Tuesday, December 30, 2008


It's so very frustrating when any issue becomes polarized. The very term evokes the thought of a magnet, which has a north and a south, and there's not much more that you can say about it save its strength. But politics, economics, society and civilization aren't so much about solving the dilemmas that face the world, because that word also is too restrictive, taking its etymology from di, meaning two, and lemma, meaning premise. The problems of the world are generally more subtle and intricate multilemmas. It's not always a matter of north and south, of left and right, republican and democrat, yin and yang; it's almost always more nuanced. Much more on that later, but as an example, let's take environmentalism.

Environmentalism is an issue that has become horribly polarized. On the one side are the liberals, the democrats, the advocates of an expansive and powerful centralized government. Among them you will find those who truly and deeply care about the environment. Also, you will find those who will reap the benefits of the power and control to be garnered by exploiting environmentalism. It's difficult to distinguish the two, as the polarization has lumped them all together. On the other side, you find conservatives, republicans, and advocates for large, primarily manufacturing-based indistries. Among them you will find those who care deeply about human and economic freedom. Also, you will find industry shills, intent on reaping the monetary benefits that can be maximized by disregard for the environment (note here that disregard does not imply wanton destruction. It simply means that destruction does not incur costs, and therefore can be considered if there are benefits to be had from it). Once again, the two are difficult to distinguish.

There should be cooperation between the more honorable of both sides. True conservatives should be environmentalists. First off, I've never met a conservative (and few human beings) who didn't respect and love the Great Outdoors. There is something so inherently moving about a mountain sunset that it takes a strange person not to appreciate the beauty of it, even if they don't want to go camping. But the true conservative should be allied with the true environmentalist and against both the advocates of big government and big business. The true conservative should fight for environmentalism in the context of property rights. Property rights have historically been defended to a large extent by tort law, and in some cases it's easy to apply to environmental concerns. (Not being a lawyer, I come at this with an amature's perspective. Some of my explanations may stray from actual legal reality into the realm of what law should be.) If an entity damages its own property, then it has diminished its own holdings which, while probably foolish, should not be tortious. If that entity is a joint stock company, then there may be reason for the holders of that stock to take issue with the diminished value of the property that they have equity in, or perhaps not. However, when an entity damages the property belonging to someone else, then they have interfered with that other person's property rights, and should be held liable for that damage. If an entity dumps waste into a river, then it damages the property owned by those downstream. Those people form a class damaged by either an intentional or negligent tort. That seems to me a reasonably simple case of civil liability. I'm also reasonably sure that most legal systems make things much more complex. And even that case is simple. A river is a reasonably well defined thing, and most of the wastes that can be put in it have some hope of being quantifiably damaging. But what happens if you have a larger class? If you release persistent and harmful gasses into the atmosphere, you may be doing damage to the class of people who breathe. The class of people who own property which is covered by the Earth's atmosphere. If you do a dollar's worth of damage to that class, you find yourself liable for $6 Billion. What jury could decide that case? Who would they pay it to? To my mind, it stretches the limits of tort law. It is one of the few areas where it may be right for a centralized government to act. But the important consideration is that the government should only act if it is provable that the damages done are universal.

And that brings us to the second particularly important and difficult consideration, and that is the quantification of damage. At best, quantification of damage on a global scale is difficult. At worst, we find global warming. As wide as the rift may be between law and science, we find an even larger chasm between the world of science and the politics of global climate change. And that is because the politics of global climate change have transcended science and have become religion. The parallels are fascinating. On the one hand, we have the various sects and denominations with their varying but unwavering faith in global warming, varying degrees of faith that such climate change is man-made, and various beliefs in what the results will be. There may have even been a protestant reformation when those who believed in global cooling fell out of favor. Fortunately, the term "global climate change" is still inclusive of them, much as Catholics are still considered Christian. Then there are the environmental athiests, with a firm and unwavering faith that man is not changing the climate of the Earth. Some believe that it isn't changing, while others believe it is changing, but not by the hand of man. There are even environmental satanists. In religion, I've generally observed that Satanists are those who firmly believe in the existence of the Catholic god, but are rooting for the other team. These would be the industry shills who may privately believe that man-made climate change exists, but who don't care in the face of immediate profits.

And then there's me, the environmental agnostic. Much as the religiously agnostic are often misunderstood by both the devoutly religious and the staunchly atheist, we environmental agnostics are misunderstood by both poles who view us as probably belonging to the other side. I do have faith. I have strong and unwavering faith that, on this issue, there is far too much money to be had on the one hand and power to be had on the other for there to be any chance of objective truth being distinguishable from a clever fiction. I do not believe in man-made global warming. Nor do I believe that it is false. I strongly believe that I do not know the truth, and moreover I believe that at this time I cannot know the truth. It's a frustrating position to be in, but there is a good fight to be fought here. On the one hand, it's a fight against any who object to attempts to quantify what may be happening. On the other hand, it's a fight against those who propose to expand their own power in order to fight this problem, while not being able to show how the power that they take would actually be a benefit should the problem prove to be real. It's a difficult position to take, but I invite all of you from all across the various political spectra to join me in fighting this good fight. Our reward should we win will be meaningful solutions to problems that have objective proof of existence. That reward is welcome in any field of human endeavor.

Monday, December 22, 2008


A few weeks ago, some friends were over and, as they are both history buffs, I dug some of the family history out of the basement to peruse. The old photos and family bibles and such were pretty interesting, but what really captivated us were two journals from two military men in my family's history. I hadn't actually read either of them yet (I've only recently become the family historian, and we have a lot of history).

The first of these was from my granduncle. It starts on Sunday, October 18, 1941, when he was leaving for his first assignment: Manila, in the Philippines. For those who might not know, the Philippines were not a good place to be for an American soldier in late 1941. He took part in the battle of Bataan (although the few months worth of journal detailing that experience are, according to a note in the margins, "buried somewhere on Bataan, North W. of Mariveles." After the conclusion of that battle, he became a part of the Bataan Death March. The bulk of the journal describes the next 3 1/2 years as a Japanese prisoner of war. The constant disease, the beatings, the mistreatment, the starvation rations, it's incredible that anyone could make it through such an experience... and many didn't. But for all of that, the one thing that amazes me more than anything came after the end of the war, after the surrender of Japan, when he and his fellow prisoners stopped being "prisoners of war" and suddenly became "displaced persons". It took some time for the logistics to catch up so that they could be brought back from their camp in the Fukui prefecture of Japan to the States. His entry from September 2, 1945 speaks volumes. In part:
The supplies dropped to us yesterday have us swamped - food, candy, clothing, smokes, -everything- ten loads dropped by B-29's flying at low altitudes littered the compound and hillsides - red, yellow, green, white, blue parachutes, - some bundles and boxes went thru roofs of barracks, there were a number of close shaves, one Nip hurt.
Here's something we thought we'd never do; give extra supplies to Nips; the local school children and villagers - It's so weird - up until two days ago for 3 1/2 years we've dreamed and longed and planned for the goodies and food of normal life - now we have more candy, foods, clothing, cigarets than we can use before we leave.
To me, that's amazing. Granted, as he says, they had more than they could use; but still: after 3 1/2 years of horrible conditions at the hands of a nation, to be able to turn around and freely give your food to them in the aftermath of such a horrible war, speaks of a forgiveness that inspires awe. I don't know if I could be that person. I hope I could.

The other journal is from my great great grandfather, also written while he was a prisoner of war (apparently my family, while reasonably talented at serving in the armed forces during wartime and fairly talented at not dying while doing so, aren't quite so great when it comes to not being captured by the enemy.) He was a POW held at Johnson's Island near Sandusky, Ohio in the early 1860's. His journal isn't so detailed, mostly containing poetry he wrote but, historically speaking, the prisoners of Johnson's Island were apparently treated fairly well, and all things considered it wasn't a particularly terrible situation, given that it was a prison. It's been 145 years now, and it's still hard to muster up the sort of forgiveness that my granduncle showed just two weeks after the surrender of Japan. I suppose forgiveness is a lot harder after you've lost the war.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Monoculture is bad

As with almost any such blanket statement, it's trivially simple to prove this one false in specific cases, for specific groups. As an example, the monoculture of yeast that went into a cold tasty frothy beverage resulted in an excellent refreshment. You will note, however, that it didn't work out so well for the yeast. They're all dead. So, let me say more specifically that monoculture is usually bad for the population to which it applies. The fundamental reason that monoculture is bad is because a single flaw is necessarily endemic to the population. A fatal flaw will result in extinction.

The problem is that monoculture is so cursedly alluring. On the grand scale, it's so very tempting to attempt to design a perfect society. The problem with that is that perfection is so very hard to achieve. On the smaller scale, the problem centers around the desire to do what's best for oneself. In general, this tendency helps society and individuals to flourish and grow. The problem arises when society is confronted with complex issues. Often, these issues are complex enough that it requires years of study and a fairly keen mind to understand them sufficiently well to make a good decision. In such circumstances, it's entirely reasonable to defer the decision to a trusted expert who has a keen mind, and who has spent the requisite years of study in the field. However, for a complex enough subject, experts sometimes disagree. If you have enough knowledge to know which expert to believe, then you probably don't need an expert in the first place. Thus the next place to turn is a consensus of experts. Now, don't take this to imply that a consensus of experts is necessarily wrong. Chances are, they're the best people to listen to (depending, of course, on the subject). The problem is that the consensus of experts can be wrong, and if they are universally followed, then any fallibility becomes hugely magnified. If 60% of doctors think that drug X will save the lives of their patients, and prescribes drug X for them, then if it turns out that drug X is deadly, 60% of the population will die. That's an unthinkable tragedy. If, on the other hand, the AMA listens to those 60%, bases policy on that consensus, and causes 100% of doctors to prescribe drug X to their patients in accorance with their guidelines, then if that drug turns out to be fatal, it means the extinction of the entire population. That's worse. This raises the stakes of evolution from the individual level to the societal level. If an individual makes a bad choice and dies from it, the species improves as a result. If a monocultural society makes a bad choice that results in its extinction then, well, it depends on what the universe is made up of. If the Earth is all there is, then if humanity extinguishes itself then maybe the cockroaches will have better luck. If life is endemic, then perhaps the little green men on Epsilon Eridani will make better choices. If the Deists are right and God is more of a clockmaker, then perhaps someday He'll wander back by, look at the Earth, sigh and wind us up again.

It is for this reason that I am of the political mindset that I am, which I often find seems to be confusing to so many others. I'm strongly in favor of diversity, though not so much the kind that people display by having different skin colors, wearing different clothes, and speaking different languages. I mean the sort of diversity where people live under different laws. This puts me at odds with the liberals who want the nation or even the world to conform to their view of enforced universal charity, as well as the conservatives who want the nation or world to conform to their view of enforced universal morality. While this often puts me solidly in the camp of the libertarians, even that doesn't quite fit. This is because of two simple yet humbling truths: First off, as much as I love freedom, I am forced to recognize that there do exist people who do not want to be free. The second is that while I strongly believe that freedom is the best way for society to progress, I am humble enough to admit that I may be wrong. For this reason, I am strongly in favor of a diversity of laws, and there is only one freedom that I feel should be completely inviolable. That freedom is the freedom to move from a society whose laws you do not agree with to a society whose laws you find more comfortable.

This puts me mostly in the company of the constitutionalists. The most important part of the constitution is that tenth amendment, which states, for those of you who may have forgotten "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people." This means that, with 50 states and binary issues, it is possible for every single American to live in a state whose laws precisely reflect their opinion on at least 5 issues. If the states delegate some issues to the respective counties, and the counties to the cities, and the cities to the neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods to the families and individuals, then it's possible to imagine a nation where everyone is happy with their laws.

This of course does not take into account those people for whom it is important to prevent everyone from doing those things that they find distasteful. A sufficient number of those who wish to impose their laws on others (absent, of course, a monoculture of such people) will always result in some dissapointment.

But it gets better. If there is freedom of movement, and freedom to choose your own laws, then the society will have a tendency to separate, and form a diversity of monocultures, where people not only live under a set of laws that they are happy with, but live amongst people who are like-minded. It doesn't really solve the problem of consensus extinction, but it does at least give the chance that those who reject the consensus will have a place to go where their quackery is accepted. If that quackery turns out to be right, then their corner of society may be all that's left. If not, then we have the chance to see evolution in action.

The Irony Test

My father recently told me about a single-question political test he sometimes slips into conversation with friends and acquaintances. He tells them a particular fact, and if they fail to detect the irony inherent in that fact, then they have proven themselves so far away from him on the political spectrum that any political discourse with them will undoubtedly lead to nothing but frustration on all sides. I have taken his single fact and started expanding it to include others. I hope to add to it from time to time. As it currently is:

The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Commission was created by an act of Congress in June 1934. The commission oversaw the building of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. The Commission spent over $3M of federal funds to complete the memorial, which was dedicated on April 13, 1943. Inscribed on a frieze inside the dome of the memorial is a quotation from Thomas Jefferson: "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Wooley v. Maynard that New Hampshire could not prosecute motorists who chose to hide part or all of its motto, "Live free or die" [which is printed on state license plates]. That ruling came about because George Maynard, a Jehovah's Witness, cut off "or die" from his plate. He found the phrase offensive because according to his faith, Jehovah's Kingdom offers everlasting life and it would be contrary to that belief to die for an earthly government. He was convicted of breaking a state law against altering license plates.

How many ironies do you detect?

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Have some pie

I recently heard someone talking about economics, taxation, wealth redistribution, et cetera... She said that some people have too big a slice of the pie. I posit that anyone who ever uses the phrase "their piece of the pie" in reference to economics, does not actually understand money at all. Pie is fundamentally different than money. Let me illustrate. Has anyone ever offered you some used pie? If someone came to you and said that they had some pie yesterday, passed it through their digestive tract, deposited what remained back in the original pie tin, and saved it just for you, would you find that offer offensive? Disgusting? More than a little bit odd? Perhaps all of the above?

Now, for contrast, say that you were in a job interview. The company obviously liked you, and was attempting to woo you by extolling upon their own virtues. What if they told you that, while they may not pay quite as much as some other companies, their pay was of higher quality, because unlike those other companies that pay their employees with "used" money, they print their money up fresh every payday so that their employees only get brand new never-before-used money. Would your first instinct be to take that job on the spot, or to perhaps call the secret service?

Pie and money are fundamentally different. When you phrase things in terms of a piece of the pie, it makes people think that there's $14 Trillion dollars out there in the economy, and if someone makes a billion of it, there's less for everyone else, just like if Alice, Bob, Carol, and Dave are sharing some pie, and Alice takes a huge half-pie slice, that means Bob Carol and Dave aren't going to have quite so much left. But money isn't like that. Money flows. It doesn't decrease in value as it does so. Quite the contrary, the byproduct of that flow is that useful things get done. So say I give $20 to the neighbor kid to mow my lawn. How much value would you say that $20 has lost in the transaction? Interestingly, none. The size of the "pie" is still the same, but now my lawn has been mowed. If I go to the store and pay them a dollar for a soda, how much value has it lost? Well, in that case, it's actually lost 7 cents. Sales tax, you know. And I suppose if the neighbor's kid reports that $20 to the IRS, he'll lose some of it too.

So, someone who's making a million dollars a year isn't doing it by going out and taking a big slice of pie before anyone else has even got their forks out. Even the phrase "making money" is misleading. Unless you're the US mint or that fictional company I was talking about that was offering the "fresh" paychecks, no one can actually "make" money. In order to get money, you have to do something so useful for someone else that they give you their money. There are really only three exceptions to this rule. The first is charity, which I think that everyone of any political leaning would tend to think is good all around, and is in a class of its own. The other two ways are by theft, extortion, blackmail, or other sorts of illegal forcible coercion; or by taxation. I will leave the definition of what differentiates those two as an exercise to the reader, as I have yet to figure it out. If you aren't doing one of those things, then your income measures how much good you have done for other people. (or at least measures the lowest amount of good you might have done. It's entirely possible to do good for someone without being paid. It is not, however, possible to have someone pay you for doing something they don't want, unless you are a crook or a government.)

So basically, what I'm saying here is that other people making money shouldn't be seen as a financial detriment. Sure, it's no fun if you have a tendency towards envy, but if you're concerned primarily with your own well-being, then the more money other people earn, the more money there is out there for me to earn from them, and the more good those people are doing in order to earn the money they have.

Frost Pist

So, here I am with a blog. What would I want with such a thing? Well... so very often, I find myself coming up with interesting ideas, usually in the realm of politics, economics, and the various sciences of varying hardness. Sometimes I'm lucky enough to be in the company of friends who enjoy my rants (or at least pretend to), but even then I often have a tendency to lose my train of thought. Sometimes I write down my thoughts. The disadvantage of that is that there is no feedback from those who might have interesting or complementary thoughts. And thus it seems that a blog is the perfect medium. It permits me to say what I want in an essay form, thus letting me express my thoughts in their full form, yet still permits discussion and commentary. Assuming, of course, that anyone ever reads them. :)