Archive for May 2005

Surf Like a Borg

I was helping a friend out with some links to virtual  projection keyboard makers.  Many of these are cool laser devices that draw a keyboard on the table in front of you and recognize where you put your fingers to capture keystrokes.  These are small and really sexy travel add-ons for your PDA.  In doing this research, however, I saw this input solution:

Kittykeyboard

If nothing else, the guy on the plane next to you might get nervous as he prepares to be assimilated. 

By the way, here is what the laser keyboards look like:

Vkb

You Mean Congress Has Trouble Writing Clearly?

I thought this was kind of funny, from the 9-0 Supreme Court decision to throw out the Arthur Anderson Obstruction of Justice conviction (related to Enron). Note the last line, emphasis added:

"[The U.S. Code] punishes not just 'corruptly
persuading' another, but 'knowingly ... corruptly persuading' another.
The Government suggests that 'knowingly' does not modify 'corruptly
persuades,' but that is not how the statute most naturally reads. "¦ The
Government suggests that it is 'questionable whether Congress would
employ such an inelegant formulation as "knowingly ... corruptly
persuades." ' "¦ Long experience has not taught us to share the
Government's doubts on this score, and we must simply interpret the
statute as written."

So the government's argument was based in part on the assumption that Congress would never write poorly or inelegantly, and the Supreme Court responded by saying - "Hah!"

OK, There May Be A Housing Bubble

I don't have access to the right kind of data to decide whether there is a housing bubble in the US, though a lot of people are writing about it

In the Phoenix / Scottsdale area, housing values have really starting going up, up, up in the last 18 months, though whether this is just a catch-up to other desirable metropolitan areas (Phoenix real estate has been pretty sluggish for years, and way cheaper than other resort-type destinations) or a true bubble, I can't tell.  Certainly speculation activity is way up, with a lot of homes being bought and renovated by investors, but again, I could argue that Scottsdale was behind other suburban markets in the whole tear-down thing. 

So, to date, I have been unconvinced about the housing bubble, at least as it applied to our community.  After all, demographics over the next 20-30 years are only going to support Scottsdale area real estate. 

However, over the weekend I had a disturbing experience:   At a social function, I heard a dentist enthusiastically telling a doctor that he needs to be buying condos and raw land.  The dentist claimed to be flipping raw land parcels for 100% in less than 6 months. 

For those who don't know, this is a big flashing red light.  When doctors and dentists start trying to sell you on a particular type of investment, run away like they have the plague.  At Harvard Business School, I had a great investment management class with a professor who has schooled many of the best in the business.  If an investment we were analyzing turned out to be a real dog, he would ask us "who do you sell this to?" and the class would shout "doctors!"  And, if the investment was really, really bad, to the point of being insane, the class would instead shout "dentists!"  Marginal Revolution has another potential bubble indicator.  Angry Bear has a lengthy analysis.

Postscript: By the way, just so you doctors and dentists won't feel like I am picking on you, we small business owners are considered to be almost as bad, which is I why I get so many boiler room calls.

Update:  OK, in one of those great moments in timing, my wife just called me to say that one of the moms at school was trying to get other moms to invest with her in some condos, and should we join in?  Eeeek!

Best of Coyote VI

Well, it worked for Johnny Carson, why not for me?  Instead of
leaving you with dead air (photons?) while I am knocking the rust off
my beer pong skills back at Princeton, I will share with you a few of
my favorite posts from my early days of blogging.  Since most of these
posts were viewed by about 5 people, there is a certain temptation to
just recycle them without attribution, given the unlikelihood of
getting caught.  Instead, though, I will share them as my best of
Coyote...

Enough!  This series has slid well past the point of narcisism.   It has been fun setting this up, much like setting the light timers before I go away on a trip (for those that don't know, Typepad allows one to cue up posts with a series of future dates on which these posts appear.  I am actually typing this on Wednesday night.  The thought of light timers gets me thinking of home improvement, so in that spirit I will end with "Pocket Doors and My Manhood"

Our bathroom has a pocket door to save space - that's one of those doors that slide on a hidden rail in and out of the wall.
From time to time, usually because my kids go slamming into it, the
door comes off its rails and gets jammed, which is a problem as it can
bottleneck some very critical facilities.

The first time this happened, I tried to get it back on its track,
but I just could not.  The track is up in the wall and it is almost
impossible due to the lack of clearance to do anything with it.  I
checked in the Yellow Pages and saw there was actually a company that
specialized in pocket door repairs, so I called them out.  Well, Joe
(or whoever) shows up with his little tool kit, looks at the door for a
second, grabbed it in a certain way, and then gave it a quick jerk -
kabam - and it was back in its tracks.  It took him like 5 seconds. 

Well, there I stood, completely unmanned, right in front of my
laughing wife and family, by Joe the visible butt-crack guy.  Bummer.

Since that time, I have had the door come untracked two or three
times.  Thinking to save me further embarrassment, my wife tends to ask
any passing stranger to come in and fix it.  I can sit there for hours
fighting the thing, and then my wife brings in the guy painting the
house - kabam - fixed.  Next time she brought in the 60+ year old sales
guy who happened to be there - kabam - fixed.  I swear, if Paris Hilton
was dropping by for a visit she could probably fix that damn door.  It
is humiliating.

Well, this time I would not allow my wife get someone else to fix
it.  Every night, for about 10 minutes, I would take my innings with
the door, struggling to do what everyone else seemed to have learned at
birth.  I actually suggested to my wife that we should call out a
contractor and tear the thing out and install a real door.  She
suggested instead that she could have our 13-year-old baby sitter come
in from the other room to fix it.  Finally, tonight, when I was about
to give up, I tried holding it in a slightly different way and - Kabam
- fixed.  God I feel great.  My manhood is restored and I am at the top
of the world.

In case my plane is late and I can't blog on Monday - happy Memorial Day and many thanks to all those who have served in our country's military.

Best of Coyote V

Well, it worked for Johnny Carson, why not for me?  Instead of
leaving you with dead air (photons?) while I am knocking the rust off
my beer pong skills back at Princeton, I will share with you a few of
my favorite posts from my early days of blogging.  Since most of these
posts were viewed by about 5 people, there is a certain temptation to
just recycle them without attribution, given the unlikelihood of
getting caught.  Instead, though, I will share them as my best of
Coyote...

This post from last November was my first real research project I set for myself.  Today, there are a couple of flaws I see in it, and I would like to update it, but the results are still interesting.  Here is French vs. Anglo-American 'Imperialism'"

For some reason, a portion of our country has adopted France as the
standard bearer of "anti-imperialism" (or at least anti-US
imperialism). France publicly positions itself similarly, trying to
make itself the leader and counterweight to US "Imperialism". I will
leave aside for now the argument as to whether the US's recent actions
constitute "imperialism". I will instead focus on the French as a role
model.

The first thing that struck me was how long the French tried
desperately to hold on to their colonial empire. Both the US and Great
Britain either liberated or came to an acceptable living arrangement
with their major colonies within a few years of the end of WWII. Both
seemed to come to terms with the fact that the colonial era was over.
The French, in contrast, were still involved in bloody conflicts in
Indochina and Algeria to retain their empire through the late 50's and
even into the early 60's.

So, I decided to do a little research to understand the relative
success of French and Anglo-American colonies. Of course, when judging
the success of a former colony, a lot of things come into play, and
certainly the freed colony must take a substantial amount of
responsibility for its own success and political freedom. However,
after a bit of research, it is instructive to see how well prepared for
independence Britain, France, and the US left their colonies. Did they
leave the country with democratic systems in place and a capable local
ruling class, or did they just suck the country dry and try to prevent
any locals from gaining any capability.

To make this analysis, I have selected a number of each country's
key colonies. Some of the smaller African and island nations have been
left out. I also realize that I left off some of the ex-British middle
eastern colonies, but I am too tired now to add them back in.

I have used two pieces of data to judge an ex-colony's success.
First is GDP per capita, corrected for purchasing power parity, found
in the 2003 CIA fact book via World Facts and Figures. The second is the Freedom index prepared by Freedom House.

The results are striking. When arrayed in order of GDP per
capita, ex-French colonies occupy only 4 of the top 25 spots. And, if
you leave out Louisiana and Quebec, which one can argue are much more
shaped by the US and British, and if you leave out Mexico, where there
is arguably little French influence and none in the last 150+ years,
then ex-French colonies occupy only 2 of the top 25 spots. When arrayed
by the Freedom Index, and again leaving out Quebec, Louisiana and
Mexico, ex-French colonies only occupy one of the top 25 spots! The
ex-French colonies occupy 14 of the bottom 20 poorest slots and 11 of
the bottom 15 least free slots.
Finally, one could argue that
none of the ex-French colonies have really grown up into world players,
while British colonies in America, Australia, India, South Africa,
Palestine (Israel) and even Egypt play a significant role on the world
stage.

Continue reading ‘Best of Coyote V’ »

Best of Coyote IV

Well, it worked for Johnny Carson, why not for me?  Instead of
leaving you with dead air (photons?) while I am knocking the rust off
my beer pong skills back at Princeton, I will share with you a few of
my favorite posts from my early days of blogging.  Since most of these
posts were viewed by about 5 people, there is a certain temptation to
just recycle them without attribution, given the unlikelihood of
getting caught.  Instead, though, I will share them as my best of
Coyote...


This
post was also from early December, and was my first step in writing about the roots of modern statism.  The post is called "progressives are too conservative to like capitalism".

Many in the left to far-left eschew the liberal title nowadays
(since they consider liberals now to be wimps and too moderate, like
that Clinton guy) in favor of the term "progressive".  This term has
gone in and out of favor for over a century, from the populists of the
early 1900's to the socialists of the more modern era.

Most "progressives" (meaning those on the left to far left who
prefer that term) would freak if they were called conservative, but
what I mean by conservative in this context is not
donate-to-Jesse-Helms capital-C Conservative but fearful of change and
uncomfortable with uncertainty conservative. 

OK, most of you are looking at this askance - aren't progressives
always trying to overthrow the government or something?  Aren't they
out starting riots at G7 talks?  The answer is yes, sure, but what
motivates many of them, at least where it comes to capitalism, is a
deep-seated conservatism. 

Before I continue to support this argument, I must say that on a
number of issues, particularly related to civil liberties and social
issues, I call progressives my allies.  On social issues, progressives,
like I do, generally support an individual's right to make decisions
for themselves, as long as those decisions don't harm others. 

However, when we move to fields such as commerce, progressives stop
trusting individual decision-making.  Progressives who support the
right to a person making unfettered choices in sexual partners don't
trust people to make their own choice on seat belt use.  Progressives
who support the right of fifteen year old girls to make decisions about
abortion without parental notification do not trust these same girls
later in life to make their own investment choices with their Social
Security funds.  And, Progressives who support the right of third
worlders to strap on a backpack of TNT and explode themselves in the
public market don't trust these same third worlders to make the right
decision in choosing to work in the local Nike shoe plant.

Beyond just the concept of individual decision-making, progressives
are hugely uncomfortable with capitalism.  Ironically, though
progressives want to posture as being "dynamic", the fact is that
capitalism is in fact too dynamic for them.  Industries rise and fall,
jobs are won and lost, recessions give way to booms.  Progressives want
comfort and certainty.  They want to lock things down the way they are.
They want to know that such and such job will be there tomorrow and
next decade, and will always pay at least X amount.  That is why, in
the end, progressives are all statists, because, to paraphrase Hayek,
only a government with totalitarian powers can bring the order and
certainty and control of individual decision-making that they crave.

Progressive elements in this country have always tried to freeze
commerce, to lock this country's economy down in its then-current
patterns.  Progressives in the late 19th century were terrified the
American economy was shifting from agriculture to industry.  They
wanted to stop this, to cement in place patterns where 80-90% of
Americans worked on farms.  I, for one, am glad they failed, since for
all of the soft glow we have in this country around our description of
the family farmer, farming was and can still be a brutal, dawn to dusk
endeavor that never really rewards the work people put into it. 

This story of progressives trying to stop history has continued to
repeat itself through the generations.  In the seventies and eighties,
progressives tried to maintain the traditional dominance of heavy
industry like steel and automotive, and to prevent the shift of these
industries overseas in favor of more service-oriented industries.  Just
like the passing of agriculture to industry a century ago inflamed
progressives, so too does the current passing of heavy industry to
services.

In fact, here is a sure fire test for a progressive.  If given a choice between two worlds:

  1. A capitalist society where the overall levels of wealth and
    technology continue to increase, though in a pattern that is dynamic,
    chaotic, generally unpredictable, and whose rewards are unevenly
    distributed, or...
  2. A "progressive" society where everyone is poorer, but income is
    generally more evenly distributed.  In this society, jobs and pay and
    industries change only very slowly, and people have good assurances
    that they will continue to have what they have today, with little
    downside but also with very little upside.

Progressives will choose #2.  Even if it means everyone is poorer.
Even if it cuts off any future improvements we might gain in technology
or wealth or lifespan or whatever.  They want to take what we have
today, divide it up more equally, and then live to eternity with just
that.   Progressives want #2 today, and they wanted it just as much in
1900 (just think about if they had been successful -- as just one
example, if you are over 44, you would have a 50/50 chance of being
dead now). 

Don't believe that this is what they would answer?  Well, first,
this question has been asked and answered a number of times in surveys,
and it always comes out this way.  Second, just look at any policy
issue today.  Take prescription drugs in the US - isn't it pretty clear
that the progressive position is that they would be willing to pretty
much gut incentives for any future drug innovations in trade for having
a system in place that guaranteed everyone minimum access to what
exists today?  Or take the welfare state in Continental Europe -- isn't
it clear that a generation of workers/voters chose certainty over
growth and improvement?  That workers 30 years ago voted themselves
jobs for life, but at the cost of tremendous unemployment amongst the
succeeding generations?

More recently, progressives have turned their economic attention to
lesser developed nations.  Progressives go nuts on the topic of
Globalization.  Without tight security, G7 and IMF conferences have and
would devolve into riots and destruction at the hands of progressives,
as happened famously in Seattle.  Analyzing the Globalization movement
is a bit hard, as rational discourse is not always a huge part of the
"scene", and what is said is not always logical or internally
consistent.  The one thing I can make of this is that progressives
intensely dislike the change that is occurring rapidly in
third world economies, particularly since these changes are often
driven by commerce and capitalists.

Progressives do not like American factories appearing in third world
countries, paying locals wages progressives feel are too low, and
disrupting agrarian economies with which progressives were more
comfortable.  But these changes are all the sum of actions by
individuals, so it is illustrative to think about what is going on in
these countries at the individual level. 

One morning, a rice farmer in southeast Asia might faces a choice.
He can continue a life of brutal, back-breaking labor from dawn to dusk
for what is essentially subsistence earnings.  He can continue to see a
large number of his children die young from malnutrition and disease.
He can continue a lifestyle so static, so devoid of opportunity for
advancement, that it is nearly identical to the life led by his
ancestors in the same spot a thousand years ago.

Or, he can go to the local Nike factory, work long hours (but
certainly no longer than he worked in the field) for low pay (but
certainly more than he was making subsistence farming) and take a shot
at changing his life.  And you know what, many men (and women) in his
position choose the Nike factory.  And progressives hate this.  They
distrust this choice.  They distrust the change.  And, at its heart,
that is what globalization is all about - a deep seated conservatism
that distrusts the decision-making of individuals and fears change,
change that ironically might finally pull people out of untold
generations of utter poverty.

In fact, over the last 20 or so years, progressives have become
surprisingly mute on repression and totalitarianism the world over.  In
the 1970's, progressives criticized the US (rightly, I think) for not
doing more to challenge the totalitarian impulses of its allies (the
Shah of Iran comes to mind in particular) and not doing enough to end
totalitarianism and repression in other nations (e.g. South Africa,
Guatemala, El Salvador, etc etc) 

Today, progressives have become oddly conservative about challenging
totalitarian nations.  By embracing the "peace at any cost" mantra,
they have essentially said that they can live with anything, reconcile
anything, as long as things remain nominally peaceful (ie, no battles
show up on the network news).  Beyond just a strong anti-Americanism,
the peace movement today reflects a strong conservatism -- they want to
just leave everyone alone, no matter how horrible or repressive, and
hope that they will in turn leave us alone.  They fear any change that
would stir things up.

There are any number of other examples of the strong conservative
streak in the progressive movement.  Here are a few more that come to
mind:

  • Despite at least 40 years of failure in the public schools,
    progressives vociferously oppose any radical changes to the public
    education system.  In particular, they resist any program involving
    school choice, as they are totally condescending in their utter lack of
    faith in the average parent's ability to make the right choice for
    their family.
  • Progressives refuse to even consider the possibility that
    individuals should be trusted to make their own decisions regarding
    some portion of their Social Security retirement funds.  They can couch
    their opposition in a lot of fear talk about benefit cuts, but at the
    end of the day (and take this from someone who has had this argument
    with numerous liberals and progressives)  the argument always boils
    down to "we don't trust people to make investment decisions that are as
    good as the ones we would make for them".

Well, I have again written too long, and I'm tired.  If you are not
ready to rush to defend the barricades of capitalism, you might read my
post from last week called "60 Second Refutation of Socialism, while Sitting at the Beach".  Most of what I have written here has been said far more eloquently by others.  Of recent writers, Virginia Postrel, in the Future and its Enemies,
has written a whole book on not just capitalism but dynamism and
progress in general, and why people of all political persuasions tend
to be scared by it.  Brink Lindsey addressed many of these same issues
as well in his book Against the Dead Hand.  Of course, the Godfather of individual choice and societal dynamism is Friedrich Hayek.

As a final note, my ultimate statement on this topic is here, called Respecting Individual Decision-Making.

Best of Coyote III

Well, it worked for Johnny Carson, why not for me?  Instead of
leaving you with dead air (photons?) while I am knocking the rust off
my beer pong skills back at Princeton, I will share with you a few of
my favorite posts from my early days of blogging.  Since most of these
posts were viewed by about 5 people, there is a certain temptation to
just recycle them without attribution, given the unlikelihood of
getting caught.  Instead, though, I will share them as my best of
Coyote...


This post was from early December, and commemorated the 60th anniversary of a facinating event in Arizona history.  Many people are familiar with the movie the Great Escape or the TV series Hogans Heroes.  Few know, though, that there was really a great escape ... by German POW's in Arizona!  Here is my post "WWII Great POW Escape -- In Phoenix?"

Many people have seen the Steve McQueen movie "the Great Escape",
about a group of 60 or so prisoners who cleverly dug a tunnel out of a
German POW camp and escaped in various directions across Europe, many
of whom where eventually recaptured.

I don't know if such an event occurred in Europe, but an almost
identical real-life POW escape (tunnel and all) occurred right here in
Phoenix, Arizona almost exactly 60 years ago.

Like many isolated western towns in WWII, Phoenix played host to a
number of German POW's, in our case about 1700 in Papago Park.
Phoenix, and in particular Papago Park, with its arid climate and red rocks, must have been quite a culture shock to the Germans.

Anyway, I won't tell the whole story, but it is fascinating and you can read it all here.  A short excerpt:

The
German prisoners asked their guards for permission to create a
volleyball courtyard. Innocently obliging, the guards provided them
with digging tools. From that point on, two men were digging at all
times during night hours. A cart was rigged up to travel along tracks
to take the dirt out. The men stuffed the dirt in their pants pockets
which had holes in the bottoms, and they shuffled the dirt out along
the ground as they walked around. In addition, they flushed a huge
amount of dirt down the toilets. They labeled their escape route Der Faustball Tunnel (The Volleyball Tunnel).

They
dug a 178 foot tunnel with a diameter of 3 feet. The tunnel went 8 to
14 feet beneath the surface, under the two prison camp fences, a
drainage ditch and a road. The exit was near a power pole in a clump of
brush about 15 feet from the Cross Cut Canal. To disguise their plans,
the men built a square box, filled it with dirt and planted native
weeds in it for the lid to cover the exit. When the lid was on the
tunnel exit, the area looked like undisturbed desert.

There
is some dispute about how many people actually escaped -- official
records say 25.  Others argue that as many as 60 escaped, but since
only 25 were recaptured, 25 was used as the official number to cover up
the fact that German POW's might be roaming about Arizona.

The prisoners who led this escape were clearly daring and inventive,
but unfortunately in Arizona lore they are better known for their one
mistake.  Coming from wet Northern European climes, the prisoners
assumed that the "rivers" marked on their map would actually have
flowing water in them.  Their map showed what looked like the very
substantial Salt River flowing down to the Colorado River and eventual
escape in Mexico.  Unfortunately, the Salt River most of the year (at
least in the Phoenix area) is pretty much a really wide flat body of dirt.  The German expressions as they carried their stolen canoes up to its banks must have been priceless.

It
never occurred to the Germans that in dry Arizona a blue line marked
"river" on a map might be filled with water only occasionally. The
three men with the canoe were disappointed to find the Salt River bed
merely a mud bog from recent rains. Not to be discouraged, they carried
their canoe pieces twenty miles to the confluence with the Gila river,
only to find a series of large puddles. They sat on the river bank, put
their heads in their hands and cried out their frustration.

I
know how they feel every summer when we go to Lake Powell and find the
water lower than the previous year.  Anyway, we shouldn't just make
light of the escapees.  Apparently the prison guards made Sargent Schultz look like Sherlock Holmes:

Although
the men left in the wee hours of Christmas Eve, the camp officials were
blissfully unaware of anything amiss until the escapees began to show
up that evening. The first to return was an enlisted man, Herbert
Fuchs, who decided he had been cold, wet and hungry long enough by
Christmas Eve evening. Thinking about his dry, warm bed and hot meal
that the men in the prison camp were enjoying, he decided his attempt
at freedom had come to an end. The 22-year old U-boat crewman hitched a
ride on East Van Buren Street and asked the driver to take him to the
sheriff's office where he surrendered. Much to the surprise of the
officers at the camp, the sheriff called and told them he had a
prisoner who wanted to return to camp.

One
of the last to be re-captured was U-boat Commander Jürgen Wattenberg,
the leader of the breakout.  Interestingly, Captain Wattenberg hid out
in the hills just a few hundred yards from my current home.

Best of Coyote II

Well, it worked for Johnny Carson, why not for me?  Instead of
leaving you with dead air (photons?) while I am knocking the rust off
my beer pong skills back at Princeton, I will share with you a few of
my favorite posts from my early days of blogging.  Since most of these
posts were viewed by about 5 people, there is a certain temptation to
just recycle them without attribution, given the unlikelihood of
getting caught.  Instead, though, I will share them as my best of
Coyote...


This post was from just after the last election, and was titled "Something Unusual Will Happen in 2008".  This was my first ever Instalanche (though the record books put an asterisk next to this one because it was from one of Glenn's guest bloggers) and I still think it makes an interesting point about the next election.

Assuming Cheney does not want to run for president, which I think is
a given, something will happen in 2008 that has not happened in 56
years since 1952: Neither of the two major-party presidential
candidates will be incumbents of the President or Vice-President jobs.
In 1952 we had Eisenhower vs. Stevenson. Since then we have always had
incumbents running, though not necessarily successfully -
1956: Eisenhower
1960: Nixon
1964: Johnson
1968: Humphrey
1972: Nixon
1976: Ford
1980: Carter
1984: Mondale and Reagan
1988: Bush
1992: Bush
1996: Clinton
2000: Gore
2004: Bush v 1.1

I guess the only exception you could make to this is if you called Hillary an incumbent.  Full list of presidents and VP's here

UPDATE

I didn't just bury the conclusion, but left it out entirely. The
point is that 2008 is likely to be a zoo. Not one but two wide open
nominating battles, plus of course the general election. Can we please,
please before then try to figure out a way to choose our candidates
other than just letting Iowa do it?

UPDATE #2

Welcome Instapundit (guess I need to send a check to my host for
more bandwidth). While you are here, you might check out my latest
roundup on Kyoto and Global Warming, as well as an interesting analysis on the economic and political success of ex-French vs. ex-Anglo/American colonies.  Short answer is that you didn't want the French as masters.

UPDATE #3

Check out the comments section, which has several good posts
handicapping the Republican candidates in 2008. Several people suggest
a Republican strategy to replace Cheney mid-term with their next
candidate. I know that the leadership of both political parties lament
their loss of control, due to the primary system, in selecting their
nominee, and this certainly would be an intriguing way of getting
around that and the Iowa/NH problem. However, the move is so
transparently Machiavellian, and I think unprecedented, that the first
party to try it will probably get punished in the court of public
opinion.

Best of Coyote I

Well, it worked for Johnny Carson, why not for me?  Instead of leaving you with dead air (photons?) while I am knocking the rust off my beer pong skills back at Princeton, I will share with you a few of my favorite posts from my early days of blogging.  Since most of these posts were viewed by about 5 people, there is a certain temptation to just recycle them without attribution, given the unlikelihood of getting caught.  Instead, though, I will share them as my best of Coyote...

This post was from early last December, and is titled "60 Second Refutation of Socialism, While Sitting at the Beach":

Last week, there were several comments in Carnival of the
Capitalists that people would like to see more articles highlighting
the benefits of capitalism.  This got me thinking about a conversation
I had years ago at the beach:

Hanging
out at the beach one day with a distant family member, we got into a
discussion about capitalism and socialism.  In particular, we were
arguing about whether brute labor, as socialism teaches, is the source
of all wealth (which, socialism further argues, is in turn stolen by
the capitalist masters).  The young woman, as were most people her age,
was taught mainly by the socialists who dominate college academia
nowadays.  I was trying to find a way to connect with her, to get her
to question her assumptions, but was struggling because she really had
not been taught many of the fundamental building blocks of either
philosophy or economics, but rather a mish-mash of politically correct
points of view that seem to substitute nowadays for both.

One
of the reasons I took up writing a blog is that I have never been as
snappy or witty in real-time discussions as I would like to be, and I
generally think of the perfect comeback or argument minutes or hours
too late.  I have always done better with writing, where I have time to
think.  However, on this day, I had inspiration from a half-remembered
story I had heard before.  I am sure I stole the following argument
from someone, but to this day I still can't remember from whom.

I
picked up a handful of sand, and said "this is almost pure silicon,
virtually identical to what powers a computer.  Take as much labor as
you want, and build me a computer with it -- the only limitation is you
can only have true manual laborers - no engineers or managers or other
capitalist lackeys".

Yeah, I know
what you're thinking - beach sand is not pure silicon - it is actually
silicon dioxide, SiO2, but if she didn't take any economics she
certainly didn't take any chemistry or geology.

She
replied that my request was BS, that it took a lot of money to build an
electronics plant, and her group of laborers didn't have any and
bankers would never lend them any.

All
too many defenders of capitalism would have stopped here, and said
aha!  So you admit you need more than labor - you need capital too.
But Marx would not have disagreed - he would have said it was the
separation of labor and capital that was bad - only when laborers owned
the capital, rather than being slaves to the ruling class that now
controls the capital, would the world reach nirvana.  So I offered her
just that:

I
told her - assume for our discussion that I have tons of money, and I
will give you and your laborers as much as you need.  The only
restriction I put on it is that you may only buy raw materials - steel,
land, silicon - in their crudest forms.  It is up to you to assemble
these raw materials, with your laborers, to build the factory and make
me my computer.

She thought for a few seconds, and responded "but I can't - I don't know how.  I need someone to tell me how to do it"

And
that is the heart of socialism's failure.  For the true source of
wealth is not brute labor, or even what you might call brute capital,
but the mind.  The mind creates new technologies, new products, new
business models, new productivity enhancements, in short, everything
that creates wealth.  Labor or capital without a mind behind it is
useless.

From the year 1000 to the year 1700, the world's wealth, measured as GDP per capita, was virtually unchanged.
Since 1700, the GDP per capita in places like the US has risen, in real
terms, over 40 fold.  This is a real increase in total wealth - it is
not money stolen or looted or exploited.  Wealthy nations like the US
didn't "take" the wealth from somewhere else - it never even existed
before.  It was created by the minds of human beings.

How?  What changed?  Historians who really study this
stuff would probably point to a jillion things, but in my mind two are
important:

  1. There was a philosophical and intellectual
    change where questioning established beliefs and social patterns went
    from being heresy and unthinkable to being acceptable, and even in
    vogue.  In other words, men, at first just the elite but soon everyone,
    were urged to use their mind rather than just relying on established
    beliefs
  2. There were social and political changes that greatly increased
    the number of people capable of entrepreneurship.  Before this time,
    the vast vast majority of people were locked into social positions that
    allowed them no flexibility to act on a good idea, even if they had
    one.  By starting to create a large and free middle class, first in the
    Netherlands and England and then in the US, more people had the ability
    to use their mind to create new wealth.  Whereas before, perhaps 1% or
    less of any population really had the freedom to truly act on their
    ideas, after 1700 many more people began to have this freedom. 

So today's wealth, and everything that goes with it (from shorter
work hours to longer life spans) is the result of more people using
their minds more freely.

Look around the world - for any country, ask yourself if the average
person in that country has the open intellectual climate that
encourages people to think for themselves, and the open political and
economic climate that allows people to act on the insights their minds
provide and to keep the fruits of their effort.  Where you can answer
yes to both, you will find wealth and growth.  Where you answer no to
both, you will find poverty and misery. 

UPDATE

While it is not exactly a direct follow-on to this article, see my post Progressives are too Conservative to Like Capitalism
for an analysis of some of capitalism's detractors.  For yet another
way to explain capitalism, at least libertarian philosophy, here is a new-agy approach that is actually pretty good.  Finally, Spontaneous Order
has an interesting post comparing religious creationism in the physical
world with progressives' statism in the economic/social realms.

Off To Princeton, With Some Good News

Posting will be light to non-existent the next few days as I head back to Princeton for reunions (my 21st reunion, not an even year, but we Princeton grads can be goofy that way).

I will leave you with this good news about my alma mater, via FIRE:

PRINCETON, N.J. -- After being initially rebuffed by a Princeton University
official, a group of evangelical Christian students who wanted access to
facilities and the chance to apply for funds has won a victory.

After
the university's dean of religious life refused recognition for Princeton Faith
and Action, the group appealed to a campus rights group that successfully
lobbied the university to change its procedures.

"We found Princeton's quick and fair response very encouraging. We've found
other colleges who haven't been particularly fair to religious groups, sometimes
in an unconstitutional way," said Greg Lukianoff, an official with the
Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Princeton Faith and Action has now been recognized as a student group,
religious groups are being treated that same as secular groups, and the
university will conduct a review of procedures related to student organizations,
said Princeton Provost Christopher L. Eisgruber.

"We need to be
welcoming groups, even if their opinions are unorthodox, and that is the goal of
our review," Eisgruber said.

After sending this to several people, I got the odd response "gee Warren, I didn't think you were an evangelical".  I am not, nor am I a conservative, and the PFA would not be my cup of tea.  However, I think this response is endemic of a major problem we have in this country, that of "free speech for me but not for thee." 

Its great to see Princeton working to stay open to all points of view, which I think will make it a better university and give it an advantage over time vs. the Harvard's and Dartmouth's of the world that still resist freedom of inquiry outside the bounds of political correctness.  Someday soon I will have to write a post on how "freedom of association" absolutely requires the converse:  freedom not to associate with certain people.  Anyway, in the mean time, I will leave you with some reunions photos. 

Prade   R66

R34   R37

Business Relocations and the Prisoners Dilemna

As I have written before, one of the favorite past-times of local and state politicians is to hand out grants, subsidies, and tax breaks for businesses to relocate to their district.  Billions and billions of dollars are given out every year to everyone from movie producers to sports teams to Wal-marts in order to "bring jobs" to the local community.

Economists have argued for years that these subsidies are a total waste (more on this below) but the Club for Growth links a great article demonstrating that they are not only a waste, they also are downright fraudulent.

Gov. George Pataki's administration gives millions of dollars every year to
businesses that promise to hire more people or retain jobs. It's a promise that
is often broken.

Almost half of those companies helped by New York taxpayers fell short of the
job targets that are part of their deals with the state, records show.

In fact, a quarter of the businesses took taxpayers' money and loans, then
cut jobs.

The article is quite detailed, but here is one example:

Take the case of Ingram Micro, a global computer-parts wholesaler with a
distribution center near Buffalo.

In 1999, it accepted $675,000 in taxpayers' money and promised to add 542
workers. Instead, it cut its workforce by nearly 400.

The state demanded a penalty of $176,985, but an Ingram spokesman said it has
not paid and is negotiating with the state.

Last month, Ingram Micro announced it will lay off another 120 Buffalo
workers and send the work overseas.

OOPS!  One is driven to ask the obvious question - why are these subsidy programs so popular?  I can think of at least three explanations.

The first explanation is political.  These subsidy programs tend to satisfy important bases from both political parties, thereby ensuring their bipartisan support.  Democrats like the idea of spending government money to create jobs, while Republicans like tax breaks and supporting business.  This explanation is unsatisfying.

The second explanation probably hits closer to the mark, and it is the cynical-political explanation that politicians like buying votes with other people's money.  When they campaign for re-election, politicians like to have a couple of "scalps" they can wave around to show the voters that they are doing something (a consistent history of sober fiscal responsibility seems to be unappealing, I guess).  Being able to say "I brought Microsoft to the town of West Nowheresville" or better yet "I brought 1000 jobs to this community" are political favorites of both parties (Here is what New Yorkers are really paying for - the ability of George Pataki to post on his web site a press release saying "Bedding Company to Create 240 New Jobs in New Baltimore").   These are priceless campaign slogans that didn't cost the politician a dime, since they were funded by taxpayers.

The third explanation comes from economics and is the most interesting.  If you shed any notion of morality or ethics (e.g. that one has no right to give one person's money to another just to make their re-election more likely) then politicians who are approached by a company looking for a handout for business relocation faces what is called the prisoner's dilemma.  Many of you may know what that is, but for those who don't, here is a quick explanation, via the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Tanya and Cinque have been arrested for robbing the Hibernia Savings
Bank and placed in separate isolation cells. Both care much more about
their personal freedom than about the welfare of their accomplice. A
clever prosecutor makes the following offer to each. "You may choose
to confess or remain silent. If you confess and your accomplice
remains silent I will drop all charges against you and use your
testimony to ensure that your accomplice does serious time. Likewise,
if your accomplice confesses while you remain silent, they will go
free while you do the time. If you both confess I get two convictions,
but I'll see to it that you both get early parole.  If you both remain
silent, I'll have to settle for token sentences on firearms possession
charges. If you wish to confess, you must leave a note with the jailer
before my return tomorrow morning."

The "dilemma" faced by the prisoners here is that, whatever the other
does, each is better off confessing than remaining silent. But the
outcome obtained when both confess is worse for each than the outcome
they would have obtained had both remained silent.

I hope you can see the parallel to subsidizing business relocations (replace prisoner with "governor" and confess with "subsidize").  In a libertarian world where politicians all just say no to subsidizing businesses, then businesses would end up reasonably evenly distributed across the country (due to labor markets, distribution requirements, etc.) and taxpayers would not be paying any subsidies.  However, because politicians fear that their community will lose if they don't play the subsidy game like everyone else (the equivalent of staying silent while your partner is ratting you out in prison) what we end up with is still having businesses reasonably evenly distributed across the country, but with massive subsidies in place.

To see this clearer, lets take the example of Major League Baseball (MLB).  We all know that cities and states have been massively subsidizing new baseball stadiums for billionaire team owners.  Lets for a minute say this never happened - that somehow, the mayors of the 50 largest cities got together in 1960 and made a no-stadium-subsidy pledge.  First, would MLB still exist?  Sure!  Teams like the Giants have proven that baseball can work financially in a private park, and baseball thrived for years with private parks.  OK, would baseball be in the same cities?  Well, without subsidies, baseball would be in the largest cities, like New York and LA and Chicago, which is exactly where they are now.  The odd city here or there might be different, e.g. Tampa Bay might never have gotten a team, but that would in retrospect have been a good thing.

The net effect in baseball is the same as it is in every other industry:  Relocation subsidies, when everyone is playing the game, do nothing to substantially affect the location of jobs and businesses, but rather just transfer taxpayer money to business owners and workers.

This subsidy game reminds me of the line at the end of the movie Wargames

A strange game.  The only winning move is not to play.

Postscript:  As a libertarian, I have gone through phases on targeted tax breaks.
There have been times in my life when I have supported tax breaks of
any kind to any person for any reason, by the logic that any reduction
in taxation is a good thing.  I know there are many libertarians that
take this position.  Over time, I have changed my mind.  First,
targeted tax breaks seldom in practice reduce the overall tax burden -
they tend to be made up somewhere else.  Second, these tax breaks tend
to be gross examples of the kind of government coercive technocratic
meddling in commerce and individual decision-making
that I despise.
Almost always, they are trying to get individuals to do something they
would not otherwise do, so in practice they tend to be distorting and
carry all kinds of unintended consequences (as well as being
philosophically repugnant).

Update 9/29/05:  We are suddenly getting a bunch of visitors from Econ.Aplia.com, which I presume is related to a university assignment or blog post somewhere.  Can someone email me in at the email in the right bar if folks are coming here from a particular site or university.  Just curious.

Update 9/30/05:  Thanks to a couple of emailers, the cat (err, bulldog?) is out of the bag and I know that Yalies are in the house.  Welcome.  I don't know if they teach free-markets any more in college, but your welcome to look around and take a walk on the libertarian dark side.  Good luck with economics, even if you did pick the wrong school.  --Coyote, Princeton '84, Harvard MBA '89

Update Again:  By the way, I discuss here the odd issue of why I and so many people misspell "dilemma" as "dilemna", as I did in this post.

The New Huey Long

Rep. Don Young (R-AK) is vying to become the new Huey Long.  As head of the House transportation and infrastructure committee, he is in prime position to bring home massive, unnecessary infrastructure projects to his district.  Huey Long, former emperor governor of Louisiana, is justly famous for acquiring funds to build some spectacularly unnecessary bridges over the Mississippi above and below New Orleans.

Representative Young seems to be headed for the same achievement.

If Rep. Young succeeds, tiny Ketchikan, Alaska, a town with less than 8,000 residents (about 13,000 if the entire county is included) will receive hundreds of millions of federal dollars to build a bridge to Gravina Island
(population: 50). This bridge will be nearly as long as the Golden
Gate Bridge and taller than the Brooklyn Bridge.

The Gravina
Bridge would replace a 7-minute ferry ride from Ketchikan to Ketchikan  Airport on Gravina Island. Project proponents tell the public that the bridge is a transportation necessity, though the ferry system adequately handles passenger traffic between the islands, including traffic to and from the airport.1  Some herald the project as the savior of Ketchikan because it will open up land on Pennock Island to residential development, despite the fact that Ketchikan's population has been shrinking.

Taxpayers for Common Sense have a great article here on how the whole earmark thing works.  Here is just a taste:

By the time
this is over, Congress will have packed this with a record level of transportation pork. The political formula was simple: $14 million was the minimum for every district. Anybody who sits on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee can expect $40-60 million, and House
and committee leadership will get $90 million or more.

If you look at it on a per capita basis,  the highest per capita earmark spending is ... in the home state of the committee chairman, Young (gee, what a weird coincidence):

In total dollars,
California is the biggest winner so far with nearly $1.4 billion in earmarks. Delaware receives the smallest share, with only $12
million. On a per capita basis, however, Alaska wins going away.
Based on the $722 million in earmarks for Alaska in the bill's current
version, $1,151 would be shipped north for every man, woman, and child in the state. Rep. Young's isn't done yet, however, and before this bill is law, Alaska's share of earmarks will likely increase
even more. Alaska did nearly as well last year; during the failed
attempt to pass a transportation bill, Rep. Young secured nearly
$600 million for Alaska, including $375 million for two bridge projects, Gravina Access project in Ketchikan and the Knik Arm Crossing in Anchorage.

Update: Via the Club for Growth, comes this related story of the $1.5 million bus stop in Anchorage.

Tom Wilson is faced with a problem many city administrators would envy: How to
spend $1.5 million on a bus stop.

Wilson, Anchorage's director of public transportation, has all that money for
a new and improved bus stop outside the Anchorage Museum of History and Art
thanks to Republican Sen. Ted Stevens (news,
bio,
voting
record
) "” fondly referred to by Alaskans as "Uncle Ted" for his prodigious
ability to secure federal dollars for his home state....

The bus stop there now is a simple steel-and-glass, three-sided enclosure.
Wilson wants better lighting and seating. He also likes the idea of heated
sidewalks that would remain free of snow and ice. And he thinks electronic signs
would be nice....

"We have a senator that gave us that money and I certainly won't want to
appear ungrateful," he said. At the same time, he does not want the public to
think the city is wasting the money. So "if it only takes us $500,000 to do it,
that's what we will spend."

That is still five to 50 times the typical cost of bus stop improvements in
Anchorage.

New Site Search

Not sure why I didn't do it earlier, but I have added Google search for this site down on the lower part of the right nav bar.

Mistrust of Individual Decision-Making

In my post on "Respecting Individual Decision-Making",  which to-date I consider my favorite post, I wrote:

As a capitalist and believer in individual rights, one of the things
I notice a lot today is just how many people do not trust individual
decision-making.  Now, I do not mean that they criticize other people's
decisions or disagree with them -- in a free society, you can disagree
with anybody about anything.  I mean that they distrust other people's
free, private decision-making so much that they want the government to
intervene.

Interestingly, most people don't think of themselves as advocating
government interference with people's private decisions.  However, if
you ask them the right questions, you will find that they tend to fall
into one of several categories that all want the government to
intervene in individual decision-making in some way:  nannies,
moralists, technocrats, and progressive/socialists.  Though the
categories tend to overlap, they are useful in thinking about some of
the reasons people want to call in the government to take over parts of
people's lives.

I then spent a lot of time with examples from each category.  On Sunday, Keith Thompson in the San Francisco Chronicle (of all places) wrote an article about his disaffection with the left, which said in part:

A certain
misplaced loyalty kept me from grasping that a view of individuals as morally
capable of and responsible for making the principle decisions that shape their
lives is decisively at odds with the contemporary left's entrance-level view
of people as passive and helpless victims of powerful external forces, hence
political wards who require the continuous shepherding of caretaker elites.

I'm not sure that he and I are in exactly the same place, but we are both looking for allies who are consistent in their defense of classical liberal values and individual rights.

In a related post, Mickey Kaus, who I seldom read because he spends more time than I care on inside-the-beltway political tactics and media stuff, has an interesting related post about the left and trusting people to do right by their own lives.  Kaus resists permalinks, but the gist is:

Two good critiques of the ubiquitous, left-pleasing menace, George Lakoff--by Marc Cooper and Noam Scheiber. Oddly, neither attacks Lakoff at what would seem to be his central weak point, namely his conflation of politics and parenting--identifying "conservative" values with "the strict father" and "liberal" values with the "nurturant parent."

Is a country really like a family? Isn't that an idea with a ... checkered
history? A family is a relationship between inherently unequal,
not-completely-free people--parents and children. A country, at least
in one American conception, is the relationship of equal, autonomous
people. Using the family as the template for politics stacks the deck against social equality (the value I'd suggest as the liberal touchstone). For one thing, it lends itself all too easily to the condescending liberal notion of compassion,
an anti-populist idea if there ever was one. It's also horribly
misleading as a guide to practical policies--no wonder that when
Scheiber asks Lakoff about President Clinton's welfare reform, Lakoff
responds "Why did he have to do that? ... I still don't understand it
fully." In Lakoff's mind, Clinton wasn't changing the welfare system,
he was beating his family's children! Aren't there values that aren't
family values?

A good example of that in recent debate has been social security.  As I argued before:

Advocates for keeping forced savings programs like Social Security in
place as-is by necessity argue that the average American is too stupid,
too short-sighted, and/or too lazy to save for retirement without the
government forcing them.  Basically the argument is that we
are smarter than you, and we are going to take control of aspects of
your life that we think we can manage better than you can
.  You are
too stupid to save for retirement, too stupid to stop eating fatty
foods, too stupid to wear a seat belt, and/or too stupid to accept
employment on the right terms -- so we will take control of these
decisions for you, whether you like it or not.  For lack of a better
word, I call this intellectual welfare.

Given these fairly accurate descriptions of the state of liberalism in America, it is ironic that several weeks ago, Kevin Drum made the following observation:

Whenever I talk about the underlying principles that should guide liberals, as
I did a couple of days ago,
one of the ideas that always pops up is privacy
rights. In fact, it comes up so often that it strikes me that we're missing a
bet by not making a bigger deal out of it.

The reason, Mr. Drum, is that a true privacy right defined as you are considering it (in particular, one defined broadly enough to give women an absolute right to abortion) would undermine much of the left's statist agenda.   A true privacy right would force the government to respect individual free decision-making, and require that the government allow individuals to make what elites might consider are bad decisions for themselves. 

Does the Left really want broad privacy rights, or just a constitutional justification for abortion?  If they really want a general primacy of a woman's decision-making over their bodies, why do they support abortion yet oppose letting women choose breast augmentation or the use of Vioxx?  Why do the same leftist politicians that oppose parental approval or even notification for teenage abortion simultaneously support requiring parental permissions for teenagers to use tanning salons?  Why do they resist random searches for terrorists but support such searches to enforce seat belt laws?

As I wrote here,

A true privacy right would allow us complete freedom over who we sleep
with, what we do with our bodies, where we work, and what we pay for
goods.  And, not incidentally, how we choose to invest for our
retirement.  Both parties want the government to control parts of our
lives, so don't expect either Conservatives or liberals to be pushing
the privacy issue very hard.

The government is not our parent, not our boss, not our priest, and not our partner.  It is our servant.  Unfortunately, a large element behind creeping statism in this country is a desire by both left and right to "correct" individual decision-making, even when those decisions affect no one but the actor himself.

Protecting the Consumers from Low Gas Prices

Decades ago, anti-trust regulation abandoned any pretense that its goal was protecting consumers.  The vast majority of anti-trust laws and cases today are more about protection of businesses from competition.  A good historic example is the Microsoft case, where consumers were bravely protected by the government from getting various utilities included free with their operating system.  You only had to look at the major defenders of the anti-Microsoft anti-trust suit (e.g. Sun, Oracle, etc) to know that the suit was about protecting other businesses rather than protecting consumers.

It would be difficult to find a better example of this today than for gasoline in Maryland:

A gasoline price war erupted in St. Mary's County last week after one station
slashed its price for regular to $1.999 a gallon and spurred three others to
follow suit, giving drivers some hope of relief at the pump.

But the price dip proved fleeting.

Maryland regulators quickly stepped in and told the stations that their prices
were too low. They needed to go up by 5 cents...

The sudden fluctuation in the Lexington Park area was the result of a
little-noticed Maryland law that took effect in 2001. The General Assembly
mandated that stations cannot charge less than what they pay for gas -- unless
they're lowering prices to compete with a nearby station.

The rationale for the law is ostensibly this:

Independent service station owners pressed lawmakers for the measure as a way to
protect themselves from big retailers selling gas below cost to drive them out
of business and limit competition. Maryland is one of at least 13 states to
adopt similar laws, which are not in effect in the District or Virginia.

First, its not the government's job to protect individual businesses.  Businesses should be treated like adults who knew the risks they were getting into in a business.

Second, this argument is specious anyway.  The logic is that ostensibly these dealers will be driven out of business, and then the big guys, without competition, will jack up their prices.  This is absurd.  It is important to note that it never happens this way, not for any sustained period of time in any market in the hundred years of gasoline retailing.  Gasoline retail margins are low, have been low, and will always be low.  If they ever creep up locally, someone has the incentive to undercut prices because volume is so important to profitability.  In fact, people have accused Wal-mart of this for years - ie they cut
prices and drive out the independents.  But so what, particularly if
prices never go back up?  This is even more true in gasoline retailing because gasoline station capacity never really leaves the market.  Because of the unique nature of the infrastructure, and the environmental rules vis a vis underground tanks, the best use for a gasoline station sold in bankruptcy is another gasoline station.  Even if an independent goes bankrupt, the site will likely stay a gas station, under different ownership.

Finally, in the current gasoline market, there are very good reasons not related to driving competitors out for one to sell gas under cost.  Many modern gas stations make as much or more profit on their convenience stores, car washes, and other services than they do on gas.  I know my company does in the few places where we sell gasoline.  Using gasoline as a loss leader to bring in convenience store traffic is perfectly valid.  Grocery stores have been doing this with eggs and milk for years.

This type law is a lazy protection device for a few companies that happen to have political clout in the government.  Maybe the IJ will get on the case.  Overlawyered.com has commentary and examples from other states.

Update:  One should also note that it various circumstances, the oil industry has, in addition to this case where a company was hit by the government for selling at a lower price than competitors, been accused of gauging (selling above cost and other competitors) and collusion (selling at the same price as competitors).  The Mises Blog has a nice link to R.W. Grants the Incredible Bread Machine, a poem that includes this stanza:

"These very simple guidelines,
You can rely upon:
You're gouging on your
prices if
You charge more than the rest.
But it's unfair competition if

You think you can charge less!
"A second point that we would make
To
help avoid confusion...
Don't try to charge the same amount,
That would
be Collusion!
You must compete. But not too much,
For if you do you see,

Then the market would be yours -
And that's Monopoly!

 

My Star Wars III Review

OK, it seems the everyone is a movie critic this week.  If you ever doubt that most bloggers are geeks at heart, just look at all the Star Wars III coverage in blogs this week.  Anyway, not to be outdone, here is my review.  I will give a general review up front, with more thoughts that include spoilers in the extended post.

Overall, the movie was visually stunning, with lots of eye candy.  The last third of the movie was emotionally engaging, though many of the actors' performances were sub-par.  The movie was better than the last two (duh) and tied the story arc together fairly well.

However, my impressions of the movie really differed front to back, so for review purposes I divide the movie into three parts:

  1. Initial action / rescue sequence  C+:  The effects are nice, but the mission itself doesn't make a lot of sense, at least from Palpatine's eyes, who clearly must have orchestrated it.  Movie-wise, it has two purposes.  First, it is supposed to be the last gasp of the Obi-Wan and Anakin ongoing buddy movie, but the dialog for this sucks.  They should have hired someone from the Lethal Weapon movies to do this right.  Second, and perhaps the most effective part, it really sets up a scene in Return of the Jedi, making more meaningful a contrast between Luke and Anakin.  Without this one sub-scene, this section of the movie would have just been an overly long action intro into the movie, kind of like the warm-up band to get everyone excited or the first 5 minutes before the credits in a James Bond movie.
  2. Dialog / exposition / Anakin turns  D:  Some people seem to like this section.  I found it PAINFUL.  The Anakin/Padme romance is never, ever very realistic.  I don't know if it is the acting or the script or just lack of spark between the actors, but I thought there was more sexual tension between Luke and his sister, for god sakes, than Anakin and Padme.  I will say the fear that drives Anakin to the dark side is a fairly good one.  It was set up well in the previous movies.  However, the execution sucked.  Under the right direction, this could have been really powerful, given the dark irony at the end of the movie of what was really behind this fear.  The final conversion seems to happen way too fast - he goes from "wait this is wrong" to "You are my master" in like 30 seconds. 
  3. Destruction of the Jedi / Putting everyone in place for Episode IV  B+:  There is nothing wrong with Lucas's ability to direct epic action and special effects and to use music and editing to build tension and emotion.  I thought it was well done.  The final fight scene takes place in amazing environment.  They do a good, but not perfect job, of establishing continuity with Episode IV.  Once everyone shuts up, the movie gets good.  Hayden Christianson really looks the part of dark Jedi at the end

Overall, I will give it a B but non-Star Wars fans would probably grade it lower.  My episode ranking now is V - IV - [III or VI] - II - I.  I will have to see it again and give it a bit of time to put it ahead or behind VI, but right now I have it ahead because its emotional impact walking out of it the first time was much higher than that of VI.

Continue reading ‘My Star Wars III Review’ »

Great Moments in Mediocrity

Teachers at one school district in California chose not to select a teacher of the year this year, because it smacked too much of recognizing and rewarding competence (hat tip: best of the web):

The name of the winner was to have been
announced at tonight's school board meeting. Instead, Leach will read a
statement explaining why the union has decided not to pick a single
winner this year....

That coincided with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's first pitch for
merit pay for public-school teachers. His proposal has met with strong
opposition from some teachers around California and from a key state
education official.

"We decided that choosing one among us as the best is similar to merit pay," Leach said.

This reminds me of Bill Gates's Life Lesson #8:

Your school may have done away
with winners and losers, but life has not. In some schools they have abolished
failing grades; they'll give you as many times as you want to get the right
answer. This doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.

Except, perhaps, teaching.  More on teachers and their union here and here and here.

Heads You Win, Tails I Lose

For years, high school civics books have portrayed our political choices as ranging from socialism on the left to fascism on the right.  These textbooks represent the statists' wet dream -- the reframing of political discussion such that all possible outcomes are defined as rigid government control of individual lives.  The only difference is who is in charge, and the path they took to get there. 

Think I am exaggerating?  Here's an example:

The left hate George Bush.  Fine.  I have my own problems with the man.  Over the last few years, the left has cast about for a person to rally around as a counterpoint to Bush.  Some latched on the the French leadership, some to Saddam Hussein, some even recently to George Gallway.   I think you can see the problem here, and the mistake Michael Moore made.  Forcing voters to choose between Saddam Hussein and George Bush is practically begging them to vote Republican.

After the last election, I had hoped that the left had gotten wiser.  I guess not.  Apparently the "progressive" community is rallying around Hugo Chavez as their next model leader:

Of the top oil producing countries in the world, only one is a democracy with a
president who was elected on a platform of using his nation's oil revenue to
benefit the poor. The country is Venezuela. The President is Hugo Chavez. Call
him "the Anti-Bush."...

Instead of using government to help the rich and the corporate, as Bush does,
Chavez is using the resources and oil revenue of his government to help the poor
in Venezuela. A country with so much oil wealth shouldn't have 60 percent of its
people living in poverty, earning less than $2 per day. With a mass movement
behind him, Chavez is confronting poverty in Venezuela. That's why large
majorities have consistently backed him in democratic elections. And why the
Bush administration supported an attempted military coup in 2002 that sought to
overthrow Chavez.

And this is the group that calls themselves "reality-based"?  Does anyone really believe that poverty results solely from not handing oil revenue to the poor?  The US doesn't do this (well, except in Alaska), yet despite this our poor in this country are wealthier than the middle class in Venezuela, and its because we have a stable government that protects property rights and individual freedoms and provides a stable environment for investment.  Prosperity comes from building a healthy and growing economy, not looting a particular industry.  (By the way, I am sure that the previous regime was looting the oil industry as well, so I am certainly not defending them.)

However, this point is worth repeating:  Progressives consider Venezuela to have a better policy for helping the poor than the US, but the poorest 20% in the US still make more money and live better and longer than at least 80% of Venezuelans.  A person in the middle of the "poor" quintile in the US would be upper middle class in Venezuela.  And I will bet anyone that after 10 years of Chavez rule, this will be more, not less, true.

Chavez is a totalitarian thug.  Human Rights Watch has plenty to say about his miserable record of trashing freedoms.  In particular, you can compare the supreme court shenanigans of the "anti-Bush" with ridiculously mild controversy in this country (at least by comparison) over judicial nominations.  More background on Chavez here.

So there you are.  We are given the choice of Bush or Chavez.  Statism or statism.  Thanks a lot.

Calls from the Boiler Room

Of late, I have been getting a lot of calls at work from stock boiler-rooms with high-energy come-on guys trying to sell me some hot equity.  The tactics used by these calls is very consistent, but to describe it I need to share some background.

Fifteen years or so ago, I from time-to-time would get calls from what I assume were legitimate brokers trying to get my business.  They would call me and say something like "I am not going to sell you anything today.  I am going to give you the name of 5 equities, and in 6 months I am going to call you back".  If played straight, this is not a bad sales tactic - prove your ability to pick stocks and out-perform the market in advance of asking for business.  Of course, this could be gamed:  I could create 20 lists of 5 stocks each and call a thousand people, giving each person one of the 20 lists.  Then I could wait 6 months and call back those people whose 5 stocks outperformed the market.

Today, there is a less patient variation on this call.  I get about three calls a week from guys saying "do you remember me when I called you last January 23, and fedexed you our stock selections - since then they are up xx%".  The only problem is that they never called or fedexed anything, but I guess they are hoping that I assume I forgot and then take their word for their stock picks.  The scam here becomes more obvious when you get your 10th call from these guys.  It became even more obvious given I have three numbers for my business and over a 20 minute time period I got three calls on three lines from three different people with the same spiel starting "this is X, you remember my call from a few months ago?"

LOL, I can just picture Tony Soprano in the back room monitoring the whole operation. 

There Goes My Sleep

Civilization IV is coming.  This is mixed news.  I am excited about the game, but the previous offerings in this series, as well as related Sid Meier games Alpha Centauri and Master of Orion, have probably been the greatest threats to my productivity, my sleep, and my marriage I have ever encountered. Hat tip to Jane Gault.

Flagstaff Not Yet Ready To Abandon Property Rights

Yesterday, Flagstaff, AZ became the latest community to vote on limits to "big box" stores.  When Wal-mart wanted to create a larger store that offered groceries, a group of local citizens didn't like the idea.  Not satisfied with exercising their individual right not to shop there, they got their city government to craft an ordinance to stop Wal-mart from expanding.  Wal-mart supporters gathered signatures and forced the ordinance to clear the voters as Proposition 100.   Via Arizona Watch, the ordinance would:

  1. Prevent retail establishments larger than 125,000 square feet
  2. Require retail establishments larger than 75,000 square feet to restrict the
    sale of non-taxable grocery items to less than 8% of their floor space
  3. Require retail establishments larger than 75,000 square feet to be subject
    to economic impact studies
  4. Require a conditional use permit (and the associated community input and
    hearings) for establishments larger than 75,000 square feet

Like all zoning, the ordinance was an attempt of citizens to control the use of someone else's property without having to actually buy the property.  Fortunately, the measure failed, though narrowly.  I will say that to some extent, I have trouble defending Wal-mart.  Wal-mart often takes advantage of statist actions to grow, including accepting loads of local government incentives and even eminent domain to grow.   To some extent, getting nailed by a local government is just getting hoist on its own petard, but I will defend them anyway because I could be next.

Supporters of the ban rallied under the "new urbanism" concept:

Meanwhile, the New
Urbanism concept -- a community design that mixes residential and
businesses districts to decrease the need to drive to outlying areas --
may face some challenges.

"What this
means is we're going to have to make some alternatives to the New
Urbanism vision," said Councilmember Kara Kelty. "We understand that we
have to maximize land usage. We need to continue that effort, but we
can't do that without the public."

Basically New Urbanism supporters would rather have a bunch of expensive and limited choice (but cute!) boutiques for you to shop at rather than whatever store you would prefer to shop at.  Rather than leaving this decision up to consumers, we-know-better-than-you planners in government take this upon themselves.  Reason had a nice article on New UrbanismCato critiqued the smart growth folks here.

But, don't be fooled that this is just about land use.  This reaction article from the Arizona Daily Sun has some priceless quotes (note that these are from people the reporter found shopping in Wal-mart!):

"I voted 'Yes.' I'm really
disappointed because this town has enough Wal-Marts, and I don't know
where they're going to find land space for huge stores, with that kind
of square feet. We're running out of room for people to live here. I
wonder how happy they'll be if the Super Wal-Mart was built on McMillan
Mesa, that's private land. I don't know where they're going to put one."

First, if they can't find the land, then there won't be a problem, will there?  And god forbid someone builds a Wal-mart on private land. Should we use eminent domain instead?  I must admit that to some extent I sympathize with the residents of Flagstaff.  Like Boulder or Vail, it is a small town in a beautiful mountain setting.  And, like Boulder and Vail, the wealthy of nearby large cities (Phoenix) have descended on it, buying second homes like crazy.  The result has been increased traffic and prices, offset by a white-hot economy, increases in wealth for long-time residents via existing home prices, and huge boost to the tax base that is much larger than the cost of serving the new part-year residents.  The locals are trying to figure out how to keep the capital gains in their homes, keep the extra jobs, and keep the extra taxes without actually having any new people in town, and its not really working for them.

"My first reaction was
'Boo' when they announced it. They announced it over the loudspeaker. I
heard some cheers, and I heard some claps. The one thing I hate is the
thought of creating minimum-wage, part-time jobs that do not pay their
employees' benefits. They're just going to exploit more college
students, like they do here. I do shop here for lack of a better place
to shop."

Whoa, this doesn't sound much like land use, but it sure is heard as a rationale a lot for anti-Walmart zoning.  Look, if Wal-mart is paying too little, then no one will take the jobs.  Since these are net new jobs, they likely will go to people not now currently working.  How does that hurt anyone?  By the way, you gotta love the "exploit more college students" swipe.  Since when are college students owed more than minimum wage?  I worked for minimum wage in college, and I seem to be OK.  Also, how can many college students want anything other than part-time work?  And, most hilariously, I don't know any [mostly young, healthy] college student that gives a rip about benefits (by which I presume they mean medical).  Very few college students have or need health coverage separate from their parents or school programs anyway. I wrote a lot more about Wal-mart and wages here.

By the way, this man's commitment to principals is hilarious.  When quoted, he was shopping at Wal-mart.  This person can't even be bothered with the one strong individual free-will non-coercion option open to him:  Don't shop there.  When quoted, he was at that very moment benefiting in the form of lower prices for whatever was in his cart from these supposedly horrible labor practices.  Jeez, talk about knee-jerk statism.  If half of the shoppers in that store voted for this limit Wal-mart ordinance, then get them together and boycott the damn place and you'll probably shut it down, and you could leave the government and property rights violations out of it.

Now, let us all get out our violins for this guy who voted for the limits:

"I feel like a hypocrite
because I do shop at Wal-Mart. If we let them build a Super Wal-Mart,
what happens to this current store? Are we going to have a big empty
space there? If they move it to the other side of town, I won't go over
there. This is convenient for me.

OK, so this man voted to use government force and coercion to wipe out the property rights of other private individuals because... he was afraid new stores might be less convenient?  Look folks, this is why we have a Constitution and Bill of Rights, and why the founders did not create an unlimited democracy.  51% of the people are not supposed to vote away the rights of the other 49%.  We protect rights like speech against such tyranny of the majority.  At some point, unfortunately, we stopped protecting property rights.  This is the result - your property rights effectively subsumed to people who are worried about driving too far to the store.

I will end on this one:

"I think it stinks. I
voted 'Yes' for the proposition. I definitely didn't like the tactics
(Wal-Mart) used. I wish people didn't go and shop there. I really
thought it was going to get beat. We voted down fluoride, so why not
vote down Super Wal-Mart? 
That's the kind of town we are. This town has
that kind of progressive attitude. I'm just disgusted with the whole
corporation -- Wal-Mart. I think it's wrong."

I have written a number of times:  Do not be fooled by the term "progressive".  Progressives, despite the name, hate bottom-up, non-controlled-from-the-top change.  More than that, they hate the decisions you make with your own property.  They believe that they can make much better decisions for your property than you can.  The next time you support the "progressives" in stripping some third party of their property rights, remember that you might be next.  Remember the progressive slogan:  "All Your Base Are Belong to Us".

Yahoo! Desktop Search: Highly Recommended

Two parts to this recommendation:

First, if you are still just using Outlook find or that horrible windows search function, get one of the free new desktop search programs NOW!  I have tried several, and in general they have been the most useful utility I have tried in years.  These programs index your email, hard disk files, and web history together for unified searches.  There is some overhead in the initial indexing (run it overnight) but from then on these utilities provide lightning search results to your whole hard drive.

Second, once you are ready to try one, get the Yahoo version.   Like Google's and others, it is free.  I have tried several of the others, including Google's, but the Yahoo version is faster, easier to use, and presents the results in a more useful format.  Also, I had conflicts between the Google version and Zone Alarm, and the Yahoo program got the editors choice award at PC Magazine.  You can download it free here.

Store Wars

The Organic Foods Trade Association has this terrific spoof on Star Wars, aimed at warning consumers about the "dark side of the farm", which for them of course are non-organic foods.  Meet Obi Wan Cannoli and Chew-broccoli. 

I am kindof neutral on the whole organic foods thing - while happy about the range of new choices available to consumers, organic proponents tend to have statist tendencies and seem all too quick to welcome government intervention to aid their cause and regulate away consumer choices they don't agree with.  I have never really been terrified by genetic manipulation of foods and I tend to group those who oppose irradiation of foods to reduce diseases as roughly equivalent to Luddites who oppose vaccinations.

Storewars

UPDATE:  You can tell that many bloggers are geeks like me, by the number of Star Wars previews I have read.  There is a good one here at the Knowlege Problem, and predictably from Will Collier at Vodka Pundit.  A Small Victory is hosting the Carnival of the Force, a roundup of Star Wars posts.

REVIEW: I say the movie last night, and my review is here.

When Multi-Culturalism and Individual Rights Collide

I have always been amazed that so many civil libertarians have embraced multi-culturalism.  To be a good civil libertarian, you have to be willing to defend a certain set of principles about individual rights ruthlessly against all intrusion.  But to be a multi-culturalist, you have to be willing to accept values and behaviors that are wildly out of sync with western liberalism as equally "OK".  These two never seemed reconcilable to me -- civil libertarians pursue moral absolutes, while multi-culturalism preaches that there are no absolutes.

Those on the left who have tried to embrace both civil liberties and multi-culturalism have sometimes had to bend themselves into pretzels to try to reconcile these beliefs.  Today we have the unbelievable spectacle of the same people accusing the US of becoming a theocracy because it is slow to embrace gay marriage at the same time defending radical Muslim groups who would kill gays on sight.  We can watch people go ballistic decrying naked human pyramids as "torture" but still defend Saddam and his Baathists as freedom fighters despite the hundreds of thousands they put into mass graves.  And we can observe that the same people who are trying to invalidate judge candidates because they went to prayer breakfasts are calling flushing a Koran down the toilet "torture".

I suspect, though, that the highly illiberal teachings of the Muslim religion may finally be forcing the left to recognize the incompatibilities of their civil libertarianism and their belief in cultural moral equivalence.  This is the theme of a great new piece by Cathy Young in Reason:

The tension between two pillars of the modern left"”multiculturalism and
progressive views on gender"”is not new. It has been particularly thorny
in many European countries where, in lieu of an American-style "melting pot"
approach, immigrants have been traditionally encouraged to maintain their
distinct values and ways. Recently, however, these tensions have started to
come out into the open. According to a
March article
in the German magazine, Der Spiegel, the murder of Dutch filmmaker
Theo Van Gogh by an Islamic extremist last November after he had made a
documentary about the oppression of Muslim women "galvanized the Netherlands
and sent shock waves across Europe."...

Misogyny and gay-bashing"”religiously motivated or not"”still exist
in Western societies as well, though at least they are widely condemned by
the mainstream culture. We should be able to say, loud and clear, that the
modern values of individual rights, equality, and tolerance are
better"”and just say no to multiculturalist excuses for bigotry.

Some good news on this topic, Kuwait has extended women the right to vote.

Those Sophisticated Europeans

I honestly thought this was a gag at first.  Those sophisticated Europeans, who are supposedly so much more protective of civil rights and privacy and the like than we neanderthals in the US, are requiring that Spanish executives register details of their sex life with the government:

SPANISH business leaders are being told they have to declare any illicit love affairs - to the stock market.

In an attempt to crack down on insider trading, the directors of
companies quoted on Spain's stock exchange will have to come clean, on
a twice-yearly basis, about anyone with whom they are having an
"affectionate relationship"...

Company directors must also provide information about their wives or
husbands and family, but it is the idea of a "lovers' register" - in
which bosses could have to admit to having affairs or out themselves as
gay - which has sparked reactions ranging from disbelief to fury among
businessmen.

Ricard Fornesa, the president of the huge La Caixa savings bank, described the legislation as "laughable".

A spokesman for another leading Spanish financial house - who would
not be named - was outraged, saying: "If I had a lover, which I don't,
would they expect me to admit it? What next? I get a call from someone
who has found out saying "˜pay me money or I tell your wife'. It's
stupid and it's ludicrous."

I don't think this even requires comment.  Some of course will have nothing to do with it or will remain silent.  Knowing a few Spanish gentlemen, though, I wonder if there will be some who will have the tendency to exaggerate and tack on names.  I would be tempted to submit a list of all the wives of male Congressmen.  I guess I should start working on my submission in case this approach is adopted by the SEC.  Lets see now ... Paris Hilton, the Olsen twins, Laura Bush, Maria Shriver, Martha Stewart, Lassie, the Little Mermaid, ...

Hat tip to Overlawyered.