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Moral Foundations

Erik pointed me towards some interesting research with an accompanying website: It tries to understand the moral foundations behind political affiliations. Along with an interesting paper (worth the read, in my opinion), there is a survey that tries to get at the survey taker’s moral foundations. Here are my results (red is average conservative, blue is average liberal, and green is my score):

moral_foundation

Hmm…

Deep Thoughts Inspired By Slashdot

There was (yet another) post today on Slashdot about Apple’s policies on its App Store for the iPhone. Often I find interesting and funny content in the comments, so I read those as well — and after doing so, I wanted to share some of the better comments and my thoughts:

Budenny commented:

If you don’t like the way Apple runs its store, don’t buy from it.
… If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t do it.
… If you don’t like murder, don’t commit it.
… If you don’t like France, don’t go there.
… If you don’t like math, don’t learn it.
… If you don’t care for Enron, don’t buy the stock.
… If you don’t like subprime, don’t take one out.
Why am I starting to wonder if there might not be something a little bit wrong with this form of argument?

To which Foorat replied:

If you don’t like that form of argument, don’t use it.

Which of course was quite amusing, but Budenny’s point is well taken: I generally advocate the “if you don’t like ___, then don’t ___” approach myself. It’s how I feel about gay marriage, for example — I don’t feel that it impacts me significantly one way or the other, so I don’t care if people (who are not me) do it.

It doesn’t seem to work for murder, though. Why not?  Because the unstated assumption in the argument is that the actions are such that they don’t affect people not willfully involved in the action. Murder, by definition, has an unwilling participant, so that unstated assumption clearly does not hold and the argument fails.

What about gay marriage? I don’t think it affects me personally. I know that others feel differently, though. Just because they are unable or unwilling to state why they feel this way (I recently saw a clip of Mike Huckabee unable to state how his marriage would be negatively impacted by gay marriage), doesn’t mean they don’t feel this way. One of my guesses is that some truly believe that if they go too far down the path of “redefining marriage”, then we will be in for an episode of Sodom and Gomorrah (ancient cities that were destoryed by God with fire for sexual deviation). Maybe people feel that such a claim today would be ridiculed; it doesn’t change how they feel though.

The other examples are similar: “If you don’t like subprime [mortgages], don’t take one out” — this has the implicit assumption that a subprime mortgage affects only the parties involved, which is no longer the popular way of looking at things (I would argue that, without government intervention, the statement would hold predominately true: the effect on the borrowers and lenders would so far outweigh any effect on me that it would be acceptable for others to make and take subprime mortgages. Unfortunately, government stepped in and has made it my burden to pay for the mistakes of evil corporations and stupid people).

The real question that arrives out of this is, who determines what affects other people and what doesn’t? Given that it is an impossibility to account for every externality, what in the world qualifies as a significant enough externality to make the overhead of regulation (with all of its pitfalls) a better solution?

This is the crux of the problem with modern politics, and especially with the libertarian philosophy that I am so fond of: everyone has a different opinion on what is “significant enough.” My set is fairly small, but I know people whose sets seem endless to me. Really, the modern conservative and liberal philosophies are simply different interpretations of where government has the right or responsibility to interfere with people and libertarianism is simply a very small subset of the intersection of the two philosophies.

That is happens to be the right subset is ever-apparent to me, but not, apparently,  to very many others.

From another comment, quoting the original article:

Of course, many are quick to remind that it is Apple’s store and they are free to do whatever they want with it.

Kind of like it is Microsoft’s operating system, and they are free do anything they like with it. Except, it seems, provide a web browser.

Ah, so biting, but so true. But antitrust regulations are a topic for another day.

Well Said, Jeff

My freedom-loving friend Jeff E. Jared is a frequent writer of letters to the editor. His latest published letter is well worth a read:

Daniel Bennet believes that the cause of our economic woes “was the institutions which had never had any regulations to begin with” and the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act (3-25). He couldn’t be more wrong.

Banking is heavily regulated. There’s the Federal Reserve (which controls interest rates and the money supply), the SEC (which enforces regulations), the Glass-Steagall Acts (1932-33), Federal Deposit Insurance (FDIC), capital requirements, reserve requirements, financial reporting and disclosure requirements, credit rating requirements, large exposure restrictions, related party restrictions, affiliation restrictions and payment system requirements. Money is the most regulated thing in America.

Mr. Bennet cited the repeal of the Glass-Steagall as a cause of the crises. But remember, only part of Glass-Steagall was repealed in 1999, the part barring investment banks from combining with regular banks. It kept deposit insurance (FDIC) backed by the government. Thus, the risk was socialized (because FDIC would bail out bad banks) while profit was privatized (now being able to combine, get big and diversify). This is corporate socialism.

Further, the institutions that failed, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, were investment banks that didn’t combine with commercial banks. They were bought by banks that had combined under deregulation to become stronger: B of A and JPMorganChase. So without the repeal, the crises might be worse.

The root problem is that previous government bailouts, like the S & L crises of the 1980’s, were always looming in the background to encourage risky behavior. It doesn’t make sense to forbid banks to diversify their product line to limit risk, while at the same time guaranteeing their deposits–which increases risk. So the repeal of Glass-Steagall didn’t go far enough.

Liberals who support regulation often fall into this trap. They see a problem, and–failing to understand that we don’t have unfettered capitalism and that there are pages and pages of regulations already—they mistakenly demand more regulations, rather than repealing the excessive ones we already have.

The American economy is not a free market. It might have been in 1880, but since FDR and the New Deal 1930’s, we haven’t been close. The key is to deregulate by abolishing the Federal Reserve and ending subsidized insurance to the banking industry, and repealing the rest of Glass-Steagall.

Without the FDIC, banks would be tuned into any potential panics and runs and reel in their loans accordingly when public anxiety rose, like a kind of shock absorber. Subsidies and regulations disable this natural self-regulation of the market.

Jeff E. Jared, Kirkland

Another Way to Fight the Man

Not long after I received a ticket on my bicycle, I saw a driver get pulled over on Stevens Way, the main drag through UW campus, for momentarily stopping to let out a passenger. This is a road where  buses stop every hundred yards, traffic crawls as students constantly cross streets, and people get dropped off from cars in a similar fashion thousands of times a day.

I was riding my bicycle by as the stop happened, and I decided to do something about it. I stopped where the cop had pulled the motorist over and proceeded to give the officer a hard time for what she did. First I asked if what he did was really illegal. She responded yes and I said “Are you serious?” incredulously. I then proceeded to talk to the driver of the car while the officer was doing something else. I told the driver that I would give him my contact info and I would help him fight the total BS ticket. I said this loudly enough for the cop to hear. I then started writing down my contact info to give to the driver. At this point, the officer returned to the car she had pulled over and told me to give her room to speak to the driver. I backed away to finish writing down my info, but then I learned that the officer had decided not to issue a ticket.

Victory!

The only way we can fight police tyranny is to band together and proactively fight it. If someone had done for me what I did for this motorist when I received my ticket, I may have very well not been issued the ticket, and even if I had been issued the ticket, I would have had the witness I am now going ot have to search for in probable vain.

So here is my charge to all of you: If you see a fellow motorist being pulled over for the inane “crime” of speeding, follow them off the road, encourage them to contest the ticket, and offer to be a witness in their case against the state. Although I haven’t seen it work myself, my guess is that a third party who has nothing to gain or lose through testifying would make a very compelling case against the ticket. The state relies on the fact that most people who contest tickets have only their own word against the officer’s, and the officer’s word is implicitly less tainted since the officer is assumed to have little to gain from the ticket whereas the defendant is assumed to have a lot to lose.

One other person, previously unknown to the defendant, saying, “Your honor, I was behind the car that got pulled over and can testify that the car was traveling at or below the speed limit” would go a long way in getting these travesties dismissed. Do it for others, and hopefully when you find yourself being pulled over by a cop who himself speeds at every opportunity with no repercussions, someone will return the favor.

I certainly will.

Ryan… In Court!

I went to court today to contest the ticket that a UW bicycle police officer issued to me on February 3, 2009 for allegedly failing to obey a traffic control device.

As I got there early, I sat through a few mitigated hearings before making my way to the contested hearing courtroom. I listened to a few others plead their cases, mostly unsuccessfully, until I had the chance to present my case.

I started out with the nit-picky technicalities, but the judge did not seem to be too interested in them. Maybe I just introduced them the wrong way, but I have a feeling if it had been a lawyer there the judge would have paid more attention to what I was actually saying — for example, the case against me was not mailed to one of the addresses I requested, the ticket was not signed, and the ticket was listed as a non-traffic violation even though the cited RCW is a traffic violation.

Next I proceded with my case. I gave the judge a photo of the intersection where the officer alleges I failed to stop and showed that, by RCW 46.61.755, I was acting as a pedestrian at the time I passed the stop sign and was therefore not required to stop.

The judge said “Well how do I know that’s what happened?” and decided to postpone the courtdate to subpoena the officer to testify.

Since it looks like its turning into a “my word versus his” battle, a battle that police officers will always win unless there is compelling video evidence to the contrary, my next step is to find some witnesses who can back up my story. This is no small task — the incident occurred two months ago — and more importantly, a college quarter ago — and the only witnesses were random people out and about at 10:40 am. Perhaps my best bet is to stand out there with a sign saying I’m looking for witnesses, but even that seems like a long shot.

A more realistic option will be to postpone the court date as long as possible, hope the officer doesn’t show up, and if he does quiz him about other facts in the case — such as the color of the car I rode alongside as I came to the stop sign, the color of my bike and my backpack, about how many bicyclists ran the next stop sign where he detained me while he ticketed me, and so forth. But even that seems like a losing battle.

And if I lose that battle, I will appeal based on the unsigned ticket, the traffic-vs-non-traffic disparity, and the insufficient time to subpoena witnesses.

What I do promise is that the state will, overall, lose much more money going after me than they can possibly hope to gain by forcing me to pay the ticket.

In fact, I would encourage everyone who ever gets a ticket of any kind to contest to the fullest extent of the law — if we make it so expensive to enforce these inane laws that overall they lose money, the laws will either go away or become unenforced, which is better for everyone. Maybe the cops can go back to stopping and solving real crimes instead of harassing motorists and bicyclists on UW campus.

Broken Windows versus Banking

Several days ago I wrote about the broken window fallacy. Tonight while listening to Barack Obama address Congress, I grew troubled when he argued for supporting failing banks because “getting lending going again” would provide benefits that essentially mirrored what the broken window fallacy talks about: a young family that otherwise couldn’t would be able to obtain a loan to buy a house; some company would hire workers to build the house; the workers would have more money to spend in their communities; and so on.

Recall what the broken window fallacy says:

The basic idea is that it is temping to think that a hoodlum breaking a baker’s window stimulates the economy because the baker must go buy a window from the glazier, who then can go buy additional things from others in the community and so on.

It sounds strikingly similar, doesn’t it? I don’t think it is a coincidence. So, I immediately started wondering, where is the broken window in the lending example? When a bank creates money through a loan, whose window is metaphorically broken?

My guess is that there is no specific victim, which is why this is so insiduous. Instead, the loser is, in some way that I don’t fully understand yet, a large group of us — perhaps all of us, and the winner is a small group. I am beginning to belive that the only way to not be hurt by the banking system, in aggregate, is to be partaking of loans yourself — to be leveraged yourself. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem too strange that this nation is addicted to debt.  It is simply the best response to a set of incentives enshrined in law by our government.

On Broken Windows

The Broken Window is both a fallacy and a truth. In economics, it refers the Parable of the Broken Window, also called the Broken Window Fallacy, and it deals with hidden opportunity costs.

The basic idea is that it is temping to think that a hoodlum breaking a baker’s window stimulates the economy because the baker must go buy a window from the glazier, who then can go buy additional things from others in the community and so on.

However, the fallacy part of it is that forcing the baker to buy a window has the hidden cost of the baker not buying whatever it was that the baker might have wanted to buy in the first place — perhaps a suit. So the extra money to the glazier actually comes at the expense of the tailor, and on top of it, the baker is out a window. So when hidden opportunity costs are accounted, the net effect of a broken window is negative, not positive.

There is also the broken window theory of crime, which basically states that criminal activity tends to congregate towards lesser-maintained areas of a city, perhaps because the look of dereliction makes a criminal feel less likely to be caught. A recent article that I picked up of via Bruce Schneier’s Security Blog discusses a recent student on the broken window theory. The conclusions are interesting:

The results, just now circulating in law enforcement circles, are striking: A 20 percent plunge in calls to police from the parts of town that received extra attention. It is seen as strong scientific evidence that the long-debated “broken windows” theory really works—that disorderly conditions breed bad behavior, and that fixing them can help prevent crime.

[…]

Many police departments across the country already use elements of the broken windows theory, or focus on crime hot spots. The Lowell experiment offers guidance on what seems to work best. Cleaning up the physical environment was very effective; misdemeanor arrests less so, and boosting social services had no apparent impact.

Nevertheless, I still wonder whether the broken window theory is actually a type of fallacy. For example, it is true that a single person can stand up at a sporting event to get a better view, but this does not generalize well: if everyone stands up, it is decidedly not true that everyone gets a better view. Does the same apply to broken windows? In other words, does fixing broken windows in one area correspond to a single person standing up at the sporting event? If all broken windows were fixed, would crime actually diminish or would it sustain at current levels?

Regardless of the answer to that question, I think the last sentence — and especially the last clause — is worth repeating:

Cleaning up the physical environment was very effective; misdemeanor arrests less so, and boosting social services had no apparent impact.

Sorry social scientists.