Thursday, November 20, 2014

Stuart Smalley Political Economy

Those of you old enough to remember Al Franken before he morphed into a Skeksis and took his rightful place in the US Senate may recall his SNL character Stuart Smalley, whose flaccid mantra was "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me." It was a funny enough pastiche at the time, woven from the unbearable sadness of broken, low-status people shambling their way through the aftermath of trauma (Franken says that the character emerged from his experiences in Al-Anon meetings).

The humor, and I feel a little foolish for having to point this out, arose from the unmanly, servile, wimpish nature of the character. Smalley was constantly trying to rebuild his self-esteem, and that's silly because self-esteem is silly.

Well, it was anyway. Wunca-ponna time. I know this will sound like intergenerational bellyaching, but I'd like you to consider the content of the material Patrick at Popehat has lately taken to lambasting.

See the thing in all its glory.

Young Mr. Zach Traynor flirts with his totalitarian instincts on the dance floor of self-esteem. To him (and judging from an admittedly non-representative sample of people his age, many of his peers), the threat of physical violence is a distant memory of a Whiggish past, gone but not forgotten, rearing occasionally in the periodic school shootings that have become a numbing part of the relentless news cycle. No more swirlies, no more noogies, no more fistfights by the bleachers. We used to knock the books out of your hands. Now we tweet mean things about you. Isn't that still bullying? If you troll me, do I not bleed?

The Straussian reading of Traynor is this: the American public has chosen to move up Maslow's pyramid. Violent crime is way down, particularly from the excesses of the last quarter of last century. Social media has drastically reduced the search costs of ad hoc communities, so that previously outre interests now have gigantic annual conventions in major cities. Honestly, if you would have told me while Franken was still on the air in a pastel sweater that American men would be congregate once a year dressed up as My Little Pony characters, I would have gone all British and accused you of taking the piss. The only frontiers left for bullies to ply their craft is in the rarefied vapor of self-esteem and self-actualization.

And yes, it still sucks. Getting stuffed in a locker sucks too, but assault is a crime. Making speech a crime has horrific consequences that should be obvious to anyone over the age of five.

Still though, making speech a crime is a choice that the public could make. It's possible that given enough time, public opinion could drift far enough into Traynoresque tyranny that we could see a repeal of the First Amendment. He's a Dartmouth student, he and his peers will inherit the keys to the Constitution soon enough. I'd be curious to see if he and his ilk end up successful whether or not the next round of censorious intent will be leveled at the next layer of Maslow, if folks who dare impede personal perfection through criticism or other barrier-erecting will end up tasting hobnails.

Speech is not euvoluntary. Well, at least the speech that most desperately needs protecting. Tender feelings are hurt when people make harshly critical remarks. There's little mutual felicity exchanged when Serrano submerges a plastic Christ in his own urine. But I encourage you, dear reader, to recall that when you petition the state to intervene, you are affirming that in the limit, you are willing to kill to enforce the statute law you wish to enact. Do not forget that in a confrontation with agents chartered to enforce statue legislation, sufficient resistance ends one way: with the perpetrator shot dead.

Mr. Traynor, are you willing to kill American citizens to preserve the self-esteem of others?

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Comin' Down from the Gallows

Ohio is considering legislation to shield manufacturers of drugs used in executions from identification (NPR, AP). This comes in the wake of the botched execution of Dennis McGuire (and Joseph R Wood in Arizona, and Michael Wilson in Oklahoma), ordeals that ex post violated the Cruel and Unusual Punishment clause of the 8th Amendment.

At issue: firms that provide drugs for lethal injections squander "goodwill", an accounting term-of-art meant to measure the dollar value of brand loyalty or public trust the firm enjoys. It's bad for business to be seen as the merchant of death, I suppose. The EU has even gone so far as to threaten an embargo against the US if the several states continue to use Eurozone-manufactured drugs to execute prisoners.

The dropsman, the burly axeman, that grim bareback stretcher of necks, Le danseur du Madame Guillotine, the Final Servant of High Justice, the Scharfricher... call him what you will, but almost universally, this man is hooded to protect his identity lest he become a pariah. Ottoman Imperial executioners were drawn only from Romany stock, untouchable wandering peasants. I strain to imagine a historically lower status profession over the long arc of written history. Dung heap shovelers never needed hide their face for fear of community reprisal. Cold-blooded execution, even if directed by the impartial arm of the Law, is simply reprehensible, atavistically so. Execution is not euvoluntary (duh).

Curious: why wouldn't the exact same moral intuition apply to the many, many, many firms that deal either directly or indirectly with state agencies responsible for casualties incurred in the many armed conflicts around the world. Drugs that end the lives of heinous criminals are one thing, bombs that end the lives of innocent children are something else entirely. How many Eurozone firms conduct commerce with General Atomics Aeronautics (the company that makes Predator drones)? How about General Electric, with their immense DoD contracts, or Westinghouse, or General Dynamics? Are EU political elites threatening to embargo these firms? Why not? What's the difference?

In Arnold Kling's 3-axis model, the conservative axis has that state executions are barbaric, and rehabilitation is civilized. The progressive axis would suggest that criminals are (perhaps) the result of oppressive power structures, and there is no justice in an execution—though I confess I'm not sure how the use of drone warfare would square with the moral intuition on this issue. And for libertarians? I don't think I'm familiar with a definitive libertarian stance on capital punishment. I don't think there's much marginal deterrence compared to lifetime imprisonment, and there are convincing deontological arguments both for and against.

At any rate, it's worth it, I think, to revisit from time to time the question of whether the state has a compelling interest in executing its citizens for heinous crimes. I also think it's worth considering if there can be justice in exchange when the telos of the trade is to end human life. I also think that to be consistent with principles of universality and fairness that considerate euvoluntary exchangeurs should give some thought to examining a wide range of trades, not merely those that offend moral sensitivities inherited from distant times. Perhaps it is immoral to hawk pentobarbitol to the headsman, but perhaps also it's just as immoral (if not more so) to sell guidance systems that'll sit in a GA MQ-1 Predator.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Horrible Truth of Nien Nunb

For those of you too young or insufficiently interested in the minutae of Star Wars trivia to recall, Nien Nunb was the Sullustan "co"-pilot who, together with Lando Calrissian, successfully detonated the power plant at the center of the second Death Star orbiting the forest moon of Endor. This assault marked the demise of both Emperor Palpatine and the last remaining Sith apprentice, Darth Vader.

Astute viewers will notice that while aboard the Millennium Falcon, Lando occupied the seat typically filled by Han Solo, and the froglike Nunb took Chewbacca's seat. Even more astute viewers will note that nearly every scene in the previous movies that required both adept piloting (the escape from the first Death Star or the flight from Hoth eg) and assistance elsewhere aboard the Falcon, Chewie kept his post, while Han went off to man the turrets or flirt with Leia or whatever. Han may have had legal title over the Falcon, but Chewbacca was its main pilot. This is not unlike our own terrestrial seagoing vessels, where the owner of the ship, the captain of the vessel, and the pilot are seldom the same person. If Nien Nunb was actually in the pilot's chair, it was he who deserves the lion's share of credit for the victory at Endor.

Despite this obvious-in-retrospect conclusion, Nunb is virtually unknown to casual fans. I had to wait until the action figure came out to learn his name, and it was only because of the extended universe novels that I remembered it with any regularity. How could this happen? Why do we so cavalierly forget one of the most important figures of the Rebellion?

The answer is a little complicated, so bear with me. On Nien Nunb's homeworld of Sullust, his distant ancestors civilized themselves in low-lying swamplands on one of the larger continents. This continent was a dangerous place, chock full of toothy predators and geological hazards. Proto-Sullustans competed with a number of similar Anurials for the same sorts of swamp resources. What set Nunb's ancestors apart from the other contenders for intellectual advancement was an idiosyncratic propensity to cooperate. This propensity arose almost by accident when a group of medium-status individuals found that by banding together to kill individually powerful males one at a time, they were able to avoid domination and capture a larger share of the community wealth. Of course, they were still social animals, and the Anurials clever enough to band together were also clever enough to exclude the very low-status members, obliging them to accept either charity or a BATNA of autarky (you get what you can make with your own two hands). Nota bene, in order for coalition members to avoid becoming the next assassination target, proto-Sullustans got very good at loudly championing equality for all, while surreptitiously hoarding wealth and excluding the untouchables.

Ancient proper Sullustans organized themselves by loosely-hierarchical clans. Members were more or less equal, with a clan head (usually an elder) to give direction where needed. But the habits of their Anurial ancestors was already baked into their DNA, so to speak, and they carried with them a strong skepticism of overt domination, or of bragging, or other displays of individualism. It was only with the development of stable farming that they began to deepen hierarchy and re-assert a measure of dominion.

Unfortunately for the military accolades owed to Nunb himself, re-emergent hierarchy was arrested by the arrival of hyperspace-capable vessels. Sullustans had all the mental faculties required for spacefaring, so it was simply a matter of a couple generations' training to get them serving aboard freight vessels and eventually as the chief pilot responsible for the fall of the Empire.

And so we have Nunb, heir to a culture that had never provided much in the way of reward for exceptional courage, and had indeed gone out of its way to punish overt displays of dominance. And as heir to this culture, he readily joined with Mon Mothma's fleet to overthrow the most domineering regime in the entire galaxy: Palpatine's Empire. But he also had flowing through his cold veins just enough contempt for lower-status creatures that he couldn't much care about the flaming debris that cascaded down onto the surface of Endor. Ewoks barely register as sapient, their ultimate sacrifice so that the galaxy can be rid of a hated sovereign was more than worth it. After all, it would have been a heck of a hassle to wrest control of the Death Star (and the rebel fleet had no way of knowing that Vader had killed Palpatine anyway) and move it out of Endor's gravity well. Right?

Nunb was in thrall to his biological and cultural programming. He could have no more sought recognition for his vital role in overthrowing the Empire than our own hotheaded champions of "justice" and "fairness" could have kept themselves from frothing up a lather over the unprofessional sartorial choices of a European rocket scientist who just helped land a tiny probe on a distant comet. Sullustans, much like we humans, are social creatures first and foremost. The tiny little triggers in our heads itch to be pulled, and they're tuned not for unfathomable greatness in achievement, but to slight cues of dominance. It is only by mastery of the Force can anyone hope to Jedi their way out of the swamps and savannas whence we emerged.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Title 32 in Missouri

I further order, pursuant to Section 41.480, RSMo, the Adjutant General of the State of Missouri, or his designee, to forthwith call and order into active service such portions of the organized militia as he deems necessary to protect life and property and assist civilian authorities and it is further directed that the Adjutant General or his designee, and through him, the commanding officer of any unit or other organization of such organized militia so called into active service take such action and employ such equipment as may be necessary to carry out requests processed through the Missouri State Highway Patrol and ordered by the Governor of the state to protect life and property and support civilian authorities.
What do you do when a little violence isn't getting the job done? Produce more violence.

Peaceful, euvoluntary exchange is mutually felicitous. Force executed on behalf of ambitious (or scared) political elites is not.

I am not convinced that there is a peaceful solution to civil unrest in Ferguson, but I am convinced that the institutional underpinnings of the ongoing drama there can be eradicated. End the War on Drugs, overturn civil asset forfeiture protocols. Assign police to their original charter as guardians of law and order. It may not even be too late for Missouri.

Yikes, you guys. Yikes.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Soft Sell: Tainted Love

...for your fellow citizens.

MIT professor Jonathan Gruber finds himself in increasingly hot, increasingly deep water as videos of his admissions of public deception and his contempt for either opponents of the PPACA or the public at large (depending on how you elect to interpret his comments) continue to surface. I think the count is somewhere around five now. Instead of commenting on the pillorying (or pointed lack thereof), I want to consider what some of the alternatives would have looked like ca. 2009. At the time, there were many roads to reform. I suspect that the very large, very confusing bill ("we have to pass the bill to know what's in it") emerged as the result of years of planning, plastering, packaging, and preparing by its proponents. A thousands-page document does not spring unbidden overnight nor without considerable input from a substantial constituency.

Suppose instead that civic-minded reformers had pursued other overhauls. Here are a few possibilities:
  1. Anarchists' Paradise. A fully free market in medicine. Abolish the FDA, abolish the Department of Health, break the AMA cartel, end medical licensing. Let the market sort it out, an even more extreme laissez-faire approach than what we see for veterinarian services, elective cosmetic surgery, or laser vision correction.
  2. Single Payer (A). This is the NHS model, the one lambasted in the conservative media, in which the government both funds and provides health services.
  3. Single Payer (B). This is the Baltic model, where there is government funding and provision of health services, but there is no ban on private provision. Private hospitals and clinics can still operate in this model, but patients may not be eligible for subsidies at these clinics.
  4. Single Payer (C). This is public funding with private provision. Essentially, this is universal Medicare expansion. This may or may not accompany the reform of severing the link between employment and coverage.
  5. Menu Pricing. Medical billing is... confusing for the typical patient. Stories of sticker shock are not uncommon, and it's still something of an industry secret that a lot of the line item pricing on medical bills is part of a negotiation dance between providers and third party payers. Prices contain information so long as buyers and sellers agree about the rules of the negotiation.
Add to the list as you see fit. Now take a moment and consider carefully who the stakeholders are in the status quo medical services game. By way of a large regulatory, industrial, professional, and legislative apparatus, incumbent interests have a great deal to lose should any truly radical reforms stand a chance of passing. Even the pork-laden, special-interest-payoff-ridden PPACA took a heroic effort to wend its way through perhaps the most favorable Congress in the past half century. Do you think—honestly think—that a more disruptive bill would have even gotten out of committee? Medicine isn't euvoluntary: neither voters nor politicians are willing to slay the juggernaut that wields the national scalpel.

In my comet utopia, we'd have some combination of single payer B-C, with transparent prices, low barriers to drug development, few restrictions on practice (with private quality certification), and no link whatsoever between employment and insurance. Insurance would be what it says on the tin, and folks would have free access to health savings accounts. I do not live on a comet. I live in an America flush with transitional gains traps and wealthy interests with a great deal of access to political influence. I cannot imagine a present-day America populated with present-day Americans that could have possibly produced outcomes that would please me or fit what I fancy in my armchair daydreams.

Did Gruber and Pelosi give us a hard sell? Sure, but no other reasonable option could have possibly made the cut. A soft sell just wasn't in the cards, folks.

Man, that video is horrible. I must have missed it on the MTV rotation the first time round. Yikes.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

How BATNA is Now?

Noah vs. Eli on the role of government.
Economics is unambiguous on only a small handful of issues. One of these is that individuals, organizations, and even states are at their most productive when they confine their activities to where they enjoy a comparative advantage. By doing so, they can be as productive as they are able, and can then trade their surplus for all the other wonderful things they wish to consume.

Governments have a comparative advantage in using the tools of force to promote law and order.

I can't speak for libertarians generally, but if I fall into using the "government size" trope, what I would probably mean is "government reach," a lament about the activities of government that lie outside the scope of its comparative advantage. Legislating against consensual sex work, for example, obliges vice cops to harass peaceful sex workers, thereby passing up the natural alternative use of their time by seeking out and prosecuting forcible child prostitution. For me, "size" isn't a budget issue; it's a scope of practice issue.

We are in the BATNA now. We are exploited and oppressed, particularly those of us who are poor or minorities. Liberals, conservatives, and libertarians of good conscience should consider an alliance to restore to the state its primary function as keeper of the Constitution and protector of the public order. Universal state-funded day care is a slightly lower priority than ending the mundane tyrannies of the various wars on crime, drugs, terror & al.

We Can Land On A Comet, But We Can't Admit Gruber Was Right

Sometimes life throws you a softball. Still trending on Twitter is the unintentionally hilarious hashtag #WeCanLandOnACometButWeCant, an ode to the wonder of the human spirit and the tragedy of grave misclassifications. Here's an example of one that straddles the line between tragedy and comedy:
Rosetta and its probe Philae are very impressive engineering feats, which is to say that they've demonstrated their programmers' keen grasp of physics, chemistry, navigation, math, and sundry other deterministic disciplines. Unfortunately for anyone with a troy ounce of taste, including both myself and Mr. Burfield above, dickheads continue to achieve and maintain fame.

The fame of dickheads is not an engineering problem; it is a social problem.

Social problems arise because people have agency. They can make decisions of their own accord. And in a free society, we oblige ourselves to tolerate the banal, crass decisions of others because the alternative is the sort of totalitarianism seen in regimes like the DPRK. If you're a working class American you would no more want to be forced to attend polo matches against your will than a Rhode Island elite would enjoy being forced to go to NASCAR races unwillingly. Orwell was close, except the boot stomping on the human face forever has a Nike logo and is at the 30 yard line.

Ergo, Gruber. The other news of the day (which is hardly news) is that PPACA architect-in-arms Hans Jonathan Gruber took command of Nakatomi Plaza was caught on tape on three occasions making the uncontroversial (in the social sciences, anyway) claim that voters are stupid (or irrational, or ignorant, or mood affiliation to that effect). Tyler C comments here, B. Caplan retorts here. Me? I think both of them are right. Tyler says that Gruber broke political kayfabe, and that since he's not a career politician, he shouldn't be expected to lie continuously and adroitly. Bryan says that lying is wrong, and that since the constituency insists politics are treated as an extended morality play populated by cartoon characters, any contribution to the charnel house of deception is unethical. To me, these two opinions are not even remotely incompatible. Tyler's looking at an individual's rational response to the incentives he faces; Bryan's critiquing the entire institution, while condemning a man for taking part in it.

My unreliable utopia has no famous dickheads, no kayfabe in politics, and is probably well-suited to life on a comet in deep orbit. Until I can strap myself to the shuttle pod of Rosetta II, I'll probably have to accept my BATNA of the injustices of asset forfeiture, the militarization of police, the relentless non-stop low-grade wars abroad, the inhumane treatment of peaceful immigrants, the grotesque war on drugs, the awful criminalization of sex work, and whatever other petty tyrannies men and women in positions of political authority can muster. I suppose it could be worse. At least America hasn't gone full Venezuela.