Thursday, August 31

Tuesday, August 29

Is it a nonpartisan policy research and advocacy group?

According to a consumer group's analysis,
The panels of experts assembled by the Food and Drug Administration to advise it on whether to approve new drugs and medical devices are often biased in favor of recommending approval
The consumer group in question? The National Research Center for Women & Families. They claim coverage and lobbying tend to reflect the views of corporations and organizations whose interpretation of "the facts" is influenced by their own financial interests.
Their mission:
to use scientific or medical research information to improve the quality of women's lives and the lives of family members. We focus our efforts on the programs and policies that we believe can most benefit from the research-based information that we can provide and the attention that we can generate.

As a research-based center, we provide information that is based on facts, not ideology or financial ties to the programs or products we analyze. In addition to the scientific expertise of our highly qualified staff, we rely on the expertise of unbiased, well-respected researchers from across the country.
I'm sure they believe they're unbiased. But Dr. Diana Zuckerman, the president who is cited in the WaPo piece, seems to prefer government solutions: she's opposed to Social Security privatization, and argues that for women to get silicone breast implants is not part of their "inalienable right to choose" (does that mean she's not pro-choice?). While I think implants are generally silly, these are the conclusions from the Institute of Medicine's (IOM) Information for Women about the Safety of Silicone Breast Implants:
"The IOM committee's review of research and medical studies shows a local, but not general, reaction to silicone breast implants."
  • There is no evidence that silicone implants are responsible for any major diseases of the whole body. Women are exposed to silicone constantly in their daily lives.
  • There is no plausible evidence of a novel autoimmune disease caused by implants.
  • The committee found no increase in either primary or recurrent breast cancer in women with breast implants. Some studies even suggest lower rates of breast cancer in implanted women.
  • There is no danger in breast-feeding; cows' milk and infant formulas have a far higher level of silicon, a silicone component, than mothers' milk. Breast milk is the best food for babies.
  • The major problems with implants are local, but not life-threatening, complications. These include implant removal, ruptures, deflations, capsular contracture, infection, and pain.
  • Many women will have secondary problems such as severe contracture, rupture, and implant removal.
  • Implants do not last forever; risks accumulate over time, and many women should expect to have more than one implant.
  • Some women with breast implants are indeed very ill. However, the committee can find no evidence that these women are sick because of their implants.

Monday, August 28

Screw the Consumer

...there is enormous economic evidence that Wal-Mart's has helped poor and middle class consumers -- in fact, more than anybody else...

University of Missouri economist Emek Basker shows Wal-Mart's presence tends to lower prices by varying amounts, perhaps nearly 10 percent in the long run.

Respected Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Jerry Hausman argues that consumer welfare gains are even larger than those estimated by Mr. Basker, probably in excess of 20 percent of sales. Jason Furman, former director of economic policy for John Kerry's presidential campaign, claims Wal-Mart's discounting on food alone boosts the welfare of American shoppers by at least $50 billion a year. These savings help poor and middle-class consumers disproportionately since they spend a greater percentage of their disposable income on food products. Wal-Mart's ability to help poor and middle-class consumers led Mr. Furman to dub the retailer a "progressive success story."
Richard Vedder and Bryan O'Keefe argue that criticism by Democratic presidential hopefuls is going to alienate voters. Not necessarily. This is just talk to excite the anti-business base, like Republican Bible-thumping. Of course the danger is they'll get in and start actually screwing with Walmart and hence, the middle- and lower-class consumer.

And Sebastian Mallaby agrees:
...the DLC crowd is pandering shamelessly to the left of the party -- perhaps in the knowledge that the grocery workers union, which launched the anti-Wal-Mart campaign, is strong in the key state of Iowa.

For a party that needs the votes of Wal-Mart's customers, this is a questionable strategy. But there is more than politics at stake. According to a paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research by Jerry Hausman and Ephraim Leibtag, neither of whom received funding from Wal-Mart, big-box stores led by Wal-Mart reduce families' food bills by one-fourth. Because Wal-Mart's price-cutting also has a big impact on the non-food stuff it peddles, it saves U.S. consumers upward of $200 billion a year, making it a larger booster of family welfare than the federal government's $33 billion food-stamp program.

How can centrist Democrats respond to that? By beating up Wal-Mart and forcing it to focus on public relations rather than opening new stores, Democrats are harming the poor Americans they claim to speak for.

Sunday, August 27

Northwest Airlines' Ways To Save Money

People were so upset about #46 "Don’t be shy about pulling something you like out of the trash," but in fact I have taken things that other people have thrown out, like furniture and flower pots. A lot of the others are common sense. In fact, I've been doing them for years, but some are wrong:

3. Use coupons at the grocery store. Only if you're going to by the name brand; otherwise buy the store brand, which is cheaper than using a coupon.

16. Meet friends for coffee instead of dinner. Why do you have to spend money when you're meeting friends? Are we talking $3 coffee here?

36. Buy 'no frills' vitamins. Buy 'no frills' everything.

37. Take a date for a walk along the beach or in the woods. I think it was NPR that mentioned this one; I'm not sure if that means they thought it was bad or good.

42. Grocery shop on double coupon days. See comment to #3.

47. Recycle. How does this save money? Do they just mean reuse old things?

50. Drop unneeded telephone services like call forwarding or caller ID. How about getting rid of the cell phone, too?

53. Bicycle to work. Or walk.

70. Cut your cable television down to basic. Cable? Cut the cable entirely and save even more!

76. Don't use your dishwasher dry cycle; open the door and let them air dry all night. Or don't use a dishwasher.

93. Pay bills the day they arrive; many credit card companies charge interest based on your average daily balance. Daily balance? Stop spending money on things that you like but that aren't really necessary and pay off the credit card debt!

98. Cut the kids hair yourself. Or maybe not have any kids in the first place. Someone's going to say I'm just being mean, but there are plenty of people who have no business having children they can't take care of.

What it's called

I found out last week I've got sebaceous hyperplasia, known in China as 皮脂腺腺瘤 pí zhī xiàn xiàn liú and in Taiwan as 皮脂腺增生 pí zhī xiàn zēng shēng. The dermatologist seemed to think it was a big deal, and wanted me to use Retin-A for the rest of my life, but since it's not life-threatening, not to mention the fact that I never noticed and at this point I don't care about my looks that much, I'm not unduly troubled. If it gets really scary-looking, I'll have it cut off. I only mention it because I have trouble remembering what it's called.

Maybe I should also mention that several years ago I was diagnosed with macrocytosis (大红细胞症 dà hóng xìbāo zhèng or 巨紅血球症 jù hóngxuèqiú zhèng). After various tests, the doctor concluded it was sensitivity to alcohol, so I haven't had a drink in several years. I secretly wonder whether it's caused by dehydration (which may be a consequence of my swimming). I've started drinking water while I swim (I don't mean the pool water--[Eeww!]); we'll see.

Saturday, August 26

Me, I Think "Organic" is a synonym for silly

Katherine Mangu-Ward wrote:
Primatologist Jane Goodall recently published a manifesto called "Harvest for Hope" in which she laments that "we have been hypnotized into believing that it is perfectly reasonable to walk into a supermarket and find any kind of food, from anywhere, anytime of the year." She would prefer us to "think about meals the way our ancestors did," to "preserve the local harvest by freezing fresh fruits and vegetables and leftovers," to "better endure the lean months of winter and early spring."

These purists, who apparently think "lean months" build character or something like that, blame Wal-Mart (and Whole Foods and small organic farmers who sold out to big conglomerates) for defining organic down while giving customers a false impression of what organic really means. The happy leaping cow on the label of a gallon of Horizon Organic milk, they say, is no longer representative of the real lives Horizon's cows are leading.

In fact, much of the blame rests with the federal government. When the USDA released revised labeling guidelines for organic foods in 2000, a bare minimum was established. And it turned out that what Uncle Sam wanted farmers to do to earn an organic label (and thus garner a 50% premium, on average, over conventional foods) wasn't all that difficult. Additives like xanthan gum are permissible in processed foods, and many spray-on pesticides with organic precursors are completely kosher. Cows needn't be allowed to wander over photogenic green pastures; dumping organic corn into the feed trough is just as legit. By regulating organics fairly loosely, government stepped into the middle of a contentious moment in the movement's history--and wound up picking winners.

For better or worse, organic is now an agricultural method that includes winter blackberries, TV dinners and plastic-wrapped spring greens able to travel 3,000 miles without wilting. Advocates of local eating find themselves back on the fringes where they started in the 1970s and speak angrily about industrial organic as "selling out." And perhaps there's truth to that allegation. But as with most sectarian splintering, the opposing sides have more in common than they like to admit.

"We don't think you should have to have a lot of money to feed your family organic foods," Wal-Mart's CEO has said. To some, this sounds like a threat--especially to the ethical eating elites who will have to find new ways of distinguishing themselves from the hoi polloi--but for most of us it sounds like good news about better food.
But isn't it a good thing that people have more access to it?

Yay Walmart

Contrast this anti-capitalist rage below with Michael Strong's Forget the World Bank, Try Wal-Mart

Between 1990 and 2002 more than 174 million people escaped poverty in China, about 1.2 million per month.[1] With an estimated $23 billion in Chinese exports in 2005 (out of a total of $713 billion in manufacturing exports),[2] Wal-Mart might well be single-handedly responsible for bringing about 38,000 people out of poverty in China each month, about 460,000 per year.

There are estimates that 70 percent of Wal-Mart's products are made in China.[3] One writer vividly suggests that "One way to think of Wal-Mart is as a vast pipeline that gives non-U.S. companies direct access to the American market." [4] Even without considering the $263 billion in consumer savings that Wal-Mart provides for low-income Americans, or the millions lifted out of poverty by Wal-Mart in other developing nations, it is unlikely that there is any single organization on the planet that alleviates poverty so effectively for so many people.[5]

...An unreflective passion for social justice may be one of the biggest obstacles to creating peace and prosperity in the 21st century. While there are most certainly factory owners in China whom we would rightly regard as criminal in their treatment of their workers, it is very important not to confuse these incidents with the phenomenon of globalization. It is a good thing that Wal-Mart is encouraging more humane standards in its supplier's factories. And yet it is also important to remember that Wal-Mart's "vast pipeline that gives non-U.S. companies direct access to the American market" is a vast pipeline of prosperity for the hundreds of millions of rural Chinese whose lives are more difficult than we can imagine.

It's a Job Folks

Mardi Gras: Made in China is a documentary about the production of plastic bead necklaces at Tai Kuen Bead Factory that end up being worn at New Orleans' Mardi Gras. Anthony Kim's review, What will I get for these beads? writes of the workers supposed exploitation, then continues,
...for sixteen-year-old Qiu Biu [sic], Tai Kuen gives her a sense of belonging... She gets along with her co-workers and calls their relationship "a sisterly bond." In a different scene, several co-workers dance to a boom box in their cramped living quarters. They are laughing and chatting away.

The transition from clips of the co-workers bonding to the clips of drunken Mardi Gras patrons is one of the film's most unsettling moments. The wholesome, meaningful relationships of the girls at Tai Kuen turn the carefree Mardi Gras partying into something pathetic. It almost shifts the sympathy towards those guys on Bourbon Street that bought $1 to $20 necklaces for some quick voyeuristic pleasure or even the girls who willingly exploit themselves for some attention.
So the workers, even though exploited, have "sisterly bonds" and "wholesome, meaningful relationships", whereas the drunken revelers cannot. But it's a matter of personal choice, isn't it?

Kim concludes his review:
In effect, it is like the girls at Tai Kuen are being paid ten cents to reach over and lift up the shirts of the girls at Mardi Gras. And they really should get paid more for that.
Perhaps he'd like to open his own high-paying factory? And could he hire as many people?

The movie's website proudly quotes the conclusion of Jessica Winter's review:
Redmon's sly, engrossing documentary is an expert riposte to smug proponents of globalization. Thomas Friedman and your fellow flat-earthers! Watch this movie!
Which pretty much misses the point of globalization, as do most of the other reviews posted on the movie's website, lamenting the evils of these supposedly low wages.
As Susan M. Alexander (Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, IN) writes,
The documentary recounts a single case of how the consumer capitalism enjoyed in wealthy nations like the United States is built upon the labor of poorly paid workers in a less developed country. The operating principle of global capitalism is to obtain the lower costs for production. Thus, the beads, once produced in Czechoslovakia, are now manufactured in China.
But as Kim points out of one eighteen-year-old worker
She had originally aspired to become an actress, but gave up on her dream to help her family. Since they can only afford to send one child to school, she works at Tai Kuen and sends money home so that her brother may have a better future.
And the aforementioned "Qiu Biu" (whereas it's possible the factory's name is not standard pinyin, just like the [Taiwanese?] boss', that's pretty unlikely for a Chinese name.) is quoted, "If I weren’t working in the factory, I would be at home sleeping and watching TV". The fact is, globalization has given them paying jobs they wouldn't have otherwise.

Friday, August 18

Blaming British Policy Instead of Blaming the Terrorists

[At a] public meeting in the East London neighborhood of Walthamstow, home to several of the suspects arrested last week in the alleged plot to blow up transatlantic airliners...local leaders and politicians appealed for calm and patience as the police investigation into the alleged plot continues. Several speakers expressed frustration that the government will not acknowledge that its support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has fomented domestic anger.
Yes, I appreciate their opposition to British policy, but I don't see why they can take a stronger stand against the terrorists.

Spot the difference

See the difference between and ? .gifs here: and .

Thursday, August 17

Does only the personal matter?

At the end of Abu Ghraib Whistleblower Speaks Out, the reporter Michele Norris asks him if he would have done anything differently
Knowing what you know now, uh, how life has been different for you, and for your family--your mother and your wife--would you do the same thing again?
I'm not saying he shouldn't have blown the whistle, nor that his family doesn't matter, but why can't she ask about the international repercussions?

Big and bigger's hard to get too worked up over whether the terms 'liberal' and 'conservative' mean much anymore. This is sort of like trying to decide whether Razzles are really a candy or a gum: it’s drawing a distinction that doesn’t amount to much of a difference. From the first bite to the last, you still end up with a bad taste in your mouth.

At least since the reign of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, American politics have been marked by a broad consensus that the role and scope of government should be big and bigger. This consensus, reflected most clearly in the upward trajectory of public spending at all levels and the willingness of politicians to insinuate themselves via legislation, regulation, and moral grandstanding into every aspect of our lives, is …pervasive...

Hezbollah is a radical, anti-Semitic organization

In case nobody knew, NPR reminds us. In 'New Yorker' Writer Warns of Hezbollah's Radicalism, Melissa Block interviews Jeffrey Goldberg
Despite fine-tuning its rhetoric for Western ears, Hezbollah is a "very, very radical, anti-Semitic organization," says Jeffrey Goldberg, staff writer for The New Yorker, who spent much of the summer of 2002 in Lebanon reporting on the group. Just back from northern Israel and Gaza, he holds virtually no hope that Hezbollah will disarm.

Wednesday, August 16

Has Irshad Manji been reading André Glucksmann?
If Islamists cared about changing Iraq policy, they would not have bothered to abduct two journalists from France — probably the most antiwar, anti-Bush nation in the West. Even overt solidarity with Iraqi suffering did not prevent Margaret Hassan, who ran a world-renowned relief agency in Baghdad, from being executed by insurgents.

Meanwhile, at least as many Muslims are dying at the hands of other Muslims as under the boots of any foreign imperial power. In Sudan, black Muslims are starved, raped, enslaved and slaughtered by Arab militias, with the consent of an Islamic government. Where is the "official" Muslim fury against that genocide? Do Muslim lives count only when snuffed out by non-Muslims? If not, then here is an idea for Muslim representatives in the West: Go ahead and lecture the politicians that their foreign policies give succor to radicals. At the same time, however, challenge the educated and angry young Muslims to hold their own accountable, too.

This means reminding them that in Pakistan, Sunnis hunt down Shiites every day; that in northern Israel, Katuysha rockets launched by Hezbollah have ripped through the homes of Arab Muslims as well as Jews; that in Egypt, the riot police of President Hosni Mubarak routinely club, rape, torture and murder Muslim activists promoting democracy; and, above all, that civil wars have become hallmarks of the Islamic world.

Whose fault is this?

The Mozilla plugin for the new 國語辭典 site (with its annoying javascript) is broken, and there is nothing to download. There is still a plugin for the old 國語辭典 (inexplicably listed as a Hong Kong site), but neither that plugin nor the site itself is functioning now.

I'm so impatient. The old site and the plugin for it now work again; but it's still under Hong Kong.

Tuesday, August 15

Radioactive parking lots

James H. Joyner on asymmetric warfare:
Short of turning their enemies into radioactive parking lots, well within the military capabilities of the United States and Israel, there is no defeating an entrenched, motivated guerrilla force through the application of strategic bombing or massive armored assaults.
He's specifically referring to Israel vs. Hezbollah, but what's the lesson for China vs. Taiwan?

Monday, August 14

I only pretend to be agreeable

Thomas Baker MA, of York University and Jacqueline Bichsel PhD, of Pennsylvania State University compared young and older adults with regard to what personality traits predict intelligence.
..."agreeableness was found to have a contrary relationship with general knowledge suggesting that a disagreeable nature may go hand in hand with better vocabulary and knowledge retention in older age," said Baker. This result supports previous research that suggests that those who are highly intelligent may be more aloof and independent.

Terrorists are often middle-class and well-educated

In Muslims in India 'Targeted With Suspicion' by Pamela Constable writes, the wake of the devastating July 11 train bombings in Bombay, in which more than 200 people were killed, residents here say they feel fingers of suspicion and hate pointing at all Muslims, not just jobless slum youths and bearded students from Islamic radical groups.
By why should it be confined to them? In fact, the recent British terrorists
...include middle-class, well-educated young men born in Britain. At least one of them converted to Islam only recently. ...among those arrested were the white son of a former Conservative Party worker, the son of an architect and an accountant and a heavily pregnant woman. Some had studied at university and came from families that owned several properties or ran their own businesses.
They don't sound like the stereotypes the article is presenting. And Marc Sageman is cited as saying,
Al Qaeda’s members are not the Palestinian fourteen-year- olds we see on the news, but join the jihad at the average age of 26. Three-quarters were professionals or semi- professionals. They are engineers, architects, and civil engineers, mostly scientists.

Some Muslim corpses are light as a feather, and others weigh tonnes

André Glucksmann:
The outrage of so many outraged people outrages me. On the scales of world opinion, some Muslim corpses are light as a feather, and others weigh tonnes. Two measures, two weights. The daily terrorist attacks on civilians in Baghdad, killing 50 people or more, are checked off in reports under the heading of miscellaneous, while the bomb that took 28 lives in Qana is denounced as a crime against humanity. Only a few intellectuals like Bernard-Henri Lévy or Magdi Allam, chief editor of the Corriere della Sera, find this surprising. Why do the 200,000 slaughtered Muslims of Darfur not arouse even half a quarter of the fury caused by 200-times fewer dead in Lebanon? Must we deduce that Muslims killed by other Muslims don't count - whether in the eyes of Muslim authorities or viewed through the bad conscience of the west? This conclusion has its weak spots, because if the Russian Army - Christian, and blessed by their popes - razes the capital of Chechnian Muslims (Grosny, with 400,000 residents) killing tens of thousands of children in the process, this doesn't count either. The Security Council does not hold meeting after meeting, and the Organization of Islamic States piously averts its eyes. From that we may conclude that the world is appalled only when a Muslim is killed by Israelis....

Have our sages gone crazy? Do they really believe that sans Israeli-Palestinian conflict nothing bad would have happened, neither the deadly Khomeini Revolution, nor the bloody Baathist dictatorships in Syria and Iraq, nor the decade of Islamic terrorism in Algeria, nor the Taliban in Afghanistan, nor the angry warriors of God the world over? The sad, reverse hypothesis is seldom posed, but it is actually much more likely: Every truce along the Jordan is fleeting, as long as the palaces and streets, the majority of the intelligentsia and the officials of the Muslim world hang on to their anti-western passion. Globalization (which entails the dismantling of economic barriers but more importantly all social and mental barriers) necessarily leads to tough and terrible defensive reactions....

A hypocritical geopolitics, which ordains the Mideast as a basic pillar of the world order, has become the religion of the European Union, the belief of the unbelievers and of the doubters of the west.
In the original
L'indignation de beaucoup d'indignés m'indigne à mon tour. Pour l'opinion publique mondiale, certains morts musulmans pèsent le poids d'une plume, d'autres des tonnes. Deux poids, deux mesures. Le meurtre terroriste d'une cinquantaine de civils chaque jour à Bagdad est relégué à la rubrique des faits divers, tandis que le bombardement qui tue vingt-huit habitants à Cana est élevé au rang de crime contre l'humanité – seuls quelques rares esprits comme Bernard-Henri Lévy et Magdi Allam, rédacteur en chef du Corriere della Sera, s'en étonnent. Pourquoi les deux cent mille massacrés du Darfour ne suscitent-ils pas le quart de la moitié des réactions horrifiées qu'éveillent les victimes deux cents fois moins nombreuses du Liban ? Lorsque des musulmans tuent d'autres musulmans, faut-il croire que cela ne compte pas, ni pour les autorités coraniques ni pour la mauvaise conscience occidentale ? L'explication est boiteuse, car lorsque l'armée russe, chrétienne et bénie par les popes, rase la capitale des musulmans tchétchènes (Grozny, 400 000 habitants) et tue les enfants par dizaines de milliers, cela ne compte pas davantage. Le Conseil de sécurité ne tient pas alors réunion sur réunion, et l'Organisation des États islamiques détourne pieusement les yeux. Force est de conclure que seul le musulman tué par des Israéliens vaut indignation universelle...

Nos sages sont-ils devenus fous? Théorisent-ils sincèrement et sérieusement que, sans le conflit israélo-palestinien, rien de grave n'aurait eu lieu, ni la révolution massacreuse de Khomeyni, ni les dictatures sanglantes des partis Baas syrien et irakien, ni la décennie du terrorisme islamique en Algérie, ni les talibans en Afghanistan, ni les fous de Dieu essaimant sans foi ni loi ? L'hypothèse triste et inverse, rarement évoquée, est davantage vraisemblable : tout cessez-le-feu autour du Jourdain demeure intrinsèquement volatil tant que les palais, la rue, une bonne partie de l'intelligentsia et les États majors musulmans entretiennent la passion anti-occidentale. La «mondialisation» (le dynamitage planétaire des frontières économiques, mais surtout sociales et mentales) s'accompagne immanquablement de réactions de rejet souvent dures, parfois cruelles....

La géopolitique de mauvaise foi qui sacre le Moyen-Orient pivot de l'ordre mondial est devenue la religion de l'Union européenne, la foi des incroyants et peu croyants d'Occident....

Ideas so stupid that only intellectuals can believe them

Nick Cohen writes,
In a shameful contrast to every mass leftish movement of the last two centuries, the wave of protest against George W Bush has not produced one new radical leader of moral and intellectual distinction. Its sole global figure is Michael Moore, a propagandist so lacking in scruple that he presented Saddam's Iraq as a happy land where blushing lovers got married and merry children flew kites.

'Why has our government gone to such absurd lengths to convince us that our lives are in danger?' Moore asked when he turned his faltering gaze to al-Qaeda. 'The answer is nothing short of its feverish desire to rule the world.'

The same theme animated Adam Curtis's wrongheaded Power of Nightmares series for BBC2. 'Although there is a serious threat of terrorism,' he conceded, 'the nightmare vision of a uniquely powerful hidden organisation waiting to strike our societies is an illusion.' This would be news to the people of the Philippines, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq.

Nevertheless, the documentary was feted at the Cannes Film Festival and praised as 'intelligent and original' by the governors of the BBC, who proved in the process the truth of George Orwell's maxim: 'Some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals can believe them.'
Actually, in Notes on Nationalism, from October 1945 Orwell said, "One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool."
It is, I think, true to say that the intelligentsia have been more wrong about the progress of the war than the common people, and that they were more swayed by partisan feelings. The average intellectual of the Left believed, for instance, that the war was lost in 1940, that the Germans were bound to overrun Egypt in 1942, that the Japanese would never be driven out of the lands they had conquered, and that the Anglo-American bombing offensive was making no impression on Germany. He could believe these things because his hatred for the British ruling class forbade him to admit that British plans could succeed. There is no limit to the follies that can be swallowed if one is under the influence of feelings of this kind. I have heard it confidently stated, for instance, that the American troops had been brought to Europe not to fight the Germans but to crush an English revolution. One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool. When Hitler invaded Russia, the officials of the M.O.I. issued 'as background' a warning that Russia might be expected to collapse in six weeks. On the other hand the Communists regarded every phase of the war as a Russian victory, even when the Russians were driven back almost to the Caspian Sea and had lost several million prisoners. There is no need to multiply instances. The point is that as soon as fear, hatred, jealousy and power worship are involved, the sense of reality becomes unhinged. And, as I have pointed out already, the sense of right and wrong becomes unhinged also. There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when ‘our’ side commits it. Even if one does not deny that the crime has happened, even if one knows that it is exactly the same crime as one has condemned in some other case, even if one admits in an intellectual sense that it is unjustified—still one cannot feel that it is wrong. Loyalty is involved, and so pity ceases to function.

Identity politics is the civil religion

Responding to Multiculturalism, Universalism, and the 21st Century Academy by Nancy Cantor, H. E. Baber writes,
It's amazing that, resisting all empirical evidence, multiculturalists like the author of this article are still promoting the communitarian group identities line. Since the end of the Cold War every major armed conflict, from the Balkans to Sri Lanka to Darfur to the current war in the Middle East has been a tribal war between groups affirming their cultural/ethnic identities. Women and people of color with stature as public intellectuals, including Amartya Sen, Anthony Appiah, Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, have spoken out against this communitarian, multicultural ideology and in favor of cosmopolitanism.

But on the ground, identity politics is still the civil religion. Most people don't take it seriously but still affirm a nominal affiliation—making noises about this, that and the other "community" and participating in "diversity" activities in the spirit of Eisenhower era suburbanites going to church for the sake of the children and in the interests of making connections for business purposes. You can make a decent living in Academia doing the diversity thing—get little grants, facilitate "diversity" workshops and make merit for promotion and tenure.

Saturday, August 12

Anti-development NGO's

Alan Oxley:
Greenpeace, Oxfam, WWF and International Confederation of Free Trade Unions ...want to make the WTO a regulator not deregulator of global trade, as well as the global police to enforce labor standards and green policies...They wish to gut a system which has been more successful than any other to relieve poverty and reduce starvation. In the last 50 years, more people have been lifted out of poverty and at a faster rate than any time in human history.

And they wish to reintroduce the development economics which the post colonial leaders in Africa and Asia used to set India on the road to slow growth and reduced prosperity in most economies in Africa.

Their agenda is an "anti-development" agenda. They would prefer a world which was green, anti-free market and unionized than a world with growth and prosperity.

Friday, August 11

Terrorism really doesn't matter

Really! You're more likely to die of a car accident, drowning, fire, or murder. Yes, we've covered this before, but it bears repeating:
Michael Rothschild, a former business professor at the University of Wisconsin, worked out a couple of plausible scenarios. For example, he figured that if terrorists were to destroy entirely one of America's 40,000 shopping malls per week, your chances of being there at the wrong time would be about one in one million or more. Rothschild also estimated that if terrorists hijacked and crashed one of America's 18,000 commercial flights per week that your chance of being on the crashed plane would be one in 135,000.

Even if terrorists were able to pull off one attack per year on the scale of the 9/11 atrocity, that would mean your one-year risk would be one in 100,000 and your lifetime risk would be about one in 1300. (300,000,000 ÷ 3,000 = 100,000 ÷ 78 years = 1282) In other words, your risk of dying in a plausible terrorist attack is much lower than your risk of dying in a car accident, by walking across the street, by drowning, in a fire, by falling, or by being murdered.

...with risks this low there is no reason for us not to continue to live our lives as though terrorism doesn't matter—because it doesn't really matter. We ultimately vanquish terrorism when we refuse to be terrorized.
Emphasis mine. The graphic (click to enlarge) is from National Geographic magazine's August 2006 issue, based on the National Safety Council's Odds of Dying statistics.

Wednesday, August 9

Using pensions to balance Illinois' budget

By Aaron Chambers
Illinois taxpayers can expect a bill of nearly $7 billion for the Democrats' decision to balance the state budget by diverting cash from public pension systems, a Rockford Register Star analysis shows.

For each of the 12.7 million residents in Illinois, that would amount to $539.58, which would be spread over 40 years as the state works to pay down its pension debt…

At the end of May, Gov. Rod Blagojevich and his fellow Democrats in the Legislature cut the state's pension payment by $2.3 billion over two years to balance the state budget and free up cash to hike state spending.

In a scenario akin to paying just half the principal portion of mortgage payments for two years and building that principal into the back end of the loan, the move dramatically expanded the state's pension debt.

As with a mortgage, taxpayers must pay interest on the debt.

The Democrats also cut retirement benefits for future state employees, university employees and public school employees. But while these restrictions will cut the state's pension liability and mitigate the impact of the payment diversion, the cost of reducing the payments is expected to overcome any benefit-related savings.

The cumulative effect is a projected cost of $6.86 billion through 2045, according to data provided by the directors of the state's pension systems. This accounts for both the cost of the payment diversion and savings associated with benefit reductions. The figure also counts funds diverted in the short term as savings…

In 1995, after years of neglecting the state's pension debt, policymakers established a 50-year schedule for paying it down. By 2045, the pension systems would have on hand enough cash to cover 90 percent of their liabilities.

But adhering to the formula requires the state to step up payments each year. In the next fiscal year alone, the state was supposed to pay more than $2.1 billion. The Democrats cut that payment roughly in half….

Another relatively small bill is associated with the State Universities Retirement System, where system director James Hacking said the pension maneuver will cost taxpayers $225.6 million over the next 40 years.
See also the next item and Illinois' Pension System: Woefully Underfunded, Scandal-Plagued.

Public Pension Plans; Illinois in particular

Mary Williams Walsh:
In 2003, a whistle-blower forced San Diego to reveal that it had been shortchanging its city workers' pension fund for years, setting off a wave of lawsuits, investigations and eventually criminal indictments.

The mayor ended up resigning under a cloud. With the city's books a shambles, San Diego remains barred from raising money by selling bonds. Cut off from a vital source of cash, it has fallen behind on its maintenance of streets, storm drains and public buildings. Potholes are proliferating and beaches are closed because of sewage spills.

Retirees are still being paid, but a portion of their benefits is in doubt because of continuing legal challenges. And the city, which is scheduled to receive a report today on the causes of its current predicament, still has to figure out how to close the $1.4 billion shortfall in its pension fund.

Maybe someone should be paying closer attention in New Jersey. And in Illinois. Not to mention Colorado and several other states and local governments...

Illinois also duplicated one of San Diego's pension mistakes. It tried to make its municipal pension plan cheaper by stretching its funding schedule over 40 years — considerably longer than the 30 years that governmental accounting and actuarial standards permit, and more than five times what companies will get under a pension bill that has just passed Congress.

Illinois is stretching its pension contributions over 50 years. At that rate, many of its retirees will have died by the time the state finishes tapping taxpayers for their benefits...

Illinois officials say the state's 50-year schedule is actually an improvement; before adopting it in 1995, the state had no funding schedule at all...

"There's no oversight; there's no requirements; there's no enforcement," said Lance Weiss, an actuary with Deloitte Consulting in Chicago who advised Illinois on its pension problems. "You're kind of working off the good will of these public entities."

Experts do not think that is good enough.

In January, the board that writes the accounting rules for governments announced that it was looking for ways to tighten the rules for public pensions.

In July, Senators Charles E. Grassley and Max Baucus, the Republican chairman and the ranking Democrat on the Finance Committee, asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate the financial condition of the nation's public pension plans...

Public plans are not governed by the federal pension law, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, that companies must follow. They are not covered by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, so if they come up short, they must turn to the taxpayers.

Instead, they are governed by boards that often include municipal labor leaders, whose duty to represent their workers' interests can easily conflict with their fiduciary duty to represent the plan itself. And even the most exemplary pension boards can be overruled, in many cases, by politicians whose priorities may be incompatible with sound financial management.

"When the state runs into financial trouble, pension contributions are something that they can defer without, quote-unquote, hurting anybody," said David Driscoll, an actuary with Buck Consultants who recently helped Vermont come up with a plan to revive its pension fund for teachers. Politicians shortchanged it every year for more than a decade.

"In fact, they are hurting people, and the people they are hurting are the taxpayers, who, whether they realize it or not, are going into a form of debt," Mr. Driscoll added. "Those pension obligations don't get cheaper over time. They get more expensive."

Eventually the cost gets too big to ignore, as it now has in New Jersey.

Corporate pension funds have plenty of problems of their own. But they are at least required to adhere to a uniform accounting standard, which provides information that investors can use to decide upon stocks to buy and sell. The standards, in turn, are policed by the S.E.C.

Taxpayers have no such help. For municipal plans, the accounting standards are much more flexible, a decision that was denounced, when it was issued in 1994, by the head of the very board that wrote it.
Then there's further talk about how the gov't should regulate these. It's significant that Walsh doesn't even suggest defined-contribution pensions instead of guaranteed defined-benefit pensions.

See also the previous item and Illinois' Pension System: Woefully Underfunded, Scandal-Plagued.

Saturday, August 5

Who wants freedom?

Will Wilkinson cites an article by Michael Shermer that's been around for awhile, and which I may have metioned before. He says it's about
confirmation bias, the process "whereby we seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirmatory evidence." New neuroimaging studies are revealing exactly how it is that we avoid actually thinking about politics. Psychologist Drew Westin says:
Essentially, it appears as if partisans twirl the cognitive kaleidoscope until they get the conclusions they want, and then they get massively reinforced for it, with the elimination of negative emotional states and activation of positive ones.
...Reinforcing and encouraging this specific kind of unreason is one way political coalitions assure their integrity and survival. The day-in-day-out of work of partisan political magazines is to explain to its loyal readers why there is basically no reason to take the other side’s so-called arguments seriously. All you need to know about the minimum wage, say, is that there is someone good at math at Princeton who thinks it’s good, and that everyone who dislikes it secretly wants to send the poor to forced labor camps. Or all you need to know about people who oppose the war is that they are flag-burning America-haters whose pusillanimous "post-modern" sense of moral equivalence leads them to secretly crave the reign of jihadist overlords. Etc.

...But confirmation bias matters not only because rationality matters, but because autonomy matters. Last week I attended an Institute for Humane Studies seminar at Stanford, and philosopher David Schmidtz gave a talk about psychological freedom—freedom from internal contraints. He remarked that there is something pretty depressing about the fact that what we believe is largely a function of the order in which we encountered new ideas—that our commitments are highly path dependent. But the fact that we can know that holds out hope for a kind of liberation.

So, this Independence Day, why not pick up a political book you know you’ll disagree with. Or write a short essay giving the best argument you can think of for a position you find abhorrent. Or really listen to what your annoying brother-in-law thinks about the war at the family picnic. We could all be a little more rational, and a little more free, if only we really wanted to be. Dogmatic, whole-hearted commitment does feel good. But there is more to life than feeling good. There is truth, for one thing. And there is freedom—self-command. We’re all jerked around by our own minds. But we can be jerked around less.
"We could all be a little more rational, and a little more free, if only we really wanted to be." But we don't want to be free!

Chomsky plays fast and loose

Peter Beaumont says,
Reading [Noam Chomsky's] Failed States, I had an epiphany: that by applying a Chomskian analysis to his own writing, you discover exactly the same subtle textual biases, evasions and elisions of meaning as used by those he calls 'the doctrinal managers' of the 'powerful elites'. The mighty Chomsky, the world's greatest public intellectual, is prone to playing fast and loose.
This shouldn't be news to anyone.

Automobile Externalities

Writing about the costs imposed by driving, Tim Harford noted,
Real green taxes are not populist stunts. They are levied on activities that cause problems, and they reflect the size of those problems. Almost everyone recognises that whatever the benefits of driving around in a car, drivers also impose costs on each other and on the rest of us. Cars run people over, clog up the roads and spew pollution.

What is less widely recognised is that some of these antisocial costs are much bigger than others. Congestion and accidents, between them, generate almost all the costs of road transport. According to a report into "food miles" commissioned by the [British] Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, people who drive cars to pick up shopping inflict a cost of more than Pounds 3.6bn [6.8 billion U.S. dollars] on society. Of this, 70 per cent is congestion and 26 per cent is attributable to accidents.
The article below notes the United Kingdom has Western Europe’s worst congestion and highest fuel taxes...
Just 1 per cent is because of the contribution of cars to climate change - and that is a figure using a fairly high estimate of Pounds 70 for the cost of a tonne of carbon. European businesses pay one-quarter of that for carbon emissions permits under the Kyoto-inspired emissions trading scheme.

Climate change is a big problem but cars are only part of that problem. Accidents and congestion are serious too: cars kill more than 3,000 people a year, while climate change will have to get very bad indeed before it affects the life of a typical British citizen as much as do traffic jams. Local air pollution is also a minor problem in comparison, and it is chiefly caused by older vehicles not the brand-new urban tanks that so outrage the less thoughtful kind of environmentalist.
So compare this with the US (apples to oranges, I know); according to Automobile Externalities and Policies (by Ian W. H. Parry, Margaret Walls and Winston Harrington):
  • marginal air pollution costs from gasoline-powered vehicles costs us 2.2¢ per mile
  • congestion now costs the United States an estimated $63 billion; one estimate of the cost is 5¢ per passenger vehicle mile
  • the average social cost of traffic accidents 15.8¢ per vehicle mile (there are a little under or over 40,000 traffic fatalities per year in the US)
Finally, a couple of nuggets:
  1. Higher fuel taxes improve efficiency because they also reduce mileage-related externalities. Higher fuel economy standards do not reduce mileage-related externalities; in fact they actually have the opposite effect by lowering fuel costs per mile. So much for the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) program.
  2. The solution proposed by the paper:
Electronic road pricing, which technological advances have now made feasible, offers the only real hope of reversing the tide of ever rising traffic congestion, and a transition to pay-as-you-drive insurance would provide a more effective and practical way to improve highway safety. Local pollution is less of a concern as it is steadily being solved through technological refinements to meet progressively more stringent new-vehicle emissions standards. makes no economic sense to focus exclusively on regulating automobiles when the huge bulk of the low-cost sources for carbon abatement are in other sectors, particularly electricity generation. [Light-duty vehicles account for 20% of nationwide emissions of carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas.] In our view federal policymakers should reduce emissions through a tax on the carbon content of all fossil fuels, not just gasoline, where the tax is moderately scaled at first, but rising steadily over time.

Thursday, August 3

Was proselytising Christianity just a cover for greed?

Christopher Hitchens on Tom Paine:
Paine saw what was happening to the Indians, and saw also that the theft of their land and the threat to their existence came largely from proselytising Christianity, which was used as a hypocritical cover for greed. After the New York Missionary Society had staged a meeting with the leaders of the Osage Indians in order, or so they said, to present them with a copy of the Bible, Paine asked sarcastically what good this was intended to do:
Will they [the Osage Indians] learn sobriety and decency from drunken Noah and beastly Lot; or will their daughters be edified by the examples of Lot's daughter? Will not the shocking accounts of the destruction of the Canaanites when the Israelites invaded their country, suggest the idea that we may serve them in the same manner, or the accounts stir them up to do the like to our people on the frontiers, and then justify the assassination by the Bible the Missionaries have given them?

Oh, the humanity

Guard Dog Takes the Stuffing Out of Prized Bear Collection:
A guard dog has ripped apart a collection of rare teddy bears, including one once owned by Elvis Presley, during a rampage at a children's museum.

Not like the movies

Just two years ago, [Chen Guangcheng 陳光誠] was a flamboyant local hero and self-taught legal eagle who used the legal system to shut down a paper factory that was poisoning the water supply. His wedding was televised locally.

Yet in 2005, his legal zeal began to get him in trouble. Chen's crusade to halt the forced detention and sterilization of women in order to meet local quotas - a practice that has largely stopped in most of China - did not go over well in Linyi, where bonds are tight between officials, police, and hired thugs, much like the rural segregated US South of 50 years ago.

Chen has lived under house arrest for a year, unable to talk to the outside world, his lawyers and friends beaten and in jail facing dubious charges of disturbing public order.

"This is justice in the Chinese countryside, not like Zhang Yimou's 张艺谋 candied film version," says Jerome Cohen of New York University, who is assisting Chen. "There are no kind, avuncular public security officers or judges to mete out justice. They can instead be found surrounding his house. No local lawyer has been willing to help, and Beijing lawyers who have sought to defend Chen have been repeatedly beaten."

...His standoff with Linyi authorities and Mayor Li Qun 李群, who served briefly as assistant to the mayor of New Haven Conn. [and wrote the book 我在美国当市长助理], has captured the imagination of legal reformers here and top foreign legal eagles - raising the question of whether law in China is a tool for control or is evolving into a system to adjudicate justice. One question is: Will he go free?
Jerome Cohen's reference is to "The Story of Qiu Ju" 秋菊打官司. It was a likable movie, but I've always been annoyed at how Western critics swallowed the unlikely story line.

Happiness is a suicide pact away

The Daily Ablution earlier criticized the New Economics Foundation's Happy Planet Index, and Will Wilkinson calls it an "egregiously dumb "study",

But really! Multiply life expectancy by life satisfaction and divide it by environmental impact? That is, to be over-charitable, completely arbitrary. This is an index of, at best, the New Economic Foundation’s ideological preferences. It is a totally intellectually vacuous product meant to garner headlines, and it worked, to the shame of the Bloombergs and UPIs of the world.

Furthermore, it cheapens the work of real social scientists attempting to measure happiness and well-being. I worry that much of the happiness work is ideologically loaded, but most of it is at least an honest attempt study human welfare empirically. Too much of it, however, is stuff like the NEF’s index, basically an attempt to persuasively define something like “happiness” so that it comports with a statist, anti-growth agenda. This is sheer politics brazenly posturing as social science. If the Cato Institute published a study that, say, mutliplied life satisfaction by the rate of economic growth and then divided it by government spending as a percentage of GDP, and called it “The Happy World Index, ” would editors think twice? I hope they would. In fact, I bet they would. So why did this trash get through the filter?...

There is simply no non-crazy sense in which Vanuatu is the world’s happiest country. And there is no credible empirical reason for docking countries on any kind of index of human well-being for producing a lot of wealth. The evidence says that the happiness of poor populations like Vanuatu’s would skyrocket with swift economic growth. But growth is exactly what NEF is trying to limit. Their pseudo-study encourages us to be complacent about the poverty of Vanuatu, which is, after all, the “happiest” place on our “happy planet,” on the basis of the fact that they use almost no energy. If you really care about the well-being and happiness of the world’s poor, then agressively misleading publicity stunt studies like this one, and the people who author them, deserve nothing but our scorn.

And Bryan Caplan says,
But you can make the reductio ad absurdum even more devastating. According to the Happy Planet Index, you can achieve infinite happiness simply by having zero environmental impact. And the simplest way to achieve that, of course, is not to exist at all.

News flash: Unimaginable happiness is just a massive suicide pact away!

Wednesday, August 2

My body is a temple

If his body was a temple, it was one of those strange ones where people did odd things to animals in the basement, and if he watched what he ate it was only to see it wriggle.
--Terry Pratchett, The Truth