Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Dumbest moments...

CNNMoney is running an article titled: "100 Dumbest Moments in Business". Here's #9:
A computer glitch in the tax rolls of Porter County, Ind., causes the valuation of a house in the city of Valparaiso to shoot up from $122,000 to $400 million - boosting its annual property taxes from $1,500 to $8 million. Though the county's IT director spots the mistake and alerts the auditor's office, the wrong number nonetheless ends up being used in budget calculations, resulting in a $900,000 shortfall for the city and a $200,000 gap for its schools.
How is this a dumb moment in business? This isn't business stupidity (for which there are plenty of examples in the article) this is government stupididty. Let's call a spade a spade.

Thursday, January 18, 2007


Steve Browne has an interesting article about anti-semitism. In it, he concludes:
for a believing Christian, the very existence of believing Jews is going to be a threat to their core beliefs, since he can't get around the fact that the basic scriptures of his faith are Jewish and the Jews stubbornly refuse to be convinced that their prophecies have been fulfilled.
This conclusion is based on the following premise:
For a Christian, his whole faith is wrapped around the idea that the life of Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the ancient Hebrew prophecies of the messiah.
(Shockingly) I disagree with this premise. I do not pretend to be as knowledgable about the Jewish scriptures as Mr Browne appears to be. However, as a Christian, I can attest that the core of my faith is that Christ, through his crucifixion, wiped me clean, and that I desperately needed it. That Jesus fulfills an ancient Hebrew prophecy is merely evidence that he is what he says he is.
This implies the highest possible stakes, his belief in eternal life as a reward for believing this and acting accordingly.
Personally, I wouldn't describe it that way. It implies there's some reward for an action that we take. I would describe it Christianity claiming that God desperately wants to bring us back to Himself. He made us to long for Him. We chose something else thinking it could replace God. This created a huge gap between us and God. So we needed a way to bridge the gap. Christ was that bridge. Eternal life is only a tiny part of what happens when we cross that bridge. Reunion with God is the real prize. But the important part is that the prize is not something we earn. It's something given to us (if we accept it)(1) because God so desperately loves us.(2) Other things he said:
there is not a single messianic tradition but several (3 to 5 depending on who you're listening to), which scholars have been arguing about for a long time.
It matters little to me that Judaism has multiple prophecies. Science produces multiple predictions. The ones that come true are the ones we tend to believe. That there are multiple predictions doesn't invalidate science. But we do tend to disagree with those who hold onto the predictions that didn't come true.
But the most important reason [that Christ is not the fulfillment of the ancient Hebrew prophecies] lies at the heart of Christian symbolism - crucifixion. In the Hebrew scriptures, an accursed death which renders the body unclean and destroys the chance for resurrection.
Let's suppose that this is true. If this is the product of this kind of death, then it would certainly require divinity to be resurrected from it. In other words, it's this kind of death, the worst kind of death, that a God who's intention is to cleanse the sins of the world would choose.

But it seems odd to me that there's this kind of execution. I presume that the execution of people is not done by their choosing. Which means that, per the Hebrew scripture, I can condemn another person not by the quality of their character, nor by their behavior, nor by any choice that the other person makes. But rather my choices can impose eternal penalty upon another. This does not jibe with what I think of when I think of God and His sense of justice. Moreover, I'm reminded of two characters from Joshua: Rahab and Achan. In which we see that Rahab, a foreigner, is welcomed as one of the Isrealites, while Achan, an Israelite is sent to his death. What distinguishes these two characters is their behavior. They are not held responsible for the sins of someone else. They are responsible only for their own choices. And those choices supercede their heritage. It's difficult for me to resolve the picture of God that I see in Joshua with this description of the revulsion of the crucifixion.

One of the last things he says about this is:
(Ask any violence professional the quickest way to get assaulted: challenge core beliefs.)
The context of this is that he's answering someone who asked him to define anti-semitism. And he came up with the conclusion at the very top of this post. Then he says this. Is he really trying to say that being Christian is the definition of anti-semitism? Obviously, I don't agree with this. I certainly don't believe in the tenets of Judaism, but I don't think that means I hate Jews! This is a conclusion that seems really broken to me.

  1. Within Christianity there are two schools of thought w.r.t. our acceptance of this gift. In the one school (Calvinism) even the act of accepting God is something that God does for us. On our own, we are unable to even accept his Gift. I find this to be a difficult position in that it destroys free will. The other school (Arminianism) says that God did in fact do it all, including giving every one of us free will to accept/reject his Gift. I'm better able to understand Arminianism than Calvinism.
  2. It's not the only thing He loves. He also appears to love free will. Which is why he allows us to deny Him. CS Lewis describes it this way: "In the end we will say to God, 'Thy will be done' or He will say to us, 'Thy will be done'." He let's us choose. He also appears to love purity. Which is why we need to be cleansed of our inpurities in the first place. Which is the purpose of Christ.

The Big 3

The goals of the free-market agenda should be:
  1. Increase the proportion of children who are schooled outside of the public school system.
  2. Increase the proportion of health care spending that is paid for directly by consumers.
  3. Limit the fraction of people's lives where they collect Social Security.

If the Republicans want to win my enthusiasm, they need to convince me that they will make a difference on these indicators. (For those readers on the Left, I should hasten to add that I am all in favor of education, good health, and retirement security for all Americans. I believe that those goals would be better served by market-oriented policies than by government expansion.)

This is a wonderful article. I recently moved and, as a consequence, needed to re-register to vote. I used to register republican, but I have switched to unaffiliated because of the recent behavior of the republicans. This is my favorite part of the article:
My personal message to Republicans is that I care more about what happens on the Big Three than about whether you hold power.
Me, too.

Decertifying Skeptics...

The Weather Channel’s most prominent climatologist is advocating that broadcast meteorologists be stripped of their scientific certification if they express skepticism about predictions of manmade catastrophic global warming.
My initial reaction to this was shock and revulsion at the attempt to silence skepticism. I'm not a professional scientist, so certainly my understanding of the scientific method is limited. But I think I'm right when I say that skepticism is a builtin part of the deal. So to hear someone deeply involved in climate science attempt to deny skepticism, it strikes me that someone might be asking for a method to the truth other than the scientific method.

I think that's a reasonable conclusion to make and I find it highly ironic that this is being done by a professional scientist. But it doesn't address the core problem: should this person's recommendation be applied? And I'm surprised that my answer is, "I hope so".

First, this recommendation really ignores how I think many people will react to this. What I think will eventually happen is that the value of the AMS certification will be diminished. When people consume weather forcasts, they look for accuracy. There seems to be little relationship between the accuracy of:
  • Local, short term weather predictions
  • Global, long term climate change
A stance on the latter is unlikely to influence the accuracy of the former. And consumers of weather forcasts will prefer those from anyone who can provide them, whether they've got an AMS certification or not.

So the impact is to increase the supply of accurate weather predictors who don't have AMS certification. In addition, by increasing the scarcity of AMS certifications, they increase the wages of AMS certified meteorogists. Which creates incentives for those who hire meteorologists to ignore the certification - accurate weather predictions are not related to whether someone is AMS certified or not. This can't be good for the certification. So, I suspect that the AMS will plainly ignore the recommendation.

However, I hope they don't. I hope that they're foolish. I've become convinced that the US health care system is where it's at, in part, because of licensure. Only those who are licensed are allowed to practice medicine. This sets a floor on the minimum quality of medical provision. Which, in turn, sets a floor on the cost of that provision. Why is this bad? Some states require certain procedures to be performed by opthamologists, while other states allow optometrists to perform those same procedures. Clearly, there is a set of procedures that can be performed by both, yet in some cases, licensure prevents it. Licensure ensures that only the higher cost provider does the job. The end result is that licensure in US health care, results in higher wages for health care providers at the expense of health care consumers. Licensure becomes a form of rent seeking.

I'd like to see the AMS certification devalued in order to put the idea in people's minds that perhaps certifications and licensures are subject to being questioned. I'd like to see licensure not be legally required. And if that happens, then a more open market for provision of those services can develop.

Friday, January 12, 2007

How I hope *NOT* to write

Through a maze of links (God bless the Web) I ended up at this article. I watched the game in question, and I agree with the conclusions of the author. It was easily the best game that I watched this football season. It's possibly that it's the best college football game ever. (I'm not willing to commit on that last part.)

But what bugs me about this article is the writing. My general plan for writing something persuasive is to open with my premise, present the data, and close by re-emphasizing the premise. It's my general hope that the data will speak for itself. Unfortunately, this guy does not follow that pattern. In his article, he hand holds the reader down the path he wants them to go. He keeps interrupting the data to affirm his premise. Examples:
  • But after 25 minutes of entertaining and unpredictable football, the fun was just starting.
  • But as the night's events would show, the Broncos still had a lot of greatness left to achieve.
  • This instance of role reversal created an even more compelling Fiesta Bowl narrative.
  • It was at this moment that the 2007 Fiesta Bowl began to assume mythical proportions as a game that would break all the rules and defy all the odds.
  • Once again, it seemed as though Goliath was finally beginning to wear down David, only in a more dramatic way with the clock ticking down.
  • The dramatic tension inside the domed stadium grew exponentially....And then things got reallyinteresting.
  • It only added to the drama that was unfolding in the Desert.
  • The narratives just kept getting more poignant and powerful as the proceedings continued to the amazement of all.
He hadn't stopped describing the game, but this is where I couldn't take it anymore. I found the constant commentary in the middle of the data to be really annoying. When I'm writing, I hope to elicit a different reaction. "Yes, I agree" or "No way" are fine reactions. Obviously I prefer the former. But "get on with it" is something that I'd like to avoid, and it's the reaction I had reading this article.

Of course, don't forget that the criticisms from someone like me, whose major writing accomplishment to date is an unread blog, should probably not be taken very seriously by someone who's actually managed to convince people to pay him money for his writing. Still, this is the blogosphere. We don't need no steenkin rules!

Perhaps there are some things to learn from this article:
  1. He's getting paid. I'm not. Maybe his strategy is more effective than mine.
  2. Annoying people like me is probably not a hindrance to being a paid writer.
Nevertheless, one purpose I have for this blog is to improve my ability to write. I really would like to avoid annoying my readers the way this guy's article annoyed me.

(I'd ask, "What do you think?", but as the only reader of this blog, I already know the answer!)


I love this post which I will quote in it's entirety here:
Sure, if the FCC isn't toothless, then it has the power to do much good for us. No argument there, but I think the old maxim still applies with regard to government authority: "Only relinquish power to your friends that you would not fear in the hands of your enemies."

Put another way, give the FCC as much power as you'd let a Sony exectutive have in setting technology mandates, because one day the Sony executive will be pulling the strings of the FCC's processes.

I like it because:
  1. It's concise
  2. It's easy to understand
  3. It's correct
  4. It's a nice refutation to statists
  5. It's something the statists will tend to agree with
Great post. Wish I had mod points.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Surprising application of discount rates

The blog over at the Economist has a surprising entry. The basic idea behind this blog entry is that there's a large portion of the liberal left who thinks that it is our moral obligation to save the lives of future generations of people who will be killed by our collective apathy towards the environment. The idea is that the future value of those people's lives is worth protecting.

The surprising part is this: if the left believes that we have this moral obligation, then why do they disagree with the moral obligation to protect a fetus? The author of the article does a much better job of pointing out this discontinuity than I can. I recommend the article.

As for myself, I am opposed to abortion. I think the prima facia case is that the fetus is a proto-human being, and I need proof that it's not a human being before I think that killing it is ok. Absent any proof, stealing another person's right to live is wrong. It doesn't matter if that person is dependant on another for survival.

But the author of that article forces me to question my consistency. I don't know what to think about the global warming. On the one hand, there seems to be a lot of evidence that it's happening and that we play some part in causing it. However, I'm generally skeptical of the claim that we must limit economic growth in order to stop it. The above article forces me to ask myself this: if I'm concerned about the rights of an unborn fetus, shouldn't I also be concerned about the rights of future (as of yet unborn) Bangladeshis? If I think that a financial crisis does not justify the restriction of rights to life imposed in an abortion, shouldn't I also think that a financial crisis shouldn't justify the restrictions of rights to life imposed in global warming?

I have to ponder this a bit. My instinct is to recognize what Arnold Kling says about the issue, "I think that people in Bangladesh... are at least as threatened by economic and political backwardness as they are by coastal flooding." This doesn't fully resolve the issue, though. One could make the same argument of a baby: The life of that baby is threatened by finacial crisis of the mother as it is by abortion. This would justify abortion on demand for the destitute. I find that discomforting, but feel compelled to examine my consistency.

God Loves Porn?

Freelance Genious thinks that God loves porn:


I think that FG is mostly making a joke. I don't think he(?) would
try hard to defend the logic of this conclusion. But still, the joke
would be more funny(1) without the logic flaw. Here's his propositions:

1. God created humanity.
2. God loves humanity.
3. God loves humanity's actions.

Whoa.. stop there. God loves freedom. God gave man freedom.
He loves freedom more than he demands compliance with his will(2).
Humans are free to reeject God. He doesn't love that. Therefore God
does not necessarily love humanity's actions.

On the other hand, rejection of God works out really bad for humans,
and He keeps trying to tell us that, but he lets us do it anyway.

This is pretty much a show stopper for the rest of this (admittadly
tongue in cheek) argument. But still..

4. Humanity created the internets.
5. The internets is the greatest creation in the history of humanity until the next big one.
6. The internets is the Library of Alexandria.
7. The internets is full of pornography.
8. The Library of Alexandria is full of pornography.

I'm not sure I understand the significance of including three of
these propositions. There seems to be an assumption here that God
loved the Library of Alexandria. In any case, can't you just skip
5,6&8 and go straight to...

9. God loves pornography.

For that matter, can't you just say:

3. God loves humanity's actions.
4. Humanity created pornography.
5. God loves pornography.

This entire argument follows only if proposition 3 is true. I don't
think it is.

(1) Yes, it is the abosolute pinnacle of geekiness to be critisizing someone else's jokes with logic. But there it is. Whatcha gonna do?
(2) Why? How the heck should I know? Ask Him. I'm just reporting what I observe.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Saddam Hussein execution

Jane Galt asks who's watching the Saddam Hussein execution video.

Jane mentions:

Okay, so I'm against the death penalty...
The commentary is very interesting. One comment asks:
If he had been given life in prison, what would have happened if a group of Baathists had held a school bus full of kids hostage and demanded his release?

Another comment asks:

What would you do with Saddam -- that is morally proper, given his
proven crimes?

Finally, another commenter asks:

I am neither Jane nor a death penalty opponent, but I can
understand why one would oppose it in the criminal justice
system. What I can't understand is any kind of ethics,
except for an absolute belief that taking life under any
circumstances is unjustified, that says that there is no
imaginable crime that justifies death in retribution.

As someone who opposes the death penalty, here is my answer to the
questions in reverse order.

To the 3rd question, the death penalty is (by it's very name)
limited to the criminal justice system. You don't exercise the death
penalty in war. It is a penalty that is only exercised as part of
a system of justice for crimes. Being opposed to the death penalty
can only be applied to the criminal justice system
as that is the ONLY place that it's exercised.

But to the issue of the ethics of not taking life under any
circumstances, I would say that I do not believe that. I certainly
stand by the idea that taking another's life in self defense is
acceptable. Additionally, I think that the individiual participants
in a war are acting in self defense in that there is an enemy out
there who is attempting to kill them. It gets somewhat less clear
cut the higher up you go, e.g. up to the person ordering the war.
The higher up you go, the more the circumstances come into play.
Was this a response to a attack from someone else? Even, from the
point of the attacker, was it a response of last resort?

I don't have clear cut answers for anything other than self-defence.
But, in general, I think a case can be made for justifyably taking
another's life outside the boundaries of the criminal justice system.

My problem with the death penalty inside the criminal justice system
is this. The criminal justice system has mechanisms for undoing
mistakes that it makes in the exercise of its role... except for the
death penalty. The death penalty assumes that the criminal justice
system is infallable in its judgement, something that the system
itself does not assume. So that once you've executed a person,
there's no way to say "oops" after it's done. One could argue that
the same can be said of someone who's been wrongfully imprisoned,
but with the death penaly there's no way that you can even attempt
to make up to the wrongly accused. They are no longer around to
recieve your apology.

With respect to the 2nd question, my instinct is to answer that he
be given life in prison, in an undisclosed location. Of course,
that doesn't answer the problem proposed in the first question,
for which, I do not have an "off the top of my head" answer.

But thinking about it, bad people will be bad people with or without
Saddam Hussein being alive. He is a convenient reason to hold that
schoolbus hostage. With him dead, they will find some other reason
to hold the schoolbus hostage. His being alive or dead does not
change the probability that some group of bad people will hold
a schoolbus full of children hostage. Executing Hussein seems
unlikely to prevent future bad things from happening. What seems
more likely to me is that executing Hussein will prevent using him
as an excuse for for future bad things.

Can't do it.

I recently saw the following article
(This came by way of http://www.thehealthcareblog.com/)

In this article, it asks:

Almost all the problems with the American health care system boil down to two questions. How do we create a system that ensures that all citizens, and perhaps residents, have access to health insurance? And how do wecontain the huge cost increases?

I don't know what you call this rhetorical trick. I suspect it has a clever name, but I don't know it. In any case the author is laying out two questions and expecting a favorable answer to both. But these questions can't both be favorably answered. A favorable answer to one, is the negative question to the other. The author might as well ask these two questions: How do we create a road trip that ensures we end up south of our current position. And how do we simultaneously ensure that we end up north of our current position?

The problem is that the author doesn't understand the concept of insurance. Arnold Kling correctly points out here that what we have in our country isn't insurance, it's insulation. And as such giving insulation to everyone is equivalent to ever increasing costs. If you want to contain or decrease costs, you have to *STOP* giving insulation to everyone.

The author even has a section titled "reforming insurance" that, ironically doesn't talk about reforming insurance. Instead it talks about the need to regulate insurance as it currently is without the need to change actual health insurance.

I find myself in agreeing with Kling, and not with ABC News. Until we are able to unleash the entire population all demanding that their costs be contained, costs will not be contained. The *ONLY* way to get the entire population demanding this is if each member of society is individually motivated to contain those costs. As long as we're insulated from the actual costs of health insurance, that motivation will not be sustained.

I'm hopeful (possibly naively hopeful) that the system will fix itself through a gradual collapse. This year I switched insurance plans to a program that required that my family bear more of the day-to-day costs of healthcare. But that still provided coverage for catastrophic health events. I did this because my employer is continuing to pass the costs of health insurance to me. And when investigating the alternatives, I found one that had a much lower premium while still providing coverage in the event of a catastrophy. Along with that lower premium came more day to day responsibility from me. I'm betting that the amount of money I save in premium costs will more than make up for the increased day to day costs I'll encur for the next year.

I'd like to think that the increasing costs of health insurance will create incentive for people to look for other solutions. And that over time, the currently broken system will incentivize itself out of existence. The counter argument is that what will actually happen is that most people, instead of searching out lower cost alternatives, will simply drop health insurance altogether. They will then become a part of the pool of people looking for the government to subsidize their health costs.

I don't know which way it's going to go. I fear universal health care. The Canadians aren't doing so well with it. I loath the idea of governmental tampering. But I'd rather a little tampering now (to reform health insurance) instead of being forced into enormous and permanant tampering later (i.e. universal health care).