Battlepanda: June 2006


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Friday, June 30, 2006

New Colossus for Christ

The Memphis Flyer ran a story on public sculpture in Memphis last week, but they didn't include this new monstrosity on Winchester Road.

As drivers wait for a green light on Winchester Road, they automatically lean their heads forward to view the 72-foot sea-foam-green Statue of Liberation overlooking Hickory Hill.

The towering replica of the Statue of Liberty -- with a few Christian touches -- is being erected in front of the 12,000-member World Overcomers Outreach Ministries Church at Winchester and Kirby Parkway.

Replacing the recognizable torch, Lady Liberty holds a cross.

I wonder what it says on the base?

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
We'll invade their countries, kill their leaders,
And convert them to Christianity.

(Via Jim Maynard.)

Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Melanin advantage

"The melanine advantage" is what American journalist Nir Rosen calls his ability to pass for Iraqi (his father is Iranian) with dark humor:
Americans, led to believe that their soldiers and Marines would be welcomed as liberators by the Iraqi people, have no idea what the occupation is really like from the perspective of Iraqis who endure it. Although I am American, born and raised in New York City, I came closer to experiencing what it might feel like to be Iraqi than many of my colleagues. I often say that the secret to my success in Iraq as a journalist is my melanin advantage. I inherited my Iranian father’s Middle Eastern features, which allowed me to go unnoticed in Iraq, blend into crowds, march in demonstrations, sit in mosques, walk through Falluja’s worst neighborhoods.

My skin color and language skills allowed me to relate to the American occupier in a different way, for he looked at me as if I were just another haji, the “gook” of the war in Iraq. I first realized my advantage in April 2003, when I was sitting with a group of American soldiers and another soldier walked up and wondered what this haji (me) had done to get arrested by them. Later that summer I walked in the direction of an American tank and heard one soldier say about me, “That’s the biggest fuckin’ Iraqi (pronounced eye-raki) I ever saw.” A soldier by the gun said, “I don’t care how big he is, if he doesn’t stop movin’ I’m gonna shoot him.”

I was lucky enough to have an American passport in my pocket, which I promptly took out and waved, shouting: “Don’t shoot! I’m an American!” It was my first encounter with hostile American checkpoints but hardly my last, and I grew to fear the unpredictable American military, which could kill me for looking like an Iraqi male of fighting age. Countless Iraqis were not lucky enough to speak American English or carry a U.S. passport, and often entire families were killed in their cars when they approached American checkpoints.
There's five pages of this stuff, and the bad shit unrolls like a nightmare -- midnight raids, indiscriminate arrests, inhumane treatment of prisoners and a pervasive attitude that the Iraqis need to be terrorized into compliance, an attitude fed by fear and miscommunication.

How do I even react to this stuff anymore? I can't say that I'm shocked, because that would imply an element of surprise. I can't say that I'm saddened, because that does not encompass the swelling rage I feel that these injustices are being prepertrated in my name. I hope the right-wingers who constantly berate liberal bloggers like me for lacking in patriotism are happy, because today, they're absolutely right. It'll take a special kind of mind to read Rosen's article and react with an hearty "America, fuck yeah!"

I'm not sure any right-wingers, certainly not any raging wingnuts, read my blog regularly. But some surf through occasionally, and I'll save them the trouble of typing out (or perhaps copying and pasting) their rabid little comments -- don't you dare suggest, that because I blog about American brutality, that I am somehow disloyal or on the side of the insurgents. Let me just say this once -- it's a big deal because we're supposed to be the good guys. The Right is always excoriating liberals for "moral relativism", but it seems that moral relativism comes quite naturally to them when it comes to excusing our behavior. American soldiers behaving badly, you say? Not when you compare their behavior relative to the insurgents. Iraqis not happy with living under the thumb of the American military? Well, we saved them from having to live under the thumb of Saddam Hussein, the Most Evilest Man in the World (tm), so they should just shut the fuck up.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Occupying the moral high ground

I'm glad that at least one of my fellow liberal bloggers, PZ Myers, was able to overcome the temptation of schadenfreude at the news that Rush Limbaugh was detained at the Palm Beach airport for having a bottle of Viagra with someone else's name on it.
I think Limbaugh is a lying hypocritical scumbag, but what alarms me more here is the way airport security and customs has become an arm of fascism: a way to invade the privacy of the individual, all in the name of protecting us from the faceless evil of the other. A guy, I don't care who it is, traveling with one bottle of Viagra is not a threat, and this shouldn't have warranted even a prim finger wagging with eyebrow raised from an inspector.
Well said, PZ.

And let me add that digby's insinuation about Limbaugh's reason for travelling with Viagra is as vicious, and borderline slanderous, as right-wing rumors that Bill Clinton had Vince Foster murdered.

Come on, fellow Blue Team bloggers, we're the good guys. If we don't occupy the moral high ground, no one will.

I'm a loser

Mea culpa. I am the female version of Amanda's (key) loser ex:
Now my relationship with my ex was bound to fail for other reasons. But that aside, the Where Are My Keys? scene was a constant source of irritation for me. I know I’m not the only one; Randi Rhodes joked once about how her ex seemed to think she had a tracking device in her uterus. Everyone who lives with a Where Are My Keys? person knows that you cannot win when the keys are missing. You feel obliged to look, but if you don’t find them (and how can you know better than their owner where they’re at?) you become part of the problem. It’s actually pretty stressful over time.
Not just my keys, but also my wallet, the book I was just reading, the bill I was on my way to never ends for poor Gene. Actually, I guess through sheer repetition, he has gotten really good at deducing where a given item would be. It's actually kind of uncanny. I'd be turning the house upside down, and he'd just calmly go to where he thinks it should be and, hey pesto!

UPDATE: Post title changed for the obvious. Also, a note on Amanda's actual point -- I found the article nauseatingly cutesy, but is it actually sexist, since she acknowledged that her husband used the techniques right back at her? As for the merits of using operant conditioning to get one's significant other to do what one wants, I'd try it, except I couldn't even get operant conditioning to work on my recalcitrant schnauzer. Oi!

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Buffet Zone

The Oracle of Omaha speaketh. Stephen Dubner interpreth:
[Buffet] was explaining why he wanted to give so much money to a foundation that mainly tries to alleviate poverty. “A market system has not worked in terms of poor people,” Buffett said.

Coming from Buffett, this statement isn’t much of a shock. But it certainly is an indictment—of the free-market system that has made so many people like Buffett very, very rich (though not as rich as him), of the system that so many economists and businesspeople and politicians and journalists believe in on so many dimensions, including its ability to help poor people stop being poor. Note that Buffett didn’t say that the government hasn’t worked for poor people (although I am guessing he wouldn’t disagree with that statement either). It was the market system directly, even with Adam Smith’s wonderful invisible hand, which is meant to correct, to police, occasionally to lift someone up.

I am wondering how conservative politicians and economists and journalists in particular will repond, if at all, to Buffett’s comment.

Meanwhile, Daniel Gross explains how the ever canny Buffet is getting the most value for his money even as he is giving it away.

Chop chop, hurry up!

I see. The only way to save our Freedom is to destroy our freedoms one by one, starting with the freedom of the press. Last night on Hardball:
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. George Bush and Dick Cheney today slammed the media for reporting the administration‘s secret program to track bank records around the world. In defending their decision to run the story, the editor of “The New York Times” cited the Bay of Pigs back in 1961 and the Iraq war itself as two examples where the press in retrospect failed to dig deep enough.

Here to pick apart the politics of this story is former presidential candidate Al Sharpton and radio talk show host, Melanie Morgan. Melanie, what‘s the issue here as you see it?

MELANIE MORGAN, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I see it as treason, plain and simple, and my advice to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales at this point in time is chop chop, hurry up, let‘s get these prosecutors fired up and get the subpoenas served, get the indictments going and get the guy behind jail.

MATTHEWS: What would be the crime, what‘s the crime?

MORGAN: Treason. You do not reveal secrets in a time of war. And for what purpose? Bill Keller made some sort of incomprehensible defense on his Web site of “The New York Times” decision to unveil secrets, statewide secrets with this financial data plan.

I do not understand what he‘s talking about. It‘s something about oh, well, the public has a right to know if there‘s a change of policy. What in the world does that mean? What I do know is that you cannot risk American lives who are fighting overseas at war in order to, what, get a Pulitzer Prize?
Chop chop, hurry up. Let's get over that freedom of the press thing already. It gets better.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, Melanie, we just had on Ron Suskind, whose book is called “The One Percent Doctrine.” I was reading it over the weekend. And he reports in his book, and whatever—I don‘t know what his politics are, but he‘s a damn good reporter, he‘s a “Wall Street Journal” guy. He said that the enemy out there was aware that we were surveilling them in terms of their financial transfers a long time ago because they noticed how we were picking up people. We were getting them on the base of their financial transfers. In other words, he said the story is already out, the “Times” reported something we didn‘t know but the enemy did.

MORGAN: Well that doesn‘t matter to me. And I am aware of the fact...
Wow. The audacity. Did this woman really just admit that whether or not the revealations actually helped Al Qaeda is completely irrelevent? I guess in her eyes, publishing information that could undermind the government in any way qualifies as treason. I hope she remembers that respectful attitude when a Democrat comes to power.
MATTHEWS: We now know on the record, that Karl Rove and Scooter Libby both talked to two reporters and gave away the identity, the undercover identity of a CIA undercover agent. Should they face any criminal time for that?

MORGAN: Chris, I know that you have been fixated on Karl Rove.

MATTHEWS: We‘re talking about 20 year sentences. I‘m just asking should they suffer any penalty their behavior?

MORGAN: I am trying to tell you that they broke no laws when there was absolutely no evidence whatsoever by saying that name out loud, that she was even covert.

SHARPTON: They talked to two reporters. That‘s not treason?

MORGAN: That‘s their job.

SHARPTON: Oh, so they can talk to reporters and confirm or give or in

some way discuss names -

MORGAN: You know ...

SHARPTON: I didn‘t interrupt you. They can discuss with the press what they want that is classified but it‘s treason if Bill Keller or somebody does? This is obviously a different standard.

MORGAN: No it is not. There is a 1917 law that is on the books that deals with media responsibility, in terms of leaking classified secrets.

SHARPTON: What about government responsibility? What about a president in the White House leaking or confirming the name of a CIA operative? There‘s no laws on the books to protect that?

MORGAN: It was a covert CIA operative and there was no evidence that Valerie Plame was ever a covert operative.
Valerie who? Look! A 1917 law!

I would really like to think that this Morgan woman is some grotesque outlier Matthews found by turning over big mossy rocks. But the more I read, the more I realize that she represents the median opinion on the right, at least when it comes to bloggers and pundits. Do they really believe this tripe? Or is it a just a spectacular exercise in working the refs?

I usually think of Sharpton (who was on the program with her) as being a fairly pugilistic debator. But compared to Ms. Morgan, he was restraint himself. She cut him off repeatedly in the middle of sentences, which he didn't reply in kind. And when he refused to yield to her interruptions, the result was a grating crosstalk that made me want to turn the TV off and pop a few aspirins. What she lacked in cogency and valid points, she made up for in rage and spittle. And they call us the angry left?

By the way, as Glenn Greenwald pointed out, Bush himself effectively announced to the world that we are tracking banking records in the 2004 speech. I guess Morgan would have him sent down the river for 20 years too?
Before September the 11th, law enforcement could more easily obtain business and financial records of white-collar criminals than of suspected terrorists. See, part of the way to make sure that we catch terrorists is we chase money trails And yet it was easier to chase a money trail with a white-collar criminal than it was a terrorist. The Patriot Act ended this double standard and it made it easier for investigators to catch suspected terrorists by following paper trails here in America.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Utilitarianism and Rights

Richard of Philosophy Etc. comes up with a thought experiment to demonstrate, as he elegantly puts it "rights cannot be morally fundamental because it's a contingent matter what rights will promote human welfare".

The thought experiment, briefly restated, goes like this: Imagine you live in a village ruled by a god that demands one random person of his choosing to be sacrificed every month. If that particular person isn't killed in a day, the god will instead kill 30 random people in the village. Assuming that the god is omnipotent and truthful, the choice is between violating the right to life of one person and the certain death of thirty. Would you like to live Village A, where an unlucky schmuck is monthly done away by their fellow villagers, or would you like to live in Village B, where your right to life is absolutely respected, and god spontaneously combusts 30 people monthly? I would choose Village A. Big surprise. I'm a utilitarian. But let's be honest here: who's going to choose Village B? Is moral clarity really worth 29 lives a month?

Something about the scenario struck me as familiar -- villagers forced to offer up sacrifices to a malevolent force... Isn't it like The Seven Samourai and just about every other Western ever made as well as many sci-fi plots? In fact, I believe that it is the beginning of one of those stock storylines that comes up over and over again because, for some reason, it strikes a deep and resonant chord within the human psyche. Always, a stranger arrives or is sought. There is a struggle between the forces in the village that want to stay with the old system and those who want to stand up and fight. There is often a pivotal scene in which the stranger delivers a "wake up call" -- convincing the villagers that sacrificing individuals among them for the greater common good is still immoral, and shaming them into action. In the end, the entire community pins its hopes on the stranger and decide to take a fantastic risk rather than continue to placate the malevolent force.

Given the choice between Village A and Village B, we chose instead the hidden option C -- deciding that the god is not so omnipotent after all and rebelling against it. While it is the most dramatically satisfying option, it tells us frustratingly little about utilitarianism versus natural-rights based philosophy despite the tantalizing tension in which those ideas are often held at some point during the story. The outcome of the narrative arc is inevitably one where the villagers are better off both from a utilitarian and rights-based philosophy point of view by the end of the movie. The hidden message seems to be "do the right thing by the standards of absolute morality and somehow the utility will maximize itself."

Some thoughts:

1) In the long run, rights-based morality and utilitarianism often converge
Sure, "do the right thing and you'll end up OK in the end" seems like wishful thinking at first glance, but it is also true on many levels. It's hard to gauge on an event-by-event level whether telling the truth will maximize utility, but if one believed that telling the truth is the right thing to do and therefore does it regardless of immediate reprecussions, one is likely to maximize utility over the long run. In short, even though I am a utilitarian, I am not against using the language of rights to guide behavior. Not only are societies with respect for rights more pleasant places to live in, I personally have deep emotional investment in many rights. However...

2) When you've got two rights, who's wrong?
At the crassest level, what happens when the "woman's right to choose" conflicts with the "right to life"? Soon you'll have a angel-on-head-of-a-pin argument with both side screaming that their right is more fundamental. At that point in the argument, the only productive thing to do is to pull back a little and try and remember what those rights stand for; what they do for us in terms of promoting human welfare.

3) Is the illusion of absolutism all bad?
People seem to have a need to believe in rights as an absolute rather than a helpful construct. I wonder if this is a tendency that can be overcome with rationality, or whether the need for absolutism is absolute, as it were. Going back to the example of the village. Sure, I believe most people would choose the Utilitarian Village because the risk of death is lower, but I wonder whether people would lead slightly happier lives in the Rights-philosophy village. Their risk of dying is 30 times higher, but they don't have to face this sense of the collapse of their moral system and the constant knowledge that their neighbor could be their executioner and vice versa.

Heil Furry!

Cats that look like Hitler.

That is all.

Jonesing for knowledge

Via Lis Riba, we see that those clever, clever scientists found that the brain releases a chemical reward whenever one figures something out:
Neuroscientists have proposed a simple explanation for the pleasure of grasping a new concept: The brain is getting its fix. The "click" of comprehension triggers a biochemical cascade that rewards the brain with a shot of natural opium-like substances, said Irving Biederman of the University of Southern California. He presents his theory in an invited article in the latest issue of American Scientist.

"While you're trying to understand a difficult theorem, it's not fun," said Biederman, professor of neuroscience in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

"But once you get it, you just feel fabulous."

The brain's craving for a fix motivates humans to maximize the rate at which they absorb knowledge, he said.

"I think we're exquisitely tuned to this as if we're junkies, second by second."

So this is why I click from blog to blog at three in the morning instead of going to bed...

More musings from Daytime TV

Wired articles tend to be hyperbolic and somewhat lacking in substance. But this one on the increased restriction of chemicals and equipment for scientific purposes is depressing if it turns out to be solid.
[M]ore than 30 states have passed laws to restrict sales of chemicals and lab equipment associated with meth production, which has resulted in a decline in domestic meth labs, but makes things daunting for an amateur chemist shopping for supplies. It is illegal in Texas, for example, to buy such basic labware as Erlenmeyer flasks or three-necked beakers without first registering with the state’s Department of Public Safety to declare that they will not be used to make drugs.[snip]

“To criminalize the necessary materials of discovery is one of the worst things you can do in a free society,” says Shawn Carlson, a 1999 MacArthur fellow and founder of the Society for Amateur Scientists. “The Mr. Coffee machine that every Texas legislator has near his desk has three violations of the law built into it: a filter funnel, a Pyrex beaker, and a heating element. The laws against meth should be the deterrent to making it – not criminalizing activities that train young people to appreciate science.”

The increasingly strict regulatory climate has driven a wedge of paranoia between young chemists and their potential mentors. “I don’t tell anyone about what I do at home,” writes one anonymous high schooler on, an online forum for amateur scientists. “A lot of ignorant people at my school will just spread rumors about me … The teacher will hear about them and I will get into legal trouble … I have so much glassware at my house, any excuse will not cut it. So I keep my mouth shut.”
Well, right after I tuned out of Martha's daytime show in disgust, I happened upon a "World's stupidest criminals" type program. There was a guy who filmed himself making meth so that he can send it to his buddy and show off his meth-making skills. Well, turns out his buddy wasn't such a buddy after all. The tape got turned in to the police, and the stupid criminal got 35 years. Two points that are interesting about this: first, being a moron is obviously no barrier to making meth. Secondly, he was making meth in a couple of mason jars and a length of rubber tubing! He didn't need no Erlenmeyer flask! They're hasseling amateur chemists in Texas for nothing!

The Horrors of Daytime TV

As I'm visiting Mount Airy and housebound, I flicked on the TV over breakfast and started channel surfing. I saw Martha Stewart and kept her on. Who else is going to teach you how to make heart-shaped potholders and how to stuff a proper cannoli? But as I found out, her daytime chat show is very different from her old show. She had the skateboarding bulldog on, and cooked chili dogs with two twin brothers who play professional football.

Martha, no! Where is your dignity? You kept that even as you got sent down the river. Now you have given it up to try and become the queen of Daytime TV. Don't try to make people like you. Most people will never like you no matter how you strain to be warm and cuddly because you are an ambitious, accomplished woman. Even feminists who think that it's OK to be an ambitious and accomplished woman won't like you because you make your living hawking the trappings of traditional femininity like home dec and cooking. In fact, you take those trappings and take them to a whole new level of unattainable perfection. I guess I like you, but the feminist-craft-maniac population segment is small, and you probably just pissed off most of us when you insisted that french bulldog you got on your show actually said "I love you" when it gave this long, whistling welp. Because most of us are not stupid.

The way to success, is not to pander but to rule with an iron fist over the lifestyle sector like you used to. Before your legal troubles, which scored some sympathy points, how well do you think you would have polled with the American public, Martha? Better than Cheney, perhaps, but probably not by much. No, they do not love you. But they'll come to you when they need a window treatment, because they know you're the best, baby.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Humans suck

Amanda had this insightful nugget in response to my post on global-warming denialists that really puts the finger on the conspiracy theory phenomenon:
In my opinion, conspiracy theories proliferate because of the tendency of humans to anthropomorphize pretty much everything, including systems. In fact, it rapidly becomes difficult to describe a system without invoking human-like intentionality as a shorthand for process of a system—the most immediate example is how evolutionary processes are described as “selection”. Feminists invoke the same kind of anthropormophizing metaphor when describing the patriarchy.
Interesting point. Good examples. Conspiracy theories also draw people in because they contain all the answers. Humans are built to seek patterns and derive explanations from raw facts. This makes theories that claim to put all the puzzle pieces together very attractive.

Talking about humans and our cognitive flaws, I cannot recommend this audio presentation by Daniel Gilbert on how people (mis)estimate probabilities highly enough. One of my favorite hobbyhorse of all time is that people would make better decisions in general and as voters in particular if they learn something about statistics in the context of decision-making and are confronted with their cognitive biases. This presentation does about as good a job of conveying that in the space of an hour and has an irresistable title to boot: "How to Do Precisely the Right Thing at All Possible Times." I think that Knzn might be especially interested in the audio -- there is a rich nexus between statistics, psychology and economics that is inadequately explored.

YouTube Finds

First, I give you, in Ezra's words, "Greatest. Economics. Song. Ever."

And, via clicked, a student piece of animation from John Lasseter. I guess the obsession with anthromorphized objects started early.

I have seen them with mine own eyes...

I used to think that global warming denialism is a form of mental illness only endemic to in staunchly conservative circles (and those on the payrolls of businesses that emit carbon, of course). But this is unfortunately not so. I know of at least a couple of fairly left-leaning fellow teachers who have read State of Fear and firmly believes that Global Warming is a Myth. One even made an analogy between cracking down on carbon emission and invading Iraq for the non-existent WMDs. I wonder if the recently released report by the NAS that the earth is probably the hottest it has been for 2000 years or the recent finding that the Greenland Ice Sheet is melting far faster than the computer model anticipated will change their minds. I have a feeling the answer is going to be "No."

Talking to the global warming denialists is a frustrating, yet oddly illuminating experience. It demonstrates that if you can constuct a compelling narrative, people will find a way to believe what you're saying no matter how absurd your theories are in the face of the facts. I guess you can call it the Da Vinci Code effect. I haven't read State of Fear, but I gather that it pits a small group of fearless truthtellers fighting to overcome the ossified estabilishment who are out to get them at every turn. This narrative is quite insidious because it takes what looks like scientific near-consensus to most of us and give it a David vs. Goliath spin. I have a feeling that the more you try to snap a GWD (global warming denialist) out of it with facts, reasoning or derision, the more he or she will be convinced that you're part of the matrix or something. The old GWDs thought that people who believed in global warming are just a bunch of damned hippies. I think we've gotten through to most of those folks. Mainstream magazines like Time, The Economist and even the U.S. freaking News have published articles that take global warming seriously. But this means nothing to the new GWD -- they know that they must go against the herd.

It seems to me that we need a way of getting through to those people that involves breaking this compelling narrative as opposed to just more studies, more scientific consensus, more deadly hurricanes. Maybe it will help to point out that the skeptical scientists they admire for bucking conventional thinking are really just industry shrills. Or maybe it is more useful to go back to square one and ask them whether they have any argument with the mechanism involved in global warming, i.e. that the atmosphere traps heat, and that greenhouse gasses trap more heat than other gasses. If they don't have trouble grasping that (and heaven help us if they do), then perhaps they will move onto the next step of considering whether putting billions of metric tonnes of this stuff into the atmosphere might have some effect on the temperature of the earth.

The Thoughtful Barncat

I'm visiting in North Carolina right now. Today I went to Horne Creek historical farm, where I took this snap of one of the barncats. Hopefully this will placate Brock, whose been agitating for more Schnauzer blogging, for a while.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Pandasex graffiti

Via Lindsay Beyerstein, a Flickr photoset of "Pandasex" graffiti in San Francisco. This is the most remarkable piece in the set:

Going meta on liberalism vs. libertarianism

Bryan Caplan, World's Smuggest Economist™, comes up with a meta-level argument against the dominant liberal political ideology of the academy.

I'm no sports fan, but it's pretty clear that countries with more people win more Olympic medals. The obvious explanation is that people typically play for the country they were born into, and the ten best basketball players in China are likely to be far better than the ten best basketball players in Luxembourg.

Now suppose we take a cynical view of intellectual debate, and posit that it's basically like athletics. People typically argue for the view they were born into. Almost all Christian writers were raised Christian, and almost all Muslim writers were raised Muslim. So what happens if you have a big debate, where each viewpoint sends forth its ten smartest and most articulate thinkers to be its Intellectual Gladiators?

The expectation is that the advocates of the most popular viewpoints will prevail. The smartest ten Christians are going to be way smarter and way slicker than the ten smartest Zoroastrians, and will run circles around them in a debate.

Now here's the interesting thing. If virtually everyone just argues for whatever position he was born into, a truth-seeker should hold the gladiators for popular views to higher standards. If the smartest Zoroastrian holds his own against the smartest Christian, the rational inference to make is: "The Zoroastrian position is more likely to be true, because it tied despite the fact that it probably had a weaker defender."

Then comes the part where Caplan strains a muscle patting himself on the back:

This assumes, of course, that people always defend the views they were born into. If smart people are unusually likely to convert to the true position, then all else equal, smarter adherents should inspire confidence, rather than mistrust. (Libertarians and atheists, feel free to pat yourselves on the back.)

Who cares? Well, as an academic, it's hard not to notice that liberals dominate at the university. And the simple truth is that people at top schools are smarter than people at lower-ranked schools. The result is that in any intellectual debate, the best liberals are usually smarter than the best non-liberals.

If my analysis is right, however, this actually counts against the liberal view. Weren't most professors liberals long before they had any arguments for their position? And wouldn't it take overwhelming intellectual firepower to drive them to apostacy? Then it's no wonder that the smartest liberal academics are smarter than the smartest non-liberal adademics. They have the same kind of inherent competitive advantage that China has over Luxembourg.

The upshot is that if an academic debate seems tied, the non-liberal view is more likely to be right. And if the liberal view actually seem to be losing, it's a safe bet that it's wrong.

The crucial assumption here is that the political views of liberal academics are the ones they were "born into," so to speak. But unlike those libertarians who absorbed their libertarian worldview by reading Ayn Rand as teenagers, I'm guessing that most people, liberal academics included, don't form any coherent political worldview until well into their college years, or even later. And although academics are somewhat more likely than J. Random American to come from an academic (hence liberal) family, their backgrounds are, in my experience, rather diverse - from middle class, working class, or foreign backgrounds - and no more likely to raised as liberals than anyone else.

Unless Caplan has evidence that the broad political worldviews of academics are formed prior to reflecting on those views, this is worthless for evaluating liberalism vs. libertarianism.

(Via Marginal Revolution, which usually manages to keep the smugness to a minimum.)

And my Gen-X tribe is...

Security Seeking Ascetics

(Via Kevin Drum.)

The closer you get, the worse it smells

One of the shocking stories exposed by Ron Suskind's new book is the capture and torture of Abu Zubaydah, hyped as a lynchpin of Al Qaeda but in reality a low-level operative with mental problems. Here's a quote from a review of Suskind's book in the WaPo:
"I said he was important," Bush reportedly told Tenet at one of their daily meetings. "You're not going to let me lose face on this, are you?" "No sir, Mr. President," Tenet replied. Bush "was fixated on how to get Zubaydah to tell us the truth," Suskind writes, and he asked one briefer, "Do some of these harsh methods really work?" Interrogators did their best to find out, Suskind reports. They strapped Abu Zubaydah to a water-board, which reproduces the agony of drowning. They threatened him with certain death. They withheld medication. They bombarded him with deafening noise and harsh lights, depriving him of sleep. Under that duress, he began to speak of plots of every variety - against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, "thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each . . . target." And so, Suskind writes, "the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered."
Andrew Sullivan is justifiably horrified:
And so the president lied to the people of this country, and then tortured a mentally ill man for information he didn't have; and covered his tracks. [snip]This shallow, monstrous, weak, and petty man is still the president. God help us.
Sullivan, I think, feels personally betrayed by the depth this administration have sank to from 9/11 til now. "I trusted this president after 9/11" was how he began this post. Funny how the tagline to his blog is a quote from George Orwell -- "To see what is in front of one's nose is a constant struggle." I guess it certainly took Sully a while to see what was in front of his nose all along.

Low-tech beats Gore-tex?

A replica of the gear worn by doomed mountaineer George Mallory fared surprisingly well when it was road-tested in Mount Everest:
"I immediately found the underclothes warm to put on, whereas the modern polypropylene underwear feels cold and clammy," said Hoyland.

"When exposed to a cutting wind blowing off the main Rongbuk glacier, I found the true value of the Gabardine outer layers. These resisted the wind and allowed the eight layers beneath to trap warmed air between them and my skin.
It must be said that Hoyland is not quite the neutral observer since his pet theory is that Mallory actually reached the summit of Everest decades before Hillary before succumbing on the way down. Proving that Mallory's old-fashioned equipments are equal to the task of climbing Everest will obviously strengthen his contention.

Whether or not gaberdine works as well as goretex, you have to admit Hoyland looks quite stylin'.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Are Pandas Necessary?

Mark Thoma sends me this rabid anti-panda tract:
Do not panda to misty-eyed sentiment, by Alan Beattie, Commentary, Financial Times: ...Every week, the worldwide panda industry strikes another blow for soft-headed sentiment over rational cost-benefit analysis. This week’s feel good tale was new research suggesting there were 3,000 giant pandas left in the wild, twice earlier estimates. So what? If pandas can stand on their own four feet, good. If they cannot, tough. We should stop subsidising them. Pandas are endangered because they are hopelessly incompetent.

Take their diet. As we all know ..., pandas eat almost exclusively bamboo shoots. What panda apologists ignore is that ... bamboo has so few nutrients that the piebald buffoons have to spend 16 hours a day stuffing themselves with it. It is like trying to subsist on sugar-coated cardboard.

To shovel twigs into their mouths they use what Big Panda tries to pass off as an opposable thumb but is basically a deformed bone. And ridiculously, given their diet, giant pandas have a short digestive tract suitable for carnivores, not vegetarians, so most of the bamboo they eat goes through undigested.

They are also famously bad at sex. Even in the wild pandas do not mate much... Little wonder no respectable family of animals wants them. ... Yet thanks to soft-headed anthropomorphism – their big eyes and round faces remind us of babies, apparently – they are fêted everywhere, notably as the logo of the charity WWF. ...

Pandas are badly designed, undersexed, overpaid and overprotected. They went up an evolutionary cul-de-sac and it is too late to reverse. By cosseting them we are simply rewarding failure. Pandas are doomed. Let them go.
Lets ignore for now the shockingly unprofessional ad hominem attacks ("piebald buffoons" indeed). I don't contest that pandas are high-maintainence, but apply a little Beckerian analysis, then you would see that they are worth every million. (And we do pay one million per year per panda to the Chinese government for the privilege of their company.) You see, pandas and babies not only resemble each other in appearance, as Beattie pointed out, they are also similar in that we devote disproportionate amounts of resources towards their upkeep without getting much of an return on our investments in monetary terms. Irrational? Perhaps, to a souless panda-hater like Beattie. But if you make like Professor Becker you'd realize that just as families are little factories where commodities like "children, prestige and esteem, health, altruism, envy, and pleasures of the senses" are produced, so zoos are slightly bigger factories where animals like pandas, and ergo cuteness, are produced. Nothing more rational than childrearing or pandakeeping, as long as you keep the "psychic income" in mind.

The real reason the Chinese are going to conquer the world.

Harriet the Tortoise, 1830-2006

Harriet the Tortoise, hatched on the Galapagos Islands in 1830, died in a Australian zoo at the age of 176.

The turtle lives 'twixt plated decks
Which practically conceal its sex.
I think it clever of the turtle
In such a fix to be so fertile.

-- Ogden Nash

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Not-so-beautiful Hivemind

I am caught between shock and the irresistable desire to laugh my head off. Is the level of awareness about mathematics so low in this country that even the geeky among us (I'm talking about the readers of Digg) cannot wrap their head around the high-school maths concept that 0.999...(repeating) is equal to 1?!

I don't understand. People have no problem with the fact that 0.333...(repeating) is another way of writing 1/3. They also have no problem with the fact that three times 1/3 equals 1. And presumably they can handle the fact that 0.333...(repeating) times three is 0.999...(repeating). Yet if you put it all together and get 0.999...(repeating)=1, all of a sudden, their minds are blown. They feel the urge to write stupid-ass shit such as the following:
joeshlub by joeshlub 1 hour ago
.99999… Isn’t a number. Thats like saying infinity isn’t a number. Its an innacurate representation. .99999…. is a decimal approximation. Case closed. .99999 doesn’t equal one because .99999 is an approximation. So all of this stuff with using fractions doesn’t apply, because 8/9 DOES NOT ACTUALLY EQUAL .8888….. because it is an approximation.

So simply put, infinity isn’t an actual number, its a concept. .9 repeating isn’t a number either, its just a concept, specifically an APPROXIMATION. if it could really exist, it perhaps would be equal to one. But try writing it. just like infinity, its impossible. Concepts don’t equal numbers. Case Closed. Try refuting that. Seriously, don’t dig me down unless you can refute it. And if you can, At least reply, I’ll be happy to hear about it.

I don't mean to pick on this joeshlub guy, because this Digg thread has 780 comments in it, and many if not most of those comments display a similarly breathtaking mixture of arrogance and ignorance.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

I welcome our new Zogg overlords

My Little Golden Book About Zogg

(Via Bitch Ph.D.)

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Engrish Lit

Via a comments thread at Unfogged, here's a gem of a self-help book by Hiroyuki Nishigaki.

How to Good-Bye Depression: If You Constrict Anus 100 Times Everyday. Malarkey? or Effective Way?

The description:
I think constricting anus 100 times and denting navel 100 times in succession everyday is effective to good-bye depression and take back youth. You can do so at a boring meeting or in a subway. I have known 70-year-old man who has practiced it for 20 years. As a result, he has good complexion and has grown 20 years younger. His eyes sparkle. He is full of vigor, happiness and joy. He has neither complained nor born a grudge under any circumstance. Furthermore, he can make love three times in succession without drawing out.

In addition, he also can have burned a strong beautiful fire within his abdomen. It can burn out the dirty stickiness of his body, release his immaterial fiber or third attention which has been confined to his stickiness. Then, he can shoot out his immaterial fiber or third attention to an object, concentrate on it and attain happy lucky feeling through the success of concentration.

If you don't know concentration which gives you peculiar pleasure, your life looks like a hell.
I'm putting my money on "malarkey," but if any Battlepanda readers have personal testimony supporting "effective way," please let me know.

Zing/Counter Zing

(Via Ezra)

Daniel Gross gets a good dig in at Mankiw's expense:
There he goes again. Gregory Mankiw earlier this week chastised a few House Republicans for voting for an increase in the minimum wage.
Some Republicans in Congress are apparently worried about the midterm elections. They are so worried, they are starting to vote like Democrats.

And in Mankiw's view, voting like a Democrat on fiscal and entitlement issues is very, very bad--unwise economically and unwise politically. (I guess he slept through the 1993 budget debate.) Now, lets say Congress approved a new open-ended and very expensive entitlement program with no concurrent budget cuts to offset the higher spending. And lets say the President enthusiastically signed it. I think it's a safe assumption that Mankiw would characterize that as "voting like Democrats," and hence economically unwise.

Hmm. I seem to remember an episode a few years ago when a whole lot of Republicans--and not many Democrats--voted to create an open-ended entitlement program without enacting concurrent cost savings, and when a Republican president enthusiastically signed it. It's called the Medicare prescription drug benefit.

At the time, did Mankiw publicly accuse Republicans of voting like Democrats? Of course not. He was working at the White House.

In other minimum-wage debate news, Ezra Klein roots over a list of minimum-wage vs. unemployment rates for different states and opines that some of the states with the lowest rates of unemployment actually have state minimum wages well-above the federal. But a-ho! Jane Galt slices and dices those same figures differently to declare that of all the states with higher-than-federal minimum wages, more than half have unemployment rates that are higher than the national average. Frankly, this is a good demonstration of how numbers can be bent to the ideology of their interpreters. For my money, I suspect that labor market conditions are so dissimilar across states that comparisons between them are so riddled with noise as to be meaningless. Hawaii has the lowest unemployment level and Alabama the highest? You don't say.

Ultimately, it is more meaningful to ditch the comparison between states and look at what happens to a state's economy when the minimum wage is raised. Everytime this happens, we are told that the sky is (probably) going to fall. Well it didn't in Florida. And it didn't in New Jersey. And as political pressure inevitably mandates the racheting up of more minimum-wage rates across the country, we're going to get more opportunities to observe whether or not raising the minimum wage really has the disasterous effects as predicted by neoliberal economics.

Monday Book Blogging: Ombria in Shadow

Ombria's Shadow by Patricia McKillip

I have a friend who is a big fan of McKillip. But the reason I picked up this book was because it was lying around the hostel I was staying at and I'm always on the lookout for non-exorbitantly priced English language books in Taipei. Also, I've been going on something of a Sci-fi kick, so I thought, "why not add some fantasy to the party?"

You gotta say this for McKillip -- her writing is extremely poetic and evocative, though perhaps a bit too literary for me. The woman never uses a simile when she can use a metaphor. Sure, the plot is a little bit strained, but hey, I was digging the Finely Drawn Characters and the Intricate Use of Language. I could have dealt with the odd convenient coincidence or implausable turn of events, until...

(Here be spoilers...)
Until the last chapter, which was just an unforgivable undoing of all her hard work in establishing the reality of the rest of the book. Yep. It was one of those "it was all a dream" endings. Given that we are left hanging on several crucial plot threads, I really felt like this was a cop-out. I'm not saying that I'm never going to read another book by this author again, but next time I would be more careful in asking for a specific recommendation.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

When democracy is theocracy

I think Andrew Stuttaford has confused "democracy" with "just like U.S.":
Without at this point wishing to return to yesterday's liberalism and/or democracy discussion, or for that matter, to examine for now the darker corners of Ataturk’s record, there’s no doubt that the father of modern Turkey understood the importance of secularism in assisting Turkey’s recovery from Ottoman torpor and decay, and there’s not much more doubt that he would have been horrified by this report from the Washington Post:

"ANKARA (Reuters) - A majority of Turks say a ban on women wearing the Muslim headscarf in public offices and universities should be lifted and just two fifths favor a military government, according to a poll published on Wednesday. The survey, conducted by scholars from two Istanbul universities and published in the liberal Radikal daily, shows Turkey, a Muslim but secular country that hopes to join the European Union, to be conservative on social and moral issues. Three fifths of those canvassed attributed failure in life to a lack of religious faith and said they would oppose their daughter marrying a non-Muslim. Nearly a third said boys and girls should be taught in separate classes at school. The results of the poll make fairly pleasant reading for Turkey's ruling AK Party, which has Islamist roots, showing two thirds back its efforts — so far unsuccessful — to relax a ban on women students and civil servants wearing the headscarf. “

There are those that view the AK as an Islamic equivalent of Italy’s postwar Christian Democrats, legitimate advocates for social and religious conservatism and perfectly compatible with a modern liberal democracy.

I’ve yet to be convinced…
You can argue, perhaps with good reason, that the return of the headscarve to classrooms and government offices is a bad thing even on a voluntary basis. I would be cautiously sympathetic to that argument. What you cannot argue is that it is an anti-democratic move. Not if you have just cited a paragraph that demonstrates the popular support for the option to wear headscarves in public offices and universities.

As a fan of democracy and a feminist, this is a difficult issue for me. What is worse? A secular autocracy under a thug like Ataturk? Or a theocratic Democracy in which the people rule -- to turn back the clock on women's rights?

I don't know what the answer is, but I do find it amusing that Andrew Stuttaford, who as a writer for the Corner must have impeccable conservative credentials, seems to be using arguments that would surely be lambasted as lacking in moral clarity if it had come from the left. Sure, he seems to be saying, Ataturk was a murdering, ethnic-cleansing dictator, but he was secular so he can't be all bad.

Saturday, June 17, 2006


Dick Cheney believes that the War in Iraq is partially responsible for the fact that we haven't been hit in five years by Al Qaida. Based on what? The fact that the Al Qaida in Iraq organization has grown from a non-entity to a menace responsible, directly or indirectly, for 90% of the suicide attacks in Iraq?
"Iraq was a safe haven for terrorists, it had a guy running it who had started
two wars, who had produced and used weapons of mass destruction. Taking down
Saddam Hussein was exactly the right thing to do," he said.
"It's also, I
think, in part responsible for the fact that we haven't been hit again in nearly
five years. That's no accident," Cheney said.
"The fact is, we've taken the
battle to the enemy. That's been the key to the safety and security of the
American people these last few years, and we need to continue to do it," he
"There have been attacks all over the world, in London and Madrid and
Bali and Istanbul, as well as New York and Washington; that the key to our
success to date has been to actively and aggressively go on offense," he said.

What train of though is he trying to follow here? There's so many non-sequitors I feel like I'm getting whiplash just by reading it. Cheney establish that Saddam Hussein is A Bad Guy. Then jumped to 9/11 and how we have not gotten hit in 5 years without bothering to acknowledge that the enemy we took the battle to wasn't the enemy that hit us on 9/11. Furthermore, there's some consensus that the London and Madrid attacks were in part precipitated by England and Spain's involvement in the Iraq War. In fact, there was much nasty "surrender-monkey" talk over the fact that Spain elected an anti-war candidate (who probably would have won anyway) in the wake of the attack. Now somehow that attack is being used as evidence of the success of our "active and aggressive" policy? Was there anything the real world could have thrown at Cheney that would have caused him to reconsider his reasoning? I'm sure if there had been no terrorist attacks after 9/11, he would have crowed that the invasion was a smashing success. But then again, if there had been many attacks, he would have similarly considered himself vindicated for correctly assessing the threat. It is often said that the definition of insanity is to repeat the same course of action over and over and expecting a different outcome. Perhaps there should be a corollary that it is equally insane to attempt to explain away any number of outcomes with the same reasoning.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Mark Kleiman on Haditha

Hate to be a Dittohead, but yeah. What Kleiman said:
The two key-phrases in the warbloggers' campaign to shoot the bearers of
bad tidings are "rush to judgment" and "presumption of innocence." This confuses
principles of legal procedure with principles of factual interpretation. As far
as their trial by court-martial is concerned, of course the accused Marines are
entitled to the presumption of innocence, and it would be wrong for the judges
in those cases to prejudge the evidence. But here in the real world, we make
judgments every day on evidence that hasn't been presented to a court.

Who killed Nicole Simpson? A jury acquitted her husband. That means he
can't be criminally punished. But it doesn't make him innocent in fact.

At the only trial Bill Clinton ever faced — his impeachment trial before
the Senate — he was acquitted. That doesn't make the blue dress disappear.

Monday, June 12, 2006

One way to get rid of your gas-guzzler

When two goods are complementary (e.g. gasoline and SUVs), and the price of one (gasoline) rises, economics tells us that the value of the other (the SUV) will fall. And when the value of a good falls below the insured value of the good, this creates what economists call "moral hazard":
SUV owners who are faced with rising gas prices have found a new way to get out from under their high car payments — arson.

This trend was spotted by a Southern California arson task force in the summer of 2005 when gas prices spiked. At one point, firefighters responding to a report of a vehicle fire arrived at the Los Angeles River Bed to find two SUVs burning at the same time.

Investigators found the arson-for-hire ring involved a new-car dealership in Cerritos, California. Debt-weary SUV owners contacted the finance manager, hoping to trade in their gas-guzzler for something cheaper. They were then put in touch with an arsonist who told them to leave the keys in the ignition and $300 cash in the glovebox. An arsonist would then take the car to a remote location and set it afire. After the car was torched, the owners would then contact their insurance company and report their vehicle stolen, expecting their debt to be cancelled. Instead, they were investigated for insurance fraud.
Via MetaFilter.

Sunday, June 11, 2006


That's gotta hurt. Not only is his approval rating at 28% and massive rallies being held on Ketagalan avenue calling for his resignation, John of Dymaxion World just called Presiden Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan the "Dubya of the East".

As I've been something of a newspaper junkie lately, maybe I can answer some of John questions regarding why the Pan-blue coalition is inexplicably calling for Chen Shui-bian's resignation rather than allowing the massively unpopular president to serve out his lame-duck term. Going into the 2008 elections, it is certainly easier for the pan-blues to have Chen Shui-bian as the face of the DDP rather than the current vice president, Annette Lu. Although Lu is known for being brash and gaffe-prone, her integrity is beyond doubt, a factor that carries a lot of weight in the wake of the recent corruption scandals that have rocked the Chen government.

The key point to remember is that the Pan-blue coalition is made up of two parties with separate interests. The Nationalist party is the stronger of the two, while the People's party, which is an off-shoot of the Nationalist Party, is struggling for relevance. Ma Yin-Jiou, the Mayer of Taipei and the presumed candidate of the Nationalists in the 2008 elections would like nothing better than for Chen to continue as an albatross around the DPP's neck for the rest of his term. However, sensing a political opportunity, the leader of the People's Party, James Soong, has come out strongly against Ma for being soft on Chen. Poor Mr. Ma basically had no choice but to change his position or risk being dragged down by Chen himself.

This series of scandals is interesting because, by most accounts, the president is not accused of any direct wrongdoing. But his wife, his closest advisors and above all his son-in-law are all accused of some pretty heavy-duty corruption, influence peddling and insider-trading. Frankly, I think that it sets a terrible precident to remove a sitting president on charges that ultimately boils down to guilt by association. However, should Chen want his party to do well in 2008, this might not be a bad time to fall on his sword. Annette Lu would then have two years to prove herself, or not. Either way, the DPP can go into the '08 elections having left the scandal behind somewhat. Just as if Clinton stepped down in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal and left Al Gore in office, Gore (and the Democrats in general) would probably have been in a stronger position in 2000.

Alas, it is not in the nature of politicians to readily relinquish power. As it is in the United States, so it is in Taiwan. My prediction is that Chen will do everything he can to hang on to his presidency in the next two years leading to a Nationalist sweep in 2008.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Blogger bash pix

Tgirsch of LeanLeft has got the splainin hands, while Rick Maynard of The Freedonian looks on:

John Harvey of Voting in Memphis, and the AlphaPatriot:

Wintermute of The Daily Docket, David Holt of Confessions of a West TN Liberal (I think), and Novella Smith-Arnold, Republican candidate for District 2, Position 2, on the Shelby County Commision:

Jon Sparks of, and Dwayne Butcher of artbutcher in mid-swig:

The whole table:

Mike Hollihan of Half-Bakered, and Jackson Baker, after whom the blog was named:

If I've misidentified anyone, please let me know.

Rush Limbaugh Evil Blimp

Yesterday PeskyFly at Flypaper Theory posted a link to this MP3 of "Rush Limbaugh - Evil Blimp" by the Memphis band Neighborhood Texture Jam, recorded, if I'm not mistaken, in 1991.

That happens to be one of two vinyl singles I still own. (The other is NTJ's "McThorazine.") It was pressed onto "urine yellow" vinyl.

Here's a scan of the sleeve art.

Blogger bash roundup

The Memphis Summer Blogger Bash took place this evening at the P&H Cafe this evening. Here's a list, complete as far as I know, of the bloggers who attended.

On the left side of the political spectrum:
Me, of course.
Rick Maynard of The Freedonian.
Wintermute of The Daily Docket.
Tgirsch of Lean Left.
PeskyFly, autoegocrat, and kibitzer of Flypaper Theory.
Steve Steffens of LeftWingCracker.
David Holt of Confessions of a West Tennessee Liberal.
Brassmask of Elevator Cabeza.
polar donkey of polar donkey.
Memphis Blue of Memphis Blue.

And on the right side:
Mike Hollihan of Half-Bakered.
Mark of The Conservative Zone.
AlphaPatriot of AlphaPatriot.

And some whose politics I can't identify, or whose blogs are non-political:
John Harvey of Voting in Memphis.
Jon Sparks of
Dwayne Butcher of artbutcher.
Mike of Gathering at the River.
Serrabee of Rock'n'roll Minor Planets.
MemphisPI of MemphisPI Checks Out Memphis.

I'll post some pictures tomorrow. Let me know if I left anybody out, or if I got anyone's name, pseudonym, or politics wrong.

UPDATE: Mike Hollihan pointed out in comments that I left off '70s kid.

Thursday, June 08, 2006


Knzn continues on his campaign to defend the honor of NAIRU in a half-hearted yet curiously dogged fashion. This is his comment in rebuttal of my previous post:
From the Hippocratic oath, “Do no harm.” That’s fine if one of your choices is to do nothing. Doing nothing, by definition, is not doing harm. So, if the humors theory is disproven, and you don’t know what to do, you just say, “Go home and hope it gets better.” But it doesn’t work that way with monetary policy, because you always have to do something. You can “do nothing” to the interest rate, but then you’ll be doing something to the money supply. Or you can “do nothing” to the money supply, but then you’ll be doing something to the interest rate. It’s always possible to set up a fixed rule and set it in motion, so that you can subsequently “do nothing” except continuing to follow the rule, but then you’re initial decision to follow the rule was “something.” Until you fix such a rule, there is always at least one choice to be made, and neither of the options can be described as “neutral” or “completely atheoretical.”
It's true -- when you have what our libertarian friends sometimes derisively call "fiat money", it is the Fed who has to control it in one fashion or another. It must make the choice to loosen, tighten or stay the course. But staying the course means maintaining the interest rate at a previous level that was also ultimately determined by the Fed. Strictly speaking, there is no neutral course. Knzn seems to be suggesting that because we don't have a natural default course, even a weak, wanting theory like NAIRU can be roped in as a better alternative to flipping the coin.

That sounds somewhat reasonable, until you realize that raising the interest rates is like slamming the breaks on the economy -- to make the conscious decision to put people out of jobs. Now does it still seem like such a good idea to go forwards on such a wobbly theory? Brock made the analogy between NAIRU and Newtonian mechanics in the comments. I find this a grave insult to Newtonian mechanics. We know that Newtonian mechanics is not the whole story, but when we want to build a bridge or design an aircraft or even just kick a ball, it's there for us. NAIRU, on the other hand...
Forecasters built the NAIRU into their models. In the 1980s, the usual estimate held that inflation would begin to accelerate if unemployment fell below 6 percent (which it rarely did). In his career as a consultant, Meyer had come to rely on such an estimate for predicting the inflation rate. Success at this modest task convinced him that the concept itself would bear the test of time and changing circumstances.

By the late 1990s, circumstances had changed. Unemployment was falling below established estimates of the NAIRU--and eventually to levels rarely observed in peacetime. Yet prices remained strikingly stable. Meyer was on the Federal Reserve Board. What to think? What to do?

Meyer chose to adhere to the NAIRU concept, while conceding ground, bit by bit, on his estimate of where the threshold of hyperinflation might be: a rationale which unfortunately always made him fear the worst. As unemployment fell, he would argue that inflation was just around the corner. Therefore (although in appointing him President Clinton had clearly hoped for better), he found himself generally favoring increases in interest rates--not because inflation was rising, but only because his model told him that it soon had to.
Knzn points out that, whatever you want to say about the NAIRU, it kept us away from hyperinflation for 30 years. At this points our disagreements move from the substantive points towards value judgements on exactly how terrible hyperinflation is. I think we'd all agree that hyperinflation is baaaaad. But is it so bad that its mere spectre is enough to spook us into start putting ourselves out of business? Isn't it soon enough to go after inflation after there have been some, you know, inflation? Knzn also mentions Japan, and how they could have spared themselves some pain by realizing that their high unemployment rates portended deflation. OK, I'm impressed by that. It's a concrete example of the link between employment levels and the strength of the currency. However, the establishment of a possible link between employment levels and the strength of the currency is very far from basing our monetary policy on this mysterious number called the Non-accelerating inflation rate of Unemployment, beneath which we cannot go without inflicting massive hyperinflation a la 1970s.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

We need a hippocratic oath for economists

The unpronouncable Knzn defends the concept of the Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment reluctantly. The idea is, if unemployment is too low, then wages will rise across the board, which in turn leads inflation. Thus when the unemployment rate fall below a certain threshhold (the NAIRU or "natural rate"), the fed should kick into action by raising the interest rate to forestall inflation. The problem is, how does one figure out this natural rate? From what I can see, the economists guess. If their guess is proven wrong by subsequent events, then they go back to fudge their initial assumptions before guessing some more.

Here's Knzn's lukewarm endorsement of the NAIRU:

The theory hangs on today mostly because nobody has a better alternative (kind of like what Winston Churchill said about democracy). It’s very hard to defend the NAIRU theory, except when somebody comes up with another theory that’s supposed to replace it. Then it usually becomes clear that the other theory is even worse.

Personally I am quite loyal to the Keynesian paradigm in which the NAIRU theory is embedded, but I’d prefer to do Keynesian economics without the NAIRU. There are two issues I often concern myself with in this context: (1) the pre-NAIRU orthodoxy may not have been entirely wrong; and (2) the U in NAIRU may be the biggest problem. That is, there may be a “non-accelerating inflation rate of labor market slack,” but unemployment (or any single statistic) may be the wrong measure. Maybe I’ll do a post about this at some point. [snip]

I’m not sure it’s possible to have “no theory.” If you want to draw policy conclusions from empirical results, you need to have some theory – expressed or implied – about how those results relate to policy. It is helpful to be able to describe the theory rigorously. In a sense, all theories are wrong (just approximations of reality), but some are wronger than others. (I suppose you could have a completely intuitive approach to policy – Greenspan taken to the logical extreme – but then you’re outside the domain of economics.) The NAIRU theory, even though it’s hard to defend, seems to have been a reasonably successful guide to policy[.] [snip]

I feel a bit strange being considered a NAIRU person. In my real life personality, I’m on record having sided with the “far lefties” (yes, those communists like James Tobin) on this issue. Lately I find myself in the position of defending the NAIRU because I’m afraid of throwing out Keynesian economics with the bathwater.

At this point I have to ask Knzn -- Is economics a science? Because if it is its theories have got to be capable of being proven wrong when it is contradicted by real-world results to the contrary. When an hypothesis is proven wrong in chemistry or biology, the discredited theory is not kept hanging around in the wings until a better one comes along to take its place. Knzn argues that we need a theory whether it does any good or not because we need a guide to shape policy. My take is the exact opposite -- if you are that uncertain about a theory, how can you possibly apply it to policy? Imagine a doctor saying "Well, I know all that theory about humors is bunk, but we don't have a better theory yet, so leeches it is!"

From what I can see, all the evidence supporting the NAIRU is inductive rather than deductive, meaning that starting from first principles, an economist can sit down with a pencil and a scratch pad and demonstrate how there simply must be a NAIRU. It is only at this point when he reaches for the real-world data so that he can approximate a figure for the NAIRU. If the unemployment rate falls beneath the rate he calculated and inflation does not kick in, the economist will ball up his approximation and start on another, then another. But there is pretty much nothing the real world can throw at him that will cause him to go back to that first sheet on the scratch pad -- real world results can't disprove what was inducted without real world imputs.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Make me one with everything

I parlayed my ABD in philosophy into a successful career as an all-purpose computer geek, but I suppose this was another option.

(Via PZ Myers.)

Battlepanda anime

TV in Japan links to a YouTube video of Panda-Z, a Japanese (of course!) cartoon about big, fightin', panda robots.

(Via that other, far more popular, panda-themed liberal blog.)

Think of the Marshes

(Via the Peking Duck)

The Belmont Club bellyaches that not enough attention is being paid to the feelgood story of recovering wetlands in Iraq amid all the downers about bloodshed and incompetence. Can we say Liberal Bias in the MSM?

I guess a Conservatives could be persuaded to care about the environment after all...when it provides political cover.

Monday Book Blogging: Double Trouble edition

Well, I guess I'm kind of trying to hoist myself back on the book-a-week wagon. Now I'm not even pretending to stick to the schedule -- I'll be happy as long as I have read 52 books by the end of the year. Which means I have some catching up to do.

Speaker for the Dead
by Orson Scott Card

Odious and illogical as his personal beliefs are, that Orson Scott Card sure can write. I think Speaker for the Dead is a superior work compared to Ender's Game, which tends to hog most of the attention. It's more fully imagined, less episodic and repetitive. It doesn't help, though, that I somehow got stuck visualizing Ender as a kind of McGuyver clone and the pequininos as a troupe of ALF like creatures. Not terribly menacing.

The Omnivore's Dilemma
by Michael Pollan

This is kind of like Fast Food Nation for the New Yorker crowd. So well-written I think it should come with a warning label -- "Caution: consumers of this product might experience crippling fear of High Fructose Corn Syrup and an irresistable desire to join an organic food co-op." If you are at all curious about what's going on lower down on the American food chain, you'll enjoy this book. Don't expect easy answers from Pollan, though. This is a guy who can agonize about just about anything.

On the one hand, this book has just awakened the little bud of desire that has mostly lain dormant since my childhood years to live in the country and grow my own veggies and raise my own chickens. On the other, ther is this cartoon...
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Saturday, June 03, 2006

Memphis Blogger Bash

For any Battlepanda readers in the Memphis area, the Memphis Summer Bloggers Bash will be held at 7 pm, June 9th, at the P&H Cafe, 1532 Madison Ave.

(Via Mike Hollihan.)

Thursday, June 01, 2006


I received a Valleyschwag package today.

The T-shirt is from Rubyredlabs. There's also a package of Perplex City cards, and stickers from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Feedburner, Riya, and VentureBlog.

And then there are these, from

That is so wrong.