2009-03-30

Meat

I eat a lot of meat. I hate to do it, but I hate even more being scrawny. So I need the protein, and this is how to get it where I live.

I'd use more soy, but I haven't yet quite decided to start a food importing business. Also, I'd feel stupid inconveniencing myself, when everyone else is jolly killing and eating.

I have, however, long felt that humanity ought to outlaw meat eating altogether. If no one could eat or buy meat, entrepreneurs would find other sources to supply us with all the nutrients we need. Only the most savage would miss it.

I once posted a poll on this topic some place, and was dispirited to find that 90% of respondents - hundreds of them - were against outlawing flesh eating. Even 50% of self-proclaimed vegetarians weren't in favor of outlawing it.

In this clip, Pamela Anderson takes you to the world of Kentucky Fried Cruelty.

After seeing that video, I am beginning to think that everyone who isn't ready to outlaw meat eating should themselves be boiled and eaten. I'd even volunteer as the cook.

After all, fair is fair. If you've been doing something to others, be ready to accept it when it's done to you.

2009-03-28

Tito Street

So you want evidence that most people are relentlessly, remorselessly infantile; uninformed; unaware of their surroundings; gullible; stupid. You want evidence that the judgement of most people in matters of policy should not be trusted, and in fact that a majority should have no influence, for that is how clueless they are.

Okay.

Then here's a prediction for you. If Iraq or North Korea ever become free democratic states, a large proportion of their population (20-40% for Hussein and 40-80% for Kim Jong-il) will:
  • Remain convinced that Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-il were beneficent leaders.
  • Will want their statues to be preserved.
  • Will want public places to be named after them.
For this is what is happening in Russia with Stalin, and in Slovenia with Tito.

According to this Dnevnik article (in Slovenian), about 65% of residents in the capitol, Ljubljana, would like the town to get a street named after Josip Broz Tito, the erstwhile dictator of Jugoslavia. Of those, 71% (or 46% of the total) would like the town's major artery to be renamed back to Tito Road. (The two portions of the street were renamed to Slovenian Road and Vienna Road after Slovenian independence.)

For those who fail to see the problems in this, here's what Tito did for Jugoslavia.
  • At the end of WWII, ordered the execution of tens of thousands of people (including women, teenagers and children) whose main transgression was their disagreement with the political goals of communists (or in some cases, that they were German families that Nazis settled in Jugoslavia). See article where a well-informed, highly connected individual pins direct responsibility on Tito.
  • For the next several decades, ran a repressive system that:
    • Confiscated most land and property.
    • Ran a dysfunctional, nationalized, socialist economic system where inflation was rampant, products weren't available, when they were available they were poor quality, and prosperity was retarded by decades.
    • Sent political dissenters into forced labor on Barren Island (Goli Otok).
    • Prevented people from leaving the country, e.g. by requiring extreme deposits that one would forfeit if one did not return.
  • Until his death, used the system he established primarily as a means of perpetuating his own image. Had several palaces in the various Jugoslavian states. Traveled in his own private train. Had his own set of islands and yachts for his private use (Brioni).
  • Collaborated with people like Romanian dictator Ceausescu in murky projects like the murder described in Red Horizons by Ion Mihai Pacepa (a top Romanian spy chief who defected to the United States in 1978).
So why would people like to immortalize this guy? A ruthless dictator who came to power through murder, shored it up through genocide, kept it through showmanship and repression, and really messed up his state?

I'm not sure what the answer is. But it seems as though he made people feel good. His charisma brought together six nations that proceeded to hack each other to death about 10 years after he departed. There was no economic progress, and the only way to prosper was to cheat and steal and be a Party suck-up. But it seems as though, when they look back on it, people don't mind the economic misery. In a way, the memory of a past when fewer things were available and fewer things were possible seems attractive to them. What they seem to remember is a sort of brotherhood, a nostalgia for a time where most people led equally simple lives, and faced similar basic hurdles.

When they think of Tito, the thought of the tens of thousands he had murdered to shore up his rule doesn't appear to even register in their minds. What they seem to remember instead is their youth, and how it was lived in a decades-long presence of this charismatic Tito, who fed people a narrative of national struggle and brotherhood that emphasized his heroism. They bought it all wholesale.

It seems as though, when people in Slovenia want to immortalize Tito, they're not doing it with any clue as to who or what he actually was. They do it for the pleasant memory of their gullibility and naivete as younger people.

If anyone can relate more examples of what Tito did, please share. If you can corroborate them with links to more material, so much the better. If you have additional insight to explain people's nostalgia for those times, that would be welcome, too.

2009-03-25

Pare down the law

I have been contemplating recently whether our usual gripes about government aren't missing the point.

Rightists vs. Leftists, Libertarians vs. Democrats vs. Republicans, tend to argue over the principles on which government is based.

But there is one simple constitutional change that would make a major difference to the quality of government, and which furthermore is so neutral that it ought to intuitively appeal to most people, regardless of their ideologies.

The change is this:

Pass a constitutional amendment that imposes a maximal total size on the amount of federal or state law that can exist at any time.

This limit, of course, would have to be vastly lower than the amount of law that currently exists, and would have to be put into effect over the course of several decades. The constitutional change would require future Congresses to slave away until they have pared down the sheer quantity of law to a size that is comprehensible.

The entirety of state and/or federal law would have to be publishable as an average-sized paperback. There would be a limit to the total number of English characters that the law may span in its entirety. Any definitions of required words that are not in common use would count toward the limit.

This change, alone, would reduce the overwhelming complexity of government to a level that is humanly manageable, and would allow for the whole system to be governed again, rather than it growing like a tumor.

Then we can argue about the principles of government - once the government is actually in a manageable state.

China proposes global reserve currency

This is major:
China's central bank has called for a new global reserve currency run by the International Monetary Fund to replace the US dollar.
And necessary.

CPU-based backdoors

Joanna Rutkowska drives home the point that, even with the latest and greatest technologies that might protect us from all sorts of intentional and unintentional software and hardware backdoors - we still have to trust the CPU, which makes it exceedingly simple for the CIA to spy on you.

All they need is to make the CPU contain a backdoor such as this:
if (rax == MAGIC_1 && rcx == MAGIC_2) jmp [rbx]
This is:
  • Trivial to hide among the 800 million gates of a modern processor.
  • Exploitable in practically any program.
  • Practically impossible to discover.
It gets worse: it doesn't even have to be the CIA. It can be any of the governments in the various countries where your CPU might have been manufactured.

It looks like, against the most well-connected attackers, you can only consider yourself secure if you build all your own hardware, and run all your own software on it.

Screening parents for genetic disorders

A call for routine screening of would-be parents for genetic disorders, allowing parents at risk to opt for in-vitro fertilization to ensure children don't inherit problems:
MADELINE Kara Neumann, age 11, died of diabetes because her parents prayed rather than taking her to doctors. Caleb Moorhead, age 6 months, died after his deeply religious vegan parents refused a simple vitamin injection to cure his malnutrition. The list of children killed by their parents' superstition or wilful ignorance is a long one.

Most people are rightly appalled by such cases. How can parents stand by and let their children die instead of doing all in their power to get the best medical care available?

Yet this is precisely what society is doing. We now have the ability to ensure that children are born free of any one of hundreds of serious genetic disorders, from cystic fibrosis to early-onset cancers. But children continue to be born with these diseases.

2009-03-24

The gospel according to Futurama

A Pharaoh to Remember:

Priest:Great wall of prophecy, reveal to us God’s will that we may blindly obey.
Crowd:Free us from thought and responsibility.
Priest:We shall read things off you.
Crowd:Then do them.
Priest:Your words guide us.
Crowd:We are dumb.

The Holy Grail: Native Client

It looks like researchers at Google have created the Holy Grail: Native Client, a framework that allows untrusted, native, possibly hostile x86 code to run securely in a browser.

Here's the paper:

Native Client: A Sandbox for Portable, Untrusted x86 Native Code

They are also offering a contest to find any security vulnerabilities. The first prize is $8,192. It finishes May 5.

If this makes it into the mainstream, it is going to revolutionize web applications. No more lame, slow-ass websites that fail to provide a quarter of the performance and capability of native applications. If Native Client becomes widespread, web applications are going to be full-fledged, and there is not going to be any reason any more to write installable native applications. Editors, spreadsheets, games, development tools, image manipulation software: they are all going to run in browsers. And I don't mean lame-ass browser versions, like we have today. I mean real, high-performance editors, spreadsheets, games, development environments.

Kudos to Google for this. I was considering the same idea, but by the time I was shelving it as probably too error-prone / too difficult, they were apparently already halfway there.

Great work. I hope this makes it to our desktops ASAP.

Hat tip to Ben Laurie.

2009-03-21

Things North America has that Slovenia doesn't

Even on our Caribbean island in the middle of the Atlantic, relative proximity to the U.S. market provides us access to a few products of the American Capitalist System™ that, in the Socialist Republic of Slovenia☭, are largely impossible to obtain.

Here are a few that have been most valuable to me. It so happens that most of these revolve around a high protein intake. This has been frustrating for me to achieve in Slovenia, as products low in fat are hard to get, and/or are insufficiently labeled. U.S. food, meanwhile, is a boon for people with my kind of dietary preference.

Contrary to what people think, obesity in the U.S. is not due to poor diet. A wider variety of choices and better labeling make it easy to maintain a fit figure through diet in the U.S., while doing the same is frustrating in Europe. Americans are obese because it's culturally acceptable, so many choose to be that way.


Cooking spray


You can avoid the mess, hassle and extra calories that come with oiling your pan by simply spraying it with this.

Never mind the "organic". Anything that says "organic" or "bio" is an attempt to bullshit you. Everything that's edible is "organic" and "bio". Things that aren't edible are poison. Most of those don't get on shelves.





Liquid Egg Whites


Eggs are an excellent source of protein, but too many egg yolks aren't good for you, chucking them away feels like an awful waste, and separating piles of eggs for an eggwhite omelet is a hassle.

Lo and behold, liquid eggwhites. Just open and pour into the pan. This being the result of an industrial process, I am 95% sure that the corresponding egg yolks are used for some purpose. This is probably a better use of resources than buying eggs and throwing yolks away.





Presliced Low-Fat Meat


Lo and behold, presliced turkey breast with tasty seasoning and almost entirely consisting of protein. In Slovenia, most meat products are 50% fat, and have double or triple the calories for the same amount of protein.





Fat Free Cheese


Lo and behold, cheese that is all protein, no fat. Top, pre-shredded Mozarella ready to sprinkle on your eggwhite omelet. Bottom, all-protein singles.

There's plenty variety of cheese in Slovenia, but it's all half fat.






TV Dinners


The ultimate in convenience as far as warm meals go, and some are very tasty to boot. Chuck it in the microwave and voila, a small meal is ready in 3-5 minutes. In addition, labeling makes it easy for folks like me to track their calorie and protein intake.

These are some of my favorites:






Canned Soups


My wife likes this kind of canned soups a lot - her favorite are Campbell's:





Protein Shakes


Sadly not available in St. Kitts, but you can get them in most every corner drugstore in the U.S. They beat protein powders as the taste is better, and they're easier to use since no mixing or weighing is required. I'd love for something like these EAS AdvantEDGE drinks to be available in St. Kitts.





Resealable Plastic Bags


How come this isn't available in Slovenia, I cannot fathom. These baggies are cheap, come in many sizes, and are easy to seal and reseal. Everyone who sees them for the first time wants them:


The French

I don't suppose that I can say anything about the French that the readers of this blog would not already think themselves, or expect me to say.

Still, with the continuing reports of economic protests in France, I feel like I need to say something, even if it's obvious.

The French are the source of their own misery. Their tragedy is that they do not understand that strikes and protests and burning cars and blocking supermarkets, calling for the government to intervene, to "help people", and to apply yet more taxes on the rich, is precisely opposite to the steps that need to be taken to resolve the economic crisis, which France is only a part of.

What the French are doing is, they are destroying their own state. They are harming their own livelihoods and the livelihoods of their descendants.

I'm not sure what can be done about it, because the hooligan ethos in France is so strong. From what we've seen in recent years, France is, essentially, a nation of hooligans. Their hooliganism stems from the French Revolution, a demonstration of mass rabble if there ever was one. They chant the self-conflicting, semi-fascist slogan of "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" - yet the three ideals of liberty, equality and brotherhood are not compatible. Liberty gets beaten to death by the other two. So France is now a state with little economic liberty to speak of, where "equality" is taken to mean that if you have something, then I should too, and "brotherhood" is taken to mean that since everyone is family, we're just going to take it away from you.

What the French should be rallying for are the combined values of liberty and rule of law.

Given how France is unlikely to improve, I would hope that it might at least serve as a cautionary tale for other nations, on what not to let ourselves turn into.

Sadly, I fear that their hooliganism might be doing more to inspire than to warn.

2009-03-20

A game that cannot be played with integrity

Travian is a massively multiplayer game that joins thousands of players on one of many realms to form alliances and compete in battle, until finally an alliance wins, over the course of a year.

The universe in which the game is played is a map of 400 x 400 squares. Most of the squares start out empty, but each one of them can contain a settlement. One of the ways players compete is in building settlements. A higher developed settlement produces more resources, which can be used to build an army, or to develop the settlement yet more or found a new one. A player can use an army either to defend against other players' attacks, or to attack settlements of other players. The aim of attacking is either to rob resources from other players, to take over another player's settlement outright, to destroy another player's settlement, or to kill their army to prevent them from doing these things.

The authors of Travian make money by allowing players to bribe the game, using real money, to give players boosts in resources, in battle, and to gain the ability to develop settlements without having to wait a long time for each level of each building in each settlement to complete.

The long duration of a Travian game creates a need for some sort of throttling of how many settlements a player can create. If it was limited only by resources, growth in the number of settlements would be exponential. This would be problematic in that a devoted player would be able to completely dominate a realm, driving away other players, harming the authors' revenues in the process. To prevent this, settlements have a finite maximum production of resources, and the number of settlements a player can have is severely handicapped with a throttling construct called "Cultural Points". A player needs more and more Cultural Points for each additional settlement. The scale imposed is such that a player's empire can grow no faster than on a sub-linear scale resembling a logarithm more so than an exponential.

Having made these design decisions, the authors of Travian are naturally faced with the following problems:
  • A player can open multiple accounts and use them cooperatively to gain an advantage over players who use only a single account.
  • A player can use a third party program to automate parts of their attack or settlement construction actions, gaining an advantage over players who don't use such tools.
Sadly, instead of modifying game design to render such strategies ineffective, the authors of Travian have imposed rules which lead to the title of this article.

Instead of removing the incentives for undesired behavior, Travian keeps these incentives, but imposes a variety of rules, enforced by a volunteer police force that tends towards the unreliable, corruptible, and/or draconian.

As a result of these rules and incentives, players still use multiple accounts, and they still use third-party software to gain an advantage in building settlements and attacking. The nature of the internet is such that Travian police cannot truly enforce the rules that are in place. As a result, most successful players violate the rules in various manners. Especially popular is Travian Beyond, a browser extension that provides an enhanced view of settlements and makes mundane tasks easier; while close behind are third-party programs that automate the tedious parts of mounting an attack.

I just recently resigned from this game because, without resorting to software which the authors of the game do not allow, the game is tedious. (I had a top #2 account among 5,000 players, so a shortage of success was not my reason for leaving.) It is sad to see a dynamic taking place where the authors design a good game with shortcomings; then the market solves those shortcomings with workarounds; then the game developers outlaw the workarounds, and try to ban their usage. As a result, you either walk away from the game because it's hard to play without the workarounds, if you are principled; or, you use the workarounds and enjoy the game, but know full well that your fun is over if you so much as slip up in a way that they can tell. You cannot have fun in the game, as well as maintain your integrity.

Would it surprise you to learn that the game developers are Germans? I find it ironically stereotypical how they think that fundamental design issues can be patched with police and rules.

This, incidentally, is a microcosm of social-democratic states. For example, the onerous tax system in Slovenia makes it impossible to be successful in business, as well as maintain your integrity and pay everything due. In fact, I don't know anyone who is like that. Instead, you have two choices: you either leave; or you cheat, as everyone does who remains.

I chose to leave Slovenia, just like I chose to eventually quit playing Travian.

The sad thing is, most people choose to stay and cheat.

That tells you something about most people.

2009-03-16

The 5 Moral Mechanisms of Jonathan Haidt

I ran across the interesting article titled What Makes People Vote Republican, dated September 2008, by Jonathan Haidt.

Haidt argues (with intriguing anecdotes) that morality is not merely about our relationships with each other, but that
morality is any system of interlocking values, practices, institutions, and psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate selfishness and make social life possible.
He further argues that:
  • there are five mechanisms humans have evolved for morality;
  • Democrats recognize and use only two of those mechanisms;
  • whereas Republicans recognize and use all five.
The five mechanisms are:
  1. Harm/care (Republicans, Democrats)
  2. Fairness/reciprocity (Republicans, Democrats)
  3. Ingroup/loyalty (Republicans)
  4. Authority/respect (Republicans)
  5. Purity/sanctity (Republicans
I highly recommend reading the article for a better understanding of the meaning behind these names.

According to my understanding and experience, I would refine Jonathan's claims as follows:
  • Democrats do actually care about ingroup/loyalty (mechanism #3), but define the ingroup differently than Republicans do. For Republicans, their ingroup are those who respect the same authority (mechanism #4) and who share their views on purity and sanctity (mechanism #5). For Democrats, their ingroup is the human race, and their compassion is for everyone.
  • Libertarians, however, are a group that tends not to care about ingroup/loyalty (even if the group is humanity as a whole). Libertarians, furthermore, place mechanism #1 (harm/care) strictly secondary to mechanism #2 (fairness/reciprocity).
Jonathan goes on to make the statement that Democrats, in order to be more politically successful, should co-opt the mechanisms currently used by Republicans.

I would argue that this would be a departure from what Democratic principles are all about.

Just as Libertarian principles are all about the refutation of mechanisms #3, #4, and #5 (ingroup, authority, purity), and about the subjugation of mechanism #1 (harm/care) to an all-important mechanism #2 (fairness/reciprocity); ...

... so Democratic principles are all about the refutation of mechanisms #4 and #5, and about emphasizing mechanisms #1, #2, and #3 (taking the view, for mechanism #3, that the ingroup is humanity as a whole).

Democrats and Libertarians are alike in that we condemn mechanisms #4 and #5 as harmful relics of our tribal past, and wish to do away with them. Republicans differ from us in that they fail to recognize the harmfulness of these mechanisms, and follow them blindly for their short-term rewards. To quote Haidt:
Such moralities make it easier for individuals to forget themselves and coalesce temporarily into hives, a process that is thrilling, as anyone who has ever "lost" him or herself in a choir, protest march, or religious ritual can attest.
Democrats and libertarians might agree that such "losing oneself" is tantamount to mindless drug use, and is harmful.

That having been said, we have certainly witnessed a fair amount of Democrats chanting "Yes We Can", quite apparently losing themselves in this way. This appears to have been a manifestation of the ingroup/loyalty mechanism (#3), and appears to have been instrumental in electing Barack as president.

As a libertarian, you know what my stand is. Mechanism #2 (fairness/reciprocity) is paramount, and mechanism #1 (harm/care) comes secondary to mechanism #2. This, in my opinion, is the optimum for a peaceful and happy co-existence, whereas exploitation of the additional mechanisms (#3, #4, and #5), or an over-emphasis on mechanism #1 (harm/care), leads to a less happy spot with increased pain and suffering.

I believe therefore that we should emphasize #2, with a little bit of #1, and condemn groups that employ #3,4,5 as exploitative and harmful.

Just because we have evolved sensibilities for certain ways of organizing our world, doesn't mean that exercising them is not harmful.

We have evolved mechanisms for accumulating copious amounts of body fat, too. It is because of this that we need to consciously regulate our calorie intake.

It is because we are susceptible to mechanisms #1,3,4,5, that we must consciously remain on guard so as not to fall for them.

And it is because many people are unable to do that, that we should seek out and punish those who exploit this fact for power, influence, and money.

2009-03-13

Too big to exist #3

F.D.I.C. chairman Sheila Bair agrees - banks that are too big to fail are too big to exist. Her opinion about this appears towards the end of this 13-minute video which documents the F.D.I.C.'s secretive takeover of Chicago's Heritage Community Bank.

My previous posts on this topic:

The Madoff victims

From Vanity Fair (hat tip to Freakonomics), an article about Madoff, his family, his victims, his suckered friends:

“I want justice!” screamed Joan Sinkin, who, along with her husband, Arnold, a retired contractor, had sunk every cent from 55 years of work and the proceeds from the sale of several houses into Madoff. After learning that they had lost everything, she was hospitalized with what seemed like a stroke, and her husband collapsed. “I want to be treated like G.M. and A.I.G. and Bank of America! I can’t wait years! I want S.I.P.C. [Securities Investor Protection Corporation, which insures investors up to $500,000] to put people like us back on our feet!” Out of her husband’s hearing, she whispered, “We had a good life, and it’s gone.”

[...]

“It’s boring now, the poor-victims story,” said Larry Leif, a Florida investment adviser who lost $8 million, and who has since become a lightning rod for victims’ rights. “I’m into legislation and action for those who were fooled. I’ve been on CNN six times, and it looks like Fox is going to give me a one-hour show, and we’re going to a town-hall victims’ meeting in Boca next week.” His ex-wife, Ronnie Sue Ambrosino, called me from Surprise, Arizona, where she said she’s been stranded since she learned that she’d lost all she had, $1.7 million. “Everybody knows we’re penniless and can’t pay our mortgages,” she said. “That’s not what people need to hear anymore. They need to hear the next step. Write about how the government let this happen and how the government is letting the victims down. I need people to know that the S.E.C. failed miserably for at least 10 years, if not more, that they were warned, and that they didn’t stop this devil from doing his deed. I need people to know that S.I.P.C. has taken more than a month to get a claim form out to help the victims. I need people to know that the I.R.S. has been collecting taxes on phantom income for at least 10 years. I need people to know that Bernard Madoff has given money to senators across the country in their campaign funds. So you tell me how our government is helping support the victims, or are they supporting themselves?”
That's a mighty lot of whining coming from people who committed stupidities such as the following:
Soon I knew of approximately 50 investors in Aspen who had been stung. As one of them told me, when the stock market began to slide, they had begun shifting “from the losers to the winners,” until some of them had everything except their houses—which in this town can mean a $10 million asset, frequently pure equity—invested with Madoff. Then, as Madoff kept performing and the market kept going to hell, the house would also go to him. “Everybody looked at it like a money market, backed by U.S. Treasuries,” one business leader said. “They kept pulling money out and putting it in. Somebody—I don’t want to mention his name—refinanced his house a couple years ago, when the rates were low, and put all of the money with Madoff. Now he has no money and no house.”

They called it “playing the spread.” Five years ago, if someone had a mortgage-free home in Aspen worth $15 million, he could easily get a mortgage on it for $10 million at 4 percent interest. The carrying costs on that $10 million mortgage would have been $400,000 per year. By investing the $10 million proceeds of the mortgage with Madoff at a 12 percent return, the 8 percent difference between the carrying costs and the return would have given the owner $800,000 per year. One friend said, “A lot of people here own their houses free and clear, so that would be a home run.”
Or this:
Goldman decided not to invest. In 2001, two skeptical articles appeared about Madoff, one in Barron’s and another in a hedge-fund trade publication (articles, sources said, that upset Mark Madoff but that Bernie seemed to take in stride). “Wherever I went, I’d tell people, ‘Don’t invest with this guy!,’” Goldman said. She even sent the articles to members of the Palm Beach Country Club. “I was expecting a thank-you, and all I got back in return was a hostile response. Some of the Madoff investors said that I was behaving unprofessionally and was bad-mouthing a competitor. Oh, they were nasty! Nasty! They said all these publications were jealous of Bernie. They were being anti-Semitic. People called me an anti-Semite. I’m not only a Jew, I live in Israel!”
Madoff's hardest hit "investors", those who lost everything including the roofs over their heads, appear to be what I would call the naive rich - people living under the illusion that wealth can somehow be safely preserved without effort.

Such "investors" are not much different in mindset from millions who live and work under the illusion that wealth can be safely preserved by putting it into a bank. The difference is, U.S. law treats these types of investors differently. If you put your money in a bank, or invest it up to a certain threshold, you are considered to be a fairly clueless person who needs protection of the law so as not to be fleeced outright. If, on the other hand, your net worth exceeds a certain threshold, then you are considered to be a responsible individual who knows about the ins and outs of investment, and who can be left responsible for their own financial decisions, whether or not they turn out to be wise.

In this case, my impression is that there were big groups of naive rich socialites putting all their eggs into a single basket. Then, when that basket blew up - gosh! How come the government failed to protect us?

The fact of the matter is that, yes, Madoff belongs in jail - the worse the jail, the better. But the victims, posing for pictures such as in the article, and whining about now having to live with their children and having to find work waiting tables, fail to attract my sympathy.

These are naive people who trusted a man with their whole net worth based on herd instincts, without understanding what he does, without scrutinizing his investment strategy. Either put your eggs in many baskets, or, as Warren Buffett says: put them all in one basket, then watch it closely.

These people did neither. Wealth cannot be preserved this way.

2009-03-12

A culture of entitlement

I just read a jaw-dropping article in The Economist - appropriately titled Allons, Enfants! - discussing the exceedingly dark and irrational situation in the French Caribbean.

Not yet a year ago, my wife and I visited St. Martin for a day, and noticed a striking discrepancy between the Dutch-governed and the French-governed part.

The Dutch-governed part, you see, is similar to the rest of the Caribbean. It appears better developed than other islands we've seen. However, the roads are old and rugged, and infrastructure in general appears to be comfortably closer to Caribbean standards than those of urban Europe.

Once you enter the French part, however, you say - wow. New asphalt roads. Sidewalks. Street lights. Marked intersections. And the next thought you have, if you're like me, is who pays for this? Surely not the Caribbean residents. If most other islands can't afford this, how can the French part of St. Martin? It must be that the French are shoveling a whole lot of money into this.

And so it is. According to the Economist article, the French are assisting their Caribbean territories to the tune of EUR 13 billion per year. This comes in the form of "subsidies and tax breaks, including a 40% salary premium for civil servants". Since the combined population of these territories is less than 1 million, this makes for a whopping EUR 13,000 of subsidies, tax breaks, and salary premiums per resident. This is for an area where GDP per capita is EUR 17,000, so the French taxpayers are providing 75% of that - or in other words... paying these people to live.

So you would think, the recipients of this magnanimity would be satisfied, correct?

Nope.

Looting shops, burning cars, and protesting violently. Demanding a 200 EUR monthly salary increase. And extra rights. And maybe, perhaps, a little expropriation of white businessowners.

What Guadeloupe and Martinique should get is independence. The black majority is unsatisfied by that they don't get to make their own laws, and their standard of living is too low. The solution for this is to give them the ability to make their own laws. Then they can go ahead and nationalize the businesses of white people, of whom they are envious. Then, they can watch how their new country turns into Zimbabwe over the course of several decades; their infrastructure deteriorating, and lacking generous infusions from the French, their economies crumbling to dust.

Soon enough, they will be at the door of the IMF, asking for loans in the billions.

But this is the preferable outcome. Because then, they'll be able to pin it on themselves.

2009-03-10

Daniel Hamermesh for higher income taxation

So far, socialist thinkers like Mr. Hamermesh have failed to convince me that income inequality is a problem, or that taxation of income is the way to deal with it.

I find it frustrating how articles in favor of income redistribution frequently start by saying "income inequality has grown", but do not waste any time dwelling on why, in fact, income inequality is supposedly a bad thing.

Lacking any effort to even justify their opposition to income inequality, one gets the impression that proposals of income redistribution are driven by envy rather than prudence.

Second, even if income inequality is a problem - a claim for which I have so far seen few credible arguments - then it is not by any means a foregone conclusion that the way to fix this inequality is to impose the most intrusive government measure in the developed world: a tax on people's income, requiring people to report on every nickel they receive.

Do socialists ever consider how enormous an intrusion into people's lives the income tax is? To they ever consider whether it's really worth having this intrusion, for the stated goal of income equality, when that goal isn't even being achieved? And most likely is not going to be achieved, regardless of how high or low the marginal tax rates are?

Mr. Hamermesh - first and foremost, it would be worthwhile if you could tap into your economic expertise to show us why income inequality is supposedly a problem. Then, you should also show how the income tax is the best way to solve this problem, and how the stated goals are worth the enormous sacrifices people have to make to comply with it.

My guess is, you can't show either.