Monday, March 27, 2006

Immigration and Terrorism

Listening to the current immigration discussion, I am repeatedly struck by the absurdity of linking that issue with the issue of preventing terrorism--usually put in terms of some phrase about America controlling its borders.

The linkage is absurd for two different reasons. The first is that current illegal immigrants are not Muslims and have no connection with or allegiance to Islamic organizations, terrorist or otherwise. Most of them are Catholics. They are no more likely to support Islamic terrorism than the people already here—probably less likely.

The second is that the U.S. doesn't control its borders, isn't going to control its borders, and probably cannot at any acceptable cost control its borders, in the sense relevant to the terrorist issue. In 2004, the most recent year for which I found figures, there were more than eighty million tourist arrivals in North America, presumably most of them in the U.S. Anyone with sufficient resources and ability to pose a serious terrorist threat can get into the country as one of those tens of millions—he doesn't have to scramble through a tunnel under the U.S./Mexican border. And making it a criminal offense to hire illegal aliens will have very little effect on those aliens who are working for al-Qaeda. They already have a job.

There are, of course, many other arguments pro and con on the subject of immigration, a subject I may return to in a later post. But this one isn't an argument, it's pure demagoguery.

My own view of the subject is best summed up in an old Buffy Sainte Marie song:

Welcome, welcome, Immigrante,
To my country welcome home.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

It's In The Bookstores

My novel Harald has been available from Amazon for over a week, and is now in our local bookstore. I have even received my first email from a reader of the actual published version. My favorite line of which was: "it's full of intelligent people being intelligent."

Words to warm at least this writer's heart.

Talk Radio vs Usenet

In an earlier post, I commented on the unedifying nature of talk radio—hosts giving one sided arguments in favor of the views they and their listeners share. That raises an obvious question: If one is interested in political issues, what are better ways of getting information about them?

My favorite solution is Usenet, a part of the Internet that predates the web, although nowadays many people use the web to access it. To the user, it looks like an enormous collection of bulletin boards; my ISP currently supports more than a hundred thousand of them. Each Usenet newsgroup is a conversation on a topic, with topics ranging from writing speculative fiction to obscure computer languages to obsolete video games to political ideologies. The conversation takes the form of a series of posts organized into threads, viewable, if you have a decent newsreader—many are available for free—in ways that show who is answering whom on what. It is a form of communication much superior to realtime instant messaging, especially when the conversation involves more than two people.

A newgroup is a conversation, but also a community—a group of people who routinely interact online. Not all of the talk is about the group's topic. Once you know people, it's natural enough to get into talking about their lives, arguing politics, discussing the world. Such off topic threads can distract from whatever the newsgroup is supposed to be about, but they are also one of the attractions of Usenet. It is more interesting and more informative to discuss national politics, or differences among different countries, or how to bring up children, with people you know and respect for what they have to say about the group's topic, than it is to have similar conversations with strangers.

Which brings me back to the question I started with—how to get information on political issues, and, in particular, how to get a clear idea of what the arguments are for both sides.

Currently, my best solution is a Usenet newsgroup whose nominal subject is science fiction fandom (rec.arts.sf.fandom). The group contains intelligent and well informed individuals with a variety of political views. I can be reasonably sure, when the conversation turns to the Florida election controversy (2000) or Israel vs the Palestinians, that there will be at least one competent supporter of each of the main sides in the controversy and at least one competent opponent. By reading their posts I can, easily and entertainingly, inform myself of the best case that can be made for each side.

In that newsgroup as elsewhere, there are also incompetent defenders of both sides, certain that their position has all truth, justice and virtue and oblivious to the other side's arguments—the sort of people political talk shows are intended for. Their posts can also be entertaining, although less informative. Once one has been part of the conversation for a while, it is pretty easy to figure out how to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Should Contracts Made Under Duress be Enforceable?

A mugger in a dark alley offers you a bargain: A hundred dollars for your life. Since you are not carrying that much cash, you ask if he will take a check. When you get home, you can and will stop payment—contracts made under duress are not enforceable. Knowing this he either refuses your check or accepts it, renegs on his side of the bargain, and cashes it before the news reaches your bank.

You prefer paying a hundred dollars to being killed, he prefers receiving a hundred dollars to killing you. It occurs to you that even a contract made under duress produces benefits for both parties and so should be enforceable. What’s the problem?

The problem is that making such contracts enforceable makes mugging more profitable, and so makes it more likely that you will be offered similar bargains in other dark alleys in the future. Whether contracts made under duress ought to be enforceable depends, economically speaking, on elasticity at the two margins. Where making the contract enforceable results in a large increase in how often duress occurs but only a small decrease in the damage done each time–almost certainly the case in my mugging example–we are better off if such contracts are unenforceable.

A few hundred years ago, prisoners of war were routinely asked to give their word not to try to escape and then permitted to wander around unguarded. Sometimes the prisoner was even permitted to go home, having promised not to rejoin his army until he had been exchanged for a prisoner of equal rank from the other side. A prisoner who violated his parole had proved that he was not a gentleman and treated accordingly by people on his own side. The parole system made war somewhat less costly for both sides and so presumably increased the amount of war, but it seems unlikely that the effect was very great. It substantially decreased the cost born by captive and captor. Its eventual breakdown during the Napoleonic wars probably made the world a worse place.

For a similar tradeoff in a different context, consider the question of whether Augusto Pinochet ought to be tried for crimes he was accused of committing while dictator of Chile. Enforcing the terms of an agreement that immunizes an ex-dictator from prosecution makes it less expensive for dictators to commit crimes while in power. But refusing to enforce the terms of such agreements makes it more expensive for dictators to give up power. Pinochet is one of the rare examples of a dictator who voluntarily relinquished power to an elected government. If his reward is a jail cell, the next dictator may not make that mistake.

In all of these cases, the agreement was made under duress: the threat of killing you, of keeping a prisoner of war locked up, of keeping dictatorial control over a country. The same is true of a peace treaty—threatening to drop bombs on someone until he agrees to your terms is about as clear a case of duress as one can find. Yet most of us feel as though it is a good thing for treaties to be kept, in part because, in a world where a treaty is only a piece of paper, it is hard to end a war short of annihilation of the loser.

Science fiction readers may want to consider the reaction of the aliens in Footfall, by Niven and Pournelle, to individual humans who surrender and then violate their "parole."

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Are Small State Voters Overrepresented in the Presidential Election?

[If you are allergic to statistics and probability theory, you may want to skip this post]

At first glance, it seems obvious that the answer is yes, since smaller states get more electoral vote relative to population than big states. But the question turns out to be a good deal more complicated than that.

Define a voter's voting power in an election as the probability that his vote will decide the outcome. Consider two states, one ten times the size of the other. Assume, temporarily, that the large state has ten times the electoral votes of the small. Assume, also temporarily, that the two states have the same probability distribution for the outcome, except that the distribution for the large state is proportionally stretched relative to that for the small. Assume that the chance that a state will determine the outcome of the presidential election is proportional to the number of electoral votes it casts.

On these assumptions, the analysis is straightforward. A voter in the small state has ten times as large a probability of deciding his state's outcome as a voter in the large state, but the small state has one tenth the probability of deciding the outcome of the election, so the two voters have the same voting power. Add into the model the fact that the small state has more than a tenth the electoral votes of the large and we get the obvious, and I think widely believed, conclusion—that small state voters are overrepresented.

There is, however, one more assumption we need to drop. The probability distribution for the outcome in the large state is not simply that in the small state stretched out by a factor of ten. The law of large numbers tells us that, all else being equal, the distribution in the large state will be more sharply peaked than in the small. If the peak of the distribution is at .5, that means that the probability of a one vote victory, making every voter on the winning side decisive—changing his vote would reverse the outcome—is more than a tenth as high in the larger state as in the smaller. That gives us the opposite of the previous result: Voters in smaller states are underrepresented. Since the two effects go in opposite directions, one cannot tell, on theoretical grounds, what the net effect is.

There is, however, one more complication we need to deal with. In the previous paragraph, I assumed that the peak of the probability distribution for a state's electoral outcome was at .5—that the random voter had exactly .5 probability of voting each way. That is unlikely to be true, even if we limit ourselves, as we should, to states where the vote will be close.

Suppose the typical voter has a .51 probability of voting Republican. The sharper probability distribution for the larger state increases the probability that the outcome will be 51/49. But it might, depending on how sharp the peak is, decrease the probability that the outcome will be 50/50, and so the probability that one vote will be decisive.

My conclusion is doubly indeterminate. One factor results in overrepresenting voters in small states. The other might result in over or underrepresenting them. Figuring out the actual effect would require a fairly careful examination of detailed electoral evidence. Being lazy—hence a theorist—I will leave that job to someone else.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Peak Oil?

There has been a good deal of talk recently about "peak oil," the idea that world oil production has reached its peak and is going to be declining in the near future, resulting in shortages, skyrocketing prices, and similar unfortunate consequences. The phrase may be new but the idea is not. We have been being told that the world is about to run out of oil for some decades now, and those predictions, along with more general predictions about running out of depletable resources—some going back more than a century—have so far consistently proved false.

That is a reason for scepticism, but not a proof that current claims are false. Most of the arguments depend either on estimates of how much oil there is and what it costs to get at it or on estimates of the cost of alternatives, such as tar sands, liquified coal, solar or nuclear power. Since I am neither a geologist nor an engineer, I prefer to look at what economics can tell us about the situation.

The economics of depletable resources was worked out by Harold Hotelling more than seventy years ago, although outside of the economics profession almost nobody seems familiar with it. The argument is straightforward. Owners of oil underground can choose when to pump and sell it. If the price of oil is rising fast enough so that oil in the ground pays a higher return than money above ground, it pays to leave the oil in the ground—postpone production in order to get a higher price in the future. That reduces present supply, shifting the present price up, increases future supply, shifting the future price down. In a world of secure property rights and perfect information, the process continues until the projected price of oil, net of pumping costs, is rising at exactly the market interest rate, forever. Any faster than that and people shift production to later dates, any slower and they shift it to earlier dates. Unless the people who control the oil and decide when to pump it are wildly off in their predictions of future prices—the theoretical analysis assumed perfect information—the usual crisis scenarios can't happen.

There is, however, a second critical assumption—secure property rights. Suppose I own underground oil, but I believe there is a substantial chance, say ten percent each year, that someone else will seize control over it. I will only leave the oil in the ground if the expected rise in oil prices is enough to compensate me not only for the interest I could have earned on the money I would get by selling the oil now but also for the risk of losing the oil. So insecure property rights result in producing more oil now, less later, and a price pattern that rises faster than in the Hotelling model.

Essentially all property rights in underground oil are insecure. It has surely occurred to the current rulers of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia that money in a Swiss bank account is a safer asset than oil under the desert. The government of Norway is unlikely to fall to a coup or an invasion—but the politicians who control it today cannot be confident of controlling it ten years from now, so have an incentive to pump now and use the money to maintain their political power.

In some countries, such as the U.S., much of the oil is owned by private firms, not governments. But their property rights too are insecure. As we have seen in the past, a rising price of oil results in political pressure for price controls, "excess profits" taxes, and other forms of more or less disguised partial expropriation.

The implication is straightforward. The arguments about oil geology and the cost of alternatives may or may not be correct—on the basis of past evidence, the claim that we will shortly run out of oil should be viewed with considerable scepticism. But the economic argument implies that owners of underground oil will tend to pump and sell earlier than they would in a perfectly functioning market, and hence that oil prices will raise faster than the simple version of the economic argument predicts. How much faster depends on how insecure the relevant property rights are.

There is one further complication whose analysis I leave as an exercise for the readers. Insecure property rights have a second effect—they make finding oil less profitable, since after you find it someone else may steal it.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Wise Children

That maternity is a fact, paternity a conjecture, is a feature of human reproduction that has shaped the mating institutions of many, perhaps most, human societies. Men want to know which children are theirs, and the only way to do so with at least reasonable confidence was for a man to have exclusive sexual access to a woman.

That is no longer true. It no longer requires a wise child to know its father—a well equipped lab will do. Paternity testing is the stealth biotech, a technology that, unlike more newsworthy competitors such as human cloning, is now well established, reliable, and in common use.

So far, the most notable consequence has been to sharpen the three-way conflict between women with babies, men who don't want to support them, and welfare departments that want someone other than them to pay the bill. In the old days, the mother and the welfare department could convincingly argue that the husband—more recently the lover—was the father, and so owed duties of paternal support. They are now in the uncomfortable position of trying to claim that a husband who is provably not the father of his wife's child—who is therefore most naturally described as the victim of his wife's marital fraud—is still obliged to provide child support, and similarly in cases where the relationship is less formal than marriage.

The longer run implications are more interesting. From a technical standpoint, it is now possible to combine any mating pattern from strict monogamy to complete promiscuity with assured paternity. How many of those options actually go into common use will depend, among other things, on how much of our sexual behavior is hardwired and at what level.

If, for example, male sexual jealousy is itself hardwired by evolution—as a mechanism to make sure that men don't waste their scarce resources supporting other men's children—nothing much can be expected to change. Men will still have a strong preference for sleeping with, and having children by, women who are their exclusive mates, and the likely result is something close to conventional monogamy. If, on the other hand, evolution has simultaneously provided men with a desire for assured paternity and a taste for promiscuity—both of which make sense from an evolutionary point of view—we may end up with a form of group marriage, or some less structured alternative, becoming common.

To some extent this has already happened, driven by a slightly older technology—reliable contraception. We already have a society where a level of female pre-marital sexual activity that would have been considered scandalous in most past societies is widely accepted and widely practiced—because it only rarely leads to unwanted children. The implication of the newer technology of paternity testing is that a similar pattern is becoming possible for reproductive as well as non-reproductive sex.

Readers interested in what might—or might not—be the cutting edge of such developments may find the alt.polyamory web site of interest.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Concerning Talk Show Hosts

I often use my car's satellite radio to listen to political talk shows. The experience is not encouraging. Most of the content, left and right, amounts to "our side is wise and virtuous, hooray, their side is stupid and evil, boo."

Many years ago, when I was the guest on a show whose host I knew, I was struck by how much less pleasant a person he was on the air than off. I concluded that he was doing the job he had been hired to do. Being nice is less dramatic than being nasty. Treating people you disagree with honestly and sympathetically, conceding the parts of their argument that are correct while disputing the parts that are not, is less effective theater than telling them what idiots they are—especially if most of your listeners are already on your side.

The situation is not, however, entirely hopeless; there are still a few shows I enjoy. On the right, there is G. Gordon Liddy. The political content is not terribly interesting, but he comes across as the sort of odd, quirky, interesting guy it would be fun to sit around talking with. I have a feeling that the same might be true of Michael Savage if he ever stopped trying so hard to live up to his name.

On the left, my current favorites are the Young Turks. They don't take themselves too seriously, their ads are funny, they not uncommonly say positive things about people on the other side and they mention arguments against the positions they support.

It's amazing that they are still on the air.