Saturday, January 30, 2010

CBS, NOW and Tim Tebow

Apparently Tim Tebow's mom, in conjunction with Focus on the Family, wants to run an ad during the superbowl (*). The gist of which is to express Mrs. Tebow's joy at having made the choice she did and it resulting in Tim Tebow - QB extraordinaire for the University of Florida.

But this has angered the National Organization for Women (NOW). They think that the long standing prohibition on advocacy ads during the superbowl should remain in effect, thus disallowing the ad during the superbowl. I have not read what their position is on running the ad at any other time. But I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and presume that they would not object to it running at another time.

Unfortunately, I've listened to NOW defending their complaint. And if they could just stick to the point that advocacy ads are prohibited, I think they'd be ok. But they keep bringing up that they're defending a woman's right to choose. And this seems really inconsistent to me. If that's the case, why are they complaining about an ad which shows one woman's choice? Does NOW only like women's right to choose when it's the choice that NOW supports?

And this isn't the only time that NOW has seemed inconsistent to me. They've explicitly called for a ban on breast implants. Do they want the government interfering with a woman's choices over her body or do they not?

The inconsistency makes it seem like their position is less about changing people's minds and more about enforcing the choices they prefer on others. I could be wrong. But from the outside that's what it looks like. This is why consistency matters. It suggests that there's an underlying principle that your actions are consistent with. But in this case, their actions seem to be more consistent with a power grab rather than a principled position.

And NOW is not the only one that seems inconsistent. Frankly, the behavior of the vocal pro-lifers annoys me. I'd be much more moved by their concern for the children they're trying to save if they were willing to adopt those children. Do they really care about those children or are they more interested in punishing the mothers?

That said, I believe that the best approach to speech you don't like is more speech, not less speech. If you disagree with me, talk to me, I'll listen. Then I'll talk and you listen. But lets' stay far away from trying to force each other to shut up. So I think NOW should come out with their own advocacy ad. But trying to ban someone else's speech? Yeah, that's crossing the line.

(*) As a side note, I'm not going to start calling it "the big game" like so many other people are doing in response to the NFL's threats to sue. This is certainly a risk on my part, but a) I'm not hosting a party and trying to capitalize on the NFL's trademark, and b) I have like 5 people who regularly read this blog. To get in trouble w/the NFL, they have to notice first.  That said, I think the NFL is nuts in their desire to suppress the use of the word "superbowl". Yes it's a trademark. Yes they own it. But, c'mon. You're prohibiting superbowl parties? What's next? Will I be in trouble if I mention that the Packers are my favorite team? Or will I be required to call it, "the pro-football team from Green Bay"? If ever there were an argument for reforming trademark laws, I think this is it.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Lenore Skenazy is my new hero

One of the economics blogs that I really like (econlog) has a blogger that I really like (Bryan Caplan). He's writing a book about parenting that I'm anxious to read. And he recently blogged about another parenting book that he really likes.

You'll notice a lot of "really like"s in that last paragraph. Basically, they all contributed to my desire to read this book. I was pretty close to pulling the trigger on Amazon, when my wife suggested I see if the local public library has it. And it did. But not only that, it turns out that they had it available as an MP3 download. So I've been listening to it on my phone to & from work for the last 2 days.  And it's fantastic.

The book is about how we parents are overly hyper about the safety of our kids. Safety's a good thing. A very good thing. But not when the additional cost brings about minimal safety. My favorite fact from the book (so far) relates to our fears, as parents, of having our children abducted. And that these fears are ridiculously overblown. To prove it she pulls out a statistic: there is a 1 in 1.5 million chance that your child will get abducted. That's pretty small. But because we humans have a hard time with very large numbers, Skenazy quotes another way of looking at these odds. If you were trying to get your child abducted and held overnight, how long would you have to leave them outside, unsupervised before the odds were likely that this happened? 750,000 years! Of course, no one wants their child abducted. It's a thought experiment. And the results: 750,000 years. That's how ridiculously unlikely it is that our children will be abducted.

Now *that* is a useful point of view. I strongly encourage everyone, but especially parents, to read this book. Or listen to it. It's also a useful as an anti-condescension tool for non-parents.

Also, the author has a very good blog.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Haiti and Starvation

On the way to work a few days ago, I listened to an NPR segment on how relief efforts are going in Haiti. The long and short: not good. The most basic of necessities (food) is not getting where it needs to get. When relief trucks show up, the crowds absolutely mob the truck, immediately. And those who are the strongest get all the food. And those who go without on one day are very likely to go without again the next time the truck shows up. There’s too little food and an ineffective way of distributing what’s there.

However, the piece also mentioned that markets (as is their tendency) are emerging, allowing for people to buy food. The problem, however, is that no one is working and as a result everyone is depleting their savings trying to get food.

But this mix strikes me as odd. Because what you’ve got is:
  1. A *LOT* of people not working, and
  2. A *LOT* of work that needs to get done
Why aren’t these two things combining to reward people willing to work by paying them, thus solving the food crisis?

Sure, some people who are idle are incapable of working right now. Let’s assume that for every 2 families, that at least one person could work. And that work would be sufficient to purchase food for those 2 families. Why is this not happening?

One answer could be that no one is hiring. Because, of course, they don’t have any money to hire either. There are two problems with this answer:
  1. Hiring to do a task increases wealth. For example, if you hire someone to help you pick fruit, you have twice as much fruit to sell. Roughly doubling your profit margin. So hiring should generate more money, not less.
  2. Foreign investors, who have money, should be anxious to get access to the labor force that is desperate to get paid so that they can eat.
And I suspect that #2 is the key to solving the conundrum. Haiti started off as a poor country for a reason. That reason being that the institutional structure of the country has been in turmoil since Aristide took office in late 1990. This creates uncertainty for investors. They are not sure what type of government will exist, and what type of rules it will have. Will it have rules favorable to investment or will it behave like Venezuela, where foreign investors spent a lot of money building their oil production capacity only to have the Hugo Chavez’ government come and confiscate it. If you had money to invest into Haiti, but you were completely uncertain as to whether or not you’d lose it, what would you do? Would invest it there or find someplace else that had rules that you understood? Most people do the latter.

The question that investors have for Haiti is this: what type of government will Haiti have? Will it be worth it to invest there and help rebuild Haiti? If investors do this, will they get to keep their investments, or will the Haitians confiscate them? The fact that investors are not doing this in Haiti tells you what they think the answer will be. To solve this, the Haitian government, whatever is left of it, along with the Haitian military, needs to convince investors that stable institutions that encourage investment will remain. That investment brought to Haiti will not be stolen.

Convincing investors that Haitian institutions will be stable is not easy. But that is what is needed in Haiti to solve the starvation problem.

Another solution: let the Haitians become refugees and come here to work. But that has its own set of hurdles.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Why I hate democracy

There was a special election in Massachusetts recently. This was held to replace the seat held by the late Ted Kennedy. Based on the results of the election, and the campaign rhetoric, the people voting seem to be making a statement about President Obama’s healthcare agenda: they don’t like it. If a republican can get elected on this platform in the single most democratic state in the US, then they’re simply no avoiding what is being said by a majority of people. Simply put, they agree with that platform: opposition to the President’s healthcare agenda. Personally, I oppose this agenda as well, so I’m breathing a sigh of relief that it looks like this agenda is going to be defeated.

But while a majority did agree with this, this is *not* a landslide victory like some seem to be suggesting. Brown won 52% to 47%. 5 points. If this were a basketball game, that’d be a pretty close game. If this were measuring market share of two competitors, the leader would be worried. Only in politics is a 5 point victory considered a big win. And what it has me thinking about is the 47% of Massachusetts that lost.

I’m a huge fan of markets. I think markets work better than the political process for the provision of just about everything. And while I think there are a few things that governments probably ought to do (e.g. national defense) it’s only “probably”. I have incredibly little faith in government. I have incredibly little faith in empowering one tiny group of people to make rules for the rest of us.

And when you’re on the losing side of an election, that’s what you worry about. That other people whose ideas you don’t like, will dictate your fate. That you will lose some bit of freedom that you had hoped was coming as a result of your guy winning.

But this problem doesn’t exist when markets provision goods. Over the summer, I bought a car. I chose a Hyundai Elantra Touring. I’m pretty pleased with my choice. Although I have a friend who found this choice troublesome. He’s a Ford mechanic, and believes that the Ford Focus was a much better choice. It certainly has much better market share than the Hyundai I ended up buying. But here’s the thing that makes this experience so different than government. My vote for the Hyundai did not force me to live with a Honda Civic – the car with the biggest market share in that segment. I voted for, and got exactly what I voted for.

In a market, if I vote for the 2nd place option, I don’t worry that I’m going to be forced to live with the 1st place option. Heck, if I vote for the 20th place option in a market, I get the 20th place option.

This is in huge contrast to how it works in government, and democracy in particular. Because it’s not true that only 47% of the population of Massachusetts are the ones who don’t get what they want. None of the rest of America got to vote on this pivotal election. There are a *LOT* more people than those in Massachusetts who are feeling like they’re about to lose something that they thought was coming. They voted for 2nd place, and from it they’re going to get nothing.

Democracy is the illusion that your vote counts for something. But that illusion is only upheld if your guy wins. Markets allow 2nd, 3rd, 4th, … to get what they want even if they don’t get 1st place. Why do I hate democracy? Because it creates a huge number of losers at the expense of the winners. Markets don’t do that. I much prefer markets for providing goods and services. Not even the vaunted democracy comes close to making as many people well off as do markets.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The single most surprising event I've seen as a parent

Today, we had the sad task of taking the child we hosted over Christmas to the airport to send him back home to Latvia. (See this and this.) I haven't blogged much about the experience of having him here, because having 4 boys of our own and adding a 5th to the mix has kept me on my toes. Throw the holidays into the mix, and my uncle's death on Christmas, and our family has been thoroughly busy.

Suffice it to say, that the experience of hosting this child was thoroughly positive.

But that's over now, and my wife & I are now allowed to utter the a-word: adoption. And we are forced to think about if we're going to do it. There are a number of things pulling us towards adopting him:
  1. We really liked him.
  2. As an orphan (2nd lowest social strata in Latvia) and a "gypsy" (lowest social strata in Latvia) he's pretty much got *nothing* to go back to.
  3. We could make this one kid's life better. And not just by a little bit. We could give this kid a future that he simply doesn't have right now.
  4. And probably the biggest factor, one day we're going to stand before God and make an account of our lives. And it's almost impossible to imagine saying that we didn't do whatever we could to change his life because it would be too expensive and too hard.
Of course, there are some things pulling us from adopting him:
  1. It is expensive. And I don't mean a little bit. The cost ranges between $10,000 and $40,000. My company has some adoption credits, and the government offers some tax credits, but added up those don't come anywhere close to the worst case scenario cost. Doing this means, we probably have to stop putting money to our children's college funds for a while.
  2. It will require a huge commitment of time: we will likely have to take at least 2 trips to Latvia, possibly 3.
  3. It will be a lot of work. He has to learn English. We have to figure out some mechanism to driving him towards a productive life. And he's 14 already. Which means that we have a lot of work and not a lot of time.
  4. And the biggest fear is that, after watching him interact with our children for a month, that he won't fit into the mix in our family very well. 
I recently blogged about my 2nd son, and how he struggles to get along with people. And during the month we hosted, #2 and our guest got along about as well as #2 gets along with most other children. He was aggressive and intolerant of differences, and physical. Our guest is cut of a similar cloth to #2. So there were disagreements between the two, that would end with one or the other getting physically hurt.

Which brings me to the single most surprising thing I've ever seen as a parent. I was working from home today so that I could make the trip to the airport. I came downstairs after my children got off the bus to discover that #2 was crying. I figured he'd had a confrontation with someone on the bus or maybe one of his brothers. But the reason was that he missed the boy we'd just taken to the airport.

He was crying on the way to school this morning because he knew he'd just seen our guest for the last time. He was crying on the way home from school because he knew that our guest would not be at home.  And he was crying when he got home because it was all confirmed.

I didn't know what to say, but at the same time as I was sad for my son, my heart almost burst with pride for him, too. At only 8 years old, there are depths to his character that many adults I know have not yet reached.

One thing, though. One of our excuses not to adopt was just blown to bits.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Perspective From The Other Side

I read a post from Niffer about a couple of experiences that she’d had with other people and her child. I wanted to post this as a comment on her blog, but after realizing how long it got, I decided to make it a blog post. The rest of this will be from the perspective of me writing to Niffer.

Hi Niffer,

I read your 2nd experience and felt the need to give the perspective of a parent whose child misbehaves. Our 2nd child is an interesting kid. He’s very different than our 1st child. #1 is a naturally compliant child. He is aware of other people’s feelings and responds to them. Which makes parenting him really easy (for now at least). #2, on the other hand, has a tendency to be incredibly self-reliant. He tends to be an experiential learner. Meaning that he doesn’t tend to believe things that are told to him. He tends to want to find out from direct experience whether or not something is true. How someone feels about it doesn’t really matter that much to him.

Both of these traits are strengths, that I think God has given them to be used for a purpose. Unfortunately, in the wrong situations, they can be weaknesses. For example, #1 is very good at relating to other people. He easily understands their feelings and responds to them. This is a trait that allows him to make friends very easily. But he’s also very bad at standing up for himself. He can be convinced by others to do things he shouldn’t. He’s simply responding to other people’s feelings. In contrast, #2 is much more able to stand up for himself. No one is going to convince him to do something that he doesn’t want to do. But his need to experience something to believe it means that he struggles with making and keeping friends. Friends expect you to trust them, and he tends to be confrontational. He often reacts strongly when he thinks he’s been wronged. And he doesn’t need anyone else to help him deal with it. He’ll handle it himself. Forcefully. Even violently.

As a result, we are sometimes confronted by other parents who are complaining that son #2 hit their child. The last time it happened, we were at an indoor playland called “Monkey Joes”. We were heading to the car to eat the lunch we’d brought, when a woman, who was clearly angry, confronted us about our 2nd son. She told us how he’d hit her daughter and caused a cut on her face. I said, “Yeah that sounds like something he might do. I’m so sorry. I’ll talk with him.”

Now if it had stopped there, I probably wouldn’t remember the details of the encounter. I would have talked to my son, tried to figure out what was going on, and hoped that he’d absorbed 10% of what I’d said. But it didn’t stop there. She went on, saying that just talking to him wasn’t good enough. And I asked her what she thought I should do? She suggested that he be taken home for the rest of the day, and be punished. At which point, I told her that I hadn’t seen what happened. That I was simply trusting her, and I asked her if she’d seen what happened. She had not. But the cut on her daughter’s face was clear that something had happened. I said, “OK, that’s true. But the cut doesn’t tell us exactly what happened, and not having seen the incident, and not having had a chance to talk to my son about it, I need to find out his perspective before I punish him. Besides that I have 5 other kids with me and they want to stay.” (My 4 kids had 2 friends with them.) At which point, she grunted, and said, “Well, then just keep him away from my daughter!” while pointing her finger in my face and turning and walking away.

Having been through this before, I assumed that the story she told was correct. That #2 had initiated the fight. Of course, #2 claimed innocence. And surprisingly, my first child (who’s 12) and his friend (who’s also 12) immediately corroborated #2’s story. Apparently, this girl and her friends know my son from school. And they frequently chase him around the playground. And they also frequently get him into trouble by pestering him until he responds and defends himself. So he’s accustomed to seeing this particular posse of girls and running from them as quickly as possible.

My first son – who is able to sense that I’m not kidding around – is typically very honest. He’s earned his parents trust. He & his friend confirmed that this group of girls had been chasing my son for most of the time we’d been there. And when the incident occurred, they were trying to pull him off of a slide, and they succeeded. And in the process of falling, my 2nd son fell on the girl who claimed he’d punched her. And that’s what caused the cut. She initiated it entirely, and as his her habit, she tried to blame it on my son.

Of course, upon hearing this, I was mad. But I calmed myself and found the woman. In as non-accusatory a manner as I could, I told her what had happened and what was confirmed by my oldest son and his friend. At the end I said, “I don’t know exactly what happened – I wasn’t there. And I will respect your request to keep my son away from your daughter, but I thought you should know that this is happening.” By this time, she had calmed down from her initial anger at my son, and she was able to hear me. Despite that, I spent the rest of the day trying to assist my son in staying away from this posse of girls who were relentless in pestering him.

What is my point? I don’t know. When you told experience #2, I immediately thought of this event. And I remembered being the parent of the kid who’d misbehaved. Maybe my point is that there’s always another perspective. And in my case it was wrong for me to assume that my son had misbehaved. But it was also wrong for this woman to approach me with such accusation.

I also know that as a parent, when I feel like I’m defending my child, I get angry too quickly. I jump in and attack back at whatever I perceive is attacking my child. In this particular case, I think I handled it better than many previous examples, where I had immediately raised defenses and went into attacking the accuser – who was clearly in the wrong. I think the fact that all those experiences ended up badly has taught me that

I can’t just go attacking someone whom I perceive as threatening my child. I have to listen first. Unfortunately, it’s incredibly difficult to control my own desire to defend my child and my desire to know the truth of what happened. So maybe my point is to caution you to go into a confrontation with another parent with humility.

Re: the boy who called your daughter something horribly insulting, you may be right that he’d heard it from his father. But maybe he heard it from older siblings. Or maybe from friends of his older siblings. Maybe his parents have confronted him on it so much, that he’s figured out how to get away with it when they’re not around, but not figured out how to get away with it when other parents are around.

Maybe I’m feeling defensive for those other parents, because I’m so frequently on the side of having my son be the one who wronged someone else’s child. And to the parents who confront me on it, I promise you, I’m *more* frustrated by it than you are. You’ve had this one experience with my child, and when you go home, it’s done for you. I’ve had this experience many times and this just reminds me that we have more work to do. Maybe those other parents would have wanted to say that. Maybe they wouldn’t have known how, and would have reacted badly as they perceived someone attacking their son.

Obviously, I don’t know. But I’m certain that when it comes to parents interacting with other parents over conflict between their children, the only possible way it will work is if both sides approach things with humility. If I’m not willing to be the one who approaches with humility, then there’s no chance that the interaction will go well.