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A Thought for Labor Day

"Organization" and "collusion" are synonymous. The choice of which to apply to any particular case is a matter of editorial policy.


Leftists Don't Understand the Constitution

There's some first-rate Constitutional scholarship being done over at Alas. First, Ampersand says that Ted Kennedy couldn't have been expelled from the Senate (over the Chappaquiddick scandal) because it would deprive the people of Massachusetts of the right to elect whomever they want to the Senate. In fact, the Constitution is fairly clear on this issue:

Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.

Adam Powell is cited as precedent for the unconstitutionality of expulsion, but Adam Powell, as I understand it, won his case on a technicality having something to do with a distinction between exclusion and expulsion (see the decision for details).

Next, Myca claims that the current expansive interpretation of the interstate commerce clause (i.e., the Federal government can essentially do anything it wants) is a perfectly legitimate interpretation which does not do violence to its original meaning.

As I have pointed out before, James Madison stated in no uncertain terms that the general welfare clause did not grant Congress carte blanche authority to do anything not explicitly forbidden. The same logic applies to the interstate commerce clause—if the framers had wanted to give Congress that kind of general power, they would not have gone to the trouble of enumerating the specific powers granted to Congress.

In fact, the Eighteenth Amendment is proof that this was understood until 90 years ago (as I understand it, the change came about as a result of Roosevelt's shameful court-packing scheme). Under the current (mis)interpretation of the Constitution, Congress is believed to have the power to ban recreational drugs. But it was understood in 1917 that Congress has no powers not explicitly granted to it in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which is why the Eighteenth Amendment was needed to enact Prohibition. Likewise the Thirteenth Amendment, which was needed to give Congress the power to ban slavery.

Update: To be fair, most conservatives don't understand the Constitution, either.


In Praise of Low Wages

Note: I started this post two years ago and then forgot about it, which is why it references a really old post. But the point is still relevant, so I decided to finish it.

Kevin Drum sums up his opinion of Wal-Mart:

So: Efficient operations, no problem. Economies of scale, no problem. Cheap generic drugs, hooray!

But: Poverty-level wages and benefits, big problem. That's the wrong way to keep prices low.

I think supporters of free markets too often defend low wages in an almost apologetic fashion: "You know, Wal-Mart's wages really aren't that low," or "Yeah, it would be great if cashiers could make $25 per hour, but it would drive prices through the roof." But there's nothing to apologize for. Low wages are good. Wages are prices, and prices are signals. Just as an above-market price for milk will give inaccurate signals to dairy farmers and result in a misallocation of farmland, paying above-market wages will give inaccurate signals to workers and result in a misallocation of human capital.

Manning a checkout line is a low-skill job. It requires minimal training and can be done by virtually anyone*. As such, it's a good part-time job for students, and maybe a good full-time job for someone with a mild mental handicap. But it's really not a valid career choice for an adult of normal intelligence. The fact that it pays low wages is the market's way of telling would-be career cashiers to learn a marketable skill and get a real job that creates more value. At $25 per hour, that signal would be lost, and many people would be content to spend their lives scanning groceries or working in some other low-skill job rather than put in the effort necessary to learn a more valuable skill.

This is not to say that there's anything wrong with being a cashier for your entire life if that's really the best you can do. Some people simply aren't cappable of doing more cognitively demanding work, and no one should be ashamed of doing the best he can do. But it's good that we have a wage structure that encourages people to do the most valuable work that they're able to do.

*I'm actually not 100% sure that this is true of this particular job, but if not then it's true of many other jobs.


Improving Klondike

Klondike solitaire isn't much fun to play. The strategic element is very weak, outcome is dominated by luck, and winning is very rare—perhaps 5-10% of games. Freecell is a much better game. While the initial deal is determined randomly, almost every deal is winnable in principle, and a good player can win upwards of 90% of the time, albeit with some difficulty.

There may be something about the mechanics of Freecell that makes it a better game than Klondike, but I suspect that the most important reason is that all cards are dealt face-up in Freecell but not in Klondike. Dealing the tableau cards face-down severely limits the player's ability to plan ahead, forcing him to guess rather than making an informed choice.

In a casino setting, this makes sense. A casino would go bankrupt if it allowed patrons to play a skill-based game against the house. But elsewhere it makes little sense to limit the strategic aspect of the game by dealing most of the cards face-down. I suspect that Klondike could be significantly improved by dealing all of the tableau cards face-up, and possibly the draw pile as well.

Since I can't find my deck of cards and the Windows implementation of Klondike doesn't implement this option, this conjecture remains untested for the time being. It may be that this makes the game too easy.


In Defense of Ethical Hypotheticals

Bobvis doesn't like ethicists or their silly questions. I can't argue with his disdain for ethicists—especially bioethicists, who seem to exist solely for the purpose of retarding medical progress—but I do think that two hypothetical questions he dismisses as useless actually have value.

The first is the classic trolley problem (the fat man version). I find this problem valuable as an illustration of the incoherence of moral intuition. It's very difficult to argue that moral intuition is reliable when it's not even internally consistent.

The other:

Would you save a single human baby from a burning building or the last copy in the world of all the works of Shakespeare?

I like this one because it illustrates the breakdown of lexicographically-ordered preferences. There are a lot of platitudes involving lexicographically-ordered preferences, like the one about not putting a price on life. This is harmless, if mildly obnoxious, when people just say it for signalling purposes. But it's harmful to base policy decisions on that sort of nonsense (e.g., environmental regulations with a marginal cost of $10 million per year of life saved).

That said, I find this particular question somewhat unsatisfying, as it provides an opportunity for self-styled literati to engage in masturbatory rhetoric about the pricelessness of great literature. I want to watch them squirm as they're forced to admit that yes, you really can put a dollar value on life.


Summers Vindicated; Feminists Spinning

From Jeff Fecke, the new guy at Alas, a bit of feminist triumphalism regarding a study finding no significant difference in math performance between boys and girls:

So, people, do you remember Larry Summers? Poor, poor Larry Summers, who was attacked mercilessly by those humorless feminists, just because he said women weren’t as good as men at math? He’s been held up by the gender essentialist set as a martyr to the cause of political correctness, convicted in what professional concern-troll William Saletan called a “pseudo-feminist show trial” for daring to give voice to the truth: that women are simply inferior to men when it comes to math. Though they do, I’m told, excel at baking.

This was all very horrible for poor Larry, except for the fact that he was absolutely, categorically wrong. As most of the feminist meanies already knew, women aren’t inferior to men in ability to learn math, science, or anything else. And now we have the data to prove it.

This is very wrong. First off, Fecke's characterization of Summers' argument is almost libelous in its inaccuracy. Summers gave three hypotheses for the underrepresentation of women in math and science, in what he believed was descending order of importance:

1. Women are, on average, less willing or able (e.g., because of the demands of motherhood) to make the commitment of time and energy needed to succeed in highly competitive careers.

2. Although men and women are roughly equally intelligent on average, the male intelligence distribution has higher variance, so men are overrepresented at both tails of the distribution, which is where academics come from*.

3. Differential socialization.

Nowhere did Summers say anything about women being inferior to men, either in general or in terms of math ability. A study finding that boys and girls perform on average equally well on a test of basic math skills is perfectly consistent with everything Summers said.

A couple of commenters pointed out this error, but were quick to assert their feminist bona fides by saying that Summers was wrong about the variation too--that men aren't really overrepresented at the tails of the intelligence distribution. This is wrong. They are, and the study in question backs this up, even though the press release explicitly says otherwise:

Some critics argue, however, that even when average performance is equal, gender discrepancies may still exist at the highest levels of mathematical ability. So the team searched for those, as well. For example, they compared the variability in boys' and girls' math scores, the idea being that if more boys fell into the top scoring percentiles than girls, the variance in their scores would be greater. Again, the effort uncovered little difference, as did a comparison of how well boys and girls did on questions requiring complex problem solving.

I guess it depends on how you define "little." According to this supplement (PDF), the study did find that at the 99th percentile, white boys outnumbered white girls 2 to 1:

For whites, there are 1.45 times as many boys as girls above the 95%ile in grade 11, and twice as many boys as girls above the 99%ile.

Interestingly, this pattern did not hold among Asian Americans:

For Asian Americans, however, at the 99%ile, the gender ratio is 0.91, meaning that more girls than boys scored above the 99%ile.

Also, if you look at table S2 in the supplement, you'll see a fairly large negative effect size for maleness specific to blacks and American Indians--that is, they scored on average 8-9% lower than their female counterparts.

See also the table on page 9 of this document (PDF) from the College Board. In 2004, boys were 2.2 times as likely as girls to score 750+ on the math section (97.8th percentile). The study mentioned above comments on the fact that the average SAT score is higher for boys than for girls and chalks it up to sampling bias (more girls than boys take the SAT), but there's no mention of the sex imbalance in the 700+ range.

To point out what should be obvious, the fact that males outnumber females at the tails of the math ability distribution doesn't mean that we have to tell girls who are good at math that they can't become physicists or mathematicians or software engineers**. It just means that we can't take underrepresentation of women in these fields as a priori evidence of systematic discrimination.

See also Bob Hayes, who should quit slacking off and get back to blogging.

*No comment on which disciplines draw from which tails.

**I'm all for more women in my workplace, albeit for distinctly non-feminist reasons.


The Problem with Pragmatism

Recycling a comment I made on this post by Bobvis:

The problem with pragmatism is that it's just not practical. Ideal pragmatism is great--freed from ideological constraints, you can just do what works!--but ideal pragmatism isn't an option.

What we actually get is real-world pragmatism: People's beliefs about what policies produce the best results are driven more by ideology and cognitive bias than by actual evidence. And those are just the people who at least make a good-faith (if weak) attempt at intellectual honesty. Those with vested interests in certain policies may deliberately present evidence skewed in favor of their side. In short, we get something not entirely dissimilar to the system we have now.

The weakness of a principled approach--that it leaves no room for discretion--is also its strength, since discretion is as likely to be used for ill as for good. More likely, I'd say. An electorate with a knee-jerk anti-government reflex is likely to produce better policy than one laboring under the illusion that it's enlightened and pragmatic.

The best approach, I think, is to give liberty the benefit of the doubt in all cases, much as we do for criminal defendants. Only intervene where there's a strong consensus that it's absolutely necessary. For example, if I were writing a constitution, I would require a 4/5 majority in the legislature to pass a new law, and require only a simple majority, or perhaps a 2/5 minority, to void an existing law.


How to Constrain Entitlement Spending

For those who don't see how we can possibly avert the Social Security/Medicare train wreck without raising taxes, here's a quick primer on how budgeting works for everyone who isn't the government:

1. Figure out how much money you can spend.
2. Take the figure from line 1 and allocate it according to your priorities.

And you know what? It works for government programs, too! Take Medicare*. It's funded by a 2.9% payroll tax. So Medicare's budget for any given year will be whatever amount of money is raised by that tax. Now all that's left to do is allocate it according to your priorities. To keep spending under the limit, you can raise the age of eligibility, cut back coverage of treatments with high cost/benefit ratios, increase copays, limit coverage to generic drugs, outsource expensive procedures, or any combination of the above**. Anything goes, as long as you stay within the budget.

Same deal with Social Security. It's funded by a 12.4% tax on wages up to $100k or so--index the cap to the 90th wage percentile (or whatever), and you can keep it going until the end of time. Just don't jack up the monthly checks too high, or if you do, increase the retirement age to compensate. It's as easy as that.

* Please!

** Note that this is not likely to reduce quality of care available. The main problems with Medicare are that life expectancy is increasing, meaning that a greater percentage of the population is eligible, and new, expensive treatments are becoming available. The changes necessary to keep spending within budget should only slow the rate at which coverage improves.


Leftism Isn't Progressive

American leftists have a habit of adopting (or stealing) labels that don't accurately describe them. For example, the agenda of the left--which consists primarily of putting more and more of the economy under the control of the government--is downright illiberal, yet they insisted on appropriating the term "liberal" from the libertarians whom it accurately described.

In recent years, the term "liberal" has acquired some negative connotations--80 years of association with the left will do that--so they've decreed that they shall once again be called "progressives." I object to this for two reasons:

1. It's a lame rhetorical tactic. Just about everyone thinks that his agenda will promote progress. Really, we libertarians don't sit around thinking up ways to drive the economy back into a state of preindustrial squalor*. You don't get to use a declaration of victory as the name of your political philosophy. Well, obviously you can, but I call BS.

2. It's just not true. Marginal tax rates in excess of 50% aren't conducive to progress. Protectionism isn't conducive to progress. Not even if you call it "fair trade." Price controls that reduce the returns to medical innovation aren't conducive to progress. Throwing more and more money at schools that have failed year after year to educate students adequately is not conducive to progress. Policies that discourage the accumulation of capital (e.g., income vs. consumption tax) are not conducive to progress. (Market) Liberalism is progressive. Leftism is not.

Yes, I'm unilaterally declaring victory, too, but I'm not asking for an implicit pat on the back every time someone refers to my political philosophy.

Libertarians and conservatives shouldn't indulge the left in this. At the very least, we should refrain from using the term ourselves to describe leftists. Even better, call the foul every now and then.

*There are some religious fundamentalists and/or PCMNWs who actually do, but they still consider it progress.


Drug Dealing as Murder

From the Minnesota statutes:

609.195 MURDER IN THE THIRD DEGREE.
(a) Whoever, without intent to effect the death of any person, causes the death of another by perpetrating an act eminently dangerous to others and evincing a depraved mind, without regard for human life, is guilty of murder in the third degree and may be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than 25 years.

(b) Whoever, without intent to cause death, proximately causes the death of a human being by, directly or indirectly, unlawfully selling, giving away, bartering, delivering, exchanging, distributing, or administering a controlled substance classified in schedule I or II, is guilty of murder in the third degree and may be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than 25 years or to payment of a fine of not more than $40,000, or both.

Am I misreading that, or does it really mean that if you die of a drug overdose your dealer can be prosecuted for murder?


Property Is Worth Killing Over

There's been a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over the decision by a Texas grand jury not to indict Joe Horn for shooting two men who burglarized the home of his vacationing neighbor.

One common sentiment I've seen, even from some people who support the decision not to indict Horn, is that property isn't worth killing over, because life is sacred and property isn't, or some variation on that platitude.

This is nonsense--property is worth killing over because property is life. I spend 40% of my waking hours doing something I'd rather not be doing in order to make money. Mind you, I have a pretty good job, but when I get up in the morning, I can think of a hundred ways I'd rather spend the day than going in to work, if it weren't for the money. For people who really hate their jobs, this feeling is no doubt much stronger.

When your property is lost or stolen, it means that the portion of your life that you sacrificed to earn that money has been wasted. A thief who steals your property also steals a small part of your life. And a small part of the life of his next victim, and his next, until it adds up to the equivalent of murder. Property crime is piecemeal murder, and I wholeheartedly endorse the use of force--deadly if necessary--to stop piecemeal murder.


Wherein a Catallarchist Goes Green

Did you know that the brain is responsible for 20% of the body's energy consumption? In an effort to do my part for the environment, I'll be recycling a comment (of which I was reminded by the penultimate paragraph of Constant's recent post) in lieu of expending the brainpower needed to think up a new post:

I agree that it's perfectly legitimate to be upset about statistical discrimination. But insofar as statistical discrimination is a rational response to the incentives faced, I don't think it makes sense to be upset at the discriminator. You can't blame people for looking out for their own interests. Rather, the blame lies with those who make discrimination pay off.

Most people understand this, at least implicitly. For example, I resent the fact that I have to pay higher insurance rates than I would as a woman with a comparable driving record. But I don't blame my insurance company--I blame young men who drive recklessly.

Many Americans are unhappy with the way Europeans view us. There's some disagreement regarding whether this is statistical discrimination or bigotry. But those who believe that it's statistical discrimination are nearly unanimous in placing the blame on the "ugly Americans" who make the rest of us look bad rather than on the Europeans.

Likewise, no one blames a woman for crossing to the other side of the street when encountering a man after dark--we blame the men who justify this response.

It's only when the discrimination is against members of certain victim classes that we blame the discriminator.


Correlations Are Real-Valued

Dave (non-Masten) on the importance of IQ:

Sure if they have brain damage that inhibits them from handling higher math they may have behavior problems also. If they have an IQ of 95 and do well as a clerk in a shoe store, is this a poorer outcome than being a slick high IQ type like Ted Bundy or Al Capone. Admittedly a shoe clerk might not have high social status but if you exclude persons from success this way there seems to be a certain elitism that is not scientific.

First off, no one's saying that there's anything wrong with being a shoe salesman. I think that someone with an IQ of 95 would probably be capable of--and better off by--learning a skilled trade, but there's a place for everyone, and if retail sales clerk is the best someone can do, then it's as honorable an occupation as any.

Second, low IQ isn't brain damage. It can be caused by brain damage, but undamaged brains have a wide range of ability levels, and AFAIK there's no evidence that the correlation between low IQ and antisocial behavior is due entirely to brain damage.

But the main point I wanted to address was this:

If they have an IQ of 95 and do well as a clerk in a shoe store, is this a poorer outcome than being a slick high IQ type like Ted Bundy or Al Capone.

This is a fallacy I see far too often: The idea that the only possible values of a correlation are -1, 0, or 1. Or, in layman's terms, the idea that a single counterexample invalidates a rule of thumb. It doesn't work that way. When we say that low IQ is correlated with undesirable life outcomes, we mean that people with low IQs are much more likely than people with high IQs to live in poverty, commit crimes, drop out of high school, receive welfare, and have children out of wedlock. That doesn't mean that people with high IQs never do these things, or that people with low IQs always do; it just means that people with high IQs are much less likely to.

The existence of high-IQ criminals like Bundy and Capone only proves that there's not a perfect correlation between IQ and criminality. But no one ever claimed there was.


The Problem with Progressivity

There's an argument in the comments section of this post at Alas about the effects of marginal tax rates on labor supply.

I do think that there's something to the idea that the short-term labor supply is somewhat inelastic. Ronald Reagan's stories of making a few movies and then taking the rest of the year off were plausible in the days of 90% marginal tax rates, but it's much harder to imagine a surgeon or CEO quitting or cutting back on hours if his marginal tax rate goes from 40% to 50%.

But the long-term effects of a steeply progressive income tax may be a different story altogether, because then we have to take into account the effect of the tax structure on future career choices.

For example, to become a doctor takes a lot of work. Four years of college, four of medical school, and then another three to ten of on-the-job training, depending on the specialty. After that, they start making a lot of money. They have to, to make up for the fact that they've missed out on 7-14 years of post-college earning potential, and for the 100-hour workweeks residents have to put up with.

I did the math, and it turns out that my decision to drop out of college at 19 to work as a software engineer actually compares favorably to most types of medicine (except for the most lucrative specialties) in terms of lifetime income potential, even assuming that I never hit it big with stock options or by starting my own company.

Insofar as that's just a result of market forces--if it's because consumers want 45 years of software engineering starting now more than they want 35 years of medicine starting ten years from now--that's fine. But the incentives are distorted by the progressive tax system. Even if a doctor and I made exactly the same amont of money over our lifetimes (ignoring for the sake of simplicity issues of time preference), he'd end up with a higher effective tax rate than I would, because my income is spread out over more years, putting me in a lower bracket. The more progressive the income tax, the less incentive there is to go into medicine.

This also applies to any career that involves working long hours in exchange for more money. Suppose that by working 80 hours per week instead of 40, you can double your salary. But with a progressive tax rate, you take home significantly less than twice as much money, which pushes people away from careers that require long hours. I was considering going to law school at one point, and this was an actual factor in my decision not to.

Another example: Entrepreneurship. Paul Graham has spoken of starting a new company as a way of compressing your work life: Start a company, work like crazy for a period of several years, sell it, and you're set for life. Steeply progressive income taxation makes this less attractive, because your income spikes through the roof the year you sell the company, putting you in the highest tax bracket. And people don't respond by doing it twice to make up the difference--once is bad enough. Instead they just keep working for established companies for the safe paycheck with the relatively low tax rate.

Incentives matter. Even if you think you can outsmart the laws of economics in the short run, they'll come back to bite you in the long run.


Psychic Hedging Insurance

I was thinking recently that I'd be pretty bummed out if I were blinded or paralyzed or suffered some other kind of life-changing injury. It then occurred to me that, while I probably could never truly be made whole, I might be a bit less bummed out if a very large sum of money were deposited into my bank account shortly after my injury.

I already have disability insurance, but this only pays 60% of my salary at the time of injury, which pays the bills but doesn't make me feel any better. And as a software engineer, I can take a lot of physical damage without really being disabled.

What I really want is psychic hedging insurance. I want to pay an insurer a monthly premium in exchange for a promise to pay me, say, $2 million in the event that I become legally blind, $3 million in the event of lower-body paralysis, $5 million for total-body paralysis, etc.

Does anyone know if such a product exists? Is it even feasible, or are there too many people who would happily poke their own eyes out for $2 million?