Free Markets, Free People

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You can be a guinea pig!

So, I got this email from a researcher who’s looking for libertarians to respond to a study:

I am conducting research on ideology and public opinion.  Most studies on public opinion ask subjects whether they are liberals or conservatives. Options to identify as “libertarian” (or anything else) are almost always left out. To say that libertarians are underrepresented in academic research wouldn’t be enough; they aren’t even given a chance to identify themselves as such.  Therefore, I would like to include libertarians in one of my studies regarding opinions of candidates and their policies.  To do this, I need to seek them out through blogs and websites. I was wondering if you would be interested in posting a link to my online survey on your site or in an email distribution. 

Some important things to know about this survey:

-All responses are 100% anonymous. There is no way for me to link any identifying information to the survey responses.

-The survey has been cleared by an Institutional Review Board at Stony Brook University.  It satisfies all the requirements for a study that uses human subjects. 

-It takes approximately 15 minutes to complete

-It does not seek to promote any kind of ideological agenda

The survey can be found here: https://stonybrooksurveys.co1.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_87ChNJu5zdzMgDP

If it’s something you feel like you want to participate in, please feel free. I took it. Seems harmless.


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A response to Amazon’s editors: my own suggestions for a well-read life

A few months ago, the “Amazon Book Editors” put up a list with the description “100 Books to Read in a Lifetime: A bucket list of books to create a well-read life”.

It contains some good (1984, Pride and Prejudice, The Right Stuff), some decent-but-thought-provoking (Man’s Search for Meaning), some leftist cant (Silent Spring), and a disproportionate amount of lightweight fiction, books for children, and books for young adults. I’m guessing this is a consequence of Amazon editors skewing rather young.

I think the list lacks broad perspective. It is weak on science, with only the often-purchased-but-seldom-read Brief History of Time plus an obscure book on nutrition. There’s nothing on technology, nothing on business unless you count Moneyball, nothing military (though it does have two books about the victims of WWII), and weak on history. 

Fittingly for a Seattle-based company, the list leans left. I mentioned that Silent Spring is there, which is disturbing given the damage and death caused by its inaccuracies and environmental hysteria. It also contains Fahrenheit 451, which is the soft lefty’s go-to entry when they think they just have to cite a science fiction book. I could name a hundred better science fiction books off the top of my head, but most are from authors who have a nasty habit of not leaning left.

While the list is worth browsing through, I thought the largest bookseller in the world should have done better. That started me thinking about the list I would recommend. My list would contain books that gave me some of the greatest return on investment in reading them. That might be by changing or refining my worldview. It might be simply great entertainment. Some of the very best combine both.

It would be the best books I could name from a wide variety of fields. Being easily bored, I’m more of a generalist than a specialist, and I like to read lots of different kinds of books. So I began composing a list, and extended and refined it several times over a few months.

Creating such a list involves some tough choices between certain books that cover the same territory. I have dodged that by having some of my entries be categories, in which I think a well-read person should be exposed to the category, but not necessary any single work in the category.

For some works and authors, I also included some follow-on suggestions.

I ended up with about 50 books and categories. Here, then, are the books I think ought to be a bucket list for a well-read person, in alphabetic order except that I separated out the science fiction and placed it at the bottom.

The ones that are also on Amazon’s list have an asterisk. No doubt I’ve left off some obvious works, and no doubt our sharp and excellent commenters will remind me.

Continue reading

A long time fan of the book reviews the “Ender’s Game” movie

Movies made from books seem to have the odds stacked against them, especially science fiction books. My favorite author, Robert Heinlein, wrote two books that were made into movies after his death, and both sucked toxic waste: Puppet Masters and Starship Troopers

There have been a few excellent movie adaptations, mostly in other genres. Hopscotch and Being There come to mind. In both cases, even the book author liked the result.

More recently, the last Harry Potter movie did quite a good job of adapting the book. I started reading that series to my then-young children when it came out. Most of the movie adaptations in the series were fair, but the last one was worthy of several repeated viewings. Many Tolkien fans swear by the Lord of the Rings trilogy. They’ll sit through twelve hour marathons to watch all three movies again.

I wish I could say Ender’s Game is in the same league, but I can’t.

I’m assuming most readers have read the book at some point, so I’m not worried about spoilers. For those of you who have not read the book, I suggest that you don’t bother with this movie. It will probably feel like another generic “kid saves the universe” story, with special effects trying to carry a sketchy plot. If you plan to see it despite this advice, then you might want to stop reading now.

For those who have read the book, let me explain my mixed feelings about this movie.

If you already understand the story, this movie isn’t awful. It’s nowhere near as bad as the Heinlein adaptations I mentioned earlier. It has generally good casting and good special effects. If you are a really big fan of the book, as I am, it’s worth a viewing. It really works to stay faithful to the book.

In fact, the movie’s biggest problem is that it tries too hard to stay faithful to the book.

I cited Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 because it is an excellent example of adapting the story to the needs of a movie. There are many things that depart from the book. For example, in the book, Voldemort can’t feel when a Horcrux is destroyed, and Harry can’t just sense their presence. But the movie needed those shortcuts for dramatic effect, and they work very, very well in the film.

Ender’s Game feels like a Cliff’s Notes version of the book. Or perhaps a Cliff’s Notes version with every other page missing.

Every major theme and turning point is included, but most of them are in matchstick drawings instead of fleshed out drama. For example, the battle room scenes are well done from a production standpoint. But there are not many of those scenes. The development of Ender’s skills and leadership is compressed to a mishmash, with one battle against other teams mashing together several battles in the book, simply extracting key scenes from each one. The result feels disconnected and contrived.

When the script does depart from the book, it’s done badly. They obviously wanted the character of Petra in that major battle room scene, so they contrived a sprained ankle by a team member and a dispensation from Graff to get her there. But just before that, it’s explained that Ender’s team is a bunch of misfits anyway. At that point, Petra doesn’t have her own army, so why not just put her in Ender’s and skip the contrivance? That’s the kind of spackling over a problem that makes a movie adaptation smooth.

The final battle is fairly well done. The set for it was perfect, and the use of holographic technology and gestures was as good as any movie I’ve ever seen.

Then that was spoiled with a heavy handed resolution about the battle being real instead of a simulation. That entire part of the movie bends over backwards to slap people in the face with the supposed peaceful nature of the buggers, and how terribly awful it was to kill all of them. As the book made clear, they started the conflict and killed many millions of people. When the survival of one’s species is on the line, giving the benefit of the doubt to an enemy who attacked first is mushy, politically correct sillyness.

Casting is reasonably good. They apparently wanted the gruff version of Harrison Ford here, so that’s what they got the entire movie. They could have done lots worse for the role of Graff. Ben Kingsley was fine as Mazer Rackham.

Most of the kids are good enough to get by. The actress in the role of Petra turned in a good performance, but she looked too soft for my vision of Petra. Plus, she resembled the actress playing Valentine enough that I got confused at least once about which one Ender was talking to.

I have no idea if the kid playing Bean is any good, because they didn’t give him enough of a part to find out. I realize the story had to focus on Ender, and Bean was pushed to the background to allow that. It still grated on me to see one of my favorite characters reduced to wallpaper.

Bottom line: this movie isn’t awful, but it isn’t great either. As I said, if you really liked the book, you’ll probably want to see the movie at some point. You probably won’t be shouting at the screen in rage the way I did at Starship Troopers. But unless you liked it better than I did, you won’t be watching it twice.

Painting the map… different.

Some of you have already seen this graphic.  It’s what the United States woud look like if all 50 had the same population, with a few extra factors taken into account so that the borders still make as much sense as they can.

Neil Freeman / fake is the new real

The extra factors include keeping almost all existing counties whole, aiming for compact shapes and not splitting up metro areas unless really necessary.  They also try to keep drainage basins together.  Click on the picture if you want to see the whole proposal.

The purpose of this exercise is to solve the perceived problem of unequal representation in the federal government. This way, not only do all U.S. senators represent the same number of people, but so do all members of the House of Representatives.  So each person has equal representation in the Electoral College as well, though of course some states would still be more competitive than others.  (Oh, and DC gets to drop the “Taxation Without Representation” license plates.)

This isn’t intended as a serious proposal, but it mixes two things that I love because they both tug the mind out of its usual grooves of thought:

  1. altered maps – When you first saw a simple “upside-down” map of the world, didn’t it just demand to be stared at for a while?
  2. visualizations of unusual political/social reform proposals – It’s easy to think of the status quo as natural, and easier yet not to think of why things are quite the way they are; illustrating the world in a way markedly different from reality challenges the mind to justify the current order.  I suspect this has something to do with my enjoyment of sci-fi and historical what-ifs; instinctually turning toward such questioning may be a common trait among libertarians.

I try not to be too hasty in throwing out the current order; Burke and Hayek had useful insights about the limits of knowledge and reason.  So I haven’t adopted this reform proposal, but it has been fun thinking about it.  I even spent part of today lightly crunching the county-level numbers from the U.S. Senate elections since 2008, just to see how it would affect the balance of power there.  (I still haven’t gotten around to checking how it would affect recent presidential elections.)

But beyond the electoral reform, you can spin your mind for hours about the economic and cultural consequences of following these simple and (each taken in isolation) sensible algorithms.  The artist who created the map asked people to “take it easy with the emails about the sacred soil of Texas” – though I do wonder whether the four senators from Dallas-Fort Worth and the greater Houston area would be very different from the senators Texas usually elects.  What else jumps to mind?

  • Just try to picture the kind of senators the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago are likely to elect when they don’t have to appeal to a swath of suburban and rural voters.  Picture it!
    • The first three of those metro areas got more than 75% of the benefit of housing-related tax benefits like the mortgage-interest tax deduction, according to a 2001 study.
    • L.A. and NYC would have less influence on the sources of much of their drinking water; that could easily tip the balance and allow landowners upstate to open their land to energy development.
  • For that matter, imagine governing the Great State of People Who Commute to Chicago.  “Chicagoland Minus Chicago.”
  • Y’know, if you look at how Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte did in Casco counties in 2008 and 2010, compared to Elizabeth Warren’s margins in her part of the new state, it’s not hard to imagine Republican senators representing Boston.  Just sayin’.
  • Chinati, the rather heavily Hispanic border state, narrowly voted more for Republican senators than Democratic ones in 2012.
  • The Black Belt in the South appears to prevent none of the new states from electing Republican senators, including Ozark, Tidewater, and even Atlanta, though it would have been close in 2008.
  • Right now, the heaviest dependence on direct government benefits is particularly concentrated in certain places, and mostly not in urban counties.
  • Specifically, the Coal Country patch from West Virginia into southern Ohio and eastern Kentucky would be split between more states, while the patch of heavy dependence in the Ozarks (southern Missouri into northern Arkansas) would be concentrated into… Ozark.  The most dependent part of Michigan is combined with the most dependent part of Wisconsin.  The most dependent parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado would be combined in Shiprock.
  • Would the big cities that were disconnected from poorer hinterlands become less tolerant of federal redistribution?  Would Boston, now sharing a much larger territory with more people dependent on benefits, take a dimmer view of state-level redistribution?
  • Meanwhile, the urban centers of today’s Colorado would get to be in the same state as the Bakken shale oil boom: Ogallala, which is also a great beneficiary of…
  • Agricultural subsidies!  You can already see the representatives of Nodaway wearing their Farm Bill buttons. Then there’s Ozark again, straddling both banks of the Mississippi River and getting another dose of federal money.  Another notable dependent: Tidewater.

This is going to a lot of trouble to ensure that a voter in Billings has the same level of representation as a voter in Cheyenne, and that a Californian has equal say in the Senate as a Rhode Islander.  But maybe all that trouble from such simple rules is why it’s so ripe for speculation.

So lift those heavy eyelids

What if people could easily function with much less sleep?

Jon M at Sociological Speculation asked that question after observing that “new drugs such as Modafinil appear to vastly reduce the need for sleep without significant side effects (at least so far).” At extremes, as Jon M noted in a follow-up post, modafinil allows a reduction to 2.5 hours a night, but “the more common experiences seem to be people who reduce their sleep by a few hours habitually and people who use the drugs to stay up for extended periods once in a while without suffering the drastic cognitive declines insomnia normally entails.”  In fact, alertness is not the only reported cognitive benefit of the drug.

The US brand of modafinil, Provigil, did over $1.1 billion in US sales last year, but for the moment let’s dispense with the question of whether modafinil is everything it’s cracked up to be.  We’re speculating about the consequences of cheaply reducing or even eliminating the need for sleep for the masses.

If I can add to what’s already been said by several fine bloggers – Garett Jones at EconLog on the likely effect on wages, then Matt Yglesias at Slate sounding somewhat dour about the prospect, and Megan McArdle at the Daily Beast having fun with the speculation – the bottom line is that widely reducing the need for sleep would be a revolutionary good, as artificial light was.

For a sense of scale, there are about 252 million Americans age 15+, and on average they’re each awake about 5,585 hours a year.  Giving them each two extra hours a night for a year would be equivalent to adding the activity of 33 million people, without having to shelter, clothe, and feed 33 million more people.

Whatever objections critics have, sleeping less will be popular to the extent that people think the costs are low.  For all the billions of dollars spent trying to add years to their older lives, obviously people would spend more to add life to their younger years.  Who ever said, “If only I’d had less time!”?

Consider that the average employed parent usually sleeps 7.6 hours each workday.  He spends 8.8 of his remaining hours on work and related activities, 1.2 hours caring for others, and 2.5 hours on leisure and sports.

If he spends more time working productively (i.e. serving others), that’s good for both him and society.  The time and effort invested in birthing, educating, and sorting people for jobs is tremendous, so getting more out of people who are already born, educated, and sorted is just multiplying the return on sunk costs.

That’s a godsend for any society undergoing a demographic transition after the typical fall in birthrates, because aside from hoping for faster productivity growth, the specific ways to address having fewer workers per retiree – higher taxes, lower benefits, more immigration, or somehow spurring more people to invest in babies for decades – are unpleasant or difficult or both.

And if he uses extra hours to pursue happiness in other ways, that’s generally fine too.  A lot of people may simply get more out of their cable subscription. Others will finally have time for building and maintaining their families, reading, exercising, or learning a skill.

Yes, once a substantial number of people are enhancing their performance, others will likely have to follow suit if they want to compete.  But then, that’s also true of artificial light and many other technologies.  If people naturally slept only four hours a night and felt rested and alert, who would support a law forcing everyone to sleep twice as long, cutting a fifth of their waking hours so that everyone would slow down to the speed that some people prefer to live their lives?

I don’t think most people have such a strong presumption in favor of sleep.  We like feeling rested, or dreaming, but not sleeping as such; a substantial minority of Americans sleep less than advised despite the known costs, and so reveal their preference for waking life over oblivion.

To give is to waste?

My friend George Scoville wrote a Black Friday-appropriate post on a problem with gift-giving, which touches on a broader point that libertarians should heed.

A microeconomics paper that’s bounced around econ-blogs for several years says gift-giving causes a huge deadweight loss: when someone else picks a gift for you, it may not be what you would have bought for yourself when you would have bought it, which normally implies that goods and services are being distributed inefficiently.

If that’s true, then Christmas is a tremendously wasteful institution, within an order of magnitude of the income tax, and we’d be better off giving each other cash gifts.

Humbug!

First, on a technical note, that paper was written in 1993, before Amazon wish lists and social media made it easier to detect people’s interests and needs, so perhaps we’re getting better at matching gifts with recipients.

More importantly, the paper fell short of meaningfully capturing deadweight loss, because it focused entirely on the value of the goods.  Gift economies mostly operate on another kind of supply and demand: the desire for social cohesion, meaning closer relationships with family, friends, and other peers.

This is no trivial matter: relationships with people we can count on make us happier, healthier, and more successful.  Anything that helps to build and cement those bonds is valuable, and while some academics and marketers try to quantify that value (it may be more than you’d think), the normal rule is that relationships of trust should not be fungible with cash.  All societies have some social taboo against trading off the sacred and the mundane, which sometimes leads to absurdly stupid conclusions, but also allows people to build trust without worrying that anything intimate or of an extremely hard-to-price value (what’s the rest of your life worth?) will be easily sold for any of the mundane things that can be bought with cash.

It’s awkward when people give each other cash as gifts even if the amount is equal, and gift exchanges in which only one side puts any thought into it show unequal empathy.  If you put a lot of thought into anticipating someone’s wants, and that person gives you a very generic gift, it’s like being put in the Friend Zone.

The point of gifts is to trip a hardwire in the brains of social mammals: cycles of giving and gratitude that go beyond simple reciprocity.  When you’re trading cash, everyone is acutely aware of the value of what’s been exchanged, and there’s no fudge factor in the brain for “the thought that counts.”

That’s something we disagreeable, rationalistic libertarians should keep in mind, because the gift economy is a powerful force in human relations that resists and resents the intrusion of market forces, even if markets efficiently bring us the gifts.

Musings

A couple of things have been on my mind recently, and this seeme like as good a time as any to get them off my chest. So, I’ll just skip from subject to subject until I get tired. But, I might as well start off with current events.

I guess most of you saw the debate between Eddie Munster and Smirky McAngry this week. Joe Biden’s ability to sit there and lie so magisterially and with such confident assurance really is something to behold. Like when he declared that he voted against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both of which, of course, he voted for. He just boldly asserts this utter crap, and nobody ever calls him on it.

"You know, Joe, I got a copy of the Congressional Record lying around somewhere that says you did vote to approve the AUMF in both Afghanistan and Iraq. And you voted back in 98—during Operation Desert Fox—to make removing Saddam Hussein from power the policy of the United States Government. Oh, and by the way, not that it’s relevant at the moment, back in ’83, you voted to approve a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade. You think you might want to backtrack on your last statement, there, Joe?"

Never happens.

During the debate, Joe’s smirk struck me as exactly the kind of condescending arrogance that, if it was coming at you from anyone else, you’d want to erase with an overhand right. His whole schtick was irritating. The constant interruptions, the yelling, and the condescending laughing were exactly the kinds of things that, if you pull ‘em on some guy in a bar argument, will get your ass kicked.

The Left loved it, of course. They thought Good Ol’ Joe was finally sticking it to the wingnuts. And why shouldn’t they? Anytime anyone says anything nasty about them, their vaginas get all hurty, and they start moaning about "civility". But that’s not a rule they’re all that interested in, themselves. Some Lefty dolt on twitter thought that, considering Ryan’s position on abortion, his daughter should get "f*cked and pregnant when she’s 13".

Though, really, that’s pretty tame stuff compared to what comes over the transom at Michelle Malkin or Sister Toldjah.

It’s just amazing to me that these Lefties, who see themselves as the good guys, and the oh-so-compassionate defenders of the downtrodden, have these deep wells of rage that come spewing out at the first opportunity.

Amazing, but not surprising, really, because the political divide in this country really isn’t about politics anymore. It’s a battle of Good Vs. Evil. They are the forces of cosmic justice, and if you disagree with them, then you’re "the other", and not really as fully human as they are. Your disagreement is proof of your moral deficiency.

And, hey, there are people on the Right who feel the same way about lefties. I don’t think Lefties are bad people, necessarily. I do think they tend to be dumber than a bag of hammers, though.

Which is why I really don’t see us all living together in the same country much longer.

We don’t even speak the same language anymore. For instance, take the term "fairness". To me that refers to a process that is impartial, and predictable. If the process receives input X, then output Y tends to result. To a Progressive, fairness is a result. The process is immaterial, as long as it produces equal results. If it doesn’t, the process is flawed.

Those aren’t anything like the same thing. If we don’t even share concepts, there’s no way we’ll ever be satisfied with governing each other.

By the way, who was Biden thinking would be impressed by his debate performance, other than Obama fanboys? Who was he trying to convince?

I mean, usually, when you want to persuade people to join you in a cause, you don’t try to irritate the crap out of them.  You try to appeal to them through reason, good feeling, and moral persuasion. Smirky didn’t try to do much of that.

Maybe the whole point of Joe’s performance was to reassure the base that the Obama team was willing to fight hard. But if you’re four weeks out from an election and you’re still trying to motivate your base, then you’re probably in a fair amount of trouble.

The Lefties were just ecstatic that Joe was so Rude to Paul Ryan. They think that’s exactly what he deserves: rudeness, and arrogant condescension. Because, it’s not like he’s really a human being, or anything.

There were some big spikes in consumer confidence this week. Despite rising food and gas prices—the CPI rose 1.1% last month on those two items alone—and despite 20 million or so people not having jobs, folks seemed to have more confidence in the future.

The funny thing is that the consumer confidence surveys for this week were all taken after Obama got shelled by Romney in the first presidential debate. I wonder if that spike in consumer confidence popped up because people think there’s a better chance that Obama will be heading back to Chicago in January? Or, maybe even a leading indicator of that?

Baseball is designed to break your heart. I just watched the Cardinals come back from a 6-0 deficit to go ahead 9-7 in a 4-run 9th inning and beat the Nationals. Why won’t the Cardinals just die, for God’s sake?

I’ve spent my whole life hating the Cardinals. If I were to find an actual cardinal in the forest, twittering with happiness in the dappled sunlight, and I could get it to fly gently into my hand, I would squeeze it until I heard all its little bones break like tiny little twigs.

Then I would cackle with glee.

~
Dale Franks
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