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Prohibition: dealing death daily

If you read El Diario, the local paper of the city of Juarez--one of the main battlegrounds in the international War on Drugs--you'll see an article every day about people being killed. The articles don't always indicate if the killings are drug-related, but you'd have to be a fool not to think that the bulk of them are. As prohibition-related violence has ratcheted up there in the last few years this has gradually been coming to the attention of the American news media.

I know there's a running tally of these somewhere, but at some point all the thousands just look like a statistic. Think of it this way: at least one person is killed every day in Juarez, and usually several. It was a local news item a while back that no one had been killed that day.

This is what prohibition gets you.


The Genetic Impact of Ancient Sexual Arrangements

Time for a little break from defending and improving upon democracy. The Moldbugosphere enjoys indulging in the politically incorrect, and I have found a doozy for ya’ll. And it should be fun for those interested in alternative sexual arrangements and the economics thereof. Have a look at this article on Evolution in the Bible. Here’s a bit to whet your appetite:

Sex is rather pleasant. The blind, the cripple and the stupid enjoy it too. And so defective genes do propagate to the next generation unless we allow nature to weed them out. Welfare prevents the unpleasant culling, and I salute the process even as I admit the price. Besides, as long as welfare recipients breed at the same rate as taxpayers, we break even. The human race is good enough, no need for nasty eugenics programs.

But are we breaking even?

Hear the tale of two teenage girls, Sally and Ellie. Sally is diligent, studies hard, goes to college, practices safe sex or even abstinence (we need not investigate). After several years building a career like a modern woman should, she meets Mr. Right. They buy a home in the suburbs, and when their finances are finally in order, she manages with difficulty to bear 2.1 children before she gets too old.

Ellie, on the other hand, lives for the day. The teenage years are time to party hardy! And check out Joe Studly, with his snazzy clothes, James Dean stares and that sleek sportscar! Time to get busy while the hormones are hot, and those rubber thingies really kill the romance. Ellie gets big, Joe moves on looking for tight new hotties, and Uncle Sam has a new ward. Ellie’s value on the marriage market goes down considerably, but no problem. Uncle Sam pays the bills, and plenty of handsome hunks with steamy stares are ready to provide sperm donation services in between pregnancies. By the time Sally and Mr. Right are on child 2.1, Ellie is on bastard number 5 with a grandchild on the way.

Old Dr. Darwin says over time we will have more free-spirited Ellies living for the day and more Joe Studlys with great fashion sense and no conscience. After several generations we might run low on taxpayers to fund all those food stamps and housing projects. Then what?

Maybe we shouldn’t worry about it. What constitutes “fit” today may be unfit tomorrow. Maybe we will be hit with a massive plague, so a propensity for rapid breeding will be most critical for human survival. Maybe civilization will collapse, making today’s gang members more fit than today’s doctors, lawyers and dot-com millionaires. Maybe we’ll have GMO humans and designer babies to offset natural selection before too long. Maybe our robot overlords will take over all responsibilities: ambition and intellect will become liabilities; today’s welfare recipients are the prototypes for a brave new tomorrow. Maybe the Second Coming will happen before too many generations, so Christians should focus on charity and ignore genetics.

Or maybe societies with stricter breeding codes will conquer the decadent West, and we’ll all live under Sharia law, bringing us full circle. Don’t laugh; it’s already beginning in France.

The article goes on to point out how the Old Testament Law got around this genetic dilemma. It explains some of the more politically incorrect parts in terms of reconciling welfare system and longterm genetic viability for the Israelites. Might be worthy material for the Antiversity.


Markets and Culture

(I wrote this in response to a professor's complaint on a mailing list about the rampant commercialization of modern culture)

Markets enable coordinated action between anonymous individuals. They are essential for the functioning of large-scale society. But they have popped up rather recently in our evolutionary history so they don't sit well with our subconscious. They feel, well, anonymous and impersonal. As they are.

So in the classroom we organize interaction to look like much older social structures that sit better with our subconscious, namely tribes or extended families. One could imagine the professor as an older hunter, passing along his knowledge of tracking game animals in the forest to the tribe's children. Markets for labor and material are used to make the university function but on the inside it doesn't look that way.

It is considered rude for a boss to influence his employee by reminding him that "I pay your salary", although it would be an accurate statement to make. Politeness requires us to temporarily forget that market forces were often responsible for drawing us together in the first place; we remember only when we get a paycheck or a tuition bill comes due. Even at the checkout line in a grocery store we make small talk with the clerk and inquire after his well-being while the true nature of our interaction is as plain as the money we hand over.

At the risk of sounding Panglossian, this seems pretty optimal. There is wisdom in choosing the correct social structure to apply to any given interaction. Markets enable us to build and run structures like universities, but it would feel wrong if a professor charged students for attending his office hours, or if students paid his salary by handing over a $10 bill at the beginning of every class.

But I do think our innate suspicion of markets may be stronger than what is rational and we sometimes fail to use markets in situations that make sense. I also think we tend to underestimate the good qualities of markets, especially when we harken back to halcyon times when markets figured less prominently in everyday life. Yes, life was more personal then, maybe even happier. But people also had a lot less freedom in how they organized their lives. Freedom is one of the market's two most compelling virtues (the other is economic growth).


Obamacare Countdown

Here's a great post by Keith Hennessey about the ins and outs of what needs to happen for Obamacare to pass in this dirty game called politics.

As of today, Intrade prices the futures for Obamacare passing at 57.


The dark past, the dark present in North Korea

From the Financial Times via North Korean Economy Watch:

North Korea’s harvests cannot feed all its people and in recent years the annual food deficit was about 1m tonnes. People are chronically malnourished and as many as 1m are believed to have died during famine in the 1990s. [Emphases mine.]


What it means to hit rock bottom

Ike Whitaker was once a scholarship athlete playing quarterback for Virginia Tech. Though he showed promise very early in his career, he was eventually kicked off the team for violation of rules. Eventually, the news came out that he had a problem with alcohol. Articles appeared in the press containing feel-good interviews with Ike in which said all the right things about how he was working to get sober, and later Ike was even reinstated on the football team. However, just a short time later, he was once again dismissed, and rumors flowed about his relapse. That was over a year ago.

Ike just made his first public statement since then.

Okay. I’ve been sober now for five months. I hit rock bottom in the fall. I was still in Blacksburg, but I had nothing going on in my life. I wasn’t part of the football team, I wasn’t in class, I didn’t have a job...I was nothing. My life was bad. My life was corrupt. I was drinking every day. I had no money. So, I’m very ashamed to admit this, but it’s part of my recovery to be completely honest with myself and everyone, so, I would steal food where I could find it to have something to eat. There were stretches that I really don’t remember. My alcoholism had completely taken over. I had to drink to function. That’s how bad it was. Much of it is a blur.

I remember that I was ready to end my life. I was a burden to myself and everyone around me. I just felt dark inside. I knew I had to stop drinking, but I couldn’t. So, I decided to just end it. That’s how tough this addiction is. That’s how depressed and sick the alcohol can make you.

I wanted to go and see Coach (John) Ballein one last time because he had been good to me through my toughest times. He never beat around the bush, he was honest with me and hard on me, but I knew he was hard on me because he cared about me and wanted to see me get my life straight. I remember that I had a bag of alcohol, I had been drinking all night and all morning, and that I was in his office. I don’t know exactly what I said to him, but I’m sure it was something to let him know that I was saying goodbye and that I appreciated everything that he ever did for me and that I’m very sorry that I let him and Coach Beamer down.

Well, I never made it out of his office. He told me that I wasn’t going anywhere and that I certainly wasn’t going to hurt myself. He took the bag of alcohol out of my hands and told me that I was coming with him and that we were going to get some help. I thank God for Coach Ballein. He’s truly an angel on earth. Coach Beamer and Coach Ballein gave me chances and I blew every one of them. That’s totally my fault. I’m ashamed that I treated those two good men the way I did. I’m ashamed that I lied to them. I’ll always regret that and I’ve told them that I’m very sorry.

...

Every day is a battle. It’s a battle. As soon as my eyes open in the morning, I drop to my knees and I ask God to give me the strength and courage to get through another day. I just can’t go back to where I was. I can't. I was at a point where I was no longer drinking for the high, I was drinking to just function. I needed alcohol to be able to speak. I needed it to be able to walk to the store. That’s how bad it was. My body couldn’t function without it.

Also, I want people to know that I’m not a bad person. I don’t have an evil heart. I have a good heart. I don’t mistreat people. I’m a loving, caring person. I’ve just been very sick. I’ve been in a battle and I’ve been losing. But now, I’m starting to win that battle.

I didn't believe the earlier interviews. I believe this one. There's nothing feel-good about it. Hitting rock bottom means standing naked before the world with all your imperfections. This is a prerequisite for recovery. Now Ike has a fighting chance.


Dylan Ratigan has an anger problem

It's unbelievable that MSNBC has a host who actually believes that the Tea Party constituents include a significant number of people who say, "I want to kill blacks and Jews and women." What universe is this guy living in?

Once in a while something amazing happens: a person accuses someone else of the very thing they themselves are doing while being oblivious to the fact. Classic example.


Dems go Nuclear

There's been a shift in sentiment over the past week. I thought health care reform was dead, but it has suddenly sprouted wings. Obama is pushing the reconciliation option without actually calling it that. Despite what the pundits said about the Republicans winning the health care summit, I think they lost. The opinion input wasn't pro-Republican; it was anti-Democrat. When America thinks your opponent is being completely unreasonable, you do not give them a chance to appear reasonable. The pundits said that Republicans came across as "reasonable"; what they missed is that Obama came across as reasonable too. That gave new life to reform.

What's interesting now is that the pundits have no idea what's going to happen. Rather, there's no sort of consensus about what's going to happen. Most think there's no chance in hell. Many others, though, are cautiously optimistic. Intrade was at about 30 yesterday and is 55 today.

I wouldn't be surprised if Republicans get completely pwned here.


Ayn Rand’s genius….

…was not in making a philosophy, but in selling it. Can you do as well?

This year’s ThinkOff debate topic is, “Do the wealthy have an obligation to help the poor?” They’re looking for a pool of 750-word essays from which to pick two champions for each side of the proposition for a live debate.

Easy-peasy, right? Here’s the real challenge: The judges ain’t lookin’ for a dry exchange of talking points comparing Objectivism to Rawlsianism. They’re looking for people with COMPELLING PERSONAL STORIES to illustrate their own arguments.

Now, it’s not hard to imagine lots of compelling personal stories from poor (or formerly poor) people about how they benefited from wealth transfers from the rich, or how they didn’t get those transfers and suffered as a result. Can you construct a countervailing compelling personal story for the opposite perspective? And having constructed it, can you think of a champion who could plausibly claim the story as his or her own? Some alternatives:

1. Find a real-life John Galt who is as succinct as Ayn Rand was verbose.

2. Draft Patri. Admittedly, I know nothing of his personal circumstances, although I suspect that everybody’s life story has SOMETHING that could be told. No, I nominate Patri because of his personal commitment to Seasteading movement – action with inherent drama. So we’d need a brief personal anecdote somehow related to the topic, and immediately transition into describing the life of the new frontiersmen. Recreating the story of the Pilgrims but without the Indians. Risking lives, fortunes, sacred honor in pursuit of the ideals of liberty. Hell, it writes itself.

3. As a fall-back position, there are various ways to criticize the “OBLIGATION to help the poor.” While I can’t think of how to mount an appealing attack on the concept of compassion in 750 words, I can drive a wedge between the idea of compassion and the idea of obligation.

A. “People with the discipline to change themselves are laudable – and rare. For most of us, change becomes possible only when we must confront the consequences of our refusal to change. X% of American adults living in poverty do so because of mental illness, chemical addiction, etc. -- circumstances that cannot be solved with money alone. For people with these issues, an entitlement to a stream of resources merely delays the day of reckoning and the possibility of reformation and growth. As the director of Alcoholics Anonymous – and a recovering alcoholic myself – I know the harm that can be done by a misguided sense of obligation….”

B. “As the principle fundraiser for Catholic Charities, the first thing I want to tell parishioners is to stop feeling guilty -- and among Catholics, that’s a hard message to sell! But I repeat, if you feel even the slightest resentment about contributing, please keep your money. That kind of contribution will not only diminish your own life and vitality, it will diminish the welfare of the poor. Today more families than ever are struggling with financial and other stresses. On top of this, they struggle with a sense of inadequacy for coming to us during their hours of need. We don’t want to compound their problems by subjecting them to a free-floating sense of resentment from the rest of society. So Just Say No to obligation. God loves the cheerful giver!”

C. “As a former Klansman, I can tell you that nothing is eroding the foundations of our society more than the widespread sense of resentment felt by people who feel that they’ve been compelled to help the poor. And because a disproportionate number of poor people are also members of ethnic minority groups, this resentment is fueling racism. If we as a society ever want to get serious about our real obligations – that is, our obligations to remedy the harms of racism – then we need to stop stoking resentment against members of minority groups. Don’t be fooled: while the Klan is currently – and blissfully -- in decline, the Tea Party Movement is now expressing this popular frustration more forcefully than ever….”

4. If the link between compassion and obligation is too great to be overcome in 750 words, then the next best position may be to whipsaw the argument: “Yes, the rich have an obligation to help the poor, just as the poor have an obligation to help the rich. We all have an obligation to use our resources for the betterment of society in general. But an obsessive concern with the resources of the rich – that is, with money -- reflects a misguided sense of envy. As the director of the Organ Donor Repository, I’m in a position to observe that people’s feelings about the duty that the rich owe the poor are not generally reciprocated. People who have signed up to donate organs, volunteer for a bone marrow transplant, or even give blood are overwhelmingly upper class. If we’re all in this together, let’s act like it. No more excuses!”

Those are a few ideas that leapt to mind. Whadda you got?

Deadline is April 1, no foolin'.


Celebrity Deathmatch: Mencius vs Hanson

I finally got around to seeing the video of Robin Hanson debating Mencius Moldbug about "futarchy".

As some have remarked, that was one nerdy gathering. I think if I showed up there, some of the attendees would have hid under the table.

Most of the questions in the follow-up session were piss-poor (except, of course, DDF's) showing that nerds aren't always that smart about markets and government. Then again, I'm just one of those young doctors that Hanson believes thinks they know everything.

I agree with Hanson that futarchy should be judged against the status quo, not against some hypothetical ideal.

Getting down to the meat of the argument, I don't think liquid prediction markets can be manipulated to any significant degree. We have examples of prediction markets right now: stock markets and sports betting markets. It's nearly impossible to predictably manipulate the stock market, and the only way to manipulate the sports betting markets is for a player to throw a game, something that's rare enough to be a non-factor.

Can decision markets be manipulated? That was the question at the center of the debate. The example most understandable to me was a decision market on whether or not Steve Jobs should be replaced as Apple's CEO by a chimpanzee. Let's look at that more closely, because I'm not sure I understand the mechanisms that well. Futures used in prediction markets, I understand. But I don't know how a decision market would actually work.

I can't find where exactly in the video Hanson mentions the "called off bets", and I don't feel like watching the whole thing over again, but lets say there are two cash for stock markets, one for keeping Jobs as CEO (symbol: KEEP), and one for replacing Jobs with a chimp (symbol: DUMP).

On a given day, KEEP is worth $15 and DUMP is worth $10. What exactly does this mean? What am I buying? As I understand it, the losing side gets their money back. So if the board sees that the price of KEEP is higher than the price of DUMP at some predetermined time in the future, it keeps Jobs as CEO of Apple, the KEEPers win, the DUMPers get their money back (because that would be the called-off bet). What do the KEEPers win? What's the payoff? Is there something that ties KEEP to AAPL?

I can't have any sort of opinion on whether decision markets can be manipulated because I don't understand how they would actually work. I suspect this was also the case with most of the audience of the debate.