Posts tagged ‘South Bend Seven’

On The Right Not To Be Offended

From South Bend Seven

You can't define an appropriate environment as whatever the most easily offended person wants. Jezebel thinks you can, ought and must do it that way. But I know they're wrong. You know why? Because Jezebel itself thinks it's absurd. They're totally cool with using that standard when it comes to dick jokes, but when it comes to breast feeding suddenly it's outrageous (eg onetwo). Mothers can't be expected to make decisions based on the whims of whoever is most repulsed by strangers' breasts. Well guess what? That means I shouldn't be expected to conform my behavior to whoever leasts wants to overhear terrible puns about dongles.

A Couple of Nice Observations on Technocracy and Budgets

From South Bend Seven come a couple of comments I liked today.  The first was on the Left and current budget plans:

If I was on the Left I would look at these figures and then begin to think long and hard about whether knee-jerk opposition to things like Medicare block grants or defined-contribution public pensions is such a good idea. The biggest threat to redistribution to the poor is existing redistribution to the old.

To the last sentence, I would add "and redistribution to upper middle class public sector workers."  I am constantly amazed at the Left's drop-dead defense of above-market pay and benefits for public sector workers.  This already reduces funding for things like actual classroom instruction and infrastructure improvements, and almost certainly the looming public pension crisis will reduce resources for an array of programs much loved by the Left.

The second observation relates to a favorite topic of mine, on technocracy:

Often enough I think "you know, we need more scientists in charge of things." Then I remember that the scientists we get are Steven Chu and I think "yeah, maybe not so much."

Then I think about all the abominable committee meetings and discussion sessions I've been in with scientists and I think "perhaps best not to put scientists in charge."

Then I look over at my bookshelf, notice my cope of The Machinery of Freedom, and think "why are we putting anybody in charge at all?"

If this Administration has any one theme, it is a total confidence that a few people imposing solutions and optimizations top-down  is superior to bottom-up or emergent solutions.   Even the recent memo on targeted killings reflects this same philosophy, that one man with a few smart people in the White House can make better life-or-death decisions than all that messy stuff with courts and lawyers.   Those of us who understand our Hayek know that superior top-down decision-making is impossible, given that the decision-makers can never have the information or incentives to make the best decisions for complex systems, and because they tend to impose one single objective function when in fact we are a nation of individuals with 300 million different objective functions.  But the drone war / targeted killing memo demonstrates another problem:  technocrats hate due process.   Due process for them is just time-wasting review by lesser mortals of their decisions.  Just look at how Obama views Congress, or the courts.

It is Supposed to be Hard

South Bend Seven helped me think through the more general point I was trying to get at in this post.  I am simply sick of the incessant whining from this administration that it's too hard to get legislation through Congress and that difficulty justifies the Administration to start unilaterally exercising legislative powers via executive decree and the stretching of numerous regulatory authorities.

But here is the deal - its supposed to be hard to add new laws and, particularly, to expand the power of the government.  Hard, but not impossible.  Even when something is ruled unconstitutional, there is a mechanism to amend the Constitution.  In fact, we have actually done it 27 times.  But nowadays we don't even want to bother.   We have Presidents of both parties that just invent new executive powers and who put pressure on the Courts to agree to broader and broader Federal powers.

I am not sure we will ever have another Constitutional Amendment in my lifetime.  Already at 41 years since the last one (not counting the odd 27th amendment) this is the longest span in history without an Amendment being passed.  We just can't be bothered to do things the right way.  Don't believe me?  Does anyone believe that if the income tax was invented today, anyone would bother with its Constitutional issues and decide an amendment is necessary.  Or even more telling, in 1917 we honestly believed a Constitutional Amendment was needed for the federal government to regulate and ban alcoholic beverages.  If that's true, where is the amendment that is required to ban marijuana, cocaine, or heroin?  We dond't bother with one, because by the time we regulated these substances we had pretty much abandoned the concept (written into the document in several places and reiterated in the 9th and 10th amendment) that the Constitution conferred enumerated powers.  Because that just made it too dang hard for politicians to exercise more and more power over us.

This is Absurd

It is folks like this who continue to want to score the stimulus solely based on employment created by stimulus projects, without considering the fact that someone was using the money for some productive purpose before the government took or borrowed it.

David Brin at the Daily Kos via the South Bend Seven

There is nothing on Earth like the US tax code. It is an extremely complex system that nobody understands well. But it is unique among all the complex things in the world, in that it's complexity is perfectly replicated by the MATHEMATICAL MODEL of the system. Because the mathematical model is the system.

Hence, one could put the entire US tax code into a spare computer somewhere, try a myriad inputs, outputs... and tweak every parameter to see how outputs change. There are agencies who already do this, daily, in response to congressional queries. Alterations of the model must be tested under a wide range of boundary conditions (sample taxpayers.) But if you are thorough, the results of the model will be the results of the system.

Now. I'm told (by some people who know about such things) that it should be easy enough to create a program that will take the tax code and cybernetically experiment with zeroing-out dozens, hundreds of provisions while sliding others upward and then showing, on a spreadsheet, how these simplifications would affect, say, one-hundred representative types of taxpayers.

South Bend Seven have a number of pointed comments, but I will just offer the obvious:  Only half of the tax calculation is rates and formulas.  The other half is the underlying economic activity (such as income) to which the taxes are applied.  Brin's thesis falls apart for the simple reason that economic activity, and particularly income, are not variables independent of the tax code.  In fact, economic activity can be extremely sensitive to changes in the tax code.

The examples are all around us -- the 1990 luxury tax tanked high end boat sales.  The leveraged buyout craze of the 80's and housing bubble of the 00's are both arguably fed in part by the tax code's preference for debt.  The entire existence of employer-paid (rather than individual-paid) health insurance is likely a result of the tax code.  And of course there are all the supply-side and incentives effects that Kos readers likely don't accept but exist none-the-less.

Spacechem

Spent the weekend playing Spacechem while watching the NCAA basketball tournament.  Though nominally about tearing apart and building molecules, its really a simulation of assembly line design, since you molecular engineering happens mechanically (ie carry atom over here, bond it in reactor, move it over there, etc).  There is a kind of built in re-playability, as most of the puzzles are not that hard to solve in some fashion, but can be very hard to solve efficiently.  For example, the level "No Ordinary Headache" will allow the player up to three reactors, but a one reactor solution is possible.  Took me forever to finally get it. This one is not mine but is not too different from my solution.

To that end, the game provides a distribution curve of other player's solutions based on three stats (number of process cylces required, number of reactors required, number of components required).  Even if you get the puzzle right, you may see you solution was way less efficient than other folks, driving one to try again.  I like this dynamic - it is sort of like duplicate bridge, where one is not judged by just winning the hand, but by how well one scored with the hand vs. other players playing the same hand.

Here is another positive review at South Bend Seven.  And just search "spacechem" in youtube to find zillions of videos of various game solutions, it will give you a feel for the game.

Awesome. Happy Halloween

Hat tip: South Bend Seven

And I will repeat my best ever Halloween Pumpkin:

Pumpkin1 Pumpkin2

(click on pictures for larger view)

Accountability?

From New York Magazine

The wrinkly old men that we elect to Congress are so horny and gross that the American taxpayer shells out on average $1 million a year in settlements to sexually harassed Hill staffers, according to the Office of Compliance. The level of perviness fluctuates from year to year "” in 2007, 25 staffers were paid a total of $4 million.

Kids Prefer Cheese comments

Wouldn't such settlements possibly be of interest to voters, the media, and opponents of the crotch-grabbing perv-boys? It sure would! And that is why Congress passed a law saying that no one can obtain this information!

Via the South Bend Seven.  The New York article also makes this observation:

According to the same Office of Compliance, which is on a roll today, "the Capitol and other congressional buildings are rife with fire traps and other pervasive problems of age and dangerous design, with an estimated 6,300 safety hazards lurking on Capitol Hill this Congress." Congress has exempted itself from federal workplace safety regulations, so it isn't legally obligated to repair any of these hazards, many of which will be expensive. It's the kind of short-sightedness we've all come to expect from our lawmakers.

It is irritating that they exempt themselves from the same laws everyone else has to follow, though I can't say I am too worked up at the thought of some Senator slamming his or her head on a low doorway.

Homesteaders Beware

I already wrote on the egregious FTC proposals to begin the government takeover of journalism.  But I missed this part, via South Bend Seven, which caught my eye in their post:

Tax on broadcast spectrum. They argue "commercial radio and television broadcasters are given monopoly rights to extremely lucrative spectrum at no charge," and this is a massive public subsidy. They therefore suggest the revenues generated by that spectrum be taxed at a rate of 7 percent, which should result in a fund of between $3 and $6 billion. In exchange, commercial broadcasters would be relieved of any obligations to engage in "public-interest programming," which the broadcasters claim costs them $10 billion annually.

Much of the TV and radio spectrum was indeed "given away," in exactly the same process that the Homestead Act (and I believe the Northwest Ordinance before that) "gave away" land to Americans who were willing to develop it.  These acts gave land away to pioneers who were willing to take the risk and effort to develop what was essentially value-less land into a productive asset  (the land had potential value, but until someone tilled it and put up structures and built rail and road to it, it was worthless).  When TV and Radio broadcasters first started using the spectrum, it was worthless -- and we were even less confident in its potential value than we were of the land in the Homestead Act.  The spectrum did not have value until private broadcasters demonstrated it had value through their investment, development, and experimentation.

So is Congress next going to tell everyone who lives on homesteaded land that they received a massive public subsidy and that their land is now going to be taxed?  The current landowner would likely argue that they didn't get the land for free - they bought it for a substantial price from the previous owners, who bought if from someone else, who bought it from the original homesteader.  But the situation is no different in the broadcast spectrum.  Clear Channel did not get the spectrum for free -- it did not even exist for decades after the spectrum was homesteaded -- it paid a full market price for the spectrum it controls.

Postscript: However, I am happy to see even the leftish Obama Administration admit that public-interest programming is a questionable requirement.  Because broadcasters only make money if they broadcast things people want to see or hear, everything they do is "public-interest."  What is meant in practice by the term "public-interest" should actually be called "political-interest" programming, because this programming tends to be uninteresting to the great majority of the public (have you ever listened to the garbage at 5am on Sunday morning on radio?) but is supported by small niche groups that have disproportionate political influence.  Let's remove these requirements as stupid without holding up broadcasters for more taxes in exchange.

CBO Makes the Same Point I Have Been Making

One point I have been making for a long time on health care is that all the studies showing waste and unproductive spending in health care are irrelevant to government policy because at the end of the day, the Federal government does not know how to capture these savings.  The CBO says basically the same thing in a chart from a recent presentation.  The chart is titled "Reducing Growth in Federal Health Spending"

On the upside:

  • There is considerable agreement that a substantial share of current spending on health care contributes little if anything to people's health.
  • Providers and health analysts are making significant efforts to make the health system more efficient.

On the downside:

  • It is not clear what specific policies the federal government can adopt to generate fundamental changes in the health system. That is, it is not clear what specific policies would translate the potentialfor significant cost savings into reality.
  • Efforts to reduce costs increase the risk that people would not get some health care they need or would like to receive.

I am pretty confident from my experience with a high-deductible health care plan that the only way to start capturing savings is for individuals who recieve care to have the incentives and decision-making power to make cost-benefit tradeoffs in their own health care procurement.  This, however, is the absolute last thing this administration and Congress would ever allow, with the latest bill actually forcibly removing what small incentives that remained for individuals to make these tradeoffs.  All we are going to get are command and control care cuts  (based on the political power of the particular service or drug provider rather than medical efficacy) and price controls.

More at South Bend Seven

Creating the American Pravda

It is a beautiful day here, so I really don't have the time or desire right now to summarize the absolute mess that is the FTC discussion draft for the "reinvention of journalism," reinvention being a synonym apparently for government takeover.  Almost every proposal is fraught with unintended (or perhaps intended but hidden) consequences, faulty economics, and unprecedented attacks of the first amendment.  If you don't have the time to read it, I will try to summarize it next week, but just open it and scroll the bold headers with the proposals.  Its really outrageous.  Here are just some quick highlights:

  • Substantial narrowing of fair use, with particular focus on how search engines and other online sites (e.g. blogs) use and/or have to pay for access to news sites
  • Expansion of news copyrights on breaking news - ie certain papers will own the copyrights to certain news events if they are the first mover on it
  • Increased government funding of news organizations along multiple vectors, from subsidies to guaranteed loans to income tax checkoffs to lower postal rates to Americorps programs for for journalists.
  • Simultaneously reduce private funding of journalism through taxes, including a tax on advertisers
  • Shift the organizational model of journalism from profit corporations (which rely on satisfying individuals to get their revenue) to non-profit organizations dependent on the government for funding
  • New taxes on and licensing of the Internet.   New taxes on broadcast spectrum to subsidize print media (shifting money from media that are more hostile to the administration to print media and non-profits that are more sympathetic to the administration).

Here is the intro that was missing from the report:  "The New York Times and Newsweek can't figure out a profitable business model in the Internet age.  We propose the government step in with all means at its disposal to limit competition to these print media companies and create new government subsidies for their business.  Once their companies' profitability is absolutely dependent on these government mandates and subsidies, the Federal government will have a powerful source of leverage to protect itself from criticism in these outlets.  Once we have this situation in place, we will have a strong inventive to quash more independent outlets and maximize the market share of media companies beholden to the government.  In a large sense, our recommendations build off the success of the tobacco settlement experiment, where a few large companies agreed to pay the government large percentages of their future profits, and then the government worked diligently to quash new tobacco competitors to maximize the market share of those companies paying it settlement money."

Update: South Bend Seven makes an interesting comparison to campus newspapers.

In Case You Didn't Already Know that California has Lost It

California has a ballot initiative to raise taxes on wine, perhaps the state's highest profile export after movies, by 12,600%.  The South Bend Seven find the real howler though -- apparently 15% of this tax increase or over  a billion dollars a year will be directed to naturopathy programs.  Apperently a bid by astrologists to get a share of the tax increase narrowly failed.

Pondering Images

Via the South Bend Seven, comes this interesting post on images at Barbarian Blog.

The total number of pixels [on an HDTV screen]  is 1920 horizontally x 1080 vertically = 2,073,600 pixels. There are 256 possible intensities of red, green and blue for each pixel, so that's 2563 = 16,777,216 possible colors. To figure out how many possible images there are, we need to raise the second number to the power of the first, so 16,777,2162,073,600 = 1.5 * 101,4981,180 possible images. That's a pretty big number "“ it's almost a million and a half digits long. Printing it in 10 point Monaco would take over 2,700 pages of paper. Scientists estimate that there are 1080 atoms in the observable universe "“ a tiny number in comparison.

However big it may be, the fact that the number is finite is a surprising thing to realize. It means that every possible image has a unique ID number. So instead of asking me, "did you see that picture of MIA performing pregnant at the Grammys", you might ask, "did you see image number 1,394,239,...,572?" Obviously that is totally impractical and it would make you a huge nerd, but it's interesting that you could.
More in the same vein at the link.  I was surprised that the number of states a video screen could be in was so much larger than the molecules in the universe.

US vs. Europe: Standard of Living

NY Times | Paul Krugman | Learning From Europe

Europe's economic success should be obvious even without statistics. For those Americans who have visited Paris: did it look poor and backward? What about Frankfurt or London? You should always bear in mind that when the question is which to believe "” official economic statistics or your own lying eyes "” the eyes have it.

This is just silly.  Its like walking out on a single day and saying, "well, it doesn't seem any hotter to me" as a rebuttal to manmade global warming theory.  I am sure I can walk the tourist and financial districts of a lot of European cities with their triumphal centuries-old architecture and somehow be impressed with their wealth.  But the number of upscale shopping options on the Champs-Élysées has little to do with the standard of living of the average Frenchman.

South Bend Seven put it well:

Okay, where did you go in London? Covent Garden? St. James? Soho? Westminster? The City?

Oh, you didn't go to North Peckham, or Newham, or Hackney? You went to the rich areas of the most prosperous city in the country, and not, I don't know, Liverpool, or Leicester, or Middlesbrough? No, you've never been to those places, have you?

Well several million people live there, and no offense to them, but they're not quite as charming as the tourist districts in London. I don't think they'd look to kindly on some rich American spending a vacation watching the Changing of the Guard and taking in a show on Haymarket and concluding he knows about their country and their life.

This really gets back to my post the other day on triumphalism.  This is EXACTLY why states build pretty high-speed trains and grand municipal buildings and huge triumphal arches  -- as a way to distract both their own citizens (and outsiders) from their own well-being relative to others.  Its the magician waving something shiny around in his left hand to take your eyes off the right.  And it is pathetic that not only does a former Nobel Laureate fall for it, but he doubles down by telling everyone else to fall for it.

Relevant actual data, via Mark Perry (click to enlarge, this is 1999 data from a 2004 Swedish study but I don't think the relative positions have changed):

EUUSAHOUSEHOLDS

Triumphal arches and high-speed trains don't make people wealthy.  Wal-Mart has done far more to make the average person wealthier than any number of government projects you can mention.

Along these lines, I have said for years that one of the reasons we spend more on health care than Europe is because we can.  We are wealthier, and (rationally in my mind) people choose to spend this incremental wealth on their health and well-being.

Blue Fremen

I thought this was pretty good.  I was so focused on the Dances with Wolves parallels that I missed this one.    Via the South Bend Seven, who has other review notes on Avatar.

My Problem With Peak Oil Theory in One Sentance

From hedge fund manager Reagan Silber, via South Bend Seven:

If you are long oil, you are short ingenuity.

My post on the 19th century Peak Whale crisis is here.