Sunday, July 31, 2011

What Would Modern Polygamy Be Like?

Responses on G+ to some of what I posted on polygamy raise an interesting consequentialist argument against it—that wealthy men would "buy up" too many wives, leaving a surplus of unmarried single men likely to cause social problems such as increased levels of crime.

The argument takes it for granted that polygamy mostly means polygyny, multiple wives rather than multiple husbands. Historically that has been the pattern. Monogamy is the most common marital arrangement, polygyny next, polyandry rare. But it raises the question of why that pattern existed and whether it would persist in a modern society where polygamy was legal and common enough to have a significant effect on the marriage market.

One answer is that men, for reasons probably hardwired by evolution, want to know which children are theirs in order that they can avoid spending their scarce resources on other men's children. Prior to modern times, maternity was an observed fact, paternity a conjecture. The obvious way of strengthening the conjecture was to arrange matters so that a woman had sex with only one man, a condition satisfied by monogamy and polygyny but not by polyandry. Modern paternity testing, which I like to refer to as the stealth reproductive technology, changed that. It no longer requires a wise child to know his father, merely a properly equipped lab.

A second possible answer is that under pre-modern conditions, with high rates of both infant mortality and death in childbirth, one woman could not be counted on to produce as many children as several husbands would want. That again has changed. In a world where infant mortality is close to zero, a fertile woman who enjoys producing and rearing children, supported by the income of multiple husbands, should be able to produce enough offspring for all of them. And it is worth noting that a second function of marriage is sex, and women are less limited in that regard than men.

All of which suggests that, in a modern context, polyandry might turn out to be as common as, or more common than, polygyny, in which case the objection vanishes or even reverses, becomes an argument in favor of polygamy rather than an argument against it.

How could one find  data to test the theory? One possibility would be to study modern polygamy not in contexts such as the FLDS, where it represents the survival of old marital patterns, but in the context of  polyamory, where it appears as the growth of new ones. I do not know if anyone has attempted a census of polyamorous households—there are obvious difficulties, since many have reasons to keep a low profile—but the results would be interesting.

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Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Real News

Reading Google News, I am struck by the degree to which dramatic stories crowd out arguably more important material. The top of the page is dominated by the current U.S. debt limit crisis. It is an entertaining example of the game of Chicken as played by politicians but of limited importance otherwise, since both sides are focused not on how to deal with the long term debt problem but on the terms on which they will agree to postpone dealing with it. 

Meanwhile there are at least two other stories getting considerably less play but arguably of more real importance.

Modern Turkey is the successor state to the Ottoman Empire, one of the more successful polities of the past thousand years or so. It was also, arguably, the first Muslim state to succeed in fitting itself into the modern world, thanks to the system established by Kemal Ataturk after World War I. The central feature of that system was secular democracy guaranteed by the threat of a military coup against any attempt to transform Turkey back into some version of a religious state, a guarantee that has been gradually eroded by the increasing political strength of Islamicist parties. 

Recent charges by the government that a considerable number of officers are involved in a conspiracy can be interpreted either as a defense against a real threat or as a preemptive counter coup by the government against its own military. They have now led to the resignation of the four top officers of the Turkish military. 

That could mean that Turkey has become a real democracy with no need for a synthetic military backbone. It could  mean that Ataturk's experiment is finally collapsing, that in not very long the count of successful Islamic secular states will drop from one to zero. Either way, the outcome is likely to be more important for the rest of the world than whether the U.S. government does or does not find it necessary to pay its employees with IOU's for a week or two, or auction some spectrum, or sell some land, or play short term accounting games, or in any of a variety of other ways buy time while politicians haggle.

On the other side of the world, something else is happening that could be even more important. The collapse of the Soviet Union left the world with two polities still committed, at least in theory, to communism, while Hugo Chavez' rise to power looked very much like the gradual creation of a third.

That experiment may now have been recognized as a failure by its chief supporters. The latest news from Venezuela shows Chavez backing off from socialist rhetoric, saying good things about small business and the middle class, claiming to have an improved vision for his country—possibly inspired by conversations with one or both of the Castros during his cancer treatment in Cuba. It is possible—not perhaps likely, but possible—that the news of how to make a country richer has finally gotten through to the last holdouts.

Or at least, the last but one.


GKC, Liberal Toleration, and the FLDS

A serious political ideology, at least as held by sophisticated supporters, is a complicated set of ideas. But an ideology also has a sort of sketch version seen by both supporters and critics as outlining, in simplified form, its essential nature. One part of the sketch version of modern liberalism is tolerance of cultural diversity, sometimes put as moral relativism. We would not want to put our grandparents on an ice floe and shove them out to sea, but if that is how  Inuit deal with the problems of their society, who are we to object? It is not as if we have some proof that our values are right and theirs are wrong.

The best critique of this position I have come across, from a psychological more than a philosophical point of view, is one of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories, "The Chief Mourner of Marne." Readers who would prefer to read it themselves without spoilers from me should do so now.

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The story centers on James and Maurice, cousins, close friends, almost brothers. Maurice dies, supposedly of a chill caught at the seaside, and James is so afflicted by his death that he becomes a sort of hermit, unwilling to meet even with past friends, encouraged by "the priests" in a sort of religious melancholia.

As the story continues, Father Brown succeeds in getting from an eye witness a more plausible version of the story. Maurice did not die of a chill. The two men became rivals in love, fought a duel,  and James killed his best friend and has mourned him ever since. 

The response of  a friend of the woman both men were in love with:

"You mean to leave him to this living death of moping and going mad in a ruin!" cried Lady Outram, in a voice that shook a little. "And all because he had the bad luck to shoot a man in a duel more than a quarter of a century ago. Is that what you call Christian charity."

"Yes," answered the priest stolidly, "that is what I call Christian charity."

"It's about all the Christian charity you'll ever get out of these priests," cried Cockspur bitterly. "That's their only idea of pardoning a poor fellow for a piece of folly; to wall him up alive and starve him to death with fasts and penances and pictures of hell-fire. And all because a bullet went wrong."

"Really, Father brown," said General Outram, "do you honestly think he deserves this? Is that your Christianity?"

"Surely the true Christianity," pleaded his wife more gently, is that which knows all and pardons all; the love that can remember—and forget."

And then we discover what really happened—and why the winner of the duel fled the country for years and then went into seclusion. 

 ----------

The surviving cousin is not  James but Maurice. Knowing his friend was the better shot, he dropped to the ground just before James fired. James, struck with remorse, ran over to his fallen cousin, who shot him dead. Not a duel but cold blooded murder. 

"Are you sure of this?" asked Sir John at last, in a thick voice.

"I am sure of it," said Father Brown, "and now I leave Maurice Mair, the present Marquis of Marne, to your Christian charity. You have told me something today about Christian charity. You seemed to me to give it almost too large a place; but how fortunate it is for poor sinners like this man that you err so much on the side of mercy, and are ready to be reconciled to all mankind."

"Hang it all," exploded the general; "if you think I’m going to be reconciled to a filthy viper like that, I tell you I wouldn’t say a word to save him from hell. I said I could pardon a regular decent duel, but of all the treacherous assassins——"

"He ought to be lynched," cried Cockspur excitedly. "He ought to burn alive like a nigger in the States. And if there is such a thing as burning for ever, he jolly well——"

"I wouldn’t touch him with a barge - pole myself," said Mallow.

"There is a limit to human charity," said Lady Outram, trembling all over.

"There is," said Father Brown dryly; "and that is the real difference between human charity and Christian charity. You must forgive me if I was not altogether crushed by your contempt for my uncharitableness today; or by the lectures you read me about pardon for every sinner. For it seems to me that you only pardon the sins that you don’t really think sinful. You only forgive criminals when they commit what you don’t regard as crimes, but rather as conventions. So you tolerate a conventional duel, just as you tolerate a conventional divorce. You forgive because there isn’t anything to be forgiven."

"But, hang it all," cried Mallow, "you don’t expect us to be able to pardon a vile thing like this?"

"No," said the priest; "but we have to be able to pardon it."

Which brings us back to moral relativism and the FLDS. What Warren Jeffs is charged with was normal and acceptable behavior in a society, Old Testament Judaism, a great deal closer to ours than the Inuit. It remained accepted throughout the diaspora until, if I remember correctly, about a thousand years ago. It remained accepted in parts of the diaspora, North African and Arabic Jewish communities, up until modern times. 

When the Israeli rabbis decided to raise the age of consent from twelve and a half to something more in tune with modern views, their justification was the claim that early pregnancy was more dangerous in the 20th century than it had been two thousand years earlier, a factual claim it is difficult to imagine anyone taking seriously, given the medical progress over the intervening interval.

I have yet to see  commentary by anyone identifying himself as a liberal defending Jeffs, or the FLDS more generally, on grounds of moral relativism. As Chesterton points out, it is easy to forgive people for doing things you don't really disapprove of. 

Harder when you do.

To be fair, what I am criticizing is the sketch version of liberalism. No doubt someone holding a more detailed and sophisticated version could come up with a justification for making and enforcing the laws that the FLDS is accused of breaking. Making such as a justification consistent with the rhetoric of moral relativism might be a more difficult project.

[I should probably add, to avoid any possible confusion, that I am an atheist not a Catholic. That does not prevent me from admiring Chesterton's writing, including his sometimes brilliant defenses of his religious views.]

Should King David and Solomon be in Jail?

The polygamist FLDS is again in the news, although the current assault is a good deal less outrageous than the activities of the Texas child protective authorities a few years back, which I covered extensively here.

But it does occur to me that it raises a serious issue for both American Christians and Jews, at least ones who take their religion fairly literally. It is clear from the Old Testament that God's chosen people practiced extensive polygamy. It is clear from what we know of Jewish law that marriage and sex were legal at ages well below those at which they are currently illegal in most of the U.S.; a woman was a legal adult at twelve and a half, provided she had shown some sign of menarch. By those standards, nothing that Warren Jeffs is charged with, at least so far as I know—I haven't actually followed the case—should be illegal.

Yet I would be surprised if any large fraction of modern American Christians and Jews actually defended Jeffs. What is their basis for not doing so? Should King David and Solomon be in jail?

Friday, July 29, 2011

Thoughts on the Debt Limit Controversy

As best I can tell, there are two different games being played. One is the attempt by each side to make sure that either it gets the credit for solving the problem or the other side gets blamed for not solving it. That game is basically about rhetoric and PR.

The other and more interesting game, now that the administration has dropped its demand for tax increases, is about whether or not to raise the limit by enough to get past the next election. From Obama's standpoint, the answer is, I think, obvious. Having the option of deficit spending is almost always a benefit for those currently in power, since it lets them buy votes without obvious cost. Concern with the size of the national debt may have changed that, at least for a while, but I think more likely not. Hence Obama would like to be able to spend as much money as he wants through the election while satisfying demands for fiscal responsibility via cuts, possibly imaginary, in future expenditures. 

The Republicans, on the other hand, would like to be in a position to force real reductions in spending, both because many of them think reductions are a good thing and, I suspect, because many of them think that reductions in spending by Obama will cost him the votes that the spending would have bought him. One way of doing so is to arrange things so that a second increase in the debt limit will be needed before the election, and make their support for such an increase conditional on serious reductions in expenditure—which are not, so far as I can tell, happening on either of the current plans.

There is one other feature of the situation,  one which may explain Obama's failure to hold out for tax increases even while orating in favor of them. An election is coming up, and Democrats to Obama's left have no realistic alternative.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Debt Limit as Incentive: A Modest Proposal

News stories on the debt limit controversy agree that Boehner's plan, which increases the limit by $900 billion, will require further action before the 2012 election, but that Reid's plan, which increases the limit by $2.4 trillion, will not. Obama would obviously like to push the debt limit issue to some date, any date, after the election. To an economist, that suggests a simple tactic to reduce government expenditure. 

Raise the limit by an amount that will require further action before the election unless Obama manages to substantially reduce federal expenditure, but which can be pushed past the election if he does. It will then be in Obama's self-interest to find ways of cutting federal spending, which is a better guarantee than any legislative promises that Congress can pass today and break tomorrow.

Of course, it is also an incentive to find ways of increasing tax revenue—but until the election, the Republican House is in a position to deal with that problem.

P.S. I note that Reid has gotten at least one thing right. I've been arguing for some time that one way of reducing the debt problem is by selling off government assets, the policy that Greece has been urged to follow. Reid apparently agrees, although his specific proposal is on too small a scale to help much with the current situation.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

(Almost) Free Medical Advice

A recent news story about the use of smart phones as heart monitors reminds me of an idea along similar lines that I recently had.

There are a variety of medical conditions, such as Alzheimers or a brain tumor, that cause a gradual decrease in mental performance, gradual enough so that the victim may not notice it. Early warning of such a condition could be very valuable.

Many people, faced with a few minutes of boredom, pull out a cell phone and play a game. It should be straightforward to add to such a game the ability to monitor some simple measure of player performance such as reaction speed that, under most circumstances, is reasonably stable over time. If the measure trends down for longer than, say, a month, a message goes to the phone's owner, suggesting that he see a doctor. Just in case.

It doesn't work for everyone. It doesn't watch for everything that might go wrong. But the cost is negligible and the potential payoff from detecting a tumor or early stage Parkinson's tomorrow instead of next year could be large.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Austrian Fantasy

Browsing the web, I came across the following claim  by Lew Rockwell:

" Need I note, as this article indirectly indicates, that the whole world is reading Rothbard, but that Friedman is almost a nobody outside of mainstream academic economics?"

He provides no support for the claim—the link is to a collection of links on Rockwell's site to works by Rothbard—so I thought I would look for some data. I do not know where one would find figures on what books people read, but the most readily available source for books they buy is Amazon, which ranks books according to sales; rank 1 would be the best selling book on Amazon, rank 100,000 would be the hundred thousandth best book. So I searched Amazon.com for books authored by Murray Rothbard and books authored by Milton Friedman, in each case sorting by sales to find the ones that sold best.

Friedman, Money Mischief: Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #2,132 in Books

Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom: 40th Anniversary edition: Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #2,120 in Books

Friedman, Free to Choose: Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #3,719

Rothbard, A History of Money and Banking in the United States: The Colonial Era to World War II: Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #34,118 in Books

Rothbard, The Case Against the Fed: Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #22,316 in Books

Rothbard, The Mystery of Banking: Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #49,523

Rothbard, America's Great Depression: Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #63,960

Readers are welcome to check the numbers themselves—they will, of course, be a little different each time you check them, since Amazon updates rankings on the basis of current sales—or search for a Rothbard book with sales anywhere close to the top three I found for Friedman. 

I do not usually waste my time defending my father, a job he did more than adequately for himself, but this seemed like a striking example of one prominent Austrian—Lew Rockwell founded the Mises Institute, which publishes several of the Rothbard books I listed—who appears to be living in a fantasy of his own invention.

He is, of course, more than welcome to post a comment here providing the data to support his claim. 

[New Information]

A correspondent points me at data on relative online interest in Milton Friedman and Murray Rothbard.
In fact, according to Google AdWords, there are approximately 135,000 searches a month for your dad's name globally. That's in comparison to 8,100 for "murray rothbard" and 22,200 for just "rothbard". This is based on a 12-month average. Google Keywords
available at: https://adwords.google.com/select/KeywordToolExternal

Another metric to look at is Google Trends which puts this information into a graph over time, and allows keyword comparison. Take a look at:http://www.google.com/trends?q=milton+friedman%2C+Murray+Rothbard

Monday, July 25, 2011

For Mac Fans in a Hurry: An Idea

The MacBook Air uses an SSD, a solid state disk, available in 128 GB and 256 GB sizes. The current iMac has space for two drives, one of which can be an SSD, letting you put software you want to run fast, such as the OS, on the SSD, while using the physical hard drive for bulk storage. Other World Computing offers a range of replacement SSD's for the Air which, at least according to them, are considerably faster than Apple's. For someone who has an iMac, would like to add an SSD to it, and is thinking of getting an Air, this raises an interesting possibility.

Get an air with a 128 GB SSD. Get the 240GB SSD from OWC, or an even bigger one if you are feeling extravagant. Replace the Air's SSD with the upgrade. Put the drive you took out of the Air into your iMac. 

Cost (assuming you get the 240) is $479. That's $179 more than if you bought your Air from Apple with the larger hard drive—but you end up with not only a faster Air but a faster iMac. Buying your iMac with an SSD and a standard drive—admittedly, that would be a 256 GB rather than 128, but I'm not sure how important the difference is— costs $600.

I can only see one problem with this approach, assuming you are willing to pay the price to speed up both machines. Apple does not support third party installation of an SSD into an iMac. A little casual browsing suggests that it is possible but not easy, and I am not sure if at this point there are places that will do it for you, and if so what price.

But it is a tempting thought, for anyone who really likes fast machines.


Sunday, July 24, 2011

Norway and 9/11: Fighting the Last War

A common criticism of militaries is that they are always preparing to fight the last war instead of the next. The recent attack in Norway suggests that the same problem exists for the "war" on terrorism. The point is made clearer if we compare that attack to its closest equivalent: 9/11.

The attacks have two critical characteristics in common. The first is that the form of the attack was original. The second is that it was strikingly successful, from the standpoint of its objectives—did a lot of damage at a relatively small cost to the attackers. That is not terribly surprising, since an original attack is one that potential defenders do not expect and so fail to take precautions to prevent.

With the benefit of hindsight, it was obviously imprudent, arguably suicidal, for a political party to put a large number of its younger supporters, its future elite, on a not very large island with no guards. That created a situation where a single gunman could murder about eighty victims and badly handicap the future of a major political party. 

If the final point is not obvious, consider the equivalent U.S. case, scaled. The U.S. has more than sixty times the population of Norway. What would be the effect on the future of the Republican or Democratic party if more than 4000 of the most active members of the Young Republicans or Young Democrats were killed?

What was the cost of accomplishing that to the perpetrator? As far as we  know, he did it all himself. The shooting spree required one rifle, one pistol, and a lot of ammunition—total cost probably under a thousand dollars. The previous explosion, part of whose purpose was presumably to set up the opportunity for the subsequent shooting, cost one car, very likely rented, a lot of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, and some sort of detonator and timer. For a wild guess, total cost of the whole project between one and ten thousand dollars. 

Plus, presumably, life imprisonment, a cost balanced by the opportunity to get wide publicity for his political views.

Which gets us back to where I started. Most of what one can see being done to prevent terrorism, most obviously the exertions of the TSA, is aimed at preventing a repeat of 9/11. It ought to be aimed at the next, and entirely different, 9/11.

Which is a much harder thing to do, since we do not know what it will be.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Playing with Kids: Asymmetrical Games?

In my experience, there are at least two different approaches to parents playing games with kids, related to two different views of what children are: Pets who can talk or small human beings who don't yet know much. The former provides a justification for the adult cheating against himself, deliberately playing badly in order to give the child a chance. The latter implies that children, like other people, are entitled to honest treatment, and pretending to try to win when you are actually trying to lose does not qualify.

The simplest version of the second approach, and the one I am familiar with from my own experience, is the sliding handicap. Our house had a basement with a ping-pong table, and I spent a good deal of time playing ping-pong with my father. The rules were very simple. I started with some number of points, and whichever of us got to 21 points first won. Every time I won, my starting number went down by one, making the next win harder. Every time I lost, my starting number went up by one, making the next win easier. The result was that the typical game was close, decided by how well each of us played—a  more interesting interaction than if we had played without a handicap and my father, who for most of the relevant period was a better player than I was, had deliberately thrown some of the games in order to "make it fun" for me. And the sliding handicap provided a longer run metagame as well, in which my objective was to push the handicap down as far as possible—ideally, in the sufficiently long run, to zero and below.

The  approach can be applied, and no doubt is, to a wide variety of other games, as when the better chess player spots his opponent a piece by removing it at the beginning of the game. 

What about a game that, unlike ping-pong, is asymmetric, and as a result easier for one side than the other to win? Consider, for example, a board game based on the battle of Gettysburg. The two armies in that battle were quite different, as were their objectives. Unless the designer of the game makes a point of tuning the rules to make victory equally easy for either side—which, of course, he might do—one would expect one side to start with an advantage. The same could be the case for a more abstract game, such as one of the variants of Tafl, a family of early European games of which the best recorded example is  Tablut, discovered and recorded by Linnaeus during his travels in 18th century Finland.

In the Tafl games, one side represents a king and his defenders, starting in the central portion of the board. The other represents the attackers, starting around the periphery. The objective of the attackers is to kill the king, the objective of the king is to escape the board. Not surprisingly, in most of the variants, which differ mainly in the size of the board and the number of pieces, one objective is easier to accomplish than the other.

The problem with an asymmetric game is that the handicap doesn't slide. It works fine for two unequal players who are going to stay about equally unequal, but not for the parent/child situation where the child will, with luck, be gradually catching up to the parent. Are there examples of asymmetric games that solve that problem, perhaps by a range of starting scenarios of increasing difficulty for one side, decreasing for the other? The obvious ones are computer games where the player can set the difficulty level against the computer—are there good two player games that work that way?

I cannot resist the temptation to end this post, more random in its subject matter than most of mine, with a quote from the page on Tafl that I earlier linked to:

"Evidence shows that the game of Tablut, described by a traveller called Linnaeus during his trip to Finland in 1732 ..."

Presumably the author of that comment knows more about the history of games than the history of biology.

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Does Obama Have a $2.7 Trillion Get Out Of Jail Free Card?

In a recent post, based on a WSJ piece by Thomas Saving, I pointed out some implications of the status of the Social Security Trust Fund. My point in that post was that Obama appeared to be either deliberately lying about the implications of the debt limit for Social Security or strikingly ignorant of them. 

It now occurs to me that, if one accepts the interpretation Saving offers of the Supreme Court decision in Helvering v. Davis (1937), there is another implication: Obama may have a $2.7 trillion dollar get out of jail free card, a way of spending that much additional money without exceeding the debt limit.

When Social Security revenue is more than expenditure, the excess is loaned to the federal government and used to help pay for its expenditures. The result is a debt of the federal government to the Social Security system, a debt that is included in the total of the national debt. If Social Security revenues fall below expenditure, the treasury is required to pay back the difference, thus redeeming some of the bonds that make up the trust fund. Doing so lowers the national debt, since it includes intergovernmental obligations, so the treasury could borrow the amount it has just paid without exceeding the debt limit.

Under Helvering, at least as Saving interprets it, the receipts from the Social Security tax are not earmarked; they are income of the federal government that can be spent on anything the federal government wants to spend them on.

Revenue from Social Security is about $800 billion/year. Suppose no agreement is reached on raising the debt limit. Obama instructs the relevant people to spend the income from Social Security on the war in Afghanistan, bailouts, whatever he thinks needs money. He then instructs the Social Security system to cash in as many bonds as are required to meet its obligations to Social Security recipients, say $700 billion. He then instructs the treasury, since the national debt is now $700 billion below the debt limit, to borrow $700 billion. The net effect is that he has increased total expenditure, Social Security included, by $700 billion without exceeding the debt limit. The trust fund is currently at about $2.7 trillion, so he can do it for four more years.

And if an extra $700 billion isn't sufficient for his purposes, it isn't clear to me that he couldn't simply instruct the Social Security administration to ask to cash in some more of the trust fund, instruct the Treasury to agree to do so, and then instruct Social Security to hand over the money to whatever part of the federal government requires it.

There are obvious PR problems with this sort of solution to the present problems, both because it is so obviously gaming the system and because the part of the system it games is Social Security, which is a politically highly visible target. But are there any legal problems?

[Later note]

Some readers seem puzzled as to where the Treasury, in my story, is to find the $700 billion that it is to pay to the Social Security Administration, once the debt limit is reached. The answer is straightforward. With or without a debt limit, the federal government is continually collecting money and spending it. In my scenario, the government takes (say) $50 billion that it was supposed to pay as salary to federal employees, pays it to SSA instead. SSA cancels $50 billion in trust fund bonds. The national debt, which includes the debt owed by the federal government to the SSA, is now $50 billion below the limit, so the Treasury borrows $50 billion and pays out salaries to federal employees. Rinse and repeat as many times as necessary.

[Still later note]

A friend who knows much more law than I do writes:
It turns on, on further research, that Congress anticipated and prevented the very trick you have devised. Public Law 104-121, section 107(a), prohibits redemption of Social Security trust fund securities prior to maturity for any purpose other than the payment of benefits or administrative expenses.
So it's still true that the debt limit cannot block social security payments, at least until the trust fund runs out. But my multi-trillion dollar get out of jail free card has been cancelled.

Curses, foiled again.

Two cheers for the Huffington Post

My previous post came very close to accusing President Obama, when he warned of the possibility that the debt limit would prevent the payment of social security checks, of either deliberately lying or being culpably ignorant of the relevant facts—my only hedge being that it was possible I had myself been misinformed. One of the commenters on the post pointed out an article in the Huffington Post making essentially the same point. That such an article would appear there is worth noting, since the Post is an explicitly left wing site that one would expect to support Obama in the current controversy, where he is arguing for raising taxes in order to continue, at least to some degree, the current unusually high level of government expenditure. It's to their credit that, at least in this case, they are willing to publish the truth even when it goes against their political interest.

This reminded me of a less striking example a few years ago, when I discovered that I had a new hobby—defending Tea Party Republican candidates against stories that exaggerated how nutty they were. One of the cases involved  references to "Colorado’s Ken Buck, who says he opposes the principle of separation of church and state."

Following that up, I found a video of the speech by Buck that was pretty clearly the source for the claim. The video was on the Huffington Post, and their story, unlike the one I just quoted, gave a reasonably accurate account of what he said—not that he opposed the principle but that he thought it had been applied more broadly than it ought to have been.

I don't read the Huffington Post regularly enough to offer any more detailed opinion, but on the basis of these two cases it looks as though it may be a more honest source of news than one usually expects of an ideologically oriented publication. Which would be a good thing—it makes it at least a little easier to resolve political disagreements if the various sides are all arguing from about the same facts.

Friday, July 22, 2011

WoW in Realspace, a Software Suggestion

If I am in a group in World of Warcraft, I can view a map that shows where all members of the group are. It occurs to me that the same ability would be useful outside the game—and that implementing it would be straightforward. Simply have two (or more) smartphones with gps talking to each other. Your phone tells mine where you are, mine shows me where both of us are, while mine tells yours which shows you. Useful for finding your spouse in a crowded art and wine fair, shopping mall, or equivalent.

Does it already exist?

Social Security, the Debt Ceiling, and Obama

I recently came across an interesting piece, going into some detail on the accounting status of the Social Security Trust fund and its relation to the debt ceiling. If it is correct, Obama's claim that running into the debt ceiling could prevent the payment of Social Security checks is either a deliberate falsehood or evidence of striking ignorance. It is not a subject on which I have any expertise, however, and I would be interested in comments from any reader who knows more about it than I do.

The argument is quite simple. Social Security's past surpluses were borrowed and spent by the federal government, creating a federal debt to the Social Security administration in the form of Social Security Trust Fund special bonds, a  liability that counts as part of the national debt. 

Suppose that next month's Social Security revenue is less than Social Security obligations by, say, $20 billion, the number Obama used to CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley. The SSA cashes in $20 billion of special bonds, which under current law the treasury is required to redeem, and uses the money to send out social security checks. Cashing in those checks lowers the national debt by $20 billion, so the treasury is now free to borrow $20 billion without exceeding the debt limit, leaving it with the same amount of money to pay other obligations that it would have if the SSA had not needed the money.

If that account is correct, it looks very much as though the President was deliberately misrepresenting the situation, taking advantage of the ignorance of his audience to frighten seniors into supporting whatever policies he proposes to solve the current debt limit problem.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Gang of Six Plan: Right Answer or Smoke and Mirrors?

It's a real question; I haven't looked into the details of the plan and any serious effort to do so would probably take a good deal of work. The plan as described seems to me a sensible compromise along the lines I suggested in an earlier post: "Raise" taxes only by eliminating tax expenditures, features of the tax code designed to subsidize particular taxpayers and activities. And the gang of six proposal claims to do it by broadening the base enough to  lower marginal rates, thus reducing the inefficient incentives due to the tax system.

What I don't know is how much substance there is to the proposal, in particular to the expenditure cuts. Does it go beyond "spend $X less on program Y," which is likely to get changed at the point when it is supposed to be implemented and supporters of program Y point out all the terrible consequences—as has happened repeatedly with bogus medicare cuts? Or is more of it along the lines of "raise the age of eligibility for Social Security by a month a year for the next twenty-four years," which one can imagine actually happening and which would have a significant effect?

Any readers who have looked more carefully at the proposals than I have and would like to comment?

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Murdoch Musings

I continue to be intrigued by the ongoing flap over Rupert Murdoch's media empire. A few more or less random thoughts:

1. Murdoch claims that, prior to the recent explosion, he was unaware of the hacking at News of the World—despite the fact that two people had been arrested and, I gather, convicted in the case. How believable is the claim?

I don't know the answer, in part because I don't have much feel for how an organization that big is run, how much information makes it to the very top level, how much is handled further down. According to Murdoch, the paper represented only about 1% of his media holdings, I think measured by income, which makes the claim at least somewhat plausible.

2. How likely is it that the facts of what News of the World reporters had been doing, in particular facts that had become public prior to the recent flap, would have surprised Murdoch? 

My suspicion is that he would take it for granted (as I do) that reporters routinely skirt the edge of the law and not uncommonly break it in the course of doing the job they are hired to do. It would be surprising if they didn't bribe police officers, sometimes with cash, to tip them off on potential news stories. The police have the information, it is valuable to reporters, markets tend to move resources to those who most value them. It would be surprising if they didn't often take advantage of illegal but easy opportunities to obtain information—for instance by getting at poorly protected voice mail messages. Nobody in the U.S. seems to be very surprised to discover that police officers spend a good deal of  time in donut shops eating free donuts—and providing the shops with free crime prevention.

Obviously this question is related to the previous one. The less surprising what was going on was, the less the reason to report it up the corporate hierarchy to the top. Especially if the people at the top were unlikely to try to stop it and had good reasons to maintain deniability with regard to knowing about it.

And it isn't hard to believe that a cover-up by someone a couple of levels below Murdoch, in a position to get the police to fail to investigate the case more thoroughly, would have included  an internal as well as external cover-up. "Police say nothing that serious happened, a couple of our people pushed too far over the line, being taken care of."

3. How much of what was being done at the News of the World was being done at non-Murdoch papers? Presumably the Murdoch people have been looking for evidence, and if they found any we would have heard about it, or soon will. 

4. Perhaps the hardest things for Murdoch to have been ignorant of were the payouts to victims of hacking to settle their claims, some of which were quite substantial. But out of court settlements, including ones where the payer/potential defendant does not admit guilt and the details of the controversy are kept private, are legal and not that uncommon in civil cases. In criminal cases they are illegal, but hard to prevent if a case raises both civil and criminal issues. For an earlier and pretty high-profile example, consider the Michael Jackson abuse controversy, where, as best I recall, criminal charges got dropped after a civil settlement, presumably because the witnesses were no longer willing to testify.

5. Finally, the paranoid thought—was the pie in the face incident a set-up? It clearly benefited Murdoch, both because it made him the victim and because of his wife's dramatic response. Setting it up would be very risky, since discovery would be a catastrophe. But if the wife just happened to know someone she was sure she could trust to do it and keep his mouth shut ...  .

6. Other thoughts from readers?

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Mailforge v Eudora

As I mentioned in an earlier post (for details read the comment thread), I recently switched my email program from Eudora, which I had used for many years but which is not supported by Lion, the newest version of OSX, to MailForge, a Mozilla email program designed to feel like Eudora. Lion is being released today, so it seems an appropriate time to record the result of the experiment.

When MailForge works it works better than Eudora did, but there are a variety of minor ways in which it doesn't work, although none so far that is a real killer. Having downloaded mail once, it refuses to do it again until I quit and reload the program, at which point it turns out that there is additional mail to be downloaded. I have it set to automatically open a mailbox with new mail in it, but it doesn't. It has an address book to which I can add a group of email addresses with a nickname but as far as I can tell doing so has no effect; the new group does not appear in the address book thereafter.

To be fair, some of these problems might be due to Eudora files that I imported into MailForge; after most of twenty years of copying files from one machine to another, some—I am thinking in particular of some of the filters I looked at—pretty clearly had been corrupted in one way or another. Initially filtering didn't work; after I went through the filters removing the corrupt ones it did. I should do something similar with my address book and see if it fixes that problem.

And, to be fair, when MailForge works it is faster and smoother than Eudora was. With my old Eudora, if I selected a group of emails and hit delete, sometimes they vanished, sometimes I got an error message. With MailForge they vanish. And I am pretty sure that the actual download of the email is faster. 

But I expect that there are more glitches waiting to bite me, that the reports which made me initially unsure whether MailForge was the right solution—roughly speaking that it wasn't yet quite ready for prime time—were correct. Whether I would have been better off with my alternate plan of converting to Thunderbird, a better developed fork off the same open source project but one not designed specifically for Eudora users, I don't know.

Next project: Take a look at Lion and see whether I want the upgrade. If I do, wait a few weeks on general principles and get it. While resisting all temptation to replace my perfectly good, indeed beautiful, elegant, amazingly tiny, MacBook Air, with the faster model Apple has just released—this time with a lighted keyboard.

I don't suppose my son needs a slightly used ultralight to take off to college ...  .

Monday, July 18, 2011

Murdoch, Media, Cops and Politics

In an earlier post, I proposed the current Murdoch flap as a potential miniseries with an ending out of modern fantasy fiction. This time I want to look at it from a more serious point of view, to try to figure out why it happened and what the longer run implications are.

The simple answer is that it happened because Murdoch got unlucky—a number of stories broke involving illegal activities by people in his employ, some of which involved not only lawbreaking but lawbreaking of a particularly offensive sort. Once it was clear he was in trouble, the pressure on people inside and outside his organization to continue covering up other past offenses became less, leading to a potential cascade.

All of that may explain the timing, why it happened when it did. But I suspect there was a deeper cause, one that will be relevant to future political press magnates as well, may even imply that there will be no future press magnates on the scale of Rupert Murdoch. We may be watching the extinction of the last dinosaur.

I start with the question of why Murdoch had as much power as he did, power not only over political actors but, as the evidence strongly suggests, over law enforcement as well.

I do not think the answer is money, although of course he had a lot of money and used it. I am not sure exactly where Murdoch ranked in the list of "X richest men," but he was not in the latest Forbes top twenty. He had more influence than people who were considerably richer than he was. Why?

In the case of influence over politicians, the answer is obvious. Electoral support from a popular newspaper or TV station is worth votes. So is the willingness of major media to slant stories in your favor, to deflect attention from your errors and misdeeds and focus it on your successes while applying the opposite policy to your opponents. Murdoch had something valuable to offer politicians; it is hardly surprising if they were willing to do him favors in exchange.

The same applies to his relations with the police. There is evidence that journalists paid police for information. But even without such payments, media coverage of police actions matters, can matter a lot, to the police. How and whether their actions are covered by the media may determine whether a particular police official looks like Sherlock Holmes or Inspector Clouseau, competent professional or  bumbling amateur. If the police end up killing innocent people, as happens all too often, or failing to catch guilty people or prevent their crimes, how and whether the story gets covered matters.

From the standpoint of economics, all of this is a consequence of rational ignorance. If believing the truth about politicians and police was a matter of great importance to every voter, the voters could presumably find reliable sources of information with which to do it, as they often do find such information with regard to matters controlled by private choice, such as what car to buy or what grocery store has the best prices today. 

But for purposes of public choices, news is mostly entertainment not information—for the good reason that, considered as information, it is not very valuable. Each voter knows that his vote has a trivial effect on electoral outcomes, hence making sure he casts it for the right, or at least less bad, candidate is not worth much. Getting a good story is, often if not always, more important than getting a true story, and under those circumstances the authors of news stories have considerable ability to influence what their readers believe is true.

Which implies that someone with control of a lot of the media can be expected to have quite a lot influence over politicians and law enforcement. Rupert Murdoch did. What changed?

What changed, not in the short run but the long, was the technology of spreading information, specifically the growth of the Internet. I take the role of the Drudge Report in breaking the Monica Lewinsky story as a useful marker. In the old days, judging by what we now know about the sex lives of various past politicians, the major media would have discretely chosen not to cover the case, there woul have been rumors in minor media, and the scandal would never have gotten as far as it did. But as news is increasingly spread through decentralized mechanisms hard for any single actor or organization to control, the power of media organization declines. Even if they still have as many readers as before, there are now other places to read things, making it increasingly difficult for them to control the flow of information.

If I am correct in this analysis—I am not sure I am, but it seems plausible—the timing of the Rupert Murdoch flap was an accident. That it happened was not. The development of alternate sources of public information was gradually weakening Rupert Murdoch's ability to get politicians and law enforcement people to do favors for him in exchange for his doing favors for them, reducing both his political power and his ability to have his people get away with doing illegal and potentially unpopular things in the course of gathering the news. Eventually his power dipped below the level necessary to sustain his policies, and everything blew up.

That, at least, is my current theory.

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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Witch or Saint: A Story Seed

This morning, for no good reason, I have been thinking of an idea for a story which I am very unlikely to ever write, and it occurred to me that someone else might. 

The setting is the trial of Joan of Arc. The protagonist is one of the English prosecutors, an intelligent, deeply believing catholic clergyman who has the job of proving that Joan is a witch in order that she can be burned at the stake. The problem is that he has concluded that not only is she not a witch, she is a saint, whom God, for his own mysterious reasons, has provided to the wrong side. It follows that if he goes on to carry out his assignment he will be committing a sin for which he will deserve, and get, an eternity in hell. He is a loyal Englishman but the price of loyalty is in this case rather high.

I do not know where the story goes from there. Suicide is a mortal sin, so not a very attractive solution to his problem. The best solution I have thought of so far is for him to report the problem to a superior who takes his secular obligations more seriously and his religious obligations less, make it plain that he intends to go public with his conclusions, go from there to a priest to whom he can make confession, then go home and wait for the assassin to show up.

But there are surely other, and possibly better, ways the plot could go.


Friday, July 15, 2011

In Search of Bogus History

For no particular reason, I was recently thinking about the subject of bogus history—historical "facts" that are very widely believed and flatly false. The example I started with is one of some current political interest, the belief that Herbert Hoover responded to the beginning of the Great Depression by cutting government expenditure. As I pointed out some time back in response to such a claim, it's the precise opposite of what really happened. By the end of his term, Hoover had increased federal expenditure by about 50% in nominal terms, 100% in real terms (i.e. allowing for the fall in prices), 200% measured as a share of national income (which, of course, had fallen). By that standard, he makes Obama and Bush look like skinflints.

For a second and unrelated example, consider the standard story of Columbus—that he heroically stood up for the scientific truth of a spherical earth against a flat earth orthodoxy, sailing west in defiance of warnings that he would fall off the edge. 

That again is almost precisely backwards, since in that controversy Columbus was the one holding out against the (accurate) scientific knowledge of the day. A spherical earth had been the accepted scientific doctrine for well over a thousand years and the Greeks had produced a reasonably accurate estimate of its size. Combine that with what was known about the width of Asia—by the end of the 15th c. quite a lot of people had gotten to China and back—and it was possible to calculate about how far Columbus had to travel to reach "the indies" by sailing west. In fact, he barely made it to the Americas, the width of a continent and the Pacific ocean short of where he claimed to be going. His justification consisted of fudging both numbers—claiming the earth to be much smaller than it was, the width of Asia much longer. Details available from Admiral of the Ocean Sea by Samuel Eliot Morrison. I'm going by memory, but reasonably sure of my facts.

What are other such examples—historical beliefs widely held and demonstrably false? Medieval witch hunts might be a candidate, large scale persecution of witches having started long after the end of the Middle Ages and being based, I think, on beliefs that the medieval church considered heretical. And I gather that the Spanish Inquisition has an undeserved reputation in that context, that being concerned with the serious issue of secret Muslims and Jews it regarded witchcraft accusations as a distraction to be dealt with by applying serious standards of evidence. And, from one of my areas of interest, there is the myth that medieval food was overspiced to hide the taste of spoiled meat. 

But can anyone here offer examples as clear cut as my first two?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Fall of the House of Murdoch

As anyone who reads UK news and many who do not by now know, there has been an enormous flap over media mogul Rupert Murdoch, set off by revelations that people working for one of his newspapers had been acquiring information in ways that were not only illegal but arguably very reprehensible—in one case apparently destroying evidence relevant to a murder investigation in the process of accessing the voicemail of the victim. Results at this point include his shutting down the newspaper in question, cancelling, at least for the moment, his attempt to expand his ownership of an important satellite TV firm, and much else.

And as anyone who interacts much with people from the U.K. probably also knows, Murdoch is not merely a random media mogul. He is viewed by everyone in Britain left of center, and probably some who are not, as the diabolical ally of Margaret Thatcher and several of her successors in their project to destroy Britain. Hence quite a lot public gloating at his difficulties.

Which started me thinking about the miniseries.

The puzzle is why all of this happened when it did. The various misdeeds occurred years ago, and although not all were revealed publicly, enough were to send two of the people responsible to jail. The most offensive—the hacking into a child murder victim's voice mail—only became generally known recently, and seems to have been the spark that set off the current conflagration. But if I read the accounts correctly, pretty much everything important was known to at least some people other than Murdoch's, and in most cases to some law enforcement people—one part of the scandal is the strong suggestion of corruption or incompetence by Scotland Yard. So why now?

The obvious explanation is that it is not an accident. Someone has been plotting against Murdoch, accumulating scraps of evidence, lining up allies, getting everything prepared—and the trap has now been sprung. But who?

There is a simple and obvious answer, although for some reason it does not appear to have occurred to anyone else. Early in Murdoch's rise to power he clashed with, and I gather ultimately defeated, his predecessor, media mogul Robert Maxwell. Men like that hold grudges.

Maxwell was born in 1923, so is not yet ninety, so not too old for political and financial intrigue. It is true that he is reported to have died about twenty years ago. But it was a very convenient time for him to die, since his empire was collapsing around him, so perhaps one ought not to rely too confidently on his being actually dead.

The plot outline for the miniseries is now clear. Robert Maxwell, having faked his own death, has been patiently intriguing for twenty years from the shadow of the grave to get his revenge on the man who supplanted him. The plot has finally reached its culmination, leaving Murdoch struggling for financial and political survival.

Only in the final episode do we discover the real truth about Maxwell. Considered as a plot device, faking your own death is so Twentieth Century. Nowadays we have ... other alternatives.
———

(The assistance of research by posters in the newsgroup alt.fan.cecil-adams, none of whom have any responsibility for my conclusions, gratefully acknowledged.)

Bogus Links

If you click on "links to this post" at the bottom of my previous post, you get a long list of purported links. So far as I can tell, almost all of them are bogus—they don't actually have anything to do with the post. I don't know if they are due to some sort of glitch in the software that produces the link or if they are an attempt to get traffic to their blog by pretending to connect to mine.

Does anyone here know what is going on? Is there something I can do about it easier than going through the whole list trashing all the bogus ones, which could take quite a while?

For what it is worth, the chief offenders appear to be:

Anti-Dismal
Truth to Power
MTEF is the Bayesian Heresy


Saturday, July 09, 2011

OS Time Machine: A Modest Proposal

The latest version of OSX, due out shortly, does not include Rosetta, software included in past versions to make it possible to run programs written for older versions of the hardware. One result is that Eudora, the Email program which I have been using for almost twenty years and on which I have an enormous collection of past correspondence, will stop working when and if I update the operating system. The obvious solution is to move all of my accumulated email to a more up to date email program, probably Thunderbird. So far my attempts to do so have been unsuccessful—mailboxes copy over, but their content does not. Until I can solve that problem, I do not plan to update to Lion.

There is, however, another and more elegant way in which the problem could be solved. While I cannot run a program that worked under OSX10.2 but broke under 10.3, I can and occasionally do run programs under OS9, using a free third party emulator and Apple system software to which I have a license based on my ownership of the long obsolete machine it originally ran on.

What open source volunteers did for SheepShaver, Apple programmers, with vastly greater resources and unlimited access to Apple's own past software, could surely do better. Emulation is a well developed technology; I can switch among the current version of OSX, either of two versions of Windows (in Parallels), or OS9 in Sheepshaver, without ever having to reboot my machine. It is true that emulation carries some penalty in speed—but I would expect that to be more than outweighed by running software designed for machines of five or ten years ago on current hardware. Maintaining, in effect, multiple copies of Apple's system software on one machine would tie up a certain amount of hard drive storage—but modern machines have very large hard drives.

Apple's current approach to backup is an elegant program named Time Machine. Instead of giving you a  backup of your hard drive as it was at some point in the past, it gives what its name implies, access to the state of your drive as it existed a day ago, a week ago, a month ago. That could be very convenient when you discover that it was last month that you accidentally deleted a document you now need or made changes you would now like to undo. 

What I am proposing is the OS equivalent. Most users most of the time would be running the latest version of the operating system. If I want to run Eudora, I enter OS Time Machine, scroll back to OSX 10.6, and am good to go. If I want to entertain myself with Warlords II, a game that I and other members of my family spent quite a lot of time playing a very long time ago, I scroll back to OS9, perhaps even OS8, and play it. If I want to access documents written with WriteNow, my and family's favorite word processor for many years but now many years unsupported, or on AppleWorks, which at the moment still runs on current software but not very well, those too would be easy options. Emulation is not, of course, perfect; their might be occasional glitches. But it ought to be adequate for most purposes.

And very cool.

When I mentioned the idea to my wife, she pointed out a further advantage. Home computers such as the TRS80 and the Apple II first became widely available more than thirty years ago. That means that at this point, there are quite a lot of people in their fifties, some in their sixties or older, who have been routinely using computers for most of their adult life, not even including those who started out earlier on mainframes. 

As people get older, they tend to become more conservative. At twenty, learning a new program to do something your old program already does,  perhaps do it a little better or with a few more bells and whistles, feels like an adventure, a challenge. At sixty it may feel more like a chore. Once OS Time Machine is incorporated in the Macintosh system software, you never have to do it again. If the new program has new features you want, you buy it and learn it. If the advantages of the new are outweighed by the very large advantage of software you have been using for years and are intimately familiar with, or if the changes actually make the new software less suitable for your purposes than the old, you don't. I expect there are already enough cybergeezers to make up a significant market niche, and the number can only increase.

Over time, OS Time Machine could introduce additional features. Double click on a program that no longer runs on the latest version of the OS, and it automatically shifts you back to the most recent version under which it did run before loading the program.

So far as I can see, the proposal is technically doable, although it would of course cost Apple something in programmer time and other expenses. The strongest argument I can see against it is that it would increase the complexity of the Macintosh software universe by keeping more old programs in use, programs that users might, perhaps unreasonably, expect Apple itself to support, a cost that might more than outweigh the benefits.

But I hope not.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Chinese Sulfur and Global Warming

There have been a number of recent news stories reporting that global warming pretty much stopped for the past decade, due to the cooling effect of increased sulfur output in China roughly cancelling, at least in the short term, the warming effect due to CO2. Assuming that the account is correct, I think it has an interesting implication, not for climate science but for the controversy around it.

I don't watch that controversy very carefully, but one part of it is the question of what is actually happening to global temperature, with some skeptics arguing that the upward trend is for one reason or another either fictional or exaggerated.  My question is whether, prior to this particular explanation surfacing, the other side had conceded that for some unknown reason temperatures were not rising as predicted, or whether they waited to admit that until they had an explanation. If the latter, then perhaps the wrong side is getting labeled "denialist."

Can readers who are involved with the controversy, on one side or the other,  point to evidence, claims and counterclaims about what was actually happening to global temperatures over the past decade?

———

A commenter provides a link that leads to a BBC interview with Phil Jones, who was a central figure in some of the recent climate controversy. He makes it reasonably clear that the recent data, while not inconsistent with the long-run warming trend, did not actually support it, which is evidence of the honesty of his side of the argument. The interview was, on internal evidence, between January 29 and February 13 of 2010, which I believe puts it well before the sulfur explanation had come out.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Death of Copyright: One Observed Solution

Intellectual  property in digital form is easy to copy, easy to transmit, making the enforcement of copyright law more difficult. As an increasing fraction of I.P. takes that form, we face the problem I like to describe as the death of copyright. If creators cannot control the use of what they create, how are they to get a sufficient reward to make it worth creating? It's an issue I have discussed here in the past, and also discuss at some length in the relevant chapter of Future Imperfect—available for purchase, but also webbed for free.

I recently came across one interesting example of a solution to that problem, hence this post. As I've mentioned, I spent last weekend at Westercon, a local sf convention. Like most cons, it had an art show. Being a relatively small con, most of the art was of a not very pretentious sort—I did not, for instance, notice the originals of the cover art for published books. The price range for most of it was between about $20, mostly prints and very small pieces, and $100.

The guests of honor at the con included the Foglios, the couple who produce Girl Genius, a very popular steampunk webcomic, and there was at least a moderate steampunk (alternate history, Victorian high tech) theme to the convention. The art show included the uncolored drawings for a number of frames of the webcomic, as well as at least one piece of unrelated art by Phil Foglio.

They were priced between a thousand and two thousand dollars each.

Phil Foglio is obviously a skilled artist, and one would expect his work to sell for substantially more than the work of the average sf semi-pro. But I suspect that the size of the gap reflects less that difference than the desire of the fans of the webcomic to possess a genuine piece of art associated with it. Which means that the creators of that particular piece of intellectual property can give away their digital creation online while making a significant amount of money selling associated non-digital creations in realspace.  And they can do it at essentially no cost to themselves, since the drawing has already been created in the process of producing the webcomic. That is one example of what I think of as the tie-in approach to dealing with the death of copyright—the same principle that lets me put books up on the web for free and make a significant amount from being paid to give public talks, an opportunity in part created by people reading my books.

How much of an income can the Foglios expect from that particular source? My younger son, a fan of Girl Genius, tells me that it updates three times a week. Suppose the Foglios sell two-thirds of the uncolored drawings—why uncolored I don't know, perhaps because the coloring is done in a later digital step, and once the drawing is being printed from a computer it loses its rarity value. Further suppose that after paying a commission to the con or other intermediary, they end up with a thousand dollars per drawing. That's an income of a hundred thousand dollars a year—not enough to make them rich, but enough to pay for a fair fraction of groceries, rent, and the like. And they have a variety of other tie-ins, including physical books based on the comic, to supplement that.

It's an interesting world.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Stranger in a Strange Land: Fifty Years After

An earlier post discussed the topic of one of the panels that I participated in at Westercon this weekend. Another was on the subject of the Heinlein best seller, in particular its effect on the present day world. It occurred to me that some readers of my blog might be interested in my view of the subject.

Stranger had a significant short term effect on the culture when it came out, but a negligible long term effect judged by the present. Its most radical message was the idea of group marriage, group marriage of a particular sort. The nests it described were high trust families formed with minimal search and courtship, yet stable. You looked in someone's eyes, recognized him or her as a water brother, and knew you could trust each other forever after. It was a naively romantic picture, possibly workable with the assistance of the protagonist's super powers, but distinctly risky in the real world. The picture fit well into the naively romantic hippy culture of the time, quite a lot of people seem to have tried to implement it, and no doubt for at least a few it worked. One member of the panel audience made it reasonably clear that she had joined a nest, was still in it, and was happy with the result.

Sexual mores did indeed change, but not in that direction. Living in southern California in the eighties, the view that seemed most common among young adults—many of those I associated with would have been met within the SCA, a subculture that had noticeable overlap with hippiedom—was very different. The ideal pattern was stable monogamy—but who could be so lucky. Insofar as it had been replaced, it was mostly by the increasing acceptability and practice of casual sex.

There has been some development since Stranger was published, in practice and theory, along the lines of group marriage, but of a very different sort. Polyamory  is much more self-conscious and structured than what we see in Stranger—partners are classified as primary or secondary and a good deal of attention paid to just what those terms mean and what behavior they imply. The result is rather closer to the Oneida Commune of the 19th century—on a much smaller scale—than to the nest. Another and less visible development has been the gradual increase in acceptability of the BDSM subculture, although most of that, at least in realspace, is still pretty low profile.

I think this description fits not only what happened in the real world but what happened in Heinlein's fictional worlds. Consider another and much more sophisticated version of a group marriage, the line marriage in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. It is highly organized, new members are brought in at the low age end on a regular pattern of alternating gender, there is extensive search/courtship. And the protagonist offers a plausible explanation of its social role, why these particular institutions developed as they did and what purpose they serve.

Finally, consider Friday. The protagonist, surprisingly naive given her profession, joins a group marriage, makes a substantial commitment to it, and is booted out, her share of the assets stolen, when it is discovered that she is an artificial person, the superior product of genetic engineering. Her much later commitment to a second group marriage is the result of somewhat more careful research.

———

And, for a tangent back to self-publishing, one of my reasons to attend sf cons and participate in panels is as an opportunity to get some publicity for my work. Being, like (I suspect) many authors, addicted to the frequent checking of Amazon ratings, I took the opportunity to monitor the effect on the rating of Salamander of my con participation last weekend. As best I can tell it drove the rating, which had been drifting up above (I think) 100,000, back down to something in the 20-30,000 range, which is about the best it has yet managed.

Of course, it's now drifting back up. But if I mention it often enough here ...  . And we do seem to have sold a few more cookbooks.

Asset Sales: A Third Option

Discussions of the current debt limit controversy mostly take it for granted that, if the limit is not raised, the federal government will either have to cut spending—often, it is implied, by defaulting on the interest obligations on the present debt—or raise taxes.

There is, however, a third option, one that has gotten quite a lot of attention in the Greek case: Asset sales. The U.S. government, like the Greek government, owns a lot of valuable stuff, most obviously land and buildings. I don't know what the total value is, but it is hard to believe that it isn't substantial. In the Greek case, I have seen it claimed that selling all such assets would come close to liquidating the national debt. 

Of course, there might be technical problems to doing it quickly, if only because of legal restrictions on how such can be sold.

———

Robert Murphy has a fairly detailed discussion of assets that could be sold, concluding that the total of reasonably liquid ones is about $1.6 trillion. That doesn't include buildings that are currently unused or underutilized, and other more difficult to estimate (and perhaps to sell) assets.