Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Favre '08

Ok, so I have very few (known) readers of this blog. And I'm about to (again) alienate 33% of them. Sorry, dude.

First things first, I just got back from a trip to Wisconsin for our annual family reunion. It was a blast. But I was really surprised to hear the opinions of my relatives - most of whom are die-hard Packer fans. The general consensus seemed to be that they wanted Favre to stay retired. I really couldn't believe that they thought that Aaron Rodgers was a better risk than Favre, especially considering the year that Favre had last year.

Many of them attributed selfish motives to Favre's actions. And certainly acting on the desire to play again is something that will benefit Favre. I happen to think it will also benefit the Packers. But I see what's been going on differently than most of the people I've talked to. I think Favre has bent over backwards to accomodate the Packers, while not giving in on what he wants. He wants another shot at the Superbowl. I think he thinks the Packers are his best shot at that. I also think the Packer's best shot at the superbowl involves Favre. But if the Packer's don't agree, then he wants to play somewhere that he does have a shot. And unfortunately, the best place for that is in Minnesota - someplace that the Packers do *NOT* want to see him play.

So, in what seems (to me) to be an effort to help the Packers, he delayed filing for reinstatement until today. That delay gave the Packers time to find a trading partner, it also helped the Packers avoid a circus at training camp with Favre showing up. Now that he's finally filed for reinstatement, he's done it at exactly the time that gives the Packers even more time to find a trading partner. In the next two days, the NFL commissioner (Roger Goodell) will reinstate Favre. This will take a day. Then the Packers will give Favre a physical, which will also take a day. Then Favre can show up at camp, but Thursday is not a practice for the Packers, giving the Packers another day. Friday, if nothing happens, Favre will show up at camp, having given the Packers every last possible oppurtunity to trade him or release him.

And at that point, if Favre isn't given a chance to compete for the starting job, there's really no way that Packers GM Ted Thompson can keep his job. It's one thing to not have Favre at camp, but it's entirely different if he's there but not allowed to compete. I don't see how you can say you want the Packers to win, if you're not even willing to give Favre a shot at the starting role.

In my opinion, the Packers need to do as quick as an about face as they possibly can and welcome Favre back immediately. I don't think he should be handed the starting job. I think he should compete for it, but I'm certain that he'd win it. Maybe they're worried that if they did that, they'd lose a little bit of credibility with other players who are in contract negotiatons. But, I don't think they'd lose much (if any) credibility in contract negotiations. No other player on that team has the cachet that Favre has.

I'm sure that I have a blind spot, but I'm just not able to see the ill motives in Favre's actions. On the other hand, I'm equally unable to see the motivation behind what the Packers are doing. Rather it looks more like Ted Thompson's ego demanding that his draft pick (Aaron Rodgers) get a chance to start. If Rodgers plays well, it can make Thompson's career. I don't know that this is what's happening, but I also can't dismiss it.

As for me, I think Favre has done all that he can to accomodate the Packers. I think it's time to report to camp. If that ruins Ted Thompson's career, so be it. Thompson made this bed. He can lie in it.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Shack

When it comes to crying, in my family, my wife has mastered that particular skill. I am frequently frustrated with the ease at which her emotions spill over into tears. As for me, in the 14 years of our marriage I've not really cried at all. I've gotten "misty" a couple of times while watching some particularly moving films. And then, just recently at church this last Easter, I got really close to crying after I saw our own local rendition of Lifehouse's Everything Skit... actually I probably crossed the line during that service.

In any case, I don't cry that much. So it came as a surprise to me that I was moved to tears by a book. Specifically, this book. In my defense, I'm not the only one who had this reaction.

I very much enjoyed the book. I will need to read it again to fully absorb it.

Friday, July 11, 2008

This could do it...

As many of my friends know, I am a life long fan of the Green Bay Packers. I remember watching them when Lynn Dickey was throwing to Phillip Epps & James Lofton. I remember the year we all put our hope in Eddie Lee Ivory. I'm still (to this day) ticked off that they took Tony Mandarich in the draft while Barry Sanders was still available!

Of course, I don't live in Wisconsin any more. I live closer to the Carolina Panthers, who I have adopted as my 2nd team. Still, I never considered that I would ever give any other team the number one spot other than the Packers. Until now.

Brett Favre wants to come back from retirement. The Packers have not taken a stand on the issue and Brett has officially requested that the Packers release him. I am going just batty contemplating the possibilities of such a release. There are 3 other teams in the NFC North that don't have much of a QB. And Minnesota would LOVE to have him. And I suspect that he'd love to play for his former QB coach (Darrel Bevel - ex-QB for the Wisconsin Badgers) who is now the offensive coordinator of the Vikings.

I'd never really thought that anything could cause me to not be a Packer fan. But I think that this could do it. If Brett wants to play, the Packers should *BEG* him to come play for them. I understand that the Packers are in a tough situation. They want Aaron Rodgers to take over the team. But good grief! How do you push out Brett Favre for Aaron Rodgers, who has potential, but not much else. On the other hand, #4 has 3 MVPs, a SuperBowl and pretty much single handedly put the Green Bay back on the NFL map after more than 2 decades of horrible play. Not to mention that he had a fantastic season last year.

If they trade him, or worse, they release him, I'm not sure I could stand to root against the guy. I'm not sure I could stand the dissonance of rooting for a purple-clad Brett Favre, while hoping that the rest of that awful team fell to the ground sucking their thumbs in the fetal position. Much less having to contemplate rooting for the Packers and for the Viqueens QB.

If, on the other hand, Brett Favre came to the Panthers, as some have suggested as a possibility, it would almost certainly make them my favorite team.

But of course, what I really hope happens is that the Packers' brass stops being so stupid and announce Brett Favre as a Green Bay Packer for the 2008 season.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Luxurious Lifestyles

One of my favorite podcasts is American Public Media's Speaking of Faith. The most recent podcast revisits an interview from last year with Barbara Kingsolver, who chose to move her family to the mountains and live off of food that she grew in her backyard, supplemented by food provided by local farmers. Ms Kingsolver got a great deal of reward from doing this, as she expresses in the podcast. And, it's great. I applaud her choice and rejoice along with her in having done that.

If that was as far as it went, that would be the end of my comments. But she also tries to make the claim that her lifestyle was ethical, and implies that the lifestyle that most of us have with our food is unethical. There is a subtle advocacy for all of us to lead that kind of lifestyle, and I can't agree with that. One of the things that she says in the podcast is that we don't take account of the costs in the lifestyle that we lead. But I think she does a very poor job of taking account of the costs that would be associated with imposing that lifestyle on the rest of the world.

Her lifestyle is one of luxury. It's a byproduct of the fact that we're fantastically wealthy that some of us can choose that lifestyle. In the third world, that lifestyle is called subsistence living, and is generally considered to result in massive amounts of suffering. A few random thoughts from the podcast as I re-listened to it...

Early in the podcast she complains about not knowing where our food comes from, whether it be China or Argentina or elsewhere. Part of what raises her concern is the amount of distance that our food must travel and how much fossil fuels must be consumed in the transport. But I'm not sure that she's measuring correctly. She just assumes that using fossil fuels will release more CO2 into the atmosphere, but when measured, that assumption turns out to be bad:
Most notably, [researchers] found that lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit.
New Zealand is a *MUCH* more efficient producer of lamb than Great Britain. They have what economist David Ricardo called a comparative advantage in producing that lamb. Their advantage is so big that it makes more sense to ship the lamb than grow it locally. Additionally, commercial processing of foods allows for economies of scale that local growing simply can't match:
Contrary to current wisdom, packaging can reduce total rubbish produced. The average household in the United States generates one third less trash each year than does the average household in Mexico, partly because packaging reduces breakage and food waste. Turning a live chicken into a meal creates food waste. When chickens are processed commercially, the waste goes into marketable products (such as pet food), instead of into a landfill. Commercial processing of 1,000 chickens requires about 17 pounds of packaging, but it also recycles at least 2,000 pounds of by-products.
That 2000 pounds of by-products become waste when a 1000 people harvest a chicken in their homes.

She claims that humans throughout all of history have eaten local organic food, up until the time of WWII. I don't know if that's false, so I'll simply take her word for it. She seems to think that this is a "normal way to eat". I don't understand why that makes it a good way to eat. Until very recently, women were at a lower social status than men. Many argue that this problem persists. When compared against history, male dominance over women is the norm. But I don't think it's good. Steve Landsburg argues that prior to the Industrial Revolution, all of humanity was poor. Which would suggest that poverty is a pretty normal state for us. I don't think that's good, either.

So the question is what makes eating local foods good and eating imported foods bad? The case really can't be made that importing is always worse for the environment. The case is hard to make that normalcy defines good. On the other hand, the amount of wealth that is created as a result of division of labor and specialization has greatly enriched all who take place in that trade. That wealth has directly reduced human suffering. Division of labor and specialization seems to me to produce more good than self sufficiency.

LOL! An excerpt is read from her book and she quotes the bible saying, "The harvest is bountiful and the labors few". She hears this and is amazed at how much food is growing in her garden, but that the labors were not few - she had a ton of work to do. I find it funny because it's a misquote. It should have been "The harvest is bountiful and the laborers few". The original quote means something completely different than how it was applied. But even so, if you were to interpret the quotes from the perspective of division of labor, the correct quote makes much more sense.

The biggest problem with a country getting rich is that the cost of labor goes up. Which means that the farmers are less willing to farm for low wages relative to the wages of everyone around them. They're better off trying to get some of the other jobs that pay more. In a market, there are two general responses to this:
  1. Send the work where labor is cheaper - which means we'll get our food from overseas
  2. Develop technology to replace expensive labor - which means it'll be mass produced
What does it mean that we see both #1 & #2? To Ms. Kingsolver, it means we're worse off. But what it looks like to me is that the labor market is too wealthy to produce food locally. There are more profitable things to do. Of course, when the government intervenes, they do things like create farm subsidies, which encourages more local farming, because farmers no longer see the need to chase after the better paying job.

She then goes onto say something that I agree with wholeheartedly: that the subsidies that our government provides to farmers distort the market. Unfortunately, she seems to think that it distorts the market away from local farmers. That is a surprising conclusion since those subsidies and trade barriers were enacted to protect the production by the local farmers, and combat competition from foreign products. In other words, the subsidies and trade barriers serve to cause us to buy more locally than we would without the subsidies and trade barriers.

She'd like to see more people buying locally to expand the market for local produce. But this ignores the economies of scale that mass production creates (as mentioned above). So expanding the local growers market means increasing the price of food. This is a great luxury item for someone who's wealthy enough to afford it. It's a horrible thing to impose on those who are not. (To be fair, I didn't hear her directly advocating imposing these things on people.)

She laments that we lack strong regional traditions in our food that tie us to our surroundings. But I see lots of local foods. For example, around here the barbecue is a matter of local pride. In Texas, it's steak. In Wisconsin, beer & cheese. New York has pizza. Chicago has a different type of pizza. California yet another version. She goes on to say that we're surrounded by cheap fats and carbohydrates and that what lines our bookshelves are diet books. That seems true to me. But even this is evidence that we're so wealthy that eating has not become the biggest problem that we face. To reverse this means becoming poorer. I don't like that tradeoff.

I want to say something about how this lifestyle was very enriching to her personally. I don't want to dismiss that. If it's something that would be enriching to you, go for it. But realize that choosing that lifestyle is a luxury item. It's entirely impractical for a single parent mom living in the inner city to do this kind of thing. That person will likely spend most of their time maximizing the time working at things their talents and gifts enable them to do. Which, in most cases, means outsourcing the production of food.

She's now going on about how our consumption has contributed to global climate change, and that Hurricane Katrina is evidence that our consumption comes with a price. Immediately, this strikes me as another case of "here's a bad weather event, see it's proof that global warming is causing problems". But that doesn't match with the data.

She claims that we're over consuming the world's limited resources and then bemoans the idea that if you can afford it, it's ok to use it. But that idea is exactly correct. The pricing system tells us about the relative scarcity of things. If the thing you are buying is cheap, then by the simple supply and demand, it's not very scarce. Moreover, as the thing gets more and more scarce, the price will go up to reflect the scarcity, and fewer people will buy it. Take a look at the number of people taking public transportation now that gas is more than $4/gal. Take a look at your local car dealers: they're all advertising high mileage cars. We're consuming less gas because the price of as has gone up. That dynamic is true for all goods and services. So when a good or service becomes more scarce, the pricing system signals us to consume less of it, and we do. If that's true, then we are not over consuming.

At the end of the segment she asks, "Do you think you can keep doing this without paying some kind of a price?" And that is, of course, a valid question. But I would respond with, "Do you think you can engineer change without also paying some kind of a price? What would you recommend we do if the price of change is higher than the price of not changing? How can you measure those prices without first understanding economics?"

UPDATE: Mike Munger has a very well written article that explains how the division of labor works and benefits us, by describing the market for pins. IMHO, the most salient part of that article is this:
I could make my own pins. Working hard, with some wire and some cutters and a file to sharpen them, I might make 100 or more pins a day. But my time is too valuable to spend that way. Likewise, we could make pins in my home state, North Carolina. But the amount of capital required to be competitive with world prices of 10,000 pins for $1 would be... well, it would be a lot. Too expensive, given all the other profitable investments available for capital in North Carolina. The same is the true for the U.S. as a whole: we could make our own pins, but it's cheaper to buy them, and exploit our own comparative advantage in activities where division of labor works for us, rather than against us.
I'll spare you from the really bad joke that starts and ends that article. But the point is this: division of labor in the food market has provided cheap and plentiful food. This is a good thing. It means that we can expend our creative energy and time on things other than food production. Blithely calling for the unwinding of that division of labor is a road to poverty and food crisis.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Questioning Myself

The Antiplanner has a great post in which he discusses the value of dissenting opinions:
As the Economist points out in its review of the book, “Because Americans are so mobile, even a mild preference for living with like-minded neighbours leads over time to severe segregation. . . . When a group is ideologically homogeneous, its members tend to grow more extreme.” This is why we are becoming more polarized...

...we each need to make more efforts to communicate with others who are different from us. The Antiplanner has always appreciated the fact that DanS, D4P, MSetty, and other loyal opponents so frequently comment on this blog so that everyone can be exposed to other views. I frankly admit that I have often learned from their comments.
This attitude is impressive and something that I wish to emulate. But not having a lot of commenters, it's hard to get very many dissenting points of view. So I decided to start visiting blogs of people who stand in opposition to some of my favorite blogs. And I'm entirely discouraged.

Megan McArdle is one of the most reasonable, and intelligent bloggers around. I don't always agree with her, but even in disagreement, I find myself concluding that her views are reasonable, even if I don't hold them. Lately she's been critiqued by Kathy G. The critique is that McArdle isn't really a feminist, despite McArdle's claims that she is. She agrees with most of the problems that the feminists say exist. She disagrees with the solutions proposed. Kathy G wrote a post describing why McArdle is not a feminist.

It was horrible. It was riddled with ad hominem attacks. In it, Kathy G did exactly the things she accused McArdle of doing (making claims without citing any sources). In short, it was a nonsensical rant. Now there are times when rants are useful, and I enjoy reading them. But rants that try to cloak themselves as rational argument are, in short, horrible. They're horrible because they remind me too much of myself at my worst.

But the horror didn't end in the main article. The commenters were even worse. In the post, McArdle wrote a somewhat snarky comment, but IMHO it was rational and went to great lengths to address all of the complaints that Kathy G laid out. In response to this, McArdle was called "full of *hit" and a liar. I'll grant that the McArdle defenders (including McArdle herself) did not behave entirely professionally. That would require no snark. But their snark was a whole lot less distracting than the all out immaturity and insolence on the other side.

This is, of course, a discouraging journey into the world of the opposition. And previous forays into this world have seen similar results. Still I'm hopeful that there exists rational dissent.

McArdle has her own post on the subject of humility. I'm pretty sure that I'm in the graduate school stage that she describes - despite not actually being in graduate school. I really don't have a very deep understanding of economics. I want one, but when it all comes down to it, the best I can say is "Mr A says Mr B is wrong". Still, I'd like to think, that since I'm quite a bit older than the typical grad student, I've had a bit more life experience to lead me to more humility. But my meager attempts at viewing the other side have been thoroughly discouraging.

Are there rational liberal blogs out there?
Are there better ways to seek out rational dissent?
I'm discouraged.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

A picture of my words...

Caleb Crain linked to Wordle. I ran my blog through it and came up with this:

Update:I like this one. It looks kinda like a gun, or (possibly) more appropriately a phaser. In any case, I kinda like the idea of my words being a weapon, even though, I don't really think of them that way.

Update #2: I was looking at some of the previous Wordle's in the gallery, and I ran some friend's blogs through the system. I can't ever show my wife my blog, or this wordle. She's not mentioned... at all. Of course, in my defense, I try very hard not to publish any identifying information about either my wife or my kids... or me for that matter. For example, I frequently refer to my children as "oldest", "youngest", "#2", etc. I see that I mentioned my wife's name in only one post. Got to clean that up.