Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Faith Requires Choice

Anyone can believe with proof, but belief in the face of uncertainty demonstrates commitment to the belief that cannot be otherwise shown. Of course, it is one thing for one to believe the unproven, and quite another to impose those beliefs upon others (be it a belief in the Deity or Human-Caused Global Warming, or any other such unproven article of faith.) For the virtue demonstrated in the fastness ones own belief is never present in the victims of oppression.

Of course, belief in the face of obvious evidence to the contrary is idiocy and certainly not virtuous. But I am not thinking here of faith in things demonstrable false, but faith in things whose truth we do not or can not actually know.

I think it can be reasonable asserted that the universe in which we live is rational and ordered. I also believe that, given enough information, we could perfectly discern that order. I see no evidence that we will ever gain enough information do do this, however. The universe is simply too large, and we are too small to handle such large reigns.

Hayek, in his 1945 essay on "The Use of Knowledge in Society," describes the difficulty of human attempts to order society rationally. The solution, it seems, is to allow order to emerge or evolve on its own, giving our faith to this process that results from the crucible of somewhat randomly casting solutions into the primordial sea of existence and allowing them to sink or swim. We are required to have faith in the localized knowledge of the swimmers that we allow them to do as they will and hinder them not at all. For they may know something which we do not. What appears to us as a lack of rhythm may, in fact, be in time to a drummer which we do not yet hear.

Monday, April 26, 2010

GMO's are coming for the children!!!!

I periodically get emails from this group called CREDO Action (they're a far-left wing group based out of San Francisco who raise money to donate to various leftist political groups.)  About once a week or so I get alerted to the latest outrage being perpetrated by the right-wing industrial-complex toadies and their jack-booted thugs who, as we all know, run the world.  The latest headline: Stop the sneak attack on food labeling. almost made me spit out my coffee all over my computer.  What followed was a semi-coherent conspiracy rant about the WTO, some mysterious "Codex Alimentarius" and that bastion of right-wing neo-con Zionism, the United Nations.

And then some whining about the labeling of "organic" food (as opposed, I suppose to "inorganic" (non-carbon based) food.  I know, I know, the "organic" label doesn't really mean squat since the government got involved with it, but I assert that the term itself doesn't mean squat.  OK, you might be able to assert that it means "expensive" but nothing more than that.

So they had this on-click-to-sign petition:
"I demand that the U.S. delegation to the Codex Committee on Food Labeling follow sound science and existing U.S. law and FDA policy. The delegation must drop its stated opposition to Codex provisions allowing the labeling of genetically engineered food. Further, the U.S. delegation should generally express positions consistent with current U.S. law and FDA policy which recognize a clear 'difference' between genetically engineered foods and other foods. "
How can one request that the government both "follow sound science" and "recognize a clear 'difference' between genetically engineered foods and other foods."???  Find me a structural, definable physical difference between the two categories of food.

I'm reminded of something the renowned humanitarian and microbiologist Norman Borlaug had to say on about the "environmentalist" luddites:
"some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels...If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."

Virtue requires privacy

Almost anyone can behave while being watched. We learn early in our lives to not act up when those who enforce the rules are watching. What we do when no one else is watching, that is the best expression of our character as it is. While I suppose it is possible for a person always living under a microscope to behave properly out of their own nature, I think it is about as likely that the fat cells encircling my waist will decide to shrink of their own accord. I believe that we need to have the ability to act some of the time without oversight in order to develop character, much as we must occasionally lift heavy objects in order to develop a strong body capable of lifting ever heavier objects.

John "Anthony Burgess" Wilson explores this theme in his novel "A Clockwork Orange" (which I assume most people have viewed either in print or on film.) The related point (with which I happen to agree) that I got from the film was that since virtue is the choice of good over evil, that if there is no choice, there is no virtue. Interestingly enough the 21st chapter of the book (omitted from both the US edition of the book and film adaptation.)

This is, of course, one answer to the theodicy problem (i.e. how can suffering (or evil) exist if God exists and God is all-compassionate.) In our dualistic view of the world, where nothing can exist in our awareness without something with which to contrast it (does a fish know that it's wet?) then the background of suffering shows us the joy of the cessation of suffering. The existence of evil shows us the virtue of good.

As I try to imagine a world without distinction, and world without contrast, the only concept with which my mind keeps arriving is the void, a cessation from existence. Significance requires effort, existence requires sorrow, and freedom requires eternal warfare. This is the wonderful, terrible dance of existence, and as clumsy as I am, I am forever grateful to be here, and be a part of it.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Self-sufficiency is the road to poverty???

So I was thinking about some things Russ Roberts had to say on trade and the advantages of specialization that lead to material prosperity. I'm not going to repeat everything he had to say here, but the gist of it was that he made some really convincing arguments to the effect that we all become significantly wealthier by doing our job and paying others to do their jobs than we would have been if we did everything for ourselves. I accept the basic argument, but I wonder sometimes, about why it is that we hold self-sufficiency in such high regard if it's really a dis-advantage.

In particular, I wonder about my own personality, my own desire to build or fix things myself. To figure out how to make things work, whether they're related to my field of specialization or not. I think that this desire for this behavior is what enabled me to do the sort of technical work that I do. I also think that by acting out on this desire, the logical training imposed on my mind in troubleshooting an automotive problem, designing a solution to running electric service in support of a particular activity, or discovering the source of a plumbing problem. The lessons I had to learn growing up to solve these problems I can apply in different ways to the problems I am confronted at work as I try to break down business practices into their smallest logical steps, discover the points that require no complex decision making, and come up with ways to automate and facilitate those processes.

School zones on my daily commute

So I drive past a school every morning on my way to work, and I've yet to see a single child anywhere in the schoolyard. Yet the school zone demands that I not exceed 20mph - it's for the children, don't you know. Yet I do see a number children waiting to be picked up by the bus on my morning commute, and never a school speed zone to protect them from the dangers of the cars that speed past them.

Perhaps I shouldn't say this out loud (lest some authoritarian hear and implement this) but if we're going to reduce auto speeds and generate traffic bottlenecks near schools (which seem to be peppered throughout the city) "for the children" the why is it that we don't just limit traffic speeds for the entire country (excluding perhaps highways where there wouldn't be any kids waiting for a ride to school) to 20 mph from 6-8 am and 2-4 pm?

Of course a nationwide 20 mph during commute hours is a STUPID idea, and that's part of my point in suggesting it. The other part being the idiocy of placing bottleneck school zones throughout every city in the United States. Now there are probably a lot of schools where it is appropriate to require speed zones, places where there may not be fences or high walls surrounding them. Places where some of the students walk along the sidewalk to get there. I think those are totally appropriate places to require speed reductions. And, to be fair, I suspect that most schools fall into that category. But not all of them, probably not even a sizable minority of them.

The more general idea I'm on here is that I think it better to deal with situations on their own rather than with blanket, one-size-fits-all policies. Put appropriate school zones as necessary where they can be defended, because they should need to be defended - they impose a time cost on the rest of society, and given that time is one measure of life, that is a cost to the mortality of us all.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Give Me Convenience or Give Me Wal-Mart

I think one of the reasons I like to shop in stores rather than simply buying everything by mail is the convenience of being able to quickly get what I want with the minimum hassle. I'm willing to pay a bit of a premium for that convenience both in the cash I give them and in the time I spend in their store.

In the case of Wal-Mart recently, the cost to me in terms of my time has been increased to the point where it's become cheaper for me to do my grocery shopping at a regular grocery store (in terms of time spent in the checkout line AND time spent walking through the store to find what I want) and I'm finding lower price other items on-line (not only the dollar price, but it does seem to take a lot less time to check out, even for those obnoxious sites that demand you register with them.)

And, of course, on-line merchants they don't hassle you about boxes. What a strange thing to hear about them being stingy with their empty, trashed boxes.
  • So maybe they're recycling them, but I believe that recycling cardboard costs more than it produces (as evidenced by the fact that no one will pay for your used cardboard boxes - if it made any economic sense, a market would have emerged to draw whatever economic benefit could be had from it.) So the recycling has to be a public relations thing, and given that, it should follow that to give the boxes to a customer (who would, btw, be making a more efficient recycling use of the box than could possibly result from crushing it in a compactor) and it builds more goodwill since they would be materially benefiting a specific individual directly.
  • Maybe it's a legal liability thing. Perhaps if they gave the box to Erin and she threw out her back because she completely filled a 10 cubic foot box with books and tried to pick it up, some creative lawyer could weave a legal theory of liability out of whole cloth. While we seem to have become a much more litigious society in the past several decades, I still have a hard time accepting the BS fear of some lawsuit-happy crank being the basis for modifying ones behavior in daily life. Trying to appease those people is like trying to appease fanatical religious terrorists - the truth is that the justifications for their actions that they come up with are lies - they don't really care about us being sinful or what not, they hate us for not bowing down to them, and until we turn over out lives to their care, they will continue to come after us.

So, from Wal-Mart and the Internet to recycling and lawsuits, to not letting the terrorists win.... forget tangents, I'm off on cosecants....

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Early morning at Wal-Mart

My time is somewhat scarce, but I really like the prices at Wal-Mart, and there is a store on my way to work that is really convenient for me. I have taken to shopping there early in the morning to avoid the crowds and long checkout lines that I have gotten used to expecting at other times during the day.

This morning, around 6:30, after doing some shopping, I went to check out so I could get on my way to work. There were only 2 lines open, one line had, I think, about 7 people in it, and the only other line open at the time had 5 people, but one of those people had 2 baskets full (top to bottom) and so I decided to go to the line with 7 people. After a few minutes, the cashier (whose light was still on) informed me that she was actually closed and that I should go to another line. This is not the first time I've seen cashiers there do this, but this was the first time it was done to me.

I left my basket there, in line, and walked out of the store. I drove to the Albertsons across the street and paid a little more, but was in and out much faster. I will never return to that Wal-Mart, and it will probably be a while before I return to another one.

Now, I know that I'm probably over-reacting to this single incident, and this is a really inconsequential thing in the grand scheme of things, but there's just something about having to wait needlessly that drives me batty. I hate waiting in traffic, and will go 10 miles out of my way to avoid spending 10 minutes in gridlock.

I remember back before Sam Walton died, the Super Wal-Mart I shopped at had signs by the cash registers stating their guarantee to a fast checkout and that they would open up a new register if there were more than 3 people in any given line. Those days are LONG gone.

Wal-Mart may have figured out the way to the lowest prices anywhere, and I am thankful for the efficiencies they have brought to the retail market, but my cost of shopping there has been increasing in the amount of time it takes to make it through the checkout. Time is money, and the money I was saving there has now been outweighed by the cost of my time.

When it is Wal-Mart's time to lose out to another store, it will not be to lower prices, it will be to better service.

Monday, April 5, 2010

On the non-initiation of force

So I've been thinking some lately about the libertarian doctrine against the initiation of force, and I find that I can't square universal application of that doctrine without advocating vegetarianism. Certainly the killing of an animal(generally necessary to eat it) involves the initiation of force against another being, and I think that the natural revulsion that we most non-serial killers feel towards animal cruelty can be taken as evidence that animals should be considered as beings.

So if we take the view that eating non-human animals is OK, then perhaps we can say that the initiation of force against fellow members of a grouping to which we belong (say, mankind) is immoral. But if we can draw the line there, then can we not draw that line also at our nation's borders? If so, then an aggressive foreign policy would be justified. I kinda like this result because I feel that an aggressive (and non-belligerent) national stance serves my self interest by discouraging acts of aggression from foreign groups directed towards me.

I think that the line cannot be drawn any more restrictive than at the national border because the enforcement of non-aggression is at the national level, it would become nonsensical to apply it to any smaller group. I think that it is not useful to draw the line any less restrictive since the enforcement of it would then have to be applied by our nation on the citizens of another nation, which is, of course, a belligerent act and a violation of that nation's rights.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Private Charity

To give of one's life to another is the ultimate expression of love. We venerate the gift of the life of Jesus of Nazareth to mankind in the Christian church, we institutionalize the giving of the rest of ones life to another in marriage, and we honor the giving of one's life to save the lives of ones comrades with posthumous awards and glorification.

Ones property, the fruits of ones labor, is a physical manifestation of the effects of ones life as lived up to this point in time. The giving of one's own property to another is, in effect, the giving of part of one's life to that other person, and it is a deep expression of love worthy of praise. I believe it is the proper way to express the natural impulse to help our fellow man. I also believe it is the most effective and efficient way to do it since the two people to whom a gift has the most value are the giver (who has given a part of his life to earn the gift) and the receiver (whose life will be improved by the receipt of that gift). Because these are the two people who assign the highest value to the gift, it is reasonable to assume that they alone have the highest motivation to make that the most efficient use of that gift. This is why I assert that private charity is the most efficient means to the the uplifting of humankind, and that it holds even if you have a utilitarian point of view.

Since I believe that the fruits of ones labor belong exclusively to ones self, I can also see no moral justification for any charity other than private, voluntary charity. In fact, I believe that anything non-private cannot truly be charity, and that to redefine charity such that it may apply to non-private means muddles the definition to the point of incoherence.

Government "Charity"

The thing is, that I don't believe that most people who support government-run health care understand that they are, in effect, hiring people to rob their friends and neighbors.

I accept that:
  • Government funding comes from taxation.
  • Taxation is non-voluntary. If I refuse to pay taxes, then at some point people paid by the government will commit violence upon me.
  • No person is owed anything by their very existence beyond the very basic right to exist unmolested by others.
  • Forcing a person to perform labor against their will is the most basic definition slavery.
  • Charity is the giving of one's own time or property to another with no expectation of anything in return, and this is the best expression of the goodness of one's heart and soul.
It must follow then that for government to spend $1 to help a person who has not earned that dollar, it must first take that dollar from another person who has earned that dollar. Now, what motivation would a person in elected office have for the taking of the earned property of one citizen for redistribution to another citizen? It does not fit into my understanding of charity, that would be the case only if they gave their own personal property. Since it is not charity, I conclude (and this is a conclusion guided by experience, not direct evidence) that it is not without expectation of reciprocation. So what does the recipient of this taken property have to give? The coin of the realm is the vote.

This is the basis for my belief that the basic function of government social programs are to provide a means for government officials to buy the vote of one person with the forced taking of the fruits of some other person's labor. The fact that the other person "is rich and can afford it" does not change the nature of the act any more than the murder of an elderly person who has "lived a long life" makes the taking of his life something other than murder (please note that I am not attempting to draw an equivalence here between theft of work product and theft of life.)

Now in the case of government using taxes to support the defense of our country, well, the collection of taxes is still immoral at some point, but, as I see it, the sad state of affairs in our world is that if they don't then some other government that does will overrun us and then we will be forced to pay taxes to them. Yes it is an evil, but it is the lesser of (at least) two evils. Perhaps you can come up with something even less evil, and I would certainly embrace that, but I haven't seen it yet.

Additionally, the use of government to prevent its citizens from being molested is, in my opinion, furthering a basic right that they have. The use of government to give away goodies does not further any right, but due to the non-voluntary nature of government financing, it does necessitate the perpetration of a wrong (i.e. violence and the threat of violence) against some of its citizens.

I am not trying to personalize this, advocates for big government solutions have already done that and I am only reacting to what they are saying. All these sob stories about people in tough situations has drawn our focus to sympathizing with people and away from examining the mechanics of how the proposed "solution" will, by necessity, actually be implemented.

If my money will not be taken from me to support this, then why is it being done by the government? What about this requires government action if freedom is no being abridged? If this will not cost anything, then surely Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reed could have accomplished this through a private effort and by doing so would not have incurred the high political cost they will surely pay in November. The fact that they are willing to cram this down our throats at such a price is evidence that it involves a taking of freedom from us. Sorry, I just don't believe that they are willing to pay such a price without getting at least as much in value for themselves in return.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

IT in the Middle

So previous to my graduation from college, I held a job as a COBOL programmer at a local bank (Whitney.) One of the things I noticed while I was there was the low salaries that IT professionals commanded relative to the salaries of the sales staff.
  • Having taken a number of classes (Accounting, Economics, etc...) in the school of business at my university I consider myself well aware of the difference in relative difficulty between these two fields of study (hint: I could have slept through and aced business classes while I was in high school).
  • Looking at what we did day in, day out, working in front of our computer screens in a windowless building near Elmwood, while they pretty much spent at least half their workdays on the golf course or drinking their (bank paid for) lunches with clients it seemed like we had a less enjoyable workday.
  • We were constantly having to work long and hard to enable the bank to fulfill the promises of the sales staff who would literally promise almost anything to close the deal. This, of course, resulted in large commissions and bonuses for them and nothing more valuable than headaches for us.
I came to realize that the IT department was a "cost center" while sales was a "revenue center" and so long as I remained as an expense that allowed revenue generation I would never be as valued as those who were able to actually put their fingerprints on that revenue. Naturally, I began to look for another job, and limited my search to software companies rather than software consumers.

I have come to see that humans have a difficult time understanding indirect value, and that this applied to me in that position relative to the bank's owners in a similar way as it applies to merchants and other "middlemen" relative to consumers and the public at large.

While recently listening to a discussion on middlemen this all came more into focus for me. Middlemen provide the invaluable service of moving resources from people to whom they are less valuable to people to whom they are more valuable, thereby increasing the overall value of a given static amount of material wealth in the system. Yet the function they provide is difficult for us to fully grok and value because it is not an easily observable process. We cannot see the value as it is added because the value is not material in nature. Similarly the value added by my work at the bank was not visible because it could not be seen on the balance sheets or financial reports.

I'm not complaining about being undervalued - it is possible that I was genuinely not as valuable to the bank as I subsequently was to a software company (though it is hard for me to understand fully, possibly for the same reasons as above, how my value could almost double by switching employers while performing essentially the same tasks in the same city.) I just find it curious and interesting to see this dynamic play out in my own life.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Complex is just complicated

Ya know, as I'm working on one of my current projects that the customer keeps adding things to, the whole thing is just getting so damn complicated to maintain, and some of the frameworks people come up with to manage the complexity seem to make a little more sense.

But thinking ahead several more steps, I really don't think that the addition or complex frameworks will really do that much to reduce the complexity unless I'm really careful about the selection and configuration, because when it comes down to it, there really isn't any way to implement a complicated process in a simple way - you can only move the complexity up or down the chain.

Reminds me of a conversation I had with my dad about the efforts to develop a cleaner burning fuel by processing the fuel so that when it burns the exhaust is cleaner. Of course, the amount of pollution removed from the burning of the fuel is equal to the pollution caused by the processing of the fuel. So there is no net reduction, just moving the place that generates the pollution.

Nature of Money

Money is not wealth, it is only a tool used to exchange wealth between persons. The advantage of money is that it abstract labor to facilitate more complex trading arrangements. Say three people, Alice, Bob and Chuck are neighbors. Alice grows apples, Bob has a still, and Chuck has a chicken farm. Alice doesn't drink, Bob is a vegetarian, and Chuck doesn't like eating raw fruit. Alice loves chicken, Bob needs apples to distill, and Chuck likes to drink hard cider. Without money there is no ability to barter, but with money Bob can buy apples from Alice by selling cider to Chuck. Alice can buy chickens from Chuck by selling Apples to Bob, and Chuck can buy hard cider from Bob by selling chickens to Alice. By free trade, all can gain from each transaction and the total wealth of the community is increased.

Of course the money itself is simply a token with no intrinsic value - since it is not wealth but a means of coordinating wealth and the production of wealth. It is a means of communicating needs of consumers to producers. Perhaps it can be seen as potential wealth, while good and services could be seen as kinetic or "real" wealth.

A market is a means of discovering the relative importance of objects and activities. If left to itself, a market will lead to the most efficient allocation of resources to meet the needs of the community it serves. Coercion (i.e. governmental interference) can only serve to distort the allocation of resources by effectively granting government leaders a larger voice in the market's determinations than reality would grant.

The free market may be the worst means of coordinating the production and fair distribution of wealth, except for every other means of coordination ever tried to date.