Tuesday, September 22, 2009


George Will on Sunday wrote a short article about the lessons of our failed nation building in Bosnia. If nation-building could ever be successful, we'd expect it to work in Bosnia:
If Bosnia -- situated in placid and prosperous Europe; recipient of abundant aid and attention from the United States, the European Union, NATO and the United Nations -- is so resistant to nation-building, what are sensible expectations for a similar project in remote, mountainous, tribal Afghanistan?
The lesson should be that we didn't simply make the wrong decisions and now we've learned from it and we'll do it all correctly the next time. The lesson really should be that nation-building has never succeeded, and we really don't know what would be necessary to make it succeed and may never know. Even with models of successful nations like the the US or Western Europe, it's still not quite clear what it is that makes these countries successful, let alone what another country would have to do to get there.

On a different topic, Radley Balko yesterday wrote an article at Reason Magazine about Shaken Baby Syndrome. Doctors used to be confident that a triad of symptoms in infant deaths were ironclad evidence that the child had been just prior to death been shaken violently enough to kill the baby. This led to about 200 convictions per year mostly for murder based almost entirely on autopsies which showed the presence of the triad of symptoms. But now those convictions are all suspect:
Where the near-unanimous opinion once held that the SBS triad of symptoms could only result from a shaking with the force equivalent of a fall from a three-story to four-story window, or a car moving at 25 mph to 40 mph (depending on the source), research completed in 2003 using lifelike infant dolls suggested that vigorous human shaking produces bleeding similar to that of only a 2-foot to 3-foot fall. Furthermore, the shaking experiments failed to produce symptoms with the severity of those typically seen in SBS deaths.
SBS misdiagnosis is part of a more general problem, namely that we've quite overrated the reliability of much of our forensic science and thought we had ironclad evidence when in fact such "evidence" had never been subject to rigorous scientific review. We're starting to reevaluate the criteria which we've used to convict suspects.

Both of these are stories of overconfidence quite out of keeping with the available knowledge, and in both cases such overconfidence ruined many lives (also, the hubristic were not among the victims). We all make mistakes and those little foibles make life interesting and tend to be our food for growth. But when it comes to making decisions on great matters in which many lives are at stake, going forward boldly with untested ideas can only be described as hubris. We should remember these stories when we think about the grand plans that people are proposing to make our lives better.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Uploading our brains to computers

Bryan Caplan today mentioned the idea of achieving immortality via uploading one's brain to a computer. I've heard others propose such a concept, such as Ray Kurzweil, or seen it appear in fiction, such as in William Gibson, or in Stephen King's Lawnmower Man. It's a tantalizing idea.

Nonetheless, based on what I said earlier about consciousness and teleportation, my biggest fear is when you upload your brain, you won't really upload your consciousness.

In other words, imagine one day in the future, you're sitting there in a chair, with some brain-reader strapped to your head. It reads your brain, uploads it, and then voila, there's now some sort of digital intelligence newly created within the computer's memory. But you're still sitting in the chair, looking at the computer as this computer intelligence is greeting you. And even worse, this computer intelligence is absolutely convinced that it is the true you, and that the physical person sitting in the chair is an obsolete copy that needs to be deleted. From this point, one could spin some sort of sci-fi horror story about an omnipresent computer intelligence trying to kill you because it thinks it's the real you, which might make for an interesting story, but is not a very appealing reality.

If technology is going to give us virtual reality, it seems likely that there is going to have to be some sort of physical continuity for the brain In other words, we have to figure out ways to prolong and preserve our bodies, especially our nervous system, in order to achieve some sort of immortality, if such a thing is at all possible.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Otanes the Persian, a man after my own heart

I've been reading Herodotus' Histories, and there's a short interesting story about a Persian named Otanes. A group of magi (priests) briefly seized control of Persia in the 6th century BC. Seven conspirators, including Otanes and Darius led an insurrection which led to Darius becoming sole monarch of Persia. After the insurrection, but before Darius had been declared King, according to Herodotus, there was a debate among the conspirators about what new government Persia should be given. Otanes favored turning the government over to the Persian People (Book III ch 80-83). He was overruled, since amazingly, these seven conspirators deliberating on whether they should forgo power or seize it for themselves, decide they want power themselves, and they side with Darius who favors a sole monarchy. After deciding this, the next question is who among them is to be the sole monarch, and it's here were Otanes really shines through. Otanes says that he doesn't want power, and that he will withdraw if they leave him and his descendants be. According to Herodotus, Otanes says:
Fellow partisans, it is plain that one of us must be made king (whether by lot, or entrusted with the office by the choice of the Persians, or in some other way), but I shall not compete with you; I desire neither to rule nor to be ruled; but if I waive my claim to be king, I make this condition, that neither I nor any of my descendants shall be subject to any one of you. (Book III ch 83)
The conspirators agree to this, and apparently the agreement is honored down to Herodotus' own day--Otanes and his descendants are given complete autonomy.

Otanes is definitely a man after my own heart. It really makes me wonder how many people, given the choice between ruling others or to be free from the rule of others, would choose the latter. I suspect not many, but I really don't know.

Interestingly there's sort of a related tidbit in Book V about freedom and prosperity. After the Athenians have liberated themselves from their tyrants, with the help of Lacedaemonians, the Lacedaemonians start to grow worried about the Athenians:
the Lacedaemonians, when they ... saw the Athenians increasing in power and in no way inclined to obey them, realized that if the Athenians remained free, they would be equal in power with themselves, but that if they were held down under tyranny, they would be weak and ready to serve a master (Book V ch 91)
The Lacedaemonians were realizing that people left free grow both more prosperous and more powerful. Thus, just as Darius would want to restrict his people's freedom to insure that his people don't threaten his power, so the Lacedaemonians realized they would rather had left Athens oppressed to insure that the Athenians didn't threaten their power.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Are American filmgoers so opposed to Darwin?

A new British Charles Darwin biopic called Creation premiered at the Toronto film festival last week and is set to be released in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and three other European countries over the next several months, but it isn't going to be released in the US. The question is why.

The British Daily Telegraphy thinks it's because the movie is too controversial for American audiences:
according to a Gallup poll conducted in February, only 39 per cent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution .... The film has sparked fierce debate on US Christian websites .... "The film has no distributor in America. It has got a deal everywhere else in the world but in the US, and it's because of what the film is about."

The film stars Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany and is about the struggle between his religious beliefs and his evolutionary theory. The Daily Telegraph says that "Early reviews have raved about the film," but Rotten Tomatoes lists only two reviewers, who are split: one liking it, the other not. Rotten Tomatoes, though, doesn't include the Hollywood Reporter review, which is quite positive.

John Scalzi has a different theory. He thinks it's because the movie just isn't that sexy and exciting:
it may be that a quiet story about the difficult relationship between an increasingly agnostic 19th Century British scientist and his increasingly devout wife, thrown into sharp relief by the death of their beloved 10-year-old daughter, performed by mid-list stars, is not exactly the sort of film that’s going to draw in a huge winter holiday crowd, regardless of whether that scientist happens to be Darwin or not, and that these facts are rather more pertinent, from a potential distributor’s point of view.

This latter theory has some plausibility to it. Controversy is not a good excuse not to release a film since controvery tends to bring bring in the crowds. If Christians got all upset about this movie and it made some press, then people would start piling in, just as people piled in to see The Last Temptation of Christ and Life of Brian.

Something similar happened before with the American release of Battle Royale. It was a Japanese movie set in a dystopic future in which randomly selected school children are placed on an island with weapons and forced to kill each other off for the entertainment of tv audiences. It never got an American release, and people assumed it was because it was too violent or controversial. Turns out the problem is that the Japanese studio and the American distributors couldn't come to an agreement. The Japanese wanted a major American release akin to any big budget American action movie: opening in lots of theaters with lots of promotion and such. But the American distributors would only give it a more limited release, thinking it wouldn't make much money because it was a foreign language film. Foreign language films seldom do very well in the US. For this reason, they couldn't get come to an agreement and the film was never released here in the US.

It's possible something like that is going on with Creation, where the British producers want a wide release and the American distributors think it would only be worth a limited release. It seems implausible that the film wouldn't do fine with a limited release in a couple big cities like New York, LA, San Francisco and other cities which have a lot of small theaters specifically catering to independent and foreign films like this.

Nonetheless, it will be too bad if this film doesn't get an American release, even though, I admit, I probably wouldn't go see it, since it really doesn't look like my cup of tea.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Pain Free Animals & Utilitarian Calculus

Robin Hanson has an interesting commentary on the possibility of using animals that are genetically modified not to feel pain for animal testing and livestock. The idea is that people would have fewer moral qualms about eating meat from an animal that didn't experience the pain of slaughter and that people would approve of animal testing if the animals didn't suffer.

This reminds us of Utilitarianism. According to the Utilitarians nothing is in itself good or bad. An action's moral value is determined by the consequences. And we evaluate the consequences by the quantity of the resultant pleasure and pain, since these are the only absolute measures of virtue. If something causes, in the aggregate, across all persons that it affects, more pleasure than pain, then it's good, but if more pain than pleasure then it's bad. This means that we could skew this Utilitarian calculus in our favor by making something entirely pain free. Thus, it would be impossible to do anything bad to a thing that feels no pain (so long as we assume that no one else is affected).

A separate survey gives us some insight into home open to thinking of things in Utilitarian terms. According to this survey which asked people whether they'd be okay with creating pain-free animals for animal testing, people are pretty equally split, about half favoring, half opposing. People who are opposed to cruelty to animals altogether (vegetarians and the animal protection community) are most strongly opposed to it. I think many people probably oppose it simply because they oppose genetic modification entirely. The results are not unambiguous. For example those most opposed to animal cruelty when asked, if pain-free animals already were around, would a scientist "be morally obliged to use a pain-free animal in an otherwise painful experiment," a significant majority agreed.

The idea of a pain-free animal does provide an interesting thought experiment for Utilitarianism: if you have a person who can't experience pain is it impossible to do anything bad to them? I don't think this undermines Utilitarianism, but it does provide an example to chew upon, especially if Utilitarians want to think upon correlative issues like, how do we formulate ethics for the treatment of the dead?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Forget the "We Shall Never Forget" mantra

I concur with Will Wilkinson. There's nothing healthy in this insistence that we never forget 9/11:
Those most insistent that we “never forget” 9/11 are those who need our continuing collective complicity in the erosion of our civil liberties, in the weakening of the rule of law, in the unjustified invasion of unrelated foreign countries and the murder of their people, in the policy of state-sanctioned torture.
Yes, there are many people who died on that day, and we should remember these people. But, we need to move the event into the back of our collective consciousness, where it no longer guides our actions. No person ever grew psychologically healthy by dwelling on past misfortunes. Memory of 9/11 has only led to exaggerated fear of terrorism, which is this county is a nominal threat. It has also led to erosion of civil liberties, invasion of privacy, and still continuing military aggression. Let's put 9/11 behind us.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Why are guys attracted to crazy girls?

Glamour blogger Shallon Lester brought this issue up last week. Why are guys sometimes attracted to those emotionally unstable, unpredictable women? She suggests,
I think guys secretly like the drama. Maybe it makes them feel alive or brings some action to their otherwise dull lives. Or, perhaps it reminds them of the chaos of their own family life as a child ... Or, they could just be weak guys who like being dominated and repressed.

Lauren Fritsky, in response suggests possibly, "men need to feel needed" and and are with such crazy women to boost self-esteem.

Ami Angelowicz, to one up them all, adds five possible theories (ht Glenn Reynolds)

1. Men love to be heroes. They love to “fix” things. It makes them feel needed, important, and feeds the male ego. Who makes a better damsel in distress than a poor, defenseless lunachic? Note to guys: a woman is not like a house. Fixer-uppers do not usually turn out to be a wise investment. If you need to fix something, there are plenty of us normal single girls out there who need some light bulbs changed.
2. If she’s crazy day to day, chances are she’s crazy in the sack. But men don’t really care about sex that much, do they? Wait … I think they might.
3. He has mommy issues. If a guy had a dysfunctional mother (or primary family member) he may not actually be aware that his lady’s behavior is NOT normal. There’s no shame in going to therapy and working that stuff out.
4. Need to figure out your future career? Money troubles? Feeling anxious or depressed? Having a GF with problems much worse than your own is a wonderful distraction. Warning: she will only make your problems worse.
5. He is not ready for a real intimate and committed relationship, and we all pick the wrong kind of person when we’re not ready. As soon as he envisions a lifetime of cracked-out antics, chances are he’ll be on the road to Mrs. Rightville, ASAP

As a guy who has in the past been attracted to some crazy chicks I think I'm in a position to provide insight. From my perspective, I think Shallon Lester gets closest to the truth.

First, I should say, that this is not something confined to just guys. People in general are attracted to "crazy" people, in the sense that we're talking about here (see the movie Withnail & I for a perfect example of a crazy guy like this). The key to this type craziness is a lack of inhibitions which is what leads to the mood swings, the unpredictable actions, and the inability to really make long term commitments. Such people are attractive because they're more interesting, more exciting, more unpredictable. People who deviate from expectations are just plain more interesting and we're attracted to them.

Many people are scared by such unpredictable people, but others are simultaneously attracted to them. The men who are attracted to these crazy chicks (like me when I was younger) are definitely not going to be more dominant personalities ("more spineless," one might say) and are also probably going to be more open to novel experiences. And, I sort of agree with Angelowicz on number 5: if a guy starts thinking long term with a crazy girlfriend he's going to have to think either that he can somehow tame her, without losing the excitement of her crazyiness (unlikely, but a guy can still dream right?) or he's going to drop her for someone more stable.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Persian Strategy: Deliberating while drunk

I’ve just been reading Herodutus’ Histories. In his discussion of the Persians, he writes (Book I, chapter 133) that they decide upon important matters by first getting drunk and debating and coming to a decision while drunk. Then, the next day when they are sober they deliberate and decide whether they want to stick to the decision made. If they decide yes, they go through with it. If they decide against it, they drop it, and ostensibly go back to square one. He also says they do the opposite, if they initially deliberate sober, they’ll make their final decision drunk.

I don’t know whether Herodotus is reliable on this bit of cultural history. He was an avid traveler and knew of Persian culture via first hand experience. But the more important is: is this a good way to deliberate?

Aside from the obvious benefits that it makes decision making a lot more interesting and more fun, and that if congress were to attempt it, it would probably significantly increase C-Span’s rating, those Persians might have been on to something. I think what they found useful in drunkenness was the lack of inhibitions. Perhaps in a state of drunkenness one would be less reserved during deliberation in proposing bold ideas that one might hesitate to propose when sober. One would be also be less reluctant to step on other people’s toes. Thus, things would probably be a lot more contentious and rowdy. This might have an upside, since people might be less prone to step in line behind the most charismatic voice, and so, instead of everyone falling behind the strongest personality, a broader consensus would be reached.

The opposite strategy of deliberating sober and then deciding drunk, seems a bad idea though. The impulsiveness of drunkenness would seem to just always impulsively conceding to whatever one agreed to while sober. It suggests that what the Persians had in mind was that one should consider something from multiple angles, by inducing multiple states of mind.

Nonetheless, it might be an interesting strategy to adopt. I doubt it would make national politics any worse. And it might have some novel benefits.

UPDATE: David Harsanyi has a short article at Reason Magazine, "Civility is Overrated," that we really shouldn't overrate the importance of civility in political debate. I think sobriety in political debate is overrated.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


I like to think of myself as an open-minded person (I think most people assume they are). Where do I come up with such a judgment? Well, I notice that sometimes I change my mind. But really how is it that I change my mind? How do I form new opinions?

In the first place, from experience, when introduced to new topics about which I have little or no previous experience, I'm pretty credulous. I usually take the first opinion made available, or, if multiple opinions are made available, I'll throw myself on top of whichever seems most reasonable. For example, if someone tells me that civet coffee is the world's best coffee, since I seldom drink coffee and don't spend too much time thinking about or comparing coffee, I'll take this as authoritative and assume this person knows things I don't.

Such an early opinion is not unshakable. As I begin to learn more about the topic, my opinion might evolve. But as I get more knowledgeable my opinion becomes more intractable. And by the time I progress to the point of expert coffee gourmand, I might be completely unpersuadable.

The reason for this may simply be because I've learned so much, that it's really hard for someone to muster enough evidence to knock down the large bulwark behind my position. For example, if I was a late eighteenth century physicist who'd invested himself for years studying the caloric theory of heat, with numerous experiments and experiences and arguments that seemed to back it up, I wouldn't be persuaded by Count Rumford's one single cannon boring experiment and its proposal that heat is motion. I'd need more evidence. Even great scientific experiments that in retrospect can be seen to clearly refute the theory that preceded them, meet great resistance in their own day, and are met with strong resistance by defenders of the old way.

A second reason for becoming unpersuadable might also be some sort of endowment effect: namely that we sometimes value more what we possess than what we don't possess. In other words, I think of an opinion of mine as MY opinion, and don't want to let go of it.

A third somewhat related reason, might be that this opinion has become part of my self-identity. I might for example, identify myself as a defender of the caloric theory, or as a civet-coffee-lover, which would mean, I'd have to change who I was to change this opinion. And how shocked others would be who knew me as this caloric defender or civet-coffee-lover to discover I've changed so radically! Better be cautious about changing my mind lest I distress all my friends upon discovering that now I'm a totally different person.

For these reasons, it's generally pretty hard to persuade me in conversation on issues about which I've formed an opinion. In reality, I don't think I really can be persuaded, on many issues, just by taking. This is relevant, since so much philosophical debate is precisely built around discussing issues, either at conferences in person or via journals. If people, especially experts discussing issues about which they've invested serious time thinking about and researching are completely intractable, what's the point in these conferences and journal articles? Is it just for the factions in agreement to announce their allegiance and trade good arguments? Is it just to ensnare in discipleship the naive and still malleable young grad students who mosey through these conferences and journals?


I should note, though, that my mind does change sometimes. It takes a lot to convince me, which is usually more patience or time than I have for a conversation. But if someone's arguments stick with me, I may be willing to think about it. Upon considerable reflection even some of my most cherished beliefs can be knocked down. But it's never someone else who changes my mind. They might provide the initial spark, but I ultimately have to persuade myself. Why this is so, might again come back to a sense of identity. I like to think of myself as someone who forms his own opinions, and not as the gullible parrot of some persuasive authority (though there are definitely many opinions I harbor which I'm just parroting from someone else).

I'm writing about these things not to talk about how open-minded I am, but to try to understand open-mindedness through understanding the only person I've had a chance of closely observing (myself). I believe that my experiences are fairly typical.

The only thing I think is unusual is that I am more reflective and spend a lot more time contemplating things than the average person (though this is the norm in academia), but otherwise, I think I'm fairly typical on these points.

Admittedly, that I am so reflective, does mean that I've thought a lot more about a lot more issues and probably means that I've got a lot more strong opinions than most people. This may mean that I like most other seriously reflective people, am perhaps more close-minded than most people.

As an after thought, I'll note that people who like to play devil's advocate are generally the most fun to debate with. I think this is because they don't as strongly identify with their beliefs and thus don't feel like a disagreement with them is a personal attack. This might mean they're somewhat more open-minded.

Monday, September 7, 2009

How influential are corporations

Robin Hanson's recent post on the issue the supreme court is deciding this week of whether corporations have the right to support political candidates, got me thinking about influence. Corporations have been prohibited from contributing to campaigns of federal candidates since 1907. The idea behind preventing corporations from contributing to candidates is that their substantial wealth will give them too much influence upon potential future candidates. This raises the immediate question, if corporations are so influential why did they allow such a law to be pass in the first place? The reason, I think, is because they don't have that much influence.

The reason corporations don't have too much influence is twofold. For one they are beholden to their customers. The hullabaloo over the Wall Street Journal column of John Mackey recently demonstrates that corporations advocate many political positions at the risk of losing customers. Those customers are heterogeneous, and a company will find it far too easy to offend a significant number of them. Secondly, corporations don't have uniform interests themselves. There will be in-fighting between them. Microsoft, Pepsi and News Corp do have similar interests. Sure, they all want to make money, but the ways they go about doing that are so dissimilar, that they will seldom agree on policy. The individual influence of some corporations will be offset by the individual influence of competing corporations.

This isn't to say that corporations don't have heavy influence. Of course they do. But so do many groups. In fact, the problem as I see it is not that there are some--such as big corporations, wealthy individuals, interest groups or wealthy nation--that have inordinate influence, it's that the politician their trying to persuade has sufficient power to attract these groups. If you assume that corporate heads have such unwieldy power, why is it that they go to Washington to get politicians to help them? If you want to eliminate the problem of people corrupting politicians, mitigate the power of federal politicians (smaller government, less taxes, fewer laws, etc) and then groups will find it less worth their while to bother.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

On the Brain Drain

A study released recently talks about the negative effects of attempting to stem brain drains (ht Ian Vasquez). The authors argue, somewhat surprisingly, that the brain drains aren't nearly as bad as the underlying factors that are encouraging the brain drain. For example, probably history's biggest brain drain would be the emigration of primarily Jewish Europeans during the era of Nazi Germany. That so many intellectuals were leaving was a small problem in comparison to much bigger problems like the rise of Hitler and the National Socialist party and their megalomanic intentions.

The study also argues, even more importantly, that attempts to prevent these brains drains are more harmful than beneficial because they have many unintended consequences The author really thinks that countries need to encourage their skilled labor to stay instead of preventing them from leaving.

In the United States, we have our own mini brain drain problem. We train and educate lots of skilled laborer from other countries and then practically boot them out the door when they finish. Per the results of the above study, it would clearly be unwise for us to force these foreign college grads to stay here if they wanted to return home. But, it's equally foolish to make it prohibitively expensive for them to jump through over all the vast legal hurdles in order to remain here. Education is an investment which is paid back by the increased productivity of the labor that is educated. Tuition hardly covers the true full costs of education. Thus, it's not really smart to educate people and kick them out the door, just as it's not smart for a company to train workers that it intends to promptly fire after the training is over.

Immigration policy for American-educated college grads needs to be revised (heck immigration policy needs to be expanded for everyone, but lets start simple).

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Why has violence declined so much?

Steven Pinker wrote an article last April about the rapid decline in the level of violence throughout history. The essay is adapted from his talk at TED. We've gone from a 15-60% chance that you would die by being killed by another person in hunter/gatherer times to less than a 1% chance in the 20th century. The question is why. Pinker presents four possibilities:
The first is that the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes got it right. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short—not because of a primal thirst for blood but because of the inescapable logic of anarchy. Any beings with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbors and steal their resources. The resulting fear of attack will tempt the neighbors to strike first in preemptive self-defense, which will in turn tempt the first group to strike against them preemptively, and so on. This danger can be defused by a policy of deterrence—don't strike first, retaliate if struck—but to guarantee its credibility, parties must avenge all insults and settle all scores, leading to cycles of bloody vendetta.

These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence. States can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression, thereby defusing anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating the need to maintain a hair-trigger propensity for retaliation. Indeed, Manuel Eisner attributes the decline in European homicide to the transition from knightly warrior societies to the centralized governments of early modernity. And today, violence continues to fester in zones of anarchy, such as frontier regions, failed states, collapsed empires, and territories contested by mafias, gangs, and other dealers of contraband.

James Payne suggests another possibility: that the critical variable in the indulgence of violence is an overarching sense that life is cheap. When pain and early death are everyday features of one's own life, one feels less compunction about inflicting them on others. As technology and economic efficiency lengthen and improve our lives, we place a higher value on life in general.

A third theory, championed by journalist Robert Wright, invokes the logic of non-zero-sum games: scenarios in which two agents can each come out ahead if they cooperate, such as trading goods, dividing up labor, or sharing the peace dividend that comes from laying down their arms. As people acquire know-how that they can share cheaply with others and develop technologies that allow them to spread their goods and ideas over larger territories at lower cost, their incentive to cooperate steadily increases, because other people become more valuable alive than dead.

Then there is the scenario sketched by philosopher Peter Singer. Evolution, he suggests, bequeathed people a small kernel of empathy, which by default they apply only within a narrow circle of friends and relations. Over the millennia, people's moral circles have expanded to encompass larger and larger polities: the clan, the tribe, the nation, both sexes, other races, and even animals. The circle may have been pushed outward by expanding networks of reciprocity, à la Wright, but it might also be inflated by the inexorable logic of the Golden Rule: The more one knows and thinks about other living things, the harder it is to privilege one's own interests over theirs. The empathy escalator may also be powered by cosmopolitanism, in which journalism, memoir, and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the precariousness of one's own lot in life, more palpable—the feeling that "there but for fortune go I."
Personally, I tend to think the last possibility from Singer the strongest possibility. I agree that our instinctive morality seems to have a double standard: what is evil to do to one's group is not evil to do to those outside one's group. And we do seem to think in more international terms these days.

The question would then be, if that's the reason, then why have our polities/groups expanded? The increase in journalism/memoirs/fiction and ideologies of cosmopolitanism as Singer suggests? Perhaps other factors such as increased trade? more traveling? cheaper long-distance communication? Perhaps all of these?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Music for Monkeys

At Wired they have a story about music composed to appeal to tamarin monkeys. Monkeys don't like our favorite music and generally don't respond to it emotionally. So a composer and some scientists wrote music, "based on the pitch, tone and tempo of tamarin calls." The monkeys did respond to this music. You can listen to two samples at the wired article. It's definitely not the most appealing or evocative to our ears. It really makes one wonder what makes music so appealing to us.

Kant for example, didn't think too highly of music. he thought it was pretty low on the scale of art, saying it was tantamount to color patterns, like say fabric or wallpaper. Poetry was the most sophisticated art form to him. I think Kant came to this conclusion because he just didn't get music, and probably wasn't exposed to very good music (the great musicians of his day didn't tour much, and he never left his home town). And I understand why he doesn't get music. It seems much more clear to me why I find other forms of art appealing, but I can't explain what makes music appealing.

Darwin talks about the origins of music in Descent of Man, and I think he gives us some insight into how emotions are conveyed through music. He says that what we hear as, for example, power or softness or playfulness (or whatever) in music is just us hearing by extension the power or softness or playfulness of the person's physical movements while playing it. It's almost like, when we hear a really forceful section of piano music, we are as if imagining a pianist forcefully attacking the piano keys, though we don't actually literally visualize this in our head. Thus, music is almost like an extension of body language, an extension of the emotion we see conveyed in body language. Our tone of voice similarly conveys emotions. For example, a higher pitch of voice usually evokes defensiveness, and its caused by us sort of clenching ourselves up, like a boxer clenching themselves in preparation for receiving a punch. So when we hear this higher pitched voice we are hearing, as it were, the defensive clenching.

This might explain why monkeys don't find our music appealing, since they won't hear the physical/bodily motions that are conveyed in sounds appealing to us. But they will hear it in sounds more similar to the vocal calls they make. This might provide some insight into what makes music appealing, but much is still unclear.

Skepticism is good

Alvin Johnson tells the story of how the prominent Chicago economist Frank Knight switched from philosophy to economics while studying at Cornell. Knight's philosophy professors apparently thought Knight wasn't suited for philosophy and told him so. Johnson thought Knight was a good student, so he asked these professors, who told him, in Johnson's words:
It isn't that he's devoid of ability, but with his ingrained skepticism, he repudiates all the values of philosophy. As a teacher or writer he will be not just the blind leading the blind in pitfalls, he will destroy the true philosophic spirit wherever he touches it.
Alvin Johnson concluded that Knight should be studying economics and became his teacher.

It's interesting since several philosophers like Hegel and Husserl saw philosophy as struggling against the pernicious persistence of skepticism. I personally think it's rather too bad that a smart individual like Knight was wooed away from philosophy. Skepticism is good in philosophy. One reason is that philosophy progresses by coming up with better and better ways of overcoming skepticism (which is how Husserl sees it as well). But also, in addition, I think that since philosophy deals with such intractable issues, for which adequate solutions will never be reached, a level of skepticism is necessary to prevent one from thinking one has certain truth when one is merely speculating. A healthy skepticism is an ability to recognize the limits of one's ideas, the level of doubt and uncertainty surrounding one's conclusions, but also not to let skepticism make one so despondent that one never tries to seek knowledge.

It seems like the attitude of Knight's Cornell philosophy professors is an attitude of false certainty, of believing that one can find certain truth where it can't be found and throwing all one's confidence behind ideas that could be wrong. To me Knight has more of the true philosophic spirit that his former professors because of his ingrained skepticism.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Why we assume we are immortal

David Friedman has a post on why we assume that after we die we will continue to exist, in a way, say as a ghost or disembodied soul. He thinks it has to do with our perception of the world in terms of individuated things and our perception of the preservation and perpetuation of individuated things (think the Theseus' Ship Problem). It's a very interesting discussion and worth reading.

I have a different theory. I think, first of all, it connects with our tendency to think that we've been visited by deceased loved ones, either in dreams or in hallucinations. For example, after Jesus dies, two of his disciples meet and talk with a person who says something insightful, then afterwards they both convince themselves that it was Jesus visiting them in another form (cf Luke 24:13-32 & Mark 16:12), or in Tennysons Poem In Memorium he has a vision in a dream of his deceased young friend A. H. Hallam, which leads him to believe that Hallam is in heaven. Hallucinations and dreams of the recently deceased are not uncommon. In fact, technologically primitive people tend to believe that the land of the dead is not far away, maybe a few days journey from them. The dead are close enough that they can drop by for a visit every once in a while. in Homer, the land of the dead is presumably somewhere on the other side of the Mediterranean.

Second of all, I think our believe in immortality is also the result of introspection. It's really hard to imagine, and in fact quite terrifying to think that I will be sense/experience/think/feel. I don't think of myself as just this body, but as something else in addition, an immaterial thing that looks out through my body's eyes and sees the world. It's easy to imagine my body ceaseing to be, but how do I imagine that immaterial part of me eliminated? How do I imagine what it would be like to feel/see/sense nothing? or to experience the absence of experience--for all eternity? How do I think about what it would be not to think, and until the end of time? Such thoughts are so mind-bending and terrifying that it's easier just to imagine that I'll continue on as some disembodied soul or ghost or be resurrected or something, anything rather than to just cease to be.

I'm young, I admit, so I have a long time to think about these things (I hope). I will eventually (unless I discover I'm an immortal or get bitten by a vampire or something) see how it comes out on the other side. But unfortunately I won't be able to tell anybody what it's like over there, which is quite frustrating.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Why do we live longer than we can procreate?

It's always been a puzzle why it is that people live longer than they can possibly produce offspring. Women usually have menopause at around age 50, so we'd expect that people would pretty much expect people to die around 50, since after that age they can't reproduce, and thus there would be no selective pressure for longer life.

One recent study suggests that longevity past 50 can be explained by male procreation with younger women (ht Robin Hanson). As explained in the abstract:
We analyze a general two-sex model to show that selection favors survival for as long as men reproduce. Male fertility can only result from matings with fertile females, and we present a range of data showing that males much older than 50 yrs have substantial realized fertility through matings with younger females, a pattern that was likely typical among early humans.
In other words, the longer a man lives the more children he'll end up having: younger men with a woman around their age, older men with younger women, and really, really old men with much, much younger women. So, since men who live longer would have more children, their genes would tend to dominate and would be selected for. Furthermore, these genes for longevity wouldn't just apply to men since they would be passed on to both the women and the men.

Personally, I've always though the explanation for longevity was due to some sort of group selection. Humans really aren't just competing with other individuals, but groups of humans are also competing with other groups. The groups sometimes completely wipe out the other so that the survivor group would be the only ones to pass on their genes. Think of the two competing groups of proto-humans in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The group that discovered tools, chased the other group from the watering hole, ensuring the survival of the tool-using group, and probably leading to the death of the non-tool-using group. Thus, the genes of this tool-using group would be passed on.

I've always thought this was a good explanation of how morality developed. Groups of humans that followed certain morals would be more united, and thus would be able to hunt/gather/farm better and succeed more in wars against non-moral groups which would be more disunited (especially think about how we usually have a sort of "us vs them" morality, where it is a sin to do things to one of our own that are perfectly acceptable to do to our enemies).

Similarly, this is how I'd explain longevity past the age of procreation. Old people are an asset to a community. They bear valuable knowledge and experience and are the best teachers. Especially in times before writing, old people are your best receptacles of knowledge. Most people would die before reaching their 30s due to disease, warfare, starvation or the dangers of hunting and childbirth, but a very small few would carry on, and probably carry on as long as our oldest members. These few old persons, though not as productive, would be a great asset because of their knowledge. Thus, groups with some old people would tend to outcompete other groups, and so genes for longevity would be selected for.

Admittedly, the story of older men procreating with younger women is more interesting. Then again, these two explanations aren't really mutually exclusive. Maybe it's both.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

How Intellectual Property Harms the Consumer

Daniel Krawisz, makes an interesting case against intellectual property, talking about the fallacy of intellectual property being considered as part of essential property rights. he talks about the practical side (that a government is necessary to enforce it) and the moral side, (the moral value of rights and whether intellectual property rights fit among them). He makes some worthwhile points to which I want to add. I think if we imagine what it would be like without intellectual property, I think we will see that it will leads to consequences that are probably more desirable (accounting for inevitable trade-offs) to consumers. The consequences of the absence of patents, trademarks and copyrights would all be different, and I'll focus on copyrights (and to be honest, I'm not sure whether a strong case can be make against trademarks on practical grounds).

The consequence to the arts and entertainment industries being unable to copyright musical recordings and books will be that the record companies and publishers who capitalize on their artists' talent and celebrity will be hurt, but the artists themselves will be unaffected. As Adam Gurri writes, the pirating of music may harm recording companies:
But at the end of the day there will be very little difference for the musicians themselves. Before digital technology and the internet, most musicians made next to nothing and a few made an enormous amount. After the transition...most will make next to nothing, and a few will make an enormous amount.
Gurri quotes Chris Anderson who notes that
music creates celebrity. There are worse problems than the challenge of turning fame into fortune.

Successful production of art and entertainment would still produce fame, which the artists could always capitalize on, making it still very economically profitable to produce art and entertainment even in the absence of copyrights. For musicians, they would simply focus more on performance than studio recording, and still make lucrative incomes from their talent. Authors could focus on making money from lecture tours, teaching classes on writing, selling exclusive signed copies of their books, and other things.

The result for consumers thus would be more access to their favorite artists, via live appearances and classroom instruction. It can hardly be to the detriment of the wider populace that popular performers would tour more or that they could take classes with popular authors.

Movie studios would definitely be hurt in dvd/blu-ray sales, but since they already control distribution of their movies through theaters, profits via the sale of movie tickets would be unaffected. The results would be similar with tv shows.

Absence of copyright might be said to reduce production of new material, though: musicians writing less new music, authors writing fewer new books, studios producing fewer movies and so on. But we might actually expect the opposite trend, especially among prominent and successful artists. Successful artists can now sit upon the fruits of long past success and continue making a living off of past successes because of almost endless copyrights. This unproductivity of successful and popular authors can hardly be the best for consumers, who are especially interested in new work from precisely these artists who are the most talented.

The most extreme example of this habit is be J. D. Salinger, who still lives off the continued success of his 1951 Catcher in the Rye, despite having been only mildly productive in its wake, and not producing any new fiction after 1965. In the absence of copyrights, J. D. Salinger would be forced to produce or to teach or lecture, or any of a number of other things which would have considerably more direct benefit on his fans than doing nothing.

In fact, J. D. Salinger has been actively trying to prevent books inspired by his work from being published. Last June he filed a lawsuit to block the publication of a semi-sequel 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye of Catcher in the Rye by pseudonymous author J. D. California.

Here we have another way in which copyright can actually reduce artistic productivity. Fan-fiction, production of remix films and music (using clips from copyrighted films tv shows and songs to produce new songs or movies), translations into other languages, and various adaptations and reinterpretations of copyrighted material are restricted by copyright. Does it really benefit consumers that there's only one translation of each of the books of popular foreign authors like Umberto Eco and Jean-Paul Sartre, or that there is only one film adaptation of popular books like the Harry Potter or Twilight series or that people can't create works based on the characters and places of popular fictional universes such as Star Trek and Star Wars?

For consumers of arts and entertainment, the absence of copyrights would benefit them. There would be both more artistic productivity and greater access to their favorite celebrities. I imagine consumers would be more pleased with this arrangement, and that more people would thereby be in favor of the absence of copyrights if they knew the full consequences.

Monday, August 24, 2009

John Yoo and Academic Freedom

Interesting debate over at the NY Times about whether John Yoo should be fired from his post at Berkeley for his memos giving the Bush administration legal cover for torture. Two of the commentators they solicited think he should be fired, the other three are against it.

I side with the minority on this one, believing that he should be fired, though agreeing with them that the prudent course of action would be to conduct an official inquiry and only fire him if the inquiry concludes that professional misconduct had been committed.

In fact, this is the type of system I see as a much better alternative to tenure: colleges being able to fire faculty, but only after after official inquiry. This would make it difficult to fire professors for controversial ideas, but would open the door to firing them for incompetence or for grave ethics violations.

In Yoo's case, the issue is not about incompetence, but about doing something unethical. For those who think Yoo should be fired, this issue really isn't that he holds the wrong opinion, but that his actions represent professional misconduct. We expect doctors to uphold standards of conduct when lives are on the line (though quite excessively sometimes). Shouldn't lawyers be held accountable for malpractice when lives are on the line?

Insofar as Yoo is supposed to provide legal counsel, he must interpret the law to the best of his judgment, and there will be a lot of disagreement on interpretations. But that's not the problem. As Brad Wendel (who thinks Yoo shouldn't be fired) summarizes:
The memos purporting to justify the harsh treatment of detainees could do so only by twisting the law beyond all recognition, and doing so in secret so that the flawed legal advice would not be challenged. When the memos were disclosed publicly, virtually no one could be found to defend them on the merits.
Yoo is not simply offering opinion, he is offering legal cover, and in a cagey way. If he had published such opinions in a scholarly journal, people might disagree with him adamantly, but there wouldn't be serious consideration of firing him. Even if Bush and his administration co-opted published articles to give them legal cover, the weight of moral responsibility would lie with the Bush administration, not the articles' author.

An inquiry into Yoo's conduct would not have the effect of inhibiting scholars' ability to express controversial opinions openly, though it would, one would hope, discourage them from giving legal cover to actions of a dubious moral standing.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Higher ed costs

Mark Perry at Carpe Diem posted several days ago a series of posts about rising tuition and disinvestment in faculty.

There has been rapid increases in college tuition, at an average 7.74% annual rate (twice that of inflation) since 1978. Tuition has increased significantly faster than the increase in the cost of health care, which has only increased at an average rate of 6% annually. As I noted earlier, what makes this unsettling is that clearly the quality of health care has improved as costs have gone up, with the advent of many new technologies, drugs and procedures, but its difficult to say whether there has been any improvement in higher education.

What we see from trends of employment and salary levels is that schools are not spending the additional money they're charging for education on providing education.
Between 1997 and 2007 enrollment increased by 25.8%, but tenured/tenure track faculty only increased by 8.6%. I'm generally against the tenure system, and would prefer that colleges shift more towards long-term full-time faculty. But the colleges are instead maintaining class sizes by turning more to cheap disposable faculty, like adjuncts and graduate students. They are forced to do this because colleges have increased the number of non-teaching staff much more rapidly than increases in enrollment: increasing executive/managerial staff by 42.4% over the same period and increasing professional staff by 54%. Also, the faculty aren't getting paid more, since pay has almost been flat in real dollars since 1978.

The overall trend is that students are getting no better education for their money, but only a lot more bureaucracy and administration.

I think the proximate cause of this is that colleges are not for profit, eliminating the incentive for them to maximum profits by cutting cots. Additionally, the increasing costs are permitted since schools don't have many students who immediately pay for their education, meaning there's limited demand from consumers to lower tuition.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Slippery Slopes and Gay Marriage

I was just reading some commentary on the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire. And Steve Capman notes
Opponents of same-sex marriage reject it on religious and moral grounds but also on practical ones. If we let homosexuals marry, they believe, a parade of horribles will follow—the weakening of marriage as an institution, children at increased risk of broken homes, the eventual legalization of polygamy, and who knows what all.
In other words, some opponents to same-sex marriage make the slippery slope argument, that it will lead to progressively more indecent and immoral forms of marriage and more divorce.

Admittedly, I have no objection to slippery slope arguments in general. They're certainly not logically rigorous, but they are meant to be predictive and are based on an accurate understanding of human psychology. People become accustomed to something and then can become more willing to accept even greater extremes. In retrospect it seems reasonable that when the the US Supreme Court in 1937 changed their opposition to Roosevelt's New Deal after Roosevelt's court-packing threat, that this has led to a continual erosion of the perceived constitutional limits on the executive branch and has been partially responsible for the semi-regal office of president we have today. One could've objected in 1937 that permitting a little bit of extra power to the president in a time of emergency, could lead to the president ultimately having quite excessive and unchecked power. This argument would be correct.

The most common mistake of the slippery slope argument is to assume some sort of inevitability to it. It may seem inevitable in retrospect, but this is misleading.

In the case of same-sex marriage, though, the mistake is in misidentifying the slippery slope. Acceptance of same-sex marriage is the result of greater tolerance of homosexuality. If we have more same-sex marriage then it could lead to a slippery slope of greater tolerance for people being open about their homosexuality, for more institutions catering to homosexuals, for openly homosexual public figures, like politicians, business leaders, celebrities and so on (which I see no problem with), but it doesn't seem like a slippery slope towards erosion of the institution of marriage. Over time people will learn more to accept the equal sanctity of both heterosexual and homosexual marriage. Same-sex couples are entering into marriage because they want to affirm the type of life-long commitment that heterosexual couples already find in marriage. Increased incidence of divorce seems to be a separate phenomenon, probably more connected to increasing independence of women, a greater emphasis on individualism and autonomy.

That same-sex marriage would lead polygamy is absurd, since that would have to come as a result of greater tolerance of polygamy or polyamory or religions that promote polygamy (like Mormonism). In fact, it seems like our increasing emphasis on women's rights would lead us away from polygamy (though possible towards acceptance of polyandry). And acceptance of incest or bestiality or pedophilia? These are also completely unrelated to acceptance of homosexuality.

If someone opposes same-sex marriage on moral or religious grounds, it's difficult to argue with them, but if they want to make the argument on practical grounds, I think that argument falls apart.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Devil's Dictionary

Just skimming through Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary, an amusing book of humor. Here are some definitions that caught my eye:

GENEALOGY, n. An account of one's descent from an ancestor who did not particularly care to trace his own.

HARBOR, n. A place where ships taking shelter from storms are exposed to the fury of the customs.

HEAVEN, n. A place where the wicked cease from troubling you with talk of their personal affairs, and the good listen with attention while you expound your own.

IMPENITENCE, n. A state of mind intermediate in point of time between sin and punishment.

INDIFFERENT, adj. Imperfectly sensible to distinctions among things.

RELIGION, n. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.

TARIFF, n. A scale of taxes on imports, designed to protect the domestic producer against the greed of his consumer.

I recommend skimming through it on your own, if you have the time.

Probably every person who ever read this book has desired to make a Devil’s Diction of their own. Here’s my attempt at a few definitions. I’ve tried to imitate Bierce’s cynical tone and formal style.

BACHELOR, n.: A man who after discovering that no woman desires to marry him, decides that no woman is good enough for him to marry.

CAT, n.: a small domesticated mammal which in exchange for its owner feeding, housing and pampering it permits the owner the privilege of feeding, housing and pampering it.

CEMETERY, n: A place where one stores one’s dead until they are further needed either for the purpose of a second coming of Christ or a zombie apocalypse.

DOUGHNUT, n.: a ring-shaped pastry mostly derided for its tendency to show a person’s preference for eating tasty food over being thin.

ELECTION, n.: the process of determining by popular vote which candidate’s campaign promises are more unrealistic

FENCE, n.: an extended obstruction which one uses to signal, by means of its height, the degree to which one desires that outsiders keep on the other side of it.

FLOWER, n.: the bloom of a plant, given as gift when a person is sick, dead, or about to be married.

HOPE. n.: the pleasurable belief that the future will be dissimilar to the past

IDIOT, n.: a person not of my beliefs and assumptions

IMBECILE, n.: an idiot of even less intelligence, primarily identified by their propensity to disagree with me pointedly and openly

IMMIGRANT: a person with the indecency to flatter one’s country by trying to live there indefinitely, mostly disliked for stealing from the native residents the jobs they don’t want to do.

OPINION, n.: a non-factual statement useful to others for classifying one as either an idiot or an imbecile (see above).

POEM, n.: a literary form which is either rhymed or unrhymed in metered or unmetered lines describing an emotion, thought, story or none of those three, and which is usually (mercifully) short.

UNIVERSITY, n.: a place where one earns a certificate to prove to prospective employers that one is a worthy employee by learning about things one’s employer cares nothing about.

UNREQUITED LOVE, n.: One’s irrational desire for a person who in return has made a very rational assessment of one’s own desirability.

WATCH n.: A portable time-keeping device by which one can tell whether one is late or early to the many important appointments one wished one didn’t have

Monday, August 17, 2009

Movies that are better than their source

I just finished reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and I must say that the movie is much better. Philip K. Dick has a mind-bending quality about him, a real knack for surreality and intriguing premises, but he's not a very good writers. His characters don't have much range, his descriptive ability is limited and he isn't really good at evoking emotions. He's actually quite good at the short story form (We'll Remember it for you Wholesale, Minority Report, Paycheck), but his longer works seem to overstretch the clever premise at the core. And of course the film version, Blade Runner, is a brilliant movie. The novel is interesting and worth reading, but the movie is just amazing.

The original source is usually better than the film version I think for simple reasons: a) because most movies aren't that good and b) because no one bothers to adapt a low quality material (whether a book, play, short story, video game or whatever). That most movies aren't that good is nothing against movies. Most art really isn't that good. It's hard to make good art, including good movies. With something as complex as a movie, so many things can go wrong. Thus, when you start with an already good piece of art and try to adapt it to a different medium, it's probably not going to be as good.

Nonetheless, because since it's by no means inevitable that the movie will be worse than its source, there are a number of interesting exceptions, in addition to Blade Runner. This site has a good top ten list, as does this. I'll definitely concur with Silence of the Lambs and Godfather, both of which are exceptional movies made from books that are not bad.

I'll add some others: The Talented Mr. Ripley, A History of Violence (a decent graphic novel, a really good movie), Casino Royale (the only James Bond book I've actually read. The movie is clearly better), and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Some others that are pretty close, but the movie I think wins out would be A Clockwork Orange, Road to Perdition, and American Psycho.

Some others I've heard suggested, which seem plausible, though I haven't read the book are The Shining, Slumdog Millionaire, Cronenberg's The Fly, The Prestige, The Crow, The Third Man, and The Ninth Gate.

I'll also add 2001, a book I enjoyed and would highly recommend, which is out shined by a truly exceptional movie. It doesn't really fit because it's not really an adaptation, since the book and movie were produced simultaneously in collaboration.

There probably are other good examples.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Forgotten Man

I was reflecting on the Health Care debate recently and thought back to something I read a few weeks back about the tax burden of different income classes. For 2007 in the U.S., the top 1% of income earners paid more in taxes than the bottom 95% (ht: Mark Perry). This really shows how much more progressive our tax system is than people, and this during a year when Bush was still president.

Whether one thinks this is for the best or for the best, it certainly has some profound implications for current health care debate. The current health care proposal being debated is estimated by the CBO to cost over 1 trillion dollars in ten years, which is almost surely an underestimate. Who is going to be paying for such an expensive program. Primarily it'll be the top few percentage points of income earners, with the highest percentage pulling the bulk of the weight and steadily decreasing burdens downward. In fact, roughly the bottom 40% of income earners pay no federal income tax at all (the Tax Policy Center estimates 43.4% for 2009) and thus will contribute nothing to this program. Surely there are people in the top few percentage points who completely support this program. But ultimately, since few Americans are in these higher tax brackets, what is being called for by most American is an expensive reform that someone else will pay for. For most Americans supporting this reform, the brunt of the financial burden will fall on them. What most Americans want is not in fact to help those who have been left behind by the current system, but to force others to help them. One could think of no better example of Sumner's "Forgotten Man" than this.

Michael F. Cannon at Cato posted a piece by his his father connecting the parable of the good Samaritan to health policy (cf Luke 10:30-35), which I think gives us a good moral example. Support for the health care policy is not comparable to being the good Samaritan. It'd be more comparable to the Priest and the Levite asking a Roman legionnaire to force the Samaritan to help the abused traveler, with the good Samaritan being the top income earners. There's nothing really morally admirable about this.

If there are probably well over a hundred millions of Americans willing to support the current health care proposal then that sounds like ample numbers of people who if they actually went out and helped the some 10 or 15 million odd Americans (or perhaps less) who can't get but need insurance, the problem could be solved. If they don't have time to help these people, then surely they could find or found charities that support the poor who are in need of health care but who aren't covered by Medicaid. Support for health care policy rather than actually helping people seems rather an avoidance of moral responsibility rather than anything actually virtuous.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Dredd Scott & the definition of property

Taney's Dred Scott vs Sanford has almost intrigued me since I read it my "Politics & Society" Seminar at St. John's College way back in 2003. It's a decision that just flat out seems wrong, but, from a legal standpoint, it's hard to tell why. Clearly slavery is morally wrong, but the supreme court isn't really supposed to judge on morals, but only on the laws. It's up to congress to pass laws that are good and just. Nonetheless, I still feel that Taney made the wrong decision, and I think it all comes down to a state's right to define what is considered to be property.

The decision impinged on states' ability to prohibit slaves from their territory. It made it so that one could only buy slaves in slave states, but one could own them anywhere. But the perception prior to the decision was that states could both prohibit ownership and sale. How did chief justice Taney do this?

Taney had been considered a very good chief justice prior to Dred Scott vs Sanford, a very conservative constitutionalist who found some good legal compromises, but with Dred Scott he really dropped the ball, and his reputation has been tarnished ever since.

Taney made a number of arguments, but I think the critical argument in his decision was that for Dred Scott to be freed would be a violation of the fifth amendment, specifically that no person "shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." To free Dred Scott would be to deprive Sanford of his rightful property without due process.

The problem I have with this argument really comes down to whether states have the right to define what is and what can be considered property. In Virginia, where Dred Scott was born, as well as other slave states where he lived, like Louisiana and Missouri, he was considered to be a slave and thus property. But when he went to Illinois, according to that state, it was not possible to own a human, thus he wouldn't be considered property. Thus, the fifth amendment wouldn't apply in this case. Unfortunately, Taney didn't think that the states had the right to define independently what is property. The individual states were beholden to the original status of "slave" slapped on Dred Scott at birth, unless he had been freed according to the due process of one of the other slave states.

It raises the question of whether states have the right to determine ambiguous legal definitions. Most relevant to the current situation would be the definition of marriage. At present, states are free to deny recognition of homosexual marriages. States are free to define marriage as exclusively heterosexual. The federal government could intervene, but only by passing an amendment to the constitution.

There are other cases where this question of definition could come up. For example, do states have the right to define what is murder, such as with abortion or doctor-assisted suicide? Do states have the right to define who is a minor? Is someone a minor up until 18 or 17 or 16 or 20? Can states decide how to define a religion? Is scientology or secular humanism or freemasonry a religion? Can states define what are drugs? Are nutritional supplements or herbal remedies or homeopathic medicines drugs?

There are in fact many little cases like this. And maybe it would be better if states had more freedom of defining key legal terms.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Software Patents

There was an article last April about Microsoft being sued on the claim that Word 2007 & 2003 violated someone else's patent (ht Jeffrey Tucker):
Microsoft "unlawfully infringed" on a patent that describes how programs go about "manipulating a document's content and architecture separately."
The ruling is absurd for a number of reasons.

First of all, it's a clear case of judicial tourism. The plaintiff sought out this court specifically because they are friendly to plaintiffs.

Second of all, as a commenter suggests, this court's friendliness to plaintiffs has been attracting many cases, and is probably motivated by a desire to bring revenue to the town (since the legal teams must travel there and spend money while there).

Third of all, it makes one wonder why one should even be having patents on software to begin with. The plaintiff, i4i, Inc., is suing over a technique of writing documents using xml format. The company didn't invent xml (which is non-proprietary) nor did Microsoft steal it's method of actually writing xml documents. It just stole the idea of simultaneously editing the content and architecture of a document. Such a patent should never have even been given, and almost certainly will be thrown out by a higher court. Yet, it's a fairly typical example of a software patent.

I'm not too sympathetic to patents in general, but at least a case can be made for patents in certain areas, like pharmaceuticals and chemistry, where a lot of real research and innovation goes into developing patentable technologies. But patents on software is absurd. Software is already protected by copyright. Adding patent protection in addition is intellectual-property overkill. Patenting software is like patenting literature or fine art. It'd be like if someone took out a patent on the flashback, or the first-person narrative, or ending a chapter with a cliff-hanger. Imagine if authors had to pay a percentage of their royalties every time they ended a chapter with a cliff-hanger because some non-writer had nabbed the patent on it.

In addition, so much software is produced, that it's impossible to determine prior art. And unfortunately many software patents are granted for techniques that add very little new to existing techniques, even if they don't violate prior art.

Software patenting should be scrapped.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Stealing blog posts

Mark J Perry, author of the blog Carpe Diem just today posted a problem he's been having with another website stealing his posts. The website Death & Taxes automatically reposts articles by Mark Perry, attributing them to Perry, but not linking back to his site and thus implying that he works for Death & Taxes.

The funny part is that the post in which he complains about this, also has been automatically posted. I guess it's one thing to be too lazy to write a blog post and simply take them from someone else. It's even worse to be so lazy that you just steal it automatically without even checking what you're stealing.

Review of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged

I just finished reading through Atlas Shrugged a few days ago. I have read a little of Ayn Rand's non-fiction works before, and she definitely has some interesting ideas. Her defense of capitalism is good, her intention of trying to transvaluate values to better favor capitalism is well-meaning but a failure since her alternative of more selfish-orientated values is both very unsophisticated and fairly unappealing to most people. And she out and out fails to understand the positive role of charity within a free market system and the long history of beneficial voluntary charity throughout economic history.

Ultimately, her main problem really is that she doesn't have that many ideas. You go reading one essay to the next and she's just saying the same thing over and over again. I should've born this more in mind before I started her 1000+ page magnum opus, since she certainly does not have enough ideas to justify such a lengthy work.

The main complaint I have is that the book is simply repetitive, both ideologically and plot-wise. The same things happen again and again: a policy is passed and the business scramble to adjust under it's burden. Her heroes are constantly eying each other admiringly while her villains keep on making backroom deals to run the whole economy. Ayn Rand's villains keep on presenting the same justifications of socialism while her heroes defend her philosophy ad nauseum, even though they're just repeating points already made. The worst of it is John Galt's speech near the end. John Galt hijacks the radio airwaves at 8 pm one evening to spread his message of Randian Objectivism. The speech goes on for 3 hours (I was listening to the audiobook, and it took 3 hrs, 18 minutes). By 11 pm when he finished, most of his audience would probably be long asleep, thankful to Galt for his pleasant soporific, but she portrays it as this electrifying clarion call. His speech is a nice consolidation of the ideas presented in the book, but it's incredibly redundant. The ideas presented have by this point (about 1000 pages into the book) already been beaten into the head of the reader with a jackhammer.

Her writing style is also weak. Her ability to describe is both limited and used excessively. And character development is very weak. Her heroes are all bold, confident, independent and very intelligent. Her villains are all cowardly, conniving, afraid of responsibility and parasitical. This can hardly describe the typical statist or bureaucrat of the real world, and makes one wonder if she'd ever read about the "fatal conceit" of central planners, via Hayek (namely, the problem with central planners is not that they're afraid of responsibility, but are way to assured that they can run things better than the vastly complex self-organization of the market).

On the other hand, the degradation of the US under socialist tendencies in her book is poignant and bears not a little resemblance to events of today: the nationalizations, the forced cartelization, the purported attempts to encourage competition or "fairness" (a fairly flexible word). Socialism has always been parasitical on the productivity of the market, and one need look no further than the Soviet Union in the late teens and early twenties (before it reintroduced individual ownership) to see how quickly socialism left on its own can implode. Rand provides many illustrative examples that extend this point.

It's unfortunate though that doesn't confine herself to describing this situation, and condense the story down to its core. Instead, she draws it out through repetition of the same scenarios over and over again. If she had managed to do a much more economical task of efficient and pointed writing, instead of this long and luxurious overblown waste I'm sure I would have been much more pleased. One can't think of a more ironic similarity to government waste, that Rand manages to do in 1200 pages, what a better writer could've easily done in 200. Nonetheless, if you've got a hankering for a long read, it can be worth your time, and its recent upsurge in popularity is understandable.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Positive & Negative Rights

Somebody I heard mentioned FDR's so-called "Second Bill of Rights" recently, something which I'd never heard of, so I decided to look into it. It was a list of rights, including right to a home, a job, medical care and others that was proposed by Roosevelt in 1944, but fortunately was never enacted. It's a rather distressing list, and a radical departure from the original Bill of Rights.

How it's such a radical departure can be summed up by the difference between "positive rights" and "negative rights." The first Bill of Rights constitutes mostly negative rights. These rights constrain the Federal Government so that it can't impinge on certain freedoms. In short, negative rights are the rights not to have something done to you.

Positive rights, on the other hand, are rights to have something. Since none of these things are things that simple fall from the sky in overabundance like manna from heaven (all of them have to be produced) this means if you lack something, then someone is obliged to provide it for you. For example, if you don't have a house, then if there is a right to a house, then somebody is forced to provide you with that house.

Sometimes there can be confusion about the positive and negative rights because it's not always clear in the way the rights are expressed whether it's positive or negative. For example, if I say that there is a right to property, I could construe it as both a positive or a negative right. As a negative right, it is a cornerstone of economic development, and simply means that if you own something, then no one can take it from you. For example, if I have a home, no one can seize the home without my consent. We could construe right to property as a positive right also if we say that if I don't have something, then someone is forced to give me something. So, if I own no home, then someone has to build me a home, or give me a home that someone already owns.

In the area of freedom of speech, there is often much confusion of the two. The Bill of Rights only guarantees a negative right to speak. This means that if I have my own venue in which to voice my views, no one can shut it down because they don't like what I say. For example, we read today that in Venezuela, Hugo Chavez has shut down 34 radio stations. These various radio operators owned the equipment and materials, the staff and the radio frequency to project their content at their own expense. Chavez decided he didn't like what they said, so he shut them down. This genuinely infringes on the negative right to speech. But people sometimes confuse freedom of speech for a positive right, as if someone is required to provide them with a venue. For example, if tv stations were required to provide every person with 5 minutes per year to express their views, then this would be a positive right. This would be a sacrifice the tv stations would be forced to make. When it is construed as simply a negative right, no one is impinged upon.

The situation can get complicated when we deal with public protests, which use as their venue public roads, sidewalks, and parks. Since these venues are supposed to be owned by everyone (or no one, depending on your perspective) then the protesters thus own them and can use them to protest, but this might conflict with what other members of the public might want to do with the roads, sidewalks or parks. In practice, the public property is owned by a government and it decides who gets to use the space. Nonetheless, this can lead to all types of controversy. For example, when in 1999 the Brooklyn Museum showed the controversial exhibition "Sensation," mayor Rudolph Giuliani tried to deny them funding, which led to charges of censorship and restricting freedom of speech because the museum is a public museum receiving public support. On the other hand, when in 1933 Rockefeller decided to remove a Mural by Diego Rivera containing the face of Vladimir Lenin, the issue is less controversial because Rockefeller owned the space and was commissioning the work from Rivera. Rockefeller was not being forced to give Rivera a venue, but the public is in a sense being forced to give some group access to public venues.

Returning to the Bill of Rights the only positive rights in the Bill of Rights, are rights to a trial, which is to say that if the government decides to bring criminal charges against you, they are required to provide you with a fair trial, and citizens are required to serve on the jury. All the other numerous rights of the Bill of Rights are negative rights.

In general, as we look at traditional law through history we'll see a similar ratio of positive to negative rights, with most legal rights restraining people from doing bad things, rather than guaranteeing that they get good things. For example, in the Ten Commandments, followers are asked to worship the one God, keep the sabbath, and respect their parents. The rest is a list of things they can't do, mostly things they can't do to their fellow humans. Similarly, the Code of Hammurabi, also lays down punishment for doing various bad things, primarily setting down restraints on the citizenry, as well as implicitly restraining the monarchs, since they must too abide by these laws. As we go further along in history, the negative rights only grow, and the restrictions on what the government can do to its citizens increase, from the Magna Carta, to The Declaration of the Rights of Man, to the US Bill of Rights.

This is all rather for the best since by restraining people from doing bad things, this brings about more good. Negative rights, restricting bad things, are thus ethically good. One is tempted to think that this similarly applies to positive rights. It's nice to see people getting all types of good things like a home, a job and medical care. But that's until you realize that, as I've said, someone is forced to give them these things. If you don't have a job, then someone is forced to provide you with work and pay your salary.

Thus, while it is clear that negative rights that restrain people from doing a bad thing are ethically good, it is not clear whether positive rights can ever be good. Even if it's quite clear cut to say that if someone doesn't have a job, it's good to give them one voluntarily out of sense of charity, it's not so clear cut when a person is forced to involuntarily give it to them. To broaden the question a bit more, we might ask, "can involuntary charity ever be a good?"

I'd say no. In William Graham Sumner's "Forgotten Man" parable he makes a similar point. Two persons see the sad plight of some third person, but instead of helping him, they force some fourth person to help him. This fourth person is the forgotten man. If some person crusading for home ownership notices that there are people who want to own a home but can't, why would that person petition the government to force taxpayers to give them homes. Why doesn't the crusader simply help them himself? Give them money, start a charity, raise money from others, organize groups to build cheap homes. There are many options.

Positive rights also have a tendency to clash with many critical negative rights. For example the right to a home easily clashes with property rights, if homes have to be taken from others.

Not to mention that positive rights frequently set up some perverse incentives. Why bother to work hard to earn the money for a home, if you can just work less hard, and get someone else to buy it for you.

Then there's that whole problem of force in general. Force is bad, and really can only be justified if we see some countervailing evil that it's preventing.

In short, the moral integrity of the first Bill of Rights certainly doesn't translate to the so-called Second Bill of Rights. The ethical baseness of forcing people to provide for others, exposes the baseness of the Second Bill of Rights, and is why I say it is so distressing.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Philosophical Novels

I just came across this flow chart "How to succeed as an Ayn Rand Character" (ht: Brian Doherty). I've just been reading through Atlas Shrugged, and I can say that this chart is spot on. The last time I'd read Ayn Rand was when Anthem was assigned as reading in my English class in High School, back in 1997. People had recommended to me that I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged during those years, and I've managed to put it off until now. I always thought the books were unbearably too long, and it also didn't help that other people I knew really bad-mouthed Ayn Rand. But now that Atlas Shrugged has been getting so much attention lately and has had a large recent upsurge in popularity, I thought it important.

I'm not exacxtly bowled over by it. Atlas Shrugged is definitely unbearably too long, and Rand has no skill for succinctness. I can't share other libertarians' fondness for her, though I share the same type of resentment towards the man counter-productive programs initiated by the government in the name of the common good. On the other hand, I don't share the profound disgust that my philosophical colleagues have towards her. I think the main reason they don't like her is because she isn't very philosophically sophisticated. Her ideas aren't as philosophically rich as the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, or even lesser luminaries, which makes her far less interesting and worth the time of study/

But also Atlas Shrugged has left me with the impression that I just don't like philosophical novels in general. I figure that if you want to write about or defend an idea you should just write about it, and not try to dress it up in some contrive plot. There have been many idea-books out there that have sold extremely well (like books by Malcolm Gladwell, Thomas L. Friedman, Steve Levitt), so you can't argue that you need to dress it up to sell it to the people. Admittedly, such books aren't as sophisticated as great philosophical classics, and thus probably aren't the road to timeless philosophical glory, but they are quite influential.

I remember I was reading recently (I wish I could remember where) someone saying that all literature (as well as all movies and plays) is manipulative. The author is always trying to get us to feel certain things, or think certain things about the characters or events. But as a reader (or viewer) what we don't like is obvious manipulation. We don't like to feel we're being manipulated. It causes us to rebel. We like the artistry of subtle manipulation. One thing one would be reluctant to accuse Ayn Rand of is subtlety. Her clearly most admirable characters are all pure prophets of her philosophy, and they defend it in long monologues. If you read her non-fiction, she'll frequently quote her characters' speeches as if they express her philosophy better than she could.

I think one of the problems with philosophical novels, in general is that they have to be so obvious. If they're too subtle, then people will miss the point they're trying to make. SO I say, better to lay out your positions in clear non-fiction prose, and confine yourself to some brief illuminating examples rather than stretching it out over a full-length novel.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Price Competition in Higher Education and Health Care

In a market of voluntary exchange, when sellers of goods and services compete, they compete in two primary ways: price and quality. For example, when I buy a computer, it matters to me firstly, the speed of the processor, the amount of Ram, the size of the hard drive, expandability, operating system, and so on (quality) and secondly, the price. And these both matter when I buy a pair of shoes, or a flight to Minneapolis, or a vacuum cleaner, or a 45-minute massage.

If both price and quality competition are strong, the products will generally both decline in price and increase in quality. But of course the relative importance of either price or quality can be be weaker, if consumers don't emphasize one or the other in their buying.

If quality is not very important, then prices will be driven down even more strongly. This is the type of trend seldom see, but sometimes it happens in some raw material.

Vice versa, price can be of weak importance. For example, with Veblen goods, that is, status goods: things like designer clothes, expensive cars, fine jewelry, huge vacation homes, and so on. Quality matters a lot, but price is less important, since the customers buying these products are much less price sensitive. Thus, relatively marginal improvements in quality count for huge increases in price. Thus, price increases are kept unusually high.

But even more relevant these days than Veblen goods are two other important areas or weak price competition, where price growth is strong. In particular, health care and higher education.

In both of these we observe strong price growth because of factors that weaken price competition. In health care, health costs are primarily paid by insurers, Medicare and Medicaid. Only a very small percentage of health care is paid out of pocket, and prices are not conspicuously advertised. And even then health insurance itself is insulated from price competition by being provided by employers. Paying health insurance out of pocket tends to reduce costs. Thus, in contrast to areas of health care where costs are usually paid out of pocket, such as cosmetic surgery and laser eye surgery, areas of non-elective care that are not paid out of pocket see strong long term price growth in excess of inflation.

Higher education similarly is being paid for by loans or by scholarships or by parents' college funds. Very little again is being paid directly out of pocket by students.

When a buyer is putting down someone else's money for a purchase, price sensitivity decreases, especially if it is someone impersonal, that we don't have any emotional attachment to ("Nobody spends somebody else's money as wisely as he spends his own"). Certainly, we clearly don't have any emotional attachment to our insurer, to the federal government or the a scholarship organization. We, quite frankly, don't really have a lot of emotional attachment to our future self (who we haven't met yet) who will be paying for the loans, as well.

In health care and higher education there is constant demand for ever better quality. This quality costs money, which drives up costs and without a check from consumer demand, this will increase rapidly. Now, we should recognize that there are many factors that may drive up prices in health care and education. In medical care, there is also dramatic growth in regulation (which grows ever more expensive). With higher education there is also the influence of college ratings and how they are calcuated, as well as that most colleges are not for profit (another short post on the same article). And in both cases there is the simple fact that we can afford to pay more because of greatest prosperity. These other factors are undoubtedly relevant. It's just that all industries have upward price pressure, bot in those cases price competition via consumer demand keeps prices in check and may even push prices downward despite all these factors. Weak price competition thus might be better described as permitting price growth by opening the spigot wide open to other factors.

Of the two, the rise in the cost of higher education is actual the more disturbing trend, since, whereas it is clear the health care has dramatically improved as costs have increased, it is not clear that education has gotten any better while costs have risen.

This is relevant for us now since policies are being pursued that will further weaken price competition. Much talk has been made of expanding higher education through increased lending. Considerations are also being considered of expanding health care by making the government an insurance provider (More health insurance not the answer). The idea behind the latter in particular is that government can control prices simply by fiat, namely through price controls. Of course, this will invite all the problems of shortage that price controls always entails.

Obviously, the way to control health care costs is to expand the amount of care covered out of pocket, with more individuals opting for high deductibles, that merely serves to cover emergencies and not basic health care, and to have more health insurance paid by the insuree, instead of their employer. And similarly, we should be contract student loans or increasing the amount that students have to pay out of pocket if we want to control costs.

The current policies unfortunately will have consequences completely in contradiction to the intentions of their advocates.