Where the Government's Sandbox Ends

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

With a much-appreciated dash of humor, Walter Williams demolishes a slew of pretenders and their establishment cheerleaders:

There is a condition known as species dysphoria, similar to gender dysphoria. It is a condition in which people think they are animals trapped in human bodies. I've been giving this option some serious thought. I've been thinking of calling myself a springbok trapped in a human body. Some people might argue that I would be in need of psychological treatment. I'd dismiss such a claim as being animalphobic. You might ask, "Williams, why in the world would you want to call yourself a springbok?" I would be doing it for personal gain, just as Rachel Dolezal and Elizabeth Warren benefited by pretending they were of another race. I'd be doing it for tax reasons. I've read a considerable amount of the Internal Revenue Code. It says nothing about wild animals having a federal tax obligation. Were government officials to demand that I, as a springbok, pay taxes, I'd report them to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. [bold added]
Yeah. And Disney Cruises will settle your account with the "faith, hope, and pixie dust" their shows so frequently pitch. It is usually fertile ground for thought to ask oneself why a person (or organization, especially a government) promotes an idea until the moment it threatens to frustrate the acquisition of money.

-- CAV

Five on King vs. Burwell

Monday, June 29, 2015

Over the weekend, I encountered several worthwhile pieces of commentary on the aftermath of the recent Supreme Court decision regarding the Affordable Care Act, variously also known as ObamaCare and SCOTUScare. I'll list them below with brief commentary:

  • In "Worse Than the Supremes: Obamacare Economics", Larry Kudlow, whose title and first paragraph I disagree with, nevertheless provides some excellent economic data on just how bad for American prosperity this law really is. Here's an example:
    University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan argues that Obamacare disincentives will reduce full-time equivalent workers by about 4 million, principally because it phases out health insurance subsidies as worker income increases. In other words, Obamacare is a tax on full-time work. After taxes, people working part time yield more disposable income than they would working full time.

    Mulligan calculates that both explicit and implicit marginal tax rates within Obamacare may rise to nearly 50 percent, as the law discourages those who attempt to climb the ladder of success. National prosperity and economic growth are again the victims. [bold added]
    Kudlow looks at factors like these and low enrollment numbers and forecasts a taxpayer bailout of the program, as if it isn't already costing us enough.
  • Robert Moffitt of the Heritage Foundation argues that the many problems ObamaCare was supposed to address, and which plague the program, are only going to get worse in, "America's Obamacare Nightmare Is Just Beginning". In rebuttal to Barack Obama's pronouncement that the debate is "over", Moffitt says, "In a free society, debate is over only when the people decide it's over."
  • S. E. Cupp makes the interesting argument that last week's ruling actually helped Republicans, politically. In addition to sparing the GOP the need to decide what to do about millions of people losing insurance subsidies:
    Rhetorically, the ruling did Republicans a tremendous favor as well. Republicans running for president would much rather be able to rail against Obamacare than gloat about the loss of health insurance for as many as 8 million Americans.
    This may be, and I have seen a similar argument made for socially conservative Republicans regarding the gay marriage decision, which allows them to say things like, "I am personally opposed, but it's the law of the land." Not having to speak about issues may help Republicans get elected, but a lack of discussion will not aid the cause of liberty. That said, a lack of an undeserved angry backlash against Republicans for a Democrat-created problem could be a fortunate accident.
  • George Will considers the dire implications of the ruling for separation of powers in "Constitutional Overthrow: Roberts' Damaging Obamacare Ruling":
    The most durable damage from Thursday's decision is not the perpetuation of the ACA, which can be undone by what created it -- legislative action. The paramount injury is the court's embrace of a duty to ratify and even facilitate lawless discretion exercised by administrative agencies and the executive branch generally.
    Will concludes that the court has, along with other damage, injured itself with the ruling.
  • Last, but not least, I think the title of a recent post by Amy Peikoff best summarizes the stark contradiction between the Court's biggest two rulings last week: "Homosexuals Can Marry, But Still Can't Control Their Own Healthcare".
The good and bad news is that the incorrect decision, on ObamaCare, will be far easier to correct. The bad news is that it will be up to the Republicans, at least in the near term, to correct it.

-- CAV


Today:  Deleted last sentence.

6-27-15 Hodgepodge

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Call It SCOTUScare?

Via HBL, I learned of the following excerpt from Justice Antonin Scalia's dissenting opinion in King vs. Burwell:

Today's opinion changes the usual rules of statutory interpretation for the sake of the Affordable Care Act. . . . Having transformed two major parts of the law, the Court today has turned its attention to a third. The Act that Congress passed makes tax credits available only on an "Exchange established by the State." This Court, however, concludes that this limitation would prevent the rest of the Act from working as well as hoped. So it rewrites the law to make tax credits available everywhere. We should start calling this law SCOTUScare.
I'm tempted to concur: To call this sloppily-written, unread, not-really-passed "law" "ObamaCare" risks doing too great an honor to a scoundrel who should have been foiled the first time (not counting "passage" by reconciliation), by the very outfit that has now saved it thrice.

Weekend Reading

"... as these avoidances pile up, life can be consumed with irrational fears and become a life not fully lived ..." -- Michael Hurd, in "Irrational Fears + Magical Thinking = Trouble" at The Delaware Wave

"As they spout off, they are admitting, albeit implicitly, that they are not able or willing to figure out what's true anyway, so all that matters is that they look like they know what they're talking about." -- Michael Hurd, in "Those Delightful Contrarian Know-It-Alls" at The Delaware Coast Press

Words Still Mean Things to Some

Scott Holleran comments on a particularly effective example of rational persuasion that made the news recently. Taylor Swift recently published an open letter urging Apple to pay musicians royalties for music its customers obtain from the multimedia giant's newest music service:
... Swift explains that Apple's new Apple Music streaming service precludes payment to artists in the first three months. Swift argues that this is wrong. In a persuasive, simple letter implicitly based on egoism, not altruism, because she predicates the letter on achieving her own values in an explicit expression of magnanimity, Swift makes the case for what amounts to intellectual property rights...
As Holleran implies, a great virtue of Swift's open letter is that it shows rather than tells its intended audience why it should change its mind.

As I said Thursday of another Supreme Court decision, "[T]he real fight for government protection of individual rights is a fight for minds within the voting public and over the long haul, and not in a few isolated court rooms." With the Supreme Court failing us yet again, seeing Taylor Swift winning minds is a much-needed dose of encouragement.

Read the whole thing, and the letter itself (linked within), for that matter.

-- CAV

Friday Four

Friday, June 26, 2015

1. Recounting a brown toad I caught at the park and showed my kids, my four-year-old daughter likened it to "a jumping wood chip", since it "bwended in wif ye wood chips" on the ground of the play area. The description made me laugh, and I saw that she intended it as a joke.

2. As much as I despise racial quotas, on principle as an individual, and through experience, as both victim and unwilling target, I could not help but laugh at the following, from a recent Michelle Malkin column:

"I told Harvard I was an undocumented immigrant," Dario Guerrero bragged in The Washington Post last fall. "They gave me a full scholarship."
Think about this: The geniuses at Harvard offer a scholarship to individuals who have broken the law -- not that I agree with that law -- and implicitly reject normal means of vetting applicants. This is an open invitation for exactly this sort of thing. Not that I condone the fraud, but these elitist fools got exactly what they deserved.

3. I see that David Harsanyi shares my opinions of Rush and of Neil Peart, not to mention my past amusement with how discomfiting they were to rock critics:
... I happen to think Rush's music is terrible. But the critics' aversion to their Objectivist-laden science fiction rock operas was always a point in their favor. Finding out that the drummer, Neil Peart, wrote those grandiose lyrics, and that he was some sort of libertarian, didn't hurt either...
The whole piece is worth a read regarding Peart's apparent 180 on Ayn Rand and Rolling Stone's 180 on Rush.

4. I look forward to installing and using the FlowerChecker app on my phone for plant ID:
"The goal of FlowerChecker was not to make money we did not need. We wanted data. All three of us are postgraduate students and the aim of our service is to examine a hypothesis according to which plants can be recognized automatically. We believe the reason why nobody is doing this right now is only that nobody has enough data. Moreover, we currently cooperate with one of the best specialist in the field of automatic recognition, and I mean worldwide," explains Ondřej Veselý.
The app has, incidentally earned enough money for the three that they had to form a company to keep receiving payments from Google.

-- CAV

A New Way to Fight Regulations?

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Supreme Court has ruled in favor of a raisin grower, finding a New Deal era program unconstitutional in the process.

[Marvin Horne] sued, alleging this scheme violated the 5th Amendment, which says private property may not be taken for public use without just compensation.

The high court agreed in Horne vs. USDA. Although most cases about taking property have involved real estate, the principle applies to raisins as well, the court said.

"The government has a categorical duty to pay just compensation when it takes your car, just as when it takes your home," said Chief Justice John G. Roberts for the court.

Treating a regulatory program as a taking of personal property could prove more broadly significant. [bold added]
The last sentence might perhaps offer some encouragement for anyone facing a legal battle against improper government regulation. That said, the encouragement is limited for a couple of reasons. First, as the report indicates, it is unclear that the Court would "extend the legal principle to cover cases of regulations that don't involve physical taking of property". Second, and more important, the reliance of this case on the Fifth Amendment means that in so far as the "taking" is regarded (rightly or not) as within the proper scope of the government, a case might only affect compensation. On top of that, the Fifth Amendment is already being read to allow for what amounts to a partial, uncompensated taking in the form of regulations that don't "go too far": "[T]he court has said land-use regulations go too far when they deprive the owner of all use of the property."

I see this ruling not so much as a victory for property rights or a great blow against government regulation, as a possible way to fight a few more egregious abuses of government power. Perhaps, in some cases, it could buy time. In any event, as we saw with the ruling that saw the ObamaCare personal mandate upheld as a "tax", the real fight for government protection of individual rights is a fight for minds within the voting public and over the long haul, and not in a few isolated court rooms.

-- CAV

Teaching by Accident

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Gina Barreca writes about "learn[ing] a great deal from those who don't have your best interests at heart". In her case, she remembers two awful teachers from her youth, one of whom directly insulted her:

[S]omething changed. I knew for certain that I could do nothing to make the teacher like me and I stopped trying to get her affection. But I didn't stop trying to get her attention.

I didn't stop raising my hand when I knew the answer and I worked hard to make sure I knew a lot of them. I became effective and defiant without being impolite.

That's served me well.
At first, this article almost managed to make me wish I'd had a couple of rotten teachers like this and the lessons that came with them. But further reflection caused me to realize that, in fact, I'd had at least one terrible teacher. I didn't immediately make the connection because that situation was a little closer to that of Barreca's second teacher. But the realization has helped me realize that I'm learning the same kind of lesson now, long after I could have started profiting from it.

We all have terrible teachers at some point, and many of us will learn from such experiences. Barreca's pain shows us the value of understanding where our emotions come from, but pain isn't the only one. In my case, I could have paid more attention to (among other things) why it seemed odd that this teacher scoffed at my initial motivation level. I ended up learning much less than I should have both about the subject matter and about the amount of work genuine expertise requires. If there is anything one should be jealous of regarding Barreca's experiences, it is her attentiveness to what she felt and why.

-- CAV

Prevention Through Understanding

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A very interesting article titled "The Strange Expertise of Burglars" explores the "flow state" of professional burglars -- how they remain calm enough during break-ins to locate, evaluate, and abscond with valuables.

"In the past, people thought of offenders as impulsive, indiscriminate, opportunistic -- they didn't think they were very clever because they usually aren't well educated," [forensic psychologist Claire Nee] says. And that has been a mistake. Nee has found that burglars have a complex cognitive toolbox of advanced, automatic skills -- much like a chess player or tennis star. If we are to prevent future crimes, we've got to appreciate that expertise.
Our news media do little to disabuse us of the stereotype of criminals as impulsive and even bungling -- and there are many criminals that fit that stereotype. But Nee's findings to the contrary are worth heeding since they lead to measures that can head off burglary, such as making sure windows are closed when we leave home.

Nee also suggests that her findings can help "rehabilitate" criminals. I suspect that Stanton Samenow, author of Inside the Criminal Mind, which I read years ago and highly recommend, might disagree, at least in part. In that book and other work, Samenow considers the basic thinking error that makes a criminal:
["Errors in thinking"] are thought patterns that, in combination with one another, give rise to behavior that harms other people. An example is the criminal's sense of entitlement or sense of ownership. From his perspective, when he enters a room, every object in that location that he desires already belongs to him. He just has to figure out how to take possession of it and conceal it while he makes his getaway.
Samenow elaborates on how criminal thinking affects the process of reforming a criminal later, within the same interview:
The dictionary defines "rehabilitate" as a process of restoring a person or object to an earlier constructive state or condition. Rehabilitating a 19th century mansion entails returning it to its former grandeur. Rehabilitating a stroke victim involves helping her regain functions she previously had. There is nothing to which to "re-habilitate" a criminal. The scope of "habilitation" is larger. It is to help him abandon thinking errors that give rise to criminal conduct, to learn corrective concepts, and implement those concepts so as to live responsibly.
Considering the thoughts of Nee and Samenow taken together, it occurs to me that abandoning the more fundamental errors Samenow focuses on would subsume or obviate some of the remedies Nee suggests, such as teaching criminals to ignore things like open windows. That said, Nee's advice can still help us safeguard against being victimized by passers-by, against whom we might not have the opportunity to apply some of Samenow's advice, such as the following:
Do not make rash decisions to trust people on the basis of first impressions. Personalities reveal themselves over time, often very slowly. If a person asks you to do something that is contrary to your beliefs, trust your instincts and do not get involved. If a sales pitch seems too good to be true, avoid the purchase. Trust your common sense in terms of how you attract attention. Secure valuable possessions, leaving them out of temptation's reach. Do not lend money or possessions to anyone whom you do not know very well. Avoid areas that you know to be unsafe.
Of course, one could argue that leaving a window open is effectively a decision to trust every random passer-by not to break in. However, Nee's consideration of the decision-making process of practiced burglars underscores just what a criminal will take as trust. Such things do not occur to most civilized people.

-- CAV

Stunted by Cynicism

Monday, June 22, 2015

Chronicling our nation's descent into one where the people no longer mind their own business, Lenore Skenazy describes several of the ridiculous consequences -- for the related enterprises of rearing children and growing up -- of precautionary thinking. Among them, we have the following:

There was a case here about three years ago when seven chess players playing outside were fined for ... wait for it ... playing chess. Their chess tables -- concrete ones, placed there by the city -- were deemed too close to the kids, so the men were booted.
This silliness isn't just keeping adults from from participating in activities they enjoy (including teaching children chess): It's interfering with such child antics as visiting kid-oriented stores alone. Read the whole thing, and then consider whether it is any real surprise that a people such as ours find the government snooping at every turn.

-- CAV


Today: Minor corrections and rewording. Changed title.

6-20-15 Hodgepodge

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Drought That Needn't Have Been?

Over at Fast Company is an article that claims that better use of rainfall and treated sewage could easily solve California's water shortage. Here is an example of the "decentralized" measures it suggests:

A dilapidated city park was remodeled with cisterns below, as were medians along broad boulevards that were themselves underwater during heavy rains. The result was a system, using ancient Roman technology, that captures 8,000 acre feet of water each year. That's about twice what the entire city consumes, solving the flooding problem and creating a source of fresh water for thousands of residents. By the way, the investment also gave the city a new park with ball fields and picnic grounds and higher adjacent property values.
It is interesting to consider how widespread such measures might have been without massive, government-encouraged wastefulness. With the article's environmentalist slant comes an unwarranted dismissal of desalination, another obvious solution, but one that government regulation will doubtless impede.

Weekend Reading

"It's a rare friendship that can last a lifetime." -- Michael Hurd, in "Friendships Can Be Seasonal" at The Delaware Wave

"If you respect yourself, you don't need to spend money other than for your own or your loved ones' sake, or maybe a charity or a cause that you value." -- Michael Hurd, in "You Can Buy a Lot of Things, but Not Self-Respect" at The Delaware Coast Press

Thank You, Linus Torvalds!

The following, from a profile on Linux creator Linus Torvalds, causes me to respect the man even more:
The truth is that Torvalds has never really been a man of the people. "It's not that you do open-source because it is somehow morally the right thing to do," he says. "It's because it allows you to do a better job. I find people who think open-source is anti-capitalism to be kind of naive and slightly stupid."

Torvalds's attitude and direct language have left him isolated. The proprietary software clan does not care for him. Nor do parts of the open-source clan, who want a leader more willing to spout religious zeal. Torvalds also has a tendency to be nasty to the followers he does have, peppering Linux forums with foul language and reprimands. "SHUT THE F--- UP!" he wrote to a Linux developer in 2013. "Fix your f---ing 'compliance tool,' because it is obviously broken. And fix your approach to kernel programming." The general reaction to this was: "There goes Linus again." [bold added]
As a proponent of the idea that the moral is the practical, I disagree that choosing to do something because it works well is somehow amoral. That said, given how commonly-accepted the moral-practical dichotomy is (and how many Free/Open Software advocates are leftists), Torvald's attitude is quite understandable. Fewer F-bombs would be nice, too, but his focus of what's important and his refusal to compromise on it really impress me. By the way, I just realized that I have been using Linux as my main operating system for nearly two decades. Thanks again, Mr. Torvalds!

-- CAV

Friday Four

Friday, June 19, 2015

1. Norman Yarvin practices good period-economy in the process of discussing some conventional wisdom about writing:

So if you find yourself breaking sentences apart to follow a rule that sentences should be short, you're doing it wrong; if they can be broken apart without much trouble, they also weren't any trouble for the reader to understand in the first place. It's when you read a sentence, get lost, and have to backtrack to grasp its meaning, that rewriting is indicated.

2. Does software have its own Gresham's Law?
When we look at this from the perspective of the software system itself, Sustrik's Law reminds us that software is subject to a particular kind of entropy, in which well-designed systems with clean interfaces devolve towards big balls of mud...
When I consider Microsoft Word, I think so; when Emacs, I do not. But I'm an oddball who finds the way most people use computers to be tedious.

3. Having a B.S. in mathematics, I understand why mathematicians are hoarding a certain now-defunct brand of chalk:
[W]hat's so great about Hagoromo chalk? I tried doing a little math with it on some chalkboards at UC Berkeley. The first thing you notice is a shiny, clear coating on the outside -- it feels like a thin layer of enamel. That sounds like a minor design element, but it cuts down on the biggest annoyance with chalk: dusty fingers. The chalk is also a tad thicker and sturdier than your typical American sticks. But I'm no chalk connoisseur, and I'll admit any subtler differences eluded me. "It's hard to articulate but when I'm using it, I can feel it's nicer," said [Stanford math profesor Brian] Conrad. "It both flows nicely and it lasts much longer, too."
I hated the dustiness of chalk then and -- as a parent whose kids like messy street chalk -- I hate it now. Hey! maybe that could be a new market for the current owners of the manufacturing process...

4. On a rainy day, my imaginative daughter decided we could play "cats", giving me the opportunity to tell her about the many endearing quirks of felines and remember Jerome in the process. Among the quirks more typical of cats is that they like their chins rubbed. When I told her about this, Pumpkin (and then Little Man, of course) wanted a chin rubbed. This led to two things. Immediately, I learned that both are very ticklish under their chins. And later, my son started occasionally coming up to me, grinning and meowing. My reply to his joke is to goose him under the chin.

-- CAV


Today: Corrected a typo. 

Federalizing Local Tyrannies

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Marc A. Thiessen of the Washington Post warns of the latest assault on property rights to emanate from the Obama Administration. (Incidentally, Thomas Sowell alluded to this in a piece I noted a couple of days ago.)

Under Obama's proposed rule, the federal government will collect massive amounts of data on the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic makeup of thousands of local communities, looking for signs of "disparities by race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, or disability in access to community assets." Then the government will target communities with results it doesn't like and use billions of dollars in federal grant money to bribe or blackmail them into changing their zoning and housing policies.
Actually, Thiessen doesn't call this an assault on property rights, and perhaps that's because he, like so many of us, has grown so used to having numerous small tyrannies telling us what we can and cannot do with our own property. Or perhaps it might be accurate to say that Obama is federalizing numerous small wars against our property rights. In any event, Thiessen's next paragraph suggests another reason:
This is not about blocking housing discrimination, which has been illegal since 1968. It is unlawful for someone to deny you a loan or prevent you from buying a home because of your race, creed or color. Socioeconomic status is -- and ought to be -- another matter. If you want to buy a nice house in the suburbs, you have to be able to afford it. Apparently, Obama thinks that's unfair discrimination by the "holders of capital."
Our past civil rights efforts, which should have ended with making government enforcement of bigotry illegal, unfortunately also rendered moot the right to do business -- or refuse to do so -- with anyone of one's own choosing. This nullification of part of the right of free association has now set the precedent for the government, already derelict in protecting our personal safety, to keep us from pursuing one of the only options left open: Fleeing poorly-governed localities.

-- CAV

P.S. Thiessen seems to agree philosophically with Obama that economic "inequality" is a problem and that the government ought to attempt to "solve" it. I disagree with both of those premises.

Openly Challenging the "Open" "Office"

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Citing "research [that was] in" "37 years ago", an expanding software firm is doing "the exact opposite of what everyone else is doing" by rejecting the "open office" floor plan that is so common today. Interesting to me are the reasons for this choice, which boil down to two aspects of software development: work mode and work flow. Regarding each, Chris Nagele cites the research, as expounded in the book, Peopleware. Here are the respective quotes:

... 30% of the time, people are noise sensitive, and the rest of the time, they are noise generators. Though those working alone are a minority at any given time, it's a mistake to ignore them because they actually do the work during the solitary periods.
For anyone involved in engineering, design, development, writing or similar tasks, flow is a must. These are high-momentum tasks that only go well when you're in flow. Unfortunately, it can't be turned on like a switch, it takes a slow descent into the subject, 15 minutes of more of concentration before the state is locked in. Each time you're interrupted, you require an additional immersion period to get back into flow. During this immersion, you're not really doing work.
I am glad to see someone out there asking questions that are often left unasked regarding work environments. Even if, as one could infer from the post (incorrectly, I think) that the questions were forced by attempting to use an open office, this is is encouraging to see. How many others endure such conditions without considering an alternative, or without at least trying to go against cultural momentum?

-- CAV

Sowell on "Micro-Aggression"

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Thomas Sowell writes a timely column about "microaggression", a notion whose intellectual stature tempts one to call it a fad, but whose results in practice bode ill:

This tactic reaches far beyond academia and far beyond the United States. France's Jean-Paul Sartre has been credited -- if that is the word -- with calling social conditions he didn't like "violence," as a prelude to justifying real violence as a response to those conditions. Sartre's American imitators have used the same verbal tactic to justify ghetto riots.

Word games are just one of the ways of silencing politically incorrect ideas, instead of debating them. Demands that various conservative organizations be forced to reveal the names of their donors are another way of silencing ideas by intimidating people who facilitate the spread of those ideas. Whatever the rationale for wanting those names, the implicit threat is retaliation.

This same tactic was used, decades ago, by Southern segregationists who tried to force black civil rights organizations to reveal the names of their donors, in a situation where retaliation might have included violence as well as economic losses. [bold added]
Sowell has an interesting name for what the notion of "microaggression" leads to in practice: "micro-totalitarianism".

-- CAV

Will GOP Go With Rubio?

Monday, June 15, 2015

I haven't thought much yet about what I would do were the GOP to nominate Marco Rubio for President in the next election, but a couple of columns over the weekend give good reason to suspect that that's what will happen. First, Charles Krauthammer, who I think has a fair read on what the electorate might actually choose, offers the following interesting argument in light of the crowded field:

... Marco Rubio. Good launch, steady follow-up. With his fluency in foreign affairs, he's benefited the most from President Obama's imploding foreign policy. Polls well, but with seven or so within the margin of error, the important question is less "Who do you support?" than "Who could you support?" (measuring general acceptability). Rubio leads all with 74 percent. The New York Times' comical attempts to nail him on driving (four citations in 18 years -- "Arrest that man!") and financial profligacy (a small family fishing boat -- a "dream dinghy," says a friend of mine -- characterized as a "luxury speedboat") only confirm how much the Democrats fear his prospects. [bold added]
This argument is quite similar to one a friend recently offered for why he also thinks, "It'll be Rubio."

This general acceptability will likely combine with leftist smearing such as Krauthammer mentions backfiring -- or lots of conservatives thinking it is -- to contribute to a perception that Rubio also gives the GOP the best chance of defeating Hillary Clinton. A column about the hit jobs/grasping at straws makes this point well:
Most middle-class Americans struggle with debt, get traffic tickets. Many lost money when the subprime mortgage bubble burst. What they take away from these hit pieces is that Marco Rubio is a lot like them.

The smears boosted his fundraising, created sympathy for him among Republicans, making it more likely they'll nominate the person Democrats fear most. The fail has been so epic that MSNBC talk show host Chris Hayes suspects the stories were planted by Mr. Rubio's staff.

Other GOP contenders are green with envy. What can they do, they wonder, to get the Times and Post to smear them? [bold added]
The two arguments put together suggest to me that the nomination is indeed Rubio's to lose.

-- CAV

6-13-15 Hodgepodge

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Out Just in Time, by the Looks of It

In the valedictory post of The Sweden Report, a blogger describes a nation with a ... limited time horizon. Among many other things:

Since there is a delay in the changes in the school system, it is only in recent years the full impact of the knowledge-averse "progressive" school system is starting to be felt. Hard facts are largely irrelevant; the important thing is to sit in a group and discuss things until a consensus is reached. But with no hard facts to base the conclusions on, it becomes an exercise in futility because it's all random assumptions and opinions. As a university-level history student (!) was quoted as saying in newspaper Svenska Dagbladet the other day: "Why would all these dates matter? Who cares in what order things happened?"

That's not exactly fertile soil for creating the researchers and engineers of the future.
The "About" page of the blog sums things up as follows: "As an American citizen currently living in Sweden, I find that the simplistic view [of Sweden as some sort of mixed economy paradise] is rather outdated." I'll forgive the author for saying "outdated" when he should have said "deluded". There was never a time when food and poison could be mixed safely.

Weekend Reading

"[P]ressuring yourself to remember something actually interferes with the recall process." -- Michael Hurd, in "Exercise Your Memory!" at The Delaware Wave

"You don't have to impose yourself on others, but you don't have to fake it, either." -- Michael Hurd, in "Make Your Relationships Real" at The Delaware Coast Press

Zimbabwe to Corner Market on Wallpaper?

I see that Zimbabwe is finally scrapping its hyperinflated currency, for which I long ago calculated an exchange rate in Mardi Gras doubloons:
Bank accounts with balances of up to 175 quadrillion Zimbabwean dollars will be paid [five U.S. Dollars]. Those with balances above 175 quadrillion dollars will be paid at an exchange rate of $1 for 35 quadrillion Zimbabwean dollars.

The highest -- and last -- banknote to be printed by the bank in 2008 was 100tn Zimbabwean dollars. It was not enough to ride a public bus to work for a week.
The story also notes that some Zimbabweans sell notes to tourists.

-- CAV

Friday Four

Friday, June 12, 2015

1. A few days ago, I was about to head out the door without donning a flat cap. I customarily do this during sunny days in the spring and fall, but we were making an evening trip to the mall. My two-year-old son objected, saying, "Hat!" and pointed to the hat rack. I obviously had to comply, and give him a turn wearing it. He also took along his little homburg hat for the trip.

2. On my blogroll, keep an eye out for updates from the blog of the Harry Binswanger Letter. The blog was recently re-launched under the title Value for Value, and now includes a post on "The Dollar and the Gun", about a common equivocation between political power and market power:

You are in a conversation with an acquaintance. The conversation turns to politics. You make it clear you are for capitalism, laissez-faire capitalism. Eloquently, you explain the case for capitalism in terms of man's rights, the banning of physical force, and the limitation of government to the function of protecting individual freedom. It seems clear, simple, unanswerable. But instead of seeing the "light-bulb look" on the face of your acquaintance, you see shock, bewilderment, antagonism. At the first opportunity, he rushes to object:

"But government has to protect helpless consumers from the power wielded by huge multinational corporations." [among other things --ed]
I have long found HBL, formerly The Harry Binswanger List, an invaluable resource. But don't take my word for it. Stop by Value for Value and see for yourself.

3. John Cook tells us of an author whose understanding of economics is self-destructively bad:
Suppose I want to read something by, I don't know, say, Ursula K. Le Guin. I doubt I could find a copy of any of her books, certainly not her less popular books, within 20 miles of my house, and I live in the 4th largest city in the US. There's nothing by her in the closest Barnes and Noble. But I could easy find anything she's ever written on Amazon.
This comes in reply to that author's admonition to boycott Amazon.

4. Bookish Babe has reminded me to consider Aesop's Fables for my children just in time for their birthdays, which are both this month. After looking at a three-star review in Amazon for a children's edition "updated to at least the 20th century", I have mixed feelings about purchasing that particular volume: I'll take advantage of the preview option before I decide. In any event, I have fond memories of the fables and would like to pass that along to my children.

-- CAV

America's Accidental Non-Persons

Thursday, June 11, 2015

I am well aware that government is staffed by error-prone humans: I've been "informed" of tax debts and ended up collecting. Back in the Navy, I "discovered" I was a resident of a state in which I'd never stepped foot -- Nebraska. Those little glitches were caused by a Social Security number (SSN) somewhere in my pay records being off by a single digit. With that episode far from my mind, curiosity recently induced me to click a news link about "What It's Like to Be Declared Dead by the Government". Upon reading the below, my reaction was something like, "Oh, boy!" I guess I'd better bone up...

[Judy] Rivers' plight as a falsely-categorized deceased person is not singular: it is estimated that every year, some 12,200 very much alive U.S. citizens are declared dead by the Social Security Administration due to "keystroke errors." Those affected ... become a walking dead, unable to secure a job, make financial transactions, file taxes, or visit the doctor -- and for months on end, must endure the nightmare of convincing a large bureaucracy that they haven't yet bit the dust. [link dropped, bold added]
Upon reading this and other examples of what the dynamic duo of human error (or power-lust) and decades of popular acquiescence to government meddling can mete out, I'd advise anyone else to do the same. (Should I have mentioned that the Social Security Administration will refuse to make up any missed checks, or that, while you're unable to use your own SSN, identity thieves may well be racking up debt in your name?)

Who ever knew "non-persons" could so easily happen by accident -- and here no less?

-- CAV 

Legal Acts Aren't Civil Disobedience

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A reader, noting my recent post on Charles Murray's anarchic nostrum for restoring individual freedom in America, directed my attention to a sympathetic article, "The Civil Disobedience Charles Murray Wants Has Already Arrived", by Joy Pullmann of The Federalist. I found Pullmann's piece interesting, but want to raise a small point: At least one of her examples, local authorities rejecting federal funds due to the strings attached, is not against the law:

[W]hat we're losing here is far more costly than the mere money we're gaining. A number of states worked out the cost-benefit of NCLB [No Child Left Behind --ed] before it passed, and found it cost them more than it brought them. So we're losing both money and freedom. We're losing money and our dignity. We're sacrificing kids' spirits and futures to bureaucrats who have never taught a child and can't budget their way into the right amount to tip a waiter.
Another, of students sitting out standardized tests, is either not actually illegal or is unenforceable for reasons in addition to those Murray relies on.

While the case for freedom demands more than a mere cost-benefit analysis, Pullmann's focus on Murray risks us losing the real value and significance of what we're seeing here. These are perfectly legal ways to get out from under improper federal regulations. As such, politicians who support limited government can do well to use them to gain breathing room or buy time until more substantive action, such as repeals of -- or court rulings against -- improper laws can take place.

This isn't anarchism: It's part of the correct way to fight back.

-- CAV

A Step Not Far Enough

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

An interesting article at Aeon considers "the double lives of Hasidic atheists". Based on interviews, the piece examines how these individuals reached their conclusions regarding the existence of a deity and where they have gone from there. Credit freedom of speech (as the article ought to have) and the wide availability of modern communications technology for making it easy to question the fundamental tenet of religion:

[T]hey are also proof of the increasing challenges fundamentalist religious groups face in the age of the internet and a globalised world. With so much information so readily available, such groups can no longer rely on physical and intellectual isolation to maintain their boundaries. In addition to exposing religious adherents to information that challenges the hegemony of their belief systems, the internet gives individuals living in restrictive environments an alternative community.
Most interesting to me along these lines was one such atheist's speculation that the medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides was also secretly an atheist. This reminded me of a friend's similar speculation about Thomas Aquinas. Considering how pervasively the lives of fundamentalists and medieval Christians were affected by religion, the latter speculation made much more sense to me after I read this.

That said, the article is better at portraying the social and psychological difficulties these atheists face:
Yanky cut an incongruous figure. A tall ultra-Orthodox man with a short, scruffy beard and short side-locks wrapped behind his ears, wearing traditional Hasidic black-and-white garb, he was sitting on a barstool in an out-of-the-way dive bar in South Brooklyn on a Monday afternoon, sipping a Corona. But Yanky is an incongruous man. Like Solomon, he lives in an Orthodox neighbourhood, has many children who attend yeshivas, goes to synagogue to pray, hosts meals on Sabbath. His life, like the life of any Orthodox Jew, is punctuated a hundred times a day by the small demands the religion makes on its adherents' lifestyle, demands on what they can eat, what they can wear, where they can go, what they can read, whom they can speak to, what they can touch, when they can touch it, and how often.

Somewhat tragically for a person so occupied, Yanky doesn't believe in God.
Why would anyone who rejects the very foundation of so many intrusive rituals subject himself to this? The answer is usually along these lines:
[E]ven for those such as Solomon and Yanky who were educated enough to pursue outside professions, their own psychological states work just as well as any external rules to keep them put. The self-policing mechanism kicked in most strongly through the matchmaking apparatus, the place where status is determined in these communities. A person leaving the community puts a blight on their entire family, stigmatising parents, siblings, children, and even cousins, limiting their ability to marry into "good" families with no such stain.
In other words, despite having broken the greatest of their intellectual bonds, they don't go very far. This is due to the power of unearned guilt and the fact that their "communities" make sure they and their immediate relatives face numerous unpleasant consequences for the sin of speaking their minds. (In the case of women, this often includes being medicated for mental illness.) On some levels, fear of the repercussions is understandable as is the lack of fear for allowing their children to remain in ignorance -- this life is what these men and women know best. But if there is lots of evidence against the teachings of their religion, so their is, all around them, that life without faith is possible. Perhaps such a realization is too much to ask of most people, perhaps not. Whatever the case, the article is more a testament to the power of religion to stunt minds than it is of the Internet to free them.

-- CAV

Whence Profit? Whence Philanthropy?

Monday, June 08, 2015

I can't speak to how much of the "outrage" reported in an article about a proposed garden bridge in London might be due to egalitarianism or envy of the wealthy, although both are plainly at play. That said, we can blame the welfare state for at least some justifiable anger.

Actually, they have pretty good grounds. As Gizmodo's Chris Mills so aptly pointed out back in December, London is in the midst of a critical housing shortage, and its transit system is rapidly aging. This 1,200-foot bridge, which was originally supposed to be paid for with privately-raised funds, will cost roughly $300 million to build -- about $91 million of it from the government.
Everything the government might spend money on listed above -- housing, transit, and recreation -- is beyond its proper scope. The fact that the government has customarily been involved in these areas muddies this issue in two ways. First, the potential involvement of the government in what should be a purely philanthropic or for-profit endeavor becomes all the more galling. Second, it gives the egalitarian/envious aspects of the reaction false legitimacy. Were government limited to its proper scope, a billionaire who wished to open or operate a park in a city would be free to do so -- at his own expense or that of other donors or paying customers. Not one cent would be expropriated from anyone else. The undertaking would injure nobody else and the government would no longer, through other illegitimate behavior, perpetuate the illusion that the undertaking is somehow depriving anyone of what he deserves or needs.

-- CAV

6-6-15 Hodgepodge

Saturday, June 06, 2015

Sign of the Times

Here's an example of advanced technology made possible through freedom -- in the service of the primitive, incorrect, and immoral idea of collective ownership:

California's Placer County Water Agency has two new smart phone apps, launched last October. One is a shower timer, which converts time in shower to gallons of water used.

The second, sure to be more discussed, allows people to report water wasters. [bold added]
I have already presented my thoughts on the propriety of government ownership and control of utility companies. To this I will add that, despite the purportedly educational nature of this app, the older, nearly-forgotten capitalist method of charging higher prices for scarcer commodities would have obviated the need for such "education".

Weekend Reading

"In theory, a computer could sense and respond to ... problems more quickly than a human, without hesitation, doubt, or panic -- provided it is programmed with the appropriate treatment algorithms." -- Paul Hsieh, in "Would You Trust a Computer to Knock You Out?" at Forbes

"A big impediment to living in the moment is what mental health professionals sometimes call 'irrational perfectionism'" -- Michael Hurd, in "Help! Everything Is Stressful!" at The Delaware Wave

"In weighing this concept, here are three questions to ask yourself..." -- Peter Schwartz, in "Are You Selfish? Why You Should Be Proud to Answer 'Yes'" at Quick and Dirty Tips

"From a psychological point of view, nobody can advocate or condemn divorce across-the-board except in cases of outright abuse or neglect." -- Michael Hurd, in "Kids and Divorce" at The Delaware Coast Press

In More Detail

The Schwartz piece links to an excerpt from his new book, In Defense of Selfishness.

Cluelessly "Defending" Bees

Via Clarissa's Blog, I ran across a thorough response (Scroll down.), by a beekeeper, to a self-congratulatory vegan who preened about the virtue of abstaining from honey since he objects to beekeeping (Note: I disagree with the notion that beekeeping has to be "organic", and I have no ethical problem with killing animals in and of itself.):
And do you know the best way to help make sure the bees survive?

Keep them. ... And here’s a secret about beekeeping; you inspect the hives whether or not you take honey, to make sure the bees are healthy and doing well. (There are mites and diseases that can severely harm bees, and even as an organic beekeeper who doesn’t use chemicals on her girls there are methods I use to prevent/treat things like varroa mite infestation that can kill an otherwise healthy hive).

And yes, when you open a hive to inspect it, you might crush one or two bees. But tell me, honestly, that you’ve never killed an insect. Bees themselves will kill sick/non productive members of the hive to ensure the health of the hive as a whole; I don’t see how my accidentally squishing one to ensure the health of the other 50,000 is any different.
This and more culminates in the beekeeper informing the vegan that his whole diet would be impossible without beekeeping. Enjoy.

-- CAV

Friday Four

Friday, June 05, 2015

1. Last Sunday, I enjoyed seeing Arsenal dismantle Aston Villa 4-0 to win the English FA Cup for the second year running. The result means that Arsenal is the most successful club in the world's oldest soccer tournament, with twelve wins. In addition, Manager Arsene Wenger is himself now tied for first among managers with six wins.

2. Given that I first quaffed Ayinger Celebrator in my Houston days, and perhaps even before I started blogging, this beer recommendation might seem ... belated. Beer Advocate rates it world-class, but I like the commercial description supplied at RateBeer:
Celebrator has a creamy head of tight bubbles contrasting beautifully with its profound dark robe. It is full-bodied and velvety from half a year's aging. Although it is strong, it is not overpowering. There is a wonderful and complex balance between the various malts, the alcohol and the subtle hops. A complex fruitiness of roasted malt and whole hop flowers make Celebrator great as a party drink with friends and family at celebrations. Despite its richness, it has a faintly smoky dryness in the finish.
Chalk up the delay in part to my not having had it in so long: When I spotted it at my local beer emporium, I purchased a bottle out of nostalgia. I was floored by how good it really is, and glad that pleasant memories from an earlier time prodded me to become reacquainted with something my then-less-educated palate didn't fully appreciate at the time.

3. A cute commercial by Nationwide, featuring a huge baby made an appearance at the end of a cartoon show my daughter likes. Being a parent of a two- and a four-year-old is a recipe for distraction, so I wasn't clear at the time that the baby was supposed to be a car, but I thought I did okay explaining why there was a baby when Pumpkin asked.
It's a joke, sweetie. Babies don't really know what they're doing, so a parent has to work hard to make sure they don't hurt themselves or other people, or break anything. It's an ad for insurance. If an accident happens, it can cost lots of money to fix, but of you pay for insurance, they can pay for you if that happens.
I was less impressed with my off-the-cuff explanation of insurance than the fact I was having such a conversation with someone who didn't even exist four years ago.

4. I enjoyed seeing San Andreas with Mrs. Van Horn on a date night last week. The movie was good for what it was, and I found that Scott Holleran's review left me with a realistic level of expectation:
The uncomplicated San Andreas from Warner Bros.' New Line Cinema is not really about the big one, the fault line, the seismology or the typical disaster movie themes of enlightenment through trauma, trial and error. It's about rescuing one's values at the end of the world.
As a couple, we are the opposite of stereotype in that she likes the action movies and, if either of us could be described as "artsy-fartsy", I would be the one. For movies, if I don't have a clear first choice, I do what I did when we picked out wedding gifts: I ask her to winnow the field down to a few acceptable candidates, then I pick from among those. With movies, I usually draw on the opinions of a small group of reviewers and friends whose opinions I respect to make my final selection.

-- CAV

Stephen King on Writing

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Writing advice from Stephen King made the Internet rounds recently, and I think it's worth passing along to my readers. In "Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully - in Ten Minutes", King introduces his topic twice. (To see why he does this, you'll have to follow the link.) His second introduction ends as follows:

I am going to tell you these things again because often people will only listen -- really listen -- to someone who makes a lot of money doing the thing he's talking about. This is sad but true. And I told you the story above not to make myself sound like a character out of a Horatio Alger novel but to make a point: I saw, I listened, and I learned. Until that day in John Gould's little office, I had been writing first drafts of stories which might run 2,500 words. The second drafts were apt to run 3,300 words. Following that day, my 2,500-word first drafts became 2,200-word second drafts. And two years after that, I sold the first one.

So here it is, with all the bark stripped off. It'll take ten minutes to read, and you can apply it right away ... if you listen.
King goes on to elaborate on the twelve points listed below:
  1. Be talented.
  2. Be neat.
  3. Be self-critical.
  4. Remove every extraneous word.
  5. Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft.
  6. Write to entertain.
  7. Ask yourself frequently, "Am I having fun?"
  8. How to Evaluate Criticism
  9. Observe all rules for proper submission.
  10. An agent? Forget it. For now.
  11. If it's bad, kill it.
As King indicates, much of this is common advice, although his advice on not consulting references bears special consideration in this day and age, when most of us write with the Internet a click or a glance away. (He wrote this in the late 1980s.) In addition, think his advice on knowing markets is particularly relevant to anyone who blogs, and might be used to a self-selecting readership.

-- CAV

Why Was Hastert Targeted?

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

A political opponent of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert notes a few small details that seem to have been missing from the headlines lately. The gist of the news coverage is that Hastert is under fire for paying hush money to a former student he is rumored to have sexually abused. Whatever the truth behind these rumors, Bill Press notes a few disturbing facts about the investigative and judicial proceedings. Among them, they don't seem to have been motivated in the first place by these alleged misdeeds:

[I]f that student still felt harmed, so many years later, why didn't he go to the police instead of going to Hastert and hitting him up for hush money? And why hasn't he been charged with extortion?

Remember, Hastert hasn't been charged with sexual abuse. He's been charged with "structuring" -- taking out multiple bank withdrawals to avoid federal reporting requirements on large transactions -- and then lying to the FBI about it. Ironically, the law against structuring is part of the Patriot Act, which Hastert helped get through Congress.

But even that begs the question: As long as it's his own money -- and nobody's accused Hastert of stealing -- why's it any business of the FBI whether he leaves it in the bank or not?

In an interview, James E. Barz, former assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago, where the Hastert charges were filed, told me the "structuring" statute was designed for cases involving drug dealers or terrorism suspects. If they couldn't be caught committing the actual crime, prosecutors could nab them for trading in large sums of mystery money. But, says Barz, if it's a case of somebody taking his or her own money out of the bank to settle a private civil case, "one could legitimately question: Where's the federal crime?"

"At this point," Barz added, "we don't know the full story, but it could be after being contacted by the bank about larger withdrawals, Hastert started withdrawing smaller sums, not to hide criminal activity from the government but to hide it from his family, which wouldn't be criminal." [bold added]
The very real possibility that a non-crime is being used or can be used so easily to target someone for his political views should give anyone pause, regardless of his political philosophy or the truth of the other accusations against Dennis Hastert.

-- CAV

Where Would Einstein Work?

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Some time ago, after a call from a recruiter that was so over the top it reminded me of Phil Hendrie, I ran into the following bit of career advice from Albert Einstein:

If I would be a young man again and had to decide how to make my living, I would not try to become a scientist or scholar or teacher. I would rather choose to be a plumber or a peddler, in the hope to find that modest degree of independence still available under present circumstances.
Amen. (And pardon me for indulging in something of a rant. The rest of this post is based more on impressions than hard data...)

It seems that employers in thinking occupations uniformly expect an inordinate amount of time and energy from potential hires. (I have a guess as to why.) It's almost as if sleeping at night, spending time with one's children, or even giving one's mind a rest from work every few days somehow constitute cheating them out of what is rightfully theirs. From this recruiter, I got the distinct impression that admitting to a hobby or two would be a deal-breaker in an interview. I chose not to work with him.

-- CAV

P.S.: Regarding hobbies, the main benefit to the employer is a well-rested and better-rounded employee. That said, I fondly recall a time that I once applied my home brewing knowledge to a purchasing decision for my lab and saved my boss most of the price of a potential purchase.

Brazenness, Torts, and Lyme

Monday, June 01, 2015

A news story, explaining "Why Your Dog Can Get Vaccinated Against Lyme Disease and You Can't", correctly attributes the cause to "societal and cultural reasons, not scientific reasons":

Introduced in 1998, the vaccine sold well at first. But then opponents spoke out: self-described "vaccine victims" -- perhaps similar to people today who claim the MMR vaccine causes autism. Back then, they said that the Lyme vaccine gave them arthritis.

"And this sort of got into popular lore," [Vaccinologist Gregory] Poland recalls. "It got on the Internet. There were a number of East Coast lawyers who started putting together class-action lawsuits. There were anti-vaccine advocacy groups that were formed."

And there were threats against the scientists who had worked to help protect people against the disease. Poland had to hide where he lived. [Physician Allen] Steere got a security detail.

The clinical data did not back up any of this. The trials had not shown such side effects. The Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control looked into the claims, and then continued to recommended that people exposed to tick-infested areas get the vaccine.

But it was too late. Sales had plummeted. Four years after offering people immunity against Lyme, SmithKline Beecham stopped making the vaccine. The second vaccine-maker, Pasteur Mérieux Connaught, saw what had happened and never put out its own product. [bold added, other format edits]
In a fully free society, an individual who wanted to avail himself of a vaccine against a disease known to cause pain, memory impairment, and other neurological problems, could do so, based on his own judgement and at his own risk.

By contrast, we have a situation where scientists and drug producers live under direct and indirect threats to life, limb, and property. The obvious need for tort reform and the curtailment of both governmental abuse and dereliction stem from a regressive culture. This culture is contemptuous of evidence and unashamed of the initiation of force against others, be it motivated by parasitism or fear. That lack of shame comes in part from better men saying nothing.

The belief that government can protect us from reality (such as by holding manufacturers liable beyond reasonable limits) or ourselves (such as by pretending to relieve us of all risk) is unleashing the worst among us, and is, among other things, subjecting us to plagues like Lyme disease.

-- CAV