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Personal Effect of Government Shutdown

In the news recently, there have been talks of possible government shutdowns at the State and National level if a budget is not passed by the deadline.

How would a government shutdown affect you? Would you even notice if the government shut down for a short time? Who would be most affected by government shutdown?

Anybody from California - You had some budget issues recently, could you share how it actually affected you?


Steal the Alien's iPhone

I recently came across this clip of Neil deGrasse Tyson discussing the (lack of) evidence for UFOs.


The Seasteading Institute Conference

I just finalized my plans. Anyone else going?

Keep an eye out for a tall thin guy with blonde curls. If you see him, tell him you read his blog and say hi.


The US System of Justice

If the US System of Justice were imposed on the country by a foreign power, it should be viewed as an act of war.

First reform -

No prosecutor who serves more than 60 days shall ever be eligible for further public office, whether elected or appointed. Nor shall he be allowed to be involved in politics in any way whatsoever, either during or after his term of service.

Regards, Don


If You're a Libertarian, How Come Everyone Else Is So Wrong ?

Timothy Sandefur gives the standard libertarian response to the view that in the 19th Century, the U.S. was a deregulated laissez-faire free-market capitalist utopia, leading to the emergence of robber barons and other undesireables, in need of much restraint by government. Writes Sandefur, in response to a prompt from a reader,

It's not "[historical] revisionism," accurately speaking, because that is the prevailing interpretation. But I believe it is wrong, politically biased, and reflects economic and historical ignorance.

I agree entirely with Sandefur's analysis. But this presents a problem. If the prevailing interpretation is wrong, that makes the libertarian interpretation a case of historical revisionism. And historical revisionism is a dangerous place to be.

There are two possibilities that immediately spring to mind when faced with political disagreement. Those who disagree with you must be evil or stupid.

There are lots of problems with this way of thinking, as laid out by Loren Lomasky in "Libertarianism as if (the other 99% of) People Mattered." (This paper really needs to be put online in HTML form, or at least a complete .PDF)

David Friedman offers a possible explanation here:

I have been arguing politics for a long time. In arguing with people on the left, I find it is very hard to come to an agreement on the assumed facts surrounding the situations we are judging. My imaginary capitalist has capital because he worked hard clearing part of the boundless forest while his employee to be was being lazy and living on what he could gather--so it is entirely just that the capitalist gets part of the output of his land and his employee's labor. But the leftist doesn't like that hypothetical. His imaginary capitalist inherited his capital from a father who stole it. I don't like that hypothetical. I conclude that our moral intuitions are similar enough so that the same assumed facts push both of us in the same direction--and since we want to go in opposite directions we want so assume different facts.

Yet, I remained puzzled, especially by something which appears like it should be fairly straightforward: the economic history of the 19th century. Shouldn't these facts be relatively easy to establish? Who are the culprits here? The economic historians? The legal historians? The regular historians?

And if the prevailing interpretation of history on this subject is wrong, why is it wrong? How did it get to be wrong? Was it always wrong? Why hasn't it been fixed yet? Are libertarian historians just not doing a good enough job letting other historians know about their discoveries? Or are non-libertarian historians actively resisting the truth? If so, why? Political bias?

Consistent political bias among professional historians strong enough to keep the revisionist truth from getting out there and replacing mainstream myth sounds awfully like a conspiracy theory to me. And I don't like conspiracy theories. As I wrote a while back,

The academic study of cults and conspiracy theories has interested me for a while, primarily because, when traveling in political circles considered slightly out of the mainstream, you tend to run into cranks who embrace other minority viewpoints, not so much out of any reasoned deliberation, but precisely because those viewpoints are shared by only a small (and [self]-assumed priveledged) segment of the population. I've been reading Syracuse poly sci professor Michael Barkun's book on the subject, A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America, in which he attempts to explain why groups as seemingly distant from each other as UFO believers, Christian millennialists, and right-wing conspiracy theorists have becomes linked, with many believers in each distinct conspiracy theory cross-pollinating with other conspiracy theorists outside their original domain. Barkun argues that stigmitized knowledge is often accepted as true by conspiracy theorists just by virtue of it being stigmatized. Stigmitized knowledge, as Barkun defines it, means "claims to truth that the claiments regard as verified despite the marginalization of those claims by the institutions that conventionally distinguish between knowledge and error - universities, communities of scientific researchers, and the like." Barkun goes on to explain the various mechanisms by which this process occurs - put simply, conspiracy theories all rest, not only on the stigmatized knowledge claims themselves, but on the common and necessary belief that this knowledge became stigmatized for a reason, by a self-interested or otherwise nefarious organization or group of organizations in control of the orthodoxy.

Has the whole world gone crazy? Am I the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules? Mark it zero!


In Defense of Democracy

In perusing the Seasteading Institute’s website, I came across a blog ecosystem challenging democracy (including democratic republicanism). Interesting stuff, but I find the suggested alternatives – monarchy, dictatorship, colonialism – to be rather unsettling. At times these systems do work better than democracy, but their failure modes can be most catastrophic. Indeed, even in equilibrium such governments can be very unpleasant. I’ll take W. Bush or Barack Obama over a shogun or pharaoh any time.

Democracy is not great, but it is not horrible. Democracy is mediocrity – by definition. At least, democracy represents the median when it works. Actual implementations can diverge from the median, sometimes catastrophically. But these are not failures of democracy per se; these are failures of particular implementations. Many implementations of democracy could use some serious reengineering. Even the U.S. system could use significant fixes, though it is more stable than most parliamentary forms.

In a deeply divided society, however, the median has little support. In such cases tribal anarchy, empire, or a redrawing of boundaries might be preferable to countrywide democracy. Such are not the conditions in the United States nor in most other First World countries. To suggest a “reboot” or “reaction” is typical libertarian wishful thinking, in the tradition of Atlas Shrugging or the unmasking of the Rockefeller/Rothschild axis. (Seasteading and Free State migration are considerably more realistic options.)

Given that at least one writer on this website has taken part in this attack on democracy, I decided to join this community in order to enter the discussion. For this is a very interesting discussion, much more so than the eternal quibbles among LP partisans. Mencius Moldbug, in particular, is a most entertaining writer.

So, let us consider some of the failure modes of democracy:

  1. The masses vote themselves a free lunch.
  2. Special interests vote for special privileges.
  3. The civil service becomes independent of its democratically elected bosses.
  4. The elected chief executive uses his executive powers to become tyrant. (Huey Long, innumerable El Presidentes.)
  5. Warring tribes use the democratic central government to smash rivals.
  6. The dominant religious faction uses the government to persecute rival religions.
  7. A radical faction (Nazi, communist) seizes control using the democratic process to get a foothold.
  8. Losing factions give up on the process and start a civil war. (U.S. Confederacy, and the near breakdown after the Florida recount.)
  9. Rotation in office results in a churning, contradictory legal system. (U.S. tax code.)
  10. Vote buying results in perpetual deficits, eventually bankrupting the government. (Our current looming crisis.)
  11. Two-party systems lead to one-dimensional thinking. (Particularly bad in the U.S.)

Most of these problems can be fixed – incrementally. We can get there from here; no reboot necessary.

Of course, “there” is not libertarian paradise. Democracy is mediocrity. But mediocre government is good enough to live a good life. And if the laws are relatively stable, the people can adapt to the laws, even bad laws.

And for those willing to work for something better, there is always separation. If the median is libertarian, then even democracy will result in a libertarian government. But to achieve such separation, it still behooves freedom lovers to make the U.S. government less bad. Currently, it is broke and aggressive, unlikely to tolerate seasteads or free states.

To this end, I will address possible fixes in future posts.


Shomer F*cking Negiah

Gene Callahan finds this Jonathan Rosenblum column in the Jerusalem Post to be "a great demolition of one of Randy Cohen's shallow and utterly conventional bits of 'ethical' analysis." While I don't disagree with Gene's "general impression...that Cohen equates ethics with 'what will make you liked at a Manhattan cocktail party'", in this particular case, Randy Cohen is correct that the Orthodox Jewish prohibition of Negiah is sexist.

Full disclosure: I was raised as an Orthodox Jew from birth, and adhered to this particular prohibition against physical contact between genders (with some notable exceptions) until adulthood, when I became a raving atheist with an axe to grind.

Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry on Negiah references a listserve post written by my parents' former Rabbi, Michael Broyde, discussing this very same Randy Cohen controversy. (I say former because he has since stepped down from his clergy position to focus on his academic position as law professor at Emory, though he is still considered an ordained Orthodox Rabbi.) Broyde agrees that "in the case discussed by Cohen, the values of gender equality and of religious freedom are in conflict." Broyde asks us to consider the following hypothetical:

Imagine a person who came to your house to paint your house, and at the end of the deal [he agreed to paint your house for $2,000, and you agreed to pay him] he turned to you and said "Thank you for the work, and when it is over, I will give you a bill". You stuck out your hand to shake (finalizing the deal, according to social convention), and he looked at you and said, "I am sorry, but I am Christian, and I do not shake the hands of Jews."

Would you continue to hire this person as a painter? I think the answer is "no" -- I certainly would not. While a person has religious freedom to do anything they want privately, others have the right to be insulted, and refuse to do business with you. Now I know that you will scream out that my case is different, but deep down inside, I at least do not see how it is different TO A PERSON WHO IS DEEPLY MORALLY COMITTED TO GENDER EQUALITY.

Cohen's analogy to "separate but equal" racial segregation apologetics is spot on, as should be obvious from this paragraph by Rosenblum:

By contrast, the agent made no statement, either implicit or explicit, showing any disrespect for the letter writer in particular or women in general. Strictly observant Jewish women also do not touch men so the prohibition clearly does not confer "untouchable" status on one sex or another. Rather it proscribes physical contact between sexes equally.

This is separate but equal logic. It's like the claim that "it's not racist to say that whites shouldn't date blacks, so long as the prohibition is reciprocally enforced, and the speaker also agrees that blacks shouldn't date whites."

Orthodox Judaism (and, I suspect, many other fundamentalist religions) has a built in ratchet effect of progressively increasing social conservativism, with each additional stringency acting as a barrier against the potential violation of a previous stringency.

An example of this tendency from Rosenblum's article:

True, shaking hands is a pretty innocuous form of contact, and for that reason some Orthodox religious authorities permit shaking hands in the business context. But the same claim of innocuousness is made for kissing and hugging in many circles. Rather than stepping on to a slippery slope and leaving the matter to subjective determinations about the erotic content of any particular act, many Orthodox Jews choose to simply avoid any physical contact.

So while some modern Orthodox Jews follow a sort of NAP principle with regard to shaking opposite-gender hands - don't initiate the hand shake, but do reciprocate if a hand shake is offered so as not the embarrass the other person - some of the more stringent Orthodox Jews "take extreme measures to avoid even accidental contact, such as refusal to sit next to a member of the opposite sex on a bus, airplane, or other similar seating situation."

What does this amount to in practice? In Israel, gender-segregated busing, where (of course) women are expected to sit in the back of the bus, men in the front.

As the Wikipedia entry explains, the original prohibition is derived from two verses in Leviticus:

"Any man shall not approach his close relative to uncover nakedness; I am God" (18:6), and: "You shall not approach a woman in her time of unclean separation, to uncover her nakedness" (18:19).

Notice that both of these phrasings are gendered, though they are interpreted rabbinically to apply to both men and women. Of course, God found it necessary to write "His" scriptures as if the reader "He" is addressing is necessarily male. And God similarly shares with "His" male audience a strange (for a deity) disgust of female menstruation, and the spiritual uncleanliness it entails.

To see that Rosenblum is engaging in post-hoc apologetics, in a failed attempt to make fundamentalist Orthodox Judaism seem more palatable to modern sensibilities, consider this abortion of logic:

A ban on touching acknowledges the natural physical attraction between men and women and serves as a warning. Those who observe the ban convey the message that "the erotic element is excluded from our relationship." Far from showing a lack of "dignity and respect" for those of the opposite gender, observance of the ban reflects a determination to treat members of the opposite sex with the utmost respect – i.e., as everything but objects of sexual desire.

Orthodox Judaism, of course, does not look too kindly on homosexuality, yet men are allowed to touch each other in non-sexual ways, presumably because Orthodox Judaism denies any "natural" physical attraction between men, and thus no message need be sent between two men that "the erotic element is excluded from our relationship." Yet the very act (through a non-act) of sending a message, the need that a message be sent, is a glaring reminder to both parties that the erotic element is very much present, and must be actively ignored, lest wanton acts of seed spilling and other forms of licentiousness ensue.

All of this conveniently ignores the fact that a handshake is not considered in any way erotic in modern society. A handshake between two men in a business deal is considered a form of respect, and since homosexuality is presumed to be unnatural, the issue doesn't even arise that men need to treat other men "as everything but objects of sexual desire."

Randy Cohen is indeed a terrible ethicist, as Jacob Levy demonstrated a decade ago, but in this particular case Cohen is on the side of the (imaginary) angels.

In (mostly) unrelated news, Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog recently appeared at the Chabad Telethon:

Notice the gender-segregated seating in the audience, and the lack of women on stage - ostensibly for reasons of "modesty".


Virtual Worlds and the DMCA

Well, it seems that the metaverse is all a-twitter about how Linden Labs, the coding authority behind Second Life, is being sued under the DMCA... but I've heard nary a peep of this case in the usual cyberlibertarian circles yet. I guess the underlying reason may be that this seems like a pretty typical application of that law once one looks past the novelty of the "virtual worlds" element to it: Service providers have to respond to takedown notices by IP holders, and not doing so can get you sued. Voila.

An analysis of the case's legal merits can be found on the Second Life Herald, but I find it disappointingly superficial. Firstly, I highly doubt that a reading of the ToS which implies that individuals completely surrender their copyright protections in Second Life when they upload content would be enforceable. Secondly, even if this were the case, one would have to interpret the infringement by third parties as having been licensed by Linden Labs, which seems like quite a stretch. Third, it wouldn't address the issue of trademark infringement, which is an important part of the lawsuit overall.

I imagine that this dispute will be resolved by Linden Labs agreeing to take a more active role in dealing with knockoff goods in Second Life. The main question is how costly this will end up being, and how those costs will be passed along to Second Life's users. One could actually imagine a trademark registry being relatively simple to add to the client... for example, if a user trademarks a term, it'll appear in a special font when they use it or make an object that uses it, and the font will indicate authenticity. Registration fees could cover the review process and maybe even a little extra. I won't claim that this issue is a no-brainer to resolve (I'd be very surprised if this ideal hasn't been discussed before), but I doubt that Linden Labs has any real interest in allowing for massive trademark infringement to run rampant. Maybe my simple solution wouldn't satisfy trademark-holders, but the nice thing about being able to implement rules and institutions at the code layer is that they can be very costly to circumvent.

As a tangential note, I'm consistently amazed at how issues of virtual world economics will induce even tech-savvy individuals to express disbelief in the notion that virtual goods can have real monetary value to people. It's a stark reminder that subjective value theory really, really runs contrary to the intuitions of most people.


Be careful what you endogenize...

I'll admit upfront to only having a passing and most likely superficial familiarity with the issues explored by the transhumanist community. But as I was (metaphorically) thumbing through the latest issue of H+ magazine, I was struck by how... constrained many of the articles are. Futurology is a notably (and often comically) imprecise "science", and it's easy to be blind to the ways which technological developments will fundamentally transform the issues we face - which tends to lead to comparably absurd extrapolations of current trends into the indefinite future. Some believes that the shift from extensive (Malthusian) to intensive economic growth that began in roughly the 19th century is a temporary blessing which will be reversed by the advent of cheaply-replicable silicon brains.

This might strike one as intuitively undesirable, but not an absurd possibility if brain emulation or general artificial intelligence becomes sufficiently advanced to seriously blur the general distinction between labor and capital. But what strikes me as odd about many of the writers from H+ - and again, maybe this isn't representative of transhumanists in general - is what they want to keep constant in their arguments. Oftentimes there's a clear hedonist tendency to act as if technology will simply make it easier for us to achieve our desires, rather than actually shaping and redefining our desires. This isn't merely to say that the cultural changes which accompany technological growth will change the particulars of what we want, but that the broad nature of our appetites will become an endogenous variable that can be shaped by technology. Who says we'll seek pleasure, as it's currently understood, let alone particular avenues to pleasure such as sex, or "fun", or a satisfaction of our current set of appetites? It seems likely that there would be selection pressures which would favor beings with motivations geared towards self-replication - and in the future, the optimal set of motivations might not be very recognizable as "human" in either their attitudes or underlying architecture. These beings wouldn't be as arbitrary as paperclip maximizers, but I think it's easy to see how inhuman a person who was solely focused on self-replication would strike us as (assuming we could see past the personable attitudes which he would instrumentally employ.) To borrow the jargon of Tyler Cowen, expanding - or innovating, rather - neurodiversity and being able to select over cognitive profiles would have a transformative effect on social evolution, and I'd venture to say that our highly limited abilities to do so are a necessary condition of our being able to construct an ideal of what is "human."

Are transhumanists blind to this possibility - nay, likelihood? I doubt it, and I'm sure I'm beating someone's dead horse here. But if so, at least this post touches on the problematic esotericism (is that a word?) which seems to exist in some circles. In the end, I think the possible desirability of moving beyond the human condition deserves discussions and debate, and I have to wonder whether transhumanists purposely avoid this for PR reasons. Live forever! Expand your mind! Leap tall buildings in a single bound! It sounds nice, but it brushes aside the fact that new technologies really will have even broader social consequences than most critics would recognize. But I do believe that a lot of transhumanists really believe that new technologies will simply make it easier for people to acquire pleasure, either because the technologies will be developed selectively (no one will make AIs / emulated brains with motivations significantly different than ours) or because they're simply blind to the full set of possible consequences of new technologies.

Myself, I do see a hedonistic race to the bottom (so to speak) in the future, and that sometime in my lifetime people these issues will become salient enough that we'll have to seriously consider the merits of allowing the engineering of "alien" cognitive profiles. It'll be an interesting debate, for sure.

(Authors' note: Since this is my first post here, I figured I'd add a quick blurb. I'm a second-year PhD student of economics at George Mason University, and I like being involved in a lot of the discussion that occurs in this section of the blogosphere, and hence I'm trying to make my own contributions as I find inspiration. Future posting will probably be somewhat contingent on the quantity and quality of comments I receive, so don't be shy if you have any thoughts on what I've written... though I'm not sure if I should expect too many readers on this post, we'll see. In any case, that's all for now.)