Monday, May 28, 2007

Paul Krugman: Trust and Betrayal

Via Economists View

Paul Krugman says it's time to start treating "belligerent, uninformed posturing" on the war with the lack of respect it deserves:

Trust and Betrayal, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: “In this place where valor sleeps, we are reminded why America has always gone to war reluctantly, because we know the costs of war.” That’s what President Bush said last year, in a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.

Those were fine words, spoken by a man with less right to say them than any president in our nation’s history. For Mr. Bush took us to war not with reluctance, but with unseemly eagerness.

Now that war has turned into an epic disaster... Yet Congress seems powerless to stop it. How did it all go so wrong?

Future historians will shake their heads over how easily America was misled into war. The warning signs ... were there, for those willing to see them, right from the beginning... But the nation, brought together in grief and anger over the attack, wanted to trust the man occupying the White House. ...

It’s a terrible story, yet it’s also understandable...: nations almost always rally around their leaders in times of war, no matter how bad the leaders and no matter how poorly conceived the war.

The question was whether the public would ever catch on. Well, to the immense relief of those who spent years trying to get the truth out, they did. Last November Americans voted overwhelmingly to bring an end to Mr. Bush’s war.

Yet the war goes on.

To keep the war going, the administration has brought the original bogyman back out of the closet. At first, Mr. Bush said he would bring Osama bin Laden in, dead or alive. Within seven months..., however, he had lost interest: “I wouldn’t necessarily say he’s at the center of any command structure,” he said in March 2002. “I truly am not that concerned about him.” ...

But Osama is back: last week Mr. Bush invoked his name 11 times in a single speech, warning that if we leave Iraq, Al Qaeda — which wasn’t there when we went in — will be the winner. And Democrats, still fearing that they will end up accused of being weak on terror and not supporting the troops, gave Mr. Bush another year’s war funding.

Democratic Party activists were furious, because polls show a public utterly disillusioned ... and anxious to see the war ended. But it’s not clear that the leadership was wrong to be cautious. The truth is that the nightmare of the Bush years won’t really be over until politicians are convinced that voters will punish, not reward, Bush-style fear-mongering. And that hasn’t happened yet.

Here’s the way it ought to be: When Rudy Giuliani says that Iran, which had nothing to do with 9/11, is part of a “movement” that “has already displayed more aggressive tendencies by coming here and killing us,” he should be treated as a lunatic.

When Mitt Romney says that a coalition of “Shia and Sunni and Hezbollah and Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda” wants to “bring down the West,” he should be ridiculed for his ignorance.

And when John McCain says that Osama, who isn’t in Iraq, will “follow us home” if we leave, he should be laughed at.

But they aren’t, at least not yet. And until belligerent, uninformed posturing starts being treated with the contempt it deserves, men who know nothing of the cost of war will keep sending other people’s children to graves at Arlington.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Spinning Sparrow Shit

Bush's spin machine has jumped the shark:

ABC News

As President Bush took a question Thursday in the White House Rose Garden about scandals involving his Attorney General, he remarked, "I've got confidence in Al Gonzales doin' the job."

Simultaneously, a sparrow flew overhead and left a splash on the President's sleeve, which Bush tried several times to wipe off.

Deputy White House Press Secretary Dana Perino promptly put the incident through the proper spin cycle, telling ABC News, "It was his lucky day...everyone knows that's a sign of good luck."

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Lightning Strikes, Damages Jesus Statue

The Denver Post

Don't look for any religious symbolism here - it was only a freak act of Mother Nature, says Sister Ilaria.

The nuns at Mother Cabrini Shrine in Golden were thanking God on Sunday that no one was hurt when a bolt of lightning shot out of the sky and struck their 33-foot statue of Jesus.

The lightning bolt broke off one of Jesus' arms and a hand and damaged one of his feet, sending marble plummeting to the ground during a Saturday afternoon storm.

"There were pilgrims up there on the hill," Sister Ilaria said. "The biggest miracle is no one got hit with the falling debris."

The statue of Jesus, which had one hand pointing to his "sacred heart" and the other outstretched, sits atop a mountain near the shrine in the foothills of Golden. Drivers on Interstate 70 can see the statue in the hills, and at night, light illuminates the white marble.

Jesus, wearing a robe and glancing down, is 22 feet tall with an 11-foot base.

Sister Bernadette was doing paperwork in her office when she heard the crackle of lightning.

"We did hear a bang, but we didn't realize it was the statue," she said.

Ironically, a bit of science could have prevented this from happening. Unfortunately, they relied instead on faith.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Infinite Copyright

Arguing For Infinite Copyright... Using Copied Ideas And A Near Total Misunderstanding Of Property

Well, well, well. I don't think we've ever had a single story submitted to us more often than Mark Helprin's opinion piece in the NY Times over the weekend, trying (and failing) to support the idea that copyright deserves to last forever and be passed on from descendant to descendant. Before getting into the details of why he's wrong (and confused), I should note that it certainly is interesting that just as a new "copyright alliance" has formed to push for stronger copyright laws, we start seeing articles like this one and others pushing the argument for stronger copyright and patent laws to extreme positions. A conspiracy-minded person might suggest that this is no coincidence, and that the best way to get stronger copyright and patent laws passed is to first get people arguing about ridiculously strong laws, and then get them to agree to "lesser" changes that are still much stronger than what we have today.

On to Helprin's confused piece. Helprin makes the same mistake that many make of thinking that just because the linguistic convention is to call such things "intellectual property," it really is the same thing as property. His entire argument is based on this simple point -- and it's why he's wrong. It is amusing to note that some are already pointing out that Helprin's argument is a blatant copy of Mark Twain's -- and yet we doubt he paid the descendants of Mark Twain for it. However, the key to Helprin's problem is his total and complete misunderstanding of the purpose of property as well as the purpose of copyright law.

The purpose of property is to better manage the allocation of scarce resources. Since the resource is limited and not everyone can have it, property rights and property law make complete sense for a civilized society, allowing those with rights to the property to buy, sell and exchange their property. This allows for resources to be efficiently allocated through commerce and the laws of supply and demand. It's a sensible system for the best allocation of scarce resources. However, when it comes to infinite resources, there's simply no need to worry about efficient allocation -- since anyone can have a copy. The purpose of copyright (and of patent law), then, wasn't the same as the purpose of property law. It has nothing to do with more efficient allocation of scarce resources. Instead, it's a government-granted incentive -- a subsidy -- to encourage the creation of new works. In other words, it was a case where the government believed there was a market failure. That is, they believed that without this incentive, certain intellectual works wouldn't be created -- and the tradeoff between locking up that idea and creating more content was one that was worthwhile. However, they always knew that it was a tradeoff -- which is not at all true for real property. And, as an incentive, many would say it's been plenty of incentive for many authors who have written books -- including Helprin. As an author of 11 books, clearly the incentive was enough for him at the time. In effect, by arguing for extended copyright, Helprin is going back and asking the government to change the bargain it gave him and retroactively promise him more. It's as if you could go back to your boss for the work you did in 1975 and say you now want to be paid again for it. Or, more realistically, it's Helprin asking for welfare. He is asking the government to give him a greater subsidy. But, of course, copyright is not a welfare system.

The key point here is that in pretending (or simply ignorantly claiming) that intellectual property is the same as tangible property, Helprin completely misunderstands what rights copyright law gives him. It is not the same right as he has over his own property -- which, after he sells it, he no longer has control over it. Instead of "property rights," copyright gives him a monopoly right (which is what Jefferson preferred to call it) to control how his output is used even after it's sold. That's completely different than a property right -- and, again, the reasoning is simply as an incentive for creation, not to guarantee control. Apparently, Helprin needs quite a history and economics lesson -- but if he had his way, that would be much more difficult since such ideas would be locked up forever.

Time to Excommunicate Nature

Andrew Sullivan on the Intrinsic Evil of Flamingos:

A famous avian same-sex couple - together for six years in an English zoo - have now adopted an abandoned flamingo chick. They are engaging in what the Vatican calls an "intrinsic evil." How does the Vatican know caring for and rearing a chick that might otherwise perish is evil? Because natural law says so. Meanwhile, nature seems to be ignoring the voice of God, as interpreted by the Pope. Time to excommunicate Planet Earth? Your Holiness, standards are slipping.

My New Religion

Via Scott Adams:

My new goal is to be known as Sheikh Adams. For that, I’ll have to become a leader of some sort. Unfortunately, I am not evil enough to inspire people to do things that are not in their best interest, the way a proper leader would: “Ignore those machine guns and charge the hill!”

The best I can do is to inspire my followers to do what they want to do anyway. Today I would like each one of you to eat, poop, and have an orgasm. (Not at the same time.) Once you have completed the Holy Trinity, or whatever you call it in your house, you may refer to me as Sheikh Adams.

Theft Deterrent System

On an imaginary carlot:

Person 1: The label on this car's window says,"GM Theft Deterrent System". What the hell is a "GM Theft Deterrent System"? You'd think that simply being a GM would be sufficient to deter theft.

Person 2: Yup. That's the one. Now it's a "system".

Monday, May 21, 2007

John Marshall: Immigration

Interesting and short observations:

Talking Points Memo

There are many policy debates I understand well enough to navigate on my own. But immigration policy isn't one of them. I have clear-cut general views. But I'm not familiar enough with the details to navigate the debate or the particulars of specific pieces of legislation. But one thing that does seem clear to me is that a temporary worker program is bad policy on almost every count. It gives you all the downsides of unrestricted immigration -- downward pressure on wages, weakening of unions, etc. -- with none of the upsides. You have a cheap, readily exploitable labor pool with no prospect of the people who make up said labor pool of gaining any political power to provide some counterweight to the tendency to exploit them. I would even say that having a large body of resident aliens with no prospect of actual buy-in into the country is inherently dangerous -- in economic and civic terms. The fact that birth in the US still guarantees US citizenship, I guess, prevents the nightmare of intergenerational non-citizenship like they have in Germany and other countries. But I'm not sure it's much better.

I know none of this is particularly original. All these points have been made more acutely and articulately. But whether you want tight limits on immigration or expansive ones, untying the connection between work and citizenship seems bad for America.

I'm curious to hear your thoughts. And I'm interested to hear from others who understand the ins and outs of this bill what else can be said in its favor or against it.

I just passed a roadside construction project and for some reason the guy holding the "SLOW" sign stood out in particular.

Do you think that maybe the job of holding the SLOW sign is a job the construction crew reserves for the crewmember they like the least? Is there any other job on a construction crew that is as simultaneously humiliating and useless? You're in essence demonstrating your credulity to thousands of drivers a day, displaying your vain belief that anything short of a court appearance will get a driver to slow down. All the while holding a sign that summarizes your team-mates summation of your mental capacity.

"Hold the sign higher Charlie!", the grew shouts as they giggle about the glory days of old when each construction crew was allowed a single conical hard-hat inscribed with "dunce" in bold vertical letters.

The new guy's gotta start somewhere.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Hayek on Conservatives

"Let me return, however, to the main point, which is the characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened rather than that its power be kept within bounds. This is difficult to reconcile with the preservation of liberty. In general, it can probably be said that the conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes. He believes that if government is in the hands of decent men, it ought not to be too much restricted by rigid rules. Since he is essentially opportunist and lacks principles, his main hope must be that the wise and the good will rule - not merely by example, as we all must wish, but by authority given to them and enforced by them. Like the socialist, he is less concerned with the problem of how the powers of government should be limited than with that of who wields them; and, like the socialist, he regards himself as entitled to force the value he holds on other people."

America's Slide Toward Fascism

A writer to Andrew Sullivan:

What American 'conservatism' has become fits closely within the definition of fascism: an intensely nationalist movement intent on defining membership in the 'nation' on linguistic, religious, and (increasingly) ethnic/racial criteria, accompanied by an unquestioning loyalty to (male) authority, enshrined in family leaders, business leaders, religious leaders, and especially, the leader of the nation, who is seen as embodying the Nation. Loyalty to the Party or Movement and its ideology is of great importance. Violence is the preferred means of accomplishing goals. Diplomacy, compromise, negotiation, are all identified with (feminine) weakness. The rule of law is also despised, because it lacks the immediacy of (violent) action, and its emphasis on balance and its concern with proper procedure is also seen as a sign of (feminine) weakness.

What the writer doesn't mention is another necessary trait: the unwillingness to question or verify assertions that leads to those authority figures being able to smear, discredit and outright lie about it's enemies. This foments hate amongst the uneducated throngs and leads them to violence against the authority figure's enemies.

For example:
Has anyone else noticed the bizarre spectacle of many Bush-backing blogs demonizing Ron Paul for not saying that we deserved 9/11, at the same time eulogizing a man who absolutely and explicitly said that we did deserve 9/11: Jerry Falwell.

For a short time, religion makes an excellent filter to sort out those that are willing to follow without thinking critically or questioning authority.

Unfortunately for both fascism and religion, their conflicting authoritarian manners eventually lead to a power struggle between their respective leaders. Therefore after the authoritarian government gains control, they immediately look for ways to yank the rug out from the other.

Unfortunately, this whole mess means nothing but misery for everyone else.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Outsourcing is Great... Hey! Wait!

Ah, the number of journalists that wrote the outsourcing was just another great way to make America more competitive and simply opens the doors to better jobs for American workers.

Then why are journalist is such a flutter about a Pasadena paper that's outsourcing local beat reporting to India? Gives those underutilized reporters a chance to score that better job, right?


Anyone think that economists are gonna continue thinking outsourcing is so dandy after a few of them and their professor friends start losing tenure to a videoconference in Mumbai?

Monday, May 07, 2007

Famous Bad Opinions

Famous incorrect opinions. Threadworn to be sure, but still instructive.

From The Big Picture

"Man will never reach the moon regardless of all future scientific advances."
-Dr. Lee DeForest, "Father of Radio & Grandfather of Television."

"The Atomic bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert in explosives."
-Admiral William Leahy, US Atomic Bomb Project

"There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom."
-Robert Millikan, Nobel Prize in Physics, 1923

"Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons."
-Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers ."
-Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

"I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't last out the year."
-The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957

"But what is it good for?"
-Engineer at the Advanced ComputingSystems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip.

"640K ought to be enough for anybody."
-Bill Gates, 1981

"This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us,"
-Western Union internal memo, 1876

"The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?"
-David Sarnoff's associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.

"The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a 'C,' the idea must be feasible,"
-A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith's paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.)

"I'm just glad it'll be Clark Gable who's falling on his face and not Gary Cooper,"
-Gary Cooper on his decision not to take the leading role in "Gone With The Wind."

"A cookie store is a bad idea. Besides, the market research reports say America likes crispy cookies, not soft and chewy cookies like you make,"
-Response to Debbi Fields' idea of starting Mrs. Fields' Cookies.

"We don't like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out,"
-Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.

"Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible,"
-Lord Kelvin, president, Royal Society, 1895.

"If I had thought about it, I wouldn't have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can't do this,"
-Spencer Silver on the work that led to the unique adhesives for 3-M "Post-It" Notepads.

"Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You're crazy,"
-Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859.

"Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau."
-Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, 1929.

"Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value,"
-Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre, France.

"Everything that can be invented has been invented,"
-Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, US Office of Patents, 1899.

"The super computer is technologically impossible. It would take all of the water that flows over Niagara Falls to cool the heat generated by the number of vacuum tubes required."
-Professor of Electrical Engineering, New York University

"I don't know what use any one could find for a machine that would make copies of documents. It certainly couldn't be a feasible business by itself."
-the head of IBM, refusing to back the idea, forcing the inventor to found Xerox.

"Louis Pasteur's theory of germs is ridiculous fiction."
-Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872

"The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon,"
-Sir John Eric Ericksen, British surgeon, appointed Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen Victoria 1873.

And last but not least...

"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."
-Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977