Boulders in the Stream

The surety of the law of unintended consequences proceeding from state legislation is as steadfast as the law of gravity. Emblematic of this axiom is the massive drop  off (down 40-60%) in book sales in Israel this past year after the passage of a law intended to bolster book sales, protect small book sellers from “big chains” and of course guarantee a “living wage” to authors.  To those ignorant of basic economics and human behavior the terms of this law might appear reasonable. It guaranteed authors 8% of the sales of the first 6,000 books sold and 10% of all books thereafter while simultaneously criminalizing the discounting of books during their first 18 months of sales. Supposedly this would help the underdogs: small booksellers and new authors. Ironically it does the exact opposite. It is the unknown author that has the greatest incentive to discount heavily in order to entice someone unfamiliar with their work. It is small book sellers that are most likely to haggle or “make a deal” when someone makes a substantial purchase.

Sadly Israel is not alone in this sort of book market meddling. Quite a number of other countries (mainly in Europe) have what are known as “fixed book price agreements” type laws. These are “resale price maintenance agreements”, commonly used in the US on a voluntary basis between vendor and customer, codified into law and backed by the state. In the US if company A wants Vendors B-Z to sell a widget for $1 and Vendor D sells it for less, then the solution is simple: company A just stops selling to vendor D. But in countries where such agreements are enforced by the state, vendor D can be fined or jailed. Let that sink in: jail time for selling goods “too low.” What monsters.

The usual defense of these laws is the same tired protectionist propaganda deployed whenever an entrenched business model is threatened by a new competitor: we need the state to protect us from “unfair” competition. “Unfair” being code for “somehow these people figured out how to sell the product I’m selling for a lot less and I can’t figure out what they are doing or I’m unwilling to change my business model to compete”. For example France has a “Lang Law” which permits book publishers to set the price of the book and then forbid anyone from selling it for less than 95% off the cover price. Fast forward to 2014 and a tweak was added to this law that was targeted at Amazon.com who was both discounting their books 5% and offering free shipping. Apparently selling books into the French market for the exact same price as French bookstores is considered “unfair” if the seller is a ‘foreign’ company.

So what we have here is a real world economics experiment, akin to raising the minimum wage to $50/hour. Israel has, in effect, dialed in the $50 option on book price fixing laws. While many countries have such economic interventionist type protectionism only Israel elevated theirs to stratospherically inane levels. From this we saw quick and clear signs of damage (just as we would if the minimum wage were raised to $50/hour). However, just as with the minimum wage laws, there still exist damaging effects in those countries with more “moderate” protectionist schemes such as France. It is perhaps apropos that a French economist (Bastiat, 19th century) speaks of the “unseen” damage wrought by market interventions.

If the demand for books is inelastic then to the extent book sellers earn more, the sellers of other goods earn less, while on net the public receives fewer goods for money spent. If the demand is elastic then book sellers earn less and other vendors earn more but the public still receives fewer goods. Indeed, the Israeli example demonstrated the elasticity of book demand. After their law went into affect, book sales went down and toy sales went up (as parents passed over high priced books for more affordable toys).

The fatal conceit of the politician is the belief that they can control nature (man) by dictate: people want they want and laws are like boulders in a stream  – it may slow, but it will not stop the flow of water.

Plugging the tailpipe

Newton’s third law of physics posits that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. From the kickback on a firearm to the lift provided by chemical propellants in a rocket, nothing in this universe acts in perfect isolation. This dictum applies equally to everything in the universe; from muon to man. Human action will also induce a feedback-based response; love begets love and violence begets violence. When the actions are voluntary and un-coerced we tend to see predictable outcomes (if I am kind, you are quite likely to be kind in return, but, if I hit you, you are most likely going to hit me back). When the actions are involuntary or otherwise unduly influenced then the results become unpredictable. Economic interventionism is like plugging a car’s tailpipe to silence it; it may bring temporary silence, but the building pressure will soon be relieved. The only question is when and where.

So just as plugging a tail pipe to silence a car is a fool’s endeavor, so too are forced attempts to mold society and the economy to suit the ideological leanings of those in power. Such attempts at societal meddling always end badly, typically in the form of increasing that bad thing one was trying to eliminate. The interventionist approach has all the logical soundness of hitting people in order to reduce violence in the world, yet the politicians continue to do such things everyday. For example, paying people to be unemployed augments, rather than diminishes, the number of unemployed. Likewise, subsidies for certain industries results in a whole array of undesirable side effects. Subsidization of corn production in combination with tariff-based protection of the domestic sugar market has distorted the economy and our health. Tariff-fueled high domestic sugar prices creates an incentive for sugar users to seek a lower cost alternative, which just so happens to be state subsidized HFCS (high fructose corn syrup). The state is simultaneously constraining supply of one product and expanding supply of another to make up for the ongoing constraint. This distortion alters the market in ways that would not exist absent this intervention. It has caused HFCS to become the dominant material used in domestic food production – pushing the somewhat healthier straight sugar out the door. That the overwhelming prevalence of HCFS has recently been implicated in the obesity epidemic (and all the costs associated with obesity related health ailments) should give anyone pause the next time a politician tells you they have the perfect solution to a problem.

Another side effect of agricultural interventionism is in of all places immigration. When the government guarantees a price floor for certain agricultural goods it creates a natural incentive to over produce those goods. The excess is then dumped at low subsidized prices into other countries (such as Mexico). Farmers there can’t compete with the low prices and soon go out of business. Those farmers are now desperate for work. So they come to the US. And then people wonder why so many “illegal” immigrants are pouring into the country. Time again for the government to fix the problem they created. You’ll never go out of the tire business if you keep dumping nails in the road.

The height of absurdity though is that when those in power are faced with the reality of the damage caused by subsidies they find it easier to expand those subsidies rather than to contract them. The most inane example of this is the fact that the US government pays Brazilian cotton farmers the same subsidies it pays US cotton farmers so that they can better compete with cheap US imports.

The moral of the story here is that economic interventionism (supported by the implied violent power of the state) will cause parties to behave differently than they otherwise would absent such threats. These differences lead others into altering their behavior so as to neutralize the effects of the initial intervention in a predictable sort of feedback loop. Plugging the tailpipe merely reroutes the exhaust. Equal and opposite reactions are on net a null.

Ignorance is Bliss

Can ignorance be cause for hope? Can ignorance, to paraphrase, deliver society into a state of bliss? Perhaps not bliss, but an argument can be made for progress. About a month ago a noose was found hanging from a tree on the campus of Duke University in North Carolina. To those of us who grew up in the 20th century, a noose on a tree is about as subtle a sign of racism as a burning cross. The specter of the vilest form of collectivism, racism, had apparently poked its head from the cesspool of ideas. There were immediate protests from students, the community and the university administration. They were determined to let those who harbor such beliefs know they are not welcome at Duke or in society at large. To those who have said “nothing has changed” in this country regarding attitudes toward race and racism, I believe this response (among many) if not outright disproves that position, it certainly is an embarrassing incongruity with that narrative.

As it turns out, thankfully, there was no clandestine reemergence of the KKK or anything similar. This week it was revealed that a Duke University undergraduate student was the unwitting culprit. He was entirely unaware of the cultural and historical significance of those two objects juxtaposed against each other. Perhaps they don’t teach much history these days in high school. Perhaps he just wasn’t a very good student (although he got into Duke so he can’t be that much of academic slouch). In a letter to the Duke community he professed that his pun-rich humorous intent was to take a few selfies with the noose and text the images to his friends, suggesting they come “hang out” with him on the beautiful spring day. He then carelessly left it hanging there and went home, blissfully unaware of the firestorm that was about to erupt.

While on one hand we might lament the sheer ignorance of history demonstrated here, I think perhaps there is a silver lining: the sheer ignorance of history. It has often been said by those that have been harmed by someone that they did not know peace until they had truly forgiven their transgressor. Once that was done, they say, it was like an enormous weight was lifted from their soul. They could move on and live their lives. Society must do the same. Although society itself is an abstraction and thus can’t “forgive” anyone, it is capable of collectively forgetting – or not forgetting As long as the memories of old conflicts are passed from the old to the young like an infection, then it becomes impossible to cure the disease. We must forget to be truly free of the sins of our fathers, otherwise like an old scab picked too hard, fresh blood will flow.

This young man’s ignorance may be a hopeful sign that The Open Generation is here. The Open Generation will be blissfully unaware of the racist and sexist anachronistic attitudes of the past and will simply treat everyone the same, not because they’ve been taught that is the proper thing, but because it would not even occur to them to do otherwise. That’s not to say it will be utopia. People will still be jerks to each other, it just won’t be because of their race or sex.

His ignorance is evidence of an upbringing in an environment free of racist ideas or overtones. I myself was also raised in such an environment. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, but sometimes it causes you to lose at a game of charades. During my college days a friend of mine (who was black) became exasperatedly dumbfounded during a game of charades when he learned I had no idea “spade” was a disparaging term for a black person. He mistakenly assumed that because I was white I must be aware of such things. Sorry. I just had never heard such a thing.

As Morgan Freeman said in a 60 Minutes interview (to paraphrase), it is only when we stop talking about race and racism that it will it go away. Race is entirely irrelevant when it comes to interacting with others. Talking about it and highlighting it only serves to keep that distinguishing characteristics active in ones mind. It’s like the old mind-trick, “Don’t think about apples.” So what are you thinking about right now?

May 05 / 2015
Author Greg Morin
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Gone Fishin’

The cold-blooded murder of Walter Scott by a South Carolina deputy a few weeks ago highlights numerous issues with a monopolistic, state based approach to “law enforcement.” First and foremost is the all too common hair-trigger response some officers have when interacting with anyone who does not instantly respond to their verbal demands. The expectation seems to be: they say “jump”, you say “how high, sir!” Even the meekest of responses, like “what did I do?” are perceived as a full frontal assault on their “authority” and thus ample justification for unleashing a barrage of “shock and awe” responses. According to Sheriff Ric Bradshaw in Palm Beach (in his attempt to justify a shooting there in 2013 of an unarmed bicyclist) “There’s nothing in the rules of engagement that says we have to put our lives in jeopardy to wait to find out what this is to get killed.” Well, if you don’t want to put your lives in jeopardy might I suggest another line of work? I’m not really sure I wanted to be “protected” by someone who values their own personal safety to the exclusion of all other considerations, up to, and including shooting me dead because I “might” present a risk that they just can’t be bothered to evaluate.

Further problems inherent to the modern police state can be uncovered by evaluating the reason Scott was pulled over and why he (apparently) ran. The stated reason for the stop was a bad taillight. Ok, fine, a taillight being out is a potential safety issue. But the state response to this and similar problems is incongruous with actually ameliorating them and is rather more in alignment with using them as an excuse to impose random, burdensome tolls on unsuspecting motorists (honestly, who among us checks our taillights before we leave the driveway?). For example, in Georgia a bad taillight will garner you a $140 fine. Such fines aren’t fun for anyone but are inherently more burdensome to those in the lower income brackets. These fines hinder the victim’s ability to remedy the situation by taking money out of his or her pocket which could otherwise go toward fixing the actual safety issue. If the state were truly concerned with safety instead of issuing a ticket they would call in a “repair unit” to come to the scene, fix the problem on site and then charge the motorist whatever they would have otherwise been charged at a shop. Now that is customer service! But don’t expect that from the state or its minions. Traffic stops rarely have anything to do with safety and everything to do with revenue collection (speed traps are a well documented phenomena). Once underway they set the stage for a fishing expedition. Which brings us to the third issue.

Once a motorist is pulled over for some matter related to operation of their vehicle, the officer is then free to shift the focus from road safety to any and all matters related to other state laws (typically drug laws). In no other arena of life would people accept that the police can just randomly approach someone and ask for ID and start running background checks (“papers please”), but stick them in a moving vehicle or observe them cross an imaginary line in the dirt (“the border”) and suddenly intrusive questioning is a fait accompli. Such questioning revealed that Scott owed child support. Yes, he should have paid his child support. Yes, he should not have run (I’m reminded of the scene in JurassicPark where the lawyer runs from the T-rex into an outhouse – “Where does he think he’s going?” wryly observes Dr. Alan Grant). But just like in that movie, he ran out of fear without actually thinking it through. But I doubt any of us would have believed that running FROM the police would be perceived as a threat necessitating eight rounds in ones back.

Unfortunately the state-backed child support system sets the stage for violent confrontations. It is the state that threatens violence (to the father or his employer) for non-compliance (employers that refuse to withhold child support payments become liable for those payments). This seems like a massive amount of overkill for what is strictly a private matter. Jail should only be for murderers, rapists, and thieves. They should not become modern day debtor prisons for those unable (or unwilling) to pay child support or other types of garnishment. These issues are private matters and should be left to the parties involved to resolve them. They should not become a matter that the state hijacks. It is due to a breathtaking lack of imagination of those in power that we are left with a system that fails to recognize that people are fairly clever at solving their own problems without resorting to state backed violence.

 

April 28 / 2015
Author Greg Morin
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Fantasy Island

Consider the following scenario: You have just received an invitation in the mail from a friend. He is inviting everyone he knows to his beautiful tropical island. All are welcome to visit any time and stay as long as they want. There is just one catch: marauding pirates will attack anyone that comes near the island. The pirates patrol the skies above and the waters below as well as the surface. If you somehow do manage to outwit the pirates and make it to the island, your friend offers an additional warning: he has armed guards that will shoot anyone seen crossing the perimeter beaches. But – if you can make it past all of that – you are quite welcome there.

Now as schizophrenic as this sounds – “please come visit me, I’ll kill you if you try, but please come visit me” – it is not too far removed from the scenario that the government of the state of Georgia has just put into play with the passage of HB1 (also known as “Haleigh’s Hope Act”) and subsequent signing into law by Governor Nathan Deal last week.  HB1 legalizes the “possession” of medicinal marijuana. But only in the cannabis oil form. And, only if it is under 20 ounces. And only so long as it contains less than 5% THC. Caveat, conditions, and exceptions – “you can have this…except when… and only if…and as long as…” The politician’s lawmaking cookbook – liberally sprinkled qualifying conjunctions.

Ok, ok, well at least there is now a glimmer of hope for those that have a medical need for it, right? Well, almost. As long as one’s medical condition is on the short “approved” list of ailments: cancer, ALS, seizures, MS, Chrohn’s disease, mitochondrial disease, Parkinson’s disease and sickle-cell anemia. Funny, I thought Republicans were opposed to the government interfering in the doctor-patient relationship. In any event, if one is unlucky enough to suffer from one of these ailments that still may not be sufficient to qualify. A patient’s case must be considered severe or terminal… not in the opinion of one’s doctor mind you, but rather in the opinion of some faceless state bureaucracy to whom your doctor must now, on bended knee, plead your case whilst kissing its ring.

If a patient makes it past all those hurdles, then they can qualify for a registration card. This is their de facto “get out of jail free” card if they are ever found by police to be in possession of sub-20 ounce 5% dilutions of cannabis oil. But don’t get caught with 21 ounces or a 6% solution, otherwise it’s off to the big house you horrible menace to society you!

So while HB1 offers an invitation to an oasis of potential pain relief (the tropical island) it does not eliminate the marauding pirates or the armed guards. It is still illegal to grow or buy marijuana in Georgia (you know, the stuff you need to actually make the cannabis oil). It is likewise a violation of both Federal and Georgia state law to cross state lines to buy cannabis oil or have it shipped into the state. So to be clear on this: it is legal, pursuant to numerous conditions, to possess cannabis oil, however, all methods of actually acquiring the oil are still illegal. Well, magic as a method is legal. Perhaps the legislature envisions patients performing a Harry Potter style invocation to acquire their needed oil?

I will assume that the bill’s author (Rep. Allen Peake) and its sponsors did not set out to write a bad bill. I suspect they truly do want to help people suffering from the above (and many other unlisted) conditions. The problem is the compromises one must make in politics that whittle otherwise well intentioned legislation down to hollowed out cores of absurdity. This bill is a prime example of the fallacy that compromises are de facto evidence of a principled balancing of interests. If you believe all illegal aliens should be shot and I believe none should, then it is hardly a principled balancing of interests to say we shall only shoot half of them. Likewise if I believe that any substance that can relieve pain and suffering should be obtainable without artificial barriers but you believe that the risk of even one person getting “high” outweighs the pain and suffering of millions, then it is a meaningless compromise indeed to say patients can legally possess those substances but that actions aimed at possession are illegal. Empty, hollow rhetoric – nothing more.

Mix one part irrational fear with one part representative democracy and you get a society with needless pain and suffering. None should ever be allowed to suffer because of fears of what might be, lest we become prisoners entombed behind the bars of potential acts.

April 20 / 2015

Shortages the Spawn of Short-Circuited Prices

Although the recent drought experienced by much of northern Georgia a few a years ago pales in comparison to the ongoing drought in California, the response by each region’s government is equally misguided. The shortsightedness of the standard “solution” to a drought tends to scale with its severity. While we only suffered through time restrictions on outdoor watering, California has upped the ante to rather invasive levels in their pursuit of the “common good.” They are now all too happy to step into dear citizen’s shower and issue fines for lingering too long.

Droughts are a product of nature. Water shortages are a product of man; or, more precisely, a product of government. If a shortage is occurring in any market, it is guaranteed some form of price control (private or public) is in play. It is one simple lesson from Economics 101 that so many consistently fail to grasp: demand curves slope downward. Stated differently, prices (naturally) go up as supply decreases (all other things equal). But when part of that equation is artificially constrained (prices) the effects of the decreased supply are magnified, not ameliorated. When prices rise there is a two-fold socially beneficial effect: it (a) provides a rationing/conservation incentive (people only purchase that which they absolutely need) and (b) it sends a signal to everyone that a tidy profit can be had by supplying the market with that good. High prices are the market’s method of eliciting an economic immune response. As swarms of people respond to the wailing klaxons of above average profit, supply swells until prices begin to fall. It is this natural up/down demand/supply equilibrium that lets a market know where to devote more or fewer resources.

High prices are the market’s method of eliciting an economic immune response. As swarms of people respond to the wailing klaxons of above average profit, supply swells until prices begin to fall. It is this natural up/down demand/supply equilibrium that lets a market know where to devote more or fewer resources.

But governments don’t like the price system. It is they, not the market, who should be in control. Of course they have their image to protect and the last thing they want is to be accused of being an evil “price gouger.” So instead of allowing the price system to modulate usage, they instead impose egalitarian restrictions so that all may suffer “equally” the effects of their economic ignorance. In other words, they choose the hard way rather than the easy. They deploy sticks (restrictions, fines, penalties) that require resources to enforce compliance, rather than employing carrots (demand based pricing), that require zero resources to ensure compliance.

If prices are allowed to rise, then people will switch from being wasteful to having an incentive to use as little as possible and to seek out new water savings and new efficiencies, to boldly use less than any man before. For those concerned about how the poor would fare under rising water prices, it is entirely reasonable to expect that a base tier of minimum human requirement could exist alongside progressively rising prices for greater usage. There is little daylight between this and the progressive income tax system where the poor pay virtually nothing and the wealthy pay the most. Except with this system one’s “tax” (water bill) would be within their control. If one voluntarily uses less, they will pay less. The outcome of raising prices will be either (a) similar usage with a windfall income or (b) much reduced usage with similar income. If the former is the result, then one can continue to raise prices until (b) is achieved if that is the goal, or one can use the extra income to invest in systems that will increase the supply.

At least in California one of the reasons they are hesitant to raise prices is the crony-capitalist nature commonly found among governments. The largest user of water in the state is agricultural (83%) . The powers that be are afraid that higher water prices could disrupt the state’s economy by pricing California agricultural products out of the market. So once again the marriage between big government and big business ensures private profits at public expense (restrictions and fines). Wait, I thought government was supposed to protect the little guy? Well, while you ponder that little fantasy I’ll leave you with an apropos Milton Friedman quote – “If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in 5 years there’d be a shortage of sand.”

Immunity From Choice

It is deeply ironic (in the dramatic sense) that the most vociferous opponents of Indiana’s recently passed version of the Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) are through their very actions making the case for why their beloved anti-discrimination laws are unnecessary. This is the argument libertarians have been making for years: boycott, shun, exclusion. If anyone, whether an individual or business, behaves in some socially unacceptable way, then everyone else is free to point out this boorish behavior to others, to refuse to associate with them and/or cut off other ties. That’s what happened here. As soon as Indiana passed this law there were cries from across the country to boycott the whole state. Their hearts were in the right place, but their brains are a few hours behind. Or perhaps it does make sense if one is immersed in the statist worldview, that is, that the government under which one lives technically “owns” you. For example, if an employee at a restaurant made some racist remark, people would boycott the restaurant with the belief that the owners of the restaurant are the ones with the ultimate responsibility and control over what goes on in their restaurant. So in the same way they view the Indiana government as being the “boss” of every state resident. Of course their grievances are merely about what might occur, not anything that has actually happened.  Considering that our governments don’t actually own us, the more logical approach would be to wait until some discriminatory event takes place and then boycott, protest, etc, that particular business. Why punish an entire state because of a fear of what a few individuals might do? Well if the ends justify the means then I guess it doesn’t matter. Let’s put millions out of work from businesses going under to ensure that maybe a gay couple will not have to suffer the indignity of being unable to buy a cake from someone that doesn’t like them very much. Yes, that’s who I want to get my edible items from; someone that really dislikes me. Trust me, never be rude to the person taking your order at a drive-thru; you don’t want to know what they do to your food if you tick them off (no it’s not what you think, this is second hand information).

But when it comes right down to it, that’s what anti-discrimination laws are all about, the right to be served by people that possess a range of negative emotions concerning you. Why on earth would you want to give money to someone that hates your guts? Or someone that espouse hate in general? Anti-discrimination laws simply drive those feelings below the surface. It doesn’t make them go away. It doesn’t make the world into a utopian Kumbaya handholding ring of love. It creates more of a Potemkin village where the false façade and the real are indistinguishable.

The RFRA is a step in the right direction but for totally incorrect reasons. There is nothing unique or special about “religious” beliefs. This outlook holds all other forms of belief in contempt and makes a mockery of religion in general as everyone figures out if they just slap the word “God” or “Church” on their belief they can get into the fast lane of doing what they want without state intervention (e.g. The First Church of Cannabis). ALL beliefs (whether religious, political, or philosophic) should be immune from state interventions.

The state has no right to interfere between the peaceful interactions of two people, even when one of those people is behaving like a jerk (regardless of what belief system is motivating said behavior). Likewise you have no right to not be shunned and boycotted when you behave like a jerk. That is how a free society works. The immune system cells (activists) will quickly identify and rally attention on the growing cancer cells (jerks, racists, homophobes, etc) quickly, cleanly and without violence. The state on the other hand is like chemotherapy, it bathes the whole organism is a poison that while killing the cancer also kills non-cancer cells and makes the organism that much weaker for it. Stop the chemo and get the state out of all aspects of our lives.

April 07 / 2015

Minority Report

It would appear that the Georgia General Assembly is under the impression that police officers in this state are endowed with wizardry skills, namely the ability to divine the future and see beyond this physical realm into the invisible and incorporeal dimensions. The Georgia House voted last week (the Senate similarly approving it a month earlier) to approve Senate Bill 94.  In broad terms this bill’s stated purpose was to modernize many of Georgia’s statutes under Title 17 relating to criminal procedures. There do appear to be some genuine improvements to the law in this piece of legislation. For example Section 17-20-2 covers procedures for witness identification lineups. It is now forbidden that the person conducting the line up have any knowledge of the identity of the actual suspect. This ensures a true “double-blind” outcome free of unconscious cues directing the witness to the “correct” choice.

However there are other aspects to this legislation which take a decidedly two-steps forward one-step back approach to improving the state of criminal law in this state. Perhaps the most egregious is Section 17-5-22, which now includes language that warrants may be issued if probable cause can be shown that a crime is about to be committed. Yes you read that correctly – about to be committed. Taking a page out of the movie “Minority Report,” Georgia now has a “pre-Crime” clause in its criminal code. We are fortunate that police officers in this state can now exercise a power none of us mere mortals posses: the ability to see into the future. Nostradamus would be proud. So, that leaves an open question – can the state get a conviction for a crime that was about to be committed but then because of the warrant was not? What are the standards of evidence? Is merely possessing a weapon “proof” you were about to commit a crime? If I have a gun or knife on me does that mean I am about to commit the crime of murder? Armed robbery? Assault? Which one? All three perhaps? If I own an analytical balance does that mean I’m about to commit the crime of drug distribution? I wonder how much easier it will be for the police to harass someone they have it in for if any of a number of innocuous items could be used to commit a crime. Let me just interject here now to say I don’t mean the Oconee County Police – they are the best and would never do anything like this! Ok, that was mean to be a bit of levity, but I’m also serious, I am fortunate to live in a county with a police force that does not engage in the sort of shenanigans you sometimes hear about on the news – they truly are top-notch.  So, what am I complaining about you might say, none of these legislative games affect or are likely to affect me? Because I can see beyond my own little world, and I can see how although some officers would not abuse the power granted in this new law, I can also see how it could easily be abused by those with personal vendettas or discriminatory inclinations. We’ve all heard the phrase “driving while black” – can you imagine how much easier it will now be for officers with racist inclinations to concoct suspicion of some “pre-crime” when they fail to find any evidence of an actual crime? I believe the question answers itself.

On the lighter side of inanity contained in this bill, there is a change in the definition of “property”. Section 17-5-1 now defines property to encompass “intangible, … incorporeal… or invisible” things. Hmmmm… so are they going to confiscate my invisible friend? That doesn’t seem very respectful of the rights of invisible, incorporeal beings. Ok, I know what they mean; they are referring to digital media (well I hope that is what they mean, otherwise someone let Casper know about this). The intent here is unclear but one could imagine that it allows them to now collect a physical device (phone, hard drive), copy all the data off, and then erase it and return it to you empty. That way they can say they returned your physical goods and kept as evidence the “incorporeal” digital evidence. Of course if making a copy of someone’s property” is supposedly a crime then haven’t the police just committed the same crime by copying your copy? Perhaps if the General Assembly used the correct definition of property, e.g. scarce, rivalrous resources, it would free up police manpower to go after actual property crimes (theft, rape, murder) rather than acting as referee in disputes that amount to nothing more than schoolyard disputes over who said something first.

March 31 / 2015

Rape culture, no. Theft culture, yes.

There are a number of word-couplet slogans that aim to pithily define some societal ill that is widely ignored but which demands immediate rectification (white (or male) privilege, social justice, rape culture). The proof of said societal ill? The mere Jehovah-like utterance of said phrases brings them into existence before a credulous audience who only need hear the words to accept the implied truth. Their refutation, on the other hand, requires pages of discourse and facts and who has time for that? Mindless emotion trumps facts and reasoned discourse every time.

Sound bite slogans engage in semantic slight of hand, mixing words and their meaning into a soup of inscrutability. As the great sage Inigo Montoya would say, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”  Perhaps the worst offender among these is “rape culture.” This term is particularly sinister as it establishes its own legitimacy in tautological fashion by claiming that proof of rape culture is found in the very denial of its existence.  Witches must exist because anyone denying their existence is only doing so to cover up their allegiance to said witches.

Users of this term apparently are unaware of what “culture” actually means. The dictionary definition is “the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.” Hmmmm… so it seems if we had a “rape culture” that would mean we would find positive depictions of rape in our literature, movies and television. Our political leaders would extol the virtues of rape whenever possible. We would erect monuments to the greatest and most prolific rapists. Our schools would teach boys and girls the virtues of rape. Nope, I don’t see any of that, do you?

Yes, rape is a horrible crime and the perpetrators should be severely punished, but to suggest that 3% of the population who commits 90% of the rapes (on college campuses) suggests an endemic problem in the very fabric of a society is ludicrous. It ironically mimics the very thing proponents of this term decry – victim blaming – by shifting the blame from the perpetrator to society. “Society” should teach men not to rape and thus to the extent rape exists it is tacit proof of the failure of society to teach that. See, the perpetrators are the victims here as well; it’s not their fault, they never got the “don’t rape” memo from society. Honestly, is there anyone alive who thinks rape is “ok”? Even thieves and murders know their crimes are wrong – and yet they do it anyway. Does this then signify we have a “murder culture” or “theft culture”?

Actually, on that last question I would answer in the affirmative. We do have a “theft culture.” How so? Imagine the following: in order to eliminate the scourge of rape from society the government created an incentive system to stop potential rapists. Whenever someone thought about raping they could instead go to the government Department of Gender Relations and receive a payment to not rape. To make this system work all potential rape victims would be required to pay an annual fee into this system. If they did not pay up, then the government would publish a list of their names and anyone could rape them without consequence. Naturally nobody wants to be on that list so everyone pays – just the threat of what might happen for not paying is enough to ensure all continue to pay “voluntarily.”

Does that seem shocking and crazy? Well it should, but unfortunately this exact system exists today in order to prevent a different crime: theft. Government agents who would otherwise violently rob people in order to extract the proper “tribute” payment to the state’s coffers have convinced everyone it is better if we all just pay them “voluntarily.” If we don’t then they can rob us without consequence. So if we all pay our taxes in a “civilized” fashion then there will never be a need to resort to base barbarism. And it’s all “voluntary”, so that makes it legitimate.

The really scary part is that this culture is not unique to America; it is global. People will universally agree that taxes are bad, but quickly pivot to extol their virtues. The parallel to an actual rape culture would be if society would extol the virtues of all the children born as the result of rape and told women they should just accept being raped because yes it is bad, but look at all the good it brings about. One parallel that does exist today between rape victims and tax victims is the odious practice of “victim blaming” – rape victims “deserved” it because of how they dressed and tax dodgers “deserved” jail because they refused to be robbed; both have the right to exist in the world without being victimized on account of the lens through which others view them.

That is the way of the state, instead of standing as a bulwark against rights violations it institutionalizes those very violations and whitewashes them into a sanitized bureaucratic system that like a virus then infects all cultures, transforming them into the “war is peace” and “theft is good” upside down culture of the state.

March 25 / 2015

‘Not Even Wrong’

One of the main reasons I am skeptical of the predictions of status quo climate science is that those predictions are entirely based on the output of computer models. As a Ph.D. chemist part of my training exposed me to chemical computer modeling and I quickly learned how easy it is to get results that do not conform to reality. Computer models have their place, but that place employs very narrow constraints on both the number of variables and the degrees of freedom of those variables.

Today I came across this article in C&EN (Chemical and Engineering News) the weekly news magazine of the professional society of which I am a member (American Chemical Society). Anyway, in it the article they discuss a new article (J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2015, DOI: 10.1021/ja5111392) that shows that computer models meant to predict the reaction mechanism for a particular chemical reaction come up with wildly incorrect predictions that are so off base they are ‘not even wrong’ in the words of the studies author.

What I found most striking was this quote, “Theory, he [Houk] says, “is still not capable, and may never be capable, of predicting what happens, when many chemicals, four (emphasis added) in this case, are mixed in solution”

Did you get that? Even a mere four variables is too many for the best computer model to predict the outcome, pathway, and interplay in a highly chaotic system of a “simple” chemical reaction. And yet climate models, modeling not a mere collection of atoms in a flask but  basically every atom in the atmosphere and oceans on the entire planet with orders of magnitude more variables, those models are 100% ironclad and sound and we should take their predictions to the bank.

Perhaps someday computers (quantum computing) will get us to that point, but that day is not yet here. At the end of the day the proof of scientific validity is in prediction. It is not sufficeint to simply predict “it will get warmer in the future” – anyone has a 50/50 chance of guessing correct on that one. You must predict to what extent and at precisely what rate (with reasonable error bars, not error bars larger than the magnitude of what it is you’re trying to measure).

March 23 / 2015
Author Greg Morin
Category Climate Change
Comments No Comments
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