Sunday, April 29, 2007

Why Do People Help Complete Strangers?

Would you help someone who was just hit by a car? Someone who you do not know, and will never see again? Of course you would (I hope). But why?

It's not because it's the "right thing to do" because that answer only changes the phrasing the question; i.e., Why is helping someone the right thing to do?

But here are some possible reasons:

A) Conscious reciprocity. Some people like the gratification of hearing a big "thank you"; it makes them feel good. This implies that the motivation to help was not altruism, but instead was a selfish desire for gratification. Or, more cynically, one might help a stranger for a monetary award, or even for an outside chance of having sex. (If that sounds a bit "harsh", then consider who would get more assistance: An attractive young woman or a fat middle-aged man.) Nevertheless, the desire for reciprocity "works" in that the helper and the victim both come out ahead compare to an identical situation where the helper would otherwise keep walking.

B) Irrational justifications. Many people are self-deluded into believing things that don't hold up well to logic. An example might be: "If I were hit by a car, I would want someone to help me!" Though that sentiment might be true, the logic doesn't work; i.e., helping a complete stranger has no bearing on whether a different complete stranger will help you someday. Similarly, some people might think, "That could be my parent/child!" But it isn't your parent or child -- and your helping them does not increase the chances that your relatives will be similarly helped someday. Still, the justifications, though not rational, help everyone.

C) Social or religious pressures. This works to the extent that your society or religion does not instruct you to instead kick the victim -- or worse, run your car over him to begin with.

D) No idea why; "I just did it". This does away with all reasoning and assumes an adaptive biological trait that somehow increases procreation among those who help others -- which in turn increases this trait's frequency in the population. That is: You help others because an ancestor with this trait, a long time ago, had lots of children. (The assistance-for-sex idea might seem a bit more plausible now...)

Two more things to note:

1. None of the above reasons are related to altruism -- or at least of the moral posturing variety. ("I am selflessly sacrificing so that someone else might have a better life etc., etc., etc.)

2. It was an easy example; the helper's cost was minimal, and the victim's benefit was great. There's a big difference between people who, on the scene, would be willing to punch "911" on their cell phones -- and people who make anonymous kidney donations. The real altruists are on that kidney donation line.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Is "Equal Pay" a Good Idea?

No, it is a terrible idea.

"Equal Pay" goes by other names, such as "Comparable Worth", and is intended to remedy the dubious claim that men earn more than women. And in the interest of understanding why it is such a bad idea from an economic perspective, we'll ignore several other issues:

1. It has not been shown that, when all other variables are held constant, women make less than men.

2. The phrasing "equal pay" is loaded; opposition to it implies that you are opposed to equal rights.

3. It is a tribal concept, designed to instill resentment against the male "tribe". Otherwise, it would be called "More Pay", as opposed to the envy-laden "Equal Pay".

4. Enforcement would require new armies of bureaucrats to police the private affairs of others.

So, let's assume that, on average, women really do earn less than same-age, same-skilled, same-experienced, and same-educated men -- and are also equally productive at identical jobs with the same employer under identical conditions -- and that this can be ascertained by objective and politically-neutral parties without any interest in the outcome.

Note, by the way, the phrase "on average" in that sentence. That implies that, on balance, women earn less than men -- which means that there are times when women might make more than men. So, in order to ignore the idea of men also being entitled to "equal pay", then we need to further assume that women universally make less than men under the above conditions. That is, assume that the highest-paid woman never makes more than the lowest-paid man.

One would think that under these conditions, it would be prudent to investigate why women make less than men before passing legislation to "fix" the problem. Or, perhaps it is simpler to just assume the most inflammatory reason and make that the basis of your legislation. In this case, that assumption would be, "Men discriminate against women."

OK, there are two situations where women might be discriminated against:

1. Women are less valuable/productive/skilled than men for some jobs, and this is reflected in their pay.

2. Women are NOT less valuable than men, but employers gratuitously pay male employees more for some reason.

By the process of elimination, Item #1 seems much more plausible. Alternative #2 appears rather unfounded, and would be illustrated by an employer paying everyone $100, and then declaring, "To hell with the bottom line. I'm going to give each male employee an extra $50 simply because they're male." Or, it's the equivalent of an auto salesman telling a male customer, "The price of the car is $20K, but since you're a guy, I'll hand over $2K of my profits, and sell it to you for $18K."

Or, it would require a mass conspiracy among every employer to "underpay" women with the understanding that no other employers will attempt to offer them more; all employers agree to ignore the temptation of higher profits for the sake of underpaying women.

And so, we are left with Item #1, which implies that employers are "guilty" of paying men and women what they are worth -- and that the solution is to force them to pay women more than what they are worth. This is where commerce ends and welfare begins. And it is where employers will follow the laws of supply and demand: If the price of labor is forced higher than its equilibrium, then the quantity demanded will decline. In other words, "equal pay" would result in female unemployment.

There are only two ways to avoid this resulting female unemployment:

1. Employers can ignore the spirit of the law by cutting back elsewhere; e.g., women's benefits, a comfortable working environment, etc.

2. Another layer of legislation can be added that would require employers to not only pay women the government-approved rate, but also compel them to hire women. That is, we could have a government-directed workplace, where employers are told who to hire and how much to pay them. This would result in a decline in affluence and personal freedom for everyone, male and female -- and is a little too close to fascism for, we would hope, most people to be comfortable with.

"Equal Pay" is a bad solution to a problem that does not exist.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

What Good is Envy?

Envy is a good example of a biologically-driven impulse that, on average, benefits us all -- although it might hurt the person who suffers from it.

Basically, envy provides a motivation for people to produce things that indirectly benefit others.

For example:

- If I am envious of your baseball skills, I might practice to become a better ballplayer -- and thereby produce more entertainment for baseball fans.

- If I am envious of your status, I might attempt political maneuverings to become more popular -- and thereby do favors for others.

- If I am envious of your money, I might work harder to make more money -- and thereby benefit the recipients of my efforts.

- If I (with "I" being used only in the most abstract sense) am envious of your girlfriend, I might try harder to be more appealing to her -- and thereby make her happier.

That fourth example is probably the main reason why envy is such a common trait. Those people who acted on their sexual envies were more likely, over the long term, to produce more offspring -- who will inherit the "envy gene". And they will then compete against each other to produce even more envious offspring. Given the direct connection between sexual jealousy and procreation, it is little wonder that sexual jealousy is the most potent of all envies -- if not all emotions.

Also note that the first three examples are probably outgrowths of sexual jealousy; i.e., people (especially men) who are athletic and/or powerful and/or rich are highly demanded by the other gender for procreation. That is, men can satisfy their sexual envy by first working on their other envies. And along the way, third parties benefit.

Of course, envy is not entirely wonderful. For starters, it induces people to expend much effort for relatively little tangible gain. Even with no potential mates to impress, the envy impulse might still function senselessly. ("He worked how many hours to own the most expensive car on the block?") And, of course, acting on envy can alienate people, can cause your friends to disappear, and even get you killed. (Perhaps many fatal conflicts over a female were not, in hindsight, really worth it?) And many people whose envy drives them to seek power and money do so by illegitimate means -- through lying, cheating, stealing, threatening, and killing.

In short, it is very unproductive to feel sick over the fact that a co-worker won Lotto -- but maybe that impulse, someday, will do some good for someone else.

Monday, April 23, 2007

How Can We Get More Banks in Poor Neighborhoods?

A new report by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition finds that most of the largest metropolitan areas of the United States have markedly lower numbers of bank branches in working class and minority communities than in the upper class and white neighborhoods.

Setting aside the curious vernacular ("working class" and "minority"), the NCRC is concerned that there are neighborhoods without enough banks, and is proposing that existing banks be forced to open branches in undesirable locations by way of the Federal Reserve Board's "Community Reinvestment Act".

But instead of using force, here are two more palatable ways of bringing more banks to these neighborhoods:

- The NCRC, instead of lobbying for government controls, can open a bank themselves.

- The NCRC can explore reasons why banks, and many other merchants, are reluctant to locate in these neighborhoods. Or, maybe the NCRC can just ask themselves: According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the NCRC
chose to locate in census tract 1303 (West Roxbury, MA) that is 92.5% white.

Of course, there can be many reasons why there might be fewer banks in these neighborhooods. Perhaps the residents prefer to do their banking in other neighborhoods -- like where they work. Or perhaps there are regulations, like usury laws, that make banking unprofitable in these areas. Or perhaps these areas are better served by pawn shops and check-cashing stores than they are by "traditional" banking services.

And this is ignoring the fact that these neighborhoods have many banks. Go to Yahoo Maps, pick the poorest area you can think of, and then "browse by category", "community services", "banks". Look at the South Side of Chicago, and you will find over 300 banks. Apparently, 300 is not enough. What is enough? Probably no number is enough, as that would give the NCRC nothing to do.

And, apparently, it would give celebrity politicians one less lobbying group to please, as well.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Does Determinism Have Internal Contradictions?

Yes, it has a major one.

If we accept the premise of determinism that everything has a cause, then it follows that every cause has a cause. That is, if the cause of my buying a green shirt instead of a yellow shirt is a very complex "equation" that uses biological inputs to return "green shirt", then what was the cause of those biological inputs? My parents genes? And what was the cause of that? And what was the prior preceding cause. And then the cause before that, and the cause before that, ad infinitum.

To continue in Latin, we end up with the reductio ad absurdum conclusion that we can never find the "real" cause because there must always be a prior cause. In other words, if everything has a cause, then nothing has a cause.

But in practice, a determinist will generally stop at a (highly speculative) biological level as the "real" cause. That seems like an arbitrary point in the cause-and-effect process, though. Why not choose an observable point in the process; e.g., the point at which you might say, "I can buy green or yellow -- and though it hardly matters to me, I will choose the green shirt."

Friday, April 20, 2007

Can Mass Murderers be Stopped?


But NOT by these methods:

1. Gun control. Anyone who is risking life imprisonment, the death penalty -- or ending it all with suicide -- will probably not be deterred by the penalties of gun control legislation. As with drugs, guns will always be easy for criminals to obtain.

2. Better defenses; e.g., metal detectors, communications, etc. The most effectively fortified building will only shift the murderer's location to another venue, and for every potential victim who runs to safety, another (who was outran) will be killed. By analogy, a well-guarded home will not stop burglaries; at most, it will shift the burglaries to less-guarded homes.

3. Postmortem candlelight vigils.

Someone who is really determined to kill other people will find a way, and therefore must be "neutralized" beforehand in order to be stopped.

An objection to this sort of "neutralization" (i.e., jailed, killed, or physically incapacitated) is that it requires that punishment precede the execution of the crime. Whether or not this is a sound principal, such laws are enforced all the time -- from the seemingly useful laws against drunk drivers who haven't run over anyone yet -- to the seemingly useless drug prohibition laws. So, the question is: Under what conditions can potential murderers be stopped before they kill people?

It comes down to balancing the two types of error:

1. Mistakenly killing someone who fits the mass-murderer "profile" who in fact would not have done so.

2. Mistakenly NOT killing someone before they murder many people.

Criminal laws are designed to absolutely prevent Type (1) error, which results in the occasional occurrence of Type (2) errors. There's no good way of determining whether this approach lowers the "body count" (we have no idea how many innocent people would be killed by the government's preventive neutralization schemes) -- and besides, many people on principal would not want their governments to have the power to make such decisions.

[There is a big exception to this: The military, in war, will give much less benefit of the doubt to the enemy, and therefore kills first -- even at the expense of innocent civilians ("collateral damage"), and their own members ("friendly fire").]

A compromise solution is an armed citizenry that can restrain (or preferably, "neutralize") the murderer after the murders (or the immediate threats of murder) begin. An objection to this is that if, say, every college student had a gun, then there would be an increase in deaths -- presumably in the spontaneous "manslaughter" category. This seems like it should be of little concern, though, for two reasons:

1. Gun ownership could still be restricted to those who demonstrate firearms competence; people who cannot be trusted with weapons would be denied a permit. (Yes, criminals would have guns anyway. But this would at least keep guns away from incompetent law-abiding people.)

2. You don't need a gun to kill someone. A bat, a pipe, or even a pen will do. For that matter, a big person can kill a small person without any weapons. Has this been a problem on college campuses and office parks? The most weaponized institutions next to police stations are hospitals and doctor's offices; poison away, if you are a psychopath so inclined. But has this been a problem? Then why would armed teachers, or office managers, or college students, present a problem?

Reason #2, though, is a bit troublesome. This is because there is a weapon that is more deadly than any gun, easier to aim, easier to operate, perfectly legal, and ubiquitous: The automobile. Almost everyone "carries" an automobile. Is it used for murder? Rarely. Is it used in manslaughter? That depends on your perspective (absolute deaths vs. the percentage of the population), but it is certainly not zero. However, we feel that the benefits of automobiles are worth the costs.

Back to guns: Manslaughters would probably increase by a negligible amount with widespread gun ownership, but (the rare) mass murders would decline. But another benefit of widespread gun ownership would be a decline in burglaries and everyday muggings.

It all comes down to A) The comparative body counts, B) Which, on an emotional level, scares you more: Premeditated murders, burglaries, & muggings, or the negligence and impulsiveness of manslaughter, and C) Do the ends of less violence justify the means of obtaining it?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Do Trial Lawyers Have Morals?

The ones who only take cases of innocent clients might have morals; the others do not.

The purpose of a trial-by-jury is to protect the innocent, and not to protect the guilty. So, if someone is guilty (of an unambiguous crime like rape or murder), and their lawyer knows it, then a moral lawyer ought to refuse to take the case. Of course, lawyers need to earn money, which explains why they defend (and lie to defend) the guilty. But when lawyers knowingly attempt to persuade juries to free violent criminals, then it can hardly be considered "moral" if the reason is to make money.

Similarly, when trial lawyers attempt to have the courts punish innocent parties (like, say, McDonalds for allegedly making people fat, or drug companies for producing drugs with negligible side effects), then they are also without any morals.

The fact that lawyers often become very affluent by winning these cases does not make them less moral. If they did it "pro bono", they would be no better. In fact, it's the legal system itself that provides the incentives for unscrupulous lawyers to behave in such a depraved way. But still, lawyers do have the ability to turn down cases; they can make choices as well as anyone else.

Monday, April 16, 2007

What is "Third-Party Victimhood"?

Third-Party Victimhood was eloquently defined by H.L. Mencken:

"Whenever A annoys or injures B on the pretense of improving or saving X, A is a scoundrel."

And yet, time and again, "A" is viewed as a paragon of moral virtue, altruistically making sacrifices for the benefit of others.

The most obvious example of this behavior is among politicians, who continuously tax productive people for the sake of providing
welfare to others. It is often couched in altruistic terms, such as "helping the...

- Farmers
- Loggers
- Steel makers
- Minorities
- Women
- Single mothers
- Senior citizens
- Children
- Working people
- Unemployed
- Underclass
- Middle class
- Veterans
- Union members
- Disabled
- Consumers
- Immigrants
- Uninsured
- Borrowers
- People who are denied loans
- Descendants of slaves
- College students
- High school dropouts
- Environmentalists
- Family businesses
- Rural families
- Home owners
- Apartment renters
- Spanish-speaking population
- People with Spanish surnames
- Native Americans
- Motorists
- People who use public transportation
- People who fly
- Cancer victims
- AIDS victims
- Air pollution victims
- Obese
- Malnourished
- Museum visitors
- Public television viewers
- Public radio listeners
- Churches
- Wildlife enthusiasts

...and on and on and on...and ironically enough, they even promise to somehow "help the taxpayer".

From the above list, it's pretty clear that almost everyone falls into at least one (and often more) of those categories -- which implies that the money is simply being shuffled from some people to others, and then to others, and then back again to yet others, until the tax-and-welfare web is so complex that it is hard to determine who exactly is harmed the most. But to some extent, all are harmed because of the associated
taxation. All, that is, except for those who propose and administer these schemes, who are given their "cut" along the way.

Now, let's take one of those groups as an example -- say, museum visitors -- and compare the following TV ads:

1. Politician: "For the sake of art, and for the sake of our children, we must continue to increase funding to museums."

2. Typical affluent museum visitor: "For my sake, we must raise your taxes."

Of course, these statements are functionally equivalent; they are demands to take money from B and give it to X. But when A makes the demand, it appears selfless and moral -- and when X makes the demand, it appears selfish and inappropriate. But they are the same -- except that when X asks directly, at least middleman A does not get a cut.

Why is this such an effective tactic? Probably because A appears to be concerned about X (and we like it when someone shows concern) and X has the dignity to not ask (or demand) your money.

It is something to think about the next time...

- A politician makes a speech.
- A "community activist" makes a demand.
- A coworker asks for a "contribution" for someone else's retirement, departure, birthday, etc.
- An "advocate" for a cause asks for money on the street.

...and so forth.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Why Do Physicians Make So Much Money?

For that matter, why does anyone make as much as they make?

For starters, here are some things that, in isolation, do not affect what people make:

Effort and Hard Work

Painting your house with a toothbrush requires lots of effort, but any painter who proposes such a method will not make much money.


Good musicians, artists, and jugglers are highly-skilled; most need day jobs.

High Costs

You cannot simply "pass costs onto the customer"; most often, high costs will ruin your business.


Setting aside the ambiguous definition of this term, the desire for money does not make one rich (though it would be nice if it could).


Compensation for services is based on:

- Value created for others

- Opportunity costs

- The scarcity of the service

- The demand for the service

- The seller's competition

1. Value Added

How much value is added during brain surgery? How can you tell? How much value is added during a check-up? Which would you rather do without: A) A check-up for five years, or ) Water for two days? Should water cost more than a doctor's visit? A physician can save your life, but most often, you see a physician for routine advice for relatively minor problems. Regardless, whether or not you are a physician, if you don't add value, then you will make no money. (At least, you won't make it honestly.)

2. Opportunity Costs

This is just what you are forgoing when you see the doctor. If you only pay an insurance co-payment, then the opportunity cost of seeing a specialist is perhaps a meal for two at a low-end restaurant. But without insurance, you might prefer to spend some of that medical money on other things; maybe you would wait a little longer for that mysterious pain to go away, or for that chronic inflammation to settle down -- and you would certainly be more inclined to think twice about that "follow-up visit in two weeks". But since most people have insurance, they are inclined to see physicians more often than they otherwise would -- and do not pay much attention to what the doctor is charging.

3. Scarcity

Only a certified physician (and not nurses, psychologists, pharmacists, etc.) can prescribe medication and treat patients; this limits the number of practitioners who can offer medical services. And the total number of physicians is controlled by state medical boards (by limiting the number of medical schools and their enrollment), which also drives the supply of doctors down.

4. Demand

All people get sick, and they all want to get better. The demand for medicine is very inelastic.

5. Sellers Competition

Doctors rarely compete on price because the prices are set for them by insurance companies and government programs like Medicare and Medicaid. And besides, there is no incentive to compete, as the above factors (value adding, low opportunity costs, scarcity, and extra demand) give them a steady supply of customers.

Once the above five items are accounted for, their hard work, skills, and ambition might -- on the margin -- make a difference between being affluent and being very affluent.

In summary, it appears that physicians are affluent because of a combination of natural conditions (they are highly skilled and ambitious people who provide value-added services for a highly demanded product) and artificial restrictions created by the government (insurance schemes and medical school quotas). In order to determine how much of their wealth is generated by natural conditions, the artificial restrictions would need to be removed -- and that is not about to happen.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

How Can We Fix The Ostrich-Meat Crisis?

The year: 2020.

The crisis: A growing taste for ostrich meat has produced a crisis.

The problem was discovered when an astute journalist realized that there wasn't enough ostrich meat being produced to feed everyone. Soon, the populace became distraught and their elected representatives promised to fix the problem.

One candidate for office proposed a universal insurance scheme. "It is unacceptable there are people who cannot afford ostrich meat. I therefore demand universal taxpayer-funded ostrich-meat insurance to make ostrich meat available to everyone! And everyone would get the finest cuts, too!"

Another candidate felt that there were "Two Americas: One that ate ostrich meat, and one that did not." He said that if those who ate ostrich meat simply ate less, then there would be enough left over for everyone else.

And yet another "policy-wonk" candidate noted that "As Americans are eating more and more ostrich meat, our nation is spending more than ever on ostrich meat! This is wrong!"

In the universities, professors debated the merits of different ostrich-meat plans: Should it be declared free for all? Should a voucher program be instituted? Should employers supplement employee benefits with free ostrich meat? Should we adopt the Swedish Ostrich Model?

It was the most perplexing problem: Many people wanted ostrich meat, but it was too expensive!

Soon Congress consulted the ultimate experts on ostrich-meat production, The American Ostrich Meat Association (AOMA), which said that the solutions were A) Ostrich-meat consumers should have more government money to spend on ostrich meat, and B) No changes should be made to the number of ostrich farmers, and C) More government money was needed to pay for university grants to study the problem. The professors really liked Item C.

Limited supply and heavy demand resulted in a perplexed nation. Surely, there must be some way to end this quagmire.

Indeed, the nation was in crisis. And yet simultaneously, no one and everyone had a solution.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Is Immigration Harmful?

This is like asking, "Are more births harmful?"

And that's because the answer is: It depends on who is being born.

If you know beforehand that a rapist will be born (yes, rapists were babies too at one time), then in that case, you might say, "It will be harmful if this person is born."

Similarly, if you know that a potential immigrant is a rapist, then you might say, "Perhaps this person should not be let in."

The main point, so far, is that how one arrives here, through birth or immigration, is irrelevant. So, immigrants can be a welcome addition -- or not. They can be better than natives: Is there anyone who would not "trade in" one thousand American prison inmates in exchange for one thousand random people from Japan? Or, immigrants can be worse than natives -- flight schools were recently a good source of such people.

Of course, one difference between immigrants and births is that it is considered immoral to sterilize a parent if there's a good chance that they would give birth to a criminal. But it is acceptable to have immigration quotas. The thinking is: Citizens have an absolute right to procreate, even if they are psychopaths -- but foreigners do not have a right to establish residence wherever they choose, even when they are "model citizens" and pay their own way.

All that said, immigrants build things, make things, and provide services for us. And not just by being day laborers, but also by being software designers, pharmaceutical researchers, architects, etc. In general, it's a good idea to have lots of immigration.

But there are three decent arguments against immigration:

1. Immigrants might take advantage of our generous welfare system and make us poorer.

2. Their lifestyles might conflict with ours, and too many immigrants (whatever that number is) from different cultures might prolong the time required for their assimilation. (This problem might be overstated, though, as a March 2007 study shows that "Hispanics" assimilate like other groups, and are in fact more patriotic than some "native" groups.)

3. Immigrants might include people who might willfully harm others.

So, there is a two-part solution:

1. Encourage productive people to immigrate (and honor their foreign professional certifications), and

2. Prevent bad people and too many "different cultured" people from immigrating.

All of which leaves us with minimizing opposing errors: Increasing #1 raises the risks associated with #2, and reducing #2 increases the risks associated with not having #1.

How can this be accomplished? Country quotas and background checks are a start, but are clearly not perfect. But is there any evidence that the government even understands the issues?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Does Government Debt Matter?


For all the talk about the government "debt" and "deficits", it is questionable that most people understand these terms. Normally, the "family" analogy is used; i.e., "You wouldn't want your family to be in debt!"

That's a pretty meaningless analogy, as most people would want their families to be in debt under some circumstances, like:

- Buying a house.

- Paying for a college education.

- Borrowing money at 3% and investing it at 7%.

The relevant factor to consider is: What are the alternatives to the government going into debt? In fact, the government has two alternatives, just as any family has:

A) Make the purchase up front, without borrowing.

B) Do not make the purchase at all.

Oddly, when discussing government debt, Alternative (B) never seems to be considered. Instead, the answer is always "raise taxes instead of borrowing". But what does it matter whether taxes are raised to buy something today or to pay off a long-term loan? Neglecting the effect of interest rates, why is it better to empty your bank account to go to the casino instead of emptying your bank account to pay back a gambling loan?

The obvious solution is, "Don't go to the casino to start with." But, if you must go, then borrowing actually makes more sense if you can get a cheap loan -- like the government can with the tax-exempt bonds that it issues.

Put another way, when you are taxed, you are losing your principal and 5% interest that your money would have otherwise earned in the bank. But when the government borrows, then you get to keep your 5% interest at the bank, and pay only 3% interest to the bondholders as they slowly deplete your principal. Of course, if you are paying taxes on your 5% bank interest, then it probably doesn't matter whether the government "borrows" or "takes".

Or, maybe, the government should not be taking your money in any form to begin with.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Should I Die for My Country?

This is a timely question, given the recent conduct of the kidnapped British sailors who immediately cooperated with, and allowed themselves to be humiliated by, their Iranian captors.

Anyway, most people would probably be ashamed to say anything other than "yes" to this question -- or at least they would say that they would die for their country under the right conditions.

But consider this question: How many people would unhesitatingly drown themselves so that some strangers can stay alive in the proverbial lifeboat? What's the difference between the two situations?

Maybe the lifeboat question should have several similar versions:

Version 1: Would you drown yourself to save six strangers on a boat that sprung a leak?

Version 2: Would you drown yourself to save six countrymen on a boat that was being attacked by a foreign country?

Version 3: Would you drown yourself to save six countrymen from the foreign ship if you could also kill the attackers on that ship?

The likelihood of a "yes" answer (and a "yes" action) would no doubt increase from Version 1 to Version 3.

So: What are the differences between the three versions? There are two:

1. The number of lives saved increases from six to an ambiguous future number if the enemy is attacked.

2. A collective is being saved.

Of the above two differences, the second is probably more influential. One way of seeing that is to pretend that you are sitting in front of three buttons, each of which will instantly kill you if pressed.

Button #1 says: "Push me to save six people, somewhere in the world, from being killed today."

Button #2 says: "Push me to save six of your people who are about to be killed by your group's enemies."

Button #3 says: "The future of your people is at stake. Push me to save six of them AND to kill those who are about to kill them."

In the emotionless confines of a room with buttons, and with the anonymity of the decision, it seems unlikely that any button would be pressed. But Button #1 would probably receive the fewest presses.

So, here are the conclusions:

A) Your group's "life" can be more important that your own life; it's the threatened group that matters, not the threatened individuals.

B) The actual number of people you save is probably not important. (Replace the six people with six hundred people, and see if it makes any difference.)

C) People who value their own lives more than anything else ought to be grateful that there are others who are willing to sacrifice.

D) People who are willing to sacrifice for their group ought to be grateful that there are others who place their own lives first. (Would you want to see cancer researchers enlist for front-line duty?)

E) If you voluntarily took an oath to defend your country, and you cooperate with the enemy and not even apologize for it afterwards, then you probably have very little group allegiance -- but more importantly, you are also a disgraceful fraud.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Can Average Test Scores Increase Without Students Scoring Any Higher?

You bet.

If you're in charge of the school district, you can increase average scores (and probably your salary) by simply shuffling students from one school to another. With absolutely no change in individual test scores, the averages will increase.


Let's say that there are two schools, one with low-scoring students, and another with high-scoring students. In fact, here are their grades:

School "A"
Average = 90.0

School "B"
Average = 80.0

What you need to do is make some morally superior platitude about how the School "B" students are suffering from segregation, underfunding, discrimination, etc., and then transfer the worst School "A" students to School "B".

In this example, let's transfer two School "A" students. The new distributions are:

School "A"
Average = 92.5, an increase of 2.5 points!

School "B"
Average = 81.25, an increase of 1.25 points!

Now you can report that the average scores in both schools have increased, and can look like the highly-respected public servant that you are.

This process has a name, the Will Rogers Phenomenon, and it has already been shown to reveal deceptive medical statistics -- specifically in cancer survival.

Must be careful with those numbers...

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Is Abortion Murder?

For argument's sake, let's say, "Yes, abortion is murder. A fetus, from the moment of conception, is a human being, and to destroy it is therefore murder."

Then it follows that...

- The aborting mother should face the death penalty, or at a minimum, life imprisonment. We're talking pre-meditated, first-degree murder here.

- Any parental restrictions on the child's behavior after birth is slavery. There should be no cribs, no gates, no rules. If your new-born wants Jack Daniels in his bottle, you had better respect those wishes.

- Come to think of it, if your new baby threatens to cry if you don't feed him Jack Daniels, then you can sue him for intimidation and psychic damage.

- And if the fetus has been difficult, then a lawyer will be waiting to pounce on him as he emerges into the rest of the world.

- Since the fetus is being singled out because it is a fetus, then it probably deserves some hate-crime protections as well.

- If discarding a four-cell embryo is murder, then what can be said of killing cows, pigs, and sheep? (A four-cell embryo is much less developed than an earthworm, let alone more advanced mammals.) A new vegetarianism awaits.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Must Democracies Stagnate?

Yes, because of political favors granted to reduce competition.


1. Business groups, to maximize profits, demand that the government prohibit competition -- domestic (with restrictive licenses) and foreign (with tariffs).

2. The politicians in government are then pressured to grant these favors, at the risk of not being re-elected.

3. With competition lessened by the government, innovation drops, supplies become artificially low, and we pay high prices.

4. But since each political favor to a business interest costs us pennies, we don't care. No one will petition Congress to save a few cents, on say, sugar -- especially when sugar companies have pressured Congress to maintain quotas that have brought them millions of dollars.

5. However, when all the favors to the many business groups are summed, it costs us a lot.

6. But to stop these favors, each of these hundreds (or thousands?) of laws must be defeated one-by-one. Given the constraints of Point #4, above, this will not happen.

Here's an example:

Recently, President Bush went to Brazil to discuss the substitution of gasoline with sugar-based ethanol. This would make Americans less reliant on foreign oil suppliers, and would reduce the cost of transportation. But although Brazilian farmers were willing to sell cheap ethanol to Americans, Bush indicated that he would not permit the imports without a punitive tariff -- the reason being to "protect" American farmers who are already making corn-based ethanol. But what alternative did Bush have? To anger the farmers, and ruin the chances that his party would win elections?

So, who's the bad guy here:

The politicians, for abusing their power by taking from everyone to give to a privileged few? (But what other choice do the politicians have, if they want to be re-elected?)


The businesses, for pressuring the government to abuse their power? (But since when is it a crime to support whomever you please in a democratic election? Don't individual citizens do that all the time when their senator fails to "bring home the bacon" from Washington?)

Are both the bad guys? Or is everyone just an honest victim doing their best within a system that will only reward someone else if they fail to follow their incentives?

Thursday, April 5, 2007

What Do Polls Say About Atheists?

On March 31st, Newsweek released the results of a poll done by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. (Their expertise is implied by the use of the word "Princeton" in their name; perhaps this blog should be renamed the "Princeton faQster".)

From this poll, we learn that:

- 3% percent of Americans say they are atheists.

- Oddly, 49% say that they personally know an atheist. If 49% of the population personally knows someone from the 3%, then that, it appears, doesn't add up.

- 26% of Americans say that atheists cannot be moral, and another 6% would have to think about it. Are these people from the 49% who personally know atheists, or from the other 51% who only know them from TV (or whatever)?

- 62% would not vote for an atheist, and another 9% would have to think about it. (Replace "atheist" with "black", "Jew", "woman", or even "Muslim" and see how that sounds. Is there any group, other than, say, child rapists, who would be as automatically disqualified?)

- The survey also says that
4% of "Evangelical Protestants" feel that God had no part in the origin and development of humans.

4% of Evangelical Protestants say that God had no part? They would be interesting people to meet.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Who Pays Taxes: The Buyer or The Seller? The Employer or The Employee?

One or the other, sometimes both, sometimes none.

Here's a simple example: Say that you buy apples for 20 cents each, and sell them for 25 cents. Then, a 2-cent sales tax is applied. Two different things can then happen:

A) You can charge 27 cents per apple: 25 cents and a 2-cent tax.

B) Buyers might refuse to spend more than 25 cents per apple, so you lower the price to 23 cents, charge a 2-cent tax, and collect a total of 25 cents.

Depending on the buyers' willingness to buy apples at a high price, your willingness to sell them at a low price, and competition among apple sellers and buyers, the final price (including the tax) can be anywhere between 25 cents and 27 cents.

Here's where the real harm comes in: For whatever reasons (say, bad weather), you now need to pay 24 cents for apples, and must therefore charge 25 cents to make a profit. Now, let's say that people will pay a maximum of 25 cents, tax or no tax.

Question: Who will now pay the 2-cent tax?

You're already making as slim a profit as possible, so you have to "pass the tax along" to the buyers. But the buyers don't think apples are worth 26 cents. So: No deal. The apples go unsold, even though you are willing to sell them and people are willing to buy them at a mutually agreed-upon 25 cents.

So...who pays the tax? Regardless of what the law says about who will pay the tax, it will be paid sometimes by the seller, sometimes by the buyer, sometimes by the buyer and the seller, and sometimes -- when businesses are ruined -- by no one.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Should Gambling Remain Illegal?

No, because most gambling is perfectly legal right now -- and it's a good thing that it is. That is, gambling is the basis of the entire economy; investors gamble with capital so that they will be able to make a profit. To run a business, people gamble that they will be able to recover their upfront costs.

For that matter, all financial markets are pure gambles; "Wall Street" is a giant casino where gamblers bet on stocks instead of on roulette wheels or playing cards. Again, it's a good thing that they do, or companies would have difficulty raising money.

Even when you buy "safe" municipal bonds at a fixed rate of return, you are gambling that interest rates stay low; if they rise, then the value of your bonds will fall. Or, on a smaller scale, when you buy the extra-large Costco megapack of toilet tissue, you are betting that the price of toilet tissue will not go down. For that matter, when you plan your next vacation, you are betting your chances of getting killed in an auto accident that you will instead enjoy yourself.

Placing bets on stocks, or anything else, conveys information. Any blowhard can express an ignorant opinion, but when it's time to "put up or shut up", their opinions tend to be more educated and carefully selected. Which is why "terrorism betting markets" were proposed by The Pentagon after 9/11, though they were immediately rejected by senators posturing as defenders of morality -- even though the same politicians are silent on similar betting markets that convey no useful information, like state-operated horse-race gambling and state lotteries. In fact, as one of the more strident voices against allowing freedom in futures markets, Senator Hillary Clinton ought know a thing or two about that topic.

(There's another hypocrisy analogy here when governments ban or partially-ban drugs like marijuana and codeine, although they peddle all-you-can-drink alcohol at municipally owned/financed stadiums. And for the ultimate in government hypocrisy, bear in mind that taxation is almost identical to gambling -- except that you are guaranteed to lose every time.)

Of course, the ostensible reason for opposition to gambling (notwithstanding the above financial-markets examples) is the patronizing view that people are too stupid to gamble prudently, so they must be stopped entirely. Except when the proceeds go to people who define themselves as "Native Americans"; then it's apparently OK for stupid people to gamble away their money, for some reason.

For now, you can gamble all you like with play-money at Inkling Markets; they'll even start you off with five-thousand "dollars". Or, if you wish to wager real money on predicting events, then you can try the Iowa Electronic Markets, which, for some reason has not been shut down. Yet.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Are Some People Poor Because Other People Are Rich?

"In a world in which more than a billion people struggle to survive on the purchasing-power equivalent of less than $1 a day, there has to be a serious moral doubt about whether anyone should be a billionaire."

- Peter Singer, "Bioethics Professor" at Princeton University, quoted in the L.A. Times, 3/18/07

If you bought a typical house for $100,000 and spent much effort improving it so that it is now worth $200,000, did you make anyone poorer? Would you have a serious moral doubt about the new value of your house? Should your neighbors now be entitled to payments from you? If you answer "yes", then how would that have affected your decision to improve your property to begin with?

If this house happened to be in a neighborhood that, by luck, happened to become very desirable -- and increased its value to $1,000,000, would you then have serious moral doubts about the value of your property? Should you now be sending payments to people in other neighborhoods? If you answer "yes", then how would that affect the desirability of buying houses in areas with potential to improve?

Replace "houses" with "businesses" or "stocks", increase the values, and you have billionaires. How has Bill Gates' ownership of Microsoft stock made anyone else poorer? And by what moral principle should he be obliged to send payments to other people?

To rephrase Professor Singer's insight:

"In a city where many people live in public housing, there has to be serious doubt about whether anyone should own a house."

"In a city where many people use public transportation, there has to be serious doubt about whether anyone should own a car."

"In a city where many people are miserable, there has to be serious doubt about whether anyone should be happy."

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Does Milk Go Bad at Exactly Midnight of The Expiration Date?

Or, if you prefer, here are similar questions:

- Are people suddenly responsible enough to drink at midnight of their 21st birthday?

- Does driving become much more dangerous at 65.001 mph?

- Are you obese if your BMI is 30.0, but not if your BMI is 29.999?

These specific definitions are intended to address the problem of vagueness by pretending that there is precision where there is none. They're forms of the continuum fallacy, which is illustrated by trying to figure out how many grains of sand it takes to make a sand pile. If you have a some sand that is smaller than a sand pile, adding one grain will never convert it to a "pile". But that implies that achieving a sand pile is impossible if you only add one grain at a time.

So, how can vagueness be addressed? Or, more accurately, how can vagueness be managed? Mathematically, it cannot be addressed; it will remain a paradox.

A) Minimize one error, and ignore the other -- which seems to be the usual solution. That is, set an expiration date that will ensure that only 5% of milk will go bad -- and accept the negative consequence that lots of otherwise good milk will be discarded. Or, set a speed limit that will reduce fatal accidents to 5% of unrestricted speed fatalities, and accept that many people will pay the price of wasting lots of time by driving too slow. There's nothing magic about 5% in these cases; in fact, one would have to need to balance the two types of error to find the "correct" solution. But as long as the solution is "one size fits all", there will be inefficiencies and equity concerns. ("Why should that inept person be allowed a drivers license when it is denied to me because I am under the cutoff age? I'm a better driver; I should be driving him!")

B) Redefine these terms to have more categories; i.e. milk can have a "fresh" date, a "probably fresh" date, a "little curdling" date, and a "foul" date. This provides more useful information, though it can be unnecessarily confusing. Also, it does not address the vagueness issue because each of these new categories would be defined by artificially precise dates.

C) Assign probabilities to freshness; i.e., develop a thermometer-like scale from 0% freshness to 100% freshness. However, this doesn't address the problem; it ignores it. By analogy, this would be like replacing the vague word "fever" with only a numerical gauge.

D) Evaluate every product and person individually. This addresses equity issues, but not vagueness. That is, it doesn't explain exactly when someone becomes obese or bald.

E) Use plain-English and common-sense intuition to either override or complement numerical data and express the evaluation in plain English. Milk sitting at room temperature, someone driving 75 mph with no traffic nearby, and a psychopath 35-year old reaching for a case of beer are all examples of where unanticipated factors invalidate the original "rules" and would make us say, respectively, that the milk might be getting old, that there is minimal added danger in driving faster, and that the psychopath should probably not drink too much, regardless of age. It's related to fuzzy logic, and though it doesn't resolve the vagueness paradox, it does help solve the problem.