Tuesday, November 5, 2013

November 2013 Local Candidates and Issues

On my local ballot this election, there are four positions up for grabs on the Whatcom County Council, two positions with the Port of Bellingham, two positions on the Bellingham City Council, and one position on the School Board. There is also a school levy.

County Council
I try not to be a single-issue voter, but county politics has become completely engulfed by the Gateway Pacific Terminal issue. In a nutshell, the GPT would become a port for coal shipments. The coal would be shipped here on trains, then out through the GPT to the rest of the world. Environmental activists oppose it because it's coal; unions support it because it means good jobs. Liberals have been walking a balancing act, trying to keep the support of both the environmental lobby and the unions; conservatives support the GPT for the same reason the unions do.

My position is that there are standard environmental reviews in place for projects like this already. Those reviews should be allowed to run their course without undue political influence one way or the other. In this case, it's the environmentalists who are arguing for special exemptions to prevent the GPT, so my position casts me with the unions and the conservatives.

In the current election, that means I am voting for Kathy Kershner, Ben Elenbaas, Michelle Luke and Bill Knutzen for County Council. All four of these candidates have been endorsed by both the county Republican and Libertarian parties. Sealing the deal: the opponents of these four candidates have run campaigns demonizing them as "Tea Party endorsed" (when the local Tea Party makes a point to not endorse any candidates) while playing up their own endorsements by Planned Parenthood and the Democrats.

Port of Bellingham
I am voting for Renata B. Kowalczyk over Dan Robbins for Port Commissioner. While the Democrats have endorsed Kowalczyk and the Republicans have endorsed Robbins, both oppose the Blue-Green Coalition's call for a "living wage zone" at the Port. Both support industrial development at the Port. But based on the limited statements I can find from both candidates, Kowalczyk seems to have a more in-depth understanding of what the Port Commissioner has to do and the issues the Port faces.

In the other Port Commissioner race, I am voting for Ken Bell over Mike McAuley. Bell supports the GPT. He also has experience in the private sector cleaning up hazardous waste sites, which is exactly what the Port needs to do with the waterfront.

Bellingham City Council
In my ward, I am voting for Clayton Petree over Pinky Vargas. Petree has the experience needed for council, while after announcing her run, Vargas had to rely on one of the city's most reliably liberal blog writers to give her what he called a "crash course" on the important issues. Petree also opposed the fireworks ban, and I believe can be counted on to oppose the random little bans that the current city council loves so much.

For the Council-At-Large position, my preferred candidate from the primary did not make it to the general. Of the two remaining candidates, both are pretty bad, but Roxanne Murphy is not as bad as Bob Burr.
Bellingham School District 501
Of the three candidates in the primary for the school board, the one I did not consider due to a lack of information lost. In the primary, I voted for Steven Smith over John H. Blethen. Now that those two are running in the general election, I will again vote for Steven Smith.

The school district is also putting forward a levy this election. That levy, Proposition 2013-1 would allow the district to borrow $160 million to be used for "construction." Much of that will be going towards nicer administrative buildings, including $5 million for artificial grass. The district still owes $59 million from the $67 million bond that was passed in 2007. The new bond amounts to $2000 for every man, woman and child in Bellingham, not counting interest charges. To pay it back, the levy would raise the property tax we pay for schools by an astonishing 54%, with promises to cut it back to just a 32% raise in six years (if you believe that). I say the people of Bellingham should keep their own money, and the school district can let the natural grass grow instead of borrowing money to install artificial grass. I am voting NO on Proposition 2013-1.

County Council: Kathy Kershner, Ben Elenbaas, Michelle Luke, Bill Knutzen
Port Commissioners: Renata B. Kowalczyk, Ken Bell
City Council: Clayton Petree, Roxanne Murphy
School Board: Steven Smith
School Levy: NO

November 2013 Statewide Issues

I find I have left this blog unattended for longer than I meant, but once again, it is time to vote, so I'm back. There are two state initiatives, a few advisory votes and a slew of local candidates to consider, plus one local issue. In this entry, I'll cover the statewide issues: I-517 regarding initiative reform, I-522 regarding GMO labelling and advisory votes 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7, regarding tax increases passed by the state legislature.

I-517: Initiative Reform
First up is I-517, which reforms the initiative process in Washington state. I-517 includes four key reforms:
  1. It increases the time allowed to gather signatures for initiatives from ten months to sixteen months. Allowing at least a year (the time between elections) for gathering signatures seems like a reasonable reform.
  2. Any initiative that receives enough signatures must be placed on the ballot for a vote, eliminating the possibility of interference from local officials. Here in Bellingham, we recently had an initiative against red light cameras that was blocked by a lawsuit from the company that had been given the contract to install the cameras. This is an obviously needed reform.
  3. Official signature gatherers currently have the same legal protections as any other citizen standing on the street. I-517 would make it disorderly conduct (a misdemeanor) to "interfere with or retaliate against a person collecting signatures or signing any initiative or referendum petition..." Exactly what that means is defined by a long list in the initiative of actions that you shouldn't be doing to anybody anyway, whether or not they're collecting signatures. The claim by Riley Sweeney that "if you told someone to go jump in a lake when they asked for your signature, they could sue you for harassment" is simply false if you read the actual text of I-517 (I suppose, technically, anyone can sue anyone else for harassment, but that doesn't mean they have a snowball's chance of winning). Since gathering signatures is a required step for we citizens to exercise our right to petition the government, some special protection for those gathering and providing the signatures seems appropriate.
  4. I-517 also defines the places where signature gathering will be protected. According to the text of the initiative, official signature gathering "shall be a legally protected activity" in three types of places:
    1. "...inside or outside public buildings..." This one seems obvious--if the buildings truly are public (unlike national parks and memorials, as we found out during the recent shutdown), then you should be able to collect signatures in these public places.
    2. "...on public sidewalks and walkways..." Again, this seems obvious if these places are to be considered truly public.
    3. "...all sidewalks and walkways that carry pedestrian traffic, including those in front of entrances and exits of any store..." This is the one part of I-517 that might cause problems. Opposition to I-517 says this violates property rights. It certainly gives property owners less control over what happens on their property, which I don't like. That said, under I-517, signature gatherers are not allowed inside private buildings, nor are they allowed anywhere members of the public normally aren't, nor are they allowed in open areas that aren't sidewalks or walkways, nor are they allowed to do things (such as stalking, threatening or assault) that normal people can't do. Furthermore, existing law doesn't have a well-defined limit for where signature-gathering is or is not legal on private property, and this issue has gone to the courts several times. I-517's outside-walkways rule, while imperfect, is better than no rule at all.
Conclusion: Vote YES on I-517 to protect the initiative process for a better democracy.

I-522: GMO Labeling
The only other statewide initiative is I-522, which establishes a labeling system for food containing genetically-modified organisms. To decide which way to vote on I-522, I must ask three sequential questions, all of which must have an affirmative answer to vote for I-522. Those three questions are the following:
  1. Should genetically-modified food be labelled as such? I think the answer is likely yes. To be clear, I believe the science that says GMOs are safe. They have been in use now for nearly two decades and are likely in the majority of our food with no apparent side effects. Genetic engineering has been happening for millennia through hybridization; GMOs are simply a more direct way to get the genes that we want into the organisms that we want. If anything, I would trust the genetics of a GMO more than some random animal that came out of some field. That said, I know not everyone agrees with me. One of the necessary prerequisites to having a well-functioning free market is the freedom of information, and if people believe that they don't want GMO food, it is their right to avoid it.
  2. If GMOs should be labelled, should such labeling be required by the government? Here, I think the answer is likely no. The federal government already certifies organic food, and certified organic food cannot contain GMOs. For non-organic non-GMO food, private organizations like the Non-GMO Project are already picking up the slack. Since lots of people want to buy non-GMO food, there is a huge incentive for the private market to supply that information even without government requirements.
  3. If GMO labeling should be required, is I-522 the right way to do it? The answer here is a definite no. While I-522 requires labels for many foods, there are quite a few exceptions, including alcoholic beverages, food served at restaurants and medical food. If labels are so important for public health, why are there so many exceptions? Moreover, while the state's Department of Agriculture is usually in charge of food safety and labeling, GMO labels would be regulated by the Department of Health. This may seem small, but it likely means food produces will have twice the paperwork and have to go through twice the bureaucracy. It also means the Department of Health would have to duplicate a regulatory infrastructure that the Department of Agriculture already has in place.
Conclusion: While GMO labeling is good, government regulation is unnecessary and I-522 is the wrong way to regulate it. Vote NO on I-522.
Advisory Votes
In Washington state, thanks to a 2007 initiative, any tax increase passed by the legislature is submitted to the people for an advisory vote. The results are not binding, but they do ensure the public is aware of all tax increases, even ones the media doesn't deem important enough to mention. The advisory votes also give voters a chance to give the legislature some much-needed feedback.

This year, there are five advisory votes, numbered 3 through 7 (A-1 and A-2 were on 2012's ballot). In deciding how to vote, I've followed a simple rule: Taxes should be lower and simpler. That means increases in tax rates and new special taxes on specific groups should be repealed, but that bills that eliminate special credits for specific groups should be maintained.

A-3 Substitute Senate Bill 5444
This bill eliminated a tax credit for taxpayers who lease public property. Taxes should be the same whether you're leasing publicly-owned or privately-owned property. This eliminates an unfair tax credit, so it should be MAINTAINED.

A-4 Senate Bill 5627
This bill imposed a tax on commuter air carriers "in lieu of property tax." Why do air carriers need a special tax? The Washington State Budget and Policy Center has the context: "Senate Bill 5627 was championed by Governor Inslee in order to reduce taxes for Kenmore Air, a commuter air carrier located in Washington state. ... Although Kenmore Air will pay an additional $35,000 per year in aircraft excise taxes, its state and local property tax bills will fall by about $51,000 per year, a cost that will automatically be recouped through higher property tax bills for other homeowners and businesses." The Legislature, at the behest of the Governor, is shifting property taxes from one favored company to other disfavored companies and homeowners. Obviously, this should be REPEALED.

A-5 Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1846
This bill eliminated a tax exemption for pediatric oral services from the insurance premium tax. As a consequence, it also ensures that dental services purchased outside the new health care exchange do not face a tax disadvantage compared to those purchased within the exchange. While it would be preferable not to have an insurance premium tax in the first place, given that there is such a tax, it should apply as fairly as possible. This bill should be MAINTAINED.

A-6 Second Engrossed Second Substitute House Bill 1971
This bill eliminated a tax exemption in the retail sales tax for some telephone and telecommunications services. Specifically, cell phone service was subject to the sales tax while landlines were not; instead landlines were subject to two special excise taxes. This bill eliminate the excise taxes and extended the sales tax to landlines, so that the same tax applies to all telephone services. This bill should be MAINTAINED.

A-7 Engrossed House Bill 2075
This bill extended the sales tax to some property transfers and raised the tax rates for estates over $4 million. This is a complicated one. On the one hand, it closes a loophole in the estate tax that was introduced by the courts. Closing loopholes and simplifying taxes is always good, and if that was the extent of what this bill did, I would vote to maintain. However, the legislature also introduced a new loophole for businesses, and to make up the revenue from the new loophole, raised the tax rate. Tax rates do not need to be raised and new loopholes do not need to be added, so this bill should be REPEALED.

I-517: YES
I-522: NO

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

August 2013 Primary Election

I should've done this earlier, but I didn't, so here I am! We are having a primary election right now which ends tonight, so I guess it's time to figure out who I'm voting for. There are two races on the ballot, and I'll look at them one at a time.

Bellingham City Council At-Large
There are three candidates for this at-large position. Their biographical info and positions can be found here. The important issues are whether taxes should be raised to address the city's budget deficit (they should not) and whether the city should do more to oppose the Gateway Pacific Terminal (it should not, mostly because it's outside the city limits and none of the city's business, but also because the GPT would be good for the region and create jobs).

Bob Burr says, "Raising taxes certainly is an option that must be considered with an open mind." Roxanne Murphy prefers "regular and creative budget improvement avenues before a tax increase would be considered." (I have no idea what that actually means.) Allen Brown gives a single word answer: "NO". Point goes to Allen Brown.

Gateway Pacific Terminal
Bob Burr says, "Absolutely" the city should do more to oppose the GPT because it "would be disastrous to our City." Roxanne Murphy is more nuanced in her opinion, but still says, "I’m opposed to the Gateway Pacific Terminal as a Lettered Streets resident who lives near the railroad tracks..." Allen Brown says no, the city should not do more to oppose the GPT because public opinion is split. He also says, "As long as the project meets current environmental and safety regulations, we cannot obstruct." Point to Allen Brown.

Conclusion: Vote for Allen Brown
Allen Brown opposes tax increases and at the very least doesn't want the city to oppose the GPT. Both Murphy and Burr are open to tax increases and both want the city to take a stand againsts the GPT. The choice is clear--I'm voting for Allen Brown.

Bellingham School District Director
There are three candidates for Director #4, but Hue Beattie doesn't seem to have any kind of web presence and apparently did not respond to the voter guide questions. Having no idea what his positions are, I cannot vote for him.

John H. Blethen's campaign seems to be composed of opposing the closure of Larrabee Elementary and spouting slogans like "support the teachers" and "smaller class sizes." He also wants city government to have more control over the schools (I can't help but think that's a bad idea considering how city government handles everything else), and would consider raising local taxes if the state cuts the budget. Steven Smith is the incumbent and voted to close Larrabee Elementary. I don't know whether that was the right decision or not, but he does oppose raising local taxes if the state cuts the budget.

Conclusion: Vote for Steven Smith
This is a tough one, partly because there's so little information, but mostly because I don't usually pay attention to school board politics. A lot of the issues that separate the candidates may be important, but I don't know enough to judge. What I do know is that Smith opposes new taxes on me and has taken action as an incumbent to cut spending so that new taxes are not necessary. On the other hand, Blethen supports higher taxes for me and opposed Smith's action to cut spending. That's enough for me to cast my vote for Steven Smith.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

How Nations Succeed

Sudden computer problems really put a crimp in the blogging lifestyle, and while I'm back online, I'm not quite caught up with the rest of the world yet. In the meantime, here's a video via Kids Prefer Cheese: How Nations Succeed.

"Imagine a place where people are so poor that almost no one has electricity or indoor plumbing... People here live in abject poverty. Conditions are such that people cannot afford refrigerators or washing machines, not to mention cell phones or computers... People work six to seven days a week with little or no vacation time, just to feed and clothe their families. Cars are rare, and no one has air conditioning or television. Health care is primitive, with infant mortality high and death from disease routine. No one has access to antibiotics or even aspirin. Where is this undeveloped third world country?" (If you don't know the answer, watch the video before reading more.)

Friday, April 19, 2013

Long-term Unemployment and Perceived Marginal Value Product

Tyler Cowen and Bryan Caplan have been talking about the long-term unemployed and Zero Marginal Product workers. Cowen thinks the long-term unemployed have, or are perceived as having, zero marginal product, making them effectively unemployable, which is why employers won't even consider their applications. Caplan, on the other hand, says:
Put yourself in the shoes of an employer reviewing applications. What are you saying when you hastily toss an application in the trash? Consider the following possibilities:
  1. "I perceive this applicant to be a ZMP worker."
  2. "I perceive this applicant to have a MVP [EO: Marginal Value Product] below the wage we're offering."
  3. "After a cursory glance at his application, I perceive this applicant to have a sufficiently high probability of having a MVP below the wage we're offering that collecting more information is imprudent."
My claim: #1 is a rare special case of #2, which is in turn a rare special case of #3. #3 is the generally correct story.
I think Caplan is right, as far as he goes. However, he misses that #3 is itself a rare special case of a fourth possibility: "After a cursory glance at his application, I perceive this applicant to have a sufficiently high probability of not being the highest MVP applicant that collecting more information is imprudent."

Consider that most applications are sent for a particular job position, either an existing position that has been vacated by a previous employee or a newly-created specific position. Most employers will be looking for the one best employee to fill that specific position. When that is the case, the employer can safely discard all applications that are unlikely to be that one best employee, even those applications that have a MVP higher than the wage offered.

The job application process is in this sense much like a tournament--only one can win. Indeed, tournament theory explains why the long-term unemployed are perceived to have lower MVP in the first place. Someone who has been unemployed for a long time has apparently lost a long series of application "tournaments." They are presumed to have lost because of a lack of skills and effort rather than a long streak of bad luck.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Reasons for Optimism XI

Civil Rights
1. There is quite a bit of good news for civil rights. First, National Security Letters--which the federal government uses to get personal information on thousands of Americans from companies like Google--have been ruled unconstitutional. What made NSLs particularly disturbing was that the recipient companies were forbidden from ever acknowledging that they had given the government any information. Thankfully, these gag orders have also been ruled unconstitutional.

2. Second, the Supreme Court limited the use of sniffer dogs and expanded the Fourth Amendment's protection of the home by declaring that porches count as part of the home.

3. There's good news for civil rights in Canada as well. The Supreme Court there recently ruled that police need special wiretapping orders, not just ordinary search warrants, to intercept text messages.

Deficit & Spending
4. Via PostLibertarian, the federal deficit for the first six months of fiscal 2013 is 23% lower than the deficit for the same period in fiscal 2012. Government spending in March 2013 was more than 20% lower than in March 2012, a $76 billion fall from $369 to $293 billion. Moreover, an analysis of four major budget plans (President Obama's, Senate Democrats', House Republicans' and Senator Rand Paul's) shows that all four cut spending over the next ten years relative to the current-law baseline. The coming debate won't be whether or not to cut spending, it will be how much.

Energy & Climate
5. In November 2012, U.S. oil production surpassed that of Saudi Arabia! U.S. oil production also remained higher than Saudi Arabia's in December 2012. While month-to-month production fluctuates, and there may again be months where the Saudis produce more oil than we do, for at least two months in 2012, the United States was the largest oil producer in the world. U.S. oil production has continued to grow since then, and is now more than 7.2 million barrels per day, a level not seen since July 1992. Also in December, another country (China) imported more oil than the U.S. for the first time in four decades (ht).

6. Coral reefs are more resilient than we thought. Reefs damaged in super-hot 1998 were presumed to have little chance of recovery, yet they're recovering nonetheless.

7. A new Bluetooth-enabled implant (ht) can monitor blood levels of up to five chemicals and transmit that data to a smartphone or tablet (and from there to the internet) in realtime. It can currently detect glucose (useful for diabetics), troponin (which is released during a heart attack) and a few other substances, but the device has been designed to accommodate sensors for substances not yet covered.

8. Functioning kidneys can now be grown in a lab, at least for rats. Doing the same with human kidneys will take some time, and even then the lab-grown versions are only 5% as efficient as natural, healthy kidneys. But if your natural kidneys aren't healthy, 5% could be enough of an improvement to be worth the transplant. No doubt researchers will also be working on improving that efficiency as well.

9. Two recent studies, one from Oxford University and the other from the UN, highlight the improving conditions of the world's poor (ht via @LDoren). Many of the world's poorest nations are on track to eliminate acute poverty and growth is lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty. From the UN report: "Never in history have the living conditions and prospects of so many people changed so dramatically and so fast."

Other Optimists
10. Ezra Klein (ht MR) has his own list of reasons for optimism. Among others, he lists the slowing rise of health care costs, a turnaround in housing, corporate profits, natural gas and technological advances.

11. Stephan Kinsella (ht Bob Murphy) says, "The Golden Age of America is Now." Kinsella writes from a libertarian viewpoint, and therefore includes items like imminent marijuana legalization that some might not agree are actually good things. But many of his points cut across ideologies--there is no draft, air travel is safer and cheaper than ever and technology is amazing, from cell phones to the internet to 3D printing to private spaceflight. He also cites increased diversity and tolerance, saying, "some people are vegetarians, vegans; no big deal... Some people have nose rings, multiple earrings. Tattoos. Nobody cares... Mixed-race couples? Nobody bats an eye."

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

What happened in London

I missed this when it happened, but it is so very cool that I have to post it. To advertise the new Star Trek movie, Paramount launched a bunch of quadcopters into the air over London and flew them in formation to make the Star Trek symbol.

How cool is it to live in a time where this is possible?

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

I Was Wrong, part I

I believe it's important to admit when you were wrong. Now that the fiscal cliff and sequester are mostly behind us, I can say that I made a few predictions that proved to be wrong.

Immediately after Obama's reelection, I said,
"First of all, expect the fiscal cliff to stay in place. After all, we just re-elected most of the people who put it there to begin with. … Any compromise will include more tax hikes than spending cuts, if spending is actually cut at all."
As it turned out, the fiscal cliff did not stay in place. The deal to avert the fiscal cliff included $250 billion in lower taxes compared to just $9 billion in higher spending, relative to what would have happened with no deal. At the time, I said,
"If you think that two month delay is a sign that the sequester will never happen anyway, I think you're right. It was never going to happen in the first place, and we lose nothing by delaying it."
This was also wrong. Not only did the sequester actually come to pass, the continuing resolution recently passed by the Senate and House and signed by Obama also keeps it in place for the next six months. While the Senate budget for fiscal 2014 repeals the sequester, the House budget does not, leaving open the distinct possibility that the sequester's lower spending is here to stay.

Color me pleasantly surprised. Even a blog called Expected Optimism wasn't optimistic enough!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Abundance and Trade

Yesterday, I noted my first objection to Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler's book Abundance. My second is perhaps more technical. In Chapter Four, the authors make the (entirely true) point that progress is cumulative. The more we progress, the easier progress becomes, primarily because ideas interact and complement each other. Although not quoted in the book, Matt Ridley's quote on this blog's sidebar makes the same point:
"The more we prosper, the more we can prosper. The more we invent, the more inventions become possible. The world of things is often subject to diminishing returns. The world of ideas is not."
However, in making this point, the authors quote Dean Kamen (previously featured here as the inventor of the Slingshot water purifier, although better known as the inventor of the Segway):
"In a world of material goods and material exchange, trade is a zero-sum game. I've got a hunk of gold and you have a watch. If we trade, then I have a watch and you have a hunk of gold. But if you have an idea and I have an idea, and we exchange them, then we both have two ideas. It's nonzero."
While Diamandis & Kotler's overall point is true, Kamen's quote is just plain wrong. Even in a purely material world, trade is not a zero-sum game. Kamen looks only at the physical objects, not the value the traders place on those objects. By trading, both parties increase the value they place on the objects they have, so trade is positive-sum even if it's solely material trade.

Kamen is trying to speak of opportunity cost. When he and I trade material goods, I have to give up the material good that he wants, and vice versa. The opportunity cost of the material trade is the value of the material good that I'm giving up. But the value of the material good I'm receiving is higher than my opportunity cost, otherwise I wouldn't agree to the trade. The same is true on his side. Both of us increase the value of the things we hold, and our trade is a positive-sum game.

By contrast, if Kamen and I trade ideas, neither gives up the idea that we share with the other. The opportunity cost may include the time it takes to teach an idea, the effort to write it out, the cost to publish a book, etc., but the opportunity cost does not include the idea itself. This makes combinations of ideas far more likely, which is what Kamen seems to be getting at.

This is not just semantics. Much of our government's trade and economic policy is based in the idea that trade is a zero-sum game. Too many people think that if another country is getting richer, we must be getting poorer. The same applies within countries as well--if the rich are getting richer, the poor must be getting poorer. This is used to justify everything from import tariffs and export restrictions to higher taxes and complex regulations. Getting the public to accept that trade is positive-sum, not zero-sum, is the first step towards better economic policy.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Singularity Is Here...

...but the new AI gods don't know my name.

Abundance and Overpopulation

I've finally gotten around to reading Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler. The book is divided into six parts, and so far, I've only read the first. What follows is, therefore, only my preliminary reflections.

You might expect a blog with "optimism" in the title to have a certain amount of mood affiliation for a book like Abundance, and it's true. Nevertheless, I have a few points of contention with the opening chapters. The first is overpopulation.

In the first chapter, the authors approvingly cite Thomas Malthus, Paul Ehrlich and the Club of Rome. They say that among "scientists who study the carrying capacity of the Earth," the "wild-eyed optimists" think the carrying capacity is two billion, with the "dour pessimists" saying 300 million. Call me crazy, but I don't think someone counts as a wild-eyed optimist if they believe 5/7ths of the world's humans are doomed to die.

There is one simple reason I am not concerned about drastic overpopulation. With some exceptions, food is generally produced on an annual basis. Crops are planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. Some crops take longer, especially animal crops, but food production generally takes place on annual time scales. By contrast, food demand is daily for the vast majority of the population. Hunger strikes or religious fasts may put off food demand for short periods, but not for most people, and even then not for very long. (Although this guy may be an exception.)

If our population is really so much larger than the carrying capacity of the planet, why haven't we already died? Food is produced very slowly compared to our demand for it, so if we're really going to run out, it would happen quite quickly. We should start dying out when our population is just slightly larger than the carrying capacity, not when we're 3-20 times larger than the carrying capacity! There are more than 7 billion of us right now, most of us eating every day. The carrying capacity of the planet therefore has to be at least 7 billion!

Of course, the central premise of the book is abundance, and it's possible that the section on overpopulation is just a fluff tactic to get the majority who are (sadly) overpopulationists to lower their guard and be receptive to abundance. I will have to read the rest of the book to find out. But so far at least, the possibility of lower population through birth control is considered a good thing, and a static future population is cited as a reason for abundance. Diamandis and Kotler also don't seem to be the kind of authors to use fluff tactics in that way. Indeed, the third chapter explains that people often don't agree with abundance because they have cognitive biases preventing them from agreeing, which is not exactly a claim that would make someone lower their guard.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Gay Marriage Debate

Gay marriage is one of those issues where people tend to believe very strongly one way or the other, and also tend to believe that the other side is not just wrong, but deeply immoral. Rational discussion on gay marriage is thus very difficult, but nevertheless I will try to add my two cents.

The way I see it, the question of gay marriage boils down to the freedoms of association and speech. Individuals have the right to associate or not associate with whomever they please, provided the other party agrees; individuals also have the right to say what they like and express their views, or to say nothing. There are, of course, widely accepted limits to both of these freedoms, and some limits are more reasonable than others.

I believe the freedoms of association and speech together point to an ideal marriage policy: You should be free to marry whomever you want, and I should be free to acknowledge or ignore it however I want. This ideal marriage policy is what led me to approve R-74 in the last election.

The Conservatives
What Conservatives Won't Like: Conservatives won't like my ideal marriage policy because it means that there will be gay marriages. Gays and lesbians will live together, have sex, publicly express same-sex affection and do whatever else they want.

Why Conservatives Are Wrong: By my count, some 31 states currently outlaw gay marriage with no provision for civil unions. In every single one of these states, thousands or even millions of gays and lesbians under current law live together, have sex and publicly express same-sex affection. Many of them even have made lifelong commitments to each other that they would call marriages if the government did not prohibit it.

These people are already enjoying all the substance of marriage without the name. Even the most anti-gay U.S. conservatives do not advocate using government force to break up these relationships, as is done in nearly 80 countries worldwide. Rather, conservatives oppose gay marriage because they do not want to be required to support it. They fear that government recognition of gay marriage will come with government mandates for private citizens and private organizations to extend private recognition to gay marriages.

Why My Ideal Is Better: The conservative fear of government mandates is well-founded, and this is why my ideal policy preserves the individual's right to acknowledge or ignore someone else's marriage however they choose. To me, this seems to be implicit in the freedom of speech. Washington state's SB-6239 ensured this right for religious organizations, and I think it should be extended to everyone.

The Liberals
What Liberals Won't Like: Liberals won't like my ideal marriage policy because some people will choose not to recognize gay marriages. This includes companies providing benefits to employee spouses, churches performing marriage ceremonies, etc.

Why Liberals Are Wrong: Some employers will provide spousal benefits to heterosexual but not homosexual couples. No doubt in protest, some employers would provide spousal benefits to homosexual but not heterosexual couples. This violates a liberal's idea of "equality," but your right to do as you please does not extend to requiring me to approve of what you do. The freedom of association is meaningless if it does not include the right to not associate.

Furthermore, it is not the government's place to ensure equality in fact, even if such a thing were possible. Rather, the government's guarantee of equality is equality before the law, and that is exactly what my ideal policy provides. Everyone has equal rights to marry or not, and everyone has equal rights to say whatever they want about others' marriages.

Why My Ideal Is Better: Over time, the market may sort out societal preferences. If the vast majority of society ends up favoring gay marriage as liberals insist, the market will punish organizations that oppose gay marriage, just as it now punishes organizations like the KKK that overtly stand for racism. On the other hand, if liberals are less than correct about societal attitudes, we may end up with multiple equilibria, with different organizations catering to the different sides. My ideal marriage policy allows both cases to occur naturally, depending on how societal preferences change, rather than imposing societal change through government.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Death Star was an Inside Job

Luke's Change: an Inside Job:

A few years ago, an email forward made the rounds making similar claims. I know at least one person who, because of that forward, gave up their prior belief that George W. Bush was behind 9/11, saying that if they could make a Star Wars conspiracy sound that convincing, maybe there wasn't anything to the real-life conspiracy theories either.

Of course, careful observers will notice a few errors in the video... But I'll leave those to the YouTube commenters.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Socialists on Chavez

When Venezuela's Hugo Chavez died, conservatives and libertarians cheered while Democrats mourned. But with so many on America's right decrying Chavez as a socialist, what did the actual self-proclaimed socialists think of him?

Not much. The Socialist Equality Party newsletter, available online at the Bellingham Politics and Economics blog, has this to say about him:
Chavez's nationalist rhetoric, his government's diversion of revenues from the country's protracted oil bonanza to pay for social assistance programs and its forging of extensive economic ties to China earned him the hatred of both Washington and a fascistic ruling class layer in Venezuela. They did not, however--as both he and his pseudo-left supporters claimed--represent a path to socialism.

Chavez was a bourgeois nationalist, whose government rested firmly on the military from which he came and which continues to serve as the crucial arbiter in the affairs of the Venezuelan state.
Both the share of the country's economy controlled by the private sector and the portion of national income going to employers as opposed to labor were greater under Chavez than before he took office. An entire new ruling class layer--dubbed the boliburguesia-- was spawned by chavismo, growing rich off of government contracts, corruption and financial speculation.
 While I'm a bit late for commentary on Chavez, I found this interesting, as it is not the first time I've found the Socialist Equality Party agreeing with the conservative mainstream...

Friday, March 22, 2013

Kein Eier für Kinder

I first learned about Kindereier back in my high school German class. If you've never heard of them, they are chocolate eggs with little plastic toys inside. It was always a bit of a mystery why something like this never caught on in the United States, home of the Happy Meal toy.

But it turns out, there's a simple answer--toys in chocolate eggs are illegal. Here in the land of the free, our government believes we could not handle the shock of opening a chocolate egg to find a plastic toy inside. The toys are considered a "non-nutritive component," and thus are forbidden by a 1938 law.

Anyone with a lick of common sense can see that Kindereier pose no threat to anyone. Even though some of the toys have small parts, they are hidden inside the quite large plastic capsule. But common sense runs up against federal bureaucracy for people who try to bring Kindereier into the U.S. from another country. Attempting to import Kindereier comes with a $2500 fine per egg, and tens of thousands are confiscated by border agents every year. The two Seattle men in the linked story above spent two-and-a-half hours in border detention because they tried to bring six Kindereier into the country. That would've been a $15,000 mistake if the agents hadn't let them off with a warning. (Thanks be to the Border Agents, the Beneficent, the Merciful!)

So when you see reports from the bipartisan immigration reform group, or Rand Paul, or anyone else insisting on increasing funding for the border patrol before even trying to reform any of the other problems in our broken immigration system, keep in mind that this is what they're doing with the money they already have. Do they really need even more?

Thursday, March 7, 2013

On Drones and Droning On

Yesterday, Rand Paul gave an old-style filibuster where he talked on the Senate floor for 12 hours and 54 minutes about drones and executive power. At first, Paul wanted the Obama administration to come out and say that it is unconstitutional for the government to kill American citizens on American soil without due process. Obama's response: "No comment."

Later, Paul was willing to compromise and end the filibuster for a vote on a non-binding "sense of the Senate" resolution that "the use of drones to execute or target American citizens on American soil who pose no imminent threat clearly violates Constitutional rights." Democrats (in particular, Majority Whip Dick Durbin) refused.

Ultimately, Paul ended the filibuster without accomplishing his explicit goals, though he has clearly energized his supporters and apparently turned a libertarian talking point into GOP policy. The Minority Leader Mitch McConnell showed up to explicitly support Paul and encourage other Republicans to do the same.

Not all Republicans agreed, however. Senator Lindsey Graham called the whole thing "ridiculous," and he's right -- it should be. The proper response from the Obama administration would have been, "Of course, it's unconstitutional to kill citizens on our soil without due process." This should not even be a question. Indeed, if they had responded quickly enough, they could have devastated Rand Paul's credibility and painted him and libertarians in general as paranoid freaks. But they didn't, and that really has me puzzled.

Obama had the opportunity to give the Tea Party and libertarians a roundhouse kick to the face on prime time TV, and he didn't. He did nothing, and doing nothing gave Paul an incredible victory. Durbin went even further, and objected to just a vote on a non-binding resolution on the issue. Why are Obama and Durbin (and the rest of the Democrats) willing to hand Republicans such a PR coup just to hold on to a power they claim they don't want to use anyway?

At this point, it would be easy to fall into conspiracy theories, but I suspect the Democrats are being honest when they say they don't want to kill Americans in the streets. However, being in power, they thought they had an opportunity to expand that power, and they took it. Everyone likes to have options. They just didn't think anyone would notice. Once libertarians did notice, the Democrats thought no one would pay attention to the libertarians anyway. Now that Paul has forced the issue and gotten people to pay attention, the Democrats don't want to turn around and admit that he's right, because they think they'll look bad if they do. They don't seem to recognize that digging their heels in and insisting on the right to kill American citizens without due process makes them look even worse.

Now that Paul has everyone talking, it will be interesting to see what he does with it. Can he inspire actual change?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Cyborg Foundation

Via SingularityHub, the cyborg Neil Harbisson:

Harbisson was born colorblind, but now perceives color as sound thanks to a device called the eyeborg. "It's not the union between the eyeborg and my head what converts me into a cyborg, but the union between the software and my brain. My body and technology have united."

What makes this truly astounding is that Harbisson has gone beyond mere treatment of colorblindness to augmentation. He now directly perceives colors in the infrared and ultraviolet. He also founded the Cyborg Foundation to promote the use of cybernetics and develop new devices for augmentation, such as internal radar and 360º sensory perception.

"It's very, very human to modify one's body with human creations... During this century, we will see that more and more people will start using technology as a part of the body in order to perceive more and to expand senses."

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Reasons for Optimism X

1. Americans today are 20% less likely to die from cancer than we were in 1991. The death rate from cancer has fallen from 215.1 to 173.1 per 100,000. The decrease has been seen in men, women and children. Although death rates for some cancers are up, death rates for the four most common types of cancer (lung, colon, breast and prostate) have all fallen by more than 30%.

2. A second person has been cured of HIV, this time a newborn treated with triple the typical dose of antiretroviral drugs. The only person to have previously been cured of HIV was Timothy Brown, cured after a bone marrow transplant from a donor who was naturally immune. This second case holds far more promise as it is cheaper and may be easier to replicate.

3. The FDA has finally approved an early version of Geordi's visor, although the manufacturer's have opted for the name "artificial retina" instead. The device wirelessly sends images from a camera to an eye implant. The downside is that the implant requires the user to have some functioning retinal cells, so this is not a full cure for blindness. The upside is that the bulk of the device can be removed just like normal glasses, making upgrades easy.

4. Don Boudreaux continues his Cleaned by Capitalism series with an entry on "health-care products supplied quite successfully by free markets on a fee-for-service basis."

5. Once again via Mark Perry, U.S. oil production continues to grow. Texas has doubled oil production in the last three years, and is now producing more domestic oil than the entire country imports from the Persian Gulf. Christof Rühl, chief economist for BP, wrote recently, "The United States is likely to surpass Saudi Arabia in daily output very soon, and non-OPEC production will dominate global supply growth over the coming decade."

Furthermore, as of October 2012, the United States is producing more oil per day than every country in Central and South America combined. As recently as 2009, those countries were consistently producing 25-30% more oil than the US.

But the shale revolution isn't just here in the United States. Global oil production for the first three quarters of 2012 was 1% higher than all of 2011. Once the numbers are in for the fourth quarter, 2012 is expected to set an all-time record. For those worried that increased oil production means we'll just run out sooner, consider that ExxonMobil discovered more new recoverable oil last year than they took out of the ground--for the 19th year in a row.

6. Mark Perry and Don Boudreaux together penned a Wall Street Journal opinion piece arguing against middle class stagnation. (AEI also has a copy, in case the WSJ version is eventually paywalled.) They address the CPI's overstatement of inflation, the expansion in non-wage compensation, the large-scale entry of women into the labor force, rising life expectancy, the falling cost of "basics" like housing and food at home, and falling inequality in services like air travel and goods like consumer electronics. The piece is a wide-ranging but somewhat shallow introduction to the many lines of evidence that life is actually improving for most Americans.

Boudreaux has follow-ups to the piece here, herehere and here, including responses to some critics. Perry has follow-ups here and here. There's also more on the topic from James Pethokoukis and David Henderson.

7. Via MR, a village in India has dramatically improved agriculture yields using a method called System of Root Intensification (SRI) that focuses on soil conditions and plant density. Poor farmers in Darveshpura have set new world records for rice and potatoes, and SRI seems to improve yields for other crops as well. Some doubt the claims are legitimate, but the ease of adopting the method would allow small farmers the world over to increase their yields if the claims prove true.

8. Oliver August of The Economist recently completed a wide-ranging journey across 23 African countries. In the interview, he speaks of how easy it was to complete the journey, and says, "The main experience of travelling across Africa is one of hopefulness, one of industry, one of striving amongst the many still-quite-poor people, and one of a sense of a future that is coming closer quite quickly."

The Perils of Spreading Optimism

This is from a few weeks ago, but I just came across it today:

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Canadian Way

"Canada… is strong. To stay that way, we must never repeat the mistakes of Europe and the United States."

Pierre Poilievre, a Canadian MP, goes on to describe what he calls the "humiliating American and European experiment with the welfare state." This may come as a surprise (or not) to Americans who lump together the leftist policies in Canada and Europe the same way Poilievre lumps together America and Europe.

I can't agree with everything Poilievre says, but it's hard not to be vicariously inspired when, speaking of the opposition NDP, he says, "They see the Europeans and Americans running off the debt cliff, and they say, 'Let's hurry and catch up!' No thank you, Mr. Speaker. I choose the Canadian way."

ht Mark Perry

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Reasons for Optimism IX

1. Last week, initial jobless claims fell to a 5-year low. At 335k, jobless aid applications haven't been this low since the beginning of the recession in January 2008.

2. Don Boudreaux continues his Cleaned by Capitalism series with an entry on the washing machine. See Hans Rosling's TED talk for more on the washing machine.

3. The Slingshot water purifier, invented by Dean Kamen and backed by Coca-Cola, is expanding from initial trials in Ghana to Paraguay, Mexico and South Africa. In the video below, Kamen says, "Global organizations... work on top-down, government-to-government big programs, and we're working on the Slingshot, the little tool that David needs to take on Goliath. [...] We could empty half of all the beds in all the hospitals in the world by just giving people clean water."

4. A new study shows that official poverty statistics in the United States grossly overstate poverty. The poverty rate has declined by 25 percentage point since 1960, and 8.5 percentage points since 1980.

5. Via Mark Perry, U.S. oil production grew more in 2012 than in any other year since we started keeping track. Weekly U.S. oil production is now at it's highest point in 20 years.

6. Planetary Resources, the asteroid mining company, has released a tech update, including video of a prototype for the Arkyd-100 satellite. But perhaps I should call them an asteroid mining company, because Planetary Resources isn't the only one anymore. A company called Deep Space Industries is also targeting asteroids. Deep Space Industries plans to bring back samples weighing 50+ pounds by 2016, and to have an established mining operation by 2020.

7. Bigelow Aerospace's inflatable space station idea is getting a boost with a two-year trial as a module on the ISS.

8. TSA has cancelled its contract with Rapiscan, the makers of the naked scanners. All naked scanners will be removed from airports by June. They will be replaced by scanners that do not show such fine detail. While the health concerns remain, this is definitely a step in the right direction.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Reasons for Optimism VIII

1. The number of people imprisoned in the US has been falling since 2008.

2. More cars were sold in 2012 than any other year since the recession began, and sales grew 13% over 2011, more than in any year since 1984.

3. Audi is showing off technology that would allow a car to autonomously find a parking spot within a parking garage and park itself. No word yet on when this will be available for consumers, but a garage-only feature like this might circumvent some of the legal grey areas with autonomous cars, at least in privately-owned garages.

4. The Earth is getting greener. And I don't mean humans are becoming more environmentally-conscious; I mean the physical Earth is literally greener, as measured by satellites, because there's more plants. There are two reasons plants are growing more: higher temperatures and higher carbon dioxide levels. This is a another piece of evidence that climate tends to have stable equilibria.

5. Fully 64 new supplies of energy have been discovered in Africa in the past five years, and the pace seems to be picking up (ht). When combined with the previously-featured GravityLight, Africa is on track to save millions of lives in the coming years.

6. The incredible exponential growth of US oil production continues. We are now producing seven million barrels per day for the first time since March 1993.

7. More than two-thirds of Americans are optimistic about their own economic situation in 2013. On the other hand, nearly two-thirds are pessimistic about the economy as a whole. If you believe in Hayek's local knowledge, this is a great reason to feel optimistic about the economy as a whole (though perhaps pessimistic about the media's portrayal of it).

8. Herbert E. Meyer, who is called "the official who predicted communism's demise," says the good news that nobody is noticing is the global rise of the middle class (ht). In a recent interview [mp3] with Jerry Bowyer, Meyer says, "When you stand back from all the yelling and the screaming…you can see what I believe is the most important trend in the word…the world is emerging from poverty fast. ... Each year between fifty and one hundred million human beings are leaving poverty behind. ... By the way, it’s going to be a five billion-person middle class. This will become the most powerful force in the world. Their demand for our goods and services will set off an economic boom…I believe that we’re heading for not just a sonic boom, but maybe a supersonic boom."

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Fiscal Cliff Optimism

I'm not the only one who thinks the fiscal cliff deal was a good thing.

David Henderson begins his thoughts on the deal by saying, "Pssst: Someone tell the Republicans they won." Like me, Henderson compares the deal to what would have happened without it, rather than some ideal version that never would've passed the Senate. Henderson, however, goes into far more detail than I did.

Among the many negative responses to Henderson's post I've seen, only Bob Murphy seems to understand that it's the baseline that matters--that is, what would have happened without the deal (even though Murphy still disagrees with Henderson).

Yuval Levin at NRO (ht) approves of the deal for political strategy reasons. He says, "For liberals, this was not a moment of danger to be minimized but by far their best opportunity in a generation for increasing tax rates," and they got far less than they could have just by doing nothing and going over the cliff. "Having discovered an effective political wedge in the tax debate, the Democrats have now basically used it up and gotten awfully little in return."

Finally, if you're still not convinced that the deal was a good thing, take a look at the latest newsletter from the Socialist Equality Party. The self-described socialists hate the deal. In the opening paragraphs, the author echoes Levin's observations on political strategy. In the 7th paragraph, he gives a list of reasons to hate the deal that pretty closely mirrors Henderson's reasons for liking it. If it's that bad for the socialists, it has to be good for the rest of us.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Fiscal Cliff and Opportunity Cost

I keep seeing conservative laments about the fiscal cliff deal, like this one, which sums up a bunch from Twitter. There are far too many to link to, but so far, every single one that I have seen has ignored the economic principle of opportunity cost.

Conservatives are upset that taxes are going up and spending won't be seriously cut. But when we look at the opportunity cost for this fiscal cliff deal, we can't just look at some pie-in-the-sky "deal" where the Democrats roll over and give conservatives everything we want. We have to look at the reality of what would have happened without the deal. And the reality is, without the deal, taxes would have gone up twice as much ($478 billion compared to $220 billion), and we would've seen a spending cut that's a measly 0.3% of federal outlays.

I know this isn't how the deal is being portrayed in the media, but these are the facts. Republicans gave the Democrats $9 billion in higher spending, and got $250 billion in lower taxes, compared to what would have happened without the deal. To me, that looks like a win.

A final note on the sequester: Most of the supposed sequester cuts would not have happened for years in the future anyway. If you believe future Congresses would have abided by the sequester, then you're in luck. The sequester is still going to happen, just two months later. If you think that two month delay is a sign that the sequester will never happen anyway, I think you're right. It was never going to happen in the first place, and we lose nothing by delaying it.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Recent Reasons for Optimism VII

1. Doctors in Toronto are using ultrasound to perform brain surgery without the surgery. During the five-hour procedure, Tony Lightfoot regained his ability to use his hands without tremors as high-intensity ultrasound destroyed the tissue causing the problem. The technique can also be used to eliminate other problem tissues, including certain kinds of cancer.

2. An organization called Diagnostics for All, backed by the Gates Foundation, is producing paper-based blood tests that can diagnose liver damage within minutes at a cost of less than a penny per test. Tests for other diseases, including malaria, dengue, hepatitis and diabetes, are being developed. While they're currently working on getting these diagnostic tests to poor countries, the benefit of cheap, easy diagnostic tests for the developed world is obvious. The main hurdle now seems to be getting regulatory approval, which is easier in poor countries than in the West.

3. New estimates from the IPCC of the climate's sensitivity to CO2 suggest warming over the rest of this century will be far less than previously estimated (more here). Moreover, a new study finds, at least with wheat yields, that the benefit from higher CO2 concentrations outweighs the cost of higher temperature. What little warming actually happens may end up being a good thing after all.

4. And even if it isn't, we'll be able to adapt. Thanks to cheap air conditioning, deaths from extreme temperatures declined by 80% over the 20th century in the US. Economic growth will bring similar gains to developing countries in the 21st century.

5. Mark Perry has more examples of the increase in prosperity since the 50s, including toasters, TVs, music players, washing machines and dryers. All of these have increased in quality (quite dramatically for TVs and music players), and yet are far cheaper. Don Boudreaux is also continuing his Cataloging Our Progress series with two entries on men's wear and one based on the Sears.com homepage.

6. Also from Mark Perry, the US is now producing more oil than at any other point since 1993, and Texas oil production is higher than it's been since 1987. Also from that second link, regarding natural gas, "The United States has gone from being the highest cost major gas producer four to five years ago to the current lowest cost producer."

7. The fiscal cliff has been averted. While the deal we ended up with isn't my first best choice by any means, I think it's an improvement over the cliff. For most of us, taxes are going up a little instead of a lot, as the Bush cuts were made permanent for most people while the payroll tax is going back up.