Friday, September 29

Except in China?

When there are rational grounds for an opinion, people are content to set them forth and wait for them to operate. In such cases, people do not hold their opinions with passion; they hold them calmly, and set forth their reasons quietly. The opinions that are held with passion are always those for which no good ground exists; indeed the passion is the measure of the holder's lack of rational conviction. Opinions in politics and religion are almost always held passionately. Except in China, a man is thought a poor creature unless he has strong opinions on such matters; people hate sceptics far more than they hate the passionate advocates of opinions hostile to their own. It is thought that the claims of practical life demand opinions on such questions, and that, if we became more rational, social existence would be impossible. I believe the opposite of this, and will try to make it clear why I have this belief.


Nationalism is of course an extreme example of fervent belief concerning doubtful matters. I think it may be safely said that any scientific historian, writing now a history of the Great War, is bound to make statements which, if made during the war, would have exposed him to imprisonment in every one of the belligerent countries on both sides. Again, with the exception of China, there is no country where people tolerate the truth about themselves; at ordinary times the truth is only thought ill-mannered, but in war-time it is thought criminal.
Except in China? What's he talking about? Maybe it's in this book, but I've got to say, it sounds like a singularly silly statement, even if one doesn't consider what happened under Communism.

I'm as dumb as Niall Ferguson

IDEAS: But you supported the invasion of Iraq.

FERGUSON: I argued that if it was to be done, it should be done well or not at all. But I didn't oppose it. With the benefit of hindsight, I regret that. It was a disaster to commit so few troops and to have no coherent plan for reconstruction. It was in defiance not only of British imperial history but of successful American occupations-for example of Germany, Japan, and Korea, where the United States stayed long enough to change institutions.

But typically, American interventions last only a few years. In the case of the Middle East, the result will be turning Iraq into a Haiti on the Tigris.

IDEAS: How do you understand radical Islamism? Is it, as some say, the successor to Marxism?

FERGUSON: It is. The great category error of our time is to equate radical Islamism with fascism. If you actually read what Osama bin Laden says, it's clearly Lenin plus the Koran. It's internationalist, revolutionary, and anticapitalist-rhetoric far more of the left than of the right. And radical Islamism is good at recruiting within our society, within western society generally. In western Europe, to an extent people underestimate here, the appeal of radical Islamism extends beyond Muslim communities.

IDEAS: To people who might once have been drawn to Marxism?

FERGUSON: And for much the same reason. Here is a way to reject the impure, corrupt qualities of western life and embrace a monotheistic zealotry. That's very satisfying.

IDEAS: Why is Europe more vulnerable than the United States?

FERGUSON: The United States has at least two religions, one being religion per se, the other being the civic religion of the Constitution. These are powerful integrative forces. To become an American is a transformative experience, and I'm impressed by it. It doesn't happen in Europe. Immigrants remain deeply alienated, plus they're not integrated well into the economy. And that's a dangerous situation.
I was a half-hearted supporter, and I'm sorry, too. As for American integration, I've heard the argument. I hope he's right.

Monday, September 25

What does reason have to do with religion?

There are two points he is especially keen to make. One is that Christians in many Muslim countries do not have the same religious freedom that is enjoyed by most Muslims in the West. The other is that too many Islamic clerics seem to sanction or at least tolerate violence in the name of religion. This was central to his Regensburg lecture in which, as he later said, "I wished to explain that not religion and violence, but religion and reason go together."

The value of that point in the present state of the world can hardly be overstated. It is sad that it should have been put in such an inept way that the only answers came in the form of burnt effigies, grisly threats—and a great deal of sincerely outraged protest.
Yes, Christians in many Muslim countries do not have the same religious freedom that is enjoyed by most Muslims in the West, and many Islamic clerics tolerate violence in the name of religion, but what in the world does reason have to do with religion?

Another reason why gas prices are high

In a new paper -- "Market Fragmenting Regulation: Why Gasoline Costs So Much (and Why it's Going to Cost Even More)" -- University of Illinois law professor Andrew Morriss and Mercatus Center scholar Nathaniel Stewart show that much of the recent rise in the price of gasoline at the pump was caused by regulations that obstruct oil-producers' abilities to produce and distribute gasoline on a large scale.

Although government started interfering significantly in the oil market in the early 20th century, Morriss and Stewart find that beginning only in the late 1980s did the EPA and state and local governments launch unprecedented requirements on how fuel is formulated: "These fuel requirements added a set of constraints to refinery operation and transportation of fuels." Significantly, "Through various State Implementation Plans (SIPs), state and local governments also imposed restrictions on gasolines sold in their jurisdictions. Although there is no comprehensive list of formulations mandated by all levels of government, there appear to be at least seventeen different formulations -- a major increase from the single standard (the lead standard) in place in the mid-1980s. In addition, some state and local governments have imposed 'biofuel' requirements."

The consequence? What would have been a national market in gasoline now is a fragmented market. Refiners are unable to take advantages of economies of scale. Consumers are denied the lowest possible prices for gasoline.

Are we really suffering from inequality?

Will Wilkinson argues
...nominal inequality is confused with material inequality—differences in material living conditions. But while nominal inequality is increasing, material inequality continues to decrease. As market competition pushes prices down, goods at the bottom of the price range more and more closely approximate goods at the top of the price range. (Which is why efficiency and equality are complements.) Food is probably the most striking example of material equalization. If you compare the diets of the top and bottom quintiles 100 years ago with the diets of the top and bottom quintiles now, you’ll see that we have become immensely more equal, not less. My favorite pair of jeans, which I bought at Wal-Mart for $16, is a close substitute for jeans that cost 5 times more.

The trend toward material equality in market societies helps explain several trends, such as the increasing value of good design. Substantive equality leads us to value aesthetic differentiation ever more highly. But even good design trickles down. Which is one reason why material equalization makes it ever harder to signal status and why the materially status-conscious (many of them ideological egalitarians!) are willing to pay an increasing premium to claim inherently scarce and strongly status-signaling positional goods, like spots at Ivy League schools, apartments with Central Park views, or what have you. The feverishness with which high school kids (and their parents) compete for scarce Ivy League slots is an indication of the drive to have something everyone can’t have in an egalitarian world where even the modestly remunerated can have most everything.

For my part, I think there's too much focus on economic equality.


Will Wilkinson mentions Alain de Botton's program on Status Anxiety:
We might not worry so much if status were not so hard to achieve and even harder to maintain over a lifetime. Except in societies where it is fixed at birth and our veins flow with noble blood, our position hangs on what we can make of ourselves; and we may fail in the enterprise due to stupidity or an absence of self-knowledge, macro-economics or malevolence.

And from failure will flow humiliation: a corroding awareness that we have been unable to convince the world of our value and are henceforth condemned to consider the successful with bitterness and ourselves with shame.
He may be right as far as most people are concerned. I'm happy to say I believe I'm free of the bitterness and shame. Either because I don't care about status, or I think I've got it.

Wilkinson points out,
I think a sensitivity to others’ opinion can help us guard against self-delusion. The trick is to pick the right people whose opinion you care about. The paradox is that the better you are at picking the right people, the less you probably need them to keep you grounded.

Sunday, September 24

Why Raise My Costs?

Michael F. Cannon points to an economically illiterate article by Joe Stephens attacking Wal-Mart and other corporations for lobbying Congress to suspend tariffs on products they import.
Over time, the changes cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue, a Washington Post analysis of U.S. trade data found.
Like Tom Palmer, I thought it was odd that cutting a tax on consumers would turn out to cost taxpayers money. Also see a response at Palmer's blog post by Anita Dungey, the president of the company who profits at the expense of consumers. I'm tempted to mail her Bastiat's Petition of the candlestickmakers.

Monday, September 18

I agree with the Pope!

So the Pope claims the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion", and then asked "an educated Persian"
"Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached".
I understand this to mean that he's saying that Mohammed's "command to spread by the sword the faith he preached" is evil. So why are people rioting? Just say you don't think it's evil!

Me, I find myself agreeing with the Pope, although given the history of the Catholic church, I find the argument coming from him a little rich.

Friday, September 15

The Corporate Income Tax

Who it is that really pays it? Not the company. Some
is paid by the investors in the company, in the form of lower dividends or returns on their investment. But as a working paper from the Congressional Budget Office tells us:

"Burdens are measured in a numerical example by substituting factor shares and output shares that are reasonable for the U.S. economy. Given those values, domestic labor bears slightly more than 70 percent of the burden of the corporate income tax."

Wednesday, September 13

Profound ignorance of economics

I forget where I saw it recommended, but I picked up Francis Wheen's Idiot proof: deluded celebrities, irrational power brokers, media morons, and the erosion of common sense. It's always nice to see a criticism of postmodern nonsense, but I have to second what Michael J Edelman says:
I was [dismayed] by the author's profound ignorance [of] economics, and even more profound ignorance of history. He has the British Left's rabid hatred of Maggie Thatcher, and consequently he is blind to the tremendous economic resurgence of Great Britain under her leadership. Similarly, his analysis of fiscal policies under Reagan consists mainly of reciting old charges of "voodoo economics", and so he blames tax cuts for deficits- instead of actually looking at the record, and discovering that US tax receipts actually increased after the '84 tax reform.

The remainder of the book consists in large part of assorted bits of nonsense found in government and academia, most of it of little consequence. There are some gems buried in their as well, but the bulk of the book is so taken with the author's personal [prejudices] and ignorance that I can't recommend it.

Monday, September 11

Oooh! I'm scared I'm going to drown in the bathtub!

As John Tierney writes,
John Mueller has an awkward question for those of us in the terrorism industry, which is his term for the journalists, politicians, bureaucrats and assorted "risk entrepreneurs" who have alarmed America about terrorism.
John Mueller wonders Is There Still a Terrorist Threat? is worth remembering that the total number of people killed since 9/11 by al Qaeda or al Qaeda­like operatives outside of Afghanistan and Iraq is not much higher than the number who drown in bathtubs in the United States in a single year, and that the lifetime chance of an American being killed by international terrorism is about one in 80,000 -- about the same chance of being killed by a comet or a meteor. Even if there were a 9/11-scale attack every three months for the next five years, the likelihood that an individual American would number among the dead would be two hundredths of a percent (or one in 5,000).

Although it remains heretical to say so, the evidence so far suggests that fears of the omnipotent terrorist -- reminiscent of those inspired by images of the 20-foot-tall Japanese after Pearl Harbor or the 20-foot-tall Communists at various points in the Cold War (particularly after Sputnik) -- may have been overblown, the threat presented within the United States by al Qaeda greatly exaggerated. The massive and expensive homeland security apparatus erected since 9/11 may be persecuting some, spying on many, inconveniencing most, and taxing all to defend the United States against an enemy that scarcely exists.

Friday, September 8

Goodbye to incandescents

Compact fluorescent [lightbulbs] emit the same light as classic incandescents but use 75% or 80% less electricity...

In the next 12 months, starting with a major push this month, Wal-Mart wants to sell every one of its regular customers--100 million in all--one swirl bulb. In the process, Wal-Mart wants to change energy consumption in the United States, and energy consciousness, too. It also aims to change its own reputation, to use swirls to make clear how seriously Wal-Mart takes its new positioning as an environmental activist.

It's a bold goal, a remarkable declaration of Wal-Mart's intention to modernize and green up a whole line of business using market oomph. Teaming up with General Electric, which owns about 60% of the residential lightbulb market in the United States, Wal-Mart wants to single-handedly double U.S. sales for CFLs in a year, and it wants demand to surge forward after that.

...Wal-Mart's push into swirls won't just help consumers and the environment; it will shatter a business--its own lightbulb business, and that of every lightbulb manufacturer. Because swirls last so long, every one that's sold represents the loss of 6 or 8 or 10 incandescent bulb sales. Swirls will remake the lightbulb industry--dominated by familiar names GE, Philips, Sylvania--the way digital-music downloads have remade selling albums on CD, the way digital cameras revolutionized selling film and envelopes of snapshots. CFLs are a classic example of creative destruction.

GE, facing the prospect of mothballing a centurylong franchise in lightbulbs--well, GE is smiling and swallowing hard. "CFLs are taking off," says Robert Stuart, who heads consumer marketing at GE for lightbulbs. "No one has been as vocal about this recently as Wal-Mart. One hundred million bulbs in a year? It's an aggressive goal. GE will find a way to make sure they are able to do that."

GE, too, has launched a green business initiative: ecomagination, an effort to make environmentally sustainable technologies an ever-larger part of GE's business. Swirls fit well, despite the inevitable cannibalization. "The real issue is, if we don't do it, someone else will," says GE's ecomagination vice president, Lorraine Bolsinger, of Wal-Mart's effort to push CFLs. "It's old thinking to imagine that you can hold on to a business model and outsmart the consumer. You can't."

Steven Hamburg is an associate professor at Brown University, an expert on energy consumption and global warming who helped Wal-Mart think through the spiral-bulb strategy. "Can they change the game? Think how many games Wal-Mart has changed. There's no reason they can't change this game."

Surprise, the NYT hates Wal-Mart

With reference to Wal-Mart Finds an Ally in Conservatives, Daniel Drezner writes
In plain English, the Walton Foundation gave AEI an average of $33,000 a year, PRI $35,000 a year, and a whopping $3,667 a year to Heritage.'s worth stressing that in the think tank world, these are nothing amounts. These sums of money buy a B.A.-level RA and some cockatil shrimp at a reception.

Wednesday, September 6

The middle class isn't actually so bad off

What progressives generally say about the economy is unrelentingly pessimistic -- stagnant wages, rising costs, overwhelming burdens of debt. It's a message that doesn't resonate with the middle class -- not only because it's overly negative (by itself political poison), but because it's simply flat out wrong.
  • $63,300. That's the 2004 median household income of people in their prime working years, ages 25-59 (it's $70,000 for married households and nearly $80,000 for two-earner households).
  • $248,700. That's the median net worth of pre-retirement Americans, ages 55-64.
  • Zero. That's the median credit card debt for all American households.
No question, the middle class faces challenges, such as rising costs for health care and college tuition and the declining real earnings for non-college-educated men. There's also no question that the wealthy have received the lion's share of economic growth over the past 25 years. Nevertheless, absolute living standards for the middle class have only improved, even if relative increases in income don't match the gains at the top.

Sad, but not surprising

Nearly half the 14.7 million undergraduates at two- and four-year institutions never receive degrees. The deficiencies turn up not just in math, science and engineering, areas in which a growing chorus warns of difficulties in the face of global competition, but also in the basics of reading and writing.

According to scores on the 2006 ACT college entrance exam, 21 percent of students applying to four-year institutions are ready for college-level work in all four areas tested, reading, writing, math and biology.

For many students, the outlook does not improve after college. The Pew Charitable Trusts recently found that three-quarters of community college graduates were not literate enough to handle everyday tasks like comparing viewpoints in newspaper editorials or calculating the cost of food items per ounce.

The unyielding statistics showcase a deep disconnection between what high school teachers think that their students need to know and what professors, even at two-year colleges, expect them to know.

At Cal State, the system admits only students with at least a B average in high school. Nevertheless, 37 percent of the incoming class last year needed remedial math, and 45 percent needed remedial English.

"Students are still shocked when they're told they need developmental courses," said Donna McKusik, the senior director of developmental, or remedial, education at the Community College of Baltimore County. "They think they graduated from a high school, they should be ready for college."
One Community College administrator
said he saw students who passed through high school never having read a book cover to cover.

"They've listened in class, taken notes and taken the test off of that"
The same thing happens at a certain 4-year university I'm familiar with. (Not to name names...)

Foolishness isn't necessarily funny

Cutesiness aside, this is really asinine:
I argued — and I did not invent this idea — that animals like wolves and primates that live in hierarchical social groups need a sense of humor to survive. Wolf pack or newsroom, when the big dog growls, the beta, gamma, delta, epsilon, lambda, mu, nu and omega dogs had better be able to laugh it off, so they can live to reproduce another day. Thus, laugh-it-off genes are preserved. If they were not needed, they would probably be lost.
What does laughing it off have to do with a sense of humor?
Dogs can taste sweet things, as can many other mammals, like rodents. But neither alley cats nor lions have a sweet tooth. They do have sweet receptors. But sometime after cats and dogs diverged, a gene was turned off in cats, so that they no longer make one of the proteins necessary for the receptors to work.

This may be why they seem so independent. The desire for sweets can certainly make people do foolish things.
What does behaving foolishly have to do with a sense of humor?
A colleague and friend who had a dry, slightly wicked sense of humor and who loved and identified with his cats — he was known to meow on occasion — died unexpectedly. I thought, how could he have been enamored of an animal that does not have a sense of humor?

So I began to rethink the issue, and I have concluded that I may have actually been thinking about laughter rather than humor.
So someone with a sense of humor can't love someone who does not?
Laughter is not always about what’s funny.... It is frequently a social behavior unrelated to jokes or wit. It can serve different purposes. It can be friendly or submissive, hostile or dominant. Witness the old distinction between laughing with and laughing at someone.
Finally, he's making a bit of sense. But then,
Perhaps, I thought, this is what dogs and other social creatures have, not a sense of humor, but an "I’m just happy to be part of the pack/team/company" sense of laughter. You know when your dog lies on its back, looking goofy, with the tongue falling out one side of its mouth? Just think of that as laughing.
Yes, they look goofy, but how does he know they're laughing?
Dogs amuse us. Cats, I suspect, amuse themselves, as a creature unconcerned about its place in the corporation might well do. With a mouse, or a ball of yarn, a cat may play and be amused, whether we are watching or not.
Again, amusing oneself is hardly humor. What a piece of foolishness, from someone who seems to think he's a science writer. And no, I don't think he's funny just because he's a fool.

Tuesday, September 5

Which explanation will we remember?

Jared Diamond, a geographer and physiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, has used Rapa Nui as a parable of the dangers of environmental destruction. "In just a few centuries," he wrote in a 1995 article for Discover magazine, "the people of Easter Island wiped out their forest, drove their plants and animals to extinction, and saw their complex society spiral into chaos and cannibalism. Are we about to follow their lead?" In his 2005 book Collapse, Diamond described Rapa Nui as "the clearest example of a society that destroyed itself by overexploiting its own resources."
It was genocide, not ecocide, that caused the demise of the Rapanui. An ecological catastrophe did occur on Rapa Nui, but it was the result of a number of factors, not just human short-sightedness.

I believe that the world faces today an unprecedented global environmental crisis, and I see the usefulness of historical examples of the pitfalls of environmental destruction. So it was with some unease that I concluded that Rapa Nui does not provide such a model. But as a scientist I cannot ignore the problems with the accepted narrative of the island's prehistory.

Friday, September 1

More Like Sweden?

Tim Worstall writes,
Wouldn't it be interesting if we were urged to adopt some other Swedish policies? Abolish inheritance tax (Sweden doesn't have one), have a pure voucher scheme to pay for the education system (as Sweden does), do not have a national minimum wage (as Sweden does not) and most certainly do not run the health system as a national monolith (as Sweden again does not).
And he also takes on the notion of unequal distribution of income in the US:
...we've adjusted for price differences, by using US median income as our measuring stick we've given ourselves a view of the actual incomes, not just the relative incomes, of the poor and the rich in each country....

In the USA the poor get 39% of the US median income and in Finland (and Sweden) the poor get 38% of the US median income. It's not worth quibbling over 1% so let's take it as read that the poor in America have exactly the same standard of living as the poor in Finland (and Sweden). Which is really a rather revealing number don't you think? All those punitive tax rates, all that redistribution, that blessed egalitarianism, the flatter distribution of income, leads to a change in the living standards of the poor of precisely ... nothing.