Rationality, Optimum Crime, Individualism vs. Collectivism, and the Gambler’s Fallacy

September 24, 2014

UnknownThe Economist’s 5/10 issue* had a piece about the recently deceased Gary Becker – an economist and, really, sociologist. His work centered on the idea that “individuals maximize welfare as they conceive it.”

This “homo economicus” concept has taken a beating lately. Books like Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational show how our decision-making is skewed by illogical biases; and Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness how we’re bad at foreseeing what will make us happy. imagesThus, some trash free market economics because it supposedly assumes an economic rationality by market participants that doesn’t exist. And nanny-state policies are often premised on people not knowing their own best interests.

However, while of course we aren’t perfectly rational, nor are we perfectly irrational; we do have some idea of our own interests and desires, and the means to advance them. Hence one’s welfare is more likely enhanced by making choices to serve those interests and desires than if there is no choice. Moreover, Gary Becker importantly argued that maximizing welfare doesn’t just mean income. People understand that money isn’t everything. Health counts 10%.

images-3That was a joke. Actually, health counts a lot, and so do many other things (though money does help getting them). Again, people understand all this and live accordingly – even if not with computerlike rationality.

One sphere to which Becker applied this paradigm was crime. He doubted all crime is deviant or sociopathic, reckoning that some at least represents rational weighing of costs and benefits. While moral inhibitions do come into play, for many they’re not absolutes and can be overridden if the balance of payoff versus risk seems sufficiently favorable.

Unknown-1Becker also pondered crime’s costs. Crime, he realized, is akin to what economists call “rent seeking”—contending over the spoils of productive activity rather than creating new wealth. Conversely, rent-seekers trying to get government subsidization, to others’ cost (trade protectionism, for example) can be likened to robbers. The resources invested in all such activities (whether doing them or combating them) would be better spent on wealth producing efforts. And Becker also suggested there’s an optimal amount of crime in society – while it pays to get crime down to a low level, the cost of eradicating the last bit surely exceeds the benefit. (Certainly in the war on drugs, that excess is huge.)

Unknown-2Two pages later The Economist reported on a study suggesting why Westerners have a more individualistic psychology than collectivist-minded Asians. Led by Thomas Talhelm at the University of Virginia, it focused on whether the main crop has historically been wheat or rice. The relevant difference is that rice required about double the labor per calorie. This forced rice farmers to share labor, evolving a deeply rooted collectivist cultural ethos. And sure enough, the study found that, based on attitudinal questionnaire answers, a collectivist mentality in a locale correlates strongly with an agricultural history centered on rice as opposed to wheat.

Unknown-3The next page: gambling. Many believe in “winning streaks;” and also that bad luck is bound to reverse itself so that losses are recouped. The latter is known as the gambler’s fallacy; because statistics would instead predict reverting to the mean – i.e., “normal service resumed.” And in casinos, “normal service” means the house wins more than it loses (how else would they profit?).

Well, comes a study by Juemin Xu and Nigel Harvey finding, counter-intuitively, that winning streaks are real, while losing gamblers do even worse than reversion to the mean. That is, compared to what pure probability would predict, a win is more likely to be followed by a win, and a loss by a loss. How could that possibly be? The answer lies not in laws of probability, but in behavior. A winning better’s next bet has a tendency to be slightly more conservative and a loser’s next bet a little more reckless.

images-2This is why I read The Economist.

* I’m a little behind in posting these things, I have a backlog.

(Advt) Coming Soon: The Oople iMplant™

September 21, 2014

Get ready for . . .

images-1No more fiddling with buttons or touchscreens.

No more recharging hassles.

No more misplacing it, having it stolen, or dropping it in the bathtub.

No more confusing features to figure out.

imagesNo more pushback from dweebs annoyed by your chatter.

No more dorky glasses on your face.

The future is now.

You’ll never look back.

You may never look anywhere else.

Introducing . . . The Oople iMplant™.

images-2The Oople iMplant™ will be installed directly into your brain. (Our bioengineers have located there a space for it, that you weren’t really using anyway.) Quick, painless, and conveniently available at any Ooplestore.

Here’s how it works: by reading your mind. Yes. After all, it’s right in there, in fact it’s part of your mind. Ever wonder how you know what you’re thinking? Philosophers have puzzled over this for eons. But it doesn’t matter, because whatever way you know what you’re thinking, Oople iMplant™ will know it too. However – and here’s the killer – unlike your old analog brain, confined inside your skull – Oople iMplant™ will be wirelessly connectedto everything!

So, say you need a recipe for ratatouille. Simply think that thought, and Oople iMplant™ will search the web, get an answer, and download it right into your mind. It’s just that easy!

UnknownAnd if you want to phone your girlfriend – merely think it – and Oople iMplant™ will connect you. What’s more, the conversation will be totally private, because it will take place inside your brain. 

If that sounds a lot like telepathy . . . well, welcome to Oople iMplant™!

Unknown-1Can it teleport you too? No.

But we’re working on that.

Oople: “Making tomorrow today.”

 

Scotland – The Blog Post That Might Have Been

September 19, 2014

Well. Sanity prevailed. In the end, it wasn’t even close. But, anticipating the possibility of a Yes vote, I had prepared a blog post. (What, you think I just pop these off? No, they are most carefully composed, thoroughly researched, and peer-reviewed.) And, not wanting to waste the effort, just for fun I’ll post it anyway. Here is what I’d have said, had Scotland voted for independence:

                          Scotland the Brave – Or Barmy

imagesVoting with their hearts, not heads, is the catch phrase. Economically, Scottish independence will likely make them worse off. In the United Kingdom, the net government revenue flow has been into Scotland, not out. And the real reason they’re choosing independence is because they fancy themselves more left-wing than Britain. “No more Tory government, ever” was the war-cry.* They blame Margaret Thatcher and her Tory party successors for whatever ails Scotland. It’s nonsense. Thatcher saved Britain, and Scotland has been hurt not by national economic policies but, rather, its own inadequate adaptation to globalization. Indulging their lefty delusions will only make that worse. And they seem to imagine independence will mean higher government spending but lower taxes!

Yet I actually view the vote with sympathy. I’m a born sucker for a people’s aspirations for nationhood and self-rule. If Scots want to live in a socialist paradise, that’s their privilege.

UnknownHistory is also relevant. Scotland was actually independent for longer than it’s been part of Great Britain. The Brits tried repeatedly to conquer Scotland but never succeeded. What finally joined them was an historical fluke. Queen Elizabeth I of England and Mary, Queens of Scots were famously enemies; Elizabeth got her mitts on Mary and beheaded her. But when the “Virgin Queen” died in 1603, childless, her closest living relative was actually Scotland’s King James – Mary’s son! So James became king of both countries.

Bonny Prince Charlie

Bonny Prince Charlie

The two still remained notionally separate for another century. When the 1707 “Act of Union” formally joined them, the Scots weren’t pleased – inasmuch as the originally Scottish Stuart dynasty had been overthrown in 1688.

Their restiveness broke out in revolt under the last Stuart heir, “Bonny Prince Charlie,” culminating in the 1746 Battle of Culloden, where the Scots were crushed, followed by their land’s “pacification” with monumental brutality.images-2

None of this history was to the fore in the referendum. But perhaps it wasn’t wholly forgotten.

Before this vote, the British government made clear that it would be for real – not merely symbolic. They hoped Scots would quail from such a stark choice. Well, they didn’t. And so, while negotiations over details will be long and fraught, in the end Scotland will be an independent country.

images-3Great Britain will be sadly reduced, hardly “Great” any longer; a final indignity for a nation that once ruled much of the world.** Remember those old maps with so many pink patches? One of them was us. We had to fight the Brits for our freedom (and I have not forgotten they later burned our capital, in 1814), yet so much of our cultural patrimony derives from Britain. Though not unblemished, hers is a proud record, so greatly responsible for setting the whole of humankind upon a path of progress. This is like seeing an old parent’s diminishment and fading away. But, in so much of human history, the closing of one chapter is the opening of another.

As this blog post should show, my sense of history greatly enriches my experience of life; making me respond to an event like this with deep feeling.

images-1One thing on my bucket list – maybe the only thing – is to be present at a nation’s independence. I’d had hopes for Quebec; missed out on the Soviet and Yugoslav dissolutions; and East Timor, and South Sudan, weren’t feasible either. But on whatever day it is the Scots finally celebrate their independence, I will be in Edinburgh, and I will cheer with them.

* Ironically, the exit of anti-Tory Scotland will likely ensure Tory government in London forever.

** I’m reminded too of how the once-mighty Roman Empire was eventually reduced to just the city of Constantinople, before its extinction in 1453.

Three Exciting Candidates

September 15, 2014

UnknownI first noticed Neel Kashkari in 2008 as a remarkably young Indian-American, standing beside the Treasury Secretary and being tasked with sorting out the floundering banking system. Having accomplished that, he’s now the Republican candidate for California governor.

Jerry Brown (first elected 40 years ago! – seems like yesterday) has actually been a great governor this time around, resurrecting the state with reforms that few once thought doable. But there’s more to be done, and Kashkari is the one who gets it. In a nation whose economy is hobbled by too much business regulation, California may be the most regulation-happy state of all, virtually building a moat to keep new businesses out, and a catapult to eject existing ones.* Unknown-2No surprise that its unemployment rate is among the nation’s highest.

Kashkari wants to fix this, and also another part of the problem, education, which in California is abysmal and strangled by bureaucracy, which Kashkari pledges to slash. He sensibly favors charter schools too (not that they’re necessarily better than public ones, but because both will likely be better if in competition with each other).

Kashkari also thinks Brown is nuts to budget a gazillion dollars on a high-speed rail boondoggle when California has much more pressing needs, like a water supply crisis.

But, unusual in today’s GOP, Kashkari combines all that economic good sense with classical liberal social views. He’s marched in a gay pride parade. He wants a more humane immigration policy. He wants others to be able to follow him in achieving the American dream.

This is my kind of Republican, embodying the reasons I became one myself, in the Pleistocene, when it was not a party with its head up its rear, but stood for values good for all Americans (and would-be Americans). This kind of Kashkari Republicanism might have a future. A Republicanism of grumpy old white men who don’t believe in evolution will prove themselves wrong by going extinct.

Unknown-1Speaking of grumpy old white men, Kansas Senator Pat Roberts, 78, trying to fend off the Tea Party, turned himself into one of them stoopit Republicans. Kansas hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1932, and Roberts’s Democratic opponent has withdrawn, leaving him up against independent candidate Greg Orman, who’s getting much support from Republicans of the non-stoopit variety (yes, there are many of us, even in Kansas). Orman says he voted for Obama in ’08 and Romney in ’12, and, much like Kashkari, seems to make good choices in selecting from both the right and left sides of the policy menu.

Greg Orman,. cartooned in The Economist

Greg Orman, cartooned in The Economist

But Orman’s real attraction is his assertive critique of the partisan enmity that so afflicts today’s U.S. politics, with each side demonizing the other as not just wrong but evil. We need to can this, and boost up that “radical middle.”

Next, Brazil. The line goes, it’s the country of the future and always will be. What keeps Brazil from being an economic dynamo is big government. Yes, even worse than America’s; Brazil’s economy is so strangled with regulation and government meddling that businesses just throw up their hands in despair.

The current caretaker of this stultifying system is President Dilma Rousseff, a standard-issue unimaginative old lefty (sees nothing amiss in Venezuela, etc.), up for re-election. Many Brazilians are fed up and realize something must change. But, frustratingly, the best candidate, offering real change, Eduardo Campos, with a program of unshackling the economy, was running a distant third. Then in August he died in a plane crash.

Marina Silva, an ascetic black woman, risen from dire poverty (taught herself to read at 16!); former environment minister; had run third in the previous election. But trying again, she was blocked from the ballot on a technicality. So she joined Campos as his vice-presidential running mate.

Marina Silva

Marina Silva

And with Campos’s death, Silva has replaced him as their party’s presidential candidate. This seems to have electrified Brazilians. Partly it’s a personality thing – in a country plagued by repeated scandals, Silva’s backstory and perceived unimpeachable integrity are highly attractive. But she also appears to have bought into Campos’s agenda of economic liberalization. And she now looks likely to win the election. It would be a bracing breath of fresh air for Brazil.

* I’ve written about this here, and here.

Thomas More’s Utopia: The First Communist Manifesto?

September 12, 2014

UnknownSaint Thomas More (1477-1535) wrote Utopia in 1516.* Not only the first in the utopian fiction genre, it’s also been called the first communist book.

In the imaginary country Utopia (the name means “noplace”), there is no money or private property. Everyone has a job, working for the commonwealth, and productivity is such that all needs are met (food, clothing, shelter, etc.) while also leaving ample leisure time. Needless to say, everyone is happy, there’s no cause for dissatisfaction, hence practically no cheating or crime or grasping for power.

Communist” or not, this might seem attractive (albeit kind of boring). imagesBut of course it’s a vain dream, because actual human beings resist such regimentation, and mainly because there’s a powerful drive for status (biologically installed by evolution since higher status means more mating opportunities). That’s the ultimate reason why utopian experiments (many in 19th century America) invariably collapsed. Moreover, while More depicts everyone performing diligently at their jobs, no reason appears why they should, since benefits are unrelated to how hard they work. In the real world, failure to reward effort elicits less of it, resulting in a poorer living standard (as places like East Germany have proven).

Still, the book is nicely imagined, and contains some very advanced thinking. images-1It came mainly out of More’s concern over inequality, an unusual view in the 1500s (far less equal than today); some passages sound like “Occupy” movement stuff. More says no existing social system is “anything but a conspiracy of the rich to advance their own interests.” He’s particularly troubled by the vast numbers of thieves hanged, seeing them driven to crime by unemployment. That’s what he envisioned Utopia to remedy.

Also unusually for his time, More was a pacifist, disparaging military aggression as rarely worth the cost in lives and money. images-2I enjoyed Utopia’s game-book for war: start with secret agents plastering enemy lands with posters offering huge rewards for anyone killing (or delivering alive) their king and other named functionaries. This sows enough distrust and dissension that Utopia can usually triumph without firing a shot.

So the book makes More seem a good man with his heart in the right place. As did the popular 1966 biopic, A Man For All Seasons. More became a high public official under Henry VIII, and the film casts him as a moral hero for refusing on principle to endorse Henry’s making himself head of the English church in order to divorce his first wife. For that refusal, More wound up beheaded.

images-3However, a rather different (and historically more accurate) picture emerges from Hilary Mantel’s novelization Wolf Hall (centered on Thomas Cromwell), showing More as a remorseless religious hard-ass responsible for the horrific torture and burning alive of numerous (so-called) heretics. And this man was declared a saint by Catholicism! By the end, one was glad to read of More’s own execution.

It’s hard to believe the same Thomas More wrote Utopia. Indeed, only late in Utopia is God even mentioned, with Christianity introduced to (and gladly received by) the islanders. But they maintain a principle of religious tolerance. In fact, punishment is prescribed not for “heresy” but, rather, “for being too aggressive in religious controversy.” And More even suggests “that God made different people believe different things, because He wanted to be worshipped in many different ways.”

And then More himself turned into exactly the sort of religious persecutor he’d once decried. People do change.

Meantime, though Utopia vaunted religious tolerance, even there, on one point More drew the line: disbelief in an afterlife incurred harsh condemnation and punishment. He thought anyone unconcerned about eternal penalty or reward would have no reason to behave decently in this life. Nonsense of course (but in those days nobody ever met an actual nonbeliever). Anyhow, it seemed bizarre that More worried so much about maintaining posthumous incentives, yet not at all about a lack of incentives on Earth.

images-4I was also quite surprised at More’s denouncing the illogic of religious zealots who advocate asceticism, self-denial and even mortifying the flesh, yet urge devoting oneself to relieving the suffering of others. If happiness (or at least freedom from pain) is a good thing for others, why not for oneself? (Garrison Keillor has quipped, if the purpose of life is to serve others, what purpose is served by the existence of those others?) Charity begins at home, More wrote; and “The Utopians themselves therefore regard the enjoyment of life – that is, pleasure – as the natural object of all human efforts, and natural, as they define it, is synonymous with virtuous.” Yet on this point too More apparently changed his mind; he was later known to wear, under his clothes, a literal hair-shirt, whose purpose is to inflict not only discomfort but actual pain (it drew blood). And his refusal of any compromise, to save himself in the controversy with King Henry, may well have reflected something of a martyr complex.

Some people improve with age, and grow wiser. Thomas More, it seems, went the other way. What a pity he didn’t die promptly after writing his book. Then maybe he’d have deserved sainthood.

*I read a plain English translation (from Latin) by Paul Turner.

Goodbye, Cutesie

September 9, 2014

Cutesie was our cat. We got him for our daughter Elizabeth when she was four, and she gave him that, well, cutesie name. Maybe a play on the word’s definition? (I decided it was short for Cutesmeier.)

After Elizabeth left for college he was really my wife’s cat and she loved him dearly. He didn’t exactly reciprocate, but did like to be near us, and in the last years started snuggling up to my wife while we watched TV, letting her stroke him. One shouldn’t make assumptions about the mind of a cat. He lacked a “theory of mind,” an understanding that we are conscious beings (like him); rather, we were objects, a part of his environment. But he was certainly conscious, with thoughts and feelings.

cutesieWe buried him yesterday, a proper funeral. He’d been showing his age a bit but was quite fine until the weekend. Then it happened fast; kidney failure. When the vet brought him out the final time, he was still a living sentient being, engaged with the world. Then the needle, and he wasn’t.

Kind of makes you think. Especially happening on my 67th birthday; ever harder to sustain the idea that I’m not an old man, with my own needle looming.* (Though my wife is great at making me feel like the young man I actually never was when young.)

I recalled the rhyme on an old German token, “Heut rot, morgen todt.” Loosely translated: Here today, gone tomorrow. I ponder what it was like for Cutesie to be alive, then not. Watching him being covered with dirt hits one in the gut. I’ve written recently about death**; this intensified the feelings there expressed.

graveWe recently attended a talk about “Final Exit Network,” which helps folks take control of their demise. The speaker stressed that we often treat pets more humanely, to avoid suffering, than people, and I remembered this when seeing how peacefully and painlessly Cutesie went. His transition was virtually imperceptible.

That also seemed relevant to the furore over botched executions. I suspect we’ve gone so overboard in trying to ensure humaneness that we’re tripping over our own feet in that regard. Can’t we manage to do for people what we do for cats?

* Today brought my law school’s glitzy magazine. Once full of news of my professors, now it’s only an occasional obituary (except for Norman Dorsen, reassuringly still active). Even reports on my classmates’ accomplishments have faded out.

** See this also. And that law school magazine has an interesting essay by Samuel Scheffler, arguing that humanity’s continuity after one’s death is psychologically far more important than we realize in giving life meaning.

“Cleaning Up” Albany Corruption: The Cuomo Way

September 7, 2014

Andrew Cuomo ran for governor in 2010 pledging to “clean up” Albany political corruption.

images-1In Cuomo-speak, “to clean up” must mean “to perfect.” (As Humpty Dumpty said, “when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.”)

Back in May, I wrote of the Moreland Commission, a blue-ribbon panel Cuomo set up to investigate Albany. Before it finished, Cuomo pulled the plug, saying it’s his own commission so he can do with it as he likes. His pretext was that its purpose had been accomplished, the legislature having passed a campaign-finance reform. Only that “reform” was the joke of the year (applicable to one office-holder, for one election.)

To me, it all stank to high heaven. Then in July, The New York Times published an extensive investigative report on the Moreland Commission – showing how Cuomo and his stooges systematically interfered with, manipulated, and hobbled its work, trying to stop its investigation getting close to Cuomo or his campaign donors.

UnknownIn launching the commission, Cuomo had repeatedly said it would be free to investigate anything in state government including the executive branch. After the NYT exposé, Cuomo asserted the commission could not investigate the executive branch because it was a creature thereof (not only contradicting his own prior words, but clear nonsense). He also waved about a statement just released by one commission member disavowing any interference – a statement obviously solicited by, and probably drafted by, Cuomo’s team.

Thereupon, Federal prosecutor Preet Bharara, who’d also been investigating the Moreland miasma, sent Cuomo a stern letter cautioning him against witness tampering and obstruction of justice.

Since Watergate, it’s a cliché that the cover-up is worse than the crime, and it’s been applied to Cuomo. But here, the crime itself was pretty awful, a cesspool of manipulation and mendacity, selling down the river any hope of the “clean up” New York was promised.

I’ve also written about the Cuomo administration’s dishonest manipulation of a referendum authorizing new casinos. But the real crime is Cuomo’s betting New York’s future on casinos (and the economics of predation upon poor suckers).* Since the vote, the news has been full of casino decline. images-2Casinos were successful and lucrative when they were few and far between. With casinos everywhere now it’s a very different story, of over-saturation. As Times-Union columnist Fred LeBrun put it, New York is too late to cash in on the casino “boom,” but not to reap all the downsides. Nice play, Guv.

Unknown-1This year we have another referendum, to approve another of Cuomo’s sham “reforms,” this one on legislative redistricting (not a mere technical issue, it’s crucial to political control). And once again the ballot wording is blatantly deceptive. It makes it sound like an independent body will control redistricting. However, it won’t be independent, but a creature of the legislature, which can anyway reject the “independent” body’s maps and once more do its own – which the ballot question does not mention! So we’re being asked to vote for a lie. This will actually entrench gerrymandering. And also forever entrench the Democratic party (once Republicans inevitably lose the State Senate). A one-party state is not compatible with democracy.

Zephyr Teachout

Zephyr Teachout

Cuomo is opposed in the September 9 primary by Fordham Law Professor Zephyr Rain Teachout (her real name). His bullyboy attempts to knock her off the ballot, using New York’s arcane election laws, first by challenging the signatures on her nominating petitions, and then her residency, failed. (So New York is not quite Soviet yet.) Cuomo has refused to debate her. (Debates can be a “disservice to democracy,” he declared!) Teachout is a darling of “progressives”**, and I disagree with her on many issues (like fracking). But something more important is at stake. There are standards. So between Zephyr Teachout and Moreland Cuomo, my strong endorsement goes to Teachout. (And running mate Tim Wu for Lt. Gov.)

Cuomo’s Republican challenger is Rob Astorino. The governor will use his huge campaign war-chest (stuffed by the special interests he dissolved the Moreland commission to shield) to blanket the state with TV ads shamefully smearing Astorino. Our local paper, the Times-Union, though it ran absolutely blistering editorials about the Moreland scandal and redistricting, will turn around and endorse Cuomo’s re-election. (The T-U has long been a reliably partisan cheerleader for Democrats.) Similarly, The New York Times, despite its exposé, will endorse him.***

Cuomo will win.

I will throw up.

images-4Once-proud New York will continue its descent down the toilet.

Those are my predictions. (Some optimist, huh?)

* Slot machines do not work randomly. They are programmed to pay out just often enough to string players along.

** A viewer poll by PBS’s “New York Now” show – which they cautioned is not scientific — gave Teachout 93% of the vote!!

*** The Times refused to endorse him in the primary, but would not endorse Teachout, citing lack of experience. Because experienced politicians have served us so well?? The Times did endorse Wu. The Times-Union has been strangely silent about a primary endorsement.

Civilizational Crisis: The World According to Brooks (& Robinson)

September 5, 2014

imagesI like columnist David Brooks for being a “Big Picture” kind of guy – giving the view from Olympus.

His 9/3 column finds commonality in the two big conflicts bedeviling us. Ukraine and the Islamic State might not seem direct threats to our security. (Obama calls Ukraine a “regional” conflict.) But this is myopic because “the underlying frameworks by which nations operate” and “the norms of restraint that undergird civilization,” Brooks says, “are being threatened in fairly devastating ways.” This is not geopolitical business-as-usual, but a true civilizational crisis.

I don’t say that lightly. Politicians are always burbling how the challenges of the day are somehow unique, but as a student of history, I know better. In my Rational Optimism book I argued that cynics and pessimists lacking true historical perspective don’t grasp the progress we’ve made. But that was 2009, and now in 2014 that progress is really jeopardized.

images-2Brooks casts Putin as playing, in conventional terms, a very weak hand. His country is a shit-hole. “But he is rich in brazenness . . . in his ability to play by the lawlessness of the jungle, so he wants the whole world to operate by jungle rules.” That’s exactly what the world (mostly) had progressed beyond.

Neither Russia’s kleptocracy nor the Islamic State can give their people a modern living standard. Putin substitutes for that the intoxication of militarist swagger; the Islamic State substitutes the intoxication of religious fervor. This Brooks calls “a coalition of the unsuccessful . . . a revolt of the weak.” Unable to play by the normal rules, they seek “to blow up the rule book.” (Thomas Friedman talks of the “world of order” versus “the world of disorder.”)

Thus while Putinism attacks a key principle of modern civilization – no grabbing territory by force – so too does the Islamic State – no imposing religion by force.

As Brooks says, you (well, Obama) might think these atavisms must ultimately fail because they are such ugly responses to human aspirations. “But their weakness is their driving power; they only need to tear things down, and, unconfronted, will do so.”

images-1Put another way – people not squeamish about shooting will beat those who are.

I am tired of hearing the words, “There is no military solution.” Actually, there is. And, contrary to pacifism, there are things worth fighting for.

The Islamic State may indeed be weak, seen objectively; but it thrives on an aura of success. Osama Bin Laden was on to something in saying, “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.” UnknownWhile the West acts like a 97-pound weakling, the Islamic State appears to sweep all before it. That’s what attracts so many, even from the West, to its banner, heightening its seeming strength. This needs to be crushed – militarily.*

Likewise, Putin rides a wave of popularity, seen as avatar of a resurgent Russia making fools of a flabby decadent West. This too needs to be militarily crushed. What are we afraid of? That Russia will nuke us? Putin isn’t that crazy. I far more fear a future in which he did not get his nose bloodied in Ukraine.

Germany and Japan had to be militarily crushed to teach them the lesson that aggression does not pay. They learned it well, and the world is better for that. But it seems the lesson must be applied a few more times before the whole world absorbs it once and for all.

We took 10,000 years to finally achieve a world order where you don’t grab territory or impose religion by force. That is worth fighting to defend. Even pacifists should get this; it’s peace that needs fighting for.

Unknown-1But are Putin and the Islamic State right after all – have we become too flabby and pusillanimous to really defend our values?

* In Iraq. In Syria, let them and Assad’s goons kill each other, for now.

POSTSCRIPT: At today’s NATO summit, for all the bluster, nobody proposed to send Ukraine any military help, not even defensive. And the cease-fire, if it holds, locks in the Russian military gains of the last few weeks — a clear victory for Putin.

Net Neutrality, and Regulation by the Unicorn State

September 3, 2014

images-4Net Neutrality” is a hot issue. It refers to equal service quality for all web-based traffic, against a fear that Internet providers (like Verizon) will allow (or effectively force) some to pay more for faster data delivery, making others second class netizens. So some advocate designating the Internet a “public utility” subject to FCC regulation to enforce net neutrality. This plea is highly seductive.

UnknownSimilar regulation by the Interstate Commerce Commission was imposed on railroads in 1887. No; “imposed” is the wrong word; actually the railroads wanted this, seeing ICC regulation as a tool to protect their market power against upstart competition.

I spent my professional career as a public utility regulator. One of my first cases targeted a small moving company breaking the rules. Its transgression? Prices too low. Were we protecting the public? Certainly not; we were protecting the established moving companies. This is the face of regulation in the real world.

Columnist L. Gordon Crovitz in the 8/18 Wall Street Journal notes that the ICC enforced a kind of “net neutrality” on the railroads: prohibiting “discriminatory” volume discounts or other market-oriented pricing schemes.* Result: a stagnating U.S. rail industry. The ICC was finally abolished in 1995, but the lingering effects of this deadening regulation leave American train service shabby compared to spiffier European or Far East rail systems.

images-1Crovitz also discusses the heavily regulated taxi industry. He quotes the New York City regulator’s website explaining that before it stepped in, the taxi business was a free-for-all with numerous competitors using “underhanded tactics” – like “drastically lowering fares to get more business.” The horror! The horror!

But today, across the globe, the taxi business is being up-ended by innovators like Uber and Lyft giving smartphone-using consumers service better tailored to their needs. And a battle royale is underway between these feisty upstarts and the old regulators (backed by the stodgy old taxi firms) struggling to hobble them. A similar war pits the old hotel industry against newcomers like Airbnb disrupting their business model by providing alternatives more attractive to consumers. This is what economist Joseph Schumpeter famously called “creative destruction” – it’s how an economy progresses – a great virtue of a truly free market.

imagesDo we really want to give the FCC regulatory power to squelch this by enforcing its ideas of service and pricing for the Internet? Or let creativity rip, with businesses free to innovate on services and pricing tailored to a swiftly changing technological landscape, responding to market forces and consumer preferences and needs?

Business-hating lefties think government must keep them on a tight regulatory leash lest abuses occur. And absent regulation they would occur. But I believe the costs and harms to consumers would be simply overwhelmed – overwhelmed – by the benefits in better products and services, lower prices, and greater overall societal wealth, if all regulation were abolished.

Think I’m nuts? Then look at China, where that’s exactly what happened. Since 1978, China’s private sector has been virtually free of regulation. And, yes, abuses have occurred. But meantime average per-capita income has grown 3000% – thirtyfold. I repeat: thirtyfold. (99-percenters take note.)

I wrote recently about an abuse by government, the unjust prosecution of innocent Muslim-Americans on phony “terrorism” charges. I marched in protest with local liberals. But they, I said, are like battered spouses who still profess undying love for their batterers – no matter how much it tramples their ideals, still liberals love government. images-2The same Wall Street Journal issue elsewhere quotes economist Michael Munger: “My friends generally dislike politicians, find democracy messy and distasteful, and object to the brutality and coercive excesses of foreign wars, the war on drugs, and the spying of the NSA. But their solution is, without exception, to expand the power of ‘the State.’ That seems literally insane to me . . . Then I realized they want a kind of unicorn, a State that has the properties, motivations, knowledge and abilities that they can imagine for it. [They] imagine a State different from the one possible in the physical world.”

I just got a call from a car repair business asking if I was “completely satisfied” with their service. I’ve never received such a call from a government agency.

* America’s first federal conviction of a corporation, in 1909, was for a railroad’s crime of cutting prices.

Nude Celebrity Photos

September 2, 2014

Big breaking news! Hacked nude photos of celebrities on the Internet! Holy Cow!

UnknownLike, this is the very first time we’ve ever seen pictures of these actresses WITHOUT THEIR CLOTHES ON! I am shocked, shocked.

The celebrities are indignantly huffing and puffing about the scandalous invasion of their privacy.

Excuse me – these people were not kidnapped, forcibly stripped, and photographed against their will. Hello, this is the 21st century. It’s the friggin’ INTERNET. If you don’t want your nude photos splashed all over the Internet – then don’t let them get anywhere near the Internet. Why, it’s just that simple. But, of course, naïve celebrities can’t be expected to understand such things. (Don’t they hire “people” for that?)

[Nerd note: How many hits will this blog get from folks googling “nude celebrity photos?” I got an unexpected traffic spike on a recent post from people using the search term “head chopped off” or variants thereof.]


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