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Let us be clear: we can all do whatever we want to you

Obama's Justice Department has cleared some high-ranking Bush officials of any legal ethics violations in authorizing torture of people who were not charged with crimes.

American children are well-prepared for the Industrial Age

I just ran across this old presentation by Scott Mcleod addressing the NEA. It's on target except for the idea that the NEA can disappear like other companies and industries. The way children are primarily made to learn today should have been obselete 50 years ago.

I get paid to interpret signs sometimes

Late last year when the weather started getting cold (and people started getting sick) a sign went up in the mens' room at my office:

Always wash hands with soap and warm running water before returning to work.

My first thought was "Do we really need a sign to tell us this?" My second thought was "When they run out of soap, do I get to go home?" Well, the soap is running low now. Half days all around!

American Idol '10

I like watching the early rounds of American Idol, not to laugh at crazy tryouts, but because that's when you get to see the raw talent of the singers - just a mic in Hollywood, and not even that during the first round auditions. As soon as the field narrows to the final twelve, the singers get a massive band to accompany them, along with light shows and a supportive audience. The result is an over-produced sound. Chris Daughtry has put out a lot of crappy music since his Idol days, but what I remember most are the raw, imperfect vocals of his audition.

The one that sticks out so far is Didi Benami.

Tyler Grady has a Chuck-like thing going and had a nice initial audition but they didn't show what he did in Hollywood (though he did move on).

If it fails, do less or more?

One of the key differences between private and public sectors is that in the private sector, failure is punished. If a product or company fails, resources shift away from it. In the public sector, unfortunately, the opposite seems to be the case. A program which solves its target problem will go away, while one which cleverly tackles an impossible problem or uses a poor strategy is guaranteed a long lifespan.

The private method is more scientific, because it views any project as an experiment, whose initial success or failure is a meaningful data point about whether the project is possible or worthwhile. The public method ignores the data generated by early trials (or even worse, gives them a reversed interpretation).

I'm at a Mercatus Center + IHS mini-conference today, and Brian Doherty gave a talk about the enduring legacy of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman. Most of the talk was about the details, but his views on the future basically seemed to be that Rand & Friedman had significant cultural & academic impact, and so we should be optimistic and keep on trying those routes.

Yet I can't help but see a disconnect between the positive change in the cultural and academic climate, and the lack of change in outcome metrics like government spending as a percentage of GDP, pages in the Federal Register, or the government's Keynesian response to the recent financial crisis.

Now, one way to look at this disconnect is as progress - we've won part of the battle, now it's time to bring it home. Yet this perspective ignores the data generated by the results so far. Another way to look at the disconnect is as evidence that cultural and academic change may not work, and if we want results, we may need to try something else. This interpretation is scary because it suggests that the approach most natural to us may not be the most effective - but it is no less valid for of its unpleasantness.

I'm not arguing that we should completely ignore culture or academia - they are surely part of the answer, and perhaps even the ultimate solution. But I am deeply concerned that the freedom movement is almost completely invested in strategies that may have won mindshare, but have demonstrably failed to achieve our ends.

We need to decide: do we want to be like the public sector, throwing good money after bad, or like the private sector, nimbly switching strategies based on the evidence? At the very least, we should take seriously the idea that we might be fighting the wrong war - like the war of ideas instead of the war of concentrating power. And if that is a possibility, shouldn't we be putting more of our resources into new strategies, like the Free State Project, my own Seasteading Institute, or Agorism?

Government: Save me from myself!


[I]f we were to think about raising taxes on cigarettes, we would typically say raising the price is bad for people who smoke, right? But there's a little bit more going on. Lots of people actually want to quit. So we might ask, is it possible to improve welfare by raising cigarette taxes? A pair of economists Jon Gruber and Sendhil Mullainathan found that excise taxes make potential smokers happier. The intuition is that because some people actually quit smoking when the price goes up, they are made better off. And so it is possible to improve welfare by raising a tax that encourages us to kick bad habits.

"How to Start Doing Agorism"

Cross-posted from a comment at George Donnelly's blog:

Agorism may sound complicated, but it’s just extra-governmental trade. Anyone can do it.

I was in South Africa in the '90s when the National Party (who had run the apartheid political machine) and the ANC were negotiating the future rule of the country. The two parties were highly antagonistic to each other, yet each had lost the backing of their cold-war benefactors (US support exclusively for the Nats crumbled with the sanctions program and the Soviet Union had simply evaporated) who could have helped one dominate the other. Each party attacked the other's bad ideas: the Nats wouldn't allow the ANC to nationalize the mines, the ANC wouldn't allow the Nats to continue the agricultural control boards. The Zulus, the DP, and dozens of other parties were doing whatever they could to avoid domination by the two major parties. More than gridlock, this was actually shrinking the political pie. As a result, the country was on the brink of complete freedom. Laws were deleted from the statute books, entire government departments closed, and people ignored what unpopular laws were left in the expectation that they would soon be overturned. Finally, the negotiators realized they better start agreeing or they would lose everything. The future was with the ANC--individual Nats either left government or finally merged with their "archenemies" to stay in the power game. It took the ANC the better part of a decade to reimpose the restrictions on the country; to make sure no matter what you wanted to do with your life, first the government had to get its cut.

But in that period of crippled government, the country bloomed like a desert when the drought finally ends. Office buildings turned their underground parking lots over to managers to rent out as flea markets on the weekend. Traders could rent two parking bays for the weekend (though competition was fierce for spots and most were tied up with long-term commitments). Sometimes a food court would be built in a cul-de-sac. Traders would chat during the day--which markets were doing well these days? Have you got an "in" there? Can my brother share your cousin's stand until we get our own?

I was doing contract work (mostly scientific data analysis for mining houses), and my wife was running a goat dairy. Milk is highly perishable, and your animals' production varies wildly from a maximum after newborn kids are weaned to nothing in the last few months of pregnancy; the name of the game is to figure out how to deliver a steady supply of products. We sold pasteurized, frozen milk to regular shops and made cheese during the peak times. We had big wheels of Gouda that needed to be matured for anywhere between six months and two years, we had soft cheeses that could be sold within a month, and we had a processed cheese made from the wheels that cracked open or otherwise didn't pass our QC test (taking a plug from the side and tasting it) at the end of a six month production process.

We wanted to know what customers like, so we would pack up everything for our stand: cheeses and some frozen milk (using a broken chest freezer as a big cooler), the cheeses of other suppliers (some ran their own stalls at different markets, some were busy enough with just cheese-making), tables and shelves built to fit in our two parking spaces, table cloths, packaging, scales, and cleaning supplies. We'd tie it all on the back of a pick-up truck, and try to be early in line when the market opened for traders at 06:30. If you were early, you could drive in and unload in 15 minutes; the later it got, the more difficult it was to drive out around the other stands; if you didn't get in well before 08:00 when the market opened to customers, you had to hump in all your gear on your back. Then, the music would start being piped in, signaling that opening time had arrived.

I loved the buzz of the marketplace! Indian traders with spices, Boere with biltong, undocumented black immigrant peddlers with blankets, east-ender type English with pirate CDs, Pakistanis with carpets, car parts, books, clothing, art work, fish, balloons, candy, jugglers, musicians, puppet shows--the place was all color and sound and smells and desire swirling together. It was the glorious integration of hundreds of individual wishes being negotiated and satisfied. As a trader, you had to learn to manage your focus. At once, you had to keep an awareness of everything around you, and make personal eye contact with your customer. You had to keep the line moving or people would leave, yet you had to make enough time to swap pleasantries and stories with whoever was trading with you, for you were selling the market experience as much as your product. You had to invite opportunities and yet protect your goods against thieves and cheats.

The best times were when the whole family worked the same market together. Our two sons were probably between six and ten during this period, and my wife and I would coach them in how to serve customers and run the till. It was amazing to see our eight year old offer up samples for tasting, then slice a piece of cheese that came to within 5g of the price the customer wanted, wrap it, ring it up, and bid the customer well on their way. As they became comfortable with the routine, my wife and I would excuse ourselves to go to the food court for a schwarma, or satay, or boerewors. We wouldn't tell the boys that one of us had our eyes glued to them while the other bought food; that the topic of discussion while we ate together rarely strayed from pointing out to each other the skills they had developed. The boys would get paid as soon as the morning rush was over so they could go buy treats and toys from the other stands.

I can remember only two interactions with government people during this time. One was 40-ish Xhosa woman in expensive western business dress and speaking in a condescending tone that confirmed she was from some child welfare bureau. She asked lots of pointed questions to our eight-year-old about how many hours he was working, and gave him a card with a help-line number before she left. My son gave me a puzzled glance--I explained to him that if he was unhappy working on the stand, she could use the police to remove him from us and put him in the care of an institution or another family. He rolled his eyes and threw away the card. The other government worker was a 20-ish white girl from the health department, new enough in her job to take things seriously. She gave me a lecture about how we needed running water on the stand in order to keep selling cheese. She didn't seem to be worried that this would be impossible in the middle of an underground parking lot. It was a slow day, and she was kind of cute, so I kept asking her help for how we could bring things up to her standards. I think we got 20 minutes into designing a portable water storage tank above the stand with a gas heater before she got creeped out by the middle-aged married guy having such an interest in her. Never saw her again.

This system worked in layers of government legitimacy. There were those, like the building owners, with assets that couldn't be easily hidden and were easy pickings for tax collectors. Then, there were the market managers, who had offices in the buildings, but made private contracts with traders. They would have to show some income on the building owners' books to justify their position, but it would have been nearly impossible for anyone to track their transactions.

Finally, there were the traders. They were doing business in cash and turning over a handful of bills to the market manager. They could disappear at the end of the day, if they wished, leaving nothing behind but a pay-as-you-go cell phone number on the manager's application form.

The market exists everywhere there are two people who can satisfy each other's needs. A free market exists anywhere they can do so without interference.

The Greek Crisis

Mario Rizzo on the impending Euro crisis centered around Greece:

People like to deny reality when it is unpleasant. This is not just a problem of bad leadership. It is a problem that goes to the heart of the fantasy world the typical voter lives in. But reality bites. Let’s see how it does so in the next few years.

Greek history is an illustration of a great point by Thomas Sowell: societies that dominate the intellectual, technological, and military scenes in one age do not necessarily keep that lead.

Of Property and Parking

Libertarian theory, being grounded in property rights, sometimes founders in the question of how a person establishes an initial claim to property. By what authority can anyone claim an exclusive right to land? Yet in the absence of the right to exclude, what incentive do people have to expend resources improving land?

While I've often pondered these questions on a theoretical level, I hadn’t realized how they are being fought out, day by day, in the very streets of America.

Thinking out loud about weather

I grew up in central Virginia about two hours south of DC. My high school years were some of the best of my life as I had a great group of friends. One of the things we planned from an early age was The Great Snowball Fight. Inspired by the success of The Great Watergun Fight which involved careful planning, splitting the group into teams, establishing rules for appropriate ammunition, automatic water guns, crates of water balloons, etc. So spectacular was TGWF, which took place during the summer before 10th grade, we made our grand plans for TGSF. It was going to be epic.

Central Virginia was usually good for one good snowstorm of 6 inches or so per winter. We waited that winter, but the snow never came. We waited the next winter, but the snow never came. We waited yet another winter, but the snow never came. We graduated, went off the college, and went on with the rest of our lives. The Great Snowball Fight never took place.

Those were 3 straight years without a significant snowstorm. Yet this year, like DC, central Virginia has been hit hard with snow, the fourth storm being forecast for next week. Though the memory of my childhood is hazy, there were a couple of winters where we had multiple heavy snowstorms like this year, though not as severe. These anecdotes point to a conjecture: snowfall is chaotic. I'm not a mathematician but this pattern is "chaotic" as I grok the term.

One explanation for this chaotic pattern might be at the "meta" level. It's not so much the nature of snowstorms that we should look at, but the set of higher-level conditions that give rise to snowstorms. For example, during the winters with repeat snowstorms, I seem to recall the weatherman saying that the jet stream had dipped down to right over the mid-Atlantic states. This brings south the cold air from north of the jet stream allowing it to mix with warm moist air from the Atlantic resulting in precipitation, which if it's cold enough, will result in snow. As long as the jet stream stayed that far south, conditions were ripe for snow rather than rain. The meta-condition (the position of the jet stream) would explain the chaotic nature of snowstorms. In the rare event that the jet stream was located more South than usual, central Virginia was hit with multiple heavy snowstorms. If the jet stream was in its usual position, snowstorms were rare.

One implication comes from the fact that I don't think people understand chaotic systems well. This is why any seemingly abnormal weather brings out a search for a greater meaning which doesn't exist when taken in context of a long term view.