ra ra ra

June 11th, 2012

Fascinating to see the 2012 venus transit in the different wavelengths (The sound track is a bit overdone).  Local conditions in Seattle were not ideal for a direct experience.  

This reminds me of a few science fiction stories about engineering around the sun:

David Brin wrote a collection called Uplift, including Nebula Award winner Startide Rising (1983).  This    story describes how a spaceship could enter the sun by making the spacecraft a refrigerator.  It also describes a future where humanity has raised the chimpanzees and dolphins into personhood.

This one by Robert Forward (Starquake, 1989) imagines a civilization living on a neutron star.   There is a scene where the participants in a large assembly are able to communicate sub rosa through a IM-like channel in their network.  The prequel novel, Dragon's Egg, he described as "a textbook on neutron star physics disguised as a novel.".  

I am currently re-reading the Golden Age series by John C Wright (2002-3).  This one imagines an Earth civilization developed enough to attempt controlling the energy of the sun so as to avoid the communications and other disruptions caused by solar dynamics.    The images from the SDO shown at the first link above made me see more clearly how much variation there is to Sol.

optimism on econtalk

June 5th, 2012

Current events have me prone to pessimism, but this podcast encourages a longer view that observes large improvement in the human condition, with dramatic gains in worldwide standard of living, lifespan, infant mortality, and other measures, tracking consistently through the last decade, quarter century, and multiple century time frames.  More to the point is the analysis of those observations - the motivation of human beings to improve their condition - making optimism a rational conclusion.

Trade, Growth, and the Rational Optimist (10/18/2010) - Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist, talks about why he is optimistic about the future and how trade and specialization explain the evolution of human development over the millennia. Ridley argues that life is getting better for most of the people on earth and that the underlying cause is trade and specialization. He discusses the differences between Smith's and Ricardo's insights into trade and growth and why despite what seems to be strong evidence, people are frequently pessimistic about the future. Ridley also addresses environmental issues.

regulation on econtalk

May 30th, 2012

This discussion of regulation made a point I did not previously appreciate, in the context of the Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) regulations that were enacted a few years ago in response to some blatant cases of fraud on the part of some corporate executives.    People don't dispute the conduct of fraud in those cases, but they involved only a handful of companies among thousands that are incorporated nationwide, and were already crimes before SOX was passed. 

Now consider the result:  very large companies have an advantage over their smaller competitors because they are able to distribute the SOX reporting costs over a larger base.  Furthermore, very small companies that want to grow have this obstacle to overcome if they go public and sell stock, which means they do not have access to the same capital markets that are needed to enable them to grow.  Instead these small companies are bought up by larger firms, and whatever innovations they brought to their customers are now controlled by management that is predictably more conservative.  The result encourages larger firms at the expense of competition.  

And this result of regulation is independent of one aspect of the "bootlegger and baptist" problem, wherein the people who end up writing the regulations are the very ones with the most to lose and gain by how those details get settled.

The guest, Richard Epstein, is pretty depressing otherwise, with a dark perspective on the economic situation.

Regulation (9/20/2010) - Richard Epstein of New York University and Stanford University's Hoover Institution talks about the current state of the economy, particularly the regulatory climate. Epstein argues the current level of regulation is producing unusually high costs. He digs more deeply into the pharmaceutical industry and discusses various regulations and alternative ways to encourage drug safety and innovation.

knowledge and power on econtalk

May 29th, 2012

This episode wraps around the context of our modern economy, focusing on features of increased specialization and dispersion of knowledge, and what checks are there to institutional size and scope.   ‎

The discussion addresses what seems to be a recurring undercurrent in many discussions I have had in the last few years - that of whether we must have concentration of power in government to fight the concentrations of power in economics, whether a strong central government weakens economic power, or whether powerful government and powerful large firms are friends. 

I think the answer to this question is recently illustrated by the cases of Goldman Sachs, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac, where government did anything but put them out of business.   General Motors and Chrysler are related examples, where the powerful large firms are bailed out of thier mistakes by the powerful large government.

The population grows, the size of the economy grows, but the scope of control of individual legislators grows with it, regardless of economies of scale that would otherwise limit that power.  Consider the size of most city public school districts, arguably far larger than allows for efficiently responding to the changing demands of parents and their children, but the political environment in which they exist preclude anything but the slowest restructuring to reflect those changing demands.

Knowledge and Power - Unchecked and Unbalanced (9/6/2010) - Arnold Kling, author of Unchecked and Unbalanced, talks about the the relationship between knowledge and power. In the modern world, specialization has increased and knowledge is increasingly dispersed. But political power has become more concentrated.

socialist killers on econtalk

May 28th, 2012

These two fascinating pieces surround people who were in the center of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia; the guests each authored biographies.  The one about Trotsky has a chilling conclusion from Robert Service: "This is one of the terrifying things about Soviet history, that some of the bloodiest killers wrote poetry".

On further reflection it reminds me of a 1983 television series which period overlapped the lives of these characters:  "Reilly, Ace of Spies", starring Sam Neill., and based upon the historical character of Sidney Reilly, a spy for the British in the early years of the 20th Century.  Reilly was killed by the communists in the yearly years of the Soviet Union.

Trotsky (7/26/2010) - Robert Service of Stanford University's Hoover Institution and the University of Oxford talks about the life and death of Leon Trotsky. Based on Service's biography of Trotsky, the conversation covers Trotsky's influence on the Russian Revolution, his influence on policy alongside Lenin, his expulsion from Soviet Union in 1928 and his murder in 1940 by Stalin's order.

Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin's Kremlin (7/12/2010) - Paul Gregory (U of Houston, Stanford U Hoover Institution) talks about the career and personal life of Nikolai Bukharin, one of the key founders of the Bolshevik Revolution that led to the creation of the Soviet Union. In the late 1920s, he disagreed with Stalin's policy of collectivization. Stalin ruthlessly pursued him, and eventually had him executed.  The power and poignancy of the story lies in Bukharin's refusal to believe that his old friend Stalin is out to kill him. Gregory also discusses Bukharin's economic policies and whether Stalin or someone like him was inevitable.

intellectual property on econtalk

May 24th, 2012

These two episodes discuss intellectual property, my notes are in part from some time back when I first listened to them.  I have been thinking recently about the reasonableness of patents and copyrights, wondering whether there is a defensible stand for owning information (as opposed to media). My perspective is that information changes not a whit as it passes among us; we can hold back on passing knowledge to others, but their independent discovery isn't a taking.    Certainly there is scope for contracts to provide for protection of confidential information that is kept in ones care, such as financial and medical records held by institutions, but also for such specifics of process held by employees of a company (for such reasons I'm not revealing trade secrets of my company). The challenge I see is the situation where the creator deliberately puts that information out in public.

I understand the historical intention to "promote the progress of science and useful arts", but have been questioning whether those objectives are actually effective on balance, and whether there is a consistent application of property rights that can include such information. There are also historical cases, such as the Wright brothers, whose single-minded attempt to control their patented concepts seriously hampered their continued development and ended up consuming their limited resources on legal protections rather than improvement of their great technology. From my own experience, the actual patent is such a small part of what makes it possible to provide a good or service; the much bigger part is the detailed engineering development that realizes the invention, which development is the main obstacle to competitive development.

Last weekend I was talking to a few high school students about their idea for freight transport using derigibles, and the first thing they came up with when I asked what they thought to be the next steps in this development was "patent it".  Such is the current sway of the thinking about the value of ideas that the first thought about how to make use of the idea was not to develop it into a working model, or proof of concept, or detailed engineering, or performance assessment, but to bring it to courts (or the legal equivalent) and try to fence off the idea to collect rent from whomever might themselves try to do one or another of those things.

The discussion from the first of these is from a very different business perspective;  I had previously seen Johanna Blakeley give a TED talk.  See also my fb posts from 4/18/2010 at 9:03 am for more on this.

Fashion and Intellectual Property (6/14/2010) - Johanna Blakley of the University of Southern California talks about the fashion industry and the role of intellectual property. In the fashion industry there is limited protection for innovative designs and as a result, copying is rampant. Despite the ease of copying, innovation is quite strong in the industry and there is a great deal of competition. Topics discussed include the role of the street in generating new designs, the role of fashion in our lives, and whether the host of EconTalk has any hope of being fashionable. The conversation concludes with a discussion of the Grand Intervention, an urban park design competition, and the potential of Second Life for studying social trends.

Intellectual Property (5/18/2009) - Michele Boldrin of Washington University in St. Louis talks about intellectual property and Boldrin's book, co-written with David Levine, Against Intellectual Property. Boldrin argues that copyright and patent are used by the politically powerful to maintain monopoly profits. He argues that the incentive effects that have been used to justify copyright and patents are exaggerated--few examples from history suggest that the temporary and not-so-temporary monopoly power from copyright and patents were necessary to induce innovation. Boldrin reviews some of that evidence and talks about the nature of competition.

scarcity and markets in lungs and livers

May 24th, 2012

Not every scarce thing is valuable to lots of people, or even to a few people. Setting aside lifeboat situations and the like, our individual time in this life is unique in being both extremely scarce and generally non-transferable.  This note aims to raise a question concerning how that might change.

Enough obtuse introduction - what sparked this entry was the recent episode on Planet Money concerned with how we decide who gets lungs.  Usually not a question most of us have to face, but for some it is life altering.  And not just lungs, of course; if your body is failing in one way or another, continuation of your time in this world may depend on getting a transplant of one or another organ.  The episode discussed the current practices, which mostly deal with committees of one form or another, exercising more or less objective criteria aimed at allocating the extremely scarce resource of extra organs to people who are terminally ill.  What bugged me about this episode was the explicit exclusion of any discussion of markets in such goods.

Maybe not surprising, it is against the law to sell ones body parts.  In case it is not clear from my other entries, I'm not talking about selling under duress as one might in the face of a violent criminal; that condition falls under the general rubrik proscribing force and fraud as acceptable modes of human interaction.  I'm writing here about the considered decisions of a consenting adult, taking whatever council she sees fit, to offer for sale to another consenting adult, any part of their physical body.

Why should this be?  I think it is time that our culture start to acknowledge that people in the the last couple decades have brought us vastly improved technology that has made possible transplants of many of our organs.  With that capability comes the potential to improve the lives of countless of our friends, neighbors, family members, and even ourselves.  So why should these benefits still be literally priceless?

Putting a price on our bodies does not cheapen us.

more on institutional corruption

May 15th, 2012

I had written previously on the topic of how social justice is not served by institutional corruption, which reminded me of these two related episodes from This American Life and from Planet Money, both about the nature of money in politics.

Of course there is a lot of money poured into politics - there's a huge amount of power concentrated in very few hands, so it should not be surprising that people with something to gain are going to spend some money making the rules just slightly in their favor.  The rest of us see pennies of penalty in the short term, while the beneficiaries rake it in.  Whose interest is it to pay attention to these matters, and who would rather just do things at home?  The question answers itself, but what I find amazing is the expectation that it can be any different, given that concentration of power that begins the cycle.  This is part of why I'm for much smaller government.

Justice on econtalk

May 13th, 2012

One of the things I appreciated about this episode was the accounting of three perspectives with respect to social justice:  that from the standpoint of natural rights, the question of effectiveness, and that of how the institutions can be corrupted.  These are overlapping considerations when it comes to public policy, but the discussion managed to distinguish them adequately, all in the context of John Rawls and Robert Nozick.

Natural rights considerations have held sway with me since high school, at least.  But more to the point here is how transactions among us are decided, whether voluntary or compulsory being the key as it relates to justice.  My perspective is focused on process, rather than outcome, as it relates to obligations in society.

 Effectiveness is simply the question of whether interventionist policy actually achieves the ends of a better society.  The case of minimum wages would be one example where the result (higher unemployment, especially among young people) is opposite what people generally seem to want.

Institutional corruption results from how the people who stand to benefit from the details of interventionist policy are the very ones who are responsible for formulating those details.

David Schmidtz of the University of Arizona talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about the work of John Rawls and Robert Nozick. The conversation covers the basic ideas of Rawls and Nozick on inequality and justice and the appropriate role of the state in taxation and property rights. [7 May 2012]

more soup power

February 29th, 2012

An earlier version of these remarks date to 13 December 2009

Firstly a clarification from my prior post.  Along the way to dispute the identity of money and wealth, I said that money developed from commodities that held intrinsic (albeit subjective) value and had those other characteristics, as distinguished from wealth, which makes us materially comfortable.   Since the money commodity has intrinsic value then it contributes to making us materially comfortable, such as by providing decorative value.   My inadequately explained point:  many other goods and services (beyond such commodity money) constitute wealth, in as much as we value them toward making our lives comfortable.    Of course the case of fiat money - paper currency - does not have the property of intrinsic value.

 So I am impelled to ask the question, wealth, at what or who’s expense? Is wealth obtained at the expense of others or in cooperative and mutually beneficial interactions? I don’t think I need to enumerate examples to make the point that the wealth of today’s wealthiest are obtained through the impoverishment, intentional or unintentional of many

People create wealth when they convert some resource from a lower value use to a higher value use.   Such resources include goods and services, their trade creates wealth by virtue of each party obtaining higher value.  In the prior analogy, I converted soup to almonds through trade with the nut guy.  I preferred the almonds to soup, he preferred soup to nuts; we each converted resources from a lower value to a higher value use, we each created wealth.  This mutually beneficial interaction represents more than an exchange of equal value, because each party obtains something they value greater than what they currently possess.   They both increase net value, and create wealth in the process.

Other ways to obtain wealth include all those symptoms of the corporate welfare state I mentioned near the conclusion of my prior post, but such restrictions on voluntary interactions diminish wealth by compelling people to sacrifice a higher value for a lesser one.  As for the source of wealth of today's wealthiest, the recent banking bailout shows state power being used to forcibly transfer wealth to some of the richest people on the planet, but other examples include licensing restrictions and monopoly grants.  I do not support such anti-competitive behavior.

Is our purpose material comfort or physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well being? Is our aim and motive social harmony, friendly fulfilling and valuable relationships both human and nonhuman, to live autonomously and express our creative urges, creative freedoms? My answer would include all and not just material comfort although I don’t devalue that comfort.

Purposeful action applies in material and non-material domains;  each of us decides among such choices within the constraints of our environment.

There is no social harmony if people do not get along.  People create ways to get along in many ways that do not involve exchange of goods and services among relative strangers (i.e do not involve features of the market).  The value of capitalism applies to the areas that do involve such exchange.

One last point. Your last paragraph outlines the government involvements with the welfare corporate establishments that I claim does indeed represent capitalism. I think it is the essence of capitalism and we have been propagandized by both Rand and Libertarian philosophers to equate capitalism with freedom through, among other avenues, the newspeak of the “free” market.

I aim with this writing to contrast modes of human interaction.   Such interactions can be voluntary or coerced.  I oppose coerced interactions, but voluntary interactions are not "free" if by that we mean "without constraint";  there are trade-offs among our options, we make mistakes, we misjudge the future, we fail to appreciate consequences, and some desires are not possible to attain.  Economically or otherwise, decisions that look good one day can appear awful a year later.

The shorthand "free market" represents the hundreds of voluntary exchanges of goods and services we each make every month, aggregated across the entire population.  In the full development of such uncoerced interactions we have "capitalism".   In contrast, where people with special interests can manipulate state power they will find a way to do so, to enrich and entrench their established positions, whether for business, professions, labor or the arts.  Such manipulations diminish material wealth for the population at large.  This is why I take exception to redefining "capitalism" and "free markets" to mean what amounts to "corporatism" or "fascism".