Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Bad Statistics in the Gun Debate

I saw an article pop up on my Facebook recently, and I wanted to respond to some of the statistical manipulations that are being used. Gun control is a debate that ends up getting very heated, but a lot of the problem is the use of dishonest statistics and dishonest rhetoric that doesn't facilitate discussion, but rather makes people talk past each other. I'm going to attempt to respond to some of the ones that I found in the article.

Mistake 1: Talk about gun homicide, but not all homicide

The first mistake that I noticed was in their Myth #2 (also present in #7). In the fact check, they cite gun-homicide statistics. Okay, fine. Not really a surprise that more guns is connected to higher gun homicide and gun murder. The problem is that gun murders shouldn't be the specific concern, murders generally should be. While it is certainly true that gun homicides get rarer if guns are rarer, that does not imply that the overall rate of homicide will go down.

In Myth #7, they note that women in states with higher gun ownership are more likely to be murdered by a gun, but the straight comparison of murder rates is not presented. If they want to make the honest case for gun control, they would need to demonstrate that reduction in gun availability lowered the rate at which women were murdered overall. Removing guns would not help if all the people were stabbed to death instead of shot to death.

Mistake 2: Mass shootings stopped by good guys with guns...

In Myth #4, they talk about armed civilians stopping. Mass shootings that end before the third victim are not mass shootings, and so don't get counted. Basically, they are stating that once a shooting became a mass shooting, armed civilians didn't rush in to stop the shooter. Fine. But an armed civilian who stops a shooting before the shooter hits three people prevents it from counting as a mass shooting. 

Basically, the good armed civilian is in a no-win situation here. If they stop the shooter before they kill at least three people, then they didn't stop a mass shooting because there was no mass shooting. But if they let three people get hit then they didn't stop a mass shooting, they just ended it a little early. It is still a mass shooting. 

Mistake 3: Self defense with a gun = killing someone

This mistake spans two of the myths (#5 and #6). They talk about the rates of people using firearms for self-defense, but do it in only in terms of shooting people. The only self-defense uses that they count for these statistics are cases where the gun is fired. A gun doesn't need to be fired to be used in self defense. The exact numbers are murky, but the estimates of defensive uses of firearms would put them somewhere above the gun death rate overall.

When talking about the defensive use of firearms, it is very important not to assume that all defensive use ends with the death of the attacker, especially since (I would hope) that killing the attacker is not the primary goal. Eliminating the threat is the goal, whether this ends in the death of the assailant or not. If the attacker runs away, that is still mission accomplished.

Some of the points in the article are interesting food for thought, like myth #3 about an armed society being a polite society, and some points about the loopholes are interesting, and might merit some discussion. I can't trust that it is honestly presented though, since they aren't willing to present honest arguments about reducing violence generally (which has been trending down, as one of their sources notes). If they want to attempt to convince me that additional laws will help reduce violence, they need to show that violence on the whole will actually be reduced, not just gun-related violence.

Friday, September 18, 2015

We're All Anti-feminists Now

Feminists often say that feminism is just a movement for the social, political,  and economic equality for women in relation to men. They go by the 'dictionary definition' of feminism. With a quick Google, we get:
the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.

Nothing groundbreaking there. The thing is that there are many different brands of feminism: radical, sex-positive, sex-negative, equity, intersectional, and a few others that I'm not familiar enough to talk about. The problem is that some of these brands of feminism are mutually exclusive (sex-positive vs sex-negative, for example). So what does Feminism really mean? Looking at these categories, it depends on who you ask.

Summary of some Feminisms (not an exhaustive list)
Radical Feminism: Gender is purely a social construct that should be abolished, and that men have been ruling over women through the patriarchal cultural norm. They tend to look poorly on trans individuals. They also tend to be somewhat sex-negative.

Sex-Positive: This feminism views sex as a generally good thing, and celebrates women's choices with respect to sex. They look favorably on sexual liberation. They try to reclaim terms like 'slut' to make them positive terms, rather than smears.

Sex-negative: This is mostly a secondary trait of the particular brand of feminism, and is usually paired with a Marxist view of men = oppressor, women = oppressed. They view sexual choices of women as shaped by the patriarchy so that some choices aren't really choices. Prostitution, pornography, and 'sexual liberation' are considered oppressive and damaging to women, even between consenting adults.

Equity: This is just the view that women and men should have equal legal rights. That's it. No other baggage that I'm aware of. If I have to pick a feminism, this is it for me.

Intersectional: This is a relatively new buzzword, but it is basically looking at the Venn Diagram of oppression and marveling at all the different ways that the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy oppresses everyone except straight white males.

White: This is the label applied to upper middle class feminists by intersectional feminists for not looking at the oppression of non upper middle class white women.

So with all these different feminisms, what is anti-feminism? It doesn't have a nice dictionary definition like Feminism does, but the wiki article gives a decent working definition: An ideological opposition to feminism. The problem: which feminism? The thing is, there are a few mutually exclusive 'feminisms,' like the sex-positive vs sex-negative feminisms. To be one, you must be against the other. This is also illustrated later in the wiki, where some feminist writers are labeled as anti-feminist by other feminists. This means that the people labeling other feminists as anti-feminist are in fact opposed to that form of feminism.

What I take from this is that in order to be feminist, one must also be anti-feminist. To be in favor of one form of feminism is to be against other forms of feminism with which you disagree. This means that you are against feminism, and therefore anti-feminist. So even feminists are anti-feminists, and the term anti-feminist has no meaning.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

First Principles or Bust

So over the weekend, I got into a nice little... discussion with someone that had a very different view of the world that I do. They were a progressive, so most of our disagreement was about economics and the governmental involvement in education, and things like that. This is not particularly unusual. The problem was that we would approach historical events from different perspectives, which would, of course, change our analysis.

History is an important empirical test for theories of economics and other social sciences, but there are some insurmountable problems with the study of history. Mises pointed out that historical circumstances are always different from case to case, there are no fixed values (Human Action). Because there are no fixed parameters, it is impossible to parse the historical record perfectly. Instead, we have to approach from the other direction. We develop a theory and we look at history through that lens or 'understanding' as Mises terms it.

Some people might disagree that this is how history should be done, and that history needs to capture all of the relevant facts, and then form judgments from there. But what facts are relevant?  When we are choosing what facts to include in the analysis, we are using some theory already to decide if a fact might be useful. History is messy, which means that unraveling the true cause and effect is difficult. Discarding a fact you think is irrelevant might make deciphering the events impossible.

This means that we need a good way to determine what actions, events, and people are important before looking at the data. We have to have an a priori theory to give a proper understanding of history, rather than having a theory that twists in the wind and cannot bring insight to the facts of the present, or worse, a theory that can bring any insight to the present. A purely empirical theory will not know what data needs to be gathered and what data can be safely ignored.

So how do we get around this issue? All the data that we look at will be cherry picked to some extent, since we don't have the time to go through all of the facts of any specific event, and so the data we get will have a selection bias. I think the solution is as Mises presented in Human Action. We have to develop an a priori theory that can explain the phenomena that we are interested in, and then look at the data in that light. It is also important to understand that this theory has to be logically consistent, otherwise it is useless. No a priori theory will be completely falsifiable, since there will always be confounding factors to various degrees. Conflicted data with the theory would highlight these areas where additional explanation is required.

We need to make sure that we correctly select the axioms and starting points of the theories we end up using. It is extremely important that the first principles are solid, otherwise any theory will fall apart, or worse, be correct in some cases for all the wrong reasons.

The way I see it, historical theories can either be specific enough to be falsifiable, or general enough to be somewhat predictive. Some mix of the two, and specific parts of the theory can be falsifiable, but the overall structure will not be. As an example, we could say that in general, higher taxes will lower the growth of GDP (or something similar). Specific test of the theory will be if we raise taxes, the rate of growth of GDP might go up, which would mean that in this specific case, the theory didn't hold. But there are other confounding factors that would make that a bad conclusion, and we can't go back in time and try holding taxes at the same level.

I guess the main thing I'm trying to get at is that when it comes to history, it is impossible to get all the facts, and the facts you get have a selection bias. Therefore it is important to get the theory explicit and established beforehand so that others can challenge it directly. If people are operating with different theories, this needs to be discussed both before and after discussion of the historical facts.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Apathy is the Target

Something that bugs me about the identity politics and the debates around it is that the end goals of the movement are never really discussed. What are the ultimate goals of LGBT? Of #BlackLivesMatter? Of feminism? How are these ultimate goals articulated, and then how do we get there from here?

To me, apathy should be the final goal. Are you a woman? I don't care. Are you black? I don't care. Are you gay? I don't care. Some other identity? I don't care. That's not to say that people shouldn't care about those close to them, to a degree. An example would be if I'm trying to play matchmaker, knowing the sexual preferences of both matches is important, and shouldn't be ignored. In public life, however, it shouldn't matter. Someone I don't know and will probably never meet is gay? OMG STOP THE PRESSES! Actually, no, I just don't care, and neither should you.

One of the problems with current identity politics is that I think they loose sight of the goal. Instead of trying to make the identity of the class unimportant, they make it the ONLY important attribute. Arguments can hinge on whether the person making the argument is white, black, LGBT (and indeed which of the letters they identify with), man, or woman. The way I see it, the argument should not be based on the identity of the writer. We shouldn't care. If the argument is from personal experience, it may matter, but that is just an anecdote, so there is no way to evaluate it objectively anyway.

I think that a decent part of the population is getting to the apathy point. I would like to think that I'm more or less there. The problem for me is that social justice types tend to bring up these identity politics so that they can't be ignored. Why should I care more about the plight of women than men? Or blacks more than whites? Instead of trying to get people to care about other people, the social justice advocates will try to get us to care about blacks specifically, or women specifically, or gays, lesbians, bi, and trans. But not about people generally. Aren't blacks, women, LGBT people too? They aren't people any more or less than white men. In order to combat prejudice they end up espousing prejudice.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Only Diversity that Matters

The only diversity that matters is diversity of thought. For all the talk about diversity, it is always about the diversity of the superficial. Racial diversity and gender diversity rather than diversity of opinion and diversity of thought. This leads to the appearance of diversity without any actual diversity.

Sure, there is a case that people of different races have different perspectives on issues from their different background. Women probably experience life at least somewhat differently from men and vice versa (I would be very surprised if men and women experienced life in the exact same way). Blacks have different experience than whites, and so on. But that doesn't mean that having some black people in a group makes it diverse. You also need diverse opinions from the black community, as well as diverse opinions from every other community. No racial group has uniform ideas, and to think that you can capture the true diversity of humanity by checking racial boxes is naive.

Just as an illustration, if you take Thomas Sowell and Milton Freidmen (black and white), you will have less diversity of thought than if you had Milton Freidman and Bernie Sanders (white and white). Similarly, you have less diversity of thought if you had Jesse Jackson and Bernie Sanders (black and white) than if you had Jesse Jackson and Thomas Sowell (black and black). To have true diversity, you need to have people from all backgrounds of both race and politics, because that more fully captures the different perspectives of the issue.

It could be argued that because there are a minority of, say, conservative blacks, that this is a perspective that should not be included. But that looses the point about diversity. We should examine the perspectives of the unusual, because they are perspectives that the majority hasn't had the chance to examine. Just because the majority thinks something, doesn't make them right. In fact, we should give minority opinions extra examination, because we are most likely to suffer from confirmation bias in favor of the majority opinion.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Minimum Wage: Common Arguments

With Bernie Sanders so popular on my Facebook feed, the $15 dollar/hour minimum wage has been floating around a lot, and there are a lot of arguments that I think need to be addressed.

A good starting point to refute is the Salon article about the myths of the minimum wage

Myth 1: The minimum wage was never meant to be a living wage. 
Liberal/Progressive Take: Everyone working a full time job should be able to support their family.

Okay, so I'm not going to argue intent of the policy. It may well have had the noble intention of having everyone living above the poverty line. Intentions, sadly, don't really matter. What matters is the effect of the policy and the means by which the policy is enacted. 

The problem with the argument about the minimum wage is the definition of 'living wage.' I have lived at $8/hour. It wasn't that bad. Adjusted for inflation, that is about $10/hour in today's dollars. In graduate school, my wage is officially ~$20/hour, but I only get paid for 20 hours/week. This would be full time at ~$10/hour. I have lived fairly well on that. One problem with having a single living wage across the nation is nonsensical. A living wage will be different in LA or NYC than it will be for some podunk town in the middle of nowhere. A national minimum wage would try to impose the living wage of NYC on a smaller town that has a lower cost of living.

Also, I often hear that a parent should be able to support their family on the minimum wage. This is a load of bull, with a very simple question. How big is the family? Should a single mom be able to support three kids? 4? 5? Where do we draw the line? What about a two parent household? Should they be able to support any number of kids on minimum wage? This notion of supporting a family is one that doesn't allow for the continuation of the logic. 

Myth 2: Minimum wage increase won't help anyone if other costs go up too
Liberal/Progressive Take: This won't make a difference in inflation because it will take people off other welfare programs, and will also stimulate the economy with additional spending.

This argument is basically that paying people more will take them off welfare, and allow them to get off food stamps and other welfare programs. The problem with this argument is that it is that it is also just as possible that because people on the welfare system know it so well that instead of earning more, they will try to cut back hours to stay on welfare because it is familiar. We can't be sure as to the response of people to this particular stimulus.

As to the argument about stimulating the economy, this is the standard broken window fallacy. The workers who are getting paid are spending more, sure. But you don't see the employees who were never hired and what they spend, or the other spending that the businesses would have made if they didn't have to pay workers the additional amount. 

Myth 3: An increase in the minimum wage is bad for employers
Liberal/Progressive Take: This will spur workers to be productive, and make business run more efficiently.

It will certainly spur employers to find ways to cut employees out. The way that wages actually rise is by individual workers becoming more productive on average. Raising the minimum wage will indeed force employers to do more with fewer workers, which goes against the progressive response to Myth 5. If we pay workers more, they have to work harder to compensate, or work with additional capital investments to make them more effective.

As to other arguments about paying more being a good business practice, that is something that individual business owners have to determine. For most industries, this is true, since according to the Salon piece, only 4.7% of workers are on minimum wage. This means that 95% of employers ALREADY KNOW that paying employees more is good for retention, and I think the reality is all employers know it, but they don't care about keeping the 4.7% that is on minimum wage, otherwise they would pay more. Duh.

Myth 4: $15 is a random number.
Liberal/Progressive Take: It is what is required to raise workers above the poverty line, while being feasible for businesses.

So that means if the poverty line changed, this number will change. So who defines the poverty line? Also, who determines what is feasible for businesses? The minimum wage would take the ability of employers to find what is feasible for them, if that number is below this proposed minimum. 

Myth 5: It will cost us jobs and raise unemployment
Liberal/Progressive Take: There is no evidence from analysis of 13 states, and these states had faster job growth.

This directly contradicts point 3. If workers become more productive, that means that you can do the same amount of work with fewer workers. Also, this is a causation is not equal to correlation. Just because these states had faster growth and increased the minimum wage, doesn't mean that they are directly related. These states may have grown even faster if the minimum wage was not raised. I would have to see a more careful analysis rather than the aggregation at the state level, and other confounding factors. 

Myth 6: Only teenagers and uneducated people work for the minimum wage.
Liberal/Progressive Take: 4.7% of the working population is at or below minimum wage, and 88% of those are above the age of 20, and 43% have attended college.

What kind of college education? There are many fields in the social sciences and humanities that don't really have economic value to most companies. Do they have value? Sure, but not to companies trying to serve consumers. So college education can be (though isn't always) irrelevant. Should I care about your dance major? Depends. Am I a dance company?

The 88% of people on minimum wage who are over the age of 20 don't have a whole lot of other opportunities. If they did, they would be working for more than minimum wage. But that is irrelevant. What is relevant is if we are then advocating for age discrimination? Should someone be entitled to higher pay just because they are older? I would say no. Why should it be okay to employ a highschooler at minimum wage, but not a 21 year old, or a 30 year old? To use another social justice bugbear, that would be unequal pay for equal work, and that is not right. So why are these 20 year old unable to do more complex jobs that pay better? Have they not learned on the job? Why should they be entitled to more just because they are older?

Myth 7: Seattle already has a minimum wage of $15 and it's terrible
Liberal/Progressive Take: Totally not terrible, and the $15 minimum hasn't been reached yet

This is hard to argue about since it is true, they haven't gotten the wage to $15/hour yet, because of a slow roll out. So we can't judge the effects. Also, the big companies with large profits that they cite, Starbucks and Howard Schultz, are not the companies that would be most affected. Those are companies that are operating marginally, and just scraping by. That what is meant by the marginal change. It is not going to change for companies that are doing well, but a company that is doing barely okay will not make it. 

Statesman vs Politician

There is a distinction that I think a lot of people miss in how a democratic government works. Most people combine evaluations of politicians as 'good' and 'bad' based on criteria which is not important to how they are selected. I make this distinction between statesmanship and politics.

Lets start with politics. I would consider a good politician someone who gets elected. The best politicians are the ones who get elected to the highest office as many times as allowed. Obama, George W Bush, Clinton, and Reagan were good politicians, Reagan was the best of those, from the electoral results. They all were elected to the highest office twice. My statement that these are all great politicians is usually challenged because people confuse 'politician' with 'statesman.'

A statesman is someone who is good at governance. These are the people who are able to make government function effectively. Good statesmen are NOT the same as good politicians. The key problem with the democratic process is that we want good statesman, but we select good politicians, and they are not the same. This is why things whether getting a beer with a candidate are political questions, even if they have nothing to do with making effective policy.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

#Transracial: Cognitive Dissonance in the Cultural Narrative

So Shaun King has been trending on twitter as the next public "Transracial" person after Rachel Dolezal. There have been articles attacking pointing out that he is white from the conservative side, and articles from the left saying rebutting that. At this point, I haven't seen any rebuttal about his father being white, only a rebuttal of the police reports and other secondary claims (car accidents and number of children). With Rachel Dolezal, there wasn't much room for refutation, since her biological parents came forward and said that she was white. The birth certificate on the Breitbart article is credible, then there is no other point that needs to be made about this case.

But there is something about the claim of transracialism that seems to have liberals in a bind. In my cultural anthropology course in college (or university if you are outside the US), we were told that race is a social construct, not a biological fact. But then there is a question of who gets to choose what race we are? Lets claim that society, in the aggregate, chooses for us. How does that change an individual's ancestry? It doesn't, and it can't. If we take race as purely a social construct, then transracialism is just someone adopting the social identity of another race. No big deal. Except that isn't what happens. The people who claim to be another race are somehow lying. They can't be transracial because they aren't 'actually' black/asian/whatever, because their parents weren't. 

There is some truth to the claim that race is a social construct, but it is clearly not purely a social construct. There has to be some basis for it. Bill Clinton and George Bush will not be considered African American. We can correct people who get our race wrong, and we back it up with the biological evidence: "My parents are from xyz, not uvw." If race is a social construct, the transracialism is not a big deal. But identity politics is so obsessed with race and gender that being transracial changes your status, and the fight becomes whether you are allowed to assume the label of an 'oppressed' group, or if you are more oppressed  for not being taken seriously about it. 

I personally think that we would be better off leaving the identity politics behind, and strive to treat everyone with respect. If race is a social construct, won't it go away if we start ignoring it? Then transracial will have no meaning. 

Friday, July 31, 2015

Democrat vs Socialist

There was a recent exchange between Chris Matthews on MSNBC and the DNC Chariwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz regarding the difference between a Democrat and a Socialist. She was unable to articulate a difference, which is telling in itself, but it warrants a little more discussion than to say that there is no difference.

The main difference between the Democrats and Socialists is really a matter of degrees. There is no fundamental philosophical difference between the two, which is why it is so difficult to articulate an answer. Fundamentally, both Democrats and Socialists think that government should be used to help those who have been disadvantaged for some reason. The philosophical standpoint is the same: that the Government is 'the people,' and so the Government is morally responsible when we use the phrase 'We should do xyz.' Examples include 'We should help the poor,' 'We should feed the hungry,' 'We should educate children.' While these are morally laudable goals, there is the equivocation between the personal (we, as individuals, should help the poor), and the political (we, through taxes, should help the poor).

Once we accept this frame that the personal values should be reflected in government, Democrats and Socialists are only really different in the degree to which they think these policies should be implemented. In some ways, the Democrats are just politically viable Socialists. They would be in favor of Socialist policies, but they might not be able to remain politically viable after they propose them.

Republicans and conservatives have a slightly different philosophy, at least in theory. The rhetoric that they use tends towards acknowledging the difference between the personal and political, and there is an understanding that just because you think that the state should not be involved, doesn't mean that you advocate against that thing. There are a few major (and quite troubling) exceptions: religion and gay marriage, and abortion. For the most part, in issues other than these two, conservatives and Republicans are willing to separate the personal and political (at least rhetorically).

The philosophical problem with Conservatives is when they get into the political. In the political arena, they end up playing the part of militaristic nationalists. Because America! They also tend to agree with the vast majority of the policies of the Democrats. The disagreement is at the margins, like what the tax rate should be, or how large the benefits should be, rather than if there should be benefits at all. They also tend to equate whatever the current system is as free market capitalism, even though it is very much not, even if it is more free market capitalism than whatever the Democrats are proposing.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Bernie Sanders: Problems with Soundbite Policies

Bernie Sanders is a self described democratic socialist who has become fairly popular among young liberals. He is technically independent, but he is running for the Democratic Party nomination. I disagree with most of his economic policies (as I will outline below), but I'm glad that he is at least open about his stances, and he often correctly identifies problems with the current system.

The Policies:
Going through his website, his own promotional material, we have the following headlines:

Real Family Values
Create Decent Paying Jobs
Income and Wealth Inequality
Getting Big Money Out of Politics
Climate Change and the Environment
A Living Wage

As headlines, these might be things I could support in sentiment, but not in practice.

Real Family Values
Bernie Sanders uses 'real family values' as things like mandatory paid vacation, sick leave, and other benefits.These are not the responsibility of the government to provide workers. This is something that workers should negotiate with the employers themselves. How can the government know how much vacation each worker needs or wants? Furthermore, with medical leave, he proposes that it be paid for by an 'insurance' program like Social Security. Government programs are not insurance, and it would not be optional, it would be mandatory.

Many of these policies focus only on the workers' side of the equation, with out recognition that the employers are people too, and have to look out for the interests of the consumer. Suppose a key employee gets sick for an extended period of time. Okay, they now have paid leave. The project that they were working on is sitting around waiting for them to get back. The project is on a tight deadline. What is the employer to do? If this is a key project, and required for the future profitability of the company, then a replacement needs to be hired to do the work of the person on leave. Now, when they get back, what happens? One of them is redundant, and should be fired (or reassigned in the wider economy, if that makes you feel better). The worker is not entitled to pay from an employer without the corresponding exchange.

All of the proposals under this heading are additional regulations on what people are allowed to negotiate with employers. In my ideal world, employees would be able to freely negotiate these terms without the need for a government program or system to require the terms of the employment contract.

Create Decent Paying Jobs
This is a typical view of both the political Left and the political Right. He advocates for a large spending program to build infrastructure and employ young Americans. He doesn't go into the details of what this would mean exactly, but it is a government intervention into the economy which will lead to more problems down the road.

He does correctly point out that the official unemployment rate is inaccurate, since the official numbers ignore the people who have given up looking for work, or those who want more hours. The solution is not, however, to spend other people's money to have people doing what no one cares enough about doing. At least part of his program will include job training, which is less than useless, since it will be paying people to teach other people how to do jobs no one else wants. If they did want them, they would be paying already.

It is conceivable that there are some people who would benefit from these job training programs. The problem is that it is essentially the broken window fallacy. The gains that we see are at the cost of actions we don't see. We can't see how the teachers and instructors would be spending their time if they weren't employed in this government program, and we don't see how the taxpayers who are paying for them would otherwise spend the money.

Income and Wealth Inequality
I've touched on this before, but it bears some repeating. Income inequality is not important. At all. The problem is that the poor are poor. If they are getting even poorer, that is an even bigger problem, but the richness of the wealthy is not at all a problem. There is some degree that this is a complaint about how the world is not fair, and how the rich and the poor should be closer together. In addition to the complaint being about how life is not fair, there are no reason to think that government intervention would improve the situation. In fact, I think that the government intervention has made the problem worse. It is government intervention and regulatory capture that leads to these problems in the first place, and if the banks had been allowed to fail and go through bankruptcy, maybe we would need his plan to break up the banks,

Getting Big Money Out of Politics

Here, I think is one of the worse misinterpretations of the First Amendment that is the problem on the Left, and one that I would hope Bernie Sanders understands better than he is letting on, since he is an independent.

First, I will give him due respect for advocating for a constitutional amendment rather than just overturning the ruling, though he is advocating for that too. But the problem with these ideas is that while money might not quite be speech, money must be spent to make speech effective.

He goes into a little more depth with his interview on Vox, where he gets into ideas that could get very dangerous for democracy, even more than he thinks ours is in danger from the oligarchy. His first idea after reversing the Citizens United decision is to at "at least make sure that candidates who are running will have as much money as their opponents." This might sound okay at first glance, but consider these questions:
Who determines a candidate?
What kind of paper work is required?
Can anyone become a candidate?
Is there a limit on the number of candidates in each race?
Will it be restricted to official political parties?
What if the candidate is religious? Will the state fund the campaign even if it is a religious one?
What about independents?
These are all questions need to be answered about publicly funding candidates. The power is shifted from the voters to the people who pick the candidates. This has already happened to a sad extent because of ballot access laws that impose additional requirements on candidates outside the two party system. Public funding of elections will only exacerbate this problem.

His other idea on this vein is not as bad, but seems somewhat redundant. He thinks that a $100 tax credit for donating to any candidate as a way to 'democratize' the election funding process. It is better than the previous idea, since it doesn't spend taxpayer money on candidates, but my $100 contribution is already a vote. If I'm giving $100 to a candidate, I'm voting for them, and paying them $100 to help convince other people to give their vote to them. At that point, you could basically hold the elections as fundraisers, and each person has 100 votes to spend on the candidates of their choosing. It seems a little redundant.

Climate Change and the Environment
Here, he claims that we need to move away from fossil fuels, and use government funds to 'stimulate' the economy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This doesn't address part of the problem in that the traditional energy companies receive other government subsidies. The way to solve the problem is not to add additional stimulus, but to take away subsidies from the traditional system.

Living Wage
The debate about the minimum 'living wage' is an interesting one, but it again gets into a question of entitlement of the workers. Workers are not entitled to a living wage. Also, the living wage is different in different areas of the country. A national minimum wage doesn't make sense, since the living wage in New York City will be much higher than in Podunk, Anywhere. Personally, where I am now, I can live quite comfortably on $10 an hour full time. That is significantly lower than the living wage that he proposes.

Many people advocating for the living wage also claim that it is not possible to raise a family on the current minimum wage. That sucks for the kids, but why should the bad choices of those parents be our responsibility? It is a very simple solution: don't have kids. Having kids is a choice, and it is one with many long term consequences. If you can't afford children, make the choice not to have them. If you do have them, then make the sacrifice and work your ass off to take care of them, but don't complain to the people who haven't made your choices for you.

The living wage also runs counter to personal agency. People should be allowed to set their own price for their labor, even if it is below what anyone else thinks is tolerable. The living wage infringes on the rights of both the employer and employee to set the prices of their own services.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Equal Pay for Equal Work is Incompatible with Free Market Capitalism

The buzz phrase “Equal pay for equal work” is most commonly associated with the so called ‘gender wage gap,’ that women are getting paid less for the same work. While there may be a small gap due to discrimination, it is certainly not the 77% number that is often cited by mainstream reporting. But that is not the biggest problem with the issue of the phrase “equal pay for equal work.” The real problem with this phrase is that it is in fact regressive. If we truly embrace this philosophy, then it will be essentially impossible to progress, either technologically or socially.

Economic and technological progress hinges on the exact opposite idea: do the same work for less pay. Even better, many do better work for less pay. This is the nature of economic and technological competition. Technological progress strives to lower prices, producing the same goods at a lower price point. The winners are the ones who provide what consumers think is the best product for the lowest price. Cutting the price for the same product, or a superior product requires paying less for all the accumulated labor that produced the product. This is essentially less pay for equal work.  
Perhaps this is a misunderstanding of the phrase. What if we use another conception of the phrase? Let us examine equal pay for equal output, equal pay for equal effort, and equal pay for equal time worked.
  • Equal pay for equal output: This is the most reasonable interpretation in my opinion, but even in this case ‘equal pay for equal work’ is wrong. In this interpretation, the price of products could never fall, since we can consider the product to be the output. If equal output must be paid the same rate across the market, then computers would in fact be more expensive that the first computers, since they do so much more.
  • Equal pay for equal effort: We can consider this to be in some sense to be equal sweat equity for equal pay. This is also wrong, because just because someone works really hard doesn’t mean that their effort is valuable. If we have two people who dig ditches and move the dirt to a more useful location (landscaping or something), and one of them puts the dirt in the wrong location that is just as far away, I think we can see that they have both put in equal effort. One put the dirt in the right location, while the other did not. Clearly, the one who put the dirt in the wrong location should not be paid the same amount as the one who put it in the right location. If we required equal pay for equal effort, we would be forced to pay misdirected effort the same as good effort, which is clearly wrong.
  • Equal pay for equal time: This is clearly ridiculous, as if we had to pay equally for equal time, hourly salaries would be the same for every profession ever, where clearly some are worth more than others. Someone who can build a twice as fast as someone else should clearly not be paid half as much for the same house (and faster too).

These objections might seem trivial, but they demonstrate the significant problems with the mantra ‘equal pay for equal work’ even if we can clearly define what equal work actually means.

Capitalism, by which I mean the free market, works by allowing the competition of people to accept lower pay for equal work; by giving people the freedom to provide services for cheaper than other people. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Secession and the Consent of the Governed

Discussion of secession in the United States is usually tainted by the connection with the term to the Civil War and slavery. This can be quite frustrating, as questions of secession are fundamental to the legitimacy of a government, and the topic can get derailed into talk about the evils of slavery, and how to solve them without war.

I think of the question of secession as being linked with the idea of the consent of the governed. How are they connected? The consent of the governed is the idea that a legitimate government is only legitimate if it has the consent of the people over which the it is ruling. This is fairly well accepted, and is a phrase used in both the Declaration of Independence, and a similar idea is expressed in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government." Secession is what happens when a substantial subset of people withdraw their consent to be governed by a particular government, and separate from it.

For the governed people to meaningfully give consent, it must be possible for that consent to be withdrawn. If consent cannot be withdrawn, then a government that turns tyrannical is just as legitimate and consensual as a democratically elected government. So what should happen when a group ceases to consent to the current government? Under democratic ideals, they would vote in a new set of rulers to whom they consent. Now suppose that there is a significant geographic split, and the people in one region want to be ruled one way, and people in another region want to be ruled another way? Should the minority in that case be ruled by the majority from the other region? Or can the minority region autonomously withdraw consent to be ruled by the other region?

I think that the answer is fairly straightforward in the abstract. The people in the minority of the whole country should be allowed to split off from the nation, and choose their own form of government that has the consent of the people who live there, even though that was the minority of the people in the original nation as a whole. Furthermore, the independence of the minority region should not be dependent on the opinions of the majority region. If the minority region wishes independence, then any action by the majority region to stop the secession is seeking to deny the will of the people in that region. It could be viewed as a form of Imperialism.

So what happens if we continue this process? If there is another significant minority in the original minority (now majority) of this new country? Well, I think the same logic applies, and that region should be allowed to break off from the new country to form another country which has the consent of the governed.

Another side to think about consent of the governed is this: What should happen when an individual withdraws consent to be governed by the current regime? They could certainly be the majority of the people that occupy their property (assuming a land owner), so should they be able to withdraw consent unilaterally?  If not, then how large a group do you need to revoke the consent? A city? A town? A county? A state? At what level do we draw the line?

I personally think that an individual can withdraw their consent to be governed, and they should be free to do so. The only valid retaliation would not be for the withdrawal of consent, but for aggressive action on the part of the individual. A state, company, or coalition certainly has the right to use the powers of defense delegated to them by the consenting members of that state, company, or coalition.

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Marxist concept of 'Property'

Something that I hear Communists say is that they want you abolish private property. This is found in the Communist Manifesto, and I've seen a few Facebook communists claim this. I have no particular intellectual problem with this, until I hear the secondary claim: That they don't want to take away your home or your belongings. I typically hear it as the want to abolish private property for the things that you 'don't need.' A good example would be a second home, or something like that.

The problem with this is that it is inconsistent, and neglects the reason for 'ownership' of even a small amount of property. Suppose we limit each individual to what they need, as the Communist ideal would go: "To each according to his need." What is it an individual needs? Food, water, housing. In this day and age, we consider housing to include electricity, sanitation, and temperature control (heating and A/C). Okay, so if we consider that each person will control their own food, water, housing (own it). How do we get the builder to make that second house beyond his own? He won't own it, since private property doesn't exist, and he already controls his own home.

Suppose we have a small community, with one farmer, and one builder  (and we are supposing that the single farmer can feed everyone. I'll deal with the other case in a bit). The builder builds two houses, and one goes to the farmer. Is the builder then free forever to live off of the farmer? What if the builder is no good at farming, or is incapable of it? Is the farmer then forced to work to feed the builder for the rest of the builder's life? Suppose some disaster strikes, and the farmer is injured, and can only work enough to feed himself. Does he still have to provide food for the builder?

Now, that construction was a little naive, and the builder could farm, and the farmer could build. But in that case, why is one entitled to the labor of the other? If the builder builds a second home, why is the farmer entitled to it for no labor? The builder spent his labor to build it, surely he should be compensated for his work somehow. Otherwise, it would be slavery. Similarly, if the builder can't farm, how is he entitled to the work of the farmer? They can certainly trade between the two of them, but that presupposes that there is ownership of the goods being traded. The extra house being traded for food requires that the extra house is owned, as is the food.

Let us also look at the case where the farmer cannot feed both himself and the builder with his labor. If he doesn't enlist the builder's help, one of them will starve. Is the builder the one who gets the food? Well, not if you own the labor and materials that you need. In that case, the farmer gets to keep the food, because he needs it, and only the excess is given away. This puts the builder in a predicament. Why should he build a house for a farmer who will not feed him? In reality, the builder should build his house and then take up farming, but leaving that aside, why should he build that second house for the farmer? He gets no benefit, and starves to death, at which point the farmer can take his stuff (unless the farmer died of exposure).

The problem with abolishing private property is that there is no incentive to reach beyond subsistence. There is no reason to build that second home, since you won't use it. There is no reason to farm the extra food. Any extra labor beyond subsistence has its benefits denied to the individual, and becomes a form of slavery.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Institutional vs Cultural Privilege

When getting into discussions about things like affirmative action, feminism and general identity politics, I find that the topic of privilege comes up a lot. White men are privileged, which is why they are at the top of society or in power in various positions. They have privileges to which they are blind, and to combat this, programs like affirmative action are necessary. Suppose we take this as a given, that white men are privileged over everyone else. There are, however, no laws which explicitly privilege white men over other groups (at least as far as I know). There are no legal disputes which hinge on the color of the skin as a matter of law. The privilege that white men enjoy is not an institutional privilege. It is not codified in the rules at the legal institutions, or in any major institutions generally. Instead, privilege must be social or cultural, not institutional.

First, let me be clear: whites most definitely did benefit in the past from institutional privileges, and it would be stupid to think otherwise. Slavery and Jim Crowe laws are clear examples of this. Whites were given advantages in laws and rights. Today, there are no such laws that make this distinction between whites and blacks. Whites are no longer institutionally privileged. The privileges that white men have are therefore cultural and social. Cultural and social privilege is very hard to correct, and I'm not sure that anyone really knows a good way to go about it.

Cultural privilege is something that cannot be corrected institutionally, because it will create backlash. Affirmative action tries to combat the socio-cultural privilege of being white and male with an institutional privilege and preference for other demographic groups. This, instead of making the problem better, creates additional cultural privilege for the white men. Why? Because the white men who made it managed to do it without help from the system. Everyone else? They got help. They couldn't hack it on their own merits. This new white male privilege now exists because they are viewed as having achieved, as making it through an institution that is biased against them.

You see some of this happen in the tech industry nowadays, with articles saying that white men are privileged for being taken seriously for their achievements. The problem is that the proposed solution just makes that problem worse. Creating institutional privileges for the 'underprivileged' just give the culturally privileged additional privileges.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Affirmative Action

Talking about affirmative action in this country is an easy way to have an angry debate. Just come out against it, and a whole bunch of (usually) liberals will jump down your throat and call you a racist. The problem is that the current system of affirmative action, and certainly all the simple, easy ways of doing it, are racist.

The first problem with affirmative action is that it is usually trying to fix the problem far too late. College admissions should be based entirely on merit and what the student can bring to the campus. It is certainly possible that the traditional measures of merit are fundamentally flawed, and should be reworked. This, however, is a problem with the measures of merit being inaccurate, not necessarily discriminatory. Rather than 'fix' the problem right before college, it would make a lot more sense to fix the problems with the education system before college. This way, the students who 'need' affirmative action now will be able to get in on their own merits. 

It is also certainly possible that the admissions departments are biased, but there are other ways to get around this, rather than have a selection directly based on race. One would be to have all evaluations of the candidate take place without the name or any other identity markers (gender, for example). This can't solve discrimination at interviews, but it might help isolate the type of discrimination, and show how much is due to race and gender, and how much is due to merit. 

One of the problems that those in favor of affirmative action tend to ignore is an effect later on, that changes the perceptions regarding the group benefiting from the discrimination. If people know that an institution practices affirmative action, then the people in the group receiving the benefits will be perceived by some as marginal. The phrase of 'You only got in because of ...' is something that friends of mine have heard, and part of the problem is that institutions publicize that they practice admitting traditionally lower qualified applicants based on race or gender. This sheds doubt on every member of the group that is benefiting from the affirmative action, as any of them could be below the requirements of what it would take a candidate who did not benefit from affirmative action. This hurts both those in the group who benefited from affirmative action who could have gotten in, and those who would have gotten if they were not displaced. 

When affirmative action is done wrong, it can also have an even worse problem, by perpetuating the stereotypes that the program was supposed to oppose. If no candidates from the traditionally dominant group are admitted, and the traditional measures of merit are accurate, then what will tend to happen will be that the group that benefited from affirmative action will tend to be at the bottom of the class, rather than dispersed more evenly throughout the class. This will mean that the experiences of the students will generally be that the traditionally dominant group is better at academics than the group that benefited from affirmative action, leading to a perpetuation of racist or sexist stereotypes. 

As I said before, this requires that the traditional measures of merit are accurate, and it is certainly possible that they are not. But I think it is highly unlikely that the measures of merit are completely wrong, or have no value, otherwise schools that didn't use them would be just as good as those that didn't, and I don't know of any school with an admissions policy that doesn't use at least some of the traditional measures of merit (GPA, SAT, ACT etc.). What makes more sense than adding something like race to the admissions would be to attempt to reform the traditional measures of merit so that they can more accurately measure the attributes that they intend.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Villains of Korra

I recently marathoned the last two seasons of the Legend of Korra. While I understand that it is a kids show on Nickelodeon, I still think that some of the ideas could have been explored better. There is not enough time given to develop the ideas of the villains, or examine what makes the villains wrong, either in their methods or ideology. If you want to watch the series, this contains some spoilers, so I would recommend not reading.

I personally didn't think that much of the first two seasons. The second was so disappointing that I stopped watching, until I heard that the last two seasons were much better. Well, I think one of the reasons that I found the second season so lackluster was that the villain in it had no reasonable justification, or at least as one that I picked up.

The political side of this is that in the first, third, and fourth seasons showcase different political ideals. The first season tries to explore the idea of equality. The equality movement ends up going too far, but the political questions that they raise are not really answered satisfactorily. They end up discrediting the movement by revealing that the leader of the equalists is actually a bender, and therefore a hypocrite. This is unsatisfactory for a number of reasons, the first of which, for me, is that it doesn't remove the objections that were raised by other characters.

The equalists do bring up valid points about being ruled by benders, and how benders have power over them, but they cross the line by taking away peoples bending by force. It should certainly be acceptable to resist benders who try to impose their will on non-benders. This aspect is something that I don't think is explored quite enough, since they end up spending time on rushed romance and pro-bending. One thing that was not mentioned that the benders were getting less relevant in terms of actually using bending in day to day activities. Technology was gradually replacing benders in that respect. The modern civilization also limits what benders can legally do, since it is easy for them to destroy property, which is expensive and has to be fixed.

If people are unequal because of birth, whether it is elemental bending, wealth, good genetics, or any other factors, it doesn't give other people the right to take that away, whatever that is. It is not okay for one group to impose their will through violence or threats of violence, regardless of which side of the have and have-nots they are on. If we take away the abilities that make people extraordinary, all that we are left with is a poorer world.

Skipping ahead to the third season, we have anarchists who are trying to free people from oppressive governments. I find that I can agree with them on some things, but definitely not the way that they go about it. I think that part of the problem is that when they espouse the downfall of governments, they don't make a distinction between government and law or cultural practice. This is a common mistake, but they anarchy that they propose is what is usually thought of as the Hobbesian state of nature.

The fourth season is in some sense the flip side of the anarchist argument, though it is not really portrayed that way. The villain in this season showcases what I would consider some of the dangers of Nationalism. There is some value in a united country as opposed to a fractured one, but for it not to be oppressive, it requires the consent of the governed. Unification through force is not only oppressive, but is also causes war, which is one of the worst things that people can do. Nationalists place the nation as more important than the individuals in the nation. The national interest is used as the excuse, but it is just what the leaders view as the most important.

I would have liked it more if Legend of Korra had expanded a little more on the philosophy of the villains, since for three of the seasons, the villains had philosophy that can't be dismissed out of hand, and even for a kids show, we should try to show that ideas could still be good, even if the way that the villains went about it was definitely wrong.