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Why #BlackLivesMatter July 15, 2016

Posted by federalist in Government, Social Politics.
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First they came for the blacks, and I did not speak out – because I was not black.

The “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) movement is about two problems: racism and policing.  Critics of BLM confuse themselves by addressing questions of racism when they should really be focusing on what race is revealing about the police.

Nobody denies that as a subpopulation black Americans are disproportionately violent and criminal.  Based on that observation, it is not unreasonable to expect that proper law enforcement will have a disproportionate effect on black Americans.

But BLM isn’t about statistics.  It’s about individuals, and the dignity that every American deserves at the hands of public servants.  And it’s a warning about the kinds of people who are allowed to work as police officers, and the kind of behavior that is tolerated within their ranks.

We know that there are people who, when given the opportunity, will exploit authority for sadistic pleasure.  These sadists will for their own amusement harass, humiliate, torture, and even kill others.  Law enforcement fosters precisely the circumstances that attract and facilitate such sadistic behavior.  BLM is trying to alert us to the widespread institutional failures to address and control such police behavior.

BLM is the canary in the coal mine.  The black subpopulation will be the first to detect a culture of police brutality and corruption, and will suffer its effects most severely.  But every American is at risk when police are given institutional protection to abuse their authority.  BLM critics shouldn’t assume that the “bad apples” in law enforcement only harass black criminals, or that collateral damage is limited to upstanding black citizens who should understand that racial profiling is an unfortunate but necessary evil in our effort to maintain law and order.

Sadistic police can and do target all citizens.  One can readily find daily accounts of abuses perpetrated by virtually unaccountable police cowards hiding behind their fellow officers, their union, and the qualified immunity enjoyed by government agents.

All those who offer unqualified support for this police institution must understand that they share culpability for every incident in which an officer harasses, tortures, or unjustly kills a citizen.  They should also realize that, no matter their race or social status, they could be the next victim of police brutality.

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Whom Do Police Protect and Serve? July 9, 2016

Posted by federalist in Government, Social Politics, Unions.
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Police should be held to a higher standard. And they should hold themselves to a higher standard.

Every day there are beautiful stories of police who exercise admirable restraint or go the extra mile to help people in their communities. But those are overshadowed by daily stories of police who abuse their authority and their fellow citizens, and who only rarely face consequences befitting their crimes.

Pro-police rhetoric in the United States has become detached from reality. When five police officers were killed by a sniper in Dallas, a national police union renewed its insistence that there is a “war on police.” Politicians lauded the “difficult and dangerous work” of community policing. Never mind that by any objective measure police do not face exceptional risks. (In fact, citizens are far more likely to be murdered just by residing in dangerous cities than by working as police.)

The reality is that it is police who seem to have been escalating a war on Americans. The government has declined legislative mandates to track police assaults, but independent projects have found increasing numbers of police homicides: In recent years police have killed more than a hundred citizens every month.

When cops hurt or kill citizens, they hide behind the blue line of their fellow law enforcement officers, their union, and the shield of the government. Personal accountability for egregious misconduct is astonishingly rare.

Many demagogues reflexively refer to police as “heroes.” Police should not be lauded as heroic merely for taking the job. Heroes are people who display courage, bravery, or nobility. An officer who uses deadly force against a person who is not immediately threatening the lives of others is not a hero. Police who resort to excessive violence because they know that, thanks to their office and colleagues, they can get away with it are cowards.

Police who can’t put on a badge and gun every day without also donning an “us versus them” mindset against the citizens they have sworn to protect and serve should simply quit their job. We don’t need police who cravenly exploit their office to harass or kill.  We need police who will risk their own lives to save the lives of the citizens they have sworn to protect and serve.

What will you do with your new rights? June 28, 2015

Posted by federalist in Government Regulation, Natural Rights, Social Politics.
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The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity. (Obergefell v. Hodges)

Free at last! The Supreme Court has clearly ruled that government must affirm the legal definition and expression of our identity without discrimination from sea to shining sea!

National Concealed Weapon Carry license reciprocity is at this point a fait accompli. But Constitutionally enumerated rights are so last-century. We are now free to define and express our identity, and if it bears on a legally recognized characteristic then, per the Supreme Court’s reasoning in Obergefell, the government has to certify it and grant it equal protection. Given the social advances in gender identity it should not be long before one can walk into a government office and demand that one’s state ID or passport reflect a different gender. Religious identity is, according to the law, essentially a matter of declaration, and ethnic identity and race must not be far behind. So expand your mind and think hard about who you truly are, because it is only a matter of time before the United States mandates the respect of all legally recognized aspects of identity.

Do you know what I realized? I actually have three distinct identities. (And lest you suggest that “multiple personalities” is a “disorder,” remember that homosexuality was also regarded as a disorder before it was given legal protection and then recognition.)

  1. I am a child at heart. Eight years old, to be exact. My physical body was born on the East coast decades ago, but my latest identity was born eight years ago in Skagway Alaska. I happened to be there on a cruise at the time. And I felt such a profound kinship with the land that I must be Eskimo. I now look forward to receiving my birth certificate from Skagway affirming as much. (Should I choose to apply to a competitive institution I imagine my status as a minor Native American from Alaska will make me quite attractive! And if I am ever charged with a felony: it’s the eight-year-old that did it.)
  2. Fortunately I am my own guardian. My second identity is a very nurturing black woman, born 65 years ago in Alabama. Oh, the hardships my people endured! I am absolutely ecstatic to have lived to see a black President of the United States, and to finally have my identity legally recognized. I’ll stop by the DMV to have my driving license updated accordingly. I guess this makes me eligible not only for senior citizen discounts and privileges, but also for preference in government contracting and employment. (All my business ventures are owned by this identity.)
  3. Then there is my “birth identity.” Just another privileged, white, heterosexual man. All he does is complain about taxes. But even he has reason to celebrate: Not only does he have two new dependents, but he has just decided that his blindness to social injustice must be literal for tax purposes. (It’s OK, my second identity is an excellent driver and has perfect vision.)

Redistribution of Opportunity that Makes Sense December 1, 2014

Posted by federalist in Human Markets, Social Politics.
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Rick Bookstaber points out a way of looking at equal opportunity “ex ante” that makes sense. The problem with progressive social engineering to date has been that it can’t help but reference, and thus try to manipulate, outcomes. (This is ignoring the much larger problem that progressives persist in seeking the coercive force of government to pursue their experiments. To be clear: government should never be involved in social engineering!)

Playing with policies to try to produce more equal outcomes is a futile endeavor: Human outcomes are subject to so many unobservable variables and so much chance that targeting outcomes will inevitably be suboptimal.

But the fact remains that the distribution of human capital — talent, genius, potential — in a free society does not correlate with the distribution of opportunity, which is largely determined by one’s birth endowment (i.e., the station and wealth of one’s parents).

After describing a theoretical framework for optimizing resources given the disparities of these two distributions, Bookstaber offers a sports example: Two children are vying for a tennis scholarship. One child would be called “underprivileged” but has immense potential. The other would be called “advantaged” but has mediocre talent. If our goal is to produce the best tennis players then the scholarship should go to the undeveloped but larger talent of the first child. However, our society is still too superficially meritocratic and so more often than not we see the suboptimal outcome of social resources being added to the second child, who in this example manages to beat the undeveloped but better player and win the scholarship.

America’s Fertility Problem February 11, 2013

Posted by federalist in Economic Policy, Education, Human Markets, Social Politics, Taxation.
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America is fortunate to be lagging the demographic collapse that is plaguing Europe and the Orient, so we will have time to observe both the socioeconomic problems that low fertility creates and the means of fixing them.

Already some European countries have adopted extreme measures to stimulate childbearing: From tax credits and grants to increasingly generous time-off and childcare programs.

Jonathan Last, author of What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: American’s Coming Demographic Disaster, summarizes the current state of affairs in America and looks at some potential policies to motivate reproduction.

Indeed, for most Americans it is irrational to choose to have children today. The marginal cost to an educated working couple is staggering: Direct financial costs alone can run well into six figures and, if one pays for the “best” education, can even break seven figures. At least one earner is usually taken out of the workforce for years, incurring substantial opportunity costs in career and earning potential. And we rarely credit parents for the time, stress, and emotional agony of raising a child to maturity. Relatively speaking, life without children is a luxury: a carefree existence flush with money and freedom.

In a selfish world in which women often out-earn men and couples can easily avoid reproducing, who is having babies? Those too incompetent to use birth control, or too ignorant to rationally account for the full costs? Those on the fringes who can actually expect a net positive return on childbearing thanks to welfare systems?

There are many who bear children for religious and altruistic reasons. Indeed, when it comes down to it, modern childbearing is a gift to society as a whole. Children might grow up to honor and support their parents, but government will all but guarantee that as adults they will pay taxes to support their grandparents’ generation.

Until recently children were mostly unavoidable products of adult couplings, but they were also greatly desired because they eventually conferred status and security on their parents. Just as modern contraception has divorced coupling from reproduction, the senior welfare systems of modern government have severed parents from the support they could traditionally expect from their particular children.

Among Jonathan Last’s policy prescriptions for restoring fertility:

  • Recognizing that children are the future tax base, reduce the cost of bearing them by significantly cutting the tax burden on parents. (Or, presumably, wait until we are so far down the demographic cliff that we have to go European and outright pay people to bear children.)
  • Destroy the higher education cartel, which defers marriage, increases the opportunity cost of stepping away from the workforce to bear children, and then exacts a final, enormous toll to get the child out of the nest and into the most desirable jobs.

Marriage: Legal Costs and Benefits January 17, 2013

Posted by federalist in Economic Policy, Social Politics, Taxation.
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I have suggested that advocates for legalizing same-sex marriage might be largely motivated by government financial benefits.

It is probably hopeless to disentangle the full costs and benefits that accrue to marriage and child-bearing from government policies (everything from welfare programs to tax codes). But a recent essay claiming that marriage accrues only benefits prompted some interesting counterpoints. E.g.,

The fact is that taxes make marriage extremely expensive for almost all successful opposite-sex couples, more so if they have children, even more so under the new Obama tax rates. Income tax liability is generally lower (not higher, as Arnold and Campbell assert) for unmarried earners, and lower still for single parents than married parents.

The only notable exception to the marriage penalty is for same-sex married couples in community property states, who (thanks to DOMA) divide their income 50/50 and file single or single head-of-household returns–which always saves them a bundle compared to any other tax status.

So gay marriage has in fact produced some handsome financial dividends for its practitioners.

Politics in the Workplace December 12, 2012

Posted by federalist in Social Politics, Uncategorized.
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Years ago, ending one of my first summer internships at a somewhat Liberal company, I was told that it was not a good idea to advertise my Conservative leanings in the workplace. As politics became more polarized an awkward dynamic evolved in the professional world: Liberals became self-righteously and overtly intolerant of Conservatives. Espousing Conservative ideas in the wrong company could actually end your career. In contrast, Conservatives remained disinclined to hold someone’s politics against them if it did not bear on their job performance. So Conservatives learned to hide in the closet unless sure they were among like-minded or tolerant coworkers. Liberals, on the other hand, wore their leanings as a badge of pride. Some apparently forgot that Conservatives even exist: One finance company aggressively recruiting me proudly mentioned that the partners were all big Democrat activists, as if that was another selling point. (Yes, they were based in NYC.)

Now that politics have really started to hit businesses I’ve seen many Conservatives come out of the closet. Right after the reelection of Obama one small business owner said, “This is going to hurt business. I won’t be able to hire as many people as I had planned. Therefore, I think it’s only fair that I give preference to those who didn’t support these policies.” I.e., when it comes to layoffs, let Democrats go first into the arms of the welfare state they asked for.

Chemical Interrogation for Counter-Terrorism? July 18, 2009

Posted by federalist in Natural Rights, Open Questions, Social Politics.
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If the War on Terror left any doubt, episode after contrived episode of TV series 24 has shown that there are circumstances in which we may want to use any means necessary to extract life-saving information from a hostile captive.  Following years of controversy over what interrogation methods should be publicized and allowed to fight terrorism, the federal government is considering the creation of a special interrogation team with new tactics.

Note that we are not talking about securing information for use in judicial proceedings, but rather about extracting accurate information from subjects intent on resisting interrogation that could thwart future — perhaps imminent — homicides.  It is fatuous to discuss whether interrogation methods in such scenarios are “degrading” or “coercive.”  Most pragmatic people probably don’t particularly care whether methods constitute “torture,” so long as they are effective.  Many may even countenance real torture that causes permanent physical damage to a subject withholding information that could avert a mass homicide.  But one problem with torture and coercion on any level is that subjects can be prepared to resist known tactics.  And even when a subject appears to break interrogators can’t always be certain he hasn’t provided them with false information.

So what happened to the art of chemical interrogation: I.e., dosing subjects with drugs that diminish their capacity to consciously evade questions or formulate deceptive answers?  Jed Babbin addressed this early in the War on Terror:

So-called “truth serums” are not foolproof, and do not guarantee success. But chemically assisted interrogation can significantly increase the interrogator’s chance to get the facts without descending into barbarism. There are legitimate differences between the constitutional and legal limits we impose on police interrogating a suspected criminal for prosecution in a civilian court and the means interrogators use to get as much as they can — as quickly as they can — from Mohammed and his ilk. Those limits do not require us to forego chemically assisted interrogation.

Intelligence agencies and the military have been experimenting with so-called “truth drugs” since the Egyptians began making beer about 5,000 years ago. During World War II, Germany and Japan both used chemical interrogation with very mixed results. Today, there are several drugs that are more effective and safe than the ones used then.

The object of a chemically assisted interrogation is to release the cortical functions of the brain. Most of the drugs that would be used — sodium amatol and related drugs — are sedatives that have a general calming effect. So do barbiturates. Another group — valium and its progeny, including Versed — have essentially the same effect, but also induce short-term memory loss, so the subject won’t remember this morning what he told you last night. The beauty of these chemicals is that there is a minimal danger of allergic reaction, and they can be administered in relative safety to all but the most elderly or those with diabetes, or other conditions that can generally be detected by blood tests and an electrocardiogram.

If a suspect is being interrogated while under the influence of one of these drugs, it is possible to further boost the ability of the interrogator to succeed by administering an amphetamine. If administered properly, the sedative calms the suspect and breaks down resistance. The amphetamine can raise his anxiety level, causing him to blurt out what he might otherwise conceal even under sedation.

Even if the a drugged subject doesn’t crack, the short-term amnesia that can be induced with some of these drugs can itself be a useful interrogation tactic: leading him to believe he has given up useful information, and thereby weakening his resolve against further questioning.

The Geneva Conventions prohibit chemical interrogation.  But terrorists are not covered by the Geneva Conventions.  Drugs used for chemical interrogation are neither painful nor, when administered to healthy individuals, particularly dangerous.  Rather than continue to debate the boundaries of torture for official policy, our terrorist interrogation guidelines should include the routine use of helpful drugs.

A Moral Basis for Income Taxation May 9, 2009

Posted by federalist in Social Politics, Taxation.
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Barry Bennett proposes a coherent moral basis for taxation:

Wealth is created primarily by the vast societal infrastructure that we take for granted. Nobel prize-winning economist Herbert Simon estimated that at least 90% of wealth derives from social capital — the trust, shared values and behaviors that allow a society to function effectively — and therefore concluded that a 90% tax was morally justified.

A 2005 World Bank study concluded that most of a nation’s wealth derives from intangible capital; that is, from human capital and the quality of institutions, especially the rule of law. The wealthier the nation, the more this is so. The study concluded that 82% of America’s wealth derives from intangible capital, and a full 56% from the rule of law. There’s a reason American entrepreneurs don’t invest in failed states. Average talent allows one to live a very good life in the U.S. Without the web of social and governmental institutions, however, even our greatest entrepreneurs would have nothing. High taxes concentrated on the wealthy may raise legitimate issues of public policy. They raise no moral issues.

This does seem reasonable.  Unless you live alone on an island you benefit from social capital.  If you really object to implicit social contracts it is possible to opt out of society to a large degree and thereby avoid a large degree of taxes.  (The Amish come to mind as a measured example.)

Several writers objected to this argument.  The core moral objections seem to be:

  1. Government is not the sole source of social capital, so government does not have an unmitigated moral claim on taxing the dividends of social capital.
  2. Even though income taxation may be justified in principle, governments can and do levy taxes that are structurally immoral.

As Laura Sozio suggests: the only moral tax on social capital would be a flat tax (or more accurately, I would argue, a head tax) on the assumption that every person in a society enjoys the same social capital.  The fact that one person makes more wealth from it than another should not obligate the former to pay more for it than the latter.  Indeed, any disproportions in the taxation of social capital reward the lazy and incompetent at the expense of the productive and diligent.

Unfortunately, this argument can quickly bog down in practical details.  Does every person in a society truly enjoy the same social capital?  Are “fortune” and “misfortune” structural defects in the allocation of social capital that taxation should mitigate?  These are fair questions that deserve lengthy treatment, though I aver that in general we should not take unprincipled or immoral actions in an attempt to mitigate practical problems.

The Trench and the Ivory Tower April 16, 2009

Posted by federalist in Education, Social Politics.
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During the height of protests against the Vietnam War most Ivy League universities decided to formalize their anti-government views by rejecting the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC).  Prior to that point ROTC had been an integral part of the academy, commissioning thousands of American military officers.  But for the last forty years the liberal leaders of private colleges have, under variuos pretenses, enforced this official schism with American military institutions.  Since the mid-1990s the most commonly cited objection has been government policies against openly homosexual behavior by soldiers.  Retired Army Colonel Timothy Whalen points out the striking inconsistency in the academy’s continued opposition to the military:

The so-called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy is in fact public law, passed by a bipartisan vote of the U.S. Congress, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, and then sustained by a decision of the Supreme Court. When and if the government changes the policy, I am confident that the military will faithfully carry out the new policy, just as it has during over 230 years of unfailing allegiance to the civil government.

Perhaps the administration and faculty, including some law school deans and professors of institutions that oppose ROTC on campus, are unaware that the military is under civilian control. Perhaps they know that and so, acting with integrity in support of their principles, also oppose recruiting for clerkships to the Supreme Court that upheld the law, fellowships to Congress and the White House, and so on. The first is unbelievable and I have never heard of any instances of the second. This leaves me to suspect that this issue is a stalking horse for an antimilitary position that does not have the courage to speak its name.

For more information: AdvocatesForROTC.org has been tracking this issue for years.

Grand Survival December 24, 2008

Posted by federalist in Energy, Social Politics, Transportation.
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Yesterday I pointed out that those who claim to care about worldly things grander than individual freedom (be they human life or local ecosystems) should concern themselves with perpetuation beyond our precarious planet.  The premise here is clearly fascist, but that does not mean it isn’t noble or worthy.

A program for interstellar propagation of earth life would certainly be a tremendous challenge.  But it would also be salutary: In the absence of a grand threat or challenge humans tend to degenerate, focusing our energy on selfish amusement and petty disputes.  Mankind’s admirable traits emerge most clearly when we collectively step up to overcome great obstacles.

Perhaps the greatest good our present leaders could do is to sell this vision: The survival of our species is in imminent danger so long as we are bound to this planet, and if we focus our energy on breaking our ties to it we can achieve a collective immortality.

Interstellar propagation requires the focus of vast quantities of skilled human resources in a number of areas:

Energy: Enormous sums of energy are needed to get machines into deep space and to sustain them at large distances from solar and material fuel sources.  Presently we struggle to produce enough energy to sustain even core terrestial activity.  The first hurdle we face is the development of practical fusion technology, which will finally produce massive quantities of energy “too cheap to meter.”  The second hurdle is is the creation of antimatter batteries (i.e., devices capable of controlled storage and reaction of antimatter with matter), which provide the densest energy we can currently conceive — indeed, energy density 10 orders of magnitude greater than the chemical power sources with which we are familiar, and 5 orders of magnitude greater than fusion media.

Machines: We need advances in nanotechnology and materials sciences so that we can create self-replicating and self-healing machines.  With access to massive amounts of energy a “von Neumann” type machine could in principle turn raw matter into plasma, extract refined elements, and synthesize the compounds needed not only to repair itself but also to build new copies of itself.  In deep space this reclamation capacity is essential since all matter must be recycled in order to sustain a functioning system for leaps between star systems that might last eons.  Interstellar exploration requires fleets of von Neumann probes, not just to find new bases for establishing life, but also to build caches of materials and energy for life-sustaining vessels traveling in their wake.  Life-bearing vessels themselves should self-replicate when resources are available: If propagation is limited to a non-increasing fleet then there is some probability that the entire fleet will eventually be wiped out by accidents or unforeseen problems.

Humans: We may be able to build enormous ships containing functioning biospheres that would support thriving human societies for thousands of generations as they travel between settlements.  But natural modern human creatures are far too unstable and ill-equipped for efficient interstellar propagation.  After all, we have to reproduce at least every forty years, and we die after a hundred.  Each new generation faces risks of polymorphism: We’re not quite sure how each child will turn out in terms of capacities, limitations, or disposition.  This “generational polymorphism” is a tremendous risk in a small, isolated population.  Small inbred populations also face increasing genetic risks that over many generations can destroy them.  Aside from problems of breeding, there are problems of gravity and biophilia: Man is not naturally equipped for long-term survival in microgravity or in completely artificial environments.

What we really want to create is an Explorer subspecies of homo sapiens: Purged of all genetic diseases and disabilities, able to live its entire life on synthetic food, able to maintain physical and mental health in the limited environment of an interstellar space ship.  Perhaps capable of indefinite suspended animation; if not, then enjoying an exceptionally long lifespan.  Capable of reproducing to populate new copies of seed ships that would be constructed at every opportunity.  And finally, capable of starting new settlements of vital populations of human beings to fill and maintain new biospheres indefinitely.

Either that, or we could just stay here, fight to keep other people off our lawn, and see how long this lasts.

Environmentalists Miss the Big Picture December 23, 2008

Posted by federalist in Energy, Social Politics.
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Pollution of the type that environmentalists decry can certainly have major impacts on lives and ecosystems in the short term.  But it is nothing compared to what the next major ice age will do: Glaciers will erase everything we have done to the landscape and will bury toxic substances (most of which came from the earth to begin with) away from the biosphere.  Major volcanic episodes in epochs past have filled the planet’s atmosphere with toxic clouds that dwarf what we can do by burning fossil fuels.

There is real probability of future cataclysmic asteroid impacts that would make the worst human environmental abuses look like a sunny day in the park.  We have little ability to predict or avoid a nearby gamma-ray burst aimed in our direction that would destroy the planet.  We may be lucky to avoid surprise interstellar catastrophe, but we do know that in the long, long term our solar system will die.

Given both these certain and overwhelming geologic processes, and the risks of extra-planetary cataclysm, how much should we worry about our own short-term impact on our environment?

Some environmentalism can pay: E.g., profitable efforts to use limited resources efficiently, and measures to reduce pollution that harms our ability to function and survive.  But efforts to preserve “environment” against inevitable forces far more destructive than ourselves are naive and hubristic.

Whatever it is that environmentalists value is in potentially imminent, and certainly eventual, peril on this planet. Thus, if you value and wish to preserve anything tangible — future generations of human life, earthly ecosystems, indeed, anything other than your own life and present enjoyment — then your paramount concern should be the dissemination of those things beyond this planet and this solar system.

Art Carden’s recent essay points to this issue and argues:

A solution requires additions to the ultimate resource, which is to say that it requires additional human ingenuity and a finer division of labor so that people can focus on the problems that interplanetary travel would raise. This means that we need more people, and we need to make them richer, faster to release the resources that would be needed to solve some of these problems. While this runs precisely counter to conventional environmental dialogue, the thesis that we should not discount the future implies that all other concerns should take a backseat to the problem of preventing [the extinction of life].

A Minarchist is an Anarchist who has been mugged December 23, 2008

Posted by federalist in Government, Natural Rights, Social Politics.
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I’ve spent some time over on the Mises Institute’s forums, which seem to be largely populated with anarchists — indeed, anarchists who haven’t yet had to put forth a detailed philosophy for a practical world built on their principles.  Since I would describe myself as more of a minarchist it has been amusing to be in the position of arguing for government!

[Addendum: Nicolas Maloberti offers a good description of the fundamentally impractical nature of anarchist philosophy in Part I of his essay at the Libertarian Papers.]

Gender Differences July 28, 2008

Posted by federalist in Human Markets, Social Politics.
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Mainstream Media continue to butcher this important fact of life: Sample variances of just about any measure of behavior, ability, or disability are higher for men than for women. This means that regardless of whether men or women are on average innately better at something, the best (and worst) in a large population are probably almost all men.

(It’s worth noting that apparently only the Wall Street Journal got this fact right in the recent reporting on this subject.)

Addendum: There is one non-reproductive ability exclusive to females, which is quite fascinating: Tetrachromatic vision. Because the genes for red and green rods are carried on the X chromosome, and because there is at least one known mutation for these receptors that changes their spectral sensitivity curves (and which leads to color-deficiency if inherited by a male), it is possible (though rare) for a female to have four distinct color receptors instead of the usual three, which in theory would allow such a “tetrachromat” to distinguish colors that appear identical to regular humans. Research on human tetrachromats seems to be sorely lacking at present, but in the course of checking out the state of the art I came across some other fascinating notes.

For one thing, apparently regular humans are actually tetrachromats: We have a fourth photoreceptor tuned to the near ultraviolet spectrum, but our natural ocular lenses absorb that wavelength so only people who have had their lenses replaced with artificial ones can enjoy ultraviolet vision. (This means that a natural tetrachromat with artificial lenses would in theory possess pentachromatic vision!) One unresolved question in current research is how effectively the visual cortex can exploit these extra color sensors. Given the evidence for neural plasticity one suspects that they would be fully utilized. But you don’t have to find a natural tetrachromat to test that: An amusing patent proposes eyeglasses that spectrally shift the image presented to one eye, which in principle allows a regular trichromat to distinguish colors as if he were a hexachromat. Of course this is nothing compared to the vision king of the animal world: The Mantis Shrimp has sixteen distinct photoreceptors and is also sensitive to both linear and circular polarization of light!

What Gay Marriage Proponents Want June 21, 2008

Posted by federalist in Social Politics, Uncategorized.
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Why did the WSJ see fit to print Jonathan Rauch’s incoherent arguments in favor of gay marriage? He asks readers to imagine a world without marriage as he begins a thousand-word shell game, shuffling our attention between three aspects of marriage too fast to critically conclude that “Gay Marriage Is Good for America.”

At first “marriage” is nothing but a public commitment between two people in love. But of course homosexuals are as capable of public commitment as any heterosexual adult, so it’s on to the second aspect of “marriage:” The legal contract. This is a substantive issue since our governments restrict a number of legal rights and benefits to the contract of marriage. Why should only heterosexual couples enjoy conjugal social security benefits, immigration privileges, tax exemptions, or immunity from testifying against their spouse in court? It is an excellent question, but it is not a grievance unique to homosexual couples. After all, a heterosexual man may want to extend those legal benefits not only to his wife, but also to his mother, daughter, and another close female friend. He may love them all equally, he could have a sexual relationship with any of them, and they may all be involved in raising a family, but the law does not allow him to maintain a marriage contract with any but the first unrelated adult female.

A cynic would stop here, assuming that Rauch’s colorful professions of love and commitment are nothing but a disguise for the motives of material gain bound up in government sanctions of marriage. Nevertheless, he does shuffle in a third aspect of “marriage” worthy of consideration: Acceptance. There is no question that it is better for everyone when a community gives a person (or a couple) acceptance instead of intolerance. Is marriage required for acceptance of a couple? He admits that homosexual behavior has already obtained mainstream acceptance, and confidently states, “This will not change, ever.” This acceptance occurred before any legal recognition of gay marriage.

Rauch leaves us to conclude that gay marriage proponents are really just after legal and financial benefits. Perhaps government should not offer such benefits, or perhaps it should offer them with no restrictions. In either case, gay marriage is an obtuse pretense for such policy questions.

Priorities From the Copenhagen Consensus June 7, 2008

Posted by federalist in Economic Policy, Energy, Government Spending, Social Politics.
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Philanthropists, activists, big charities, governments — there are many entities with lots of time and money and ideas for spending their resources to improve the world.  They frequently do a very poor job of it.

I have applauded the Copenhagen Consensus Center before.  The results of their latest panel, ranking the expenditures that will produce the greatest economic good in the world, should be studied by all of the aformentioned entities.  At the top of the list: Nutritional supplements, free trade, and vaccinations.

Mysterious Charity Utility Functions, Part II October 9, 2007

Posted by federalist in Human Markets, Social Politics.
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I have touched on this question here, and here. But by far the best treatment was offered last month by Clive Thompson, which I just found here. Highlights:

I’ve been reading the fascinating work of Paul Slovic, a psychologist who runs the social-science think tank Decision Research. He studies a troubling paradox in human empathy: We’ll usually race to help a single stranger in dire straits, while ignoring huge numbers of people in precisely the same plight. We’ll donate thousands of dollars to bring a single African war orphan to the US for lifesaving surgery, but we don’t offer much money or political pressure to stop widespread genocides in Rwanda or Darfur.

You could argue that we’re simply callous, or hypocrites. But Slovic doesn’t think so. The problem isn’t a moral failing: It’s a cognitive one. We’re very good at processing the plight of tiny groups of people but horrible at conceptualizing the suffering of large ones.

We tend to think that the way to address disease and death is to have more empathy. But maybe that’s precisely wrong. Perhaps we should avoid leaders who “feel your pain,” because their feelings will crap out at, you know, eight people.

“Health Insurance” Is Not a Crisis October 7, 2007

Posted by federalist in Healthcare, Social Politics.
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I wrote about this before, but Democrats are not being taken to task like they should for their assertion that health insurance is one of the biggest crises facing America today.

Since they have so few positive ideas to offer, I guess they have to attack something. But if we’re going to pick something that a large minority of Americans don’t have, why pick health care? What about life insurance? Or credit insurance? Let’s dig up sob stories of people who couldn’t afford to pay their credit card debt. Oh, the humanity!

What does health insurance offer? Nothing more than a safety net. Liberals mention the uninsured in the same breath as the poor and the sick, but people without health insurance are not necessarily poor or sick. They are not 40 million citizens hobbling the streets on makeshift crutches and dirty bandages.

Human beings do not need health insurance the way they need food and shelter. Sure, nobody would turn down free insurance, and most people sleep better at night knowing they’re insured against catastrophic accidents and emergencies they couldn’t pay for. But nobody has a natural right to be protected against every bad thing that could possibly happen to them.

Why don’t we cut to the end and imagine the Democrats’ final solution? After universal health insurance, universal defined-benefit pensions, and universal welfare, nobody will go sick, hungry, or homeless, and nobody will have to work when they’re old. Which would let us move on to safety nets for the few suckers who continue to work to fund this welfare state: We’ll have to setup an unemployment system that continues to pay people their highest achieved salary in the event that they lose their jobs.

The digital-divide will be closed with universal telephone, cable, and internet access.  Then we will move on to the transportation divide, which prevents millions of Americans from owning luxury cars with all of the latest safety features. We will finally desegregate vacation destinations and gated communities by ensuring that impoverished Americans have access to the same mansions and luxury travel opportunities as everyone else, giving new shades to the slogan, “No one left behind!”

With all of these social divides and gaps closed we will finally be able to address the fundamental concern that any individual American may have been born with a below-average endowment. Talent-insurance will ensure that everyone gets to go to the best schools and earn the highest grades, regardless of how inherently smart or hard-working you are.  The genetic lottery will not short-change any American.  (And students will no longer suffer performance anxiety related to exams or school admissions processes!) Talent-insurance will also ensure that nobody has to lose in sports, no matter how unfortunate they were in their birth or upbringing. What a wonderful world: Government will ensure that nobody has to work, and everybody is above average. Why didn’t the Republicans think of it first?

QOTD: The Bluest State September 4, 2007

Posted by federalist in Social Politics.
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From Guy Darst’s review of Jon Keller’s The Bluest State: How Democrats Created the Massachusetts Blueprint for American Political Disaster:

[A]lthough Massachusetts does not suffer alone from its notorious affection for liberalism, it is the incubator for “Massachusetts viruses” that infect the national Democratic Party. The viruses come in many forms: “addiction to tax revenues and a raging edifice complex couched in disrespect to wage earners; phony identity politics without real results for women and minorities; reflexive anti-Americanism in foreign affairs; vain indulgence in obnoxious political correctness; self-serving featherbedding; NIMBYism; authoritarian distortion of the balance of governmental power, all simmered in a broth of hypocritical paternalism.”

On Justice August 27, 2007

Posted by federalist in Social Politics, Uncategorized.
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Our society has not done a very good job addressing the problem of criminal justice: What is the purpose of punishing criminals? Deterrence? Reform? Retribution?

One punishment that doesn’t seem very efficient with respect to any of these goals happens to be the most widely-applied: imprisonment.  The only thing imprisonment does effectively is temporarily incapacitate the criminal, preventing him from committing further crime against the outside society.  Why should society bear the cost of locking a criminal in prison without putting him to any constructive use?*

If we stopped to consider the question we would surely arrive at more appropriate punishments.  For example, James Miller astutely recommends torture as an efficient alternative to prison:

Because of its far lower cost, the U.S. should torture rather than imprison criminals who don’t need to be removed from society.

Some would argue that it’s excessively cruel to torture criminals. But both prison and torture impose costs on criminals. Why is one type of cost crueler than the other? If a convicted criminal is indifferent between receiving a certain type of torture or being imprisoned for a given period of time then why would it be excessively cruel to torture but not to imprison?

I actually had this question in draft for quite some time and was finally moved to post it by that brilliant observation.  Other useful reading on the subject can be found at Agoraphilia and also in a recent issue of In Character.


* (In fact, many of our prisons offer such benign accommodations that they are really just supervised adult daycare at taxpayer expense. But that is a topic for another day. Also a topic for another day: To what constructive uses might society legitimately put its criminals? Forced labor? Medical testing?)