Wednesday, June 29, 2011

SF and Alternative Economies

This Sunday, I'm scheduled to be on a panel at Westercon, a local SF convention, with the title:

" Economics, SF's Weak Spot
      So many SF worlds, only two main economic systems. What else might we come up with as theories of value and exchange?"

Presumably the two systems referred to are market exchange and centrally planned socialism. Even within those classifications there is quite a wide range of possibilities. The Yugoslav system, for example, was nominally socialist but looked rather more like a market economy in which the firms, instead of being sole proprietorships, partnerships, or joint stock companies, were worker co-ops. The market socialism proposed by Abba Lerner and Oskar Lange in the course of the calculation controversy of the early 20th century was a system in which the means of production belonged to the state, but the state instructed the managers to play the game of pretending to be profit maximizing capitalists in order to take advantage of the decentralized control mechanism of the market. And the  system of institutions I sketched in my first book was not what most supporters of the market imagine such to be, since even what are traditionally seen as government functions, such as defining and enforcing law, were entirely private. And that one has showed up, occasionally, in other people's speculative fiction.

Suppose, however, we are willing to lump all of those into two piles. Are there other interesting alternatives, real or fictional, worth including in speculative fiction? What are they?

One that occurred to me is not only a real historical institution and one that appears in fiction, it is also one that plays a central role in science fiction fandom itself, as well as elsewhere in the modern world. I will be participating in three panels at Westercon, as well as giving a demonstration on how to make cuirboulli, hardened leather armor, an interesting period technology. My efforts will not be entirely unrewarded. I will probably get a free convention registration for myself, I may get one for my wife, I will almost certainly get access to the green room, the lounge that SF conventions traditionally provide for their panelists and speakers, which includes not only a certain amount of free food, something there is usually quite a lot of at cons, but also a  chance to interact with some of the more interesting people present.

But none of that is really a market exchange, a payment for service in the ordinary sense of the terms. I get the same reward whether I am on one panel or six, whether I am the organizers' favorite panelist or deemed barely worth inviting. And, as suggested by the way I just described the rewards, I don't actually know what I'm getting, since the terms are determined by custom not contract. What I am participating in is not a system of explicit exchange but a gift economy.

Most summers, although not, as it happens, this summer, my family spends about a week at the Pennsic War, the largest event put on by the Society for Creative Anachronism, a historical recreation organization in which we are long term participants. Over the course of that week I teach eight or ten classes on topics relevant to the hobby. Teaching classes is one of the ways I make my living, but it would never occur to me to charge for these ones, or to the people running the Pennsic University to offer to pay me for them. I don't even charge for handouts, which under the rules I am entitled to do. Their cost isn't very large, and it simply feels more appropriate to give them away, to include them within the (medieval) virtue of generosity.

During the same period of time I will spend about six nights, from dark to midnight or so, running a bardic circle, designed to create the illusion of a group of medieval people sitting around a campfire entertaining each other. Hosting it involves being prepared to present period, or at least period feeling, poems and stories to fill in as much of the three hours or so of the circle as is not filled by  pieces presented by other people present, as well as maintaining a conversation that supports the illusion, offering around period nibbles, being a host.

And one other element. If you present a piece that really impresses me, both as a good and entertaining story and as a good job of maintaining the illusion, you will leave with a silver arm ring of my construction. The silver is real and the rings reasonably heavy; the construction of new rings to replace the ones I have given away the previous years is one of the projects I engage in earlier in the summer. The pieces are modeled on the arm rings given away  by Norse rulers to reward entertainers. Ideally I would like to average one a night, but I don't think I have ever been that lucky.

This again is a gift economy and was recognized as such, in that context and others, by its medieval participants. It is a pattern that has been observed in many other societies. The basic rule is that, instead of exchanging value for value on pre-agreed terms, you give something to someone in the expectation that, although he has no legal obligation to reciprocate, he has a social obligation to. If he doesn't, he will lose status, be seen as a skinflint, almost a cheat. The Elder Edda, a collection of Norse poetry probably dating from the 9th century, contains one poem, Havamal, that is a collection of verses of advice attributed to the god Odin. One of my favorite lines is:

"No man is so wealthy that he objects to receiving a gift in exchange for his gift."

They knew what they were doing.

They did. I'm not sure I do. Looking at the institution as an economist, it feels like a much clumsier way of coordinating human activity than an explicit market. Looking at it as a participant, on the other hand, it makes sense, feels right. A few days ago, wandering the web, I came across a comment by someone who at some point had received one of my arm rings. She referred to it as "one of my most treasured possessions." 

She wouldn't have if she had bought it.

So that is one example of an economic system, a way of coordinating human activity, that doesn't fit neatly into either the socialist or market category, even though the transactions are entirely volunary. Other examples?

What is FaceBook Good For?: Part II

After a little more experience, it looks to me as though the main function of Facebook is to keep me updated on what various people are doing—roughly speaking what I currently do by following other people's blogs—and to keep them updated on what I am doing. While that is worth something to me, it isn't worth very much. I'm not really interested in what most people I know casually are doing, and I'm not even interested in most of what actual friends are doing. When I get a message that actual friend X has just friended stranger Y, my immediate reaction is complete disinterest.

From which my conclusion is that it probably makes sense to keep my total number of Facebook friends small. Hopefully those whose invitations get ignored will not interpret that negatively—one reason for this post.

What I have not figured out how to do is to use Facebook as a way of getting people to either read my webbed work, of which there is a lot up, including the full text of multiple books available for free, or buy my recent self-publishing projects. My guess is that the solution is a fan page for myself, which would feed information out to interested people without absorbing much of time with the reverse stream, but so far I haven't figured out quite how to set up and control such a thing. The closest I've come is to put up some material on the "wall" of my personal page pointing at the things I think people might want to look at, and I have no idea to what extent it is actually being read.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Blog to Book, an Open Source Project

In a recent post I raised the possibility of producing a book based on the contents of a blog such as this. My initial feeling was that the project wasn't worth doing, since the material was already available to be searched and read in its present form. A number of comments offered persuasive arguments on the other side, suggesting that, for at least some blogs, the material could be made considerably more useful and accessible by the sort of selection and organization that would accompany the conversion into a book.

At which point it occurred to me that, while the project might indeed be useful, there was no particular reason why I—more generally, the blog author—had to be the one who did it, or even had to give permission for someone else to do it. 

Initially I was imagining that what was being produced would be a physical book, a hardcopy, but that is arguably an obsolescent technology anyway. Suppose instead what is produced is a web page, a hyptertext table of contents to a blog, whose purpose is to select out and organize those parts of the blog of interest to the author of the page. Each entry links to the corresponding blog post; notes clarify what is where. It is not a full substitute for the original proposal, since the author of the web page, unlike the author of the blog, is not in a position to combine three posts into two, eliminating duplication, or revise the post that started a discussion to take account of what came later. But it could provide quite a lot of the additional value that would be provided by the earlier version. In particular, it could let someone interested in my political ideas follow that subset of the blog without being distracted by my search for the perfect pocket computer/internet device, and it would make it easier to see the connections between my views of how to organize the world and my views of how to bring up children.

At which point it also occurred to me that the project itself need not have a single author. It could be in the form of a Wiki targeted at the blog. There could be multiple such web pages, written by authors interested in different subsets of the blog content. There could be dueling versions, one by a fan of my political philosophy, one by a critic, each using his organization of and comments on my posts to support his view.

In at least one important way, this would be an easier project than my original version. A significant amount of the material on my blog was written by other people. That's obviously true of the comments. But I also had extended exchanges with two other professors, Robert Frank (who I managed to confuse with Robert Ellickson in my original post on this subject), and Robert Altemeyer, who came on the blog to defend his work against my criticism. Their contributions are, morally and I suspect legally, their intellectual property, not mine, so I could not legitimately include them in a book I authored without their permission. Very possibly they would give it, possibly not—and if we imagine stretching such a project far enough into the future, some of the people whose permission was required might no longer be around to give it. I could, of course, give my summary of their arguments, but that would be less informative and, I think, less convincing, than their version. But given that their contributions are already available online, no permission is required to link to them.

At which point this is becoming not so much an idea for my blog as a speculation about the ways in which exchanges of ideas and arguments might evolve over the next few decades, given the technologies now available.

Monday, June 27, 2011

A Possible Budget Compromise

My first preference, of course, would be to balance the budget entirely by cutting expenditures; Reason has had past discussions on how that could be done. The basic problem, in my view, is not the deficit, troubling although it might be, but the amount of resources consumed and misallocated by government.

But if there is going to be a compromise involving increasing taxes and decreasing expenditure, I think the right way to do it would be to make the "tax increases" take the form of reductions in tax expenditures, the elimination of features of the tax code whose only purpose is to subsidize one or another activity, and which distort economic decision making in the same way as other subsidies do. The obvious big one is the deduction for home mortgage interest, which subsidize home ownership relative to renting and thus played some role in creating the recent financial crisis—although I suspect that is politically untouchable.

The Obama administration, in theory, seems to agree with that approach; a recent news story claimed they were proposing to eliminate a large tax expenditure associated with an accounting rule. Unfortunately, the news story I saw on the proposal got the substance of the rule (permitting a choice between LIFO and FIFO accounting) completely wrong, making the difference look both larger and less justified than it is. As I explained in my comment to the story.
"He used the example of an oil company that bought oil when prices lower and sells it when the price is higher, declaring its profit based on the higher price. "We just don't think that's right," he said."

It isn't right--and it has nothing to do with the LIFO/FIFO issue. Either the spokesman is lying, he is incompetent, or your reporter got confused.

The difference has to do not with the price when sold but the prices at which two different batches of the same product, such as oil, are bought. A firm buys a thousand gallons of oil at $2/gallon, puts it in a tank. Six months later it buys another thousand at $3/gallon, adds it to the same tank. Six months after that it sells a thousand gallons out of the tank for $4/gallon.

Under LIFO ("Last In First Out") the oil sold is considered to be from the second batch bought, so cost is $3/gallon, revenue $4/gallon, profit $1/gallon. Under FIFO ("First In First Out") it is considered to be from the first batch, profit $4-$2=$2 gallon. Note that the ultimate effect is on the timing of the profit, not the amount, since the second thousand gallons will eventually get sold too, and the total expense for the whole two thousand is the same either way.

Under neither rule is the cost set to the sale price, which would make profit zero and is what your story seems to be claiming.

For what it's worth, I teach this as one bit of a course at the law school of Santa Clara University.

The Blog, Considered as Book

I don't have any accurate estimate of the total number of words I have posted to this blog over the years, and am not sure how I would get one, short of copying the whole thing to a word processor and having it count them. But my guess is that it would come to substantially more than the word count of one of my books.

Which suggests an interesting possibility. Select out a suitable subset of posts, polish them a little, organize them a little, and publish them as a book. Think of it as a low work way of producing my equivalent of the four volume Orwell collection that I have commented on here from time to time.

At which point the next question is, "why bother?" The blog is, after all, already here. Anyone curious as to my extended exchange with Robert Ellickson, or my coverage of the Texas FLDS mess, or my recent views on self-publishing, can use the blog's search engine to find them and read them. Failing that, with sufficient patience, he can page through past posts; they are all there.

Which suggests that perhaps this will become the new substitute for a book,  at least for the sort of book that consists of an extended collection of essays.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

"The Sorcerer" Considered as a Political Statement

I spent a good deal of this afternoon attending a performance (the last, so you don't get to go) of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Sorcerer," a work I had never seen before. It was not entirely Gilbert and Sullivan's; the setting had been transferred to 1890's India, with a few minor changes in names and words to make it fit, and I gather that the costuming, setting and dance routines had been deliberately provided with a substantial dose of Bollywood aesthetics. I have some reservations about the general project of modifying classics; there is a reason why William Shakespeare or Gilbert and Sullivan are as famous as they are, so editing by a less distinguished artist may not be, on the odds, a good gamble. But this time it worked.

I had not realized the degree to which "The Sorcerer" could be seen as a political statement, an attack on paternalism. The central figure, for those unfamiliar with the plot (and willing to hear about it), is an irresponsible young idiot named Alexis with an ideological commitment to the principle that love solves all problems and is its own justification—it doesn't really matter who loves whom or why. Acting on that principle, he spikes the party teapot with a love potion provided by a professional sorcerer ("My name is John Wellington Wells/A Dealer in magic and spells/..." the only part of the play I had heard before), everyone in the village falls asleep, and when they wake up each falls in love with the first person of suitable gender he or she sees, not counting married people or those who have already seen and fallen in love with someone else. 

Almost everyone ends up paired off, most of them unsuitably, although the plot does manage to free them at the end. It is clear from Alexis' conversation with the young woman he is in love with that he has devoted no serious thought either to the truth of the belief whose implications he is imposing on a large number of other people without their consent or to the likely consequences; indeed, it is not entirely clear that he is capable of thought at all. When a minor miscarriage of the plan on which he insisted results in his chosen maiden falling in love with someone else, he blames her.

It was a very entertaining performance, and my only complaint is that Gilbert got the ending wrong. Having Alexis carried off to Hell might have been a mildly excessive punishment, but he shouldn't have gotten the girl.

Now for dinner at our favorite Indian restaurant.

Textbooks that are Fun to Read

Wandering around the web yesterday, I came across a forum, I think for law students, on which someone mentioned my Law's Order and commented on how much he had liked it—the sort of thing an author likes to see. Like my earlier Hidden Order, the book is intended to fill two different roles, to be usable as a textbook but also to appeal to the proverbial intelligent layman who would like to learn a subject by reading an entertaining and educational book about it. 

Which got me thinking about what books succeed in that dual role. Textbooks are notoriously boring, in part perhaps because they are selected by the professor who assigns them not the students who read them, and some have the reputation of being seriously dumbed down in intellectual level while unusably broad in coverage. What books are there that are used as textbooks but also bought and read in significant numbers by people who are reading them because they want to?

One of my models was The Selfish Gene; I don't know if it gets used as a text, but it is certainly a readable and informative book. A famous example would be the Feynman lectures. Other suggestions?

I was thinking about the question in part for two reasons. One is that it ought to be important to a professor adopting a book. When I rewrote my Price Theory, a textbook, into Hidden Order, I was very conscious of the fact that if at any point the (non-student) reader lost interest in what he was reading he would stop. I tried to design the book to keep that from happening, by starting each chapter with a hook that would hold the reader's interest to the end. I think the result was a considerably better textbook as well as a book that sold many more copies outside the textbook market.

But the other reason links to my recent discussion of ways in which self-publishing, both online POD and eBooks, may be radically changing the mechanisms by which books get produced and distributed, in the process largely cutting the conventional publishers out of the loop. I have hopes that something similar may be happening, somewhat more slowly, to the higher-ed industry. 

I think there is an increasingly widespread perception that the current model works badly. In large part, it consists of young adults spending four years partying and socializing while pretending to acquire the sort of education that was a social or professional requirement for a small part of the population a century or so ago. There is evidence that a large fraction of those who go to college for four years learn almost nothing of what they are in theory being taught—a result unlikely to surprise any professor who has taught a large required course in his field and observed how many of those taking it are simply trying to memorize enough to pass the exams before going back to doing something they actually want to do. And it is very expensive, especially at the high end, where "high" is more a description of the status of the school and the ability of the students than of the fraction of them who are there mainly to learn what is being taught.

Which suggests the possibility of a more attractive model, in which young adults get on with their lives while educating themselves, in whatever subjects are of interest to them, in a less formal framework. That could mean working, it could mean getting married and rearing children, for those with a little inherited money and simple tastes it could mean trying to write novels, or do volunteer work, or engage in some other activity that they find a satisfactory way of spending their time. It could even mean a life centered on parties and socializing, supported by parents or whatever minimal investment of paid labor it requires, just done outside of the expensive framework of college or university.

And meanwhile getting eduction by reading books, perhaps using educational software, interacting with people online. A sort of higher-ed version of the unschooling I have discussed here in the past in the K-12 context. It is how I got quite a lot of my education; I like to describe myself as having taught at the graduate level at respectable schools in two different fields (law and economics) in neither of which I have ever taken a course for credit.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

One Cheer for Islam

A detail I have noticed in news stories about the current Syrian unrest is that demonstrations tend to happen on Fridays—because that is when people are already assembled in their mosques. I think that illustrates one desirable effect of religions, including Islam, even from the standpoint of someone like me who doesn't agree with any of them.

A religion is an ideology, and as such is a competitor with other ideologies such as nationalism. The Syrian government feels free to do a lot of things. But it isn't free to simply tear down all the mosques and announce that assemblies on Friday are illegal and will be punished.

In the Syrian case the situation is complicated by the fact that the government is dominated by an arguably heretical Muslim sect, which limits its ability to co-opt the major Islamic groups within the country—contrast that to the situation in Iran, where the government is controlled by the majority Twelver Shia sect. During the Nazi period, the Christian churches did not, so far as I can judge, do an awful lot to constrain what the governments were doing, although of course some individual Christians did. But still competition, even limited competition, is valuable. Even in Iran, I suspect the government is to some degree constrained by the fact that prominent Shia scholars have reputations and from them authority that doesn't derive directly from any official position.

What is FaceBook Good For?

I recently gave in and set up a FaceBook page, mostly in the hope of getting more visibility for both my recent self-publishing projects and the considerable amount of my stuff that's freely available to be downloaded or read online—more or less a web page equivalent, but more visible. I'm coming to suspect that it's a tool poorly adapted to that purpose, but I haven't really figured out how it works well enough to be sure.

The first shock was when I "friended" my son Patri and suddenly my page was flooded with his conversations. Some of them are of mild interest to me, but I see no reason to expect other people to want to read them on my page instead of on his and I haven't figured out how to keep them from appearing, or if I can, or even if I can limit the volume of other people's stuff that automatically shows up on my page. I'm pretty much not accepting friend requests until I have a clearer idea how the system works, so don't be offended if I ignore yours. As I commented to someone elsewhere online, I may have to unfriend my firstborn. 

I did manage to find a couple of people I haven't seen for decades—the two UCLA students to whom my Price Theory was dedicated—and send them "hullo, long time, how are you doing" style notes. And I put up a notice that I plan to be on panels at Westercon next week. Which I am guessing is more the sort of thing FaceBook is intended for.

I  also set up a page on my own web site consisting of links to my work, both self-published for sale and free online, which should make finding stuff a little easier than by wandering my fairly substantial site; that page is now linked to my FaceBook page.

Advice from those more familiar with the system welcome.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Forced Speech

From a recent article on Conrad Black, about whose case I know very little:
Despite the nullified counts, prosecutors are asking St. Eve to hand the burly, silvery-haired Black the same 6 1/2 -year sentence she originally meted out in 2007, meaning he would have to spend about 4 1/2  more years in prison.

“He fails to acknowledge his central role in destroying Hollinger International through greed and lies, instead blaming the government and others for what he describes as an unjust persecution,” prosecutors said in a recent filing.

Am I the only one who finds outrageous the idea of punishing someone for insisting that he is innocent after a court has concluded that he is guilty?

"Ve Haf ways of making you confess."

If I were a conservative congressman ...

faced with the Barney Frank/Ron Paul bill repealing the federal ban on marijuana, how would I respond? 

On the one hand, it's hard to deny that the war on drugs has been a massive failure. And part of my political base would be sympathetic to repeal; I might remember that in 2004 the state of Montana voted for George Bush 59/39 and for medical marijuana 62/38. But another part of my base would regard the proposal as anathema. How to straddle that divide?

For the benefit of any politician in that situation, here is a rough draft of a speech or press release:

I have been asked for my view on the bill representatives Frank and Paul have introduced to repeal the federal ban on marijuana. I think the first thing one must concede is that the War on Drugs, as it has actually been fought, has been a failure. For forty years it has spent large amounts of money, imprisoned large numbers of people, helped turn our inner cities into free fire zones, and imposed on the police enforcement obligations difficult or impossible to fulfill. The one thing we have not done, despite repeated promises and predictions, is to succeed in preventing Americans from using illegal drugs. 

By that measure, surely the essential one, the project has been a failure. Part of being an adult is being willing to recognize one's mistakes. What is not clear is whether the mistake is the war itself or how it has been conducted. I would like to hope that we can come up with some approach to the problem that will achieve the objective and will not do enormous damage in the process. But I think we must be open to the possibility that, given our circumstances and our society, no such solution is possible, that the overuse of recreational drugs is simply one of those evils that must be endured because there is no practical way of curing it.

I therefor intend to vote to bring the Frank/Paul bill to the floor, to encourage an active and extended discussion, and either to vote for it or to propose some alternative to the failed approach of the past forty years. And I would like to thank representatives Frank and Paul for taking the first step in that process.

I'm curious as to what my readers think of this effort in rhetorical role playing. Would it work—appeal sufficiently to both sides? Should I look into a future career in speech writing?

I think I'll probably keep my day job.

Concerning Michelle Bachmann

I just came across a pretty good piece on her by Meghan Daum, which I think fits my impressions despite being written by someone with very different political views from mine. It is in large part about the difference between Bachmann and Palin. 

Daum's point, although she doesn't put it that way, is that Palin is a flake and Bachmann isn't. Bachmann's beliefs may be mistaken—obviously Daum thinks they are. But she really holds them, really lives up to them, really has put a lot of thought and effort into living the life she believes she ought to live. Which makes her a more formidable candidate,  a better qualified one, and, probably, a more interesting person. For details, see the piece.

I should probably add that inasmuch as I had a candidate, it was Mitch Daniels. I agree with Ron Paul and Gary Johnson more than with any other equally serious contender and even know both slightly, to the extent of having spoken at the same event with Johnson a while ago and having met Paul in libertarian circles in the past. But I find it hard to imagine either of them actually getting elected—which is, after all, the usual requirement for the job. I expect that Bachmann's views are similar to mine in some areas,  very different in others—and that the same will be true of any serious contenders for the Republican nomination.

I expect that in the next election, as in the last, I either won't vote at all or will vote for the LP candidate as a purely symbolic gesture, assuming that this time they decide to nominate a libertarian.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Turkey and the Arab Spring

On an entirely different topic ...

Reading a recent story on Turkish objections to Syrian repression, it occurs to me that Turkey is in an interesting position with regard to recent events in the Muslim world. 

In a very real sense, it did it first. The reforms of Ataturk did not establish a full-blown western European democracy, since they left the military with the undemocratic job of preventing the recreation of a religious state. But they did create something closer to a stable, modern, democratic state than any then contemporary Muslim society that I know of. And the project, although fraying a bit at the edges of late, has been remarkably stable over time.

Measured by population, Turkey is only about the fifth largest Muslim country (sixth if you count Nigeria), a little smaller than Egypt, a little larger than Iran. But its per capita income figure is higher than any of the other Muslim countries of comparable size, the only serious competitor being Iran; by that measure at least it is a success.

Which raises the possibility that Turkey, which has for quite a while been trying to fit itself into the western European community with some difficulty, may, if all goes well, find itself the central figure in a new community of at least moderately free and democratic Muslim countries. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sovereign Default and Future Borrowing: A Query

Suppose Greece defaults on its foreign debts, as seems not unlikely. What would the effect be on its ability to borrow?

The obvious answer is that, having stiffed its creditors once, it will be unable to find new ones. But it is not obvious that it is true. The more the country owes, the greater the incentive to default. At present, from what I can judge of Greek politics at long range, it is not entirely clear that there is any other alternative; there may be no politically viable path to paying off the current indebtedness. Greece after default, like a company coming out of bankruptcy, may actually be in a better position to borrow than before.

There must surely be historical data on this question; Greece is not, after all, the first country to face the possibility of sovereign default. I, however, am lazy. So instead of doing research, I am putting the question to my readers.

In the past, when countries defaulted on their debts, did the interest rate they had to pay for future loans go up, or down?

Readers with long memories will realize that this is not the first time I have raised the general question.

Pot Puffing Politicians: A Moral Issue

I recently came across a report of an exchange with a prominent politician, I think governor Cuomo, who had admitted to past marijuana use but was not a supporter of legalization; I have now lost track of the piece. It occurs to me that it raises an interesting issue in both morality and rhetoric.

Imagine that, like Cuomo and Obama, you have admitted to past pot use. You now have a problem. Politicians like to at least pretend that their policies are based on morality and justice, not merely political prudence. So you appear to face two alternatives:

1. The use of marijuana is not the sort of thing that people deserve to be punished for. Hence by supporting existing law you are in part responsible for unjustly imprisoning thousands of people, something of which you ought to be bitterly ashamed. Also something you should stop doing—immediately if not sooner.

2. The use of marijuana is the sort of thing people deserve to be punished for.  You used it, hence you deserve to be punished. Turning yourself in to the local jail immediately might be considered irresponsible, given other and even more binding obligations you face. But once your term is up, it is obviously your obligation, as a morally responsible individual, to do so. No doubt you can afford a lawyer to work out the details.

Have any politicians actually faced up to this problem and explained why they are unwilling to accept either of the two alternative conclusions?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Thoughts on Huntsman

Jon Huntsman's announcement that he is running for the Republican nomination strikes me as raising a couple of interesting issues, quite aside from what sort of job he would do as President. One source describes him as the anti-Trump, on the grounds that he is serious and Trump was not.

He strikes me as more nearly the anti-Romney. His most obvious attraction is to conservative Republicans who believe they need a  centrist candidate in order to win the election. Like Romney he has a centrist image, but he does not have the same history of appearing to want to be all things to all people and he did not create the first draft of Obamacare. Not knowing a whole lot about either of them and being a libertarian rather than a conservative, I still feel more comfortable with the idea of Huntsman as President than of Romney.

One somewhat ambiguous element, however, is the verbal support that Huntsman is getting from not only the political center but the Democratic establishment. It could be that they have only the welfare of the country at heart—but the obvious suspicion is that they think he would be easier to beat than, say, the current governor of Texas, who seems at the moment to be the most likely conservative nominee.

I was amused by Harry Reid's comment that Romney has flip-flopped on so many policy issues that he “doesn’t know who he is.” Not that I don't agree—but isn't that also true of the candidate that Reid's party plans to nominate?

Caplan Contra Krugman: A Very Clever Post

Paul Krugman has recently been claiming that people on the left understand the views of those on the right much better than people on the right understand the views of those on the left. As Bryan Caplan argues in his response, this partly hinges on the fact that Krugman is comparing left wing academics to right wing polemicists. If instead you compare how well libertarian economists can reproduce Keynesian arguments with how well Keynesian economists can reproduce libertarian arguments, the conclusion might well reverse.

The clever thing about Bryan's response is that he proposes an objective test of the question, a sort of ideological Turing test. 
Put me and five random liberal social science Ph.D.s in a chat room.  Let liberal readers ask questions for an hour, then vote on who isn't really a liberal.  Then put Krugman and five random libertarian social science Ph.D.s in a chat room.  Let libertarian readers ask questions for an hour, then vote on who isn't really a libertarian.  Simple as that.
If provided with sufficient funding, redo the experiment using economists, using political philosophers, replacing libertarians (or liberals) with conservatives. Generate some  actual empirical evidence of who understands whose arguments well enough to defend them, which is arguably important, even essential, evidence of understanding them well enough to be justified in rejecting them.

Puzzles of the Linked Web

This summary is not available. Please click here to view the post.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Some POD Details

As many readers know, my wife and I currently have a medieval and renaissance cookbook up as a Print On Demand paperback from Amazon's CreateSpace subsidiary. Now that it is there, it occurs to me that there is an interesting tradeoff associated with where we choose to sell it.

Selling directly from the CreateSpace bookstore gives us the highest royalty. On the other hand, such sales do not appear to register in the book's Amazon ranking or give purchasers an opportunity to post reviews on the book's Amazon page, unlike sales made directly through Amazon. So perhaps it would be more prudent, at least for a while, to point people at the book's Amazon page instead.

On the third hand, CreateSpace does, and Amazon, so far as I can tell, does not, provide a mechanism by which we can discount the book to resellers. So perhaps we should point resellers at CreateSpace, everyone else at Amazon.

Thoughts on the Economics of Self-Publishing

Apropos of my recent posts, some thoughts and numbers.

A Kindle at $2.95 pays about $2/copy in royalties—one consequence of the fact that the cost of making and delivering one more copy is close to zero. My Salamander seems to be selling about two copies a day at this point, and it looks as though the rate is drifting up despite no serious further promotion by me, possibly as positive word of mouth spreads. Suppose I assume, optimistically, that it makes it to ten copies a day, hardly a best seller. It could maintain such a rate for a very long time without significantly reducing the pool of potential fantasy readers who had not yet read it.The result would be an income stream of about seven thousand dollars a year—not wealth, but a sizable trickle for someone willing to live at a starving artist level. For an author who could add one more book each year to the inventory, the trickle would be growing.

What about the POD alternative? How to Milk an Almond, Stuff an Egg, and Armor a Turnip: A Thousand Years of Recipes is available on CreateSpace for $9, paying us about $4 in royalties for each copy sold—less for copies sold through Amazon and only about a dollar for any copies sold through brick and mortar stores. As best I can tell it has so far sold about three copies. My guess, from past self-publishing experience within the medieval recreation hobby, is that we can expect to eventually sell a thousand or so into that market, probably over a period of several years. Again a significant amount of money, but nothing close to enough for an author to live on, at least in this part of the world.

The critical step in order to make it a source of income as well as a way of spreading information on historical cooking would be to break into the wider world of cookbooks. I have so far sent out one review copy to a major newspaper that provided me with an address to send it to, several to web sites that review cookbooks. My guess is that a single favorable review in a major source would multiply sales several fold, but that's only a guess.

All of which suggests to me one further development that might help replace the traditional publishing model with one centered on self-publication of eBooks and online POD's.

Currently, the main job of an author's agent is to sell his book to a publisher—first to persuade an editor to accept it and then to negotiate a contract. If we cut the publisher out of the loop neither sale nor contract remains, so it looks as though the agents as well as the publishers are out of a job.

But perhaps not. The publisher's traditional job included not only physical production and sale but also providing various inputs to the creation of a work for which the author was not the best source. The publisher found a cover artist. The publisher provided an editor and hired, or contracted the services of, a copyeditor. The publisher knew whom to send proof copies to in the hope of favorable reviews. All of these jobs will still need to be done, even if the problems of physical production and distribution are eliminated by modern technology.

The best editorial advice I ever got was not from an editor but from my current agent. She went over the first chapter of Hidden Order in detail, suggesting ways of revising it to do a better job of attracting the interest and attention of a reader. It became my most successful book. The same agent went over Salamander well before we had decided to put it up as a Kindle. I accepted some of her suggestions, rejected others—but it ended up a better book as a result.

Perhaps what will and should happen is a shift of function from publisher to agent. Let the agent  be an expert not in selling books to publishers but in helping authors write their books—part of what agents already do. That might include editorial advice. It might include pointing authors at competent free-lance editors and copy editors willing to sell their services. It might mean accumulating an acquaintance not among acquisition editors but among book reviewers, the proprietors of blogs that might be persuaded to recommend books, and a range of other people through whom favorable word of a new self-published book could be spread. It might mean developing mailing lists for sending out review copies, lists tailored to a variety of different sorts of books.

One final thought on the Kindle market, formed after looking at Amazon's list of the top hundred sellers. To my surprise, most of them appeared to be in about the $5-$10 range, inexpensive for a paperback but not for a computer file that costs almost nothing to produce. Possibly too expensive for a book targeted at customers whose first purchase will be more or less an act of faith, since they have no evidence that a commercial publisher thought the book worth publishing. 

Which started me wondering about the pattern of price changes. Perhaps what is happening, perhaps what ought to happen, is price discrimination over time. Put your Kindle up at a nominal price—$2.95, $.99, perhaps for free. Leave it up at that price until it accumulates a significant number of sales and positive reviews. Then raise the price to something more like what people expect to pay for an ordinary paperback book. Ten copies a day at $10 a copy comes to royalties in the neighborhood of $25,000/year. Get a few more books up on those terms, move to somewhere with good weather and low living costs, and retire to a life of comfort.

George Orwell comments somewhere that the 19th century was the great time for authors, when successful ones could live well on the revenue from book sales, free of  past dependence on aristocratic patrons or future dependence on state patronage. To a significant degree we are still in that world, although I am, in my interaction with fellow authors, struck by how many of them seem more able to write books worth reading than to support themselves by doing so. 

Things may be about to get a good deal better.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Bitcoins Considered as Virtual Gold

A commodity money, such as circulating gold coins, has two substantial advantages and two substantial disadvantages in comparison to other forms of money. The first advantage is that it is less dependent on information and trust. Gold was, until modern times, by a substantial margin the densest known metal, and it has several other distinctive characteristics, making it reasonably straightforward to distinguish gold from gold plated lead or even from gold that has been seriously debased by alloys. The value of a commodity gold coin depends on fineness and weight, and weight is easy to measure. So it was practical, indeed common, for multiple issues from multiple sources to circulate together, exchanging at rates determined by relative gold content. Knowing that a coin was from a reliable mint was convenient, but not essential.

The second advantage is that a commodity currency is less subject to manipulation than a fiat currency, whether token coins, such as most currently circulating coinage, or paper money. The issuer of a fiat money can manipulate its value either as a source of income—financing government spending via the printing press rather than taxation—or for other purposes. Inflating  a currency benefits debtors, including indebted governments, at the expense of creditors; one reason for Greece's current problems is that, without a currency of its own, it does not have the option of that form of de facto default. And manipulation of the money supply can be used for other political purposes, such as temporarily lowering the unemployment rate via an unanticipated expansion. Thus the value of a fiat currency is potentially less predictable than the value of a commodity currency, and predictable value is an important feature of the currency in which parties contract for future payments.

The flip side of this advantage, however, is that the value of a commodity currency is determined by external factors which may themselves be difficult to predict, especially over the long term. New gold discoveries, improvements in the technology for extracting gold from ore, changes in non-monetary demand for gold, all can result in changes in future price levels that are not easily anticipated. Thus the value of a commodity money is less predictable than would be the value of a fiat money controlled by competent and benevolent agents.

The other disadvantage of a commodity money is that someone has to produce the commodity. Labor and capital are expended in locating and mining gold, a real cost. David Ricardo, writing about two hundred years ago, pointed out that a tax on gold mines whose output was used entirely as money in the taxing country and provided all of its money was a burden-free tax—not only did it impose no excess burden (cost to taxpayers above receipts to government), it imposed no burden at all. A smaller amount of gold was mined but the value per ounce was greater, resulting in the same total value of gold money at a lower production cost—and it is the value, not the weight, of money that mostly determines its usefulness. Fiat money represents the limiting case, where "production cost" is in effect all tax.

There is, as I have discussed elsewhere, at least one interesting and attractive intermediate case: A private fractional reserve money. Its value is determined by the value of the commodity on which it is based, so behaves like the value of a pure commodity money; the one difference is that monetary demand plays a lower role, with each ounce of gold supporting the equivalent of multiple ounces of currency. And, for the same reason, it sharply reduces the cost of providing a monetary system compared to the cost with commodity money. But, unlike a pure commodity system, it does depend on trust and information, on being reasonably confident both that your bank note was really issued by the bank it claims to be from and that that bank can be trusted to pay off on its promises.

The reason to raise these issues now is the appearance of bitcoins, a private, decentralized system of anonymous online currency. I have been interested in the subject of anonymous ecash for many years but have no particular expertise in the current incarnation; readers who do are invited to correct any errors in my account.

Bitcoins, as I understand them, are, like gold, mined—not with pick and shovel but with computer power. Each consists of a piece of information which requires a considerable input of computing power to generate. In equilibrium the value of one bitcoin tends to the cost of producing it, just as the value of an ounce of gold tends to its production cost. Thus, like a commodity currency, bitcoins consume real resources in their production. And their value has both the advantage and disadvantage of a commodity money—not subject to deliberate manipulation, but vulnerable to changes from external causes such as reductions in the cost of computing power or mathematical improvements that make it easier to deduce the information used to create one. Like a gold coin, a bit coin can be tested for validity by the user—a process that involves both a check of its mathematical characteristics and the use of decentralized mechanisms to prevent the double spending problem.

The details of how the bitcoin system works should be findable elsewhere online. While I have an avocational interest in the relevant mathematics, I am not an expert in it, so thought it more useful to focus on the economics.

Lessons from Writing My First Novels

My first novel, Harald, was published by Baen in 2006; my second, Salamander, has recently appeared on Amazon as a kindle file. I've commented in earlier posts on it as an experiment in self-publishing. Currently it has four reviews, all very positive. The most recent is also perceptive—the reviewer picks up on a somewhat subtle point in one scene that I was afraid readers would miss. Since my purpose in publishing novels is mostly to get readers, not to get income, that's encouraging. The book's Amazon rating has been reaching about 20,000 repeatedly, then sliding away, then going back. My very rough guess is that 20,000 represents a sales rate of about two copies a day. According to email from my agent, who is the one who actually put it up for me, sales have totaled about 25 copies so far, with the rate of sales drifting upwards.

Quite aside from the self-publishing issue or the broader issue of distributing intellectual property online, often for free, I found the process of writing my first two novels an interesting and educational one and thought some of my readers might be interested. There were at least two lessons:

1. World building often feels more like discovery than invention.

I had a minor technical problem in Harald, a character who needed to learn a language implausibly fast. I found a solution. He had grown up in an environment where the high status people (he is the Emperor's grandson) spoke the equivalent of Latin but the common people spoke the local language, so he was moderately familiar with, although probably not fluent in, the latter. He is now a hostage in a still independent part of the cultural area that the Empire conquered part of a few generations back, so the local language is similar to the one around him when he was growing up, so not too hard for him to learn.

At which point I suddenly realized that I had solved two problems in the plot that I did not know were there, and the whole story made more sense. The Emperor has been trying to conquer the remaining unconquered area for the past thirty years and  failing, due to the military genius of my protagonist and the political abilities of the king he is allied to. The Emperor is a sensible fellow: Why doesn't he give up on that project and go conquer something else? Answer: As long as Kaerlia remains independent and demonstrates its ability to defend itself, the territories conquered seventy years earlier are at risk; they might decide they could do it too.

Second question: The Emperor has two sons, both of whom apparently want to succeed him, and has been keeping both in play, to some extent playing them off against each other. He's old, competent, and responsible; why doesn't he simplify the situation and eliminate the risk of a civil war when he dies by naming an heir? It is especially a puzzle given that he clearly (and correctly) regards the younger son as the abler, and the younger son also has the loyalty of the Empire's best general.

Answer: The imperial aristocracy is polygynous—the two sons have different mothers. The elder's mother is from the imperial high aristocracy, so he has the support of the old families and a dominant position in the eastern (chief) capital. The younger son's mother is from the old royalty of the conquered area; that's why he grew up in the (new) western province where their language was the local language. So the son has the loyalty of the conquered aristocracy, which I assume has been pushed one level down but is still locally powerful. One way of discouraging revolt is to make it clear to the local elite that one of their people might be the next Emperor. The Emperor wants to hold the loyalty of both factions for as long as possible before committing himself to an heir, preferably the younger.

I have long argued that humans have pattern recognition software so good that it can find patterns that aren't there; one might take this as an example. I found it an interesting one. None of this was planned, but it all fell neatly into place

2. No plot survives contact with the characters.

In Harald, as first plotted and told as bedtime stories to my daughter, there was a minor character named Anne, the young king's mistress. The King's competent father has died, and he has a dangerously unrealistic view of how to do the job.  Harald, who is a very good story teller as well as a very talented military commander, uses her to feed his view of the situation to the circle of young adults around the king, in order to put pressure on him to change his policies.

By the time the final draft was written, Anne had morphed into my stealth heroine—the noblewoman the King was courting, who makes it clear to him that she think he is acting very badly and she isn't going to marry him as long as he continues to do so, who helps save the situation at one point by a risky and heroic act (riding out of the king's army to one commanded in part by her father, just before the battle starts, to prevent the latter from being tricked into fighting the former), marries the king after he has reversed his policy, gets captured by the Empire when the castle she is in falls, and escapes by a piece of elegant cleverness of the same order as what my protagonist has been using to beat the empire in his campaigns.

In Salamander, the original plot involved a conflict between a good/bad mage (well intentioned but naive), a bad/bad mage (manipulating the good/bad one), and a good mage—very powerful, generally believed to be long dead. It ended with a confrontation between the good mage and the good/bad mage, won by the former.

By the time the book was written, the good mage had become a secondary character, his daughter had shown up as a student at the college where the other two mages teach, and she and the good/bad mage had become the protagonists. The good/bad mage sees the error of his ways fairly early on (the bad/bad mage having died due to an unexpected glitch in the magical procedure being developed by the good/bad mage) and joins forces with father and daughter. The remaining conflicts are between the three of them and other people who want to use the good/bad mage's invention for their own purposes, good and bad. 

I had also discovered two different romances developing, one between two intellectuals (good/bad mage and daughter) and one between two highly intelligent practical people (daughter's best friend and heir to the kingdom who is courting her and trying to get control over the mage's invention for well meaning but not necessarily correct reasons). A very different plot, but one I was happy with.

And the book had developed a secondary political theme: In what sense ends justify means. The Prince is basically a good guy willing  to do bad things, including killing innocent people, for sufficiently important purposes. And prepared to say so.

"If you could get a message to her, asking her to come here and assuring her of safety, would she believe you?"

"Perhaps. Would it be true?"

Another long silence, again ended by the Prince. "No. She sounds an admirable person, and one who might in time prove useful to the Kingdom; I would prefer to do her no harm. But I have obligations to my brother and to the kingdom he rules. If it turns out that the only way of keeping our enemies from learning magery that could be our ruin is to kill a charming young lady, or two, or three, I will do it. "

Mari smiled. "And you say so even though I have no truthteller to tell me if you lie. I am not sure your Highness is fit for politics."

"I do not think you need a truthteller, lady. And under the circumstances, lying to you might be unwise."

(the "circumstances" are that he is a widower, Mari's father is a very high ranking noble, and both suspect that her father plans to marry her to him—a prospect not unattractive to either of them. She's both beautiful and smart. And the best friend of Ellen, the daughter, who is the person they are talking about.)

Do  readers find this sort of thing interesting? It's not very close to what I usually post on—but then, part of the idea of this blog is as a place where I can talk about whatever I feel like.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Murray Rothbard on Me and Vice Versa

A correspondent points me at an old piece by Murray Rothbard criticizing me for my failure to hate the state, and asks for comment.

Rothbard's basic point is correct. I do not regard support for government as an act of willful evil but as an intellectual mistake; my arguments (and his) could be wrong, and some sort of government might be the least bad alternative among available human institutions. And even if we are correct, it is not unreasonable for other people to think we are not, as lots of intelligent people I know do.

The flip side of that is that I think one consequence of his attitude was to make him willing to be deliberately dishonest in his arguments—all being fair in war. That included being dishonest in the arguments he made to fellow libertarians.

My standard example was an exchange long ago, after a talk of his in which he claimed that Reagan did not really cut government and offered as evidence the increase in the nominal federal budget. I pointed out that, while his conclusion might for all I knew be true, his evidence combined whatever growth had occurred in the real size of the federal government with the effect of inflation over the period.

His response was that that was all right; because Reagan was responsible for the inflation, it was appropriate to use it to make his performance look worse. Think that through and he was saying that it was all right to misrepresent the evidence to his fellow libertarians as long as the result was to make them think badly of someone they should think badly of, to lead them to the correct conclusion for the wrong reason. I don't regard that as a desirable approach to political (or other discussion). Or, for that matter, a libertarian one—we are generally opposed to fraud as well as force.
I've written at some length online in the past on what I consider Rothbard's dishonesty with regard to economic history, in particular his misrepresentation of Smith (unfavorable) and his French contemporaries (favorable); see this old post for examples and further links. And there have been other examples. Murray was bright, articulate, and could be charming, but I don't think he could be trusted.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Estimating Blog Traffic

In my previous post I raised the question of how many people read this blog. Blogger gives statistics on pageviews, showing about a thousand a day. But I have no idea either how many additional views I am getting via Shrook or its equivalents or how many of the views I am getting are by robots rather than eyeballs—web spiders or something similar. I gather that statistics on web pages are generally overstated because of such.

Does anyone reading this know either how I can calculate such things or whether there are sites that maintain the relevant statistics?

Part of my curiosity is personal,  part has to do with wondering to what degree the internet is  replacing print publication. How does the number of readers I can expect for a post here compare to the number of people who read an article in a relatively small circulation print magazine, such as Liberty, for which I used to write? I have not found any precise figures for its circulation, but my guess is between two and eight thousand. If I assume that any single article was read by half that number, the total is probably comparable to, might even be less than, the average number of readers of one of my posts here.

And, of course, the question is also relevant to the usefulness of blogs as marketing tools, in my case for my self-published books.

How to Milk an Almond, ... is now available

As I mentioned recently, I've been engaged in several self-publishing projects lately. One of them is now complete. 

How to Milk an Almond, Stuff an Egg, and Armor a Turnip: A Thousand Years of Recipes is now available from CreateSpace,'s POD subsidiary; the URL for buying it is:

The book is about 160 pages (8"x10"), costs $9, contains about 330 recipes. Each is given in the original form (or translation if the original is not in English), along with a description of how we do it—quantities and, in most cases, instructions. These are necessary because period recipes tend to leave out irrelevant details such as quantities, temperatures, and times. 

Most of the recipes are from the 13th through 15th centuries. The earliest  are extracted from a letter written in the sixth century by a Byzantine physician to Theoderick, king of the Franks, and the latest  from The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Opened, published (posthumously) in 1669. There is also one modern recipe for a medieval middle eastern drink (sekanjabin) accompanied by two somewhat fragmentary 13th c. recipes. In addition to recipes there are articles on what food ingredients were available when, how to do medieval cooking, sources of recipes, and a variety of related matters.

For those who like to see before they buy, the entire book is available as a free pdf.

For readers who might consider their own self-publishing projects, the basics of doing it with CreateSpace are:

You create and send them a pdf of the book cover and a pdf of the book itself; Word is adequate for the latter purpose, although a page layout program might be better. Open Office (free, open source) includes a graphics module that you can do your cover with. CreateSpace prints and sends you a proof copy, charging a few dollars for the copy plus postage. You go through the proof copy, find lots of mistakes that you somehow missed before, fix them, send in a new pdf, get back another proof copy. Repeat until your rate of new errors gets acceptably low—it is amazing how many errors can survive repeated proofing—or you run out of time or patience. You then tell them that the latest version is acceptable, they put it up for sale on their web page and (if you wish) on Amazon, and also (if you wish) make it available for ordinary bookstores to buy and resell.

You set the price; the higher the price you set, the higher your royalty. The royalty also depends on where it is sold—highest via CreateSpace itself, somewhat lower through Amazon, still lower if it goes to a brick and mortar store. 

I set the price for our book to give a royalty of about a dollar a copy at the lowest rate. If I had been willing to sell it only through CreateSpace at a royalty rate just above zero—a sensible policy if the only reason you are self-publishing a book is to get it out there, not as a source of revenue—I could have priced it at $4 and still collected a few cents of revenue for each copy sold. That assumes that I pay (as I did) an extra $39 once plus $5/year to get the Pro plan, which has a more favorable royalty rate than the standard (free) plan.

All of which gets us back to a question I have discussed here before: Whether the current publishing model is going to survive the competition from both online POD and eBooks. I checked the Amazon price for a reasonably successful recent fantasy paperback and used the CreateSpace royalty calculator to find the royalty (via the eStore) at the same price; it looks as though it is comparable to what an author would expect to get from a commercial publisher. The publisher has the advantage of providing an advance and some marketing effort. On the other hand, especially for an author not yet established, getting published is hard—it took me some three years to get an acceptance for my first novel.

Some of you may be curious as to how my second novel, up on Amazon as a Kindle, is doing. So am I. The only feedback I get consists of reviews—three so far, all very favorable—and the Amazon rating, which shows how a given book rates in recent sales relative to all books sold by Amazon (or, in this case, all kindle files); high numbers are bad. One of the perils of publishing, whether self-publishing or commercial publishing, is becoming addicted to frequent checks of one's Amazon rating.

Salamanders was running at well over 100,000 initially, which is not very impressive—or surprising. After I put up a post here, enough copies sold to get it to something like 20-30,000. It then gradually drifted back up. It dropped again, possibly as a result of my son Patri mentioning it on his blog. It again drifted back up. A few days ago it again dropped. I have not figured out why, although my younger son suggests that it may be due to his efforts inserting references to it on TV Tropes, one of his main sources of literary self-education. It is now drifting up again. 

Current promotion plans mostly consist of attending a couple of sf conventions where, with luck, I will be on panels, perhaps be able to do a reading from the book. Ideally, the various sources of attention will eventually get me enough readers and reviews to maintain sales via word of mouth. Maybe.

All of which got me curious as to  how big an audience my blog has. Over a period of about a week—during which I was more active than usual, due to the flap over Palin's comment on Paul Revere—the log showed about a thousand readers a day. For the entire period it has been up, the average is more like five hundred, but my guess is that it has trended up over time. And those figures, as I understand them, don't show people who read a blog indirectly via an RSS reader such as Shrook, the one I use.

Which suggests that a not-terribly well known blog may still provide a signficant platform for pushing self-published books, especially ones likely to be of interest to its readers.

Speaking of which I should probably mention that although neither of my novels is about either economics or libertarianism in any strong sense, both have connections to those as well as to my historical interests. Salamander, in particular, started with the idea of a fantasy equivalent of the central planning fallacy, the persuasive idea that if only some sensible person had control over all the resources out there, wonderful things could be done. In its fictional world magery is weak, which is frustrating to mages—one of whom has worked out a way of solving the problem by funneling the power of a very large number of mages through one mage. He is well intentioned and naive, and the two problems with that project have not yet occurred to him.

And I had a good deal of fun in Harald with the economics of warfare,  including the problem of raising and running an army without either tax revenue or feudal obligations.

Would readers be interested in a more extensive discussion of novel writing, from the standpoint of a relatively new novelist?

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Argument Against Interest: The Left and Palin

One thing that strikes me about the latest round of Palin bashing is that her critics on the left appear to be acting against their own self-interest. I expect almost all of them would rather see Obama re-elected than defeated by a Republican. I expect most of them believe, as I do, that Palin would be one of the easiest of the potential Republican nominees for Obama to defeat. If so, one would expect them to go as easy as possible on her until it is clear who the Republican nominee is going to be, and only go back to making fun of her when it is clear that doing so won't reduce her chances of being nominated. That does not seem to be what they are doing.

One possible explanation is that her critics on the left think their attacks will make Republicans more willing to nominate her. An alternative I find more plausible is that what we are observing is the usual problem of producing a public good. The left winger who refrains from attacking Palin, given a halfway plausible opportunity to do so, is giving up a private benefit—the fun and kudos of mocking the big bad witch. He is producing a public good—the public in question being all of the people who want to see her nominated and defeated. Public goods, for familiar reasons, are under-produced.

The argument does not apply to critics on the other side, Republicans who want Obama defeated, think Palin is unlikely to beat him, and would therefor prefer a different nominee. Their attacks on Palin make perfectly good sense in terms of their political objectives.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Media Bias and the Perceived Intelligence of Politicians

My previous post dealt with an incident in which something a politician said was used by her critics as evidence of historical ignorance. In that particular case, for reasons I discussed, they were wrong—what she said did not imply what they claimed and if it had the implication would have been more nearly true than they realized.

But I am sure there are many other cases where a politician says something in public that really is strikingly wrong in one respect or another. Having read transcripts of my own speeches, I do not take that as much evidence against the speaker. In an unscripted context, it is quite easy to say things you don't mean—for instance to leave out the word "not," thus reversing the meaning of a sentence, or to change what you are saying in mid-sentence, with the result that the transcript shows the first half of one sentence followed by the second half of a different one.

What politicians say, however, mostly reaches the ears of voters through the media. That makes possible selective filtering. If you like the speaker, don't report the literal absurdity, on the reasonable enough grounds that he obviously didn't mean it. If you don't like the speaker, do report it, on the grounds that he is enough of an idiot so that he probably did mean it. The voters then conclude that the politicians whom the media they watch or read approve of are much more intelligent and reasonable than ones they disapprove of, whether or not it is true. Where the major media have fairly homogeneous beliefs—Sarah Palin is an obvious example—the result is that most people regard the disliked politicians as stupider and nuttier than they are. The exceptions are mostly the partisans on the other side; nowadays they can get the opposite filtering from blogs and web sites that share their bias, in the past from magazines that did.

As it happens, I know the opinion of two prominent past politicians held by someone who had had considerable first hand interaction with both. His view was that Barry Goldwater was an intelligent man although not an exceptionally intelligent one, and that Teddy Kennedy had a below-average IQ. That is not the view of the two men that one would have gotten from the media back when they were active politicians.

Looking for an honest man: The Palin/Revere flap

In a recent interview, recorded on video, Sarah Palin responded to a question about Paul Revere with:

"…he who warned the British that they weren't gonna be takin' away our arms, uh, by ringin' those bells and, um, makin' sure as he's ridin' his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we're gonna be secure and we were gonna be free. And we we're gonna be armed."

Lots of people online (and, I presume, elsewhere in the media) responded by accusing Palin of gross ignorance of American history, since the purpose of Revere's ride was not to warn the British but to warn the Americans. They are wrong twice over.

To begin with, if you actually read (or listen to) what Palin said, the obvious meaning isn't that Revere was carrying a warning to the British but that he was raising the countryside against them and by doing so warning them that they would be facing armed resistance. 

It turns out, however, that Revere did warn the British in the literal sense of the term. In his ride he encountered some British officers, was questioned by them, and told them
"that their troops had catched aground in passing the River, and that There would be five hundred Americans there in a short time, for I had alarmed the country all the way up."
The quote is from Revere's own account, quoted on a web site. I checked it by googling for part of the passage and finding it quoted in a book written about a century ago.

The first mistake of the people attacking Palin—accusing her of thinking that Revere was riding to warn the British rather than the Americans—is either careless reading or deliberate dishonesty. The second mistake—making fun of the idea that he warned the British—is historical ignorance. I am in a poor position to criticize that ignorance since, until the question came up as a result of Palin' comment, I shared it.

The interesting question is whether any of the people who made fun of Palin for what she said will have the honesty to admit that the mistake was theirs. Googling around, I found a piece by Rick Ungar on a Forbes blog. The comment thread includes ones pointing out that Revere did warn the British. Ungar's response was that Paul Revere didn't fire any shots—true, but hardly a serious criticism of something Palin said not in a prepared speech but in a reply to a question. There was no hint that he recognized that it was his ignorance, not Palin's, that was revealed by what he had written. Rereading his original post, I conclude that he probably doesn't care, since what he made fun of Palin for saying quite obviously doesn't fit what she said.

Which gets me to the title of this post. It will be interesting to see if any of the people who publicly claimed that Palin was falsely asserting that the purpose of Revere's ride was to carry a message to the British admit their error—either the original error of misstating what she said or the subsequent error of insisting that Revere did not warn the British.

Which gets me back to my admiration for George Orwell, which I hope was clear in earlier posts, some of them attacking him. He was an honest man, even if often mistaken—and political controversy would be pleasanter if there were more of them.