Category Archives: Current Affairs

George Mason: Get a grip

In today’s Washington Post, regarding my school and implicit prejudice:

To project onto a person a preconceived opinion that is not based on actual experience or personal knowledge is manifestly wrong — so wrong, in fact, that it has a special name: prejudice. Yes, that’s right: To know only that a person is conservative, white, straight, Christian, cisgender and male but nonetheless draw a broad conclusion regarding that person’s overall position in life is to harbor a prejudice. There are millions of ways a person may be disadvantaged, many of which are immeasurable and difficult to detect but still tragic. The proverbial (or contemptuous, depending on whom you ask) white male may also be blind, illiterate, intellectually disabled, autistic, chronically depressed, mentally ill, physically disabled, suicidal, non-English speaking, prone to addiction, socioeconomically disadvantaged and so on.

To say that one demographic based on one personal trait has a greater moral claim over another demographic to favorable treatment by a state actor is nothing more than advocating the execution of a prejudice through government compulsion. That, too, has a name: fascism. And by selectively providing “resources” for one group over another, George Mason is flirting with it.

Daily Show: It’s too easy to be a (pretend) bigot

Scott Shackford at Reason on a horribly ironic, self-defeating Daily Show segment:

If there were a serious, widespread problem with discrimination against gay people, they wouldn’t have had to set up a fake food truck, would they? They’d be able to just go down to North Carolina and go to one of the existing businesses who were discriminating against gay people and do one of those interviews where they get people to say stupid things so the viewers can feel superior.

But they didn’t. They had to fabricate a Seinfeldian Soup Nazi-style environment to try to present an exaggerated possibility. It’s an attempt at satire. It’s an attempt to comically present a potential logical conclusion. But the flaw is that it actually highlights how little interest there is in widespread discrimination against gay people. There are no scenes of Jim Crow-style behavior targeting LGBT folks. Yes, discrimination exists, but there is no widespread conspiracy to exclude gay and transgender people, and there is so much more cultural pressure that can resolve it positively without getting the state involved.

The irony here is that they’re exaggerating the potential threat of a problem to justify legal intervention controlling individual behavior, which is … exactly what Gov. Pat McCrory and supporters of monitoring public bathroom use are doing. There is little actual justification for the state telling transgender people which facilities to use because the potential threats to others are significantly exaggerated. This is what happens when you try to use laws to fight cultural issues. Every problem must be overblown in order to justify using legislation and courts to punish your cultural opposition.

Signs of the times

From the erudite Theodore Dalrymple at Taki’s Magazine:

Since perfect peace cannot hold our attention for long, accustomed as we are to a life of constant stimulation, we tend, or feel the need, to focus our minds on the dramatic. Without violent manifestations of discontent and criminality somewhere in the world, we should soon grow bored. Universal contentment is our worst enemy and greatest fear.

So we are predisposed to see in infrequent and dramatic events not merely the events themselves, but signs of the times, a glimpse of the future, a future that makes us shudder in the same way as a horror film makes us shudder. Infrequent and dramatic events have transcendent meaning for us, so to speak, in a way that reigning peace, however preponderant, does not and cannot have.

Can climate change be good?

Dr. Ivar Giaever has the same thought I’ve had for years.

What is the optimum temperature for the earth? Is that the temperature we have right now? That would be a miracle! Maybe it’s two degrees warmer. Two degrees colder. But no one has told me what the optimum temperature is for the whole earth.

Climate change poses a threat to some of our present-day lifestyle. But is it altogether bad, on net? Is it not even possible that climate change could make life easier for many humans?

As far as I understand, some climate change models have cities like New York and Miami underwater if warming continues its course for the next 100 years. That doesn’t sound good. But what happens to the rest of the earth? Do we gain billions of acres of arable land, once too cold to support life? Will droughts become less frequent and less severe?

I have no idea how to answer my question. But if we could derive an optimum temperature for the earth, based on maximizing the amount of arable land, minimizing drought and extreme weather activity in populated areas, etc., might that temperature be outside the range climate change alarmists believe we must maintain, even at the cost of expensive carbon taxes and slowed industrial development?

I’m not convinced. Any serious discussion of climate change ought to talk about why global warming is bad—not take that idea for granted. Maybe such talk is about there, but I don’t see it from popular commentators except insofar as they paint scary pictures of flooding coastal cities and stronger hurricanes. That doesn’t sound good, but what happens to the world on net? What happens, if you will, to the human race’s prospects for long-term survival (if you like thinking in such terms…I don’t)? Is it possible that things will improve in this regard?

Let’s first establish exactly why climate change is bad, then talk about whether it’s worth fighting. Because neither of those goes without saying.

NYT discovers that people respond to incentives!

Here’s a hilariously pathetic choice of words in the blurb of a New York Times piece published today.

It turns out that generous maternity leave and flexible rules on part-time work can make it harder for women to be promoted — or even hired at all.

“It turns out….” Please.

It’s as if this author has no idea this concept is frustratingly obvious to people who know how to think. Require companies to pay certain people for months on end who aren’t actually working for them, and those companies will avoid associating with people who qualify for such an entitlement.

Businesses and people respond to incentives, and thank God they do. In fact, things couldn’t conceivably be otherwise. This fundamental truth is key to underdstanding so much, yet so many refuse to believe it and instead hate those who do.

But I am glad this article was published. Please share it with those you know who are wrong about state-mandated paid maternity/paternity leave.

Brian Williams’ shame

Christian Christensen with a superb, critical analysis of just what we get wrong by lending Brian Williams’ apology any ear—namely, that we make a bigger deal of his fake story and half-hearted apology than the true tragedy of a war that Williams and his colleagues cheer led from the beginning.

Given that Williams works for NBC, his participation in the construction of a piece of fiction during the US invasion and occupation of Iraq is apt. US network news, together with outlets such as CNN, aggressively cheer-led an invasion predicated on a massive falsehood: the Iraqi possession of WMD. What is jarring, however, is the fact that Williams’ sad attempt to inject himself into the fabric of the violence is getting more ink and airplay than the non-existence of WMD did back in the early-to-mid 2000s: a lie that provided the justification for a military action that has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians.

From embedded journalists to ultra-militaristic news logos and music, US television news media were more than willing to throw gas on the invasion fire. “Experts” in the studio were invariably ex-generals looking to pad their pensions, while anti-war activists (who spoke for sizable portions of the US and UK populations back in 2003) were avoided like the plague. After all, what news organization wants to be tarred with the “peace” brush when flag-waiving jingoism sells so incredibly well? The one-sidedness of coverage, particularly in the US, bordered on the morally criminal.

A note on “net neutrality”

I don’t know much about the ongoing net neutrality debate (which I gather is to end when the FCC passes new rules this month), but it appears to me that a major reason behind the FCC’s push for “net neutrality” is a general complaint that internet service providers (ISPs), which often face little competition in the regions where they operate, treat customers poorly and charge too much. That ISPs have “natural monopolies” that allow them to rake in profits without improving service to customers.

(For those who don’t know, “net neutrality” basically turns the internet into a public utility by regulating ISPs like providers of other utilities (like electricity, water, etc.)

But by what standard are we judging the way ISPs treat customers? Who is to say that they are making too much or offering too little? If we’re paying too much for internet service now, then what should we be paying? How are we to know a fair price for internet service without a market for internet service?

I understand that ISPs may have gained certain privileges in the past from the government that may have given them unfair advantages. But is the solution to end the market for internet service altogether?

This reminds me of one aspect of the socialist calculation debate, whereby Austrian economists (among others) revealed the self-destructive nature of socialism. One pillar of their argument (and I’m simplifying here) is that without a market to study and observe, central planners will not know what prices to mandate for what goods. The result will be the production of too much or too little of regulated goods–distortive resource misallocations that result in excess supply and/or demand.

Again, I don’t know much about net neutrality. Read my comments in light of better analyses, like this one featuring Tech Freedom president Berin Szoka.

God Blessed Texas

Here’s an interesting chart from AEI‘s Mark Perry.

Texas is solely responsible for the 1.169 million net increase in total U.S. employment in the seven year period between December 2007 and December 2014.

Another highlight from the piece:

The other 49 states and the District of Columbia together employ about 275,000 fewer Americans than at the start of the recession seven years ago, while the Lone Star State has added more than 1.25 million payroll jobs and more than 190,000 non-payroll jobs (primarily self-employed and farm workers).

Perry (Mark, not Rick) goes on to explain that while the oil and gas boom has certainly boosted job growth in Texas, job gains has been strong across several sectors of the state’s economy—especially construction (more permits for single-family homes were issued last year in the city of Houston alone than in the entire state of California).

God blessed Texas.

Specifics on Cuba

From earlier today, some specifics on changes to U.S. law regarding Cuba.

Here’s one notable highlight for those interested in traveling to Cuba, or investing in what’s sure to be one of the world’s most up-and-coming real estate markets over the next decade or so:

In all 12 existing categories of authorized travel, travel previously authorized by specific license will be authorized by general license, subject to appropriate conditions.  This means that individuals who meet the conditions laid out in the regulations will not need to apply for a license to travel to Cuba.

These categories are: family visits; official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; journalistic activity; professional research and professional meetings; educational activities; religious activities; public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; support for the Cuban people; humanitarian projects; activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and certain authorized export transactions.

Here’s the New York Times’ two cents, and a notable highlight below:

United Airlines quickly announced on Thursday that it planned to begin regular service to Cuba from Newark and Houston. American Airlines, which operates charter flights to Cuba from Miami and Tampa, said it was reviewing the changes.

Draghi makes his case

Mario Draghi making the case for more stimulus to combat disinflation in Europe:

The risk cannot be ruled out completely, but it is limited. The important thing is what inflation rate people expect over the medium term. Since June, we have seen that these expectations have declined. If inflation remains low for a long time, people might expect prices to fall even further and postpone their spending. We are not there yet. But we need to tackle this risk.

History shows that falling prices can be as damaging to the prosperity and stability of our countries as high inflation. That is why our mandate is symmetric. And that is why we are now ensuring that the risk of deflation you just asked me about does not materialise. You, as a journalist, also have a duty to explain. Public opinion in Germany is very important for us.

Note that this interview was given to a German financial newspaper. German officials are perhaps Draghi’s biggest opponent in the fight for more stimulus.

What happened to Ebola?

The Ebola outbreak was one of 2014’s biggest stories. But now, by the year’s end, we rarely hear about it. So what happened?

For one, the survival rate among patients is improving, at least in Sierra Leone. Among patients admitted since November 4 to a particular clinic in Sierra Leon’s capital, only 24 percent have died.

All this has led to a smaller number of cases than the CDC expected by year’s end. One of its estimates put the January 2015 number at 1.4 million cases—73 times higher than the 19,000 cases reported by December 21 (that’s embarrassing!).

Ebola also failed to show up in the United States after the most recent confirmed case in New York City on October 24, and those Americans who did contract Ebola fared fairly well on average—just one in four died of the disease.

So to sum up, Ebola didn’t turn out to be as big of a deal as either the CDC or some paranoid, alarm-sounding Republicans made it out to be. Those who predicted we’d all die unless government took drastic measures (like banning flights) were wrong.

This raises an interesting thought experiment: Suppose government had banned flights from infected countries. Suppose they did so on October 25—one day after the most recent confirmed case in America. It’s likely we’d credit the lack of any further cases to government’s action. We’d pat ourselves on the back for supporting a flight ban, and we’d have “evidence” to support the use of more flight bans in the future should something like the Ebola outbreak happen again.

This “evidence,” of course, would be faulty. Ebola wasn’t going to spread any further in the United States whether government banned flights or not. This is fact.

But suppose something else. Suppose other actions the government has taken to combat some perceived threat—say, drone strikes of suspected terrorists in the Middle East to combat the threat of terror, or mandating certain vaccines to combat widespread outbreaks of disease—have had the same effect of apparent usefulness but have, in reality, fought a non-existent threat. How many of those roles government assumes are really just big wastes of money?

Some interesting facts from 2014

Here’s a cool piece from Pew Research. It lists “14 striking findings from 2014.” Here are some highlights (though you really should go check out the whole piece…it’s quite interesting!).

  1. The median wealth of white households is 13 times that of black households and 10 times that of Hispanic households. That’s insane!
  2. 63 percent of Americans say it’s a good thing that states are moving away from mandatory sentences for non-violent drug offenders. This is up from 47 percent in 2001.
  3. 47 percent of “consistent conservatives” cite Fox News as their main source for news about government and politics.
  4. The typical unauthorized immigrant has now been in the U.S. for nearly 13 years, up from 7.4 years in 1995 (does this mean the rate of illegal immigration has slowed?).
  5. The number of Catholics in Latin America has fallen from 92 percent of the population in 1970 to 69 percent in 2014. The number of Protestants, meanwhile, has risen from four to 19 percent over the same period.

I like pieces like this because they help to refine the mental constructs we maintain that color our understanding of the world and the manner in which we interpret current events. It’s easy to think we “get” the world—that we understand the economic, socio-cultural and political factors that shape public opinion because we once read about how this or that influence pervades in this or that cultural setting. But the world is ever-changing. What was true 20, 10 or even just five years ago might not be true today.

In certain contexts, failing to recognize this can be damaging (and sometimes embarrassing). It also frustrates me to hear people reference things like “Christian Europe” and other stereotypes that are founded on grossly outdated information that articles like this help to correct.

Truth on Cuba

Truth from Warren Meyer at Coyote Blog:

This should be good news for anyone who opposes the Cuban regime and its oppression. Time and again over the last 50 years, we have seen cultural and economic interchange fell more authoritarian governments than any amount of military action.  When we cut off free exchange with authoritarian regimes, we are doing their leaders a favor.

On a related note, I’ve long been intrigued by Cuba. It’s so close to the United States, yet it’s rarely visited. Had things gone differently in the twentieth century, it might today be Americans’ most popular vacation destination. It is, after all, a tropical island almost the size of Florida. It’s just a three hour flight from New York City. It’s population density is quite low (if it were a state, it would be only the eight most populous), so there’s lots of room for tourists. The country also has thousands of miles of undeveloped beachfront property, the likes of which is quickly disappearing in the United States.

Vinales Valley Cuba

Vinales Valley, Cuba (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps now is a good time to invest in Cuban real estate. But you won’t be the first…some powerful people are already doing it.

Bundesbank: No QE even with sub-zero inflation

Reuters is reporting that the Bundesbank head Jens Weidmann is skeptical of further QE in the Eurozone, even if the inflation rate drops below zero. In his own words:

Against the background of the rather moderate and uncertain impact as well as the risks and side effects and the not clearly given necessity at the current point in time, I am currently sceptical of a broad-based QE programme. … Substantial volumes would be needed to achieve a moderate and moreover uncertain impact.

This is especially interesting in light of a survey released yesterday showing that 90 percent of respondents in a Bloomberg survey predict the ECB will restart QE next year. This is up from 57 percent the previous month, before oil’s price collapse had become so drastic.

Draghi and Weidmann have sparred for quite some time over the need for more easing. Weidmann’s conservative stance arguably represents the popular opinion among Germans, whose economy has not suffered as deeply as smaller European economies. But Draghi seems to have won this bout—the possibility of a new round of easing has already lured investors into European equities, which would make squashing these expectations a nightmare for already-ailing European markets.

On a related note, here’s a post by Scott Sumner on the ECB. He asks whether the ECB is a hopeless case. He stops short of answering the question outright, but I think we can see where this is all headed.

Russia is doomed

Breaking at Bloomberg: The Central Bank of Russia has raised its key interest rate from 10.5 to 17 percent. This hearkens back to a post I published on Friday regarding divergence among central banks with regard to monetary policy stance. Some face looming deflation (or at least disinflation), like the ECB and Bank of Japan. Others allegedly face inflation, like the Fed (though I’ve expressed my disillusionment with that theory in that same post I cite above). The Central Bank of Russia obviously falls into the latter camp.

Interestingly, the Central Bank of Russia cites existing sanctions on Russia in the first paragraph of its December Summary. Might this hint at more aggressive action to come on the part of Putin to remove these sanctions? The Summary also predicts -4.5% to -4.7% GDP growth in 2015 should oil prices remain at $60 per barrel through 2017. In short, disaster looms. A Washington Post headline tonight literally says “Russia’s economy is doomed.”

I’d like to research the interest rates moves that led up to this hike. I’d like to look for similarities with the Fed’s monetary stance—whether we can learn anything from Russia’s experience with monetary easing that applies in the U.S. I’ll do that tomorrow.

On a related note, that Summary is horribly written (or at least horribly translated). Can they not afford a professional?