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Inside view and outside view

At Overcoming Bias, Robin Hanson writes:

Instead of watching fireworks on July 4, I did 1500 piece jigsaw puzzle of fireworks, my first jigsaw in at least ten years. Several times I had the strong impression that I had carefully eliminated every possible place a piece could go, or every possible piece that could go in a place. I was very tempted to conclude that many pieces were missing, or that the box had extra pieces from another puzzle. This wasn't impossible - the puzzle was an open box a relative had done before. And the alternative seemed humiliating.

But I allowed a very different part of my mind, using different considerations, to overrule this judgment; so many extra or missing pieces seemed unlikely. And in the end there was only one missing and no extra pieces. I recall a similar experience when I was learning to program. I would carefully check my program and find no errors, and then when my program wouldn't run I was tempted to suspect compiler or hardware errors. Of course the problem was almost always my fault.

According to Robin Hanson, these illustrate the distinction between the inside and the outside view. To explain this distinction, he quotes "Kahneman and Lovallo's classic '93 paper":

Two distinct modes of forecasting were applied to the same problem in this incident. The inside view of the problem is the one that all participants adopted. An inside view forecast is generated by focusing on the case at hand, by considering the plan and the obstacles to its completion, by constructing scenarios of future progress, and by extrapolating current trends. The outside view is the one that the curriculum expert was encouraged to adopt. It essentially ignores the details of the case at hand, and involves no attempt at detailed forecasting of the future history of he project. Instead, it focuses on the statistics of a class of cases chosen to be similar in relevant respects to the present one. The case at hand is also compared to other members of the class, in an attempt to assess its position in the distribution of outcomes for the class. ...

If we consider the programming example, at least part of what seems to be happening is one or both of two things:

1) We are slightly overconfident about the individual statements of the program. That is, we should be 99% sure about each step but we erroneously overestimate the probability of success as 100%. It is a slight overestimate but it adds up. If your program has 100 lines of code, then if you estimate the probability of the correctness of each statement as 100% then you will estimate the probability of the correctness of the whole as 100%; but if you had more realistically estimated each statement as only having a 99% probability of correctness, then you might then have concluded that the program had a significantly lower than 100% probability of being correct.

2) We fail to do the math. Even if we correctly estimate the probability that each statement is correct, we fail to combine the probabilities when estimating the probability that the whole is correct. For example, if the correctness of each of two statements is unrelated to the correctness of the other, and if each one has a 99% probability of being correct, then the two statements only have about a 98% probability of (both) being correct. All it takes is one bad statement to make a program incorrect, so if a program has 100 or 1000 statements then even if each statement is almost certainly correct considered by itself, then the whole could very well have a high probability of being incorrect.

Anyway, this seems to be part of the reason that the "inside view" is error-prone. We are slightly overconfident about each step, and/or we fail to do the math when estimating the probability that all our steps together are right.

Something like this may also apply to the jigsaw puzzle. Some pieces are easier to place than others, and the ones that are easier to place are the ones that are placed first, and the ones that are harder to place are the ones that are placed last. If we take this into consideration, then it should not be surprising that the last pieces left over are very hard to place. We may make at least two errors here. First, we may erroneously assume that all the pieces are equally easy to place. We may fail to consider that there is a range of difficulty. Second, we may underestimate the average difficulty by basing our estimate on the earlier pieces that we placed.

Compounding this problem is that we may not really know what the difficulty distribution is. Estimating the difficulty of placing a valid puzzle piece near the end may be hard to do not only because the math is hard, but because we don't have enough empirical data from which to draw an estimate.

One question which these considerations raise is, what exactly is the relevant distinction between an "outside view" and an "inside view"? Is the relevant distinction that the "outside view" considers the situation as a whole? Or is the relevant distinction that the "outside view" assigns probabilities and does the math? These are two distinctions, and they seem to be combined into one distinction. Consider the description of the outside view:

It essentially ignores the details of the case at hand, and involves no attempt at detailed forecasting of the future history of he project. Instead, it focuses on the statistics of a class of cases chosen to be similar in relevant respects to the present one.

There are two elements to this description. One element is that the details are ignored and the situation is considered as a whole. Another element is that the whole is considered as a member of a class and statistical reasoning is applied to the class. One could, however, as I pointed out, pay attention to the details but consider the details as members of classes and apply statistical reasoning to those - combining one aspect of the outside view with one aspect of the inside view - and still produce a correct estimate of uncertainty.

We might want to break the distinction apart into two distinctions (or even three). One distinction concerns what level of detail the matter is considered at. Another distinction concerns whether uncertainty is recognized and statistics are applied or swept under the rug. The second distinction breaks apart into recognizing uncertainty, and applying statistical reasoning.

Why, by the way, should we ever sweep statistics under the rug? I think the obvious answer is: it takes time and effort to estimate uncertainty and apply statistics to something, and in some cases it's just not worth the effort. What may be happening here is that when we consider matters in detail we err on the side of sweeping uncertainty and statistical reasoning under the rug.


Is trust really all that important?

Point and counterpoint.

Point: Trust is economically important

Imagine going to the corner store to buy a carton of milk, only to find that the refrigerator is locked. When you've persuaded the shopkeeper to retrieve the milk, you then end up arguing over whether you're going to hand the money over first, or whether he is going to hand over the milk. Finally you manage to arrange an elaborate simultaneous exchange. A little taste of life in a world without trust--now imagine trying to arrange a mortgage.

Being able to trust people might seem like a pleasant luxury, but economists are starting to believe that it's rather more important than that. Trust is about more than whether you can leave your house unlocked; it is responsible for the difference between the richest countries and the poorest.

Counterpoint: Trust may not be all that economically important

How would busy people in bustling cities react when confronted with seemingly abandoned cell phones? Would their instinct be to help, to ignore -- or to play finders, keepers.

To get the answer, reporters in 32 countries where Reader's Digest is published "lost" 30 phones apiece in those countries' most populous cities.

[...]

The highest-ranking city happened to be the smallest: Ljubljana, Slovenia. Twenty-nine of 30 phones were returned in this picture-postcard city in the foothills of the Alps, home to just 267,000 people

[...]

On the low end of the spectrum, Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur, and Hong Kong tied for the worst performance.

Going by this result, which is admittedly highly specific but nevertheless suggestive of a low general level of trustworthiness, Hong Kong seems to be a pretty rotten performer in the trust department. If trust were all that important, I would have imagined that Hong Kong would not be the symbol of economic success that it is. Furthermore, re-examining the Forbes excerpt, the level of distrust described in the example seems to be extreme. It makes the point of course: if there is no trust at all then transaction costs can be insurmountable. But what if there is some trust? What is the difference between a typical "highly distrusting/untrustworthy" society and a typical "highly trusting/trustworthy" society? How are transaction costs impacted by typical variations in the level of trust between societies? Hong Kong seems to manage to avoid being an economic basket case despite so miserably failing the cell phone test.

 


The working rich

Today even the rich make money by the sweat of their brow.

[T]he share of top incomes coming from capital is much lower now than it has been historically. According to Emmanuel Saez, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, for the richest Americans — those in the top 0.01 percent of the distribution — the percentage of income derived from capital fell to 25 percent in 2004 from 70 percent in 1929.

If your image of the typical rich person is someone who collects interest and dividend checks and spends long afternoons relaxing on his yacht, you are decades out of date. The leisure class has been replaced by the working rich.

(via Instapundit)


Re: sinners and saints

Replying to: Sinners and Saints

The accusation that market proponents are 'religious' is a non-argument which is, sadly, apparently somewhat persuasive to the sufficiently gullible. But setting that aside, I find it unsettling that economists are often leading the charge against markets and freedom. Here are some possible explanations of it.

  1. The case for markets is not really all that strong.
  2. It is strong, but people are managing to get degreed in economics without actually getting it.
  3. There is such a strong anti-market bias in people that years of study is not enough to cure them of it.
  4. The economics profession has relatively little salable value except as avisors to the state, and therefore the profession itself can never completely cure itself of a self-interested statist bias. Selection at work: economists who tell the state to go to hell are replaced with economists with something more "interesting" to say.

Snuff wrong sex baby and try again - legally!

Now, apparently, it can be done.

Mail-order blood-testing kits that can determine the sex of a fetus early in
pregnancy may be used for more than getting a jumpstart on deciding
whether to paint the nursery pink or blue, says a doctors group.

The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada says the
results of the early tests could be used by parents to decide whether
to continue the pregnancy or abort the fetus solely based on its gender.

This could in effect legalize gendercide and create a gender imbalance, with the problems that brings. Prostitution, onanism, and homosexuality may still save the day.

 


American and Canadian health care compared by patients who know both

Summary: America pluses are quality and speed, minuses are cost and connection to work.

Here is a comparison by Americans living in Canada who are presumably famliar with both American and Canadian health care systems, one of which is slightly more socialistic than the other, both of which are heavily shaped by government intrusion. There are obvious problems with this kind of comparison; this is only one of the most meaningful comparisons that I have seen, which is saying little.

Americans living in Canada prefer the U.S. health-care
system for speed, quality and diagnostic technology, says a new study.
But they also applaud the equity and cost-effectiveness of Canada's
system. And in the final analysis, 40 per cent prefer the Canadian
system. [...]

Overall, the Americans said they preferred the U.S. system for emergency,
specialist, hospital and diagnostic services, and said they preferred
the timeliness and quality of the American system. [...]

In all, 260 [out of 310 total] of the Americans identified wait times as the most significant negative feature of the Canadian system, while 192 identified quality
of care as the most positive feature of the U.S. system.

In all, 196 of the Americans said cost efficiency was the best thing about the
Canadian system, while 223 said cost inefficiency was the worst thing
about the U.S. system. [...]

Meanwhile, 32 per cent also noted that while they lived in the U.S., health
insurance concerns affected their decisions about where to look for a
job, and 29 per cent said it influenced decisions about whether to
remain at a workplace.


Rule of law versus rule of men

Horrendous injustice.

The other students at the party took that deal and some of them are out of prison by now. Because Wilson thought he would be acquitted and did not want to be branded a child molester, he went to trial. The prosecutor blames Wilson for his sentence because none of the other defendants insisted on a trial; all the others “took their medicine.”

Please make note of the prosecutor's arrogance in that last remark.

In the immediate term a plea bargain may seem like a good deal from the defendant's point of view - after all, it is up to the defendant to accept or reject an offered plea bargain - but there are some problems in the longer term.

First, if the law is just, then the plea bargain is unjustly lenient - an immediate injustice arising from plea bargains. Turn this around: in an atmosphere of plea bargains, there is pressure to increase the severity of the punishment to compensate for the leniency of plea bargains.

It also allows unjust laws to appear and to persist without creating political difficulty because the plea bargain can reduce the injustice resulting from the unjust law - reduce it wherever it is politically expedient to do so (but keep the injustice fully in place wherever the prosecutor sees no real danger of a public outcry or other inconvenience).

(Edit: However, I would guess that the plea bargain is more a symptom of and expedient palliative for problems with law and the legal process resulting from external causes than itself the primary source of those problems.)

The unjust laws and the harsh punishments in turn will drive more defendants into the arms of the plea-bargain-offering prosecutor, and so a system of justice, characterized by courts, is gradually replaced by a system of prosecutorial authority, characterized by plea bargains offered at the discretion of prosecutors to defendants under threat of excessive punishment for having broken unjust laws.

So the effect is to corrupt the law itself and to shift decisive authority from the judge (who must judge according to the law and must defend his decision in detail in a way that can withstand review) to the prosecutor (who does not have those requirements placed on him), replacing the rule of law with the rule of men.

But the more I think about his case and the more I read about his case, the more I think prosecutors have a duty to make sure they don’t take cases to trial that they can win, when the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.

The writer is asking the prosecutor to rule justly. The very request implicitly acknowledges the rule of the prosecutor just as it explicitly acknowledges that the law itself has become corrupted. But as humanity has long known, if men were sufficiently virtuous to rule justly, then the rule of law would be unnecessary. The request that the rulers rule justly is as futile now as it always was. What is needed is not moral exhortation of the rulers as the writer attempts, but due process backed up by checks and balances - what is needed is the rule of law.

Power corrupts. It makes a man arrogant. The unjust use of prosecutorial discretion which the writer is complaining about, and the arrogance with which it was defended by the prosecutor (who called his exercise of power "medicine" and blamed the defendant for not "taking" it), illustrates this all over again.

The prosecutor's proper role is adversarial. The person who must decide justly is neither the prosecutor nor the defendant, but the judge. If the prosecutor is asked to decide justly, he is being asked to act as a judge. That would be fine if he acted under the same constraints that the judge acts under. But of course if he did that, then he would be judge and someone else would be prosecutor.


Market bad, government worse

In lieu of original content, here are a couple of good recent articles by Ilya Somin over at The Volokh Conspiracy.

Political Ignorance and Libertarian Paternalism

If government policy is subject to democratic control, the key question is whether people are more irrational and ill-informed when they act as consumers than when they act as voters. [...] few consumers are likely to be as ignorant of the basic characteristics of the products they buy as the 70 percent of eligible voters unaware of the very existence of President Bush's medicare prescription drug plan, the largest and most expensive new government program voters have "bought" over the last 40 years.

Power to the Experts! - A Solution to the Problem of Political Ignorance?

Voters' choice of experts is just as likely to be compromised by rational ignorance and rational irrationality as any other electoral decision. [...]

Of course the experts could instead be chosen by nondemocratic means and insulated from political pressure. Yet, in the absence of democratic control, it will be difficult to ensure that the experts are actually serving the interests of the people as opposed to their own. [...]

[...] government coercion deprives the consumer of the right to make the final decision. If I hire an expert in the market, I retain the right to reject his advice and pursuing a different course of action. This is a vitally important option.


Theories of terrorism

Reprisal theory: They kill us because we killed them. Proof: look, we killed them. Doesn't take a genius to figure this out.

Aggression theory: They would kill us whether or not we killed them. Proof: look at all their targets - not just big bad US. Notice all the hot spots (Sudan, Indonesia, etc.). Threats against non-Muslim artists and writers. See Religion theory. See Shark theory. See Theater theory.

Synthesis theory: They would kill us whether or not we killed them, but they kill us more because we killed them. Proof: see Reprisal theory and Aggression theory.

Shark theory: They smell blood in the water. It is our weakness that attracts them. Proof: Their rhetoric, our obvious lack of resolve. It would not be the first time someone was attacked because he was weak.

Religion theory: Their interpretation of jihad instructs them to attack us because we are nonbelievers. Proof: Their rhetoric. Their many religious explanations of what they are doing and why. Their violent attacks on apostates, disrespectful nonbelievers, Christian schoolgirls, Buddhists, Muslims of the wrong sect, Jews, etc.

Theater theory: They attack us primarily to impress other Muslims and gain power, adherents, and influence within and outside the Middle East. Proof: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse” (Osama bin Laden). This is often the effect (see attack on Israel from Lebanon); it is not unreasonable to suppose it was part of the motivation.

[updates] Clausewitz theory: Governments encourage, protect, and fund terrorism to achieve cold political purposes. Politics by other means. To attack and distract and weaken enemies with deniability, to deflect attention of restive subjects.

Die Hard theory: It's really for money. Terrorists receive ransom in various forms. So do governments.


Why we tip

"We" being Americans (and any other culture with tipping).

At Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen discusses tipping.

The best way to understand tipping is to go to a restaurant you will never patronize again. Once your meal is over, when she is not looking, leave your tip not on your table but rather on another table she served. That way she still gets her money and you have in no way ripped her off.

That is psychologically tough to do. You fear the waitress will think you are a lout and a deadbeat. Of course in no-tipping countries, or for that matter non-tipping sectors, this dilemma does not arise.

The real question is why America is structured so that waiters and waitresses can sell feel-good services ("you are a generous tipper and a fine man") to strangers, in return for money.

Tipping could have evolved gradually. To begin with, many customers may have wanted to give something extra, and the servers had no objections. Initially, this tip may have been above and beyond what was expected. Restaurant owners may have encouraged it, meanwhile offering the possibility of tips to potential employees as a fair exchange for a lower wage. If tipping happened to become common enough, it may have become expected, a positive reaction to the tipper being replaced gradually by a negative reaction to the non-tipper. This may have caused customers to feel pressured to tip, and then this may have snowballed. An element of voluntariness remains, but it is dominated by a strong sense of expectation (e.g. a fear of being thought a deadbeat).

The institution of tipping in effect divides one service provider into (almost) two. The customer almost pays separately for two services rather than for one (to be more precise, he separately pays for a portion of server's income). This economic separation effectively makes the server into a semi-independent business entity who has, to an incomplete but substantial degree, both the freedom and the responsibility to decide what to do to ensure a revenue stream, much as any independent business entity would. This, to an incomplete but substantial degree, frees the restaurant owner to focus on the remainder of the business.

We could, however, ask why the tip is treated even now as a voluntary (if strongly expected) payment. This may be to deal with an information asymmetry. The customer knows nothing about the server initially but knows everything he needs to know at the end of the meal. A treatment of tipping as mandatory may be prevented from developing by a reluctance on the part of customers to obligate themselves to pay for an unknown quantity. Additionally, a separate but still mandatory server fee does not have much meaning if the customer is not able to choose his server, and in most cases he is not (though the causality may go both ways here: since tipping is voluntary then there is less dependence on competition between servers and so less pressure to allow the customer to choose his server). Therefore, if the economic division between restaurant and server is to arise, it may need to be through a treatment of tipping as voluntary rather than mandatory.

The practice of treating the tip as voluntary if strongly expected may be the element that is most constrained by culture, because it depends on the degree to which customers' behavior can be influenced by strong expectation. It may be that Americans are especially responsive to the fear that they may be thought a lout and a deadbeat by a server. This willingness to pay someone we may never see again in order that they not think ill of us might arguably be classified as an irrational element of the American character - i.e., we're suckers. However, in the setting of the restaurant this arguable irrationality leads to an economically defensible outcome, because the server is still being paid for his service and is not being overpaid (the market ensures this). The customer really is a sucker, but because the market compensates for tips by reducing the cost of his meal, he's really not being ripped off.

Tyler Cowen concludes:

I view tipping as correlated with effective fundraising in other areas, and Americans as being especially willing to set this additional fundraising arena in motion.

I'm not sure what he's getting at, though a comparison with (other) fundrasing sounds intriguing.


Killing your own child is genetic suicide

And that's okay

Somebody else's suicide is none of my business. Somebody else's child is none of my business either. If a child wants to defend itself against its parent by hiring protection, that is its business, but not really my concern. This ability/willingness/decision to effectively protect itself against its parent might in some future society mark the distinction between childhood and adulthood.

We need to punish people who murder non-family-members, because if we were to fail to implement that law, then natural selection would eventually produce a breed of human that felt no compunction about killing other humans outside of their family.

In contrast, we as a society (and especially we as individuals considering what to do about strangers killing their own children) do not have a need to punish people who murder their own children, because if we were to fail to implement that law, then natural selection would nevertheless keep down the number of people who murdered their own children. While I might need to worry about my own parents, that's my business - thanks but no thanks, I don't need your help. If it gets bad, I'll take care of my problems with Mom and Dad.

The instinctive horror that you and I and everyone have about murdering our own children once born is the basis of the massive distinction that we make between the baby that we do not see (i.e. before birth) and the baby that we see (after birth). Our instincts are evidently keyed to the visual stimulus of the baby. This is why pro-life groups believe that showing photographs of aborted babies is effective. Indeed, it is somewhat effective in getting a response because the dismembered corpses of unborn infants look like infants who are victims of horrifying murder (and some number of pro-lifers may have been persuaded by such images).

But this horror itself is instinct, and that instinct arose no doubt through natural selection. The very existence of this instinct keeps down the practical problem of people killing their own children. (Which is, of course, really their own problem to begin with, genetically speaking.)

We have, curiously, discovered a loophole in our instincts: we are horrified by killing our born children (presumably because of the visual and tactile and olfactory stimuli that they provide, which normally creates a parent-child bond about as strong as what has held the Golden Gate Bridge together), and so rare is the parent (other than a desperate parent) who kills his or her own infant child. However, the same logic of natural selection, one might think, would dictate that we should be extremely reluctant to abort an unborn fetus. The loophole is that for the most part we cannot get any stimuli from the unborn fetus that would attach us to the fetus, and so many of us feel very little reluctance to kill these little infants of ours whom we have not yet seen or touched or smelled.

Significantly, the fetus starts visibly bulging the mother's belly at around three or four months, which, curious coincidence, is also about when we stop aborting our unborn children. The baby having made its existence unmistakably seen and felt, is now rather safer than before, though not entirely out of the woods.


Evil is real - an argument for

From a comment:

I can conduct an objective study on whether beating your children causes them to be more likely to commit violent crimes, and to conduct it in such a way that people can objectively judge the evidence I give.

You say you can conduct an objective study about violent crimes. A crime is an evil act. It would appear, then, that you can conduct an objective study on whether beating your children causes them to be more likely to commit violent evil acts.

I have been down this path so I will anticipate the most frequent sort of objection and answer it. The most likely objection is that one can define "crime" as "act which is against the law", and "law" can be in turn defined as whatever the state says it is.

But if this were all there really were to crime, then it would mean that the results of the study would be valid only relative to the state under which the study was conducted. It could not be generalized beyond the state, nor could it even be generalized beyond the moment, as laws may change. It would be of almost no interest at all. It would be almost as senseless as an objective study of whether beating your children causes them to share Barack Obama's musical preferences (whatever those might be - I have no idea). Obama's musical preferences are of course subjective, specific to him, at most shared by only some other people. It would be odd to conduct an objective study that has as one of its key measures, something subjective (Obama's preferences). Of course technically there is an objective fact about what Obama's preferences are, but nevertheless it would be odd to conduct that study. And similarly, it would be odd to conduct a study about whether beating your children causes them to commit violent crimes - if violent crimes are merely whatever the state says they are and nothing more than that.

Briefly: the study that you describe makes sense because violent crime is what it is independently of what the government says. It is, in other words, an objective category of action. But what is crime if crime is not merely whatever the state says it is?

Crime is evil.

So you can conduct an objective study of evil.

I do not know how to conduct a study to show whether beating your children is "immoral" that would yield a similar kind of evidence.

But you are not being fair at all here. The two studies are not at all parallel. Do you know how to conduct a study to show at what point beating begins, along the continuum of possible contact? How fast must the hand be going in order for contact to constitute a beating? Can you conduct a scientific study to discover this? One that does not merely study the concept of beating, the limits of what people consider to be beating? That would be merely a linguistic study. And similarly, the study that you propose would be a merely conceptual, linguistic study.

I've been down this road, so I'll anticipate and answer an objection. "Now wait a second", someone might object. "If morality is merely a linguistic and conceptual question of what people consider to be moral, then doesn't that show that morality isn't objective? "

To answer, morality is "merely" a question of what people consider to be moral, in the same sense that a beating is "merely" a question of what people consider to be a beating. And yet you were ready to conduct a scientific investigation of beating. If "beating" were merely an arbitrary category that just happens to exist in English for whatever reason, then, for reasons I outlined above, it would be of scant interest to study it scientifically.

It is of general and lasting interest to study beatings because "beating" is a natural category. It is for language to adapt itself to natural categories, and not to arbitrarily create them. And similarly, crime is a natural category. Which is why it is interesting to study crime.

By the way I've supplied you with a rule of thumb in discovering whether a category is a natural category. I pointed out that it is of general and lasting interest to study the effects of beatings because "beating" is a natural category. That gives you at least one method to distinguish natural categories from other categories.


Global War on Terror - sympathize with Matt but kinda disagree

Yeah, it's really hard to tell whether the GWOT making things better or worse. But for much of the twentieth century it was really hard to tell whether capitalism was doing better than communism.

The persistance of this disagreement should be setting off alarm bells no matter where on the spectrum you find yourself: If we can't even come to anything remotely resembling a broad consensus

Capitalism versus Communism

Even smart guys like Samuelson were fooled. From an account:

In very early editions, Samuelson expressed skepticism of socialist entral planning: "Our mixed free enterprise system ... with all its faults, has given the world a century of progress such as an actual socialized order--might find it impossible to equal" (1:604; 4:782). But with the fifth edition (1961), although expressing some skepticism statistics, he stated that economists "seem to agree that her recent growth rates have been considerably greater than ours as a percentage per year," though less than West Germany, Japan, Italy and France. (5:829). The fifth through eleventh editions showed a graph indicating the gap between the United States and the USSR narrowing and possibly even disappearing (for example, 5:830). The twelfth edition replaced the graph with a table declaring that between 1928 and 1983, the Soviet Union had grown at a remarkable 4.9 percent annual growth rate, higher than did the United States, the United Kingdom, or even Germany and Japan (12:776). By the thirteenth edition (1989), Samuelson and Nordhaus declared, "the Soviet economy is proof that, contrary to what many skeptics had earlier believed, a socialist command economy can function and even thrive" (13:837). Samuelson and Nordhaus were not alone in their optimistic views about Soviet central planning; other popular textbooks were also generous in their descriptions of economic life under communism prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The superiority of capitalism to communism is one of the most important realities that it would be civilizational suicide to ignore, and yet for much of the twentieth century, among the smartest people there were sharply conflicting views. In fact if one could say that intelligentsia had "come to anything remotely resembling a broad consensus", it was the wrong consensus.

Surely it's uncontroversial to say that if we must spend money, it should be spent on projects where we can easily tell if they're having the desired effect or not.

We spent money checking Communist expansionism, which protected capitalism. And yet, as we can see, it was not easy to tell if capitalism was superior to communism. And so it was not easy to tell if we were making things worse or better for ourselves by keeping the communists at bay.

The bad news is that, empirically, it's really hard to tell much of anything at all about the wide world, because it is just too complex. So what do you do? You think. You carefully combine a lot of observation and a lot of thought. And that, of course, is not enough to create consensus, for a variety of reasons. Adam Smith saw the world, he thought hard, he came to some (presumably we agree) mostly correct conclusions. But he did not create anything like a broad and lasting consensus - not enough to keep Samuelson from being bamboozled by communist propaganda (I presume that's what got him fooled).

The same can be said of war. When you start a war, it's not at all clear whether you'll win. I'm looking for a saying on war, it goes something like, "a successful war is a series of catastrophes followed by victory". That is, it looks just like you're losing until you win.

That is almost necessarily the case: if there were a clear consensus on which side will win, the losing side would quickly cave. War keeps going about as long as each side thinks it has a decent chance of winning. But in that case, it also probably looks as though the other side has a decent chance of winning.

So I would say that it is in the nature of war that it's commonly not clear which side is winning. Not clear whether your side's efforts are weakening your own side or the other side faster.

Another saying that I can't find, but goes something like, "both sides f-- up constantly, and who wins depends on which side f--s up the least." That more or less dulls even the criticism that our war on terror is utterly f--d up. (I'm not saying you should agree with a saying - I'm just trying to give vague credit where credit is due, though I can't actually trace the origins. I think these thoughts just seem intuitively right, I think war must be like this, it must be SNAFU and then you win.)

I'm not trying to defend the war. I am just saying the issue is harder than it looks.


Hate crimes?

Discussion at Agoraphilia.

Quoting from the Chicago Tribune:

The simplest answer to this is that when hatred for a particular group or class or race is the obvious motive for an attack, that attack becomes, in effect, two crimes. The first is the offense itself. The second is the implicit threat that offense makes to other members of that group, class or race.

Intimidation is already a crime, with or without hate crime law. Threatening someone is already an offense. So if hate crime law represents an improvement, it must be because it addresses a form of intimidation that is otherwise ignored in law. Presumably that is intimidation of a "group, class, or race". That is, it is diffuse intimidation directed against a group of people rather than a single person, against which there is presumably no law prior to hate crime law.

This makes hate crime law look like an attempt to address a public goods problem.

However, hate crimes are not in any way unique here. A criminal is a menace not only to his immediate victim but to everyone in the neighborhood, and when he is caught everyone breathes a sigh of relief. A mugger not only harms his immediate victim, but harms everyone else by making them afraid to go out at night.

It is nevertheless usually deemed "enough" to nab the criminal for the particular crime. The mugger, once caught, is tried for a particular crime, and then, if he is convicted, he is put away, making the whole neighborhood that much safer for everyone. There's a positive externality in defending yourself against a criminal, which might lead to an undersupply of defense against criminals.

In any case the public goods problem of defending against crime seems to be a general problem with crime and not a problem specific to hate crime.

Hate crimes, it is worth remembering, are first of all crimes, even if we ignore the element of hate. So there is already some defense against hate crimes: they can be prosecuted as regular crimes. If there is a problem, it is not that there is no defense against hate crimes, but only that there is an undersupply of defense against hate crimes. But as I mentioned before, much the same thing could be said of ordinary crime, because ordinary crime victimizes - via a diffuse intimidation - a lot more people than just the immediate victim.


Sarkozy - We take what we can get

Chances were about nil that France would elect a non-statist. Anyway, the big news from France that I personally have been shocked and troubled by was the Muslim riots that were apparently followed up for the next year by a daily burning of an average of 112 cars. The riots started on October 27 2005, and one year later, on October 21 2006 the Times reported:

The figures are stark. An average of 112 cars a day have been torched across France so far this year and there have been 15 attacks a day on police and emergency services. Nearly 3,000 police officers have been injured in clashes this year. Officers have been badly injured in four ambushes in the Paris outskirts since September. Some police talk of open war with youths who are bent on more than vandalism.

“The thing that has changed over the past month is that they now want to kill us,” said Bruno Beschizza, the leader of Synergie, a union to which 40 per cent of officers belong. Action Police, a hardline union, said: “We are in a civil war, orchestrated by radical Islamists.”

Even more troubling are the related phenomenon of the no-go areas. The Times article mentions these without explaining them (presumably because their readers are assumed to already know all about them):

Nicolas Sarkozy, the Interior Minister who hopes to win the presidency next May, has once again taken the offensive, staging raids on the no-go areas and promising no mercy for the thugs who reign there.

Notice the mention of Sarkozy. I'm getting to that. But right now what strikes my attention is the mention of these "no-go areas". When I Google it I get the following description:

An increasingly commonly thing in European cities is the no-go zone. These are places where the police, medical rescue crews, and other government agents will not venture into. The areas are viewed as just too violent and/or risky to enforce rules. Following the rules of ungoverned spaces, anarchy does not reign for long. A group will enforce their own rule set and the no-go zone will become a microstate.

In France no-go zones are referred to as Zones Urbaines Sensibles (Sensitive Urban Zones). Approximately 12 percent of all French in France live in a Sensitive Urban Zone (5 million out of approximately 60 million French)! Some of the zones are governed under Islamic Sharia law. From these no-go zones Islamic militants are waging guerrilla warfare against French police.

That is from a blog, with the usual warnings on credibility; however, the page it cites is in French, so I am quoting the blog.

Anyway, I think that the reason for the high turnout and the support for Sarkozy is that the French are probably about a thousand times as alarmed by this as I am, since they have to live with it.