Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Noted Without Comment

From Canada's National Post:

OTTAWA -- The Carleton University Students' Association has voted to drop a cystic fibrosis charity as the beneficiary of its annual Shinearama fundraiser, supporting a motion that argued the disease is not "inclusive" enough.

Cystic fibrosis "has been recently revealed to only affect white people, and primarily men" said the motion read Monday night to student councillors, who voted almost unanimously in favour of it.
The motion was forwarded by Donnie Northrup, who represents science students. Mr. Northrup did not respond to a request for an interview. (Emphasis added.)


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Barack Obama, Anti-Corporate Nutter

The remarks below are from an interview then-Senator, now President-elect Obama gave to Joe Klein of Time Magazine. (Hat tip: Soren Dayton at Red State.)

As a consequence, our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector. And in the mean time, it's creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they're contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs. That's just one sector of the economy.

He never uses the adjective "corporate" here, and indeed uses it only once in the entire interview, but this is hard-core anti-corporate stuff. In my research (go here and search in the book for the word "monoculture") I discovered this illucid idea that large agribusiness puts the world food supply in danger through the creation of monocultures - the destruction of local food systems and their replacement by giant banana plantations, corn farms and cattle pens. This makes global food more vulnerable to destruction by pests, raising the possibility of famine. As best I can tell it is traceable to an anti-globalization activist named Helena Norberg-Hodge, who wrote an article in 1996 laying out this argument in The Nation.

Sen. Obama cleverly phrases this as a national-security issue, but it is still just as loopy. The average global consumer has more food choices than ever (my mother certainly couldn't get organic tofu and fresh flour tortillas when she went to the store), global malnutrition is probably at an all-time low, we have the scientists at places like USDA and Texas A&M on call precisely for problems like this, and this kind of techno-pessimism has never been true, but never mind all that. Corporations, in their relentless pursuit of profit, are crafting some kind of science-fiction disaster whose results would make Thomas Malthus blush.

I am disappointed and worried to hear this. "Monoculture" is a signaling word, like "transnational corporation," that marks the speaker as an anti-corporate extremist, who has bought into the full anti-corporate madness. During the campaign I thought John Edwards had the fever the worst, but my inability to see it in Sen. Obama is a testament to his slickness as a campaigner and the quality of his campaign advice. An anti-corporate extremist at a time of profound global economic uncertainty is not exactly what the doctor ordered.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Washington Never Goes Into Recession

In “Only Booming Washington Defies the Gloom,” The Times informs us that no matter what is happening to Shanghai, Palo Alto, Singapore, London and the other places where people actually create value, Washington DC, the capital of the rent-seeking empire is in fine fettle:

Then to Washington, a city that is heavily Democratic and where blacks are in the majority. Euphoria reigns. Construction cranes are everywhere, and although the property market is softer than in the past, commercial space is being readied to house the growth in government that is inevitable when the president-elect and his activist team take over. And that means jobs for the private-sector lobbyists, lawyers and hangers-on who inevitably attach themselves to a new administration in the manner of the sandpipers who feed on the backs of hippopotamuses in the Serengeti National Park.

Lobbyists are particularly frantic. All save $60 billion of the $350 billion initial authorisation under the emergency economic stabilisation act has been spent and, as The New York Times described the “mad scramble”, “the Treasury department is under siege by an army of hired guns for banks . . . and insurers — as well as from improbable candidates like a Hispanic business group representing plumbing and home-heating specialists.” Then there is the “fix housing first” group that wants mortgage rates lowered to 2.99% and a $22,000 tax credit for new buyers.

Biologists know. Special-interest groups, whose rolls go on for page after page in the DC phone book, are the parasites, and the producers are the hosts. But unlike parasites in the wild, economic parasites can grow in harmony with, rather than opposed to, their delivery vehicles. The malaria virus damages the mosquito, and the human; only the parasite is a winner. But economic parasites, be they eager “to harass our people and eat out their substance” from the left or from the right, government wins, always. People plead on behalf of prescription drugs yesterday, banks today, autos tomorrow. No matter who wins the election.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Schools are Broken But Not in the Way You Think

Charles Murray is the only author whose books I will read simply because he wrote them. He has a profound gift for saying provocative things elegantly yet in a way that any reasonably educated person can understand. His books alternate between serious scholarly studies (The Bell Curve - co-authored with Richard Herrnstein - and Human Accomplishment) and essays, mostly on the relation between politics and the well-lived life (What it Means to be a Libertarian and In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government.) His latest, Real Education, is a tour through several different broken-down parts of, as he sees it, a fully dysfunctional U.S. education system.

He begins by anchoring the book in the central claim of The Bell Curve - that IQ is profoundly important in the way lives turn out, and that it is not that amenable, once diminishing returns set in, to public policy. He asserts that many Americans come out of schools knowing too little to prepare them for American adulthood not (a few wretched inner-city schools aside) because the schools have failed for mechanical reasons to prepare students for high-skilled work but because the schools have failed to recognize what these children are and are not capable of. He notes that according to national testing data two-thirds of American eighth graders fail to answer a multiple-choice question much like the following properly:

“A business owner currently employs 90 workers. He decides that next year he will increase the workforce by 10 percent. How many workers will he then have?

a. 110
b. 99
c. 80
d. 90”

This is not a schools problem, it is an IQ problem. There is a vast world of lower-IQ Americans who simply are not going to be able to get much use out of an education system that prepares them for college, even though they might be terrific at other (often high-paying) jobs for which a college degree used to be unnecessary. This in no way suggests that such people are not equally valuable members of society as any Harvard graduate, merely that their skill set is different.

A good educational system would prepare everyone for a career he is capable of, instead of preparing for a college degree, which many end up not getting and which is for most of those who do an extraordinarily expensive way to get training that could be provided more efficiently outside the ivy-covered walls. It would also provide the essentials of democratic citizenship, at an appropriate level and at an earlier age. It would also do better at challenging to the limit (demarcated by their failure to achieve a goal after everything else came easy) the nation’s gifted.

I found three things to quarrel with. (I am not competent to dispute his summary of the psychological literature on intelligence.) If his thesis is correct, the American democratic political system has created and sustained for an extended period of time a profound failure, something one could wonder about. Some policies that I find objectionable – the welfare state – are popular despite my misgivings. Others – sugar protectionism – are so small despite their obvious problems that it is easy to understand the lack of public clamor for the repeal of any particular one, even if the costs of all similar policies are high. But that a fundamentally misguided yet major component of American policy could persist for so long raises questions for anyone who believes in the efficacy of democratic politics in weeding out at least the most obvious mistakes.

I also wondered whether other countries show the same huge number of low-IQ students as the U.S. does. If not, that might argue against the IQ-is-destiny foundation of the book. (Messrs. Murray and Herrnstein claimed, to great notoriety, in The Bell Curve that the IQ distribution differs among different ethnic groups, but a big enough difference in the IQ distribution among the US and other less polyethnic countries might swamp this effect.) It could be that other countries do in fact get better results through better schools, but no mention of other countries was made.

I finally found myself wondering about my own children. Our son attends a private school. It is a progressive school, in the old-fashioned sense, situated in an unabashedly left-wing college town. Most of the parents are themselves impeccably progressive politically. And yet none of the culture-wars nonsense infects this school. There is no “Heather has Two Mommies,” no clamor about different ethnicities having different learning styles, none of that. The school is educationally progressive (meaning a lot of learning is self-directed), not politically progressive, despite the fact that the parents generally are politically progressive.

I think the reason for this is precisely that it is a private school. No parent is going to lobby for something that the other parents do not want, because all parents get an equal say, not through voting but through their dollars – if they find the school lousy, their kids are gone. In public schools, in contrast, small numbers of parents (and non-parents) can lobby to get the curriculum changed to favor their side of the culture wars, and do. The turning of the public schools into a big cultural rent-seeking swamp is a problem that I think deserves more attention, although it would undoubtedly have distracted Mr. Murray from the things he wished to talk about in the book. Having said that, I came away, as it were, smarter for having read it.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Old Continent in the New World

In one of my classes I have long given a lecture on how the US and Europe are so different with regard to economic policy, and how this has generally redounded to the benefit of the U.S.

It was one of my favorite lectures, but I may now have to scrap it, and throw into the digital trash all of the data and wonderful anecdotes I have collected over the years. One of the most striking things about this electoral turn of events is how much more like Europe we could soon become. According to India’s Economic Times, Jose Manuel Barroso, Europe’s chief bureaucrat, could hardly repress his satisfaction as he said he looked forwarding to crafting with President Obama a “new deal for a new world.” Among the items he looks forward to reworking is “financial reform,” by which is meant attempts to bring the global flow of funds under the control of the state.

It is possible, although the odds are in my view less than 50/50, that the next two years will see the introduction of a European-style single-payer health system. In that regard, the worst election news in my judgment did not come from the presidential race, but from Arizona, where a proposition asserting that Americans do not lose their freedom to contract with private parties even when the contract in question involves health care appears to have gone down to a very narrow defeat. Not even half the Arizona population, in other words, agrees that a resident of that state and a medical provider have the right to strike an agreement in their mutual interest. Further European-style privileging, East India company-style, of labor unions as monopoly bargaining agents, with all of the corruption, intimidation, economic stagnation and the annihilation of individual creativity unions bring, is also on the agenda. The Constitution makes radical change difficult, so the worst excesses may be trimmed, but an agenda that would be familiar to Clement Attlee may at least be on the table.

This battle will be lost. Not necessarily the political battle, but the battle with economic reality. It may well be that the result of the election is to make America much more like Europe, the opposite of what people (including me) were predicting until very recently. But the world has other ideas. Countries full of hard-charging, creative, innovative people all over the world (whose talents have thus far benefited America tremendously, but need not continue to do so) are not interested in the welfare state or the rights of unions or other alleged “stakeholders.” They are interested in achieving great things on their own, in escaping from the smothering hand of collectivism rather than embracing it. As an Indian official recently memorably said, “We find the Europeans fighting for a 35-hour week, and we in India are fighting for a 35-hour day.“ For the Americans too, the battle will be futile, but only at tremendous cost to the American standard of living and national interest.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Another Loss

Amid all the hoopla about the election, I did not hear until this morning that liberty suffered another loss with the passing of Michael Crichton. I do not know whether he was a believer in limited government, but I do know that his contribution to the cause, by exposing the dangers of scientifically illiterate public policy, a topic I have written about myself, was profound. Below is an excerpt from a widely cited lecture he gave at Caltech, called "Aliens Cause Global Warming":

I want to pause here and talk about this notion of consensus, and the rise of what has been called consensus science. I regard consensus science as an extremely pernicious development that ought to be stopped cold in its tracks. Historically, the claim of consensus has been the first refuge of scoundrels; it is a way to avoid debate by claiming that the matter is already settled. Whenever you hear the consensus of scientists agrees on something or other, reach for your wallet, because you're being had.

Let's be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investigator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are verifiable by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because they broke with the consensus.

There is no such thing as consensus science. If it's consensus, it isn't science. If it's science, it isn't consensus. Period.

Read the whole thing.