Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
Justin M. StoddardSpot all the Fallacies, Part II
Posted at 4:47 pm on October 19, 2013, by Justin M. Stoddard

Yesterday, I critiqued a video that used Pascal’s Wager to implore us to take drastic action in order to fight the threat of global warming.

It occurred to me that my critique might be a bit more forceful if I showed how trying to predict future outcomes using incorrect assumptions leads to unintended, bad consequences. There’s no better way to do this than to explore a few historical events and the way society reacted to them.

Here are a few examples I came up with:

-Nutrition advice in the 1960s
-The fear of race mixing at the beginning of the 20th Century
-The War on Drugs

Each of these events can easily be put into the rubric of Pascal’s Wager using the incorrect assumptions used at the time.

Heart Disease:

In the late 1950s, heart disease was a major concern for health professionals and politicians alike. It was such a major concern, that Congress and various bureaucracies of the Federal Government insisted that drastic action must be taken soon to stave off a major disaster.

Let’s fit it into Pascal’s Wager:

Either saturated fat is a major contributor to heart disease and is responsible for killing thousands of people a year, or it’s not.

If it is a major contributor, and drastic action is not taken: The consequences will be dire. Tens of thousands could die in the coming decades.
If it is a major contributor, and drastic action is taken: The crisis is averted, and tens of thousands of lives will be saved.
If it is not a major contributor, and drastic action is not taken: No harm, no foul.
If it is not a major contributor, and drastic action is taken: People will still have the benefits of living a healthy lifestyle.

Drastic action was taken and the Federal Government came up with nutritional guidelines outlined in the now infamous Food Pyramid. These weren’t just recommendations. School children have been indoctrinated with these guidelines for 40 years. Doctors and nutritionists have followed them religiously. Countless millions (if not billions) of dollars have flowed into programs to ensure these guidelines were followed.

It’s only been within the last ten years or so that we’ve discovered that not only are these guidelines are most likely wrong, they’re probably murderous. We are dealing with health epidemics which could not even begin to be be imagined 40 years ago. Cases of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, auto-immune disorders, etc, have exploded all over the country.

Why? Because it turns out that the original assumptions were wrong. Saturated fats are far more beneficial and far less harmful than originally thought. Complex carbohydrates are just the opposite.

Race Mixing:

Eugenics was all the rage at the beginning of the 20th Century. Progressives were all a flutter about taking drastic action to ensure that not only the white race not be mixed with what they deemed “inferior stock,” but that other deficiencies be culled from the gene pool as well. It was feared that the white race would all but disappear from the face of the earth, or more likely, become so bogged down with genetic imperfections as to destroy it.

The proposition:

Either race mixing and undesirable genetics will destroy the white race, or it won’t.

If it will destroy the white race, and drastic action is taken: The white race will be saved, and civilization will not be destroyed.
If it will destroy the white race, and drastic action is not taken: The white race will be destroyed, and civilization will soon follow.
If it will not destroy the white race, and drastic action is taken: The white race still benefits.
If it will not destroy the white race, and drastic action is not taken: Status Quo.

Drastic action was taken and Federal/State governments, as well as numerous private organizations funded by the leading Progressives of the day, put into motion a system of forced eugenics, forced sterilization, and immigration policies which still live with us today.

The torrid tale spans from Cold Harbor, to tiny Appalachian mountain towns. From the birth control movement to the front door of the White House. From local policy, all the way to Hitler’s gas chambers.

The War on Drugs:

The war on drugs goes back over a century, but for the purposes of this example, we’ll start in 1971 with President Nixon. At that time, drugs were considered to be a problem so monumental and pressing that drastic action was immediately needed.

The proposition:

Illegal drug use is a scourge that has the power to destroy civilization, or it isn’t.

If it is a scourge that has the power to destroy civilization, and drastic action is taken: Civilization is saved.
If it is a scourge that has the power to destroy civilization, and drastic action is not taken: Civilization may be destroyed.
If it is not a scourge that has the power to destroy civilization, and drastic action is taken: Civilization still benefits.
If it is not a scourge that has the power to destroy civilization, and drastic action is not taken: Status Quo.

Drastic action was taken. Billions of dollars have been poured into the War on Drugs over the past 40 years by Federal and State governments.

The result?

Well, the results are too legion to list out individually. Suffice it to say, it has proven to be one of the most colossal failures any modern government has ever been responsible for. In terms of money wasted, lives ruined, rights lost, and people murdered, the War on Drugs has brought this nation to its knees. I challenge anyone who says it’s hyperbole to speculate that short of complete decriminalization and dismantling of the system built up to keep the War on Drugs going, America will never recover from it.

Conclusion:

This is my main concern about the video I critiqued yesterday. It’s not so much that the gentleman is attempting to fit and extremely complex problem based on uncertainty into an overly simplistic model. It’s that he’s starting with an unquestioned assumption which you are just supposed to accept, no questions asked.

Why is taxation, regulation, and government control the solution? I have no idea. He doesn’t bother to explain. It’s just an axiom that you’re supposed to accept.

Why will taxation, regulation, and government control work this time, when it has proved to be a disaster in the past? Again, I have no idea. Not only doesn’t he bother to explain, one gets the impression that he’s never even considered it. It goes beyond being axiomatic to being a religious belief. There’s nothing of any substance to his belief other than faith.

But, even with all the historical examples available to us (I’ve only touched on three), we are made to believe that this time, if drastic action is taken, it will avert disaster. And, what’s the worst that can happen if he’s wrong? According to him, the very worst that will happen is a global depression that “makes the depression of the 1930’s look like a cake walk.”

Except, that’s not the worst that could happen. Not even close.


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Justin M. StoddardSPOT ALL THE FALLACIES!1!!11
Posted at 9:06 am on October 18, 2013, by Justin M. Stoddard

I was sent this video this morning and asked to comment on it. It was described as, “One guy with a marker just made the global warming debate completely obsolete,” on upworthy.com.

The person making the argument starts out with this challenge: “Nobody I’ve shown this argument to has been able to poke a hole in it.”

Challenge accepted.

Before we start, keep in mind that this video was made in 2007. I don’t know if this gentleman has changed his views on the matter or not, so I’m not going to assume either way. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and grant that he may not understand the economics behind what he is proposing. But, economics or no, there are some serious problems with his line of thinking.

To begin with, this is nothing more than an obfuscated attempt at Pascal’s Wager.

In 1669, Blaise Pascal invited humanity to consider the following:

Either God exists or he doesn’t exist.
If He exists, and you don’t believe in Him, it will be infinitely bad for you.
If He doesn’t exist, and you don’t believe in Him, then no harm, no foul.
If He exists, and you do believe in Him, it will be infinitely good for you.
If He doesn’t exist, and you do believe in Him, you’ve lived a good life regardless.

The wager set in motion a new field of probability theory, which still exists today. At the time, it was considered a groundbreaking argument, made on wholly pragmatic grounds.

Now, I contend that when atheists call this wager a “fallacy,” they are over-reaching a bit. Given the strict definitions of the argument, Pascal is basically right. If there is a God, and you don’t believe in Him, you’re going to burn (working within the parameters of 17th Century Christian scholarship).

Pascal was working in a world where the boundaries are clearly delineated. Do X, and Y will happen. Don’t do X, and Z will happen.

The fallacy lies in in the “if God doesn’t exist,” statements. Who is Blaise Pascal to say that anyone’s life was lived well according to his definitions? How many wasted hours were spent worshiping a deity that didn’t exist? What could have been accomplished otherwise?

It’s the ultimate Broken Window Fallacy. All Blaise Pascal sees is a person who lived a life in alignment with his preferences, regardless if those preferences are based on truth or not. What he doesn’t see are the infinite possibilities lost. In short, Blaise Pascal lacks imagination. He dismisses the unseen.

Pascal also fails to understand that the person who doesn’t believe in a God that doesn’t exist still must deal with being a heretic in a world of believers. That could be very, very bad for you, indeed.

A more honest version of Pascal’s argument would look like this:

If He exists, and you don’t believe in Him, it will be infinitely bad for you.
If He doesn’t exist, and you don’t believe in Him: UNKNOWN.
If He exists, and you do believe in Him, it will be infinitely good for you.
If He doesn’t exist, and you do believe in Him: UNKNOWN.

Okay, enough with the background…you see where I’m going with this. Let’s spot the fallacies within the fallacy:

If global warming is not happening, and we take significant action, the results are global depression and wasted money.
If global warming is not happening, and we don’t take action, then no harm, no foul.
If global warming is happening, and we do take action, it’s all good.
If global warming is happening, and we don’t take action, it will be infinitely bad for you.

Unlike Pascal’s theoretical world, this world is much more uncertain. We’re not dealing with the clearly delineated choices between heaven and hell (infinite good vs. infinite bad). Instead, we’re dealing with speculation based on uncertainty.

How does this gentleman propose that we deal with speculation based on uncertainty? By taking significant, clearly defined action, of course. What action might that be? He let’s you know right at the 2:38 mark: Taxation, regulation, and government control.

Why is this the action that needs to be taken? No answer. It’s just an a priori axiom we are supposed to accept.

Why is it assumed that the action proposed will result in the conclusions proposed? No answer. It’s just something you’re supposed to know, for some reason.

In fact, the conclusions could be infinitely worse than what he proposes. It could result in mass starvation, continued abject poverty for the majority of the world, and outbreaks of war leading to the deaths of tens of thousands. The “what is the worst that can happen” conclusion could be every bit as bad as the worst that can happen if global warming is happening, and we don’t take action. Both are infinitely bad.

Now, what if the assumptions were switched?

If global warming is not happening, and we take significant action, the results could be infinitely bad.
If global warming is not happening, and we allow the free market to continue doing what it does, the results could be infinitely good.

If global warming is not happening, and we don’t take action: UNKNOWN. (The unbeliever still has to live in a world full of believers, after all).
If global warming is not happening, and we deregulate the free market to continue doing what it does, the results could be infinitely good.

If global warming is happening, and we do take significant action, the results could be infinitely bad times infinity.**
If global warming is happening, and we allow the free market to work on it, the results could be infinitely good.

If global warming is happening, and we don’t take action, the results could be infinitely bad.
If global warming is happening, and we allow the free market to continue doing what it does: UNKNOWN.

Why is the last conclusion unknown? Because, nobody is talking about the benefits global warming could have on the world. I mean that seriously. Allow yourself to think of the kinds of benefits a rise of a few degrees in temperature over the span of a hundred years would have.

And, that’s the crux of the whole problem. We are being asked to imagine a future world free of all possibilities except two, both infinitely bad.

We are crippling ourselves by thinking this way. We are ignoring infinite possibilities, the stunning complexity of randomness, the laws of economics, spontaneous order, marginal utility, and we are assuming that we know what the best solution is for all of humanity based on speculation and uncertainty squeezed into a wager that was made 350 years ago.

This isn’t an argument. This isn’t proof. This tiny little exercise did not “just make the global warming debate completely obsolete.” This is simply another attempt at justifying controlling the entire global economy by the enlightened because the benighted just won’t pray hard enough.

**Pay attention to this particular point. The person in the video readily admits that to take significant action in a world where global warming isn’t happening will cause harm. But, he understates his case by many factors. Not only will it cause harm, it is very likely that it will be catastrophic harm, unimaginable to us. A few minutes later, he invites us to assume that these actions will be beneficial if global warming is really happening, because…in his estimation, these actions will stop something which will cause catastrophic harm, unimaginable to us.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

And, he’s not even considering that the drastic action he proposes may well have zero effect on global warming. Worse, he doesn’t consider that these drastic actions may make global warming worse, instead of solving it.

What happens when you apply a solution that may well have catastrophic consequences on a world where global warming is not happening to a world where global warming is happening? What happens if that “solution” has zero effect on global warming, or makes it worse, because it’s the very opposite of a solution?

The ultimate fallacy here is, the proposal this gentleman is urging us all to wager on has the possibility of being the absolute worst thing that has ever happened to humanity. It’s infinite bad (2)^infinity.


Filed under: Environment
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Justin M. StoddardThe Faith of Human Action
Posted at 11:43 am on October 7, 2013, by Justin M. Stoddard

Sometime back in the beginning of September, several of us decided to form a somewhat losely affiliated book club in order to read and discuss Human Action by Ludwig von Mises. Though some of us have read all or part of it in the past, a chance to collaborate with like-minded people on a work of such importance could not be passed up. So, the date of October 1st was chosen to start our reading. I assure you, the government shutdown that also occurred that day was pure coincidence.

I’ve sped ahead of my co-readers somewhat, so to slow myself down, I’m also reading The God That Failed, which is a collection of essays by 20th Century writers about their disillusionment with Communism. As you might imagine, the subject matter of both books go well together.

I wrote the following on our Facebook wall:

I’m reading The God That Failed by Koestler, et al. The very first line struck me as rather timely and relevant, given our reading of Human Action.

“A faith is not acquired by reasoning. One does not fall in love with a woman, or enter the womb of a church, as a result of logical persuasion. Reason may defend an act of faith – but only after the act has been committed, and the man committed to act.”

Compare this to Mises:

“Human action is necessarily always rational….The ultimate end of action is always the satisfaction of some desires of the acting man.”

The phrase “You cannot reason a person out of a position they did not reason themselves into,” comes to mind.

I’ve hated that phrase for decades now, because it’s so apodictically false.

I suspect Koestler is being poetic, and it does allow him to skip the making of the sausage in order to push his narrative along, but it bothers me, for some reason.

This struck up an interesting back and forth between Brian McCall and myself:

Brian: “I’m not so sure those two quotes are in disagreement. Something may be rational without being reasoned into. Even if the rationality of it is only found at a more meta level. Someone may not reason themselves into faith (actually the word “acquire” I think is wrong; it implies a deliberate process of reason and action). But something deep in their neurology perhaps wants it.”

“Everything is rational provided you’re looking at the right chain of causation.”

Me: “Yes, but faith is acquired by reasoning. Whether the reasoning is good or bad is another question. By Mises’ definition, faith is rational.”

Brian: “I don’t think of faith as something one acquires. Either one has it or they don’t. I consider it to be something more like one of Mises’ ultimate givens. We don’t act to acquire faith. We already possess it, almost perhaps as an instinct. What we do is act to learn particular belief systems to satisfy a sense of faith.”

Timo: “Mises was arguing against Pareto, who believed in nonrational motivation. Mises regarded preferences and motives and all ends as beyond rationality. The rational was the realm of means, where they were judged on efficiency to achieve given results. This is a demarcation problem, and a terminological matter.”

Brian may be on to something here, but I’m not fully convinced. I often accuse liberal atheists of substituting their faith and belief in God with an equal faith and belief in government. I’m not the only one. So many people have recognized this phenomenon that the phrase “secular theist” has started trending. But, really, this is just a re-discovering of old attitudes. Old school atheists were very open about why theistic religion had to be sacrificed before secular religion could be implemented. The intellectuals of the day used this cynicism brilliantly. They simply shifted (sometimes with great violence) the Proletariat’s faith in God to a faith in the government.

The new atheists fail to see the connection at all. They scoff at the idea of God, but they become indignant when their faith in government is pointed out to them. Their faith is blind to them, even though they profess it daily.

I’ve often puzzled over why people are so blind to their faith in government. Why would one choose to believe that minimum wage laws not only work, but are actually beneficial? Why would one choose to believe that there can be such a thing as “free” health care?

Back to the original quote by Koestler:

“A faith is not acquired by reasoning. One does not fall in love with a woman, or enter the womb of a church, as a result of logical persuasion. Reason may defend an act of faith – but only after the act has been committed, and the man committed to act.”

It very well may be as Brian postulates. It may be that “faith” is an inherent instinct in all of us. Some of us are better at either tuning it out or repressing it.

I think it’s a bit more nuanced than that. This faith we speak of is largely a social signaling system. It is acceptable to believe that minimum wage laws work and are beneficial because our peers believe it. It is acceptable to believe that going to the voting booth and pulling the lever actually does anything because our peers believe that it does.

That kind of faith seems incredibly rational to me.

Anyway, feel free to discuss.


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Justin M. StoddardFirst, Do No Harm
Posted at 11:30 pm on August 3, 2012, by Justin M. Stoddard

Just as the Kony 2012 phenomenon swept through the Internet earlier this year, so now does the current Chick-fil-A kerfuffle.

Don’t worry, this post isn’t about Chick-fil-A specifically, but instead about some things I’ve learned and observed over the past few weeks as I followed (and often commented upon) the controversy.

The comments Dan Cathy made about same sex marriage didn’t greatly disturb me apart from the notion that they were completely wrong-headed and just blatantly silly. After all, the president of the United States pretty much expressed the exact same opinions up until recently when we learned that his views had “evolved.” One can be cynical about that, as he is up for re-election and the timing of that “evolution” was, how do I put it, convenient. But, one can also be charitable about it. We tend to admire a person who is willing to change their mind on an issue.

Still, the comments in and of themselves were enough to dissuade me from doing business there. Truth be told, this was not anything near a huge sacrifice for me as I’ve only been a patron there less than ten times in my entire life.

When it came out that Chick-fil-A had given millions of dollars to groups who actively advocate for and use the power of government as a means to deny basic individual rights, it brought up the level of ire I had towards the company. If Chick-fil-A were to go out of business tomorrow, that would be just fine with me.

But, things rapidly got out of hand, as the issue became more inflamed. A call for a general boycott turned into calls for government action against Chick-fil-A. Various mayors and city council members vowed that they would not allow any new franchises within their cities. State-funded universities began campaigns to ban the stores from their campuses.

I must give credit where credit is due, as many liberal minded people opposed these actions. But there were (and are) plenty of people who support these measures.

This, of course, set off a counter-protest where people flocked to Chick-fil-A to show their support. I like to think of myself as a rather incredulous person, so I’m not overly impressed with many of the claims that this was a counter-protest in support of “free speech.” I’m sure there were people involved for whom that was their primary motivation, in that they were protesting an obvious overreach and stated threats from clueless and bumbling government officials.

No, this was a counter-protest that wrapped itself in the moniker of “traditional family values,” which the people involved believed were under attack.

The obvious point that needs to be made here is, one is not very credible if they say they are protecting “free speech” with one breath while advocating against another basic human right.

Thus, during and after the counter-protest, those who opposed Chick-fil-A began to ratchet up the issue. I received two private messages from friends on Facebook informing me that they noticed that I had “liked” Chick-fil-A’s page. They were sure, they said, that this was done in the past, but they wanted to point it out to me so I could correct that error.

Now things were getting downright creepy. It was then that several things occurred to me.

I witnessed very few people (on either side) being intellectually consistent about this issue. I decided to test this theory out by asking (on various threads and in person) this question, as can be seen in this blog post:

“Chick-fil-A gives money to groups that advocate against individual rights. That’s bad. It’s why I won’t be doing business there anymore. You seem to be showing a great deal of outrage over this, so allow me to reframe the problem on a larger scale.

The president of the United States actively assassinates people in other countries. He reserves the right to assassinate American citizens by way of secret committee. He reserves the right to keep any of that information from you. He maintains a prison on an island where no average American is allowed to go, where he oversees a program of torture and secrecy. He actively rejects the “will of the people” by violently shutting down marijuana dispensaries in states that have democratically elected to allow them. He has deported more people from the United States than any president in U.S. history, and he still does not actively campaign for same-sex marriage.

In my estimation, the president of the United States has done inestimably more damage to humanity than Chick-fil-A could ever hope to accomplish.

Will you be withdrawing your support for him this coming election?”

Only one person said yes to that question, and he made that decision long ago. The responses ranged from (and I’m paraphrasing, here):

  • Romney would kill more people.
  • Not voting would only add to the problem.
  • The president wouldn’t do those things if it wasn’t for the Republicans.
  • It’s not a fair analogy.
  • You have to work within the system if you want to change it.

It seems to me that these are very unsatisfying answers. My reply to these assertions would be:

  • Should I eat at Chick-fil-A because another restaurant would be more homophobic?
  • Would boycotting Chick-fil-A only add to the problem?
  • I find it hard to believe that a president who gives himself the authority to assassinate Americans couldn’t also find the authority not to assassinate Americans.
  • It’s an apt analogy in that you’re holding a restaurant up to a higher moral standard than the president you vote for.
  • If that’s the case, you should be spending your money at Chick-fil-A in hopes that they will change their stance.

Those are specific examples. The overall gist of the counter-arguments was that Romney will do all those things but also fight against same sex marriage, abortion rights, women’s rights, and financial regulation.

The counterpoint here is obvious.

The price that some people are willing to pay for same-sex marriage, abortion rights, women’s rights, and financial regulation is assassination, torture, deportation, murder, and misery elsewhere.

I rephrased the question:

“If the president of the United States were successfully able to completely change the policies in Russia so that same-sex marriage were legal, women’s rights were enshrined, abortion rights were protected, and there was complete universal health care coverage and drastic financial regulation, but actively targeted Americans with drone attacks, tortured them without due process, and randomly inserted heavily armed soldiers into metropolitan areas, would you still vote for him?

If not, why?”

I’ve received no answer to that question.

The inherent contradiction between the answers to those two question (though they are the same in every way, except for the people affected by the policies) is this.

People delude themselves in thinking that the first choice is at best virtuous, and at worst necessary, and recognize that the second choice is murderous.

But, in fact, both choices are murderous.

The last question I ask is, what’s the threshold? What act would the president have to do that would be so vile, so evil that you would not only withdraw your support for him, but actively oppose him?

If targeted, secret assassinations of American citizens by way of secret committee and operating a secret prison where people are tortured without due process on an island where no average American can ever visit isn’t enough for you to oppose him, where are you willing to draw the line?

I’m not overly optimistic about the answers I would receive to that question for this reason: Groupthink, identity politics, and the idea of “collective rights” makes us do incredibly stupid and evil things.

There are many people still alive who not only actively apologize for, but support the tens of millions of deaths that occurred under the Stalin and Mao dictatorships. There are many more who still claim that dropping two atomic bombs on Japan was “the right thing to do.”

Today, there are people who explicitly support assassinations, murder, and torture for ideological reasons. There are also many who implicitly support it because of their ideology.

Meaning, the concept of gay rights or women’s’ rights or class rights are more important to them than individual rights, namely the right not to be murdered or tortured. They are choosing the group they identify with over the individual. So long as the president perceived as working for these group rights, individuals elsewhere pay the price.

They are just as bad as the people counter-protesting in the name of “free speech” while advocating for the rights of Christian values. As long as Christian values are being upheld, the individual does not matter.

Groupthink clouds judgement. Mob mentality destroys it. The group infused with overwrought emotion and righteous indignation discourages dissent or reason.

I’ve known people in my life who have said bigoted things. Some of those people I love dearly. I know, to the deepest depths of my soul, that most of them are not bad, bigoted people. They have expressed mistaken views, which can change. If I didn’t believe that, I would not associate with them.

If I am intellectually honest, I must admit that others have the same qualities.

Acknowledging these simple things decouples you from what the group thinks and forces you to relate to individuals qua individuals. When you’re facing an individual rather than ideological groupthink, it tends to tamp down the anger a bit.

Which brings me to my conclusion.

The concept of rights based on identity politics is a ridiculous notion. I don’t believe in gay rights or women’s rights, or rights for the poor, rights for the rich, for the handicapped, men’s rights, transgender rights, American rights, terrorist’s rights, or for any other group rights.

There are only individual rights.

I fight for same-sex marriage not because I have many friends who are gay and have a personal stake in the matter. I fight for same-sex marriage because it’s a fundamental right, left up to only the individuals involved. I fight for the free movement of people across borders not because I identify as an immigrant, but because it is a fundamental individual right to go where you please, so long as you’re not hurting anyone. I fight for the rights of children not being murdered in Afghanistan, not because it gives me an ideological advantage over someone else, but because it is a fundamental human right not to be murdered from the sky.

I cannot and will not make a choice between them. I’m not willing to shrug my shoulders at one issue to gain an ideological victory on another issue.

People tend to get very indignant when I tell them I do not vote in national elections. Whatever reason I give them, it only makes them more angry. I’ve been told that I’m apathetic (clearly not true), that I have no right to complain (ironically ironic), that I am contributing nothing (obviously false) or that I should be ashamed (I’m not).

Countering these points almost always leads to more conflict.

That’s understandable. When it comes down to it, it’s a religious debate, and people tend to get very uncomfortable and defensive when their beliefs are challenged.

But the real reason I don’t vote is simple. I’m an individual. I try to face the world on those terms. I try to identify with everyone (regardless of gender, race, or country of origin) on those terms.

Voting is a mob action. Voting makes people view the world through a collective lens. It’s always an issue of “us” against “them.” When it’s “us” against “them,” the end result is always someone else suffering so you can get what you want.

Nobody should suffer because of my preferences. Nobody need die for abortion rights or the right to get married to whomever you please.

That’s why I am completely disengaged from the political process.

I don’t ever want to be put in the position where I hold the restaurant I eat at to a higher moral standard than the president I vote for.


Filed under: Culture, Foreign Policy, Public Choice
Comments: 2 Comments
 

Justin M. StoddardNobody Believes What They Say They Believe
Posted at 9:20 pm on August 1, 2012, by Justin M. Stoddard

According to a recent Gallup Poll, 46% of Americans believe in creationism over evolution. That is, they believe that the earth was formed roughly 10,000 years ago and was first inhabited by Adam and Eve. Another 32% of Americans believe that evolution was/is theistically guided; meaning that life took millions of years to evolve, but God guided the process. This fits in line with the intelligent design argument.

These numbers are often referred to with great shock and concern from the scientific community. Many on the left of the political spectrum are also very anxious about the implications. Evolution, after all, is a scientific fact. It’s been proven to a degree of certainty which leaves no serious scientist in doubt. We know via empirical evidence that the earth is billions of years old. We have a rough, but fairly good, understanding of how life was created. We understand the evolutionary process. Nearly every field of science confirms at some level that evolution is a hard fact.

When people get together and insist that creationism or intelligent design be given time in the classroom, there is always a loud and ferocious cry of protest. In recent history, nearly every single proposal to do so has been soundly defeated. Intelligent design took such a beating in the first decade of this century that it’s not seriously considered by much of anyone, anymore. Creationists have taken their education outreach to the confines of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.

Atheists, in particular, make a much concerted effort to pile onto creationists. They are derided, made fun of, insulted, mocked, slandered, and generally reviled at conferences, in various fora, etc. One need only make a brief visit to any serious atheist or left-leaning website to see what I’m talking about.

Now, it may be that creationists often overreach and deserve some of the criticism. There is, after all, the pretty well defined Exclusionary Clause of the First Amendment. Regardless of what people believe or don’t believe, people generally don’t want other people to push their beliefs on them or their children.

Being a creationist may also signal other intentions to people. You may be against stem cell research, or gay marriage, for example. People make assumptions. Some assumptions are right, and some are wrong. It all just depends.

Regardless, those who don’t believe, or don’t believe as strongly seem to view those who do as extremely irrational, if not just plain stupid. I suspect there is more than just a bit of class warfare going on, here, but the basic point remains. For the most part, nonbelievers loathe the irrationality of those who do believe.

I think atheists and those on the left often overstate their case for alarm on the issue. There is good evidence to suggest that even though 46% of people say they are creationists, a good portion of them don’t actually believe it. Here’s where it gets tricky. They may believe they believe it, but their actions often belie those beliefs. Many creationists are taking a literal interpretation of the Bible, after all, but clearly nobody actually literally follows the tenets of the Bible. You don’t see people taking and killing slaves, or murdering their children, or adhering to the abstinence of shellfish or woven cloth because the Bible dictates it.

If people actually literally believed in the tenets of the Bible or the Koran, then there would be an incredible amount of bloodshed, violence, and anguish in this world. Also, there would never be any such thing as “interfaith” dialogues. If your way is the only way to heaven, what’s the point in understanding other beliefs?

People like Sam Harris are extremely alarmed that the former head of the Genome Mapping Project and current head of the NIH is a person who has a “close personal relationship” with God. It seems to me, however, that Francis Collins is a brilliant doctor and scientist regardless of his personal religious beliefs. In other words, his belief in God has nothing to do with how he conducts his job, regardless of what Sam Harris thinks.

I perceive religion in America as something that’s been tamed. As Bryan Caplan says in The Myth of the Rational Voter:

Given the separation of church and state, modern religion has a muted effect on nonbelievers. Scientific progress continues with or without religious approval.

There’s more to that quote, which I’ll reveal in a bit.

There was a time when I would have seen these poll results as extremely troubling, but not really anymore, given the reasons I’ve explained above. The problem isn’t usually with religion, but in how government sometimes favors religion over the individual.

Here are the results of another recent poll taken in New York State. Regardless of political allegiances, nearly 70% of voters from every region polled favored raising the minimum wage from $7.25 per hour to $8.50 per hour. Certainly more Democrats than Republicans agreed with the proposal, but even 58% of Republicans were in favor.

Just as with creationism (as pointed out above), the case against minimum wage laws has been definitively made. They don’t work. It has been empirically proven that minimum wage laws increases both unemployment and poverty. They adversely affect African Americans and teenagers the most. They quite literally shut people out of the workplace.

It can be argued that creationism is wrong and irrational, but in today’s modern society, you’d have a harder time proving that it was overly harmful. Contrast that with minimum wage laws, which are clearly very harmful.

My question is, why does one belief get so roundly derided by the public at large (even when the majority of the public believes in God), when the other belief gets pretty much a free pass?

In fact, it’s more than a free pass. People who believe in minimum wage laws are afforded an elevated social status. Don’t believe me? Go to work tomorrow and say the following: “Minimum wage laws hurt the poor, cause more poverty, and create unemployment.” What do you think the reaction will be? You’d be perfectly correct in saying it. Facts would be on your side. You could cite countless empirical studies and refer to most any economist (left or right) on the subject, and they would back you up.

Creationism is banned from the classroom, but incredibly harmful economic beliefs aren’t. Why?

I suspect it’s a bit of psychological projection. Voters may think they are being rational about a subject, but they most likely aren’t. As the rest of Bryan Caplan’s quote goes:

“Thus, it is in mind set, not practical influence, that voters resemble religious believers. Given the separation of church and state, modern religion has a muted effect on nonbelievers. Scientific progress continues with or without religious approval. Political/economic misconceptions, in contrast, have dramatic effects on everyone who lives under the policies they inspire–even those who see these misconceptions for what they are. If most voters think protectionism is a good idea, protectionist policies thrive; if most believe that unregulated labor markets work badly, labor markets will be heavily regulated.”

And if voters think that minimum wage laws are good idea, then minimum wage laws will be implemented, regardless of whether they actually work.

This is because voters have no incentive to be self interested in the voting booth. Votes are free, and a person’s chance of swaying an election one way or the other may be anywhere from one in millions to astronomical. This means that a person can vote socially and enjoy the social benefit of doing so.

If voters were really as self-interested as everyone insists, they would be spending much more time determining the truth of the matters they are voting on. For example, if a single vote cost a person $10,000 and only affected him and his loved ones, he’d probably get it right. Since votes are free, effect everyone equally, and have little to no chance of making a difference, you are free to skip self interest and vote socially instead. Minimum wage is popular, so that’s the way you go. Being against gay marriage is popular, so that’s the way you go.

As with creationism, it’s my opinion that even though people say they are enthusiastically in favor of minimum wage laws, they don’t actually believe what they say they believe. If minimum wage laws really did help the poor, helped alleviate poverty, and were inclusive for all minorities, they would be advocating for even higher wages. Why not more than $100 per hour?

Currently, we have very smart people like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Neil deGrasse Tyson advocating for income redistribution, the idea that robotics will eventually cause mass unemployment and poverty, a call for mass “investment” into NASA, and governmental health care reform.

These ideas go from pretty silly to economically horrible. Sam Harris shows little understanding or depth in his arguments. Neil deGrasse Tyson makes horrible errors in logic, and Richard Dawkins just gives us feel-good rhetoric without understanding the economic ramifications of what he’s espousing.

Compared to these ideas, creationism is the very least of my worries.


Filed under: Culture, Public Choice
Comments: None
 

Justin M. StoddardI Have a Very Simple Question
Posted at 5:28 pm on August 1, 2012, by Justin M. Stoddard

Conor Gaughan makes a very good and salient point about Chick-Fil-A and the current controversy surrounding the company.

When gays get so angry about a chicken sandwich, it is because Chick-fil-A has given around $5 million to fight to discriminate against us. When we praise brave Eagle Scouts who give up their badges in protest of the Boy Scouts of America’s prejudice, it’s not about scoring political points; it’s because there are kids in dens who are being taught to believe that they are less than equal. When we rant about the pastor who preaches that gays should be thrown into a concentration camp, we scream out of fear. And our fears are justified — in the last seven days, a lesbian in Nebraska was carved with a knife, a gay man in Oklahoma was firebombed, and a girl in Kentucky was kicked and beaten — her jaw broken and her teeth knocked out — while her assailants allegedly hurled anti-gay slurs at her.

I am your coworker, your frat brother, your cousin, your neighbor. And I am watching as you defend institutionalized discrimination.

And right he is. This is precisely why I don’t give any money to Chick-Fil-A. It’s precisely why I gave up on the Boy Scouts and sent them back my Eagle Scout award over 15 years ago. I don’t like associating with bigots. I would rather not give them my time, or my money. To me, bigotry (whether it targets homosexuals, asians, African Americans, or any other group) is the most base form of collectivism.

Let me now write my own paragraph.

When people get so angry about the president, it’s because the office has given billions of dollars to prop up countries that actively kill homosexuals and other groups not in line with the regime. It’s because the president has admitted that it is pretty much he alone (along with a select, *secret* committee) that targets people for assassination by drone attack in various countries around the world. Thousands have been murdered thus, the majority of them innocent bystanders or children. To get around this, the president unilaterally pronounced that anyone near a drone strike was from now on labeled a viable military target.

We get angry because the United States has the highest prison population per capita in the world. The majority of which are non violent offenders. These people languish behind bars when a simple brush stroke from the president would at least set in motion the process of freeing them. So far, no word comes from the president. In fact, he has ordered the DEA to step up raids of marijuana dispensaries in states which democratically voted to allow them.

We get angry because this president has deported more people from the United States than any president in history. We get angry because GITMO is still open, and in fact is receiving a multi million dollar upgrade, despite his promise that the very, very first thing he would do would be to close it.

I emphatically make this point, and a dare anyone to refute it. The actions of the President of the United States over the past 3 1/2 years have had monumentally more ruinous effects on society than Chick-Fil-A could ever dream of achieving.

Chick-Fil-A actively gives money to people who spout hate? The president actively murders people half way around the world.

Now, let me ask a question. To all the people out there righteously angry at Chick-Fil-A. To all who are calling for a boycott (which I support), or encouraging municipalities and college campuses to ban them (which I do not support), or just generally chiding anyone they meet who dares eat at Chick-Fil-A (for whatever reason)…let me ask you…

Who will you be voting for this election?


Filed under: Foreign Policy, Freedom of Expression, Immigration, Politics
Comments: 1 Comment
 

Justin M. StoddardSteve Jobs: A Man of Good Works — Part I
Posted at 10:30 am on November 6, 2011, by Justin M. Stoddard

First, allow me to clarify a few points about the video below before I start into the meat of the matter.

The video is obviously edited — for what purpose, I do not know. It could have been to cut down its length or to stitch together a narrative that puts the person being interviewed in the worst possible light. Though, admittedly, given his statements, I don’t know how that’s possible.

I understand that people who are put on the spot with a camera in front of their face are going to stammer and search for words. After seeing thousands of these kinds of videos, I’m convinced that people generally do not do well when confronted with on-the-spot interviews.

  • The sentiments expressed seem to be endemic to the Occupy Wall Street movement.
  • The easiest way for me to address this is to take it point by point with a wrap-up at the end.
  • This is going to be a long post.

Man on the street: “The top one percent don’t produce anything.”

There are some awkward questions that need to be asked in response to this assertion.

Besides the obvious catchy “one percent of the people own 43 percent of the wealth” trope, why not move that arbitrary line to the top five percent? If the top one percent own 43 percent of the wealth, wouldn’t it follow that the top five percent own even more of the wealth? How about the top ten percent? The top 25 percent?

The arbitrary line is chosen because it fits nicely into the idea of the proletariat struggling against the bourgeois. What is being insinuated here is the top one percent own the means of production while the 99% are the factors of production.

How is the “1 percent” being defined here? One percent of the population of the United States or of the population of the world?

The question matters a great deal, for a couple of reasons:

One percent of the population of the United States is a little more than 3 million people (approximately the population of Mississippi). Just playing the numbers game, it strains all credulity to accept the assertion that the more than 3 million people being referenced here don’t produce anything.

One percent of the world’s population is about 70 million people (approximately the population of California, New York, and Ohio combined). Of course, this takes credulity to the breaking point.

The question hardly needed to be asked. The only population statistic being used here is the population of the United States. The OWS crowd skirts over the fact that if they were to count the entire population of world, the majority of them would end up in the top 1 percent of people who control wealth. That’s simply an argument they dare not broach. I’ve addressed this briefly here, but I’ll expound on it just a bit.

Even adjusting for purchasing power parity, if you make $34,000 or more per year, you are in the top 1 percent of world income earners. Income disparity between someone who makes $34,000 and someone who makes $500,000 per year in the United States seems pretty significant, but not nearly as significant as the income disparity between someone who makes $34,000 per year in the United States and someone who makes $7,000 dollars per year in India, or $1,000 per year in Africa.

The standard argument against this line of reasoning goes like this:

“Living off of $1,000 a year in sub-Saharan Africa is a lot easier than living off of $1,000 a year in the United States. In order for the comparison to actually have any meaning we need to adjust income for the cost of living in these various countries. In some places it is possible to live off of a dollar a day, and in some places you can’t live off of a hundred dollars a day.”

Lest I be accused of making up my own argument to refute, that’s a response I got on a recent Reddit thread addressing what I said above.

At first blush, this makes quite a bit of sense. Commodities do seem to be more expensive in the United States than they are in the Sub-Sahara (unless you are living in a country with hyper-inflation). Earning $1,000 per year will certianly not give you the purchasing power to buy or rent a house or an apartment. You may or may not be able to afford transportation. Food and clothing would also be difficult to acquire.

But, one is tempted to ask; would you rather live in the United States with an income of $1,000 per year or in Sub-Saharan Africa with an income of $1,000 per year?

Here are the two main problems I see:

First: The United States (and other First World countries) have many orders of magnitude more consumer goods and commodities to choose from than all of the Sub-Sahara put together. In the United States, $1,000 goes much further because there is so much more you can do with it. You must also consider basic welfare entitlements to every poor citizen in the United States to be used for food, shelter and clothing, along with other factors of income like child support payments and not being required to pay taxes.

It further discounts the ability to barter for goods, rely on charity, and utilize the cast-offs of the rich and middle class. Our country is awash with high-class “junk.” It is very easy to acquire clothes, furniture, gadgets (TVs, microwaves, phones, radios, etc.) just by asking for it. It’s unbelievable how much stuff the well-off just leave on the curb for others to pick up. Whole virtual communities like Freecycle and Craigslist thrive around the concept of either exchanging these types of goods or just giving them away. If you are savvy enough, it is possible to get hundreds of dollars worth of name brand products for free through the practice of extreme couponing. There are literally hundreds of blogs dedicated to the concept of extreme frugality, meaning there are people in this country who choose to live well below the poverty line by recycling, reusing, budgeting, couponing, growing their own food, bartering, etc. From all accounts, they have healthy and happy lives.

Second: If you take all other factors into consideration, even for those at the very bottom of the socio-economic scale, life is comparatively much better here. On average, people in the United States live 20–35 years longer than those in the Sub-Sahara. In America, there is an infant mortality rate of eight out of every 1,000. In Mali, the rate is 191 out of 1,000.

While millions have perished in Africa because of famine, I have not been able to find any account of a single person starving to death in America because of an inability to acquire food. There are rare cases in which people are starved through abuse or neglect, but the issue of general access to food was not a factor. On the contrary, we are constantly reminded that we have an epidemic of obesity in our country. Looking at population statistics, this is a problem that affects the poor almost exclusively.

Millions more have been butchered in war, slavery, and genocide in Africa during these past 20 years. With the exception of 9/11, war, slavery, and genocide have killed exactly nobody in America — unless you count the “War on Drugs.” (I’m excluding here our military adventures overseas — which both liberals and conservatives love — and focusing on civilian deaths within our borders.

More than 1 million people die from AIDS/HIV in the Sub-Sahara each year. Nearly 2 million more contract the disease yearly. The region accounts for about 14 percent of the world’s population and 67 percent of all people living with HIV and 72 percent of all AIDS deaths in 2009.

Contrast that to the United States, where there are approximately 1 million people infected with HIV. About 56,000 new people become infected each year, while roughly 18,000 per year die from AIDS.

Even the poorest of poor in America have the means and ability to protect themselves from sexually transmitted diseases that ravish other populations.

This represents just a cursory look over publicly available data, of course, but many inferences can be drawn. Living off $1,000 per year in the United States is actually a lot easier than living off of $1,000 per year in the Sub-Sahara.

In the United States, $1,000 per year still makes you pretty well off compared to a huge majority of the world’s population. Instead of the OWS asking why this is the case (different economic and political policies have different economic and political outcomes), they are insisting that it’s not the case, in the face of all empirical evidence. It’s a complete break with reality.

All of this begs a basic question. We know that there are millions of people living in Africa on $1,000 per year or less, but are there people living on $1,000 per year in America?

Maybe. According to the 2008 United States Census, the number of individuals living on $2,500 or less is 12,945. If you count households instead of individuals, that number drops to about 3,000.

Looking at demographics, we find that many of those either live on Indian reservations or in closed off religious communities. The vast majority live in very rural areas, with the exception of some communities in Texas and California.

This brings up another awkward question. Can we differentiate between the worthy and the unworthy poor? Is it safe to say that those living on an Indian reservation are most likely the victims of centuries of oppression, paternalism, and other factors beyond their control, and deserve our sympathies, while those whose religious doctrines call for unsustainable familial and community growth (though still collecting welfare entitlements) don’t?

Back to the original point. Taking this all into consideration, the speaker (along with 70 million of his fellow human beings) is more than likely in the top 1 percent of income earners in the world. Does he produce nothing? Do the other 70 million people produce nothing?

If he had a shred of intellectual honesty, he would advocate taxing anyone who makes $34,000 per year or more at a very high rate so that money can be redistributed to the absolute poor in Africa, India, China, Afghanistan, etc. If you’re going to advocate forced redistribution, what’s the more moral course of action? Paying off student loan debt and making secondary education free for those who are extraordinarily rich in comparison to world standards, therefore giving them further opportunities to collect more wealth, or giving that money to someone who will quite literally starve to death without it?

Interviewer: “Steve Jobs didn’t produce anything?”

Man on the street: “Steve Jobs took in the wealth that others produced. No, he didn’t.”

Even though you can tell he’s searching for the concept, what he’s attempting to recall is the Labor Theory of Value, which suggests that the value of goods derives from their labor inputs. Some take it a step further and suggest that goods should therefore be priced according to those labor inputs rather than in response to the demand for those products.

This murderous idea has been refuted too many times to count and isn’t taken seriously by mainstream economists. As with the devastating yet simple argument against Pascal’s Wager, this is a case of rudimentary logic pitted against religious thinking.

If a laborer labors all day making mud pies instead of pumpkin pies, he may well have put in a great deal of work, but still produces absolutely nothing of value. Not understanding why someone would do that, I come along with a novel idea. Why not hire that labor (which is obviously motivated to work) and have him make pumpkin pies instead? Which is more valuable, the labor or the idea that moved the labor in a profitable direction?

Given time, one of my workers gets a workable idea that it will actually make it more time- and cost-efficient to divide the labor and go into business for himself making ready-made pie crusts to sell back to me. In turn, he hires 10 more people.

Another person figures out that growing local pumpkins for production is not sustainable or efficient, so he saves his capital and starts an import business to buy pumpkins to sell back to me. In turn, he hires 10 more people. Of course, that import company creates demand from pumpkin farmers halfway across the country, signaling to them that they need to hire more people. But what about packaging? How will I wrap all those pies? Where will I get the metal for pie tins? How do I even make a pie tin? What if I want to branch off into cherry pies or apple pies? What if I want to sell coffee with those pies?

The Labor Theory of Value is an epic failure of imagination. At any given moment, there are two types of birds on the face of the earth, those that are airborne and those that are not. Do you know what the number of birds in each group will be, say, 10 seconds from now? The answer may well be impossible to ever figure out, but there is an answer as concrete and real as the computer screen you’re looking at. It will take a great deal of dispersed observation, knowledge, and computer power to ever figure out the answer to that question, but it takes an even greater amount of imagination to think of a use for the question in the first place.

On the labor side of the equation, how many people per day, independent of each other, not even knowing of each other’s existence, were involved in making Steve Jobs’s ideas a reality?

Can you imagine it? Can you even begin to try to imagine it? When you do, dig deeper. When you do that, dig deeper still. You will find yourself trying to comprehend a voluntary network of a number beyond your comprehension all working independently but in concert with each other in order to make that idea a reality. The vast majority have no earthly idea that they are working toward a common goal.

If you’ve read the essay “I, Pencil,” you can start to grasp the amazing complexity of what goes into creating one simple product. Once you’ve started to grasp that concept, you realize that an iPhone or a Macbook is nearly infinitely more complex than a pencil.

When you think you have a grasp on all of that, add into the mix all the competition that Steve Jobs inspired in the economy. Microsoft, Google, Android, Unix, Linux, smart phones, laptops, programming, software and hardware development, battery efficiency — the list goes on and on.

Multiply everything above by factors unimaginable when you add in each new facet of competition.

How many people were involved in making Steve Jobs’s ideas a reality? Like I said, there is a concrete answer to this question. I don’t doubt that computers will some day be able to figure it out. I’m not confident that it will ever happen in my lifetime. However, if you are able to imagine the several billion neurons in your brain exchanging countless bits of information each second, culminating in what we call human consciousness, then you are getting close to the complexity involved in the network of voluntary exchange Steve Jobs helped put into motion.

Now think of the consumer side of the equation. For the purpose of this example, let’s limit ourselves to the latest model iPhone. For about $199, plus a two year contract with a cellular phone company, you can walk out the door with an iPhone 4S.

Putting aside for a moment all the apps you can use, these are the features that come built in, off the shelf:

  • Two cameras, front and back. Rear camera is capable of HD, low light photography, f2/4 lens with face detection, and photo editing software.
  • 1080p HD motion stabilized video camera, accompanied by an editing suite and the ability to share videos instantly with anyone on the Internet.
  • Facetime video teleconferencing over a WiFi connection using either the front or rear camera.
  • Unlimited texting to other iPhone, iPad, or iPod users, with the ability to exchange videos or photos.
  • A digital assistant that is able to help efficiently organize your daily life. It syncs with any other device you use on iCloud.
  • A phone. Pretty standard, but it lets you talk to any other human being on the face of the earth who also has a phone. It’s ridiculously portable, so you can use it anywhere there is cell phone coverage, which is pretty much 90 percent of the United States.
  • Email. Check your Gmail, Yahoo, AOL, Hotmail, or any other industry-standard IMAP and POP mail systems. Access multiple accounts at once. Write and send email without ever touching your keyboard by using its voice recognition software, Siri.
  • Internet. You have a virtual world of information at your fingertips, accessible to you any time and anywhere.
  • An iPod allows you to access your complete music library, with instant access to many thousands of songs.
  • The video player allows you to rent or buy movies from iTunes, and either stream them or download them to your device.
  • The photo organizer will store all your photos and organize them by location, date, or face. Take a photo and it will automatically share with all other devices hooked up to iCloud. Share photos by text, Twitter, Flickr, or Facebook. Print wirelessly through AirPrint.
  • App Store with access to over 500,000 paid and free apps.
  • iTunes to buy music, movies, TV shows, and ringtones. Download whole college courses and thousands of podcasts.
  • Maps+Compass, with an automatically updated GPS displayed on up-to-date maps. Search for a location. Zoom in and out, view live traffic information, and receive point-by-point travel directions.
  • Game Center allows you to play games against others over the web.
  • Calendar.
  • Contacts allows you to organize everything you want to know about a person — address, all phone numbers, email addresses, birthdays, notes, websites, and anniversaries. Make a change on one device and it is updated on all others through iCloud.
  • Find My iPhone assists you in finding a lost or stolen iPhone by viewing its location on a map. Remotely wipe all info, remotely send a message to your phone to tell others it’s yours, and lock remotely.
  • Newsstand to read magazines, newspapers, etc.
  • An up-to-the-minute stock ticker.
  • Extended weather forecasts for multiple cities and locations.
  • A notebook.
  • Access to YouTube.
  • Voice Memos.
  • Calculator (scientific).

Another exercise in imagination, if you will: Consider every bit of technology listed above (we will ignore the wonderful advances in lithium battery, sensor, and storage technology for the purposes of this exercise) and the infrastructure needed for it to work. Now take it back in time just 20 years, to 1991. Keep in mind, all of this wonderful technology is crammed into 4.5 by 3.11 by 0.37 inches, with a total weight of 4.9 ounces.

How much would something with comparable functionality cost back then?

The logical answer would be that the technology did not exist 20 years ago, so it would be priceless. But this is a thought exercise, so we can at least break down some of the components and price them individually.

In 1991, the most common portable analog phone (cell phone technology was still in its nascent stages) was a Motorola MicroTac 9800X. It was lauded for its compact size, and for being the first flip phone on the market. It was an inch thick and nine inches long (when opened), and weighed close to a pound. The only thing it did was make phone calls. The quality of the calls were reportedly pretty bad. You couldn’t use the phone while traveling outside your metropolitan area, and it was pricey to make any phone call.

It sold for anywhere between $4,153 and $5,822 in current dollars (adjusted for inflation).

The first digital camera was released in 1991. It was a Kodak Digital Camera System, and had a resolution of 1.3 megapixels. It also came with a 200 MB hard drive that could store about 160 uncompressed images. The hard drive and batteries had to be tethered to the camera by a cable.

Cost in current dollars, adjusted for inflation: $33,317.

This is where I stopped. At just two laughingly inefficient components (according to today’s standards; back then, they were miracles of technology) in comparison to what comes standard on any iPhone available for $199, I was already hovering around an overall price of $40,000.

Extrapolate all of that out, including all the infrastructure required to make it work, and you can easily conclude that literally all the money in the world in 1991 could not buy you an iPhone.

Today, I can walk into a store conveniently located near me and get a device that makes it nearly impossible for me to get lost, lets me communicate with people I’ve known my whole life who are scattered all over the globe, allows me to take wonderful pictures and record moments of my life, provides access to all the information available on the Internet, streams any number of movies or TV shows directly to me, tells me an extended forcast, lets me video chat with my daughters and phone anyone I wish, along with any number of other things — all for the paltry sum of $199 and the price of a two-year contract.

A product that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, the Queen of England, and any royal prince would be unable to purchase 20 years ago is now as ubiquitous as the air we breathe. That’s what Steve Jobs produced. And, as a bonus, the wealth created by his idea provided the means to countless other people around the world to purchase what he produced.

Interviewer: “The system you’re interested in is one in which somehow that voluntary web of association is no longer allowed.”

Man on the street: “Correct.”

This pretty much speaks for itself. In this guy’s preferred system that disallows voluntary economic association, in order to get from point A to point B, a whole lot of murder, mayhem, theft, and rape will have to occur first with an end result of abject poverty for hundreds of millions of people.

Interviewer: “So, instead of those voluntary associations, what would you put in its place? Who would make all those decisions?”

Man on the street: “All decisions would be made democratically.”

There’s quite a bit of political philosophy that can be addressed here, but the next question pretty much sums it up for me.

Interviewer: “Like, for instance, when Athens democratically decided to kill Socrates?”

Man on the street:

This is a brilliant rejoinder. Popular democracy is nothing more than mob action. If everything is up for a vote and decidable by the “will of the people,” then there can be no individual rights, ever. The individual will always lose.

The argument I often hear in support of popular democracy goes a little something like this: Wouldn’t you vote against Hitler to keep him out of power? Well, the very fact that someone like Hitler can run for an election tells me that the system is completely invalid. If the election is deemed valid and workable because he weren’t voted in, it would be just as valid and workable if he were voted in.

That’s the long answer. The short answer is, “No, but I’d gladly shoot him in the face.”

Even the OWS crowd seems to understand that popular democracy is basically the rule of the mob, because they have set up rules in their assemblies dictating that 100 percent consensus must be reached before anything passes. But that just makes the mob smaller.

Man on the street: “I don’t believe there’s any need for individuals like Steve Jobs in this system to flourish based on their particular talents or particular genius.”

An argument from belief is a religious argument.

Also, framing an argument based on what you think that other people “need” is highly paternalistic. At worst, if carried out to its logical conclusion, this line of thought is murderous, if not genocidal.

What is not acknowledged or understood here is the notion that a person’s talents and particular genius are priceless. A person’s talent and particular genius is nearly the whole sum of a person. Disallow a person to use his talents or genius in voluntary association with others, and you’ve essentially murdered his spirit. You’ve destroyed the greatest resource on the face of the earth, and it can never be replaced. Ever.

Man on the street: “I don’t believe it’s possible to continue this kind of system. It’s a retrograde system. It’s a system that no longer works. It creates war. It creates mass unemployment. It creates poverty.”

I’ve already eviscerated this notion above. It obviously does work. It obviously does not create mass unemployment or poverty. It obviously does not create war.

In three minutes time, this person said he would do the following if he were in power:

  • Disallow voluntary association.
  • Steal money (and everything money represents) that doesn’t belong to him.
  • Impose mob rule.
  • Hobble those with talent.
  • Impose poverty on the masses.

None of this can be done without a whole lot of guns and a whole lot of cold-blooded murder. And in his mind, Steve Jobs creates war, poverty, and unemployment?

I’ll just put these few examples here.

  • Deaths in the Soviet Union from communism: 20 million
  • Deaths in Communist China from communism: 65 million
  • Deaths in Cambodia from communism: 2 million
  • Deaths in North Korea from communism: 2 million
  • Deaths in Africa from communism: 1.7 million
  • Deaths in Afghanistan from communism: 1.5 million (and climbing)
  • Deaths in Eastern Europe from communism: 1 million
  • Deaths in Vietnam from communism: 1 million
  • Deaths in Latin America from communism: 150,000
  • Deaths caused by Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan:  60 million

Combined with all other genocides, wars, famine and repression caused by national governments, the death toll for the 20th century is approximately 160 million.

If you took half of the population of the United States (every other man, woman, and child) and shot them in the head, you would have the number of people murdered by governments, the majority of whom were killed by their own governments.

  • Communism, socialism, Nazism, imperialism, theocracy, statism: 160 million dead.
  • Steve Jobs: Zero dead.

Of those 160 million murdered, how many may have turned out to be like Norman Borlaug, the man credited with saving up to 1 billion people worldwide from starvation? For those of you counting, that’s one seventh of the world’s current population. Can one honestly confront that number and still insist that talent and genius are not important? That free association should be done away with? That mob rule should prevail?

Man on the street: “You know, to hell with Steve Jobs.”

As Billy Beck brilliantly said when he linked to this video on Facebook, “Have you ever seen a man cut his own throat with philosophy?”

Well, dear reader, you just have.

[Cross-posted at Shrubbloggers.]


Filed under: Corporatism, Economic Theory, Efficiency, Gains From Trade, Labor, Market Efficiency, Philosophy, Property Rights, Regulation, Rhetoric, Taxes, Trade, Unintended Consequences
Comments: 1 Comment
 

Justin M. StoddardMore Bailouts for the Rich
Posted at 7:45 pm on October 20, 2011, by Justin M. Stoddard

The rich on Wall Street are demanding more bailouts:

The Demands Working Group of Occupy Wall Street unanimously endorsed and is circulating for discussion the following demand, which will be submitted to the General Assembly of OWS:

Jobs for ALL – A Massive Public Works and Public Service Program

We demand a massive public works and public service program with direct government employment at prevailing (union) wages, paid for by taxing the rich and corporations, by immediately ending all of America’s wars, and by ending all aid to authoritarian regimes to create 25 million new jobs to:

-Expand education: cut class sizes and provide free university for all;
-Expand healthcare and provide free healthcare for all (single payer system);
-Build housing, guarantee decent housing for all;
-Expand mass transit, provided for free;
-Rebuild the infrastructure—bridges, flood control, roads;
-Research and implement clean energy alternatives; and
-Clean up the environment.

Wait, you didn’t think I was talking about corporate bailouts, did you?

No, I’m talking about the rich people who make up the Working Group of Occupy Wall Street.

There is a very inconvenient and awkward question that is not being answered by the OWS crowd, as it pertains to wealth. Even making the assumption that the majority of those protesting are lower-middle class (a very liberal assumption, by anecdotal evidence), that would still mean that they are richer than 80 to 90 percent of the world’s population.

In fact, the poorest 5 percent of the United States is still richer than 68 percent of the world’s population. When compared to the poorest in India, China, or Afghanistan, the inequality is breathtakingly staggering. That college kid who is 60 grand in debt may as well be Bill Gates to a girl born in parts of rural China or Afghanistan.

Whenever this is brought up, you will inevitably hear this as a riposte:

“The problem is that attitude can be very easily used as an excuse for dismissing the complaints of literally anyone who is not the most oppressed, marginalised, and miserable people in the world.”

In other words, you cannot ignore what is bad here because things are worse elsewhere.

Well, that statement may well have merit, were it argued in another context. In this context, it is meaningless. Here’s why.

The above “demands” have everything to do with trying to bring the classes to a parity rather than fixing the economy. We are constantly barraged with the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent rhetoric. This, in itself is a lie. At worst, the people protesting on Wall Street are the 32 percent. More likely, they are the 20 percent and up.

If there were one shred of intellectual honesty in this movement, the above demands would be much, much different. They would be calling for taxing everyone in America at a much higher rate and redistributing that money to the poor in China and India. As the holders of 20 percent of the world’s wealth, they surely can afford it. After all, there are millions upon millions of people living in soul-crushing, abject poverty at this very moment. A vast number of them can never hope to make more than $1 per day, if that.

Instead, we get demands for free education and free housing for all (well, for all the rich people living in the United States, anyway — everyone else can go get stuffed). This is nothing more than the rich seeking taxpayer money for bailouts through the use of force.

Sound familiar?

I’m not being flippant, here. When it comes to entitlements, tariffs, trade barriers, immigration or where I purchase my goods, I’ve not yet heard a convincing argument for why I should regard a middle-class or working poor American in any higher regard than the absolute poor of other countries.

When I’m told that I should buy American in order to save American jobs, I wonder why a South Korean’s job is of any less importance. When I’m told that I must pay my fair share to help the deserving and undeserving (relatively) poor of this country, I wonder why the absolute poor from other countries shouldn’t get that money first.

But this is what it’s come to, now.

Rich college-age kids asking for taxpayer funded bailouts in order to relieve them of a debt (paid by the taxpayers) that they voluntarily took on with full knowledge that they would have to pay it back. Not only that, the vast majority of them have the means to pay off said debt through hard word and dedication.

Now, tell me again why I should care that a rich kid got a liberal arts degree that didn’t pan out, when tens of millions are living in absolute poverty around the world. Tell me again why rich kids with liberal arts degrees aren’t sacrificing their income, well-being, and happiness to redistribute their wealth to those more in need.

It’s time that we stopped focusing on this murderous idea of “inequality” when we should be thinking instead of relative standards of living over time.

Maybe then we can focus on what’s wrong with our economy rather than just fight about which rich group of people get which bailouts.

[Cross-posted at Shrubbloggers.]


Filed under: Economic Theory, Government Spending, Labor, Politics, Taxes, Trade
Comments: 3 Comments
 

Justin M. StoddardThe Language of Markets
Posted at 4:29 pm on April 14, 2011, by Justin M. Stoddard

Diane Ravitch of NYU talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the ideas in her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.

Click here for the podcast and the supplementary information.

Here’s the money quote from the very end of the discussion:

I think the problem with what I would call a market language rather than a market process is that, too often, government policy takes the language of markets, which is fundamentally about incentives, which is what this is about, and then tries to graft them into institutional arrangements where there’s no market process. There’s bureaucracy or government mandates, and the incentives are supposed to then be tailored and tweaked so that it looks like…acts like a market, because it has these incentives. And, the problem is without the full range of effects, it doesn’t work at all.

It reminds me of the California energy market, when they tried to use incentives to allocate energy, but they didn’t have a market. It was a government created market. And, it seems we’re are doing that in education, that the main beneficiaries are the people who, as we talked about earlier, who fund the…who create the circular add-ons, the consulting, the training, all the bells and whistles. They don’t get to the students. And, yet, it has the language of markets, so people like me are going to be lured into thinking, ‘well, they’re incentives, so it’s just like a market.’ But, it’s not. And, there’s no fundamental process that allows those market improvements to take place.

[Cross-posted at Shrubbloggers.]


Filed under: Education
Comments: 1 Comment
 

Justin M. StoddardBurn This Post
Posted at 7:20 pm on April 4, 2011, by Justin M. Stoddard

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!
Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

—A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt

In 1919, Oliver Wendell Holmes proclaimed that you cannot “shout fire in a crowded theater.” The ignorant, the credulous and the cynical have been misusing that phrase ever since. The argument usually follows a well defined euphemistic process:

Person X says something offensive or inflammatory. Person Y denounces not person X but rather his speech by saying, “there is no such thing as free speech. You can’t shout fire in a crowded theater.” Implied is that speech is already restricted, so there’s no problem in restricting it further for whatever the reason du jour.

I’ve heard this argument from both sides of the political spectrum.

Here’s the thing. Justice Holmes was using the ‘fire in a theater’ analogy to refer to speech that had no “conceivable useful purpose,” or was “extremely or inherently dangerous.” In this case, the speech in question were fliers handed out in Yiddish opposing the draft for Mr. Wilson’s war. (In case you missed it, Mr. Wilson is the great “Progressive” president that oversaw a government apparatus of which Josesph McCarthy could only dream, longingly.)

Is this perfectly clear? Justice Holmes, with the full weight of the judicial branch behind him, with enthusiastic support from the executive branch, ruled that any verbal or written opposition to war was of no purpose and was extremely dangerous, essentially nullifying any First Amendment rights on the issue. Many hundreds of people languished in prison for long periods of time for the “crime” of “shouting fire in a crowded theater,” and this is inevitably the problem with arguments from authority or arguments from tradition. They almost always lead back to Yiddish-speaking pacifists. Please remember this the next time one of your friends feels the need to use this canard in any future discussions about speech.

I am going to be unequivocal in what I say next. There will be no genuflection. There will be no apologies. I ask for no quarter and welcome all challengers on the subject.

I will stand up for and next to mentally ill, idiotic, book-burning pastors with all the ignorant religiosity and disgustingly offensive things they stand for before I’ll give one nod of acknowledgment to the likes of Senators Harry Reid and Lindsey Graham (Democrat and Republican, respectively) and their pusillanimous simpering; anytime, anywhere.

When Harry Reid says, “We’ll take a look at this of course … as to whether we need hearings or not, I don’t know,” I say, “It’s none of your business. It’s none of the government’s business.” Not only should Harry Reid be fundamentally embarrassed for uttering such a statement, his constituency should be incredibly alarmed.

When Lindsey Graham says, “I wish we could find a way to hold people accountable. Free speech is a great idea, but we’re at war,” my response is to ask, “when are we NOT at war?” I will also go on to say that in all of human history, nothing thoughtful or nuanced has ever been uttered after the phrase, “Free speech is a great idea, but. …”

Any bien pensant has more than a few choice words for the likes of Pastor Terry Jones and his ilk. He has expressed his First Amendment rights, as is his birthright, and we fight him in kind, with … wait for it … free speech. That’s how it works. We want people like Terry Jones and his maniacal followers in the light of day. We dare not use the force of government to censor him, for fear of driving him underground to fester, to lend him credence. That’s how it works in an enlightened, secular, civil society. When offended, we do not go around beheading people. We do not rend our clothes and beat our breasts. There are no overwrought gesticulations. We go to the public square, without hindrance of or succor from the government, and we fight it out.

It needs to be said. Clichéd euphemisms do not need protection. They are banal and lazy, but rarely offensive. We fight these battles at the desolate outer fringes of respectability. We do this because we understand that to censor speech is to set up a chair in the anteroom of all our minds, inviting any petty bureaucrat to have a seat. Whom do you trust to take on such a role? Senator Harry Reid? Senator Lindsey Graham? Who among your friends would you appoint the gatekeeper to your thoughts?

Burn a book? I would stand on the side of any person who burned every beloved word of William Faulkner if it demonstrated how serious I am about free speech. I say that with no small amount of emotion. Just the thought of it makes me tear up.

I do not wish to have the devil turn on me and, in turn, have no protection, all the laws of the land laid low.

Shame on those who think otherwise, whatever their political ideology.

[Cross-posted at Shrubbloggers.]


Filed under: Freedom of Expression, Politics, Religious Freedom, Rhetoric
Comments: 2 Comments
 

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Henry Hazlitt"[T]he whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson
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