Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Reflections on the David Weigel Affair

David Weigel is a journalist who used to cover the conservative movement on behalf of the Washington Post. He also participated in a "private" listserve populated mostly by liberal journalists. Someone leaked some at least mildly offensive comments in his listserve posts—he referred to Ron Paul supporters as "Paultards" and suggested that Matt Drudge should set himself on fire—to the media, and he ended up resigning from the Post, how voluntarily is not entirely clear.

While some commenters viewed Weigel as a liberal pretending to be a conservative in order to infiltrate, and pan, the conservative movement, it seems clear from the more informed comments that he was, and was known to be, a libertarian, having worked for Reason Magazine for some years before going to the Post. I am very bad at remembering the names of people I meet, but so far as I know I never met Weigel, and I don't read the Post. But the story involves two worlds I am a part of—libertarianism and cyberspace.

One interesting question is why Weigel was let go by Reason. Accounts by both the current (Matt Welch) and previous (Nick Gillespie) editors make it sound as though Weigel is claiming that he was fired for being too hostile to Republicans and too friendly to open borders and gay marriage—not a very plausible claim given Reason's policies. What Weigel actually wrote, however, was:
"After the 2008 election, I drove up from Atlanta to D.C. and was greeted by my editor, Matt Welch, with surprising news. It would be better, he said, if I worked somewhere else. I’d voted for the Obama-Biden ticket (having joked, semi-seriously, that I was honor-bound to vote for a ticket with a fellow Delawarean on it) and wasn’t fully on board with the magazine’s upcoming, wonky focus on picking apart the new administration. My friend, Spencer Ackerman, immediately bought me Ethiopian food and suggested I come to work at his magazine, The Washington Independent. I was dicey about the suggestion, partly because I was already doing some work for The Economist. At Reason, I’d become a little less favorable to Republicans, and I’d never been shy about the fact that I was pro-gay marriage and pro-open borders. But could I do the same work if I jumped to a left-leaning web magazine? I figured that I could, largely because I wouldn’t change at all."
The references to being less favorable to Republicans, pro-gay marriage and pro-open borders are not offered as explanations of why Welch fired him but as considerations in his decision about where to go next. Welch's account obscures this by leaving off the last two sentences of what I have quoted above. Gillespie does him one better by also eliding out a sentence from the middle of the quote; his version is:
"After the 2008 election, I drove up from Atlanta to D.C. and was greeted by my editor, Matt Welch, with surprising news. It would be better, he said, if I worked somewhere else. I’d voted for the Obama-Biden ticket (having joked, semi-seriously, that I was honor-bound to vote for a ticket with a fellow Delawarean on it) and wasn’t fully on board with the magazine’s upcoming, wonky focus on picking apart the new administration….At Reason, I’d become a little less favorable to Republicans, and I’d never been shy about the fact that I was pro-gay marriage and pro-open borders."
By eliminating all mention of the job offer Weigel was considering, Gillespie makes it look as though the final comments refer to leaving Reason. He then writes: "Similarly, the implication that Reason would be bothered by a staffer’s attacks on Republicans or support for gay marriage and open borders makes about as much sense and holds as much value as fiat currency."

Which is entirely true—but, since Weigel offered no such implication, also irrelevant. First editing down what he said to make it look as though he implied something that isn't true and then attacking him for doing so is either incompetent or dishonest.

Welch is a little better, writing "Another clarification, especially for people unfamiliar with Reason: There is, to put it mildly, zero professional sanction at this magazine for being 'a little less favorable to Republicans,' or being 'pro-gay marriage and pro-open borders.'" Which suggests that Weigel implied the contrary but stops short of saying so.

After writing the above, I described the situation to my wife. Her response was that both editors were viewing Weigel's comment through their own filters, assuming it was all about his firing and editing out of what he wrote everything irrelevant to that.

"Never attribute to malice ... ."

When I started this post, before coming across three different versions of why Weigel left Reason, I was planning to comment on the fact that for a lot of people (although perhaps not the editors of the Post) "libertarian" is now a clearly recognized category, so that "he wasn't a conservative or a liberal, he was a libertarian" is immediately comprehensible to them. I don't think that would have been true twenty years ago.

For the second half of this (already long) post, we have cyperspace and privacy. Weigel, in his explanation of the affair, quotes David Brooks at some length about the amount of confidential griping in the world of Washington politics:
So every few weeks I find myself on the receiving end of little burst of off-the-record trash talk. Senators privately moan about other senators. Administration officials gripe about other administration officials. People in the White House complain about the idiots in Congress, and the idiots in Congress complain about the idiots in the White House — especially if they’re in the same party. Washington floats on a river of aspersion.
This suggests that he may have viewed his comments to Journolist as in the same category as that sort of "off-the-record trash talk." If so, he was making a fairly serious error. One on one griping preserves the possibility of confidentiality—if the journalist quotes his off the record source, he may find sources less willing to talk to him in the future. Posts to a listserve with a hundred participants are a very different matter.

I was reminded of an even stupider mistake along similar lines that I made a few years back. In the course of a Usenet discussion, I offered my view of someone with whom I had reasonably friendly relations but of whose work I had a not very high opinion. Some time later I received an email from him asking if I had really said that, and had to confess that I had. It should have been obvious at the time that, since I was posting to a public forum, what I said was likely to eventually reach the person I said it about. But to me at the time it felt like a conversation, not a publication, so the problem simply didn't occur to me.

I have tried to be more careful since.

Chicago, Guns, and Pretending not to Have Lost

I was amused by a recent article quoting Mara Georges, a top attorney for the city of Chicago, on how the city could continue to achieve the objectives of the gun ban that the Supreme Court just declared to be unconstitutional. The policy which she proposed and claimed—for all I know correctly—was still constitutional, would be to limit handgun ownership to one handgun per resident and ban gun shops within the city. As she explained:

"Part of the goal is to prevent straw purchases, limit suicides and make it less likely one family member will hurt another, either accidentally or intentionally."

The point about straw purchases is a legitimate one. Committing suicide, or killing your spouse, only requires one gun.

“The same concerns that motivate a one handgun per person per residence limit — reducing the number of guns in circulation in Chicago and the risk of illegal traffic in guns — motivate the gun dealer ban,” she added. “Gun dealers have access to large quantities of guns. Gun stores therefore pose a serious risk of guns flowing quickly into the community and into the hands of criminals through theft or through illegal trafficking.”

She went on to say that there are 45 gun stores within 13 miles of the city.

'It is clear that Chicago residents who would like to own a gun for self defense in the home have a wide array of options very close to the city at which to purchase their handgun,' she said."

No explanation of what prevents criminals, like other people, from obtaining their firearms from suburban gun shops.

I am reminded, oddly enough, of a conversation with a Harvard economist a very long time ago.

In the early sixties, when I was an undergraduate at Harvard, it was taken for granted by most economists, in particular by Harvard economists, that there was a tradeoff between inflation and unemployment, permitting a government that wished to keep unemployment down to do so at the cost of letting prices rise; the relationship was referred to as the Phillips Curve. The rival Chicago school argued that the relation held only in the short run. Once people adjusted their expectations to the new inflation rate, unemployment would go back up. The Harvard view of Chicago was reflected in the comment of a fellow student that he couldn't take economics at Chicago because he would burst out laughing.

Professional opinion shifted a little later, due both to evidence—stagflation—and theory. At some point, probably in the seventies, I happened to be discussing the issue with someone from the Harvard economics department. He commented that everyone, of course, knew that the long run Phillips Curve was vertical—precisely the old Chicago position. But it was at least logically possible that the temporary gain from the reduced unemployment in the short term would be larger than the costs of the permanent increase in the inflation rate needed to produce it. Like Ms Georges, he was doing his best to salvage what he could from the wreckage of defeat—in his case intellectual rather than legal.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Machinery of Freedom is Now Up in e-book format

My first book is now webbed both in pdf and, thanks to the efforts of Randomscrub, as a MobiPocket e-book file compatible with both MobiPocket software and the Amazon Kindle.

Friday, June 25, 2010

How to Test Tests

A recent news story reports on tests of the cameras of four high end smart phones, giving high marks to the new iPhone. Reading it, it occurred to me that would be nice to have some measure of the reliability of reports of this sort.

In this case, there is a simple way to do it. Each image was evaluated by five independent judges; their conclusions were combined for the final result. It would be straightforward to calculate the standard deviation of the scores they produced and from that how likely it was that the difference between the phone that won and the phone that came in second was due to chance.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Downloads of The Machinery of Freedom

A few days ago, my son Patri asked me how many times the file had been downloaded, suggesting that he expected it was in the thousands—a guess that struck me as implausibly large. My ISP provides summary statistics on traffic generated by Webalizer, which I link to at the bottom of my web page. But when I looked at them, I discovered that they had last been updated on June 9th. Since I didn't web the book until June 17th, that wasn't very useful. I called my ISP, they said there must be something wrong since the statistics were supposed to update daily, and they would look into it.

I was still curious, so I went to the logs folder on my site and downloaded access_log, which was current. It's a text file, so I loaded it into Word, found the text representing a download of the Machinery pdf, and used Word's search and replace feature to count how many times the text appeared. To my astonishment, the result was over fourteen thousand.

I wasn't sure I believed it, so I located a Mac program for analyzing weblogs ("Traffic Report"), and downloaded it—the program permits a free trial for a month. It agreed with my previous result, showing 14,526 hits for the file. Since it's a single pdf, hits ought to be downloads. I then sent enthusiastic emails to Patri, my agent, and my contact at Open Court, which published Machinery—and until recently wouldn't let me web it.

This morning, I took a look at the summary provided by my ISP. It had been updated. But its figure for downloads, although still more than I would have expected a few days back, was much lower—2867. On the other hand, its figures for daily traffic showed it roughly doubling the day after I webbed the Machinery pdf, an increase of almost 2000 hits a day, and staying up thereafter. Assuming those are all Machinery downloads, that would be a total of about ten thousand—much larger than their figure, lower than the Traffic Report figure.

My current (optimistic) guess is that the Traffic Report figure is correct and there is still something wrong with the Webalizer figure. An alternative possibility is that the two sources are reporting on different information. Perhaps, for example, Webalizer has some way of filtering out hits from web spiders—although it's hard to believe that that could represent so large a difference, and I am not seeing a similar difference on the figures for other files.

It occurred to me that some readers of this blog probably know a lot more than I do about analyzing web traffic, hence this post. I'm hoping that one of you can suggest a plausible explanation for the discrepency between the number produced by Welalizer and the number produced by Traffic Report, and some way of testing whether the explanation is correct.


P.S. (6/27/10) Update on downloads:

According to my ISP's software, Machinery has had 4357 hits and a total download of 142264K, for an average of 330K per hit. The file shows on the web site as 517K, which suggests that on average I'm getting about two downloads for every three hits. This may, as some have suggested, reflect the use of a download accelerator or something similar, with some people downloading the file in several pieces. The corresponding figures for Salamander are 255 hits, 142264K downloaded, for an average of 558K; the file is 776 K, so a similar ratio.

For the moment I'm assuming those numbers are correct; I don't yet have an explanation of why my earlier analysis of the access log produced figures so much larger. Both the software I used and the software my ISP provides give statistics in terms of hits, not as an estimate of number of downloads, so I would think both would have been affected in the same way by anything that made the number of hits substantially larger than the number of downloads.

It looks as though downloads are continuing at a rate of hundreds, but not thousands, a day.

As before, suggested explanations of my data from those more familiar with the subject are invited.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Jennifer Roback Morse: Defending Marriage, Misrepresenting Smith?

A correspondent called my attention to an interesting essay by Jennifer Roback Morse, an economist I used to know a very long time ago. Since then, she seems to have become an articulate and prolific author in support of conventional marriage—and an energetic opponent of same-sex marriage. Her essay is aimed mainly at libertarians; its central argument is that a society where sex and child-rearing occur primarily within conventional marriage is, from their standpoint, more desirable than what she thinks we are moving towards, a society of casual hook-ups, single mothers, and court-enforced rules on child support, visitation rights, and the like.

It is a plausible claim, but the author never makes it clear what she thinks should be done in order to maintain the more desirable pattern of behavior. She repeatedly refers to laws and norms without much attempt to distinguish between them. Is she merely arguing that we, as individuals, ought to treat married parents with more respect than unmarried ones and encourage other individuals to do the same? That we should advise our children to look for long-term mates? Does she want the law to treat conventional marriage as an enforceable contract—hard to get out of, with civil or criminal penalties attached to adultery? Does she want tax law and other interactions with government to favor people who have entered into such a contract? In this essay, at least, she does not say, although I could probably get some answers by reading other things she has written.

My most serious criticism of the piece, as it happens, has nothing to do with the author's views on marriage. She writes:

Adam Smith recognized in the tenth chapter of The Wealth of Nations that “people of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” Smith understood that the “natural” tendency to cheat the public must be checked by legal and social norms. The law must prohibit some economic behavior.

The actual passage she is quoting from reads:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices. It is impossible indeed to prevent such meetings, by any law which either could be executed, or would be consistent with liberty and justice. But though the law cannot hinder people of the same trade from sometimes assembling together, it ought to do nothing to facilitate such assemblies, much less to render them necessary. A regulation which obliges all those of the same trade in a particular town to enter their names and places of abode in a public register, facilitates such assemblies. It connects individuals who might never otherwise be known to one another, and gives every man of the trade a direction where to find every other man of it. ...

Smith is not arguing, as Morse claims, that "The law must prohibit some economic behavior." On the contrary, he explicitly says that no law prohibiting the behavior described "would be consistent with liberty and justice." He is arguing not for laws against conspiracies in restraint of trade but against laws that help to create them—the 18th century equivalents of modern regulatory cum cartelizing agencies such as the ICC and CAB.

Morse has not merely misrepresented the point of the passage, she has very nearly reversed it. Either she does not know the passage she is quoting—from the most famous book in her (and my) field—or she is deliberately misleading her readers.

One final point. My usual response to reading something, especially by someone I know, and disagreeing with parts of it is to email the author. I wrote this post instead because I was unable to find an email address for her anywhere online—not in her blog profile, not on "her" (actually her organization's) web page. The nearest I managed was an online form for people who wanted to contact the organization she runs—and sign up for their newsletter. It contained no field for comments. This pattern seems to have become increasingly common online—the assumption seems to be that communication is a one-way process, with the important person talking to an audience and not interested in having the audience talk back.

I did eventually find an email address for Jennifer Morse in my old email—someone some time back had sent a message to lots of people, including both her and me. I sent her the blog post. That was several days ago. Having received no reply, I am now posting it.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Machinery of Freedom is Webbed

Today I got permission from my publisher to web the full text of The Machinery of Freedom; I have now done so. The file I am using is a pdf that some unknown person posted some time back without permission. Since he felt free to pirate my work, I think it only fair to free ride on his effort scanning the book in.

The next step will be to add additional material and produce a third edition. It is possible, but not likely, that my current publisher will be interested in bringing it out. Failing that, perhaps another publisher will be. Failing that, there is always self publishing, which is a more viable option now than it used to be.

My New Phone and a Downside to Open Source

As long term readers of this blog know, one of my hobbies has for some time been window shopping new cell phones, mostly Android, and thinking about whether I wanted to buy one to replace my G1. I finally took the plunge and am now the owner of an HTC Incredible.

So far I think it was the right decision—it seems like a very nice phone. One problem, however, arose. I had been looking forward to being able to link it to a portable bluetooth keyboard via some third party software. I tried installing the software and it didn't work; the phone thought bluetooth was turned off even though it was actually turned on. A little searching located an exchange online between the producers of the program and a customer with the same problem. It turns out that the software does not yet work on the Incredible.

The Android operating system is open source. One result is that manufacturers and carriers can, if they wish, produce their own customized versions. And do. One result of that is that a program that runs under Android 2.1 on one phone may not run under the "same" operating system on another. A second result is that when Google brings out a new version of the OS—Android 2.2 aka Froyo is supposed to be a large improvement over 2.1—it may take quite a while before it is available for all of the phones that are, in hardware terms, capable of running it. Froyo is currently available for the Nexus One, a close relative of my phone made by the same manufacturer. It is unclear how soon I will get it.

Of course, another result of Android being open source is that independent programmers can, and do, bring out their own improved versions, along with instructions how to substitute them for what comes with your phone. Odds are that, if I am willing to risk something non-standard, there will be a version of Froyo I can run on my phone considerably before Verizon announces one.

Children and Make Believe

A very long time ago I was visiting my parents in Vermont along with my son, then four, and his eight year old cousin. I took the opportunity to introduce both of the children to shooting a BB gun. The eight year old clearly understood what was happening—that whether you hit the target (probably a tin can or something similar) depended on how you pointed the gun. The four year old, as best I could tell, did not. To him, it was all make believe, like shooting a toy gun at something. You pointed the gun somewhere, you pulled the trigger, and the can did or did not fall down.

My son grew up and produced a son of his own; last night my grandson had dinner at a restaurant along with me, his aunt, and his wicked step-grandmother. He got bored, so we provided him with paper and crayons. He drew some lines on the paper and then told us that the picture he had drawn was funny.

So far as I could tell (his aunt disagrees), there was no picture, just random lines. My guess was that, like his father thirty some years earlier, he was engaged in make believe. You did things with a crayon and paper and you pretended they were a picture. Aside from bringing back old memories, it also raised a question about sensible child rearing policies. Should I have told him that yes, it was a funny picture? Or should I have said, as I did, that I didn't see anything funny there?

My guess is that my policy was the correct one. Children have to learn to realize that there is a real world out there, hard and sometimes sharp edged; make believe ultimately doesn't provide a way of dealing with that world. Adults who play along—not in the sense of participating in a game that both sides realize is a game (I do lots of that, which may be part of why my grandson thinks I'm silly) but in the sense of treating make believe as if it were real—are making it harder for them to learn that. Which may explain why some people never do.

It is much the same issue that my son discussed a while back on his blog, in the context of playing games with children—indeed with the same child. Do you deliberately lose the game to him or do you treat him as you expect adults to treat each other, with due allowance for the fact that he knows much less than you do about many things, including games? Do you encourage a child to play games with you by letting him win or by adjusting the rules, creating suitable handicaps to make it an even game—and then playing for real?

When I was growing up, we had a ping-pong table in the basement and I spent a good deal of time playing my father. We used a sliding handicap. I started with some number of points. Every time I lost my starting score went up by one point for the next game, every time I won it went down. Gradually, over the years, it crept down to zero.
P.S. My wife agrees with my daughter. She thinks my grandson was really trying to draw a rocket but didn't do a very good job of it.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Politics as Entertainment: The Alvin Greene Story

H. L. Mencken wrote somewhere that Congress was worth the cost of its salary simply as a form of entertainment. I was reminded of that reading news stories about the outcome of the recent South Carolina Democratic primary, where an unemployed veteran with no background in politics won, by a healthy margin, the senate nomination. The Democratic establishment responded with outrage to this particular outcome of democratic politics. The losing candidate strongly hinted at evidence of vote fraud, while one prominent congressman implied that Greene was some sort of Republican plant:

"I know a Democratic pattern. I know a Republican pattern, and I saw in the Democratic primary elephant dung all over the place,"

It's possible, as some of the Democrats claim to believe, that Greene was persuaded to run by someone working for the opposition party, but that doesn't explain his winning—he apparently did no campaigning and ran no ads. My own guess is that it was a random fluke. The Republicans were expected to win the election, so the Democratic nomination wasn't a big issue, so nobody paid much attention to it. Greene won either because voters liked his name, because they disliked the other candidate and, knowing nothing about Greene because they had never heard of him, had nothing against him, because his name appeared first on the ballot, or for some other reason I haven't thought of.

Whatever the explanation, watching the Democratic party, state and national, try to wriggle out of an outcome of majority voting that they don't like, at least provides the rest of us with some entertainment.


"If I was runnin' f'r office, I'd change me name, an' have printed on me cards: 'Give him a chanst; he can't be worse.'"

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Ambiguity of "Equal Rights"

"Equal Rights" sounds like a principle practically everyone, at least in our society, is in favor of, which makes claims about equal rights rhetorically effective. It is not at all clear, however, what it means. The problem occurred to me recently while listening to Ted Olsen, who is one of the attorneys trying to persuade the Supreme Court that California's failure to permit gay marriage is an unconstitutional violation of the principle. His view, widely shared by supporters of gay marriage, is that current California law fails to provide homosexuals the same right it provides to heterosexuals—the right to be married to the partner of their choice.

An opponent could respond, with equal logic, that it is consistent with equal rights. Both homosexuals and heterosexuals have the right to marry a partner of the opposite sex, neither has the right to marry a partner of the same sex. Seen from this standpoint, the difference is not in what rights different people have but in what rights matter to different people. Current California law provides both homosexuals and heterosexuals with the marital right that heterosexuals value and provides neither with the marital right that homosexuals value.

For those readers who see this as merely a rhetorical quibble, I put the following question: Is a law forbidding discrimination against gays in housing or employment also a violation of equal rights? Seen from one standpoint, it provides the right to hire or rent or sell to the person of one's choice to those people who are not prejudiced against gays but not to those who are—a violation of equal rights. Seen from the other, it provides both groups the right to decide who to deal with on grounds other than sexual preference and provides neither the right to make the decision on grounds of sexual preference. It's just that the right it denies is valuable to one group and worthless to the other. The logic is exactly the same as in the case of California marriage law.

All of which suggests to me that that the principle of equal rights is a great deal less clear than it may at first seem.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Lesbian Parenting and the Problem With Public Information

A recent and widely reported news story, headlined "Kids of lesbians have fewer behavioral problems, study suggests," reported that "A nearly 25-year study concluded that children raised in lesbian households were psychologically well-adjusted and had fewer behavioral problems than their peers."

The conclusion does not strike me as particularly surprising. In our society and many others, mothers play a larger role in child rearing than fathers, so it would not be surprising if children with two mothers did, on average, better than children with a mother and a father. Reading the story, however, I concluded that it did not actually give me much reason to believe in its conclusion—for two related reasons.

The first was a quote from the lead researcher that appeared in some versions of the story: "Gartrell can't say with certainly whether the findings would apply to gay fathers. It's ''highly likely," she says."

Gartrell's study was limited to lesbian couples. On theoretical grounds, one could take her result as evidence not that homosexuals are good at child rearing but that women are, in which case it would imply the precise opposite of what she suggests. Insofar as the quote is evidence of anything, it is evidence of bias on the part of the researcher. As anyone familiar with statistical work knows, there are a lot of ways in which a researcher can tweak the design of a study, deliberately or not, to produce the result the researcher wants.

One way might be by the choice of the set of heterosexual couples to which the lesbian couples were being compared. The two groups might differ in important ways other than their sexual preferences. Most obviously, since the lesbian parents had conceived via artificial insemination, their pregnancies were all planned and all desired. If the comparison group contained a significant number of children from unplanned and unwanted pregnancies, that might explain why more of them had behavioral problems. One could imagine a variety of other possible explanations as well—and the news stories did not provide enough information to confirm or reject them.

Fortunately, nowadays, one is not limited to news stories. A web search quickly turned up the actual text of the article. Reading it, I discovered:

1. The two groups were not closely matched, due to data limitations, a problem that the authors noted. They differed strikingly in geographic location, since the lesbian couples were all recruited in the Boston, D.C., and San Francisco meteropolitan areas, while the data on children of heterosexual couples, coming from another researcher's work, was based on a wider distribution of locations. They were not matched racially—14% of the heterosexual couples were black, 3% of the lesbian couples were. They were not matched socio-economically—on average, the heterosexual couples were of higher SES than the lesbian couples.

The statistical analysis on which the story was based contained no controls for those differences, any one of which might have affected the conclusion. The authors could have compared the outcome of child rearing by white lesbian couples to the outcome of child rearing by white heterosexual couples, by high SES lesbian couples to high SES heterosexual couples, ... . They did none of that, although it is possible that in future work they will.

2. There was a second problem that had not occurred to me, possibly because I had not read the news story carefully enough. Questionaires went, at various points in the study, to both mothers and children. But the conclusion about how well adjusted the children were was based entirely on the reports of ther mothers. A more accurate, if less punchy, headline would have read: "Lesbian Mothers Think Better of Their Kids than Heterosexual Mothers Do."

My point in this post is not to criticize the authors of the study. There may have been good reasons why they used the data they did, despite its limitations, and they may be planning a more informative analysis of their results for later work. It is easy for an outside observer to suggest things scholars ought to have done, not always as easy for the scholars to follow the advice.

My point is rather about the information available to ordinary readers through newspapers, the webbed equivalent, radio and television, and similar sources. The implication of the news stories was that the study provided strong evidence that lesbian parents did, on average, a better job of child rearing than heterosexual parents. A reader who went to the trouble of locating and reading the published report of the study, as few would, would discover that that implication was false. The study provided some evidence for the conclusion, but not very much. It could as easily be interpreted as evidence that richer people do a worse job of child-rearing than poorer people, blacks worse than whites, parents from flyover country worse than the inhabitants of the coastal metropolises—or that lesbian parents are even more strongly biased in favor of their own children than other parents.

The only thing that the headlines provided clear evidence of was what their authors wanted their readers to believe.

Monday, June 07, 2010

A Possible New Edition of my Machinery of Freedom

It looks as though I may be putting together a third edition of my first book, with a good deal of added material based on things I have written since. I expect that some readers of this blog are familiar with the book and some of my other writing, so thought it would be worth collecting opinions on what is worth including. The following is my tentative list of chapters for the new Part V; I am interested in suggestions both with regard to what is there that shouldn't be and what is not there that should.

A positive account of Property Rights
A World of Strong Privacy
Problems with Ayn Rand
National Defense: Further Thoughts on a Hard Problem
Market Failure, Considered as an Argument For and Against Government
Lessons from Other Legal Systems
Capitalist Trucks
The Economics of Virtue and Vice
The Weak Case for Public Schooling
Welfare and Immigration
Anarchy and Efficient Law

Saturday, June 05, 2010

If Slavery Hadn't Ended

My previous post spawned a long comment thread, in part on the question of whether, if the South had been permitted to secede, slavery would have died out anyway. One argument in favor is that it was gradually disappearing elsewhere. Another, offered by Hummel in his book, is that the northern states of the Confederacy would have had a hard time maintaining slavery, given the existence of a border across which slaves could escape with no risk of being returned.

There is, however, a disturbing possibility in the other direction, which I do not think anyone in the thread has mentioned. The literature on slavery suggests that how successful it was depended in part on the cost of monitoring slaves to make sure they were working hard at what the owner wanted them to work at. Some forms of agriculture, notably cotton and sugar production, could be done by gang labor—a lot of workers working together, all doing the same thing—making it relatively easy to identify and punish workers not doing their job. Other forms involved a lot more individual labor and individual decisions, making it harder for one supervisor to adequately control a lot of slave workers. In the latter forms, such as growing wheat, slavery was roughly competitive with free labor, meaning that if slaves were cheap and wages high it paid to use slaves, if slaves were relatively expensive and wages low it paid to hire free workers instead. In forms of agriculture suitable for gang labor, on the other hand, if slavery was an option, as it was in the southern states and the West Indies, free labor couldn't compete. The advantage—from the standpoint of the slave owner—of being able to work slaves harder than free workers without having to pay for the resulting disutility to the workers outweighed the disadvantages of using slaves.

Assembly line labor for industrial production, of which the famous early example is Ford motors (there were, of course, precursors), looks a lot like gang labor agriculture—a form of production in which it is easy to see whether or not each worker is doing his job. Ford's version was developed about fifty years after the Civil War ended slavery in the U.S. That suggests the possibility that if secession had been successful and slavery continued, the Confederacy might have ended up as a successful industrial society, with gang labor agriculture gradually replaced by assembly line production–still using slaves.