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Americanese

Growing up in Virginia, a "toboggan" was a knit hat. Only when I left the nest did I find out that to most people, a toboggan is a sled. A little googling revealed a discussion about this very discrepancy.

How very bizarre that this relatively long, unique word can mean two very different things! I'd like the linguists to explain this one.

A Google image search illustrates the double meaning as 95% of pictures show a sled and the remainder, a knit hat.


George Selgin against the Fed

The case against the Federal Reserve from a mainstream economist's perspective

Thanks to International Liberty for the tip. Selgin has a new white paper up at Cato about the Fed's history of failure and an interview on EconTalk.


Structuralism

Proposition X is the kind of proposal that you can expect from my new Structuralist movement. We don't waste time arguing over whether the top marginal tax rate should be 32% or 35%. The lobbyists are going to decide that anyway. Rather, we are going to focus on proposals that make society better from a structural perspective. For example, we may propose a law that gives politicians incentives to govern in the public interest, or that reduces their ability to do harm.

Another Structuralist proposal that I rather like is a state constitutional amendment that forbids legislators from running for reelection if there is a budget deficit in an election year. Legislators govern too much with their self-interest in mind. Let's use that fact to further the public benefit.


Proposition X

They say that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Here at the Distributed Republic we don't care for overused cliches. We serve our insanity fresh from the oven and resent the implication that we would copy another's tired recipe. Each strange flavor is crafted from seldom mixed ingredients. Repetition happens only on rarest accident.

California politics have no such pretense to originality. The land of cookie cutter pop stars and Hollywood sequels has a hard time improvising off script. Democrats have ruled both houses of the state legislature for 38 of the last 40 years and the public employee unions have ruled the Democratic Party for roughly as long. The state budget hasn't seen black ink in the better part of a decade; union benefit costs are soaring. Facing yet another $25 billion shortfall California teeters on the brink of bankruptcy.

In the midst of all of this an election happened, just one short month ago. Naturally California voters ginned up all their anger at their leaders' profligate behavior, marched straight to the polls, and did nothing at all.

I exaggerate only a little bit. Every single incumbent Democrat running for reelection to the state legislature won his race, including a dead guy. In this election cycle politically active Californians were most concerned that Republicans would screw up the state. It is true that the Republican Party of California is a sad lot, but outside of a Governator or two they haven't wielded serious power in longer than I have been alive. It takes a strange sort of mass delusion to worry about the drunks in the back seat more than the drunks driving the bus. And then reelect all the drunks driving the bus.

Which is why I propose that we cut the state in half. Not literally, mind you. No highways would be harmed in this operation. It is time we used the infamous California ballot proposition process to do some good besides almost-legalizing marijuana.

We'll draw a line straight across the middle of the state. San Diego will be the new southern capital, suiting its popular nickname as "The Sacramento of the South". The two halves can fight over who has to take Fresno.

Now I know some readers may have doubts that this will do any good. Won't two insane states be twice as bad as one? They will get two more senators. And those senators will screw up national policies for everybody else.

But California governance will improve for two reasons. One argument comes from the standard case for federalism. Large, remote bureaucracies are harder for citizens to monitor than small, close ones. They are also inherently less efficient. The overhead needed to provide public services scales super-linearly with the number of people served. At some scale the overhead generates its own overhead and bureaucracy becomes a self-replicating grey goo.

In other words, Sacramento is dysfunctional because it is a smaller version of Washington, DC.

A second argument for splitting California in two comes from the late economist Mancur Olson. Olson argued that governments built up cruft over time, like an artery gradually hardening under the assault of fast food dinners. This crust is formed by special interest groups convincing politicians to stick narrow laws onto the books for their own benefit. Eventually the law is all crust and no substance, its thousands of pages loses any rational basis it once had and becomes an anchor on economic growth.

But sometimes a disaster, crisis, or revolution happens and society gets a chance to start over. A Sherman burns down your city or a Truman bombs your harbor and suddenly all the bums are missing from city hall. The cruft is gone.

Olson attempted to show through historical research that these shakeups result in a period of more prosperity and higher economic growth before the cruft grows again. Breaking California in two, then, is an Olsonian proposition. We have the rare chance to push the reset button without suffering nuclear fallout or guillotines on the street corners.

California is too awesome a place for one group of assholes to be able to ruin it. It should take two. And that is what in systems design we call "robustness".


Be on the lookout for America's #1 terrorist organization

When I was writing yesterday I was thinking in the back of my mind about how Julian Assange will be in a month. Probably in jail somewhere, with the US government chomping at the bit to bring him here. In two months, there will be rallies to support him in various places, and those rallies will be honeycombed with undercover FBI agents, including, no doubt, agents provocateurs who will try to incite the crowds to do something illegal.

I didn't write this, and now I wish I had, as I just saw a story about the FBI sending an agent to a mosque in Irvine to incite people to illegal acts. The Muslims targeted here actually got a restraining order on the guy, as he was trying to provoke violence. We'd be fools to doubt that the FBI is actively inciting people to violent activity all over the country.

Via Radley Balko.


Wikileaks, as good as it gets

I'm sure I don't have to express how excited I am about Wikileaks. This whole affair is thrilling. The Ron Paul campaign was a mixed bag for me, but Wikileaks is something I can get behind 100%.


Police question

Last night between the survivalist meeting and the bar, I saw three separate police incidents involving six patrol cars within five minutes of each other on the same road. My buddy and I noted that this seemed pretty bizarre, especially given that they had pulled over two similiar-looking drivers in similar-looking vehicles. I myself got pulled over after not slowing down enough through a green arrow within two minutes of passing the third incident. The officer asked for my ID only—not my registration and insurance—and after a brief chat about how I did in fact have the green arrow, gave my ID back and sent me on my way. I was not wearing a seat belt at any point here, and my driver's license and license plate are from two different states. If the guy had wanted to break my balls, as is their custom, it would have been easy.

Clearly they were looking for someone in particular, and fortunately I was not him. It leaves me puzzled though, as I live in the Mexican border region and trafficking in drugs and even weapons is not unusual. It is also not usually combatted by stopping everybody possible. I have not heard of any heinous murders or bank robberies. The local paper does not give any clues this morning, so it appears they haven't found the guy yet.

Feel free to join my weekend brainstorming project of figuring out what type of person they could have been looking for.


Will DHS actions inspire a successor to DNS?

In light of recent Department of Homeland Security efforts to seize domain names, and the COICA Internet Censorship and Copyright Bill being considered in Congress, I wonder if it's time to consider alternatives to the hierarchical nature of DNS as it exists today. Do we really want something so fundamental to be so susceptible to government control?

Two recent postings on slashdot lend support this idea:
Peter Sunde Wants To Create Alternative To ICANN
Chinese DNS Tampering a Real Threat To Outsiders

So, consider the technology behind these open source projects:

1) Peer-to-peer electronic cash system Bitcoin (wikipedia)

2) spam and denial of service counter-measure tool Hashcash (wikipedia)

The goals of both projects are different from what I'm suggesting here (a Peer-to-Peer DNS), but they're both examples of proof-of-work systems. In brief, it's a system that allows a loose network of peers to keep a record that can only be disputed by a sufficiently large attacker.

I think a sufficiently large proof-of-work, peer-to-peer network could serve as an alternative to DNS.

Wikipedia's Bitcoin article has this to say about it's security:

For an attacker to manipulate the record, he must outpace all of the other nodes on the network to produce the longest proof-of-work. This becomes exponentially more difficult as time passes, because such "tampered" chains would continuously be rejected by nodes attempting to build a valid chain.

From Bitcoin's whitepaper:

...a peer-to-peer network using proof-of-work to record a public history of transactions
that quickly becomes computationally impractical for an attacker to change if honest nodes
control a majority of CPU power.

The "record" and "transactions" in this case would be hostname-to-IP-address mappings (the service that DNS provides).

Imagine a Firefox or Chrome plugin that could turn every willing browser into both a client and server for this service (a node within such a network). Sufficient adoption (if installed by default on these browsers) could go a long way to preventing corruption or control of something so vital. Perhaps it could exist alongside the existing DNS hierarchy, to "seed" it before it acquires the necessary critical mass.

So, is anyone inspired to morph either of these projects into this vision?


Happy Thanksgiving

As something of a nomad, I have been shown much kindness over the years. The more I have needed the more I have been given. There is a generous instinct in the human spirit that is one of its most beautiful features. And for this I am thankful.