Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, June 23, 2017

Four Things

1. The Supreme Court's unanimous decision to uphold freedom of speech in a recent trademark case is great news:

Ruling against the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's determination that the name Slants had violated its "disparagement clause," Justice Samuel Alito's decision for the court was written with the rare clarity of a declarative sentence in the active voice: "This provision violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. It offends a bedrock First Amendment principle: Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend."
This is hardly the end of a war currently being waged against freedom of speech, but it is a most welcome victory.

2. As both an appreciative Linux user and someone interested in unorthodox career paths, I admire Linus Torvalds, who created and maintains the open-source operating system. Here is an excerpt from an article on how his hobby-career still surprises and motivates him after 25 years:
... a prime principle was that you should be able to fork and go off on your own and do something on your own. If you have forks that are friendly -- the type that prove me wrong and do something interesting that improves the kernel -- in that situation, someone can come back and say they actually improved the kernel and there are no bad feelings. I'll take your improved code and merge it back. That's why you should encourage forks. You also want to make it easy to take back the good ones.
It is refreshing to see someone with this attitude towards differences in professional opinion. I look forward to learning more from the entire, thirty-minute source interview.

3. Hooray for technology, part eleventy-squintillion: Watching the kids during a big game doesn't mean you miss seeing excellence. I checked my soccer app shortly after the recent U.S.-Mexico game started at Azteca Stadium. Lo, and behold, we were in the lead on a goal scored by midfielder Michael Bradley at something like five minutes in. It was around their bedtime, so I'd have to see the game later, which I did, of course.

Let me say that I could loop this video clip of that goal all day. (As a bonus, it reminds me of my own favorite goal, which I scored from about the same position after I'd noticed the opposing goalkeeper insulting my team by sitting down next to his goal post.)

4. A dining critic reviews Nutraloaf, the meal fed to misbehaving prisoners:
[T]he funny thing about Nutraloaf is the taste. It's not awful, nor is it especially good. I kept trying to detect any individual element -- carrot? egg? -- and failing. Nutraloaf tastes blank, as though someone physically removed all hints of flavor. "That's the goal," says Mike Anderson, Aramark's district manager. "Not to make it taste bad but to make it taste neutral." By those standards, Nutraloaf is a culinary triumph; any recipe that renders all 13 of its ingredients completely mute is some kind of miracle.
I'll take his word for it.

-- CAV


6-24-17: Added link to article on Linus Torvalds. 

The Unseen Consequences of Regulatory Delay

Thursday, June 22, 2017

What would the child of Frédéric Bastiat's Fallacy of the Broken Window and Ayn Rand's essay on "The Property Status of Airwaves" look like? A recent article at the Foundation for Economic Education gives us the answer: A world that got cell phone service forty years earlier than we did, because the Federal Communications Commission wasn't there to thwart the technology. Let's start with an excerpt from Rand's 1964 essay, as anthologized in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal:

The history of the collectivization of radio and television demonstrates, in condensed form, in a kind of microcosm, the process and the causes of capitalism's destruction. It is an eloquent illustration of the fact that capitalism is perishing by the philosophical default of its alleged defenders.

Collectivists frequently cite the early years of radio as an example of the failure of free enterprise. In those years, when broadcasters had no property rights in radio, no legal protection or recourse, the airways were a chaotic no man's land where anyone could use any frequency he pleased and jam anyone else. Some professional broadcasters tried to divide their frequencies by private agreements, which they could not enforce on others; nor could they fight the interference of stray, maliciously mischievous amateurs. This state of affairs was used, then and now, to urge and justify government control of radio.

This is an instance of capitalism taking the blame for the evils of its enemies.

The chaos of the airways was an example, not of free enterprise, but of anarchy. It was caused, not by private property rights, but by their absence. It demonstrated why capitalism is incompatible with anarchism, why men do need a government and what is a government's proper function. What was needed was legality, not controls. [bold added] (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 125)
Cell phones are, as the FEE piece indicates, an idea that had been around since just after World War II! The FEE piece and Rand's piece combined will make it clear to any layman that private property rights would have made implementing that idea extremely easy. Let me urge you to read both pieces, with the last paragraph of the FEE piece as its teaser:
It was a Motorola vice president, Marty Cooper, who placed the first cellular call with a mobile handset in 1973. It might as well have been a pocket-dial. Motorola's lawyers were placing calls of their own, lobbying FCC bureaucrats to keep cellular networks from being built. (Motorola misjudged its own interests: It would become a leading beneficiary of the new marketplace. By 2006 it was the world's second-largest vendor of cellphones, selling more than 200 million units per year.)
Consider what a revolution cell phones have proved to be, even without their added functionality as portable computers. (Even then, there were hints of this, which were missed or ignored by Motorola and AT&T.) Motorola may have benefited from the new market, but how much greater might it have been had it not thwarted itself along with everyone else through privilege-seeking (more commonly and mistakenly called "rent-seeking" or "regulatory capture")?

Apart from Motorola getting partial justice in the form of stunting itself, the silver lining of this tale, such as it is, is that advocates of capitalism now have a powerful example of regulation greatly lowering the standard of living of countless individuals on a personal level. That said, as a case of What Might Have Been, it requires more intelligence and imagination to deploy (and to grasp) than the usual indictments of capitalism -- lent surface credibility by perceptual-level events -- served up by the panic-mongerers of the left. But then again, anything worthwhile takes effort.

-- CAV

Skepticism on Apprenticeship "Boost"

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

A grant-writing firm regards President Trump's interest in "boosting" apprenticeships as "rare good political news," but is it? Compared to higher education, it may seem so, and many will find it tempting to hope so, based on what Jake Seliger notes:

For The Story's Story, I wrote about Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton's Paying for the Party. The book is too complex and interesting to summarize briefly, but one of its main points concerns the way colleges have evolved party tracks that require little studying -- but undergrads with successful outcomes on that track tend to be wealthy and socially connected. Many undergrads wander onto that track without their peers' financial and social resources, only to fail to graduate or to graduate with weak degrees that don't produce much income.

Given this situation, policy change is warranted. If college was once a panacea, growing college costs have eliminated that situation... [bold added]
Unfortunately, everything in bold above is a direct result of the government "boosting" higher education with easy money for decades, predictably causing all of the problems bolded in the above passage. (And we haven't even started talking about the regulatory strings attached that have, among other things, turned so many colleges into multiculturalist hothouses.) The government actively "boosting" any sector of the economy mis-allocates resources, both unjustly depriving the productive of what they have earned and enabling the waste of that money by others. (To be clear, I do applaud the proposed removal of regulations that keep companies from taking on apprentices if they desire, but that's not a "boost" so much as a getting-out-of-the-way. If that's what Trump meant, I'd be all for it.)

The government has already boosted higher education to hell. Let's hope it doesn't start doing the same with commercial training programs.

-- CAV


6-24-17: (1) Corrected spelling of author's surname. (2) Corrected blog title within block quote.

All Work and No Play...

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Within an article about work-family conflicts are a couple of paragraphs that ought to be front and center, from what I can tell of my nearly six years of fatherhood:

That might be the case, but there are other problems men face that are left unmentioned in the 1843 article. One is the unquestioned assumption that children in the modern era need constant attention. Nathan says that he is responsible for "helping" with the kids, which is different from spending quality time with them. Kids and teenagers were once expected to entertain themselves for large parts of the day, whether it was riding bikes, reading, cooking their own meals, or playing board games. Now, with extracurricular activities that require organization, drop-offs and pick-ups, mom and dad can no longer rest and recuperate on evenings and weekends. Furthermore, in the digital age, parents' work often follows them home, further eroding private time.

This leaves no room for adult fun, which our parents and grandparents used to enjoy by going out dancing or to dinner or on vacations without the kids. Too many adults have also lost the practice of contemplation, a vital function of human flourishing that was more available in previous eras and that helped keep men ... feeling more balanced and sane. Contemplation is often described as a religious practice, which it can be, but it is also a way of quietly reconnecting with the universe. Contemplation can take the form of a long walk in the evening, a rainy day spent in solitude, or immersion in a brilliant novel or work of music that transports you to another world. [bold added]
I am glad to see further evidence of a pushback against the common mania for cramming as much as possible into every waking hour as if that were an end in itself. Until this point, I have primarily seen such outlets as Free Range Kids point out how bad this can be for children. (A biggie for me is this: How will they get a chance to figure out what they want for themselves without having chunks of free time to explore on their own?) What I like about this article is that it can remind us to spare a thought for ourselves and any (other) parents we know.

Often we have a adages like the one the title alludes to for good reason. More positively, we could borrow a page from Steven Johnson and argue that, human beings need to play even beyond the sense of recharging after hard work. Current cultural norms unfortunately make it necessary to be more active about making sure there is down time and play time for everyone in the family.

-- CAV

P.S. The mention of "transport[] ... to another world" really hit home for me, having just finished reading, Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass. Not too long ago, I realized I hadn't read a book for pure fun in a long time, when I saw the hardcover (from my pre-fatherhood days!) sitting on a shelf. Having liked the movie and wondering whether it might be a good one to introduce to the kids in a few years, I decided to read it. I really enjoyed it and look forward to the rest of the trilogy. I highly recommend it to any science fiction or fantasy fans who might happen by. 

"Chernobyl!" ≠ "We Need the EPA."

Monday, June 19, 2017

(And Related Thoughts)

At the start of a collection of eyewitness accounts from Chernobyl comes the following quote:

Everyone who thinks the EPA is not necessary and the regulations on power plants are there to stifle growth and profit should read every comment here...
Although I don't think the government should regulate the power industry, this individual is no mind reader. I appreciate that, while many regulations do "stifle growth and profit," they are not necessarily created with that in mind. Indeed, some accomplish what industry engineering standards, watchdog groups, or other non-government efforts would and should otherwise accomplish.

That said, let's accept his challenge for a moment and look at another quote:
Fruits and vegetables from the contaminated areas were sold feely [sic] at Moscow markets. In fact, that summer there was quite an incredible abundance of produce and the prices were low. The levels of radiation in produce from certain areas were very high. Some of our friends who used Geiger counters to check produce at Moscow Central Market had the counters confiscated then and there.
Soviet Russia and the EPA are both examples -- the one more consistent than the other -- of central planning. Chernobyl and its aftermath happened in a centrally planned economy. The above instance shows just how well that "EPA for everything" worked, at least to achieve the goal of the protection of individual rights. (I am not by any means asserting that that was the goal, but it's the most benevolent interpretation I can muster of the notion that we "need" the EPA.)

I won't, without further evidence, attribute hatred of the individual to the author of the first quote. However, I will say that facts alone are insufficient to settle the implicit question he raises, which is, "Should we have central planning?" For starters, I bet if I made a painstaking case -- which I am not, here -- that Chernobyl is exactly what happens under central planning, many people would shrug it off as an anomaly or even dismiss my factual statements as "propaganda." And many would, sadly, dismiss out of hand the idea that the purpose of the government is to protect individual rights. (Other possibilities exist: Some of these people might be persuaded to change their minds about these objections, but only with much more effort. Also, I could make such a poor case for the idea that Chernobyl exemplifies how "well" totalitarian regimes respect individuals that I'd rightly be dismissed.) The bottom line is that, when one wants to pitch an intellectual argument, he must set limits that account for some potential audience members being too far away from his position to engage -- anytime soon (because of fundamental differences, despite a basic level of intellectual honesty) or at all (because of a lack of intellectual honesty or for other reasons).

The fact that there are people who are unreachable by rational argument in no way lessens the value of rational argument -- when directed at the right audience. Never let their seeming ubiquity demoralize you: They are unwittingly helping you with the task of prioritizing your time by honing in on the audience one can most profitably engage with.

I do not accuse the author of the first quote of being the type of person I am discussing, but his remark caused me to think of the kind of reaction I might get if I engaged him personally about it, and of past reactions I have observed from others after similar conversations. Those reactions are more useful that I once thought.

-- CAV

Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, June 16, 2017

Four Things

1. The man who invented the chicken nugget, which anecdotal evidence suggests to me is the only thing some kids will eat, also left his mark on the outdoor gathering customs of upstate New York:

Cornell Chicken Barbecue Sauce, though, was his first great triumph, and what he is best known for in upstate New York. All summer, every summer, Cornell Barbecue Chicken features at backyard parties and family get-togethers. Younger generations of Finger Lake residents don't even recognize this as a regional specialty so much as the default way to cook chicken outdoors. "Every fund-raising event, every fire department cookout, every little league barbecue, must serve this recipe or nobody would come," writes barbecue expert Meathead Goldwyn.
It's a simple recipe, and I intend to try it over the weekend. Yes. Finally, cookout season has arrived in Maryland!

2. Someone at Hacker News raised the question, "How do I dress better?" Someone who replied explained something that has always baffled me, because it runs counter to what I learned ages ago -- i.e., Don't. -- about wearing short sleeves in an office:
Of course the reasoning for short sleeves is that graphite dust would stain long sleeves. Likewise for a black tie. Since drafting using pencils is pretty much nonexistent these days the need for the style is gone. Now it's just used to project an image of competent professional engineering.
Ah! Dilbert's wardrobe: explained.

3. I'd heard that the recently-deceased Adam West had an off-beat sense of humor. Mosey on over to a recent tribute to the original Batman for a good example.

4. If you're a parent near the Baltimore area and want a good day trip on a week day, let me recommend the bakery tour of Snyder's of Hanover, about an hour north of town. I took my daughter there and to an excellent local park last week, and she loved it. I intend to try a few others from this list of "7 Factories and Businesses That Give Great Tours," too.

-- CAV

Fewer New Regulations Under Trump

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Anyone concerned about the cost and intrusiveness of the regulatory state will doubtless be interested in reading a recent report on Trump's first six months, by Wayne Crews of the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Crews compares Trump to each of the presidents over the past twenty years and concludes that, "Trump is so far the least regulatory president of all."

This good news, and, in addition to backing up his contention, he adds the following note of caution:

Trump's mode so far is regulating bureaucrats rather than regulating the private sector, with rules to limit their rules. Even more importantly, more unswervingly than any other, the administration has incorporated regulatory dark matter into reforming the administrative state in both his freeze and the two-out requirement. This material consists of all the memoranda, guidance, notices, bulletins and other proclamations (including threats and bad publicity) with which bureaucrats create or influence policy, but that escape the (already inadequate) discipline of the 1946 Administrative Procedure Act.

All this seems significant in terms of history of the regulatory state. The drop between Clinton and Bush was dramatic, but otherwise last time we saw anything comparable to today's reduction was when both regulations and Federal Register page counts dropped over a third under Reagan. But that didn't last.

Similarly, the longevity of a Trump rule-making hiatus will depend upon Congress passing legislation such as the bipartisan 2017 Regulatory Accountability Act to codify the best elements of the past few decades of regulatory oversight executive orders, as well as enhance congressional accountability for what agencies do. [links in original]
This is true, but more important, there will be no permanent reduction in number or scope of intrusive laws until a more fundamental cultural change occurs: The people who elect our lawmakers once again come to regard government's sole purpose as protector of individual rights. Without principled opposition to the government pushing people around (even including when it tells us to do reasonable things), any controls left in place will, with the precedent that the government is a substitute brain left unchallenged, ultimately breed more controls.

-- CAV