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Three What?

As just about everyone has seen by now, somebody filed suit against the US Government for $3 quadrillion. And as is custom when such large numbers are thrown around, we need to see what exactly that much money will buy:

  • World 2006 GDP... 45 times over!
  • 11 million Alex Rodriguez's.
  • It could close the gap between the WGA and the studios 2.4 million times... and we could finally watch The Office again.
  • 50 times the present value of the current and future US government deficits under current law.
  • 7.5
    trillion iPhones as of today, but only 5 trillion if you bought when
    they first came out. You would have received a$250 trillion rebate from
    Apple when the price dropped.
  • You could pay off every US citizens mortgage over 400 times. You could just pay the subprime mortgages 2000 times.
  • And the lawyer's fee would average about $900 trillion.

Interesting additions to this list in the comments will be moved to the main post.  Be creative.

Darn! Just changed my mind again!

Okay, I was up this morning at 5:00 pondering your comment, Arthur.

The question of whether we should have gone to war with Iraq is not exactly equivalent to the moral question: "My neighbor appears to be beating his wife--do I intervene with force?" It is equivalent to "My neighbor has beaten his wife. Do I intervene with force to punish him?"

The first question is about stopping an attack in progress. The second question is about retribution, or revenge, or punishment after an attack has finished. But I still don't see an essential difference between individuals joining forces to punish a neighbor and a country going to war to remove a foreign tyrant.

Here are differences I could think of. Are you claiming that one or more of these makes the two questions inherently different?

  1. National war is funded by taxation, which is inherently immoral. I agree completely on the point that taxation is immoral, but I'm not sure that the problem would disappear if different funding were used. If the Iraq war had been directly paid for by private oil conglomerates, do you think it would have been just?
  2. The target of the war was collectively "Iraqis" instead of a specific individual. This isn't the way the war was sold, and this isn't why I think I was wrong to buy it. The objective was to remove Saddam Hussein from power and both overt military power and covert operations were targeted at that objective as specifically as technology could allow.
  3. The guys leading the war were a bunch of morons that made mistakes wiser leaders wouldn't. I don't trust any individual to outsmart reality and avoid unintended consequences. "My gang's smarter than your gang" isn't an effective check against bad decisions.
  4. UN Resolutions and International Law are inherently against our interests. I agree that participating in a crowd encourages you to think you aren't fully responsible for your actions. But this is true both among groups of individuals and groups of nations. And sharing your plans for peer review provides a good check against bad judgment.
  5. No victim raised charges against the aggressor. There were some Iraqis petitioning the US to remove Saddam. It was reasonable to assume that more probably hoped for his removal, but (like an abused wife) were too intimidated to voice their hopes.

I agree that is far safer in the short term and morally unambiguous to never punish an act. Is this the position you hold? Do you hold it on both the personal scale and the national scale? If not, I would be genuinely grateful if someone could show me a way to know when a punitive action (and not just a defensive action) was clearly just and when it wasn't.

Even Hippies Don't Deserve This

Arthur Magazine columnist Dave Reeves has been sentenced to 23 days in jail for a traffic accident that caused only $200 of damage. Reeves, on a motorcycle, collided with an SUV:

"Damage to guy’s SUV is a pencil mark-sized scratch on front of SUV guy’s mirror, obviously caused by the SUV’s forward motion against Dave’s motorcycle. $200 in “repair.” Jury can’t believe this is a trial. Reeves admits he didn’t call Burbank PD. Jury has to convict, given judge’s instructions. Judge Kirkland Nyby gives max sentence. Reeves gets 30 days of community service which is 240 hours of picking up trash and abating graf. Reeves did 7 days by the deadline to complete the service. Nyby has now sentenced Dave Reeves to jail for the remainder of his sentence."

This provides another case in the long list of examples that illustrate why jury nullification is so important. Who in their right mind would sentence someone to 240 hours of indentured servitude or incarceration for $200 worth of damage? And how much time and money were spent in handing down this verdict? The other party in this case is a villain straight from Aurthur Magazine Central Casting (an evil SUV driver talking on a cell phone), so who knows if Reeves is or isn't at fault for the accident. However, the stiffest penalty Reeves should be handed is payment of the SUV driver's auto repair and legal fees.

"Last we checked he had been moved to the MEN’S CENTRAL JAIL at 441 BAUCHET STREET, which, according to the LACSD website, 'currently houses the majority of Los Angeles County’s high risk, high security inmates, and ranks as the largest jail in the free world. The average housing cost per inmate is $53.45 per day.'"

So the taxpayers of California are out $1229.35 because the everyday people that made up the jury were intimidated by the state into ignoring both their common sense and moral compass? I've read some horror stories, via Vin Suprynowicz, about what has happened to jurors that stood up to judges. Is it worth risking time and money and possible jail time yourself to keep someone else out of jail for 30 days (and you might not be successful even if you try)?

The idea that something is immoral simply because the state forbids it ("but these immigrants are here ILLEGALLY!") is nonsense, and since it is clear those the state has tasked with administering justice (Judge Nyby in this case) are incompetent, it's certainly time juries of our peers got to weigh in on the validity of sentences handed out.

Proceeds from purchases at Defend Brooklyn will help cover Reeves' legal fees, although I'm not familiar with the site and there is no About page so I have no idea what they stand for. In any case, here's hoping that Reeves comes through this okay and time moves quickly for him.

Update: Someone else also wondered what the Defend Brooklyn shirts were all about. Turns out they are a reference to a movie Reeves wrote and were originally made to help pay for post-production on that movie, so if you feel okay about defending Brooklyn with a communist rifle, purchase away.

Good and evil from self-interest - a recap

Living beings predate on other living beings. Animals are, with narrow exceptions, in the world for themselves, and other animals, again with narrow exceptions, are obstacles and raw materials. Caring even the tiniest little bit about other animals is the rare exception, not the rule. This is true between species and within species. And even that caring is itself merely a ploy that serves either the self interest of the individual animal, or the self interest of its genes.

Human sympathy for other humans seems to spread beyond the merely self-interested. To some extent this appearance is simply a failure to realize how a particular atom of sympathy serves the person sympathising. For instance, we sympathize publicly with strangers. By this I mean, we express our sympathy for strangers to our friends and acquaintances. This functions as a show. People are more comfortable around other people who they feel will not stab them in the back the moment they cease to be of any use or the moment they come into conflict, and one way to seem to be a non-back-stabber is to express sympathy in cases where the sympathy serves no self-interest.

To some extent, non-self-interested human sympathy is doubtless a side-effect. Our instincts are not precisely programmed, so there is bound to be some spill-over of our instincts into areas where the instincts are not adaptive, or even are maladaptive. This situation is exacerbated by the rapid technological changes the human species is experiencing.

Sympathy exists because it serves the self. We help others so that we will be seen as helpful and therefore worthwhile helping. We do not harm or threaten others so that they will not feel threatened by us, because if they feel threatened they might attack us. And of course we help family not expecting any quid pro quo because this serves our genetic self interest. However, our instinct to aid to avoid harming others overflows into areas where it is non-adaptive or even maladaptive.

The word "sympathy" is usually reserved for the subjective feeling that accompanies helping and non-harming behavior. But the feeling serves a purpose, and the purpose is to help and to avoid harming others, and this is done for the sake of the self. A feeling of sympathy induces a sympathetic action, which causes others (not just the one helped but observers) to value us more or dis-value us less, which causes them to be more inclined to help us and less inclined to harm us.

The product of all this is society. Society, like the market, is a product of self-interested individual behavior.

So, for the most part, humans do not predate on other humans, and their failure to predate is ultimately self-interested. However, some humans continue to predate, presumably because they believe that the rewards outweigh the risks. Their would-be victims will defend themselves, out of their own self-interest. However, a problem arises:

On the one hand we have a clear interest in defending ourselves against human predators. But on the other hand we do not want to seem threatening (to anyone other than the predators). This requires that we make a firm, and clear, and public, distinction. It must be public because the purpose of the distinction is to appear harmless (to everyone other than the predator) while at the same time harming the predator. So we must make a firm (unvarying), clear (unambiguous), and public (seen by all) distinction between when we will harm someone, and when we will not.

We have many labels that we use for this distinction, but one of them is "evil". Another is "crime". We need to clearly and publicly define what is, and what is not, a crime. We need to publicly distinguish what will trigger a violent and harmful reaction from us from everything else.

Moreover, the category of "crime" should probably not be idiosyncratic, for a variety of reasons. One simple reason is that if it were idiosyncratic, then we would need to do a lot of explaining to keep people up to speed on what we considered a crime. It is much simpler to adopt a ready-made, public concept of crime.

There are many more considerations limiting and shaping the category of "crime". For instance, it would be catastrophic for "crime" to be defined in a way that makes retaliation against a crime itself a "crime". As a self-interested individual, I would avoid adopting such a concept of crime, because it might quickly involve me in a war of all against all.

"Crime" would furthermore tend to be minimized to as small a footprint as possible, because as a self-interested individual I am still highly interested in seeming maximally helpful and minimally harmful. A balance must be struck between these two considerations. Remember that the reason for the category of "crime" is the predatory behavior of some individuals, so that the concept of "crime" would tend to be limited to predatory behavior, and possibly even to some subset of predatory behavior, as I might allow other minor acts of predation to go unanswered in order to seem as nonthreatening as possible.

Please notice one thing that this is not: it is not utilitarian. I (the self-interested individual deciding what to consider a crime) am not trying to maximize global utility. I am trying to optimize my personal outcome. (Well, the actual situation is a bit more complex - my sympathy for others has the biological function of serving myself but I am not necessarily consciously self-interested; the process I am describing need not be entirely or even mainly conscious)

More generally, it is unlike most theorizing about good and evil. Well, me writing this might be just another example of that, but the me-character that I am describing who is weighing (not necessarily consciously) the pros and cons of where to draw the line between "crime" and "non-crime" is not engaging in abstract theory, but is selecting a strategy with the intention of optimizing his own personal outcome, and so is like a businessman who really only cares about the bottom line. (A slight aside: I said earlier that we adopt a public concept of crime, which seems to conflict with the idea that I am deciding where to draw the line. However, this public concept in turn comes from somewhere - it comes from other people like me. It evolves. Individuals are, each in their own way, contributing to the project of deciding where to draw the line between "crime" and "non-crime".)

More Iconoclasm Please!

Given the short span of the history of human civilization, I think it's fair to say that anti-idolatry is one of the most vital and progressive intellectual movements around.

I'm reading a book about the history of Zoroastrianism, which, while it doesn't hold a lot of sway today, really had a huge impact on all the Abrahamic faiths as well as every other religious goings-on in that region for centuries, including Mahayana Buddhism. A recurring theme in the narrative is the problem of idol worship. The ancient faith founded by Zoroaster/Zarathustra was one based around a radical transformation of the taxonomic distinction between the the natural phenomena daeva and social and moral ahura groups of gods of primitive Indo-Iranian mythology into a much more abstract and recognizably modern cosmological struggle between the principals of asha and druj--truth and lies, good and evil—rejecting worship of the daevas and minimizing the importance of all of the later except for Ahura Mazda, the uncreated source of all good in universal struggle with Angra Mainyu, the ignorant and malignant god of evil. While Zoroaster's huge advancement in moral philosophy and metaphysics achieved great popularity and were accepted by many for centuries, the integrity of the beliefs were never completely safe from threat. A major role of conservative and orthodox believers throughout the tradition seems to be resisting the seemingly inevitable human propensity to introduce icons into worship as symbols of the gods, principals, rituals, etc. and thence to inevitably shift worship from the object of these symbols to the symbols themselves. The same process and response is readily apparent in the story of the golden calf and the “graven images” commandment in the Old Testament and Koranic prohibition of shirk, the sin of polytheism, and the prohibition in the Hadith against depicting living creatures.

Moses' response to the calf worship (destroying the commandments he had just received, burning the idol, grinding it up, and force-feeding it to the Israelites, and of course killing 3,000 men) seems weird to us; the Taliban's destruction of the giant Buddha statues at Bamyan strikes us as downright devilish, and we shake our heads or laugh when we hear about things like the recent kerfuffle in Sudan over the English teacher who named a stuff bear Muhammed, but it's important to remember the source of these reactions: the relatively recent response from the intelligent and spiritual turned-on elements of humanity to resist the asinine human tendency to reify, hypostasize, and anthromorphize every abstract concept and process we can get our hands on.

While the yokels in Sudan are a little behind the times, the laudable efforts of the likes of Moses and Muhammad to smash Yellow Pages full of magical circus animal-style polytheism and the worship of handicrafts put them on the same team, in the grand scheme of things, as Darwin rejecting the willed creation of species by a man-like creator, Marx struggle to expose the reification of human relations, and Hayek working to replace the pervasive myths of conscious, planned order, behind law, economics, and other social phenomena, with an understanding of spontaneous emergent cosmos.

The advance of knowledge is marked by this process. A Druid would tell you that trees turn colors in the fall because the spirits in the trees decide they should. A modern biologist can tell you about the chemical sources and evolutionary reasons for this event. Instead of the Helios pulling the sun across the sky, it's now gravity and we realize that the motion is an illusion caused by our point of view. While our understanding is improving, but we're not out of the woods yet. Think about how many people you know who, for instance, confuse flag worship for patriotism or voting with freedom. Belief in false idols is still alive and well in the 21st century.

And don't think that empirical scientific types get off entirely scot-free. There's a tendency to go to far the other way, considering only the external, deterministic characteristics of phenomena and ignoring their internal existence and the aspects of reality that are beyond our standard framework of scientific perception. In our fashionably myopic “flatland” approach to knowledge, we think we have driven the conscious and subjective other back to it's last redoubt, the human mind, and seem on the verge of complete triumph over the uncertain and mysterious, only to find to our puzzlement that things like CAT scans and fMRIs are entirely inadequate to lay bare the complete nature of our thoughts and feelings. For this reason, I would include people like Alfred North Whitehead with his panpsychicprocess philosophy”, Henri Bergson and his “elan vital”, Tim Leary and his “reality tunnels”, and Korzybski and his “map/territory” distinction among the worthies mentioned above and would expect to see more of this sort of thinking in the future.

Human beings are depressingly literal-minded, tunnel-visioned, creatures. We think almost entirely in metaphors and concrete nouns—we can't help it—we have limited brain power and information and have to think in abstractions. The best we can do is recognize this tendency and do our best to keep in mind that everything has a context and a genealogy that shape what it is and does and that it is subject to processes that are transforming it into what it will become. We must also keep in mind that our own interpretations of phenomena are informed by our uniquely composed perspective which itself is the creation of time, place, context. We have to walk the thin line between a taoist primitivistic and quietistic rejection of all abstraction and the much more dangerous tendency to apophenically search for imaginary keys, techniques, or perspectives, of universal insight that promise to cut through the web of complexity--what Taleb calls “Platonicity” and Hayek called the “synoptic delusion”--as well as the chauvinistic scientist's tendency to reduce everything to threadbare, mechanistic, atomism and external features.

Dear distributed republicans and catallarchs who actually know something about philosophy, please correct me where I've got things wrong. If you'll excuse me for a bit, I have to go render obeisance to the Ludwig Lachmann statue in my basement. He gets mad if my peanut butter and jelly sacrifice and buga buga dance to subjectivist economics are late.

Wait until they get around to Jesus Christ

While watching the news about the turmoil in Pakistan, waiting to see how it develops, I couldn't help noticing some crazy news from Russia:
Russia prohibits denial of Santa.

The Russian government has banned a television advertisement for denying the existence of Father Christmas.

The ad for Eto electrical stores stated Father Frost, Russia's version of Father Christmas, did not exist.

The Federal anti-Monopoly Service said the ad had broken rules for advertisers not to discredit parents and teachers.

It said that declaring that Father Frost did not exist
implied that parents were not telling the truth, so undermining
childrens' trust in them.

The ad "induces negative relations between children and
parents", Andrei Kashevarov, the service's deputy director, told
Rossiiskaya Gazeta.

This shouldn't surprise me as much as it does: obedience to authority through right and (mostly) wrong has been a feature of Russian government for...a very long time.


Anarcho-Christmas Carol

A great, if late, Christmas carol from the immortal SEK3.

Hat tip to Wally Conger.

Joy to the World
(Tune of “Joy to the World”)

Joy to the world,
The State is dead,
Let earth receive no king.
Let every heart, be unrestrained,
At last we’ve broken free!
At last we’ve broken free!
At last, at last, we’ve broken free!

Joy to the earth,
No monarch reigns,
No politician’s left,
We come to burn…the ballot box,
Far as the vote is found,
Far as the vote is found,
Far as, far as, the vote is found.

No rule on earth!
Now truth and grace
Are everyone’s birthright.
The market is free, and anarchy
Is found throughout the land,
Is found throughout the land,
Is found, is found, throughout the land.

No more let tax
Or tariffs vex
The workers or the boss.
Inflation is gone,
Our money is sound,
And freedom is our right,
And freedom is our right,
And freedom, and freedom, is our right!

Burning question of the last two minutes of my life

If you take a snickerdoodle (a kind of cookie), and you modify it by pressing an m&m onto it before baking, is it still a snickerdoodle? My take is that it is still a snickerdoodle.

Ron Paul and the Hope of Winning.

I am a fan of Ron Paul. I was long before he ran for president. Checking out his latest issue or bill via his congressional website was something I liked to do on occasion. Thus seeing him run for president in a campaign that is garnering more and more money and attention is something I find very exciting.

I am one of those weirdos that gets enthralled with 30 second clips of Ron Paul speeches presented on the nightly news. I peruse google regularly for new articles about him and his campaign, and I even have my tivo preset to record shows that list him in their description.

That being said there is quite a bit of lunacy floating in the minds of some of his supporters. (Of course I am not talking about the obvious kooks: conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, people who tivo ron paul etc.).

Just follow any comment thread on just about any article regarding ron paul and you will find individuals who seriously believe that the "scientific" polls are somehow seriously flawed. That there will be this amazing groundswell of supporters in the primaries and that Ron Paul will readily come out the frontrunner in spite of poll numbers.

Its not that I think the polls are perfect or even that accurate. Its that I do not believe they are that wrong. Going from 3-5 percent to winning the primaries is a bit of a leap isn't it?

Its not that I think its impossible for Ron to get the nomination, it is just unlikely. I'll compare it to my predictions for Georgia to be in the national championship game which consisted of something like this:

If X team loses against a team they should easily beat, and Y team also loses in a game they are favored to win and a certain gold and purple team loses the sec championship game and no one pays any attention to what a certain other virginia team is doing... and ::Ta Da:: Georgia is in the championship game... maybe...

Laugh if you like. It came very close to happening.

You have to figure that that is what also-rans like Duncan Hunter and Joe Biden are hoping for. A sudden turn in their favor, a bad gaff by a front runner, combined with a premature exit by a few of those polling slightly better than them, and who knows?

Likewise Paul's campaign will likely benefit by sheer stubborness. Its one of those advantages of being a long shot candidate: there is no reason to drop out when it becomes evident that you are not likely to get the nomination. As you were never likely, there is no reason not to stick around and pick up supporters of also-rans, and hope the party has a change of heart.




2007 Tea Party

Looks like Ron Paul raised some money this weekend:

Called a "Money Bomb," the goal was to raise as much money as possible on the Internet in one day. The campaign’s previous fundraiser brought in $4.2 million.

At midnight EST, donations were over $6 million, according to the campaign Web site. Those donations are processed credit card receipts, said Paul campaign spokesman Jesse Benton.

Tax Plans and Planetary Plans of the Altruistic Elite

“Our defense of luxury consumption is not, of course, the argument that one occasionally hears, that is, that it spreads money among the people. If the rich did not indulge themselves in luxuries, it is said, the poor would have no income. This is simply nonsense.”

In reality it is not. Highly selective tax increases can give rise to severe local economic hardship by making gainfully employed people poor. When this is done in the name of “fairness”, simply put it is the Robin Hood theory of governance. It would be one thing if a job was lost because of market forces but it is a farce when it is eliminated in the name redistributing wealth. This is not to argue that taxes are not necessary for the functioning of government or that the wealthy should not pay a disproportionate share of taxes. I do not even object to the use of taxes foreign aid even if it mostly goes to waste and doesn’t bring countries out of poverty.

The thing that makes people mad is a constantly changing the playing field, caused when taxes are raised and lowered primarily as a coercive social tool aimed at punishing or controlling the behavior of one group at the behest of another group.

Suppose that next year someone, (that someone will not be a yacht owner) says “Let’s stick it to those rich yacht owners. How can they live with themselves when the poor are starving in Africa.” If the tax causes people to significantly reduce yacht purchases, the really rich are not hurt. The truly rich, the Kennedys, the Gores, the Kerrys, already have their yachts. They also have lawyers who can get their expensive toys counted as business expenses or register their yachts offshore. In any case the additional taxes would not dent the multi- billion dollar Kerry fortune.

The people who would be hurt are the upper middle class barely rich whose lifestyle would be diminished by targeting them because of envy. Is it an accident that most of the people affected by these type taxes are highly productive affluent white males who just want to enjoy the rewards of their success? These guys are the backbone of the economy, providing huge numbers of jobs both as employers and by spending their income. I heard on NPR yesterday that 70% of the US economy depends on consumer spending. In this country everybody is rich and this generates the jobs and tax revenues that fund all government functions including welfare and foreign aid. The consumer marine industry is a part of this.

The boating industry is especially significant in some relatively unpopulated costal areas. The ways of sticking it to the rich are always devised by urban leftist cosmopolitans who dedicate their lives to altruism and global fairness, not at their expense but to be paid for by others.

It is true that the unemployed mechanics, boat captains and mates could move away from the coast and find jobs elsewhere. Also since the revenues generated by the new taxes would be used to feed the starving masses in Africa, there will be plenty of jobs available as stevedores loading shiploads of foreign aid. The lefties can even come down from their posh Colorado ski resorts and ecotourism sites and help if they don’t mind soiling their hands, but they probably won’t.

I don't know whether to laugh or cry

Is this hilarious or tragic? A reviewer describes the message:

Kao's prescription is exactly right--creating innovation hubs around the country. His estimated cost, $20 billion for 20 innovation hubs, is cheap compared to the cost of continuing to lose ground in innovation to emerging regions like Asia and Eastern Europe. Witness successful U.S. examples, such as Silicon Valley and San Diego, which Kao writes about at length.

Kao points out that achieving this audacious goal will require setting a national innovation agenda and appointing a national leader to champion the cause (á la Jim Webb with NASA and Apollo). Challenging? Yes, particularly given the current political environment. But, as Kao states, "We have no alternative but to try...We must the face the future." Agreed.

I'm not even going to comment on this. I think what I would say about it is too predictable to actually bother saying.


Micha wants proof? Here's proof

Proof of what, you ask? Who cares?

Let us steer by the compass, the journey is the destination

Brad Spangler links to a Molyneaux video about how Ron Paul is a disaster for libertarianism. I totally disagree, and an astute commenter on Spangler's blog, Jeremy, has written a good enough response that I can save some time and just quote him:

The problem I have with his message is that none of what he’s championing precludes supporting Ron Paul. To the extent that it takes energy away from people who would be pursuing other, more authentic anti-state activities, then maybe he has a point. But that’s NOT what I see occurring. Instead, Paul’s campaign is inspiring new activists to seriously think, learn, and act on the principles of individual liberty that we all support - many of them for the first time in their lives. This is not a zero sum game.


That’s why I see all this (forgive the expression) pissing on Ron Paul’s parade as incredibly ill advised. So what if the campaign is a less-than-perfect vehicle for bringing about change? It’s in good company with the other strategies we libertarians have tried and continue to think up. None of us have it figured out. None of us have enough success that we can go to these people and show them how stupid or misguided they are. We’re all trying to get it right, and it’s counterproductive to turn it into a debate over strategy when we haven’t even captured the majority’s hearts and minds yet!

No, the Ron Paul campaign is not the ideal vehicle for raising libertarian, anti-state consciousness, but it’s the best vehicle we’ve had in some time. Let’s admit it’s flawed and use it for our own ends rather than complaining that the unwashed masses haven’t figured out what we know so well.

Even Ron Paul doesn't think that he has to win to make a difference. By inspiring young people out there with the idea of freedom, and a realization that they are not alone in their beliefs, his campaign is making a difference.

We lovers of freedom are few enough in number that we cannot afford to sneer at those who are not "true believers". We should delight in the philosophy of freedom wherever and however it manifests, not mock those who sully their hands with the machinery of democracy. For the world is not black and white, but infinite shades of gray.

I think this is the fundamental fallacy of the idealistic and elitist folk like Murray Rothbard who moan and gripe over anything that involves compromise or pragmatism about cooperation with the state. They have their mind so fixed on a single point that any deviation is unacceptable. But utopia is not an option.

So we should treat Libertopia, not as a place we are trying to reach, but as a direction towards which we are trying to steer. The winds and currents may sometimes dictate tacking back and forth to make forward progress, but as long as we keep the arrow pointed, inasmuch as we can, towards more liberty and justice for all, tack by tack the world will become an incrementally better place. We might wish to make better headway, but wishing does not make it so, and sailing straight into the teeth of the wind is rarely productive.

Why I won't get a 23andMe account for Christmas is a website launched by Sergey Brin's wife Anne Wojcicki. For $999 your whole genome can be sequenced. They then claim to offer datamining tools, find characteristics about you, your genetic history, predispositions to possible illness, whom you get that allergy from, etc etc.

I won't buy that for christmas. Why?

Am I put of by the stiff $999? Well a bit but it still seems reasonable. Am I, like many libertarians concerned with the disclosure of my personal information? After all, is my DNA is on the internet, it means omg-gattaca-totalitarian-society. Nope, I don't give a damn.

A quick tour will give you the answer:

Genetic Nondiscrimination.

Various state laws exist to protect individuals from genetic discrimination. On a national level, we support passage of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA), currently under consideration by the U.S. Congress.

So what is GINA?

The Genetic Nondiscrimination Act of 2007 (GINA) was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, by a vote of 420-3. The act will protect individuals against discrimination based on their genetic information when it comes to health insurance and employment. These protections are intended to encourage Americans to take advantage of genetic testing as part of their medical care.

Although I'm dying to use the service I'm not giving $999 to fund socialism >(

Giving thanks for helpful government employees

"Helpful government employee" is not an oxymoron, although libertarians sometimes act that way. I've been reminded of this by a number of positive interactions lately:

  • We had a leaky toilet for several weeks before it was replaced. The city called me up and said "Hey, your water bill got a lot higher - we think you might have a leak." I had already found it, but still, what great service! (I think they were motivated by a drought due to them not setting water prices based on supply and demand, but it was still nice.)
  • The city fire prevention dept called me up about 2 non-code-compliant things they had spotted on our property in their periodic survey. One was a hot tub plugged into an extension cord. The other was a wheelchair lift that had been built un-permitted. They wanted both unplugged until compliant, and the hot tub fenced off, and plugged into a grounded, permitted outlet, and the lift to have an electrical permit.

    Sure, I don't think they should be telling me what to do. But they were very reasonable - and in fact, both the precautions on the hot tub were things we were planning to do and hadn't gotten around to yet. They didn't fine us. They didn't tear them down. They didn't enforce any building permits (only electrical ones, which they felt were important for fire safety), or county health codes (although they warned us that the county might have other objections if they ever noticed the tub). And one could easily imagine a private neighborhood association which inspected properties for fire safety, even in libertopia.

  • Most recently, I'd been fed up with paperwork from the state EDD, which handles the taxes we pay for (some of) our childcare workers. Every quarter, they ask for all quarterly forms since the first quarter, every quarter I would print out and send all of them, and then the next quarter they'd say they weren't received. After a year and a half, they started trying to fine me.

    So I replied with a letter about how I wasn't going to pay the fines, I had sent in these forms again and again, and there must be some snafu on their end, and I would appreciate it if they could figure it out and clear this up. I got a call from a nice lady today who had figured out that I had been issued two different numbers, and so my submissions were under one and the requests under another. Typical bureaucratic snafu - but the state employee involved didn't say "What a whiner, I don't have to do what he says, I have the mighty arm of the state behind me!". Instead she said "Aww, poor guy, let me fix his problem".

None of this changes my belief that there are major, systemic problems with democratic, centralized governments, problems which give rise to worse service on average. Nor that the incentive structures of public vs. private employment tend to draw more talented individuals somewhat more often to the private sector. But surely the incentives also draw more selfish people to the private sector and more altruistic ones into public service. Altruism in the role of managing top-down solutions to problems may tend to do more harm than good, but a genuine enjoyment of helping people, when used to do so directly, is a wonderful thing.

Let's not forget it, lest we be judged arrogant and elitist - with reason.

North Korean Public Execution

In a stadium, no less:

Public executions had declined since 2000 amid international criticism but have been increasing, targeting officials accused of drug trafficking, embezzlement and other crimes, the Good Friends aid agency said in a report on the North's human rights.

In October, the North executed the head of a factory in South Pyongan province for making international calls on 13 phones he installed in a factory basement, the aid group said. He was executed by a firing squad in a stadium before a crowd of 150,000.

Six people were crushed to death and 34 others injured in an apparent stampede as they left the stadium, the aid group said.

Most North Koreans are banned from communicating with the outside world, part of the regime's authoritarian policies seeking to prevent any challenge to the iron-fisted rule of Kim Jong Il.

Pleasure and Happiness vs. Gain and Meaning

The confusion on this subject can be resolved by doing away with the words pleasure and happiness.

Come on, really, how much pleasure can one expect anyway. Eating, sleeping and sex comprise the major sources of the pleasure available to most people. OK, so you can think of some additional ones. If you read a novel or go to a movie, how is this different from going into the happiness machine? And what is happiness? You may be happy one moment and just neutral or unhappy the next.

If this is your way of understanding the situation, the machine approach is by far superior. Just dial up always hungry, always horney, always happy, a comfortable bed and an unlimited supply of what satisfies the above. This partly describes the life of Elvis in his later years. Or you could have an unlimited supply of crack cocaine. In the happiness machine world you could specify that it wouldn’t kill you.

It is more enlightened to think in terms such as gains and meaning. Let's look at a few examples. You may get pleasure from eating a hot dog. You don't get much pleasure from eating a hundred hot dogs. If your goal is to win a hot-dog eating contest you may eat a hundred hot-dogs, enduring mostly misery in the process but having the chance of gaining renown as a champion hot-dog eater (secondary gain.) Your reward is fame and, if asked to endorse a certain brand of hot-dog, perhaps fortune. A beautiful woman who is attracted to a champion such as yourself might even consider you a fine mate (tertiary gain.) The chance of gaining all this far outweighs the mere solitary pleasure you get from eating a hot-dog when you are hungry. Being an accomplished person brings meaning to your life, even if you mostly just suffer pain from a tummy ache and ulcers from eating too many hot-dogs.

Most of the gains people pursue are not pleasurable at all because they are pursued beyond the point of mere primary gain (pleasure) to the extent that they may cause pain. They are pursued in order to have the chance of getting secondary gain (self esteem and societal approval) and even tertiary gain (money and girls.) Examples include boxing, running, working, and even hobbies such as hiking, mountain climbing, tournament fishing and so on.

So, one of life’s prime pleasures, food, won’t do, as a primary source of happiness and meaning.
What about sleep? It just won’t work. To get personal and societal kudos for one’s acts they have to be hard or painful. Every nursing home is full of people who sleep all day every day with no effort. On the other hand you could gain your fame by staying awake for a world record period of time. This is especially true if you are doing something while awake, such as dancing.

Sex? Why is there no Guinness Book of World Records for the number of times a day some guy masturbated? It is all primary gain. No sponsors, I guess, and it probably wouldn’t help you attract girls. There are also no rewards for abstaining from sex. Someone needs to come up with a better way to make a contest out of sex, otherwise the happiness machine wins.

From this short discussion, I think that it has been established that primary pleasure is not the source of happiness. In fact, just the opposite is true. Actually pain is more likely to bring meaning. I don’t know what this has to do with social policy, but, I have heard that the most intense forms of happiness or meaning are the escape from pain or danger. I am told that, a man who has just passed a kidney stone is very happy, as is a shipwrecked sailor who has just been rescued. A social policy that simulates this might be most efficacious in making people happier. It is futile to try to make people happy by placing them on welfare. It does just the opposite. They become even more hostile and demanding.

Since meaning is gained more often from pain than pleasure, the happiness machine would be most likely to deliver lasting efficacy if it were programmed by the United States Marines or coach Bear Bryant than by Timothy Leary.

Next we shall explore the happiness and meaning that comes from creativity and discovery. In the post referenced by Constant, the example was given of a new pill that equaled the happiness inducing properties of making a major scientific discovery, all while having discovered nothing. Surely no one could prefer the state of fake discovery, even if it were a sure thing to a real discovery.
I submit that persons are awarded with happiness and meaning in their life for fake creativity and discovery all the time. Look at the hordes of brilliant intellectuals who created page after page of Marxist “Works.” Observe the libraries full of scholarly treatises relating to the Talmud, the Bible, Galenic Medicine, and what have you. I am not judging these belief systems here but if they turn out to have no external validity, how are their adherents different from the people who enter into the happiness machine?

Then you have the sad history of various brilliant scientists and intellectuals who made one or two real discoveries and then succumbed to their public adulation and star status by spending the rest of their lives promoting crackpot causes. Bertrand Russell, Noam Chomsky and Linus Pauling come to mind. Once the initial valid work is done, if the later output is nonsense, what difference does it make whether these people are in the real world or the happiness machine?

Obsoleting education

The market (i.e. money) costs of learning include: cost of textbook, cost of lecture, cost of interaction and grading. There remains a substantial non-market cost of learning: the time and effort required to study a subject in enough depth to make a noticeable difference in the student's life. You will learn something by reading Stephen Hawking's easily digestible popular books on physics, but it will make little difference in your life. Put a lot of effort into the subject over several years, and it's a different story.

In recent years universities have been putting a lot of their course material online, but it hasn't led to an intellectual revolution among the non-university-attending public. Doubtless there must be individuals who are ravenously consuming all this free education, but for the vast majority of us, it simply requires more effort and time than we're willing to put into it. Since it is costly to learn, we might try alternative ways of making the knowledge work for us, ways that sidestep the process of becoming educated.

When it comes to trivia, and to certain other kinds of knowledge, Google and other online resources that provide answers as they are needed are effective substitutes, sometimes. So we can in some cases skip the step of learning the knowledge we need to have at our fingertips. One might imagine taking this to an extreme: just anybody might fix a car or perform heart surgery or do any other task that in today's world requires specialized knowledge, by using some device that feeds him the knowledge he needs on an as-needed basis, much as Google today feeds us knowledge on an as-needed basis.

Or the knowledge might not even need to enter our heads at all in order for us to employ it and benefit from it. We can embody some kinds of knowledge in devices. It used to be that in order to create a photograph, somebody had to prepare and operate a darkroom, which was a complicated process that required training. Now that digital has almost completely replaced film photography, all the knowledge needed to create a photographic print from beginning to end is embodied in devices which can be bought for a few hundred dollars - less if your only ambition is to share the image electronically. As technology develops, more knowledge is being embedded into devices. Of course, the manufacturer needs to have that knowledge, but the end-user is now spared any dependence on experts such as local photo lab technicians.

So, why can't we just Google just anything that we need to know now, or use a device that embodies the knowledge?

The most obvious difference between education and and ignorance-plus-database is speed. A translator who knows both source and target languages is much faster than a translator who knows only one and relies entirely on a dictionary for the other. Searchable online databases narrow that gap somewhat, but there's still a large gap in speed between an expert and a novice using electronic tools.

Another difference is that some kinds of knowledge are not easily represented in an as-needed format. To ride a bicycle you need to have practiced it over a certain period of time. There is no way you can Google each twist of the handlebars. That's partly a problem with speed (there is no way to search for the answer quickly enough), but that's only part of it. We just have no way of turning linguistically or pictorially represented instructions into the actual skill of staying balanced. Really, nobody actually teaches anybody else how to ride a bicycle (or, for that matter, to walk). It's something that the student has to do on his own. All that anyone else can do is put the student in an environment where he can teach himself. And this necessarily takes effort and time. There are no short cuts. (On the other hand, in the future, all bikes might come equipped with Segway-like self-balancers, just as cameras increasingly come with technology that compensates for shaky hands.)

Another difference is that in many cases the key question is, "okay, now what do I do?" Google can't answer that, and even an expert would have trouble answering the question unless he was essentially looking over your shoulder. Experts can take in a situation and know what to do, but an online database needs a specific question in order to produce a specific result, and knowing what question to ask may itself require knowledge which a non-expert does not have. Still, it might be possible to abbreviate the learning process by learning what questions to ask when, rather than tediously memorizing all the answers.

Eliezer on happiness (hedonism)

Another entry in the discussion of hedonism. Remember the experience machine? Discussed on this blog a while ago. Same topic, I would say. Eliezer:

I value a life complicated enough to be challenging and aesthetic - not just the feeling that life is complicated, but the actual complications - so turning into a pleasure center in a vat doesn't appeal to me. It would be a waste of humanity's potential, which I value actually fulfilling, not just having the feeling that it was fulfilled.

Nozick's experience machine argument (Wiki outline):

  • P1: Hedonism means that the only thing that affects our well-being is pleasure
  • P2: If hedonism were correct, then we would plug into the machine because we would want pleasurable experiences
  • P3: We would not plug into the machine because we are concerned about the reality of our experiences
  • C: Therefore, there is something other than pleasure that affects our well-being and hedonism is therefore defeated.