Bad Faith

I have a lot of respect for Radley Balko. Really, I do. His tireless efforts to document the disgusting militarization of our police, and the heinous abuses often committed by these soldier-wannabes in blue, is much appreciated and he deserves kudos for them. When he turns to economic and particularly tax policy, though, he’s just plain nuts.

even journalists, I’d think, if they were true believers, could afford to send a quarterly $500 check to the federal treasury.

Think of it as a donation to your favorite charity–only a really, really awesome one that’s filled with noble, self-sacrificing public servants; is run by selfless politicians who run for office only out of the goodness of their hearts; never violates our rights, despite that it has the power to do so; wastes virtually no money at all on overhead or bureaucracy; and generally makes all of us all-around better human beings.

Does anyone think of government that way? Has anyone, ever? Anyone? I doubt it. Not even Marx or Mao, not even Mandela or Gandhi. It’s pure strawman, so far beneath Balko’s usual standard that I honestly wondered whether he or someone else had really written it. The libertarian camp followers lapped it up, of course, showing that the very worst glop Balko has ever dropped on their plate is still caviar compared to their usual fare (let alone anything they’re capable of themselves). Strawmen aren’t very interesting, though, so let’s move on.

At first I characterized Balko’s suggestion that liberals pay more taxes as an example of the Volunteer’s Dilemma. He gives an example that even “scott” (who didn’t recognize it as a term from game theory) should be able to understand.

Game theorist Anatol Rapoport noted (1988), “In the U.S. Infantry Manual published during World War II, the soldier was told what to do if a live grenade fell into the trench where he and others were sitting: to wrap himself around the grenade so as to at least save the others. (If no one “volunteered,” all would be killed, and there were only a few seconds to decide who would be the hero.)” Another military example occurs in Joseph Heller’s war novel Catch-22. When Yossarian balks at flying suicide missions, his superiors ask “What if everybody felt that way?” Yossarian responds, “Then I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way. Wouldn’t I?”

As I said in my initial response, just because I think X would be good if everybody did it doesn’t mean I’m willing to do it all by myself while others freeload. Just because I think a lighthouse should be built, doesn’t mean I’m willing to pay for it all by myself, or even disproportionately, while others freeload. Unfortunately, everyone else feels the exact same way, and even if some (doesn’t matter which) are misguided none are acting in bad faith. The very idea that someone should have to pay to show their sincerity and have their views considered – which Balko quite literally suggests for liberals but tellingly not for conservatives or libertarians – is anathema to open debate or democracy. It’s just a form of credentialism, trying to use a double standard to exclude some from the discussion while allowing others in free of charge.

Besides the sleazy debate tactics that form its outer covering, though, there’s something seriously rotten at the very core of Balko’s argument. He’s absolutely right about the misguided war and the systematic violation of our rights by government. Those are clearly bad things that the government should stop doing. Where he goes wrong is trying to connect these to his attacks on people who were specifically talking about taxes and (so called) tax protests. Was torture at Guantanamo a matter of tax policy? Will NSA wiretapping be stopped because of tax cuts? Of course not. When has the government ever shown an ability or willingness to economize in the right way, to cut the right things? If the teabaggers had their way and the federal government had to make deep cuts, the things that Balko rightly complains about would not be the most affected. More likely, food and health-care subsidies for poor people would be affected. Environmental or workplace-safety regulators would be far more likely to lose their jobs than snoops or torturers. Balko’s collective-punishment response would cause the burden to fall most heavily on exactly the wrong people and functions, and I think he knows that. Nobody in their right mind, and especially not those who believe in the utter fallibility of government, could or would expect tax protests to end civil-rights abuses.

When someone proposes a policy change, and claims it might have certain effects, they can be wrong. There’s nothing bad about that. We all learn by considering and debating alternatives. When someone can’t even credibly claim to believe in a connection between the change and the effect, though, then it’s entirely reasonable to conclude that the change is one they want regardless of whether it has the effect or not. Since people don’t generally go around prescribing policy changes at random, one may assume that they have some other reason that they chose to hide behind the publicly stated one. That’s called arguing in bad faith. It’s exactly the same tactic that got us into Iraq. It’s exactly the tactic involved in most of the “security theater” and terror-mongering that’s used to justify all those abuses Balko complains about. For those exact reasons it should be condemned, even when the “good guys” use it.

Check Your Assumptions

Sometimes we forget the old lessons. I’ve been writing parallel programs for twenty years now, and consider myself somewhat of an expert. I know all the signs of code being called concurrently when it’s not prepared to be. Nonetheless, I just spent most of a day looking high and low for bugs in a piece of code I wrote, because somehow I’d gotten into my head that it was guaranteed not to be called concurrently. It took me that long before I finally paid heed to what part of my brain had been telling me for at least half of the debugging session, and actually checked for concurrent calls. Sure enough, there were plenty, and adding one simple lock in four places made everything work much better. Even worse, when I look at other code that implements the same interface, it’s abundantly clear that they do expect concurrent calls, so I don’t know how I ever got that idea into my head in the first place.


Tea Parties

On this day, when many are planning or attending “tea parties” to protest high taxes, it might be good to remember what the original Boston Tea Party was really about. It was a protest against repealing a tax, creating equal competition between legitimate importers and smugglers (who were behind the raid). Here’s what no less of a libertarian authority than the Ludwig von Mises Institute has to say about it.

a gang of a hundred or so thugs violently deprived their countrymen of access to desirable goods to which the gang had not the slightest claim of ownership, depriving them at the same time of the right to boycott this and other English imports, an entirely laudable exercise of individual discretion that the gang preempted with violent destruction.

This incident was the response of American tea smugglers to the recent act of the English Parliament exempting the British East Indies Company from the tax on importation of tea to North America that was so high that it provided a livelihood to those who brought in tea covertly, circumventing the tax.

And let’s not forget, either, what happened in the aftermath.

This ragged bunch returned home to bankrupt farms and state governments. The burdens of taxation under the British were a pittance compared to the financial obligations they now faced. The war had to be paid for and taxes, even with representation, were going to be enormous.

Loyalists suffered most. Their property was seized, and tarring and feathering was common. A long stream of refugees moved north to Canada.

Protectionism, vandalism, seizure of private property because of political beliefs – those are some of the finer sentiments that today’s Tea Party particpants represent. Liberty is nowhere in sight – we celebrate that next week with Patriots’ Day – but selfishness is very much on display. Enjoy your little tantrum, folks.

Monday Video 2009-04-13: Amy on a Bike

It’s my first foray into iMovie and iPhoto.

Somali Pirates

I guess the piracy situation is on everyone’s minds now, and I hear that we’re even considering action against pirate bases on land. It doesn’t sound like all that bad an idea, actually, assuming it’s a limited action in concert with the Somali government and strongly associated with humanitarian efforts to alleviate the conditions in Somalia that have led to piracy. I do wonder about other actions we might take, though. Clearly escorts – US or other – haven’t worked as well as we might have hoped. Do we need more escorts? Alternatively, what about putting heavily armed troops on the ships as they travel through the area? Besides potentially being able to repel boarders, such an approach would put pirates on notice that they’d be attacking the US no matter which nation’s flag the ship flies under, and that might make them reconsider. Yes, that’s a lot of ships and a lot of troops, but I’d be interested in how it compares to the logistics involved in a land action. Or maybe it’s a stunningly bad idea for other reasons. What do others think?

Second Mac Thoughts

Usually “second thoughts” means reconsidering a decision, but in this case my second thoughts are more positive than my first and thus reinforce my original decision to buy a MacBook Pro. Here are some highlights.

  • Suspend and resume just work, and work quickly. Since this has been a sore spot for me in the past with both Windows and Linux, it’s a pretty big win.
  • I tried editing some of the video that my camera produces. I haven’t really done a full session yet – tomorrow I might do my first real test with video of Amy on her bike – but I did try loading up a couple of files from my camera and I was immediately able to view and edit with no format conversion. That’s pretty huge too.
  • The trackpad is way better than what I have. There’s a bubble-wrap game on the WALL-E website that Amy likes to have me play. On my other computer I could barely get through the first screen. On this, I got through all seven on my first try. That improvement carries over to other usage as well. Two-finger clicks for context menus and such seem natural already.
  • I got an email attachment with PowerPoint slides, so I figured it was time to install OpenOffice (which was always my plan anyway). Again, things just worked.
  • Geneforge. Yes, I know it’s available on Windows too, and it’s not to everyone’s taste, but being able to play it on the sofa is still cool.

Just in case anyone thinks I must have tied Jeff up and thrown him in the basement, I do have one negative: the battery life doesn’t really seem to be anywhere near what Apple claims. They claim five hours. I get three. That’s still fine, really, but couldn’t one manufacturer somewhere at least try to be honest about battery life?

It’s a beautiful machine, I have to say. Only once have I noticed that the screen has fewer pixels than my old machine, and I think I really do notice the better color gamut. Illuminated keys are a plus too. Griping aside, I’m happy with it so far.

First Mac Thoughts

Just some random impressions and experiences from my first few hours before I go to bed.

  • Much bigger than I expected. My 15″ MBP has almost exactly the same footprint as my 17″ Dell, though it is thinner.
  • Wireless just works. Sound just works. Video just works.
  • Still getting used to Control vs. Command. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to which is used when.
  • Closing a window makes the application harder to get to, but doesn’t really quit? Click-to-focus with no way to change it? Modal dialogs that get behind their parents (and aren’t obviously modal)? I thought these guys were supposed to be the user-interface experts. No, I don’t want it to be just like Windows. I used Macs back when they wrote the interface guidelines they’re now violating. This isn’t a matter of being different; it’s a matter of being sloppy.
  • is junk. It couldn’t seem to handle my work inbox without trying to re-download thousands of messages repeatedly, and then it just showed blank space where my message list should be. I already installed Thunderbird.
  • I already installed Firefox too, but not so much because Safari is so bad. It seems fine, but I’m rather dependent on FoxyProxy and Foxmarks so too bad.

I haven’t even tried things like photo or video editing yet, which are areas where I expect this machine to shine. The home-user experience seems very solid and nice, but I’m already thinking I might run Linux inside a VM for work stuff.

Stamp Out Black Swans!

No, not the real animals. I’m referring to Nassim Taleb’s metaphorical black swans – events that are assumed to be rare but which, over time, are bound to occur with disastrous effect. Our financial mess is generally considered to be a “black swan” kind of event. So here’s an absolutely awesome piece by Taleb in the Financial Times: Ten principles for a Black Swan-proof world. It’s such a parade of hits that it’s hard to pick a favorite, but I’ll go with this one.

4. Do not let someone making an “incentive” bonus manage a nuclear plant – or your financial risks. Odds are he would cut every corner on safety to show “profits” while claiming to be “conservative”. Bonuses do not accommodate the hidden risks of blow-ups. It is the asymmetry of the bonus system that got us here. No incentives without disincentives: capitalism is about rewards and punishments, not just rewards.

Mark Thoma, from whom I got the link, also made a pretty interesting statement in response to this.

Nassim Taleb says his Ten principles for a Black Swan-proof world can make “economic life closer to our biological environment: smaller companies, richer ecology, no leverage. A world in which entrepreneurs, not bankers, take the risks and companies are born and die every day without making the news.

Actually, it looks like bankers never took the risks, did they? The bankers got bailed out, used the bailout funds to pay only themselves, creditors lost their money and entrepreneurs lots their dreams. Change “take the risks” to “reap the rewards” in Thoma’s quote, though, and you get my thoughts on the subject. Financial institutions should not take big risks. That’s not their function. They’re the grease, not the engine, of economic progress and prosperity. Financial institutions should not have been allowed to grow to the size that they have (40% of all corporate profits) by taking risks, let alone by inventing new fictitious value on and with which to gamble, and they should be allowed to shrink back down to their proper size.

Picasa Test

Same pictures yet again, this time via Picasa. As before, please let me know if it’s better or worse than the others. Back to work now.

Flickr Test

This is a test of embedding a Flickr slideshow, with the same content as before. Please let me know if you like this format more or less than the one I’ve been using.