Monday, October 29, 2007

Scenes From an Inferno

Some things that I noticed during the coverage of the Southern California fires, first from The New York Times:

SAN DIEGO, Oct. 26 — Out of the burning brush, from behind canyon rocks, several immigrants bolted toward a group of firefighters, chased not by the border police but by the onrush of flames from one of the biggest wildfires this week.
Their appearance startled the firefighters, who let them into their vehicles. But with the discovery of four charred bodies in an area of heavy illegal immigration, concern is growing that others may not have survived.

“Their hands were burned, and they were clearly tired and grateful,” Capt. Mike Parkes of the State Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported on what his firefighting team saw.

Immigrants from south of the border, many illegal, provide the backbone of menial labor in San Diego, picking fruit, cleaning hotel rooms, sweeping walks and mowing lawns.

The wildfires, one of the biggest disasters to strike the county, exposed their often-invisible existence in ways that were sometimes deadly.

The four bodies were found in a burned area in southeastern San Diego County, a region known for intense illegal immigration. It is near Tecate, where a chain securing an evacuated border crossing was cut and people were seen flowing into the United States until the Border Patrol arrived, said Michael J. Fisher, the chief patrol agent in San Diego.

As firefighting continued on Friday, makeshift camps for immigrants in the northern part of the county stood largely abandoned. Some immigrants were said to be hiding in even more remote terrain. Others sought help from churches.

I have argued before that “illegal immigration” is really just a black market in labor. Black markets are notoriously difficult to police, and trying to police them drives the activity underground and creates a huge risk premium available for the taking by the unscrupulous and the violent. It is that way with drugs, it was that way with alcohol during Prohibition, and it is that way now with labor. The desperate masses yearning to breathe at all in the flames of San Diego County were driven there because our immigration enforcement drove them there. If we build a rich country they will come, and it is best that we create a way for them to do so safely and legally, in ways that allow Mexicans and Central Americans to see themselves as workers rather than fugitives or, one day, angry conquerors. It is the existence of the welfare state, which Americans feel is threatened by illegals' free-riding, combined with other restraints on free markets in goods, services and labor that stokes this resentment, of and by both them and us.

Another story also caught my interest, this time from The Los Angeles Times:
The pairing of the rabbi and the firefighters was a natural one.

He had beds. They had been sleeping on asphalt. He had food and showers. They were grateful. Rabbi Yosef Brod should have rushed down the mountain a week ago, when the Slide fire was burning toward Camp Gan Israel, the 75-acre Jewish camp he runs in the San Bernardino Mountains. The fire charred nearly 13,000 acres and wiped out 201 homes as it spread.

But Brod, a rabbi with the Chasidic Lubovitch, or Chabad, sect, stayed. "Have a nice day," he told his employees as they evacuated. "Drive carefully."

Over the weekend, about a dozen fire engines were parked by the giant Hanukkah candelabra at the camp. One firefighter chatted on a cellphone while another shivered in his boxers. A third asked Brod what the symbols on the cabin doors meant -- they were prayer scrolls called mezuzot that are meant to keep their occupants safe.

State prison officials also came by, looking to house inmate mop-up crews in the camp's bunks.

Brod says he kept the camp open because he believed that God would shelter the pine-shaded site, which the Chabad organization bought for summer and winter camps and weekend retreats. So Brod called his wife after the evacuations were ordered last Monday and said he wouldn't be driving home to West Hollywood.

The rest of the story describes how Rabbi Brod provided food and shelter to firefighters, few of them presumably Jewish, while they tried to get the flames under control. Chabad is an organization of rigorously orthodox Jews, devoted in part to getting wayward non-Orthodox Jews to observe the many demands of the orthodox version of the faith. Yet he feels not just comfortable but obligated to help out the fellow members of his American family in their hour of need.

From where I sit very far away this is an extraordinary scene. It is almost impossible to imagine a Lubavitch Rabbi so truly incorporated into the society around him if the society is in Western Europe, or Russia, or elsewhere with a significant Orthodox Jewish community and a significant history of dark anti-Semitism. He is integrated but not assimilated, free to observe his demanding faith while helping out those who have completely different traditions. And they in turn are glad to take, driven by curiosity about his practices rather than resentment or conspiracist suspicion, accepting as normal that this exotic man is truly one of them – as American as they are, even if some of his habits are a little unusual. The episode is in some ways so ordinary, yet so revealing if you read between the lines.

This is an amazing country, despite the best efforts of our government and intellectuals. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Free Speech on Campus

David Horowitz, who has been crusading (not unreasonably) against the chokehold that radical leftists have on many departments in many American universities, got shouted down during a speech at Emory University recently, and was forced to leave:

Conservative commentator David Horowitz was forced to cut short his speech on “Islamo-Fascism” in the face of repeated interruptions, heckling and catcalls from some audience members in a packed lecture room in White Hall on Wednesday.

The event played out like a tug-of-war between two groups: protestors who shouted questions or anti-conservative taglines after every few sentences Horowitz spoke and another faction in the audience who became increasingly vocal about their desire to hear him speak uninterrupted.

When the disruptions peaked about 20 minutes into Horowitz’s speech, Senior Vice Provost for Community and Diversity Ozzie Harris stood up at the back of the room and cautioned protesters to sit or risk being forcibly removed. Immediately, one man shouted: “Everyone stand up! They can’t take all of us!”

Later on, one of the silencers crowed triumphantly about what he had done:

“I really liked that people were able to stop this fascist rally from going down tonight,” said Jay Pasinelli, a dissenter who is not affiliated with the University. “We cannot be a docile audience after what we read on his web page. He ran away like a coward.”

Justin, a student from Georgia State who declined to give his full name because he said he feared public retaliation from Horowitz, said the pre-scripted question-and-answer format frustrated some of the attendants who hoped to engage Horowitz after his speech. Failing that, he said they resorted to interrupting.

“People wanted to come here and say something to this guy,” he said. “[He’s] here to create an atmosphere where Muslim students are targeted.”

Ignore the asinine reference to fascism, a sure sign of abject ignorance 99 percent of the time it is used. The key remark is that Justin and Mr. Pasinelli were justified because they “wanted…to say something to this guy.” With the growing tide of anger across the middle of the American political divide, and with the New Left and its nihilist multicultural progeny astonishingly overrepresented on American campuses, this kind of thing happens at more and more events. Typically, it is people of the left doing the shouting and people on the right doing the polite waiting. In addition to Mr. Horowitz, people like the abrasive commentator Ann Coulter and the founder of the anti-illegal immigrant group the Minutemen, Jim Gilchrist, have been thuggishly shut up during campus presentations. But the protesters say they too have a right to speak. So do they have a point? Economic theory has some useful things to say on this point.

Note first that the First Amendment is not at issue, unless it’s a state university. (Emory is not.) No one is being punished by the government for saying anything. So we’re not so much interested in the right of free speech as in the reasons for the right. And one of the reasons is to maximize exposure to ideas by allowing them to compete. But aren’t two ideas, those of Mr. Horowitz and the protesters, competing here? Not productively.

If a new gas station opens across the street from an existing one and charges lower prices, that is competition. But if the owner of the new station vandalizes the pumps of the old one, that is vandalism. The difference, as the economist Paul Heyne noted long ago in his wonderful principles textbook, is between competition and coercion. Coercion happens when we change people’s options by reducing them – by vandalizing someone else’s gas pump or shouting a speaker down. Competition happens when we change people’s options by expanding them – by inviting a controversial speaker to speak unmolested by protesters, for example. Coercion destroys value, competition creates it.

Every university in this country that claims to be a haven for free speech thus needs to adopt two principles. First, any group on campus can invite any speaker it likes. Second, no protest designed to limit opportunity to hear the speaker’s message will be tolerated. This is the way to maximize competition in ideas, whether the speaker is Mr. Gilchrist (who was prevented from speaking at Columbia) or Iranian president Ahmedinejad (whose appearance allowed Columbia to present itself as a free-speech martyr). Of course, our campuses as a whole currently have a substantial problem, namely that only a certain sort of speaker tends to get shouted down. (Has anyone ever tried to keep Barbara Ehrenreich or Naomi Klein from speaking, for example?) But that is another problem entirely.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Fly Global Warming to the Moon

Ken Caldeira, a scientist at the Carnegie Institution, knows what to do about global warming:

What can be done? One idea is to counteract warming by tossing small particles into the stratosphere (above where jets fly). This strategy may sound far-fetched, but it has the potential to cool the earth within months.

Mount Pinatubo, a volcano in the Philippines that erupted in 1991, showed how it works. The eruption resulted in sulfate particles in the stratosphere that reflected the sun’s rays back to space, and as a consequence the earth briefly cooled.

If we could pour a five-gallon bucket’s worth of sulfate particles per second into the stratosphere, it might be enough to keep the earth from warming for 50 years. Tossing twice as much up there could protect us into the next century.

Some questions that, I suspect, Mr. Caldeira has failed to consider:
- What will be the distribution of climate effects across the earth from his proposal?
- What will the effect of this distribution be on human potential to do things and solve problems?
- Should the earth in fact be cooler than it is going to be?
- Is global warming on balance bad for humanity? What is the ideal temperature for the earth anyway?
- Does his plan have any unexpected effects, with regard to weather, geopolitics, or anything else?

Stipulating that it is substantially caused by human activity, global warming is in a sense like the rise of urbanization, itself enabled by the creation of agriculture. Global warming will change the way we live, but in ways that are not entirely predictable. Some old ways will disappear, and new ones will arise. Urbanization changed many human ways of doing things, and people found that their traditions were not sustainable in a more urbanized world. But urbanization also liberated humanity to do many new things, which culminated in the miraculous in which world we live today. One could think, for example, of what Silicon Valley or Manhattan contributes to humanity and recognize that these contributions would be unthinkable without the spontaneous creation of great cities many centuries ago. So too a warmer planet will make some older activities un-doable and will make some new ones possible.

Had the displacement of countryside by cities been taken over by some central authority, which could make choices on how the effects of these changes would be parceled out, it would’ve turned out much worse. City structures would've become hostage to special-interest rent-seeking and planners' shakedowns. Ultimately the only way to deal with global warming is to let people cope with it at as localized a level as possible – let people in coastal areas build shelters or move, let people in areas newly opened for agriculture start growing crops, let companies in a position to move goods through the Northwest Passage do so. To solve these problems as they come up, in other words. Mr. Caldeira is a hard scientist, and I have found that such people by disposition tend to favor grand engineering solutions that emphasize the role of scientists in controlling humanity. Sometimes – public immunization plans – this is a good idea, and sometimes – eugenics – it is not. It is important to keep our eye on the ball. And the ball is not to preserve some kind of pre-human idyll, but to allow humans to continue to achieve, create and live free. Mr. Caldeira’s proposal is a giant centralized plan, and the history of those is mixed at best, what with the law of unintended consequences and all.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Democracy in Action

In an article called”Voters Make Quick, Shallow Decisions, Study Suggests”, LiveScience tells of a new Princeton study indicating that “consent of the governed” may be somewhat exaggerated as a moral goal:

Todorov and his colleague Charles C. Ballew II based their study on gubernatorial election results. "States are significant political and economic entities, with some being larger and economically more powerful than many foreign countries," they wrote in the study.

To find the extent to which a candidate's face predicted a winner, researchers exposed subjects to a pair of faces—one recently elected governor and the runner-up—for one-fourth of a second or less. They were then asked to pick the most competent candidate of the two people shown. If someone recognized a candidate, their results were excluded from the study.

"People had no trouble telling us who they thought was more competent by rapidly viewing the faces," Todorov told LiveScience.

Subjects picked the elected governor over the runner-up as the most competent one about 64 percent of the time, a result that significantly exceeded random chance of 50 percent. When the two candidates shown were of the same ethnicity and sex, the results were even more predictive of a winner.

They go on to note that mere facial appearance explains 9 percent “of the voting choices” while incumbency “explains about 20 to 30 percent of gubernatorial votes.” (It is unclear from the article what the exact statistical meaning of this is.)

The most immediate thing to note is that democracy has somewhat limited moral credentials. The primary premise of democracy is that people deserve to be ruled by a candidate with majority support (although in many electoral systems this does not happen). And those with majority support are most likely to govern wisely, according to a lot of theories that depict democracy as political competition that should function like competition in the market. But if choices are made on such insubstantial criteria, it is hard to get too excited about the moral force of elections.

Still, as Churchill noted, democracy’s the worst system except for all the others. But this indicates more strongly than ever that how the government is chosen is not nearly as important as what it is empowered to do. The more important such extraneous factors are in voting decisions, the more important it becomes to restrain democracy through separation of powers.

Finally, it is presumably true that this effect is most pronounced in those for whom other considerations – party identification, ideology, etc. – are not so important. But these are the independents and the bipartisans that political reporters and scholars get so dewy-eyed over when they emphasize how important it is to avoid gridlock and work together for the common good. But this study suggests that these voters are the least likely to make good choices in the voting booth, suggesting that partisanship is perhaps seriously underrated as a force for social good.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Say What?

I don't really endorse political candidates. But I discovered an important reason to be concerned about the prospect of a Hillary Rodham Clinton presidency: not that she is leftist, but that she is incoherent. Below are excerpts from her 1969 Wellesley commencement speech (hat tip: James Taranto):

Part of the problem with empathy with professed goals is that empathy doesn't do us anything. We've had lots of empathy; we've had lots of sympathy, but we feel that for too long our leaders have used politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible. What does it mean to hear that 13.3% of the people in this country are below the poverty line? That's a percentage. We're not interested in social reconstruction; it's human reconstruction. How can we talk about percentages and trends?
Our love for this place, this particular place, Wellesley College, coupled with our freedom from the burden of an inauthentic reality allowed us to question basic assumptions underlying our education. Before the days of the media orchestrated demonstrations, we had our own gathering over in Founder's parking lot. We protested against the rigid academic distribution requirement. We worked for a pass-fail system. We worked for a say in some of the process of academic decision making. And luckily we were in a place where, when we questioned the meaning of a liberal arts education there were people with enough imagination to respond to that questioning. So we have made progress. We have achieved some of the things that initially saw as lacking in that gap between expectation and reality.
Many of the issues that I've mentioned -- those of sharing power and responsibility, those of assuming power and responsibility have been general concerns on campuses throughout the world. But underlying those concerns there is a theme, a theme which is so trite and so old because the words are so familiar. It talks about integrity and trust and respect. Words have a funny way of trapping our minds on the way to our tongues but there are necessary means even in this multi-media age for attempting to come to grasps with some of the inarticulate maybe even inarticulable things that we're feeling. We are, all of us, exploring a world that none of us even understands and attempting to create within that uncertainty. But there are some things we feel, feelings that our prevailing, acquisitive, and competitive corporate life, including tragically the universities, is not the way of life for us. We're searching for more immediate, ecstatic and penetrating mode of living. And so our questions, our questions about our institutions, about our colleges, about our churches, about our government continue. The questions about those institutions are familiar to all of us. We have seen heralded across the newspapers. Senator Brooke has suggested some of them this morning. But along with using these words -- integrity, trust, and respect -- in regard to institutions and leaders we're perhaps harshest with them in regard to ourselves.

Every protest, every dissent, whether it's an individual academic paper, Founder's parking lot demonstration, is unabashedly an attempt to forge an identity in this particular age. That attempt at forging for many of us over the past four years has meant coming to terms with our humanness. Within the context of a society that we perceive -- now we can talk about reality, and I would like to talk about reality sometime, authentic reality, inauthentic reality, and what we have to accept of what we see -- but our perception of it is that it hovers often between the possibility of disaster and the potentiality for imaginatively responding to men's needs. There's a very strange conservative strain that goes through a lot of New Left, collegiate protests that I find very intriguing because it harkens back to a lot of the old virtues, to the fulfillment of original ideas.
Those three words mean different things to all of us. Some of the things they can mean, for instance: Integrity, the courage to be whole, to try to mold an entire person in this particular context, living in relation to one another in the full poetry of existence. If the only tool we have ultimately to use is our lives, so we use it in the way we can by choosing a way to live that will demonstrate the way we feel and the way we know. Integrity -- a man like Paul Santmire. Trust. This is one word that when I asked the class at our rehearsal what it was they wanted me to say for them, everyone came up to me and said "Talk about trust, talk about the lack of trust both for us and the way we feel about others. Talk about the trust bust." What can you say about it? What can you say about a feeling that permeates a generation and that perhaps is not even understood by those who are distrusted? All they can do is keep trying again and again and again.

She was after all only 21, a college senior emerging from four probably misspent years at an elite Eastern university, and so perhaps should be cut some slack. Still, this is essentially gibberish. If anyone knows what "inauthentic reality" is (reality is after all by definition authentic) please send me an e-mail.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Play Ball!

The Canadian press tells of a decision by a U.S. federal appeals court in St. Louis that has made the world safe for fantasy baseball:

ST. LOUIS - A federal appeals court upheld a lower court ruling Tuesday that lets a fantasy baseball company use players' names and statistics without paying a licensing fee.

In a 2-1 decision, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled that CBC Distribution and Marketing Inc. doesn't have to pay the players, even though it profits by using their names and statistics.

The Major League Baseball Players Association had argued that companies like CBC are essentially stealing money from players, who charge big fees to endorse things like tennis shoes and soft drinks. The ruling could have a broad impact on the fantasy league industry, which generates more than US$1.5 billion annually from millions of participants.

It is the right decision. Intellectual property rights are useful, but only up to a point. They grant monopoly rights – to patents, to likenesses, trademarks, books, etc. This raises prices to consumers, but sometimes can perform other useful functions. Since a written work or a physical invention is costly to create but cheap to copy, absent such incentives the rate of innovation would fall precipitously. The longer the term of protection, the greater the monopoly costs and the lower the marginal incentive to innovate. Trademarks and “likenesses” are protected eternally, but the justification is to avoid confusion by consumers – if any hamburger stand can use the McDonald’s logo, consumers will not know which ones are the real deal. If they can’t, then consumers will know anywhere in the world where they find themselves looking for a meal that the golden arches convey reliable information on the food. (Whether the information is that the food is good or bad depends on the consumer.)

None of this is at issue here. I have asked about this issue as an exam question from time to time, and the best answer I ever got was that the generation of baseball statistics is nothing more than the solving of an arithmetic problem. There is no need to provide players extra incentive to produce statistics, which are just a nearly free by-product of playing the game. Allowing the players to charge for statistics would deter the creation of fantasy baseball leagues, which provide value to consumers, without giving the players any incentives to do anything that they aren’t already doing anyway. Indeed, fantasy leagues themselves have more incentive to innovate without having to face these extra costs. The maximization of total social product – consumer and producer surplus – requires that the fantasy leagues not pay royalties for using these free statistical by-products of the action on the field.


Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Iraqi Realpolitik

Jim Holt in The London Review of Books makes the case that the war in Iraq has been about oil and oil companies, and that by that measure it is already over, and the U.S. has won:

Among the winners: oil-services companies like Halliburton; the oil companies themselves (the profits will be unimaginable, and even Democrats can be bought); US voters, who will be guaranteed price stability at the gas pump (which sometimes seems to be all they care about); Europe and Japan, which will both benefit from Western control of such a large part of the world’s oil reserves, and whose leaders will therefore wink at the permanent occupation; and, oddly enough, Osama bin Laden, who will never again have to worry about US troops profaning the holy places of Mecca and Medina, since the stability of the House of Saud will no longer be paramount among American concerns. Among the losers is Russia, which will no longer be able to lord its own energy resources over Europe. Another big loser is Opec, and especially Saudi Arabia, whose power to keep oil prices high by enforcing production quotas will be seriously compromised.

Continued hegemony over Iraq and its oil can now be maintained at a relatively trivial cost, roughly equal to the number of deaths in this country from unhelmeted motorcylists.

The theory seems a little too simple. As Mr. Holt himself acknowledges, if this was the plan, it worked exactly as it was drawn up, and that is precisely the sort of outcome that history seldom delivers. And the Iraqi government, which has been willing to suffer a dramatic increase Iran’s influence in its country against the clear itnerests of the U.S., appears to be far too independent for this theory to make sense to me.

But the most interesting part is what he does not say. If we stipulate a purely cynical, national-interest (in the traditional sense) motivation for the war, it could certainly follow that the U.S. government would want permanent bases and to shovel money to U.S. firms, as the nuttier anti-corporate types claim. But it would also be true that countries like Iran and Russia, who would be damaged by the increase in Iraqi oil production that will follow the permanent establishment of enough stability in Iraq to get the oil flowing, have a clear interest in keeping Iraq violent and unstable. That, it seems to me, is a far more provocative deduction. But focused as he is on the U.S., it never occurs to Mr. Holt to pursue this.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Incentives Matter

Reason Online has an interview with the economic historian John Nye about his new book, War, Wine, and Taxes: The Political Economy of Anglo-French Trade, 1689-1900. The book generally argues that Britain in the latter nineteenth century was no paragon of free trade. But what really interests me is the argument that high levels of British protectionism against French wine helped make Britain the nation of beer drinkers it is, while the French favored wine:

reason: Speaking of specific tariffs, explain the significance of the one part of your title everyone can get behind: Wine. You ask the question, "Why do the British drink beer and not wine?" Give the short version of your answer (hiccup) with regard to tariffs.

Nye: The core of British tariffs was directed against the French and specifically against French wine. This policy dated back to the late 1600s, when the two countries were at war for a quarter century. Tariffs designed to exclude all but the best French wine—and to a large extent depress imports from most other wine-exporting nations—were matched with policies targeted to assist brewers and domestic producers of spirits. Over time, the exclusion of cheaper French wine—especially during the Industrial Revolution—meant that lower- and middle-class drinkers had to settle almost exclusively for beer, gin, whiskey, and rum.

reason: My god! The horror!

Nye: We probably have no idea how bad some of that stuff actually was!

reason: That's speaking as someone who has obviously never drank anti-freeze. Your book is in many ways a primer on public choice economics and how officials respond to the demands of the very people they are supposed to be regulating in the name of the public good. Talk about the brewers in England as a special interest group and their relationship to the state.

Nye: During the quarter century (from 1689 to 1715) when French wine was excluded from the British market, the beer industry experienced what historian Peter Mathias refers to as the Brewing Industrial Revolution. Technology made it possible to produce beer (initially porter) in quantity. At the same time, protection meant these guys were earning money hand over fist.

When war ended, domestic beverage interests successfully lobbied to have very high tariffs placed on wine, and extra high tariffs on French wine. But a cynical public choice scholar would argue that the government would not be content with handing out goodies to the brewers. Now the state had the brewers over a barrel (so to speak). They were able to impose excise taxes on the industry and expect to collect them. The latter point is very important. In previous times, high excise taxes were not always accompanied by high revenues because of evasion.

Sociologists, economists and political scientists since Weber have debated whether culture determines economic success – whether attitudes toward science, or the theology of Christianity led to the rise of the West, whether there is something about Chinese culture that causes Chinese entrepreneurs to succeed all over the world, even when (as in countries like Indonesia) they are often despised.

So culture can clearly determine economic outcomes. But can economic policies determine a culture? Does a country become a land of beer drinkers, or come to favor idleness or hard work, because of something as mundane as prices? That is the Nye argument, and it is not at all implausible. All it would take would be for a particular price structure to affect behavior in one period, and for there to be a lot of inheritability in cultural behavior – that children, in other words, have a high propensity to behave like their parents. If beer became desirable because wine was expensive, and kids drink beer because their parents did, an eighteenth-century trade-policy decision can affect the drinking behavior of Britons decades later, and can even influence their view of themselves. If Britain founds settler nations like Australia, the effect can reverberate even there.

But of course if culture can be done by incentives, it can also be undone by incentives. The improved technology of wine growing and delivery, which has made America a fine-wine superpower and has turned wineries in Chile, Spain, South Africa and elsewhere into global players, has lowered the relative price of wine to beer. Thus even Britain may be becoming a land of wine drinkers.

Thomas Sowell (in books such as Race and Culture: A World View), is one of the most perceptive writers on the relation between cultural tendencies and economic outcomes. But his argument generally takes cultural tendencies as given, and then deduces economic results. If Professor Nye is right, perhaps economic incentives come first. It has earthshaking implications for economic policy: the economic policy choices you make now can profoundly affect outcomes generations down the road.


Friday, October 12, 2007

Noted Without Comment

The wonderfully terse Czech president Vaclav Klaus, on Al Gore's sharing of the Nobel Peace Prize:

"The relationship between his activities and world peace is unclear and indistinct. It rather seems that Gore's doubting of basic cornerstones of the current civilization does not contribute to peace."



Wednesday, October 10, 2007

When Can He Stop Being the "Black Professor"?

The Chronicle of Higher Education has the somewhat pained story of Jerald Walker, an assistant professor of English at Bridgewater State College. He is one of a relatively small number of black professors at his university, and constantly feels pressure to show up at black-themed events, to reinforce the multicultural industry on his campus, etc.

He frets in particular about the risk of being identified as a “black conservative” professor. And yet Googling him does not even reveal any particular inclination for conservative politics other than the Chronicle article itself, which merely asserts that he wishes to be known for something other than being a black man on campus - for his professional accomplishments, for example.

But therein lies the rub. If we have to be thought of as tribal members first and distinct individuals (a distant) second because of "social justice" or whatever, how do we know when to stop? When may a member of a particular tribal group be freed from pledging allegiance to the totems of group loyalty, no matter how absurd he may find them (and Professor Walker finds some of them, e.g. Kwanzaa celebrations, profoundly silly)? The more some people’s careers and compensation depend on reinforcing group identity, the farther away we get from what is presumably everyone’s ideal endpoint, a society of individuals left free to be judged on what they do rather than what they look like or how they worship. The individualist is thus always disadvantaged in political warfare against the multicultural tribalist, because by definition the individualist has no sense of solidarity with a larger group.

Professor Walker is a member in a department, English, that in most universities leans strongly left. People have failed to be tenured for less. I wish him the best.


Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Untossing the Salad

Daniel Pipes, quoting has the story (see Oct. 6, 2007 update) of a new all-Muslim subdivision near Toronto:

"There is nothing like this in North America," boasts Naseer Ahmad, a real estate agent from Pakistan who dreamed up this community of Islamic dream homes (including oak stairs and central air conditioning) on the edge of Toronto. "You have a mosque, and people are walking to enjoy their faith." The houses, with some modifications, such as increased ventilation (for spicy food) and separate living rooms for women and men, are so successful that, six years after Peace Village opened, Mr. Ahmad plans to double the mosque's size and is now selling 55 townhomes, 1,700 square feet each, for around $350,000 with a garage and a yard, as "Peace Village Phase II." … a special cable to each home feeds Muslim television from an audio-visual room at the base of the minaret.

The linked site tells stories of other Islamic-themed, quasi-segregationist neighborhoods in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere. Of course any group of individuals, provided they can obtain the land, should be free to build any sort of community they like, provided it does not infringe on the rights of others (as this one appears not to). But why would a group, particularly a group that is relatively new (at least in such numbers) want to segregate rather than integrate itself?

The Nobel economist Thomas Schelling taught us long ago that there is a natural tendency for segregated neighborhoods to develop – even modest desires for own-group neighbors can, collectively, quickly translate into dramatic patterns of segregation. Is that a bad thing? It can be, if the state dispenses rewards and punishments on tribalistic grounds. This is because segregation naturally reinforces own-group loyalty, and a sense of isolation from and conflict the rest of society. If there are no opportunities to turn this into social conflict via the state, it is less of a problem. But if there are…

One of the quiet miracles of modern American (and Canadian, I assume) life is the tendency of most immigrant groups, even if they cluster in the first generation, to fully scatter throughout American neighborhoods and society. The immigrant Chinese businessman may buy a house in Monterey Park, but his children probably seek something more ethnically diverse. That an immigrant group would seek to segregate in this way is unsurprising, but that the communities outlined in the article above would seek to ostentatiously build their own quasi-separatist communities is unsettling. Monterey Park is an existing neighborhood that has gradually become more Chinese but is still substantially diverse. “Peace Village” is a newly constructed community to, in a sense, withdraw from the rest of Canada once the working day is done (and all day long, in the case of its children). That Mr. Ahmad feels his people need their own neighborhood to enable “walking to enjoy their faith” suggests that the rest of Canada is not suitable for Muslims to enjoy their faith in. That says more about Mr. Ahmad’s community, I think, than about Canada. The ideal behavior from the point of view of the entire country, I think, is for people to be more indifferent to who their neighbors are as time goes by, not less. And that does not seem to be the attitude on display here. But I hope I am wrong.


Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Thin Olive Line

Like a lot of Americans, I have just watched Ken Burns’ documentary series on World War II. Mr. Burns is a gifted filmmaker, and I was especially struck by comments made in the last episode. Both some returning troops and a girl who had been held prisoner by the Japanese in the Philippines for three years mentioned how trivial civilian life and its concerns seemed after they got back. They had seen death and destruction, and when they got back civilians complained about the ration coupons. It led me to wonder about whether there is a growing disconnect between the U.S. military and the people it is sworn to defend, and whether we ought to worry about it.

On the public radio program Marketplace there was recently a story about the use of civilians to do what once would have been military work in Iraq. At one point the reporter interviews someone who was a sailor for little pay before becoming a contractor for much bigger pay:
Thirty-six-year-old Navy sailor John Shelton spent a year in Iraq working with the Army, using radio waves to disable roadside bombs. It was a hot, dusty, high-risk job. And for that he earned his military pay of about $40,000 a year.
He was surprised when he got there to see so many civilians, doing laundry, fixing generators and cleaning port-a-potties. Some made a fraction of his salary. But the better-paid made two or three times what Shelton did -- and, as he says, didn't take half the risk. And they boasted about it.

Sometimes bitterness would get the best of him. So he'd ambush unsuspecting contractors eating alone in the dining hall.

JOHN SHELTON: I'd sit down in front of him with my tray of food and say something like "So what do you do over here?" He'd tell me about his little civilian job and what he was doing. And I'd say something along the lines of "Well these soldiers are pretty antagonistic toward you, do you catch a lot of crap from them?" And then they'll just wrap themselves in the flag. And then you'd ask them: "Would you still do this if you were getting paid as little as I am?" They kind of hem and haw about it. Then I'd go in for the kill -- I'd say: "I really can't fool you. I can't f****** stand civilians. Get the f*** off this table."

We are at a unique time in our history – having an all-volunteer military and playing the role of more or less supreme global policeman, requiring not a sequence of forts staffed by a few thousand men along the Indian territories but a full-scale force capable of projecting force anywhere in the world, even in more than one place at once. The country has never performed both tasks simultaneously, and it threatens a growing gap between military and civilian views of one another and of the country itself.

At a time when we are not shy about projecting military force, that there is a segment of the population that volunteers to fight and die, and the bulk of the population that does not. I have frequently heard of serviceman who come back from Iraq and Afghanistan and remark upon how unreasonably normal life is back home, and how little Americans know about the horror of what they face in combat. While politicians fall all over themselves to be on the side of “the troops” in support of their own objectives – some Democrats are upset at Rush Limbaugh for inveighing against “phony soldiers” who pretend to be against Iraq from a position of experience, while those on the right slam for its ad personally attacking Gen. David Petreaus before he had even testified to Congress – it all seems contrived. “The troops” are rapidly being reduced to an unusually powerful pressure group in the eyes of the politicians, like farmers, immigrants, performance artists, Hispanics, etc., only more respected. They are seen as in need of more government spending by the left and in need of acceptance by the population of an aggressive, even militarist foreign policy in the eyes of the right.

And the military is increasingly different from those they are sworn to protect. Active-duty military members historically have voted for conservative candidates at much higher rates than the population. Those who see combat have an experience that almost none not in the military can comprehend, while even those who don’t see combat nonetheless must learn and lead a life of much greater discipline than many in the flabby society around them. One could imagine an outcome where the military sees itself as completely separate from society, and attempts to influence policy not for bigger budgets (as it, like all pressure groups, always has) but on behalf of the military as a distinct social group. “The military” would then take a position on all manner of political issues foreign and domestic. This would mark a permanent divorce of the military from civilians, and it would not be a healthy development.

The military of course is trained to resist such trends. The oath a military member takes requires him to defend the Constitution, and by all accounts the separation of politics and sword is something the military takes extremely seriously. Even the military being the object of politics (everybody wanting to support the troops) rather than an intervenor in it makes them an interest group beyond their natural desire for bigger military budgets, better veterans’ benefits, etc., which inexorably draws them into American political combat. The division of America, with professional military men who fight wherever safe civilians tell them to even as those civilians largely bear no consequences (because of America’s vast military power) of these choices, combined with the increasing gap in worldviews, personal habits and life consequences of those who serve and those who do not, does not, I think, bode well. That the military may become an active agent in American politics, which they are sworn not to do, and may ultimately start to subtly wield the power there that only they possess, may become unavoidable. One of the things they, like any pressure group, would seek is more power to control their fellow citizens.

What to do? Conscription, which would give at least all male Americans military experience, is unacceptable; to paraphrase Milton Friedman, free societies don’t have slave armies. A smaller military could only come at the expense of American global obligations. Absent such things, the military may be inexorably drawn into American political battles, as the military comes to view politicians as good or bad for the military, and speaks out accordingly. This would be the first road along the road to the irresistible militarization of American society. I hope not to live to see it, but such are the risks of trying to run a free country and a hegemon at the same time.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

How Not to Fix Health Care

Health care will loom large in the coming election campaign. A couple of principles are worth remembering as we decide how to “fix” it:

1. We need to care about future patients too. Health-care systems are dynamic. But the degree of dynamism depends on the payoff to innovators of innovating. When thinking about the health-care system patients in the future ought to loom almost as large as patients now. Expanding the existing health-care system to provide more health care to people (poor and/or uninsured) who get the least now may well come at the expense of lost opportunities for better health care for people not even born yet. When the British set up the NHS they probably weren’t thinking about future Britons who would not receive cancer treatment because the queue was too long, but ethically, they should have. We need to preserve the incentive for health care to continue to improve. (And anyone who thinks the health-care system in total is not vastly better than it was 25 years ago, no matter how many “uninsured” we have, is delusional.) Anything that limits medical innovation – not just new medicines or procedures, but the process of delivering and paying for health care – is a problem.

2. Health care is not free; people should pay for the consequences of their health-care decisions. Health care requires scarce resources with competing uses. People who want to claim them need to take account of the full consequences of their choices for others. Most proposals on the table fail in this respect. Mitt Romney wants to give people tax deductions to buy health insurance, Hillary Clinton wants to shift the burden to employers by making them nominally pay for it (although these costs will be passed on to workers, through lower compensation elsewhere and fewer jobs, and customers, through higher product prices) but giving them a tax break.

All of this furthers the gold-plating problem, the tendency to get every procedure and make every doctor visit if someone else is paying the cost. As I have said before, homeowners’ insurance doesn’t cover plumbing clogs, and auto insurance doesn’t cover oil changes; people pay cash out of pocket for these things. Much medical care is of this kind. Making people pay out of pocket seems like an immense financial burden, but for most of our history this is how it was done. The arbitrary decision to treat health insurance as nontaxable income gives employers an incentive to offer, and employees an incentive to take, more of their compensation as health insurance rather than cash. Portions of the health-care system not covered by insurance, such as cosmetic surgery or laser eye surgery, often see declining costs and improving quality and amenities, something many patients would kill for. Most health care would function this way if health insurance were only for catastrophes such as cancer or an appendectomy.

3. The system in many ways is not broken. Conditions that could not be treated now can be, new medicines are constantly being developed, cancer life expectancies are increasing, etc. We mess with this at our peril.

As politicians propose to more and more divorce health-care buyers from direct incentive contact with health-care sellers through insurance mandates, subsidized care and the like, expect complaints about the system to get worse.


Tuesday, October 02, 2007

What is the Cost of Fixing Global Warming?

Some people are starting to come around to the only sensible position, in my view, on human-induced climate change: that it must be accommodated rather than rolled back. Foreign Policy magazine tells us Why Climate Change Can't Be Stopped:

While some might argue that great reductions can be made in greenhouse gas emissions using current technologies (particularly by increasing efficiency), this is still debated within the scientific community. This argument assumes, among other things, that companies replace their current capital stock with the most efficient available today—something that is not likely to occur in the near future even in developed countries due to its considerable cost. For this reason, even if the Bush administration has been slow to publicly admit that human-induced climate change is real, it has been fundamentally right to focus on developing new technologies that might sever the relationship between energy consumption and emissions.

Unfortunately, given the scale and complexity of modern economies and the time required for new technologies to displace older ones, only a stunning technological breakthrough will allow for reductions in emissions that are sufficiently deep to stop climate change. According to Britain’s Stern report, stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at 550 parts per million—twice pre-industrial levels, a level at which most believe there is already a higher probability of major climate disruptions—would require stopping the global growth in emissions by 2020 and reducing emissions by 2.5 percent per year after that. The longer it takes to stop the growth in emissions, the deeper the eventual cuts need to be.

This kind of talk is progress, but the Foreign Policy take is still incomplete. The issue is not just that it is expensive to modify production technologies. The fundamental consideration is that climate change is a by-product of very valuable human activities - transportation, production, etc. It is a difficult problem because it is a classic case of the tragedy of the commons: everyone's incentives point to emitting pollution in isolation, but the collective effect on the atmosphere is (perhaps) very damaging. The usual economic remedy for such commons problems is either the creation of a private property right - turning open-access pasture into private land gives the owner the proper incentives to take account of all of the costs of his decisions - or public management. The first is impractical, the second phenomenally dangerous from the point of view of human freedom. The environmentalist dream of a global organization charged with limiting carbon emissions would be the road to serfdom, pure and simple.

Any discussion of climate change, carried out among people who have some amount of agreement on how much the climate will warm, and how much can be attributed to humans (no easy task), should ask the following questions:

1. Is climate change good or bad? The answer is not obvious. Some people in some places will be harmed, but some helped. Previous warming episodes are often associated with high levels of civilization achievement. If the amount of warming is something that humans have seen before, and perhaps even if it is not, the effects on humanity are not clearly bad on balance.

2. What are the costs of the proposed solutions? These costs are not just money; they are foregone opportunities - for achievement, for dreams, for progress. It may well be that the cost of "doing something" about climate change, measured as prosperity in rich and poor lands alike that doesn't happen, are far greater than the costs of accommodating it.

Any discussion carried out in the absolutist language of the environmental movement - that climate change is a "crisis" that demands we make major changes to how we live - is simply a nonstarter. The world's people simply will not stand for that.