FAA Proposes to Murder 100 People Per Year

If you are anything like millions of other Americans you have bought something over the Internet. A world of wares is there for us to browse at just the click of a mouse and tap of a keyboard. And although it is in some respects virtually the same process we (or our parents for the younger among us) engaged in when we browsed print catalogs not that many years ago, it is also a vast improvement over that older, static, process. Information is updated in real time. We can make buying decisions based on the reviews and feedback of other consumers. We can instantly compare prices and options among several vendors. In short, the Internet has not simply repackaged an old process in some techy guise; it has made a material improvement that has added value (that is, time) to all of our lives.

However, one aspect of the ordering process has not changed in over 170 years (Tiffany’s Blue Book, published in 1845 was the first mail-order catalogue in the US) and that is the delivery process. Yes, it has gotten faster (with the advent of air delivery) but the core process is the same: the order changes hands multiple times from human to human as it moves through the delivery pipeline. To be fair, this process is far more enviable than the alternative of picking up the order yourself. In fact one of the rarely noted benefits of bulk delivery is the prevention of accidental death. If every person who has ever ordered something had to go and pick the order up themselves the cost in time and hence productivity is incalculable. But the cost in lives would be calculable to a degree, given the fact that for a certain number of miles driven there will be a certain number of motor vehicle fatalities. All things being equal, without delivery, more people would certainly have died.

Today, after 170 years following one delivery model we are on the cusp of switching to a new delivery model: the drone. Amazon.com has been experimenting with what they call “Prime Air”, that is, direct delivery of your Amazon order, by drone, to your doorstep within hours of placing the order. Amazing! Forget Marty McFly’s 2015 hover board – this is even cooler! But, you knew there was a “but” coming, the FAA will have none of that.  Last week they proposed a new set of regulations for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) (that only apply to private business naturally; we can’t have these rules standing in the way of government users). Among some of the more onerous rules that would all but quash Amazon’s plans include: “The operator must remain within visual line of sight of the drone” and “They can only operate in the daylight and under 500 feet”. These proposed regulations are driven more by fear of the unknown than by any rational concern over safety. It’s like they never got the point of the old college essay primer: “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are made for.” Hint: the point is to let the ship sail so that its potential may be realized.

If these proposed rules are implemented there will be an unseen cost, one that I’m surprised a supposedly “must save lives” utilitarian-mindset entity like the FAA is apparently oblivious to. Were drone delivery of packages permitted it would save roughly 100 lives per year in the United States alone due to the decreased mileage of delivery vehicles (based on my own estimates, see gregmorin.com). And that is only for Amazon deliveries. When other companies begin to deploy the same technology the potential for saving lives only rises further.

Internet commerce, that is, the free market, through its endeavoring to improve our lives has also managed to save many of them. Let’s not forget that lesson as we look toward the future.

February 23 / 2015

Free Market Vaccination

The recent outbreak of measles cases in the US in the last few weeks has brought into stark relief the result of what happens when one forgoes vaccination. The measles vaccine was introduced in the mid 1960’s when cases averaged around 400,000 per year. It quickly dropped to nearly zero and remained there until 2014 when it shot up to over 600 cases.  The anti-vaccine movement is having an effect, and it is not a good one. I would like to believe that the anti-vaccine folk do understand and accept the principle behind vaccine enhanced immunization (which has been convincingly demonstrated since the days of Edward Jenner) but rather that they want that which has never been and never will be: absolute 100% elimination of all risk. Nothing in life is 100% risk free. Vaccines are not perfect and they do have side effects for some. But those side effects pale in comparison to potential outcome of the disease itself (death).

The anti-vaccine movement is right in one respect but for the wrong reason. The anecdotal cases they cite are likely correct at face value. But this does not prove all vaccines are bad. It merely proves some people are allergic to some things (duh). The problem is not the vaccines but the humans it is administered to: we are all different. In nearly any metric one might choose to measure, populations can be plotted into a bell-shaped curve where the bulk are in the middle “normal” range and a small percentage occupy the “tail” portions (e.g. really fast and really slow). For most there are no issues, no side effects and they work great. But under one tail there are those that have an allergic response while under the other tail the vaccine does nothing at all to enhance their immunity.

One area where the anti-vaccine movement is correct for the right reason is the one of government mandate. The part of Chris Christie’s opinion on vaccination that was omitted allows us to see how the true statist thinks, “parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that’s the balance that the government has to decide.” Yes, government is the true owner of our children and it up to them to decide what is best. Shudder.

It’s not that parents shouldn’t vaccinate their children, they should. Rather the government should not force parents to do so because it precludes any ability for the individual to ignore bad choices by those in charge. Government interference in the vaccine market distorts it and leads to outcomes more deleterious than we would see in a free system. For example it is often cited that the mere existence of the “National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program” established by the government is proof enough that vaccines are not safe. Not really, however it is evidence of how government mandates can incentivize a less safe outcome. It is a classic case of moral hazard. If the government orders the entire nation to buy your product you are happy because of the increased sales but you are sad because the government sets price ceilings on what can be charged. You know your product will have population dependent differential outcomes that can result in lawsuits and the low prices won’t support defending such suits. So the government steps and “immunizes” you from all suits as long as you pay a premium into this Compensation Program fund. Now you have less incentive to devote resources into figuring out why certain people may react negatively to a particular vaccine or how to predict that outcome so it can be avoided. Why bother, the government has protected you from all liability?

The solution to this whole “should the government force parents to immunize their children” debate is so obvious the only reason it has not been implemented is there must be some sort of obscure law forbidding it. Insurance companies should require certain immunizations as a condition of continuing health insurance coverage (and by “should” I don’t mean in the “pass a law mandating it” sense). Since the insurance companies have an incentive in their customers not being injured by a vaccine (as opposed to the government which has no such incentive) you can bet that parents would be more willing to accept scientific evidence of safety from the insurance companies.

If you don’t want to get your children vaccinated then switch to another insurance carrier that either does not require it or that requires fewer vaccines or with a different schedule. Or simply opt to not have health insurance. Oh, right, you can’t do that anymore because of government.

Voluntary choices would help foster a marketplace of alternatives. Yes, vaccination is a sound principle and has been highly effective. But that fact does not necessarily rule out the possibility that an alternative vaccination schedule would also not work equally as well.

February 16 / 2015
Author Greg Morin
Comments No Comments

The Unseen (Septic)

What does a septic tank have to teach us about economics? This rather mundane bit of technology is at the center of depressingly familiar story figuratively brewing in my backyard. It’s not my septic tank that is the issue, but rather one literally just down the street from me in the small town of Bishop, GA. Bishop residents Blyth and Diana Biggs purchased the “Fambrough House” on the main thoroughfare (Hwy 441) with the intention of residing there and turning it into the first ever restaurant in Bishop. They were on target to open in August 2014 when they hit a snag, well, more of a massive pothole, on the road of entrepreneurship. It seems the Oconee County Health Department is going to require them to rip out their current septic system and install a commercial grade unit to the tune of a mere $75,000. Why? Well, ‘cause regulations say so. And we all know that regulations are infallible because the mantra “one size fits all” has never ever resulted in unintended consequences. Suffice it to say, when I saw their post about this last year on Facebook, all I had to read was “We’ve run into a bit of a problem…” and I instantly knew what the source of their problem was – the state. Nothing will throw cold water faster on the dreams of an entrepreneur than a byzantine labyrinth of irrational regulations.

So, to return to the original question, what does a septic tank teach us about economics? In this case it reminds us of the central lesson of Frédéric Bastiat’s Broken Window Fallacy – unseen effects must also be brought to account when analyzing economic outcomes. In this case, a restaurant that never opens would be an “unseen” effect of a gross misapplication of this particular regulation.

Regulations are an economic good. They provide a benefit, but like all economic goods they have a cost. However, when economic goods are forcibly imposed their cost no longer bears any relationship to the true demand (and hence price) for them. For example, some people like aquariums, but not everyone does. If the government made a law that required all households to have an aquarium, this would naturally shift the demand pattern from partial to universal. From this universal demand we would then witness an elevated price (Econ 101: as demand increases so does price). In the same way an artificially increased demand for regulation drives up the costs for those regulations. The price of these imposed regulations operates in a vacuum, uninfluenced by any other considerations that might compel one to balance their costs with other equally important considerations. For example, if the owners were not compelled by the threat of violence to keep their doors shut they would then be able to freely weigh the costs of opening with a potentially undersized septic vs. the costs of a delayed opening. All things being equal, absent state imposition of these regulations, we would find that demand, and hence price, for septic installation would be lower. This leads to the rather ironic outcome that in the absence of state mandated regulations many places like the Bishop House would actually be more likely to make these such changes owing to their lower costs).

But, if the Bishop House is unable to open due to this artificially imposed barrier, then we will all be the poorer for it, for what is wealth if not the betterment of our lives by the voluntary actions of fellow human beings? Every person barred from adding his own unique contribution to society by artificial barriers (the economic interventionism of regulations, licensing and employment law) erected by the state makes all of society that much poorer.

P.S. If you would like to learn more about The Bishop House or help them please see http://www.gofundme.com/fo1klc

February 10 / 2015

Pool your own resources

It seems everyone wants a pool. But nobody wants to pay for it, because after all pools are really expensive – both to build and maintain. When I moved into my current neighborhood we were “promised” it would have a pool by the real estate agent and the builder. Our HOA dues were inflated owing to the necessity of maintaining this incipient pool. It was not to be. A mixture of the housing bust and and builder antics sealed the fate of the “free” pool. Now that our neighborhood is about 95% occupied there is increasing pressure for “we the neighbors” to build one ourselves via a self-assessed HOA dues increase. When we moved in my children were at the prime “pool” age, however they are nearly grown (college already?!?) and so we have little interest in footing the bill for something we would almost never use. But, we moved in here voluntarily, fully aware that pool expenses would be part of the deal so I have no ethical basis for complaint, merely a pragmatic one. If I don’t like it, I can, as they say, move.

That option, moving, however, does not exist moving up one territorial notch to the county level. Every county in the US pretty much operates the same way. I recently read that a swimming pool has been the number one recreational request in my county (Oconee) for many years. I find this fascinating on several levels. For one it flies in the face of the oft given justifications for government, that is, courts, cops, roads and schools. Surely government must provide these absolutely essential functions, no? Well, no, but for the sake of argument I’ll concede the point right now. However, I find it laughable that recreational amenities now too fall into the category of “essential state functions. Really? That brings me to my second wry observation: Oconee County already has a private provider of pools and gymnasiums (another common request). So, it’s not that people want access to a pool per se, (clearly there is already “access” locally), it’s that they want someone else to foot the lion share of the bill. Getting the county to provide these things means that when you utilize them a disproportionate burden of the cost is shifted to (a) all those with a higher property value than yours and (b) all those that use it less than you do. Subsidization, pure and simple. Not very conservative for a supposedly conservative county?

There is a common misconception that we need a county government to provide these sorts of things because governments can lower the cost for everyone because they don’t extract any evil profit. But think about what that means for a minute. Profit is the increase in subjective value realized when one takes a pile of resources and alters them into a more pleasing arrangement (think raw ingredients —> apple pie). If there is a decrease in satisfaction (think Ferrari melted down to make pie plates) that would be a loss. So when one argues that if a private business were providing access to a park or a pool it would be “too expensive” but that government can “make it affordable” what you’re really saying is that highly valued resources (private pool) should be rearranged into something that is of lower value (public pool). Because that is exactly what happens when money is taken from a property tax payer A to offset the cost of pool access for property tax payer B. Payer A’s funds were diverted from whatever he would have spent them on (high value to him) to something of lower value, that is, something he never would have spent them on, a pool. To argue this is “ok” is to argue that theft is justified in order to provide essential human rights like park and pool access. As they say, first world problems.

So to all those in the county that want a pool I would offer this bit of advice: put your money where your mouth is and join the private pool already here so that it can grow and expand in relation to the demand for its services, or, if you believe you can do a better job then come together voluntarily and risk your own capital (not mine) by building one yourself. I would offer similar advice to the pool proponents in my neighborhood. “Pool” your resources, buy a lot, build the pool and run it for profit. Only with a profit/loss test can anyone know if that would be a wise redirection of capital. There is no better method of plumbing the depth of a man’s belief than to ask him to risk his own capital.

February 04 / 2015
Author Greg Morin
Comments No Comments

Substitute Band Leader

President Obama unwittingly invoked dramatic irony during his recent state of the union address. For those unfamiliar with this less common definition of irony I provide herewith a definition: “dramatic irony: a literary technique by which the full significance of a character’s words or actions are clear to the audience or reader although unknown to the character.”

He opens his speech with, “Tonight, after a breakthrough year for America, our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999.” For now we’ll ignore the dissembling in that remark (faster growth has actually occurred 4 times since 1999 – in 2010, 2006, 2004 and 2000). Later in the speech he then remarks that, “we’re the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave or paid maternity leave to our workers.” Again, not entirely accurate – Canada and Japan also do not.

However, the point of irony here is that while he praises the capacity for the American economy to foster vigorous job growth he is entirely oblivious to the fact that the rate of productive job creation (that is, not busy-work jobs) scales with the level of freedom of the individual to pursue their own ends, unmolested by meddling third parties. And being so oblivious he then calls for yet another layer of regulation that is guaranteed to retard the very job growth he praises.

More individual freedom translates into more opportunity, but less freedom, by way of a mountain of inscrutable regulations, increases the net cost of hiring. Given a fixed source of funds, one has no choice but to buy less of something if its cost goes up. The President seems to be under the impression that wages are derived from a bottomless pot of money kept at company headquarters, the disbursement from which is artificially limited by Monty Burns-style corporate bosses. Companies, unlike the government, can’t steal or print their money; they have to actually earn it by giving the consumer something they want.

Just as with his perplexing proposal to zero out the tuition of community colleges he is once again answering a question no one is asking. He claims 43 million workers have no access to sick leave. Since he doesn’t cite his source it’s unclear if that number would be reduced if we included workers that are permitted to substitute vacation time when sick. Nevertheless, this certainly sounds like a lot of people. Let’s parse it out. Using data drawn from the government’s own Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov) we find total employment for 2013 averaged around 143 million. We also find that 75% of full-time workers and 23% of part time workers had access to paid sick leave. That’s about 93 million with such access. If we are to be impressed with the President’s figures, we should be doubly so impressed with this one. However the weedy details are not nearly as interesting as the game he is playing. He is imitating quite well his political predecessors who also sought to take credit for something the market had already brought about. He would like nothing more than to step in front of the ongoing parade and pretend it was following him all along.

Market forces have independently, and in the absence of government coercion, expanded access to an economic good that employees demanded: paid sick leave. In 1950, 46% of full-time workers had access to paid sick leave. In 1970, 51% did. By 1992 that number had risen to 58% and then by 2012 to 75%. A similar narrative can be found for other “we only have this because of government” myths, such as the 5 day, 40 hour work week, ending of child labor, or worker safety.  All improved over many decades long before politicians got involved and passed “laws” that simply memorialized what was already common practice.

The growth of such benefits is akin to the steady growth of stock dividends. Both increase at a steady pace because the growth in human ingenuity (leading to greater productivity) is an incremental process. We didn’t go from the steam engine to the integrated circuit overnight. Productivity enhancements accruing from incremental improvements in mechanical capital take time. As a society and an economy becomes more productive it becomes more able to afford things it could not afford in the past, like paid sick leave, paid vacations, or paid maternity leave. In 100 years our economy may be so productive it is literally only necessary to work 1 day a week. So if government is the true source of all that is good and fair in the world, why don’t they pass a law now capping work to 1 day a week? Because even they know that will fail. It is much more expedient to find something the market has already nearly achieved and swoop in at the last minute in order to take full credit. Perhaps their next act will be to pass a law mandating the sun rise each day. Isn’t law just grand?

January 27 / 2015

Dumbed down

The President recently announced his plan to destroy the community college system. It is really a clever plan. In Trojan horse-esque fashion it cloaks the seeds of destruction in an appealing wrapper. Step 1: identify a non-frivolous economic good and declare it to be “free” for all. Step 2: step back and watch prices soar while quality plummets in a vain effort to keep up with exploding demand. Sound familiar? Healthcare. 4-year College education. The President is clearly an environmentalist; how else to explain his effort to recycle this garbage.

By guaranteeing full payment of tuition only for students maintaining at least a 2.5 GPA, this scheme will not incentivize students to work harder, but rather for teachers to inflate grades. Or rather, students may believe they will have to work harder, but it is far easier to inflate a grade than to study, thus grades will quickly reach that floor long before the efforts of increased studying are needed. Once that happens the value of a 2-year degree will be depreciated. There is no way for a prospective employer to distinguish between a graduate that really did learn the material vs. one who is the product of either inflated grades or a “dumbing down” of the curricula.

Once the administrators realize they can raise tuition each year at a rate vastly exceeding the rate of inflation (because the normal feedback of the customer opting to not purchase a too expensive good vanishes), those administrators in turn will make sure the professors understand their salaries depend on maintaining a certain enrolled student count. Of course the blame for skyrocketing tuition will be that the increased student load requires expansion of services (politely ignoring the economic axiom that individual prices tend to fall as volume goes up, not the other way around). That this will happen is not mere opinion or conjecture, but history: 4-year college tuition has risen at over 3x the rate of inflation since 1978.

The odd thing about this proposal is that community college tuition is already very inexpensive. Typically government only wants to make things “free” after they have meddled in the market long enough to drive prices upward. But the states and local communities already subsidize community colleges in order to keep prices low. The fact that tuition is charged at all is a function of the inability of local government to run their own printing press as well as more direct voter feedback on taxes.

It seems like the President is answering a question no one was asking. How much of a barrier can tuition be – there are already millions paying for it now. And even though the barrier is low, it is important to have some sort of barrier, if only to separate the serious from the unserious student. The President’s proposal mistakes a speed bump for a retaining wall and seeks to eliminate even that minimal level of self-selection. The people already attending have proven that they contain the seeds of success. They made the hard choices and saved their money in order to achieve a better life for themselves.

A secondary, and more sinister, effect of removing that self-selection barrier is it will transform the serious student into a less serious one. No longer is their money on the line, no longer is there pressure to perform lest they waste their hard-saved cash. Humans perform best under pressure, and if you remove that pressure you remove the motivation to perform at one’s peak. So, by removing the pressure of being out of pocket for the tuition, this policy will foster the learning style of the perpetual procrastinator. “So what if I do poorly, I can try again and again, and again” (at least until that GPA dips to a 2.5, that is, a practically failing D-).

I’m not suggesting this drop off in motivation will happen to everyone attending community college. What I am saying is that in aggregate this will be the outcome more often than not. There is a reason there are no private charities that indiscriminately fund adult tuition – it’s a bad idea from a utilitarian standpoint – it harms the individual receiving it and by extension the society in which that individual lives

January 20 / 2015

An inconvenient observation

Ok, looking at this picture released by the NOAA on annual global temperatures since 1880 – what strikes me as a odd is that the temperature increase from 1910 through 1940 is 1.2 °F… (followed by  30 years of basically no change) and then from 1970 through 2000 it rises again by 1.0 °F.

 

NOAATempTrend2014

So, let me get this straight. The standard AGW narrative is that man made CO2 emissions are causing the temperature to rise – so since the temperature increases in those two periods are nearly identical, it would then follow that the amount of CO2 emitted in those periods (or in trailing period prior to it) are equal? That is, the amount of CO2 emitted from cars and coal plants from 1910 – 1940 is exactly equal to the amounted emitted from 1970-2000? Really? Doesn’t that strike anyone as odd? I think there were a lot more cars and coal plants in 1985 then there were in 1925 (midpoint of each period). I’d say it’s pretty darn amazing that the rate in increase in temperature hasn’t changed given the substantially greater output of carbon in more recent years.

Or could it be that natural variability is simply overwhelming the influence of manmade CO2 emissions? The fact that the rate has not increased and is actually apparently slightly decreasing could even suggest CO2 emissions are having a slight suppressive effect on global temperature, that is, absent such emissions the rate of increase in temperature would be greater than it is today.

 

January 17 / 2015
Author Greg Morin
Category Climate Change
Comments No Comments

Sticks and stones

The Charlie Hebdo massacre this week left the world in shock. What sort of barbarous evil would drive someone to kill – over a cartoon? Apparently emotions – emotions fed by the infallibility of one’s beliefs. Infallibility is immune from reason, logic, and rational discourse. Infallibility is a necessary, although not sufficient, prerequisite for evil done in the name of the “greater good.” The nature of the belief is irrelevant – all that matters is the perpetrator thought themselves infallible. How then does one fight infallibility? It is a belief not in ideas, but rather the egoism of one’s perfection. Honestly, I do not know. To be sure, one can harmlessly think they have it all figured out and the rest of us are just fools. But, how badly would such a person feel that if for the greater good of advancing their obviously correct beliefs, it became necessary to initiate aggression toward another? Not very, it would seem. How many of us are guilty of not objecting to the passage or existence of some law that we happen to agree with but which restricts the rights of others who are harming no one? How many of us support wars because of the unstated patriotic truth that one’s own country can do no wrong? If the state is defined as social aggression, then any given citizen is a passive-aggressor.

The beliefs of these particular Muslims led them to interpret the Koran in such a way that it was their infallible belief that they had every right to take such actions. Obviously (being infallible myself!) they were wrong in that belief. But, as crazy as it might seem, their belief is not far removed from the laws in France (and many other “Western” countries) as well as the opinion of a good number of Americans. Abstractly, the belief is that one has the right to not be offended by other people, and, if such an offense occurs, one has the right to cease further offenses, by any means necessary. Well it just so happens that France has a law against insulting people based on their religion. Violation of this law includes severe fines and jail time. It also happens that Charlie Hebdo was sued under this law in 2006 by the Paris Grand Mosque and the Union of French Islamic Organizations. Charlie Hebdo won that suit, however the precedent was set. It is ok for society to say “we think that is offensive, you must stop or else.” Had they lost the case and resisted being dragged off to a jail cell, the outcome would have been similar; a gun standoff between agents of the state (police) and Charlie Hebdo. The only difference this week is that the two gunmen didn’t get the memo: violence is only ok if a majority of people approves – morality is a function of a popular opinion don’t you know.

In other words, if Hebdo had lost their case, and the two gunmen had hypothetically been part of the French police force sent in to drag them off to prison and had killed them in the process, then instead of lamenting the deaths people would be excusing it with platitudes like “well that’s what happens when you break the law.” Just to be clear – I am in no way excusing the actions of the gunmen. I am pointing out that the actions of a state, any state, that would compel its citizens to stand trial for the crime of insulting someone’s sensibilities are equally abhorrent.

As Americans you would think we would be immune to this sort of idiocy – home of the 1st amendment as we are. Apparently not. Rapper ‘Tiny Doo’ is facing life in prison in California over his lyrics. And a recent YouGov poll found not insignificant support for “hate speech” laws (36% of all respondents and 51% of self-identified Democrats!). Yes, hate speech is vile, ugly and worthy of being ignored. However, mere words, mere ideas, should not be punishable by fines or jail, lest we fall into an Orwell novel where “thoughtcrime” is equivalent to action-crime. Ron Paul summarizes this most succinctly; “We don’t have the First Amendment so we can talk about the weather. We have the First Amendment so we can say very controversial things.” We should not be so afraid of bad ideas that we drive them into the shadows; rather, we should endeavor to annihilate them under the scorching light of our own ideas, in the marketplace of ideas that is a free society.

January 13 / 2015
Author Greg Morin
Comments No Comments

Tribes

The recent assassination of two New York City police officers by a sick, mentally deranged animal was truly a tragedy. A tragedy not because they were police officers, but because they were human beings. A tragedy not because of the manner of death, but the reasoning behind it. All evidence left behind by the gunmen (who shot himself) suggests he set out on this murderous rampage to get even with “the police” for the Michael Brown shooting death in Missouri. Revenge is an understandable, albeit dangerous and ultimately self-destructive, emotional response when directed at the particular individual that has done harm. But when it is directed at a group merely because that group shares a characteristic with a tortfeasor, that is the kind of wickedness that has inspired genocidal rampages. Actions taken against members of a group ignore the individual’s humanity by abstracting them into an amorphous blob of adjectival phrases. One is not killing a human being with hopes, dreams, loved ones and friends; no, one is killing “the police”, or “a Jew” or a “n-word” or “a fag”. Murder is so much simpler when the target’s humanity is stripped away.

Why is this pattern of “tribe on tribe” killing so common throughout history? Humans have an evolutionary tendency to lump things with a common trait together and then assume that all those things sharing that trait are identical in nature. If a tiger killed my neighbor, then all tigers are deadly. If a snake bit my neighbor and he died, then all snakes are dangerous. Those that recognized distinctive traits and properly categorized the natural world as dangerous or not dangerous and killed the dangerous ones tended to live longer and pass on their genes. Those that thought we should just give all tigers a chance, well, it didn’t work out so well for them. So in a very real sense the human instinct to engage in “-isms” is why we are here today to discuss how wrong it is now. That doesn’t excuse it, it simply helps us understand “why” this trait exists. But this vestige of our evolutionary past, like the appendix, serves no purpose today except in extreme situations (e.g. it’s still safe to assume all tigers in the wild are dangerous). Unfortunately this instinct, like the appendix, is not something we can shed easily, and therefore we must remain ever vigilant against it, lest it become inflamed to the point where the whole species is put at risk (nuclear annihilation).

To remain vigilant we must recognize its many forms. It is not always so neatly packaged into the frothing rants of hate-speech. Sometimes it wends its way into our psyche like the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. Any sort of tribe mentality, such as the “us vs. them” fervor at a team-sporting event, has the potential to lead down this dark path. That’s not to say we shouldn’t cheer for “our” team, but please do recognize the emotions and language of this mindset speak to a tribal instinct: “we” won, “our” team is the best, “their” team is terrible, “their” fans are uncouth mouth-breathers, etc. Most people just pay lip service to these sorts of platitudes, they don’t mean it any more than they literally mean “god be with you” when saying “good-bye”. But there are some that do take such feelings quite literally (soccer hooliganism, post championship vandalism/rioting, etc.)

And let us not neglect to mention sport tribalism’s big brother – state tribalism, e.g. patriotism. Same idea, just a bigger team. Every country’s citizens (the most zealous ones anyway) think their country is the best in the world and that their people are better, in whatever metric you might care to name, than the people of other countries. And like a fractal pattern this mentality exists at all levels. I have witnessed first hand people tell me the folks in their county are better folk than from neighboring counties. Yes, that imaginary line in the dirt makes all the difference in the world.

Fealty to this patriotic instinct is what helps politicians stoke the flames of fear and envy that create an “us vs them” mindset as they seek to not only start wars, but establish all manner of governmental programs that benefit one group at the expense of another. The deaths of these police officers was indeed a tragedy carried out by an individual inspired in part by the fervor of tribalism. But let us not forget that any actions inspired by tribalism are evil, whether done by the many against the one, or the one against the many.

January 06 / 2015
Author Greg Morin
Comments 3 Comments

The Interview

Last week Sony Entertainment (Columbia Pictures) bowed to pressure from a cyber-terrorist group known as the GOP (Guardians of Peace) and announced that the comedy “The Interview,” which depicts the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, would not be released to theaters or online. The primary impetus behind this decision appears to be the threat of “9-11” style attacks on any theater that might dare show it. Being unsure of the credibility of the threat it would appear Sony decided to err on the side of caution and thus retracted the film from its anticipated Christmas release.

That decision was met with near universal indignation by basically the whole world. Many found it outrageous that a small group of people (believed to be North Korean government) could dictate to others what they may or may not see. Even President Obama weighed in on the decision, stating that he thought Sony had “made a mistake.”

Ok, so to summarize the events thus far: group of people A is using the threat of violence in order to influence the behavior of group of people B so that group of people C may not experience something that group A does not approve of. When abstracted this way does this pattern now seem more familiar? Yes, government. The only thing different about this situation is that people who are themselves usually in group A (governments and those that support their actions) now find themselves in group C. Not so much fun when someone else is doing the threatening, is it? As Americans, with our long tradition of (mostly) respecting freedom of expression, we are particularly outraged to be denied our basic human right to bear witness to fart jokes. In public we pretend that film banning doesn’t occur here, but privately we must admit that it does. Films have been banned in the US at various governmental levels for varying lengths of time (see: Monty Python’s the Life of Brian, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Tin Drum, The Profit, and Hillary: The Movie).  Most recently the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Google to remove “The Innocence of Muslims” video from their website. America is hardly free of the stain of participating in group threats of violence to prevent others from witnessing particular media.

But yes, we should be upset that anyone would try to use the threat of violence or intimidation in order to influence what we may or may not watch. However, if one wishes to shed all remnants of hypocrisy, then one must also acknowledge that government, all governments, use this exact same method (threat of violence) in order to ensure that the will of some arbitrary group of people living in spot A is imposed upon some other arbitrary group of people living in spot B. Sometimes these threats seek to enforce a ban on a film and sometimes they seek to enforce other arbitrary edicts masquerading as “law”. The ends matter not; it is the means that are illegitimate. If one is rightfully offended that North Korea might seek to use threats of violence to alter ones behavior, then one should likewise take equal offence when anyone, anywhere, at anytime, seeks to alter the peaceful behavior of another with violence or intimidation irrespective of what honorific they endow themselves with.

Fortunately this story has a happy ending. A few days later Sony reversed their decision and announced that “The Interview” would appear both online and in theaters, albeit in a limited fashion. Considering how hard someone tried to make sure I couldn’t watch it, well, naturally now I had no choice but to go out of my way to watch it! Was it worth it? Well, as they say, there’s no accounting for taste, but, I did enjoy it. As long as one is exposed to puerile humor in small, intermittent doses (like capsaicin) it can be amusing. This film was not meant to be a political satire. There is no stinging tongue-in-cheek critique of North Korea (although unexpectedly the Kim Jong-un character zinged his American interviewer with the fact that per capita the US has more people in prison than North Korea (thank you drug war)). There is just some good old-fashioned escapist daydream-as-a-plot in which the main character kills the bad guy, saves the country from nuclear annihilation, and becomes the hero he always believed himself to be.

December 29 / 2014
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