Tuesday, October 29, 2013

What—or Who—Matters

"With respect to NSA collection of intelligence on leaders of U.S. allies — including France, Spain, Mexico and Germany — let me state unequivocally: I am totally opposed," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)" (LA Times)
Run a secret pen register on the entire U.S. population, collecting records of what number called what number when? No problem.

Monitor phone calls of millions of ordinary people in France, Germany, Spain? No problem.

Intercept and listen to phone calls by anyone in the U.S. who there is any basis, however flimsy, for maybe possibly connecting to international terrorism? No problem.

Do all of this under secret interpretations of the relevant law by government lawyers? No problem.

Listen in on the phone calls of important people, people like her? That is an entirely different matter that clearly calls for a Senate investigation.

Monday, October 28, 2013

My Travel Plans: DC and China

Some time back I posted my plans for a trip to Europe, offered to give talks while I was there, and ended up giving quite a lot of them. I am planning two more trips this spring so thought I would try the same approach again.

The first is to Washington D.C. on March 13th. I won't be teaching classes next semester, so should be reasonably flexible in my timing. If someone in the D.C. area would like a talk the day before or day after, let me know. Other locations either not too far from D.C. or on likely routes to or from there are also possible.

The second and more interesting trip is to Xiamen in China, where I will be attending a conference on May 17th to 18th. If I am going to go that far—the flight time is about 24 hours each way—I expect I will want to spend more than two days visiting places. Shanghai, Tokyo, Korea and Taiwan are more or less en route, Hong Kong not that far away. Going or coming via Singapore, Australia and/or New Zealand increases time and cost substantially, so not worth doing for one talk but might be for several.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Something Different

                    Henry’s Complaint

Young Henry of England, Queen Eleanor’s son,
Went to the King when the dancing was done,
Said “Father, I’ve found me a maiden to love
As fair as the dawn and as soft as a dove,
Marie de Provence I must have for my bride”
And this, I am told, is what Henry replied.

“Marie de Provence, she is slender and tall,
And so was her mother, as well I recall,
The husband was dark but the daughter is fair,
Rather like you if you judge by her hair,
My daughter shall never be wed to her brother,
Now as you’re my son, not a word to your mother.”

A month or three passing, too many to grieve,
For the loss of one maiden, again he sought leave,
This time he would wed with a wealthy lord’s heir,
Perfect of face and with raven dark hair,
“The loveliest maiden in all of the lands
And Ingibiorg’s holdings fit well with your plans.”

King Henry replied, after glancing around,
“Another as lovely will have to be found.
A husband gets weary the weeks he is banned
From the bed of his wife by the midwife’s command
She’s younger than you by some eight months or nine
And will be no bride for a child of mine.”

“Ellen the Fair is the choice of my heart
And surely once wedded we never shall part;
The third chance is lucky, or so I am told,
She is older than me and her hair is not gold,
I will speak to my father, her hand I will win
For I’m certain this maiden can not be my kin.”

“She is older than you by some two years or three.
I remember a time I was single and free
And you must not suppose that my youngest romance
Was persuading a queen to take England for France.
I am sorry my son, but alas it is true
That Ellen’s another who isn’t for you.”

“Of all the treasures of the world, a wife is what I crave,
What is the use of being young and handsome, rich and brave,
What profits me to woo and win the fairest neath the sun
Only to learn my father has fathered every one?
How I can ever find a bride I surely do not know
Now I will to my mother to tell her of my woe.”

“My son, have not I taught you to forgive and to forget,
For all King Henry’s boasting, you have no need to fret,
It’s true your hair is like the king’s, as all the world can see,
And for the rest, he may suppose you got it all from me,
Marry Marie, or Ingibiorg, or Ellen if you please
I cannot vouch for many more, but you’re safe with one of these. 

[Plot stolen from ... . History not entirely accurate—Henry was actually betrothed to Margaret of France at five and married to her at seventeen. But it's at least as accurate as Queen Eleanor's Confession.]

Thursday, October 17, 2013

For Anyone Who Would Like to Hear Much More of Me

I have just webbed a page with recordings of classes I have taught in recent years and links to the class web pages.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Matter of Priorities

By all accounts I have seen, the software system for Obama's 2012 reelection campaign worked flawlessly, in striking contrast to the opposition's. The computerized system for Obamacare, on the other hand, has been, again by all accounts I have seen, a complete mess.

Nice to know what matters.

Social Security and the Debt Limit

Two years ago, when the debt limit was in the news, I had a post pointing out that the limit had no effect on the government's ability to make Social Security payments. I have just come across another scare story (in the New York Times) assuming the opposite, so thought it was worth repeating my explanation.

When the Social Security system runs a surplus, as it did from 1984 through 2009, the money is lent by the Trust Fund to the Treasury in exchange for Social Security Trust Fund special bonds. Those bonds count as part of the national debt. If Social Security revenue is less than payments due, the Treasury pays some of the money back to the Trust Fund, redeeming some of those bonds. 

The crucial point is that redeeming the bonds lowers the national debt and so permits additional borrowing. Consider the following simple scenario:

1. The government hits the debt ceiling and can no longer borrow.

2. The Social Security Trust Fund asks the Treasury for ten billion dollars to pay Social Security recipients.

3. The Treasury takes ten billion dollars of revenue which it was planning to spend for something else, such as salaries for government employees, and gives it to the Trust Fund, redeeming ten billion dollars of the bonds representing its debt to the Trust Fund.

4. The national debt is now ten billion dollars lower, so the Treasury can borrow ten billion dollars and use it for the salaries it was planning to spend the first ten billion on.

This procedure is only workable until all the bonds are redeemed, but since the Trust Fund is currently over 2.7 trillion dollars, that is going to take a while.

For more details, see this 2011 article by Thomas Saving, who served two terms as a trustee of the Social Security and Medicare Trust Funds.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Report on a Successful Breeding Program

My mother claimed that she once taught my father a song well enough so that he could tell if a tune was that song or wasn't; he denied it. The purpose of this post is to report on a three generation project to breed musical ability back into my father's descendants.

My father married a musical wife. I married, in succession, two musical wives. My son by my first marriage married a musical wife. A few days ago, I observed the success of the project when my visiting grandchildren sang a song in tune—Frère Jacques as it happened. As the product of the first generation of the program I can recognize a tune although I cannot carry one.

Eugenics has a bad reputation because it is usually seen as the attempt of some people to control what children other people produce. I like to use "libertarian eugenics" to describe ways in which people control what children they themselves produce. Selecting one's mate in part on the basis of the children she will produce has been used to do it for a very long time. 

That is, however, a primitive technology for the purpose; unless you are very lucky, you may have to sacrifice other desiderata to do it. Modern reproductive technology is beginning to provide better ways, ways of selecting, among the children you and your mate could produce, the ones you do produce. Carry the technology a little further, along lines suggested by Robert Heinlein in Beyond This Horizon, one of his less successful novels but one with several very interesting ideas in it, and we will be able to pick and choose among the parents' heritable characteristics, producing a child with my memory for poetry and my wife's musical ability but without her poor circulation or my genetics for a bad heart.

The results should be interesting. 

Singapore, China, and the 21st Century

For the past several centuries, most of what mattered to the world was happening in Europe or European derived societies such as the U.S. The first big exception was Japan, which, somewhat over a hundred years ago, began developing into a modern society. It was followed by Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Singapore, all of which now have standards of living and economies comparable to those of western Europe.

I have thought for some time that one of the interesting things about the 21st century will be seeing what happens as more of the old civilizations come back online, become serious participants in the modern world. We can expect the result to be interestingly different from the versions of modern civilization we are familiar with, similar technologies, perhaps similar economies, but different cultures and, probably, different legal and political structures. The two big ones, pretty obviously, will be India and China, with Iran another likely candidate.

I was reminded of this issue by a piece I just read describing Singapore. Judging by that description, it is the society that would be produced by a ruler who shared my views of economics but without either my prejudice in favor of individual freedom or the egalitarian prejudices common among other members of the society I live in. The system is interventionist but not dirigiste, objectives chosen by the state but achieved through market mechanisms.

In at least one case, Singapore is doing something that I proposed more than forty years ago, controlling traffic congestion using modern technology to charge drivers according to where they drive, when they drive, and how congested the roads are. I proposed it for roads run by a private firm, they are doing it for roads run by the government.

Judged by the article, the government of Singapore does a more competent job of intervening to achieve its objectives than the governments I am familiar with, but it still makes mistakes. The biggest one was population policy. The rulers of Singapore, like those of mainland China, apparently bought into the population hysteria popular some fifty years ago, according to which overpopulation was a terrible threat to the welfare of the world and required stern measures to deal with it, the 1960's equivalent of the current global warming scare. They responded with policies designed to penalize families that had lots of children, a much milder version of China's one child policy. Whether as a result of that policy or other changes happening in the society, the growth rate of population dropped well below replacement and they have now reversed course, are using economic incentives to encourage families to have more children instead of fewer.

It is logically possible that they were right both times—for all I know, that is what those responsible believe—but I doubt it. Back when population was a hot topic, I did a simple calculation—population per square mile for different countries. According to the then dominant view, I should have found that the most densely populated countries were the poorest. In fact, of the five most densely populated countries in the world, two were rich western European countries (Belgium and the Netherlands), three third world countries in the process of getting rich (Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore). 

Singapore was the mostly densely populated of the lot, but Hong Kong, which did not go on my list because it was not a country, had a population density (by memory--I haven't gone back and checked the figures) about ten times that of Singapore. Singapore introduced strict population control policies, Hong Kong did not, and both prospered, with per capita income in Hong Kong passing that of the U.K. some decades ago. So my guess is that if the rulers of Singapore had ignored the western voices warning of population catastrophe they would have done at least as well for themselves as they did, would be ruling a larger but not poorer society, and would have less reason now to intervene in the opposite direction.

A different point that struck me in the article on Singapore was that, for a range of criminal violations, the punishment is not imprisonment but flogging with a rattan stick of specified dimensions. That is interesting for two quite different reasons. On the one hand, it is the sort of punishment a cold blooded economic analysis might suggest, since it imposes a cost on the offender at a much lower cost to the state than imprisonment, making it a relatively efficient punishment. Readers interested in the case for and against efficient punishments will find it discussed in an old article of mine; readers who don't have access to that source and don't want to pay for it can find a shorter version of the discussion near the end of a chapter of my Law's Order webbed on my site.

The other interesting thing about that punishment was that I had encountered it before—in the legal system of Imperial China, where flogging with a stick of specified size was a common punishment for  low level offenses. That brings me back to the point I started this essay with. Singapore is a very modern society, arguably more modern than the U.S. But its choice of punishments is in part a result of its origin in one of the world's oldest civilizations. One might even argue that the competence of its government has a similar source, since China had a sophisticated system of bureaucratic government for a very long time. It can even be argued that the Chinese civil service system, which allocated people to high status government offices on the basis of their performance on an exam testing intellectual rather than practical skills, resulted in selective breeding for intelligence since, in a polygynous society, high status correlated with reproductive success. Perhaps Singapore today should consider itself the beneficiary of a thousand plus year program of selective breeding for smart rulers.

And perhaps Singapore today gives us a rough picture of what China will be like in another few decades, when it finishes shaking off the remnants of its recent communist past.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

When I Was Much Younger

Libertarianism.org has put up videos of two performances of mine from 1981. One is a talk on Problems With Libertarianism, the other a debate with George Smith on whether the foundation for libertarianism should be ethics or economics. Jeff Hummel appears in both, including his explanation of the morally dubious tactic by which he made sure that this time I would remember who Jeff Hummel was.

All of us look very young.

A much larger collection of my performances is available on a page of my web site.

More on Debt Limit and Default

A commenter on my previous post provides a link to an article that purports to justify the claim that hitting the debt limit might well lead to a default on interest payments on the debt. The arguments are:

1. "we don't know if the Treasury can legally or logistically prioritize payments." Because ... "presidents are legally required to carry out all of the spending that Congress authorizes"

A President cannot spend money he does not have; whatever the requirements, if the debt limit prevents borrowing he will have to reduce expenditure to revenue. Further, the author concedes that the only legal opinion on the subject, from the Government Accounting Office some time back, is that the President can indeed prioritize debt.

And, finally, Congress is always free to change its mind about what it authorizes. The Republican majority in the House would gladly pass a bill prioritizing interest payments, so unless the President and his party want to default there is no need to do so.

2. "the Treasury's payment systems are a bit convoluted." Hence even if the money is there, the treasury might be too disorganized to pay it out.

The treasury has been paying out interest to claimants for quite a long time now, and it is hard to see why the need to cut other expenditures would keep them from continuing to do so. The author cites a problem back in 1979 when the result of a similar situation was that "we temporarily defaulted on some of our debt." It does not seem to have occurred to him that if that particular glitch in payments did not cause the sky to fall, there is no reason to suppose that, if it somehow happened again, this time the result would be catastrophe.

3. "payments and revenues are lumpy. ... So the question is whether there could ever be a particular day when we owe more in interest than we have in cash on hand."

That might be a serious argument if average daily revenue was only a little higher than average interest, but with revenue more than ten times net interest it is hard to take it seriously. The author supports his argument by pointing out that, on November 15th, 30 billion dollars of interest comes due. It apparently does not occur to him that if the government, knowing that that bill is coming due, simply spends a billion dollars a day less than it takes in for the previous thirty days, it will have a cushion adequate to deal with that particular lump. It should not be hard given that, according to his graph, there is only one other day in that month on which any interest is due. 

Readers are invited to read the Atlantic article and see if they agree with me that it is evidence for my position. If those are the best arguments that can be produced for the claim that hitting the debt limit is likely to lead to default, the claim is indefensible and the people responsible are making a deliberate attempt to mislead the public.

And the author has the gall to claim that the belief of Republicans that hitting the debt limit will not lead to default show them to be the party of crazy ideas.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Two Modest Proposals

I gather that both sides in the current political flap claim to be in favor of compromise, so I have two to suggest, although I doubt either will appeal to them.

1: The budget deficit is running at about twenty percent of expenditure. The Republicans think the budget should be balanced. So the obvious compromise is for the administration to agree to cut expenditure for the next year by ten percent, the House to agree to raise the debt ceiling enough to cover the remaining half of the deficit for the next year.

2. Both sides agree to reduce spending by twenty percent, thus eliminating the deficit and the problem. There remains the question, ignored in my first proposal, of how the cuts are to be made—what will be funded by how much. The House gets to allocate half of the revenue, the President gets to allocate the other half, in each case within the limits of the current budget, insofar as there is one. The House can, in other words, decide to give the defense department 100% of its current allocation or 50% but not 110%.

Neither represents my ideal solution, which would be a reduction in government spending of considerably more than 20% with a good many functions receiving an allocation of zero. But both look better than anything we are likely to actually get.

Monday, October 07, 2013

The Debt Limit and Default

One thing that puzzles me about the current controversy is that almost everyone talks as though hitting the debt limit means that the federal government must default on interest payments on its debt. So far as I can tell, there is no reason that should be the case. Federal revenue is about eleven times net interest payments, seven times interest payments including intergovernmental interest (such as the interest the government pays the social security fund for "reserves" that the government has borrowed and spent). So there is more than enough revenue to continue paying interest on the debt—provided it isn't all spent for other things.

Not only is default on the debt not necessary to deal with the debt limit, it is not sufficient, not nearly sufficient. Net interest payments are about 220 billion dollars a year, the current deficit is running about 750 billion a year, so if the government stops paying interest it would still have to cut other expenditures by more than half a trillion dollars a year to balance the budget. On the other hand, total federal expenditure is running a little under four trillion dollars a year. So if the government continued to pay interest on the debt and reduced every expenditure other than interest by about 20%, the budget would balance.

I don't expect it to happen and am not terribly interested in arguments about whether it ought to happen, since they rapidly turn into arguments about macro-economics, which is not my field. But simply as a matter of logical possibility, the government could balance the budget while continuing to pay interest on the debt and it cannot balance the budget by defaulting on that interest unless it also sharply reduces other expenditure. Facts which seem to be ignored in almost all public discussions of the situation.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Atheism and Morality: A Response To Dennis Prager

"If there is no God, the labels “good” and “evil” are merely opinions. They are substitutes for “I like it” and “I don’t like it.” They are not objective realities."
(Dennis Prager, in a recent piece in National Review Online)
The argument is wrong twice over. The existence of a god does not solve the problem of justifying right and wrong and there are solutions that do not require a god.

The existence of a god does not solve the problem because we need some reason to conclude that the god is good, that his will defines what we ought to do. The existence of a very powerful, perhaps all powerful, being who created us and the universe does not, by itself, imply anything at all about right or wrong. He could be a devil, he could, like gods in many religions, be no more morally perfect than humans, he could be a moral nihilist with no views at all on good and evil and a wicked sense of humor. To get from a god to God in something like the Christian sense, you need some further basis for moral beliefs, some way of deciding that the god is good.

If the problem is soluble, it is soluble without a god. One solution, the one that strikes me as the least unsatisfactory, is to posit the existence of moral truths analogous to physical truths, perceived by a moral sense analogous to physical sight or hearing. That describes the world as almost everyone actually perceives it—there are not many people who do not see torturing small children for fun as wicked. And that view of moral reality can be confirmed in the same way we confirm our view of physical reality, by subjecting it to consistency tests. If there is a moral universe out there, there ought to be a reasonably good correlation across people in their fundamental moral perceptions. It is arguable that there is, providing we think of moral perceptions at a sufficiently fundamental level. 

The reason the claim of moral consistency across people and cultures seems wrong is that we are used to talking about moral beliefs in terms of general moral principles, about which people quite often disagree. But people also quite often disagree about questions of physical reality viewed at that level—for instance what the sources are of global warming and what its consequences are, or whether Obama's deficit spending did or did not reduce the unemployment level over what it would otherwise have been. If we consider moral perceptions at a more fundamental level, evaluations of fully described situations with all factual disagreements resolved, they look a lot more consistent. Executing witches seemed right to King James, wrong to us—but then, he believed in witchcraft and we do not, a disagreement about facts not about morality.

For a  more thorough defense of this approach to moral philosophy, referred to as "intuitionism," I recommend Michael Huemer's book on the subject. I was first persuaded of its plausibility when, as an undergraduate, I got into an argument with Isaiah Berlin and lost it. His essential point was not that the evidence for moral reality was stronger than I thought but that the evidence for physical reality was weaker. If we applied the same standards to testing morality reality—rough consistency at the most basic level of perception—the case for it does not look that much worse. 

Prager also writes:
If there is no God, the labels “good” and “evil” are merely opinions. They are substitutes for “I like it” and “I don’t like it.” They are not objective realities.
Every atheist philosopher I have debated has acknowledged this.
I do not acknowledge it and, although not a professional philosopher, I am an atheist. I have emailed him offering to debate him on the subject but have not yet received a response.

A Kipling Question

For no particular reason, I was thinking this morning about a poem by Kipling whose context I do not know:

             The Flight

When the grey geese heard the Fool's tread
Too near to where they lay,
They lifted neither voice nor head,
But took themselves away.

No water broke, no pinion whirred-
There went no warning call.
The steely, sheltering rushes stirred
A little--that was all.

Only the osiers understood,
And the drowned meadows spied
What else than wreckage of a flood
Stole outward on that tide.

But the far beaches saw their ranks
Gather and greet and grow
By myriads on the naked banks
Watching their sign to go;

Till, with a roar of wings that churned
The shivering shoals to foam,
Flight after flight took air and turned
To find a safer home;

And, far below their steadfast wedge,
They heard (and hastened on)
Men thresh and clamour through the sedge
Aghast that they were gone!

And, when men prayed them come anew
And nest where they were bred,
"Nay, fools foretell what knaves will do,"
Was all the grey geese said.

The poem was written in 1930, near the end of Kipling's life. What I have wondered is whether that is late enough to make it a reference to Jews fleeing Germany in response to the rise of Hitler and the increasing threat of anti-semitism.

Hitler did not take power until 1933, but 1930 was the election that made the Nazis the second largest party in parliament, which would fit the final two lines of the poem. A quick google failed to find any information on what actual events, if any, the poem is referring to. Does anyone know?

I did find a reference to Kipling having the swastika, an Indian good luck symbol which he had used long before Hitler used it, removed from his books after Hitler's rise to power.