Friday, June 29

Me--part of the elite?

Jonathan Chait writes,
[Partisanship scolds] are people who believe that disagreement is the central problem in U.S. politics, that both parties are to blame in equal measure, and that rejecting party ties or ideology is synonymous with the demonstration of virtue.

...partisanship scolds are extremely vague about which chunk of Americans is being left out by the growing extremism in Washington. It is true that some broadly popular views are underrepresented in national politics. A detailed political typology released by the Pew Center in 2005 showed that Democratic voters are not as socially liberal as their leaders and Republican voters are not nearly as economically conservative. So there is a sizeable base of socially traditionalist, economically populist voters to be had. Unfortunately, the partisanship scolds invariably cater to exactly the opposite demographic: elites who favor free trade, open immigration, cutting entitlements, and social tolerance.
Although I've never complained about partisanship, I too "favor free trade, open immigration, cutting entitlements, and social tolerance". Does that make me part of the elite?

Who runs the Chinese military?

As China converts its growing economic power into military muscle, a lack of transparency and a habit of secrecy pose formidable challenges in assessing the country's long-term ambitions, according to defense experts.

For foreign governments and analysts monitoring the Chinese military, one of the biggest mysteries is who is actually in charge.

Nominally, President Hu Jintao, who is also chairman of the Central Military Commission, the top military command body, is head of the armed forces, but there is considerable doubt among experts about the extent of the authority that he and his fellow civilian leaders exert over the 2.3 million-strong People's Liberation Army.


Doubts about the chain of command in China were heightened in the aftermath of the PLA's successful test of an antisatellite missile on Jan. 11 when most analysts concluded that top officials from the Foreign Ministry and civilian bureaucracy were clearly in the dark about the military's plan to shoot down an obsolete weather satellite.

Despite widespread protest from the international community, it took almost two weeks before the Foreign Ministry confirmed the test.

Other analysts point to an incident in October when one of China's newest conventional submarines approached the U.S. aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk and its battle group in international waters off Okinawa and was only detected when it surfaced near the American ships.

U.S. officials played down the incident, but some experts questioned whether China's civilian leadership would have sanctioned what could be seen as a highly provocative move.

For some analysts, both incidents could be interpreted as a clear demonstration for Washington of China's growing military capabilities and perhaps evidence that elements in the PLA leadership were less concerned about the diplomatic consequences than their civilian counterparts.

Thursday, June 28

Problematical trade statistics

...researchers estimated that $163 of the iPod’s $299 retail value in the United States was captured by American companies and workers, breaking it down to $75 for distribution and retail costs, $80 to Apple, and $8 to various domestic component makers. Japan contributed about $26 to the value added..., while Korea contributed less than $1.


Even though Chinese workers contribute only about 1 percent of the value of the iPod, [according to conventional trade statistics] the export of a finished iPod to the United States directly contributes about $150 to our bilateral trade deficit with the Chinese.

William Galvin displays his ignorance

Mitt Romney's been called many things as he runs for president, but chances are "Sticky Rice" isn't one of them.

That's how his name might be read on some ballots, according to state Secretary William Galvin.

Galvin says the federal Justice Department is pressuring Boston election officials to translate candidates' names into Chinese characters in precincts with prominent Chinese-speaking populations.

But there's more than a little lost in translation, according to Galvin.

Since there's no Chinese character for "Romney," translators have resorted to finding characters that most closely match the sound of each syllable in the name.

The problem is that there are many different characters that could be used to match the sound of each syllable, and many different meanings for each character.

So Mitt Romney could be read as "Sticky Rice" or "Uncooked Rice." Fred Thompson might be read as "Virtue Soup." And Barack Obama could be read as "Oh Bus Horse."

Galvin's own name could be read at least two different ways, as "High Prominent Noble Educated" or "Stick Mosquito."

But perhaps the most perplexing translation would be for Boston Mayor Thomas Menino's name, which could be read as "Sun Moon Rainbow Farmer" or "Imbecile," or "Barbarian Mud No Mind of His Own."

"To try to make rhymes or approximations in Chinese, you can have unintended negative meanings," Galvin said. "It leads to confusion. You can render it with a good meaning or a bad meaning."

To add to the confusion, Galvin said, the ballots have to be offered in two major Chinese dialects, Mandarin and Cantonese, leading to even more potential variations of candidates' names.

But advocates for minority voting rights say Galvin's objections are misdirected. If the translations are awkward, they say, the candidates should be free to offer variations, or look to the way Asian language newspapers already transliterate their names.
As the article points out, these people already have names. I found these on the internet:
  • Mitt Romney 米特• 罗姆尼 Although 米 mǐ does mean rice, it's also a surname in Chinese.
  • Fred Thompson 弗雷德•汤普森 or Fred Dalton Thompson 弗雷德·多尔顿·托马斯. Yes, 德 dé is "virtue" and 汤 tāng is "soup", but 弗雷德 is the standard way to render "Fred" and 汤普森 is the standard way to render " Thompson" (as in "Emma Thompson", for instance).
  • Barack Obama 巴拉克·奥巴马 Obama's last name is Ào bā mǎ, where "ào" means "inside" "mysterious", but is used in many names. "Bā" does not mean "bus" unless it's bāshì 巴士. By itself 巴 doesn't mean much of anything. "Mǎ" does mean "horse", but it also happens to be a surname.
  • William Galvin has been translated as 盖文. For once, he nearly gets the translation right. 盖 gài means "cover", and 文 wén means literary, which he has extrapolated to "Noble Educated". The standard transliteration of "William" is 威廉 wēi lián; "wēi" means "authority" and "lián" means "honest".
  • Thomas Menino is 托马斯.马尼诺. I don't know where the expressions in the article come from.
It seems as if William Galvin has been talking to someone who just started learning Chinese and is overly focussed on the meanings of the characters. Perhaps from that meeting that his name links to above? But the fact is, the Chinese don't pay that much attention to them. People can also make something out of our names. For example, take Bush. Omigosh, it means something. What about Clinton: Ho-ho! Clint means "limestone blocks that make up a limestone pavement." As for Galvin, you could say I was galvanized to write this. I hope he has a better grasp of public policy than he does of these names.

Serve the people 为人民服务

Cameron Diaz apologized Sunday for carrying a bag with a political slogan that evoked painful memories in Peru.

The voice of Princess Fiona in the animated "Shrek" films visited the Incan city of Machu Picchu in Peru's Andes on Friday carrying an olive green bag emblazoned with a red star and the words "Serve the People" printed in Chinese, perhaps Chinese Communist leader Mao Zedong's most famous political slogan.

The bags are marketed as fashion accessories in some world capitals, but in Peru the slogan evokes memories of the Maoist Shining Path insurgency that fought the government in the 1980s and early 1990s in a bloody conflict that left nearly 70,000 people dead.

Tuesday, June 26

A few Chicago eats

Although I missed the meeting I mention below, we got to Chicago's Chinatown and ate at 重慶樓, 228 W. Cermak Rd., Chicago, IL 60616, 312-842-7818; I believe it's called "Double Li" in English; they have no English Google presence as of now. The other customers were almost all Chinese; always a good sign. The English menu looked pretty much like the Chinese menu, but I didn't make sure of the translations. We got the 蒜茸豆苗 Pea shoots in garlic sauce, 孜然羊肉 cumin lamb (meat was tough but tasty) and 潑辣魚片 spicy fish slices. The servings are pretty generous; we brought back the sauce from the fish. No charge for the rice. It looks like Lao Sze Chuan 老四川 has some competition!

At noon the next day we went to The Phoenix Restaurant 萬壽宮 2131 S. Archer Ave. 312-328-0848 for dimsum. It was OK, but not as good as it used to be; it's been so long that we've been to Chinatown that we didn't realize that inside the mall on Archer there were several other dimsum places, also packed with Chinese, suggesting they're just as good.

Sunday at noon we went to the New Maxwell Street Market and had some Mexican food. The tamales were OK, but the tongue gorditas were a little overwhelming.

Later we went to Devon planning to have some food from the Indian buffets. I know, buffets are often for people who don't know much about food, but anyway, there were few buffets, in fact there seemed to be fewer Indian restaurants than before. We ended up going to the vegetarian Mysore Woodlands 2548 W Devon Ave (773) 338-8160. We got a dosai with potato, which was pretty good, a couple of samosas and an order of paratha which were OK, and I ordered a vegetable curry which was OK, if too sweet for my taste. Although there was no charge for the rice that came with it, the rice was pretty awful. A good thing we didn't order the thali. But the batura we saw someone eating looked pretty good.

Our last night was at Thai Pastry Restaurant 4925 N Broadway St (773) 784-5399. It was a little disappointing; I guessed that as soon as I saw that I could choose any meat to go in my green curry. Also, almost no East Asian clientèle. The curry was passable, although the meat was a little tough and there were also some inedible leaves chopped into it. Although the jasmine rice was good, it cost a dollar a bowl!

Finally Monday morning we went back to Wentworth to get roast duck at Wing Chan BBQ 榮棧 2157 S. China Place (312) 791-9389 to take home. It's not Peking duck; it's Cantonese style, but it's pretty good.

We got there about 7 am and they didn't open until 7:30 am, so first we went down South Wentworth and finally found a breakfast place open where we had 皮蛋瘦肉粥 congee with preserved egg and lean meat. It was a little watery but had good flavor.

Reminder to self: next time stay in Tinley Park or Matteson; I think it'll be easier to get to Chinatown.

"Reservation" at Carbondale, IL Enterprise rent a car

Not having checked Enterprise out beforehand, I'd assumed they were a reputable business, and made an online reservation, which I followed up with a telephone call regarding a Friday 12:30 pm pick-up. The agent said something about there being "more choice" later in the day, but I told him that was my schedule. As it happened, my schedule was changed, and so I made the change to 2 pm online and phoned again on Thursday, and everything was supposed to be OK, but when I called Friday at 1:45, there were no cars at all. I guess that's what less choice means. They told me to check back at 3, when there were no cars. When I found out that over a dozen other customers were in the same situation, I cancelled my so-called "reservation". I had to make other last minute arrangements, and because my departure was delayed, I missed an important meeting.

I'll never use Enterprise again.

Turning food into fuel is a bad idea

"Famine," observes Dennis Avery, the director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues, "is a human society's ultimate failure. Tightening the world's food supply by diverting major quantities of its grain stocks into fuels will drive up the prices of all food. This will inevitably hit hardest at the poorest people in the world's food-shortage regions. This would not be ethical even if there were no other sources of energy."
Then there's this:
one-third of the world's grain is now fed to animals to produce meat. If we're really worried about the world's poor, shouldn't we give up not only SUVs, but brisket, bacon and breasts too? The amount of grain that actually goes into producing a pound of meat is controversial. However, the non-profit consortium of 37 scientific societies, the Council on Agricultural Science and Technology estimates that it takes around 3 kilograms of grains to produce 1 kilogram of meat.

Friday, June 22

Claims that I can agree with

We don't take steps to redress inequalities of looks, friends, or sex life. We don't grab a kidney from you to save someone's life, even though that health difference was unfair brute luck. Redistribution of wealth has some role in maintaining a stable democracy and preventing starvation. But the power of wealth redistribution to produce net value is quite limited. The power of wealth creation to produce net value is extraordinary. Most of America's poor are already among the best-off of all humans in world history. We should be putting our resources, including our advocacy and our intellectual resources, into wealth creation as much as we can.

Thursday, June 21

I don't see why they can't contribute, but this is unethical!

In August 2004, New York Times ethics columnist Randy Cohen donated to, which conducted get-out-the-vote drives to defeat President Bush.

Cohen said he thought of as nonpartisan.

Nonpartisan!! I take "nonpartisan" to mean not partisan; but he's apparently deciding it means free from party affiliation. I wonder how he'd answer the question if it were a question of someone contributing to a group opposed to his causes. Maybe that would make it unethical. And of course practically everyone on the list contributed to Democrats or their causes. Although it's interesting to see that Stephen Hunter contributed to the Republicans.
Note the title of Where Have All the Rock Stars Gone? is a snowclone for Where Have All the Flowers Gone).
While not everyone was willing to concede that rock 'n' roll was art, the media began to treat it as if it were. English majors named [Bob] Dylan their favorite poet, and some poets agreed he should be considered one of their number.

Finally, and perhaps most important, Dylan's lyrics became a major part of the rhetoric of the New Left, less because of what they said about politics than because of what Dylan represented — the power of a generation to express itself...

Even today, the news media are inclined to assume that popular musicians have something to say about serious matters — and many of them do. But the fragmentation of mass culture has meant that they are able to say it to smaller and smaller portions of the population.

The fate of hip-hop may be the best illustration of the increasing marginalization of popular music and its impact on American culture. Hip-hop is arguably the last great innovation in popular music, the successor to ragtime, jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock 'n' roll. All of those forms emerged out of African-American culture and changed the tastes of Americans of all races. Hip-hop also attracted a large audience of young white listeners, but it did not come to dominate public consciousness the way its predecessors had. That has less to do with the particular qualities of hip-hop than with the fragmentation of the market. Most Americans didn't hear the music routinely, so it remained foreign to their ears.

Early hip-hop stars like Grandmaster Flash and Public Enemy were at least as critical of American society as Dylan ever was, and they led some commentators to imagine hip-hop artists as authentic and politically significant spokespeople for poor, urban African-Americans. But in the last 10 years or so, even though hip-hop artists like Jay-Z are popular music's most innovative contributors, the form has become less political, and its performers seem less culturally central.

In a different, more unified market, hip-hop stars might have become leaders like James Brown. As it is, popular music seems headed back to the margins of cultural life, and that is a loss for all of us.
Oh, Boo-hoo. Most of the sixties stars were creations of the music producers, and when we listened to the radio or even went to buy records, we were at the mercy of the industry. Since the political stance so treasured by the author is clearly leftist, it's pretty funny that he's crying over the good old days when corporations, the bugbear of the left, held the reins.

cultural studies = garbage

[Philosopher Richard Rorty] once suggested that science had been established by modern man “to fill the place once held by God” but that it didn’t merit that position; it should be seen, Mr. Rorty said, as having the “same footing” as literature or art, and he suggested that physics and ethics were just differing methods of “trying to cope.”


One tendency of pragmatism might be to so focus on the ways in which one’s own worldview is flawed that trauma is more readily attributed to internal failure than to external challenges. In one of his last interviews Mr. Rorty recalled the events of 9/11: “When I heard the news about the twin towers, my first thought was: ‘Oh, God. Bush will use this the way Hitler used the Reichstag fire.’”

Peking Dork now suggests that postmodernism has been established by modern intellectuals to fill the place once held by science but that it doesn’t merit this position. We should see postmodernism as having the “same footing” as sewage or trash. Peking Dork also suggests that literary criticism and cultural studies are just different types of garbage.

And so leftists use 9-11 to whine about how awful the US is.

Friday, June 15

Why American Chinese food is so bad

...the lackluster Cantonese, Hunan and Sichuan restaurants in this country do not resemble those you can find in China. There is a historic explanation for the abysmal state of Chinese cuisine in the United States. Without access to key ingredients from their homeland, Chinese immigrants working on the Central Pacific Railroad in the 1860s improvised dishes like chow mein and chop suey that nobody back in their native land would have recognized. To please the naïve palates of 19th-century Americans, immigrant chefs used sweet, rich sauces to coat the food — a radical departure from the spicy, chili-based dishes served back home.

But today, getting ingredients is no longer an issue. Instead, the principal obstacle to improving Chinese fare here is the difficulty of getting visas for skilled workers since 9/11...

When authentic Chinese cuisines reach our shores, we can expect a revolution in ingredients and styles that will change the way we prepare food for years to come.
"Getting ingredients is no longer an issue?" Maybe not in the big cities, but most American markets don't offer the truly fresh ingredients that Chinese (and French) cuisine require.

People use information to affirm their pre-existing cultural identities

Ronald Bailey writes,

In the study, "Affect, Values, and Nanotechnology Risk Perceptions: An Experimental Investigation," researchers polled 1,850 Americans about their attitudes toward nanotechnology. Eighty-one percent of those polled had heard nothing at all (53 percent) or "just a little" (28 percent) about nanotechnology. Nevertheless, after being offered a bare bones two-sentence definition of nanotech, 89 percent of respondents had an opinion on whether the benefits (53 percent) of nanotech would outweigh the risks (36 percent). So how could people who know nothing or almost nothing about a new technology have an opinion about its safety? Pre-existing world views, of course. "The driving force behind these snap judgments, we found, was affect: the visceral, emotional responses of our subjects, pro or con, determined how beneficial or dangerous they thought nanotechnology was likely to be," write the authors.

The researchers relying on work by social scientist Aaron Wildavsky divided Americans into four cultural groups with regard to risk perception: hierarchists, individualists, egalitarians and communitarians. Hierarchists trust experts, but believe social deviancy is very risky. Egalitarians and communitarians worry about technology, but think that social deviancy is no big deal. Individualists see risk as opportunity and so are optimistic about technology.


Not surprisingly, the researchers found that people who were concerned about environmental risks such as global warming and nuclear power, were also concerned about nanotechnology. However, the Yale Cultural Cognition researchers made another more disheartening discovery. In their poll they gave a subset of 350 respondents additional facts - about two paragraphs -- about nanotechnology to see if more information would shift public risk perceptions. They found that it did. In this case, the more information people had, the more they retreated to their initial positions. Hierarchists and individualists thought nano was less risky, while egalitarians and communitarians thought it was more risky.

...What seems to be happening is that individuals use information to affirm their pre-existing cultural identities rather than evaluate risks in purely instrumental terms. Think now of the scientists, technologists and yes, regulators who have to try to bridge these diverse cultural values. More specifically they have to figure out how to persuade communitarians and egalitarians that technology somehow affirms their values. And this is no easy task.

History clearly shows technological progress that has been absolutely essential to the creation of wealth and health in the West over the past two centuries has generally provoked resistance from egalitarians and communitarians.

Good luck!

The specter of global planning

Vaclav Klaus writes,
As someone who lived under communism for most of his life, I feel obliged to say that I see the biggest threat to freedom, democracy, the market economy and prosperity now in ambitious environmentalism, not in communism. This ideology wants to replace the free and spontaneous evolution of mankind by a sort of central (now global) planning.

The environmentalists ask for immediate political action because they do not believe in the long-term positive impact of economic growth and ignore both the technological progress that future generations will undoubtedly enjoy, and the proven fact that the higher the wealth of society, the higher is the quality of the environment. They are Malthusian pessimists.


Due to advances in technology, increases in disposable wealth, the rationality of institutions and the ability of countries to organise themselves, the adaptability of human society has been radically increased. It will continue to increase and will solve any potential consequences of mild climate changes...

As a witness to today's worldwide debate on climate change, I suggest the following:
  • Small climate changes do not demand far-reaching restrictive measures
  • Any suppression of freedom and democracy should be avoided
  • Instead of organising people from above, let us allow everyone to live as he wants
  • Let us resist the politicisation of science and oppose the term "scientific consensus", which is always achieved only by a loud minority, never by a silent majority
  • Instead of speaking about "the environment", let us be attentive to it in our personal behaviour
  • Let us be humble but confident in the spontaneous evolution of human society. Let us trust its rationality and not try to slow it down or divert it in any direction
  • Let us not scare ourselves with catastrophic forecasts, or use them to defend and promote irrational interventions in human lives.

Irrational, self-destructive behavior

Here's a striking fact about crime: A lot of it is almost never lucrative. There's little money in assault, drug possession, or drunk driving, to take some of the main offenses that land people in jail. The same goes for rape, and probably most murder too.


Crime is just one of many, many "social pathologies" that are over-represented among the poor: alcoholism, drug abuse, smoking, obesity, illegitimacy, etc. None of these are good escape routes from poverty. So instead of trying to explain why "poverty causes crime" or "poverty causes obesity," it makes sense to look for common causes of poverty and social pathologies.

Like what? In a paper just accepted by Kyklos, Scott Beaulier and [Bryan Caplan] point to a simple candidate: irrationality. People who have biased beliefs about practical matters, and/or exercise poor impulse control, are likely to screw up their lives across the board. So it's hardly surprising that poverty and self-destructive behavior go hand in hand. Rather than being a natural response to poverty, a lot of crime can be seen as objectively self-destructive behavior that happens to have an unusually large amount of collateral damage.

So what's the public policy prescription for that?

Synthetic pesticide residues in plant food are insignificant

[Drs. Bruce Ames and Lois Swirsky Gold] took a systematic look at the chemicals that had been tested on rodents. They found that about half of natural chemicals tested positive for carcinogencity, the same proportion as the synthetic chemicals. Fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices contained their own pesticides that caused cancer in rodents. The toxins were found in apples, bananas, beets, Brussel sprouts, collard greens, grapes, melons, oranges, parsley, peaches — the list went on and on.

Then Dr. Ames and Dr. Gold estimated the prevalence of these natural pesticides in the typical diet. In a paper published in 2000 in Mutation Research, they conclude:

About 99.9 percent of the chemicals humans ingest are natural. The amounts of synthetic pesticide residues in plant food are insignificant compared to the amount of natural pesticides produced by plants themselves. Of all dietary pesticides that humans eat, 99.99 percent are natural: they are chemicals produced by plants to defend themselves against fungi, insects, and other animal predators.

We have estimated that on average Americans ingest roughly 5,000 to 10,000 different natural pesticides and their breakdown products. Americans eat about 1,500 mg of natural pesticides per person per day, which is about 10,000 times more than the 0.09 mg they consume of synthetic pesticide residues.

Even though these natural chemicals are as likely to be carcinogenic as synthetic ones, it doesn’t follow that they’re killing us. Just because natural pesticides make up 99.99 percent of the pesticides in our diet, it doesn’t follow that they’re causing human cancer — or that the .01 percent of of synthetic pesticides are causing cancer either. Dr. Ames and Dr. Gold believe most of these carcinogenic pesticides, natural or synthetic, don’t present problems because the human exposures are low and because the high doses given to rodents may not be relevant to humans.

“Everything you eat in the supermarket is absolutely chock full of carcinogens,” Dr. Ames told me. “But most cancers are not due to parts per billion of pesticides. They’re due to causes like smoking, bad diets and, obesity.”

He and Dr. Gold note that “many ordinary foods would not pass the regulatory criteria used for synthetic chemicals,” but they’re not advocating banning broccoli or avoiding natural pesticides in foods that cause cancer in rodents. Rather, they suggest that Americans stop worrying so much about synthetic chemicals:

Regulatory efforts to reduce low-level human exposures to synthetic chemicals because they are rodent carcinogens are expensive; they aim to eliminate minuscule concentrations that now can be measured with improved techniques. These efforts are distractions from the major task of improving public health through increasing scientific understanding about how to prevent cancer (e.g., what aspects of diet are important), increasing public understanding of how lifestyle influences health, and improving our ability to help individuals alter their lifestyles.

People who fear modernity to the contrary notwithstanding:

Rachel Carson was naive to assume there were “few” natural carcinogens, and she was also naive to assume that evolution had made us “accustomed” to these chemicals. Dr. Ames and Dr. Gold explain why we never had a chance to get accustomed:

Humans have not had time to evolve a “toxic harmony” with all their dietary plants. The human diet has changed markedly in the last few thousand years. Indeed, very few of the plants that humans eat today, e.g., coffee, cocoa, tea, potatoes, tomatoes, corn, avocados, mangoes, olive and kiwi fruit, would have been present in a hunter-gatherer’s diet. Natural selection works far too slowly for humans to have evolved specific resistance to the food toxins in these newly introduced plants.

Of course, our ancestors did develop defenses against toxins. But why assume these defenses work only against natural toxins? Dr. Ames and Dr. Gold don’t buy that assumption:

Humans have many natural defenses that buffer against normal exposures to toxins and these are mostly general, rather than tailored for each specific chemical. Thus they work against both natural and synthetic chemicals. Examples of general defenses include the continous shedding of cells exposed to toxins. The surface layers of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, intestine, colon skin and lungs are discarded every few days; DNA repair enzymes, which repair DNA that was damaged from many different sources; and detoxification enzymes of the liver and other organs which generally target classes of chemicals rather than individual chemicals. It makes good evolutionary sense to conclude that human defenses are usually general, rather than specific for each chemical. The reason that predators of plants evolved general defenses is presumably to be prepared to counter a diverse and ever-changing array of plant toxins in an evolving world.

Dr. Ames and Dr. Gold have also addressed the objection that synthetic pesticides have peculiarly dangerous properties:

DDT was unusual with respect to bioconcentration, and because of its chlorine substituents it takes longer to degrade in nature than most chemicals; however, these are properties of relatively few synthetic chemicals. In addition, many thousands of chlorinated chemicals are produced in nature. Natural pesticides also can bioconcentrate if they are fat-soluble. Potatoes, for example, contain solanine and chaconine, which are fat-soluble, neurotoxic, natural pesticides that can be detected in the blood of all potato eaters. High levels of these potato neurotoxins have been shown to cause birth defects in rodents, although they have not been tested for carcinogenicity.

To repeat, Dr. Ames and Dr. Gold are not suggesting that you stop eating potatoes or fear the plethora of natural pesticides in the produce department. The doses are generally too small to pose a risk. But if, as the scientists estimate, these natural pesticides are 10,000 times more plentiful in your diet than synthetic ones, why worry so much about the chemicals that don’t come from Mother Nature?

Thursday, June 14

A government-contrived phenomenon

Referring to Kimberley A. Strassel's article also cited below, Tom Philpott adds,
The corn-based ethanol boom, a completely government-contrived phenomenon, never had a shot at significantly reducing petroleum use. By all accounts, its energy-saving potential over gasoline is thin -- if not imaginary. Corn ethanol has always been a fake -- and dramatically expensive -- stand-in for real energy-conservation policy.

Although I support any and all efforts to halt the runaway train that is corn ethanol, I fear that the backlash plays into the hands of Tyson and its peers, who hate ethanol because it interferes with the business model of feeding cheap corn to confined animals.

They may well get their wish. Last fall, spurred by high corn prices, U.S. farmers scrambled to plant corn anywhere they could -- on idle land, on land devoted to other crops like soybeans. This summer, provided there's no major weather disaster, they will likely harvest the largest corn crop in U.S. history.

If Congress pulls back support for ethanol, the corn price will likely tumble. Lower prices will mean a windfall for feedlot operators like Tyson -- and will likely spur a slew of government commodity payments to corn growers under the farm bill.

We'll be back where we started: with our government using our tax dollars to prop up corn production.

If you had half a brain, you'd know this

Removing half of your brain will not significantly impact who you are...

Of course, the operation has its downside: "You can walk, run—some dance or skip—but you lose use of the hand opposite of the hemisphere that was removed. You have little function in that arm and vision on that side is lost," Freeman says.

Remarkably, few other impacts are seen.

Mommie Dearest

Parents such as Rosie Costello, who criminally exploit their children for money by forcing her two healthy children to fake mental retardation to collect disability benefits, may be responsible for more juvenile lawbreaking than our society currently recognizes

God is not what I'd call Mr. Nice Guy

Richard Dawkins describes God as
the most unpleasant character in all fiction ... a misogynist, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully

Another nail in the coffin for the "Noble savage" myth

The skeletons of two dozen children killed in an ancient mass sacrifice have been found in a tomb at a construction site in Mexico.

The find reveals new details about the ancient Toltec civilization and adds to an ongoing debate over ritualistic killing in historic Mesoamerica.
And then, Human Sacrifice Clues Found in European Stone Age Burials
Common Stone Age graves in Europe that include the remains of physically disabled people hint at ritual human sacrifice there, a new study says.

The research is based on unusual burial sites dating to between 26,000 and 8000 B.C.

Skeletons such as those of a teenage dwarf and a girl with malformed bones were found buried alongside able-bodied dead. This indicates that human sacrifices may have been an important ritual activity among ancient hunter-gatherer tribes...

...studies of well-preserved remains of Iron Age bodies found in Denmark bogs suggest that the young and disabled were often chosen for human sacrifice.

"Disabled people may have been selected because they were seen as different. These individuals may be feared, hated, or revered," Formicola said.

Wednesday, June 13

Tear down this wall

Illegal immigrants don't steal across the Mexican border because they lack the patience to wait their turn in line. They do it because there is no line for them to wait in. The great majority of immigrants who enter the United States lawfully qualify for visas because of family ties: They are lucky enough to be related to a US citizen.

For them, there is indeed a line -- the waiting time for a family-based visa can take upward of 10 years. A smaller number of legal immigrants are granted visas because they have advanced degrees or specialized skills and a job is waiting for them.

For most illegal immigrants, a legal option simply doesn't exist. Under current law, a young Mexican or Salvadoran who wants to improve his life by moving to America and working hard at a useful job generally has just two options: (a) Enter illegally, or (b) stay out forever. Several hundred thousand a year choose option (a).

...something is not wrong -- intrinsically wrong, bad in and of itself -- merely because it is illegal. It is against the law to put anything without postage into someone's mailbox.

If your neighbor prints flyers advertising a yard sale and drops one into each letterbox on the street, he has broken the law, but would anyone say he has done something evil?

Someone who crosses the border without a visa in order to find work doesn't deserve to be branded a "criminal." Doing so only inflames and confuses an issue that is contentious enough as it is. And it cheapens a word that should be reserved for those who purposely harm others through genuinely wrongful behavior: embezzlers, rapists, arsonists, murderers.

The demonizing of illegal aliens keeps us from having a rational discussion about US immigration policy.

The national debate should be focused on real issues -- how many annual newcomers our economy can absorb, the best way to encourage immigrants to assimilate, what to require of illegals so they can get right with the law, how to protect national security without undermining the open character of American society. Instead we are saddled with hysterical condemnations of "amnesty" and delusional demands for a 2,000-mile barrier along the Mexican border.

Twenty years ago this week in Berlin, President Reagan uttered his memorable challenge: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" Conservatives who extol Reagan's legacy might ask themselves what he would have thought of the idea that our response to hard-working risk-takers so eager for a piece of the American Dream that they endanger life and limb to come here should be a Berlin-style wall of our own. I suspect it's a notion he would have scorned, along with the suggestion that all we really need to know about immigration we learned in kindergarten.

Good intentions

When you restrict the interest rates at which people may hire money, or set more generous terms on which they may do so (such as refusing to allow them to agree to binding arbitration), you make it less attractive for bankers to lend; and the least attractive borrowers--the young, the poor, and those with chequered credit histories--drop out of the credit pool.

This is, for some consumer advocates, the not-so-hidden paternalistic agenda. It certainly seems to be Ms Warren's; while some of her proposals focus on disclosure, most alter the terms under which lenders may offer their wares. And some people--the people who cannot be trusted to use credit without hurting themselves--would be made better off by it. The problem is, the majority of people in the subprime market can be trusted to use credit; they are living in their new homes, driving their cars to work, and not flirting with bankruptcy. Unfortunately, borrowers are no better than regulators at divining which young, poor, or previously profligate people will default; their only option, when these variants on usury laws are enacted, is to cut off the subprime market.

For those who could use the money to buy a home, or need the money to tide them over an unexpected financial emergency, the result is that they are made much worse off. Like so many laws designed to help the unfortunate, this offers help entirely at the expense of other people in the same boat. Note that Ms Warren is not proposing anything that will make it harder for her to get a mortgage. The burden will fall on the young and the poor, whom Ms Warren, and perhaps Mr Salmon, have decided cannot be trusted with credit because some of their number will abuse it.

Supply & demand

The limited number of endocrine specialists is a not a consequence of limited demand -- everyone is aware of the epidemic of diabetes we are facing. There are also shortages of generalists and other specialists, and the reason is the absence of market signals -- i.e., market-based prices -- for influencing the supply of physicians in various specialties.

The roots of this problem lay in the use of administrative pricing structures in medicine. The way prices are set in health care already distorts the appropriate allocation of efforts and resources in health care today. Unfortunately, many of the suggested reforms of our health care system -- including the various plans for universal care, or universal insurance, or a single-payer system, that various policy makers and Democratic presidential candidates espouse -- rest on the same unsound foundations, and will produce more of the same.

The essential problem is this. The pricing of medical care in this country is either directly or indirectly dictated by Medicare; and Medicare uses an administrative formula which calculates "appropriate" prices based upon imperfect estimates and fudge factors. Rather than independently calculate prices, private insurers in this country almost universally use Medicare prices as a framework to negotiate payments, generally setting payments for services as a percentage of the Medicare fee structure.

Many if not most administratively determined prices fail to take into consideration supply and demand. Unlike prices set on the market, errors are not self-correcting. That is why, despite an expanding cohort of patients with diabetes, thyroid disease and other endocrine disorders, the number of people entering this field is actually dropping. Young physicians are accurately reading inappropriate price signals.

Monday, June 11

We're better off

Modern humans first emerged about 100,000 years ago. For the next 99,800 years or so, nothing happened. Well, not quite nothing. There were wars, political intrigue, the invention of agriculture — but none of that stuff had much effect on the quality of people’s lives. Almost everyone lived on the modern equivalent of $400 to $600 a year, just above the subsistence level. True, there were always tiny aristocracies who lived far better, but numerically they were quite insignificant.

Then — just a couple of hundred years ago, maybe 10 generations — people started getting richer. And richer and richer still. Per capita income, at least in the West, began to grow at the unprecedented rate of about three quarters of a percent per year. A couple of decades later, the same thing was happening around the world.
But do we appreciate it? Nooo...
Against a backdrop like that, the temporary ups and downs of the business cycle seem fantastically minor. In the 1930s, we had a Great Depression, when income levels fell back to where they had been 20 years earlier. For a few years, people had to live the way their parents had always lived, and they found it almost intolerable. The underlying expectation — that the present is supposed to be better than the past — is a new phenomenon in history. No 18th-century politician would have asked “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” because it never would have occurred to anyone that they ought to be better off than they were four years ago.

Rising income is only part of the story. One hundred years ago the average American workweek was over 60 hours; today it’s under 35. One hundred years ago 6% of manufacturing workers took vacations; today it’s over 90%. One hundred years ago the average housekeeper spent 12 hours a day on laundry, cooking, cleaning and sewing; today it’s about three hours.

As far as the quality of the goods we buy, try picking up an electronics catalogue from, oh, say, 2001 and ask yourself whether there’s anything there you’d want to buy... What about services, such as health care? Would you rather purchase today’s health care at today’s prices or the health care of, say, 1970 at 1970 prices? I don’t know any informed person who would choose 1970, which means that despite all the hype about costs, health care now is a better bargain than it’s ever been before.

The moral is that increases in measured income — even the phenomenal increases of the past two centuries — grossly understate the real improvements in our economic condition. The average middle-class American might have a smaller measured income than the European monarchs of the Middle Ages, but I suspect that Tudor King Henry VIII would have traded half his kingdom for modern plumbing, a lifetime supply of antibiotics and access to the Internet.

The source of this wealth — the engine of prosperity — is technological progress. And the engine of technological progress is ideas — not just the ideas from engineering laboratories, but also ideas like new methods of crop rotation, or just-in-time inventory management.

Thursday, June 7

Not just dumb

Two offensive linemen in a rented boat catch an unusually large number of trout in a secluded cove. As they start back to the marina, one reaches over with his felt-tip pen and marks an X on the starboard bow. “I want to make sure we can find this spot again tomorrow,” he explained. “Idiot,” his friend replied, “what makes you think we’ll get the same boat?”
It's not exactly the same, but it reminds me of this anecdote:
There was a man from the state of Chu who was crossing a river. His sword fell out of the boat into the water, and he quickly marked the boat, saying, "This is where my sword fell." When the boat stopped, he got into the water to look for his sword at the place where he had marked the boat. The boat had moved but the sword had not. Is this not a very foolish way to look for a sword?
In Chinese the expression is 刻舟求劍, literally "Marking the boat to find the sword"; the original story is from the 3rd century B.C. 呂氏春秋 Lǚ shì chūn qiū (Spring and Autumn Annals of Master Lü), but instead of stupidity, it's used more in the sense of stubbornness or inflexibility. This follows the original sense, where the anecdote is used to argue that the law must change to suit changing times.

Tuesday, June 5

Increase the middle class' taxes or retract the promises made to them

James Pethokoukis cites the Urban Institute:

Blame whomever you want for today's current fiscal mess, but don't cling to any myths about how far rescinding recent tax cuts for the rich would go toward meeting the nation's many budgetary shortfalls. Our elected officials simply cannot get around the most fundamental of political dilemmas. Even if they enact additional taxes on the rich—and that would not be easy—they still must either retract many of the promises made to the middle class, increase its taxes, or both.

And they're often labelled liberal

Q and lying

Are you a good liar? Most people think that they are, but in reality there are big differences in how well we can pull the wool over the eyes of others. There is a very simple test that can help determine your ability to lie. Using the first finger of your dominant hand, draw a capital letter Q on your forehead.

Some people draw the letter Q in such a way that they themselves can read it. That is, they place the tail of the Q on the right-hand side of their forehead. Other people draw the letter in a way that can be read by someone facing them, with the tail of the Q on the left side of their forehead. This quick test provides a rough measure of a concept known as "self-monitoring". High self-monitors tend to draw the letter Q in a way in which it could be seen by someone facing them. Low self-monitors tend to draw the letter Q in a way in which it could be read by themselves.

I only mention this because of the other Q.

Monday, June 4

sensible and politically possible

...immigrants tend to work in different industries than native workers, and have different skills, and so they often end up complementing native workers, rather than competing with them. That can make native workers more productive and therefore better off. (In construction, for instance, the work of carpenters and masons, who are often immigrants, can create a need for crane operators and foremen, who tend to be native-born.) ... And if by increasing the number of legal guest workers we reduced the number of undocumented workers, the economy would benefit even more.

Guest workers are also, paradoxically, less likely than illegal immigrants to become permanent residents. The U.S. already has a number of smaller—and less well-designed—temporary-worker programs, and there’s no evidence that workers in those plans routinely overstay their visas. Mexican workers, contrary to popular belief, do not, generally, intend to live their entire lives in the U.S. ...most want to work “for short periods to generate an alternative source of household income . . . or to accumulate savings for a specific purpose,” like buying a house in Mexico. This is harder to do as an illegal immigrant than as a guest worker, both because illegal workers are paid less and because when an illegal goes home he runs the risk of getting caught. One remarkable study found that after border enforcement was stepped up in 1993 the chances of an illegal immigrant returning to Mexico to stay fell by a third.

In fact, whatever benefits the guest-worker program brought to the U.S. economy or to particular businesses, the biggest winners would be the workers themselves. The Harvard economist Dani Rodrik has calculated that the economic value to poor workers of a comprehensive temporary-work program dwarfs the value created by lowering trade barriers or eliminating capital regulations. When a good made by a foreign worker enters this country, the worker gets only a tiny slice of what we pay. But when the worker himself comes into this country his earnings can rise by a factor of ten or more. There are few, if any, foreign-aid programs that do as much for people in developing countries as simply allowing them to work in the U.S. legally. Congress, of course, is under no obligation to care about foreign workers. But the program’s costs to American workers are negligible, the gains for the guest workers are enormous, and the U.S. economy will benefit. This is that rare option which is both sensible and politically possible.

Gas gouging primer

...the demand for gasoline is what economists call inelastic, which means that people cannot quickly reduce their consumption when prices rise sharply, abrupt supply shortages lead to steep price increases without any immediate decline in sales.

The most common reason for such increases in gasoline prices is a steep increase in the price of crude oil. But crude oil prices are set in global markets, and even the biggest American or European oil companies are modest players compared with state-controlled oil companies in the Persian Gulf, Russia and Latin America.

Even the mighty Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, which defines itself as a competition-limiting cartel, has only a limited grip on world oil prices. OPEC countries watched helplessly as oil prices plunged in the early 1980s and remained mired below $20 a barrel for most years (excluding the time of the Persian Gulf War in 1991) through the mid-1990s.


The Federal Trade Commission has been skeptical about accusations of price-gouging on gasoline prices. In 2004, the agency studied price changes in gasoline from 1991 through late 2003. It concluded that about 85 percent of the price variability — both up and down — reflected changes in crude oil prices.

To be sure, this year is different. ...gasoline prices are slightly higher than they were a year ago.


INDUSTRY executives say the anomaly reflects a temporary drop-off in refinery activity, partly because of scheduled maintenance and partly because of unscheduled interruptions. On top of that come ethanol prices, which have soared, because refiners now blend a small percentage of ethanol into standard gasoline.

The broader issue is that refinery capacity has not kept up with American demand for gasoline. Oil companies, caught with vast amounts of excess refining capacity in the early 1980s, systematically reduced capacity during the long lean years when energy prices and profit margins were the pity of Wall Street.

In theory, the allure of fat profits will attract heavy investment in more refinery capacity. And John Felmy, chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute, told reporters last week that oil companies have indeed been investing heavily in recent years.

But Congress could face an entirely new quandary in its desire to expand the use of renewable fuels. President Bush has called for producing 35 billion gallons a year of alternative fuels — from cellulosic ethanol to coal-based diesel — by 2017. Congressional Democrats might be even more aggressive.

If that’s the plan, will oil companies want to invest in more refineries? “You’ve got to ask whether the demand will be there,” Mr. Felmy said.

Electricity Rates Rising in Illinois

I missed this report; some details
JAMES CLAYBORNE, State Senator: The whole purpose of deregulating is to create more competition and create more choice, in terms of suppliers coming into the residential market, as well as industry, creating industry where they will -- they do nothing but produce power. And as a result, that should cause rates to go down, should cause more competition.

But because we kept the rates low for so long, that the competition was never generated. So if we extend the rate freeze, then what happens at the end of the rate freeze? There's still no competition.
That sounds like a no-brainer to me, but I've never heard it before.
Economist Lynn Kiesling says, because of the freeze, true deregulation has not been allowed to happen in Illinois yet, which is why prices are so high. The only way to get prices down, she says, is to enable competitors to emerge.

LYNNE KIESLING: My vision of the future for electric power would be to have a variety of competing retailers offering differentiated products and services to residential, commercial and industrial consumers, so that customers have a lot of retail choice, and are empowered to choose, and to take control of and manage their own energy use.

Global warming is our Cold War

Josie Appleton notes that in the early twenty-first century,

...the political climate colours models of nature. We can see how social anxieties – a fear of change, a sense of the fragility of things – guide the questions that scientists ask, and the kinds of theories that ring true.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that these theories are incorrect. Every theory of nature to some extent draws its metaphors from the society of the time...

As a rule of thumb, the more self-critical the science, and the more it tests itself against reality, the more accurate it will be. If all theories draw their metaphors from society, some do so justifiably – in a way that grasps nature’s real operation – and some do in a way that merely distorts and mystifies...

The less self-reflective the science, and the more it is founded on political and moral campaigns, the less reliable it is likely to be. And in [Mark Lynas' Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet], we see how global warming science has become a foil for a whole series of political and moral agendas, a way of discussing everything from the sins of consumerism to human arrogance. Outlining the effects of a four degrees rise in temperature, Lynas writes: ‘Poseidon [God of the sea] is angered by arrogant affronts from mere mortals like us. We have woken him from a thousand-year slumber, and this time his wrath will know no bounds.’ Not only Poseidon and Gaia but also terms such as ‘Mother Nature’ and ‘nature’s revenge’ have slipped into everyday discussion about climate change. Darwin did not, so far as we know, give names of Gods to his finches. When scientific concepts start to be discussed in such emotional terms, it suggests that they say more about wish than reality.

The scope for climatology to slip into fantasy is heightened by the fact that it is a relatively open and uncertain field. Time and again in the twentieth century, climate scientists noted how shaky their art was. It was a case of one man, one model, and everybody thought that theirs was the right one. Today’s models include many interacting factors that are incompletely understood, and different models can produce drastically different results...

That doesn’t mean that global warming doesn’t exist, but it does mean that many of these predictive models currently being produced are likely to be extremely inaccurate, verging on total fantasy. Any form of science that is morally and politically loaded, and involves putting large numbers of variables into a computer to predict changes for 50 years hence that cannot be tested, is going to be distorted. While the world’s climate does appear to have warmed - the earth is on average 0.7 degrees warmer than it was 150 years ago, before large-scale industrialisation – it’s a fair leap from 0.7 degrees to apocalypse...

Today’s preoccupation with fragility and collapse means that models take a one-sided view of nature...

To recap, it is perhaps political rather than scientific analysis that can help us to understand the bias that underlies today’s climate science. The notion of nature as fragile and subject to collapse is a relatively recent one, which is likely to owe more to the anxious zeitgeist than to climate realities. There are two more aspects of Six Degrees that are worth discussing. First, its notion that tackling climate change is an historic challenge; and second, its idea that global warming holds within it moral lessons, for humanity and for individuals. These help to explain why the idea of global warming is now so compelling and has come to dominate public life. For it provides, not just an expression of anxiety, but also a way out of that anxiety: a way of reframing the big issues of historical purpose and personal morality.

Lynas is an historian by training, and in his book we can see how global warming provides a way to frame the past and the future. He presents climate change as the great causal factor of history...

As historical analysis, this is cruder than the crudest Marxism...

Carbon dioxide becomes the invisible hand behind events, the determining element underlying possible future outcomes for humanity. We make global warming and then it will make us. warming also plays a teleological role: it provides a decisive point towards which history is heading, and provides an overall meaning for events. A decade-and-a-half after Francis Fukuyama announced the ‘end of history’, environmentalists have apparently found an occasion to which we must rise. The impending ‘climate crisis’, and our need to respond, is the first post-political narrative that has aroused significant passion or conviction. It is the first post-political notion of an historic task, a decisive future event that will determine humanity’s fate. It is perhaps the only way in which today’s society can discuss the idea of the judgement of the future, or the condition of life for our children. Hence, the dramatic sweep of the campaign against global warming throughout the elite – especially members of the political elite who spent periods in the cold. This is Al Gore on what global warming means to him:

‘The climate crisis also offers us the chance to experience what very few generations in history have had the privilege of knowing: a generational mission; the exhilaration of a compelling moral purpose; a shared and unifying cause; the thrill of being forced by circumstances to put aside the pettiness and conflict that so often stifle the restless human need for transcendence; the opportunity to rise…. When we do rise, it will fill out spirits and bind us together. Those who are now suffocating in cynicism and despair will be able to breathe freely. Those who are now suffering from a loss of meaning in their lives will find hope.’ (7) (His italics.)

The notion of teleology that appeared first in Christianity (Christ’s birth, death and return), then liberalism (progress towards a state of perfect liberty), and then certain brands of Marxism (the development of productive forces, leading towards revolution), appears now in the form of climatology. The progress of civilisation is re-read in terms of the accumulation of carbon dioxide, which will eventually – and as a result of feedback that occurs independently of human will – lead to a dramatic transformation in the planet’s climate...

While revolution was a vast collective effort, raising human energy and consciousness to a pitch, the fight against climate change is about a vast collective restraint, a pulling back on the reins. We must cut back, and learn to live humbler and slower lives. In Carbon Counter: Easy Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footprint, published around the same time as Six Degrees, Lynas describes his ‘visions of a sustainable Britain’, which includes a ‘quieter, slower life, where people take more time when travelling and travel less’. In Six Degrees, he says that in the low-carbon society we would finally realise that ‘our planet is a unique gift…which we are indescribably privileged to be born into’.

The low-carbon society is above all calm. According to Lynas, the battle against global warming will allow us to cure the problem of human hubris, which has been the defining feature of what he calls the ‘Anthropocene’. In the low-carbon society, human beings’ restless desire to improve themselves will be gone. We will live locally, we will be thankful, we will make do. Children would be able to play in the street again; airports would be converted back into forests... In the post-Anthroprocene, or perhaps we should call it the Ecocene, we are appointed ‘de facto guardians of the planet’s climate stability’; our mission is regulating the thermostat. In a currently popular phrase, we will become ‘caretakers of the planet’.

Life beyond consumerism would be a fine thing, but this is life without a pulse. Every dream of the destiny of history has been one in which human wishes were fulfilled, where people were free to follow their desires, released from the fetters that hold them back. It is this same theme that runs through imagined post-revolutionary societies, and promised lands flowing with milk and honey. The low-carbon society, by contrast, is one in which fetters are strengthened: our trouble is that we have ‘broken out of the ecological straightjacket’, Lynas says disapprovingly. It is difficult to see how this vision of the future will play. Fight to put the ecological straightjacket back on! Vote to manage the planet’s climate stability!...

The campaign against global warming provides answers so that we no longer have to think about the questions. In Gore’s words, this is ‘the thrill of being forced by circumstances’. The certainty of planetary emergency seems to provide a cause that is solid, a cause that is not chosen and therefore beyond dispute and doubt. It is this relief of finding a point of ideological certainty that explains the grip of global warming on the contemporary imagination. Hence the missionary zeal of believers, and the fact that people now discover global warming in periods of doubt, just as they once used to find God in prison... To understand, we must look not to science but to politics, to the existential needs that mean that the notion of global warming ‘feels right’.

Lynas’ Carbon Calculator shows the way in which global warming also provides a new structure for personal life...

Carbon becomes the universal moral measure, a stick that can be applied to pretty much every activity and possession...

Carbon dioxide becomes the nexus between individuals, the thing that connects us to other people and to the future of the planet. This infuses the most banal acts with a deep moral meaning... In the main, that effect is negative: by seeking to fulfil our own wants and pursue our own goals, we are condemning other people to death. The way we help the whole is by reining in our wants, for example by buying strawberries in summer only.

The carbon calculator involves an almost pathological indifference towards the significance of the things we do. Plane journeys to see sick relatives or to visit prostitutes are weighed the same, in parts per million. The ways in which human beings judge whether something was worthwhile – Did it have a useful result? Did it bring joy or pain? – are suspended. The planet doesn’t care either way. The planet’s indifference to the passions and trials of human life becomes the worldview we ourselves assume. Again, we see how global warming appears to provide the answer to a dilemma – how we live, and how we should structure and judge our lives – but that it does that by abolishing the question. It solves the dilemma of moral meaning by abolishing all meaning...

When global warming becomes so laden with moral meaning, it becomes difficult to approach it as an environmental problem – to work out to what degree it is a problem, and what would be the most appropriate response...

... Lynas criticises the notion that ‘the white knight of technology will come riding to the rescue’ – this is in fact ‘the most pervasive and enduring form of denial’. There is no ‘miracle energy cure’, says Lynas. Indeed, you often hear environmentalists say that the hopes of a ‘silver bullet’ to solve global warming is merely ‘avoiding’ the question. Avoiding how? What they mean is that it is not energy production that must change; it is us. Global warming is not a problem to be solved; it is a lesson to be lived. Lynas writes: ‘The faith in a “techno-fix” evades the need for any serious behavioural change.’

Global warming is so often talked about as a result of our selfishness that we do not see quite how absurd this is. Imagine telling 1950s Londoners that there is no techno-fix to the problem of air pollution, and that they need to monitor and cut their coal use. Smokeless fuels would just allow them to continue in their destructive behaviour, without reflecting on the harm caused by their actions. Their warm sitting room is killing children, and they must take responsibility for that.

Think about that quote from Gore: ‘The climate crisis also offers us the chance to experience what very few generations in history have had the privilege of knowing: a generational mission; the exhilaration of a compelling moral purpose; a shared and unifying cause; the thrill of being forced by circumstances to put aside the pettiness and conflict that so often stifle the restless human need for transcendence….’ Global warming offers us the chance to experience what few generations have had the privilege of knowing. It is a thrill, no less. Global warming is our Cold War. And just as American strategists worried at the end of the Cold War about the loss of the Red opposition, so environmentalists have a kind of attachment to global warming.

Of course, they talk about it being ‘inconvenient’, and they wouldn’t have wished it upon the world... Global warming is now not so much a problem to solve, as an issue around which to reorganise society. This is more Noah’s flood than Clean Air Act, and the lesson is in the sins of hubris and consumerism. Global warming is sent to show people that (in Lynas’ words) they are ‘wasting their lives commuting to work in cars’. His proposed solution – to ‘cut our need for energy by living less consumptive lifestyles’ – will apparently form the basis of a new and happier society.

All the arm-twisting in the world is not going to stop India and China flying, a fact shown by recent figures showing a massive boom in air travel. Daily media guilt-mongering has not stopped British people from enjoying weekends in Budapest or Prague, and nor should it. Governments, we can hope, will still be elected in 2050, and while that is the case carbon rations would still be ‘politically unrealistic’. Unless we live under a dictatorship of some Global Commission for the Environment then energy use will continue to rise dramatically; the only question is whether this energy comes from fossil fuels or some other source. And if it needs to come from some other source, we need a techno-fix.

Techno-fixes are not some airy-fairy notion, some leap of faith. This is otherwise known as innovation, the only way that environmental problems have ever been solved or new energy systems produced. I am not aware of a major environmental problem successfully tackled by the mass of people consciously and systematically abstaining from some or other desirable activity. The lesson of history is that techno-fixes happen, and they happen fast in societies that are looking for solutions...

A fine idea in theory

Even if the border could miraculously be made airtight against trespassers, it would do nothing to stop foreigners from coming on tourist or student visas and then staying on after they are supposed to leave. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, as many as 45 percent of the foreigners here illegally arrived with the blessing of the law. Build a 2,000-mile fence, and more will come that way.

Hardliners think the way to get rid of illegal immigrants is to get rid of the jobs they fill. In the Senate bill endorsed by President Bush, advocates of tougher enforcement got a new system for employers to verify that their workers are entitled to be here. Anyone newly hired (and, in time, anyone with a job) would have to pass a check of federal databases.

It's a fine idea in theory, but note that it requires government authorization for every employment decision in a large, dynamic economy, an approach that is just slightly at odds with the free market. It also presumes a level of efficiency that conservatives do not usually expect of government.

Friday, June 1

Some questions from Alvaro Vargas Llosa

In a country with an unemployment rate of 4.5 percent, who can seriously maintain that immigrants take jobs away from the natives? In a country where many of the states with the highest number of immigrants, such as New York and Florida, have unemployment rates below the national average, who can seriously accuse immigrants of displacing Americans? In a country where half a million immigrants come in illegally every year because the million that come in legally are not enough to match the high demand for foreign workers on the part of American businesses, who can seriously maintain that the immigration debate is mostly a debate between law-abiding Americans and law-breaking aliens?

How to keep people poor

Lant Pritchett via Arnold Kling
The principal way rich countries disadvantage the poor world is not through unfair trade, or through intrusive and ineffective aid, or by forcing repayments of debts. The primary policy pursued by every rich country is to prevent unskilled labor from moving into their countries. And because unskilled labor is the primary asset of the poor world, it is hard to even imagine a policy more directly inimical to a poverty reduction agenda or to “pro-poor growth” than one limiting the demand for unskilled labor (and inducing labor-saving innovations).

The reason for higher gas prices

Gasoline markets today are the result of almost a hundred years of conflicting regulatory policies, which have left them dangerously fragmented[;1] the unintended consequences of regulation that have pushed the United States into a series of loosely connected regional markets rather than a broad, deep national market. This fragmentation leaves the American economy is vulnerable to natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and foreign dictators in ways that it need not be. It also produces higher prices for consumers and reduced innovation by refiners.