generate a widespread cynicism about the nature of Western democracies, with the aim of questioning their legitimacy and undermining their ability to command loyalty. Let me demonstrate some of the ways in which national and imperial histories are being used to denigrate Western culture and society and give the nations of the West, especially those descended from Britain, an historical identity of which they can only be ashamed.

Academic historians today argue that all the new white settler societies established under the British Empire in Africa, the Pacific and North America shared the same racist attitudes towards outsiders and dispensed the same degree of violence against indigenous peoples. Today, they often compare the European settler societies with Nazi Germany...

[T]he assertion by the editors of Aboriginal History that the British settler societies were more intrinsically genocidal than Nazi Germany was based on an analysis of colonialism by Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado. Churchill is also treated as a citable authority by three separate authors in the recent anthology Genocide and Settler Society, edited by Dirk Moses of the University of Sydney, who describes Churchill as “a Native American activist and scholar.”

Their reverence for this person is revealing. In February last year, Churchill briefly became America 's most reviled university teacher for declaring that those who died in New York 's World Trade Centre on September 11 2001 had deserved their fate. Churchill wrote:

If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I'd really be interested in hearing about it.

In the ensuing controversy, Churchill was exposed by real American Indians as a fake. The American Indian Grand Governing Council said “Ward Churchill has fraudulently represented himself as an Indian, and a member of the American Indian Movement and … has been masquerading as an Indian for years behind his dark glasses and beaded headband.”

More importantly, a University of New Mexico specialist in Indian law, John Lavelle, accused Churchill of fabricating evidence in no less than six books and eleven published academic articles.

That the work of such a moral bankrupt and scholarly charlatan could be paraded as weighty commentary by the editors of Australia 's leading journal in Aboriginal history is a good indication of what an intellectual shambles this subject has become.

The anti-colonialism of these historians is also highly selective in that it ignores empires other than those of Europe. The truth is that all great civilizations have absorbed other peoples, sometimes in harmony, sometimes by the sword. The Islamic world, so often portrayed today as victims of British or American or Israeli imperialism, is hardly innocent. The Ottoman Turks conquered and ruled most of the Middle East for a thousand years. The British and the French displaced them in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, with the approval of the Arabs who by then wanted liberation from Ottoman rule. In India, Muslims from Arabia and Persia were imperial overlords for eight centuries until the British arrived. The British overthrew Muslim rule, with the active co-operation and grateful applause of the Hindu population.

The Arabs themselves were not indigenous to most of the regions they now populate. Before the Turks, they were an imperial power who arose out of the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century to conquer the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and Southern Europe where they either subjugated or slaughtered the local population. None of this history provokes any censure from the critics of imperialism today, who reserve their reproaches exclusively for the European variety.

Until the 1960s, most people brought up within Western culture believed that its literature, its art and its music were among the glories of its civilization. Today, much of the academic debate about the Western literary heritage claims that it is politically contaminated. Some of these charges are well known because they offended against the ideological triumvirate of gender, race and class: Othello is ethnocentric, Paradise Lost is a feminist tragedy, Jane Eyre is both racist and sexist....

As well as aesthetics, there is an economic dimension to this ideology. It believes Western prosperity is based on ill-gotten gains. We are rich because they are poor. Western imperialism exploited what is now the Third World and made the industrial revolution through the wealth it purloined.

One of the most celebrated authors in this genre is Andre Gunder Frank whose book ReOrient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (1998) denies that the industrial revolution was the product of European entrepreneurship, ingenuity and technological innovation. “ Europe did not pull itself up by its own economic bootstraps,” Frank writes. Instead, he claims: “Europe climbed up on the back of Asia, then stood on Asian shoulders — temporarily.”

Fortunately, we now have an analysis that convincingly demolishes claims of this kind. Niall Ferguson's 2003 book Empire is a history of British imperialism which demonstrates that Britain 's imperial record is not merely nothing to be ashamed of, but was a positive force that “made the modern world”. The history of the empire was characterized by the global spread of trade and wealth, technological and cultural modernization, and the growth of liberalism and democracy.

Imperialism encouraged investors to put their money in developing economies, places that would otherwise have been sites of great risk. The extension of the British empire into the less developed world had the effect of reducing this risk by imposing some form of British rule.

When the British Empire was at the peak of its influence, it was a much greater force for international investment in the underdeveloped world than any of today's institutions. In 1913, some 25 per cent of the world stock of capital was invested in poor countries. By 1997 that figure was only 5 per cent.

Britain exported to the world the systems of finance, transportation and manufacturing that it had developed at home. Rather than a form of plunder that depleted the economies that came under its influence, British imperialism injected many of the institutions of modernisation into the territories it controlled. British investment financed the development not only of white dominions in North America, Australasia and South America, but also India, Africa and east Asia. It provided the infrastructure of ports, roads, railways and communications that allowed these regions access to the modern world, plus a legal system to ensure that the commerce thereby generated was orderly.

European imperialism ended in the 1940s and 1950s. The non-West has now had half a century to try its own economic prescriptions. The fact that many of these countries have not progressed beyond the kick-start provided by European colonial investment can no longer be blamed on the West. Those who have chosen to emulate the Western model, such as South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, have shown that it is possible to transform a backward Third World country into a prosperous, modern, liberal democratic nation in as little as two generations. Those countries that still wallow in destitution and underdevelopment do so not because of Western imperialism, racism or oppression, but because of policies they have largely chosen themselves by socialist planning or had forced upon them by civil war and revolution.

The anti-Westernism of which I am speaking is not only about the past but has as much to say about current affairs.

The aftermath to the assaults on New York and Washington on September 11 2001 provided a stark illustration of its values. Within days of the terrorist assault, a number of influential Western intellectuals, including Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag and youthful counterparts such as Naomi Klein of the anti-globalisation protest movement, responded in ways that, morally and symbolically, were no different to the celebrations of the crowds on the streets of Palestine and Islamabad who cheered as they watched the towers of the World Trade Centre come crashing down. Stripped of its obligatory jargon, their argument was straightforward: America deserved what it got....

[Salman] Rushdie said:

Let's be clear about why this anti-American onslaught is such appalling rubbish. Terrorism is the murder of the innocent; this time it was mass murder. To excuse such an atrocity by blaming US government policies is to deny the basic idea of all morality: that individuals are responsible for their actions. Furthermore, terrorism is not the pursuit of legitimate complaints by illegitimate means. The terrorist wraps himself in the world's grievances to cloak his true motives.

As no one should need reminding, Rushdie was the first target in the contemporary rise of Islamic radicalism. In 1989 he was the subject of a death edict by Iran 's Ayatollah Khomeini for satirising the prophet Mohammad in his novel The Satanic Verses. A number of Muslims living in the West declared they were willing to carry out the death sentence on behalf of their religion.

While a number of Western writers gave Rushdie vocal support and pointed out how such a fatwa offended the very core of Western culture, its right to free expression and free enquiry. But prominent politicians took a different line.

President George Bush Snr adopted the moral equivalence and cultural relativism of the prevailing political class, declaring both the death edict and the novel equally “offensive”. Former president Jimmy Carter responded with a call for Americans to be “sensitive to the concern and anger” of Muslims.

Rushdie had to spend the next decade in disguise, living in secret locations, under police protection. He announced he had become a Muslim convert, but even this was not enough to have the fatwa withdrawn. No one else followed him by writing a novel criticising Mohammad.

More recently, when a Pakistani writer living in the West decided to write a book, Why I Am Not a Muslim, rejecting Islam and praising Western culture, he knew he had to adopt the pseudonym, Ibn Warraq, and keep his identity secret.

In Holland, the former Somali woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, wrote a book, The Son Factory, about the Muslim oppression of women. The book generated a spate of death threats. Although she subsequently became a member of parliament, the threats to her life mean she still lives under permanent armed guard in a secret government safe house.

The death threats Hirsi Ali received were genuine. Police later found she was at the top of a hit list of Dutch public figures. The assassin Mohammed Bouyeri had her as his preferred victim but, when he couldn't reach her, he went to the name second on the hit list, the filmmaker Theo van Gogh. Bouyeri shot, stabbed and almost beheaded van Gogh, whose offence had been to collaborate with Hirsi Ali on a film entitled Submission critical of Muslim violence towards women....

This personal terrorism affects not just those directly under threat, but all writers and intellectuals. Most are unable to afford the security costs and the state cannot protect them all. The result is that they are silenced by self-censorship.

This is why the debate over the Danish cartoons is so important. To date, the response has been mixed. Newspapers in Norway, Germany, France, New Zealand and Australia have reproduced the cartoons in defiance of the violence that has been perpetrated in Middle Eastern countries and threatened in many Western countries by crowds with signs such as: “Slay those who insult Islam.” “Butcher those who mock Islam.” and “Be prepared for the real holocaust.”...

The real problem here was not the Western newspapers who published the cartoons but the Islamic response to them. Our political leaders did not blame the latter but turned the responsibility onto ourselves. Enclosed by a mindset of cultural relativism, most Westerners are loath to censure Muslims who go on violent rampages, burn down embassies and threaten death to their fellow citizens. Many of us regard this as somehow understandable, even acceptable, since we have no right to judge another religion and culture.

The truth is that the riots, the arson, the death threats were not spontaneous outbursts from passionate religious believers but were carefully stage-managed by Muslim leaders. The imams of the Danish Muslim community consciously ignited the response some four months after the cartoons were published. They travelled to the Middle East where they generated support for a campaign quite deliberately targeted at Western culture's principle of freedom of expression.

Their real aim is not religious respect but cultural change in the West. They want to prevent criticism of its Muslim minority and accord that group special privilege not available to the faithful of other religions. Instead of them changing to integrate into our way of life, they want to force us to change to accept their way of life.

Muslim rage over the cartoons is not an isolated issue that would have been confined to Denmark and would have gone away if nobody had republished them. It is simply one more step in a campaign that has already included assassination, death threats and the curtailment of criticism. And our response, yet again, has been one more white flag in the surrender of Western cultural values that we have been making since Khomeini's fatwa against Rushdie in 1989.

The Western concept of freedom of speech is not an absolute. The limits that should be imposed by good taste, social responsibility and respect for others will always be a matter for debate. But this is a debate that needs to be conducted within Western culture, not imposed on it from outside by threats of death and violence by those who want to put an end to all free debate.

The concepts of free enquiry and free expression and the right to criticise entrenched beliefs are things we take so much for granted they are almost part of the air we breathe. We need to recognise them as distinctly Western phenomena. They were never produced by Confucian or Hindu culture. Under Islam, the idea of objective inquiry had a brief life in the fourteenth century but was never heard of again. In the twentieth century, the first thing that every single communist government in the world did was suppress it.

But without this concept, the world would not be as it is today. There would have been no Copernicus, Galileo, Newton or Darwin. All of these thinkers profoundly offended the conventional wisdom of their day, and at great personal risk, in some cases to their lives but in all cases to their reputations and careers. But because they inherited a culture that valued free inquiry and free expression, it gave them the strength to continue.

Today, we live in an age of barbarism and decadence. There are barbarians outside the walls who want to destroy us and there is a decadent culture within. We are only getting what we deserve. The relentless critique of the West which has engaged our academic left and cultural elite since the 1960s has emboldened our adversaries and at the same time sapped our will to resist.

The consequences of this adversary culture are all around us. The way to oppose it, however, is less clear. The survival of the Western principles of free inquiry and free expression now depend entirely on whether we have the intelligence to understand their true value and the will to face down their enemies.

What's the big deal about the port deal?

This was my gut reaction. Too bad the politicians are acting this way.

Free speech

Like Jim Lindgren, I don't think that holocaust denial--or flag burning--should be a crime. Nor should cartoons. Stand up for Denmark!

Kelo In The Times

Referring to the NYT's States Curbing Right to Seize Private Homes, Tom Maguire writes,
Just as sophisticated Muscovites learned that it was what was *not* in Pravda that was as important as what was, so to do savvy readers of Pravda-on-the-East River know that the answers can often be found in the empty spaces.

In the case at hand, common sense guides the answer - if Justices Scalia and/or Thomas had led a majority that provoked this reaction, it would have been mentioned by the third paragraph. Hence, even casual court-watchers unfamiliar with Steven's reputation will correctly guess the truth - the Kelo decision was achieved by the liberal members of the Court.

But it may take readers with a longer memory to recall that the Times editorialized *in favor* of Kelo at the time...

Is 600,000 an epidemic?

In Frontline: The Meth Epidemic, Glenn Garvin writes,
The U.S. government's own National Survey on Drug Use and Health says that from 2002 to 2004, the last year for which data is available, meth use did not increase at all. Nada, nothing, zero, zip.


Oh, and those 1.5 million meth addicts Frontline mentions -- well, don't waste your time trying to find them. When you actually look up the National Survey on Drug Use statistics, that's the number of Americans who have ever, at any time in their lives, tried meth. The closest thing to a figure for addicts is the survey's number of people who used meth in the past month, which is about 600,000. If that's an epidemic, then so is the Home Shopping Channel.

Does this mean it's a liberal court?

Maybe I missed something, but the only Supreme Court issue I heard about yesterday on NPR or saw on the evening news was abortion.
The Supreme Court decided unanimously yesterday that the government cannot prohibit a small religious sect in New Mexico from using a hallucinogenic tea as part of its rites, ruling against the Bush administration in a case that pitted religious freedom against the nation's drug control laws.

Monday, February 20

Whose side is Terry Pratchett On, Anyway?

"War, Nobby. Huh! What is it good for?" he said.
"Dunno, Sarge. Freeing slaves, maybe?"
"Absol--well, okay."
"Defending yourself against a totalitarian agressor?"
"All right, I'll grant you that, but--"
"Saving civilization from a horde of--"
"It doesn't do any good in the long run is what I'm saying, Nobby, if you'd listen for five seconds together," said Fred Colon sharply.
"Yeah, but in the long run, what does, Sarge?"
From Thud!

Art Criticism

Nobby Nobbs and Fred Colon are investigating the theft of a painting:
"Hey, this must be a clue, sarge!' said Nobby, who had returned to his default activity of mooching about and poking at things to see if they were valuable. "Look, someone dumped a load of stinking ol rubbish here!'
He'd wandered across to a plinth which did, indeed, appear to be piled high with rags.
"Don't touch that, please!" said Sir Reynold, rushing over. "That's Don't Talk to Me About Mondays! It's Daniellarina Pouter's most controversial hwork! You didn't move anything, did you?" he added nervously. "It's literalleah priceless and she's got a sharp tongue on her!"
"It's only a lot of old rubbish," Nobby protested, backing away.
"Art is greater than the sum of its mere mechanical components, corporal," said the curator. "Surely you hwould not say that Caravati's Three Large Pink hWomen and One Piece of Gauze is just, ahem, "a lot of old pigment"?
"What about this one, then?" said Nobby, pointing to the adjacent plinth. "It's just a big stake with a nail in it! Is this art, too?"
"Freedom? If it hwas ever on the market, it hwould probableah fetch thirty thousand dollars," said Sir Reynold.
"For a bit of wood with a nail in it?" said Fred Colon. "Who did it?"
"After he viewed Don't Talk to Me About Mondays! Lord Vetinari graciousleah had Ms Pouter nailed to the stake by her ear," said Sir Reynold. "However, she did manage to pull free during the afternoon."
"I bet she was mad!" said Nobby.
"Not after she hwon several awards for it. I believe she's planning to nail herself to several other things. It could be a very exciting exhibition."
"Tell you what, then, sir," said Nobby helpfully. "Why don't you leave the ol big frame where it is and give it a new name, like Art Theft?
"No," said Sir Reynold coldly. "That would be foolish."

Sunday, February 19

A Presumption of Individual Responsibility

As I write this, the Winter Olympic Games are taking place. If you think about it, the nationalistic element of the Olympics is unnecessary. Why make a big deal about how many medals are won by "the United States" as a collective entity? Why not just focus on the achievements of the individual entrants?

Nationalistic rhetoric about economics is even worse than nationalistic rhetoric about the Olympics. Nationalism about the Olympics is a marketing tool for commercial exploitation, and the harm done is relatively minor. Nationalism about the economy is a marketing tool for politicians, and it leads to loss of freedom and responsibility, with enormous quantities of resources channeled through government.

  • Our children will wind up having to pay taxes down the road to pay for our government spending today.
  • Even today, the people paying the taxes are not directly in control of how the money gets spent.
  • "We" are not doing anything wrong by using oil instead of a more-expensive fuel.
  • Individuals need education and skills. Employers need workers with education and skills. But there is no separate "national need" for education and skills. Instead of school districts where the most affluent families are also the ones with the most money to spend on public education, we could have a voucher system where the voucher starts at $15,000 a year per child for the poorest families and gradually declines to zero for families earning the median income.
  • Take a moment to think about health care without any economic nationalist preconceptions. Suppose that we start with a presumption that consumers can make their own health care decisions, with advice from doctors and information available from third parties. Would it be unreasonable to have an individual factor in cost when making these decisions, rather than take it for granted that an insurance company will pick up the tab? If individuals were choosing health insurance to purchase themselves, rather than using employers as middle men, what sorts of policies would they want? If someone does not choose any health insurance policy, what consequences should they face? Should we continue to force working people to subsidize the elderly, or should people be expected to save enough to pay for the almost-inevitable expenses of health care in their retirement years, and to obtain insurance to cover any unusually expensive late-stage illness?

Saturday, February 18

The worst-case scenario

In the past couple of days, the WaPo has had three stories with some good news about Iraq.

First, it was The Lessons of Counterinsurgency
The last time the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment served in Iraq, in 2003-04, its performance was judged mediocre, with a series of abuse cases growing out of its tour of duty in Anbar province.

But its second tour in Iraq has been very different, according to specialists in the difficult art of conducting a counterinsurgency campaign -- fighting a guerrilla war but also trying to win over the population and elements of the enemy. Such campaigns are distinct from the kind of war most U.S. commanders have spent decades preparing to fight.

In the last nine months, the regiment has focused on breaking the insurgents' hold on Tall Afar, a town of 290,000. Their operations here "will serve as a case study in classic counterinsurgency, the way it is supposed to be done," said Terry Daly, a retired intelligence officer specializing in the subject.
It paints a positive picture, even if "Baghdad is a much tougher nut to crack".

Then, from Troops Honed in '03 Fighting a Different War in Iraq
The focus has definitely shifted," agreed Capt. Klaudius Robinson, the Polish-born commander of a cavalry troop based south of Baghdad. On his current tour, he estimates, he spends half his time on "engagement" with the population, perhaps a quarter working with Iraqi forces and "maybe 20 percent going after the bad guys."

Robinson noted that every patrol he sends out includes an interpreter, in contrast to the first year of the U.S. military presence here. "It's a huge difference" being able to communicate clearly instead of using "hand signals and broken English."

In 2003-04, the 4th Infantry had a rash of abuse cases, including some illegal killings of detainees. For its second tour, the division has its own cultural adviser, who writes a kind of advice column on Islamic and Iraqi mores in the Ivy Leaf, the division newspaper.

Despite the changes, the Iraq veterans disagreed about some aspects of the current situation, such as whether it is more or less hazardous than before and whether the huge improvement in the quality of life for U.S. troops really helps boost their effectiveness.

"It's still a dangerous situation, but to be honest with you, I don't get the willies like I did last time," said Sgt. 1st Class Kelly Mann, who was based north of Baghdad at Taji in 2003-04 and now works in the capital as an adviser to the Iraqi army.

But other soldiers on their second tours said today's war is tougher than the one they remember. Sgt. 1st Class Charles Ilaoa, an American Samoan platoon sergeant operating at an outpost southwest of Baghdad called San Juan, said: "The insurgents are getting a lot better."

In his first tour, he said, it was easier to spot homemade bombs, called improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Now, he said, "the IEDs are a lot more complicated. . . . They have more sophisticated, deeply buried ones."

In 2003, it was common to come across insurgents in the open, carrying AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, said Russell, the Humvee gunner. "Now you don't see them," he said.

Even shooting has changed. Of more than a dozen soldiers asked to compare their first and second tours of duty, all agreed that the rules of engagement that govern the use of force have grown much tighter, and most said they thought the new restrictions were for the good. "It's a little bit harder. You're kind of tied down," said Ilaoa. Even so, he said, "we treat locals a lot better and have a lot better relations with them."
From Back in the Fight
Charles Thomas was wounded three times in Vietnam...and limped home questioning whether U.S. soldiers should have been sent there in the first place. Now in Iraq, he says he is unequivocally proud of his mission.

"What I'm doing now's the kind of thing we should have done more of in Vietnam," said Thomas, 59, from North Potomac, who manages development of Iraq's sewage and water systems. "The thing I regret most about my time [in Vietnam] was we were just plain fighters. We didn't go out and help people with their everyday lives."

Armed with boots-on-the-ground experience from a war many believe had devastating consequences for U.S. society [and working for private contractors working on Iraq's reconstruction], they say their goal is to ensure that Iraq, and the American soldiers fighting here, do not suffer a similar fate.

"We're all over here for pretty much one reason. There's a huge job to do, and we don't want anyone saying it didn't get done right," said Tommy Clarkson, who spent a year in Vietnam with the Army's 44th Signal Battalion and now works as a civilian spokesman in Baghdad for the Army Corps of Engineers.
There is bad news, though.
The task [they] face in helping rebuild Iraq is daunting. Thousands of projects have been completed or are underway. But reconstruction has been hobbled by an insurgency that proved deadlier than expected and by miscalculation of the degree of degradation of Iraq's infrastructure from years of neglect and the widespread looting that followed the U.S. invasion. U.S. funds allocated to the rebuilding effort are slated to be spent by the end of the year. And pressure is mounting in the United States for a substantial reduction in U.S. forces here.
"I volunteered because I thought I could help prevent another Vietnam," Holly said. "After we pulled out of there, we stuck our heads in the sand like an ostrich, said it was a mistake and we should never have gone. We basically forgot about the place. That would be the worst-case scenario here."
The NYT has published back-to-back articles about how the military is turning things around in Iraq. These articles are on topics similar to a couple of those in the WaPo. So are things turning around?

Favored Psychotherapy Lets Bygones Be Bygones

This still isn't like "The Chinese Strategy of Transcendence"

Like a lot of other movies

" the camera starts flopping around like a newly hooked trout..."

Wednesday, February 15

Reasons to Kill Farm Subsidies and Trade Barriers

  1. Lower Food Prices for American Families
  2. Lower Costs and Increased Exports for American Companies
  3. Budget Savings and Equity for U.S. Taxpayers
  4. More Environmentally Friendly Land Use
There are others, as well.

Monday, February 13

Vote for Jane Galt

If I were in charge of the budget, we would massively reform entitlements, transforming Social Security into a system of forced savings combined with a means-tested fallback for those too poor to save, or whose investments tanked at the wrong time. We would kill the whole Medicare/Medicaid debacle, along with the tax deduction for corporate-provided health care benefits, replacing it all with catastrophic federal insurance for those whose medical bills exceed 15-20% of gross income (phasing out for those whose incomes put them in, say, the top .1% of earners) and another means-tested benefit for those who genuinely cannot afford to spend 15% of gross income on health care benefits. I would combine this with the Jane Galt Tax Plan to save the government a whole mess o' money, while making the economy more efficient, and increasing the incentives for everyone, rich and poor alike, to create value for society. Forget Win-Win . . . that's like Winwin!

But I'm not in charge of the economy, and I never will be, in part because I advocate things like scrapping Medicare and Social Security and the corporate income tax. Living, as I do, in a representative democracy, spending will be higher than I would like it to be for . . . well, forever, frankly. That means that taxes are also going to be higher than I would like them to be.

Suppression of dissent?

What happens if you're a Republican commentator and you write a book critical of President Bush that gets you fired from your job at a conservative think tank?

Bruce Bartlett was fired from his job at a conservative research group after writing "Impostor," a book sharply critical of President Bush.

For starters, no other conservative institution rushes in with an offer for your analytical skills.

"Nobody will touch me," said Bruce Bartlett, author of the forthcoming "Impostor: Why George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy." "I think I'm just kind of radioactive at the moment."

...["Impostor"'s] basic message reflects the frustration of many conservatives who say that Mr. Bush has been on a five-year federal spending binge. Like them, Mr. Bartlett is particularly upset about Mr. Bush's Medicare prescription drug plan, which is expected to cost more than $700 billion over the next decade.
By the way, I'm in favor of Bush's "dressed-up amnesty plan".

Free Speech from Bokbluster

Insult to Injury

Tolerate the Intolerant, Infidel

Fair and Balanced?

From the CBS Saturday evening news: an interview with
John Danforth, a retired U.S. senator and mainline Episcopal priest, speaks with Bill Whitaker about what he perceives as a disturbing flow of religion into national politics.
I can't say I like it either, but they seem to have gone over this before. Why are they raising this now? And are they going to air similar stories about the pernicious influence of unions and tort lawyers on the Democratic party?

Horrendous Retirement Entitlements

The projected increase in the budget deficit this year, to $400+ billion from $319 billion last year, doesn't matter...The reason why they all don't matter is that their cost is trivially small compared to the that of the mountain-sized avalanche of retirement entitlements that's heading to hit us around 15 years from now.

Saturday, February 11

Ibn Warraq is right

The cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten raise the most important question of our times: freedom of expression. Are we in the west going to cave into pressure from societies with a medieval mindset, or are we going to defend our most precious freedom -- freedom of expression, a freedom for which thousands of people sacrificed their lives?

A democracy cannot survive long without freedom of expression, the freedom to argue, to dissent, even to insult and offend. It is a freedom sorely lacking in the Islamic world, and without it Islam will remain unassailed in its dogmatic, fanatical, medieval fortress; ossified, totalitarian and intolerant. Without this fundamental freedom, Islam will continue to stifle thought, human rights, individuality; originality and truth.

Unless, we show some solidarity, unashamed, noisy, public solidarity with the Danish cartoonists, then the forces that are trying to impose on the Free West a totalitarian ideology will have won; the Islamization of Europe will have begun in earnest. Do not apologize.

This raises another more general problem: the inability of the West to defend itself intellectually and culturally. Be proud, do not apologize. Do we have to go on apologizing for the sins our fathers? Do we still have to apologize, for example, for the British Empire, when, in fact, the British presence in India led to the Indian Renaissance, resulted in famine relief, railways, roads and irrigation schemes, eradication of cholera, the civil service, the establishment of a universal educational system where none existed before, the institution of elected parliamentary democracy and the rule of law? What of the British architecture of Bombay and Calcutta? The British even gave back to the Indians their own past: it was European scholarship, archaeology and research that uncovered the greatness that was India; it was British government that did its best to save and conserve the monuments that were a witness to that past glory. British Imperialism preserved where earlier Islamic Imperialism destroyed thousands of Hindu temples.

On the world stage, should we really apologize for Dante, Shakespeare, and Goethe? Mozart, Beethoven and Bach? Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Breughel, Ter Borch? Galileo, Huygens, Copernicus, Newton and Darwin? Penicillin and computers? The Olympic Games and Football? Human rights and parliamentary democracy? The west is the source of the liberating ideas of individual liberty, political democracy, the rule of law, human rights and cultural freedom. It is the west that has raised the status of women, fought against slavery, defended freedom of enquiry, expression and conscience. No, the west needs no lectures on the superior virtue of societies who keep their women in subjection, cut off their clitorises, stone them to death for alleged adultery, throw acid on their faces, or deny the human rights of those considered to belong to lower castes.

How can we expect immigrants to integrate into western society when they are at the same time being taught that the west is decadent, a den of iniquity, the source of all evil, racist, imperialist and to be despised? Why should they, in the words of the African-American writer James Baldwin, want to integrate into a sinking ship? Why do they all want to immigrate to the west and not Saudi Arabia? They should be taught about the centuries of struggle that resulted in the freedoms that they and everyone else for that matter, cherish, enjoy, and avail themselves of; of the individuals and groups who fought for these freedoms and who are despised and forgotten today; the freedoms that the much of the rest of world envies, admires and tries to emulate." When the Chinese students cried and died for democracy in Tiananmen Square (in 1989), they brought with them not representations of Confucius or Buddha but a model of the Statue of Liberty."

Freedom of expression is our western heritage and we must defend it or it will die from totalitarian attacks. It is also much needed in the Islamic world. By defending our values, we are teaching the Islamic world a valuable lesson, we are helping them by submitting their cherished traditions to Enlightenment values.

Super parents?

Describing the case against Vanessa Jackson, the NYT's RICHARD LEZIN JONES says,
Bruce Jackson rose in a packed courtroom here on Friday, 95 pounds heavier and 15 inches taller than he was 27 months ago when he was found rummaging through a neighbor's garbage can looking for food.

He looked directly at his adoptive mother, who was about to be sentenced to seven years in prison for systematically starving him and his three younger brothers in a case that drew national attention to the failures of New Jersey's child welfare system.

...Prosecutors said they were at a loss for a motive as to why the four boys were starved and abused while five other children in the house were allowed to live normal lives.

...Ms. Jackson's daughter Vernee was among her four biological children who spoke in her behalf.

She said that the case had torn her family apart, and that her mother did not deserve to go to jail. She and her mother sobbed briefly before Vanessa Jackson regained her composure and resumed her stoic stare.

The Rev. Harry L. Thomas, the pastor of the Medford, N.J., church that the family attended and who has remained steadfast in his support of Ms. Jackson, also testified for her.

"I've known these people as very loving people," Mr. Thomas told the court, "people who have a heart for children and they have a heart for God."

But Judge Robert G. Millenky of State Superior Court was unmoved. He said Ms. Jackson deserved the maximum seven-year term because her conduct "fits the description of cruel activity."
New York's David France says Keziah, whom the Jacksons adopted when she was less than a week old, tells the Jacksons they are "super parents"
...a sustained look at the Jackson case suggests that the parents' initial explanation of events—and Keziah's portrait of the mood within the family—may be closer to the truth. Adoption records and medical documents indicate that the boys—Bruce most of all—were placed with the Jackson family in part because they already suffered from the very medical and psychological traumas the parents now stand accused of causing. Interviews with numerous family friends—including a lawyer, a doctor, a child-welfare advocate, and a police officer who saw the children every week—all dispute the prosecutors' case down to its smallest particulars. There is no denying that the boys were grievously malnourished. But there's a world of difference, in the view of the Jacksons' allies, between the deliberate starvation and neglect that Raymond and Vanessa Jackson stand accused of and the inept struggles of two well-meaning foster parents who were in way over their heads, tasked with caring for needy children in an overcrowded household of limited resources.
If we can't sort out the truth here, how can we figure out more complex issues?

Friday, February 10

Something to think about

Last night I heard about college students "abusing" (or using?) ADD drugs, either for study aids or for a good time. Then we watched a recently recorded episode of "Law and Order", where use of a similar drug was a plot point, as it was on a recently recorded episode of "House" that we also watched. Is this a moral panic about a new folk devil?

By the way, we don't have Tivo. I recorded them the old-fashioned way, with VCR's.

Censorship envy

Eugene Volokh mentions how he has argued
allowing flagburning bans seems likely to help stimulate what I call "censorship envy": If my neighbor gets to ban symbols he dislikes, why shouldnt I get to do the same? This kind of misplaced desire for equality of repression is a powerful psychological force.

The biggest winners are US consumers

...often these days, "made in China" is mostly made elsewhere — by multinational companies in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States that are using China as the final assembly station in their vast global production networks.

Analysts say this evolving global supply chain, which usually tags goods at their final assembly stop, is increasingly distorting global trade figures and has the effect of turning China into a bigger trade threat than it may actually be...

It may look as if China is getting the big payoff from trade. But over all, some of the biggest winners are consumers in the United States and other advanced economies who have benefited greatly as a result of the shift in the final production of toys, clothing, electronics and other goods from elsewhere in Asia to a cheaper China.

American multinational corporations and other foreign companies, including retailers, are the largely invisible hands behind the factories pumping out these inexpensive goods. And they are reaping the bulk of profits from the trade.

...about 60 percent of [China]'s exports are controlled by foreign companies, according to Chinese customs data.

"The biggest beneficiary of all this is the United States," said Dong Tao, an economist at UBS in Hong Kong. "A Barbie doll costs $20, but China only gets about 35 cents of that."

Because so many different hands in different places touch a particular product, Mr. Dong said, you might as well throw away the trade figures.

"In a globalized world, bilateral trade figures are irrelevant," he argued. "The trade balance between the U.S. and China is as irrelevant as the trade balance between New York and Minnesota."
(emphasis mine). But even if those figures are all wrong, some argue the trade balance doesn't matter; see Stop Worrying About the Trade Deficit

Chinese Web users are becoming savvy and sophisticated

Microsoft alone carries an estimated 3.3 million blogs in China. Add to that the estimated 10 million blogs on other Internet services, and it becomes clear what a censor's nightmare China has become. What is more, not a single blog existed in China a little more than three years ago, and thousands upon thousands are being born every day — some run by people whose previous blogs had been banned and merely change their name or switch Internet providers. New technologies, like podcasts, are making things even harder to control.

"The Internet is open technology, based on packet switching and open systems, and it is totally different from traditional media, like radio or TV or newspapers," said Guo Liang, an Internet specialist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "At first, people might have thought it would be as easy to control as traditional media, but now they realize that's not the case."

If the Internet is at the center of today's struggle over press freedom, it is only the latest in a series of fights that the government has so far always lost...

Changes in the news media have also been driven by profit motives. With the state ending its subsidies for most publishing companies, publications have sought ways to build readership. Saucy entertainment and sports journalism have been big hits for many magazines and newspapers.

Others, though, have hit on the idea of public affairs, uncovering corruption and writing about environmental problems and social inequality. As the readers' appetite for this kind of news has grown, the government has been hard pressed to force the genie back into the bottle.

Newspapers have been closed, reporters and editors jailed — even killed, like Wu Xianghu, a newspaper editor who died last week after being beaten by the police, who reportedly were incensed by an article he published on abuses of power in their ranks. Still, the trend has not been reversed...

"Symbolically, the government may have scored a victory with Google, but Web users are becoming a lot more savvy and sophisticated, and the censors' life is not getting easier," said Xiao Qiang, leader of the Internet project at the University of California, Berkeley. "The flow of information is getting steadily freer, in fact. If I was in the State Councils information office, I certainly wouldn't think we had any reason to celebrate."

Wednesday, February 8

The Unscientific Precautionary Principle

Ronald Bailey says the World Trade Organization has rejected anti-biotech regulations based on the unscientific precautionary principle, and that it's good news for the world's farmers, the world's consumers, and the poor. It's potentially good news, but this morning on npr, I'm sure the report mentioned how consumers would try to resist "frankenfood," but the report is gone now.

A duty not to inflame the Muslim street

Wretchard writes,
What was that about limits proposed on free speech arising out of a duty not to inflame the Muslim street? Under what category of inflammation does attributing a pig-snouted depiction of Mohammed to the Jyllands-Posten cartoons fall, when that cartoon was never published by the newspaper, and as anyone from the BBC might have known by simply obtaining a copy of the cartoons?...

This is going to rank right up there with the fake Koran-flushing story which got people killed in Afghanistan. No one has a right to expect perfection from the media. Like intelligence agencies, which they resemble in some respects, the media sometimes gets things wrong. But I'd argue that some publications have a dangerous tendency to believe stories like "right-wing Danish publication portrays Mohammed as pig" because they want to believe it. This phenomenon is called bias and bias is dangerous not because it predisposes one to a wrong set of opinions but to the wrong set of facts.

Ironically, if the BBC had published the cartoons it would inevitably have discovered that the pig picture was not part of the Jyllands-Posten cartoon set. But instead of presenting the dry facts it substituted hearsay and for days the world was inflamed over a set of images described only at second-hand; wrongly described at that and imagining the worst about what were actually a very mild set of drawings. This violent debate occurred precisely because organizations like the BBC, whose job it was to present the facts, failed signally in their duty. Instead they went through the mummery of piously refusing the show the images "out of respect for Islam" when in fact they were actually, though perhaps unintentionally, contributing to the obscurantism surrounding the whole affair. That is the kindest interpretation I can put on the matter.

Here's the pig.

I feel offended

I feel offended.

Zealots are nailing veils onto the faces of my sisters in Afghanistan and Pakistan and are busy hanging women, homosexuals, adulterers and non-believers.

But human rights, women's rights and the right to liberty are the most exalted in the history of humanity; this is the tradition in which I was raised. Values that make the world better and more peaceful.

I demand that the governments of Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Indonesia and Egypt apologise to me. Otherwise I am unfortunately forced to threaten, beat up, kidnap or behead their citizens. Because I am somewhat sensitive about my cultural identity.

I feel offended.

Fanatics are blowing up the Buddhas of Bamiyan, marvellous cultural monuments.

But art is an expression of universal beauty and innocence to me. It is a value that makes the world better and more peaceful.; this is the tradition in which I was raised.

I demand that Hamas, the spokesman of the French Muslims and the Director of the Al-Azhar-University apologise to me. Otherwise I will never spend a holiday at the Taj Mahal, I will call for a boycott of Palestinian fruit and I will set the embassies of Tunisia, Qatar and Bangladesh on fire.

I expect understanding for this at the very least – my feelings are absolute and must be expressed globally.

I feel offended.

Videos show journalists, truck drivers and NGO workers having their throats slit or their heads chopped off. Jews see themselves represented as cannibals and pigs, Western women as decadent sluts. Apolitical engineers have to fear for their lives.
--Sonia Mikich

Religion of Peace?

George Deutsch makes a bang

In October 2005, Mr. Deutsch sent an e-mail message to Flint Wild, a NASA contractor working on a set of Web presentations about Einstein for middle-school students. The message said the word "theory" needed to be added after every mention of the Big Bang.

The Big Bang is "not proven fact; it is opinion," Mr. Deutsch wrote, adding, "It is not NASA's place, nor should it be to make a declaration such as this about the existence of the universe that discounts intelligent design by a creator."

It continued: "This is more than a science issue, it is a religious issue. And I would hate to think that young people would only be getting one-half of this debate from NASA. That would mean we had failed to properly educate the very people who rely on us for factual information the most."

The memo also noted that The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual specified the phrasing "Big Bang theory." Mr. Acosta, Mr. Deutsch's boss, said in an interview yesterday that for that reason, it should be used in all NASA documents.
I'm disappointed in young George (a 24-year-old presidential appointee in the press office at NASA headquarters, a 2003 journalism graduate of Texas A&M and a former intern in the "war room" of the 2004 Bush-Cheney re-election campaign) and in the AP as well.

When I was writing that yesterday, he was resigning. And officials at Texas A&M University confirmed that he has not graduated.

Out with a whimper.

Tuesday, February 7

Hell Freezes Over

Via Julian Sanchez
Congress withdrew support for a U.S. cotton subsidy program Wednesday, ending export and import subsidies and normalizing world cotton prices.

The U.S. House of Representatives approved legislation that would repeal a support program for cotton formally known as "Step 2" as part of its Deficit Reduction Omnibus Reconciliation Act. Before the end of 2005, the Senate passed identical legislation. The bill will now go to President Bush who is expected to sign it into law.
Ending a subsidy? What next? It must be the end of the world.

Start Investing Young

James K. Glassman:
The average annual return for U.S. large-company stocks (as represented by the Standard & Poor's 500 Index) for the past 80 years has been about 10 percent after transaction expenses but not taxes. Say your goal is to build a nest egg of $1 million by the time you are 55. If you start at age 24 and invest $5,000 a year at an average return of 10 percent annually – through, for example, an index mutual fund or exchange-traded fund (ETF) – then you'll reach your goal. But if wait until you are 34 to start, you'll accumulate only $357,000 by age 55. If you start at age 44, you'll have just $107,000.

Subsidies cost jobs

American candy producers are offshoring production. They
blame their shifting production strategies on one culprit: U.S. sugar subsidies that keep prices of domestic sugar much higher than prices on the world market. In addition, tight import quotas make it hard to import cheaper foreign-produced sugar.

Monday, February 6

World War IV As Fourth-Generation Warfare

Tony Corn writes,
If 1979 marks the return of Islam in history, it also marks (more significantly than 1949 ever did) the return of China in history. Throughout the 1980s, China experienced phenomenal growth rates and was catching up fast with the West, when the advent of the information revolution widened the gap anew. Since the Chinese leadership cannot go into overdrive without destroying the social fabric (and ultimately its own power base), it can only hope to narrow the gap by slowing down the West. For Western historians, all this has a deja-vu all over again feel. Just as imperial latecomers like Germany and Japan did not hesitate to play the Islamic card for all it was worth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, today China has — to put it mildly — no reason to be a priori hostile to the idea of using jihadism as a weapon of mass disruption against the West.

The congruence between the Islamic [Fourth-Generation Warfare] 4GW jihad and China’s own Unrestricted Warfare doctrine is therefore no surprise. This Sino-Islamic connection has been largely ignored by European elites too busy indulging in anti-American posturing instead. In the EU media, China is invariably portrayed as being all (economic) opportunities and no (political) threats; from the Spanish and French media in particular, one would never guess that China in fact has a rather proactive — and sophisticated — policy in Spain’s and France’s former colonies. As for the Islamic question, EU elites continue to believe that it can best be solved by keeping as much distance as possible between the U.S. approach (Broader Middle East and North Africa Initiative) and the EU approach (Euro-Med Partnership).
Well, I hope he's wrong. And it's irritating the way he abbreviated "Fourth-Generation Warfare" as "4GW".

Does Wendy Kaufman Think Markets Are Evil?

According to Wendy Kaufman, elderly Americans--"seniors"--aren't getting cell phones, because the phones & plans cost too much; she cites an authority from the odious AARP, but not one who tells us that the elderly are richer than the average American. Even though she mentions Consumer Cellular, which offers plans for $10 a month, she goes on to say that "publicly-traded cellphone companies want to maximize profits", so they offer more expensive plans. But she just told us about one that only cost $10 a month! So we're supposed to control the market for the sake of the cheap skate elderly?

By the way, speaking of cheap skates, I don't have a cell phone.

Sunday, February 5

Dissatisfaction and Mistrust, or Stupidity and Ignorance?

The most telling evidence of Americans' dissatisfaction with traditional health care is the more than $27 billion they spend annually on alternative and complementary medicine, according to government estimates. In ways large and small, millions of people are taking active steps to venture outside the mainstream, whether by taking the herbal remedy echinacea for a cold or by placing their last hopes for cancer cure in alternative treatment, as did Coretta Scott King, who died this week at an alternative hospice clinic in Mexico.

They do not appear to care that there is little, if any, evidence that many of the therapies work. Nor do they seem to mind that alternative therapy practitioners have a fraction of the training mainstream doctors do or that vitamin and herb makers are as profit-driven as drug makers.

This straying from conventional medicine is often rooted in a sense of disappointment, even betrayal, many patients and experts say. When patients see conventional medicine's inadequacies up close — a misdiagnosis, an intolerable drug, failed surgery, even a dismissive doctor — many find the experience profoundly disillusioning, or at least eye-opening.

Haggles with insurance providers, conflicting findings from medical studies and news reports of drug makers' covering up product side effects all feed their disaffection, to the point where many people begin to question not only the health care system but also the science behind it. Soon, intuition and the personal experience of friends and family may seem as trustworthy as advice from a doctor in diagnosing an illness or judging a treatment.

Experts say that people with serious medical problems like diabetes or cancer are least likely to take their chances with natural medicine, unless their illness is terminal. Consumers generally know that quackery is widespread in alternative practices, that there is virtually no government oversight of so-called natural remedies and that some treatments, like enemas, can be dangerous.

Still, 48 percent of American adults used at least one alternative or complementary therapy in 2004, up from 42 percent a decade ago, a figure that includes students and retirees, soccer moms and truckers, New Age seekers and religious conservatives. The numbers continue to grow, experts say, for reasons that have as much to do with increasing distrust of mainstream medicine and the psychological appeal of nontraditional approaches as with the therapeutic properties of herbs or other supplements.

"I think there is a powerful element of nostalgia at work for many people, for home remedies — for what healing is supposed to be — combined with an idealized vision of what is natural and whole and good, " said Dr. Linda Barnes, a medical anthropologist at Boston University School of Medicine.

Dr. Barnes added, "People look around and feel that the conventional system does not measure up, and that something deeper about their well-being is not being addressed at all."..

In interviews and surveys, [people who use nontraditional therapies] often described prescription drugs as poisons that mostly mask symptoms without improving their underlying cause.

Many extend their suspicions further. In a 2004 study, researchers at the University of Arizona conducted interviews with a group of men and women in Tucson who suffered from chronic arthritis, most of whom regularly used alternative therapies. Those who used alternative methods exclusively valued the treatments on the "rightness of fit" above other factors, and they were inherently skeptical of the health care system.

Distrust in the medical industrial complex, as some patients call it, stems in part from suspicions that insurers warp medical decision making, and in part from the belief that drug companies are out to sell as many drugs as possible, regardless of patients' needs, interviews show.

"I do partly blame the drug companies and the money they make" for the breakdown in trust in the medical system, said Joyce Newman, 74, of Lynnwood Wash., who sees a natural medicine specialist as her primary doctor. "The time when you would listen to your doctor and do whatever he said — that time is long gone, in my opinion. You have to learn to use your own head."

From here it is a small step to begin doubting medical science. If Western medicine is imperfect and sometimes corrupt, then mainstream doctors may not be the best judge of treatments after all, many patients conclude. People's actual experience — the personal testimony of friends and family, in particular — feels more truthful.

To best way to validate this, [say those] who regularly use nontraditional therapies, is simply to try a remedy "and listen to your own body."..

Cancer researchers say that there is no evidence that vitamins, herbs or other alternative therapies can cure cancer, and they caution that some regimens may worsen the disease...

For all their suspicions and questions about conventional medicine, those who venture outside the mainstream tend to have one thing in abundance, experts say: hope. In a 1998 survey of more than 1,000 adults from around the country, researchers found that having an interest in "personal growth or spirituality" predicted alternative medicine use.

Nontraditional healers know this, and they often offer some spiritual element in their practice, if they think it is appropriate.
It sounds like stupidity and ignorance to me.

Fires Damage Six Alabama Churches

Who will Pat Robertson and Ray Nagin blame for this?

Over-regulation and flawed policy initiatives

Henry I. Miller blames over-regulation and flawed policy initiatives for the failure of the US produce an appropriate vaccine against avian influenza:
The Vaccines for Children Program...was a do-gooder innovation of the Clinton administration (Hillary's toe in the water for national health care, apparently) that disrupted market forces and dealt a blow to vaccine producers. Established in 1994, it created a single-buyer system for children's vaccines, making the government by far the largest purchaser of childhood vaccines -- at a mandated discount of 50 percent. Try extorting that kind of discount from manufacturers of trucks for the U.S. Postal Service or of Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MREs) for the Department of Defense, and see how long the companies bid on government contracts...

The highly risk-averse FDA has been especially tough on vaccines. The agency has rejected evidence of safety and efficacy from European and Canadian vaccine approvals; prematurely withdrawn life-saving products from the market because of mere perceptions of risk; and set the bar for the testing of new vaccines almost impossibly high.

Why Hong Kong developed

It's thanks to Sir John Cowperthwaite (1915-2006)
When he became Financial Secretary, the average Hong Kong resident earned about a quarter of someone living in Britain. By the early 90s, average incomes were higher than Britain's. Cowperthwaite made Hong Kong the most economically free economy in the world and pursued free trade, refusing to make its citizens buy expensive locally-produced goods if they could import cheaper products from elsewhere. Income tax was never more than a flat rate of fifteen percent. The colony's lack of natural resources, apart from a harbour, and the fact that it was a food importer, made its success all the more interesting. Cowperthwaite's policies soon soon attracted the attention of economists like Milton Friedman, whose television series Free to Choose featured Hong Kong's economic progress in some detail.

Asked what is the key thing poor countries should do, Cowperthwaite once remarked: "They should abolish the Office of National Statistics". In Hong Kong, he refused to collect all but the most superficial statistics, believing that statistics were dangerous: they would led the state to to fiddle about remedying perceived ills, simultaneously hindering the ability of the market economy to work. This caused consternation in Whitehall: a delegation of civil servants were sent to Hong Kong to find out why employment statistics were not being collected; Cowperthwaite literally sent them home on the next plane back.
Free trade and low income taxes. What's the problem with taxes? In "The Real Lesson of Hong Kong" (National Review, December 31, 1997) Milton Friedman compared Hong Kong to several other countries:
Direct government spending is less than 15 percent of national income in Hong Kong, more than 40 percent in the United States. Indirect government spending via regulations and mandates is negligible in Hong Kong but accounts for around 10 percent of national income in the United States. In both respects, the United States differs from Hong Kong less than either Britain or Israel, both of which have even higher government spending as a fraction of national income and even more intrusive and extensive regulations and mandates, which is presumably why per capita income in the United States is more than a third higher than that in the United Kingdom and nearly 80 percent higher than that in Israel.

We are more productive than Hong Kong. But we have chosen, or been led by the vagaries of politics, to devote roughly half of our resources to activities to which Hong Kong devotes 15 or 20 percent. Our higher productivity means that we can produce with 50 percent of our resources the same per capita income as Hong Kong can produce with 80 to 85 percent of its resources.

The real lesson of Hong Kong for the United States is that we’re using our resources inefficiently. Our government is spending our money to subsidize tobacco and to penalize smoking; to subsidize childbearing and to discourage childbearing; to build new housing and to tear down housing; to subsidize agriculture and to penalize agriculture; and on and on—not to mention converting square miles of forests into billions of paper forms and spending many man-years of labor filling them out and then filing them.
(via Tim Worstall).

Saturday, February 4

It's stressful work, but plenty of people want it

The fact that Wal-Mart got 25,000 applications for 325 openings for a new Chicago area store
shows...that 25,000 people would prefer to work in those jobs than the jobs they have -- or don't have -- at the moment.

That's the fundamental fact of economics that the critics seem not to get. Sure, for those with college educations or substantial technical skills in high demand in the marketplace, work as a stocker or cashier in the retail industry would be undesirable. It's hard, stressful work. But there would appear to be 25,000 people out there who consider those jobs a step up from where they are now...

Further, as economist Thomas Sowell explains, people who take low paying jobs gain valuable skills that they can translate into higher paying jobs. "Notions of menial jobs and dead-end jobs may be just shallow misconceptions among the intelligentsia but they are a deadly counterproductive message to the poor. Refusing to get on the bottom rung of the ladder usually means losing your chance to move up the ladder."

Rising health care costs as the preference of a wealthy nation?

While health care costs are undeniably rising fast, this is not necessarily a sign of something wrong with the system. It could simply be a reflection of the legitimate preferences of an increasingly wealthy nation. After all, once basic necessities are met, it is reasonable to assume that an increasing share of each extra dollar earned will go to things that improve quality of life, like health care, beauty aids, or recreation.

In fact, that is what has been happening. Over the past 20 years, spending on recreation, health clubs, even lawyers, has climbed at about the same rate as health care. (See Table 1.) Yet nobody talks about a national health club crisis, or the need to reform the nation’s recreation industry.
Table 1
Chasing Quality

Spending increase, 1984 to 2004





Medical care


Higher education


Hair stylists and health clubs


Legal services










Gross Domestic Product


Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis

Table 2

Shielding Consumers
Out-of-pocket spending on health care as share of national health expenditures.













Source: Center for Medicare and Medicare Services

Tim Worstall and Robert Reich agree

Tim Worstall cites Robert Reich (Clinton's labor secretary) on the inefficiency of using the minimum wage to alleviate poverty instead of the earned income tax credit, adding the credit is
...a form of Milton Friedman’s idea of a negative income tax. Really, who would have thought it? An economist often demonized by the left campaigns for 40 years for a policy that actually helps the poor?

Liberals Should Know Better

Arnold Kling writes:
Although the motivation of the liberals was to raise the well-being of Wal-Mart workers, it is far from clear that this will be the consequence. Low-skilled workers cannot receive more in compensation than the value of their labor. If Wal-Mart is forced to increase the share of compensation that comes in the form of health benefits, then it will have to decrease take-home pay. If it cannot decrease take-home pay, then it will have to reduce its reliance on low-skilled labor or cut back on operations altogether.

...The law requires Wal-Mart to spend 8 percent of its payroll on health care, whether or not this is enough to keep its workers from needing to rely on Medicaid. If Wal-Mart came up with a way to provide outstanding health care to its workers for 6 percent of its payroll, it would be in violation of the law unless it found a way to waste the other 2 percent on unnecessary health care. Conversely, if Wal-Mart offers a really lousy health plan, it would be in compliance with the law as long as it spent 8 percent.
Then he addresses liberals directly:
Liberals see the market as an arena in which evil corporations inflict their greed on innocent victims. I wish you would see that motives matter less than consequences. I wish you could see that greed is at work when laws are passed that regulate markets, because regulations always produce winners and losers. I wish you could see that those winners and losers are often not who you think they are. I wish you could see that competitive behavior and free choice are forces that operate in the market as a check against greed. Finally, I wish you could see that greed is most difficult to restrain when it is exercised through the medium of government.

Help the better-off!

The World Bank has released Reaching the Poor: What Works, What Doesn't, and Why, an investigation into the efficiency of measures to improve the health of the world’s poor.

Its authors studied the results of programs meant to help "poor people battle illness and disease". But what the report found was that even "programs designed to reach poor people often end up instead helping the better-off."