Thursday, May 28, 2009

Do You Have 64 Words for Freedom?

Aung San Suu Kyi made the mistake of being patriotic: she formed a political party to bring freedom to Myanmar, and won the election. Myanmar's military not only refused to recognize the election, they placed her under house arrest. Myanmar is a Chinese satellite state and, thanks to the ruling junta's efforts, a miserable place to live. Do you have a minute to give her 64 words of support?

Does Anyone Really Think There's No Such Thing as Progress?

In a recession, and with an administration in office that you may not agree with, it's easy to grumble that things are going downhill. "We're doomed, the country is going to hell in a handbag, it's the end of the world." For example: our cities are more violent than ever before, and you can't go out at night. Right?

Wrong. You often learn something when, instead of just going along with the groupthink grumbling, you actually work out the numbers to see if the received wisdom should stop being received. And it turns out that "Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth."

Yes, really. And even in crazy San Francisco, things are better than they used to be. Forget the 1960s; for some "you won't believe your eyes" memorable anecdotal data, just take a look at what people out here were up to in the 1870s:

The late 1870s birthed one of the most infamous sex scandals in history, with all the trappings of power, lust and deadly gunplay.

It began when minister Isaac Kalloch moved here from back East to become a pastor. Tales of illicit sexual exploits trailed him, and when he ran for mayor, Chronicle Publisher Charles de Young went on an opposition warpath. "Driven forth from Boston like an Unclean Leper, his trial for adultery, his escapade with one of the Tremont Temple Choristers," read one of the headlines. Kalloch railed back that de Young was, according to "The Magnificent Rogues of San Francisco" by Charles Adams: "The bastard progeny of a whore, born in the slums and nursed in the lap of prostitution."

An infuriated de Young shot Kalloch in 1879, but Kalloch recovered and was elected mayor. Kalloch's son was a better shot: He gunned de Young down in the newspaper office the next year, killing him.

If anything even close to this happened today, it would overwhelm the press and shut down the state of California. This will seem especially poignant to northern Californians. The Chronicle is our major newspaper (to which I often link, as above) and the de Young Museum is one of our major museums. I was dumbfounded to read this account. But it's not so out of character: this was only twenty years after California Chief Justice Terry killed Senator Broderick in a duel (in the city!)

Some of the grumbling about the world going to hell is no doubt the current of "the next generation is a bunch of losers" that undergirds the grumbling of middle-aged men since at least the Roman empire. But it seems to run deeper than that, to a kind of victimhood-worshipping justification for passivity. Tyler Cowen's sigh of frustration with the film-makers of The End of Poverty was that they apparently assume that the world's default position is wealth and happiness; since much of the developing world is miserable, this can only be due to active interference from the post-colonial villains of the West. Nonsense. Wealth is not the default situation. Poverty and misery are the default situation. Only by the constant application of reason and hard work do we escape that.

Beyond liberal mushheadedness, I'm bothered by this undercurrent of negativism, on all sides of the political spectrum, because it's dangerous. Somethin's broke? Then fix it! If there's an attitude I can't and won't tolerate, it's one of passively accepting victimization. Never ask me "oh well, what can you do?" because I'll have an answer for you. Yes, we sometimes hit rough spots, like the current recession - but it's nothing compared to the grind that our ancestors endured just a few generations ago, and that we don't, thanks to their hard work, brilliance and foresight. imagine meeting your great grandfather at your current age, and him smacking you around for being a whiner.

Again anecdotally: my great-great grandfather spent time at age 15 in a Confederate prison camp after being captured in the Civil War's only sword battle (a war in which he and many others were fighting to make it illegal for humans beings to be owned like livestock - there's an improvement for sure.) My great grandfather picked coal out of a mine in Western Pennsylvania all his life. My wife's father grew up in the literal ruins of post-war Japan, hauling rice up mountainsides at age 5 onward, and still managed to work his way up to a marketing position in one of the big conglomerates. My own father joined the Navy so he could afford his college education, the first of my ancestors to get one. Know what my biggest problem right now is? Which suburb of San Diego to live in while I'm in med school next year, because maybe La Jolla proper will be a little too pricey. Cry me a river, right? Granted, I'm fortunate (and I count my lucky stars every day), but I bet your life isn't so bad either. So next time you complain that your favorite beer isn't on tap at the sports bar down the street, or your plane ticket to Hawaii is a little too pricey, then boo hoo! (That sound you just heard was the ghost of my great-grandfather punching me for being a pussy. And you should get ready, cause he told me yours is on the way to your house right now.)

My point? Life has never been better - and we are responsible for creating the world we're living in! If things are so bad, why aren't there mass desertions of the cities for the mountains? Half of North America is still trackless wilderness. If civilization is so oppressive, then what is everybody waiting for?

Today, somewhere in the world, someone was shot on the way to work. Someone was put in jail for speaking their mind, or going to church, or not going to church. Someone couldn't feed their children. Yes, there is such a thing as progress, and it's only because of you and me that it will continue.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Public Intelligence on North Korea, via Technology

This nifty gadget lets you see and learn all kinds of things about the too-kindly-named hermit kingdom; perhaps holocaust kingdom would be a better term.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Support American Business and Medical Research

Public comments are still open for new NIH stem cell guidelines. To put it mildly, there's a huge need for more pro-business, non-extremist-anti-research comments. More, including the link to the NIH submission site, is here.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Emigration Debate

I frequently write about how the U.S.'s immigration policy should be explicitly focused on drawing wealth and talent to drive economic growth. You're coming here from Ethiopia or Iran with an engineering degree? Welcome home! Alternatively: you're from a developing country and although you're honest and hardworking, you have no specialized skills, but your son is here? Sorry, this is a republic, not a charity.

A reader once commented that we're in trouble when foreign-born talent starts going elsewhere. Richard Florida writes in Andrew Sullivan's blog that a recent survey shows that both American and foreign-born college grads in the U.S. list the U.K. and China above the U.S. as preferred places to start their careers. While it's easy for daydreaming college grads to say this to a survey-taker without backing it up with an actual move, this should be considered a disaster. I haven't seen such surveys in the past, but I'll wager this is unprecedented. Unpatriotic? We should expect talented people to go where the best labor market is. A friend of mine took advantage of the U.K.'s rule that automatically grants work permission to top business school graduates, regardless of country. Unpatriotic? No - smart and self-interested, the very definition of capitalism! The U.S. would do well to remember that people come here not because it's the U.S., but because it offers opportunities. If those go away, they stop coming.

I typically like Florida's writing because he always focuses on the central questions of modern economies - like this one - or on how to encourage and sustain democracy (turns out wealth doesn't encourage a transition, as we're seeing in China). But I don't understand his professed excitement about China seeming a better place to launch a career, even to American college students.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

California Special Election - How I Voted

California today held a special election with six ballot initiatives as part of the compromise which broke our budget stalemate in February. It was anticipated to show record low voter turnout, and indeed at 9:30 am I was only the 40th voter (this at an urban polling station where in November I had to wait in line nearly a half hour). Since I didn't bother campaigning online about these measures you can tell I'm just as excited about them as my fellow Californians. Here's how I voted.

1A - No. Would raise taxes temporarily to balance the budget and establish a rainy day fund. At some point, you have to cut services and feel the pain, and we're at that point. Next time you create a budget, don't spend money you won't have. (Update: state voted no.)

1B - Yes. I can't compain about education and then not support it at the polls, can I? Education is one of the areas where I strongly support state-run (and to some degree -mandated) institutions, because it's a direct investment in our future economy and security, and that's more true with every day that passes. California's public schools are largely a disaster, owing to lack of funding-per-student. (Update: state voted no.)

1C - Yes. Lottery modernization - increases sales and lottery revenues so the state can use it or borrow against it in the future. Essentially, taxed gambling. I'm all for it, because it's essentially a sin tax. (Update: state voted no.)

1D - No. This measure would have protected childrens services, including health, against pay cuts in hard times. Unfortunately there are limited resources, and the creation of children is something that is absolutely under the control (and therefore resopnsibility) of the individual. To paraphrase Minnesota's ex-Governor Jesse Ventura - don't have enough money for kids? Don't have any. Not the rest of our problem if you do. (Update: state voted no.)

1E - No. Would transfer mental health services funds to other areas of the budget. Another legitimate area of government spending is taking care of those who cannot take care of themselves. The mentally ill fall into this category. Therefore I'm against this proposition. In the interest of full disclosure, I would like my medical specialty to be psychiatry, so I can't be expected to vote against my own interests. If you disagree with me, it's your job to vote against my position. (Update: state voted no.)

1F - Yes. This prevents pay increases for elected officials during budget deficit years. I noted that the argument for was co-signed by Abel Maldonado (R), a center of the aisle deal-maker who was villified by the CA GOP's circular firing squad for actually helping to get a budget passed. The only guy that would write an argument against it was an activist whose argument boiled down to "All it'll do is make you feel good". Sorry, Charlie; basing your employees' salaries on their performance - which is exactly what this measure does - is more than just symbolic. (Update: state voted yes.)

Dear College Students: Capitalism Works

"Capitalism is unraveling." This is how economic leftists would like to portray the recession; unfortunately, given the average level of economic education of most Americans, we're easy prey for such propaganda. Most worrisome is that exactly that perception is out there, and it's growing. I feel as if I'll be attacked for being disloyal to conservative ideals by pointing this out. Note that I'm not arguing that capitalism has failed - I'm arguing that the perception is being promoted that it has, and unless we recognize that this perception is taking hold most effectively in young people, we'll lose a whole generation.

Young people graduating into the teeth of this recession can't be blamed for being worried, but the combination of a meltdown induced by a bloated financial sector is prompting statements like these from Jake Lear, "a digital arts major at George Mason, worked three jobs at a time through the past semester and is doing one of them full-time this summer — a resident adviser helping to look after freshmen in dorms — because he gets free housing. His parents work for a federal contractor that shrank its work force and eliminated 401(k) matching contributions...Lear gets the occasional 'panic-inducing thought' that capitalism itself is unraveling, a scary prospect with graduation ahead of him in December."

Dear college students and recent grads: I know it's tough. Suddenly being on your own in the real world is scary in the best of times. But the benefit of capitalism is sustained long-term growth, with the advantage, college graduate, to you - who has the brains and skills to create value and push technology forward. The State is not interested in economic growth, or your job, any more than it has to be to get re-elected. To that end, your productivity becomes the State's way of feeding less talented people to keep them happy. Collectivism is a short-term fix that in the medium and long run is always, always toxic and stultifying to real growth.

Fellow real-world conservatives, we have to explain to the Jake Lears of this country why capitalism and markets are the best bet for them and the best way that humans have yet found to allocate and create wealth. His generation is used to questioning everything - and they should. By all means question capitalism, and every other wealth allocation system discovered or contrived, because capitalism is the best and has survived Darwinian selection for a reason. (Adam Smith is the one pointed out the metacompetition that bred the Invisible Hand.) We have nothing to fear from open discussion and inquiry - and after all, if there really is a better system, why wouldn't we choose it?

Without Jake - and without that open discussion - the concept of the free market will lose all public support and die. How do we - conservatives (moderate Republicans, Libertarians) appeal to Jake? By prioritizing positives - education, fiscal responsibility, smart foreign policy, and smarter regulation (not more regulation) that can prevent our economy from relapsing into metastasizing too-big-to-fail de-facto-government finance agencies like Bear-Sterns et al. We won't win Jake Lear through embarrassing tantrums about stem cell research and tea bag parties.

Capitalism has been under continuous assault from ideologs since the mid-nineteenth century, but this isn't even the first time that the opinion of regular working men and women in the industrialized West has swung against it: Joseph Schumpeter wrote Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy as an attempt to preserve capitalism by appealing to its opponents, whom he recognized as in the ascendant. That's why I'll end with a quote from the Economist that I included in a previous post about preserving the public's perception of capitalism:

If the bail-outs are well handled, taxpayers could end up profiting from their reluctant investment in the banks. If regulators learn from this crisis, they could manage finance better in the future. If the worst is avoided, the healthy popular hostility to a strong state that normally pervades democracies should reassert itself. Capitalism is at bay, but those who believe in it must fight for it. For all its flaws, it is the best economic system man has invented yet. Capitalism is at bay, but those who believe in it must fight for it. For all its flaws, it is the best economic system man has invented yet.

Friday, May 15, 2009

More Volunteers For The Circular Firing Squad?

The time to have a witchhunt is not when your village is already decimated by plague. That's what's going on in the circular firing squad of American conservatism today.

California is a perfect example of what this can do: it's projected that in the next election cycle, there will not be a single district with a registered Republican majority. But hey, all those Californians are gay America-haters anyway, right? Good job, write us off; and all the other academics and young people that we need if the GOP isn't going to go the way of the Whigs. Strong work!

The recent attack on Jerry Taylor is a perfect example of what's happening. Someone dares to have an independent thought - someone who happens to be a Cato Institute Senior Fellow - and offers criticism that he thinks will strengthen the conservative philosophy. Immediately he's a heretic. He dared speak out against our converse-cheerleader-in-chief Rush Limbaugh? Where's the kindling! Burn him! Burrrn! The same thing happened to Charles Johnson when he refused to swallow the time-wasting conservative shibboleth/distraction that Obama is secretly showing allegiance to the Saudi king with his bow.

What's worrisome about this is that no political philosophy can survive if free inquiry is being stamped out by the hyperventilating fourth-graders that insist on calling themselves the "real" conservatives, and are threatened by the style of frank and open discussion that comes naturally to well-educated, crisp-thinking scholars. Those coastal types with Audis and PhDs (like David Brooks and Bruce Bartlett) can't be real Americans? They can't be real conservatives? Yet another demographic we've alienated - and the one that builds the future. Just look at this chart:

If conservatism is going to survive, it's not going to be demanding loyalty oaths and suppressing open discussion. We need Andrew Sullivan and Megan McArdle and the eggheads at the Secular Right. We need Austrian-school economists like Tyler Cowen. We need to get over our allergy to the term "intellectual"; it's frankly embarrassing that it has to be defended. Saying that you don't need intellectuals steering your political philosophy is like showing up to a football game with no quarterback. Yes, there are real problems that require the application of a conservative viewpoint - for example the resistance to what is frankly Obama's dishonest accounting scheme vis a vis nationalized healthcare - and the on-the-fence policy-makers and local politicians who play into this debate are more likely to listen to Tyler Cowen than to Glen Beck. That's not a bad thing, because Cowen actually knows what he's talking about.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Objective Evidence of Hugo Chavez's Thuggery

Economists have shown that after the attempt to recall Chavez, people who signed the Chavez recall petition suffered a 10% drop in wages relative to non-signers. Coincidence?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Schwarzenegger Suggests Opening Marijuana Discussion

Refreshing to hear a call for open discussion. He has the usual fears about problems associated with decriminalization. Fair question - but someone needs to tell Schwarzenegger, and California voters, about Portugal, where all drugs were decriminalized in 2001 with a net decrease in crime and associated costs (no,
not just by definition).

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Why Is Dropping Out of High School Still Legal?

16% of American kids aren't graduating from high school. That's one out of every six.

In twenty-first century America, this is not only a major problem - the economy depends on educated people - it's damn embarrassing. About the only legitimate reason not to receive a diploma is a mental disability. But providing a legal avenue for healthy, able-minded students to drop out is a relic of rural America, when going to 4 years of high school might legitimately have been overkill if you worked on a farm in Iowa. Not any more.

When you read all those depressing statistics about how kids in Japan and Germany outscore our kids - the reality is that your son or daughter in a suburban American high school is probably right on par with those kids. The kids that end up dropping out, and committing crime or going on entitlement programs, that drag down the averages - and our per capita income - and the quality of life in American cities - are distributed in a few regions of the country or a few types of demographics. We can't screw around any more.

If I speak strongly on this issue, it's because through a mentoring program I've had extensive personal experience and frustration with self-sabotaging students doing anything to avoid graduating high school. And after all, we've made it illegal for 18-year old men not to register for the military, so why not do the same for staying in school?

Here's what we can do:

1) Make dropping out illegal. Everyone who doesn't have a learning disability - as determined by a real doctor (no getting your aunt to write you an excuse)

2) Consequences for parents of kids who skip school. That means fines and jail time.

3) Consequences for majority-age students who skip school - if you decide now that you're an adult you're going to stop showing up to school, we fine you, and put you in jail.

4) No social promotion. You're 19 and it's embarrassing that you're still in high school? Too bad. You don't get that diploma until you pass your classes. If you stop coming, the police come. You have kids? Make arrangements, or their mommy/daddy gets fined and/or jailed.

I'd rather coerce kids to finish their education now and fight the misguided legal fights that will surely follow the enactment of such policies, than pay for the problems that will persist if we allow this to continue.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Bloggers of the World Unite

Those of us who live in free countries too often take our freedom of expression for granted. We sometimes need wake-up calls in the form of comparisons to other parts of the world where those freedoms just don't exist yet. That's why the Committee to Protect Journalists - who comprise a critical facet of free speech in a democracy - has released a Bottom Ten List of worst-offending countries in terms of the oppression of bloggers who dare criticize anything the Motherland or Dear Leader says.

It's only appropriate that we, living as we do in a country with the right to criticize our own and others' governments built right into our Constitution, take this opportunity to make critical statements about each of these countries, in solidarity with the people enduring these regimes. And oddly enough, all of these places are theocratic and/or collectivist governments. Funny how that works:

Myanmar - I've posted on this Chinese satellite government in the past.

Iran - Feel free to revisit this video of New Yorkers laughing in Ahmedinejad's face when he said there are no gay people in Iran; or pick up a copy of the Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie, which caused the Iranian government in 1989 to send out assassins after him; also please view this cartoon which is apparently so unforgiveable that we aren't allowed to look at it.

Syria - Still ruled by the "Arab Socialists" of the Ba'ath Party who deliberately keep their people in a condition of welfare-state dependence - yes, the same Ba'ath Party of Saddam Hussein's unipolar Iraq.

Cuba - it is useful to remember that American relations with Cuba are sour not just because we're stubborn, but as inducement for Cuba to see the light on extremely basic human rights issues - like freedom of the press, which it (amazingly) still has not granted its citizens even after almost a half century in power.

Saudi Arabia - A supposed ally, this is the country of 9-year old girls marrying middle-aged men, imams appointed university professors and insisting the world is flat, and where women cannot drive a car unchaperoned. If some lucky nomads hadn't pitched their tents on a good spot a few generations ago, no one would have to tolerate their medieval superstitions.

Vietnam - a mini-China in the sense that their economic growth has not yet led to freedom - of the press, or, apparently, of religious conscience, judging by the state's strong-arm treatment of Christians (for just one example).

Tunisia - I know very little of this country which hosts the ruins of Carthage (probably by their government's design), but its record of oppressing the written word speaks for itself.

Turkmenistan - Among the 10 most censored countries in the world. If you're not a member of one of the official state religions (Orthodox Christian or Sunni Muslim) you're S.O.L. Funny how freedom of speech and worship always seem to be withheld together.

China - my favorite target. Take your pick - here, here, or here. One of the reasons I use a pseudonym on this blog is that I don't want to get denied entry into the country at Pudong International and sent back to the States - which does happen.

Egypt - Any country that considers itself prepared for H1N1 flu because it ludicrously ordered that all pigs in the country be slaughtered is not a government doing any favors to its people.

Strangely, North Korea is nowhere on the blogger list (though it is #1 on most censored and high up on the religious oppression list). Perhaps it's absent from the anti-blog list perhaps because North Koreans would need access to devices with solid state circuitry to read blogs.

As a final note, supporters of socialism, and of religion-in-government, are always at a loss to explain why collectivist and theocratic states are always such unpleasant places to live, particularly where freedom of religion and expression are concerned. What is the justification for this glaring reality? Why do the authorities have to arrest so many unhappy people to keep their states standing?

Friday, May 1, 2009

A Good Way to Make a List of Bad Guys

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom just issued its annual report of the worst bad guy-countries in the world. Not surprisingly, North Korea and Iran are near the top of the list. If you're going to make up a list of bad guys, this is probably one of the best ways to go about it.

BCS vs. Playoffs

It's become an issue in Washington now. It's a small issue, but one near and dear to my heart. I was a junior at Penn State the year that we went undefeated, and ended up number two. That year Nebraska, as usual running up scores on a long string of nobodies, was coached by Tom Osborne, who had never won a championship and made everyone feel sorry for him. Inexplicably, mid-season, Nebraska passed us in the polls, and ended up #1, all thanks to the soft-hearted voters of the BCS system.

(The Onion had a really funny piece about the BCS issue also.)

As much as I would love to see the BCS system in smoking ruins, and their families shamed for generations, I can't support government interference to make it happen. The bottom line is that college football is not a government agency. It is not a guaranteed public good or a commons. Government has no business getting involved in this matter. It's up to the colleges to decide - and us, the fans, as customers in a free market, by voting with our wallets and our TV viewing habits.