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Byrd steps down

From Politico:

Senate legend Robert Byrd, approaching 91 this month and hailing a “new day in Washington,” said he would voluntarily give up the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee with the new Congress.

“To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven,” said Byrd, who had fended off earlier challenges this past spring and summer. “Those Biblical words from Ecclesiastes 3:1 express my feelings about this particular time in my life.

While we're quoting Ecclesiastes, dear appropriator of Robert M. Byrd Federal Highway, this is my more-fitting tribute:

Ecclesiastes 2:5-11:

I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I acquired men and women singers, and a harem [a] as well—the delights of the heart of man. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me.

Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.

or perhaps Ecclesiastes 5:8:

If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields.

"We only need to rebuild civilization once"

...a belated report on the First Annual Seasteading Conference.

The key point: the government-doesn't-work problem has remained unsolved for millenia.

The solution - whatever it is - has got to be "big, sneaky, clever, and different." Past results have mostly ranged from disastrous (Marxism) to pointless ("if a different group of people runs stuff, government will work!").

The intuition:
we need a testing ground to try out ideas.

I wake up at 5:30 a.m. to catch the Caltrain to Burlingame from Stanford, where I'm an undergraduate economics major.

Patri Friedman opens with a great presentation. He gives a regression of growth rates - 6 percent for an OECD country with 10% government sector versus 1 percent for a country with 50% gov't sector, ceteris paribus. What that would mean over the next 50 years. And then the kicker:

"Keep in mind, these are numbers about human lives."

He offers a compelling critique of government. Sure, I like libertarian rhetoric, but it's less useful than Patri's incisive industry analysis.

Think of government like a modified car market: 10,000 people band together, pick their favorite car, probably a beige Toyota Corolla, and all buy that car, year after year. Consider the following problems:
- Toyota would keep making the same car, and only one; that is, government can't sell in niche markets.
- Concurrently, it can't try truly different ideas; the last (successful) experiment was the American Revolution.
- Quality might be good in the beginning, but what incentive would Toyota have to improve/maintain its product quality? Little or none. Same with the government.
- Simply put, "the barrier to entry is insane." You have to win a war, an election, or a revolution.
- Now throw in resulting factors like lock-in and switching costs: "you think OS is bad? Most industries can't kill, murder, and steal from their customers and get away with it."

The ultimate problem, Patri argues, is that there is *no frontier*. The solution, then? Re-create one.

"I first looked to the ocean because it was unclaimed. But then I realized, it's better. The bad news: we've built almost all of our civilization in the wrong place. The good news: land-based systems can ossify. But we only need to rebuild civilization once."

One big problem was how to start, so the rest of the conference was dedicated to making seasteading economically viable. The problem was finding ideas that could scale, or help create scale. Business models like medical tourism or factories of Indian programmers, located a short boat ride from a major metropolitan area.

Such models would make seasteading viable for long enough to let the huge long-term structural advantages come into play. Demographic factors are in our favor: the "ocean tax" of building in a hostile environment will decrease with better tech, but the "government tax" of building in a hostile (read: any current) political system is a percentage of national wealth - which is growing.

It's a beautiful vision. A far more productive use of my nights and weekends throughout my working years, than promoting political and economic freedom landside. That's noble, but largely futile and easily repealed.

A leftie conference attendee noted that in the type of small communities made possible by seasteading, different social agenda would start to converge. Social democracy might not be so different than libertarianism.

From the libertarian side, building a new way of life that could generate freedom and prosperity for a vast number of humans, would be wonderful.

But I am especially entranced by "co-housing seasteading": the idea of sometime throwing in my lot with a couple hundred families and helping to make life on a new frontier viable.

For me, this is partly religiously motivated. Latter-day Saints have a rich tradition of migrating to the frontier to create a better society of more virtuous people. We call our goal Zion. But it's only one expression of a striving for the light that seems to be written on the human psyche.

Government as we now know it isn't the only force preventing the realization of this deep-set yearning. But it's one of the main ones, and it's time to change that.

Coming back early to attend a class dinner at a prof's house, I mention the conference to the professor, a director at a consulting firm, and the teaching assistant, an econ Ph.D. student. Though skeptical, they think it's an interesting idea and note that it's easy to criticize ideas. But the TA gets the final word.

What was the male-to-female ratio of people at the conference, he asks. Like most libertarian gatherings, I reply: about ten to one. We laugh together.

Global warming: don’t worry, be happy

I was reading a paper for my Economics and Law class, and it cited this statistic from a 2000 paper by economist William Nordhaus:

Damages of a 2.5 C Degree Warming As a Percentage of GDP,

India 4.93

Africa 3.91

OECD Europe 2.83

High income OPEC 1.95

Eastern Europe 0.71

Japan 0.50

United States 0.45

China 0.22

Russia -0.65

In other words, India will be 5% worse off GDP-wise than it would be otherwise because of climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change presented a ballpark of 1.8C to 4.0C for average climate change difference by 2100, so 2.5C is a reasonable, maybe slightly low, estimate of climate change in this century.

I’ll consider some math for India. Estimate a 4.5 percent annual GDP growth in India for the next 93 years, fairly conservative given current 9% growth rates and 2.5% growth for developed non-welfare states like the US.

India’s current GDP is $3,800 per capita. 1.045 ^ 93 = 60.0, so, by 2100 India will have 60 times higher per capita GDP than it does now, that is $228,000. Knock five percent off and we’re down to a paltry $217,000.

Worrying about global warming, then, seems a bit like rearranging the deck chairs on the Queen Elizabeth II. In 2100, we’ll be on a luxury liner whatever the seating arrangements, given reasonable growth rates.

And if we do want to rearrange those chairs, there are a lot simpler, more difficult to screw up ways to do it than to fight global warming.

Math again: a 5 percent reduction of India’s 2100 GDP is equivalent to a 0.0555% decrease in her growth rate over the intervening time period (1.05 = 1.000555^93).

So, how do we boost India’s growth rate by .0555%?

India has a 14.4 percent average tariff rate, according to the 2007 Index of Economic Freedom. Berkeley economist Brad DeLong estimated the roughly 50 percent tariff on capital goods in the US after the Civil War reduced economic growth from 0.14% to 0.36% annually. Apply those figures to India today, and its 14.4% tariff, if continued over the next 93 years, would reduce growth by 0.0403% to 0.103%, so about the same as global warming.

Oddly though, eliminating Indian tariff barriers has not turned into the next cause celebre.

(The paper, with data, is “Climate Change Justice” by Eric Posner and Cass Sunstein (working paper),

One Liberty To Rule Them All

Dave has an interesting post, including our different definitions of liberty: cosmopolitan, religious, utilitarian, and libertarian. While they are indeed "mutually contradictory," it's a big selling point that by pursuing the libertarian idea of liberty, you get decent dollops of the others, if you want them. We could call this the "one ring to set them all free" theory.

Libertarian liberty (LL) does pretty well at achieving cosmopolitan liberty. Say you care about absolute wealth not at all, only about equality of opportunity (EO). While some tribal societies accomplished a remarkable equality of result, EO was never a feasible political program before the IR and capitalism enabled us to afford massive wealth redistribution. Otherwise, you just alternated between feudalism and occasional retaliatory decapitation (England 1381, France 1792). Maybe there was EO in Sparta, if you don't mind militarization or infanticide. Oddly enough, though, most leftists do.

Fast-forward to today. Now, if you want EO down your throat, all you have to do is learn Swedish. Or if you're Rawls, and care only about the poorest in society: well, they might better off in Sweden than America, but they're way better off here than in India. So some capitalism is still good, and even better the more you care about absolute wealth.

And LL does all right for people who want liberty to conform to a discovered ideal, at least as long as it's a Western religious one. Why? Any religion that puts value on free will (most Western religions) must, to be consistent value systems, allow people to do the wrong thing without harming, morally or spiritually, others. In short, people must be free to sin.

Take the Amish. Before the decision to be be baptized, teens are permitted to go into the wider world and experiment. It’s not smiled upon, but is permitted. After being baptized, they must shun such influences. But the Amish offer what is vital in any non-Calvinist Christianity: the choice to accept God, or not.

So if doing wrong is a sin, but people should be free to sin, what are optimal laws? I don’t think “we should ban porn and prostitutes” is a necessary conclusion; I think it’s just the zealous legislating their own – excuse me, God’s – preferences onto others.

My perspective? To paraphase an old libertarian parable, if soldiers enter your home and force you to pray to Mecca (Jehovah, Shiva) daily or die, you aren't free to be a Muslim. You can only be a true Muslim (Christan/Jew, Hindu) when they quit harassing you and you get to decide for yourself. Unfortunately, I don’t think many of my co-religionists see it this way.

And libertarian liberty aces the test on utilitarian liberty. The free market is the greatest good for the greatest number, in the long run at least. So maybe minus one. (IMHO, Confucianism belongs in the previous category)

More into the orgins of GGFGN: whatever the tendencies of JS Mill towards elitism (see Sowell), his political program is squarely libertarian. And Hayekian traditionalism - the idea we should lean toward accepting what is because it was shaped by processes smarter than any one person or group, meanwhile strengthening such weeding-out forces through the free market and decentralization - is rule-utilitarianism par excellence.(yes, hair-splitters, I know utilitarianism was too rationalistic for Hayek's tastes. the general point stands.)

So if you pursue libertarian liberty, there are some trade-offs after a point, sure. But that's far from it being contradictory to the others.

And of course, something else we can use as a selling point is decentralization. Alabama has its liquor laws, Scandinavia its cradle-to-grave welfare. Libertarians don't like either, but we (should) prefer the status quo to a scenario where either or both population was forced to change its laws by a higher governing authority. Thus, if you adopt one of the other definitions of liberty, legislating your preferences causes the least harm possible, by confining it to a mostly supportive community. Unsurprisingly, none of the other perspectives agrees here.

teaching the extended order

Somewhat inspired by Arthur Foulkes, and mulling taking a couple of years to teach high school in the future, I thougt of an interesting way to open the first day of a high school economics class. 

Instead of telling the students that they have their desks because the military protects them, I'd start by telling them they can't use any of their school supplies until someone or some group gives the class a presentation of how that object was made. They wouldn't have to do it for pencils, of course; after passing out Leonard Read, I'd spot them permission to use computers and a phone for research outside of class, and paper to take notes with in class. 

Then they'd have to give somewhat detailed stories, for credit, of how any particular product was made, else they couldn't use it in class. I'd tell them on the first day about chalk and the class chalkboard. They'd have to learn about desks to sit on, both the plastic and the metal bars. Folders. Backpacks. Chairs. One on a particular article of clothing, though probably making them leave their clothes at the door would be controversial. 

Would this impress upon them how dependent we are upon the extended order of which we know virtually nothing? Any other ideas for doing so?



self-directed learning bias?

I’m skeptical about claims, which I hear often by classical liberals, that kids generally love to learn innately. Personal experience gives everyone some expertise on education. But if that’s all we’re posting from, I think the sample from which the classical liberal blogosphere is drawn makes such claims overrepresented. Call this an argument from skeptical elitism.

Bloggers at places like Catallarchy are people who spend their spare time discussing political theory. Thus, they are more likely to be intelligent people. This is especially true if smart people are more likely to be libertarians.

Intelligent people are intelligent because they learn better than others.

Some people are better learners than others. (Josh Waitzkin, the chess and martial-arts champ, attributes his success to knowing how to learn.) Similarly, some people are better at self-learning than others. Ceteris isn’t paribus, but I’d argue that people who are better self-learners are still more likely to be better learners overall.

Thus, people who are more self-directed, who dislike more the strictures of school, are more likely to frequent classical liberal fora and to write...criticisms of school. Don’t get me wrong, I think dumbing-down public schools makes them well worthy of criticism. But we need to build on thicker reeds than just our own experience as students, if our experience isn’t representative.